In a room decorated entirely in red, a tall woman dressed in “cartoonishly” revealing clothing tells a short man to light a candle. The man groans that he should have settled for a blow job in his car, but the woman persists. The man lights the candle and puts $50 on the dresser, then joins the woman on the ox-blood red bed. The woman, Bilquis, shamelessly praises the man, then asks him to worship her as they make love. The man begins to whisper sweet nothings as Bilquis writhes on top of him, then finds that he is reciting a litany of praises that sound almost like a poem.
Gaiman describes Bilquis as “cartoonishly” dressed, referencing how the goddess of sexual love and desire has been reduced to a two-dimensional version of herself, as media and modern culture cheapen and commodify ideas of sexuality. Bilquis’ rituals go back to biblical times, as the poem-like song that the man finds he is saying is actually an excerpt from the biblical book Song of Solomon, who some historians believe is a love letter partially addressed to the Queen of Sheba. Gaiman takes the beautiful and desirable aspects of the Queen of Sheba and raises her into a deity as Bilquis. Yet Bilquis is hanging on too tightly to the old ways, unable to properly survive as a modern goddess or use modern phrasing about love.
The man stops talking, too consumed by lust and desire, but Bilquis forces him to keep going. As the man orgasms, gasping with pleasure, he realizes that he is hanging upside down. He looks up and sees that his body is inside Bilquis up to his chest. Bilquis pushes the man completely inside her as the man whispers one more prayer to the goddess Bilquis. The man’s cell phone rings, playing a cheap version of “Ode to Joy.” Bilquis answers, tells whoever is on the other line that the man has gone away, and then goes to sleep on her blood-red bed.
Bilquis depends on the worship of men to survive, literally turning their praise and sexual attention into energy, which she uses to consume their life force when they dedicate it to her. This unequal taking of power is a hallmark of how the gods treat humans in the novel: as sources of worship and life with no feelings or needs of their own. The man’s ringtone, the classical masterpiece, “Ode to Joy,” is another sign of how modern practices take traditional items and change them into almost unrecognizable versions of themselves. Bilquis is both sympathetic, as a woman of a by-gone time trying to make it in a harsher present, and unsympathetic, as a parasite that drains others to live.