By Paul Jessup
At first, I thought they were burns – like some form of branding. Bruises along her skin, raised under the flesh. She was barely married – I could see her hair was tied in the traditional newlywed knots, which swung in a pendulum arc around her head as she stumbled along the stone steps to the Temple of Saxis.
She danced into the large round room I was in, her eyes glassy and the colour of autumn leaves; her hands clutched something in a package towards her chest. When she saw me, she laughed.
“I have come from a world of fire,” she said to me, “And I have brought with me the insects of war. From a thousand hive worlds they have come, searching to bring us the truth from behind the shadows. The Drinker has found us again and brings us the eyes of dreaming lands.”
Her voice sounded far away, as if it had to crawl through centuries to reach her throat and then her lips. I walked across the room, hesitant, unsure if I could even help her, holding my breath as I walked. She smelled like bad dreams – like a hole in the fabric of the world. Rotten seams of reality unfurled around her and I realized that this was no madness that consumed her.
She was delusional, that was certain, but her body was sick. I could see that – in her walk, in her skin. She smelled of sickness, of someone dying. I remembered that smell well – my brothers died from the burning plague three years ago, when it first ran through the city. It’s a smell that sticks with you – drenches your memories with their foul odour.
The five priestesses came forward from the back hall, where they were preparing incense, their rough-and-brown bearskin cloaks cocooned around their bodies. They did not notice the reek as they walked, breathing in regularly as they approached her. I felt a strange apprehension in the air – and saw the tendrils of black smoke whipping around the girl’s body like hungry snakes.
“Are you all right?” one of them asked. “You look ill.”
As the priestess spoke, the smoke went into the girl’s mouth, wrapping around her lungs. I could tell by the look in their eyes that they could not see the smoke, could not smell that rot of plague.
The priestesses ran forward as the girl screamed and tore at her chest. She ripped her dress to shreds, dug her fingers in and pulled her the door of her ribs apart, the flesh still clinging to the bone and flapping in the breeze. More smoke poured out of her.
And then, from the ripped cavity in her chest came a float of butterflies. They whispered in some strange language, as they swam through the air, and their wings had patterns on them that looked like unblinking eyes. I felt sick to my stomach and tried not to retch in my hand.
And I tried even harder to not breathe in, the air filled with black smoke. The smoke felt like grains of sand against my skin, rough and grating. I felt the wings of the butterflies beating against my arms, as they flew around, and I tried so hard not to stare at them.
When the smoke cleared, the butterflies were in the dome, building nests out of paper. The priestesses were on the ground. At first, I thought they were dead. I saw their chests rise and fall slowly, and knew that they were alive – but infected, somehow.
I pulled out my needle and a red thread. I grabbed a piece of the reality and I began to stitch, trying to trace the cause of this problem. My threads quivered in my hand, and then spun through me; they rose in the air and resembled the symbols on the dead girl’s skin.
I walked over to the girl and looked down at her. Those raised pieces of flesh looked like writing. But they weren’t burnt into the skin – they looked as if they had been pushed out from behind the flesh itself. They looked as if they had grown out from the bone upwards. The way a worm looks after it has burrowed under the skin of a dog.
Except that these were raised into letters. Words forming into some strange language I could not fathom. This couldn’t be coincidence, I thought, could not be some random growth under the skin. This had been deliberate, the shapes too obvious to be anything else but how I saw them. As language, as symbols pointing to reality.
I took my needle out, a rag over my mouth. I breathed very little, since I had no desire to become infected by whatever spirits hung in the air. I knelt beside the girl’s body, her eyes black mirrors looking towards the ceiling above me, the gore of her ribs and ripped lungs still fresh.
I pulled up her arm and stared at the skin in front of me. Perhaps I could sew a spell of translating hidden languages? It looked like nothing I had ever seen before. It was not Desert Tongue, nor was it Whisper Speak. I took the needle and poked the skin, digging it underneath the flesh around the letters.
I felt it push against something, something spongy and springy. Like a vegetable of some sort, or perhaps a wadded up ball of fabric. I pulled my needle out, the tip of it stained a greasy orange.
I pulled out a small knife I have to cut thread, and used it to peel off the lettered skin. Underneath, I found what looked like a cocoon stuck onto the bone. Inside the transparent casing, I could see the beating wings of a larvae transforming in a rapid pace.
I put my knife away and cleaned off the tip of my needle. I had a feeling that I would soon be caught up in something far more dangerous than I cared for, that I was going to be wrapped up in a deadly mystery that could either destroy me or set me free.
I went over to the bodies of the priestesses and touched their hands with mine. I could feel blood pulsing through their skin and could not see any raised letters forming just yet. It might not be too late, I thought. I still might be able to save them.
I pulled my needle and blue thread from my pocket and grabbed the fabric of reality. I began to stitch and push needle into the skin of the world. I tried to remove whatever damage had been done to them, tried to suck it out of their bodies by sewing the fabric of reality. It was to no avail. The reality would not mend; their bodies would not heal. They were sick, now, and there was nothing I could do about it.
From above, I heard the beatings of wings. A storm of insects hovering about in the dome, building their thick and brittle nests above me. I should go and get help, I thought. I should do something to save them.
I went and reported the problem to the guards, and they sent for the bonesingers to come and weave the priestesses back to health with their songs. As the days went on, I could not forget that incident, no matter how hard I tried.
It haunted me, stamped on the wax of my memories. At night, I dreamt of black mists, of people tearing themselves apart. I dreamt of shadows wandering around the streets, large groups of men and women, with bodies covered in that strange and dark writing.
I felt somehow that these dreams were premonitions – memories of the future masquerading as my thoughts. Everywhere I went, I searched the crowd for that language rising up under their skin. When I was in the Ta’ndil Quarter, searching the market for fresh fruit, I scanned every hand I came into contact with. When I was in the Gardner’s Ghetto, wandering the Mazes of Orrii, I looked at every face and tried to see if there was any sign of the plague.
I was about ready to give up when I saw one of the priestesses. She no longer wore her bearskin cloak, no longer dressed in the royal robes. She wore simple rags that barely covered her ritual tattoos of constellations, her eyes oddly orange and licking the air. She was in an alleyway, clutching a bowl of milk.
She wore a necklace sparkling with a spiral design I had never seen before. It gave me a strange feeling of apprehension, a sort of dark terror I could not place. Her fire eyes met mine and I felt a pull in my blood, as if it wanted to leap out of my body and into the air.
She smelled foul, like that plague. I checked her skin, but the letters were not raised yet. “Would you like some milk?” she asked me.
I shook my head no, unable to speak.
“Fine, then, what do you want?”
I pointed at her necklace, unable to restrain my curiosity. “What does that mean?”
She laughed. “I can show you. I can see you are drawn to the mystery, as well. Come; follow me.”
She stood and started walking towards the darker end of the alleyway. It led to the ruined section of town, an abandoned portion destroyed by a war thirty years ago. I stood and stared, unable to move any further. I wanted to follow – my blood and bone begged me to go and follow her – but my mind felt an apprehension, and caused me to stop and wait.
She turned and saw me standing there.
“Come on,” she said. “Follow me! The others will be so happy to meet you.”
Others? What others? I thought. Where did she want to drag me? “What – what happened to you? I thought…I thought you were a priestess.”
She laughed. I saw the inside of her mouth, saw the yellow stumps of gravestone teeth and the endless pit of her throat. Something fluttered inside her, deep down inside. I saw the shadows of insects, waiting.
“I still am a priestess. Come on; follow me.”
Some may say that I should have stayed put, that I should have sensed the danger in the air. These people do not understand the human condition. It is in our nature to explore the unknown, to ignore death itself, and the screaming instinct of mortality, in order to advance our species in the realm of knowledge.
I could not help it. I was drawn to the darkness she showed me, drawn to the mystery around me. I could not sleep if I did not see the plague again, first hand, could not rest until I saw what caused all of this.
I thought my magic could save me. I thought I would be able to stitch up the holes in reality, correct the rending in our fabric world with needle and thread. I didn’t realize then that some holes are too big for thread; some holes refused to be patched up and made whole.
I followed the priestess through gardens of rust and ruin, through overflowing leaves breaking through architecture. I followed through hollowed-out shells still stained from the flames of war. We went deeper and deeper into the ruins. I saw animals scampering about, nature reclaiming what humans had stolen from her.
In the centre of the ruins was an old temple to Saxis. Her statues were defiled with graffiti, her bear head partially destroyed. The top of the temple was covered with creeping vines and the nests of birds. I saw owls sleeping in nooks, waiting for night to go and hunt.
Outside the ruined temple meandered several people, all glassy-eyed and muttering to themselves. All of them dressed in rags. Above them dangled a giant silver spiral, identical to the one the priestess wore around her neck.
In the centre of the spiral suspended an enormous green head of an insect. The head was the size of a horse and was covered in spinning, multifaceted eyes. It stank like death. From its neck dripped a strange, milky-white substance. Beneath it sat a follower who raised a ceramic bowl up and caught the substance as it dripped down.
From inside the temple, I heard a buzzing. Like a beehive. A gigantic beehive. And I could smell the smell of flowers gently covering up the scent of death. It wasn’t that plague smell – it was far worse and far stronger. And on the smell came information – encoded in the scents like language.
What I smelled was a text of words. It was a poem, a song of sacrifice and religious ecstasy, and it was hard not to get drunk on the intricate texture of the smells. I held my breath for a moment, trying not to breathe in, not to become infected. I had to breathe eventually, breathe and be washed into the sea of poetic scents.
Around me, I felt tears in reality. Rips, seams torn apart and meeting at the crossroads of the temple. Giant, open patches of dream, leaking into this world. The seamstress in me wanted to sew it up, wanted to patch it with the fabric of raw earth and my own skin.
I walked over to a seam, touched the fabric of reality in my hand. Before I could pull out my needle and thread, I felt an overwhelming sense of nausea and dizziness. I could barely stand up, anymore, my head filled with the stories encased in scents, my stomach reeling and ready to empty itself across the ruined steps.
The stories in my mind told of Drak the Drinker, who ingested only the milk of the mother’s neck. Or Ci the Insect Lord, who rode the wings of gods and gave birth to the swarming horde of worlds. Of Nax the Eyeless, who dreamed reality inside his ceramic skull. A new pantheon entered my memories, drowning me in the odour of the words.
How could I not believe in it? How could I not see the reality of it? Already, I had been infected, already I had been transformed into a fanatic. The plague had taken me, entered my blood and made me into believer of this odd new religion. Their gods infected me, transformed me, made me into a carrier for its mysteries and beliefs.
I bent over and dry-heaved, the priestess smiling at my humbled body.
They led me inside and disrobed me. The air was disorienting and I felt a fever in my skull. I’m sick, I thought. I’m sick and I’m falling apart. The walls shimmered around me, the ruins filled with the crawling bodies of insects.
They led me past all of these people, milling around and drinking in the words of the gods. Led me into the chamber of mysteries. A black fog dampened the air, filled with tiny eggs. I could not help myself. I breathed in deep and drank of the mist.
In the centre of the chamber, I saw the body of Nax. He was tall, eight feet tall. His ribs were open and butterflies lay nested inside him, building paper cities in his ribcage, his insides hollowed out.
His face was eyeless, his body naked on an altar. And the scent of him – the scent of him wrote the history of the world on me. It dug into my skin, dug behind my eyes and carved premonitions and ancient rituals. I felt the mysteries of the universe open up to me, my body burning from a fever.
I saw holes tearing into the reality. I could see the shores of dreams in the renderings of the universe. I took out needle and thread with shaking hands and tried to patch them, tried to fill these holes somehow and heal the universe with my sorcery.
They would not heal. I could not stitch them closed. New ones opened every moment. I wheezed and coughed, the thick black mist becoming my only source of air, my hands shaking and my head spinning from the stories that came in my body like a series of scented orgasms made of text.
Nax’s mouth opened and out came words of fire.
New holes ripped in the reality around him, his words making gaping wounds in the fabric of the world. My spool was almost empty, my hands worn and twisted into claw shapes. The priestess watched. She watched and waited.
I dropped the needle. I dropped the thread. I burst into tears. There was nothing I could do. Reality was torn; the world was slipping through the cracks. The priestess held me, sang to me. Tried to comfort me in my crisis.
Three days later, I was completely infected by the plague. I felt possessed, the orange light of my blood glimmering under my skin. I learned to read and write the dark, pheromone language, learned to be able to let the words of the gods seep into my scents. I found out that the words that rose under the skin – the words that were starting to rise under my skin – they were holy words.
Words of the sun goddess Saratine. She, the orange beetle who flew through the sky, She who was the beginning of all things. It was she who could reveal to us the figments of our world. Like torchlight in a cave, our reality was shadows. Saratine showed us the light outside the cave, showed us ways to banish the shadows and see the truth of it all.
She infected us, gave us tattoos of scripture and dreams of flight. She impregnated us with the butterfly souls, so that, when the last hours took hold and we shed our flesh bags, we could exist in the real world.
And we drank the milk from the neck of the goddess.
I saw the way to the real world – away from the chains of meat. That is what the girl in the temple had showed us – had given us. She became real when she burst open from the inside – became spirit in flesh. That was her gift to us. This plague. This religion. This truth.
Bio: Paul Jessup. Published in a slew of magazines (in print & online) and a mess of anthologies. Has a short story collection out (Glass Coffin Girls) published in the UK by PS Publishing. Has a novella published by Apex Books (Open Your Eyes) and a graphic novel published by Chronicle Books.
He was also a Recipient of KSU’s Virginia Perryman Award for excellence in freshman short story writing in 2000.