By Cecily Winter
We await the song of the gray gods with heads bowed and hearts heavy. We await the invitation to dwell among them, though we are but vermin in their blessed eyes.
Since Sol’s malice, we are the last people. Isolated on this barren island beneath the craggy aspect of the faceless and incomprehensible gray gods. Who lash us with suppurating burns and blindness and dank, airless nightmares.
Lest the halls of the gray gods run mad with willfulness and spite in the manner of our own profane huts and alleys, the Priest decrees that the gray gods must be pacified before we may be called.
As the appointed acolyte—my age the same as that of the gods and my hallowed skills practiced and once—if no longer—inspiring, I strive to fulfill the Priest’s worshipful purpose.
I execute the sating of divine appetites.
With a curved blade of sterile bronze, I slaughter our he-goats and roast them in lightning fire. The Priest blesses the flesh with fervent prayer before our people gather to partake of the sacrifice in the gray gods’ cast shadow.
In the grace period between prayer and satiation, I wait my turn and sweep crumbs and small bones from the tablecloth with white-gloved hands. The scraps charm the song sparrows whose tridental feet compose ephemeral and silent music in the ash fall.
I smash time and season to bring coral reefs ashore to bathe in salt pools and feed on mutated micro-organisms, though the gods never come to feast on the tentacles or adorn their hair with brittle scarlet lace. I am a skeptic, the Priest says, to require proof of the gray gods’ love by the sight of their descent and indulgences.
In my gone-away youth, I was a tribute to the gray gods but left in the smoke unclaimed and dazed. I wandered home to a cold welcome, for my being was corrupted. Yet, the Priest gave me leave to stay, and all who hated me for my failure to sate the gods’ appetites are long dead. Most by my blade.
Now I commandeer what virgins remain and train them to satisfy divine lust with song, wit, and artifice. My experience taught me to sting their lips with bees and coat their skin with honey. Their gait is a stutter of helplessness. Their gowns are woven from plant silks dyed in daylily hues.
Every full moon, which I calculate by a before-time almanac, for never does light slash through the god cloud, I guide a virgin to the summit of the volcano. There, the tribute kneels, head bowed, waiting for divine favor.
Only I am aware of the gray gods’ eternal fickleness, for no tribute has returned to tell a different tale. Virgin flesh is weak. It cedes to rot and the daylily gowns I wove ride the wind like dragons. While human long bones slide inelegantly down the pillowed slopes.
My task it is to leave the whores’ bastards to wilt and wither on barnacle-encrusted beach stones. The infants wail as they fall prey to white-feathered ravens that pluck out their eyes colored with unclouded sky or tainted sand and deliver them to the gods for their marble tournaments.
The rumbling of their games sometimes brings cool rain. And sometimes scalding hot.
I execute the enhancement of divine pleasure.
Under cover of night, I trek to the steamy swamps to steal cocoons from the mangroves and pack them in a wicker basket, which I carry back to our village with its canopy of strangler vines and roofs of rusted steel that protect us from the frightful gaze of the gods and the curse of sudden immolation. In awful silence, I wait for the emergence of the butterflies’ lissome beauty of form in the hope that this time the aerial ballet will melt the gods’ steely hearts and relieve us of our torments.
Alas. It is not enough.
As the last acolyte in priestly service, I compose divine poetry. Soporific harmonies of bygone celestial spheres, my lavender rhymes designed to unlock the stultified windows of inwardness and usher in a freshness of divine perception. And mercy. And the end of our torments. Alas. It is not enough.
I execute the search for treasures misplaced
I raft across the poisoned sea that laps our beaches. I search for shipwrecks with their wondrous cargos of liquors, spices, and shining metals, which I deliver to the gray gods on the fumes of lightning fire.
I recover the ground lost in before-time battles, which I note in my precious before-time atlas of the dead lands. Knowledge makes my fingernails glow with divine favor.
I locate the elided syllables of our dead poets’ verses and replace them.
I find tempers lost and apply apt balm to quell the violence.
I hunt for the last dog shrunken in its chains and bury each bone in its own grave of tainted sand.
I pray to the lightless moon to return to us all the stars that we lost.
I serve the holy Priest to my utmost ability, yet still we suffer as if we brought this contempt upon ourselves.
To the gray gods, we are a trompe l’oeil of overweening pride. While to us, they are a faint double rainbow of promise beyond our line of sight.
We are carbuncles and warts marring the ashy skin of this island.
They are epiphany, sublimity, and transcendence.
Blame is an obfuscation of what was always ordained. And this is bitter truth, the alpha and omega of the gray gods’ glory—their neglect and punishment are mete. Their casual eruption of volcano and their spooling out of hurricane are but flourishes of godhead’s power. Ultimately, only our end will grant us the needful blessing, instead of these flurries of choking hot wind-borne ash.
To this end, I will build a towering temple of our skulls—motionless, eyeless, and mute in perfect devotion.
I collected the skulls of the dead virgins in the night and killed the remaining villagers this morning. My bronze blade dripped with gore and blood as I sacrificed them to the burning forest. Only the Priest remains. I once believed the gray gods chose him but know better now.
When his blind eyes are plucked by ravens and his charred flesh consumed by creatures that crawl and bite, when his skull is mere tooth and bone—bronzed and mayhap cracked by fire’s frenzied tongues—he shall crown my tower. And I shall wait with him at the summit, where I might reach for the clouds.
And having done my duty in all things lost and found, I may know by my fingernails the omnipotence of the gray gods and be granted asylum at the feet of the divine company.