Drabblecast 359 – Trifecta: Unnatural Growth



Saturday, May 9th, 2015

Cover for Drabblecast Unnatural Growth Trifecta, by Declan KeaneMy twin brother had been a dry-eyed baby, and he grew into a dry-eyed boy.

“Yaakov, why don’t you ever cry?” I asked him the day we buried my uncle’s family.

He shrugged. “Maybe you carry all the tears for both of us, Anna.”

I thought he might be right. In the past month I had cried again and again. I had wept through the night of hiding in the root cellar among the onions and potatoes and jars of pickled vegetables, my face buried in our mother’s skirt. We emerged in the morning to discover the Cossacks had burned down the barn with all of our animals trapped inside. I cried again for the goats. We didn’t even know yet that our cousins down the road had suffered the same fate. Our two older siblings took their turns calming me, but I took the most comfort from Yaakov’s stoic face.

 

 

 

They Sent Runners Out
by Sarah Pinsker

 

My twin brother had been a dry-eyed baby, and he grew into a dry-eyed boy.

“Yaakov, why don’t you ever cry?” I asked him the day we buried my
uncle’s family.

He shrugged. “Maybe you carry all the tears for both of us, Anna.”

I thought he might be right. In the past month I had cried again and
again. I had wept through the night of hiding in the root cellar among
the onions and potatoes and jars of pickled vegetables, my face buried
in our mother’s skirt. We emerged in the morning to discover the
Cossacks had burned down the barn with all of our animals trapped
inside. I cried again for the goats. We didn’t even know yet that our
cousins down the road had suffered the same fate. Our two older
siblings took their turns calming me, but I took the most comfort from
Yaakov’s stoic face.

We kept to the house for weeks after the funeral. The snow fell and
fell. It changed the landscape, muting the scorched beams and bones of
the barn. Without our animals, we had only the vegetables from the
cellar. We ate those until Mama announced she would walk into the
village to find more food.

Yaakov and I went with her. The sky was gray and the trees were bare
and the snow went from white to gray to white again where new covered
old. We walked gray roads to the gray village to trade our gray
potatoes to gray-faced merchants. All the color in the world seemed to
have burned up on the night of the fires.

The village no longer seemed the friendly place I once thought
it. Mama warned us that the men who had come in the night had been
neighbors, and I eyed everyone with a new suspicion. She told us to
keep to ourselves and not look for the village children to play with
as we usually did, so Yaakov and I settled into a doorway to play with
our small wooden top. I could feel the cold stone through my woolen
layers.

“Give it here.” We looked up to see a Cossack boy. I don’t think
he was much bigger than either of us, but we were on the ground, and
he loomed like a giant. Yaakov closed his fist around the top.

Neither of us expected the kick to Yaakov’s chin. I don’t think
the boy did either; he ran away as soon as his boot connected. I burst
into tears, and it took me a moment to realize that Yaakov was crying,
too. Behind his tears came flowers, small and white with yellow
centers. They flowed from his eyes on runner stems, and became
strawberries as I watched. The bright red of the berries seemed like a
new color, invented from nothing. I’m not sure which shocked me more,
the berries or the fact that something had made Yaakov cry.

I picked one and held it in my palm. It felt real. I rolled it in
my mouth, touching the seeds with my tongue. When I bit into it, the
taste was an explosion of summer. Three more grew before Yaakov
stopped crying and the plants shriveled and fell from his face. I gave
him two. He wiped his nose on his sleeve and rolled the berries in his
mouth as I had. He carried them in his cheeks on the walk home, his
scarf pulled up over his face so Mama wouldn’t see the blooming
bruise.

That night, when she would normally be cooking, our mother sat at the
table and studied her hands. Yaakov and I watched from under the bed.

“Nobody would trade with me,” she told our father. We had eaten the
last of the pickled beets, and the potatoes that were left were
shriveled and mealy.

I rolled over to look at Yaakov. Then, before I could reconsider my
action, I punched him on his bruised chin. He gasped. Tears ran down
his face, just as they had before, followed by stems and leaves, then
flowers, then berries. I picked the berries and kissed his forehead.
One of my own ordinary tears leaked from the corner of my eye. “I’m
sorry.”

I scrambled out from under the bed.

“Don’t worry, Mama,” I said. “Look. Yaakov found these for you.” I
held out my hands to show her six small, perfect strawberries. She
took one from me, holding it as carefully as an egg. She smiled at me,
her first smile in weeks.

“Thank you, Annaleh. Thank you Yaakov, under the bed. Why don’t you
find a bowl for those?”

We ate potato soup, followed by a strawberry for each of us. Our
father led us in shehechianu, the prayer to thank God for having
sustained and brought us to this day. I only mouthed the words. The
berries left everyone in a good mood. After dinner, we sang and danced
around the house.

Over the weeks that followed, as we stretched the last of the last of
our food, I bent Yaakov’s fingers and pulled his ears and twisted his
arms behind his back. If I did any one thing too often, it ceased to
make him cry. I found ways. Anything to see the strawberries send
their runners out, then grow in that strange quickened version of
springtime.

“I understand,” Yaakov said each time. I didn’t understand. For the
first time, I felt distant from him.

And so I hurt my brother, over and over. He let me. We bore the secret
together. I had a second secret that I kept to myself: sometime during
the long winter I learned to hold back my own tears. When the first
real strawberries of spring arrived, they didn’t taste nearly as
sweet.

###

 

The Liver
by Andrew Kozma

 

Every day—every god-damned day!—it grows larger.

And the god groans like a man forced into giving birth,
his body woefully unprepared for the stresses that rock his skeleton
like a typhoon.  From the stories I’d heard before coming here, I
believed there were moments of rest, times when the liver was fully
eaten or fully regenerated, pauses where the hideous universe could
take a breath, look on its mighty work, and be satisfied.

But the liver never stops growing.

It’s a cancer, slowly eating away at the god’s
ever-healing body.  The edges of the open wound revealing the liver
dip down into the liver itself like the edges of a sinkhole.  A few
days unchecked, and the liver makes inroads into the vacant stomach,
into the soft marrow of the spine.  It is hungry as the night, as
unstoppable as the sun, the reddish-gray clay of it eagerly digesting
form into formlessness.

I eat the liver.  I tear at it with my ill-equipped beak,
and though each snip of the ripe flesh elicits a wince from the god of
invention, he does not complain.  My stomach fills so quickly—the
god-flesh is rich as butter, as fermented fruit—I have to spit out the
rest far enough away the liver doesn’t slink its way back like a slug
and reattach itself.

There was a vulture here before me, but eventually the
work of the job drove him away.  Why constantly prune at a veritable
forest of fresh meat when you can laze around the sky and find rotted
remains just waiting for you anywhere you go, no work involved, no
responsibility?

The vulture told me that before he took over there was an
eagle.  She was the one originally given the job of torturing the poor
god, and she did her duty for centuries.  She hated liver.  She sawed
at the burgeoning organ as though it were an iron chain tying her to
the ground.  After she cut out the entire liver only to have it spring
forth again from nothing like a blade of grass from a dry dirt field,
that was it.  She fed herself to the god to end her own punishment,
and it was her rotting corpse that drew the vulture to the feast.

I talk to the god in-between the necessary surgeries.  The
world beyond his prison has grown so large and strange it’s as real as
a dream to him, and his dreams now are all fire and pain.  It’s been
so long since I’ve been in the world that the stories I tell him are
all lies of redemption, the wolf who murdered a thousand rabbits saved
from a trap by a kindly squirrel or the king’s executioner forgiven at
the chopping block by the convicted.  He thanks me for keeping him
company, says I’m a kindly bird, a compassionate raven.

Ravens aren’t compassionate.  I eat the liver as a
service.  And in the beginning, I expected to be paid.  Someday the
god would be freed and he’d weigh my wings down with riches beyond
measure, all the bright things in the world inscribed with my name, my
beak copper-bright forever and needle sharp.  The god would be
grateful to the companion that stayed with him until the end.  The god
would make me his emblem, take me with him everywhere, listen
carefully to my advice, until I became a god myself, the god of
ravens.

Except the liver won’t stop growing.  It pulses out with
new nodules of integument-marbled meat every minute.  If I sleep too
close, I wake with the liver hugging my wing or leg, enfolding me
within it.  My dreams are drowning in clotted blood.

I want to leave.  I want to fly away and forget this
corner of the world where torture is eternal and punishment never
ends, but I know the liver would keep on growing.  It would embrace
the god’s body, encyst him inside itself, and continue to swell, an
organ unbounded.  It would filter the rock, the water, the air, all
impurities would be reduced to liver.  A mountain of meat would rise
where the god once hung, yet that still wouldn’t be enough.

And eventually, there would be nowhere to run.

 

###

 

Caretaker in the Garden Dreams
by David Tallerman

 

Hunching his shoulders against the bitter wind, Gug-Shabeth gazed out
over the long field.  When he tutted beneath his breath the Ka birds
stirred in alarm from the branches overhead, circled once amidst the
twilight sky, and then returned to their perches to glare down at his
tumescent head with belligerent crimson eyes.

They didn’t fear him.  And after all, why should they?  They could
easily dodge any attack his malformed arms might make.

Gug-Shabeth returned his watery stare to the long field.  There, other
birds had nestled amongst the crop, their leathery wings tucked around
them like cloaks, their proboscises probing the strange fruits that
grew there.

The scarecrow he’d built was nothing now but a cruciform frame draped
with scraps of greying meat.

He was failing in his responsibility.  But if they had ever intended
him to succeed, ever cared at all, then they would not have made him
so carelessly; every thought, every step, would not be such torment.
No, the gods had little time for this patch of their creation, if
indeed they had time for any of it, in their wantonness and their
cruelty.

Still, what he lacked in form did not change his function.

Gug-Shabeth trudged painfully down the mound and onto the field, felt
his feet drag down into the ebon soil.  The nearest Ka took flight and
circled warily, their tiny faces expressing outrage at the
interruption of their meal.  When he grunted at them they dispersed
resentfully to wait him out in the tree line.  With all the time in
the world, they could afford a little patience.

Gug-Shabeth turned his attention to his crop.  Each chi was roughly
spherical, its root invisible beneath the earth.  Each was
translucent, and visible within was layer inside layer, until at the
very centre there shone a blue flame that shimmered and flowed.  Some
shone brightly, others only dimly.  Every so often, one would flicker
out altogether, and in an instant the shell that housed it would rot
and congeal into the earth as if it had never been.  Many others
showed signs of where the Ka birds had fed.  The outer leaves were
split and raggedy or gouged away altogether.

From those nearby, Gug-Shabeth selected the chi that glowed most
palely.  He dug into the hard earth until the stump of its root was
exposed, levered it free and tucked it under one arm.  Above, the Ka
birds whistled their protest.  How dare this shambling thing touch
their food?  Annoyed as much by the pain in his gnarled fingers,
Gug-Shabeth turned his face to the stars and howled in fury, and the
birds span skywards in a whirl of panic and charcoal feathers.  He
glared after them for a moment, and then trudged back across the
field, the uprooted chi still cradled beneath his arm.

Laboriously, Gug-Shabeth clambered over the stile that crossed the
fence, and dropped heavily to the ground on the other side.  The path
was barely visible as a stain stretching into the darkness.  Arriving
at the foot of the hill, he crossed the bridge there, ignoring the
cloying lap and sugary scent of the waters running beneath his feet.
Beyond, the path rose again, but he bent his weight into the incline
and gritted his mangled teeth and made no sound of complaint; for who
was there to listen, or to care?

Finally he came to the peak of the rise, and beyond was his home, and
the garden that grew about it, nebulous as ever under the perpetual
twilight.

Gug-Shabeth sat the chi on a rock and stared at it intently, until he
was sure its flame still burnt, however slightly.  Satisfied, he
turned his attention to the meat-garden.  Though it had been here when
he’d first arrived, it was he who had nurtured it, and had built his
home beside it.  While it was his, to use as he saw fit, he harvested
its produce only when he had to.

Milky orbs gazed back at him from beneath frayed pink leaves; bleached
femur branches dwindled to thin tibia and patella; finger-bone twigs
grew in weedy clusters; and everywhere hung clusters of moist red
orbs, their thick sap dripping to clot in the tissue-grass.

Gug-Shabeth set about his task.  He took windfall where he could, or
picked from the lowest branches and from the ground foliage–still,
his muscles ached terribly, particularly his hopelessly crooked back.

Yet when he began to work there was nimbleness in his fingers, and he
partly forgot the pain.  The more he crafted, the more his discomforts
subsided, the faster his knotted fingers spun in the damp air; for
once Gug-Shabeth had been a fine craftsman, and though he didn’t
remember those times, yet some part of him awoke sometimes and worked
marvels.

Soon, where he laboured in the clearing at the heart of the garden
there was another body before him.  If its dimensions were strange, it
was better made at least than he himself.

Gug-Shabeth stood back with a rumble of satisfaction.

He returned to the stump, checked the chi one last time and saw it was
still lit, though barely.  He carried it back to the clearing with
both hands.  When he reached the still body he knelt over it and dug
his nails deep into the skin of the chi, prising it in two with a sigh
of exertion.  Softly hissing, it split like an eggshell, and the
glimmer of flame dripped out and into the open mouth of Gug-Shabeth’s
creation.

For a long while afterwards there was nothing but the sigh of wind in
the bleeding willow, and the croak of distant insects.  Then the thing
opened its eyes and stared up at Gug-Shabeth and screamed.

It lay screaming for what seemed an age.  But eventually the noise
became hoarse, and was strangled off with a gurgling cough.
Gug-Shabeth sat patiently on his haunches and waited.  Eventually, the
thing sat up, glanced fearfully about it, and said in a voice hardly
above a whisper, “This isn’t right.  I’m not supposed to be here.”

Gug-Shabeth, whose sharp teeth were crammed haphazardly into his mouth
and whose tongue was a useless stump, could not speak to answer it.
Instead, he stood up and started towards the gate of the garden, and
motioned for it to follow.  After a while it fell in behind him.

“There was an accident,” it said, “I remember an accident.  And then
… darkness, for a long, long time.”

Gug-Shabeth grunted sympathetically, and started up the path beyond
the gate.  The thing he’d made followed nervously behind him, speaking
in snatches, not seeming to care that he didn’t answer it.

“Am I dreaming?” it asked.  “Is this a nightmare?”

He led it down the incline and over the bridge, up the hill beyond and
between the trees and over the ancient stile, and all the while it
mumbled to itself and asked questions that he had no means of
answering.  When they stepped onto the packed black earth of the long
field, it said, “Am I dead?  Am I in hell?”

Gug-Shabeth shook his head and pointed towards the crucifix at the
centre of the field.  It gazed back at him with anxious eyes, then
crossed over to the dilapidated frame and inspected it warily.
Gug-Shabeth came up behind it, caught hold of one foot and lifted it
into place upon the lower bar.  He strapped it in place with the thong
of leather hung there, and turned his attention to the other.

“What are you doing?” the thing asked nervously.

It made as if to struggle, then seemed to think better of it, and
glared at him instead.  As his creation, it couldn’t resist him, any
more than Gug-Shabeth could defy his own function.  He eased its arms
into place across the wide crossbar and bound those too.

The creature flailed a little, testing its bonds.  Finding it could
move no more than its head, it began to wail softly.

Gug-Shabeth wasn’t without pity.  But he understood necessity, and
knew too that his little construction housed a chi that would soon
have faded and passed.  He had merely borrowed it a while from the
order of things.  Its suffering would be short and worthwhile.

As he walked away, back towards his home amidst the meat-garden, he
could hear the thing screaming behind him, as the first of the Ka
birds settled on it.  A living chi fascinated them, so much so that
they would abandon the easy, plentiful pickings growing around them
for it.  Yet it would take them a long while to search out their prize
from its prison of flesh.  He had hidden it carefully, and deep.

For that while, his crop would be safe.

Soon enough he would have to build another, another construct of meat
with one fading chi nestled within it as sacrifice to keep its kin
safe–soon, but not yet.

And for a time at least, Gug-Shabeth could rest his weary bones and be at peace.

Play
Guest Producer: David Cummings of the NoSleep Podcast
They Sent Runners Out first appeared in Fireside magazine, February 2014.
The Liver apparently first appears here on The Drabblecast. Probably.
Caretaker in the Garden of Dreams first appeared in Necrotic Tissue magazine, January 2010.
Episode Art:  Declan Keane
Read by:  Erika Sanderson, Peter Lewis, David Cummings

Twabble:  “The aliens said that humanity is too violent to join the Federation. Of course we couldn't let an insult like that stand. ”  by  Eric Marsh


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