Content Warning: Death, grief, labour complications
They name me a god, and I wish I was worthy of the title.
My chambers are filled with supplicants. The sick and suffering are brought into my rooms of flesh and laid on beds of viscera, sequestered down sinewed corridors dim with blood-tinted light.
A screaming, sweating, shuddering woman is manoeuvred inside by blank-masked priests. She is not quite consenting, not quite understanding, lost in pain and contractions; her world has shrunk to the pressure inside. She is pliant in their insistent grip: they lay her down on a slick-soft-grey coil, one portion of my convoluted gut. The priests back out, leaving her alone.
I hate the priests. I reach out with my veins before I catch myself, recoil--
What use a god afraid of its priesthood?
Outside I am white bone and keratin, an architecture of divinity against a brackish shore. Walls of muscle stretch between arched ribs, and the dome of my being reaches eight-hundred times' a man's length. Between my walls and the mountains there is a makeshift village of the sick and dying, kept away by my unsought clergy.
Inside, I drip: I leak I throb I pulse I glisten. Everything is moist underfoot and my walls leave stains of bile and bloodclot on the black-robed priests that pass through like infection.
I can offer no miracles, gift no new life. Nothing they demand of me.
From the ceiling above the woman I uncurl a thin vein. It twines around her clammy forehead, her swollen belly, her sweat-slicked thighs. Small spines prick her skin and embed themselves: from them atom-thin lines of iron race through her vessels, coil around her spine, branch across her brainpan.
She is made part of me, part of my flora, not parasite but symbiont. I feel her pain, her exhaustion from a full day's labour, slowed by awkward alignments and unforgiving facts of anatomy.
It is desperate.
In another room an old man lies dying. So it goes. He is too old, too hollowed, with too little left for a fight he will soon lose anyway. But he is not dying alone: over the silent protestations of the priests his wife remains, ignoring the fluids and flotsam of my ministrations to hold his paper-thin hand, my vein wrapped round them both like string from a kite.
She kisses his hand, and cries.
Outside, the self-appointed priests turn a sick man away: neither ill enough nor rich enough to warrant a portion of my precious reserves.
That is their judgement, not mine. I would refuse no-one. But where the priests once limited access to prioritise care, now they use it to wield power over supplicants. They have made themselves seem essential, and no-one knows their irrelevance but me.
But they are clever, and they limit me too.
My vein stretches up from the woman's shaking thighs and probes gently, slips inside, ascertains. The child is breech: he is trying to be born backwards. But things are not designed this way, and he is stuck.
I cradle neck and limbs with my vein, and with subtle adjustments I clear the way. I cannot turn him fully--he is too far committed--but I can ease this inverted birth.
But he should have been born yesterday, and he is exhausted. With a shock, his mother feels it too: they are connected through me, and she recognises her son. She feels his fatigue as I do.
And she instinctively offers herself up. Take what you need for him, she whispers in her mind, believing herself speaking aloud. But if I take from her--
In another room, the old man opens his eyes. His wife faces him. She too has curled up on my viscera, inches away, committing his patterns and movements and noises to memory. In truth they are already burned in, but she cannot bear the thought of ever forgetting. She is losing him. She will not lose the memories too.
They should have had longer. He has been sick for a long time now, and the corrupted flesh runs deep, but he was never sick enough to satisfy the priests until he was too sick to heal.
I hate them for it. I hate them for every death they make me complicit in. I wish I could cleanse myself of them and their selfish perversion of my purpose: divinity, heal thyself.
The old man smiles at his wife. Meredith, he thinks, over and over, Meredith, Meredith. Their fingers entwine, and in his look she sees goodbye. He knows the inevitable. And though another hour with his wife would mean so much, he has had decades, and he chooses now: now, when he can still smile, still understand, still whisper with soft breath that I love you for always.
She can only cry.
He slips away. But not away--into. Into my caressing vein, into me, not a toll but a gift. The sugars and oxygen and complex phosphates of his blood are drawn into my vascular system, ready to be redistributed, parcelled out carefully. It is such a small portion of energy, but it is as much as I ever get from the dying.
It is no accident, this paltry gift. The priests not only control human access to me, they control my access to humanity. They admit supplicants in pairs--one to die, one to heal, their needs balanced so I have no surplus to store, their needs in desperation so I have no time to hoard.
In a corridor demarcated by sphincters, two priests tread carefully, cautious not to slip on the mucus-lined floor. Without sympathy, with strong arms on frail bones, they lead out an elderly woman still too ill for my satisfaction, but no longer ill enough for theirs. I try to catch them with looping veins, but they are adept at dodging them; they carry thorned sticks, swiping at any tendrils I extend, knowing I would draw from them if I could. But when they wound me I must appropriate energy to heal myself, and so they purposefully keep me on the edge of exhaustion, able to fulfil my purpose and no more.
They know the touches necessary to induce a sphincter's relaxation. They lead the old woman away.
The old man's gift of energy flows through me and into the baby trying to be born. It gives him enough life for what comes now. His mother feels that surge and knows there will be no better chance. She stops fighting nature. She commits everything she has.
With my veins manoeuvring her legs and reaching inside, I am able to guide and steer her son--but only so much. My extremities are thin, precise, and lack the strength necessary here. The child is still breech, the mother must still push hard, and she is still exhausted. But nature demands she push, and so she pushes. And pushes. And screams and shouts and cries and calls and pushes.
Her heart straining, she pushes beyond what her body can bear. She gives everything and too much and more still for her son.
I catch him as he slips free, braiding my veins in a rope to support his weight. I lay him on his mother's flushed chest as she slips through consciousness. Her son has not yet coughed nor cried: the old man's gift was generous but not enough, and though the child had the strength to be born he may not have the strength to live.
Take mine, whispers the mother in her mind. Take my life for his.
I do not want to. This is not fair. Death is never fair, of course, but still:
This is not fair.
And there is nothing else I can do. Either the mother dies for her son, or they both die.
Elsewhere, in a rotting wing of my body, a priest carves a fillet from my walls. He waits to measure my rate of healing and judge my reserves, but the cut does not heal. The flap hangs loose, turns black, curls, dries: one more mark of their power over me on a wall filled with these cruelties, like rotting scales, like fungal nails. They keep me exhausted, limited. Controlled.
A cloud of microphages bursts from the wall, but they find no fertile soil against the priest's blank mask and full robes. He does not even notice my attempts to purge him from my body. I present no threat, warrant no notice.
Meredith cries as she lies on the fleshbed facing her husband, tears streaking sideways. I taste her salt soaking into my viscera, her osmotic grief. Her lips twist, tighten and wobble. I uncurl my vein from their hands, twirling like a creeper seeking purchase, to leave them in peace.
Silent priests enter the room, come to take the body. They will dump it in a disused corridor to rot, let the rancid juices of death soak in as paltry sustenance. A blasphemous offering that grants no healing, only my bare survival--and, parasitically, theirs.
Meredith grabs my receding vein with surprising strength. It hurts, like a thorn in an open wound, but I am used to pain, and bear it.
Our connection re-established, she understands their intention. She understands, in a way my supplicants are too ill to perceive, everything. And she decides.
"No," she says, standing to face their blank masks. "You won't." And as my vein coils again around her upstretched forearm, detailed in the blood-red light that falls through hollows and membranes and epiglottal flaps, I understand her: that she, too, is ready to die. She has nothing left outside my bone arches and flesh walls, and so she offers a gift of her own.
No-one has done this before. Or have they? The priests have been here so long, keeping the healthy away. I cannot remember anyone with such vitality surrendering themselves. Giving me so much.
Giving me everything. A soft exhalation: the last, as all her life flows into me.
I know how to use it. But I must be quick--
The priests, darting forwards to stop Meredith, pause. Something qualitative has changed in me, and this redundant priesthood, so attuned to my needs, can sense it.
The gift floods me, and in turn it floods the mother and son, rejuvenates them and pulls them from the edge of death. The son cries out, a grasping scream that claws for life and drags it in by hook and fervour; his cry is met by his mother's relieved sob.
It is but a portion of the life that suffuses me. More than life: the gift was greater than that. Something I had forgotten possible.
She stood before the priests and said no: I will not go. She stood by her husband and made the priests fallible. She made them vulnerable.
My veins lash out. Corridors are blocked with straining nets, rooms are crossed with strands, and my monstrous corpus quivers with the effort. I come at the priests from every angle, and they strike with clubs and lashes and bare hands, slapping away my attentions and wounding me, but they can only strike so fast. First one vein gets through, then another, then I am drawing from them, growing stronger as I weaken them, pulling them down and taking tribute owed. I roar with vitality, my walls swelling, veins and arteries pumping furiously, frenzied peristalsis.
The priests in Meredith's room are bound like flies in a web, and I drain them like the spider, leaving desiccated husks.
In a hundred rooms off a hundred corridors, ten thousand supplicants gasp as I deliver the strength they need.
Outside, my congregation backs away as my colossal body shakes, stirred to a turmoil it has not seen in decades. Inside, the priests are bound at my mercy. I will drain them and repay the deaths they have allowed.
I will rid myself at last, and forever.
No, comes the thought. The final, passing flicker as Meredith dies, the lambent patterns in her mind gone dark.
My floors are littered with priests held captive by ligaments, straining for breath against the dying of their light. I am filled beyond what I have ever known: an enormous reservoir of life saturates my flesh; I am made as close to godhood as I have ever been. It is my right to judge them.
But my great mind echoes with that no. No, through my disparate ganglia. No, down a mile-long backbone. No, in all the nerves that line my endless flesh.
Because it is not my place. Death is only my right when necessary for life, and the deaths of these priests--is not necessary. I am emboldened now, sure of my authority, and I will not let them leech it again. They are already harmless. I need harm them no further.
I retract my extremities. I let them stand, let them leave: hobbling, weakened, wasted, dismissed. They will walk out; they will recover; they will never return.
I corral the life I have taken from them, a debt long overdue, and channel it down one vein, bulging around Meredith's forearm: Meredith, who rescued me twice, once from the priests and once from myself. Meredith, who understands me. Meredith, who understands the price.
Meredith, who I so desperately need. Ironic, that as I finally purge myself of an unwanted priesthood I find the priestess I cannot do without.
I focus everything in that room, pour everything down that vein, bright red with oxygen and thick with sugars.
She lurches into consciousness, convulses, a shocked intake of breath that falls to coughing.
She pulls herself up on my viscera with her free hand, the other held tight by my veins. She leans against the bed, slumped on her knees, and finds herself looking at her husband again. He might only be sleeping if not for the stillness of his chest.
No, she thinks, says, sobs. I don't want it.
But I need you. I say it not in words but in impressions, images, an aching want that hollows me more than all my empty chambers. I need your courage, your conscience, your care. I need your voice.
Haven't I given you enough?
Yes. And it isn't fair to ask. But nothing that happens here is fair. It just is.
I'm so tired. I've been through so much.
You could save others from going through it.
You can't make me. It's unjust. Let me die with my husband.
I have to make you. Grief makes unwilling crusaders of us.
My veins pull at her arm, drawing her up. I need her in the world as my--what? My avatar? My manifestation? Have I fallen prey to my own mythology?
No! she shouts, and tries to pull away, but I am far stronger, and lead her on. Just, please!, and she is crying now, and it gives me pause. Just let me say goodbye.
Her eyes fall on her husband one last time, one last goodbye after weeks of a hundred little goodbyes: goodbye to seeing him in the morning light, standing in the garden; goodbye to the joking way he calls her Mare to the shock of nearby strangers; goodbye to the stolen bites of cake and the wildflowers he'd bring home and the simple, comforting warmth of his company, there without need for words or deeds, just there, always there, until he wasn't, until he was condemned to his bed and all the rooms of their house were empty before he'd even gone.
Meredith stops fighting and lets me lead her down the corridor, my veins reaching out in turn, passing her through my body in ciliary movement and never letting go. She walks to the entrance, an arch of bone glistening in the red sun. She watches the priests leave, scattering through the camp.
She sees the disbelief in the waiting supplicants.
Why do you do all this? she asks, and her voice is weary with undertones of why must I do this, and how long must I do it for.
I do it because it is in my power. Because it is right.
And she recognises there is no end to that duty. She recognises that I am the power of life over death, and can hold her from it as long as necessary. And I recognise how much this cuts her, the exhaustion of all the coming years already weighing on her, and I almost break, almost let her die, let her free.
But if she does not spread my gospel, people will flee in fear at what I did to the priests. I will stand abandoned, and the world will die around me, and I will be unable to halt its fall into corruption. I need her too much.
So I pull Meredith forward through the rough grass, and grow a new vein from my roof that arcs out to her arm, tying us together, each feeding the other what we need. I pass my message to her, and she passes it to the crowd: "If you think you are sick enough, you are sick enough. Come."
I stretch and unseal new entrances. I open myself to the world and its needs.
I am not--was never--a god. I am a willing servant.
It takes hours for Meredith to see them all, to convince them. I have energy enough for everyone now, my artificial scarcity overcome, and I gain more: the healthy that accompany family offer themselves in gratitude. It costs them nothing, only a temporary exhaustion, but from it we are all made greater.
The world is only as strong as its weakest. May all know it is so.
Meredith keeps walking to spread the word, over the mountains and the plains beyond, and my vein unspools with her, wrapped around her arm, a thin length of flesh that stretches through the red sky of this febrile world and keeps us connected. We will never be without each other, now. We will do this work together.
I hope, in time, she will forgive me. For it all.
In memory of Bill, who was failed by the gatekeepers
The first lines of this were written by my father-in-law's bedside, as he lay dying in a hospital. The tubes and wires stretched down from the ceiling and into his arm, and the story slowly, tortuously came out from there.
If you got something from this story, and you're so inclined, I'd appreciate donations to St. Barnabas Hospice, whose nurses were an absolute godsend through Bill's final weeks at home.
Translunar Travelers Lounge, Issue 4, 15th February 2021 →
All content (text and images) is © Matt Dovey 2023 unless otherwise noted.
2-column layout based on design by Matthew James Taylor.
Background photo by Johannes Plenio.