There is a place where the river meets the land; a kink in the direction of the water, so that the usually tranquil current froths to a restless swirl, and things wash up onto the grass like bad food spat out.
For the past two weeks we have been pulling bodies from that place in the river.
Twice a day they come, wide-eyed and bloated, with arms wrapped around each other and lips twisted into mute, cruel laughter. Every day there are more and more of them.
We do not know what to do. Our men are exhausted from digging graves. Our women are sore-throated and sick from the songs and the rites of mourning. Soon our crops will begin to fail. Our animals already wander unnoticed through the village, weaving in and out of the huts and eating the wild flowers that grow in the ashes of our abandoned fires. Our children are getting thin. We have no time for anything but the carrying and the burying and the mourning of the bodies that we pull from the bank.
It is becoming a certainty among our people that the gods are being slaughtered. It is a knowledge like the faith of dawn or the necessity of dusk. Our elders tell us that only the gods could inhabit such vicious forms. Only the gods could die such terrible deaths.
The strangest thing is what we find inside them. Swollen as they are, their bellies often burst like ripe fruit when we touch them, and that is when the oddest of objects come spilling from their guts. Collections of thin, slimy wisps, like scraps of rotten bark or over-boiled fish. Great twisted masses of a substance we have never encountered, harder than volcanic stone, colder than even the coldest of our winter nights. Strips and strips of something viscous and see-through, like sheets of flexing ice, only frayed and dry, and unpleasant to touch.
All of this is accompanied by a stench of sickness like the reek of longing and regret.
Today we went to the river to retrieve the bodies and found a flock of birds instead. They rose into the air as we approached, blood and screams streaming from their beaks, and where they had been, lying dying on the sodden grass, was a god.
A god like the others, bleached and bloated, but alive. He crawled through the slit bodies of his brothers and sisters, and we saw that his skin was cratered with countless seeping beak wounds, and that an eye had been plucked clean from his head like a maggot from a rotten apple. The nails of his fingers and toes had also been taken.
He spluttered in his strange language when we lifted him, shouted something at us, something cruel and offensive. We asked each other if the insult of a god was a holy thing. None of us knew. We hurried him back to the village as he spat and bled.
Our elders fell to their knees when they saw him. They whispered prayers into their knotted staffs and touched their foreheads to the ground.
Our women were more practical. They brushed honey into his wounds and bound his broken limbs. They whispered soothing songs and made him tea mixed with special herbs, which he drank greedily, and all the village was repulsed to hear the slurping of his godly lips.
Then he slept.
It took us a full month to learn even a few scattered words of the god’s strange language. During this time, he did not recover. His wounds continued to fester and his temperament was never anything less than foul and embittered. He gave the impression of always being unimpressed. Always disrespectful and half-disgusted by all that he encountered.
He curled his nose at the food we brought him. Made faces at our sons and tried to touch our daughters. His tongue would often wag out of his mouth as he said his strange sounds. And his single eye would roll back inside his skull, in agony or ecstasy we could not tell.
Here are some of the words that he taught us:
Soon we began to hate this god.
At the end of this month he was taken from us, by sacred intervention, our elders say.
It was the dark of the moon, and they came from the ground and the air and the forest, silently and together. Owls and snakes and ants and elk; all manner of wild things with unforgiving eyes. They poured out of every hollow and shadow and descended upon the god, who screamed worse than ever, spilling spiders from his lips and shaking rats from his genitals.
Hearing this, we ran to his side, but as soon as we saw what was happening we stopped, and a stillness descended upon us like the black of the sky. His gargled howls echoed throughout the huts, but for whatever reason, we did not feel inclined to fight the beasts who tore at his flesh.
It was the wolves who took him in the end. They padded through the open doors as calmly as the evening breeze, and then with mouths that shone in the starlight they dragged him out of the hut and into the forest. He screamed one final time, and then was silent.
In the morning we found the strange stuff from the god’s guts strewn to every edge of the village.
The bodies from the river kept coming for another six or seven weeks after that, but we did not bother to bury any more of them. We had met the gods, and we had been unimpressed. And anyway, we were tired of worrying about the dead.
The next time we checked the place by the bank, all we found was a maze of bones bound up with the never-rotting, sickly substance of their stomachs.
Philip Webb Gregg is a writer of ephemeral things who believes that throwing stories is far better than throwing stones. He grew up on the mountains of southern Spain and now lives in the flat fenlands of Cambridge. He is a member of The Dark Mountain Project and is currently working on his first novel.
CALL TO ACTION:
We’re in desperate need of a new set of stories upon which to reconsider and rebuild the structures of our culture. So I encourage you to engage with movements such as The Dark Mountain Project that seek to re-author the narratives of our civilisation.