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Igms issue 3, p.8

IGMS Issue 3, page 8


IGMS Issue 3

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  Bittersweet vindication swept over Xoco. "And how will you summon the rain without me, without Mother? How will you conjure your prayers without our suffering? You need us."

  "No Daughter, I don't. I did at one time, that is true. But you've given me fresh blood. I will kill you, as I killed your mother. I will take from you whatever life you've got left. But your children will live."

  Nausea, dizziness. Xoco found it hard to breath. Sweat glistened all over her body.

  "No," she hissed.

  "Oh yes, child."

  And as fast as the lightning inked into his face, the Shaman's hands darted out and stole the twins from Xoco's arms. She lunged forward, but Gambi warriors held her down.

  He walked back to Mother's corpse, splashed through the small puddle now congealing around the stump of her neck, sending dirt, muddied from her blood, flying in all directions. He was like a child playing after a rainstorm.

  "And the Kimpana will love me for it. 'Oh, poor Shaman. He arrived too late to save his wife and daughter. But look what he returned. Sea and Sky themselves!'"

  It was almost too much for Xoco as she sensed the truth in his words. The Kimpana would be fooled. They would let themselves be fooled. Because though the Shaman brought darkness for some, onto others he shined only light, and staring into the sun harbors no shadows.

  "The gods cannot allow this. Not this."

  The Shaman waved the dagger around as he danced. "A little cut here, a little slice there. Off comes a toe, out comes an eye. Two twisted, deformed bodies and enough suffering to drive the tide."

  Xoco thought of her Mother, of their last night together on the beach when Xoco had felt pain and called to her and she had come to help. She thought of their talk of gods and deliverance. She remembered her mother saying that Xoco was strong. Now mother lay dead at the hands of the Shaman. Xoco would be next, and then later, so would her twin girls.

  There burned a righteous anger in her gut.

  "You are a worthless, cowardly man."

  The Shaman froze. His body spun on his heels to face Xoco as though from foot to head he was chiseled from one piece of granite.

  "What did you say?" His voice was quiet but lethal, a snake lying coiled in the grass. Xoco felt something sinister mounting, like thickening air before a storm. The fine hair on her arms and neck stood on end. But it was too late to stop; she was too furious.

  "Urinate on the ground and at least you can use that mud to patch the walls of a hut. You are worse than that," she spat. "You are piss-mud without the dirt."

  Even if the Gambi standing behind her couldn't understand her words, they seemed to recognize the reddening of the Shaman's face. Xoco heard them pull long knives from their belts. The knife tips pressed painfully against Xoco's back.

  "Maybe I won't let these mutants take your place," whispered the Shaman. "Maybe I'll keep you around after all."

  Xoco's heart constricted at this. She hadn't realized how much she was looking forward to death, an afterlife without the Shaman. But she couldn't leave her children alone with him.

  The Shaman's gaze connected with Xoco's. His eyes were clouded over and distant. Xoco knew that, even now, the suffering he inflicted in her was strengthening him.

  Finally, he said, "I wonder what we should do with them, then?"

  And grabbing an ankle of both Sea and Sky, he pulled the twins in opposite directions, ripping them apart. Xoco froze. Her mind stopped. Her eyes barely registered the arc of blood that shot into the air, that misted and caught up in the wind and painted the ground red with its volume. The sound of cracking bones and tearing flesh resonated and pounded in her ears and she thought she'd never hear anything else ever again.

  The Shaman leaned his head back, a near orgasmic expression spreading across his face. He dropped her daughters on the dirt. Xoco felt him drinking her strength like the dry ground after a rain.

  So much suffering; he could destroy the world.

  But she felt something else, too, float over her: comforting, vindictive whispers in her ear.

  The Shaman had made one mistake, she realized. With every cut dug into Xoco's flesh, the well of her pain grew deeper. Each night she wept on the floor of his hut, ten lifetimes of torment bottled themselves in her skull. For each toll of suffering he extracted to work his wonders, he left a thousand scars on her soul. And now her mother. Her babies.

  There was a great power in suffering, and Xoco had plenty in reserve.

  "Sea and Sky, take me. Let me be your avatar." She prayed to the gods, her children. She prayed for deliverance.

  Unlike the other times when the gods drifted lightly over her, Xoco felt their presence consume her like an inferno. It was immediate, intense, painful.

  The Shaman must have heard her prayer, must have noticed the change in her posture, for his smile was abruptly replaced by confusion.

  "What have you--"

  But there was no time for him to finish. Without even standing, without so much as a thought, Xoco flung out a hand toward him. Great coils of black lightning, thick as tree trunks, howling, crackling, lit from her fingertips and slammed into his chest. It wrenched torso from legs and the two pieces of the Shaman landed a hundred paces from each other; a ghastly spray of gore and bone fragments fountained into the air.

  Xoco stumbled over to where her twins lay lifeless, their backs torn out like gutted fish, her tattooed heart a split mess of black ink. She removed her sarong, unashamed by her nakedness, and wrapped them tightly in it, held them to her chest. She pleaded with the gods, then. Asked them to assist her, begged them for help. I will give you anything, my life, she thought. And she felt the last of her strength drifting through her body, soaking through her arms and into the twins until, finally, she felt them stir in her arms.

  The Gambi warriors, previously transfixed by the afternoon's gore, saw Xoco rise, saw the twins draw new breath. They dropped spears and fled but their legs could not carry them fast enough.

  The twins renewed her.

  Xoco spun to warriors, one arm clutching the babies to her breasts, the other sending a plume of fire and death that leapt from man to man, consuming each one's skin and bones, before leaping to the next. With them, off toward the Gambi village, she sent a message. The clear sky clouded and drops of fire rained down, torching trees and farms. She heard screaming echoed up the mountainside.

  Xoco walked down the mountain with Sky and Sea. What had taken the warriors all day to carry her up took less than an hour for her to descend. Her feet glided over stone and debris and the path cleared itself at her approach. She rocked Sea and Sky softly in her arms. The wounds along their backs had closed up. Their pallid flesh had pinked.

  When Xoco arrived, the Kimpana had gathered in the village center. They had seen the lightning and fire on the mountaintop. They had heard the thunder.

  "The Shaman is dead," proclaimed Xoco. "I killed him."

  There were gasps. Mothers clung to protectively to their children and brave men trembled. When the old woman Lavria stepped forward, the Kimpana gathered behind her.

  "Xoco, we were not proud of what your father did to you, but what could we do? We were powerless to stop him. We needed him for our food, for our protection. What will we do now that he is gone? Where will we find another like him? Surely you cannot blame us?"

  And despite her hope, Xoco knew then that they had not changed, that they were still willing to sacrifice the lives of others to make theirs filled with ease.

  "I can blame you," she said. "The Shaman presented you with two options. Eat of his fruit, his meat, his grain and allow the torment of his family. Or work, eat honest fruit and meat, and deliver his family from the evil of his works."

  Xoco turned from them. "And you each chose evil."

  "What of the Gambi?"

  "They have been taken care of."

  There was silence then. Xoco looked to the mountaintop where smoke and ash signaled the volcano's awakening. It would coat the land in dust
but would harm no one. It was a sign, then. A monument to the events that had just transpired there.

  "I'm sorry, Xoco," said Lavria. The sincerity cut to Xoco's heart. Surprised tears filled her eyes and she felt grateful for her turned back, grateful that no one would see them being shed.

  "I am not one of you anymore," said Xoco. "The land will be difficult for you. You will labor hard to cultivate your fields. The fish will evade your nets. The rain will dry up. Yet, to live, you will work harder. You will fish longer. You will break your backs to plow rows for maize. This is your punishment and the mountain seals it."

  Xoco took a step, and then another, content to leave the village behind. She had no attachment to this plot of earth, this particular dirt. With her mother dead, there was nothing left of her family here.

  "Where will you go?" asked Lavria.

  "Out. Into the world," said Xoco. "I delivered my children so that they could show me how to deliver my people. And now I'm free of this place. We're free."

  She walked all night, never looking back.

  Sea and Sky nuzzled her as she traveled. They had not been the wrathful gods that Xoco had envisioned, but they had been instruments of freedom, for it was their lives that enabled Xoco to tap the torment she had hidden deep inside.

  As she walked, she felt the presence of the gods flake off her like dew evaporating in the morning sunlight. It was the pain, the horror that had fueled it. Like her arms, that void of suffering had been filled with something much more potent. Sea and Sky, forgiveness, freedom.

  And she was happy for it.

  To Know All Things That Are in the Earth

  by James Maxey

  Artwork by James Owen

  * * *

  Allen Frost assumed the first cherub he spotted was part of the restaurant's Valentine's decorations. He and Mary sat on the enclosed patio at Zorba's. He'd taken a pause to sip his wine when he first saw the cherub behind the string of red foil hearts that hung in the window. The cherub was outside, looking like a baby doll with a pair of pasted-on wings.

  A second cherub fluttered down, wings flapping. A third descended to join them, then a fourth. Allen thought it was a little late in the evening to still be putting up decorations, but he appreciated the work someone had put into the dolls. Their wings moved in a way that struck him as quite realistic, if realistic was a word that could be used to describe a flying baby.

  Then the first cherub punched the window and the glass shattered. Everyone in the room started screaming. The cherubs darted into the restaurant, followed by a half dozen more swooping from the sky. Mary jumped up, her chair falling. Before it clattered against the tile floor, a cherub had grabbed her arm. She shrieked, hitting it with her free hand, trying to knock it loose, until another cherub grabbed her by the wrist.

  Allen lunged forward, grabbing one of the cherubs by the leg, trying to pull it free. He felt insane -- the higher parts of his brain protested that this couldn't be happening. Nonetheless, his sensory, animal self knew what was real. His fingers were wrapped around the warm, soft skin of a baby's leg. White swan wings held the infant aloft. A ring of golden light the size of a coffee cup rim hovered above the angel's wispy locks. The whole room smelled of ozone and honeysuckle. The cherub's fat baby belly jiggled as Allen punched it.

  The angel cast a disapproving gaze at Allen, its dark blue eyes looking right down to Allen's soul. Allen suddenly stopped struggling. He felt inexplicably naked and ashamed in the face of this creature. He averted his eyes, only to find himself staring at the angel's penis, the tiny organ simultaneously mundane and divine and rude. He still had a death grip on the cherub's leg. Gently, the cherub's stubby hands wrapped around Allen's middle and ring fingers. The cherub jerked Allen's fingers back with a SNAP, leaving his fingernails flat against the back of his wrist.

  Allen fell to his knees in pain. Mary vanished behind a rush of angels, a flurry of wings white as the cotton in a bottle of aspirin. Her screams vanished beneath the flapping cacophony. Somewhere far in the distance, a trumpet sounded.

  The Rapture was badly timed for Allen Frost. He taught biology at the local community college while working on his doctorate. This semester, he had a girl in his class, Rachael Young, who wouldn't shut up about intelligent design. She monopolized his classroom time. Her endless string of leading questions were thinly disguised arguments trying to prove Darwin was crap. He'd been blowing off steam about Rachael when he'd said something really stupid, in retrospect.

  "People who believe in intelligent design are mush-brained idiots," he said. "The idea that some God --"

  "I believe in God," Mary said.

  "But, you know, not in God God," Allen explained. "You're open-minded. You're spiritual, but not religious."

  Mary's eyes narrowed into little slits. "I have very strong beliefs. You just never take the time to listen to them."

  Allen sighed. "Don't be like this," he said. "I'm only saying you're not a fundamentalist."

  Mary still looked wounded.

  Allen felt trapped. Most of the time, he and Mary enjoyed a good relationship. They agreed on so much. But when talk turned to religion, he felt, deep in his heart, they were doomed. Their most heartfelt beliefs could never be reconciled.

  Allen lifted his wineglass to his lips and took a long sip, not so much to taste the wine as to shut up before he dug his hole any deeper. He turned his attention to the cherubs outside the window. Then his brains turned to mush.

  Because, when you're wrestling an angel -- its powerful wings beating the air, its dark, all-knowing eyes looking right through you -- you can't help but notice evolution really doesn't explain such a creature. The most die-hard atheist must swallow his pride and admit the obvious. An angel is the product of intelligent design.

  A year after the Rapture, Allen tossed his grandmother's living room furniture onto the lawn, then whitewashed the floor.

  When he was done, Allen went out to the porch to read while the floor dried. It had been four hours, eleven minutes since he'd put his current book down. He'd grown addicted to reading, feeling as uncomfortable without a book in hand as a smoker without a cigarette. He purchased his reading material, and the occasional groceries, with income he made reading tarot cards; he was well known to his neighbors as a magician. He always informed his hopeful visitors he didn't know any real magic. They came anyway. The arcane symbols painted all over the house gave people certain ideas about him.

  The books that lined the shelves of his library only added to his reputation for mysticism. He was forever studying some new system of magic -- from voodoo to alchemy to cabala. Much of the global economy had collapsed after the Rapture, but supernatural literature experienced a boom.

  He did most of his trading over the internet. The world, for the most part, was intact. It wasn't as if the angels came down and ripped out power lines or burned cities. They had simply dragged off God's chosen. No one was even certain how many people were gone -- some said a billion, but the official UN estimate was a comically understated one hundred thousand. The real hit to the economy came in the aftermath of the rapture; a lot of people didn't show up for work the next day. Allen suspected he could have found a reason to do his job if he'd been a fireman or a cop or a doctor. But a biology teacher? There was no reason for him to get out of bed. He'd spent the day hugging Mary's pillow, wondering how he'd been so wrong. He spent the day after that reading her Bible.

  He hadn't understood it. Even in the aftermath of the Rapture, it didn't make sense to him. So he'd begun reading books written to explain the symbolic language of the Bible, which later led him to study cabala, which set him on his quest to understand the world he lived in by understanding its underlying magical foundations.

  Jobless, unable to pay his rent, he'd moved into his grandmother's abandoned house where he'd studied every book he could buy, trade or borrow to learn magic. So far, every book was crap. Alchemy, astrology, chaos magic, witchcraft -- bullshit of the highest order. Yet
, he kept reading. He tested the various theories, chanting spells, mixing potions, and divining tea leaves. He was hungry for answers. How did the world really work? Pre-rapture, science answered that question.

  But science, quite bluntly, had been falsified. The army of angels had carried away his understanding of the world.

  Allen now lived in a universe unbounded by natural laws. He lived in a reality where everything was possible. Books were his only maps into this terra incognita.

  The whitewash dried, leaving a blank sheet twenty feet across. It was pristine as angel wings. Allen crept carefully across it, having bathed his feet in rainwater. He wore pale, threadbare cotton. He'd shaved his head, even his eyebrows. The only dark things in the room were his eyes and the shaft of charcoal he carried. He crouched, recited the prayer he'd studied, then used his left hand to trace the outer arc of the summoning circle. The last rays of daylight faded from the window. His goal, before dawn, was to speak with an angel.

  With the circle complete, he started scribing arcane glyphs around its edges. This part was nerve-wracking; a single misplaced stroke could ruin the spell. When the glyphs were done, Allen filled the ring with questions. Where was Mary? Would he see her again? Was there hope of reunion? These and a dozen other queries were marked in shaky, scrawled letters. His hand ached. His legs cramped from crouching. He pushed through the pain to craft graceful angelic script.

  It was past midnight when he finished. He placed seven cones of incense along the edge of the circle and lit them. The air smelled like cheap after-shave.

  He retrieved the polished sword from his bedroom and carried it into the circle, along with Solomon's Manual. He opened to the bookmarked incantation. Almost immediately, a bright light approached the house. Shadows danced on the wall. A low, bass rumble rattled the windows.

  A large truck with no muffler was clawing its way up the gravel driveway.

  Disgusted by the interruption, Allen stepped outside the circle and went to the front porch, book and sword still in hand. The air was bracing -- the kind of chill February night where every last bit of moisture has frozen out of the sky, leaving the stars crisp. The bright moon cast stark shadows over the couch, end-tables, and lamps cluttering the lawn.

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