I don’t want the things they offer me.
Warm blood and broken skulls. Grunting pigs and headless roosters. Bottles of cold milk I can’t drink and hard bread I can’t eat. There’s only one thing I really want, and none of them is likely to give it to me.
I’m tired, and I want to finish dying.
Night sits heavy against the harvested fields as my bones stir beneath the soil. They find one another, grind together, and take shape as I inhabit that old skin and prepare to play my part once again. Summer is dead. The people who work this land have gathered to pay for their prosperity, and it’s my responsibility to collect. I’d gladly recede into the gray gloom that has long been denied me and forgive them the debt.
But it’s hard to overcome the legend.
I greet them wearing a wrinkled brown suit and a crooked string tie. Shoes dusty and dull, with the soles pulling away. I carry an oak-handled scythe, a tool I don’t require, but the people expect a certain image from a creature like me. My dress and my manner evoke their grandfathers and stern guidance. I am a touchstone, linking them with every harvest going back before the days of oxen and plow, to the time when we used sticks to dig and turn the soil. My straw hat is warped and muddy. My face is a terror, patterned in gray and brown scales, with a jaw that unhinges wide enough to take a child’s head into my mouth and draw the life from her with my fangs.
The people wait on bended knee.
I had hoped they’d finally reject me, but their misplaced faith appears intact.
When I leave the empty fields and walk along the town’s lone paved street, I’m met with a bounty. Golden stalks of wheat bent into geometric shapes so ancient the people have forgotten their original meaning. Tin buckets of fresh blueberries and fat Mason jars filled with honeycombs. A spotted calf lies in my path, flayed open from neck to groin, as if I have any interest in such a thing. I step over the bloody body and hiss a note of displeasure. At the very least, they might spare some miserable beast next year. Pecan shells crack beneath my steps, and I scatter corn husks and field mouse bones with my scythe as I proceed to the town square.
The town stands in the shadows of twin grain silos, built of weathered brown bricks, capped with conical roofs. The windows of the pharmacy advertise headache powders and vanilla ice cream sodas. A corrugated aluminum building houses a diesel cotton gin. Many of my worshipers traveled from their homes in motorcars or on sputtering green tractors. They live in a world of miracles but still can’t slough off the old ways, no matter how painful a burden they’ve become for us all.
Their blood smells of love and terror, and it’s such a heady thing I take a deep breath. The adoration makes me weak, and I must remind myself I’m not a god.
There was no god when I was killed, and there is no god now.
There is just a hungry eternity.
The sacrifice is named Eliza and she’s fourteen years old. The men usher her forward and toss her to the ground at my feet. They retreat in a rush, more afraid of me than the girl is.
Eliza wears a sackcloth dress, and someone has shaved her head bald for the ceremony. She holds a wilted sprig of cotton in her small hands, like a bridal bouquet, and a cottonmouth snake skull is tied to it with a bit of blue ribbon. The skull’s empty eye sockets are meant to gaze upon the brightest possible future for the town. The teeth symbolize the bite of death, necessary payment for continued prosperity.
I look over my worshipers and absorb their fear. Any one of them could raise a rifle and shoot me dead. They could converge and overpower me, take my own scythe, cut off my head. And I would let them. It’s only their belief and their tiresome superstitions that keep us locked in this cycle, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to upset it.
I offer my cold hand to Eliza, and she takes it.
We know one another well now.
Every year I lie uneasy in my half grave, wet and tangled in the roots, and I listen to everyone moving above me, alert to every fret and folly that plagues the town. And I do my best to guide them, though they rarely pay attention. I whisper my counsel in their dreams, but they close their minds to my words. They hear me, but they don’t want to listen.
They only think they want a god.
I help Eliza to her feet, and she looks right into my yellow eyes. She recognizes me from her dreams, and I wonder if she remembers what I’ve told her. What I’ve begged her to do. Refuse me. I am not your god. I am only a corpse. I hold no sway over your lives or your prosperity.
The town holds its breath, so quiet I can hear cattle lowing from a fenced-in pasture beyond the fields. The people have dimmed their harsh electric bulbs for my sake; barn lanterns and smoky tallow candles light the proceedings. I’ve called this place home for so many decades, I’ve lost count. We hadn’t even the dream of electric lights when I was full of youth, and the night then was a deep and terrible thing these people could never conceive.
Despite their attempts to hold it at bay, the darkness hardens around us with the weight of ritual.
Eliza holds my gaze, and I wonder if she’s seeing the monster or my real face. I used to be a young girl with sun-browned skin and bleeding calluses on my hands, living through a drought that promised never to end, and my people, my family, buried me alive in the fields, hoping my blood would water the soil and appease a deity that didn’t exist. Cottonmouth snakes burrowed in close against my skin, cold and corrupt. Beetles and june bugs nestled inside my rib cage and chewed away my vitals. Rain eventually poured down and seeped into my grave as my teeth fell loose and my skin pulled away from my bones. And I remained in the earth for the entire year, listening to the afterlife call me, begging whatever force kept me there in the ground to let me die. When summer collapsed into fall again, I dug my way out and became the thing they wanted to see. The god they wanted to fear. Brother Fang. Old Cottonmouth. So many names, but they all mean the same thing. I am the keeper of the harvest, without whom they would all starve and die.
Every year I rise, and every year they feed their young women to me.
Always their young women.
The people are afraid to move, but I can feel the motion of their hearts and the tension in their backs. They’re wondering if I’ll find Eliza worthy, as if anyone can be judged worthy or not for such a reason.
Oak leaves ride the breeze, and the air smells like animal sweat and dried dung. I breathe in all that life despite myself. These sensations aren’t meant for me, but I can’t help but mourn the life I used to have. Eliza doesn’t flinch when I cup her bald head with my talon. Most of them do. My jaws open wide to reveal the white membrane within and curved fangs wet with venom. I can’t help the hunger I feel, the need to accept the people’s sacrifice. If it were as simple as refusing to feed, I’d gladly starve and die. But long ago I realized it’s their belief in my power that binds me here, and I simply can’t resist.
I wish I could hate them all for it, but I understand their desperation.
We have spoken in dreams many times, but now I place a question into Eliza’s waking thoughts. Do you offer yourself willingly for the harvest? For the good of the town? For all who gather now, and all who come after?
I’ve prepared her for this moment. Begged her to release me from their worship. I have drawn her mind down into the soil and shown her its secrets.
But Eliza stands before me, eyes bright and ready to die.
The old people caution their children from an early age not to believe what I tell them. I may be their god, but I am, after all, a serpent. I cannot convince this town their prosperity has nothing to do with whether I’m pleased or angered. I’m neither of these things, only sad and tired and eager to escape.
Eliza has not given her answer, has not voiced her assent, a necessary part of the ritual we’ve unwittingly built. The town fathers rumble low in their throats and risk dark glances in her direction. This is not uncommon. The sacrifice often hesitates and must be coaxed to speak.
But Eliza is smiling, and this is something I’ve never seen before.
I repeat my question. Do you offer yourself willingly for the harvest? For the good of the town? For all who gather now, and all who come after?
Eliza shakes her head, answers aloud.
“No. I’m sorry. No.”
And that is all it takes.
The afterlife opens before me like a flower greeting spring sunshine, irresistible and golden.
Then I’m gone, and nothing remains in my place but a wind-tossed pile of bone dust and a dry, transparent snakeskin coiled around a brown suit and battered shoes. My scythe blade blows away, a cloud of rust, and the shaft clatters against the brick street. My essence, my soul if you want to call it that, hovers overhead, already dissolving into whatever comes next, and Eliza looks up and keeps smiling as if she can still see me there.
I think maybe she can.
For the first time in ages, I feel something like joy.
I’m no longer bound to the earth by superstition and human weakness. Eliza has chosen life, the only blessing I can ever bestow, and she’s given me the final death I’ve been begging for.
A woman wails from the crowd, and someone screams an obscenity. The town rises as one. None of them can see me anymore.
They see only the girl who killed their god.
There is no hesitation. The people fall upon Eliza with splintered axe handles and heavy fists. She resists with open palms and spindly arms, but there are too many. Work boots stomp and rusty pocketknives stab. Eliza screams until her voice falters. The stench of the town’s anger and fear pollutes the air, and I want to let go, to allow death to absorb what remains of me, but someone must bear witness. The people are driven by a fear older than themselves, and while I don’t believe they understand what truly motivates them, they are terrified to reveal any faithlessness.
Eliza’s own parents go at her the hardest, as if to distance themselves from her sin.
If I were truly a god, I’d strike them all dead.
Eliza lies in the street. Bones protrude like jagged tree limbs, and her eyes are swollen shut, but she is still alive. Crawling. I wish I could reach out and take her hand. I want to assure her that death is close, and not so terrible, but I don’t know that for certain. Eliza moans through broken teeth, scrapes her hands and knees against the gravel in a frantic effort to escape. This cannot be the end of her. Eliza is a girl who loves running barefoot though wet grass on summer nights, capturing fireflies in glass jars, listening for owl calls and the rustle of night winds through the brush. She collects porcelain dolls and sleeps with a blind old terrier named Samuel, whom she’s known her whole life and treasures above all other creatures. She is smart and curious and, yes, sometimes willful. She knew there would be a cost for her defiance.
But she had not expected this. Neither of us had.
We are both fools.
One of the town fathers sweeps Eliza up in his arms like she’s a sack of cornmeal and tosses her onto a flatbed trailer attached to a tractor.
The people watch, eyes glassy and afraid.
The tractor shudders to life, chokes out oily black smoke, and lurches forward, pulling the trailer behind it. The people follow, marching up the street and into the fields, parishioners in a cursed congregation. Their procession is silent and gilded with shame, and their faith draws them through the darkness to a place none of them really wants to go.
There is already a hole. A grave. My home.
The tractor goes silent, and the night becomes a web of fevered whispers, raspy breathing, and quiet sobs. The same man who loaded Eliza onto the trailer lowers her into the hole. Her chest still rises and falls, but there’s not much life left inside her. What remains of my spirt hovers overhead like a gray storm cloud as the people converge to bury her alive. They shovel in handfuls of dirt, eager to cover her up before she opens her eyes. I wonder for the first time if there was another girl before me, if there will be more after Eliza, if there was ever a time when these people were not so afraid of the world that they turned their daughters into gods.
It seems the people must have someone to worship, but I can’t let someone else take on that burden, else I’d be no better than they are.
I flow like cold moonlight through the soil and take up residence inside Eliza’s body. This despite the hungry pull of the afterlife, so eager to have me that I need only relent for one second to become part of the mystery. But I can’t let this girl take my place. It’s easy enough for me to jostle her spirit loose and send it skyward. She’s newly dead, and I’ve far more experience walking the tricky path between now and forever. She rises from her own chest like smoke from a chimney, hangs above us all in a moment of terrible clarity. We see one another, and she understands what I’ve done. What remains of the girl Eliza used to be smiles down at me.
Then the universe inhales, and breathes her in.
I’m alone inside the body now, feeling every broken bit of my new self, feeling the weight of the soil layered on my chest. I catch a momentary glimpse of the haunted, sweaty people peering into my grave before the dirt fills my gasping mouth and covers my eyes. Already I can hear the burrowing approach of the things that will remake this corpse, but I’m not afraid.
I’ve been here before.
When my breathing goes entirely still and the people are gone, I invite the corruption back in. Even as I wonder what form I’ll wear when I rise next year, I realize it doesn’t matter. I could be Old Cottonmouth, or the town’s imagination could conjure up a new, more fearsome god.
No amount of blood can water the furrows.
No amount of grief can make the wheat grow taller.
And I pray to whatever god will listen that one day they’ll all figure that out.
Josh Rountree writes horror, fantasy, science fiction, and whatever else sounds good at the time. His short fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, including Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Realms of Fantasy, Weird Horror, Bourbon Penn, PseudoPod, PodCastle, and A Punk Rock Future. His short fiction collection, Fantastic Americana: Stories, is available from Fairwood Press. Josh lives in Texas and tweets about records, books, and guitars @josh_rountree.