Jar, by Erin Brown



They say the Jar standing high on the hill above the city, silhouetted against the sky, alone and imposing, is the eternal stomach of the River God of the Valley, who is praised to devour us one by one. But one doesn’t have to be in the Jar for his digestion of your flesh to begin. I knew this—it was in all the teachings—but I didn’t understand until he chose me. Greasy chunks of my hands were still smeared onto the handle of my garden shears when they dragged me away from my hut and outside the city gates. They had already noticed I was deteriorating, though I had tried to hide it, and were waiting for enough evidence to allow the official decision to be made. Alone outside the gates, I looked down at the pools of pus in the wounds of my strong, weathered hands. I knew what would follow. The skin of my chest, my mouth, my eyes, stretched painfully from the violence of my sobbing as I fell into the dust before the locked city gates. Tears pooled and bubbled warmly under the tissue of my cheeks.


I had done what I was supposed to do, my whole life. I kept little altar jars around my house, filled with incense and dry rice. The incense was sweet if things were going well for me, and if they weren’t, I would buy a particular kind of resin from the temple, the kind that is supposed to smell of river-rotted corpses. It is the scent of all of our nightmares, the scent to which we pray.

All children are taught the story of the River God, who brought waves of fresh rain water up from the springs and down from the hills throughout antiquity. The violent waters carried a few folks away every year, the stories said, and their sacrifice was considered fair to keep the River God fed and willing to continue to protect his people. The bodies that were found in the mud later were scooped up as best as their erupting jellified forms could be, and placed in the Jar on the hill. The pictures carved in the temple are gruesome in their detail of what the tributes looked like. But for too many of us, this was all superstition. These stories took place before science, before plumbing, before weather pattern analysis, and before carefully crafted floating structures, waterproof food storage, flotation devices, and flood survival kits. Still, I tried to believe.

So why the jar for a people who had technologically advanced beyond the need for superstition? Because every year since the first building was built to float above the rushing waters of spring while tethered securely in place, a handful of people had died agonizing deaths, melting into puddles of screaming sludge where they stood. We remain helpless to prevent it. The hideous body blight strikes without warning, attacks the unsuspecting, and terrifies everyone else so deeply that the minute anyone even threatens to melt, they are cast out of the city to die alone, to spare all the sight of it. As I have been. Then everyone puts a few more fragrant grains of rice and chunks of incense in their little home jars and strikes all possible unpleasant thoughts from their minds.

The name of the melting person is never spoken again in the city. We do not reuse the names, for fear of cursing the child.

I am dead, or, dead enough. I am nameless. I am a nightmare in a nightmare. And I cannot stand to lie about thinking of this and only this until…

I wipe away the tears that made it out of my face, and my hand sticks to my cheek, pulls it away from bone, but releases the flesh before it tears. I can feel my stretched jowl droop down to brush my shoulder. My mind shuts at the thought of the monster I must look like. I had always wondered what made blighted seek out the cursed Jar, but now I knew. What else could we do?

The sensation of walking the clover path away from the city walls and toward the hills shifts subtly as I go. The grass under each step is sticking to the exposed muscles of my feet. The flesh is painlessly wearing away. It is a nauseating feeling, the loose pebbles wedging squeakily between my tensing and stretching strands of foot meat, but I don’t care anymore. The sun is hot, the sky is blue, I am melting, and there is but one escape. I make my reverent way to the Jar of the River God.


The view around the Jar is breathtaking, the land dropping away on all sides, revealing the lush green vine-draped forests of the land the River God soaked each year. The Jar is simple, but beautiful as well; large, its flared earthenware rim tall enough to reach the bottom of my ribs. The inverted swell of its body made it stable, as if it had been half carved out of the sheer rock beneath. It is also, to my shock, sparklingly clean on the inside, with the gentle rasp of the texture of the unfinished clay of the outside sending buzzes up my fingers that fizzled in the nerves of the teeth I hadn’t felt drop onto the path on my way here. Even though I can feel the sweat pooling under the slabs of skin around my legs from the heat, the surface of the Jar feels cool, and I can not resist resting my sliding face against it.

Immediately, the many sensations of my body firm up into focus, solidify, dry. Pain pierces the soles of my feet and the palms of my hands. I scream and fling myself away from the Jar, and tumble onto the ground, subsumed by overwhelming agony.

The weeping gashes in my body burn for hours, and then ease into liquid numbness as twilight falls. The chillbumps of my naked and dark-mottled arms ache in the hilltop winds. So this was it. A slow and excruciatingly maddening death watching my body undergo the most hideous corruption, or a quicker one of unimaginable agony.

The moon watched me find resolve in my decision, watched my heart break in outrage at this fate. With a glacier’s slowness and unyielding purpose, I push myself to my feet, stand up from my hunch, and ready myself to climb into the Jar. I wonder if I might fall forward, allowing momentum to tumble me into the Jar. I am hit with the nauseating image of accidentally bisecting my gelatinous body on the rim with a wet, sucking, tearing sound. Following is the concern of getting stuck somehow with my body against the burning outer grit of the Jar.

I circle the pottery coffin, taking deep gurgling breaths and preparing to throw myself, as if I could catch myself off guard, outmaneuver my dread. But one side of the Jar has knobs alternating in a pattern upward, a place to put one’s feet, to climb as if it were a ladder. I test the knob with a gentle tap of my foot. My unsteadiness causes me to knock my toenail halfway into my toe, but I feel no pain, not from the nail and not any burning of the stone.

In the bright moonlight I can see that the inside of the jar is smoother than the outside, and there are large, rounded protrusions molded inside. After some arranging, I find that one of the bumps appears perfectly formed to sit on, with an indentation behind that looks perfectly shaped to lean back into. I step carefully up the knobs, my hands slipping in the budding gel that is leaking from them, nearly losing a finger but thinking fast enough to flick it forward to fall into the Jar. I brush against the outer surface as I climb, but there is still no burn.

I swing my leg over into the Jar and find a protrusion inside that holds my weight as comfortably as anything I could have hoped for. I slip and skid down into the belly of the Jar, my knees giving out and plopping my butt on a molded seat. The position allows my legs to cross naturally below me at the ankle, the knobs of which fit into indentations perfectly placed in the bottom. I lean back against the inner wall, which is molded to hold me up without any discomfort. My head falls back on a slight ledge and I look up. High above my face, stars wink into existence in the dark purple sky. The wind hums past the open mouth of my Jar. I am so comfortable. I am at peace, somehow! Fear lurks outside the Jar like a foiled predator, unable to reach me anymore. I… sleep?


The stars are a great rapid river. The sunlight flickers over the sky like swarms of fish flashing by in a flood. Why did no one ever tell me how quickly it all flows? I could not tear my eyes away. I could not close my eyes.

I am not certain what is looking at the wonder of the sky is even eyes anymore.


The mornings bring dragonflies and hummingbirds across the lips of my Jar. I sigh, and then I laugh at the sigh, delighted by the bubble form it takes, rising from my belly and bumping the spongy curve of each rib to rest itchily on the surface film of some liquid I have decided is no longer important to associate with me, with my life. The wind is so charming, changeable in its moods, sometimes dancing on the grasses shushing outside the Jar, sometimes beating against the surface of it. The echo it sends into the rock of the hills, and the many faint and rumbling answering echoes there, are refreshing, lovely lullabies. Rivers of stars pass, and my mind recites the poetry of the legend of the floods of the River God and his carrion to myself, disbelieving of the love I feel for it all, now that it carries no fear. Clouds of moths ride the day, and lightning-quick murmurations of starlings flicker in the twilight.

I feel as if I was a part of the clay of the Jar sometimes now. How grateful I am, that I was ever solid as clay at all.


Stars rivers flowers windsong birdwind clayearth, rock and air, all breathing, dancing, singing, speaking, laughing, formless and also… there is a pinch. A growing pinch, down in the corner of the bottom of the Jar, the needly bit of pressure like an angry nerve awakening, a steadily growing curiosity, a last discomfort. It grows. It tethers me again, it worries me. I cannot follow the birds or hear the mountain over the insistence of the pinch, the squeeze, occupying all of my mind…


A soft afternoon, a nauseating feeling of twisting, of squeezing strangulation, and the clay falls away from my sight, and I am flowing, flowing out into sharp sunlight, over a spreading army of tickling grass-blades, flowing through a thousand sturdy weed stalks. I am waves, sneaking and tumbling, enveloping all in my path. I taste the glistening light reflecting off me, I hear the rustling of pebbles I dislodge beneath me. I am free, I am stream, river, I am precious, riches and wealth, and the flowers let beads of me bud across their petals, tall weeds tossing me into sticky mists to be apart from myself forever, to swirl on the whim of the winds. I soak into slabs of rocky soil stitched with writhing wet roots, sinking, infusing and running to drip ever farther down. I am ecstasy, endless, an oily friction of life churning within life, bright as joy, brief and meaningful and nothing at all.

Erin Brown is a black, neurodivergent author of horror, fabulist, and fantasy short fiction and poetry. She has been published in FIYAH Magazine, the Los Suelos CA Interactive Anthology, Fantasy Magazine, and 3Elements Literary Revue, the anthology It Was All a Dream: An Anthology of Bad Horror Tropes Done Right, as well as other publications. Erin is a Voodoonauts Fellow and an SFWA member, and she was the recipient of the Truman Capote Literary Trust Scholarship in Creative Writing for Spring 2022. She can be found at ebrownwrites.com, or on Twitter @babblebrown.

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