~3,600 words, approx 20 min read time
On the far side of the Redbloom forest, Morena made gods—of wind, water, stone, and of other found things, of love, good fortune, nature, and whatever else called to her. She loved the nature gods best, the ones that smelled of berries ripening to wine in the sun and felt like hazy summer naps. She held such a god in her cupped hands, one she’d shaped from antler and clothed in shed deer velvet. Morena lingered for a moment in the god’s thoughts; he dreamed of trees reaching down into the deep earth, napping in the dappled sunlight, and offerings of honey. He was ready for worship, but not from her. Godmakers do not have gods of their own.
She tied a bit of twine around his cloven-hoofed foot with a soft paper label describing his preferred offerings and bounties he could give in return. Then, thumbing him lovingly one last time, she took him outside to place in the basket with all the others. The wicker basket was half-full, though there’d been a dozen gods in there yesterday. Perhaps they’d been adopted, she thought, though usually visitors come and ask before taking one—worshipers tended to be a nervous bunch, full of questions.
As she plunked the god into the basket, the hairs on the back of her neck prickled. She looked out across her garden. Beyond the little wooden fence separating her home from the forest, a young woman stared back at her. She looked no more than fifteen and, though it was warm out, she clutched a gray and thin-worn woolen cloak about her. She was lean in a way that spoke of hardship, and her eyes, dark as rain-soaked soil, darted from Morena to the basket of gods outside the cottage door.
“I think I need your help,” the girl said.
Morena was used to pilgrims coming to make requests. Her first instinct was to offer the girl a god of good fortune, a gentle god who would lead her to a warm hearth, or a new family—that was usually what stray young women needed. She reached down into the basket, brushing the tops of each god’s head and waiting for them to answer her touch, but none of them clamored to be claimed.
Before she could say anything about the gods’ refusal, the girl offered, “I can pay,” and opened up the leather pouch at her hip to reveal a purse full of gems and silver coins.
The contrast between her apparent poverty and the pouch of wealth intrigued Morena, though she had little use for money. “What’s your name?” she asked as she beckoned the girl to come closer.
“Aradia. Dia.” The girl shuffled obediently into the yard, but no further than the first cobbled step of the garden path.
Well, that wouldn’t do. Morena gestured again, a little more impatiently this time. When the girl wouldn’t come any farther, she moved to close the distance between them.
Dia raised a hand to stop Morena as she drew near. With trembling fingers, she let her cloak slip to the ground and tugged down the neck of her loose shirt. Grafted onto Dia’s chest was a god. Morena had never seen anything like it; it looked larger than any of the gods she’d ever made, almost the size of her forearm. It had its back to Morena, and the upper half of its stark white body extended out from Dia’s sternum. Its arms wrapped around her neck and its head pressed against her throat, which bobbed as she swallowed nervously. Where it blended into the girl’s bony chest, thick veins ran like rivers from the girl’s skin onto the god.
Morena reached out and touched it gently. It was warm and softer than it should have been, as if growing its own flesh. Yes, she realized, it was feeding off Dia. It would kill her and take her body. Gods were dangerous in human form, they could be destructive creatures with uncurbed appetites, taking and taking without regard for the mortals they abused. Shaping them into idols, as Morena did, limited their powers and created the give-and-take relationship that benefitted both parties. The god twisted around and swatted Morena’s prodding fingers away. It hissed something incomprehensible as it did so, and the malevolence emanating from its wrathful stare summoned a pit in her stomach. It had no eyes and no mouth but gaping darkness where both should have been.
“How close did you keep it?” It seemed a silly question after she asked, for obviously, the girl must have kept it clutched against her heart else it wouldn’t have lodged itself there.
“Under my clothes.”
Gods were not meant to be carried so closely—you put them on an altar, but you don’t carry them. Morena always advised pilgrims and would-be worshippers not to keep their gods too close, though she had never actually seen the consequences of a lengthy overexposure. Perhaps her mother had, the one who’d taught her how to channel the gods she heard into creation, or her sister, who had always been the one whispering to the gloomier gods, but she couldn’t ask either of them; the first due to death, the second due to an ardent lack of desire. It had been a long time since she’d seen Eliana, and they had not parted favorably.
At mother’s funeral, they had divvied up her bones, according to which ones begged to be shaped into gods. Morena had always had the stronger connection to mother, and to the kinder sort of gods, and so she had claimed mother’s good bones. And some of the bones she still had, wrapped in linen cloth under her bed, waiting for the whispers of creation to beckon her shaping hands.
Eliana had been left with mother’s lower jaw bone, the half-rotted teeth that had occupied it, a few fingers, and her left femur.
It had been years since she’d thought of her sister—the twenty years since their mother had died—but this looked like Eliana’s godmaking.
“Where did you get this?” Morena hadn’t ever made anything so eager to take and wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.
Dia shrugged her shirt back into place. “It was my mother’s.”
Morena pursed her lips. Not made, but inherited. Inherited gods were often unwieldy, picky little things. They get used to a certain kind of prayer, certain offerings. It would feed off Dia until she was nothing but a carved-out vessel for its destructive will, and by the time it finished, it would be strong enough to walk away on its own. She looked at the girl again; the yellow cast to her skin spoke of a wasting illness and even as Morena watched, the veins connecting girl and god pulsed with the blood it drank, a steady flow of stolen life The unevenness of the gouges where it had been carved to shape confirmed to Morena that this terrible god was her sister’s.
Morena’s instinct was to turn the girl away; she didn’t know how to handle Eliana’s work. But it would be a danger to leave someone in this condition—what havoc would it wreck upon the world once it was done draining the girl’s life? There was nowhere else the girl could go; there were few godmakers, and fewer still who would work on such a malformed deity. She couldn’t in good conscience let it loose. And for the little petty part of her that took pleasure in such things, it was another opportunity to prove herself the stronger sister.
“Come inside,” she said and took Dia by the elbow.
As the girl drew close to the cottage door, the unclaimed gods in the basket began to protest. Their cries rang in Morena’s mind, a cacophony like too many bells clanging against one another as they all clamored to be the first one obeyed, but Dia didn’t seem to notice their displeasure. They would have had to have been greatly upset for their calls to reach Morena without laying her hands on them, and that was usually the kind of thing others could feel as well. Curious.
She guided Dia to a chair beside the cold hearth. She didn’t often bring pilgrims inside her small home, but it didn’t seem right to do this all out in the open.
Smoothing her apron down with a swift swipe and kneeling beside the girl, Morena asked, “Now, before we continue, I must know: what is this a god of?”
As if responding to a name, the thing squirmed under Dia’s shirt. What an awful thing to inherit. There are no good gods made of desire—petty, impulsive things that they are. Morena had never needed to dislodge a god from a worshipper before but thought perhaps balance could disentangle the god from the girl’s skin. Dualistic gods were out of fashion for the moment, but surely if she made a counter to the desire god, it would have to release Dia.
“And what does it desire?”
“Everything. Anything. Its wishes are frequent and fleeting.” Dia crossed her thin arms over her stomach. “And it’s hungry all the time.”
Morena patted the girl on the shoulder, then rose up again. She didn’t want to feed the god, but it wouldn’t do to let it starve the girl. She gathered a loaf of fresh bread, soft white cheese, and a mug of apple cider. Dia murmured a soft thanks as she tucked the cheese into the bread and took a bite. As she ate, the god’s grasping white hands reached out of her shirt and pawed at her chin, snatching up the stray crumbs that fell from her lips. She took a sip of the cider, and then dipped her little finger into the mug and offered the god a few drops. Morena couldn’t help flinching at the sight of the squirming god. The whole thing was unnatural. She busied herself with clearing the remains of her morning’s god from the workbench, scooping bits of antler velvet into her cupped hands and tossing them out the little window that looked out into her garden until she heard the sounds of eating slow and then stop.
“Better?” she asked, turning back towards Dia. “Good girl. Now, what did you desire from it when you took it as your god?”
Her curt confession stirred Morena’s pity. “Did it ever tell you magic can’t be granted?”
Dia stroked the god protectively. “If I had some aptitude, it would enhance it. That’s what my mother told me. It had done the same for her.”
“But you don’t have any natural skill?”
“I don’t think so,” she admitted. “I kept it close, gave it everything it wanted, but I never got a thing in return. I stole for it. That’s where all this came from. I’d never stolen anything before, I swear. And I won’t ever again if you can get this … thing off me.”
“Let’s calm down,” Morena said, raising her hands in a placating gesture. “Let’s … try something simple. Take a deep breath and then release it.”
Dia breathed in and out obediently, slowing her breath each time as she calmed down.
“Do you feel guilt for what you’ve done?”
“Of course,” the girl said.
“Then you know you’ve done something wrong. And now you can let it go.”
Dia heaved a heavy sigh one last time, and Morena caught the warm breath in her cupped hands as it rushed out. It was weighed down with shame, and at first, resisted Morena’s initial attempts to shape it into release. But just as often as it was an exercise in creation, a godmaker’s job was based in the battle of wills between maker and god; she only needed to shape it to her own will. She plucked out the strands of guilt—here a stolen necklace from a friend, there a bolt of silk from the village tailor, a lie told about change received from the butcher—until the god was light and airy as it should be. Once it was freed of its burden, she shaped the captive breath into a breeze strong enough to stir hair and remind one of things lost. It was faster work than she usually did—godmaking was usually a slow process—but she didn’t have the time to labor.
Still, it was a skillfully wrought god, pleasantly warm in her hands and smelling like the cider on Dia’s breath. She offered the god of release back to Dia, who took it as if she wasn’t quite sure how to hold it. It was a fine, misty sort of thing, the kind of god you had to squint to find.
Morena didn’t have a real answer for that but she said with confidence: “Give it over. Let it take over the other god.”
The girl pulled down her shirt and blew the new god into the desire god’s gaping black mouth. It breathed in the release god, its pale chest swelling up. The misty god screamed shrilly as it disappeared into the desire god. The god coughed, a small but audible sound, and Dia doubled over in pain, clutching at her chest. It nuzzled back against her neck. Had it grown larger?
“Are you alright?”
“I’m not sure.” She sounded winded, as if she’d been running.
What was the god doing to her?
“You don’t have very long,” Morena said. “Where did your mother get her god? Have you shown her what happened?”
Dia looked away as she brushed her hand over the protrusion in her chest. “She made it. But she doesn’t know I have it.”
Morena gave the girl a long look. There was a familiarity there, one she hadn’t seen—or hadn’t wanted to see. “Your mother is Eliana.”
“Yes. The godmaker.”
She swallowed her distaste; Eliana was barely a godmaker, but now was not the time to argue. “Did you know who I was when you sought me out?”
The girl cradled the desire god’s head in her hand like it was an infant. “I knew of you. Mother told me she had family somewhere. It wasn’t until I needed another godmaker that I thought to search for you.”
“Perhaps I’m not the one to help you. It might be time to leave.”
“I stole it,” the girl said, quickly. “I needed to. I have no magic of my own. She was going to disown me.”
Not an inherited god but a stolen one. Eliana had been weakly gifted herself; it came as no surprise to hear her child had no magic at all. The pity she had felt at first shifted into something uglier. She couldn’t help it. Her whole life had been in competition with Eliana, and Morena had always come out on top. But she had deserved it, hadn’t she? She had put in the work to be the best godmaker; why should she have to fix her sister’s mistakes?
“I think you should ask your mother for help.”
“How can I?” the girl asked. “She’d tell me it was my fault for not trying hard enough. For not putting in the work.”
Morena flinched. How often had she heard her mother say it to Eliana, and how often had she watched with joy as Eliana struggled when they were just Dia’s age? If Dia had come so far to be saved, who could say she hadn’t put in the work? Did she deserve to be left to such a fate, devoured by a grasping god? She wanted to comfort the girl suddenly, to fling her arms around her shoulders, and tell her it would be okay.
Instead, she said, “We’ll try one more time. What is the god made of?”
“Bone, I think.”
Of course, it was—it must have been their mother’s. Only Eliana could take a gift and twist it into something so awful. Hadn’t mother always known how terrible Eliana was? How incompetent, impatient, unwilling to put in the work? She stared at the girl, at the small pale hands stroking her neck. She recognized it now—the femur Eliana had taken, the ball joint made into the god’s head. But every god Morena had made from mother’s bones had looked like mother, soft curls and a gentle smile—was this what Eliana saw when she thought of their mother? A snarling, gaping thing?
What is the opposite of a stolen bone? One freely given. She felt a pang of remorse for her sister’s child—her niece. Blood of her blood. She hadn’t been kind to her sister, much the same way their mother hadn’t, but she hadn’t thought it would lead to this.
She patted Dia on the leg and then from the small space under her bed pulled out a bundle of linen cloth. She unwrapped her mother’s remaining bones and picked up the femur. She shaped the balled joint into a little head, with long curls and a soft, serene face—mother’s face, that looked so much like her own, and perhaps if she would have smiled, like Dia’s. She called a god of love into it. She held it to her ear, and it hummed a lullaby she didn’t remember but soothed her troubled heart.
“This was your grandmother’s bone. It should match the other.” And she offered it to the girl. “A god of love, freely given.”
Dia took it and pressed it against her bare skin. The god in her chest reached out and did the same, its arms wrapping around the maternal god’s waist. And it opened its gaping black hole mouth and bit down on the other’s head, splintering it down the center. It crunched the bone greedily, devouring the unconditional love just as it had the god of release. At least this god did not scream as it was eaten. But losing the second god confirmed what Morena had already suspected: the god of desire was growing larger, its head nearly the size of Dia’s fist now.
“I suppose that wasn’t supposed to happen,” Dia said softly.
Morena’s chest ached with guilt and with the loss of a god made from her mother. What did it mean that one of Eliana’s gods could best her own, one made with her mother’s love? Whatever the truth of it was—her weakness or the god’s strength—it irritated her.
“Have you tried cutting it out? With a knife, perhaps?”
Dia’s eyes widened fearfully. “No. I’d rather not.”
“What if that’s the god talking? Calling for its own survival?” Morena pushed. “It might have to be forced out. If it kills you and gets loose, you’ll be unleashing havoc on the world.”
Dia rose from the chair. “I’m sorry,” she stuttered. “I shouldn’t have come here.”
She looked so like Eliana, trembling as she shaped gods under mother’s critical eye. Morena should have seen it before. The girl fled out the door.
Morena followed after. “Wait,” she called. “Come back. I’m sorry. I’ve one more thing to try.”
Dia stopped before the gate and turned around slowly. “Okay.”
Morena would give it one more god. She went into her home again. Her chest ached with guilt and something else; a god grew inside her, waiting to be collected and shaped. She sat on her bed, next to the open linen cloth that contained her mother’s remaining bones. She plunged both hands into her chest, past the skin, the fat, and the constricting muscles and severed her breast bone from the cartilage connecting it to her ribs. It came out easily enough, though she felt hollow and sore after. She shaped it with memories of Eliana and the pride she’d felt when mother had held up her gods as examples that Eliana should strive for, the relief she’d felt when she’d escaped a scolding for something her and Eliana had done together, and the way she’d gloated over Eliana the first time a pilgrim had picked her god. Childish feelings she’d held for too long—twenty years too long. She left the tang of salt tears on her tongue as she held the god close to her chest, which sagged in a little more than it used to. But then it faded, and she felt nothing else from the god. It looked like Eliana, sour-mouthed and stern, and like her sister, it did not speak to her.
A god of remorse, made of bone, and freely given.
She returned to Dia. “Last one.”
The girl held it distantly in both hands. “Mother,” she said, softly.
“Remorse,” Morena corrected.
Dia offered it to the god of desire. It ate this one, too. But as it crunched at the bone, the veins connecting to Dia blackened and withered. It shrank down and drooped, its bone yellowing as if aging.
It fell to the ground and crumbled into dust. Dia rubbed her palm over the spot where the god had been latched onto her just moments before. There was no scar, nothing to suggest a god had ever been sinking into the girl’s skin.
“I taste salt,” she said, softly, then touched her own face to see if she was crying. She cocked her head, listening. “And what is that sound?”
Morena didn’t hear it, but she knew it well: the call of gods waiting to be made. She wrapped her arm around the girl’s shoulders. “Come here. I’ll teach you.”
December Cuccaro (she/her) is a South Floridian living in the high desert of Reno, Nevada with her spouse, two cats, and a goblinesque chihuahua. She has previously been published by Three Crows Magazine, and her mini-chapbook, The Price of a Feather, was published earlier this year by Sword & Kettle Press. She has an MFA from the University of Nevada, Reno and is a member of the 2021 Clarion West cohort. Talk to her about pets, fairy-tales, and RPGs on Twitter @BespokeChaos.