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How High Your Gods Can Count by Nora Potwora

© 2016 Nora Potwora,
"How High Your Gods Can Count"

The tourist squats with her handful of peanuts on the very spot where, so long ago, the bewitched spoon beat Ku'uk Atan to death. It was no special spoon, just coarse carved wood, the same one Ku'uk Atan had used to stir our corn porridge every day. But the gods make wicked allies of whatever they like, and so it was with the fatal spoon.

The peanuts are sumptuous in their deep-red skins, and the tourist woman is slow and easy, the dark vines of her hair redolent of food and humid skin. But there she squats on the place where Ku'uk Atan fell beneath the spoon, skull denting and finally splintering. And so I bite the human and piss on her too, and then run away screaming to the trees as the human stands screaming on the steps of the Great Jaguar Pyramid.

In the trees the others praise and jeer me in chorus, long arms swinging them to and from and above and around my branch, long fingers in the fur on my back and face if they are very happy. I do not think much of them. We, all of us, are all thinking of Ku'uk Atan and the wet thwack of the spoon.

The human fusses among the temple ruins, with other humans around her, and then she goes away. Later in the afternoon two men from the village walk into the trees with a gun. They point among us as we screech and holler and fling ourselves around. They raise the gun and it looses its horrible BANG and one of us tumbles from the tree.

One of our other females. Long brown limbs and tail trail her body as it falls. She hits the earth with a thump almost drowned out by our screaming. The infant clinging to her front rolls from her body and into the leaf litter, stunned, and then pulls himself to his feet and scrabbles back to his mother.

"Didn't say it was a mama bit the lady," says one of the men. The one holding the gun.

"Who cares?" says the other, walking up to the fallen female. He toes it and I hear my own voice in the offended choir. "They said shoot a problem monkey, and we shot a monkey. They're all fucking problem monkeys. Anyhow tourists don't know shit, they wouldn't know a female from a male if it had its balls in their mouth."

"They know baby monkeys, brother. You never seen one of those tourist busses with a baby monkey? It's like they seeing Jesus. We got the wrong one."

Around me my troop throws leaves, bark, curses. Below, the female's infant clings shaking to her back. Her hand, splayed in the dust, flexes once.

"Shit," says the man with the gun. "It ain't dead."

The other man rolls her onto her back with his boot. Her infant squeals in terror. Around me my troop leaps and berates. The tree shakes with rage. My branch sags and bounces under me, my legs pumping, voice vibrating in my chest. The thin forest around the temple ruins tolls with our wrath.

The men regard our fallen female. Her eyes slip over them, too panicked to focus, her young at her neck. The man with the gun lifts its long dull finger to point it at her.

"Don't bother," says the other man. "It's dying anyway. Let's go, I'm hungry as fuck."

The gun lowers. Our voices fade as the men wander back toward the road and the smoke and distant clattering music of the village. The female lies in the dust with her infant.

Gradually the trees grow still.

I know the female is alive still that night, because she cries out when the village dogs find her. The infant is much louder, though, when the dogs find him.

How High Your Gods Can Count by Nora Potwora

We dreamt of the third creation.

We have lived with this dream for as long as we have been. It comes and goes through our generations, sometimes entire families living and breeding and dying and their children breeding and dying before the dreams and visions rise again. But even those empty generations know the dreams are there, and that they will find us when the sleeping gods stir. Even those generations know, though they may not be called on to hold the memories themselves.

We dreamt of the flood.

Thick warm sap pooled up like blood from the earth and caught feet, hems, sucking down into the mud first our sandals and cook fires and then our hearths and stools and chickens.

We dreamt of Kiik. She climbed behind us for high ground, hurrying the elders, cheering the keening young in the other women's arms with her rabbit-quick wit. "We will live now on the top of a mountain," she said to a weeping child over her own labored breathing. "And whenever you have to wee you will stand on the top of the mountain and watch the wind scatter your wee across the whole world." And the child laughed.

The ground beneath our feet began to ooze. Voices rose in fear.

"Go, go!" Kiik urged, hurrying too, but her feet could not move in the sap-oozing soil. "Go!" she said as we climbed and clattered and cried up to higher ground and she grew more and more distant.

Kiik's memories are our memories. We are Kiik. We know how it felt to say "go!" and how it felt once the last of our clumsy, wailing band disappeared from view among the rocks and sparse trees. How it felt as the resin climbed our thighs and closed around our groin. How our breath quickened and our vision raced in our eyes. How we wanted to move, to run, to pace at least, if we must die could we not die pacing?

We should have moved when we could, running past the elders and children, our legs quicker even than our wit. We know how it felt when the sap touched our chin, our air-sucking nose.

We drowned a hundred times that day, were abandoned or forgotten or surrendered. But that is only one dream, and only one small part of it. The gods were much crueler to us than just that.

The visions have been walking among the temple ruins with us for months. They mingle with the tourists, climbing steps next to them in grotesque parallel. They squat and cringe where the human children run to catch up with their pink-shouldered parents.

Something big must be moving, to stir up so much. It makes us all uneasy.

A human boy has a bag of something salty and orange. The morsels fit my fingers perfectly, the shapes pleasantly dry, the crunch between my molars a unique delight. Around me are others, yearlings of my troop mostly, the bold ones. We scrap over the handfuls the boy throws. A big, nasty yearling plucks my crunchy bit straight from my cheek and eats it. I scream at him and he screams at me and we chase each other, fists raised. I would kill him for this, maybe, or at least pull his hair until he bled, if there was no promise of more crunchy things.

The human boy laughs. The bag is tilted as though it might spill. The boy eats a crunchy bit himself. The troop watches his hand move to his face.

A vision rises nearby. This would scatter the troop if there was no food to keep us fixed here, but we want more of what is in that bag.

It is a vision of the turkeys, when they flocked against us. Their eyes are wicked, dark beads. In this vision, they outrun one of our children. They swarm him. Their claws and beaks never seemed threatening when we kept them penned, but the gods have sharpened them with righteous ruination. The child's screaming echoes through our memory.

The human boy takes another crispy bit from the bag and waves it. The nasty yearling steps forward. The boy puts the food in his mouth. The yearling grimaces.

The boy giggles. He takes again from the bag and coos.

The tension of then-horror and now-hunger tugs and tightens through my little band in the hot dust. Everything waits, pressed still by heat and fear.

The yearling leaps for his hand. Orange bits spill around the boy's feet. I dart in, bodies all around me, scrambling for the fallen food. But the yearling wants the whole bag, and the boy is shouting and waving his arms. I almost get my hand stepped on in the struggle.

A vision-turkey struts into the troop, its face feathers bloody.

Someone else jumps on the boy's back in the fray and grabs the bag from the other side. And then the vision-turkey turns and passes straight through another one of our troop. Her eyes go wide. She jumps up onto the boy's other arm in fear, and the boy swings his elbow to dislodge her. She sinks in her claws and teeth to hold on, and then the other one on the boy also sinks in his claws and teeth, and the yearling wrestles the bag out of his hand and we all run away screaming and howling after the crunchy bits, leaving the turkeys and the human boy behind.

Through the ruined temple complex his sobs mix with the sobs of our vision-lost child. But we do not listen to these sorts of things if we do not have to.

In the beginning, the gods were alone and hungry in a still and empty world. There was no-one to pray, no-one to give sacrifice to them.

And so, in the first creation, the gods created the animals. But their voices were wrong so they could not sing the prayers, and their bodies were wrong so they could not make the sacrifices. The gods, who had built them with care and attention, who had given to them the glades and valleys and trees, took from them all privilege for this failure. They called them meat and cursed them, that which they had made so carefully.

In the second creation the gods made men, but they made them of mud. Their voices were hardly any better than the beasts' and their bodies fell apart. This so angered the gods that they smashed the mud-men and drowned them in floods, though the mud-men would have fallen soon to dust anyway.

The third creation was men of wood. And though our voices were fine and ringing, and our bodies were sturdy and practical, and though we built homes and fires and had children and sowed seeds and spread across the land singing prayers and making sacrifices as best we could, there was still something wrong with us. There was something wrong with our hearts.

The tourists have gone from the temple complex for the evening and the sun hangs fat and sour as an orange on the horizon. There are locusts in our branches today, grey crinkly bugs that, if you catch them, taste like nuts cast from an unholy tree. They do not try very hard to fly away. The locusts buzz contentedly even as my hand reaches to undo them. As, I suppose, we did, as the gods reached for us.

A dust plume rises from the road leading to the temple ruins, followed by the sawing of engines. Trucks bump and crunch into the lot where the tourist busses park. Men from the village shuffle toward them from the shade of nearby chechen and dogwood trees, slapping at flies on their arms. There are some women among them, too, sturdy and squinting. There is a restlessness in their company that begins to infect us up in the trees.

Truck doors slam behind men in hats and dark glasses. They hand out guns from the beds of the trucks.

"Let's get this done fast," calls one of them, and they walk toward our trees.

Locusts' voices fill the air with leaf-dry throbbing.

The first bang swipes a curtain of leaves in the canopy next to me. My troop scatters, pitching through the air to other trees nearby, bobbing from branch to branch like heavy bells, shrieking as they go. I am among them; I shriek, I bob. Bangs follow us and beside and around me males and females and young and old are falling to the ground below. The screeching is less frequent now because everyone is so busy moving, whipping through branches, through the cover of leaves and up the shelterless expanse of palm trunks. I feel something smack-sting into my thigh and squeal with its impact, but it doesn't change my velocity.

After an eternity the cries and howls and the thrashing of trees and banging of guns thin, slow, still. The skies empty out and silence rushes in to fill the empty space. I hide in the crotch of a copal tree. The wind rises to toss the leaves. I hold one hand to my thigh, which bleeds a little and stings. In the dimming light I can see many grey-brown bodies on the ground.

We are them and they are us. They live and live again, in the memory we all keep, in the mind we all have that sees the visions when the gods move to stir them up. That is one thing you can say for being destroyed by your gods: they will only do it to you once.

The men are picking up the bodies now, tossing them into the bed of the truck. They call to each other as they work. Beneath my tree is the man who shot the female days ago. "Sucks," he says to another man, hardly grown, next to him. "Like Jaime say, we can't let 'em ruin it with the tourists. But still, it sucks."

The young human shrugs. "They biting people, man. Fuck those monkeys." He slings a body into the air by its tail and it lands again, crunching palm fronds. "They been crazy lately."

"Maybe it's rabies," says the man with the gun. "Probably doing them a favor."

The young one shrugs again and picks my dead troopmate up by her tail to carry her to the truck.

How High Your Gods Can Count by Nora Potwora

What the gods found lacking with us was harder to define than with previous creations. Our prayers were small and simple. Our songs were small and simple. We were placid. We had too few passions. There was something wrong with our hearts.

We did not satisfy, and the gods must be satisfied.

After the flood the gods sent monsters. They sent Bloodletter to cut off our heads. They sent Gouger of Faces to put out our eyes. They sent Crushing Jaguar and Tearing Jaguar. We were cut, gouged, crushed, torn. We ran and we hid and we cried out and many died but the gods were still unsatisfied.

We grew desperate.

"We need a great sacrifice," said Xwaay Chichi, our chief prayer-maker, venerated, eldest among us, first of the third creation and knower of things. "Perhaps if we give the gods great blood they will see how we revere them."

We discussed and debated, but the gods had taken almost all our precious things away from us: our homes, our crops and animals, our children and brothers and mothers. Finally we decided that the most precious thing we had was Xwaay Chichi himself, for the gods had carved him with their own hands from the wood of a breadnut tree. We would sacrifice Xwaay Chichi on the altar of the gods.

Xwaay Chichi told us how to do it. He told us the songs to sing as he held his little granddaughter in his arms, the child his only family spared by the flood and the monsters. As he told us what fruit and drink to gather, the girl sobbed into Xwaay Chichi's beard, snot-faced and inconsolable. She would be an orphan soon.

Xwaay Chichi wept silent tears as the child was pulled from his arms, as we painted his body and sang the prayer-songs. But he held his own trembling bare throat to our knife, for he hoped this would bring mercy on us.

But the gods have no mercy.

Xwaay Chichi's throat spurted blood onto the altar, and his heels kicked the stones and his eyes flashed and faded. The child screamed. The gods paid no notice.

We huddled in our hidden camps, afraid.

After the monsters left, our remaining animals turned against us: our last few turkeys and dogs. "You who ate us," they said in new-grown voices, "we will now eat." And they ate who they could catch and those they could not catch were weary with grief.

But the gods had no mercy still.

Those who still lived found their tools, their grinding-stones and cooking pots and blankets and, yes, spoons, rise from where they lay. "You who ground and scorched and beat us," they said in new-grown voices, "we will now grind and scorch and beat." And they did, those of us they could catch. Like Ku'uk Atan. Those of us who were left scattered into the trees, screaming, shrieking, howling our grief and anger.

In the trees, the gods no longer watching, we became something else.

And then the gods made the fourth creation. The gods made man, and seemed satisfied.

We have been forgotten. We have been alone with our punishment for a long, long time.

Flames of pain burn from my wounded thigh to my torso and all the way to the ends of my fingers. I feel it crackle behind my eyes. Heat lies thick over the ground as though pressed to it, smashed in by the oppressively bold blue cup of the heavens. My tree is packed with locusts today, but I have no appetite for them.

Tourists crawl over the temple pyramids in the sun below. Men from the village, the men who carried guns last night, offer them plastic bottles and shapes carved of wood or stone. They are hardly visible, though. The visions writhing over the steps crowd them out.

Jaguars, agouti, crocodiles. Tapirs and scorpions. Snakes, margays, deer. Their specters swarm the ruins, going nowhere, but running, scuttling, leaping, slithering, as fast as their bodies will take them. Each of them hurries in a different direction, and none of them collide. Something is stirring.

None of my kind is among them. There aren't many of us in the trees, either, just a dozen or so left.

My wound throbs. The rustling of locust wings sounds like the rustling of flames. Locust voices rise together and I can feel the soar and wane of it in the pain of my thigh, feel the tense drone vibrating in the branches. Their songs rise all around the temple complex, crescendoing and ebbing together, blooming and dying. Each apex quivers my tree. Each time they seem impossibly loud, these little leaf insects, but the next time they grow even louder.

I must be sick with the pain in my leg, dizzy with it.

But no, it is not only me, because the humans down in the temple stand with their arms akimbo, grabbing at their children, looking to the sky. The vision has cleared. Nothing is in the temple now save tourists and village folks, descendants of the humans who built these stone symbols long ago.

The locust-song rises and even my dimming eyes are pulled to the sky. There is a hum, heavier than the song, like palms clattering in a storm wind but a million times deeper. The air reverberates with it.

A miasma, a darkness hangs over the horizon. It spreads steadily this way on enormous paper wings.

Down in the temple ruins, humans shout and hurry to busses, or run home, or argue, or dig through bags, or steal from tourists distracted by the shaking in the earth and sky. In the trees, though, we are silent. We do not scream, or rage. We are satisfied now to just watch.

Here is the thing that humans supposed or forgot or mistook, that my people, we of the third creation, always knew and will always remember: the gods can count, oh, infinitely higher than four.

How High Your Gods Can Count by Nora Potwora

Tegan Moore
Tegan Moore spends a lot of time thinking about animals, the inherent weirdness of being, the future, and the end of the world so she tends to read and write fiction about those things as well. She lives in Seattle and is a graduate of Clarion West, class of 2015.

Nora Potwora spends most of her time drawing a lot of various things. She jumps from darkness to light, from pensiveness to happiness—and sometimes even childishness. Her art appears on the cover of Kristen Koller's "The Dragon's Storm Trilogy: Swallowed By Madness." She's currently working as a freelance artist, sitting in her burrow somewhere in Poland.
Current Issue
22 Jul 2024

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Translated by: Vivien Urban
Jadwiga is the city. Her body dissolves in the walls, her consciousness seeps into the cracks, her memory merges with the memories of buildings.
Jadwiga a város. Teste felszívódik a falakban, tudata behálózza a repedéseket, emlékezete összekeveredik az épületek emlékezetével.
By: H. Pueyo
Translated by: H. Pueyo
Here lies the queen, giant and still, each of her six arms sprawled, open, curved, twitching like she forgot she no longer breathed.
Aqui jaz a rainha, gigante e imóvel, cada um de seus seis braços caídos e abertos, curvados, tomados de leves espasmos, como se esquecesse de que não estava mais viva.
By: Sourav Roy
Translated by: Carol D'Souza
I said sky/ and with a stainless-steel plate covered/ the rotis going stale 
मैंने कहा आकाश/ और स्टेनलेस स्टील की थाली से ढक दिया/ बासी पड़ रही रोटियों को
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