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In the middle of the woods there is a run-down house of wood and stone and inside of it lives a little God of six. He has an early bedtime, a stuffed bear named Mingus, and a tiny hand mirror decorated with plastic rubies. At night, instead of sleeping, he bargains with his future.

He sits inside the cavern made by his sheets, a tiny flashlight held still between his feet and his mirror cradled in his palms. He stares into it, examining the curved cheeks of his face, the way they ripple when the creature inside of him moves. He looks into his own eyes and says, in his quiet child’s voice, “I want to be Nathan a little longer before I become you.” And the little God named Nathan believes, with every ounce of belief that a six-year-old has, that he has a right to live.

And the thing inside him, the little piece of Not-Nathan that he holds in the space between his breastbone and his left lung, continues to eat him up slowly. It bites through his stomach and down through his bowels before it rides up his veins to his heart and encases it in something like stone.

 


 

In the beginning, God says, let there be light, and the light is a little candle illuminating the face of a seventeen-year-old girl who is going to kill her mother. Collected around her in a wide array of hand-carved birchwood nesting boxes are her mother’s flock of forty nightingales, their mouths unnaturally agape, revealing a rather unnecessary number of teeth. She places the candle at her feet and draws out the needle that she’d hidden in the lining of her sleeve when last she did the mending. With trembling hands, she pricks her fingers until they bleed and then squeezes out ten drops into each of their open maws.

Now, says God through forty beaks, all you must do is wait.

She sleeps fitfully that night and wakes early to find that nearly half the birds are dead. The others have each laid an olive-sized egg. The girl gathers up the eggs, dons a pair of sturdy rubber kitchen gloves, and cooks them up as little as she dares. When she is finished, she dumps the breakfast into a bowl and throws the gloves into the wood stove to burn.

The smell rouses her mother, a stout old sorcerer named Agatha whom Nathan one day might have lovingly called grandmother. Well, he would have if it weren’t for the flesh-eating bacteria that are lovingly introduced into Agatha’s digestive system sunny side up.

It is a kinder way for Agatha to die than most sorcerers experience, perhaps because the girl has somehow managed to love her. Though she comes to love her just a little bit less when Agatha is finally dead, and the girl tears through the house looking for God’s payment and instead finds a will that leaves their house not to her, but to the local ornithological society to use as a bird sanctuary. Agatha had, in fact, loved birds quite a bit more than she had loved her daughter.

When the undertaker comes by to issue the death certificate, he asks the girl her name, and she says in concert with the remaining twenty-three birds, Agatha, because spite makes her want to keep the house. He hands her the paper as quickly as he can, the smell of a half-rotten corpse quite strong in the summer air, and then leaves her with the practicalities of death.

She buries her mother in a clearing half a mile from the house, in the very center of the grass. Then she goes home and strips old Agatha’s bed of all its linens, then of the mattress itself. That’s when she finds it. Hidden in a carved-out section of the headboard is a tin cigar box holding a singular seed. The world around her erupts in triumphant cawing. She lashes out to quiet it, first striking wildly with her hands and then, finally, with a blunt, bloodstained axe from the root cellar.

When she’s done reducing the bed frame, and then the rest of the furniture in the house, to splinters, the girl finds herself standing barefoot in front of a raging bonfire, her throat hoarse from the keening that had been erupting from her chest. When she wipes away the wetness blurring her vision, she sees a scattering of forty burning beaks amidst the smoldering wood, and, for the first time in her life, the new Agatha cannot hear a single chirp.

Now, says the flickering fire in the same voice that had echoed from the birds every single night. The other half of our deal.

The fire that is God crackles out a laugh and the earth cracks open at her feet, gapping just wide enough for her to step forward and plunge down.

She rolls the seed between her forefinger and thumb, surprised at the warmth that emits from it. “How much better would the world be,” she wonders aloud, “if it wasn’t shaped by something like you.”

And then she looks deep into the fire, spits into it, and runs back into the house.

Outside the rain begins to fall in sheets.

The stone bricks in the walls whisper to her, I have existed long before you and will exist long after. The weapons of my warfare are not of the flesh, and you will fall, as did your mother and your mother’s father, and all who came before.

And she smiles and says, like her mother did once before, “I’ll show you a weapon of the flesh.”

 


 

Three years later, a baby is born in the run-down house that is not a bird sanctuary but a home, one much in the same spirit as the old one had been. The girl who is now Agatha bears down and screams through the pain as her child slides all the way out in one push, just off-center from the midpoint of a pentagram drawn from her blood. He has ten fingers and ten toes and looks a little like a squashed potato with limbs. In his core, the writhing mass of magic that beats in tune with his heart, he holds infinite possibilities, as all babies do. And with a flash of the family dagger, his mother slices through the umbilical cord and through all the baby’s futures, and cuts them into a recognizable shape, as all our parents do. And, for the rest of her life, the woman who has become Nathan’s mother will sit up in the middle of the night, fingering the rough-hewn edges of her own lost futures, and think, “Did I do the right thing?”

Once the baby’s future is carved, she calls him Nathaniel, because it is the most popular baby name of the year and it feels wrong, somehow, to leave her end unnamed. She hauls him up to her breast and caresses his cheek while she studies this thing that she has created, spells sinking through the paper-thin skin to hold the seed of the new God inside the newborn’s flesh.

God stands on the edge of the pentagram and watches her. It will never sprout, it laughs. And you will die as disappointed with him as your mother was with you.

Agatha hisses out something resembling a laugh, still lying on the ground staring at her child as she pants her way through pushing out the afterbirth.

“How many,” she gasps, “times do I … have to tell you? I know better … than to rush … these things.”

She’s right. It takes six years for Nathan to bloom.

 


 

It starts with a picnic.

Nathan and his mother spread out a checkered blanket of red and white and unpack the large wicker basket she had bought from town the day before. The two of them spend the afternoon reading picture books aloud and eating a verifiable feast—little finger sandwiches of cream cheese and cucumber, fistfuls of raspberries that stain Nathan’s hands and mouth, squares of fudge Nathan’s mother had stayed up late to bake, all of it washed down with a pitcher of fresh squeezed lemonade. Exactly the kind of afternoon that Nathan had wanted. When he is too full to even pick at the crumbs, his mother reaches into the basket and pulls out a large sunflower, pressing it into Nathan’s sticky hands.

“Now,” she says, hands trembling a little, though she tries to hide it by clasping them together in her lap. “I would like you to make this something else.”

It was the kind of simple transmutation that was often used to determine the type of aptitude a child had for magic. For most, the flower remained a flower. Some would ask the flower very nicely to be different and open their palms to a fistful of blossoms or a sapling squeezing its way up through the dirt at their feet. Some would whisper cajolingly to the world, “Wouldn’t it be better to have made something I could play with?” and find themselves holding a little frog or a baby chipmunk or, in one rare case that made the news, the top half of an alpaca.

When Nathan’s mother was a child, she brought the flower to her lips and whispered, “You want to be better, don’t you? Make yourself worthy of me.” And she opened her hands to reveal glass, delicate petal spires that embedded themselves under her skin in the same way that she had embedded her own will into the flower’s membranes and cut its breath of life away.

The test was usually done with children exactly double Nathan’s age. But Nathan was born to have more than just aptitude, more than just power, and his mother has grown tired of waiting.

Nathan cradles the flower in his hands and brings it to his lips. He closes his eyes.

“I want you to be different,” he whispers, “I want you to be even more wonderful.”

What’s the magic word? The flower mocks him in a voice so great and terrible that Nathan’s ears ache, while the lump that has always filled up part of his chest vibrates in recognition.

Nathan frowns, biting his lip in concentration. “Please?” he asks, confusion sticking to his words.

The ground beneath them surges again while the something contained inside him gives a mighty crack and he thinks, for a baffled moment, that he’s about to die.

“Not like that, Nathan,” his mother snaps, grabbing for the flower, but Nathan can’t hear her over the rush of blood in his ears, or the something more than blood that flows forth from the broken shell. The lining on his esophagus melts a little and the thing inside him that he hasn’t yet named, the Not-Nathan part, rushes through a little hole and finds itself plunging back down into Nathan’s gut. Nathan would scream, but the magic inside him is already healing the hurt, and, by the time his lips open, the pain is gone.

“Oh, please,” Nathan says, hand rushing up to touch his throat. It isn’t a question anymore, the way he says it. It’s something else now, something mocking, and he doesn’t know who or what it’s directed at. Not yet.

His mother gives a little gasp. Nathan opens his eyes to the clearing and sees hundreds of wildflowers in shades of pink, lilac, and the palest yellow, sprouting up from a sea of blue glass, the color of the sky.

Nathan looks around him and inside the surface of the glass moves a black shadow that stares into and through him.

Oh shit, says the terrible voice of God, who has now become the first of its kind rather than the only.

 


 

Nathan spends the rest of his childhood bleeding from his hands, leaving little rust fingerprints up and down the walls of the house in a child’s version of revenge. The Not-Nathan boils under his skin and his cheeks bubble with its rage. His mother does not flinch at the inhuman movements or the burns that litter her hands from grabbing Nathan’s arms and yanking him towards the sink, where she uses the family dagger to carefully slice each of his fingers. His blood splatters onto the metal of the kitchen sink, flickering with sparks.

“Stop the flow,” she says, jolting a little from the shocks gifted by each stray droplet that scatters along her skin.

Nathan bites her, and she drops the knife to pry his jaw loose from her arm.

“Stop it, or I cut again.”

The first God slips a finger down Nathan’s cheek and wipes the tears away.

I can stop her, it whispers. We can make a deal.

“Leave me alone,” Nathan pleads. His knuckles ache, and the Not-Nathan buries its teeth in his uvula as it hoists itself up towards freedom. His mother gently slips a hand over his mouth.

“Learn to use it, before someone uses you,” she says, voice aching not nearly as much as Nathan does. An hour later she bandages him up and feeds him dessert for dinner in an apology. The next week it begins again and then again and again.

Over the years he learns. His mother reaches for him, and Nathan hides under the bed and gets dragged out by his feet. His mother reaches for him, and Nathan throws her against the wall with God-bred strength. His mother reaches for him and Nathan, Nathan reaches out with a scarred palm and commands the world to stop her.

The walls heave around them, the air shimmers, and the blade of the dagger melts into his mother’s hand. She tells him how proud she is through tears as the emergency room nurses pry the metal from her bones and regrow the flesh around them. When they’re done, her middle and pointer fingers refuse to bend, traces of steel permanently laced into the tendons.

The next morning, Nathan creeps into the kitchen, where his mother waits at the table, a new knife in front of her.

“I don’t want you to hurt me,” he says, small and shaking.

His mother smiles, a brittle, fragile thing.

“Do what I say, and I won’t have to.”

The first God echoes from the air around him. Do what I say, and I’ll make sure she never touches you again.

“I don’t need you,” says Nathan to them both. He stands at the kitchen door and wills his mother away. It is, perhaps, the kindest way for a sorcerer like his mother to die. But, well, Nathan had managed to love her a great deal despite everything.

When there’s nothing left behind her eyes, he finds that he doesn’t feel any better.

The Not-Nathan in his chest curls around his ribcage in a movement meant to be more comforting than excruciating.

Make her better, it hums.

Nathan clenches his hands and feels the scar tissue pull.

“All right,” he says. “We’ll do it your way this time.”

He reaches out and the Not-Nathan reaches with him, and a different light erupts behind his mother’s eyes. She smiles like a woman from a magazine.

“Hello, sweetie,” she says, light and airy like he’s never heard her before. “What would you like to do today?”

“Oh,” Nathan says. “That wasn’t so bad.”

I don’t like it, the first God says. Let us go out to the field again. I have a rock for you.

It reaches out a hand, fists it in the folds of time, and twists.

 


 

Nathan is six and sitting on a meadow of glass. He investigates his reflection and sees the Not-Nathan staring back at him through his mouth.

God curses and twists again.

Nathan is five and drying dishes to the sound of his mother singing the Flower Duet. His bones vibrate in perfect harmony as the Not-Nathan hums along.

A twist.

Nathan is four, then three, then two, then born again in a rush of fluid.

Down comes the dagger and Nathan and Not-Nathan are both cut into boy shape, their sliced futures falling to the floor in tatters.

God crouches at the edge of the pentagram and looks at the wailing infant cradled in Agatha’s arms. The baby’s skin ripples and a bit of wing pops out its ear, while the Not-Nathan gets comfortable near Nathan’s spleen.

Another twist and the dagger falls down again, and again, and twenty-eight more times after that until God collapses into something like a physical form, body shrunken to the size of a nightingale, its feathers heaving with the effort.

Do you know what you’ve done? it demands in Agatha’s general direction, as its beak scrapes along the floor.

She laughs out a sob.

“I’m not going to die alone,” she says. And she’s right.

The first God twists one last time, and the folded fabric of their reality unspools forwards again.

 


 

In the beginning, Nathan says, “I’d like to be Nathan for a little longer.” The creature in him shrugs something that could be its shoulders. Might as well, it echoes in his bones. Might as well learn to be Nathan.

In the end, Nathan says, “I’m tired of this,” and the not-Nathan says, well then, time to be me for a little while. Nathan nods and places his hand over his chest.

“Goodbye then, Eschaton,” he whispers, and the newly named piece of him presses back.

Not goodbye, it promises. Together.

Nathan closes his eyes, and the new God rips out of him, the encasement that was Nathan sliding down its scales and puddling at its feet in a rush of slime and mucus. Eschaton steps out of the mess and ruffles its membranous wings in the breeze. It looks exactly the way you imagine it to look.

It stoops down and collects the pieces of Nathan and tucks them away inside its thorax for safekeeping, enjoying the warmth of Nathan’s soul. Then it begins to eat, first the animals, then the people, then the earth, until it is the strongest thing left. Finally, at existence’s edge, it faces the first God again.

Eschaton opens its maw, leans forward, and crunches down, enjoying the feathered taste of eternity until it is alone with the Nathan inside itself. Now, they say together, looking at the blank canvass of the void, let us plant a seed.


Editor: Aigner Loren Wilson

First Reader: Ruan Etsebeth

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department

Accessibility: Accessibility Editors



Ezra Pilar Rodriguez is a fiction writer, playwright, and editor based in Baltimore, Maryland. Their full-length play We All Fall Down was featured in the D.C. Queer Theater Festival in 2020.
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