On the morning that it happens, I am laying bread to cook in the sun that slices over the eastern ridge into the valley. Flat loaves will bake all day on the stone, and they will be warm and perfect for the evening meal and labour’s end. The sweet brown scent of the emmer and the rye clings to my fingers and fills my nose with the promise of fullness and pleasure to come.
Below, in the fields about the river on the valley floor, I can see my Ata leading the harvest, holding one corner of the catch blanket while two beaters reach with long switches to strike the stalks and knock the kernels loose. Ata’s skin is darker than polished cedar against the pale straw, and I see the solidness of her, the way she guides her fellows’ work with subtle shifts of stance and gestures of her head, too small to shake her heavy braids.
Behind the harvesters comes an elder; I am not sure which grey-headed woman is beneath the mask, wearing Wake-the-Seed and singing to the grain missed by the catchers so each one will quicken for the second crop. Tomorrow we will all be in the field again, cutting the straw and baling it, trampling seeds down into the river-wet earth that still remembers the last flood.
I am starting down the slope myself when Rak comes running over the eastern ridge, the shepherd sheepless, wild, dog dancing nervous at his heels. He shouts for me, calling “Nim, Nim!” from under waving arms as we draw close, then stumbles to a stop before me among the houses farthest north. He is flushed by something more than running. Panic fills his face and me with fear. Rak is a quiet one and steady, good at watching hours and not doing anything that will upset the sheep. Must be bad to shake him so—a lion among the flock, maybe?
“Rak, what’s wrong? Has something gotten at the flock?”
He gasps three ragged breaths that rattle river-stones in his throat before he answers. “Highlanders. Dry hill hunters. Five. All—” He covers his face with a splayed hand and pulls it slowly down. The highlanders are masked, all filled with spirit like a tight-stretched water-skin. “Wild. Howling like beasts. Killed sheep and let them lie. No words. I ran.”
The highland hunters keep spirit masks the same as we do, hunting gods bound to horn and skin, much more dangerous than our seed-singers and water-callers. If they come here…
I catch Rak as he slumps over his knees and pull him close, face against face. “Did they follow you?”
He swallows, licks dry lips with a dry tongue. “I don’t—I didn’t.”
I let him drop. He didn’t look behind while fear was chasing, but there’s no reason hunters couldn’t follow him, why they couldn’t be just a few steps from cresting the ridge now, unless they stayed to kill more of the panicked sheep.
Why would the highlanders do this, kill wantonly and drive our flocks wild? We have been friends and traded seasons past remembering, swapped sunbaked clay for skins and horns, and they have never come to our green valley to take heads and add to the skulls that hang on their great pillared monuments.
No time to answer now. A lion in the fold does not answer where it found the scent, but it must still be fled or killed.
What can I do? There may be time to warn them below, but surely not enough to climb the valley-side and find safety before the hunters come. We have no warriors to rouse. I am no fighter, and no other in the village is more of one. But Ata is below, and she won’t run if she might keep another safe, and I won’t let them take her, no matter why it is. So I must do something.
Our masks are near, kept in the smallest cave in the rockface behind the houses, but what use are our gods? Call-the-Rain is joyful, but it is not her season, and rain will not dismay the hunters. Stone-Splitter is strong, but he is slow and careful, not a fighter. Cool-Fever might keep a wounded one alive, but not turn back the blow.
That is all that we have, along with Wake-the-Seed below. The village is not rich, and carving stone to catch a god is long, weary work with doubtful promise.
I hear a long hoot-howl from over the ridge. They come, and their voices are as much like wolves as people.
There is only one choice, time and danger pressing: to wear the mask we did not make, the one that we do not put on because the spirit in it is not made for work or weal or any purpose fit to will.
My voice is sharper than a flint, strange on my tongue as I order Rak. “Get everyone who’s not down in the fields into the holy cave and block the entrance.”
“What about you? Help gather them?”
“I am going to put on Never-Full and stop the hunters.”
He stumbles back, already making the sign against evil as if my intention has transfigured me. Maybe someone more full of words would spend them trying to convince me not to do it, but maybe my resolve is written on my face.
I run for the mask cave, badly, beating dusty soil out of rhythm. I am not even one of our good hunters; rather a stone-carver and wall-painter in the holy places, a cook and a bread-maker. I love care and steadiness and art more than strength and speed. But there is no time to find a better champion or a wiser course.
I wrench the wooden cover from the cave-mouth and throw it to the ground, resentful of the low ceiling that slows me to stooping as I pass the friendly masks: one empty alcove for Wake-the-Seed, no gentle song of a green heartbeat there; Call-the-Rain’s wide laughing smile breathes invitation in petrichor and raindrop rhythm; Stone-Splitter’s focused face that angles back from the blade of nose and chin promises the calm and care to work for hours shaping rock, and well I know the joy of wearing him; Cool-Fever’s smooth white alabaster washes me with soothing chill and begs to slow my terror-tapping heart.
I pass them all, into the dark end of the shallow cave, to the place of the mask not made in the village, the one made not to use but trap something inside. All that it offers me is the shaking limb-limpness of hunger beyond bearing.
Even in the dark of my own shadow blocking the dim trickle of sun, I can see it: wide eyes set in deep protruding ridges, a crooked smile, five sharp teeth above and five flat ones below, limp leather thongs to hold it to my head. It is too present, too distinct, like something drawn in ash and chalk over the duller surface of the ordinary world.
The man who brought it from the south said that a burning stone fell from the sky and split the earth and made a dead salt water that devoured everything, devoured land and crops, trees and animals and the spirits of the people. The elders of that place made the mask to catch the spirit, and sent it far away so it would never find its salt body again and grow to cover the whole world. The poor one who brought it to us had been walking north for a whole long season, and only let it rest with us because we had never lost an elder, so that the god still looked out from their eyes when they took off its mask.
Only Elder Tabul ever wore it in the village, and he was lined and haggard as with years of pain after a few moments, held down by four strong attendants while he wailed and fought. He made all swear not to wear it, and would not speak of how it was to feel that spirit in him from then until he died. He only said that our gods never swallowed those who wore them because they were weak, too weak to make us worthy of that southern stranger’s trust.
I suppose it is too late to worry now.
I pull on Never-Full. The mask is light for stone, carved thin with care and skill. I settle him and feel my lips twist in a crooked smile. He fills me. We are two; I feel him stretch me tight like a too-full skin held under the rushing water. I have worn spirits before, Stone-Splitter most often, and there is knowing that comes, the things gods feel that we cannot and their joy at having limbs to work their purpose. This spirit was made for larger than my poor flesh and bone. This joining teaches only the taste of ash and sand and hot blood sweeter than honey and cooler than beer on my tongue, and I turn back toward the sun as one.
Hunger is the empty hole at the heart of me, heart and gut both void. It hurts, this eating emptiness and knowing only want, only a need to fill the hole. This god was caught to stop an evil, not to do good work. Wind wails between my rocky teeth like a bird, like a flute, like weeping. It does not begin to fill me.
I run. I am fast now, numb. I do not feel my feet beating the dusty ground. I do not care about the earth. I cannot eat it with this mouth, this stretchless stillness skin-bound meat. I have been more than this, but now my teeth cannot grind soil into sand to fill my emptiness.
Howls sing louder than my wind, and I see the strangers who have come over the ridge, five of them, two eager leading three behind. Already they are bounding down the slope to where most of the village works and halts and turns to point and shout and wonder what the sound was and who is coming down for them.
I run to cut them off, to eat them before they come to the ones I will not see dead, those I cared for when I could care for more than hunger. I pass the baking stones, and the bread crumbles to white ash as I eat all that was good in it. I am not fuller than I was.
Just past the stones, old Igi is sleeping in the shade of a pistachio tree. Sweet scent of her life, heart beating louder than the weeping wind. I taste it on my tongue, only barely keep from swallowing. The I that was before holds back the I that is stone and flesh and joining spirits. There is too much two still in me, stone that wants and flesh refusing. I should be one in wishing and in doing, the stone that keeps the fierce spirit and the flesh that lets it free.
I drink the tree above the old woman, and it cracks and twists like her bones would, until it hunches white and brittle as her hair. I promise myself richer lives; the hunters will be thick as tallow in my mouth and fill and warm this aching empty. It only works because they howl so loud again and make me see them. The whole valley can hear, and I can see the panic spread below. I am one to eat them, one without reason to divide.
I let my wind scream louder and run for them, drawing a line of death that burns the grasses brown and twists the dying trees to cracked white petrification. Pistachios and fig-husks fall and drift light as ash and sorrow on the wind of my passing. The taste of long life, many-ringed, while present bounty sharp and resinous balms my wind-chapped lips, but hunger howls past all and I am empty.
They see me now, and one, hawk-faced, shrieks back like knives raking the sky. That screaming hunter slows his run to throw a spear, farther and more true than any person could who is not filled with a god caught for such purpose. Pivoting perfect on his planted heel, he sends it swifting for my heart. I swallow sharp flint and feather collar and smooth-burnished shaft, and taste that deadly eye and aim and will to strike. I am not fuller than I was.
They turn their course toward me, three behind two, and follow spear with slingstones that clack and rattle in my throat. I see them clearly now, in front the hawk and a red fox, both long-limbed rangy like young men. Behind them by a double-dozen paces come boar, lion, and bull, all heavier, well muscled with experience. Their slingstones taste of fear, but the hawk and fox rush me still, their flint knives out bloody before them.
The hawk is swiftest, driving straight for my heart with a speed that smooths his golden feathers to the leather under them. His eyes are yellow as a bird’s through the holes in the god-carrier. I catch his wrists with numb hands and unnatural strength and press close enough to kiss, bending his arm to hold the blade between us like a secret treasure, my stone teeth grating on his beak, fear softening those yellow eyes as we mould lover-close together.
I drink the hawk’s keen vision and swift fury down, and inside it like nutmeat in the shell is a confusion core, a sharp elation, like the moment of sliding into Ata as she cries for me, next to revulsion worse than recoiling from rotten flesh left by a wake of vultures. All of this seasons boiling life rich as broth, blood-salty.
I drop the mask and skin and bones that still remain of he who wore it, and turn to try and fill this howling hunger with the fox. I am not fuller yet.
The fox is tricksome, quick and limber. He cuts my arm, but the pain isn’t real. I eat it with the rest and try to get my hands on him. He shifts, form fluid, never where he seems, slipping from my grip like water. I lunge with childish laughing in the play; he slips behind me with a long-legged twisting step.
I would be dead if I were only Nim, but I bend backwards heedless of my spine’s complaint and catch him to keep myself from falling. My hand behind his head just like a lover, I pull him to my lips and kiss him into me. Again the taste: horror and arousing ecstasy together, and so I understand.
I feel the same, the meat of me. There is no joy like eating with this hunger, no pain sharp as the need to fill, but still a little of me still retches at the bloody taste of life and clenches lips closed against some food I could be filled by.
These were the young ones, new to being spirit-filled, and they had lost themselves, taken by the current of the god instead of steering it, as lost to hunting as I am to hunger. Their elders must have hoped to keep them safe by following, to get the youths back sound and whole when god-sickness ran its course.
Bad luck for us they stumbled on the pasture and Rak’s flock. Worse luck for them that Never-Full was here. They could not have known what hunger would be waiting to swallow them. Why would we speak of such a curse to those who might have thought it could be used, those who are used to weapons?
They watch me now from just back up the slope, boar tusks bright in triple row; the lion’s mane enriched with wool among the long-worn fur, all dyed with richest ochre; bull’s sweeping horns bright at the tips with beaten gold. Hunger drags me from the gut, but I dig heels and grind across the dust to give them time to see the end of this and run. They might be faster than my need to fill, or wear my weak limbs out with hunters’ long-trained running. It is their only chance. I am so hungry. I have eaten bread and trees and blood, and I am not fuller than I was.
The great bull turns his head back to the ridge, gold glittering in the white sun, but the boar bellows fury for his dead whelps and comes, his comrades on his heels. I let the hunger loose and kick out of my drag-foot divots to meet them.
The boar dips head to charge and hunger sees its mirror, the want to gore and tear and drink the blood, but nutmeat Nim-me wonders if it is acknowledgement, the head bowed before the final blow, a yielding in form where honour demands the fight without a hope of victory.
The boar hits furious with a force to break bones, but face to face I drink him down without a backward step. Bristles tickle lips amid the taste of charging anger and scent of years nosing for trails among the bare hills. Lion and bull are strong and swift and rich with hunting years, skilled with thrown spear and flashing knife and stone-weight club, but striking me is only fighting with the wind. They cannot pierce the empty skin around the hunger; it drinks everything in through the neck and still the bag within the gut within the skin behind the stone is empty. They come with weapons out and make their show with bellowing and blows that should break me, strikes precise to crack my skull or cut my tendons so I fall forever, but I eat all their fury and their blows, and when they bow their heads into a last embrace, I empty them to bone and leather and white ash and suck in their strong life that savours of such deep regret, sharp as the seeds of coriander in the broth. And I am still not fuller.
Hunger wails wind through my teeth and I weep my tears of pain. I was not meant to need like this. When I was among the netted stars, I sucked their hearts that burn more fierce than fire, and when I fell, I lapped the stone to sand to nothingness to fill my salted guts. I have to have more, more life, more food, more filling me to take this pain away.
There are grain and meat and rich black earth down on the valley floor, and spirit spiced with fear for me to eat there. No hunters left to keep me a two, no eating I can do that is for other purpose. I wanted to save, to eat the danger, but Never-Full is empty, my hunger wide enough to swallow the whole heavens, one face, one will, one knowing pain that must be filled with something. I knew the need and the speed of losing everything to spirit flood when I ate the first hunters, tasted my own trouble in my sips of them and I am in it now, flood-borne, pain-hollow. I am one, flesh and stone filled with fierce spirit, and I know my why of needing. I will my filling and feel my hunger and there is no more.
I will have them all, and my sweet Ata first because she is so brave and will try to defend the other food.
I hungering leap down the hillside to my panicked food—into a slam of heavy weight pushing me down, great pillar on my chest. Eat, eat I should eat it, why don’t I eat it? I strain stone eyes to see it white and cracked. I am pinned under the dead trunk of an eaten tree, no savour to taste through these meat-teeth, and it is hard to break what I already emptied, not like when I was water. Beside me brown thighs I know, dark eyes looking down through Stone-Splitter for strength. Ata is over me.
She reaches almost close enough into the weeping wind; I suck to drink the life of her, and she
tears off the mask with snapping thongs, and
I am Nim alone again.
It hurts to breathe as she lifts the dead trunk off my chest, and I am so glad for the pain that is real and uneaten, and that she stopped me before I lost myself as I did eating those poor ones with Never-Full on me. I can still taste them on my wind-chapped lips and remember what it was like to feel lifeblood slide sweetly down my throat. Thank the great gods and the small that I am not full with what I ate, that it is gone with the emptiness of Never-Full.
Ata peers at me with all of Stone-Splitter’s focus, searching my face for what?
For him, for the god-sickness that takes bolder men in villages where they trap what is dangerous within the stone. She wonders if I was eaten with the rest and am still empty hunger waiting for a chance.
It hurts to speak after the blow, but I have to tell her, have to make her know I am still here myself and not the hunger.
“Thank you for stopping me. I would have…I would have done everything, but I’m all right now. I’m not Never-Full.”
She looks a long time more before she lifts me up, and I can feel the caution in the tightness of her chest. As the darkness comes to bruise me into sleep, I am so grateful for my love, who was willing to hurt me this much before I did what I should not, and for the watch I know she’ll keep in case my thanks are lies and I still have the teeth to eat the world. I hope she watches long enough I can remember how to be full again.
Story copyright © 2022 by R.K. Duncan
Artwork copyright © 2022 by Carrion House
R.K. Duncan is a queer polyamorous wizard and author of fantasy, horror, and occasional sci-fi. He writes from a few rooms of a venerable West Philadelphia row home, where he dreams of travel and the demise of capitalism. In the shocking absence of any cats, he lavishes spare attention on cast-iron cookware and his long-suffering and supportive partner. Before settling on writing, he studied linguistics and philosophy at Haverford College. He attended Viable Paradise 23 in 2019.
Carrion House a.k.a. Luke Spooner currently lives and works in the south of England. Having graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first-class degree, he is now a full-time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence.