Masks of the Mud God

Issue #213

Miriam fashioned the inner lining of her mask from a single piece of cured and softened pigskin. Pressing the soaked leather over a plaster gauze mold of her face, she cut it to shape with a pair of shears, and with a naked razor carved holes for the mouth, nose, and eyes.

She baked it only long enough to fix its shape without sacrificing flexibility, then conditioned the inside with neatsfoot oil, so it would remain kind to her skin, and supple. She mixed her own plaster with clay, sand, and water, which she smeared over the mask’s exterior. She sculpted cheekbones, nose, and chin not from memory but from imagination and desire. With a sliver of wood and meticulous care, she pressed detailed texture into the lips and drew the finest lines around the mouth to suggest kind and frequent smiles. When the plaster dried, she brushed it with the softest hues of pink and red paint. It was a pure face, a face with only a few innocent secrets, if any at all. It was the face of a woman with freedom, contentment, and children who brought her joy—all the things Miriam lacked.

Holding the mask in place with one hand, Miriam presented herself to the full-length mirror in her private suite of rooms on the third floor of her father’s manor. Turning slightly to reveal the full weight of her pregnancy, she cradled her swollen belly. There in the mirror was the woman she wished to be. As if in reaction to the image, or to Miriam’s pride, the life in her belly kicked and turned. Behind the mask, Miriam smiled.

She almost looked human.

Miriam’s sisters mocked her when she appeared masked in her father’s opulent dining room. Brazen Sarai, Miram’s mother and half-sister—and the worst of them—groaned. Abigail revealed a toothsome smile, pleased to be provided an object of easy ridicule in the comfort of their own home. Only meek Ruth, after one look at Miriam, lowered her own eyes, as if to make herself invisible by shutting the rest of them out.

“Don’t you look divine,” Sarai chortled.

Ignoring their leers, Miriam remained standing—head bowed—behind her chair, both hands on its high, straight back. Her father was already seated at the end of the long table, and it would not do to be seated before his invitation. Elbows resting on the table, thick fingers laced as though in prayer, Miriam’s father considered her with dark, hooded eyes. Momentarily, he uttered a soft grunt, silencing the cackling of his daughter-wives.

“And who is this,” he said to Miriam, “who comes disguised to my table?”

Miriam spoke softly. “It is Miriam, Father.”

“Ah,” he said, brows lifting in bored revelation. “My own child Miriam. Please, Miriam, do sit.”

Murmuring her gratitude with downcast eyes, Miriam slipped into her chair. She’d thought the mask would protect her from her family’s ridicule, a barrier between them and her. But now, under the quiet smirks of the sisters and the disapproving scrutiny of her father, she felt crushed, and fixed her eyes on her plate. The first dish of the evening had yet to be served, and all the dainty vine- and rose-painted dishes remained empty.

“Have you nothing to say?” her father asked. And when she didn’t answer, “Miriam?”

“No, Father.”

“Who encouraged this... charade?”

“No one.”

“Your friends? Your tutors?”

“No, Father.”

Further questioning was interrupted when the door to the kitchen opened and the servants filed in with platters of fruit and thinly sliced meat, thick wedges of melon, and loaves of bread still warm from the oven. The family remained silent while the servants poured pale red wine into crystal glasses. When the course had been laid, the servants—all of them human—quit the room without a word spoken. Unless essential to their duties, their tongues had been removed.

“What compelled you to... this?” her father asked.

Miriam risked a glance at him—but quickly averted her eyes. His previous disappointment had given way to open disgust. But this was the question to which Miriam knew the answer, the why of it. This was the question she had prepared for. Even so, she had to force her mouth open, force her leaden tongue to unstick.

“We should be different,” she said.

From the corner of her eye, she saw the shape of her father lean forward. “What?” he said.

Miriam realized she’d barely spoken above a whisper. Determined to persevere, she looked up, but not at her father, nor at any of the sisters, which would have felt too much like begging their protection. And she knew better than to expect that. She looked past Sarai, who sat directly across from her, and set her eyes on the dark wood paneling of the dining room.

“We should be different,” she repeated in a voice she hoped was a little stronger now.

“Different from who?” her father asked, a dangerous edge to his voice.

“From all of this,” Miriam said. Her hand moved in her lap but dared not rise to perform the sweeping gesture that would include her father and the sisters. “From the way we are.”

“‘From all of this,'” her father repeated. “And what is ‘all of this—'” he brandished his own arm to encompass the entirety of the room, the house, the sisters, “—to warrant your displeasure? What are we, that you despise us? That you wish to set yourself apart?”

Sweat crept beneath the lace of Miriam’s high, tight collar. Her skin itched behind the mask. She gathered herself for her response, perhaps even to look him in the eye, when his hand struck the table, rattling the candlesticks and bouncing the laden platters. His own fragile wineglass toppled, a red stain bleeding across the pristine tablecloth. One of the sisters—Miriam didn’t know which—gave a startled yelp.

The door to the kitchen opened tentatively, but Miriam’s father snarled at the emerging servant. “Out! Leave it.” He righted his wineglass himself, tossing a napkin over the spill. “Now,” he said, his wrath clenched behind sharp teeth. “Miriam. Speak.”

“We should be more like them,” Miriam said quickly.

“More like them,” her father echoed. “Humans?”

“Like humans. Yes.”

“You mean weak,” he said. “Subjugated. Or do you mean on the verge of extinction? How should we, who have conquered, be more—”

“They don’t eat their children,” Miriam said. She hadn’t meant to say it with such vehemence, but the clarity of her statement silenced her father. At last Miriam raised her eyes. Only Ruth, also pregnant, did not visibly loathe her. But there was no help to be found in Ruth. Barely more than a child herself, Ruth kept her eyes averted as though ashamed.

Before her father could react, Miriam continued. “They don’t eat their old ones, or their sick. They care for their wounded. They write books, and they make things. What books have you written? What have you made?”

Miriam’s father was both nodding and shaking his head at once. How tedious were his foolish daughter’s arguments, and how ready he was to dismiss everything she said before she had finished speaking. So near to being disregarded, Miriam blurted her final judgement hastily, before he could silence her.

She said, “They’re better than us.”

Miriam’s father leveled a dark-nailed finger at her. His voice tightened with the effort of control. “Let me tell you, Miriam,” he said. “Civilization depends on what we are. The order of our lives—our prosperity—demands we be as we are. Here we have our place, carved by these hands—” he showed them to her, twisted like claws.

“We stole their language,” Miriam said. “We stole their names. We live in homes they—”

“The things I’ve done—that I’ve endured—so that we may prosper—so that we may eat—are more than you know. But you. You sit at my table, eat my food—” He scooped a sopping handful of chopped fruit and cast it negligently at her. Miriam flinched when the bits struck her mask and the front of her dress, but she dared not move to brush them away.

“There you sit in your fine dress, bought and paid for by my strength.” He pushed himself to his feet and leaned forward, palms flat on the table. “If I were a weaker man you would have nothing. You would be nothing. It is by my strength that you exist. And you dare tell me I should be something other than what I am?”

Miriam bent her head, too terrified to move.

“Take it off,” her father said.

Miriam’s impulse was to obey at once, to rip the mask away and cast it into the fire, anywhere to get it far away from her. She would beg for mercy. The sisters would jeer and mock. She would be humbled, but she would be forgiven. Instead, she tightened her hands in her lap, and said, “No.”

Miriam half-rose from her chair as her father came around the table, sure that he would kill her—that he would break her neck with his own hands—that he would open her throat with his teeth and her belly with his nails, ripping his own child from her womb. Such things were not beyond him. But he seized the back of her neck in a rock-hard grasp and shoved her back down. Digging a handful of meat from the full platter, he dropped it on her plate, and with his fingers around her neck, forced her mask into it, though she turned to gasp for air.

“Eat,” he snarled in her ear. “Live. But never forget whose hand it is that feeds you, or what it is you eat.”

Alone in her suite, Miriam sat at the edge of her bed, facing the window. She suspected her father would soon regret the mercy he had afforded her, and would come to kill her. The child in her womb was not irreplaceable, and he had other daughters—less willful daughters—to increase his brood. The view from her high window was of the tiled rooftops of the city. Though unable to see the wide, polluted flow of the river dividing the northern boroughs from the southern, she could see the high towers of the nearest bridge, called Solitude. The lights of the towers along the wide span had been lit, though it was not yet full dark, and it was these she studied.

If her father did not come himself, he would send the sisters. If not now, then later, while she slept. She dared not lock her door—locked doors only enraged her father, and it would do nothing to stop them in the end. They would strangle her, devour her and the child, then never speak of her again. It would be as though she never existed.

Believing these things, the timid knock at the door startled her. “Come,” she said, without rising.

Keila, her very own petite, white-skinned human maidservant, entered bearing a small platter of cold meat and vegetables. Miriam sighed and turned back to the lights of Solitude. She would no more touch her father’s food. “I’m not hungry,” she lied.

“You must eat, Mistress,” Keila said. Closing the door behind her, the diminutive handmaid set out the plate on Miriam’s escritoire. After neatly arranging silverware and napkin, she poured a tumbler of fresh water from a porcelain pitcher. She surveyed the arrangement, and finding it acceptable, pulled out the fragile chair in invitation.

“Mistress,” she said, when Miriam still did not come.

“The fifth of the great bridges spanning the Bittern is called Solitude,” Miriam recited from memory. “Joining Lowechapel borough on the south bank, to Mudside—a predominantly human slum—on the north, it was built in the year 582 with carved granite blocks shipped in by barge from the quarries to the west, and with marble.” She turned her head to look at Keila, as though expecting to be challenged.

Keila only nodded.

“Although all the great bridges are marvels,” Miriam continued. “It is Solitude which gives my people most pride. Because it is the longest, and the most beautiful.”

“All true, Mistress.”

“Truths disguising the worst of lies. Who built Solitude, Keila?”

“I do not remember the name of—”

“Who built any of the bridges? All of them. Who built this manor my father takes such pride in?”

“Mistress, I don’t—”

“Human or Raah?”

“Raah, of course.”

Miriam speared her with a glance. “Of course,” she said bitterly. It was no wonder the girl had been permitted to keep her tongue.

“You must eat, Mistress,” Keila said. “Think of the child.”

Miriam scoffed. “The child! As though my people need another monster.”

The maid’s face softened, and she left her place by the vacant chair to sit beside Miriam on the bed, very close. She took Miriam’s hand in her own and squeezed kindly. “You are not responsible for the actions of your people. And you are not to blame for what you are. Does the wolf pity the lamb?”

“No,” Miriam answered. She rubbed her thumb along the back of the girl’s hand, feeling the unblemished texture of it. “The wolf has no pity.”

The girl leaned closer, her voice dropping. “Does the snake—”

“Stop,” Miriam said. She squeezed the girl’s hand hard, and took satisfaction at causing her to catch her breath. “I won’t have you preach to me. How can you do... this—” she looked around the room “—while your people suffer?”

“You’re hurting me,” Keila breathed.

Miriam released her instantly, and Keila withdrew her hand. “I know my duty, Mistress,” she said, somewhat cowed. “I know what I am, and I know that nothing stays the same... not forever.” She put her palm to Miriam’s cheek and brought her face back around. She lifted both hands to the mask, her small fingers prying beneath the edges where they snugged against Miriam’s temples.

“Don’t,” Miriam said, pulling away.

But Keila persisted, and Miriam allowed her to pull the mask away. The skin of her face tingled at the touch of air, and she breathed deeply, watching as her maid laid the mask aside.

“There,” Keila said with quiet satisfaction. She smiled as she brushed her fingers over Miriam’s bare cheek. “Be what you are.” The girl’s fingers moved caress the iridescent scales along the line of Miriam’s jaw. “For a little while longer... be what you are.”

Miriam took her maid’s hand and held it still. “I’ll not have his child,” she said.

“You don’t have to.” It was barely a whisper.

“You’ll help me? You said that you would, that you knew how.”

Keila closed her eyes. “I do.”

“Keila,” Miriam pressed. “You’ll help?”

“I will.”

Keila fulfilled her promise the very next night.

Miriam lowered herself into the straight-backed chair by the windows to watch her maidservant turn down the bed. The interminable weight of her pregnancy exhausted her. The creature folded inside her womb pressed and shifted, testing the bounds of its confinement. It seemed discontented to her, frustrated with its own slow growth and the insufficiency of its ever-tightening space. It would come soon, her father’s physician had said, a matter of weeks.

Bed prepared, Keila moved to the escritoire, where she produced from her apron pocket a diminutive amber bottle, stoppered with a wax cork. This she set beside the glass, which she filled from the pitcher. Miriam stopped watching, concentrated instead on her swollen stomach, where the unborn child rolled and flexed as it moved from one dream to the identical next.

Keila crossed the room to Miriam’s chair and stood before her, glass in hand. Miriam accepted it but did not yet drink, regarding it instead as though she could not remember what was to be done with it.

“I brought our book, Mistress,” Keila said. Withdrawing a tidy but well-worn volume from the pocket of her apron, she sat on the bed, book in her lap. “Shall I read for you?”

Miriam demanded the book with an outstretched hand, a human book—the only kind she’d ever seen. She let it fall open on her lap, its broken spine dictating the place, displaying a mass of words, no less incomprehensible for their orderliness. She turned pages, pretending to scan the words for something of interest. Human text, human stories. All of it incomprehensible. She had never learned to read it—had never tried, and did not know if she could. She flipped pages until at last finding what looked like the beginning of a new tale.

“This one,” she said, and relinquished the book to her maid.

Swimming alone among the pillars of the world in the bottomless sea, the Bahamut created for himself a son. To this son, he gave the hands and feet from his own body, the eyes and ears from his own head, but his flesh was taken from the mud clinging to the roots of the world. He spit in his son’s eyes, and blew in his face, and said to him, “All the world will be yours if you go up and bring me a bride.”

So the son of the Bahamut left the waters of the bottomless sea to do his father’s bidding. But upon dry land he met only with wild beasts, and found none that was a suitable bride for his father. Despairing not, he resolved to raise the serpents above other beasts.

And so he hid himself in a pool of water until a large viper came to drink. Afterward, the viper vomited out its guts and died, and out of the guts came a tiny snake, which grew large very fast. And in three days it was full grown, and it went among the other snakes and said to them, “My father the Bahamut seeks a bride from among you serpents. This honor is more than you deserve, and you are ill-suited for it, but I will prepare you. Such a task will not be easy, but if you do as I say there can be a little hope.”

The snakes were very hard to teach. They were cruel to one another, and they ate the flesh of their own kind, even though the world was full of birds and mice and apes to eat. But the son of Bahamut showed them how to walk upright, and how to speak. He taught them many things, and gave them many rules, but they failed at all of them. Until at last the son of Bahamut despaired of their ever becoming more than what they already were.

But the snakes begged him not to abandon hope. And so the son of the Bahamut said, “There is one rule upon which all others hinge. You must never eat the flesh of your own kind. You may eat the fruit of the trees and the grain of the field. You may eat the animals: the fish and the birds. All of these things are for your pleasure. You may even eat the apes. But from this day forward you must refrain from eating the flesh of your own kind. If you continue to do so, you will never be more than beasts.”

The snakes knew they could not do this. Instead, they decided that if they could not act as the son of the Bahamut demanded of them, they could at least look like him, which might soften his heart, and help him to forgive their failures. So they walked upright, and they spoke like him, and they covered their nakedness, and they learned. They did learn a little.

“But not enough?” Miriam interrupted.

Keila looked up, her eyes distant. Soon, she shook her head. “Not enough,” she agreed.

The snakes made masks so that their faces would look like his, and they wore them so long they forgot that beneath them they were still snakes.

They had fooled themselves, but not the son of the Bahamut, for he saw that despite their fine masks and their pretty speech, they still ate the flesh of their own kind. He said to them, “I have told you what you must do, and you have failed again, as I suspected you would. You are abhorrent to me, and now I am leaving you so that you might practice what I have taught. If I find that you have learned when I return, then I will choose one from among you to be the bride of my father the Bahamut, whose eternal body floats among the pillars of the world in the bottomless sea. If you have not, then I will strip your masks away and leave you as I found you.”

“Why do you stop?” Miriam asked.

Keila turned the page, then back again. She did not look up.

“Read.”

The snakes were enraged, and they would not allow themselves to be abandoned. They fell upon the son of the Bahamut and tore him into a thousand pieces, which they consumed. And when the blood that had been spilt return to the Bahamut, he was well pleased, for he knew the snakes belonged to him after all.

Keila shut the book, smoothing the hair from her face as she turned to the window.

“This Bahamut,” Miriam said. “The one eaten by snakes—he is the same as your god?”

Keila ran her hand over the book’s thin cover. “You think the snakes were evil to do what they did, but you’re wrong. They were more clever than you think. It was the only way they could keep him. They carried him with them always after that—in their bones, and in their blood. As do their children, and their children’s children.”

“But he was never seen again? He did not keep his promise?”

“We still wait, Mistress. He will return.”

“To do what?”

“To save us from you, and you from yourselves.”

Miriam doubted that. Even so, she felt a pang of jealousy for the humans, and not for the first time. But a people must have a history before they have a god, and not a stolen one. She raised her glass to drink, but Keila quickly leaned forward to stop her. “Are you sure, Mistress?”

“Does your god accept sacrifice, Keila?”

Keila opened her mouth to answer, but said nothing. Her hand tightened on Miriam’s wrist, and in the end she pressed her lips together. Whether that meant she had no answer, or that she refused to give it, Miriam did not know. Who, after all, can speak for a god?

“Let this be a sacrifice to him. And let him save me, if he can.”

Miriam drained her glass, and the life inside her turned and turned, dreaming.

Miriam lay still as her father’s physician moved his stethoscope over the bared flesh of her distended belly, hunting for what she knew could no longer be found. She watched his face, his eyes turned inward, as though in keeping them distant he could better hear what he sought. The stethoscope moved from the rounded crest of her belly down the side, and he paused there, head tilted. Miriam held her breath.

“Has there been blood?” he inquired.

“No.”

Brows furrowed, he moved elsewhere, down low, pressing the smooth instrument painfully deep in what she sensed to be a quiet but building frustration. At last, he let out his breath and pulled the instrument from his ears. He sat very still, watching Miriam’s belly a long while before moving his pale blue eyes to her face.

Before he could speak, Miriam snatched his hand, squeezing in earnest. “He’ll kill me,” she said.

The physician’s eyes softened.

“I’ve lost two already, and he won’t give me another chance. He’ll kill me.”

“Has there been blood?” he asked again.

“Yes.”

Her father’s physician opened his hands, a helpless gesture. “There is nothing that can be done.”

“Don’t tell him,” Miriam said.

The physician tried to turn away, but Miriam tightened her grip on his hand. “Three weeks,” Miriam said. “The baby will come in three weeks, as you said.”

“Stillborn.”

“But I will have three weeks,” Miriam pressed. “If you tell him now... please.” She moved his hand to her belly, as though urging him to feel what wasn’t there. Holding his hand in place, she took the diaphragm of his stethoscope and slid it under their hands. “Listen again. Please.”

The physician hesitated. His eyes remained on hers as Miriam moved the diaphragm lower on her belly. She smiled for him, nodded. “All is well,” she whispered. She held his grim expression with her forced smile, and continued to nod, urging him to agree. “All is well...”

Leaving his hand on her belly, the physician turned his gaze away from her and out the window. At last, he pulled his hand from hers. He would not look at her as he packed his satchel.

“Rest,” he instructed her. “No birth is easy.”

When he had gone, Miriam sat at the edge of the bed, her loose white gown hiding her swollen belly and trembling arms. She heard the physician’s voice in the corridor outside her room, and the deeper voice of her father. The voices faded, their footsteps receding. When she was sure her father was gone, and not coming back, she covered her masked face and wept.

Her father’s physician had not been gone long when Keila’s soft knock sounded. Miriam, weakened by her loss of blood, sat up with some difficulty even as her maidservant opened the door and slipped inside. Keila, closing it behind her, stood by the door, hands pressed to her apron.

“Mistress?”

“Dead,” Miriam said.

Saying it wrenched something in her, and she shut her eyes against a slow wave of dull pain. Keila was at her side, arms around her.

“I don’t care,” Miriam said. “I didn’t want it. I never wanted it.”

Keila pressed her down into the mattress, then carefully lifted her feet off the floor and to the bed. She smoothed her hair back, and felt her cheek. “Is there pain?”

“No,” Miriam said. But there had been. There had been terrible pain. She had bit down on a twisted sheet as her insides knotted, as the thing in her lurched and fought to live, flexing in the throes of their shared agony. It had gone on far too long, and she remembered thinking that either it must die soon, or she would. Then the blood came, as though a floodgate had been opened, soaking her thighs, soaking the sheets and towels and spreading across the white tiles of her lavatory floor. She’d slipped in it trying to lift herself into the tub, her bare feet slick and red. Too weak to rise again, she had remained on the floor, sobbing against the tiles as her gut clenched with a final spasm. After that the thing had fallen still, and not moved again.

Keila sat next to Miriam on the bed, and Miriam twisted to rest her head in the maid’s soft lap. With light fingers, Keila smoothed back Miriam’s hair. And as she did so, she whispered prayers to her god, and Miriam calmed.

“My people have no god,” Miriam said after a time. “There is no one to forgive me.”

“You have a god,” Keila whispered. “He is the same as mine. He belongs to us all. And we belong to him. You’ll see.”

“How? When?”

“He hears our prayers. He listens,” the maid said. “Soon... .”

Miriam let her maid’s soft touch and gentle supplications lull her to sleep.

Miriam woke to the sound of retching from the lavatory. Swinging her legs out of bed, she raked the hair from her face and listened. It could only be Keila, but the maid had not seemed ill mere hours ago, and the urgency of the sound concerned her.

“Keila?” she called, crossing the room. Through the crack in the door Miriam could see nothing but a stretch of white tile and one clawed foot of the tub. She pushed on the door. “Keila?”

The girl knelt at the tub, leaning into it. Her hands clenched the rim, and her fine hair hung in lank strands, concealing her profile. The tiles beneath her were smeared with black muck, as though she had been tramping barefoot through the swamps. The girl raised her head, and Miriam recoiled with a gasp. Black tears streaked her cheeks, running from eyes plugged with sticky black mud. The thick stuff smeared her face and coated her chin. Her mouth fixed in a grimace, showing blackened teeth and tongue. She tried to speak but gagged, then leaned into the tub and retched again, bringing up gobs of dark bile. The sides of the tub were spattered; the drain had clogged with it.

Miriam rushed to her side but feared to touch her without knowing how to help. Instead she turned the taps, releasing a torrent of water from the spigot. Her instinct was to wash it away, to flush the grisly evidence as though it were shameful. She dragged towels from the rack and knelt beside the suffering girl even as Keila started a helpless keening. Miriam tried to wipe the muck from her face, but the girl pushed her away even as she heaved, bringing up more of the black bile.

“What did you do?” Miriam cried. “What happened?”

Keila heaved, unable to catch her breath. Where her nails clutched the rim of the tub, they bled black. The gasping, the panting, Miriam remembered her first child, the stillborn infant she had birthed in this very room, and she knew Keila’s suffering was the same. Miriam looked down—the girl’s knees on the smeared tiles, her thighs slick with blackness.

“I’m getting help,” Miriam declared.

But before she could rise, Keila seized her arm. “No!” she cried.

Miriam could not free herself from the girl’s grasp. Keila grimaced in pain, her mouth a black-painted grin. But also there was a fevered satisfaction—a wild pride at what was taking place.

“—asked for this—” she said in a sticky voice. “—want this.”

“Keila...”

The girl’s mouth worked, as though trying to dislodge something caught in her throat. Her body clenched, and her back arched. She heaved again, emptying herself into the tub. “Bahamut,” she gasped. “Bahamut!”

Miriam dug her nails into Keila’s hand in an effort to peel off the girl’s grip, but the skin split under the pressure, opening a long, bloodless tear from the back of her hand to just beneath her elbow. With a cry of revulsion, Miriam wrenched free and fled the room.

She hadn’t yet reached the outer door when she heard her name called from the lavatory, but not in Keila’s voice.

“Miriam!” it called—deeper than Keila’s, guttural and malformed. There came a soft ripping, and Keila’s voice reemerged, picking up a relentless string of rapid prayers strung tight with heightening panic. And even as Keila’s litany spilled out, that other voice slid over and through them, speaking the same words, becoming inside them. A soft rip and a sharp gasp, and Keila’s crying voice subsided to nothing, and only the man spoke. The prayers were ended.

He said, “Stay, Miriam.”

And Miriam stayed.

She listened to the gentle, sticky sounds of wet clothes being removed and of feet in mud. When the curtain was drawn aside, a naked human male stood at the threshold of the lavatory. Dark streaks of drying mud covered his pale skin, as though he had emerged from the swamp and tried to clean himself with only his hands. Other than his eyes, which were the greenest she had ever seen, Miriam barely noted his face, plain but strangely familiar. He started towards her, but Miriam halted him with an outstretched palm. “Where is Keila?”

“Keila is here,” the human said.

Miriam called toward the lavatory for her maid.

“Not there,” the man said. “Here.”

“Keila!” Miriam called again.

Caught up in a surge of fury, she rushed to her wardrobe, flung open a drawer, and withdrew the small paring knife she had kept in reserve for the day of her child’s birth. Advancing three steps, she held the knife pointed at his chest.

“Do not move,” she commanded him.

Keeping the knife fixed on him, Miriam moved to the lavatory curtain and drew it aside with her free hand. White tiles smeared with black, heaviest where Keila had knelt at the tub. Streaks of it stained the rim where the girl had clutched it in her suffering. Within, masses of thick black mud. And mixed into the slop, the twisted shape of a pale sheet. Miriam turned from the lavatory to face the human, who watched her, but—obediently—had not moved.

“What did you do?” Miriam demanded. “Where is she?”

“Don’t you recognize me, Miriam?”

Miriam took a step closer, knife raised in a steady threat. “No,” she lied, though she could see it in the shape of his mouth and the line of his nose. She could see it in his eyes.

The human gave a kind smile. “Why do you wear a mask, Miriam?”

Lowering the knife, Miriam touched her mask with a trembling hand.

“It is well made, but doesn’t suit you,” he said. He lifted a hand slowly, as though to prevent startling a timid animal. When Miriam didn’t flinch away, he touched the cheek of her mask with only the tips of his fingers. “The face you hide is more honest than this, and more beautiful.”

Miriam ran her fingers over the stitching of the mask, remembering Keila’s words to her.

Be what you are.

“Be what you are,” the human agreed.

“And if what I am is a liar and a thief?”

“We are all of us liars and thieves.”

Miriam narrowed her eyes. “Why are you here? What do you want?”

“Your child is dead,” the human said. He moved to place a hand on her swollen belly, but Miriam brought the paring knife up again, this time not so far as his chest. She pressed the point to his gut to keep him at bay.

“Human gods have no power here. You have no authority over me.”

The human cocked his head. “Human god? You believe you are the only one who fashions masks?” He grinned for her, and his cruel smile revealed a mouthful of thorns.

Miriam shied from him, but he took her wrist and twisted until she dropped the knife.

“What do I seem to you? Human?”

“No.”

“Raah?”

Miriam shook her head.

“Would you witness what I am beneath this mask? And beneath the next?”

“No,” Miriam said, closing her eyes. “Please, no.”

“I come for my son, whom you gave to me,” the Bahamut said.

Miriam did not realize she was withdrawing from the god until her back met the closed door. By then, he loomed in front of her, one hand on her wrist, the other pressed to her belly, and the infant corpse floating within.

My son.

“No,” Miriam said.

The Bahamut leaned close. “Why deny me now? Is it too great a burden, surrendering to me what you have already given in sacrifice?”

“Yes,” Miriam whispered, but she hid her face from him as she said it. He released her wrist to brush her cheek, to cup her chin and raise her face to look into his cold green eyes. The hand that pressed her womb went deep, and deeper still.

Miriam gasped, and the thing inside her fluttered, then kicked.

She would have collapsed had the god not tightened his grip on her face to hold her tight against the wall. He lowered his cheek to hers, his mouthful of thorns brushing her ear. Though she could not look down, she felt his hand deep inside her.

“I take only what is mine,” he said. “And I am not cruel. I will not leave you with nothing.”

Miriam lay on her bed, arms hugging her belly. The weight of the child was gone, but something remained. She was not empty. For a time she wept, but she could not have said if for sadness or relief. She slept without meaning to, and rose when she awoke, drowsy and slow, to take up a candle.

The lavatory was dark and silent. The tiles chilled her bare feet, and the mud that had come so violently and in such great amounts from Keila had dried in clotted smears on the floor and on the sides of the tub. But inside, the black mess remained, and she raised her candle to better see. She studied it a long while before reaching in to tug free the coiled sheet. It came away from the mud, and though she knew by then what it was, still gave an anguished cry. Keila’s skin, empty of content, lax and twisted, a parody of the girl’s shape, slapped wetly where Miriam dropped it. A shapeless mouth and empty holes where her eyes had been gaped up at Miriam.

She wrapped the skin—still slick with mud—in a sheet from her own bed and buried it that morning in the garden.

Miriam lay on her back, knees drawn up and spread wide. Around her, the midwives tended to the blood and the agony. When it emerged at last in a gush of brine and the gasps of the midwives, Miriam cried out and was already reaching.

“Give it to me!” she snarled before the baffled midwives had found anything worth swaddling. “Give me my child.”

But there was no sharp cry, no newborn wail. Miriam hunted the muddy tangle of sheets between her splayed knees but found only the twisted rag of skin that the Bahamut had left of her child.

The midwives could not keep her father from the room, nor did they much try. They barely managed to cover her legs and waist before he shoved through them to rip away the sheets. Miriam turned her face so she would not have to see his face as he witnessed the disaster.

“Where is it?” he demanded. “Show it to me.”

The voice of the physician, subdued. “There is no child, Lord.”

“Stillborn?”

“No....”

“Then show me the child!”

They showed him all there was.

In the quiet moment which followed, Miriam thought that he had gone—that after witnessing the muddy sheets and the empty rag of flesh, that he had simply departed in disgust. But then he had a fistful of her hair and was dragging her from the bed to send her sprawling on the floor. With one hand in her hair and another at her neck, he bent over her cringing form.

“You were my favorite,” he snarled in her ear. “It was you I loved the most.” But his words were hot with wrath, and his sharpened nails bit into her neck. He lifted her slightly, only to crush her back to the floor again. “Where is my child?”

Miriam spat back at him. “He is not your son.”

The Lord of the Manor moved his hand from throat to jaw. His nails sunk into her cheeks, and he twisted her face towards the window. Pressing his own cheek to hers, they witnessed the bright stars together. “Look to the sky,” he commanded her. She could do nothing else. “The sun is coming, and coming soon, daughter. But if you do not give me my child I swear you will not see another day.” His voice lowered to impart a secret for the two of them only. “Your sisters, your pretty maid, the servants and the physician—all here now will glut my dogs if you hide him from me.”

And even as the sky blushed with dawn, a vast shape descended to press against the window, and mud seeped in around the panes.

“He is here,” Miriam said. “He is here now.”

She shut her eyes tight just before the window burst inward, giving way to bulging scales and a mud-thick cascade. Her father was torn from her with sudden violence, leaving Miriam to fall wrist deep into the wash. She did not open her eyes when the tramp of people rushing to escape sounded all around her, nor even when the screaming began—a crescendo cut short as living mud clutched at thrashing bodies, dragging them into itself to fill their eyes and pack their lungs with muck. Their suffering was mercifully brief.

In the new silence, Miriam opened her eyes.

The Bahamut gathered himself before her, a writhing column of old flesh and new slime. Rapidly he assumed familiar shapes: arms and legs, a head, until he stood complete before her, neither human nor Raah but something shamelessly new. Dark skin slick and steaming, he smiled down on her with feverish pride.

“None will harm you again,” he said tenderly.

Through the window behind him, Miriam saw the rising sun burning blood-red.

“The time of Man is long passed, and the time of Raah is passing quickly. It is our time now. My mother. My bride.”

And Miriam saw the promise and the truth reflected in the wild purity of his vibrant green eyes.


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Greg Kurzawa studied theology at a small university in east Texas before taking a career in information technology. He is the author of the bleak fantasy novel Gideon's Wall, which he self-published in 2006 to learn the process. Since then, his short fiction has appeared in various print and online venues, including previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and he has completed his second novel, The Sickness of Silas Traitor, for which he is seeking representation. Greg has two kinds of favorite stories: tragic ones, and ones that don't give up their secrets without a fight. He currently lives in Omaha with his wife and three children.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“The Study of Monstrosities” by Greg Kurzawa
“The Black Veil” by M. Bennardo

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Comments & Scrivenings
4 Comments on “Masks of the Mud God”

4 Responses to “Masks of the Mud God”

  1. Murky Master says:

    Wow! Like a slimy, muddy horror, dropped into a fantasy world, this story make the reader uncomfortably enchanted with the pain and mythos of Kurzawa’s dark world. I would love to hear more about this kind of world. Wonderful, terrible, and irresistible.

  2. Nathan J Bezzina says:

    I loved this story, though it has left a heavy weight on my chest. The desire to be someone else, somewhere else, wrapped up in birth and death and religion . . . amazing.

Leave a Reply to Nathan J Bezzina