Born-again Birth Defect - Part One

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic
Greta is a normal pious girl living in the sewers of a major city. Her life changes in strange ways when she receives a baptism with tainted holy water.

Submitted: January 05, 2015

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Submitted: January 05, 2015

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Humans walked a dark Earth for thousands of years.  They were ravaged by disease, the teeth of great shadow beasts, and the cogs of their own societal machinery.  When their suffering was sufficient it moved Honweh, almighty god, to reveal himself.  He descended to the plane of man and brought with him astonishing gifts to prove his divinity: magnetism to pull the metals of the Earth, coalfire and steam to drive winter’s bite away, trapped lightning to immolate the dark predators and the nightmares, mirrors so man could see his own soul, and plastic to coat the works of man and starve out the diseases that dwelled on Earth’s moist surfaces.

Honweh also brought with him his great justice that organized the races and creeds of humanity.  All were united in worship of him.  Honweh guided this adoration like an artist guiding a paintbrush and built incredible cities of bronze, brass, and lead.  As his concern for the humans grew, Honweh made the decision to move his Ancyclopedrae, his book of immutable records, to Earth along with his other belongings, making Earth his home.

And so he remains, ruling the kingdom of man with kindness, wisdom, and discipline.

-First Summation, Honweh’s Glory

Two children played in the sewers beneath the city of Promenth.  These were not the sewers for waste and runoff, which would not be suitable for habitation, but the second set, for Promenth’s used holy water and other fluids blessed by Honweh and his disciples the Reverden.  Blessings did not hold long in the liquids of Earth, so it was best to wash them away before they could be used in heretical ceremonies or misguided attempts to fertilize a year’s crops.

These sewers were the home of Promenth’s lowest classes of people and contained mostly struggling artisans and clerical workers.  Their homes were makeshift structures built into the large bronze and copper basins of the sewers.  Down there they were free from taxation, but also the sun’s warmth.

The children played in a narrow pipe, getting their finest Sunday clothes all wet in the exact manner their mother had warned them not to.  They were brother and sister, united in their efforts to catch sewer frogs and then release them back into the water that had lost most traces of its blessing.  The girl was the younger of the two at only seven years old; her name was Greta Tihder and she was wearing a light blue ruffled dress with little yellow shoes that clicked and banged on the metal grates near the pipe’s flow.  Her older brother Gerrot was eleven.  He wore a gray suit with sleeves that were a little too short.  At the moment he had his shirt unbuttoned and a small frog was trying to hop its way out of his shirt pocket.

Gerrot estimated they only had time for three or four more frogs before their mother called them back for the ceremony.  Today was to be their baptism, accounting for the itchy hand-me-down attire that restricted their antics.  Normally parents waited until children turned thirteen to soak them in Honweh’s water so they could be born again under his wing.  It represented the transition from innocent childhood into the responsibility of adulthood.  After they were brought to god’s attention by being showered in his blessings, it would become their duty to worship.  They could no longer rely on his natural affinity for the planet’s younger things and would have to earn his love with faith, labor, and tithes.  Gerrot and Greta were to receive theirs earlier because someone in town had supposedly gotten their hands on some very pure holy water that had spent almost no time in the sewers.  A stronger blessing could mean that Honweh would pay more attention to them, so it made sense to bless as many children as they could that day.  The poor laborers and attendants of the sewers had no chance of purchasing holy water from a genuine Reverden, so these recycled supplies were the best they could afford their progeny.  A baptism was essential if you ever wanted a chance to move out of the sewer and into the city.  If you were not a child of Honweh, you were not above livestock to the people of the sky-scratching towers above.

An object dropped from an opening over their heads.  A rush of water came with it and scared all the frogs away.  Gerrot took one look at the object bobbing up and down in the water and then released the frog in his pocket.  He ran over and bent down to fish the thing out.

“What is it?” Greta asked.

“It’s a fish,” Gerrot grunted as he stood back up.  In his hands was a clear plastic bag knotted at the top and filled with water.  A black and orange splotched fish swam in small circles inside the bag.

“How’d he get in there?” Greta queried further.

“Somebody put him in there dummy,” Gerrot explained.  “It’s a pet.  Mom says you can win fish in bags like this at carnivals.  He’s ours now.” Gerrot tucked the bag under his jacket and hunched over to see how much he could hide its silhouette, which made his sleeves appear even shorter.

“But we didn’t win anything,” Greta said.  “Mom and Dad won’t let us have a pet.”

“Which is why you’re not going to say anything, okay?”

“I don’t like lying.”

“If you don’t lie, nobody will take care of the fish and he’ll die.”

“Kids!  Come on back!” a voice echoed down the pipe.It was their father calling them in.  Greta, still very uncertain what to do about the fish, turned and skipped towards the voice.  She didn’t hear the sound of her brother behind her.

“Are you coming?” she asked.

“I’ll catch up,” Gerrot said and waved her away.

“Maybe if we name the fish ‘Nofish’, we don’t have to lie,” Greta suggested.  “If mom asks if we have a fish we say ‘Nofish’.  That’ll work right?”

“Sure whatever.  Just go catch up to Dad or he’ll get mad at us,” Gerrot said.  Greta turned and skipped around the bend, leaving Gerrot alone.  He pulled the fish out once more and held it up.  Blessed water naturally generated light, so he could see the little creature very clearly.  If he squeezed, the bag would pop, the fish would fall, and it would suffocate on the grate.  He had the power to end the fish’s life in so many ways.  His fingers tightened on the plastic and he saw lines of stress appear on its surface.  The fish swam in faster circles as its only recourse.

“Don’t worry Nofish, I’m a kind god,” Gerrot comforted it.  His grip loosened.  “I won’t let you down.”  He returned the bag to the safety of his jacket and took off running down the pipe, in the opposite direction of his family.

Chapter Two

The baptisms were normally held inside the church, but because so many children were on the list today the ceremony was moved outside to a public basin and onto a sunken stage normally reserved for theatre troupes and water puppetry.  The stage was circular, surrounded by four tiers of seating, and flooded with three inches of water.  The area was completely packed with bodies shuffling, smiling, and nudging each other.  Proud mothers performed last minute touches on their children’s outfits.  Greta, third in line, looked around apprehensively.  There was still no sign of Gerrot or her father who had taken off looking for him.  Greta’s mother stood in the second row of seating, tears of pride in her eyes. 

Greta had removed her shoes with the rest of the children before stepping down into the stage.  She wiggled her tiny white toes in the cool water. While she was busy bending down to clean some shiny metal flecks out from under her toenails, the holy water arrived.  Two teenage boys in blue robes carried it up to the altar inside a glass bottle that was a meter long and topped with a metal figurine.  The little statue was a sewer angel, a sort of patron saint to the people of the pipes; its wings were more like the fins of fish and its halo dripped with moisture.  The two boys hefted it up to the altar and placed it in a metal holder that angled the top of the bottle down.

“There it is,” Egan the lucky declared to the crowd, hands stretched towards the cavernously high hammered copper ceiling of the basin.  Everyone quickly hushed so that all you could hear were the drops of water falling from the rusticles above.  “These children,” he opined while walking along the line and occasionally touching a cheek, “will truly be our greatest generation.”  Egan the lucky was not a sanctioned Reverden, but his father who lived in the city above was.  He often told the people of the basin how he felt unlucky when he was banished to the sewers for covetousness, but now he was convinced it was a stroke of good luck because it allowed him to preach the perfection of Honweh to the city’s discarded denizens.  Having been raised under Honweh’s sun, he was obviously the most qualified to run the basin’s religious services and to perform things like baptisms and weddings.  He was in his upper fifties and disguised his bad posture and flabby physique in a robe with a plush and ornately patterned hood that looked like a python constricting a lion’s mane.  Around his neck he wore a heavy lead pendant of two hands cradling the Earth, not unlike the way Gerrot had held the stressed plastic of Nofish’s bag.  It was the official symbol of Honweh.  “Let us begin, while the waters remain p…”

“Let me go!” a child’s voice interrupted Egan.  It and the sounds of splashing turned everyone’s heads.  Greta’s father was wrestling Gerrot to the back of the line by his shoulders.  “I don’t want to do it!” Gerrot howled.  Their father must have squeezed very hard, because Gerrot shut down and bowed his head.  Greta leaned down and saw his face turn a pale purple.

“You shut your mouth and accept the blessing,” their father growled in his ear.  “It’s for your own good.”  Greta had never seen her father be so rough.  She looked back at the holy water bottle and wondered why her brother was so upset.  The liquid was clear… there was an angel on top… what could be wrong with it?  “I’m sorry Egan, please continue,” their father said.  He did not release Gerrot’s shoulders and stood in line with him for the duration of the ceremony.

The first two baptisms went very well.  The children stepped up to the bottle and kneeled down if the mouth of it was too low.  Then Egan twisted the sewer angel and a stream of liquid poured out of her halo and onto their faces.  It was just enough to thoroughly wet their hair and make Greta wonder if it would be inappropriate to hold her nose.  Holy or not, she didn’t want anything flowing up her nose.

“You’re next little lady,” Egan said to Greta with an outstretched hand.  She stepped up to the bottle and looked at her mother.  She smiled.  She looked at her father.  He smiled.  She looked to Gerrot.  His head was cast so far down that she couldn’t see his eyes.  She could see his feet in the shallow water, still encased in sopping shoes.

“Do I close my eyes?” Greta asked Egan quietly.

“Yes,” he replied softly.  “You don’t want to be blinded by the light of god.  Hold your breath too.  It’ll only take a second.”

“Okay,” Greta said and took a deep breath.  She tried not to puff out her cheeks so she wouldn’t look silly.  Egan twisted the nozzle and released the waters.  It felt normal at first, just like swimming in a pool and having your head break the water’s surface.  Then it started to burn.  Greta pressed her hands to her face and shrieked as red steam emanated from between her fingers.  It didn’t burn everywhere, just certain seemingly arbitrary lines: in small slashes on her lips, long swoops across her cheeks, an arc on her forehead, and in her eyes.  The most excruciating pain was in her eyes.  It felt as if she remained on Earth but her eyes had fallen out of her head and rolled across the scalding rocks of the underworld. She was certain that if she ever opened them again she would only see hellfire and grinning demons.

She sobbed hot tears, fell over, splashed into the water, and curled up like a small lizard being electrocuted to death.  She did not want to be a child of god.

twelve years later

The basin marketplace was full of life on that Saturday morning; the freshest and most temperamental seasonal crops from the furthest reaches of the sewer had come in the night before.  There were huge white water radishes with their lily pad-like stems, sweet marsh grasses, barrels of live fish and crawclaws, and cushion-sized steamed mussels displayed in their own shells.  Every stand had a cloud of grabbing hands in front of it, all the jostling and bumping made worse by the large wire baskets all the women held.

Greta kept her distance.  She always waited until the clamor died down.  Her parents didn’t need the largest or freshest ingredients anyway; they always tacitly accepted whatever she cooked.  Besides, there were lots of visitors from other basins milling about and she didn’t want to frighten any of them.  She pulled her cream-colored hood a little further over her face and then adjusted her spectacles.  Thick enough to be telescope lenses that could see the sun’s distant relatives who never wrote, Greta had needed the glasses since her baptism.  Without them the world was a whitish blur, like that first bright blast of a firework before all the colors rain down.

Something bumped into her, almost making her drop her basket.  She turned to see a Droidil hovering by.  The machine turned in the air and looked at her.  She’d found them quite frightening when they first started showing up in the sewers five years ago, but their unwavering politeness quickly won her over.

“I must apologize young lady,” the Droidil said in a voice like an echoing frog croak.  “I did not see you there.”  Droidils were the only speaking things that ever called her young lady.  The sterile compliment stung, but Greta hid her feelings well.

“That’s alright,” she said.  She stared into its one large eye that looked like a whale peeking through a ship’s porthole.  Its mantle rose above its eye like the back of an armchair, inflating and deflating rhythmically.  Its six plastic tentacles hung in coils below the eye and were tipped with the various instruments it needed to perform its duties.  Two of them were carrying a wire basket like hers.  No part of it touched the ground.  They were another marvelous gift to mankind from Honweh.  He’d built them from plastic and piping and then breathed reasonable intelligence but very little life into them, creating obedient servants.  Only the surface dwellers had received them initially, but over time stolen ones, broken ones, and strays made their way into the pipes where they were re-purposed and sold.  The Droidil excused itself and went about its business.

“Did you hear what that Harratix fellow has done now?” Greta overheard someone say.

“No, what?” another voice replied.

“He’s blown up a post office on the surface!  Mailed the bomb there he did!  I can’t imagine why the workers didn’t catch it.  Did they think a ticking box meant someone had gone and mailed a clock?”

“It makes you wonder why Honweh doesn’t just smite him.”

“Even if he blew up ten post offices, he wouldn’t be important enough to draw the almighty’s attention.  He has bigger concerns!  It’s not his fault if people abuse the freedoms he gives us.  We need to remember he protects our spirits, not our bodies or the letters we send.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

Greta ignored the rest of the conversation and went over her shopping list in her head.  Let’s see, she thought.  Skinned watermoles for the stew, dried fingerlings for father, buorangs to keep scurvy at bay…  She walked along the stalls quietly, bouncing her basket on her knee.  The crowds would thin in about ten minutes and then she could get what she needed.  After that it was back home to cook dinner.  Then she would sponge the floor, which would be followed by some relaxation time where she could read Honweh’s Glory.  She still had to go over the questions Egan had assigned for that week’s spiritual classes.

Like Egan discovering the ‘luck’ of his banishment, Greta too had come to appreciate the routine her baptism forced on her.  All of the important decisions were already made.  She would stay with her parents and inherit their home after they passed.  Until that day she would do her share of chores, worship regularly, and work part time cleaning Droidils.  As for a husband…

Greta reached out to grab a tin of salted fish when a young man’s hand touched hers.

“After you,” he said, pulling his hand back and smiling at her.  Greta grabbed the tin quickly, placed it in her basket, and offered a mouse squeak of a thanks before trying to scurry away.  “Hold on,” the young man said, tapping her on the shoulder.  “I’m not from around here and this place is proving a little intimidating.  Would you mind… showing me around perhaps?”

Greta turned and pulled back her hood, giving him a full look.  Her glasses were fogged from her own breath and her hair was flattened by the hood.  Two hands holding the planet, the emblem of Honweh, was scarred into her face.  The lines of the interlacing fingers had become cuts in her lips that revealed her gums.  The fingertips made her nose look like a piece of cheese nibbled on by rats.  The top of the Earth was a deep red line in her forehead that created wrinkles that should not have shown up until she was an old woman.  Greta’s teeth were beautiful, white, and straight, but no one ever got to see those.  She thought it might traumatize people to see her face smiling, or it might induce nightmares of cackling goblins.  So she just looked at him with an apologetic expression.  She had tried to avoid showing him.

“Oh… I’m sorry,” he sputtered.  His hand rose instinctively to cover his mouth, but he at least had the presence of mind to stop it halfway there and lower it again.  Greta turned away and went back to her shopping.  Did I pick up the buorangs yet? She wondered, digging through her basket.  With all of her obligations, there was no time for a husband anyway.

Chapter Three

Later that evening Greta was in the middle of her shift at Richard’s Scrub and Wash.  She wore a rubber suit and long-sleeved blue rubber gloves to protect her from the muck she removed from the droidils.  The droidil washing bay was back behind the building on a grate overlooking a reservoir.  The wall was lined with thick brown hoses, each with plenty of small leaks.  Six droidils were lined up in front of her, hovering but dormant.  Their eyes would remain gray and lifeless until their owners came to claim them.  Greta scrubbed foamy circles into the back panel of one as hard as she could in an effort to remove pink lines of mold in its seams.  She bent over, ignored the pain in her lower back, and soaked the brush in her bucket of soap once more.  She pulled one of the tentacles up near her face and scrubbed the small shears it was tipped with.  It must have been used by one of the local water vegetable farmers because it also had a spade, an insecticide sprayer, and a small harvesting bag.

“I could get you your own droidil,” a voice offered from behind her.  Greta recognized the voice even though she hadn’t heard it in a few years.  If it was anyone else she would have turned around and politely told them only employees of Richard’s fine cleaning establishment were allowed back there.  Instead she just kept scrubbing the shears.

“Oh my, what have I done to warrant a visit from the terrorist Harratix Tihder?” she asked, her voice bleeding sarcasm.  She took orders from anyone who gave them, except for him.  She felt a little thrill since she couldn’t remember the last time she’d been this rude to someone.

“You can still call me Gerrot,” Harratix said.  “I didn’t stop being your brother.”

“You left.  What would you call that?” she asked.

“I didn’t leave.  I escaped.  Besides, you know I had to take the worst part with me,” he reasoned.  Greta finally turned to see what had become of her brother.  He was wearing a waterproof coat the color of a dusty old brass horn; she could see the tip of a scabbard hanging out from under the bottom of it.  His face still bore the same scars hers did.

After Greta had been burned by the holy water and taken away to heal, it was decided to continue the ceremony.  These things happened sometimes.  So the rest of the children in line were kept there by their parents and brought up one by one.  In total, four children that day wound up with the mark on their face.

“What did you mean when you said you could get me a droidil?” Greta asked flatly, not letting her brother see any emotion.  “Would you steal me one?”

“No you’d have to steal it, but I could make it listen to you.”

“I wouldn’t steal anything,” she shot back.  She felt just like she did the day of the baptism, telling him she didn’t want to lie about Nofish.

“Stealing is a matter of perspective.  If everything belongs to Honweh, all you’re really doing is moving it without permission.”

“Word games are the last resort of devils when they have righteous spears to their throats,” Greta quoted.

“Keeping up with your scripture I see,” Harratix said.  “Have you learned anything new from it?  Figured out why he marked us have you?”

“The mark is a blessing,” Greta insisted.  She dunked her brush into the bucket and dollops of foam flew everywhere.  Then she went back to scrubbing the droidil’s back even though she had cleaned that spot already.  “It’s the same as everyone else’s baptism; Egan just didn’t have the official training.  He was like an old man painting; sometimes the brush shakes in his hand.”

“You’ve painted a false picture yourself,” Harratix said.  “I’ve learned the truth.  On the surface.  What happened to us is called a born-again birth defect.  Improper holy water or application can cause it.  The blessing bounces off… burns away.”

“You’re lying,” Greta cried.  She rubbed her eyes on her sleeve to get rid of the tears, but suddenly felt the sting of soap.  Her glasses fell off, but she just went back to scrubbing and sniffling.

“Don’t cry,” her brother consoled.  “It’s a good thing.  We were never truly blessed, so Honweh doesn’t see us.  He can only track his true children.  Isn’t that wonderful?”

Greta did not think it was wonderful.  Far from it, she was horrified.  Was it true?  Was every single prayer she uttered since her baptism nothing more than breath?  Was all her anguish for nothing?  She’d always been able to deal with her mark when it had a point.  It was a sign that Honweh had a spot for her.  That spot was as an obedient and helpful daughter who spent much time reflecting on the almighty’s wonderful creations.  Men had to look past her, because her spot was just out of their field of view.  What was her spot now if her brother spoke the truth?  A moldering splotch on a collapsing gourd…  a grave she’d dug and knelt in for years.

“Why are you here?” she asked with impotent anger.

“To see my sister,” Harratix said.  “To convince her to come with me.”

“Where?”

“To the surface.  You have no idea how much the sun enriches you… it’s far greater than Honweh’s books and Egan’s gnarled, foolish, old hand on your shoulder.”

“Honweh made the sun too.”

“Maybe.”

“You’re insane.  Of course he did,” Greta snapped.  “Why would I go with you?  I’ve heard everything you’ve done.  You’re the charred morbid part of the grapevine everywhere I go.  Bombs here.  Murders there.  How dark is your soul now Gerrot?  Do you sleepwalk into banks and rob them?  Huh?  Why are you doing all this?”

“I’m doing it because Honweh is a liar,” Harratix snarled.  His fists tightened and he approached his sister.  She recoiled a little when he was just inches away.  For a brief moment she thought he might strike her.  Gerrot always did have a little more color in his cheeks than was healthy.  His expressions softened when he saw her fear.  “He’s a liar.  He doesn’t care about anything other than being worshipped.”

“He raised us from the darkness,” Greta whispered.  She pulled off her gloves and placed her hands flat on her brother’s chest. 

“Maybe,” Harratix said and embraced her.  “There’s so much he keeps from us.  Why the book?  If he is all powerful, why does he keep a book of records? Can’t he remember it?  I’m going to find the truth.”

“Why do you need swords and bombs to find it?” Greta asked pleadingly.

“Do you remember what father said after the baptism, when he decided to let me keep Nofish?”

“Yes.  He said you deserved it for becoming a man in Honweh’s eyes.  That you might understand Honweh’s burden when you cared for a living thing yourself.”

“That’s it dear sister.  A man in his eyes.  I won’t be that.  I must be a man in my own eyes.  I’m not blessed, and I don’t need to be.  Nobody does.  It’s just to bring you in line.  Dull you.  Make you another feather in the headdress.  They won’t listen to words… but they can’t ignore it when their headdress is on fire.”

“I can’t go with you,” Greta said.  “I won’t do those things.”

“I figured you wouldn’t.  At least let me show you something.  It will help you to leave if you ever decide to.”

“Okay,” Greta said, backing up and allowing her brother to move.  Harratix approached the freshly scrubbed back of the droidil and pulled a wood-handled screwdriver from his jacket.  He gently forced its edge into the back panel’s seam and popped it open.  Greta had cleaned hundreds of droidils, but never seen one’s inner workings.  Mostly it was a jumble of dull gray tubes all connected to a white plastic cylinder suspended in the center of the cavity.  The cylinder had an insignia painted on it that looked like a drop of blood wreathed with lightning.  Harratix pointed at the cylinder.

“That’s the power source,” he said.  “If you removed it, the droidil would crash to the ground and cease to function.  All you need to do to remove it is slide the top and bottom panels counterclockwise.”

“I don’t understand,” Greta said, “How is plastic a power source?”

“The cylinder is hollow.  The power comes from what’s inside.  A life not lived.”

“What do you mean?”

“A miscarried child.”

“No,” Greta denied.  Her lower lip curled in out of horror.  There’s no way I’ve been scrubbing infant coffins this whole time, she thought.  “Honweh would not do this to one of his children.”

“Honweh is a caretaker, not a father,” Harratix said.  “He does not feel our pain.  Why do you think it’s considered heresy to open one of these?”

“I didn’t know that,” Greta admitted.  Suddenly she felt like she’d just knocked a large glass antique over and the sound of its shattering had drawn the gaze of a thousand eyes.  “Please, close it back up.”

“Very well,” Harratix conceded, his mission accomplished.  She had only needed to see inside it.  He picked the panel up off the grate and popped it back into place.  Greta stuck her face up to it and analyzed the seams to make sure he hadn’t left a mark.

“How does this help me leave?” she asked, trying not to think of the human sprouts that may or may not have been inside the droidils.

“If you empty the cylinder and place a small animal inside, alive or dead, the droidil will become yours.  It will obey all your orders and fight to protect you, something very valuable for people who have just left their homes beneath the rest of the world’s toilets.  Depending on the animal you put inside, it will experience a few hiccups.  Furry things work the best and wind up the smartest, bugs barely work at all.”

“That’s horrible,” Greta groaned.  The whole thing sounded like just the kind of pagan ritual she’d always been taught to avoid in school.  Never trust a person who finger paints with entrails, Egan had always said.  Besides, there was no way she could ever… empty… a droidil if it contained what Harratix claimed.  The sight of such things would surely make her faint.

The siblings hit a moment of silence.  They both felt the collision of their two worlds, like two bubbles that could merge but wouldn’t out of fear of popping entirely.  He couldn’t convince her to come with him and she couldn’t convince him to seek forgiveness.  Harratix turned to leave.

“I guess Nofish probably died a few years ago,” Greta blurted out as her brother was almost through the door.  She had no idea why their pet had come to mind.  On the night Gerrot disappeared, he had taken the fish with him and hadn’t left so much as a note.

“He’s still here,” Harratix said.  “Even he loves the sun.”  With that, her brother the terrorist was gone.  Her head filled with all the dripping sounds of the hoses.  It was a tad disappointing to pick up the soap bucket again…


© Copyright 2019 Blaine Arcade. All rights reserved.

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