The town-folk had found out that Alma was the last person the old coffin-maker had spoken to before taking his own life. As she stood looking over his wake, her name jumped from one mouth to another, the clamor condensing into a thick, oscillating echo at the heart of the chapel. “She admitted it to the police! She said they spoke about his plan to kill himself!” “And she never said anything to anyone before then? What an evil girl!” “She has no right to call herself a Christian.” “The nerve of her to come here! She might just burst into flames!”
She’d decided not to feel guilty about it. They were lies, after all. The coffin-maker had been tending to his collection of potted plants when she had come to his yard, humming a lovely tune which tempted even the birds and the breeze to listen and sing along. He’d welcomed her with a laugh, offered her a glass of water to ease her exhaustion from her walk, and vehemently refused any payment she had offered for crafting her mother’s coffin just two weeks prior.
“Keep it for yourself,” he had said. “You’ll need it. I hear you’ll be off to college soon. You have your whole life ahead of you now. You haven’t much left to do here except make a home for your grief and leave it behind.”
“Thank you,” Alma had said quietly. “But the truth is it hasn’t gotten easier over the past several days.”
“You haven’t been feeling too lonely, have you?”
“It comes and goes. What I have trouble with most are the nightmares.”
“About your mother?”
Alma had nodded. “She’s lost, I feel. I see her struggling every night in this ravaging hole shaped like water. It’s the strangest ocean I’ve ever seen–if the absence of both light and darkness were a liquid. So suffocating, so gloomy yet so utterly shadowless. It tosses her about, crushes her, pulls her apart, enters her, and bursts out of her. And she screams and screams, and the sound wakes me up and lingers in my room. What do you think that means?”
The craftsman had nearly betrayed a laugh when he turned away. His house, which sat alone a few yards shy of the rocks strung along the bay, directly faced the ocean. The death and destruction brought by many floods in the past had prompted half the town to move to uphill, tightening the neighborhoods wedged between the farmlands across the hills, but no matter how much the local authorities had tried to persuade the coffin-maker to leave his home, his obstinance chained him to the shore. The old man had gazed upon the waves like they shared a secret, and the sea mirrored the calm on his face, its blue distinguished from the morning sky only by the light shimmering on its surface. No boats had sailed that day. The tides had risen unusually high at an unusual time of year, and the town’s fishermen, giving into superstitions, feared what the waters may have brought with it.
“She’s not lost, my dear,” he’d said finally. “Your mother is in the waters of a great womb. You mustn’t worry. She may struggle now but she will eventually be reborn as a part of nature.”
“Nature? You mean the circle of life?”
The old craftsman had stretched his arms out wide, gesturing towards the whole bay. “Don’t you think it’s lovely out here, Alma? This is where I wish to die. Nature is its own creator, you know. One day–and I daresay soon–it’ll take back all that it has made and start something new. I have lived the last few years of my life according to its rules, and when I die, I shall be granted the privilege of joining it in its mission.” He’d then paused for thought. “Would you like to see the coffin I’ve made for myself?”
Leaving Alma no room to refuse, he had taken her wrist and guided her eagerly to his backyard. The craftsman’s workshop, a pale, windowless shed drowning amongst tall grass, had resembled a tombstone around which the wind stilled. Alma had quickly found herself sweating as she stepped towards it, and the discomfort of the old man’s grasp had petrified her voice. Its doors opened with a gentle sigh, a kiss from the shadows inside, and curiously, there’d been no tools, a table, or even a light within–only a bier and the gloomy box atop. At the foot of it, the lid bore a small carving of a circle with a strange flower inside, one with petals like tense, stout muscles and a center painted red.
“My mother’s coffin had the same flower on it,” Alma had remarked.
“Its something like an artist’s signature.”
The craftsman had taken the lid off and gestured for Alma to peer inside. Anxious, she’d stepped closer, took a peek, then ripped her gaze away and, clutching her chest, hastened to the door. What the hell was that? Once outside, a sharp glare had pounced on her eyes. She’d squinted. The highest peak of the hills had loomed directly above the coffin-maker’s yard, peppered all over with a maze of mossy tombs and headstones, and at the top sat the town chapel, its spire shining like a second sun. Alma turned back inside.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” the old craftsman had remarked. “The best one I ever made.”
“Are you ill, Mr. Magal?”
The old craftsman had chuckled. “Not at all. It’s a reasonable thing to prepare for considering my age, don’t you think?”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“Would you like to try lying in it?”
This time, the words had sprung eagerly from her tongue. “No, thanks.”
But peering over old coffin-maker’s lifeless body now, she wondered what it would’ve felt like. That dense, magnetic black within the coffin, a black like a thousand-foot fall into a tight embrace. A monstrous color that breathed, that could eat a man alive. It looked like water, like linen, like smoke all at the once. Was it a special paint? An effect of the light? Or were Alma’s grief and exhaustion the ones supplying these fantasies?
A heavy hand latched onto her shoulder. When she turned, the crumpled, brooding face of the priest startled her.
“Father Galva. Is something wrong?” she asked.
The priest let out something between a scoff and a sigh. He looked over the deceased sternly. “This is the first time this chapel has ever held a wake for someone who committed suicide.”
“Are you against it?”
“This town is so insufferable I wonder how no one’s done it before,” he said gravely. “But I always thought Samuel was better than that. I’m deeply disappointed in him. True, he was never quite the same after his wife and son drowned many years ago, but I never imagined it would come to this. Absolutely shameful.”
Alma chose not to respond, but unexpectedly a flash of lightning struck the chapel blind as if to speak on her behalf. Thunder rumbled in the distance. The sun streaming from the windows quickly dimmed as a carpet of gray clouds surged over the town. The voices in the pews rattled louder. “What’s all this! The news never mentioned any rain!” “Oh, no, I didn’t bring an umbrella!” “Damn clouds! I hope they aren’t too harsh on the crops!” “It’s just lightning, children. Stop crying!” “The laundry! I’ve got to get them inside!” “Excuse me! Excuse! I’ve got to hammer my roof down! Excuse me!”
“I hope you’re doing okay,” the priest asked. “It must be difficult to be here having dealt with a loss not too long ago.”
Alma looked at the old craftsman’s face intently, noting the amusement remaining in the corner of his mouth. “My mother would envy Mr. Magal.”
“What on earth do you mean?”
She pictured her mother struggling in those somber waters of her sleep, wondering if her soul would ever again find peace as marvelous as that which tucked the coffin-maker snuggly in the arms of a dense, abysmal color. Regardless of how he’d died, Alma thought, he surely hadn’t died in anguish.
The debris of the coffin-maker’s workshop had buried Alma. She grabbed hold of the wooden plank pressing against her back, shoved it aside, and pulled herself out, quickly finding her balance on the shore. The sand, as sheer and blinding as light that had been frozen then shattered, stretched to and from all ends of her vision, the whole horizon burning under towering funnels of white fire. Above her–what is that? Waste? Fire? Electricity? Alma couldn’t tell. A bloodred cataclysm swirled and exploded ceaselessly in the sky, and beneath it, as dark as a hole that had folded into itself a million times over, the sea raged and roared.
“Alma!” someone called.
Recognizing the voice immediately, Alma’s heart raced. She looked around. A woman struggled to free herself from amongst the rocks peppered along the shore. “Alma,” she called again. “Help me, my child!”
Spinting her way towards her, Alma climbed the rocks with explosive strength which melted away immediately upon seeing her mother, thin and pale, trapped between the rocks. The wreckage of her passenger boat scattered along the shore. She marveled at her mother’s incredible resolve–how she’d struggled for so long in the clutches of these harsh waves, how she must have wrung every drop of power from her whole body just to wrench herself away and make it home! She held onto her mother’s fingers sobbing. “Don’t worry, mama. I’ll find you a nice place to rest, okay? I promise!”
Despite her pain, her mother laughed. “My sweet Alma, it’s alright. I’m glad you’re–”
A shrill cry cut her words.
“Mama! What’s wrong?” Alma cried.
A man had appeared behind her mother, hands like shackles around her feet. The coffin-maker’s tongue hung out of his mouth. His eyes, red and bleary, bulged out of his face. A noose hung from his neck like a gold chain, and the sound of choking clawed incessantly out of his throat. He pulled on the poor woman as he inched slowly back into the ocean.
“What are you doing?” Alma cried. “Let go of her!”
The frustration in her voice seemed to fuel his strength, and with one swift motion he ripped her mother away from her grip and ran, dragging the poor woman with him into the ocean, disappearing quickly within the waves.
Desperate, Alma plunged into the water after them. The stark, raging cold of the water dug into her flesh and clmaped down on her bones, and she felt as though the whole universe were collapsing into her. A pulse of force moved through the water, a billow of pure energy emerging from the depths, and broke the surface into a herd of jagged, mountainous waves. Alma struggled to stay above the surface, but her limbs quickly surrendered to exhaustion. The darkness swallowed her. The next moment, the grip of the water warmed and loosened around her body. Thunder clapped intimately close to her ear. Flashes of light pierced through her eyelids. She dared flutter them open. She found herself floating in the midst of a lightning storm, sandwiched between lengths of total darkness and bursts of blinding light. And the whole space swayed and convulsed such that even the lightning bended and curved, and the thunder warped and bounced in all directions. Shock compelled Alma to gasp, but the air felt like water.
Alma began clawing her way upwards, hoping to find the surface, but the thing before her arrested her panic. A ball–a massive, fluid-filled sac–floating gracefully in place despite the chaos around it, stared back, equaling her fear with dignity. The lightning pierced its thick membrane and briefly created a halo around an amalgamation slumbering within it–Alma wondered frightfully if those were truly human hands and legs and faces she discerned, all crumpled and tangled together like a ball of clay. They shifted from one place to another, snapping and disintegrating as they slithered over each other.
Alma longed to call for her mother. Mama! Mama! Are you inside there? Mama, I’m coming! But how, she wondered, could she get her out? What was this thing in front of her? What if it took her too if she drew close to it? She rummaged her brain for a solution, but her heart boomed in her chest. Her lungs burning with pain, she screamed and water rushed into her.
The storm poured well past dusk and further towards midnight, growing exponentially stronger after each hour. A clap of thunder wrenched Alma away from stupor and towards the cold suspended in the room. She wiped the tears from her eyes, glanced at the clock on the wall–a quarter before twelve in the evening. Damn nightmares. When will you end? The storm hammering down on the roof echoed the migraine beating against her thoughts. The wind outside whistled. After a few moments, briefly surmounting the thunder rumbling above, an urgent banging came from her door. Flashlight beams raced across her windows. A long, muffled commotion trudged slowly past her house.
Opening the door, Alma recognized the chief of the town watchmen, his face like a dilapidated house beneath the hood of his raincoat. “Pack your bags right now so we can get you to higher ground. The waves have ripped the seawall apart and this whole place is at risk for a massive landslide.”
Alma looked past him towards the dirt path which had now turned into mud. Almost every family in the neighborhood had already been gathered. Drenched and shaking, small children sobbed as they passed, while their mothers, holding them close, struggled to hold back their own tears. Several men had gathered around a cart full of bags, helping each other push it forward, and others burdened themselves with as much as they could to lessen the weight. Cows, horses, and pigs, all tired and agitated, treaded behind their owners as well, many with their own wagons to pull.
“Where are we headed?” Alma asked the captain.
“The school gymnasium is already full. I’m thinking this group heads for the chapel. Father Galva has already been informed.”
Alma nodded gravely and marched to the closet to collect a handful of clothes along with some food, shoving them all into a backpack. After putting on a hooded jacket and locking the door behind her, she walked out just as some of her next-door neighbors with their own weary and frightened faces stepped into the crowd. The rain felt sharp, a torrent of needles against Alma’s face. The wind pushed against her. Roofs from around the neighborhood rattled like a band of mad drummers. The trees shook. Branches broke and flew past them. Trash and debris–pieces of steel, nails, and wood–swirled about.
The ground grew softer and softer as time passed. Over the course of their journey, several of the town-folk dared to turn back. “Listen! Listen! You don’t understand! I have to go back to watch the house! I’ll lose everything otherwise!” “Idiot! You’ll lose your life! All of the lower neighborhoods are already under ten feet of seawater!” “I’ll lose my business! How do you expect me to feed my family when all this is over?” “My husband is a very good swimmer, sir.” “Surely, the flood won’t rise any higher than this.” “Papa, don’t go! Stay with us!” “Please, for the love of God, will you take care of my child for me while I go back?”“I thought you all had us move up here to avoid all this!” “You think I control the weather?” “Why don’t you deploy some of the other watchmen to go back in our place?”
The crowd tensed at the clamor. Alma kept her eyes on her feet, her sympathy arrested by the sound of crying children. Eventually, the beams of the watchmen’s flashlights hovered over the creaking, rattling gates of the cemetery. A wide, blinding net of current whipped the sky. A groan rolled over the town-folk and a brief panic seized the animals. Here, the lightning struck more intensely and in successive volleys. Each flash revealed a foggy, white-washed snapshot of the gloomy park. Someone screamed.
Beneath the debris peppered all over the cemetery, murky, pitch-black puddles scattered across the cemetery–that deep, marvelous liquid emptiness Alma had seen in the old-craftsman’s coffin and in her dreams–flooding graves which appeared to have been dug up, pouring from stacked tombs which appeared to have been ransacked. Gasps and shrill cries broke out from around Alma as more people saw. Wrought with worry, she tore herself away from the crowd and dove into the somber maze, searching for her mother’s grave. Her foot caught on a fallen branch, and as she plummeted, her head nearly bounced against her mother’s tombstone. Luckily, she put her arms across her face in time. Heaving, she lifted herself from the ground and peered down at the spot where, two weeks ago, her knees had buckled under the weight of her grief and she had sobbed, wrapped around the stench of half-hearted sympathy, in front of the whole town.
The ground had been broken as if with an explosion, and in the hollow beneath, in and around the coffin where her mother should’ve been, stark black waters pooled and stared back at her. It had raged in her dreams but now it laid still against the storm, swallowing each raindrop without a hint of a ripple–a puddle like an open jaw.
“No,” Alma muttered in disbelief. “It was just a dream! You can’t have taken her!”
She jumped into the pool, dipping her hands into its darkness in search for any sign of her mother. The water, which felt as harrowingly cold as it had in her dreams, ate away at her flesh, and soon her feet and fingers numbed into nought. Alarmed, she lifted her hands to check if they’d indeed ceased to exist as her mind believed. They had shriveled to the bone, pale and crumbling from within, but they trembled back to life under her breath. She hastened to pull herself out of the pool, but her feet have lost their strength. A beam of a flashlight ran across the grave and a moment later a watchman took hold of Alma’s arm. “Come now. You have to get inside.”
The sight of the watchman undid her resolve, and against the rain and the breeze, her tears felt like boiling water slicing through her cheek. As they made their way out of the cemetery, they passed many others who’ve found their loved ones’ tombs destroyed and now prostrated by their stones, wailing away into the night.
“What happened here?” Alma asked.
“We don’t know yet–”
“Why my mother?” Alma begged. “What had she done to deserve this? Who did this?”
“Our priority right now is to get everyone to safety. We’ll deal with this incident later, alright?”
The captain of the watchmen, who stood by the chapel gates, yelled directions for everyone to fall in line before they entered, but suddenly, a wide-eyed man, his mouth stretched back to his ears and a guttural screech emerging from deep within him, came running out of the nave. “Go back! Go back! You, all of you! I’m not staying there! You can’t make me! My children! Where are my children! Come, kids! We’ll go somewhere else! I’d rather drown than spend another second within three meters of that horrid, evil display!”
A crowd tumbled after him. Some appeared stunned and dazed, lacking focus in the eyes. Others scurried out huddled into themselves, sobbing and praying into their chests. More ran out screaming. The stern, booming voice of the priest echoed from within the nave, a raging bass beneath the thunder.
The families gathering by the gates grew louder and uneasy. The chaos pulled Alma out of shock and into confusion. The watchman by her side let go and, along with the rest of his crew, scrambled to calm the people down. Alma put herself out of the way of the panic but she grabbed the shoulders of a woman who staggered closely by her. “Hey! Hey! You’ll slip! Calm down this minute!” she demanded. “Tell me what’s happening in there.”
The woman had scrunched her eyes closed with all her strength, her veins straining beneath her flushed temples, but upon hearing Alma’s voice, she opened them wide, two milky moons on a pool of mud, and looked past Alma’s head towards the sky as though the lightning was divining to her some vision. She reached for Alma’s collar and through gritted teeth exclaimed, “The coffin-maker! It’s the coffin-maker! He did this! The devil! We must burn him! We must burn everything! We must get rid of him before it’s too late!”
The woman wrenched herself away from her grip. Alma pondered her words. The coffin-maker…the coffin-maker who took my mother away from me in my dreams.
Alma plunged into the crowd pouring out of the chapel, forcing her way inside. A swell of heat, cries, and cold vapor suffocated her immediately. A flickering row of candles at the altar struggled to light the nave. A number of people had remained, shivering and muttering among the pews, now all in disarray. A few sat utterly still with tears gushing from their eyes. And the rest, apart from the frantic watchmen and town officials, knelt together before the dais at the feet of the coffin-maker’s bier, hands together in prayer. The priest, in a fit of rage, struck them repeatedly with a switch.
“Imbeciles!” the priest cried. “Do not kneel to it, you fools! Do not pray to it!”
A chill from the pit of her stomach weakened Alma’s whole body. The backpack she had carried fell at her feet. She approached the bier slowly, cautious of the cracks splitting the pillars of her mind at each step she took.
From beneath the still, dark waters that now filled the coffin to the brim, the old craftsman’s hands had risen. His fingers, spread like the rim of a chalice, reached forward as if inviting the sky for an embrace. The muscles of his arms, now made of some iridescent, leather-like, crinkled flesh, had bulged and ripped through his clothes. Its wrinkles mimicked flowers and faces and serpents. A rotten, metallic smell hung beneath the cold surrounding the wake.
All at once, the noise around Alma disintegrated. What have you done? she wished to ask the coffin-maker. Is it really true? My mother…this town…what have you done?
“Alma!” the priest’s voice cut through to her. “What are you doing? Don’t come any closer, or it’ll be you at the end of this crop! Go on! Leave!”
All the noise rushed back into Alma’s ears, all the air back into her lungs, and all her blood through her heart. Fresh tears springing in her eyes, she turned and shoved herself into the crowd rushing outside.
Alma nuzzled into the small space she’d been allotted within the classroom. To accommodate everyone, the watchmen had packed nearly sixty people in each one, while the rest slept in the hallways. Using her backpack as a backrest, she leaned against one of the chairs that had been piled to one corner of the room. She wished her mother was with her, or at least, something with which she could distract herself. The walls hardly muffled the thunder. The curtains hardly shielded the lightning. Candlelight flickering amidst murmurs, sobs, and shaky breaths cast a sloppy orange on the faces of the people around her. A few tried fruitlessly to sleep. Others prayed quietly or sang to their young ones. Some time after everyone had settled, a watchman came in with news of people who’d drowned or had been buried under landslides, and the room burst with agitation.
“Those stubborn fools! This wouldn’t have happened if they’d just come along!” someone exclaimed.
“Isn’t it weird that there were no reports of a storm headed this way?”
“There was no news of anything at all! You know TV people only care about the traffic in the big cities! No fodder for us here at the fringes of this island!”
“Surely, there must have been something!”
“If there was anything at all, someone would have heard it and we would’ve been better prepared, see?”
“You’re both wrong!” A familiar voice this time. Alma craned her neck at the people gathered near the chalkboard and found the wide-eyed woman she had grabbed earlier amongst them. “This is the coffin-maker’s doing! The coffin-maker, I tell you!”
Silence rolled over the whole room.
“Why do you say that?” someone asked.
“It’s obvious, isn’t it? Killing himself was all part of his plan! He’s turning himself into the devil as we speak!”
“‘The devil,’ you say? How dare you speak of him that way! Be careful or his mighty hands will smite you!”
“Dimwit! You mustn’t worship that thing! In fact, if we want to end this storm, we have to burn it! And the chapel along with it! The whole cemetery! Everything!”
“You’ll only anger him! Besides, no fire will stand a chance against this rain.”
“You’re all idiots! It’s a trick! A prank! Coincidence!”
“How do you explain the cemetery then? They say the only tombs that have been ruined were those for whom he made coffins for! Is that coincidence?”
“And those strange puddles! What sort of acid was that? It nearly tore my arms off!”
“Obviously, this is some sort of large-scale, well-orchestrated joke.”
“This is no joke, my friend. This is the coffin-maker’s will. I see him in my dreams. Every night since his death he rips my late daughter from within my arms and drowns her in dark waters! Now, look what’s happened to her grave!”
“Why, I’ve had those same dreams about my father, too!”
“So have I, of my brother!”
“You don’t think it was him who killed them, do you?”
“What are you saying? My brother died at sea.”
“As did my son!”
“He must’ve cast a spell or something! He must’ve willed it to happen!”
“So this is what they call a mass psychosis! You’re all out of your minds!”
“And you’re in denial! It’s perfectly clear what’s happening to this town but you refuse to believe it because you’re scared!”
“You’re saying that the coffin-maker was some sort of witch? A sorcerer? Do you hear yourself?”
“Power like this doesn’t have to be understood, only obeyed.”
“Nonsense! It should be destroyed! If fire doesn’t work, we’ll cut him up!”
“What did Father Galva make of all of this? Didn’t he warn us not to approach it? He’s had the chapel closed off, I hear.”
“Father Galva is scared. This is beyond his or his faith’s power.”
“Then what is this power? Where does it come from? What did an old coffin-maker have to do with it? Why did he do all this?”
Alma had long lost track of who was speaking, the voices like an anxious tangle of serpents floating in the air. So there had been other people who’ve had nightmares, she noted. As the town-folk rattled away, she couldn’t help but reflect upon her last conversation with the coffin-maker. He had mentioned a womb…rebirth…something about nature…a desire to join in its mission. To her, it’d been nothing more than a synopsis of an eccentric old man’s personal spirituality. It was hard to believe that the coffin-maker had caused all this, but she had now seen the black waters–they were real! Indeed, how could that be explained? Her mother’s corpse was gone, too. What evil pig, if there was one, would play such an elaborate joke?
“You know, don’t you?” A voice tickled Alma’s ear.
She jerked in her seat. “Father Galva! You startled me.”
She wondered how she hadn’t noticed him before, but the old priest had thinned drastically in the span of a couple hours, his thick white hair half-gone. Dark splotches painted his robes. He shivered under his blanket, but the wrath broiling in his eyes outclassed even the sun. “You’re his accomplice, aren’t you?”
“Don’t lie to me, young lady. You were the last person Samuel ever spoke to. Both of you planned this.”
“This storm! This punishment! Undo it all, you wretch!” As he spoke, he rose to his feet. Fearing the switch, Alma scrambled upright, too, but she barely fended off the attack with her arms. Her hands and cheeks burned with cuts.
“Tell me! Tell us all why you’ve done this?” the priest demanded.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
The priest reeled the switch back once again, but several people behind him seized his arms and attempted to calm him down. Alma looked furtively around. People whispered among themselves, the suspicion in their eyes as clear as a red stain on a white canvas. The women beside her inched away. An old man with a decided look on his face approached her cautiously and said, “Alma, my child, perhaps it’ll give us a clue what to do if you tell us about that day.”
“I told people already. I was only there to pay him for my mother’s coffin–”
“She would never admit it if we ask her just like that! We ought to restrain her, not the priest!”
“There’s no need for that! Her own mother’s grave was ruined, you know!”
“We ought to set her on fire now!”
The room fell into argument. Alma determined she should run. Spectators from the halls blocked the classroom door. Her only option was the window behind her. After taking a breath to harden her resolve, she took a chair, smashed the window open, and jumped out.
The rain weighed her down immediately. The lightning blinded her. The thunder reverberated in her heart. Voices chased her. “Get her! Get her!” “Alma, come back! It’s not safe out there!” “You will pay for this, young lady! You’ll be punished for your sins!” “Alma, tell us the secrets! Tell us where this power comes from! How to pray to it!”
A longing for her home redoubled her strength. Reaching the edge of the school grounds, she scaled the locked gates and jumped onto a downhill path towards the lower neighborhoods. She veered left into a grove to keep herself hidden but ran unexpectedly into water.
Alma gasped. Her heart ached, panic like glass shards in her blood. She strained her eyes. It was not darkness before her–it was the waters and the nightsky, now combined into one omnipresent hole closing in slowly to the earth. The sea, now a deep, stark black flood, had completely swallowed the town, extending from beneath Alma’s feet all the way to nought, and inched closer and closer to the school with each volley of waves. The sky, an oppressive expanse of nonexistence condensed into a giant black slab, sunk slowly to the ground, impervious to the lightning. The weight of its descent crippled the trees and the soil. Alma’s head roared with pain. Her core all at once felt heavy and slowed her down. The air pressed against her whole body. The smell of iron caught her off-guard. Swiping her arm over her face, she realized her nose had started bleeding.
Footsteps and voices neared. Her mind raced. Shelter…shelter…where do I go? The chapel? Nobody would dare follow me there!
“Alma!” A call, loud and close, halted her footsteps. She recognized it clearly but was unsure from which direction it came. She lifted a nearby rock and braced herself. A moment later, Father Galva emerged from behind the trees, stumbling and breathing heavily. Blood trickled from his eyes. Alma poised herself to run, but as the thunder clapped the priest pounced at her, and with an explosive swing of her arms, she hit him across the head with the rock. He fell face-up on the ground. The rain pouring over his body slowly turned black and buried him in darkness. Again, Alma gasped. She briefly held out her palms. Each drop, now as dark as ink, felt much colder than a few moments ago, and her fingers immediately started aching.
The flood quickly consumed the priest, and as Alma switched directions and headed for the hilltop, the waters followed her closely at the ankles. She clung to the shivering trunks of the trees to keep herself steady above the quaking ground. She’d held on to the rock in case more of her assailants appeared, but she passed by them with no struggle as they writhed breathlessly on their backs. The school trembled from the pressure of the sky. Cracks spread across the pillars. The people poured out of the windows and doors, moaning and tumbling over one another.
Alma pushed them out of her mind and hurried forward. The thick, dark rain slowly erased the world, and her sense of direction began to escape her. She relied only on the lightning to guide her, which now seemed to bundle together from different parts of the atmosphere to strike a single point. The chapel’s spire, Alma thought. Having found her beacon, Alma quickened her pace. She scaled the gates easily but the doors had been locked. She went round and threw her rock at one of the stained glass windows. After it shattered, Alma pushed herself inside, eager to finally welcome shelter, but upon falling to the floor she screamed.
The coffin-maker had a visitor. A shimmering coagulation of broken matter extending from the nightsky had broken through the ceiling, with a human-shaped appendage slowly descending, its wrinkled, bulbous arms stretched wide, into the coffin-maker’s waiting embrace. The lightning clung to its brilliant, opal flesh, a tangle of explosions which it wore like jewelry. And from its core a steady and powerful pulse of heat, like the heartbeat of the sun, surged outward. Alma remembered her dream–the floating sac beneath the ravaging waves of that somber ocean. Had the darkness closing in delivered it? She shut her eyes, unable to bear the light. The heat within the chapel and the cold of the rain on her skin tore her apart. Outside, the flood roared and smashed the chapel’s doors. The walls crumbled under the weight of the sky, the rubble disappearing into the waters. Alma realized she was standing at the edge of a collision. A bubble of space around the bier quivered–the point where she surmised the sky and the flood would unite.
Alma gradually felt lighter as the flood rose to her waist, half of her disintegrating beneath the waters. At the same moment, her body collapsed from within, a searing warmth spreading throughout her like the tentacles of a beast and pulling her inward as they coiled. Her thoughts crumbled in their clutches. How pretty you are. Who are you? Take me. Let me join you.
As the pain lulled her to sleep, and blood poured from her eyes, nose and mouth, the sight of her mother’s face arrested her consciousness. On the visitor’s shoulder–her mother’s visage, made of glittering, leathery folds, frozen mid-scream. Many other familiar faces adorned the visitor’s back, and Alma remembered all the tombs that had been ruined and all the corpses that had disappeared.
Maddened, she lunged forward with renewed vigor and pushed the bier over. The coffin with its glass cover shattered as it fell, and the old craftsman’s body thudded alongside it on the dais with the altar overlooking the smile, so gentle and so loving, carved onto his face. Alma screamed in her rage. She grabbed a shard from the wreckage, set upon tearing the coffin-maker’s body apart, until a warm finger tapped her nape. When she turned, she equaled gazes with a face shaped like a mouth in which swirled a long, thick muscle, unraveling like a blooming flower. A bright red aperture within it sighed, and all of Alma’s atoms cried and burst.
Zyra Cabugayan lives in a small coastal city in the Philippines and spends her time complaining about the weather. She can be found online @notactuallyzyra on Instagram.
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