Welcome to the third week of Short Fiction Wednesday, in which I feature the first 1.5-2k of a story from my ebook collection Night Bird Soaring and Other Stories, which features 17 different reprint selections ranging from fantasy to horror to alternate history. If you enjoy what you read here, you can purchase the full collection at Amazon or B&N for $2.99.
This week’s selection takes us back into ancient myth. “Love, Blood and Octli” originally appeared in Paradox: the Magazine of Historical and Speculative Fiction and follows the life of Ayomichi, the wind god Ehecatl’s first priestess. The god grants the people many wonderful gifts like love, but his darker half cannot help but delight in also releasing chaos to turn happiness into suffering. And as the darkness grows stronger in him, only Ayomichi can save the world–and him–from losing all hope….
Love, Blood and Octli
On my seventh birthday, the feathered serpent gave me my name.
Many snakes lived among the reeds near the pond, most of them full of poison and spite, but this one was different. He was no bigger than the other snakes but was covered in feathers; white ones on his slender body, and long, exquisite emerald ones—like those of the precious quetzal bird—around his neck. I met him as I swam around the pond.
“What a strange creature you are!” I called when I saw him flying above me.
The feathered serpent looked at me with keen yellow-slit eyes. “Ah, Ayomichi,” he declared.
I laughed. “I’m not a turtle.”
“You swim like one.”
“I’m a girl.”
“I can see that. But you’re also Ayomichi. It’s your name.”
“My name? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“Certainly your mother calls you something?”
“She calls me cihuatzintli. She calls my sisters the same.”
“But if she calls all of you ‘girl’, how do you know when she’s calling for you?” the serpent asked.
I shrugged. “We all come when she calls.”
“Well, I’ve given you a name, and it shall be yours and not your sisters’, so you’ll know when your mother calls you.”
What a wonderful birthday present! No one in the village had a name, and I felt special that I should be the first to have one. I went back ashore and slipped into my dress. “Have you a name?” I asked him.
“All the gods have names. I am Ehecatl, the wind that rolls across the prairies and wraps around the mountains. Life itself arose from my breath and blood.”
I stared at him in awe. My mother sometimes spoke of the gods and pointed them out in the night sky, but I’d never heard her say their names. Maybe she didn’t know them? What an honor, to be not only the first of my kind to have a name, but to learn a god’s name as well. “Will you give names to my sisters too, My Lord?” I hoped not. I liked being special.
“Well, I have named everything else—the ant, the mountains, and all the waters. It would only be right to give names to your people too.”
I felt crestfallen.
“Do not fret, Ayomichi,” Ehecatl told me. “Come. I wish to show you something.”
I followed him around the pond. He settled in a coil at the roots of a tree and shook his head, dislodging some of his emerald feathers. They touched the ground and dissolved, and a moment later dull brown mushrooms sprung out of the earth. “These are the sacred Teonanacatl. Chew one and I will speak through you. Your people will come to you for the names I give them, and they shall repay you in both kindness and those things necessary to live.”
Pleased, I bent down to load my dress pockets with the mushrooms, but just then my brother leaped from the bushes, brandishing a sharpened stick. With a yell, he flung it at Ehecatl. It missed, and instead grazed my calf. Ehecatl flew away.
I snatched the spear and smacked my brother across the shoulders with it, but he only laughed at me. “Mother’s right about you!” I shouted. “Maybe you should go live with the rest of the brute men in the forest, for you’re as mean and vicious as they are!”
“It’s just a scratch,” he said, ignoring the blood pouring down my leg. “I should ask what you were doing standing so close to that snake. It could have bitten you.”
“Ehecatl wouldn’t bite me.”
“The wind god, Ehecatl.”
He laughed some more. “If we men are brutes, sister, then you women have heads full of rubbish.”
“It isn’t rubbish! He’s very powerful, and he will smite you if you don’t watch your tongue.” Turning my nose to the air, I started back toward the village.
My brother followed close behind, still teasing. “How do you know he’s the wind?”
“He told me.”
“A talking snake?” he cackled.
“He did too, and he’s given me a special task to perform for him. From now on, everyone will have a name, and he will speak it through me.” I glowed with pride. “And he gave me a name first before anyone. He’s named me Ayomichi.”
My brother laughed so hard he clutched his side. “He named you Turtle? Is that because you’re slow and stupid?”
Grinding my teeth, I turned and gave him a swift kick between the legs. He gasped and crumpled to his knees. “You’re just jealous,” I snarled, then ran on ahead, leaving him crying and moaning.
I felt thoroughly pleased with having reduced him to tears, but when my mother threatened to switch his backside raw for leaving me alone, I started feeling bad. I hoped I hadn’t hurt him too badly.
And you dare call him a brute, I scolded myself as I walked back to the edge of the village to wait for him. He trudged down the path a few minutes later, looking pale and moving very slow. “I’m sorry, brother.” I couldn’t meet his eyes.
“I was only worried you might get bit,” he said.
“Let me ask Ehecatl to give you a name. Will that make you feel better?”
He rolled his eyes but sat on a rock on the side of the path. I took a mushroom from my pocket, chewed it carefully, and then waited for something to happen.
And waited some more.
My brother grew impatient and surly, but when he finally spoke, his voice sounded distant and disconnected, as if I heard the words long after he spoke them. The sky turned vibrant pink, and the earth beneath me moved as if breathing. I felt wrapped in soft, warm feathers. I heard Ehecatl’s voice in my head, whispering. I moved my mouth, mimicking his words. “Eehzio,” I said to my brother, my own voice just as distant as his. “That will be your name. This is your destiny.”
The name meant “Very Bloody.” I wanted to cry over this choice of name, for despite how I teased my brother, I’d always hoped he would be different than the men who roamed the forest. Mother constantly warned us girls to be wary of them, and to not become too attached to our brother, for some day he would have to leave us. Boys turned wild and dangerous when they became men. I hadn’t wanted to believe it, and even after learning his name, I still didn’t want to.
Eehzio stared at me. Our older sister came to find us, and when she looked into my eyes, I spoke her name too: “Huentli,” which meant “Gift.”
“What is wrong with her?” Huentli asked Eehzio.
“She speaks the words of a god,” Eehzio said, awed. Or maybe it was envy I saw in his eyes. He turned to Huentli and said, “Hurry! Bring everyone, before the god leaves.” He remained behind with me while Huentli ran off, but he kept at a distance, appraising me in silence.
For hours, Ehecatl spoke with my tongue, issuing names to everyone who asked. By dusk, the last of the women left with their children, and I was surrounded by more food than I could ever eat and more cloth for dresses than I could ever wear. It was all left in payment for my gift of bestowing names.
Eehzio helped me carry my things back to our mother’s hut, gazing over the trove of loot I’d earned in my few hours speaking for Ehecatl. It was definitely envy I saw in his eyes.
I didn’t see Ehecatl again for many years after that, though I suspected he came around the pond quite often; I found his white, feathery-scales tangled among the reeds. The summer of my fourteenth year, however, I began noticing the other scales. They were obsidian black, and I could see my reflection in them. They were bigger too, and the reeds sometimes smelled of brimstone, making me wary of venturing near them.
One day, I went to the pond with Eehzio and several of our sisters. This time of year the men began venturing out of the forest into the meadows, hunting deer, and my mother said they wouldn’t hesitate to take one of us. “A lone woman is an easy target,” she always said. My sisters played hide-and-seek among the rocks while I washed the laundry and Eehzio kept a lookout for unwanted visitors.
As I knelt on the shore of the pond, a giant snake lunged from the reeds at me, rattling his tail and hissing. Thinking it was a demon, I jumped away and fell sideways into the water.
“Ah, my dearest Ayomichi,” the snake hissed in a sharp, high-pitched voice. “So pleasant to see you again.” When I stared at him, he tutted. “Is this how you greet your most beloved god, with stares rather than reverence?”
“Ehecatl?” He did have some white feathers, but most of his scales were black. And the remaining white ones were scorched around the edges. Wisps of smoke rose from under them. The feathers around his neck had turned black too.
“Do you know the names of any other gods?” Ehecatl snapped.
I climbed out of the water, fumbling for something to say. “You look different than when last we met, My Lord,” I finally managed.
“I’m molting.” My sisters’ laughter drifted over to us, and he sat up tall to gaze at them over the reeds. “The world seems strikingly happy, doesn’t it?”
“Your gift has made life better,” I said.
Ehecatl snorted. “There’s always room for improvement.”
I looked away, dismayed. What had become of the kind-hearted Ehecatl I remembered?
A smile spread over Ehecatl’s face. He nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, improvement.” He then turned to me. “Seven years ago, I gave you the gift of a name, and you gave that gift to everyone else. Today I shall give you a new gift, and you shall share it too with your people.”
He suddenly sprang and pierced me like an arrow. When he came out on the other side of me, I felt as if he’d squeezed my heart with his coils. I inhaled sharply and gripped my chest, my heart thudding.
“Now go forth and spread my gift far and wide,” Ehecatl said with a smile that left me uneasy. He then jumped back into the reeds, leaving behind the faint smell of brimstone.
I finished the laundry quickly, eager to return to the village. Then I gathered my sisters together. Eehzio lingered near the reeds, his nose wrinkled as he looked around, and he only followed us when I told him for a third time that we were ready to leave.
I kept my hand to my chest the whole way home, anxious about the disconcerting tingling growing there.
If you enjoyed this excerpt and want to know how the story ends, consider picking up a copy of the anthology at Amazon or B&N. (for non-US editions, please visit the Novel and Collections page for links)