The Birds and Bees

by Ray Zacek

The highland community of Ceridwen nestled beneath a V-shaped cleft in the pine-clad mountains, walled and gated and safe. Seen from afar, Ceridwen presented a beehive cluster of green tile roofs and ochre walls. An array of solar panels provided power, colorful murals adorned walls, and shrines punctuated the winding streets. At the center of the community stood a gleaming travertine temple dedicated to the Goddess. Late in the lunar month of Eostre, a few days before the full moon, the valley below lay verdant, the sun blazed, and brushstrokes of feathery cirrus teased the azure sky.

Ritsuko Sasaki pronounced this a beautiful day as she sipped a pale-yellow wine with pleasing notes of citrus and burnt almond. Her houseman, Brint, served her lunch, a frittata alle herbette, a quick bite before she returned to her work in the herbarium and laboratory. A special meal this; eggs proved rare, valuable, not to be wasted. Brint draped his linen apron over the back of the chair and sat opposite her, hands clasped in his lap, waiting for her approval.

“This is wonderful,” said Ritsuko at last, scraping the fork.

“Thank you.” Brint sighed. He prided himself on his cooking. His ikigai, Ritsuko called it; the endeavor that gave his life purpose and for which he had earned the coveted Silver Spatula from the Ceridwen culinary society.

“Oh,” Ritsuko said, “I wanted to tell you something.” She drained her long-stemmed wineglass and uttered a contented aaah. “It slipped my mind.”

“You’ve been busy lately,” Brint said, helpfully.

She pinged her empty glass with a red lacquered nail. “More wine.”

Brint poured. “What did you want to tell me what?”

“About the lunar ceremony.” A radiant smile adorned her face.  “You’re it.”

Brint, his voice tremulous, said, “I’m sorry?”

“You heard me,” replied Ritsuko.

“I thought Aida’s husband Fimber was … um … to be honored.”

“That changed. Fimber developed a horrid rash, and the priestesses interpreted it as an ill omen. So, I volunteered you.”

“You didn’t —”

“I meant to tell you.”

“— mention it to me, discuss it with me …”

Her smile dissipated and she looked at him with her dark commanding, she-samurai eyes. “What need was there to discuss it?”

Brint’s cheek twitched. He blinked, his eyes watered, and his throat muscles tautened. “I’m hardly worthy. Of this great honor pleasing the Goddess, praise Her Name.  Could not … couldn’t a more suitable candidate be found?”

“Oh, no,” replied Ritsuko. “The priestesses are delighted with you!”

Brint’s heart sunk. “Are they?” His voice choked.

“Acclaimed by all. Accepted unanimously!” Ritsuko forked the final piece of frittata and gobbled it down, followed by another sip of wine.  Delicately she wiped her lips with a napkin.

“I’d really rather not,” Brint hazarded to say, for insubordination was unthinkable. Should I beg? he thought.  Prostrate myself at Ritsuko’s feet and plead, plead, plead to be passed over? Would begging do any good? No, that was a prolly knot.

“I’d really rather that you did,” Ritsuko said, her dish scraping the table as she pushed it away. She added in her that-is-the-final-word-on-the-subject-and-you-dare-not-argue-with-me voice: “And you will.”

Brint sighed. “I will,” he conceded. But thinking there must be a way out of this.

Without changing her expression, or needing to say a word, Ritsuko extended a foot on the tessellated tile floor and pointed to the toe of her boot.

Brint complied.

#

In the beginning was Nothing, void without form, imponderable, eternal and entirely static.  Boring. From a tiny spark in the void, Chaos arose, filled with energy but erratic. Chaos shattered Nothing to reign in its place.  From primordial chaos the Great Goddess awakened, and looked about, dismayed.  Chaos swirled, coruscating, feckless, creating immense flows and fractals and having a hell of a good time.  I really should fix this, the Goddess resolved. Thus, the work of creation began. The Goddess labored to bring order to Chaos and provide for Her comfort and pleasure.

From Her own body and boundless imagination, the Goddess fashioned fire and earth. Wasn’t hard at all.  Fire She flung far and wide to create the cosmos, all the stars and the chunks of cold matter in motion. She shaped the good earth, imbued with fire at its center, dividing land from sea from sky, and wedded it with the Moon as her signet.

Pronouncing Her creation good, She danced for joy upon the water and shore of earth, and the waves danced with Her. Her divine dance set the sinuous wind in motion. The wind caressed, the wind tickled, the wind aroused Her. Seizing the wind, the Goddess rolled it between her hands and breathed life into it.

Hello, She said, smiling.

Hello back atcha, sweet, serene one, came the reply, a pleasing susurration.  Wind became the Serpent whom She made her consort. The Serpent proved a lustful creation, coiling about Her divine limbs with sensuous and soft motion, pleasuring the Goddess. In turn, She elevated him. Together they reigned over subdued Chaos, tamping it down when it arose again here and there, and both delighted in Her new creation. She populated it with many creatures, all plants, trees, and crops; flowers that She delighted in; mammals and birds and reptiles and creepy-crawling things the Serpent doted upon and occasionally ate, and even in-between things that are rarely seen and defy taxonomy.

The Serpent got Her with many children. Some of them carried the folded crevice of the Goddess, others sprouted the little stub of the Serpent, but all were innocent and happy in those halcyon days. Before the marital breach.

 

#

Ari served the Divine Phyllis; he remained in charge of the house while Phyllis travelled to other far-flung communities, often on extended visits. He was older, sixtyish, and plump. Phyllis liked older men settled in servitude. They had developed brains, she asserted, insofar as male brains could develop, and hence could take direction.

Ari sat on a stool in the solarium, warm in the light, his four-string, maplewood cretini balanced between his stout legs. Silver hair fellow below his shoulders. He remained naked except for a loincloth hidden below his belly and the collar Phyllis insisted he wear. He sipped his Daze cocktail, pomegranate juice and distilled alcohol laced with a compliance drug.

“We all serve,” he told Brint who had snuck next door seeking counsel from the older man. “We must do what we are called upon to do.”

“No!” Brint paced. “It isn’t fair!”

“Fair,” said Ari, “doesn’t matter.”

“I’ve served Ritsuko, given her my devotion, my submission, and catered to her every whim. This is how she rewards me?”

Ari sighed. “Did you hear what I said?”

Brint turned to face Ari. “Sorry, I wasn’t listening.”

Ari said: “You’re chosen.”

“No! Ritsuko volunteered me!”

Ari tut-tutted away this objection.  “Be that as it may, you are the choice. The sacrament is conducted only once every nine years when the planets and the moon are in alignment. To be honored as you are, well, I daresay is the absolute apex of devotion.”

“Why don’t you do it!”

“I wasn’t chosen.”

“Offer to take my place.”

“Oh, no,” replied Ari. “That’s not how this works. This is bestowed upon you. Be not the ungrateful servant.”

“Servant is one thing,” Brint said. “Sacrifice is another.”

“Mox nix.” Ari plucked cretini strings. The instrument needed tuning. Ari had been called upon by the priestesses to provide musical accompaniment for the ceremony.

Brint turned away to gaze out the window, to the east, beyond the dark forest, the meadows with array of solar panels and windmills, and the well-tended fields. Somewhere out there were places outside of gynarchic civilization, where runaways, rogues, and rebels clustered and eked out an existence, and men were not mere household chattels or serfs in the fields. Or, at least, Brint had heard whispered rumors of such places. His heart throbbed. Forbidden freedom beckoned.

“I know,” Brint murmured. “I’ll escape.”

“Ahem. You’ll what?”

“Escape!” He announced, “I will jump the wall.”

“Jump the wall?” Ari laughed. “And go where?”

“To live among the free necks. Men who are not owned.”

“Ha! That,” said Ari, “is an Imponderable.” He bowed the heavy cretini, sounding a discordant note. “Ponder not an Imponderable. There are nodes of community like Ceridwen but, beyond that, lies nothing but ruin and wilderness and utter ungoverned chaos, nothing to escape to.”

“There has to be,” said Brint.

“No, there doesn’t have to be,” said Ari. “And let me remind you, we took vows of unlimited devotion.” Ari sipped Daze and gazed with adoration at the towering nude bronze statue of The Divine Phyllis, realized in the popular Willendorf style.

“I revoke that vow,” Brint declared, smashing his fist into his palm. A flash of pain made him wince.

“Oh, come now,” said Ari, scoffing and frowning. “Both of us know you’re not going to revoke any vows, nor will you escape. Don’t be silly. You will obey.” He played the solemn opening movement of the Dies Sanguinis, an ancient hymn to the Goddess.

“You’ll see,” Brint replied, harshness creeping into his voice like a serpent.

Ari shrugged. “Besides, you’re chipped. Did you forget?”

Brint stared at the palm of his hand where the microchip had been planted. Every male in Ceridwen was chipped. Brint’s brow furrowed. “Oh, yeah, forgot about that.”

“Aha,” said Ari.

“Have to think about that.”

“Don’t do anything rash,” Ari cautioned him and drained his cup of compliance with a ravenous slurp. He sighed and emitted a small burp.

#

Brint scurried from the solarium to resume his household duties. He passed a shrine with its clattering bones and tinkling brass bells; a blue satin-wrapped Goddess image smiled enigmatically, as if She knew what bubbled in Brint’s mind.  Along the winding, narrow street he met the priestess Ayn. Brint, as required, immediately prostrated himself before her, his forehead touching cobblestones. She left him in submission or almost a minute before bidding him rise. He stood, in deference keeping his eyes downcast.

“Be at ease, Brinton.” Ayn wore a red corset and the flowing, shimmery green and gold robes of her office. Her spidery fingers dazzling with crystal rings. From her belt hung a ritual knife in a bejeweled sheath, and a leathery pouch stuffed with jingling coins, which gave Brint shudders.

“Thank you, priestess.”

She circled him, appraising, finger stroking her prominent chin. “You’re an excellent choice for the sacrament. I’m pleased. We made the right decision.”

Brint nodded. “Thank you, priestess.”

“I’m presiding, you know,” she said and clucked her tongue.  “Can’t lie to you. It is painful. But the rapture exceeds the pain. Our rapture, your pain, I suppose. As it should be.”  She smiled, bubbling with a giggle, and then whistled. A melodic chirrup, like a bird. Her green eyes flashed with anticipation. She took a quill and brushed his cheek. “I’m looking forward to the ceremony.” She waved her hand, dismissing him, rings clicking. “Now, scoot. Go, go. I will see you again in a few days.”

#

Over time, the Serpent grew vain and became demanding too, always wanting to couple with Her, and hissing with petulance when She refused. Then he vexed Her by claiming authorship of all that exists, and sowing discord among her children. Furious at his presumption and intrigue, She denied him, squashed his head with the heel of Her divine foot, and banished him to slither in exile upon the earth. Priestesses decorate shrines with snakeskins, and conduct rituals, to celebrate his defeat.

In exile the Serpent remained in the tall grass, in swamps and fens, in barren rocky places or caves below the earth. Venomous, biting, predatory.  Always jealous, always plotting. The creatures who carry the little worm and the sac between their legs are his forsaken descendants, imperfect and untrustworthy as the Serpent. They may be tamed, but they can never fully participate in the act of creation or the wielding of power; for that was tried, and men made an absolute ruinous botch of it. Men can’t urinate properly, let alone run the world. Women remain the true and rightful descendants of the Goddess, priestesses charged with protection of Her creation and its divine order. The dominant sex, as ordained from creation, and man inferior, the contest not even close.

#

This is what I must do, Brint told himself that night. Scramble over the wall that surrounded Ceridwen and sneak off into the woods under cover of darkness. A scary prospect. Bold. Daunting. Preposterous, Ari would say. Brint had not been outside Ceridwen since he was marched here for service, a young stripling fresh from the crèche.

I will do it! He vowed.

Ritsuko remained asleep, gently snoring. Brint had dutifully tucked her into bed, given her a foot and calf massage and added a sleeping potion, filched from her own pharma, to her nighty-night chamomile tea.

In his adjoining room, little bigger than a closet, Brint gathered his few belongings and the coins he’d scraped together, stuffed in a cloth satchel. Didn’t amount to much but would have to suffice. He tiptoed downstairs and snatched a bottle of strong distilled wine from the cabinet. The images of the Goddess, installed in niches around the room, looked down upon him with divine disapprobation.  But Brint persevered, evading Her gaze. From the kitchen he selected a paring knife and then, shuddering, slinked into the bath.

Must do. Must escape. This is not rash, Ari is mistaken, this is a matter of necessity. I will not submit. Not this time, not to this.  He stood before the polished onyx basin for half an hour, summoning courage, and taking gulps of fortified wine.  I’ve no choice. But this is going to be messy. And will hurt.

He put the bottle down and taking the knife in his hand, gnashed his teeth and, taking aim with tip of the knife, began the extraction …

#

His bleeding palm wrapped in silk, Brint tumbled over the wall under the pewter light of a waxing moon. He scraped his knees on loose rock upon landing and bit a chunk of his lip. Picking himself up again, he scrambled through the brush, half tripping into the dark valley below. He fled until exhausted, and lost, the flickering lights of Ceridwen hovering above him. Curling into a ball, he slept. Fitfully. Waking in fright often. Creatures chittered, hooted, and howled in the night and clomped through the brush.

The next morning, he avoided the macadam road.  Too much traffic; Huntresses patrolled, fierce Amazons riding geldings, or scooting in wheeled vehicles powered by batteries. An escaped male hadn’t a chance. Brint wandered the forest. Going in circles, he feared. He tried to navigate by the procession of the sun across the azure sky but seemed to make no progress in the haze and shadows of the pathless forest. Bright Ceridwen still loomed above in the cleft of the mountain, no nearer, no further.

He carried no comestibles, nor water, and his belly growled by the time he found the ramshackle hut under ancient oaks with long twisty limbs that defied gravity. Brint staggered. The hut was an aggregate of thatch, branch, corrugated metal sheets flaky with rust, and concrete blocks. Strips of canvas and old foam rubber formed its threshold. The vines growing on the roof and sides of the hut caught Brint’s attention. Vines exploded with clusters of purple berries, fat, and succulent. Brint’s mouth crunched dry as wool, his tongue swollen. The wound on his palm stung, and oozed blood; his ankle and legs hurt, and so did his back; small scratches adorned his body.

An old man in rags emerged from inside the hut. Long rufous hair fell to his shoulders, his bristly beard reached his waist, and he wielded a cudgel.  He squinted at Brint with rheumy eyes, then smiled.

“Friend?”

“Yes, yes, I’m a friend,” said Brint. “I won’t hurt you.”

“Nor I you.” The old man dropped the gnarled wooden cudgel.

“Say, can I have some of your purple berries?”

“Oh, yes, my friend, whoever you are. Help yourself.”

Brint grazed. The berries proved delish. Intoxicating! The old man sat down on a stump. His legs were as green as the forest and his bare feet callused and rough.  He wrapped his arms around his bony knees.

“My name is Gubbins.”

“I’m Brint.” Spitting stems and pulp, juice dribbling down his chin.

“I live alone, a wise, old hermit,” said Gubbins.

“You have no mistress?”

“Nope. But it’s lonely here and been a long time since any human being stumbled upon my hut.  If you’re in trouble, Brint, perhaps I can help you.”

“I’m running away,” said Brint. “From Ceridwen.”

“Let me see your hands.”

Gubbins examined Brint’s hands, unwrapping the blood-soaked silk bandage, seeing the gash.  “Aha, I see. Soft hands, not those of a laborer. You serve. Yes? You don’t get out much. Removed the tracking chip. Smart move. But here you need not worry.  I am left alone, the gynarchs do not bother with me, no, no, they do not bother with Gubbins. Come inside. Let me offer you shelter.”

Gubbins gave off a musty odor, and his breath was foul, but he proved a solicitous host. He made a poultice for Brint’s hand, promising the wound would heal completely before the next moonrise. He led Brint to a stream of clear, cool water near the hut, where Brint drank and bathed. Then they sat inside the dismal hut and guzzled wine that Gubbins made from the purple berries and stored in ceramic jugs.

“I told you I escaped,” said Brint. “They were going to sacrifice my ass. At the full moon. You know, the planets all lined up, or something.”

“The Transit and Triseveration.” Gubbins nodded.

“What’s it called?”

“Never mind. Not important. Have more wine.”  He filled Brint’s crude wooden cup to the brim. “Can’t blame you for escaping, no, can’t blame you. At all.”

Brint gulped. “Do you know of places where free men gather? Rebels and rogues and renegades who live on their own.”

“Did you hear me say I’m a hermit?” Gubbins shrugged. “How would I know of such places?”

“Didn’t you say you’re a wise hermit?”

Gubbins laughed. “Oh, that’s more or less a title, that’s all. No hermit boasts he is ignorant and filthy and knows squat.”

“Well, and you were young once and weren’t always a hermit.”

The old man shook his shaggy head, dislodging twigs, leaves, and a few bugs from his hair. He stroked his beard. “No, not that I can remember.”

He had inhabited his humble hut for more moons than he could count, Gubbins explained. Thousands of moons, millions, an Imponderable number, and you didn’t ponder Imponderables because doing so ruptured your brain.  Alone, contemplative, Gubbins lived on wild shrooms and mice, which now simmered in a stew pot over the fire in the center of his hut. He gathered edible plants, wild celery, berries. He caught fish in a weir.  Crushed fisheyes, he asserted, brought out the savory taste of the mouse innards.  He plucked an occasional eel out of the stream, creatures he ate raw.

“Raw?” Brint recoiled, suppressing the urge to retch.  His head reeled from the wine and his mouth and chin were purple.

“Yes,” said Gubbins. He fetched a glass jar filled with water, in which an eel curled and wriggled, quite alive and not at all appetizing to Brint. “Try some.”

“No, no, thanks, I would rather not.” Turning green.

Gubbins laughed and mocked him. “And you, slave, want to be a rogue and renegade, a wild man. Doubtful you have the stomach for it.”

“I can be one without eating a slimy eel,” said Brint.

Drink more wine, urged the old man. They supped. Had to admit, Brint nodded, slurping from a bowl, the stew wasn’t bad at all. Tasty soft shrooms, tasty mice too. Crunchy. If a little bitter.

“If there are free men out there,” said Brint, the wine making him bold, “I will find them and join them.”

“Yes, yes,” clucked Gubbins. “I’m sure you will. But for now, let me tell you a story. It is what we old hermits do when we have a captive audience. Which is not often. Gynarchs tell lies. But Gubbins the Hermit will tell you the truth. About the birds and the bees. As it was told to me. You see, we hermits are holy fathers who adopt young outcasts to follow in our hermithood.”

“What’s a father?” Brint gulped more wine. He slumped.

“Aha, you see,” said Gubbins. “There are no fathers because there are no families, only birthing females and their offspring, raised by the gynarchy.”

“Uh-huh.” Brint nodded, sleepy.  This old man smelled awful, but his wine was sweet. His hospitality, Brint reasoned, obliged that attention to be paid to his story.

Gubbins took a small wooden pipe and stuffed its bowl with a pungent smelling weed. He lit it with a twig from the fire, puffed, and continued.

“First the bees. Honeybees died. Near extinction. Why remains a mystery. The gynarchy says because the Goddess willed it so.” Gubbins chortled and blew a cloud of smoke. “Loss of bees meant loss of crops for food because bees were great pollinators. People starved.  And then there was the birds …”

“Birds?” Brint grimaced “Nasty things, birds. Scavengers.”

Gubbins leaned forward and tapped his pipe in the air. “Avian virus. Bird flu, it was called. It spread and passed into the human population. Taking more males than females. Woman proved all but immune. Male births fell off the cliff.” He gestured the plummet with his hand. “Many that survived showed deformities. Smaller heads, smaller brains, smaller genitals.”

“Huh,” said Brint.

“Huh? Is that all you can say?”

“My prick isn’t small.”

“Good for you. Anyway, these catastrophes were the end!”

“Of what?” Brint yawned. The old man grew tiresome.

“History,” replied Gubbins.

“What’s history?” Brint stretched out on a bed of moss and old foam. He felt cozy in the heat from the fire, now blackened, white edged charcoal and guttering flames. Smoke spiraled out a hole in the roof of the hut.

Gubbins strutted around the hearth at the center of his hut. “Woman asserted dominance over a world reduced in population and resources and revived the worship of the Great Goddess from the ancient and mist-shrouded past, which is to say they made it up out of whole cloth. They took what they found useful from the old male-created world.  The tracking chips, for instance. And much of the tech. And the dildos.”

“Huh,” Brint muttered, and lapsed into wine-soaked sleep.

#

Gubbins shook him awake. Sunlight poured in the hut through the open canvas flap that serves as the hut’s entrance.

“Something else I must tell you.”  With urgency in Gubbins’ creaky voice. Muted voices murmured.

“What?” Roused from deep sleep, the sunlight blinded Brint.

“Heard of the legend of Actaeon?”

“No,” said Brint. “Who?”

“Actaeon was a hunter,” said Gubbins. “A wild and free man who bragged how great a hunter he was. Oh, did he brag!  One day, out hunting with his hounds, who should he come across but Artemis, goddess of the wild woods, bathing in the waters of a spring. She told him, now you may tell all who listen that you have seen a goddess nude. Cool, Actaeon replied, showing her his stiff prick. But instead, Artemis transformed him into a stag. In fear, he fled. His own hounds, deceived by his transformation, chased him, and tore him to pieces. Now, what is the moral of the story?”

“Don’t diss a goddess,” said Brint.

“No,” replied Gubbins. “There is an ancient saying that a dog is man’s best friend. If a loyal dog can be induced to turn on its master, what can you expect from other men?”

He shrugged and moved aside as a troika of Amazons in body armor crashed into the hut, and seized Brint, binding him, and leading him outside. Gubbins followed. The bellicose woman in charge of the detachment gave Gubbins a gift of fresh eggs wrapped and bundled in a sack, for which he thanked her with obsequious bowing.

“Sorry, my boy,” he said to Brint as he was led away. “You are simply not good material for hermithood, and I want the eggs.”

#

Sweet ethereal chimes announced a visitor at the threshold of Ritsuko’s dwelling. She flung open the door to greet Artemis Laetch, a stout, formidable woman, her iron-grey hair the same color as her uniform. From her polished black belt hung a taser, shackles, and injectors of Daze, the accoutrement of enforcement. She carried an unconscious man over her broad shoulders.

“This is yours,” Artie announced.

Ritsuko was aghast. “Oh, my Goddess!”

Artie entered and plopped Brint on the floor. He’d been stripped of clothing. Dirt, ligature marks and abrasions adorned his body.

Ritsuko said: “He’s filthy!”

“Patrol picked him up.  He didn’t get far. They never do.”

Ritsuko fumed. “How dare he! I feel betrayed!” She sobbed and reached for a thin bamboo cane in a basket by the door.

Artie thought best to placate her. “Don’t be too hard on him. You know how irrational men get under stress. I gave him a double dose of Daze. When he’s awake, he should be compliant. But you might want to keep him in heavy Daze until time for the sacrament.” Artie winked.

“I shall,” Ritsuko said.  With an imploring look she added, “There’s no need for you to mention this sordid little incident to anybody, is there?”

“I see no reason to,” replied Artie.

Ritsuko sighed with relief.  How mortifying if word got out! The embarrassment, the looks from other women, the loss of status. Unbearable! She presented a graceful bow to Artie. “Thank you for your discretion and thank Goddess.”

“Oh, Goddess be praised,” replied Artie. “Praise, praise. Tell you what, sister. I’ll come back to help you get him cleaned up and to the temple.”

“Would you? I’d be delighted!”

“No trouble at all!”

Ritsuko embraced the older woman. They kissed. A crystalline sapphic moment bloomed, with sighs. On the floor, Brint moaned. Ritsuko scowled and kicked him in the ribs.  Brint groaned.

Artie stroked her hair, “There, there, go easy, beautiful sister.”  

“He deserves it!”

After Artie left, Ritsuko seethed and brandished the cane.

“Traitor!” she howled, laying bamboo across his shoulders. One stroke, two strokes, three strokes. “How could you do this to me?”

“Ouch,” he replied.

#

The shining Temple of All Goddesses stood at the heart of Ceridwen. A wishbone-shaped arch marked its entrance. The carved pink and white marble resembled delicate folds of skin flowing from the hooded crest of the wishbone to the ground.  Artie, accompanying Ritsuko, inconspicuously hustled Brint into the temple through a side door to an anteroom behind the main altar.

Brint remained squishy-brained in a Daze-induced sub space, content and biddable. He slumped in a comfy chair, barely aware of the blur of activity around him in the small chamber: priestesses chatting, dressing, laughing, squatting to pee in the polished white porcelain commodes. When Priestess Ayn swept into the room, Artie grabbed him under his armpits and sat him up in the chair, holding him. Ayn first commended Ritsuko for offering her houseman and consoled her on the loss of a good cook. Then Ayn swiveled to Brint.

“Well, hello,” Ayn greeted him with a toothy smile.

“Hello,” said Brint.

“Are you ready?”

When he didn’t answer immediately, Artie slapped his cheek as a prompt and repeated the question. Brint replied, “I am … I think…”

“Don’t think,” said Ayn. “We do that for you.” She emitted an amused chirrup. Brint couldn’t quite recognize this tall woman with light brown hair, a wispy mustache on her upper lip and fuzz covering her arms. He struggled to catch her words or even focus his eyes, with sizzling scotoma dancing in the periphery of his vision.

“She giveth life and taketh life away…”

“What?” said Brint.

Ayn dangled a wiggly strand of something like snakeskin before his face. “Don’t think of it as mortality. You are being reintegrated with the basic stuff of creation, the infinite universe that She made, and that you are only a tiny insignificant part of. In a subordinate position, as it should be.”

“He gets that.” Artie loomed over Brint and pinched him at the base of the neck above his clavicle. Brint winced with pain and regurgitated the appropriate response.

“I get that!”

“Good boy,” said Ayn and patted Brint’s head and mussed his thinning strands of blonde hair. She egressed the chamber with an elegant swish of her embroidered skirt and Brint sat pondering where exactly he was and why he was here, slapped, and pinched and jabbered at. Something about a sacrament …

#

Ari sat blindfolded on the dais before the veiled statue of the Goddess and played the Dies Sanguinis on his cretini during the processional. Celebrants entered the temple’s sky-lit vulvatrium, wearing maenad masks, with selected male slaves in tow, blindfolded. The men prostrated themselves in a line before the altar, face to the cool marble floor, asses elevated, waiting. They dared not peek at the interior of the temple. This revelation was forbidden to males, who were only allowed within the temple on occasions such as this and then only for the ritual hip-thrusting. Behind each male stood a she-celebrant; they opened their robes to reveal the mock-phalluses, shiny with oil, that they wore on hip harnesses. A chitter of anticipation and giggles rose from the congregation. The men quivered. The women looked to Ayn for her assent. She gave it.

In the anteroom, Ritsuko ordered Brint, “Stay on your feet!” He remained wobbly and wanted to sit but she required him conscious. Ritsuko and Artie lifted him, each holding an arm.  “Walk around the room!”

Brint staggered. The chamber was small, and he bumped into the wall. Could hardly feel his body. He could hear the celebrants in the temple, high-itched ululations, the sound echoing. Ritsuko and Artie took turns slapping Brint’s face to yank him back to consciousness.  “I’m awake, I’m awake,” he pleaded. “Stop!”

After the music and the frenzied dancing and chanting and the ritual pegging and the groaning of the crouching male slaves, Ayn mounted the dais, standing behind the lectern, a red cedar lingam, wrapped in heavy chains. The other priestesses lined up behind her. The males in attendance were ushered outside, Ari lumbering with his cretini, the doors closed. The celebrants hushed.

Ayn recited the Origin story. How the Goddess created all that exists and how from the wind She made the Serpent that became her consort, but the wicked Serpent rebelled and was exiled to slither upon the earth. The she-congregants cooed with satisfaction at the wicked Serpent getting his cosmic comeuppance. Snakeskins fluttered in their hands.

Ayn furrowed her brow and lowered her voice to a baleful tone. “There he remained, always creepy crawling about, always jealous of Her, always plotting. The creatures who carry the little worm between their legs are his descendants, as wicked and untrustworthy as the Serpent from whom they sprang, oh, don’t we all know?”

Ayn nodded. Yes, they did know. Laughter like chimes and a chorus of assent reverberated in the chamber. Then, Ritsuko and Artie, each clasping an arm, brought out Brint, bound and blindfolded.

Ayn stepped away from the lectern and addressed the congregation triumphantly: “Today, Sisters, we rejoice and offer the Goddess another son of the Serpent in Her honor.”

On cue, and with great solemnity, Ritsuko and Artie led the victim to the crimson-stained stone slab before the altar. Brint kneeled. Ayn removed his blindfold, putting her hand under his chin, jerk his head up, letting him gaze upon the sacred image of the Goddess. Brint blinked and squinted. Uh-huh. Not at all what he had expected: just another Willendorf copy, a fat goddess with absurdly pendulous breasts crushing a comical-looking serpent under her big, bare foot.  He giggled. Ayn hid her dismay at his lack of rapture, awe, and dread, especially the dread. Ayn relished male dread. She fixed him with a knowing look, thinking, you won’t be giggling for long, slave meat.

The other priestesses in attendance brought Ayn her apron and the sacrificial implements. Blades, finely honed, for the cutting and peeling.

#

The wet work, Ayn called it, with a curl of her lip. The scraping and the curing. Onerous, messy, tiring, and of course bloody, the blood sponged up and saved for future ritual. The priestesses worked for hours, arms bloody to their elbows, aprons soaked, the coppery smell almost choking.  Of course, this was a labor of love and devotion. Had to be done. Goddess must be pleased with an offering.

Once the sacrifice was flayed, the detritus was discarded. Mere meat, bone and sinew and muscle, subject to decay, to be cremated, ashes for the garden. Bleached bones and the skull were sculpted, decorated with intricate scrollwork, and added to the shrines that adorned Ceridwen. Dried scrotum served for a coin purse; pricks, with tiny brass bells attached, dangled on strings in the cold mountain breeze. This however was all material matter. The soul of Brint had risen to serve the Goddess for eternity, and a splendid thing that was too. The Great Goddess upon her celestial seashore forever crushed crawling serpents and augmented her stable of slaves.

Curing took several days and couldn’t be rushed. The prized pelt had to soak in lukewarm water with salt and alum to preserve the skin and kill bacteria. Afterward the effluent was drained, in a Goddess-earth-friendly manner, of course. The priestesses then scrubbed with skin with a dollop of detergent and allowed it to dry naturally in the dry highland air under the sun until it became supple and clammy to the touch. Then it was stretched, examined, and the rough spots abraded. Finally, Ayn deemed it presentable, worthy of offering to the Goddess and displayed above the temple of Ceridwen.

“Well?” Ayn turned to the other priestesses for concurrence.

They answered as one, heads bobbing. “Yes.”

“Good,” said Ayn. “Then I’ll write.”

Taking quill and ink, she inscribed her name, date, and the dedication. Her hand artful, her writing elegant cursive. The priestesses then bathed, rested, and changed into immaculate robes, sending word throughout Ceridwen that the sacrament was now complete and ready to be unfurled.

Women gathered at the temple. Heaps of cumulus clouds clotted the sky. Chill winds gusted down from the blue mountains, whistling through the V-shaped cleft above Ceridwen. The sacred banners, many yellow and crackling with age, fluttered on taut wires over the temple. At last, the newest banner, provided by Ritsuko who beamed with pride, to the accompaniment of cheers and murmured prayers, was raised up high over the sacred holy temple to join its predecessors. It rippled in the mountain breeze and pleased the Godde

ss.


Ray Zacek is a retired fed, flaneur, compulsive scribbler of odd fictions, student of classical history, and  photographer.

 

 

Find him online here:

Facebook: Ray Zacek.   Twitter: @ray_zacek.   Instagram: rayzacek2020 

He also dabbles in stock photography on Dreamstime and Shutterstock under Ray Zacek.

 

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