The Act of God
or The Ascending Aorta
a short story by emily wood
photo by lucas bozzo
Think about its pulse. The blood coursing through its arteries during a time long before this one. How they drained it, letting it pour itself out into a dark, damp bucket. How they threw the juices out on the garden, the flowers eating it up like air. They stole it, it’s that simple. Without permission, they tore it from his chest. In the name of piety, they erected it in the damp, dark tomb. They buried it underground and charged $2 to see it. All profit, no pain.
I was there the entire time. Hanging in the periphery like a bat, I observed it. I certainly have my sinister part in it all, which you will see. I certainly have my own personal gargoyle that presses its talons into my chest.
It started when he performed his first miracle. He was young, running around the forest beating sticks against tree trunks. He found a baby bird by the bushes and took it home to hold in his hands. The baby bird had a broken wing, its light, little bones like the rods of a broken umbrella, sticking out and covered in blood. He didn’t think about the bird flu or bird tuberculosis, just about pain. Its little chirps of death sent what felt like pinpricks through his chest.
He didn’t have any bandages, so he cupped his palm around it in prayer. He closed his eyes and said some sweet words. He hid it in his closet, until two days later it could fly again. By then he was grateful to set it free.
His mother didn’t believe it, so she took him to the Priest. The Priest didn’t believe it, so he took him to God. From then on in, he was studying the bible for five hours a day and getting down on his hands and knees. They wanted to mold him into a proper vessel for the Holy Spirit. They made him devour large quantities of Christ’s body and blood.
He grew up and found admirers all around him like horse flies. He started receiving letters that said things like, “I would lick the insides of your teeth,” and “I named my stillborn baby after you.” He responded to all of them by candlelight. He stayed up after everyone else, a young, handsome man devoted to returning people’s time. He didn’t know why they wrote the things they did, but he knew that he had something special that they wanted to touch.
The Priest formed a close relationship with the Boy. They were always by each other’s sides. He was a sort of umbrella, keeping the Boy from stepping into a vat of egotism. He tried to protect him from getting drunk on the alcohol of admiration and power. It was pouring from the skies.
“He’s delicate, too delicate,” the Priest would tell his Mother affectionately when she would come to call. “He shouldn’t be disrupted in his work. His devotion to others is what contains it. His gift. He must always give more than he receives.”
So, his Mother came to visit less and less until she no longer came at all. The Priest was the Boy’s family now. They told each other their dreams every morning, and he placed his authoritative hand on the Boy’s thigh. It wasn’t like that, if that’s what you’re thinking. It was gentle, which makes it much worse.
His dreams become nothing but images of brokenness. Turtles with cracked shells being beaten by children with wooden planks with nails in them, the skin being ripped off faceless prisoners who screamed and screamed and screamed, his own mother butchering him, chopping off his limbs like they were perfect cuts of meat to be marinated and cooked up for dinner. He was tired all the time. He lived a life so full of light he went to sleep and drowned in death.
He continued on anyway, getting up before dawn, visiting the sick and dying before noon, learning to preach before dinner, and walking the graveyard before bed. The Priest noticed him withdrawing. Becoming moody. Shrugging evasively. Letting his letters pile up until they spilled into the fireplace. He didn’t like this one bit.
But he wasn’t the One Who Did It. The One Who Did It was visiting, had come to learn from the Boy, had come to see him conduct God. The Boy was made to heal all sorts of things, a dog who’d been struck with a frying pan, a woman whose eye had been pricked with a pin, and an old man with broken, bloody teeth. The One Who Did It watched this in awe. He had been born with a mangled foot that hurt him as he walked. He took up religion because he saw every step as a sacrifice. The Boy healed him too. The One Who Did It found the numbing intoxicating, he was in love with the lack of pain.
The One Who Did It got close to the Boy. This time it was like that. He coaxed him in slowly with his charm and understanding. He knew what it was like to be dark and melancholy, and he whispered this in the Boy’s ear like a love letter. They talked about his dreams together in an honest way. The Priest was no longer his most intimate confidant, and although he suspected that something might be amiss, he respected the One Who Did It too much to do anything about it. And if we are being honest, he was simply afraid. He pursed his lips at meals in a tight kind of distaste, but ate his soup without a sound.
The Boy grew powerful over the next few months. He began disappearing after his graveyard strolls and turning up late into the night covered in some sort of stench. When the Priest confronted him about his irresponsible behavior, the Boy just laughed and laughed like it was all some sick joke. What happened next cut the Priest right to his marrow.
“What about your sick subjects? You stay up so late that you have less strength in the morning. You are not acting in the image of the Lord.”
The Boy’s eyes grew cold and flat. He stopped his acting quite suddenly, as if it had been somehow switched off.
“What does it matter,” He replied, deadpan. “I am the Lord.” And with that, the Priest returned to his bed.
This story isn’t about absolute corruption. You cannot blame the One Who Did It for the entire way in which it was done. Although he cultivated it for the sake of his own selfish desire, he did not implant it in the Boy like an artificial insemination. There was something there all along, which isn’t the Boy’s fault, it was just a thing that was. Some of us are more susceptible to these things. It’s the way our brain has been curved and grooved by the events of our life and our trapping of these events in our cages, or as they’re anatomically called, our skulls. We have sculpted ourselves of an interconnected free will. The Boy was susceptible to a life of extremes. Nobody is at fault for this. It is neither good nor bad. It did cause pain, but when you dig deep enough, you’ll find that most things do.
From here is where things throw themselves up. If this story is a stomach, then now is the time that I must make it purge. I am delaying this act because it is unpleasant. I am delaying this act because there will be blood in the bile.
But we will go through it quickly in order to make it less painful. I will go through it so fast you won’t have time to pick everything up. I don’t want your cage to be burdened with too much of it like mine. There’s no need to ruin you completely too.
The One Who Did It abused the Boy. He did it in more ways than one. He made him crave his company, then denied him of it. He touched him in ways he had never been touched before. These soft, slithering caresses reminded him of things he felt in nightmares. He hadn’t seen his mother in almost two years. In the afternoons, the Boy prayed and prayed in the confession booth until he fell asleep, utterly exhausted, his nose all stuffed up.
The Boy decided it had to stop. He didn’t feel right about it anymore, the touching, the secret sharing, the special miracles he was asked to perform just for the One Who Did It. The One Who Did It talked about what they could do together, how they could become powerful, how they could take the crown off of almost anyone’s head. They could charge gold coins from villagers just to be within earshot of the Boy’s sweet, gentle voice. They would give their left arm to have him stroke their hair with meaning.
The Boy told him that doing that would be wrong. They were having one of their private meetings in the chapel, and The Boy was finally fed up. He didn’t like meeting in secret, he didn’t like the way The One Who Did It leaned in to touch his cheek, it made him feel sick and unclean. He didn’t want to be a part of the parish at all anymore, he felt lost, little, afraid.
The One Who Did It grabbed the prayer book from the pew and in a fit of rage hit The Boy over the head. The Boy saw light before his eyes, twinkling and blotchy moving in and out of focus. He had never been hit before. He had never done anything to rouse a beast like violence. The One Who Did It threatened him, he said that if he didn’t continue the same as always, he would tell everyone. He would tell them about their relationship. The Boy’s horrific dreams would come to light, all the secrets would be made public, everyone would know that he was a monster, everyone would see under his skin.
The Boy said he wouldn’t see him anymore. He told him that he would go to the Priest, he would turn him in for mixing power and pleasure, for creating sin. It broke his heart to threaten him, this man that he thought he loved. The One Who Did It said that he would never be believed. He was a respected elder of the church, The Boy was just a child people used and didn’t love.
This angered The Boy, it hurt him and dug a trench in his heart. So, he reached out his hands, and pressed his thumbs firmly into his throat without thinking. He undid the healing, The One Who Did It felt all his foot’s agony once again. The One Who Did It cried out and stumbled away through the heavy wooden doors that slammed like a coffin being shut. The Boy’s stomach twisted itself up. He felt his guilt in his clammy palms.
One night the Boy simply didn’t come back. The Priest was fast asleep, having decided to go on dreaming instead of meddling and messing things up. He recorded his dreams in a tiny notebook while drinking his morning coffee now.
The One Who Did It was asleep as well. He had hired other hands to get dirty. And while the Boy was pacing among the tombstones that night, thinking very hard, he was approached by three men. They said that one of the man’s sons was very sick, and they needed his help immediately. The Boy, beginning to reflect on the way he had acted towards the Priest, whom he loved very much, and to a lesser extent God, who he loved by implication, ran off with them with the best of intentions at heart. Redemption was within his sight. He fled towards what he felt was the greater good.
Of course, there was no sick boy at all. They brought him to a shabby, horrible house, with bird nests beside the crackers in the kitchen cupboards. There were shards of glass on the floor like perverse rose petals, and altar candles that had been stolen from the Church and stuck in the grime caked windows.
The worst part is that the Boy never fully understood what was going on. Not for a minute did he suspect a thing. He trusted these strangers and their belief in him. He trusted his belief in himself to a fault.
They hit the Boy with shovels and axes. I won’t go into detail, but they hit major arteries and many nerves. Sometimes I imagine what the screams must have sounded like. I imagine the wails of innocent, pure pain, and how his hands must have contorted in on themselves like spiders on their backs. I am haunted by the hands the most. The hands he placed on thousands of foreheads, and willed his love into like puppets. The hands that must have laid amongst the lake of blood in absolute defeat. Palm up, facing the sky one final time.
They cut it out very precisely, his heart. For all their brutality, they exercised an immense amount of care in this act. They plopped it into a little rucksack bag and met the One Who Did It before dawn. They brought some blood along with them because the One Who Did It wanted to smear it over his fingers and in his palm lines. He wanted to make a convincing victim, after all.
The body was disposed of quite soundly. It was a product of very fine work. In the morning, the One Who Did It came hurling down the stairs like a belligerent crow, throwing himself on the tables and banging plates and cups. He told the entire parish of the previous night’s events. How he had followed the Boy to the graveyard to talk to him because he was concerned with his disobedience. How the Boy hadn’t seemed anything like himself. Had spat at him and called him crude names, and how in response he had tried to reason with him, and had desperately tried to remind him of God.
But it was no use. The Boy came flying at him like a possessed thing, wielding a shovel and aiming for his head. He had gotten the shovel from him without injury, incredibly skillfully and masterfully he might add, but the Boy tried again and again. He threw rocks, he threw pinecones, he threw the heads of flowers from the bouquets like ammunition.
It was necessary at one point to swing the shovel over his head and bring it down like a karate chop. It was necessary that the Boy should look him in the eyes with a helpless expression. It was necessary to water the grass with his blood before the groundskeeper would get to it later that afternoon.
The One Who Did It told them he had fled for help. Had tried to figure out how to save the Boy. He ran to get medical supplies (he considered himself a very fine practitioner of medicine) but when he returned, the body had gone. It was as though it willed itself away out of politeness and civility. All that was left was a hard, fist shaped object he couldn’t make out until he got exceedingly close to it, his face penetrating the thick dark. What was left, to his shock (and quite frankly his disgust) was his post-beating heart. He made sure to point out that it was still slightly warm.
He took it as a sign from God that they should honour the Boy, and not condemn him as a heretic and traitor the way the usual protocol insists. The heart was a gift, it was his little token of redemption and repentance. The heart said he was sorry for attacking the One Who Did It, and that he was still a well-behaved Boy underneath.
The parish wept with such anguish and admiration that they called for a pedestal to be made up immediately. The finest materials they could buy with the Church’s budget, which as you may know, is quite a lot. They mourned the Boy as best they could in the only ways they knew how. They cried. They wailed. They hung up his modest clothes in hallways and quiet rooms so he would still be there like a ghost. As if the mere thought of him could fill his trousers out again.
It was really such a shame. The town nearly closed down due to the weight of his death. It shook them in ways they couldn’t explain. His mother, of course, was devastated. I can’t even begin to talk about the extent of a mother’s grief, because that would require a whole other story entirely. But it was great. Her cheeks were raw within days from all of the crying, as she had chronically dry skin.
The Priest watched The One Who Did It direct them as they exalted a ticket booth right where the pulpit used to be. He watched as they calculated how much it would cost to build an extension on the living quarters, how expensive it would be to acquire the best silk linens, the finest artwork, and the congregation’s weight in gold. He could see it in their eyes, the same look the Boy had glimmers of in the end.
And I, well, I could have tried harder. This I must admit. While I was busy scribbling sermons on loose leaf paper in between running confession and meeting with families in the community, I let my eyes slip off of him. I blame myself in so many ways. I, the Priest, his confidant and role model, led him astray. Sometimes I toss and turn in my bed for hours thinking about what I could have done differently. I clutch my crucifix until it digs bloody tranches into my heartlines.
But back to the heart of it. Back to the trajectory of all the things that went from the baby bird, to the parish, to the healing, to the crying, to the death, and back to the crying again. It still sits there to this day. Right where one million people passed right by it in the weeks after the tragedy. Two million hands reached out to graze the glass that separated it from the rest of the world, like an artificial chest cavity. The organ that carried the Boy through his short life. His heart, the thing that circulated what he needed to live mechanically and reliably, with a sense of duty to the rest of his limbs, those other living things. Like he did for them, all those other people with all their needs (so many needs). They were ashamed that they were possessed by these things. That they wanted so much that was out of their control. As a result, they needed to outsource them, catalyze them, own them. He gave himself to them, he gave all he could. They killed him in the end. They ended it by wanting too much. By wanting his very life. By taking it. Making money off of it. Drawing people to it. Damning it further and further and further, until it was a shadow of itself. Until it wasn’t an organ but a trophy. Until it wasn’t a memorial but a timebomb. And isn’t that the true horror of love, after all?
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