Once there was a woman who loved her Gods even after the world forgot them. They were her parents’ Gods and their parents’ Gods and they were the only Gods she knew. As a girl she listened to their myths until she was able to recite them from memory. On the solstice she danced. On her name day she sang. And when she prayed the Gods heard.
The woman grew up fast and comely. At the dawning of her brief adolescence a malignant plague came to ravage her village and her parents both took ill. She spent weeks at their bedside tending their boils and mopping spilt fluid from the musty stone floor. In the end, she could only ease their pain. The sores that spread across their flesh hardened and burst. Black blood and stinking sick continued to flow unbidden until her parents could keep down neither food nor drink. They both passed on a moonless night that brought with it the season’s first frost. The woman kept vigil for her parents alone by candlelight. She prayed to her Gods that night more desperately than ever before, and the Gods heard.
“Bring them back to me,” she sobbed. “Bring them back to me or let me die with them.”
“Hush,” said a voice. “My child. I am here.”
The woman turned from her parents’ deathbed to face the God standing over her. Though she had never seen a God, she knew this to be one.
“You came,” she said, blotting her swollen eyes with a sleeve. “You came to heed my prayers.”
“I heard your prayers, this much is true. But, alas, I cannot heed them. There was a time—long ago—when I could have given you what you wish. There was a time when I was able to turn back the very claws of death, but we Old Gods are all but forgotten. Our time in this world wanes and much of our power with it.”
“But you are not forgotten,” the woman insisted. “I dance your dances and sing your songs. My prayers are for you alone. I am yours.”
“And you love us. But it’s not enough.”
The God’s terrible stare made the woman feel faint. She lowered herself to the floor. “What more can I do?” she asked.
“More…” the word claimed impossible gravity on the elder God’s tongue, “…there may be something more you can give us.”
“Anything,” the woman sobbed. “I’ll do anything.”
“You’ll need to give yourself up to our worship,” said the God. “You’ll need to say all your prayers ten fold and dance our dances with every turn of the moon. If you don’t I may never return.”
“I can do that,” said the girl. And she did.
The God did not appear again for many years. In that time the woman came into the full flowering of her adulthood. She attracted suitors, rich and poor. She favored many and loved few, but her pious obligations displaced her opportunities for courtship. And she loved her Gods above all. When the God finally did return, it was midsummer of the woman’s twenty-first year. She had just returned from a walk with one of her gentleman callers and was still aglow with the flush of youthful lust.
“I have returned to you, my child,” said the God. He was thinner than the woman remembered. His voice probed her for succor.
“You have been gone for some time,” she said.
“Not gone. Just away.”
“I did everything that you asked of me,” said the woman.
“Yes,” the God droned. “But it hasn’t been enough. I need more from you.”
“What more have I to give?”
“Your innocence.” The God moved his eyes salaciously along the length of the woman’s body. “You are still a maiden. I would have that gift for my own.”
The woman clutched her hands against her chest. “My maidenhood?”
“Yes,” said the God.
“It is a gift you can give but once,” said the God. “And I would have it for my own.”
The woman hesitated.
“Do you not love me?” asked the God. “Without your innocence I may never return.”
“I love you,” said the woman. With trembling hands she disrobed, and gave herself to the God.
The God stayed away even longer then. The woman’s suitors deserted her after she gave herself away, for no man wants to wed a woman despoiled. She watched the years pass by in solitude. Her beauty and her youth both faded away. But she danced the dances for as long as she could stand and she sang the songs for as long as she could speak. When the God finally did come back to her, she was a lonely crone with a heavy heart and she knew it would be the last time she saw him.
“I need more,” said the God.
“More…” the woman rolled the word around her wrinkled mouth. “What else would you take from a dying old maid? Because of you I have no more, only less.”
“I need your heart—your still-beating heart. I will eat it and I will be whole.”
“My heart…” the old crone managed a sardonic grin. “You can have it for all the good it’s done me. Take it and be whole. Then be gone.”
The God pressed a burning hand to the woman’s withered breast. She felt him reach within her and grinned through her final breath.
The God held the heart over her corpse and ate it before it stilled, but it did not make him whole. He had spoiled the woman—drained her of love. He made her heart into a heavy and toxic thing. In her last act the woman returned his venom to him. The God fell to his knees clutching his throat and died there right beside her.
The old woman was the last one to pray to this God, and no one remembers his name.
Zach Lisabeth is a Los Angeles-based speculative fiction author and Weirdo. He was born in Long Island, NY and took a circuitous route west by way of Brooklyn, NY, Burlington, VT and Chicago, IL. He is a graduate of the 2014 Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Workshop at UCSD, an experience he credits with exacerbating his Weirdness. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gaia: Shadow & Breath vol. 2 (Pantheon Press), Burningword Literary Journal and the anthology RealLies (The Zharmae Publishing Press). You can follow his intermittent outbursts on Twitter @zachlisabeth or check in with him any time at www.zachlisabeth.com.