pond

Normal Stigmata
by David Leo Rice

 

Bog Day

The entire population of our town processes out to Meyers Pond, more properly known as the Bog of Christian Iconography, on June 1, as it does every year exactly on this day. They have come to witness the Sacrifice of the Unholy Son of the Mayor, from within the womb of the Witch, herself also to be Sacrificed.

The majority of the townspeople sit in lawn chairs on the shoreline while those brave or needy enough to undergo Baptism wade into the water in the Mayor’s wake.

I’m watching all this on video now, the shot wide as the Mayor and the Witch proceed deeper into the Bog, she on shaking legs, he in his Sunday best, ivory-hilted boning knife gleaming in its scabbard by his side.

When the water’s up to their chests, the Mayor turns and addresses the town. The videographer zooms in on his face, liver-spotted but clean-shaven.

“Every September,” he begins, telling the familiar story which must nevertheless be retold every year, “a new Virgin, aged sixteen and generally a cheerleader or ballet dancer at our town’s venerable public high school, takes pregnant with an Unholy Son of mine. This happens automatically, inexorably, like the coming of winter which, while grim and unlovely, paves the way for the return of summer, which will commence in earnest as soon as Bog Day has been observed and Normal Stigmata restored as the core Sacrament of our town.”

Cheers from the townspeople as the videographer zooms back out. The audio track ripples and pops.

“From September to June,” the Mayor continues, his left arm around the Witch’s shoulders, her face fading from green to white, “the Virgin transforms, under the guidance of evil spirits, into a Witch. My Unholy Son swells in her womb, to the point where,” he rubs her giant belly now, “something must be done. Were this seed not disposed of, it would murder me as soon as it was able. In the wake of my death, the order of the town would crumble. You all would be cast back into the chaos from which your ancestors emerged.”

He pulls the ivory-hilted boning knife from its scabbard now, holding it high overhead so it glints in the sunlight as the videographer zooms back in.

“This is simply the price we pay to live in a Blessed society. The Minimum Sacrifice we are required by God to make. The price I, as a man of God, must pay in order to preserve the sanctity of my home with my True Wife and Holy Sons.”

Here the camera pans to a middle-aged woman and two teenage boys bobbing in a skiff. “And by extension, to preserve the sanctity of your homes with your own True Wives and Holy Sons and Daughters, here in the warmth and light of our town.”

The camera pans back to the Mayor, as he runs the knife over the Witch’s belly, cutting through her dress. She retches and squirms and the Mayor grabs her around the back, holding her like a fish he’s just dredged up from below. He holds both of her hands in one of his, cutting deep wounds into her palms.

“The Sign of the Beast is upon her,” he says, as if he’s just now discovered it.

The crowd jeers.

Before she can wriggle away, he shoves the knife into her belly, sawing through skin until he manages to remove the Unholy Son, casting her body off as he holds the child up for all to see.

Those seeking Baptism dunk themselves now.

The child shrieks, alive for a moment, until the Mayor inhales and plunges it under, holding it down until it’s safe to let go.

Then he turns back to the camera, washes the boning knife in the Bog, puts it back in his scabbard, and trudges back toward the shoreline. “It is done,” he says, panting. “Normal Stigmata has been restored. Summer has begun. Let us eat.”

The camera follows the Mayor as he makes his way out of the Bog and into the stand of barbecues set up on the beach, all of them smoking, buns and ketchup and mustard and relish set up beside them, Coleman coolers full of beer planted in the gravel.

The town rejoices, confident of its place in the world, and the world’s place in the universe, a universe overseen by a real and present God. The video ends and I press Rewind and sit on the couch in my mother’s basement, alone with my thoughts until it’s ready to watch again.

 

Abnormal Stigmata

As with all rituals, Bog Day was designed to preserve stasis. To keep the town indefinitely in its current state. But with enough time, no matter the measures taken to preserve it, stasis ceases to hold. Things change. This is the account of history offered by the books my mother has had me read.

There is no intact video of the year the ritual failed, so what I recount here is a mixture of what I’ve imagined (though technically I was there), and what my mother, in the course of my homeschooling, has told me.

The year begins like any other: the Virgin takes pregnant, silently and immaculately (or loudly, beneath the Mayor in the high school locker room, if my mother is to be believed), in September, becoming a Witch over the course of her pregnancy, until she comes due on Bog Day in June. The townspeople gather at Meyers Pond, meat ready to grill, beers on ice in their Coleman coolers, everyone waiting for the moment of relief, in which the Mayor will wade out of the water, bloody and virile, his dominion restored, all threat to Normal Stigmata relieved until next year.

But this time it doesn’t happen like that. This time, the Witch fights. She’s grown up seeing others like her carved open and drowned, their babies torn out of them like sticky pits. She belongs to the next generation, and thus has no illusions about her fate, neither in this world nor in the next. So she fights. I fight as well, my head crowning between her legs, bogwater forcing its way into my mouth. We fight together. I want to be born and she wants me to be. Before any conscious memory, I can feel my way back to this moment, to the rush of fighting to be born while she fights to stay above water as the Mayor gouges at her with his ivory-hilted boning knife.

Somehow – even she claims not to remember how – she pulls it from his hands. Perhaps his grip had grown weak by that point in history; perhaps his will had begun to falter.

Whatever it was, she pulled the knife from his hands. Then, as I tunneled through the afterbirth and into the water, she managed to drag it across his neck and push him down, sputtering and begging and renouncing the life he’d lived. He almost crushed me as he sank.

Treading water, she grabbed my tiny arm and hoisted me out, into the air where I could breathe, just as the Mayor’s True Wife and Holy Sons rowed their skiff to the far side, vanishing into the woods, abandoning what they rightly understood was no longer their town.

And so we won. I was born; here I am. My mother managed to swim with me back to the shore. The townspeople dispersed as she marched out of the water, leaving their burgers smoking on their grills and their beers unopened, worried eyes alternating between us and the seething red spot in the Bog where the Mayor had been. This marked the end of Normal Stigmata.

 

Normal Stigmata

My mother took me to the Mayor’s house on Pine Hedge Dr., the one he’d lived in with his True Wife and Holy Sons, and she raised me there. No one tried to remove us, though certainly no one came to visit either.

After the trauma of my birth, our town entered a secular age. People put the mythic behind them and lived on in its absence, in an undifferentiated murk of seasons. They came to feel as though they had transcended savagery, having learned, at a price, a better way to live.

I became, by dint of primogeniture, the acting Mayor, though for all intents and purposes my mother shouldered the responsibility. She and I, the Witch and her Unholy Son, found ourselves in charge of a cowed populace, one where the sense of existing After the Fall, in a world no longer touched by the divine, hung like a dirty ceiling, blocking access to the sky.

People went about their business, ignoring us until they needed something, and then again thereafter.

 

Thus my childhood passed, the heat of the years of Normal Stigmata cooling, the blood in Meyers Pond sinking deeper into the bones on the bottom. Needless to say, no one went there anymore.

If there was any theme to my homeschooling, it was that I had been born in order to upset a shameful and primitive way of life. I absorbed this without doubt, and still believe it to be true.

 

But the question I begin to have, at twelve and thirteen and fourteen, is not about the purpose of my birth, but rather about the purpose of my life, now that the act of having been born has receded into the far distance and the future gapes open before me.

Now I’m nearly eighteen, the age at which my Father conceived and then purged the first of his Unholy Sons, and I find that sitting in my mother’s basement, watching old Bog Day videos from the Town Hall Archives – my one transgression, an open secret – thrills me less and less.

Some afternoons I simply pace the house while my mother attends to the daily burdens of our town, guiding it deeper into its secular age.

As this period progresses, there come to be days when my pacing takes me outside, all the way to the edge of Meyers Pond, where I sit on the rocky shore and watch the ripples, imagining the horror and grandeur of Bog Day, my Father feared and exalted by all, his knife gleaming in the sunlight.

I look across to the deep woods where his True Wife and Holy Sons disappeared, and I wonder what they found over there, whether they simply perished or broke through to some brand new town, perhaps a city even, someplace still alive to possibility, determined to hasten its future rather than bury its past. There are days when I consider following them, regardless of what I might find.

“You were born to be different,” my mother reminds me over a dinner of field greens, lean chicken, and brown rice. “You weren’t weak like the other drowned babies, just as I wasn’t weak like the other drowned mothers. As you know, soon you’ll be eighteen,” she continues, sipping from the single glass of wine she permits herself on weeknights. “Almost time to find you a wife. When the day comes, we will take you to the high school and arrange a series of interviews with intelligent, hard-working young women. You and I together, we’ll sit in a conference room and talk to them. We will begin to form a picture of a sensible bond. A partner with whom you will be well-suited to begin a family. A family you will raise in the light of reason, as I have raised you.”

I nod, chewing gristle.

 

As the spring deepens, there are days when I allow my route to pass behind the high school, where the cheerleaders and the volleyball players practice in their color-coded miniskirts. Surely these are not the hard-working, sensible young women my mother has in mind for me.

Still, sometimes I sit in the bleachers drinking a milkshake, disguised under a baseball cap and dark glasses, and I wonder – I am ashamed to admit – what it might be like to conceive an Unholy Son with one of them in the locker room and Sacrifice that Son for the sake of Normal Stigmata nine months later. To pay tribute to something beyond myself, something cruel and eternal.

How much in my thinking is hereditary? I wonder, hurrying away from the high school and back to Meyers Pond. How much did I inherit from my Father and how much deeper than my homeschooling does it go?

At the water’s edge, I wade in up to my ankles, musing on the days when this pond was known as the Bog of Christian Iconography. I wonder what it would have felt like to behold it then, to genuinely see it as such, in reality, not only on video.

Uneasy with these thoughts and unwilling to go home since I know I’ll pass back by the high school on my way, I strip off my shorts and swim out into the scummy water, breathing through my nose until I reach the center, perhaps the exact site of my birth. Inhaling as deeply as I can, I dive down, pushing the water past me, forcing my way through.

When I reach the bottom, I begin sifting through the bones, first those of my Father, then those of the previous Witches, then those of all my unborn half-brothers. A throbbing sensation overtakes me as I reach past the human bones and touch the animal, the ivory-hilted boning knife stuck into what must be the absolute center of the pond, and thus the absolute center of the town, the plug in the drain.

With great effort, I pull it out.

As I do, reddish bubbles swarm my face and I see the town as it is rushing out through the hole, ceding its place in the cosmos to the town as it was, the secular age crumbling under the resurgence of myth.

Everything goes dark and quiet, giddy, numinous, and down here I know who I am. The only question I’m left with is whether to return to the surface with the ivory-hilted boning knife in hand, or stay down here a minute or two longer and spare the town a fresh orgy of bloodshed, smothering the part of me that’s already risen from these depths once, in violent desperation to be born.

 

THE END.

 

David Leo Rice is a writer and animator living in NYC. His stories have appeared in Black Clock, The Collagist, Birkensnake, The Rumpus, Hobart, and elsewhere. He’s online at www.raviddice.com, and his first novel, A Room in Dodge City, is available now.

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