With the covered basket from the Town Leader hanging from her wrist, Mina pulled on her boots and headed out the door of her old house to the Temple.
Mother had painted an eye on the back of her neck and warned, “Be careful, the Mouths are crawling all over the place these days.”
“I know, Mom,” Mina replied, only half-listening.
Mina did not believe the recent rumors. That people were disappearing. That someone had snuck into the Temple the night of the Moon Festival and the Cleaners had found him the following morning on the altar in the main hall, adorned in white lilies. His chest had been cleaved open, the organs removed, his head tucked inside the empty cavity. Some said his arms and legs had been twisted into impossible angles, as if mangled by creatures that had been curious about the limits of human anatomy.
Mina’s classmates and sisters shared these stories like delicious forbidden treats, adding their own new gruesome details as if playing a game. Misery had a way of distorting gossip. Times had been difficult for everyone in their small town. Droughts had choked the soil. Severe sandstorms had left many children’s eyes scarred, temporarily blind. Strange birds came and went, stripping entire fields overnight. Water trickled in through the last remaining stream, tasting of rusted metal. Still, Mina’s town had been spared the worst of it, a sign they had been favored by the gods, or so the elders in the town often preached.
In the Public Square, an old woman peeled potatoes outside a tavern, the afternoon sun searing into her back. She too had the eye painted on the back of her neck.
“Pledge Day?” she asked, cutting off a moldy lump into a bucket.
“Yes ma’am,” Mina smiled with practiced politeness. She’d learned long ago that the elders kept tabs on the comings-and-goings of every child in the Town. Any wrong action and the whole network of elders would have you marked like a family of crows.
“May the goddess protect you with her limitless strength,” the old woman grinned in return, waving the knife.
Every child, on his or her eighteenth birthday, visited the Temple to declare their loyalty—to give the Pledge. They were bound by this vow for life. In return, the goddess promised to keep the Mouths from the North and the Guts from the South from overwhelming their small town. It also meant Mother getting an extra two hundred Cells to their monthly living expenses from the Town Leader.
Mina did not think much of vows or Mouths or Guts or Mother happily cashing her monthly checks, but finishing the Pledge also meant becoming an adult. It meant getting a job and leaving the Children’s Home. She’d grown sick of being in the shadow of her older sisters and was ready to finally be free. No more hair torn out for tea brought out too hot, fists in her throat for staring too hard, eyes on her in the shared showers, bodies towering over her bed, fingers to lips demanding silence, teeth grinning. She hated her older sisters, though she would never admit this, even to herself.
In front of the golden gates of the Temple, Mina scanned her family crest, tattooed on the inside of her wrist. This was her first time entering the Hall of the Moon. White candles flickered along the walls, a constellation of amethyst stones dotting the dome ceiling like purple stars.
Mina was stunned to silence by the towering bronze statue of the goddess herself wielding a hunting knife, a marble hound at her feet baring its fangs. All the children were taught from a young age how the town had come to worship the goddess—it was the only bedtime story Mother had ever read to Mina.
During the Falling, bodies of the sick and dead dotted the streets, plentiful as pigeons and cheap coffee stands had once been. The Great-Great Elders lived in one of the last remaining glass cities with a small group of survivors, hiding from abandoned pets that had started devouring the corpses on the streets, first out of necessity, later because they had gained a taste for human meat. During a botched supply run, one of the Elders was mauled and dragged back to a former theater, ‘CHI A O’ metal signage dangling on its hinges above the broken-bulbed entrance, to be shared by a family of feral dogs. His foot was broken, his supply bags gutted next to him. He prayed for death the way he had once prayed for lucky lottery numbers.
Instead, he was saved by a beautiful woman in a white dress wielding a hunting knife.
“The weak should be protected,” she said when the Elder thanked her, the bloodied bodies of the dogs sprawled behind her.
“You were amazing,” he gushed. “Like a guardian angel.”
When he reached down to salvage whatever he could from his supply bags, he realized he was missing his left hand. There was no blood, no open wound, just a smooth nub at the end of his left arm—it was as if the hand had never been there to begin with.
“You may call for me whenever you need, child,” the woman said, licking her lips.
The woman saved more of the survivors over the following months. Something always vanished afterwards—an eye, an ear, sometimes a kidney or liver that the person didn’t even realize was gone until years later. Nothing fatal, not even a feeling of loss, only an overwhelming sense of gratitude and love for the beautiful stranger that had saved them.
None of the current residents had seen the goddess, of course, but some claimed to have heard her voice. Mina’s best friend Fran, a pudgy-fingered girl who’d once given a Mouth her leftover sandwich from her school lunch, claimed her older brother had spoken to the goddess during his Pledge and had been summoned to join her.
”He must be watching over us now,” she said with wet eyes, hands clasped as if in prayer.
”Yes, of course,” Mina nodded with well-rehearsed sympathy.
Mina knew Fran’s brother. She’d heard all about his disappearance after his Pledge visit. A well-known gambler who had a side business of brokering fights between the older kids, Mina had also seen him trying to peddle his pledge basket on his way to the Temple. Summoned to the Goddess? Mina was certain he was simply rotting in a field of a neighboring town, organ-harvested over bad debts.
Mina looked up at the statue’s face, the glare of the spotlights harsh on its bronze cheeks. Had it spoken? Mina wasn’t sure. Could bronze lips move? Could bronze lungs breathe, bronze tongues twist out human sounds? Surely a goddess could do that much.
“Come closer, child.”
None of her older sisters had mentioned this when they’d returned from Pledge, red-faced and smug. Was she the first person among her friends and family to receive this special invitation? What did it mean to be chosen by a goddess? Her heart swelled with equal measures of joy and fear as she stepped forward.
“Has someone hurt you?” the voice asked, clearer now.
Mina didn’t answer, unsure if this was a test set up by the Town Leader.
“Are you in need of help?”
Mina stared up from the foot of the statue, close enough to touch the hound’s fangs, the sharp curve of the bronze blade.
“I’ve come to pledge my loyalty. In sickness and in health. Until death do us part,” she recited like the Town Leader had instructed her, the strange pledge the elders had found in texts about love and lifelong contracts. Mina did not believe anything could protect her, but she did think there were countless things that could hurt her if she didn’t follow the rules. If she kept enough of a low profile, she might leave the town after saving enough money from her new job. She could see the crow-black mountains beyond the city of Guts and the red sea outside the village of Mouths. She could come and go like the birds that stripped her town clean and left as if it were nothing. She could find something close to freedom.
“We like you. You do not seek anything but knowledge. You are like us.”
Mina opened her mouth, but her jaw locked, the words stripped from her tongue.
“We will protect you, if that’s what you desire.”
That’s when Mina saw it. A fissure between the bronze statue’s robes, opening like fruit splitting under a knife. Inside, she saw the moving metal parts, the gears and motors, the steel ribs.
“When we came to this planet, your people treated us like gods,” the voice said. “We didn’t understand, but we tried our best to be what you needed. What you wanted.”
Beyond the steel ribs, Mina saw it like the photos in her schoolbooks: a wet, beating heart, the swelling vein-wrapped lungs, the curving entrails. Mina looked up at the statue’s unmoving face.
“But your parts never last very long. And sometimes we get the placement wrong. But we’re still learning how to be perfect for you,” the statue said, a mechanical arm reaching out and stroking Mina’s head gently, like a parent soothing a child. “So tell us. Where does the brain go?”
Mina’s sisters paid her no attention when she returned, scribbling through their homework and folding paper fruits and beetles for Temple offerings.
“How was it?” Her mother asked, wiping her wet hands on her apron as she stepped out of the kitchen.
“Alright,” Mina answered, taking off her shoes. “The Temple was more run-down than I expected.”
“You’re bleeding,” her mother said, pulling her closer to exam the wound on the back of her neck.
Mina reached behind her, but her mother swat her hand away.
“Was it one of the Mouths?” the older woman asked.
“No, I didn’t run into anyone except—”
Mina flinched when her mother pressed a damp towel from her apron roughly into the back of her neck.
“You shouldn’t lie,” her mother said. “The Town Leader won’t pay if the Pledge wasn’t completed as instructed.”
“I’m not lying,” she replied. “The goddess asked me where a brain goes, so I showed her.”
She ignored the look on her mother’s face and the snicker from one of her sisters. She was used to their doubt. Instead, she eyed the fleshy scar on her oldest sister’s cheek where the girl had once fallen and cut her face on a broken pot. She thought of the purplish scab that the girl had picked off despite their mother’s warnings, the network of blood vessels underneath, the pillowy globules of fat. She scanned up the older girl’s cheeks to a pair of sea green eyes that watched her like far-off nebulas. How they were wasted lodged inside that defective head.
“Did you even go to the Temple?” her mother frowned, stuffing the red-stained towel back into her apron.
The last thing Mina could remember clearly was the splitting statue and the slippery entrails inside.
“Where’s your pledge basket?” Mina’s mother demanded.
“I don’t know,” Mina opened and closed her palms in front of her, as if suddenly recalling she had hands. Such beautiful, delicious hands.
Her mother was still watching her when she looked up. Those sallow eyes like barrels of oil, they’d seen so much, plumped with misery and greed.
“I think I left it at the Temple,” Mina said, licking her lips. “Should I go back to get it, mother?”
“They won’t let you back in,” her mother was annoyed, but Mina also knew the woman never lost sight of an opportunity. “I’ll tell one of the town elders that it was stolen from you on your way by a Mouth. They’ll send us a new one or at least a week’s worth of rice as apology.”
“Maybe she pawned it off herself,” her oldest sister said, folding a paper frog with her worm bite-scarred hands.
“It wouldn’t be the first time. You know she can’t help herself,” another sister chimed in, waving a nub of pencil. “Maybe she gave it to one of the Mouths like that idiot friend of hers. You know they love to eat our offerings.”
Something inside Mina’s chest jostled. She wanted to go to the kitchen for a glass of water, to calm her nerves, but her oldest sister was now gripping her by the shoulder, squeezing hard enough to bruise. Mina thought of those dark nights where those same hands had pinned her down, pressing needles into the fleshy parts of her body where no one could see the scars. She’d sometimes forget where her body ended, the amount of pain that could be inflicted seemingly infinite.
“Look at people when they’re talking to you,” her oldest sister said. “Or have you forgotten how to respect your elders?” She grinned cruelly.
Child, feast. We are hungry to learn.
Mina’s chest cracked open, hundreds of mechanical hands peeling back the ribs and slippery sheets of flesh and crawling out. This mechanism had sailed across a million light years to this planet. Mina did not know where her body ended and where these creatures began, her consciousness stretching infinitely across stars, oceans of fire, and methane lakes. She grabbed her oldest sister by the face, pulling her close enough to peer into those teal-colored eyes. The older girl shrieked as two of the bodyless hands grabbed her shoulders, a third squirming up her throat onto her mouth and then nose, a finger pressing against the fat under her left eye.
“I’m looking right at you, sister,” Mina said, feeling closer to her sister than she ever had. “Now tell me, do you remember your pledge?”
Mina opened her mouth.
When the town elders came to visit the Children’s Home, they were surprised to find only Mina folding paper fruits and insects in the kitchen. She made them a pot of tea and thanked them for their latest efforts in managing the growing population of Mouths from the North.
“Mother decided to take my sisters on a pilgrimage to the city of falling glass. To see where the goddess first blessed our people,” she said with a practiced smile, offering the elders each an origami cicada as they drank their tea. “Mother said she wanted us all to have a better understanding of the bond we share with our ancestors and the goddess. To see how far we’ve come.”
The Town Leader nodded, commending her mother’s dedication. They’d brought her pledge basket, found by a logger in the forest. The men laughed with relief, saying one of the other children in town thought they’d seen her sneaking into the Temple at night. None of them noticed the sounds coming from her chest or the powders she’d dropped into their tea.
“How have you been eating?” One of the elders noted the empty pantry. A large hunting knife sat in the sink, gleaming in soapy water, the smell of copper and spices.
“Preparing food isn’t so hard,” Mina said, “I’ve taught myself.”
Days later, once Mina had traveled far enough to board a ship on the northern sea, the town Cleaners found a new sculpture in the Hall of the Moon: wrinkled bodies arched and twisted, leathery liver-spotted skin patched-worked into a summery dress, a mop of hair over a faceless head with only a gaping mouth of mismatched teeth. In its open hands sat a pair of sea-green eyes and a brain, steeped and preserved in alcohol.
Miles away, Mina watched the stars, the swarm of night birds like skittering comets over the fields. She dreamed of new towns and the feasts that awaited.