By T.T. Madden
I try my best to keep myself still before services begin, as the organ plays and people shuffle into their seats. But I’m too excited. I can tell my constant leg bobbing bothers the man next to me, though he says nothing. I don’t know why he isn’t fidgeting too. Why he isn’t more excited. He, like me, made it early enough for a seat quite near the front. He can see what’s in the pulpit. I look up to the front of the church, trying not to make it obvious I’m staring, but it’s impossible to look anywhere else.
An enormous, dark mass rests just behind the podium. As big as a bear. Curled into a tight, dark, feathery ball. Its mass steadily rising and falling in deep meditation.
My eyes lock on her as the service begins, as she rises from her position, reaching her full magnificence. It would be easy to mistake her for a woman in a long, dark cloak. That is the first version of what I see. But that is also not nearly enough to describe her. Her proportions alter as she turns to face us, reveals the full and glorious shape of her nine-foot figure. The dark around her is not a cloak, but draped wings imitating such. Just like it would in a robe, a bit of her leg peeks out when she walks forward. But with every stride it is something different; at times I see a long, alabaster limb, a delicate bare foot. But that retreats, replaced in the next stride with a scaly, avian leg. Back and forth, irregularly. My heart picks up. All around me, parishioners lean forward with anticipation.
I lift my eyes from her legs, take in the rest of her body. As I pass her torso I can see the shapeliness of breasts under her wings, and wonder at their existence; birds didn’t have breasts. Did gods? I don’t have much time to think about it, because I’m already at her long, sanguine neck, at the feathered head perched atop it. I rub my palms on my pants. Her head bears only a short, stubby beak occupying most of her face. There are no eyes in the face, only two slits in the beak for air. Slowly, the bottom half of that beak opens. It unlatches like the visor on a knight’s helm in reverse, the lower half yawning open, revealing a woman’s face underneath. She is beautiful, a sharp chin, a small mole in the corner of her mouth. The top half of the bird-beak remains over her face like a veil. Something tells me that no matter how much I want to, no matter how much all of us in the congregation are trying to see, that we simply would not be able to handle her beauty in its entirety.
That newly-revealed mouth smiles, and she gingerly beckons out to us.
“My children,” she coos, the end of her words sounding like the rustling of wings. I feel lifted by the sound of her voice. “Come before me to receive communion.”
She stops before us, opening her arms wide, greeting us, and as she does, the wings unfold from around her, and spread out behind. They are actually inverted, upside-down, wing-tips pointing upwards, framing her nude form with an enormous, jagged W. Her body is both skin and feathers, the dark, avian features spreading out across the more private locales of her body; her groin, her breasts.
At the sight of her most members of the congregation collapse to their knees, howling, lifting their hands, opening their mouths wide, chanting her name over and over again; “Shehrokh, Shehrokh, Shehrokh…” I join in on the chant, but I don’t dare avert my eyes from her.
She says, “Drink from me, children, so that there may be a bit of me inside you.”
Upon her signal, everyone begins moving. We all get to our feet, jostling for position in a line that runs down the center aisle. One of the priests tells those assembled to be calm, that everyone will get their turn, but I’m too anxious. Moving faster than I normally would in a church. Jostling for the forward-most position.
“Do not worry,” our mother says from the pulpit. “I will see each of you. There will be plenty for everyone.”
From a place about midway through the queue, I carefully watch the first man in line approach. He wants to kneel, I can see, show reverence, but that would put him even farther away from her, and he despises that thought. I can see it plainly on his face. She’s already practically in the stars compared to the rest of us, so she stoops down to reach him. Her human arms come out from under those wings, and she carefully takes the man’s head in her hands. She lifts him up as if he is nothing, as if gravity has suddenly decided to stop working on him. I can even see his clothes, his hair, drift and ripple as if on some undersea current. She pulls him to her, puts her lips to his.
Their embrace is soft at first, before passion seems to kick in. I watch our mother’s jaw work, her throat bob, and imagine her tongue trying to find purchase, to pry the man’s lips open and let itself inside. It seems like the moment it’s started it’s over, and she puts him down. Gravity resumes its grasp, and the man is forced to walk again. She gently nudges him along, and reaches out for the next person in line, leaving the man to stumble along aimlessly, as if he can only wonder where life goes from this unmatchable high. One of the priests comes along to help him.
Everyone in line goes one after another, all bowing before her, all holding up their arms like they’re tired children who wish to be carried that final leg home. One by one the line is worked through until it’s my turn.
There’s a smile under her beaked visage as all nine feet of her smooth, feather-speckled mass looms down over me. I am merely a man, and I am tempted by the sight. I follow the line of her calves, the swell of her hips, the tapering of her waist, crawl up her breasts to the upturned crescent of her mouth, growing hot between my legs.
My face is suddenly in her hands. Gravity has let me go. I feel ill for a moment, the food that was left in my stomach unmoored, floating around inside me. But I am untethered. Unbound to the earth. Is this what the stars feel like? Without her touch, will I simply float away forever? If she lets me go, how far will I drift?
Please, I think, using all my strength to move my arms, to hold onto her wrists. They’re warm. They make me wonder how the rest of her feels. Please don’t let me go. Never let me go.
“Be not afraid,” she whispers to me. Her voice is pure, glistening starlight. And I am not afraid. Not with the sound of her voice. I’m so close to her now I can almost see what’s under her beaked veil. I thought it may have been dangerous before, but I need to know. Need to see. Have never felt such a powerful need for anything in my life. My eyes crave sustenance so badly that my lips have forgotten entirely about what they were promised until it happens. She pulls me closer and I can almost see under her veil, but my eyes naturally close, sensing her coming towards me. She plants her lips on mine and I can feel her tongue working, prying my lips, my teeth, open. There is no resistance from me.
But it is not a kiss she gives me.
It is not a kiss she gave anyone else.
With my mouth open, willing, her tongue quickly retreats. Mine instinctively, greedily, chases after it, but it is blocked. A sudden heat surges forward from her mouth to mine, a hot, red wave of mush pumped up from her stomach. My body tells me to pull back, but my brain refuses. This is the communion we receive. This is how we drink from our mother. This is what I’ve waited for.
My muscles act of their own accord, try to get away, but she holds me tighter, pulls me into an embrace. I can feel her breasts against my chest, her arms wrapped tight around my waist as she pulls me closer, almost crushing me. Hurting me. She pushes her mouth even harder into mine, making sure there are no gaps between our lips, so that I may not lose her sustenance.
I only open my mouth wider, accept this glorious red wave surging out of her and into me. There’s almost too much for our mouths to contain; I can feel it dripping out of the corners of my mouth, moving so fast and hard it’s shooting out from between the places where the pressure of the eruption is forcing our lips apart. It dribbles down my chin, my neck, onto my shirt. My body doesn’t want to, but I command it to swallow over and over again as the wave keeps coming, as she gives me more. To receive this gift, this bit of our mother. It slides warm and comforting down my gullet, into my stomach, and I can feel it warming my entire body, tingling my extremities.
All around me, the church continues to chant; “Shehrokh…Shehrokh…Shehrokh.” I know at some point she puts me down, but I still feel like I’m weightless.
T.T. Madden is a nonbinary, mixed-race writer, and recent Pushcart nominee. Ever since sitting down in a theater in 1999 to watch The Mummy, they’ve been obsessed with all things horror, not just the genre’s scares, but its capacity for catharsis and healing.
Their work has appeared in Ligeia Magazine, Pyre Magazine, and Bag of Bones, among others. They've worked on Agatha Christie and Blair Witch board games, and can be found on Twitter.