By Calie Voorhis
Myrna stepped over a puddle of rags ― another sot sleeping in the street ― walked past two temples, the acrid scent of smoke and the stale yeast of fermented beverages tickling her nose, turned left at the emporium, and made her way up two flights of stairs to her church office. Fumes followed her, even inside the safety of the pristine white walls, clinging to her neat white suit. Cari had left the window open; she closed it with a decisive snap, sat down in her chair, and banged her head against her desk.
The city, the whole planet of Avaritia, would be even worse tomorrow. This was only the eve of the feast of Atirikta. One more day in this decadence before the flight home, one more day of depravity, and she didn’t care that she had zero souls to show for her visit. The edict of Purity ruled most every other planet ― yet she admitted now the tenets had no hope of flourishing here, on Avaritia.
The chime of a visitor sounded. A brief hope ―had someone finally come for redemption ― shot her to her feet.
“Oh. It’s you.”
Her aide, Cari, grinned, revealing three solid teeth, yellowing at the base, empty pink gums filling the rest of the void, and popped a sweet in the maw. “Brought you some.” She held out a silver foil box.
Myrna resisted the urge to bat the illegals away. Six months here, and every day Cari brought more. Sesame til gajak, cigarettes, bottles of apple-smoked whiskey, crunchy gorayba, and mugs of kykeon. Myrna refused; Cari ate, drank, or smoked.
The white walls closed in, her head swam, and sweat broke out on her back. She had to get out. She tore off her jacket, changed into her shorts, and switched her shoes for the trainers in her bag. “I’m going running.” Before Cari could answer, mouth stuck mid-chew, Myrna fled out the door and back down the flight of steps.
Two blocks later, she’d reached her stride, a steady pumping; legs, heart, lungs operating in symmetry, the stream of endorphins, natural, flooding her system, washing away the temptations. She flowed through the city, increasing her pace past the heathen temples, leaping over the piles on the street, ragged beggars, and smoke pots, dodging vendors’ hands thrusting mugs of warm caffeine. She ran, until the stitch in her side blossomed into full-blown pain, and past, until her breath came in giant gasps and the city around her became unfamiliar.
Streets blurred in the steady pace of her rhythm. Lost in the exercise, she turned the corner and ran straight into a swarm of people.
“Hey, watch out!”
She struggled to her feet, shaking off the helpful arm, her ankle twisted in the fall. A wrenching pain shot through her leg. Splotches of mud marred her white shorts. She pressed the heels of her hands hard against her eyes, trying to block out the itchy redness growing there from the constant smoke. The crowd pressed against her, forcing her forward.
She blinked and caught her first glimpse, squinted against the sight, and opened her eyes again. Of all the horrors she’d seen on Avaritia, this was the worst, more dismal than the temple drunks, Cari’s toothless chewing of raspberry pimpim, or even the reek of ayahuasca downers.
The woman overflowed the bier, mountains of tiny amethyst florets failing to cover the immense span of drooping flesh. Pendulous breasts oozed like raw dough over the protruding belly, which in turn lapped down her legs, great elephantine folds rippling across her knees to thick ankles. Exposed flesh flaunted, causing the brain to search for human features in the obscenity; to identify a hand, swollen digits out of proportion; to locate a nipple halfway down the stomach.
Myrna staggered, pushing herself away from the platform. If she fell, that flesh would surround her, envelop her, and smother her in softness. Even the thought of touching that mass made her want to wash her hands, to never eat again, to run until oblivion found her, to scream the gospel of Purity until these decadent savages learned, understood the purity a body could offer, the joy in the play of tight muscles, smooth skin, cleansed innards, how delightful the sheer pleasure of health could be.
The crowd roared, cheered, tossing offerings of small fried nuts, placing containers of the yeasty beer Myrna had learned to hate on the edges of the bier. A multitude of people struggled to lift the woman’s couch, men and women, some with tears in their eyes, all with glazed expressions of ecstasy. The porters hefted her to their shoulders with a great cry, her head wobbled to the left, and their eyes met.
The woman’s facial features were shrunken and centered in the midst of a pale white expanse, but her eyes, the droop of a brow, shook Myrna. Chilled her to the center of her soul as nothing had since she’d arrived on this wretched world, as no person had since the day she’d signed up with the missionaries. The day she’d left her family, her religion, her world, for Purity.
It was the same look, even if the face was radically different, the same ineffable knowing, the same recognition of bond, as her mentor’s a hundred light years away, already dead to her in time’s dilation. That had been a knowing look, a probe deep into her soul, and once again, as she had twenty years ago, she’d been found lacking, wanting. Discarded in such a way that she wanted to run after the woman, to ask what was wrong with her.
Just like Myrna had followed the street preacher out of her family’s home, had traveled as a teenager to seven worlds to spread the word. She’d dieted, purged, purified herself; now here, in a massive woman’s glance; in distended, dimply flesh that caused her skin to itch, she’d been measured up and refused.
The crowd continued to chant. The procession teetered down the street in a dancing flowing corpus and shed flowers to lie wilted and trampled on the cobblestones in the wake of their passing. The words, blurred by the sheer noise of the mass, cleared when they passed.
“Many have united.”
Shaken, she limped back to her office on unsteady legs, the pain of her injured ankle twinging at every step. Later, she slept in starts and fits, the woman’s eyes following into her dreams.
Festival Day dawned bright and clear, the sky a light lavender, the air filled with the fumes of decadence, the smells so thick they stuck in Myrna’s throat, like the image of the obscenely obese woman that wouldn’t leave her head.
Outside her office, the street vendors shouted, hawking what would have been, on any other Purity world, illegal. Alcohol, mumba sticks, linn ― all available, even encouraged. This world was hopeless; she knew there was no chance for redemption. She didn’t care. Fourteen hours from now, her shuttle would leave, and this planet would soon be a dim memory of abject failure.
She had to know more, about the woman, about this religion. The self-doubt the woman had left clogged her throat.
Myrna found the first preacher, a large, but not unpleasantly so, woman with silvering hair, traces of yellow on her fingertips, and pursing wrinkles around her mouth.
“I’ve come to find out more,” she said. “Tell me about Atirikta.”
The woman shook her hair back and placed her hand on Myrna’s shoulder. “Those who wish to know, perceive, with all their senses.”
Mystic crap. The type of cryptic wisdom Purity avoided, with its strict rules of salvation, clearly outlined.
“Eat, drink, unite,” the preacher continued. “Know in the flesh the pleasures of reality, the unification of the soul.”
“But what exactly do you believe in?” Myrna had to know; before she left she wanted to solve the problem of Avaritia’s rejection of Purity, needed to grasp the reason for her failure.
“Does it matter? Must there only be one answer, one solution?” The woman lit a stick and stuck the end in her mouth, drawing in deep, exhaling a cloud of sweet, tarry smoke.
This preacher had the same ability as the fat woman to make her question her choice, just as the Purity minister had made her overthrow her family’s faith. And, in truth, the philosophy of Atirikta seemed closer to her past, the ever-interpretive mumblings of subjectivity.
Myrna pulled the stick out of the woman’s mouth and ground it out beneath her feet. “Bull,” she said and turned back for her office. There were absolutes; there were rules, and no room for self-doubt. The preacher’s belly laugh followed her down the alley.
In her office, Myrna put on her running shoes, sliding the left one over her tightly bandaged ankle. To hell with saving their souls. She’d save her own, would force past the pain of her ankle in order to find salvation.
The streets, crowded with riotous drunks, buffeted her, forced her into narrow alleys and back lanes she’d never jogged before. And throughout the run, as her muscles pumped and her lungs settled into the familiar bellows rhythm, that corpulent face, the obscenity of fat, continued to haunt. So taken with the image, she ran into an open courtyard without looking.
The bier sat in the center, surrounded by empty space, ringed with worshippers, all kneeling. The quiet stunned her, the fervent silence of prayer, lips moving without sound in a continual chant, “Many have united.”
She had to see the woman’s face again, had to know if those eyes still showed her the depths of her unworthy soul. Myrna stepped forward.
The crowd urged her on, hands not letting her retreat. Adrenaline surged through her, making her knees shake, her hands quiver. One step, then another, closer, the mass of humanity, reeking with the sweet sweat of alcoholic pores, pressed behind her, cutting off any retreat.
That dimply skin, the distended flesh, corpulent rolls, an immensity so soft she longed to sink her hands in it, to be enveloped by the tissue, reassured, loved, encompassed. Now she could see what she hadn’t before ― how plump the woman was, how fertile, flourishing with weight, a lush abundance of breasts and thighs, an ample mountain. The woman took the best the world had to offer, ate the foods that gods and man provided, enjoyed all senses to the fullest.
Purity had been Myrna’s life, her mantra, her religion. Purity of mind, sanctification of body, avoiding since youth the sins of the flesh, eating only that which was good for the system, never allowing altering substances into her temple of a body. Low calorie diets to extend life, a strict avoidance of sugar, bowel cleansings and yoga rituals, the endless jogging, was what Myrna had chosen, in the name of Purity.
This woman before her, with the soft knowing eyes, was her antithesis. Myrna moved closer, affixed by her face, her blue eyes, into a rapture of ecstasy. This woman accepted herself and welcomed Myrna without judgment, simply as she was. Forgave all her flaws.
“Many have united,” the crowd roared, shattering the silence of the courtyard.
“Many have united.” Myrna found herself joining in, repeating the words. She knelt before the woman, reached out and touched her.
Her hands sank into the woman’s thighs, as though she grabbed pudding. Deeper and deeper, the skin enveloped her, now past the wrist.
Now to the elbow. Warmth spread through Myrna, a moment of acceptance, of forgiveness. The smoke in the air tasted like honey. She drew in a large breath, holding it deep in her lungs, relaxation spreading through her muscles.
And still she sank into the woman, pulled forward now to rest her head on the abundant belly, the bare skin beneath her face so soft, so welcoming.
“Many have united.”
The mass of humanity was in full riot now, screaming with passion, watching Myrna with an avid fervor.
This felt like peace, this sinking, this submerging. For a moment, Myrna tried to resist, to pull away, but the flesh wouldn’t let her, and her hands were numb, absorbing into the woman’s immenseness.
Becoming one, uniting. Finally, a certainty of absolution, of dissolution. Myrna tilted her head up, her ear already consumed, and met the woman’s eyes. The mouth, barely visible in the drooping cheeks, smiled at her, welcoming her.
Myrna sank into contentment, swallowed by flesh.
“Many have united.”
Calie Voorhis is a lifelong fanatic of the fantastic, and internationally published writer with work in the anthologies Anywhere But Earth, DOA – Tales of Extreme Terror (Volumes I and II), Specter Spectacular, and the Urban Green Man Anthology, among others. She holds a BS in Biology from UNC-Chapel Hill, an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, and is an Odyssey workshop alumna. You can find her on Facebook.