You close your eyes and the mostly harmless ones are there. A loner or two or many. Sometimes it’s a feathered dragon painting smooth pirouettes against the darkness of your curtained eyelids, skipping from cave to cave through a wormhole in the nasal bridge. In other instances, the wrinkled face of an old crone, disembodied and wrapped in a black cowl, elicits a jump, a quickening of the heart rate, and a welcome re-entering to the known realm of the room you were in before shutting everything out. You can see the black and every other color; that interior layer of delicate skin is always dusted with a whitish, seemingly alive noise that constitutes the ideal canvas for such a lively display. The perfect theatrical backdrop.
True, the mind may not find bona fide rest for some moments after an encounter with her, the red-horned devil, or even the tentacle thing–blinking and sleeping and forcing debris out of one’s eyes carry understandable hazards. But unless you have a faulty aorta or any other such affliction that turns sudden scares into dynamite sticks, you live to tell the tale.
That is, if you don’t find them instead.
Sandra does breakfast the usual way, as if nothing had changed in the idyll of her suburban life over the past few months: steel-cut oats, coffee, orange juice, and a newspaper with headlines slightly more dreadful than the week before. The natural and earthy perfume of the petrichor wafting through the kitchen windows tells Sandra nothing about the very unnatural source of last night’s rain. Nonetheless, she takes it as a sign that, like her coffee, everything about today is just the way it is supposed to be, dripping into place with oily, hot, and bitter steadfastness, ready to be enjoyed at the end if enough patience is accrued.
Devon, meek and utterly unremarkable, awaits her departure by the stairwell, not daring to meet his wife’s dry and indifferent gaze. In fact, that is the last thing he looks forward to, in case it happens right then. He knows that, intrepid as he was in undertaking last night’s nasty bit of business, he lacks the stomach to endure the even nastier consequences. And besides, it’s not like they miss exchanging fond gazes and avid caresses. Not her at least. Not for a long time now.
One can go about finding these little gods’ neluayotl, their source, in several different ways, most of extreme complexity and with not deadly, but intoxicating and not too pleasant side effects for the seeker. Experts, however, agree that the most effective way to root one out of its hiding place is simply waiting for that time when it is most needed. They were seeded among the ilhuicatl-omeyocan, the hidden sky between here and there, for a reason, and that reason is to guide us, to steer us all through the path to enlightenment and well-being. To a great extent, their appearance signifies a gift: a soothing libation for those who pine for succor, a reprimand and a lesson for those who are being led astray. This is why to forcibly call upon them is such an uncommon and unadvised practice. If you feel you need to hail the teotl before they come to you of their own accord, well, you do not really need them at all.
Opposite to what we would ideally expect, though, such untoward tendencies are still made evident on a frequent basis. Owners of irregular and off-balance vessels have a knack for wanting that which they don’t need, to plunge with recklessness into contemptible and desirous ways in order to satisfy their whims. These are the guys and gals with unclean hearts that, simply put, end up fucking it all up.
Through these poor souls is how they come. They are the askatl’s big opportunity to play, to wreak havoc and shine through. Not being needed for anything of purpose but existing because they must in order to even the heavenly scales, the askatl live to be wanted. They curl up in their isolated pocket of twilight, awaiting with barely contained zeal the toll of the wrong bell.
Sadly, that death knell sounds way too often.
Devon steps into the shower stall and his skin starts sizzling immediately. The scalding water is his choice, his way of cleansing the disgusting mix of animal grease, ashes, and the smoke of ceremonial incenses. There is not much to wash away from his body, from his hair; this is his third lavation already. His mind, however, has other concerns, worries of a more rancid nature that water can hardly carry with it down the drain.
He stands under the streams, face upturned, impassive and oblivious to the heat but not completely idle. He thinks about his wife, reminiscing of her yet unchanged curves, the supple breasts, the firm flesh around her hips. So soon, he thinks, to have other hands touching those hills, fingers nimble and lustful—the wrong ones—hunting in the veldt of her navel and the dark and moist crevices beyond. What on earth went wrong?
The ensuing hardening is inevitable. Rage and self-pity only fuel his own desire and he acts on it with liberal violence. At least, he thinks, this will be a taint that water can dissolve.
On that particular fluid: rainwater is their conduit of choice. When the rift finally parts open, after the bleating of the goat and the rubbing of ghastly ointments and the chants, an askatl nantli queen quickly deposits thousands of eggs in an earthen bowl by the fissure. Then comes Tlaloc, lord of rain (for the ritual has a dual summoning purpose), gullible and unaware, dragging his watery tail and the eggs with him. They plummet together from the celestial domain, the deadly embryos encased inside individual drops. Once in the mundane realm, the babies fade into a brief slumber while they undergo a rapid transformation: from egg to larvae to pupae.
It is the belief of many summoners that the forces of chaos thus invoked will carry out their wishes in a prompt and swift fashion. This is, for the most part, correct: the askatl are an eager bunch. But history—and what little records are there to consult—show that no one should expect them to act at any particular or convenient moment.
No. These little bastards make themselves known only when it suits them. Or rather, at the precise moment when there’s a bigger chance for having hell break loose. That’s when they…
…pop. They pop out of their leathery husks and claw their way out of the ethereal loam where they waited. A raucous buzzing is testament to their joy of birth, but it is for their benefit only; they are still hidden from sight.
They do not remain inconspicuous for long, though.
If at day’s end Sandra wanted to go to his husband, to the home they were just starting to build together and his tiresome rants and his waxy pallor, she would have taken her car. If she had done that, she would have lived a couple of hours longer. You don’t usually try to sleep while driving, after all.
But that fire has died, quenched by the more adventurous nature of her new lover. To him she goes now, leaning against a darkened and grimy window of the tail train car. She rocks to the rhythm of the rolling caravan, picturing the pleasures those foreign hands are soon to impart, already feeling the electricity of forbidden lips coursing through her nerves.
The train stops at a crowded station. People disembark and people pour in, but she’s quick to snag a seat. Still thinking about her sinful tryst, she clutches her bag close to her stomach and shuts her eyes for a brief nap. She shouldn’t have.
The task of the first couple of workers is to secure the landing area. A trio of heavy mandibles clamp onto the seam of each pair of closed lids and Sandra, not yet asleep, can see their shiny red bodies jerking around in the gloom struggling to find a foothold. But even before registering the alien presence as an oddity, a more immediate neural stimulus takes priority.
She screams. Burning pain sears her fragile skin. Her bag drops to the floor as her hands navigate toward her face, palming gently at first but soon becoming a full-fledged slapping parade. Blood oozes through the forced stitches and her fingers smear it all over her forehead and cheeks for an even more gruesome effect. She screams, and not even the click-clack of the train wheels rolling over the rails is loud enough to quell that atrocious sound.
The other passengers, curious at first (holding on to the usual train-rider flavor of indifference), are just now beginning to panic. Phones start flooding the lines of the city’s emergency services while bodies keep a prudent distance from the afflicted.
The askatl swarm into her. At one point her now raking fingers manage to dislodge two of the reds that kept her right eye from opening. Crimson light floods in and she is able to get her bearings—more or less. She stands up and extends pleading arms towards the commuters but their own safety comes first, always, and they shy away from her. She shambles on, to and fro, and bumps her shins on the edges of the seats without negative effect; the pain inside drowns everything else.
The colony resent the degradation of their passage bandwidth but soldier on still, three or four abreast. One eye should suffice. Some bore through in a straight line, heading for the tasty brain. Others start nibbling downward, passing nose and throat, clearing a path for bodily domination.
Sandra lets her hands descend to her side. Tiny bumps swell under her skin. The agony is a constant background thrum but her energy is fading, her vocal cords already shredded. She stares with one mangled eye at the back of the train and the faint trail of light illuminating the murky underground maw until everything, not just the tunnel, turns murky and then black and silent. She falls to her knees. Her mouth hangs open like a malfunctioning ventriloquist doll. Finally, her head slumps, chin connecting with chest in a last languishing nod of departure.
Another misconception about the askatl is that as soon as they are done with their intended victim they disappear, returning to the place from whence they came. People who think this way fail to realize that while they do indeed possess a very short lifespan—as evidenced by their fast metamorphosis—the army will not stop until they cause as much damage and mayhem as possible. So, for example, if a girl in a pretty pink dress happens to shut her eyes and press her face against her mother’s legs, trying to evade the grisly reality of a woman in a train car being eaten from the inside out, the askatl won’t hesitate to take advantage of the situation.
And then onto another, and another, and yet another host. Shuttered eyes are easy to come by in those scenarios.
Devon stuffs his face with a glazed BBQ chicken leg from a famous Korean place. In the basket in front of him are two more drumsticks and half a dozen soy-garlic wings. On the TV mounted from the ceiling of the restaurant, yet another anchorman prattles on about the mysterious death of twenty in a subway car. The CDC still has a chokehold on that particular tunnel and routes are being diverted, much to the displeasure of most travelers.
As he licks his sticky fingers, he acknowledges that the acidic moral taste from before has everything but evaporated. He had waited three weeks before finally heading down to the coroner’s office to identify the body (better safe than eaten), but the eyeless, noseless, and pretty much dried up body of his wife had put a secret smile on his face. It had taken a lot of guts to do what he did, but he is now glad he went along with it. Bitch got what she deserved. He feels empowered.
A pretty Asian girl with short brown bangs enters loudly, joined by two other equally obnoxious youths. She shoots him a quick look filled to the brim with disgust and turns to mutter something into her friends’ ears. They all giggle.
Devon pauses briefly and thinks of blood and ashes and rain. He tears another chunk of flesh from the steaming drumstick and chews contentedly. He will finish his basket first and then… perhaps.
Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/e_monk/ under a Creative Commons license