(I wrote this in 2017 and it won second place at UCSB’s 2018 Most Excellent Prose competition! I was inspired by an anthropology class where we learned about pangolins, small armored mammals often compared to armadillos. In Mary Douglass’ classic anthropology book Purity and Danger the pangolin stars in Lele rituals despite being “always spoken of as the most incredible monster of all” for its peculiar physiology. Douglass’ examination of religion’s paradoxical fascinations made me imagine my own weird fantasy pangolin cult.)
In the desert you’re always leaking. When you’re out of sweat, and you’ve pissed your last drop, your sanity seeps into the sand. Clouds drift into the drought just to die. Only curled-up critters can handle the caustic heat. Them, the cacti, and the cultists.
Townsfolk call me Doc because that’s what I am. I used to have a nurse named Fernando, but Fernando lost his mind, so I lost Fernando. I spend most of my days reminding townsfolk to hydrate, but sometimes I get to stitch someone together, or cut them open, and they’d better hope I care to sew them back up when I’m done.
Night’s the only time you can take a decent walk, so one full moon I staggered out with a bottle of tequila. I liked to circle the farms drinking until the dunes looked like waves and I could pretend I was lost at sea. That night, before I could enjoy myself, a cultist confronted me on my porch.
The junior cultists came to town on moonless nights to beg for food. They wore black, hooded robes and slippers made of old rubber tires, and sunglasses, and scarves. That’s how I knew this particular cultist meant business: he (she?) wore the full rubberized regale. His black rubber bodysuit had footies an inch thick. I couldn’t see eyes through his dark glass goggles. He unzipped his fetishy face-mask to talk. “Doc, we need help.” Having spoken, he zipped his mouth shut.
“I’ve got plans tonight.” I shook the tequila. He just motioned for me to follow. “C’mon, cactus-herder! Can’t you even tell me what’s wrong?”
He unzipped again. “God is leaking.” And, zipped.
Well, what can you say to that? I brought my first-aid kit and followed him over the dunes.
We walked hours over the sand. Dunes looked like arctic tundra in the moonlight. Ordinarily I’d never venture so far from town, but the cultist seemed to know the way. “How do you navigate out here?” The question wasn’t worth unzipping; the cultist just pointed at the sky. His rubber gloves were so thick his fingers could barely bend. “You can see the stars through those thick goggles?”
“Doesn’t that suit get uncomfortable?”
He nodded, vigorously.
“So what’s it for?”
He unzipped, and I never thought I’d hear something so sane from that black mask: “In the desert you’re always leaking.” And, zipped.
When we crested the next dune a sandy caldera opened before us. Junior cultists scrambled from cactus to cactus like bats sucking nectar from flowers. They cut limbs from cacti to replant and propagate the species. They wrapped wax paper around red blossoms to preserve pollen. They sliced fruits and pulled down their scarves to lick the liquid which dripped. Not one member of the strange congregation revealed an inch of skin under their tunics and rubber.
I heard my guide unzip as he led me through the throngs. “Avoid eye contact with the students. Life-essence leaks at every opportunity.” And, zipped.
“Is that all you folks drink? Cactus-juice?”
Unzip. “The cactus is like all organisms: it transmutes foreign substances into its own flesh. But the cactus doesn’t lose what it drinks. We drink the cactus to become like the cactus. We don’t lose what we drink.” And, zipped.
We walked past scattered huts made of animal skins draped over long bones. I thought twinkles in the huts were stars, but realized they were glints off voyeuristic sunglasses and goggles. The huts’ inhabitants looked away when I noticed.
“What do you eat? Cactus?”
Unzip. “We grind cactus into a paste. This paste sustains us without causing us to urinate or defecate.” And, zipped.
“How do you fuck with these suits on?”
Unzip. “To do so would be unthinkable.” And, zipped.
“Now that’s no way to live.”
Deep in the caldera the sand was pebbly and coarse. Past the last of the huts more rubber-suited figures like my guide stood across the pathless path. My guide unzipped. “I am not holy enough to go further. You must approach the caldera’s center alone.” And, zipped.
Another rubber guide unzipped. “Stomp and shout when you reach the center. A holy man lives there whose renunciation leaves him almost totally senseless, who therefore has not lost a drop of essence in a decade. His sacred potential is so great, a cut in his robes would beam like the moon. He will lead you to God.” And, zipped.
“Okay, okay. I get the picture.” The sand below was rocky and steep. I put my first-aid kit in my lap and descended the slope on my ass. “What’s the name of this holy man?”
Unzip. “To utter it would tarnish its purity.” And, zipped.
I climbed down into the caldera longer than I thought was possible. The depth dimmed the moon and the stars. The sand turned into stones turned into rocks until the ground was paved with boulders. I finally came to a place where the boulders sloped upward in all directions, so I reckoned it was the center. I stomped and shouted at the dark.
Movement rumbled from the dark: a silhouette I thought had been a boulder stood up and lumbered toward me on a gait restrained by thick black rubber. The holy man looked like an inflated cartoon character with outlines eight inches thick on all sides. His rubber gloves allowed only the barest use of his fingers. His rubber helmet was spherical with a mere pinprick for breathing and no other orifices.
“Listen,” I started, then, realizing he probably couldn’t hear me, amended myself: “If you can, I mean, listen. I’ve been more than cooperative.” The holy man managed to move his arms to twist his helmet so the pinprick for breathing was aligned with his left ear. I spoke quickly so he wouldn’t suffocate. “Just show me what I’m here to do.”
He swiveled his helmet back to breathe. Slowly as dunes roll over the desert, slowly as stars roll over the sky, he shifted weight from one foot to the other to walk. I followed, wondering if I could roll him to his destination faster than he would waddle. He led me to a gap between boulders in the ground. The gap was just large enough for someone to spelunk. I prayed it would not be necessary.
The holy man tugged my collar. “What? No clothes allowed underground?” He nodded, somehow, and I unbuttoned my jeans. “Am I here just because you don’t fit down the crevasse with your dumb rubber suit?” He shook his head. “Well, why am I here, then?”
The holy man drew letters in the air with a bulky glove. He spelled, “because you’re the best, Doc.”
I paused on my descent into the ditch. “Fernando?” I covered my mouth. “Sorry. I’m not supposed to say your name, am I?”
The holy man pat my head, and he pushed me downward.
Deep in the crevasse the age of the air weighed on my shoulders. I lowered myself ledge by ledge while holding my first-aid kit with my teeth. The ditch was so dark I had no clue how deep it ran. More than once I cut my soles on black cacti. I realized I didn’t know whether I was approaching God’s wound, or climbing inside it. Either way, the innermost lacerations would need to be sutured first.
After a duration whose length I couldn’t guess I felt nothing below me but cacti. I bouldered left and right but still felt sharp spines below. I whimpered, having no strength left to climb from the crevasse. I cursed myself for following cactus-herders.
When my strength gave out I fell. My back cracked cactus fronds and three-inch spines stuck me like a porcupine.
I landed in an empty cavern. I hardly remember falling, or how long I fell, and only recall waking nude and bloody. The walls of the cavern were dimly lit by shelves of glowing fungi.
I crawled to my first-aid kit. I started by injecting painkillers, though it felt counterproductive to puncture myself more. Then I set to work plucking each spine with tweezers. When I plucked my left arm bare it was polka-dotted with pox-like perforations. Before plucking my right arm, I examined my surroundings. The cave rocks were bigger than the boulders in the caldera above; they were sheets of stone slotted together like plates of armor.
Behind the glowing fungi, the walls were subtly transparent. I shuddered when I looked deeper: human figures were frozen in stone like bugs preserved in plastic. Some stood at military attention. Some sat with crossed legs. Some were balled in the fetal position. I turned away to pluck spines from my flesh.
When I was finally spineless I packed my first-aid kit and walked around aimlessly. Maybe God would transport me to the surface if I patched him up, but I didn’t find anything Almighty, just more rocks and fungi. I wandered to the walls for guidance. “I don’t suppose you frozen folks know where to find God, do you?”
“They already have.” The voice boomed from everywhere. I felt stones beneath me rumble and writhe. “I did not hear you come in. Welcome, Doctor.”
“What kind of God can’t feel someone crawling on them?”
“I feel everyone crawling on me,” said the earth. Rocky plates unfolded like flower petals with only more petals underneath. Sliding sheets of stone threatened to crush me, but I found a safe spot to stand: the center was stationary like the eye of a hurricane. The surrounding rocks bunched up like a bundt cake. When it finally finished moving, it looked like a circular pangolin wrapped around me.
“So.” I brushed stones with my fingertips. “Where does it hurt?”
Stone sheets rustled. Plates parted like elevator doors. More plates behind them parted vertically. More plates behind them parted diagonally and pure white light leaked through a slanted slot. “Prepare, Doctor. This will not be a sight for which your vision is accustomed.”
“Tell me what happened.”
I donned sterile gloves and ran a finger along the shining slot. The circular pangolin’s inner light showed me the shadows of bones in my finger. “I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s wrong.”
“The holy man said you were the best available for sewing someone up.”
“It helps if I know what cut them open.”
The circular pangolin’s plates contracted. “I harvest mana from ether. The astral planes resist me with a hazardous…” It searched for a word. “Exoskeleton.”
“You cut yourself cactus-herding?”
“Lemme take a look.”
The innermost plates parted and the brightness increased ten-thousand-fold. I couldn’t tell the difference between opening and closing my eyes, so I closed them and covered them with both hands. This hardly dimmed the light, and I felt utterly transparent. I wondered if my thickest bones still cast shadows or if the light penetrated even my pelvis and femurs when I walked into the rocky armor. I heard the stone sheets close behind me like air-locks. I felt labored breathing from all directions. The floor was warm and wet. I blindly felt for walls.
“So, why am I naked?”
“My inner light would disintegrate your clothing. The holy man will guard your garments.”
My hands brushed a warm wall. “Is this you?”
“Am I close to the wound?”
“You’ve been walking inside it.”
I considered the contents of my first-aid kit. “I didn’t bring enough anti-bac.”
“It is not necessary.”
“We can’t leave foreign objects when I sew you up. It’ll getcha whatever the metaphysical equivalent of an infection is.” In the blinding light I had to assess the wound by touch. I could barely brush both sides of the laceration with my arms outstretched. I couldn’t reach the top of the wound even jumping with my hands above me. I walked hugging the left wall to gauge the laceration depth: the left wall ended twenty paces from the deepest portion of the wound. I’d found the pangolin’s real flesh: even under plates of stone armor, its skin was a foot thick and covered in hard, sharp scales the size of my palm.
“Doctor, what is your professional opinion?”
“I need to perform debridement.” I tugged a loose scale until it popped off. “The astral plane burned your tissues. I have to remove the char.”
I used the scale to cut dead flesh from the walls and floor. The circular pangolin contracted mysterious musculature to bring the roof within reach, too. I was blind in the impossible light, but I knew which flesh to flay because the dead flesh was dry. Each time I brought a new armload of dead flesh from the wound, my old pile of dead flesh was gone. I suspected the pangolin ate them. I estimate the debridement took eight hours in total.
“Now I’m going to sew you up,” I said. “I’ll start by suturing the deepest parts of the wound.” I carefully opened my first-aid kit so each instrument remained in position. I felt where I expected needle and thread. I blindly, painstakingly threaded the needle. When I tried to pierce the pangolin’s internal flesh, the needle snapped. “Damn!”
“But you removed flesh with my scale!”
“I can’t sew with a scale.” I felt the wet floor for my first-aid kit and searched for another needle. I pricked myself on a cactus spine. “Ow!” It must have slipped into my kit in the fungus room. “I might be able to work with this.” I tied thread to the spine. Just as I suspected, the spine pierced the pangolin’s innards easily. The pangolin rocked and rolled; I struggled for balance mid-suture. “Stay still!”
“It hurts!” The circular pangolin squirmed as I sewed a zig-zag at the back of the gash. I retreated and tugged the thread taut.
“Just twenty more times, big fella.”
The pangolin groaned, but subsequent sutures were swifter. Soon enough I poked the cactus spine through the full foot of thick skin and pulled the whole wound shut. My roll of bandages was barely enough for a courtesy-wrap. “I’m afraid that’s all I can do.”
“Thank you, Doctor.”
I felt my way back to the stone-plated outer walls. “Can you open up your armor and let me leave?”
“But Doctor, you haven’t claimed your reward.”
I turned to the circular pangolin. Its light was brightest along the sutured wound, so its edges were shaded and I saw its silhouette. It stretched like a serpent into the infinite distance. “I just wanna drink myself to sleep in my own bed.”
“You’ve rendered unparalleled service to me,” said the pangolin. “You must join my highest order.”
“You mean the folks frozen by the fungi? No thanks.” I pried at the plates. “Let me out!”
“But you must have some reward,” said the pangolin.
I gave up opening the armor. I wasn’t leaving without a gift. “How about…” I searched the bloody floor. I collected the scale I’d removed and stowed it in my first-aid kit. “How’s that? Can I go now?”
“Thank you, Doctor. Yes, you may.”
The plates opened.
I couldn’t see anything as I walked out because my eyes were adjusted to the bright light, but I felt a cool evening breeze. The plates closed behind me and sunk under the sand, leaving only the bulge of a new-born dune. When my eyes adjusted to the dark I found myself a quarter-mile from town, and my clothes were folded beside me.
I haven’t seen any cultists since then—at least, not on purpose. On new moons junior cactus-herders come to town to beg for food, and when they do, they stop by to pay respects. Not to me; I have to let them worship the razor-sharp pangolin-scale.
I asked, one time, “why do you want to see it? This is sharp enough to cut through the thickest rubber suit.”
The junior cultist pulled down her scarf and said, “you can only worship what you fear. It’s the only way to keep yourself from leaking. In any case, this scale touched the skin over the muscle connecting the bones around the heart of God, and therefore it gleams like the moon in my eyes.”
Whatever floats their boat. I use the sharp edge for whittling.
But I always carry the scale when I step out at night to drink. It reminds me to climb the new dune the pangolin left bringing me home. There I drink tequila until the dunes are waves and I’m lost at sea.
(I think this short story conveys the meaning of Akayama DanJay in 2% as many words. If you liked it, why not follow me? I try to post something every week.)