Cosmic Crust | Tor.com

Cosmic Crust | Tor.com
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In an apocalyptic, depopulated city, a young man named Bhu struggles to feed his ailing dog Lucy. Phan, the local pizza parlor owner, takes pity on Bhu and provides the meat Lucy needs so she can survive. But what exactly is in the meat? And how far is Bhu willing to go to save his dog?

 

 

Bhu walked his dog five times a day and this demanded his full attention. An overweight bulldog crossbreed, she spent much of her time splayed sluglike on a small leopard-print pillow, breathing in and out in shallow, gulping snorts. Always he needed to be careful not to overexert her when he lifted her onto the wheeled prosthesis that supported her back legs.

Her name was Lucy.

There was no need to keep her leashed as she squeaked up and down the cracked sidewalk, though Bhu kept a vigilant watch for the black dogs that roamed his street, aggressive strays that worked in packs and barked with intelligent diction. They stood in the grass of vacant lots between boarded buildings, in the shadowed awnings of long-shuttered storefronts. They followed Lucy with their eyes and muzzles as she worked her way to a place that suited her refined olfactory palate—never the same place twice—where she relieved herself, at length, and with difficulty.

Bhu had to make sure that the door closed securely. Sometimes it hung open, and Bhu didn’t feel safe knowing anyone—or even the dogs—could walk right in.

Not only a picky walker, Lucy was also a picky eater. Her tastes narrowed when her age hit double digits and most of her teeth fell out. She never lost weight, even when she refused to eat for days at a time. She only reliably ate ground beef that Bhu bought in five-pound packs at escalating prices from the last remaining supermarket in a five-mile radius. He chopped it with a wooden spatula in a badly dented pan. Lucy watched from her pillow, eyes and nose wet with tears and mucus, slimy as something dredged from an ocean trench.

The beef gave off no odor; instead the kitchen smelled perpetually of the wax that he used to make candles in case the power went out.

Bhu lived on the first floor of a now mostly-empty co-op. The last thing the super told him, before she went on an indefinite sabbatical, was that Bhu could take any apartment that he wanted, if it was empty. Eventually he relocated to a place on the first floor because he got sick of carrying Lucy up and down the stairs. No one else lived on the first floor. All the shuffling old ladies who took great care to avoid him went up and down the stairs without complaint.

Most of the lights in the hall had burned out. Every time Bhu changed one, another would go dark the next day.

Bhu’s cough worsened. Five-foot-two and always wiry, his cheeks hollowed and his hair fell out in tufts. Bhu often ran his fingers along a patchy goatee which was the only place that his facial hair grew at all, reduced to the essentials, much like his life. Work, sustenance, personal hygiene. The care and comfort of Lucy, above all. He spoke to her at length about his days, his thoughts, the things he saw in this festering city. He did often not think about what he would do when she died. It hurt too much. He liked to think, given the state of things, that the world would end long before she did.

 

Famous Signoretti’s Italian Bistro had operated without a single day off for seventy-five years. No catastrophe of any scale had ever kept its shutters from opening, and this slow-looming cultural decay that Bhu felt in his marrow didn’t seem likely to be the first. Customers still trickled in throughout each day and filled the tables during the dinner rush.

It was not unusual for a cough or sneeze to slip out unexpectedly, drenching a plate as it went out to a customer, or even a whole pie that Bhu pulled steaming out of the wood-fire oven. Bhu found ways not to care, ways to justify his lack of caring, but one reason won out easily over the rest: Bhu wasn’t going to get anyone sick, because everyone was already sick. He saw the symptoms everywhere. In the customers’ heavy, bloodshot eyes, in their puffy lips and cheeks, the swelling in their necks and fingers, the sweat that coated their hands and the damp bills that they passed to him when he worked the register. He wore blue gloves for when he handled the bills, and at the end of his shift the fingers were stained and corroded, the latex pocked with small blisters. He told this to Phan, his boss, who took the gloves in his own hands, touched them, sniffed them, and told Bhu that there was nothing to worry about. People got sick because of bad energy, Phan said. Phan had never been sick a day in his life. As he said this he coughed and raised a bent cigarette to his lips. Phan’s eyes bulged anxiously. The thick crescent lines of his fingernails were stained a nicotine yellow.

Bhu researched contagion and sanitation. Temperatures higher than 140 degrees slow or stop bacterial growth. He stood near the oven and bathed in its purifying heat. Phan noticed this pattern of behavior and took this to be an intellectual interest in its workings. He spoke to Bhu about it at length. The mystical aspects of its form and structure, the temple shape of the dome, the holy vortex of the internal flame. An engineer by trade, if not philosophy, Phan married into an Italian restaurant family. When his wife inherited it, he took it over, replacing the smaller and more efficient gas oven with the bulky and inconvenient wood-fire oven. He did this largely on his own, using simple tools and materials, what he called the methods of the ancients.

Phan talked about energy and sickness in his slurred Chicago growl. He had designed the oven to be a generator of positive, healing energies. On the wood-fired bricks that he shaped and baked with his own hands he had inscribed a lexicon of powerful signs and sigils: harvest prayers from ancient Slavic carvings, healing passages from Babylonian tablets, Greek hexes that predated Homer by three thousand years. Buddhist prayers in a dozen languages, Chinese ideograms, his favorite mathematical figures, the names of all the players on the 2016 World Series–winning Chicago Cubs.

“It’s a universal lexicon,” he said one day. “You take the sides of all those bricks, you unfold them like so”—he demonstrated with his hands, turning them back and forth—“and it all fits together. I planned it for years, the placement of every mark in perfect, universal harmony. I thought it might help. I thought that this oven might change things for the better. Refocus the world’s energy, just a little bit.”

As Phan spoke a customer doubled over in a fit of violent coughs on the other side of the fiberglass panel that separated the checkout line from the kitchen. Bhu and Phan turned to watch. The coughing man fell to the ground and spat up a mouthful of blood and bile. Phan shook his head.

“And now, look.”

Made confident by Phan’s attention, Bhu worked his lips in a silent question, then repeated it out loud. He asked if Phan had any raw meat that he might be willing to sell cheaply. Bhu thought that Phan didn’t hear him because the spry old man rushed away, vaulting clean over the register to attend to the sick customer, who now held his hands to his throat, choking.

But Phan heard, and he didn’t forget. He called Bhu over at the end of his shift and asked what his question was. Bhu had to think for a moment, to center himself, before answering.

Bhu wanted meat. Raw meat, as fresh as possible, the cost of which would be taken out of his wages, whatever the cost may be.

Phan’s face shifted, softening into something wounded and pitiful. “You know, real meat’s hard to come by. Us, we use the synthetic stuff. They send it here in big loaves wrapped in foil. Some kind of foam full of fake blood, but it tastes real enough.”

Was that true? Bhu didn’t think so. There was something different about what came out of Signoretti’s kitchen. In the middle of a city drowning in malaise people swarmed to this spot, a global culinary migration, fresh foreign currency taped to the walls daily, crinkly fresh bills from all the countries that still had paper money. It was why the locals still dragged themselves here, half-dead and dripping with caustic sweat.

Phan turned away, slowly nodding. “What kind of dog you got?”

 

Phan liked bulldogs. Royal animals, he said. Protectors, like the ancient lion dogs, the shih tzus and Lhasa apsos and chows and mastiffs who guarded palaces and holy places throughout Asia. European breeds like bulldogs weren’t related, but they were bred for similar traits, physical characteristics which Phan thought represented a Platonic canine ideal. He talked to Bhu about this at length as he led him to a reinforced and padlocked door near his office. It opened into a dark stairway that Phan descended without turning on a light. Bhu waited at the top of the stairs while Phan continued to speak, describing astral figures, the holy names of various household pets, until he passed out of view and his voice faded to inaudibility. After a moment, a reddish rim of light glowed along the steeply slanted ceiling over the stairs.

The sounds Bhu heard made him sweat: There was a sound of something large and meaty, hacked at with a heavy blade. Shrill metallic sighs and squeaks. A wet squelch, a spraying release of pressure. A vague murmur of melody.

Bhu smelled something hard and metallic, and an acrid animal musk that wafted up the steps and made him gag.

The crinkle of plastic, the rip of tape.

Phan appeared at the base of the stairs, stopping briefly to scrape the bottoms of his shoes against the first step. A lit cigarette danced in his lips as he stomped up the stairs, continuing a thought begun long before. “—But none of that would have mattered if the US hadn’t subsidized oil production for so long and artificially inflated demand. Let me know what your pooch thinks of this.” He handed Bhu something wrapped in black plastic and many layers of tape. It weighed ten pounds, at least, and it was very warm. Bhu’s fingers sank into something tender and wet through the plastic.

Bhu stood silent for a moment.

“No charge.” Phan squinted, taking deep breaths through his flaring cigarette. “I just hope she likes it.” Then he turned, and closed and locked the basement door. Bhu said thank you and left. Phan followed him out to the street. The shutters came rattling down, and Bhu looked back to see Phan at the edge of the sidewalk, smoking and staring. Bhu looked down at the black plastic in his hands. His shadow circled him as he passed from one streetlight to the next.

 

Bhu unwrapped the parcel on the counter of his cramped kitchen. He stepped back to stare at it. Phan had given him what looked like a pristine pork loin: a cleanly sliced, pink and juicy hunk of meat. The smell made his mouth water. A shuffling sound drew his attention to Lucy’s pillow. She had heaved herself over its edge with her front paws, and now she raised her nose high into the air. Her nostrils flared and contracted.

It was the most that Bhu had seen her move in three days.

Using a dull knife, he cut into the flank of the tender meat with almost no resistance. He seared it in his skillet with a splash of oil and it filled the air with a buttery sweetness.

Lucy tried to drag herself along the floor, back legs splayed behind her. Instead Bhu moved her pillow so that it was next to the counter. He diced the cooked meat and dropped it into her dish, and then set the dish on the floor. She ate until nothing was left, and then she licked the bowl clean.

That night Bhu cooked five servings for Lucy, almost half of what Phan had given him. She would have eaten more, but Bhu wanted the meat to last. He was also afraid that if she ate too much she’d just throw everything up.

Both Bhu and Lucy slept soundly, and in the morning her poops were firm and healthy.

 

Bhu made Phan’s meaty parcel last until the end of the month. The final meal, scarfed up by Lucy with snorting gusto, seemed to trigger a seasonal shift. That night there came a sudden, drenching downpour, a thick coagulate rain. The next day a black cloud descended on the city from the East. It swirled in the air, spreading over the sky like an ink spill, and then it fell, a plague of small, black, biting flies that settled, thick and ravenous, over the city’s nests and hollows. On her walks Lucy performed her usual nonchalance, oblivious to the flies as she was to nearly everything. Bhu, with his face and hands covered, swatted at the spiny bugs that flew into his eyes and bit at every spot of exposed skin. The stray dogs nipped them out of the air and ate them by the mouthful, or they lay down and endured the masses of biting insects that settled on them like a second coat of black fur.

Already Lucy was stronger. When Bhu pressed his fingers to the muscles in her back legs he felt firm fibrous tissue, taut under her scruffy fur and loose skin. When he pulled back her lips, he found her tongue and gums pink and healthy, her remaining teeth strong and white.

She walked unaided for the first time in two years.

 

Signoretti’s opened every day, as they had for seventy-five years. Bhu walked to work through the fog of biting flies.

“You look like chewed gum,” said Phan, when he saw him. “Bad energy, I’m telling you. These animals, they’re like bacteria. If you’re susceptible, they know. The ancient Greeks, they called it sperma. The seeds of disease. Cum simene, in Latin. They thought it was inherited.”

Phan went on smoke breaks in a t-shirt and shorts. The flies ignored him completely.

“The Chinese,” he said, “call sperm jīng zǐ. The element of essence. Qigong masters teach you not to masturbate. Drains your life energy.”

Bhu told him how much happier Lucy was, how she ate well and she was more alert and energetic. She looked healthier every day. Phan smiled at this, and he continued to give Bhu the taped parcels of raw meat at no charge. “I never met this dog,” he said, “but I like her.” His gaze wandered over the candlelit space of the restaurant, the windows that were dark with the clouds of flies. “Sometimes I wonder if there’s anything left that’s pure. Then I think about that dog, how she must look at you when you feed her.” His eyes flicked over a mulling crowd of evening patrons. “Not like these animals. No matter how much they eat, they just waste away. There’s no love in their lives.”

 

Bhu came home and Lucy ran up to greet him. He held her and cooed at her as she licked his face and panted happily. He felt soft new fur growing where she’d had bald patches on her legs from licking. She was taller. It wasn’t just that her legs were strong again. She was, implausibly, taller.

Something thumped against the wall hard enough to make glassware tingle. Lucy shot out of Bhu’s lap and cowered under a flimsy wood table, where she growled and barked. Bhu stared at the wall, unaware that anyone had moved in next door. He heard the low murmur of voices, and then laughter.

Lucy barked louder, faster.

On the other side of the wall, a deep, bellowing voice barked back.

Lucy cocked her head. Soon other voices joined the first, a whole pack of voices, woofing and growling and howling through the wall, growing in volume and ferocity. Lucy barked louder herself, even though Bhu took her in his arms and shushed and petted her, trying desperately to quiet her down.

Only when Bhu prepared her dinner did she grow silent and attentive. Her appetite had improved, and she had been going through each parcel more quickly than the last. Bhu tossed the last large steak from the fridge into the pan. Their new neighbors continued to shout, now at each other. Someone stumbled and fell with a crash, and after the silence that followed Bhu felt grateful to hear laughter again, although it was a harsh laughter, bitter and shrieking.

He turned the stove off and left the meat in the pan to cool. He bent to pick up Lucy’s dish. Seeing her beside it, sitting, panting, he bent to scratch at the bunched rolls of skin around her neck, which were always itchy.

Someone knocked on his door.

Bhu stared at the door, then at the wall, trying to remember when he had last heard any sound from the neighboring apartment.

The knock came again, harder, rattling the chain of the door guard. Bhu heard muffled voices, stifled laughter.

He went to open it, leaving the chain attached. In the darkness of the hall stood a man not much taller than Bhu himself. Hard-edged features and deep-set eyes peered at Bhu under a hairless, pitted scalp. He looked like something handmade, carved with sharp instruments that worked with great precision, except for the tip of his nose, where they must have slipped; it was split almost vertically by a recent wound, now scabbed over.

“Hey neighbor,” he said, and his head fell, casting his face in shadow. “Hey. I just want to—” His mind seemed to wander, and he looked off down the hall. “I just want to apologize about all the noise. My friends and I, we’re in the place next door. Still settling in, and by the way, that’s a cute dog you got. Good guard dog.” He laughed, and Bhu heard a woman laugh also, somewhere out of view. The man leaned in and inhaled the aroma of Lucy’s dinner. His eyes met Bhu’s; one iris drifted slightly askew. “What are you cooking in here?”

Bhu explained that he was cooking dinner for his dog. He was met, again, with laughter.

The woman spoke from the hall. “For his dog? Is he for real?”

The man laughed again.

“I just haven’t smelled anything that good in a long time,” he said. “Fact is we haven’t eaten since yesterday. We just found this place, you know, came in here because of the flies and the dogs and shit, and we didn’t even know yet if there was anyone else on this floor. So here we are sitting right there in the next room wondering where we’re gonna get our next meal, and then the whole place smells like a steakhouse because our new neighbor is making dinner for his pooch.”

“It smells really good,” said the woman, who leaned into the light and smiled. Dark curls hung down over her eyes. Her lips were chapped and red with sores. “You a cook or something?”

Bhu stumbled over his words as the man looked on with his ugly condescension. Something must have slipped out about working at Signoretti’s because the man nodded, saying, “The place down the street? My grandparents ate there every Sunday after church. Good church-going folk. Not many of them left, these days.” He grew solemn, briefly thoughtful. “This whole building, you know, it’s so quiet. Might be everyone’s gone. It’s just you and us in here, and your yappy dog.” The gloved hand scratched at his nose again, then reached out and plucked at the taught chain connecting door and jamb. “And this little chain here is just…not very welcoming, you know what I’m saying?”

Bhu could get more meat. From Phan, in the morning. With an apologetic glance at Lucy, he wrapped up the meat in the pan, and squeezed it through the gap, then closed and deadbolted the door.

The woman shouted thanks from the hallway, and the man said nothing at all.

 

In the morning Lucy stayed on her pillow, bleary-eyed and lethargic. Her breath came in quick, shallow snorts. Bhu took her in his arms and carried her outside. The air was clear of flies and the sky was a deep cerulean blue. The plague had passed, but in its wake the sidewalks, the streets, the cars still parked sloppily on the street, everything was coated in a dark grey ash, as thick and heavy as snow. It crunched underfoot and left behind a sticky, rotten residue. Bhu sifted through a pile of it with the toe of his boot and groaned. It was composed of the tiny bodies of dead flies. He wondered if there would be more.

The strays chased each other through the streets, mouths wide, tongues lolling. They rolled joyously in the insect ash. They stood and shook themselves, coated with black grime that clung to them like sap.

Lucy took notice of them, a rare fascination. She barked at them, and howled weakly. The dogs stopped and stared, ears vertical, tails flat. Bhu set Lucy down, and she tottered a few shaky steps to the edge of the sidewalk. She knelt to pee and could not stand again.

Bhu swept her up and carried her back inside.

Lucy trembled and huffed gently in his arms, her eyes moving rapidly under closed lids. Her skin hung on her like a heavy coat. He wrapped her in blankets and left her snoring on her bed.

Bhu went to wash his hands and wept quietly into the sink.

There was nothing for her to eat.

Outside, the dogs began to howl.

 

Phan stood on the sidewalk clearing the crusted fly shells with a leafblower, throwing up billowing clouds of crushed wings and shattered chitin. Bhu watched him from across the street. The sticky residue remained on the sidewalk and Phan stared at the streaks and gobs contemplatively. He knelt down and scooped some of it up in his palm. “You ask me? Mana from heaven, that’s what this is.” He brought it to his nose and sniffed it. He pinched some of it in his fingers and tasted it.

Bhu walked past him, his gorge rising. Bhu started to ask about getting more of the meat but Phan revved the leafblower and walked toward the empty parking lot.

Bhu waited for a good time to ask but Phan stayed by the oven, perpetually busy. A new recipe, he said. With a large pizza peel he deftly scooped up a large pie and held it out, steaming. “It gets to the point where you think, maybe all the good I can do is one thing, done right.” Phan brought the pizza close, his hands flexing around the handle of the peel. His nose wrinkled into a sneer. “Could be better,” he said. He turned and laid it on the counter: a large, round, thin-crust thing, topped by a white and wispy cobweb pattern, and greasy round discs of meat. Bhu suspected that the green sauce was made of ichor from the fallen flies, but still—the smell was extraordinary, and his stomach knotted with hunger.

When Phan put the pie out, customers fought over the few slices that were available. They sweated, spat, and screamed. In the commotion Bhu snuck away and went to the door by Phan’s office. He turned up the padlock and inspected it. He searched Phan’s office and found a silver key in the top drawer of the desk under a stack of old Hustler magazines. He returned to the door. The key slid in easily. The padlock clicked. Through the open door the acrid smell of metal and musk made him gag, but he descended anyway, down the stairwell and into the dark.

The dirt floor writhed under the soles of his shoes. Things moved in the dark, sounds like animals in cages, things rustling in beds of heavy leaves. In what little light there was Bhu found a work table and flicked on a small work lamp.

In the harsh light Bhu’s eyes struggled to fall on any one thing in the maelstrom of form and motion that surrounded him, anything that he could structure, concretely, into an object. So many shapes and forms and hues battled for attention, denied comprehension. His mind grasped for any larger, unifying pattern. By a wall of the large cellar, taking up perhaps half of the available space, there sprouted a huge and bulblike plant. Its enormous petals curled open like a strange orchid. A profusion of fronds and tendrils spread out from its base, entwining around each other, wrapping and undulating around a broad, central stalk. From the tendrils sprouted blood-red leaves and other, less plantlike forms. Puckered sphincters spat long cobwebbed veils that spread in a wide radius, clinging tentlike to the floor. Meaty limbs ending in undeveloped claws, hoofs, and fingers that strained against restricting vines. Mouths full of small, square teeth opened and closed and moaned wordless exhalations.

Bhu turned at the sound of footsteps on the stairs and turned just as Phan stepped into the light. Phan’s hand brushed the table and he drew a broad-bladed cleaver. Bhu staggered back, then tripped and fell onto a carpet of wriggling life.

Phan walked past Bhu, toward the bulb. Fronds and tendrils moved to intercept him. He grabbed them by the handful and hacked at them until they fell away.

“You know what’s up there?” Phan jutted his chin upward. “Right above us. The oven.” He chopped at the central stalk. Thick red ichor oozed from the gashes. “I told you, didn’t I? About the signs that I put in the bricks. It must have worked, somehow. These things, they started to come up through the floor.” With one hand he pulled loose hunks of raw, bleeding meat loose from the trembling stalks and hairy flanks, and he returned to set the hunks down on a plastic mat on the table. “I gotta trim it back because it grows so fast.” He paused, then spoke to Bhu without turning. “I would have shown you,” he said. “If you asked. I’m not really hiding it. It’s just—it’s hard to explain.”

Bhu felt the floor squirm underneath him. Small tendrils twitched and coiled on the ground, and small white maggots wriggled between them. Bhu sat up and retched.

Phan looked down at him. His eyes narrowed. “What are you doing down here?”

Bhu stared at the giant bulbous thing, his jaw working soundlessly, unable to speak.

Phan sighed, shrugged. “Look, I didn’t—I thought it would help. I think about ousia and energeia, essence and energy. In Eastern Orthodox theology, they say that we can’t comprehend the essence, but we can know the essence by its energies. The ways that it acts on us, on our bodies, on our world. We follow the traces back to the source, but what can we really know about the source?”

Lucy, Bhu said. What about Lucy?

Phan shook his head. “Like I said, energy and essence. This is the energy. Whatever happens to your pup, that’s energy. But I don’t know what’s going to happen because I can’t tell you a thing about the essence. I’m sure that it comes from someplace deep and holy. The Godhead.” He stepped back and hefted the chunks of matter that had collected on the mat. “You might ask yourself, because I ask myself, what I might be doing by feeding this to people, whether I’m the one who’s making them sick. But the world was sick long before I started any of this.”

Bhu stood and frantically brushed off the worms and tubers that clung to him. He had not finished when a loud thump and a series of shouts drew his attention to the ceiling. Shattered glass crunched on the floor above them. Phan rushed upstairs. Bhu followed, eager to leave the bleeding, moaning plant behind.

The crowd from the dining area overflowed. They broke through the fiberglass counter and trampled each other to vault to the other side. Phan screamed at them to calm down. He tried to hold them back, but they ignored him. They filled their mouths with handfuls of pizza, garlic knots, breads, cheeses and calzones, even the raw dough that sat untended on the counter.

They did not hurt Phan, in fact they treated him with great care, a kind of reverence. When Bhu last saw him, he was alive and smiling.

Smoke poured from the oven, and its mouth belched swirling gouts of flame.

 

Home. Bhu wanted to go home to Lucy. All belief in a rational universe had fled from his afflicted mind, but he knew that his dog loved him, and that he should never have left her. Bhu rushed through empty streets while a yawning red welt opened in the sky above.

If he looked back, he would have seen the bulbs of strange plants sprouting and blooming in his footsteps.

The door to Bhu’s apartment was open. Inside stood the split-nosed squatter, the woman with blistered lips, a tall man in a loose down coat, and others. Bhu’s belongings lay smashed and scattered on the floor. The squatters faced the bedroom door, which was closed and barricaded with toppled shelves. Something on the other side scratched and banged on the flimsy wood.

Bhu called Lucy’s name. The woman with blistered lips turned and lunged at him, swinging something that looked like a table leg. It must have connected. Bhu fell to the floor, tasting blood.

“What the fuck did you feed us?” asked the split-nosed squatter. “What the fuck did you feed your dog?”

Bhu asked where Lucy was, and the woman replied.

“You killed her. You killed her.”

Bhu coughed.

“We only found her skin. Did you feed her to the other dog? Is that the kind of person you are?” She raised a hand toward the bedroom. Something heavy thumped against the door and growled, a growl that Bhu felt in his hands, his palms flat against the floor.

Other dog? Bhu understood nothing. Only that Lucy was gone. He couldn’t believe it, at the same time—he felt, somehow, that he would have known.

“We gotta get outta here,” one of the squatters said. “That thing is going to get out, and it’s going to be pissed.”

The thing in the bedroom howled. The strays answered—in the street, in the alley, and in the hall.

For some reason Bhu smiled. He had forgotten to close the door.

With a rapid clicking of claws the dogs came running into the apartment, skidding on the tile floor, black with insect soot, white teeth bared and ravenous. They hurled themselves at the squatters, who beat them back with pipes, pans, pieces of furniture.

The bedroom door split open down the middle, and whatever was on the other side slipped through. It leapt at the split-nosed squatter, pitching him backward over a table. Bhu saw the creature briefly: a strange, muscular, simian thing, with grasping, clawed fingers, and a long, coiled tail. When it was done with the man, and all the squatters had gone, it came to where Bhu lay and licked his face with a tongue like a tenderloin. It searched his face with bulging saucer eyes that Bhu found very beautiful.

For a while, it stayed with him.

 

Winter came, and the days grew short and brutal. A windy chill was the only constant, oscillating between white snowfall and grey dust, still rich with the carcasses of flies. Only the strong remained, and the blessed. They came to Signoretti’s still, clustering around the burned ruins like the site of a holy pilgrimage. Only the oven remained standing, with its perpetual flame. The pilgrims were a strange-looking sort, but Bhu was never the type to judge.

Others moved in the fringes, huddled together in the cold, scooping the fly carcasses into large buckets. They spread the residue on good soil, in basements and greenhouses, and survived on the strange bulbs that sprouted from the plots overnight.

Bhu went for walks on grey streets buried in dunes of ash and snow and the bodies of the flies and other things that swarmed. They ignored Bhu completely, sometimes circling around him with deference.

He followed the howling of the dogs. They still haunted the same vacant lots and boarded spaces, somehow hearty through the long winter, warm in thick coats of jet-black fur. He searched for their leader, and sometimes he found her. Some days he could track her by the sound of her labored breathing. She dwarfed the others in size and splendor, with a shining silver mane, high sloped shoulders with short, stunted wings, three curled tails, eight loping legs. Her face was concaved, her mouth a wide and toothy indentation in a face as wide as a compact car.

No part of her matched the other half. Bhu theorized that the Godhead did not favor symmetry. Long teats sagged from her bloated belly—seven, the number of divinity—and she suckled an endless number of flat-faced, muscular young. Bhu fed them morsels from his kitchen, and they yapped a strange semblance of speech.

 

“Cosmic Crust” copyright © 2020 by Alex Sherman
Art copyright © 2020 by Samuel Araya

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