Monday 18 April 2022

Abscessed - Short Story by Stephen McQuiggan



Short Story by Stephen McQuiggan

‘When you reach Hanna’s plateau,’ Master John told Riley, ‘you will come across a grove of yew trees and, in their sombre midst, you will find His scared place.’ He kissed Riley’s forehead in blessing, then locked his flinty grey eyes on his. ‘There you will see His true face, feel the depths of His love, become as His right hand. Of all the brethren your faith is strongest. This is why He chose you, why He came to my dreams calling your name.’

Riley had hiked up the mountain at first light and reached the plateau an hour before sunset. Yet, as eager as he was to prostrate himself before the holy shrine, he pitched his tent in view of the grove and meditated until the dawn. He wished to purify himself completely, mind and body, before entering that most hallowed of places.

Even as the sun rose, a beacon of celestial affirmation over the mountain’s crumbling crown, Riley sat motionless by the campfire (wearing only his pants, but it wasn’t a sin if no-one else could see), assailed by cramp and persistent, nagging doubt. His faith felt weak now, diluted by aches and pains.

On the long trek up to the shrine he had developed an abscess below his back molar, and the throb of his jaw at the pus filled obscenity in his mouth felt like a warning not to succumb to vanity – for had his pride not swelled like an abscess with each laborious step up the mountain’s back as he recalled Master John’s praise? Had he not fairly glowed at the thought of being chosen?

And if such a paltry thing as an infected gum punctured his faith, if his much vaunted spirituality dissipated at the slightest hint of physicality, then really, how strong could it have been in the first place?

He knew what Master John would say – he would label it a test, urge him to embrace it as a gateway to knowledge, but that was easy to claim when your mouth wasn’t wreathed in a lattice of white fire. The shame that enveloped Riley at this heretical thought almost drowned out the pain that now stretched all the way up to his ear.

How dare he question the Master? That was vanity indeed. Should he return to the vestry and tell him (Oh, the thought of disapproval in those cold grey eyes was pain indeed) that a sore gum prevented the will of the Almighty? He would be disrobed and cast out into the wicked world, defenceless against the Final Judgement the Master assured was almost upon them.

Riley rummaged through his pack until he found a small sachet of salt, offering up a benediction to Brother Tilson for his foresight in including it amongst his rations. He poured some water into a cup, blessed it, added the salt, and then drank deeply, swirling the bitter concoction around his swollen mouth.

His Mother would have approved (though she approved of little else) for it was one of her ‘natural’ cures. She was a bitter woman, nourished on vulture soup and full of heathen remedies. If only I could cure you of that damn church, she would often lament; it’s not a calling, it’s an obsession.

Riley smiled ruefully to himself. I’m not obsessed, Mother, he thought, merely abscessed. 

The salt water eased him for a time and he used the reprieve to say his morning prayers, thanking the Almighty for His wisdom in reminding him of his frailties. Perhaps, Riley thought, I’ll feel more at one with Him if I have a few hours rest, for he was still exhausted after his journey and a long night of pondering His majesty and ways. Refreshed, he would be more deserving of His grace, more worthy of His notice.

The day grew dull, swathing the plateau in a preternatural gloom, the sun veiled by pregnant clouds snagged on the sharp peak above. The small grove was enveloped in a mist that rose like a sigh, swaddling the trees in an eerie haze. The mist grew thicker as Riley watched, its phosphorescence lighting the plateau with an uncanny radiance.

It’s a sign, Riley thought, for had the Master not said there would be wonders, had he not said that –

- A crack of thunder rent the silence and Riley cowered, his eyes scanning the heavens for a tear, a rip in the celestial fabric, for anything that could explain such an apocalyptic cacophony, but the sky was placid and not so much as a blade of grass stirred on the level plain.

The thunder came again and again, and Riley saw a huge shadow, indistinct in the mist, pacing to and fro amid the trees, each footstep a cataclysm. He held his breath and covered his ears but still the thud penetrated his skull, vibrating the very earth beneath him as it shook the venerable yews. It was over as soon as it began, the mist evaporating, though its echo throbbed in Riley’s head to the steady beat of his abscess. The twilight was swarming with spirits and his very blood did seem to scream.

The grove was silent now, only a bed of leaves carpeting its border marked the sudden turmoil. An impenetrable green haze replaced the mist clinging to its slender trunks. Riley crossed himself as his heart hammered out its own storm in tribute.

Oh Merciful Lord, he thought, that I should bear witness to your dreadful majesty! May I be as a burning brand plucked from the fire in your service.

If only his Mother could have seen this argent glow, she would think twice before blaspheming. She would baulk at doubting His very name in the face of such power. She would no longer dare to label the Master a charlatan, an acolyte of the Devil, if but once she had felt His awesome glory.

But she will, Riley consoled himself, for when I return from the mountain, when I have seen His true face and become his vessel, I will go to her and she will see the reflection of His glory and she will fall to her knees and beg forgiveness for the falsehoods she tried to poison me with.

And will I then absolve her of her sin? Master John will guide me.  

His Mother had long been an abscess on his heart, and as such she should be lanced and drained. The Master would know what to do for the best. Yet a strange, and not entirely unwelcome, thought came to him – would he need the Master and his ponderous instruction after his pilgrimage to the shrine? Would he not return to the Brethren, blessed and marked, as the true Master?

The pain increased in his mouth and an itch spread down his spine. Riley offered up a heartfelt prayer, asking to be washed in humility and counted once more amongst the meek.

He crawled back into his tent and, despite the low grumbling in his teeth, slipped easily into the realm of sleep – a realm, according to Master John, where God continuously prowled surrounded by His angelic nightmares.

When he awoke, Riley’s jaw throbbed with a renewed fury as if fuelled by his dreams. He howled, his voice echoing down the mountain side, rebounding helter-skelter off the pine boughs, sending the eagles soaring in flight from their lofty perches. Digging out a shaving mirror from his pack, he held it up to get a good look inside his mouth. He was fully intent on digging out the tooth with a penknife if need be; anything to rid himself of the pain.

As he pulled away the cheek and opened wide with one hand, the mirror positioned in the other, Riley blinked furiously, unable to fathom what it was he was looking at. His gum was undulating violently when, with a sickly squelch, his molar popped out in a cascade of blood; Riley half spat, half vomited it out.

The pain had ceased but, as he ran an exploratory tongue around the hole where the tooth had been he found its place had already been taken. Something hard, and crowned with a sharp crest, had risen up in its stead. Tilting the mirror, holding his head back, Riley opened up and said ‘Ahh’.

He dropped the mirror with a gasp, and saw his own startled eyes staring back at him in a score of broken shards. It could not be, he must still be asleep, lost in...

He put his finger back into his mouth. It was met by another one growing up out of the hole his tooth had so recently vacated – the same one he had seen wiggling at him in the mirror, its nail black and crusty. Master John had warned him there might be tests and this must surely be one. A test of his sanity, of his ability to hold onto his faith as the very world around him sank into illogical madness.

Riley felt the finger in his mouth delicately scrape the inside of his cheek. He tried to bite down on it but it was like chomping on steel. He moaned, rocking back and forth before his tent, wrapping his arms around himself in a bid to stop himself falling apart. That was when he noticed the large lump on his shoulder.

The skin was red and tight. As he poked at it gingerly the flesh recoiled and burst open in a sickly spray of pus. From its oozing, gelatinous centre a finger emerged, waggling in the mountain breeze. As Riley moaned out the litanies that Master John had taught him red blotches began to emerge on his torso, his forearms, his legs.

With a white hot agony that stopped his prayers, he doubled over as with a blow to the gut. When he straightened himself up a glistening finger protruded from his belly button, feeling the air like the antennae of some massive, hideous insect.

‘Please Lord,’ Riley whispered, ‘I am your servant, please find me worthy.’

He slumped to his knees hoping to crush the bulging tumours that popped there and, although he no longer felt any pain, he let out a cry that ran down the valley like a poisonous stream. For he felt a new sensation, an almost pleasant burning, right in his dirty place (the crevice of evil, the brethren had taught him) between his legs; the orifice of sin, the gutter of temptation.

Down there, where no matter how hard he tried, no matter how often Master John inspected, he could never keep clean, something was burrowing its way out. He felt it emerge from Satan’s gate and he did not need the mirror to tell him it was a devilishly long digit, or that its nail would be browned by the taint of his own heathen bowels.

It flicked like a tail as he crawled back into the tent – and what better adornment for a crawling, base animal than a tail, save some horns?

As the thought struck him, Riley put his hands to his head and felt the fingers jutting out there. He tried to scream but all that came out of his mouth were the rest of his teeth, the fingers that replaced them clicking together in infernal applause. Madness took him then and he swooned down onto his sleeping bag as shadows creeped in to caress his ever changing body. The night was devoid of stars, as if ashamed to illuminate its work.

He slept right through until the following sunset as his body popped and cracked, went through its torturous transition with a numbing ease that did not wake him. When he opened his eyes he found himself lying naked outside his tent. His body was a waving sea of fingers. Lifting his head, he gazed down his torso and found himself an anemone of moving digits.

He would have called out for help but his mouth was now little more than a loose fitting glove. Without any thought, or volition, his body started to move, carried forward by the fingers that layered his back, propelled like some childish drawing of a monstrous millipede. Above him the setting sun shone but dimly, extinguished at the sight of such heresy.

He was moving inexorably toward the trees. He could hear the soughing of the wind over the clicking of fingernails on the stone beneath him. No, his mind rebelled, the Good Lord cannot see me this way – but then, surely it had been the Good Lord who had rendered him thus? Had defiled him, smited him for his vanity?

I went sorrowfully, in abhorrence of myself, Riley thought, the beloved scripture offering him no solace; Oh, Ezekiel, how I blush at your truth now.

As he reached the old yews, Riley clambered up onto his feet and walked unsteadily between their weather bitten trunks. The wind picked up as the light faded and the fingers that sheathed his body rustled in excitement. May God forgive this pagan porcupine, he prayed silently, as a bright orange glow pierced the gloom just up ahead.

He carried on walking through the now cold, black pillars of the little wood, making his slow, cautious way to the light. He expected the sting of woodsmoke, the sudden slap of heat, for he was sure he was approaching a conflagration – in truth, he hoped to be consumed by fire, purified by it – and when, or if, they ever found his blackened bones they would never be aware of the obscenity he had become.

Yet the closer he got, the cooler and brighter the light became. Riley stepped into a clearing in the heart of the grove, swathed in preternatural daylight, and dropped to his knees before the shrine and the words etched there – Demon Est Deus Inversus. He bowed his head beneath the gargantuan statue that dominated that sacred place, cowering as he dared to gaze upon it.

‘His true face,’ Master John had told him, but never could Riley have believed that the Lord of love and mercy, keeper of eternal life, could be such a hideous abomination, could be both so savage and sage. As his unblinking eyes scanned the horned monstrosity rearing above him, Riley’s heart hardened (you will feel the depths of His love) and he embraced the honesty of the cruelty sculpted in the unpolished stone.

Here was awe and pure majesty, here was power that counted nations not individuals, here was the never changing truth at the heart of all things. Here was the very claw of God. He felt on the cusp of understanding the meaning of it all, of life and death – a terrifying blend of vertigo and nausea – as if he tottered on the edge of a cliff, his feet in loose shale.

Pride returned to Riley, stronger than ever before – the deity had chosen him, of that Master John had been right. But the venerable old guru had been wrong about one thing, Riley thought as he stared at the statue’s countless fingers.

You shall be His right hand.

In the glowing grove, kneeling in the giant footprints that circled the image of the very wickedness that had birthed the world, Riley knew that He had many hands. God was omniscient and omnipresent and had a finger in every pie.


 Stephen McQuiggan was the original author of the bible; he vowed never to write again after the publishers removed the dinosaurs and the spectacular alien abduction ending from the final edit. His other, lesser known, novels are A Pig’s View of Heaven and Trip a Dwarf.


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