We gathered in The Clearing of Redemption and waited for Father. I held Gaia tightly in my arms as the Family finished shuffling into place. Her eyes seemed too large for her tiny face. She looked up at me with them, the constant edge of her starvation piercing into my heart. Mama had made me promise to look after her until we could be together again. “Cold,” Gaia whimpered. I shrugged off my sweater and covered her skeletal frame. Gaia snuggled into the soft cotton, momentarily comforted. I wished that I could somehow fill her with the fibers instead of just wrapping her inside of them.
Her fingers stretched up with those around us, and a smile stretched over the sharp points of her cheekbones. “Father!” we all breathed as one as he finally approached us.
Father returned our smiles as he took the time to greet each one of his children. I cried openly when His holy hand rested on my shoulder. The touch washed away my doubt and filled me with rapture. Father leaned into me and kissed my tears. “You are forgiven.” I basked in His forgiveness. I had doubted Him, He had seen my doubt, and He had forgiven me. “Glory be to Us, Father,” I murmured, the intimacy of our conversation sending the hairs on the back of my neck on edge.
Father let his hand linger on my shoulder a moment longer before He went to the very center of the clearing. A platform had been erected in preparation for His announcement. Besides Father, there was a large crate.
“My beloved Children,” he began, “God called me away from you to wander the Earth so that he could show me the devastation brought about by mankind. I am sorry to tell you, with absolute certainty, there are no other humans left.”
“Mama?”, Gaia whimpered into my ear. I stared at Father in numb horror. Surely God had saved Mama. She had been away doing His work on the Day of Reckoning. As Father’s voice rolled over us, I felt my hope slipping away. I couldn’t do this without Mama. I was too young; God was asking too much of me. Gaia pulled my hair impatiently. “Mama???”, she insisted, as if I could bring her back, somehow. “Shut up!”, I hissed, and immediately regretted it.
Harmony, my best friend, appeared beside me. “Let me take her, Sister.” she offered. I thrust Gaia into her arms and fought the urge to run away. God couldn’t have taken Mama. Father must be mistaken. He didn’t have enough faith.
“Charity?” Father stood before me. I was startled out of my sacrilegious thoughts, and shame burned my cheeks. The Family had closed in around us. Harmony was standing amongst them; she and Gaia were looking at me with expectation. My mouth had gone dry. I gaped and searched their faces for instructions. What did Father want of me? Why couldn’t I just pay attention and keep the faith?
“Charity, you have been chosen for a great honor. What do you have to say to The Family?” Father’s soothing voice gave me courage. I forced a bright smile from my trembling lips. “I’m honored, Father. I wish only to serve Our Glory before God.” I felt Father’s faith galvanize me as I was able to stand a little taller.
The trembling in my hand stopped as Father took it in his and folded my fingers over a dagger. I looked down at the sharp blade and wondered what I had been chosen to do. The Family parted before us as Father led me to the wooden crate. It was taller than Father, crafted of yellow wood, and bore biblical runes along its edges. Father had stepped before me and unfastened one of the panels.
My heart caught in my throat as a beautiful bird stepped out of the darkened container. Crimson feathers ruffled gently in the afternoon breeze. Each gust revealed the spectrum of fiery colors beneath. It towered above us. I wondered how it had fit in such a small space. I felt Father’s hands close my fingers around the dagger again. I looked at my hand and blinked dumbly.
“You have been chosen to feed us. God has given us eternal sustenance. You are the chosen one. Do God’s will, Charity!”
Gaia’s shrunken face floated before me. I felt her hunger — I felt the hunger of the entire Family. I saw our suffering stretch out behind us. The Phoenix’s beak parted and I heard a heavenly song. It held redemption before me. The creature’s eyes softened to me as we somehow came closer to each other. I felt my hand plunge the dagger into its heart and I screamed as its life leaked down my face and its face and its chest and my soul. Everything went black.
Mother held me in her arms as I sobbed. “Forgive me, Mama, please forgive me!” I felt the warmth of her vitality through her soft skin.
“You are chosen,” she murmured. “Only you can save The Family.”
“I don’t care about them!”, I screamed into her face, “I want you! I need you! You can’t leave me!”
She smiled at me, but there was only sadness in her expression. Her form grew cold in my grasp. “NO!” I choked. “COME BACK!” It was to no avail. She crumbled in my arms and left me covered in the mud of my tears and her ashes.
My eyes fluttered open. I lay by the crate, forgotten, as The Family feasted at last. Their Holy robes were stained crimson from the rivulets of raw blood running down their faces. I stared in horror as they tore chunks of meat from Her with their bare hands and teeth.
Father appeared beside me. He held out her still-beating heart. I cringed and tried to draw away. The mania in his eyes repulsed me. This couldn’t be Holy. I shook my head no and sucked my lips between my teeth. Father became insistent. He pushed me to the ground and forced the meat between my lips. I tried to kick out and roll away, but the taste of blood betrayed my humanity. I felt my body crave its nourishment. I hated myself as I grabbed her heart with my fists and swallowed it whole.
Father smiled eerily. His approval sent waves of euphoria through me. I looked around and saw our miracle. The Family had transformed from sickly walking skeletons to demigods and demi goddesses. Memories stirred in my mind as I swung between elation and despair. Gaia’s face cycling between sickness and health, thousands of times, spinning around me until I couldn’t hold in my food any longer. I retched as they celebrated. I birthed her from my lips. The egg laid in my hand, wet with my bile. Father studied me with a look of smug triumph as he took it and left us.
I watched him go with hatred. I hated myself. I crawled to my cabin and fell into a fevered sleep, knowing that I would forget everything and do it again and again, for Gaia. I had promised Mama.