This story is by Marita Lietz and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Could it be?
Yes. A resplendent quetzal. The most beautiful bird in Costa Rica. Sacred symbol of the Aztec feathered serpent god, Quetzalcoatl.
Ilana had only learned about this creator god from Mesoamerican mythology at breakfast that morning. Their host at the lodge had told his captive audience of American tourists about Quetzalcoatl’s rise and demise. As with most gods, sordid sex spoiled his legacy. He slept with his sister – didn’t they all, Ilana had thought – and, riddled with shame, set himself on fire. It didn’t end on a completely sour note for the god, though. As his ashes rose into the sky, a resplendent quetzal swallowed them whole and promised to keep him safe until he was ready for rebirth.
Without making a sound, Ilana tugged on her husband’s jacket sleeve while pointing to the bird’s long, metallic green tail with her other hand.
Suddenly, a stream of iridescent plumage plunged gracefully from above. Ilana tilted her head back, mouth opened in amazement, as the bird came to hover a foot above them. It was so close; she could stroke its shimmering feathers if she wanted. But she chose to stand still and watch the graceful billow of its tail as the bird fluttered in place.
Only seconds went by as she stood, mesmerized, unblinking with mouth agape. She only blinked again when the bird dropped something from its beak that landed straight into her open mouth.
The shock of the foreign object landing into the back of her throat made her splutter. She only had a moment to register its sliminess before her gag reflex propelled her to cough hysterically. But the spongy thing – oh god, what was it – had already begun sliding down her throat.
Back at the lodge, Ilana was desperate to clean out her mouth. She left her husband scrolling through his phone on the bed and locked herself in the bathroom. Ferociously, she brushed her teeth and felt an overwhelming desire to also brush her tongue, which she never usually did.
Looking in the mirror as she scrubbed away, she noticed little black dots at the very back of her tongue. There was only a smattering and, at first, she thought they were remnants of the chia seeds from her breakfast granola.
Ilana rinsed her mouth, swooshing the water around as best she could, and then stuck her tongue out to inspect it more closely in the mirror. The infuriating black dots were still there. She used the fingernail of her index finger to try to scrape them off, the sensation making her grimace. No matter how much she scratched, the embedded little spots wouldn’t budge.
Gross. That resplendent quetzal wasn’t so resplendent after all. It had probably dropped a big, fat dirty worm in her mouth. The thought turned her stomach. She took her phone from the pocket of her cargo shorts. No bars. She couldn’t even google ‘black dots on tongue’ if she wanted. She took the mouthwash from the cabinet and gargled for nearly a minute. She checked her tongue once more. No change.
At lunch, while their host served them coconut fish stew, her husband recounted their rainforest adventure to the other guests at the table. He omitted the bird dropping element, for which Ilana was grateful.
While he spoke, Ilana’s tongue began to prickle. She tried to soothe it with the various drinks on the table: water, wine, juice. Nothing helped. She crunched on ice to try and numb the fiery sensation and when that also failed, she began rubbing her napkin back and forth across it.
Their host gave Ilana a concerned frown as he placed the bowl of stew in front of her. She tried to give him a reassuring smile; the old man had been so kind and hospitable since their arrival. At breakfast he’d told the group that he was a retired dentist, looking for a more peaceful life outside the city.
When he turned his attention away from her, she began gobbling down the food immediately, slurping so loudly that the woman seated next to her shot her a look of disapproval.
After lunch was finished, Ilana told her husband that she wanted to inquire about the afternoon activities. She’d follow him up shortly. If he knew about the reaction she was having, he’d have them on a plane back to Chicago in the blink of an eye. She was not letting that happen. She had promised herself a goddamn adventure for her fortieth and by god, she was going to get it. All she needed was a bit of antihistamine.
When her husband was out of sight, she pulled their host aside. “Do you have any Benadryl?” she said, her tongue pulsating around the words. “Antihistamínico?” she added, when he knitted his graying brows together.
“Is something the matter, señora?”
“I think I may be having a little reaction to something I ate.” The words were so difficult to form; she must have sounded drunk. “My tongue is really irritating me.” She unrolled it from her mouth for him.
The old man recoiled slightly before bringing steepled fingers to his lips.
“It’s bad, isn’t it?” Her tongue felt wrong and swollen when she spoke.
Slowly, he lowered his hands under his chin. “I heard your husband at the table. El quetzal. Did it offer you…a gift?”
Ilana held back a snort. “If by gift, you mean, did it drop something vile into my mouth? Then, yes. That bird gave me one hell of a gift.”
“And you swallowed it?”
“I didn’t have much of a choice! The thing landed straight into my throat.” The memory elicited a few coughs.
“Then it’s true,” he said, wild-eyed.
“What?” she asked, glancing from side to side.
“The story of the Feathered Serpent and el quetzal resplendiente.”
She had to unscramble her brain to get his meaning.
“You mean that god you were telling us about this morning?” Ilana crossed her arms and tilted her head to the ceiling with a big sigh. This guy was obviously one of those superstitious nutters that liked to spin a yarn to his paying guests. “Let me get this straight,” she said, speaking slowly in order to enunciate the words around the fat weight in her mouth. “You’re telling me that some ancient Aztec god has been living inside the body of a bird for what – thousands of years – and that he just decided, today, to spit himself into my mouth?”
He frowned and then spoke in a low voice. “Mira, this story has been passed down in my family for generations. I thought it was just a story. One that my mother and grandmother told the children so that we respected the forest and its creatures. Especially el quetzal resplendiente. I was told never to approach it. To always view it from a great distance and –“
“Please, do you have anything that will make the stinging stop?” Ilana couldn’t listen to this man and his old wives’ tale for another minute. All she wanted was some goddamn Benadryl. The way this guy was carrying on, her tongue was going to swell up to the size of a chopped piece of Spam before she got any meds in her.
“We cannot allow his rebirth,” he said. “He returns only for destruction. I can help you.”
Oh dear lord, she’d had enough of his nonsense. She was going to find another member of staff and ask them to find her a med kit.
“There is a special tea I can brew for you,” he said, placing a gentle hand on her arm after she’d taken a step away from him.
“What do you mean by ‘special’?” There was no way in hell she’d take any kind of psychedelic hocus-pocus.
“Just a few local herbs. Some of which we even use in our cooking. After drinking it, you will be purged of the thing inside you.”
“Will it make the swelling go down?”
He assured her that it would and, a quarter of an hour later, she was outside on the veranda drinking a sludgy brown liquid that tasted of spoiled celery and moldy potatoes.
After drinking the last drop, she threw up all the contents of her stomach onto the dirt path in front of the veranda. She looked down at the remnants of the fish stew. Wriggling in the center of it, a fat green snake with feathery scales.
The old man quickly scooped the snake into a jar and put a lid on it.
“Now, we put Him in the fire.”
The ashes were floating into the sky when Ilana heard her husband calling out her name.
As they made their way back inside, neither Ilana nor the old man saw the flash of shimmering green swoop down from a tall tree and swallow the ashes whole.