FICTION November 6, 2020

Wild Gods

2020 Booth Prize for Unexpected Literature Shortlist

The Play

It used to be easier to identify when The Play had turned someone. So rare was it for someone to blindly pursue, with abandon, their innermost desire, that it was immediately apparent when The Play had hit. Back then, too, it used to descend in pockets, turning the inhabitants of a single church, shop, or fishing boat into mindless pleasure seekers. Both of these things have changed. Ours are indulgent times. Rewarding ourselves is no longer taboo. And when The Play comes to our town, as it does every decade or so, it turns us all, and we sometimes don’t recognize its presence until after it has left us.

Explanation #1

Bering was “settled” by fur traders in 1751, though the area had been inhabited by the Dena'ina since 1000 BC. In addition to bringing tiger furs and vodka, the traders brought the gift of measles. The most common theory is that The Play is the result of something in Bering’s atmosphere mixing with the rubeola virus and creating a supervirus that attacks the pleasure center of the brain, highjacking an organism’s free will, removing their agency, and replacing it with the blind pursuit of that organism’s innermost desire.


Calling it The Play was a macabre joke. When the first recorded cases of The Play hit Bering’s trading post in January 1757, the affected traders were so cold and exhausted from a particularly frozen winter that their deepest desire was to be warm. 

So they burnt themselves alive in a variety of ways. 

For those who threw themselves into Bering’s hot springs, their skin bubbled and they began to bleed from every orifice, before they climbed out and then threw themselves back into the steaming water, maniacal smiles on their faces as they boiled away. To onlookers, they looked like particularly playful victims of the bubonic plague, and as a result the epidemic was referred to as a shortened version of the plague: The Play.

The Play has appeared at least once every decade since, outside of a prolonged respite between 1989 and 2020, which lent credence to the thought that measles are somehow involved, as 1989 was the year a second dose of the measles vaccine was introduced and 2020 was the year measles returned to the Kenai Peninsula, on which Bering sits.

To Beringians, The Play is a legend, an affliction, a tourist attraction, an excuse, a hindrance, and an asset. It’s claimed the lives of countless children, mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, husbands, wives, and pets. When it hits the most dangerous (almost exclusively male) minds, it has resulted in mass murder and rape. It’s pushed many to suicide, to fatal gluttony, and to inexplicable ritual behavior.

But it’s also thought to have been responsible for at least one Pulitzer Prize (for Zanzibar Bautista’s novel I Want So Badly to Be a Writer), an Academy Award (Best Animated Short Film, created entirely in one Play-fueled Claymation reverie), the establishment of several successful human and animal rights organizations, and the reappearance of one species thought to be extinct (Steller’s sea cow, three of which appeared in Blackstone Bay in 1986).

In September 1961, following the commencement of the government’s Community Fallout Shelter Program, Bering began implementing measures for containing The Play. Given Alaska’s proximity to Russia, there was a fallout shelter craze, and Beringians decided to kill two birds with one stone and design containment measures for local buildings and areas hit by The Play. One in ten Beringians is immune to The Play, and as a result someone can usually be relied upon in an outbreak to hit an alarm. These alarms were installed in most of Bering’s municipal buildings, schools, and churches, and when hit they most often caused their building’s main doors to lock and grates or shutters to cover the windows, preventing anyone from going out or in.

The Diagnosis

If you’re observing a person as The Play sets in, you’ll typically notice a shift in their demeanor. Any casual movement is interrupted. Unless a person’s deepest desire involves slow movement or meditation, the afflicted will almost certainly begin to sprint in the direction of whatever will help her best fulfill her now certain destiny. Some claim to have noticed a flushing of the skin and widening of the pupils, but these reports are hardly ubiquitous. Those who claim to be synesthetic unanimously report that a riot of color bursts forth from those under The Play’s thrall, but this can’t be proven.

If you yourself are experiencing The Play, you won’t notice an immediate change in feeling, not like an adrenaline rush or a surge of dopamine. Instead, those who have described the experience most effectively have described it as if a movie plays in your mind’s eye. You see not only your innermost desire coming true but also the exact steps you must take to bring it to fruition. 

Then you must act. It doesn’t feel as if your free will has been removed because you are making choices, but they are the choices laid out in this “movie” in your mind. And you’re pursuing your heart’s desire, your great purpose! You are doing the work of the ancient heroes, of the pioneers! Of the romantics, the painters, and the poets! Of the gods!

Case Study #1: Mother Goose

Janina Bancroft was born Juh-Nee-Nuh Bang-Crawft and always despised the way people’s faces contorted when they said her name. The daft, open-mouthed Juh that made it appear as if they didn’t know the answer to an easy question, the scrunch-nosed Nee that went on far too long and gave the impression that the speaker had just inhaled an unpleasant scent, and the slack-cheeked Nuh that sounded like a lazy dissent. The Bang was a toothless fake smile and the Crawft a gag precipitating an unplanned vomit. 

So when Janina moved from Seattle to Bering, she changed her name. Outwardly it was the very same name. But she was now Yeh-Nih-Neh Bin-Crift, a name that was all raised eyebrows and dainty, dexterous tongue. You could say her whole name with a smile on your face.

When The Play hits in June 2020, more than thirty years after its last appearance, Janina is working at a public school even though she doesn’t like children. Not liking them certainly doesn’t mean she doesn’t love them. To her, children are magical, godly even, but they are wild and unknowable. She wants them to listen to her, to hear her, but she can’t hold their attention. The secret to interacting with a child always seems to be lingering mysteriously right on the edge of her senses. Children are like the light she sees behind her eyes when she meditates in the sunshine. They are like stumbled-upon deer in the forest. They are like the birds she loves spotting with her binoculars with her Saturday morning birding group.

Janina is the librarian at Bering’s Kenai Elementary and is caring for Delta Sink’s third-grade class. Janina has a special item for By Its Cover, her own library version of show and tell, a time when she asks students to bring in their favorite book from home. Up until now, it has been a disaster. Tarlin Feltsonder brought in an ancient issue of Penthouse Letters from his father’s nightstand, and Minnie Moon inexplicably brought in a box of nails and gave a single rusty nail to each of her classmates.

But Janina’s By Its Cover is one of her prized possessions, a copy of Audubon’s Birds of America: The Audubon Society Baby Elephant Folio, a massive volume containing 435 of John James Audubon’s hand-colored engravings of birds. The children, for the first time since Janina started working with children, fall into a dreamy stupor while Janina shows them the delicate images of dancing, singing, and soaring birds. 

A child’s biggest dream can change in a second. A new discovery, a burst of color, even a catchy commercial can change the trajectory of their deepest fantasy. And dreams to children are contagious things. So when Janina shares her passion for birds, particularly the sunset-brushed birds of Alaska (the emperor goose, the varied thrush, the bar-tailed godwit, the puffin!), the children are inspired.

And when The Play hits, all twenty-four students want to be birds. Some, like Shuai Tompson and Bim Gurney, want to live in cozy nests, so they start tearing the little whistle-shaped reading chairs to shreds, packing the chair innards together with spit and glue sticks. A few, like Soskia Bernadottir, Leif Zadensk, and the aforementioned Minnie Moon, want feathers of nature’s most astonishing colors, and so they gather markers and crayons and the most vibrant book covers and begin to make feather coats. 

But the rest of them want to fly

Zelda Riordan leaps onto the library’s display case, which contains a plaster replica of the skeleton of Sylvie the Steller’s sea cow, who had emerged from the ocean with her mate and their calf during an outbreak of The Play years before. She leaps off. Michael Carmichael climbs higher still, using a ladder to scale a bookcase. He jumps, flaps his arms, and falls onto the thinly carpeted floor, landing with a hard thud before rising to try again. 

Janina sprints to the display case, missing Zelda’s plunge, and then spots Michael and tries to pivot toward the unfortunately named boy, missing him as well. She stops, stills, and regroups. Panic rips through her mind and she pushes it back, shoving it in a box with her pill-crunching mother and her disapproving father and Ruth, her apocalyptically grumpy ex-girlfriend in Seattle. She reads the room like a book, starting with the covering door, flipping through the shelves like pages, checking off closets and hidey-holes like appendices. But there is no bookwormish metaphor for what she thinks of last: the balcony. 

Janina squeaks and grabs a wet, icky, but structurally sound nest from under Shuai and Bim, who immediately start on another, and swings it out under the balcony. She misses Moses Campbell, who jumps from halfway up the spiral staircase that leads to the balcony and lands with a crack. He tries to rise, his tooth-white tibias jutting out from the front of each shin, and when that fails begins crawling toward the staircase like a bird that fell from the nest too soon.

She catches Esperanza Sepulveda as she leaps from the top of the spiral stairs and flaps downward. From that height, even Esperanza’s light weight knocks Janina to the floor. She scrambles up and quickly throws a bookcase over onto its side, temporarily blocking the base of the stairs. She turns back toward the balcony just in time to see the first of them fall from the balcony itself. Tom Plunket lets out a triumphant stream of piercing brays and jumps from the polished Formica bannister. He bellyflops, arms flapping slowly, and Janina wonders whether perhaps he imagines himself to be an albatross. He lands facedown and doesn’t get up.

Janina throws Shuai and Bim’s nest outward, which softens the landing of Terra Hope, whose neck is painted hummingbird red as she leaps off the balcony and paddles her arms at an astonishing speed. She definitely breaks something in the fall, but rises again and runs toward the blocked staircase. Todd Masters, his corn-yellow hair styled in a gravity-defying bouffant, desperately smashes his nose against the case and wails “duh-duh-duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-duh-duh-duh” in the style of Woody Woodpecker as blood starts dripping from his face. Terra joins him, their faces smashing against the case in unison. 

Janina looks up just in time to see Tonya Mather bend her knees in advance of leaping. She is too far out of reach for Janina to catch, and Janina closes her eyes once more, willing herself to do whatever she can to help the small girl. A moment later, a honk erupts from Janina’s lips. Tonya stops, perched one-legged on the edge of the bannister like a snoozing flamingo, and stares directly at Janina, seeing her for the first time since The Play descended. 

Janina looks around and sees the other children staring as well. All of them. She lets out another honk, and those up on the balcony scramble down the spiral stairs. She moves the bookcase and honks again. The children line up effortlessly behind her, forming a V. She leads them around the edge of the library, and every now and then one of the children lets out an accidental squawk of joy and the sound wraps Janina in its downy embrace. 

Explanation #2

The “something” in Bering’s atmosphere, the something that perhaps reacts so wildly with the measles, is most likely blufyr, the mysterious plant-like species now famous for its role in chemical warfare. It has only recently come to light that blufyr has existed under Bering for an age, and that the deep crater under nearby Blackstone Bay is perhaps where blufyr was first introduced to this planet. Blufyr’s radiance travels in a similar way to The Play’s, weaving and winding like leaves in the wind.

Case Study #2: Wild Horses

Rupert Kingsley-Knight sits in the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in the basement of Saint Hippolyte Church, hiding his head in the depths of his red jacket’s oversized hood. He has to hide whenever he comes back to Bering; he is a local celebrity, the prodigal son returned. Bering is booby-trapped with expectant family and friends, starry-eyed local historians, and demanding ex-boyfriends. Though the only ex-boyfriend who counts will never come back to Bering and certainly isn’t demanding anything from Rupert. He doesn’t want any of them to see how far he’s fallen, but the benefits of attending a meeting outweigh the shame of getting caught in one.

There are about twenty-five people in the room, and they’ve just finished mumbling the Serenity Prayer in unison when The Play descends. Rupert, despite his inherited mantle of local “Play Expert,” never truly believed in it before, or at least never believed it to be as serious as the folklore suggested. Then the dude reading from the Big Book—Mr. “I’m Bob G. and I’m a real alcoholic,” whatever that means—drops his book and sprints to the church’s small kitchen, where a small tray of stale cookies and two pots of burning coffee get staler and more burnt by the second. Rupert hears a huge crash, and then Bob G. the real alcoholic returns, chugging a bottle of altar wine with a spare in his non-drinking hand.

No, no, no,Rupert thinks. He cannot afford to pursue his deepest desires. Not only would he violate parole, but worse things would surely happen if he took a drink. He’d need another, and then another, and then another, and he knows he wouldn’t stop this time. Not ever.

The woman who’d read the preamble, “Wendy D.,” leaps up and runs to the door by the stairwell, where she pries some rusted metal netting off a box on the wall. Her prying reveals a dusty red button, which she slaps before her other hand reaches up and grabs her button-pushing hand with brutal force.

“No!” Wendy D. screams as she breaks her own hand. Heavy metal bars fall down over the doorways and the small windows that sit at ground level, three-quarters of the way up the room’s beige walls. 

When the Play version of Wendy D. realizes she is trapped, she releases her hand, and then she begins to float. In another place she could go up, up, and away, but the basement of St. Hippolyte’s has low ceilings, and Wendy D. slaps into it roughly, again and again, as The Play tries to send her into flight. Rupert can see that her deepest desire involves something outside, something in the sky, but The Play got to her just a second too late.

As Wendy D. pounds on the ceiling and Bob G. pours, Rupert expects all the other alcoholics to run for the closet of altar supplies in the kitchen, to guzzle away the reserves of wine. Father Pierre has been known to buy in bulk, but at the rate Bob G. is chugging everyone else is going to have to move fast if they want to feed the beast within.

Rupert waits for The Play to fall upon him, and he wonders whether it will feel any different from the way it felt trying to quit drinking all those times. He tried so hard but somehow always ended up with a martini in his hand. Would it be the same obsession of the mind, or would his thirst actually be quenched, if only for a second?

Two of the alcoholics pair off and fall into a mass of limbs and depravity in the corner, and Rupert pulls a condom out of his back pocket and throws it at them in hopes The Play allows room for safe sex. But no one else makes an immediate move. No one licks at Bob G.’s excess drops; no one floats up alongside Wendy D. Instead Rupert watches as the remaining alcoholics  join hands, almost as if they’re in a trance, and form a circle. In unison, the twenty or so of them descend to the floor, most sitting cross-legged as they hold hands and close their eyes. One woman starts to hum, a low, clear contralto note, and the others join, one by one.

Rupert waits for them to snap out of it, to wake up and make a run for the booze like the desperate alcoholics he knows them to be. But then he hears it, not in his head or in words but in the note they hum. This is their deepest desire. They just want peace.

On Blufyr

blufyr noun |’blü-fər|

Full Definition of BLUFYR

: any of numerous calamitous plantlike organisms of extraterrestrial origin that through chemical action usually cause an organism to spontaneously combust

Origin of BLUFYR

Modern English bluefear, a term used in protest propaganda against the United States government, specifically to reference its use of weapons of mass destruction

First known use: 2015

Rhymes with BLUFYR

bueter, cuter, hooter, keuter, lewter, looter, luter, moopurr, mooter, neuter, pewter, rooter, router, ruiter, schluter, scooter, shooter, shrewpurr, sluiter, souter, suiter, suitor, suter, sutor, tutor

Blufyr (|’blü-fər|) is a family of deadly plantlike organisms of apparently extraterrestrial origin. Blufyr’s precise history is not publicly known, though it is thought to have been with us for millennia. Our knowledge of it can be traced to 1922, when Obediah Knight and Buford Kingsley, both young researchers from Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines, discovered the mummified remains of a dog among the fossils of dinosaurs near Kenai Lake. The dog’s remains sat for many years in storage in Alaska’s Sheldon Jackson Museum, until one day Junior Curator Tana Slockshangle knocked them off a shelf, unleashing a bevy of airborne toxins that were later found to be of extraterrestrial origin. Ms. Slockshangle, according to a witness, burst into blue and white flames and disappeared, leaving only a round, black circle of ash on the floor.

This witness, Elspeth Willow, was Ms. Slockshangle’s intern and also the daughter of Jonathan Reynold Willow, then lieutenant governor of Alaska. Through “back-channel negotiations,” Lt. Gov. Willow was able to confiscate the mummified dog and the collected organisms it contained for the Pentagon. No one knew of these “negotiations” until Edward Snowden leaked it in 2013. Still, it garnered little attention because of the fantastical description of the events and the unreliability of the key witness, Elspeth, who by 2013 had changed her name to Moonbeam Heartstruggle and moved to Fiji to join the Festival of the Unchained Spirit, a cult and yoga movement. 

It was revealed in a subsequent leak, this one in early 2016 by a North Korean hacker, that the Pentagon had not only received the mummified dog, known officially as the Knight/Kingsley Dog, but had studied its remains and the dangerous passengers within them for years. In 2015 the United States government first used a chemical weapon derived from the Knight/Kingsley Dog, releasing it in Syria following a lengthy conflict. Those introduced to the chemical weapon immediately dissolved into blue and white flames. Later the United States government would use this chemical weapon against its own citizens after protests racked the nation following a continued lack of government response to the proliferation of military weapons in the hands of government-assisted, racially motivated militias.

After television footage of the protesters bursting into blue flames appeared, many began to call this period of government oppression “The Blue Fear.” Soon after, the extraterrestrial organisms that were used to create these chemical weapons were christened blufyr by Rupert Kingsley-Knight, a descendant of both Obediah Knight and Buford Kingsley. The word spread quickly in part due to Mr. Kingsley-Knight’s popularity. He was famous in fashion circles and often mentioned because of his collection of beautiful red coats and his model-like looks.

To this day, blufyr is considered almost ubiquitously to be the most interesting and most dangerous discovery since the atomic bomb.

Case Study #3: Red Rover

Rover Crowfoot is driving his truck down the AK-9 when The Play turns him. Later he’ll wonder as to the mechanics of The Play. When desire strikes him, he’s already picked up Rainbow, whose log truck had broken down right past Portage. What are the chances of having a gay trucker in your rig when a weird virus that makes you do whatever you want to do most takes over, and the thing you want to do most is a gay trucker? Within seconds he’s bouncing up and down on Rainbow’s lap in the cab of his own truck in the parking lot of a Dollar General on the outskirts of Bering. Usually when he does shit like this, his wife, Wanda, rolls into his head like a heavy snowfall. Even though Rover abides by the five hundred rule, not screwing around on Wanda within five hundred miles of home, it’s as if her memory becomes more potent the farther away she is. Sometimes he can’t remember what her face looks like when she’s in the next room. But this far from home he can name every wrinkle around her eyes, map every mole on her back.

But when The Play hits him, Wanda freezes to the road, left behind on the asphalt as he hits the brakes and swerves off the road, reaching for Rainbow’s crotch.

Rover rarely rides anyone’s dick, less out of respect for his marriage and more because if he is going to get caught, he doesn’t want it to be while being fucked. It’s one thing to get caught with your dick in someone’s mouth. You can imagine a mouth to be anyone’s anything. But a dick in the ass is a dick in the ass no matter how you try to spin it.

Rainbow finishes, and Rover is thrilled by the younger man’s desperate praise and curling toes. But they both keep going, Rainbow’s long body pushing up into Rover on the pull-out cot. Rover can hear his load, thirty-eight thousand pounds of Samsung flatscreens, shift gently along with the rocking of the cab as their fucking continues.

Rainbow aims his face right at Rover and smiles, his heavy eyelids making him look beautiful and a little bit stupid.

“More?” he asks, though neither of them has much choice.


Explanation #3 (the one that isn’t an explanation)

We want to leave this one out, but it’s the most popular theory. When the fur traders arrived in 1751, they promptly renamed the village after a Danish explorer. But Bering already had a Dena'ina name, Qichi Qinghilneqt, which translates rather humorously to “The Old Lady Made It That Far” and was an homage to its legendary founder, Ch'anget, who stopped in Qichi Qinghilneqt when she’d had enough wandering and settled her people there by the water for the rest of time.

This version posits that The Play is a Dena'ina curse, cast upon Bering’s early fur traders because they built their trading post atop a sacred burial ground. This isn’t the most creative explanation and ignores both science and logic, as Bering’s Dena'ina burial ground still exists, and there is no sign that a trading post ever stood atop it.

Case Study #4: The Pied Piper

Springs Winters had vowed never to return to Bering, but here he is, leading the Bering Chamber Chorale in the cathedral of the building shared by Bering City Hall and the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church. They are practicing for a memorial concert in honor of his late father, a prominent member of Bering’s small but enthusiastic musical community. Springs has taken leave from his position as the conductor of the St. Olaf Choir to fly “home” for this, and though he has no love for Bering, it feels good to honor his father in this way.

His relationship with his father had been a complicated one. Springs was adopted, which in itself wasn’t complicated at all. However, Springs’s parents were the whitest of white people, and had adopted Springs from an African American birthmother in DeFuniak Springs, Florida. In an effort to honor Springs’s “roots,” Robert and Roberta (“Bob and Bobby!”) Winters had named him DeFuniak Springs Kenya Winters. 

By the time he’d reached Googling age, Springs had learned that DeFuniak Springs had been named after the Confederate officer Frederick R. De Funiak. Even in those early years, it had been horrifying. A simple visit to DeFuniak Springs’ chamber of commerce or visitor center would have told them this. After learning that, he’d gone by Kenya for a few years, until he found out from his parents that they had no idea whether he had any actual connection to the African nation. It had just been the one they thought sounded prettiest. 

His high school boyfriend, the locally famous and universally gorgeous Rupert Kingsley-Knight, hadn’t understood why Springs hated his name so much. But to be one of the only Black kids in a very white town was bad enough; being one of the only Black kids and being named after a Confederate bad guy was just too much. The Kenya thing was just icing on the cake.

Springs had been in love with Rupert, but he’d loved the idea of escaping Bering even more. Rupert was part of Bering mythology; he’d never truly be able to get away from the town and all its weird-ass superstitions.

Springs is trying to get the uniformly ancient alto section to go through its big section of Pepper Choplin’s “Heaven’s Song” when The Play begins to turn the chorale members. Springs has never really believed in The Play. He is willing to believe that local hysteria takes over every time some of that chemical Rupert’s ancestors discovered gets into the air, but a string of strange, zombifying events throughout history is too much for him.

Then June-Ella Zadensk, who is infuriatingly clicking her knitting needles in 6/8 time even though the song is in 4/4, leaps out of her seat and thrusts one of the needles into her ex-husband Boris’s neck. Two rows over, Lee Soo-Kyung stands up and opens her mouth. Springs watches in horror as she grows a pair of fangs, starts glittering Twilight-style, and bounds over to the fallen Boris, where she begins lapping up the blood that pours from his needled neck.

Desiree Campbell jumps to her feet and runs to a panel in the corner, where she pulls back some rusty grating before slapping her hand onto a red button. Metal grating falls over all the cathedral’s windows and doors, save one. The door to the bell tower.

Desiree turns around to face the crowd and lets out a blood-curdling scream. Springs follows her gaze and sees Desiree’s husband, Malcolm, rip the shirt off their star tenor, Stephen Moon, as he licks his way down the other man’s neck. 

Desiree’s scream abruptly ends, and Springs looks back to see that she is being strangled by Mona Burrell, who is Desiree’s understudy for the “Heaven’s Song” solo. Springs runs for the two women, but he is intercepted by a small but venomous group of sopranos. All Springs can see is a mass of teased blond hair, perfectly filed nails, and sensible pumps. They all hold torches, a variety of candlesticks wrapped in pages from hymnals and lit with lighters usually reserved for the occasional secret Virginia Slim. 

The wave of their Wind Song perfume hits him before their torches do, and he gasps for air as he ducks and rolls, knocking them over like bowling pins. He leaps over Desiree Campbell’s corpse, slapping Mona across the face as she turns her strangling, second-place wrath upon him. He isn’t a fighter, but it seems to stun her long enough for him to duck through the entrance to the bell tower. 

He looks back into the room through the half-lowered cage. He sees two men from the bass section wrestling euphorically, like young boys on a hot summer afternoon. He watches an alto growing sunflowers on the palm of her hand. He hears a previously shy tenor singing his way through the Hamilton soundtrack with astonishing skill. An alto and soprano are using plastic butter knives to carry out a surprisingly bloody swordfight. 

Springs pulls the cage the rest of the way down until he hears it click into place. Then he runs up the tower stairs, where he uses all his adrenaline to ring the massive, rusty bells. Their song is low and steady, and the thrum hits him right in the chest. Suddenly he can think of nothing but the park where he and Rupert used to meet when they were teenagers. 

Explanation #4

There is a legend, of course, one that leaves out measles and blufyr and Indian burial grounds and fur traders. Rather, the legend speaks of an ancient goddess, demon beast, mermaid, or ghost princess (it depends on whom you ask) who lives deep in the water near Bering. Her name is Nughay or Ch'anget (again, it depends whom you’re talking to), and she wants only one thing: to play. Her trouble is that she’s too powerful to play with any of the creations or neighbors or former subjects (once again, this changes according to the teller). Though the versions vary, this element remains the same: she is too powerful to play with.

Case Study #5: Step on a Crack

The world splits in two right down the center of Bering, pitching the Bering Badgers little league team straight into the center of the Earth. 

The eastern section of town bucks up before plummeting into the ocean, sending a tidal wave out over Chenega, Knight, Latouche, and Montague islands. When the water settles, only previously dormant volcanoes poke out above the waves, happily gushing lava and smoke into the briny sea.


Streets crack, hot springs boil over, domesticated dogs join packs of wolves and run up and down the streets howling into the sky, fish jump onto land, and birds fly into the sea. The temperate rainforest surrounding Bering shifts into unchecked creation. Trees reach so hard for the sun that they pull themselves out of the ground. Steller sea lions go on forest expeditions, deep pink fireweed starts to sizzle and smoke, and bees glug nectar until they fall drunk from the sky.


The Alaska Earthquake Center has already detected 11,674 earthquakes this year, and it is only June. So when a 6.1 magnitude earthquake in the ocean just east of Bering pings! on Mirabelle’s monitor, she simply raises an eyebrow before resuming her search for the Chapstick she keeps in her desk. The solitary ping becomes an urgent beat, and Mirabelle looks at her screen, forgetting about her chapped lips. The 11,674 rises to more than 12,000 in a matter of seconds. That 6.1 was a prelude, an awakening of the Earth’s secret desires. 


In the midst of this, as screams and laughter and song ring out in the streets of Bering, Springs Winters clings to the side of the bell tower of the building shared by Bering City Hall and the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church. He slips, falls a few feet, catches a flag pole, slips again, and falls another ten feet to the ground. He pulls himself up and looks around in horror as The Play spins and whirls through the town. He makes his way toward the small park on the town’s west side. He’s being called there, likely by good instinct, as that part of town is abandoned. It’s drab, lacking the character of the east side and the commerce of the north and south parts of town. 

He arrives at the park to find sturdy, bearded, redheaded Rupert Kingsley-Knight sitting on a bench, stinking of wine but clear-eyed and sober. As soon as their eyes meet, both know that The Play has, in fact, infected them. That everything they’ve done tonight has been to get to this spot at this time. That each is what the other desires most, and that The Play somehow traversed some temporal plane that allowed it to know when and where they had to be to find each other.

They kiss.

Case Study #6: Wild God 

When The Play hits the sky and the sea, when it hits the forest and the earth and sends all of them into a vortex of pleasure-seeking, she is swimming too close to the land, enjoying the taste of the muskeg seeping into the water, enjoying the scent of spruce and hemlock dancing over increasingly choppy waves. 

She sees a large sightseeing boat spin out into the open water from the protected lagoon at Entry Cove State Marine Park. The boat is smaller than she; she is a fin whale, the second largest animal on the planet. She’s always been curious about boats but also afraid of them. She is tired of chasing orcas and dolphins, tired of playing with sea otters and seals. She wants to romp with something her own size.

The Play swims through the water and into her blowhole. It sets her big and brilliant brain on fire, sends starlight coursing through her even in this season of endless daytime. 

The clouds break apart, wanting nothing more than to dance in the wind, and the sun shines bright light into black water, its deepest desire to reveal what hides in the deep.

A pod of black and white hourglass dolphins spins into the air like corkscrews. The dolphins do nothing differently than they would have if The Play hadn’t come. Their entire lives are a pursuit of deepest desire. 

The Play hasn’t hit the passengers yet, and they stare open-mouthed as she approaches, trying to snap pictures of her. Some see her small fin and think she’s a much smaller whale. Then they notice the outline of the rest of her in the water. As she rises, they see her huge body below them. She’s at least sixty feet long. And she wants to dance.

She rises and bumps the boat, prompting several passengers to faint. She loves the feel of the cold metal. She swishes her tail flukes and a wave splashes the boat, sending it careening to the side before it rights itself.

She is delighted by the boat, delighted by its vulnerability in the great, churning sea; by the shrill, screeching, waving pops of color on its back; by the silence with which it weaves through the water.

She bumps it again, throws the passengers off, their tiny screams failing to register. She is having the most fun she has ever had.

Few of the passengers have ever been completely under the control of another living thing. They have been able to do what they wanted to, when they wanted to. Now they are at her mercy as she splashes and snorts away.

She is a wild god, an icy behemoth, a careening force of joy and grace. She is the sun and the sea; she is the depths of the ocean and shooting stars.

And she’s ready to play.


Like Sharon Stone and the zipper, Mike McClelland is originally from Meadville, Pennsylvania. He has lived on five different continents but now resides in Georgia with his husband, their two sons, and a menagerie of rescue dogs. He is the author of the book Gay Zoo Day and his creative work has appeared in The New York Times, Boston Review, Vox, The Baffler, and a number of literary magazines and anthologies. Find him .