"However, Replied the Universe" was originally published in Burning Water Magazine.

The leech writhed like a diseased tongue between Ronald’s wet fingers. A slice of silver moonlight flashed across its body.

“Do you ever feel bad for ‘em?” Ronald asked, adding the leech to the coiling mass already in the jar that hung from the front pocket of his overalls.

“For who?” Dale asked.

“The leeches. We’ve emptied the whole of Britain. We’re gonna have to start trading with the French soon. This marsh is the only place with any left and we’re clearing it out too.”

“No, Ron. I don’t feel bad for the leeches. I feel bad for us being out in a marsh at midnight pulling these bloodsuckers by the light of this shit lantern that won’t stay lit. That’s who I feel bad for.”

Ronald took another jar and slid it into his front pocket beside the other.

“Hey, Dale, who am I?”

Dale raised the lantern to cast some light on his colleague. Ronald had his hands pressed against the bottoms of the jars, pushing them up like breasts.

“An arsehole?”

“No, ya twat. Tits!” he shouted, pointing at the jars.

“Hilarious. Top drawer stuff, that.”

Ron shrugged and began waving his lantern across the surface of the swamp.

“So you really don’t think we should be letting these buggers make more babies before we snatch ‘em? It just seems cruel to me.”

Dale straightened and kneaded his lower back. “I’m just doing what I’m told, Ron. I don’t know if it’s wrong or if it’s right. I do know I have a job and that I can afford a home and to feed my family and that’s all I need to know.”

“It’s a good job, alright. Fresh air, I get to use me hands, and I feel like I’m saving people, y’know. I mean, these little guys are going to go suck the sickness right outta some poor infected sap. He’ll be right as rain in the morn’ and a little o’ that is because of us, Dale.”

“I suppose,” Dale replied, bending over again to run his hands through the dark water for his quarry.

“If a giant came to your home though, tore the roof off all savage-like, and grabbed your wife and your sons and threw ‘em in a jar, I believe you would be right angry, Dale.”

“I guess it’s a good thing there’s no such thing as giants then.”

“I bet the leeches tell their kids there’s no such thing as giants too.” Ron plunged his fist into the water. “Then their rooves get ripped off and they’re all thrown in a jar!” He pulled it back out with force enough to splash the both of them.

Dale waited for the water to calm again, his annoyance going unseen in the dark. “We’re human beings. It’s not the same.”

“I just hope we don’t have some karmic debt to repay after all o’ this.”

“Karmic debt?”

“That funny Indian bloke who’s always hangin’ outside the pub with those flyers for Buddha or whatever. He told me about karma. It’s like getting what’s owed to you. If you’re an arse like you, watch out, Dale. Karma’s gonna get you.”

“That’s not karma, that’s just natural consequence. If I spit in your face, you punch me. That’s not karma, that’s consequence, Ron.”

“Just saying, Dale. That Indian made some good points. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Catholic through and through, but Jesus never said anything like karma.”

“Yes, he did. It’s literally one of the most famous scriptures. The golden rule. Do unto others and all that.”

“Hmm, yeah, I suppose I’d never thought of it like that.”

“How did you think of it?” Dale asked, raising his lantern to see his partner.

“I guess I never really did at all. You hear something every Sunday fer your whole life it just becomes noise after a while. Then you hear an exotic thing like karma and it’s like sleeping with a new woman all over again.” Ronald laughed as he thrust his hips into the air.

“Can we get on with this?” Dale asked, motioning to the swamp.

“Sure, sure. I can feel ‘em biting now,” Ron said, wincing into the night sky.

“Let them have their fill this time. One of the batches from last night was a wash. They died before they could be transported.”

Dale raised his left leg from the black water and brought his lantern down towards it. The amber light cast a warm glow onto a pale leg covered in throbbing black globs of gelatinous leeches. The skin around them was angry and red, blood dripped down Dale’s leg from under each of the worms as they fed in abundance.

“Get ‘em for me.”

Ron sloshed through the water as he pulled a set of steel tongs from his belt. He bent over and held a jar under the leeches. One by one, he gently squeezed each leech with the tongs and pulled them from Dale’s leg. Most of them wouldn’t release their bite without force. They left small gashes in the flesh. Dale’s leg was a mess of swamp and blood by the time the jar was filled.

“How do you feel?” Ron asked.

“I’m fine. Let’s get the other one done before I pass out.” Dale rolled the leg of his coveralls down over his bleeding leg and cinched it at the ankle.

They repeated the process on his other leg.

Dale breathed heavily and leaned on Ron for support.

“You alright?” Ron asked.

“Just a little light-headed. Gave ‘em too much that time. Let’s get yours done.”

The pair did the same process over again on Ron. His legs, more muscular than Dale’s, could hold more leeches. He bled more too, but felt fine afterward.

“We should use the horse legs for the rest of the night, Dale. You don’t look too well and I don’t want you passing out in this swamp. They’d drain you before you drown.”

Dale nodded and they slowly walked back to their wagon. In the back, amongst spare jars and oily rags, were two horse legs tied in cloth. Blood had seeped through the wrappings.

“The butcher ever ask you about these?” Dale said, some colour returning to his cheeks now.

“I told him I use them to feed my dogs.”

“You don’t have dogs.”

“I think it sounds better than telling him I use them to catch leeches.”

Ron unwrapped the horse limbs and handed one to Dale. “One for you; one for me.”

They stepped back to the swamp, as if neither of them wanted to reach their destination. They dipped the bleeding end of their horse legs into the water and stirred the muck like a soup. They stood like this for several minutes, drawing the leeches from the water to the bloody stump.

It was quiet, the only sounds the occasional slop of water or the suck of air being pushed out of thick sludge taking its space. Dale’s lamp swung back and forth from his wrist. A breeze passed over the swamp and snuffed it out. Dale cursed.

In the dark, Dale’s black silhouette twisted against the blue backdrop of night. A slice of silver moonlight flashed across his body.

Then a small stone, red with heat, fell from the sky and struck Dale on the top of his head, ripped through his body, and burst from his pelvis. The rock struck the surface of the swamp, it floated briefly, on fire, then sank.

Dale grunted, smoke wafting from the hole in his head, singed flesh and innards steaming inside the cauterized wound in his gut.

“Dale!” Ron screamed. He dropped his horse leg into the water and the swamp swallowed it.

Dale’s head twitched and then his body fell forward into the swamp. It hit the thick water with a splat and he was soon swallowed, along with his own horse leg.

Ron looked up as the sky was torn open and fire streaked across idle stars. Dozens of tiny sparks flashed into existence and fizzled out soon after they appeared, passing over without incident.

Ron held his position in the mire alone, transfixed by the beauty, by the horror.

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