The Gods Ate Small Children

It was a fact that on Planet Xeron 12, the gods ate small children. It wasn’t that these celestial highness’s gained extraordinary powers or insights from the experience--small people simply tasted good. Naja Krait wasn’t about to lose her only child to the greedy, Elysian mouths. 

 

It was a fact that on Planet Xeron 12, the gods ate small children. It wasn’t that these celestial highness’s gained extraordinary powers or insights from the experience--small people simply tasted good. Naja Krait wasn’t about to lose her only child to the greedy, Elysian mouths. 


She drew the string on her bag of mushrooms and headed up the meadow path. Above, five moons orbited within the clear blue sky. Every twelfth year, and for only the second time in Naja’s life, the powerful sixth moon came into alignment. A tiny rip formed within the cosmic fabric that bound the universe as one. And it was through this very gap, so the storytellers said, that the invisible gods had spotted the children of Xeron 12 and found they tasted very good indeed. They had begun with infants, the smallest and weakest of the peaceful race, but bland and without crunch. The gods quickly shifted to six year olds; the perfect combination of fat, flesh, and hardened bones.

     Naja’s child, a daughter named Kimini, small for her age and inclined toward reflection, had yet to show the speed and agility necessary to pass the preparatory games. When other children practiced darting and dodging patterns, while they formed survival foraging bands and fuliginous emittance units, Kamini preferred to sit at the edge of the green water pond and sketch lily pads.

     This afternoon the rip would form and for weeks howling storms would race across the planet. Every six-year-old in the ancient community would quiver and hide. They would dodge invisible fingers that searched for them within the nooks of the land. But still Kimini sketched.

     Naja reached the end of the meadow, took a left over a small rise, and descended to the green pond and her daughter who sat blissfully unaware, it would seem, of the imminent disaster.

     “Kimini.”

     The small child looked up, the reflection of the green water still rippling in her eyes.

     “It’s time to go. They’ll be here soon and you won’t be safe out in the open.”

     A wrinkle passed over Kimini’s forehead. “Who?”

     “Who?” Naja dropped her bag of mushrooms. “The gods, daughter. It’s your year.”

     “But look.” Kamini pointed to a cluster of lily pads, their wide green leaves overlapping. Within each lily, a flower had formed, small, white with yellowish edges.

     Naja kneeled next to her. “Child, they’re beautiful. But you should be afraid. Soon the gods will descend and you may never see the flowers again. Only by running now, can you come back later to draw them all you want, every day each day until you’re an old woman.”

     Kamini shook her head. “But I have them already.” She held up her parchment.  Within her drawing flowers danced and weaved in another world’s breeze, each petal distinct and vibrant. Lily leaves swirled and dipped within the thick, green water.

     Naja sat back on her heels. The drawing in her daughter’s tiny hands seemed more alive than the pond before her.

     “Here,” said Kamini, and handed her mother another parchment. Purple and orange fish darted within slender reeds and knock-kneed roots. A moss-covered turtle, its shell sparkling with starlight, paddled its way across the drawing until it butted up against the border.

     But it was her daughter’s third drawing that made Naja gasp. The invisible gods, clear as if they stood before Naja, fumed and pondered within a spiraling mass of planets, moons, and suns. One of them, older, his chin resting in a massive palm, turned and stared straight into Naja’s eyes. 

     Just then a giant snap reverberated through the sky. A crack appeared in the heavens and a shadow as black as obsidian screamed across the land.

     Naja held Kamini tight. “They’re here,” she whispered into her hair. “Stay still child.”

     The air wavered as the invisible gods descended. Space and light bulged and roiled over the pond. Naja trembled and she covered Kamini’s small body with her own, hoping the hungry deities would pass right over. For hours the screams of the universe tore through Xeron 12. Winds bent the trees sideways, the waters of the pond heaved and roiled, and small bushes whipped through the air. But still Naja clung to her daughter. She lay her body flat on the grassy bank, and willed herself to protect them both.

     Gradually the roiling air calmed, the winds of the universe quieted through the celestial rip, and the land fell silent. The storms should have lasted for weeks but the gods had vanished.  Naja lifted herself up and found herself alone. Kamini was gone.

“Kamini!” She hoisted herself up and turned in a circle, searching for her daughter. The grass lay flat and the pond reeds bent over completely submerged. She scrambled over the bank of the pond and into the green water, slashing through it toward the reeds. She dove under the lily pads, searching amongst the roots and leaves and came up gasping for breath.

She arched her head back and screamed “Noooooo!” into the sky. And stopped. A black crack stretched across the blue and the six moons lined up perfectly; each one larger than the next until the giant sixth moon filled half the sky.

Something fluttered high above; a parchment, swaying back and forth like an autumn leaf slowly descending. It wafted down to settle upon Naja’s toes. One of its corners flickered in the breeze.

Naja picked up the parchment. It was the drawing her daughter had done of the ancient god, his chin resting on his huge palm. Within that palm, perched with her legs swinging over his smallest finger, sat Kimini, sketching.

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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.