Note: Khain is Simon's uncle, High Priest of the local Gods. Ba is Simon's father Adonis, a Greek message man for the Empire.
You know, I'm far away and getting farther, and who knows when I'll be back. So I suppose I should admit I'm not being quite fair to Khain. Yes I do not like him, and for good reason, but I also know just why he's how he is, and why You hate him too. Why I do is because about 12 years ago - it's my second vivid memory - he arrived at our cave and took Ma aside, and they had a heated discussion in furious whispers that ended with Ma in tears and me dragged off to Khain's. He sat me down and stared at me sternly. I looked back trembling.
“Boy,” started he, then suddenly turned away, and his voice when he continued was not quite as stern. “Boy, thou'st been Chosen.”
I hadn't lived long enough to know what that meant, but it didn't sound good.
“Last night the Lords told me. He Himself was here, right over there, and I saw Her too, and... Others, and they spoke with one voice and said it was thee, thou'dst be the Prince, the one from our house who'd give thyself for all of us, shed thy blood and go through the fire to show Them our love, and to earn Theirs for all of us. Shim, thou must die!”
I didn't know how to take this, or what it even really meant. I mean I sort of knew it was bad, I'd seen animals slaughtered and laid out for meals, but not ever associated that state with myself or any person, never seen anyone dead, and didn't remember the last Fest where what Khain was describing had happened to some other of the generation before mine. I just stared back at him.
“Not yet,” he went on hurriedly. “Thou must first attain thy maturity, that thy sacrifice be a real one. Nine years from the turn of this year will be thy time, and I - and another - will devote those years to making thee ready for that glorious day. Thou'lt never be a man, but thy service to thy people will be greater than any that live out their full years!”
Be a man? My 3-year-old self had never actually considered the possibility, any more than my own death, and if the specimen before me was a typical example of that breed, it was perhaps not something I aspired to anyway.
“And then... thou knowst, when most folk die, Mot takes us under His Holy Mount to live as shades in the gloomy everdarkness. Even I, who have given all my life and breath to Their service, may expect no more (though of course I may hope...). But Mot won't take thee! Thou shalt dwell in the halls of the Lords till Sky Himself fall dark, soar between the Spheres rejoicing in those aethereal realms, and the daemons shall be thy playmates and the Lords thy loving guardians. Wouldst like that?”
It sounded fun, and I nodded furiously.
“Let's go!” I cried. “I want to die now!
“Not yet... not yet... not till thou'rt almost a man. But then thou'lt be the most famous of us all!”
I was naturally delighted and couldn't wait to tell everyone. I ran outside and looked around for someone to taunt. My big brother Soch was busy pounding out Jechiah from next cave, a scrawny little kid with popping eyes and a high-pitched voice, who just by his very existence always seemed to invite the violent attentions of his biggers. I ran up and danced around them.
I gonna die and you're not!
I'm gonna fly and you're going to Mot!
Soch ceased his exertions and they both looked at me like I was nuts.
“You want to die?” said Soch. “Let me finish up here and you're next.”
“Not yet, stupid. When I'm big.”
“We all die when we're big, dumbheart, unless we piss off our big brother when we're little.”
“I want to die,” said Jechiah. Soch looked down at him in disgust. “Get out of here,” he barked, and Jechiah scurried off whimpering. “Shim, what are you talking about?”
I told him what Khain said, and for once he was speechless.
“Thou'rt going to be...”
“Shit. Why'd he tell thee now?”
“Yeah, right, I really wish it was me up there. Lucky thee.”
He pulled me close and hugged me, which was not something he did to anybody. Wow, I thought, I am special. And so I continued to think, lording it over everyone and wondering why they looked back with a mix of pity and awe. Till of course next Planting Time, when we all headed up to the Holy Place and I got to see first-hand what my role in the ongoing drama of life was really to be.
It happened at night. This hadn't always been the case; in fact the Way had always decreed that the Planting Fest must reach its climax at last rays on That Day, just as Sun kisses Earth in that special way, and all World is made new. But Caesar had sent out an edict a few years back to the effect that certain customs were no longer deemed "compatible with a civilized, philosophically enlightened Empire", and that we should consider finding alternative ways to demonstrate our devotion. No specific penalties were mentioned, but as you can imagine, this caused some considerable consternation in the whole region. An emergency community meeting was called, and the Lords' reps from every town around got together to figure out what to do.
After much discussion, however, they finally figured our masters didn't really mean it; after all, they weren't going to be collecting much in the way of tax if You smote us all with flood and/or famine for neglecting Your perquisites. Khain thought probably one of Caesar's concubines had witnessed one of our ceremonies and felt faint, and told him he really should do something about those awful savages and their barbaric customs, so he promulgated this ridiculous law just to keep her happy. Still, it was deemed prudent to keep up appearances, so the old men moved the high point of the Fest to midnight, when prying eyes should be asleep. They just hoped You'd be willing to stay up late enough to see all we were doing for You.
Yes it was certainly nighttime, and way past mattime for little me. I suppose I was asleep when Ma carried me up to the High Place, because I don't remember anything about the procession up the hill. Nor much of anything up to a certain point, just some singing and stuff, but that point and its followup I remember well indeed, haunting as it did my every waking moment and the greater part of my dreams for quite some time to come. It was a wailing chant that roused me to full awakeness. I was lying on stony ground, my eyes covered with a rough piece of wool. I pulled it off and sat up.
The Holy Place is the top of the highest hill around (You levelled it off in times long past, so we'd have a place to honour You), and on that cloudy moonless night it seemed the only place in the world, surrounded by an infinite sea of dark. Torches ringed it all around, and before me was a throng of people, their faces lit up by flickering flame. Some I knew, our friends and neighbours from Gitta, and the rest were from the towns around who held to the old rites. Each family had a beast, their best, and the head of that family held a knife, and everyone was staring at something behind me. A man looked down and smiled, then pointed behind me. I turned, and almost screamed. For there was Molokh!
Not all of Him, of course. Only His great horned head, barely distinguishable from the black sky behind him, but that was twice as tall as any man, and His mouth and eyes were full of roaring fire. He glared down at me, and I felt His terrible hunger. He wanted to devour all of us, and me most of all.
Before Him stood His table, a low stone altar with a projection at each corner and a young lad of maybe 12 stretched out on top. He seemed to have no face, just a blank mask with small eyeholes, and he was shivering in the cold breeze that played about his naked form.
And behind the altar were two I knew immediately from Khain's tales: Sky Ba and Earth Ma. Like the boy on the altar (who was obviously the Prince) they were naked and faceless. On His head was the orb of Sun, on hers the crescent of Moon, but other than that they didn't look much like I'd pictured them. His body was scrawny and hairy; in fact it reminded me of Khain's, and she looked like, well, a woman. I'd always pictured them as these super beings, full of light and glory. Not... people.
In the Lord's light Sky Ba was chanting something I couldn't make out (I could sing it in my sleep now, and even now sometimes do) and when it reached a climax, he raised the great stone sickle he held... and all went black. Ma had noticed I was awake and covered my eyes with her sleeve, to spare me the horror to come. But I needed to see. I wriggled out of her arms, determined not to miss a single thing. That was a mistake. For even as Ma grabbed my arm and "Shim, Lords no, don't look!”, the blade fell.
I'd seen slaughter before, of course, but when Ma or whoever does it, the beast is dispatched with a quick prayer and stab to the throat, and the blood just drains out back into Earth. This time the blade rips clear through the Prince's neck, almost taking his head off, and Sky Ba and Earth Ma are suddenly dripping in a scarlet shower, and the Prince twitches once and shivers no more. My jaw drops and I can only gape, numb with shock, as Soch digs me in the back and whispers "Look, there's thee!”
And I know he's right. One day it'll be me up there, bleeding like a stuck goat, and I cover my eyes to block out my awful fate. But I'm still a kid, and I have to see. Through my fingers I watch as Our Parents pick up the Prince and raise him high, and I feel my own life's gore pouring out of me. And when they heave him through the fire into the Lord's vast maw, I feel a searing heat as the black smoke billows out and fills the air with the terrible smell of roasted meat (I used to love roast meat, but for a long time after that, I was definitely off it).
But... it was good, right? I mean it helped everyone, and a deathtime of fun and games was surely worth a second of agony. But all my poor young eyes could see was that knife that blood that fire that smell... and all I knew at that moment, as I burst into hot tears and collapsed sobbing to the ground, was that I didn't want it, any of it, no matter how great the reward.
Ma knelt beside me and took me in her arms, covered me with her robes, stroked my head gently. “No, dearest, no, don't cry, it's all right. Thou sawst, he didn't even feel it. And now he's with the Lords. Thou'lt see him again when... He'll still be a boy, and so wilt thou, best friends forever in the House of the Lords... “ I started wailing and she held me close. Her voice turned sterner. “Hush now. Khain shouldn't have told thee so soon, but thou hadst to know sometime. Don't let Them think thou dostn't love Them.”
She was right. You had decreed it, and so must it be. Everyone else would live their lives, never knowing when Mot would call their name. But I knew the exact day and hour when I would leave this place, and nothing could stop it. Sun would rise and Sun would set; Moon would wax and Moon would wane; I would die. I ceased my complaining, to Ma's relief, but that night, and for many nights thenafter, I didn't sleep at all, just saw that vicious blade rise above me and fall, felt it rip me open and my helpless body lifted, flung into the flames, consumed in screaming agony...
And every year it was the same. We went up Holy Hill and the Prince went through the fire, and I trembled knowing that I'd be the one up there in one less year than the last time... and for the next month or so the nightmares returned, fading gradually till the next fall, when the horror was thrust on me anew.
So you (not You) may be wondering: how is it that I find myself in an oxcart on the Sea Road to Tyre, heading for far-off lands and an unknown fate? My blackened bones mingle not in the Hungry Lord's belly with those of whoever was on the altar that night, and my unbodied body isn't frolicking in Your House with his either. And Gitta still stands, and life goes on as ever before. How can this be?
Well, for that I must thank, of all people,
the Romans You, for Your great mercy to Your utterly undeserving slave in a difficult situation. Oh, and our Roman masters did have some small part in it too.
It happened in the fall of the year, a month before my death. Khain had already started drilling me for my role in the Fest, looking eagerly forward to that great day when his own sister's son would suffer the ultimate honour to gain Your favour for all of us them. But no one had never got around to mentioning it to Ba, even though he was around a lot that year. In fact we never talked of it at all around him, and he never found out until one night as we squatted to sup. He'd been in town a while and was scheduled to leave again on the morrow for who knew where, returning who knew when, so if he wasn't to come back to an awful shock, someone had to tell him now. The whole meal was dominated by uncomfortable glances between Ma and Khain, each silently urging the other to come out with the terrible secret, until finally Ma got up the courage:
“Yes my dear?”
“Thou knowst the Sowing Fest is coming soon?”
“Oh right. That's when you... what is it?”
She was sort of gasping, looking helplessly at Khain, who spoke up:
Ma was staring over at me. He followed her gaze.
“No. Come on Kain, how could this happen? How long hast thou known?”
“The Lords told me last midnight, I just told his mother, and now I'm telling thee.”
Ma bent her head sobbing for half a minute, then put her head up with the same stony gaze as whenever anyone'd mentioned it for the past 9 years. Ba reached for her.
She couldn't look at him, just shrank away and put her head down again. He gazed at me for a minute and I gazed back, and new implications of my situation became apparent. I would never see him again, never marvel to his tales of faraway lands, devour whatever fragments of heroic deeds and odd philosophies he'd rescued from the marketplaces of the world... I'd never see any of them again, and they'd never see me. I'd be far from their lives, even their prayers, in Sky Palace... Forgive me, Lords, I didn't care how lovely Your place was. I didn't want to go there. I just wanted to stay here with the ones who loved me.
“Sim, come here.”
I stood and went round to him. He rose and took my hands.
“My son, if there were anything I could do for thee, thou must know I'd do it. Thou knowst that.”
“Unfortunately we must respect local customs totally, unless they threaten our own survival or Roma's interests. If Roma really wanted you to live...”
He stopped as if in thought, then went on hurriedly.
“...but She doesn't care about thee. I had some plans for thee myself, but it seems they must be put on hold.”
He took my head in his hands and kissed it.
“Be brave, my son. Thy folk are depending on thee, and I know thou won'tst let them down. But somewhere, somewhen, I think we may meet again.”
He winked at me, and for some reason I felt better, You alone know why. The rest of the meal was less awkward now that the secret was out, and everyone got good and drunk and toasted me and my bravery and my great sacrifice, till I felt downright unworthy.
Apparently Ba left sometime that night, because he wasn't there when I woke up. I was sorry to miss him, but figured we'd said all that needed to be said between us. Maybe we would meet again; if anyone could scale Your walls to come visit me up There, surely it was he.
Actually it was only about a week before he was back, riding hard into town early one morn, waving a sealed letter and shouting,”Where's Kain?” We all came running outside to see Ba leaping off his mount and rushing up and into Khain's cave. There were a tense few seconds, then a cry of utmost despair filled our ears, then silence. We looked at each other. Finally they came out, Khain clutching the document as if it was announcing the end of the world.
“Shim!” he called. “Come here and tell me this is not what he says it is.”
I ran up, took the page from his shaking hands, and read. Essentially it was an order from the Governor that any and all devotees of the Lords in Samaria, Phoenicia, Gaulanitis, Judaea, Galilee, Peraea and the Ten Towns would henceforth have to make certain adjustments to their devotions. Only one, actually: the Senate and People of Roma had decided in their infinite wisdom that we provincials could no longer offer up our chosen children to whichever bloodthirsty deities we happened to grovel before; sacrifice of the human kind was deemed an insufferable offence to the delicate sensibilities of our overlords, hearkening back as it did to the horrible deeds of Roma's foes in Carthage, and anyone participating in it could expect a considerably less easy death than their own victim.
I was saved! But for what?
I looked up at Khain, whose eyes and veins and tendons were popping with tension. “They say we can't kill me,” I said, and he sank to the ground moaning,”Doomed! We're all doomed!” Ba and I pulled him up and helped him back to Father Tree, where everyone was gathered to find out what was going on.
Now as I said, the first decree to this effect was issued years back when they first took over, but it was basically ignored. And the Romans who actually ran things around here didn't really give a shit how we served our Lords, as long as we kept our heads down and paid up at tax time. So why were they cracking down now?
“Why?” wailed Khain piteously. “Have we not always paid our tribute? Have we ever rebelled, ever said a bad thing against them? What have we ever done to make them hate us so?”
“They're not saying, but it's the Germans,” opined Ba thoughtfully. “A while back they wiped out three of Caesar's legions in the Black Woods (a funny thing happened to me there once; I'll tell thee later) and the Romans say it'll take years to conquer them now. Their Gods love them because they regularly roast their enemies en masse in great wicker effigies, so Caesar thinks if we do the same we might start getting ideas too.”
“It's a boy a year, for Yam's sake!” cried Khain. “Barely enough to get the crops in! Do they think we're going to start taking on the legions and broiling each other in baskets?”
Soch laughed. “I can think of some we could start with.”
Khain flashed him a disgusted glare. “The Lords don't want that. They just want to help us live our lives as we've always done, and for us to show them a little appreciation in return. Look at poor Shim. How can he meet Them now?”
I did my best to look disappointed, though truth to tell I was, a little bit. The idea of being the saviour of my people, selflessly offering up my body and joining You All in Sky Palace, while everyone else was stuck in Mot's gloomy realm, had over the years become not entirely unappealing, when I could block out the actual implementation. So the next week, when Ba left again and Khain brought me down to the capital with a delegation of elders from all the towns around to plead for special exemption, my tears of frustration were not all from the pepper he blew in my eyes just before the hearing.
Now the High Priest for our area was not Khain that year. I forget his name; he wasn't from our town. He was a tall whitebeard with fiery eyes, and we were all scared of him. We met up in Kallai and headed to the capital.
It's a 12-mile walk to Caesarea, and on the way the elders sang songs. We got there around mid-afternoon and headed straight for the basilica. Great and grand it was, as was the whole place to my untravelled eyes. At home we don't make our houses: we find them ready-made for us, nooks and crevices in the body of our Great Mother. People in the city don't live in Mother, they carve out pieces of her and stick them together on her skin. What did She think of that? She couldn't be happy. I was amazed that they could even live; wouldn't She blight their crops? I asked Khain and he spat, obviously forgotting his policy of never badmouthing our masters. "They don't need crops. They take ours. We give it up so they can play Gods.”
At the basilica door stood a soldier. The High Priest approached him.
“We wish to speak with the Governor on a matter of utmost importance.”
He held the letter up to the soldier. He glanced at it and his eyes widened.
He disappeared inside, and returned 5 minutes later with an officious fellow with bright yellow hair. He looked at us in amusement. We were all road-dusty from our walk; I must have looked like a ghost child.
“Are you the Governor?”
“In his absence. What's your matter?”
“Something that affects the fate of everyone in this land.”
The functionary's face became serious.
“In that case, come in, all of you. Shake the dust off first, please. There you go...”
He ushered us into the hall, took his place behind a large marble table, and reached for a slate.
“Now then. Does this concern banditry, sedition, terrorism or any other realized or planned action against Caesar, His representatives or institutions, and are you providing confirmed names, reliable sources or rumours?”
“Graver than that.”
His face lightened.
“So a local affair. Settle it yourselves.”
Khain pulled me to the front and poked me. I spoke up bravely, if not entirely sincerely:
“Please sir, we come to ask that you let me join our Lords, that they may bless us with their mercy, as we have always done.”
He stared at me for a moment, then at my villagemen, then me.
“Full name please.”
“Shim of Gitta, son of Adonis, sir.”
“Gitta... say, I think I know thy father. “ He smiled. “A very... generous man. He's well, I hope?”
“Last I saw him, sir.”
“Gitta!” he cried, and a slave hurried to a high cabinet at the back, retrieved a scroll, and handed it to him. He turned to the High Priest.
“What this concerns is the withdrawal of divine favour from the people of this area, which must inevitably, as you say, affect Roma's interests. If our Lords turn their backs on us, our crops fail, and how then can we pay our taxes? Rather shall we become a drain on Roma's resources, assuming She will have mercy and relieve us in our plight.”
“Unlikely,” said he. “I gather from the lad you mean the crackdown on human offerings. Look, we're all civilized men here. We're not savages, and neither are you. At Roma we don't offer up our kids, and you have to admit our Gods have been pretty good to us.”
“But we've always...”
“Yes, and now you'll have to do something else.”
He opened the scroll and pointed out a passage in red ink. “We know you've been doing it in secret; we did nothing, but we knew. If you do it again we'll know again, and this time we'll do something. It's hard to serve your Gods when you're nailed to a tree, know what I'm saying?”
Our leader's eyes blazed.
“If that's what it takes, I think every man here would gladly pay that price! Right, men?”
His compatriots roared out an impassioned "Ia!”, but when I looked around, their expressions didn't necessarily match their cry. The man sighed.
“Do you think They want that? If you're all dead, who'll be left to give Them Their due? Just give Them the best you've got and They'll do you right. Trust me, the Governor will say no different. Tell you what, though. Let me take your names and hometowns, and I will deliver your concerns to mighty Caesar personally, the next time I find myself in that august presence.”
The elders conferred briefly among themselves, then bowed and turned to leave without a further word. But
“Just one more thing.”
We turned back.
“Next time you're having one of your Fests, could you do us a favour and let us know the time and place? We'd just like to be sure no one's doing anything naughty, and it would be inconvenient for everyone if we had to find out for ourselves. Thanks much.”
On the way out, I tugged at Khain's robe.
“Did you hear that?” I whispered. “Caesar Himself!”
He just stared at me, then turned away with a sigh.
The discussion on the way home was fierce indeed, something like
Khain: They can't tell us how to serve our Gods. I say we carry on. Fuck 'em.
Someone else: Come on Khain, thou'rt just saying that because it's thy nephew next. I'm not risking my family...
Khain: If Our Lords turn their backs, we're all dead anyway. Starve like rats or go out in glory? I know my choice!
Another: What's the point of glory if our children, our mothers, our wives are raped and murdered by those bastards?
Still another: I'm with Khain. We can do it in secret, in the caves...
The first one again: Thou heardst that guy. They'll find out. We were betrayed before, we 'll be again.
Khain: So let's do it out in the open, one last time under Sun and Sky, just like the old days. No more sneaking around by night. If they kill us, we'll all be welcome in Sky Palace the same day. Glory!
Other #2: No we won't. He was right. They don't want us There, They want us here. They'll understand.
Other #1: Remember when Yahveh chose the Jews? He let them get away with offering up sheep.
Khain: Yeah, well this is us, and from us They expect better.
And so the discussion continued with equal fervour on both sides, trying to figure out how we could serve both Caesar and Baal; and if we couldn't, whose wrath would be worse? It seemed impossible. Finally someone suggested that we just ask You, which put an abrupt and welcome end to the debate, and the rest of the return trip was taken up with standard old man talk of aches and pains and drinking and grandsons and stuff a boy my age could not normally possibly care less about. But there was now about a half a chance I'd live to be one of them, which was a half a chance more than the week before, so I listened to their prattle for a while to find out what it was like, before getting bored and running on ahead. It was in Your hands now anyway, and however it turned out for everyone else, it wasn't going to be any worse for me.
It's not often we ask You anything beyond basic blessings on set days, so this was a rare and a scary time indeed. We were going to ask You if it was OK to screw You out of what we'd always given You as a matter of course, just to save our own lowly selves down here. This time it was only me (as (possible) Prince), Khain and the High Priest (what was his name?) who made the trek to the entrance to Mot's Mount a few miles from town.
Now Mot is Lord of the Dead, and when he takes you, he takes you here. It's a lot harder to reach than the capital, though it's not nearly as far. You have to go up a steep path between towering cliffs and squeeze through a narrow gap in the rock, into an open area surrounded by almost vertical walls of striated stone. Then it's down a little creek-bed into an place where the sun never shines, and there's a little crack in the rock face. And then the men light lamps and in you go.
Though the day outside was warm enough, in here was cold as the grave. Before me was a black entrance, but to what? I couldn't tell, and I shivered from both chill and fear as Khain pushed me gently into the home of Death Himself. Or its front path anyway, for we were now inching our way down a long tunnel, barely high enough for me, and the big ones had to almost crawl. I'd explored the caves around home with my pals, but this one was longer and deeper than any I'd known before. Would we even come back? Back from the land of the dead? It seemed
“Aiee!” A great bull, red-eyed and sharp-horned, lunged suddenly at me from the stygian black, and I yelped and leapt backwards, almost knocking Khain's eye out. I tried to run back out of this horrible place, but the priest dragged me back and pointed at the wall laughing. I blushed and hid my face. The mighty beast was nothing but a wall decoration, and looking further I could see that those walls were covered with more like it: cattle, deer, sheep-though not the fat wooly ones I knew-and other strange ones I couldn't recognize, with snakes for mouths and horny noses. But such was the skill that rendered them that they seemed to live and breathe in the flickering lamplight.
“Mot trapped these,” explained the priest. “in these walls, in the time before this time, or maybe the time before that? If anyone tries to escape His land without good reason, these will come alive for real and bring him back. Hear this.”
He cupped his mouth and shouted "Ououuuh!” and from all sides the painted beasts answered him, with howls and growls and grunts and roars that filled the air round us with terrible noise, and me with uncontrollable trembling. I covered my ears and rolled into a ball. “Make them stop!” I cried, but this only encouraged them, and it was a good minute before they slowly ceased that awful sound and became again but daubs of paint on a smooth rock wall.
I really did not want to continue. What if we were down there too long and Mot's livestock thought we were dead ones trying to do a runner? But obviously we had to go on, because to talk to Those on High, you have to do it from the lowest low. Any lower and you're in Dead City for real. Which, after another it seemed like a day of stumbling through the dark, is where we finally ended up.
You can smell it before you see it, a sickly sweet smell like new wine, and your head starts to feel like it did as a kid, you know, when you spun around fast and faster and suddenly stopped, but the world kept spinning around you... I feel drowsy, waver, almost fall, but the Priest grabs me, pulls me into a room I didn't see that there, there's a stone bench just big enough for me to lie down, over an opening in the floor with like smoke or steam? or something coming out, he lay me down on bench, has headdress tied tight around his nose mouth Khain the same but they don't do it for me why not? It's I'm so dizzy not spinning no more just its like when you hold your breth and stand up evrythg blank out and its like i dont no not anythig els u evr
I hear it but in my heart, my belly, not my ears. Someone is saying my name and it's bouncing around inside me like the bellowing of Mot's beasts. It's Lord of Storms, and He's calling me! But where is He?
“I'm here,” says I. “What?”
There He is! Suddenly everything is so clear, clearer than brightest day even in that gloomy room, and I'm on top of a mountain, this very one that's on top of me now, and on the next peak over looms Himself, Baal-Rakon (that's what we call him) and He's so big it's like He's right in my face and He is mad, man. Sky is black and alive with Lightning, and its bolts spark between His great horns, and Thunder roaring and the winds around Him blowing His hair into a wild fury, and behind Him in the shadows You All (I can't see You but I know You're there) whom we have ever served so faithfully and You us. His eyes flash so fast as he sends again, asking
-who this little worm is-
“Please, Lords, Shim of Gitta.”
-that They already know that-
“You are all-knowing, my Lords.”
-that I know Them and Their power-
“You are all-powerful too.”
- to remember Who made this world, and us, and everything around us-
-that we are lower than dirt to Them-
“I know that.”
-crawling bugs They could crush any time just for fun-
“We thank You with all our being for Your restraint. We deserve no better...”
-that we are not fit to lick the shit from Their privy-
-to clarify that statement-
“Sorry, I mean no we aren't.”
-that They have always given us so much, and asked so little-
“Our gratitude knows no bounds.”
-that it obviously does, because now we want to save our miserable hides by sucking up to foreigners-
“We would never...”
-if we're thinking the Roman Gods are greater than Them-
In fact I wasn't, and tried not to think it now. “You're the greatest Gods of all. If You allowed Their people to rule us, You had good reason.”
-that actually no They didn't...
“Sorry, didn't what?”
...to get to the point and ask what we're here to ask-
“We want to serve You with all we have, but cannot if we have nothing. And surely can't if we're dead.”
-if we think we're so important-
“No, we're shit. I said that. But without shit, what can grow? Who then can give Your mighty and worthy selves Your true due?”
-if we think for a moment They need us and our crap sacrifices-
“Of course not...”
-tasty though they may be-
“Thank You. We try.”
-that They should blast us to ashes right now for even suggesting it-
“If You must. It would be a mercy beside what the Romans would do to us.”
-a terrible ROAR-
and You were gone, and I was back on the bench and my lost mind found again. I lay a minute wiped out, then tried to rise. But couldn't, only moaned, and Khain and the priest ran up and dragged me off the altar and back into the tunnel.
“What did They say? Word for word now!”
I told them. They looked at each other.
“Well that's a relief,” said the other one.
“What?” cried Khain. “They've spoken clear as they ever have. It's all or nothing. We're doomed!”
“Not at all. They don't need our sacrifice, said They.”
“But They expect it and we must obey. They were going to smite us for even asking.”
“And yet They didn't. These are our Gods, Khain. Not the Gods of the Romans or the Greeks or the Jews; They're ours. If we're gone, no one else is going to sacrifice to Them. No, They don't need us, but I think in the end They like having us around. They always have, and as long as we do our best for them, They always will.”
“Our best? Our best is our chosen son.”
“Second best then. Or third: I heard the Romans won't even let us kill girls.”
Khain spat. “And that rules the world!”
“We've had many rulers here,” said the priest thoughtfully. “Some day someone else, someone more reasonable, will take their place, and we can go back to serving Them properly. Meantime, let's figure out a good substitute. And it had better be good.”
Much discussion took place over the weeks before the next Fest about how best to preserve whatever we could of the solemn age-old ritual, while simultaneously ripping out the very essence of it and stomping it into the dust. It was finally decided that there was no need for drastic overhaul. You would certainly be watching closely (as would our Earthly masters) and we figured (correctly, right?) You'd be most comfortable with as little change as possible; the only question was how to present the climactic moment as naturally and in keeping with its true meaning as possible...
It was time. The village men were oiling the harnesses and sharpening the shares in preparation for the season's sowing, and Khain was in his glory. He spent half his time going around to everyone's houses making sure their offering was ready, and the rest up Holy Hill with Pirhah decorating and sanctifying the altar.
Me, I was a nervous wreck. That I'd been spared the worst of it was forgotten, in light of the more immediate requirements of the role. The knowledge that the entire livelihood of everyone I knew for the next year was wholly down to me and my performance was, to say the least, terrifying, especially in this of all years. Even after my encounter with You, even if I did everything perfectly, there was no guarantee You'd come through. And what if I messed up? Khain was happy to clarify (he was his mother's son).
“What would happen?” he mused. “It has never happened... no, now I think on it, it did happen once, only once in my time. I was a boy, younger than thou now, and Neujor was Prince. What a handsome lad he was, all the girls loved him, everyone thought he was so strong and good and charming. I didn't, I knew what he was, a big... never mind. Anyway he was that proud, Neujor, didn't need to study his lines, knew every step just perfect, didn't he? But that year at Planting, he missed a line in the Song, no, a step in the Dance it was - no, first a line, then a step. That was it. Everyone noticed, but none dared say it. We all just held our breath. He stopped, his whole body so red with shame, then tried to go on, but of course he just got more and more flustered and fucking it all up, and the Two trying to prompt him, and him tripping over his big stupid clumsy feet... He must have been so happy when he finally got to end it all on the altar. Of course when it was done, everyone acted like he did just great, but his folks knew we knew, and all we could do was hope the Lords weren't watching.
“But thou knowst They were. That winter Dagon dried the wells, StormLord stopped the rains, and quite a few families starved. Naturally Neujor's was among them, for who was going to feed the author of their misfortunes?” No surprise there: my people are a penurious and prideful lot. They'd cheerfully let a neighbour starve before they'd offer aid; and he'd rather starve than ask. “A terrible time. I'd really, really rather not see it again.”
This did not ease me. I redoubled my efforts, and Khain was kind enough to assist me (a stroke of his favourite thornwood switch for every word missed, and two for every step) in sessions which lasted till well past dark, in the weeks leading up to the great event.
On the morning of the Mystery, Ma and the girls gathered flowers and vines, and in the morning garlanded Ngaf, the yearling boar who was to play me in the festivities. And what a sight he was! Blossomed from snout to tail like a new bride - well, even I had to laugh. He didn't get the joke, though, or maybe he foreknew his soon fate, so we finally had to slip some hemp-oil in his slops to stop him rolling in the muck and destroying all our hard work.
Finally, as Sun began His descent, it was that time. The family, Ngaf in tow, proceeded to Father Tree, where all the people were assembled with their beasts, in preparation for the trek up the hill. Khain was there too, and when he saw me he took me aside and slipped me my costume, then sent me up ahead of the rest to make ready.
I hurried up the hill to the Holy Place as fast as I could. Which was not very fast after a while, since that Hill looks easy when you stand at the foot looking up, but as soon as you're on the way to the peak it starts to steepen, so that by the time you're at the summit you're puffing like a goat. It's not so bad when you're with everyone else on their way to worship, because you get to stop and make a sign or pray a little prayer at every shrinestone along the way. But this day was my day, and I had to hurry.
As I approached, the Hungry Lord came into view, His vast jaws agape in a silent stony scream, staring accusingly at the one who was going to cheat Him of His rightful meal. All due respect, My Lord, I don't share Khain's nostalgia for those Golden Days, so long ago now, of last year. Then again, in those times I wouldn't have had to face the consequence of forgetting my lines.
Pirhah was already there when I arrived, in her usual role as Our Mother. She was sitting on the altar, nude but for the Moon Mask and a necklace, bracelets and anklets of all the Plants. Cheerfully she greeted me and watched as I doffed my robe and donned the Corny Mask, then helped me adjust it. The falling dusk was cool, and a brisk breeze chilled me, but the witch's nakedness, her closeness, the smell of her was intoxicating, and to my chagrin my untried manhood took on a life of its own, and I burned with lust and shame. She noticed, and laughed.
“Thou'rt playing the wrong part,” she chuckled. “But don't worry. Once it gets going, that's the last thing thou'lt be thinking about. Ready?”
She reached under the topstone and did something, then pushed aside part of the top of the altar to reveal a hollow interior, just big enough for one of my stature. I looked at it in interest. So that was how that was managed.
Pirhah stretched out on the altar, golden limbs gleaming, and for a moment I could not move, so inviting did her brown body appear to my virgin eyes. She looked up at me angrily.
“They'll be here soon,” she snapped. “Quick now, in thou getst.”
So I reluctantly made the Sign and clambered up and down into the altar. The stone slid shut above me, and daylight turned Stygian black. I shivered alone in the cold stone dark for several centuries, until finally I heard the bells and flutes of the townsfolk as they made their way slowly up the hill.
Khain arrived first. I recognized his muffled voice conferring briefly with Pirhah, before knocking on the altar-top to ensure that I had not suffocated. I responded in kind. After that, I assumed that he too was stripping off and donning his own Aspect, and that they were hiding themselves down behind the altar, for they were never anywhere in sight when we arrived.
Finally the rest made it to the summit. I knew what was happening: every mother was rounding her brood up into a half-Moon arrangement around the altar, but facing away from it. Beasts were being readied, knives given a final sharpen, torches lit, and all eyes pointed west in anticipation. Sky would be blushing from blue to rosy red, as He watched Sun slowly lower Himself down and down into Earth's eager embrace. All us mortals would watch in silence as She opened to Him and took Him in Her, and they became one. I waited in dread for His last light to blink out, and knew exactly when it happened, because Khain's voice rang out over the rolling hills:
Are we all here?
And they'd be turning back to the altar to see Sky Ba and Earth Ma, holding hands before the Hungry Lord.
We are all here.
Why are we here?
To praise the Lords.
With what do we praise them?
With all we have,
With all we are,
We praise the Lords.
But we have nothing!
But we are nothing!
How can we praise the Lords?
What can we wretched,
Puny and wicked,
Offer to Those who are Lords of us all?
The PEOPLE moan in consternation.
How shall we praise the Lords?
For all we have,
And all we are...
Wheat in the field...
Rain from the sky...
Red grape on the winding vine...
Pig in the sty...
Barley, millet too,
All things come from You...
I murmured along; from before I can remember I have known by heart the list of Your gifts. It ends with an invitation, sung by all, for Them to join us in a little celebration to partake in some of the things we have done with all They have given us:
Bread and bacon,
Beer and wine...
and many other things do we offer them, in hopes that they will find us worthy and bless the current harvest. Then the Mystery.
The signal comes: three soft knocks, and I push up the top and peep out cautiously. Sky and Earth are embracing before the altar, shielding me from view. I look around; a fierce flame fills Moloch's mouth. I squirm out cautiously and in between their bellies, to emerge horns first into the amazed sight of the congregation, who as always gasp in wonder at the miraculous birth. I jump out and start dancing my steps to Khain's drum and Pirhah's flute, singing my piece. The words spill out perfectly:
Take a seed,
Press it down
In the ground.
It eats the dirt,
It drinks the rain,
And it grows.
When it's grown
Bring it in
And start again.
For my body's the good dirt,
My blood is the rain,
I am the first gift of Raintime.
Give me back!
On the last words, I fling myself back onto the cold stone of the altar, not looking forward to what was coming next. Derde brings Ngaf up, and Khain looks at him in disgust. He's been hard on me, yes, but I'm his favourite, and he could do me no greater honour than that which some stupid Roman regulation obliges him to bestow upon poor Ngaf instead.
He takes our pig by his ears and raises him over me. The drug is wearing off, and Ngaf starts squirming and squealing in his grasp. A sharp trotter catches me in the belly, before Khain's stone sickle finds his throat with a quick slice and showers me in hot gore. And at the same moment, the chosen from each household does the same to the beast they have brought, and its life's blood squirts forth to anoint the soil and fruiten the lands for another year.
Khain drops the still-twitching carcass discreetly behind the altar and stands, arms raised and knife outstretched, and at the look in his eyes I tremble. But fortunately piety yields to prudence (and to the unfamiliar fellow with the sword and the slate standing discreetly in back of the crowd) and he and Pirhah pick me up and turn to Molokh.
SKY BA and EARTH MA
Lords, Lords, You give us all
And all good comes from You.
All we have to give You back
Is this fruit that we have made:
Our son, our own firstborn.
O Rain! Mix his blood
With thy lifegiving waters
And slake our thirsty land!
O Worm! Take thy food
From his flesh, it is our flesh too,
And from thy shit
Create the flesh of Earth anew!
O Corn! Take up his ashes
And feed us all for
Thank you very much!
I know the flame in the God's mouth this time is just a row of torches in the lower jaw, and will barely warm me, but in Khain's eyes as he holds me high I see a blazing furnace, and know that in his ears ring the screams of the Princes of that happy time.
Of a sudden they hurl me in. I fly for surely only a moment, but it seems an hour, a slow spinning right at that gaping maw full of fire, then a scorching, and a sudden fear, that those great teeth will snap shut and grind me to shreds; then I land with a thump on the hard floor of His great belly, and a cheer erupts from all assembled. I pull myself painfully up, encrusted with the ashes of my predecessors from devouter times, and crouch down low, waiting for it all to be over with. But of course it's not yet, as each family now has to cut off the best part of their beast and line up to throw it through the fire as well, so that I end up dripping with blood and tail-fat, shivering in the Hungry Lord's cold black bowels.
This was the end of the Mystery. The musicians struck up a merry tune:
It's planting time, the first of Fall,
When out we go with plough and hoe,
The seeds to sow all in a row,
And as we sow we praise You all:
Lah lah mei mu ma!
On ah moh ma mei!
(The transcription is necessarily approximate, and cannot do credit to the happy feelings invoked even now by those sacred syllables.) and as the dance began, the sacrifices were dragged over to the braziers and set a-roasting, so that You might smell the smoke and drool in delight over the fields all winter (the rest to be taken home and smoked; You had got Your due and it would hardly do to waste it). It was done, and as soon as everyone was distracted by the festivities, the knock came from behind me and I squeezed out through Your black asshole, to find Khain waiting, teary-eyed.
“Thou didst good,” was all he said, and all he needed to say. And all the tension and fear of the past weeks flew away with the smoke from the pyres, and I suddenly felt I could follow it up, up into Air like a bird to Sky Palace... Khain beckoned and I followed him down the back of the peak to where a little spring poured out of the rocky face. I hastened to wash off, retrieved my clothing from the ground behind You, then hurried out to rejoin the others.
Ma looked up and smiled.
“Shim,” she said,”there thou art. I didn't see thee during the Mystery.”
“Oh, I was around,” I said mysteriously. And she never did know it was me up there.
A couple of weeks later, I was inside when someone called, "It's Adonis!" I hurried out and, sure enough, there was Ba, riding up the dusty track to town. Wouldn't he be surprised! I ran towards him, and when he saw me he halted his steed and gazed down at me smiling.
"Well Sim, my lad, we do meet again. Looks like thy Gods love thee after all. “
He didn't seem surprised at all; but of course he had foretold it, and I realized then that he really did have the gift of foreknowing. And I realized something else: that not only had You intervened on my behalf, given up Your divine prerogatives just to save my life, but that Your powers extend even into the office of the Governor himself. O Lords, You are truly great!
He leaped off his horse and held out his arms. I ran to him and we hugged each other tight, and he leaned in close and whispered in my ear:
"Listen my son," he said. “I'm going to tell thee a secret, a secret so secret that even though everyone knows it, no one believes it. There's no such thing as Death!”
I looked up at him bewildered.
"When thy time comes, thou just goest to sleep. Thou dostn't dream, and thou dostn't wake up. Thou didstn't miss a thing!”
So no ghostly kingdom under Mot's Mount, no Sky Palace for the extra-special ones like me? What would Khain say if he heard talk like that? But I knew Ba was just trying to make me feel better, so I kept my mouth shut and told myself he was full of shit. If You weren't going to take me, there was no point killing me, and in Gitta we don't do anything if it doesn't have a point.
So that was it, and after that night I was a normal boy again, doomed to spend a normal life among normal folk, and a normal death among normal ghosts. Not quite normal though to the good folk of Gitta. The old ones especially didn't quite know what to make of me. I had passed through Molokh's flame? And lived?? Was I alive, or dead, or something in between, or...??? I could see them making little hex-signs whenever I passed - inconspicuously of course, because who knew what strange powers I may have picked up down there in the God's guts?
But the real concern that year, of course, was the crop we were about to plant. Well, not exactly we; Khain thought it wise to keep me out of sight at sowing time, so as not to remind You what we'd screwed You out of. So I stayed home and read my scrolls while everyone else ploughed and sowed. And then we all waited.
Khain was up on the altar extra early every day with special intentions and invocations, while Pirhah tried to read the signs and see if our bogus sacrifice had in fact been acceptable to You. But You played it coy, and every augur turned out ambiguous, so we had no idea where we stood. The elders went back to the capital to request a deferral on the next taxes in case You chose not to come through for us; the Governor's rep simply replied,”Let's wait and see.”
Of all of us, of course, I was the most nervous. If the crop failed, they'd need someone to blame. And strange powers or no, if they couldn't offer me up in public, there were plenty of less formal ways to send me Skyward and hopefully recoup something in the second harvest.
The winter was particularly hard that year. We hardly ever saw Sun, only grey gloom and endless drizzle. Some days the water in the well turned to glass, so we had to climb down and chip it out and get Khain to decurse it before we could melt and drink it. Once instead of rain, a cold white fluff blanketed everything in a ghostly pallor, before it too turned to water. Khain tried to to reassure us that this was a good sign; the last time it happened, 10 years ago, the harvest had been as bountiful as he'd ever seen - didn't they remember? They didn't, and we shivered all season in equal parts chill and dread.
As the year came to an end, Sun started showing Himself more often, and the mood grew somewhat more hopeful. And the moment Moon showed Her full face after the first of spring, everyone was on their bellies in the fields looking for any sign of the new year's shoots.
I said before You didn't play with us, but Naturally in Your wisdom You wanted to keep us guessing a bit, that we might not take Your infinite compassion for granted, so those shoots didn't start showing themselves (and nor did I) for another very long week. But show they finally did, and they grew up strong and true (though not particularly bountifully) and by harvest time I was no longer the Prince who lived, just Rachal's Shim again, hacking and slashing with the rest of them. In fact it was then that...