by H. M. Snow
So many human bodies enclosed together should have made the meeting house noisy, but the only break in the hush was a shuddering breath here or there. No one dared make a noise louder than breath on this darkest and most sacred of occasions. Even the smallest ones, who should have been asleep with the setting of the sun, kept silent despite the oppressive heat.
One lamp burned, casting its circle of light halo-like around the oracle in their midst. Only near her was there space to move, but no one dared draw nearer as she laid out the hide with mystic markings burned into it. She knelt, and a collective breath made the silence live. Her hand did not tremble as she gathered the carved pebbles into a heap before her and laid a slender bone atop the heap. “We begin.” Her voice had a pleasant roughness to it.
The mother of the youngest babe among them came forward, all a-quiver, to kneel before the oracle. Her arms wound tightly around her child, a girl of only three months.
The oracle scooped up the heap, keeping the bone balanced on top until the last moment when she poured the pebbles through her fingers and let them fall where they would. Then she gazed at the resultant configuration. “Neither,” she said at last.
A quick sob escaped the mother, who hurried to the far end of the meeting house to weep with relief as quietly as she could.
Four of her peers brought their babies, aged from nine months to two years, only to be passed over in like manner. Then came the first child old enough to approach the oracle alone: a boy of seven years. His eyelids sagged with sleep, but with an elder sibling nudging him forward he came before the oracle and was turned aside like the nursing mothers. The next in age was nearly thirteen, old enough to fear the experience. Her narrow face was ashen, almost sickly, as she waited for the pebbles to fall. When the bone rolled to a halt and the oracle took stock of the results, it seemed to take a little longer than the others. The girl lost any hint of nascent womanhood in her features; she was a child, a terrified child faced with more than she could bear. But before she could break down in hysterics, the oracle shook her head. “No.” Then the mothers at the far end stretched out their arms to receive the girl and muffle her weeping against compassionate bosoms.
They were not many in the village, fewer than sixty persons in total, but the ceremony went slowly enough as though they were a hundredfold in number. The oracle cast her pebbles and studied the fall of the bone for every child, ascending in age to the few young men and even fewer young women. Each knelt alone before her, some averting their eyes and others gazing with mesmerized dread like a frog before a water-dragon, facing the judgment of the cast lot. The oracle showed no emotion in the face of such fear. To each who came before her, she gave the same judgment: No.
One knelt before her, eyes closed and head bowed. He was nearly thirty, a comely man in his prime, and the eyes of his people turned to him as if by some natural force. They watched him now as the oracle let the pebbles sift between her fingers. It seemed his lips moved a little as he waited for the clatter of pebbles against hide to finish. The oracle’s long contemplation did nothing to disrupt his calm. He remained acquiescent as the tension seethed around him.
The pebbles all lay blank-side upwards, their symbols hidden. The dry bone lay with one end toward the oracle and the other toward the man in a straight line. For the first time since she had appeared before them, the oracle allowed her voice to waver. “Yes. You are the one.”
As one, the rest of the tribe cried out and wailed, but the chosen man did not. He raised his head and opened his dark eyes with the expression of a man grasping some private triumph.
The oracle lifted both hands and hissed. When she had imposed silence on the others once more, she declared, “It is the law. As soon as the lot was cast, Sun became a dead man. Go, make preparations for the mourning days.” She waited as the rest of the tribe shuffled out of the meeting house, leaving her with the chosen man. “I sensed from the first that we should not have given you such a presumptuous name.”
Sun smiled. “No. If I can bear the guilt of my people away from them, I am pleased.”
“Always you have been the best of our blood.” The oracle braced her hands on the hide and lowered herself onto her face. “Go. You know what you must do.”
He rose to his feet. The lamp swayed as his shoulder brushed against it. At the oracle’s back, leading away from the village, there was a door. Sun lifted the lamp down from its hook and carried it through that door.
Dank air rose from the water flowing sluggishly around the stilts of the meeting house. A mooring post stuck out from the platform, but the moss growth on it proved that no one had used it for many a year. Sun set the lamp on the platform and jumped on nimble feet to the knee of a nearby cypress. From there he bounded over an unseen path with the sureness of a child of the swamps, finding here a spongy rise of earth and there a solid tangle of exposed roots strong enough to bear his weight. Deeper and deeper into the swamp he traveled, until the village was well behind him. Then he sat down in the embrace of more roots.
The swamp knew no silence. Always the murmur of life stirred the air, even in the dead of night. Sun listened to the sounds he knew so well. Moonlight that night shone strongly enough to show the flutter of night-bats in their pursuit of insects, the ripple of small fish beneath the surface of the water, the sway of the reeds disturbed by the ever-hungry white beast seeking small prey. The ripples widened until they lapped against the roots that supported him. Sun shifted onto his knees. “If it is the water-dragon,” he said aloud, “that is to perform the sacrifice, I am ready. The swamp is part of me. I am willing to become part of it in return, if this will ease the guilt of my people.”
From the center of the ripple emerged, not the rough snout of the water-dragon but a slender pointed tip, like the first sprout of grass on the high ground. It rose higher, remaining slender for its entire length. Another appeared a few feet away, and another pair yet a few more feet distant. Sun watched in amazement. When it seemed these outstretched vines would go on forever, the surface of the water broke to reveal needle teeth in the open maws of two great fish. The slender appendages were whiskers of a sort. One of them reached toward Sun, touched his face with a ticklish touch, and then found his ear. The giant fish stretched out its second whisker to his other ear. The tips of each whisker slid into his ear canals.
You do not fear.
Sun spoke aloud to the voice that resonated inside his skull. “What do I need to fear?”
Every one of your kind who came before you feared us. We ate them.
“Let it be so with me, then. I am ready.” Sun bent his head toward the water.
Why do you wish to be devoured?
“So that I may bear the guilt of my people away from them.”
If that is what you desire, then let us make it possible for you. The great fish that held him with its whiskers lunged out of the water, needle teeth bared, and took Sun by the throat. The fish’s teeth sank into the sides of his throat with piercing, crushing force and dragged him head-first into the murky waters.
Blinded by the waters and suffocated by pain, Sun was helpless in the fish’s maw. Then its jaws released him. The whiskers of additional fish coiled around his wrists and towed him at amazing speed through the murk. It took a few moments before Sun realized that he could breathe beneath the surface. The wounds in his throat had become gills.
Black obstacles loomed in the gloom of the water and sped past again before Sun could recognize any of them. The water dragged at his clothes, but the great fish never hesitated in their swift progress. They pulled him along just beneath the surface until the water grew too shallow for their massive bodies to proceed any farther. The other two great fish released his wrists. The whiskers that had never left his ears made the voice of the first resonate once more inside his head: Here you will find what you seek. Then they released him also.
Sun felt the bottom with his feet. He stood, dripping, suffocating until he remembered to return to human methods of breathing, and shaking for the first time that night. His gaze traveled up from the waters lapping around his waist to the stilts before him and upward still, to the house that stood clear of the waters.
A man appeared in the open doorway of this unknown house. He reached down for Sun’s hand. Once Sun stood on the platform, the stranger said, “You came for a purpose.”
“I hardly know anymore,” said Sun.
“None of the others made it this far. Your wish must come from an earnest heart.”
“I believed I was to be devoured,” Sun began in uncertainty.
“But that is not your wish, merely to put an end to your life.”
“No,” Sun said. “I was chosen by the lot to bear away the guilt of my people. To do this, I must die, but the great fish did not eat me.”
“And will that be enough, that you should die? I tell you candidly, it will not. I will show you what I mean.” The stranger laid his left hand on Sun’s shoulder.
The clear, star-punctuated sky above grew murky as the swamp water below. Swirling particles of filth filled the air around Sun and the stranger. They slipped past the stranger but clung to Sun. Within moments he was coated in this heavy, slimy matter. He gazed at his mucky hands. “Is this the guilt of my people?”
“It is a picture of guilt, but not all of the guilt of your people,” the stranger replied. “It is yours only– both the guilt you have felt in your heart and the guilt you have not yet noticed. If I showed you the whole of the guilt, it would destroy your will. If I did not keep my hand on your shoulder, you would collapse just from this much.”
“Then I fail before I begin.” Sun bowed his head, grieved. “What can I do? What can I do?”
The stranger’s grip on his shoulder tightened perceptibly. “That is simple enough: you can ask for my help. Did you not know?” He raised his right hand, which burned with a fierce flame. Where the particulate filth touched the flame, it flared like a moth over a candle, until the flaring fire engulfed the air all around Sun. He wailed aloud, turning childlike in his time of pain and grief. The other man’s words proved true, however: it was the hand weighing lightly on his shoulder that kept him on his feet.
When the sky-filling fire died away, Sun gazed at the man with wide eyes and received a friendly smile in return. “What is your name?” the man asked.
“I do not know anymore.”
“What does that mean?”
Confronted by this blunt question, Sun faltered again. “My mother sang to me of the origin of my name, of one who could dim the sun by his brilliant light. I am not Sun. Now I have seen him, and I am nothing like him.”
The stranger laughed aloud. “Again, a simple enough matter: only ask. Did you suppose I summoned you here without purpose? You have in you the seed of what you desire. Stay with me, and I will teach you. You have nowhere else to go,” he added gently. “You are dead to your people now. Live alongside me. You will come to understand the need of your people that torments your heart. Troublesome days approach your people even now from the world beyond their territory. They can no longer hide in the swamps, compounding their guilt in the pursuit of innocence. Before the time of their sacrifice comes again, you will see my words fulfilled. Will you stay?”
Sun lowered himself to the platform and lay on his face before the stranger. “With your blessing, I can think of no other way for me.”