Versions of the Sun
- by A.J. Hammer -
When I was in the deserts of Kelihne after the wars there, I hired a native guide, who, after some negotiation, took me into the cave complexes below the sands. In those lands, especially past the outskirts of the cities, the old religions linger yet, and it was only by promising my guide an additional fifty oreis that I convinced him to enter the portal into the caves. I admit to a bit of trepidation as I entered the darkness, my globe of light floating above me—for this was air that had not been disturbed since the great conquerors of the ancient world; tiles that had known no human tread in millennia; treasures that had lain unseen since time immemorial.
My eyes grew accustomed to the semi-dark as I breathed stale air. The globe’s glow dimmed slightly, as though even it could not bear the weight of those vast accumulated years. My guide was skittish, jumping when my foot kicked a pebble into the wall, or air exhaled from the open portal of the tomb. I calmed him: after five thousand years, I said, what could linger here to bring us harm?
“Many things, lady,” he said. He told me of vengeful ghosts and immortal guardians of the tomb. Of snakes that subsisted on air and fear. All the superstitious follies of his people.
I encountered none of these things. I did see wonders—the people of that lost world knew marvels of which we cannot dream. I saw strange machines, their purpose lost, which I did not touch; and once, turning a corner, I leapt into the air to nearly break my crown on the low ceiling: there before me, clear as a reflection in a mirror, was a woman’s face. The dim light of the globe illuminated the sharp planes of her face; her dark hair, woven with gold; the blackness of the night skies in the depths of her eyes. But she was only a phantom, and I continued onward.
You may think it strange that I did not bring to the surface any of the gems scattered on the floor to ease the rulers’ passing—gems of curious design, carved into strange beasts or brilliant stars. Perhaps you will laugh, and say the natives’ superstitions got the better of me. For any one of those gems would have cancelled my brother’s gambling debts, and left me with sufficient money to buy my feckless sister a house, where she might ruin herself in peace.
But in the end I brought only one thing back—a small thing, a thing I do not think any ruler would miss: a scroll, perfectly preserved. My guide, whose sense of time was impeccable, pulled at my sleeve, urging me to go, for night was not a time to be caught in the desert. I picked my way past treasures beyond price, nodded to the woman as I passed her, and climbed the rope ladder back to where we had tethered our camels.
My guide was silent that night. I do not know if he knew about the scroll I had placed in my sleeve, but I know he would not have approved. We were in Havaris by noon the next day. I gave the man his pay, and went to my chambers in the King’s Hotel to examine my treasure. It was immaculate for a thing that had lain untouched so long, and I did not fear my touch would destroy it. It was written in the lingua franca of that land, five thousand years old. I opened my book and called up a dictionary (my studies at the University of Corannar longer ago than I care to admit, and my vocabulary has atrophied). I reproduce the text here in full.
I am not what you think I am.
On this scroll I place the lock of years; I seal it with silence; I hide it in darkness. Even as I write now, I am afraid of the emptiness of my heart—the void where love should be. Have I done all that they will say I have done? Yes. All that and more. I have seen what the world will see of me. I have seen the world as it sees me.
When I was born the sun stood still in the sky so that my father could lift me into the last rays of the dying day. When I was born the light of the sun fell into my infant eyes, gilding them. When I was born I was bathed in sunlight. All of that is true.
When I was seven years of age I heard the preacher speak the word of God in the street, and I lifted up my young voice, and I named him hypocrite: For how could he speak of love when he treated his wife with such cruelty? And he was chased out of town, and his wife given a place of honour.
I was called before the High Priestess of the city, and she saw the gold of my eyes and said nothing to the people who demanded to see me. But she took me into the inner sanctum, and read my natal chart, and I did not understand, but from that day forth I lived in the Temple.
She did not speak to me of prophecy. But I learned the songs of God, and the word of God, and the names of God. And I was never alone, for though the High Priestess favoured me, and showed me great kindness, and made it clear that she loved me, I lived as the other young acolytes lived. They, for the most part, were not kind: they were the children of nobility, and the High Priestess’ love for a gutter brat was galling to them. I was not without friends, however, and my peers’ enmity showed itself mostly by exclusion.
The Temple was a good place to be a child. It sprawls over the Mount of Evrial that rises above the city. It is huge and ancient and full of secret places to discover. There were rooms that no one had seen for centuries until my curious hands opened their doors; there was, in the depths of the cellars, leaping out of the rock, a spring of pure water; there were gardens, watered by methods that I did not understand, in which thick grass and tall trees grew. And all these places were open to me; and no door in the Temple was closed to me.
And so years passed, slow and swift in turn, and I reached my fifteenth year and attained my majority. Though the High Priestess still showed me great favour, she gave me no education beyond that which the other acolytes received. So I learned of God’s love, which manifested itself in sun and rain, in the turning of the seasons and the growing of the grain. And I sang, poorly. For among the blessings that God gave me, the gift of a voice was not one. But how could one rusty voice mar the beauty of the great choir of the Temple?
When I was seventeen the High Priestess called me to her, in her own chambers. This room, at least, I had not seen. Its splendour is yet in my eyes: it was all gold, gold as the light of the sun. The High Priestess reclined on her couch, the picture of calm dignity. As I entered, she looked up, and her eyes pierced through me—for such was the power of her eyes, as everyone who knew her remarked, that she could see into the soul, and many trembled before her because of this. But I knew no fear.
“Walk in the sun,” I said, and bowed my head.
She motioned for me to raise my head without returning my greeting.
“Do you know why I have called you here, Anatheria?” she asked.
“No, High Priestess,” I said.
“Bring me the scroll from the top shelf.”
She spread it open with more reverence than I felt a dusty scroll abandoned on the highest shelf merited.
“Come, sit beside me.”
I crossed the room and sat on the chair next to her couch.
“Read to me,” she said.
The scroll was in an ancient dialect, and my tongue stumbled over some of the words. Though I was a poor singer, my speaking voice was measured and well-modulated.
“‘In the days of the decline of the sun, the sun will touch the world more gently, and will descend into the eyes of a child; and the sun will be as honey on their tongue; and their words will flow forth with the brilliance of sunlight; and the people will hear and be led out of the darkness; and their souls will be one with the sun, nor will any shadow lie upon the world; and in those days there will come the sound of rejoicing, when the sun has made the world pure.’ What is this, High Priestess?” I asked, and my voice broke.
“Is not the sun captured in your eyes, Anatheria? And does the sun not burn, the astronomers tell us, with less force than in years past? You, my dearest, are to be the one who will lead us from this world into the light of the sun of God.”
“This is madness,” I said.
She looked at me with those piercing eyes and said nothing.
“How will I do this?”
“That I cannot say. But you know your destiny now. Learn how to fulfill it.”
In the garden of the Temple I walked in solitude. The High Priestess’ words lay heavily on me and I could scarcely breathe, feeling them like stones in my throat. I bent and unlaced my sandals and, leaving them by a bench, walked barefoot in the thick grass, my eyes half-closed.
In my heart I prayed for a sign: a flight of birds, a fall of leaves, a shaft of sunlight. But nothing came. I did not want purity. This world pleased me well, and had I not been brought up in the Temple I fear I would have become a woman of sensuous pleasures. Could eternity with the God of Light be better than this calm moment, with the coolness of the grass on my feet, with the touch of a light breeze on my face, with the warmth of the sun on my back?
I stood still, and the world turned around me.
The breeze became a wind, and in the wind I heard, or thought I heard, a voice, and the voice spoke to me alone, in words that I will not record. But the voice told me truth. I was a child then, and I was struck with fear—the fear that my whole soul would be exposed to the world, like the muscles of a flayed animal.
And resolve came into my heart then, and I set my feet on the path that has betrayed me.
From that day forth my thoughts became still more guarded, and my tongue kept close as a fortress under siege, but my ears and eyes were open. I began to gather friends among the other young people in the Temple, starting with those of the acolytes whose poor families had scraped together money to pledge them to the service of the God.
The High Priestess called on me to be near her more often, and it was on my eighteenth name day that I saw the city for the first time since I had been taken into the Temple. I accompanied her when she went to speak before the crowd, and was afraid of the noise and the press of the city—so unlike the majestic stillness of the Temple. Beggars cried out to the High Priestess’ train, and her followers scattered coins among them, and merchants shouted out the names and quality of their wares, scarcely looking at our party. The city lived and breathed around us, and we were only the smallest part of it.
I had never seen or heard her preach before the people. It is foolish, of course, to say that I was surprised by the difference in her—but then, I was a fool, and cloistered, and unused to theatricality. She had told me my part: to stand beside her, eyes downcast, modest, silent as a caryatid in my robes of gold and white.
She stood before the crowd, sweeping it with her eyes, waiting for silence. And when it came she waited a moment more, and then began, in a voice that was between song and speech:
“Behold!” She held up her arms, and the sun struck sparks from her golden bracelets. “Behold in the light the love of God; behold in your neighbour the face of God; behold in me the servant of God.”
I do not remember her words after that, only the force of her presence and the beauty of her voice. In that moment, despite what had been revealed to me in the garden, I felt that she was indeed the presence of God in the world. What does one feel before a god? Awe, and love, and fear, I think. I felt all of that and more.
She finished speaking, and lifted her hands again and brought them down in front of her, and in the crowd a single voice began to sing a simple hymn to the God of Light. Slowly more voices picked it up, until the square resounded with a thousand thousand voices praising God. I found out later that the first person to begin singing was a priest with instructions from the High Priestess—and the awe in my heart did not diminish. What is the difference between a thing and the appearance of a thing? Does it matter if the genesis is false if the culmination is true?
The Temple seemed too quiet—too dead—to me after the bustle of the city. It was wrong, I thought, to only go out on a feast day—if we were the messengers of the love of God, should we not go out among the people and show them whereof we spoke? But I kept this guarded in my heart from the High Priestess, and told only those who were faithful to me.
So the years passed, and I gathered more of the priests to me, and we went out into the city in secret and spoke to the people. I had known poverty, but the memories of those days of hunger and squalor were like a bad dream whose scraps intruded in the moments after waking up and then scattered. Now I saw children with blank eyes, men and women prematurely aged by long labour, illness, with no hope of recovery—I had turned over the stone that was the glory of the city and now saw the worms and ants that squirmed under it.
And I knew that a single bracelet from the High Priestess’ arm could save a family, and the knowledge weighed heavily on me.
After I had reached my twenty-fifth year, I knew I could delay no longer. Knowledge of our guilt grew in me, swelling until it choked me—no longer did I see the Temple rise over the city like a mother guarding her child but as a spider sitting on her web, enthralling the people.
I gathered those who were faithful to me in the garden, in the shelter of a tall tree, and addressed them.
“I do not,” I said, “have the presence or the voice of the High Priestess. But truth does not need show, and indeed often looks shabby next to gilded falsehood. For it is truth that I have been charged to bring you: the truth that we have all been led astray. God does not reside in the Temple, but with the people; we have accumulated wealth, thinking that the light that falls on the gold of our adornments is the light of God, and forgotten to care for those who reflect the image of God. We must go now and found another city. It will not be a perfect city—perfection is impossible and comes only with the lack of change. But it will be a city free of the control of this Temple. So go out into this city and gather the people, and we will depart and be free.”
And as I spoke, so it was done.
But I could not leave without speaking to the High Priestess, who had indeed nourished me. I knew I could not convince her. I did not want to convince her. I did not know then what I wanted when I went to her chambers. Now I think that what I wanted was to see her one more time. She was wrong, I knew, but still I was under her spell, that web of false love and true presence.
Unannounced I came to her. She reclined on her rich couch, a scroll open before her and a bowl of grapes on a table nearby. The very image of calm majesty. I wore my white priestess robes, stained green at the knee from when I had knelt in the grass, and felt again as though I were a girl of eighteen.
“Why have you come, Anatheria?”
My words spilled forth in no good order. I do not know exactly what I said, but I denied the prophecy she had revealed to me, and I denounced the High Priestess and her works. I seemed a fool.
At the first word I spoke she sat up on the couch and looked at me with those terrible eyes. Despite my fear I ploughed on. At length I came to the end of my accusations, and stood silent before her.
The High Priestess sat very still.
“So,” she said. “You have betrayed me, and with me the one true God.”
“I have not betrayed God,” I said.
“I am the voice of God,” she said. “Your rebellion against me is a rebellion against God.” Her fingers curled around the armrests of her throne, and her knuckles whitened.
“You speak of God in the Temple and I hear the clink of coins. You say ‘You must love God,’ and I hear ‘You must love Me.’”
“And you, whom I have raised myself, whom I lifted from the gutters, you know the truth of God?” she scoffed.
“Yes,” I lied.
Her lips thinned. “Go then. Go and die in the desert. Do you truly think that God will lead you to some promised land? There is nothing for you in the world but death. I will not stop you. The prophecy must be wrong; we must wait a little longer for paradise.”
“You will not see it!” I burst out.
“Perhaps not,” she said. “But neither will you. And you will only travel further from it with every step. So go—go with my curse upon you.”
I would once have fallen at her feet and begged for her forgiveness. Now I knew that three hundred people waited for me, and with them a better future. I could not betray them. I turned and left her chamber, and all the way out I felt her eyes rest on my back, and the impulse to turn and prostrate myself before her ached in me, but I did not yield.
I took my leave of the High Priestess and her Temple, and did not return.
My Three Hundred departed the city, and went out into the wilderness of desert that surrounded it. I walked first, and God led me to places where sweet water sprang, and we ate the fleshy plants that grew from the sand.
This is the truth, unvarnished and unadorned: we met no resistance but the cold of desert nights (I looked up at the sky, its vault so high above us, the webs of stars looking down on me coldly, and there I saw the face of God; but I saw too that this face was reflected on the cold sand of the desert, and in the faces of the Three Hundred in whom the flame of love burned) and the heat of desert days.
And at last we came to an oasis where greenery spread across the sands, and there we built our city, and as we built we sang. But there was doubt in my heart, still, and I did not speak of what I had seen and heard all those years ago in the garden of the Temple. We were so close to it, to the truth—this nameless city, where no one governed, and where no one lived off the poor like a parasite, where we spoke to each other with kindness and saw in each other the virtues we did not have, was built on it. But still we spoke of God in words that were not true, for I could not speak of what I had seen, and still they turned to me for governance and for guidance. I did not tell them “You know as much of it as I do; speak to God yourselves!” I did not tell them to go out, to the border of our city, and to stand silent and feel in the breath of the wind the breath of God. I spoke to them, and preached, and those priests who had come with me preached as well, and I feared that the same evils that had overcome the Temple would overcome us.
But I am old now, and the city has grown and has not warped. We surround the oasis, our buildings humble and plain, enough to keep us safe from the hyenas and the winds.
I was sent into the world to proclaim the truth, and I set my lips fast, and did not do so. What good would it do for others, who could not see as I saw, to hear me preach of living gold in the sand, of gold running through the river, of the sun that was nothing but molten gold? The world is god. What power does the god of the preachers have before that greater god? None. Is it a miracle to bring sweet water from the rock? Perhaps. But is it not more miraculous to do it every day, without asking praise or recompense?
Now I am old, and I record my history, and I will set down the truth I feared to speak aloud and seal this scroll:
No god but the world and no world but god.
There the manuscript ends. We have other gods now, and other prophets, and I believe in none of them. The city she founded is gone. I won’t say that I’m a convert. But I will say that after I read this history, I went out into the desert outside Havaris, alone, at sunset, without guide or weapon, trusting in the god of which she spoke. And I looked up into the sky, and I felt small and alone and insignificant before the vastness of the universe.
The sun sank below the horizon, trailing gold and pink, and the sky turned to grey and then to the blue of night, and I stood still, and the wind touched my face with a gentle hand. I, in turn, reached down and touched the sand of the desert, still warm from the sun, and closed my eyes. I felt present in the world: the world was in me and around me, and perhaps I was the tiniest part of it, but part of it I was.
At last I opened my eyes, and looked up, and saw above me the stars beginning to appear in the darkness of the sky. And from the depths of those infinities the eyes of God looked down on me, and a vast calm settled on my shoulders. And I returned to the city, and walked into my former life, taking it up like an ill-fitting coat. But my heart will forever lie on the border between Havaris and the wilderness, in the place where the city touches the world, and where the world touched me and entered into me.
© 2018 by A.J. Hammer
A.J. Hammer has a B.A. in Classics from Princeton University and has worked in the field of education policy. She used to be a short track speed skater, but now writes fantasy. Her work can be found in the Gothics edition of Lackington’s Magazine. She tweets @diffugerenives.