33. Gathering together
Updated: Dec 18, 2020
From every corner of the kingdom, men and women came. They came on oxcarts and horses, on barges and junks, on horses and, most of all, on foot. Their destination was the circular temple in the capital city. This was the head temple for the land; it was the home of the high priest and the relics. The locals liked to joke with pilgrims that the temple was a maze and that those who entered struggled to return. This was not so. Inside the temple, the circles followed a smooth and regular path. The ceiling was tiled with a bright ceramic that reflected somber pilgrim faces back at them. The high priest sat at the centre of the temple. He was forbidden to leave; he arrived there as a baby, selected by divination, and then was expected to assume the throne for the evening hours and the long night. This was the time of audience. The astrologers would come and consult with him, as would the king’s advisors. Finally, the ordinary people were allowed into the chamber to ask their questions and seek a blessing.
The astrologers had noticed the change in the stars. The time for reconciliation and gathering had arrived and the whole kingdom, those who could walk, wanted to receive the most sacred blessing. Those who could not walk were piled on oxcarts or carried by their relatives; even those near death were making their way to the capital, hoping for a blessing before they descended to their graves.
It was almost impossible to move through the streets of the capital. The soldiers had all but given up keeping order in the streets. They stood aside as the crush moved on. The merchants had sold all their goods and the price of bread had trebled. Ships arriving in the harbour were besieged by the hungry crowds. A merchant sat among his shipment of porcelain, destroyed when the crowd found no food on his vessel. The roofs of the houses were crowded with people and some were forced to sleep standing up in the street. One man was carried right up to the temple door during his slumber; he woke up right next to the golden doors of the temple, each decorated with a dragon poised to strike.
The high priest, only a teenager, worked day and night to bless the crowds. His disciples fed him grapes and water, but still his voice became hoarse and indistinct. One day, after blessing a baby, he fainted and had to be carried to the orrery beneath his throne. He revived within the hour, but, outside, the crowds, hearing that he was ill, had become restive. The rumour was that he had died. The crowd was an animal; the voices calling out from within it were the nerves. Yet it was a gentle animal; and, when he awoke, the high priest was met by the prayers of millions—each voice willing his recovery.
The assembly dispersed as quickly as it had gathered. Under a thundery sky, the masses began their procession back to the four corners of the kingdom. The time of blessing had passed. The city streets were thick with waste, discarded clothes mingled with prayer beads and dog mess. The old women of the city began to brush the doorsteps. Monks from the monasteries ladled out stew for them as the winter nights closed in. The high priest, sitting in his private chamber, examined his hands. His hands had turned red due to the daily press of blessings. He looked up at his chamber’s ceiling; above him stretched countless stars, each star was a portal to a life. Tonight, every star was bright and twinkled. The high priest knew that the kingdom was safe. More, the kingdom was ready to enter a new age. The high priest bowed before the stars. Across the kingdom, the fires sputtered low and a wind blew under the doorways. The old women held their shawls close around their shoulders.