A free serial story
by Siri Paulson
Payut fell to his hands and knees on the flagstones of the temple courtyard. The clang of the gate closing still echoed in his ears. He cried out as memories overtook him, rushing over him like a river in a monsoon, sweeping him along…
He is curled on his mat, listening to the slow breathing of the younger boys around him. Something has woken him early; even the most devout of the monks must still be asleep. He tries to ignore it, to close his eyes and return to his dreams. But it comes again – an insistent pull inside his mind, gentle, yet with a hint of immense power behind it. A power that keeps pulling until he follows.
He stands, all gangly limbs, and pads out of the bare room into the central courtyard of the Grand Temple. The tropical night is warm and damp. It is strange being alone, without the chanting of monks and the murmur of boys studying and the occasional slow boom of the gongs that visitors hit for luck. He feels naked.
The tug on his mind draws him across the courtyard, cool stone under his bare feet. He does not understand until he sees before him the great walls of the inner temple, intricate repeating designs painted over every surface. Even the doors bear artwork traced into the metal. They are closed for the night. Behind them, unseen, sits the Golden Statue.
Then he understands. The Statue is calling.
He knows what he must do. He backs away. The pull on his mind grows stronger. Moving away from it makes his head ache and his feet feel heavy, as if he were wading upstream. He slogs against it, to the part of the complex where the adult monks sleep.
When the Golden Statue calls, the oldest novice wakes the oldest monk. It is tradition. Payut is afraid of the oldest monk, who is a hard and unyielding man. But he is more afraid of the Statue.
He knocks at the door of the cell where the monk sleeps.
A form shifts on the mat. Eyes gleam in the faint light. Not asleep after all.
Payut clears his throat. His voice is high and thin as a bird’s; despite his height, he is still a child. “Older Brother, the Golden Statue has woken. Is it time for the sacrifice?”
“Yes,” says the monk, looking not at him but off into the distance. “Help me up, boy.”
Something uneasy stirs within Payut. He does as he is told.
The monk hobbles ahead of him, stick tapping on the stones. He is old indeed. He might easily have died in his sleep, and been spared the duty, and the end he will now face.
But the Statue is calling, and he must answer. Payut hurries, feeling the pressure in his head lessen as he nears the inner temple. It is a relief to stand before the doors again.
He has passed the monk in his haste, and is forced to wait, bracing himself against the pull. Even when the old man reaches Payut’s side, he does not act, but only looks up at the tall doors, feet planted as if he intends never to move.
After a long moment, Payut clears his throat. “The Statue calls, Older Brother.”
“Yes. Yes, of course.” The monk nods at him. “Open the doors, then.”
Payut swallows. Somehow he had thought the monk would be the one to disturb the sanctuary inside. He waits another moment to be sure, then steps forward and throws his weight against the doors.
They move easily. He stumbles inside.
The doors swing shut behind him, leaving him in darkness. He turns and yanks on them, panic rising. They are stuck somehow and refuse to open. He bangs on them, but the sound is lost in the immensity of the inner temple.
Behind him, something huge is moving.
Payut flailed upward, through waters that threatened to drag him back into the depths of memory. Gasping, he surfaced into the light of day. His hands ached. He lowered them, realizing he must have been banging on the doors, just like… No. The doors he faced were not those of the inner temple, but the outer courtyard. They had never been closed before. Yet they did not open now.
The voice behind him was small and high. He turned. A skinny boy monk stood well away. He remembered the boy, now, asking the ritual question that had pulled him under. But this boy was a stranger – not, after all, the restless ghost of his younger self.
That didn’t mean he was human.
The abbot he had met in the city had been a naga wearing human form, Payut understood that now. Perhaps the guardswoman had been as well. What he did not understand was why. Why had it – or they – tried to stop him? Why had he been allowed to pass?
Payut stepped closer to the boy, looked into the eyes that were nearly on a level with his own. “What are you doing here?” he asked gently.
The boy, staring at him, began to tremble. “The Golden Statue…”
A remembered feeling of betrayal, of desertion, of wrongness, swept over him. He knew the rules of the tradition. The oldest monk must be led to the statue by the oldest novice and the doors closed behind them both. The Statue reaches for the novice to take him up, but the monk intervenes. When the doors are opened in the morning, the monk’s spirit is gone, and only the body remains, and the boy who has sat vigil.
He remembered something else, too. The tradition occurred at an auspicious time – every thirty years.
And if it did not happen as it should…
The elements thrown out of balance. The jungle and villagers sickening and dying. The nagas and hungry ghosts wandering the streets of the city as the people fled. The yakshas come to life outside the temple gate.
He had been trying to fight it one charm at a time, one villager at a time, terrified to come near, when the answer lay here all along.
“Come, Younger Brother,” said Payut, holding out his hand. “We will go and do our duty. I will protect you.”
The boy’s eyes widened. He looked afraid, but also, Payut thought, relieved, as if a fear lying over him for years had finally been lifted. He whispered, “Older Brother, the Golden Statue has woken. Is it time for the sacrifice?”
“Yes,” said Payut, his voice steady.
The boy took his hand with narrow fingers that no longer trembled. Together they walked across the courtyard. Above, storks circled, watching.
The inner temple looked just as he remembered. Still waters stirred within him. He stared at the walls of the temple, at the doors, remembering his fear and claiming it as his own. Of course he had been afraid. Of course he was afraid now. He watched the fear, let it wash through him and over him and pass beyond him.
Then the waters quieted and he could go on. The boy walked by his side. The hand in his own gave him courage.
This boy would not face the statue alone.
Even so, crossing the threshold was the hardest thing he had ever done. He glanced down at the boy, at the wide clear eyes gazing back, and breathed and took the step.
In the dimness, the Golden Statue sat motionless, legs crossed, hands resting on its knees as tall as Payut. He looked up and up to see the statue’s serene smile, its closed eyes.
He let go of the boy’s hand. If he turned, he would run. He groped behind him, found the edges of each door by touch, and pushed. He remembered the doors as being light, but now they were heavy. Closing them took an effort. He set his will and shoved.
The doors closed, shutting out the light.
In the darkness, something huge began to move.
A rumble shook the temple, so deep that it took Payut a moment to realize that within the sound were words.
I seek an innocent spirit.
Beside him, the boy spoke. “I am here.” His voice cracked.
Come, and be taken.
Payut knew he should step forward, but his legs would not move. The boy moved instead, drawing closer to the golden glimmer at the centre of the room.
Do you offer yourself freely?
Payut felt his whole body shaking. He wanted to cry, but could not. He knew he was a coward. The boy glanced over his shoulder at Payut. “I do.”
The Golden Statue lifted one hand from its knee.
Dark waters swirling. Terror. Scrabbling at the door, the windows, finding them locked. Snatching up a small statue and breaking the window and half-falling out as a huge hand swept the darkness behind. Fleeing across the courtyard. The monks’ gate closed. Running to the main gate and out, heading for the city wall and the jungle beyond. Knowing he had shirked his duty and done a terrible wrong. Knowing he could never return to his home.
“It wasn’t my fault!”
His words rang in the temple. The dark waters grew calm. The Golden Statue seemed to pause, its hand poised above the boy.
“He should have protected me. He failed his duty, not I. The shame was his. The wrong was his. I was the innocent!”
You are not the innocent now.
And that meant it was his turn, his choice. He felt himself falling into water, and let himself fall.
“No,” said Payut. “I’m not.”
He stepped up beside the boy. He knew the words to say. “I offer myself in place of this innocent spirit, that he may be free to live his life. I offer myself as is right and true, that the cycle may turn as it should and the elements be balanced again. I offer myself to You, to do with as You will, Enlightened One.”
Golden light surrounded him, and a feeling of radiance, and of being one with the entirety of the world. Narrow jungle waterways, tiny charms, temple gongs, gold robes, fleeing people, nagas and storks, the boy standing with bowed head just behind him, even an old monk who had made a choice out of terror many years ago.
He looked into the face of the Enlightened One and felt no fear.
Welcome home, child.
Water spread, blue and clear, every ripple smoothing into one.