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A Temple Your Father Found

by: Zack Woodard

You are tending the fields with your father and the others when Ixlan comes to you, running through the green staves rising from the earth, calling your name.

“The Cali has seen your face in the smoke,” he says. “He wishes you to go to him.”

You look to your father and he nods, places a callous hand on your shoulder. His eyes are dark, the corners of his mouth pulled down on either side of his graying beard. He looks at you for a moment, glances over you as if to say yes, this will do. Then he turns away, and goes back to the corn.

Inside the Cali’s tent it is dark, and the smell of burnt incense scratches your throat. Candles bleeding fatty wax surround the Cali, who sits in the darkness facing away from you. His long braided hair hangs like the tendrils of an octopus, beaded with bone and gemstones. You kneel at the entrance of the tent. Animal bones, bleached from the sun and cracked with heat, lay on the floor before you.

The Cali is the tribe’s connection to the Gods, and of them the most important—Koh, God of the People.

“Do you know why you were summoned?”

You tell him, because Koh has called your name.

“What is it you do for The People?”

You tell him, you tend the fields, you give the People food to live.

“Why?”

Because your father tends the fields.

The Cali asks you, what are you afraid of?

You tell him. Uncertainty.

The Cali turns to face you and he is wearing the wooden mask of Koh—painted red, three wide white eyes staring from its face like moons. It is no longer the Cali speaking, but Koh Himself. The flames of the candles burn brighter, they spark in the darkness. The smell of blood fills the tent.

Koh asks you, in a voice that echoes and booms, shakes your stomach in your flesh—are you ready to join the People?

You nod.

Before you, Koh offers four masks. These are masks of power, Koh tells you. They will protect you, and guide you. Each represents an aspect of your soul. Choose one wisely.

This is what you must to do to become one of the People: you must travel to the island of the god Koh, and find the temple your people built there centuries ago. You may take only what you can carry. Once you find the temple, you must perform a ritual—what that may be, Koh will make clear when you find it. You must never tell anyone where you found at the temple, or what you did there.

You gather up the things you wish to take to the island. You grab a knife, tie its sheath around your thigh. You take a spear to use as a walking stick. You sling a hare-skin pouch across your back, and fill it with enough food to sustain you for a few days, if you’re careful—seeds and grains and nuts and berries.

You do not say goodbye to your family. They are still working in the fields or at the river when you leave your tent and slip quietly away from the village. The mask on your face, you are titled Wanderer, and it is as if you are a ghost. Though people walk about, they do not look at you as you make your way through. You take an apple from an old man’s basket, and he does nothing to stop you or even acknowledge that you are there. You leave without a word.

The air is warm this time of year, and the smell of life drifts from the earth as the wet mud grabs at your ox-skin boots. The trees are blooming with new leaves, the bright green buds opening up to give breath to the forest. You run your fingers along the rough bark of the towering trees as you walk through the dark, warm woods. The smells of salt and fish begin to fill your nose.

At the edge of the forest the ground slopes as the trees open up to welcome the sea. You dig your fingers into the muddy shoreline and rub it between your fingers, watch the thin pink worms squirm in the dirt.

At the shore there is a wooden boat. Beside it stand two broad-chested young men, painted in red glyphs and wearing wolf masks, a third eye in their foreheads. You do not recognize them, but know that beneath the visage of Koh’s Servants are boys from your village, training to be holy men and maybe even Cali someday. You suspect that the dark-skinned one handing you the wide-mouthed oar is Oxlatl.

They watch you in silence as you throw what little gear you have into the boat and shove out, leaping into the canoe as the shore releases its grip.

Your arms burn with each dip of the oar into the water, but the sharp smell of the ocean keeps you focused on your goal. Soon, the island rises from the horizon.

It stretches outwards for miles, every acre covered in a dense coat of towering green trees. Its peaks rise into the sky, finger-like mountains that claw at the clouds. For the first time in hours you let the oar rest atop the boat and fill your lungs. You open your bag of food and take out a bit of hard bread, tear at the crust and chew it, slowly.

You take off your boots as you reach the shore and leap into the water. It’s frigid, makes the bones in your feet ring out with each step as you drag the boat onto the black sand. The sun is setting the eastern sky on fire, and so you make camp for the night, turning the canoe over to make a shelter and lighting a fire on the beach.

You hold the mask in your hands and run your fingers over it. In the morning you will search out the temple.

What is your name, Koh asks. When you answer, screaming, it is muffled behind the mask. Birds shriek as they light from the forest floor, creatures scatter at the booming reply.

It has been three days since you arrived on the island, and no sign to point you towards the temple. Only the green of the forest engulfing you, pressing against your skin until it burns, wrapping tight around your chest until you struggle to breathe.

To your waist you’ve tied a rat as big as the dogs that nip at the Holy Men’s ankles back home. It and its ilk are all you’ve been able to catch, all you’ve subsisted on in the three days since you entered the forest’s gaping maw. But you know there’s bigger prey here. You see it in the way the grass bends before you, the circles of bowing stalks pressed into the forest floor. Larger things than rats live here, to be certain. But you haven’t seen them.

The wood in the forest is too wet to build a fire, so you eat the meat raw. Now, you cut off a bit from the rat at your side and coat the pink bit with wild grain and berries to dull the taste of uncooked flesh. You pop it in your mouth and chew the grisly cut just once before forcing yourself to swallow it down.

A deep breath. You are to become one of the People. In all the moons you’ve seen grow heavy and thin again, in all the suns that disappeared and reappeared before your eyes, only one Wanderer has not returned from their quest. Only one failed Koh’s test. You will surely not be the second.

So you tell yourself as you calm your heart, breathe deep through the wooden mask. You realize you’ve stopped walking, and have been standing in the woods, leaning against your spear. You don’t remember how long you’ve been like this. One last deep breath to shake the frigid feeling from your chest, and you begin again.

When you come across a cave, you enter it briefly. Without a means to make a fire you’re left without light and, thus, without a way to fight off the darkness beneath the earth. Still, you make your way a bit beyond the last ray of light, keeping your left hand against the cool, wet wall of the cave. You tap the butt of your spear before you like a blind beggar—but somehow, carelessly, you miss a stone or root that catches your ankle and flings you forward into a mass of rattling sticks.

You curse as you lift yourself from the dirt. You roll your ankle about and thank the gods you didn’t break it. As you rise, your hand brushes against one of those light, dry sticks—cold and smooth, but cracked. You run your fingers down it, feel the surface like polished stone, the broken, jagged ends that turn to hollow insides.

You have fallen into a pile of bones.

Your throat clenches tight and you scramble for your spear amongst the bones. You try not to wonder what they once were, but can’t help but be stricken by their size. When you find your spear you push yourself to your feet and carefully turn yourself around. Your right hand on the wall now, you rush, wishing each step could be faster but fearing another fall, until you break through the mouth of the cave and back into clear, green daylight.

You decide to stay wary of caves.

On the fifth day, it rains. Not a simple mist or a calming spring shower, it is a deluge. Thick, heavy globules crash through the treetops, drum against your head and shoulders as you make your way through the foliage. You’ve managed to keep yourself dryer by tying the enormous, thick and waxy leaves of a crone-like tree to your clothes. The rain drops slide down the leaves in rivers, following the contours and veins.

You trek on. There is no time to rest, to waste waiting for the storm to pass. You press forward, clearing the way with your spear. What little daylight makes its way past the clouds and the canopy above you must be put to good use—if Koh saw fit to send a storm your way, you will endure it.

Your thoughts turn to Koh, and the holy apprentices, the last people from your tribe you saw before embarking on this quest, and you begin to wonder what the Tribe has in store for you on your return. When you make it back, should you make it back, you will be an adult. No longer a child, no longer under the careful watch of your elders. Your responsibilities, your actions and their consequences will be your own then. You will have a duty, a place in the Tribe.

What are you made for?

What were you made for?

Koh is to tell you your place in the People once you reach the Temple, but what if what He ordains is not what you desire? You have no interest in the workings of healers or soldiers, and have long since bored with your father’s job of tending the fields. What is your place in The Tribe?

You knock aside a bush and are met with hissing. You nearly stepped upon it, the pile of writhing snakes, their scales of bright gold and purple hues, triangle-heads and black eyes. You stare at them, coiled around one another, pressing tight, their scales clicking against the others’. How many are there? Each one nearly as thick around as your forearm.

For a moment you envision yourself thrusting your spear into the writhing knot, stabbing the vile, crawling creatures, watching their blood mix with the rainwater and the mud. But in the end you merely cover them back with their brush and carefully tread around them, as their hissing dies away behind you.

In the night, an owl finds you.

You’re lying against a tree, your mask in one hand, the spear lying across your lap like a child. You didn’t notice the owl at first, its silent wings masking its arrival. Only after a few moments, as its eyes burn like suns on your face, do you open your own to see it. Though it is dark, your eyes have adjusted well enough to make it out in the branches above you.

It is a large creature, gold as wild honey and with a devil’s horns, its eyes wide and round like the discs the men throw in tournaments. Its beak is black and viciously curved like the talons on its feet that dig into the soft, wet bark of the tree limb.

You welcome it, and it stares silently in return.

It reminds you of the gods, watchful and silent. A figure blended seamlessly with the air itself, invading and omniscient. Perhaps protecting, though maybe that’s just something your mother said to make you feel more at ease in the night.

It works, and soon you’re back in an uneasy slumber. When you wake in the morning, the owl is gone.

You are sure the temple lay at the top of this cliff. You are not sure how you know, but you are convinced of it. You spent the entire day previous walking a perimeter around the plateau, the column of earth jutting from the forest floor, looking for the best face to scale it by. At its lowest side, the cliff face seems to raise ten horses above you—unfortunately it seems insurmountable there. Here is it nearly that height and a half, but the rocks seem sturdier, the holds more within your reach. You believe you can climb it.

You assess what the damage will be if you fall. It is not comforting.

You take a deep breath through your mask. You would take it off if you could, but if you’re right and the temple is at the top, to peer at it without seeing it through the mask would be a grave sin. You will have to keep it on. The spear, though, you leave behind. You lay it safely tucked against the face of the cliff. You take off your boots to grip the cliff face better.

One last breath. You reach up.

The climb is slow and treacherous. The golden rocks are smooth and slick, and when you grab a tuft of strong grass, or the width of a young bush nestled into the cracks, you relish the small relief.

By the end of the climb it seems that every joint in your body aches. Your fingertips and toes are worn raw and pink—the skin scraped away—and your shoulders burn furiously. But you reach up, and your arm clears the top of the cliff, and as you grope around the top you feel a stone tile, and a rut for your hand. You grab onto it and pull.

And suddenly, before you, is the temple.

It rises from the center of the plateau, invisible from the ground, a small square room of white stone rising from the tiled floor that makes up the top of the plateau. When you pull yourself over the edge, you kneel before it on your hands and knees, not in reverence but in exhaustion. You take a moment to catch your breath before standing and walking shakily to its entrance.

Inside it is dark. You find a firestarter on the ground and strike it above a pool of oil in a ledge that runs along the wall. Suddenly the entire temple is lit—the fire races in a line from one wall to another, until the glyphs and portraits engraved into it are illuminated. In the center of the room, a podium stands. On the podium there is a single empty bowl.

The engravings on the wall are of Koh, overlooking the People. His hands are outstretched over them, his fingers spread wide. The Peoples’ arms are raised above their heads as they gaze at him, enormous and all-powerful. Some of the People hold hearts in their hands, others hold fowl or sheep or heads or children. They call to him. He is selecting them.

It begins to rain outside, but the fire surrounds you and keeps you warm against the cold at the door.

The bowl on the podium is simple and bronze. Leaves and vines are engraved into its side. You run your finger along the inside—it is clean and smooth. No dust or cobwebs have collected in its mouth.

There is a sound at the doorway, the soft thuds of a live thing walking. When you look, you see that one of Koh’s servants have joined you. Not a holy man of the Tribe, dressed as a servant—one of the harbingers themselves. The wolf stands as tall as an ox, his wide shoulders take up the entirety of the doorway. Streaks of red like blood-stained clay run through its gray fur that billows like smoke over its back. Clouds of steam rise from its form as the rainwater strikes it.

The third eye in the center of its forehead stares at you, and it pulls back its lips.

You are struck with the presence of this creature, and you stare back. Your mind is racing, you are trying to make sense of every minute detail around you, trying to grasp out and cling to one solid, structural thought that could keep you from falling into confusion and fear. The servant of Koh is waiting for you to act.

And finally, you find you know what to do.

You turn from Koh’s messenger, reach up to the back of your head and find the knot of leather straps binding the mask over your face. You untangle it and remove the mask to turn it around, until you are looking at it face to face.

This was the mask you chose. Of the four, this block of painted wood was the one that sang to you in the sound of your soul—it was the face you would bear before Koh. When you wore it, you had your name, and the carvings and the paint made a wall between you and the rest of the Tribe.

You place the mask on the floor, facing up, and set your foot upon it.

When you lean forward with all of your weight the mask cracks in half along the eyeholes. A splinter cuts across your foot, and sets blood running over the broken wood and the smooth tiled floor. You pick up the two halves of the mask.

Broken, marked with your blood, you place it in the bowl. It is your sacrifice to Koh. It is the only thing you have to give, the last thing you can set aside in order to help hold up your brothers and sisters. You can set aside yourself to aid those you love and who love you. You turn back to the doorway.

Koh’s servant is gone.

You take a deep breath. With each step you take towards the shore you feel the pain of the cut in your foot. But that’s alright. It will heal.