Updated: Dec 18, 2020
The sage was carried from his hovel wearing nothing but a small tunic. The tunic bristled the arms of the marine who carried the shrivelled body; eventually, he set the body down on a pyre composed of heather. “There was hardly anything left of him,” he whispered to the temple priest standing, torch in hand, ready to light the pyre. The priest gave a slight nod, then set the torch to the pyre. “Usually like that in the final days,” he said, as the smoke began to trace a path out of the clearing.
They stood aside as the body was consumed. The priest approached the fire from time to time; he poked at parts of the corpse that were ejected from the flames, propelled by liquids evaporating from the body. At some moments it seemed to have reanimated. The marine, growing weary, rested his arms on his rifle. “It will take a few hours,” said the priest. The marine stretched slightly at this news. “Always takes longer than you think.” The priest considered telling the marine the story of the sage, but there seemed little purpose in it. For soldiers, this life, the life of contemplation, was far too strange to understand. They only knew that, when a sage died, their officer would order them to carry out the cremation with a priest. The marines and sailors preferred the taverns where they could drink beer and sing songs. They were not afraid of the forest—or the temple at its centre—but they had no desire to go there. Different castes, trained from birth, had different senses.
The priest remembered his early days with the sage. The sage was only twelve when he took the path. The priest was in his early twenties then; privately, he did not agree with starting the process so young. Could a twelve-year-old know what commitment he was making? The elders in the temple did not seem concerned. It had been done that way for centuries and never failed; why would the temple change? The priest was an old man now; it had taken his last reserves to light and tend the fire. He assumed a meditative pose under a tree; his breath came in little shallow bursts. He recalled turning the sage’s mother away from the temple. Her cheeks were stained with tears. The final decision regarding this path rested with the father, and the father took his lead from the oracle.
This mother, though, had been persistent; the father was strong enough to get the boy to the temple, but he was too weak to bring his wife to heel. She skirted the temple precincts for several days before the priest had some novices drive her off with stones. She was reported a few more times, stalking the boy on his excursions to the library; then, at last, like a shadow evaporated by strong sun, she was gone.
It was the oracle who really knew the sage; the priest merely read the transcripts. The sage, quite alone in his hovel, meditating up to seventeen hours a day, communicated with the oracle through a direct mental link. The results of these ethereal conferences were then transcribed for the sage’s assigned priest to interpret. Over the years, the priest had given many lectures on his sage’s communications—particularly, he had discoursed on a helix-like structure the oracle had drawn after consultations with the sage. The priest, in the private honesty of prayer, was unable to understand the message contained within the helix; though he had given a comprehensive interpretation several times at the temple. His interpretations ended with the mother.
As the last smoke faded away, the priest thought of the mother. She was long dead, of course. Had she had more children? Maybe. The priest eyed the marine, now asleep. The simple physicality of the man reminded the priest that the temptation of woman would, finally, destroy the sacred; perhaps, after all, that was the message of the helix?