Saturday, November 3, 2012

Gift for the New Fire

Exercise for failing writers: Write a short story or excerpt based on a different culture (either historic or existing) and include a well-researched characteristic ritual or cultural event as part of the narrative. 


The sun was about to set when the priests came for her. She hardly had time to think before her hands and feet were tied and she was declared the human-gift. The taller man dragged her up the many stairs of the Grand Temple, with her knees scraping the stone edges.  She screamed as loud as she could, her heart pounding in her ears and drowning out the cheers from the crowd. There was somebody pushing her cruelly up the stairs from behind, and the whole scene melted in her sight under a flood of tears. As they neared the top-most stair, she clenched her teeth and let no sound escape. She would not beg and she would not die screaming wildly like the other human-gifts.

Somehow, she had always known this day would come. It was written in the eyes of her people, it would flash clearly in their expressions whenever they laid their eyes on her. Poor orphan Atzi, the best candidate to pacify the gods for the New Fire. There will be no mother or father to cry for her when her heart was ripped out and offered to the Sun. And she was too poor, too insignificant to be chosen as an ixiptla, no honours for her in life, and no honour or remembrance in death. She had always known, and she had been foolish enough not to run sooner.

As the chief priest rose to silence the crowd below, Atzi looked about herself frantically. There was the rock before her, and the chief priest standing right in front of the huge fire. Some priests were quietly dousing the fire with scented water, waiting for total darkness so they could extinguish the Old Flame completely.

“A new dawn, we hope, shall come- my people!” shouted the chief. A murmur ran through the excited crowd below. Atzi could barely manage to stand on her bound feet, and the two priests on either side held her arms firmly.

“We shall see the Sun rise again on the morrow, and we pray with this sacrifice, may the Gods be pleased with us!”

May the Gods be pleased with us, repeated the crowd. Atzi shook her hair out of her face and glared at the fire. ‘May the Gods be pleased with your filth’ she thought. ‘May you suffer, each one of you, till the day you draw your last breath!’ She was now being forced to kneel before the Rock, and she saw the decorated knife with which they killed human-gifts, and pulled out the heart to be offered to the god. Her heart pounded even more fiercely at the horrific sight. ‘What god? What new year? I want to live, not die like this...'

“Do not rebel in your heart, Atzi” said a voice quietly from her right. She turned to look in the direction, surprised. It was old Pale Grey, the almost blind priest who rarely spoke. The chief was now starting the ceremonial chant. 
I must run, and I must run quick!’ she thought. The priests would cut off the rope on her feet in a few minutes, so she could walk around the fire before her sacrifice. ‘Then, I would shove them aside, with all my might, and jump ... jump off the other side of the temple. I may break my bones, but not die like this.’
“Such plans, Atzi! Such plans to kill yourself, when you can die much more easily this way...”  Pale Grey said in her ear.
What? Is he reading my mind?’ Atzi stared wide-eyed at him.
“Yes, I have read minds of those who died before you, Atzi”
The other priest on her left was completely lost in the ceremonial chants, and he did not listen to Pale Grey. 

“Get away from me!!! Leave me alone!!!” she wailed aloud suddenly. The chief frowned during his prayer chant, and the priest to her left gave her arm a sudden jerk. “Silence, stupid girl” he growled.
Pale Grey smiled.
‘What should I do, oh my heart... where can I go? I must run, I must live! I don’t want to die... no, this must stop. There must be a way out... must be a way...’
“When they climb up these steps, most ixiptla are happy, dear Atzi... this death is painless, and you reach God where we cannot.”
“But I’m not one! I’m no ixiptla... I-"

“Arise!! My brethren, for it’s the time for the Old flame to die...” the chief announced most solemnly. Sudden silence fell all around her. The younger priests tending the fire bowed twice to the public below, and placed their water jars on the ground. As the priest on her left picked up the knife, Atzi flinched and tried to shrink away. He knelt down and cut the rope tying her feet. It was a sharp, clean knife.

“Yes, that is why it’s painless, dear girl.” Pale Grey replied to her inner thoughts.
so why don’t you die instead, you filth!’

“You must walk around the Old flame once, Atzi...” the Chief addressed her in the growing darkness. Pale Grey stepped aside, his eyes now burning with hate. One of the younger priests took her right arm, and together with the left priest he pulled her towards the fire.

‘He can read my thoughts, how can I escape... I must run, I must kick these two hard, bite off their hands and run...’
“Too late now for that, girl... grip her tightly, Zoxo, she has plans to walk free” Pale Grey said aloud. The younger priest grabbed her by the waist and turned her towards the fire. “Nobody who has walked these steps as a human-gift, has ever come back down alive. This is the will of the gods, and we do as they wish.” Pale Grey’s booming voice declared.

If you are there, any of the gods, do not do this injustice to me.’ Atzi walked slowly around the fire. ‘I never prayed around the fire, god, but today this is my prayer. Answer me.’ She saw the Old Flame’s dying flickers reflecting in Pale Grey’s dull eyes as she passed him. Slowly they turned around the fire, the two priests pulling the thin girl between them.
‘Do not be unfair to me. You have given me this life, do not take it away like this.’ Atzi sighed as they stepped away from the fire.

“Do NOT blaspheme against the gods, little devil” Pale Grey growled as they neared him.
Then they were all silent. The younger priests bowing before the fire picked up their water jars and poured water over the Old Flame. The old century was gone, it was the end.

The chief chanted the mourning prayer for the Old Flame. It was a low and morose melody, and slowly one by one, some voices below joined him. They were those who had lived to see the previous Flame die, and the new Fire start. They remembered the forgotten words of their forefathers, and some of them wept with tears in their eyes. ‘Why am I thinking all this, when my life is about to end?’

Pale Grey was looking at her curiously, probably clawing through her thoughts.

Such disgrace you hold me in, devil. You degrade me in your thoughts, blaspheme against our gods and life source, you ungrateful spiteful little thing. Better finish with you and fast.’ Pale Grey’s quiet voice whispered within her head. ‘Yes, I can speak inside your mind, yes I can read all your thoughts, you evil little one... and you have to be dead before you do some more damage to our people.’
You are evil... and not me’ Atzi replied to him in her thoughts.

The priests holding her began to move towards the Sacred Rock, and she saw the knife glistening in the dying light of the Old Flame. ‘No this can’t be happening,!’
They lifted her over the rock. ‘Why doesn’t the ground shake? Why doesn’t the sky shatter? Why doesn’t your hand come down to save me, god?’
The chief bowed before the Sacred Rock. Then he rose to his feet and raised the knife high above his head, as if displaying it to the entire heavens and earth.
Atzi screamed with all her might. “STOP!"

And there was a jolt. The priests’ eyes widened in fear, as the temple floor shook beneath their feet. Atzi screamed again, louder. Soon, the people gathered at the feet of the temple were running and screaming, as the earth moved in ripples around them. Trees were ripped out from their roots, and the rocks broke and fell from the mountain tops, as the chief stood frozen in shock holding the knife in his hands. The temple pillar fell over the steps and shattered like glass. The priests had seen enough. They ran down the many steps of the temple screaming in fear, until only the Chief and Pale Grey remained with Atzi.

“Let her go. This is a sign.” The chief said. “The Gods are displeased with us.”

Pale Grey shot her a glance full of fear and loathing, his face taut in a grimace. But he loosened the knots on her hands, and spat at her feet. Atzi jumped up and ran, as fast as her bruised legs could allow her.

‘Go, you witch, and leave us be!’ His voice echoed in her mind. 

(Disclaimer: Some elements of Aztec and Mesoamerican culture are changed to fit the story. Not historically accurate.)