Shike – Day 1 of 306
by Robert J. Shea
Originally published in 1981
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They stripped Jebu naked. They threw his yellow aspirant’s tunic into the fire bowl on the right side of the altar.
“You will not need that again. Tomorrow morning you will put on the grey robe of an initiate. Or you will be dead, and we will burn your body:” Sitting on an unpainted wooden stool before the altar, Taitaro, abbot of the Waterfowl Temple, looked steadily at Jebu. Around his neck Taitaro wore the plain white rope that symbolized his office. He was Jebu’s stepfather, but tonight his eyes said, I know you not. He would burn Jebu’s body and throw the ashes in the rubbish pit if his son failed, and he would never look back.
The flimsy tunic flared up with a hiss, throwing sparks into the air. As it crisped and blackened, a rope of smoke coiled up to the dark cypress beams of the ceiling.
“As that tunic is reduced to ashes, so will your entire life be consumed this night. Know this, aspirant Jebu: whatever comes to pass, whether you live or die, tomorrow morning you will be nothing.” Taitaro’s mouth was set in a straight line behind his short black beard, and his weary, deep-set eyes burned into Jebu’s.
A monk on the left side of the altar struck a wooden club against a hollow log that hung suspended from the temple ceiling. A deep, musical boom resounded through the hall.
“Take the aspirant to the crypt,” said Taitaro in his quiet voice.
Two grey-robed monks carrying blazing pine-knot torches stepped to either side of Jebu. The tops of their heads did not reach his shoulders. He stood straight, fighting the urge to stoop over and try to make himself shorter. It was so painful to be different from the others. Had Taitaro deliberately picked the two shortest men in the monastery to stand beside Jebu, just to humiliate him?
The two monks took a step forward in unison, their wooden sandal soles clacking on the stone floor. Jebu stepped forward with them, starting off on the left foot as he had been instructed, his bare sole shrinking from the cold floor. He had better get used to pain. There would be much more of it before morning came. He walked with the monks around the black stone block that served the Zinja temple as an altar. In the dark wall behind the altar was the simple outline of a waterfowl, incised by a sculptor when the temple was built.
The monks said the Waterfowl Temple was so old it had been here when the sun goddess Amaterasu appointed her great-great-grandson, Jimmu, the first Emperor of these islands. It was a wooden framework with paper walls, standing on a platform of stone. The platform had been carved out of the rock of the mountainside. The Zinja kept no records, and no one knew exactly when the temple had been built. Pits, chambers and tunnels had been dug into the mountain beneath the temple, and with the passing centuries had grown deeper and more tangled, like the roots of an ancient tree.
Directly behind the altar was a square opening on the floor. Stone steps led down into darkness. Jebu had only been in the crypt three times before, when monks of the Order had died and their ashes had been carried there in procession.
One of Jebu’s escorts gestured, and Jebu started down the steps of the crypt, feeling a strange, tremulous sensation near his heart. The torchlight did not reach to the bottom of the steps, and he seemed to be descending into total blackness. It frightened him, frightened him all the more because he didn’t know what was going to happen to him. He had never been permitted to see an initiation, and there had been very few such ceremonies during the whole time he had lived at the temple.
The two monks followed him down the stairs. In the light of their torches Jebu could see the ninety-nine black stone jars standing on nine steps carved in the wall of the crypt. Every crypt in every Zinja temple contained nine times eleven urns. Each time a monk died, the leftmost urn on the bottom step was carried up out of the crypt, and the ashes in it were scattered on the ocean wind that beat against the temple all the year round. Then the jar, refilled with the ashes of the monk who had just died, was put on the right side of the top step, while all the other urns were moved one space to the left. Over the years, death by death, the urn would travel along the steps until it reached the bottom of the crypt, and the ashes of a monk whose name by then had been forgotten would be thrown away.
“These are the relics of the brothers of our Order,” said one of the monks with Jebu. “You have seen them before. You may not know that almost half of these jars are empty. The bodies of these brothers were lost. We put the empty urns here in their memory.”
The other monk said, “Almost all the monks whose funeral urns are here were killed by men. They died in combat, or they were murdered, or they were executed. This is what a Zinja can expect—you are asking to be killed. And yet you want to be a Zinja. You are a fool.”
Jebu guessed that the words were part of the ritual. He saw no need to reply.
The first monk said, “Now take that ring there in the floor, and lift it.”
The ring, made of black iron, gleamed in the torchlight, having been polished by the grip of many hands. Jebu tugged at it. The Zinja were trained for strength, and Jebu, being bigger than most of the monks, was the strongest young man in the Waterfowl Temple. Even so, he could only slightly raise the great stone slab to which the ring was attached; then he had to let it fall back. One of the monks handed his torch to the other and helped Jebu. Together they slid away the stone. The monks gestured silently to him, indicating that he was to climb down into the chamber below the slab. It was a stone box with just enough room for him to lie down. The cold of the stone shocked his naked body; the little chamber was damp and smelled of mould.