Shike – Day 2 of 306
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.
“You will lie in this chamber and we will put the slab back into place. No matter what happens, you must not try to get out. If you do, you will die. It may seem that you are going to die if you do not escape, but you will die if you try to escape. Believe that, and believe nothing else that you hear from this moment on, until the Father Abbot himself comes to release you, at his pleasure.”
Jebu lay in the stone box, staring up at the two monks. He had thought them short before; now they towered above him, their faces strange masks in the flickering torchlight. Together the monks pushed the slab into place. The darkness was total. He brought his hand up over his face and moved it from side to side, but he could see nothing. He was buried alive in a stone chamber the size of a coffin. It was made for people smaller than himself; the top of his head and the soles of his feet pressed hard against the ends when he lay at full length. There was barely room to move his hands away from his sides. And when he lifted his head he struck his forehead against the top of the chamber.
He was afraid, but not panic-stricken. He had begun his Zinja training at the age of four, learning to balance on wooden railings, to hang by his hands for hours, to run, to dive, to swim and to climb; but the first thing he had learned was mastery of fear in any threatening situation. “The purpose of fear is to drive us to preserve our lives,” said Taitaro, “just as the purpose of hunger is to drive us to eat. But a Zinja is not interested in preserving his life. His aim is to lose the craving for life. Only those who have lost this craving are truly free.” So, little children not yet able to read or write were subjected to sword thrusts, mock hangings, the bites of supposedly poisonous insects and snakes, and dozens of other frightening experiences. As the children dedicated to the Order grew older and harder and became proficient in the use of weapons, these encounters with terror, at first only simulated, became more realistic. The year before, one of Jebu’s friends had died at the age of sixteen when he panicked and fell from a plank no wider than a man’s foot which bridged a mountain gorge.
Jebu lay on his back in the dark in the stone coffin and wondered, not for the first time, whether the Order consisted of madmen and fools and whether he himself was the biggest fool of all. Why was he doing this? Because they got him when he was young. Because his father was killed and Taitaro married his mother and adopted him and put him through the training as a matter of course.
Though no light penetrated the stone above him, sound did, and Jebu heard approaching footsteps, and then a voice saying, “My son.”
“Is that you, Taitaro-sensei?”
“Yes,” said the abbot, his voice muffled but unmistakable. “We come now to the centre of your initiation, to the truth which is to be revealed to you as a Zinja. This truth will sustain you through this trial and through all the ordeals of life to come. We call it the Saying of Supreme Power. Swear now before all the kami of this place, all the kami of the Order and all the great kami of these Sacred Islands that you will reveal to no one what I tell you now.”
“Even if other brothers of the Order tell you they already know the Saying of Supreme Power and are only testing you to learn whether you know it, you must not repeat it to them. You must not even admit that you know it. On pain of expulsion from the Order, and even death, Jebu.”
“I understand,” said Jebu quickly, eager to learn what final truth lay locked at the heart of the Zinja mysteries.
“Then hear the Saying of Supreme Power.” There was a silence in the absolute blackness. Then: “The Zinja are devils.”
“The Zinja are devils.”
“Taitaro-sensei, I don’t understand.”
“Say it back to me. I want to be sure you heard me correctly.” Jebu hesitated. “I may not.”
“Good. You have understood that much.”
Jebu shook his head. He wanted to climb out of this stone box and seize his stepfather by the shoulders and shake him. “But, sensei, that is contrary to everything I’ve ever been taught. Is it a true saying, or is it just the kind of spell conjurers use to call up spirits? I don’t see how it can be true. The Zinja are not—we are not—that.”
“You do not know. You are not yet a Zinja. Farewell now, Jebu. I hope I shall see you in the morning.”
Jebu was acutely conscious of the enormous weight of the stone suspended over him. It seemed suddenly as if there were no air to breathe. What could it mean: the Zinja are devils? He had been taught to believe that the highest calling a man might hope for—unless he were born to the robes of the Emperor—was to be a Zinja. Anyone, no matter how lowborn, could be a Zinja, if he could endure the training. Even an untouchable, a slave, a hairy Ainu from the north, even a barbarian foreigner. Yes, that was why he was a Zinja, because they would take anyone, even the strange-looking red-haired son of a man from across the western sea. But perhaps the Zinja would take anyone because they were devils. Devils would take anyone.
Something icy touched his shoulder blades. He wriggled to try to escape it, and his heart started pounding harder than ever. Was it the touch of a devil? The cold feeling spread to the small of his back, to his buttocks. He put his hand flat on the floor of the stone coffin in which he lay. Water. Water was trickling into the chamber from outside. The temple was at the edge of the sea; perhaps when the tide rose the water entered this box. No, unlikely. This chamber was high above the level of the sea. It was more probable that this was part of the ordeal. The water continued to rise. His back was submerged, the cold trickling into his armpits and freezing his groin, and his teeth began to chatter. He lifted his head as the water soaked into his hair and bumped his forehead painfully against the stone slab that imprisoned him. The water rose around the sides of his head and he grimaced and shook his head from side to side as it crept into his ears. He put his fingers into his ears to keep it out.
The water seemed cold enough to freeze his blood. He began automatically to twitch the muscles all over his body, in a regular rhythm he had been taught, to raise his body heat. The Zinja training enabled a man to endure freezing cold for hours. But how high would the water go? Another inch and it would drown him. Or else he would have to try to push that stone slab out of the way, even though he probably could not manage it and even though, if he succeeded in climbing out of the crypt, he would be killed. This was what they had warned him about: it may seem that you are going to die if you do not escape, but you will die if you try to escape. The water stopped rising when only the front of his face was still clear of it. He lay immersed, buried in the total blackness, shivering. How long would he have to stay like this? How long before he died of the cold?
There was a grinding noise above his head. The stone slab was moving.
“Jebu. It’s Weicho and Fudo. Come out before you drown.” A torch was waved over his head, its light blinding him after the hours—or was it only moments?—he had spent in the darkness. Gradually he made out the shadowed faces of the monks Weicho and Fudo looking down at him. They were a few years older than he, an inseparable pair, known for the slackness of their discipline, which had led Taitaro on one occasion to threaten to cast them out of the Order. Fudo was lazy and Weicho was cruel. It was rumoured among the aspirants that they were lovers. Jebu had always disliked them.
“It’s all right. The Father Abbot has given permission.”
“I’ll come out when he himself tells me to.”
There was silence, then Fudo, the taller and thinner of the two, laughed.
“You’re a fool, Jebu. You’ll drown in there. The purpose of the initiation is to test whether you think for yourself or follow orders blindly. If you follow orders blindly, you die.”