On the morning of the last day of the faith, you bring me a bowl of fresh milk and a flower from your garden. Its petals are pristine, even though you had to carry it all the way up to the temple in the pocket of your apron. Every step is a battle now, despite your cane. The cold of the mountain seems to never leave your bones these days. You put down both offerings at the foot of the wooden statue your grandfather carved of my likeness and I notice the shaking of your hands as you do. When you kneel down on the stone steps, I know it’s not in prayer.
“His soldiers will be here by nightfall,” you say and your voice is small in the emptiness of the temple. “I saw the fires of their camp down in the valley.”
I wish I could reassure you like I once did. But I live on your milk and flowers alone now and I need to measure my words carefully.
You trace the familiar grooves in the stone steps to the altar with your fingers as you did when you were a child, waiting for you mother to finish the rites. Your hands are spotted and veiny now but your touch is still gentle.
Your words confirm the reality I was already dreading. I can feel the angry god’s presence in the valley, the smoldering power he carries with his army. He had a name once, before he abandoned it for the lie of singularity. It might not be a lie for much longer.
If words are not enough perhaps blood is. He has many humans willing to spill it for him. More than ever brought me milk or flowers or any other offering. Now there’s only you–the last and dearest. Gods are not supposed to play favorites but here you are, at the foot of my statue on the day of my death.
Before the moon rises, the soldiers will have reached this sacred place. They will have trampled your garden and slaughtered the cow whose last milk you’ve brought me. They will tear down the temple doors and storm the now empty halls. And they will bring their angry god with them to devour me.
I’ve always known this, since the moment I began. That’s all a god was back then–the promise of life and the whisper of its certain end.
By now, you too must know what’s coming. When the river god died, we both heard his cries echoing upstream until they reached the spring at the side of the mountain. His followers wept and raged but one by one they fell or bent the knee to the angry god’s army.
There will be only one to mourn me.
“Won’t you speak to me?” you ask and I don’t have the strength to answer. I have receded into the darkness–made myself comfortable here while I wait for the end. What’s left of me is hardly more than a flicker.
The silence doesn’t satisfy you. It never has. Getting to your feet takes some effort, your knuckles white as you grip your cane. You climb up the stairs to the altar and take the wooden bowl in which you keep the signs and tokens–little pieces of bone, each with a specific meaning only you understand now.
You prepare a reading like you always have. The edges of the tokens are worn down from being handled by generations before you. When the pieces fall, it’s an easy thing for me to nudge them just so. To tell you what I need to say.
You stare at the pattern in front of you. Interpretation of the tokens can be tricky sometimes, prone to error and misunderstandings–especially for a young or inexperienced priestess. You are neither and for once, the tokens couldn’t be clearer.
“You want me to leave.”
I spent months carving the path through the mountains for you. Moving boulders and melting snow, sprouting herbs and bushes ripe with berries along the trail. The journey won’t be easy but with this last gift of mine you can make it over the border. To a place where the angry god cannot reach you.
“How could you think I would leave you?”
Here is the truth: I didn’t. But nonetheless, I had to try. There is a straight line from the very first starlight in your eyes to the hurt I see in them now. The knife is in your hand. The one your grandfather used to carve my face out of the wood. The one you use to cut the flowers for your offerings. Once more, you draw the knife. A defiance. A last offering.
Without a faithful, there’ll be no god left to devour.
My voice shakes the temple walls. The windows rattle in their hinges and the tokens dance on the altar.
You stand fast, stubborn as always.
“You have given me your life,” I say. “Now allow me to do the same for you.” To speak, to will sound into existence, is draining what is left of my strength. But it’s worth it. To save you. To convince you, somehow. “Don’t let your blood be the last gift between us.” Each word a plea. A prayer.
Don’t turn me into him.
* * *
On the last day of the faith, I wait for the angry god alone. The temple lies abandoned, save for a bowl of milk, a knife and a flower. Five pristine petals to remind me of you.
On the path I made for you, I can still sense your familiar footfall–every step taking you further away from me. Deep inside you, like a precious flower wrapped in an apron, you carry an offering of my own with you across the mountains. A part of me, a version of myself seen through your eyes. A promise of life and somewhere, in the back of your mind, a whisper.