“Suicide,” says the priest, “is a crime punishable by death.” Noah, kneeling on grass in the daylight with the rest of the worshippers, doesn’t laugh out loud. None of the men around him even see the humour, Noah can tell: he knows everything anyone else knows, he knows what people are thinking as they’re thinking it, he knows too much. The priest sighs then continues: “I must deliver bad news, the worst news.” Sun overhead: the first hot spring day this year, the people sweat and their holy-man sweats too as atop his three-step stone pyramid he looks down on his flock; Noah feels the priest enjoying the tension. “A mighty flood is coming.” Muffled anguish. “Aa is angry, we have not been all that we could be, we have not always aspired to goodness. There comes this retribution: but the gods are merciful, they have allowed me to warn you. We have perhaps four days to prepare. The gods are on our side!” Today’s sermon ends: the panicked congregation rises to its feet.
The priest descends his three stairs. Urgent though the situation is, no breach of ceremonial decorum will be allowed: the worshippers form the usual line, single-file to their magus, a long queue through this holy grove at the heart of the town, there are rows of trees on both sides plus a small reed hut off to the left, there are stone steps: the little pyramid has an altar upon it, on the altar are sacred fish-bones and beads and gems and a fat clay bowl filled with water. Stone steps: the priest stands at their base and one man after another passes in front of him, thanking the holy-man and kissing his snakeskin amulet, they ask questions – “In the future, when you’re dead, judge-gods will weigh up every choice you made: don’t take any chances,” he answers – and they proffer dried dates and meat to the Fraternity.
“The long winter is over,” beams one grateful farmer. “A flood? No matter, there are always floods. With Aa’s help we can grow again!” The priest smiles, bids him goodbye, bids each man goodbye: hurriedly they radiate from the shrine back to do what they can to secure their huts and crops and families from the coming deluge.
Noah remains, just Noah and the minister of the gods: “Why do you tell them that?”
“A hundred miles away, snow on a mountain is melting: your scouts have told you. The water pours down the slopes and the rivers will rise and soon there will be flooding. It has nothing to do with…”
“You will anger the gods if you keep talking like that! I am an initiate, as you will be an initiate too, soon; it’s what we do. We wrap up facts in fables to make them easier to understand.”
“Are you sure? How is this easier to understand, it’s…”
“People can hold fantastic things in their minds much easier than they can live with the mundane. This way they won’t forget. With our stories stuck in their head they’ll…”
“But you don’t tell the people they’re only stories, why don’t you tell them that?”
“You’ll see. After you’ve been doing it for a while it makes sense.” The priest grins: “You know too much, Noah. That’s why I offered you a place in the mystic Fraternity, the Hierarchy: a smart young man like you, you’ll fit right in. Are you ready? Are you ready for the ceremony tonight?”
Tonight: there are torches but they’re unlit: a starry darkness, the shrine at the heart of town, the grove is cold now and there are just half a dozen men, plus the Candidate in the small reed hut: the Candidate is bound, gagged, blindfolded, but he can hear: “O Spirit of All, O Soul in the Water: self-transcending One who is many.” The high-priest walks up the stone steps, kisses his snakeskin amulet, bows before the altar and recites: “We worship you, the creative all-Water, origin of everything; fertilising Water, soul of the Deep! Never staying still, ever flowing! Water inherent in everything; everything inherent in Water! We salute you, Lord of the Deep, Aa, God of gods! O Fate, give Aa victory in his long battle against Apep, inverted snake Apep, Apep of the shameless and the obscene, desert Apep: Water will win!” On the altar is a liquid-filled clay bowl; below, two robed men step towards the hut.
The Candidate knows what the high-priest is saying and what he’s going to say; no-one who has not been initiated is supposed to know but Noah made sure to find out. The Candidate clears his mind of the priest’s lovely empty words, he concentrates…
The high-priest continues: “Great Aa!” The night is cold, they shiver, a distant jackal howls. “Aa, be ever exalted! Rejoice inside us! Bring us new Light! Strengthen us! There is a future and it is ours!” The subordinate priests reach the hut. “O Candidate,” cries the Aa’s minister, plunging his hands into the clay bowl, into the water, his hands emerge and each one’s clutching the throat of a furious snake. “Candidate: fear nothing.” The Candidate will be offered to the snakes, to Apep: if he survives, he joins the Brotherhood. They open the little hut’s door:
Where’s the Candidate?
…Noah hurries through the darkness, he wants to run but he won’t risk extinguishing the burning torch he’s carrying, he walks as fast as he can, following a star. The fields are cold and hard against the cow-skin slips he wears over his feet, the fields go on and on. A fire through the night: keeping an eye out for sudden drops or marshy puddles, reptiles to bite him, shrubs to trip on. Far ahead there will be forests and mountains and dangers and people: other settlements or passing nomad tribes, Noah will find others, he knows skills, he’s useful, he hurries, sacks slung over both his shoulders and another in one hand and in the other is his torch, a sun for himself.