It had had been a busy day at the office and I was quite tired. It would be nice to come home and sit down in front of the TV for a bit. I’d promised my mother I’d stop by the temple today though. It had been almost a week since I was there last and it was definitely about time I paid my respects to the gods again.
Mom wasn’t working and had time to visit the temple as much as she wanted, but I who was spending so much time at work didn’t have that luxury. I tried to fit in at least two visits per week, but even that had been tricky as of late.
Work was really busy this time of year and I tried to take every opportunity I could to get in some overtime. The extra money was welcome and it was good to show initiative and enthusiasm at work. I didn’t want to stay a receptionist all my life. Old Mr. Fahar would be retiring soon and then the position of head secretary for the department would open up. I knew I had no chance to get that position but plenty of others would be vying for it. Only one would get the job, but the power struggle among the potential candidates was already under way. Depending on how fierce it got one or more of the candidates who didn’t get the position would be leaving their job and even more opportunities for advancement would appear.
So I worked hard, smiled a lot and took every opportunity to make a good impression on my superiors. With a bit of luck I’d be promoted to secretary for Mr. Ayamat. He was one of the younger, up and coming representatives of the firm and if I could get a good working relationship with him chances were good he’d bring me along as his personal secretary when next he got promoted. That would be ideal, much better than being with Mr. El-Hahema who had reached the highest position he would ever get to and who would only get more bitter about it the longer he stayed there.
That was all in the future though, and any promotion would be better than none. For today I was done with work and all that stood between me and a quiet evening in front of the TV was a visit to the temple. My city, Kasuun, is the biggest city in all of Mahradia and its temple is the biggest in the country, if not the world. The temple itself is an enormous sprawling building, housing shrines for all the gods in the world.
So big is the temple that two subway stations are dedicated to serving it; one for the Women’s Entrance at the east end of the temple and one for the Men’s Gate in the west. Inside the temple men and women are allowed to move around freely among each other; all souls are equal in the eyes of the gods and all worship is equally valued. I guess this is one of the reasons women seem take their worship so much more seriously than men.
Except for a select few, all gods have one shrine each. The exceptions are the most powerful gods; the ones who receive the most worship. They have shrines near every entrance so that devotees will be able to access them easily and not have to venture too deep into the temple. It’s a simple matter of logistics really. The gods that receive the most visitors are the ones most easily accessed.
There are even four huge statue shrines in the big plaza outside the temple. The gods of life and fertility, wealth, power and death are the leaders of the pantheon and it’s only right that they have the best spots. Ahana, the goddess of life and fertility is facing east, towards the rising sun and Maht, the god of death faces west into the sunset. Telos and Teleios, the gods of wealth and power stand between them, facing each other.
Usually when I go to the temple I just pay my respects to Telos and Teleios as they are the ones who’s aid is most important to me. I want to one day be a rich and influential man with my own office and my own secretary, so I light candles and burn incense to the twin gods of wealth and power. When I get married I’ll make offerings to Ahana and when I get old I’ll meditate at the feet of Maht.
That however, just like my potential promotion, is in the future and I’m here now, in the present. As I emerge from the subway I decide to put in a little more effort this time. Telos and Teleios are mighty and powerful gods who deserve my worship, but it’s been a while since I paid my respects to the gods so maybe it will be worth my while to see what else the temple has to offer. I decide to have a word with one of the monks.
I text my mom to let her know I’m at the temple and that I will be late as I’m about to seek guidance from a monk. She’ll be a little annoyed I’m late as she’ll have to set food aside and keep it warm for me; she’ll be happy I’m taking my visit to the temple seriously though and hopefully that’ll outweigh her annoyance.
I don’t live with my mum but our apartments are in the same building, along with the apartments of some of my brothers, cousins and other family members. We’re fortunate to be able to live close together like that. Having a place of my own is nice, but it’s important to keep your family close; family is important. My mom and her sister live next to each other and together they make sure always to have food ready for my brothers and cousins when we get home from work.
The monks, dressed in their pale, faded robes wander the plaza, mostly alone, but sometimes in pairs. Some of them are talking with worshippers, advising them on divine and spiritual matters or just giving directions to some hidden shrine inside the temple. It’s a Thursday night though and the plaza is relatively quiet; most monks are just wandering around, lost in thought, not talking to anyone.
I approach a short skinny monk in a washed out robe that probably was blue at some point in time. I introduce myself simply as Arrut - monks do not hold with family names - and politely ask if he would spare me some of his time; the formal way of requesting advice on what shrines to worship at. The monk quietly looks me over and then nods slowly. It’s exceedingly rare that a monk refuses someone their time, but when it does happen it’s the worst of omens. The monk does not introduce himself, as they almost never do, but gestures for me to fall in beside him.
As we walk I tell him about myself and my work and my plans for the future. I explain that I’m concerned with my possible promotion and worried about which position I might be appointed to. The monk listens quietly, nodding now and then to acknowledge that he’s heard and understood. After a while he raises a hand to quiet me and I realize I’ve started to ramble. I’d already made my point but continued to talk about different things all the same. The monk points at the temple and in silence we walk towards the entrance.
At the foot of the huge stairs leading up to the Men’s Gate we stop. The little man produces a pen and a notebook from within the voluminous sleeves of his robe and starts scribbling. Once finished he rips off the page and hands it to me with a slight but satisfied smile, as if he’s just done something incredibly clever. Perhaps he has. What do I know? The monks are wise beyond belief and it’s not for a mere office receptionist like me to question their actions.
We bid each other farewell with the traditional nod of the head, as if we’re old friends who need not bother with the formalities of interactions with strangers. I’ve never seen him before and probably never will, but such is the way with monks; as we tell them our stories we invite them into our lives and they will ever carry our tale with them – or so it is said. As the little man walks away, still smiling, I realize he never said a single word.
Before I set off up the stairs I have a look at the page of the monk’s notebook I was given, hoping to glean some hints of what to expect within the temple. As usual, I don’t have the faintest. The monk’s scribbles are a mystery to me. There’s a code at the top and then three sets of coordinates, I know that much, but I have no idea what the code means or what shrines will await at the locations given by the coordinates.
At the top of the stairs, just inside the entrance are the supply requisition desks. They are my first stop. Here I will hand over the note to one of the clerks who will then let me purchase the supplies corresponding to the code at the top of the monk’s note. I can also get the clerk to mark the locations of the shrines on a map of the temple, but that costs extra and is generally frowned upon; a respectable member of society should be able to navigate the temple by coordinates alone.
As the clerk runs off to gather my supplies I have a closer look at the coordinates. The first two shrines are both near the center of the temple on the main floor. I shouldn’t have any trouble finding them. It’s a well-used part of the temple I’ve been to plenty of times and which I know well; I just don’t know what gods the shrines are for. The third set of coordinates has me puzzled though. It looks like they may point to a shrine in the catacombs below the temple.
I’ve never been to the catacombs before and though I know they’re perfectly safe I have to admit I’m a little scared. The shrines in the catacombs are dedicated to the forgotten gods; the gods that people don’t speak about and that no one worships. That is, no one who doesn’t have a prescription. A prescription like the note I’m holding in my hand, which tells me to go there and pay may respect to some forgotten god I’ve never heard of.
I’ve heard stories of the catacombs; sometimes people get lost there. Usually they come back but it’s said they’re never quite themselves after it. Some don’t come back at all. So yes, I’m a little bit scared, but I’ll be brave. The little monk knew what he was doing. You wouldn’t smile a clever little smile like that if you weren’t happy to be doing something good – at least if you were a monk you wouldn’t.
The clerk startles me a little as he comes back with my supplies. He apologizes and lines them up on the counter in the order they are to be used: First two thin round white candles, pretty standard for any of the common gods. Second up is also no surprise: a thick round cream-colored candle. The third item, for the shrine in the catacombs, is a different matter. It’s a triangular black candle vacuum packed in a transparent plastic bag with a little handle. Things are getting seriously weird here and I start to wonder if I shouldn’t have just paid my respects to Telos and Teleios like I usually do.
The clerk, noting my distress, tells me not to worry and ensures me everything will be fine. After all, I’m a faithful worshipper in the greatest temple of all gods in the world. How could the gods not be pleased with me, how could they let anything bad happen? I remain unconvinced, but the clerk, clearly feeling he’s done what’s expected of him as far as reassuring worried worshippers go, explains I should only carry the little plastic bag by the handle and not open it until I’ve placed it at its designated spot at the shrine. He then names the price and I pay in cash as is customary in the temple. Tradition holds that paying by card is disrespectful to the gods.
The supplies cost a bit more than I’d expected. The round candles are cheap standard fare, so the black triangular one must be quite costly. Thinking about it, the clerk was gone a bit longer than usual collecting the supplies. Once again I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into. It’s too late to back out now though. It was too late the moment I introduced myself to the little monk asking if he had the time. Not heeding the monk’s advice is an unthinkable insult to not only the monk himself, but also to the temple and to the entire pantheon. Off I go then.
The first two shrines were easy to find. The first one, where I was to light the two thin candles, was for Umi, the goddess of fair play and honorable deeds. It’s a choice I’m happy with; corporate power struggles can be ruthless and harsh, even at my level. Having Umi at my back would protect me against underhand schemes from colleagues vying for the same positions I have my eyes on. It will also ensure that my own fair and honorable actions are suitably rewarded.
The second shrine was a little less obvious but once I got it I realized it was a good choice. I lit the thick round candle at the shrine of Ahmuut. He wasn’t a god I was familiar with since before but the plaque next to the shrine informed me he was the god of construction, firmaments, supporting pillars and reliability. The shrine was well tended, free from dust and with a couple of other candles already burning there as I lit mine; he must be a fairly well known, popular god after all, at least in some circles.
It’s bad manners to leave a shrine before you understand why you’re visiting it so I stood there thinking for a while, wondering. Eventually it dawned on me; as a receptionist or secretary at a company I’m part of the supporting structure of the company’s activities. I don’t do the business myself, but I support those who do and without me being reliable their work would be that much harder.
I felt clever at figuring this out myself and it also made me feel good about my position at work; it made me realize the importance of the job I do, which, I hate to admit, sometimes isn’t all that apparent.
Now here I was, two shrines behind me and with a little black candle in a plastic bag, about to descend for the first time into the catacombs of the temple. I’d had to ask temple guards twice to find the correct entrance and finally I was there, at an unassuming door in a wall between two small shrines. I’d shown the guard my note, with the coordinates on it indicating I was to have access to the lower levels. He’d nodded at me respectfully and stepped aside to let me pass through the little door and down the stairs.
As the guard closed the door behind me it got a lot darker but a torch set into the wall further down provided enough light for me to see by. I slowly made my way down, careful not to slip or stumble. The stairs were old and uneven and more than once I misjudged how much further down the next step would be. Once I almost fell.
At the bottom of the stairs, where the torch is, there’s a bucket filled with unlit torches for visitors to use. There’s also a big sign on the wall with security instructions. It says to only bring one extra, unlit torch and to put it back into the bucket if I haven’t used it when I leave. If I get lost I am to head to the nearest intersection and wait there until the hourly patrols come to pick me up; I’m not to try and find my way out on my own as that may result in me getting more lost. Should my torch expire I am to stay put and call for assistance in a moderate tone of voice. I’m specifically told not to yell at the top of my lungs as the echoes may amplify my voice to ear-shattering levels, causing pain and injury to myself and other worshippers.
The sign also has a map showing my location as well as the path the hourly patrol takes; it seems to span pretty much all the catacombs and according to the a little notice on the sign it takes just over three hours to complete the route, meaning that at any given time there’s at least three members of the temple’s security staff making their way through the tunnels.
Reassured by this I compare the coordinates from my little note with the map; I figure down here where no one can see me consulting the map won’t be frowned upon, and I’d really rather not be getting lost. From what I can tell it should be fairly straight-forward to get to my destination; if I just follow the outer tunnel clockwise for a bit and then make a right at the fourth intersection I should be there. Looks easy.
It looked easy and it was, almost disappointingly so after I’d been so worried entering the catacombs. I passed the three intersections and took a left on the fourth and arrived at my destination almost immediately. Now here I am, in an underground tunnel that would be pitch black were it not for my flaming torch; standing in front of a small dusty shrine dedicated to a god I’ve never heard of I’m trying to figure out why I’ve been sent here.
A small plaque on the wall explains that this is the shrine of Lomm, the god of peaceful passing. It goes on:
- Lomm is primarily the god of those who die peacefully in their sleep. He is the protector of those who have nothing to hide and those of modest ambition. Lomm is a distant relative to Maht, the god of death. Like Maht, Lomm is a god of death, albeit a minor one, chiefly concerned with those who die of old age in their sleep.
I’m baffled. More than once I double-check the coordinates I’ve been given but they really do point to this shrine. It’s unthinkable the monk has made a mistake, but I’m almost thinking it anyway. Could he have been playing some trick on me? I’ve heard that sometimes they do that, but even then it’s a trick done with good intentions and which is easy to understand. This, I simply don’t get.
I’m young and healthy and I have my life in front of me. Why would I concern myself with dying of old age while asleep? I have my life ahead of me, not behind me. It’s not like I’ve been an especially good person either; there are things in my life that I regret or that I could have done better. I have ambitions too and in my eyes they’re not particularly modest. I know I probably won’t be an executive in my own right, but I definitely aim at being promoted within the company’s hierarchy; a job as a senior secretary to one of the executives would be a position highly elevated above my current one and also a reasonable goal. Surely that’s not a modest ambition?
I’m stumped. I may be here all night if I am to figure out why I was sent here. Maybe if I wait for the patrol to come by I can ask the security guard for advice, or ask him to send me a spiritual advisor to explain it to me. Either way, I will be here a while before I can leave. Might as well light the candle. Maybe that will provide me with some insight.
I stick the torch into a torch-grip on the wall so I’ll have my hands free to open the bag and light the candle. The shrine is small; placed on a pedestal are three little statuettes of seagulls. Two of them, flanking the third are standing still with their wings folded to the sides. The third, bigger one is a seagull in flight. For no apparent reason I get the feeling that all three seagulls, even the two standing still are high above a vast ocean, the land behind them and only the endless waves before them. I have a vision of cold winds, high cliffs and grey skies; the screams of thousands of birds and the waves crashing against the rocks far below. Such scenes do not exist in Mahradia, but I’ve seen them on TV now and then, just never this real. Maybe the god is trying to tell me something.
The visions are all in my head though; I’m still here in an underground tunnel at the shrine of a god I don’t understand. I place the bag with the candle on the flat dusty surface in front of the statuettes. It must have been a very long time since anyone paid respect to Lomm. The candle stands upright within the bag and all that remains is to open it. There are two little flaps at the top of the bag and I pull them apart to rip the bag open. As I do so there’s a tiny whooshing sound as the vacuum packed bag expands, then the entire bag disintegrates, leaving just the flaps, the handle and the black triangular candle. It’s unexpected and I’m a little startled. I’ve heard of this before but never seen it myself. It’s meant to look like the bag disappears as if by magic when in reality it’s anything but. The insides of the bag have been coated with a chemical substance which when the bag is opened reacts with the air and dissolves the plastic. It’s spectacular and rather expensive but not actually magic. I’m impressed that the monk saw fit to prescribe this for such an obscure and unknown god as Lomm.
The wick of the candle starts to smolder and eventually a small flame appears; another chemical trick, this one less expensive and more common. Saves me messing around with matches in the dark or trying to light the candle with the torch.
There must be more to the candle than special effects and chemicals though. The candle flame is absolutely still and only emits a faint light while the flame of the torch is bright and flutters wildly as if in a breeze. Then the torch suddenly dies and only the candle lights the little shrine and the tunnel. As my eyes adjust to the less bright candlelight I notice things I hadn’t seen before. The light of the candle is reflected into thousands of tiny pieces of glass set into the walls and ceiling of the tunnel, reflections too faint to see in the bright light of the torch. It’s as if the tunnel has disappeared and I’m standing on a vast plain on a beautiful starry night.
I’m impressed and humbled. This was not what I expected from Lomm at all. The stars around me are beautiful and I feel safe and at peace. Slowly it dawns on me why I’m here and I mutter to myself: Life without regret.
Eventually the candle burns out and the stars fade away. The last thing I see before all goes dark is the big flying seagull smiling at me. I’m enveloped in complete and utter darkness but I’m not afraid. Someone will be around in a bit and help me out; in the meantime, I’m safe here.