A HARD RAIN'S A GONNA FALL.
There was silence in the temple.
The priestesses stood before their high priestess, a row of cowled figures with the faint glow of tears drawing wavy lines on their pallid cheeks.
The time for begging had come and a sacrifice was to be made. It had been seven long months since the rains had last fallen, and the land around the city was parched. Men, the beasts of labour and burden for those in the Temple, laboured trying to produce lush corn from dust, and failed and were beaten raw for their failure because that “f” was a word outside the High Priestess's vocabulary. Failure was a sin and sin must be punished.
But the rains still persisted in falling anywhere but on the lands around the Temple, and food was almost non-existent. Even the goats had been slaughtered for their meat when they should have been preserved for their milk. So it was time for sacrifice to appease the anger of the Great Goddess.
The High Priestess raised her head and surveyed the row of lowly priestesses in their robes.
She knew them all, like daughters or sisters, and, shamefully, she knew one of them a little bit more. But she needed to choose, and to her certain knowledge only two of the women in front of her were virgins, and the gods would demand nothing less than the gift of one of those. The rest had come to the Temple later in life, and had produced their brats, to their eternal shame.
Her eyes lit on Pawn Rosemary, recognised by the neatness of her robe. Pawn Rosemary was a rare beauty, young and fair of skin and bleached of hair and with a fondness for flower water, which just about covered the normal aroma of soiled urine which rose from most of the gathering. With no rains there was no water for hygiene, and even Pawn Rosemary's flower water was rumoured to be running low.
Then her eyes moved to Pawn Sharma, a pale and wan creature in a tatty robe, one who always gave the impression of being half-starved, even when food was plentiful. Her hair was a tangle under that cowl, the High Priestess knew that, and her bleached skin surely emitted the usual stink resonant of death and decay. Even when the rains had filled the rivers around the Temple Pawn Sharma had carried with her the same almost repulsive stench. She never washed and it was rumoured that her private parts had long-since scabbed and healed over.
A lone horn sounded from the depths of the temple, and the High Priestess knew the time had come for her to make a decision.
Who would be the sacrifice?
It could only be one of the two virgins.
In the name of she, the Almighty, she intoned, breaking the numb silence, we are gathered to beseech the Great Goddess in the Heavens to blow the winds and the rains towards us and break the drought which has lain on us this last long age...
The stone knife appeared in her hand as though by magic. A dull ochre, it seemed to draw the dim flames from the few guttering oil lamps to its polished edge.
She knew that she had to decide. Pawn Rosemary with her sweetly flavoured flesh or the far-from-beautiful Pawn Sharma with her constant aroma of unwashed skin. One she shared her cot with as often as she thought prudent, which was getting to be more often as the months passed by, and the other she banished as far from her own cell as she could.
The Great Goddess, though, needed to be appeased, and it would take nothing but the best to do that. Then the rains would return, the fertile fields would produce their grain once more, bread would be baked, the Temple would be saved. And to that great end there must be only one sacrifice. Pawn Rosemary was the best so Pawn Rosemary must feel the edge of her polished stone blade, her blood must be collected in a marble jar and passed around so that all the sisters may sip of it – not enough to quench their ravening thirst, though, just a sip of the precious crimson life whilst it was still warm.
And it is written, she whispered, but all could hear her, it is written that She the Almighty, the Great Goddess, will require the flesh of the most perfect virgin. That is what is said, and that is what must be.
Then she pointed at the fragrant robes that belonged to Pawn Rosemary, and beckoned her to her.
The virgin Priestess Pawn acknowledged the gesticulation and moved with supreme quietness to the stone table and stood by it.
The High Priestess signalled with one hand, a tiny movement which meant everything. The other still held the stone blade.
The chosen Pawn, without protesting, without weeping, without gnashing her teeth, lay on the stone table.
Cruelty that is She the Almighty! howled the High Priestess, and it was clear to everyone there that she was weeping even as she prepared to do the dread deed. But then, everyone there knew the feelings that existed between the older woman with the blade and the young Pawn Rosemary, though the two of them thought it to be a secret. But the Temple was a closed community, and there were few true secrets.
Let the rains return with this precious gift! wept the High Priestess.
And then, in dreadful slow motion, she brought the blade down on the exposed neck of the fragrant Pawn.
And as its near-blunt blade hacked into the fair flesh of the sacrifice the woman's head jerked round, and her dying eyes sought and found those of the High Priestess, and somehow she managed a smile.
“What's this?” called out the High Priestess, dashing her blade to the stone floor so that it shattered.
Then the ragged figure in the line of Priestesses flung off her robe and revealed that it had covered the perfect flesh of Pawn Rosemary and not the Pawn Sharma.
“We exchanged garments,” she whispered, “for we knew you would choose me, but dearest Sharma aware that she must surely die soon anyway, elected to seek the bosom of She the Almighty, and bring forth the rains.”
The High Priestess might have flown into a fearful rage, but she was stopped from it by the sound, beautiful and gentle, of rains falling outside the Temple.
© Peter Rogerson 12.04.12