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Once, in a faraway land, there was a Temple-Keeper, who was part of an ancient, esoteric Brotherhood. The Temple-Keeper was not yet a fully initiated Priest of the Order; he was a novice and wore a novice’s garb, a simple brown cassock woven from rough yarn. He had been commanded by the Brotherhood to keep one of their many holy Temples around the world, and had been sent to the far-flung peninsula where the Temple stood. Although the Temple was officially the property of the Order, the Temple was his. He was its Keeper. He and it lived together on this remote peninsula, away from people. The Temple was really only a small shrine, a stone hut by some standards, but it was his hut and he was its soul. A work of simple but beautiful masonry, it stood on a high rock bluff overlooking the sea. A line of trees waited further back from the cliff, but the Temple stood out on the open rock outcropping. The tan stones of the Temple formed triangular peaks on the sides and back; the front presented a row of stoical, unadorned columns. On the roof of the Temple, in the four corners, small fantastical creatures carved out of stone stood sentinel. On the inside, images of the Honored Deities filled the space in the form of statues tucked back in enclaves, and adorned the walls in the form of icons painted on sheets of metal, exquisitely depicted in priceless blue, gold, and red dyes. At the back of the Temple were a few steps leading up to the Altar, where a larger statue of the Holy One stood. The bronze statue of the great Holy One, the Harbinger of Peace who had come to mankind long ago, stood up straight and rigid. His eyes of emeralds stared straight forward as if pierced with a green flame. In his right hand he held a staff at his side; his left hand, extended calmly with the elbow tucked at the waist, held a tin flame painted gold. Every day, the Temple-Keeper would rise from his seat of contemplation on the edge of the bluff, where he performed his afternoon prayer looking out across the ocean. He would turn around, and would be directly facing the entrance to the Temple about thirty paces away. Then he would walk the straight line back to the Temple door, which had been paved into a little path. He would take the one step up and enter the open doorway of the Temple, and then he would process slowly straight down its middle to kneel at the foot of the Holy One. Whenever he re-entered the Temple in this procession, he felt like a distant wriggling particle returning into its fold, as the bee returns to the chamber of the flower to kiss its yellow bud. Every day the Temple-Keeper would kneel in front of the Holy One, lean forward, and kiss the golden bud of the statue’s flat navel. Then, after his worship, he would curl up to sleep at the Holy One’s feet, feeling safe and secure with this protector standing over him. In the morning, the light from the rising sun would shine in through the Temple door and wake him, and he would rise and proceed back out to the edge of the cliff to do homage to the sun and the sea and the morning. Every day, the Temple-Keeper would emerge and sit cross-legged on the bluff and look out over the sea. The sea was his object of contemplation. The Brotherhood, when they had sent him to this outpost to keep the Temple, had told him that the sea was the Holy One and the Holy One was the sea, and that there he would ponder this great mystery and delve deeper and deeper into it. So he sat and watched the sea and listened to
its chattering and mumbling and felt its changes, its pull and tug by the moon, its currents drifting this way and that. He came to know it intimately. Sometimes the sky and the sea would become a metallic gray, and the sea would be rough and choppy and he could hear it grinding on the rocks below him. Sometimes the sun would hang still in the sky and the sea would become perfectly blue and calm, one great flat surface that belied the mysterious depths underneath. And sometimes the sky would turn dark, almost black even during the day, and the sea would toss and heave as if massive battles were being fought in the deep, and the Temple-Keeper thought he could see the points of tridents jabbing up through the highest waves and hear the blowing of conch-shell horns amid the crashes of thunder and surf. At these times, the Temple-Keeper would try his best to remain in his spot and watch, because the storms too were part of the sea and could not be ignored. Sometimes, though, rain lashed his face and the wind threatened to pitch him off the cliff and the lightning flashed dangerously overhead, and the Temple-Keeper was forced to take refuge inside, huddling under the ever firm and steadfast statue of the Holy One, and his eternal offering of the comforting flame. Many years went by in this way, and the Temple-Keeper, though still only a novice, kept up the daily ritual always with earnest devotion. He had been stationed at the Temple for many years—for as long as he could remember. The exact measure of time eluded him, for the repetition had turned his daily life into a still eternity, and the days all melded into one. But as the years wore on, it seemed to the Temple-Keeper that the days of calm came less and less often, and more frequent were the days of choppy, unsettled gray sea, and the wild squalls came more often, too. Of course, he couldn’t be sure, for he kept no records; it might simply have been his imagination or the slatternly tricks of memory. At any rate, he grew more and more accustomed to the untamed sea and the storms; he stayed outside during them longer and more often, and he became as comfortable with them as he was with the sunny calm, for after all they were both faces of the same sea. After a time, the Temple-Keeper found that he was no longer afraid. He could sit outside through the most merciless, raging storms and not be perturbed one bit. He no longer possessed any selfish concern for his own life or death; he only wanted to enter into the mighty ebb and flow of the Holy One, with all his heart, and end this tired commission. He became more and more impatient with his time spent inside the Temple and more and more eager to be outside and sit in communion with the sea and the sky and the gulls and even the trees behind him. Still, every day he did his duty without complaint, walking back into the Temple, performing the daily ritual, lighting the proper candles and bowls of incense in front of the various Honored Deities. One day, after keeping the Temple for some twenty years—but it could have been forty, or eighty, for he could not say how long—he was sitting out upon the bluff and he felt a slight rumbling beneath him. The sky was gray and the surf was rough, but the waves were not abnormally large, so that the Temple-Keeper was surprised to feel such a rumbling beneath him. He got up and walked to the very edge of the cliff and looked down, but he could not see the point where the waves struck the rock, for the rock jutted out well over the water. It had been that way since he had arrived. Nor had he ever been able to see the point where the land met the waves from the side, for the cliffs extended for leagues in either direction, and there was no way to get down onto the beach. The Temple-Keeper returned to his place of contemplation, sat down, and closed his eyes.
A short time later he felt and heard the rumbling again. This time, with his eyes closed, he was able to hear it more attentively. He thought it sounded like a crash and an echo in a large, cavernous place. He opened his eyes and looked around him, slightly disquieted. The sea, the sky, the rock, all looked the same as they often had, yet he felt that something had changed, something had shifted, deep beneath him where all eyes failed to penetrate. He took a calming breath and stood up. It was time for the afternoon procession into the Temple, anyway. He turned toward the façade of simple stone columns and felt a little rush of affection and gratitude toward the Temple for its solid, never-changing presence. He started his slow, deliberate walk toward it. As he was about halfway down the paved path, though, he felt a great rumbling, this time like an earthquake. The whole peninsula shook, and the Temple-Keeper almost lost his balance. He looked around anxiously for a second after it stopped, then proceeded more quickly into the Temple, forgetting decorum until he entered its hushed recesses. He took another calming breath, walked forward solemnly, and knelt down in front of the Holy One. As he leaned forward to kiss His Holy Navel, for whatever reason, a wave of forlorn sadness and nostalgia washed over him and made his body tremble. He kissed the Holy One’s navel tenderly and looked up into the emerald eyes that ceaselessly peered unseeingly ahead, into the horizon. Without knowing why, the Temple-Keeper felt as if he were saying goodbye to the guardian who had been so good to him. Then the whole cliff of rock began shaking once again. The Temple-Keeper fell to the side and steadied himself against a nearby column. A few of the painted icons fell off the walls and clanged on the ground like the clash of a dropped gong; some of the statues also fell over and shattered against the floor. Everything continued to shake. The Temple had not been built to endure such a riot of energy; its inflexible stone was too hard to cope with the shuddering waves that now passed through it. Cracks appeared in the walls, in the ceiling, in the floor. Lamps fell from their hangings and smashed, splashing hot oil across the floor. The Temple-Keeper looked around wildly in panic and prayed silently to the Holy One to protect his servant. But the blind statue, its legs bound rigidly together and its staff cemented uselessly at its side, could not stand the shaking, and it fell face forward; its nose shattered on the flagstones, and the arm that held out the gilded tongue of flame broke off at the elbow. The Temple-Keeper spun toward the door. But as he was crossing to it, a crack in the floor in front of him widened, and suddenly a piece of a flagstone dislodged itself and dropped away. The Temple-Keeper stepped forward and looked with astonishment down the hole. Through the floor and a thin layer of rock, he could see clear down to the sea surging a hundred feet beneath him. All at once, the Temple-Keeper knew that it was over, and a strange calm seized him. He thought back over the last twenty years and understood what had been going on all along, what he himself had seen and heard and felt day after day without realizing the conclusion to which it all would lead. Day after day he had sat and felt the murmuring ripples washing against the rocky cliff, stealing away one grain of sand at a time like insinuating little comments and tiny disappointments; he had felt the waves crashing against the rock face below like the force of endless bellicose arguments, one after another after another; he had felt the surging power of the ocean during storms, pounding against the foundations below him with the undeniable force of law and reason. He had looked out across the ocean and seen how that whole, vast, infinite realm of thought and
imagination, with all its watery roadways and eddies and undercurrents and vortexes and geysers, how all of that had been working on his lonely little bluff. Over all these years, while he had been unwearyingly and unceasingly performing his duty in the Brotherhood, the waters had been unwearyingly and unceasingly washing the land away from right under him. With this realization, and the realization that there was nothing he could do about it now and nothing he could have done about it—the realization that it had all happened as if by plan according to the Law of Nature, which is the Law of the Holy One —the Temple-Keeper felt the strange calm and let go of his anxious desire to save himself, as he had done in so many storms in the past. If he had hurried he probably could have scrambled out of the Temple and to the safety of the trees, but for what purpose? To return to the Brotherhood? They were the ones who had sent him out here, after all. How could they not have foreseen that this would happen? What excuse could they possibly give to him if he returned to them, shaken but alive? So he sat in the Temple that he had been told to keep, and let it pull him down. As he went, the thought crossed his mind that perhaps they had known all along—perhaps they had sent him out here for this very purpose. The Temple and the hollowed-out rock shelf slid and collapsed into the sea. The Temple-Keeper was strangely at peace with his fate as his beloved Temple dragged him down, as the briny water flowed in around him, as he drowned. A huge slab of rock from the ceiling of the Temple fell down onto the Temple-Keeper’s chest and pinned him down; he felt the crumbling rocks beneath him shifting and sliding, carrying him with them further down the slope into the sea-depths. After a while, they stopped sliding and the Temple-Keeper came to a halt on the level bottom of the sea. As the light of consciousness was fading to black, he felt weedy tendrils snare his arms and legs. They pulled him further down, out from under the slab of rock, and into the mucky ocean floor. He felt the scuttling appendages of sea creatures prancing over his legs, his stomach, his face. After passing through a squeezing black tube, something light, like a billow of wet silken hair, passed over him; a whisper in his ear spoke an unintelligible language, Weialala leia, wallala leialala. He found himself gently breathing again. His eyes were open. All around him was cloudy water suffused with blue and green lances of light, and several slim, floating shapes. He thought he could see their eyes laughing at him through the murky sea-green light, and then they tittered and fluttered away from him joyously. He spun and looked about him this way and that. Nothing held his body down now; his movements were unprecedentedly quick and free. He flapped upward toward the rippling silver surface with his tailfin and broke through, spraying droplets in an arc as he flipped his long hair back from his bare chest. The brown cassock had dissolved into the muck. He looked about in wonder; he was bobbing in a gentle surf a few dozen yards from shore. The rocky cliffs loomed up above him, a new face exposed where the bluff and the Temple had stood. The man flipped backwards into the water, diving deep, then looped back up and sprang out all the way into the air, falling back down with a splash. Then he dove up and down through the waves on a line out to sea, straight toward the late-afternoon sun.