I am Utas. I do not remember, but they came for me, the twelve. I die and am reborn. How many times? I am taken by the twelve from my home and taken to the tower. No more than a child, I remember nothing. The twelve came for me led by Vatu, by the Darkness, and brought me here to my home.
I remember nothing, just darkness. What does it matter, I grew, and the darkness grew within me.
The twelve fed me darkness. How they hate me. How they envy me. I will take from them all that they have for it is all mine. They will not keep me from it. They murdered me before, but I am reborn, and now when it is time I will murder them, each of them.
I will murder Zauria who took me for my first year. I remember nothing of that time, but still I will kill him when I can. I will take his body and burn him on the altar and sing the death hymn, but I will not shed tears for him. He is the least of the twelve.
Of the year spent with Zigoro I recall scarcely more. I survived. I suppose that Vatu would have made it clear that the death of the infant High Priest would displease him, otherwise Zigoro would surely have slain me. He is not to be trusted, but then again none of them are to be trusted. He is not strong, but he is cunning. He lies in wait until it is clear to strike; at other times he hides. He is hated, they are all hated. I hate them all.
Beldura, Gorroto, Hondatu, Estira; I passed from one to the other each year. I was taken to the hall of Vatu. My sponsor would bring me to the echoing empty chamber. All of the twelve would be there, the twelve and Vatu.
“I have done with him,” my sponsor would say. “I return him to the dark.”
“Who will serve the dark? Who will guide the High Priest?”
“I will,” and my new guardian will step forward and take my hand. Then the twelve retire from the hall, led by the new tutor holding my hand tightly. That is it; there is no great ceremony. I am handed over. I am led away.
Hilketa is my guardian now. He leads me to his chambers. They are not so different from the chambers of the others. They are large and dark. They have no windows. The moon does not shine here. There are four rooms, not counting the washroom and privy. Hilketa shows me to one of the apartments.
“This is yours,” he says.
I look at it and shrug. It is a large, square room with black stone walls and floor. There are brass lanterns, but they are turned down low. There is a bed and a box and a table. The box is empty. Every year it is empty. My things are destroyed, and I receive new things. But I need few things anyway; perhaps a writing tablet and stylus, or a flute. They are easily replaced.
Hilketa looks at me. He looks me in the eye.
“Do you remember?” he asks, but I shake my head. I do not know what he thinks I will recall. I have been reborn, but I do not remember anything.
“We were friends,” he says. I think it is a lie, but I say nothing. I am a child and I am in his care. I will not antagonize him needlessly.
“You are so like him.”
It is a stupid thing to say. Of course I am like him. I am myself, who else should I look like?
“Go then, sleep, we will begin tomorrow.”
“Begin what?” I ask.
“Your training, of course.”
“The others did not train me,” I state flatly.
“Yes they did,” contradicts Hilketa, “you just don’t know what you have learned.”
“What will you teach me?” I ask.
“The same as the others; how to be yourself.”
I think for a while and screw my face up. Do I need to be taught to be myself? I would like to ask him, but I do not in case he beats me. I am not afraid of beatings (who taught me that?). But I have no wish to be beaten for no good cause.
“What?” asks Hilketa. He seems amused.
“Why must I be taught to be myself?”
“That can wait, tomorrow is fine. We will speak then. You have much to learn. Sleep now.”
With that, Hilketa turns and leaves. I am alone. I lie on the bed. It is firm and there is no cover. All the beds are firm and the tower is warm so there is no need for a cover. I sleep; sleep is the darkness’s greatest gift.
In the morning I wake to find Hilketa in my room. He is seated and is looking at me. He is dressed in black robes, but he is not wearing his mask or his gauntlets. I look at him, but say nothing.
“It is time to get up,” he says. “Are you hungry?”
He gestures to a bowl of blood and milk. I am hungry, and drink it with relish. It is slightly warm, and very satisfying.
“Do you know why we drink blood?” he asks.
“Estira says it is to symbolize our power and strength. Mighty predators drink blood and so do we.”
Hilketa snorts. “Yes, mighty predators drink blood, and so do parasites.
“Come.” He gestures and I follow him. He leads me to a broad hall.
“Stand on that mark,” he says and points to a hieroglyph on the floor. I stand on the mark and Hilketa ties a blindfold around my eyes. “Walk forward,” he instructs.
“Where to?” I ask.
“Just walk forward, I’ll tell you when to stop.”
I walk forward for about ten steps, then he tells me to stop. “Now turn and go back to where you were.” I turn and walk back, counting out the ten steps in my head. When I think I have returned, I stop.
“Take the blindfold off,” Hilketa says.
I am standing well to the left of the mark and about four feet too short. Hilketa looks disappointed, I can see by his face I have not done well.
“I will teach you to walk in darkness,” he says. “It is not easy, not at first. You have walked with your eyes guiding you, now you must let the darkness guide you.”
“I tried to count my steps,” I reply sullenly.
“Yes,” agrees Hilketa, “that was your mistake. Put the blindfold on again. There are many senses. No doubt you have been told we have five: smell, sight, touch, taste and hearing. It is a lie, we have many more senses. Lean to one side, that’s right, a bit further. Now feel the difference, feel the change in your balance and feel the changes in your muscles. Be aware. Be aware of your movement. To walk in darkness, you must have faith. You must have faith in the darkness and in yourself, now once again.”
I step onto the hieroglyph and replace the blindfold. Once again I step forward.
“Imagine that you are leaving a trail of silver behind you,” says Hilketa. “Walk forward and then turn and follow that trail backward. In your head is both a compass and level. Feel each swing of the compass and each tilt of the level. When you go back you must repeat each tilt and swing. In your head you are building a map of silver trails that lead you through the dark.”
Again I walk back.
“Now take off your blindfold.”
This time I am only a short way from the hieroglyph.
“Good,” says Hilketa. “What did you do wrong?”
I think for a while.
“Well, what is your answer?”
“I did everything as you said, I was very close to the hieroglyph.”
“But not close enough. You must be exact. If you are even the slightest bit out, the gap between where you are and where you should be will get greater and greater and you will be lost in the darkness. When you are the High Priest you will have to dance in the hall of Vatu. Think, if then you could not find your way back to the doors of darkness, you would be trapped there.”
“I could follow the wall till I came to the door.”
“You could try, perhaps you would be fortunate and find it, but most likely not. The Hall of Vatu is not like this, it is vast and shapeless. You would not find your way out that way. Touch will not lead you out. Now again, what did you do wrong?”
Again I think for a moment.
“I compensated, I thought I had made a mistake and tried to correct it. I thought I had gone too far and stepped back. I put my faith in reason rather than in darkness and in myself.”
“That is right.” Hilketa nods. “Now, again.”
Again and again I walk blindfolded. I get better but I make many mistakes.
“I cannot do this,” I protest.
“If you could do it then I would not have to teach you,” says Hilketa mildly. “Again.”
I try again and this time when I remove the blindfold I am standing directly over the hieroglyph.
“Good,” says Hilketa.
“If I am the High Priest reborn,” I ask, “why must I learn the things I knew before?”
Hilketa shrugs. “It is the way.”
“Did you need to learn this?”
“Yes,” says Hilketa. “You taught me.”
I think about this for a while. It is strange to think that these men knew me in my past life.
“That was a long time ago,” says Hilketa. “It was in the life before the last one. This is the second time I have taught you to walk in darkness, and other things.”
“Was I a good teacher?” I ask.
“Yes, you taught me to walk in darkness. I am grateful,” and to my surprise he bows to me. None of the others bowed to me. It must be a trick. He is trying to make me trust him. I am not such a fool.
We practice for the rest of the day, walking backwards and forwards. I get better, but I am still not perfect.
“Do not be discouraged, it is not easy to ignore reason and walk in darkness. Come now, that is enough for one day.”
Hilketa turns and I follow him back to his rooms. On the way we pass Kong. He is dressed in the robes of his priesthood and is wearing the black jet amulet of the chief priest, my amulet. He does not speak to me, but pushes past without a word. Hilketa has pulled me to him out of Kong’s path. Kong has ignored us. It is as if we are beneath his notice.
I can feel Hilketa’s grip tighten on my shoulder. After Kong has passed, he relaxes his grip and we walk onward. It is a trick, to make me think he is my ally against Kong. Hilketa is subtle. I must not underestimate him.
“Are you the oldest of the twelve?” I ask.
“For the moment. I will be reborn soon enough, and I will be the youngest. Then it will be your turn to teach me.”
Good, let him think I trust him.
Day after day, Hilketa teaches me to walk in darkness. “Think of your body, think to every point of your skin, be aware of your own presence.”
I get better, now I practice in total darkness. When I return to my room the light is not lit. I live in darkness, I eat in darkness, I sleep in darkness, I wash in darkness.
“Good,” Hilketa says. “You have learned to walk in darkness.”
Later we go to the top of the tower, mostly when the moon is out. Hilketa likes the moon. He stands staring at it. I look down into the inner court and out over the City of the Sun. I can see the people going about their business. The city is very busy.
“Why do we never go into the city?” I ask.
“We do go into the city. It is just you who does not, not yet anyway.”
“When can I go?”
“Never mind about that, come and look at the moon.”
“How many times do you think the moon has travelled round the earth?”
I have not thought about that and shrug indifferently. It does not matter.
“How many more times do you think it will travel round the earth?”
“Thousands, millions,” repeats Hilketa, “thousands, millions. Thousands and millions before and thousands and millions after. Thousands and millions.”
I shrug. Why does he care about this? What difference does it make? I want to go back to watching the people down below. They look very small from the top of the tower. They look like ants. When I am High Priest I will get to play with them. They will do what I say. They will be mine.
“What do you do when you go to the city?” I ask.
Hilketa does not answer, so I ask again.
“So what do you do when you go to the city?”
“Lots of things, nothing important, you will see when you’re older.”
“Why do you always look at the moon when we come here?”
“You ask a lot of questions.”
“If I am to learn, then I must ask questions.”
“You may not like what you learn, you may learn nothing.”
“Why, do you think I will be frightened of what I learn?”
“No, not frightened. I have known you all this lifetime and I have never known you to be frightened. Very well, I will tell you why I look at the moon. It is unchanging and ever changing. It is the same moon I have looked at in every lifetime. It is a different moon from the one I saw last moonrise. How many lives do you think I have lived looking at that moon, how many more lives do you think I will live looking at the moon?”
I shrug. What does it matter?
“Like I said, you have learned nothing. That is hardly surprising. Still, you will learn, you will remember. When you are yourself, you will know.”
“What nonsense, I am myself. I am the High Priest.”
Now it is Hilketa that shrugs.
“If you say so,” he says. “Come, it is time to go.”
We walk in darkness back to our apartment.
“What else do you have to teach me?” I ask. “Is this why I go to a new teacher every year? Is there only so much you teach me?”
“Yes, perhaps, or perhaps we can only bear to put up with you for a year.”
At night I lie in my room looking up into the darkness. It is hot in the tower, always hot. I am glad I do not have to wear the robes of the High Priest. I am dressed in darkness. Bats chase moths and beetles in the dark. I lie listening to the flutter of wings, moth wings and bat wings. I can hear bats crunching the stiff carapace of beetles. Moth wings spiral down out of the night. When I sleep, I dream, but I can never remember my dreams when I wake. They are always just out of reach like the memories of my past lives. Who am I?
Hilketa is in the next room. I can hear the sound of him moving in his sleep. It seems he dreams too. Every night I can hear him muttering in his sleep, but I cannot make out what he says. What is it that disturbs his sleep? I should ask him, but I do not. In the morning it seems that night brought the gift of sleep after all.
“It is time to rise,” says Hilketa. I rise and go to wash. There is the usual bowl of blood and milk for me to drink.
“What do moths eat?”
“What a strange question. Why do you ask?”
“Bats eat moths and beetles, but what do they eat? They must eat something. What do beetles eat?”
“They eat all sorts of things: human sweat, excrement, they eat clothes. They eat mosses that grow on damp walls. They eat the traces of blood and milk you leave. Why do you ask?”
“Can we eat moths and beetles? Can we eat bats? All I have ever eaten is blood and milk, can I eat other things? What do they taste like?”
“I see. Yes, we can eat bats and beetles and moths. They do not taste particularly nice. If you wish, we can catch some and you can eat them. There are other things we can eat. But blood and milk is what is brought to us at the tower from the outer court. It is brought to us because they are the most precious. Blood is given by the members of the court. It is taken from them. It is a sacrifice. Milk is given too, it is stolen from their children. We are more precious than the children of the court. When we go to the court we eat other things. But blood and milk is more precious, and nothing is sweeter.”
Hilketa has brought a lantern. It is the first time he has brought a lantern in weeks.
I ask him, “Why have you brought a lantern?”
“I must teach you to read. You must have light to read. You cannot learn without light.”
He gives me a stylus and tablet. I have used them before and know how to shape glyphs. I know their names and their shapes. I tell Hilketa this, but he says this is not enough.
“I am teaching you to read and write. You say you can write, yes, that is true. But writing is a journey without end. Reading is a journey without end. I am teaching you not just how to write, and not just how to read.
“Now take your stylus and inscribe your name on the tablet.”
I take the reed stylus and impress it into the wax tablet. I form the shape of my name.
“Good, that is your name, or at least the short version of it.”
“What do you mean? This is my name, I don’t have a longer version.”
He is speaking in riddles. He is trying to confuse me. Sometimes I am good at riddles but this one has me perplexed.
“No, this is my name. It is the only name I know. It is the name of the High Priest and I am the High Priest, it is my name.”
“Who am I?”
“Hilketa. Here, I can write the glyphs of your name. It means murder, to kill someone, to take their life.”
“Is that who I am? Suppose someone who had never met me asked you who I was, what would you say? ‘He is Hilketa,’ but what would that tell them? Would they be able to know me from that name? Would they be able to pick me out in a crowd from that name? Who is Hilketa? What does that mean?”
“I suppose I could say you have grey hair, quite long, that you are one of the twelve priests of Vatu.”
“Good, is that who I am then? Is that all you could say about me?”
“No, I could say more, maybe a lot more.”
“Why don’t you? Why don’t you say more?”
“Well, because it would take too long to tell them everything I know about you, and even then it would not be enough to describe you, it would only be describing what I know, not what I don’t know.”
“Yes, that’s right. No matter what you say, or write, it is never enough. If you are lucky, you have said enough that whoever hears and reads your words can fill in the gaps, not all of them for sure, but enough. A name is never enough, it is just a label. It is meaningless.”
“So why bother writing, why bother with names at all?”
“Try and draw a picture of me.”
I am not good at drawing. I form a round shape for Hilketa’s bulbous head, I add some squiggles to represent his straggly grey hair, and some lines to represent his eyes, mouth and nose.
“It is not very good,” I say and offer it to Hilketa.
“No, it is not very good,” agrees Hilketa, “but it is good enough. If you showed this to a stranger, he would be able to pick me out or to find me from this picture. You have left out lots of things, but you have got enough. That is what writing is, it is finding enough to paint a picture, to say what you want to say.”
“And what is reading?”
“Reading is filling in the blanks, hearing what has not been said and seeing what has not been shown. Reading what has not been written.”
“That sounds impossible.”
“And yet we do it, almost.”
A tablet is set in front of me. I am asked to copy the words onto my tablet. When I do, I hand it to Hilketa and he reads it, then he runs a rule over the wax and flattens it again. I copy tablet after tablet. Then we stop.
“So, what have you been reading?”
“I don’t know.”
“So you copied tablet after tablet, but cannot tell me what you have copied.”
I look at the blank tablet he has handed back to me, what was written there. It is the same tablet, but there is no trace of what I have written. I will not find the answers there. All of the glyphs, all of the words have gone from my eye to my mind and then through my hand to the tablet. Is there really no trace of what I have written left there either?
“Tell me what was on the first tablet I asked you to copy.”
What was on that tablet? What did I write on the tablet? There is no trace of it now. I look down at the tablet again.
“You will not find the answer there.”
“It was a report.”
“They were all reports. But do not worry, I did not expect you to know the answer, I just wanted to show the difference between reading and reading well.
“You will learn, just as you learned to walk in the dark. It is just a question of knowing how. Again, read the report. This time, do not write it down, just read it aloud.”
Hilketa hands me a tablet and I read.
Great ones, I hereby relate that certain citizens of our town have murmured against the order of things. These citizens being wealthy and influential did stir up discontent. It was necessary to conduct firm action to suppress the activities of these rebels. They and their households have been dealt with in the appropriate manner. All goods in the possession of the deceased have been confiscated and will be redistributed in due course. This will raise a small sum for the treasury to be sent shortly. As ever, we are loyal to the Sun and loyal to darkness. Praise Vatu.
Hilketa listens to me as I recite these words. When I am finished, he nods his head.
“Well, what does this tell us?”
“A provincial governor has carried out his duties to keep the peace and sends his report. It is a routine report informing us and keeping us up to date on his action, and telling us that a sum of money is due shortly for the treasury.”
Hilketa sniffs. I think he is displeased with my answer, but he says nothing.
“Have I done wrong?” I ask. I am not afraid to displease him, but I wish to learn; if I am wrong he should tell me, then I can do better.
“Not wrong, no… But…”
“Yes, tell me. I wish to learn.”
“There are no wrong answers. What you say is correct, but it is not the whole of the matter.”
I reread the tablet, but I cannot see what I have missed out and say so.
“I did not say you had missed anything.”
“What has the writer missed out?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean you must read what is not written. But let us leave this for now.”
He motions for me to pick up my flute, and from his robe he draws his own flute. He starts to play and I play along with him. It is a sad, mournful tune within a lingering minor key. We play together and his notes and mine twine together. It is as if we are one person playing one song. It is very sad but very beautiful. He plays slowly and steadily. I play softly and subtly, I let my notes lie over his like fallen leaves in a stream. It flows and eddies and circles around. Now he is playing softer still. It is like snow in moonlight. I play stealthily like wind drift shaping and brushing the music into waves and hollows. At last, he stops. I notice there is a tear in his eye.
“Good,” he says. “You always did learn music quickly.”
“Did I? I don’t remember, I don’t remember anything. Will I ever remember anything? Do you remember your past lives?”
Hilketa shakes his head.
“No. It is like the tablets, it is the same tablet, but once it is wiped clean, everything that was there is gone. It must be written again.”
“So,” I ask, “when I wipe the tablet and write on it, I do not have to write the same things.”
“You are taking my analogy too far. We are the servants of Vatu. It is always the same that is written. There may be changes in the shapes of glyphs, but the content, the meaning is always the same.”
“But,” I say, “if the important thing is what is not written, then how can that always be the same? It could be different every time you read it.”
“You always were too clever. I cannot answer these questions. I will ask you and you will tell me the answer in another lifetime.”
I want to ask him more about myself. What was I like? What am I like? I know nothing. I must know everything. I wonder if he will tell me. Is this what he thinks, that he is writing who I am on a blank tablet? If he thinks that, he is wrong. I am not what he or what any of the twelve will try to make me. How dare he think he can shape me and mould me to his will. I am his master, he should not forget that.