Temple of Carnelian
In the Aether there is a temple, a pyramid of stone, missing the capstone, forever bathed in the red-gold light of a setting desert sun. The doors are always open and the inside is filled with long shadows that provide respite from the heat. You are welcome to sit, relax, contemplate. You've earned your place here. If you explore, you may find the goddess of the temple, Sekhmet, she with the head of a lioness, arbiter of courage and inner strength. She may smile, she may beckon or direct, but she never speaks. It isn't necessary. In this case, she glanced at a passage off in the distance, one I hadn't yet seen. It danced with a curious flickering array of colors and so I moved toward it. Even before I could see it clearly, I felt it, like an oven, but I was strong, so I pushed forward, I had to see. My skin felt as if it may peel away, like the worst sunburn you've ever had, but still I pushed. And I saw a corridor, lengthy and filled entirely with flame. Somehow I could see through the flame to the far side. There was a courtyard overgrown with brambles and weeds, toppled columns, collapsed buildings, and people, so many of them. Each oblivious to the others, heads down, shuffling aimlessly in the dust of a dead city. Their despair was palpable, their loss, their regret, their guilt. Each felt that this great calamity was their fault alone and that rebuilding was not only impossible but a blasphemy, an attempt to erase what they had done, what they had caused. No. This is the way it had to be. Each felt that they alone were suffering in isolation, in silence, “as it should be” they thought. To them, this was a deserved fate. But I could see into their hearts, a place they'd long stopped looking. I could see their mistakes, simple and compounded, but infinitely forgivable, not worthy of this self-imposed punishment. Yes, each, in their own way, had led to the collapse, but there was no malice, no intent. They had it in them to forgive, repair, rebuild into something greater, but could not see it. I turned to Sekhmet and asked, “why are they suffering? Why don't you tell them they don't deserve this? Why don't you help them?” She said nothing but nodded and looked away as if to say, “that is not my duty.” This was horrible. I knew they could be saved. I knew they had everything they needed if they'd just look around, notice each other, share their feelings and their desires, pool their skills. But they would never look up. They would never see anyone other than themselves and their unearned shame. I knew in that moment that I could turn away from this fiery tunnel, return to the cool shadows of the temple and relax. After all, I had earned it. None would fault me for accepting the reward that I deserved. But I couldn't get their faces out of my mind, their blank expressions, seeing nothing but what they had lost. I also knew that I could save them. I could. I could teach them and help them. But I would have to pass through the flames to do it. No one would help me, no one would notice my approach, none would worry about my pain and suffering. In fact, they'd warn me away, tell me to go back. I knew all of this, but I pushed forward anyway. The liquid wall of heat pressured me to go back, resisted like being under water. My feet stuck to the floor as the skin sloughed away. My body screamed as millions of tiny needles dug into my flesh, pulling, tearing. My scalp burned as my hair burst into flames. I could stop right now. I could stop and instantly be transported to the cool stone floor of the temple behind me. I knew that. Even as my eyes boiled in my skull, I could see them, feel their despair and their emptiness. I knew if I didn’t help them, then no one would help them. I knew loss and regret, but I also knew hope. Yes, I had betrayed people I loved. Yes, I had lied, I had cheated, I had very nearly murdered, but I became a better person because I survived these things and learned from them. My fingers clasped at nothing, the muscles barely responding, my tongue was swollen and raw. I knew, again, that I could stop, right now, and instantly be soothed, be safe. I knew I could have that because I had earned it. I deserved it. But did they deserve what was happening to them? Could I live with myself knowing I could have made a difference? I was shaking now, on autopilot but still moving toward them. I cried out, but no tears could flow in such heat. I crawled. I fell. And landed in damp earth, humid and rotten. I was whole again and I had crossed the barrier. Something had been left behind in the flames, something was burned away. I had new purpose, new dedication. The lives of those around me poured into my consciousness, they had dreams once, and hope. All of them. I schlepped through the mud to the closest person and lifted their head so I could look in their eyes. He was elderly, old beyond reason, and his eyes were empty. Not blind, just empty. I spoke softly, “I know your name, I can sense it. You are Ka'telon, once a stone mason, a builder, and architect.” He blinked and shook his head, mumbled incoherent sounds as if he'd forgotten how to speak. “Do you remember the first time you felt your connection to the world around you? To other people?” He found his voice, “What does that matter when they are all dead? When all I have are memories of what was done? When I can still hear their screams? I am connected to nothing because there is nothing left.” “Open your eyes and look around,” I implored. He squinted and muttered, “As I remember it. Nothing left. Surrounded by those who will never forgive me for what I've done.” He pulled away and lowered his head, ignoring me. The next person I addressed was an ancient woman, I felt she had been an artist. “Do you remember the first thing you created?” She paused, coughed, “I put two colors on paper, blue and yellow and saw the sun and the ocean. But that was through a child's eyes, worthless and naïve.” “But the wonder you felt, the possibility. You continued to paint, yes?” “I did. Until I created works that were hung in places of honor and called beautiful. But where is it now? Decayed into filth and dust. Nothing remains. What I did was meaningless. It solved nothing, saved no one when the time came.” “Norette,” I called her by name, “you are wrong. What gives someone hope is not what is practical or useful, it is what causes us to see beyond what is in front of us. Those things that challenge us to look at the world around us in a different way, that pushes us to think unfamiliar thoughts. To look forward.” “Bah! There is nothing forward but the same forever and ever.” She walked away. Next I spoke to another old woman, “Cybil,” I called to her, “when was the last time you sang?” “Once I felt the beauty of song. How a voice could tell such a story with no words, how a heart could be buoyed or sunk, an army bolstered or cowed. A chorus of song was to hear the god's speak. Yes, I sang. I sang on the last day. Songs out of mythology and history, songs calling out for aid, for any of the gods to show themselves. But none did. And so I no longer sing because no one is listening.” “Did you only sing because someone would hear it? Did you not sing to yourself, sing in individual praise, sing to feel the music rise in your throat and sprout into the world? Did you sing only because it inspired?” “I sang because it suited me. Now leave me.” She too left me standing alone. Discouraged, I sat on an old stump and wondered what else I could do. I could see their strengths, the ones they'd forgotten and denied and buried. I could see their potential. But they were in so much pain, so much regret. I prayed to my goddess and my god. I asked for guidance. I asked for encouragement. I heard a bird singing, trilling and whistling, like Spring. It was just for a moment, then silence. I looked around and saw Cybil, by herself, facing away. I heard the song again and realized it was her. Her voice having lost nothing but she was unsure, frightened. As I studied the rest of the city, I saw Ka'telon slowly stacking collapsed stones. I saw Norette using mud to experiment with creating a mural on the side of one of the empty houses. I could not do this for them, but I could give them the push they needed. So I spoke to every resident. Reminded them of the elation of hope, the joyousness of creation. And so they swept, and cleaned, and built, and decorated, and sang, and wrote, and devised clever solutions, and vowed to never make the same mistakes again. They forgave. And through it all, they worked together. Deep inside, they knew the city would one day fall again. But, for now, they allowed the majesty of their accomplishment to lift them up. It was not about tomorrow or yesterday, but about today, about love and compassion and giving. Their eyes were bright, their bodies young, and their minds full of potential. And, back in her temple, Sekhmet smiled.
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