Entry Writchal #4
The Harvest Festival
It was the coldest night Tem had spent since his early childhood. He had to tighten his coat to his body so tightly for so long that the tips of his fingers began to feel numb. Clouds of vapor emerged in the air following his every breath, dissipating and getting more rapid and turbulent as the night progressed. Ducking underneath a branch from which hung a swing set he adored as a kid, a couple of loose branches stroked his forehead, causing a pinch of his hair to fall over his eyes and blind his sight. He stumbled on the roots of a tree, covered entirely by dry leaves yet leaving enough space underneath it to strip him off his right boot, and Tem fell to the ground.
The lights of his house are off, and soon enough the others may wonder where he had gone. If he isn’t back by the next morning, they’d fail to prepare the village festival early, knowing many of the decorations and fireworks are stored inside the house, locked in a cabinet whose key only he then possessed. With that in mind, he rose back up, picked up his boot from the jagged root, and rushed to the shrine.
Opening the door, he found the hall empty and dark but one end of a table. The youngest priestess, on her candlelit table, had with her a sheet of papyrus, ink, and a brush she so elegantly wrote her diary with. Finally letting go of his grip on his coat, Tem let his footsteps echo throughout the hall. She clearly noticed it, but that did not interrupt her writing. Only when Tem sat at the other end of the table letting the candle shine his face did she look at him.
“Sorry for trespassing,” he bowed. She recognized his face but couldn’t pick out history out of it. She finished the line she was writing on the papyrus, laid it flat on the table, and rubbed the tip of the brush with snake hide.
“Would you give me advice?” Tem asked. She nodded.
“It is about the death of my sister.”
Images flowed inside him of her silhouette two mornings ago, exiting the house out to her workshop. The exact actions and movements he took that morning drenched his brain again, dipping his head low as he talked to the priestess. What he saw just a few moments after her exit was a fresh, cloudless morning sky. The leaves of the ginkgo tree at the center of the village rolled around in the air, striking his window. But the village was left with too many questions.
The body of Tem’s sister, Suma, was found lying underneath the ginkgo tree, bearing the whiteness of the brightest stars of the sky, her eyes closed as if they had never been open, her limbs so close to her body as she lay above the fallen leaves. She bore no witnesses.
The villagers panicked. Children thought she was asleep gazing at the sky, seeing her body left no trace of violence, wounds, or illness. Once the flames of confusion engulfed the village, the village elder Kuan calmed the masses. Tem did not make a sound, staying just a few steps away from his house.
They gathered for her cremation that very day. Gathering flowers and aloe from the neighboring hills, everyone gathered around the furnace as Kuan represented the village’s wish for her.
“It is important, then, that we accept her passing as the will of the Gods themselves,” so he said. And her body burned.
“How could they prove that? Why so would the Gods hand her her death?” Tem asked the priestess.
The priestess took a breath. “Does she leave a legacy?”
“She…well, one thing she does is making fireworks for festivals. The kids love her! They…I know they feel really bad to see her go. The older folk, too! She’s the only one continuing on our tradition of firework-making…to their pride.”
“Then,” she glared. “How’d you suppose her spirit feels?”
Tem glanced away from her gaze. Staring at the candle already dimming, wax closing in on the sheet of papyrus, Tem admitted that “Yes, she would be happy.” Knowing how many people remember her and her craft, in no way would she be unhappy and forgotten.
“Then that much is enough.”
That wasn’t enough of an answer. “But there has to be a reason to her death! Think of all the people she left behind!”
She sighed. Seeing the wax close to running out, she looked at the nearby cabinet containing new candles. Not knowing how to properly answer him, she replied, “It’s true that circumstances surrounding her death are unclear…”
She stood up from her seat. “Perhaps you’d like to find out yourself?”
“Please. I’d do anything.”
“I have a feeling…that the Gods may forgive you if you question them.” She opened the cabinet. “Come to the mountain. You can summon them there. Though, you can’t wait for long. It’ll only be so long until the festival commences.”
The fireworks Suma had handcrafted were all stored in a shed near the ginkgo tree. Tem helped to move much of the decorations from inside his late sister’s room. Children painted flags and fabrics to decorate the festive treehouse. Older men prepared stilts out of bamboo, striped red and navy all around, lining up against the town hall. As noon approached, Tem, as the village treasurer, calculated and estimated all expenses, lining up the tallies and costs down on a piece of carved bark. It should’ve been tomorrow that he details them, but knowing he’d soon go on a long journey alone, it’s better to tire himself down now.
The year’s harvest festival, the most festive, is almost coming to its fruition. The period saw the successful reaps of sorgum—the highest it had been since the great flood. With this, Kuan instructed that the people give the utmost festive of celebrations to the Gods. And as per tradition, it is to be held at the new moon.
He reminded himself the whole time how much he hated the new moon. His father had been deeply religious, and whenever Tem and his sister wanted to enjoy their time near the new moon, he’d always force them to prepare for some festivity. Whether he’d make him visit others’ homes or neighboring villages, prepare decorations and offerings, or prepare food, he’d hate it for the simple fact that he was forced into it. It may be that he’d still do it anyway with less resentment had his father not be so strict.
Not to be misunderstood, the festivals have always been fun, but seeing kids his age run over to the mountain or play hide and seek deep in the bamboo groves at the time always gave him a sense of disbelonging. While Tem took the route of spiting the Gods for letting him be born into such a religious family, Suma seemed to fully accept her deep role in the village’s spiritual life.
Tem’s father, a fisherman, disappeared when he approached his early teens. Amidst a famine caused by the flood at the time, his father had made a large wagon and gathered flowers, logs, and all sorts of spiritual offerings. He disappeared alongside everything he made. The village panicked at his disappearance, though Tem stayed quiet, relieved even—that he finally got to feel a sense of freedom in the new moon, at an age too old to reclaim childhood. Suma soon replaced his father’s role, but without any force placed on Tem.
Seeing her as his father’s apprentice, Tem thought the villagers would take her death by more outrage. But no—the troublemaking children, San and Lin, still knocked at people’s doors with slingshots Suma made as if she never passed. Elder Roi, the rocking-chair-bound wrinkled-and-grayed woman who used to make fireworks, was not shedding a tear at the passing of her former trainee. And Kuan, the one holding such pride in her, shielded himself behind vague answers.
Thoughts kept running on and on in his head as he calculated costs.Once everything was finished, he placed it in the box of important documents for the villagers to read, and sat underneath the same tree he tripped on the night before, and drank some water from the nearby stream. And so came time for his departure. As his shadow lay twice his height, he knocked on Kuan’s door.
“Sorry for disturbing.” He looked at Kuan’s exasperated complexion. “I’d like to go to the mountain, by myself.”
“By yourself? What for?”
“I—it’s about Suma. I thought, there is no way she could’ve passed away so…suddenly. I have to know the reason behind it.”
Kuan’s wide forehead wrinkled yet his eyes saw right through what Tem was about to say. “And what will knowing the reason give you? Surely she won’t be brought back.”
“She knows me well enough to know that I’ll not stop until I find the answer. It sure enough will give me reassurance.”
Kuan gave his words a thought. “As our treasurer, don’t you have more to worry about?”
“I’ve written down all the expenses and costs, sir.”
Kuan sighed. “If you wish, then…I suppose I can’t stop you.”
Tem let out a breath of relief. “Thank you, sir!”
“But,” he raised a finger. “Do return when the festival commences.”
And so he set out on a journey.
The rugged, boggy land extended for miles in front of his eyes. There used to be a spacious woodland here, just up to a decade ago. Right before his father disappeared, a great flood struck the land. An earthquake had caused a massive landslide to the south that blocked a major river, altering its course and flooding the lands. As a result, harvests failed, forests were truncated, and fauna evacuated.
It’s concerning to see that nothing much has changed since. Not the skinny trees nor shrubbery have even regenerated. The mountain is just fifteen miles away, and nothing blocked his sight except the dawning night. He had brought with him only water, offerings, and a short tent to spend one or two nights. If he could walk faster, he’d make it before the festival commences.
As the tent laid on the flat ground, the menacing mountain peak stared him down. Slipping into a deep slumber, thoughts and reflections of Suma’s resting body did not escape his mind. And such it will remain until the following morning.
What woke him up was not a piercing ray of sunlight against his eyelids. Before the sun came up, tall grass rustled and the sound of the nearby stream flowing was briefly cut by a slithering shrill. And then, there was the loud swing of an axe. Suspicious of his surroundings, he stayed quiet inside his tent, until a voice called.
“Anyone in there?” asked the masculine, hoarse voice. Knowing he’d be found sooner or later, Tem could only hope it didn’t belong to a thief. He pulled his head out to see the outside. It was barely dawn.
“Anything up, sir?”
What he saw was the silhouette of an old, grumpy man, with a muscular build seemingly trained by his profession. He wore ragged, beige clothing, with black stains littering the sutures and holes and dye already scraped off parts of it, revealing white wool. On his right shoulder hung an old leather satchel. He had a short beard, partly turning gray, though Tem couldn’t see the hues clearly with the sun barely out. In his hand was a pickaxe, blood dripping from one end coming from a snake he had killed. So that was what slithered.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“Ah…sorry, sir, I was asleep.”
“That’s not what I meant!” The man took a good look at Tem’s face, tilting his head and squinting his eyes. “Anyone familiar with this area should know never to sleep on bare grass. That tent of yours…won’t protect you from anything.”
“That snake…was it approaching me?”
“Of course. I stood here for long, waiting for you to wake up and protecting you from these critters!”
Tem shyly evaded his gaze. “Thank you…for that.”
“Come, wake up. Where are you going?”
“To the mountain? What for? Why would one go there without a caravan?”
“…I need to ask the Gods for something.”
“It’s nothing you should get involved with, I’m sure.”
“No, no, I know the Gods well! Maybe I can offer a hand.”
Know the Gods well? Not a normal person would ever say such a thing, Tem thought. Not knowing even whether to trust him or not, he said what he needed to.
“Would they reveal the reasons behind someone’s death?”
The man leaned on his pickaxe stuck to the ground. “It wouldn’t be easy. Perhaps,” he let out a breath, “they’d see you as an ingrate.”
Tem hindered from his eyes.
“Well, either way,” the man continues, “you’ll be coming along with me.”
“I mine obsidian there. Why else would I have this pick? Besides, you look too inexperienced to spend days and nights out in the wild.”
So the pair headed off to lands yet unmapped by Tem’s mind. The man introduced himself only as Kosh, and as he guided Tem through the plains, he took no break to his exhausted partner, even sometimes forgetting he existed. Inside his small satchel was only one sleeping bag, made of thin leather and a net to protect one’s face from the wilderness. Probably never having a partner alongside him before, he didn’t have a second one.
They stopped soon after next to a stream. Kosh ordered Tem to sit down and fill both their water bottles, as well as collect any flowers or fruits nearby. Kosh locked his eyes on a monitor lizard burrowed under wild shrubs.
His catch ended fruitless. The beast burrowed deeper underground, building a fortress against the hostile man. With that, they only had wild berries for breakfast.
“The flood killed off most life that used to be here,” Kosh explained. “Food has been scarce since.”
“You know, that’s about when I started coming to the mountain. I prayed, and prayed, and collected flowers for the Gods over and over. Mining is just a way of making a living out of it.”
Tem chewed his berry, carefully savoring its juices. “Then…do you still do it out of hope they’ll return the land to how it was?”
The man sighed and smiled. “That is…partly correct. Though, listen. We live only under their mercy, and once you submit yourself close to them, they could place any curse they want above your head.”
A gust of wind blew from the west.
“So, for that, I’ve been keeping this question. Do you really want to face them head-on?”
“What could happen if I do?”
“That I can’t tell. It’s opening the gates to whatever malevolence they may inflict upon you. Even still, I’m putting myself at risk bringing you far away to the mountain.”
“But my sister…there’s no way they let her die so suddenly.”
Kosh stared into the distance. “How did she?”
“I—I don’t know! It’s all so sudden…She didn’t have an illness nor was she attacked by anything. When nobody was looking, she collapsed under a tree. And…since then, I haven’t been able to find peace.”
“And you think it is worth the risk?”
“Of course! I…no, there’s no way I can continue peacefully without knowing.”
The man did not reply.
“Say…do you have a family?”
Finally he glanced back at Tem. “That, I don’t know. What matters to me now is only going, back and forth from the mountain to the villages. I’d buy bread or porridge from their local bakeries once and again, and then return on my journey.”
Tem stayed silent.
“With this kind of life, do you really think I’d have the time for a family? Though, they may still exist…somewhere.” Kosh rose from the ground, and cleaned off dry grass from his garments. He refused to talk any further, insisting that “at this rate, we won’t even reach the mountain by sunset.”
The grasslands, as barren as they were, has been completely mapped by Kosh. He knew the burrows of every snake, lizard, and hermit. Just by pointing his finger in any direction, he could tell how strong the wind would be in a few hours. The mountain peak, then seemed unreachable even by the eye as the early morning fog clouded it, soon became a towering colossus, with a body as dark and black as coal.
As if to wish luck for their advances, they had a small serving of tea from wild ferns, known for increasing one’s strength, though it never goes beyond rumors. They sat on a mossy, run-down wagon at the foot of the mountain with bottles half-empty, waiting for them to cool down.
“The mountain…though it’s not that high, it’s steep,” Kosh explained. “You’d better prepare yourself. They don’t like outsiders climbing their residence.”
Tem seemed absent-minded at his words. “I can’t tell, but you seem to look at the Gods with…negativity.”
“Well, that’s the way they are! If you’ve ever seen them with your own eyes, you’d believe me too.”
The image of his home village returned to his head. The way that everyone held the Gods at such a level of prestige had convinced him so long, that maybe his beliefs have been misguided. As Kuan would’ve said in response to Kosh, “They do what’s best for us, never leading us into evil, and for that, they inflict what we may see as disasterous, but the ends will justify the means.”
“Then, would you say they’re evil?”
He chuckled. “As much as I’d like to believe so, it’s bad for you to regard them as such. In fact, quite the opposite. We live in an inherently evil system, Tem. And for that, we must conform to them. Why else then, would I have warned you about coming here?”
A short shock of hesitation climbed through Tem’s spine. Though, by this point, he has gone way too far to return.
“I don’t understand. How…how do people stay quiet about things like this? When my sister died, she—nobody, not a soul questioned it. But she lay so quietly under the tree, no violence or illness. Her position was perfect, looking upwards without a limb outstretched. They did not have to change a single thing about her body before cremating her. Then, why, does nobody question it?”
Kosh did not answer immediately. “Well, there’s a crazy thing about faith. Say, you believed the Gods always have our best interests at heart, wouldn’t you feel reassured already? I’m sure they do still have questions, but…as long as you’re willing to keep yourself ignorant, you’d be satisfied.”
After the drink, the two filled their bottles and started climbing when their shadows lay twice their height on the ground, misshapen by tall grass and gravelly surfaces. The whole of the mountain reeked of anger and dominance. Its skin had no drop of water flowing on nor underneath it. The black sand and gravel chewed down on their boots with each step. The air smelled of soot and volcanic ash. All the while, the heat of boiling magma underneath absorbed all moisture off their mouths and echoed through the air, rolling down from the crater above.
At some point, dark clouds formed above and enveloped a fog encompassing the both of them. With Tem still being able to see the grassy bottom, now looking only like a flat, green surface, the temptation to come back down was building up in his mind. But each time it struck, the image of Suma’s funeral returned to him. That innocent face when she lay lifeless underneath the canopy of the ginkgo tree, the leaves covering her arms and neck, the perfect pose, almost as if she had planned for her death to arrive, all pushed him forward, only following the decade-trained instinct of the obsidian miner.
At last, the pair reached the top. The crater gaped open at a diameter at least near that of Tem’s village, and was perfectly circular. The crater had only the most extremophilic bushes and ferns jutting off its walls. The ground lay charred and hot, all the while magma flowed through one of its corners. Next to the flowing magma, a complex of volcanic glass crystals were forming, ready to be harvested. In the middle of the crater, a campfire had been recently lit, and was surrounded by offerings, be it withered flowers, rotten food, or clothing, perfectly ironed by the sandy surface. Old walls from ancient times were still standing, withstanding the heat.
For years, Tem had been told stories of the Gods, residing within the crater since a time incomprehensible. Yet, he had never been shown it, and now as he’s finally able to make his pilgrimage, seeing a view many would faint over, he felt only awe—not at seeing the Gods, but at the lengths some would go to reach such place.
“When the sun sets, you’ll see for yourself,” said Kosh. “Though I’m afraid I can’t be here to see it with you.”
He had mined what could fit inside his satchel, and was ready to make the climb down the mountain. In a last parting to ensure Tem’s safety, he handed over his sleeping bag.
“Why can’t you stay a little longer?” Tem asked.
“Like I said…The Gods are to be feared. I’ve brought you at least this far, and they won’t be happy if they knew everything I told you. You wouldn’t even be here without me.”
Tem’s heart sank. Though the old man only gave him guidance, he couldn’t bear having to make his journey back alone. “Even so, wouldn’t you at least let me finish?”
“No way. I’ve put myself at risk enough, Tem.”
“I’ll wait for you. At the foot of the mountain.” And so, he climbed out the crater, shuffling through the same dirt path he went up through.
Tem placed all the offerings next to the campfire. And, as procedure, sat down on the hot sand, closing his eyes and only listening to the rumble of the magma. At the arrival of sunset, the clouds dissipated above him yet the magma screamed louder. From the west, a wind flurried and engulfed the crater, and out summoned a cloud of smoke from the dying campfire.
Tem, overstruck with hesitation and fear, did not wait for words before they came from his mouth with his hands behind his back.
“O Almighty protectors of this land, crowned be thy head, blessed be thy mountain, and strong be thy hand.”
A few seconds pass before they responded. “Who is it?” a baritone voice asked.
“Your Almighty, it is me, a humble servant. I am here to inquire you.”
The smoke gently surrounded the campfire, tickling the petals of the scattered flowers and the fresh scent of berries.
“Go on.” The baritone voice continued.
“My sister—she had died of unknowable causes. She lay perfectly still under our ginkgo tree, bearing no illness nor wounds. She had fallen leaves covering her arms and neck, but her limbs weren’t outstretched. What could you have done to bring her such a calamity?
The smoke stood still, not flowing nor flinching.
And they laughed. “If such is the question, you had better not come here,” a soprano’s voice responded.
“What do you mean by that, your Almighty?”
“Had she been anywhere else, she’d suffer the same fate,” continued a tenor voice. “Had she been by your side, she’d suffer the same fate. Had she been here, she’d suffer the same fate. Why, then, do you ask?”
“I don’t want you to bring her back. I just want to know…why? And how? If there had been a necessity for it to be her, and not anyone else with some illness or wound, then…please tell me!”
“All beings suffer greatly under Our authority,” said the baritone.
“That much is true. You! If only you’d know how many souls We’ve put under our command, you would’ve known the reason for her passing. Year after year, We demand from nature, one sacrifice! And that, We require for our survival.”
“But then…why did it have to be her?”
“Servant…do go home, lest you’d like to undo the sacrifice,” the soprano responded.
“Undo the sacrifice?”
“There are notches deep in the universe’s code of law, young servant,” said the tenor. “And that demands your respect and sacrifice! The young maiden…she’s a perfect practitioner! One with expertise in fire, explosives, and…heat.”
The smoke seemed to glance at a far distance.
“Look. Back at your home, aren’t they having quite the celebration,” a bass voice said. “And you would rather come here than be with them.”
The harvest festival had commenced. And he had left it behind.
“So, that’s why we needed her!” the tenor voice continued. “She had finished all her duties in this realm, and now we take her away!”
Tem’s mouth did not function. A roaring sound blared from the direction of the village, as the first firework was launched up to the sky.
The baritone voice chuckled. “We had taken away a fisherman. He, skilled with the waves and way of the water, was perfect for our incoming flood. It was, after all, a necessary sacrifice to appease nature—to let things return to how it’s intended.”
Another firework blew up. This time, as the wind blew so strongly to the west, Tem could see pieces of it above the crater.
“But something bad happened,” it continued. “The fisherman, under the guise of a pilgrimage, had brought us offerings to sacrifice himself…yet he did not pray. He did not appease us. He was chosen, but he betrayed a purpose!”
“And he is still alive to this day,” the bass continued. “…with his pickaxe and leather satchel. Not even destroying his memories did a thing to make him return to us.”
The ground and air alike started to shake as fireworks encompassed the sky, all blowing so quickly to the west.
“For that reason, the land cannot become fertile, even after the great flood! We had waited…for ten years! Ten years for him to return! But he never prayed.”
“Suppose, then,” said the baritone. “If we could refertilize the lands another way, we’d need just one more sacrifice.”
The sky lit up, stars became powder to a sea of fireworks, slightly deafening and shutting down the Gods’ voices. Tem got ready to stand up from his position, as the smoke in front of him expanded to a hot, suffocating mass.
“You should not have come.”
The flurry of fireworks continued, yet an earthquake shook the known world. The smoke yet again disappeared from atop the campfire. The charred sands of the crater again mixed around, slithering like a lizard’s tail. The loudest, and most wrenching boom of the fireworks occurred right above the crater, and followed by the release of incandescent, molten rock from every inch of the crater’s bottom circumference. Flowers burned around the campfire as gas swallowed everything to its roots.
In a final expression of awe and inescapable heat, Tem looked up at the sea of colors. Red, green, yellow, and blue, all lined up and blooming against each other, so majestic that he could not feel his feet burning.
“Suma, I’m sorry.”
The flow of magma swallowed him whole. And soon after, a great eruption let tons of magma and smoke rumbling across all corners of the wide-open plains.