Break the Vessel
by Vylar Kaftan
Even a god has human needs, if he resides in a living body. He must breathe the purest air possible. He must consume fresh food, and sleep on good bedding. And he must excrete. Some priests say that this is not truly the god’s need, since it results from the mortal body he occupies. I say this need is as important to a god as any man, because even gods create things they wish to be rid of.
In this incarnation, Aki prefers a mid-morning session. We meet in our chamber — a narrow aisle, with gold-leaf handholds on each side. I attend him with my box of soft cloths, jintilla oil, and incense. He dismisses his other attendants with a wave. They drift behind tall stone pillars fifty paces away, giving him privacy.
Aki’s oiled skin shines in the torchlight. I unwrap his white loincloth, set it aside, and kneel behind him. He grips the handholds and squats. I hold the lacquered ceramic pot underneath his anus. Today he is quick — a small piece, medium-brown in color, slightly soft, and very little urine. Strong in scent, but solid. Healthy.
I moisten an ivory-colored cloth with oil. I wipe him gently, removing every bit of fecal matter. He stands still for my attentions. Afterwards, I sniff the air. Today I think spiceberry is best to mask this odor. I select the incense and light it. Smoke drifts through the silent chamber, curling upwards towards the vaulted ceiling.
To my surprise, he speaks to me as he stands. He has spoken before, but not often. “I dislike that scent. Never use it again.”
“I am willing, Sunlord,” I respond. The scent will be destroyed tonight. I fold the used cloth and place it in the box. It will be laundered and given to the poor. They will sew the rags into clothing, hoping for a blessing or a miracle.
I have attended Aki through two incarnations. I was given to the Sun Temple as a boy of six — barely older than Aki himself, at that point. I studied the sacred texts and advanced quickly. My skill brought me rank, but luck brought my opportunity. When Aki’s previous incarnation was twenty, his attendant fell sick and went to the Dark Mother’s embrace. The High Priest chose me to attend the god, and so I have.
It’s a lonely life, but it suits me. The honor is tremendous. I am highly ranked — after all, I touch Aki’s body daily — but almost no one speaks to me. I am consecrated yet outcast; filthy but necessary. The Temple gives me nearly any freedom I like within the stone walls. They wish to keep me content, of course. If — Mother forbid — I were discontent, my opportunity for retribution would be high.
I’m thinking about Aki’s incarnations, as I wait for the current one to relieve himself. Last time, Aki had curly blond hair and a fleshy bottom — mostly cheerful, fond of sweetmeats and bread. In this life, Aki is tall and thin — gently muscled, and given to moodiness. The blonde hair that marked him as a baby has darkened to honey-brown and falls straight to his narrow shoulders. His buttocks are taut and nearly hairless, and his thighs are strong from his daily walks circling the Temple’s inner walls. He prefers books to candies, and asks many questions of his tutors. He’s nineteen now, a young man, nearly at this incarnation’s end.
Today he struggles. His urine came easily, but his bowels are slow. I hold the pot steady as he strains himself. If only he would ask me — I would tell him to eat less cheese and more vegetables. It pains me to see him suffer. I report to the assistant chef when I see trouble with the god’s diet. After we speak, he must purify himself with smoke and water — then he adjusts the food as I recommend. But my efforts are useless if Aki demands the problematic foods. If a god insists on eating cheese, no one will deny him.
We are silent together until he speaks. “Do you know theology?”
“Sunlord, I am a fully trained priest of the seventh rank. I am also the honored wearer of two gold lanyards. My birthpattern is the Herder pursued by the Warrior, if you wish to determine my nature.”
“Then you will answer a question for me.”
“I am willing, Sunlord.”
The god is silent for a moment. Then he says, “They tell me I made a pact with humanity at the beginning of time, when the other creator-gods left for the Other Sky. To be born into a human body, again and again, as a promise that the sun would rise each morning. The priests say this, and the books.”
I wait. In the distance I hear the mid-morning chants — thousands of voices surrounding the temple, praying for Aki’s blessing. The walls muffle the sound, making the worshippers seem further than they are. Finally, he says, “Is this true?”
“It is true, Sunlord.” He finishes his efforts. As I wipe him, I notice he looks raw. I use extra oil to soften his skin.
“Of all the boy-children in the Kingdoms of Sand, how did you find me? How did you know which human body I had chosen?”
“The color of your hair, and the date of your birth. On the day you ascended, your new body was born. Your soul spent a year as sunlight before returning to us. The High Priest read entrails to determine where your soul had flown, and in that direction he sought you.”
“That’s what they said too. But how could you know it was me? Surely there were a thousand babies born nearby on that same day. Many must have been blonde. How did you know?”
“You are a god,” I say, wrapping his loincloth onto his body. “You cannot be mistaken for a mere mortal.”
He nods and seems satisfied. I look at his stool in the pot. Too firm today, but the color is good — medium brown, against the gold and turquoise glaze. An appropriate amount, with a mild scent and consistent texture. I sweeten the air with incense of cerula seeds.
I spend most of my time reading in the Temple library. At seventh rank, I have access to anything I want, aside from Aki’s sacred collection. The god calls for me once, sometimes twice a day. My only duty, aside from attending him, is to study his stool for any dietary problem. Diarrhea, constipation, food sensitivity — or tapeworms, Mother forbid. If that happened, the entire squad of kitchen workers would be executed.
I don’t have other Temple duties because of my peculiar status. I pursue my dream: to know the Divine. I read the accounts of priests who have served Aki’s spirit, who write of his undying light and eternal brilliance. The other gods left the world after creating it, promising to return — but Aki has lived with humanity since time began. He deceives the Dark Mother with his mortal body. Therefore he alone among the gods is truly immortal, and will never drink from the breasts of Death. The sun will always rise again. It always has, and always will.
The sacred texts offer no histories from priests like myself who serve Aki’s body. At first this bothered me: is he not immortal, a blend of divine and human natures? Why ignore his humanity? Upon meditation, I understood: this distinction is due to the transience of flesh, contrasted to the unchanging Divine. Aki embraces both. It is proper that texts of his divinity be preserved in a library, and that details of his humanity vanish before they are written.
The insight inspires me to new efforts. I write records in my mind, impermanent, like my own flesh — records tracking his feces’ scent, shape, color, the time he took to produce them. I memorize the curve of his muscled buttocks as he squats, the pucker of his anus, the way each piece coils from his body like a snake. This is my secret — my communion with the Sacred. I am no god, but I touch one each day, and this is more than most men dream of.
Today Aki’s stool is soft and reddish-brown. It’s not blood, thank the gods, but certainly far too moist. It smells of overbrewed tea. I determine that Aki is anxious, and his stomach upsets his bowels too much. The tea is an irritant, and he should not drink any for the next three days. I hold the pot close, in case he is not yet finished. Loose stools can be subtle and surprising.
He says, “What is your name?”
“Numa. I have been reincarnated since the beginning of time. Is this true?”
He has spoken to me more in the past week than he has since early childhood. It flatters me. “It is true, Sunlord.”
“Why do I not remember my previous incarnations?”
This is an easy question for even a beginning-ranked priest. “Because your flawed human body represses your divine memory. Your body protects itself through a shield of ignorance. If you recalled your past — and future — you would burst into unquenchable flames. You would overwhelm your flesh.”
“It would be a glorious light.”
“It would be the last light, Sunlord. All humanity would perish in your radiance.”
“Tell me of outside,” he says abruptly.
“Outside the Kingdoms of Sand?”
“Outside this temple. I have never been there, except when I was a baby. I want to know details. I want to see it, the way I can see the gods in my picture-books.”
I set down the pot, satisfied that he is finished. “I am willing, Sunlord,” I say. “But you should ask your priest-companions. I am merely a—”
He snorts. “They will not tell me.”
This is dangerous ground, and I have no authority to speak on the matter. I start wiping him, trying to think of a good response. He says, “Answer my question.”
“I am willing, Sunlord, although—”
“Outside is the darkness which seeks you. Outside are the people who rely on you to rise each morning, to renew your promise. They press against the walls of this temple, praying for your health and spirit. You are our sole connection to our divine parentage. The Mother waits outside, looking to take you from us.”
“I should go there to destroy her. Then no one will die, ever again.”
“Sunlord,” I say, alarmed. I set down my cloth. I cannot contradict him, but if the High Priest should hear that I said nothing… “You are compassionate to stay with us, Sunlord, to grant us your presence. All known history for us, but an eyeblink to you. It would be cruel for you to abandon us. We could not allow that.”
“I am a god. I can do as I please.”
“Begging all pardons, Sunlord, but your absence from the Temple would destroy us.”
He doesn’t respond. I can’t see his face, so I don’t know what he might be thinking. I pick up the cloth and finish ministering to him. Finally he asks, “Have you been outside?”
“Yes, many years ago. Before I came to the Temple.”
“Tell me what you remember.”
I think back. “I remember little, Sunlord.”
“Tell me something,” he says wistfully. His sweaty buttocks shine in the torchlight. His profile from the back is young and vulnerable. He rouses something in me — sympathy, perhaps, or the same wandering dream.
“I found a bird once,” I say. It’s the first memory that comes to me. “A baby bird that had fallen from its nest. Its wing was broken. I cared for the bird and fed it while the wing healed.”
“Did the bird fly away?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “My father gave me to the Temple before I could find out. Perhaps it flew, or perhaps it died. Many birds fly over the Temple, but I cannot recognize mine.”
He says nothing as I light incense and scent the air. I’ve chosen gray slatemist blossoms, which smell like a winter oasis. I wrap his loincloth. He turns and gazes at me, with pale blue eyes that I’ve never seen up close before. He’s a young man with a boy’s face. He tilts his head, considering me with a steady look. I feel stripped naked, vulnerable to his presence.
“Forgive me, Sunlord,” I whisper.
He makes no response. Then he claps for his attendants to return. They swarm back like a plague of flies. I leave with the pot and his stool, which I commit to my mind’s unwritten records.
The closest a man can come to immortality is to touch a god — to know his hands have brushed against power greater than his own. It reminds him both of limitations and of potential. A man must struggle in life. He must cast away that which is no longer useful. He must seek improvement, to better himself and the surrounding world, until the Mother embraces him.
I keep Aki’s body clean, so the god need not soil his hands with human waste. Sometimes — in moments of hubris — I imagine a spiritual role for myself. If his spirit must touch mortal flesh, and absorb its temptation — then perhaps I could cleanse his soul. I could remove the marks of human sin, and wipe his essence clean. It is a fantasy, but a delightful dream.
He squats before me, his hands gripping the golden handles of our aisle. I am thinking about the conflict between his body and spirit when he asks me, “What happened to the soul that was in this body before me?”
I pause before answering. “Sunlord, I am willing, but I am frightened. I fear what the High Priest would say to me, if he knew we spoke of these things.”
“There is no law which forbids this.”
“I am afraid.”
“No one can hear us. My attendants stand beyond those pillars.”
“Sunlord, I trust you, but I am human. I am still afraid.”
“I will never tell the High Priest of our conversations. I swear this by the eternal light and by my own name.”
I shiver. He has just created law, here before me: divine law, which cannot be altered. Aki has elevated me to counselor, in so few words. I feel dizzy.
“Sunlord,” I say, “I — I am honored — beyond my ability to hold such feeling.”
“Now tell me. What happened to the soul that was here before I entered this body?”
His bowels are slow today. There will be ample room to talk. “There was no soul before yours, Sunlord.”
“Why not? I was born to a human mother.”
“Your soul entered the vessel upon your rebirth.”
“But what about the time while this body grew inside a woman? And while it was being weaned, before I entered it? Where was its soul? The teachings say that all humans and gods have souls.”
“It is true, Sunlord.”
“So this body, before I entered it — there was a soul here.”
“This body was created as a vessel for you, Sunlord.”
“So there was no soul here?”
“There is yours, Sunlord.”
I watch waste pass through his anus. It folds neatly into loose ridges and curls into the ceramic pot. I consider my words carefully. “You created this body to host your holy essence, Sunlord. It was a vessel waiting to hold your soul. It was nothing until it was you.”
“But this body’s mother — she couldn’t know it was me, or would be me. Right?”
“She did not, Sunlord.”
“She thought it was her baby. Her son.”
“It is true.”
“What did she call me?”
He’s finished eliminating. I wipe him gently. “I do not understand, Sunlord.”
“What did she call this body, which she thought was her baby?”
I think back to the day we brought Aki to his temple. I had not journeyed out, of course — that was a job for the High Priest. But people in the temple talk, and sometimes I overhear things. “Klau, I believe.”
“Klau,” he says. I moisten him with oil, and fill the air with cream blossom incense. It smells delicate, like springtime, and its aroma blends with his to neutralize both. When he stands, he turns to look at me. He smiles boyishly. “Thank you, Numa,” he says, his face like sunlight.
His kindness strikes me speechless. I set down the pot and bow to the floor. My head aches where I press it against stone. “Sunlord,” I murmur. When he departs, I inhale the aroma deep in the pot, where even incense cannot cancel the smell. I want to remember this day, and scents are closest to memory.
On the day before his twenty-third birthday, Aki’s body must die. Were Aki to achieve the prime of manhood, his light would shine so brightly that his body could no longer contain it. He would ignite. All men would be blind, and their skin would crackle and burn like roast meat on a spit. Women’s wombs would shrivel in their bodies, and the Dark Mother would gather all to her bosom to suck on her thousand poisonous teats. Coldness would rule the Kingdoms of Sand.
But Aki knows this. As the sun always rises, so it must always set — in order to rise again. Aki’s spirit is reborn in fire. I have only seen one such ceremony, of course. In his last incarnation, Aki was frightened. His beautiful blond curls were shaved off, and his soft body stripped naked. He shook as he approached the woodpile, and cried as the High Priest tied him to the stake. He soiled himself just before he burned. I longed to run to him and cleanse him, to remove humanity’s stain before he ascended. But the flames did my work for me, and his body returned to ash. The sun rose that morning, like it always has and always will.
Aki’s spirit sought his new vessel, and found this one waiting. He asks me questions daily now, about faith and divinity and everything else — not a child’s worries, as once he might have, but a young man’s deeper inquiries. I have devoted my life to studying Aki, and it delights me to share what I know. We are intimate, Aki and I — discussing the indestructible godhood, as I minister to his vulnerable flesh. Perhaps a mother feels like this, I think, as she wipes her newborn babe’s bottom. Perhaps this body’s mother once wiped its bottom, calling it Klau — and loved it, not knowing what it would become.
Aki shifts from side to side as he squats. He scratches his thigh. “When I am reborn into a new body — I will remember none of this. Is this true?”
“It is true, Sunlord.”
“The way I cannot remember what happened before, or what happens while I am sunlight.”
“How do I know I will be reborn?”
“It has always been so.”
“But how do I know? Other gods do not visit me. I cannot remember meeting them. I have met only priests, and read the teachings. How do I know?”
If a god asks a man about faith — how then can a man respond? I clear my throat, wondering if my words would be called heresy. “It is your human nature asserting itself, Sunlord. Men doubt, and men question. This is what it means to be a man. In becoming human you abandoned the certain knowledge of your nature. It does not change the truth of you.”
“The rebirth. Will it hurt?”
“Sunlord, you have nearly four years remaining in this incarnation. It is not time yet.”
“I want to know if it will hurt.”
Sweat runs down my forehead. This is truly not something I wish to discuss with him. He presses at me: “Answer me. I command you.”
“I am willing, Sunlord, but may I ask only a small question first?”
“Why do you ask me? Why not read your sacred texts, or consult the High Priest? I am only an attendant to your body’s needs.”
“You are honest with me,” he says, “and that earns my blessing.”
It is true, what Aki has said. I am honest with the Divine. I open myself to it, allow it to touch me and reshape me, as part of our daily intimacy. His words bring me joy. “Thank you, Sunlord. I treasure your blessing.”
“Will the rebirth hurt?”
“I cannot say, Sunlord. The human body might feel some pain, only briefly. You yourself will feel only renewal and growth.”
He considers, and we are silent as his body produces its waste. Finally he says, “What if I am not a god?”
“What?” I ask, shocked beyond propriety.
“What if there has been a mistake?”
“No mistake can be made.”
“How do you know I am Aki?”
“It is faith, Sunlord.”
“But what if — see this, now. Imagine the god, returning to this world. I — He travels as sunlight to a woman’s breast, where her child nurses. The woman coos at her child and calls him Klau. Aki becomes confused. Is this not his vessel, the empty one he created? But this is Klau, an infant, a child of this human mother. What does Aki do?”
“Would I be elsewhere now? In another body, displacing a soul? Would this useless body have grown empty with no soul in it?”
“A god would not create something useless! Everything has its place, as you have yours and I have mine.”
“Where would I be? What would I be doing? Would I find another body and displace its soul? Or would I no longer be Aki — merely Klau? Which would I be, had this happened?”
I wipe him too quickly. “Sunlord, this is an impossibility.”
“Would this body go on, were I not in it? If my radiance were elsewhere, in another body, would this body grow old like an ordinary human being?”
Now I’m certain I’ve stumbled into heresy, so I don’t respond. “Answer me!” he demands.
“I would guess so, Sunlord,” I say, my hand clenched around the stained cloth. “The body is healthy and human.”
He nods and says no more. I inspect him to be sure he is clean, but my mind is fluttering like a bird with a broken wing. After a moment he says, “I require something from you.”
“I am willing, Sunlord.” I pray that he doesn’t look at me, not now.
“I wish for you to call me Klau.”
“Yes, Sun — Klau.” The name bursts from me, unwillingly.
“When we are alone like this.”
“As you wish, Klau.” Aki, Aki, I’m not thinking clearly. I can’t choose an appropriate incense, so I use the first one I touch. My hand shakes as I wrap his loincloth. When he leaves, I spend the morning in prayer, frightened that I have uncovered the forbidden. Half a day later, I am still sweating. Our intimacy is edged with fire. I worship Aki. I fear Aki.
This is one thing I share with Aki, then: all men excrete. All bodies consume food, and take what they need to sustain life. The waste matter must leave the body. Most men are linked to their own filth. High lords use a clean cloth; peasants use their left hands. I myself use a cloth, not so fine as the one for Aki, but a rougher weave. Women excrete too, I suppose, but it is not a matter I have spent much time thinking on.
Sometimes I wonder whether Aki’s blessing might transfer through me. If, perhaps, he offered me some morsel of food, which I consumed — then later, I dared wipe myself with a velvet-soft ivory cloth — would such a rag confer a blessing on an ignorant peasant? Would that cloth have the same effect as something that touched Aki directly? It cannot be — but surely, even the food touched by a god would transfer through me. Unless perhaps the blessing was something I consumed, and no part of it became waste. Or perhaps, by passing through my weak and unworthy flesh, the blessing would transmute to sin, and the cloth with which I wiped would be ordinary. If so, then this implies that man’s sin is more powerful than Aki’s blessing — which contradicts all that we are taught. It is a difficult theological question, and hypothetical because it will not happen. Aki asks me questions, but he does not feed me.
The temple heats from late spring into early summer. The air becomes stifling, particularly in our aisle. I sweat underneath my robes. I have thought of better answers to his questions, but he has not addressed me. I can’t decide if I want him to speak, or if I’m afraid. Still he says nothing. My fears subside into nerves, like a string vibrating long after the instrument has stopped playing. One day he speaks again, just after filling the pot. His voice is sudden and imperious. “You will help me.”
“I am willing, Sun — Klau,” I say cautiously.
“I wish to go outside.”
The ivory cloth falls from my hand. I stare at his back, struck without an answer. His backbone juts from his flesh, above his masculine buttocks. No answer comes to me. He continues, “I have found a way to sneak out. You will cover for me. I need time to escape. Pretend I am still here, having difficulty. Do not let them know I have gone.”
“Aki!” His name escapes my impious lips.
He turns to face me, still naked. He is glorious indeed, with his wiry muscles and his clear blue gaze — a body fit for the god within. His voice commands like a king of warriors: “Do this for me.”
How can I disobey a god’s direct order? Clutching the pot, I bow. My face presses against the ceramic rim. The stench of his feces fills my nose, searing this day into my memory. “Sunlord. Begging all pardons, but if you leave us, we will die. The Dark Mother will take you, and the sun will not rise again.”
“I will fight her,” he says. “I will burn her with sunlight.”
“Sunlord, I beg of you — do not leave this temple.”
“I will do so.”
“The writings say—”
“I am not interested in the writings. I wish to live. This body has many years left.”
“Sunlord,” I plead. “It is your humanity which tempts you, which whispers to you. Do not listen to it. If—” my words spill out, and selfishness overcomes me “—if you leave, they will kill me, Sunlord. They will drag me over hot coals and brand me with irons before they let me die.”
He says nothing. The silent chamber air is stifling, and scented with his odor. I continue, “I beg of you. If you will not think of humanity, then think of me, who has showed you some small kindness, some — ”
I hear a choked noise that makes me look up. He towers over my prostrate form, crying. “Aki,” I whisper. Unbidden, I set down the pot and crawl to him. My hands caress his ankles. I kiss his toes, resting my lips against his holy feet. Aki’s hot skin tastes of oily spices. His knees buckle. He sinks down next to me, his feet sliding out of my grasp. His body radiates heat between us.
“Numa. You have always been — gentle — and kind,” he says, his shoulders shaking. He buries his face in his hands. “If only—”
“Sunlord, stay with us,” I plead. “We need you. I — I need you.”
He cries out. I kneel next to him, grieving for his suffering. After a moment, he lifts his eyes, red with pain. We look at each other, god and man, in the private world we have shared for nearly two decades. He is brilliant, even now — radiant with his inner light.
“I can’t,” he whispers.
I lay a hand on his cheek. “You are a god.” He cups one hand over mine. He adds the other, clutching my fingers against his skin. Startled, I look into his eyes, and for the first time I truly comprehend Aki’s sacrifice. He could go to the Other Sky, with the rest of the gods — but he always returns. He does this for mankind — for me. I pull my hand away.
Aki cries out and reaches toward me. He falls against my shoulder and presses his face there, burying his grief into my skin. I embrace him, running my hands over his back, trying to soothe the unreachable pain. I stroke his shoulderblades, his spine, his buttocks. I touch his mortal shell — his eternal life and eternal grief. He cries out sharply. The noise echoes through the chamber.
His attendants rush from beyond the pillars. I cannot blame them for their conclusion; they see only us in embrace, my hand on Aki’s buttocks. They tear me off him and throw me against the wall. Aki screams. The priests beat me with their fists and kick my stomach. Pain burns me like fire.
“Stop!” yells Aki. “I command you! Let him live!”
Either they do not hear him, or they do not believe. My ribs crack. I struggle to crawl toward salvation. “Aki!” I cry out.
Aki grabs the pot and lifts it above his head. He trembles. Between blows, I catch his gaze. When our eyes meet, something passes between us. I cannot touch him. He is feral — it is not right. This is not the Divine I see. “Aki,” I cry out, “save me!”
“Mother take you all!” He throws the pot to the ground. It breaks. Shit-covered shards fly against the walls. I shriek. His attendants flock to him, but they are not fast enough. He grabs a piece and slashes his wrist. He falls to his knees as the priests rush to him. I collapse weeping as the god himself bleeds before me. A priest kicks my head without stopping. I black out.
He does not die quickly. A lingering infection takes his body one night, as most men sleep — so I overhear, from the hallway outside my cell. His body returns to the Dark Mother. He had no renewal in fire. Is he sunlight now, recharging his energy before returning to this world? I don’t know. Perhaps he created a body, and will find it when he returns. Or perhaps he ended his promise, and left humanity for the Other Sky — to join the inattentive gods.
I cannot tell if Aki’s curse was effective when he invoked the Dark Mother. The chanting continues thrice daily. Peasants press against the Temple walls, begging for a blessing. They call Aki’s name. Perhaps the priests told them that the sun-god renewed early, or that he is indisposed; perhaps they told them nothing. If the Dark Mother takes more to her bosom than usual, no one tells me of it. It is a lonely life I lead.
They let me live, perhaps because Aki ordered it at the end — although they took my unworthy hands and eyes. They keep me on the south side of the Temple, in a cell with a tiny crack in the wall. When I place my wrist stumps against it, I feel warm sunlight, and cooler periods marking nighttime. I do not feel Aki. The sun still rises each morning.
Sometimes, as I lie chained, I remember his smell — indeed, I cannot forget. I keep the records that exist only in my mind. I write and rewrite them, in my own impermanent thoughts. Even gods create things they wish to be rid of.