Storytime: Cycles.

December 29th, 2017

The cock had crowed. The bell had rung. The sun had set. And every single one of the particular and funny-shaped dice had spun widdershins when thrown and come up as full sixes, as they were very carefully made to be.
“It’s time,” said the old priest.
“It’s time,” said the even older priest.
“It’s time,” chimed in the very young priest who had recently had to fill in for the oldest priest of all who was now resting somewhere soft and loamy and dark.
And the three walked, with varied creaks and stumbles, to the dark room, barred with three beams and locks. And they unchained and unlatched them, and they opened it, and inside was a big, beautiful boy of about adult years, which in those parts was older than you’d think. Life was good and fairly easy, and when life is good and fairly easy, you get a childhood that lasts longer.
“It’s time,” said the old priest.
“It’s time,” said the even older priest.
“Yes, it’s time,” said the very young priest who was practically squirming with impatience because he’d been practicing a lot for four months. “Now you-”
“Now you are the new year,” said the old priest, deftly shushing him with a single finger. “Here is your crown.”
And he handed the man who was the new year a little garland of leaves, and kissed him on the cheek.
“Here is your raiment,” said the even older priest.
And he draped over the new year a soft and billowing robe, and as the priest slipped the sleeves over the new year’s arms he whispered in his ear.
“And here is your gift,” said the very young priest, and he shoved a little round ball of what was equal parts bread and masonry into the new year’s palm.
“Now go!” they shouted (especially the very young priest) and the new year followed their fingers and he stumbled into the gently-falling snow of the temple’s courtyard, through the white drifts and billows, as shaky-legged as a toddler because it had been almost a month since he had seen full light.

In the wall was a door. It was made of hard, blood-red wood, sun-baked. At the door was a knocker. It was gilded but probably just brass.
The new year thumped at it.
“Go away,” said a voice.
The new year stood there.
“Twice more” whispered the voice.
The new year thumped at it again.
“Go away,” said the voice.
The new year thumped at it again.
“Enter,” said the voice. And he did.
Face to face, old year and new year. Old year in his hooded cowl that let only his beard and eyes escape; new year in his garland crown. One of them pale as a cave-fish, the other tanned and rough from a year spent walking from rite to rite.
“You’re late,” said old year. “The snows are here already – when I first walked this path, the grass was yet green and the birds still sang.”
The new year shrugged.
“The priests,” said the old year. “Bah. Follow me. Follow me and listen to me. You must do both of those things very well.”
The new year nodded.
“And stay quiet.”
“Yes,” said the new year.
The old year smacked his ear.

“This is the sundial,” said the old year, ushering the new year into his little gated court. “Here is where I sit at dawn, to make sure the days spin by on track. Here, hold the tip of its blade with your left hand, take its measure.”
The new year did that, and yelped. Blood dripped from his finger as he jammed it into his mouth.
“It likes you,” said the old year. “It didn’t bite me half as deep. That is good. It’s important to be on fine terms with your days. They’re your mortar, brick, and bread.”
They stood there.
The old year coughed.
They stood there.
“Rightpocket,” the old year coughed again.
The new year jumped, fumbled, and eventually retrieved the little loaf that the priests had given him. He handed it over and almost opened his mouth but the look the old year gave him forbade it.
“Thank you for your gift,” said the old year. “Now we may proceed indoors. Follow me into my house.”

The house of the old year was empty and vast. Air currents swam with the depth and force of the ocean through its hallways, in between the creaks. Shelves and shelves of books hid every wall so thickly they very well might have replaced them.
“One journal per week,” said the old year. “You will fill fifty-two. Can you write?”
The new year nodded.
“Good. Otherwise it can be troublesome. Fill them with your thoughts. Fill them with your fears. Fill them with your blessings, and the names of every place you go, everyone you meet, every meal you take, and every festival you attend. Write the week, and in the end you will write yourself. Understand that.”
The new year nodded.
“Light the fire.”
The new year nodded, and took the little bag of flint and steel he was offered, and nodded, and was pointed towards the vast and terrifying fireplace, and nodded, and was swatted, and stopped nodding and managed to strike a few sparks until a little blaze was huddled in the center of the capacious stone mouth.
The old year placed the eldest of his journals on the edge of the hearth. “Like this,” he said. “Sear them until the ink runs, then scorches. It has to be cleaned before it’s shelved for good. I will wait in the next room until you are done. Remember, fifty-two.”
The new year remembered. He lost count twice, but he remembered, stubbornly. Even if he did burn his fingers once or twice.

The next room was as different from the halls as possible. It was a kitchen.
“You will cook everything,” said the old year. “You will stew winter potage. You will roast fall gourds. You will bake summer loaves. You will make spring jams. To live the season is to eat it, and first it must be cooked. Properly. These books are not scorched, they are recipes. Use them. Properly.”
The old year pulled the little loaf that the new year had given him out of his robe and ate it in one bite and a lot of chews.
“More properly than this,” he grimaced. “Hard-baked on the outside, raw on the inside. Do not trust a priest with an oven. Ever.”
The new year nodded.
“And stop nodding.”
“I didn’t say you could start talking again either. Watch. Listen. Learn. Follow me.”

So the new year followed the old year.
He followed him to the bedroom, high in the spire, where the bed was at the center of an enormous clock-work that would always turn him towards the dawn. Above him, in the spire itself, was a weathervane that would tell the weather what to do, if he used it properly.
He followed him to the etching-room, where the walls were torn to shreds by hatch-marks, and where he would tally his own days with a blunt and ragged blade. There were words he was told that would shape the day as he marked it, if he spoke them surely.
He followed him to the garden, behind the kitchens, where herbs grew and plotted furiously, ripening for the reaping. Listen closely to them and they would warn you of the plans of men and women, if you were sympathetic.
He followed him until his feet ached and his mind smeared and his toes were worn and frozen, and he learned the ways and means and ins and outs and sheer, overwhelming complexity of the grandness of the year, in the house of the old year.
“And now it is time to pray,” the old year told him. And it was.

The prayers were of a particular sort, and had to be performed in a particular place, which was a little stone garden under a little skylight above a little but surprisingly deep pond, which the new year carefully washed their feet in as he poured them each a small glass of very strong….
“Herbs,” said the old year. “It will broaden your mind, but pull it a bit thin. The rest of the day will stay strong but this…may go away. That’s later. For now, listen to me. Listen to me and do what I say, as I do what I say. First, you will step into the spring.”
The new year stepped into the spring. It was warm and sulphurous, dragged up from underground. His toes bit at him as they came back to life.
“Now, you will anoint your brow with your first sip of your drink.”
The new year’s forehead steamed in the cool air. His eyes swam.
“Down it.”
The new year’s throat ached and punched and kicked.
“Bow down and cleanse your hands.”
The new year bowed down and scrubbed his palms briskly.
“And then,” said the old year, as he scrubbed his hands against the rough stones in the cold, cold water, “you will withdraw the little knife that the priests gave you from your right sleeve, and you will slit my throat with it.”
The new year’s right sleeve was already half-raised. The knife was in his hand. His foot was raised to take a step. His course was set, he needed only to complete it.
Instead he said “W-” and while he was busy doing that the old year spun around, glistening rust in his palm, and opened his neck up both ways.
It was a very clean cut, but then it had been a very good knife. Before it was left under a rough stone for twelve months.

In the courtyard, surrounded by birdsong, waited the priests. Each knew the time it would take to a minute, to a second, as sure as a grandfather clock. When the doors creaked open they smiled, and when they saw the robes they laughed, and when the new year strode forward in the garb of the old they blessed him warmly in his wake.
They bowed before him as he walked, seeing only the cowl and robe, not the face that filled it, the face they surely thought killed. First the old priest, then the even older priest, and then the oldest priest of all, whose cough was become quite severe these days.
And he walked on, smiling and triumphant across the bright green grass, into the year, and he felt like he could do this forever.

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