O, to keep us from screaming
Bring us the bandages
O, to keep us from seeing
Bring us the hooks
O, to keep us from feeling
Bring us the ointment
A softly-flickering candle, held in your hands, lights the darkened yet still familiar streets of your town. Even the lights of the city have trouble making it through the murky abyss around you, and the stars above are but gentle reminders of daylight.
It is cold, but you are not shivering. None of you are. Before and behind you, other townsfolk meander through the street, candles providing the bare minimum of illumination. The wind blows through your robes, jostling the material ever so slightly and causing the candle flames to dance close to extinguishment, yet not close enough to tip them over the edge. If you were to listen closely while approaching the outskirts of the town, you would be able to hear the deep humming of the folk attending the procession. You hum along.
It was hard to get used to, at first. They knocked on your door, woke you from your sleep, dragged you out of bed. You recognized some of them, but not all. The cowls didn’t help, but you could make out the facial features of the man who runs the grocery store. The baker. Your elderly neighbour. They did not speak as they undressed you, and pulled a dark purple cloak over your head. You did not struggle, and found comfort in the gentleness involved in the process. They were not out to hurt you. They handed you a candle, fashioned from unfathomably black wax.
This year, you had your own robe and candle. You roused your neighbour from his sleep, and silently urged him to get dressed. The humming had already started. You do not see him in the procession, though you assume he is walking some distance behind you.
Wax drips through your fingers. It stings, but the solidified layer of wax manages to protect you against further heat. The warmth allows you to focus on the task at hand rather than the bitter chill of the air around you. The group marches forwards, and leaves the town behind it. If you were to look behind you, you would not be able to recognize any of the people walking, nor the road you find yourself on. You do not look. That would be a mistake, you think to yourself, as you intently focus on the dancing candle flame.
Out of the corner of your eye, you see more hooded figures join the procession, walking in from roads unknown. No one asks their name. No one asks their purpose. It is the way it all should be.
You barely notice when you enter the temple. Your candlelight bounces off the heavy stone walls, illuminating various motifs scratched in over the years, and smeared over with wax. You run your coated hand past a mostly-clean part, filling up the grooves with fresh tallow. The only sound is the breathing of your companions and the slow, deliberate footsteps of the entire procession, echoing off the walls.
The man walking in front of you starts to sob. You gently put your hand on his back, urging him to continue. When his tears stop flowing, you return to gripping the candle with both hands. Your fingers dig into the soft tallow, getting it stuck between your nails and allowing you to feel the wick. It is safe, as it should be. The candle has lost all resemblance to it’s original shape by this point, being little more than a mound of wax with a drooping wick sticking out, flames licking your hands. All is as it should be.
The central chamber is fashioned out of a massive cave, illuminated ever-so-slightly by fairylights, presumably to allow some vision even once the candles inevitably go out. Fungal particles in the air dye the light a sickening mossy green. A massive statue looms over the procession, its face obscured by shadows, its three legs splayed out over the floor. It is holding a large bowl with both hands. It has been here since before you came to town, since before ANYONE you know came to town. You do not know who built it. You and the others march towards it.
One by one, the people from the procession pour the melted remains of their candles into the bowl, watching as it fills up with a multi-coloured, viscous slurry. Burnt wicks bob around in the mixture before getting buried beneath another layer of wax. This goes on until the very last person arrives. No one wipes their hands. The wax covering it is considered good luck.
All around you, festival-goers are sobbing. Some are embracing each other. Some come to you for an embrace. You hug them tightly, tears staining your cloak and salting your flesh. It is a regrettable affair, but all is as it should be. You leave them behind you, and enter one of five tunnels. Four others enter the other ones. Yours is adorned with an etched sigil, displaying an unlit, full candle. Wiping your brow leaves a smear of wax behind. An uneasy feeling stirs in your stomach.
Heavy stone doors slide open, revealing a small chamber. Masked priests surround a large slab of solid chert. Large enough for an adult-sized human, with grooves conforming to a human body.
Your human body.
One of them nods at you, with their squat, short-beaked ivory mask. You can’t make out their eyes behind the opaque glass that covers the eyeholes. You’ve never heard of the priests, and have only seen their results once, from the corner of your eye. A glimpse. It smells of perfume here. You lie down on the slab, fitting into the grooves perfectly. Of course you do. They had it etched just for you. A short yelp of surprise escapes your lips as one of the priests rubs some sort of heavily floral-scented balm on your arms. It leaves a stinging sensation, yet it quickly fades. The others are preparing various instruments, but you won’t be around to see what they’ll use them for. One is undressing you, which would unnerve you if you didn’t expect it.
More of the balm. Some are reciting prayers in their deep, muffled voices. You can’t feel the arm that had the ointment applied first by now. The priest that nodded at you earlier takes notice of this, carefully pricking you with some kind of fork-shaped tool and watching for a reaction. None. Not even a drop of blood. All is as it should be.
They start to etch out some sort of symbol. It does not hurt. It does not bleed. All you can do is watch as they scrape away unnecessary layers of skin, revealing bright-yellow subcutaneous fat in the shape of their drawing. The other priests are applying more of the balm, all over your body. You swear you can see one of them wink at you below their mask as they apply a little extra. The sensation is exquisite. It feels as though you are floating in your own body, and not even physically present in the room. Your eyes wander to a large censer in the corner. Is that what is spreading the heavy scent? Should you not be panicking right now?
They move on to your right arm. You can only move your head at this point, and after some minor hesitation, turn it to admire the priest’s work.
A sun. A moon. A planet, surrounded by twin rings, floating in the fleshy void between them. The sun is unrecognizable. The moon is dripping. You can’t stop staring at it, attempting to interpret it, yet never understanding. You hardly even notice when the others start to work on the rest of your body with their hooks and scalpels, etching out prayers to ward off… something. They didn’t tell you. They never will.
The heady floral scent overwhelms all your senses as your vision starts to blur, with one priest rubbing another kind of ointment on your scarred arms. A few walk out to another room, and you can hear the grinding of stone on stone. All your flesh is neatly collected in a basket, and carried out of the room as well. None of them taunt you with it. One of them blows some kind of musky-smelling powder on your face, and you start getting more and more lightheaded. You feel as though you are in a whole different room, watching this divine surgery take place through some kind of window. Every muscle in your body relaxes, and even your heart stops beating, yet you remain conscious.
The grinding comes closer as the priests return to the operating theatre. They drag behind them an equal copy of the slab you are laying on, fashioned out of amethyst. Jagged spikes of the gemstone adorn the perfectly formed imprint of your human body, and you close your eyes to make sure you do not see them pierce you.
Eyes shut tight, you wonder to yourself what happens next. You feel nothing, and don’t seem to be bleeding. Warm waves of pleasure flow through you, originating from your head and crawling down, all the way to your toes. Gravity shifts as your casket is turned upright. For what seems like hours, you hear nothing. Then, softly, you hear footsteps, and the sloshing of some kind of viscous liquid being brought into the room.
Soft footsteps echo around you, climbing to around shoulder height. Then, it happens. Molten wax drips over your head, running down your face and body. More. It solidifies against your feet, and it starts to pile up. Soon, all you will be is wax. All you can be is wax. It solidifies against your skin, fills the scarred crevices on your arms and torso.
A candle lost, a candle fashioned.
It crawls down your throat, fills your stomach. It snakes into your nose, filling your lungs. You can only breathe wax, now. Thick tallow drips over your eyesockets, permanently closing them off to the outside world. You do not feel a thing. The humming and chanting stops registering as your ears fill up, dripping down into your sinuses through the eustachian tube. Perhaps one day, something will light you, and you will be reborn. A vision of a moth emerging from a cocoon. The semi-translucent wax allows you to notice a shift in light as the priests remove the stone mold from your body.
You are wrapped in silks, and carried off, deep into the caverns. You don’t know where they are going. You can not see. They prop you up against a wall, or possibly another person who has shared your fate. How many more could there be? Does it matter?
There, you stand. Waiting. One day, something will awaken you.
Until then, you rest.
Must we beg
Must we lie
Must we beg,
Just to die?