THE HAND OF THE SUN KING
J. T. Greathouse (jtgreathouse.com)
Grandmother led me up the steps to the altar at the temple’s heart. She unbound her hair and let its thick reddish-brown curls, tinted grey at the temples, flow freely over her shoulders.
Like all Sienese children, the sides of my head were shaved. With a frown, she untied my topknot. My hair – so much like hers, though combed straight at my father’s insistence – fell to either side and tickled the tops of my ears.
She wiped decades of dust from the altar with a swipe of her hand but did nothing else to clean the temple. This stood in stark contrast to the ritual cleanliness of the Sienese, which I had observed at my father’s side. Our worship had revolved around incense sticks, finely carved and painted idols, and temples kept fastidiously swept, polished, and painted by obsequious monks.
Worship could not commence, in the Sienese mind, unless the sages had been properly honoured and welcomed into the sacred space.
My grandmother’s religion centred not around the rite and ritual I knew but around fire and blood. She bade me sit upon the stone surface of the altar, then produced a knife of black glass from her satchel. Sensing my fear of it, she drew her mouth into a line and set the knife beside me on the altar.
The illicitness of our actions, the stillness and silence of the night, and the strangeness of the other artefacts she removed from her satchel – a clay bowl, a writing brush, a sheet of rice paper, a stoppered gourd, and a scroll of wooden slats tied with leather cord – unsettled me. Again, I wondered why she had brought me here, and I yearned for my blankets, for this strange outing to have been only a dream.
She walked to the back of the altar and opened a small brass door. It was the only metal I had seen in the temple. She stared into the darkness beyond that door, her eyes distant, the crows’ feet at their corners growing tight as her gaze narrowed on some distant memory.
‘Once,’ she said softly, ‘a witch would tend this hearth day and night. Once, the First Flame still burned here, a kindling from the same fire that set man apart from beasts. Now, there is only old coal and ash.’She stacked wood within the hearth, then reached into the darkness. I leaned over the edge of the altar, trying to watch her hand as it disappeared within.
She snapped her fingers, and whatever path of my life might have followed before that moment, it changed. For the first time, I felt the intoxicating thrill of magic. It seized my chest with a feverish heat, raced up my ribs, over my shoulders, and down the length of my spine. The grain of wood and stone leapt out to me like the writing of an ancient god.