Wild dogs ate the High Priest Smith.
A post-apocalypse story: The Sleeping Gods contains violence
This fact was solemnly reported by little Annie Hutchins, who was properly scolded by her parents for sneaking out of the compound. Then she was turned over to the clan’s elders for a thorough questioning. They tried to impress upon her the gravity of such an outrageous claim, but she kept to her story.
A week of pause. A search party was considered, rejected. Only the sanctioned were permitted into the wilderness, the Sleeping Gods were quite clear on that. Finally, the clan was forced to admit that a seven-year-old had indeed witnessed the demise of High Priest Smith. Appeasement was in order.
The elders called the clan to the golden sanctuary. They called for sacrifices. They called for prayers; fervent, meaningful prayers.
‘There were two dogs,’ Annie reported. Two goats were sacrificed at the golden altar.
‘He didn’t cry out,’ she insisted. The throat was wrenched from a pig, and the animal died in silence.
And then they prayed. The elders placed Annie nearest the altar, for she had survived the wilderness, she was sanctioned. Annie clasped her hands obediently, closed her eyes tightly, pursed her lips in an effort to be more solemn. She heard the murmur of the clan behind her, drifting through the upper ranks of the sanctuary.
A rasp distracted her, and Annie opened her eyes. Gold sparkled and shimmered and danced in the light of five hundred candles, one for each year of the Sleeping Gods’ repose. How she loved this chamber. She would often sneak in here to be closer to her Gods, and sometimes she thought she could hear them breathing.
The whispered supplications continued behind her, but Annie could no longer ignore the rasping ahead. It drew her. She stood up, focused beyond the altar, cautious as she stepped, not to disturb the prayers behind her, careful to avoid the gore at the altar, curious to find the source of the noise. She was sanctioned, she repeated once, twice, again and again.
She must hear the Sleeping Gods’ voices. She approached the vessels that held them. She gasped. The lid of the closest one stood open, the frost all but cleared from the glass that had obscured her God. Her little mouth formed a perfect circle, her eyes widened as she stared with wonder at the Sleeping God who had awakened.
He returned her gaze, then slowly his eyes followed the hushed whispering to the mass of kneeling figures in the chamber below. Then he saw the bloody altar, the two unopened canisters beside him, and finally returned to Annie. She dared not move or even breath. Her God smiled weakly at her, encouraging her to tiptoe closer, to reach a tiny hand up to touch his. He smiled again, stronger this time, and sunshine rose across little Annie’s face.
◊ ◊ ◊
‘They ripped us off, Jimmy boy,’ Jack Flemming’s voice worried the chamber walls. Annie and Jim Alderborough looked up together. They sat amidst piles of black binders, one of which lay open in Jim’s lap. Flemming stood in front of them, a shotgun in one hand, a gold brick in the other.
‘Thank God this still works,’ he lifted the weapon, ‘but there’s not much ammo left.’ Alderborough leaned forward, whispered in Annie’s ear. The child nodded, then stood and ran across the sanctuary, pausing briefly at a far door before she disappeared.
‘Don’t talk like that in front of her, she’s just a kid.’
‘I’m telling you, they ripped us off. Look.’ Flemming shoved the brick toward Alderborough. Gold flakes flittered to the ground at their feet.
‘Is there any of it left?’
‘Couple dozen ingots, that’s all. I don’t know why I let you talk me into this cryo shit. We could have left the country, you know.’
‘With half a ton of gold? That’s real smart thinking Flemming.’
‘It was supposed to be ten years.’ Flemming walked over to the middle cryonic canister, tracing his initials lightly over the frosted glass. ‘And what about the good Dr. Kowalski? I think he’s dead.’ He turned and studied Alderborough. The other man shrugged.
‘So much for scientific genius, huh?’
Alderborough bowed his head, re-reading the page that lay open in front of him.
‘There was a holocaust. Near as I can figure out, it must have happened a couple of years after we went under. It’s all here.’ He swept his arm across the piles of binders. ‘Holy Binders. That’s what they call them. Listen to this.’ Alderborough scrambled over the floor, reached for another binder and flipped through the first few pages. He ran a finger down the lines of hand-written script, then cleared his throat.
‘ “Yea tho I walked through the valley of the shadow of death,
But I believed.
And it came upon me, in the third year,
But I believed.
And the Holy Trinity descended upon me in its gilded vessels,
And verily I believed.
I heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet,
Saying, we are Alpha and Omega.
Write the things which thou hast seen,
And the things which are,
And the things which shall be hereafter.
Thus thou art charged.
And thus thou shalt be anointed as prophet.
And I believed.Gather unto thy breast a flock, the chosen,
And among them, command a sanctuary unto which only the chosen shall dwell.
Thou shalt know the wealth of our gifts,
Thou shalt fear no evil, no enemy,
For thou art the chosen,
And thou art the prophet among chosen.
Thus thou shalt leadeth them in our name,
Early Coptic altar carved into the wall of the…
Until we are risen.
And verily I believed.” ‘
Alderborough looked up. Flemming snorted, ran a hand across his forehead. Flecks of gold paint remained.
‘Clever bastards, these High Priests. Hand pick a few traumatized survivors and convince them only the chosen get to wait on them hand and foot, all in the name of the Sleeping Gods. Parade the gold and cryonic canisters as proof. Powerful stuff.’
‘Well, it worked, didn’t it? Except for Kowalski. There’s supposed to be three of us; it’s starting to make them edgy. I wish we could figure out how to revive him.’
‘To hell with that. I think we should grab the rest of the gold, the real stuff, and figure out how to get out of here.’
◊ ◊ ◊
Annie paused to re-adjust the gold bar that sagged in her side pouch. Each step of her journey brought another reminder of its presence; she was beginning to feel the lump of a bruise on her hip. But High Priest Smith had always taken one of the bars when he ventured into the wilderness. Now Annie knew she must do the same.
Earlier that day she had searched the compound, but found that her Gods had vanished and she thought she would find them in the wilderness walking with the spirit of the Sleeping God who had not awakened. She would talk to them, just as High Priest Smith had done, then make her offering of gold. They would teach her. They would give her the livestock. They would make a gift of the paper for the Holy Binders.
Steep craggy rocks rose on either side of the path Annie had chosen, so narrow that when she stretched out her arms her fingertips brushed the stone. One more bend would bring her to the end of this path, opening onto a hilly wider trail that led to the flat barren wilderness.
Broken shale crunched under foot.
Annie paused once more, leaned against the rock wall and stared straight up to the open sky. Overcast. Dusk brought a grey pall as evening drifted swiftly down. The sound of falling stones echoed behind her. Annie looked back and froze. A footstep crunched. Heartbeats thrumbed against her eardrums. Another footstep, then another. Quiet. Stalking.
Annie saw the head first, lowered, ears flattened, shoulders scrunched down behind. Its yellow orbs menaced the air between them. The animal barred its teeth, a sharp pink tongue tracing a hungry pattern across its fangs.
She ran. The beast pounded after her, a frightening howl grabbing at her heels.
Ahead, the opening. Beyond, a flash of fire. Behind, a crack like a whip, and the beast was dead, flaccid in its final contortions. It dropped in front of Annie throwing up a cloud of dust. She gulped long drafts of air and peered through the dirty air, rubbing her eyes to be sure of what she was seeing.
‘What are you doing out here girl?’ The old man drew a gnarled hand across the lower part of his face, snorting long and loud at the same time. He spat. Annie took a step back.
His face was lined, pitted heavily, with a grey stubble that threatened to overtake his chin. Seams of black soot creased the exposed flesh of his neck, the filthy remains of a rag cloaked his upper body. Tattered trousers hung below, ending above naked ankles and feet, corned and callused. Yellow nails mounted his toes. The same greasy talons adorned each of his fingers but one, which was left a mangled stump at the end of his left hand, creating shivers in Annie’s stomach as she stared.
Annie swallowed her fear. ‘You made a fire and a bang that killed the dog. Are you the spirit of the Sleeping God? If you are I’m not afraid.’
Her gaze defied the old man. She felt for the pouch at her side and drew out the gold bar, extended it to him. He squinted at it, then took it, scratching with his thumbnail. It remained intact.
‘This is better.’ He nodded toward the bar. ‘Learned your lesson, you people.’ He studied the little girl for a moment. Her eyes remained steady on his. ‘So now they send a child to do Smith’s bidding, do they?’
Annie gasped, stumbled backward. The old man turned to see what startled the little girl. He snorted. He snapped his fingers, thrusting his hand in a commanding motion toward the ground. A dog paced to his side, sat, curling its tail gracefully to one side. Another appeared to stand sentinel behind.
‘These two obey only me.’
Annie nodded. Her eyes moved from dogs to master and back again to the animals. Their yellow eyes sent shudders through her spinal chord. She stiffened her legs to stop the wobble.
‘Have you walked with the others? They’re searching for you.’
‘Ahh, the Sleeping Gods. You see that crag over there, other side of the trail?’
‘You find those two and tell them I’ll be waiting for them over there. Tell them Kowalski. They’ll know what it means.’ He crouched down, his face close to Annie’s. ‘Just between you and I,’ he raised a finger to his lips, ‘if they try to fool me, I’ll make the fire and the bang.’
Annie glanced at the dead animal, then back to Kowalski.
‘You do this right and I’ll make you the High Priestess and teach you to write in the Holy Binders.’
One dog leaned against his master’s hand as he stroked behind its ear. The little girl turned and made her way back through the rocky passage.
◊ ◊ ◊
Annie had almost reached the compound before she met her Gods. She gave them the directions, repeated the word kowalski. Flemming and Alderborough exchanged looks of astonishement.
‘Son of a bitch.’
Annie had never heard such words. She thought they must belong to the language of the Gods along with kowalski. She repeated the words to herself as she waited for them to pass. When they had disappeared, she crept quietly along the narrow passage to follow them.
At the opening, Annie scaled a rough wall of rock. The sky had lost its cloud, revealing the pale yellow of moon, casting long ghostly shadows across the barren land.
She watched the two figures as they crossed the flat strip and were joined by the third, the one she knew to be the spirit of her Sleeping God. Voices drifted in her direction. Annie could not make them out. One of the figures gestured wildly. She saw the flash of fire, then another. Crackling explosions echoed between rocks.
The three figures spread out, one fell to its knees, crawled. Another crack. More flashes of fire. More cracks, reverberating in front, behind, across the empty land.
Only one stood when it was finally over.
The figure hesitated over the prone still bodies, then turned and disappeared through the crags the spirit of the Sleeping God had shown her earlier.
Like the beast that had been felled, Annie knew the others were dead. She climbed silently down to return to the compound.
Annie crossed the golden sanctuary and pushed open the door that led to High Priest Smith’s private quarters. Inside, the air cooled her skin. She knelt to lift a trap door under a coarse-woven rug, just enough to peek inside. Gold ingot blinked back at her. She closed the trap, stood, approached her reflection in a dusky mirror. Beside it hung the soft white mantel of the High Priest. She stroked it. The cloak slipped easily across her shoulders.
Real Gods don’t die. Annie knew that for the truth it was. Her future stretched before her in the mirror, behind her, filling the apartment until it spilled out into the golden sanctuary. She nodded and smiled kindly to her image, then turned and left the High Priestess’ quarters. She walked directly to the centre vessel, the one that held her Sleeping God. The empty containers on either side would remain to remind them all how easily they could be deceived by false gods.
But Annie was sanctioned. She rolled the word across her tongue as her young mind embraced its true meaning. She draped herself across the Sleeping God’s vessel, allowing the holiness of it to penetrate her being, knowing that someday her one true God would awaken and walk among them.
** ω **
note: I originally wrote this story in December, 1994, for a writing class, long before blogs and web sites were common. I published it here, first in March of 2011. If you prefer, you can download a copy of The Sleeping Gods from Smashwords.