A Virtuous Man

– a short story

Mr. Yazatha was virtuous man, or that’s what people said. Anyway, I didn’t really like him very much, even though I guess he took care of me.

 

Mr. Yazatha was slender and tall, and spent a lot of time and money on his looks. He shaved his head because he had no caste-scars, since he came from a good family. He wore copper coils all down his arms, except on special occasions when he wore the jet ones. He had so many fine shirts and long, flowing skirts that he wore something different each day of the month. He never wore shoes, and he had his toes studded on top, permanently, with delicate little copper balls, to show everyone that he never needed to wear shoes. He spent a lot of money on his looks.

 

Anyway, he wasn’t a very nice man, but people said he was virtuous. He went to the malachite-topped temple of the bull-headed god on the right days, like everyone else, and shook hands and talked and prayed. He almost always brought a dun rooster for the priests and priestesses. But, like a lot of the others, he went to the other temple pretty often. That temple was for the men. It was full of sad women and boys. I met some of them once, in the street lined with orange bricks behind the temple. One of them showed me the caste-scars on her scalp. They worked for the temple – the women and boys I met – and they told me that it was better than living in the street, or being un-virtuous, and the snake-armed god favored them because they worked there. That meant, after they died and were born again, they’d be born into a family of higher station. Some of them said they liked the work. I remember I thought then that they were lying, but I didn’t know why I thought so till much later.

 

Mr. Yazatha was my uncle. I should have said that. He didn’t like for me to call him by his temple name, so he was always Mr. Yazatha to me. I lived with him in his blue-glass house that rested on the side of the wide canal in the city, with the other blue-glass houses, much closer to the wellspring than the lower-caste houses. Their houses were usually made of the red clay, in those days. My parents died when I was young. I guess they had some money, but I couldn’t have it till I was given my temple name, at fifteen. Anyway, it was just me and Mr. Yazatha and his automaton in his house. It wasn’t much company for a boy growing up. I liked watching the barges go up and down the canal. Each one had a different figure on the front – mostly gods. The eagle-head god was my favorite, but I liked the one with the seal’s body and the spear, too. I used to know all their names. Mr. Yazatha’s landing went all the way down, and the bronze grates seemed to hang just above the water, and I spent a lot of time leaning on the rail and watching the barges. When they passed, the wake sometimes got my feet wet.

 

So like a lot of men, when Mr. Yazatha felt small and empty and lonely, he went to the snake-armed god’s temple, with the sad women and boys. Mr. Yazatha went a lot. The trick with that temple, was that it seemed to make him and the rest feel big and powerful. The feeling faded, though, and so they’d go back with more money when they started feeling small. He never went on the same day he went to the bull-headed god’s temple though.

 

The automaton wasn’t much fun, but I guess I pretended it was my friend. It was a little taller than me and had green glass eyes, like marbles, and it spoke out of a little grill in its chest. The grill was clever – it was made to look like the automaton’s chest hair. But I thought that odd, because who speaks out of their chest? Anyway, the automaton looked like a short man, wearing a shining blue shirt and a skirt the same green as the canal. The automaton kept its own clothes clean and perfect, and it walked around and cleaned Mr. Yazatha’s clothes and jewelery, and made our food, and made sure the glass house was kept spotless. If I spilled a cup of tea, it’d wipe up the mess. It always said “Oh, what a mess! That’s alright, young Mister.” I sometimes spilled things just so it’d talk to me. Mr. Yazatha didn’t talk to me much, and he was out a lot.

 

On the day of the bull-headed god’s festival, everyone buys gifts for the bull-headed god’s temple. That’s so the automatons keep working, and the watch-towers watch, and the canal flows, and everything else. The automatons have a little bit of the gods in them. The priests said that’s how they work. Used to work. If you don’t get something for the temple, something fitting your birth, the priests and priestesses get mad. They call the – I forget what it was called, but it was brownish. I only saw it once. It was brown and scaled, and had a head sort of like a bull’s head, if you didn’t look close. The priests and priestesses called it if you weren’t virtuous.

 

Anyway, I told the automaton – I called it Tava, because that’s the sound it’s gears or guts or whatever they were, made, if you listened – I told Tava to go out with me and find a gift for the temple. I was nine then, and I since I was nine I had to start buying gifts. Mr. Yazatha forgot, but I didn’t want Tava to stop working, so I went to get one. He was at the snake-armed god’s temple when we left. We went out and came back with the gift. I don’t remember what I got, but it cost sixteen mael. That sounds like a lot, now, but then it wasn’t much. Anyway, Mr. Yazatha was back, and he was angry I took Tava out with me. He hit me. I dropped the gift – I remember now, it was a glass rooster full of colored oils, red and ochre and aquamarine and violet, that separated into layers – and it broke, and while Mr. Yazatha yelled at me Tava wiped it up and said “What a mess! That’s alright, young Mister.”

 

Later on, Mr. Yazatha gave Tava a bunch of fine old silk clothes. They were still fine and new-looking, but I guess he was tired of them. He told Tava to clean them up and package them for the bull-headed god’s festival. Tava said, “These are yours, master.” “The priests won’t know the difference. Just do as I say, Tava,” Mr. Yazatha said. “Of course, Mr. Yazatha.” Tava took them off to clean them, but I don’t think it went to the wash room. I was pretty worried about not having a gift, but we got dressed and went out to the temple when the sun started setting. It made the malachite top of the temple look gold. That was just reflection, though.

 

Anyway, when we got there, Tava carried Mr. Yazatha’s gift up with the rest, a great big pile of gifts in shining silk wraps or lacquer boxes or sandalwood-scented chests. Below those were the low gifts, from people of low castes. A bowl held a bunch of mael, but if you were low-caste, one mael was enough of a gift. There were some old skirts, and some paper birds and bulls and things like that. They were all below the big stone altar, twice as tall as the priests, carved with the bull-headed god. The old stone altar didn’t look anything like the rest of the temple, which was all malachite and gold and shiny things.

 

The priests and priestesses sang and we all said prayers to the bull-headed god. We prayed for the automatons to keep working and the canal to flow and all the rest. When it was done, the priests and acolytes started going through the gifts and putting them behind the altar. I was worried, so when Mr. Yazatha was talking to someone about all the fine clothes he’d given, I took up a mael I had left from earlier and put it in the bowl. I was ashamed of not having something better, and worried about the high priestess being mad.

 

Anyway, while I was there I saw Mr. Yazatha’s silk-wrapped bundle of fine clothes. It smelled, and some brownish oily liquid was on the bundle. I lifted it up, and the whole bottom of the bundle was oily and brown. One of the priests saw me and came over, and when he saw the bundle he tore it open with his metal-caged hand and pushed me away. All those embroidered silks were covered in oily grime. They smelled just awful, like the far end of the canal, and I wondered how they’d got so dirty when Tava had just cleaned them.

 

Mr. Yazatha came up when the priest shouted for him. He and the priest yelled back and forth, and Mr. Yazatha said it was my fault that the gift was ruined. Everyone was leaving the temple. Mr. Yazatha said I made the mess, but the priest didn’t believe him. Two of the other priests held him with the long, slender iron gloves they wore. Then, the priest called Tava over, and asked it very politely to take me home. Mr. Yazatha started crying. He begged the priests to let him go.

 

Tava said, “Come along, young Mister.” It started leading me out of the temple. Behind me, though, I heard something, and when I turned to look the big stone altar moved over. The stone made this strange grinding sound when it moved, and I remembered seeing the metal tracks under it. It moved over, and Tava said, “No need to watch, young Mister.”

 

The thing came up from under the altar. It smelled like a wound smells if it’s gone bad, and in fact, the head really didn’t look anything like a bull’s. I got a good look. Its eyes were bright green, like two big marbles. It opened its mouth, and, in two big bites, it swallowed up Mr. Yazatha, most of him, anyway, and then it went back under the altar. I didn’t know what to do. I looked at Tava, and it looked at me with those green eyes like two marbles.

 

Anyway, all it said was, “Oh, what a mess!” It went back up to the altar, with some of the temple automatons. They worked pretty well together, and together they all started wiping up the mess.

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