My father’s blue eyes bulged. Spittle ran down his grey beard on to his goatskins. The people of the Sanctuary quivered, and not from the winter chill. They cried out to him, as they always did when the rage of the Lord was upon him.
“Help us, Redeemer!”
“Show us the way!”
“The way?” he bellowed. “The way, you poor sinners, is to abandon all hope of pleasure in this world! To throw yourself upon the ground before the Lord and to – to – to…”
I threw myself face down in the mud before his flock noticed him faltering. I looked for what he’d seen, but only saw a forest of legs. Then the forest fell as though to a scythe, to reveal a tall figure in a long, brown cloak whose back showed her contempt with every stride. Faces emerged to show their devotion by the filth that covered them, and with their devotion to my father came their hatred of my mother.
“See the poor, damned sinner,” my father rallied. “See the degenerate! Come back, lost soul! Turn from the flames while you still can!”
She disdained even to turn her head as she faded into the drizzle. As he knew she would.
I hid my face in the mud so that no one would see that I was no longer listening to the Redeemer. My own anguish held me in a far stronger thrall.
My father taught us until we shivered in the mud, then he called me forward to receive his blessing first, mumbled in the language of the Lord that he alone could speak. I stood back and watched his smile grow every time one of his children bowed their heads and kissed his feet.
A man rushed into the back of the throng with a sack over his shoulder, and the Redeemer’s blue eyes hardened dangerously. “Who disturbs a gathering of the Lord?”
The man pushed through the crowd to stand before my father, panting with exhaustion. For a moment, he seemed oblivious to whom he faced, then he laid the sack on the ground before him and threw himself beside it. A sob convulsed his shoulders. We backed away from him as though he had the plague. The Redeemer stepped off his stool and strode toward him. We stepped back, ending up in a ring around the Redeemer and the grovelling man. The Redeemer bent down and upended the sack.
I told myself that the thing that fell out of the sack wasn’t the naked body of a dead boy, and that the brown crust that covered it wasn’t dried blood from the cavity where his chest should be. Someone drew breath. The gasp whispered across the crowd and I knew I deceived myself.