by Jose Guerra Sison
Do you want to live, child?” He asked, holding His hand out to me. His face, I could barely see, as a bright light shone behind him. I stared at His outstretched hand, dumbfounded by the question. Did He really need to ask? I took it without hesitation. His warmth took the edge off the hunger that had lived inside me for years.
“Remember Me and keep the faith.”
I nodded. As the bright light behind him faded, I felt an immense energy between His hand and mine, manifesting into a ball of pure light. It blazed like the sun, before turning into a smooth, round onyx nestled in my palm.
“This is a mark of My trust, and your faith. You will know when to use it.”
Then He vanished into a canopy of flames.
The ground beneath me shook. I found myself atop the hill on Keeper’s Hollow, the village that I was ordained to serve. I was no longer a child, but a grown Keeper of the Faith. The bells rang wildly, and all around me, my brothers were on their knees, chanting. The sight of the church on fire had me scrambling to my knees.
“He who walks the earth and lives among us! He who descended from the skies so that we may live life to the fullest! Grant us Your presence so that we may douse this fire in Your Name!” The chanting was fierce and unanimous.
“He who rules the earth and ordained us, Keepers! He who has given us His trust to carry out His faith in His Name, save us! For we have served You all these years! Protect us!” I heard my voice join the rest and soar to the sky.
“For You are nothing without us!”
I choked. That was not how the prayer went. Yet everyone continued chanting. And the fire grew stronger. Its warmth turned fearsome. The air grew thick, heavy with smoke.
This is not God.
The hooded figures around me were not my brothers. I reached for my prayer ball, tied to a string round my neck; I grasped it tightly as the smoke filled my lungs. I screamed for God to show me what true warmth is. My prayer ball shattered.
“Albert! The Head Keeper is calling for us.”
Sweat trickled down my face. I could still feel the heat from the flaming church and hear the heretical chanting. But I was alive, in my quarters at the Keeper’s Grounds, and it was still dark. I nodded to my fellow keeper and thanked him, before grasping at the string around my neck. It was still there: my prayer ball, my tie to God, unbroken.
As I shuffled to the basin on the table across the bed, I felt the anger and confusion seep out of me. But I could not help but doubt myself—had I erred in some way for Him to have me visited by such a nightmare? Had I failed at the simple task that had been assigned to me? Unlike the other Keepers, whose day started with prayer at the Keeper’s Grounds before descending to the village at the bottom of the hill, I worked in the kitchen and kept the morale up.
But lately, this has been difficult to do. The villagers have been less generous with the daily rations from their farms. And a few years ago, a group of disbelievers set on fire one of the remotest areas beneath the hill. It was put out quickly, and no one was harmed. But not long after, word spread of empty fields, houses, and churches spontaneously bursting into flames. Halfway through the year, seven villages had already burned to the ground. The Keepers who returned from the villages were thoughtful and quiet, or angry and silent. A warm meal did not change their mood. They laughed less during mealtimes, and sometimes, not at all. Some Keepers even failed to return to Keepers’ Grounds. We no longer spoke of them. It was as if we had given them up for dead. That we were roused from our slumber in the middle of the night could only mean one thing: another disaster.
The water in the basin was cold. I splashed it on my face, put on my saffron-stained robe over the brown hair shirt, then made my way to convene with the other Keepers. We all walked to the small amphitheater behind the church and took our seats in the usual order, careful to avoid causing any form of chaos— there was enough of it recently. At the center of the amphitheater was a pulpit for the Head Keeper. He waited for all of us to take our seats before he made his announcement.
“I am sorry brothers for disturbing you at night. But God does not rest and neither do his adversaries. Tonight, a messenger was sent to Keeper’s Hollow to inform us that Greenfield burned yesterday evening. As Greenfield is only a couple of hours away from the Keeper’s Grounds, we must take extra precautions. Let us take turns doing the rounds tonight until the sun rises, watch for anyone that seeks to light a fire. There will be no rest for us tonight.” He dismissed us with a wave of his hand.
In the past, the Keepers would whisper, or profess their discontent outright at such a directive, but this time, the atmosphere remained solemn. They quietly left the amphitheater. Only the Head Keeper and I remained. I touched the prayer ball that hung from the string around my neck before making my way to the pulpit.
“Albert! My good boy!” He patted me on the head. “How have you been?”
“That’s the thing Head Keeper. I have not been well. I have been bothered by my dreams lately.”
“Dreams? Is heresy involved?”
I paused, trying to recall the exact words of the bastardized prayer. But before I could respond, the Head Keeper laughed.
“I jest! You would be the last Keeper that people will suspect to be a heretic.” He winked.
“You jest, but my question is heavy on the heart.”
“Dark times are upon us. What does the Light of Keeper’s Hollow wish to ask?”
“What does it mean for one to dream of God?”
“How long has this been going on?” he asked, his playful tone, gone.
“It’s been a few weeks, Head Keeper.”
“Why tell me only now?”
“The dreams were sparse and short at first, memories of the time before I became a Keeper. You know these stories, Head Keeper: how I looked up at the face of the farmer whose crops I’d stolen, and saw God Himself shining down on me; how He granted me this gift”—I touched the prayer ball hanging from my chest—“but the dream that woke me up this morning was not a memory, but a nightmare.”
I told him of the church burning and my prayer ball shattering. I repeated the words of the blasphemous prayer. Hearing the words come out of my mouth startled me. I gripped my prayer ball instinctively.
“Head Keeper,” I said, willing myself to say the unthinkable: “How could I have dreamed these words and say them to you now—I who have seen Him, heard His voice, felt the warmth of His hand? Have I lost my faith?”
“No, Albert.” He glanced briefly at the dark bead on my chest and smiled. “It’s the complete opposite of what you think. He has sent you a vision of what is to come—which means He has utmost faith in you. And so do I. In my many years as a Head Keeper, I have never seen a Keeper more devout to God as you. I would say your faith surpasses mine. I am sure you will do a good job as Head Keeper one day.”
“You flatter me, Head Keeper. I work in the kitchens. I see the villagers only to discuss our food supply. I’ve never done what the other Keepers do. I don’t talk to people or offer services to them. I can’t even cast a simple prayer from a prayer envelope.”
“Albert. You seem to forget that Keepers are not bound by hierarchy. This hierarchy is an illusion. What matters is faith. An orphan who believes in God is more powerful than a Keeper that pretends to do the same.” I contemplated his words.
“Now, I see you still have your prayer ball.” He pointed at it. “It’s been years since I last held mine.”
“What happened to it, Head Keeper?”
“I lost mine on a pilgrimage to God’s palace.”
“I don’t understand, Head Keeper. What would be so dire that you would use your prayer ball, your only connection to God?”
“You really are innocent Albert. The world is large and frightening. In that moment I needed to see God face to face. I wanted to know He heard me when I said I wanted to live. Tell me, how many of your fellow Keepers still have their prayer balls?”
To my astonishment, I could think of none.
“You are the only one left in these grounds that holds one, Albert. I see that you hold on to it because it reminds you of the moment you were in the comfort of His presence. You are right to treat it as a treasure, a tremendous gift. But God’s prayer balls are to be used, not hoarded. Do you not remember what He said when it was given to you?”
“This is a mark of my trust, and your faith. You will know when to use it.”
The Head Keeper nodded. “It is His gift to us, to allow us to call Him, so He may be present to us once again, the way He was present the first time. Remember what He said: You will know when to use it.”
It was my turn to nod. The Head Keeper made sense.
“Besides, will losing the prayer ball reduce your great faith, dear Light of the Keep?” He asked affectionately.
“No, Head Keeper.” I hung my head in shame, for while it may be true that my faith was intact, I lacked the Head Keeper’s wisdom.
“Can I ask you a favor, Albert?”
“Anything, Head Keeper.”
He took out a prayer envelope.
“Go downhill and into Keeper’s Hollow. Cast this prayer of plenty over there. We cannot continue our battle against the heretics without food. Without morale.”
“But Head Keeper!” I protested. I had never done such a task before.
“Remember what I told you? Hierarchy does not matter. Faith does. And what I have learned in this last hour is that at the Keeper’s Grounds, your faith is the greatest. Will you turn your back on God during these troubled times?”
He didn’t have to say more. He waved me off, and I ran into the night.
Atop the Keeper’s Grounds, you could see little specks of flame moving around the forest covering the hillside. One of those specks could be a heretic, but I stilled my heart by telling myself those were the torches of my brothers who were making their rounds. To descend to the village, I needed to pass through the western gate of the Keeper’s Grounds. I waved my own torch at the guard so that he would let me out.
“Take care, Keeper Albert, the forest is dangerous especially during the wee hours. Make sure to follow the arrows,” he said. He seemed less surprised than I thought he would be. After all, it was my first time out of the Keeper’s Grounds before daybreak. I waved goodbye and followed the road to the forest entrance. It looked menacing at night, as though it harbored a hidden beast that would devour anyone who dared to enter. It became necessary to talk to myself: There are no beasts inside the forest, Albert, only people.
Guided by the etchings made by the villagers on the trees, I made my way deeper into the forest. They were hard to miss, as most were big arrows pointing to a beaten path that disappeared into the darkness. But after the seventh arrow, I came to a crossroads. I looked for further etchings, or any other sign of human activity, but found none. I decided to take the left fork in the road.
I felt an eerie wind blow past, as if eyes watched me and that the forest itself moved. At the end of the path lay a clearing. It was strange enough that I had not met any of my brother Keepers as I made my way through the woods—but the empty clearing made me wonder if the forest had always been as empty. To the right side of the clearing was a large wooden structure. Its roof was decrepit and its windows broken. This used to be one of the Keeper’s old outposts long before the Keeper’s Grounds was established. There was a stone pulpit in the center of the clearing, covered in moss, cracked in certain places but still serviceable. I felt for the prayer envelope underneath the inner lining of my robe. It was still there.
From the corner of my eye, something moved quickly in the shadows. I heard the cabin door creak, followed by a thud. I climbed onto the porch. It was covered in leaves, the floorboards creaked under my weight. I gave the door a push. It was heavy, but not locked and I pushed it open. I placed my torch on the sconce fixed to the wall.
At first glance, the cabin seemed abandoned, which was expected. It had been years since the Keepers had relocated to the top of the hill. But near the fireplace was a bundle of freshly cut firewood, which lay right beside an old cellar door, cut into the floor. I opened it and went down the winding staircase made of stone slabs. I descended further and heard the sound of running water. I realized then that the door opened into something far more expansive than a cellar. I was in an underground cave. At the bottom of the stairway, I heard human voices speaking in hushed tones. I followed the sound of water and voices until I reached a causeway built along the bank of an underground river. A man with a torch stood on the causeway, watching a small boat filled with people make its way down the river.
The torch light allowed one of the passengers see me lurking in the shadows. She gasped and pointed to me; the man with the torch turned around.
The man nodded slightly. I was not mistaken. Even though he was no longer dressed in Keeper’s Robes, he still wore the horsehair shirt. I was relieved–no, overjoyed. I rushed forward with my arms wide open. I hugged him tightly. “Why are you here? You disappeared a year ago. We thought you were dead!”
He said nothing but patted my back and the sides of my torso, as if checking for a weapon. I could not help but notice that the people on the boat had turned away from us, as though they did not want me to recognize who they were.
“Who are they, Brother Magnus? Are they…heretics?”
He extended one of his arms to prevent me from taking a closer look, and then quietly led me up the stone stairway, out of the trap door and back into the clearing.
The sight of the podium reminded me of my task. I drew the prayer envelope from my robe and approached it.
“Albert,” he suddenly asked, “What do you know about the heretics?”
“Must you ask, Brother Magnus? Heretics deny the truth that He walks among us even as we speak.”
He shook his head.
I recalled the blasphemous chanting of the hooded brothers in my dream. “They are those who have forgotten him, the warmth of His touch, His healing presence.” I look down my chest and at my prayer ball. “They are those who have lost their connection to Him and are now sour and bitter. They are the ones who sow doubt among those who still believe.”
Keeper Magnus shook his head once more.
I remembered these words of the Head Keeper: “An orphan who believes in God is more powerful than a Keeper that pretends to do the same.” Suddenly, I grew suspicious of my brother and his reticence.
“Keeper Magnus,” I whispered coldly, “Are you here to burn Keeper’s Hollow?”
“No, Albert. You saw me do what I came to do: set the villagers free.”
“Free from whom?”
“From the Keepers of the Hollow, who live on their labor. Did you not see how afraid they were of you and your saffron robe? They fear you pray that they will all burn. Please, Albert. Let them go. All that Keepers do is take from the villagers.”
It took a while before I realized that he had referred to the people headed downriver.
“Beyond the Great River, we will start over, far from the Keepers, your prayer envelopes,” he nodded at the dark stone on my chest, “and your prayer ball.”
“But they are His gift to us,” I reasoned, remembering my conversation with the Head Keeper. “And the Keepers–how can you say this, Magnus?–we do not enslave anyone; it is we who are slaves to His will. We are His hands and His feet, His eyes and ears. We are merely His instruments.”
“Isn’t it the other way around? Don’t the Keepers command Him to do their bidding? Crush a prayer ball, He appears. Open a prayer envelope, a sick villager is cured; a household is gifted with a pig; a tree grows in an empty clearing. He may be powerful, but He is nothing without us, nothing if we don’t need him.”
My head spun.
“And the Keepers have used the prayers to make Him do their bidding. Tell me, how many Keepers still have their prayer balls? How many had used them for the villagers, for those who have never seen nor touched God? If only we used our prayers to right all wrongs, to provide for each family’s daily needs, they would have no need to go hungry, or be so desperate to leave Keeper’s Hollow—”
“Isn’t it enough that you accuse the Keepers of enslaving the villagers? We do not enslave Him, Brother Magnus. We are nothing without Him.”
“Then why can’t He do anything on His own? Why does He need you to cast the prayer envelope the Head Keeper has asked you to carry? Have you forgotten the first thing He told all of us who have seen Him and heard His voice and witnessed Him walking on earth? Remember to keep the faith. Why must He ask this of us? Think, Albert.”
“What happened to you, Magnus? Who has fed you these lies?”
He looked at me and scoffed. “You really can’t see it, can you? I realize now why they kept you in the kitchen all these years. Light of the Keep, indeed!”
Something inside me burned. I turned my back against him and headed straight for the podium. Without hesitation, I opened the prayer envelope. Without faith, I placed it on the altar. With spite, I raised my eyes and looked at Keeper Magnus. Before I could even utter one word, the envelope combusted. Then Magnus burst into flames. Something ignited in the cabin, and then in the forest that surrounded it.
I felt the strength of my anger drain away before fear set in. Magnus had no intention of burning Keeper’s Hollow. And now, he burned. And with him, the entire forest.
“Keepers! Douse the fire! We have found Albert!” a voice shouted.
Dozens of torch-bearing Keepers rushed into the smoky clearing as if they were waiting for this moment the whole time. I felt myself pulled away from the clearing, then heard their voices chant for rain. I felt the first fat drops fall as I ran blindly into the dark.
I stopped to wipe the wet soot from my eyes.
“Well done, Albert,” the Head Keeper said.
So it was he who was leading me away from the clearing. I wanted to ask him so many questions. Did he know all this time that Keeper Magnus was hiding in the old outpost? Was it really I who had set Keeper Magnus on fire? How could I have done that without uttering a single word of the prayer? But the Head Keeper wasn’t even looking at me.
“I see that you didn’t even need the prayer ball to accomplish your mission.” He nodded at the stone hanging from the string around my neck. “A prayer envelope was enough.”
Had I truly been sent to the forest to say prayers for God’s bounty?
“Indeed,” he said approvingly, “your faith is astonishing.” But his kindly face now seemed hard and greedy. “Come. Let us return to the Keeper’s Grounds. We must discuss how to put your treasure to good use.”
We had not gone very far when two Keepers ran after us to inform him of the cave beneath the cabin floor. The Head Keeper decided to turn back and investigate. I walked uphill to the Keeper’s Grounds by myself. I was still shaking when I reached the guard post. The guard was nowhere to be found. I was truly alone.
As soon as I entered the gate, I took off the string around my neck and detached the prayer ball. You will know when to use it. If I waited for the Head Keeper to return, it would be too late.
I prayed for Him to come, and for the first time in my life, what I said was not the same as what I wished in my heart. I hoped He would not do as I had asked in prayer. I wished He would not come. For if he did, then Magnus was right. Magnus, who turned to ash, right before my eyes.
My prayer ball gleamed, then shattered.
I was overcome by His warmth, the memory of it–and then its presence. I fell to my knees, not to pray, but to weep.
“I am here,” He said, in the farmer’s voice, from long ago.
“Who are you?”
“I am who answers your prayers.”
“I did not pray for Keeper Magnus to die,” I said, but as soon as I did, the warmth turned into an uncomfortable heat. I tasted smoke and bitterness at the back of my throat.
“What is the prayer you hold in your heart?”
Still thinking of Magnus, I said: “I pray that you will be free of us.”
“But I am who answers to everyone–”
“No more heretics. No more Keepers.”
“I will take you with me to my palace. There you shall live in comfort, without being used by anyone. You shall live the rest of your days in my warmth. Isn’t that what you truly want, Albert?”
A wave of contentment rushed towards me and for a moment, I almost agreed.
“But I cannot let this war end. For I am who feeds on human need. Who will desire me when you have exhausted all your days? You, Albert, you want so little. The Keepers, they call me day and night. I can only be yours if they remain wanting.”
This was no God.
“Then, Creature,” I said,“I pray to be free of you.”
The warmth dissipated.
But the fire that raged inside me did not. I knew where to go.
Quickly, before the others returned, I scrambled to the empty church on the Keeper’s Grounds. I took the torch by the altar and set it on fire.
Soon, the air grew thick and heavy with smoke. From the burning pews, I watched the sun rise on the ashes of Keeper’s Hollow.
About the author: Jose Guerra Sison is a BA Creative Writing student from the University of the Philippines Diliman. His interests include writing fiction and poetry. His work is mainly inspired by fantasy and more recently critical theory. He aspires to be a writer grounded in real experiences while pursuing the imaginary. When he is not writing, he likes to spend time with his dog.