The morning light dappled across his face as he sat bare-chested, meditating. There was calming silence about him, it was almost as if even the wind and the waves knew to be restrained. The room was small and bare, a single block of stone wide enough for a man to sit on, a pot of water in the corner and two massive windows with grills to the north and east. The room itself was at the north eastern corner of the hillside, the last human accomplishment before the abrupt fall of the hillside towards a sheer cliff and the sea.
The man opened his eyes, breathing the salty air in deeply. The seven loops of gold hanging from his ears were the only adornments on his otherwise clean shaven face and head. He seemed happy and content that first day of Spring, despite the chill in the morning sea air. After all, today he would get to speak with the Gods.
He walked out of the room of meditation into a large square. To the north of the square lay the temple, with its massive pillared hall, the great dome and the gilded, colorful walls. The the west was an even more impressive building - the emperor's palace. The gates to the square were not yet opened - they wouldn't be till later that afternoon - but there were already a number of people milling about: the soldiers, the messengers, the errand boys and the cleaning women. As soon as they saw him emerge from the small room, a ripple of anticipation and awe rolled through through the sparse crowd. "Umma. Umma," they whispered, and knelt in reverence.
Umma. He was known by many names, but today they would all call him Umma - the lips. The lips of the Gods themselves. The only man allowed to speak to the Gods and then speak the word of the Gods. The sole link between the people and their Gods. Umma.
There had always been one and only one Umma in the empire, always nominated by the previous Umma before he died. Each Umma leading back to the next, all the way back to the first Umma. Legend has it that the first Umma lived in the days when the Gods spoke to everyone, and granted boons to any that asked. It should have been paradise, but it was little more than anarchy. Men sought and begged, and involved the Gods in their petty lives. Kings plotted and schemed, and threatened to turn the Gods against each other or worse against the people. It had been the first Umma that turned the empire back from the brink destruction. He fought kings, routed armies, cajoled people and negotiated with the Gods themselves. It was he that asked the final boon - limiting contact between the Gods and the people through only the Umma. And limited it to once an year - the first day of Spring - today.
The Umma walked across the square towards the palace. Being the Umma put him on an equal footing with the Emperor himself. The Emperor had his kings and their armies and the Umma had the people and their Gods. But equal footing meant little, when the Emperor had been so since his childhood and the Umma had been chosen barely six months ago. He knew he would have to put an end to this practice of walking to the palace for their daily morning rituals. The Emperor will have to take turns in coming to the temple as well. Of course, everything would change tomorrow, because, tonight the Umma finally spoke to the Gods.
“Umma, the Speaker,” said the Emperor rising. “We are honored by your presence.” The Umma noticed that he had remained seated as long as he could, before it would have been considered an insult.
“May the Gods speak for you, Your Majesty,” said Umma automatically.
“I hope so. I really hope so. Since the passing on of the Umma, we have sorely missed his knowledge and wisdom in matters of the empire and the well being of its people.”
Umma ignore the implied insult, as he busied himself with the daily blessing of the Emperor and the empire.
“Are you proficient, Umma, in the tongue of the Gods?” asked the Emperor as Umma completed the ritual.
“All the high-priests are, Your Majesty. And naturally, the Umma are, especially if they hope to commune with the Gods.”
“Yes, of course. Tell me, Umma, is it true that the tongue of the Gods is little more than a language? They say anyone can be taught the language. They say it was the first of the Umma, that stole the language from the people.”
“Your Majesty, they say many things. You, of course, know that it is as much a gift as it is taught. Without the gift, the tongue is little more than any language. Knowing the language without the gift is what caused the empire to almost break apart. It is the gift that allows the Umma to speak the word of the Gods to the people. The gift is the reason Gods still visit us every year.”
“Tonight is the first time you speak to the Gods, is it not Umma?”
“Yes Your Majesty.”
“The preparations for the Interpretation are going well, I presume Umma? I, naturally, will be present to hear you speak. But, if it is the wish of the Gods, I would like to hear the words again from you during the blessing tomorrow.”
“It is natural to want to listen to the Gods Your Majesty. We can perform the blessing in the Temple tomorrow if you so wish, and continue with the Interpretation.”
“If that is the wish of the Gods, Umma.”
“None of us know the wish of the Gods, your Majesty,” said Umma rising. “But I do believe I need to look after the preparations for this evening, and if there is nothing else I would like to withdraw.”
“Umma, the Speaker.” replied the Emperor, bowing deeply, perhaps deeper than before.
Umma knew he shouldn't, but couldn't resist feeling elated as he walked out of the palace. He hardly heard the whispers of "Umma" that followed him, and nodded automatically to the bows of the servants and the commoners. He had wanted to be Umma, as long as he could remember. He wanted to talk to the Gods. It was only after he joined the priesthood that he realized the true power of the Umma and the priesthood. He realized that people hung onto to every word that the Umma spoke. The armies were terrified of his wrath, and the kings sullenly acknowledged his dominance. The Emperor embraced the Umma openly, but everyone knew he disliked having either the Umma or his priests around.
But it wasn't the thought of power that kept him in the priesthood, through the rigors of training or the years serving in remote parts of the empire as priest, teacher, judge, mediator and sometimes as the justification for war. He loved being a priest, but what really kept him going was a hope of one day hearing the Gods. Becoming an Umma wasn't something anyone controlled. Of the hundreds of priest and high-priests only one would be chosen Umma. But it was hope nonetheless, and it kept him going till it abruptly came to be about six months ago.
He remembered the day clearly as if it was yesterday. He was living about a half day's ride from the temple, and it had been raining hard for almost a fortnight. Hearing the hooves of the horse, he remembered thinking that the horse rider was putting himself and his steed in grave danger by riding so hard on the mushy ground. He remembered the mixture dread and elation as he rode to the temple upon hearing the summons. Portentously the clouds cleared and bright sunlight had caused clouds of steam to rise up from the ground as he hurried on. He could still smell the stink of death as he entered the antechamber of the Umma's dark quarters and the gnarled, cold hands of the old man as they held his own.
“Umma, the Speaker,” he had greeted him. “It was my time, but now it is yours. Remember the people. Remember the tongue of the Gods. And know that what you hear, holds the kingdom together. May the Gods speak to you in the clearest of voices. May you always Interpret their words into the voice of the common man.”
The old man's hands went limp while grief and pride had gripped him simultaneously, threatening to rip his heart out. As he staggered into the square, the call of "Umma" filled the crowd, and he knew that his irresponsible hope was fulfilled.
Umma shook himself out of his reverie, as he entered the temple. He had been part of the preparation for the first day of Spring several times as priest. As the Umma, there seemed to be a lot more to do. The pilgrims who have traveled from all over the empire, had to be housed and fed. Then there were preparations for the ceremony and feast of evening after the Interpretation. Finally there was the Interpretation itself. The Umma could only speak to a part of the audience that fit within the square. Criers had to be arranged to carry the word of the Umma to the vast majority that could not fit within the square, not to mention the rest of the empire.
As Umma went through the day, there seemed to always be something he was late for. But the mundane helped take his mind of the evening, of the enormity and improbability of it all. He was going to speak with the Gods, on behalf of an entire empire. The cheers of the crowds however, every time he stepped out of the temple to supervise the activity around the room of meditation, brought the evening right back into focus.
The Umma reckoned the lone stark room to the east as a meditation room, which it was for him. But more importantly it was the room of the vision, the only place on earth where the Gods appeared. Only the Umma was allowed into that room, ever. The outside of the room had been decorated for the day. Garlands hung everywhere, and carpets with flower petals surrounded it. There was a large podium constructed in front of the room, with steps leading from the room of meditation, for him to speak that evening.
Before long, the Sun started to set beyond the Emperor's palace. A warm air was beginning to blow towards the sea; it was time. Umma knew how the vision looked to the outside world. It started off with a dull glow that seemed to emanate from everywhere in the sky as the Sun set. Slowly the sky would turn brighter, and a beam of light seemed to light up the room of meditation. The beam then turned into a shimmer, not unlike a mirage in the desert, and just like that the whole spectacle would extinguish itself and the Gods would be in the room of meditation.
Umma would see nothing of that, today. Instead he was in the room of meditation, deep in contemplation when the skies lit up and the heavens seemed to point to him. He was still in meditation, as the people outside saw the shimmer in the sky, and he felt a warmth flow through him. He opened his eyes in anticipation.
He was all alone in the room of meditation.
The sky through the massive windows was dark. The single candle he had brought in with him flickered unconcerned. The pot of water in the corner lay untouched, and the heavy door behind him was still shut.
He took a deep breath, calming himself, waiting for the Gods to come. The minutes ticked by, and his surprise turned to concern, and concern turned to doubt. What had he done wrong? Was it the candle, should he not have brought it in? He reached over and quickly blew it out.
The minutes ticked by as he started to panic. Maybe it was him. The Gods had deemed him not worthy. Or maybe they had abandoned the people. But it must be him, he had been so desperate to talk to the Gods, that they realized him to be the fraudster he was. He didn't really want to be a priest. He was a priest only to talk to the Gods, they knew it. They were punishing him and his people as a result. Oh the ignominy. His pride had let the empire down.
He got up from the bare stone block, and began pacing the room. He thought of the all the evenings he had spent rehearsing this night. The fear deadened his hands and legs, and he felt as if he was wading through water. His thoughts wandered to the people waiting outside and a thrill of pure fear ran through him.
With great effort he force himself to resume his seated position on the stone block. Taking deep breaths, he forced himself to focus on his conversation with the previous Umma on the day the mantle passed. The words, still fresh in his mind seemed to reverberate in the room. "And know that what you hear, holds the kingdom together," he heard the Umma say before he died. He often thought about those words, but had put their choice down to ritual.
His heart began to beat faster as the full import of those words struck him. That is why the Umma never spoke to each other, prior to the final summoning. Unless you were Umma you did not realize the importance of being the Umma. No one could convince another, not even a priest, about what it took to be Umma. One had to be where he was, only then could one truly appreciate what it meant to be Umma.
The Umma was what held the empire together. The kings were all itching to fight each other. The emperor did not really have any power. The people needed someone to look after them. And if it wasn't for the Umma, thousands would die as the empire tore itself apart. Not that his priests would do much to stop it. They were merely people after all, and most liked being teachers and judges. Without the Umma holding them together, they would scarcely fend for themselves.
But did that give him reason to deceive an entire people? He pondered on the question as evening grew into night. A cool wind had picked up from the sea, bringing in the smells of the fish and the weed. He knew that the people outside would be getting impatient - he would be, were he outside. Finally his decision was made. He pushed open the door, and began walking up the stairs to the podium. The square was packed with people, faces eager in the flickering light of the hundreds of torches. He paused, for a second as in he was willing himself to challenge his decision.
Then he began to speak, Interpreting the lives of the people, in the words of the Gods.
-- The End --
April 10, 2010: First published version.