[Author's note: I got pretty extravagantly creative with this. If you just want a run-down of the blog posts submitted, or a little more context as to what I'm linking to, try the busy person's edition. Oh, and if you like you can Digg this here, though I'm having trouble getting a proper button up.]
The chicken’s squawks were soon silenced, dying in its throat under my tight fingers. Its fresh blood dripped satisfyingly into a clay bowl, to which I added the powdered skull of a kestrel. A carefully handled vial of cobra’s venom was next, adding the final ingredient to the mix. I stirred a slow figure-eight pattern, as the essences of these three creatures merged: vicious, predatory masters of the air and the land, tempered by the grounded, toothless fowl, to mediate between the two forces of nature, allowing them to exist in concert.
The rest of the arrangement was all in place. Fourteen candles surrounded me where I sat, in the centre of a pentagram outlined in salt, interwoven with other runes of great mystic import, etched with black ink on the floor. Now all that was left was to add the animal essence, to encompass the whole in a boundary that encapsulated all three spirits in one being. Careful to keep a steady hand, I took my brush, dipped it into the thick red mixture, and painted the Circle.
It had taken weeks of preparation. One does not merely paint the circle of Ss’ke-pTik and presume to summon the great god himself with no preamble. Obviously the lesser obeisances had first been made, the protocols observed over the course of many weeks, to establish my worthiness to request an audience with one so mighty. This moment was the culmination of much hard work, and if I was accepted as an acolyte, I would be granted power beyond anything known to mortal man.
I cannot record here the incantations I uttered inside the circle that day, but that knowledge itself was not easily obtained. My breath trembled as I gasped the last guttural syllable, and my heart raced as I awaited a response.
I could sense him instantly. The great lord’s presence was undeniable.
“Oh majestic and glorious Ss’ke-pTik,” I began babbling, seeking to suppress the exultant joy that welled up in me, “I am humbled and gratified by this gift of your visitation. You do me much honour this day, and I have many offerings to bring forth in your glorious name… But I have a request to make of you, O noble one, and though I be not worthy, I beg that it may be granted.”
After only a moment, his voice resonated from behind me – to turn and gaze upon his corporeal form would have been the utmost sacrilege – and made my bones tremble with its might.
“What is this request, mortal?” the great lord Ss’ke-pTik asked me.
“Master,” I stammered, trying to remember the exact wording of my prepared speech, “It was exactly one year ago to this day that I first dedicated myself to your wondrous being, and publicly declared my devotion to you. I have worked diligently in that year, seeking to preach your wisdom across the land, and striving toward that day when all mankind might follow your path. I ask now that you generously bless me with the greatest honour of all, and the duty and responsibility with which it comes. I beseech you, grant me knowledge of the truth in all its guises, the ability to see through all dissemblance and cut past any cloak of lies, the ultimate understanding of all things material, and the power of absolute skeptical insight into all matters within my comprehension.”
My voice barely quavered as I spoke my request, but my nerves were only just holding out, and I didn’t breath for the achingly long seconds his majesty took in considering my words.
“You ask for all that it is in my power to give, mortal,” were his next words. “I may be persuaded to endow such a gift, but it must be earned. Prove to me what you have learned so far. Then I will decide whether your request shall be granted.”
I had to bite my tongue to maintain a dignified posture. I had not wholly believed I would even get this far, but now I had only to pass this test of wisdom and judgment, and the power of Ss’ke-pTik would be mine to command.
“O great and powerful lord of all knowledge,” I began, somehow managing to remain composed. “I have studied the ancient mystical arts, and become well versed in many of the arcane truths, to which the world remains wilfully ignorant. I offer, for your magnanimous consideration, that experts in chiropractic therapies have been discovering the ways in which a range of medical conditions can be treated by spinal manipulation, in accordance with the notions of-“
The god cut me off with a mocking laugh. “You fail to impress me, mortal! The bogosity of such claims was further confirmed recently, when Edzard Ernst published two systematic reviews into the efficacy of chiropractic. Waste not my time with this pseudo-scientific nonsense.”
I felt jolted by this harsh rebuke, but assured myself that I had much more to offer, and that I’d never really been convinced by those spine-benders anyway. “You are, of course, infinitely wise, my lord,” I grovelled, “but I am sure you will find much to please you in what I have learned. For instance, I lately heard of an ingenious device by which harmful toxins can be removed from the human body through the feet, providing an important cleansing experience!”
The chuckle of Ss’ke-pTik was less cruel this time, but equally careless and unimpressed. “Toxins, you say?” he laughed. “Are these the same toxins which are so easily produced by a simple electrolytic redox reaction, whether anybody’s feet are in the footbath or not?”
It was a question requiring no answer, so I struggled on with my next offering, still convinced that some of the knowledge I had amassed in my recent months of exploration would please my lord.
“No matter, O great one,” I said, “as the field of medicine is replete with discoveries waiting for the world to acknowledge them. A useful contact has provided me with much insight into the efficacy of the ‘flu vaccine, and the usefulness of breast cancer screening, among many others…” I trailed off hopefully.
“Yes,” said the god Ss’ke-pTik, and my fading flicker of optimism surged up into a roaring flame once more. “I will hear this news with interest, mortal.”
I took a breath, my confidence soaring as I readied myself to launch into one of my well prepared speeches.
“Just so long,” the great one interrupted moments before I could utter my first syllable, “as your contact isn’t that Doug Bremner guy. He clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and a lot of his crankery’s already been debunked.“
My hopeless befuddlement must have been obvious, but my lord did me the kindness of not laughing openly at my inadequacy this time. I scrambled to change the subject.
“Indeed, your mightiness… but I believe far more interesting is the phenomenon of inedia. Many people have reportedly reached such levels of discipline and enlightenment that many kinds of earthly sustenance are no longer necessary. Surely the ability to survive without food, for weeks or months at a time, is a truly miraculous accomplishment, and a worthy discovery.”
In the silence that followed, there was no doubting that the great lord was still present. It was a deliberate silence, and his displeasure was palpable in the air. I trembled, and could scarcely quiet the pounding of my own heartbeat in my ears to hear his response.
“You test my patience now, mortal,” he almost growled. “Do not wander idly into such matters with your ‘reportedly‘. People have died from a commitment to this idea, and it remains unproven. If you have anything further, bear in mind when you suggest it that I do not appreciate reckless endangerment of people’s lives.”
I mentally flipped through my remaining offerings, to eliminate anything that might offend, and decided to gloss over what I had learned about prevailing attitudes to various issues surrounding childbirth. If anything in my attitude could be construed as betraying a cavalier approach to the safety of children and mothers, I did not wish to imagine the wrath it may incur.
“Of course, my lord,” I grovelled. “But even a less drastic approach, for the treatment of less severe conditions, may hold much knowledge and wonder. There are those who draw upon ancient natural wisdom, to bring valuable wellness and succour to-“
“Really?” the god interrupted me again, with less anger but rising impatience. “You’re going to try and sell me on the likes of Yoder’s Good Health Recipe, or something else equally worthless and interchangeable as the most basic snake oil that every huckster on the planet has been hawking for over a century? Really?”
My god was being sarcastic at me. Of course it was his own wise prerogative to chastise me so, but nevertheless I felt my teeth start to grate. I deemed it best also to pass over the subject of TRUNATURE’s premium quality herbal supplements without comment, lest my lord say something ironic and shatter my fragile soul. I was running short on means by which to prove myself worthy.
“But… my ever-knowledgable lord,” I stammered, finding it hard to think clearly in the face of such casual dismissal of what I had thought were worthy ideas, “is there nothing which I can offer you? Is not a single element of these arcana with an ounce of merit? Surely there must be something out there beyond the knowledge of mere man?”
“More than you could ever comprehend,” he intoned. “But if it is beyond your knowledge, then why claim to know of it? That which can be known should be enough to inspire passion in anyone with a true curiosity about the world.”
“And what about you?” I pushed, with mounting frustration. “Where do you fit in, a deity who seems to believe in nothing? Are you proof that such a paradox as an atheistic god really can exist? Do you truly not have faith even in yourself?”
“Every man is an atheist to every god but his own,” said Ss’ke-pTik, entirely unruffled by any objection I could raise. “Though you would also do well to retain a spirit of agnosticism wherever you lack certainty. The two are not mutually exclusive, you know. And don’t talk to me about faith. Whatever convictions you hold to should not be blindly chosen, nor based on sickeningly insipid apocryphal stories that mischaracterise the opposing view while smugly making their own point seem unquestionable.”
I was at a loss. I had worked so hard to be granted an audience with the god I worshipped, and now that he was here I could not get through to him. I was rejected at every turn. He would not accept a single thing I had to offer, and I had nothing left with which to try to win him over. I had nothing more with which to plead for my god’s benevolence, and he knew it.
“Today is not to be the day of your ultimate enlightenment,” he said, not harshly, not kindly, but with no presumption beyond the statement of fact. “My knowledge will not be shared with you. You are not ready to be burdened with such a weight, because you would not know what to do with it. You have not yet learned how to think well enough, and without this understanding, knowledge would be of no value to you. Indeed, in such unqualified hands, it would be terrible and destructive.
“But there are those who would aid you in your search. There are places where other questioners may gather, share their ideas, and push together to achieve that knowledge you seek. Of course, the occasional unquestioning loon also gets invited along, but don’t let that put you off.”
There was a sudden rush of air, and I felt my connection to my god slipping away from me. His voice faded into nothing, as I felt him leaving me.
“Knowledge can yet be yours,” he said, “but it is not so easily won. To seek it for yourself is the very thing that gives it meaning, and the search needs no validation from some supposed god. The act of learning is its own reward. Plus it might save you from getting suckered out of your life savings. Always keep learning…”
And I was alone.
Defiance flared in me, fuelled by the anguish at being abandoned to this solitude.
“I don’t need you anyway!” I shrieked into the emptiness. “Technology is fast replacing out-dated religions such as yours! I can achieve true immortality, when the singularity arrives!” This, I assured myself, was unlikely to be refuted, and would surely never turn out to be merely an excellent money-making scheme for those selling the idea.
But I was still alone. With no candle in the dark, for they had all blown out, when the only god I had ever believed in vanished. How could I hope to go on? Was there really nothing worth believing in?
I thought about what my erstwhile master had said. That I should keep going anyway, keep learning, keep investigating, even with no god to help me. No god, no random outside agent, no celestial interior designer… None of it seemed real.
I thought about what I’d learned so far, the rumours and gossip of amazing discoveries that I’d tracked down, and realised quite how superficial it had all been. I’d never really questioned or sought to understand. It hadn’t occurred to me to be interested in whether indisputable evidence might exist against these ideas, or how I might respond to learning of such incontestable proof. It seemed ludicrous, the more I thought about it, that I’d ever expected to impress one such as the great lord Ss’ke-pTik with such ill-considered banalities.
And even if he had chosen to grant me the knowledge I sought, would that have been any more meaningful? Or would it be as shallow as my previous findings, to simply accept a series of facts from this new source of authority? If I didn’t ask my own questions, pursue my own interests, uncover truths and expose deception on my own terms, as best I could… would I really have learnt anything?
I stood up, lifted by just a hint of interest and curiosity, which I felt might one day grow into a sense of purpose. I considered just how much I do not know, and what a position of strength this puts me in. I thought about what to do next.
I had questions.
So many questions.