The rattles start softly, tentatively almost, but his face changes immediately. The young men, his companions, who just moments ago were laughing and grabbing his shoulders in conspiratorial affection have likewise gone silent and gaze down at the rocky ground as they begin shaking the rattles of wood and gut and flint with an audible reluctance that only dissipates with the wet slap of the goatskin drums.
It was different at the start of the year. I saw his face then also, the flicker of uncertainty as the lot was drawn quickly submerged beneath the leer of bravado with which he received the cheers and taunts and embraces of his comrades. Then later leaving no trace in the mask of vulpine glee as he fucked the priestess in the ploughed field, eagerly pulling her body onto him and weaving his grasping fingers through the string of rough agates that clattered discordantly around her neck.
And so it carried on when he re-emerged from the initiation in the caves, which we are forbidden from witnessing, accepting the first cut of each sacrifice, pawing drunkenly during feasts at maids and spoken-for women alike, unchallenged, with the same defiant brutishness. He knew then, of course, how it would end, but I don’t believe he has understood it until now, the young men adding their voices to the rattles and drums in steady invocation.
As the noise bursts through from an ever-quickening rhythm into an indistinguishable cacophony of sound, the crowd behind me jostle in anticipation—those villagers with no direct part to play but who have trekked just as readily up the shrubbed slopes of Mount Iuktas, some so infirm as to have been supported on the arm of another, some children needing to be carried. They crane and peer and recoil in equal measure at the sacred sight before them: the attenuated clay figure of the goddess unveiled on the flat rock between the horns of the Egyptian bull, before her the fruits of the earth, wheat, grapes, olives, that she has continued to provide. And before it all the hallowed figure of this year’s daimon.
Sweat beads across his now pudgy face and his breath is coming in rapid, hysterical gulps, the same ruddy expression of focused exertion familiar from his savage sexual encounters now transformed by terror. He does not gaze around at his companions, however, the pitiful wordless plea that some have made, themselves now lost in the energy and complicity of their task, but stares straight ahead at the leader of the rite, too old for the lot but still powerfully built, and does not flinch when he steps forward and swings a sword heavily down onto his neck.
The crack of bone sings out through the din of rattles and drums and voices which stop abruptly as the body crumples with an ungainly thud. The time for my part has come. I step forward and in a clear voice recite the list of all who have served the goddess, and I add the name of Zeus to the end. The crowd cheer: blood was drawn, which is not always the case, and has bubbled down to pool around the produce. It will be a good year.
By Neil, 3 May, 2006; direct link.