Trust and Serve the Temple
By Nick Oakley
For their youthful recklessness, they were punished. The cost of the crime was a toe, the smallest toe on their left foot. This was the traditional punishment for those who transgressed against the Temple. With a knife, heated red by coals, the arbiter exacted the price. In this moment, the youth did not feel shame, or guilt for their transgression. They held within themselves only anger, as hot and as sharp as the knife, and as loud and as piercing as their screams of pain as the blade severed flesh from flesh
Two score years later, the person who was once a screaming youth on the table looked down from the arbiter’s chair at a reflection. The face was different, but familiar in its features; eyes red from slum-smoke and tears, hair tousled from struggle. It was as if the years had turned back upon themselves, brought the arbiter to this formative moment, and recast the youth as the figure they had hated so much.
The life of fiery anger and resentment that preceded the arbiter’s sentencing had been cooled by the waters of a life of faith and philosophy. Arbiters earned the voluminous black robes and authoritative staffs through their diligence in study and their good judgment, for after their own sentencing, they attended one of the Temple’s academies. To raise them to meet the ideals of the Temple’s founders, they were taught the laws of the Temple and the decrees of the old scribes, things that would never reach the children of the slums and their self-righteous fury towards the institutions that they were convinced put them in those slums.
But new arbiters only saw directionless rage in what they used to think was a drive to change things, to rebel against the order of things, set so long ago. How foolish, they thought, to try and rise above it all. Arbiters learned there was nothing greater than service to the Temple. Trust and Serve the Temple. And thus the Temple shall serve you.
This had been the story of many arbiters. In fact, the arbiter that had sentenced them had gone through the same process, down to the crime. In this, they found comfort. Their stories were validated in history, an example of the good of the Temple bringing out of basest poverty the ones who would benefit most from such unexpected grace.
The arbiter hid a smile and rose from the seat. This, the arbiter thought, would be an addition to their caste: A boy who has witnessed the depths of what life could offer and who would soon witness the heights to which the Temple could raise them.
The boy had profaned the name of one of the Temple’s most revered icons. The cost of the crime was a toe, the smallest toe on their left foot.
But as the arbiter removed the boy’s sandal, he was nonplussed at what he saw- or, in this case, did not see. The cost had already been paid. This was a repeat offense. With a confused shame, the arbiter set about taking the smallest toe from the right foot instead. The arbiter did not know what else to do. The blood stuck to the arbiter’s hands like filth from the bathing river. After the arbiter sent the boy away to the holding rooms and retired to the arbiters’ chambers, the boy’s scream still rung in the arbiter’s ears.
Later that night, still pondering the events of the day, the arbiter was surprised to find a restless fear growing in the place of puzzlement. What would drive someone, who at first seemed so familiar to them, to disobey the Temple? The arbiter could not drive out the images of today’s sentencing. Meditation was useless; for some reason, the arbiter’s heartbeat sounded like the thunder of a horse’s gallop. The arbiter became acutely aware of each bead of forehead sweat. And behind the arbiter’s eyelids rested that boy’s scowl defiantly set under those bagged eyes. The arbiter could see every feature on that boy’s face, which at first offered a sense of nostalgia. But now those features mocked the arbiter, mocked the arbiter’s path, the life arbiters were given by the Temple, the faith and trust that grew out of it.
Trust. The arbiter had trusted the Temple for so long, so long. The arbiter could not imagine what course life could have taken if. If.
This thought terrified the arbiter like no other. The arbiter saw the pillars of their lives in the Temple, previously smooth and shining marble, shift into coarse, crumbling sand in a moment.
In the middle of the moonless night, a lone figure cloaked in a voluminous black robe entered the otherwise empty House of Arbitration. Then, from its chimney, the smoke from heated coals mingled with the smoke from the neighboring slums.
Between teeth, the arbiter clenched the leather thong of a right sandal. The arbiter took the knife and severed flesh from flesh for the last time that night. The arbiter was not seen again upon the Temple’s campus.
Nick Oakley is currently a freshman at LaGrange College and is a Composition/Music Tech major. He enjoys creating in the arts in several ways, including writing. This is his first piece of published fiction.