I wish I had not been called to this exalted position. Mind you, it has kept me alive for decades longer than my contemporaries. They were all bled years ago, their entrails fried and their bones pulverised. I would have undoubtedly met the same fate because I was not built to be a warrior. I had no proficiency with the hammer and chisel and so I could not be a stonemason, carving effigies and tributes to the mighty Quetzalcoatl – glory on his name! I would most definitely have been altar-fodder, like the others from my region.
But instead, the High Priest took a shine to me. He kept me apart from the others and spared me the narcotic in my maize, the drug that makes the chosen ones compliant and subdued. Like cattle strolling off to slaughter.
He taught me the mysteries of his role. I was his apprentice. There was a lot to learn. And every night, I had to sharpen the great stone daggers in readiness for the dawn sacrifices.
I saw hundreds of young men come and go. The honour of their selection meant their families would eat well. For about a week – after which, they would have to try to survive with one less mouth to feed, but also one less pair of hands to till the soil and reap the harvest. They arrived awestruck by the palace – although they saw precious little of it, confined to quarters that are only one step up from dungeons. The drugging begins at once; any insurrection is quickly quelled and quashed. Only the willing will give up their hearts to Quetzalcoatl (glory on his name!).
But now, as I scan the cartloads of new arrivals, seeking out an apprentice of my own, I question the whole gory business – and not for the first time. It does not seem to do any good, this bloodshed on the grand scale. The crops are never more bountiful. The wars are no easier to win. And the Emperor is insatiable in his quest for victory, his hunger for power. He sips wine thickened with the blood of the innocent and feasts on bread made from the flour of their bones. I am quite sure he is insane.
But what can I do? As High Priest serving Quetzalcoatl (glory to his etc etc) it behoves me to carry out the grisly task, the ritualised massacre of so many of our nation’s youth. I am as trapped in the tradition as any of the hapless victims who prostrate themselves across my slab. And all I can do is to try to be as quick and efficient as I can, like a fisherman’s wife gutting a catch; I strike just beneath the rib cage, slicing once! twice! so the guts tumble out like a nest of snakes and then I reach in and pull, ripping out the heart and holding it aloft. If there is a beat of two still left in it, this is regarded as a propitious omen. I have learned how to make them jiggle on the palm of my hand – There is no shortage of propitious omens.
But still, nothing gets better. Nothing ever gets better. And the populace is told they must face yet more cuts.
And I tire of the whole squalid business. Let Quetzalcoatl (blah blah blah) find his own bloody victims. If there is such an entity as Quetzalcoatl. I have serious doubts.
A trumpet blares, calling the people to the foot of the ziggurat. And I must get to work. It is not the work of appeasing a god; it is the work of keeping the Emperor on his golden throne.
If I am to keep my head upon my shoulders, I have to swallow my qualms and ignore my queasiness and suppress my questions.
At least I can take pride in my stone blades. I keep them nice and sharp.