A very powerful piece from George Wills:
We have two churches, chapels, call them what you will. One is high church, sponsored by our imposed state religion, with a wily persuasive priest, less wise than he thinks in the ways of men and of coercion – he humours us, doesn’t believe in anything but thinks we do. Meanwhile we humour him, knowing neither of us gives his god any credence. To him we seem to go there for the festivals of his faith, the ceremonies around the paint-and-plaster saints, and we are good and faithful worshippers enough to satisfy the eye of any itinerant bishop, and we humour him and his church and his parrot-bright saints – to survive.
This religion was not of our choosing. When its armies came from the south and from the west we wanted none of it – we had our own ways then, older than theirs, older by a thousand years. But we saw what happened to those communities that tried to hold openly to the old ways and to turn aside from the faith the invaders brought to impose on us, proffered on the point of a spear. Demenos, my old home town, stood up for its faith – and is now only a quarry for worked stone, for timber and tile, for bones and skulls – and an everlasting mine of hatred.
Sidoni, too, took a stance before the news came of the death of Demenos and every creature in it, news of the bodies in the streets and in the homes and in our holy places – for the army, in the name of their god, stood guard around the town, now with their newly-cleaned and polished spears and swords, and let in only the bears and the wolves and the foxes and the ravens, until only cracked and polished bone remained. And after this killing our new masters heard of the stance that Sidoni had taken, before the news of Demenos could take reason and wisdom there. From this time, those days, we have new words in our language.
The Sidoni Choice is one, to be torn between two equal and compelling choices or forces, as were the men of Sidoni torn between pairs of their own oxen in the name of this unforgiving novice god. And we have the Sidoni Web. The Web is a weaving pattern, red and black on white, seemingly random, red and black organic shapes, disparate in size, joined by threads of black that meander, perhaps die away to nothing, perhaps appearing to turn a whole circle black. Red is Life, black is Death. We weave this pattern, for dress fabric, for curtaining, for furnishing, and they, our oppressors, admire it, buy it, and praise it – so delightfully ethnic, they say. We weave it, but they created it. They wear it, and it shouts their crimes. In the abstract it shows the way they spread death in and from Sidoni.
As in Demenos, those deemed to have rejected the imposed belief died, but more slowly, for they were questioned first, of innocent things, marriages, lines of descent, relationships – then the assassins burned out the web-of-life links of which the now newly-dead had been a part. If a girl had come to Sidoni to marry, say from Kyria on the coast, then those who staked her and watched her die would know of her parents there, and would go there to interrogate them in turn, and leave them dead, and the sons and daughters of whom they had reminisced, and nephews and nieces and brothers and sisters. If a son had left to work in the capital of our region he would be followed there, and would die, and in the end his wife and children would welcome death.
They burned out the line, leaving the charcoal and ashes shown as black on the Web, in contrast to the red of Life. They had a logic we could not understand but welcomed – if they found a break in the link caused by the previous death of someone they had pursued they would not kill beyond it, even if they knew names, places, relationships. You could be betrayed by the presence of living family but not by the dead. And there were some of ours who saw this – and sacrificed themselves, took their own lives to save others, that their deaths would be a barrier against which the killing would stop, beyond which it would not threaten their kin.
These are the black patterns in the Web. At other times the trail would diminish to a single red thread, the passage of an individual who is free, moving with the winds and the seasons, avoiding the killing of a line and a break in the weave. Such are the single threads that tie the weave together, red representations of those avoiding death by forever travelling, and black for the hunt for, and killing of, the last individual of a line.
I mentioned another chapel, didn’t I? We have our own, hidden from them, somewhere they will never look. Where is it? Safe, safer than you would believe. In the midnight dark of a day chosen by the calendar of our own, old, faith, we deconsecrated their building, obscenely gaudy as it was and is, and with blood sacrifice and prayer dedicated it to our own gods. Now, of the two chapels, one is the other. Now, the energy of prayer and genuflection in the name of their interloper god sends energy to ours and takes from theirs. They still search, sometimes, for our worshippers, but they watch and search the caves and grottoes, the cliffs and the high places, where we once bent our knees. They find nothing. In their great hollow cage of a building they see us bow and think us tamed, but whatever their priest may be saying we bow only to our old faith and strengthen it by that act.
And one day we will rise and take down them and their emasculated divinity.
© George Wills 2016