Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me. As an acolyte I tended the most beautiful of your shrines and discovered the secret of its reliquary …
Girl steps back, the better to see how the shrine looks. She’s privileged to be keeper of the oldest and greatest of the shrines to the Lady, especially as she’s the youngest and newest of the acolytes, as some of the other girls continually remind her. So it has to be perfect for the ceremony tomorrow. No, it’s well past midnight, the ceremony today. Which is why she’s here, not still in bed. Sleepless with excitement and worry, she couldn’t remember if she’d cleaned one of the butter lamps, so she dressed hurriedly and rushed across to the temple to check.
She had cleaned the ornate copper lamp. But she cleaned it again, and the others, then spent time rearranging them around the jewelled casket – the reliquary – which, for so long, has had sole pride of place beneath the statue of the Lady. The reliquary itself received special attention from her during the day. Above all else, it has to look perfect.
Opinion is divided in the Acolytes’ Hall as to whether Revered Mother will break the reliquary open to split the precious palm-leaf manuscripts it contains – manuscripts the goddess herself wrote, setting out the rules of the Order. If so, the new reliquary being presented tomorrow – today – will hold half the leaves; if not, the new one will stay empty, so won’t be a reliquary at all, only a decorated box. Girl hopes the old reliquary remains sealed. After so many months caring for it, studying every detail of the finely worked silver with its lapis and gold inserts, its sapphires and emeralds, she wants nothing to spoil its perfection.
But the pottery lamp she brought with her is failing. She makes one final, tiny adjustment to a butter lamp’s position, then – as always before leaving the shrine’s enclosure – she kneels and gazes up at the gilded statue. Every other figure portrays the goddess with six arms, usually with the symbols of her six aspects in her six hands. Only in this statue can Girl see any likeness to the Lady, and with the marble evoking silken robes, its beauty and serenity fill her with ever-renewed wonder.
“Thank you, Lady, for entrusting me with this honour,” she whispers, then offers her usual prayers for the monastery and its people, for Sukhbir and others she loves. Then she rises and steps through the gate in the tall railings that surround the shrine, locks the gate, and drops the key chain over her head.
As she emerges from the temple, the lamp’s flame is no more than a red glow. The night is overcast, with no glint of moon or starlight, but in the distance she sees a momentary pale glimmer, a sense of movement relieving the darkness. It’s only when she’s again undressing for bed that she wonders why anyone else would be out there in the middle of the night.
Girl rises with the other acolytes well before dawn, as always, since they must prepare everything for the day’s first Observance. They walk in procession to the temple, carrying soft brushes, butter lamps and bundles of rope incense, led by the most senior acolyte, sweet-tempered Jamyang. Girl, as the most junior, brings up the rear.
She loves the early morning calm, as only a handful of people attend for private meditation before Observance. So the sight of a novitiate tearing out of the temple’s open door startles her and the others. She’s further surprised when the procession comes to a stop before she reaches the door. The girls in front of her eventually shuffle forward into the temple, but she still has to squeeze through to get inside.
Jamyang should be leading them in the first of their circumambulations of the temple while they meditate on the Lady’s aspects. Instead, she’s just standing there, like all the others, staring towards the acolytes’ shrine. Girl has to stand tiptoe to see over their heads and her breath catches at the sight of a half-dozen priestesses and novitiates huddled near the shrine, agitation evident in every movement, every gesture, and in their low, urgent voices.
Girl pushes past the others and rushes towards the shrine. Shock runs through her as she reaches it. The reliquary is gone.
The acolytes have followed her and they burst into excited chatter, but she scarcely hears the questions, the opinions, the veiled accusations. For an eternity she can only stare in horror through the railings. Then she drops the brush she’s holding and scrabbles for the key at her neck. She has to get inside, to search for the reliquary. Perhaps it’s fallen, or someone’s hidden it.
A hand touches her arm as she reaches to unlock the gate. “Revered Mother will be here shortly, Kalpana,” says a priestess. “Wait until then.”
It’s another eternity before Revered Mother’s calm tones cut through the noise. “This is a temple, not a market square. Raised voices have no place here.”
Silence falls. Everyone makes their reverence, which she acknowledges with a raised palm, showing the scar shaped like a burning torch, the light of Truth. Henna proclaims her status – her hands dark with intricate patterns, freshly painted only yesterday; her hair newly dyed, white streaks now a deep orange.
She stands by Girl and gazes at the shrine. A priestess leans towards her. “The reliquary was there at the end of final Observance yesterday evening, Revered Mother. Some novitiates and I offered a prayer here afterwards, and we were last to leave.”
The abbess nods. “What else do we know?”
Before anyone can answer, a loud whisper comes from the acolytes: “What does Kalpana know?”
The abbess turns. “Someone wishes to speak?”
After fierce whispering, Jamyang is pushed forward. “Forgive us, Revered Mother. Though we were all together until we went to bed, Kalpana left us before midnight. She was gone some time. We know nothing else, but it’s perhaps possible she visited the shrine.”
Girl takes a deep breath. “I did come here, Revered Mother, but I didn’t steal the reliquary.”
“I don’t for a moment think you did, child.”
“I was worrying about the lamps and I stayed to clean them again. The reliquary was here. But as I left, I think someone was outside, waiting.”
It’s barely a whisper, but the old name pierces Girl, bringing a rush of anger.
“How strange,” says the abbess. She looks at her palm. “I had thought the Lady’s brand betokened my ability to recognise Truth.” She turns the palm to the acolytes. “It appears some believe me to be mistaken.”
More whispering. Jamyang looks unhappy. “Forgive me, Revered Mother, but only Kalpana has the key to enter the shrine.”
“I have a key. Am I also to be accused?”
No one speaks.
“So. The absence of the reliquary is distressing, not least because it will disappoint our guest who arrives in a few hours. Nonetheless, we have duties that may not be neglected to which we will now attend. However, for the acolytes’ circumambulations, instead of meditating upon the Lady’s aspects, I counsel them to consider how ignorance, jealousy and rushing to judgement are antithetical to her teachings.”
The acolytes shrink away; Girl follows. She walks the circuits of the temple with them, prepares the day’s shrine with them, kneels for Observance with them, and as the temple fills and everyone learns of the theft, she hears the whispering, sees the sidelong glances, but throughout she thinks only of the loss of the reliquary, the diminution of the shrine. She vows she will find the thief and revel in her unmasking.
By the time Observance ends, she’s made a mental list of possible suspects – her chief tormentors foremost amongst them – and concocted elaborate theories as to how the theft was carried out. Now to look for evidence.
At the shrine she first inspects the railings, symbols of the protection the Lady gave her first acolytes in the wilderness. Cleaning them has taught Girl how fragile they are. They’re too high for anyone to jump over, too weak to support anyone’s weight. No evidence there.
She’s unlocking the gate when something on a lamp catches her eye. She moves closer.
It’s a hair. A single orange hair.
“You have something you wish to say, Kalpana?”
Girl nods, though she’s not sure how she’s got here, kneeling before the abbess. Her feet have borne her along by themselves, while she’s still dizzy from her speculations, her deductions. Unmasking the thief no longer seems so satisfying.
Words catch in Girl’s throat so instead she holds out the strand of hair, the henna-dyed orange hair.
“Where did you find this?” There’s gentleness in the tone.
“On a lamp. On the shrine.”
“And?” Still gentle, as though encouraging her towards the answer in a lesson.
“It wasn’t there when I left the temple last night.”
“You didn’t pass the railings this morning. It couldn’t have fallen onto the lamp then.”
She can’t say it. Can’t put the accusation into words.
“And so you believe it betrays the fact I was at the shrine overnight, which suggests I took the reliquary. Though the hair might have fallen onto someone’s clothing yesterday, and from there onto the lamp.”
“No one else could pass the railings,” Girls whispers.
“Yet there might be alternative explanations for its presence which should be considered – remember we must never rush to judgement.” She pauses. “However, in this case you are correct in your supposition.”
“Why?” Girl asks, her voice no more than a breath.
“To avoid scandal. The reliquary is a fake.”
Shock and outrage battle in Girl’s mind. “A fake? On the Lady’s shrine?”
“A facsimile, then. A copy of an original. The silver is but a thin layer on base metal, the gold only leaf, the lapis dyed jasper, the gems coloured glass.”
“The old goldsmith made a fake for the Lady?”
“No! He poured hours of work and love into the reliquary to commemorate his daughter’s life. Before she fell ill and died, she was herself keeper of the shrine, you know. That’s why he asked that it be placed there. Oh, she was a lovely girl. The best of us. No, he didn’t stint in his celebration of her.”
“Then how is it a fake?”
“Because of two years of famine. By the second autumn we had little food, less money. We could no longer help all the villages and townships in our care. But we had the reliquary. The then Revered Mother wouldn’t offend the goldsmith by selling it openly, but her cousin, who was a tinsmith, made a copy and the original was broken up and sold abroad, which allowed us to feed the villages, saving thousands of lives. I was the shrine’s keeper then, and clever as the copy was, it didn’t fool me. So I came and knelt where you are kneeling now and I looked at Revered Mother as you looked at me, and she told me the truth. No one else knew or guessed. But if I, wholly ignorant of the goldsmith’s art, could tell it was a fake, how could it possibly fool master goldsmith Passang, who arrives today to see it, and who knows his own father’s work intimately?”
Girl gnaws her lip, trying to reconcile goodness with deception and theft. “What of the Lady’s manuscripts?” she asks at last.
“Safe, in the copy. Remember, the reliquary was only a pretty box. The manuscripts are the monastery’s true treasure.”
“No. They’re not.” The sharp voice startles them. As they twist round, the goddess is there, dressed in the flowing robes of her statue, a shawl at her shoulders, saffron-coloured ribbons loosely woven in her long black hair. “My treasure consists in those who love and follow me, and my greatest treasure is here.”
She sits on the floor with them. “Really, Sonam, I thought age might have brought you wisdom as well as white hairs. At least when you were Kalpana’s age and I spoke to you in your dreams, you actually listened.”
“What else could I do?” says the abbess.
“You should have done nothing, as I told you when Passang contacted you about his plans.”
“I had the honour of the monastery to consider. I couldn’t allow the truth to be known.”
“Why not?” Girl doesn’t mean to speak but it bursts from her. “Forgive me, Revered Mother, but surely our honour lies in following the Lady and her aspects – compassion and benevolence, wisdom and truth. There was compassion here for the starving people, benevolence in helping them, but was there wisdom in deceit, in the antithesis of truth?”
“Master Passang will be aggrieved if he finds his father’s gift was valued so lightly.”
“But it was valued so very highly,” says Girl. “Valued at the price of thousands of lives. And he is brother to the girl you said was the best of you. Will he not understand that compassion is our first duty, as she would have done?”
A long silence, broken at last by the Lady. “And you doubted me, Sonam, over the word ‘treasure’?”
The abbess looks away, then, softly, “Forgive me, Lady. I fear I acted less for the honour of the monastery, than for the reputation of Revered Mother, whom I loved and esteemed, and who enjoined me to silence. And from a sense of shame. For when I knelt here all those years ago, I had not the courage to speak as Kalpana has, as I should have done.” She stares at the brand on her palm. “At the Day of Accepting I held your light and pledged myself to Truth. But I concealed a lie.”
The Lady takes her hand. “You showed compassion and love. When I choose a priestess, I always choose well.”
“With your grace, I’ll tell Master Passang the truth.”
The Lady smiles, a slow secret smile. “Tell him what you know. That will be enough.”
Everyone is subdued as the temple ceremony begins. The abbess had the senior priestesses join her when she told Master Passang of the reliquary, and they were instructed to disseminate the news. Opinion in the Acolytes’ Hall is again divided, but Girl is pleased the truth is known, even if she can no longer look on the old reliquary with the same innocent pleasure.
Master Passang appears grave as he arrives at the shrine with the abbess. His servant carries a large sandalwood box. The goldsmith opens it and lifts out the new reliquary, a glory of silver, lapis, gold and gems.
“Revered Mother, in memory of my beloved sister, once acolyte of your Order, and of my father, a man of great humility and faith, who would have approved every action taken by your predecessor, I ask that you receive this as a token of my respect. I give it freely, as my father gave his own work, for you and your successors to keep or use as you see fit, without shame or offence to any.”
“It is a magnificent gift, Master Passang, as generous as your words. And a worthy vessel to hold the Lady’s gifts.” The abbess takes from her assistant a fine shawl, which she unfolds, revealing a skein of black hair, bound with saffron-coloured ribbons. An aura surrounds the skein as the abbess holds it high for all to see, a luminosity like the moon’s glow – even had Girl not seen the selfsame hair and ribbons only a few hours before, she would have known them to be the Lady’s. The temple echoes with gasps of amazement and joy, expressions of delight; Girl’s are the loudest.
After the Lady’s gift is sealed inside the reliquary, the abbess enters the shrine’s enclosure and sets it down in the space Girl left for it. The goldsmith follows her. He glances at the old reliquary, looks again, frowns, picks it up, turns it over in his hands.
“Revered Mother, were you toying with me earlier? This is no cheap tinsmith’s copy. And I’d know my father’s work anywhere. This is his.”
It’s late, and only the abbess is in the temple with her when Girl inspects the old reliquary, puzzling as the whole monastery is doing.
“So is this the original after all, Revered Mother? And it wasn’t broken up, but the Lady made you think it was a fake? Or it’s the copy and she made the goldsmith see the original? Or has she turned the copy into the original?”
“I’m as lost as you, Kalpana. Perhaps one day the Lady will divulge her secret.”
“Perhaps,” says a cool voice. “Or perhaps not. I must retain some mystery.” The goddess still wears the silk robes, but the shawl and ribbons are gone, and her hair is now as short as any acolyte’s. Girl grieves for its loss, but glories in what has become of it.
“Thank you, Lady, for giving us another treasure.”
“I told you where my treasure lies, little mouse, and it’s not in those boxes. It’s time you had a new name to make that clear. So you shall now be Rinchen. For you are indeed my true treasure.”