Under the perfect jade-green cone of Djemang, the holy fire mountain, Sai the novice is picking punung. The late afternoon is unpleasantly humid, and his back is sore from bending to the low-growing punung bushes, but he dare not stop. He has done too much of that already, dallying in the shade in the noonday with his friend Bumi, with pleasurable but tiring consequences that have resulted in an unscheduled sleep, and a serious lack of the young punung shoots that the monks rely upon to keep them awake during the long nights of ceaseless chanting to the fire god, Ojo Pertuan.
Had it been only last week, Sai reflects ruefully, he might have got away with it, for it had been Abbot Gungwasekura's turn to be Daymaster to the novices then, and old Gungwasekura is amused by Sai's antics: a small youth in his early years, Sai had learned that charm and wit are excellent weapons, and now, having grown into a disturbing beauty, he has learned that looks too can be used to his advantage. But with the new moon, it is now Precentor Tjemantok's turn to be Daymaster, and the stern and pious Tjemantok is seemingly impervious to both charm and beauty. He has besides a wicked way with a bamboo cane - Sai's buttocks twitch with remembered discomfort at their last taste of Tjemantok's wrath, suspecting that another such is imminent.
He sighs, and bends to the straggling punung bushes. The task cannot be hurried, for punung bruises and discolours easily, losing its stimulant virtues. If only he had thought to ask Bumi for some of his day's work in return for their frolic in the bushes.
"Oh wretched monks," he mutters aloud, "why can you not keep awake at your chanting without bending the backs of younger men ?"
"Oh ho," says a new voice, rich and amused, "but you are surely not reluctant to bend your back for the right man ?"
Sai straightens in surprise. The stranger is tall, and as Sai's swift and impudent gaze reveals, good looking: well-muscled, firm-jawed, and with an extraordinarily forceful gaze that seems to hold the young man physically. He might be in his thirtieth year or a little less, but he might also be much older, for the people of the Islands age well, retaining their raven hair and smooth skin until their sixtieth year or more. He is richly dressed, in a light dawabah of embroidered silk, and carries a spiked mace as well as the flame-shaped dagger that marks him as an aristocrat, one of the Thousand Families.
Sai remembers at last to lower his eyes politely, an effect spoiled by his less than humble smile.
"Peace and greetings my lord," he says. "The humble novice thanks my lord for his notice."
And I wouldn't mind bending my back for you, he adds - but only mentally. Cheek to old Gungwasekura was one thing, but being cheeky to some lord's son could get you into serious trouble.
"No doubt," says the man with a chuckle. "And what is the humble novice's name ?"
"Sai, my lord."
"Well, young Sai, suppose you just run along ahead and tell your masters that Venerable Manatjeragungssih is on his way to Blessed Abbot Gungwasekura with a message from Blessed High Abbot Djamalengkundra in the Capital."
Sai performs the prostration. A six-syllable name, and a Venerable to boot !
"Yes, yes, be along with you," says the man. "Oh and Sai ?"
"Yes, my lord ?"
"I think you can leave the punung behind. It will only slow you down, and what's there won't be such a great loss."
Sai grins fiercely. What luck !
"My lord is a prince among men. I will run like the wind to give notice of my lord's coming."
And taking care not to turn his back disrespectfully, or raise his head higher than the other's waist until he is out of sight, he sidles in reverse along the track a few yards until the trees screen him from the other's gaze and he can suit his actions to his words.
Like all the novices, plenty of hard work and a good if simple diet have left him fit, and he is hardly out of breath when he arives at the temple. Tjemantok is standing at the gate, cane in hand and a grim smile on his face. It is the only time anyone ever sees Tjemantok smile, when he has somebody to punish. The lines around his mouth deepen when he sees that Sai has no basket.
"So, novice. Did you not have a task this day ?" asks Tjemantok with heavy sarcasm.
"Lord Precentor, this humble novice begs my lord's pardon, but he is commanded by another and a greater." So eat those fish in the market, old thrasher !
Tjemantok frowns. "What nonsense is this, young man ? Whose command ?"
"A Venerable from the Capital comes, Lord Precentor, with a message from the Blessed High Abbot himself."
The frown deepens. Tjemantok has little time for the Capital and its worldly ways.
"What is the name of this supposed messenger ? I warn you if this is some lie to avoid your just punishment you will receive it redoubled."
"The Venerable Manatjeragungssih, my Lord. He must even now be on his way."
Tjemantok's face pales with rage.
"How dare you !" he screams. "Miserable, impious, blasphemous boy !" and he slashes out again and again at Sai with his cane, backside and back and arms alike indiscriminately, as the cowering youth tries to shield himself from the blows.
"What is going on here ?" interjects a third voice. It is a calm voice, quiet, hardly loud enough to be heard over all the fuss, but Tjemantok subsides immediately and silence falls, broken only by the sobbing of Sai, huddled on the floor.
Abbot Gungwasekura, in his flame-red robe, bends over the youth, and the slightest tremor disturbs the serene old features as he notes the weals across the young man's back, arms and legs, which in some places are oozing blood.
"Precentor Tjemantok, explain yourself," he says, raising the young man up. The words are still quiet but there is no question of disobeying them.
"My Lord Abbot - he has committed blasphemy. He has spoken one of the Sacred Names, which he should not even know, in a public and unsanctified place. He has lied and defiled and, and . . ." Words fail him in his indignation.
"Sai." The abbot's tone is notably warmer, but still very much a command. "Tell me the truth, for your life may depend upon it. Have any spoken to you of the inner mysteries of the god ?"
"No, my Lord." The voice quavers a little, but the abbot cannot hear a lie in it, and it is one of his gifts to hear falsehood when it is spoken.
"Very well then." He turns to survey the crowd that has gathered to watch the fun.
"You may depart about your tasks, my sons. There is nothing here that concerns you." The novices and temple monks take the hint, and melt away. "Sai, you will come with me, as will Precentor Tjemantok."
The abbot leads them to his room, as simply furnished as Sai's own, though twice the size and with a matchless view of holy Djemang when the screens are drawn aside.
"Now Sai, tell me exactly what has happened."
Sai relates the story of his encounter. The abbot's eyebrows lift when the names of Manatjeragungssih and Djamalengkundra are spoken, but Tjemantok expostulates:
"See, my Lord. He cannot even be bothered to get the name of the Blessed High Abbot of our faith correct, even though Wanhotondera has guided the worshippers in the Capital these ten years. It is all lies and insolence."
"No, I do not think it is. The boy has lived all his life in these walls, what would he know of the Capital, or of history ? And yet he names the name of one who was Blessed High Abbot once, long ago. I remember the name, vaguely, although I can't quite call to mind when he was Abbot. And then this unlettered youth names the visitor with one of the Inner Holy Names of the god, that are only spoken in the temple in secret, and which he has no way of knowing. No, there is more to this than is apparent - you have acted too hastily, Tjemantok. I am displeased."
Tjemantok falls to the floor and performs the prostration.
"Forgive me, Lord Abbot."
"You are zealous. But you must learn better to control yourself. I think a month meditating alone on the holy mountain is called for."
Tjemantok looks as if he might protest, but thinks better of it.
"You may go now," adds the abbot. "You leave in the morning." Tjemantok bows and leaves, in silence.
"As for you, Sai - what am I to do with you, I wonder ?"
"My lord, I did truly meet him. I didn't know that that was a holy name, that was just what he said to me."
"I believe you. But I think that you should spend the night praying in the temple. It is possible that one of the god's holy messengers has appeared to you. We must all pray, that the meaning of this visitation may be explained to us."
"Yes my lord," says Sai, subdued. The thought of the attention of a god is alarming, to say the least. He rises, wincing from the pain of his thrashing.
"Wait - come here," says the abbot. Sai obeys.
The old man lays his hands on the youth's head and closes his eyes. A sensation of drowsy warmth steals downwards over Sai's body. When the abbot lifts his hands, every trace of the weals is gone. Sai stares in amazement.
"There are some privileges that are granted to the faithful servants of the god," says Gungwasekura with a faint smile, "and it did seem that you were unjustly treated. You may have earned some punishment today, for I fear that you have distracted young Bumitra from collecting as much punung as he might, but you have not, I think, earned such a severe one. Go now my son, and eat, then return to keep vigil in the temple tonight."
Sai seizes the abbot's hand and kisses it.
"Thank you father," he says, and truly means it, though how the abbot guessed about him and Bumi he cannot guess. It sometimes seems like that old man can read minds ! He scampers off, for the usual fish and rice in the refectory. Fortunately, custom holds that the servants of Ojo Pertuan eat in silence, and all the others, who are just bursting to ask him what is going on, are forced to hold their tongues.
Afterwards he retreats from a planned ambush by some of the other novices who plan to tickle the truth out of him and escapes into the temple.
Here all is calm: the eternal fires burn before the statue of the god in his olang aspect, as a six-armed man, holding in his six hands a flame, a lotus blossom, a sword, a rope, a star and a book. The firelight plays over the sternly handsome features, so that their gilded immobility seems to have a strange life: Sai shudders and falls into the prostration, for it almost seems that the god winked at him.
And there, prone before the statue, he lies, praying hard except when his thoughts grow distracted and drift to worldly things like the pleasures of the day, and the encounter with Tjemantok, who is now banished for a while, thanks be to the god, and the Abbot's power, a sudden revelation of another side to what had always seemed but a gentle, amiable old man . . .
The voice is familiar. Blurrily he raises his head, realising that he must have fallen asleep on the cool polished basalt of the temple floor.
"Sleeping again ? I hope it doesn't get you into as much trouble as the last time," says the voice, amused, and Sai sees that it is the Venerable from the Capital, Manatjeragungssih. Except that . . .
With a gasp he falls back to the floor, squeezing his eyes tightly shut.
"Please, do not destroy me, holy one, for having looked upon you, for my impious thoughts. I did not know that you were the god's messenger."
"Foolish Sai. Is that who they think I am ? How forgetful they are becoming. It is past time for some reminders." A strong - a very strong - arm pulls the terrified youth to his feet.
"Sai. Sai, look at me. Look at me, I'm not going to eat you - well not if you don't want me to."
The voice is still warm, amused - and attractive. Sai cannot resist a peek at the handsome face that is so close to his. The other's lips close on the youth's full mouth, as a hand slides down the straight back into the hollow of his spine. A finger wiggles into the back of Sai's loincloth and into the start of the crevice between his two pert buttocks. An involuntary shudder of pleasure presses his body against the wood-hard muscles of the other man.
"Mmm, now that wasn't so bad, was it ?" asks the man.
Sai's eyes sparkle. This is a game he understands well. He allows his head to fall demurely, stealing a glance from under the dark fringe of his hair, as if shy, reluctant, but drawn by the unexpected pleasures of their kiss and embrace.
The man laughs, and seizing him by the shoulders, shakes him gently.
"Oh you little rogue," he says. "You know how to play the coy maiden. But what were these impious thoughts you mentioned earlier ?"
"That I would very much like to be doing with you what I am now doing with you, my lord. But if you are not a holy messenger, then they were not impious."
"Ah, but they were," said the other, gaily. His hands slide lasciviously down to Sai's trim waist, and tug at the white cloth around it.
"How so ?" asks Sai, puzzled.
"Why only this," says the other, as Sai's loincloth falls to the floor, revealing the young man's naked beauty, and a not inconsiderable erection, to the other's appreciative gaze. "I am not a messenger of Ojo Pertuan. I am Ojo Pertuan himself. And I think that I shall deal with your - impieties - in the appropriate way, across my divine knee."
Sai is convulsed with laughter at the other's outrageous blasphemy - in the god's very temple, too ! It is always his way to laugh at times of shock or great fear, and it has got him into trouble more than once. So helpless with laughter is he, that he cannot make the slightest resistance as the other throws off his robe and, clad only in a loincloth himself, pins the naked Sai across his outstretched knee.
As soon as the hand falls, Sai stops laughing. His captor spanks hard ! This impression is rapidly reinforced by the succeeding blows, as a regular rhythm is established that echoes through the temple sanctuary like the little cymbals the novices clash in their processions. Whack, whack, whack, whack ! Owai, his buttocks are growing hot. WHACK, WHACK, WHACK, WHACK. He begins to wiggle a little, but it is to no avail, he is pinned as firmly as if there were a mountain on top of him. Soon his backside seems to be aflame, but there is no let up in the relentless assault on his now stinging cheeks. Whack, whack, whack, whack, whack, whack, whack !! He begins to cry out, but his groans and half-pleas are ignored. Suddenly, as he twists, he catches sight of their shadows, cast by the firelight on the temple walls. He sees, strangely attenuated, his own legs, waving fruitlessly in the air as he kicks, and the tall, muscular figure of his captor, arms raised - FOUR ARMS RAISED, EVEN AS A FURTHER TWO HOLD HIM DOWN !
He gasps in wonder and terrible fear - it was true. The god himself had come.
"Master !" he cries out. The hands pause.
"Ah Sai, my beautiful Sai," says the voice. "Did I not tell you who I was, even from the beginning ? Manatjeragungssih is my name, He who Walks among the Smoke, for I am the Purifier, the Destroyer and Maker Anew. Ah, but do not be afraid," for Sai had gone rigid with terror at the realisation of who held him, "for I am not angry with you. I mean to take my pleasure with you, not to harm you. Even this is less for punishment, though you have deserved a little of that, than to teach you the pleasure of my mastery."
"Then Master," replies Sai, though his voice quavers a little, "spank me until I cannot sit down until the next new moon."
"Oh bravely said, but what if I took you at your word ? Your buttocks glow like the shells of two ripe lychees already. Let us see what this," WHACK ! "and this, and this and this will do." And the god's terrible hands fall upon the already sore and quivering behind of Sai like thunderbolts. If he had thought he was sore before, it was like a gentle warmth compared with the fire that now awakes in his backside, until quite forgetting his earlier request he begs loudly and tearfully for mercy.
The strong hands lift him up. He screws his eyes tightly shut again, lest he look inadvertently into the face of the god and be blinded, but the god leans close and breathes upon him, his breath warm, and smelling of spring flowers and lightning, with a hint of sulphur. A strange elation fills Sai as he breathes it in, and his eyelids spring open almost without his volition and he looks into the smiling face of his god.
And god having removed his loincloth, Sai falls to his knees to worship what he finds there, for god's organ is great beyond the measure of any man that Sai has known. The god clasps the young man to him, and where his hands move trails of fire dance behind them, and Sai's body awakes to pleasure greater than he had dreamed possible.
He takes god's organ in his mouth, though it makes his jaw hurt from the size of it, and tastes its strange sweetness, not like the saltiness of a man. He buries his head in god's groin, and kisses his way up god's hard belly, but it is not enough, not enough. Though he fears it, he desires more.
"Master, enter me, if it may be," he whispers.
"Oh yes, little Sai, I shall enter you and fill you like the sea," promises Ojo Pertuan. His organ throbs and swells to a new girth and hardness, and a shining pearl of liquid, like a dewdrop, quivers upon its tip. Sai cries out in alarm, for god's penis seems as great to his wondering eyes as a man's forearm.
"Oh Lord, is it possible ? I shall die from the greatness of it !"
"No, Sai, you shall not die," says Ojo Pertuan, and breathes upon the youth again, and a dizzy elation catches him up, and as god lifts him in his strong arms, and opens his legs he feels only joy, and as the great organ, burning hot, nuzzles at his anus, he feels no apprehension. Then god enters him, not gradually, but all at once, with a great thrust. Fire fills him, and a pain so great that it is beyond pain, and an exaltation that tears his soul from his body, unable to bear the assault of so much feeling. He is aware, as from a great distance, of the god like a core of fire moving deep within his body, deeper than any mortal man could ever enter him, of a possession so absolute that he scarcely exists any more separately from this moment and this consummation. At last god cries out, and his scalding seed seems to flood Sai's whole body like a tide of light, and consciousness is drowned at last.
He knows nothing of the god's withdrawal, though his body shudders and groans at the loss; he sleeps, his spirit flown far away, as six strong arms lift him and place him, naked and shining with a strange soft light, in the heart of the fires that burn before the great statue. Among the flames he nestles, like a bird in a soft nest of down, unharmed, for no ordinary flame has power to touch those who have known the fire of the god.
There, much later, the monks will find him, led by the Abbot who has belatedly remembered that Djamalengkundra was that Abbot who turned aside the mountain's fires when last it spoke; and seeing him they will know him beloved of the god. And Gungwasekura himself will place the flame-red robe upon him, and they two, old man and young man, favoured both of the god, will stand together to meet their Lord as the earth shakes and the sky darkens, and he flows in his most terrible aspect down the slopes of Djemang and past his temple to walk among his people below.