It was always Amrak’s job to deal with the birds afterwards, and he had always hated it. Every Temple day after the service he would have to wait for the worshippers to leave, then hang around while Father and the other priests finished up. As soon as they were gone the work began – mopping up the spilt blood, gathering the dirty robes into a basket to take outside to the waiting washerwomen, piling up the silver bowls to carry to the kitchen to be cleaned. Amrak had asked his father many times if he could rather wash the bowls, sweep the step outside, clean out the censers – anything but gather the broken bodies of the doves, but his request was always refused. “Do what I tell you, son,” Father always said. “No questions.”
But Amrak had questions; he always had. Even though his curiosity had been soundly discouraged and he had mostly stopped asking, he had not lost it. He wanted to know why the poor birds had to die, their throats slit over the silver bowls before the blood was poured over the heads of the people during cleansings, weddings and dedications. He had experienced it himself during his cleansing ceremony when he had turned thirteen, like every other boy in Kalathan. Blood to sully, blood to purge. Blood to defile, blood to cleanse. He remembered it as if it was yesterday, even though it was already four years ago. He had been shocked that day by how warm the blood had been, and glad that as it had flowed over his face it had hidden his tears.
“You’re too sensitive, Amrak,” said his friend Mishik, walking past him with his polishing cloth as he crouched down over the pile of little bodies on the floor. “They’re just birds.”
“Just birds,” Amrak repeated softly, picking one up by a wing. They were always cold by the time the service ended and he had to begin his work. He placed it gently into the sack he had brought, then picked up the next one. There had been five coming-of-age cleansings today, and two devilclaw purgings and a wedding the day before. Two doves for each, which meant sixteen little creatures lying dead on the tiled floor, sixteen still hearts in the sack, ready for the rubbish pile and then the fire. When he was done he placed the sack out of the way, fetched the broom to sweep up the feathers, then picked up the mop which stood against the wooden bucket. It only took ten minutes, to restore the floor to its previous shine, for the water in the bucket to turn from clear to gritty, muddy brown with the blood and droppings.
“Almost done,” said Mishik, as he put down the bronze censer he had just polished and picked up the last one. “All ready to carry next week’s prayers up to heaven!”
“If the blood cleanses us,” Amrak said, half to Mishik, half to himself as he straightened his back, “then where do the sins go?”
“What?” Mishik shook his head. “They don't go anywhere. The blood … dissolves them.”
“Then the sins are still in the blood,” said Amrak. “They flow into the drains, then into the river. The river, and the sea, must be teeming with sins by now.”
“No, no,” Mishik said. “Lands, you have strange thoughts, Amrak! You’ve got it all wrong. It’s a spiritual thing.”
“If it’s spiritual, why do we need the blood then? Can't we just ask God to cleanse us, without breeding birds that we only kill?”
Mishik replaced the last censer, balling up the dirty cloth. “Wait for next year when we begin our training,” he said. “You can ask the fatirs about that. I don't know enough to answer you.”
Amrak picked up the bucket and broom, Mishik the mop. The two boys made their way towards the kitchen behind the building. “Are you excited about it?” Amrak asked.
“The training. All of it. Becoming a priest.”
Mishik looked confused. “Not really. It’s going to be hard work. But it’s a good living and I don't know what else I would do.”
“I don't mind hard work,” said Amrak.
“But?” Mishik peered at him as they set down their burdens and faced each other.
“I don't want to shave my head. And I'm not sure I want to be a priest at all.” It felt almost dangerous to say it.
Mishik gave a low whistle. “I want to be there when you tell that to your father,” he said. “Really, Amrak. How many generations of your family have been priests? I doubt you could even count!”
Amrak didn't answer. It was laughable, he had to agree, to think that he could choose another path for his life. His father was so proud of their family, proud of his position, proud to be a Kalathene, most of all proud to be a priest of the Temple. He walked around the town in his long red robe, his shaved head held high, proud of his dutiful wife, his obedient sons, his devout, co-operative daughters. He didn't know that Amrak shuddered every time a bird was killed, every time he smelled the incense, every time he heard the chanting. He didn't know that his son’s favourite day of the week was the day after Temple day, because it meant there were six whole days until the next one. He didn't know that when his son closed his eyes to chant the prayers, he felt nothing, that when he looked up at the great curly spire of the Temple looming above the City he found himself daydreaming about what life would be like if it was not there at all.
He and Mishik removed their aprons and washed their hands, then exited the back door of the Temple into the alley, Amrak carrying the sack. It had snowed earlier, and now the wind blew flurries of it up and down the alley.
“Well, see you tomorrow I suppose,” Mishik said, pulling on his gloves and shoving his hat as far down on his head as he could. “Can you believe it’s our last week of school?”
“Training will be worse than school,” Amrak said, as he turned up the collar of his thick fur-edged coat against the cold wind and wrapped his scarf around his head.
“Yes, but we will be studying with the men, not the boys!” Mishik said. “Will you shave your head soon? My father says it’s better to do it now rather than just before we begin.”
“Probably,” Amrak said. Father had said, that morning, that he thought they should do it tonight.
The boys parted, Mishik heading back to his home for dinner, Amrak heading in the opposite direction to take the sack, as he always did, to one of the wagon beds that was always parked in the same place near the Temple. He would fling the sack onto the pile of whatever waste was already there, and in the morning someone would arrive to haul the load off to the furnaces outside the City. The little birds would fly away then, he supposed, as the ash rose into the sky.
When he was finally free of the sack he turned around, thinking about the meal that waited for him at home, keeping warm by the stove. Another Temple day done.
He heard a noise then, a clattering as if something had fallen off the wagon. He turned around, startled. He had thought that he was alone in the alley. He crouched down to see if he could see if anything lay on the ground, and saw a flash of movement.
“Hey!” he called. “Who’s there?”
No answer. He stepped closer. “Who’s there?”
“No one!” called a voice. A boy’s voice, clear and confident.
Amrak stood still, unsure whether to laugh or be insulted. “What are you doing?” he asked. “That’s just rubbish in there!”
He stared for a moment at the wagon. Nothing moved. Then suddenly there was another crashing sound, and the boy stepped out from behind the wagon, holding up Amrak’s sack. He was small, at least a head shorter than Amrak, a good few years younger.
“Hey!” he said again. “That’s my sack!”
“You threw it away,” said the boy, shrugging. He looked cold, Amrak thought, his coat thin and unlined, only a too-big woolen hat on his head. His boots looked ancient, the tops peeling away from the soles. “So you clearly don't want it!”
Amrak stood still, wondering how to answer.
“Rubbish to you, dinner to me!” said the boy.
“But you can’t eat those!” Amrak was appalled.
“Oh, I can!” said the boy. “It’s quite easy. I pull out the feathers, cut out the insides and roast them. They’re not more than a few bites each but I’m not complaining.” Was he laughing? He had a wide grin, scruffy dark hair, and a rather blue face.
“But … those are Temple birds,” Amrak said.
The boy shrugged again. “Either they get roasted in the furnace and turned to black for nothing, my friend, or they serve a greater purpose by feeding me and my friends.”
Amrak took a few steps closer, wondering if the boy would run away. “Do you do this … often?”
“Most Temple days. I watch for you whenever you come out of that door. I’ve grown fond of your face lately, to be honest. You represent meat, glorious meat!” The boy held out his arms, the sack swinging wildly from one hand, and grinned widely.
Amrak could not help it. He smiled back.
An hour later, Amrak was sitting on an upturned wooden crate in another alley, warming his hands over the little fire the boy had made in a half-broken old brazier. He knew his parents would be wondering where he was, but he pushed that thought aside and hoped they would just think he had gone to Mishik’s house as he had once or twice before. He did not quite understand why he had not just turned around and left, why he had found himself asking the boy’s name and then following him here. It had been an impulse, he thought, as he watched him pluck out feathers and hack at the doves’ chests with a blunt-looking knife, something rebellious, and in the moment he had wanted nothing more than to do something different, to follow this odd boy off into the cold to watch him turn the bodies of the sacrificial doves into his lunch. His name was Kashrik, it turned out, and he was thirteen.
“Don’t you have a home?” Amrak asked.
Kashrik shrugged. “Not really,” he said.
Kashrik looked up from his hacking. “You work at the Temple, don't you?”
“My father is a priest,” Amrak said.
“So you will be too?”
Amrak looked down. “That’s the plan.”
“Then I can’t tell you why.”
“What’s being a priest got to do with why you don't have a home?”
“If I tell you, you might haul me off to your father. Instead of dove meat in my stomach, I’ll have dove blood on my head.”
“Oh,” Amrak said, starting to understand. “You’re …” He could not say it.
The boy put down his knife and pulled up his left sleeve. “There you go,” he said, showing Amrak the inked mark on the inside of his wrist. “I’m a devilclaw. I had a home but my father kicked me out last year. Sometimes I go to the back door and my mother gives me some bread, but most of the time I fend for myself.”
“Where do you sleep?”
Kashrik looked at him sideways. “Somewhere warm. There are people in the City who do not share the Temple’s opinion of people like me. Kind people. I haven’t frozen yet.”
Amrak took a breath, then blew it out again, watching as it condensed into mist in front of him. The boy picked up the knife again, with his left hand of course. Amrak wondered how he had not noticed it before. The Devil’s Claw. This pleasant-faced friendly boy was cursed, according to the Temple, an anomaly, a catalyst of bad luck. His left hand now, cutting away at the bird, looked so wrong, so strange, as if Amrak was watching himself in a mirror.
“Sorry,” he said. It was all he could think of to say. “That’s terrible.”
Kashrik laughed. “Don’t be sorry!” he said. “Sympathising with me will bring you bad luck, remember. Eating with me …” He grimaced, then smiled. “Probably worse. Perhaps you will wake up tomorrow covered in leprosy.”
He reached down to the ground to pick up a blackened sharp stick which he thrust through the bloody little body of the dove, then handed it to Amrak. “You hold it over the fire,” he said, “while I do the others.”
He looked up, the smile on his face so artless and genuine that Amrak did not know what to say. The flames leapt up, singeing the meat, the smell that rose up into the air surprisingly pleasant.
“I don't want to be a priest,” he said, partly to Kashrik, partly to himself. “I hate the Temple.”
Kashrik looked up in surprise.
“I hate the blood and the chanting, all of it. I love my father but I can't think of any other priest that I trust. I want to be a soldier or a farmer or a blacksmith – anything but a priest.”
He had never said anything like that before. He had barely even let himself think it.
“Well, I don't blame you,” Kashrik said. “I’d rather be a devilclaw than spend my life serving a God who doesn't care about anyone but himself, if he’s even there at all.”
Amrak, feeling quite breathless after his confession, did not answer. So there were people in Kalathan who did not live in the shadow of the Temple. There were people who cared enough about devilclaws to give them a place to sleep, people who were not afraid of the curse. The thought gave him courage, as the knowledge of what he had to do began to settle. He lifted his hand to his neck to touch the thick brown hair that reached to his collar. He would not be sitting down by the fire tonight while Father sharpened the razor. He would find his own path, and what Kashrik had just told him gave him hope that he would not be alone.
While Kashrik plucked and cut, the little pile of smelly entrails on the street beside him growing steadily, Amrak held the sticks, turning them gently, making sure the meat cooked evenly. And when Kashrik announced that the first bird had cooked long enough, took out a little twist of paper from his pocket and sprinkled the blackened shape with salt, Amrak lifted what had once been a fluttering bird up to his face and breathed in the aroma.
“Enjoy!” Kashrik said, holding up his own bird, its legs splayed grotesquely off to each side. “To the lowly dove, cleanser of sins and filler of stomachs!” He took a great, ravenous bite, tearing off the meat, smiling widely through his chewing.
Amrak smiled back, took a breath, and ate.