Penance

"... which is a very good example of the architecture used by the monks of those times. On your left you can see another effigy which the monks installed to commemorate the death of an ancient chief monk. Now step this way. And please be looking here. This is a very important artefact from the ancient times..."

The guides voice droned on and Sam could feel his attention wander. The drive to the isolated monastery had taken up two precious hours of his life that he could have better spent asleep in his hotel bed. They had driven through barren wind swept mountains, before leaving the main road to bounce along a dirt track. A track that led them through squalid villages sparsely populated with shouting children and barking dogs. The children would stare at the minibus, some would wave hesitantly at the tourists. Some of the younger boys would pick up stones and shape to throw, but would never be brave enough to release them. The dogs would bark at the strangers, then wag their tails in triumph as the minibus left the village.

Sam had started a conversation with the two Scandinavian blondes, but they had done their best to ignore him, being more interested in comparing the bracelets and scarves they had bought at the market the day before. And so he had spent the final hour staring out of the window at the harsh landscape, wondering how the villagers survived with no shops or cars. Every time he had closed his eyes, a harsh jolt had shaken him awake. Until finally they had arrived to this ancient pile of crumbling buildings, The centre of religion for a long decayed civilisation.

"Hey you. Fat man. Please be listening." The guide was looking at him. The elderly London couple were laughing at something, probably at him being the target of the guides jibes. "This is very important. Very interesting. Here we have an old shrine. It is where that locals be worshipping the gods. Here you see this. Please look. As you can see this flat part in front of the statue, you can see where they placed the offerings. Sometimes food or money or drink or jewellery. Offering to the god to be good to them. To favour them. To be nice to them. Sometimes to leave them alone."

"Gifts out in the open? And no one took it? Must be tempting?" the Australian women drawled at him.

"No. No." The guide replied. "People would never take from the gods." He smiled at her. "The monks here. They were very strict. None now. Just guides. And no one to give gifts."

"And no gods." The Australian woman concluded.

The guide hesitated. "Some gods never left. Most left with the monks, but some. Some stayed" He looked around the group. "Please be careful. Now follow me. Through this archway, mind your heads, here we have the sleeping areas. Straw mats on the floors all they had. Now over there you can be seeing the eating places..."

The guides voice faded as he stepped under the archway. The group huddled around to follow him. Sam reached into his pocket for a tissue. As he drew it out a roll of Polo mints came with it. It dropped onto a patch of dirt on the ground, and then rolled against a wall, and disappeared from view. As Sam bent down to look for it, he noticed that there was an alcove in the wall at ground level. It reached from the floor up to about the height of his knee. And seemed to be inset into the wall by about the length of his forearm. There was a small glow coming from it. He would have missed the glow if he had not been looking at it, so dim it was compared to the daylight flooding in through the missing roof. He bent down to look inside. He saw the rice at first. It seemed so incongruous . So out of place. It was just a tiny amount, perhaps enough to fill a small spoon. But it did appear fairly fresh. Behind the rice was a lit candle. As his eyes went past the candle he saw the carving on the rear wall of the alcove. It was of a dog. Sitting upright, it's front legs between it's hind paws. It could have been staring out at him, but the stone had been worn almost smooth by the rubbing of countless hands, and he could not make out any of the fine detail on its' face . Around the dogs head was a halo. Like the drawings of the sun that a five year old child would draw. A halo of flames.

Sam looked at the carving for a while, then picked up the mints which had rolled into the alcove to rest against the candle. As he took them his hand brushed the candle, knocking it over. He picked it up and placed it back upright. It had not gone out, but the molten wax had drained out, and for a few seconds the bare wick shone with a much larger flame. The halo around the dogs head seemed to shine more brightly with the reflected flame. But the blank face just stared back at him.

Sam stepped back from the alcove, and straightened up. He wanted to ask about it. But the guide and the rest of the group were out of sight. He stepped rapidly after them. As he bent to go under the archway, he looked back over his shoulder at the shrine to the god. But all he could see was a very faint glow.

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The sun was setting by the time they left the monastery. The journey back was along the same dirt track. Most of the group were quiet. Some of them had fallen asleep in spite of the continual shaking and jolting. Some were tucking into biscuits and crisps they had taken from their day-sacks. Sam accepted some, and passed around a selection of his own. The first of the villages was coming up, and Sam looked out of the window at the huddle of unkempt houses. The children were not as excited as before. They had already seen a minibus today, they knew this one would not stop, and that the people inside would not be smiling. Even the dog seemed bored. It sat at the top of a mound in the village to catch the last rays of a dying sun, and looked at the passing minibus. Sam peered back at it. The dog turned it's head to follow them as the minibus weaved it's way around it. Sam thought it was looking at him. But with the sun behind it, he could not be sure of it's expression. As they turned onto what counted as the main road out of the village, the deep red sun was silhouetted behind the dog, surrounding it's head like a fiery halo.

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Sam was roused from his slumber by the others getting off the minibus outside their hotel. They agreed to meet a short time later to go for a meal. This was the final evening together. Tomorrow most of the group would be heading back to their different countries. Sam and a few others were catching a different flight. Deeper into the country. When he arrived back to the reception they gathered as a group and headed out.

In the restaurant he had chosen to sit at the end of the table nearest the open log fire. Though the days were hot under the sun, the nights were cold, and he was grateful for the warmth. The meal was unremarkable, but half way through he became aware of the restaurant dog sitting by his side. He looked down at where it sat. Patiently looking back up at him. Seeing him look down, the American to the side of the table looked down also. As he did his arm brushed the bread roll off his plate and onto the floor. It rolled towards the dog. The American moved to pick it up. There was a gasp from one of the waiters who swiftly moved to his side and got another bread roll from the basket on the table.

"Please sir, have this one. You must never take food away from a dog."

"But is was an accident." The American said.

"But sir, the dog does not know that." The waiter smiled back at him. Then moved on to the other table.

Sam looked down at the dog. It had ignored the roll and remained looking back up at him. Sam felt uncomfortable under it's gaze. He turned back to his meal, suddenly feeling hot from the heat of the fire.

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The following morning was a hectic rush of packing, followed by goodbyes and tears. The Scandinavians left before Sam got the chance to say what he had been wanting to say for a while. And the first chance that Sam got for peace and quiet was when he was sitting on the plane. It was an old model, with propellers instead of jets, and much smaller than the ones that had flown in from England. It had just two rows of seats with a central aisle. And even with such a small number of passengers, less than half the seats were full. Being an internal flight, the airport security had been farcical to say the least. Hand luggage had not been checked at all. Not that there had been anything he could have bought on board. The tiny domestic airport had no shops to boast of.

The flight was due to last two hours. Enough time for a meal, but even after the plane had levelled off there was no sign of hurry from the flight attendants. Sam looked around at his fellow passengers. Across the aisle from him was an old lady sitting by the window. The seat next to her empty. She picked her large handbag from the floor and placed it on her lap. Nervously clutching it to her. When she thought that no one was looking, she opened it carefully and peeked inside. But the small white shape inside jumped out and landed on the seat next to her. She gasped in alarm. But the dog sat there calmly, upright and staring across the aisle at Sam. It should have been excited with all the new sights and smells, but it's face was expressionless. It stared at Sam, and Sam stared back.

"It was an accident." He said. "I did not mean to drop them, that was why I picked them up. They were still mine"

But the dog just stared back at him. And then Sam noticed that the cloth on the back of the seat was darkening. And shortly after that the cloth under the dog started to smoke. The old woman looked alarmed and grew agitated. The two flight attendants came over to her seat. By the time they arrived the smoke had grown thicker. As Sam looked across at then, he could see the shimmer of heat around the dogs head. The old woman started screaming and other passengers were standing, trying to move away in the heat and smoke.

Sam wanted to say sorry. Wanted to ask for forgiveness. Wanted to beg for his life. But the smoke was filling the small air-plane, and the acrid stench was in his mouth, in his throat, and it choked back all his words. Tears streamed from his eyes, and the smoke grew thicker.

JAN2010 Silvercoat