The Thirty-Seven Faces of Tokh-Bathon
by Effie Seiberg
I’ve counted eleven thousand, six hundred and fifty-two tiny soldiers carved in marble relief on the outer walls that ring the temple, though I’ve only named seventeen of them. Each one has a pointed headpiece, a carved cloth sampot, and at least one weapon. In preparation for the Reason Ritual I must polish them all, Baaun Oupom had said, and I cannot afford to anger him again.
He clamps my shoulder from behind, startling me with the pricking pain from his thumbnail on the raw stripes of flesh crossing my back. He walks so quietly on the grass.
The head monk pushes his wattled face towards the carvings. “You are sloppy, Chananthay.” His breath is stale. “It is disrespectful to the Faces. You are by far the most useless Temple Child I’ve seen.”
I stay silent and concentrate instead on cleaning Kiri, the soldier in front of me, his spear up in service to the Faces. Kiri is surrounded by one hundred twenty-seven smaller soldiers, fifteen horses, and one mountain. I’m never alone when I have Kiri around.
Baaun Oupom moves his head away from the imagined mote of dirt on Kiri’s foot. “You will clean this entire carving again. Today. You will still prepare the flowers and wax for Baaun Khemaban before morning.” He increases the pressure on my shoulder, where his lash had hit only yesterday. I must not cry out, which I will do if I think about the pain or the amount of work left to do. I count in my head instead—the fifteen horses have fifty-one visible hooves and seven spiked rondels. Baaun Oupom turns away, padding silently on bare feet as he turns onto the stone steps that lead from the carved walls to the temple.
The sun is already only one fist’s height away from the horizon—only a few hours left until nightfall, and recleaning the wall will take longer. The flower preparation is also a lengthy task. I suspect Baaun Oupom would not hesitate to re-open my back.
When I first came to Temple Tokh-Bathon, I told Baaun Vichekh, the nicest of the monks, about the names and stories I’d made up for the soldiers. Kiri was Kiri because he was tall like a mountain, and next to him stood Kothal-the-clever, because he had tricked the demon next to him into backing into a corner, and this one was Sopoya, because he had a friendly smile. Baaun Vichekh said that the Temple Child, of all people, must not be illogical and upset the balance of truth and lies, and stopped slipping me extra pieces of mango at festivals.
Baaun Vichekh and Baaun Khemaban walk out of the temple, arms full of bottles of saffron for the candles used in the Reason Ritual. As they pass me they too give disapproving looks.
“…heard from Baaun Oupom she tried to run away again,” mutters Baaun Khemaban, crinkling his forehead. He shakes his head as he mutters something else to Baaun Vichekh, and they walk across the grass to the candlemaking workshop in the monks’ quarters.
My back flares in pain, and I attack Kiri’s foot with vigor.
Hello Kiri, I imagine myself saying.
Hello, Chananthay, I pretend he says back. How are you today?
I’m well. I’m going to pick flowers and help my mother make dinner. Would you like to join us?
I would love to join. Will I be able to fit in your house? I’m big as a mountain you know.
Why that’s true, Kiri. But we can eat outside in the garden. It has a pond with fish and lotus flowers.
How lovely. I will be delighted to join you for dinner. What will we eat?
Fish amok served in coconut shells, and mango for dessert. We always have dessert at my house.
Why thank you Chananthay – what a wonderful friend you are. You must be very helpful to your mother, to make such delicious food.
In the moonlight, Temple Tokh-Bathon’s speckled gray stones behind marble walls darken to hide their splotches of moss and lichen, and eventually, hide the thirty-seven enormous carved Faces themselves in the black shadows.
In the moonlight, you can hear the grasshoppers zzzt zzzt and the birds chortle in response. It is peaceful—you cannot hear Baaun Oupom or Baaun Khemaban.
In the moonlight, the colors all soften with a dark blue wash and the frangipani trees bearing the white flowers with yellow centers look exactly like the frangipani trees bearing the white flowers with pink-and-yellow centers.
Only the yellow-centered frangipani will do for the candles for the Reason Ritual.
It had taken me all day to re-clean the wall—I had not considered the light. My back will be cut into little wet pieces, worse than yesterday. I gulp down a sob—I have already failed.
But no, there must be a light in the candle workshop at night, a spare candle at least. I can fix this. I’ll pick extra flowers from more trees and pick out the right ones when I’m applying the wax. It is one thing to anger Baaun Oupom, but there were rumors that Baaun Khemaban had killed the previous Temple Child. If I finish before dawn, he will not know of my mistake.
Frangipani flowers smell lush, their fragrance tumbling out of them to drop onto your face with a warm and curling hello. I climb the trees with my basket and pick and pick and pick, cramming the basket full. The quiet is calming, and I lose count.
Hello Sopoya. How are you today?
I am well. How are you?
Today I’m the princess of flowers. The frangipani flowers make me magic.
You must be very powerful and important.
I am. If I smell them, I get strong as an elephant. If I drink them in a tea, I get fast as a tiger. If I eat them, I can fly like a sparrowhawk. I can do anything.
That’s very frightening.
You must not be frightened. I am a kind princess of flowers. Let’s be friends.
I wake up with a start at the full-throated cry of a distant bird. It’s almost dawn. I peel myself up from the branch where I’d fallen asleep—the frangipani bark has made indentations in my cheek. The first hints of light are already misting the sky behind the temple. I had not meant to fall asleep. Panic.
I grab my basket and run as fast as I can to the candle workshop, trying desperately to avoid dropping flowers along the way.
The room is still empty, though the ever-rising sun teases with threatening rays through the window. I drop the basket of flowers on the table and find the small pot of deep orange saffron wax that they had mixed up yesterday. Baaun Khemaban keeps his workshop neat and clean—there are no dribbles of wax to be seen, no spilled dusting of saffron. I do not know how the previous Temple Child offended him. Perhaps he spilled the saffron, but I work too carefully for that. Baaun Khemaban rises early—he may be here at any moment.
I take the spool of wick thread and work as fast as I can in the dim light. Knot at the bottom, daub of saffron wax, thread on a frangipani flower, and repeat until there’s a string of strong fragrance ready to be the core of the candle. Cap it off with an extra daub of wax, tie the string to hang into the cylindrical candle mold, repeat. Tomorrow—no, today—Baaun Khemaban will pour the lighter saffron wax into the mold around the petals and snip off the excess wick. I must string two hundred seventy-five flowers before he arrives.
The light grows as I work, between the flickering candle under the pot of wax and the traitorous sun which continues its relentless rise to the sky. I keep count as my fingers fly—one hundred eighty-one, one hundred eighty-two, one hundred eighty-three…
And then as the workshop brightens, I see it. I had forgotten about the color. Every single frangipani flower in my basket has a pink-tinged center, winking its sickly eye at my misfortune. The finished strings hide the floral centers with wax, but those are probably pink too. There is no time to pick more.
Fat tears flow down, and I angle them so they won’t drip into the saffron. Putting the wrong flowers in the candles is worse than merely making a mess. I will be lashed for sure, if not killed.
Hello Chananthay, my friend. How are you today?
I’m scared. What are you doing in the candle workshop, away from your marble wall?
I came to help you.
Everything is ruined! I won’t have the flowers ready in time for Baaun Khemaban, and…and…
Don’t worry Chananthay. Nobody can tell the color of the flowers’ center once they’re on the wick. You can only see the edges of the petals. Baaun Khemaban need never know.
You really are clever, Kothal. As princess of the flowers, I will give you a kiss as a reward.
My hands haven’t stopped their frantic work. By the time Baaun Khemaban comes in, there are fifty-five finished strings of flowers, each hiding their pink secret, and I am sweeping the floor.
I am not permitted in during the Reason Ritual, but I peek in anyway. Baaun Oupom goes to each Face, one at a time, folding a gold-and-orange cloth at its base and lighting incense. And at the Face chosen for that particular Ritual, he also lights the fifty-five saffron and frangipani candles. The monks kneel, chant, pray, and then he asks the Question. They write down the Face’s Answer. Afterwards they seclude themselves away to debate the meanings of the Answer, and whether it is true or false.
I have been sent to clean away the spent incense and sweep away any ash or wax drippings from the floor. If the burning candles had exposed the pink frangipani centers during the Ritual, I would have already borne the consequences. I am hopeful.
My bare feet pad along the stone floors. They have polished paths running through them, smoothed by centuries of monks’ feet. I have my little broom made of wood and rushes, and a dustpan, and a small bucket hooked on the belt of my orange cloth sampot to hold the dust and ash.
I pass the Room of Reason, where the monks are now debating. Each Face must have a truth pattern, they say. Their sacred duty is to unlock it. They must first determine if an Answer is true or false—not easy, since the Answers are sometimes vague or strange.
In olden times, there were only two Faces. One always told the truth, and one always lied. But the monks abused the Faces, forcing them to make predictions for their own benefit, so the Faces split from two into thirty-seven, each with its own pattern of truths and lies. One might alternate, one might only tell truths after five other Faces tell truths at the same time…nobody knew. I once asked what would happen if the monks figured out enough of the pattern to get a lot of truthful Answers, how they would prevent other monks from doing the same bad thing again so that the Faces wouldn’t send their army of soldiers against the heretic people again. I do not talk about the Faces to the monks anymore. They just call me illogical and beat me.
My cleaning path winds through corners and stairs and crooked walkways and around every turn hides another Face. Some have the sun shining directly on them, and some are hidden in alcoves inside. Thirty-seven altars to clean is not bad at all, and the empty temple is cool and welcoming and smells of saffron and frangipani. With the last flickering flame about to gut out, it looks like the candles have all held their secret tight. I will be left alone until they finish their day’s deliberations.
I feel a bubble of glee rise inside my chest. Everything is silent and empty. I rest my broom on the wall next to one of the few indoor Faces, the one with the candles.
On impulse, I yell out into the empty corridor, “Yaaaaaah!”
I immediately clap my hand to my mouth. What was I thinking? The sound echoes through the halls and goes quiet. I wait. Everything is still. Nobody comes to yell at me—I really am alone. I let out a slow exhale, then grin.
“Hello Kiri,” I say out loud into the quiet, giving a curtsey to the empty space next to me. “You look well today.”
“Who is Kiri?”
The deep voice, dusty and gravely, makes me jump. I look down both sides of the hallway in panic, but there’s nobody there.
“Wh-who’s there?” My heart beats hard, ready to crack my ribcage.
“It is I.”
From the corner of my eye, I think I see the stone Face move, but that cannot be. The Faces don’t talk to anybody but the monks, and then only during the Reason Ritual.
It looks the same as it always has. The chin juts out of the wall about where Baaun Oupom’s head would reach, with the top of the forehead curving back another Baaun-Oupom-length up to tuck into its intricate carved headdress. It’s one of the nicer Faces, with crinkles around its pupil-less eyes and its thick lips in a peaceful smile. The same peaceful smile it’s always had.
It blinks, and I jump back. My heart is beating faster now, like a trapped bird in a frenzy trying to free itself.
Do I say something? Should I apologize? Grovel? Pray? My mouth is too dry for any of these things.
“Do not be afraid.” The enormous lips move as though they were human, stretching the stone as they curve around the words. The seams between the stone bricks pull like dough, then snap back. “I cannot bite you. How could I reach?”
“W-would you bite me if you could?” I ask before I stop to think. Such sacrilege! Only the monks must ask the Questions, only they must hear the Answers, and all Questions and Answers are carefully thought through and discussed to figure out the pattern. Have I thrown off the pattern with this question? I struggle to gulp, though my throat is still too dry—it’s two. Two questions I’ve asked. I’d asked who had spoken, too.
“It was meant to be a joke. I suppose I am out of practice.” The Face smiles again, and the stone crinkles around its eyes deepen. “Who is Kiri?”
I put one bare foot on top of the other and look down. I can’t not answer a question from the Face. That would be worse, right? I will just have to remember the entire conversation and tell the monks word for word.
“Kiri is the name I gave to one of the carved soldiers outside. I pretend he’s my friend.” I feel stupid as I say it, and my face grows hot.
“Have you given me a name too?”
The voice is so low and rumbly, I can almost feel it in my feet. Surely one of the monks will show up any second now and discover what I’d done.
“Um…no. I only gave names to some of the soldiers.”
“I should like to have a name. I’ve forgotten mine. Could I be Kiri too?”
“You can’t be Kiri. Kiri is already Kiri!” I jerk my head up and clap my hand on my mouth as soon as the words come out. What am I thinking, to deny a request from a Face! “You could be Kabaya. It means deity. Or you could be Amareapay, which means great power. Names should have a meaning.”
The Face gives a small, solemn nod, not disturbing the stone bricks surrounding it. “I see. What is your name?”
“I’m Chananthay. It means moon-faced girl. It’s not an important name like Kabaya.” I feel my cheeks growing even hotter, and I lower my face again.
“I think that Kabaya would not be a fun name. It would be very lonely to be a deity.”
I kneel and sit on my feet so the soles don’t point at the Face. “It’s lonely being the Temple Child, too, but loneliness is not that bad. At least loneliness means people are leaving you alone and not beating you. Anyway, you are a deity.”
The Face laughs, rumbles rolling through the stone and up my entire body. I can see its teeth and tongue. Please, I hope, let none of the monks come in and see this. Please, let them stay in their room and debate and argue and not notice that their disappointing Temple Child was chatting with one of the sacred Faces.
“I suppose someone like you could consider me a deity, but it doesn’t make it any less lonely. And it is no reason for a lonely name. I would like a different name.”
“How can you be lonely?” I blurt out. “There are thirty-six other Faces like you in this same temple!”
The stone eyebrows knit together. “There are? But I can hear none other of my kind.”
“I guess they’re…asleep. I think you only wake up with the candles, to talk to the monks.”
The Face takes a deep, appreciative sniff, its stone nostrils flaring. “Yes, the candles. They un-fog the mind, expand the awareness. These are better than the usual ones.” It pauses. “Perhaps you could—” but its voice fades away, and its features freeze into its normal expression.
I wait for it to move again. It doesn’t. “Um…Face?” It remains still, and I see that the last of the candles has finally flickered out.
Later that afternoon I help Baaun Vichekh, the kindest of the monks, in the kitchen, wrapping the leftover rice cakes in banana leaves to store for later. He is not as clean as Baaun Khemaban, and there are clouds of rice flour everywhere.
If I tell the monks about the different kind of flowers in the candles, they’ll think I’m useful, and if I can prove to them that it makes the Face talk, they’ll think I’m logical.
“Baaun Vichekh?” I’m careful not to drop my rhythm of slapping flour on the cakes so they don’t stick to the banana leaves. “What if, I mean, maybe, there were a different way to ask the Faces the Questions? A way in which they could talk more?”
He looks up from where he is stitching banana leaves together. “Why should the Faces talk any differently, just for our benefit? It is our work to solve their riddle, not their work to bend to our weak logic.” His silver needle flashes in and out of the leaves.
Baaun Vichekh, for all that he runs the kitchen, is skinny. His pinched face looks like an old woman, and now he purses his lips together that makes them as crinkled as the banana leaves when they dry.
I push on. “I mean, what if there were something we could do to make the Faces happier? And to help them think more clearly too, so they can speak in a way that’s easier to understand?”
His needle stops. “Temple Child, I will not hear any more illogical nonsense out of you today. You must learn to keep your mouth shut.”
“You are here to clean, to help, to work. No more. Now get back to it.”
I had not stopped flouring the cakes while we talked—I made extra sure of that. I’ve finished thirty—two already. That’s not useless at all. And now it’s thirty—three. And thirty—four…
Hello, Chananthay. How are you today?
Today I’m the greatest baker in the land. Kings and emperors from all around come to taste my rice cakes. The best way to flour cakes quickly is to cup the flour in your hands. You then pat it on the sides of the cakes as you turn them.
That’s very clever Chananthay. You’re smart as well as fast, my friend.
I figured out how to make the Faces talk more, but I don’t know how to tell anybody. They think I’m useless.
Well we know you’re not useless. If they won’t listen, they’re the useless ones.
You’re right Sopoya. They’re so useless they’re using the wrong type of frangipani.
As the greatest baker in the land, what will you do?
I’ll ride an elephant through town, throwing these extra cakes to nice people who will appreciate them more than these monks.
Baaun Vichekh might be the nicest of the monks, but he is not a very important monk. As the head monk, it is Baaun Oupom who would most appreciate the secret of the flowers. But it is Baaun Oupom who has left the fresh scars on my back.
I do not like his rooms. He keeps scrolls upon scrolls of notes about everything in the temple, from how much flour we use each month to schedules of how often the monks go beg for charity. I am certain there’s a scroll in there about me and my faults.
I stand in the doorway silently with my head bowed. He looks up anyway. When you’re as quiet as Baaun Oupom, I guess you hear every little sound.
“What do you want, Chananthay.” His voice is flat, and he looks back down at the wooden desk where he’s painting numbers on a scroll. “I doubt you have already finished cleaning the storeroom.”
“I…” I had planned what I was going to say, but my mind has gone blank. How do I say this in a way that doesn’t make him upset? He gets upset so easily. I put one bare foot on top of the other and twine my hands behind my back. “I heard the Face speak,” I blurt out.
With this he puts down his brush. “You what?” His eyes become snake slits and he gives me the coldest glare I have ever felt. I try to duck it and look down at my feet.
“I was just talking to myself after the Reason Ritual, when I was cleaning, and it answered!” I burbled. “It was an accident!”
“You have profaned the Temple, angered the Face, and have ruined centuries of our work.”
He could pierce me with his gaze, stab me through the heart and skewer me to the stone door frame. He stands up. I try to gulp, but my mouth has gone dry again and my tongue is sticking to the back of my throat.
He has a terrible look on his face as he walks towards me. I shrink towards the wall. “We have never killed a Temple Child before—”
My breath catches in my throat. They had though, the one before me.
“—not intentionally. And we will not begin today. But the lesson must be taught.”
I wish he had killed me. I don’t know if that is logical, but it is true.
When I wake up, I am in my own cot. The last thing I remember was Baaun Oupom’s fist slamming into my stomach. I groan. My stomach and chest feel as though everything inside has been kneaded like dough and crammed back in, and my hip feels like it’s in the wrong place. My right arm is too painful to move; it’s been bound tightly in a dull brown cloth from my elbow to my wrist. When I poke at it with my left hand, I feel a stiff piece of material—probably wood—that’s been bound in alongside it. It must be broken. My face aches, and when I prod it gently, I yelp in pain. It’s puffy, and one of my eyes is swollen nearly shut.
I try to imagine how Kiri or Kothal-the-clever or Sopoya would come in and comfort me, but the pain is so great that I cannot focus on the idea of friends. There are four hundred forty-five stones in the walls and ceiling of my room. I cannot count anything else from the bed.
I close my eyes and let the tears leak out, careful to not sob and jostle my throbbing ribs.
It takes me over a moon to heal enough to go back to my full set of chores.
There is no point in trying to talk to another monk about the Face or the flowers. Baaun Oupom has told everyone of my transgression.
There is no point in trying to get the monks to leave me alone. They check on me every few minutes.
There is no point in trying to run away again. I have been caught every time I’ve tried, when in better physical condition.
Everything is terrible, and I don’t know what to do.
But I can make candles and ask the Face what to do. For weeks, I save every drip of wax I clean up around the temple and the monks’ quarters. Once I have enough wax, I wait.
When we prepare for the next Reason Ritual, I am so slow in the candle workshop that Baaun Khemaban tells me in disgust that I have until dawn to finish and leaves in a huff. I have been slow anyway, with my arm still stiff, but I have made sure to be extra-slow today.
As soon as the moon is up I limp out to the frangipani orchard, to the tree I had marked the day before. I cannot use the broom as a crutch to climb, and it is difficult to even get to the lowest branches. Every movement jars my hip or my arm, and I need to stop several times to rest and let the pain fade. It is worth it though. I only need a few pink-centered flowers.
Back at the candle workshop I assemble them on a saffron-scented wick. Baaun Khemaban will not miss the amount of strongly-scented saffron wax it takes to make a single wick. I feel bad for stealing. The filler wax, at least, I have not stolen.
I have seen Baaun Khemaban pour the filler wax into the molds around the flower-laden wicks, but I have never done it myself. I take the collected beads and splashes of wax, scraped from wooden tables and stone floors and brick window sills over several months, and melt them in a small cauldron. The liquid wax is dirty and dark—I did not think to clean each drop. I hope it still works.
I am clumsy and my new candle is ugly, but it stands upright as it should and contains the right number of pink-centered frangipani flowers with saffron wax.
Hello Chananthay. How are you today?
I’m well. Look what I made!
I’m so proud of you. You’re quite clever too.
The candle is tucked into my sampot, beneath my belt. The folds of the orange cloth disguise its shape. After the Reason Ritual I take it to the same Face I had talked to last time—who knows if this Ritual’s chosen Face will be as kind.
I light the wick and settle down into a kneeling position, careful to hide the soles of my feet. The movement tugs at my ribs and hip unpleasantly. I wait a few moments for the pain to go away and for the smells of frangipani and saffron to fill the air.
“Hello,” I say, nervous. I have planned out what to say.
“Hello, Chananthay.” The Face’s lips stretch into a smile.
Should I say something about my injuries? Would it even care? “Is it alright if I ask you some questions? Not the official kind of Questions, just regular ones?”
The smile disappears. “If you must.”
I shift on my knees to reduce the strain on my hip. The stone floor is suddenly hard on my shins. I’d wanted to ask what I should do—if I should try to run away when I heal, or how I could get the monks to leave me alone. But it doesn’t sound like the Face is in a helpful mood. I don’t want to anger it, too.
I come up with another question to ask instead. “Um. Why do you give the monks Answers that are hard for them to understand? Is it because of the types of flowers in the candles?”
“Even if they use these better candles, the Answers they get are the Answers they want. Is that all?”
My mouth is dry again. The Face doesn’t look as kind as it did last time.
“Um, no.” I swallow. “You said you were lonely. Do you want to talk to the other Faces?”
The Face’s expression softens, and it smiles again. “Company would be nice, yes. Although it is quite peaceful without the others. We tend to argue. Despite what your monks might say, truth is rather subjective.”
I don’t know what subjective means, but I’m afraid to ask.
The Face continues. “I do appreciate company that does not badger me for the secrets of the universe. Otherwise it is not a very satisfying relationship. Very one-sided. I do not like your monks.”
The monks are still locked in their debate room.
“I don’t like them either,” I whisper. “They think I’m useless.”
“That is foolish. No person is useless. They are very narrow-minded.”
I let out a little giggle, which hurts my side. The Face gives me a wink.
“They also think I’m illogical,” I confide.
The Face snorts through its large stone nostrils. “They would, wouldn’t they.” It closes its eyes and takes a deep breath. “That is precisely the problem, you know. The logic. They believe that it’s the answer to everything.”
“Of course not! The truest search is the search for wisdom and understanding, yes? But logic is only one part of that. They’re missing the…I don’t know if your language has the right word for it. The humanity, I suppose.”
I giggle again. “But you’re not human at all!”
The stone crinkles deeper at the corners of its eyes. “Not like that, more like…it’s more than just facts about what is and isn’t true. There are things that are driven by love, compassion, friendship, morality…and they are just as important.”
I nod, but I don’t completely understand.
“If one farmer’s mango tree drops fruit onto another farmer’s land, who do you think owns those mangos?”
“Um. The first farmer, because they own the fruit from their tree? Or maybe the second one, because they own the fruit on their land?” I hang my head, feeling like I’ve disappointed the Face. “I don’t know.”
“There’s no truly logical answer to that question. The outcome will be determined based on the relationship between the farmers, the compassion they have for each other’s circumstances, and more.”
“Oh.” I still don’t quite understand, and I shift on the stone floor.
“Or this. Today, you offered to help me talk to the other Faces, asking if I was lonely. Logically, you should have not done so, as it looks like you were quite badly beaten from the last time you disobeyed. But it was still the right thing to do for you, because you placed a higher value on being kind than on your own safety. That humanity plus logic, that’s what gets to wisdom, the true understanding that your monks seek and will not find.” It smiles again. “And you are perhaps a little lonely too.”
I blush and nod. The Face is kind, I realize. And the way its eyes crinkle reminds me of my mother’s eyes when she laughed.
“You still have not given me a name.”
I think for a moment. “How about Saphanth? It means friend.”
“That will do nicely. Now we must be introduced.”
“Hello Chananthay. How are you today?”
It takes me even longer than before to gather enough wax to talk to Saphanth again, after I’d cleaned so thoroughly to make the previous candle. I have started to collect only pink-centered frangipani flowers for Baaum Khemaban’s candles and making sure nobody notices, so the other Faces get the same benefit.
Before I have enough wax for my own candle, it is already Saphanth’s turn in the Reason Ritual again. I hide in the hall again. Would the Face tell the monks about me? Even if we are now friends, it might let something slip.
The light coming into the corridor slowly grows as each of the fifty-five saffron and frangipani candles are lit and monks chant and pray.
“Oh, great Face,” Baaun Oupom’s voice floats in, “our most sincere apologies for the horrific transgression of our Temple Child. We have punished her accordingly.”
I can hear the faint scritch-scritch of a brush on a scroll—another monk is writing this down.
A pause. “Ah, yes, of course, oh great Face, you are all-knowing. Our Question is—”
“And I don’t like it. Chananthay’s a good girl. Much nicer than you lot.”
“Is this part of the truth pattern?” whispered Baaun Khemaban. “We know the wretched Temple child isn’t good.”
“Of course she is,” boomed Saphanth. “She is the only one who has ever asked what I wanted—a Question not just for her own benefit.”
My cheeks get warm, and I smile only until I remember that once the candles are out, I will surely be punished for this. The monks cannot be happy.
“In fact,” continued the Face, “I will only speak to her from now on. And I will make sure the other Faces do the same.”
“How can we judge if this is true?” Baaun Khemaban’s voice comes out in a sputtering whisper. “The phrase ‘from now on’ implies infinite time, meaning we can never know if this is true.”
“The Temple Child isn’t immortal. Therefore the statement is false,” comes Baaun Vichekh’s whisper.
“Unless the Face never speaks again after the Temple Child’s demise. We necessarily cannot prove this sentence true, only false if the Face speaks to anyone else again. Its current truth value is indeterminate,” replies Baaun Khemaban.
“Be quiet, you fools!” hisses Baaun Oupom.
“This is ridiculous,” says Saphanth. “Chananthay! Can you hear me? Come here please.” Its voice (his voice? Her voice? I realize I don’t know) rumbles and I can feel the vibrations through my bare feet.
I poke my head out from the corridor. The monks are clustered near Saphanth, prostrated on the ground and glaring furiously at me. I shuffle in and kneel as well.
“Ah, thank you Chananthay, my friend. No need to do that. How are you today?”
I get up, shakily. “I am well, Sa—” I almost say its name. “I am well, oh great Face. Thank you for asking.”
“I thought I told you to call me Saphanth.” It grins. “And how is Kiri?”
“What is this nonsense!” Baaun Oupom stands up as he yells. “Temple Child, what have you done?! Does your desecration know no bounds?”
“Chananthay, please tell your silly yelling monk that if he does not shut up I won’t answer any more Questions.” Saphanth winks at me.
I cannot disobey an order from a Face, and I try to swallow my smile. “Baaun Oupom, the great Face has told me to tell you that if you do not shut up it won’t answer any more Questions.”
The monk’s face turns purple, but he stays silent. After all, it is not my insolence—I was very careful to use Saphanth’s exact words.
“Chananthay, you may also tell the monks that if I find out that you’ve been mistreated in any way, I and the other Faces won’t answer any more Questions.”
I clear my throat. “Um, the great Face has told me—”
“We heard it,” snaps Baaun Khemaban. “Not that it can control the other Faces in any way. They’re isolated for a reason.”
“This is not so,” says Saphanth. “Now that Chananthay’s been putting better flowers in the candles for several months, our awareness has all grown. We can communicate with each other again through the walls, and we are all in agreement.”
I did not know that.
Saphanth winks at me again. “So Chananthay, we will play a game of pretend with Kiri and Sopoya and Kothal-the-clever. And if the monks are very, very good, and stay silent, afterwards I will let you say their Question and I will answer it.”
I blush again. “Kiri is as tall as a mountain, and we must invite him to dinner. But he’s too big to fit!”
“Ah,” says Saphanth. “We must feed him a magic potion of rambutan peels steeped in river water and sprinkled with spices under a full moon. It will let him choose his size however he likes!”
I hear the scritch-scritch of a monk writing down our entire conversation. I giggle.
“How wonderful! I will make fish amok served in coconut shells.” I move to the side and pretend to debone fish to put in pretend bowls.
“You must tell me all the steps you take for fish amok, Chananthay. You must be very clever to make such a complicated and delicious dish.”
The Face is smiling. The monks all look like they have each swallowed a large fish bone and it is stuck in their throats, but they stay silent. It takes an hour of pretend dinner preparations before we get to the Question.
The more the pink-centered frangipani candles are used, the longer the Faces stay awake. They keep me company during the day, and I can feel the rumbling vibrations in the stones at night when they talk to each other. I’ve given them all names—all thirty seven of them—but Saphanth is still my favorite.
The monks have learned what they need to do to keep the Faces cooperative, and treat me well. My hip will always be a little stiff, but the rest of me is healed.
There are eleven thousand, six hundred and fifty-two tiny soldiers carved in marble relief on the outer walls that ring Temple Tokh-Bathon, seventeen of which used to have names, though I barely remember anyone other than Kiri. I don’t need them anymore.
Inside Temple Tokh-Bathon, there are thirty-seven friends. And I am not alone.
About the Author
Effie Seiberg is a fantasy and science fiction writer. Her stories can be found in the “Women Destroy Science Fiction!” special edition of Lightspeed Magazine, Galaxy’s Edge, Analog, and Fireside Fiction, amongst others.
Effie lives in San Francisco, recently and upcoming (but not presently) near a giant sculpture of a pink bunny head with a skull in its mouth. She likes to make sculpted cakes and bad puns. You can follow her on twitter at @effies, or read more of her work at effieseiberg.com.
About the Narrator
Jen Albert is an entomologist, writer, editor, narrator, game-player, cosplayer, streamer, reader of All The Things, and haver of far too many hobbies.
Jen somehow became co-editor of her favorite fantasy fiction magazine and podcast; she now wonders if she’s still allowed to call it her favorite. She lives in Toronto with her very large, very hairy German Shepherd.