It was cold. Not that I nor any other noticed it that day. It was always cold there. Even when the sun was burning brightly through a hole in the clouds overhead, forcing us to dress lightly to ward off the sweat, still, it was cold. It was not the weather that gave the town its chill. It was not even the treatment of the town government (my father, the major, was bright and cheerful and caring towards his people). It was a general, yet unspoken, consensus that the town, with its long history of war and famine, was due the same dreary respect reserved only for morbid events such as funerals and tax collection day. There was rarely an odder sight to a stranger of our town than we civilians avoiding the small streams of sunlight and favoring the dark shade of awnings and alleys.
There was a huge fire in the center of the town square that constantly burned with a different citizen assigned to it daily, feeding and burping it like a gigantic, dangerous baby. It was my turn to babysit our Monument. Like our traditions dictated, the fire was allowed to die down before the forbidding tendrils of Dawn pinked our skies.
In a barrel beside the fire was a fine, white powder and a case of thin slips of a paper-like material. I nodded to the last Watcher, a middle aged man bearing a stretched countenance with clean, sharp lines as if a monster of a crow had grabbed and pulled roughly at it until either the crow died from the effort or his facial muscles finally snapped from the strain.Or perhaps both, I thought as he handed me some powder wrapped in the paper. He bowed before me and left quickly so I could perform my duty.
As the sun's face began to show itself over the tops of the oak-paneled chapel, I glanced quickly around and snapped the powder package into the small flickers of the flame. A sudden inferno shot into the sky and covered the sun's might with the comfort of black smoke.
Though the town glowed brightly with the intensity of our safety net, I felt no warmth. I did feel a singular like from the fire caress my face, but there was no heat behind the attack, and my skin was left unblemished. From the church came a procession of men carrying coffins. There were three that day to feed our crackling defender. Only in death could the fire harm our bodies so it was natural that, in death, we gave ourselves to the flames. The young pastor of the church, a stranger to our centuries old customs, had once tried to put out our fire and send our dead to a "proper crematorium", but our elders reminded him that they allowed the Christian faith. That silenced his pleas for reform.
I was not a member of the church, though my father was a deacon. I was stuck in the old ways which set me at odds with the young minister. My father was set on marrying us, but the preacher refused to mix yokes with a "pagan priestess with an affinity for damning curses".
He was incorrect in his statement of course. I was still three years from earning the right to be a priestess, not considering the fact I had to wait until my current priest, Nagy, returned to the flames. We didn't consider ourselves pagan either. Our religion, if it could be called that, was devoid of deities. Our heaven was a permanent safehouse from the blinding sun, a place under an eternally changing moon. Hell was the sun.
Before the pastor moved into our town from a strange city, there was a single Christian living amongst us. He claimed to feel warmth, and I once watched his skin be damaged by the Monument. After the chapel was built and the Wooded Church established, the converted Christians lost their chill and were hurt by fire. Father even stood in a sunbeam untouched while I was held, blinded, in his arms. It took me three days in Nagy's care in the dark Thinking Room to regain my sight.
On the day everything changed, the number of Christians seemed to double. The Old Ways were dying with our elders, and only a handful of youth, such as myself were willing to step up to fill their places.
Hobbling through the gloom, Nagy came with his arms full of firewood. With a toothless grin and a sparkling wink, he dropped the wood into a small pit next to the Monument. "It is always good to see one of my own tending our Flames," he whispered to me as I reached from a log. I weighed it in my hand; it was small but sturdy, and I tossed it into the fire. The Monument burped more black smoke.
Nagy wore the tradition robes of our priests. Black cloth folded delicately so he could move without wrinkling it. A red sash tied around his waist, and from this hanging on strings of darker red, were the tools of our trade.
I turned back to the Monument, "Brother Nagy, why do they," I motioned to the church where the pastor stood in the doorway to watch us, "cling to the light of day?"
Nagy dipped his hand in the Monument, orange flickers playing between his pale fingers. "They cannot see the beauty of night, Anne."