The high priest’s hands shook as he poured himself a drink. Hezekiah hated this part of the job so much he hated the entire job now. How he wished God really did guide his hand as the villagers believed. He wished it weren’t simply his choice that would destroy a life forever.
It seemed much too soon for another selection. Hezekiah had finished interviewing the ten year olds of the village and was cloistered in his office. Everyone believed that it was here and now that God spoke to him, revealing the young soul that was to be burdened with all of their sins. He had believed that too, until he knew the secret.
When Hezekiah pursued the priesthood as a youngster all he saw was the close communion with God they had. Well, and the power. He was ordained at the top of his class and played every political game to get noticed, for the glory of God of course. His fellow priests were weak, they didn’t truly believe in the tithe of souls anymore and he knew it was the only thing that saved them. When the former high priest lay dying Hezekiah was called to the sick room and told that his certainty was being rewarded and he would be the next high priest-- the youngest ever. Hezekiah was overjoyed; his heart pounded so loudly in his ears he barely heard the secrets that were being passed on to him, the secrets that no one but the high priest could know.
The former high priest had whispered blasphemy in his ear. No high priest in memory had actually felt God’s hand or heard his voice in when deciding which ten year old to sacrifice to the tithe. Everyone had done the selection differently, some relied on complex mathematics, others did it alphabetically, and the dying priest had simply pulled names out of a hat. Hezekiah was instructed to put some thought into spreading the selection around; total randomness could result in hardship. For the first years Hezekiah took the choice very seriously. He tried to find any sign of sin in the small children in front of him, and would pray until his voice cracked that his choices were correct.
Now Hezekiah sat at his desk getting drunk. What had been a triumph, becoming the high priest so young, now seemed a cruelty; he had to bear this burden much longer than anyone else. After five years it began to choke him at every ceremony. After ten years he wanted to scream the secret to the rooftops and let it choke everyone else. God didn’t support turning some children into the bearers of their sin, branding them and casting them out. God was paying no attention to them at all.
After twenty years Hezekiah began to drink. Knowing that the central part of their faith was a lie, he began to test the rest of the rules that had been handed down. He ate forbidden foods, he took small things from the rich homes he was invited to, he met a woman he was attracted to and while he could not marry her, he made her his own. God did not strike him down. They had a son. Holding James filled Hezekiah with a joy he didn’t know could exist, that he hadn’t felt since the first days of his priesthood when he was sure of everything. But the child had to be kept secret; the punishment for betraying the vows of the priesthood was death.
Time moves on. He visited his secret family often. He began to simply pull names from a hat as the previous high priest had done, no longer caring what child he would condemn, removing their name from the register of births, casting them into non-existence.
Three times already in this year he had been forced to perform this ceremony, and there were not so many ten year olds left in the village. Hezekiah continued to drink as he wrote down the name of each child he had met with, and then tossed them all in a hat. He shook the hat once and then pulled out the name of the damned child.
James. His son.
Everything he thought he knew when he was young had turned to shit. Everything he had ever adored had been taken from him – his certainty, his god, his faith. He would not give up his son.
No one would ever know if he simply chose another name. No one would believe that he was protecting his own son. But he had relied on the simple chaos of choice for so long that it had started to seem like God’s will, and Hezekiah was afraid that pulling another name from the hat would damn him even more than everything that had gone before. It was a damnation too big to be taken up by the ten year olds they branded and sent to the woods, a damnation he knew he alone would have to bear. He threw the hat with all of the slips of paper to the ground, and cried himself to sleep.
The next morning Hezekiah stood in the public square, surrounded by the ten year olds he had interviewed. He searched for James in the crowd until he found him, nervously shifting from foot to foot standing next to his mother. Hezekiah stepped up to the pulpit carrying a hat full of slips of paper. Several people had tried to take it from him, but he explained to each of them that it was important.
Hezekiah began the invocation, which quieted the crowd. The long-memorized words soothed him. When he finished the crowd answered “amen” and waited. He stood looking at them, looking at his son, and looking at the hat in his hands. He had no idea what to say next.