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The High Priestess


                                * John Everett Millais, The Bridesmaid (1851) 

The High Priestess dwelled in a shrine flanked by the portals of Night and Day. When I approached, she told me that her power came from the borrowed light, which sustained her throughout every sleepless hour. Never once in her life did she yield to the hypnotic spell of sweet somnolence. Her steely gaze could penetrate through the densest of fog, the most blinding of sunbeam, and the murkiest of the mounting darkness. Even the wolves were terrified of her unflagging vigilance.

Every day she saw people, large crowds of people, streaming through the portals of Night and Day. Some youths would leap through the threshold of the portal of Day with their faces all rosy and jolly, only to be led out and blindfolded to the other portal, still laughing hysterically and completely oblivious of their imminent entrapment in a nasty prank. The High Priestess would prick her ears and wait. Normally, it wouldn’t be more than five repeated tollings of bell when the deceived were suddenly awake. They found themselves abandoned on a foreign land where the comforts of warmth never touched, where any moment they expected their wretched existence finally eclipsed by an approaching, unknown menace. One individual’s cry of desperation was muted by that of innumerable others. None of those painful sounds ever went unnoticed by the High Priestess, but, already made numb by their staggering regularity, she stifled without much ado any feelings or emotions that crossed her heart.

She also told me that she was forbidden from saving the unfortunate ones from their implacable misery. They were too many, she said, and it was advisable not to bother with those whose doom was already preordained. I was taken aback by this statement, addressed by one whose head was ever encircled by a luminous halo, who was regarded as the guardian of all souls, in a manner that was nonetheless so matter-of-fact, so callous. The High Priestess shrugged. There was no crime worse than that done in the name of Loyalty, she said, I knew not any values superior to that, this Loyalty. Even if that meant she was to assume a silent tree the rest of her life. The High Priestess devoted herself to the omnipresent One.

But there were still some less tragic prospects. The High Priestess remarked that the tears of the lost ones offered nourishments to the Land of Day as they were carried over by the winds. Those in the Land of Night wept only for a season; they were mostly dry-eyed before the next, crying no tears but continually emitting a few feeble groans of pain and protest. How the High Priestess would like them to know, even after they finally disentangled from their protracted death, that their suffering did not go unrewarded. Every time a stranger entered into the portal of Day he would notice immediately how the little kingdom was blessed by eternal spring. The charity was unreciprocal, however.


If the High Priestess could have her wish granted, she confided in me that she would like to fellow sleep. Sleeping was a privilege and luxury she was eternally denied of. The strange and magical sensation of dreaming, where one was constantly slipping in and out of consciousness, would be a potent remedy for one who has witnessed with her indifferent eyes so many forgotten tragedies. Through the sweet act of dreaming her soul would finally be unfettered, and became her ghostly other. She and her ghostly other would fly to the land of the ancient fathers. And there, she said, she could finally pay tribute to myriads graves without names.

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