Hogan’s arms ached as he made his way up the ceremonial road to the temple. He had been ready for the fact that a pilgrimage would be arduous. Without struggle, it would be no proof of his faith. Dragging himself hundreds of miles on his wooden trolley, the stumps of his legs barely keeping him upright, had been the test of will he sought.
He had thought there might be some reprieve at the temple precinct. Instead there was a winding gravel avenue in which his wheels became constantly stuck, cherry blossom falling from the trees as he tried to force himself forwards.
Most of the other pilgrims looked away as they walked past, embarrassed at the sight of him. A few offered to help, and he tried to stay polite as he said no, this was his journey, and the priests had been clear that he had to make it for himself. In some ways, those conversations were worse, the pity on their faces reminding him of just how little he fitted in.
At last he reached the end of the path. With a final crunch of gravel, he rolled onto the smooth tiles of the temple forecourt. Too tired to drag himself up the steps to any of the roofed shrines, he sat staring at the statues, the places where the gods accepted prayers and offered miracles in return.
Looking around, a growing unease settled on him. Even here, he was alone. Every god was an image of bodily perfection, as judged by the eyes of sculptors and priests. All had two legs, two arms, two eyes. None were scarred or disfigured, none stooped or twisted.
He had heard stories of gods injured in battle or laid low by disease. Where were the signs of such suffering, never mind of gods born in different shapes, as Hogan was?
These statues were supposed to give everyone a sense of belonging, to open their hearts to the divine. Hogan felt nothing looking at them.
His arms had rested enough to move again, and so he rolled over to one of the blue-robed priests setting incense in a jar.
“Excuse me?” he said.
The priest looked down at him.
“Yes, my son?” she asked.
“Where are the other gods?” Hogan asked.
“There are no other gods,” she said with a tolerant smile.
“But I was told there were gods for everyone, from the humble fisherman to the mighty king.”
“This is true.”
“So where are the gods for people with no legs?”
She laughed, the sound like sand being ground into a wound in Hogan’s heart.
“The gods are perfect,” she said. “So are their bodies.”
“But these statues…” Hogan waved his hands and the incense smoke billowed around them, a sweet scent that made him want to cough. “How can I feel closeness to the gods through these statues when they are nothing like me?”
The priest nodded thoughtfully, and then smiled.
“There are broken statues in a clearing back there.” She pointed down the gravel road. “You could try praying to them.”
“I’m not broken!” Hogan had no energy left for patience. He was tired, aching and bitterly disappointed. He felt as if the whole world had betrayed him. “I’m not half a person. I don’t want half a statue to pray to.”
“Well really.” The priest folded here arms. “Is that the tone to bring to the holy of holies?”
Hogan gritted his teeth. She had at least been trying.
“Thank you,” he said, and set off back down the road.
The track leading to the clearing was made of the same thick soil from which the priests took clay for their statues. Hogan’s wheels became stuck in it, his hands filthy and slippery, but he pressed on.
At last he found the broken statues. They had been abandoned in a heap in the centre of the clearing, years of cherry blossoms rotting to a soft mulch around them. Someone had lifted a few out and set them up beneath the trees. There sat an old blind man with his young guide, as well as a woman missing half her arm. They smiled in welcome as Hogan approached.
“Imperfect gods,” the man said, running his fingers lovingly over one of the statues. “For imperfect pilgrims.”
The words snagged at Hogan’s heart. Was this really how the man thought of himself – as someone lesser than the rest? But the woman was nodding agreement. Maybe this was how they could fit in.
Hogan looked at the statues and tried to let their divine essence in, to feel the touch of faith. But there was nothing. Just a broken statue for broken people.
Trailing his fingers despondently in the clay mud, he scooped some up and rolled it idly between his hands. He had been looking at bodies all day, and almost without thinking he formed the clay into one. He gave it one leg and a whithered arm, a patch over one eye and a bent nose.
At last, something stirred in him. A feeling of recognition, and of seeing something deeper looking back at him.
He placed the figure on one of the fallen statues. The woman smiled, and as his guide described it so did the man.
“The perfect god,” Hogan said, “for perfect people.”
Together they bowed their heads in prayer, and finally Hogan felt that he belonged.
* * *
This story was inspired by a comment from Laura, who wondered if there were any disabled or impaired gods. It’s been wonderful to find that, even though we’ve separated, she’s still a great source of inspiration to me. Hope you enjoy this one Laura!