There are three rules you need to remember when you get there.
The first one is easy, because they’ve got it on a gold plaque up on the wall of the visitor centre. Yeah, no shit – they have a visitor centre about halfway up the mountain. It’s nothing fancy: just a few old couches, a coffee machine, and a tea station. A few brochures here and there about what they’re all about; some of the charity work they do with the communities and townships which ring the base of the mountain. I’d say the building is probably about fifty years old. The plaque is right by the door – you can’t miss it – and it’s a nice little reminder of rule number one: you can’t look at any of the priests in the eye.
I don’t know why, honestly; I think it’s just a respect thing. It’s what they believe.
Not that it’s hard to obey that rule, to be honest. The priests aren’t actively trying to make eye contact with you. Most of the time they’re looking down at the ground while they move around the temple.
Church, sorry. They call it a church.
Anyway, the site itself is about half a mile further up the mountain from the visitor’s centre. There are some old stone steps which take you all the way up. Honestly, the structure itself is almost worth the price of admission alone. It’s stunning. Have you ever been to Barcelona, seen that Gaudi cathedral? La Sagrada Familia? You have to, if you haven’t; it’s something else. This church is like that – rooted in familiar architectural forms, but different, unique. It’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen, I promise you. It comes right out of the face of the mountain, and it’s made of the same brownish-reddish stone. It’s all spires and columns and archways and sculptures, all of which seem to be carved right out of the face of the mountain. There’s a central kind of monolith or minaret – I’m not really certain on the terminology – which juts out at an angle above the main doorway, which is enormous. It’s spectacular. Beats me who built it. It’s certainly much older than the people who now occupy it, that’s for sure.
No, you don’t see it in the tourist books. Or online, for the most part, unless you know where to look. It really is an undiscovered spot, which adds to the allure of the whole project, doesn’t it?
I digress. The rules! Yes, you aren’t to look any of the priests in the eye. You’ll see them as soon as you mount the stone steps and walk into the church. It’s cavernous in there – more so than you would think, even from the enormity of the construction from the outside. It’s like you’re standing in a concert hall, but carved out of that strange red rock. There are dozens of priests in there, wearing shabby grey hooded robes, shambling around doing God knows what. It’s all a bit eerie, truth be told, but the eccentricity is part of the charm, I think. The point is that what they’re doing up there is real. At least to the extent you and I should care about it.
There are titanic bookshelves lining the walls of the interior, and priests clambering up them on spindly thin ladders. It would be quite a comical sight, if not for the seriousness of the whole thing. One of them will get to a shelf and pull one of those old tomes out and read it briefly, skimming the pages. If it’s not the one he or she is looking for, they’ll slip it back it in and keep going, looking for more. Isn’t that odd? Who knows what it is they’re trying to learn, or what those books contain. They’re very old – you can tell from looking at them, even at a distance. It would be quite a collection for a museum curator or university type to pore through. I bet they’d find some books considered lost for decades, maybe centuries.
You just need to keep walking straight through to the next chamber. Pay your respects, be humble, stay nice and quiet. Like I said: they’re onto something up there, even if the particulars of how they celebrate it might be a little kooky, a little arch. I’ve always said that most religions have a grain of truth to them somewhere down the line. Take Christianity, for example. I don’t pretend to find much of it compelling, but there’s a nugget of something in there. Think about it: it was basically a love cult which fundamentally changed the way a huge portion of the world thought about one another and themselves.
That’s real, right?
It doesn’t matter if you actually believe in God or not. I feel the same way about this church. If Christianity has one slice of the reality pie, Islam has another, then Judaism, Hinduism, whoever… then our friends on the mountain have theirs too. A much bigger slice than the others, if you ask me.
I don’t know what that pie looks like in totality. Maybe I wouldn’t want to know.
The second rule is a little more difficult, but everything I’ve read suggests that it’s very important. You need to clear your mind.
That sounds like Zen bullshit, I know.
Trust me on this one. When I say clear your mind, I mean you just need to empty it of the nonsense, the pointless stuff. You don’t need to be a fugue state or anything like that. Just stop thinking about all the boring garbage in your life: all the crap you’re putting up with at work; the stuff with your wife; whatever shit your kids are heaping on you. All of that – gone. Just think about yourself in the moment, and the place around you. I’ve read that if you take all your hangups into the antechamber, it can really fuck with the whole ritual. It might still work, but it’ll be diluted, if that makes sense. And trust me: once you have it done, you’d be pissed off if it didn’t work to its full potential. It’s no small thing to put yourself through.
So. You come through that main hall through the arched doorway into the antechamber, which is a much smaller and more ornately decorated room. It’s quite beautiful, albeit a little strange. Trust me, you’ll never see sculptures like the ones in there as long as you live.
The first thing you’re going to notice is the sound.
See, when you’re out in the main hall, you can hear something. I can’t really describe it, but it sounds like the hum of a fridge, only much, much louder. It reverberates around the chamber, almost to the point of being deafening. I don’t know about you, but I’d find it annoying as hell if I had to listen to it all day. The priests don’t seem to mind much.
But when you get into the antechamber you realise it’s not really a hum – the echo just makes it sound like that. It’s more like a skittering noise, like someone is dumping tonnes and tonnes of Lego into a big plastic bucket. You can imagine that, right? It sounds like it’s coming from deep within the mountain, and you’re hearing it through the walls.
Waiting for you in the antechamber, provided you made your booking correctly, will be the high priest. Now, you can forget rule number one for this guy. You can look the high priest in the eye. He’s fine with it.
He’s an intense, but also calming, presence. He reminded me of those academic types you see on Antiques Roadshow. The stuffy Brits who have to tell old women that their cherished pewter vases are actually from Yorkshire, not Babylon. It’s hard to place how old he is, but he hasn’t been the high priest forever, that much I do know. One forum I read said the last fellow didn’t even meet any prospects face-to-face; he let his underlings do it for him. This would have been ten or so years ago.
When you meet him, you get the profound sense your life is about to change.
He’s very comforting, though. He takes you into a little room off to the side where you can’t hear that infernal skittering, and he counsels you for a little while. My session lasted about an hour or so. He’s very clear from the outset that he knows you likely aren’t a true believer in their church, and that he does not mind. He says they consider it their duty to share their treasured secret with anyone who is willing to make the journey to them. He will warn you, as he did me, that it is a terrific burden as well as a blessing.
Well, he got that much right. It is a burden. But the blessing is immeasurable. Think about it logically. What’s losing ten, fifteen years? Imagine living another forty beautiful, prosperous, painless years on this planet, as opposed to fifty miserable ones? To me it isn’t even comparable. That’s a deal I would make again a thousand times.
There are other minor issues. Almost nothing, in the grand scheme of things. But I’ll get to that.
The grand priest will also warn you that they do not, as a collective, issue guarantees or promises. Of course, the general understanding goes that you will be protected for the rest of your days, and that anything you desire – within reason, of course – will be granted to you in due time. I’ve found that to be more or less accurate. And everyone I’ve read about who has undergone the same process attests to that as well. But the church cannot promise it. It’s almost like reading the disclaimers on a contract, really. Regular small print stuff, just delivered with a little more mystique.
He will tell you that safeguarding this place is the church’s sacred duty, and it has been their mission for millions of years.
Yes, he does say millions. No, I don’t think that’s right either. I sense there’s a degree of theatricality to their creation myth. Just go along with it. I nodded through it like an obedient little acolyte.
Soon enough, he’ll finish his spiel and you’ll walk back out to the antechamber and down the hallway. It gets very narrow in there; almost so narrow you have to twist your torso to fit through the gap. As you wind deeper into the belly of the mountain, that sound gets louder and louder and louder. The skittering clicks become more discrete, and less of the impenetrable wall of sound heard in the other chambers.
The heat is immense, too. Unbearable, almost. It’s a wet heat, like the kind of moist earth termites thrive in. It’s a heat you feel in your lungs, like the air itself is warm bread.
After a time, you’ll both find yourself in the central chamber. Now, this is the point where some people back out, or so I’ve read. I can understand why: the atmosphere veers quite quickly from eccentric to… well, threatening. The room itself is circular, and the spheroid ceiling is pockmarked with perfectly round holes. Through those holes glows a dark red light, which seems to throb and pulse to some unspoken and unheard rhythm.
No, I can’t imagine where the light comes from. But it certainly provides a sort of cultish energy to the proceedings. Especially the way it looks reflected on the altar.
Well, it is a church, isn’t it? It has to have an altar. This one is beautiful, skilfully carved from a kind of deep black stone. I suppose it’s marble or something like that, but it looks like no material I have ever seen. The way it seems to undulate under the red light… you’ll have to see it for yourself. I can scarcely describe it.
Now, some people say that they see shapes and figures moving through those circular portals in the ceiling. I can’t say I did. Nonetheless, it goes without saying that something is inside the mountain, or I wouldn’t be telling you this story. There’s something living in there which is very old, and utterly unlike anything else within the scope of our perception and comprehension.
Accounts vary as to what it might be. Someone wrote quite a lengthy screed on a forum I was reading suggesting it was some kind of alien being which surfed down here on a meteorite millions of years ago. There’s a sizeable portion of the community who don’t have such a cosmic view of things, electing to believe that it’s some kind of force or energy which has been here since the Earth was a ball of molten rock hurtling through the void. The church obviously thinks it is a god, or God himself. The only point of consensus is that there is likely only one of them. One mature entity, that is.
Personally, I don’t really know what to think, and nor do I particularly care. I care about results. Whatever you think, I’d really urge you to keep your head about it. Don’t chicken out at this point, or you’ll spend the rest of your life regretting it.
The high priest will make his way towards the altar; he will place his hands upon it and say a small prayer. When he is counselling you, he speaks in perfectly fluent English, but he does not pray in English. Instead he speaks in a language I have heard nowhere else: a thick and low vernacular which comes from the depths of the throat and seems to only brush the tongue on exit. It is not a pleasant sound. But again: these are their customs, and we have no choice but to respect them. We’re guests.
Ah, I forgot to mention one crucial part of the room. In the centre, directly above the altar, a kind of conical tube extends downwards, stopping about two metres or so above the flat surface. It is a hollow tube, or so I am told. In my discussion with the high priest, he gave a single clear instruction to me: whatever I was to do, I could not look up that tube. He warned me that doing so would throw the whole thing off, and that it might be harmful.
I didn’t need to be told twice. You get the sense when you’re in the church that curiosity is immediately and harshly punished.
So. This is the part that most don’t believe, or at least refuse to accept. They’re usually right on board with my story until I get to this part, and then they’re out; no longer interested. I don’t quite blame them, though I do pity them.
As the high priest continues his chant, something comes down the tube. You can hear it. Among the clicks and skittering, you can hear something wet working its way downwards. Slimy. It’s a slow journey down the pipe and, if you’re like me, you’ll spend most of it contemplating why you didn’t spend your airfare on a trip to Hawaii, or Ibiza, or anywhere really.
The funny thing is that it actually turns out to be something of an anticlimax.
It’s almost comical when it falls out of the opening and lands on the altar with a wet thwack. Of course, there’s nothing comical about the organism itself, whatever it is. It repulses you just to look at. About two feet long and fat as a grub, pearlescent white. Segmented like a caterpillar. It has a cluster of eyes, hundreds of them, radiating out on its ‘head’ in strange concentric circles. No mouth that I could discern, but it still makes a horrible mewling vocal noise as it squirms and slaps around on the altar like a freshly caught fish.
Hmm? Yes, this is the thing I talked about. The trade-off. Obviously a lifetime of good fortune doesn’t come free. You do your bit for the church, and they do their bit for you.
The high priest will beckon you forward as he takes the creature between his hands. Maybe you’ll get a more placid one, but mine didn’t like that at all. It screamed, a sound unsettlingly close to human, wriggling around, looking like it was ready to squeeze its way out of the priest’s hands.
Now, this brings me to rule three. Practically speaking, this should be rule number one, purely in terms of travel logistics. You need to have an empty stomach.
It’s not really known whether having a full stomach actually ruins the ritual. But everything points to the fact that it at least makes it terribly uncomfortable. You want to be running on empty before you reach the visitor centre – there’s a good reason there are no biscuits at the tea station.
My advice is simple: close your eyes, open your mouth, and let the high priest do the coaxing. There’s little to no risk that it won’t ‘take’, so to speak. You will come to learn that the human oesophagus is remarkably pliant when it needs to be. Don’t worry about the gut, by the way. It will settle in a couple of days. You won’t look pregnant forever.
The taste is difficult to forget, I will grant you that. Like spoiled eggs and loamy earth.
But that’s it. The ritual is complete. The high priest will say a few prayers to you as he lets his fingers roam lightly over your chest and stomach, both in that disgusting glottal tongue of his and a also in plain English. Not that you’re likely to understand even the English. It’s all star spawn this and awakened from dream-sleep that. On and on about dead cities beneath the earth rising from slumber. Mumbo jumbo.
You’ll be happy to step back out into the bright light of day, weather hopefully permitting. Then you can hike your way back down and get on with your life.
Just remember: it’s not an instant kind of magic or anything like that. You might not sense anything immediately. You might even think it didn’t work. But you will notice it over the coming days. The way the universe seems to bend subtly in your favour. Your bus is never late. There’s always sales on when you’re at the store. Your boss is suddenly generous with promotions. People look at you differently, in a good way. You never get ill. You quickly forget what it’s like to feel pain. You’re always experiencing a sort of low-grade euphoria. It’s like reality itself is going out of its way to accommodate you.
Or, perhaps more accurately, your cargo.
Now, there are some side-effects. You can feel it stirring in there sometimes. Not often, but enough to be mildly alarming. I suppose it’s like when a baby kicks, but this baby doesn’t have feet.
At least, I hope it doesn’t.
I’m not trying to scare you, by the way. I’m just being realistic about what this procedure entails. I think you’re mature enough to make a considered decision, with all that in mind.
The dreams are also troublesome. I would say the dreams are possibly the only part of my life these days I would describe as bad. It’s always the same one, actually – perhaps we can compare notes when it’s all done. I’m stumbling through narrow streets and alleys of a vast and ancient megalopolis carved from that red-brown stone. The city itself emerges like a mountain from an ocean of sand. I’m terrified, like I’m being pursued by something behind me, though I never see what it is.
I run up the stairs in a narrow tower, hearing that infernal skittering rattling up behind me.
When I reach the top, unable to flee any further, I can finally see across the desert to the sun, which hangs low across the horizon like a gigantic egg. Far larger than the sun here.
Then something lurches from beyond the sky and eats the sun. Gobbles it all up. I can never see what it is, other than it is huge, bigger than anything my mind could dream up if I tried.
Then I’m awake. Strange, isn’t it?
I’ve kept you too long, haven’t I? You have a plane to catch.