I slipped into the temple before the others and polluted the stores of sacramental wine. That morning, people at Ceremony expected it to be deep red, as usual. The orderly line of supplicants waited their turn before me at the altar. Perfumed smoke leaking from ornate metal containers softened the air. Since the old days, when I was a boy, the perfume filled Ceremony with such scented exuberance, people laughed recklessly and even burst into song. I still remember with a shudder those awful times when,in this very temple, old men and women held hands and pressed their faces together.
When I hoisted the great bottle and poured, instead of wine, a sickly orange-yellow slime oozed into the public chalice. The substance let off an incredible odor, like rotted meat. The devotee in front of the line went pale. Her eyes protruded. She backed away. "Wait," I shouted. As the rancid smell crawled through the crowd, horror spread over the faces, from the front to the back, in a wave. A few supplicants were gripping their noses and making for the door.
My heart hammered inside my chest. I couldn't lose them. I placed the bottle and chalice on the altar and bellowed, "Stop!" I forced myself to smile. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes tight, lifted the great jeweled cup, and drank deeply. When I looked, the crowd was frozen, scores of mouths hanging open. To my surprise, the wine tasted pleasant, and filled my body with a stream of warmth the normal wine never had. When I smiled this time, it was not forced. I felt wonderful.
In time, I was able to coax others, one by one, to try the new wine. Once the devotees did so, their eyes filled with a peaceful glow and their faith returned. Over the years I quietly reduced the number of incense burners until they disappeared entirely. No one noticed. It wasn't long before the people forgot the old wine and accepted the new. Even the wisest matriarchs and patriarchs, who I witnessed shamelessly holding hands in church when I was a child, whose eyes were once alive with vacuous wonder, who'd spent untold decades attending Ceremony, and who are still gods to the young, were fooled. For all the people, the odor is now a cherished part of the ritual.
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