“The Missing Idol” Horror by Dan Bornstein

It was desperation, not faith, that brought me to this temple. I had nowhere else to turn when I decided to make the pilgrimage, and I knew that only the Hundred Idols could possibly save me—whether I believed in them or not.

I spent half a day walking up the mountain. It was early in the afternoon when I arrived at the gate. A kind old man received me there. He was my appointed watchman, and after we exchanged a few greetings, he showed me inside and led me to my room. There I took a bath and rested for a while, until the watchman knocked on the door and called my name. We left the building and walked together to the sacred garden that was the home of the Hundred Idols.

The garden covered an expansive area and was separated from the rest of the temple grounds by a stream with a short wooden bridge over it. The watchman was careful not to step on the bridge; he told me to take off my shoes and cross it alone. On the other side there was total stillness. I was the only thing that moved or made a sound in the garden. The idols were scattered everywhere under trees and among rocks. I had to go up to each and every one of them according to the prescribed order, prostrate myself on the ground, recite the official prayer that the watchman had taught me, and then add my personal request at the end.

The idols were humanlike statues made of smoothly finished stone, all in various seated positions. With their agonized faces and gaping mouths they looked like the victims of an epidemic in death throes. It felt ridiculous to expect these grotesque sufferers to have the power to save anyone. But I was not in a position to entertain such doubts. I started walking from one idol to the next, praying, begging for a sea change in my life, while keeping careful count to ensure I didn’t miss any of them. But after the ninety-ninth idol I was suddenly at the bridge again and the watchman congratulated me on my return. I was embarrassed at his enthusiasm, and immediately told him about the missing idol. I apologized and said I must have skipped one on the way, or perhaps miscounted how many I had faced. But he just laughed it away, saying that such a mistake would have been very unlikely.

The following day was devoted to a nauseating repetition of the same process every two hours. After crisscrossing the garden several times, I was certain that there were indeed only ninety-nine idols. At some point I mentioned this to the watchman and asked him where the hundredth idol was. His reply was: You should not ask anything about the idols; asking is a sign that your self-reliance is still fighting for its survival, and the idols don’t help those who try to help themselves; you must persevere until the actual number no longer matters to you.

It took me two more days of the same routine to reach that indifferent state of mind in which there was no counting, only walking and praying. Much of the praying, however, was for the whole ordeal to end. I felt my confidence slipping away and was sure I was about to fail. But then, on the fourth evening of my stay, the watchman took me to see his superior, the watchmaster, in his private quarters.

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As soon as I entered the room the watchmaster greeted me with the news that I was in fact on the cusp of salvation. He invited me to have dinner with him. It was a sort of feast, with me as the guest of honor. I sat at the table and the watchmaster served me a curiously flavored drink in a silver goblet. When I had emptied it we proceeded to the meal itself. We spent about an hour eating and chatting. He wanted to know everything about the circumstances that had pushed me into the arms of the Hundred Idols, and I described the darkness of my life as if I were already looking at it from outside, from the safety of daylight. Then it was time to leave, and the watchman was summoned to take me downstairs. I thought I was going to bed, but he was taking me outside again.

The garden was lit with burning torches that were planted in the ground at even intervals, forming a route that connected all the idols in the familiar order. Now the idols were covered in black sheets, and following the watchman’s instructions, I faced each of them in silence and without any action. When I had moved past the ninety-ninth idol the route curved back into the garden instead of leading to the bridge as usual. I followed it into a thicket where it ended abruptly with one last torch.

I began to feel exhausted. At first, I thought it was because of the long day, or because I had had too much to eat. But it was rapidly getting worse, and I had to lean on a tree to keep myself steady. As I tried to catch my breath, I heard a soft voice asking me if I wanted to sit down. I turned around and saw the watchman emerging barefoot from the shadows. Yes, I said, I am too tired to stand. He held my hand and supported me while I sat on the ground. Then, when I no longer had the strength to resist, much less to escape, he finally told me the truth.

Now we are simply waiting for the inevitable. The smooth stone surface is relentlessly creeping upward, liberating more and more territory from my unhappy control. Soon enough the missing idol will make its appearance, but only the watchman will still be here to see it.

Dan Bornstein is a language specialist in Japanese and a writer of speculative fiction, poetry, and essays. His work in English has appeared, among other places, in Daily Science Fiction, Star*Line, and the anthology book Lay Buddhism and Spirituality. His personal website is danbornstein.com.

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