The Last Child
He was five years old: too young to be asked if he wanted to undergo training as a temple novice. But even if he were asked, he would have said he didn't -- not that it would've mattered what he said.
Until he was old enough to be taken seriously, it was decided that he would attend school. The teachers were shocked to find out from the monks that he could already read and do basic maths at that age. It would simply Not Do to mix him in with the other preschoolers...why the lovely golden-haired dear would get bored!
So they lumped him in with the "primaries," or so they called children who were just starting to read, write, add and subtract. Said children could also move faster, speak more clearly, and pack a stronger punch...but that shouldn't pose any problems for the temple foundling. The temple foundling learned so quickly that they were _sure_ he would soon outgrow the awkwardness the age gap brought, and blend in.
Outgrowing the bruises and the insults was another matter. Moreover, it really wasn't the teachers' concern.
The other primaries were six or seven years old, and they acted like babies. When he simply couldn't stand around watching them make fools of themselves, he would step in and try to correct them, only to be pushed away, and none too gently.
Scratch that, it was always "shove," never "push." They were barely taller or larger-built than he was, but they found their strength in numbers.
"Just 'cause you know everything doesn't mean you can boss us around! You're no better than us, you don't even have a mom or dad!"
He absorbed that quickly enough: it made a huge difference that he didn't have a mom or dad. It somehow magnified his shortcomings and made him worth less than the other children.
For one thing, he had no one to cry to when the other children were teasing him. For another, it meant his fate was more or less set: he was going to grow up to be a lowly monk, or even a temple servant, fetching firewood and water for lowly monks until the end of his days. No parent was going to stop that from happening.
And he would never know how it feels to be hugged and cuddled and pampered and bought things. No amount of fistfighting and snide retort could change that.
School was hell. Come to think of it, he decided at the age of five, childhood was hell. He was going to grow up quickly and leave all this behind him. He was going to show them all that he didn't need a mom or dad, that he wasn't worth less. That his fate wasn't set.
But he couldn't help staring when the beautiful young adults came to take his tormentors home. Some of them would stop and smile down at him, and he would stand unmoving, marveling, taking in the warmth that flowed from those smiles.
How would it feel to ride on someone's shoulders like that? So high, it probably feels like flying. And that kind touch on his hair...how much warmer would it feel, he wondered, if _he_ was the one enfolded in those soft arms, if he could wake up to those smiles each morning?
The monks who came to take him back to the temple at the end of every day wouldn't even hold his hand. Some tried, but he didn't tolerate it. They didn't feel warm, they didn't feel like they even wanted to be there. They only did their duty, as he did his.
Everything in life was about putting up with either duty, or cruelty. Everyone felt the same.
One festival, the primaries were tasked to hold a choral presentation. Their parents were tasked to attend.
He hated presentations. Especially presentations on parent-children days. He made up his mind that he was going to become a temple novice, once he could be sure it meant escaping this nonsense.
And he really, REALLY hated that part at the end of the last song, when the primaries would run down from the stage, into the waiting arms of their parents. It didn't help that he never told anyone at the temple about this presentation, so no one was there to stand in the "parents" group and act as his "father."
He ached to go back to his room in the temple and study in peace. This farce wasn't for him.
To his surprise, as the parents were taking their positions below the stage, he spotted a certain face in the clump of moving heads that looked awfully familiar...
Recognition almost made him stop singing (or intoning, he really didn't give a damn what his voice was doing). Why was the old priest here? How did he know about the event?
The man had even come with a few monks, who were in the crowd watching the presentation, looking around nervously. For some reason, monks who hung around the old priest always seemed alert for danger...
The old priest was usually too busy to be bothered, according to the people at the temple. A lot of times, too, he was away "on an errand." And when he came back, he couldn't be bothered again.
...Not that he actually had any reason for seeking the old priest's company. Sometimes he simply needed to be in the presence of another human being, and it just so happened that the first human face to come into his mind was the old priest's.
They said the old priest was the one who found him in the river and brought him to shelter. And he seemed to be a very important man at the temple where he was growing up. That was all he really knew.
He cast another disbelieving glance at the old priest, who had taken his position among the parents. The old priest waved at him.
When the song ended and the children flowed off the stage in a swarm, careening into their parents' arms, he stood still, not knowing what to do. He had planned to get off the stage and walk in a direction opposite to the "parents" group, then go back to the temple, enter his little room, shut the door, and spread out his practice scrolls, pretend the embarrassing event had not happened.
But there was the old priest, gazing expectantly, and somewhat questioningly, at the last child left onstage -- head tilted slightly to the right, lips half-open, looking a worried kind of stupid; the only person in the group who wasn't swinging a child in the air, or kneeling in the dust showering a child's face with happy kisses.
Completely lost, he couldn't fight his gaze from wandering over to his teachers, who were gesturing to him to go toward the old priest. The monks in the crowd were making the same urgent motions with their hands and it wasn't just himself who had started to look ridiculous.
Suddenly, the old priest smiled and opened his arms.
Without hesitation, without even thinking, he jumped offstage and ran into the old priest's embrace.
Relief, above everything, flooded into his little body. And he felt warm.