Streams of Conscience
The Tanu live in a hilly land with few rivers
but many streams, the voices of which can be heard day and
night, from hilltop and forest, in the backs of
conversations and interjecting themselves into thoughts.
The Tanu streams talk incessantly, in fact. And the streams
hold no secrets, say the Tanu, because for streams thought
and speech are one and the same, with no filter to divide
the two, no intermediary to convert one to the other. This
explains their purity; the streams live with a clear
conscience because they bare their souls every moment of the
day. Confession isn’t the word for it, since the streams
never for one second let a word or deed weigh on their
souls. Anyway, since they spend the day speaking their
thoughts, they have no time to sin.
Some Tanu wish the streams would shut up.
“Talk, talk, talk,” they say. “The streams should find
something better to do. They should be quiet for just a
minute and take in the view.” But the Tanu who complain
this way often have guilty consciences, and for a Tanu with
a guilty conscience, the talk of the streams sounds a lot
like an accusation.
Most of the Tanu find the talk of the streams
soothing, the cooing voice of mother to child. When they
feel bored or despondent, they find a private spot beside
one of the many streams and are healed there by the voice of
the stream, gurgling, cooing, bubbling its every thought.
They stare into its pure soul, at the fish and the frogs
that swim in it, and the words of the stream wash over them
and refresh them like a bath. But when they are guilty,
they stay away.
The guilty must live with the weight of their
guilt, swelling more each day, until they are called before
the village water-priest. The priest has the power to turn
people into streams. He will call you in when your symptoms
are brought to his attention: long, pointed silences, heavy
steps with a hanging head, and a fear or loathing of the
limpid voice of the streams. Sometimes the priest observes
for himself, and sometimes the symptoms are brought to his
attention. Sometimes, when a theft or an adultery or some
other crime is committed, the priest is told in advance what
to look for. The offender may at first cover his symptoms
well, but the priest watches patiently. Sooner or later,
the offender’s head sinks a little lower and his steps grow
a little heavier and the few times he speaks his voice falls
to the ground, weighted with guilt. Then the priest knows.
Still, he waits, and waits more, until the offender’s guilt
has become so heavy he’s willing to submit to the pain and
terror of the transformation—anything, as long as the sludge
of guilt is scrubbed from his soul. And then the priest
sends his messenger.
When you are called before the water-priest,
your skin begins to tremble, like a stream, and your words
become babble, like a stream’s, and drops of water flow from
your forehead, each like a tiny stream. But the final
transformation takes place only on the priest’s command.
You enter the priest’s hut and kneel before him. For some
people, this moment results in a loss of bladder control,
another sign of the transformation.
“Priest,” you say, “my soul is clouded with
sin and I have concealed it with silence.”
“Your silence has been felt in the village,”
says the priest. “It is a heavy rock on all of our
“Forgive me,” you say.
“Your forgiveness will come only from a
cleansing,” says the priest, “and a cleansing will come from
At that, the priest steps forward and rubs
your cheeks. If you didn’t lose bladder control before, you
surely will now. For now you know the transformation is
taking place. Your limbs become liquid, so that someone
must hold you up. Your entire body becomes soaked in your
own fluids. And then the burden of silence is released and
your words flow endlessly, so that everything once closed
within you is released in a flood of words, of secrets and
confessions, of brilliant and foolish thoughts, of idle
chatter and endless babble, of gossip and blather,
chit-chat, prattle, and palaver, tittle-tattle, malarkey,
and buncombe. It all comes out, both nonsense and poetry,
cleansing your soul. Sometimes the cleansing takes just a
few minutes and sometimes days. You talk and talk as the
priest listens closely, not so much for the meanings of your
words but for the texture of your voice, which is a sign of
your soul’s clarity. When the priest is satisfied that your
voice is that of the pure streams, babbling nonsensically
but also calmly and clearly, he pours a small vial of water
over your head.
“Behold,” announces the water-priest to the
fascinated observers, “his soul is cleansed, and he who was
once heavy is now light. He who was once guilty is now the
purest among us.”
And then you collapse and are carried back to
your hut ceremonially, by those who consider it an honor to
do so. You sleep longer and deeper than you’ve ever slept,
and when you awake it is to a world of lightness and
perfection, in which the babble of streams calls to you like
the voice of an adoring mother. You run to the nearest
stream and bathe naked in its waters, your thoughts so light
they are swept away unformed. And for a while, at least,
you are part of the stream.