Today begins the final week of Story A Day in May. It’s been a blast!
I’ve been writing stories this month based on books and stories I’ve previously published. Wednesdays have been set in the world of EEL’S REVERENCE (not about eels), which is currently out of print but is under construction for reissue. The previous stories in this month’s series have featured mermayds, a natural species in that world, not a supernatural one. Uncle Phineas, one of the major characters in the novel, has not been happy with being slighted, so I promised him that the final EEL story of the month would be all about him. I think I should have held out for a good, solid bribe, but he craftily pointed out that I would be taking money from one pocket to put it into another. I hate it when he’s right.
by Marian Allen
I almost feel I was born intending to be a “reiver” priest. That isn’t what we call ourselves, of course; we aren’t thieves. We’re simply priests of Holy Sweet Micah, like any other Aunt or Uncle of the priesthood. But, if one’s temple is especially luxurious or elegant, if one wears a cassock of the softest silk or the warmest wool, if one houses relics of Holy Sweet Micah’s life, if one’s parishioners feel … let us say “moved” … to give generously to one and to the temple, people call one a reiver.
Port Novo had one reiver priest when I came here to establish a parish. Aunt Bethany’s temple was tasteful and well-appointed, and everyone who was anyone in Port Novo attended. My arrival didn’t threaten her, which proves her a fool. Certainly, she was secure in her parishioners, but they had children, some of whom would inevitably prefer an alternative to their parents’ place of worship. I was content to take the scraps of her bounty. To begin with.
I established my parish near the waterfront, down amongst the merchants and seafarers, against Aunt Bethany’s advice.
“Dear Uncle Phineas! I do appreciate your establishing yourself outside my parish, but so far outside? Who will attend your services? Fisherfolk? Import-export businessmen? … Mermayds?”
I chuckled along with her, but those were precisely some of the parishioners I expected. Not the mermayds, of course, although I’d go against tradition and declare them people with souls if I thought it financially viable. What Aunt Bethany and her attendees didn’t understand, and I did, is that old money loves to be conserved, but new money loves to be spread around.
Two years passed, and Aunt Bethany no longer spoke to me. I was beyond the social pale, but I was very, very rich. My current project was a new temple.
“We ought to have,” I told my parishioners, privately and at temple gatherings, “a temple that fits us. Us, and only us.” Ah, the art of rhetoric! By “we” and “us,” I transformed my desires into their desires and their determined acquisitiveness into an engine for my success. By “ought,” I turned a wish into a perceived right that was being denied. By “only us,” I tailored Aunt Bethany’s leavings into an exclusive identity. And who dare force someone into an unfitting place? It was outrageous!
A few more subtle directions, and my parishioners reached the conclusion I wanted them to reach: The perfect location for “our” new temple was on The Outlook: a high point of land jutting out from the beach, well within the town limits and forming one hook of the bay that was the “port” of Port Novo.
What could be more appropriate for a waterfront temple than the spot where, since the town’s earliest existence, ship owners and sailor’s families had watched for longed-after returns?
My – our – only hurdle was the sentimental misstep by a former town council which had deeded the rock to the spouses, children, and parents of anyone signing articles of work aboard a Port Novo ship, the extent of the deed to end with the ship’s return or declaration of loss. It was a piece of blatant sentimentality that I found, quite frankly, disgusting. Ownership in the spot from which one could watch for a ship was hardly a guarantee of safety for that ship or for anyone aboard. Fortunately for me – I mean for my parishioners, of course – most of the owners felt the same way, especially when I offered them untithed membership in the temple that would be built there in exchange for their deeds of ownership.
Now, there was only one deed left to acquire, and it was proving more difficult than all the others combined.
“You can sit down,” the old woman said.
Her house was no more than a fisherman’s shack on a bluff above the sea. The table and chairs under the shack’s extended side roof were cobbled together from driftwood, as was, to all appearances, the shack.
I sat, thankful that the driftwood was polished to satiny smoothness by the sea and the wind, although the salt-spray residue wouldn’t do my cassock any good.
“I suppose you can have something to drink,” she said. She thumped her driftwood cane against the wall behind her and shouted, in a surprisingly strong voice, “Daff! Beer!” She sneered at me and said, “I s’pose you do drink beer, Uncle, or are you too holy for it?”
“I drink what comes to me,” I said. “Holiness doesn’t depend on what one eats or drinks, but on what comes forth.” I put a hand on my heart to indicate where I meant the forthcoming to originate, but the wicked old woman snickered like a naughty boy.
“What comes forth, eh? That’s about what religion is worth.”
A woman brought out two wooden mugs filled two thirds of the way with dark liquid top with a thin skim of foam.
“Be nice, Grandmam,” she said, clunking the mugs onto the table. She was thin and worn, wearing threadbare shirt and skirt and undertrousers. Her hands were red and callused, with short, ragged nails.
“Nice! Nice? Where’s your granddad, eh? When he comes back with that ship laden with riches that he promised to bring, then there’ll be nice. Until then, what has religion done for us?”
“My dear woman,” I said. “Please don’t tell me there’s been no priest come to comfort you in your grief and uncertainty! Please don’t tell me no priest has asked after your welfare, no follower of Holy Sweet Micah has shared labor or food or goods with you and your family!”
The old woman shifted uncomfortably in silence, but Daff said, “Plenty came and offered, but Grandmam wouldn’t have them.”
“I don’t take charity,” the old woman snapped. “I’m rich! Or I will be when that ship comes in.”
There are some arguments so old and established, they repeat themselves under any circumstances.
As if I weren’t there, Daff said, “That ship sailed thirty years ago! Dad’s been and gone, and my Michael’s been and gone! What good does it do you to pretend Grandda’s coming back? You can’t even go watch anymore, with your legs!”
The old woman drank her beer, pretending to ignore her granddaughter, but eying me over the edge of her mug with malicious challenge.
I drank my own beer, eying her back. The brew was weak and flat but full-bodied; it wasn’t at all bad, if what you want in a beer is liquid bread.
“Delicious!” I am not, as you see, above lying, when it harms nothing and might help achieve an important goal. “Who brewed it?”
“I do,” Daff said. “I can’t go out fishing anymore, ’cause for Grandmam, so I have to keep our bodies and souls together some way.” Her begrudging tone was the verbal equivalent of the beer.
Daff’s grandmother put down her mug and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “He owned the ship, so he left me the right to declare it lost, and I’m not doing it. He’s coming back with my treasure until I say he’s not. And I ain’t saying it. Not now, not never. And this girl is my only heir, and the only thing I have to leave her is ownership in that ship and the treasure on it, and the deeds go to her from me.”
She knew why I was there, of course. My agents had been there before me, returning with her refusal to assign her deed to me – to the new temple, that is.
I couldn’t offer her more than I had given the other deed-holders. Word would get around, and nothing will spoil a reputation faster than inequity in rewards for desired behavior. I could, however, make private arrangements.
“I pride myself on purchasing as much of the temple’s needs from my own parish and parishioners,” I said. “If you become members of my parish by granting me the honor of holding your deed to The Outlook, I’d be delighted to contract for whatever quantity of this excellent beer you can spare me, and at a generous price.”
The old woman cut her eyes at her granddaughter, but shook her head.
I said, “The new temple will need more than one domestic attendant. I’ll need someone who knows, oh, fish, for example; I’ll need someone who can choose the best of the catch offered to the temple kitchen. That person would live in the attendants’ quarters of the temple, itself. Or, if she preferred, in a comfortable home near the temple.”
The old woman laughed. “I was brought here as a bride, and I’ve raised and lost five sons and two daughters from here. This girl is the last of my blood. They’ll bury the both of us from this house.”
So spoke a woman from a culture not unaccustomed to outliving their children.
The “girl,” who was older than I was at that time, said nothing aloud, but her eyes spoke of utter weariness and longing. As if pulled, her head turned from me to her grandmother to the steep bluff not far from where we sat.
I’ve often wondered why I did what I did next, because it detracted from my profits just when I needed them most.
I rose and extended my hand in blessing. I kept it distant from the old woman I’d come to see, half afraid she spit on it or bite it off or both, but I touched Daff’s forehead.
I said, “Buying from my parishioners is my predisposition, but not an ironclad rule. I’ll send an agent to negotiate for the beer. You’ll be given a nice fee, should you find an especially fine fish for my kitchen. Take care of yourself, dear child, and take care of your grandmother. My offer of residence and employment has no expiration date.”
The shame on the girl’s face told me I had read her temptation aright, and that my intervention had relieved her of it, and that she was grateful to me for it.
Exactly the effect one would hope for.
It would, after all, take years to gather the funds and arrange for the workers, to plan the design and specifics of a temple carved from the living rock and built above it to a soaring height, to commission the furniture and decorations, and to consolidate the desirability of membership in my parish.
The old woman was strong, but I was patient.
I could wait.
MY PROMPT TODAY: Property deed