I’m hoping to get EEL’S REVERENCE reissued Real Soon Now, but I’m too busy writing this month to edit. heh.
by Marian Allen
I had the perfect sexton, until he went mad. Joseph had worked for my predecessor, and transferred seamlessly from working for Uncle Joseph to working for me, Aunt Libby.
“This is a temple of Holy Sweet Micah,” he said, when I complimented him on his ability to accommodate the changes in our styles. “It doesn’t matter how he’s venerated, just that his ways are followed.”
I held my temple in Makopah, the capital city of my native Arledan. Makopah is technically on the coast, but it sprawls eastward almost to the mountain where I was born, with a wildlife corridor from the mountain right into the heart of the city. The corridor meets Horseshoe Bay River, which bisects the city; Temple Street runs along the eastern bank of the river, with Makopah’s seven bridges and seven temples strung along it like beads on a necklace.
The geography is important, because it’s what showed poor Joseph’s madness.
It was a Seventh Year. Makopah was hosting the Seventh Year Symposium, a gathering of priests representing each of Makopah’s civic districts, with each temple a mini-symposium and dormitory of guest priests. There were three staying with me, and we sat up until nearly dawn on that first night, “talking temple,” as we call it, sharing stories of how we came to the priesthood, enjoying the fellowship.
It was the next morning that Joseph came to me and said, “I’m so sorry, Aunt Libby. There was a theft in the night.”
“A theft?” Theft wasn’t unknown, of course, even theft from a temple, but it was rare. “What was taken? Not something from our guests, I hope!”
“No, Aunt Libby, from the temple.”
Temples are always open, of course, so the theft would have been easy, even with all of us sleeping in the living quarters.
“They took the altar candles. The ones actually on the altar.”
“How strange!” Candles were one of Makopah’s main exports; they cost little enough that the poorest could afford the cheapest. “Perhaps they wanted nicer ones for a celebration. Or perhaps they did it on a dare. Young people do sometimes confuse naughtiness with courage. We have more candles; you keep us well stocked.” I smiled at him, confident in his perfection.
The next morning, the blow fell.
“I stayed up last night,” Joseph said, “and patrolled the grounds. I saw the thief carrying a net bag out of the back garden.”
“Ah, hungry, and too proud to ask for help. Well, you always grow enough to give away.”
“It was a mermayd! I went after it, but I tripped over a stone bench. When I got up, it was gone.”
All I could think of to say was, “Ah.”
Our guests were stirring, and Joseph needed to start breakfast, so I didn’t pursue the matter, but of course it never left my mind.
There were mermayds off the coast of Arledan, of course, and sometimes traded with merchants at sea and around the Bay. Sometimes they even came ashore in the waterfront district, their long and powerful tails propelling them along like snakes, but there could not possibly be one so far into the city. Horseshoe Bay River was fresh water. Mermayds, I had been told, could tolerate fresh water for a short time, but why would one risk illness and death to swim upstream from the bay?
The next morning, Joseph reported a more serious loss. One of my parishioners had donated a beautiful altar rug to the temple. Its thick plush made a lovely seat for the elderly, and its bright colors delighted the eye.
“The mermayd took it,” Joseph said. “There was a trail of water from the door. The floor was still damp all around, as if it had inspected everything, and the rug was gone.”
There was no other conclusion to be drawn: Joseph was mad. The rug was certainly gone, but I felt sure that a search of Joseph’s quarters would find it. Much as the loss might disappoint its donor, it was only a thing and so not a terrible loss, but the loss of Joseph’s sanity – not to mention the loss of a perfect sexton – was serious.
“We’ll sit up together tonight, shall we?” If I was with him, nothing would be taken, and he might talk his madness out to me, straightening whatever twist had gotten into his thinking.
“Thank you, Aunt Libby! Yes, please.” His relief suggested that he was aware of his delusion and welcomed release from it.
We didn’t talk, though. Joseph wanted us to patrol, but I convinced him we should settle in the temple. He was exhausted from lack of sleep, and I let him drift off, I covered him with a spare robe and folded another one under his head.
I had just begun wondering how best to handle his madness when I heard a peculiar noise from outside. Something was crossing the sand of the courtyard, but it wasn’t quite the sound of a step. It sounded like something being dragged, yet it wasn’t that, either.
I thought Joseph’s delusion must be communicable when the doorway filled and the altar candles revealed, yes, a mermayd entering the temple. It – I hadn’t yet met any mermayds, and hadn’t come to think of them as “he” – undulated toward the altar, reaching a webbed hand out to one of the candles.
“Hello, my dear,” I said, as I would to anyone.
It pivoted on its tail, dark eyes wide, arms raised for battle.
I didn’t know it then, but it was quite young, perhaps two years old, “barely out of the nurture pouch,” as I later learned mermayds put it.
“Don’t hurt me,” it said.
“Oh, my dear, I have no intention of hurting you.” I was a strong young woman back then, but I was never large or powerful. The idea of my hurting this strange being who seemed to be all muscle amused me. “Why are you taking things from the temple?”
“It’s the closest one.”
That made me laugh – quietly, so as not to disturb Joseph. “I mean why are you taking anything from any temple?”
It hesitated, eying the doorway.
“Please don’t run away,” I said. “Nobody is going to hurt you. If you tell me what you want, I’ll give it to you, if I can.”
“Of course I will.”
“I want to go home.” It drooped, coiling its tail around it as if it could take shelter there.
“How did you get here, my dear?”
“Swam up the river. At high tide, there’s a salt-water current deep in the channel. I thought it would be fun to see how far I could go. But I came too far. I got weak. Every day, I go down into the channel and I feel better, but I don’t think I can get far enough fast enough for the salt to be strong enough.”
“Where are you living?”
“There’s a cave that’s collected enough salt over time that it’s barely livable. There’s a shelf above water where I put candles. It’s very dark in there.”
The poor thing! Trapped in the dark, hungry, frightened, alone.
“But why the rug?”
“It’s pretty. It gives me something to look at. Something to touch. Please, will you help me?”
Of course I would help it. I was so giddy with relief that Joseph wasn’t mad, I would have helped it even if that hadn’t been what Holy Sweet Micah would have wanted.
The mermayd and I talked quietly until Joseph woke, then we explained the situation to him. The mermayd went back to his cave and retrieved the candles and rug while Joseph harnessed the temple cart. He drove our light-fingered visitor to the bay and was back in time to make breakfast for our official guests.
The perfect sexton.
MY PROMPTS TODAY: cave, convention/workshop, garden, the perfect man