Priests can get our noses out of joint, and old women still have our pride. I’d been a priest of Micah for 68 of my 82 years and a woman for all 82 of them. When my congregation began drifting away to the flashy new temple down the street, something snapped. If my parish wanted a new priest, I wasn’t going to stay and hang on by my nails.
I announced my intention of going on a Final Wandering, dismissed my sexton, and said goodbye to my temple, my plants, my parishioners. I closed my woodland retreat, released my wolves from our devotion, posted my temple as vacant, and started walking. North, why not?
When Holy Sweet Micah wandered, he spoke and lived as an example of selfless love and good humor. I, on the other hand, took a sour pleasure in the picture I presented: a tiny, yellow-brown raisin of a woman in a knee-length cassock of forester’s green, her hose and shoes of the poorest quality; a poor, unwanted crone with iron gray hair and tin-colored eyes, staff in hand and a bindle on my back, making my lonely way through the morning mist.
One of my erstwhile parishioners, a floatboard salesman who traveled by dory, spoiled the effect by asking me to keep him company around Windycliff and up the coast to Malmana.
I gratefully accepted passage, but not his offer of breakfast nor his apology on behalf of his fellow votaries.
I left Malmana on foot, moving pretty briskly along the road of hard-packed sand. I was now in the Eel – a strip of coastline from the southern cliffs to the northern delta, east of the sea and west of the Crescent Desert. The road became more frequented as the morning passed, but my fellow travelers seemed strangely disinclined to speak to me. No one offered me food or a ride, and only one person, an old man, even gave me any money; he dropped a handful of pennies at my feet, made as if to pick them up, then waved them down with an “Ah! Let them go!” and went on.
I decided I might be better off leaving the high road and cutting through the scrubby wood to the beach itself. If push came to shove, I could probably dig up a clam or two to steam over a driftwood fire.
The rough path through the wood made me glad of my walking stick. I was wobbly, anyway, having feasted at breakfast on delicious self-pity instead of contenting myself with common bread and milk. Now, past noon, the pity had been consumed, and I still hadn’t eaten. Perhaps I wouldn’t wait for the clams. Perhaps I could gather some fresh seaweed; I didn’t care for it raw, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.
I came out onto the beach from behind a crop of rocks. On a rise to the north stood a town, a fair-sized one. Probably Port Novo. I had been past it aboard ship, years ago, but it had grown. The high road emptied into its middle. Its eastern limit ate into a heavy belt of trees, pushing the edge of the town toward the Crescent Desert.
A narrow mouth led to a large, deep harbor; across from this mouth rose a high flat rock. The rock seemed to have grown, like the town. A building had been erected on the summit, partly cut out of it, partly built of the same kind of stone. It soared three stories high, with peaks and pinnacles adding more height. It boasted windows of all shapes and sizes, many of them glazed.
Someone drawled from just ahead and to my right. “What have we here? This must be my lucky day.”
I looked for the speaker, and there stood a young mermayd. I’ve been around the world four times, and the youngsters of my late parish included the usual percentage of ruffians, but this was one of the toughest sprigs I’ve ever seen. He looked like he ate oysters in the whole-shell. I say, “he.” They call themselves “rhee” among themselves, but they don’t seem to relish landpeople doing it. In Arledan, we always call mermayds “he” (because they have no breasts, I suppose), but of course they might be one or the other or both at any given time, so it really doesn’t matter, and they don’t seem to care.
He slouched against a tree just around the point of the rocks, his silvery tail, six feet from his waist to the tips of his flukes, curled loosely around the bole. His pearly skin glistened with the oil mermayds secrete out of water, and showed fresh bruises and old scars, especially on his arms. His eyes looked completely black through the inner lids now protecting them from the glare of the un-watered sun. His sleek, waist-length blond hair hung in a braid over his shoulder onto his muscular chest.
The gill-band around his neck wasn’t the standard, three-to-a-pack at any apothecary model: It fastened with a lock and bristled with short spikes. Nobody was going to snatch that band off in a fight. He wore a wide belt with a knife sheathed at either side and a large pocket hanging on the right.
I guessed him to be not much more than a tad, about five years old, equivalent to a fourteen-year-old among us landfolk; a young adult, in other words.
“Hello,” I said. “I think it’s going to be a fine day, don’t you?”
He looked puzzled as I came up to him, going so far as to slit open his inner lids to show himself some color. He didn’t speak again until I stopped at arm’s length.
“Alms?” he said, with a dazzling grin.
“Are you asking or offering?” I said, surprised into a smile. “Priests are poor prospects for robbery. Either way, the answer is ‘yes.’”
The mermayd looked puzzled again, but held out his hand. He spread his fingers, making a cup of the webbing between them. I emptied the pockets of my cassock and covered his pearly palm with copper.
“Is that all?”
“You’re welcome to it,” I said gently. What did I need with my pennies? If I found something to eat as a gift from Micah-on-the-sea, I would live. If not, I would die. Either way, I could afford what I gave.
He dumped the coins into his pocket and uncoiled his tail from the tree. “I’m going to search you,” he said. “Dump your stuff and throw away the stick.”
I had to laugh. I shrugged off my bindle and leaned my walking stick against the rocks. “Surely you don’t think a desiccated old scrap like me could hurt you with my little staff.”
“Dried meat’s tough,” he said. He slithered to me, eel-like and quick. He unrolled my bindle and shook it out: a spare cassock, a thin blanket, a few squares of rags useful for this and that, a tinderbox, a small metal pot for wet cooking or drinking, a small metal plate for dry cooking or eating, a pair of eating batons I’d whittled myself, soap, toothpowder, toothbristles, and a wooden comb. He fingered it all, and all the folds of my cassock. He felt up my front and down my back, and all points in between. He wasn’t brutal, but he was thorough.
“I might’ve swallowed something,” I said. “Shall I vomit?”
He shook his head absently. “Nothing.” He looked at me as if I’d defied a physical law. “You have nothing.”
“I have the Everlasting Presence of Holy Sweet Micah,” I said quietly. “What did you think I had?”
“What kind of a priest are you?”
“Just a priest. I lost my parish. My parishioners….” He didn’t care. I let it go. “Now I’m on a Final Wandering. Haven’t you ever seen a mendicant priest before?”
“A what kind of priest?”
He laughed. “A priest? You so-called Aunts and Uncles don’t have to beg, and you live in palaces. You’re rich.”
“Sure. I’ve been all over the Eel. I should know.” The youngster began to look uncomfortable.
I understood his problem: Five years ago, a mermayd had deposited some egg jelly on an undersea rock. Sometime the same week, another mermayd had seen the jelly and deposited sperm on it. Two months later, a swarm of tads had hatched out. They had been no longer than a dressmaker’s pin, no bigger around than an eating baton. A few had been given refuge in the nurture pouches of passing mermayds. Most had been eaten by fish. Some had been overlooked by protector and predator, and had starved to death. Survivors had reached physical maturity in three years, reared by their foster parents, whom they call nurshen, capable then of functioning in the simple culture of the sea.
There had always been some mermayds who found the culture of the sea entirely too simple. These had learned they could stay out of water longer, without hyperventilating, if they covered their gills with water-retentive filters. These had established a trade relationship with landfolk. Their experiences with landfolk trading practices had given the mermayd character its wide streaks of cynicism and amorality.
These days, most mermayds went ashore occasionally; some, often; a few spent more time on land than in the water. Very few “seabodies” never set fluke on land and didn’t even carry a gillband just in case.
At any rate, within the last two years, this young tough had decided the sea wasn’t big enough to hold him. He planned to show the surface world a thing or two. He knew his short strip of seaside and he thought he knew the world.
Now he was wondering just how little he really knew. A more important question, to him, was just how vulnerable his ignorance made him, and to what.
My own discomfort stemmed from what the boy’s ignorance told me: In the Eel, they had no true priests. They hadn’t, for perhaps five years.
I sank onto the sand. No wonder the people on the road had shirked my acquaintance.
“That isn’t how it is where you come from, is it?” He lowered his body to my level by coiling his tail from his flukes almost to his waist.
So young. He had just taken my money, searched me, possibly been willing to hurt me if I’d resisted. Now, since I posed neither temptation nor threat, he saw no reason not to be companionable. He had no hard feelings; it didn’t occur to him I might have.
“I knew when I saw you there was something wrong,” he said. “You look hungry, and your robe doesn’t sparkle.”
“Rich, fat priests with sparkle woven into their robes,” I said, “are common everywhere. They’re called ‘reaver priests,’ and they’re an accepted blight on the landscape. They line their pockets and they serve congregations of hypocrites like themselves. I should know. My parishioners…. One made himself available, and they dribbled away to him. Not all of them, but enough to make me see…. But nowhere – nowhere have I ever found reavers in the majority. Nowhere have I found no desire for a true priest.” I began to tremble.
“Are you all right?”
“Is there no desire for a true priest?”
“Mermayds aren’t supposed to have souls, so priests are just, like you said, a blight on the landscape as far as we’re concerned. There’s three of them in Port Novo.” He waved to the town ahead. “And one’s worse than the other.”
He pointed to one of his bruises. “See this? Didn’t get out of the way fast enough when a churchwarden wanted to pass.” He pointed to a scar running across his chest. “Aunt Isabella had me held while she watched this given to me.” He looked up with a grin. “For impudence,” he said. He pointed to some smaller scars on his arms and chest and one on his chin. “Uncle Phineas caught me hooking a kelp-cake from a vendor. The vendor didn’t mind, but Phineas had his people take my gill band. Then they dodged around, keeping between me and the water, till I passed out. They might have kicked me home; I wouldn’t know. I came to at the bottom of the harbor, anyway. That’s when I got these new bands.”
“You seem to make a habit of being on the wrong side of authority,” I said.
“I do, don’t I?”
“They would probably frown on beachfront robbery.”
“I have no doubt. Then again, who’s going to report me? Are you going to report me?”
“I haven’t been robbed,” I said.
“You haven’t been robbed,” he said. “Where are you headed?”
He laughed. “That’s Port Novo, all right. But I don’t think I’d go there if I were you. Go around, or go straight through. Better yet, go back where you came from. That’s my advice, anyway.”
“Because,” he said, “I’ve never seen a priest like you around here. That means the priests we have don’t want priests like you around here. That means around here is a bad place for priests like you to be.”
“I didn’t plan to stay,” I said, rather offended.
“Don’t get sniffy,” the tad said. “What do I know? You’d probably be safe enough, especially if you spread it around you aren’t planning to stay long.”
“Safe? Safe from what?”
“From the priests,” he said, with heavy patience.
“From the….” I shivered with chill, but my forehead and scalp prickled with heat. A cold sweat came over me.
“Haven’t I been telling you?” He waved his webbed hands at himself, at the marks of violence he had been showing me. “Priests had this done. Didn’t I say so?”
The tad put a hand into his pocket but pulled it out again, empty. “Look,” he said awkwardly, “I’m sorry if I scared you.” He held the empty hand out to me. “My name’s Loach. You’re Aunt….”
“Aunt Libby.” I grasped his hand, as if it could pull me out of a mire. His skin – dry and horny, like the foot of a duck in a yard – glistened with an oil which couldn’t be felt and didn’t come off.
“Aunt Libby? Are you all right?”
The tad couldn’t be saying what he seemed to be saying. He must have misunderstood something, or I had. After all, I was old…. Not feeble – of mind or body – but too old to be running away from home like a child in a snit.
Loach’s hair and skin shone like underwater treasure. His plait became a braided gold chain, his muscles glowed like pearls. A gold and white haze filled my eyes. I fainted.
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