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A Song, a Prayer, an Empty Space by Darja Malcolm-Clarke
The Isiola monastery has sunk into the sea.
That's what Bishop Dakar's letter said, but I didn't believe it--and not just because I'd have to blame myself if it were true.
Yet seafoam gathers where tide-powered turbines once crouched, raising and lowering the monastery for a hundred years. Here, beyond the edge of Fachi, on the Algerian shore, sand whisks over my feet and waves crash on rocks in the empty bay.
Surely Dakar's beseeching message was a ploy to get me back to Isiola after all these years--that's what I thought when another of his crag martins carried his words to me in Timkhi. I believed he had conjured the wildest story a reluctant bishop could manage: a tale of Isiola sinking and taking the desalination plant with it, and of a daemon, summoned by Hadez priests, ravaging prayer shrines all over Fachi. An absurd tale.
But a true one after all; so says the empty bay.
I turn my camel away from where the edifice of Egyptian stone once perched on hydraulic legs above the waves. Would that I had a seat on the steam camel, but it does not go easily here. The sands shift and devour its tracks. So I've had to ride this lumbering flesh that is spite incarnate. It's just as well; we make a good match at the moment, this camel and I.
It takes all morning to reach Fachi, but at last it wells up out of the endless scorched dunes. Mud-brick buildings bask gold in a flourish of green. I draw my camel up to the Yahvist shrine at the city's edge, crouched between the first oasis grasses and palms--a humble structure capped with a low, pointed dome.
Drawing upthe hood of my monk's cloak, I slip off the saddle onto the hydraulic step-elevator beneath a palm tree. It lowers me to the sand beside someone else's beast. I tie mine in the sparse shade beneath another palm and duck into the narrow doorway.
The building holds only the ornate rugs where people kneel to imbue coins with prayer and the shrine itself: a dome of pure gold, as wide as my arm is long, low to the ground and gleaming in the dim light. It's unchanged from when I last saw it, the night I fled for my betrayal of the Church. The broad porcelain dish beneath the dome is decorated with variegated geometrics and filled with prayer-imbued euchoi.
I crouch over the dish where the coins glint bronze in the muted light. Even before I fled this place--because I had given bags of euchoi unpurchased from the Church to the poor of Fachi--there were more in the altar bowls than now. The Hadez, drawn here by the euchoi and the wealth they can glean from the city, are to blame.
The emptiness of the dish is not all that's amiss. I thought my absence from the euchomifier all these years might diminish my ability to sense such things, but I feel something horrifically wrong with these euchoi. I kneel and glance around to make sure the place is vacant, then gather some into my cupped hands.
Their emptiness washes over me, pulls me down like an ocean riptide, fills my mouth with imagined brine. Empty: they are robbed of their resonance, stripped of the essence of prayer. Finding them thus is akin to coming upon a merry crowd, then discovering their faces void of eyes and mouths.
A gasp behind me makes me jump, and a few coins spill back into the bowl with a bright clatter.
"What are you doing?" It's Sor Feerah, looking from the euchoi in my hands to me again, eyes wide. So Dakar did send someone to escort me.
"You scared me," I say. "Where were you? I saw your camel outside."
"Put them down, Adan."
"I'm still sanctioned to collect them. Dakar--Bishop Dakar--never revoked my license."
"After what you did," she says from the doorway, "I wouldn't be surprised if Cardinal Aquiro himself revoked it." The sunlight is bright behind her, hiding her expression in shadow. But the tone of her voice is enough. She was not one of the few who approved of how I helped the poor after the Hadez assassinated the Prince. I ignore the fact that she skipped my title just as I ignore her instructions and turn back to the euchoi in the dish. Collecting them has always been my right.
"Next thing, you'll be telling me to call you Bishop again," she says.
"No, I assure you, I won't. Where were you?" I say again, a handful of euchoi burning their blankness into my palm.
"I was ... down the way a bit. The shrines make me nervous."
"Have anything to do with why these coins are empty?"
"Welcome to Fachi as it's become in your absence," she says. "The daemon scours the city shrines nearly every night now. Taking what prayers people can afford...."
I turn back to her. "'Can afford?' Have the Hadez raised the tax on the coins?"
"They've raised it, and raised it again. And the price of water."
"And the ones that can't pay the cost? How do they pray?"
"Not by our giving out euchoi for free, if that's what you mean. The Church can't give away its livelihood," she says, still silhouetted in the doorway.
"Then their prayers can't be heard. They can't afford euchoi, and the ones they do buy the daemon takes away before they're brought to the euchomifier. How are they--"
"Look," Sor Feerah says. "The bishop sent me to make sure you make it to the monastery unnoticed. I'm not interested in hearing you defend your actions. You've made your mistake, and that's the way it is. Put the coins down. Let's go."
Before I can reply, she vanishes into the sunlight.
I return to the euchoi in the shrine. Repulsed by their emptiness, I nonetheless put several handfuls in my satchel and pockets--but not so many as to draw attention to the small number left. Already so few remain.
Outside, Sor Feerah is waiting on her camel as I get on the step-elevator. As we head toward Fachi, she barely wastes a glance on me and instead begins to sing, probably so she won't have to speak to me. It's a choral song they never sang in Timkhi. I envy her lack of reserve. I was never taught to sing properly; I barely whisper in chapel.
In place of joining her, I say, "How can you sing at a time like this? Don't you feel for these people?"
Her eyebrows arc toward the veil covering her hair. "The people have learned to take comfort where they can find it, Frer," she says. "You're the one who left the city." She begins the song again.
Outward-sloping building walls rise up behind a broad metal gate--a gate that wasn't there when I left Fachi two years ago. Sor Feerah stops mid-phrase, for waiting there are four Hadez guards dressed in white linen kaftans, eyeing us. My cloak shields my face and Sor Feerah is leading, but I take an anxious breath.
"Yahvists. What is your business?" says one Hadez to Sor Feerah. The white of his kaftan is blinding in the sun.
"We were at the shrine," she says.
"I was here this afternoon. He wasn't with you," says another one, gesturing at me. "You went out alone."
"He left for Isiola before me," she says.
"No, he didn't," says the same man. "He didn't pass by this way this morning." He turns to me. "Where are you from?"
"I'm from here," I say. "I didn't tell you, Sor Feerah. I left yesterday before twilight." To the Hadez guard I say, "I prayed at the sunken monastery for my lost brothers and sisters all night." I take a few euchoi from my pocket to prove it. He and another guard step forward to look at the coins. If they had any sensitivity at all, they would know these are as blank as a newborn's memory.
"Where did you swear your oath of service, Frer?" says the first, trying to peer into my hood. I turn my head slightly as if I'm looking at Sor Feerah; it's enough to obscure my face.
"Why, here in Fachi," I say. A lie, but the Hadez nods. He signals two others, and they unlatch a large spring-powered lock binding the gate to a metal post. We press our camels forward. I try to look indifferent as I move past the Hadez guards into Fachi.
Dust and sand swirl around the camels' legs as the buildings grow ever closer to the street. The dark eyes of men and women in the narrowing street pass over us as they ease by. Each glance feels like the one that will recognize me and alert the Hadez.
The passage opens out again, guiding us into the market: the heart of Fachi. Music pipes to me on a breeze. It's tangled with the subtle stench of many people living in close quarters. We reach a camel stall, one for animals of flesh and blood, not cogs and steam. Sor Feerah, ahead of me, goes to the hydraulic platform as the full market comes into view: tents with bright linens swaying; copper and brass mirrors, trays, teapots; cages of automaton budgies and crag martins; tall piles of hand-woven rugs; bags of incense scenting the air; camel saddles. Tears spring to my eyes as I slip from the camel onto the platform. I thought I would never see this place again.