“What was that sound last night and where are all the garden gnomes?” Molly asked Bernard when he dashed into the kitchen.
“Maybe they got fed up of the cats peeing on them and walked off,” he said. “I’m late.”
“Maybe you’ve finally made good on your threat and got rid of them.”
“I’d never do that, dear.” He planted a buttered-toast kiss on her cheek and left her in a flap of half-buttoned clothing.
By the time he reached Southampton he had two missed calls and a wall of text messages from her. Honestly, if the gnomes really had been stolen, fair enough. But who the hell would even want them? Especially the angry-looking one with the fishing rod — when they’d moved down south from Sunderland, he’d even tried to get her to leave that one at the old house. No such luck.
He didn’t bother reading the messages; he’d call her on his lunch break — if he got one, that was. The ships coming in and out the port were a bit more pressing that her cheap garden tat.
The day was its usual slice of hell-on-toast and now the Royal Brunel was heading back to Dublin after an outbreak of legionnaires, he had the added task of late fees and what to do with empty Berth 46.
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me. Your aspects of Wisdom and Truth guided me both in the Novitiate House and in my travels with your priestesses …
“So while Wisdom and Truth are comprehensively interlinked,” the priestess of Truth continues, “they remain discrete entities.”
As, for example, now, thinks Girl. For the truth is she’s bored – she’s heard this lesson many times – but wisdom keeps that truth hidden. She suspects the merchant and his family are also finding the lecture tedious, though they’re valiantly pretending otherwise, mindful of the honour accorded their house by the presence of two of the Lady’s priestesses. Only the simple-minded daughter, staring open-mouthed, appears truly interested, though doubtless understanding little. As for the boys, they’re a mass of twitches and fidgets, and one is surely about to yawn.
The priestess has noticed. “But I’ve talked for too long. Perhaps, Master Tshering, you might now tell us more of the white-hued golden takin we hope to see.”
“First,” says the priestess of Wisdom, “we should release the children. I’m sure they’d rather be elsewhere.”
The boys leap up and are out of the door as soon as their father nods. The girl, Pema, trails after them.
“You may go, too, Kalpana,” says the priestess.
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me. My first year in the Novitiate House was a time of great learning, but also a time of sorrow and death …
Girl is kneeling, about to pour yet more tea for the foreign trader, when he slips from his cushion and slumps against her.
The other traders jump to their feet, exclaiming loudly. The priestesses of Wisdom and Truth rise more elegantly, quietly worried. Unmoving, unmoved, old skinflint Dhanash, who invited himself to the negotiations, demands to know if Master Jin is dead.
Girl tries to remain calm, supporting the trader as she sets the tea-kettle down, then carefully lowering him to the devdar-wood floor. She touches his throat, seeking the pathways of his life force, but finds only clogged and stagnant channels.
A priestess kneels beside her, considers the man’s harsh breathing, his rank breath, then presses a point of confluence at his neck. “I fear it’s the honeyed disease. Fetch a healer, Kalpana. Go your quick way.”
Girl runs from the Teaching Hall. The proper way to the House of Healing is down the four storeys of the Novitiate House, then through, across, along and past the many courts, open alleys, covered passages and buildings winding their way around the monastery. But the roofs of the two Houses are connected. It’s a simple climb even in formal robes, and she knows which window shutters open easily from the outside.
For Girl is no stranger to the House of Healing. She lost Sukhbir there.
Such an inhospitable country. A few inches of soil over granite was barely enough to support the growth of straggly grass and the wild horned sheep that grazed there. One of them watched him now, from the top of a pile of damp grey rocks. Those yellow slitted eyes seemed too intelligent for a sheep. More intelligent than some of his officers, truth be told.
Lucius turned and shouted down the hill. “Aurelius!”
“I fancy mutton for dinner. See to it.”
Aurelius saluted, then his eyes drifted towards the sheep, silhouetted against the haze of a mid-morning sky, and he frowned. There were stories told around the campfire, grim tales of what would happen to those who killed the local sheep, and now here was one of those sudden local mists creeping across the ground towards them.
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me, the child you named Kalpana, though in my heart I always remained Girl. In the Postulant House I learned of your first aspects, but I didn’t truly understand until the township and the pilgrim hospitium …
Girl stands by the prayer flags, several yards from the hospitium door, and not only to ready herself for the stench of illness and death. She’s accompanied priestesses of Compassion and Benevolence on many occasions to comfort the dying, but always alongside other postulants. This time she’s the only one.
Girl has learned a great deal in her six years in the Postulant House, not least that it’s more than a place of teaching, it’s a place of assessment, and not every applicant is accepted into the Order. She’s determined to become a priestess, but first she must progress to the Novitiate House, and she’s sure the hospitium is where she’ll be tested and the decision made.
One deep breath and she takes a step forward. Then stops dead. Inside the hospitium a woman’s voice has risen in a screech.
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me, the unhappy girl in the Postulant House. It was there I ran away from you for the first time. It all began with my name …
“What’s your name?” the tall girl asks, and the floodgates open.
“How old are you?”
“Where are you from?”
“What’s your caste?”
“Is it true you can’t talk?”
Girl is dazed, flustered. Nearly a month she’s been at the monastery, but until now her only company has been Shanti, a slow, sweet dumpling of a serving girl who was surely a water buffalo in her last life. Shanti looked after Girl, sleeping alongside her, bathing, eating and praying alongside her, and never once asked any questions or made any demands. Gradually, under her placid care, Girl learned to trust and to speak again.
But Shanti has other duties now and Girl must live with the young girls in the Postulant House, and they’re crowding about her with their shrill voices and insistent questions, and her head is spinning.
“I’m called Girl,” she finally stammers.
This is the story of an elf named Rob. He used to be a happy elf, enjoying his important duties as an elf patiently sitting on a shelf and overseeing the children so the naughty ones could be either weeded out or reformed. He used to feel like he was making a difference. Not anymore. Each day he became more frustrated and bitter about his role in Elfdom.
In short, he wanted out. He put in for a transfer but quickly found that transfers out of that position were rarely granted. He was stuck in a permanent dead-end job.
What kind of life was moving from one shelf to the next? What indeed was the shelf life of an elf? Alas, there was no expiration date.
Reluctantly accepting his fate, he searched for ways to make his dreary life more tolerable. He became more complacent, and the children forgot about him most of the time.
One day, as Rob watched the children playing – and clearly ignoring him – it occurred to him that he possessed an extraordinary magical power. An elf who sat on a shelf actually bends space and time when he leaps from one place to another. He decided he needed to do more of these surprise visits to entertain himself if not the children.
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me. Your priestess brought me to the monastery. There I saw your statue for the first time. There I turned away from you for the first time. But before you, there was another …
“Here, little one. Sit here.”
Sukhbir, the older of the priestess’s guards, points to a broken wall well away from the crowd. Girl sits. She likes Sukhbir. He’s kind and gentle and makes her laugh. He’s her friend, and she’s never had a friend before.
The young guard, Lal, is nice enough, but smells of rice wine and raksi, reminding her of Aprakash. The priestess is beautiful, but far away somehow, as if always thinking important thoughts.
And Sukhbir is the one who bought clothes for Girl – new clothes, not ragged cast-offs – which keep her warm as they climb higher and higher into the mountains. He’s the one who holds her when she’s sick, which is often, as she isn’t used to having such rich food and so much to eat. And he’s the one she rides with, sitting before him on his great horse, while he tells her about the monastery and the priestesses, who she mustn’t call “lady” but “honoured one”, because the Lady is the goddess, the Lady of Six Aspects, though Girl doesn’t know what an aspect is. But whatever Sukhbir says to do, she does. So when he says “Sit here.” she sits.
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me, your little mouse. You sent your priestess to free me from my cage …
“I shall come for you.”
Girl whispers the words to herself as she rides a water buffalo home from the steep terraces of the rice fields. Many, many days have passed since the goddess made the promise, but Girl knows she will keep her word.
But how will she come? In a chariot, drawn by white buffaloes? Riding a great golden yak? Or a tiger? Yes, a tiger. And the goddess will let it eat Naala.
Girl has more weals on her back and legs nowadays, as Naala finds any excuse to lash out with her bamboo cane. For Aprakash has gone, and not to his auntie’s. Gone without the golden horn-caps, but Girl is sure he’s taken other things, for Naala has spent hours searching her coffers, sometimes weeping that he’s left her, more often cursing his name.
The village gossips think he’s gone for good. Girl hopes so. The goddess said not to fear his threats, but Girl does fear, and she repeats the goddess’s promise over and over to herself like a holy mantra.
* Winner of the 2020 Story of the Year Award *
It was easier than I thought to teach Albert to run up the grandfather clock on command but much harder to get him to come down again at a decent speed.
“Don’t overthink it,” I coaxed, as the mouse scurried along the split pediment at the top and peered over the edge to the almost straight drop to the floor. “Just run. There will be cheese for you at the end of this.”
The mouse stood up on his haunches and wrinkled his nose, whiskers twitching with dismay. “I don’t care for cheese,” he said. “If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times.”
“And I don’t care for this attitude. When I send you out the window with my message for help, I need to know you’ll be able to get down before any alarms go off. If you’re captured and poisoned, I’ll be trapped, and you’ll be just another dead rodent. I’ve spent months on your training …”
Albert’s cheek pouches bulged with anger. “Is that what I am? Just another pest to kick away once I’ve served my purpose?”