Author: Lewis Richards
We all have little rituals.
Lily braids her hair every night before bed, Daisy rubs the same spot on her arm when she worries, Jasmine taps out the same rhythm with her fingers when she daydreams in lessons. We all wear our white silks and pearls from the Harbour on Giving Day.
We line up, The priests from our church appraising us in turn. They lead us through the gold gates of our Garden, our place, and through the bleak town beyond. Grey faces line the streets as we pass, never touching, never making a sound. 15 girls this year, the biggest procession in living memory. They’ve waited for this.
The heart of town is a Square a stone’s throw from the sea and it’s centre lies the Well. As we approach the priests escorting us lead the gathering crowd in prayer “Take what we give, Give what we take”
It’s a funny kind of Well. No buckets and fraying rope, just old steps carved into sides. We are presented to the crowd, told how honoured we are to be fulfilling this duty and are lead down below the town. No great Ceremonies here.
We are all taught what happens during the procession, prepared and rehearsed, we reach the bottom of the stairs, far from the sunlight we left, and enter a damp, torchlit cavern.
We form a circle around the head priest waiting for us in the centre of the cave. He takes us in. Daisy Rubs her arm.
“This cave has lain here since before our people first fished these shores” he began. The same lecture they heard every Church day. Jasmine’s fingers tap a steady beat against her leg as she glances around the cave.
“When our people starved this hallowed place gave us shelter and full bellies. For a price.”
“Once a year we give back what we take from the sea, our brightest pearl.”
“Now, we find out which of you that is. Each of you will take a candle, the one with the last flame burning will be our Pearl”
15 flames light the darkness. We watch each other, Listening to the priests’ prayers. 3 flames die, Jasmine’s candle fizzles out next. The girls step back. Soon just 4 of us remain. Daisy rubs her arm, her alarm growing seconds before her candle dies. We whisper prayers of our own. The final two candles flicker away.
“Rose, Sweetest of the bunch” The head Priest proclaims.
I step forward. No one knows what happens next. No lessons on this part. The others are led back up the Well. No goodbyes. We had our own back in our home.
At the end of the cavern, a doorway has opened in the stone, a black void drinking the shadows of the cave.
“I’m afraid my dear only you may continue from this point. I am not worthy of such a gift.”
I take the torch offered to me and step through into the darkness, heart pounding.
I walk through mist. Something stirs before me, a great crested head turning to look at me. I panic. Eyes widening at the horror moving towards me. I turn to run.
“That door no longer goes back the way you came.”
The voice hits me like a wave, stopping me in my tracks. It’s calm and soothing, I can’t help but look back at it. It floats forward, it’s head shifting like living rock. No, I thought, like the corals the sailors bring back as gifts for us. At its centre a large bright pearl swirled with light.
“What are you?” I ask. Terrified and awed.
The voice rumbled “We watch your world and preserve. We hear your hunger and cries and give what we can”
“You little one. All of those given to us. The star of your world is dying, you will sleep while we find you a new one.”
Images flash in my mind, waves of fire boiling the sea and incinerating the town I know. Then far away, a string of pearls kept safe, ready to start again.
They lead me through the fog, I see them more clearly now, one body with a million voices. They show me the sleeping pearls. Hundreds, Men and Women. I take my place and join them, singing myself to sleep like always.
We all have little rituals, we will use them to start again.