Shanty

Shanty was hot. She stood up in her coracle, balancing between the turquoise water and the sky, and dolphin-dived over the side. A splash of cool bubbles tickled her skin. She swam underwater and looked up at the round bottom of her coracle bobbing black against the rippling sun. She was proud of her boat, and how far it had carried her.
 
She came up gasping and scrambled back in, coconuts and mangoes rolling round the bottom of the boat as it rocked with her weight. She squeezed out the salt-frayed rope of her hair and took up the oar again. Her thin dress would dry in minutes in the baking English sun. She looked down at herself, admiring the way the wet fabric clung to her small breasts, and how the muscles of her arms worked at the oar.
 
A woman, she thought. By this time tomorrow I’ll be a woman – if I’ve got my compass bearings right…
 
She checked her compass again. What would happen if she was hopelessly lost? Could she just go home and tell them she’d seen the cathedral? Would they know? It didn’t matter, she thought. She’d know. That was how a coming-of-age quest worked. You could pretend, but then you’d have to live the rest of your life pretending to be an adult, and knowing that you really weren’t.
 
She scanned the horizon for the hundredth time. Straight ahead, a ghostly daytime moon was rising on the sea. Wait – straight ahead? That meant she was heading due east, which meant something had gone horribly wrong -
 
She blinked, and what she’d thought was the moon became suddenly clear. A fractured dome rising out of the waves, a spark of gold glinting from the top. St. Paul’s.
 
‘Haaaaaaaa!’ She held her oar over her head, and the lonely sea listened as she yelled in triumph.
 
St Paul’s was hours away yet. As the afternoon wore on, she began to pass more signs of habitation, clusters of houseboats and broken towers where children swung like monkeys. But the dome seemed to keep floating away from her, while the palms of her hands burned from rowing and her muscles ached.
 
Towards sunset, with the sweat cooling on her tired body, she looked up and saw the cathedral looming suddenly much closer. She saw birds wheeling in clouds around the dome, heard the familiar cries of gulls and the pew-pew-pew of parakeets, and below the waves, the echo of drowned bells.
 
Then she was close enough to hear the tide washing in and out through the windows with hollow clops and sighs, and see the barnacles and algae on the sea-wet stones. Close enough to touch. When do I become a woman? she thought. Is it now? She watched her hand reach out, rocking with the boat, watched the tips of her fingers touch the cathedral. The stone felt cool and rough. No mysterious bolt of grown-up wisdom struck her. She felt just the same.
 
Pushing off with her hand, she steered her coracle through the window, into the dome. A huge airy space, dim and full of echoes and the smell of the sea. Birds darted through the sunbeams that glanced down into the green water, and ripples of light danced across the ceiling, flashing on gold leaf and jewel-coloured mosaics. The whole inside of the dome was a riot of art, winged and robed figures, plants and animals, words in a language she didn’t know. ‘Ahhhhhhh,’ she breathed, and the cathedral whispered it back.
 
‘Ahoy, dear,’ called a friendly voice from across the water. Shanty jumped. An old woman was waving at her from a rocking chair on the deck of a tiny houseboat moored in the shadows. The roof of the boat was completely covered with nesting, bickering birds.
 
‘Ahoy!’ Shanty rowed across to meet her. ‘Are you the Storyteller here?’
 
‘That’s me!’ the old lady said cheerfully. ‘Coming-of-age quest, is it?’ Shanty nodded. ‘Goodness, you get younger every year. What’s your name, then?’
 
‘Shanty.’
 
‘And where have you come from?’
 
‘The Cotswolds.’
 
‘Ah, such lovely islands. Best coconuts in England.’
 
Shanty smiled. ‘I’ve brought you some. For the story.’
 
‘Well, aren’t you a sweetheart! Thank you, dear. But the sun’ll be setting soon. Have a look around under the water first – and be sure to look at the portico over that way.  Then swim back here and tell me what you see, and I’ll tell you the story.’
 
 
‘I wish I didn’t have to breathe,’ said Shanty when she came back. ‘I wish I could have stayed down there forever.’
 
‘Ah, it gets a lot of people that way, the first time. Which faith are you, little one?’
 
‘None, really, I just – oh, you know. Everything. The sky, the sea, the land – it all feels full of something. Like a spirit. And being here, it feels like being right inside its heart, and I -’
 
‘And you love it,’ said the old woman.
 
‘Yes!’
 
‘Sensible girl. Now, tell me what you saw.’ She patted the wall of the houseboat, and Shanty scrambled out of the water onto the deck. There was barely room for her to curl up by the rocking chair.
 
‘I saw statues. Tall people in robes just standing under the sea. They had a quiet feeling about them. Watchful and gentle. Some of them had their hands held out, as if they were giving something. They were good people, weren’t they?’
 
‘The best,’ said the Storyteller. ‘They were saints. Tell me, what else did you see?’
 
‘It’s a palace. A whole palace just for people to sit and love the – the thing – that’s all it’s for, and everything’s so beautiful, so much art, and that’s all the art is for too – and now it’s all underwater, and only the fish and the statues can see it. It ought to feel sad, but it doesn’t. It feels… waiting.’
 
The old woman nodded. ‘Did you go to the south portico, like I told you? What did you see there?’
 
‘A stone bird rising out of a stone fire, and a word I didn’t understand.’
 
‘Resurgam,’ said the Storyteller. ‘I shall rise again. This cathedral rose from fire once, and she will rise from water one day too. You see, this has always been a sacred place, since Ludgate Hill was green…’
 
Shanty shuffled back, hugging her wet knees, as the Storyteller’s chair began to rock. She listened to the long tale of St. Paul’s, as the sun sank down towards the sea and threw a path of molten copper through the dome.  
 
When the story drew to a close, dusk had fallen, and early stars were winking through the cracked ceiling. She realised she could hear singing in the distance.
 
‘What’s that?’
 
‘Wait and see, my dear, wait and see…’
 
Soft golden lights were bobbing on the sea outside. Voices joined from all directions, different songs weaving together in a complicated harmony. In through the windows sailed the boats, with lanterns on their masts and candles in the bows. The warm light glowed on the dark water, and bathed the figures on the ceiling in gold.
 
‘Oh, what is it?’
 
The old lady lit a candle, and held it out to her. ‘As I said – this has always been a sacred place.’
 
Pulled by the music, Shanty took her candle, stepped into her coracle and rowed out into the throng of boats. Threads of music rose out of the harmony, caught her for a moment and drifted away.
 
O Lord, open Thou our lips, and our mouth shall show forth Thy praise…
 
Om Mani Padme Hum…
 
Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar…
 
Return, return, return, return, the earth, the water, the fire and the air…

 
There was even a group of people who just sat peacefully, making no sound at all.
 
Shanty knew no hymns or spiritual songs, but her heart was bursting with love that wanted to be expressed. Lost in the great tapestry of sound, she sang the first song of love she had ever learned, her mother’s wordless lullaby. The great sea rocked her as she sang, here in the heart of everything.
 
She came back to herself as the boats began to disperse. The Storyteller was smiling at her, a knowing smile.
 
‘I – I’m ready,’ Shanty said, realising the truth as she spoke. ‘My quest – it’s done.’
 
‘Then come here,’ said the Storyteller, reaching out to help her aboard the houseboat. Shanty knelt, and the old lady held a hand above her head in blessing.
 
‘By the power of stories and the sacredness of St. Paul’s, I pronounce you a woman, Shanty of the Cotswold Isles.’

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