The duties of a temple warden are effectively without limit. The list of jobs that need doing seems to stretch as far as the imagination of an archimandrite can reach. But one of the main duties is ensuring that the building remains clean.
Now obviously this can be easily achieved. A simple task to issue dusters and mops to the mendicants and in an hour or so, everything can be spotless. After all, those who visit the shrine are there to spend time on their knees in their devotions. It’s not as if they come in out of the rain to eat their lunch, leaving crumbs everywhere.
But the wildlife that invests a shrine can be an entirely different problem. Numerous species of small rodent seem to regard clerical vestments as an opportunity to dine with friends; a groaning board spread with goodies to share with all comers. Then there are the bats and the birds! People have commented on the circumstance that temple wardens wear a coarse robe with a hood, over their clothes. This is for good reason, indeed I’ve known many put their hood up when they enter the building, only lowering it when they leave. Still juvenile mendicants with pieces of netting at the end of long canes can soon catch them various flying pests. Indeed they often get a great deal of fun from the excitement of the chase, and as Tassa Kneelforth used to say, “There’s good eating on them.”
One problem that Maljie had was the presence of a Wandering Partannese Bustard. These are a particularly large fowl. In Port Naain they’re more commonly known as the preacher bird. They get their name from their habit of perching on the pinnacles and cornices of buildings and haranguing passers-by. Almost inevitably, the shrine of Aea in her Aspect as the Personification of Tempered Enthusiasm acquired one.
Initially nobody thought anything of it. It was just there, something to be humoured or ignored. Indeed after a while it was almost seen as a fixture. A noisy and loose bowelled fixture, but just another of the burdens a temple warden has to bear. It was only when a passing archimandrite, (recently promoted from his position of hegumen and still experimenting with the limits of his authority) commented that the shrine roof looked like the floor of a fowl pen that ‘something had to be done.’ As temple warden, it felt to Maljie to do the aforementioned something.
It seems that the initial instinct was to form a committee to deal with it, with subcommittees looking into various aspects, with a schedule of meetings that stretched ahead into the far distant future. Then it was realised that Maljie wasn’t taking part in the discussion. Laxey, the sub-Hierodeacon found her outside with a loaded and cocked military crossbow she had somehow acquired. He expressed the belief that it wasn’t perhaps the tool they were looking for, given that if she missed, the quarrel would doubtless ricochet along the Sinecurists’ Grand Stair.
Maljie merely retorted, in tones of supreme contempt, “If I miss.”
It was then pointed out to her that given the power of the weapon, even if she hit, the quarrel might pass straight through the bird and still hit somebody on the Stair. Finally they managed to quietly disarm her and then, at a far less exalted level that the discussion still continuing inside, they started to look for another way to deal with the problem. After all, it was pointed out that merely removing the preacher bird wasn’t going to remove several years’ accumulation of guano.
Finally it was decided to wait for wet weather. Thanks to the long hot summer, the droppings were baked hard. They’d have to be removed with a chisel. But it was felt that a month or two of rain would soften them and make them more easily disposed of.
Obviously this meant doing nothing about the problem for some months, but frankly a temple warden who cannot achieve that level of obfuscation and delay is not worthy of their exalted station.
Then Maljie remembered that a gentleman of her acquaintance was a person of influence in the fire-watch. So she had a quiet word with him. Three evenings later, as she passed the watch depot with a couple of the mendicants, she discovered the gates were open. One of the big pumps, its reservoir fully charged, was standing in the yard. Well obviously something had to be done, lest somebody steal it. So she decided the obvious thing to do was to have her mendicants push it to the shrine, so it could be properly looked after.
Once at the shrine, she discovered that a handwritten sheet, containing the full operating instructions, had been stuck between the seats. Overnight she read through the instructions and the following morning as the mendicants gathered for breakfast, she outlined her plan. It was simple. She was going to use the pump to clean away the filth of years.
By the time I chanced to pass, she had six mendicants working the pump. The pressure had built up to such a level I decided I would watch the proceedings with the trunk of a most substantial tree strategically situated between me and the appliance. Loitering around the outside of the shrine were a number of other mendicants, holding sacking. The nozzle of the hose was set up on a heavy stand so it could be targeted and Maljie was carefully adjusting the aim. Finally she gave the order to open the valve. A jet of water struck the preacher bird, knocking it off the roof, and a large and hairy mendicant managed to leap high enough to grab it and stuff it into his sack. Maljie was heard to mutter under her breath, “Miss it with a crossbow, pah.”
Maljie continued to play the hose methodically across the roof of the shrine. This had the effect of blasting away the accumulated bird droppings, and of depositing them, in the form of a stinking rain, on those ascending the stair. It was claimed afterwards that she managed to hit three Sinecurists, a ‘gentleman’ adventurer, an itinerant viola maker, and the mistress of three different usurers.
Soon the water in the reservoir ran out. By this time a somewhat belligerent crowd was beginning to gather, and although Maljie opined that their predilection for confrontation could be diverted by the simple expedient of refilling the tank, it was suggested to her that, in reality, this was now a spiritual matter. Bowing to the wisdom of her colleagues, Maljie and her mendicants escorted the pump back to the fire watch depot, and the rest of us quietly faded from the scene. After all, some matters are best left for the priests to deal with. They are persons of wisdom and discernment, gravitas, and dignity. Scruffy louts like us are best seen (briefly and indistinctly) and not heard. We would doubtless merely make the situation worse.
Still we all agreed that preacher bird, properly stuffed and beautifully cooked, makes excellent eating.
Should you wish to know more about Port Naain
As a reviewer commented, “Tallis Steelyard makes a living as a poet, which is sufficiently remarkable in itself, but in reality he is a ducker and diver at the more genteel end of society in the imaginary town of Port Naiin in Jim Webster’s richly comic and intriguing fictional world. This is my first encounter with Mr. Steelyard in book form but I doubt that it will be my last. His tales are warmly amusing rather than laugh-out-loud funny but are none the worse for that. Give Tallis a try, you’ll be glad you did.”