Miel stood on the edge of the cracked paving and looked out to the sea, as he did every morning. White-caps pushed against the wind, and at the horizon the darkness of the water spread into the sky. Heavy clouds had threatened storms for the last week, and maybe today they’d finally arrive.
The waves broke over the rubble, leaving the debris covered in an oily film. Later, Miel would search for anything useful. With luck, he might come across a suitable replacement for that cracked table leg.
He should really start on the duties, now that the sun was risen. But his day never truly started until he’d seen the ship.
He stood as still as he could, and finally he saw it. First there was the pale glow, then the white flame that rose into the sky. As he tilted his neck, the boom rolled over him, deep as the ocean’s roar, and the ship disappeared into the heavens.
Travellers. They were going off-planet, of course, but if people still travelled, they might come here.
With his hope rekindled, Miel prepared. Just as Prai had taught him.
First, the cleansing. He swept, high then low, and he polished. He scrubbed tables and dusted chairs. He tightened ropes and inspected the tarpaulin for damage. There was a thinning patch, in one corner, that would need attention before too long.
Then, the arrangements. He followed her old instructions, set the tarnished cutlery, arranged the faded menoos and folded the papanakins. Not proper ones of course—where could he get soft white paper?—but the grey card was a sturdy substitute.
The sun was high and milky when he finished, and he believed Prai would be proud of his preparations. But she’d never see them, since the boils and the sores had taken her.
When he reached the recitations, the mantras brought peace. There was the enticing, the welcome and the gratitude. The sirmadam and the beercoffee. The plesitanywhere and the youthirst-yooweat.
He didn’t understand the words, but that didn’t matter. He knew the sense of them, could repeat them with servitude. They prepared him for—oh, glory of glories—the day when a customer would come. Miel could offer them hospitality, and they would be refreshed. Then, he would be truly at peace. His purpose would have been fulfilled.
Prai had passed unfulfilled, but she had come close. She spoke often of the visitor, the one who might have been a customer, and Miel knew the story as if he had been present himself.
Ora had been ill that day, the sores that would take the man before the end of the week already weeping yellow pus. Prai had completed the preparations, and towards evening a figure appeared. A monster, with silver skin and a bulbous head.
But it wasn’t a monster. It was a man, in a suit and helmet, and he waved a stick that bleeped, and tapped at a black tablet similar to the cassrejista in the back room.
Prai recited the enticement and the welcome. She offered the menoo and she showed the table. But the man walked off.
She had failed, and she blamed herself. She had been preoccupied with Ora, and must have skimped on her preparations. Maybe the floor was too dusty, or she had uttered the enticement with the wrong inflexion.
And so she taught Miel diligence, from the moment he was old enough to walk. She taught him to respect the rituals. Even though the town’s buildings were becoming one with the rubble at the edge of the sea, even though the sun beat down hotter every day, even though the storms grew worse each season, there would surely be another customer. And when that happened, Miel must be ready.
So he completed the mantras, and he checked the tables once more. Only then, with the sun at its highest point, did he enter the backroom and boil up some of the meal. He ate, because he must, and then he stepped outside and waited.
The sun moved across the sky, and Miel rubbed the welt on his right shoulder. He stared at the waves, then at the broken buildings.
It was nothing like the faded pictures in the cracked binder, the one Prai had passed on to Miel when the welts on her arms became too much for her to work. Those pictures showed the place teeming with visitors, transformed into a fantasy. Where Miel now saw rubble, the pictures showed fine dust that Prai called ‘sand’, on which the visitors would prostrate themselves in worship, their holiness burning red on their offered flesh. And where Miel saw only this one shack, with the tables and chairs arranged just so, the images would have him believe that there used to be many such places, and that the visitors would swarm to eat once the sun had set, all the while joking and laughing. And they would stay in huge buildings with window boxes they could sit out on, their lodgings for their annual pilgrimage.
Prai told him this was the reality, and that those days would return. But Miel had difficulties believing that. The ships took people up into the sky, but he never saw a ship come down. Prai talked incessantly about her visitor, but he had never come back either. There had been nobody, not since Ora passed. And now that Prai was gone too, Miel was on his own.
But he couldn’t give up. Just because there had never been a visitor in all his time as ohner, that did not mean there was not a weary traveller heading this way even now. They would be exhausted, and they would want shade and refreshment, maybe sustenance. Miel could provide for them.
And so he turned his back on the sea and busied himself, checking everything was perfect while repeating the mantras, as the sun drifted on to the far horizon.
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