The Junonia Shell

Submitted into Contest #102 in response to: Write a story about someone losing faith in an institution.... view prompt

15 comments

Fantasy Fiction

Ambrose entered the temple's courtyard, taking in the pristine monuments of the gods. The area was teeming with life, and the early spring blossoms permeated the air with their deep perfume. 

 

Twelve statues spread across the enormous space, each located in its own alcove and decorated in a way that represented the deities’ dominant quality, and young initiates bustled around with their mundane tasks.

 

The followers of Leonid were spreading out onto the central lawn, and he found himself angling toward the stone wall to the west to avoid the acrobats in bright costumes, performing tricks that screamed look at me! Ambrose had never been one to pray to that god.

 

Unfortunately, it was just as hectic over there. This time of year, a gaggle of young women usually surrounded Lybras, praying to find their true love. Lavender and daisies hung in chains over the white marble statue, and the worshipers left small gifts and trinkets at her feet. The initiates that attended were draped in flower leis and flitted through the crowds as if on wings. 

 

He remembered his youth and his Sorcha. Her angelic face hanging back from those swarms of girls. She had hated being seen as a romantic who prayed to the gods for love, but she did it anyway. Sorcha was gone now, like so many others, lost to the blight that had swept the nation. 

 

Scorpius had a decent following this time of year as well. Some young men looking for love did not want to seem frivolous or feminine. They would pray to the god that ruled over passion, for prowess in the bed and on the battlefield. His initiates were stoic with grand armor. It seemed foolish to guard the statue in full regalia, with the blistering sun beating down. No one would dare cause trouble here, lest one or all of the gods would strike them down.

 

He had never been one to spend time at either of these statues. His destination had always been to Piscys, and today was no different. Ambrose weaved his way through the crowd, passing other statues until the representation of the large half-man half-fish loomed over him. There were no crowds here, and the decorations were sparse. A few conch shells paid tribute at the base of the statue, and a single scrawny initiate was sweeping the lonely corner.

 

Ambrose rummaged through his pack and found the pristine junonia he had found while gathering shells on the beach. It was rare to find shells such as this on the shore, but he seemed to have a knack for it. He had an entire collection back home, and this was the best of them.

 

Most of the other sailors didn’t waste their time on frivolous contributions to the god. Piscys was a god of intent, not one that asked for offerings. But Ambrose had grown sentimental in his age and wanted to make one last gift.

 

The scraping of the broom went silent when Ambrose placed the shell on the statue, and the young boy openly stared. “What are you asking for?” 

 

Ambrose blinked, turning to face the young man. This wasn’t typical behavior for a young initiate. “Excuse me?”

 

“Well,” the boy leaned against a wall. “People usually come to pray because they want something. Money, power, you know- the usual.”

 

“I want none of that,” Ambrose frowned, “and it’s rude to ask someone what they are praying for.”

 

“Is it? How is Piscys going to know what you want if you don’t say it?” The boy shrugged and went back to his sweeping.

 

This initiate was incorrigible. Is this what passed for a Piscyn initiate these days? “Who is your elder, young man? Is this how they train you to interact with all the worshipers?”

 

The boy stopped and scanned his surroundings. “What worshippers?” 

 

Ambrose stared at the empty corner of the courtyard, and his shoulders slumped. The poor kid was an initiate for a god no one ever visited. It was still no excuse for treating the one person there so rudely.


“Well... Me for one!” Ambrose returned. “Or does an old sailor not count for anything?”

 

“I can’t tell you what you count for.” The boy grabbed his broom and strode towards the giant statue, sitting down on its base. 

 

“You can’t sit on that! You will offend the gods!”

 

The boy chuckled, “Will I?” He picked up the junonia and inspected the smooth spotted shell. “Why this one?”

 

Ambrose pressed his lips together and remained silent. A wave of slow anger simmered just below his surface, and he kicked at a stone that had come loose on the path that led to the statue.

 

The boy just shrugged and put the shell back on the plinth. “So if you don’t want money or power, what do you want? You are here, you must want something.”

 

Where did this kid get off, speaking to him this way? Ambrose looked down at his hands, wrinkled with time, and a long sigh escaped his breath. How was he supposed to tell an initiate that the gods don’t listen? He had come here so many times, praying to be strong enough to sail again, or at least for a quick death at sea.  

 

His son, Bastian, could barely feed his own family and was stuck feeding an aging father that couldn’t contribute. All Ambrose wanted was the ability to provide again. Time and time he had come here, offering gifts to the god of the sea, and Piscys did not hear his voice. He was finished with the gods. They didn’t exist.

 

The sun was sinking in the sky, and late afternoon shadows wavered across the courtyard, reminding Ambrose of the way the sun danced on the waves. The boy followed his gaze and turned back to him.

 

Oh, you must be sick! You want Piscys to take care of you.”

 

Something inside Ambrose snapped and his hand shot out, grasping the boy’s wrist. “The gods left this world long ago, all this…” His free arm gestured at the courtyard, “Is frivolous and meaningless! You are serving a god that will never even know your name!”

 

The boy looked down at Ambrose’s grip on his wrist. A red welt was showing on the young initiate's skin. Ambrose dropped the boy’s arm and took a step away. The consequences for assaulting a priest were steep. 

 

“I... I’m sorry.” Ambrose said.

 

The boy met his eyes and shrugged. “I’ve had worse.”

 

Guilt flooded Ambrose as he remembered all the times he had smacked Bastian for some minor digression. He had always justified the punishment with the fact that it was his son’s stupidity. But deep down Ambrose knew it was his own anger that had driven the discipline.

 

“I am saying goodbye.” Ambrose breathed.  

 

“Oh? Did you lose a loved one?” The boy asked him, cocking his head slightly.

 

He thought of his Sorcha again. She would probably be stifling a laugh by now, her delicate fingers covering her mouth so the boy couldn’t see the grin.

 

“No. Well yes, but that’s not who I am saying goodbye to.” He glanced over to Lybras wondering if he should leave an offering in his wife's memory.

 

“Then who are you saying goodbye to?”

 

“Piscys. I am done with the gods, and he is the only one I ever cared for, anyway.” Ambrose gazed up at the representation of the giant fish-man.

 

“If you are done with the gods, why say goodbye?” The boy leaned forward in anticipation.

 

“I guess I hoped that somehow, he would hear me.” Ambrose sighed. “But, I suppose it was a foolish wish.”

 

“I take it you assume he doesn’t hear you?” The boy hopped off the statue and paced in front of it. “I mean an enormous block of stone obviously doesn’t hear you.”

 

“If he heard me, I would be better off. My pain would go away, and I could contribute again.” The lack of insight that a future priest had surprised Ambrose.

 

“So you think it’s Piscys duty to heal you?”

 

“Yes! Well no, but what’s the point of praying if he doesn’t listen.” Ambrose’s voice echoed on the alcove walls. 

 

“I guess if that’s what you think praying is about, then you are right. It’s pointless.” The boy stopped and inspected Ambrose for a moment. “Are you a god?”

 

Ambrose laughed, his sides shaking. It had been a while since he had felt so light. “Of course not!”

 

“Then perhaps the problem isn’t with Piscys. Maybe it’s you that needs to learn to listen.”

 

“Excuse me?” Ambrose eyed the boy as threw his arms into the air.

 

“Well, if you can’t hear Piscys, maybe you’re the problem.”

 

“And what, pray tell, do I need to do?”

 

The boy headed back to the statue and placed his hand on the broom. “You can probably start by getting your head out of your arse, so you can hear better.”

 

Ambrose’s jaw dropped, and he was speechless. 

 

The boy plucked the junonia shell off the base and tossed it to Ambrose. “Piscys doesn’t need trinkets. Keep it.” 

 

The shell sparkled in the dappled light, and Ambrose stared at it for a long time before shoving it into his pocket. The boy was rough around the edges, but he was right. Ambrose looked up to thank the boy, but the small corner of the courtyard was now empty.

 

As he left the temple and made his way onto the busy market, he tried to listen for the voice of his god, but all he heard was the low buzz of the evening crowd reverberating through the streets. 

 

Sorcha would tell him he was being foolish, and that he was an old man that no longer needed to provide, knowing full well he wouldn’t listen. He smiled to himself and thought about little Evie, Bastian’s girl, who looked so much like his late wife.

 

On a whim, Ambrose stopped at the baker’s, to get his granddaughter a sweet treat. He pulled a few coins from his pocket, and the junonia shell tumbled out onto the table. All he could do was stare. The baker clapped his hands bringing his focus back to the transaction.

 

“Oh!” a woman’s voice said. “That is the most beautiful shell. Would you be willing to sell it? It would be perfect for the jewelry I make!”

 

Ambrose glanced at the shell flashing brightly in the setting sun, and then back to the temple. Thank you Piscys. “I would love to sell it to you. I have many more, where this came from.”



July 15, 2021 18:11

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15 comments

Shea West
14:16 Jul 16, 2021

Beth this was a sweet and unique take on this prompt! I love the interaction between Ambrose and the boy...when he says take your head out of your arse😂 Like the others mentioned I think there is a fable-esque quality to it! I sat this week out, but I'm always glad you see your stories!!!

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Beth Connor
15:21 Jul 16, 2021

Thank you! I was going to sit it out too- but I have been very obsessive about getting something out every week... Plus I really wanted to do another fantasy.

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Shea West
15:28 Jul 16, 2021

I'm right there with you, but I did the NYC MIDNIGHT flash fiction contest over the weekend and that was enough to make my brain hurt😂

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Beth Connor
15:48 Jul 16, 2021

So cool- are your stories posted? I have never tried flash fiction, and my brain already hurts 😂.

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Shea West
16:00 Jul 16, 2021

I sent you an email!

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Blue Green
08:13 Jul 16, 2021

Great story! I love your descriptions of the temple area, and the worshippers of the different deities. I got a Persy Jackson / Camp Halfblood vibe there :-) I like the conversation, but I agree with K., that it could be broken up a bit. That said, it's way better than any of my conversations :-) I was waiting for the denouement where we discover that the boy was really Piscys in a human personification - the lines "Are you a god?" and "Piscys doesn't need trinkets" hinted at this. Was that your intention? Overall a super story, I enjoyed ...

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Beth Connor
15:18 Jul 16, 2021

oooh, it was! I am so glad you caught that. I did intend for the boy to be Piscys in human form but decided not to make the story about that. I am pleased you picked up on it. I added a few things yesterday afternoon and may edit some more if I have time before it closes. I like the Percy Jackson comparison. I am mid-way through my next novel, and I went full-on fantasy (my first was middle grade dystopian). The Percy Jackson stories are one of my comparable books (That and a series called Fablehaven) by Brandon Mull. Mine pulls from C...

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Blue Green
19:32 Jul 16, 2021

I'm glad I was on the right wavelength with this story! I loved the Fablehaven series, and read most of the Percy Jackson books, so it sounds like I should read your book when it comes out :-)

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A.G. Scott
19:32 Jul 15, 2021

This was so cool! It felt like a little folk tale, moral and all. I also enjoyed the way you spun the zodiac. 'in a way that represented the deities' dominant quality' -- give a few brief examples, as we don't know what kind of quality you mean. I know you move onto Lybras pretty quickly, but I'm left wanting at richer sketch of the setting. How it's laid out, the building (presumably) it's set inside, etc. 'Ambrose waved his way' -- weaved? 'Where does this kid come off speaking to him this way?' -- Where did this kid get off, speaking t...

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Beth Connor
22:06 Jul 15, 2021

I love the advice- that you so much. I really rushed this one, but the feedback has been motivating, and I will take another stab!

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K. Antonio
18:41 Jul 15, 2021

Just saw you posted this so I came by to take a look and make some comments. - The first paragraph is a bit redundant, your repeating the idea of the courtyard and statues twice. I feel like it could be compressed and have other descriptions. - The dialogue was good, but I think there are moments where it slows the pacing down a bit. Maybe weave in some extra action beats or emotional reactions just to break up the conversation a bit. - I enjoyed how the first paragraphs really contribute to the setting and we get this very "Greek/myth...

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Beth Connor
22:05 Jul 15, 2021

Thanks so much for some great feedback- Honestly, I kind of rushed this one because I have this illogical need to try to post something each week... but I'm motivated and should have some time to clean it up before tomorrow.

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K. Antonio
01:28 Jul 16, 2021

Trust me, I know the feeling of trying to put something out each week. I wasn't even sure I was going to write anything until I finished my piece this morning...took me the whole morning, I had break downs, but I'm fine now. 😂😂 But sometimes it's good to put out a piece, it helps (at least for me) to keep from having a writing rut.

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Daniel R. Hayes
16:35 Jul 25, 2021

This was brilliant Beth!! I love the way you craft these stories and create a world where readers can lose themselves. I was sucked in from the beginning and I loved the characters. I thought the dialogue was fantastic and the ending was very sweet. I also notice the little bits of humor you add into these stories. I think that's one of the charms to your style. Great job as always!!! :) ;)

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N K
11:34 Jul 18, 2021

I loved this story! I think you do such a good job of responding to the prompts in such a unique and original way. I like the way you framed losing faith in religion in this Percy Jackson-esque way. Makes me think about all the books I grew up with. This has that similar sense of humor as well which I really appreciate - I loved the interaction between the boy and Ambrose and the whole time, I was waiting for him to reveal himself as Piscys but I like where you took your story rather than focusing on a surprising reveal. The ending was so lo...

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