The prompt I chose when I opened my book of writing prompts this time was simply the word “Lemonade.”
A while ago I wrote some “comfortable”, Sei Shonagon-inspired fantasy vignettes, and so I revisited this concept to write a short piece about a town with an interesting landmark – the sort of curious traveller’s-journal thing that I enjoy reading, only this time in a nonspecific fantasy setting. It is a little inspired by my experiences of temples in Kyoto and Osaka, but I tried not to make it too tied to one nation or other.
Outside the temple walls halfway down the hillside the streets are a steep tangle of stairs and slopes and strange little alleyways between peoples’ houses, but at their junctions there are small plazas hacked into the cliff, arched entrances to cave-set shops that form the famed underground market. The hillside is seemingly inimical to settlement, but the determination of traders and fishermen to make the most of the easy waters, and the determination of merchants to sell their goods, mean that the people of this town now live like seabirds among the rocks.
The tunnels and galleries within are lit by magical lanterns, long strips of enchanted metal that glow with the fresh light of a cold winter morning and make the paths much less treacherous. They are a honeycomb of small shops which each have a door behind into another, equally complex network of tunnels and lifts for the traders to bring goods up and move unseen. People pause and browse, then walk on, a sort of circulation from one gallery to another, and the mountain inhales and exhales its crowds with business done in the meantime.
As people traverse the tumbled-out town through these pores of the hill, it seems as if the streets should sit empty. Indeed, many of them do. They are tough on the feet, baked under seaside sun and often confusing and meaningless to outsiders for whom this town is simply a stopping-point rather than a home. But there is a small curved path around the walls of a temple that has settled itself in a rare ledge large enough for a building of importance that everyone knows. It is more than a place of worship, it is a hospital in its quiet wings and a school for the townsfolk in its pillared hall and a library and map-room and anything else that the people may need. Religious observance may be done anywhere, for the Divine is always listening to those who truly need Her help, but Her agents are bound to use their privileges – of wealth, and wisdom, and land – to benefit Her creations.
There were always people coming and going from the temple, or young attendants and novices sweeping the streets and courtyards. And in a town of traders, where people are driven through hidden passages by the lure of commerce, a gathering of people attracts those who have something they feel those people need. At first it was a few people setting out a selection of charms and trinkets – but who would buy charms from anyone but a priest, if they were visiting a temple? Then people began selling flowers and the esoteric things one might offer to a capricious and arcane deity. In response to priests of the temple began doing the unthinkable in a town of trade – they began giving the accoutrements of religion away to all who came in faith. It was like an unspoken conflict between charity and commerce. Nobody condemned the other side, but it was clear that to the priests nothing vital should be sold if it could be provided in some other way. An impasse emerged. The street-traders needed to find something to sell.
And then, one young woman opened a stall that sold fruit. The temple gave away food to those who came needy, as was written in scripture, but that was not the majority of people who came to study, or learn, or perform observance. Few came up the winding path simply out of need of a meal. But after climbing the hill on a summer’s day, or after spending the morning in deep contemplation or annoyance of the teachers, the sight of fresh citrus-fruits kept on cold stones – or crushed into pulpy, gleaming juice – for only a penny or two was appealing. Fresh water was only feet away, from the fountains in the temple court, but once the idea of fruit is in one’s mind water will not suffice. There was no consternation from the priests at this inventiveness. Such frivolities barely classified as excess and nobody would ever consider the idea of selling fresh produce – brought to the town’s markets from the more hospitable inland reaches – to be unacceptable. And then, as if the young trader was receiving divine approval, a young novice, struggling to sweep in unfamiliar long sleeves and floppy hat, reached out to the trader and bought some fruit. Pale yellow-gold, sharp and refreshing on a hot day.
Fruit alone does not sustain man or business. Eventually the novelty palled and sales diminished to the steady demand of the right product in the right place. But the idea was there. Other traders brought stalls and with them food and drink in countless forms. Delicacies and novelties from the different nations which used the port. Luxury items and simple fare. Some – and they were the most successful – made a name for themselves by helping the temple provide for those in need, donating their produce and helping cook. Traders talk to each other, and eventually – with the young fruit-seller at the head – a small delegation visited the high priestess and offered to donate some portion of what they earned to the temple.
Now, years after that first fruit-stall opened, Divine Grace Street is one of the busiest food-markets in the town. Awnings and shades have been set up along it, there are seats and fountains and tables. It is a busy market but – out of respect for the Divine Herself – a strangely quiet one. The noise never reaches above the usual chatter of a crowded street, and once one is within the temple itself, where there is the steady percussion of wind-chimes and flowing fountains interspersed with snatches of lessons and sermons, it may as well not exist. And, at the corner of Divine Grace Street, where the high stone wall of the temple curves around to follow the course of Milestone Street, there is a small statue of a smiling woman, in honour of a trader who ended up achieving much more than making a profit.