A priest, a rabbi and an atheist walk into a bar and not one of them is in the mood for a joke.
They had decided ahead of time to stagger their arrivals and lie about where they were going.
The atheist arrived first. She found a booth where they wouldn’t be disturbed and sat next to a wall sized pane of glass that looked out towards the harbour. She saw the red light of the sunset scattering over the water and catching the reflective strips on the guard uniforms as they started their evening patrol round the bay. She saw their guns and instinctively placed her hand on her staff keycard.
It wasn’t until the sun had finally dipped below the horizon that she turned back to survey the bar itself in more detail.
Her table was white. The benches were white. The light was white, as was the menu. The name of the restaurant was embossed on the front of the menu. In white.
She ordered a gin and tonic. The bar had replaced an old tavern that went back to the days of smugglers. Where once fishermen and sailors would toast to their health and trade stories over ale, now captains of industry and entrepreneurs drank Californian Cabernet Sauvignon. Wooden chairs had been replaced with chrome stools. Where there might have been a fiddler, paid with a hearty meal and regular top ups, there was now an exclusive brand partnership between the bar and an avant-garde musician whose electronica-folk aimed to capture the history of the common working man of the sea.
It was an accidentally tacky place.
The priest arrived. Small talk was kept small. She sat one side of the booth and he sat opposite. When the rabbi arrived, he sat next to the priest. Both were younger than she was expecting them to be. They could have been her sons. They ordered. The rabbi had a large glass of wine which he held by the stem, and the priest curled his fingers around a whiskey. Their unease irritated the scientist. They ought to feel they had God on their side.
The patter of the early evening crowd bobbed comfortably beneath the sound of a synthesised hornpipe.
“It’s no problem but it’s important we tell you in person Dr Chandra,” the rabbi said kindly.
“We’re not working with you or your organisation anymore Clodagh, we’re sorry.” The priest was curt. “We’ve indulged you before. But not after the spear.” He nursed his whiskey, tinkling the melting ice around the glass and avoiding eye contact.
Clodagh would be the first to admit the mistake with the spear.
It had started with small things. Lost keys turning up in the bellies of fish the men from the village had caught, then there were the defunct eighties mobile phones and receipts in Tagalog and Japanese.
The environmentalists blamed sea pollution, there were even conspiracy theories about the foreigners, and then the boycott. The fishermen demanded something be done, but once larger objects like the car engines and the artificial Christmas trees started washing up The Institute moved in. The village began to eat fish again and the fishermen stopped praying.
Litter picking became the number one hobby. People came from miles around to poke about and see what washed up, from sodden books in ancient languages to rusty bikes in models that hadn’t been made in years. Clodagh’s best pal from school had sworn she’d found a penny farthing early one morning and gave it back to the sea, but it was common knowledge that Shannon O’Brien was a liar.
Then the bodies starting showing up.
Old, distended and starched things covered in seaweed and sores.
Everyone believed Shannon O’Brien when she screamed and fainted.
The beach was closed off, The Institute expanded, and the village became as bloated with money as much as the water logged corpses.
The Institute now controlled the beaches, and the compound guards were hired. Villagers sold off their homes. The O’Briens left first, taking their cash to America to live out on the plains, and Shannon never had another nightmare again.
The whole village followed, setting up new lives in the USA or Australia, occasionally China or Brazil, but always as far inland as possible. Clodagh and her parents moved to the Punjab, her father’s pasty Irish skin forever pinked and the constant refrain of her grandmother’s thankful prayers that her baby was home, even if it was with a husband and daughter in tow. Her mother would try and make her swear she’d never come back to the village, but as soon as she could, Clodagh rushed back straight in the most prestigious training programme The Institute could offer.
“I know the spear was a mistake,” she said to the priest, because it bloody had been. They’d got carried away. But it stood to reason that if the sea was throwing up lost things, then at some point the biggies were going to come through. It had started with the Sarcophagus of Menkaure, looted from the pyramids of Giza in the 1830s and shipped to England, where the boat was sunk and lost. Clodagh had been on the team that authenticated the find, causing a diplomatic crisis between Ireland, the British and Egypt. It had been a mess.
Of course quietly and thoroughly, every venture capitalist, religious organisation and government had invested in property and the periphery industries that supported The Institute. There was even talk of Ireland designating it internationally neutral territory under exclusive control of The Institute in exchange for first dibs on St. Patrick’s stick when it came.
The question, ‘and what brings you to the village’ had inspired endless editorials and coffee table books over the years. Seekers broke bread and shared resources in the camps outside of the village whether they were searching for their grandmother’s locket or the missing plays of Euripides.
Then there were the cults.
Clodagh couldn’t remember which group had instigated the riots over the spear. In her defence, under analysis it did match the period of Christ’s death, and had blood on it, so it could have been the one that pierced his side. There were plenty of employees that maintained its authenticity. The spear itself had been destroyed after three guards were killed in the riots.
Things had become difficult since then. Too many vested interests and too many people clamouring over the beaches at all hours of day and night. She hadn’t been down to the beach herself in years, not since graduating from the programme into the upper echelons of The Institute. They liked that she was multi-racial, and spoke flawless English, Irish, Punjabi and Hindi. And the fact she was local? PR gold.
“This isn’t biblical,” she continued. “But we do need a spiritual opinion.”
The priest pushed his empty glass away and leaned back against the white upholstered leather of the seat.
“So why us then? Why not bring whatever it is to the multi-faith council next month?” he sighed, remembering believing the lie that it would be an honour to take over such a unique parish. His days were spent on paperwork and disseminating the official Vatican response to recent discoveries between listening to the boring confessions of a corporate class who threw away their souls for the most banal of sins. He considered this a sin in itself.
“Just come and see it,” she said.
“I’m game,” the rabbi said, in his typical display of enthusiasm that irritated the priest. The priest had assumed it was easier to be optimistic if you were still waiting for the messiah. “Seeing as we’re still at the unofficial stage, yes?” he asked, making sure he still had plausible deniability in case this turned out to be another embarrassment. It had been the spear that had caused the founding of the multi-faith council in the first place. Before that, there’d just been the priest, but now there was a rigourous process that flew in imams and granthis from Dublin alongside the odd druid and humanist. When they could be bothered to show up.
“Fine. Let’s go.” The priest put his coat on and began walking towards the door swiftly as if he were worried he might change his mind. Clodagh jumped up and followed him, leaving the rabbi to settle the bill.
Clodagh had taken them through to the heart of The Institute, swiping her keycard and making pleasant small talk to everyone they passed as they moved through concrete lined corridors with the most sophisticated technological protection money could buy. She placed her hand on the sensor in front of the last door and stepped back.
The hydraulic mechanism began to whir, revealing the warehouse.
The only thing inside was a giant shell the size of a double decker bus. It had a large prong extending out of one end as if it were an old-fashioned ear trumpet and the protective spikes on its main section where thicker than either man’s forearms.
“It’s a shell,” said the priest.
“Yes.” Clodagh replied. They walked around it. Of all the things that found their way through The Institute, a big shell was hardly ground-breaking.
“What’s the deal with this, then?” the rabbi asked, gently moving his hand across the apex of the spire.
“It appears to share the properties of Bollinus Brandaris, a sea snail from the Mediterranean. In Ancient Greece they use to crack their shells and remove their mucus to make purple dye.” She watched the young men become entranced by the ingenuity of nature, culture, and the mix therein.
“A snail couldn’t be this big. It’s not biologically possible.” The priest whispered in an awed voice. “Why is it making me feel weird?”
“You don’t know the half of it.” Clodagh joined the men as they looked into the aperture.
“How so?” The rabbi drew himself away from its cavernous opening and began counting the spikes. It had a hypnotic quality.
“You know how if you put a shell up to your ear you can hear the sea?” Clodagh said. “Everyone that’s put their head inside this thing has-“she stumbled, unable to distil all the reports and interviews she’d seen of everyone that had listened to the shell. Every one of them had been dismissed, irrecoverably changed. “We’re running studies on the post-exposure MRI scans. Psychologically, emotionally, they’re displaying a kind of bifurcation – As if they’re living on two planes of existence at once.”
“Clodagh,” the rabbi still felt unnerved, “spare us the analytics. What do you mean?”
“We don’t know. They go into the shell and come out wrong. Not dead. All their vitals are all fine, and they’re responsive to environmental stimuli. But they’re not there.” She flushed, “Look, we’ve tried putting animals in and nothing happens. We’ve tried recording devices.” She kicked the shell and winced. “We just need to understand it.” The rabbi moved closer to the shell, imagining what it would be like to carry such a weight on your back. “What do you think, father?” she asked.
The priest had been quietly circulating, thinking about the sea. The endless thrum of life and unbearable pressure of ocean. He imagined the shell, letting the collective force of Earth’s water move through it without crushing it. He felt the rabbi thinking about buoyancy and salt as though they were his own thoughts. He thought about the Mariana Trench and the connectedness of all things and sin and love and death.
He thought of his mother.
He thought of Clodagh, who seemed far away although she was still speaking.
His thoughts were the rabbi’s thoughts.
They stepped up towards the shell and placed their hands on the outer lip.
They thought of peace.
They stepped inside, vaguely hearing Clodagh shouting in a language they no longer understood.
They felt the shell folding around them, cocooning them. Cloistering and cleaving at their consciousness.
They thought no more.
Daniel Draper is an award-winning writer from Derbyshire. His work is often inspired by the macabre and uncanny of the everyday. If he isn’t reading, writing or teaching, he’s probably on