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The Lonely Altar

Last week, I wrote this story about ducks. It was oddly well-received, and thanks very much to everyone who got in touch through various mediums to tell me they enjoyed it.

So, since it seems rude to only do stories for the prompts that are helpfully based on my dreams, I have done one for this week’s prompt as well. Click below to read it. If you like.

The Lonely Altar

By Nick Bryan

The church had been on the coast. Water eroded the base of its cliff, until rocks began to shift. Never a strong construction to begin with, it struggled to survive the dissolution of its very foundations. Beams tumbled over one another, doors hit the ceiling, but the altar stayed whole.

It was only a wooden table, still. Not one of your stone altars. No-one had been in the church at the time of collapse, so there were no bodies to pray to it with their dying breath. Not one person even saw it go. The nearest town was a mile away. It was alone, without worship or attention.

In short, it was bitter. But there was precious little that a slightly scratched piece of carpentry could do about it.

Years passed.

A teenager, urinating behind some rocks whilst bunking off school, spotted a golden chalice on the ground. He attempted to sell it at a local second hand shop, to fund a huge bottle of cheap cider. Fortunately, the owner recognised it as an artefact of interest and alerted… Eleanor and Edward, wife-and-husband archaeologists.

They prided themselves on the unbiased uncovering of the past, whilst maintaining an air of reckless adventure. So into the rocks they went, armed only with trowels, small plastic bags and some dynamite. They also took the teenager, a shaven-headed miscreant named Lee, to show them the scene of the find.

‘Er, it wos round there.’ Lee gesticulated at the sand. A pile of mishaped stones clung together all around them, and they were well inside a cave by now.

Eleanor and Edward exchanged annoyed glances. This was not useful so far.

‘That’s really useful, darling,’ Eleanor was definitely the people person of the team, ‘but could you be more specific? Did it have roll out from anywhere? Was it a particular time of day? Was it damp?’

This required a mental exertion most reserve for marriage proposals or long division, but their informant finally concluded that it was by the big rock on the left, and might have fallen from beneath. Edward raced over to begin investigating, whilst Eleanor congratulated Lee.

‘Very much appreciate your help, my dear. Here’s your reward as promised.’

A pink purse appeared from one of her twenty-seven pockets and she produced a crisp fifty pound note. He snatched it, grunted something inaudible and raced away, no doubt to buy penny sweets and marbles.

‘What a nice boy.’ Eleanor seemed pleased. Edward refrained from commenting.

Instead, he focused on the chips of paint on these rocks, which not even the tide had washed off. He glanced behind them, kicked the rock a few times and appeared to be reaching for his trowel.

At the last moment, he changed his mind and went for the dynamite. He used only a single stick, and set a short fuse. Then, with a high yell of ‘Fire in the hole, my dear!’, Edward and his wife raced for the cave entrance.

The resultant bang rippled through the cave, practically disintegrating the rock which had been indicated to them. Beneath three or four layers of shaken stone, the altar metaphorically trembled with anticipation as its tomb fell away.

Luckily, few sunbathers used this stretchline of coast, as it was largely cliffs and harsh terrain. So none were drawn to the loud bang, except for its instigators. Edward leapt gleefully into the hole he’d created, and his eyes fell immediately on the altar.

Well, it was more of a sturdy table, thick legs with some carved pattern at the top of each. It was hardly ornate though, merely decorated. There was water damage around its feet, sometimes splitting into cracks, but it seemed that the rocks had protected it from being soaked through. And after many months, it was a touch attention starved.

‘What do you think, darling?’ Eleanor called back from the opening. ‘Is there anything?’

‘Oh…’ He paused, trying to accurately describe the glory before him. ‘I think I’ve found an altar, Eleanor. It’s lovely.’

A simpler mind might think that a particular altar wants you to worship a specific God, or belief system, or eviscerated goat carcass, but they don’t actually make much of a distinction. Like a cat, they just want to be adored.

‘Really?’ Excited, she took a few paces into the gap, still glancing nervously at the shifting noises around her.

‘Oh yes.’ Edward ran a hand along the edge of the altar, impressed at how shiny it remained, even though he wasn’t sure varnish had existed in the relevant period.

Breathless, his wife finally scrambled into sight, and exhaled sharply when she laid eyes on the wooden worship-fodder. It swelled with joy.

‘Get your phone out, darling.’ She grinned. ‘We need to take some photos now and start finding a good home for this one.’

Nodding in profound agreement, he grabbed inside his jacket, expecting his hand to close around a mightily mega-pixeled cameraphone. It didn’t, and his eyes widened.

‘That little turd!’ Spinning on his heel rather too fast, Edward faced Eleanor. ‘Lee, the kid from earlier! He took my phone!’

She merely tutted, but he was incensed.

‘No! This won’t do! Doesn’t he remember we know his name and where he lives? I refuse to be robbed by someone that stupid! I quite simply refuse!’

Crunching up dust as he went, the enraged archeologist stormed away. ‘More importantly, he’s stopping us putting the word out about the altar, and that won’t do! I’m going to see him! And I’m taking the baseball bat.’

‘But, Edward…’ Eleanor called weakly after him, before dashing out of the cave in his wake, wishing she’d a phone with a decent camera. Behind them, the altar was almost orgasmic with glee.

This story copyright 2010 Nick Bryan and so forth. If you wish to somehow use it, let me know and I imagine we can come to some arrangement.


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