Once they chose to sit as Hecatoi, the work requirement for the priestesses changed to one of assisting the chroniclers with personal histories, mentoring the Matroi, and determining the arc of the temple’s long-range goals, based on their experience of successes and failures in the past. Representative Viragoi, like Aunt Mimi, and more Matroi, sat on the guiding council to give a voice to all the generations at the great temple. Imagine my surprise when I passed the council chamber as they were dispersing, and saw Marta walking out with my Aunt Mimi, deep in conversation. My liver swelled with indignation.
I hadn’t heard so much as a whisper regarding my poisonous nemesis since returning to the temple. Maybe she had been sent on a learning assignment, as I had when I left for Kriti. I hadn’t thought to ask. One doesn’t enquire after the absence of cholera or horseflies, after all.
Though I hadn’t seen her in years, I knew her instantly. She had retained her naturally willowy shape which enhanced her increased stature. Her wheat gold hair still shone in the least ray of light. Her eyes, tilted and a rich blue, dominated her angular face.
Indeed, Marta looked half-starved to me. Although many of the girls and women in dance and weapons work were slim, they also sported defined musculature. She did not.
Maybe she had been ill. That would have brought her back to Tzor. Our Hecatoi believed they were the best doctors on the Mar-Yam haMariahne and beyond. They preferred to manage the healing of their own in house. I hoped her recovery, if that’s what it was, would be protracted; and she would need constant supervision as she recovered in the infirmary.
I waited until the next Bet Maryam dinner to learn what might be known. I made a point of sitting next to Aunt Mimi. This was easier now that the Ai-Ramathea had left for her third voyage to Tanais, with Yeshua and Yahya still aboard and Yosif continuing as her captain.
“Was that Marta I saw with you at the council chamber the other day?” I asked as casually as I could manage. “I haven’t seen her in years. Did you know her people had a summer place just down the shore from where I grew up at Migdala? Though I was closer to Miryim, her younger sister,” which was only a little bit of an exaggeration.
I would have been closer to Miryim had our acquaintance been allowed to develop. Instead, I knew the bitter attentions of her vindictive older sister. Maybe time had mellowed her towards me, or softened her vengeful focus.
“Marta was studying in Hagmatana. She had been selected by the Hecatoi to take up oracular practices. They couldn’t train her here, as our oracle has gotten old, and with it paranoid in her senility. While it isn’t ideal to have the oracle of Melkart-Astarte initiated abroad, we couldn’t do so here without unduly upsetting Hecatoi Carmenta. Her senility appears to have had no effect on her oracular work, which has been as strong as ever by all accounts,” Mimi replied in her blank voice.
“Had Marta finished her training and initiation? I hope her studies weren’t interrupted,” I added with malice masked by innocence.
“No, she hadn’t finished completely. The initiation yes, as there is much which cannot be taught to one who has not passed through the gate of mysteries. But there is meant to be a time of training, shepherded by the experienced interpreters and avatars,” she saw my eyes widen at her use of the last word. “There are many forms an avatar may take in service. Qedesh’ot are only one of many possible ways to channel the eternal and cycling creatrix.”
Mimi did not look self conscious as she imparted this to me. She didn’t possess that outward awareness of actions and words which others possessed naturally.
“Will Marta be able to finish her training in Hagmatana?” I asked, hoping to hear a ‘yes.’
“Eventually, she will. She has matters which require her attention and presence here in the navel of Mar-Yam haMariahne, and not off beyond endless peaks and rivers.”
I counted that as a qualified ‘yes.’ Aunt Mimi never gossiped, but only shared the appropriate information due to any one who sought it from her. If I had thought Sobe or Marmar knew more, I would have asked them, as they were Hecatoi of the council.
But Marmar’s hearing had begun to leave her before her sight diminished. Though Sobe’s hearing remained strong, she was very little concerned with the doings of the present. She spent more and more of each day in conversation with persons seen only with her inner vision. Haha had listened in, and said they were long dear and long dead-- one and all.
I learned later, through a sentence here, and a shrug there, using the network of Viragoi with whom I had served my novitiate why she had come back so suddenly. Her mother had died giving birth to a baby brother, also dead now. I hadn’t seen at a distance, but she had shaved her eyebrows as a sign of mourning. She had been required to be present for the entombing in ash-Sham, and the reading of the will.
Her mother’s people allowed full property rights to women. Marta had done well out of her mother’s estate, as the eldest daughter. The land was all in Tyrrhenia, north of Roma herself. That went to Miryim. The rest of their mother’s assets became Marta’s. Her dowry would still be provided by her father.
Her investments and shares in ventures and certain real estate properties in Eskanderejai and Yerushalayim lay under her sole control. No wonder she had a place at the council. She had substantial market value; this was highly honored in the ranks of Our Lady Rolling. I shook my head when I understood the breadth of her worth.
One day, I would have the wherewithal to sit on the council. I would make my place with my fortune. I would not have to wait four decades or more to take a seat in the chamber where the biggest and most important decisions were made. I vowed this, with my arms full of towels to run to the glassblowing hot floor.
And then, the problems started back up. Our time apart had not softened Marta towards me. I could tell.
It was autumn-- the second snail milk harvest of the year. I had been working on an experimental batch of test dye, to demonstrate the fixing qualities of the mordant, still stale pee, with different dilutions of it added to the dye as it fermented. I had special permissions to use even the tiny amount of dye the experiment had required. But the Matroi agreed that having a chart, based on notations and readings taken carefully, would surpass the ancient oral tradition from which they had been working for more seasons of the murex than could easily be counted.
One morning, I found the ceramic vessels containing my dye allotment crowded onto the grill of a brazier which nursed a bed of ash-cloaked coals. Their lids had been removed. My precious dye lots had turned into a foul-smelling powder coating the insides of the tiny cruets.
I carefully collected the powder from the vessels. A process more difficult through a blur of tears. I knew to the drop what the liquid proportions had been in the vessels. The dye seemed the right consistency when I added water back to the dry powder and stirred it up. I colored some swatches of cloth with my rescued dye. The color did take. I waited a day to report the problem with my attempt at standardizing the oral tradition, hoping to use the color swatches I had made to convince the dye makers to let me have another try.
The Matroi said nothing when I told them the dye had been left on a hot brazier overnight. They looked skeptical when I told them it hadn’t been me who made the mistake. And none of them were interested when I said I could start over. After Matroi Umana had confirmed the failure of my work, I was not encouraged to try again.
Matroi Deenah cracked a broad white smile when I turned up on the roster of assistants on the hot floor again. I had made a name as a good glassblower before I was yanked into dye-making. No one had forgotten the quality of assistance I delivered.
Though I was small, I was nimble enough and strong enough to keep up with the most demanding of the glass artists. I spun punties and pipes tirelessly. I never complained about the heat: my training as a fire imp had inured me to the brutal temperatures in the glassworks. I had a good eye for the molten-glass gather, and gave a warning when I felt it shift that tiny increment which signalled that it might fall and shatter if we didn’t support it differently.
I lost myself in the challenges of the work, crouched on my rolling stool to better stay with the pipe or puntie as required. I wore my cedar eye shields, with the narrow slits when the furnace and glory hole work were intense. They kept the brightness of the fire from blinding me to the work on the bench as I shifted swiftly between the two.
I learned how to keep strings of colored glass flowing by observing. I watched the mistresses of the medium work the marvers with colors and for shaping a project on the puntie. I set up the molds for pattern imprints. I called the gather ready when the artist gave me the sign for the next piece to begin.
I loved the interdependence, the dance between the air and the flame. I loved being a technician, calling for more heat in the glory-hole. I even loved showing the newer girls how to judge the volume of color granules they needed, or where to find more sand for a big mix of molten glass.
For all the flame, liquid glass, and superheated metal, I felt safe in the glassworks as I did not in my own room in the Galactaea wing. It had not taken Marta and her cronies long to learn which room was mine.
One morning, with dawn breaking, I came back to an infestation of centipedes. I almost admired the dedication it must have taken to find so many and keep them until there were enough to make a nuisance of themselves when released all at once. The Matroi were less enthused by my problem. After the small fire the week before, nothing as bad as the one before I went to Kriti, they were becoming guarded about my problems. They listened, but their eyes slid away behind my shoulder. I learned why soon enough.
A few days later, I was directed to bunk with Sobe. Sobe rarely left her room in the hospice wing. She often had company. And no one would tolerate seeing her endangered by malicious pranks.
Our temple was a byname for reverence for the elders of the community. We were mentioned with honor for far and farther regarding our treatment of our most senior devotees. If Marta attempted her foolishnesses while I lived under Sobe’s roof, she might lose her place at the temple, let alone her seat on the council.
A reliable, steady calm in the tone of my days followed my move. I missed my room in the Galactaea wing. Young as I was, I sometimes found myself annoyed with having to cut Sobe’s food for her, or shift her yarns for the project she might be crocheting, or having to record the results of her lightning fast abacus calculations. Then I would feel small for being so impatient with one of the great ones not just of the temple, but of my own house. And I would try again to mend the hole in my bag of patience.