The Hecatoi would present the Melkart-Astarte Golden Thyrsus shortly after darkness fell on the least-lighted day of the year. It was thought the season drove the wisdom of our crones to see into the darkness of the future, even a little way.
On the morning itself, I rose after very little sleep. I took myself to the hospice gardens, longing for the rich healing scents of the herbs and the bright cascades of the flowers. Aunt Mimi had been working there since the sun rose. She set me to pulling weeds and picking aphids off the temple’s few precious rose bushes, a gift from the Lady’s temple at Antiochia Margiana on the far edge of the Parthian lands. In their season, the flowers were not much to see, but the scent took me out of myself. I let the pale midwinter sun warm my back as I squished the bright aphids.
“Isn’t there something they hate we could leave around the plants, or water them with?” I groused over my shoulder.
“No, not that I have yet found. I have eleven mixtures prepared in my office. When the aphid eggs are laid, I will spray a different decoction on each of the plants we have. And then I will measure the aphids,” she concluded.
“Remind me to stay away when someone has to squish and tally each and every little bug,” I muttered.
“I hadn’t thought of counting them. I had been prepared to weigh them, with scales from the goldsmiths,” Mimi sounded delighted with my amendment to her experiment.
“What did the gardeners at the other temple convey to you about managing their pests?” I wondered aloud.
“They said if I found anything that worked for the aphids to write to them immediately. I have hopes of some leaves that came back with a shipment of ivory, gold and salt from Wadi El-Amar south and west by whole turns of the Lady’s Back Wheels. But they are just one of the many solutions I have devised,” she sounded pleased to have been handed a still-room puzzle suited to her gifts and interests.
When I finished with the aphids, I wandered over to the herbs and inhaled the faint scent of winter’s hardiest healers and soothers in the cool air. I longed for peace, and this place smelled of the air coming off the heights around Yam haKinneret sometimes. I breathed deeply for a few moments.
Then I began practicing a slow, dissolving dance along the smooth paved paths. At speed, it would have been a tumbling run. I needed to feel the connection through my body to each movement, each position achieved and transmuted into its possible opposite. I gloried in the litheness of my form and the finesse of my execution. I didn’t need a Bull Ring to dance with my heart full and my liver flushed.
After a time, my reading of the ‘room’ informed me of a spectator. I came right-side around and faced my Aunt Mimi, still as fresh in her linens as she had been when she put them on before dawn. I couldn’t tell what she thought, no one but Yeshua ever succeeded in seeing past her blank visage.
“I understand Marta’s jealousy better now, I think,” she told me, apropo of nothing I could fathom.
“What?” I asked, as I brushed twigs, leaves and bugs from my tunic. The paths were narrow, and the plants flourished with exuberance.
“She is in and out of the still-rooms. I prefer her to assist me when I need assistance. She keeps herself neat, and her measurements are precise. Her memory is good too, which means she takes better notes than most. She talks sometimes, while we work. Many people do,” Mimi reflected.
“She speaks of you with longing and loathing, but I don’t know if she knows I hear that in her speech. When I told her you had made a proposal for the Golden Thyrsus, she distinctly changed color. Poor Marta was suddenly so white. I remembered not to tell her more than that about your plan,” she admitted without the least idea she had confirmed all my fears.
But it was the day of the Great Harvest Feast. Today the Hecatoi would award the Melkart-Astarte prize itself to start the celebration. No bad thing had happened, nothing I couldn’t work through or around in any event. Why did Mimi’s innocent confession fill me with terror at this late hour?
I couldn’t find the right word, or words to say to her. I stretched my lips in a grimace and gave her a wave. Then I trotted past her and down towards the semi-private gate to the Sidonian Port. The brief day had slipped away while I lost myself in the hospice gardens.
I became annoyed with my own senseless superstitions. I would review the sketches I had made, and the notes I had taken which now formed a sort of a journal. I kept the collection safe behind an array of broken tools on a shelf in gloom down in the fuel storage caverns, far from the flames of the furnaces and glory holes at the lowest level of the Sidonian Port.
I had enough time for a final look through my concept. If I ran back to Sobe’s rooms after, I would be able to scrub the garden-fug away and put on fresh linens for the feast. I wanted nothing more than the reassurance of my own estimates, calculations, and diagrams. I didn’t want to miss a moment of the festivities.
The stairs were old when the Lord of Sedge and Bee had never been heard of beyond the borders of lower Misr. Great grey blocks of stone shouldered seamlessly over the stairwell. They were splotched with mauve, and odd green deltae of veining highlighted with the tiny yellow frills of persistent lichens. The height of the megalithic walls made the sky a box of blue above, and the passage at the bottom deep shadow blurring to impenetrable darkness.
I knew these stairs. They had been my constant portal from the New City of Tzor to the mysteries of the crafting workshops portside for more than seven years. They were as they had been for time immemorial, and I thought of my plans as I skipped swiftly down to the glassworks.
Between the disciplines lay the answer to a puzzle whose piece we hadn’t known was missing. The answer was glass, was smithying, was fiber arts, was misdirection and sleight-of-hand, was better return on investment, and was standardized units of measure. It was all there: the answer to the snail-milk problem, as the Hecatoi called it.
I would take the Golden Thyrsus because I knew how to keep the Murex dye sound in transit. I had a method to make the volumes of it measure to a tithe of a dram. I had devised a strategy to see that bandits and pirates took less of it in toll as we transported it from the Mar-Yam haMariahne to the vast splendour of the markets along the Yangtze River--a journey of seven seasons or more.
My entry had detailed cost analysis. It contained a factual account of our current levels of loss through theft, degradation of product, briberies and market pressures. It gave specifics to counter this long-standing erosion of our earnings. It included recommendations from each of the crafting Matroi from whose fields I had drawn. My strategy for making the proposal accessible to all who might evaluate it seemed water-tight. Today. All my grubbing and scrubbing and loading and raking and hauling and forcing had come to this point. This moment.
And my nimble, dance-trained feet slipped on the stairs. I slipped on stairs I knew more intimately than the way to my own bed in Great Cousin Sobe’s room. I slipped and fell with cracking force on the ancient hewn stones. Pain, sharp as the east wind, lanced through my back. Pain, like a clap of thunder overhead, smacked my skull. For a long time, I lay sunk in the darkness of the abyss before the Lady rolled Order from Chaos.
“Look, her eyes, she’s waking. Fetch the Matroi. Run!” said a voice I knew, but whose name I couldn’t find in my memory. I cracked my eyes a little. The room seemed dim, whether with night or lack of light I couldn’t say.
Pain roared through me as I swam into consciousness. Pain in my head, my arm, my shoulder, my back. No pain in my legs. Nor my feet. I ran the assessment as our instructors in dance and weaponry advised. I knew I had taken injury. I knew I had hurt myself badly. I didn’t know how long I had lain in darkness. I couldn’t remember the moment of the accident.
In the baths? The gynogymnasium? One of the workshops? The log piles? So much of where I spent my time and how I spent it there might, with poor timing or bad luck, lead to horrible injury. I sank back into the enswathing darkness where the pain was less.
When I came around again, the light continued dim. No outcry accompanied my waking. I opened my eyes wider and rolled them left, then right. To my left, a plastered wall, window aperture high above. To my right, my great-great-great cousin Sobe, slumped on her stool. Her back propped against the wall by the head of the bed in which I lay.
A low screen diluted the flickering light of one tiny lamp. Otherwise, the room was fully dark. And the pain.
The pain in my head, arm, shoulder. The horrible, crippling rush of ache everywhere I stretched my awareness. There must be breaks as well as bruises, I thought to myself. Again, I slipped into the comforting numbness of sleep.
Was it a day? A week? An aeon before I woke again? I could not say. But it wasn’t long enough. The pain rode me like lice in a beggar’s hair. The light fell stronger, coming through the window above me in mellow golden motes.
My hazy awareness made sense of the smells of liniment, burnt herbs and the faint tang of old vomit. I lay in the infirmary. And the pain continued to strangle me with its throbbing fury.
It didn’t drive me back into unconsciousness. My mouth felt as though it were full of tufts of unspun, uncleaned cotton. I croaked weakly, trying to clear my throat.
Oh miracle of miracles! The face bent over mine, with a spouted pot to drip water between my parched lips was my very own mother’s. Shelomit sat beside me.
“Mother?” I whispered once the water she trickled into my throat had cleared the worst of my thirst.
“Yes, Hanna, I am here. And you are here, and awake, my beloved,” she crooned to me, stroking my forehead with the lightest touch.
“What happened? Did I fall?” I asked, knowing I had, but not knowing more than that fact alone.
“You did fall, darling child. But we found you, and have stayed by you and nursed you until you were ready to come back to us.” We spoke in our quietest voices.
“Where am I?” I knew I was at the temple, but I couldn’t make any sense of how I might be there. I wanted to know how old I was. I wanted to know how long I had been in the infirmary. I was having trouble making the words fit together to match the questioning fear in my liver.
“You are at the Temple of Tzor, love. You are lying in the infirmary. You have been here nearly one turn of the Lady’s Back Cart Wheels,” she reassured me tenderly.
“What’s wrong with me? Will I get better? It hurts, mother. It hurts so much,” I whimpered.
“Yes, dear heart, it hurts. But the pains will heal, and you will heal, and after a time you will get better. Yes, you will,” she muttered fiercely, as though she were arguing with someone, not talking to me. Again, I dissolved from waking to sleep, or something deeper, my mother watching over me.
It was many weeks more before the Hecatoi who had charge of the Infirmary sat down with my mother and the women of Bet-Maryam to explain to them what they knew of my case. Only with reluctance would my mother, attended by both her sisters-- Aunt Mimi and Aunt Mariamne, share what the Hecatoi had said.
“The college of healers holds you lucky. A little higher on your back, and you might not have lived to see the next New Year. You have some control of your elimination, which they say is crucial to your future well-being,” my mother put the best face on the diagnosis of the temple’s doctoresses.
“Lucky?” I exploded. I pulled the light sheeting from my legs. “Look at those. They will never run, or walk, or climb again. I am bed-bound forever. Half my body has been turned to stone, and I will never dance or swim or even stand unaided again,” I finished in a furious rage. My head pounded in sympathy with the blood lurching through my crippled frame.
“Lucky,” Mariamne repeated firmly, “Lucky you didn’t die of the broken skull you gave yourself. Lucky you didn’t bleed out. Lucky you can reason and talk and feed yourself. Lucky your family can afford the care you will require to live out your days productively. Lucky indeed, little one. Luckier than most,” she finished darkly.
I came from a long line of tough women who mostly choose to serve the Goddess in Her Cart. Some chose instead to hold up the traditions of the other branch of our family tree; they married the great Kohanim of the One on High at the Temple in Yerushalayim. But they were none of them whiners.
“Fine. I am lucky. I am the luckiest dancer in a long-line of dancers. I am the luckiest of all the lucky ones. Have it your way,” I grumbled in misery. I ached. My head throbbed. My shoulder sang with agony each time I shifted on my pillows. And worse, my legs and feet felt nothing at all.
“Some say you have more luck than any one person needs. For they hold you lucky in winning the Melkart-Cartagena Thyrsus. The award, and its privileges and prerogatives are still yours. You may take up the challenge of the award whenever you wish--be that tomorrow or never. No one can take that from you, though several have tried since your fall,” Mimi reminded me in her blunt and toneless voice.
Did I even care anymore? It had been the focus of my dreams for so long. Now, walking across the room to pour myself a cup of water would have been a more welcome victory than the surprise of the Great Harvest Festival prize.
“In time, the pain will go, and you will still have many choices to make,” Mimi continued, “Will you be ready to make the most of what you still have when the time comes? Be careful, Maryam Hanna bat Shelomit. You have more than you know, and may make of your life a rich gift to the One who set it Rolling before you. I had my dreams snatched away by fate and time and family. I found the means and the desire within me to go forward. To make what I could of what I had left. If I can, you can. Make us proud, Hanna. You are the future of Bet-Maryam, and the culmination of her past as well.”
“What then? What comes next? What is there for an ex-dancer, bed-ridden and crippled with pain?” I demanded angrily. I should have known better. Bet-Maryam may have had shortcomings, but answers they had always had in plenty.
Months later, after my head had healed and the room stopped spinning when I sat up, they brought me a sort of chair. Like the Lady’s Cart, it had large back wheels, and smaller front ones. It had side panels and a back panel of stiffened leather, so that I wouldn’t slide out of it. They had even provided my feet with a rest at the front, to which they could be tied, again to keep them from flopping akimbo. I hated it immediately.
“Take it away. I get dizzy sitting up. What would happen to my head in something moving?” I commanded Mariamne and Aunt Mimi. Shelomit had gone back to her boys and her fisherman after more weeks than she could spare beside my bed in the infirmary.
“Yosif and Yeshua spent hours building this, with help from at least three of the Matroi, and even Yahya stood near it while they were working,” Mariamne protested.
“I don’t care,” I pouted.
“It folds,” she offered as though this feature were better than sesame sweets.
“Then tell them they can fold it up and use it for a….” I began.
“Tell them yourself. Here they are. Yeshua and Yahya, that is. I must find Yosif myself. I wish to learn if he knows of any reliable traders headed to Wadi El-Amar,” said Mimi as she turned to leave.
My cousins crowded in as my pristine aunt sailed out. Yahya’s hair had been growing out for three years now. He kept the beard oiled, with a few careful braids at the edges, though the Nazarites in Yudah would have frowned on that. Yeshua’s beard had finally begun to come in. However it was so light that he still looked smooth-chinned in the wrong light. I scowled at their concerned faces.
“Don’t you want to leave this dank, dark room and roam the gardens with us?” Yahya wheedled, his eyes burning with worry for me this once, instead of haShem. I didn’t care.
“This is the nicest day we have had all winter. We would enjoy it more if you chose to keep us company,” Yeshua suggested in his usual soothing manner. It put my hackles up.
“Go ahead. Have a great day in the beautiful weather. Nothing is beautiful to me. I. am. a. dancer. And I. cannot. dance. I cannot wiggle so much as one of my toes. I hope you don’t choke on all the fun you’re going to have,” I said in a voice which wished them the opposite. I turned my head to the wall, and shut my eyes.
This was the habit I had developed right after the accident. It let people know I had become tired and needed rest. I still used it. Though I didn’t tire as quickly physically, my emotional state left me almost as exhausted for most of every day.
“Look, Tal-el, Hanna thinks we will disappear if she shuts her eyes,” Yahya remarked.
“We shouldn’t need her help, if what the shaman told us was so. They often work on persons too sick to recognize their presence,” Yeshua responded calmly.
“They have more practice than we do,” Yahya pointed out.
“It worked on Yannik. He got up and walked,” Yeshua replied.
“That’s not practice, that’s a miracle,” Yahya objected.
“Then let’s do that again. Whatever it was. And if it wasn’t us, let us act as a lens for that Greater Power we conducted,” Yeshua directed.
My eyes were shut. I didn’t see what they did. I was too stubborn to reward them with my attention. There weren’t any herbs, fires, knives, ropes or the rest of the usual trappings of the active mystic. That I would swear.
Nothing touched me physically. I heard no prayers or songs of healing. But I felt a gentle glow welling from the top of my head, like honey, thick, coating, and golden. The glow spread slowly at first, then faster. I sensed that it covered me entirely. I wished I could feel it over my legs or feet. Then I began to cool.
I opened my eyes. My cousins stood by the bed, gazing at me with different questions in their eyes. I blinked at them.
The dismissive words forming on my tongue dissolved. The scowl on my face felt stiff, and I let the frown and furrows relax. The aches from muscles too long unused had eased away. I blinked again, as though I were recovering from blindness, or too long along in the dark.
“Would you like to sit up?” Yeshua asked after I hadn’t said anything for some time.
“I could try.” And I did. I sat up, pushing with my own arms. This was more than I had done for myself since the afternoon of the Great Harvest Feast.
“Can you feel your legs?” Yahya asked.
“Only with my hands,” I announced quickly. “But whatever you did, it was enough. I think you should help me into my chair. I want to see the sun,” I said evenly.
Their faces fell. I still couldn’t use my legs. But they didn’t feel the miracle I had found inside me. A shell had broken, and I felt ready to push through it and find the person I needed to be on the other side.