- Written by Alexandra D Smith
- Category: Tzor Again
I had not been back for long, when Matroi Deenah approached me at the beginning of one of my fire imp shifts. I had grown etzba’ot and etzba’ot since I first came to Tzor yet she continued to tower over me in a welter of muscled mass and leather shielding. Flashes of her red-brown skin gleamed in the heat and flickering light.
“You do good work. Your time in Yerushalayim did not spoil you for real labor,” She roared over the furnaces.
“Thank you,” I howled back.
“Step out with me a moment,” Matroi Deenah requested, waving to the doorway.
The noise and heat abated as we exited the furnace room. A breeze blew across our sweat filmed bodies, smelling of the sea. The port lay fairly quiet by the start of the Galactaea shift. The slap-slap of wavelets against the quays’ pylons and the arrhythmic creaking of the cranes and booms were all I could hear.
“You do good work,” Matroi Deenah began again. “We think you might be ready for a promotion.”
“A promotion? I am a newly returned Viragoi,” I demurred. I liked the solitary, difficult work. It freed my soul to wander as I loaded fuel into the blazing maws of the furnaces.
“Yes, and we want to cultivate your potential before you become softened and spoiled by less challenging assignments,” Matroi Deenah returned. “We want to train you for glassblowing. You would start as an assistant. It allows one to learn the applications and techniques without a great loss of materials and time. You will be trained to blow, roll, flash, anneal, and work the marvers to begin. If you satisfy the artists, after a time, you will be given simple blown-mold work and such. Glassmaking is a true craft, and the wheels of the Lady’s Cart revolve many times before one becomes a full mistress. What do you say? Will you give us a trial?” she asked.
“Will I still have Galactaea shifts?” I countered.
“If these are what you like, absolutely. A number of artists prefer to work with fewer distractions and interruptions. Some of our most advanced Matroi are devotees of the Galactaea hours,” the Matroi assured me.
“What if I hate it?” A fair question, I felt.
“Then we don’t continue with you, as it is too taxing and too dangerous to have any but the willing on the hot floor,” she shot back.
“When would you like me to start?” I asked weakly.
“Let me walk you up, show you around and introduce you,” Deenah put a massive, calloused hand on one of my shoulders to guide me. “They work immediately above the furnaces, requiring the greatest heat. Metal smithing, iron and bronze, are on the same level , but off to starboard--further from the heat. Next come the ceramics kilns, and above them the jewelers. Gold and silver have low melting points, relative to everything else we handle.”
They taught me to blow smoothly into a long metal pipe with a glowing gathering of semi-molten glass on the other end. The artist spun the pipe to assist in the shaping of the glass. I simultaneously attempted to keep my lips around the pipe and my body supplying air even as the rod moved forward and back, around and around.
I handed jacks, clamps, snips, and pads of scorched felt to the artist on demand. I caught pieces coming off the punties or pipes and ran them smoothly to the annealers across the room. I found bars and sealed amphorae with the correct color additives. I swung the blowpipe or puntie into the glory hole on command. There I twirled the work gently, to distribute the shock of the heat so that the piece in progress didn't shatter or drop off as it rewarmed.
Like everyone on the hot floor, I sweated and drank water laced with salt and vinegar. I ladled water over myself for the momentary coolness. I prided myself on the growing collection of spattered keloids on my forearms and cheekbones. They marked the burns from cinders and sparks which were unavoidable in the near hell of the glass crafting hot floor. In a word, I loved the work.
I loved the hoarse commands from the artist at the other end of the bench as she frantically pressed and gripped, turned and pulled. I felt awed by the sudden failures and dazzling successes of the glassworks. Their techniques, colors, range of applications and sheer artistry were unparallelled. I loved being part of a team of the best crafters in glass in the world. After some months, I had finally got to where I could finish a shift with no tears and minimal burns. Then Bet Maryam stepped in.
Mimi sent a note to the hot floor one evening. She asked me to meet in her stillroom the next day. I hadn’t seen Mimi outside of the weekly evening meal Bet Maryam had instituted. Unsuspecting, I went along to see how I could be of use to her or the family.
“You have been back for some time now, and made a fine readjustment. Your movement Matroi report on your strengths uniformly. Those who lecture you in reading and writing would like you to put more time into your work. And those in the memory classes say you are as good as any of the ungifted can be, although again they would like to see more practice.
“Naturally, the Matroi in charge of the glassworks speaks very highly of your devotion to learning the craft, your dedication to attaining the standards of a solid assistant. This is all very well, Hanna. But now, Bet Maryam feels you must take some interest in the core product of the temple’s business side,” Mimi informed me in her characteristic monotone.
“We have requested a place for you with the Viragoi who train to turn the snail milk into finished dye. This dye is the single most costly substance in the world, as determined by its open-market value. It accounts for three shekels in every five of the temple’s earnings. The cedars are next, at one in five.
“Our dye trade is the life-blood of our success, political independence, and recognized standards from Albion to the Oxus. It is mete that you should fully understand the ‘how’ of the foundation of all our wealth and status.”
“Disincluding the cedars, of course,” I amended gravely. Mimi had never shown an iota of a sense of humor in my presence. Lilit had one. It tended toward malice.
“The cedars must never be forgotten. They made our name before even the dye. Are you ready to do as Bet Maryam bids you, Hanna?” Mimi questioned, implacable as ever.
“What if I said ‘no’? What if I enjoy the glassworks crew? What if I like doing what I’m doing already?” I returned.
“Your life, child, is not yours to direct. You still live on the stipends allowed to you by the consideration of your foremothers. Your role at present, is to do as you are requested.
“We do not send you into hardship. We do not send you into exile. We only reserve the right to further your education as we see most fit to meet both your needs and ours,” my aunt clarified woodenly.
“I heard you weren’t such a good little scion of the family tree when it was your turn to be told what you would and wouldn’t be doing. I heard that’s how Yeshua came to be, when you went and served as a qedeshah for the quarter year. Why should I do what you yourself refused?” I demanded.
“No one asked me to learn the dye trade,” Mimi rejoined without heat.
“I mean you weren’t doing what they wanted. You did what you wanted. How am I so different?” I protested.
“You are the only one, that is the ‘how’ of your difference. We had Mariamne and Shelomit to fall back on if I soured the family’s plans. Indeed, they called on Mariamne to do what I could not for the temple here. And they were right to make that choice. If she had failed, Shelomit would have come next. Though she always said she had had enough of weathered old women and wanted a life with men. Which she did go to have when Mariamne proved to serve our ends without let or stint. It is good to have sisters,” she remarked, as though they might have been ‘nice furnishings’ or ‘a pleasant view’.
“You’re saying I have to. Whether it’s what I want, or like, or care about? And no one thinks I should have a voice in my own future?” I asked with a bitter mouth.
“That’s right. This request is an order. You’ve dived for snails, and milked them, and even learned the crude formulations of Beit haMiqdas,” when she said the name of haShem’s house, I almost heard emotion in her flat intonation. “Now it is time you learn the finesse and the control, the tests, concentrations, and dilutions which comprise the art of crafting dye here.
“Only so much sunlight, and no more. More than the least necessary, and the rays burn away the liquid and reduce yield without increasing the effectiveness of the dye. When to add the mordant? Before market to assure the quality of finished textiles? Not at all, to let foreign crafters have their way with this precious substance? You will have the judgment to know which answer is best, and when the pressures of the market say otherwise. Go and soak up the knowledge, with that abominable odor.
“I remove to Ushu at this time of year. My rooms are north of the Old City, and the smell is immeasurably less. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to think until the vileness were used or stored,” she finished in her usual oblivious honesty. “With the spa closed, I have a space of time to work on my tinctures, tisanes, and potpourris for the year to come.”
“Fine. I lose my skill at the glassblowing bench to devote myself to snail milk,” I enunciated through my pout.
“I am glad you understand,” Mimi replied. As ever, she missed the sarcasm.
At the end of winter, the snail collecting process began. By mid-Spring, we had sufficient snail milk to begin the work of transforming it into dye. At Beit haMiqdas, the Pesach season would just have ended.
I dived to tend snail beds in the chill waters on the north side of the Old City. They were seeded onto old ropes, intertwined with lathed screens every twelve amot or so. I trained the fresh Novitiates in the art of milking snails, and sometimes conducted the instructional readings to which they still listened as they worked.
When the snail liquor had been fully extracted for the spring season, it would yield the bluer version of our famous dye. The snail milk collected in autumn made the redder range of colors we produced. While we gathered the precious liquid, it was stored deep under the hillside on which the temple lay in amphorae half-submerged within an ancient cistern which had been laid in for this purpose, more than two lotuses of years in the past. The coolness of the amphorae in the fresh saltwater of Mar-Yam haMariahne’s winter tides, preserved the secretions of the murex perfectly.
From the amphorae, the snail milk moved to the fermenting vats. These had been located above the shallow harbor overlooking the sunken temple of Melqart since before it had fallen in the cataclysm. The vats were at the extreme southern end of the former island of Tzor. The trade winds did what they could to ameliorate the appalling odor of a million or more murexes’ ichor rotting to perfection. Mimi had decided no wind, however prevailing, could prevail against the funk of the raw materials of money ripening in its most primitive and polished possible expression.
I grew used to the heinous fug. Like the other Viragoi in the dye-makers’ cohort, I knew not to go up to the hills on a rest day for the fresh, live-cedar scented air. It only made returning to the labor of the vats the more unbearable.
Instead, we one and all enhanced our reputation for having iron stomachs and the livers of lions by lounging on the sand at the former Port of Misr when a rare rest day came. We spent hours swimming, diving, and rowing about collecting fresh mussels and oysters for a seaweed roasted feast on the fearsomely odoriferous shore. In that fashion, we avoided spending the first hours of our next shift clearing our stomachs convulsively until our noses adjusted to the horrid stench. Have I mentioned the foulness of that smell?
Sufficient exposure to light coupled with fermentation formed the second stage of the dye making process. The remainder of the ritual had been a secret of the temple since time before time. We all swore vows to protect the sacred process. No one I ever heard of, self included, would think to violate those chthonic oaths.
In the end, I conceded Bet Maryam had acted in wisdom. The making of dye from snail milk proved consuming. It gave me a sense of the reach and power of Our Lady Rolling, merely through watching stain reactions on a range of fabrics. All the prosperity, the lasting connections with other temples linking together through the known world-- all this hung on the secretions of a legless sea creature. This was a mystery indeed, and I had become a part of it through the direction and machinations of my foremothers. Knowledge has ever been a form of power.
Our finished product returned to fewer, smaller amphorae. Before being carefully conveyed to the cistern, they were sealed with ceramic, wax, and finally lead. In this way, the contents were guaranteed by the Matroi of the dye-makers.
When traders and merchants left with the amphorae, they would dispense the dye using tiny ceramic ladles, as contact with metals could turn the dye before it was ever used. And nearly every other material would absorb minute, but telling, quantities of the precious substance.
The ladles were made to specific measures, on anciently preserved molds. Each set had been crafted in the pottery shops at Tzor. Every ladle bore the unique workshop maker’s stamp, as a guarantee of its authenticity and true volume.
Some of the dye was accounted lost in the opening and closing of the amphorae for the purposes of sales. This loss had long been figured into the books kept by the temple’s treasury. No one had ever devised a means of selling the dye without that slight depreciation in inventory.
However small the volume of missing dye, the profits lost from this amount added up year over year, for sheaves and sheaves of years. The Matroi shook their heads over the niggling drain on their bottom line. What choice did anyone have? And they continued distilling and dispensing the most valuable liquid known to the world.
Dye-making drew to a close about three full rotations of Our Lady’s back wheels after it began. Bet Maryam made no complaint when I returned to glassblowing under Matroi Deenah for my work activity. Everyone who lived at the temple understood the requirement to participate in the work needed to maintain and extend its structure, and value.