I took another step into the garden. I had closed my eyes in supplication. I opened them and walked the rest of the way, where the deep-shaded door beckoned across the colonnade ringed garden.
I hovered on the threshold, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the depth of the darkness within. And I heard someone, or ones, humming the Cranes’ victory tune. It had a beat like the crane’s own: hop, hop, hop, stab. I whistled our cobbled-together signature cry, the one we gave together before approaching Elder Brother. Even so little a connection heartened my liver. I knew they wouldn’t be lullabying Bahar with a victory song if she were already dead. Dying maybe, but not dead.
I slipped into the infirmary and followed the humming, chasing it with my contrapuntal whistles. Then one of the Cranes at Bahar’s bedside whistled back to me. I saw them outlined in the edges of the lamp’s somber flame. I ran to them, limping as I came, and stopped when I saw what had been done to save Bahar.
She was wrapped at her head, and around her jaw. Her one shoulder and upper arm were bound together. Long seams of stitches, glistening beneath their healing coat of honey and herbs, ran down her abdomen and her one thigh. The leg disappeared into a splinted bandage that went all the way to her foot. Half the fingers on her other hand were also bound and splinted. Her brown-gold skin had taken the tones of unbleached linen. The paleness was striking against her anthracite black curls. I panted shallowly, holding back tears and dismay.
For Bahar, I needed to stay brave and true. I needed to believe my bargains and supplications could be enough when added to all the others made by the Cranes and our Matroi. No one could want anything but her recovery. Even at the price of limber litheness and careless derring-do.
I caught my breath and forced it to slow and deepen. I tapped my ribs and picked up the Cranes’ humming in the round. I dropped in as though it were any other skipping or counting game. I found my pace in their rhythm and held it. I hummed and whistled and tapped and thumped for Bahar. It was all I had to offer. We could do no more than had already been done.
After a long time or a short time, Dazhi came with Laylaha and sent us away to eat. They even teased me about my string track that still rode the walls to our lair at the heart of the labyrinth. We followed the priestly escort back to our private pit in the bowels of Phaistos. The more I came and went, the more I felt our Hall of Dancers was little more than a prison. Though it was a prison with good food, a hot spring, and a private niche where I could sleep.
With all my wandering and fretting, I bore up through a fog of exhaustion. The hot bath soothed the worst of my strains and bruises and the stinging minerals in the swirling waters laved my cuts and abrasions to a healthy staring pink.
“You are too tired to stay in the waters alone, little Crane. Get up and come to the table. They have brought us another feast from the early bounty of the Daburinthoio Potniai,” Woniluk tugged at my limp arm as she exhorted me.
“As you will, Perfected One. Who am I to resist when they have made us a feast?” Woniluk pulled and I pushed up from the smooth rock ledge until I sprawled in a puddle of my own making like a netted fish on the deck of the Date Palm.
Towel swathed, we went to the table and ate our way through the delicacies there. Soon I limped away to my bed niche, without remembering to say strong dreams and sweet rest to my fellow Cranes. This set our pattern as Bahar recovered.
The festival ran through its appointed rituals without us, and the palace became full of the sandal-muffled to and fro of all its many proud and strong-legged inhabitants. While they paced out their daily calendars, we Cranes shuttled only from the infirmary to the Hall and back. We stood, we sat, we crouched. Dazhi twisted netting. Laylaha played cat’s cradle with herself or any of us. Anam and Woniluk played s’n’t with a travelling board from Bahar’s pack. I tossed the knife I had adopted. We all hummed, or crooned, or whistled, or sang.
Each of us had come from different parts of the world. We all knew easy cradle songs. At Bahar’s bedside, we shared these simple tunes until we held them in common. One of us would hum a stanza or two until someone else caught up the melody and pattern of the lullaby. Each of the Cranes found her way into the new song and added what she could. So we played and we made, we cushioned and supported Bahar in our musical vigil.
Bahar slept on, dosed with the poppy syrup of the attendants at the infirmary. Sometimes, she dreamt and moaned, stirring as much as her wraps and bandages allowed. We Cranes stayed by her bedside singing while we shredded flowers and pounded herbs for the supporting decoctions, salves and plasters at the direction of the infirmary’s stillroom Matroi.
Between our vigils, we wandered the endless layered corridors, storeroom mazes, plazas and receiving rooms. All of it was larded through with gardens and fountains like dried figs in a solstice cake.The consecrated, long-tenured Bull Dancers of Phaistos were housed levels up on the hillside. They had views of the distant harbor and the rolling plains. Their garden received sunlight through the day and cross breezes bringing the cool of the evening.
However, they practiced in the deep sanded Bull Ring where we had danced the opening liturgy of the Phaistaieon. The remaining Cranes sometimes gathered there as well. The Kritians were not too busy to show us some of the feints and counters they knew to dance with Elder Brother. They were not too polished to forego applauding some of our stunts and recovers.
After a time or two sharing the ring, they were not too proud to invite us to their own feast hall to dine, with musicians and tumblers for entertainment. We drew skewers for which of us would stay with Bahar while the rest reclined and dined in the great Kritian tradition, now palely imitated by the ‘Elines and the Roma alike. I had a short skewer, as did Woniluk. But the Cranes took pity on us. Anam and Laylaha came to take our place in the quiet infirmary half way through the many-coursed banquet unfolding its splendors on the heights like a great evening blooming flower.
Our escort, so that we did not lose our way, came from the coterie of Bull Dancers dedicated to the Perfection at Phaistos. She strode ahead of us by paces. She neither turned to see if we followed, nor said one word to us after her instruction to come along. With Knossos and Zagros long collapsed, this temple and palace were the last Kritian center for the ancient liturgical performance. One heard of variations performed along the shores, north and south, of the Mesogeios all the way to Ronda and at Qart Hadast. But here we stood and danced in Perfection at sun-drenched, bee-hived, behorned Elder Sister Kriti. If our escort walked as though the duty of bringing tiro outlanders to the party were beneath her, there could be little argument with her fundamental perspective.
The view. The air. The dancing. The delightful plates of food and fruit juices. We were served rare ices from the distant snowcaps flavored with the sorbets we’d drunk all our training: melon, mulberry, and grape. The couches were covered in fine woven cotton dyed in green and yellow with blocks of red-- the team colors of the Parrot Fish. Banners woven with their stylized mascot fluttered and twirled in the evening. Moonflowers shed their musky scent over the crackle of blazes in cressets planted around the peristyle garden. Frogs and crickets sang counterpoint to the lyre and ocarina. Yet in all that honor and revelry, I only longed for Bahar to open her eyes and give me a saucy wink.
The next morning I sat at Bahar’s bedside, working a pestle and keeping time with a lullaby we had learned from Woniluk, which had come with her from Lagash, deep in the vast reed delta of the Euphrates. Bahar twisted and muttered a little, as she sometimes did. I knew not to call the sister on duty. But I held the unsplinted part of her hand as I sang and kept the pestle going in rhythm. A hand to my shoulder startled me into jumping on my stool. It took a bobble and a fumble to prevent the crushed seeds and spices from tumbling across the floor.
“Here you are. I looked for you at Vathypetro, and the Matroi told me you had come here to perform in the Phaistaieon. I had no notion they would allow such goings on with fresh trainees. I am outraged and shall speak to the Pasiphae herself regarding this clear breach of the training agreement and its collateral reciprocities,” Mariamne’s chin spoke to the commitment behind her words. She had feared for me and the other Cranes when she learned of our conscription.
“The rest of us are fine. It was only Bahar who became Perfected on the day,” I reassured my aunt. She looked brown from her sea voyage. From which direction my most peripatetic relative had come, I couldn’t say; but all roads to Kriti are sea roads.
“When did this ‘Perfection’ occur?” she asked with flint-edged precision.
“We were part of the opening liturgy for the Phaistaieon. I think almost two turns of the Lady’s Front Wheels. Maybe just over three of the weeks kept by the priestesses of the Daburinthoio Potniai,” I scrambled to count. All our days in the infirmary had bled together like a chalk drawing in the rain.
“I have come on my way to run some errands for the family. Bet Maryam believes it would be well for you to serve some time at the Temple in Yerushalayim. I shall escort you and see you enrolled with the weaving virgins of good standing in the Tribes of Ysrael, after we make a stop in Eskanderejai,” Mariamne announced in a rush.
“What? Why should I serve The One on High when I will be dedicated to the Lady in Her Cart Rolling at Tzor?”
The decision shocked me. The elders of our house rarely forebore to mention how ignorant I remained and how much I had yet to learn. Why would they send me away from their teachings and practices now?
“Your Aunt Mimi served in the Temple as a weaving virgin in her time. It did her no real ill. Young though she is, Virago though she stays, she runs the hospices and spas like a veteran Hecatoi. Bet Maryam believes she benefited from the restrictions and discipline of Beit haMiqdas. They feel it will stand you in further good stead, as well as keeping our house in good odor with the Sanhedrin. The Kohanim of Yerushalayim look the other way regarding many of the choices of Bet Maryam. But we buy their tolerance with a long bargain.” I understood then that a barter in eligible virgins made up the price my foremothers paid to live and flourish at Tzor.
“I see. When are we meant to leave?” I felt crushed, but with Mariamne at Phaistos in person, there seemed no way to avoid this new direction.
“The Queen of Waves, your old friend, will sail with the tide, before first full light. I will fetch you from the Hall of Dancers myself. And I will send you a tisane to drink before I come. It will help with the wave sickness all the sailors on the Queen were still talking about when they gathered me up from Efesos.” Mariamne related.
“Tomorrow morning? I can’t leave Bahar now. I have nursed her day and night for these last weeks and she still hasn’t woken. What will she think of me if I’m not here and all the other Cranes are? What kind of friend am I if I desert her now?” I demanded, outraged at Mariamne’s unfeelingness and the bullying ways of Bet Maryam.
“You will be the kind of novitiate who goes where she is sent in order to do the work which is before her to do. You will be one who honors fully the path of Our Lady Rolling, and learns to turn her liver with the turning of life’s choices and the Wheels of Necessity. You will be the kind of friend who knows her lack of experience will be of little assistance as Bahar recovers the use of her limbs and her faculties when the Matroi here decide it shall be time for her to wake up. You will be the Last and Finest Fruit of Bet Maryam, and your service will announce the quality of your devotion to all who see and know you for what you are,” pronounced Mariamne in tones beyond the simple conversation I had thought we were having.
“I am a sacrificial lamb on the altar at the Temple to keep Bet Maryam safe and cosy. You ask no more than that I should give my whole life to the house and my foremothers. And all because I am the littlest and the rest of you are too lazy and mean to take your turns,” I spat spitefully.
“Your Haha, Marmar and even Ismeria served, as did Elisaba. As ever, Sobe escaped the common fate. I took a turn myself when I was at the right age. We have all been at the looms and threads of purple, scarlet, and blue with the cherubim woven into the curtain which is the depth of a man’s hand in thickness.” Mariamne said that about the weaving like someone reciting familiar poetry or the common lines of the temple’s weekly liturgy.
“And now it’s my turn. I am the right kind of virgin from the right lineage of the Tribes. I am made into a tribute to the Temple at Yerushalayim from the hearths of the Naphtalim,” I declared with all the bitterness of early youth thwarted.
“Now you are made tribute to the Temple at Yerushalayim from the hearths of the Asherim. Even in the Tribes, lineage passes through the mothers. Though they have married Naphtalim and Kohanim and Yehudaim and Issacharites and more, Bet Maryam’s allegiance is with green-eyed Asher of the olive grove. Be glad you have been chosen as a fit offering unto the courts of the Temple of the One on High,” Mariamne spoke with a stern solemnity at odds with the sparkle in her eyes.
“In a way, then, Zebadyah wasn’t wrong. As a girl, I was a child of Asher, even in that nest of Naphtalim. Since Le’a was Naphtali herself, then so also is Rahel and that makes her the old eelmonger's true heir. Did Rahel serve at the Temple?” I knew my aunt would know, though it concerned that branch of the family before they had become our family.
“Of course she did. They set her to rope walking which needs a constant, patient presence. It was work she could do with others and do as well as any. They are never crueller than they must be for all they are what they are at Beit haMiqdas.”
“That was more coded than feathers on a druse talking stick. I take it you need your sacrificial lamb to go willingly to become a burnt offering for the sins of the family,” I tried out with my newfound snottiness. Bet Maryam needed me to do this thing for them without making an ugly fuss come the moment. Until then, I planned to be petty and petulant for as long as I could stand it.
“Yes indeed, we all do. And you need to find the focus and the courage to perform the work which is given you to do there to the best of your capacity. We expect nothing less, and neither shall the master weavers.
“Go pack your things and put them by the door in the Hall. Spend the night here if you wish. Maybe exhaustion will help you make the transition to shipboard with less fuss than you had last time.
“I wish you could have longer with Bahar, but we need to have you enrolled at the Temple before Yom Teru’ah. After that, the calendar gets crowded and there are very few days when it is appropriate to dedicate new members to the weaving college. And there’s even less time for orientation or training. So leave we must, to catch the tide across the Mar Yam-haMariahne to Eskanderejai, and from there to Tzor, then back down to Ptolemais as soon as I dispose of certain specific duties and undertakings associated with all our perorations. None of the legs of the journey is long in themselves. Together, they add up like abacus beads.
“Go get packed. Come back if you desire. I shall find you there or here in time to make the tide with the Queen of Waves. Eat what you can tonight. Tomorrow you won’t want anything in your gullet when I bring you your tisane.” She made a shooing motion and sent me scurrying down the now-familiar passages, stairways and ramps to my pack in the Hall of Dancers.
I took one last hot mineral bath. I steeped in the faint stench, curtained from the curiosity of the other Cranes by the odoriferous steam. They had seen me roll and twist the little I called mine into the battered leather and twisted hemp pack usually wadded up for a pillow in my niche.
I hadn’t said anything. I was angry at my family, and angry with myself for not standing up to tradition. For not standing up for my friend.
How could I admit my cowardice to the Cranes? If it weren’t for their courage, strength, and skill I would be dead myself a hundred times over. And I repaid that dedication, that commitment, by sailing away to a string-arts boot-camp.
“Come out of there before your skin looks like a golden raisin for the rest of the days the Lady grants you,” Laylaha called from the doorway to the bath.
“Certainly. Let me come right out,” I muttered ungraciously, reaching for a thick linen towel. It was one of a seemingly endless stack, replenished on a shelf by the door and within arm’s reach of the bath itself. I took the mostly invisible, efficient service of Phaistos for granted.
“We can see you’re going,” Anam started right in, ”but you haven’t had the courtesy to share with us the where, the why, or even the with whom of your travels. The how was passed to us as gossip from one of the painted priestesses. We know the Queen of Waves waits in the harbor at Metala to take someone of our number away. Since none of the rest of us is going anywhere, we must assume it is for you Queen of Waves is waiting.” Anam’s logic was worthy of her educators at Eskanderejai.
“Yes, I leave with the Queen of Waves in the morning. My aunt, who is sometimes at Tzor with the rest of Bet Maryam and sometimes all over the rest of the Mesogeios trading goods and information, has come to take me to the temple of the One on High at Yerushalayim to honor a family vow. I am to dedicate myself to the weaving of the veil and the curtain which adorn the Holy of Holies and the entrance to the Tabernacle where it abides.
“And I must begin before Yom Teru’ah and the cavalcade of festivals and observances of the One on High which follow it. Believe me when I tell you this is not what I want. I begged my Aunt Mariamne to let this cup pass, but she called me to my duty and my sense of discipline and responsibility” I told them.
“Your aunt plays dirty because she plays to win,” Laylaha observed.
“You’re too right about that. Come with me. I want to spend my last night on Kriti with Bahar. Maybe the priestesses will let us bring her out into the garden, and we can all watch the stars through the night,” I begged beguilingly.
“Yes, let’s spend our last night together, the Cranes at Phaistos. We are a legend in our own time,” Laylaha consented.
“We are a legend in your own mind,” Anam countered.
We squabbled all the way. The dining table equipped us with portable edibles and potables. The Cranes trotted up and up from the Hall of Dancers to the infirmary for the last time.
The Matroi heard our plea for my special case. They allowed us to move Bahar into the garden. We wrapped her in a fine woolen spread over her usual linen swathing.
We sang and chanted and played flutes and slapped our thighs. We nibbled, and tumbled on dares. Bahar slept through our revelries as she had slept through every night and day since the opening of the Phaistaieon.
In the silk deep hour before the false dawn, Mariamne came to the infirmary garden. She had me drink down a cup of something sweet and vile to the point of retching. When I commenced to gag, Mariamne held my nose, forcing me to swallow. Then she handed me cold, fresh well water. I gulped it down to clear my mouth, spluttering.
“Hey, you,” called a faint voice, once more familiar than any other, now rusty with disuse.
“Hey. Hey yourself, Bahar. What are you doing awake? The sisters have kept you under for weeks now,” I asked, as though she would know any better than I.
“I don’t know. I woke up. I feel like I’m done being asleep for a little while. Where are we?” Bahar asked. Her eyes were herb-clouded, but she made sentences. My friend had awakened and I would be able to tell her good-bye.
“We are all still at Phaistos. After… we performed the liturgy we stayed. All the Cranes come to sit with you every day, almost around the clock. And look at you, you can open your eyes,” I crowed, grabbing for her unsplinted hand.
“Can I do more than open my eyes?” Bahar asked. Her innate intelligence had read around the corners of what I hadn’t said and how I hadn’t said it.
“Maybe,” I shuffled, “We don’t really know what you can do yet, since you haven’t done anything for such a while.”
“How. Bad. Is. It?”
“Not so good. I don’t… I don’t think you have to worry about facing the Perfected One anytime soon again,” I began carefully.
“And the Matroi will know more than that and better than any diagnoses you might get from your bunkmate,” Aunt Mariamne broke in. I couldn’t have been more glad to be interrupted.
“She’s right. I know some of your bones broke. I know you have lots of stitches. I know you left a huge blood offering on the floor of the Bull Ring. But I don’t really know more than that.
“Except that I’m so glad you woke up before I left. Write to me as soon as they take your fingers out those splints. It will be good exercise for your hand,” I admonished with joyful sternness.
“Right. What? Where are you going? Why do you have to go now? Was it something I said?” Bahar queried with the false levity not hiding her hurt at all.
“It’s a family vow, and that’s why I have to go right now,” I said, staring at her face in the dim light to memorize every line and curve.
“And by right now, my niece means this moment. We must hurry to Matala to catch the tide under the Queen of Waves,” Mariamne inserted. I heard the command in her words.
“Bahar, write to me in Tzor. Bet Maryam will find me wherever I am.” I bent and kissed her brow between the bandage and the eye-patch. Gently, I squeezed her unbandaged hand.
“Come, child. The Queen will not wait on your prolonged farewelling, and neither will I.” Mariamne grabbed up my pack and my free hand and pulled us both along in her determined wake.
And like that, I left Kriti and Bahar for an obligation to a god I did not wish to serve in a city where I did not want to live for a purpose I could not fathom.
Once though, I was a Perfected One facing Elder Brother at the Phaistaieon. Once my bells rang gaily and true for the course of a liturgy. I might be gone from Kriti, but I held to that single triumph.