We walked into a broad garden surrounded by deep porches. The porch roofs took support from squat columns. They displayed smooth plastered coats of red with bands of gold and blue and green.
The gardens were fragrant with herbs. Some I recognized from the gardens of Migdala. Many were so odd as to startle the eye with queerly shaped leaves, strange proportions, unlikely flowers and foreign odors.
Birds swooped and fluttered in the bath set for them beneath a small tree with spreading branches. The tree wore the bright scarlet flowers of a pomegranate. The color sang out against the pale greens of a new spring. Bees buzzed around the tree, and a few low flowering shrubs. I saw no people, only plants, insects, and birds.
Mariamne neither slowed, nor looked around. She guided me across the garden and off to a corner of the enclosing porch. There we took a passage leading to another garden surrounded again by deep porches and squat red columns.
There I saw people. Women were everywhere in my sight. Women who lived and worked, or visited and renewed themselves, at the great and ancient temple. The guards we had passed coming in were the last men I had seen.
Most of the women lay on long chairs, wrapped in the white linens of temple visitors, or the class of attendant priestesses known as Viragoi. In this garden, I saw a monkey amidst the more usual flora and fauna. It looked like a tiny, hairy child to me. It chattered and hooted, and jumped around from limb to limb of one tree or another. No one paid the remarkable creature any attention.
A tall woman with light brown hair and oil green eyes like my mother’s came over to us. She wore white linen from her head covering to her ankles. The monkey skittered towards her and neatly climbed the linens of the temple attendant, coming to rest on her shoulder. It settled on a sort of padding of folded linen.
“Mariamne, you are here. And this must be Shelomit’s Maryam, come to our home and ways at last. I am also Maryam, but please call me Mimi, as all the family do.”
She leaned down and held out three of her fingers to me, but I didn’t know what I ought to do in response. Mariamne elbowed me and flashed a three-fingered counter to the one my aunt and namesake had offered. I mimicked Mariamne and reached my hand shaped in greeting to Aunt Mimi.
“She has a good eye-body connection, what other gifts does the newest life tenant from Bet Maryam hold?” Mimi asked Mariamne, all business already.The smoothness of her face and the serenity of her conduct felt like stone, or bone to me--heavy and humorless, though enduring.
The monkey peeked around a fold of the linen on her head. It eyed me with curiosity, but no fear. Mimi followed my line of distraction.
“This is Lilit. Her name means ‘she demon’ in old Ur-Sum-Er. I keep her by me always. I suffer from waves of fear and uncertainty. Lilit knows me, and will touch and groom me until I am calmed. She is a terrible roommate, and a life-saving friend. She loves the hot baths, but I don’t allow her their use since I found her peeing in one of them.”
“Not to interrupt a further detailed disquisition of your naughty monkey’s personal practices, but your question was a good one. This candidate of Bet Maryam already counts in ten languages fluently. Thank Shelomit for cleaving to the basics,” Mariamne interrupted briskly. “Hanna here also takes up language, and like a sponge seems to give back more than she took in. Her eye-body awareness is coupled with grace and fearlessness. She might be one who trains at Kriti to learn the Bull Dancing forms. But she might also craft gold, blow glass or weave silk if she chose. She is safe with all the elements, and respects them.
“Be glad, the candidate from Bet Maryam is bright, nimble, and strong. Our house continues her tradition of donating useful ornaments to the temple of Our Lady Celestial and Eternal, may Her Cart ever roll,” she finished with uncharacteristic piety.
“Lilit and I welcome you, Maryam Hanna bat….” Mimi began, but I spoke over her.
“...bat Shelomit, please. Zebadyah is in spring flood over mother choosing to honor the Lady and our house with my service.” Mimi saw the truth of my youthful summation in Mariamne’s solemn brown eyes.
“Maryam Hanna bat Shelomit, welcome to the Temple of our Celestial and Eternal Lady in her Cart Rolling; Mother, Sister and Wife to Melkart, Lord of Water and Fire, Master of Snails. Call her Cartagena, Astarte, Asherah in her forms,” Aunt Mimi stated clearly.
”Here you will learn to learn, and then begin to learn. We have crafts and arts and sciences aplenty which we practice to the glory of Herself who keeps us and whose mysteries we in turn keep.” I later learned that what Aunt Mimi had said to me were the ritual words for every young entrant to the Novitiate.
“How is it that your heart is innocent of feeling, but you cannot stop talking in knots? You are a wonder to me, and a greater mystery than the one we celebrate here every Longest Dark Night, or at either of the Equinoxes,” Mariamne stated in sour conviction, squinting at her older sister.
“They aren’t mutually dependent terms, and you had enough logic to know the answer before you asked. I am the one I am, and I say what I say. And my Lilit keeps me safe, where safe includes having someone who loves you pee on your shoulder in public,” Mimi returned, with that blank serenity I learned was her usual mien.
I wondered if maybe Aunt Mimi had hurt her head like the boy down the beach from us in Migdala. He could do lots of things to help with the boats, but he wouldn’t ever be a captain like they had thought when they finally had a boy baby.
“Tomorrow is soon enough to offer up to Herself our future and our pride in service and devotion. Tonight she can stay in Sobe’s nook, or spread a mat at Marmar’s hearth. Given how little the old one sleeps, I think our newest Bet Maryam Maryam will do better with Sobe,” Mariamne pronounced. I was tired and overwhelmed enough so that I would agree to anything which might allow me to take my pack and sandals off.
The aunts settled on Sobe. Both walked me through more gardens-- all colonnaded and alive with a profusion of plant, bird, and insect life. Some of the way was crowded with people, some of our path across the temple grounds led us through blind plastered alleys barely wide enough for Mariamne to use without turning sideways.
Mimi led us, with Lilit quiescent on her shoulder as we slipped through the public and private pathways of the retreat and spa, banking nexus, marketplace, artisanal crafting center, institution of education, house of worship and mysteries, elder home and hospice, murex cultivation and processing leader. In short, my new home.
Though it was not so large a place, it was old enough to have many layers. The Sidon Port was almost perfectly round, and the warehousing and crafting workshops rose level on level above the sheltered docks, wide ramps of packed and paved stone sloped up and up, covered by the way above, and awned roofs to keep the endless salt spray from dampening the goods trundled from the lowest docks to the gem and jewelry and cosmetics makers on the circuit of workshops only just below the Temple main level.
Stepped gardens layered in swinging vine baskets fixed to scaffolds against the walls of the Temple precincts. The hanging gardens were tended from walkways between the outer scaffolding and the clay plastered walls protecting the Presence from the profane world.
It was not an awfully large port. The ships which docked there were often smaller and faster. Great triremes plying the south coast of Mar Yam-haMariahne would anchor without, and negotiate with the harbormistress to have their fine goods hauled to our customs house, or to pick up a consignment of goods to travel up to Sidon or Byblos before making the first leg of the long land journey to Kashgar and all the way to Xi’an-- capital city of the Empire of Silk.
All these things I came to understand much later, but Mimi led us on a grand tour until we took a brief narrow passage into yet another enclosed garden, and there found the chief roost of Bet Maryam.
“Look well, Bet Maryam, see what your daughters have wrought to please the Lady in Her Cart. See who comes to press snails and calculate the winds and currents for the bankers to set currencies by. See the child of our great house brought to learn and grow, to bring honor and glory to her Patroness and ours,” called out Mimi in her clear, flat voice. Mariamne swept an extravagant bow, which brought her head to her knees, and her hat flopping all over and askew.
“How shall we call this child of Bet Maryam? What do we name the shoot from the vine of Shelomit of Hanna of Hanna?” Asked a withered crone, propped in a wide chair with many pillows, and low bracing sides to rest her arms on (such as I had never seen before that moment). She spoke with a formal, ritual cadence in her deep, frail voice.
“Call her Hanna, as we are full and fuller of Maryams. With Ismeria and HaHa, we needn’t worry about confusion,” Mariamne suggested, as a sort of self-appointed advisor and early expert on the newest lamb in the fold.
“Let Maryam Hanna bat Shelomit be called Hanna, so that we shall know her and she shall know us,” intoned Aunt Mimi in her uninflected monotone. Lilit raised her smaller mouth in hooting concord.
That night Bet Maryam sent for the best of the best in Tzor. We ate herb roasted mussels, fresh opened oysters, salads & bean patties with dressings and sauces redolent of the famed olives of the land of Asher. Here in Phoenikos, Asher had the status of priest companion to Asherat of the Groves.
We ate compotes of dried fruits with fresh cheeses. We drank wine sailed from one end of the wine-dark sea or the other to enliven our evening repast. There were nuts and chopped vegetables stewed together, and mushrooms which spoke of the richness of the season of replenishment.
We ate no fowl nor animals of the land with our meal. I did not know if it was not the custom of the priestesses at Tzor to abstain from flesh. Later I learned that the house maintained this custom whenever they dined together, as Mimi made an unholy fuss if she had to sit where others consumed flesh. Her perfections demanded a toll from all who shared her daily life.
The Greats and the cousins and the aunts all took turns pinching and prodding me like a prize ewe between morsels and mouthfuls and toasts to everything from the Goddess in Her Cart to the almonds of Yam-haKinneret. They were many, and I was tired. Too tired to sort them out against the lineage, or even into faces. I nodded off over my dish, and woke to find myself bundled into a plastered niche.
Indeed, I slept in the nook in Sobe’s room. She cleared spinning and netting projects away and under her bed to make room for me to curl up with a pieced blanket against the falling chill of early spring at the shore.
“Sleep, little one. In the morning we will take you to be bathed, tested, and instructed in your instruction. You have much to learn and do. We are glad you have joined us here, and all thanks are due to Shelomit for bringing you up as she did to become the willing heiress to our long line here,” my hostess Sobe soothed my startled waking.
“She only brought me up to know the work of the women of the Tribes of Naphtali, to barter and tally and write contracts and manage the stores and know what to plant, and how much, and when. And what to do for a teething baby, or one with colic or earache, or a crampy bowel. I know how to soak and scutch and ret and spin and dye the linen--and how to make clothes and sails from the finished cloth taken from the loom.
”I know how to walk a rope, and how to keep chickens, goats and doves. I can start a fire in the time it takes to let a lentil cake batter rest before cooking. All this I was taught, but I do not think that my mother taught it to me so that I should one day find a use for it here” I replied honestly.
“A true observation indeed. I think she might have taught you the works and uses of a woman of the Tribe of Naphtali to convince you that you would prefer to live here, and learn and train and do and become under our guidance and not that of your father. I have been wrong before, though. Not recently, I must say.” Sobe stated with satisfaction.
I nodded into sleep. My face turned to the lime surfaced nook in the ancient temple of my foremothers. The flickering shadows of a single lamp behind me like the dying embers of the hearth at my former home on the shores of Migdala.