The next morning, I skipped down the ramps of the workshops to the quays of the Sidonian Port. On each level, I poked my head into a workshop, office, or storeroom to crow my good-byes and collect the good wishes of all my Matroi, Viragoi and even the novitiates then on duty.
My bag seemed light to me. Still, I nearly staggered under the honor of the assignment on Kriti. My inattention led to my wobbling down the quay to the Queen of Waves. She was the temple owned vessel that would sail us to the fabled and decadent land of the Lady of Bull and Bee.
My fellow novitiates were all older than me. I knew most of them slightly from pearl diving details, exhibition dances and weapons play. Matro Ninshurag had chosen us very well.
We were five people who trusted one another, and respected each others’ gifts. Yet each of us was a strong candidate in her own right. The fierce reality of going to Kriti sank in as the low tug rowed us out of the broken cone of the harbor and beyond the guiding sea lanes into open waters.
The tug’s Viragoi crew farewelled us in haunting harmonies and lilting melodies as they rowed us out and slipped loose the knots which joined our vessels. Queen of Waves lived up to her name. Joyfully she leapt towards the deepening waters, under the guidance of the Virago captain taking us all to Kriti.
I wanted to leap joyfully with our ship, but found myself instead hanging my head over the rails and farewelling my hasty breakfast. The vileness lasted only the first day of our voyage, though I mostly mawed dry crackers dipped in weak wine for the next day or so. The sky held blue, and the winds mild, though contrary.
In half a week, we reached our first port of call, Nea Paphos, just down the hill from Palaepaphos, where foam-born Aphrodite first came to shore and established her oracle. We off-loaded Viragoi, decorative and useful glass, and cedar planking. We took on worked copper and copper ingots, as well as amphorae of Kyprian wines, olive oil and honey.
From Nea Paphos, whose hot, sparkling beaches shone white like my cousin Yeshua’s smile, we sailed on to Kriti herself. Queen of Waves took to the open deeps of Mesogeios like a dolphin. She knew her usual trade routes, as did her crew-- Viragoi based in Tzor to a woman. The Queen wore painted eyes to guide her, wide and kohl lined as though she had visited Misr to have them embellished with cosmetics. Her crew wore tattoos and pleated linen kilts. I enjoyed picking out the monsters and talismans of myth and prayer etched on their bodies for luck or guidance and in thanks for disasters overcome.
Mariamne had long before explained to me that out of consideration for the judgement of the Kohanim, the women of Bet Maryam did not submit to tattooing. In old Ysraelitic tradition, tattoos made one forever unclean. And because our house members straddled both the world of the Lady in Her Cart Rolling and that of the One on High of the righteous tribes, we forebore to mark ourselves thusly.
I understood her cautioning me. This in no way prevented me from dreaming of the tattoos I would wear if I could. I designed myself a bucephalon, and the Little Fish which was my nickname with the Matroi at the movement college, and a complex beaded net which named me and my ancestresses using the knot tying language Marmar had been at such pains to drill into my liver. These innocent dreams took up much of my free time on our journey to Kriti.
The Viragoi encouraged us to stay fit and limber by climbing the rope ladders aloft to the top of the masts, then climbing down, or sliding down a soft rope whose splintery stiff hairs had worn away long seasons past. They dared us to walk the rails as though they were our pavement, or one of the balancing beams beloved of our weapons and tumbling instructresses. We practiced dancing on the tight and pitching deck, learning to feel the rhythm of the Queen’s own progress across the driving pulse of the waves and currents.
When we sailed into Iraklio, we novitiates were fit and brown and lean from a diet of fresh catch eked out with pickled vegetables and hardtack. For obvious reasons, our sailors were averse to using open flame to prepare their food and ours, so the fish were raw and the vegetables cold, but there was as much to eat as we chose, and all of it wholesome.
Even in the fine months of high summer, Iraklio had more than enough space along the quays for the ships docked there. And like Ushu, landside sister-city to Tzor, the town bore evidence of catastrophe and an uneven progress in rebuilding. Rubbled vacant lots tumbled away up or down the hilly terrain, alongside artisans’ workshops, grand residences, and runs of hovels leaning crazily against each other. Open markets jostled livestock pens and city garden plots between and among the randomly rebuilt edifices of brick, stone and plaster whiter than an almond flower. I squinted in the near-blinding light of midday glare on Kriti.
For years the Matroi had taught us of this ancient, noble Mother culture to whose traditions and liturgies we owed so much at Tzor-- itself long a place of mystery and worship. But the Matroi hadn’t warned us that the place itself was beyond a decline and perhaps in its final throes of dissolution. All along our way from the shore up into the hills to beyond the Palace at Knossos where we would train and learn to work the magic and ritual of the ancient homage we called the bull dance, we saw little but ruins, sad small farms and wind twisted sentinel olive trees bearing solitary witness to long-vanished homesteads and orchards.
Still, I felt no gloom or bitterness from the people on the quays or the few we met on the road. But Kriti’s days of glory were far behind her, generations and generations before I first walked the path from Knossos to where the bulls were kept and the dancers trained.
Our way to the training camp at Vathypetro lay beyond the jumble of torn white rocks splashed with chips of ancient paint and plaster which were all that remained of the once fabled palace of Knossos. The complex had sprawled south of the road from Iraklio, ranging along a hillside which ended in a narrow river valley. Stadia and stadia of rooms, corridors, walkways, grand stairs, long plazas, interior gardens, storage rooms, receiving rooms, sleeping rooms, bathing rooms, tumbled and scorched, but breathtaking all the same.
Down from the central court, on every side of the sacred hill of Kephala there lay rooms for dancing, for drinking, for singing, for dressing all cracked and jostling their way to the sparkling, splashing river edging the former city-temple-palace of the Daburinthoio Potniai, Our Lady of the Labyrinth, She of Horn and Bee, the Tamer of the Lions, the Great Gardenkeeper.
Only after I had seen more of the world did I understand a large part of the great mystery and wonder of the Lady’s home at Knossos was that for all the palace had, it had no defending walls. Her home had been a place of worship, of crafting, of art, of diplomacy and dance. But the enormous, luxurious complex never defended itself save in the sacred competitions of sport, poetry, and worship.
All-conquering Roma Imperia had devised a new capitol city for Kriti when she took the island from the pirates then ruling her ports. They had placed it in a strongly defensible position near the ancient city of Phaistos on the southern shore facing Misr. Per their preferred policy, the clever Romani disempowered local traditions and places of cultural focus with dislocation. I never heard any ill of Gortyna, though none of us on the training program that summer ever went there. For one thing our practice schedules were too rigorous.
We woke with the first early light of heightening summer. Our regular stretching and warm ups used the first hour on the hard-packed clay surface of our open-air gymnasium. Then we moved to the equipment: rings, vaulting horses, uneven bars, slack ropes, tight ropes, trapezes, balance beams, stylites. As we warmed up, limbered up and strengthened, various weapons were added to the required movements and forms.
After weapons came the moving arts of the public assassin. Ribbons, jugglers’ batons, daggers, cymbals and flutes were not just for bringing an edge of excitement to our performance skills. Wielded correctly, no ruler, no courtier, no warrior could count themselves safe from our precision.
We finished every morning with a frisk in a cold pond fed by a stream flowing from the high mountains running like a spiky spine the length of Kriti. After a meal and a long siesta, we gathered in the afternoon, when the heat left the bulls sluggish, to train with the retired dancing bulls. These noble beasts of vast size and placid mien, lived high above the main housing complex at Vathypetro. In their tree dotted fields, they grazed on grasses and flowers. The shining red and white bulls basked in the sun, or ruminated in the shade. They were left in peaceful contemplation, saving only for the summer training season.
Clean from our swim, and refreshed from our naps, we would dance from the edge of the field in towards the bulls, singing hymns to their beauty and the glory of the Lady as we wove and skipped and spun nearer. The bulls, I think, knew what they knew. Some waited for us to dance closer, others paced off to the farthest ends of the field. Those who stayed for us let the music and our spinning build until we were running up to turn handsprings across their backs, or grabbing their horns to perform handstands, or for better leverage on a flying somersault, a catherine wheel or a full twisting dive.
If the bull shook its head, we could choose to hang on, or allow ourselves to be flung away. If the bull stepped along as we attempted our handsprings, we could adjust, or miss and crash. Our Matroi allowed us to experiment.
We learned which bulls stood placidly even with three dancers tumbling from back to horns and off over the tail again. We learned how to correct in mid-leap, mid-turn, to account for the bulls which weren’t so placid. We learned to form teams so that the soprano might be thrown or jump from a tenor to the bull to the bass of the team: landing like the precision acrobats we were becoming-- we dazzled even ourselves.
Evenings, we learned the songs and hymns and myth cycles of the of Daburinthoio Potniai. We trained in the chaining dances of the Lady of Horn and Bee, we stained our palms and nails and the soles of our feet with the ancient henna patterns traditional to the worship of the Great Gardenkeeper of Kriti, and learned how to curl our hair to do her right reverence, and how to wrap the short, pleated linen kilts over rolled belts of leather-- the traditional garb of all ancient bull dancing rings. The kilts were sewn with tiny bells, and bells were woven into our curls and hung from heavy neck and arm torcs.
We made a light music of our own as we moved and the bells moved with us. Soon, we all learned to listen for which of us was running to the bull, and at what speed. With my back turned, I could know where all my teammates were--and they knew as much in turn. This made us all safer and more secure in our throws and tumbling passes.
We trained with novitiates from all around the Mesogeios and beyond. Bahar from the great painted temple at Hagmatana, the home of Aredvi Sura Anahiti-- Our Lady of the Heavenly River Moist and Strong, was my best friend all that summer. She had travelled far and farther to join the summer training on Kriti. Her people were the Medes, ancestral mothers of the Armenids and even the people of ash-Sham. The Temple of Anahiti the Fructifier stood at the crossroads for trade and travel from across the Mesogeios all the way to the Han at the far edge of all Our Lady Rolling could teach her initiates.
We had both just measured our twelfth springs, Bahar’s name even meant ‘spring’ in her home tongue. We were light, lithe, and fearless in our youth, training, and corded muscles. As sopranos on our respective teams, we were tossed and somersaulted and spun from the top of our short pyramids onto the back of a bull, or over his shining horns, or even under his great sleek belly. Our perfection in action brought us praise from our instructresses and teammates alike.
Sometimes we were joined by the smooth, painted and curled male priestesses who served Our Lady of the Labyrinth. They would watch, and make remarks with their red, red mouths, and wave gaily embroidered fans from Misr to keep the gnats away and the heat from melting their kohl and rouge. We could tell from their ivory-plaque kilts and the golden bracelets riding to their elbows that they were important in their temple practice.
Bahar and I had talked our teams into working together to make an especially clever show of our tumbling and acrobatics. When our main instruction had finished, we spent extra hours in the long golden light of Kriti’s summer evenings jumping from a handstand on our bass’ upraised hands to the other team’s bass, turning two somersaults in the air. Then we leapt back from the fresh handstand over a bull’s horns, to turn a twist from his back and with a final bounce, back to the original handstand. Quick and showy, but we had only been practicing for 3 of the Kritian 4 day weeks.
With a wink and a flash of hands, Bahar and I rounded up our teams, and found a couple of bulls the right distance apart to make the piece memorable and workable both. We sang and chanted as we built our 3 person pyramids. The Temple watchers paid close attention, drawn by our song, but fixed by our polished performance.
The routine proceeded smoothly. My bull lifted his head in surprise as I vaulted from his back across his companion and back to the wobbling heighth of my finishing handstand. Bahar’s bull didn’t even notice her brief trespass on his evening feed.
The male priestesses tapped their fans and hooted in the Kritian expression of approval in the lively arts. The first time I saw and heard their ‘applause’, I had trouble believing anyone could choose to appear so silly in front of all the world. But we took our bows with flourishes all the same.
Our instructresses were called into a conference with the priestesses. The fans waved and the bracelets jangled, while the ivory plaques rattled against each other like the bones they were. The Matroi shuffled the dust with their shoes, and plucked at their own sleeves, or lips. Whatever the priestesses were saying, our instructresses were not best pleased. Bahar and I made querying eyes at each other, wondering if we had brought trouble to our teams or teachers.
A ribboned, wreathed and linen-roofed oxcart circled out from a standing shade tree to gather up the priestesses and bring them away from our remote training fields. The Matroi huddled together a minute more then paced back to our waiting teams. They walked deliberately and with stony faces. We stood tense to learn our faults and their sentence.
“You so impressed the servants of Daburinthoio Potniai, they wish for you to come and play in the ring during our services for the Phaistaieon, just nine weeks from now.” our lead Matro for bull dancing informed us.
“Are those the weeks of Our Lady, or the Kritian ones?” I asked, dimpling to control my smirk, “We will be ready either way.”
“Yes, those are Kritian weeks. But the services in the ring for the Phaistaieon are with young bulls, and the servants of the temple take care to put cows in heat where the bulls will be sure to smell them. They wish for you to engage in true bull dancing, though they know well you have only just begun to take the training.” she told us with eyebrows more furrowed than she could have liked for us to notice.
“How long shall the routine run? We have a sixth of a minute already, and should be able to learn faster now that we know one other and the basic moves,” Bahar asked in fluent ‘Elines which was our common tongue for the summer.
The ancient language of Our Lady of the Labyrinth at Knossos now was spoken only by the anointed ones in her liturgical rituals. Eskandar and his father Phlipos conquered Kriti before they had taken Tzor and then the rest of the world. Their ‘Elines tongue became the lingua franca of the entire Mesogeios, and had spread through even the rustic uplands of Kriti. In Tzor, all the novitiate learned ‘Elines first, maybe a little of the lingua Latina, and more of Aramaic-- the trade tongue of all the lands between the sea and the wall of mountains containing Han. Those who cared for magic, and ancient liturgies, learned the tongue of the priestesses of Misr, and the forelanguages of the Babilim, and even Senskerit. We all spoke comfortably in ‘Elines.
“The routines at the services in the ring for the Phaistaieon run until either the bull collapses or one of the dancers is too injured to continue. None leaves the ring until the priestesses adjudge sufficient blood has fed the sand.
“You will be given double-ended lancets, three pous in length and tipped with bronze heads sharpened on both edges. You may either plant the lancet in the bull, or use it to score the bull’s flesh repeatedly, as opportunity and circumstance determine. The faster Elder Brother loses blood, the more quickly you may retire. But initial injuries usually make the bulls enraged and quick to charge and gore if they don’t simply trample you.” Our Matro stared fixedly at a fence post to our left.
“What’s done is done, and it is done in her name. If the servants of the temple wish for these novitiates to act as celebrants in the services at the Phaistaieon, then they will indeed perform to the best of their capacity. We will have to start them with some younger, fresher bulls,” put in another of the Matroi. Her practical summation broke the spell cast by the announcement of our selection.
“Will we be excused from other studies so that we can be better prepared for the Phaistaieon?” my tenor teammate, Dazhi from Qes, asked.
“You may warm up with the rest of the college, but for the rest of the day you will work under the direction of Matro Kitane. She is a full Kritian, and an initiated servant of Daburinthoio Potniai. She will instruct you in the sacred language of Our Lady, so that you may better follow the liturgy.
“Make no mistake, what you do in the ring at the Phaistaieon is an act of worship and a high honor. In Her service, we have no higher.” With that benediction, our lead Matro ceded the floor to Matro Kitane
“It is right that you should experience every emotion, every possible extension of your body, every thought of strategy and survival when you serve in the liturgical ring. This is the true offering made to Daburinthoio Potniai. On an island, sere and crowded, there must be death to make a space for new life to come. The Phaistaieon honors Our Lady at the harvest.
“We make a trade to show good faith for all the bounty She provides in every cycle. The blood spilled in the ring of the Phaistaieon is the renewal of our dedication to Daburinthoio Potniai. She winds us through the Labyrinth of each yearly cycle, into the mystery of all things, and out again into air and light. We balance the fullness and health of our harvest with sacred blood to feed the Lady in Her Darkness. The bee gives all things, and the bull may take them away. These are the core principles of the servants of the temples of Daburinthoio Potniai.
“That said, we still have light this very day, so let us work on horns and noses. Tomorrow, I will bring the practice dummies for our morning forms. Please divide by part, not team,” Matro Kitane set us to working from then until starlight. And kept us working.