In the heat of the day, we took music and language instruction. We
would be tied with bells in our hair and bound around our wrists, ankles, waists, knees, elbows and necks before entering the bull ring. Elder Brother took the basso profundo part in the liturgy. We were soprano, tenor and bass on the human side. Our bells were sized and tuned to match our parts. When we threw the leaping somersaults, twists and cartwheels properly, our bells would ring a tuneful carillon. If our timing or landings or turns were off, the bells told that story too.
We learned to listen to the bells, to track one another, counting in the tricky rhythm of the Lady in five-four time. Our work with the dummies allowed us to find our form, learn the timing of our moves and how to vary it in cases of tactical response. All of us were covered with bruises, wrapped in linen supports at our major joints, and proud with the heedless immortality of youth.
Our skins darkened in the sun, turning us a range of burnished copper to fresh bronze to anthracite. We were oiled as much as we were bathed, and our hair was coaxed into long coiled ringlets by patient, tittering male priestesses under the stars after evening practice.
We were fed on fresh fish and bivalves, salads and field fruits, with olives and lentils, goat cheese and a flatbread, black and sweet. We drank spring water, a pebbly tasting wine pale as water, and fruit juice made of melons. We slept in crisp straw beds, tented with fine linen to keep the bugs out and leave the breezes of the island night to cool and refresh us. Indeed, we were cosseted and tended in much the same way as the cattle destined for the sacred ring.
It would have been simple to give into fear, premonition and omen watching: a spider’s web on the left side of the threshold, a broken jar of wine, too many ravens in the field, swarming bees. We all knew signs to watch for, and we all came from different places with different signs.
“Did you hear the rooster this morning?” Bahar asked me.
“It was still dark, but it crowed eight times. I counted,” she lowered her voice so that no one else on our teams would hear.
“And so? What now? Worse than cats fighting in front of a full moon? As bad as an odd number of doves in the apple tree out front? Less concerning than seven caterpillars on the front doorstep? Or the overturned birdbath? The dented mirror no one remembers dropping?” I asked, all sarcasm intended.
“Maybe. My nonni says eight is an unlucky number,” Bahar’s eyes showed white all the way around her oak-brown irises.
“And… and a day bird crowing at night is a bad sign too,” I finished with a shrewd guess. So many omens, signs, warnings. “I can’t play ‘read-my-fate-in-crone’s-tales’ while I try my level best to make every moment of the present count. I can’t do it, Bahar. Between us, hardly a breath drawn or released hasn’t some significance. I can’t live in the oracular expectation of disaster-- or success. Am I stupid?” I grumped.
“No, you’re smart,” Bahar assured me.
Though we were the youngest on our teams, our proficiency gave us standing. Bahar called a meeting at first starlight. We gathered under the ancient pinyon stand at the back of the second bull field, where no one would look for us even should they look for us.
“Hanna can’t concentrate on the bull dancing with all our omen casting and prognosticating flying around. And she’s right. We have one job: to become the greatest possible offering in service to the Daburinthoio Potniai the Phaistaieon has ever known.
“If we are all looking sidewise at clouds, webs, weeds, pebbles and all the course of the world around us, how will we see the only things we really need to make ourselves ready for the ring? We need to watch each other.We need to watch Elder Brother.
“We need to listen to the bells, the slap of feet, and the thud of hooves. We need to smell the musk of animal rage and fear, and the hot, pumping blood of the Perfected One. We need to feel the grit of the mica coated hide and the twisting ridges of horn beneath our hands. Every other sight, sound, smell, touch distracts us from our goal, our offering, our victory!” She ended in ringing tones.
Arevdi Sura Anahiti led her people in successful hunts and to ascendency in war. Her tradition warmed the words of her novitiate Bahar. It struck a flame of kinship in all we who listened.
Matro Kitane saw an eagerness in us for the meditations of focus. We rededicated ourselves to learning to read Elder Brother in his field as a team. And in the sixth Kritian week, our Matroi called us together at moonrise to take a name for ourselves as a single performing group.
“Nightingales, for the song of our bells,” Bahar suggested.
“Gazelles, for our grace and leaping,” countered Dazhi.
“Leopards for our speed and ferocity,” tried Laylaha.
“Cranes for our loyalty and courage,” I offered.
In the end, we chose my cranes. Though I had given up on omens, it was my own totem bird from the first dance I had learned as a stilt walker. I counted it a lucky sign. How could I not?
Again, I flew through the air as I had from the towers of Migdala. Now I flew from towers of people, onto a mountain of a bull, bouncing to the thick, dusty sand of our practice ring, under a land bridge of belly, over the horns of that first bull and into the arms of the waiting bass-- with a thrown somersault & a diving twist to give it panache. Our bulls were the old ones, and placid with it.
The day Matro Kitane introduced a young bull, in addition to the two older ones we had grown used to working with, it had rained the night before. It rarely did in the warm months at Kriti. The fine dust had turned to slick mud. Puddles were lined with rocks, or more of that treacherous mud-- as slippery as it was sticky.
The air had cooled with the fall of rain. Morning fog still swirled and shredded across our practice pasture. Sunlight, milky as melted butter, glazed the day with a muted sparkle.
The young bull was bluish white, with red and black spots all over. Even his coming horns were striped-- one white and red, the other wholly black. His eyes were black and rimmed flame-red like the linings of his nostrils.
Elder Brother as was seemed taller than our practice bulls. In part, it was because he hadn’t grown much of a belly as yet, nor any armoring of fat beneath his fine, bright hide. His legs were measurably longer, though his back wasn’t farther from the ground.
He snorted at the other bulls, who studiously ignored the argumentative newcomer to their peaceful pasture. Our Elder Brother of the day pawed up the turf. He only splashed the mud around his fetlocks, and on anyone foolish enough to have stood right behind him-- me, then.
He gave a bellowing snort and charged at one of the mounting dummies stored near the far end of the field. The dummy went down with a resounding crack. Elder Brother had shattered half of his black horn on that charge. It gave him a wilder look than he’d had only a moment before.
“How are we supposed to work those horns?” Bahar asked me in an undervoice, panting.
“Maybe we aren’t. Maybe that’s one of those tactical challenges when you’re in the service itself. I’m glad we’re seeing this now. If I hadn’t had to think about what to do without usable horns ahead of time, I don’t know if I could have adjusted right there in the liturgy. What a mitzvah,” I muttered the last bit to myself. It was one of Zebadyah’s pieces of standard sarcasm.
“Matro Kitane agrees with Matro Aaliyah, tradition dictates no dancer go into the ring with less than a full year of training. But with dancers so few, and the training so brief, there aren’t really enough dancers even for celebrations like the Phaistaieon, and that’s held only once every eight years,” Dazhi interrupted.
“So are you saying they need to train more dancers for longer, or that they shouldn’t hold this part of the liturgical service if they don’t have qualified celebrants? I can’t tell which part of the dialectic you’re taking up,” I shot back at Dazhi. She was more full of information than firm opinion, or even applied logic.
“I’m saying the Matroi don’t think we should have been asked to perform in the rituals. But the servants of the temple at Phaistos have more power in distributing temple resources than our instructresses. If the Matroi tell them ‘no’, who knows what they’ll have for the bull dancer training budget next year,” Dazhl concluded practically.
“Next year when they could begin to recruit bull dancers and give them enough training to make their dedication to the Daburinthoio Potniai mean something at the next Phaistaieon,” Bahar concluded.
“Or maybe the painted-ones don’t want too much polish and practice. They might be as happy to have the dancers Perfected as Elder Brother. Maybe Our Lady of the Labyrinth isn’t fully satisfied if all the blood in the ring comes from her bulls.
“Without the dance being a true danger, it may not be acceptable to her at all. I don’t know. Have the Matroi told us how the first Phaistaieon was celebrated, or why? It might be useful knowledge.” I contributed nothing but my own confusion.
That the dance was meant to be dangerous, and that it couldn’t be properly performed without bloodshed I knew and believed. But Our Lady might be as happy, or happier, with the blood of the Perfected Elder Brother alone. Or not. We braved the sour stare and pursed lips of Matro Kitane and asked her for the background of the Phaistaieon’s liturgical tradition.
“Once, the people of the Labyrinth chose their king new every year. At the end of the year, he fought his half-brother, the Bull, until one of them died from blood loss. This kept the kingship fresh, and the seed of the land fertile in its trenches. Daburinthoio Potniai wants only the best, the strongest, the brightest, for her consorts-- or her offspring,” Matro Kitane informed us.
“Now we watch Pasiphae’s Star do the five-petaled dance with Apollo Paean between each of the Phaistaieon celebrations. The King himself, the reason for our sacred liturgy, had been gone for long generations. But the celebration, notice of the turning of the heavens from first season to last, the remembrance of the glory of Daburinthoio Potniai in her full ascendency, this was treasured on Kriti still.
“Since before the ‘Elines victory at Wilusa-that-was, before the coming of the ‘Elines to Mesogeios, the people of the Labyrinth gently ruled the region of islands and ports with jewelry, pottery, oil, and song. We traded for tin, copper, gold, lapis, Murex dye, ivory, linen, and rice.
“We kept the sea lanes open and Our Lord of the Tossing Waters propitiated. Now, though we trade mostly on the sufferance of the descendants of Wilusa-that-was. Yet we are ‘let’ to keep our own calendar in our own temple. Still we celebrate and sacrifice to honor She Who Has Been, She Who Watches Still, and She Who Shall Come.
“So throw your livers over Elder Brother as you dance in our ring to honor the One we honor. Work your lancets dexterously. Sound your cymbals and bells with pride and harmony. Trust your ears, and your livers, to steer you right. Commit to your choices as you make them.
“You aren’t ready for the ring now, and you won’t be come the moment. But you will go joyfully and with all the skill and fortitude at your command. Your fears now are as nothing to the abyss of despair into which you will sink should you bring Her less than your dedicated best-- always supposing you survived the natural consequences of such a blasphemy,” Matro Kitane smiled at the possibility. It was a smile made of chill winter wind, in the midst of our high summer’s day.
We faced the tri-colored bull with the crumpled horn in a state of awed determination. Bahar and I were sweating off the fine layer of rosemary oil with which we’d been anointed the evening before. Dazhi and Laylaha were taking turns stirrup tossing one another over each others’ backs and into the waiting hands of the basses, who tossed them high enough to make a twist and land in a handstand on the upraised hands of the bass. It was a set-up for one part of what Bahar and I had practiced to start our performance. The move could serve as a distraction to take a Elder Brother’s eye from one vulnerable soprano to a veritable catherine wheel of dancers in ribbons, bells and swinging linen kilts.
“Let’s circle in on him from behind, and I’ll see if I can swing across his back. Where will you be when I land?” I proposed with bravado.
“You can give me a stirrup boost, and I should be close enough to grab his good horn & use the leverage to dive down his back. If I get a good arc, I’ll throw in a somersault,” Bahar upped the ante with a competitive twinkle in her eyes.
She had wound a fat strip of linen around her long, soft coils of night black hair. That thick a bundle would have unbalanced me, but Bahar usually wore her hair out of the way. She claimed it got less dirty. I never cared how dirty I got that summer, since someone at Vathypetro always seemed to be hauling me through one ritual cleansing or another, regardless of how long the day had already been.
I vaulted over our new bull while he snorted at a clump of buttercups. We had circled from downwind. Elder Brother wasn’t wary of our presence.
With a scissor kick, I pushed far enough forward to land with my knees bent and my hands clasped. In two steps, Bahar leapt into my hands as I redirected the coiled momentum of my landing and threw it upwards; and her with it. She soared up, and reached down with her left hand to use the full horn as a fulcrum. Her body’s arc swung cleanly around, and she released the horn perfectly. Before she landed she’d turned two full twists and added a somersault at the back, before scampering off downwind again.
Elder Brother bellowed wildly, kicking out with his head thrown up and his feet well away. He looked like the ones in the murals at Knossos Palace. He raced in circles, infinity loops, and spirals. But Bahar had got clean away to under a shade tree, sucking down melon sherbet in a ladle drawn from a sweating pithos.
We had done it. We had worked a combination with a young, active bull. We had planned it and landed it. Our first real triumph, though over in three claps of the hands.
I honked like a deranged flamingo. L flapped my arms as I swooped across the lower pasture to the ancient cork oak.It was there our pithoi were piled up in the shade, as were Matroi Kitane and Aaliyah.
Suddenly, the Matroi scrambled up. They used the pithoi as leverage to gain the lower limbs of the wind-twisted oak. Bahar followed them, limber and swift as my Aunt Mimi’s monkey. They were all shouting and waving their arms, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I spared a glance over my shoulder.
Elder Brother had seen and heard my crazy whoop of victory. He charged from up the hill straight at me, with not a soul in sight to act as a possible distractor. His thudding hooves grew louder as he drew closer.
I pushed my honed and toned limbs. I stretched for every extra quarter pous of turf. I bounded from the tilted, unglazed pithoi propped against the tree’s trunk, arms up-stretched to meet the many arms stretched down to help me up. The fool beast charged right into the oak tree.
Pithoi shattered, flinging water, fruit juice and kiln-fired shards all over. The tree shook down into its roots. The crown tossed as the trunk creaked and groaned. Birds fluttered up in a squawking cloud of confusion.
The Matroi, Bahar and I clung to stout limbs of the tree. We bucked and swung under the assault of the clueless bull below. Elder Brother’s blood streamed down from cuts the blown-out ceramics had made. He’d hit the tree so hard, one his eyeballs looked like it was less than an instant from popping out of its socket.
The tree settled. Elder Brother tottered a few steps. He collapsed with his legs neatly folded under him. The Matroi turned to me with wrath written large on their faces.
“What in the name of the deepest, darkest cyst of the Labyrinth itself were you thinking? How could you believe that waving, running, and bellowing like a wounded sow would be a suitable activity in the vicinity of a freshly played bull? Are you hoping we will declare you a different kind of sacred in your madness so that you may avoid the Phaistaieon?” Matroi Kitane raged. Relief and adrenaline gave only more strength to her vitriol. Behind her, and a limb or two above, Bahar swung from her knees and pulled faces at me where neither Matroi could see.
“I am sorry Matro. I forgot about Elder Brother. None of the others cares when we run or make noise.” My excuses sounded inexcusable. My mouth kept running, though my soul had retired in shrinking shame.
“Did you see Bahar take the bull by one horn? What a leap she made! And the twists. Two and a half at least, then landing a final somersault and heading out and down with the wind cleanly. Has there ever been anyone like her?” My tongue demanded of the outraged Matroi, while my nous cowered deep in my liver.
“I saw. It was good. Although an unwary bull is a different bull to Elder Brother himself in the ring at the Phaistaieon,” Matroi Kitane allowed.
“The teamwork in your set up, Hanna, made every move of Bahar’s showy leap possible,” Matro Aaliyah adjudged, each word ground through the mill of her ire at my thoughtlessness. “Understand this, Matro Kitane and I are quite angry with you. Not solely because you endangered yourself, Hanna. Nor even primarily.
“Your disregard for the whole-- your awareness of the “room”, makes you a danger to your teammates. Six days from today, you take the ring in Phaistos for the propitious opening dance of the festival liturgy. Short though your performance may be, it might last crucial moments longer if you could cultivate a consideration for the condition of the total, beyond any isolated part.” Matroi Aaliyah spoke an ‘Elines so polished and balanced, I lost myself in appreciation of her flowing syntax and curated declensions.
“You, Maryam Hanna bat Shelomit. I am talking to you! Will you learn to refocus? Or will you cause horror and dismay with your inability to grasp the concept and praxis of finding the “room,” Little Fish?”
How did Matroi Aaliyah come to know my house name with Bet Maryam?
Suddenly, I found the “room” in looking for the answer to my idle question. Aunt Mariamne spoke an ‘Elines as pure and thoughtful as Matro Aaliyah. Mostly, my aunt used her ‘Elines to quote the ancient poetesses of the sparkling harbor and the wine-dark curling waves of the Mesogeios.
Suppose their commonality of a tertiary tongue were part of an education in common? The formal ‘Elines used by the great Mistresses of learning to teach in the open air schools of Eskanderejai might be the source of their uncommonly cultivated common tongue.
Matro Aaliyah had been born to the high deserts of the Amazigh peoples. She might have taken her temple training in some of the many holy houses thickly littered by history along the an-Nil. They cropped up irregularly all the way from the second cataract to the myriad wandering waterways of Eskanderejai on the delta.
My Haha had given birth to Mariamne bat Cleopas av Halfi in Eskanderejai. There she would have been raised, until Haha separated from the people and temple at Eskanderejai and repaired to Tzor and the shelter of Bet Maryam. All roads at that time led to Eskanderejai, whether they were land routes or sea lanes.
So my itinerant aunt, disciple of Our Lady Rolling, a wanderer of the known places of the great world, stayed in contact with the students and teachers she had studied with once upon a time. Mariamne seemed to know everyone on the Mesogeios. She kept records of where they had been, to where they might have moved, and whom they served-- in heaven or on earth. However far I might travel across the surface of the egg which is Our Lady’s great work, I knew I would meet people who had known my aunt.
The “room,” I had found it through one form of problem solving. In our performance out in the ring, such a means of seeing might make an invaluable contribution to our staying whole while still honoring our dedication to the sacred celebration of Pasiphae and her long perished consort.
During the next four days, I worked early and late on finding and holding the “room” in my first awareness. I meditated with the Hecatoi before the sun came up and the chickens fluttered into the orchards. I prayed with the Viragoi in the dripping dank caves of Idaion Antron at sunset. I hummed, chanted and sang with the Cranes as we hopped from foot to foot, rope to rope, log to log, stone to stone, bull to bull. I called the pitch on our chants, and the Cranes responded in full bell. We scatted, mottoed, and clattered in tune as we tumbled, leapt, twisted, jumped, arced and cartwheeled between somersaults, handsprings and flying vaults across one another and Elder brother as well.
The day before the Phaistaieon began, we did not hold practice. Instead, the male priestesses trundled out to our training halls in Vathypetro, riding in their cushioned, canopied ox carts from the temple in Phaistos. They spent the day washing, purging, oiling, perfuming, hennaing, coiling, piercing, hanging, wrapping and polishing us. I would rather have had the practice time; but the traditions of the Phaistaieon were older than counting itself to hear the Matroi tell it and the Hecatoi chant it.
That afternoon we were sent along in one of the ox carts, jouncing over the rutted way. With the wheel guides set into the roadway in stone, it was less harrowing than Dazhi had planned on. She’d brought a covered pot, with a wide mouth, into which she could be sick along the way. She had even bound her long coils of hair back, as Bahar did, to keep from splashing vomit on her perfumed and ribboned locks.
Even in the blistering heat of the season of the Phaistaieon, Dazhi had draped herself in a heavy hemp robe--again to prevent her smooth and oiled skin and linen kilt from being smirched along the way. Blankly, I stared at the wheel ruts. Idly, I wondered if all the carts on the island were made with the same axle width, or if only temple servants rode in comfort whilst all others jostled and bounced. A problem for another day, if I were to live through another full rotation of Our Lady’s daily journey.
At the city gates, our ox carts stalled at the command of the Temple servants. Guards, in polished bronze and deep-dyed embroidered leather battle kilts had crossed their long lances.
“Who comes to the sacred city on the eve of the Phaistaieon? Who comes to the gate at the time of the festival? Who rides so boldly up in gay ox carts to the place of the Perfected One?” called the guards in the old, old language of the Queen of Horn and Bee.
“We who are anointed come to the city to celebrate the Phaistaieon. We come with those who have been chosen for the festival. We come with offerings for the Perfected Onek, our Elder Brother,” our painted, polished escorts chanted back in the same language. We in the carts had been coached to know the rituals and the words in them. None of us thought we knew the Daburinthoio Potniai’s true tongue, but this we had heard repeated over. These ancient phrases we did know.
“Enter then, servants of the Lady of the Labyrinth. Enter and be welcome in bright Phaistos. Enter and dedicate your offerings to the Perfected One as you must,” the handsome guardsmen returned.
With flower decked switches, the male priestesses coaxed our oxen into action. Through the tall, megalith lined gate of the city we trundled. The walls of Phaistos were thick at the gate, and the shade harbored there cast a chill through our sun-heated bodies. We rumbled in our sluggish carts out of the sheltered gate and into the city proper.
Nearly blinded by the brightness after the dim dark, the noise struck us first. The broad square down which the ox paced had people lining it and cheering at the top of their lungs. They pelted us with poppy petals and field chamomile, or tossed handsful of petals up in the air so that the very city seemed to rain bright scarlet and flashes of sunwashed gold. The flowers stuck to our skin. We were blotched all over with red the color of life blood. My skin tightened into chicken flesh as the symbolism sank in, despite the hot day.
Though it wasn’t far from the gate to the entrance of the Palace, the canopy roof of our ox cart sagged darkly under the weight of the flowers riding with us to our destination. The patient ox towed our carts through another megalithic tunnel, after the ritual challenges and answers had been parsed again by the guards and our escort of temple servants. Shortly, we came to a stop. In a moment, the set of steps used to dismount the tall carts had been placed by those same male priestesses, and the back gate of the cart unlatched and pulled away. We rose, shakily from the heat, our fear, and the long bruising ride we had sustained from Vathypetro.
“Welcome to the Phaistaieon, Perfected Ones,” they intoned. Just in time, I remembered we had practiced this exchange with Matro Kitane. As with all else for the next day, the ritual required that we perform our parts with flawless timing and utter respect.
“Are ye come freely and willingly to dance with Daburinthoio Potnia’s own consort and stepson, your Elder Brother?” They buzzed in unison with light voices and a peculiar drawling which made the strange words only stranger to our foreign ears. But we managed to answer together, from both carts.
“Willingly come we to honor the Daburinthoio Potnia. Freely do we come to sport with the Perfected One, our Elder Brother and the beloved consort of the Lady of Horn and Bee. All honor to the Phaistaieon!” None of us wrangled the drawl. The priestesses passed us carefully down the waiting steps to the terrazzo paved ground.
From the receiving courtyard, we crossed the small plaza to a broad stair. Up the stairs, and down a pillared portico, through a hall down another corridor, more a covered walkway than not, and all the palace seemingly as empty as the city had been full,
“Where is everyone,” Bahar whispered to me in ‘Elines. One of the escort turned and scowled and placed two fingers across his lips. I shook my head at Bahar, but knew better than to vocalise.
More walking, more turns. Then the Temple servants stopped before great doors, twice the height of the tallest person, dark with age and bound with straps of darker wood. They began to chant, and there was a tuneful crooning running beneath the articulated words.
They rattled their ivory, and clashed their bracelets with a practiced trembling which built into a growing tension we dancers felt deeply. That shimmering cacophony mimicked the fluttering apprehension rooted in our stomachs and feasting on our shrinking livers. Not only my skin raised up in chicken flesh as we stood before those ancient doors waiting on our next cue from the attendants.
One of the painted priestesses stepped to the very doors themselves and banged on one of the straps with a heavy, polished staff of driftwood. His measured tocsin echoed rich and full in the empty hall. The doors swung slowly open.
It wasn’t round. For long and long, we had heard and spoken of the bull ring. I had never thought of it as having corners. Four times as long as it was wide, the ‘ring’ was full of people spreading sand over the flag paved floor. To our left rose stands, canopied to protect against the sun. From these fluttered long garlands of yet more poppies and chamomiles.
I turned to Bahar. She knew what I had to say without me making a word. We had all trained with the word ‘ring’ resounding in our livers. Much of our spacing and timing carried that assumption across every pyramid we made, every basket formed to catch and throw a soprano, every defensive manoeuvre or tactical feint. And it wasn’t round.
The chief of our accompanying temple servants, taller and redder in his skin than any of the others, and more bedecked withal, strode over the threshold of the great doors. He spread his arms wide, a thyrsus in one hand and a round ivory hoop in the other. The bells on his kilt and in his hair trembled with a silvery carillon, easily heard in the Cranes stunned silence.
“Behold the first, last and greatest altar of the Phaistaieon, oh Perfected Ones. Here you shall dance with your Elder Brother, and here give honor in glory to Pasiphae, the Daburinthoio Potniai herself.” So saying, the priestess turned, and the doors swung shut soundlessly as he stepped carefully back to our party.
“Now you will go to your rooms, there to be bathed and feasted, so that tomorrow you shall be alert and wholly purified for your part in the liturgy. None shall disturb you, it is sacrilege for any but the holy attendants to enter the Hall of the Dancers.”
His message was clear. We were under strict curfew. There would be no wandering the vast frescoed halls of the temple complex. We would not dabble our feet in the fresh running water, coaxed through channels to zig zag in surprising fashion through the great plazas, and along the shaded porticos, into gardens, under halls. We could not sneak back to our so-called ring for a late-night practice. The attendants served as guards as well, lest any consecrated dancer lose her nerve or become too nervy altogether.
Wordlessly, we followed our processional path down corridors, through archways, across atrium gardens, down broad, sometimes covered flights of stairs. Truly, as at Knossos, the Phaistos complex made a great labyrinth with many levels. If anything, the place had been built as wasps made a nest. Parts of it had started separately, and in accident ran into each other.
Corridors tapered or widened to accommodate mismatched walls. Oddly proportioned gardens or passages vied with single steps up or down. Doors cut into the corners of rooms, rooms which formed the only egress from one area to the next and perforce became hallways.
Was Phaistos grand? Grand, maybe. But warrened with rooms, riddled with doorways, and jumbled together for the most part. Matro Kitane later told me of sweeping terraces with vistas back to the mountains, and out to the faint sparkling sea. She said there were suites of rooms open to the air and cooled by breezes, softened with flowering vines and trilling birds. The Hall of Dancers did not share those features with the nobler parts of the palace.
Our hall lay deep in the elder parts of Phaistos. The reason quickly became clear. Laylaha found it first.
The attendants showed us the common room, and our choice of the sleeping niches, hewed into bedrock there. Each dressed with a curtain rod and curtain to keep out bugs and create a flimsy sense of privacy. But the glory of the Hall of Dancers lay in a room with a fine, deep pool, shelved about for sitting in the water. That water, a natural spring from the dawn of knowledge of the Lady of the Horn and Bee, flowed hot and salty, tanged with bitter minerals.
While the attendants detailed to our service laid out a Kritian feast and set out bed linens in the niches, we stripped away our kilts and bells and piled happily into the remarkable waters of our unremarkable cave. The bubbling, malodorous pool soothed our knotted muscles and relaxed our overwrought imaginations. We refused to dry off and put on the simple linen shifts for our dinner until our skins were wrinkled as the fat, sweet raisins of the island.
After the meal, we suffered through more massaging and oiling, twining and coiling, and all the various rituals incumbent on our appearance the next morning. The priestesses chanted as they worked. We knew not to interrupt their sacred undertakings with any conversation. So together we spent our last night before the opening of the Phaistaieon isolated and gnawing on our worries and presentiments.
When the attendants departed, they took all but the one lamp with them. It flickered lonely at the aperture of the convenience room. Even here, the cunningly running water carried our waste away. But that was a small wonder compared to the size of our deepened dread.
Our niches were cool, to make sleeping easy. Some feat of crafting let fresh air draft through the room. Our linens were fresh, and our pillows were plump. But our livers were flushed with fear and anticipation.
I listened to the furtive rustling of my teammates as we quietly didn’t sleep. And I began to sing one of our counting songs. We used them to mark rhythm for tumbling passes and those acrobatic leaps, spins and tosses. At first my voice felt as thin and small as my courage. But I filled my chest with the cool air and opened my throat to the simple rhyming chant.
Bahar and Dazhi joined first. Then Laylaha took up the counter count, with the Basses joining her. The chant became a round. We sang it and sang it, each alone in a niche, but together in our spirits joined in song. In a long while, or a short while that felt long, our round fell apart and our song turned to giggles and teasing accusations. The Cranes had found their courage. The next day, we hoped to find glory in service to the great and solemn liturgy. And that night, we slept at last.