- Written by Alexandra D Smith
- Category: Tzor
In the morning, my tests and panels, cleanses and bathing and purifications began. I walked planks and slack ropes. I hopped from stone to stone across a fermenting dye vat. I swung hand-over-hand across a gynogymnasium 16 pous from the floor, angling my legs this way and that to avoid the clatter and slash of the stick-fighters training below me on the mats.
I counted levies made due in mixed goods using legal weights from eight traditions of numeracy and taxation: ore pigs, tonnes of natron, lengths of rope, volumes of fleece, wine and figs--both dried and fresh. I wove garlands, baskets, snares, and sheeting. I danced with knives, swords, ribbons, and vaulting horses. I tumbled and held position.
I listened to lists of words I had never heard and repeated them back. I played s’n’t, checkers, tic tac toe, cat’s cradle, backgammon and ludus. I played tunes on an ugly ocarina, and plucked notes on a lovely cistrum.
I compared colors and textures of glass, silk, linen and metals. I was told stories and answered questions about them afterward. And all of this between dunkings, and soakings, censings and scrapings, buffings and trimmings, and strange meals at odd times of just one thing, or many things together-- and all unfamiliar to me.
Looking back, I can’t be sure if it went on for days that felt like weeks, or if the process took weeks that flew by like days. In the end, I started as all the new girls did and do still. In Tzor, it began with snails.
All know the story of Melkart and his dog on the beach at Tzor. What almost none know is that there is a means of milking the Murex practiced by those who serve our temple. It preserves the life of the snail, while releasing the dye precursor. The Matroi guiding my class of novices assured us that while the collection process we practiced was more demanding, the dye precursor yielded only the very best grade of finished Tyhrrian purples.
With ivory wands, tiny fingers, and youth’s sharp eyesight, we squeezed oddly clear goop from the spiny Murex drop by drop. A class of novices working from early through the best light of the day might produce a cupful of this elixir. And that at the peak of the season, with a higher proportion of the species enjoying their female expression. At the end of the collecting season, the dye-makers fermented, aged, and purified the aggregate secretion. If necessary, it was then concentrated to ensure the intensity of colors which commanded the highest price by weight of any known substance illuminated by the Goddess in Her Cart Above.
The Murex snails were famous for the reek of their processing. Their fear scented the dye precursor. The fermentation process made it worse yet. And the concentration of the finished dyes stood well past absolutely appalling.
In fact, the coveted purples, blood reds, and sacred blues of the Murex had such an embedded stench that the cloths and clothes into which they were woven must be perfumed and incensed before wearing for the first few years after they are made. Truly, it was a low-tidelike, sewage-y scent with bass notes of rotting offal and putrifying sea life.
I learned well every stage of production of the reeking lifeblood which pumped prosperity and power through the temple grounds. It was the very blood of commerce born in the waves of our Mother Sea. Romantic, true, stinky.
We of the Novitiate, heads shaved of hair, in short linen tunics shared commonly and stained with the unprocessed precursor across many wearings and washings, worked nine days in nine, resting only at the Full on Her sacred monthly night.
“I hate these snails. I want to crush them all. If we put them back in the sea, they will only be brought up again to torment me with their foul odor and their tedious goop,” snarled a lithe Novitiate seated two down from me at the long smooth glazed worktable. Something about her accent drew my eyes from the snail in my fingers. I looked up and locked gazes with the kitten-blue, tip-tilted eyes of Marta, the liar from the Children of the Sun. She smiled with a baring of her teeth. Marta presented the very image of our lead nanny just before she lunged to bite.
Why? Why of all the people in my tiny acquaintance was she here at the temple? The Goddess in Her Cart was older than my father’s people.
She had been the unformed dark and the swirling waters. She had made the first land and the dawning light. She was both Made, and Unmade, herself.
All the women of the worshipping world sent their daughters to the ancient temple centers. Even the daughters of ash-Sham. Even the daughters of fallen Tyrrhenia. Even Marta, spawn of both.
“Why are you wiggling, Hannakin?” My foremother Sobe asked severely at our feast of the Full, on the 28th day of our Lady’s journey from Bed to Throne to Temple. I blushed. It was easy to see the flush on my face now that I’d spent so many days shielded from the sun in the snail milking sheds set against the shore of the old Port of Misr.
“Am I wriggling, Cousin Sobe?” I returned with all the transparent sophistry of the young and a long open stare.
“I have said you were, and you have not denied it. Tell me why little eel.” Cousin Sobe’s mouth was bracketed with deep lines of judgment and dissatisfaction. I did not know their name, or cause, but I could see them and felt their relentless drive to uncover and denounce.
“I wriggle because I itch,” I muttered, making bold eyes only at the feast bowl before me.
“Why does the child itch?” Marmar had caught the thread of our discourse and jumped in to tangle the works.
“There were bugs in my mattress in the Novitiates Hall. The Matroi have destroyed the mattress, and I am being bathed and purged and anointed to clear the bugs from my skin,” I grumbled.
“How did an infestation take root in the Hall? This is unheard of. We put the intake through all those baths just to avoid this very thing. When will you girls be able to sleep there again? Have the Matroi said?” Haha asked from down the feast table.
“It wasn’t everybody. Just me,” my voice fell to a whisper. But Mariamne, seated beside me heard.
“Well. That is unheard of. Bugs in one bed only in a dorm housing a full college of girls. What do the Matroi say about your infestation, Hanna?” Mariamne questioned in her most coaxing tone.
“The Matroi say they must have dropped a stitch when they brought me into the Temple,” I repeated word for word what I had overheard. I did not add that I had observed their raised eyebrows, pursed lips and flushed glares. The Matroi knew, or thought they knew, more than the evidence of the bugs seemed to indicate.
I had my own beliefs about the bugs in my bed. The snapping straps of my gym sandals. The suddenly soap-slippery spot on the floor of the hot-spring baths down near the causeway. My spindle doll from home splintered and smoldering on the hearth fire of our college’s common room.
If the Matroi had dropped a stitch, it was when they failed to purge, scrape and scrub the daemons of discontent from that Daughter of the Son of the Sun before they turned her loose on her undefended peers.
Her brittle pink smile, sky-colored eyes and wheat gold hair, coupled with her grace of body and haughty airs caused her to be held in high status in the college. Marta could bring a novice into fashion with two words. She could cause her to be shunned with the lift of an eyebrow. I saw both.
My shunning bothered me very little. We novices taken in the Spring Snail Season had too many hours filled with stinking snails while treatises on sacred history and modern mathematics were read. We memorized alphabets carved in the bath hall, and liturgical lessons sung during meals. All this in addition to floating threshold challenges composed of changing quotes from the Great Lists of the Lady.
I let all I heard and saw be my focus. I trained my mind in the works of memory, as well as my body in the worship of Our Lady through strength in movement. My peers were too afraid of Marta to cross her. Anyone who witnessed the misery she made of my daily routine knew better than to gainsay her judgment. I had been the only girl at home, singled out, and often apart from my brothers. I had little trouble letting the training itself keep me company.
“I shall speak to the Matroi myself. This is intolerable. We are Bet Maryam and I will not have this. Our house offers only her best, no simpletons or Clumsy Cleos. Our Hanna needs to learn and grow in the path of the Goddess without this petty meanness,” Haha spluttered in fiery indignation.
“Will you, Mother? And will Hanna’s college think better of her for letting her elders fight her own fights? If you want Hanna to overcome, let alone succeed, then she shall have to fight her own fight and make her own name within the Panthean of Bet Maryam,” Mariamne rejoined hotly.
“Haha, your middle child knows well what she knows, and she seems to speak from knowledge now. Can you accept this?” Marmar’s voice wasn’t the loudest in the room, but all present listened when she spoke.
“I accept that my Mariamne knows what she knows. I accept that she knows how Hanna must make her own way through the colleges and her training. But I pray to the Lady in her Cart that the mongrel bitch pup of the Children of the Son of the Sun and the displaced Tyrrhenian that bore her, will learn one day the error of her ways such that she either mend them or release her soul back to the Stews of Chaos from which it was first formed,” Haha enunciated sourly.
This sounded more like a curse than an acquiescence to me. But Bet Maryam made allowances for the incendiary in their number. My collected elders received Haha’s curse with graceful forbearance.
The Matroi of the Novitiates moved me to the bed nearest the door of the college’s dormitory. There my things and I might be easily defended and readily observed. The vandalism and harassment slowed. Though they never stopped.
Spiders floated in my porridge. The last of the soap allotment gone before I could wash my face. Inexplicably mismatched sandals: one tiny and one large. The inventiveness of my tormentress and her cronies was endlessly varied.
In the end, I spent more time in the rooms of Bet Maryam than I did with my college. I arranged to learn Mathematics from Sobe. Mariamne taught me Cultural Awareness, and Taxation, and Tithing Through the Ages. Marmar taught me Liturgical Observation and Implementation, and later Advanced Liturgical Observation. Mimi taught me Basic Herbs through to Distilled Perfumes and Cosmetics Blending, with plenty of garden praxis thrown in for good measure. I don’t know how she kept those robes so white. Even when we gardened, I ended by looking like an earthworm, and she was still as fresh in her undyed linen robes as when we started.
But I learned languages and their alphabets with the other girls in my college. Soon enough, I spent several hours a day in movement training with the other Novitiates. My nimbleness and well tuned body memory advanced me quickly from the lowly Humble Bees class, where every new girl learned the basics.
Sadly, I often landed in classes with the older girls-- inevitably, some of them were part of Marta’s clot of cronies and followers. I “hid” from their villainies in the front of every class. Immediately under the eye of the Matroi, and safe from the thousand torments of my peers. This only improved my skills more quickly than otherwise, and left much of their spleen without an direct outlet for expression.
We learned fighting: with weapons, and without. We learned the dances of our culture, and the many ancient cultures ringing and riding Mar Yam-haMariahne. We were taught tumbling and acrobatics, rope climbing, swimming and diving, as well as the management of carts, wagons and chariots.
They made us run. We were sent out through the New City and across Ushu up into the foothills of the low, cedar-bearing mountains limning the coast as far as the eye could reach in either direction.
Our Matroi taught us to handle one-masted sailing boats, scows, and barges. We learned the different uses of nets in seining, versus scooping manoeuvres and this led to the difference in knots and twists used to make the various nets themselves. At long last, the knots of the fishing craft were mine.
We started our training with nets, string bags and simple baskets. Because of our ties to textiles through our dyes and perfumes, most of the Novitiate were expected to take up at least one of the textile arts seriously.
Mimi knew lots about weaving and embroidery. Mariamne knit and crocheted. Marmar worked nets and macrame. I had my pick of skilled preceptresses, and hated all the fussy textile crafts with my whole heart.
After the beading I had done for my festival tunic in Migdala, I never wanted to ply a needle, or twist a thread or a bit of frayed yarn to itself again. The Temple wanted me to learn how to move, and I wanted to know as much as her practitioners could show me of that and more. But fiddling with string I did not want, and often neglected.
I dreamed of the past glories of the long-gone Bull Dancers in Kriti. I thought of the ritual acrobatics of the visionary priestesses of Misr, and the contrapuntal rhythmic challenges of the Threshing Floor Dances of Ur-Sum-Er, flails and scoops and all.
I felt the miracle of my limber, fluid body in the moments of the dance. I gave myself to the movements and poses, the costumes and postures, the beats and stillness. I wanted nothing more. I ignored the hostilities leveled against me in the college rooms. I lived for dance, I developed through weapons training, and I excelled at physical challenges despite my smallness.
“Will you not come sit and learn to make rope into netting for honor and glory to the One who Drives across Field and Sea alike?” Marmar called to me from her shady porch as I slipped away from Bet Maryam and back to the gynogymnasium for stick fighting and a juggling competition rehearsal.
The girls in my college found they could forget how they wanted nothing to do with me when it came to wanting to do their best in group movement projects of any kind. Marta ruled our college with kitten-eyed malice, but she couldn’t make the uncoordinated look smooth: I could.
I gave grace to the awkward and rhythm to the oblivious. Whether for partnered or group endeavors, the Novitiates chose me. With me, they could win, or not come in last certainly.
Beyond acrobatics and dance, I excelled at swimming and diving, having spent my earliest years on the shores of the Yam-haKinneret. Already, I went with the big girls to work the cliffs north of the Sidonian Port for pearl oysters, and the great snail beds on the shelf comprising the sunken Port of Misr and Melkart’s Temple-Below-the-Waves.
The currents were tremendous, but we dove with safety ropes after much coaching regarding the known rocks and corals below us on the cliffs. The oysters were seeded after the New Year, feeding on the rich swirling waters where the open sea met our tidal pools.
The pearls we acquired were sometimes worked in the jewelry smithies, and sometimes collected by their varying grades to ride the trade roads unset. The diving Matroi told us how different peoples had differing ideas about beauty and self-adornment. Sometimes, the unworked pearls and gems we sent abroad returned a much greater profit to the temple than those we processed through the crafting workshops.
My happiness on the pearl diving team was in no small part due to the absence of Marta and most of her cronies. Small though I was, the divers were elites and treated everyone in our cadre with respect and unstinting support. The waves, currents, and jagged volcanic rock made compatriots of us all.
Marta liked to stay tidy and clean. No wonder she loathed snail milking. When the pearl diving season had finished, the snailing beds were reseeded and their sheltering barricades rebuilt. I started looking for assignments I knew Marta would avoid.
I toiled in the laundries boiling, wringing and sun-bleaching endless pous of linens, cottons, woolens, and felts. The silk had always been processed separately. I scrubbed and peeled and stirred in the cavernous kitchens, leaning over flat-tops of hot ceramic slabs twice my size, or working the spit-turn when the kine tithes were delivered to our butchers.
I swept and trimmed, and patched and painted with the crews of betrousered maintenance workers and gardeners all around the temple. I liked working out of doors, even though the Matroi equipped us with mandatory deep brimmed work hats and light linen veils to protect our complexions as we brought greater harmony and finish to the grounds.
As I grew, I took on other labors guaranteed to repel my nemesis. I barrowed bulk clay for the potters. I trundled hand-carts of wood and anthracite for the kilns and furnaces of the potters, glass-blowers, smiths, jewelers and distillers. In this wise, I learned the ins and outs of the Sidonian Port. The ancient deep-coned harbor was a noisy, endless stream of commerce and dross alike.