- Written by Alexandra D Smith
- Category: Tzor
I dug in ash pits, compost heaps, proofing troughs, hops cures, rose heaps, mushroom barns, clay pits, mineral salts and more. My muscles turned to corded ropes, like the Date Palm’s in high lake weather. I stayed limber working with weapons, hoops, ribbons, the fixed bull-mounts, dances and acrobatics.
I learned to count and read with facility in all the systems of the banking world, courtesy of Sobe’s endless drilling and number songs. I learned how to knot cords to tell time, distance, terrain, agriculture, and population. These knots were a journal keeping trick Marmar taught me when and as she could catch me with her failing voice and patient hands.
I learned how to blend pastes to cure, fix, burn, soothe, moisten, and dry surfaces ranging from skin to marble. I learned to watch for the body’s tells in negotiations from my Aunt Mariamne: dilating pupils, the fluttering pulse, the tensing and twitching of small muscles near the ears, thumbs and mouth, the shifting torso, restless feet, and clenching hand. I learned to dodge questions about odd bruises, late attendance to my shifts, missed meals, broken lamps, shredded sheeting, careless handling of sharp tools-- all the evidences of my war of attrition with the invidious Marta, she of the soft white hands, smooth gilded tresses, and enchanting hand-built perfumes. For none of these did I resent her. She might keep her softnesses and scents to herself for all I cared, if only I might be safe and whole as I went about my self-incurred labors.
My labors were truly self-chosen. The Temple, in its wisdom, let the novitiate find their own level as they learned their way from the snail-milking sheds, to the hypocausts of the Great Baths to the pearling cliffs to the quays’ edges in the Sidonian Port. If a girl had no gift for finding what she wanted to do, the Viragoi and Matroi swiftly made good their threat to find her something which wanted doing. Soon enough, the alert learned to learn and the sluggish found themselves made unwittingly useful. More than half of what drove me was my desire to be far from Marta.
The rest was curiosity to know what could be known, and to see how these knowable things fit themselves into chains and clouds and swarms of links of participation. The Goddess in Her Cart made all go round together in prosperity, and relative harmony. Her works lit the way along the roads of commerce, whether by sea or by land.
I learned to pull finer and finer strands of gold wire through the threading molds without letting them attenuate or break. I learned when to stir the bread down by watching the patterns of bubbles forming on the proofing troughs’ surface, and how to taste the beer for fermentation. I learned how to form incense into cones or rods, and how to shape soap and tablets containing herbs for health.
I learned how beating papyri into paper was like making flax into linen. I found kneading the bubbles out of clay was not unlike kneading them out of bread. I learned how to load and unload a boat for maximum stability and safety of the goods, and the long-shore mistresses both.
In the great, gloom-cornered Temple, I kept oil lamps filled and wicks trimmed through the Galactaea shift circling from point to point in the ancient order of assurance, singing the hymns of the seasons and chanting the liturgical prayers to keep my timing as I made the rounds from chapel to altar to niche to aisle to narthex. I fluffed the cushions where the Hecatoi sat and knelt and stood for the long vigil services and the short daily masses. I washed the floor, from the liminal threshold to the aperture of the Lady Carrhya’s innermost sanctum. I kept bells, thuribles, mirrors, urns and cressets free of tarnish and smut.
At the end of my shift, I sometimes curled up to sleep in one of the shelf niches set in the walls around each chapel. The plastered stone made a hard bed, but a safe one. Not even the beauteous Marta would dare her spite under the very eye of the Lady in Her Cart. Thus I might wake in wonder to incense, rituals and chanting in languages I could barely name, let alone comprehend. No Hecatoi, Matroi or Viragoi ever rousted me from my chosen sanctuary in the years of my service at the temple. I do not know if the compassion of the holy women was general or specific, but I gave thanks to the Lady each day I woke unmolested and unscathed.
In time I came to know the cycles of the liturgy, and I hummed the seasonal paeans as I went about my labor and learning. The rich symbolism of the colors at the altar, in the doorways, fluttering from great loomed curtains shrouding walls and defining aisles, and on the celebrants opened my liver to the perception of the greater turning Wheel of Our Lady’s Cart. And this though I did not take instruction in the Path of the Avatar. I felt Our Lady everywhere in the temple, and Her grounds, but I could never have borne the burden of Her manifesting through the finite channel of my person. I lacked both the hubris and the humility necessary to become a Vessel.
Advances in glassworking had brought fresh luster and success to the stillroom works. There, I tended tiny fires that must never go out, or only smolder blue for the duration of the distilling process. I adjusted fragile spouts and exquisite alembics to maximize evaporation or minimize loss of olfactory quality. I enjoyed the crafting side of perfumes, unguents and cosmetics. I reveled in the meticulous demands on focus, volume, time and process. I wallowed in density checks, siphoning and sealing.
But in the stillrooms, I crossed Marta’s path.
Mostly, Marta studied the keeping of the hospices and hostels run by the Temple. She checked floors and flowers for freshness. She blended custom incenses for the various preferences or healing needs of temple guests. She supervised the laundering of bed and kitchen linens. She helped to plan menus, set couches, arrange entertainments. All these things were done with the seasons, signs, and intentions of the times taken into account in the ancient custom of the temple. Every act of the day had its root in the observances of Our Lady in Her Cart.
Rarely did Marta allow her long white fingers to be stained, smudged, smeared or besmirched by the processing of the tinctures, extracts, attars, and solutions common to the real workings of the stillroom. She excelled in the administration of actual work. She planned and executed the orders of the hospice and spa Matroi.
One day, I staggered through the refectory of the Hecatoi, under a load of bench cushions to protect the, mostly, boney bottoms of our honored elderly from the unforgiving support of the smooth cedar benches.
“You, bring that lot to dais. The freshest cushions always go to the mistresses of our crafting and service guilds. How do you not know that?” Snapped a familiar waspish voice. But I doubted she aimed it at me especially.
The unwieldy heap of cushions towered over my head. I could only gauge my progress in the room by watching my feet, looking for the tells of table legs or bench ends from my peripheral vision. If I couldn’t see anything of the room or anyone in it, neither could I be seen through the barrier of ordurously malodorous plump purple seat cushions.
“This way, you drone. Follow my voice,” Marta directed. “Keep coming, we won’t ever be finished on time if you don’t buzz up your pace.”
I worked out Marta’s direction, and headed her way more sure-footedly than when I first entered the refectory. Surprise! The dais, a raised platform only one medium step up from the rest of the room, suddenly banged me on the shin. Did Marta ‘forget’ to warn me of the obstacle, or did she forget how little I could see from behind the wall of cushions?
Either way, the cushions scattered to the floor around me as I fell, clutching my injured leg. My hand felt wet where it covered the wound. I bled freely from a gash the ancient stone had torn in my flesh.
“Oh, Hanna, I am so sorry,” Marta gushed. I noticed Aunty Mimi stood in the threshold through which I’d entered. Marta seemingly noticed as well. “I will bind it here so that you won’t make a mess of the floors on your way to the infirmary.” Suddenly, I was at fault for making a mess of the refectory with my inconsiderate bleeding. Mimi folded her lips like a silk parasol and slipped away from her vantage point. The cut was ugly and broad, but not too deep.
I limped along to the infirmary, where I was all too familiar an inmate. The Viragoi and Matroi alike knew me and my battered body well. I took stitches, this time, with lashings of a stinging unguent, and a mess of preserved spider web. They bound their work in a bandage of fresh cotton muslin, and coated the seam with gum acacia, so that it would stay tightly wrapped. I was grateful for their care and attentions, though I wished I might have less frequent cause to know them.
The very last time, I came into my own room from the Galactaea shift, groping at my sash for the flint and stone I used to spark the lamp wick into flame. My second try and the wick caught, but it was trailing long and caught on a slick of oil running over the tiny bedside table, quickly kindling alight my straw stuffed, linen wrapped palliasse. Flaming droplets of oil were dropping from the table onto my sandal clad feet. The sting of the burns roused me from my frozen shock.
I grabbed the straw tick, finally grateful for its small size. I rolled the smoking, flaming end of it tightly toward the middle, and ran into the hall. There I sat firmly on the smouldering mattress. Fire needs to breathe just as people do; I knew this from my labor as a furnace imp. When I judged the mattress mostly extinguished, I ran to the garden, where a stack of leather buckets leaned at the end of the fountain. I scooped water into all of those. Two by two, I hauled them first to the straw tick, and soaked it mercilessly. No errant spark would bring a second conflagration. Then I flooded the lamp, still burning merrily, crazed shadows dancing as the flames leapt & sparks scattered. The smoke was tremendous, and the ventilation slot high on the one wall was not equal to clearing the room quickly. I dropped to the floor and crawled out until I was back in the garden.
The Matroi found me slumped asleep some hours later against one of the fat red pillars of the portico. My linen tunic was sooty and scorched, to match my face, arms and legs. The Matroi clucked and squawked over me in clamorous distress.
Matro Ilan called me to her office, from which she administered all the colleges of the novitiate, including mine, the Galactaea. My college was one of the few composed of girls and young women at every stage of their Temple training. We of the Galactaea were linked only by our night duties. Some of us took classes only in the morning, and likewise some only in the afternoon, to accommodate our duties in the dark of Our Lady’s daily journey.
“Maryam Hanna bat Shelomit, what happened this morning? Why did you not call for help and assistance? You have burns! Your bedding is a shambles! And your room looks like the sack of Qart-hadast!” Matro Ilan’s ivory complexion had suffused with a purple the murex herself might have envied as she spoke to me. Her voice rose like a parrot’s mating shriek. I shook my head tiredly and knuckled my still bleary eyes.
“Lamp oil. A puddle of lamp oil on the table. Dripping onto the bedding. I didn’t see it. And I don’t remember spilling it. The lamp wick was wrong, as well. It lit, and all, but then it just drooped over and fire spread to the oil everywhere.
“I should have told the Matroi on duty. I am sorry. I was so tired. I thought I would just rest for a moment. I didn’t mean to fall asleep, Matro Ilan.”
I wondered if they would kick me out of the temple Novitiate for being careless enough to set fire to my own room. What would Bet Maryam say to me if that happened? So many disappointed, powerful women was more than depressing to consider. I shuddered at the thought of their displeasure.
“You mistake me, Hanna. You have taken furnace imp rotations since you were barely able to grasp both arms of the wheelbarrow at once. I know you are not careless with fire.
“What is going on here? You are the most graceful dancer anyone has seen in two generations, yet you also appear to be the most clumsy Novitiate in twice as many generations as that. You are constantly slipping, tripping, stumbling, tumbling from one accident to the next. Your wardrobe has stains, and tears, smells funny and fits you worse most days.
“What can we do for you, Maryam Hanna bat Shelomit? How may the Matroi assist you in overcoming the obstacles, confusions and contumely through which you labor?”
Matro Ilan meant well. Like all the Matroi, she took her charge of the Novitiate seriously. Less commonly, she brought compassion to her duties as well.
But I could not, would not, say where my bad luck originated. If I ratted out Marta, my life might become more troublesome than it already was. No one liked a tattler. If I told on Marta and her crew, all the Novitiate could well take against me. I couldn’t take that risk.
I shook my head mutely, and studied the blistering burn splotches on the tops of my feet. The quiet drip of the water clock in the corner, and my own thundering pulse were the only sounds in the room. Drip. Drip. Drip.
“Fine, child. As you will. But know that the Matroi have long eyes, to see around corners and into dark places.
“More than that, you have been nominated by Matro Ninshurag to take a place with the novitiates going to Kriti for the Bull Dancing immersive. Bet Maryam concur with me that you will benefit from the fresh perspective, as well as the specialized training.
“Make us proud there, Little Fish. The Lady of the Bull and Bee is very ancient in Kriti, and the arts with which they celebrate their devotions to Her are exacting as no others known under the Moon or Sun. Your ship leaves from the Sidonian Port within this nine-day. You may take one bag long enough to stow a sword and no taller than a barrow handle resting. That will do.” With this, Matro Ilan dismissed me.
I did indeed sense the eyes of the college Matroi on me over the next few days. I scurried from pillar to gate to quay to garden making ready to leave, giving notice to all my supervising Matroi. My shoes were unsmirched, my tunics smelt of herbs instead of rot or dung. My works in progress did not mysteriously boil dry, or shatter when cooled. The wheelbarrow’s wheel was sound and round, and its track unobstructed. Briefly, I wondered how much more pleasant my life could have been if I had not been under siege these four years.
Bet Maryam was overjoyed at my place on the boat going to Kriti. Though wise and clever, our house had rarely made the moving arts her focus. Ismeria, whose husband Stollanus was not a Kohen but indeed a Centurion in the legions of Roma Imperia, had been the last member of Bet Maryam to make the dance her principal study. She had been my great grandmother, and Marmar’s older sister. Her name was spoken in toasts many times at the feast the night before my boat sailed.
“May our Hanna have the luck of the eel, the skill of the kingfisher, the endurance of the onager, and the liver of the lioness,” Mariamne roared over the gaggle of chatting and cackling Maryamnites.
“May she exceed her foremother Ismeria in beauty and timing both,” Marmar pronounced thinly in her hoarse, wavering voice. As ever, out of respect for her age-- which she alleged to be more than a century, and as nearly as even Sobe could tell that might have been true-- the room stilled to hear her benediction, and drank heartily to affirm it.
“May I bring honor to all my house, before me and beyond me, and not come back until I have taken the myrtle crown!” I ambitiously declaimed.
The table fell silent for a moment at the audacity of my boastful toast. But the women of my house believed in letting every member find her own level. Even if she should curse herself in her drive to become and succeed. So they all drank once more to affirm and witness my foolish vow.