- Written by Alexandra D Smith
- Category: Tzor
The Cranes were rousted up with the dawn, or so the bustling, ringing priestesses of the evening before assured us in the darkness of our unwindowed hall. Once more, we were oiled and bedecked and coiled and beribboned. Like our Elder Brothers in the field, we stood quietly for the assault and let the rituals and songs wash over us with the oils and unguents.
Our eyes were lined with kohl from Misr. Our lips were reddened with a decoction of wax and mashed bugs., though it had been strained of legs and wings and such. Our arms were wrapped in bells and flower garlands, as were our ankles and waists. We smelled fantastic, the oils being scented with ambergris, myrrh and an intoxicating lotus. Our leather belts and headbands were glossy with rubbing and deep dyed to match the poppies. Our linen kilts swung with the full weight of their embroidered bells. Our livers rose up in strength and assurance. The priestesses had selected the Cranes, but we had chosen together to exceed any expectations since explained to us.
Out of the hall we trooped behind our escort, their croziers and thyrsuses clattering lightly on the paved floors. We carried our lancets, simple staves tipped with sharp bronze caps at either end, and grooved in the middle for a sounder grip. Our bare feet padded soundlessly in the cool gloom of the lower regions of the Old Palace.
Back through the twists and turns of the endless labyrinth of Phaistos we wended. They led us to the tall dark doors of the day before. We stood in silence, sopranos at the front, tenors and basses behind in their pairs. The male priestesses flanked us fore and aft. Through those doors, the rising roar of the crowd, punctuated by cymbals and deep drums pounded ceaselessly and without rhythm. My heart pounded in frantic answer. I clenched my hand on Bahar’s wrist, the scent of crushed poppy rising from my grasp.
The heavy doors swung open in concert. The priestesses peeled aside and the Cranes marched across the threshold. We entered the bull ring to dance with the perfected one, our Elder Brother. The liturgy proceeded above us, an altar on a long loge set over the doorway populated with incense burning, chanting priestesses tending their ancient ritual.
At the far end of the ring, a glowing red bull with blazes of white at his forehead and splashed for stockings up his legs tossed his horns and challenged our scented presence. I wondered what those wily servants of Pasiphae might have mixed into our unguents to alert Elder Brother to our existence so quickly through all the crowded chaos of the opening of the Phaistaieon. And notice us he did indeed.
The shining terror of him bellowed a grave challenge. Elder Brother pawed the sand, tossing and shaking his broad banded horns all the while. Then he crouched. We Cranes knew our cue. We broke into our dance.
Steps with a hop to the left, and again to the right. Now we were strung across the ring in a line curved toward the bull at each end. The Perfected One charged. Left and right, the tenors and basses formed a basket with their arms. Bahar and I threw leaping standing somersaults onto their arms, and were flung high to turn twice more and land with a twist to stand on the shoulders of our tenors.
Elder Brother approached. Bahar and I flipped out with a push from our teammates below and beside us to soar over the back of the bull, dragging our lancets across his hide at the shoulders. Plenty of blood would be sure to flow if we struck true. We landed, rolling into a defensive stance to either side of the pained, confused bull.
His range of vision failed him when we touched down in a line directly behind him. The Cranes had never practiced with liturgical lancets. Our dummies had been weighted to mimic the bronzed tips, but the bulls in our practice field were not there for us to let their blood. Our success with the first pass shocked me.
Elder Brother roared and bellowed, bucking and twisting. His nostrils widened as his eyes slit with rage. Bright hot blood scattered like petals across the sand in eye-catching arcs. He caught our scent again and charged without even pawing.
Laylaha grabbed my waist, both of us crouching to create more spring as she threw me up and over her head. I flipped to land with my legs around the shoulders of my bass, Anam. She pushed me up by the soles of my feet, so that I stood on her shoulders again. I could tell from Bahar’s bells that she too had taken position. The Perfected One stampeded to my pyramid.
I dove over his back at an oblique angle to his approach. Bahar came from the opposite side, a count and a half after I had crossed. Only one of my lancets caught in the bull’s hide, pulling along and across his spine as I used the leverage to tumble further across the churned sand. Bahar struck with both lancets, but one of them fouled in the tossing twisting horns. Bahar was thrown roughly, and landed in a broken tumble still grasping one of the lancets. She lay precious counts in the sand.
Elder Brother charged Anam and Laylaha. They sprang apart throwing standing backflips while Dazhi and her bass cartwheeled into the bull’s line of vision on the other side. Distraction and misdirection worked. Bahar struggled up from the sand, shaking her head-- though not with the vigor or spleen of the Perfected One.
I ran to her and took her hand. My eyes sought hers. She nodded. Nothing too askew, then. I took the lead and we split to join our teams, throwing handstands or somersaults as we moved to honor the Lady and her great festival with our very best in her consecrated ring.
Bahar had lost her lancets. We had devised a plan for that. Her team made a basket and tossed her like a twisting arrow through the air. She grabbed the horns of Elder Brother and used them to arc away in the direction from which she’d come. Her team were there to catch her, while Elder Brother looked the other way.
At that same time, I took another flying leap across his hips, scoring them while Bahar acted the cape to draw his attention. The bull turned to find the cause of his pain. But all the Cranes had run down the ring to regroup at the other end.
Twice more we changed ends of the ring with the Perfected One. Each time, we used the dives, rolls, aerial leaps, and tucks to keep him too occupied finding us to hurt us. Bahar recovered one of her lancets when we had manoeuvred back to the altar end of the ring on our second circuit.
By then, Anam had a limp, and Bahar bled from the ugly scrapes she had taken in her fouled pass. I had made one landing hard enough to cause my knees and jaw to ache, but I had shed no blood for my troubles so far. Laylaha had a long scratch down one thigh, though it was one of Bahar’s bells that had caused the damage, not Elder Brother. Dazhi and Woniluk, the other bass, remained whole if shaken and panting.
Anam had taken up the other lost lancet. Laylaha tossed me to stand on Anam’s shoulders. The motion caught our bull’s attention. He unleashed a shattering bellow. Rage, pain, and indignation gave his utterance depth.
He charged straight at us. I leapt up and came down on his back, planting my lancet deep in his left shoulder. Anam cast as I flew. With all her great force, the lancet sunk deep into his red rimmed eye. He bucked while twisting, and shook me off him. I soared away, out of control, trying to find my limbs and regain a sense of the ‘room’ in the air. Woniluk and Dazhi dove to catch me, succeeding only in tumbling us all into a tangle on the sand. The outrage of the Perfected One increased with his fresh debility. Incredibly, the noises he made grew louder.
He took no notice of us, where we lay still as rabbits tracking a hawk’s shadow. Anam and Laylaha ran right at our Elder Brother to distract him before he could shift his focus. Bahar howled a challenge at Elder Brother in her mother-tongue. She ran up behind Anam and pulled herself up onto those shoulders. With another howl, she leapt straight on for his fearsome horns.
Her shriek and his howl combined as the lancet stuck in his eye tore a gash from Bahar’s midsection down to her knee. She missed her aim for his horns, his motion and her sudden anguish throwing her off her goal. She bounced her face off his spine and his frantic bucking tossed her off towards the wall.
Bahar cartwheeled through the air, limbs akimbo. Anam and Laylaha couldn’t make a run at her with the bull between them and her long trajectory away. She fell, still turning, and crumpled into the kind of heap which signals so much wrong and little right.
I hauled myself upright, ignoring the sharp pain in my ankle and another in my opposing knee. I took a deep breath, and nearly let it loose in a scream-- my ribs were in trouble too. With all my remaining will I charged the Perfected One. I took off with a somersault, reached for the lancet I had left in his shoulder and pushed down on it with all the force of my body’s motion.
I used the nearly vertical set of the lancet to swing across and dismount behind and well away from the suffering bull. But that last push had done enough. He charged forward, then stopped as though he had run into a wall, with no wall near him. Not eight pous from Bahar’s still form, Elder Brother collapsed, falling on his side. His legs still shook and spasmed. His head tossed weakly. Blood gouted from his shoulder, his eye, and then gushed out his nostrils. The Perfected One lay as still as Bahar. Daburinthoio Potnia could not but be satisfied with the quality and quantity of our offering that first day of the Phaistaieon.
The crowd of worshippers in the viewing stands screamed and clapped louder than ever. They threw poppies and chamomiles onto the sand until it looked like a field blanketed in summer’s flowers. Those of us who could still stand did so. We neither smiled nor waved, nor met each others’ eyes. Our team had failed. One of the Cranes had fallen. Bahar had fallen in glory, but she had fallen, and fallen hard. I felt numb to my own hurts with her body lying askew, masked by the petalled offerings of the devout.
The temple attendants led us out of the ring with tambours, bullroarers, drums and cymbals accompanying our grand exit. They had lifted Bahar tenderly and placed her on a stretcher. Even the stretcher poles had been entwined with brazen bells and flower garlands of scarlet and gold.
The male priestesses led us down to the Hall of Dancers, taking Bahar in another direction. The surge of the Goddess in our livers had left us. We stumbled limping, silent and tense with pain and worry for our injured comrade. Whether Bahar still lived, we did not know. The ignorance gnawed at me worse than the horror of Elder Brother’s final moments of suffering and release.
Soon enough, our ecclesiastical escort brought us to the Hall of Dancers, where the shadows rode cool and unchanging absent windows, doors or loggia. We stripped off our kilts, some torn and missing bells. We shed our garlands and gew-gaws. As one, the remaining Cranes took to the hot mineral waters of our private baths. The painted priestesses fluttered about our common room, tidying and sorting, clearing up to lay a meal for us now that we had performed and could think of eating.
Time had stretched and twisted in the ring, like a dancer warming up. We had lived a life saluting the occasion of the Phaistaieon. But Our Lady Rolling still marked the morning hours on the spokes of Her cart’s wheels.
“Where did they take her?”
“Is she yet with the living? Has she gone to join her ancestors?”
“Can we ask if she is alive? Why can’t we help?”
We whispered these things in the dim comforting cave where we hoped we couldn’t be heard by our attendants.
“They needn’t keep us here anymore. We have taken our part in the liturgy. Let’s ask them how to get to where they have put her. All they can tell us is ‘no’,” suggested Dazhi.
“You have the right of it,” conceded Aman. “They can tell us or not tell us, but if we don’t ask, we won’t know.”
“I would rather do anything than spend another day trapped in this loathsome hole,” stated Woniluk. “Caves make my liver curl. I can feel the weight of the whole shell of the earth above us.”
I hadn’t thought of how heavy all the stone and earth around us were. I hadn’t thought of anything much until we were in the ring and I tried, and maybe failed, to find the room. We had done so well until that one moment. And one moment is all the Phaistaieon needed to take the long awaited, long desired blood from our fellow Crane.
“Let me ask. They think I am a dear little thing, even if they make my liver blench a little,” I offered.
The remaining Cranes allowed me to go and petition the servants of the Temple as they set out lemon and salt cooked fish with dishes of fruits, nuts, salads and cheeses, as well as the Kritian black flatbread to which we had grown accustomed. They had placed jugs of fruit juice and watered wine on the table as well. But I had eyes only for their answer.
“Eat first, little Perfected One. Then rest a while. These are the coolest rooms in the Palace, but if you long for a view or a breeze, we could rehouse you. The fallen one has been taken to the healers of our temple. The Daburinthoio Potniai will guide them to make her as well and whole as may be. We must give them time to work their works and chant their prayers.” With this I had to be satisfied, and the other Cranes too.
We ate, finding we were hungry after our labors in the liturgy. We drank to replenish ourselves, and we were refreshed. Woniluk played her flute, and it sounded like the wind across reeds on the shores of the Yam-haKinneret. I fell asleep listening to the lonely flute.
I woke in my sleeping niche. Someone had sorted me there instead of leaving me in a shoulder-numbing heap on the floor. The kindly one had even draped a linen sheet over me, shielding me from the cooling drafts of the Hall of Dancers.
“Am I alone?” I called into the shadowy chamber. No one returned an answer. I arose and stopped to look in each of the niches where the Cranes had slept the night before. I stood alone in the great room. A lamp flickered by the room of convenience, but that only told me it had not run out of oil.
Was it day still? Had night fallen while I napped? No natural light reached the Hall of Dancers at Phaistos.
I stumbled to the door and shoved the age-weighted wood creaking on great wooden hinges until it opened enough to allow me through. I knew enough to know I might not find the way up or out on my first attempt. I ran back into the hall.
I collected a small broad-mouthed jar of the red wax for our lips. I tore a strip of linen from the bottom of my bed curtain with the help of one of the eating knives still on the table. I tucked the knife into the rolled leather belt holding my kilt in place. I slung the strip of linen over my shoulders like a shawl and carried the cosmetic jar in my hand.
At the door frame, I used the red wax to fix a linen thread. When the thread ran short, I pulled another and used another dot of wax to keep a record of my path running. I did this all down the heart-side of the wall. If I turned, I marked the thread with a short crossing thread. If I turned away from the heart-side, I used two cross threads stuck to the wall with the lip wax.
It wasn’t easy to remember the way up from the Hall of Dancers. We had all been in such a daze as we were led from the Bull Ring of the Phaistaieon to the hall and back. I had been glad we had the painted priestesses to guide us.
Some of my training at the Temple of Tzor had had to do with finding my way in strange places. But I hadn’t thought of those skills these last few days. My liver had overcome me and clouded my reason.
Happily, the wax-and-string tactic had been taught to the novitiate as a means of learning the way when the way is not known. Our Matroi called it an old method of problem solving. I felt proud to have remembered it, and where the cosmetics had been stowed when we left for the ring.
After a long, silent time pacing the cavernous corridors and echoing walkways, doubling my own path to the point of tears and eventual rage, I found light-- real sunlight, pouring through a covered veranda’s open sides. I gazed out across the honey-colored late afternoon and felt relief first, then joy in the day itself.
The glory of the Daburinthoio Potniai spread in undulating layers of habitation, garden, orchard, field, pasture, meadow, crag and shore. Here on ancient, wise Kriti, the summer’s day shone hot and heavy and full with all the good things soon to become harvest fare. Bees buzzed around the flowering vines filtering the day. The sound of running water, a constant in most places in the Palace at Phaistos chattered merrily from the stepped garden below. I had not the least notion of how to get anywhere at all from where I stood.
The solitude and the safety after so many days of determination, fear and constant company were a balm on my soul. I reveled in my lack of company and the beauty of the day. And then I caught a snatch of cheering, anti-heart-wise and somewhat behind me. That would be towards the ring, and maybe towards Bahar. If she were not where the people were all gathered, someone there surely would know how I might go about finding her in the interminable labyrinth of Phaistos.
I soaked in the solitude for a few heartbeats more. Then I headed out, towards the faded roar of the holiday crowd and the fluttering throb of the great festival drums. I used the sun’s angle to tell me where I wasn’t walking. Soon enough I heard the crowd more loudly and the drums began to sound through the flag paved floors up through the soles of my leather sandals.
I walked on and farther. I trod through galleried gardens and apertures framed by megaliths. I marched down stepped plazas and across gravelled piazzas. I trudged up ramps and eventually to a door guarded by painted priestesses with their shining labryses mounted on long poles bound with more bronze.
“My friend, a Perfected One, a dancer from this morning, she was hurt. Do you know where they took her? Is she… does she…. did Elder Brother make a lasting sacrifice of her?” I didn’t know how to ask if she was dead. I didn’t know what to ask to find out if she were still living.
One of the guards pointed me across the great hall opening on the far side of the cavernous foyer in which we stood. I walked into the hall and kept going. In the gloom illuminated only by narrow lengthwise windows far overhead, I caught glimpses of frescos on the shadowed walls. There an under sea vignette; there a bull dancer like myself somersaulting over Elder Brother; there a pair of winged griffins guarding a many-fruited tree. I paused at the dancer, looking for some echo of my own labor in the art depicted in fresh color and startling vitality.
A shuffling sound behind me caught my ears. I turned to find one of the Matroi bearing a covered ewer and several towels. She passed me without seeing me, or saying anything if she did see me.
I followed her. Conceivably, she might be headed to the infirmary or the mortuary with the things she carried. Only later did I consider how odd it was to traverse the great edifice of Phaistos meeting no one at all along the way.
Everyone attended the opening day of the Phaistaieon. The great liturgy could be celebrated only once every eight years. The dance of the Perfected Ones, the bronze bound doors and drums, the feather fletched lancets, all these were a gorgeous mystery reverently polished with observance the more profound for its rareness. The endless halls hung silent and shadowed in the long latening afternoon.
At last the priestess I followed brought me to an open garden which reminded me of all Mimi’s favorite places. A mixture of bright flowers, sun-warmed herbs and tree-shaded birds made it lively and restful at once. I drew a deep breath, standing at the line where shadow met light. I tried to bargain with the Daburinthoio Potniai, deep in my liver, against Bahar’s life or health or recovery.
“I will never dance again, and I will take up the work of the hospice if Bahar lives. I will put away the ribbons and the swords forever, if Bahar can walk without a limp. I will cease to dive for snails if Bahar becomes well and hail and follows her great passion.”
I muttered these and more under my breath in my milk tongue. Aramaic lay a short dialectical distance from the ancient tongue used at Tzor. I shut my eyes and stepped forward into the golden light of the walled garden there.
I stood and breathed the heat and the hush and the constant insect buzz of the moment. I needed to know how Bahar fared. I needed her to not be broken. I needed my friend to be safe, whole, and sound
I prayed, already having bargained everything I could think of. I prayed to Our Lady Rolling, and the Daburinthoio Potniai, and Bahar’s patron Aredvi Sura Anahiti, and the foam-born Aphrodite, and even Asherah of the mountain groves-- secret patron of the Tribe of Asher. I asked them all for mercy. Only mercy.