Authors: India Edghill
“It is all right,” I told her. “No one can see us.” The Temple ensured that no unhallowed eyes spied upon its priestesses. My window looked inward, not out—I saw only Temple roofs and the tops of fruit trees in the courtyard gardens. To see more than that, I had to go to one of the corner towers and climb to the rooftop. I told Aylah this, and her eyes grew round as moonstones. “Would you like to go up to the rooftop?” I asked, and after a long pause, she nodded. But still she did not speak; I wondered, now, if she were mute.
So I ceased trying to make her answer me in words and took her hand, cautiously and gently, as if she were fragile as the glass vial Nikkal
kept her Egyptian perfume in. I was about to lead Aylah out of my room, take her up the tower stairs to the roof, when I realized her hand was cold as well as bone-thin. I truly looked at her, and saw the grime under her nails and the knots and tangles in her dust-dulled hair. And for once, I thought before I acted.
“You must have a bath, and food,” I said, “and your hair—” I wondered if her dirt-matted hair could be combed out at all; I hoped it would not need to be shorn short. “And clothing, you must have something proper to wear.”
The Lady only knew where the grubby length of cloth wrapped about Aylah’s too-slender body had come from, or what had turned it that dull mud color. I only knew that until she was clean, my new sister was not sitting upon my cushions or lying in my bed.
“Come with me,” I said, and, still silent, Aylah obeyed.
When she set eyes upon the Lady’s newest Moon, Hattah, the woman in charge of the baths—not the ritual baths but those for the mere cleansing of the body—was horrified. “By Our Lady’s Breasts, where did this stray cat come from? Well, I suppose it is up to me to turn her out of here sweet and clean as springwater.” She studied Aylah disapprovingly, dismissed her garment as too filthy to trouble over, and eyed the knotted mass of her hair.
“Don’t cut her hair!” I don’t know why I was so insistent upon saving Aylah’s hair. After all, shorn hair grew again.
“We’ll see” was all that Hattah would promise.
My new temple-sister remained silent throughout the long process of scrubbing her clean enough to look like a human girl rather than a mud-puppy. Even when two slaves peeled the filthy cloth from her body, Aylah did not utter a sound.
She endured the series of baths, moving and turning as ordered. After three soakings and soapings, Aylah emerged clean at last . . .
“But her hands and feet might be made of horn! She must have run about barefoot on stones to create such hardened skin.” Hattah pushed
Aylah onto one of the benches and summoned maidservants to rub scented oil into the rough skin of her hands and feet. As the maidservants labored over the marks of Aylah’s past, Hattah set her hands to the matted mass of Aylah’s hair.
Hattah tried to untangle the knots with her skillful fingers, without success. At last she shook her head. “I think we must cut all this off and let her hair begin again.” The Mistress of the Baths reached for the ivory handle of the knife that lay among the tools with which she created beauty. The bronze blade curved like a sickle, and its edge was new-honed each morning. The blade could slice through any barrier of flesh or bone. To sever hair from a girl’s head would be an easy task for the gleaming bronze.
“No!” The word burst from my lips; the maidservants all paused in their work, staring, and Hattah turned her eyes from Aylah’s tangled hair to me. I straightened my back and pretended my face had not flushed hot.
After a long moment, Hattah spoke. “Why not, little moon? Have you seen that ill will befall if I cut away the knots and tangles? Has Our Lady spoken to you, sent you a Sign?”
I shook my head. “No—at least, no Sign I recognize as such. But you must not cut it—surely we can oil her hair, and comb out the knots? I will do it myself.”
Hattah looked from me to Aylah and back again to me. “Very well.” She set the ivory-hilted knife aside and took up a sandalwood comb instead. “Comb out her hair, Delilah, if you can.”
Hattah handed the sandalwood comb to me. The comb had been well-made, its teeth polished smooth so they would not snare hair; across the wide handle serpents twined, their carven bodies weaving the emblem of eternity. It weighed oddly heavy in my hand.
The Mistress of the Baths stepped back, away from the still figure of Aylah. Now I must do as I had so rashly sworn to do. I prayed in silent haste.
Please, Bright Lady, let me comb out Aylah’s hair and I will—
I would what? I had nothing to offer up in exchange for the Lady’s favor. Nothing save my love for Her.
O Lady Atargatis, let my hands be skillful
and my touch gentle. Grant me this, and I shall do whatever you ask of me. And let Aylah speak, if she can
, I added.
I waited, but there was no Sign to indicate that the goddess had heard. Still, I must act as if She had agreed to the bargain.
I studied the tangled thicket that was Aylah’s hair. Only her hunched shoulders revealed that she had heard my plea, and Hattah’s acquiescence. I lifted the sandalwood comb, glancing from its shining wood to Aylah’s dull hair. The comb alone would be useless. I took a deep breath and turned to Hattah.
“I must have a bowl of oil. Warm olive oil would be best. Will you have it brought here?” It was the first time I had given an order to one of the chief handmaidens, and that Hattah asked no questions, but merely sent a maidservant off to obtain what I had asked for, surprised and pleased me.
Even after soaking Aylah’s hair in warm olive oil, combing the knots to smoothness took all the afternoon, and I was tired and cross by the time my task ended. But my hard work was rewarded, for my new sister’s hair lay smoothly down her back. The oil darkened its color, but that was easily remedied. Once again the bath maids scrubbed Aylah’s skin, and this time they washed her hair, too. As her hair dried, the maids stroked it with silk to make it shine.
At last Hattah nodded, and motioned to Aylah to stand before us. Only then, as twilight darkened the sky and the servants lit the oil lamps, long hours after I had led her into the bathing rooms, did we see Aylah’s true appearance.
Skin white as new ivory pulled tight over sharp bones. Hair pale as morning sunlight fell straight as a bowstring to her waist. Only her mouth had not altered; she kept her lips pressed together as if she feared words might utter themselves did she not guard against their escape.
Too thin, too pale, too silent—but somehow all these faults did not matter. Despite her flaws, Aylah was beauty itself, fair as the jeweled
image of Our Lady Atargatis that stood behind the great altar in Ascalon’s Temple. I heard some of the maidservants sigh, envious.
“Once there’s some meat covering those bones, you’ll be passable enough, Aylah.” With Hattah’s prosaic statement, the odd sense of awe vanished. Aylah became once more just another girl new-come to the Temple. Of course, Hattah rarely spoke well of any of us, saying all girls were vain enough without her adding to our high opinion of ourselves. For her to call Aylah “passable” was high praise indeed.
Now Hattah turned to me. “You—Night-Hair—take her to the Mistress of Clothing and have her dressed properly. And it’s time and past for the evening meal, so get her something to eat before her bones slice through her skin. And yourself, too. I don’t want to see you both looking like your own ghosts. Now run along, the pair of you.”
“Come, little sister,” I said, and grasped Aylah’s hand; she resisted, and I tugged her hand, glancing back to see why she did not follow. When our eyes met, Aylah shook her head; her cheeks burned red. Aylah gestured, a flowing wave of her hand indicating her unclad body. I understood and smiled, hoping to ease her worry.
“That does not matter. Only the priestesses and the women servants come here. You will have clothing soon enough.”
Aylah ducked her head; honey-soft hair veiled her face. Her hair alone adorned her better than a queen’s robe. I told her so, but all my flattery gained was a shake of her head. I hesitated, thinking that I could ask for a drying cloth to wrap about her. But I changed my mind and released her hand that I might untie the knots that held my spangled skirt close about my waist. Clad only in my plain underskirt, I offered my outer skirt to Aylah; she stared at me as I slid the silver-sewn garment about her and tied its strings around her waist.
“There,” I said, and as I straightened, I saw the Mistress of the Baths smile at me, and nod. Hattah’s rare approval warmed me—I had earned it twice within a short span of hours—and I clasped Aylah’s hand again and hurried her away before Hattah found anything to criticize in my looks or behavior.
“The land of Canaan was a land of gods, a land of goddesses. Men built great temples to these gods, these goddesses.”
When he sang these verses, Orev fitted their words with great care to the ears of those who listened. Sometimes the gods were evil and cruel, enemies of Yahweh. Other times, to other listeners, Orev sang of goddesses more loving than any mother. False gods or true did not matter to the song’s own truth.
“And the men and women of Canaan gave all they possessed to these gods, served them as if they were living kings and queens, never seeing their own folly . . .”
She was High Priestess of Our Lady’s Great House in Ascalon; she acted, when the occasion demanded it, as Goddess-on-Earth.
What more could any woman desire?
Bitter amusement curved her scarlet-painted lips.
What more indeed? O Bright Lady, were You as foolish as I was as a child, when You were young?
Briefly, Derceto wondered if the gods ever had been young. She supposed it did not matter. The grinding-stone of Time wore away youth and youth’s wild bright ambitions, until at last all that remained was smooth discontent, and the knowledge that no matter what the gods granted, never would it be enough. Not for her.
Once she had loved Atargatis with all her heart. That had been long
years ago, when she had been only Derceto, New Moon in Our Lady’s service. Like every girl who set her feet upon the Moonlight Path, she had yearned to become High Priestess one day—to be the Goddess’s vessel on Earth, to rule as Lady of the Great Temple, a rank as high as that of a queen.
I wonder why I bothered. Did I think it would make me happy?
Derceto supposed she must have believed that, long years ago. Before she had been chosen and the Crown of Atargatis had been set about her brow.
I saw only the glitter, the gold, the beautiful men. The power
. She had thought Atargatis’s Crown would raise her high, set her above all others. And so it had. She need only lift her hand or utter one word to have her lightest whim obeyed as absolute law. She wore garments and gems fit for Atargatis Herself. She commanded as Our Lady’s lover any man for whom she felt even fleeting desire.
She was Derceto, High Priestess of Atargatis, trapped beyond any escape. She had held out eager hands for her own shackles. Now, far too late, she understood the smile with which High Priestess Zimmarli had greeted death. As she watched Zimmarli slip away from them, Derceto had heard the soft whispers of other mourners. “She smiles—Our Lady must reach out to her.” “See how she smiles, as if a lover awaits her in the Land Beyond.”
See how Zimmarli smiles, to leave all this work behind her, to lay her burden in my hands
. Derceto rubbed the mark Atargatis’s Crown had pressed into her forehead.
Now I know, Zimmarli. You smiled only because you no longer had breath to laugh. You knew how much I desired to stand as High Priestess before Our Lady’s altar. And so you granted my wish. What better punishment for one you always thought too proud and willful?
For what Derceto had not seen was the labor behind the glory. The High Priestess not only stood in dazzling brightness as Goddess Incarnate, she ruled the Temple and all it possessed. Derceto stared down at the rolls of papyrus stacked neatly upon the table. A dozen at least, each a report that she must read, and consider, and answer.
Farms and orchards, herds and flocks, grain fields and grapevines
. For a moment
Derceto longed to sweep the entire lot of meticulously scribed reports into the nearest fire pit.
Here I sit, studying the grape harvest and wondering what we must do if the rains are late again—and all I hear from the Prince of the City is how sweet and pleasant my life must be compared to his!
In the eyes of gods and men, the Prince of the City and the High Priestess of the Great House loved each other as meat loved salt. They stood beside each other during feasts and festivals, performed flawlessly the rituals that shaped night and day, spoke honey-sweet words. In the eyes of those who dwelt in Ascalon the Beautiful, Derceto and Sandarin, Temple and City, served in devoted partnership.
I always thought most men and women blind
. Derceto shook her head; heavy curls swept across her back. Absently, she drew one long ringlet over her shoulder, stroked the dark hair over the curve of her breast. Well-tended, her body still woke desire—Sandarin could not truthfully complain his duty as Our Lady’s Consort was displeasing. But Temple and City battled endlessly, and Derceto refused to surrender even a finger’s-length of what belonged to her.
Not farmland, not sheep, not gold, not slaves. Most certainly not the right of first choice of any girls and young boys brought into the market from faraway lands. Derceto smiled as she remembered that struggle. Sandarin had lost, and was not likely to forget that humiliation soon.
But I will never let power slip out of my hands. I rule a domain as great as his
. Truly, in other lands she would have been called “queen”—many rulers governed less than she did as High Priestess.
For a Great Temple was a city within a city. Its denizens must be fed and clothed and bathed, its rituals supplied with incense and oils. Within the walls of the House of Atargatis dwelt not only fully initiated priestesses who tended the needs of their goddess, but dozens upon dozens of women and girls—for bread did not bake itself, nor did skirts sew their seven tiers together without the aid of human hands.