Water Dancer, Chap 3 Early Morning Journey
“Melissa,” whispered her father, shaking her gently. “Melissa.”
She woke to darkness and cold. The torch had burnt out. “How early—?”
“Shhh. Don’t wake your sisters. Come.”
Peeling back the warm covers, he led her out of the gynaeconitis, toward a dim light. At the entrance to the bath he stopped, a tall shadow against the lamp that burned within.
“I’ve heated water for you, and you will find appropriate clothes. Hurry. I will wait in the andronitis. Bring the lamp when you come.”
“I packed a bundle . . .”
“I’ll inspect that. Hurry now. Quietly.” He vanished into the deeper dark, the wood creaking under his footsteps.
Melissa bathed quickly, waking enough to wonder that Father himself had put this water on the fire. Dried, she slipped into a dark green under-tunic. As she pinned the lighter green, gauzy chiton the soft, cheap metal bent under her fingers. Though grateful for the warmth of the heavy grey himation, she hesitated. Someone else had worn these clothes. Father would send her away in cheap, second-hand attire? As she wrapped herself in the borrowed robe, she became a nameless orphan, a castaway, unwanted.
“No,” she muttered with growing anger. “No. I won’t do this.”
She gripped the handle of the lamp and marched downstairs, rehearsing the denial she would speak to her father.
At first she did not see him. He was not sitting but pacing. As soon as he entered her circle of light, he seized the lamp and blew it out. Its clay bottom clinked on the tiles. Before Melissa could speak, he gripped her wrist and led her out the gate.
“Hurry!” he whispered. “The time grows late.”
He moved quickly down the unlit street. Melissa ran to keep up, fearing the night, the shadows in the shadows. He walked without speaking, confident of his route despite the utter dark; Melissa required several steps for every one stride of his long legs. She glanced up at cold, distant stars, but saw no moon. Had morning already begun?
She marveled yet again at her father’s ability to set the number of hours and minutes he would sleep, day or night, and wake at precisely the time determined. Her brothers shared this skill, but Melissa could not do it. This morning she wondered if he had not woken her too early. Surely the sun would not rise for hours yet, and it did not require hours to reach the Temple. She yawned as she ran in the dark.
Father stopped and leaned over her. “Shall I carry you, my daughter? I know I have robbed you of your rest.”
Did he hear her thoughts? She cringed with guilt and shook her head. “I am awake, Father.” Now she had his attention. Now she could voice her protest.
“You are brave, my daughter. I am proud of you.”
Releasing her, he turned and set off again. She could only follow.
They moved uphill now, and the blackness lightened to deep grey. Melissa frowned, puzzled. The Temple lay downhill.
The hour lay heavy in mist from Oris, a cloudy chill that swallowed all sounds but their footsteps. Melissa pulled her borrowed himation close. She could make out no colors, not even her father’s clothes. Sudden solid presences leapt black out of the greyness. Trees, she realized only as she passed them. Slap-slap: Father’s sandals. Mmph-mmph: her own naked feet.
There seemed something familiar about their direction, but the shadows frightened and confused her. Father stopped to open a gate. She made out a carving in the stone: two sturgeon and a salmon under the protection of a leaping dolphin. The family burial ground. Now she recognized the creak of the gate but jumped at the clack! of its closing. A spell of bewilderment enwrapped her, as if she had entered the very abode of the Dead.
On a sunny afternoon, she could stand here and look out over the harbor and beyond, all the boats and their sails just so many white spots against the blue-green Oris. Today, at this hour, even well-known bushes surprised her. Father did not slack his pace until he reached a stone house, where he knelt. Melissa froze,
suddenly afraid she would see her mother’s spirit.
“Métis, my beloved,” he prayed, naming, against custom, the dead woman. “I have brought our daughter that you may see her, ready to enter service to Oressa. I know you will understand what drives me to this, and I beg you to intercede, in whatever way you can, to reduce her time there, to return her quickly to our home. In the meantime—” He stood and opened a panel in the seemingly solid stone. A dark hole gaped and so did Melissa. “Protect these, your former trinkets.”
From his robe, he produced a small, dark packet. “Melissa,” he said, his face all in darkness, “I have put your best jewels and cloths here. If you carry them with you, someone will take them at the first or second gate. While you stay at the Temple, its keepers will cover you with what they deem fitting. You will take them nothing but the clothes on your body.” He sighed and shoved the packet into the tomb’s compartment. “Bless and protect our child,” he pleaded to the stone.
His hands on her shoulders forced Melissa to kneel. She closed her mouth, understanding the unwelcome clothes, wishing that she herself could squeeze into that small orifice where her treasures lay. To live in her mother’s tomb, hidden from the world, secretly fed by her family . . . that choice she would make, did Father propose it. The spirit she had earlier feared now seemed a warm, protecting presence. She pulled her peplos over her face, squeezed her eyes shut, and concentrated on the pressure of the small pebbles beneath her knees. Mama, she prayed silently, let me stay here, with you.
Too soon, Father cleared his throat. “Until next time, dearest Métis.” Then to Melissa: “Come.”
They left the cemetery and turned toward the Temple. Father walked more slowly and held his daughter’s hand. At first, she wondered at this change, then, as stones slid beneath her steps and rattled ahead of her, she realized the dangers of this downhill route. When they finally reached level ground, Father led her to the edge of a well, where they sat. From his robes, he pulled out another, smaller packet.
“Eat, my daughter. I hope it is as you like.”
She could see his face now, his hesitant smile as she took the packet.
She unwrapped the cloth and found several pieces of flat bread wrapped around roasted meat, coated with honey. Her favorite breakfast. And it was still warm.
“Thank you, Father.” She smiled brightly.
Indeed, she was hungry now. But she also wanted to make him smile. He seemed to dread their parting as much as she did. To her delight, he returned her smile and seemed to relax. She ate slowly.
Mild grey turned to faint grey, and a bird chirped nearby. Father sighed and stood, again taking her hand.
They passed between the shuttered buildings of the Main Market, the mist ever lightening. In that unearthly hour, no seller walked those lanes. Once something like a cat rushed by, but Melissa could not see it clearly.
Now the high walls of the Temple rose up ahead.
Melissa did not think they would use the Fish Gate, close to the Harbor. That opened to the garden and small amphitheatre where young girls of Orissaren celebrated rituals and sacrifices.
Today she expected to enter the sunrise gate, the High Gate, where a short pavement became steps and then a rising path. A steep wall with a sealed door bordered that pavement on the left. A fragrant orchard spread out on the right.
Melissa expected to cross the pavement, mount the steps, and climb the lane of mosaic tile which zigzagged up the holy mountain. Surely a new priestess started her duties in the upper amphitheatre, surrounded by the City’s pantheon. She saw herself standing beside the altar, in the shadow of colossal Oressa, looking across the court to restless Oris. She might be welcomed in the large portico that ran behind the altar.
But though Father led her through the High Gate, they did not go up the steps. For the first time, she saw the left-hand door opened, and it was only rough wood. Gold coated its outer panels, but inside it bore no decoration. Neither did she see a neat pathway, not even of gravel. Before her lay a wide, muddy area choked with stables, pens, runs, and coops. She coughed against the rising odor, and even Father at first covered his nose with his sleeve. Unseen creatures whinnied, lowed, grunted, squealed.
Around her clustered nearly a dozen other girls, a few her age, most older; some escorted by slaves, some by siblings, a few unaccompanied. Enormous dark-skinned men examined each girl and rifled through the possessions she had brought, even taking the clothing of some. Nose rings marked the men as eunuchs. Armbands labeled them deaf and mute. Girls cried out, wept, screamed, as their valuables disappeared into folds of the eunuch’s robes. Melissa thought of her own possessions, safe in her mother’s protection, but still she clenched her teeth when one of the eunuchs approached. The man, however, nodded to her father and only skimmed his hands past her himation. Then he led them to the center of the barnyard.
There, animals and objects stood in rows on a platform. Each escort chose a beast or thing, then left the enclosure. With each departure, a eunuch led away a frightened girl.
Melissa could now make out colors. A huge white bull glowered down at her. Beside it a chestnut horse impatiently tapped a fore-hoof. Next, a ginger-coated goat, a grey spotted pig, a russet cockerel. Purses of gold, silver, and gems, stacks of glittering cloth, and a basket. The eunuch gestured toward each item in turn. To each offer, Father shook his head.
Finally he said, “Give me the basket.”
As the eunuch lifted the basket, Melissa smelled fish. Her father hugged her quickly and kissed her forehead. Then he heaved the basket to his head, and his eyes met hers. Do you understand? he seemed to ask.
One of the weeping girls wiped her nose and laughed in scorn. Melissa nodded. Her father had selected the sign of their House, the creatures of the Sea. He was not selling her to the Temple. He was leaving her in custody, and he carried the fish to show that she remained his.
Again, their eunuch nodded. With a discrete smile, he touched his forehead in honor. Father stood tall, leaving the barnyard with his fish. The eunuch took Melissa gently by the hand and led her in the opposite direction.
The sky grew pink and the mist evaporated as they passed from animals to crops. Bare-chested workers met them in silence and knelt to their produce. Immediately ahead, a golden-haired girl broke away from her eunuch and ran back toward the sunrise. Two workmen dropped their baskets and sprinted after her. She screamed when they grabbed her, one at each arm, but as Melissa passed, the girl’s eunuch, with the help of the farm workers, tied the girl’s hands and flung her over his shoulder.
Melissa’s companion showed no interest in this incident, prompting her to wonder aloud, “Do many girls try to run away?”
He grunted an affirmative. So he was not deaf after all.
“Can you really speak, too?” she asked.
He opened his mouth, and she saw, to her horror, that he had no tongue.
“Why . . . Who . . . Oh, how terrible!”
The eunuch laid a ringed finger against his lips, and Melissa suddenly realized,
“You knew my father before, didn’t you?”
“So you knew I was coming today. You’ll be my friend?”
“Will . . . will I be happy here?”
“Are you happy here?”
“I guess that means sometimes yes, sometimes no.”
They neared a series of huts, crowded with farm-workers. Melissa closed her mouth, strained her eyes and ears. The workers spoke a language she could not understand.
After the huts, they came to a paved areas with two wells. The pavement reached to the side of the mountain and an open archway. Eunuchs led their charges into a tunnel. Melissa swallowed hard.
“I’m scared,” she whimpered.
“I am. It’s too dark.”
“You think I’m brave?”
“Well,” she murmured, “I’ll try to be.”
The eunuch squeezed her hand and they walked away from the sun.
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