The Serpent’s Path

The Flowers are coming towards me carrying their trays of small pots and tiny bottles that shine like jewels. I have been waiting for this moment for my entire life, and time seems to slow as they walk across the stone floor from the door where they have entered. I see their smiling eyes and hear their light footsteps echoing gently off the painted walls. I am sitting near the center of the room facing the gleaming 3-legged bronze container that is piled full of glowing charcoal. The charwoman came about an hour ago and lit it with her nimble hands. It seemed to me as if the fire simply lept from her fingers and onto the charcoal. Then she smiled at me and left the room without a word. As she went I noticed that a slightly sweet smell was floating from the coals across to where I sat on the edge of the bed.


I picked up the mirror beside me with its curling snakes holding the polished disc between them to look at myself at the beginning of this morning where I was about to become something new. I wanted to remember what I saw there because I was a little afraid of what was about to happen to me. In the shiny surface I saw a young woman. I told myself she looked proud and strong. Her hair had grown out now that she was well past the time of her first blood. She had lived through 15 summers and was stronger for having done so, I said to the face looking back at me. Her eyes were large and almond-shaped and a little too wide open for that time of day. Yesterday her hair was carefully braided into neat rows that ran from her forehead back to the nape of her neck. As I turned my head to see my hair for the first time I caught a glimpse of a cascade of tiny dark serpents falling over my shoulders. They tickled my bare back and I laughed softly. This watchful, resolute girl in the mirror was me!


I ignored the edge of fear that was also there and stood up to take a deep breath. The slightly heavy, sweet smell of whatever was burning on the charcoal was starting to make me feel a little giddy. I began to dance slowly around the room in gentle spirals with my arms held out, feeling the moment in my body and picking up speed as I went.


That was when the Flowers pushed aside the curtain in the doorway and entered the room. They all burst into wide smiles immediately. Now that I had seen my own reflection, I could compare myself to them. All of them were older than me, and some of them were old enough to be my mother. One of them was old enough to be my grandmother. They held themselves with incredible poise that never faltered as they carried their burdens towards me. Their bare feet all seemed to be moving to some beautiful music I could not hear. Every gesture of their bodies and every movement of their faces were so completely perfect and under control that I began to blush at my dancing that now seemed too awkward to continue. I stopped and sat down on the edge of the bed.


The Flowers glided over to me and began to prepare me for the rest of the day. They laughed and talked softly as they worked and soon I no longer felt out of place. They were carefully making me into one of them, at least for the day. I could feel the intention in their hands and the magic in the contents of the bottles and basins they applied to different parts of my body. I began to realize that their beauty was equal parts how they were and what they knew how to change so that they could appear to effortlessly be ready for the moments they were in fact creating around themselves. I started to giggle at the thought of me being as graceful as they had been when they walked into the room. Me, who had not so long ago been running in the garden where the temple grew its food and climbing the olive tree outside the gate. The giggle caught on and soon we were all laughing. The oldest Flower gave a slight nod of her head that I would have missed if she had not been so close to me, and the sound suddenly stoped. All of them stood and began to pick up their tools. They walked out of the room in unison, leaving only the one I now called Grandma Flower alone with me.


She smiled and told me I was ready. Then she floated out of the room. As soon as she left, the woman who tended the charcoal came in with a basket. She was tall and had a feeling about her that I both admired and feared. I had seen her many times since I had come to live in the temple here on the hill above the town of Malia. She rarely spoke to anyone, but when she did everyone listened. She was one of those people that you just couldn’t help but listen to. I had also not learned a name for her because nobody ever called to her or asked her to do anything for them. She seemed to be on her own trajectory that often did not interact directly with mine. I knew that she had a name, but it was not for my mouth to use it. I thought of her as the Pyrokalia when I wondered what she did when she was not making the fires. Now she walked purposefully over to the charcoal and added a few more pieces. She bent to blow on them until they caught. Then she reached into the basket and took out several handfuls of dried leaves. I recognized some of the leaves as laurel. She piled the leaves onto the charcoal and turned to me.


“Now it is time for you to start singing your song. Do not stop, not matter what, until I ask you to.” she said in her calm voice that seemed to come up from the floor below me and out of the walls around me. I nodded with wide eyes and sat still. She placed a pitcher on the ground in front of me with a small cup next to it, and left quickly. I moved to sit cross-legged on the floor beside the pitcher and cup. A pungent, bitter-smelling smoke was coming from the leaves on the coals and I could feel that the energy around me was changing.


I began to sing my chant that I had worked on memorizing for as long as I could remember speaking. The first woman of the temple who had taught it to me when I was a baby had died years ago and her bones were now inside the mountain. As I chanted the song, I began to see her face in front of me. It looked kind and very wrinkled, just like I remembered her. She smiled at me and nodded along with my rhythm. I began to nod back in the same cadence.


As I chanted, I slipped out of my awareness of time. The younger woman who helped me practice the chant when I was first learning to run and tumble as my legs l first became able to do what I asked them to do appeared beside the first woman. As I continued to chant, all of the women who had helped me learn and keep the words I was now singing at full volume for the first time came in. Some of them I had known only for a few months. They had come into my life, then disappeared without a trace. Others I had known for years. All of them had sat alone with me and whispered the song I was now singing, then listened as I repeated it back to them. One by one the appeared around me and swayed with me as I understood why I had only ever been allowed to whisper the words before this moment. They were too strong to speak or sing aloud at any other time. If I had shouted them at 5 or sang loudly at 7, the events I was not beginning would have started to take place. Only I would not have been ready, and I would have been harmed instead of being held as I was now starting to be held by the song. It seemed to be rising out of me and beginning to form a space around me that would soon include only me and the others who would share it with me. It would be a space where I could not be damaged by anything outside of it.


Soon other faces of women who looked different from the ones I had known started to join me. Some of them looked like the people in the stories I had grown up hearing about old times when there were fewer people here. Others looked strange and wild to me and completely unfamiliar. Soon the room was full of women rocking and nodding along with me as I sang my chant. Eventually I began to grow hoarse.


One of the wild-looking women whose skin was very dark walked over to me. She looked strong enough to lift up my bed and throw it out the window if she chose. There was a concentrated fierceness about her that would have been frightening in another context. But in this moment I knew she was there to help me. She smiled and sat on the floor next to me. After a few nods, I felt her energy holding me up and I began to hear her voice singing with mine. Her words were made of sounds that were different from mine, but she carried the tune perfectly. I knew that, though I didn’t understand them, her words made the same meaning that mine were releasing through the song. Soon the room was full of voices and I felt the power of the song surround and comfort me. I knew in that moment that all of these women had done what I was about to do once my chant was finished. They had gone into the mountain so that they could bring the healing power of what they found there to their people. I was about to join their sisterhood and they were welcoming me.


Then the woman of the temple who had first whispered the words to me came forward and sat in front of me. I remembered her name as Anata, though that might also have been my name for her and not her name in any other context. I remembered her as huge, like a beloved giant. I now saw that I was actually a head taller than her as we sat cross-legged together. She gestured towards the cup and pitcher next to me and I knew that she wanted me to drink. I was afraid to let the chant fall, but she kept nodding and pointing first to the cup, then to the women filling the room. I knew that they would continue to sing as I drank because they did not need that kind of refreshment and I did or I would lose too much of the strength in my voice.


I poured a cup of the liquid from the pitcher and drank it. My body responded with a scream of thirst. I drank 2 more cups in quick succession. The liquid was cool and tangy in my throat. I could taste herbs I knew mixed with unfamiliar flavors. Then I sat the cup down and rejoined the chant. All of the faces around me let out an extra burst of joy and I knew that I had passed some kind of test. I rocked and chanted and drank while the ancestors held the song over and over. Occasionally I could see Pyrokalia come into the room and add more coals or leaves to the brazier, but she seemed to be very far away, like a figure seen on a different ridge across a wide valley.


After a time I could not measure, she came across the space between herself and me and walked behind me. She took my shoulders and pulled me up to my feet. I continued to chant and sway. She moved with me and said nothing. Her rough hands guided me across the room and out of the door. I raised my voice slightly as we left the room and felt all the women who had been singing with me move to follow. We made our way down a narrow passage and out into the main courtyard of the temple.


As we began to enter the courtyard, I heard a new sound join in the chant. It was a rhythmic clacking that I instantly knew was coming from dozens of hands holding dozens of whale’s teeth cut in half in their palms and beating them together. I had been there the day the dead whale washed up on the beach to the west of the harbor. It was carefully scavenged and the teeth and bones were given to the temple. The other girls my age who had been training here with me for most of my life were given the teeth and shown how to carve them into the instruments they now played. There was no sound quite like this particular bone music. I had been hearing it outside almost every day when I was practicing my whisper-chanting in the room, and now I knew why. They had been training for the same moment I had been practicing for. Now they stood up on top of the cisterns where the water was stored for the long, dry summers.


The teeth in their hands went tik-tika-tik-tik over and over in time with my song. I knew that they were dancing and swirling as they played the rhythm. As I arrived at the upper end of the long, tapered area paved with the large flat stones I could feel under my feet, I heard the rhythm change. After the high, frenetic clacking of the teeth, came a deep, watery ka-DUM as the girls stomped on the wooden lids of the cisterns. The sound echoed into the water and back around the stone walls where it was being held to bounce out into the night that had fallen over the temple. For a brief moment I was aware that I must have been chanting for an entire day in the room with the ancestors. That awareness was paired with a spinning memory that the next day was the day when the dark and the light were equal.


The rhythm multiplied itself as it echoed off the carefully constructed walls of the courtyard where I sang and sagged against the strong arms of the woman who had kept the fires and who was now keeping me from falling to the ground. I nodded and writhed under the wall of sound that seemed to be beating me into a new shape. The voices of the women around me chanted their support and I caught glimpses of the moments when they had done what I was now doing. The girls atop the cisterns picked up the tempo of their beat and I struggled to increase the speed of my chanting. I began to hear them chanting back to me a single word in response to my rising and falling song. The word was the name of an animal form one of the old stories, but since it wasn’t part of the chant, it didn’t fully register to me.


The beat and the word began to stab into my body and break me apart. I began to wail and scream my chant in tones that were no longer singing. The were purely wild sounds I didn’t know I was capable of making. I could see explosions of light all around me and anything that was not the women sharing my song began to grow dim. The beat hammered away at my senses and with every echoing ka-DUM I felt like I had lost another part of the girl I had been the day before. Soon I was facing the moment when I could feel a choice coming.


I felt the pull of the decision coming form someplace in front of and below me. My head turned to follow the pull and I could see two doorways where there would normally be the wall at the back of the courtyard. One of them seemed to be large and full of flames. It was much taller than me and I could easily walk through it with my arms outstretched. The other door was only as tall as my knees. It seemed to suck in the light from around it and I knew that I would not fit through it.


The moment I registered the doors, my vision was filled with the face of the woman holding me up. She leaned in uncomfortably close and shouted to me above the sounds,”Now is the time.” I knew that I had to stop singing and make a choice. My mouth closed without thought and at the same time Pyrokalia go of me. I collapsed onto the floor. I could no longer feel my arms and legs. I had the impression that they were no longer part of me. Only my spine seemed to have stayed put where I expected it to be.


I writhed and wriggled my way across the stones and into the small door that sucked up the light. Once my head was inside, the sound of the clacking and stomping seemed to disappear immediately. The moment my chin touched the cool, damp earth of the narrow passage, I could hear only a steady, quiet dripping sound like water falling drop by drop into a basin. I moved my body forward inch by inch along the tunnel floor. The dripping sound called out me. I felt that I had to find its source.


Soon I was inside a cavern with a high ceiling. I rolled over onto my back to look around and see if I could locate the dripping sound. I felt a presence in the cave and heard heavy footsteps coming towards me. Then my vision was full of a large face and a mass of wild, curly hair that seemed to have a life of its own independent from the face. Both hair and face were black and shiny, and seemed to be flecked with stars. My eyes had adjusted to the dim light in the cave now, and I could see that the ceiling of the cavern also seemed to be full of stars. The huge face cracked a smile of impossibly white teeth and a rough voice in a slightly unfamiliar accept asked:


“Have you come to drink from the Cup of Stars?”


Then the eyes opened wider than I thought was possible and stared at me for a long time. I didn’t seem to be able to make a sound, so I kept silent.


After staring at me with her huge, round eyes, the woman made of blackness and stars stood up. She was much taller than I was and over twice as wide. I wanted to compare her to the wild ancestors who had come to sing with me because she reminded me of them in some way, but I realized they were no longer with me. This part of the journey I had to make alone.


I looked at the giant woman walking away from me. She seemed to be both more human than anyone I had ever met and not human at all. The cave was so deeply silent that it made my ears ring after all the sound that had brought me to this point. I did not look at my body. Something told me very strongly that it would be a terrible idea to do so. I knew that if I looked down or looked back, it would unmake something that I was trying to build. It would undo what I was doing for my people by coming here. So I felt the cold mud under my back and looked at the stars in the ceiling. They moved and winked at me like the night sky does when there is a low, thin fog blowing past.


Then the woman returned. She carried a tall vessel with a flaring top and a long, narrow foot. It was painted in swirls and patterns from a much older time. A turtle-shell ladle stuck out of the top of it. She moved to kneel next to me and I could feel the warmth of her body radiating towards me. She lifted the ladle from the jar and held it above my mouth. As she did so, I could see a group of figures coming towards me from the other side of the cave. They formed a circle and began to dance slowly around me while gently weaving in and out towards me and away. As they got closer to me, I recognized them from the stories and the paintings as Laorki, the spirits of the land. I knew that they are the ones who keep the forests healthy and the plants strong. They are also the ones who must be asked and thanked when we take what we need to eat. Now they were circling me and singing a song that rose and fell in waves as it echoed in the cavern. The music outside the cave had beaten me into a new shape that I had not held before. The music inside the cave was gently soothing the pain of the transformation and giving me strength for the next step. I looked up at the woman holding the ladle above me and knew that drinking what was in it was the next step.


I opened my jaw and was surprised to find that the entire ladle easily fit into my mouth. The liquid from it was cold and tasted of the iron in blood. It was also slightly fizzy and had a strong flavor of earth. I let it slide down my throat and felt it tingle in my belly. It was much thicker than water. I could feel it slide into me and take up a space I hadn’t been aware of before. I experienced equal parts mild revulsion and gentle care towards what was now inside me. I knew that whatever it was would change me in ways I might not understand. I also knew that I needed to do this, and that it was what I had been trained all my life to do. I swallowed the last of the strange liquid.


My back arched and my head fell against the mud. I could feel my body shaking, but it seemed to be a distant thing that I need not worry about. Then I could see the stars in the cave ceiling falling towards me. They seemed to crash into my eyes and fill my body with tiny holes that let in the light from someplace far away. The song of the Laorki wafted me across a vast distance to a gate guarded by a creature I had only heard about in the oldest of stories.


Something happened on the other side of the gate. I knew that what I did there was the reason I had been trained to sing the songs and to listen. Once it was completed, I knew that I had done what my people had sent me to do. I knew that the women who had sung with me for all of the time I sat cross-legged in the room full of the smell of burning herbs would welcome me when I returned because I had taken the next step in the work they had been contributing to for as long as there had been members of the sisterhood I was now part of. This knowing was a warm thing that I kept close inside me because I also knew that I could only ever speak of the details of what had happened to them, and not to the living. In some ways I was now an ancestor like them, and part of me would always be living in the world among the stars. Maybe some day I would meet another like me, but for now I was the only one in my place and my time. I also knew that I needed to return or my trip to this place would have been wasted.


The story told about the next morning begins with one of the girls who had been sleeping on top of the temple wall waking up because her side hurt. She thought she had forgotten to push a pebble away before she lay down and all she needed to do was to get up and knock it off so she could go back to sleep. As she sat to find the offending stone, she caught site of something bright moving down the mountain. She hoped that the girl who went into the mountain had come back as something bright and beautiful because the alternative would mean they would all have to leave this place where they had grown up. She had never known any other home and did not want to go. So she began to shake her sisters awake and shush them so that they could all bear witness to what was coming towards them.


Soon Pyrokalia was with them as they watched whatever it was coming down the mountain. They could see that it was walking on two legs and were relieved. This was a good sign. Soon the figure reached the path as it turned into the olive grove and was lost from sight. They all ran down from the wall and gathered inside the gate that faced the olive grove. Pyrokalia opened the gate and stood at the right side of it calmly looking into the pre-dawn light. The girls who had been sleeping on the wall stood behind her and shivered in the cold.


They saw a tall woman coming out of the edge of the olive grove towards them. She was described as made of the petals of roses. Roses floated around her and fell from her body as she walked. The gentle smell of their perfume came through the gate long before her footsteps sounded on the stones of the courtyard. She walked with a powerful self-possession that seemed somehow unusual in one who was made of flowers and who appeared to be falling apart as she walked. Only later did those watching realize that, though petals fell from her at every movement, she never diminished in size.


As she came closer, one of the girls standing against the wall cried out because she recognized the face of Mernissia, the girl who had gone into the mountain. Later, the girl who cried out told the keeper of fires that she had done so because Mernissia had always seemed so unsure of herself, and this powerful creature of blooms could not possibly be her. Yet it had her face. That had scared the girl and she was worried that something had taken Mernissia’s face in order to sneak into the temple. Pyrokalia chuckled and sent her to go help get the celebratory feast ready. As the frightened girls ran towards the kitchen, the older woman walked across the stones and took the arm of the girl who was dripping flowers all over the floor as she looked up at the stars. Pyrokalia calmly guided her back to the room where the ritual had begun. The coals had long since grown cold. Now the room had returned to being a place for dressing and sleeping. The young woman covered in flowers would need plenty of rest. Pyrokalia helped her to lie down on the bed and covered her in a blanket. She was happy to see Mernissa’s luxuriant smile as the girl curled into the warm embrace of the covers.

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