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Dark of the Moonby Tracy Barrett
The ships arrived in the spring, shortly before the Planting Festival. I should not have been out watching them, of course. A few years earlier, I would have gone to the harbor with a group of other children, and together we would have played in the black sand, gawked at the foreigners, admired the goods that were unloaded from their ships. Then, two summers ago, I had become a woman, and my world had changed, had at once constricted and expanded.
Unlike other girls, I had not found the womanhood ceremony joyful. My mother was happy: that day, I joined her in her sphere, now a sphere encompassing two, where she had been alone since her own mother had died and she became She-Who-Is-Goddess in her place. But as I stood in the palace that day, listening to the chants of the priestesses, responding where appropriate, sweating in the heavy robes that my mother had worn years before when she became She-Who-Will-Be-Goddess, as had her mother and her mothers mother, for as long as time was time, I knew that I was losing almost everything I loved. No more friends, no more playing in the courtyard of the Minos along with his children and my mothers other children. All that was left to me were my mother and my brother Asterion, and although he loved me and I him, he was not good company.
The day of the ships arrival, when everything began to change, a sweet breeze blew into the palace, announcing that spring was about to arrive. The walls of my home, beautiful as they were with their painted decorations below lofty ceilings, closed in on me. I had overheard one servant telling another that the tribute had arrived from Athens, the principal city of the region of Attika across the sea to the north, and I managed to slip out in the late afternoon, when my mother was sleeping.
I watched from my favorite hiding place, a thick bush halfway up the slope. The ships approached, black and narrow, and pulled into the harbor. People climbed into rowboats that brought them to shore and then disgorged them, some wobbling on unsteady legs, others striding forward as though glad to unkink themselves after the long voyage. I envied those travelers who had come so far, stopping at islands, seeing other lands and other cities, learning what foods other people ate, how they worshiped their goddesses and gods, what clothes they wore.
I would never know what they had seen and what life was like where they had come from. If I crossed the sea, I would cease to be She-Who-Will-Be-Goddess and would become merely Ariadne, priestess and daughter of She-Who-Is-Goddess, but not a deity in training. So I turned my eyes to the newly arrived foreigners and burned with hopeless yearning.
Every nine years, the people of many lands took turns sending tribute to Krete. One year we would receive tin from Tartessos, in another, copper from Kypros, or wheat and ostrich eggs from Aegyptos, or ivory from Aethiopia, or precious amber from the frozen countries to the north. These last lay so far away that sometimes the tall, yellow-haired travelers were delayed a year or even two, and we would have one year with no tribute and then one with double riches.
Eighteen years before, the Minoss oldest and dearest son, Androgeos, had been murdered at the Athenian games. In his rage, the Minos ordered that children of Athens, seven boys and seven girls, must be added to the tribute. Before, the Athenian ships had arrived filled only with luscious green olive oil and the delicate Athenian wine that the Minos particularly liked.
My mother had not interfered. It was her role to order tribute, as well as to direct anything else that affected Krete and its trade, but the right of a father to avenge his son is an ancient and powerful one. She knew how much her brother had loved Androgeos, and further, the people of Athens were led by a king, a warlord who ruled by his might. She knew that they believed, wrongly, that the Minos was her husband and the ruler of Krete. They would not dare to oppose an enraged father who was also a powerful leader.
In the first shipment, the Athenians had sent sweet, pretty children who would become household slaves and live easy lives, or so the king of Athens evidently hoped. That way, his subjects would not rebel at being forced to pay this precious tribute. Instead, they were sent to work in the mines, where they died quickly. The second time, when I was six years old, the children were made to play with my brother. I dont remember their arrival, although I must have been taken to the harbor as a treat, not yet being She-Who-Will-Be-Goddess. All I remember is their dead bodies. The Minos had been horrified and had relented. The king of Athens was informed that if he included his own son in the next shipment, the Minos would halt the human tribute.
This time I arrived too late to see them disembark, but still I quickly identified the Athenians in the crowd. They were handsome children, well dressed and obviously well fed. The little girls and boys stayed together in a group, some holding hands, some weeping, some laughing and pelting one another with black pebbles. An older boy stood somewhat apart, and I wondered if this was the kings son. A tall girl tried to comfort a wailing boy, who clung to her. I inched forward; they might say something about Athens.
A voice behind me said, “Mistress?” As almost always happened, I had been discovered by a palace servant. It was Iaera, the sister of a girl I used to play with, and she covered her face with her cloak as she spoke. “She-Who-Is-Goddess is looking for you, mistress.” I straightened and sighed. It was unthinkable to make my mother wait.
“A woman is in labor,” Iaera went on as we hurried up the hill. Before a turn in the road hid the harbor, I cast a look behind me and saw the sun dipping its edge into the sea and the Athenians being led to the palace by the longer but easier road that curved around the slope.
My mother was the only woman on the island of Krete who was unafraid to be outside after dark. Now that I was She-Who-Will-Be-Goddess and any man who touched me would be put to death with unspeakable agony, I, too, could walk under the stars without an escort. This was good, because babies frequently come in the nighttime, and everyone wanted She-Who-Is-Goddess to bless a birth by attending it. My mother and I would often be called in the middle of the night to walk or ride in someones donkey cart to where a woman was laboring.
Even after I had accompanied her on many of these errands, I was always transfixed by the change when my mother appeared. The laboring woman might be screaming, her damp hair in a tangle over her face as her red eyes glared wildly around the room. Her large belly would convulse as she lay or sat or squatted in a peasants tiny hut filled with animal smells or a prosperous merchants house, the thick darkness lightened only by a smoky torch. But when my mother entered, even before her hands moved in a comforting charm, the womans face would smooth, and then I would recognize her as a fishermans wife or the woman who sold sandals in the marketplace or the mother of an acquaintance.
Sometimes the laboring woman died, sometimes the baby, but if my mother was there, both usually lived and were well. Even one girl who came out with her skinny bottom first survived. I remember watching as my mother flicked the soles of the babys narrow feet with her fingertip and vigorously rubbed the chest of the small, slippery thing until she wheezed and then wailed, turning pink in my mothers strong hands. The babys mother laughed; my own mother and the other women laughed; even I laughed, although I did not know why.
That night, hours after the arrival of the Athenian ships, we walked home from a house that had not been so lucky, where both the mother and her two baby boys, each as small as a fish that I would eat for breakfast, had died. I couldnt put from my mind the sight of those tiny bodies laid out on the dirt floor or the sudden gush of blood that emptied the woman of her life even as she wept over her dead children. Her little son and daughter sat huddled in a corner—the hut was so small that there had been nowhere else for them—the boy stroking his small sisters hair in a vain attempt at comfort as she sucked her thumb. The farmer who was the womans husband was too stunned to think to offer us the loan of his one donkey. My mother and I slipped out the door, away from the smell of goats and blood and birth, into a night scarcely darker than the windowless shack.
My mother was quiet as we walked, breathing the sweet-scented night air. I didnt try to talk; she was always curt after losing one she had tended, as though angry or disappointed. She knew that the matter was in Goddesss hands, not hers, but each time we saw a mother or a child die, I sensed that she felt she had fallen short of what was expected of her.
I trailed behind. The dust of the road was cool between my toes, and it felt good to straighten my cramped back and legs. My mother stopped and turned, waiting for me to catch up. She slid her hand through my arm and squeezed it, pressing me close to her side, and we continued, hip to hip, my stride nearly matching hers. I took comfort in her warmth.
“They were too small to live, you know.” I was surprised to hear her mention the deaths and didnt answer. “Goddess must have changed Her mind about sending the babies into the world. But the mother . . .” She fell silent. It would not do to criticize Goddess, especially when we were walking under Her. I looked up at the cold white eye staring down at us.
“We dont know why She chose to take the woman,” my mother said softly. “We can only do our best.” She shook my arm gently. “And you are learning so well, my girl. When it comes my time, you will also do your best.”
“Your . . . time?”
My mother stopped and pulled her arm out from mine. One of her rare smiles spread across her face, lighting it like the moon coming out from behind a cloud.
“You dont know?” Her smile grew broader. “Look at me.” She turned sideways, smoothing her gown. I felt my jaw drop, and her smile grew to a laugh as I stood goggling at her round belly. How had I not seen?
“Is it . . .” I whispered, and she stopped laughing and shook her head, looping my hair behind my ears.
“Have I taught you nothing? Its been almost a year since the Planting Festival, and the moon will be full three more times before this one comes into the world. No, this baby is not the gods. I was wrong about Ision.” The regret in her voice was plain. I, too, missed Ision, the young blacksmith whom my mother had declared the incarnation of the sky god Velchanos at the last Planting Festival. Ision had appeared to enjoy the days that he spent as her consort. He hadnt cried or fought at the end, when his time came to fertilize the fields.
But if this child was conceived months after the Planting Festival, then Ision was not its father, and so he had not truly been the god. This meant that he had died for nothing. I was sorry for that. He had been a sunny and friendly person, and the new blacksmith was sour and silent. I wondered how my mother felt about her error, especially when she saw Isions wife at work in our laundry.
We resumed walking. We were near the palace now, and dawn was coming, a paler shade of night over the tops of the tall cypress trees that lined the road. The moon followed us, lighting our path. I calculated silently: I was fifteen, my brother three years older. My mother had become She-Who-Is-Goddess at fourteen. So she was now . . . what? Thirty-three or thirty-four, at least. I had heard of women who had successful pregnancies and deliveries at that age, but it was rare. Goddess knows what shes doing, I reminded myself, but I couldnt quench the little flame of fear that tingled in my belly as the suns edge poked over the top of the palace above us.
It should have been nearly silent, the only sound that of the guards extinguishing the torches that lit the outer walls. But instead there arose the noise of hurrying feet, shouts, the clatter of weapons. My mouth dried until my tongue stuck to its roof. I had never known the palace to be attacked, but late at night, when they thought I was asleep, the women told tales of long-ago raids. We were so strong now, though, that nobody dared. Or so I had always thought.
We ran toward the palace and then stopped, panting, in the shadow of the enormous tree that marked the end of the road. No armed soldiers were running in or out through the wide gate. And now I could hear that the shouts were intermingled with a familiar bellowing that echoed off the cold stone walls. I said, “Asterion!” and my mother, her voice tumbling over mine, exclaimed, “Your brother!” I scrambled across the big roots, tripped and nearly fell in the semidarkness, and ran toward the gate.
The Minos met us there, barefoot and with his hair disheveled. “Thank Goddess youve returned!” His voice shook as he clutched his cloak. “He has a girl with him and wont let her go.”
“What girl?” my mother asked as we hurried together toward my brothers quarters.
“A girl from Athens.” I had heard the women whispering that yet another wife for the Minos was among the Athenian tribute. It must be the girl I had seen comforting the little boy down in the harbor. She was pretty, with fine bones and soft-looking brown hair. Asterion liked pretty things, and when Asterion liked something, he sometimes tried to take it apart. I gulped as I imagined what he might do to the delicate girl. My mother, then the Minos, and then I ran down the narrow stairs into the maze of storerooms and corridors under the palace.
The small space outside my brothers chambers was filled with a dozen soldiers, some of them holding blazing torches. Idiots! Hadnt they learned? Some were jabbing their spears through the door, while others shouted and shook their fists. The light from the torches made Asterions shadow, already distorted, stretch and bob and dance across the wall behind him.
I squeezed between my mother and the Minos, then made my way through the crowd. When I shoved one of the armed men aside, he turned as if to strike me but quickly lowered his eyes at the sight of She-Who-Will-Be-Goddess. Another man noticed me, and then another, and one by one they fell silent.
“Asterion!” I called. He caught sight of me and stretched out one hand in my direction, moaning. His other hand grasped the Athenian maidens slender wrist. Although she was ashen, no blood was visible. She was even taller than she had appeared from my hiding place above the harbor, although my brother towered over her.
“Go upstairs!” I commanded the soldiers. They hesitated, and a few started to protest. I cut them short. “And take those torches with you! Dont you know hes afraid of fire? Leave me a small lantern.” They obeyed. The Minos followed them and then my mother, who shot me a glance that said, “Be careful.”
When the small antechamber was empty, I sat down on the floor. “Theyre gone, brother.” He moaned again, and the sound broke my heart. He threw his free arm over his head and roared at the ceiling. I forced myself to sit quietly and wait until his wits, such as they were, returned to him.
My brother had never tried to hurt me. He had not been allowed even to touch me until one day when I toddled away from my dozing nursemaid, Korkyna, and was found, hours later and after a frantic search, asleep on his lap. Asterion had still been a child himself then, though already nearly as tall as a grown man, and he was terribly strong. Korkyna had fainted at the sight of me curled up on my brothers knees, his misshapen head bent over my face. She had thought he was going to eat me, but he nuzzled me and then kissed my forehead.
“What do you have there?” I tried to sound only half interested. Asterion blinked his confusion. I indicated his left arm still stretched behind him, the muscles in his powerful shoulder bulging. The poor girls wrist would be bruised, if not broken, by that grip.
Asterion looked over his back and seemed surprised to see what he was holding. She opened her mouth. “Dont speak,” I said quickly. “Keep still.” She started to nod, then clearly thought better of it and sent me a look of comprehension instead. Good. Intelligence as well as beauty. No wonder the Minos was so eager to have me save her.
“Thats not yours,” I said. Asterion looked from me to the girl and back again. His face, already misshapen with bulging eyes and bony bumps and ridges, grew even uglier as it wrinkled. The girl closed her eyes.
I knew my brother didnt agree. What found its way into his chamber was his, whether it was food or a rat or an Athenian princess. “No, she isnt,” I insisted. “She belongs to the Minos. He wants her back.”
Asterion pulled the girl around in front of him, where he clutched her tightly, her face to his chest. I started to rise, then forced myself to sit back down, hoping she could breathe. “When you give her to me, Ill go talk to Cook and see what he can send you.” I knew better than to say if Asterion released her, which would imply that he had a choice.
He loosened his hold slightly, and the girl tilted her head back to take a breath. “I wonder what you would like.” I looked up to the ceiling, pretending to consider. Asterion licked his lips, his gaze fixed on me. “I think I saw some . . .” I drew it out, and he leaned forward, his eyes shining. “I think I saw a pot of honey.” His groan was of delight this time. “Yes, I saw some honey, and I think Cook was saving it for the Minos, but when you give me the girl Ill tell him that he has to let you have it instead.” Asterion loosened his grip a little more. The girl swiveled her eyes toward me, her brown hair plastered to her head with her sweat or his, or both.
Our mother hated it when Asterion ate honey. He always wound up covering himself in the stickiness, and as he feared water almost as much as he feared fire, it would take me hours to clean it off him. If I didnt, hed soon be covered in ants, and his roaring as he tried to pull them off with his clumsy fingers would disturb everyone in the palace. But it would be worth it if I could free that girl before he broke something in her slim body.
I stood up and shook out my skirt. “I hope the Minos hasnt eaten it already. He looked hungry when I came in.”
Asterion made an impatient sound.
“No, I wont go look. I have to take the girl with me or hell say that you cant have her and the honey. One or the other.”
In the end it was that simple. Honey or the girl, and he chose the honey. I held my breath while he considered, afraid that another word or move on my part would make him squeeze her again. But then he released her. He watched sadly as she glided toward me, eyes fixed on the ground. I had been afraid that she would break into a run, but she knew better, and my brother made no attempt to grab her again. She continued through the door.
“Ill be back soon,” I promised. Asterion nodded and licked his lips.
“Come on.” I caught up with the girl and took her arm, leading her down a corridor and then around a corner. We passed the stairway that I had used to descend into my brothers chambers and headed for another. The girl trotted to keep up with me.
“Where are we going?” She spoke with a musical Athenian accent.
“To the kitchen.” I hurried up the stairs. “I just hope theres some honey.”
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