Image, slightly altered, with permission of Becka Wolfe.
Finley J. MacDonald
All rise. Heads tilt toward a marble woman about whose ankles coils a thick serpent. At her waist, the priestess’s head weaves. Each chanted syllable dies a slow, drifting death beneath the ceiling. The priestess turns to face kneeling supplicants. Flat hands rise between candles taller than her head. Her hands drop. She turns, and her steps echo as she proceeds across the space and then through a circular doorway. An instant later, from the same doorway, three figures emerge. The first—white-robed, shaved, trailing incense—is followed closely by a young girl with golden hair and a bowl wider than her waist.
The hindmost figure, a woman with a stringed instrument and bow, turns aside and settles into a chair. Her hair is arranged with metal barrettes. The bow is still, the eyes flatly inscrutable. The instrument tilts; the bow dips. Notes, one flowing into the next, pour saturnine and resigned from a woman swaying as if in a trance, one hand rocking at the bridge of her instrument.
Coins are clattering.
The girl with gold, curling hair follows the incense-fanning guide among the small congregation, and coins tumble into her bowl. When the girl reaches him, Mouse drops in the four coins with the squares cut out of the centers—which the host had earlier pushed into his palm. The incense bearer and golden-haired girl pass out the round exit. A moment later, the same incense-bearer returns, leading three shaven youths in white robes. They bear smaller bowls filled with paper slips. Incense rising up her robe, the usher with the gray, shaven head stands where the priestess had. She is staring directly at Mouse. The girls go handing out slips of paper until everyone, except Mouse, has received a response from the oracle. The chamber lacks air. Mouse feels light-headed. At last, the doors swing open. The congregation flows into the isles. Light shining on her stubbly head, one of the youths stands in Mouse’s path, hand out to receive his. Mouse stares at black, female eyes.
“The high priestess requests it.”
With Ronaldo shuffling behind her—hand rubbing his whiskers—the host steps up.
“Is there a problem?”
“Mistress, the high priestess should like to reply to his request personally.”
“We have not paid for this honor, and I’m afraid, cannot afford to.”
“The priestess will forgo the customary fee.”
“This young man is under our care. This is his first furlough. It is our responsibility to see that he returns before noon tomorrow.”
“Mistress, please enjoy the gardens for the day and lodge tonight at the inn. There will be no charge. You may pick him up in the morning as early as you wish. A refusal will mean his questions will go unanswered.”
The host is speaking, an angry dimple in her forehead. Mouse attempts to limp around the girl, to breathe fresh air, but his hand is somehow in the girl’s, and he finds himself starting in the wrong direction, moving toward the rounded doorway. On wet, bandaged feet, girls on both of his arms, he lurches through the passage, into the gloom within. They pass along a low, sky-lit hallway with curtained doorways. One curtain opens and the three pass through.
At first, Mouse can make out only a low candle-surrounded pallet. Several attendants are posted nearby, hands clasped below their waists. Deeper in the room, Mouse notices a face surrounded by silk scarves and cushions. A gold nose ring reaches the full, perfect mouth. A wrought tiara is nested in black hair. Mouse pulls back. The torso is missing its arms.
“Please do not be afraid,” says a voice, liquid and compelling. The face gazes at one, scarred stub.
“I was chosen to represent a path that demands sacrifice of the most terrible sort. This particular way, I must add, has nothing in particular to do with you. A long time ago, I ceased mourning that which is gone and cannot ever be returned. Let us focus upon other things, please. Do sit down. If you’ll allow, I should like to see to your feet.”
Mouse is guided to a couch in the darkness. He sits. Two attendants are at once untangling the damp strips. His feet are plunged into a basin of water so hot that he gasps. A sponge moves over the the top faces of his feet.
“I have dreamed of you before me,” says the goddess. “Exactly like this.”
“I see you somewhat differently than you might imagine. At this moment, I can see red—a cloud—especially across your chest and there at your throat. That’s pain. Some of it is new, but most you have been carrying for a long time. I may be able to relieve some of it.”
“Why would you want to do that?”
“I have my reasons. You shall have to trust me. I will not harm you. That, I promise.”
“It makes me nervous when anyone says ‘trust me’.”
The high priestess smiles.
“But you’ll have to let go a little.”
Mouse’s feet are dried and a salve caressed over the abrasions. Strips pass and wind about his ankles.
“My friend—I hope you’ll allow me to call you that—I wish to induce a vision in you. We shall begin quite simply. You’ll lie down, and a drop will be placed upon your tongue. Every few minutes: another drop. This tincture is powerful, but it is the power of intention, ours and yours, which will guide you where you most need to go.”
“I have had my experiences with that tree of poisons before. All I got was vomit and nightmares.”
The priestess laughs.
“But it is not the tree of poisons! The tincture is produced from a species of mushroom. No one has been able to raise it domestically. Let’s call it “The tree of possible knowing”.
The curtain opens. A girl bears a small wooden box upon a velvet cushion. She sets it before the candle-surrounded pallet. Two girls take Mouse’s hands and lead him across the floor, and Mouse turns and perches among candles.
“Please. There is nothing to be afraid of. Lie down. Relax.”
Mouse takes a deep breath. He lies down, and a pillow is tucked under his head. A soft voice speaks at his ear.
“Close your eyes. Open your lips.”
A tasteless, oily drop spreads over the tip of Mouse’s tongue.
“You will sleep for a while,” says the priestess. “When you awake, you will find yourself in a meadowland. I shall be with you.”