Chapter OneThe Morning StarAnd there appeared a great wonder in Heaven, A woman clothed with the sun, And the moon under her feet. -- Revelation 12:1, KJVOn the day I was given to the Goddess I awakened before daylight, a strange fluttering inside me. The excitement that had wakened me combined with the cold, and I shivered, pulling my cloak around me. I went outdoors with the milking bowl and breathed in the sweet air. Hanging the bowl on Nadja's tether post, I faced into the dawn breeze and climbed the little rise behind our house. The sparse grass showed weak new growth at the crown of the hill where it lay open to the dew and fight frost of the winter just past. There had been little rain this year or the one before, and though my parents worried about it in their talk, I thought little of it. I saw only that sunny days were better than rainy ones.She was there -- the Morning Star -- just as Grandmother Lili had promised, brilliant in the brightening sky above the far roofs of Jerusalem, and beneath her, just rising over the dark shape of the Temple, the slimmest crescent moon. The cold wind flapped my cloak about me, but I did not feel it, overcome as I was by that heavenly sign. The Goddess was smiling her blessing on my special day, and the moon was under her feet.Presently, chilled, I trudged down the hill and got the bowl. Nadja already stood expectantly on her milking bench watching me with soft eyes. I put two handfuls of oats in her box, and she chewed happily, moving her little jaws and flicking her long ears rapidly.I told you I would milk for you this morning, Mari, because your hair is just washed for the festival Now you will smell like a goat mymother scolded, holding the dark cloud of her hair away from her face while the dawn wind billowed it about her. I pressed my forehead against Nadja's round belly, stripping out the last drops of milk.Nadja smells good. A flash of unaccustomed anger eased the strange fluttering in my belly. Mother took the milk, and I untied Nadja, led her up the slope to the middle of the grassy mound, and pounded her peg securely into the earth with a heavy rock. I put my arms around her neck and dragged my clean hair over her brown back. She bleated sympathetically. There were tears in my throat.The dawn had bleached the pale sliver of the moon to a bloodless white, but the Queen of Heaven still gleamed like a tiny candle in the blue morning. My sign. She would stay even when the sun rose and hid her light. Remembering that, I felt the fluttering ease.I went in and Mamma pressed a steaming cup into my hand. She began to comb my hair. I drank Nadja's warmth with her milk.Let me do that, Aethel. You need to dress the little ones, Grandmother said, lifting the headband of gold links I was to wear out of her carved jewelry box lined with purple wool.Baby Lazarus was still asleep. Mother combed Martha's black curls and put on her best gown while Grandmother struggled with the headband, which wanted to slide forward over my eyes. Martha was only three, two years younger than I, and she cried for a headband too. Mamma pacified her with a saffron-dyed ribbon and came back to me with her comb.Don't braid her hair Aethel. It is a glory. Grandfather Claudius spoke from the doorway, his arms full of blossoming branches.You would tempt the angels, then? Mamma said, sniffing handfuls of my hair for goatsmell.Grandmother Lili took the blossoms and began to weave them with linen strips into a garland. The Pharisees would cover her for certain, she observed.Let the Pharisees veil their maids if they want, scoffed Grandfather. The eye starved for delight is the one that strays.Hush admonished Grandmother. The child is innocent.Grandfather lifted me to match his height; my legs dangled. The fierceness of his blue eyes puzzled me, though I could never be afraid of him. He had taught me the names and hiding places of the wild birds and animals along the little streams between the hills, how to carve their wooden images without cutting myself, and how to keep from getting lost. He kissed me on each cheek, and I smelled apple blossoms. Let the angels beware, he said.Shocked, I saw tears brimming over in Mamma's eyes, but they embarrassed rather than moved me. I was not ready to forgive her for sending me away. She turned and began to braid her black hair into a plait as thick as her wrist. I knew she had guessed my thought and I was ashamed, but I could say nothing. The unfamiliar anger was a knot in my chest.The Temple was blinding with the morning sun reflecting off its beaten gold and polished marble, more huge and grand than I remembered from the year before when my parents had brought me. There had been six maidens given to the Goddess then. Now, smallest and last in line, an insignificant seventh, I followed the heels of the maid before me, moving in procession between endless banks of people, keeping my chin high so the headband would not fall over my eyes. I could not see the top of the massive wall of the Temple Mount from the wide paved street bordering it along which wemoved. The single stones that formed the wall were large as houses, and there were stones left out at intervals forming cavelike niches for the merchants' shops along the way.
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