“Long ago and in another land lived a maiden dark as night. Night she was named and night she was. And this maiden served a goddess bright and burning as the sun—and softas shadows and midnight . . .”
Once I blamed the gods for the pain I endured. Later I blamed Samson himself. Only now, too late, did I lay the blame for what came to pass at the feet of the one whose fault it truly was.
Oh, it was the gods who began the game. Yes, all our joy and pain are no more than a game to them—what are men and women to those whose breath is the wind and whose eyes are stars, whose blood is Time itself? A jest drew them to my birth, urged them to bestow upon me their double-edged gifts. Jest and play to them, to lay such a boon upon a girl new- born, god- begotten daughter of chance.
I was named for that boon: Delilah. Night-Hair.
But that name never seemed to fit me well, despite my gleaming midnight hair. For always, from the moment I drew breath, I, night-born, was drawn to the day’s light. To the sun.
That, then, is what began it, set my feet upon the path that led me to where I now stood. After all that had passed, all that I had paid in tears and in desire, I now stood alone—alone before a silver mirror, a keen-honed knife close to my waiting hand.
I was a child of the Grove, begotten on a full moon by a stranger upon the first and last night my mother ever spent in the Lady’s Grove. To be conceived beneath the full moon was a blessing, a sign of Our Lady’s favor. Not until I was a woman grown did it occur to me to wonder why a full-moon child had been named instead for moonless Night Herself. The Temple did not encourage such unruly thoughts; those of us who dwelt within its peace were meant to serve, not to question. And from the day I took my first steps, I dwelt in the Great House of Atargatis in Ascalon, Pearl of the Five Cities.
The Five Cities of Philistia ruled the rich land of Canaan; their laws governed all from the eastern hills to the sea that stretched beyond the sunset. Although a man or a woman governed each of the Five Cities, it was the City itself that was Lord or Lady. Decrees were made, laws proclaimed, and justice rendered in the name of Lord Gath or Lady Ascalon, Lord Ekron or Lady Ashdod, or Lord Gaza. By tradition, its highest ranking priestess wed each lordly city, and its highest-ranking priest became the consort of each Lady.
It was the mortal consort of the City who sat in judgment, who listened to the arguments and pleas of the council of nobles and merchants. Sometimes I dreamed of becoming Priestess-Queen to one of the Cities—but then I would have to leave Ascalon to dwell in Gath, or in Ekron, or in Gaza. I could not imagine ever abandoning Lady Ascalon; no, not even for another of the Five. I remembered no other home than Ascalon’s Great Temple of Atargatis, for my mother had given me into the Lady’s hands at Her own bidding.
“When I was fourteen, Delilah, I went to Our Lady’s House, and the Oracle asked the sacred fish to look upon my future. I was told that Our Lady would grant me long life and many children in return for a jewel of great price. ‘But I own no such jewel,’ I said, and the Seer-Priestess looked again into the pool and watched as the fish swam, and said, ‘The Lady will provide the prize she wishes you to surrender to her. When you hold it in your arms, you then must choose.’”
My mother sighed, then; she always did when she spoke those words to me. For she was permitted to visit me once each season, and each time she did, she retold the tale of my begetting, as if I might have forgotten it, or her. I always sat quiet, and let her talk—although my mother was little more to me than a half- remembered dream. She was a married woman now, wed to a wealthy, indulgent merchant who had fathered half a dozen hearty sons upon her. When she came to visit me, she always wore a gown of gold-fringed linen fine and soft as water, and gems glowed like small bright fi res against her skin.
But despite all she had been granted, my mother still looked upon me with hungry eyes. For she had traded her firstborn daughter for her own future; never again did she bear a girl child. The bloodline of her mothers would die with her. Now that it was too late, she mourned that eternal loss.
“Still,” my mother said, “you seem happy here, my daughter.”
“I am not your daughter. I am Our Lady’s daughter,” I reminded her, prim and pious as a Temple cat, and my mother’s eyes glinted bright with unspilled tears.
But her grief did not move my heart, not then. My mother had made her choice, and must live with the life she had created for herself. I wish, now, that I had been kinder to her.
“Of course,” she said, and managed to smile. “And you are already grown so tall—and so graceful. You will dance well before Her, Delilah.”
“That will be as Our Lady wills.” Although love of the Dance sang in my blood, and already my body swayed easily to music, young priestesses were not encouraged to flaunt their beauties or their talents. Not until we were fourteen were we permitted to look upon our faces in a mirror. I would not be given that privilege for another four years. My studies consisted of learning how to read and to write, to know the uses of herbs and fl owers, to create scented oils, to choose a true gem from a false.
How to please Our Lady in greater things would be taught later, when I passed at last through the Women’s Gate.
I yearned for that far-off day—in that I was no different from all the other girls dedicated to the Temple. To walk through the Full Moon Gate into the Lady’s Courtyard, to wear Her scarlet girdle clasped about my waist, to paint my face into Her image; these things would prove my status as one of the Lady’s Beloveds, whom all the world desired . . .
“Delilah?” My mother’s voice held an odd mixture of timidity and rebuke. Clearly I had not heard whatever words she had spoken to me. But it was not her place to chastise me—a fledgling priestess—for error, and we both knew it.
I did not look at her, and I did not speak. Instead, I gazed down at my hands as I twined the end of my long braid about my fingers, over and through, as if I played at cat’s cradle with my hair. The scarlet cord that bound my dark, tight- plaited hair gleamed bright as blood in the sunlight. After a moment, I broke the silence between us with a question, one I suddenly knew I must ask, even if my mother did not answer. I lifted my head and stared into her eyes.
“If you had known you must give me away, would you still have asked Our Lady for the same boon?”
For the span of forty heartbeats, my mother did not speak. Then she said, “That is a hard question, Delilah.” She slid her eyes away from mine, and I knew her next words would be lies. “How could I have given you up, had I known?”
You should have known. What else would be a jewel of great price that you would hold in your arms? I looked at my mother; she had turned her face away, staring at the painted flowers upon the courtyard wall so that I could not look into her eyes. But that told me what she never would admit in words. You did not want to know.
Pain clutched my heart for a moment, only to be swept away by anger. My mother had tricked herself, and now blamed everyone but herself for the price she had paid. I will never do that, I swore silently. I will never deceive myself and then blame the gods for what I myself have done.
“Yes,” I said. “How?” And I rose to my feet, smoothing my skirt so I need not look upon my mother’s face. That was cruel, but I was very young, and the young are very cruel, especially to those who have hurt their hearts. Still refusing to meet her eyes, I said, “It is time for me to help carry in the offerings. I must go.”
“Of course,” my mother said. She hesitated, and then set her hands upon my shoulders and kissed me on the forehead. Another pause, and then she added, “I am glad you are happy here.”
“Yes,” I said in a voice cool as the moon, “I am happy here.”
Of course, I knew nothing else but Temple life, and no one here was unkind to me. No one here would bargain me away for her own gain— or so I believed then, when I was a child, and still trusting.
My mother slowly walked away, to the gate that led to the Outer Court, where all worshippers were welcome. At the gate itself she paused, and looked back; I saw this through my lashes, but refused to lift my head and let her look full upon my face. She opened the door in the gate and stepped through, out of the inner Temple. To my shame, I was glad to see her go.
She did not want me enough to guess what it was she must pay for her good marriage and her many children—all of them sons. I would have guessed. I would have struck a better bargain with Our Lady Atargatis.
And if I ever conceived and bore a daughter, no power on earth or in heaven would make me give her up—even to a goddess.
All this makes it sound as if I were unhappy living in the goddess Atargatis’s Temple, unhappy in Her service. But I was not. Our Lady’s House was a joyous one; She liked laughter and love about Her. A child given into Her care—any child, from peasant’s daughter to princess— was tended as lovingly as a rose from far Cathay. Children were Her treasure. Girls reared within Her walls heard nothing but soft words and felt no touch that was not kind. Our Lady’s discipline was that of love; we all longed to please Her.
But even so, a part of my heart yearned for my real mother—my mortal mother, the woman who had chosen to bear me beneath her heart for ten full moons, who had risked death to give me life.
And who had bartered me for riches, and for a good marriage, before I even was conceived.
And now she has not even one daughter to show for it. At least I had not spoken those cutting words aloud; at least my mother did not hear that ultimate cruelty. Nor did she look back again before she passed beyond the gate, or she might have seen how my lower lip trembled, and tears pricked behind my eyes.
“Delilah!” A rustle of flounced skirt, a chime of ankle-bells, soft- skinned arms wrapped about me. “What troubles you, little goddess? What makes you weep?”
Nikkal, the novice priestess everyone called Golden Bells for the sound of her laughter, hugged me close. Sweet as honey, soft as cream, and with a heart as kind as that of Atargatis Herself, Nikkal cosseted the younger priestesses as if she were their mother, and tended the older priestesses as if she were their only daughter. To most I would have denied being troubled, or weeping, but to remain in Nikkal’s embrace, I willingly abandoned bravery.
“My mother is gone again,” I said, and when I thought of how my mother had walked away, and how Nikkal held me to comfort me, too-easy tears slid down my cheeks. Of course the tears drew the kohl outlining my eyes after them, leaving night-shadows upon my skin.
“No, Delilah.” Nikkal cupped my chin in her hand and lifted my face until I looked into her eyes. “Your mother is here. The woman who bore you no longer matters. Atargatis is your true mother. She is within your heart, always. Never doubt that.”
Nikkal took the end of her crimson veil and wiped the tear-wet kohl from my cheeks. “There, now you look less like a wild badger. Now tell me truthfully, sweeting—how did your mother’s words pain you? What did she say that made you cry?”
Already I could barely remember why I had wept, so I only shook my head. Then I leaned my cheek against Nikkal’s smooth breast. Beneath my ear, I could hear and feel the beating of her heart. I sighed, and snuggled closer to that steady, measured rhythm. It was hard, now, to remember how miserable I had felt only moments before. What did it matter if my mortal mother abandoned me? I was Atargatis’s Dove, a daughter of the goddess and sister to all who wore the goddess’s scarlet girdle about their loins.
“Delilah?” Nikkal’s soft voice coaxed me to tell her all my secrets.
I did not tell all of them, but my woeful recitation of my childish grievance revealed enough to Nikkal that I never saw my mother again—not in Our Lady’s House, at any rate. Later, I learned that Nikkal had told my tale to those charged with the care of the New Moons, and my mother was forbidden to visit me anymore. And for all my hot grief that last day I saw her, I must confess I barely noticed that my mother no longer came to see me. I saw her again only when I had grown into one of the Temple’s jewels, and her husband made a rich offering to the Temple so that I danced at my half brother’s wedding.
But that was years later, and by then I had nearly forgotten my mother, nor did I care whether she loved me or not. The day I wept my woes to Nikkal, I unbound my pain and anger, and my bitter words burned to ash like freed embers of a long- banked fire. When I had fi nished speaking I felt lighter, having given up the weight of my grief into another’s care.
Nikkal smoothed back my unruly hair and then laid her hand cool upon my cheek. “You see? You have only to remember that this is your home, that Our Lady is your mother, and we are all your sisters. Now run along and find something amusing to do until sunset.”
At sunset all the priestesses, even the youngest, who were spared the midnight prayers, gathered upon the rooftop to sing welcome to the Eve ning Star. I liked singing, liked the thought that my small voice was heard by the stars themselves. I was fonder still of the dawn prayers, of singing the sun into the sky, until golden light spilled over the hills and glittered upon the sea beyond the city wall.
Yes, I best loved to sing until the sun burned away night’s shadows, and revealed the vast city’s beauty to the waiting day.
Nikkal had bidden me entertain myself until sunset, so I decided her words gave me leave to wander away from the courtyard of the New Moons, sanctuary of the youngest and newest of the Temple’s ladies. The Court of the New Moons was bright and filled with things to both amuse and teach the small girls who dwelt there, but it had been my home as long as I could remember, and I wished to explore the world that lay beyond its high, protecting walls—without an elder’s hand guiding my steps, facing me only towards what she wished me to see. Now, with Nikkal’s unwitting permission, I ran hastily past the closed cedar gate and slipped through the small door set within the wall beside the impressive barrier.
Once out that door, I stood in the long corridor that led past the courts, ranked in the pre ce dence of those who inhabited them. At the far end, nearest the kitchen wing and the gardens, was the Court of Service, where the women lived who desired to dwell within the peace the Temple offered but who were not called further. They served the Lady’s earthly needs; even the gods require mortals’ aid.
My home, the Court of the New Moons, lay between the Court of Service and the Court of the Rising Moons, those girls who had passed through the first initiation and chose to continue upon the Moonlight Path. That was my heart’s desire: to dance the Path that led to Our Lady Herself. To someday be the High Priestess of the Great House of Atargatis, Goddess-on-Earth and Lady Ascalon Incarnate. I prayed daily and nightly to Our Lady that I might gain such honor, that I would be forever remembered, and begged Her to grant my fervent petitions.
I had not yet learned to be careful what I asked of the gods.
I ran lightly past the Rising Gate, the silver charms and carnelian amulets sewn into my skirt chiming to the rhythm of my bare feet upon yellow tiles. The Lady’s Luck favored me, for the gates to the Full Moon and the Dark Moon courts also were closed. It was Tammuz, hottest month of the Season of the Sun, when the days stretched longest, and it was near midday, when most of those who dwelt within the Temple withdrew to shaded gardens or to terraces hung with wet reed curtains that caught and cooled summer breezes. No one saw me; I made my way unchecked to the Passing Gate that led from the private courtyards to the Temple courts beyond.
I had a goal: the shaded Court of Peace that lay between the High Priestess’s own court and the inner Temple itself. I wished to gaze upon the oracular fish that swam in the sacred pool. I had never seen them, although of course we heard many pious tales of the wisdom imparted by the revered creatures.
But I did not gaze upon the Lady’s Fish that day. For as I reached my hand to the moonstone-studded bar that held the Passing Gate closed, the pale bar lifted and the gate swung open. To my dismay, I found myself facing Chayyat, priestess in charge of the New Moons. I braced myself for a scolding, but to my surprise, Chayyat looked pleased to see me standing there at the Passing Gate, where I had no particular business being.
I remembered enough of my manners to fold my arms over my breast and bow my head. As I lifted my eyes to Chayyat’s face, she inclined her head and touched two fingers of her left hand to her heart in response.
“And here is one of your new sisters now,” Chayyat said, and pushed forward a girl who had been hidden behind the priestess’s seven- tiered skirt. “Now stop weeping, child. Here you will soon learn to be happy.” The priestess nodded to me and stepped back, leaving me staring at a girl perhaps a year older than I.
She was thin as a starved cat, and dirt dulled her skin. Hair that seemed the color of summer dust tangled in a mat at the nape of her neck. Her eyes glowed pale as a dawn sky. Tears hung upon her eyelashes like heavy raindrops.
“Aylah has just come to Our Lady’s House,” Chayyat said. “I give her into your care, Delilah. She is to be to you as a true sister. Take her to the Court of the New Moons and tell Meitilila to do all that must be done for her.” A brief pause, during which the only sound was the new girl’s sobbing breaths, then Chayyat added, “Summati bought her in the bazaar, so she comes to us with nothing.”
It grieves me to say that my first thoughts, when I looked upon my new Temple sister, were cross and ungenerous. Now I shall lose my day’s freedom! Why should I have to share my hours with her?
More, despite her hunger-sharp bones and her tangled hair, Aylah was beautiful. Even my jealous eyes could see that once she had been freed of dirt, and fed enough to smooth out the lines of bones too close beneath her skin, she would glow like a rare pearl. The Temple had accepted her as a New Moon with no dowry, no offering, save that untouched beauty. Or rather, the Temple had paid for the privilege of claiming her for Atargatis.
Now I faced what I wished I had been: a girl whose beauty unlatched doors closed to those less blessed by the gods. I looked upon Aylah and knew my dreams of becoming Goddess-on-Earth were as much a fantasy as my mother’s dream of regaining my heart. Who would choose me when true beauty stood beside me, waiting?
“Delilah.” Chayyat’s tone reminded me that I was only one of the New Moons, not yet even a novice priestess—and that she commanded my obedience.
I forced myself to think of my anger and jealousy as two cords, one scarlet and one black. When I saw the cords as clearly as if they lay before me upon the cool stone fl oor, I bound them into a knot, imprisoning my unworthy emotions. Then I smiled and held out my hands to Aylah. “Welcome, sister,” I said, and Chayyat’s approving smile gave my words added warmth. “I am Delilah. Come, I will show you where you shall live now.”
Silent, Aylah followed me as I led her into the Lady’s House, past the closed gates to the Dark Moon and Full Moon courts. I tried to take her hand, but when my fingers closed about hers, she slid her fingers from my grasp. That first day, she was cold and elusive as winter wind.
Excerpted from Delilah by India Edghill.
Copyright © 2009 by India Edghill.
Published in December 2009 by St. Martin's Press.
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