By dawn, they were out of sight of land.
As the morning passed, scattered clouds appeared overhead, their passing shadows providing respite from the sun. There was no point in fighting the northbound current, and the company took turns at the oars to speed their drift northward. With the clouds came the southern wind.
Pelagius sniffed the air and frowned. “Auster rises in the south! There is a storm brewing!”
“Auster?” asked Akivai.
“The south wind!” replied Pelagius, “The bringer of storms!”
Almost as if he had commanded the god Auster himself, drops of rain spattered their facesand all eyes turned south. The scattered clouds that passed by them seemed to multiply and merge toward the southern horizon.
“Lord preserve us!” whispered Yusef.
“We need a sail!” said Pelagius.
“My robe!” said Miri, “We can use the oars as a mast, and attach out robes to it!”
They quickly set up the oars as a frame and using brooches, Martha’s quick cross stitching and a rope, rigged their clothing as a sail. The boat surged forward like a horse given rein, and the makeshift sail filled with wind and billowed outward. They could only run before the wind with the sail, but they thought perhaps by crossing slightly to the west, they could avoid the worst of the winds.
“It’s going to be a big one!” said Pelagius to Miri, “See how the smaller winds run before it!” Sure enough the wind was gusting and seemed to have no direction, and small eddies marked the passing of smaller deities running from the power of Auster. Eleazar and Yusef were forced to hold the oars so the wind would not lift the makeshift booms from the boat. The seas rose, and the wind changed from frantic gusts to a steady wind that lifted their clothes. The sail flapped noisily, and they had to pull the sail in tighter, but the makeshift sail was straining at its seams. Pelagius kept the small boat running before the wind with a slight starboard tack, and soon, they were racing before the storm front, rising on the growing waves and surfing the downside. Without warning, the wind whisked the sail completely from Eleazar and Yusef had hands. Miri grabbed at her cloak, but the seams with the other clothing ripped, and the wind whisked the rest of the makeshift sail and the oars high into the air. Yusef managed to grasp the rope, but he burned his hands terribly as the line raced through his palms. With the sudden absence of the pull of the sail, he boat yawed suddenly, and everyone was thrown to the bottom of the boat.
“Lie under the seat!” Miri screamed at the twins, but they were too afraid to respond. She grasped Sarai by her collar, and pushed her under the seat.
“Hold on to the seat!” she shouted over the growing wind. Eleazar stuffed Akivai beneath his seat, and Martha threw herself over the little boy. The little boat was tossed about, and spun in different directions despite Pelagius’ attempts to keep the bow pointed into the waves. He yelled for Cedonius and Maximinus to move forward, and pushed Miri forward as well. Their weight in the bow acted as a drag and the boat pivoted from the bow and the stern swung leeward.
Pelgius snatched Miri’s robe and slashed at it with a dagger.
“What are you doing?” asked Miri in shock.
“Sea anchor!” replied Pelagius, “ “It will keep us from riding to fast through the sea!” With a few deft knots, Pelagius tied the robe at its corners, attached the other end of the line to the bow, and sank the robe into the sea. The cloth immediately billowed out under the water and snapped the bow rope tight. Miri was almost pitched into the sea but the boat shuddered and suddenly straightened out into the waves, and their mad ride slowed, and though they were still moving with the water, they were no longer stampeding headlong before the storm. But at that very moment, a solid wall of rain slammed the boat, and sea and sky suddenly merged. Thankfully, the boat was a sea-going fishing craft, and had a high bow and stern, as sharp to the water before as behind. Unfortunately, the burden on the boat was not quite heavy enough to keep the dory stable, and everyone had to lie as close to the hull as possible to keep her steady. Martha clutched at the transom, and covered Akivai to make sure the little boy was well secured. Sarai squeezed against Miri, and Miri wrapped her girdle around her daughter and tied the little girl tightly against her breast. They had a brief respite, but the boat suddenly lurched, pitched and yawed. The sea anchor had been torn open, and though the trailing rope remained, it offered little resistance to the sea and Pealagius fought desperately with the tiller to keep the dory pointed into the wind.
He hauled in the rope and tied a few large figure eight knots in the rope and cast it back into the sea.
The storm raged through the night, and swept the little craft before it. There was no light at all. Miri could not see the hand in front of her face, or Sarai clasped to her breast. Such was the horror of being swallowed so entirely by the gale and the darkness, one by one, the little vessel’s passengers withdrew into themselves, and eyes shut tight, and gasping for air in their sodden state, prayed for deliverance.
Miri cursed the gods for their cruelty.
The solid rain and dark clouds masked the coming of the dawn, and vision just slowly returned. The new light revealed the wave shapes had changed and were beginning to crest and grow steeper.
“We’re coming in to land!” called Pelagius, but sitting in the stern alee of the others, his voice was carried away by the howling wind, and only Miri heard him.
The waves now began to crest and roll. Caught by a sizeable beaker, the boat pitched and the leading stern dug into water almost to the top strake. Pelagius called the others forward to lift the advancing stern, but as they struggled forward, another large wave tipped the boat, and her stern buried into the trough, and swamped Pelagius. He cried out and was carried away, and in the same instant, the boat flipped end over end, and catapulted Miri and her companions screaming into the surf.
Once in the water, Miri panicked. Thankfully, Sarai was still tied to her, but for a precious few moments under water, she could not tell up from down. Sarai struggled against her as water filled her little mouth, and against everything her being told her, Miri stopped struggling, and relaxed to allow her natural buoyancy to take hold. Sarai still struggled, and Miri grasped her daughter’s head and closed her mouth over Sarai’s and breathed air into the little girl’s lungs. Miri held her hand over Sarai’s face to prevent the air from escaping. Sarai struggles intensified, and Miri’s heart ached for the fear that overwhelmed her daughter, and she was tortured by the thought she was suffocating her own daughter. Though the time underwater was excruciatingly eternal, they suddenly emerged from the sea, though the rain and spray filled her mouth and choked them both, there was finally air to breathe. Miri had to turn on her back to lift Sarai from the water, but she was tied too low against Miri’s body. Miri untied the loop about Sarai to make swimming easier, but at that instant a great curling wave fell upon them and pushed them deep underwater. Miri lost her grip on Sarai, and Atargatis swept the child away.
Miri was tossed back to the surface.
“Sarai!” she screamed, but in the wind, she could barely hear her own voice. She panicked, and for a brief moment thought she heard Sarai scream, but the wind was so high that she was not sure. Suddenly, the swamped dory swept past. Yusef, and Martha clung to the hull and their eyes connected for an agonizing moment with Miri, but she did not swim toward them for fear of losing Sarai altogether. The waves were pushing her toward an unseen shore, and for a brief moment, she felt something beneath her feet. Sand? Rock? She wasn’t sure. Sarai’s high-pitched scream reached her again, and she swam toward the sound, shouting her name.
“I’m here!”cried Sarai, “Mama! I’m here!”
Miri actuall swam into Sarai before she saw her.
“Hold on to my neck!” Miri commanded Sarai, but the little girl had already decided that wrapping her little arms as tightly as possible around Miri’s head was the best course of action. Miri had to slide Sarai’s grip from about her head to around her neck so she could breathe, and with Sarai clamped to her back piggy back stylem she truck out in the direction the waves were breaking. Somewhere ahead there would be land.
She soon discovered by facing the oncoming waves, she could ride over the crest and slide shoreward on the back of the wave, and on the crest of a large wave, she caught sight of Akivai, and she cried out his name. He turned, but she was dropped into a trough, and he disappeared from view. She fought desperately toward the spot she had spied him, but soon realized she was totally lost and could not be certain of her bearings. Just as he gave up hope of seeing him, he splashed beside her, and spluttering and fighting for breath, hugged her close. Though she was thankful to see him, his extra weight pukked her down and her head began dipping below the surface, and she knew she had no strength to swim with them both.
At that very instant, Akivai looked deep into her eyes, and he knew they would drown as surely as she knew it.
“It’s okay, Mama.” He said softly, “I know how to swim,” and with that he pushed off, and she did not have the strength to hold him.
“Akivai!” she screamed, but he turned and disappeared into the waves. She swam desperately after him, but he was swept away and out of sight. Her own tears flowed from her, and it seemed as though her tears were falling upon her and the sea itself was the ocean of grief. She cursed the gods, and the world they ruled. How could they abandon her and her children? After all she had survived, she could not accept her fate was to drown in the surf of this godforsaken shore.
Her energy was sapped. She knew she could not keep going.
“Forgive me, Yeshua!” she said to her husband, for she felt he was near, “I can’t go on!”
“If you are near, sweet Yeshua,” she prayed, “I ask nothing for me. I shall find you in Death, but save Sarai and Akivai, and guard them from evil!”
Without warning, Yeshua enveloped her, and he spoke aloud through her mouth, a psalm, and he spoke it as an affirmation and to comfort his wife and child.
“The Lord is my Shepherd” he began, “I shall not want.
He shall lead me to lie down in green pastures:
He shall carry me to still waters.
And restore my soul,
And He shall lead me on the path of righteousness for His name' sake.
The words over whelmed Miri with a contented peacefulness, and she allowed the world through which God worked to carry her where he willed.
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” she continued, her heart opened to her consort Yeshua, and they were one.
“I will fear no evil: For you are with me;
Your rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You annoint my head with oil,
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever.”
AS she opened her eyes, her robe floated on the waves past her It held a little air and she swung Sarai over the cloth, and the buoyancy of the heavy robe took the weight of Sarai from Miri arms. She was able to lay Sarai on top of the cloth and tow her behind.
Train suddenly subsided and the waters calmed. She had entered a bay, and she could see a beach before her, a low line of sand and coarse sea grass.
“Bless you Yeshua!” she whispered, and swam for the coast.
As the waters became shallow, her progress was slowed by a strong undertow, but after an eternity, exhausted, she struggled through the murky shallows carrying her daughter. Her whole being was consumed by forcing one foot in front of the other, and only at the last moment did she look up to see the procession advancing upon her. The surprise she suffered was no less than the shock of the leaders of the procession at seeing her emerge from the waves.
“Who is that?” asked an acolyte but the high priest was speechless.
They were leading a procession from the shrine of the Triple Goddess of their ancestors who they now worshipped under her Roman name of Diana, but within their souls, they still held the triple image of their ancient mother. Every spring, they removed the cult statue of Diana from their temple, as their ancestors had carried the images of their mother, to the sea, carrying the flames of the holy fire from the temple to set out the little wooden burning boats onto the Mediterranean. A bull walked calmly in their midst, his horns decorated with a crown of flowers, unaware for the moment he was living his last few breaths before he was sacrificed. Flanking the procession were men, armed with lances tipped with a crescent moon bisected by the point of the lance, forming a trident. They had come to bring the Lady of the Underground to the sea.
And now, emerging from the surf, was their beautiful lady carrying a child, just as they carried their own children in the procession and held them up to the idol for the blessing of the Great Mother. Many called out in praise of the vision, and the priest sought to control the emotional outbursts.
“Who are you?” he asked in Latin, for he was a Roman who had bought his position as guardian of the temple and the people.
“Miri!” replied the apparition, and sealed her sacred status with the pagans that followed in the procession, for she had uttered the name of the ancient Mari, Mother of the Sea, and the ancient gods. And as she called out, the sacrificial bull, untended due to the commotion at her appearance, ambled toward her and snorted, then bellowed at her. His huge horns, though adorned, and his imposing size filled her heart with trepidation, but she held it in check, and reached out and touched his nose, and for some reason, he bowed his head before her and she scratched his broad forehead, and The ribbons and flowers in his crown slipped from his horns and fell to the ground at her feet. Unable to hold back their excitement at the appearance of the goddess, the people swarmed her, approached in supplication, asking her blessing, and she, with no idea how to stop them bestowed upon them her blessing.
From the crowd a woman, desperate from grief, fell at her feet and grasped her hand and kissed it. The woman was richly dressed, and was of some nobility, but she humbled herself before Miri, just as Galileans had fallen at Yeshua’s feet, and Miri’s heart was touched deeply by great compassion.
“Dear Mother!” the woman cried, “I am Constance, and seven days ago, my son was drowned in your waters! Return him to me, and I shall honour thee as no other!”
Miri could not help the woman, and hesitated. And her hesitation she rued instantly, for Akivai, covered in seaweed, emerged from the surf, and a fisherman called out loudly, “There he is!” and Akivai was swarmed, by the crowd, and lifted into their shoulders, and the crowd lifted Miri and Sarai as well, and she was helpless to stop them. And at that instant, Martha was washed ashore, and she too was lifted as the third aspect of the triple goddess. Each face of the Great Mother had been revealed, and the pagans placed their little wooden lamps fashioned as boats on the waves, and carried Miri, Martha and Sarai back to the temple in triumph, leaving the hapless priest and his attendants alone on the beach holding the idol and the sacred vessels.
As they watched the crowd disappear through the salt marsh, the dory washed ashore, and two of the acolytes dropped their incense burners to rush to secure ir. The priest knew he should dip the sacred statue in the ocean, but the whole ritual seemed to lack any meaning without the rest of his congregation. Nonetheless, his attendants looked to him for direction, and he decided the goddess should be propitiated.
“Carry on!” he commanded, and the bearers advanced without even the usual horsemen into the water up to their waists, looked back at the priest who called out the supplications to the goddess of Water and the goddess of Fire with more haste than he usually pronounced the litany, and having finished, they hustled the relics back to the temple in the old city of Ra.
The surf all across the Camargue marsh pushed inland and the wild black cattle and feral white horses fled the wind and the waves that pushed the waters higher throughout the marsh. Along with the flotsam of the dory, Sidonius, clutching at a piece of the wreckage of a merchant vessel claimed that same night by the sea, washed up against a swamped dune, and came to rest in a clump of seagrass. The annoyed neighing of the retreating horses brought his attention from within to without. At first, the sight of the grass dancing on the wind, and the splashing of the horses as they galloped past did not seem real, and he was not sure he was awake, or even still in the world he knew.
He lay amazed at his fortune. The last thing he remembered was giving himself up to the sea. And now the sea had set him ashore. He regained enough resolve to stand, but he was not entirely sure of which direction he should walk. Then he spied a group of men on horseback, intercepting the horses and the cattle as the emerged from the swamp. They used their peculiar staffs like boathooks to guide the cattle to an enclosed pasture on higher ground. Sidonius waved and hailed the cattlemen. They stopped and stared at him, and pointed and obviously were discussing his appearance and what to do about it. Their discussion did not last l;ong, as they were used to finding marooned sailors in their marsh, ad ships quite often grounded in the shallows that surrounded the mouth of the Rhone which emptied into the sea through their marsh.
Three horsemen galloped to his aid, and, speaking in a tongue that was at once familiar and yet a mystery to him, they lifted Sidonius from his perch on the wreckage onto the lead pony. The little horse valiantly strained under the double load through the belly deep water. Within moments he was set on dry ground, and offered a stiff drink of their local wine. The alcohol burned his insides, but after a second draught reacted with the first, Sidonius felt a hot, fecund mist rising from his stomach and spreading a glorious warmth up through his body, until he actually felt his body and limbs were being absorbed into the marsh, and his future was eternally bound up in the land that he had become, and that all that had transpired until that very moment had been merely to bring him to that time in that place.
He was home!
The strange tongue of the cattlemen countered his momentary epiphany and he strained to hear the words in their strange babble.
“Do you speak Greek?” he asked, but it was obvious they did not.
He spoke in Latin. “Where am I?” he asked.
“The land of the Salyan,” replied a young cattleman, in stilted Latin as he dismounted from his horse. “We are the guardians of the marsh!”
The men lifted Sidonius onto the young man’s horse, and led their ponies to a string of small round thatched huts. They were met by an old woman who sat outside one of the huts.
“What have you brought me?” she asked with a crooked smile. “A man?”
“He’s not for you, grandmother,” replied Sidonius’ saviour, “but he might respond to some of your beef stew!”
The men did not take him inside immediately. The old woman produced a herbal burner, and called out to the goddess to drive out the spirits from the man her grandson and friends had carried from the Marsh. Satisfied, she spoke to the young men.
“He can sleep in the stable until we are sure of his spirit!”
The high priest was in a quandary. He must return the image of Diana to the sanctuary, but the people had set Miri, Sarai and Martha upon the dais before the inner sanctum. He took a deep breath, and chanting the required litany, entered the temple.As soon as she saw him, Miri knew exactly the priest’s predicament, and rose as he entered, and beckoned for him to advance. Martha arose and Sarai followed their example. As the priest and his retinue advanced, Miri stepped aside, and allowed them to carry the statue into the inner chamber, and followed them in, nodding for Martha and Sarai to follow, once inside the sanctuary, she commanded two assistants to close the doors. Only the eternal flame tended by the temple priests and priestesses broke the darkness.
“I want my son back!” Miri said fiercely.
“Constance is a powerful woman! Her husband is a local chief.”
“And you are the high priest, and I am a goddess!”
The priest smiled briefly.
“And in this incarnation, who are you?” he asked.
“I am Miriam!”
“Not Diana?” he asked with satisfaction.
“But how did the sacred bull remove his crown before you?” asked an acolyte.
Both Miri and the priest ignored the question.
“You will have to plead your case before the local magistrate to regain custody,” said the priest, “Do you have a man to stand up for you in court?”
“A man?” asked Miri incredulously, “Why should I need a man to speak for me?”
“It is the law,” replied the priest, “Only a man may testify in court!”
“That’s insane!” protested Miri, “What do you do in cases of rape?”
“There must be a male witness!” said the priest, “Neither a woman or a slave can testify before the magistrate!”
“Why not?” cried Miri, barely able to contain herself.
“They are not reliable witnesses,” replied the priest. “and if we opened the courts to women, they would fill the briefs with trivial issues!”
“Trivial?” Miri was flabberghasted.
“I am sorry!” replied the priest. “But I could stand up for you in court!”
“I would expect you to return the favour!”
Miri’s eyes narrowed. “In what way?”
“You appear before the people and deny your divinity!”
“Done!” said Miri, “In exchange I expect you to return my son to me!”
“I cannot promise we will win our case!”
“You return my son, and I will not only deny my own divinity, I will bend my knee to your authority!” replied Miri, “In Public!”
The priest was satisfied.
“In the meantime, we shall remain here!”
“Here?” he spluttered, “You can’t stay inside the sanctuary!”
“Why not?” asked Miri, “I am a goddess!”
Sidonius recovered quickly and the next day offered to work for his stay in the village. He was given a wheelbarrow and assigned to gathering manure, and dried cow dung for the fires. This he set about happily, and spent a wonderful day wandering about the pastures. Thousands of wild birds flew over his head: egrets, thrushes, wild ducks and geese, the marshlands abounded with wild fowl, and much to his delight, he watched beautifully pink flamingos dance about the fens. The cow dung left in the fields was mostly wet and disgusting, but he pitched several wheelbarrow loads during the day. It was apparent that his hosts had decided seven days of hard labour would be his penance for returning to the worl. Unbeknown to Silanius, Grandmother had decreed that on the seventh day, they would present him to the priest at the temple of the goddess, where his fate would be decided.
Sidonius knew that seven days of hard labour would go far to attesting to his humanity, for no demon nor wraith would ever bow to such work for so long. Besides, Grandmother added herbs to the stew that would exorcize the demons within three days, as well as a potion that, once within his flesh, would ensure he could only speak the truth, and when he was presented to the temple he would be asked if he had malignant intentions. Out on his tasks in the marsh, he scanned the sea and the tidal pools for signs of his companions, but it seemed as though he was the only survivor, and each day he gathered mayflowers and cast them upon the sea as a token to Aphrodite, and asked her to protect them and bring them to safety. At the end of the sixth day, Sidonius bedded down in the stable with the horses on a new bed of fresh hay. As he drifted off, he noticed for the first time the figurine mounted in a niche in the stable. It was a statue of a goddess, her hands palm outward, as if in welcome, and he approached it.
It was crudely carved from beechwood, but it had an innocent simplicity that invited his touch. Gingerly, he reached out to lift the statuette from its shelf, and a moment before his fingers wrapped about it, the head moved, turned toward him. He cried out in fear, but the statue spoke to him kindly.
“Y-You know my name?” he stammered, clutching for a talisman that now rested at the bottom of the sea, for it was not with him when he floated to shore.
“You must come to my temple at dawn. Bring my boat!”
“It rests in the oppidium of Ra!”
“I don’t understand!” he said nervously.
“Of course not!” said the statue enigmatically.
And the statue froze, and became beechwood once more.
“Jumpin’ Jove!” swore Sidonius, and reached for the statue again. This time, it remained beechwood, and he picked it up and carefully examined it. He sniffed at it. The wood smelled faintly of roses. And he placed it back in its niche.
“My goodness!” he whispered to himself and turned to bed down. The horses had all gathered near him and stared in a manner that unnerved him.
“Would that you could talk!” he said to the nearest stallion, and the white horse stamped his foot and snorted, and Sidonius laughed. “A bit of bad rye bread, I think!” and retired to his bed of hay.
In the morning, he spoke of the apparition to the young man, Vertom. The boy was so excited by the tale, he ran to fetch Grandmother. She demanded to hear the tale, and by that time the whole household was awake and listening.
“Epona has spoken to our stranger!” Vertom told everyone.
Tough he had never been told directly, Sidonius knew Epona was the patroness of the horses of the marsh, and it was she who protected not just the marsh and the animals within it, but the guardians of her marsh as well.
“We must go to the temple at once!”” said the old woman, “And find the boat! We shall carry it as she has commanded to the temple. With this, the entire village seemed to rise on horseback at once, man woman and child. Sidonius despaired of being left behind, but Vertom led a horse to Sidonius, a fine and brave white stallion.
“He is yours!” said Vertom, “You have earned his heart, and he will give it to you gladly!”
Sidonius had not ridden a horse since his childhood, but as soon as he took the reins, he felt strong and powerful. The others were already leaving for the temple to the west of the marsh and he urged the stallion forward, but the horse seemed to know his wishes before he did and they set off to find the boat.
News of the goddess’ arrival, and the miracle of the return of the son of Lady Constance of Arles, lame men who could walk and blind who could see spread through the countryside like wildfire, and hundreds of nearby fisherfolk and farmers, soldiers and sailors, tinkers and tailors, and the idly curious converged upon the small temple in the old town of Ra. Their shouts of praise filtered even to the inner sanctum where Miri, Martha and Sarai took refuge.
The priest burst in through the side door.
“You have to appear to the crowds!” he cried desperately, “If you cannot satisfy them, they will tear me limb from limb!”
“It appears you have become their Messiah!” said Martha with a trace of satisfied irony.
“Messiah?” asked the priest, “What is a Messiah?”
“The Anointed One!” replied Miri wearily, “Come to deliver the lost souls to Paradise!”
“The Elysian Fields?” asked the priest, “You know where the Elysian fields lie?” He dropped to his knees. The excitement of the crowds and the quadrupling of donations to his parish had been wonders enough, but now, the Goddess herself had come to lead him to Paradise. He grasped her hand.
“Take me there!” he whispered fervently.
“Have you petitioned the magistrate?” Miri asked.
Reminded of more earthly sensibilities, he released his grip.
“Of course! Of course!”
“You are not telling me everything!” said Miri.
The priest winced. “I am afraid I neglected to tell you that the woman’s husband, Lord Felix is also the brother of the magistrate!”
A shock ran through Miri.
“Oh Good Mother!” she declared, “What next?”
An acolyte burst into the temple.
“Your boat is here!” she announced breathlessly.
“Boat!” said the acolyte, “A green one with the eye of Ra painted upon its prow!”
“The eye of Ra!” declared the priest and he prostrated himself before Miri. He had an annoying propensity of popping up and down like a jack-in-the-box, depending upon whether, at that moment, Miri was, in his mind at least, a goddess or mortal.
The acolyte, not sure of the correct procedure, got down on her knees and began to stretch herself out in the same manner as the priest.
“Get up!” said Miri, “Both of you!”
Feeling a little sheepish, the priest and altar girl stood up.
“What is the usual procedure when you carry out Diana to the sea?” asked Miri.
“We recite the mass. The Verses of Praise. We carry the Lady to the Sea and dip her skirts in the ocean, and say The Verse of Prayer, and the faithful dip themselves in the waves, and then we return to the temple singing The Verses of Thanks!”
“Then assemble the temple priests and priestesses, and we’ll do it!” said Miri.
“You can’t go out like that!” said the priest pointing at their ragged clothes.
Miri looked down at herself, and at Martha and Sarai. He was right. They looked like ragamuffins. The storm had torn their clothes to shreds.
“I shall fetch some clothes!” said the acolyte.
“Ask the assembly!” said the priest, “There are hundreds outside who would give anything for the blessing of the goddess!”
“Right!” said the acolyte, and scurried away to ask the congregation for clothes for the goddess.
“Well,” said the priest with some satisfaction, We’d better get you cleaned up!”
He arranged for the priestesses of Diana to bathe Miri, Martha and Sarai, and commanded them to fast. As it turned out, the call for clothing for the Goddess of the Sea was met with enthusiastic clamour by the women gathered about, who immediately demanded to be accorded the honour of sewing the clothing for the Three Mothers. Though the temple had been dedicated to Diana, a petition was made to rename the temple as Sancta Maria Mater Maris, and the priest, conscious of his new found wealth and not one to walk against the wind agreed to the change and, as a prelude to the appearance of the Goddess, he added the ritual of rededicating the temple to the lady of The Sea.
The women dedicated to sewing the garments for the three sacred visitors demanded seven days in which to finish the sacral clothing. Each day the Guardians of the Marsh rode to the entrance to the temple to demand the Good Mothers accept their boat to ride to the sea, and each day, more people arrived, and they sang and danced through the night, lighting candles from the taper lit from the sacred flame around which Miri, Martha and Sarai huddled for warmth during the long wait. Finally, the garments were ready. A complication arose, as more than one garment had been made for the women, and Miri settled the consternation of the priest, Miri suggested they wear them all.
The priest frowned and brightened. Miri, Martha and Sarai actually enjoyed trying to squeeze one outfit over another, and laughed at each other stuffed like scarecrows. They could barely move once they were dressed, and, as the acolytes threw open the front doors and carried the dory between the drawn curtains into the inner sanctum. The outer doors closed and the priest stood before the crowds outside the temple. He thanked the people for their dedication and led them in a prayer to the Deae Matronae.
Sarai was not happy with fasting so long and fretted while they awaited the opening of the front doors. Finally the priest called for the Three Mothers to come forth and the crowd erupted into an impromptu chant of praise and a spontaneous outpouring of joy. Mothers lifted their babies to touch the hems of the garments as the boat was carried out, and a troop of guardians, dressed in their finery, and their beautiful white ponies festooned with flowers, escorted the boat as it was carried toward the beach.
Worshippers showered them with flowers, and much to Sarai’s delight, brought honey cakes and bread offerings and deposited their gifts in the boats. Sarai accepted a basket of apples with great appreciation, but before she could eat one, a woman offered her a little loaf of bread, which Sarai accepted gratefully and ravenously bit into the fresh bread. The donor swooned in response the Spring aspect of the three Mothers choosing her offering amongst all other to actually eat, and soon, Miria and Martha also held a basket each covered in fruit and bread, but resisted the urge to gorge themselves.
Martha did not approve of the carrying on, and muttered a silent prayer to Yahweh for forgiveness. However, she was moved by the warmth and affection the people showed her, and, though her demeanour had convinced the crowd she was the avatar of Winter, eager parents still raised their sons and daughters to touch her garments, and she felt compelled to respond to some of the most adorable babies she had ever seen, despite her wish to remain aloof and uninfected by the pagan ceremony.
Miri, dressed in white and green and red dresses, despite her age, was without a doubt the Avatar of Summer, and to her, the majority of offerings and children were proferred. She happily accepted their outpourings, and did her best to reach out to the children offered her. As the boat pushed through the sea of faces, she realized she knew one of the outriders.
“Sidonius!” she called happily.
“Maria!” he replied and waved and the crowd took up the chant of “Maria! Sancta Maria!”
“We have to talk!” she shouted above the din, and he saluted Miri with the pike he carried, and she glanced back at Martha and pointed out Sidonius. Martha waved to Sidonius, but there was not much that could pass between them. Sidonius, not watching his path, accidentally bumped a beggar on the street, and the man fell and was stepped upon, but he could not stop to help him, but the act bothered him terribly and he decided he would search for the man after the festivities.
The bearers and the cavaliers of the camargue led the faithful to the beach and into the waves. The melee was chaotic, and it seemed that the boat would tip from the supplicants efforts to touch Miri, Martha and Sarai.
“Dip the hem of your clothes into the water!” whispered one of the bearers, “Your holiness will be passed into the sea, and the sacred waters will baptize them all!”
Both Miri and Martha, alarmed at the crush of the crowds, quickly lifted their skirts and draped their hems into the sea. A cry of “Ave!” filled the air and filled the heavens. Staring out at the humanity bathing in the ocean, Miri was overcome, and suddenly felt an instant connection to Yeshua. She had never quite understood the great sadness he had felt in his dark moments, but faced with so many people, all seeking cures and redemption from her at a single touch, she was suddenly overwhelmed by the impossibility of each and every soul before her finding the balm they sought for their afflictions. There were lame and blind, people with infections that had no cure, this one a leg too short, another whose bones healed crooked, another whose heart had been broken by an uncaring lover, an orphan abandoned by both mother and father, and hundreds of others who were being dragged down for a thousand reasons, and each alone in their agony. And knowing their lives, Miri knew that most felt they were more than all the others, singled out by the gods to suffer. Against her will, her Soul opened to their pain, and desperately, she rose and cried out in helpless anguish. Martha leaned over her aunt and asked her what was wrong.
“Everything!” whispered Miri. “It is all wrong!”
Her knees weakened and she sat down suddenly in the boat, and passed out.
The smell of beef bouillon brought her back to her senses.
She was in a modest bedroom, definitely Roman. Sarai sat on a chair beside the bed, a steaming bowl of broth in her lap. There was no other furniture in the small space, and the only light streamed in from an open doorway.
“Sweetie!” said Miri huskily. Her throat was dry. “Where are we?”
“We came at night,” said Sarai by way of explanation.
Miri smiled. “Is that for me?” She pointed at the bouillon in her daughter’s lap.
Sarai nodded and, holding the bowl carefully, slipped from her chair and offered the bouillon to Miri.
“Put it on the chair,” said Miri, “I will eat it later!”
“You can drink it,” said Sarai helpfully.
A woman appeared in the doorway.
“You’re awake!” she said happily in Greek. She wiped her hands on her apron. “My name is Theodora! It is a great honour to meet you!”
“I’m not a- ”
“Goddess?” said Theodora with a laugh, “Of course not! But you are the Bride of Christ!”
“Christ?” asked Miri.
“You know Yeshua?” she asked in surprise.
“I know of him!” said Theodora, “We are so excited about his return!”
“His return?” asked Miri.
“Of course!” said Theodora, “He will descend from Heaven and restore the Kingdom of God on Earth!”
Miri was speechless.
“What makes you think he will return?” she said finally.
“Papa’s coming back?” asked Sarai hopefully.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” asked Theodora ecstatically, and ruffled Sarai’s hair.
“Please!” snapped Miri at Theodora, and rose to wrap her arm about Sarai.
“He’s always with us!” she said softly, “Whenever you are afraid, whenever you feel alone, your father will be beside you!”
The name of her son stabbed deep into her heart.
“No sweetie! Akivai is still alive!”
“He’s not happy!” said Sarai.
“No,” agreed Miri, “No, he’s not!”
“I’ll tell Martha you’re awake,” said Theodora.
Alone for a moment, Miri hugged Sarai tightly.
“Will we get Akivai back?” asked Sarai.
“Of course we will!” said Miri.
“But everyone else has gone!” said Sarai desperately, Tears filled her beautiful round eyes. Miri wiped Sarai’s cheek. “I miss him!” sniffed Sarai.
“So do I sweetie,” said Miri, “So do I!”
Theodora and her husband Theodosus had changed their names when they were baptized by a follower of The Way, and had given their property to a congregation of true believers in the Christ. Meetings were held in their house, and the house was filled with people excited to be hosts to the Bride of Christ. She was introduced to the man who had recognized her, Johannen.
“I saw you and Yeshua in Gergasa!” he said enthusiastically.
The man seemed vaguely familiar, but perhaps it was merely because he spoke Aramaic. Hearing her native tongue brought a comfort to her and she allowed him to wax poetic. She was filled with darkness, and a feeling of great dread and foreboding, and slowly her attention drifted from the people around her and she reached out to find Akivai.
“We have put together our resources to hire an orator to appear on your behalf before the magistrate!” said Johannen. “He will ask that the boy be brought before the court to identify you as his mother, and as well his sister to identify him, though they are not of age. The magistrate, I think, will see the sense of their testimony, and allow it!”
“When will we be brought into the court?” asked Miri.
“Four days from the Ides of Juno.”
“And the orator?”
“Vitalis!” said Johannen, “He is a man of consular rank and I think he will work his best for you!”
“What makes you say that?”
“He has twin boys! The very epitome of the Cadeuces!” said Johannen with a smile, “They are the apple of his eye, and he will fight tooth and nail to put Sarai and your son back together!”
Vitalis was a wonderful man. Expansive both in character and incorporation. He was optimistic about their chances, and for each visist, he brought sweets for Sarai. His two sons, barely three years old were adorable and developed a great attachment to Sarai, and while the grownups spoke of circumstance and testimonials, she took the two boys, Gervasius and Protasius, under her wing, and taught them hop scotch and leap frog, and nursery rhymes.
“Who is standing up for you?” asked Vitalis.
“Aren’t you” asked Miri.
“Would that I could!” He smiled, “But I am your orator. You must have a man to bring forward your case on your behalf! A citizen of Rome.”
“That’s unbelievable!” replied Miri, “How do you settle cases of rape?”
Vitalis frowned and cast his eyes downward. “A woman must have a witness to speak on her behalf! It is not just, I know, but without a man to stand for you, your case will not even be considered.”
Martha buried herself in household chores, but could not settle down to her favourite pastime of embroidery.
“It’s too finniky!” she declared, and instead turned to sweeping the stone steps on the threshold of the building.
The sound of horses distracted her, and she saw a face she recognized.
“Sidonius!” she exclaimed, and ran in to Miri and Vitalis. “It’s Sidonius!” The Sardinian reined in his horse and dismounted, and Miri ran outside to greet him.
After the excitement died down, and Sidonius had embraced Sarai, Martha and Miri, they shared their stories and asked each other of Pelasgius, Yusef and Eleazar, and the unknown sailor, but their had been no news of their fate. Two other ships, a naval bireme and an Iberian trader had been lost in the storm, but only corpses had washed ashore, and been burned on the spot, to ensure they could bring no evil into the land.
It turned out that Sidonius was a citizen of Rome, and he and Vitalis agreed that he would stand up in court for Miri. And they discussed strategy for her complaint almost as if she weren’t there, but Miri was too tired to protest. Their plans were on her behalf, and she trusted they would do what was best to restore Akivai to her. She wallowed in a dark pool of depression, and every movement seemed to require a monumental effort and entailed a sluggish internal struggle between her will and her muscles. Her heart was a great stone that weighed down her thoughts. She disengaged from the world, and helplessly watched it pass by, wondering when it would slow down enough for her to catch up to it. After a communal meal with the commune of true believers, Sidonius returned to the guardians, as he had been adopted by the family that had rescued him, and promised to return the next evening.
In the days before the trial, Martha took to walking for hours, and roamed about Arles and its environs muttering to herself, and praying to Yahweh. Miri simply became more and more lethargic, and Sarai took it upon herself to scoop her from the shell which Miri had grown about herself. Sarai forced her mother to eat. Sarai talked her into taking her to visit the twins of Vitalis and his wife Valeria. Sarai insisted Miri help her with chores about the house, and took over the care of her mother. The days of waiting seemed endless, and Miri groaned every time she awoke without her son, and only fell asleep after shedding a river of silent tears.
But the day did finally come. And Miri wished it would go away. She had not eaten for some time, and today, of all days, her hunger was concentrated in her empty heart. Sarai was already dressed. Miri allowed the others to dress her, and they arrayed her in fine Roman clothes. The idea was to make her seem as Roman as possible, for Roman magistrates tended to rule in favour of their fellow citizens. In theory, only a Roman citizen could bring a suit against a Roman, and Roman law recognized no other laws but its own. But as Roman legions were often spread thinly through the Empire, some concessions were made to the people of the provinces to ensure that Pax Romanus would remain enforced.
Miri, Martha and Sarai were accompanied by Theodora and a number of true believers, and as they advanced to the court of the magistrate, all prayed for Miri and her son. Miri simply took once step after another, walking woodenly. A list of the plaintiffs and defendants and their causes was written in chalk on a slate before the court. A guard was set on the entrance, and only citizens were allowed into the court. Everyone else, including plaintiffs and defendants had to wait outside. As Miri and her entourage found a place to wait, a familiar face approached from the crowd.
“Sidonius!” cried Sarai, and ran to hug him.
Miri rose to meet the Sardinian. He hugged her, and she allowed herself to form to his embrace, and was unable to let go. They stood together in silence, and the world seemed to turn about them. The embrace was long, and Miri had no desire to let him go, but he finally pried himself loose and to look into her eyes.
“You need to be strong!” said Sidonius.
“I can’t lose him!” whispered Miri, barely able to speak.
“Then you need to concentrate on that!” said Sidonius sharply. “You won’t get him back by giving in to your grief! He’s not dead! He is not in danger of dying! Remember grief has placed a veil over the Constance’s eyes. Love has urged her husband to protect her illusion!”
“What if I can’t save him?” asked Miri.
“Then stay here and allow his love for you to lead him back to you!”
“Why has my entire life and happiness devolved to revolve about Rome?”
“Everything we do depends upon Rome!” answered Sidonius, “Even the lives of the Saints!”
The wait was a long one. Vitalis appeared briefly, but he was arguing for a farmer who had lost his lands to a wealthy landowner, and disappeared into the courthouse. When the sun arose in the sky, Valeria, accompanied by Gervasius and Protasius, arrived with a lunch for her husband, but as he was detained inside the courts, she sat with Miri and her supporters. Sarai clung to Miri, and Martha paced impatiently.
“How long does it take to decide wrong from right?” she complained, but could not stand still long enough for anyone to either answer or comfort her.
Finally Vitalis emerged from the courthouse.
“We’re next!” he announced excitedly. “Are you ready?”