Miri opened her eyes. She stared up at the ribbed ceiling of her cabin. The ship undulated on the waves and creaked all about her. Polydeuces had been right; the ship did talk. When Miri listened with her heart as well as her ears, she spoke of everything a sailor and captain needed to hear. The creaking of the ropes as they strained and slackened told the speed of the wind, it’s direction. The ships boards creaked differently in response to the mood of the ocean waves. The hiss of the water along the sides of the ship measured her speed. The spars squealed at a different pitch for as the strength of the wind shifted. The wind filled the sails in a certain way when at the approach of an oncoming squall, and when the zephyrs were gentle the cloth flapped distinctively. It was the change in the flapping that awoke her.
Footsteps echoed within the hull and marked the positions of her crew. There were no secrets on board ship. Yet, despite the openness of the ship’s voice, Miri sensed she still held an ominous secret. There was a darkness that pervaded the spirit of the vessel, as though some parasite had burrowed its way into the planking and now lurked between the oiled ribs in the darkened hold.
She sat up quickly. Sylvanius appeared at the door, followed by Canthus.
“A storm!” cried Sylvanius.
“Alexander said we should take you below!” added Canthus.
Miri slipped quickly into her clothes.
By the time she stepped from the cabin, the wind howled through the rigging and the crew was struggling to bring down the large mainsail. Miri ducked as a rope whipped by her head, and Canthus pulled at Miri’s arm. Alexander shouted to the helmsman who was already straining to hold the ship on a downwind course. Sylvanius jumped to the rudder to help the helmsman hold the ship to her course. The sky had grown dark and the line of the storm was sweeping quickly in on them from the southwest. Canthus raced forward to join the crewmen stowing the deck gear and help batten down the fore and aft hatches.
A blast of rain slapped Miri across the face and her bare arms. The night was black. Thunder rolled and crashed over their heads and lightning flashed from all directions. The ship rose and fell, and the deck pitched sharply as the Heart of Isis rode the waves. Miri slipped before she could reach the door of the aft deck to descend into the hold. As she went down, Miri grasped for a coil of rope, but the rain-soaked deck was slippery. None of the crew noticed her slide across the deck and her cries were lost in the howling wind. She slammed hard against the starboard gunwale, and gasped for breath as a sharp biting pain stabbed her side. She slid an arm through the stairs to the aft deck just as a wave exploded across the deck of the ship. For a moment Miri was completely under water. The wave drained quickly from the deck and she caught a glimpse of Alexander pulling Canthus into the small hatch to the hold.
His eyes locked with Miri’s for a moment that had no passage. Another wave swept her from her hold on the stairs and washed her across the deck again. Miri slammed against a man clinging to the mast and she clutched at him, but her fingers scratched uselessly at his skin. The mad pitching of the ship and overwhelming power of of the waves so badly turned and tumbled her about the deck that Miri lost all sense of up or down. Whatever object she was thrown against, she grasped at desperately. She was not alone. She was sure she had seen a man washed overboard. Others clung wherever they could. The ship groaned and Miri could feel the individual deck planks rising and falling as they bent and stretched under the heaving of the ship. The vessel groaned under the weight of the sea and screamed back at the wind. Miri heard the soul of the ship cry out against the injustice of such power being thrown at her, and heard her heart shout defiance to the wind.
In that moment of helpless fury, Miri’s soul was bound to her ship, and for a glorious moment Miri felt herself plunging headfirst through the water. Thin insignificant sprays of water sprung from a thousand small cracks that opened and closed in the her sides, and then dribbled to the bottom of the hull, where it sloshed back and forth under the influence of the undulations of the ocean waves. Her sail was slacked off, allowing the force of the wind to pass through, giving just the right headway as she plowed into and over each wave. Her body curved and groaned, and the men at the Capstan loosened the huge cable rope that bound prow and stern to allow the ship to bend more to the wave and prevent her from splitting in two as she rode over the troughs.
Suddenly arms wrapped about her from behind, and pulled Miri from her hold on the ship.
“Alexander!” she gasped, and she released her grip from the rail.
For a brief moment Miri was grateful at being pulled to safety, but terror overwhelmed her as her saviour lifted her high and pitched her headfirst over the side of the ship. The water was cold and wrapped quickly about her. She was sucked under the ship and her head banged hard against the hull and the rough barnacled sides scraped painfully across her arms and shoulders.
And then she was alone, floating weightlessly and helplessly with no sense of up or down and, as the dwindling presence of the ship faded altogether, her panic faded. She was in the world had come to know so well, the place of the dead, the underworld where time no longer held court. From far away she heard someone softly call her name and she swam toward the voice.
Her head suddenly broke water and she gasped for air. The noise was deafening. The wind lashed at her face. She was lifted up at breathtaking speed by a passing wave, and dragged swiftly underwater into the trough that followed it. Her elbow banged against something hard. She grasped at the object. It was a large wooden trunk tied up with rope. Grasping the rope tied to the trunk, Miri managed to keep her head above water for a long time, but was tiring. Her arms and legs ached, and she could not stop shivering. As if to leap upon her and finish her off, the waves suddenly curled high over her head and then crashed down upon her, and buried her under a wall of water. She lost her grip on the trunk and was swirled violently about in the turbulence. She fought to stay afloat, but once again, her sense of direction was soon confounded entirely. But somewhere, she scraped bottom and her heart leapt. It was just a brief touch, but her heart leapt.
Again, she was pushed against a sandy bottom, but the wave retreated and dragged her along the sand, and Miri realized she had found her direction. She was hurled forward, and now, upward, only to be dragged down. . Whenever her head broke through the surface, she gasped for air. She wrestled with the lifting wave and fought against the undertow. The moment she touched bottom, she dug in her hands and pulled against the retreating wave, and soon she was staggering through the water up the rise of the beach.
She struggled to pull herself to her feet, but her knees buckled and would not support her. The wind whipped about her, raising goosebumps on her skin and the essence of seaweed filled her mouth and nostrils. The grit of the black sand bit into the tender skin on her knees. Before her, a line of trees marked the edge of a dark tangled forest of mangroves. She was exhausted and wanted to curl into a ball and allow sleep to overwhelm and consume her, but the beach was riddled with small knee high stems, that she was later to learn were mangrove shoots. For the first time she realized that waves were now splashing in around her. The tide was coming in.
“Oh Mother, preserve me!” she called out, and managed to stand. The water was almost knee deep. She knew the tide was coming in quickly, and she had no desire to swim anymore. She reached the mangroves, but the water was now reaching her hips. A wave pushed her into the bole of a mangrove and the bark scraped her skin. Her ankles banged against the roots that weaved beneath her feet, and she could barely keep herself upright. Her progress became more and more difficult. Creepers wrapped about her arms, tangled roots wrapped about her legs, the waves threw her forward; one moment and the undertow sucked her back the next.
“Give me a break!” she screamed out at the gods, and as if to answer her impertinence, Poseidon dashed an extremely large wave against her back, pushing her face into a tree, and twisting her ankle. Her foot stuck between two gnarled roots. She slipped and swallowed a mouthful of foul brackish sea water. She screamed in anger while she was still under water, and the muffled bubbling became a liquid growl. She cried out hysterically the moment she broke the surface. Overcome by a frenzy of manic energy, her ankle throbbing, she hauled herself up into the mangrove. She crawled over the tangled roots and pulled herself up the trunk of a large tree. The branches of the tree were thin, but they were numerous enough that she could distribute her weight across them and move herself up and out of the waves.
The wind rocked her in her perch, not enough to dislodge her, and she settled into the grip of several branches. She closed her eyes thankfully, and as the wind subsided and the dark storm clouds receded, she drifted off to sleep. As dawn rose, and the chariot of the sun burned its way across the achingly blue sky, the rays of the fierce tropical sun beckoned to thin tendrils of steam rising from the land.
Someone was tugging at her arm. The light of the sun was blinding, but she could not cover her eyes as someone held both her arms. She was dragged from the tree and into the bottom of a dugout. Before she could react, she was tied and a hood was thrown over her head. She heard laughter, and someone grasped her breast and buttocks, and squeezed her painfully. Though her captors were talking, it was in a language she did not understand. The smell of damp wood from the bottom of the boat filled her senses, and it was quite a while before she was lifted from the boat and set feet first onto a stone pier.
She was left standing for some time. The sun was hot and she felt stifled in the bag over her head. Now that she was in the full sun, she could see shadows of colour through the weave of the black cloth. She was on a busy dock and labourers passed all about her. Someone in a white turban approached her and stared intently at her. Behind him stood two others. They both seemed to be dressed in loincloths. He motioned to them and they came forward and removed Miri’s hood. She squinted in the sudden sunlight. The turbaned man smiled in delight, the moment her face was uncovered, and clapped his hands together.
The other two, who Miri assumed were her captors smiled and nodded and they all began to talk excitedly amongst each other. It was, she realized, once money exchanged hands, her sale to the turbanned man. He tugged on a rope that was attached to the bindings about her neck, and led her away like a prize cow. She followed behind him dutifully, for, even if she could escape, she could not call out for help or ask for assistance in this strange land. The city in which she found herself was alien and yet familiar. It had a flavor of both Meroway and Canaan, yet the buildings were extremely ornate and even the meanest hovel was decorated with figures and faces. She recognized the figure of an elephant. A god she thought. She realized it was a god with an elephant’s head. The people were dark skinned. The clothes were very brightly colored and Miri could not believe that amongst such gaiety, such brightness, such happiness and laughter, that she could be tied up and being led down the street as a slave.
“Do you speak Rei-en-Kaam?” She asked her new owner. He did not react. She asked him if he spoke Greek. Latin. Even Phoenician and Aramaic. “Hey!” she shouted at him finally.
He stopped and looked at her for a moment. His eyes ran up and down her body as if to double check his new purchase, grunted and began walking again. She pulled hard on the cord that joined then, almost pulling him off his feet. He turned and began shouting at her and raised his hand. He slapped Miri sharply across her shoulder and she kicked out at him, shouting back in her native tongue. The man had the advantage as Miri’s hands were tied behind her back, but their shouts attracted a crowd.
Silently, a man in a white turban, wrapped in a striped robe stepped in between them and addressed Miri’s new owner. The man simmered down and the stranger turned to face Miri.
“My name is Thomas,” he announced in perfect Aramaic, “This man is taking you to the temple of Shiva to be trained as consort to the Lord.”
“Consort?” demanded Miri indignantly.
The man spoke excitedly to Thomas, and Thomas translated.
“The Lord. Adonai. Their Great God. It is a great honour to be a servant in the house of the raja. They call the women in the temple ‘devadasi’. He says the temple will reward him handsomely for such a beautiful foreign woman as you. There are many native people here who would willingly sell themselves to be in your place. You will never go hungry.”
“Your word or his?” asked Miri.
Thomas smiled and shrugged. He spoke to the man again.
“His name is Deviprasad, he is chief procurer and purser for the raja, and also has been given guardianship of the temple. The raja stays in the quarters attached to the temple when he visits here. I have volunteered to offer you language instruction, to ease the transition into Hindustan.”
“I am in Hindustan?”
Deviprasad spoke sharply to Thomas.
“Go with him now, and I will return for your lessons.”
Deviprasad spoke sharply to Miri and tugged on the rope.
“He says ‘Come!’“
Miri followed her captor dutifully, and stared back at Thomas. He was from Canaan, that much she knew. His robe was definitely from northern Palestine. His accent was from the North. Israel. Most likely Galilee. And most of all, his face was hauntingly familiar. But what was he doing here in India?
“I am a mason and my twin brother Yeshuah is a carpenter,” her told her then repeated it in Hindustani.
“But how did you come here?”
“Well, I have always been only half a person as a twin. It seemed Yeshuah was always the most popular, the one everyone wanted to be with. I was jealous of him. I wanted to get away from him as he always seemed to get more attention than I, as though I was sort of an odd appendage. It felt as though I was living inside of a mirror and could not reach out from it.”
“I did not tell Yeshuah of my feelings, and that bothered me so much that I could not bear to keep the secret of how I was feeling. Though I think he knew. When I told him I wanted to travel, he understood. He always understands. On the day I left, he hugged me and kissed me on both cheeks. ‘You will find yourself, Thomas,’ he said ‘I will be here for you on your return!’ So, I walked away. I took the road from Nazareth to Capher Naum and north to Damascus. Everything was so new! I had no idea of the glories of the world, and was impelled to keep travelling. I walked east through Parthia and Persia, through the mountains of Kashmir and then to an ashram in Sanchi. I have no head for such airy things, so I began work on a shrine where I was staying and met Deviprasad. He had gone there on a pilgrimage, saw my work and asked me to come to work on his lord’s prasada.”
“His what?” asked Miri.
“Palace. Prasada. Palace.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Working on the raja’s prasada.”
“No, I mean, what are you working on?”
Thomas tapped his nose with his forefinger. “Top secret,” he said with a smile. “If I was to tell anyone, I would be beheaded. I am lucky the raja did not cut out my tongue before I began work. But then I can write, and if he cut off my hands, well, I would be of no use as a mason.”
“So, you can be trusted with a secret?”
“I must go.” He stood up. “Keep you ears open.”
Her lesson over, Miri returned to scrubbing the flagstones in the garden courtyard. Her life was a long day of drudgery. As she could not speak or understand the language, she was limited to the work she could do. She worked hard at learning Hindi, but for the most part of the day, no one spoke to her, and practice was difficult. She particularly enjoyed cleaning the garden court, and she was outside and the air was perfumed with the exotic aroma of patchouli, frangipangi and jasmine.
Before she began her care of the garden, she was drawn every morning to a life-sized marble cult statue that stood on an ornate plinth in a small alcove tucked in the eastern wall of the inner courtyard she cared for. Four arms held in the pose of knowledge and awareness, the figure sat within the petals of a lotus blossoming from the back of a beautifully carved flying swan. As Miri admired the statue, peahens pecked at a few seeds strewn about the foot of the altar, drawing her attention to a bag of seed on an ornate stone bench in front of the statue. She dipped a hand into the bag and scattered the seeds to allow the peahens to dine without a long search. The statue reminded Miri of Astarte, yet there was a detachment within the statue that belied such a motherly devi. She smiled as she realized already the language of this strange country had begun to seep into her thoughts. She had used the Hindu word “devi” for goddess, and she was amazed how quickly she had adapted to the new words and grammar. She opened herself to the wonder of how a strange land could so affect a person’s soul. Imbued with a graceful serenity, an independent air and incredible aura of unfathomable knowledge, the statue stared down at her with a knowing half-smile. The sculptor must have been blessed by genius, for the statue was more lifelike than many she had seen. Miri reached to touch the stone face of the idol as the fingers of the sun poked sharp spikes of gold through the dense tropical canopy that surrounded the prasada.
“You are new.”
The voice was soft and feminine. Startled, Miri gasped.
“You are new.”
Miri turned without touching the idol. Behind her, an old crone leaned on a intricately carved dark wood walking stick. The stick left the ground and waggled at Miri. “So you honour Saraswati.”
“I am sorry” apologized Miri, “I should not have tried to touch the goddess. My soul is drawn to her.” She stood up and approached the crone. The old woman pointed her stick at an intricately carved stone bench, and Miri, taking her cue, helped the woman sit down.
The crone smiled. “Thank you.” She patted the bench. “Sit with me child. You are quite blessed with both grace and beauty. From your accent you are from another land. From the West, perhaps.”
“You know Sarasawati in your land?” the crone asked. “My sister Pavana dedicated her life to her. Her life was not so easy as mine. I caught the eye of a noble husband and led a life of ease, but my sister, well, it was not for lack of my love for her, but tragedy dogged her heels the way that the Goddess of Fortune blessed mine. We lost track of each other. Our parents died of a curse from an evil magician, and my sister Pavana and I were sent to different relatives, I to a sister of my mother, and she, to our father’s mother. We grew up apart, but I never forgot Pavana and she, from what I am told, never spent a day without a prayer for my well-being.”
The crone shivered, and like a mothering bird, Miri wrapped her cloak about the old woman. She smelled of lotus, sandalwood, betel and unmeasured time.
The crone smiled.
“She did not take well to being separated from me nor my brothers, and retreated into a shell that no one else could enter. No one, that is, except the birds of the forest. From the meager rice bowls she cleaned for our aunt, she sprinkled the grain at the bottom of the garden for her feathered friends. All kind of birds landed at her feet and mingled together. Minivet, warbler, hoopoe, sparrow, mynas and jays, they all came and pecked about her feet.”
The old woman sprinkled seed for the peahens.
“While she was a child no one paid any attention to her obsession with birds. She sat with them for hours and learned their speech. She could call any bird you could name, and many you could not, in their own language. So many birds came that soon, birds from far and wide flew thither to dine in her garden, but to my aunt and uncle, they were a terrible nuisance, and soon they announced that she was not to feed the birds, nor encourage them to visit their garden. Even when she walked through the village, birds flitted about her head, chickens flocked to her and peacocks strutted at her feet. The villagers complained that they could no longer keep their fowl at home. But my sister could not bear to be separated from her birds, so late one night, she ran away from her home and disappeared into the jungle. Deep within the forest she made herself a home and there gathered fruit and sowed rice and wheat depending on the season, and fed them to her precious birds. Nearby her hovel, ran a small stream and in a small sacred spot, swans gathered to nest. She loved the swans most of all and never failed to visit them. I think she identified with the swans for, much like her, they retained their grace, their silence and their tranquility amongst the constantly quacking ducks and cackling geese.
I, meanwhile, as I said, acquired a wealthy husband destined for great things and I sent out men to search for my sister. I was grief-struck when I finally discovered she had disappeared at such a young age into the jungle and was desperate for I believed she had become a morsel on a tiger’s dinner bower, or eaten by a lioness, or bear, or even taken by demons. My husband, so kind, continued to send out men when he could spare them to search for my Pavana, and after many years they found her, dirty and wretched beside a most serene and beautiful river, but she would not return with them to see me.
So I set out with my servants, loaded with silks and incense and food, and we ventured into the darkest depths of the jungle. I cannot tell you of the terrors we faced, for the journey was several days. Some of my servants complained and wanted to turn back for fear of the demons of the forest, but I commanded them upon pain of death, that my sister was to be found.
I cannot tell you of the pain that stabbed at my heart when I first saw her. At first I thought her bedraggled and thin, her matted and tangled with leaves, but as I drew near, I could see her dress was more magnificent than any silk that I have worn. It was composed of shimmering feathers that had fallen from the fowl that she befriended, and the dress changed color a thousand times for every step she took. Half of my servants fled in terror for they were sure that we had surprised a water nymph or cursed forest sprite. But I could tell from her eyes that she not only knew who I was, but she had been expecting me.
‘Padma!’ she cried out and we ran to each other in the clearing beside the sanctuary of the swans by the banks of her river and hugged each other fiercely. ‘I have been waiting for you since I knew you were on the way!’
‘You knew I would come?’
Pavana gestured about her and laughed. I remember her reply. ‘A little bird told me.’ She said it as if it were such a natural thing for a woman to speak with birds. So we sat and talked and we two, with the most loyal of my servants, sat for hours. We, who had come to visit, were amazed at the fearlessness of the forest creatures that came and sat with us. We laughed at each other with mynas and jays upon our heads and hoopoes nibbling at out ears, and in those moments we realized that what we had first perceived as poverty was full of wonders and riches of which we could never dream.
Though Pavana had given everything to her birds they had in return given her all that they could. Her house, it turned out was not a hovel, but a marvel! It had a large living room and sleeping quarters for us all, and the very walls and roof were thatched, not by living hands, but by the beaks of the birds that Pavana nurtured. And as we looked about the two rooms, we could see that the doves and pigeons and sparrows and so many birds had built their own nests into the building itself. The mynas and jays and crows had brought her little jimcracks and geegaws to decorate the cabin.
We all were amazed by Pavana, for she bore herself with a confidence that was more than human. And we found she spoke always softly and with great wisdom. But soon it was time for me to return to my husband, and with great tears pouring over our cheeks we bid farewell. I promised to keep in touch and for her to let me know if she needed everything, but Pavana replied she had everything she needed. I needed not to have feared for her well-being for one of my servants, Ajitabh visited her as often as his duties would permit, and through him I always had news of my dear Pavana. Over the course of the years, I visited her less and less, and nine years from my first meeting, my husband gave Ajitabh permission to serve Pavana, and on that day, I travelled with both both my husband and Ajitbah to her sanctuary accompanied by handmaids and bodyguard. It was quite a surprise to find that her sanctuary now held two dozen people who now lived with Pavana in her woodland sanctuary by the river.
‘What is going on?’ I asked Ajitabh as we encountered the strangers. He smiled. ‘Your sister has become a great teacher, for after we found her, you and I, news of her wisdom has travelled to even far-off villages.’
‘Who are all these people?’ I asked in amazement for, in my ignorance, I could not imagine that anyone would want to visit my sister.
Ajitabh smiled. ‘Is the family always the last to honour the holy woman in their midst?’
At that moment Pavana appeared and indeed I could see the sacred shining from her face.
‘Padma,’ she said in a way that filled me with great contentment, ‘Welcome! You have brought me so many new friends!’
We set to talking as sisters. We spoke of family matters and the fate of my brothers who now all except one, had joined other families. She asked me if I could do her a favour. Of course, I said I would.
‘I have never had the time to read,’ she said sadly, ‘and I would like you to send me the vedas that I have heard of.’
‘Of course I would! I will send someone with whatever books you need.’
Pavana held up her hand and shook her head.
‘Please no! I have servants of my own. There is a jasmine tree outside your bedroom window.’
I had no idea then how she knew, and strangely it did not occur to me that she had never visited me. I suppose I may have thought one of my servants had mentioned the sweet jasmine blossoms outside my bedroom screens, or it may not have occurred to me to question her statement. However she continued in her request.
‘Tie a page every night on the branch nearest to your window, and someone will collect it.’
Now that did disturb me. The thought of someone climbing the tree beside my window every night was unnerving, and I suppose Pavana sensed that. She told me not to worry. I protested that the tree was too high and Pavana just laughed.
‘No one will climb your tree!’
When I returned home with my husband, it was with a little trepidation that I loosened the bindings on the first Veda. It seemed to be a sacrilege to take apart a holy book. My hands trembled as I tied the first page with a bright white ribbon to the branch that often scratched against my bedroom window screen. I was thankful I had not acted upon my thoughts to tell the gardener to prune the branch. I tossed and turned all night and could not sleep. I lost count of the times I got up and peered through my screen at that rolled piece of paper flapping in the breeze. When the full moon was high in the sky I heard a rustling and leapt to the window and flung open the screen. I heard a flurry of feathers. I supposed I had disturbed some bird in the tree, and sure enough I saw a huge barn owl slowly flapping away in the distance. The paper was gone! I stared down into the courtyard, but nothing moved and I could not see the paper on the ground beneath the tree
The next night again exactly the same thing happened, and on the third night I determined I would sit up all night to see who was taking the roll of paper from my tree. It was a great effort to remain alert, but somehow I managed, and was rewarded by my persistence. That same great owl descended upon the tree and clutched the roll of paper in its claws and flew off with hardly a sound. I can’t explain the joy I felt when I saw the great bird flying over the treetops with that roll of paper in its talons and the ribbon trailing out behind her.”
“That is a most amazing story,” said Miri.
Padma laughed. “It was some time until I learned that Pavana had dedicated her life to serving the goddess Saraswati, and changed her named to Pavana Saraswati. It fit though, for Saraswati is the essence of wisdom, or rather wisdom was the essence of Saraswati. The goddess rides perched upon the back of snow-white swans. And it is the goddess herself who began to speak through my sister’s lips. From far and wide, people would flock to bathe in the waters of the river that ran by her house. As the years passed we both grew old. I had sons and daughters of my own, and though good fortune always arrived on my doorstep, Pavana was afflicted by arthritis. Though crippled by the advancing disease, every day Pavana fed her birds and chatted to them in their own languages. But the task became more and more difficult, and indeed, as she aged, the feeding became an arduous chore, but still she persevered. Her disciples, of which there were many, pleaded to her to desist, that they would feed the birds for her, but she insisted upon continuing in her rituals.
Over the years, her hands and feet curled into claws, and her skin wrinkled and reddened.”
A tear fell from Padma’s cheek. Miri wrapped an arm about the crone to comfort her.
“I had not visited Pavana for many years, when Ajitabh none the worse for his years of absence appeared at my gates. He was dressed in sackcloth and covered in mourning ashes and had flayed himself. His cheeks were lined by tears.
‘She is gone!’ he announced.
‘Pavana is dead?’ I asked. He shook his head.
‘She is gone!’ he wailed.
I had no idea of what he was saying, but this is what happened. As the last year passed, he and her disciples insist, and I have talked to almost all, that she became more and more bird-like. Her feet curled into claws and her feather dress became a part of her wrinkled skin, and eventually instead of Pavana the woman, was Pavana the stork. The change they say was so gradual, so subtle, day by day, that no one could say the point that the transformation was complete. Somehow, they had been blinded by their love for her, so dedicated to the window her soul provided to the Cosmos, that they did not notice the physical transformation from woman to bird for quite some time.
Then, when they were first alerted to the miracle, it no longer mattered. For them, the stork, and then, for they could tell no difference from stork to stork in the way that Pavana could, they honoured them all.”
Padma smiled. “Now, that is an amazing story, neh?”
Miri smiled and rubbed the old woman’s arm. “It is a wonderful story!”
The crone stood up and wobbled to the idol. She pointed the tip of her cane at the goddess, and tapped the stone cheek gently. “That is Saraswati, and that is my sister’s face. For her years of dedication, Saraswati took away the pain and suffering and turned Pavana into one of the birds that she loved so well.”
Padma turned to look at Miri. “My sons think I’m mad.”
“Are you?” asked Miri.
Padma smiled “Perhaps. But every year storks come to nest in my garden! There is one in particular that speaks to me,” she said with a smile. She shrugged and pointed to a broom. “Well, you have work to do young woman!” Miri picked up the broom and, under Padma’s instruction, began to sweep the leaves from the ceramic tiles around the winged figure of Saraswati. The crone began to hum a tune that matched the swishing of the broom on the floor, and Miri added her voice to the harmony.
Thomas came almost every evening after work and each day brought Miri a different object and taught her its name in Hindi. It was not long however, before Miri already knew the name of the object as he presented it, but so as not to hurt his feelings, she never allowed that she already knew its name. They often relapsed into Aramaic, and the change to her native tongue was relaxing. She no longer had to strain to catch each and every syllable, or consciously translate and piece the words together. Together they would share food they had saved from their suppers. Deviprasad took to joining them and help in her lessons. However, Miri sensed he was there more to ensure that Thomas did not win the inside track to her heart. But in his eagerness to prove himself more helpful, he began to teach Miri how to read and write in Sanskrit, and in that, drew Thomas’ interest as well. Buoyed by his importance as a teacher, Deviprasad brought the Mahabharata, for them to peruse. He insisted upon returning the texts the same night as he presented them, and though he did not admit to it, Miri sensed he was bringing in texts that did not belong to him.
The Mahabharata was the story of a war centuries old, and it dawned on Miri that almost all sacred texts she had heard and read were histories of war, and she wondered at the reverence that the Greeks held for the Iliad, the Jews for the Torah and the Hindus for the Mahabharata. Why was it that death by the sword seemed to be the only heroic end to life worth recording. She thought of Pavana’s service to her birds, and Yohanna’s devotion to raising her brood. Were these not stories worth recording? Yet, the warriors revered in these sacred scriptures not only denied their mothers’ feminine nature, they rejected and denounced their dams for their femininity. It dawned on her that the only time a woman’s actions were praised in a scripture, it was when that act was in the service of a man or in the sacrifice to him, and that whenever a woman acted for herself in a manner that men are encouraged to do, she was reviled as sinful and decadent. Her thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of Deviprasad.
“Tonight,” Deviprasad announced solemnly, “I will begin to read the text of the Bagavad Gita. It is revered in my family, and I think you are ready. I will read for you and you can follow along with me.”
And so, Deviprasad began to sing the Bagavad Gita. He was a fine cantor, thought Miri, surprised that she should think back to her homeland at that moment. Thomas had been staring intently at her, and for a brief moment they both shared their memory of Israel. The feeling was so intense, they both broke off eye contact.
They laughed often and shared food with each other after their readings. Their camaraderie and enjoyment of reading the sacred scriptures touched a nerve in Miri’s heart and she very often suffered from a longing to return to Canaan. At times, she caught the echo of David and Sister Miriam’s laughter far in the distance and she would stop and strain to hear it. The more she craned to catch the words of her family, the fainter the sound became. Though she did not come to tears, her eyes often glistened more than usual. Her sadness grew, and she fought hard to dispel it, but to no avail. And she began to see Setem standing in the dark shadows of the prasada and her shared quarters through the corner of her eye, which filled her with dread.
“Take this!” Padma held out a small gold pendant on a gold chain. “It is a talisman. We call the figure ‘swastika’.”
“All well...” repeated Miri slowly repeating the word.
“Exactly!” cried Padma, “It is also well-being. For this you must seek harmony and balance. I have a sense that your dark side is overcoming you and upsetting your balance. This is a talisman to ward of the darkness. You see the shape of this symbol?” asked Pavana as she pointed at the cross. It shows the four cardinal directions in which fire sticks are placed to begin the Vedic sacrificial fires.”
She placed the chain about Miri’s neck and fastened it. Miri lifted the round disc. “I have seen this painted in red upon many walls.”
“Yes!” agreed Padma, “It is the sign of Surya, the god of the sun who rides his golden chariot drawn by seven horses across the sky. Its radiance will dispel any darkness, despair and danger from your heart.”
“Thank you,” whispered Miri gratefully.
“It is not necessary to ask forgiveness,” whispered Padma, “The past cannot be changed, but nor can it be ignored. If there is darkness in your background, you must return and examine it in the light of understanding. The understanding is the forgiveness. Yet if you have acted badly and have no understanding, you can still engage in charitable acts. Each act of grace will not erase the wrongs you have caused others, but will restore the balance to your soul. Such balance is represented by the form of this symbol. Each performance of grace will also, step by step, open the windows to your soul, and allow the light to shine stronger. It is not easy, but this talisman is powerful and will help you add light to your darkness.”
Miri closed her hand around the golden disk. It felt hot in her palm, and when she closed her eyes, a hot white light flashed through her being. Her eyes snapped quickly open.
A huge stork stood in place of Padma.
“Padma?” whispered Miri and receiving no answer called, “Pavana?”
The stork waggled her head and clattered her bill at Miri.
Taken about by the transformation, Miri glanced quickly about the garden. nothing had changed except Padma had disappeared and a stork stood in her place. Perhaps I blacked out, thought Miri.
“Nonsense!” commented the stork.
The stork scoffed. “Padma?” echoed the stork, “Padma? Padma?” The voice dripped with a familiar sarcasm.
“Do I know you?” asked Miri impatiently.
“I’m offended!” the stork stabbed at Miri with her long bill. Miri pulled her hand from the attack, but the point of the bill jabbed her arm and drew blood. The stork tilted her head and peered at Miri. “Surely, you recognize your own sister?”
“You’re not my-” Miri hesitated.
“My! My! How quickly we forget! Well, what if I looked like this?”
The stork metamorphed rapidly into a dark mirror image of Miri then reached a hand out to touch Miri’s cheek. Her fingers were icy cold.
“Inanna, darling,” taunted Erishkigal, “You are the Queen of Denial!”
“What are you doing here?”
“I need a reason to visit? We’re family! Cut from the same cloth! Fruit of the same womb! Can’t you see that I am the stronger of us? If I were in charge you certainly wouldn’t be serving as a drudge in some strange land. I’ve come to get you out!”
“I don’t need your help!”
“Of course you do! Surely you heard your old friend Padma? You have to reach a balance, and that means listening to me more often.”
“You can’t be trusted!” accused Miri.
“And you can?” retorted Ersihkigal, “So what? Believe me, sweetie, you will need to be untrustworthy somewhere, sometime, and you will need me for that, won’t you? Do you think you will get out of here without a bit of deception? Without a little lie or two?”
“Go away!” cried Miri.
“Inanna,” Erishkigal mimed a pained look. “How can you treat me this way?” She reached out and a round basket covered with a black embroidered cloth appeared in her hands. “See, look, I have a present for you!”
Miri backed away from Erishkigal.
“A peace offering!” Erishkigal took a step toward Miri. “Here! Take it!”
A deep dread descended upon Miri.
Erishkigal thrust the basket into Miri’s bosom, and despite herself, Miri grasped the basket. The moment her arms wrapped about the wicker, Ersihkigal released the basket to her and snatched away the cloth. From within the basket, Setem’s head stared accusingly up at Miri.
In an instant, Miri dropped the basket, and clutched the talisman about her neck. The charm exploded with a blinding hot searing light. Erishkigal, the basket and Setem’s head were gone.
“You see?” asked Padma.
Miri shook uncontrollably and could not speak.
“You must take possession of your demons, or they will take possession of you,” whispered Padma.
Miri did not respond. Padma patted her hand.
“I have other duties to perform,” the old woman said softly. “You will come to an understanding. You will see!”
Miri stared after the old woman as she shuffled into the depths of the inner house of the prasada, and Miri sensed how deeply this temple mirrored the architecture of the temples she had attended in Philae and Meroway, and wondered about the nature of this strange building’s “Holy of Holies”. Padma must have been one of the trusted beings within the temple walls. For a brief moment, Miri sensed that perhaps Padma was not real.
The images of her vision plagued her day, and she went through the motions of her caretaking, mulling their meaning.
That afternoon Deviprasad appeared in the garden. He seemed a little less self-assured than normal, distracted, but he was attempting to mask it with casual conversation.
“You are doing well?” he asked.
Miri smiled. “Well, enough, Deveep.”
He smiled, but it was a conscious act. He seemed on the verge of saying something, but stopped short and toyed with a band of threads about his wrist.
“What is that?” asked Miri, taking his hand and admiring the carefully woven strands about his wrist.
“We call them ‘raksha bandhan’. Women and girls here weave them for their brothers as a reminder for them to be remembered in their brother’s prayers, and the wearer promises to care for the woman as a brother.”
“You have a lot of sisters,” remarked Miri.
“Yes, but they are not all from my sisters. Any woman could give me the rakshi, threads woven so, to me. I promise to pray for them and extend my care to them as though they were my sister.”
“You are very generous,” replied Miri.
Deviprasad withdrew his hand. “The bandhan also confer protection upon me from danger. Some say that Krishna once injured his hand and Draupadi, the wife of the Pandavas, tore a portion of her garment and tied it around his wound. For Krishna, this signified Raksha Bandhan. From that day on he decided to protect Draupadi as befits a brother. So to invoke the gods, women tie a talisman about the wrist of the men they love.” Deviprasad lowered his eyes in embarrassment.
“Though today, it is brothers and sister that perform this ritual,” he added quickly. “It is platonic, for the most part. In other parts, sometimes people believe that the main purpose is for the brother to protect the sister through prayer. Here, it is more for the power of the woman to protect the man, just as Draupadi intended for Lord Krishna.”
“Are you going into danger Deveep?” asked Miri.
His eyes closed to her. “Perhaps.”
Padma was not a harsh overseer. She brought Miri sweet meats and candied concoctions for her to eat that seemed more than the usual fare for someone of her social rank. In particular, Miri was thrilled by the marzipan with gold foil. She had experience in the land of Egypt with using gold to offset arthritis by consuming gold. Padma was protecting Miri from the disease that had taken her sister. “I eat at least one every day,” whispered Padma to Miri. She held out her arm and tilted it in the sunlight, “You can see the speckles in my skin.” She smiled. “I am turning to gold!”
The visits from Thomas were particularly thrilling for he had a familiar presence, though she could not quite decipher the source of her comfort when she was with him. It was as though he were her own brother. Perhaps it was because they were creatures of the same earth and had both grown up in Northern Israel. He talked often of his twin brother Yeshuah who remained in Galilee.
“You miss him.”
Thomas nodded. “We have never been apart for so long. It is as though a part of myself were missing.”
“I would like to meet him,” said Miri.
Thomas smiled and stared down at his feet, then gazed deeply into her eyes.
“Yes,” he said softly. “You will love Yeshuah more than most, I fear.”
Miri frowned. “How can that be bad?”
Thomas smiled again. “You must know him to know your destiny.”
Thomas became suddenly quiet.
“What’s wrong?” asked Miri as she sat down beside him. Her hand touched his shoulder for a brief moment, and Miri was overwhelmed for a moment by the hardness of his muscles beneath his cloth robe. But through that, she could also feel the tension running through him.
Thomas shook his head. “It was reading the Bhagavad Gita with Devisaprad. The readings disturbed me and I was not sure why. But it struck me while I was working. Krishna urges Arjuna to battle, even though it is obviously not in his heart to slay his kindred who oppose him. It was then I realized that God was indeed speaking to me directly through the words of the Gita. There are times that doubt is destructive, and that the Path to Righteousness I must choose is the Path of Action. It is not by chance that I am a mason and that Yeshuah is a carpenter. I cannot build a house without a carpenter’s skills any more than Yeshuah can build the framing without the foundations that I can lay down for him. I know this to be true. And knowing this, I also now can sense that the discomfort I feel comes from somewhere else.”
Thomas stared into the blue sky.
“Something has happened to Yeshuah,” he said quietly.
“You have had news of him?”
Thomas shook his head.
“No, nothing like that. There is a change that has occurred. He as well as I. It is only natural that he and I would change differently when we are apart, but we must now join together again!” He looked up at Miri. “We are connected, he and...” Thomas paused, the embarrassment on his face evident. “But as well, I am...” Thomas paused for the right word. “Homesick.”
Miri clasped his hand.
“I have to return to Israel.”
“You’re leaving?” asked Miri. Her heart clutched for a moment and it caught her by surprise. The thought of losing Thomas struck fear in her heart.
“I... have to. Yeshuah needs my help. I can’t believe now, that I was so jealous of him! You know, Miri, he brought light into my life, and balanced my dark saturnine twist.”
“You were right to leave, Thomas,” said Miri, “You needed to find yourself, to separate yourself from him, so you could be a whole person and not half a pair. He knew that. So did you.”
Thomas smiled. “Such irony, isn’t it? I find myself and now I cannot return to him. I am committed to work on this building. I cannot go back on my word. But I must leave as soon as I am finished.”
She realized she wanted to return to Canaan with him. “When?”
“I, uh, I’m not sure yet.” Thomas had sensed Miri’s dismay. “I was working for money for passage back by ship. I thought perhaps I could travel back with a Greek trader.”
Thomas’ mouth closed tight. The words of Erishkigal’s visit flowed through her head, and she could sense the laughter of Inanna’s twin. Thomas opened his mouth to speak, but hesitated.
“What?” asked Miri.
Deviprasad appeared in the gateway. Though Deviprasad had a particularly advanced susceptibility for pecuniary acquisition, he had taken a shine to Miri, and it was more than evident his interest was not completely platonic. His advances were manageable however, and she learned about dealings within the prasada from him more quickly than he did from the two other women who occasionally worked with her. And he was twice the gossip that they were.
Deviprasad bustled into the portico where Miri and Thomas sat. “The raja wishes to see you!” he announced excitedly to Miri. He quickly patted Thomas on the shoulder, “You have done wondrous work with our little sister! She knows enough of our tongue that she quite impressed the dowager mother of the raja! She has spoken highly of you to her son, and he now wants you to attend him in his chamber! Oh, bless the gods! I know you will tickle his fancy to no end!”
“The raja’s mother?” asked Miri, “I haven’t spoken with the Queen Mother!”
“Ah, but you have! Every morning since you arrived! Do you not know who she is? I cannot believe such a thing! I was thinking you are such a clever woman to make her acquaintance and now you disappoint me that you did not know what you were doing?”
Miri shook her head. “I know no such...” She stopped in mid sentence. “Padma!” she whispered.
Deviprasad bowed deferentially and indicated for her to follow him.
Miri stared helplessly at Thomas. She sensed somehow that this was a significant change and feared that she might not see him again. She reached out to him, but Deviprasad had already looped his arm about her other arm, and begun to lead her away.
Thomas touched his fingers to his lips and lightly kissed them, but by then she and Deviprasad were on their way.
“Deveep, please, stop!” she cried.
“I cannot!” exclaimed Deviprasad, “The raja has commanded me to bring you!”
There was a desperation in his voice that was unnerving.
“Please! Just a moment!”
“We must go!” Deviprasad whispered, “It is not good to keep the raja waiting!”
Miri narrowed her focus on Deveep. Tears welled in his eyes and were running the kohl about his eyes.
“Deveep.” Miri reached to touch his cheek, but he brushed her away.
“This is not proper!” he said tersely. The conflict between desire and duty had wrapped about his aura like a shell. He pulled hard on her arm and Miri craned to find Thomas.
“Do not leave without me!” she cried to Thomas as Deviprasad dragged her into a darkened doorway. Deviprasad strode purposefully down a long hall, dragging Miri behind him.
“Devi, please stop!” she cried.
With a deep breath, he halted impatiently. “Please do not drag this out, Sati! I am not any more pleased about this than you!”
“Is there no other way out of this?” asked Miri. Deviprasad bit his lip, but remained silent.
“Very well,” said Miri finally, “we shall go!” He reached to take her arm, but she shrugged him off. As he followed behind her, he began to give her instructions on how to approach the raja.
“Do not, under any condition, touch him,” he commanded. At that moment, a richly dressed courtier appeared and took possession of Miri and without missing a beat, she was passed from Deveep to the stranger.
As they changed direction, the courtier began a series of instructions, and they stopped at a door guarded by two men on either side of the portal.
“You will be washed and changed into more suitable attire. We will stop and Rani will take charge of your preparation. My name is Manmohan.”
With that, he turned on his heels and an attractive middle-aged woman opened the door from the inside. Miri was overwhelmed by the heady aroma of spice and incense that swirled outward from the room in the wake of the opening door.
She smiled at Miri. “Come!” She beckoned warmly to Miri and wrapped her arm about Miri’s shoulders to shepherd her into the room. The room was richly decorated and the intricately embroidered tapestries, curtains and carved columns combined with the heavenly aroma and steaming copper cauldrons almost overwhelmed Miri’s sense.
She stopped to catch her breath. The woman slipped the scarf from Miri’s head, and played with her hair. “You are beautiful!” she said happily, “I shall have no trouble at all making you presentable!”
“I-” began Miri.
“Come!” said the woman gently, “We can talk while you take your bath. My name is Rani.”
“Miriam.” said Miri simply.
“Well, Miriam, welcome!” said Rani, “Lady Padma has told me you are to be treated as her daughter. You have nothing to fear!”
“Why am I here?” asked Miri as Rani began slipping off Miri’s clothing.
“No one has told you?” clucked Rani. “I apologize for their rudeness! Lady Padma has suggested you to the raja to join his harem!”
“Harem! You must join the rank of his concubines.”
Miri pulled back her sari. “I have no wish to be a concubine!”
Rani slipped the sari from Miri’s grasp. “You will adjust,” she said. “Don’t worry, you will be treated with great respect, and you will have to read the Sutras before you can begin your duties.”
Two young teenagers appeared from the shadows, and Rani and the attendants led Miri to a depression in the floor and had her kneel on leather bladders. They then retrieved pitchers of warm water from the copper cauldrons and poured them gently over Miri.
“First a shampoo,” said Rani as she rubbed a fragrant soap into Miri’s hair, “The raja is a handsome man,” assured Rani, “You will have no problems enjoying his company, I am sure.”
Miri said nothing. Her heart ached. Though it was not true, she felt more helpless alone than she remembered feeling before. Her tears mixed with the soapy water, and she was grateful they did not show. Her heart ached for Thomas and she thought perhaps that she actually loved him. Hands rubbed soap into her hair and skin, and the tension flow from her under their touch. The human contact was comforting and she wished that the sadness would drain away with the soapy water, but it did not.
The preparation rituals passed over her without her input. The heady oils rubbed into her skin and the soft silks, though sensuous, wrapped about her like a narcotic, and her senses became more and more the focus of her being, thoughts drained away and her pain eased. She thought of her past and told herself if she had overcome so much, this could not be worse. She was under the protection of a raja now. And a handsome one. What more could a girl ask?
One of the handmaids held up a burnished copper mirror. For the first time, Miri admired the clothes she wore and was suddenly aware of the glorious softness of the silk sari. Rani beamed at her in the bronze mirror.
“Your makeup!” she announced and sat Miri down. Miri closed her eyes and allowed Rani to apply her makeup. For the first time, she smiled.
“When will I meet the raja?” she asked Rani.
“Hold still!” commanded Rani as she applied kohl to her eyes. “The banquet tonight.”
“Will you be there?” asked Miri.
Rani laughed. “I am your chaperone!” With a laugh Rani slipped a brass necklace decorated wih red and white beads about Miri’s shoulders.
They sat together in the small courtyard of the harem. Miri sat on a wall covered by a rug and cushions. Though she was not uncomfortable, the formal dress did not allow Miri to sit naturally, for she had to be careful not to soil her new outfit. She had been adorned with bangled bracelets about her wriest and ankles, and she tinkled as she walked. This amused her for a while, but time passed very slowly and their novelty faded quite quickly. The pace in the harem was extremely relaxed. The women sat and read. In a corner of the cloister, a group had gathered to sing about two women playing a veena and tabla. The sun spread pink fire across the clouds, and night stole into the courtyard. Rani led Miri into a large room where the women re-arranged themselves. The casements were closed to the courtyard. Miri’s stomach grumbled at her.
Rani smiled and patted Miri’s stomach. “We must wait! The raja likes to share food with his harem, and we must be ready should he come!”
Should he come?” asked Miri, her easily aroused sense of outrage rose in her throat, but Rani put her finger to her lips. Miri was angry that she be kept waiting in such finery, but her discontent was to no avail. There was no visit or audience from the raja that day, and the women stayed awake for as long as they could, but most drifted off where they lay. Word finally came that the raja was abroad and would not be there that night, and the women groggily retired to the sleeping quarters.
That night Miri had a dream of the garden; she was young again. As she approached the Tree of Life a dark hooded figure appeared, filling Miri’s soul with dread, but the figure pulled back the hood, and though Miri expected to see Setem, it was Thomas who appeared to her. Yet, it was not Thomas, though it appeared to look like him, Miri sensed another soul within his frame. It was the gardener, the man who attended the tree and the flora that surrounded it. As he approached, her new red and white necklace tightened uncomfortably about her neck, and she began to choke. The gardener walked toward her over the water, and his feet did not sink below the silvered surface. The beads tightened unmercifully, and she knew only he could release them but she awoke before he could reach her. She reached a hand to her throat and tried to remove the red and white bead necklace. But the beads were threaded with a wire that seemed to have no fastener.
When she asked Rani about removing the necklace, Rani snapped at her. “It cannot be removed! It is a mark of your station. Miri suddenly realized all the women in the room wore a similar necklace and they were like dogs in a kennel at the beck and call of their master. Once she knew the necklace marked her, she often found herself slipping her fingers beneath the beads and absently playing with them. She was not alone. Many of the other women rubbed their necklaces, as though day after day, they could wear them away into nothing.
Night after night she dreamed of the garden and explored the sacred tree. Sometimes she saw the raja who was Thomas, and sometimes the Thomas who was not Thomas, and the snake that was Deviprasad, The owl that was Padma and Padma who was Pavana Sarasawati. No one in her dreams was who they first appeared to be, and they changed so quickly she could make no sense of their transformations, and this being and not-being created a disjointed alienation that carried into her waking life, and left her feeling that at any moment she would wake up and find herself back in Koptos.
Other than the sense of the constant impending visit of the raja, her new life was not entirely unpleasant. The women ate early in the morning and then fasted from when the chariot of the sun reached its zenith until it rose in the east. As was their custom, they drank tea in the afternoon and added copious amounts of honey to offset their hunger, which combined with chewing betel nuts, created quite a party atmosphere, and a great deal of laughter. The raja should he ever have paid a visit, would have a lot of catching up to do to match the speed and intensity of his concubines.