|La Chanteuse de Serpentes, Paul-Elie Ranson. Photo by Louis.|
Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from a work in progress and everying in it is subject to change and revision.
The Cave of Sighs.
The air was heavy with incense, swirling up from thin, resinous sticks of burning gum, stinging the nostrils when a random current of air brought it to them.
The rites of purification were extensive. There was long preparation in the privacy of her bathing chamber, attended only by the purest of her maidens. The most profound of the rituals took place in the Cave of Sighs.
It was said that the cave was never silent, and yet they were over a hundred yards from the entrance. If a person sat there very quietly, they could hear the sighs, which had never been accounted for in purely naturalistic and scientific terms. There was too much noise around them at present. Their journey must take them deeper. Her heart fluttered as she contemplated the possibilities. Perhaps it was the heaving tides inside of some sea-cave, miles away, some kind of underground volcano…or maybe it really was the breath of Gaia, the Mother of the World.
She blew air out through loose lips, nodding slightly as she did so, intent on the words she had carefully memorized.
They stood on a clean rug of deep, red-dyed wool. Around that, white rose petals had been strewn everywhere, petering out into the darkness, away from the torches. They stood in the middle of five torches, planted in the soft and vile stuff that had fallen to the bottom over countless eons. There were two dozen girls in the chorus, all as nude and pale and white as she would be, long dark hair framing their faces and hanging down, offering some modesty in spite of all being revealed.
Under the rug was sand, dirt, dung, decayed cobwebs, dead animals, and above all else, dead bats and the droppings of tens of thousands of their living brethren. The bats, hanging in their clumps and rows above and all around, were the least of her problems. Broad daylight outside as it was, the bats weren’t going anywhere for a while, although their noise was fairly irritating. Blinded by the torches, they were hanging on for dear life. For that Eleanora was grateful.
While any thinking person knew what an echo was and how it was propagated, this place had always been thought to be sacred. It was all she could do, to tell herself that it was all nonsense and that there was nothing to be feared. Proper forms would be observed, and if the gods were not appeased then hopefully public opinion would. Simply put, she was Queen and the moral responsibility lay with no other.
Theodelinda took her cloak and Eleanora slipped out of her thin white cotton shift, letting it fall to the ground.
Her body had been shaved, from head to toe. Her skin burned with the cleanliness of it, shining red in the glare of the flames when she looked down at herself, suddenly self-conscious. All she wore were her sandals and a garland of daisies around her head, her long, fine red hair intertwined and holding it in place. Her toes were a reminder that she was as human as anyone in the final analysis. No one was more fallible than the Queen, for all things rode on her shoulders.
When I fall, everything falls.
The perfumes she wore clogged the nose, they were so strong, and yet it gave a life to the place, dead and dark and full of dimly-perceived creeping things that squeaked and rustled and moved about in the detritus of the cave floor. Even as she looked dubiously at her sandaled feet, a large beetle, with sparkling green shimmers on his back, ducked under a dead leaf which quivered and crackled with barely perceptible sound.
Her entire body had been oiled from head to foot and most of her hair was tied in a rope that fell straight down her back. She was white, white from chalk and gypsum powder. She was chill, and yet thankful that as yet no sweat had run down and spoiled her perfection.
There was the High Priestess, eyes as black as coals, looking solemn as she poured out a cup of blood and wine. She set that aside on a small, one-legged stick-in table. Taking a vial slung on a string around her neck, she opened it and took a pinch of fine, charcoal-grey powder and put it into the chalice. She then sprinkled the same incense into each flaming sconce. She took one smaller torch, sticking in the ground at her feet, and lit it from a wall torch. She brought the cup to Theodelinda, similarly prepared all in white body chalk, and the obvious choice to accompany her Queen.
“Are you pure of heart?” Those dark eyes studied first Theodelinda, and then Eleanora. “Speak now.”
The woman stepped back, for it was out of her hands now.
Those eyes took in Theo.
“Yes, Mother. Our hearts are pure.”
“Very well. Listen closely, for the voices say many things, and not all of them are meant for you.”
She eyed Theo strangely for a moment.
Eleanora nodded. Theo nodded. All she had to do was hold the torch, and presumably, listen to the echoes, which were thought to be dead people speaking from the other side of the wall of death. Why they would ever want to come here, to such a dismal place was a good question, but of course it was supposedly the door to the underworld. It was a bad idea to laugh hysterically, thought Theo, but what if I can’t help it? She couldn’t help but note the thin edge of fear tickling the insides of her belly. Ellie looked a million times worse, like a rabbit confronted by the coyote.
Eleanora was as ready as she was ever going to get.
She’d been through this once before, as a little girl when all females of noble birth were initiated.
There were other initiates as well, but their path was longer and based solely on merit. The woman before her now was just such a one, purely a commoner and yet with the most comprehensive mind—and few had ever doubted or questioned her right to a position that most did not envy and few had ever aspired to. Eleanora certainly hadn’t.
“Drink, my child.”
Eleanora took the cup from her cousin.
Eleanora lifted the stained wooden chalice, the smell stinging her nose like pure vinegar. The stuff wasn’t quite as bad as might have been expected, although there was quite a kick to it. There was even a vaguely dry, burgundy grape taste somewhere in there. She handed it off to Theo, not even looking at her. She was looking forward, into the red and black tunnel before her, ridges of seamed and eroded rock looking putrid and organic in the flickering and guttering torches.
No, this dark underworld of secrets and incantations was quite outside of her interest. Let them have it, she thought, as the woman nodded in approval, taking the cup and looking at Eleanora in assessment.
This was in stark contrast to other kings and queens, who were seemingly intent on engrossing every kind of power. For Eleanora to conduct the chorus in song, make the sacrifice or lead the people in prayer was almost unthinkable. At least in her own mind. Hades, it was almost laughable. And yet she had told Lowren that she needed to do this—and for some reason it was more than just a delaying tactic.
Maybe there was something to be learned here after all. At one time, when she was a child, all of this had meant something to her. It still meant something to a lot of people. Had it really been so long then?
The Priestess took a massive breath, threw her head back, and bellowed out into the darkness.
“So long as your intentions are good, your spirit is pure, as long as your thoughts are clean and your motives are inspired by love, then you may enter. Beware, all of those who are unworthy.”
The effect was astonishing, as a thousand voices, in different tones and even languages it seemed, repeated back and forth and all around and swam all the wrong way inside of her head. The babble of voices and people and animal sounds and waves crashing and thunder and lightning and trees splitting asunder swelled, fell away, and swelled again, becoming more and more incoherent with each crest.
The echoes in the Cave of Sighs fell to a dull roar, and Eleanora found the courage to speak.
“Thank you, Mother.”
The Priestess’ eyes were black pools in the torchlight as she opened the wicker basket and pulled out the first of their special breed of snakes, all-white and with darting red tongues and black eyes.
While everyone assured her they were completely harmless, there was that sickening lurch in the guts, and it wasn’t just the snake—it was the sudden realization that you were completely naked.
There was something primeval and atavistic in that fear. It was the fear of violation.
Eleanora took one, holding it up and away from her, trying not to squeeze it to death with her tight grip around the neck. It wasn’t the snake’s fault she was afraid of it. It was her own. A helper gave her the other one as the Priestess and her acolytes nodded in approval. They went silent and then began a dull, throbbing chant that belied its coming forth from the throats of women. Their helper quickly rejoined on the end of the line, picking up on the beat and now apparently ignoring the royal ladies if that were possible.
The echoes swelled and strengthened, becoming a roar again.
It was like drums beating in her head, and her body tingled all over as a sudden wave of fear swept over her.
She took a deep breath, as there was no backing out now. She was just being silly. It was just a dirty old cave full of bat droppings and in a half-hour or so they would be able to come out. With a little luck, they would never have to do it again.
The Priestess raised her hands and the chorus fell silent.
Eleanora began speaking the ancient words in the ancient tongue, as it was used all those eons ago, and with Theodelinda and her torch throwing her crazy black shadows every which way, she slowly led off with measured steps, following the rose petals into the darkest recesses of the unknown.
“Habito inter sidera adipem populus tenues et inambulabo.”
“Primus Iovis Lao et Michael, quem regni regis Caeleste, obsecro, et tu, Gabriel. Olympo, Abraxan laeta aderit, e tu qui considerent occasum ab ortu benignus venire.”
“Singillatim descendamus hirundo, hirundo descendere, sunt.”
“Sicut divisiones aquarum ita Lex enim vitae. Nomina deorum tremunt cum liceat loqui, quia fortia et ignoscere.”
“Abundantiam et reliquias, et biberet, et mitteret rum guttam.”
“Fluvium, qui mutuum amphora plena aqua hospes ad me.”
“Sicut unguentum in vaporem vertit, adeo ut in dies vinum expirare.”
This part was different, for as little children, the Priestess and a party of initiates had held their hands and been with them in the forbidding darkness. She couldn’t quite locate the place where they had actually stopped, although the memory seemed quite firm and detailed.
This time, they were entirely on their own, and perhaps that was fitting enough considering their rank and position.
If you couldn’t get through a silly little ceremony like this, then you were obviously not very suited to the work.
At least that’s what Eleanora told herself as the chant started anew, and the ceiling lowered, the sides narrowed, and then they were at the first corner.
With a quick pause for breath, she kept speaking. To the eyes of those watching from behind, they quickly went out of sight.
They were following a single passage, thankfully one with no openings to left or right. The way was marked by more white rose petals underfoot and Theo thought she could even catch the odd whiff of them.
In front, Eleanora had to contend with her own shadow throwing everything into the harshest possible relief and the evil sublimity of the two wriggling serpents, outlined and highlighted by the dancing glare of the torch.
Her breathing was labored and she was fighting to control it. Her nipples were fully erect and hard as a rock.
Her skin tingled. The temperature had dropped as quickly as her fears had mounted. Cold grit from underfoot had gotten between her toes and she was all too aware of her nakedness.
The walls opened out and the top of the passage lifted and then the light was swallowed up by blackness.
The rose petals ended abruptly. Their instructions were clear. There appeared to be steam hanging in the air about them.
Theodelinda looked to her left. There was a rock, rising up from a bed of gravel and stones, oddly clean for something this deep in bat heaven. As per instruction, she mounted the rock and held the torch aloft.
Eleanora took one last look and nodded firmly. She had a sneaking suspicion, going by sound and some odd reflections, that there was water up ahead, or maybe just some kind of shiny bits in the local stone, for surely there must be walls out there somewhere. Her heart pounded in her chest, making itself known in an urgent manner.
She had to slide a foot forward, and then the other. The eyes took a while to adjust to the dimness.
Something glittered, and as she advanced, the guttering flame of the torch, and Theo’s loud breathing fell away. Her hands were sweaty where the snakes hung, still wriggling enthusiastically if inneffectually.
There were sparkles in the cave walls, quartz or something and yet there was an odd rise and fall ahead of her.
The shock of water on her toes stopped her dead in her tracks.
She was afraid to call out for the noise it would make.
She stood there for a moment, staring downwards into water that was probably crystal clear and yet invisible in the darkness.
Her shadow fell in front of her, elongated and distorted, rising and falling with the level as the cave breathed all around her.
Her mouth opened and she bit back a scream.
She slid one foot forwards. Then the other. She went in ankle deep. The water was warm, and that could mean only one thing: the sea.
“…huh……huh. Ah…………….ahhhhhhh. Siss. (boom) huh.”
The cave was talking to her.
She was knee deep. She leaned forwards, not wanting to lose her balance, and released the snakes. She had a quick glimpse of the one on the left darting off in a series of S-shaped wriggles, but where the other one got off to she had no idea. They were headed away from her and that was all that she cared. She heaved a quick breath of relief.
“Ye, Gods. I thank you for that.” It was a whisper, albeit a sincere one…
She walked forwards a little more boldly, now that she knew what it was. There was sand crunching beneath her rapidly loosening, soaking wet leather sandals. She went waist deep, into the surprisingly warm water, feeling it wash off the tacky white goop covering her body and leaving her whole, complete, and very clear on what she was doing.
No wonder people were spooked the first time they came in here, she thought.
She turned, neck deep, enjoying the sting of hot water and suddenly realizing what the place actually looked like from the other side, properly lit and with the flat plane of the water rising and falling in front of you, reflecting the blood-red torch and Theo, all white and nude, almost posed there up on her rock. Shrouds of mist hung and swirled back into position after Eleanora’s passage.
The figure of her cousin, thirty yards away, flinched at the sudden shock of noise in this most intimate of places.
“Oh, my, gods, Eleanora. You scared the shit out of me!”
“Theo.” She spoke more carefully now. “Stand up straight. And do you hear it?”
Theo lifted the torch, suddenly becoming a vision of something very goddess-like, nodding fiercely. Eleanora wished she could see her cousin’s face a little more clearly.
She would remember this for a long time.
There were voices muttering in the background. They never seemed to let up in this chamber, and from the sounds of little waves hitting flat stone walls, and some very black shadows, Eleanora concluded that there was more than one passage leading off somewhere behind her.
“Yes—yes, I hear it.”
Eleanora stood there in the water for a good long while, thinking and seeing and listening to the cave breathe all around them as the water rose and fell about every half minute, going up and down her neck like the stroking hands of a lover.
Words came to her unbidden, perhaps the first real inspiration she’d had in this affair, and so she spoke them aloud.
“Oh, Gaia, Mother of all of the world, guide me in my thoughts, and in my heart, and in my actions. Guide my words and deeds just as surely as you guide the arrow of Lowren, when it flies from the bow and strikes down the common foe.”
“Who wrote that?” Theodelinida wracked her brains, but the quote was an unfamiliar one.
“I did.” Eleanora waded firmly up out the water and took the torch from Theo’s unresisting hand as the echoes slowly subsided and the pair turned to go.
End of Excerpt.
Here are a few books and stories from Louis Shalako and Chapters/Indigo.