After the evening meal, as daylight took its leave and darkness swept over the city, the palace’s inhabitants and guests wandered out to the courtyard and found seats at the tables or collected along the walls of the semi-sheltered loggia if they preferred to stand and move around. Strung lanterns lit the performance area. The large stage was tilted slightly upward on wooden risers for better visibility. Sargon's catering crew had donned the skirts and dickeys of waitrons and bus persons much as they'd done at the banquet which, several evenings ago, had welcomed Lila and her companions upon their arrival to the stout, guarded walls of Ilium. The steady, rhythmic thrumming of a lone drum greeted the crowd, but otherwise the outdoor arena was bare of dancers, performers and musicians.
Thermodosa and the other Themiscyran Amazons ambled in and took their seats around a large table toward the front of the impromptu mezzanine. Tipping the tops of a dozen chairs forward against the edge of the closest table, they saved seats for Xena and the Macedonian contingent, most of whom were still in their quarters getting ready to witness the annual enactment of the rites of Cybele, the Phrygian Gaiamitros.
By now, Gabrielle and the Amazons had settled into a routine of wearing two nearly identical outfits: white chitons for military exercises in the telesterion during the day and white tunics into which they changed for dinner and the evening's entertainment after their baths and rub downs, with warm oil and witch hazel, for sore and injured muscles. The chitons and tunics were of a simple weave and unadorned design, covering breasts, midriff and waist, leaving arms bare below the shoulders and legs exposed below mid-thigh. Xena, too, wore the tunic in the evening, a loose, relaxing change from her customary leathers, bodice and cuirass. Xena and Velasca attracted the adoring looks of admirers of both genders for the grace and strength of their gorgeous bodies, not that Ephiny and the others didn't occasion their own share of yearning gazes. And Lila, dressed simply in white, looked lovelier than ever. The very light and air of Ilium, it seemed, conspired lazily, without the least agitation, to bring out the beauty in a woman, even a warrior who, in the next moment, should she have felt called upon to do so, could have bathed the warm terracotta tiles in rivulets of blood.
All eyes turned to gaze at Gabrielle, Ephiny, Velasca and the Macedonian Amazons – and Lila – as they made their entrance. If only Melosa – herself a great beauty – could have been there to see and feel, for just an instant, the crowd's appreciative acknowledgment of her splendid daughters…, the thought crossed more than one riveted mind as the Amazons made their way to their seats. But there was no anger in her daughters' hearts as an awareness of Melosa’s absence flickered upon the surface of their minds, at least not in Gabrielle's or Ephiny's heart.
For her part, Velasca felt a twinge of sadness and a pinprick of lingering guilt. When all was said and done, Velasca missed her mother and repented of her murderous deed. For the fall of a sand grain, the pain of that sorrow, guilt and repentance glinted in Velasca's large, beautiful, light brown eyes. Gabrielle beheld that quick flickering glint, and her heart, in consequence, erupted in an overflow of forgiveness for Velasca's past sins. Ephiny, too, was moved to forgive. If – looking down or up or across from the buttes and gorges beyond the nearer slopes of Claw Mountain – Melosa's spirit were indeed present where two or more of her daughters were gathered to recall her name and to mourn her passing, what better gift could they bestow upon her than to forgive and love one another. In the few steps before the Macedonian Amazons sat down next to their Themiscyran sisters, in the slanting shadow which lay in the space between two lanterns, Gabrielle reached for Ephiny's hand and gave it a squeeze; and Ephiny, responding from the depths of her tummy to her breastbone, squeezed back.
"Where's Xena?" Thermodosa leaned over and whispered to Gabrielle.
"Good question," Gabrielle replied. "She was with Aeneas for most of the afternoon. I expect she’ll pop in later."
"That's where Penny’s been, huddling with Aeneas," Thermodosa said. Then, noticing the way that Lila was looking around the mall and courtyard and not wanting to add to any apprehension that Lila might be feeling on account of Penthesileia’s absence, Thermodosa added casually, "I’m sure she'll turn up soon."
"So why are we here? What's this celebration all about?" Gabrielle said.
"It's the Phrygian thesmophoria. Sort of...," Thermodosa said.
Thermodosa was larger than Xena and taller than Penthesileia. She was the mightiest of the Amazons in strength and endurance and nearly the swiftest of the lot. Thermodosa was to Penthesileia what Cyane and Lysia had been to Hippolyte before Hippolyte's murder on the Night of the Bloody Ride: the loyal second-in-command. It was Thermodosa who'd divined Penthesileia's plan to come to Ilium anonymously and, shrouded in plume and mail, to meet Achilles: the unbowed woman crossing swords with the unbending man, face to face on the field of battle. Penthesileia had left sealed documents instructing Thermodosa to convene an interim council at Themiscyra for the purpose of re-evaluating Amazon life and to consider changing, perhaps revolutionizing Amazon customs and institutions. But Thermodosa would not let her queen go quietly and alone into that dark night without joining her in raging, as a future poet would put it, against the dying of the light. Nor would any of the twelve members of the Queen’s cadre. Sisters mine, graves entwine, strewn with rue and columbine.
"Very slightly sort of," Lila observed, dryly. "I got a preview this afternoon of what these adepts do, and I can assure you that the enaretes kores have never done anything remotely like it."
"And your crops still grow and ripen to the harvest?" Thermodosa said, mildly surprised.
"You betcha," Lila said, proudly. "We're the bread basket of the northern Aegean. We feed most of Hellas."
"Lee, you, um, might not want to stress that little factoid given the place we're at right now," Gabrielle cautioned Lila.
"Well, you Greeks are more civilized," Thermodosa said. "This is Phrygia. We live closer to nature here. Closer to Asia where fierce nomads like Borias once ruled supreme."
"Civilized? These guys?" Clonie, who was seated next to Thermodosa at the Themiscyrans' table, chimed in. "Have you forgotten the Bacchae? They're Greek, aren’t they? And the Maenads? You know what those girls like to order for breakfast in the mornings, and it ain’t hash browns and home fries."
"Didn't you and Xena put the screws to the Bacchae when you helped Orpheus get his body back?" Thermodosa asked Gabrielle. "At first, we were kind of ticked when we heard the news, the Bacchae being sisters under the fangs and all; but then we realized that all that lady vampiring was really just an exhibitionist sort of male-dominated, white slaving."
"Look," Ephiny called the group's attention to what was going on down front. "The procession's lining up. You sure that isn't what the enaretes kores do, Lila?"
"No way," Lila shook her head. "We put on our outfits. They're taking them... Well, they must not be as sensitive to the cold as we are."
The drums rolled. The cymbals clashed. The pipes tooted. The horns blared. The cabeiroi entered from the left, the dactyloi from the right. The cabeiroi had long, stringy hair with crowns of garlands and bays of flowers woven in loose braids down their lovely shoulders. They wore skimpy lace shifts, transparent like gauzy nightgowns, over their lean or lush bodies. And each of the young cabeiroi carried a long thyrsus, a staff wrapped in reeds and flowers with a pair of feathered wings at the top.
The dactyloi were bare from the waist up and wore fur leggings in which they pranced around the orchestra pit like goats. Though some of them had firm, muscular bodies, their gestures were effeminate and they had no body hair except for their eyebrows and long, flaxen braids also woven with wildflowers and daisy chains. Then came the telechines who danced and dithered as they set up the props which consisted, in the first instance, of a large, semi-circular clay pool into which they emptied several ewers of warm water. Then they erected the stage’s backdrop which, unlike the installed, marble colonnades in Poteidaia's little telesterion, were light, portable wooden poles joined at the tops by a wide damask awning interlaced with swoops of a light muslin material similar to that which composed the ladies' gowns.
Following the procession, one of the dactylos and one of the cabeiros enacted the roles of Deucalion and Pyrrha with the water in the pool being sloshed around by several telechines to mimic the Flood. As the pair mimed the casting of the stones from their sack, following the subsidence of the waters, a half dozen cabeiroi, in their see-through gowns, scattered themselves on the stage and rolled around and grunted for a short while. Then they coalesced into a tight circle to become the body of Cybele. At that point, one of the dactyloi came thundering onto the stage and stomped around, snorting and grimacing, to show that he was a being of some weight and substance. He reached repeatedly into his crotch, pulled out his hand and made broad, scattering motions, sweeping his arm up and around in large circles before sticking his hand back into his crotch again. This was Zeus, swamping Cybele with his seed, to fertilize her lush body before she'd woken up to realize that she'd been created.
The ladies who'd coalesced into the body of Cybele then writhed and labored to bring forth Acdestis. In the process, they stripped off their gowns so that, when Acdestis was born, they were outfitted in only the thinnest bras and panties. Meanwhile, at every turn of the sandglass, the music was picking up the pace, while the chorus of cabeiroi, dactyloi and telechines was becoming more frenetic in its dancing and swaying on either side of the stage. Acdestis, wearing a pair of goat horns, came leaping onto the stage. He had a magnificent physique and was a superbly controlled dancer with great technical skill, but his role was to wreck havoc, and he nearly succeeded in tearing the backdrop apart and bringing the whole shebang crashing down on the heads of the curetes who were blasting away on their instruments with ever more furious riffs and improvs.
Then another dancer, taking the part of the god, Liber, came out and managed to subdue Acdestis with a swig of Lethe water which caused Acdestis to collapse in a swoon. The six scantily clad maidens who'd combined for the role of Cybele left off their writhing to gather around the unconscious Acdestis. One of the maidens reached into Acdestis' pants and drew forth an enormous phallus, a smooth, lovely carving made of polished teak. Three of the maidens stroked it up and down while the other three tied a rope around it and then tied the leader of the rope to one of the wooden poles that was holding up the swooping damask awning. When this task was done, the music suddenly stopped and the mall and courtyard were plunged into silence.
"Yawwwwnnn...!" went Acdestis. Then he reared back and stretched but perceived that something was amiss. He groped at his crotch and discovered, to his dismay, that his phallus had been extruded from his leggings while he'd been asleep. Enraged, he leaped to his feet. The rope held fast and yanked off the phallus.
Then the music came blaring back even more frantically than before as the telechines grabbed their ewers and, heaving the remaining contents, drenched the stage, as well as the audience in the first few rows of tables, with swashes of water colored red with vegetable dye to mimic blood.
"Yow, yow, yow...!" Acdestis went running off the stage, bloody and stricken.
Then came the sequence which featured the pomegranate tree; Nana, the nymph; the scene with her father when he throws her out in the cold; the comforting presence of Cybele and the birth of Attis in preparation for which the cabeiros who played Nana was stripped nude by the other cabeiroi so that, on the stage, when she delivered the baby, she didn't have a stitch on. The baby -- a real newborn borrowed from an obliging mother in the audience --was entrusted to the shepherd who, in the next few turns of the sandglass, raised the infant to the stature of a fair and comely youth whereupon he handed the baby back to its mother.
The flower-laden maidens now returned to the stage, and, in their midst, they conveyed a handsome yet feminine looking young man who appeared to be in his late teens. Wrapped only in a lightly draped sheet, the youth reclined, with the help of the maidens, on a pouf. Then the six cabeiroi representing Cybele came weaving and slinking around him in a circle; and, with each pass, one and then another of the composite Cybele reached down and gently stroked the sheet in the vicinity of the young man's genitals. Eventually, the maidens, growing more bold, reached inside the sheet and performed their rhythmic stroking within its folds. The young man gradually leaned backwards, let his arms drop, spread his legs, protruded his hips slightly and appeared to enter a state of quiescent ecstasy in which his mouth, with its luscious lips, was slightly open and his sparkling eyes were nearly closed.
Now the rounds of the dancing maidens became slower and more enticingly graceful as each one took her turn kneeling next to the semi-conscious youth and stroking his genitals with soft, kind, coaxing motions. The young man began to breathe deeply, then to gasp in irregular starts and stops and finally to moan as the maidens kept stroking and coaxing him.
At last, when it appeared that the young man was about to lose consciousness, the maidens rose, gathered in a circle around him and, in one, graceful motion, they removed the sheet so that the young man was now seen to be lying nude on the pouf, his arms and legs outstretched, his enormous, maiden-induced erection curving upward and throbbing slightly.
Five of the Cybele maidens now assisted the sixth with the removal of her bra and panties so that she, too, appeared nude on the stage in front of the crowd. Standing in front of the young man, she gestured, with a downward sweep of her hand, at the stiff curve of his erection, placing the tips of her fingers on the tip of his throbbing member. Then the other dancers, both men and women, came to drape the young man's erection with flowers and ribbons as, one by one, they knelt and paid homage to this fount of virility, each dancer, man and woman, stroking and showing it obeisance.
At the close of these worshipful endearments, the dancers receded to the edges of the stage, leaving only two maidens and the youth who still lay fully erect and in a swoon. The nude maiden stood at the young man's feet. The other maiden, clothed in her gauzy gown, sat by the young man's head and shoulders. With one hand she gently stroked his cheek, neck and chest. With the other hand, from a sheath at her bosom, she withdrew a sharp-bladed knife.
While the dancers had been adorning the young man's erection with ribbons and flowers, four of the Cybele maidens had been stroking the nude maiden's body, especially her genitals, stimulating and exciting her. The nude maiden now climbed onto the young man, straddled his hips with her bent knees and, lightly taking his erection in her hand, softly guided it into her moist, engorged vagina. Then she undulated with her hips, rasing and lowering her pelvis on the shaft of the young man's erection. As the young man began to writhe and moan more volubly in response to the rhythmic, coaxing movement of the maiden who now reached down between his legs gently to stroke his testicles – the one male member of the troupe who appeared to have testicles – the maiden with the knife raised the young man's arms over his head and quickly bound his wrists together with a sweep of a silken scarf.
Then, as the young man's seed came surging out of him in pulsating waves to flow into the beckoning depths of the maiden who was riding him, the knife-maiden, in her flowery finery, having lifted the knife high above her head, brought the blade down with all her force so that its tip nicked the young man's breast, issuing in a slight cut, as the knife's shaft buried itself deep into the batten of the pouf a mere thumblength from the rib cage beside the young man's shoulder blade. The young man's phallus was still seeding the nutria of the maid bestride him when the knife-maiden slid a second swath of silk under his neck, looped it around his throat, knotted it and drew it tight, though not tight enough to cut off his breathing.
As the nude maiden who'd just taken the young man's seed into her now held him steadily, lifting and pressing him ever more firmly so that not a single drop of that seed or an instant's power of his pulsing erection should emerge from inside her, the knife-maiden removed from her breast a balled up scarf of cotton and silk and reached down beside her for a small glass phial whose stopper she then removed. She poured the contents of the phial onto the scarf which she then held over the young man's nose and mouth. After several long breaths, the young man lapsed into unconsciousness. The nude maiden then removed his soft phallus from within her, leaned down, licked and then kissed its tip and, with her hand placed over the entrance to the dark, moist place between her legs to prevent, as best she could, the loss of the young man's seed, she removed herself from his body and was immediately surrounded and supported by the other cabeiroi who gowned her with garlands and flowers and placed baskets of fruit at her feet as she lay, nude and open, in the other maidens' arms.
Then the knife-maiden lifted the blade high for all to see and, taking the young man's testicles in her other hand, she drew the knife in one skilled motion across the space between his legs. A huge gush of blood -- not water colored red -- burst forth from between the young man's legs as several other young men came rushing onto the stage with towels and bandages while the knife-maiden lifted the young man's severed genitals high in the air, blood and gore and semen trickling down her bare arm. The young man, though doped, cried out in pain as the others carried him from the stage. The knife-maiden then laid the young man's testicles in a porcelain dish at the seed-maiden's feet, and the other maidens, raising the dish high in the air and passing it from hand to hand, did a frenzied circle dance in honor of the young man's sacrificial offering.
"What's going to happen to him now?" Lila leaned across the space between the tables and whispered to Thermodosa.
"He'll join the dactyloi after he recovers," Thermodosa whispered back.
"And the girl he planted his seed in?" Lila whispered.
"They'll take out her womb when she has her next period or after the baby's born if she gets pregnant," Thermodosa said.
"Pregnant?" Lila said.
"Yeah. If she gets pregnant, it's a propitious sign. It means his seed was very potent and Cybele will be pleased," Thermodosa said.
"What happens to the baby?"
"If it's a girl they keep her and bring her up to be the knife-maiden. If it's a boy, they offer him up."
"With the knife?"
"Oh, my," Lila wasn't sure that she approved.
"Wasn't she good, that girl with the knife?" Solari whispered to Eponin.
"One smooth stroke. She made it look easy," Eponin whispered.
"You can't afford flinch, that's for sure," Elana added.
"She did it rather tenderly, I thought," Oriena opined.
"So who gets to fuck the knife-maiden?" Thelestria wanted to know.
"No one," Thermodosa explained. "She's a celibate. There was a time when they drove the knife into the seed giver's heart at the instant when the seed came gushing forth even as they strangled him with the scarf. Now they just knick his breast so that some of his blood can be mixed with his seed. If she doesn't have a firm, steady hand, she could kill the guy or miss altogether, and that would blow the whole thing."
"What happens if she messes up?"
"Then she goes under the blade."
"This isn't a skit," Thermodosa said. "Don't let the slapstick fool you. These adepts are our links with the gods. If they don't know exactly what they're doing, they're toast, and so are we."
Lila found this talk disturbing. "We've never done anything like this. Not that I care to echo Deiphobus, who's a bit of a stuffed shirt, but these rites are pretty lewd."
"You're enareti kori, right?" Thermodosa said.
"That's right," Lila said.
"Have you been to the real thesmophoria? The one they have at Eleusis?"
"No, just the one we do in my village," Lila said.
"Well, don't take this as any kind of a put down, honey," Thermodosa said, "'cause you're a neat person, with a neat sister, and you've got a good head on your shoulders and you’re very nice looking, but your home town gig is pretty minor league stuff. What do you suppose goes on at Eleusis once you make it to the big time?"
"Stuff like this?" Lila said.
"Maybe not exactly, but I'll bet you wouldn't find it too terribly far off the mark," Thermodosa said. "Death and birth. Yin and yang. Fruit and seed. The turn of the wheel. It's all there, however you cut the cake."
"I don't think I'd care to cut it that way," Lila said, looking at the curetes who were cleaning up the stage.
"Suit yourself," Thermodosa said. "But if those mendicants hadn't just done what they did, we'd have no flour or meal or hops next year, and the deer and the boar wouldn't place themselves in the path of the shafts that we shoot from our bows."
"You really believe that?" Lila said.
"Absolutely," Thermodosa said.
Lila nodded and sat silently in her seat. This huge hunk of an Amazon, Lila thought to herself, is a more truly religious soul than I am.
"I wish Xena had been here to see this," someone said.
"Who says I wasn’t?" A sultry voice replied from the dark side of the table.
Everyone turned to look at Xena who'd quietly slipped in and had observed the proceedings unnoticed.
"So what'dja think of it?" Ephiny said from her seat next to Gabrielle.
Xena twitched her eyebrows, flattened her mouth and made a squinchy face that went nyeahh... "Not my cup of mead."
"Nor mine either," Gabrielle muttered under her breath.
The fertility dance around the pomegranate tree that was draped in ribbons and flowers, came to an end, and the stage area began to be cleared for the dancing and partying, reminiscent of the scene in Poteidaia's town square at thesmophoria. The band was bigger, the music louder and wilder, the crowd larger and, by this time, more inebriated. Gaiamitros had been honored with a womb filled with sacrificial seed, and another year's plowed rows and furrows were being mystically prepped to bring forth their fruit in due season. The Corybantes were inviting the onlookers to join them in singing, dancing and making love in the dull, mildly orange glow of the lanterns that were strung across the mall and courtyard. Already, the men without means of producing seed and the women without means of ripening fruit were finding their way into one another's arms in the dark recesses of the long, autumn night. And if these Corybantes could love and rejoice and affirm one another in body and soul, as children of the gods and adepts of the Great Mother, as their actions seemed to imply, so, presumably, could those of the crowd who, in body and soul, were seed-hale and fruit-hardy.
|Continued - Chapter 51|
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