Monday, July 22, 2013

The Last Pythia by Ruby Osman

die regi; tecta pulchra misera domus cecidit
"Tell the king: the fair-wrought house has fallen."

She sits on the stool.

Below her lies a chasm. A thin, hissing crack, which darts to and fro beneath her feet and off into the dark corners of the room.

She sits on the stool.

The stool itself is a sturdy affair. Knarled and knotted, but it supports its burden with pride. Its embellished feet encircle the chasm.

She sits on the stool.

In a hand she holds a simple dish, filled to the brim with clear spring water from some far off or sacred land. She doesn't understand why. She doesn't have to. The other hand clutches at a laurel branch. The force she grasps it with leaves imprints in her hand.

She wears the clothing of a virgin. It is of no importance whether she is or not. She may be young, old, rich, poor. She may be a worthy counterpart of Galen, or she may not even be able to write her own name. It is of no importance. She is a wolf in sheep's clothing, if you may.

Her dress is cut from a deep red fabric, the kind normally reserved for that of nobility. It is not a light fabric and its weight guides her spine into a gentle curve. An unkempt forest of hair frames her face, casting dark shadows onto her features. Her air is not one of grace or elegance, but of omen and myth. She bathes rarely – once a month at the Castilian Spring – and years in the darkness has given her skin a deathly pale hue.

And yet why then, do so many flock to see this single woman? From all corners of the Empire, people rush to consult with this one village girl. Generals, farmers, writers, they are all the same under her gaze. And even then, it is not her they really seek. They are wishing to talk to the rocks deep in the chasm, they are wishing to consult with the sacred Kassotis water she holds in her hand, or they await a reply from Apollo's spirit, which flows through her veins. They have all come to see the Oracle.

For nine months of the year, the doors of her shrine are thrown open to the world. Pilgrims wind their way up her path, sporting laurel branches and sacrifices. To them, she is but a middle-man to the gods. Yet still, in her honour, they slaughter their animals and climb the harsh slope.

She is not aware of what goes on outside; of the waiting, weary queues. She holds no concept of how these people arrive at her stool. She may've done, years ago, as a child, watching exotic men and women traipse their way through her village, drinking from their fountains, sleeping in their inns. She may have watched them give a sigh, or a resigned smile, as their eye was drawn to the looming hill, the final step of their journey. But now, years of being that final step, have erased her childhood memories. Her days are now rigorous, exhausting, but still a strictly followed routine - for she is in contact with Apollo, and it is through her prophecies that the world's decisions are made.

Apollo non habet asylum, nec corona laurorum. 
"No shelter has Apollo; nor do the sacred laurel leaves."

She is asked the question. It isn't repeated. It is not expanded upon.

The lucky pilgrim waits.

Sometimes the answer comes quick, for others it is an eternity of suspense. She takes a heavy breath and begins:

The chasm's smoke seeps through her, through any opening, nestling in any crevice of the body. Its wisps soar down her throat, into her chest, then down into her arms and legs, teasing her fingertips. She feels it dancing throughout her body, diving and sweeping, settling finally in her lungs. The voice she speaks in is not her own, nor does anyone recognise it as any mortal's, but is rasping, yet melodic, barely intelligible to the questioner, but crystal clear to the girl herself. When she finishes, though, she will not remember what words she has just given, what sound or destructive advice she muttered; she will retreat, exhausted, until the next visitor. She doesn't know how this happens to her - what divine or spiritual influences are at play. All she knows is that, when that question is asked, she is taken over. Words tumble from her mouth, confused yet powerful, they rush for air, they rush to be noticed. Warmth and content spreads through her body. Any famine, death or plague can be forgotten whilst she's in this state. For her, the words flow out like warm honey, and each one is individual and enunciated, each is a story in its own.

Of course the mere pilgrim cannot be expected to decipher these cryptic rants. This task is divulged upon two male priests. It is their job to translate. To twist this heap of mismatched words into sense, a sense that will keep people coming back. Because, although this woman may be a messenger from the heavens, she is still but a village girl. In some ways they are jealous, their potential overshadowed by a virgin on a hill, their work left unappreciated.

None of this occurs to the girl. As she sits upon her stool, she never wonders who might come next or what stories the priests are spinning. She never wonders what choices are being made under her name, or who has died or felt pain from her prophecies. Her days are filled with constant questions, so she fills her nights with silence. No questions. No answers. It works.

fontes nunc tacuerunt, vox quoque.
"The fountains are now silent, the voice is stilled"

But now even she is starting to notice the change. The visitors seem just a little less frequent, their sacrifices not quite as plentiful. The priests seem cautious, they slip from the Empire's Latin to their mother tongue from time to time. Her role remains the same though.

She is staring at the wall. She has stared at this wall thousands, if not millions of times before. There are only a few bricks without chips or cracks. The mural is fading, taking its legends with it too. She wonders whether it used to be like this. Today there have been four visitors, and it is nearly the eighth hour. Two came together. And one was a pregnant woman from the village. The final one had come from Dacia though. That was something at least.

She hears a clunking from outside. Once, twice. Another time. Getting slightly louder with each 'chink'.

She recognises the sound, she thinks, but without knowing what it is. Now her ignorance begins to vex her.

The memory begins to creep back in. Cautiously tip-toeing its way back into her mind. Its still wrapped in a blanket of haze though. So are all her memories.

She remembers it being magnified. It was magnified, and uniformed. The chink of the metal of a thousand men, the sound weaving its way up her path to taunt her ears, its creators marching on. The chink of the metal of a thousand men went on to rape, pillage and plunder all she held beloved, just so they could call the ravaged land their own – but this is not her memory. For these events are of long ago – centuries maybe. They are from an oracle before her. It was that woman, not her, who heard the chink of the metal of a thousand men, who, whilst shrouded in her temple-blindfold, had slowly, over months or years, learned of her homeland's 'joyful' addition to the Empire, to Rome's sprawling, all-consuming territory.

So now the girl sits in the dim silence, with the daylight fading and the 'clinks' working their way to the summit of the hill. Past the priests. Into the shrine. Down the stairs. Into her room.

In their hands, the soldiers hold a decree. Whether the decree is real or not is of no importance, because they also hold the swords. Emperor Theodosius has ordered the closure of all pagan temples. Emperor Theodosius has ordered the closure of her home, of her livelihood; he has ordered the closure of all she can remember, and all she is known for.

For a last time, the power spreads through her. She allows the fumes to envelope her. A deep final breath. This time her words are clear. She speaks them in the soldiers' tongue – not consciously, she only speaks what flows. She doesn't remember her last prophecy, she only remembers those ending words, as the soldiers begin to drag her away.

est finis
"It is finished."

She no longer sits on the stool.

Ruby's atmospheric story about the final days of the Delphic oracle won first prize in the 14+ age category of the Golden Sponge-stick Writing Competition 2012. 14-year-old Ruby is a pupil at Sancton Wood School, Cambridge. Bene fecisti, Ruby! 

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