The Story Starts Here

Chapter 1: Mean Girls

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Chapter 1: Mean Girls

Chapter One:

           The last bit of moss was just outside Naida’s reach with her scraper and she stepped up one more step on the ladder.  “Pssst!  Hey, Dirt Girl!”  She ignored the malicious whisper from below.  That was Yalenda.  “Hey, Found Girl! Mud Puddle!  Harpy Dropping!”

            Naida stretched as far as she could.  The Temple should be cleaned and she wasn’t going to let Yalenda’s yammering bother her, even though her stomach clenched and she ground her teeth together, to keep from answering back immediately.  Zeno, the priestess, and the other children were just heading out with their baskets of trash to dispose of in the cracks in the rocks higher up the cliff and Yalenda was just taking advantage of no one being able to hear her.

            She got the last bit of moss off the roof tiles and dropped it on Yalenda’s head. “Hush. This is for Spring Festival and for your betrothal to Pero and I don’t want to do it in a bad spirit.  Mama Zeno says that a priestess has to try and keep a clear heart.” It was the most she’d said to Yalenda all winter, managing to even keep the conversations with her to ‘pass the bread’, even when Naida was spending her month with the olive farming family in Afaris.

            “A bad spirit!  You are a bad spirit!  The miller should have left you in the pass and not 
brought you home! And how dare you call the Priestess ‘Mama’!”  She wrenched the bit of moss and dirt out of her long, straight hair, clenched her fists and kicked the bottom of the ladder that Naida stood on.  The bottom slid out from under her feet and Naida grabbed frantically for the roof-tiles of the shrine, landing on the edge with her legs dangling over the edge.  The ladder clattered over and then tipped to tumble off the edge of the cliff into the wave-washed rocks below.

            She couldn’t breathe and all she could do for the longest moment was cling.  Then her air came back with a sob and she managed to swing her legs up onto the shallow roof-pitch of the Goddess shrine.  Her whole body was clenched with holding on and her fingertips were white as she looked down at Yalenda, who stood with her fists over her mouth and her big, blue eyes wide and round as the moon.  “You tried to kill me!” Naida gasped.

            I did not!  It was an accident! You put up the ladder wrong!”  Yalenda tossed her hair back, set her basket down before snapping “It’s your fault just for being here, Dirt!” She turned and ran up the meadow screeching that there’d been an accident and that Naida needed saving.

            The refuse ravine was at the other end of the meadow and it would be a while before she got up there and a while more before they’d get back.  It wasn’t as if she were hanging on by her fingertips.  Naida inched back up onto the warm tiles and looked up at the Goddess’s Belt in the sky, shining red , with the silver moon as its buckle this time of year and phase of moon.  It really looked more like a glittery stripe of red across the full moon and Zeno said that the Belt was between the moon and the earth.  Naida let out her breath again, her whole middle aching from being banged about and from her clenching up to climb onto the shrine roof.

            “Mama Goddess, why did you put me here?” She said to the Belt in the sky.  “Why did you take me away from my real parents and throw me here?”  It was her mystery.

Isocratis, the wheat farmer and the village miller, had found her, all alone, wrapped in white cotton, instead of being stripped and exposed like she would have been if she’d been a true discard.  Just the baby lying in the middle of the pass. No people anywhere around.  No caravan. Nothing except that she had a gold and jade bracelet around one chubby wrist.

            Naida figured it was because of the bangle that he’d picked her up. Another mouth to feed. Another girl and a strange looking one at that.  The bracelet was on the altar of the shrine. She couldn’t say it had been stolen from her since she could see it anytime she went into the temple.  Not stolen from her at all. It had been Doris the Weaver who’d whipped her for saying it was stolen when she was smaller.  She couldn’t wear it.  It was too small anyway, meant to fit a baby’s wrist.

Naida didn’t have parents. Or rather every grownup in the village was her parent and that was different from the other kids.  Nine other kids who had sets of parents of their own. She was so tired of being different.

The village of Afaris wasn’t near anywhere, as far as Naida knew.  On the edge of a coast too treacherous to sail from, on the edge of an enormous cliff barely flat enough to have plants growing up it, all the way to the pass.

Naida looked along the meadow to see the other children – Pero, big, strong, handsome boy, in the lead.  Yalenda acting all worried right up with him. Zenia, and Scaliana, Yalenda’s hateful chorus trotted close behind, and the Priestess and the Priest, Mama Zeno and Papa Oios came behind, not running but moving as fast as their old joints and walking sticks would carry them.

“I don’t look like anyone else.  I don’t get sunburned like Pero or Scaliana.  Goddess, I need to complain.  I don’t look like anybody else.” She was the only person in the village with brown skin, gold eyes, brown hair that frizzed out in a wild tangle from her head and made her look like she wore an Aegypty head-dress when her month parents wrestled it into submission no matter how it hurt and how much she complained or squirmed.

Afaris was full of pale skin people, with sleek, long brown hair that lay flat as if it were wet, even when they didn’t rub the olive oil through it.  They had brown eyes and blue eyes and green eyes… not one had gold coloured eyes. As a baby she’d been passed around from house to house, a month in each, so she wasn’t a ‘burden’ and that had gone on, her whole life.  Weaving, baking, spinning, pottery, blacksmithing, farming. The best parts where when she was on harvest watch to drive the birds and miniature harpies off the olives, or out of the wheat fields with her sling. Or now up in the highest meadow, with the goats.
Her life wasn’t like any of the other kids either, round and round and round because no one wanted her forever.  But no one ever came looking for the gold and jade bangle.  No one ever came looking for her. No one wanted her.

“I shouldn’t think that.  Bad me.  The whole village wanted me, raised me. I should be grateful they didn’t just let me get eaten by a sphinx,” she told herself firmly.  “Bad of me to be ungrateful.” She smacked herself in the head with a slap, because that’s what her this-month mother, Doris, would have done, wobbled a little on the roof.

“Naida.  Child, don’t do that.”  Zeno waved her stick up at her.  “It was just an accident, don’t punish yourself!” Pero and Isocratis the little, peered over the edge to see if they could find the ladder.

“It’s right here!” Pero called.  “It got hung up on a bush and we can get it!”

“Excellent, boys.” That was old Papa Oios.  “Naida girl… are you all right?”

“Yes.  It fell.”  She clenched her teeth at Yalenda in something that might have been called a smile. Not for the whole world would she accuse Yal, who looked like butter wouldn’t melt in her unctuous, worried mouth. Zeno raised her eyebrows at Naida but just shook her head as the ladder fetching crew cheered.

“It is a blessing that you were not hurt, which would have been a dreadful omen.  Imagine Yalenda, if Naida were hurt cleansing the Temple we’d have to put off your betrothal.  You and Pero would have to wait till next year.”  Oios nodded beatifically as his wife spoke, pulled his pipe out of his pouch and packed it slowly with pipe-herb. He smiled through the smoke at Naida who gaped at Yalenda’s absolutely horrified face.  Oh that would have been too much!  Have she and Pero been ‘practicing’ for married life already?

“I’m so glad my clumsiness didn’t ruin your betrothal, Yal,” she said quietly, dancing inwardly with her softly worded revenge.

Pero lifted the ladder up all by himself and Naida didn’t even slap him when he patted her bottom ‘steadying’ the ladder for her.

You foul boy.  You and Yal deserve each other.  Mama Goddess take my rage away from me.  Take me away from here.  On the power of Your Holy Blood, save me from those who raised me. Her jaw hurt from smiling at her ‘rescuers’.

She had no idea why Yalenda hated her.  She was perfectly pretty in the Afaris way, with big blue eyes and a light blond waterfall of hair.  She had parents that didn’t change every month and her mother had made her two dresses for every day, as well as her festival clothes. And Pero, big, wide, blond, strong Pero liked her, not Naida.

“Come along, children,” Oios tottered into the tiny shrine, where he’d cleaned out the seep at the foot of the statue.  It wasn’t a full spring, just a tiny puddle the size of Oios’s two clenched hands.  He had big hands, twisted and gnarled because he was the village plowman as well as the priest.  Gentle hands that held without pinching, or hurting. 

Mama Zeno was an ocean scavenger for Afaris.  Not a fisher, since there was nowhere safe to launch even a little boat, or even wade in to fling a net.  She knew where the welks and winkles hid though, the little lobsters and the bounty oysters.  Afaris couldn’t afford to have people who just did priestly things.  Everybody worked, just to make sure everyone could eat.

After they’d put the new chiton on the statue everyone else went down to the village and their other jobs.  Naida stayed up in the high meadow with the goat herd, finally, finally left alone with the creatures who didn’t teach, or judge or snipe at her.  Goats she liked.  Most people, not so much.