I wake with my heart beating hard. Frightened? No: excited. It is birthing day, when all girls become an official year older. My age group will don our first skirts. Tonight, we will be women.
Today is my last day as a child. I’m going to visit all my favorite places and run as fast and far as I can on the beach. They say I will miss wearing trousers. That’s hard to believe. I have waited so long for my skirt.
Boys, men, they wear pants all their lives. The boys who no longer need their mothers will be leaving today, before the ceremony tonight. Five of the men came to guide them to the high pastures. That’s where our goats and sheep spend the summer.
Yawning, I finger my summer blanket. It is blue: my stepmother is fond of bright colors and her sister, Helena, is a dyer. No one but her family knows the secret of how to make this blue, the color of a summer sea.
We grow the plants in secret, in the old house behind our own. The roof fell in long ago, and the inner walls have tumbled down, but the encircling stonework, thick as my arm is long, still stands.
Long ago, it was a wealthy merchant’s house. His ghost haunts the place, hunting for his vanished gold. My family has many stories about the ghost and the nightmares he brings. I was encouraged to tell them to the other children.
It is so quiet. No one else is awake yet. I was to sleep late, to be ready for the ceremony. Without even thinking, I am up, out of bed. I am too excited to lie still, let alone sleep. Tonight, I will be skirted.
Wrapping blue blanket about my hips, I turn, and turn, until I am so dizzy I fall back on my bed. I hug myself until my head stops spinning. My face hurts from smiling. I rub it with both hands until I am composed. Skirted! Tonight!
I stand and pull on my oldest pants, white, with patches at the knees and in the seat. In some places they’re so worn I could force my fingers through the soft cloth. New ones are never so comfortable. It’s the last time I will wear these.
All of my girl’s clothes except the ones I have just put on have been washed and mended. They will be traded, mostly for new clothes for my younger half-sister, Esme. Except, except! Except for my girl’s sash which I promised her. She’ll wear it out with fingering before she is old enough for it.
She’s been trying on my things: the red sash, the white top with drawn work, the black pants for best. It’s birthing day for her, too, although Esme will only be a year older. Still, she will get to stay up all night—or as much of it as she can—and she will get the sash.
I tidy and fold and put my bedding away. The next time I sleep here I will be an adult. The thought is—a little—scary. I press my hands to the walls that have sheltered me ever since I remember. Change is coming.
First I must say goodbye. I go out, drawing the drape over my door as if I were still asleep. The other bedroom drapes are still closed, but main rooms are, as always, open. Only the keeping room, underground, has a solid door.
In the loom room, my skirt is stretched, almost finished, on my elder sister’s loom. A long piece of deep blue is on my stepmother’s loom. The third loom is mine. My younger sister is not yet ready for hers, but it is there, waiting. I turn away. No weaving today. Not for me!
Our house has its own smell: stone, earth, smoke from the fires, herbs drying, a lingering fragrance of last night’s dinner, and the pot of pottage sitting in the warm ashes, ready for early risers. I lift the lid and dip a bowl.
The lentils are flavored with herbs, olive oil, and sea salt. I crouch, eating slowly, letting the heat stored in the hearthstones warm my feet. It will take me most of the morning to go everywhere I want to go. I wash my dish and spoon and set them to dry: first, my chores.
After washing my face, I fill a pitcher for the kitchen under the inflow, and take it in. Bringing out the double-jug yoke, I see the sun rising over the peak of the Leukothea’s mountain. The white goddess has lighted her kitchen fire: a fine line of smoke rises above the summit. The day will be fair.
The door into the old ruin is in what was my mother’s bedroom, hidden behind the always-closed red drape for the dead. The way is around a corner and blocked by a wardrobe. You must be at the narrow gap before you know it is there.
Stepmother tends the precious plants, but I must make sure the old cistern is filled. Even a little rain and the water spills over: I keep it that full. The excess runs into a shallow pond, back under the eaves of the old house. Moss grows there, thick and green. The shadowed places beyond are too dark for anything to grow.
The pond was a bathing pool, long ago. You can still see pictures in stone, under the water and scum. It is one of my special places. I will go there today, but first I go into the court under the bay tree. We have a spring that keeps its cracked marble basin full in all but the driest weather.
Seeing the ancient cistern in my mind, I fill the high-shouldered jugs to brimming; bend my back and don the yoke. In the old courtyard the woad flowers smell honey-sweet. Already bees glitter in the air, coming and going from the hives stacked against the south wall.
Father will help harvest them when he comes down from the pastures. But from now until the autumn, the only males in the city will be the boys still at their mothers’ skirts.
I like the summer city, the littlest girls playing in the fountains naked, bare-breasted mothers nursing on their doorsteps, the hum of women gossiping as they bargain for food, fuel, and work, the shrieks of laughter at jokes that I don’t always understand.
Early summer is the flights of boys scaring birds—from the gardens, from the dripping fresh-dyed cloth, from the racks of fish drying in the sun. At night I know they whisper in anticipation to one another about the men’s camp but I—I smile as I tip the jugs into the old cistern—I need never leave the city.
When the cistern slops over I add two more jugs for good measure. It is not a day to stint. I set the yoke down, carefully, ready to take up again. The old bathing pool ripples as I wade in. Beneath my feet, the small colored stones feel curious, rough yet smooth. They are very old.
I am going further in, to the ghosts. The first ghost is the ghost of the Boots. They are two holes in the wave of stone that half-fills a room of the old house. No telling who felt inside the pair of holes and found they were the shape of the inside of a boot.
If you slide your feet into them—first checking that nothing has gotten there first—you can ask the ghost for a wish. I stand, eyes closed, and wish for long and happy lives for me and my family.
I wait, listening for a sound, some sign the ghost has heard and what its answer is. It’s very quiet, just the faint whisper of the breeze in the woad. A small stone clatters down from the crumbling stonework. A bird starts to sing and stops.
No answer: maybe it was too big a wish. I slide my feet out of the boots, not very disappointed. Such things are the things of childhood and I am bidding them farewell.
Now for a bit of a climb, rough for bare feet. The waves of stone surge higher and higher until one breaks through the old vaulting. There’s a splash of light: enough that plants can grow. Everywhere in the gloom are hollows that suggest human figures.
The Man has his arms and legs wide spread; the Women, curled on their sides, frame a mossy spot we call the Baby. Away from the light, there are the Boys, three pairs of empty legs and feet, like the Boots. When I was young I believed they were the remains of real people.
My stepmother hates this place. When she came to our house, she planted thorn bushes to bar the opening. They are almost as hard to get through as masonry and far less obvious.
At first, in the driest weather, my elder sister and I carried water to the young plants: one trip, at dusk. Remembering, I touch the moss in the Baby. I shiver as if with cold, odd on such a fine day. I smell—death. Amid all this growing green, I smell death.
I stand, listening. There’s nothing, nonetheless my hair bristles. Dry-mouthed, I swallow painfully. “I’m going,” I whisper to the air. “Ghosts? I’m going—” I had not remembered my fear of this dark place filled with green false-people.
When I have a say in the family, I will say we should do more to bar this opening. Ghost stories and thorns might not be enough to keep us safe. What keeps out children may not keep out men.
We are known as the City of Women, for that is all that is here when the traders come. They watch us with dark, hard eyes when they come, checking how we guard ourselves.
There’s little to take. Our wealth is in our hands and our herds. Men watch the herds in summer and make cheese. Women card, spin, and weave in every season.
While the boys are here, we cut the pastures three times for winter hay, then let them grow until the men return with the herds—
Going too fast, I stumble forward, cut my knee. With the shock of that small, sharp pain, I am all right again. I am grown up and this is just a dark, smelly place that should be better defended. I am right to be worried by it.
In the sunshine, I take a deep breath of the honey-sweet air, and go into our house. As I put away the yoke, I can hear the steady clack of a loom. Vesna is up and weaving already. My skirt must be finished by this evening. One can depend on Vesna.
It is good luck for a mother to make her daughter’s first skirt, but my stepmother is weaving a long bolt of cloth on commission. So she set up the weaving on Vesna’s loom, sent the shuttle through for the first pass.
My elder sister, swift and sure, took over after that. Thump, thump. There’s not much of the main color to finish. The skirt color of our street is brown-black, the darkest natural color of goat fleece: hardwearing, practical, dull.
I am glad my sister is weaving mine, for her specialty is patterns in colors. “Vesna,” I say and go in, covering my eyes with my hand, so I can’t see the web of weaving. I squat by her loom and touch the balls of thread in her workbasket.
“Go away, Celina,” she says. “It’s bad luck to watch.”
“It’s bad luck to watch any of it,” I say. “You didn’t say anything yesterday.”
“You knew it was going to be black,” she says, practically. “This part should be a surprise. Take Esme and go down to Iris Street. Tell Naiyah you’ll card fleece if she’ll sing a story.”
I smile: so my skirt will be special. Hand still veiling my eyes, I stand, turn around, and go out. There was red and blue in the basket, but Vesna is clever. She may use quite different colors or even do a new pattern for me.
Stepmother is still asleep. It will be a long night for her, too. Youngest sister is up, her doll swimming in a lake made of her blue blanket. I take her hand. “Come,” I say, “We’re to go to Naiyah’s.”
“Naiyah will have something.” The storyteller is not a good cook but she is paid in good things and is generous with them—especially those that will spoil. “Zenina baked yesterday.” Naiyah and Zenina are old friends and both love sweet things.
Esme leaves everything where it is and comes. I decide not to make a fuss. Stepmother can tidy it up when she gets up. “Come,” I say, “I’m hungry too. I wonder if there is fig bread—” Mouths watering, we hurry down our street, hand in hand.
We take the shortcut thorough the dyers’ yards, under hanging skeins of fresh-dyed wool, dodging drips and puddles of henna orange and madder red, which is what everyone is dyeing today.
There’s plenty of noise, but few people in sight. Lots of old clothes are being turned celebration-bright in the vats, now that the last batch of new wool is out.
They’ll drain the vats this afternoon, scrub them out, ready for a new batch day after tomorrow. Only the darkest blue is kept, aged, renewed forever.
I tell Esme to stand still and splash one puddle high and wide. She follows me. I’m the big sister. So we both caper like kids in the colors. We have dyed feet and splattered pants when we arrive at Naiyah’s door. One look, and she tells us to stay outside.
“Wash,” she says.
“I don’t think it comes off,” Esme says uncertainly.
“Only where you don’t want it to,” Naiyah replies, eyeing her white paving. It’s marble, the slabs laid in a fish scale pattern, one of the few things I’ve ever seen that is not old or a copy of something old. I want one like it for our house, one day.
I laugh, embarrassed, feeling very foolish. Well. It is the last time. “Come to the street cistern, Esme.”
“Take the soap jar,” calls Naiyah, coming after us with it. “There’s new cheese, oranges, and—”
“Fig bread?” asks Esme.
Naiyah mock-frowns. “And almond cakes.”
I am generous with the soap. Being careful, I sluice the cobbles, driving bubbles and colored water into the drains. I can hear it chuckling away to the sea. Probably. Eventually.
No one really knows where all the drains go. Our stone city is old, worn comfortable, with empty houses children run in and out of, pretending they are theirs for a day, or a week, and then forget.
Parts of the city are only used when the men and the flocks are down for the winter. Some buildings hold hay. Some are fitted with cheese rooms. Some warehouse raw wool or cloth ready to sell. We are far fewer than we once were: most of our city is only inhabited by the sun, wind, snow, and rain.
Birds won’t roost in the oldest part, where rippled stone fills the streets as if it once were liquid, frozen instantly. The well-known rule is, “If you don’t see birds, don’t go there.”
Sometimes Naiyah tells stories about what does live there: ghosts born from the earth’s womb. The sulfurous stink of their breath warns when they are near. Their breath can kill, does kill. It kills the small things first, but it can kill people.
I take Esme’s small, wet hand. I smell—but the odor is gone. I remembered Naiyah’s winter stories and the ground shivered. That was all it was. The ground shivered, as it sometimes does. “Come,” I say to Esme, “let’s go back.”
In the courtyard I give my sister’s message. Naiyah laughs her big, careless laugh. “Today is special. Today I give my stories for free. Sit down there. I’ll get your breakfast.”
I sit; Esme curls up on the red and orange rug that pads the bench. Naiyah brings a tray full of good things.
Some time later, when we can hold no more, Naiyah says, “What shall it be? Something happy for a happy day? No,” she answers herself. “Today it shall be a tale about growing up.”
I sigh, very softly. Esme sighs, dramatically. She has just picked up this trick of imitating people. “Esme!” I say.
Naiyah laughs again. “Well, I will keep my wisdom for another time.”
“No,” I say. “You are right.” I hesitate. “But—something for Esme? First?”
Naiyah smiles and I smile back, conspiring. Esme, up since dawn and full of food, may go to sleep, soothed by the familiar chant of a story. She’s over-excited and I want her celebration to be happy, too. A nap would be good for her.
“Once there was a linnet, that hid among the hemp—”
I hardly listen. I could tell “The Linnet and the Weaver” myself, although not so well as Naiyah. Looking down, I see that my dyed feet, smudged as Esme’s, seem dirty.
If I am to look adult tonight, then it’s a long time in the baths and plenty of silver sand for me this afternoon. Tomorrow, everything will be different. I shiver, and, as if sympathizing, the earth shivers, too. I smell ghost breath.
“She is awake,” says Naiyah softly. “She will hear our prayers.” A gray banner flies from the peak of the Leukothea’s mountain, smoke on the sea breeze.
“Tell her story,” I say, impulsively. Esme is already asleep. “The Leukothea’s.”
I am asking a great favor. The Leukothea’s story must be told from beginning to end, without pause. I want to hear it, very much. I pull a fold of rug over Esme. The wind is freshening. There are grains of salt sparkling in the air.
On one deep breath, Naiyah sings the first long line. “The Leukothea lived under the sea, among the sea people, those scaled, and finned, and clever with water and with wind.”
Eyes closed, I listen. When I am alone, beyond earshot of anyone, I have tried to sing like that, but I cannot sound like the water and the wind.
Naiyah is not sparing her voice. She is singing at full volume: a performance for me alone. I wonder when the neighbors, who must be curious, will slip into the white courtyard and settle on the benches, the paving.
There is a roar deeper than thunder, although the sky is clear. The ground heaves beneath us. The marble fish scales gap apart, close, gap again. Esme is awake, screaming, and I pull her to me. “Hush, “ I say automatically. “Hush.”
“Look!” Naiyah’s hair lashes about, binding her mouth, blinding her eyes, but her arm points. I rise, holding Esme, staring.
From the top of Leukothea Mountain, a dark fountain is rising higher and higher. It splits the sun, then blots it out. In the twilight darkness, hands to our ears, the three of us turn as one and start running.
But Esme’s short legs cannot carry her very far or very fast. I go back to help her and when I start out again Naiyah is gone. “Naiyah,” I call. “Naiyah!” I don’t expect a response. I know she has left us.
People brush past us as if we are invisible. Fine ash is falling, powdering everyone into ghosts. It is hard to breath. I wrap Esme’s mouth with her top, say, “Hold on to my waistband. Don’t let go.”
Then I do the same for myself. She is young enough to go bare-breasted. It is a day early or years too late for me, but I have to breathe. “Hold my hand,” I say. “Don’t let go.”
She grips me so hard my fingers hurt. Back we go through the dyers’ yard, where the fresh-dipped yarn is filthy gray and the once-bright puddles are grimy slime that makes it hard to walk fast.
Our mother’s courtyard is empty. Esme clings to me; my legs shake. “Mother!” I call. The earth shudders. I hear dishes fall in the kitchen.
“Mother!” wails Esme. Something big, one of the oil jars perhaps, shatters. From our doorway I can see fine dust falling from between our heavy roof beams. I am afraid to go in. I have to know.
I pick up Esme and go in, calling, “Vesna? Mother?” My skirt is not on the loom, only the cut ends of the warp. They are gone then. They expect us to be with Naiyah.
“Where’s Mother?” says Esme. Her wet cheeks are gray with ash.
“I don’t know,” I say, looking around. “Let’s go find her.”
“And Vesna,” says Esme as I put her down.
“Yes.” I find a market basket, a cloth. My hands shake so it is hard to do. I must hurry. Water. We will want water but there is only pottery—heavy and frail—to carry—
The ground heaves again and something explodes in the street. A woman cries out. “Mommy!” screams Esme and bolts out the door. I go after her, leaving the basket behind. Hope and fear give her a speed I could never have imagined.
They do not give her any idea where to run to, for she starts back to Naiyah’s. She is running through the gritty puddles in the dyers’ yard before I catch her. “Not this way,” I cry, and lift her up. Her legs pump a moment longer before she yields.
The fall of ash has gotten heavier. Every so often something larger bounces off the canopies that protect the shop fronts. There is no one in sight and no one has bothered to close up.
It is a city of ghosts.
I can smell them. “Esme—” I say.
“The stones hurt, Celina. Make them stop.”
I’m so overwrought I can’t feel them, but I hear them: rattling on the street, clattering off the roofs, pecking on the dyers’ baskets stacked, waiting for the finished yarn.
Esme is crying, steadily and without hope.
“Now,” I say in a silly voice. “Let’s pretend.” She looks at me as if I have gone mad. “Let’s put these baskets over our heads—” I do as I say, “—and be sea snails, creeping along the bottom.”
Esme’s voice drops into let’s pretend. “Can the Leukothea see us?”
“Yes,” I said, guiding her up the street, listening to pebbles beat on wickerwork, “but she loves the murex best of all the sea creatures. It makes the purple dye for her—” Words flow out of me like water from a broken jug.
Basket over her head and shoulders, Esme, listening, runs at my side, hand knotted in mine. I keep to the middle of the streets: there are tiles cascading off the roofs. The wind stinks of ghosts. It is hard to breathe.
For some time we see no one and I wonder why. When I do see someone, my whole thought is to keep Esme walking and listening. It is hard to see through a basket; hers covers her more completely than mine. The two of them lie against a wall. Their skirts are brown-black, our color. That much I can see, despite the ash that whitens everything.
Then I know the patterns on their hems; I know what the roll of brown-black fabric spilled from a crushed basket is: my skirt, its unfinished edge sea-blue and sun yellow. Vesna’s long, clever hand lies, useless, in the dust.
Don’t think, I tell myself, listening to a silly voice pattering on about the Leukothea and the purple dye she loves best of all. There is no time to pause; no time to console a grieving child. “—made a purple dark as wine—”
“Are we going to die,” Esme says.
The horrid thread of story snaps. “I hope not,” I say. “We will go fast. If we get separated, go uphill, out of the city. Follow the goat trails. I’ll find you no matter how far you go.”
Now there are more bodies. I have gotten this far by not thinking about who the first two bodies were. They had waited for us. “Faster,” I say.
“Are we going to Mother?” Esme asks.
“No,” I say. “No, we must hurry.”
Another shower of stones rattles on our baskets. I can smell something burning. The ground heaves and we fall. Esme is silent. When I get to my knees and bend over her, I find her eyes rolled back in her head. I shake her. “Esme!”
I put my ear against her chest. I can’t hear her heart. I can’t hear anything. The entire world is one huge roar. The air stinks. I cough as I drag Esme across my shoulders like a stray kid and shuffle forward, leaving the baskets behind.
In some places the pebbles roll underfoot and in others, they form drifts that leave me staggering. I miss the protection of the wicker, for although what is falling now is small stuff, it stings. My cut knee hurts.
I have my top clenched in my teeth, so I breathe through a mouthful of soggy cloth. My lungs labor but as long as I bite on the fabric I can pretend it is the cloth that makes it so hard. I stop, panting, look about me.
Somehow I have turned the wrong way. This is part of the dead city. Trees, gray with ash, grow in doorways, through windows, up through roofs. I don’t know which direction to go in. The smell of ghosts comes and goes in the air.
“Ghosts,” I whisper. “Ghosts. Help me.” Foolish, foolish.
“Girl,” says a voice.
There is a mist before my eyes or the ash falls more heavily than before—although it is easier to breathe. I should sit down, I think. Rest. Just for a little while. Close my eyes.
“Girl,” sings the air.
There is a bench, with a cushion of carved stone, offering false comfort. I put my sister down, sit beside her, holding her hand. The hot rain turns the gray powder to liquid mud. A torrent runs in the grassy gutter.
“Girl.” A sweet throaty voice.
My throat is sore as if with fever and my chest hurts. “Who’s there?” I ask. The ash-dusted trees shade the bench from the gritty rain, but there is someone just out of sight. I can hear her, humming to herself, as women hum when they work at the loom. I call, louder, “Who is there?”
The loom clacks on but there is answer. “Alexia. I—am Alexia.”
“What are you weaving?” I ask politely.
“A skirt,” she whispers. “A skirt for birthing day. Turn. See the colors.”
I do. The skirt is all I can see; I have never seen a skirt like it. The colors ripple like water. “O,” I breathe. “Beautiful.”
I can see her more clearly now, the long, fine bones of her fingers, the ivory curve of cheek. Her hair is a cloud of darkness. Alexia smiles. I know she smiles, although her face is turned from me. “Would you like it?”
“O,” I say and my voice is pure longing. Then, “I must wear black, undyed fleece. Only the hem may be colored.” In my mind I see sea-blue and sun yellow, Vesna’s last weaving.
“Must,” Alexia says, and her shadow billows and wavers. “Must is a fool’s word.”
“What should I say,” I murmur, feeling my sister’s hand in mine. Esme is so still, her fingers so cold.
Alexia reaches for a great pair of shears that flash in the grayness and begins cutting the web free of the loom. “Can,” she said. “Always say can. Can you go?”
“Can you go? If you can, you should, although you will have plenty of company here, and, see, the skirt.” She lifts it high. “Is it not fine? Colored like lost sunrises and sunsets.”
“Lost?” I say, and fall silent, terrified.
There are others stirring, other whispers, so soft I cannot quite understand what they say. Alexia’s voice is becoming like them. “If you can go, you should. Your sister will be safe with us—”
That final “s” dies out into a hissing. Ice touches my knee, my waist, my heart. I feel fabric, smooth, heavy, binding my legs, my waist. My sister’s fingers stir in mine. They are cold, but soft and trusting.
I can no longer see, or hear. The smell and taste of ghosts is overwhelming. Still there is touch. I feel for Esme’s body, and gather it, knees and shoulders, to myself. I stand, shuddering.
There is grayness all around, heavy fabric binds my legs, but it is—brighter—there. Step by step, I lurch toward the light. I can hear grit underfoot, taste salt wind—
I look up into blue, blue sky. The bush-fringed mouth of an adit gapes behind me. Sledges, hooves, and feet have worn a smooth path into solid stone.
A hawk screams and stoops. High above the old city, I hold Esme, and beneath the ash her cheeks are pink. I kiss one then the other. “Wake up, sleepy,” I say.
“Celina?” says my drowsy sister. “Your skirt.”
I let Esme down. “What?” I say, stupidly. I didn’t think she had seen the two bodies with my skirt. Then I see what I am wearing, touch it. It is smooth, cool. Beautiful.
“Ah,” says Esme. “Pretty, pretty.” She presses her face into it.
There are people coming, running. Men. Looking like a herd of goats, all tangled hair and untrimmed beards, they stop and stare. The men have brought great bows, spears, and herders’ crooks: pitiful in the face of this disaster.
Hands on her small shoulders, I hold Esme tight in front of me, swallowing hard, trying to speak. The sea wind is so fresh it makes me dizzy. I sway, a little, and then stand straight.
“Woman,” says a man’s voice. “I do not know you or the pattern of your skirt. Have you news from the city?”
“Father?” I say, peering through a haze of confusion at the hairy faces. “It’s Celina.”
He comes forward, one hand outstretched, touches my arm. “Celina,” he says, testing the familiar name for the unfamiliar woman before him; then, more certain, “Celina.”
Rivers of fire are rolling down the mountain’s sides. I smell ghosts on the wind. “If you could carry her,” I say. Inside their cocoon of fabric, my legs are shaking. I feel blood running down my shin.
“Yes,” he says suddenly, finding himself. He slings his daughter, my half-sister, across his shoulders. She bawls, as much angry as frightened. “Daddy!”
“The other two? My wife? Your sister?”“
I shake my head, my eyes sliding toward Esme.
Father’s mouth clamps shut. He bends to the load and begins climbing. I follow, watching where my feet go on the unfamiliar path. Thinking, I finger the smooth cool folds of amber, coral, and murex purple: my skirt of many colors. I wonder if there will be a price to pay and what it might be. For today, I am favored; tomorrow, I shall see.