By: Ava Sinclair


By water saved. By water cleansed.

Above my head, a pitcher tilts. I brace myself, trying not to shiver as the water – ice cold and precious – hits the top of my head and cascades down my body. The sound of it splashing over my feet echoes off the cavern walls where shadows move like ghostly forms. They are the shadows of women — women I know so well that I can identify them by their shapes. I search out the dark, swaying silhouette of my mother. It is as distinctive as her cry ringing through the cavern, filling me with sadness I try not to show. I know she prayed to the gods for this day not to come.

By water saved. By water purified.

I shudder again as Myrna, our high priestess and my mother’s sister, lifts the hammered silver pitcher once more. A second stream of water flows through my long blonde hair, matting it to my back. I’ve lost count of how many times the water has sluiced down my body, but surely all the dust and ash must be washed away by now. I do not object, however. I stand there, obedient, until the slow drip of water falling from my body is the only sound save for my mother’s stifled sobs.

I step from the pool and lift my arms as two initiates dab my body dry. My mother has fallen silent. I cannot face her for fear it will only make her cry anew. She had wanted me to become one of the priestesses who so carefully dry my skin. She would have had me remain here, even if it meant seeing me only once a year on the Holy Days. Had I joined the Order, at least I’d be safe.

Where I go now, she cannot protect me.

No one can.

The initiates move back and Aunt Myrna steps forward. She looks exactly like my mother, save for the eyes. Hers are wiser, clear and resigned. That she has accepted my fate without a fight does not mean she won’t mourn for me later. I know she will. But she will cry alone. A priestess does not show her emotions.

I avert my gaze from hers so she will not see the fear that is starting to build in my chest.

By Earth sustained. By Earth clothed.

I lift my arms and allow the gown slide over my head. It is heavier than I expected, woven from precious metals forged and spun into pliable thread. I have been assured it will protect me from the flames. The gown falls all the way to my feet, covering me, but clinging in a manner that emphasizes the fullness of my femininity. Were this war, I would call it armor. But if this were war, what could armor do for me against a monster?

Myrna turns. “It is time. We must leave. Say your goodbyes.” Her voice is strained as she advises my mother, not just as priestess, but as her sister. “Save the tears, Sela,” she says, embracing her gently. “Give Lyla wise counsel, and strength. Do not send her away with the memory of your weeping. Promise me.”

“I promise, Myrna.”

She quietly departs, the other priestesses and initiates following in silent, single file.

My mother waits until the chamber is empty to look me in the eye. In her fiftieth year, she is still beautiful, although she seems to have aged since being told that her only daughter would go to Altar Rock.

“I thought …” She stops to draw a ragged breath. “I thought after all I went through to bring you into the world that the gods would let me keep you. I thought…”

“Mother…” I reach up, my hand touching the sculpted face so like my own. Her skin is warm and smooth. I long to rush into her open arms for protection and shelter, but to do so would only make it worse. “If not me, it would have been someone else’s daughter,” I say.

“It should have been,” comes her bitter reply. “It should have been anyone but you.” She takes my hand, pressing it fiercely to her lips. Hot tears leak from her closed eyes and run over the tops of my fingers as she breaks her promise not to cry. But I understand, and in a way am grateful for the emotion. If my last memory is of my mother crying, I will face death knowing I was loved.

“Thank you,” I say when she drops her hand. “Thank you for everything. It was a good life, Mother. I never wanted for anything. Ever. I had all that a girl could ask, and more.”

“I want to die.” She covers her face with her hands.

“No,” I grasp her wrists and pull her hands away. “I forbid it.” I use same stern tone she’s used with me a hundred times. “The gods will only reunite us if you accept their will, remember? So, you will go on, and one day, we will be together again. We will be reunited on the Sunlit Isle, and walk in the shade of olive trees, and pet the beasts that will all be tame.”