The Stone by the Stream (Part 20)

Cynthia slept, but only lightly and fitfully. The liquid hours washed over her mind, and when she dreamed they were dreams of a girl of twelve years sleeping lightly on the bare stone floor of an enormous Temple.

There are nights when dreams bleed into waking life and waking life flows into the dream, so the two become so intermingled the conscious or dreaming mind cannot distinguish the two. Such a night passed for Cynthia, the time flowing as if through bends and turns in the alembic of her consciousness.

And what would come out the other end?

With a boom and the sea-slapping of many footsteps, all too early the Initiates, Acolytes, and Priestesses filed out of the Chamber of Initiation. They walked in double file, observing ritual silence, though some moved their lips in silent prayer. First there came the Priestesses in their robes of white and black, some old, some ancient, and some still almost young — the blue-eyed woman Cynthia so loved and distrusted was perhaps the youngest among them. Next followed the Acolytes in their red robes, including Agatha, who could not resist a brief glance in Cynthia’s direction. When their eyes met, she felt a radiance of ill will coming from the woman and dreaded the unseen call of future time. Last there followed the Initiates, dressed in blue, the two from the night before following within the group. The shorter of the girls could hardly keep her eyes open.

“Sofia” was nowhere among the group of women.

Trailing behind the group there came a single Acolyte, carrying a statue of the Huntress in her aspect as Mistress of the Moon. The marble Goddess held the crescent moon lightly in her left hand, wearing a dress that appeared (though carved in stone) to flow and billow in the wind. Her apologetic bow hung over her shoulder, far smaller than the bows that appeared when she showed herself as the Huntress. Here the Mistress of the Moon’s face shone with gentle quiet calm that worked its way into Cynthia’s still-sleepy soul.

The devotees gathered around the altar — which remained stained with blood. But as the Acolyte walked with light steps to place the statue atop the altar, the blood became occulted by the Mistress of the Moon.

One of the Priestesses stood in her black robe and intoned: “Today we honor you, Goddess, in your aspect as Mistress of the Moon.”

“All honor to the Mistress of the Moon,” the women said.

“All honor to the Mistress of the Moon,” Cynthia muttered, wondering if she should join the women.

“By your reflected light and darkness we reflect on our own light and darkness. Mistress of all Cycles of Birth and Death, we honor and fear you. May you lead us in your orbit to our fullness and fulfillment, and when the time comes, may you make us new.”

“All honor to the Mistress of the Cycles,” the women said. Cynthia traced a circle around the edge of the Temple, searching for a place among the seated members of the order.

“Twelve times or thirteen in the year you wither and die, and twelve times or thirteen in the year you are reborn to new life. Lead us through our dying and rebirths through all the generations, Mistress of the Many Births.”

“All honor to the Mistress of the Many Births.”

And on and on went the morning prayer, through the twenty-eight phases honoring the Goddess as Mistress of the Moon. Cynthia found herself absorbed by the ritual, tried to anticipate it, repeated the words of honor to the Goddess as it washed over her. She sensed a great mystery at work here, one she partially understood but which held significance she knew she could never fully comprehend.

She felt her sense of herself dissolving in the group-mindedness of the ritual, in which they were all absorbed into the spirit of the Goddess. She felt an itch at the back of her head, which momentarily shook her from the mind of the whole, but after scratching it she once again gave herself over to the group.

This prayer ritual, she knew, was not closed off from the people of the town, otherwise it would have taken place in the Chamber of Initiation — or even still deeper within. Yet only the very devout attended these rituals, and none had come today. Cynthia felt a stab of pity for them, cut off as they were from the wonderful connection and absorption into the mysteries of the Goddess.

Tears came to her eyes more than once.

And after the twenty-eight phases, the prayer ended.

“All honor to the Mistress of the Moon,” came the final line of the chant.

Across the broad lines of the morning Temple, silence settled as motes of dust drifted through sunbeams that hurt Cynthia’s eyes. The red-robed Acolyte walked up to the bloodstained altar, retrieved the Mistress of the Moon, and headed back to the door to the Chamber of Initiation.

Flutters of conversation broke out birdlike, soon building to a musical rumble. The blue-eyed priestess approached Cynthia and said with a smile, “Welcome to the Temple, Cynthia. I hope you slept well.”

The doors of the Chamber of Initiation boomed shut.

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