Read Part One of this story here.
The two men nodded in mutual respect, and the priest pointed at the old woman, who was now sitting on a three-legged stool. “Your Grace, the Pythoness herself is in attendance today. The Eldest One. Because of your … ah … great generosity to the holy precinct of the College of Lord God Apollo, we—I, myself, I went down … down in the darkness … went down to fetch her. Under the command of the Lord God Himself. All has been explained to you?” As the general nodded, the priest hurried on. “You understand, then, that Lord God Apollo has received your inquiry? The Pythoness will reply. That is, she will convey the Lord God’s words, which I myself will translate. You understand that old women often speak gibberish that common men—that … ah … august personages such as yourself—do not … er … comprehend.” The general frowned. “It’s part of the mystery! It is as Lord God Apollo permits.” The general nodded again. “If Your Grace will kindly excuse me, I must prepare myself. Ordinarily, the younger priests carry out these duties … for the questions of common men … that is to say—”
“Get on with it, man. I’m waiting. My army is waiting. The enemy is waiting.”
The high priest bowed. “Yes. Of course. Waiting.” He bowed again, backed away, and walked with fussy dignity to his station, a pavilion just outside the shed where the veiled woman sat waiting. The pavilion had been especially constructed for this occasion. Gold and white cloths were draped across ebony poles to shade a wide ivory chair for the head priest and a low table for the stenographer, a skinny brown man who emerged from one of the marble outbuildings and stumbled down the slope.
“Mind your step,” hissed one of the junior priests. “That’s no way to behave when you’re fortunate enough to serve the High Priest of Lord God Apollo himself.”
Only the high priest heard the chuckle. She’s laughing at me again, he thought. She always laughs at me. He settled himself into the ivory chair, which was barely broad enough to hold his bulk. Why do I let her get away with—?
“Because, old fool, you still have just enough wit to recognize the true power.”
No one else heard the harsh whisper, if whisper it really was, and the stenographer only blinked several times as he settled himself at the low table upon which the writing utensils lay. The wax tablet was brand new, fashioned just that morning. The stylus was freshly sharpened.
The priest forced himself to relax. He closed his eyes, let his head fall forward, made certain gestures with his right hand, and ostentatiously took a number of deep breaths. When he felt himself ready to proceed, he nodded, and two young priests who had been waiting a few yards away carried a brazen tripod into the shed where the Pythoness sat. On the tripod was an iron brazier, the coals already gray. The senior maiden next approached, carrying her jar of herbs. She bowed deeply before the fat priest, who acknowledged her with a tiny nod, bowed again to the gathered priests, bowed a third time to the general and his escort. “Mother,” she whispered to the veiled priestess so softly that no man heard her, “may I have your blessing?” The head under the veil moved. The girl sprinkled herbs from her jar over the coals in the brazier. The smoke rose from the coals and filled the shed, and then it billowed out and flowed around the pavilion. The priests moved away from the smoke. The general’s escort moved away.
Although the stenographer sat too low to be much affected by the smoke, he coughed and cupped one hand over his nose and mouth as he picked up the stylus. The high priest allowed himself a sigh and a slight smile as he settled his buttocks more comfortably in the ivory chair. This goes as planned, he said to himself, and, besides, we’re upwind. “Just write what I say,” he instructed the stenographer in a low voice. “Pay no attention to the mutterings of old women.” He closed his eyes again.
The smoke was billowing into blue-gray clouds now, and no one could see that it left an island of clarity around the Pythoness. Because of the double veiling of the smoke and the stole over her head, no one saw the movement of the python as she licked the priestess’s ears and lips.
The old woman understood what was expected of her. She knew exactly why they had hauled her up, as they always did when some fool or other brought a really extravagant donation to the treasuries of the priests of Apollo. So she sat awhile with her eyes closed against the bright morning sun, enjoying the unaccustomed warmth. She already knew what she would say, and she knew that while the fat priest would listen carefully, he would not necessarily repeat what he heard. She knew that the stenographer would listen carefully to his master’s words and transcribe his vague, ungrammatical phrases and disjointed sentences into perfect Alexandrine couplets. She knew that her prophecy, thus improved, would be delivered with appropriate pomp and ceremony to this latest querent. And she knew that the general, puzzled by the high-flying words, would pay the priestly college additional gold and silver to have it written again in the words he wanted to hear. “Even after we’re long gone,” she whispered to the serpent, “even when men have their holy books and their laws and their audiences, even then it will still be the same.”
And so, smiling under her veil, she waited until the serpent seemed to sleep. She waited as the tendrils of smoke teased the delicate nostrils of the stenographer, making him choke, which made the fat priest nudge the young man with one pale fat foot shod in a golden sandal. She waited until the other priests and the maidens began to study the drifting clouds in the sky and the whispering leaves of the trees and the flight of birds from tree to tree. She waited until the Athenian general, staring with appraising eyes at the new golden statue of the godling in his marble temple, began to pace back and forth.
At last: “Tell the general that, yes, he will conquer the dark peoples of the peninsula. He will win this battle and the next one and the one after that. Then he will die with his intestines falling out in the dirt between his fingers, his blood leaking from more wounds than his aides will care to count. Some of those wounds will have been made in his body by those very aides. Tell him that.
“Then tell him,” the serpent stirred and the old woman shifted on the three-legged stool, “then tell him that his puny city-state will rise in power, as the sun rises in heat and light. And then tell him—tell them all—that as the sun also sets and the heat and light of the year wane, so will their civilization decline, and as it dies it will shine only by the reflected heat and light of a younger, more virile empire until darkness falls upon them both, and then even Apollo’s temples will have been sacked and lie in ruins upon this land.”
For a few moments, she was silent as she listened to the voices of the future. “And tell him that tyrants will be thrown down. Tell him that mothers’ sons will be killed by fiery weapons we cannot even imagine. Tell him that death will rain down from the sky and that innocent people will fall and disappear from the earth. Tell him that his wars will come and go and come again, that they will be more terrible than we can imagine.”
She was silent again. Finally, the end of her prophecy. “Tell the general that he has nowhere to go. Tell the general that news of his victories will not matter, that his monuments will crumble, that his very name will fade away as a drop of water strikes a rock heated by the sun and evaporates, leaving no trace. Tell him that.”
The high priest, hearing truly, put his hands to his face. Then he remembered his ceremonial role and ostentatiously massaged his forehead as if in profound thought. After a few minutes, he began to speak and the slave began to take notes.
The old woman stood up. The smoke parted before her, and the priests and maidens all turned their backs as she went by, though they did not know why, nor would they even remember doing so. The Pythoness, last of her line, walked slowly across the courtyard of the new temple that usurped her ground. She walked with immeasurable dignity, veiled, with the weight of the holy Python around her shoulders.
And all that she said came to pass. Empire after empire fell into the shadows of the earth.
Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic. Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations. When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.