Petals fell through the air, pale pink and white marbled. The air was warm on the woman’s shoulders, but you wouldn’t know it to look at them. Alhough fingers of the golden sun stretched between the rows of pillars she hunched, with little prickles standing each hair on end. Her shoulders heaved. Skirts bunched around her knees and waist in swaths and her hair hung in loose and tangled curls that twisted sinuously as she shook. Slowly the curls wove tighter and tighter until the individual hairs were thick coils as thick as a wrist or thicker.
A pattern formed across the surface of the thick knot of curls. Her shoulders shook again and a single loose curl fell and quickly tightened, thinner, but as alike to the other merging curls as one sister to another. As one, the thick mass that was hair hissed then each knot stretched long, a curtain of snakes.
It was traditional for petals to rest at the altars of a goddess. And Athens was a traditional city in many ways. So it was odd for a girl to go to Athena’s temple rather than Aphrodite’s the day before her wedding. Yet Amaranthe did. Now the petals fluttered and gathered in corners.
My mouth was huffing at the hot air by the time I reached the top of the Acropolis. It was a lot further than Aphrodite’s Temple in the Agora and the straps of my sandals pulled tight against my heat swollen ankles. Lines of red rose under the straps wrapped round and round. I would soak my feet tonight. There was still a ways to Athena’s temple and my breath was already pulling at my lungs.
Still, I continued to raise my foot and take another step. Somehow I found the wall of Athena’s tempt rising up to meet my nose. I rested a hand against the stone. It still felt so cool. So I turned and leaned my back against the wall for a moment. I could have sighed aloud it felt so good. But the crunch of sandals made me open my eyes. Slinking around the corner into the quiet doorway, I tried to escape company.
Inside was warmer than expected. Not a breeze disturbed the inner rooms. A soft quiet, like the forest, reigned. Pillars, like trees surrounded the outer perimeter. Dull echoes from the surrounding temples and voices from far away reminded me that the day went on outside.
Amaranthe was built much like the flower she was named for but her coloring never seemed to match. Yet in the shadow of the temple walls, her hair became dark purple and her face yellow tinted as pollen. A small, head bobbing sort of girl, she always looked like she was agreeing when she was really thinking. She is agreeable, the man around the corner thought as he watched her walk carefully inside.
When he’d finished with her, she lay shivering. He laid his coat around her before he left, but did not stay long.
The coat around my shoulders felt slimy. And the instant the man was gone, I shrugged out of it. Sunlight still shone at the edge of the temple facing the ocean. At first I couldn’t stand. Hunched over, I felt as if the tears would come and flood my eyesight. But they didn’t. I could still see very clearly. My sandal straps tugged at my ankles still. And the sun was beginning to set. It felt too cold under the temple shadows now. And I forced myself to head towards the light.
For a moment, it seemed the girl was dead. Yet slowly she moved as if her body had forgotten it was able to make those choices for itself. The woman of the temple noticed how small Amaranthe’s frame was, especially now, without the drape of a dress to hide it top to bottom, now that she was no longer a girl, but a woman. The petals in the dishes and on the table, where the struggle first began were on the ground now and soiled. It was time to descend.
It felt like each muscle had frozen and was thawing slowly. Moving had helped. There were areas that were still numb, despite the sun. The top of the Acropolis seemed very quiet now, even outside the temple walls. A petal floated by. Turning my head to follow it I saw the rest of the petals. All the petals from the temple were swirling by the pillars as if from a sudden wind. But I couldn’t feel the wind. A low voice muttered. I closed my eyes and stayed still.
“Woman,” the voice echoed off the walls. “You have defiled my temple.”
The voice was sad. “For that, I cannot let you be.” The soft step of a sandal made me turn.
A tall and broad shouldered woman stood looking cockeyed at me. I gathered the torn dress around me.
“This is a temple for virgins, which you no longer are. And the flowers have been dirtied.”
I stared up at the woman. Her mouth was stern when not speaking. My head sank in shame. She had been my goddess. I had none now.
“For this defilement, there must be a punishment.”
I shuddered. The cold come back under my skin and I only wanted to soak in the sun.
“Once daughter and maiden,” she continued, her feet near my hand, “you will be forever beautiful and monstrous. You froze before. Yet now men will freeze to look at you and forever gaze in terror. Would you like that?”
Her hand came under my chin to turn my eyes to her. I wanted to tell her it wasn’t my fault. It did not matter. I had changed before she spoke. So I nodded.
“You will not be alone. There will be others, sisters.” Her fingers brushed through my curls and down my arm. And then she was gone.
Petals still flew around the pillars. And a light breeze shook the thick curls on Amaranthe’s shoulders. The name no longer suited her. She could not be compared to a flower now. Though the brown veins of the bruised petals matched her skin, the writhing of her hair was wild and rough.
A man went rushing by the temple. After long hours of supplication, he was ready to go home. His eyes were at first directed at the path ahead, but a petal caught his eye. He turned to look and saw a figure at the edge of Athena’s temple. For a moment he thought her a woman and looked into her eyes. A blush rose to his cheeks before he froze, mid-step, his body turned to stone.
The snakes slithered back onto my shoulders, calm. I would need a new name for myself. But I couldn’t think of one yet.
This time the music challenge was chosen by Dylan Hughes. Check out the story here.