Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Ballad of Titian and Midiana: Chapter 3: Forbidden Love

Chapter 3
Forbidden Love
(Warning: Mature Content)

Her name was Midiana and her face is all I can see now, whenever I shut my eyes.

She was standing by the stone idol of Maki, her fingers brushing the ears of a docile, green tiger. Snowy white peacocks were surrounding her, which were remarkable to me, as I had not known such birds to exist. From that first glimpse, I could make out only her flowing white chiton. Her face was half in silhouette, and shadows played across the nape of her neck where the torch light touched her. As I moved closer, I noticed her hair—black as pitch—every strand threaded into braids as thick as ropes. Her face was a ruddy gold, and looking into it was like looking into the sun—there was such beauty to be found in those ample lips, in that simple nose, that I feared to go blind should I stare too long. And the longer I beheld her, the lovelier she became. I memorized those lines endlessly—those dark amber eyes, so much like a bird’s eyes . . . Oh, I had still to see her shape beneath her robes, yet I was stricken. The whores of the other temple, it seemed, with their perfumed and painted faces were as false and shallow to me as masks.

Our first discourse was short and bitter. I was unsure why I bothered to accost her. Perhaps it was to learn the functions of the temple. What my first words were to her, I do not even remember. Nevertheless, she noticed me with great alarm, responding to my inquiries with embarrassment and with her palm slighting her vision. I’d feared such a reaction upon first entering the city, but was unprepared for it now that I had come to know, in more ways than one, the locals of the island. She was quick to make it known that nakedness was forbidden in the Temple of Maki, and that no male could step foot over the sacred threshold. Even the tiger and the peacocks roaming about were female. She was not explicit in saying that the women of their priesthood were to remain chaste, but it was understood. It appeared that each of the three goddesses represented a different moral view, Irene and Maki standing furthest apart on issues of vice. So I apologized to her, thinking little of what had happened and took my leave.

The following morning, I could not tear the bright icon of her face from my mind. Here I did not know her name, yet she possessed me. Mystified, I thought perhaps my ailment was but a yearning for the flesh. So I returned to the east temple and to the harlots of Irene, finding my old companion, Valis. By that time he seemed nothing like the proud warrior who once fought by my side. He had grown, in fact, quite pale, and his belly sagged about the waist, and like a fattened hog he often lolled about in nothing but a crown of laurel leaves. I pitied what he had become, but did not have the strength to tell him lest it spoil our friendship. Stretched along the marble steps, like a king retired from conquest, laughing foolishly at some base amusement whilst stuffing grapes into his mouth—that is how I found him. Upon seeing me, his face brightened. I told him of my strange encounter with the priestess from the western temple, and he suggested, as an antidote for my woes, a frolic with the devotees of Irene. My heart did not rise to the idea, but I agreed to join in the nightly revelries.

The air was heavy and wet with jasmine and rose water, and the music of the lyre echoed from the chambers of the sacred pools where stone gods gazed with coy smiles and mock shame, and the women in the dim firelight were young and shapely and eager to please. But to the abasement of my manly pride, I was powerless to engage in the act. Though I had cycles in which to spill my seed, I felt, more so than ever, a feeling of repulsion, scorn and pity for those priestesses who had known the passing of men as a shepherd counts his flock. So I abandoned their temple, restless and alone beneath the bright blaze of constellations, and the glow of the turquoise moon reminded me of days long past and of places for which I longed.

In the morning I was inspired by a dream to seek the woman of my affection. So I borrowed a chiton from the Temple of Zoë, and found her in an olive orchard behind the Temple of Maki, with a rake of sorts, beating olives from the branches into a basket. When I approached her this time, she was not startled, yet did not know me. Perhaps it was my being dressed, or that she never really looked at me the other day. In any case, I introduced myself as best as I could in her tongue. She thought my name strange, and with reluctance shared hers, which I also deemed strange, but beautiful, a name branded to my memory. Though treating me once more with coldness, I persisted, asking questions of the island, of her religion, and of things already known to me, merely to hear her voice, which was more beautiful than any bard could ever sing.

It was how I learned the functions of Maki. The goddess delivers punishments to any who blasphemes the gods, her sisters, Zoë and Irene, though I could not imagine what insult one could make to offend Irene. Maki also protects Aea from foreigners. Ships wandering too closely to the island are split apart by storms—even as she told me this, it did not occur to me to think upon the loss of my own crew, so entranced was I by the sing-song loveliness of her voice. Both sexes worship Maki through idols in their home, but only a woman can be called to divine the will of the gods, and I soon learned that, in every aspect of their culture, the female is dominant. Perhaps that was why, I thought, the islanders were so passive. In war, however, it is the women who go into battle. Aea is without king or queen. The goddesses are themselves sovereigns and lawgivers, authority which is delegated to the priestesses. A female follower of Maki knows a man only in marriage, but a priestess cannot be touched by the male sex, for even such an act is sacrilege. Speaking to a man is also forbidden, but Midiana told me that in recent years the laws had become lax. She suggested it was the age of peace and prosperity that had brought about the change. Regardless, she made it clear I was never to touch her, and so, keeping my distance, we continued our discourse as I aided her in the harvesting of olives.

After a little while we fell into an uncomfortable silence. She continued working diligently, fluttering to each tree like a butterfly, her eyes shifting always to some duty. It made me feel like an apparition, and the thought of it ground my insides into chaff. As hard as I tried, I simply could think of no more to say. Still, I was tormented by her indifference, by her lack of curiosity for me and for the land from which I came.

For some days I continued visiting her. Even when she could not speak to me, I’d spy upon her, and the more she shunned me, the more obsessed I was to know her. Once, she shooed me away, so that the other priestesses would not see us together. I realized that at any moment she could have had me banished. It gave me hope, to believe she cherished the few words we’d shared together.

I trusted Valis with the secret of my fixation, and he urged me to continue my pursuit. To him, I acted out of lust, though I knew it to be more, a deep burning of the soul he could not imagine. With the cycle of the moons, I learned the pattern of her outings, for the temple priestesses, even those of Irene, functioned in an orderly manner. When Midiana remained indoors to pray, I took no pleasure in other women, but roamed the hilly, dry brush wilderness that crept about the city.

One afternoon, I spotted her in the courtyard with sword in hand, performing a kind of ritualistic dance. Her movements were graceful, and may have been hypnotic to an opponent, yet were of little practical use. I knew that the priestesses of Maki were trained warriors, but a decade or so of peace had dulled their skill, now more art than war.

I approached, asking to examine her sword. She took great care presenting it, so as not to touch me, and I resisted the temptation to brush my fingertips against her. The hilt and handle were exceedingly ornate, suiting her elegant forearm. Its silver blade was like polished silver, mirroring her face and mine, but it was brittle, and the curve of the hilt was a hindrance to wielding it. I demonstrated some of my techniques, swinging the weapon with such force that I feared it might snap in two, yet I was sluggish compared to when I first came to the island. With that, however, she was fascinated, as she’d never seen a sword used in such a manner. I explained how each movement was an attack to a vital part of the body, to the throat, the underbelly, to the knees. In contrast, no one had made it clear what her movements were meant for, and I was glad she did not ask for I had not the will to tell her that they served little purpose. It was not long before the thread of questions turned to my origins and to the many battles I’d fought. She confessed she had never seen battle much less been involved in one, and when I began to relate the tale of the Nibian War, she stopped me short, finding the whole bloody ordeal too awful to listen to. It was then that I knew that she was unfit to be a warrior.

She was chosen by one of the Three at birth, to be raised in the goddess’ image. It saddened me to hear it, reminding me of my own proscribed childhood, though she saw no injustice in it. Eventually, I asked if she could change her role, perhaps to become a priestess of Zoë, but she withdrew from me like a frightened hare. I did not see her after that for two whole days, and cursed my tongue for separating me from my love.

When next I saw her, drifting through the temple’s colonnades, her spirit was as the yoked aurochs hoofing through the clay, but in eyeing me, all the burdens of life were lifted at once, and she radiated with love as the sun shines upon Ænya. When we met again, there was a change in her demeanor, her eyes lingering on mine. In short time, our meetings became routine. And when the sun was deep in the moon and all were in dreams, we carried on our dialogues with hushed voices. Alas, our joy was tainted from the onset, for we were as two peacocks caged by fear.

In the twilight hours I sat with her. She was more beautiful than any goddess could ever be, with hair a deep violet in the moonlight, crowned by the pinks and violets of the bougainvillea climbing the columns around us. With tears that glistened like diamonds, she lamented her fate—how she could not abandon the priesthood to become my wife. I was taken aback to hear it, never having known the depths of her affection for me. At once, I grieved for us, and confessed all that was in me, and in hearing it she showed no alarm, but soaked up my words as if she could not have survived otherwise. I then became fearful, that she in turn might fear to lose me, and so I vowed to return and to sit by her, if only to adore her with my eyes and ears till my limbs no longer carry me. With that, whatever current she kept within her bosom came gushing forth, and she tore at her chiton as if burning in it, and embraced me, the once noble cloth hanging in tatters. I did what was in my nature, touching where her hands would lead me, and no place was too sacred. Thusly we found warmth in the cool twilight air. But in the meantime of our joining, we heard footfalls and became frightened. With the sun behind Infinity, we were but united silhouettes, but we dared not be discovered, and hid like shamefaced children in a copse of basil. That was time enough for me to regain my senses, and as painful as removing an arrow from my side, I suggested we abstain from doing what we had been about to, for my fear for her was great. At this she flew into a rage, pulling at her braids, clawing at her skin, and I was astounded to hear her cursing Maki with the foulest of obscenities, vowing to offer up her maidenhood that very instant should it mean her death. I shuddered at the oath, but she persisted, and whatever power I had to resist her wasted away, and hand-in-hand we ventured into the temple, our hearts thrumming in our chests. “It’s the only place,” she murmured, “where we will not be seen.” I asked about the other priestesses, but she assured me that they were deep in the slumber of undiluted wine and could not be awakened. “No one will know,” she added, and I nodded, captivated by her will, tailing her into the Shrine of Maki.

Across a floor of semiprecious stones, before the eyes of that wrathful goddess, in that sacred chamber where no male was to set foot, I seized her body and she mine. Nude and entwined, we gave shape to our love, and worshipped each other in words and actions. And though the walls echoed with her elation, we continued untamed, like a pair of stallions loosed, freely exploring every facet that made us man and woman, relishing in our bonded flesh all the more in that we defiled the sanctity of the temple.

What possessed us so? What devils of lust contaminated our thoughts and our souls, turning us to madness, to slaves of our urges? Was it mere love? I cannot say. When the deed was done, we lay sweaty and panting in each other’s arms; I felt the victor of a great battle, of a great war, but the moment of ecstasy, of bliss, was fleeting. Spread and broken and overflowing white with my seed, Midiana turned to me and whispered, with such trembling fear that I can never hope to forget it, “What have we done?”

It was as if, suddenly, every facet of caution and humility spilled forth, but far too late. For what I was to witness then was more terrifying than anything I ever knew, nor ever shall know. Sensing some motion in the corner of my eye, I raised my head slightly and there it froze, fixed upon the scowling face of a breathing idol.

“MIDIANA,” the goddess bellowed, and my love shot upward, shaking gruesomely with terror, desperately clutching the remains of her robe to hide her nakedness. Oh, how she turned pale, and fell on her face in penitence! Alas, how she wept for mercy before that somber, pitiless visage. I could hear her murmuring, like a small child, “Forgive . . . forgive . . .” But the idol did not care to listen, delivering justice with its massive, pointing finger. Midiana jolted on to her toes, as if caught by some invisible hook, and her chiton dropped weakly from her fist. With panic and rage, I demanded to know what was happening to my beloved. But already I could see it, and much too soon. Midiana’s lovely figure was convulsing, like a marionette on the strings of a drunken puppeteer. Her once fair flesh was turning hard, and pressing up through the skin were scales, like those of a lizard. I stood, powerless to stop what was happening, and I could hear the goddess’ words hammering in my ears: “FOR SUCH SACRILAGE, THERE SHALL BE NO DELIVERANCE FROM ME, AS YOU HAVE SWORN—BUT LIFE IMMORTAL! AS GREAT THE GIFT OF BEAUTY THAT YOU’VE KNOWN, SO SHALL YOU KNOW, FOR AS LONG AS THE STARS BURN, UGLINESS. AND ALL WHO SEE YOU WILL SHUDDER, AND BECOME UNMOVING, AND BECOME LIKE STONE.”

I reached out to her, to snatch her from that judgment, my eyes following the progress of her changing as if to steal her beauty in my memory. She backed from me, hiding her face with a claw that once had been a hand. “Titian!” she wailed, in a voice I accepted to be hers, with great reluctance and despair. And she begged me not look, and in that there was no other way to ease her suffering, I did as she asked and turned away. With what little sanity endured in her, she pleaded that I flee. Despite her transformation, my love for her grew stronger by my compassion. But by this time I could tell that whatever stood before my clenched eyelids was far from human, far from my Midiana, and so I forced myself to abandon the only woman that I ever loved, looking back once to see a shadow cross the breast of a lifeless statue, and oh how that writhing shadow made me shiver and look once more away.

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