art by Jason Stirret
by Tom Doyle
At the first chill of winter in Delphi, Aristonike's husband was struck with fever and died. Aristonike washed his gnarled body with her calloused hands and placed one of their few coins in his mouth. Her two boys and their wives helped with careful piety, while her grandchildren squawked and squalled.
With the funeral done and quiet restored, Aristonike was confirmed in her decision: she would not live with either of her boys' families. Her sons' wives were pleasant, but that would change if she stuck her nose into it. She'd be bound to tell those proud girls to dirty their hands and milk their own goats, for starters. No, she would go someplace where she wouldn't cause trouble.
When the sun rose, she picked up her stick and walked up the long steep road to see the priests at the shrine of Apollo. Tall cypresses guarded the way. Below to the southwest, a distant bay in the Gulf of Corinth shimmered like a welcoming omen. A short ways outside Apollo's sanctuary to the southeast stood the temple of Athena, which reminded Aristonike to keep ready her wits.
Apollo's priests had been on the lookout for a new Pythia. They only took older women from the Delphi area, like that Chloe, who had done the job for years. Old Chloe certainly hadn't been anything special, so Aristonike had as good a chance as anyone. Being Pythia was decent work. You could sit down, which sounded nice, given how her legs felt trudging up the road. The priests gave you a cozy little house of your own to live in, and despite her silent complaint about her daughters-in-law, she'd personally had enough of worn hands and goat milking for a lifetime.
This morning, the well-trod Sacred Way was nearly empty. The oracle closed down in the winter while Apollo supposedly stayed with the Hyperboreans. Why would a god want to stay someplace colder in the winter? Gods were like that--priorities all backwards.
She plodded past the Athenian treasury. Like everything Athenian, it was excessive, but maybe this time they had a point. They had paid for this gem of a building with the spoils of the battle at Marathon. The shields and weapons of the defeated Persians decorated the fašade and the near wall. Her boys said the Persians would return to Attica, but eight years had passed, and no word of barbarians.
She turned left at a corner of the Sacred Way, and saw a priest walking toward her, raising one hand in greeting, holding a tablet in the other. She remembered his name then: Timon.
"Sir, I'm here about the job."
His eyes took her measure from gray head to worn feet like she was a goat for trade. She did the same to him: still young, he didn't have a great beard for a priest, but he had the necessary arrogance.
"Yes, Aristonike." Surprising that he remembered her name. "Come this way. We've been expecting you."
The winter damp felt colder. "Expecting me?"
"We were sorry to hear about your husband's passing. Please, this way."
Well, it was an oracle, but Aristonike wasn't comfortable with this sort of attention.
Timon took her up to the temple entrance, stepped up onto the weathered stone of the front porch, and seemed ready to lead her into the sacred cella room without ritual. Was this a test? "Don't I need to purify myself?"
He sniffed the air, and wrinkled his nose. "For now, I don't mind." Cheeky fellow. "Sorry, a little joke. If you get the job, you'll bathe in the spring, but that's for the benefit of those consulting the Pythia. The god doesn't care whether you smell like goat or not."
They walked to the back of the cella, and went down five steps into the adyton, a dark and damp room set off to the left.
"You must swear by Apollo to not speak of what takes place here to any outsider."
"I swear by Apollo not to speak of it, and may he strike me with his arrow if I lie. Is it always so dark in here?"
"Oh, sorry. Lights," he said. Flickering flames instantly appeared from lamps. Timon was looking at her, expectant. She was used to her boys trying to impress her. "Very nice," she said.
She saw the metal tripod where the Pythia would sit, perhaps precariously. Closer to where they stood was the omphalos, the navel of the world. A net of thick ropes covered the round, tapering stone, as if to hold it from toppling over. Flanking the omphalos were two statues of the eagles that had flown from each end of the cosmos to meet at this spot. A crack ran through the floor to let in the sacred breath, which was a good idea, as the space was a little too cozy and could use some air.
"First," said Timon, "will your neighbors confirm that you lead a blameless life?"
"Yes. But don't talk to Dora. She makes things up." Or at least she exaggerated. Aristonike hadn't been trying to steal anything; she just liked to see what was going on in other people's houses.
Timon opened his wax tablet. "Repeat after me. Is Sa Lu Ri..." He whispered some nonsense sounds, like baby or barbarian talk. She repeated them back, good and loud--it was like a game.
"Excellent. Finally, this is, um, a delicate question, but have you ever participated in the Bacchic rites?"
She nodded. She was too old to blush at such, but she did.
"What you're going to do is holy. You might feel like the god is upon you, though it's not quite the same as with Bacchus. Just relax, and let the god use you. But you must repeat out loud every syllable he tells you. Understand?"
"Yes, sir." She had burbled a lot of nonsense during the Bacchic rites; she could do it again, though some strong wine would help.
After being so good and calm through this strangeness, now she was trembling. Would the god strike her dead? Goats were looking better and better.