I am standing in the cool air of the evening with my feet on the stone of the entryway. The night is full of the smell of winter and I can hear only my breath and the breath of my sisters around me. We have been dancing for so long that I no longer remember when we started. I only remember that the healers visited us with their tangy, herb-scented drink over and over again. Our training and our muscles took us past the point where we thought we might fall to the ground. They took us to the place where the spirit expands and the body keeps moving because it is willed to do so. To the place that is full of the music of what we are making together as we dance. It has been the most beautiful time of my life and there are tears in my eyes at the pleasure of being a part of this extended moment that spirals on and on as the night turns to day and back again.
Now we are still because we have called the Guardians from their places of rest. We are silent to give them space for their arrival. Our heads are lowered as we sense the change in the air that means they are taking their places at the points of the triangle that surrounds and protects this sacred spot. At each point is a high stone carved for them to stand upon as they look out from the night and towards what will happen here tomorrow as the golden smile of the sun opens to the new day and the new time ahead.
I begin to feel the places where my bare feet have been hitting the flat surfaces of the stones over and over as I spun round and round in time with the others dancing beside me. Together our feet beat out the rhythm we danced to and sang with in a circle of increasing energy that fed itself over and over again as we built it up. I have seen the feet of other dancers in other years, and I know how bruised mine will be tomorrow. But tonight I feel only joy that I gave my body’s movements and my song to this working.
Sweat is rapidly cooling as it pours down my back. Now that I have stopped moving, I am starting to feel the muscles in my arms that have been upraised since it was the time of the night before we began to dance. They are shaking like I am a blade of grass in the wind. I look out of the corner of my eye to see if the others have lowered their embrace of the starry sky. I see that they have not. This is my first time joining in the dance. I am proud of the strength of my young body and do not want to be the first to give in to the shaking that is starting to move through me now that I am no longer stirring the energy of attraction and desire that has brought the Guardians to us.
We dance because we love beauty. Every one of my sisters and I adore the slow, careful move of the arms, the short, staccato steps of the feet, the undulating curves of the body. Each of us has spent many years, all of our young lives, watching and listening to the fish, the birds, the trees, the streams and everything around us that moves so that we can learn from each movement how to make our dance more powerful. The dance grows in power as our people grow in number. It also grows with the world around us as it changes day by day and season by season. If we moved the same way tonight as we did this time last year, the dance would not work. We would be out of step with the larger dance around us and the Guardians would notice. They might not come as we call them, and that would be a terrible thing for our people.
We dance because we are beauty. Every one of us has been chosen by our people because we embody the power and wonder of our Mother in the curve of our hips, in the shape of our fingers, in the flash of our eyes, in the dark waves of our hair. We were dedicated by our parents to live this life apart from all others so that we could do what we have done tonight. Every day, since before each of us can remember, we have trained to draw in more energy, to last longer, to move with greater precision.
It is a life of ordeal and pain. All of us here in the dance have healed from deep blisters, strained arms and sometimes even broken bones or torn joints. We are the fortunate ones. Some do not make it to the place where I now stand because their bodies are not able to do what I have done to get here. They find along the way that it is too much for them to live like this. Some of them take this with grace and find other places in the temple, or they leave this temple and join another sisterhood with a different goal that does not require as much of the body.
Others do not let their dreams go so easily. We are held in high esteem by our people,and our families are continually blessed by our participation in the dances at the temple. It is a position many desire and few obtain. Five years ago I heard the terrible cry of the elders wailing a lament because one of my sisters jumped from the cliffs above the beach. She went like and arrow into the ocean and did not return.
For me and the others who now stand beside and around me, pain is not the only sensation. For us, this is also a life of ecstatic joy. Every day our movements are a little easier, a little faster, a little more fluid. We seek to embody the depth of wells, the laughter of streams, the rush of the rain as it comes again after a long absence. When this happens, smiles light the path we move across and we shine out into the world so brightly it is said the caretakers of the mountain shrines at the other side of the valley by the two hills can see us. We are the callers of the Guardians and the language we cry out to them with is the language of our bodies in dance. What we do is essential to the survival of our people. We are beloved by all around us. Our sisters become healers when they are too old to dance as we do this night and take care of those who do the stirring so that each year our calls will be heard. I have never known anything else but this life. I have never wanted anything else either.
I remember this and my arms stay high above my head in the gesture that calls to the sky where the three stars shine in the triangle that mirrors the one formed by the three high stones where the Guardians come to rest. It is the first step in preparing for the arrival of Therasia. Tomorrow it will be her face that smiles the smile of the sun. But I will not be part of that ritual. It is for another sisterhood to welcome her once again into our lives. My place is out here in the darkness, dressed in the skins of the three animals sacred to the Guardians. I am one of those who prepare the way.
Part of my training was learning to hunt each of the three animals. I started with the stag because I was born in the woodlands down lower on the mountain. My people came from his forest, so I started by seeking his prize. After I had learned to listen and to find what I sought, I moved higher up to search for the goat. That one took three years to find. Once the skin of the goat hung next to that of the stag, I climbed even higher than where I now stand and hunted the Ibex, wily horned beast of the rocky highlands. The trails of sharp rock were much harder on my feet than on his hooves. Now there are three sets of horns on the part of the altar I am responsible for and my clothes have three kinds of fur.
I had forgotten that I was wearing anything during the dance, but hearing the sounds of the Guardians breathing above my own breath reminds me. I have eaten the flesh of their sacred animals and it has helped me grow strong. They bring water so that my people can live, so their sacred animals can live, and so the forest can live. They are part of me and part of my people. I never forget the fact of this connection.
The first Guardian is the Goat of Water Stones. He was born from the she-goat who lives at the top of the mountain overlooking the sea. On the day he was born, the flat stone where his mother birthed him split in half and water flowed out of it and down the mountain. Through his favor we are fortunate to have the water of springs where the moss grows soft and green. When we see a gentle wall of moss, we know we are looking at clean water that is safe to drink from. His brother is the Stag of the River where the water winds down through the forest and brings life to the roots of trees and the wide grasslands in the bottom of the valley. This is the land where my family comes from, so we have always had a special love for the Stag of the River.
The third Guardian is the most difficult to find. Our ancestors used to go out to the cliff where it overhangs the place that the deep water carved from it before anyone can remember. It is a high, sloped cliff that is ochre in color. The bottom layer where the water carved it out is darker than the rest. Many snakes live in the cracks between these dark stones. Below them is a deep pool that is all that remains of the lake that used to be here. Before we learned to call the Guardians by dancing, our ancestors would take their shining black stones and long pounding rocks out to this place.
They would stand at the base of the cliff where the lake used to be. They would use the tools they carried with them to make the Rain Sound that would call the Star Ibex down from where he lives on top of his pyramid that is higher up than anyone I know has ever climbed. Our ancestors would speak with him and ask him to bring the rain.
Now we call all three of the Horned Ones of the Stars at once with our dance. But the story of the Rain Sound remains because we need to remember it was not always this easy. It stays in our memories in case we need to call him using it sometime in the future.
All three Guardians are standing at their points on the triangle surrounding our temple. They have not spoken to us yet, but they have come. We know this because the air around us changes when they arrive. There is no way to describe it other than to say it is the feeling of their presence.
The elders begin walking out to them to listen for messages they may have chosen to share with us. They walk carefully. It is forbidden to approach the stones where the Guardians arrive until they take their places. An old story tells how this was learned when our ancestors first started using the dance to call them. The first year this was done, an elder waited on each stone to welcome them to the new way of speaking with us. As they arrived, each Guardian killed the waiting elder. Then they left.
There followed a winter without rain. Many of our people did not live to see the next year because there wasn’t enough food. Since that time, the elders wait just outside our dance and do not go up to the stones until they are occupied.
My sisters and I move into two lines to form a pathway that leads to the opening of the small temple inside the stones ahead of us. We have completed our task. Now it is our turn to stand and hold the space of protection as the seven Star Maidens begin the Dance of the Day. We walk silently in step into the sides of the small room that is at the heart of the temple. Our movement draws the path the Star Maidens will use to begin their part of the dance. Once we enter the temple, we sit carefully on the floor and wait. Attendants emerge from within the temple and hand each of us a sistrum made of wood with shells and pieces of copper strung between the open V of the body. We wait for the Star Maidens in silence.
We hear them before we see them. Each of them is covered in a dress of golden bells and is wearing wide bands of the same bells on their legs. They cannot take a step without bursting into music. Their dance is more delicate than ours. They float gently into the mouth of the darkness outside the temple. We raise our sistrums to welcome them and begin the rising and falling change that pours out the path for them to dance upon.
Everything about them is as small, bright and delicate as we are powerful and dark. Our people tend to have hair the color of the back of a cave and eyes that span the range of obsidian colors from deep, shining browns to intensely sparkling black. But a few of us are born with lighter eyes, more delicate features, and an energy that sings a special song from somewhere else. From these are chosen the Star Maidens.
I learned to hunt for my clothes. Each of them learned to sew the tiny golden bells onto their skirts and make the bands for their ankles and arms. I learned to stand outside all night, no matter how cold. They learned to move in precise and perfect unison through the complexity of the dance that travels only a few body-lengths across this one stretch of floor. We are as different as can be, but our differences meet in this ritual that could not happen without either of our sisterhoods.
I raise my sistrum and my voice as they enter the doorway. Every three steps they stop and turn so that the light from the oil lamps that sit on every available flat surface around us can bounce off their gold in all directions. The light and their song cleanses us and cleanses the space. Then it reaches out through our personal connections to all of our families and all or our people.
Once the Star Maidens enter the temple, The representatives of the families who have not given a daughter to my sisterhood crowd in behind them. Not all of them will fit, so the rest stand outside to catch what they can. Inside the song is plentiful. There is enough to spill out into the night as far as there are ears to listen.
As the gilded dancers step and turn, they are sweeping away all things that might get in the way of Therasia’s coming tomorrow morning. It will take them some time to reach the throne at the end of the hall where one of our sister will be waiting tomorrow for the first shaft of light to fall across her body and bring the goddess into her. Then our sister will carry her out to the people who will be waiting in the courtyard to catch a glimpse of her face and to hear the mystery of her voice. The sister will stop at the edge of the depression in the floor that will be filled with water. The light streaming into the doorway of the temple will fall on the water, the sister holding Therasia, and the eight other members of her sisterhood who will be standing behind her in their long skirts sewn with tiny golden plates. They will reflect the rays back out through the doorway as the sister holding the goddess begins the song. The people in the courtyard will receive an explosion of light and a fountain of song.
But I am not part of that moment. I am here supporting the Star Maidens as a witness to their dance, and to receive the blessings that come from doing so. I see them arrive at the first step to the throne. The room is full of incense and the flicker of small flames. I can see the light of what we have done together this night traveling out from here to all of our people. Tonight I feel the darkness holds it gently and allows it a safe passage to join our people’s dreams.
The music and the dance stops as the Star Maidens lay fresh green herbs onto the throne. I do not know which plant they have gathered for this purpose, but I don’t think I will ever forget its scent. The moment the herbs touch the throne, the Star Maidens turn as one and face us with radiant smiles and upraised arms, hands angle outwards. The sistrums fall silent.
We cry out to announce their success. The cry is taken up by those in the temple behind us, who quickly pass it to those waiting outside. We are ready.