Vaporous coils of smoke twisted and wafted around the glistening marble pavilion, permeating the air with the sweet aroma of rose that emanated from the copper bowl squatting in a corner of the room. Braziers blazed throughout the pavilion, casting a warm and comforting glow around the room.
Humming through the air was the mixed sound of lilting lyres and the murmurs of thirty, loitering women.
Hidden behind a looming pillar near the entrance of the temple, wide eyes flitting hungrily, we observed the festivities transpiring while we waited for the ceremony to begin. Entranced by the sacred temple, we eagerly devoured whatever had captured our attention; from the heaping platter of delicacies to the priestesses clustered in the middle of the room, their nimble limbs swooping in elegant movements.
Whispers and giggles surrounded our group, the younger girls abandoning the meditative silence that was supposed to drape over us before we partook in tonight’s many rituals. A sharp shush from Batya cut through their muffled laughter. The harsh, unimpressed scowl set on her mouth silenced their childish antics.
The girls quietly apologised and peeled away from each other, fixing their attentions on their appearances, making sure that the creases in the simple, cream-white chitons we all wore were smoothed out and that the array of flowers our mothers had pain-stakingly pinned into our intricate braids were properly secured.
I watched them quietly, noting the way the young girls chittered both nervously and excitedly, their frantic movements churning the air around us while we waited for Hēlikia to begin; and for us to be welcomed as women into the community.
From the moment we were born, tales of the revered rite were fed to us, our mother’s nourishing our infant minds. We were never stated; our curious minds begging for more, always squawking and tugging at our mother’s busy hands and dangling skirts. They had indulged us, of course, slowly gifting us with intricate and bedazzling stories of their own experiences of Hēliki, teaching us of the sacred activities we would partake in under the full moon of Ostara until our minds were soaked with knowledge. Like every girl in the village, I gorged myself on the crumbs my mother would hand me and lost hours fantasising about that ceremony; dreaming about hearing the drums that would sound throughout the pavilion and the way my heart would beat in time, called to join the thrum of womanhood.
Though tonight, my heart did not pump with joy.
Instead, it fluttered painfully against my ribs as heat bloomed across my cheeks and the tips of my ears, painting my pale flesh a blotchy shade of red. I pressed a trembling hand against my chest, as I attempted to calm the hot flash of anger that sliced through me.
My bleeding had finally come this year; in the high heat of summer with sheets stained crimson and insides torn open. I was bedridden and delirious for days, while Mother had cried, her sun-kissed face constantly streaked with tears and her eyes glowing with pride. Some priestesses came, including Batya, hands stretched over me and heads tilted up towards the sky, giving thanks to the goddess.
I did not thank her, thinking back to my childhood, when I spent those fleeting years cloistered in the temple; bent in front of altars and praying in a dimly lit room to a crudely carved clay statue of the goddess for my first bleeding to come.
A pin dug deeply into the base of my skull, pressing against my flesh. I wished it would move, break the skin and burrow itself into my skull, if only to quell the ache flashing inside my brain.
A small hand clamped around my biceps, their firmness brushing away my thoughts like smoke.
Eleni’s round, cosmetic-covered face swam into my eyesight. Her kohl-lined caramel eyes connected with mine, something akin to wonder shining in them. A soft smile spread across her full face, barely contained excitement tinged with nervousness reflecting on her guava-stained lips.
“Are you excited, Cora?” she inquired, squeezing my arm.
“For what?” I snapped back, the words hissing out of me.
Her small eyes widened, panic flashing in them. The young girl inhaled sharply, her pale throat bobbing.
“For, y’know…” Eleni trailed off, angling her head towards the festivities as she alluded to the fast-approaching ceremony.
I shrugged, the fabric of my chiton shifting across my shoulders. “Hēlikia loses its excitement when your bleeding doesn’t arrive for six years.” I stated, irritation seeping through. The pain from the pin returned, unrelenting as it spread towards my forehead in a slow crawl up my skull.
Embarrassment bloomed across her cheeks, highlighting the youthfulness still embedded in her small body. Her hands unfurled themselves from where they had rested around my arm as she began to stammer, desperately searching for an apology.
“It’s alright,” I said, silencing the girl as I shifted away from her to face the subdued merriment occurring in the pavilion, my eyes darting around the room again. From the edges of my vision, I saw Eleni stop, her small, still-developing body stilling. Those caramel eyes of hers swam with the sheen of unshed tears, regret and pity reflecting in them. She nodded her head in reply, and turned towards another girl in another attempt to converse.
“Good luck,” I whispered, the words wafting away from the young girl’s ears as I continued to watch the congregation of women interact with each other. My gaze caught on Mother’s familiar form, the soft pink and green bracelets adorning her left arm glinting in the firelight, as she moved animatedly as she spoke to one of our neighbours. Anticipation surged inside my chest.
The ceremony would begin in a matter of minutes and everything would fall into place, a rose-coloured bracelet gleaming on my own arm.