A PALE HALF-MOON floated over the velvet sky. There was a silvery face in it, lovely profile gazing down on Ariadne where she lay on soft grass in the scent of moisture and leaves.
“Mother?” She blinked, and the face was gone. She thought about sitting up, but she was so relaxed, her limbs so heavy and tired, it was too much trouble. Singsong chants swelled and ebbed behind the chapel walls near the garden, soothing, beckoning her back to sleep. . . .
She wrenched herself up to a sitting position, head spinning. The garden was still deserted. Taking a deep breath, she pushed through her lassitude and touched the water. The “voices” were safely purged and separated in their channels now, the currents rippling smoothly. She started to reach into her bag for the sample vials, then let it go. She didn’t need to test the waters. On her knees, she leaned over the pool. An amorphous moonlit reflection stared up from the ebony mirror. She dipped her cupped hands and drank deeply, the cool blessing of the water flowing down her parched throat.
Rising exhausted to her feet, she moved on shaky legs to the gate and started to climb over it.
“No need for that. I’ve got fresh well water from my farm, guaranteed safe to drink. And a lot cheaper than the priests charge here.”
With a jolt, Ariadne dropped from the gate and spun around, lightheaded.
A sturdy peasant woman, balancing a jug on a padded coil atop her head, grinned beneath a scarf tied low over her forehead, moonlight picking out a shadowed gap in her front teeth. “Got a nerve, though. You know what they say about this spring, don’t you? The Virgin owns it during the day, but at night the Old Ones reclaim it. You can see them around town—the crazy folk had their wits stolen by the water nymphs. There’s dark powers here, waiting to grab you.”
Ariadne flattened her damp palms on her skirt and tried to calm her racing heart. “You sell your water to the pilgrims?”
The woman shrugged, easily balancing the thick jug. “They get thirsty, and it brings in a little extra. Fifty drachma each liter.”
Ariadne reached into her bag. “I’ll pay you two thousand to do a job for me.”
The woman gave her a skeptical look. “I don’t want trouble with the priests.”
“No trouble for you. Leave me your jug and wait around the corner of the chapel.” She handed over the money.
The woman stuffed the bills inside her bodice and lowered the jug with a practiced twist. “Careful, it’s heavy.” She moved off around the building.
Ariadne hefted the earthenware jug and poured it along the fence, into the hedge. Climbing over the gate once more, she hurried back to the pool and plunged in the jug, heaving it out brimming. Still weak from her struggle, she grunted with effort as she lifted the jug over the gate and carefully lowered it.
The woman was waiting. She gave a resigned shrug and accepted Ariadne’s instructions, starting to turn away.
“Wait. Do you know what time it is?”
The woman gestured toward the chapel. “About one. They’re just finishing the midnight service.”
Ariadne closed her eyes for a moment as the woman moved ahead of her. She must have lain unconscious a long time by the pool. Too late now to return to the boat.
The collective murmur of suffering lapped over her as she followed the peasant woman back to the courtyard and the sleepless supplicants. She watched from the shadows as the thick figure with the jug stopped at the first pallet and poured out a measure. The woman moved on to the next blanket, repeating dutifully, “Healing water from the Tiniotissa.”
Ariadne leaned against the shadowed wall, her strength drained, her options narrowing around her, the pursuit closing in. She rubbed her throbbing head. Incense from the open doors of the chapel wrapped suffocating tendrils about her as across the courtyard, the water bearer made her way among the flickering oil lamps.
In silence now.
Ariadne leaned forward from the shadows, ears ringing, the night gone quiet. The moaning, sobbing, coughing chorus had faded away as the supplicants waited mutely, faces raised to the woman with the water.
“It’s a sign, dearie. Go on in and ask Her. The Virgin will take pity on you, too.”
Ariadne startled and turned to face a bent old woman in black, hunched under the weight of a woven basket on her back.
The woman carefully lowered the basket to the ground, fumbling with arthritis-twisted fingers. “If you need an offering, I ask only what you can give.” She indicated her freight of tin votive strips glinting dully in the moonlight, stamped out with shapes for appeals to the healing Virgin. A foot. An arm. A head. A staring eye.
“Don’t be shy, now.” The aged face tilted to give Ariadne a look of motherly concern.
Tears welled and spilled as Ariadne reached impulsively to take the woman’s contorted hands between hers, squeezing them and smiling into her seamed and sunbaked face. The warmth of the sun in the poppies, the cool moonlit song of the spring flowed through her.
The woman gasped and pulled her hands free. She stared at them as she slowly flexed her fingers. Made a tight fist and opened it. Wriggled her fingers.
Her eyes were glinting wetly now, widening as she peered up at Ariadne’s shadowed face. “By the blessed Virgin. . . .” She crossed herself hastily, then bent to her basket to pull out an offering foil, pressing it into Ariadne’s hands. Tears streaming down her face, she ducked her head and hurried with her basket into the night.
Ariadne looked down at the stamped design in the shape of a heart. She gazed blankly at it. She turned numbly and walked up the stone steps into the chapel, into the candlelight and incense and chanting, into the claustrophobic church where the pious narrow faces of the Byzantine saints stared from the walls.
Someone handed her a candle and she moved forward to join the shabby congregation singing responses to the bearded priest in his black robes and tall hat. The walls were lined with offerings—Bibles with jewel-studded covers, gold and silver plate, rich figured silks, painstaking embroideries. Silver and tin-foil strips stamped with their afflicted body-shapes were gummed everywhere to the pillars with wax, along with shreds of infected clothing. Silver candelabra molded from past offerings ringed the chapel in flickering light.
It lapped gleaming over the famous icon in its guarded corner, so encrusted with jewels that the figure of the kneeling Tiniotissa was barely visible. In the dome overhead, a painted image of the Virgin’s elongated features and pale broad forehead seemed to float out of the darkness, distilled into fleshless abstraction, enormous eyes gazing down in remote pity.
Ariadne pressed her offering, the image of a human heart, into the soft wax on the nearest pillar, muttering an incoherent petition, garbled with words from childhood prayers. “Grant me Grace. Clarity. Let me see with your dispassionate eyes. Let me transcend this weakness the flesh is heir to.” Finally she stumbled from the church, breast aching with the unanswered plea.
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