Maya was awakened from her afternoon nap by the arrival of the lady Saffron.
The woman kneeled two steps away respectfully and, eyes on the multicoloured tiles, began to whisper. Maya stretched her golden paws, folded them under her body and listened.
The temple was empty and peaceful at this time. Maya enjoyed the soft amber light , afternoon sun filtered through yellow glass windows reflecting on the pure whiteness of the temple’s walls.
Lady Saffron always visited the temple at this time, after closing her spice stall at the market. Maya could smell all the spices on her , like a cloud that she wore instead of a shadow, but the saffron scent seemed to linger long after she was gone.
The lady Saffron had beautiful children and a prosperous business, but she came to pray for her husband, who drank and got depressed. He started fights in taverns. He disappeared for days. He regularly threatened with suicide.
And the lady Saffron , exhausted and anxious, loved her difficult husband. She believed that, under the drunken troubled man, she could still find the dreamer she had married.
Maya half-opened her almond shaped eyes, pools of cobalt blue, and watched lady Saffron’s turmeric stained fingers while they played with the cardamom pods she had brought as an offering for the altar.
The woman was very sad today. Her once unbreakable faith in a brighter future earned with hard work and patience was starting to crack, like a porcelain cup dropped too many times.
Maya, now wide awake, jumped off the altar, sat up straight and looked at her. The lady Saffron met her eyes for a long minute. She dried her tears, took a deep breath and went home, walking with purpose, like one with much to do and never enough time. She left behind a handful of cardamom in the offering bowl and a haunting trace of spice in the air.
The Golden House was just like a temple ought to be. High domes, imposing size ,an echoing emptiness that made people whisper and golden light as in a dream.
It was more or less divided in three big naves, surrounded by innumerable little chapels , like petals on a flower .A clear stream ran through the front patio and fed the fountains.
Here lived the Gods. Gods have a complicated genealogy and their own kind of logic. Then again, so do cats.
These Gods were made of gold and brandished their symbols from white marble pedestals. There were many Gods, a numerous family that fought for the best places to be worshipped, which were behind the main altars, facing the golden doors, forever tended by priests and virgins. The weaklings sought refuge on the little peripheral chapels, where it was a bit darker and their tarnished skin wouldn’t show.
The lady Milk had arrived. She kneeled near a column, out of the way.
Maya drew closer.
She was a woman balancing herself on the sharp edge that cut reality from the other side, that where the mind got so easily lost.
Once she had had a baby, a tiny perfect girl who cried like a kitten.
She was only weeks old when she died, leaving her mother with an empty heart and painful breasts full of useless milk.
Other babies needed her milk, babies of rich mothers who wanted to go dancing, babies of sick or dead mothers who couldn’t feed them.
She became a nursemaid, a breast for the hungry children of other mothers .She rocked them to sleep, singing for them, nursing their illnesses ,but never looked into their eyes because she wasn’t their mother.
Lady Milk was only mother to one, and she was dead.
Maya curled up against lady Milk’s leg, purring hard to drown the ghostly cries, to give the woman a moment of peace. The cries rang inside her head at night, or on quiet moments. Kitten cries of her daughter.
The priests moved around the altars with the sure step of saved souls. The Gods surveyed their faithful from the heights.
Such Gods were called by kings and heroes and fairest maidens. They interceded in battles and wars, tilted the luck in the slaying of monsters and delighted on star-crossed lovers.
Even their least fortunate brothers in the little chapels all had epic powers.
Little Rosewater would never dare to speak to any of them directly. She was slight and nervous, always ready to take flight like a frightened bird. Kneeling on a dark corner, she hid her face in her hands to pray.
It was a stolen moment, to visit the temple when she was sent out on errands. She owned nothing.
Not time, not things, not herself. Little Rosewater was a slave.
To bring an offering, she would have had to steal it, so she left little replaceable pieces of herself on the altar.
Locks of her beautiful blond hair tied with linen strips. She had started to visit the temple in search of mercy. Her master had taken to calling her up to his chamber late at night. Bruised and ashamed, she begged Maya for help.
Soon prettier slaves were bought , and he forgot her.
Little Rosewater was a bath maid. She carried buckets of hot and cold water, kept the fires going in the steamroom and washed her mistresses’ hair.
It wasn’t the worst of jobs. The perfumed oils and herbs employed on the bathing rituals had so penetrated her pores that she walked in a sweet mist, although she didn’t notice it herself.
Maya rubbed her head against the girl’s body, until she uncovered her face so that she could rub her little pink nose against hers.
Little Rosewater shivered to the touch, her skin reacting to the soft warm caresses of the golden creature. Sold as a baby, she had never been touched gently, nor kissed or loved. Had never been looked at as anything more than an object.
Freedom and happiness are unconceivable states of being for a slave , and Little Rosewater was very tired. Although young, she felt old and spent.
She worked every hour of light, the days went by without words and fear never left her chest.
So she started to offer her hair on the dark corners of the temple until she summoned up the courage to whisper her secret wish in the golden ears of a cat.
Little Rosewater prayed for death.
Maya knew it wouldn’t be long now. She could smell the hunger of the lithe body and the poisonous herbs that Little Rosewater stuffed in her mouth every time she had a chance.
Not long now.
The Temple cats were chosen for their beauty, bred by monks and treated like holy vessels, but their purpose was mostly decorative. That’s what the priests would tell you. The cats knew different, and so did the women.
Madam Mint’s visits were irregular but, when she came, she took her time. She was a matronly lady who wore dark colours and hid her face with veils, jewels and make up. There was heavy gold around her neck and precious stones on her fingers but she lived under a big weight, a dark cloud of secrets that haunted her thoughts and even her dreams. She drank mint tea all day long and chewed on fresh mint leaves to calm her unruly stomach, which tortured her even more when she felt her mysteries threatened.
Because she knew that she didn’t like to be noticed, Maya pretended to sleep nearby while the lady knelt by one altar or other, and never approached her.
Madam Mint had a shameful past that went tick-tock like a bomb, ready and able to destroy her present of married respectability if it ever were to explode.
For years, she feared only for her own fate and was careful but now, herself too old to save, she worried about her daughter’s future. The mother’s secret shame would soil the daughter if it was exposed and Madam Mint could feel the tikc-tock growing louder inside her head. She remembered her past fondly, some days with nostalgia for a time when pleasure and feeling had seemed enough to justify her rebellion. Those were the days when she didn’t care about the future and that had made her free.
Madame Mint didn’t regret her past, but there was a daughter to protect now. She left shiny gold coins in the bowl. Maya kept her secrets locked.
At sunset, the priests walked around the temple lighting up candles and burning incense pellets on the altars.
They collected the offerings of the day and brought in bowls of night blooming flowers.
It was time for the Gods of Night to have their rites and receive their worshipers .
The cats were wide awake and the lady Dust was singing. Maya followed the voice outside, where the woman was washing her hands and feet in one of the fountains.
She was a traveller by blood. Even though she lived in a house now, she thought nothing of walking all day long
Every once in a while, her steps brought her to the Golden House.
She undid the scarf that protected her long, dark braids from the road’s dust. The other pilgrims felt their aches melt in the purity of her voice. The last pink of the day stained the sky while she walked inside.
She filled the offering bowls with wild berries collected from the forests she had crossed on her way. Black, red and green juicy jewels, still dewy from the stream she had washed them in.
The lady Dust prayed for the fertility of her daughters.
Although not an old woman, she was the matriarch of her family. Having a rooted house hadn’t changed her perspective of life. For a nomad, her home was her clan and the prosperity of a clan was on its numbers.
Inside four walls or under a tent, she felt happiest and safest when surrounded by many of her own blood.
Under the road dust that clung to the woman’s clothes, Maya could smell campfires. The scent of her freedom.
The lady Dust was one of the few women who didn’t have a confused sense of guilt about visiting the temple cats.
It seemed natural to her to communicate with the Goddess of Life and the Forces of Nature who kept the universe in motion through a living creature. Specially one that was so obviously perfect and powerful on its own right.
All those big lumps of gold in the temple were nothing but dust catchers to her. They probably required a lot of polishing.
Most women had learnt the secret custom from their own mothers and grandmothers. There were no gods who listened to insignificant problems like sick children, violent husbands and not enough money for bread or shoes. No gods for women’s blood, for their spirits.
There were only gods of big things. No deity for small daily troubles was to be found in the Golden House. Except for the cats. Cats lived in kitchens and hid under beds. They protected food and babies from the rats. It was a comfort to have cats in a house, to conjure up a feeling of home. And they were fearless, explorers of every corner, creatures of darkness who adored the warm sun.
It was quite natural that their golden siblings at the temple had became secretly worshipped, the little domestic gods of everyday worries.
The priests would scream heresy if they knew, so the women kneeled by the altars and filled the bowls with regular offerings but, undercover of night or diversion, other bowls were placed on hidden corners.
Bowls full of fresh milk sweetened with honey and vanilla.
It was still dark, but Maya could smell the dawn when Coconut Girl slipped into the building like a shiny ghost, betrayed by the jingling of bracelets on her wrists and ankles.
Her red hair was scented with tobacco smoke and the musky memory of men’s desire.
Coconut Girl made men happy for money. She danced for them ,poured liquor and fulfilled their wishes behind a red curtain.
Most of them were easy to please and generous with her. Tall and slender, she didn’t care much for food but loved fresh coconut slices, and often seemed to survive on them alone.
Coconut Girl came to Maya with a need that women of her kind were not supposed to satisfy.
During the day, laying alone on the bed behind thick hangings that kept out the light ,she daydreamed of motherhood.
Her arms hungered for a baby to rock and love. Coconut Girl fantasized about a tiny heartbeat inside her and breasts swollen with milk.
It was part of her job to avoid such things .Besides, she wouldn’t want her child to grow up in a brothel. Born with a scarlet letter branded on their skin, such children never managed to climb out of the gutter of society.
It was easy enough to obtain a man’s seed. Respectability would be a bit harder to pin down. She would have to go very far away and start over.
So she sat with Maya in the dark and fought to gather her courage. The silvery light of a fresh new day filtered through the stained glass.
Yawning, Coconut Girl stood up, dropped a pearl earring in the bowl, gift from a passionate gentleman, and walked away with the jingling sway of a tired dancer.
On a silk rug knotted by the tender fingers of the lady Milk, Maya curled up for her morning nap.