By Laura Gill
After losing her fiancé and family to a series of earthquakes that devastates ancient Crete, Merope neither expects nor wants the scribe the king appoints to supervise her estate. Pamessos may not have come to seduce her, he may not even like her, but despite her resistance he refuses to let her ignore him.
How long will it take Merope to realize her handsome, uninvited guest is destined to become the husband she claims she doesn’t want?
Still no sign of them.
Staying away from the damaged walls, Merope set three platters by the makeshift hearth in the courtyard, covered them to keep off the flies, and sat down to wait. She’d been doing that all day: waiting and trying to calm fraying nerves until her gut roiled. Rusi kept her company, but there was only so much the servant girl and her grandmother Nona could do.
After today, she would no longer have a twin brother.
Aftershocks continuously jolted the ground. Dust clouds wreathed the hills where the shaking dislodged dirt and loose stones. Once the initial temblor passed, the women had braved continuing shocks and falling plaster dust and debris to fetch cooking utensils and blankets. Merope watched the grapevines tremble as the wooden stakes vibrated, and behind her the house rattled with each shock.
It made no sense. The sacrifice was supposed to appease Poseidon, not arouse his anger.
Sunset drew deep purple shadows on the flanks of Mount Juktas. A slight breeze brought some relief from the day’s heat. Merope dreaded going to sleep alone that night as much as she feared going back inside the house. “Where do you suppose they are?”
Poseidon’s sanctuary, located around Juktas’s northern slope, was an hour’s brisk hike from Archanes, which was nestled along the mountain’s eastern slope. Father and her two siblings should have come back that afternoon. Samnos would need the proper rites. Merope had his shroud ready, and Father had arranged for the magistrate to open the local tomb to receive the body.
Nona’s gnarled hand patted her arm. Whenever Merope needed a mother, the old woman stayed beside her. Now she needed Nona more than ever. “It’s too late to go looking for them, girl. Eat something and rest. There’s still so much to do.”
A warm summer night allowed fearful townsfolk to sleep outside. Merope slept fitfully, rousing at the slightest noise. Last night, she’d cried until her tears ran dry. Now she lay numb and sick, curled on her side with the old woman’s arms around her. It should have been her on the sanctuary altar. Losing a daughter would have been easier for her father to bear.
Predawn light saw her up and reheating the remains of last night’s supper. Rusi emptied the latrine vessel. Nona woke slowly, her joints creaking. “Ah, no one’s come.”
“It’s been too long.” Merope stared into the chickpea mash. Worry killed her appetite. Anguish made her nauseous.
“Maybe they took your brother to the king.” Rusi looked hopeful. “It’d be a special burial, wouldn’t it, Mistress?”
Yes, let that be it. “Would they have gone without letting me know?” Somehow, she thought not. “I have the shroud and oils.”
Perhaps the Minos had decided otherwise. Merope wasn’t a priestess, and tending such a special offering would be a sacred duty. It made perfect sense for the king to provide the linen and unguents. Since they were distant cousins, perhaps the Minos would even give Samnos a finely decorated larnax and a burial place in the royal tomb. “I hope they remember me for the funeral.”
Father should have sent word. Someone should have come to see whether the house still stood and whether she and the servants were all right. No one came. Her neighbors, preoccupied with their own troubles, couldn’t tell her anything when she ventured out to ask.
Her disquiet told her it was wrong.
Sunrise lengthened into midmorning. Rusi swept the dust from the entryway. Yesterday’s quake destroyed the brand-new lily fresco facing the household altar, and left hairline cracks in the plasterwork around the door lintel.
Merope breathed a sigh of relief as she gathered the clay votive figures in her apron and brought them outside to place alongside the libation bowl. “Poseidon isn’t damaged.” Above all, she dared not offend the Earth-Shaker. “But they’re all dusty. They need to be cleaned so they can receive their offerings.” Her father would be extremely angry to find the household gods broken or neglected through his youngest child’s carelessness.
Servants weren’t allowed to fetch ritual items, so Merope brought oil and wine, and went to the well herself.
Upon returning, she paused long enough to cleanse the gods and pour the daily libation before heading out again. “I’ll go up to the sanctuary myself and see what’s keeping them.”
Rusi ran after her. “Mistress, you can’t go alone! At least ask a man to go with you.”
It wasn’t safe for anyone to venture unprotected into the countryside these days. After the first large earthquake struck months ago, more temblors followed. Too many people were now homeless and desperate. Merope hated the delay, but as she rounded the house to the courtyard where old Augeas supervised the other workers, she reminded herself how her father and siblings would scold her if she didn’t take precautions.
Augeas agreed to accompany her. Anxious neighbors were starting to call. By now, everyone wanted to know why the god’s priest and his acolytes hadn’t come home yet, and why Poseidon was still angry. Hadn’t the sacrifice taken place? Poseidon’s sanctuary was situated in a remote location, and with so much clean up work in town, no one had ventured around the mountain to see for themselves what the delay was. Obviously the neighbors expected Merope to go.
Rockslides made the route hazardous. While the sanctuary was well maintained, its remoteness meant no one had bothered with the track for years. Merope’s calves ached and her side burned as she struggled up the steep way. Sweat poured down her face. How had her father managed with the cart? Had there been an accident?
As the sun climbed higher and grew hotter, she regretted forgetting her wide-brimmed hat. Augeas kept his wind, even venturing ahead. “There might be a cool breeze up there,” he urged.
Juktas’s summit towered four hundred meters above the long, isolated spur on which the sanctuary stood. Gales had pockmarked the rugged terrain to give the place its name, Caves of the Wind. In the river valley below sprawled a town and the palace of Knossos on its hill. A week after the great quake, Samnos had brought her up here to show her the damage. Sanctuaries and multi-storied apartments alike had collapsed. Even the aqueduct bringing water from Archanes to Knossos had broken.
On a clear summer day, a person standing on the spur could look out as far as the port at Katsambas. Beyond, the deep blue sea stretched across the northern horizon. Her father once explained how the lonely site with its gales and commanding view of Knossos and the sea pleased the god.
Up ahead, Augeas froze, then started running. Fear lent Merope energy, and spurred her after him; she heard Rusi stumbling to catch up behind her.
As the road curved around to meet the temenos, the sacred enclosure, she should have seen the sanctuary’s blinding white plaster façade with its red bands. Instead, smoldering ruins brought her up short, and for a long, breathless moment she stared in disbelief. A colossal force she knew all too well had brought down the roof.
Rusi gave a little scream. “Mistress, where are they?”
Just outside the temenos, Merope saw the cart. The family donkey, still tethered to its hitching post, lazily browsed the grass for forage.
“Polemos!” Augeas’s shout reverberated off the steep slopes. “Eumenes! Ismene!”
No one answered.
Merope choked back nausea. They’re still here. She made it as far as the temenos entrance before Augeas seized her around the middle to hold her back. “The fire’s still burning.”
Caught in his powerful arms, she pummeled at him with both fists. “Let me go! They might be trapped inside!”
Augeas roughly turned her around to face the devastation. “Smell that, girl!”
Smoke so acrid it singed her throat and made her eyes water. Coughing, retching for air, she caught the whiff of charred flesh.
She remembered how several neighbors pinned under the rubble had burned to death after the first quake. Her eyes stung. Expecting to hear screams, she heard only the hiss of smoldering timbers and the wind rustling through the tall grass.