Flung back in time to the Minoan Crete of 1450 BC, can Fiona adjust to such a different world?
“Put your arms around me and hold on as tightly as you can,” Jolyon said. He stepped closer until just a breath separated us. I did as he instructed. A vast shudder rippled through us, after which utter blackness descended and I knew nothing more.
When I regained consciousness, very slowly, I became aware through closed eyelids that it was daylight. Gradually the realization dawned that I was lying down, covered by a warm blanket, and that I could hear voices. Two of the voices were male, speaking English. A third voice sounded feminine and the language was not English.
“I think she’s coming out of it,” said the first male voice. I later learned it was Jolyon who spoke.
“We’d better give her water and food if she can take any,” said the other male voice.
Although it seemed the most difficult thing I had ever done, I opened my eyes. There was something I needed to know, but I couldn’t think what.
Three concerned faces looked at me. One belonged to Jolyon, one to a man I recognized from family photographs, although the sun had darkened his skin and time had whitened his hair; the third was the sweet face of a woman in late middle age, who wore her black hair in the style of Minoan Crete: long, oiled, elaborately dressed and bound with narrow ribbons. Her eyes were dark and almond-shaped.
“Fiona, I’m your Great-Uncle Alan,” the older man said. “Welcome to our house. Welcome to our world. This lady is Ariadne, my wife. Jolyon is our son.”
Unable to speak, I nodded weakly.
“We need to help you sit up and drink something and then eat,” Alan went on. “After that, we must help you walk. The sooner you move about, the sooner the effects will wear off.”
Ariadne helped me sit up; Jolyon placed a couple of cushions behind my back.
Memory came back to me gradually and with it, my voice. I was able to croak a question.
“How did we get here?”
Jolyon said, “We stepped through a portal. I’ve done it before and I have more muscular strength than you, so the effect on me wasn’t as severe.”
I focused my gaze on him properly and gasped. He was very tanned, his chest and legs were bare, and he was wearing what appeared to be a kilt—not plaid, like the Scots, but a solid color. His waist, like those of Alan and Ariadne, was cinched by a wide belt.
“You’ll be wondering exactly what happened,” Alan said. He smiled, and I could see the family resemblance even more clearly. “Ariadne, who is a priestess at the temple, advised us that we—that is, Jolyon—should go through the portal to meet someone who was related to me and bring that person back.”
I stared at him, trying to understand. “Why?”
Alan and Jolyon exchanged glances. “We’ll fill you in later,” Alan said. “You should rest now.”
“Come, try to eat and drink something,” Ariadne said gently. She spoke English with an accent. She helped me sip a cup of wine and eat a few bites of something that tasted like lentil puree. Then Jolyon and Uncle Alan helped me to a standing position so I could take a few steps.
“Can you walk to another room?” Ariadne asked, putting her arm around me.
I nodded. She and Uncle Alan between them helped me to another room, then Uncle Alan left us alone. Ariadne helped me use the latrine, then washed my face, hands, and feet and indicated that I should lie down on the bed in the corner of the room. It looked inviting, so I lay down on it, smiled gratefully at her, and was asleep before she covered me with the blanket.
The culture shock of living in another time was so great that I almost couldn’t take it in. For one thing, when I went outside the sky was the bright hard blue of a polished shell or piece of pottery. There was no gray haze of industrial pollution covering it, no white jet trails. Because the sunlight was unfiltered, everyone used kohl to outline their eyes and wore hats to keep the sun off their heads.
There were no smells of gasoline exhaust, of course, nor sounds of traffic or the overhead roar of airplanes. The air smelled of wild herbs—thyme, oregano, rosemary—and the sounds were the creak of cartwheels from the donkey carts plodding from the fields into the temple complex, the chanting of workers as they greeted the new day, and birdsong. Occasionally dogs barked, of course, and the laughter of children could be heard when they were turned out of doors to play.
Almost, I could have believed myself to be on a camping trip in countryside that was off the grid, except that the night sky, unpolluted by artificial light, was so dark I could see the Milky Way and thousands of other stars.
Each house in the temple complex had light wells, so that during the day every room was illuminated. In Alan and Ariadne’s house, as in every other household, we went to bed when it was dark and rose at first light. Of course, on feast days and celebrations, we stayed up past bedtime and used torchlight.
Jolyon lived by himself in a small house added to the side of Alan and Ariadne’s house. This was customary, I learned, when children grew up.
I’d been there only a day or two when I realized the priestesses ran everything: the government, the granaries, the potteries, the manufacture of furniture, the weaving, the religion, and farming. There were no kings as head of government or even as religious leaders. The men were engaged in building and maintaining the ships or sailing them across The Great Green to trade the highly prized green-gold Minoan olive oil with Egypt, the cities along the Levantine Coast, and North Africa.. When they returned with wonderful jewelry, exotic fruits, and other products, it was an occasion for community feasting.
Learning this, I asked Jolyon why he and Alan were around all the time.
“In your time we would be called hydraulic engineers,” Jolyon explained. “It’s up to my father and me to keep the water running through the pipes here at the temple complex and to solve problems like blockages.”
Life was infused with worship of the Great Goddess, the mother goddess who gave life, nourished it, and took it away. Women enjoyed a higher status than men: the priestesses decided when feast days and dancing would be held, accounted for all contributions to the common food supply, led the prayers offered morning, noon, and evening.
It took real mental acrobatics and many deep breaths to adjust to the other culture shocks: the way I was expected to dress, for instance. The morning after my arrival Ariadne gave me a linen skirt to wear. The closest modern approximation would be a wraparound skirt, tied at the back. She gave me a belt, but my waist was too big, so I had to leave that off. Finally, there was the bolero, which was like a modern bolero except—it had no front.
“I can’t go out in public with my breasts exposed,” I protested to Ariadne, although hers were exposed too. She simply looked blank, but Alan and Jolyon understood. Jolyon gave me a piece of cloth like a stole, which I wore around my neck so that it hung down in front.
However, when I went out with my new family to meet the priestesses and other members of society, I soon found that everyone was staring at me because my breasts were covered. After a few days I gave up and left the stole at home. They also stared at me because of my height. In my own time, my five feet six inches was regarded as average: here, people regarded me, Jolyon at five-eleven, and Alan at six-two, as giants.
It was interesting to live in a prepatriarchal society, where breasts were revered as the givers of the milk that sustained the beginning of human life rather than as shameful body parts to be hidden from view. Tiny breasts were molded on some of the amphorae manufactured by the potters, in tribute to the milk of life. Nudity in young children was almost de rigueur—in Creta’s hot climate, fewer clothes meant greater comfort.
The diet of vegetables, fruit, and bread, combined with physical labor, ensured that people were slender. Only on rare occasions was meat or fish eaten, generally on feast days. After a couple of weeks of the Minoan diet and constant walking, I lost the flab I’d acquired in graduate school studying for final exams.
Although a guest in my family’s house, I was expected to earn my keep. My knowledge of plants was soon put to good use: I was apprenticed to Yidinia, a priestess whose purview was healing. She led me on several expeditions outside the temple complex to find herbs for medicines.
One day she and I went to a hilly place by a clean, swift-running stream. What I saw growing there made me gasp with excitement, for just beyond the stream banks was an entire stand of sylphium, the giant fennel so over-harvested that it actually went extinct in Roman times. Sylphium was the most effective contraceptive used by women of the ancient Mediterranean world. So awestruck was I by this discovery that I was still smiling when I went home to dinner that night.
“What happened, Fiona? Your smile is a delight, much nicer than the worried frown you usually wear,” Jolyon said, but he said it light-heartedly. We were all sitting around the table under the light well built into the ceiling, eating dinner.
“I’m excited about finding the sylphium. Never did I imagine I would see it in real life!”
That reminded me of who and where I was. I laid down my spoon and looked at the other three. “What am I doing here? Why did Jolyon bring me here?”
Alan and Jolyon exchanged glances. “Yes, it’s time we told her,” Alan said, nodding at Jolyon. He turned to me. “Ariadne, as you know, is a priestess. She had a vision, not an altogether happy one, I’m afraid.” He cleared his throat. “I haven’t long to live. I wanted to see and speak to one of my blood kin before I depart this life.”
I was speechless. “How did you come to be here in the first place?”
“I’ll tell you tomorrow. It’s a long story that will take all day.”
“Let’s finish our meal,” Ariadne said, and picked up her spoon again.
Uncle Alan did tell me the story, and it did take all day. Sometimes we walked in a grove of trees in the temple grounds, sometimes we sat in the main room of the house. I’ll recount it another time.
It saddened me that Alan hadn’t long to live, but his view of death was not full of dread, as is so often the case in our world; rather, he saw it as simply a transition to a different plane of existence.
When I wasn’t learning how to be a Minoan woman from Ariadne, or foraging for wild herbs with Yidinia, Jolyon was my constant companion. He introduced me to the priestesses and showed me the workings of the various parts of society. One day, after we had eaten a picnic lunch of figs, olives, and cheese, washed down with wine in the pear orchard, I asked him a question.
“Jolyon, have you told people what’s going to happen?”
He looked at me and in his eyes I saw sadness and resignation. “No. Alan and I know, and my mother and the other priestesses know, but we haven’t told the others.”
“Why not? That’s rather cruel, isn’t it?”
Jolyon’s voice was gentle. “Think about it, Fiona. Would you want to be told that your whole world would vanish in fire and brimstone? And not only that, but the very record of your existence would be buried and not discovered for more than three thousand years?”
It didn’t take long for me to reply. “No, I wouldn’t. But I still think the people should know so they can plan to get away.”
“Oh, they will,” Jolyon said. “It’s not going to happen out of the blue, you know. There will be signs for weeks, even months, beforehand. Almost everyone will flee.”
“Will they flee here, to Creta?”
“Yes, many will flee to the other side of the island. And some will set sail in the few remaining boats to Iberia. Still others will sail to Pretannia to become the Little Dark People. But let’s not talk of it any more.”
One day when Alan was at work and Ariadne busy at the temple, Jolyon visited me in my room. I had returned from gathering herbs by myself because Yidinia and all the other priestesses were engaged in a ritual. After lunch I decided to sort the herbs into piles, ready to tie in bunches to take to Yidinia the next day.
“Good afternoon, Fiona,” Jolyon said from the doorway. “Look, I brought you a present to celebrate the end of your first month here in Creta.”
“Thank you,” I said, smiling. He handed me a sheaf of white, star-shaped flowers and set down the amphora of wine on another table. “I’ll find some cups and a vase.”
When I returned, I put the flowers into a vase of water while Jolyon poured wine into the cups. He lifted his cup and touched it to mine. “You look almost like a Cretan woman, except for the color of your hair and eyes.”
I laughed. I knew I’d acquired a light tan, and my hair was braided down the back, as was Jolyon’s.
“You need only one thing more,” Jolyon said. He plucked a flower-head from the vase and tucked it into my hair, over my right eyebrow. He was standing very close to me and when I looked into his eyes I suddenly knew why he had come to see me. My heart jumped inside my chest as I looked back into his mesmerizing almond-shaped eyes.
He smiled a little, then reached behind me to untie the tape that held up the linen skirt I wore. It slithered down my legs to my ankles.
Then he took me in his arms.
Read the amazing conclusion to “Jolyon” in August!