It looked just like I remembered it.
And yet not.
It loomed before me, in silent rebuke. Yet I knew the Temple would never judge, never scold. The rebuke --and the cowering-- were all in my heart
The rustle of dried leaves across stone as the breeze pushed deadfall along the paving stones ahead of me sounded like the rip of snagged fabric. Of dry skin scraping across pumice. Like a snake shedding old skin.
There was not a soul to be seen. Not a single red-footed priestess, nor a vulture in the sky.
I opened the doors to the Temple, fully expecting the hinges to creak and groan from years of disuse, but the doors swung open with the same perfect balance they always had, with not a squeak of protest as well-oiled hinges gleamed, as well-polished as the great door handles.
"Think you the only visitor to the Temple?"
I spun around, and the old priestess raised an eyebrow. Her skin was brown as a betel nut, as wrinkled as the driest raisin, lips pursed in that way that belied a mouthful of missing teeth. And yet she spoke without any trace of a lisp, though her voice creaked as much as I had expected the hinges to. Her red robes swept along the floor, hiding most of her small frame.
Tired now, weary in a way I had never been before when visiting these hallowed grounds, I simply raised my eyebrow back at her. "Considering this entire place is within my own mind, yes, I think myself the only visitor to the Temple."
She chuckled at that, shaking her head. "Such youth, to be so headstrong still." But then her eyes gleamed. "And yet finally showing a hint of wisdom, that your backbone is straight and tall now, speaking thus to a pomegranate priestess."
"To an equal?"
She inclined her head. "Perhaps."
"My feet are red," I said. "Perhaps I did not record it, as I have every visit in the past, but I do clearly remember a priestess telling me --laughing at me, as you all seem to do-- that my audacity in staining my feet was the only way to be a priestess. No one can tell me I am a pomegranate priestess except my own self. My feet are red."
She pointed. "And you still have the scar." Her finger traced a line in the air, straight down, and my hand flew to my breast. It was not visible on the flesh, but in spirit I could still feel the scar from the vulture goddess' crescent blade splitting my chest open with my beating heart open to the sky. I remembered that pain, and it was as nothing to more recent pains. Pains that split my being, with my soul open to the infinite void. Pains that chopped me off of my family tree, with no roots to take in the coolness of the earth or drink in the rains, no leaves to feel the warmth of the sun, a kiss of the breeze. A dead branch.
"Why did you come?"
"I don't know."
"It's been calling you."
"The Temple?" I paused. "Yes."
"You come when you are tired. Confused. Why do you never come here when there is joy? You could see it as others do, then."
"No one comes here but me."
The priestess laughed.
Now I was getting impatient. Why did they always laugh? When they weren't intimidating me, anyway.
"You said I was the only one who came here."
"You said that."
"This place is my invention, in my imagination."
"Yes, and no. Why are you here?"
"I don't know. I just know it's been too long."
"That's partly true."
I sighed. "The Dream Incubation Chamber."
She stared at me, silent.
"I misused it before, I think. I wasn't Dreaming to learn." Heat rose to my face suddenly, and burned in my chest. Burned along the invisible scar in my shame. "I was trying to Manifest, not Dream."
The priestess shrugged. "Partly true. Dreaming is manifesting. You were trying to force the Pattern instead of learn the Pattern."
Wasn't that the same thing?
"No!" Her rebuke cracked like a whip against the walls, the echo sharp in the ear. I hadn't spoken aloud, but she still heard. It never seemed strange here, in the Temple, the way thoughts and reality and the unseen and unheard were meaningless. It's only later, writing it down, that the lopsidedness ever really stands out. "Not the same thing! Now you're just being lazy."
"Fine, I was being lazy," I said, feeling my ire rise. "I wanted answers for once, not more questions."
She narrowed her eyes. For some reason, it was only then that I noticed the form and thoroughness of her own priestesshood.
Most priestesses had the red feet. Some had red palms as well, but those were extremely rare. I had only ever glimpsed one such. Some, the truly harsh, were bloody all the way up their calves, the hems of their robes perpetually dripping fresh blood that stained their calves and shins and feet. Some had the patterned dots and whorls whose meanings were still a mystery to me.
I had at first thought this ancient priestess' robes to be red. Looking more closely, the horror and revulsion swept over me as realization rose like gorge in the back of my throat.
The richly red priestess robes were not cut of draping cloth. It was a curtain of human flesh, flayed and draped into the appearance of robes. The spatter coated her face and neck, the splatter pattern looking as if it sprayed upward as she hacked her own clothing.
I blinked again, staggering back, and the old woman in beautiful, flowing red fabric stood before me once more.
"I hate when you guys do that."
She blinked up at me placidly. "You do it yourself. Who do you think I am, to enjoy wearing my robes?"
I frowned at her, not comprehending. "I came to walk the Dream Incubation Chamber," I said, heart beginning to beat faster.
"How can you take even a step, burdened as you are?" She shook her head. "You think you have lost so much, until your arms are empty but for a very few things. But your shoulders drag beneath the weight of so many skins. All of the dead things you clutch, the dead weight you carry, wearing the skins because in your mind you still are these."
Reeling now, for the first time I looked at this horrible priestess. Really looked. And I saw the same round head, the high cheekbones and flat face, the broad nose. I saw her bottom lip had the scar from when a dog had bit her lip and split it into two when she was only three. I saw the beauty mark on her right cheek, and the other on her neck, that only one girl every generation inherited on her mother's side. As recognition dawned on my face, she laughed again, and almost against my will I recognized the way her right eye scrunched up more than her left when she smiled, the way all on her father's side did.
Goddess! Was this what I was? What I would be in the Temple? This horrible, flesh-wearing priestess, drenched in blood from head to toe with the harsh laugh that carried no mercy?
"It is part of you, yes," she said. Then she waved her hand dismissively. "Oh, I know you wish to become like one of the warrior priestesses, one of the vultures with the bones in their hair and the curved blade, and the dripping hems. Even as the peace and healing priestesses fascinate you with their blood marked in pretty pictures upon their skin.
"Instead, you get me."
"Not if I have any say."
"Oho!" she laughed. "So we have a fighter, after all."
Damn it all. Some people get babbling brooks or dreams of some dead relative coming to give them words of peace and comfort. I get my toothless crone self, draped in flayed human skin, laughing at me.
"I thought the pomegranate priestesses were enlightened," I said. "I thought their blood was an expression of their wisdom."
Crone me raised an eyebrow. God. How could I have not noticed the snark in that gesture? "And was there not wisdom today, seeing me?"
"Nothing good," I muttered, but only because I'm stubborn.
"The Menstrual Temple of the Funky Grail is all-where and nowhere. All time and outside time. Sometimes, if you have very bad luck --or very good luck-- you meet yourself here." She paused, and her dark brown eyes squinted at me, the gleam in them malicious and dark and terrible. "When you go back, if you still condemn me to wear this infernal, dripping, stinking robe the rest of my life, I will never forgive you." She jabbed me in the chest hard with her wiry finger, and the scar along my chest burned straight back to my spine. "You know what you have to do."
"I don't think I can." It was on my lips before I knew that I was even going to respond.
"Well, now there's a bit of truth," she muttered. "No more difficult than lugging this around all my life, and maybe less!" Out of nowhere she pulled out the terrible curved blade I remembered all too well, and swiped at my neck as she cried, "Go!"
I jumped back with a cry--
--and found myself jumping back from the door to the Temple, yanking my hand off the handle as if burned. The clear, cloudless blue of the autumn sky dazzled overhead. The dry leaves scraped along the stone path.
I knew what I had to do.