A small dark-haired girl, elegantly dressed in a flame colored shift, sits at the railing on the terrace of the villa overlooking the water. She rests her hands on the edge and looks out over the richly turquoise sea, a color that is still dim when compared to her eyes. She is still, almost statue-like, except for the vibration of her lips, producing a soft lilting melody, hummed almost thoughtlessly. The girl is alone for the moment, not an easy feat in a house with ten full-time occupants. The other residents are visible from where she sits, all eight of her sisters standing in a ring surrounding an altar on the beach. A group of people in festival attire are huddled around the altar as well, preparing a sacrifice. A tall man wearing the gold chain of a priest stands aloof, watching two other men wrestle a pair of lambs towards the barley strewn circle. There are no women in the group of humans, which puzzles her momentarily, but she chooses not to think of it. Instead, she watches her sisters as they wait for the ceremony to begin.
The eldest of her sisters stands patiently with her stylus, still and quiet, watching the proceedings and undoubtedly taking notes in her head for later use in a story. She wears pale blue to complement her blonde hair. She doesn’t even look bored, though the girl on the balcony suspects that, as the eldest, this sister doesn’t actually get bored.
Next in the circle, her next sister stands equally still with her own stylus. Her brown eyes dart back and forth, absorbing details and taking the measure of the men before her. Her unblinking stare is disconcerting unless one has lived with it one’s entire life. The girl on the balcony sees one of the men reach up to rub the back of his neck, as if trying to dislodge the steady gaze.
Beside her disquieting stare, the softly down turned face of their next sister must seem a relief. Pale and slender and all in white, she is the image of a proper girl, unless one looks into her flashing blue eyes, eyes that both encourage and mock the pomp spread before her. She holds her lyre in one hand and her fingers twitch occasionally in her desire to play.
Their next sister is barely able to maintain even the illusion of stillness. Every limb trembles with urge to dance about and hatred of having to stay in place. The fight over appropriate attire for the ceremony almost still echoes through the halls of the villa, a memory of the flame-haired girl’s struggle not to have to change into the delicate green chiton she now wears, as it limits her movement more than her customary boy’s garb.
She is a strong contrast to the girl beside her, calm and comfortable in her richly burgundy formal wear. She lounges indolently, watching the men scurrying around, the look on her face clearly showing that she appreciates the attention and probably feels that it is all for her. Her eyes sparkle wickedly and she looks as if she wants desperately to be in the center of the circle but knows that she’ll receive just as much attention on the outside.
The next girl in line, darkly lovely in unrelieved black, only has eyes for the lambs. Her lips tremble slightly with sorrow at their plight and unshed tears glitter in her dark eyes. She spent the morning alternately weeping and yelling at their mother, pleading for the right to save the creatures. Their mother is not unfeeling, but she reminded her daughters that this ceremony is a part of the life to which they were born and that they, in time, would become used to it.
She is hand in hand with her twin, whose face makes no apologies for the fact that she finds the whole notion of the ceremony ridiculous. Were it not for the cool overseeing eyes of her elders, she would likely have already pulled several pranks on the men and it is clear, even from over a hundred yards away, that she has mischief in mind and nothing will stop her from her fun.
The youngest of the sisters stands slightly apart, as she always does. Her eyes are riveted on a small polished globe in her hands and she is completely ignoring the world around her, as usual. It was a battle to get her into her festival attire of deep, night sky blue as well, not because she preferred to be in clothes that would move, but because she was in the middle of something and didn’t find the ceremony important enough to constitute a worthwhile interruption.
To an outside eye, the circle of sisters appears to be a ring of marble statues, icons of the girls as they will be when they reach maturity. As such, there is one further statue, a slender, beautiful woman playing a double flute. The girl on the balcony looks down at what she will be and continues to hum quietly.
The lambs are in place now and the ceremony is about to begin. The priest steps up to the altar and begins to chant. The girl winces slightly and flicks a hand irritably, moving his voice down a half step to be in key. She grimaces and settles her head on her interlaced fingers to watch.
“What, precisely, do you think you’re doing?”
The girl flinches hard. “Mother. I, uh, I was watching. It seems as if the ritual will be easier to understand with a bit of distance. I wouldn’t be able to see it all from down there.” She smiles ingratiatingly. “I’m definitely watching and paying attention.”
“Euterpe, this is your first sacrifice. You must stand in the circle with your sisters to understand properly what’s being done. You’ll understand it best when you experience it. Go down to the beach and join your sisters, now.”
The girl slumps down the wide stairs from the terrace to the beach, kicking at the loose sand still stuck to the stairs from the previous evening’s celebration. The youngest of the sisters had reached her sixth birthday the previous day, making her old enough, according to their mother, to participate in a sacrifice. They had spent the night down on the shore, the eldest telling long and involved stories to her younger sisters while they danced around a bonfire and sang to the tides. It had been pleasant, just the nine of them, enjoying each other’s company. This was troubling, this interference from others that took them away from their usual afternoon activities of composition and study. Euterpe, called Tere by her sisters, wanted to curl up on her couch with her lyre and work on the piece she was composing for her baby sister for her birthday. The minor thirds were still sounding klutzy in the bridge and it distressed her. Though not as much as her inability to work at all.
Eventually, despite her attempts to move as slowly as possible, she reaches the circle and her own statue and steps into her place. As soon as she completes the ring, the priest kneels, as if he had been waiting for her, and begins a long complicated invocation, addressing each of the Nine and her own unique talents and attributes. At first, Tere is vaguely bored. He drones on and on, praising the color of Calliope’s hair and the strength of Terpsichore’s limbs and the sweetness of Erato’s smile. She very nearly snorts out loud (and she sees Thalia and Erato stifle their own giggles) when he reach the part about Polyhymnia’s everlasting patience. Nia has a definitely finite patience and they’ve all been party to her impatient outbursts on a regular basis.
Still, she can’t help but watch his face, and the faces of the men around him, as he calls upon the Nine. His fervor is hypnotic. His pleas for assistance and blessing are genuine and his voice is honest. He stutters occasionally in his urgency. There is a compelling truth to him, to the depth of his faith in the power of inspiration. Though his appearance is less than awe inspiring and he uses several incorrect words, he has a simple dignity that lends credence and reverence to his speech. By the time he has finished speaking, Tere is entranced, drawn into the rhythms of his prayer. Another man in the circle hands the priest a knife and he slits the lambs’ throats quickly and with a minimum of fuss, while other men hold bowls to catch the life blood.
Melpomene’s tears have long since dried away, replaced by a dawning awareness of the significance the lambs have in the process of the ritual. She watches as the blood is mixed with barley and her mouth is moving slightly, reciting prayers under her breath, trying out different phrasings to capture the tone and flow of the ceremony.
The ritual is completed, nearly silently, and the offerings are left in their appropriate places on the altar. The men trudge back along the beach towards their camp for the night. The sisters remain in their places until long after the celebrants passed the curve of the shore out of sight. Terpsichore, of course, is the first to move and she walks solemnly to the altar and lifts up a piece of the burnt offering. “This is for us. They wanted our help.”
Erato moves to join her older sister. “It’s in our power to do what they asked. Is there any reason we shouldn’t?”
Calliope looks around the circle of very young faces. “We can’t grant every prayer for our help. We have to choose what is right. We can’t just pander to riches or handsome faces, we have to consider the scope of our powers and where we can have the influence we want.” She stares deeply into each of her sisters’ eyes. “Each one of us needs to decide, individually, whether or not to grant the requests made of her today. There can’t be any recriminations about who chose to grant and who didn’t. We’re a family and we’re a unit, but we’re not one mind and this is deeply personal.”
Urania lifts her head and quietly murmurs, “He wasn’t right for me. The math isn’t right. I can’t grant to him.” She shakes her head and turns around to head back to the villa. Clio stops her and draws her back into the circle, reminding her that this was a family event and they need to talk things over as a group.
In the end, Calliope, Erato, and Polyhymnia decide to grant the requests made and they each eat a little of the over-cooked meat to seal the bargain. All of the sisters help move the leftover lamb, the blood and barley, and the few trinkets left for them up to the house, leaving them in the more than adequate care of the cook and housekeeper. They stand as a group in the atrium, each silently going over the events of the last few hours in her head.
Finally, Rai stretches and yawns. “Going upstairs, I haven’t finished with the Orion constellation yet…” She pads up, and her movement seems to give the others leave to go about their business.
Tere picks up her lyre from the couch and takes it out to the terrace. She resumes her seat on the edge and begins to work through the minor thirds of Rai’s birthday piece, all the while watching the bloodstained altar in the sand.