by Angie Smibert
part 1 of 2
Calla always found us, like clockwork, every fifty years, either by messenger, letter, telegram, phone, or e-mail. And the place was always called the Olive Tree.
Merit and Elise were just seating themselves around an outside table under the Olive Tree Tea and Coffee awning when I drove up. During the intervening years, I was ever aware of their lives. Occasionally, I’d see an article in the newspaper or some academic journal and know it was one of them, no matter what name they were using at the time. Elise was now a doctor, and Merit was still an archeologist. Both were singularly driven women. Biology haunted Elise, and the past possessed Merit.
Calla came through the door carrying a tray of delicate teacups. A dark-eyed young woman looked up from grinding coffee beans and stared at us through the glass.
“There’s our splash of color.” Calla laughed as she set the teacups in front of us. Calla once told me that I was the richly illuminated drop-cap to their finely scrawled dark text on the page of life. My red hair, light skin, and green eyes counterpointed the others’ dark beauty. Merit now wore her hair closely cropped against her ebony skin. Elise had adopted one of those severe blunt cuts that framed her heart-shaped face. Calla’s hair still cascaded down her back like midnight waves on the Aegean.
“What, no guests?” I asked eyeing the young woman grinding the beans.
Calla brushed off the question. I examined the teacup, thin as porcelain and decorated with dynamic geometric patterns of flowers and leaves. It was a fine piece that melded Minoan techniques with modern glazes. “I see what you’ve been up to lately. Beautiful, as always, Calla.” Her shop was no doubt lined with pottery that would make an art dealer or an archeologist, other than Merit, weep.
“I always return to my first love, as do you, Caitlin. You’ve just adopted new media for telling your stories.” That was my cue to recount what I’d been up to since the ’50s in 25 words or less. Table rules. We didn’t like to waste time.
“Let’s see. Photojournalist. Novelist. Playwright. Independent film maker. Novelist, again. TV writer. Software developer. Novelist.” I said mentally counting off the shifting phases of my recent past. Then I looked to Elise.
“Wonderful film about the woman firefighter raising a child alone,” Elise dripped. “Very Lifetime.”
“Okay, okay. Not my finest hour-and-a-half.” I rolled my eyes and laughed. Beside myself, Elise was my toughest critic, always zeroing in on any emotion or idea that wasn’t strictly honest. “What have you been up to?”
“Chérie, your worst is better than most people’s finest work.” The firefighter movie had won an Emmy. “Me, I finally became a doctor. All nice and legal. I practiced a bit and then went into research. Genetics.” Elise tucked a strand of hair behind each ear, obviously pleased with herself about something, and turned to Merit, who, on the other hand, looked tired.
Merit shooed away a small black cat that had begun rubbing itself against her left foot before she began her recitation. Calla always seemed to have cats around.
“I’ve been on Crete again, excavating Minoan and Mycenaean ruins.”
Calla raised a dark eyebrow at that.
“Writing papers. Lecturing at Cambridge and Alexandria,” Merit trailed off.
“Excellent paper on gender bias in archeological interpretation of ancient civilizations,” Calla said innocently. She knew how to trigger Merit’s venting mechanism. Merit launched into a modest tirade about the reluctance of archeologists to shift their male-centric historical paradigms, even in the face of evidence.
“Terrible how they’re always explaining things from their own frames of reference,” I chided. “So unlike the rest of us.”
The dark-eyed woman saved me from Merit’s glower. She brought out the tea but hung back, hovering expectantly in our peripheral vision until Calla waved her in.
“Our guest.” Calla rose and went to the young woman’s side. “She’s been working for me for a little while now.” Calla’s “little while” could have been a decade. Calla introduced each of us.
“Jessica Woodley,” our guest stammered in reply before Elise could stop her.
“Table rules. Just your first name. The one you were born with.”
Calla put her arm around the young woman. “Jessica is from a small, rural town just down the road. Tell the girls when you were born.” Calla’s arm kept her from bolting.
“Don’t worry, you won’t shock us.” I added.
“1902,” she mumbled.
A bairn. A mere child. Calla collected them.
“You look pretty good for your age.” Elise grinned.
“I do, don’t I?” Jessica seemed to come to herself. “Probably the oldest college freshman ever,” she said proudly. Calla arranged things for the bairns: birth certificates, school records, jobs.
Calla looked at us. Our turn. Part of Jessica’s education was learning her heritage. We knew the need to feel that we weren’t alone, that we were connected through the years, that we had roots deep in the soil of the millennia. We were Jessica’s roots.
Elise went first. Table rules. “I was born in Poitiers, France, some time in the twelfth century.”
Jessica’s eyes widened.
“Our archeologist here tells me it was around 1150,” Elise said, patting Merit’s hand.
Merit kept our histories straight. We were all born into different timescales. Celts, Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, and medieval French all reckoned the passage of years from a different frame of reference: from the birth of Christ or Pharaoh or the King or from the founding of their city-state or from the cycles of the moon and stars. And, for most of us, dates and time weren’t important in our formative years. Our lives rose and set with sun rather than revolving around a calendar. But, like a detective reconstructing a crime, Merit had carefully taken our life depositions and fitted the times and physical evidence together to get the big picture.
“During my first lifetime I was a midwife in Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court.” This probably didn’t mean anything to Jessica, but I could see Merit mentally footnoting Elise’s life. Merit had written a paper on how the rise of the universities in Europe in the thirteenth century paralleled the fall of female healers and midwives. Male surgeons and midwives had supplanted or at least discredited, with few exceptions, female practitioners by the seventeenth century. Female midwives were often accused of witchcraft.
It was a tough time for an immortal midwife, but Elise learned to read and write and even wrote a book on midwifery that probably could still be used today. About one hundred years ago, I wrote a novel about Elise’s adventures, much embellished, in Eleanor’s court, a historical oasis of courtly love and reverence for women. The Victorians thought it a trashy romance fiction, suitable only for repressed ladies to read behind closed doors. They devoured it.
My turn. “I was born into the Iceni, a Celtic tribe, in what’s now southern England. Our Queen, Boudica, led a revolt against the Romans. When we were utterly defeated, many of us fled to Cornwall and eventually Ireland. Merit says that was in the first century AD.”
Jessica had sunk into Calla’s chair by now. I fingered the gold torc I still wore around my neck as I watched her.
“My life started out probably a lot like yours. I was a good wife, but not a mother. I fought beside my husband, until a Roman broadsword split him in half. I outlived a couple other husbands before anyone caught on.
“A talent for storytelling and a bit of luck helped me move around the kingdoms of Ireland. After St. Patrick came, I joined the Church. It was the only place a woman could get an education after Rome fell.”
Merit had written about me, too, sort of. It was an article about the Irish saving European civilization. The nuns and monks of the Celtic Church preserved the legacy of Gaelic tales and learning in general across Europe in the Dark Ages.
Merit was next. “I was born during the ninth year of the reign of the Pharaoh Amenhotep. About 1500 BC. I was a minor priestess of the goddess Hathor.” Merit smiled. “The goddess of fertility.”
Merit was rather close-mouthed about herself. The only other thing I knew of her early life in Egypt was that she was a musician and later a slave. We’d met a few thousand years later, in Muslim Spain around the turn of the first millennium AD. She was a noted scholar, even then, who wrote of the rise and fall of civilizations. She did it as a man, of course.
And, then came Calla. She was born in Knossos on what’s now known as Crete in 2,000 BC, give or take a century or two. Merit dates Calla’s birth to the time the pottery wheel was invented in Crete. Calla was a renowned artisan who traded her wares throughout the Aegean, and she was member of her city’s governing council. I’d written a documentary about her some years ago that never saw the light of day. Calla’s civilization, Minoan-era Greece, was Merit’s passion. She’d written volumes about it.
Jessica was speechless. I imagine she had questions but didn’t quite know where to begin. Time enough for questions, little one. And someday you’ll enjoy telling your story to some fresh young thing.
Jessica reluctantly went back to work, and Calla motioned toward the teapot.
“Will you be mother, Caitlin?” She’d loved that expression ever since she’d heard it a hundred years ago at the Olive Tree Tea Emporium in London.
Copyright © 2007 by Angie Smibert