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The Woman in the Cave

by Don Royster

The old, blind woman sits in her cave, surrounded by snakes. Lethia’s cave is in a wall at the bottom of a deep well. She waits for kings and priests and warriors to come and seek assurances from their gods. Through the fire in the brazier next to her, these gods convey their messages. Lethia is their oracle.

One day the king comes and stands above the well.

“What do you seek, my lord?” the priest asks.

The king’s question is simple and direct. He wants to go to war with a neighboring state. The priest hands the king a scroll. The king writes his question on the scroll and returns it to the priest.

With a torch in his hand, the priest descends the stairs into the darkness of the well until he comes to the open door of Lethia’s cave. He places the torch into a holder and takes a chalice from his belt. From a jug near the entrance, he pours a cup of poison. He walks slowly, carefully, toward the woman. He does not want to disturb the snakes. But they hiss and he is nervous.

Lethia reaches over to one of the snakes and runs her hand across its head, calming it, calming all the snakes. The priest hands the blind woman his scroll. She takes it from him, closes her eyes and prays over it. She runs it across her lips and kisses it, absorbing the contents into her spirit. She rises and places the scroll into the brazier fire, then sits back down on the cold dirt of the cave floor. Crossing her legs, she listens to the flickering of the fire as it consumes the king’s question.

When the scroll has finished burning, the priest extinguishes the fire. He dumps the ashes into the cup of poison and gives the cup to the woman. She prays over the poison and takes it into her mouth. Then she returns to her trance.

Finally, Lethia opens her mouth and spits the poison onto the floor. It fizzles, then it absorbs into the dirt. A spate of words in an unknown language rises out of her. The priest concentrates on her words and memorizes them. The old woman finishes her speech, then jerks awake. Her head bows forward to acknowledge that she has completed her prophecy.

The priest walks toward the entrance of the cave, then he comes to a sudden stop. A snake slithers across his feet. The priest looks down and determines that it is safe to continue. He lifts the torch out of its holder and looks back at the woman one last time. He climbs the stairs out of the darkness of the well and into the afternoon light.

“Well?” the king asks the priest kneeling before him.

He speaks the words given to him by the old blind woman.

“What does it mean?” the king demands.

“The gods have given you their permission,” says the priest.

“Good!” exclaims the king. He turns to his soldiers. “Men, arm and prepare for the attack. Iraq shall be ours.”

Copyright © 2008 by Don Royster

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