Sparrows in the Wind



Helios, the sun god, was still asleep when Mother—Queen Hecuba—kissed my cheek and whispered, “Cassandra.” My hound, Maera, jumped off my bed. I squeezed my eyes shut.

Oh! The procession!

I sprang up. Maera was sniffing Mother’s little dog, Conny. I rubbed Maera’s neck and reached down farther to pet Conny too. Then I hugged Mother, whose growing belly pressed into my chest—another brother or sister on the way.

I breathed in the comforting, salty-sweet scent of almonds, which Mother herself pounded to add to our soups. Silence covered most of the vast women’s quarters, but nearby rustling revealed that Melo, Aminta, and

Kynthia, who waited on me, were awake too.

Mother’s smile was happy in the glow of the lamp she held. “My kanephoros. Troy is in your hands today.”

“And on my head.”

“Yes. Do well, love.”

A kanephoros’s task was to lead the whole city to an altar in the sacred grove, the altar of the god or goddess being celebrated. On her head, without using her hands, she balanced a heavy basket of fruit, honey cake, and the knife the priests would use on the sacrifice. Upon reaching the altar, she lowered the basket, and her job was done. A new kanephoros would be chosen for Zeus’s festival two months from now.

I tapped my fingers nervously against my thigh. When I’d rehearsed yesterday, the basket had toppled. A mistake today would cause the entire city to suffer.

Mother had been kanephoros when she was my age and there had been no mishaps. Last year, however, the kanephoros for the festival of Artemis, goddess of the hunt, had stumbled. For six months, deer, wild pigs, and rabbits fled the land around Troy. Our archers could hit nothing. Today’s celebration was for Apollo, my favorite immortal. God of light! Healing! Truth! Prophecy! Guardian of children!

Especially prophecy.

What a relief it would be to see ahead and know I avoided disaster today. Or, if something was destined to go wrong, I could correct the problem.

I’d warn other people too. Be careful on the stairs! Don’t eat that scone! An asp will lurk in your sewing basket tomorrow!

Kynthia came to me, wielding a gilded comb. “Aunt Hecuba, we’ll get her ready.” She enjoyed attacking my knots and tangles—and giggled if I squealed.

Maera wagged her tail. She liked everybody.

“We’ve planned it all.” Melo crowded next to Kynthia. “I’m in charge of jewelry.”

Aminta, the shy one, hung back. “I’ll drape the peplos.” I barely heard her add, “The most important part.”

Aminta probably couldn’t see me smile at her in the lamplight. I wished I could be friends with her and Melo, but they were so close, there seemed room for no one else.

My handmaids and I were all cousins to each other. At seventeen, they were three years older than I was.

I bent over and held Maera’s head in my hands. How shiny her eyes were. She was my friend.

Mother hooked her lamp’s handle on the screen behind my bed and left, saying she’d send up porridge soon. Conny waddled after her. If I didn’t disgrace myself today, my loom would be moved next to Mother’s, where I'd weave in her sweet company.

“First, the hair.” Kynthia waved for me to sit on my bed.

She knelt behind me, pushed my shoulders forward, and pulled my hair back with the comb, tugging on a knot.

I bit back a yelp, as I'd been managing to do lately. Maera whimpered.

“Am I hurting you?” Kynthia yanked.

I gritted my teeth. “The kanephoros is above pain.”

Finally, the comb glided easily. Kynthia patted the hair over my ears—sometimes she was nice.

Melo gave her the linen streamer, which would wind around my head and be plaited into a loose braid. This step was quickly accomplished.

“Your turn,” Kynthia told Aminta.

A servant carried in a tray with bowls of porridge.

I directed her to put it on my low table. The others would help themselves, but I was too excited to eat.

“No!” I told Maera, and she backed away from the food. “Good dog!”

She wagged her tail. She was the best dog.

The ceremonial peplos filled Aminta’s arms, causing her to trip and narrowly miss the porridge before she spread the fabric across my bed.

Let me not trip!

A peplos becomes a garment when it’s draped and pinned, but, essentially, it’s a rectangle of cloth that’s wrapped around the wearer.

Unlike our everyday woolen ones, today’s peplos was linen. Mother had woven it, so it felt as smooth as the skin of a grape. Against the cream of the fabric, dyed purple triangles marched in a line a handbreadth from the borders. I’d never worn anything so beautiful.

Aminta folded it once, unequally. The longer side would fall to my ankles, the other just a bit below my waist. “Lift your arms, if you please.”

I raised them while she wrapped the peplos around me. The fit was perfect, so that the cloth didn’t bunch under my arms. I’d look graceful, not hulking.

Kynthia danced to me with the brooches that would be pinned at my shoulders. “Envy could cause me to accidentally prick you, Cassandra.”

Only she would say such a thing, as if being kanephoros was my fault.

She inserted the pins and pulled them through the linen without even touching me. The pins were bronze, strung with pale blue terra-cotta beads. After I was pinned, she took a bowl of porridge and ate while reclining on her bed.

Aminta wrapped a purple sash around my waist, over both folds in front and under the shorter one in the back. If I felt chilly, I could lift the back fold over my head and shoulders.

Last of all, Melo fetched my jewelry for great occasions: a spiraling gold armband that ended in a tiny figure of Poseidon, god of the sea; gold earrings set with garnets; a ruby ring. None of them mattered, though. What mattered was the necklace.

Holding it at arm’s length, Melo carried it to me while we all recited the riddle: “What is brown, tan, and sticky, heavy as gold, cheap as air, common as clouds, loved by the gods?”

Melo hung the string of dried figs. She intoned,
“First a bow.
Next a knot.
This will hold.”

“Or we’ll be full of woe,” I said, making up another rhyme. The necklace presented another danger. The figs symbolized a bountiful harvest and prosperity. If the necklace fell off me, Troy would have to endure famine.

We loved the gods, who were kind and listened to our pleas—but were easily offended. Then they could be heartless and vengeful. We needed them—for the harvest, the weather, music, happy families—so many things! My fingers turned to ice when I thought about what could happen.

Melo stood back. “You’re so lucky.” Her father wasn’t wealthy enough for his daughter to be kanephoros. She took her porridge and ate it standing up.

I felt a twinge of guilt.

When she returned the bowl to the table, she lifted her best peplos out of her chest.

Aminta arranged Melo’s peplos around her, and I pinned it with her copper brooches, which had no beads.

Aminta murmured, “Didn’t you ever fall when you were little?”

I probably did, but she had a scar across her right eyebrow. The kanephoros must be without a blemish. I was lucky.

Kynthia said, “Anger never sours Princess Perfect’s words. She speaks only truth—in the kindest possible way. The opposite of a glutton, she barely eats.”

I blushed. I hadn’t touched my porridge. She wouldn’t either if her stomach were turning somersaults!

And I did get angry—mostly at her.

Kynthia might have been kanephoros, when she was fourteen as I was now, if she hadn’t been impertinent to Mother once too often.

Aminta took her porridge and whispered, “Cassandra, you’re as beautiful as Aphrodite.”

Aphrodite was the goddess of love and beauty. Embarrassed, I massaged Maera’s neck. “You’re the prettiest dog in Troy.”

Anyway, today the only quality I wanted was good balance. I whispered back to Aminta, “Do you think I’ll drop it?” The basket.

“You’ll be fine.”

Kynthia heard. “Maybe not. Anything may happen. You could sneeze. Someone else could stumble into you. A snake—”

“Hush!” Aminta and Melo said in unison.

Maera barked, ending sleep in the women’s quarters.

Kynthia’s damage was done. I imagined disasters: a fly on my nose; a blustery wind; Zeus’s thunderbolt from the blue sky, striking the basket.

Melo and Aminta held my arms on the stairs—the stairs I’d raced up and down dozens of times a day when I was younger.

“The kanephoros mustn’t take a tumble,” Melo said.

Were they worried too?

Maera ran ahead and grinned at us from the bottom.

In the courtyard, stone benches surrounded a fountain. I collapsed on one, and Maera curled up at my feet. Melo and Aminta took another, where they whispered too softly for me to hear. From her own bench, Kynthia stared down at the mosaic floor.

Flowering laurel bushes grew out of clay pots that ran along the outer walls. Laurels were Apollo’s flowers. I thanked the god for their smoky scent.

“Our Cassandra!” Father boomed, hurrying out of the living room, trailed by Mother. He stopped short a yard from me. A smile rounded his cheeks.

I swallowed over a lump. He usually looked solemn.

Sensing his good mood, Maera jumped on his legs. He patted her briefly, then straightened. “I want to remember you as you are today.” He paused. “Those curving eyebrows that mean sweetness, your broad, sensible forehead.”

I blushed, relishing his words—but how disappointed he’d be if I came to grief!

“A beautiful Trojan face.” He reached behind him for Mother’s hand as she came to stand next to him. “Darling, Cassandra has your rose lips that speak only kindness.”

Mother blushed too. “I’m grateful for the health in her cheeks.” She let his hand go and sat next to me. “Do you like her peplos, Priam?”

He turned his smile on her. “It’s an achievement! Troy and I are lucky to have you both.” He held out his arms for me, and I ran into them. He kissed my forehead.

I was near tears. Maera and I returned to Mother, and I leaned against her. In my mind, I thanked all the gods and goddesses for my parents.

Father held out his hands. “Come, both of you.”

When we all, including the two dogs, stepped outside the palace, a shout rose. “Loo lo!” The plaza thronged with people, who spilled into nearby lanes and alleys too—the citizens of Troy, needing me to keep them safe.

Still holding hands, we descended the three steps to the plaza. At the bottom, Mother and Father let me go. Arms trembling, the old priestess Arethusa raised the basket. I stepped under it, and she released its weight. Ai! Heavy!

With a smooth gait but a bumpy heart, I began to walk, Maera at my side. Please don’t trip me, Maera!

Mother and Father filed after me, though Conny wouldn’t be able to keep up. Behind us, a dozen priests led four plump sacrificial oxen. Apollo would be given the gods’ favorite treat, fat from their thighs. Later, Troy would dine on the rest.

Following the oxen strode the married women and the widows; then minced the maidens, alert to who might be observing them; then the young men, whose thoughts were almost certainly on the games that would come after the sacrifice; and, finally, the married men and widowers.

Flutists piped a melody that rose above the beat of our sandals. Men sang praises to Apollo, women to his half sister Athena, goddess of battle and protector of the city.

How grand, to be a Trojan!

From the plaza, the wide Way of the Immortals led to the east gate. Troy’s famed inner walls lined the road— twice the height of my best brother, Hector, who was the tallest in the city. The walls were made of stones in shades of red, white, yellow, and brown, arranged to make pictures: athletes wrestling; horses galloping; women at their looms; Apollo’s crows on the wing; thunderbolts of Zeus, lord of the gods.

The walls backed against Troy’s grand upper city, where public life took place: the gymnasium; the market; the amphitheater, in which laws were passed and plays performed; and the courts, where laws were disputed.

At last, we reached the gate. I signaled with a quivering hand for Maera to stay, and she obeyed.

We left the cobbled street for the dirt road to the sacred grove. The ground was uneven here, and I couldn’t tilt my head to see where I put my feet. Why had I practiced only on our cobblestone streets? Panicking, I slowed my stately pace to hardly more than a creep.

Behind me, a priest quavered, “Is something wrong with the girl?”

I made myself ignore him. Careful step followed careful step.

Finally, growing more confident, I walked a little faster. Minutes passed. Might we be a third of the way? Or just a quarter? Why had I wanted to be kanephoros?

A pebble wormed its way under the sandal strap across my toes and wedged there, digging into my skin. Ouch!

What could I do? I stopped. The basket wobbled. Ai!