First published in Issue 34 of The Beltane Papers
Delphyne is the Keeper of the Oracle of women’s voices. She calls each woman to the Oracle’s altar, treasuring the voice the woman brings more than the woman herself does, devoting herself to evoking every hue and grace note of each celebrant’s song. Only Delphyne knows that each life completes the Oracle’s symphony. When even one voice is lost Delphyne keens as if for a thousand millennia, seeks to obliterate a billion planets as penance, vows that She will resurrect the one who has become mute.
For thousands of years rich offerings left on the Oracle’s altar honored the words of women. Delphyne wove the women’s voices into a single chord and pronounced answers to the frenzied questions of all, whether queens, shopkeepers, mothers and grandmothers, nuns, or hermits.
Then, without warning or reason, the women lost the power of the elements one by one, and so the force of their voices faded. Fire crumbled into ashes when the altar’s flame was doused for the last time. Water’s vitality was stolen when birth was ripped away from the hands of the midwives. Earth’s soul was sold and took with it into deathly servitude the key to the song of the women. Only Air escaped, snagged by Delphyne as she gathered up the whispering voices and entrusted them to this element, begging it to cloak them in its dreamy ether.
Air hid the voices in fairy tales told by mothers to their children, in gossip over a quilt or teapot, and in the humming of ancient tunes by the kitchen sink. When even these last vestiges could no longer be heard, Air’s breathy currents swept the voices from the mountaintop and clouds into the tiniest corners of a mouse’s nest or a crevice of a tree or the curl of a seashell for silent safekeeping. In these sanctuaries the voices would cower until the time when they could again sing in safety.
When the last voice became mute Delphyne at first thought that a burden had been lifted from her. She felt herself freed from all that had bound her. Then she realized that the women’s voices had not been a weight, but had been instead a blood cord connecting her to all that she loved, the earth, music and beauty, the infinite shadings of each woman’s story, and herself.
Just as it seemed that her atoms would disperse, held together with nothing, she was lifted up and carried on Air’s wings. Air held her as if it were a human body, its warmth penetrating her belly and inviting her to stay earthward. Its bones became a frame on which to bind herself to herself until she could carry on. The women’s voices in speech and song were the dance between Air and flesh. So, for the love of those by whom it had been caressed for so long, Air had transformed itself to offer Delphyne the strength of human touch. A
ir demanded only one thing in return for its labors. Delphyne must be three times as strong as she thought she was capable of being and truly see and believe what the loss of the women’s voices had wrought. Only then would she have the will to do what must be done. Air and Delphyne began a trek of the earth’s orbit. Delphyne saw that the planet had begun to slow so minutely that no scientist or technology had perceived it. Once it had danced and spun, whirling to the rhythm of the women’s hums and verses. Now, the earth merely plodded along, turning its own dead weight so that the last pulse of life would not cease.
As the earth became anchored, the fire in its core turned icy and began to sputter. The ocean was troubled as the tides abandoned their appointed times and discontent sullied its purity. When they had circled the globe Delphyne raised her arms to howl, but the cry strangled her as it caught in her throat.
She was alone, no longer in communion with the women whose voices she had once conjured or with the rocks that had soaked in the notes she sang and glowed in the pleasure. She no longer joined in the turning of the seasons or the journey from yesterday to tomorrow. Oracle had lost her voice. It had left her so that she would know the abyss of voicelessness. Her voice had sacrificed itself so that Delphyne must seek it and in doing so rediscover all the women’s voices.
Again Air carried Delphyne to search the silent, still landscape for some echo, a familiar turn of phrase, a whisper leading her into some unexpected place where reunion could take place. The ground was littered with women who had ventured out of their houses to seek voice one last time. They now lay on the grass with no will to move or crawl out of the sun. Even the clouds were motionless, stopped dead in the sky. The prairie’s golden sheen dried to gray and rhododendrons dulled to a dirty pink before the petals dropped and melted into the dirt, the only movement on earth.
Just as Delphyne knew without doubt that the women’s voices could never survive in hiding and must surely have perished despite all Air’s efforts, she heard a sound that was not so much in her ears as in her bones. Delphyne and Air pursued the murmur into a canyon, then through a tiny hole opening into a tunnel, finally arriving at a small room of a cave. A woman was inside who, Delphyne thought, looked as if she had been starved for centuries but had forgotten to die. She was dressed in torn cloths kept in place by a frayed cord. The room was bereft of all evidence of human habitation except for a fire in the center, rotting food tossed by the walls, and piles of clay pots.
Beyond where they stood was a line of rooms filled floor to ceiling with the pots. The woman had begun to store them in the farthest room and moved closer to where she was now as each room filled. She was now trapped in the last room. The only space not occupied by the pots was a small circle around the fire. The woman danced in this path, chanting the same sequence of animal sounds over and over. Finally she spoke, breaking the chant but dancing on.
The voices are in the pots,” she said, “That’s what you are here for, aren’t you?” “The women’s voices?” Delphyne asked. “I thought they had all died.” “No. I collected them. They are all here.” Delphyne knew where she had seen the woman before.
In the time when few women could speak anymore and none could sing a legend grew up of only one voice left. It was a voice that no one could get close enough to steal, that no one would accept as an offering for a bowl of rice or wheat, that could not be abandoned as worthless. It belonged to a woman who refused to give up her madness. She cherished her voice as the instrument of her lunacy, as her child, as her very soul. As she walked and chanted she picked up tiny pebbles from the cracks in the stone walls, under rocks, in the space between the face of the clock and the hands.
Rumor had it that she molded clay around the pebbles as if she were making tombs in which to bury them. The woman again took up her chant and, as Delphyne listened, the sounds rolled over and over in her mind. The vowels and consonants rounded and slid into themselves, separating into words, the words snaking into a sentence. It was a sentence from her own oracle that Delphyne hadn’t heard for centuries, but she knew it was what the woman had been hiding in her babble.
“In seeking you create anew what you would find.” Delphyne danced behind the woman and began to chant her sentence alongside the woman’s sounds. After many hours the two voices became one. After a waterfall of weeks the pots began to break apart and the voices were free. The woman had not created the clay pots to be caskets but to be wombs from which the voices could be reborn.
At first each voice keened in despair at its severance from the woman who had sung it. From its howling came all the tenderness and torments unsaid, all the tears swallowed back, all the woman’s names that ha d been lost. Then the moaning tempered to human words as the voice flew from the cave to reunite with its owner.
Delphyne searched the clay pots and knew that she had found the one that held her own voice when she began to dream: …She relived the day she was playing in the deepest grove of the woods when her mother brought her first pair of shoes so she could go to school. Her feet were blinded by the barrier of leather between her flesh and the soil. She could never again find her way back to the grove nor could she sing along with the wind in the trees’ branches.
She experienced again the day she was summoned by a woman on horseback who brought her to the Oracle to begin her apprenticeship as the Delphyne, but only if she could recognize her voice. In her initiation she found herself surrounded by a swirling crowd of beings, some of smoke, some of wind, some of rock, some of mist. Some screamed and hummed. Others were mute. A few spoke a stream of nonsensical words. How could any of these possibly be part of her?
She drew the smoke to her to try that voice but found herself instead in a flaming pyre. She called on mist to quench the fire and was soon drowning in the ocean. She cried out to the dryness of the rocks to rescue her, and was desiccated into a skeleton. She pled with earth to bring her to life. And so each voice came to her in turn, both demon and savior, and each was hers.
Finally, she remembered the day the people stopped coming to the shrine and no young women asked to be priestesses and her voice wavered for the first time… And so her dream ended, and she knew she had found her voice, because only her own voice would remember so many of the moments of its giving and finding and losing and rediscovering again.
She embraced her voice like an old friend. She bade farewell to Air, blessing it with rest after serving the women’s voices so faithfully for so long. Still, she bid herself to never allow her voice to be carried by another no matter how fragile it seemed to have become. She held the face of the madwoman in her hands and breathed onto her to blow away her confusion and isolation.
Never again would the women of Delphyne’s Oracle allow fear to coax them to hide their wisdom in the language of madness. Each woman called upon herself earth, water, fire, or air to renew her voice. Orchestras of trees, of oceans and galaxies; speeches of births onto the earth and back into the soil at death; all this and more was created by the women in their first instant. Others found their voices in digging in the earth, firing bread, or easing pain with laughter. These were not mundane chores but statements as fine as the most revered masterpiece or symphony.
The elements themselves were revitalized by the women’s voices, once again revered and loved and joined by the women partners they had left behind so long ago. The women dismantled the oracle temple, not because they lacked respect for women’s voices, but because each woman was now the keeper of her own oracle of her life and words.
Gone are the doors that kept the women outside from the priestess’s holy of holies and the priestesses from the touch of the world outside. No longer do the supplicants wait for an answer instead of listening to their own revelations. On the oracle’s altar is placed a clay pot in which the voices that have been lost are kept until a woman comes seeking reunion.
Delphyne dwells at the pot’s side. She knows that all women lose their voices thousands of times in their lifetimes, maybe hundreds of times in a d ay, but she is always present to reach into the pot to give yours back to you. She will remind you that you are not only one insignificant voice that can fade or not, but that without your voice the earth will stop spinning, that life and death will cease their endless rounds, and that time itself will wait for you to find it.
She will not be your voice for you, but she will hold it for a moment if you need to catch your breath. She is there for you, do you need her?