Vestal

Avetis Isse stood in the north tower looking over the city before her. On one side of the square she loved a Starbucks was being built, directly across from the McDonalds. Time changed everything, including her. Once a ravishing seductress, the passage of time, like the passage of water, eroded her to a hunched withered woman, barely able to take her daily walk down the street to the green grocer to buy her apples and piece of butterscotch candy she rewarded herself with for having survived yet another day.  

At some point in her life, routine became her life support. Awaken at 5:30 in the morning, eat a breakfast of one softboiled egg and a piece of toast with a small glass of orange juice. At six, she’d read the paper until her eyes couldn’t anymore. The morning would then be spent working on her herb garden, listening to the radio, flipping through one of her countless photo albums, or visiting with her next door neighber, Mr. Dewer. Lunch was always tuna salad on toast or chicken salad on wheat with a cup of soup if her appetite demanded it. A nap would be required in the mid afternoon, after which she would dress appropriately for the whether and walk down to the green grocer who would greet her like the old friend that she was. Mr. Martinez would always hand select the best apples for her and throw in the butterscotch candy with a wink. Avetis loved the special attention and would inquire about his children. She loved to hear him brag about how well they were doing in sports, school, and work. At those times, she would fondly recall congratulating him and his wife on the birth of their daughter, and then seemingly the next day, congratulating him on her wedding, and what seemed like the very next day, sharing his joy at being a grandfather.

Avetis would eat her apples and candy while spending the rest of the afternoon carefully cleaning around an old oil lamp. After cleaning it, she would carefully fill it with oil from a special sheepskin flask. She mildly regretted not marrying or having any children of her own, but she realized she had made a decision so many years ago and had to accept it. That decision prevented her from having children, from marrying, from enjoying a physical relationship at all. She exchanged children and family for an eternal servitude to this flame.

The year was 394 in the year of the Lord Christ. Christianity came into dominence in Rome and it took a harsh eye to the beliefs of Rome. As the Romans persecuted the Christians, the Christians repayed onto the Romans. One of the many sects of beliefs to be suppressed was that of the Temple of Vesta. The only priesthood open to women, Vestals were required to be virgins and any who shed their blood, whether in violence or in love, would suffer a horrible fate in their mortal lives and suffer a soul searing pain in the ever after.

As the Christian zealots began their systematic suppression of the priesthoods, the head priestess communed with Hestia, the Goddess of the Hearth and decided the sect needed to go underground, that someone needed to protect the flame, the eternal flame of the hearth. Avetis Isse, a mere child, 10 years of age, was selected to be the bearer of the flame. The sect was strong for the next forty years with Avetis eventually rising to the level of High Priestess. But the Christian suppression of all ancient beliefs had a negative effect on this now outlawed cult. Avetis lived a blessed life though, clearly watched over by Hestia as the goddess awaited the day when she could openly offer her enlightenment to the world once again.

This was not to say that there weren’t many hard times for Avetis. The fall of the Roman Empire, actually the slow decay of the Empire as she recalled it, forced her to flee with but a handful of followers. They tried to find refuge to the North, but the tide of Christianity followed them, slowly converting all the lands as it rolled onward throughout Europe. With the Celts, Avetis found an uneasy allegiance. They didn’t quite accept her eccentric ways, but they appreciated her desire to worship as she wished. All the while, through dark ages and crusades, through renaissance and revolution, Avetis made sure that she maintained that flame. So long as it burned, she remained alive, blessed by Hestia.

There came a time though, as religious persecution descended across Europe, that Avetis needed to make arrangements for sanctuary elsewhere. The unruly lands of the America’s seemed like a way out. There were but three Vestals at this time, with no ability to initiate other girls into the sacred ways, the cult was dying. The voyage across the ocean proved two things to Avetis. First, the curse against spilling the blood of a Vestal was a swift one. A sailor aboard the ship savagely raped and killed one of the remaining three Vestals. His torment was unbearable to watch. His body warped with throbbing pain, wounds opening on his skin, leaking the ichor of liquified tissues. While swift, his death was obviously quite painful. His body was thrown overboard and no one spoke of it ever again.

From the time of arrival to the modern day, the day to day routine of Avetis didn’t change much. She had witnessed the rise and fall of several different empires since her beloved Rome slowly climbed down from the pinnacle of civilization to the lowly rungs of barbarism. But she knew, so long as the flame burned, the empire wouldn’t truly be lost.

The stiffness in her back was a bit too much for her on this particular day. It was a harbinger. Even the great powers of Hestia could not hold the tide against time itself. Avetis aged in spurts, as if Hestia blinks and in that brief moment, time rushes in to destroy her, stopped only when Hestia’s warm gaze was once again affixed on her loyal servant. Avetis was familiar with those moments and one was about to occur. Maybe not today, but very soon, perhaps within the year.

Her fear was she would not be able to survive the next rush of time. She had survived over 1600 years through war, famine, ignorance, and intolerance. During that time she dreaded this moment, the moment when she would no longer be able to fulfill her duty to her goddess. She wept. The flame would sputter and smoke, the last of the special oil being burned from the wick. She compared the dying flame to he own dying body. But she knew that was a poor analogy. The flame was an eternal symbol of the power of the goddess Hestia, the power of hearth and home. It was so much more than her pitiful old body.

Avetis gathered her resolve and stood against the pain in her back. She knew she had to find someone capable of following in the footsteps of the Vestals, who could possibly revive the traditions. The times seemed favorable for an acceptance of ancient ways. Intolerance was still rampant, but the undercurrent of moderate voices, a desire to accept and learn from a multitude of sources was becoming more prevalent. The logical sources for someone who would be willing to commit themselves to this life of celibacy and solemn ritual were the exact sources that originally destroyed the sect: the Church of the Christ.

Finding supporters of the women in a nunnery was about as laughable as finding a virgin in a whorehouse. Women raised from birth to be Vestals until their early twenties. There was more than a religious reason for this. Even in the empire, they knew a woman who married and birthed at a young age had less of a say in the affairs of state. Those patrician families looking to extend their influence needed to use their daughters as well as their sons for political leverage. The daughters became ‘mere women’ the moment of marriage, and then ‘mothers’ at the point of birth. Their influence covered only the daily running of the household. Their opinions mattered only within the confines of the family.

While the Vestals, with their exalted status, actually had the ear of the Senate at times. A woman who marries in her thirties and bears children soon after was more likely to be considered a Matriarch, a female extension of the great Patrician families. Avetis looked at the society around her. America in its hey day, so much like ancient Rome, blinding itself to its faults even when it had the power to repair them. Denial destroyed every empire Avetis had seen. The wealthiest, most powerful country in the world still had children who starved, still had people who were denied the basic care that could be offered by the simplest of doctor’s. At least Rome understood it was a plutocracy and didn’t make excuses for it.

Avetis turned her mind away from her running social commentary to her immediate need of finding disciples and quick. Her first step was visiting a local women’s center. Only a woman could guard the flame, only a woman had that raw instinct for care, for self sacrifice necessary to keep the flame alive. Upon arrival at the center, Avetis knew she was at the wrong place. This was a place for eternal victims, women who will spend the next ten to fifteen years learning self reliance, building self-esteem, and surviving. Avetis had a short friendly chat with the receptionist who tried to sign her up in the Seniors Without Partners class. Avetis assured her it was unnecessary, that she was quite content with her solitude and was looking for more spiritual oriented classes and groups. The receptionist graciously showed Avetis a long list of classes, most dealing with how to deal with issues of co-dependence, alchoholism, eating disorders, and one or two on daily life management.

As she was about to give up, she noticed the name of one of the groups: Exploring the feminine power. The instructor was listed as a Jeane Powell. Avetis inquired about it and the receptionist said there wasn’t a description for the class and Jeane leased the space from the center. Avetis jotted the number down on a yellow post-it and thanked the receptionist.

She made a few more stops but all offered little hope. Avetis knew the addage about putting all your eggs in one basket, but she also knew that if you only had one egg, having multiple baskets was absurd. When she got home she placed a call to Jeane Powell. The conversation was short but friendly. Avetis asked to observe one of the sessions. Jeane expressed some concern that Avetis might not find the environment to her liking and Avetis assured Jeane that there wasn’t anything she hadn’t seen short of miracles and apocalypses.

The intervening two days were very different for Avetis. While her physical routine remained the same, her mind was wrapped around the problem of bringing disciples into the sect and instilling the honor and pride necessary to hold the position of Vestal. In her time, these qualities were taught in the family. But in these times, the family was a mockery of itself. In these times, the defination of a family was so caught up in rules, process, and procedure that the society forgot the more important things: pride in name and lineage, and common identity creating strength. It was going to be a most rare woman capable of filling the role of a Vestal.

* * *

The child of a single parent, Janice Greene understood responsibility. Her father worked two jobs to keep her in clothing, to pay for her education, and to guarantee she wouldn’t miss out on any of the things a child needed to grow well adjusted: trips to museums, concerts, and theater. While he regretted being absent from her during important times, he knew she understood. And she did. Janice took her role seriously. Her father worked hard for her and she knew she had to work hard for good grades, so as not to let him down. But when she said this to him, he got earnest with her, telling her that he was only providing a chance for her to excel, and if she truly wanted to achieve great things, she needed to want to do them for herself. Her getting straight A’s made him proud, but his pride was not a suitable reward, the knowledge gained was.

For a 14 year old girl, Janice required of herself to be much more mature. She had already been babysitting for a year, saving nearly every dollar, except for self indulgent purchases of cd’s and books. This money, she knew, had to go for her college education. She wanted the best for herself and secretly knew her father would not be able to provide the level of support she would need to get the best. This truly was her first lesson in self-reliance. No matter how much she loved her father and no matter how much he loved her, there were somethings only she could do for herself. Only she understood her heart’s true desires. How can a teenage girl, part of the collection chastised for flightiness, assert with confidence that she was going to be President of the United States without being laughed at? She knew a teenage girl couldn’t. Even a woman in her twenties would receive a ‘yeah, right’ from those around her. But that was what her heart told her to do.

Sam Greene was deeply devoted to his daughter. After losing her mother to the violent tragedy of random street crime, he invested all he had into Janice. He was a poorly educated man, leaving him with very little opportunities for employment. So he worked as a security guard in the evening and a delivery driver during the day. These split schedule gave him the weekends for Janice and an hour in the morning with her. He knew this was not enough guidance, even for someone as mature and responsible as Janice. It was then he contacted a local organization, actually meant for single mothers, to help him. He explained her wanted his daughter to have female role models, real role models, not movie and rock idols, but business women. For the most part, his pleas were met with skepticism and dull enthusiasm amounting to a “Take your daughter to work day” mentality. As if his daughter could learn anything about being someone of great skill and competency by watching him work as a delivery driver or security guard. But he refused to give up, because Janice was far too important to him. That was when his silent prayers were answered in the form of Jeane Powell.

Mentoring in a special program, Jeane offered assistance to Sam and Janice. Janice spent every other afternoon after school with Jeane as Jeane ran her self-help seminars and provided community counseling. Jeane was a successful author and therapist, an emotional healer, and more importantly an empowerer.

Janice loved spending time in the classes, meeting all the different women and learning about the different lifestyles and cultures represented just in her city. But what really endeared her to the Jeane and the women attending the femine power seminars was when she confessed her heart’s true desire to them, not one of them smirked, looked patronizingly upon her, or undermined that desire at all. A few did look astonished, many praised her, but all told her she had to do it. She had to try to achieve that dream and commended her for realizing the importance of starting this uphill battle early.

She felt emboldened by the response and felt her confidence increase when one of the more elderly women in the group invited her to meet with her daughter, a state representative. After that, there were always long involved conversations about women in politics whenever she was around. Discussions of the difference between womencentric issues and national issues, discussions regarding basic strategy and image development. Janice felt capable of accomplishing her heart’s desire whenever these conversations came about. He meeting with the representative extended into attending luncheons with other women politicians, a day with a Women in Law group, and attending local foreign affairs conferences.

It was on the odd afternoon when a weathered face appeared in the Exploring feminine power group. This group was a novice seminar that usually started with a lot of rhetoric designed to create immediate excitement. Janice had attended so many of these she could almost run one herself. So many of the women who attended these groups were lost souls. They were looking for something, anything to give them hope to go onto another day. Many others were here because a friend dragged them. But all had to be reached. And the best way to reach them was to give them a sense of immediate power. Other seminar’s would focus on specific feminine traits of motherhood, a unique trait. But Jeane Powell felt that wasn’t a true source of power as women have been giving birth since the beginning of time and never has it given them any greater power than that single ability. And due to that unique ability, women have always been seen as a resource to be used. Women would be kidnapped to augment the population of neighboring villages.

Instead, Jeane liked to focus on the similarities. What made Elizabeth the First such a great ruler? Was it her ability to bear children? Since she was childless, obviously not. Was it her beauty? Since she purposefully created a stark image for herself it had little to do with it. What made her powerful was her intelligence, her firm grasp on current events, and her ability to move people with her words. The same is true of nearly every female leader. As countries today elect women leaders, these women are selected because of the same traits as male leaders are selected.

After the initial presentation, Jeane would fall back on the common denominators of most of these women: how they were treated in the school system, how they were treated in their family, and how they are treated in the workplace. She would then begin discussing ways immediate problems can be addressed and changed. Focusing on the immediate, Jeane would lure them back for the long term.

And during this whole process, she kept an eye on Avetis, sitting silently, making a note here and there in a small journal, not once betraying her inner thoughts. She had seen how women have been treated since the empire. And they really were considered a resource, like water or grain, necessary to build the population to fill the empire. It remained a complete mystery to Avetis how women themselves focused on this one factor, the one factor that relegated them to the role of factory. She was certain it was an unconscious male opinion that kept this going. With men telling women that they hold the key to life over and over, it kept women in that role of a resource.

Avetis watch Jeane and silently approved of this process. The women listening were all products of a society that never learned to appreciate what a woman could do for it. Even in the middle ages, all women worked. It was odd to then see a time period when it was a horrifying thought for a woman to hold a job. Why would a country knowingly cut its production ability in half? Simple, Avetis answered her own question using the information at the forefront of her mind, the United States was trying to build an empire and needed women to fill it with babies. Once again, the role of woman was resource not equal.

Avetis didn’t participate in the discussion but was astonished by the young girl who had great maturity and intelligence. Janice Greene openly contributed to the conversation, sharing her own experiences in the school system, and how she countered situations when her gender seemed to be a hinderance. She openly answered many questions, demurring once in a while to Jeane when the question was too abstract or touched upon issues beyond her at the moment, such as sexuality.

Avetis was thrilled with Janice and finally asked one question of the girl. Her voice creaked with age, but was still audible and commanding, “Would you ever consider participating in an enterprise where you are just a link to an eternal chain, devoted to a concept greater than yourself, one that extends into the past with the hope of carrying it into the future?”

Janice was truly puzzled. There didn’t seem to be any real answer to the question as it was far to vague. “I guess,” she finally said. “I guess, but it all depends on the cause or mission.”

“What of religion?”

“I’ve not given a lot of thought to it, I rarely attend church. My dad is a religious man, I’m still trying to sort it all out. Our pastor says it is common for young people to wrestle with issues of faith, so I’m not too concerned with it.”

“Faith is a powerful force, but it is meaningless if it doesn’t sit right in her soul. Blind faith is about as good as wishing.”

The discussion seemed to end on that note and Jeane thanked everyone for coming and passed out brochures for her other classes and seminars. Avetis waited until Jeane and Janice were cleaning and straightening the room. Jeane came over to Avetis and started talking. “So, was this what you expected?’

“Actually, no it wasn’t. I was expecting a lot of hoopla about Goddess worship and banging on drums and other activities that don’t seem to lead anywhere except further isolation of women from the whole. I was pleasantly surprised.”

Jeane laughed. “Don’t get your hopes up too high. Belief in a higher power is part of my more advanced seminars, and I myself am Wiccan, a believer in the God and Goddess.”

Avetis chuckled in response, “I agree, belief in a higher power is important and critical for a well rounded being. I have devoted myself to such a higher power.”

At this time, Janice finished stacking the chairs and came over to join the two women. “I thought your question was odd. You must be a nun, right?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes.”

Jeane responded, “So you are on a recruiting drive for the convent?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes. But I’m not a nun and my order sadly consists of one – me. My time is coming that I will soon pass and I need to find other’s to take over my duties.”

Janice asked, “What duties are those?”

In the following half hour, Avetis relived the history of the Vestal Virgins for the two women. Both with incredulous eyes thought the woman was off her rocker. At the end, Avetis invited both to her home to see the Flame for themselves. It was an offer that either could pass up. If it were true, it would be amazing, it it wasn’t, then they would have an intriguing tale to tell their friends.

Enteing the room lit only by the flame, all three women were overcome by the awe. This was an experience Avetis had everyday in her tending of the eternal flame of the hearth. “This, my friends, is the Flame of the Temple of Vesta, the eternal flame of the hearth, representation of all that woman has to offer, the light of truth, a source of intellectual enlightenment.”

The lamp that held the flame was simple, but the flame itself was brilliant. Avetis took the special flask and added the holy oil to the lamp. “So long as a Vestal Virgin tends the flame, the flask will never run out of oil. But if anyone but a Vestal were to touch the flask, it would dry out, the oil would disappear and the flame would eventually sputter into nothingness, signifying the end of Hestia’s watch on her people.”

The following two days Jeane and Janice spoke with Avetis about the Vestals, spoke about the political power they held in the empire, and spoke about the commitment to the position until the age of thirty, including the importance of maintaining a celibate lifestyle. Jeane ate this up. She was suddenly feeling justification for her beliefs, as if the ancient Goddess Vesta had been whispering in her ear.

Jeane could not take up the mantle of a Vestal Virgin, but Janice could. And Janice clearly saw being apart of this society, rebirthing it in the modern age, so to speak, could be a considerable boost to her desire to be a national leader. The literal torch was passed.

* * *

Avetis suddenly found herself standing amidst the other Vestals. Her ten year old hands touching the lamp for the very first time in her life. The High Priestess looking down at the young girl, tears streaming from her eyes, her words sounding the end of the sect. “When this flame is removed from Rome, the empire will be no more. As the Caesar is the head, the Senate is the body and the people are the heart of the empire, this flame is the soul. An empire without a soul will wither and die. Avetis Isse, know that you will be the last of the Vestals.”

Still holding the lamp in her tiny hands she responded with confidence, “No, I won’t, Irin. I’ve had a vision. There will be centuries between now and the new Vestals, but we shall not be the last.  The light of Hestia will always burn brightly.”

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