The next installment of my Fiction Friday post. If this is your first time reading and you want to read the Prologue, it was the post on last Friday. If you'd like to see another Fiction Friday by someone else, click here.
CHAPTER 1 - APRIL, 2008 CE/30 CE – NIGHTMARE
Sarah woke to the smell of blooming honeysuckles and a ripping sensation—as if she were pushed through a black widow spider’s web. In spite of the sleeping pill she took before going to bed, she sat up, instantly awake, her heart beating hard in her ears. Paul muttered in his sleep and turned over. What was that? She glanced at the clock on the nightstand—12:05 a.m. She’d been having some vivid nightmares, dreaming that Tamara was again alive, and then watching her die again and again. According to the grief therapist she’d been going to, the nightmares should be ending, or at least diminishing, by now. She lay back down. It was only another dream and she’d awake to the same dreary world again the next morning. Sleeping provided relief only when she didn’t have these persistent nightmares.
She tried, but sleep wouldn’t come back. I don’t suppose it would be smart to take another Ambien this late. If I do, I’ll never wake up in time to get to work. At 2 a.m., she decided to get up rather than toss and turn until she woke her sleeping husband, who was never at his cheeriest when awakened. I can take a shower when I get home from work—at least I won’t wake him with shower noises. She quietly took some clothes from the closet and went into the living room to dress.
It won’t hurt to go to work early—there’s a pile of work on my desk that could keep me busy until next winter. Busy-ness was a good thing. It kept her from thinking about her only child being gone forever and about her disintegrating marriage. She brushed a straggly tangle of hair back from her face. I wish there was an “undo” key in life. The first thing I’d undo would be Tamara’s illness and death. She sighed heavily. And I wish I could undo this dead feeling in our marriage.
As she drove to her office in Phoenix from their home in Wickenburg, there was way too much time to reflect. She turned the radio dial to KNIX-FM and listened to the music. She sang along with the music to prevent herself from thinking. She yawned. Now is no time to get sleepy. Sing louder. She reached down and turned up the volume on the radio.
Without warning, the world did a quick spin. The smell of honeysuckle and the ripping sensation returned, this time accompanied by a wild, howling, whirling wind. Her hands froze on the steering wheel—she couldn’t see to steer the car! The moonlit scenery around her blew away in the awful wind, and an ominous crimson sunrise began to replace the moonlight. Progressively, the car disappeared, along with the moonlit scenery and flowery smell, the tearing sensation stopped, the wind died, and she stood in a house—but a very different house from any she’d ever been in before.
What a nightmare! She shuddered. This must be the next scene in the nightmare—or the next dream. This has to be another dream. She looked around and saw only one room in this house; the floor was dirt, and furnishings were almost nonexistent—a low table, a couple of pallets, a fireplace of sorts, and a set of shelves. She stood by the one window, a window without glass, open to the weather. The room didn’t feel too chilly, considering that shutters fastened to the window frame with leather hinges hung open. A bird sang from a nearby tree. Dogs barked in the distance. Where is this place? Or when? This hovel looks prehistoric.
In the straw-covered wooden pallet under the window, a small child laid sleeping, honey blond hair partially covering her face. Sarah stepped closer to the girl and stared. She sure looked like Tamara, her fine hair in the usual bright tangle on the pillow next to her. With her hands trembling, she knelt next to the child, taking in every detail, noticing the sleeping child scent, and finally lifted the hair away from the little girl’s face. Tammy! With quickening pulse, she gently touched Tamara’s cheek. Her skin felt way too warm, and Sarah’s excitement changed to that familiar heart-pounding panic she always had when she dreamed about Tamara dying again. She turned and without thinking looked for the call button to summon a nurse, realizing in panic there was no call button here, let alone nurses or doctors.
When she turned, she noticed a man lying on the other pallet with his back to her, longish dark-brown beard, longish black hair—still, something about the shape of his shoulders or the way his hair curled reminded her of Paul. Okay, now I really need to wake up! She pinched herself hard. “Yowch!” she yelped—but the dream didn’t go away, and the man awoke.
Scratching his head and rolling over with a moan, the man muttered something under his breath, then, “Woman, must you make loud noises so early? The sun is barely up.”
His language is strange. How is that that I can understood what he’s saying?— and his voice—he sounds just like Paul, complete with the deep gravelly early morning grumpiness. Feeling a sense of shock, Sarah looked more closely at the man. He sure looked like Paul. But then, it made sense that he would be in this dream, too.
“Tammy’s sick,” she informed him, keeping her voice soft. “We need to find a physician.” What?—I replied in the same language! This is getting weirder and weirder.
Paul, too, lowered his voice—apparently he didn’t want to wake Tamara either. “You Canaanites. Do you think we should run for a physician every time a child is ill? I don’t understand the way you think.”
Huh?--I’m a Canaanite? If I remember my history classes right, Canaan ceased to exist as a country a couple thousand years ago. Pushing that thought aside, she reacted with anger to Paul’s apparent disregard of Tamara’s illness.
“Whatever,” Sarah replied impatiently to Paul. “Don’t you care that Tammy is sick? She has a fever. Do you understand that? She needs a physician!”
“Of course I care, but we’re not wealthy, wife,” he replied, sounding like he was explaining something to a dull child. He didn’t look as if he noticed her anger or her sarcasm. “Children get over illnesses, or they don’t. We don’t have any money for a physician. Speaking of money, your employers will be angry if you’re not there to prepare their morning meal, and you know we need their favor. If you lose this work, we won’t eat and we won’t have a place to live. The money I get from begging certainly won’t support us,” he added, bitterness tainting his voice.
He threw back the ragged blanket, and pulled himself across the floor to Tamara, groaning softly through gritted teeth, then tenderly touched Tamara’s forehead. Sarah gazed in astonishment at his right leg—the foot turned outward further than it should, and the leg was swollen and tied with strips of dirty cloth to a rough board. It was the same leg he broke when falling from the roof at home three months ago—but in the “real” world, it set and healed properly.
“Sarah, did you hear me? You have to go to the house and prepare their meal. I’ll stay with Tamara till you get back. Do we have any cheese left? I can give her some cheese and goat’s milk if she wakes before your return.”
“I don’t know—you’ll have to look.” She picked up a headscarf and pulled it over her hair and went out the door. Now, what did I do that for? She started to pull the scarf back off, then shook her head. Follow the dream—I think I’m supposed to wear this thing. She assumed her hair was still the same dishwater blond. Paul’s hair looked black instead of brown—but maybe it was just the dim light in this house.
She took a deep breath as she walked outside and was immediately sorry--the house stood next to some stables behind a spacious brick home. Holding her breath, she walked through the rear gate, through a courtyard, and on into the partially open cooking area outside the house. The cooking area was enclosed on three sides, except that the roof was about a foot above the top of the walls, supported at the four corners by poles. The stone walls had several deliberate gaps as well, she supposed to allow smoke out and air circulation through.
With a sense of the familiar, she placed wood on the coals banked in the fireplace, blew on it to start it flaming, set some raised bread to bake, and began laying out cheeses and meats, together with some raisins and pomegranates, peeled and sectioned, and goat’s milk. Where was this sense of familiarity coming from? She hadn’t done this type of work before. Or had she? “Memories” seeped into her mind of performing this work daily for several years. When the bread was done, she placed thick slices on a serving platter, olive oil and vinegar in a dish, and carried it into the house to a room where a family was gathered to break their night’s fast.
The interior of the house was elegant—elaborate tapestries hung on the walls; between the various rooms in the doorways there were colorful strings of beads so thick you couldn’t see through to the next room; the floors were multicolored marble tiles laid in complex patterns; and sumptuous rugs decorated the already beautiful floors. The family was dressed in colorful tunics, while her own was a plain but serviceable brown. The mother’s tunic was especially elegant, a deep blue embroidered with gold leaves around the neck, a matching sash, also embroidered, around her trim waist.
Well, she noted ironically, at least none of these faces are familiar—well, at least not from the real world. The woman was slender and slightly taller than Sarah’s five feet two inches, thick dark auburn hair, elaborately coiled and with vibrant jewels adorning the crown of her head, and large brown expressive eyes, eyelashes so thick they looked like they were layered in mascara. The man was a little heavy, although certainly not obese, dark hair and beard neatly trimmed. Sarah realized then that the faces did have a dream-like familiarity—she knew she served these people many times previously—well, at least in this dream.
The three children in the room, together with their puppy, hurried to the table. The small black puppy with the tan stripe across his shoulders wagged his tail eagerly, obviously hoping for a treat from the table.
“Pomegranates!” the two boys and girl chorused. “Thank you, Sarah!” Sarah smiled at the children, seven-year-old Darius, six-year old Gideon, and four-year-old Orphah. Now, how did I know that? she wondered with a slight shake of her head. All three children showed strong resemblances to their mother, auburn or red hair and beautiful large brown eyes. Sarah waited silently for the family to finish eating, refilling their glasses of milk when needed.
“Well done, Sarah, as usual,” their father stated, patting his stomach. Again, Sarah was “remembering,” this time the names of the children’s mother and father, Dorcas and Hamath. The look in Hamath’s eyes expressed appreciation not just for the food. Dorcas caught the look, and her eyes narrowed in suspicion. The suspicion didn’t seem to include Sarah. Sarah hoped the scowl she felt didn’t show on her own hot face.
“Take the remaining food for your family, Sarah,” Dorcas said. Sarah bowed her head in thanks, gathered up the remaining food, and left the room. She felt Hamath’s eyes following her, but she didn’t raise her eyes. The meal she then prepared for the several servants and slaves of the household was plainer fare, cheese and bread. Another servant would take the meal to the servants’ dining area, so after cleaning the cooking area, she wrapped the extra food from the family’s meal in a clean linen cloth and retraced her steps hurriedly back to her house.
Paul looked up as she entered, but uttered no word of greeting, nor did Sarah. She wondered if their relationship here in this dream world was as bad as in the real world. He spoke so formally, no friendly and familiar casual conversation. Even before Tamara had died in the real world, they’d become distant with each other, and that distance only increased since her death. They didn’t have much in common any more, other than Tamara, and then she was gone—except in these dreams. It was a lonely feeling, this loss of relationship with the husband that she’d adored so few years before. She supposed she still loved him, but Paul was so distant she felt reluctant to expose herself to outright rejection by telling him so.
“I’m going now. I think I’ll go over by the gate,” he said. “Maybe people will be more generous there today. No one cared enough to add a single copper to my basket at the marketplace yesterday.” Paul ignored the plate of food she brought back and set on the table in front of him.
“Have you eaten?”
“No, maybe later.” Paul stood, using two stout forked tree limbs for crutches. She noticed how thin he looked—not that he’d ever been heavy, but now his shoulder bones pressed his tunic into ridges and hollows. With obvious pain, he made his way clumsily through the doorway, ducking his head to miss the top of the door frame.
Tamara was awake now, standing by her pallet, still flushed with fever. “Mama, I don’t feel good,” she whimpered, and she fell to the floor, convulsing. Frantically, Sarah tried to hold her to keep her from hitting the walls or the edge of the pallet, but with Tamara’s muscles so stiff and jerking so, Sarah was afraid she could do more damage than good. Sarah moved her body between the child and the wall, absorbing the energy of Tamara’s convulsing arms and legs. When the seizure was over, she lifted Tamara and held the limp child cradled to her chest, rocking her and weeping. Sarah had to bring the fever down, and she frantically scanned the room for something, anything. She spotted some rags on the shelf in the corner. She pulled Tamara’s tunic off, grabbed the rags, poured water from a jar into a basin, soaked the cloths, and laid them over the unconscious child. The fever slowly subsided, and Tamara opened her eyes. Sarah held Tamara close, rocking and waiting for her own heart to slow to a normal beat.
“Can you eat a little bit of fruit?” Sarah offered Tamara a piece of pomegranate. Tamara shook her head. “How about some juice, then?”
Tamara nodded, so Sarah laid the child on her pallet, squeezed the juice from the pomegranate into a cup, and handed it to Tamara. She drank some, but then crawled into her mother’s lap and closed her eyes. Sarah nibbled on the fruit and cheese, and wondered what to do with these family members of hers—one ill of body, the other ill of mind and body. If only there were someone wise around to talk to. She’d given up on the Sunday school notions of a benevolent God many years previous (or, as she wondered with wry amusement—maybe a few thousand years in the future?), so that option was out. And she knew no one here in this distant past dream world, other than her husband, her daughter, and her employers. At least she didn’t think she did, but who knew where this dream would take her next?
The day passed in a surreal haze, and Sarah found herself doing work by rote—cooking, cleaning the cooking area, going back and forth between her house and her employers’ house, all the while watching Tamara. She recovered quickly from the fever that beset her that morning, and now she played happily in the warmth of the sunshine with Orphah and the puppy, Kedar. Sarah “remembered” that Tamara started calling him Keddy, and the other children followed suit.
Later, as Sarah prepared the final meal of the day for her employers, Tamara played in the courtyard near the cooking area with a wooden doll. Sarah’s dream memory provided the information that Paul carved the doll for her birthday last September.
Hamath came from the courtyard and stood behind Sarah. She quickly moved to the flour bin, as though she were after some flour to begin making tomorrow’s bread. Her “memory” supplied the knowledge of Hamath’s increasing interest in her of late. It isn’t as though he’s God’s gift to women. And it’s not as though I’m some kind of diva. Five foot two, ten pounds overweight, muddy brown eyes, dishwater blond hair, two crooked teeth. I wish he’d leave me alone—and I wish I dared say that out loud. But if I do, I could get fired, and like Paul said, we need this job.
“You don’t have to act so afraid of me,” Hamath smiled, his voice sounding positively oily. “You know I wouldn’t hurt you. I just enjoy watching you at your work. Is that so frightening? And I am your employer, remember? You are my servant and subject to my wishes.”
Sarah wasn’t so sure about the legality of his ideas—but how would she go about checking that out in this ancient dream world? No internet, no computers, no library, even. Maybe I should just dream up a computer and internet. Smoothly, she began kneading the bread dough, using a start from the previous day’s dough for leavening. “I’m sure you wouldn’t want to dishonor me, sir. I’m a married woman and you’re an honorable man,” she said, hoping this approach would work.
“Very true, Sarah, but Paulos is weak, and he might not live much longer. If you please me, I might take you into my household as a concubine.”
“Paulos just feels depr-, uh, sad because he’s crippled.” “Depressed” probably wouldn’t be understood by this oaf. “I expect him to begin eating more soon. And perhaps a physician might be able to fix his leg.”
“How would you pay for a physician,” Hamath replied, arms folded across his chest. “Is my servant Sarah a secretly rich woman?”
He sounds just like Paul. She had an idea—maybe it would work. “Wasn’t Paulos injured in your employ? Perhaps it’s your responsibility to provide a physician.”
Hamath jaw dropped. “Is it possible you don’t remember that I did find a healer for him?”
Another “memory” kicked in—“You sent for the cheapest charlatan you could find. Is that what you’d call for your family? And he was drunk when he arrived. Some physician.”
“Woman, I would remind you that you’re not a member of my family and are not entitled to the same quality of physician such as would be warranted by my own kin. And your uncivil tongue could earn you a beating.” Hamath’s eyes turned cold and sharp.
“Forgive me, sir,” she said quickly. “I was so concerned about my husband that I forgot my position.” She bowed her head in what she hoped was a submissive attitude. “It’s just that he can do very little work for you in his present condition. If his leg were straightened and healed properly, he could be of use to you again.”
Hamath appeared mollified at her improved attitude, and his eyes narrowed speculatively. “Perhaps you might be right, Sarah. I’ll take this into consideration and give you my answer tomorrow.” With this, he left the cooking area, and Sarah breathed a sigh of relief, as much as for Hamath leaving the area as with the idea that he might consider hiring a physician. She worried that Hamath might forget he was supposedly honorable. But then, this is just a dream.
After finishing her evening chores, she knelt and held Tamara close to her heart. “I love you,” she whispered, her throat feeling tight.
“Me, too, Mama,” Tamara whispered back.
Sarah picked up the remains of the evening meal. Holding Tamara’s hand, she walked back through the darkness to the miserable slat-board hovel that was “home.” She gratefully noticed the lamp lit in the window. Although the moon was full and bright, she knew the lamp would still be needed inside the dark house.
I’ll probably wake up in the morning to find this nightmare over. This has to be the most vivid dream I’ve ever had! But then again, this nightmare is better than the real nightmare. At least Tamara is alive here—wherever ‘here’ is. She gazed lovingly at the child, memorizing details so she could savor this moment when she awoke in the morning back in the twenty-first century.
Paul was again lying on the pallet when they walked in the door. Sarah said nothing about Hamath’s promise to think over resetting his leg. No point in getting his hopes up, in case Hamath decides against the idea. Besides, tomorrow is probably not going to happen here, anyway.
Tamara ran to Paul and hugged his good leg. “Hi, Papa, do you feel better yet?” Tamara seemed to think that maybe his broken leg was a temporary thing, perhaps like her fevers.
“No, my little love,” Paul responded gently. “Do you feel better?”
“I’m all better,” she replied, “‘cept I’m tired.”
“Perhaps you should go to bed, then,” Paul said, nodding toward her pallet by the window.
“Okay, soon as I kiss you and Mama,” she replied following words with deed. Sarah knelt and held her closely, knowing that when morning came she’d awake and find Tamara was again no longer with them. She laid Tamara down, sitting beside her and stroking her soft hair. She’d better enjoy this now, because the dream would soon be over. She continued to sit next to Tamara on the pallet until the child was fast asleep.
Sarah brought some meat, bread, and cheese on a small platter and laid it on the low table next to Paul, bringing another helping for herself. Paul ate a few bites. “Food doesn’t taste as good as it used to,” he mourned, then quickly, “It’s only that I’m not hungry, not that you don’t cook well, Sarah.”
“I worry that you’re getting thinner and weaker, Paul. Couldn’t you force yourself to eat a little more? You need your strength,” she pleaded, “and you need the vitamins to get stronger.”
“The what?” Paul turned over the meat and cheese as though he thought something might be hidden beneath.
“Oh, uh, there are things in food called ‘vitamins’ that are good for you,” Sarah informed Paul. Oops—I guess this period of history didn’t know about vitamins yet. Oh, dear, how do I get out of this gaff?
“Is this another Canaanite notion?” He set the cheese down.
“Yes, Canaanite.” Paul was Greek, so probably agreeing that vitamins were a Canaanite notion would be safe.
“I don’t care about my strength. I don’t really care about much of anything, not even if I live or die. Of what use am I? If I died, you’d be free to seek a husband who could properly provide for his family.”
“Please Paul, don’t talk like that. What other man would love Tamara as you do? And she’d miss you so. Please try, for her sake.” Sarah touched his arm.
“And you? Would you miss me?” Paul asked quietly, not meeting her eyes.
“Of course!” she said bruskly, pulling her hand back. “Now eat!” She tried to hand him some of the roast lamb.
“I’m not hungry.” He lay down and turned his back to her.
Wrong response again. I must sound more like his nursemaid than his wife. When will we ever learn how to talk to each other again? We didn’t have any problem talking when we first got married. When did we stop communicating? We’re just a couple of strangers who live together.
She crossed the room to Tamara’s pallet and knelt next to her. She touched Tamara’s hair, brushing it away from her eyes, careful not to awaken her, then bent and kissed her head. Sarah felt tears running from her eyes, and she stayed by the child’s side until weariness overtook her.
Standing, she crossed to the lamp and blew it out before lying down on their pallet next to Paul, not touching, separated by an icy gulf too wide to cross.