Under A Million Stars by Mindy Haig

The women spoke loudly against me.

They did not care if I heard their words.

“You should keep a good distance from him, Sidra,” the first warned.

“He looks at you with thoughts that are impure,” the other added.
Under A Million Stars
Under A Million Stars by Mindy Haig
“You are above his station, but he sees you as Nayika, a woman he can use without sin. He will cause you many difficulties,” the first continued. “The other men and families will shun you if they think he has taken your virtue,” the second interjected. “Beauty is not enough to secure a fortuitous marriage.” “I think you mistake his interest. He is a scholar,” my Sidra said as she took her eyes from mine. “You think the learned have only pure thoughts? You know what he studies!” the first sneered. “Of course I know his work! But he is a man of words. He is well respected. What harm can there be in speaking to him?” They shook their heads. “Words can be the most dangerous of weapons, Sidra. Words can ruin people, lives, worlds.” And I knew they spoke truly. Their words pierced me like razor sharp daggers. I ached and I bled. I should have walked away, but from the moment I saw her, I needed her. Sidra knew her women spoke truths as well, but her eyes met mine again and she saw within me something the others did not see. I burned. 1.0.2: On Artha She was all of my thoughts, every waking moment and even as I took my rest she came to my dreams. My Sidra. Her family was well respected though not wealthy. Conversely, I had achieved Artha, material success, but my means of reaching that success were openly questioned. That is to say my work was openly spoken about as being scandalous. And what was yet to come was even more controversial, but in my mind I was writing verses every time my eyes saw Sidra. I knew in my heart that my success could not be complete if I could not make her mine. I would never achieve Dharma, a virtuous life, without this woman who was as a beautiful as the lotus flower and as pure as the waters of the cocoa nut. Though as the waters could ferment into a strong elixir, so could she become something so potent that she would weaken my mind with her touch and the scent of her perfumed skin would rule me for all of time. I knew those truths, and still I pursued her. I would find a way to make her my wife. But it was obvious that I could not approach her ladies in support of my intention. My only hope was to make her feel affection for me. I had to speak to her alone, and still publicly, because her ladies were correct, if we met in private, the world would believe that I stole her virtue. 1.0.3: On Winning Affection But as is the custom when a girl comes of a marriageable age, Sidra was dressed and publicly flaunted. Many men looked at her. So many. I felt anger when they judged her like wares at the market. Her value was not at all based upon the fortunes of her family. No. It was the look in her eyes. It was the way her breast rose and fell with every breath. It was the nimble grace with which she moved. She was art in motion. They did not see her as I saw her. She was Kama, my desire. And I wished to be Kama to her as well. Each day I began to bring her small gifts. I brought her a garland of woven yellow Amaranth. She played her part well, pushing my gift away so I would have to beg her acceptance before her ladies. Oh, but I was prepared to beg. “I offer the immortal flower, to such a beauty as will never fade. I make this offer in the purest love, which shall bloom and be prosperous forever.” Her eyes lit. My heart pounded. Her ladies approved at last and Sidra touched my hand for just the smallest breath of a moment as she accepted my gift. The second day I offered to her a bouquet of Ashok. The bright crimson flowers seemed to teem with life in her hand. But she dutifully pushed them back to me even as her eyes looked into mine with what must have been love because no woman had ever looked at me in such a way before. Again, I dropped to my knees before her and gave her my words along with my gift. “My lady, I offer you Ashok to symbolize a life without grief. I wish that there should be beauty wherever you walk.” One of her ladies nodded approvingly, while the other shook her head and frowned. But my Sidra held up her graceful hand and stopped the latter from voicing her opinions, then she accepted my gift and turned away from me. I did not know what to think, for she did not look pleased. The women were but a few steps away when the contrary one began to scold. I did not like to see it. I felt anger and the overwhelming need to protect her, to defend her. “You must stop encouraging him! Accepting his gifts is deterring the other men...” Again my Sidra held up her hand in dismissal. “Has it not occurred to you that I have no wish to discourage Vatsya?” “But he is...” “Learned. Handsome. Passionate. What woman would not want such traits in a man?” “His reputation...” “Shall make women envy me for all of time.” “You will throw away your chance at a life of luxury.” “I have never known luxury, but I would rather have the look that is in his eyes than all the jewels upon Devi Parvati’s head.” Sidra’s words were spoken loud enough for me to hear, so I was encouraged even as I tried to look hopeless and abandoned. The third day I came meekly to her. I kept my eyes lowered as I offered my gift. She gasped when she opened the wrapping and saw Neel Kamal, the rare blue lotus, symbol of Krishna. “Sidra, if you wished for one hundred of these, I would search the worlds as Rama did to get his blessing from Devi Durga. If you wish me to stop my bid for your affection...” “I don’t wish that at all,” she said quickly before a single word could be uttered by her ladies. “I accept your gift. Perhaps you would come visit at my home and we could sit and speak in the garden.” “It would be my greatest pleasure to sit and speak with you,” I said humbly. Sidra smiled. “You needn’t search the world as Rama did. Come tomorrow, in the afternoon when the sun is low in the sky.” “As you wish,” I answered and I watched her walk away, but my heart did pound in my chest. The time could not move quickly enough. 2.0.0: Proposing Marriage 2.0.1: On Protocol Life is full of such strange twistings and turnings. That I should have written the verses on how such things as marriage should be properly arranged and the expected course of action of each of the cast of characters when I was not of a position to meet any such requirements was a great irony. But never had I expected to find such a woman that I should wish to marry even though I was of the opinion that the custom was a man’s duty. And to say that there were not other women of her making would be as true as to say no two stars in the night sky shown with equal brightness. There was but one Sirius and there was but one Sidra. She was the one woman who captured in me that which I thought wild and unworthy. And my work made knowledge of women one thing at which I was certainly an expert. So when I say that she stood above all others, I say it factually, knowledgeably. I came as she asked, to her home. Having a deceased father and a mother who was second wife to another man, I did not have family to make this all important connection for me. I had many friends. Being a man who had achieved Artha, my wealth kept many close in my acquaintance, but they were not necessarily of the caste that would make a good impression for me. No blue birds flew above my shoulder. There was no great alignment in my astrological chart. But nor did any black cats or widows cross my path. Gaining her hand seemed an impossible task, doomed to failure unless Sidra should fall completely in love with me and I could offer her father enough coins that it would help him find his son a bride of a higher caste. Yet, though it seemed I came to them with little hope, my heart still felt some surety that Sidra knew what was inside me and that we would be together. I brought with me generous offerings. Perfume made from the Yuthika flower, mangoes and dates, and Betel nuts. I was received warmly, if somewhat warily. Perhaps warily was not the correct word. Her mother seemed a bit scandalized while her father was more confounded. He addressed me as Vatsyayana, which was very formal and did pain me to hear. It seemed clear they knew my work. The lady of the house dutifully went to call forth Sidra. Her father bid me to sit. He asked but one question: ‘Why Sidra?’ And that was a very good question indeed. One I did not think I had a good answer for. But my spirit seemed to answer of its own will. “It is traditionally believed that marriage is not just one lifetime, but seven. Never in my years have I had any wish to marry, until the moment my eyes met Sidra’s. My soul has known hers before. My heart can love only her. I don’t know if this is our second incarnation or our last, I only know that she is my queen.” She heard my words as she stood in the entry and she pressed her hands to her heart. If only she could have come to my arms and I could have held her pressed to me. This was but a first meeting. Such intimacies necessarily had to wait. Oh patience, you are such a difficult virtue to master. 2.0.2: On Written Words So it was that we were permitted to walk out into the garden. Well tended it was, and blooming in a vast fortune of colors and scents that might have been most pleasing to the senses, but the beauty was dull in comparison to she who walked at my side and seemed to bloom into a woman before my eyes. And though I wrote the protocol, I still did not know what words to speak to gage her affection for me. She knew my position. I was quite painfully clear that I wanted only her. But it was she that spoke first. “I have read all of your work, Vatsya.” Her simple words caused flames to burn my cheeks and I felt shame, so unexpectedly, and yet so great that I failed to answer. “You are displeased? I thought you were of the opinion that all women should know those facts before they are given into marriage,” she said softly. “All women but you,” I whispered. “Why should that be? Why should you want a wife who is blind in the duties...” “Because I wish you did not know what I have done for research. I wish you could look upon me as a good man, a worthy man.” She laughed. “I knew who you were before I read your words. I did not discourage you.” “Your women spoke firmly against me. Do you know that they are right to do so?” “Yes, I know. I have had every conversation, every argument already within my own mind, Vatsya. But it is not your written words that keep me rapt; it is the things your eyes say when you look upon me. It is the feelings within me that your look brings to life. Perhaps they are right to speak against you, but I know inside that even if you ruined me I would not regret it. And I know if you should abandon your wish to have me as your wife, I would not find happiness with another man because no other looks at me as you do.” “I meant the words I said to your father, Sidra.” “And when you ask, I shall agree. So tell me, will you teach me those things that a women should know?” she smiled. “Which things do you speak of?” I asked timidly. There were answers I wished to hear, though they would make the blood rush in my veins. She tilted her head and looked into my eyes. I could not look away from her. She was not shy in her private words, but well spoken, and skilled at making simple words have complex meanings. “There are verses upon verses that I would learn, some clearly say they take much practice.” “And some say they cause pain.” “To further the cause of pleasure.” “Pleasure is not love and it can be found in many ways. Passion is satisfying for a short time only, even intense passion can be satisfied in a single act. Pain lingers. I do not wish to show you those acts meant to cause pain, Sidra.” “And if it is not the acts of passion that I am speaking of?” she said lightly as her eyes looked deep beyond my flesh to the bared soul within me. “Would you teach me those skills upon the list of sixty-four arts?” “Which do you wish to learn?” I asked as I sat captive. She laughed again. “Why I would wish to learn Magic, Sorcery, so I might cast an unbreakable spell upon you that you will love only me.” “Oh but I do think you have already mastered that art.” 2.0.3: On Love I came to her home a second time and a third. We sat upon a tapestry laid out upon the ground as the afternoon sun began its race toward the horizon. And I thought to myself how wonderful it would be to lie in the moonlight in a pressing embrace with this woman for whom my heart felt the deepest love. Though as I daydreamt there was silence in the air around us. My Sidra was watching me. “I do wish the formalities could be cast aside,” she started. “I feel such desire to touch you, to feel you touch me.” Her words made the small hairs upon my arms stand. Such a spell she cast. Surely we passed at least one lifetime together for her to be able to know my thoughts and rule me so completely in so brief a time. And then a question came that I did not expect. “What is love to you, Vatsya? What is love to man of intense pleasure?” My mind went blank and still words came from my lips. “Love is Sutra. Love is the thread that binds all the other parts of life together. And you are my Sutra, that which holds me together. You are love, my love.” “You say such wonderful things, and yet you write so coldly, so factually of circumstances that might be very affectionate, very tender.” “I have never had a reason to be warm, to be tender, until now.” “Your words make me love you and yet they say words are the most dangerous weapon and the blackest magic.” “Yes, they say that,” I admitted. “And you dispute it not at all?” she smiled. “Words have the power to destroy and to hurt, but they also have the power to create and to heal. Sometimes it is more than just a word that makes the moment. It is the look that passes knowingly and the gentle touch that accompanies it. I long to be touched in love, Sidra. I long to hear words of love spoken in the acts of pleasure. I long to feel the lingering satisfaction of holding the one I love long after the moment of gratification has passed. Perhaps you don’t understand this need. I don’t expect you to understand when you have not known this part of life. I write cold, factual words because they are simple. They are clearly understood. They convey just the very basic information. My work is of a nature that were the words passionate, were it not strictly instructional, it could not be read. There are situations that would be so colored by the actions taken that people would fear to enter such relations. And that is not my intent. So I write the simplest words in the coldest form and those who read them and follow them will add the amount of passion or pain they are comfortable with. It is only now, at this very moment, Sidra, that I truly understand how important the words are. If my words truly can make you love me, then I will give you soft, honest words from my heart always.” And then she reached out to me and pressed her hand to my cheek. In her eyes we were already lovers. I turned my face ever so slightly, almost imperceptible, and pressed my lips to her hand. “Why do you break the tradition and touch me before the arrangement is made?” “You know the answer, Vatsya, but I will say the words softly, honestly, directly from my heart. I love you. And I remember that a wise man wrote in his work that love does not care for time or order. You needed to be touched by someone who loves you and I needed to touch you. Will you ask for me as your wife?” “Are you certain you can be happy saying yes? I fear death less than I fear your rejection, though I fear your rejection would be death for me as my heart would have no reason to continue beating.” “Will you take other wives as well?” “No! You would be my only wife, my queen. And I would worship you as thus.” “Then ask, and you will be my king.” And so it was that Sidra became my wife. 3.0.0: Earning Her Trust 3.0.1: On The Embrace Custom is a cruel dictator. And I strengthened his arm with my work. It may well have been that my flippant statement that love cares not at all for time or order was the one thing I have written that was wholly true. But love was like a hunted beast. It might flee and force a man to give chase. It might turn and attack the hunter with equal vigor. Or it might take a man by surprise and come to him willingly. Marriage for love was but a novelty. That is to say that custom says a man should marry to increase his Dharma and Artha, and thusly when he has taken his wife into his home and his family, he should treat her in a way that allows love to grow. It was sensible advice. A plain tenet of my work was encouraging that love to grow. Oh, but that was not how it was for me. No. I was in love; very much in love. And so it was that I brought my wife to our home and just that suddenly I had no sense of reason. What my heart wanted and what my mind told me were at odds. I knew I needed to resist those desires of my body because I wrote the guidelines for such occasions. How pompous was it that a man with no wife should think himself capable of telling others how to treat their wives? Still, though my thoughts flitted and conflicted. I wished to show Sidra respect and kindness so that what spark of love she felt for me might become a burning flame. I made her a beautiful room and I hated to see it because I wanted her to be sleeping beside me. And to my surprise Sidra did not look pleased. She crossed her arms over her chest and looked away. I offered her kind words. I offered her fruits and cool drinks but she accepted nothing from me. In desperation, I begged her to simply tell me what was amiss. She looked up into my eyes for the briefest instant and I saw that she was hurt but I did not know why. “Your home is my home but your bed is not my bed. So tell me plainly, what am I to you? You said you would not have other wives, but I did not ask the proper question. I did not ask if you would take other women to your bed...” I dropped to my knees. “Sidra, I was only trying to please you, to build your confidence in me. Most women wish for time to become accustomed...” “I am not most women,” she snapped. I should not have laughed. I am absolutely certain that was the wrong response, but her words brought me such joy. This woman who loved me clearly knew me more intimately than I knew her. She dropped her chin. I was still upon my knees so I saw the tears well in her eyes. “Sidra, my love, I know well that no part of our courtship has followed the written rules. I only wished to get this one thing right, to make this marriage one in which you are well pleased, one where you will feel respected. I had only pure intentions. But I will tell you honestly, I despise this room.” “Tell me why, Vatsya.” “Because you will be here in my home and I still must not touch you.” Sidra nodded. “If this custom is of such importance to you then I shall withhold myself.” “The custom means nothing to me! I care only that you are happy here, that you do not feel that my desires and passions are forced upon you. But neither do I want you to feel unwanted because that is so far from any truth.” “Then give me your embrace, Husband. I am not most women and you are not a common man. I want to know your touch. I want to know that when I look upon you and I am overcome with the desire to touch your cheek or place my hand into your hand that you will accept my gestures and not scorn or condemn such outward signs. I want to know that when I feel love for you I don’t have to be coy and pretend I do not feel such a thing until such a time has passed that it would be deemed appropriate. I want simply to love you and take pleasure in you. And I want you to love me and have that pleasure in return. I want to share your bed and awaken beside you.” The God of Karma clearly mocked me, but I cared not at all. I stood and pulled Sidra so tight against my chest that I could feel every curve of her as she curled into my body and pressed her cheek to me. “I want all those things you want, my love,” I whispered. And such was our first embrace. 3.0.2: On Kissing And that embrace was followed quite closely by much kissing. I kissed each finger upon her hands, her forehead, and both of her eyes. I kissed her cheeks and her throat. So hard I tried to avoid her mouth, knowing that such union would inflame the passion that I needed to control at least this first night. But my Sidra was equal to me in passion. She took my face in her hands and she pressed her mouth to mine. Her lips were so soft. My appetite for her was so great that I might have forgotten the importance of breathing. But alas she tipped her head back and breathed out a long slow breath. To my relief, she looked pleased. I did not release her from my arms, and neither did she push away. She touched my back gently as she leaned against me. And I thought I might feel rent in two when the moment came that we had to leave that embrace. No, I did know for a fact that I would feel rent every time she was not within the circle of my arms. “Sidra,” I whispered into her ear, “do you love me?” “Yes.” “Can you say the words to me?” She did look up into my eyes then. What she saw I did not know, but she gently pushed me to sitting and then she walked away from me. Many times she said my words made her feel love and other such things that implied love, but only once had she said that she loved me. I should have been satisfied with her implied words. It was but the first day of our life together. And now she had walked away when I asked to hear the words. How could my life have become so tangled into this woman that I had known for so short a time that I felt pain when she walked away without saying the words I wished to hear? And I did know very well that it might be a good time before she would be able to say those words to me, that knowledge did not make waiting easier. Just as my thoughts grew heavy, my sunshine returned to me with a tray of cut fruits and fresh juice of squeezed lemons. She tilted her head and looked at me and a moment later she was sat upon my lap, facing me. She took a piece of mangoe from the tray with her fingers and she brought it to my lips. I opened my mouth. She put the fruit in and she ran her finger over my lips as I chewed and swallowed her offering. This she repeated with other pieces, and touching my forehead and my neck. “I love you, Vatsya,” she said as she offered me drink. I drank in the juice as eagerly as I drank in her words. She did love me. She did find in me something worth loving. And she was willing to show that love in this intimate way so easily. I offered her the drink as well and we passed the evening sharing such affection. 3.0.3: On Union Those first nights when she lay beside me were so stressful that sleep failed to come to me. My eyes could not stop looking at her. My heart could not believe that she was mine. My body wanted her fiercely. Each night I set a tray of Tambula at the side of the bed just in case she should need to relax under my touch. But she did not need any such aphrodisiac. I needed just the opposite, a means to lessen the potency of my desire. And so it was three nights that we lay side by side, touching, pressing, and teasing each other before I did begin to use my hands in such a way as to ignite the pleasure of passion within her. Watching her lose herself was perhaps more satisfying than my own pleasure. Each touch I gave to her she returned unto me. Each kiss I placed upon her body she replaced upon mine. My excitement was feverish. Oh, I did begin to take such actions that I did wish to feel myself. Until at last that moment came where we were one; one heart, one soul, one body. It could have been over nearly as quickly as it began, but Sidra wrapped her arms and legs tight around me, pulling me deep into her and thus she whispered into my ear: ‘slowly, my love.’ Fear that I was causing her pain or anxiety slowed my pace, but she did not stiffen. She reached for the tray near her head, took a Betel Nut between her fingers, pressed it to her lips and then between my own lips. “Take your pleasure slowly. Show me those things you have written. Let me match your passion so I might be all that you need.” But she was not the only one who learned something that night. For it was wholly true that when the union of the body was made in love, the pleasure was more than can be imagined by one who had known every kind of congress but had never committed to love. And so it was that Sidra was for me Sutra, the link between my integrity and character, my prosperity, and my fulfillment. She was also that which set me free. 4.0.0: Moksha 4.0.1: On Consciousness To say that Sidra set me free was not to imply that she left me. No. Quite the opposite, her hold on me was ever the sheltering embrace of love. But that shelter, the unconditional aspect of that bond she shared with me did free me from convention and the confines of worrying upon what the citizens thought of me, my life, or my work. In effect, she gave me the wings of a bird and the ability to soar in every way. Her love let me transcend even the limits of my mind. So open was I that my creativity and compassion were completely unlocked. With Sidra I was truly alive, and thus we lived in what I saw as a perfect state of understanding, where we knew even without words, but simply by touch what the other needed or wanted. The entirety of the universe was ours. We were liberated from the confines of the fears that accompanied doubt and mistrust. We were perfect harmony. 4.0.2: On The Stars Oh, but time did pass too quickly. Thrice Sidra bloomed into the curves of womanhood as she brought our beloved children into the world, but always she remained that girl whom I first looked upon with the fire that burned in her eyes. And it seemed but an instant before our children were grown and I was an old man. But I refused to leave this life. I could not leave my Sidra. She did worry over me, for we both knew my time was come. My last breath was near and then they would place the coins upon my eyes so that I might pass to the next world. So I would not close my eyes. “You must rest, My Love,” she would say. I could not rest. “What will happen if I go? Who will care for you? What if another man claims you...” “I will never belong to another man, Vatsya. And we have two strong sons who will care for their old mother.” “How can I endure the passage without you?” “I think where you are going, time does not have the same meaning as it does in this world. I do think it will be but a moment in the eternal land before I am at your side again.” Her words were a comfort, but a small one against my great fear. “What if this is the last time, Sidra? What if this was our seventh incarnation and that is why we knew each other so intimately? What if there will never be love like this...” She pressed her fingers to my lips. “Do you think the stars can live but seven lives of men and then they should suddenly cease to light the night? Do you think the sky would crash down upon the earth? It is not so, my love. This spirit that lives within me, that which has loved you since the moment I saw you looking at me, is like the stars. It shall go on loving you endlessly. So each lifetime that you should find yourself walking the mortal world, when you look up to the heavens and you see Sirius, you will know that I am searching for you. Ever and always our spirits will meet. That is love.” She kissed my head. And I did close my eyes. * * * “Why are you crying? You didn’t like it?” “You died.” “I died with your promise that our love would continue just like the stars. I thought you would like that promise.” “I never want to think about you dying. I know I contradict myself, but I just want to think that we’ll be together forever.” “Eternally?” “Yes.” “Then next time I will give you eternity.” * * * Shades First: The full moon hung low, a heavy burden being dragged across the dark night. I pitied the sky for having to hold it there, as I pitied the earth for having to bear me. Death seemed to double the hardship, for not only did my bones rest haughtily enclosed beneath the soft blanket of her soil, but my spirit stubbornly sat in this place, night after night, week after week, perhaps year after year. Time held no meaning just as life had held no meaning. And that was why I sat alone among the stones as night towed its charge to the top of the heavens and then let it slowly roll back to the horizon. Morning broke each day, and in that instant when the first ray of light split the darkness I could see the gate. But it did not call me. It did not open in welcome. I always expected that there would be angels singing, but there was nothing. So I walked. I walked among the living, a shadow seen from the corner of an eye, a breeze felt upon flushed skin, gone from their lives and their days. I was nothing but a photo on a shelf and a sad story of life cut short. Second: When the bustle of the day settled into the calm routine of evening, I grew bitter. The thing I missed most about living was the one thing I did not have in life. I missed warmth, but not just temperature, not a warm shower in the morning, but the warmth of being hugged. The warmth of touching another person. The warmth of humanity. The warmth of love. I just didn’t really understand how I could miss the feeling of connection, when I’d never made that connection. I’d never made any connection. Perhaps my spirit remembered it from another lifetime. I wouldn’t have entertained such a thought in life, but my life ended and still this shade remained. Each night I made my way to the single giant oak tree that stood stoically at the heart of this place. While it stood among the grandest of the monuments of what had passed away, it was itself, a monument to life, to longevity, to all that endures. But I sat there because it was far from my stone. The tree’s heavy limbs sheltered me, though I did not need shelter as much as I just felt the need to hide myself there. And we were alike, the tree and I. His memories, good and bad were etched in concentric circles within the essence of his wood. Mine were engraved upon the spirit that remained. But we both kept them hidden within us. We both had no way of sharing. We both constantly reached for the heavens, but could not reach them. Each night, I sat and watched the sky darken and then gradually lighten. I sat in the rain and the snow. I fought the urge to howl at the full moon as it trundled across the sky. I sat alone. Until the night I saw her. Third: I crept closer, but still kept my distance. She stood before one of the grand old stones, a monument to a wealthy family long gone to dust that had no kin remaining to keep the bramble from obscuring the names and final memories. She looked off into the distance, her head bobbing just slightly as though she were counting the stones to get to this one. Then she knelt, leaned in very close to the stone and read the words aloud. ‘Mary Margaret Fulsome Southerland. Most beloved wife and mother. Welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven 14 September 1898.’ I watched as she continued along the stone. She read all the names, all the inscriptions and spoke aloud to those who lay so long beneath the ground. ‘So, Mary Margaret, were you truly most beloved to Daniel or were those just words inscribed in a moment of grief? Barbara MacLellan was also most beloved to her husband James, they are sixteen stones east of here, perhaps you’ve met them where you are now. I wonder, how did you meet Daniel? Was it a wonderful life that you shared? Yes, I suppose it was. I imagine you must have met at a summer house, on holiday. How romantic! Courtship and suitors, flowers and dancing, he must have swept you right off your feet! Did you know that Barbara and James met at church? Yes, it’s true. Well, in my mind it’s true. He walked her home and then he asked her father’s permission to take her to dinner. They married just four months later! That’s quite quick by today’s standards, but it was true love.’ True love. I looked out toward the east, wondering about this Barbara and her husband, James. I wondered if they had found true love and what it was like to feel such a thing. Perhaps it was warm. But my musing distracted me from the lovely vision who spoke to the stones. I looked all around the Sutherland stone but she was gone. It seemed to be only an instant later that the first ray of light shot across the horizon, that single moment of the day when what was beyond became visible. The gates shone in that one glorious beam, but remained solemnly closed. Covering my eyes did little to hide the light and instead of bringing warmth, the day made me colder and emptier than I had ever been. So I left the place of my supposed rest and went to walk among the living. Fourth: Each night I searched for her. Every time I began to think she was just a trick of the moonlight, I would see a glimpse off in the distance. But no matter how quickly I ran, I could not reach her. There was but one person in my world and I still could not make a connection. The moon began to wane in the night sky until just a sliver remained. “Please!” I called out to those who had gone through the gates. “Please grant me this one wish! Let me see her once more before the moon is gone and all is dark.” I stood with my arms raised, wishing and praying for some reply, some sign. When a single voice began to sing. It was a lullaby, a song for a child’s bedtime, sung in a thin, sweet voice. I turned and ran toward the sound. Four rows. Five rows. Past the obelisk and toward the chapel. The light of the moon was not enough to see the ground or the engraving upon the stones, but the cross upon the small steeple shone like white gold. And there she was, just a few paces away. She rose and brushed phantasmal dirt from a chimerical dress then she turned toward the chapel and saw me. She took a big step backward. I could feel her fear for just an instant, and then it was replace with wide-eyed curiosity. “Who are you? Why are you here?” she asked me. Fifth: My tongue was tied. My spirit wished to say so many things, but none were right. None would make their way out from my thoughts. The same loathsome silence that kept me solitary in life was ruining the one wish Heaven granted me. “Who were you singing to?” I asked, though it was quite possibly the very last thing I needed to know. She looked down at the stone for a moment and than back at me. “His name was Samuel Howard,” she sighed. “He is the youngest of all I have seen here. He was taken through the gates on the day of his birth. Here lies the ultimate heartbreak. A child, a new born babe taken from his mother’s arms. All the hopes and dreams his parent had for nine months gone to dust. And the saddest thing of all is that he lies here alone, no parent or partner at his side. So I visit him, especially when the moon goes dark. I don’t need to read the words on his stone, I know them in my heart. And I sing so he won’t be afraid of the darkness.” “You must be the most wonderful woman ever made.” “Why would you think such a thing?” she gasped. “It’s a great kindness to speak to the stones, to remember those who’ve already gone. Especially the lonely. Do you know all the names?” “No, not all of them,” she answered and for a moment I was sad because I wished she’d read my stone. I wished she knew my name. “I’ve seen you before. But so briefly,” I told her awkwardly. I wished I could actually see her. We were only wraiths, shadows, the glowing spirit ejected from the mortal flesh that should have left the world, but didn’t. I could tell she was female because her ghostly form wore a spectral dress that brushed the ground as she walked and she continually tucked her long hair behind her left ear, a habit that must have carried over from her living days. As I looked upon her, I wondered what she saw of me. Was my visage broken and damaged as the body it came from was? Was I a hideous thing or just plain, nondescript as I was in the days before I came here? I didn’t know and I had never thought to wonder. But I did wonder if I could reach out and touch her, what it would feel like to touch her, another like myself. I wondered if the spirit was warm. Alas, I wondered too much and spoke to little. The orange glow was spreading in the east and that first ray would shatter the darkness any moment. My time was up. She grabbed my hand in that final moment. “Come back to the chapel,” was all she said before the closed gate taunted me in the distance and her hand slipped away. “I didn’t even ask your name!” I called out in grief. It was too late. She was already gone. And my hand was colder than ice when hers slipped away. Sixth: This day I abhorred the daylight more than any day I lived. I could only think of the night. I was anxious for the night. I needed the night to come. The darkness would be so deep, not even the smallest smile from the face of the moon would shine over our stones. And I was not sure I would be able to see her at all. I was not sure I could be seen if the moon did not light the sky. But I abandoned the old oak and sat near the chapel all through the daylight hours. I did not leave this place and go walk among the living like I was accustomed to doing. No. I sat in the one place where she said I might see her again. I rejoiced when the sky burned with the colors of dusk knowing that the blackness would soon follow. And I waited. Each passing moment seemed like a thousand years. I wondered why I felt such need to see her, to be near her. Was it her or was it simply because she was the same thing I was? No, it had to be her. This feeling that pulsed through me had to be her because I had lived alongside so many in life and never felt any sort of connection, I never felt any emotion at all but she made my spirit long to touch hers. “Have you been waiting here very long?” I had been so lost in my thoughts I hadn’t noticed her approach. She startled me and my reply just tumbled out awkwardly: “No. Yes. Forever, I think.” She laughed. It was a wonderful sound. I sat listening to it, marveling at the fact that I could hear something joyful. And though the night was black as pitch, there was still something ethereal that was visible, perhaps not to what would have been my eye, but certainly to my spirit. In fact, it was so delicate in the darkness that it seemed even more beautiful, heavenly. “I didn’t mean to keep you waiting. There’s a new stone today. I was hoping to read it, but there were so many people and it’s so dark now. It’s one of the new kind, small and flat, like a bookmark stuck into a page.” “You don’t like those, do you? You like the old ones with the angels and crosses.” “I do. The names might fade over time, but people still look at the beautiful monuments.” “I like to pretend the really big stones are famous people. That obelisk, that’s Abraham Lincoln. That one out on the far eastern side that has the fence all the way around it, that’s Jim Morrison. The one with the really huge cross on the north side of the chapel...” “Is Jesus, right?” she exclaimed. “Of course it is! I mean, look at the size of that cross! It must be.” “That’s funny, maybe Elvis is here or JFK. They would have grand stones, not like these new stones,” she sighed. “It bothers me that they get stepped upon. The weeds grab them and hide them. It’s silly, I guess. The bones don’t mind.” I had an uneasy feeling that her stone was flat, the new kind. Perhaps she’d already watched people carelessly trample her resting place. I wanted only to get back to that moment when she laughed, when there was joy inside me. “Will you show me where the new stone is?” I asked. “We can try to read it together.” “An evening stroll among the stones? Is that romantic or creepy?” “Under these particular circumstances, let’s go with romantic,” I laughed. “I don’t know,” she teased, “you seem a bit shady to me.” The humor took me by surprise. “I can’t even phantom what you mean!” I replied. She began to laugh again and then she wrapped her arm around mine. “That was so bad it was spooky!” “How about this? I could hardly wraith to see you tonight.” I said it as a joke, but it was the truth. “Neither could I. I’ve never felt like this before,” she said softly. “And I don’t even know your name.” “Jonas. It’s Jonas.” “Mine is Remy.” “That’s a beautiful name.” “Thank you,” she answered simply as we walked hand in hand toward the place she wished to see. The dirt was still soft from being newly shoveled. We tread carefully, cautious of the new plot and any new shade that might reside there, but once again, we were alone, the only two of our kind. “I wish there was just a little bit of light,” Remy whispered as we knelt close to the stone. I wished I could give her what she wished for, and that was when it happened. Seventh: “How did you do that!” “I don’t know. You wanted light. I wanted to give it to you and there it was.” “Jonas, that is amazing! Can I touch it?” she asked as she reached out toward the glowing orb that sat upon my palm. “It looks just like the moon, only small enough to put in your pocket!” “It does look just like the moon, doesn’t it,” I marveled as I lifted it closer to her, only as I lifted it, I noticed something. “I can see you.” “Of course you can, I’m right here!” “No, Remy, I can see you as you were, I think.” “Oh no! I don’t want you to see me like that, Jonas. I was...” “So beautiful. Your hair was the color of honey. Your eyes were brown, dark, dark brown. I can see the pink of your lips and that your dress is the color of starlight. Why would you not want to be seen?” “That’s what you see?” “Yes.” “I was sick, Jonas. I didn’t look that way in the end. Can you lift the light so I can see you?” I was not sure what she would see, but I did as she asked. “Your hair was wavy,” she smiled as she ran her fingers through it. I could see her smile. I could feel the way my hair slid between her gentle fingers. She leaned closer to me. “Your eyes were so green. There’s a dimple in your cheek.” Each word brought her face closer to mine as the tiny moon in my hand made us real once again. And without a moments thought, I kissed her. She did not pull away from me. She kept her fingers up in my hair and gently teased the rowdy waves as our mouths found something we needed in each other. We sat there touching until the glow of day began to spread from the eastern sky and the tiny moon vanished from my hand. Then she rose to leave me. “No!” I cried out, “please don’t leave me!” Eighth: “But it’s daytime. Don’t you go back to your stone in the daytime?” I shook my head. “I never go to my stone. I am not at rest. I don’t want to see the place they put my bones to sleep.” “What do you do?” “I go out there,” I said, pointing toward the gate between the stones and the living world. “You talk to them?” “No. They can’t see me. I watch them. I hear the traffic and the music. You’ve never left this place?” She shook her head. “Come with me, Remy.” “I don’t know, Jonas. I don’t know if I can walk among them any more.” “I’ll protect you. You won’t be alone.” “I don’t want to be alone,” she said at last as she took my outstretched hand and we walked. It was an odd place that we lived. The stones were only two blocks from the bustle of the big city and the University I might have attended had things gone differently in my life. Streets teeming with pedestrians were so near and still a world away. Remy hesitated when we reached the street, looking back for just an instant as she tightened her hold upon my hand and stepped back out into the world of the living. The deeper we ventured onto the campus that more agitated she became. She made a deliberate effort to stay out of the path of those who walked, but her frantic dodging was very obviously worrying her. “Remy, they can’t feel you. You don’t have to avoid them.” “I’m afraid they’ll walk into me. Is that silly?” “No, but think of the world as an animated movie, there are layers upon layers of cells that make the scenery and the action, they are on one layer, we are on another,” I said as I passed right through a man talking on his phone. She froze. “I don’t think I want to try that.” “Do you want to go back? I don’t want you to be afraid all day just to be with me. We can do something else. We can go sit in the park and listen to the music majors play their instruments over by the fountain.” “That would be nice. I would like to hear music.” And fortune must have been smiling on me for once because there were actually musicians in the park. There was a guy with a saxophone playing jazz music I did not know but I took Remy in my arms and we danced, right there while others just passed by oblivious to the beautiful gift of sound. She ran her fingers up into my hair and even though we were both just shades, I could still see her the way I saw her when I held the moon in my hand. If only I could wish for another chance at life, this would be what I would hold sacred, these tender moments when two hearts, two souls were one. Too soon he packed his instrument away and we sat on the edge of the fountain listening to the sounds of the day. Birds chirped. Planes flew overhead. Leaves rustled in the gentle breeze. Remy reached behind herself and ran her hand through the water in the pool of the fountain. Then she lifted her hand and flicked the wetness at me. And though no water actually clung to her fingers and spattered me, I still flinched. She laughed. She threw her arms around my neck and she kissed me. She said that I was wonderful. Ninth: “Why are you still here?” I asked as we walked back to the place that I did not consider home, but could be home as long as she was there with me. “Do you mean right here with you or here, you know, like this?” she asked as she waved her hand in front of herself. “Like this.” “I don’t know,” she answered quietly as we stepped back through the gate and the world seemed to grow darker and smaller all around us. “I mean, I guess I do know, I just don’t want to admit it.” “You can tell me anything. I will listen,” I told her as I led her to the tree where I spent my nights. “When I knew they couldn’t cure me, I was angry. It wasn’t fair. I thought, why me? It’s selfish, I know. Don’t think badly of me, Jonas. I tried to be a good person.” “I would never think badly of you. I think you’re perfect. I think the vast majority of people who get that sort of diagnosis have those feelings.” “Well, I am definitely not perfect. Instead of trying to live each day to the fullest, as my body failed I let myself sink into my melancholy. I mourned that I would never fall in love. I was bitter at the thought that no man would ever love me with all his heart. I mourned for romance, for bouquets of flowers and moonlight strolls. I mourned for that first kiss and the simple pleasure of holding hands. Perhaps it was all a fairy tale, and it was never meant to happen for me. But I left the world regretting what might have been instead of being thankful for all I had been given and I have been here ever since.” “We have moonlight.” She smiled a little. “No we don’t. The moon will still be hiding tonight!” “We can hold hands.” “I do like holding your hand.” “When we kissed last night, that was pretty romantic, right?” Remy blushed. I mean, I was holding her hand as we sat talking and I felt her get warm. I swear I thought her spirit turned slightly pink, but that might have been my imagination. “That was my first kiss, Jonas.” “Mine too.” “Really?” “Yeah.” “Jonas, what happened to you?” I shrugged, though I didn’t know if she could see that gesture so I answered in words. “I always felt like I didn’t belong in my life. Like I was an outsider. I was empty. And then a day came where I just felt like there was nothing left to live for. I don’t know why. I did not live a troubled life. My parents were good people, my sister was many years younger so we were not very close, but neither was there animosity. I didn’t feel like she stole my spotlight, or anything like that. In fact, I was rather glad when she was born because I always felt like my parents deserved a child who would love them, you know, show love to them. She tilted her head and looked at me. “Did you end your life?” “No! No, I didn’t!” I said, but then I wondered. “I was hit by a car while crossing the street. It was an accident. At least, I thought it was an accident. I remember feeling so low, so done with my life, but I don’t remember stepping out into the crosswalk. I don’t remember looking at the traffic. Perhaps it was not just circumstance. Perhaps subconsciously, I did end my life and that is why the gate will not open for me.” “Don’t say that.” “Say what?” “That you think you are not worthy of Heaven. I need to believe there is reason the gates don’t open. I want to think that I still have a purpose to fulfill here.” “I’m sorry! I did not mean to imply that you were not worthy of paradise! You couldn’t help being sick, but I was just careless with a life that felt like a burden.” We sat in silence holding each other for a long time. “Jonas?” “Yes?” “If the gate opened for me, right now, I wouldn’t leave. I wouldn’t leave you.” “I wouldn’t leave you either.” Tenth: We spent every day and every night together for weeks. We told each other every secret, every wish and every fear. She told me how it felt to know death was coming for you and I told her how it felt to wake up startled, alone, upon the freshly turned soil before my stone. I told her how I ran from it, and that I was still running from it. But she held me in her arms and my soul changed from a thing that was cold and lonely to something that felt love in the simplest, purest form. Every moment we were together, I just simply wanted to be near her. I wanted to hear her voice, her laughter. And each day that the moon grew bigger, brighter in the sky, I could see her more clearly. She was so beautiful. Is it strange that I could enjoy being a shade so much more than I was ever able to enjoy my mortal life? I guess not. My mortal life had not included Remy. And that made me wonder. We were both in this place; she must have been nearby in life as I was. Why didn’t my life ever cross paths with hers? Or did it? Did I just miss my opportunity to have something wonderful because I was too caught up in how miserable I was? Or maybe it was supposed to be just like this. “Remy,” I started quietly, as we sat looking at the full moon. “Have you thought that perhaps we are both here because we were missing each other? “What do you mean?” “Well, we are spirits, right? Perhaps we have lived other lives. Perhaps we were Daniel and Mary Margaret and you were my most beloved wife. Perhaps we have met and loved in many lives but this one just slipped away too quickly. Or perhaps you told me once that you would not be with me unless I was the last person on earth, and now I am. “I would not have said that!” she laughed. “No, perhaps you wouldn’t have said that, but you said you regretted that you didn’t have a chance to fall in love. I could never make a bond, I never felt comfortable with anyone. Something was missing in me, until the moment I saw you reading the stones. Now every time you leave me, even if you just step away for a moment, it feels like I am being torn apart. When you touch me, when I hear your laughter, I feel Heaven in my spirit. I love you.” “Oh Jonas, those are the most wonderful words I have ever heard! Is this love the definition of True Love? Is what we have found fate? Can we be the lovers who are always reunited through all of time?” “Yes, I think that is exactly what we are. Somehow this life went awry, but our spirits still found each other.” “Jonas, I know you don’t like to see it, but will you show me your stone?” She was right, I did not wish to see it, but I nodded and took her hand. I walked the rows; each step closer was exponentially harder to take. I always stayed as far from this area as I could. But Remy held my hand ever tighter until I stopped beside the black flame shaped stone. I simply could not stand before it and see my name with words of sympathy from people who cared for me. I could not look at it. “This is yours?” “Yes.” “You’ve avoided it all this time and you don’t even know that we lie head to head.” “This is you?” I asked as surprise and regret colored the simple words. “It is, Jonas,” she replied as she walked to the front of my stone. Then she gasped. “What is it? What do you see?” “You came here just two days after I did. I mean, I read your stone when it was new, but it has meaning now. You said there was a day...” “...when I had nothing left to live for. It was the day you left the world, Remy.” “It’s strange, that you should have searched the mortal world for something that was missing from your life, and here it was lying with you all this time.” “Forgive me. If I could have faced my stone, we might have met long ago.” She laughed. “Maybe we did meet long ago, when you were Daniel and I was Mary Margaret and you swept me off my feet at the summer house!” “Or perhaps we met at church when I was James and you were Barbara and I walked you home.” “And once again we lie here together. Together, Jonas. I will stay with you for all of time, my beautiful spirit. My soul will be the other half of yours and if we can’t enter paradise through the gates, we will make our own paradise here, in true love,” she said as he wrapped her arms around me and we kissed like we were the happily ever after in every fairy tale ever written. And just as the first fingers of the orange light of day should have burst over the horizon, there was another light. It shown down in a blaze of glory. The gates to paradise were opened. * * * “You’re crying again. I thought you wanted eternity.” “I did.” “So, you don’t really want eternity. You want the fairy tale, the ‘Once Upon A Time’ up to ‘and they lived Happily Ever After.’ “Yes, tell me about a magical first kiss or an epic romance.” “Will you fall in love with me?” “Maybe,” she laughed. * * * The Phoenix and The Serpent 1. Zal: Once upon a time, in the days when Sages read the paths of the moon and the stars for wisdom, a child was born to a king in Siestan. A son. A prince. He was perfect in all ways, brimming with vitality, with a face like paradise and strength well beyond what an infant should possess. But he was unlike any child born in that land, because his hair was as white as the mythical snow in tales of places far away and his eyes gleamed like silver coins. So though the nurses marveled at the child in wonder, they also feared him because there was no other like him and that was a dangerous omen. I was that child. A day came when my father, King Saam, bid the women to bring me to him so he might call down a blessing upon his son, his only child. There was not joy in that first meeting. There was shame. There must have been because he ordered my death. I don’t remember that day, per se. I was still a babe. Not newly suckled, but not yet of an age to run. I did not remember my father or his words. I did not know if it pained him to speak them or if he spoke rashly. I did not remember those who carried me up the mountain or even the trip itself. But I remembered the first moment I saw her. A Phoenix as glorious as the sun followed behind us. Her long, glistening feathers seemed to cast rainbows back into the morning sky as she soared, but she cast no shadow over me. I watched her fly into the eye of the sun and return a ball of flame streaking through the vast blue. I remember waving my pudgy hand at her. She spoke inside my head. Her voice was as sweet as song. She told me to be brave. But I felt no fear. I did not know the one carrying me had a knife at her belt to spill my blood. I only knew that I was seeing something wondrous. So I did not fear when they set me down upon the mountain. I did not look at them when they said it would only hurt for a moment because my Phoenix was coming. Her wings were spread wide and her talons were like silver daggers as she let out a fearsome shriek and dove at the women. Her shadow obscured the ground, making the bright morning as dark as the deep of night. The women screamed and scattered trying desperately to out run the winged death chasing them as I sat upon the dirt clapping and laughing. At last the Phoenix landed a good distance away from where I sat. Her feathers seemed to flicker like fire in the sunlight. She crept slowly closer to me. “Are you hurt, foundling?” I shook my head and reached for out for her. She came closer, close enough for me to touch her and from that moment I loved her. And she loved me like her own hatchling. 2. Zal: Many years I lived at the top of the mountain in the great nest with the love and protection of my adopted mother guiding me from an infant to a boy and from a boy to a man. I asked her why, why would she save me? Why spare the life of an accursed boy sentenced to die? Did she not fear what those who cast out such a child feared? But she laughed and she stroked my cheek gently with her graceful talons and she said, “when a wish is granted, Zal, you accept the treasure that the heavens have given.” “I was not a treasure. I was an omen they wished to be rid of,” I replied quietly. “No, my darling one, they just read their portent wrongly and one day they shall regret that error very deeply, but I will have raised you to the sort of man able to forgive. A man who is able to love what is deeper than beauty. A man who is brave in the face of danger, loyal in times of need and steadfastly upholds what is right. You see, Zal, my hatchlings were long gone. A Phoenix can remake itself many times as long as even one feather and the will to return exist in the world. I lost my will. I was ready to resign to the final fire but I asked the heavens to give me a reason to live and the women brought to my mountain the most perfect blessing in all of this world. You, my little foundling, are the reason the magic is still in this world. And as you died that day so shall you be reborn as the shining prince of Siestan, for you are also a Phoenix and that return shall be glorious. The destiny that awaits you in the world of men will live on through the ages.” “I have no wish to return to the world of men,” I said softly, my eyes lowered. She laughed again and pulled me close into the warmth of her golden feathers. “You have no wish to go right now, but one day you will. And you will find the love of a woman in that world. You will raise strong sons of your own.” “I only want to stay here with you. I wish I could sprout wings and be like you and not be a man with this fragile skin. I wish...” “Well you should not wish such things,” she said gently, her voice soft like a song. “You are made for a special purpose. All creatures are, it is how the world is balanced. Now sleep my son and tomorrow the world will be a different place as you see it with eyes another day older.” But the world was not so different and I disliked my form, I found it weak in comparison to all the other animals that survived and thrived with purpose. I could not disguise myself as the others did when they hunted and avoided being hunted. I had not claws or sharp teeth nor even feather or fur to keep me warm. And I became sullen. Just as in the world of men I was a singularity, so was I here in the place that was my home. I sat upon the forest floor and I did not have a care for where I was or what creature I might be disturbing. I just picked up the stones and unthinkingly threw them. It was but a moment later that I felt such pain I thought my death had come. Nine summers had passed and at last death had come to the mountain for me. I did not hear my scream, I only saw the fear in the eyes of the Serpent as he tried to escape my grasp. My mother came. She saw the puncture upon my leg and the creature still writhing in my grasp. “Look at him, my son. Look at him well and then set him free.” “He has killed me. Why should I release him?” It was not a bitter question, but a curious one. “He has not killed you, child,” she said as she took one of her feathers from her tail. It turned to ash the moment she touched it to my wound, but the moment that ash kissed my skin the wound was gone. “You should release him because he has only done what he had to do. Look at the serpent. What does he have? He has not arms or claws to fight off an invader. He has not wings to fly. He is not great in size. He cannot even frighten off the hunter with a fearsome scream. He has but one thing to save himself, his venom, but he must be brave enough to get to close to that which he fears and use it to save his nest. And you, my son, were throwing rocks.” It was a lesson. She did not chide me or scold me for my ignorance. But I looked from her to the serpent still in my grasp and I asked his forgiveness as I set him free. I, like all creatures had to use that which was given to me and I had not appreciated enough the school unto which I had been sent. And so from that day I learned all the animals would teach me. I learned how to hide myself and how to make myself seen. I learned speed and stealth. I learned how to protect and when to fight. From there I began to grow into a man. And my mother was proud. 3. Ruby: The shining child. The people who loved me called me that. The people who did not called me Descendant of the Serpent. Both titles came with reputations that were hard to both live up to and live down. I was first daughter of the King of Cabul, a man unjustly judged upon the actions of his forefather, Zohak the Serpent, so even though my father was a good and just man and a fair ruler of his people, the distrust of the Shah of the World always hung menacingly over us. In truth, Zohak was not entirely evil, he was simply under equipped to become King and relied on instinct, trickery, guile and nerves of steel to gain prosperity. He was not opposed to making a bloody mess to show his strength either. And yet though he made enemies, he also celebrated his friends and protected his people. But some men can never let die injuries to their pride and they called us all serpents, deceivers. I was only a child and as is the way of childhood, I ignored the troubles of the world. They were not mine yet mine to bear. Though innocence is far too short and rumors grow much bigger than the Cypress trees and from them there is no shelter. With each passing year songs and tales about the beauty of the face I was born with spread from city to city. And with the praise there came whispers that I should be given to the Shah as a gesture of goodwill. Though I was only thirteen summers in age, the people who lived in fear that the Shah would raze our lands and exterminate all we were, thought that I was treasure of the sort that might quell the lingering bitterness. I feared to be such a gift. I wished for a hero where none was likely to come. And I do think that my father knew well that beauty was not enough to conquer the generations of hatred. He stalled the whispers, saying I was not of an age to be such a liaison. But he began to take me among his entourage as he traveled the kingdoms seeking friendships and alliances, speaking kind words and giving extravagant gifts to kings who might call him friend. I do think he was hoping that there existed such a prince who might desire me for a wife and have enough might to protect our people. But such a man was nowhere to be found. It was en route to our last visit that I beheld a sight that struck both fear and awe into my heart. The sun was shining down upon the land as it made its journey toward the horizon. Our caravan was about to enter the mountain pass where the trees would obscure the last of the day and bring relief from the heat. I looked upward, marveling at the beauty of the slopes and tall trees when something at the peak caught my eye. It seems to glitter like silver, backlit by the sun, but as my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw that it was man. I could not see his face, but only his size and the perfection carved out against the fiery rays of the sun. And at his right hand was a vast bird, so bright she seemed to be a ball of flame with spread wings. I shook my father’s arm and bid him to look upon this marvel that I could not tear my eyes from. I heard him gasp and call a blessing upon the one who ruled the mountain. But a moment later as the horses continued upon the path he was lost to me. And yet he was etched into my beating heart. Never would my eyes see another as beautiful unless it be that man. Before the night did pull its blanket of darkness over the world, we were welcomed into the palace of King Saam of Siestan. Oh formalities, you are such a burden when this question of utmost importance did need so desperately to be asked. I bit my lip to keep my mouth sealed as the blessings were made and gifts exchanged. A great feast was laid but hardly a morsel could pass my lips for the words waiting inside my mouth to be spoken. Hours upon hours passed in ceremony but none paid me any mind as the Kings spoke of kingly business and drank dark wine while the servants were sent to prepare the tents and sleeping quarters for the night’s repose. I drifted into a dream even as I sat rigid in my seat, until at last I was startled by the rough sound of the heavy chairs scraping the floor. I looked to my father as he stood face to face with King Saam and I slid from my chair to stand behind him. The King did look at me then. He said words about my beauty. He called a blessing upon me and he apologized for not releasing me to my repose after such a long journey, but I was still in a walking dream and only one thought filled my head. “My Lord, who is the king upon the mountain with the bird of fire at his right hand?” I asked him as I bowed before him. But no answer was made. I dared to look at my host again and he seemed lost and saddened. But a moment later he recovered and said to my father, “I do think she is dreaming as she stands among us!” He laughed merrily but then he did bid us a good night and turned away. Not another word was spoken about the man. 4. Zal: The world of men was changing in the places beneath the shadow of my mountain home. With each passing caravan my mother did grow more distant though her tender touch did linger ever longer. “Your time is nearly here, Zal. The day you must return to the life meant for you is coming,” she told me. But I made no move to leave and she made no effort to send me off. A year I spent watching the movements of men. I did not hide myself from their eyes; I stood boldly upon the height of my mountain. And though I made not a single effort to waylay them nor did I ask tribute as they crossed my lands, there were still men who fired their arrows upon me. I thought long and hard on those men. I recalled my mother’s words on the day the serpent bit me. I thought that I would rather be like the serpent. I would be brave enough to confront that which threatened me, that which I feared. I would not take arms against that which had done me no harm. As I was wrongly judged I would not judge another without knowing his path. For in my mind, killing was not a heroic deed. Life should not be wasted upon a random arrow. There must be meaning. I would kill to protect my mother. I would kill to feed those I loved or to save their homes. I would not kill out of fear or revenge, but instead be a hero to those in need. And it was not long past that day when I decided what sort of man I would be in the world of men when a host moved toward my mountain. I could see them from a good distance, but my mother’s eye was greater than my own. “He is come, Zal. Your father has come to claim you, to give you your birthright.” “He cast out his son. What if his is not a blessing I want,” I asked her honestly. There was not bitterness or venom in my words. I simply wanted her opinion. “Zal, my most beloved, forgiveness is a gift that you are not obliged to give. Hear his words. Judge him upon what he tells you. Accept the apology that is offered, but you needn’t forgive until you feel it in your heart. He judged you wrongly, but he comes here knowing all he lost.” “And what will happen to you if I leave?” “I will ever be the shadow at your shoulder that protects you from harm. I will give you three feathers and when you have need, set the feather aflame and I will rise from the ashes.” The men below halted at the edge of the trees and the King approached with just two others. He looked up to the summit and bowed to me. He seemed determined to reach me. He bid the last two men to remain below, removed his rich cloak and he began to climb. His hair was silvered with age, and while he was still strong, he was no match for my mountain. “Meet him half way, Zal. His day is setting while yours is just rising.” “As you wish.” I leapt from the crest as I had done a thousand times, for I knew every inch of the mountain and my footing was sure. I landed before him. He looked up at me in awe and then he bowed low, touching his forehead to the dirt. My mother took wing and circled the sky above us then she landed upon my outstretched arm. “Rise, Saam, King of Siestan and see that which was given as a blessing. Marvel at what you made and abandoned. Rejoice that you should get a second chance.” He stayed upon his knees and he did bless her for her love of me and then he did unburden his heart with the truth of his rash words, his fear and anger, his regret and his hope for redemption. And I did forgive him easily because his words were honest. He praised my mother. He gave her respect and love, and if he was a good enough man to know when a great deed was done for him then he was worth a chance. Thus was my return to the world of men. The people did honor me greatly. They looked in awe upon the shock of white hair and they did know I was the true son of Saam. They praised my form and my strength. The women did gush and act in ways that animals did not behave, with suggestive words, coy looks and exposure that made the heat rise within me, but in the darkness they did satisfy themselves upon me as I expected. I did have a hard time adjusting to courtly life. Many times I returned to my mountain and the shelter of my mother. The people confounded me and my mother knew better than I how to proceed in many ways. Her advice was always sound and well reasoned, especially when she spoke of love. “Zal, it is the most irrational of all feelings, and the most desired. It is the reason you live, and it is worth living for, thus I live. I promise you there will be a woman who will love you for the man you are, and not the beautiful form and position in the court. Do not just look at her, Son, look inside her. See that which she loves and that which she fears equally. Touch her tenderly and speak softly, kindly. Love is much like a child, it must grow and mature to bloom into full wonder.” And I did cry tears to her because she did love me above all things. I told her all that was in my heart then I went back to the world of men below. But there was not the love she wished for me in Siestan so I did set out to see the whole of the world with those who would have been my peers had I grown among them. It was long months upon the road. I was brought before the Shah of the World and he did test me in many ways, physically and mentally. When he was satisfied, he did ask his seers to read my stars that he might know if I was a worthy to inherit the lands of my father. And the seers did rejoice for I was meant to be a mighty knight and a strong ruler. The Shah did then give us many gifts of horses and land and named us heroes. Still I traveled on. The Siestan were a strong force and as such, I, the prince was received with honor in many kingdoms. There were many feasts and games of challenge. I was showered with gifts of coins and jewels. I was given a very fine stone cut in the east, which was clear as the sea, but luminescent, glowing from within. And I found comfort in that stone as it did seem to tell me each time I looked at it that what was inside was what mattered. I wore it upon my hand to remind me always. But I did not find love. We camped outside the Kingdom of Cabul. Many rumors came to my ear about the people within. I did not know what to make of the tales, but I did desire to meet the King and when he did hear who was camped upon his border he rode out with his banners and his musicians to greet us. I spread a feast for this man because I wished to know the one they called Descendent of the Serpent, for most men thought the serpent a cruel trickster, I knew better. Mihrab looked upon me in something like awe for just a moment before he bowed low, touching his forehead to the dirt at my feet. He remained upon his knees as he spoke. “Zal, son of Saam, I have paid tribute to your father. I pray he calls me friend. I ask the blessing of the gods upon you. May you prosper well and rule mightily.” I blessed him as well and bid him rise. But he did continue to look at me in wonder. “Is it my hair that has you tongue tied?” I asked. “No, my lord, I was given a vision once when I was upon the road. I saw a splendid young man upon the mountain. He shone in the sun. Now he stands before me more glorious than I imagined. I wish to honor you, but I know not how to properly proclaim a man touched by the gods. I pray thee tell me how you would find me worthy.” “I find you worthy of friendship upon the honesty of your words.” We did feast and talk at length. Mihrab was very fine of face, but more importantly, he was clear in his words. He told me honestly of the struggles his kingdom faced, and how the disfavor of the Shah had long lingered. He did not ask me to stand for him, but only that if I found him a worthy man, not to stand against his people when the Shah at last came to raze them. And I agreed to such, but though he invited me to spend the night in his home, I was compelled to decline because the Shah had honored both my father and I, and this man who was better than his forefathers, was still his enemy. But I did brood when he left my company. My servant did ask what my matter was, and I confided in him that I found such politic distasteful. That a man so fine of face and good of heart should not be judged by the bygone ages. I should not have to decline a friendship because of a grudge older than any of the persons involved. I was thinking deeply upon this when my servant spoke again. “If you think the King is fine of face, you should look upon his first daughter.” “He has children?” “He has many, but she is the pride of Cabul.” “What do you know of her?” “Her beauty has been sung around the world. She is like the face of the moon and her Raven hair the dark sky around her. She has lips the color of the finest rubies and breasts...” “Stop. Say no more. I must look upon this marvel.” “My Lord, would it not be prudent to simply return home and forget this land and these...” “I said, say no more,” I told him firmly, dismissing him. I could not get this daughter out of my mind, for I was son of the Phoenix and she was of the Serpent. This seemed a great omen to me because I had chosen to respect the serpent for his bravery, and I had not found a women to whom I felt a connection until the moment I knew of this princess’ existence. I had to see her. 5. Ruby: Oh cruel fate, why should it be that those cursed for being deceivers should revere honesty at the one time that terrible reputation might help them? No, I did not want my father to be other than the man he was, but I did desperately want him to do that which I overheard him tell my mother he would not. He came to the house of ladies upon his return from beyond the gates. Many were a twitter wondering what army sat upon our doorstep and if the end of the world was at hand. And as always when my father was in need of comfort and advice he came to my mother. I was not there to spy or eaves drop, truly, I did not even know my father was afoot. I simply wished to speak with my mother, but I heard her speaking and when the answering voice was heard, I made to leave. But her words did register in my head: ‘is this white-haired son of Saam worthy?’ And my father did answer with such praise and glorification of the man, that I knew in my heart it was the King of the Mountain that stood outside our gates. My years of longing for this man whom I saw for only a moment had come to this and I knew I must meet him. I must! The conversation still carried on in the room my mother kept, but my ears had slipped away while my mind relived its dream. Until the moment my mother said: “if he is such a hero as you say, perhaps instead of just friendship, you could offer him kinship.” “Offer him Rudabeh?” “Yes,” she answered simply. “Yes! Offer me,” I screamed out in my head! But my father said he could not. He reasoned that if it came to having to placate the Shah, and I was the price of peace, I would have to be pure. It would not be possible to make such an offer to the Shah if I had already been offered to another. My mother saw reason, but I could not. I had to meet him. I had to. But I was forbidden to leave the house of women without my father’s escort. And so I would have to find a way to summon him to me. I did sulk and fret in my room, for no answer did readily come to me, but many worries did. I did not know when he would leave. My chance was so small. I did not know how to summon such a man, such a beautiful man. The one man my heart was set upon. And I knew that should he feel love for me, that love could ruin the world. But I was given a vision of him once and I felt in my heart there had to be a reason. My servants fretted over me for I would neither eat nor drink as I searched my mind for any answer to my problem. At last, the one I confided in took my hand and made me sit. “Ruby,” she said quietly, “you must tell me what ails you. You have not been yourself and the others are beginning to worry. Soon they will tell your mother that you are ill, but I think it is not a sickness of the body, I think you are love sick.” “It is more than love sickness! I am feverish and frantic! The man I have given my heart sits just beyond the city and I cannot reach him! I must see him. I must or I will surely die of grief!” “You’re parents will be most angry.” “Yes. And the world may end if he feels love for me as I feel for him, but I would throw myself from this tower if he left and I missed my chance to meet him.” “Why this man?” “I saw him once before when I traveled with my father. He is a god among men. I can love no other man.” “Very well. Tell the others you feel such melancholy and only the scent of roses freshly picked will ease the burden.” “Roses?” “Only grow along the river beyond the gate. While they pick the blooms, I will try to get a message to one of his men.” So it was the plan was set into motion. It was doomed to fail. How could such a frivolous mission be considered while a host sat upon our door? But the first daughter wanted roses and the guards opened the gates for my ladies to get them. I paced. I set a bowl of musk near the tapestries and fluffed the soft down pillows. I distracted myself with trivialities so I would not think about what a man raised upon a mountain might be like. And at last my ladies returned with many roses and I did rejoice to see them. They did think they cured me and they brought in fruits and drink for me as I set the glorious roses into bowls and admired the delicate scents. I waited. I begged the sun to speed his journey across the sky, but he did take his own time heedless of my plight. At last the doors were locked and the keys withdrawn. How my heart did race as the time stubbornly lingered. I stood upon the ledge, scanning the night. My eyes searching every inch of the land but I saw nothing. I was beginning to think he would not come. When from nowhere he suddenly appeared below my window. 6. Zal: The Moon of Cabul, First Daughter of Mihrab did send me a message asking to meet. My blood raced in my veins. I felt some destiny upon myself though I knew not if it were good or bad. I did wonder if I was heading to my death, for the Serpent will protect his home and he will do so silently. But I walked alone to the place I was assigned. I carried one of the feathers my mother gave me though I did not believe I would have need of it. And there she did stand, waiting. The fabled raven locks blowing gently in the evening breeze as she looked out into the night awaiting me. She was every bit the beauty I was told she was, but I needed more than beauty. I needed to know what was inside her, what her heart was made of. I did softly call my greeting to her. She gasped. “Welcome son of the hero, blessings of the Gods upon you!” “And unto you Moon of Cabul. Might we speak privately? I have no wish to harm you or your reputation only to meet that which was described as perfection.” “Is perfection what you seek?” she asked softly. “No. What I seek cannot be seen with the eye.” “I very much desire audience, but I have not rope to lower.” “I don’t need rope, only permission to approach.” “Granted.” I did take a running leap and bound to the railing of her ledge. And she looked upon me in awe as I stood. She dropped to the floor and looked up at me. She tilted her head left and right then she stood and walked around me, looking at me from every angle. She lifted my hand, examining my right arm, looking for something of which I did not know. But her ruby lips curved in a pretty smile and she looked into my eyes. “Your hair, may I touch it?” “Yes. You are...” “Um, yes, Daughter of the Moon, fair as the slender cypress, raven hair like the night and so on. That is what they say,” she said absently, as she ran her fingers into my white hair and looked at me in open-mouthed awe. “It is you. It really is you.” “Yes. You summoned me...” “I did. Forgive me, I stand here looking at a miracle and I have forgotten myself! I am Rudabeh, first daughter of Mihrab, they call me Ruby.” “Descendant of the Serpent.” “Yes. They say that as well,” she said quietly, stepping back from me, deflating. “You are ashamed to be such?” “It is the doom of my people, should I not be ashamed?” I took her hand in mine and bid her to sit. I shared my tale of the serpent and told her why I respect such a creature. And I told her it was that title which drew me to seek her, to accept this invitation though I did know well it would anger my father and the Shah. She looked upon me with wonder and love in her eyes. “Why do you look at me so?” “I have seen you before. It has been years. Our caravan passed through the mountains on the road to Siestan. There stood upon the crest a man, a King as surely as I saw him. He gleamed in the light of the setting sun and the great bird of fire sat upon his right arm. Such a sight he was that I knew in my heart I could love only that man. And here he sits, not just a man upon the mountain, but a mountain among the men. There is a beauty that I have never seen that radiates from you. And I do know this is a fool’s wish because my people live day by day under the threat that the Shah will finally repay his wrath upon us. Loving you can only speed our doom and yet, my heart is given. I did need to see you just once. I did need to know that you were not just a dream as your father said you were, but a man, a man touched by the hand of God.” “So this is but our only meeting? Finally I have found something my mother wished for me to find and now it will be lost to me?” “My Lord, it must be, mustn’t it?” “My name is Zal. I was abandoned, left to die upon the mountain. I was raised by the Phoenix, and like a Phoenix I have risen from the death I was sentenced to. I will not judge a people on the deeds of one long gone from the world. I did promise your father that I would not stand against Cabul when the Shah sent his army, but I must do more than turn my back. I must be the hero the stars proclaimed.” She did bite her ruby lip and wrap her arms tight around herself. And I did fear that I had offended, that perhaps I implied Cabul had no heroes, which was not my meaning, so I did try to apologize. But she hugged herself ever tighter and I prayed that she would just tell me plainly how I did offend, as I was not proficient in speaking the honeyed words of men. Ruby lowered her eyes from mine. Her words were soft. “Zal, you have given no offense. The truth is my heart is filled with love for you and each word that spills from your lips does nearly drown me in that love. I wish that I might feel what it is like to hold you in my arms and thus be held. I wish to press my mouth to yours and taste you, but I do fear that you will think me a deceiver, that I say words of love to bind you to my people. But that is not truth. I could die at the hands of the Shah now knowing that you are in the world.” “I cannot let that happen. I will not. My father has made many promises to me to assuage the curse he laid upon me and I will ask him for counsel. I will have none for my bride if it not be you. I will be a warrior for no army that does destroy unjustly. I will let the world of men fall to ashes if they refuse to hear reason.” I took the ring that did have the stone like the sea from my finger and slipped into hers. “This is my promise to you. Keep me safe in your heart and I will find a way to make the world a just place.” And then she did kiss me. Women had touched me and done unto me things in passion that were strongly felt, but it was this feeling that moved within me like a living thing. It was as though another heart beat beside my own. I held her to me, my embrace tight and still gentle for she was part of me. We spoke words of love and hope sealed with tender kisses until the morning sun did shatter the darkness and I was forced to leave lest our secret be prematurely found. But I was restless in my tents. So much that I did call upon my mother to soothe me. My words were rash but true, for she did tell me that the world of men would be a cold place if I did not find love there, and now I had found something I desperately needed. Were it denied me, I would return to my mountain and forsake all of mankind for all of time. My mother did laugh at me. Rightfully perhaps, but it did sting at that moment. “Oh Zal, my beautiful boy, do you think the heavens have blessed you in so many ways but would you deny this thing that makes life worth living? Send a message to your father.” “He is going to be angry. He has given me his word to uphold my wishes, but I am risking his reputation and his position with the Shah of the World. I do not know which allegiance he will uphold. He may order my death for a second time.” “I tell you he will not do that, upon this you have my word.” “How do you know?” I asked her cautiously. And she did stroke my cheek with her glorious feathers and speak to me with a mother’s heart. “Because you are his son and he lost you once for which he cannot forgive himself. He will not be a fool again. He will use all means to uphold that which he does love, and when he looks into the stars he will see the glory of the path before you.” “Is there glory for me?” “Yes, my treasure, and for the son that is yet to come. But they will test you greatly in many, many ways and you must remember every bit of wisdom that you learned upon the mountain. I have seen the world die and be reborn, never have I seen another like you in this world.” Her words gave me hope. There was no test or trial I would not undertake. If the stars saw fit to show my future, I would stand firm in my conviction, I would uphold this love that did consume me. I would be prepared to face the Shah of the World when he summoned. So a letter was written to my father and I did wait for the changing of the world to come. 7. Ruby: How cold were the nights. The King of the Mountain did hold me once and I could not find warmth outside the comfort of his arms. I knew that I said I could release him, that knowing he was real was enough for me, but each passing day I knew those words to be a greater and greater lie. It was many nights that I sit awake alone, looking at the ring upon my finger, wondering if Zal did change his mind, if reason did take hold of him and convince him that this love was not possible. But those thoughts brought me such grief that I could not hide my tears and my servants began to notice. They did again bring me roses freshly cut, hoping to ease my sorrow, but the scent and the sight were sore reminders of that which was beyond my grasp. My servant who did love me best lingered a moment behind the others, thrusting her flowers purposely into my arms. She said not a word and bowed low as she turned away, but my heart sang with joy! Amid the roses was note; Zal was coming to me. And my joy was threaded with fear that he would tell me we could not continue. That was not my only fear. He might well tell me the armies were coming. He might say he was leaving. But I wanted to believe that he might simply have wished as I did to feel the comfort of loving arms. Night fell and I stood at the ledge praying for that moment when he would appear in the darkness. My minds eye did see every perfect feature from his snow-white hair to his cut crystal eyes. Even just in my thoughts I did swoon. And perhaps I should have feared him for he was like a mountain, broad of shoulder and thickly muscled, and I was still a maiden. But his manner was so gentle that I did not think of anything but the safety of his embrace. He did not smile when he stood upon the ledge. My heart sank. He reached out and took my hair into his hand, brought it to his cheek and then kissed the scented strands. A moment later I was in his arms with my mouth pressed to his, wishing to keep this moment for a lifetime. “Tell me all that is on your mind, Zal, please.” “I have sent a messenger to my father. I have made my wishes known to him that I would have you for my wife. I know not what will happen next for the world of men is far different from life upon the mountain. There, all are equal in their quest for survival, but here, this is but a game where favor is granted on a whim, grudges are held beyond those who did wrong and justice is not granted equally.” “It is true what you say. But if your father does love you well, perhaps he will want that which makes you happy.” “Perhaps. But I have known him for only a short time. I judged him based on what I knew of the world and the weight of his words. Now I will see if my judgment was good.” “Is that how you judged me as well?” I asked him, as I pressed my ear to his chest and listened to his heart beat. “Yes, Ruby, I did. For beauty such as you possess is a danger. It can steal a man’s wit and take all rest from him. It can twist his words and his mind. And I did fear such when I was told of you; still I wished to see for myself. But I did judge you upon what I know of the serpent for he is a brave creature with no voice of his own, only his fangs. He must confront that which he fears will kill him and though he will use wiles if he can, that is but the only other means he has to survive. You used not trickery, you stepped to me boldly and did look for some sign that I was what you sought and when you found it, you opened your heart to me in love. You confronted that which might be the doom of your people and you treated me with kindness, honesty and respect.” “It was the markings upon your right arm.” “Markings?” “Where the Great Phoenix does perch.” I told him as I pushed his sleeve away and ran my fingers over the faint marks that I knew to be made by talons. They were not scars, but simply the sign of something that has been done by habit.” “You truly did see me upon the mountain.” “Yes. And I have held you in my heart since that single moment.” “This must be the will of the Gods. It must.” “Oh, Zal, do keep that thought in your heart for it gives me such hope,” I told him as I pulled him down and curled into his body. “Rudabeh, I must ask something.” “You address me so and I do fear it is a question I wish not to hear.” “Are you certain your love for me is enough to risk you kingdom and your people for?” “Do you not feel how I feel? Do you think this is such folly and I am but a fool?” “I think none of those thoughts, my love, but I fear you will need great strength in the days that come.” “I love you, Zal of the Mountain. I know well that my people and even my father do think I should be given to the Shah as a gift to appease him. And I know too that if, no, when my father does find out that my heart is given to you his last chance to placate the Shah will be to sacrifice my life at the feet of that man. But you know as well as I that a life bereft of love is not a life. If I cannot have this life with you then I will kneel before the Shah of the World and let my father draw his blade across my neck, for there would be nothing left to live for.” “I will not let that happen.” I did run my finger across his brow. “There may be no other way, my love, and that would not be your fault.” “I will not let that happen,” he repeated, firmly. And I did not dispute him because I wanted to believe those words. 8. Zal: As always, my mother was right. Love was surely the most irrational of all emotions, for even when I knew well that my actions could come to no good, I did proceed, because I did love Ruby above all treasure and more than the respect of the men. I was a solitary creature. I could not seem to find a place of comfort with the armies or the courtesans, but from the moment I did look upon Ruby the world of men did seem my home. And she did look me over thoroughly, for her heart belonged to something which might be a dream. She did not look for a fair face or a title. She looked for the mark of a man raised in the wild. Yet she did not fear me. No. She did wish to see me anytime I could escape to her room. We did nothing but talk and dream and share affectionate kisses, for we could not let our secret be known unless it had my father’s blessing. But I did fear that blessing would not come and I would not see her disgraced for having relations with me. So we did sit together and know brief comfort even as our hearts hid away the fear that all should end. And at last a message did come from Siestan. There was not joy in my father’s words, but only resolve as he did tell me I was a fool to wish such alliance. Still, as he promised me when he came to my mountain, he did agree to uphold my wish and he requested audience with the Shah of the World to speak on my behalf. And this is why love is such an irrational emotion, for I did laugh for joy when I read my father’s words. I did knowingly hasten the ending of the world by asking my father to get the blessing of the Shah upon me so that I might marry his mortal enemy. My father did rightly say I was a fool, and all I saw in his words was that he did uphold me and not order my death. And with that news I did think all would come to pass just as I wanted. I shared my news with Ruby. I sent a message in the way we had become accustomed, but I got no reply and though I stood beneath her window that night, she did not come to the ledge. My heart felt fear stronger than anything I have ever known. If we were found out her people were in grave danger, but more than that, Ruby was in danger. For once her father knew that I did ask the Shah to approve a union, she would not be able to be given as a peace offering, and the only recourse was to sacrifice her life. I could not let that happen, but I did not know if her father had taken her away from Cabul to see the Shah before my father should get audience. I cried out to my mother. And she came to me as she always did when I needed her. For she did steadfastly love me. I begged her to search the world with her bird’s eye and seek Ruby. I told her my fears and how my foolish love did bring this pass. “Zal, love as you feel it is not foolish. Love like that is what changes the worlds for the better. And I do know, because I have seen the world burn because men could not find their hearts. I tell you this, the only host moving is that of your father. She is not gone from Cabul, but I will seek her for you so you shall know she is safe. And if she is where you can get a word with her, I will tell you how.” I did drop to my knees and bow low to the ground before her. She stroked my white hair with her golden feathers and said that I should hope for the best possible outcome and prepare for the worst, for what would happen would surely fall somewhere in between. Then she pushed me up from the ground and nuzzled her cheek to mine. A moment later she flew toward Cabul. 9. Ruby: I did not hear my mother’s servant as she entered my room, for I was lost in my daydreams. I was not one to while away my hours in such folly, but doing other than dreaming did cause me such stress. I wanted to imagine that there was a happy ending coming, because every other ending was devastating. I followed blithely. I did not think about what my mother might want of me until I entered the room and I did see my most beloved servant bound and weeping. And she did drop to her knees and ask my forgiveness. I ran to her and fussed at the tight knots. “Release her!” I demanded of all those in the room. “She has no blame, she only did my bidding!” “What have you done, Rudabeh? How could you carry on so? You have doomed all of Cabul!” my mother reprimanded. And before I could answer my father did also sweep into the room. My mother handed him a message that was like every other message Zal did send me. But I turned away and worked at the ropes on my girl’s wrists. “What did it say?” I asked her quietly. “His father agreed to speak to the Shah,” she whispered as she pretended to weep. And I felt joy mixed with all the fears that were rightfully hovering over me. I put my love for this stranger ahead of my own family and my people. But how could I not? The Gods did show him to me and plant a seed of love within my heart and it had grown within me all these years. I would forsake all of this life and go live upon his mountain if he would just ask. I knew that I tied my father’s hands. I knew that he did not want to give me to the Shah, but it was a choice he did have until now. He took me by the arm and led me from my mother’s rooms. He took me to his private sitting room, a place I had never been in all my years. He sat me in a chair and he did pace, but he did not speak. And I offered nothing. “Have you consorted with him, Rudabeh?” “I have not lain with him, Father, but we have spoken.” “Why did you do this? King Saam does...” “King Saam told me he was just a dream. But I saw him, Father. I saw Zal upon the mountain and you did too. And we did both look in wonder at his glory. You denied him then. You denied my words and laughed with that man you hardly knew when you did know in your heart that the King upon the Mountain was real. You did gush and say many magnificent things about him when he stood outside our gates and hosted a feast for you. You spoke of him with affection and very nearly love, but I loved him from the moment I saw him on the mountain and I did need to look upon that man that my heart was given to. Zal is like no other. He is a hero in a world where men wish the title without the duties.” “He is like every other man in this world, Rudabeh. He sees something beautiful and he wishes to possess it,” my father said sharply. “How dare you,” I whispered. “You are not fit to judge him as you did see a beautiful face and the form of a God, when what he is inside is so much greater. He did not judge me for the face I was born with. He came to me because I am Descendant of the Serpent and he told me why that was so meaningful to him and he did give me great pride in the ancestry that I have hated all my life as you have hated it. He did not gush and swoon as men do, he lifted me up. He gave meaning to all I am. I am no man’s gift. If I cannot have a life with Zal then sacrifice me to the Shah. I will care not at all because there is nothing else in this life to live for.” Tears streamed down my cheeks as a lifetime of holding my tongue and remembering my place was overruled by the words of my heart. My father did draw me into his arms and press his cheek to my hair. Moon of Cabul, truly you are worthy of the son of Saam. For I have known from the moment we did see him upon the mountain that his stars were entwined with ours. He is a foreigner, though I do think he is a foreigner even among his own people. I would be very pleased to see this union, nothing would bring me greater joy than to see you wed to this man who is as you say more than just a fine face and a godly form, but has the heart of a lion within him. But I do not know how this can be achieved. The Shah will be angry and I fear he will bring his army. I must have the seers look into the future and see if there does be a way to appease him, but I fear there must be death. Something must be given to clear this debt or all will come to ruin.” My father did leave me then, in a room in the great house with a guard at my door. Whether he thought I would run away or he feared another might harm me for my selfish love, I did not know. But I lay upon the soft pillows and I did weep because I did not know if I would ever see Zal or hear his soft words again in this world. It was not long before I was startled by a strange sound just beyond the curtains. I thought I should hide myself, but I cared not at all about this life so I went to the ledge to see what lay beyond. To my wonder and surprise, it was The Phoenix. “Oh Great Mother!” I exclaimed, dropping to my knees before her. “What has befallen Zal that you would risk yourself to come here? Is he hurt? Is he...” “No, dearest Daughter, my son is in good health, but his heart is filled with fear that harm has found you. He did beg me to see that you were safe and not being abused.” “He is the kindest of men. Truly you have raised a king. I have loved him since I saw him upon the mountain and I would have loved him through all of this lifetime, but I fear that my father’s words are true and death will come to this place. Can you protect him from death? For little else in this world matters if he is not here.” “Zal is raised a Phoenix. He has survived death before and he shall again so long as there is a reason to continue to live. I know this to be true. Hold tight to that love in your heart. Do not falter. The days ahead will hold many sorrows and surprises, and you must believe in that which you wish for or it will be lost.” I believed in him. I did believe with all of my heart. 10. Zal: My father came upon a swift Arabian steed with but three men at his side. And I did know the news was bad before a word was spoken. “The army marches this way, my Son. We are ordered by the Shah of the World to raze Cabul and destroy all of the serpent brood. For he did already know what was afoot here and he would not hear my words. And I do know in my heart that his army will follow closely upon the flanks for mine. If I fail to do his bidding he will send his own men to finish this job and he will then deny friendship with Siestan so that we will be the next target of his vengeance.” “I will not see Cabul destroyed. I will not. I will guard her gate alone if that is the will of the gods and I will challenge any who take a weapon against her. I do not ask you to stand with me Father, I ask only that you stand aside. This is my battle, it need not be your battle.” “You are my son, Zal, and I have pledged to uphold you.” “I was not raised such, and my refusal to bend to your orders does give you purpose to oppose me.” “You are my son, Zal. That is all that matters. If I do not uphold that which I did sire, I am not worthy of any man’s honor.” “Then write to the Shah again and pray he changes his mind. I will not let him slaughter innocents for a grudge that is generations in the past. That is not the way of righteousness, nor would this be a war that will make men heroes. No God would grant a blessing upon a one who would cut down the young and old as they flee. If that be the intention of this mighty Shah, I will defeat him even if it means my death.” “Your words are true, Son, for this is not a mighty battle of the armies, there is no glory in killing women and children. Mihrab has done me no harm. He has been gracious and honored me greatly each time we have met. I feasted him in my own home and I did meet this Daughter of the Moon when she was just blooming into womanhood, so I do know what he protects. I will write on your behalf. I will beg that the Shah reconsider, because my seers did tell me that what would come of this union was a hero of the greatest prowess.” And a messenger was sent, but it was days of anxiously awaiting news that seemed unlikely to be good, that made me restless. My mother did tell me that Ruby was safe but guarded by her father, and I did not seek her, for angering Mihrab would do much harm in a situation that was already perilous. But my arms did miss her so greatly. I longed for the comfort of her words and her gentle touch while all I could do was as my mother advised; hope for the best, and prepare for the worst. It did seem the worst was to come. My father’s messenger returned days earlier than we expected. My father’s message was given to The Shah of the World, but his army was already upon the road, and he was himself leading them to this spot. 11. Ruby: The day was near that the world as it was would come to an ending. Zal’s company did still sit outside of Cabul near the river as they had for these weeks, but the army of Siestan did sit not far away. They did not strike at Cabul. They simply sat. My father called many meetings and many nights my mother did sleep beside him in his rooms for the great comfort she gave him was a balm. Cabul was not well armed, we did not have a force enough quell Zal’s company had he come to take us. There was not a single hope that any would survive if King Saam’s army did engage. My father began evacuating his other children and a number each day from the city itself. I felt in my heart that those outside the gate surely knew what was happening, but did turn a blind eye to give at least some the chance for survival. But the day dawned where thunder rolled in from the west though the sky remained ever clear. The great army of Iran did approach, and The Shah of the World did at last come to see the ending of Cabul. My father bid his men to get all they could out to the villages to hide, for he did think the Shah would not raze the farmlands because he still needed to feed his men. When the morning sun came the gates to Cabul opened but only my father and I walked out to the armies with the colors of Cabul as our escort. The soldiers were all instructed to remain and reinforce the gates the moment fighting did erupt or the charge did begin. My father carried only his ceremonial sword. It was not fit for a fight, but could be used for a sacrifice. And the ladies did dress me in the finest silks, they made elaborate curls in my raven hair and dabbed the best musk upon my skin. I did know I was the tribute or the sacrifice, but I walked bravely out among the men. For as Zal did tell me, the serpent must confront that which he fears boldly for he has no weapon but his bite. I was ready to be bold. I was ready to die to stop this battle. My father walked on toward the grand tent of the Shah and requested audience. And the Shah did come out into the light of day dressed for battle. He was most likely near my father in years, but fierce of face and countenance. A long scar ran from the edge of his brow down to his chin along the left side of his face. And I did fear him, but I felt some respect as I looked upon him, for he was a no stranger to the fighting. He did not sit back and drink his wine in the tent as the battle raged. He fought beside his men. And so while I did not like him for what was going to happen, I did grudgingly accept him. And just as quickly I did despise him. For he would not even hear my father’s words. He did look at us as though we were dirty children and then he called out for Zal, Son of Saam, Prince of Siestan. My heart did race. There, wearing the crest of Siestan upon his chest was Zal, King of the Mountain. He bid his men to stay and came forward alone with his head held high. And he did look every bit a king. He stood tall about twenty paces from The Shah and another twenty paces from my father and I. He did not look at me, his eyes were fixed upon his adversary, and he did not bow. There was not motion or sound as they did size each other up. But the Shah did look upon Zal with distaste and say, “if this be what you wish, then I command you, kill Mihrab, descendant of Zohak and claim Cabul for your own kingdom. Thence you shall have the Daughter of the Serpent as servant or concubine and also my esteem.” “No.” He did answer flatly. “You dare deny my judgment! I thought you wiser than that, but you show your foolish upbringing. For who could respect a man reared in a nest?” The armies did dare laugh. The Shah did encourage them, flapping his arms and squawking, taunting Zal. And my heart did break. But Zal was unruffled. Even as I watched him, one moment he stood rigid, the next he had vanished only to reappear but inches from the Shah, and towering above him as though he had grown to the size of the mountain itself. “Laugh, small men who know not the wonders of the world before this one. For my mother that did raise me has seen the world of men die thrice and did teach me more than this age of man shall ever know. Doubt not the skill in the kingdom of the wild for the animals make not war and yet survive more easily than any king.” “You speak with insolence. I should be glad to kill you with my own hands,” the Shah started, but before his words could even be heard Zal did stand upon the spot before my Father, his body our guard, his sword at the ready in his hand. “Then kill me if you must, but know this; I am the Phoenix. I will rise again from that which you destroy. And when I do I will be stronger and fiercer than any man has ever been. And if I return to find that which I loved has been taken I will not rest until all who stood here in this moment have bled their lives into the earth. For what will come next will not be a hero, but vengeance as has never been seen before. And if my heart be lost, so goes mercy.” And as he spoke, a great shadow passed before the sun. Zal, did raise his arm, but the archers did also raise their bows. “No!” Zal cried out, as did Saam, King of Siestan, but the sound was overtaken by the whiz of the arrows as they sought that which had done them no wrong. The Great Phoenix was hit. And her body did envelope the arrows in her ball of flame and that flame did fall from the sky amid the archers, like a fallen star destroying all in its path. My beloved Zal cried out in anguish. His mother, the only other who loved him as I did, destroyed at the hands of this vile army. I tore from my father’s grasp. I did not care if they killed me, for I needed to be at Zal’s side, I needed to comfort him. But he threw down his sword. His rage did throb in his fists and still he opened his left arm to me and tucked me into his side as he drew something from his tunic. It was a single feather. He held it up to the sunlight and it did catch fire there upon his palm. Zal’s eyes stayed fixed upon the Shah as the ashes rained down to the ground. And the simple ash did ignite into a roaring flame at his feet. Again he extended his right arm and from the fire burst forth The Phoenix! Her feathers did flicker like flame as she took to the sky and then set alight upon the outstretched arm of her son. The Shah did drop to his knees and bow before her. “You have raised him well, Great Lady, for he does not cower nor compromise. Though something was taken from him, he did not charge out in revenge, but use his means to restore. He has answered every riddle and mastered every skill that I could think to test, for I did not have faith that one raised wild could live this life. And I am proved wrong. I did see that his stars showed greatness and now I do believe.” Then the Shah did call out to my father. “Mihrab, Descendant of The Serpent, King of Cabul. I honor you. For you did see greatness in him from the start. And as you would sacrifice that which you held most dear to save the innocents of this land, I do grant you peace. See your daughter wed to the mightiest of men, for what will come of this union is already written in the stars.” And I did drop to my knees before him and kiss his feet. It was just moments before that I thought I was likely to die at Zal’s side and now the Shah of the World did bless our union. But he took my hand and raised me. “Moon of Cabul, do not thank me, thank he who did not falter and the mother who made him such a man.” So it was that our love became a thing of legend. * * * “And we lived happily ever after. I like it.” “And me?” “I like you too.” “Hmm. You were supposed to fall in love with me.” “Maybe I didn’t need the story for that.” “Will you ever say the words?” “Yes. But I don’t want to just yet or you’ll stop telling me the stories.” “I won’t.” “Is it always Love? Is it ever obsession or just lust?” “Is that what you want to hear?” “Maybe. I need to know it isn’t always perfect, because I’m not perfect. I’m afraid I can’t live up to the fairy tale.” “You are always the happy ending in my fairy tale, but if you want to hear the others, I will tell them.” * * * After Five 1. I guess I should have given a lot of things more thought. First and foremost, the job. Common sense dictates that if something seems too good to be true, generally it is too good to be true. I, of course, had a long history of ignoring that little voice that was common sense. Patience was also not a virtue that I possessed and neither did I try to develop any sort of temperance. I was impulsive and restless, and in retrospect I will admit to being self-centered and wildly egomaniacal. Wildly. I wanted what I wanted exactly when I wanted it. And that was that. Anyway, the job might have been the opportunity of a lifetime, but all I was really interested in was the enormous salary, the potential for large bonuses on top of that, the constant game and the ego stroking that came with being wealthy. Again, my egocentricity knew absolutely no bounds. I won my potential bosses over so easily with my Irish charm, my winning smile and my knack for being able to talk anyone into anything, any time. I was the perfect candidate, the perfect player. Sure it meant moving to a new state and a city I was not at all familiar with, but I wasn’t close to my middle class family and my last girlfriend left me months ago because I was only focused on advancing my financial status. I didn’t make time for her. It was not like she broke my heart. It wasn’t serious. At least it wasn’t serious for me. So when the job offer came, I did not hesitate. I packed my things and left with hardly a word to anyone. Impulsive. That was me. And seriously, my new life could not have started out any better. I scoped out the luxury apartments down near the waterfront. I got myself a beauty up in a high rise with a spectacular view. I invested in a handful of custom tailored suits and I hit the ground running. I was so absorbed in the smooth talking, the platinum business card, the lunches, the tee times, all the things it took to woo the clientele, that I hardly realized that the work week became my whole life, twenty-four seven. It didn’t matter, I was living the life I wanted. Always what I wanted. I always did exactly what I wanted. It didn’t register that my glorious apartment with its panoramic view and outrageous rent was nothing but a place to crash until the alarm went off again or my phone rang. The kitchen had never been used, the leather furniture had never been sat upon and there hadn’t been a single woman to seduce because I was completely absorbed in the job. I was so caught up in my dollar signs and my lifestyle that I didn’t realize I was completely alone in the little world I built that revolved around me until Thanksgiving Day came. Sure, I knew the holiday was coming. There were half a dozen calls from my mother on my phone that I’d neglected over the previous weeks. Family was low on my priority list. And I figured they were always going to be there in the fringe. I could just get back to them when I had time. Time. Anyway, the holiday was upon me and that was the day it hit me. I was alone. There was no one to have a fancy lunch with, no charter boat, no wine tasting, night clubbing or golf. Just a whole day with nothing to do and no one to share it with. I woke up at a leisurely hour. My black satin sheets were not warmed with the company of a beautiful woman. There was not food in the refrigerator, beside the half dozen or so bottles of high dollar wines that had been given to me in appreciation. My coffee machine had never even been plugged in nor did I have the supplies to make use of it. And as I stood at the kitchen counter realizing I had nothing, it occurred to me that I probably should have answered my mother’s calls. I could have been having a nice dinner with people who cared about me instead of spending my day hungry on my stiff leather sofa wondering if I should actually set up that top of the line entertainment system that I had to have, which was still just a stack of boxes on the living room floor. My stomach growled angrily. I ventured out into the city in search of sustenance. Three restaurants turned me away for not having a reservation. Two other places I liked were closed. Even the grocery store was not open, which was a surprise, a relief and a slap in the face all at once. It was like the world was wagging it’s finger at me saying, that’s what you get for being so self-centered. The world does not revolve around you, selfish boy. I wound up eating fast food from a dingy chicken place off the highway. That should have been a wake up call, but again, I justified away the things I didn’t want to deal with. So while my interminable workweeks whizzed by in such a blur that they had not truly registered as the soul sucking drain they clearly were, this day seemed to drag on forever. Having nothing to do and no one to do it with was damnation, my punishment for not making time for real connections. But it was one day, one solitary day. It wasn’t like it was going to change me. I cared about money. I cared about social status. I drove a hundred thousand dollar car and had top of the line everything. I figured I would marry a trophy wife sometime in my middle forties and have a beautiful decoration on my arm for those flashy company Christmas parties. Christmas Parties. They weren’t that far off and I was alone. I was alone. Yes, this one day of unwanted isolation sort of sucker punched me. Stupid thoughts filled my head as I lay in bed that night. I had plenty of contacts, but not a single friend. It occurred to me that I might die alone in one of my designer suits, and the fat bank account that was rapidly accruing would pay for an elaborate funeral that no one would attend because who was going to remember that smooth talking sales guy they had lunch with that one time... I was lonely. Was I lonely? Did I even know what that meant? The need for a deep personal connection had never been of any interest to me. I was a player. I liked the game, the fast, free wheeling lifestyle, and the thrill of the chase. Settling down was something I figured I would do when I was older. Much older. But the face in my mirror wasn’t getting any younger and my empty apartment wasn’t very welcoming. I could sort of see the appeal of companionship, real companionship, a relationship. Was I suddenly thinking about a relationship when I hadn’t even taken the time to ask a woman to dinner? I hadn’t even taken the time to look at women. What the hell was wrong with me? A relationship. Next thing I know I’ll be thinking about Love. I never gave the “L” word any thought. I could be romantic in so much as that was a means to a desirable end. Romance got girls into my bed. And I admit I had plenty of romance in college. But love? I didn’t know a damned thing about love. Suddenly I was fixating on it. I wanted someone to want me. I wanted desire and passion. And I always went after what I wanted. It was only days after this internal revelation that I saw her for the first time. She was the second thing I really should have given more thought. 2. I dropped my client off at his car after a long, and I mean really long day of golfing. This guy was maybe the worst player I’d ever had to smooth talk on the course. Frankly, he should throw away his clubs and take up some activity that didn’t involve hitting a ball, water, grass, companionship or any sort of competition. He was so foul tempered that every time the ball came off his club I felt like there was a cloud of unsavory words hanging over us, and I had a burning need to apologize to everyone within earshot. Trying to play even close to his level meant aiming for the rough or the sand traps, because if I got off a good shot he was irate. Clearly sportsmanship was not his strong suit. The only thing that seemed to ease his angst was the girl serving drinks in the golf cart, so perhaps full time alcoholic might have been a better past time for him. Oddly, he was a riot in the office or over lunch. He was funny and personable, not this athletic disaster with his wide variety of words that were not appropriate for this exclusive country club. So when he said he couldn’t join me for dinner because his son had a soccer game, I was immediately relieved and at the same time felt some sympathy for the son. If this guy behaved at his kid’s game they way he did on the course, that kid was going to have a rough day. It did cross my mind that my three stroke victory had killed the deal and he was making an excuse to get out, but I simply didn’t care. He’d lost my respect on the front nine, and earned a good deal of contempt on the back nine. The whole afternoon had been a trial and I just couldn’t sit across the table from him and make pleasant conversation. I went back to my place and showered away the stink of aggravation. I already had a reservation for dinner. I was not entertaining the client but I still needed to eat so I went. It was a Friday night, the place was packed. My table wasn’t ready and it was more than a little uncomfortable to be standing there alone waiting. Then she walked in. Clearly she was the end result of generations of interracial relationships, but the product was absolutely stunning with skin the color of iced coffee and legs that never quit. Her skirt was exquisitely short, it swished as she walked and every guy in the place tilted his head as she passed, trying to see what that skirt was just barely hiding. Her top hung off her right shoulder, low enough that I could see the curve of her breast, but not so low as to give away what was holding those perfect curves in place. Her hair was long, her heels were high and her mouth was so artfully painted I longed to hear the voice they kept inside. Well, I longed for more than her voice. She slid onto a bar stool and her skirt slid away enough to reveal just a peek at the lace of her stockings and the garter that held them in place. I wanted her. I figured I would simply walk over there and charm her the way I charmed everyone. I was sure I could get what I wanted because I always got what I wanted. I was just that cocky. I strolled casually up to the bar, slid in next to her, ordered a top shelf scotch and pretended to notice her for the first time. She tilted her chin toward me and looked me over as thoroughly as I looked her over, which was intriguing. Her eyes smoldered; the lust I felt inside myself was visible right there in those dark, smoky eyes. She lifted her wine glass, drank and slowly licked her lips. My brain started thinking about other things she might do with that tongue and the blood started to run south from my brain. But just as I was about to make my move, another player joined the game and he stole the queen right off my chess board. I hadn’t even gotten her name. I ate at the bar, drank a couple more scotches and stood outside waiting for the valet to bring my car around thinking this had to be the most unsatisfying day of my life. I was more than a little bitter about going home alone after such a close encounter with perfection. My car pulled up. I walked around to the driver’s door, and just as the valet got out, she walked out of the restaurant with her date. I watched with envy seething through my veins. The man turned away to hand his check card to the other valet and she stood poised, looking at my car, looking at me, with a raised eyebrow. I inclined my head toward the passenger door, it was an invitation she was bound to refuse, but my last shot for the night. And she smiled at me. Her date turned and put his arm around her, oblivious to my attempt to steal her away. I went home with my old friends envy and jealousy, and we passed the night torturously wondering what it would have been like to run a hand up her leg, to see the curves that teased me all evening, knowing that another man was going to have what I wanted. That sucked. 3. The truth was that after a long night of frustration, I was not nearly as charming as I thought I was. The face in my bathroom mirror was looking considerably older than it should have looked. It also looked tired and not in anyway friendly. I had a tee time with a client that I hadn’t met before on a course I hadn’t played before, and the whole way to his hotel I was fuming inside that this could potentially be a repeat of the day before. There was no way I was throwing the game this time. Contract or no contract, I needed to get out there and whack the hell out of that ball. I just couldn’t tolerate an unfulfilling morning on the heel of my sleepless night. Anyway, my client came down to the lobby dressed like a golfer. He was roughly my age, young and good looking. Hell, we could have been twins if I had been able to get my attitude in check a little better. He was playing my usual game, he was suave and charming. But where I was sort of stomping around trying to pretend I was going to enjoy this day, he was relaxed and confident. “So, I take it you play?” I started casually as we drove. “I played on the amateur circuit for a while, now I only play recreationally, and of course, on company time,” he grinned. Okay, so obviously another unsatisfactory day was afoot. I was going to get crushed, but at least I could play my game without the foul language my last client spewed all over the course. If nothing else, out of respect for the game this guy would play like a gentleman. We talked business briefly along the way. I had a good feel for his interest, and then suddenly I noticed the ring on his left hand. “Married?” I asked. “Newly, two months. That’s sort of the reason I am meeting on a Saturday. We took a long honeymoon, three weeks touring Italy and Spain. I came back to a huge backlog of work,” he laughed. “That sounds fantastic. A trip like that is probably worth a few Saturdays on the job.” “Absolutely worth it,” he smiled. It was the satisfied smile of a man who had what he wanted and was getting laid on a regular basis. Once again, jealousy sat just behind my eyes as I looked at him. “So, how’d you meet your wife?” I asked. It might have seemed like a casual question, but part of me really wanted to hear how someone so like me managed the task. “Funny story. My father fell off a ladder taking down Christmas lights last year. He hurt his shoulder pretty badly and I took him to an Orthopedist to get it looked at. He wound up needing surgery. Janine was the surgical nurse. She came out to tell me how the operation went and she pulled her mask off and the cap off her hair. It was like one of those slow motion movie moments,” he shook his head. “I thought I might have to break a leg or tear a ligament so she’d have to take care of me. Typically talking to people comes pretty easily, but I stood there like an idiot gaping at her, she had to repeat herself a number of times because I could not seem to concentrate and finally she said, ‘why don’t you ask me to dinner and I can answer any questions you have then.’ That was that, she intelligent, she’s beautiful and I got super lucky.” “Sounds like it.” “You married?” he asked me. “No. I’ve only been down here for five months. The job has really kept me busy, I haven’t made the time for any sort of relationship.” The small talk continued, but my brain stalled. Five months. It had been nearly half a year and I had not even taken a woman to dinner. And of course thinking about taking a woman to dinner just fueled last night’s jealousy that I’d hoped to forget, but those legs were so long and her eyes were so dark. Thankfully, my companion was as skilled on the course as he’d led me to believe. Losing was not a problem this time, though it didn’t hurt my pride, I shot the best game of my life. We closed our deal in a nice restaurant in the French Quarter. I didn’t think about her at all until my colleague excused himself to take a phone call and I sat sipping my drink and staring out into the sunny afternoon beyond the pane glass window. The valet pulled a car up to the door and a woman strode around to the driver’s side. A beautiful woman. With long dark hair and skin the color of iced coffee. She glanced toward the window where I sat gaping and her perfect lips curved just a little. I began to sweat just looking at her. She slid into the car and drove off before my brain thought it would have been a good idea to dash out the door after her, so my stupor prevented me from humiliating myself in front of my client. But I missed my chance for the second time in less than twenty-four hours and the tension was definitely high. I paid the tab and we walked out. My client was going home to a beautiful wife, most likely a night of making love and the pleasure of sleeping beside her. I was going home to an empty condo with and empty fridge and an empty bed. But I handed the valet my check card and as he grabbed my keys off the hook he turned and handed me a slip of paper. “A woman left this for you. She was very adamant that I give it to you when you came for your car.” He ran off and I shoved the paper in my pocket. I didn’t want to read it in front of my client, but the moment he was out of my car at his hotel, I was scrambling to see that note. ‘NOLA 7:00 pm at the bar. Do not make me wait.’ My hands shook. My heart raced. I was going to meet her, she was going to be mine. 4. My best suit, a dab of Grey Flannel and I was at that bar eagerly awaiting her arrival. My mind would not even entertain the notion that it might not have actually been her or the valet might have given the note to the wrong man. No. This was going to happen. I wanted this to happen. I sat nursing my drink, trying not to look at the door. I wanted to appear collected, cool, but my hands shook just a little and I made a conscious effort to swirl the drink around in the glass so the clattering of the ice wouldn’t give me away. Time seemed to be passing in the slowest possible increments, and being the impatient person I knew I was, waiting was killing me. I was about to look at my again watch when a voice like honey, thick and sweet, asked: ‘is this seat taken?’ She slid onto the barstool next to mine without waiting for a reply. I signaled for the bartender. “It’s odd,” I started with a grin, “in a city this size that we should run into each other three times in less than a day.” “It’s only odd for you,” she smiled. “Why is that?” “I’ve seen you a number of times. I very nearly wrote you off. You love your job and your fancy dinner meetings too much. You never open your eyes and look around.” “Then why are you here?” She laughed. “Last night you made a bold move trying to get me to leave with you even as I stood there with another man.” “When I want something, I’m impulsive like that.” “And do you know what you want?” she whispered leaning so close that her lips brushed my ear. “Yes, I know what I want.” She tipped her head back and laughed again. The bartender set a glass of wine in front of her. She took a long sip and licked her lips like she had last time. The blood raced thought my veins. “Tell me your name. In my mind I’ve just been calling you babyface.” “Babyface?” “You’re very, hmm, groomed, very smooth. Pampered. Soft.” “I’m not...” “Your nails are manicured.” “No, they definitely are not. I have not reached that level of vanity just yet,” I grinned. “I’m Liam, Liam Cathain.” “Liam.” She tilted her head to the side and looked at me for a long moment. “That is not your name. You’re not even comfortable saying it,” she shook her head. “You are a Junior, William Junior. I would say your family called you Billy,” she said, watching whatever my face gave away. “Oh, even worse, Little Billy,” she continued. “I think you started going by Liam at University where no one already knew you as Billy.” “How could you know that?” She smiled her perfect smile at me, but spoke without the practiced voice. “You’s down in the Bayou now, Son. Te ony place where VooDoo still alive and kickin! We’s knowin’ whats inside te man here.” I finished my scotch in a single gulp. I had not felt that exposed, that uncomfortable, well, ever in my life. But I was rooted there, I could not walk away from this woman. “Are you going to tell me your name?” I asked casually. “I go by Aziz.” I grinned at her, “that’s not a real name.” “No, it’s not,” she answered, but she didn’t offer any further information and I didn’t have the same insight she did. She leaned toward me and gave me a brief glimpse of the glorious curves hidden under the shimmering top that was just a bit sheer if the light hit her the right way. “Let’s go,” she whispered in my ear as she ran her hand up my thigh. And that was when I actually forgot how to use my brain. My first stupid question was, ‘don’t you want to have dinner?’ I mean seriously, this gorgeous woman just invited a total poser to leave with her and I was asking stupid questions about dinner. “Not here, somewhere more relaxed.” I paid the bar tab and we walked out. She stood close to me as the valet ran for my car. I could smell the sweet scent of her perfume, it made me think of oranges and honeysuckle. I wanted to pull her close to me. I wanted to kiss her. “Why don’t you stop thinking about what you want and just do it.” But as I was about take her suggestion, my car pulled up. “I’ll drive,” she said without hesitation, and she stepped to the driver’s door and slid inside before I could protest. Stupid question number two: ‘Where are we going?’ I asked. “Does it matter?” she laughed. And the truth was it did not matter. What should have mattered was just how quickly she took control of me. How easily the player was getting played. But all I could think about was how she smelled and how badly I wanted her. She took me to a part of town where I had never been and I was not sure I would ever be able to find again, parked my car in a public lot and we went into a place that was very obviously a home town crowd. Aziz waved to the bartender and he blew her a kiss. She made a gesture with her fingers and took me to a table in a rather dark corner. She sat very close to me, deep in the shadows of the room and I didn’t hesitate. I pulled her into my arms and kissed her. I was shooting for romantic, but the moment my mouth met hers it was like we’d ignited a match. Fire burned inside me, it spread through my veins and I could not contain it. Neither could I break free. Aziz had her fingers in my hair as her tongue explored my mouth more deeply than any woman had ever dared. What she did with her mouth to mine, I wanted to do with my body to hers. I was under a spell, reduced to nothing but my most basic animal instinct. My hand slid further and further up her thigh. Heat radiated from the part of her that I would have sold my soul to possess. But just as my fingers found there way to paradise, she pulled away. “Not yet, William,” she whispered as she kissed my earlobe and ran her hand over the hardness throbbing in my pants. An unseen waiter brought glasses of wine, and some food that was very different from the high end cuisine I’d been living on. Aziz lifted her glass and drank, her look said that I should do the same. The wine was pink, crisp and fruity with a taste I could not quite put my finger on and though I wine was not typically my drink of choice, I downed the glass in one shot. Some part of my brain was screaming that this was a bad idea, that being with her was bad. It was going to cost me something. I ignored the warning. Of course I ignored the warning. I wanted her. I wanted her more that I had ever wanted any woman. I wanted her more than anything I could imagine. The desire she ignited was the most potent feeling I’d ever had in my life. So whatever the price was, I was ready to pay it to be with her. 5. I lost count of the number of glasses of wine I drank. I lost track of time. And when she was kissing me, I lost track of myself. A moment of semi-clarity came upon me as she fed me some sort of sausage with spicy sauce that was hotter than anything I would normally eat, and with came stupid question number three. ‘What’s your real name?’ I asked, a feeble attempt to regain some control. “Does it matter?” “No. I just want to know.” “You can’t always get what you want.” “But I usually do,” I said seriously. “A name is just a reminder that life is beyond your control, that someone else always has the power to make choices for you. You changed your name, changed your choices.” “You stripped my choice away, remember?” “I did. Tonight is mine. I saw something I wanted and I had to watch it walk away a few times. You noticed me the one time I could not act. So yes, I took your choice away because tonight you are mine.” “Just tonight? It could be more than that.” She laughed. “We haven’t even had tonight yet. Don’t rush it, William.” Again, I should have asked more questions, given the whole situation more thought. But she had just hinted that there was still more to tonight and I could only think about getting what I wanted from this beautiful woman. The night went on and seemed to stand still at the same time. The strange pink wine kept refilling itself in my glass, and while I did not feel the effects that scotch typically had on me, I definitely felt something. My entire body was pulsing with life. Aziz was kissing me again in that way that was sex. Her kiss was as raw, passionate and needy as if she were naked in my bed and my body was joined to hers, but at the same time frustrating, leaving those parts of me that needed release hard and uncomfortable. She moved her mouth down to my neck as she squeezed my inner thigh. “Do you want to take me home with you, William?” “Yes. I want that.” Without another word, she stood and took my hand. I left a ridiculous amount of cash on the table because honestly I had no idea how much wine we drank. And a sensible man would have realized that he had no idea how much he’d been drinking and not gotten behind the wheel of the car, but I was admittedly not sensible. I don’t recall the drive, the route we took, or even the walk into my building, but we hit the elevator and I had Aziz backed against the wall. My hands explored the parts of her that were not accessible as we sat in that dark booth and by the time I opened my apartment door my need for release was urgent. And at the same time, I needed to satisfy her as well, because I wanted her to want to come back here. I wanted her to want this to be more than just a night. I wanted to take away her choices until I was all that remained. I was obsessed. This lust had taken hold of me in just one day to where I not only had to have her, I had to have this connection. But she walked through my door and while I thought only of her, she made a new series of judgments about me that cut too close to the bone. “Where do you really live?” she asked me. “What do you mean?” “This place is empty, no photos, no personal touches. Where is your heart? Where is your soul? You decorate your life with money. Is this really who you are or are you hiding yourself somewhere else?” She didn’t wait for an answer and that was a good thing because I didn’t have an answer to give. I was afraid I was just a shallow, empty, shell of a man., and I didn’t want her to know that. She touched my things, her long fingers swept over the counters and couches. Suddenly these items that I bought just because they were expensive had life, they became infused with a memory, a moment. “Offer me a drink.” “I have wine.” “Of course you do.” She picked a bottle that was probably worth a couple hundred dollars and I poured. It was red, and bitter compared to what we had been drinking, but still rich and smooth. Aziz licked her lips in that way she did that set me aflame. She pushed my jacket off my shoulders and worked at the knot of my tie. I knew it was not going to be long before I got the pleasure of undressing her. A moment later my shirt was off and her mouth was pressed to my bare chest. She was running her fingers through the sparse hair just above my belt and I was a breath away from throwing her down on the unused couch and taking my pleasure. “Let me freshen up. Wait for me in the bedroom,” she told me as she turned and walked away. But she came out of my bathroom without her dress on, and the things she was still wearing as she slid onto the satin sheets stole the last of my sanity, the last of my humanity and I did upon her every thing that my mind fantasized since the moment I first saw her. I touched and tasted her. I made her shake and scream. I thrust and teased as I enjoyed every curve with my mouth, my hands and my bare skin. The joining of my plain, pale whiteness with her smooth, rich, exotic body, the perfect product of everything this mysterious city was made of, should have been a victory for me. The prize of the ultimate game was in my bed, taking what I gave. But though I was the one giving the pleasure, she was still the one in control. And she had me. She said VooDoo was still alive and thriving and it had me completely under her spell. By the time I gave in to my need and released, the exhaustion of the night, the seduction, combined with the massive amounts of wine got the better of me. Her purr of satisfaction was the permission my mind waited for and an instant later I was asleep. In the morning I was alone. 6. The bed was empty but I could still smell the sweet scent of her perfume mingled with the heady scent of lust upon my sheets. It made me shudder to think about how badly I wanted her. And it freaked me out how easily she undid me, how she knew things I never admit, even to myself. I had to get out of the bed, the memory was smothering me. She didn’t leave a number. She didn’t leave a trace of her presence, even the wine glasses were put away, which made me wonder for a moment if any of it had been real. I didn’t even know her name. But as I looked around my place, all the things she said about me hit me full on. There was not a single thing in the apartment that had any emotional attachment, any heart, any soul. I was a void. I cared about material things at the cost of my humanity. I went back into the bedroom. There was a box in my closet that had a framed photo of me with my family. I pulled it out and looked at it for a long time. My mom looked pretty. My last girlfriend put the photo in the frame and stood it on my dresser, and that sort of bugged me at the time. I never asked her why she did that. Maybe she thought the same thing that Aziz thought. Maybe that was why she left, why they both left. I ran my hand over the smooth satin on the bed and shuddered. What had she done to me? I showered and dressed. I opened my cologne but the scent was too heavy with innuendo, and her words came back to me. She called me pampered, soft. I did not want to be soft. I wanted to be a man women wanted, she wanted, even though I had never cared about what anyone else thought of me, only what I thought of myself. And that was why I had top of the line everything and my car was a shiny overpriced representation of my ego. I was soft. Damn it, I was only half a step away from being a guy with manicured nails. I was thinking too much. I needed to get out of the apartment. I got in my car and drove. I didn’t have a destination set in my mind, mainly because I didn’t know where that place was that she took me, but I wanted to find it because there were people in that place who knew her. I wound up in a neighborhood that I most definitely did not want to be in, the sort of neighborhood that makes one discreetly lock the car doors and avoid making eye contact with anyone, and once again I was frustrated. And alone, well I did have aggravation and failure for company. The alone part was really beginning to bother me. I made my way back to my part of town and some unknown reason I stopped into the grocery store. Yet another learning experience, another opportunity for life to remind me just how soft I was. I hadn’t cooked anything more complicated than grilled cheese or spaghetti with sauce from a jar in, well, my whole life. That was entirely what restaurants were for. I had the means, so I did not feel the need to learn how to cook. But it wouldn’t hurt to have something to offer, crackers and cheese to serve with the wine in my fridge, maybe some fresh fruit. Coffee. Yes, coffee. Mornings were better with coffee or orange juice. Except for mornings like this one, this one would have been better with mind erasing drugs. Anyway, I was trolling the grocery store aisles in shock and revulsion with a cart that had exactly one package of strawberries, when my phone rang. Habit made my hand accept the call even before my eyes acknowledged that the caller was a private number. “How are you feeling today, Babyface?” that honeyed voice purred in my ear. I began to shake. Every sense associated with last night immediately went into overdrive. I could almost taste the strange wine, and smell the honeysuckle and orange on skin too smooth to be anything but a fantasy. I was afraid to speak, afraid my voice was going to give me away, afraid of another unmasking by this woman that I wanted more than I could fathom. “William? Are you there?” “I’m here. I wasn’t expecting to hear from you,” I answered coolly. “Was it just one night you wanted?” “No,” I whispered. I wanted so much more. So much. “Then meet me.” “When? Where?” “Lafitte’s on Bourbon Street at seven.” “Seriously?” “Yes, seriously,” she laughed. “Why would you say that?” “Lafitte’s doesn’t seem like your sort of place,” I teased. “No, William, it’s just not your sort of place. You saw my sort place last night and you will again tonight. Dress casually. Wait, not golfer boy casual. If you show up in a pastel polo shirt or anything argyle, I am leaving you behind,” she laughed. “Yes ma’am.” Aziz was already in the bar when I breezed in. I didn’t recognize her for a moment, her long hair was curly, reminiscent of Donna Summer in the mid-seventies, but those long legs and the hot pants she was wearing gave her away. I stood admiring her curves for a moment as she stood with her back to me leaning on the bar. My mouth went dry just thinking about things I would like to do to her. She laughed at what ever the bartender said as he stood with his cocky smile eyeing her just the way I had done a couple nights ago and I was jealous. There was a whole herd of men trying to get closer to her. My jaw was clenched so tight my teeth were beginning to hurt, but I took a deep breath and walked up behind her. I let my fingers slowly glide up the back of her silk stockinged leg, and across the bottom of her shorts. She exhaled a long slow breath and leaned back into me. Then she turned in my arms, looked at me with those smoky eyes and smiled. She was so far beyond beautiful I can’t imagine what she saw in me. Her eyes were made up with her eyeliner exaggerating their exotic shape, her lids colored in rich shades of blue and dotted with tiny jewels. Her blouse was held shut by one artful hook, and what was underneath shimmered. I was burning. “You dress down well, William,” she teased. Then she kissed me in a way that most definitely ruined the night for at least half a dozen men. She turned back to the bar and ordered something I did not recognize. A much less cocky bartender filled the two glasses with something blue and set them on the bar. “That was very sexy the way you touched my leg. I liked it.” “I liked doing it. There are quite a few places I would like touch,” I admitted and sipped the drink. It was strong and sweet. It was blue but tasted like oranges, or maybe it was just my imagination because something about Aziz made me think of oranges. And thinking about it made me want press my mouth to her neck and let myself breathe her in. It must have been clear in my eyes too, or maybe it was the VooDoo magic she had, but she sipped her drink, licked her lips and swept her hair back over her shoulder. I couldn’t stop myself. A moment later my mouth was making love to her neck. Her hands were in my hair and I could feel her breath. “My God you’re good at that,” she whispered in my ear as she pushed me back. “Be patient, I’ll make it worth your while later.” “And what do you have planned for me that is thwarting my mouth from being able to have what it wants?” She laughed out loud. “Your pretty mouth can have whatever it wants whenever it wants, Babyface. It’s what’s in your pants that will have to wait. We are going dancing,” she finished as she took a long sip of the blue drink and I immediately pressed my mouth to hers before her tongue could lick the taste away. “Dancing?” I asked as she stood looking at me with desire in those elaborate eyes. “Yes, dancing. You move that body pretty well in bed. I want see what else you can do with it.” I shook my head. “I think you’re going to be disappointed but I’ll make it up to you later.” “I think you are going to be surprised what you can do when you let go of your inhibitions and just move with me.” I chugged down the last of the blue drink. “Let’s go then.” She reached into my pocket, grabbed my keys, let her fingers linger just a moment as she teased me, and we left. “You do know that Babyface is a God awful pet name, right?” I said as she squealed out of the parking lot heading south.” “I do,” she smiled. “And yet you continue to call me that?” “I do,” she nodded. “Why?” She shrugged. “By the time you got around to noticing me it was already too late, the name was stuck to you. Now you have to live with it!” “So it’s all my own fault.” “Obviously. You could have been less attractive or more aware of your surroundings and you might have gotten a better nickname, but...” “Well, as long as you find me attractive, I can probably deal with it.” “You don’t have a nickname for me?” she asked. “No, but you smell sweet like oranges and I want to breathe you. I want to taste you. I want you to be with me.” “I’m with you now.” “I want more than now.” She looked at me seriously for a moment. “Don’t fall in love, William.” “I don’t know anything about love.” She nodded and the subject closed. I had been so distracted by the conversation that once again I failed to take note of the route. 7. The place seemed bigger on the inside even though it was dimly lit. Bodies contorted and entwined to music that was four decades in the past, but still alive and breathing. Strobe lights flashed highlighting random dancers for just a lightening instant of time. Each vision could have been torture or pleasure or both. Aziz took my hand and took me deep into the crowd on the dance floor. The night was my whole life as my body moved with hers to the music and together we became part of the scene. Each flash of the strobe left a perfect picture of her in my mind. She was the queen of this city, and the ruler of all I was, but I tried not to let that show. I was obsessed. I knew that. Beads of perspiration ran from my sweat dampened hair. Aziz ran her fingers into the sticky mass of it and smiled. She kissed me as we swayed, the dance synchronized to our passion. My hands crept under her shirt and up the smooth skin of her back. Minutes and hours slipped by with very few words as the music narrated the story of the night. “Why don’t we get out of here?” I said at last. She ran her finger over my lips and looked at me as though she were making some new judgments about me. But she leaned close and pressed her mouth to my ear. “Take me home with you, William,” she breathed. “Last night you got to do all the things you wanted to do, tonight, I want that pleasure.” “Do anything you like, Baby, my whole body is yours.” And knowing she was going to use me to please herself made the ride back to my place interminably long. We didn’t even indulge in the pretense of romance with a glass of wine. No. The minute the door was closed behind us Aziz was eagerly pushing the shirt from my shoulders. Her mouth was pressed to my collarbone as her hands worked at my jeans and she pushed me toward the bedroom. She pulled one of my ties from the tie rack and blindfolded me as she slid on top of me on the bed. All of my senses went into over drive. I could smell her, taste her, feel her like she was part of me. She took her pleasure slowly, but the sound had me trembling as her pitch rose and her hips ground in to me, driving me deep into her. My release, my satisfaction was so overwhelming that I thought I might still be shaking when the morning came. But she lay in the bed beside me as the endorphins took hold and made my limbs heavy. “What do you?” I asked. “Does it matter?” “No. But you answer all my questions with that question. I just want to know something.” “What I do is not entirely different from what you do . I sell a product. I have very high dollar clientele. I have to be the pretty face and the practiced voice. I play the game just as you do and I am very good at that game because I am a girl from the Bayou. I can read a man just as easily as if his thoughts were written on his face. I can know what he wants before he even knows he wants it. But the job is not my life. On my time, I do as I please.” “What’s your real name?” “You ask too many questions William,” she said as she stroked my cheek and used whatever the magic was that she had to make me sleep. And in the morning she was gone. 8. Twenty-two days. Twenty-two days it went on. Aziz would call and I would drop everything. Everything. I didn’t think about this thing we had being love. It was definitely lust. It was absolutely an obsession. Just As I had completely given myself to the job, I gave myself to her. She was all I thought about, all I wanted and I wanted her every moment. But it was more than just sex, well for me it was more. There was a closeness, a tenderness in those moments when just our hands met or she ran her fingers through my hair, that I longed for, that I needed. I don’t know if she needed that, she never answered my questions and I never pushed because I didn’t want to push her away. I’d even begun to like to hear her call me William. I asked her to accompany me to the big holiday soiree my company was hosting. I know she wanted to turn me down, the words were right there on her perfect lips, but whatever she saw upon my face at the moment she would have said no changed her mind. And I was thankful and stupidly optimistic that she was also beginning to think of what we had as something like a relationship. I don’t know what my brain was thinking really. I had never been in or wanted to be in a relationship. I guess I just wanted her to want that with me. So it was the Saturday before Christmas, the extravaganza was scheduled to begin at seven and she said she would meet me there. I waited nervously out front. Part of me thought she would stand me up. But she didn’t. She was drop dead gorgeous in a cocktail dress slit so high on her leg that every man in the room knew heaven was just beyond what could be seen. She held my arm. She oozed charm and sophistication. She played the game better than any man I have ever seen. Maybe it was that power she called VooDoo and she really did have the ability to see inside all of us. She was with me. She was mine, but really I was hers. She was the one in control. She called me Liam for the first time. And the last. I took her home with me. We drank wine we danced slowly to jazz music on the stereo I painstakingly assembled just for this moment. She kissed me the way no other woman ever had and my heart pounded in my chest. What we did that night was not like any of the other nights we’d spent together. We lay there satisfied. Aziz had her cheek pressed to my chest and she was stroking my cheek as I lay gazing at her. “It’s Aloysia,” she said quietly, lifting her head to look into my eyes. “What?” “My name. It’s Aloysia.” “It’s beautiful. Why don’t you use it?” “It’s personal, Liam. It’s who I really am. It’s all the things that I keep hidden.” “Thank you for telling me.” She nodded and lay back down. And that was the last time I ever saw her. I searched that city. Every restaurant, every night club, dive bar and hole in the wall. I asked every bartender, waiter and valet if they knew her, if they’d seen her. I could hardly do my job because every restaurant I sat in I just scanned the place praying for a glimpse of those legs, of that long hair, a whiff of that perfume or the sound of her laugh. And each night that I went home to my empty apartment, I freaked. The bed, the memories, everything in the pace was touched, tainted with those three weeks and the woman who stripped away my facade, the character I built of myself and left me exposed and alone. Maybe it was only ever supposed to be lust and I thought it was more because I wanted it to be more. I was too used to getting what I wanted. Everything I thought I wanted was empty when she was gone. Aloysia. * * * “Did you just tell me a story based on a Disco song?” “Yes,” I laughed, “but it’s your favorite disco song, and really I guess it’s more of an amalgam of songs.” “How did you know that was my favorite?” she asked with a smile as she stroked my hair. “I know so many things about you,” I admitted softly. “I listen to everything you say, even things you don’t say with words.” “You would be Liam in that story if I walked away?” “Yes.” “I don’t know if I could walk away. Tell me something dark, something cruel. I want to hear about when it isn’t love or lust, when it’s something worse.” “Why? Why do you want to think about the dark side of life?” She shrugged. “I guess maybe as an affirmation that we are more than pain. I want to hear it and know for sure that it isn’t us, it isn’t this story that we are living.” “I’m not sure I can tell a story like that, I can’t think dark thoughts about you.” “You see that really tiny, remote star, way over there?” she pointed. “It’s that star. It’s so far out on the fringe that it can hardly be fathomed.” “I dropped my chin. If that is what you want, I’ll try.” “You always try for me. I don’t know if you know what that means to me.” * * * THE DARKNESS THE LOOK: He has that look in his eyes again. Those eyes. Eyes like ice, cold and cruel, that house a look that is rage and lust, a concoction always on the verge of boiling, a dangerous chemical reaction ready to explode at any moment. He is beautiful and terrifying at once. And one day he is going to kill me. I know that. So why can’t I just walk away? He’s a drug and I’m an addict. His hands are never gentle, but he kisses like the glory of his soul depends on sucking the life out of me. I can’t breathe. The pleasure is brutal, so violent. I need to feel him inside me even though he finds joy in causing me pain. How cruel is nature to hide pure evil behind such a beautiful facade? I know I only have a moment to pretend that I don’t see him and get to safety. Is there any place that is safe? If he wants what he always wants, he will take it. Privately, publicly, it does not matter to him. When that look reaches his eyes, he sheds his humanity. He is an animal, base and feral, powerful, lithe and ferocious. I should run. I should run right now. The last bruises are still tinged green and yellow on my skin. The cuts are still lines of dark dried scab. Perhaps the police can protect me. But I can feel him. I am sick. I know I am because I’m still here justifying the pain even as I wonder if he has that knife in his pocket or if he has something worse this time. I should be trying to preserve myself. I know when he loses himself he would kill. He has no conscience, no internal voice to warn him. And even though I can practically see my death at his hands, a ridiculous thought flits through my warped mind: am I the only one? Are there others he does this too? Suddenly, I am jealous. He is mine. I want to walk over there and slap him hard across that pretty face. His rebuttal would be vicious, but public, right here where all these strangers would see that he belongs to me... My thoughts are cut short. He’s seen me. He’s looking right at me. He’s coming.... * * * “No! Stop! I don’t want to hear anymore. I don’t want to know what he’s going to say. I was wrong! I don’t want this to be one of our stories. I can’t think of you, of us, like that! I just can’t!” she cried. “Shhh, it’s okay, Baby,” I whispered, holding her tight to me. “I don’t want to tell that story. I don’t ever want to think about what we have being anything but true love because that’s what it is to me.” “I want that true love. I want the happily ever afters. Please, tell me something else, something full of hope.” “Okay, okay.” * * * Cybilla I: “Will you be here in the morning?” “You know I won’t. I can’t.” I threw my arm across my eyes, partly to hide the disappointment I knew was visible upon my face, partly to avoid looking at her with the desperation I knew she could see. “Are you ever going to tell me or should I pretend this is all still just a dream.” “Oren, what you want is not possible.” “You told me once that it had been done.” “One time, Oren!” she said, exasperated. “One time in all the history of man has it been done! Once! Do you not understand that you ask the impossible?” “One man completed the task, therefore it is not impossible,” I answered stubbornly. “You frustrate me so!” “Who was he?” I asked, rolling to my side to face her. I was angry, more hurt than angry really, but enough so that I could overlook the beauty, the simple perfection beside me. I did not gaze into her eyes, I did not long to kiss her mouth, I just wanted my answer, because without it, I could never keep her. “I don’t know who he was,” she whispered as she ran her delicate fingers over the rough stubble on my cheek. “I don’t even know if he was real or if that is just a romantic tale we tell.” “Now your just saying that,” I said rolling away from her and off my bed. “If you don’t love me, then go and don’t come back, but don’t lie to me.” I reached for my guitar where it stood beside the window. I sat on the bed with my back to her and let my fingers play upon the strings. I knew she could not resist the music, and yet, I didn’t play for her. I played because it was the only thing that soothed the hurt inside me. She slid close behind me, rested her chin on my shoulder and pressed her cheek to my face. It was a long moment that the music filled the space around us before she spoke. “Oren, you know that I love you. You know that it is more than that. You are the only man who has ever loved only me. I do not know the place or the task, I only know that once you start this quest, once you pledge your intention, I will have to leave you. And I fear beyond all else that I will never see you again.” “Why do think that?” “Because none have ever returned to me.” I set the guitar down and pulled her to me on my bed. “How many have tried?” “Three.” “What became of them?” “They died,” she whispered. “Was Quentin Gallagher one of them?” She shook her head. “Quentin couldn’t do it. He wanted to, he wanted it so badly he vowed his intention. But he was only a man of words, Oren. He would never be able to find the gateway. His vow meant my departure and he went mad with grief. He wrote haunting stories about his loss, he made his fortune, but I do not think that success brought him any joy,” she sighed. “I did not love him the way I love you. Leaving him was not...” “It’s a gateway.” She sighed. “You hear only the things you want to hear, Oren.” “I hear everything you say. I know the risk. But I am willing to die for the chance to live a real life with you, and if I can’t have that, if I am not man enough for the task, I might as well be dead anyway.” She sighed. “Do not say the words tonight, Oren. Give me tonight to hold you in my arms.” “If you aren’t here when the sun comes through my window, I will shout my intention to all the world.” “Kiss me goodbye then, my love.” “No. My kiss is a promise that I will bring you back.” II: She was not there when I awoke, nor did I expect her to be, but that never stopped me from asking. I reached over and took the picture frame from my bedside table. I traced the the delicate lines of her face with my finger and imagined sweeping her dark hair from her brow. I lay back in my pillow and remembered the very first time she appeared in my dreams. I was only a boy of fifteen, but I thought I was a man. My only love until that time had been music, but I suppose that is the reason this was possible at all. ... Fate works in its own unique way. For me it was a story I had to read for an English class. It was a short piece in rather large volume of works by a man named Quentin Gallagher. Gallagher had a knack for giving his stories very potent one word names, names that invoked a specific feeling. This particular one was called Dismantled. It was a dark and frantic tale of a painter who’d lost his vision and could not find satisfaction in his work, and his restless discontent drove him mad. Needless to say, I was not interested in that story at all. In fact, as a musician, it really sort of irked me. Perhaps it was because some small part of me acknowledged how easily a person with such a gift could find himself in that situation, more likely it was because I was a pompous boy and I thought that could never happen to someone who was truly talented. Anyway, I read it because I had to, and scoffed at his hardship. I was glad to reach the ending, the story was frustrating and I was ready to throw the book down. Until I glanced at the title on the next page. Ardor. As I said, I was a bit cocky, arrogant maybe. I considered myself something of a wordsmith. I wrote my own lyrics, so I was poetic in a sense. But the word just jumped out at me with all it’s implications: fire, fervor, passion. ‘If only you could have seen her.’ That single sentence seemed to call out to me. I read. I finished the story and sat dazed with desire for a woman I couldn’t even accurately describe. The writer captured me in his raw need for this woman he could not have. I immediately read it again. I drank in every word. I felt every pain from a heartbreak that had to have been real, but likely happened nearly a hundred years before I was born. It did not dawn on me at the time how remarkable it was that the preceding story, which was most assuredly born of this same loss, kept me stubbornly detached, while this tale threatened to suffocate me in emotions my youth did not own. His final words still echo in my mind: ‘I made a vow that haunts me. My muse gone to the place I cannot follow.’ I sat looking at the ending for a long time. Then I did what I always did when my mind needed clearing; I pulled my guitar across my lap and I played the music his story inspired. I did not know that sleep had taken me, because when the dream came, I still sat on the floor playing the tune my heart sang. It should have been obvious, I mean, again, I was a fifteen year old boy. I’d never had a girlfriend and yet there she lay, on her stomach across my bed. Her chin rested in her palm, her face was just beside mine and her soft breath tickled my ear. She reached out and stroked my hair and I leaned into her touch as though I’d been expecting it. At last I damped my strings and turned to face her. “That was lovely, Oren Gale,” she said. I sat mute. Dark hair shimmered as though each strand had been coated with the evening sky and the stars woke with each tiny movement. It framed a perfect face; a gentle oval with just a slight point to her chin. Long lashes curled away from irises like the ocean on a picture postcard and she smiled the pearl white of moonlight as I hungrily devoured each image my mind made of her. “Did you like the story?” she asked. In that moment my dazzled brain tried frantically to make some connection to this girl that still lay upon my bed. Surely I must have known her from school, how else could she have known about the assignment? “No.” I admitted. “I didn’t like it at all. The painter just gave up on his work, on himself, on all he was...” She began to laugh a little as she sat up and criss-crossed her legs beneath her. “Not that story, my love, the other one.” I was looking up at her from my seat on the floor or perhaps I was kneeling in reverence, but she was otherworldly. “How did you know about that? Who are you?” “It’s getting late. I have to go.” “Go? You just got here. Wait, how did you get here? Why are you here?” She smiled. “You called me, Oren.” I shook my head in denial, but she pointed at my guitar and said; ‘the music has its own voice.’ She slid to the end of the bed, leaned forward and kissed me. There has never been another woman. III: I could have kept my mouth shut and hoped for another night, but it’s possible that the intention of my heart was all the declaration I needed to make. Still, it had been thirteen years since that first kiss on the night the music called my muse to me. I’d found my success, I had all the worldly goods I could ever need, but I could not love anyone but her. So the day had come that I had to face fate or death or whatever it was that kept her from me. I had to find the gateway. I began my quest. ... She came to me only in dreams for a number of years. Those dreams were too few and too far between. There were times I was desperate for even a glimpse of her. I read that story so many times it seemed that I had written it. Certainly I was living it. If reading didn’t call her to me, I played the music I wrote that first night. But when she came to my dream and we touched, that was all that mattered. The strangest part is that in all that time, I didn’t even know her name. It was not because I neglected to ask, but she was very skilled at deflecting my questions and occupying the small time we had with more urgent pursuits. Morning would come and I would awake both satisfied and frustrated. And still I longed for more of those nights. Then came a day when a door opened. I was touring. My music gave me the opportunity to see the world and temporarily escape the longing and loneliness. But it was on this particular trip that I heard there was to be an auction. The descendants of Quentin Gallagher were selling off the author’s possessions, including his original manuscripts. I decided right then and there that I would pay all I had to own Ardor. The story was somehow connected to my muse, and perhaps there was some secret in its original pages that would help me find her. I went to the auction house on the scheduled day. For a man who’d made a good fortune writing, his possessions were few. I browsed the tables eagerly looking for that one thing I needed. I did not want to seem overly eager lest my enthusiasm cause others to be interested. I made note of the item and moved about the room. A young woman stood frowning near the door. She was younger than I was by a perhaps a handful of years, but we seemed to be the youngest people present. “Did you find what you were looking for?” she asked me as I stood casually watching the prospective bidders mill around the room. “Yes,” I answered as I stood beside her. She gasped. “Are you Oren Gale?” she whispered, her eyes wide with surprise. “Yes, I am.” “I’m a huge fan! Wow, I never would have expected someone famous to come view this old stuff.” “Really? I mean, I wouldn’t say I was famous, but I would have expected producers and actors to be snapping this stuff up like candy.” “Why? From everything I know about my great-uncle, he was a lonely, bitter old man. He never married, he didn’t have any children, he left all of this to my grandfather to deal with. He was a recluse and all his stories are sort of dark and depressing.” “I’m sure he inspired many people in his day.” “Well if they made a movie of one of his stories, I probably wouldn’t go see it!” I laughed. “Maybe you just think that because your related to...” All the while we were chatting, I had been standing beside her watching the crowd, but at that moment I turned to face this great-great niece of Gallagher, and there behind her was a table of personal effects: a silver pocket watch, an elaborately engraved flask, a sailor’s compass, a large water pitcher, half-a dozen pairs of cufflinks, ornate quills and ink jars, a pan flute, and an ornate picture frame that was home to the one who owned my heart. “What are these things?” I asked as casually as I could manage the words “The only things he felt a need to keep. There were some other jewels that belonged to his mother, but my father wanted to keep them.” “The watch is nice.” “Who carries a pocket watch? Seriously!” she laughed. “What about the picture?” She leaned into me just a bit and whispered, “I’m pretty sure she came with the frame.” It wasn’t long before the auction started. Ardor was quite a ways down the list, so I sat and pondered the personal items the man saw fit to treasure. The photo was obvious, well to me anyway. My muse was his muse as well. Clearly that was her connection to the story, it was written about her. But something was different. For me she was just a dream and somehow he’d managed to get a picture of her. What did the other objects mean? Why were they important to him? I desperately needed to know the secrets of a man long gone from this world. At last the time came. The first bids were in line with my expectations, and then I made my move. There was one other battling me for the prize, but at last he shook his head and crossed it off his program. I was victorious, but I wanted the other pieces. I came away with the manuscript, the frame, the watch, the flask and the flute. I’d never played a flute. I could learn. Still, I returned to my room and took the frame from the parcel. I held it my own hands for the very first time. My fingers traced the perfect lines of her face and imagined sweeping her dark hair gently across her forehead as I had done a dozen times in my dreams. I had this overwhelming notion that she was somehow suffocating behind that glass, that I had to save her. My hands began to shake. Every nerve in my body seemed to hum like the guitar strings too tightly wound. I pried the back away and gently let the picture fall to my lap as I laid her glass house aside. It was made in sepia, but is still saw her in color. The print was old, it seemed more like canvas than modern paper, but to my touch it was soft as skin. Perhaps my senses were over tuned as this was the first time I was touching her likeness in my waking day. I turned it over; my mind seemed to think the rear of the image would be there, that I would see the stars in her hair as they spread across her shoulders and swayed into the small of her back. But while my imagination was disappointed, my curiosity was engaged. There in the scrolling print that decorated the manuscript was: Piazza Santa Maria, Trastevere August, 1866. And then the bit of information I longed for these many years: her name, Cybilla. I whispered it over and over in my mind. Then I called it out for the world to hear. IV: Like Gallagher, I kept only those things which it would hurt me to lose. I set out upon my quest carrying those prizes I won from the auction, my grandmother’s wedding ring which I hoped to put on her finger if I found success, three Byzantine gold coins and my guitar. I knew in my heart that if I expected to take something from the Gods, I would have to give up all I treasured. Still, there was no price I would not pay, as I told her, I would prefer to give my life than to be found unworthy. So I packed my treasures in a simple backpack. I locked my door, wondering if I would ever return. I walked to the center of the street and I sang out my intention for all the world to hear. ... I read the manuscript as it was written by the man who’d lost all he lived for. The power of every word was punctuated by the visible tension in the letters, as though the memories caused him to squeeze the quill between his fingers or his heart simply pounded so hard it shook the quill in his hand. For the hundredth time I came to that bitter ending where his vow cost him something he was not willing to pay. But then, beyond his ending, he gave me a gift. Scraps of research he’d done as he tried to muster the courage to possess Cybilla. As I said, I was touring at the time I bought the manuscript. Concerts were the routine, and I found myself awake through most of my nights and sleeping for a good portion of the daylight hours. Life seemed just one step behind normal, and I was struggling to assimilate. The music poured from my fingers, my heart, my mouth as I stood upon the stage for all the world to hear. It was that night I saw her in the flesh for the first time. She stood just beyond what the audience could see of the stage. I was changing guitars for the upcoming song and as I turned I saw her there watching. It took every bit of my will to remain on stage. Even my soul wanted to run to her, take her in my arms and beg her to stay. I pointed at her. I whispered her name. She should have been too far away to hear me, but she smiled and nodded. Music continued to come forth, but I don’t remember any of it. My eyes kept sliding back to the place she stood. She seemed to be absorbing the notes as they swirled around her. She and the music were one in the same, but perhaps that is the nature of the muse. Alas, the show ended, the bows were made and she was gone. No one who had been on that stage crew had any memory of seeing my beautiful ghost. I stayed long after the place was empty and the instruments were packed away. Hoping. I knew I could go back to my rooms and she might visit my dreams. But that wasn’t enough. Cybilla was out in the real world. I needed to see here there. I walked the empty streets in the hour when the first rays of daylight broke through the gate of darkness. I flipped a coin into the water as I passed the fountain but I made no wish, I just continued to walk. There was a splash behind me; water hit my back and I spun. “You didn’t make a wish.” There she sat on the edge of the basin running her fingers through the water. “I have only one desire. Is it madness to wish for something that is only a dream?” I asked as stood before her, gazing down into eyes like the sea. “Perhaps.” “Are you only a dream, Cybilla? Am I dreaming this or are you here in the flesh?” “I am here, Oren. But just because you aren’t asleep does not mean it’s not a dream.” “Why are you here?” “You called my name. You called me into the world of men. But I can’t stay.” “You can come if I call for you, but you can’t stay with me?” She nodded. She rose from her seat and ran her hand over my cheek. “It is different touching you in the flesh, feeling the warmth.” I swept my fingers through the dark hair at her forehead, then I wrapped my arms around her and kissed her. All the times she’d come to me, I could feel the passion, but my dreams lacked the whole of the sensory pleasures. Here, as the day slowly broke over us, I could taste the honey sweetness of her mouth. I could smell the freshness of her skin. There was heat where her body pressed against mine that was more than just proximity, it was destiny. Cybilla’s arms were tight around me as she whispered in my ear, “do you know what I am, Oren?” “I do, but I want to hear you tell me.” “I’m a muse, my love,” she said dropping her eyes and releasing me from her arms. I took her hand and we walked. “Do you love me, Cybilla?” “More than I have loved anything in this world.” “But I have asked for your name for so long. If calling your name could bring you to me, why would you never tell me?” “Look at me, Oren, really look at me. What do you see?” “I see the only woman I have ever loved.” “Yes, I know that, but you see a woman. This is what I will always look like, what I have always looked like. I could not come to you as the boy you were like this. In a dream, I can be whatever I wish to be. I could grow up alongside you. But then it had been so long I did not know how to tell you without causing one of us pain.” “Pain?” “When I told you that you could call me to this world, but I could not stay, did you ache?” “Yes.” “If I told you that and you did not call, I would ache. When I hear your music I long for you. When you read the story and feel what it meant, I feel your longing, your passion. I want only you, Oren. If you denied me...” “I could never deny you,” I said as I looked up at the orange disc broaching the horizon. And just like that she was gone. V: My journey began with the fountain. It is said in Rome that if you throw a coin into a fountain you are assured a return trip. I hoped there was some truth in that legend. Honestly, I had no idea what was going to happen. Part of me wished I could just throw my coin and wish and Cybilla would be mine. Of course, if it were that easy there would never have been the preceding failures that made her mine. ... I stood at the fountain in Piazza Santa Maria looking into the water for a long time. The sky was still dark and I needed to wait until the gate between night and day was opened, that was when reality and mystery merged. I set my backpack down and fished one of the coins from the pocket. I sat absently flipping it between my fingers as a small bubbling sound came from the water and the small distraction drew my attention to the first glimmer of light to the east. The coin was tight in my hand as I rose, then I pressed it to my lips and asked the Nymph of the Eternal Water to come to me as I tossed it toward the water. A graceful hand reached from beneath the surface and snatched the coin before it hit the water. There was a light giggle. I looked over the edge and two delicate faces peered back at me. The first sprang boldly from the water. “That is an old trinket you’ve given, your request must be great,” she said holding the coin in her long-fingered hand. The second slid to sitting on the edge of the basin as the first rays of sunshine caught her golden hair. “I’ve declared my intention to claim my muse.” “That is folly!” the one on the wall laughed. “Quiet, Kira!” The other gasped. “Do not discourage him, his heart is pure.” She looked at me then and asked, “why have you come to this place?” “The one I seek sat upon this basin many years ago in this time. I thought this spring might be a gateway.” “He is clever, Dia” the one called Kira said. “You seek Cybilla.” Dia reached up and placed her hand upon my chest. She smiled at me. “Yes, this place is a gateway, it is not the one you seek.” “Can you tell me where I must go?” I asked. “What do you offer in return?” Kira asked. “He has already paid a great price, he owes nothing more for our help.” “But you have got a prize and I have nothing!” Kira sulked. She stood and spoke to me directly. “Would you give me your heart?” I dropped to my knee before her. “My Lady, I cannot. My heart is already given and that is why I am on this quest. I would give anything else you ask of me.” “There is a jewel you carry...” “Kira!” Dia exclaimed again. I intended to give the ring to Cybilla, but without the goodwill of the Nymphs, I might never reach her so I dug the ring from my bag and held it out to her. Kira laughed with delight as she slid it onto her long finger, held her hand up in the air and twirled around. “The gate you seek is hard to find, most do not have the courage to look where you must look. You must find the God of Gates and Doors. He must favor the beginning of your journey. Find him on the first of March, that day is a portal itself.” The sun had completely crested the horizon, so I knew my time was growing short. “Singer of love songs, would you play for us before you go?” Kira asked as she sat upon the edge of the fountain once again and slid gracefully into the water. I took the flute from my bag, sat upon the ledge and played the only song I’d learned, the only music my heart wished to make. Lovely Nymphs danced in the cool waters as the sun burst forth and the gateway to night closed. But as Kira slid beneath the surface and back to the sacred spring, Dia pushed herself up to the edge of the basin and spoke softly to me. “You paid dearly, Oren Gale, so I will give you a gift. You seek the Arch of Janus. Find him on the first of March at the time you came here today.” She kissed my cheek. “May the waters always be your friend,” she whispered. “How did you know my name?” She laughed as she slid back to the water. “All the worlds know your name.” And she was gone. VI: I was impatient, but I could not let that show. Ten days was a long time to wait when one has started out on a journey. But I had waited so many years already that I could not let restlessness jeopardize my mission. I wandered about the city as I squandered my days away and at night I tried to learn what would await me at the Arch. ... I made my way in the dark. I’d already traveled the road a number of times just to be certain I knew the way, but moving in the darkness was different, more sinister. There was a foreboding that I hadn’t felt as I approached the fountain, but I also hadn’t gone to the fountain thinking I would meet a God. Nerves were getting the best of me so I sat and took my guitar from its case and lost myself to the sound of the chords and the feel of the vibration beneath my fingers. When at last I damped the strings an older gentleman stood leaning against the uneven reliefs on the wall. He pulled a long drag on the thin cigarette between his fingers, flicked it away then clapped. “Nice piece,” he said gruffly, “you write it?” “Yes, Sir, I did.” He nodded. “That why you’re standing at this place on the day when the world shifts?” “Yes. I came to find Janus, the God of Gates and Doors.” “Ah, is that what they called me? I can hardly keep my designations straight these days,” he chuckled wryly. “So what kind of gate are you looking for, Son? City gate? The Garden variety? The kind that keep kids out of your business? Or is it a door? Front door? Back door? Just don’t do this ridiculous thing here when you make an arched door,” he said waving his hand in the air above his head. “You know how hard it is to make a door to fit an arch?” he huffed. “Well, come along, we can talk about what you need when the sun greets us on the other side.” He turned to walk away through the arch, but he was still looking at me, only with different eyes. “What do you ask for payment?” I asked him. This second face smiled kindly. “I ask nothing,” this softer, musical voice answered. “The daughters of the water took plenty, Oren Gale. Ask me your questions before the sun’s face is full in the sky and I will answer what I can.” “I seek a gateway. I have declared my intention to claim muse, but I do not know how to find the place of judgment.” “I see. There have been others seeking what you seek. Only one that I know of has ever had the courage to endure. He sought that place as well. There are many gates, Son. I tell you as I told him there is not simply one through which the Mother will come. You must understand exactly what you are asking and know exactly what outcome would satisfy your quest. If you do not hold the answers firmly in your heart you have already failed.” “I know what it is I want, my lord. I want Cybilla. I want to claim her for my own and bring her back into this mortal world with me. There is no task I will not attempt to that end.” “Then you are stronger than most men.” “Why do say that?” He reached out and placed his hand on my chest. “Your heart is greater than your pride. You must seek Carmenta. You must hear the oracle from the mouth of the sibyl. The voice of the Goddess will tell you what to do.” He looked out to the east. “The great flame of the heavens is nearly above the horizon, if you have other questions, ask quickly.” “Why was this date important?” “Ah, if you wish to go to war, you must wait until the military season is open,” he smiled, then he began to turn away, back toward the arch. “Wait, the other man, did he find the gate? Was he worthy? Did he get his muse?” “He did not fail, but whether he got what he wanted only he can say. In the end, he was offered a choice and he made his decision.” Janus started back through the arch and the eyes that first noticed me looked upon me again as I followed him through. He lit his thin cigarette and took a long slow drag as I knelt and rummaged through my bag. I stayed upon my knees as I extended my offering to him. “What’s this then, Son?” “It is the door to time.” He flicked open the cover and looked at the watch. He chuckled wryly. “Well done, Oren Gale! I accept.” It was that moment the sun’s bright morning rays caught the pale stone briefly blinding me where I knelt. I blinked the brightness from my eyes and sought Janus again, but he was not to be found. VII: Cybilla came to my shows many, many times in the four years after I called her name. It was probably the music that drew her more than it was me, though she denied that. We would walk in the moonlight. We did not hide away, but I was never completely sure if I was the only one who saw her. Beauty such as she possessed should have caused others to stop in their tracks, mouths agape and yet their eyes seemed to slide past her. Always she wanted to touch me, to feel that warmth between us and I imagined that the life she knew must be cold if she needed my touch as she did. But my life was cold when she was not in it so maybe we just needed each other. Never did a night pass that I did not profess my love for her but as the years went by hearing the words from her became a rarity. I asked her why she stopped saying the words and she admitted through her tears that she thought the time was coming when I would want to forget her. She thought I would want a wife and family, but I told her I could only want those things if I could have them with her. It was then she told me that one man had claimed his muse. And she stubbornly refused to ever speak of it again. ... So how does a man find an Oracle? There was a time in history when such a quest was common and finding such a place was only as difficult as listening to the tales of the heroes. Modern day heroes were much harder to find, so it was a play that set me on my path. The words of the bards and thespians tend to be rooted in history and then wrapped in mythology and tied with a pretty ribbon of fiction, but it was the root I was looking for. I traveled south. There is lake made in the crater of a volcano, surrounded by a fertile grove. Lago d’Averno, a doorway to the center of the world enclosed by the Garden of Eden. I spent the night camped upon the bank. Though it was cold on my journey, this secluded place was warm and sleep took me easily. I dreamt of a woman walking along the banks. Her hair was long and dark but elaborately braided and the long twist of it hung down her back. She wore a white dress that shimmered like the moonlight above and only just showed her bare feet. She turned toward me just a fraction showing her profile and my mind called out for Cybilla. I woke with a start. It had been more than a month since my journey began and I ached for her though I knew she would not return to me. The darkness was still thick in the sky, but I needed comfort. I took the flute from my bag and played as softly as the wind. Light laughing came form the direction of the water and I could see the Nymphs frolic out under the setting moon. But the Lady I sought was not in sight. Again I lay my head upon the ground, I did not think rest would find me again, but it must have. There came a small push at my shoulder. “You must wake now, Oren Gale, the Lady has come to the lake!” she whispered urgently. I opened my eyes to see Dia kneeling beside me. “You help me even here?” “I have felt your heart, and you have given us music,” she answered, delicately stroking the flute. “You may have it, take it as my thanks to you. I hope the next man who plays it will have only you in his heart.” She lifted it and pressed it tight to her. “Do you think there is such a man out there? Do you think there is a man like you who would call for me?” I reached out and stroked her cheek. “If I live to make a life beyond this journey, I will write your name into song. I will tell the one who hears it what he must do.” “You must see the Lady now. Your words are a gift beyond any price I could dream of asking.” She pressed her fingers to her lips and blew her kiss to me as she disappeared into the dark water. And there in the distance, with the sun’s first rays behind her was the Lady Carmenta, the voice of the Goddess. I approached her slowly. So like Cybilla was she that tears leaked from my eyes as they looked upon her. “I have heard your name, Oren Gale. All the world beyond seems to be speaking of you.” “How can this be?” I asked. “How can you be so alike that my eyes are fooled but my heart is not?” She turned and stepped close to me. She took my face into her hands and looked deep into my eyes, so deep she seemed to look directly into my memories. Then she slid her hand down and pressed it to my heart. Words my mind could not seem to translate whispered within me until the moment she pulled away. But she looked away out toward the water and brushed heavy tears from her eyes. “It is my daughter you seek. I, Carmenta, wife of Mercury, mother of Evander, founder of the letters of Roma, bore just one daughter. The greatest love of my heart. Oh, but how could she not be what she, is given her lineage? I, speaker of the oracle, her father, carrier of dreams, it was clear from the moment she breathed with life that she was a muse,” the Lady sniffed. “And I hid her. I hid my darling child beneath my skirts so the Mother might overlook what was plain to see. I kept her close to me at all times always hoping she might escape that life of torment where love can never be fulfilled.” “My Lady, I did not know.” “You could not know, Oren Gale. For I was punished harshly. The Oracle was one day meant for me and the Mother claimed my beloved and chastised my desire to keep her for my own. Cybilla was cleansed in the pure spring where her memory was washed away and my love long forgotten. While my son went on to fame and power, even in mortality, my only daughter has been made to live an eternal half-life, and I have not seen her face since the day she was torn from my own arms.” I knew what I must offer her. My heart would be heavy with loss, but she bore that loss as well. I took the picture from my bag carefully. I stroked the lines of her face and brushed the hair from her brow one last time and then I made my offering to the Sibyl. “This is she, My Lady. This is Cybilla.” Carmenta took the picture in her hands, tears of loss and joy and thanks fell all at once as she looked upon the face we both treasured. “She is beautiful.” “As beautiful as the one who bore her.” She looked at me and then into me it seemed. Some judgment was made, and she said: “Give me silence and I shall listen to the words of the Goddess and tell you plainly what they mean.” Carmenta closed her eyes and swayed a bit in the gentle breeze that danced through the early hour. The sun was peering over the rim of the crater and I knew my time must be getting short. But a man cannot rush the words of a Goddess, so I breathed deeply, pushing away the anxiousness. At last she walked away from me, but she returned quickly carrying a small basin. “Kneel, Oren Gale,” she commanded as she dipped the basin into the dark water. “You must find the one who has made his way through the gate. A man of Genoese blood, a troubadour, who left behind a life of plenty to go where the chords live longer than any other place in this world.” She poured the water over my head and ran her gentle fingers through my wet hair. “I give you the protection of the lake, for the gift you have given me is far greater than the words I have to offer in return. Fill your flask here and carry the fertile water with you. Drink only sparingly, if your need is great, as the water in this place is the blood of the earth, that from which all life sprung. “My Lady, how do I find a man who has gone beyond this temporal world?” “The same way you have found each of us. You must find his gate.” She bid me to stand and again she ran her hand over my cheek and down to my heart. Words sprang to my mind; a memory drawn back so vividly that I could see every detail as I heard the brief words: “Do you love me, Cybilla?” “More than I have loved anything in this world.” Carmenta took her hand away slowly, the melancholy upon her face was clear. “Love her with all you are, Oren Gale.” “I have loved her that much since the moment she first came to my dream. I feel the pain of every day she is not with me.” “Sweet Mercury, please grant him the peace of Morpheus’ dream once more, here in this sacred place!” she called out to the sky, her arms spread wide in the face of the morning sun. Then she kissed my forehead. I must have crumpled to the ground. Sleep took me instantly, but whether it was Carmenta’s kiss or fleet Mercury sending me to my dream I did not know. I relived that first night; the night Cybilla lay across my bed. The night I first leaned into her touch. The night she first called me ‘My Love’. I could still hear the echo of the music in my mind. The sun was already red with the waning of day when at last I woke. For a moment I feared that loss of time. Had it just been one day or had a slept a lifetime in this sacred place? But the answer did not matter because which ever it was, it was the will of the Goddess. And my journey still awaited me. I filled my flask as Carmenta instructed, I whispered my thanks and I walked on. VIII: I found a place to stay and rest that night. But as I lay in bed I tossed and turned. For the first time, I felt the vile fear of failure. I wondered at the cruelty of this Mother Goddess who would take a child from her mother’s arms and wash away the love that was. What chance had the love of a mortal man’s heart against the will of such a goddess? I had to quash those thought immediately so they would not be branded in my heart. I told myself that the power of love was the greatest of force in all of creation. My love was for Cybilla alone and nothing was going to discourage me from this task. ... It was many weeks of research before I found my answer. I think it was the name that tricked me the most. The Oracle said I needed to find a man of Genoese blood, and a place where chords lived. I was expecting an amphitheater or at least a theater of some sort. I thought this task might even take me into Greece as theater was so important to that culture. My research found ninety-six amphitheaters in Italy alone, and that was not the entirety of the list of theaters built by the Roman Empire. There were an additional eighty Greek theaters significant enough to warrant a look. I cross referenced them with fountains and sacred springs, whittling my list. I researched renowned troubadours and tried to place them at the theaters that made my list. There was failure after failure. But in researching troubadours, one name kept coming back to my list: Folquet de Marselha. I pushed him aside. He was quite obviously a man of Marseille, France, but his popularity as a singer of love songs kept pushing him back into my view. At last frustration got the better of me. I needed a break from my notes and the noise in my mind so I looked up this Frenchman just to see what made him so popular. Imagine my surprise when the very first bit of information I found was that he was the son of a Genoese merchant. I probably should have known by the Oracle’s use of the word troubadour that the one I sought was French, after all she did not say raphsodist or virtuoso. Yes, certainly the hand of the Otherworld was as work here. I began to laugh out loud as I read it, and the stern librarian reprimanded me. I took in this short biography eagerly. He’d lived a life of luxury and popularity. He’d had promiscuous affairs and sired sons. Until one day he abruptly gave up all he had and became a monk. In my mind, this transformation could only be the beginning of his quest for his muse. His story led to the place of his seclusion: Le Thoronet Abbey, a place so austere it was made of just three elements, earth, water and light. It was a place of absolute purity and commune with nature. It was also home to an ancient spring. So while this place may have been made in the name of a Saint, it was most assuredly a gateway to The Goddess. And that as where I had to go. My journey to Var en Provence was far longer than I’d expected. The days were growing quite warm as the month of May marched on. I could have traveled more quickly, maybe rented a car or sought out a train, but this seemed like a journey that needed to be made on the land, naturally, I guess. I suppose that sounds silly or superstitious, but claiming my muse seemed to have a lot to do with knowing myself and I’d never lived in any sort of hardship conditions, so knowing what I was capable of was a reward in itself. Le Thoronet had become a museum, so the form of learning associated with the place had changed a bit. I stood at the entrance awaiting my chance to go inside. I was directed by a sign and a donation box that my charity was appreciated. I dug one of the coins from my bag again hoping the currency of the ancients would be acceptable payment. The structures themselves were simple and unadorned and yet grand in what it must have taken to build such a place without modern machines. The stonework, the arches, the clever plumbing, were all remarkable achievements for their time. But while there were many things to marvel over in this place, I had to find the fountain. Unlike every other site upon my journey, I could not access the grounds to this place in the pre-dawn hours. I could not be at the fountain as the sun rose. My plan now was to be there as the sun set. I assumed that a gate from day into night worked roughly the same way as its opposite, but it was more complicated as there was not as much privacy; the light was dimming so instead of making my meeting with the cover of darkness, I had to be wary of watching eyes and frankly, I did not know if he would come. The fountain was a simple structure. There was an arch in the wall, a small pool and a simple pedestal basin at the center. My desire to run my fingers through the water was very strong, but I did not want to be disrespectful so I sat and waited. I took the manuscript from my bag and I read. If only you could have seen her. My heart ached. Like Gallagher, I made my vow and Cybilla was lost to me unless I could find a way to convince The Mother that I was worthy of her. Or maybe that wasn’t what I needed to convince her of at all. Maybe it was a test of strength or will. Perhaps she would simply look upon me and make a judgment, but still I had to find the way to speak to the Goddess and I hoped this Abbot, this troubadour, singer of love songs would be able to tell me how he did it. The sun had begun its slow descent, but it moved more slowly than I had ever seen. I took my guitar from its case and let my mind get lost in the music for a while. Without realizing what I was doing, I closed my eyes and sang. “Well, even if I had not been expecting you, hearing that song I would have known why you were here.” I startled. There beside me sat a man of middle years, perhaps fifty-five. He wore loose fitting black pants and a simple ivory shirt in the style one might imagine a poet of old to wear, with ties at the cuffs. His hair was silvered at his temples, but his eyes shown with an eternal light. So though I’d seen no pictures, I was certain this was the man I sought. “You were expecting me?” “Oh yes, Oren Gale. From the moment you sang your intention I knew you would seek me.” “So it is true then, Sir, that you are the one man who completed the task.” “You may call me Folquet or Foy, that is what she calls me.” “Would you share your story with me?” I asked him. He smiled. “Would you give me yours?” he asked indicating the manuscript still sitting beside me. I gingerly lifted the papers. It might have seemed like I did not want to give them away, and in my heart, I knew that I did not want to while I also knew that I must. But the truth was that I was afraid they would not be sufficient payment since I did not write the words. I held the story out to him and told him honestly that the work was not mine, but how I came to possess it and why it was so meaningful to me. “You still give me something that has great meaning to you.” He looked around and then back toward the fountain. “Perhaps we should not speak so close to the gate. Come, there are many things here that are quite interesting to see.” He walked casually in the dim light as though he would know this place even blind. “Do you need to go back through the gate before night falls?” “No. I am not the same as they are so I can walk this realm as I wish. The crossings are easiest at the dawn and dusk, but not impossible at other times. Well, at least not for me. I think, though, that I shall stay until the dawn. Did you know that a single note played in the church here can last up to three minutes? Come, you should hear it. It can be either perfection or chaos, like Heaven or the underworld,” he smiled. I followed along in his confident wake. “May I ask you something, Folquet?” “Anything,” he said. “Don’t hesitate.” “Well, I know what it is I want to know, I’m just not sure how to ask the question.” “Plainly would be best. Monks are very simple people.” “Are you immortal?” “Have you seen accounts of my death?” he grinned. “No, not your death, but only that your grave is near Toulouse.” He took a pitch pipe from his pocket, pushed open a large unadorned door. His eyes swept the small church and the pride showed upon his face. “Remarkable, isn’t it.” Even the soft words echoed and reverberated back upon us. “Yes. The simplicity itself is art.” “Ah, pleasing to the eye for sure, but listen!” he said as he breathed into the pipe and hung a single note in the air for so long it’s vibration was nearly visible.” “Remarkable.” He inhaled in deeply and sang out a stanza of a canto in a dialect of French I couldn’t decipher, but could feel in both the depth of the notes and the emotion. His voice was strong and deep, his words slow. We both listened to the last notes linger and fade then he motioned for me to try. While I was accustomed to singing in front of an audience and in an acoustically sound studio, nothing could have prepared me for the sound of my own voice in this place of God. My song for Cybilla was alive and every bit of my wished she could hear it. At last the sound died away and we left that place in its sacred silence. “I am, as you said, immortal, Oren Gale,” he started. “You know what I miss the most? The bread. Every morning the sun rose and the aroma of the hearth bread greeted me. That’s the thing I miss.” We entered a small room that had clearly been made into some sort of employee lounge for the people who took care of the museum. “I was not like you. I would not say I was good man. I lived a luxurious youth, my father was a wealthy man and I was a privileged son. I traveled and sang, and sometimes my romantic words landed me in the beds of ladies above my station, occasionally they were married. Then one day I saw a painting in a Lord’s house of a woman so beautiful I felt I had to write about her. Many days I sat in seclusion in a small grove practicing the lyrics, the cadences, the pitches. Until the day I thought I had it perfected. The sun was setting and the sky burned with clouds streaked like flames, but I closed my eyes and sang. I felt every word in my heart, and though I had been a singer of cantatas amorosos for many years, none had such impact on me. I opened my eyes and there she was.” “Your muse.” “No. My Goddess. I devoted myself to her. Like you, I knew I would have to sacrifice things I held dear, but it was more than that, I had to understand her world. I had to understand her place in it. I had to be one with nature. This place gave me that chance. But you see, I couldn’t bring her into this world. She could never live a mortal life. So when the gate opened...” “She brought you to her,” I finished. “What was your task?” “My task was simply knowing with all my heart what I wanted. But then I had to be worthy of her, I had to cleanse myself of my past life and I had to serve the Earth, serve mankind in someway. For me it was a penance,” he said, reaching out and putting his hand over my heart. “I don’t think it will be the same for you. You already know with conviction what it is you want and that has made your journey quite short. What remains is finding your gate.” “Do you know where the gate is?” I asked him eagerly. Folquet sighed. “I know where my gate is, Oren. I can tell you where of need to go from here, and when you should be there, but your gate is yours alone to find. Perhaps you should rest a while. I will wake you before I leave and you can ask me your final questions.” “May I ask you one more thing before I sleep? What was it like when your gate opened?” “It was like the sun burst forth and enveloped me. It was remarkable!” It seemed like just moments before there was a nudging at my shoulder and Folquet’s deep voice in my ear. “The dawn is nearly here, Oren. You need to go to the place where purity and virtue were prized and the sacred fire burned perpetually. It is at the altar of hearth and family that you must be prepared for your final task. Be there on the seventh day of June.” He strode away purposely. My mind was still pondering his words when I realized he was about to leave, to go through the gate. I raced down the corridor behind him. “Folquet! A moment, Please!” He turned his head and smiled, he motioned me forward, but continued walking. “I didn’t even thank you for your help. Is there anything...” “You paid a high price to enter this place. You gave me the story of your heart and you shared the music of your soul. There is nothing else that can match the value of what you have already given. Make haste now. The days are few. The sun came over the horizon brighter than any sun had ever been. Folquet seemed to walk straight into the heart of it. IX: Exhaustion caught up with me shortly after I left the Abbey. I stopped for a meal, but the full stomach made my longing for rest that much worse. There was no choice but to take a room for the night. Alas, the comfort of a bed did not make sleep come easily. I still did not know where my journey was heading and I had a definite date of arrival that was less than two weeks away. My work had to be done quickly. I lay alone. My heart longed for Cybilla as my mind contemplated my situation. Here I was in a modern hotel where I would pay whatever price they asked for the convenience of the Internet, when just hours ago I stood in an Abbey built more than eight hundred years ago, speaking to a man who reportedly passed away just after The Peace of Paris ended the Crusades. The Crusades! I don’t know what I expected at the outset of my quest, but I was presently living between two worlds, or in some sort of window where the past and present, no, that is not really the right description, maybe the physical and the supernatural interacted. I wondered if the lines of demarcation in time were so pronounced when Folquet began his journey. ... I had hoped that this next task was going to take me to Aix-en-Provence. I knew there was a sacred spring there where a great battle was fought by the Romans. Many myths surrounded that place, and my spirits were high because the distance was short. Oh hope, you are a fragile thing. My research said I was going back to Rome. I had to be in the Temple of Vesta on the first day of Vestalia when the sacrifices were accepted. I wondered what I would have to give. What gift could I give the Goddess of Hearth and Family, the Mother Goddess, that would be worthy of what I asked in return? There was no time to worry about it. I had covered that distance to get to Le Thoronet, and I knew for certain it would take eight days of walking without stopping for any rest to get back to Rome. Eating, sleeping or any mishap at all would put me off my schedule. I had to find another way. I sat at a table outside a cafe looking over my map. I could rent a car and drive, but it seemed like cheating. I could catch a ferry. Somehow that seemed a little better, but I still felt like this was part of the test, like taking the easy trip would get me there, but be my downfall. Right there I decided I would travel to Toulon. It was only 36 miles, I could be there in less than two days. From Toulon I had more options. So I began to walk. The weather was pleasant which kept my spirits up, but my heart seemed to be racing all the time. Toulon was a busier city than I had been anticipating. I guess I just had some idea in my head that cities on the coast were more laid back, probably because vacations to the coast were relaxing. But this was a busy port. The crowds were thick and somehow smothering. Before I knew what was happening some young thief had a hold of my guitar case. He took his knife and slit the strap along with a good bit of the skin along my arm, and he ran off as I stood bleeding. I was stunned watching him disappear into the crowd as the blood oozed through the fingers I clamped over my wound. I sat down on the curb, took my spare t-shirt and tore a strip of the cotton to wrap around the gash. I used just a few drops of the water from my flask to rinse the area as I made use of the makeshift bandage then I wiped my hands clean on the remains of the shirt. I looked off in the direction my attacker had gone, but the world had swallowed him and my guitar along with him. I sighed. An older man sat beside me. He was speaking to me in French, which was not a language I had any working knowledge of. I was American by birth, but spent very little of my life there due to my father’s military obligations. I spoke German and some Japanese, thanks to the United States Air Force. I lived and recorded my music outside of London. But I learned Italian because Italy was the place that I escaped to, the place I spent the majority of my time when I was not working, or I guess I should say when I was writing music and needed my muse. Italy was the place Cybilla loved, the place she was real in the world of men, and that alone was reason for me to love it. Still, French was completely foreign, and I probably sat there looking at the gentleman beside me blankly. He pursed his lips and gave me a good looking over. “Speak English?” he said at last. “English or Italian, Sir.” He cleared his throat noisily. “English, then,” he rumbled. “Is your arm alright?” “Yes, it’s just a shallow cut.” “Ah, so the ache is for the thing he took, then?” I smiled a little. “Yes. It’s a funny thing, had he asked me for it, I would have given it without hesitation, but losing it like that, pointlessly, hurts me.” “Do not think of his action as pointless. A man must have great need to be so desperate.” I nodded. “You have some need as well,” he started, but his words were interrupted by a bout of coughing, thick with phlegm. He was struggling to catch his breath. I pulled the flask from my jacket, “take small sips, the water is very cold.” He recovered himself quickly, looked at the flask for a moment and handed it back to me. “Where are you going, Son?” he asked as he pressed his hand to my chest. “Rome. I must be there before June seventh. I was hoping I could find a boat going that way and buy passage.” “Eh, do not buy,” he said waving his hand in the air as though he shooed my words away. “You are young and healthy, you can work as a deck hand. I know a boat leaving for Civitavecchia this day. You want I should bring you to it?” The odd phrasing made me smile, but hopefully he thought it was a grateful smile as I eagerly accepted his offer. The walk was short. For a man who could barely breathe a short while ago, his pace was quick. The boat was very old, but meticulously, fastidiously restored. The woodwork must have taken thousands of hours to carve. I stood admiring her beauty as my companion climbed aboard. “Armon?” he called, and a man very close to my age came to the deck and greeted him kindly. They spoke in French, so much of the conversation was lost to my ear, but Armon said something like, ‘you found him, the one we waited for?’ to which my companion simply answered ‘yes’. They came back to the dock and spoke to me. Armon was sailing the boat back to its owner now that the renovation was completed. I could not imagine how it would hurt to hand over something that you put your sweat and blood into, but perhaps it was not the first, nor the last and he’d become immune to the beauty and the loss. Or perhaps he did not feel loss giving such beauty back to the world. He said the trip would take five days on this boat, but the work would be difficult because no modern navigation was added to the restoration. We would be sailing her exactly as she had been sailed hundreds of years ago: navigating by the stars and praying for good winds. Yes, this was the route my journey was meant to take. As we made to set sail, I asked Armon what the price was, but he refused my money. He said I had already paid his uncle. I told him I had not given any money. And he said he knew that, but what was given and my hand in help was all he needed. We loosed the ropes that held her to the dock. The old man stood and watched as we began to drift away. Then he raised his hand and called out; “May the water always be your friend, Oren Gale!” And I knew that Dia sent him for me. X: The day came at last. Every beat of my heart felt like a fist pounding upon a door. I was showered and clean shaven. I told myself I wanted to look decent when Cybilla came to me. I did not want to think about what it was going to take to get to that moment or the possibility that the moment I was living for might not happen. I did not want to think about dying. ... The sky was still so dark it seemed like someone had thrown a cloak over the city and hid it away from all light. The air was humid and still; no whisper of breeze stirred the leaves or whistled through the empty streets. I entered the Forum near the Arch of Titus and sat to wait on the steps of the Temple of Antonio and Faustina. I couldn’t say why I was waiting. The day was here, I could have gone and sat on the steps of the Temple of Vesta, but something inside told me to wait for the fire in the east. I was humming the tune that I surely would have been playing on my guitar had I still had it. My heart seemed to calm just thinking about the music. And at last I saw that first glimmer of light break through the darkness. My body began moving almost before my eyes registered it. There upon the temple steps stood a young woman modestly dressed in white. Her long hair was tied back, her hands were folded in front of her, and she seemed to be waiting for me. “The fire is lit, Pontifex, you should pay your tithe and go make your offering,” she said. “What does that mean, Pontifex?” I asked. “You are the bridge builder, are you not? You have come to open the way between the Gods and the Earth, have you not, Oren Gale?” “Yes, I have, my lady.” “Then you should pay your tithe, and go place your offering of water by the fire. Be mindful, the vessel must keep the water from touching the earth.” I pressed the last of the antique coins into her hand, bowed my head in respect and made my way up the stairs. An unearthly fire burned at the center of the temple. Colors not usually associated with flame flickered at it’s heart. The heat was intense, but I knelt before it. I took the flask from my pocket and looked at the engraving that covered the silver surface: lotus blossoms, of course, the symbol of purity, flower of the water. I gently set the flask at the edge of the fire and prayed that the goddess accept my offering. It was only a moment before the fire began to change. It rose to a great height under the dome of the temple, engulfing all of the dias upon which it burned. The colors twisted and churned until at last they burst into pure white light and from them walked The Mother herself, the Goddess Vesta. I knelt before her, my head bowed in supplication. “Holy Mother, I do not know how to properly address you to show my respect.” She laughed lightly. The sound was music to my ears, and my heart felt joy. “I have been known by many names; Vesta, Gaia, Nut, Nertha, Terra Mater, you may call me any of those or Mother is fine. Rise Oren Gale, let me see the man who stands as Pontifex before me.” I rose to my feet before her and we stood in silent judgment until at last she smiled. “Say your thought aloud. Let me hear it in your own voice!” “Forgive me, my lady, I was thinking it was no wonder Folquet changed his life. It is not just your beauty, but your voice is music.” “And it is no wonder Cybilla longs for you. I think in the world of men, there are very few like you.” “What task do you ask of me? What can I give that is worthy of what I ask in return?” I asked. She held up her hand. “There are no more tasks, Oren Gale. You have passed every gate that stood in your way.” “But I don’t understand. I did not do anything.” She stepped close to me and placed her hand upon my cheek. “There is almost always something a man is unwilling to give, be it his pride, his tears or his life. You gave Kira your past, your family heirloom. You gave Janus joy. You gave Carmenta your greatest treasure, your memory. You gave Foy passion. You gave Dia perhaps the most important gift, your hope. You had your future stolen from you, but instead of bitterness or anger you turned around and shared the water of life with a stranger. And each of them left their mark upon the gate. The last task is yours. Do you know where the gate is?” I thought about her words. Each of them left their mark upon the gate. Each of them touched my heart, the place I carried Cybilla with me always. I was the gate, the gate was my heart. “Yes, Mother, I know where the gate is. How do I open it?” “We open it here, together. Are you ready then?” I refused to feel fear, when joy was so close. “Yes, I am ready.” Vesta placed her hand upon my heart and the unnatural fire that burned when I arrived grew between us. I felt the heat, but it did not burn me. Then at last the white light burst from the flame. “Call her now, Oren Gale, call her to you.” The whiteness burned inside me like my soul was aflame. “Cybilla!” I called out in agony. “Cybilla, please come to me!” I could not maintain this gate long. I began to sing my words of love, the words that comforted my heart, but it was not enough. I fell to the ground. “No!” Cybilla screamed. I could hear her beside me. I succeeded only to die in her arms. “He passed all of your tests! Why did you do this?” Cybilla cried out. “I did not do this, Child. This was not the way it was supposed to happen.” “Where is his flask? Were is the water from my mother?” “It is still in the flame.” Cybilla lay my head down gently. I heard her cry out in agony, but she returned a moment later. I felt her fingers on my face as she tipped the flask between my lips. “Oh swallow, Oren, please! You must do this! Do not leave me here alone!” I felt the cold water in my mouth, but I do not know if I swallowed it. I do know I could feel the life return to my body. Cybilla had her hand on my heart. I slid mine over hers. She gasped and she began to cry. “Oren, I missed you. I was so afraid you would never come. I love you, don’t leave me.” “I will never leave you.” I whispered as I opened my eyes and looked at her. There she was, my heart, my soul, my song. I pushed myself to sitting and gazed at her. It was hard to tear my eyes from her perfect face, but as I reached out to sweep the hair from her forehead, I noticed the angry red marks on her hand. “You reached into the fire?” “You needed the water.” “Come to me, Cybilla,” The Mother called. We both rose. Cybilla stepped forward. The Mother took Cybilla’s injured hand and gently ran her own hand over it. “You risked yourself to save him. Your task is completed. Oren, give me the flask.” It was nearly empty, but I handed it her as she asked. She poured the last drops over Cybilla’s hand and closed it between her own. Cybilla flinched, but her hand was perfect once again. “Go now. Live.” “Thank you, Great Mother,” Cybilla said as she took my hand and held it tight. “One last thing, Oren Gale. You made a promise to another. She desperately wants what you and Cybilla have found. Write your song. It shall be what the story was for you and when that man plays the flute for her, she will be released to the world of men.” “You have my promise, my lady.” Vesta stepped back onto the platform where the fire burned. The flames rose and the colors swirled until they burst into white light and the gate opened once again. For a moment I could see Folquet waiting for her on the other side. And the gate closed. “Come, my love,” I told her, “let’s go home.” She was still with me in the morning. * * * “I’ve heard that one before.” “I know. I’m sorry. When you changed your mind, I panicked. I didn’t have another story ready to tell.” “It’s a good story, a nice story. Love worth dying for is romantic.” “Yes, it is.” “Would you have done that for me?” “Of course. I would collect all the stars from the sky for you to wear on a chain if that was what you wanted.” “That is impossible!” she laughed. “Nothing is impossible.” “So what happened next? Did Oren write a song for Dia? Did she find true love too?” “Oren was a man of his word, of course he wrote the song.” “Will you tell me the story?” “Is that what you want next?” “Yes.” “As you wish.” * * * Mare da Sogno (Sea of Dreams) UN: “Papa, what is that song about? Why do you always sing that when we prepare the boat?” My father laughed. “You should learn more Italian, Sebastien.” “I can’t, Papa!” I whined. “They make us learn English in school and it’s so hard. I can’t learn another language. Anyway, Mama didn’t speak Italian.” “Well, Mama was French, but you are French and Italian. I should teach you. Now that Mama is gone, we may be in Italy more of the time.” “You want to leave here?” I gasped. “But what about Uncle Phillipe and Adrienne?” “We’ll still see them, but we can’t live with them forever, Son. We will have to move on.” I was eleven then. I did not want to think about moving away, not so soon after Mama died. I sat sullen and quiet for a good while as my father worked. But the busier his hands were, the less he noticed me and once I was forgotten, he began to whistle again. The same song, the one that started the whole terrible conversation. “Can you just tell me about the song?” I asked him again. “It’s about a Nymph, one of the Daughters of the Eternal Water who longed to find love and fell in love with a man.” “A Nymph? There is no such thing!” I laughed. But my father was serious when he answered me. “There are many mysteries in this world Bastien. Never mock the old ways. People forget their Gods, but that does not make the Gods go away. The waters can be cruel, but I sing this song and the Nymphs see me home safely.” I remember leaning against the fish barrels watching him work. I did not rebut him, but I didn’t believe him either because if there were Gods, why did they take my Mama away? I wouldn’t believe. I refused to believe. ~ ~ “You need a haircut, Bastien,” Adrienne started as she laid her head upon her arm on the table and looked up at me. “My hair is perfectly fine,” I answered, absently running my fingers through the top of it, knowing she was right. “I hate being on holiday. Brignoles is so boring compared to Lyon. I don’t get why you come back here, surely you have something better to do than sit around this house and listen to my father talk about his bank. Maybe we can go down to Toulon or San Tropez one day, that would be fun. I haven’t been to the beach in a long time.” “You do realize it’s winter?” “Don’t spoil it. The beach in winter is still better than Brignoles any time of year. My friends were all going skiing over the break. I wanted to go too but no, Papa said I had to come home. He’s such an ogre sometimes,” she laughed as she rolled her eyes. Toulon. A thousand thoughts rattled around in my head but as usual none made their way to my lips. “You should find a girlfriend, Bastien, seriously.” “What?” I gasped, my attention abruptly snapped back to my cousin grinning up at me as she lazed across the table. “You could bring her here for the holidays and someone might actually talk to me.” “You could get a boyfriend.” “Who said I didn’t have a boyfriend?” she quipped, but before I could answer she kept right on talking. “I could have a boyfriend if I wanted one. The problem is that I like Italian men. I think Papa would have a heart attack if I were to bring home an Italian boyfriend. But we were not talking about me, we were talking about how desperately you need a girlfriend.” “I’m not that desperate,” I objected to no avail. “She’d probably teach you to dress better and make you get a haircut.” “My hair is perfectly fine...” I began to insist at the same moment that Uncle Phillipe pulled the door open and greeted us with a booming Merry Christmas and an armload of everything from gifts to bread. Adrienne ran to the door and joyfully greeted the father she’d called an ogre just moments before and while this was the only family I had, the greeting was not the same for me that it was for Adrienne. I shook my uncle’s hand and tried to relieve him of some of his burdens as my cousin talked incessantly. At last he handed her a package and asked her to put it under the tree and he sighed a little as she darted away. “How is work going Sebastien?” he asked. “Good, really good,” I answered with as much enthusiasm as I could fake while the truth was that I hated my bank office job as much as I hated the rest of my miserable life. “You could use a hair cut. It’s important to look professional when you are handling peoples’ livelihood.” “You see! I told you!” Adrienne laughed as she snuck up behind me and ran her fingers into my hair. “Papa, can we open one gift after dinner, please?” “Twenty years old and she’s still asking the same question she asked at four!” Uncle Phillipe laughed. “Of course, Little Princess, of course you can.” The dinner was served and afterward we went to the sitting room where Uncle Phillipe poured sweet wine and Adrienne picked through the packages under the tree until she found the one I brought for her. “This one! I want this one tonight!” she squealed as she clutched the small box, then she laid it in her lap and dug out a small package for me and one for her father. But as she tore the paper away, I thought about the gift she was about to open. It was a necklace of sea green chalcedony beads, perfect in their imperfection, some clear and some milky just like the sea. Ever changing, different each time you looked at it and however the light hit it. It was the sea. Perhaps it was the wrong gift. The sea was not part of Adrienne the way it was part of me. It was not her life and her death the way it was mine. It did not steal everything away from her and still call her back. She did not long for it and fear it as I did. I could still hear it call my name... ‘Sebastien,’ it whispered to me as I woke an orphan on an unknown shore... Adrienne gushed when she held the necklace in her hands. I did not realize tears were running down my cheeks until she tried to hug me. She pulled away quickly and slid the package she’d handed me back off my lap. “I think maybe this is not the right gift for you. Here, take this one instead...” But I put it aside and said I would wait for the morning. We drank the wine and went off to our beds. DEUX: It was my room and it wasn’t. It was full of memories, but none of them were happy. My mother and Auntie Sabine were taking the train to Paris to attend the wedding of their cousin Matthieu. My father and I were going to spend the days they were gone with Uncle Phillipe and Adrienne. My father and my uncle had little in common aside from their wives, and though I was just a boy, it still registered that my uncle didn’t like my father, my father’s life and by default, me. He tolerated us for the sake of his wife, but we were not his caste of people. My father was an Italian merchant from Genova. He owned two boats. He ran his fishing business from one and his trading business from the other. He sailed the ports from Marseille to Sicily, from Corsica to Civitavecchia, from Oristan to Toulon. Toulon. We lived in a small house in Toulon. He met my mother there and he up and moved all his business to France to be with her. We weren’t wealthy like Uncle Phillipe, but we weren’t poor. We were a family. We had love in abundance. That was the only time in my life I was happy. The day my mother got on that train, was the beginning of all the endings. The kiss goodbye was only supposed to be for four days, not forever. Adrienne and I both lost our mothers in a crash that killed over one hundred people. And my father and I stayed in Uncle Phillipe’s house for almost a year as we all tried to hide our grief and recover from such a great loss. ~ ~ It seemed that I lay there for just a moment before Adrienne knocked on my door. She came in without waiting for an answer. “Sebastien, do you want to talk about it?” “Talk about what?” “Come on! You were crying when I opened the package. It’s a beautiful necklace. Why were you crying?” “Do you ever think about your mother, Adrienne?” “Not really. I was only five, I hardly remember her. Papa doesn’t talk about her either. You were nearly eleven, do you remember them?” “I remember some things from when we were a family. I remember the day she left. It was only supposed to be four days.” “Bastien, can I ask you something?” “Of course,” I shrugged. “Are you just a banker to make my father happy?” I gaped at her. I didn’t know what to say. “I think you are. I can tell that you don’t like it. I haven’t seen you look happy since the day we brought you back here. That day when you were just fourteen and...” “Please don’t say it.” “Can we please talk about him? I loved him so much. I was little, but I loved him more than my own father because he had so much love in him. He used to come and get me from school and he would hold my hand or sometimes he would carry me and he would tell me fanciful stories. He used to talk to me in Italian sometimes. He was so expressive with his hands and his voice that I understood him. And he used to sing to me.” Tears ran down my cheeks as Adrienne spoke of my father, but I went rigid when she mentioned his singing. “What did he sing?” Adrienne pulled the gift that she’d taken from my lap out of the pocket of her robe.” I thought you would like this, but maybe I just wanted to hear it again. He said it was about a Sea Nymph who loved a man. I didn’t know what a Nymph was, I always pictured her as a beautiful Mermaid, with long hair and eyes that changed like the sea.” The gift was a recording by a man named Oren Gale. The cover was a picture of an ornate fountain. Nine of the ten songs were in English, but the one called Mare da Sogno, Sea of Dreams, was in Italian. That was the song my father always sang. I had no words for Adrienne. My heart was heavy, and so empty at the same time. “I think you miss the sea, Sebastien. I think you should go back to her. You can’t stay this sad your whole life, it breaks my heart.” “Your father took me in when I was an orphan and he gave me a chance to make a good future, to live a secure life.” “Is a secure life what you want?” “I don’t know what I want, Adri.” “Think about it, Bastien. Think very hard. Stop locking your feelings up and find out what is really in your heart or the mermaids saved you for nothing,” she said as she stood from the edge of the bed, leaned over and kissed my cheek, and then she walked out of the room. The mermaids saved you... Did they? That night the dream I forced away came back to me. I saw every detail, I heard every sound. And I knew it was not a dream, it was a memory, saved in my mind, waiting for me to come back. TROIS: “Bastien, be sure to tie all the barrels securely, the wind is picking up.” “I tied them, Papa. Do you think a storm is coming?” “Yes, but it is far behind us and this wind will push us along,” he said as he ruffled my hair, took the rudder and began to sing the song he always sang when we sailed. I cast the lines off and stood at the rail as we made our way out of the port at Bastia on our way back to Genova. The wind made the water choppy. The froth spray kicked up like a thousand jewels glistening in the setting sun. My hair whipped my face and I remember that I began to whistle the song my father was singing, but the howl of the wind was so loud that I could hardly hear myself, and then my father’s voice was lost to me too. It was just me and the sea. I didn’t notice the hours passing or sky darkening over us. I just trimmed the sails and felt the roll of the deck beneath my feet. Time passed unnoticed with the salt spray clinging to my hair and the smell of the water filling my senses. It all went wrong very quickly. All I remember was the way she said my name, ‘Sebastien.’ ~ ~ I woke with a start. The sun was shining weakly into the room but the voice was still strong in my memory. The sea was calling me. She had a beautiful voice, soft and musical, magical in its own way. I needed to go to her. The desire to run from the house and just keep running until my feet were beneath the waves became the whole of me, but it was Christmas Day and I could not justify running away from the only family I had on the holiday. I slid from the bed and dragged my tablet from my satchel. The disc that Adrienne gave me was made three years before I was born. I did not have the means to play it, and though Uncle Phillipe did have the equipment in the sitting room, I could not hear it for the first time in so many years in front of him or Adrienne. I knew it would open a floodgate within me, and I needed to keep those feelings private, at least for now. But my tablet let me search for the song and the singer and the moment I hit play I was a boy again. This time I wished with all of my heart that I had taken the opportunity to learn to speak Italian when my father said he should teach me. I made each attempt such a chore for him that he gave up. I envied Adrienne that she listened to him and understood him just because she loved the sound. Oh time, why must you be fixed? Why could you not just take me back to those days and let me atone? I listened to the song over and over, softly, so I would not wake the others. But I wept. I wept for the sound, I wept for the longing to hear my father’s voice. I wept for the sea and how I left her behind because she took the last of where I came from and left me abandoned on a foreign beach. She left me with nothing. But no, she did leave me something. A memory long buried washed to the surface of my mind with my tears. She gave me something. It was pressed into my hand when I awoke that day. There were whispers. My eyes were crusted shut with salt and sand, but the thing pressed into my hand was real. And I hid it in this room. I hid it because my Uncle took nearly all that remained of my old life away. I had only a very small box of memories that I could hardly look at and this gift from the sea. My uncle sold my father’s boat and the house in Toulon that my father could not part with because that was where he loved my mother. My Uncle sold the place Papa and I lived in Liverno after we left France. He put all that money into trust for me and he sent me off to school to become a banker and forget who I was. And I did forget who I was until Adrienne made me remember. I bought her beautiful beads that looked like the sea because the sea was still inside Sebastien Parodi. The sea didn’t abandon me, I abandoned her because I could not face the memories. I hid this treasure from my Uncle so he would not take the one thing the sea left me. I pried up the floor board just behind where the armoire stood in my room. The kerchief with my mother’s initials embroidered upon it was still there and when I lifted it, I could feel that which I hid still nestled inside. I took it out carefully. My hands shook. I replaced the board and took this treasure back to the bed where Oren Gale was still singing his songs of love softly from the speaker of my tablet. But just as I was about to unwrap this gift, there was an exuberant knock, and Adrienne burst in with her ever present smile and her not stop talking. I shoved the kerchief into my satchel. “Merry Christmas, Bastien! Le petit dejeneur is on the table. Papa brought almond croissants and there are pears! Pears, Bastien! You should come while the espresso is hot.” I slid from the bed and swept her into a great hug. There was something wonderful about Adrienne’s ability to find joy in even the smallest things, like fresh pears. “Buon Natale, Bella Principessa!” I replied. She laughed. “Italian, Bastien? I did not think you knew the words! I thought you remade yourself completely French!” “I thought so too, but you were right. I need to look inside at what I am. I am Parodi. I have to figure out how live my life. Thank you for the gift, Adri, I was thinking a lot last night,” I told her, but I could not say more about it and I quickly changed the subject. “So pears you said?” “Yes! Golden pears! They look so wonderful!” QUATRE: “You must wake, please, you must! I promised him I would save you. I gave you the protection of the water, but I cannot make the knot on your head go away. Oh, please wake up Sebastien. I am so sorry.” I heard her words. I didn’t understand them. My eyes fluttered just a little. I could see just a fraction of what was around me, and that field of vision was filled with just her eyes, eyes like the Ligurian Sea. “Sebastien,” she whispered as she stroked my hair, “forgive me, My Love. Please forgive me.” My eyes would not focus. My mouth could not make a word. I heard her weeping and then all was gone again. I jolted awake in the bed. The same strange coin that was tightly clenched in my fist when I awoke on a beach near Levanto nearly twelve years ago was tight in my fist this December morning. I did not remember the day I was found. I remembered almost nothing after the devastating bolt of blue lightening shot from the heavens and splintered the mast on my father’s boat. Shards of wood flew through the air like tiny arrows, stabbing, piercing my skin. The sail caught flame and the groan of the wood as the mast began to fall sounded like the scream of a thousand demons sent to their eternal torment. I was calling for my father. My voice was lost in the chaos, and then the crack shattered the night, shattered the boat, threw me off into the icy water and took away everything I had including all memory of how I survived. I don’t know how many days I was asleep on that beach or how long I lay in the hospital before Uncle Phillipe and Adrienne came. I don’t even remember them arriving or the three of us leaving. I only remember that Adrienne climbed onto the bed and wrapped her arms around me. She just held me. It was perhaps the only memory I have of her where she was not talking. And I remember the strange coin was in my pocket. ~ ~ I knocked on Adrienne’s door earlier than she would likely be awake. Her father had already left for his work day and I was eager to be out of the house. “I hope you have something wonderful to tell me if you are waking me this early, Sebastien. If you are waking me to tell me you are leaving to go back to Toulouse, I am going to be madder than a bull in Pamplona.” “Can I come in?” “Only if you have words I want to hear,” she said sullenly. I opened the door and threw myself onto her bed, causing her to bounce as I laughed and she smacked me with her pillow. “Do you still want to go down to Toulon?” She sat up abruptly. “Are you serious? Oh, Bastien, I would love to! I would love to shop in the market and walk along the sand...” She stopped and pursed her lips. “Why do you want to go to Toulon?” “I need to see the water.” “Did I do this to you? Was it the song?” “I don’t know, Adri. I think it started the moment I bought the necklace and it has been growing inside me. There is something I must do, there is something out there that I must find.” “At last Sebastien. The mermaids saved you for a reason, you have a purpose.” “Do you really believe that?” “I know it in my heart,” she said as she placed her hand upon her heart, then moved it to mine. “What if...” “No! No what ifs! I believe. Your father believed. You must believe.” “Believe in what?” “Magic, fate, love, that is what the song is about. That is what you must find for yourself. That and a haircut.” “Get dressed, spoiled girl! There are still pears in the kitchen. We can go when you are ready.” Magic. Could there be magic? I did not really know, but the coin that I clutched in my pocket was pushing me to go to Toulon. ~ ~ The drive was short. Driving was not a thing I enjoyed. I had a sensible sedan when I should have bought the sports car that I liked. But no, I lived all these years ignoring the things I wanted, making a secure life so that my Uncle would not have taken me in for naught, which was suddenly ironic given what Adri thought of my life. I knew I was only thinking about the mundane to avoid thinking about what I might feel when I met the sea again. And then I began to wonder what I was willing to give up to be with her again. Would I be giving something up or would I be getting something back, something I missed, something I truly needed. I knew Adrienne was right, the life I had was not worth living. My parents would not have wanted me to be secure and all alone. “We should try to be back before Papa,” Adrienne started, bursting my thought bubble. “Yes.” “You are going to talk my ear right off, Sebastien! My goodness.” I laughed. “I could have left you and your sarcasm back at the house.” “I’m surprised you didn’t. I don’t think you have any intention of going to the market.” “No, I need to go down to the docks,” I said as I circled the public lot looking for a parking space. “I will leave you my keys. Be careful, Adri, your father would kill me if anything happened to you.” “I’m a grown woman, Bastien, not a nine year old girl. I live in a city much bigger than Toulon. I know how to take care of myself!” I nodded and handed her the keys. “You are coming back, aren’t you?” she asked seriously, as she tucked them into her pocket. “Yes. I am coming back. I will meet you here at two. We can go have a nice lunch.” She kissed my cheek and I watched her walk away into the market. Then I turned and walked toward the docks. I could already smell the sea and all the scents associated with her. While the odor of the fisheries might have put some visitors off, I welcomed it like an old friend and I walked on. There were many boats in the port. The morning was already bustling with loading and unloading. I wondered if my hands remembered the work. I longed to feel the ropes and the rolling of the deck as the boat tacked into the sea beyond the harbor gates. I longed to watch the waves crash against the hull and see the jewels of water glisten in the sunlight. I longed to see the sun set over the edge of the world as we sailed west into Toulon. My heart seemed to pound in my chest and the song seemed to be writhing inside me waiting to be sung. But I did not speak Italian. I walked on admiring the boats, speed boats, fishing boats, sail boats, so many varieties, but there was one that stood out and I made my way toward her. She was old, handcrafted as surely as my eyes could see. The figurehead was a woman, carved from fine wood, but inlaid with abalone. The mast was hand hewn, and etched with symbols of the stars as though the owner still navigated her in the ancient way. I stood mesmerized admiring every detail of the rails and the deck until my attention was drawn away by a clatter near behind me. A man was struggling with an armload of ropes and a tool chest that was desperately trying to escape his grasp. I reached out and took the chest from the pile with a word of offered help. “Much appreciated, friend,” the man started with a laugh. “She is quite a beauty, is she not?” “Incredible. She is like a ship out of a fairy tale.” He laughed again. “She is like a dream, it is true. I am Armon d’Laurent. Please call me Armon. Come aboard if you like, take a look.” I leapt from the dock as I’d done a thousand times, without thought. I felt the roll of the deck beneath my feet as the sea adjusted to my presence. “Ah! You are not unfamiliar with boats, you did that quite gracefully even with the tool chest still in your arms!” “My father used to own boats. He did business all along this coast. We lived in Toulon when I was young, but I have not been back in many years. His name was Gian Parodi.” “And that would make you Sebastien,” he smiled. “Yes, I am. Did you know my father?” “No. I am sure I met the man. I have been here for well over thirty years now. My uncle probably knew him, he knew everyone. Truly, everyone. Sometimes too well if you know what I mean, but my uncle was good hearted and he loved the sea. He had no sons so he taught me his craft. But that is not so much important to you right now. You want to know how I know your name.” “Yes, Sir, I do.” “Well, that is simple. A package arrived for you today,” he answered as he strode to the wheel and opened the wooden chest beneath it. He lifted out a package that appeared crudely wrapped and roughly the size of his hand. Then he turned and handed it to me. “You see? Sebastien Parodi. I found it just this morning on the deck.” “Do you know who delivered it?” I asked, stunned as I took it from his hand and turned it over in my own hands. “The sea.” “How can that be?” I gasped. “There are mysteries in this world that can’t be explained, Sebastien. Your generation with your fancy computers and phones that can manage a thousand tasks forget that there are forces in this world beyond technology. Most don’t need explanation, and some should not be explained at all. Love will never be mastered on a computer screen and fate can only lead you so far before you must leap. The old ways may seem quaint, romance and chivalry are arts that are very nearly extinct when men should strive to bring such wonderful parts of our nature back to the world. But the sea, Sebastien, she is eternal like the heavens and clearly she is calling you. You see this wrapping? It is a lotus leaf, symbol of endurance, of purity and of water, something one might offer a Goddess.” “My father believed as you do.” “And you?” “I don’t know what I believe. I tried to forget all I knew. The sea made me an orphan and I tried to leave this life behind me but...” “You cannot deny what is in your heart, Sebastien,” he said with a small smile as he placed his hand upon my chest. “Let me tell you a story about this boat. She was the first restoration I did completely on my own. She was a relic, aged and rotted, but still glorious. A Roman man owned her. Three highly skilled craftsmen turned him away saying she was scrap, best left to the sea. But he could not accept that. The lady upon the prow simply possessed him and he could not give up on this boat. He came to us. My uncle accepted the job the moment it was offered. I feared I did not have the skills, but my uncle insisted that I did and that was why the sea brought her to me. Three years I spent carving and fitting, learning every inch of this vessel. And then one day she was done. What he paid me made me a rich man in Toulon and this job gave me great renown, but giving her up was painful. Anyway, the day arrived that I was supposed to sail her back to Civitavecchia. My uncle came aboard and said that I must wait one day that I would be taking a passenger, who would help me get her to Italy safely. I was eager to go, but afraid of sailing the boat alone. So I waited. This boat has no modern navigation, she sails today exactly as she did the day she was christened. Just as my uncle said, the man came. He had no knowledge of boats, he did not know he would be making this trip with me. But my uncle said the Nymphs told him this man was coming and that he needed to get to Rome. One does not deny the Daughters of the Eternal Water what they ask, they are the living sea. That man worked so hard on that trip.” “The Daughters of the Eternal Water,” I sighed. “Who was he? Who was the man that sailed with you?” I asked, though a thousand questions wished to come from this mouth of mine that rarely felt the need to speak. “His name was Oren Gale.” “The singer?” The words came out sounding like a question, though I think I somewhat expected that answer because that man’s song was tied to my fate. “Yes.” “What was his mission? Why did he need to get to Rome?” “He was seeking the Goddess Vesta on the first day of Vestalia. This boat got him to his fate. And so many years later she has come back to me. Her owner bequeathed her to me, though his family did fight to keep her. She has a destiny still,” Armon smiled as he stroked the rail. “Destiny is an interesting choice of words,” I grinned. “It is one of those words that stir things within us,” he shrugged. But he looked around, admiring the boat as I watched him and it was a long moment before he spoke again. “I am becoming an old man, Sebastien, I can’t sail her alone anymore. I have been offered a good price, and I accepted but I must take her back to Civitavecchia. I think you might be heading that way. Would you sail with me?” “When are you leaving?” I asked eagerly. “Three days from now.” “Yes,” I answered as I held the small package close to my heart. “Yes. I must make this trip,” I said aloud, though I was telling myself more so than I was telling him. “Armon, do you happen to know if Oren Gale lives in Italy?” “He does. He lives near Ostia on the coast, south of Roma.” “I will be ready to make the trip in three days. I can come sooner if you need help rigging her.” He laughed. “Three days is fine. The trip will take four days with good winds, five if the sea is still. But I will give you something to think about, Sebastien. I have no children. I think you are seeking a way back to what is in your heart. If you are truly coming back to the sea, I would take you on as an apprentice and partner.” Tears came to my eyes. “You would do that? You barely know me. Why would you make an offer so great to a stranger?” “The Nymphs sent you to me. You have the protection of the water upon you, I can tell. It is fated. I know it is.” Fate. I was about to take my leap. I shook his hand. Mentally I quit my job at the bank right then and there, though the phone call had not been made. This man changed my life in just a few short hours. “Three days,” I said again as I climbed back onto the dock. “Three days, Sebastien. May the water always be your friend.” ~ ~ Adrienne was sitting on the hood of my car when I returned. “You are late!” she called as I approached. I looked at my watch and I was still five minutes early so I protested. “I am not late, you are early! You have no packages?” “Of course I do, foolish boy! I have already put them in the trunk. And I spent all of my money so you will have to treat me to lunch. A nice lunch, in a nice restaurant, not some roadside cafe,” she said smugly. I might have argued, but there was no point. I always gave in to Adrienne’s whims. “The market was so much fun with people bargaining and arguing. There were so many vendors! Oh, I did love it, Bastien! So tell me, what did you do?” “I went to the docks.” She tilted her head to the side and gazed at me. “When are you leaving?” “What makes you think I am leaving?” I asked, surprised. “Your eyes are already gone.” “Three days, Adri.” “Good for you, Bastien.” CINQ: My apartment in Toulouse was as nondescript as the rest of my life and as soon as I walked in, I knew I was not going to miss it. But I did not have time to think about this life because I had to prepare for my trip and I had only vague ideas of what I might need. I bought myself boots. Good, sturdy, waterproof boots. I put them on and in the moment when I should have felt like a man, actually taking control of my life and finding my own path, I felt like a child again. A giddy child. One who has been promised a special treat. The boots felt like they belonged on my feet. I knew this was the right course for me but my future was taking a strange journey through the past I smothered and hid away and now the small joys, like wearing comfortable boots instead of shiny leather dress shoes, and work clothes that were a far cry from the suit and tie that I never quite adjusted to, were redefining Sebastien Parodi. ~ ~ I couldn’t sleep. I guess I felt some guilt about leaving Brignoles without telling my uncle that I was about to quit my comfortable job for a lifetime of manual labor restoring boats. I didn’t know the first thing about restoring boats. I wasn’t even completely sure I remembered how to sail a boat, but I was hoping it would be one of those things, like riding a bicycle, that one never forgets. And a master offered to teach me his trade. The opportunity was too great to refuse, especially since I didn’t want to refuse. Just standing on that boat I was happy. Hell, just standing on the dock looking at the boats I was happy. If the sea was willing to take me back, I was willing to go. But there was something else. Adrienne said the mermaids saved me. I never thought about that night. Never. But my father and I set sail from Bastia. Given the wind from the storm coming in behind us, we had perhaps a twenty hour journey. We only made it maybe a quarter of the way. I was thrown into the sea. I had no recollection of being in the water at all, so I could not have been conscious. And yet, I was found on the beach not far from a resort in Levanto which was not anywhere near where the boat might have been when the lightening struck. I was lying on the beach, I was not at a port, or a place where other boats might injure me, but a place where people were bound to notice a teenage boy washed up onto the shore. A teenage boy with a large knot on his head, and no idea how he got there. A teenage boy who spoke French, not Italian. And the sea asked me to forgive her. I know it wasn’t the sea that spoke to me, but one of the Daughters of the Eternal Water that Armon spoke of, the Nymphs that my father sang to, the Mermaids who saved my life. Her voice was like a song and that song was still inside me, but I didn’t forgive her that day because I didn’t know what happened to me. I didn’t know what she was asking of me. I desperately wanted to hear her voice again. I wanted to see more than just the glimpse of her eyes and I wondered if my inability to grant her forgiveness drove her away. And thinking that made my heart ache more than any other loss I’d suffered. I lay in my bed flipping the ancient coin between my fingers and I whispered to the night, “please come back. What ever it is that you wanted me to forgive, I forgive. I’m coming home to the sea. Please come back to me. Give me another chance.” Then I remembered the package. I slid it gently from my satchel. The lotus leaf was soft, sort of leathery, not at all fragile as I would have expected, and though it was wrapped and tied around what rested inside, it was not creased or bent. I carefully untied the twine and the leaf unwrapped itself. What lay inside was an instrument, a musical instrument, some sort of antique flute. There were six carved tubes of varying lengths, bound together with strips of embossed leather. I’d never played any sort of instrument. I didn’t have the slightest idea how to make music. But I blew gently across the tops of the pipes and the sound of the wind in the sails filled the room. Each pipe had its own distinct voice, they were foreign and familiar all at once. But when I blew into the second longest of them, the note seemed to hang in the air around me for a long time as though it was giving me a push, saying: ‘you know me, remember me.’ And it clicked in my mind, it was the first note of the song my father always whistled, the first note of the song Oren Gale sang to the sea, the first note of the song that was calling me back to the life I missed. I took the disc that Adrienne gave me from my bag and studied it. The beautiful fountain on the front had to have been important, because nothing about these items all falling into my hands at once seemed random to me. I opened the case and slid the booklet from the front. The lyrics to all the songs were inside. Mare da Sogno was the second to last song on the recording. It was near the end of the booklet. It was written in Italian and I read the words, I studied every word, but I still couldn’t make sense of them, though just saying them aloud made my voice sound like I remember my father sounding. And at the very end of the last page, there was a clue. The fountain was at Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastavere, Italy. The page said: ‘the fountain sprung from and underground spring and is known to be the oldest fountain in Rome. It is said that if you toss a coin in a fountain in Rome that you are guaranteed a return trip, but if you have a wish that is sacred in your heart and you make that wish upon your coin at the gate of the new day, the water will answer.’ I wanted to see the one who saved me, the one with eyes like the sea. That was the sacred wish in my heart. I had to go to that fountain. I also had to meet Oren Gale. I had to. I packed my backpack with a few extra articles of clothing, warm socks, and a thermos. I wondered what I could offer the sea in return for one of her eternal daughters. I hadn’t even known that she was the wish of my heart until that very moment. I’d never even seen her face, but my heart has loved no other. I dug out the box that was all that remained of my family memories. I looked at the photos and remembered what it was like to be loved. I opened the old compass that my father said had been in his family for six generations. It seemed fitting that something with so much history should make this journey with me. There was also a knife with a handle carved from ivory and jewel that hung from a silver chain that seemed to glow with a fire from within and made me think of what was in my heart. I put the chain around my neck and felt the weight of the stone upon my chest. It was comforting. I packed the compass and the knife along with the flute, the disc and the lotus leaf into my satchel. I went back to my bed, but my sleep was riddled with dreams of sights and sounds far away in the past. And in the morning I put the strange coin in my pocket, locked my door, walked out to the street and said to no one in particular, ‘I am coming for you, Sea of Dreams.’ SIX: I was at the dock when the sun came up. To say I was eager would be an understatement, and I did not want to take even the slightest risk of missing Armon. I didn’t really think he would leave without me, but the whole week might have been a dream and I needed to see the boat again. I sat drinking coffee that was cooling quickly in the morning chill as I watched the glorious ball of flame broach the horizon. The sky was dotted with clouds and the light of the orange sun colored them beautifully, but it was not the sky that held my attention it was the sea. Each ripple shimmered. I was tempted to strip down and dive into the water just to feel it engulf me, but it was a chilly December morning and I didn’t want to prove myself insane before the journey even began. It was less than an hour later that Armon started down the dock, awakening me from my daydreams. “Well, well, someone is eager,” he grinned as he reached out and shook my hand. He had a bag and a foam cooler with him. “I am eager. When my father was alive and willing to teach me, I was a stubborn boy and I didn’t appreciate what he was offering. But if your offer still stands, I will learn all you are willing to teach. I will be diligent. I will make both you and my father proud.” “I think he is already proud, Sebastien. But do not do this because you feel a need to redeem yourself, do this for the love of the work, the love of the vessel, the love of the sea. I have a new contract, a Greek boat. Seaworthy, but I am told she has changed hands a number of times and the new owner wants her restored to original condition. When we arrive in Civitavecchia, I plan to spend two nights in Roma enjoying the food. Then I will travel to Athens to sail the boat back. If you can make your way to Sicilia in twelve days, we will pick you up in Marsala. I will be stopping there for a night to visit my cousin and enjoy his wine.” “I’ll be there.” Armon nodded. “Come now. Let’s prepare her for the trip.” It is said that a boat is more than just sails and planks, more than just a mode of transportation, a boat is the ultimate freedom. I was breaking free of this life I built to hide my loss. But more than that even, this boat, this trip was the beginning of my future. There was no feeling in the world that compared to the moment the land fell away and all that remained was the water. I imagined it might be the same for an astronaut as he watched the Earth diminish and the blackness of space take him. And I found that I did remember the things my father taught me, even if doing them was harder for the lack of practice. The feel of the ropes as they slid through my hands was uncomfortable. The burn made hands that had grown soft with years of schooling and sitting behind a desk, raw. But I welcomed that feeling just as I welcomed the smart snap of the sails as they grabbed the wind and the roll of the deck as we began our journey east. Armon was as skilled in his sailing as he was in his handcrafting. His directions for me were clear and he seemed pleased with me. Honestly, I was pleased with myself. Perhaps I had not been as stubborn as I thought I was with my father or maybe he was just a better teacher than I gave him credit for. This boat was not like any other that I’d ever sailed upon, but she moved well, her riggings were artfully simple and she was beautiful. I was happy. But though I understood Armon’s fear of sailing this boat alone, each passing hour made me wish we were not sailing her to a new owner. Not that there was much time to think, without modern navigational equipment or an onboard motor, every ounce of progress was made by force of will and brute strength. And as I worked, I whistled the song that simply needed to make the trip with me. The day passed quickly. We might have sailed on though the night, navigating by the stars but Armon dropped anchor. We ate a meal and Armon asked me what happened to my father. I told him my tale. I told him where I was found. And I told him what I saw when I awoke and that in my heart I was seeking her. But it seemed to me that he already knew those things, and we settled in to rest. I stretched out on the deck with my hands tucked behind my head and the water rocking me into relaxation. “There are state rooms below. You can sleep in a bed, Sebastien,” Armon started as he stretched and then rubbed his back. “Thanks, but I’ve been sleeping in a bed beneath a roof for a long time. I just want to feel the swaying and watch the stars for a while.” “Suit yourself,” he laughed. “I am an old man, I need a good mattress and pillows these days. Be sure to rest. You worked hard today, I think you might be sore in the morning.” “Yes, that is likely,” I laughed, but as he walked away I called after him, “Armon, is this crazy? Am I just trying to make peace with what happened or is there really fate out there? Is she really out there?” “She’s out there, Son. Hold fast to that in your heart, because if your heart fails, you will fail.” I knew he was right. And I knew that I could not handle another loss, another failure. I lay on the deck watching the night sky for a long time. Part of me just needed to watch the sky, the clear sky, and know that there was no storm coming. I didn’t realize that I was still whistling the song as I drifted into sleep. But in my dreams I heard them. I heard the Nymphs whispering. SEPT: By the time the port at Civitavecchia became visible upon the horizon, it was pretty damned clear to me that I was going to have to start lifting weights or something because hard work was exponentially harder on arms that were used to lifting a pen and a financial portfolio. I refused to let Armon know how sore I was. I worked harder just to prove to myself that I was not going to give up on this. But the wind was good and we were making good time. “Sebastien, you want to take the wheel for a while? I need to sit and rest my old legs.” “Sure,” I answered, probably more enthusiastically than he was expecting and we both began to laugh. “I will tell you something. I expected this trip to take longer.” “You did?” He nodded. “I was counting on you having trouble keeping the sails full. I was thinking I’d be able to relax, to dillydally, as you learned how to sail again. But you managed the sails very well. I had to work hard to keep up and keep her on course. I’m tired.” “Thank you and I’m sorry.” “Eh, you should not be sorry! You exceeded my expectations, Son. It will be a pleasure to teach you. And now I will have an extra day in Roma to glut on the good food. Filetti di Baccala and Pasta alla Carbonara I am coming for you my friends!” he laughed. “Where will you go, Sebastien?” “Trastevere and then I will seek out Mr. Gale in Ostia.” “Wish him well for me. He is a good man.” ~ ~ The boat slipped into the port as though she knew the way. And it seemed just moments before we left her deck. Well, I left her deck. The man who was about to become her new owner was practically running down the dock to greet us as our feet hit the solid ground. He was speaking Italian. Sadly, Armon understood him and I did not. Armon waved the man aboard, but then he turned and shook my hand. “Go find your fate, Sebastien. I will see you in Marsala in thirteen days. Eat a Canolli when you are there, you will not find better anywhere in the world!” “Enjoy the rest and the food, Armon. Travel safely, my friend.” And this was where my journey actually began because from the moment my feet were on Italian soil, everything changed for the second time in just over a week. The world seemed to want me to be Italian. I was trying to find myself a future, but I seemed to be moving through some sort of time warp, where embracing the past was the key to moving forward. I walked slowly along the dock. The slips were filled with cruise ships and ferries. I watched the line of cars very carefully drive aboard. I’d never done that, never driven onto a ferry, so I stood and watched the novelty of it for longer than necessary, until at last it launched and then suddenly it was just like every other big boat and I moved on. There had been a restored Corsair in this port when my father an I used to sail here, and I made my way toward Fort Michelangelo to see if that bit of my past still lingered, but I did not see it. There was a sleek American Naval ship and a few Italian tall boats that gave day tours. They were glorious with their triple masts and elaborate riggings. I would have like to see one coming in under full sail, but it was the middle of the day and the morning tours were already out upon the sea and the dinner tours were not near leaving. I left the port from behind the fort. Once when I was small, my father told me that one of the towers was named San Sebastian and that there was a secret tunnel in that tower to get soldiers inside the city wall if the city was attacked. I thought it was cool at the time, but then I learned about Saint Sebastian being shot full of arrows and I sort of lost interest. I wished that I had listened to his stories more. I wished that I knew more about my father’s past and his history. I wished I felt more connected to him. My thoughts were heavy and my stomach was empty. There was a ristorante on Via Aurelia and I stopped in to eat and take a look at my tablet. I needed to figure out how I was going to get to Trastevere. The trip didn’t appear to be too far, maybe a couple hours by car, but that meant finding a place to rent a car. There was also the train, but it just didn’t feel right and as I ate the sandwich that was delivered to my table I sort of decided I would just start walking until I figured out what to do next. I sort of had this idea in my head that whatever force was urging me along this path was going to lay the route before me. And just that suddenly it did. Almost unnoticed, two men began walking with me. They appeared to be roughly my age and quite obviously brothers, twins even. They were both carrying backpacks, and they were bickering until they noticed that my pace slowed and I was looking at them. They started speaking at me, most likely introduced themselves, but the words were very rapidly spoken in Italian. I didn’t actually understand them, and yet part of my brain did. And they seemed confounded, at least one of the two did. “Are you sure this is the guy?” “Of course he’s the guy he just got off the boat.” “He was supposed to be Italian. But this guy is not Italian. How can he be Italian? He doesn’t speak Italian.” “Can you say Italian a few more times?” “Italian, Italian, Italian.” “Shut up already, idiot! He’s the guy. I’ll prove it, I will ask him,” the less excitable one sighed and shook his head as he turned to me. “So, what is being your name, Friend? Why do you come to Italy?” he asked in broken English. “My name is Sebastien Parodi and I am looking for someone.” “By all the Gods! English? You sound terrible speaking English.” The combative one interjected, slugging his brother in the arm. “I told you he was the guy.” “He was supposed to be Italian. What is he, French? He sounds French. He talks and I hear Baguette, croissant, espresso, blah blah...” “Mama mia, lo stupido. Shush! I am trying to talk to Sebastien.” They were making my head spin. “Who do you look for Sebastien?” “A woman.” “What the French man can’t find himself a woman? I thought they were supposed to speak the language of love!” “Mama should have eaten you. Can you see I am trying to make friends here? Father is going to be mad at you if you drive him away now shut up.” This one stepped up his pace a bit, leaving his brother behind, but dragging me along with him. “So, this woman, what is she looking like?” “I don’t know.” He sighed. “What is her name being?” “I don’t know.” “And you think I am the idiot,” the brother chimed in. “She saved my life once. I was thrown from a boat that was struck by lightening. I was not conscious so I don’t remember much, but she had eyes like the sea and her hair seemed to be the color of the setting sun. I need to bring something to Trastevere and I hope it will help me get more information.” “Damn, he is the one,” the contrary one said. “Of course he is the one. I have been telling you for an hour he is the one. We are supposed to teach him to speak Italian.” “How do we make a Frenchman speak Italian?” “I am half Italian.” “Do you hear that? Half Italian. I guess he can’t help what ever the other half is, probably had no say in the matter...” “Balordo. You bring me great shame. Enough about his bloodline! You are so ignorant you did not even notice that he understood.” “He did! Yes, he did! Well of course we would be good teachers, we founded a city! Who would be better for the job than we are?” “You founded a city?” I asked skeptically. “Yes!” “No. Now he is hearing too much. Stop speaking nonsense, we have a job to do.” “What is your task? Did someone send you to find me?” I asked, but before they answered, it occurred to me that we were far from the road. “Where are we going?” “You need to get to Trastevere.” “Yes, but the road...” They both sighed at me. “Are you driving a racing car in France? No? No one finds fate in a car, Sebastien. To find what you seek, you must know the world as she is. We will get you where you need to be but there are two things you must see first,” the difficult brother said seriously. “What are they?” “Water.” For a moment I thought I misunderstood him. “Water is all of life, Sebastien. You know the body only. But you must know the soul and the blood of the world too.” And with that, I let them lead me. OTTO: “Are you certain we are going the right way?” “Of course we are going the right way. East and just a bit south. The sun is over my left shoulder...” “We are taking directions from your shoulder?” “I never get lost.” “You could get lost in a closet with only one door!” They had a supernatural talent for bickering. I had no siblings, and though I spent a good amount of time with Adrienne our banter was not like theirs. She would coax me into doing things for her, particularly chores and homework, but we did not argue. Perhaps it was only brothers that behaved that way. Perhaps it was Italian brothers. I dug through my satchel. I tapped the less combative one on the shoulder and handed him the old compass. “Here, I think you could use this.” He looked surprised for a moment, and then somewhat relieved. He opened the lid and the arrow was in fact pointing just a hair south of due east. His brother snatched it from his hand and victoriously touted his prowess while doing a little in your face victory dance. “We shall never hear the last of this.” ~ ~ We arrived at what was evidently our destination quite late in the night. The moon was already high in the sky. My companions threw their bags down into the grass, sat and began removing their boots and socks. “What are you doing?” I asked. “Getting in the water, of course. Come on, boots off, lets go!” It was January. The weather was temperate, but certainly not weather that would make a man want to strip down in the middle of the night and dive into a lake. Still, I was here for a reason and if that meant diving into this lake, I would dive, so I began to undress. “No, Sebastien, we will not swim. Just roll up your pants high enough to wade in and drink. This is the cleanest, purest water in all of the world. This water comes directly from her soul. Take it in you, feel her inside of you. Make her part of who you are,” the difficult brother said. And we three waded into the water, cupped our hands and drank. I felt the water inside me. An instant later havoc broke loose. A great howl broke the magical serenity that held me just a moment before and my companions scrambled back up the bank and began to hastily get their boots back on. I felt absolutely no compulsion to do as they were doing though my brain was trying to tell me wolves were coming and I should run. I stood there stupidly watching them, watching myself as though my brain had been disconnected from my body. I could see the beasts coming at us, their eyes shone in the moonlight, and they did not try to approach stealthily, no, I could hear them running. I thought: ‘this is it, I am going to die being mauled by a wolf and no one will ever know.’ “You’re not going to die, Sebastien,” a woman’s voice said softly. I spun. The woman sat upon the bank with her arms wrapped about her knees, looking up at me. There was a ruckus behind me, but I did not turn to watch, I just watched the woman. She was dressed all in modest white robes with hair that hung in curls so long they swept the ground where she sat. She looked past me for a moment, then back up at me with a small smile. “My boys, they are eternal children in the bodies of men, always tumbling about with the wolf cubs. Welcome to Bracciano, Sebastien Parodi.” “Who are you, my lady? How do you know who I am?” “The whole world knows your name, Sebastien, you have set out to do what only two others have ever done in all of history. I am Rhea Silva, once a vestal virgin, and the Mother is watching over you. You see, she asked a man to be true to his word and made a promise to him that she would give something dear to one who sought it. You are one. You are seeking something you don’t really understand, but is locked inside your heart. Unlock your heart. Be true to that feeling. Take what the world gives you, don’t turn anything away and you will find her.” “Is this real?” “Of course it is real!” she laughed. “But you walk in the twilight between the two worlds, Sebastien. You need to embrace both to make the life you wish for. Fill your thermos with this water and keep it with you. It is, as they told you, the soul of the world and will lift you when you have need.” “Thank you. Is there something I can offer you?” She smiled. “Do you have the flute? Would you show me?” NOVE: I woke up alone, on the ground and it was raining on me. Well, I thought it was raining, the truth was that my two companions were standing together about six feet away flinging water on me. I cussed at them in my head. And then I felt bad about it because they were doing me a favor, sort of. But then they immediately began giving me grief about the laid back attitude of the French and I stopped feeling guilt. “Still a long day, long way to go, get up already!” “I’m up.” “He does not see the difference between awake and up!” “Well, he is only just being Italian, he has much to overcome.” I felt like I should rebut them in Italian, but at the same time I knew my lack of skill was going to cause peels of laughter and an abundance of ridicule. For two guys who’d been rolling around with wolves, they were remarkable unscathed. “What was all that with the wolves last night?” I asked. They looked at each other in sort of stunned silence and then at me. It was the first time they were not bickering. “They are our kin.” Oddly, that explained quite a bit, though they fired off a story in what might have been Italian or might have been Latin, so quickly I only grasped parts. Someone was murdered. There was something to do with Mars, which might have been the month or the planet, but seemed to be the God. There was a river and there was a wolf. And while these two had been a constant stream of chatter, once they finished their abridged version of their story, the topic was closed. They walked in complete silence, though the one that I considered the sensible one put his hand on his brother’s shoulder offering quiet comfort. My brain was racing. It knew this story. It was locked inside my head, behind that terrible day that my mind erased. I could almost hear my father’s voice telling it to me. I needed to hear it. I needed that memory back. I needed to get through that wall that separated me from my past. But all I could remember was being a petulant boy who lost his mother and did not want to lose the French part of his life so he ignored the Italian part. In my head I was screaming out: ‘please, Papa, tell me the story again. I will listen this time. Please!’ The sun was high in the sky. We had been walking a long time, though I didn’t realize it. I didn’t even know if they had been speaking to me. But the combative brother grabbed me by both shoulders. “Sebastien, look at me, come on now, look at me.” I couldn’t see him. I fell to my knees. My mind was locked, looking for some image it had stored away. “Please Papa!” I called out, but I don’t know if the words came out or just reverberated around inside me “It’s no good. He is locked in a memory.” “Did he fill his thermos like Mother told him?” “Ah! Si!” the rational brother said as he rummaged through my bag for the thermos. “Sip, Sebastien, sip the water.” But I heard my father at the moment the water touched my mouth. He was laughing. ‘Yes, Son, it is a strange statue...’ It was a she-wolf nursing two children. It creeped me out. I didn’t like looking at it. I half-heartedly listed to his story, the story of the two brothers who founded Rome, the story of Remus and Romulus. The story of the two men who were guiding me on this journey trying to teach me to be Italian again. “He is coming back.” “Are you okay, friend?” I said that I was and we continued to walk. But I didn’t know if I was. There was a very good possibility that I had lost my mind. I was traveling across the Italian countryside with two men who had been gone for millennia. “...southeast.” “But we are going south.” “We are not going south, we are going southeast. If we were going south we would be in Marina by now. The compass says southeast.” “Can you even read a compass?” “Was there always this much fighting between the two of you?” I asked. “Yes,” the less contentious one replied. “You know who we are?” “Yes. But the myth says...” “The myth is both truths and fictions. My brother and I loved different things. He loved his city and his great wall. I loved Graciana. What was in my heart was stronger than his ridiculous wall.” “It was not a ridiculous wall.” “Of course it was, it was built for war. It’s not important now. I jumped from the wall but many saw us arguing before I did and that is where the fiction comes from. He did not kill me, we are brothers. Like he could ever best me, honestly, I have no idea how anyone could have believed such nonsense.” “I could have thrown you from the wall, little brother.” “But you didn’t. And you wouldn’t have, even if you could,” Remus said placing his hand on his brother’s shoulder. I went to Alba Longa and tried to quell the fears that Roma was causing, and then Graciana and I went to Rasenna. It is a strange thing to love a woman. That feeling can take you from everything you know and change your path.” ~ ~ It was not long before I could smell the water. To me, it was the perfume of life, the clean, pure scent of living. I breathed in deeply. I could hear the water rushing, I could feel it like the blood in my veins. My brain was telling me I should not hear any such thing above the sound of the afternoon traffic, but I was not walking in the world of men, the sounds of that life didn’t reach me. We walked out onto a small dock that jutted from below Ponte Maiteotte. There were houseboats out on the river. Romulus cupped his hands around his mouth and howled like the wolves at Bracciano. Remus chuckled. A man rowed toward us. He was vast, well muscled, and well, intimidating. His boat was absolutely beautiful. The wood was deep mahogany. She was very finely finished and her stem was elegantly shaped and elaborately carved with fruits and bunches of grapes, the gunwale was carved with lotus leaves and blossoms. Her oar locks were bronze and gleamed in the afternoon sun and the oars themselves had masterfully wrapped leather grips. “You made good time,” the man said as he came ashore. “We managed to get him here without committing any felonies, Papa,” Romulus joked. They laughed for a few moments while I stood gaping. This man was clearly a king, and most likely a God. I stood on the bank of the Fiume Tevere with the founders of Rome, descendants of Aeneas of Troy, sons of the Gods, as I sought the Nymph who saved my life. I was not worthy. I was of a different world.” “You are worthy, Sebastien Parodi,” the man said. Remus turned to me and placed his hand upon my chest. “Safe travels, Sebastien. May the water always be your friend.” Romulus did the same, then he took the compass from his pocket. “Keep it. Keep it with my thanks for your help. Try not to fight over it.” “Fight? We never fight! What would we possibly fight about?” “That ridiculous wall?” “Don’t start on the wall again...” “Come, Sebastien, our trip is not long. Let us leave the cubs to their bickering.” We climbed into the boat and started down the river. “You’re their father?” “Step-father. They are sons of Mars, they were set adrift upon my river to die. I gave them to Lupina to protect and I sought their mother. If two infants were sentenced to die, the fate of their mother had to be dire. I rescued her, and she stole my heart. I brought her into this realm.” “So you are all immortals?” “Yes, in a manner of speaking. For me, as long as the river flows I will be part of it. The water is the life of this world, it comes from deep inside the living springs and runs like blood in her veins. The rivers carry the water to every part of the country, just as the veins carry the blood inside you. Put your hand into the river, Sebastien, feel it’s life force.” “I did not realize how much I missed my old life.” “You have a chance for something better. You seek one of the daughters.” “Yes. But...” “There are many questions and many doubts in your mind. You should forget what your mind says and listen to your heart.” “You made your wife immortal. I would be asking her...” “Would you trade your comfortable life for a life where someone loved you unconditionally?” “Yes. Yes, I would.” “What is eternal life worth if all you love is beyond your grasp? If you must watch it die without ever having the joy of touching, of being part of something and someone. Follow your heart and it will not lead you astray.” I ran my hand along the top of the gunwale. “This boat is fantastic.” “She is a tribute to the water, a beautiful vessel. She is my joy. You are empty of that feeling, but I feel hope inside you. I think you are torn between believing in love and fear of loss. You’ve lived with loss for long enough. Why not open your heart. You have let the sea back into your life, is there room for love?” “I have never even seen her. I don’t even know her name. I only know her voice. How will I find her? What words could I say to make her choose me?” “The words are already said.” “I don’t understand.” He looked at me for a long moment. “Ah, well, you will know when you must know. Go to the fountain and make your wish.” He rowed toward the shore. The Piazza will only be about four hundred meters west, but you should rest now. Make your wish just as the sun breaks the horizon.” “Thank you for your help. Is there something I can give you in return?” “No, Son. The Daughters have given you the protection of the water, it is my privilege to help a man who has earned such an honor,” he said with a smile as he placed his hand upon my heart.” Go now, find your fate.” DIECI: Rest. Such an easy thing to want, such a difficult thing to find. I lay in a soft bed in a nice hotel near the Basilica. I should have been exhausted, I mean, between sailing to Italy with Armon and the two incredibly weird days that followed, I should have fallen into sleep so deep that I would have to wonder if everything that had happened since the moment Adrienne opened her gift had been one exceptionally long dream. But sleep refused to come and I lay there looking at the darkness outside my window wondering if I was the only person in the world. I thought about the words the king of the river said. What was life without someone to love? It was a string of empty days. It was accomplishments and no one to share them with. It was having everything except someone to enjoy it with. It was silence where there should have been laughter and singing. Especially singing. “I miss you, Papa. I was so lucky to have you for my father. I wish I had been a better son. I wish I had just one more day. I didn’t even get to say goodbye.” I whispered to the emptiness. ~ ~ The world was still dark when I took my things and left the hotel. I had the coin clenched in my fist and a thousand questions trapped in my head as I walked. But I did not know what to wish for. My boot kicked something, and the sound distracted me for a moment. I bent and picked it up. It was a cigarette lighter, probably an expensive one, with an ornate silver casing. There was not a soul in the street. Whoever lost it was long gone. I did not smoke, I was going to leave it behind, but my hand slipped it into my satchel as my conscience whispered ‘take what the world gives you, don’t turn anything away.’ And at last I stood at the fountain. I walked all the way around, admiring it from all sides. I wanted quite badly to stick my hands into the water, just to feel the water. But I stood back, facing east and watching as the first spark of light lit the sky. Without a thought or a word, without even a will of my own, I tossed the coin into the fountain. And when I realized what I’d done, I hung my head. Then I turned away, my chance was gone. “You didn’t make a wish,” said a soft voice behind me. I spun. There upon the ledge of the fountain sat a woman, delicate and beautiful, a Nymph as surely as my eyes saw her. She had long golden hair and wore a sparkling jewel upon her finger. “Have you a voice? I can do many things, but read the minds of men is not one,” she teased. “I don’t know what to wish for. I am seeking the one who saved me, but I don’t know how to find her. I wish I could see her. I wish she would come back to me.” She looked down at the coin in her hand. “I am Kira. I have seen this coin before. I know who gave it to you, Sebastien Parodi,” she said as she slid from the wall and stood before me. She placed her hand on my chest and pressed the coin back into my own hand. “Can you tell me how to find her?” “What gift will you give me?” “Tell me what I can offer that you would accept.” “Would you give me your heart?” she asked with a tilt of her head and a sly smile. “I’m sorry, I don’t have that to offer.” She laughed a sound like falling water. My heart raced. “You carry a jewel like a star from the heavens captured on a chain. Will you offer it to me?” I slipped the coin into my pocket and took the necklace from my neck. She held up her golden hair as I fastened it around her slender neck, then she took the jewel between her long fingers and danced about. “Call her, Sebastien.” “How? I don’t even know her name.” Kira stopped in her tracks. “But she chose you. And the song said... You do know the song, your father sang it every time he set sail.” “I know the song, but I don’t know what it means.” She looked at me for a long moment. “The sons of Mars spoke truth. You must seek Oren Gale. It was his promise that laid this path before you. He will be able to teach you what you must know, what she thought you already knew. But to fulfill the promise, you must light the fire on the Kalends of the New Year, you must open the gate between the worlds on that day in the place where the seas meet.” “But the New Year has already passed. I don’t...” “Has it? Did your guides celebrate with you?” she teased. Okay, so I was obviously ignorant when it came to all elements of my Italian heritage. She was clearly telling me that I needed to look at a different calendar, but another question just snuck out. “She chose me?” “Yes.” “Why?” “I think she would have to tell you that. I must go now, Sebastien, the gate is nearly closed. For my part, I think she chose well.” Before I could say a word, she was gone. UNDICI: I walked. And I walked. Six hours passed me by as I walked along the river, making my way to Ostia, and still it was only half past one in the afternoon. I stopped to eat and firm up my will to continue. The house was not hard to find, but it seemed ridiculous to walk up to this man’s door, tell him I was seeking a nymph and ask if he could he please explain this song he recorded thirty years ago that everyone seemed to expect me to know. It was definitely ridiculous. But I’d come this far and I still didn’t even know her name. ~ ~ I rang the bell and waited nervously. Oren Gale was going to think I was certifiably insane standing at his door with a story about Gods and Nymphs and the strange fate that was calling me to return to the sea. The only things the clues had in common were this singer and a song that I didn’t understand any of the words it was made of, but clearly was supposed to know. And instead of just trying to contact him online like a normal psychopath that he could ignore, I was standing at his front door. I should have turned and run before I had to explain what the hell I was doing there. Only, I needed to find her, the one who saved me, the one with a voice like music and eyes like the sea. The only one my heart loved. And as I stood thinking of her, the door opened and a young woman perhaps Adrienne’s age looked at me in something like awe, with her mouth agape and eyes as wide as she could make them. She was as beautiful as a fairytale princess and just her being there made me feel like I had slipped into a dream. Her first words were in Italian. I thought they were an invocation of some God, but though I was getting better at understanding the spoken words, I still couldn’t speak them myself. I looked at her blankly. “No Italian?” I shook my head. “English?” “Yes, English is fine.” And she started over with the same enthusiasm as when she’d first opened the door. “It’s you! It’s really you! They called, they told me you were coming, but I did not expect it to be so quickly!” “What? Me? You were expecting me? How can that be? Who called? Wait. Is this the home of Mr. Oren Gale? Should I know you? I...” “My father called. Let me look at you,” she said as she moved around me, looking at me from the back and the sides. I felt my cheeks get hot from the attention. But she was quite like Adri, she talked and talked but did not answer my questions. “Look at you! Oh it is no wonder she is always seeking you, Sebastien!” “How do you know my name? I’m sorry, I did not have time to get a haircut. Who is seeking me?” “Haircut! No! No, you should not cut it. It is perfect just as it is. Dia will be so happy that you have come. I can’t wait to tell Papa.” “So, Mr. Gale is not here? I wished to speak with him, but I can come back another...” “No! You can’t go. You must stay. You must!” she pleaded as she took my hand and drew me into the house. “My parents will be back tomorrow, but you must stay and wait for them.” “Whoa, um, can we start over? I think I missed something important and I am already out of sort these days. My name is Sebastien Parodi and I was hoping to speak to Mr. Oren Gale about a song he wrote.” She stood patiently watching me, arms folded across her chest. Then she lifted her hand and tapped her chin with her pointer finger as though she were making decisions about me in her mind. I stood there awkwardly waiting for her to say something. “Oh! Sorry, that was my cue, was it not? I am Calandra Gale, everyone calls me Cala. Oren Gale is my father. Welcome to our home, Sebastien. You have pretty eyes. I can’t believe you are really here, this is so fantastic! My parents are going to be so happy to meet you. So you came to ask him about the song? It’s ironic, isn’t it?” “What’s ironic?” “Well, you’re Italian.” “Yes...” “And he wrote the song in Italian because you were supposed to be Italian, but you don’t speak Italian.” “I’m half French. Perhaps this is all a big mistake...” “No, no, no! This is no mistake! My father doesn’t speak any French, stick with English. He’s American you know. He can speak some German and some Japanese. He stayed in Italy because of my mother. You probably know that.” “Know what?” “Know about my mother.” “Again, this is probably a big mistake. I should just go.” “You don’t know?” she asked cautiously. “Evidently, I don’t know anything,” I sighed. “I bought a strand of beads for my cousin for Christmas. They looked like the sea. I miss the sea. I miss my old life. I miss knowing who I am.” “I know who you are.” “How?” “Look at me, Sebastien. What do you see?” “I see a very beautiful woman. I see someone who has always been loved.” She smiled, but tears ran down her cheeks. “That breaks my heart to hear. You have always been loved too, you just didn’t know where to look. Come sit with me, let me tell you a story because you are talking to someone who should not exist,” she said as she sat on a fine leather sofa and drew me down beside her. “My brother Evan and I, we are impossible people.” “Why? What does that mean?” “My mother is Cybilla, she’s a muse. My father called her to his dreams quite by accident with a beautiful piece of music and that music bound them because music is not confined in time. Music is eternal. But he declared his love and set out to bring her back from the immortal realm, to give her a real life with love and family. He sought out the Nymphs, they sent him to a God. That god sent him to the Oracle. She sent him to the one other man who succeeded in such a task and from there he had to meet the Mother Goddess herself. He had to give up things he treasured and he also made a promise that if he lived, he would sing a song that would find that love for another who helped him three times along his path. That is why we expected you, that is why I am so glad to see you. The song was meant for you.” “But why me?” “Because she loves you.” “She has eyes like the sea. She saved my life but I don’t even know her name.” “You don’t? But she must have told you. And it’s written in the song.” “My memories of the day she saved me are very few. I only saw her for a moment, just her eyes really. She begged me to wake up and to forgive her,” I started. “And you don’t speak Italian, so the song didn’t tell you what you needed to know,” she finished. I nodded. “Are you immortal?” “No!” Cala laughed. “But I am the granddaughter of the God Mercury and his wife, Lady Carmenta, Oracle of The Mother Goddess. Evander, founder of Pallantium before she was Rome is my uncle. I am not a descent of their line, they are my actual grandparents and my mother’s brother. I am also granddaughter to Joseph and Caroline Gale from Palo Alto, California. Do you see how it seems like madness? And yet, here I am. There are things in this world that simply can’t be explained. Don’t try. Enjoy that there is still magic and mystery.” “But there is nothing about my life that is magical. I was orphaned as a teenager and all I knew of life ended.” Cala sat staring at me for a long moment. “Oh,” she sighed. “Oh, that makes sense.” “What does?” “Well, many things, I guess. Why you left the Sea. Why she wanted you to forgive her. Why she thought you were never coming back for her.” “I don’t understand.” “It was a boat accident, was it not? She was obviously only able to save one person. I think she must have thought that you blamed her for what happened.” “But I had never even seen her. I didn’t even know the nymphs really existed. I thought it was just a story, a superstition that my father believed. I was on a beach far from where the boat would have been and I had no memory of how I got there, no memory of being in the water at all. And I thought she was just a dream until twelve days ago when my cousin gave me a gift and told me I needed to remember who I was so I could be happy again.” “Were both of your parents on the boat?” “No, my mother died in a train wreck when I was ten.” “Oh my goodness, Sebastien! I am so sorry.” “How do I find her, Cala?” She looked very sad for a moment. “You should speak to my father.” “There is something you aren’t telling me. Please, please tell me. I already don’t know if I have abandoned my sanity. I sailed to Italy on the same boat your father took from Toulon to Civitavecchia. I walked with the twin sons of Mars. I watched them wrestle with wolves while their mother told me to unlock my heart. This morning I spoke to a Nymph named Kira, who like everyone else knows something I don’t know about this journey of mine and all I want is to look at her again. Kira said I could call out to her, but I don’t even know her name.” “It’s Dia. Her name is Dia.” “And what will happen if I call out to her?” “I don’t know, Sebastien. All I know was that my father could call out to my mother and she would come to him, mainly in his dreams, but once he declared his intention to start his quest, she was lost to him until he completed his task. You have also already set out to find her. You’re already walking on the border between the two worlds. I know this is not the same as my father’s quest, but I don’t know if she can come to you.” “But I can complete the task and call her to this world?” “I wish I could answer that. Come now, don’t be sad. You have come very far in a very short time! You must be hungry and tired. Those things I can fix! And in the morning my father will help you. He will. I promise you.” DODICI: The night was temperate considering the time of year, but I lay in comfortable bed in a well appointed guest room shivering. ‘Oh, Papa, what am I doing?’ I asked the emptiness. ‘Did you ever see her? All those times you sang the song, did you ever see the Nymphs? I feel so lost, so alone. I don’t know if I am chasing a dream or if I am going to wake up still on that beach after the storm. Can you just give me sign? Something? Anything?’ I don’t know what I expected. I don’t know what I would have considered a sign. But I slipped into sleep and found myself in what might have been a memory of that last trip. The wind was blowing, but the afternoon was warm. “Papa, do you think a storm is coming?” “Yes, but the sky is clear to the north, it is a good way behind us. This wind will push us along ahead of the front,” he said as he ruffled my hair, then he leaned over the rail and took up the last mooring line. He was already humming that song as we began to make our way out of the port but as soon as we hit the open water his voice filled the day. Why didn’t I appreciate the sound of it when it was right there with me? I was preoccupied readying the sails. The afternoon sun felt good on my face. I was happy that day. I was truly happy. I remember standing at the rail watching the wind play with the waves and whistling the song my father was singing. My hair was whipping around my face, the sound of the whistling was nearly lost to the song of the wind, but suddenly my father stood beside me. “Look there, Bastien. Look at them dance! And I caught just a glimpse of them, three of them out among the waves... ~ ~ There was a knock upon the door at the exact moment that I would have liked to remain in the dream. “Sebastien? Are you awake? They have just arrived home, I thought you might be eager to speak to them.” I pulled open the door as I buttoned my shirt. “Thank you. I appreciate it.” Cala tilted her head to the side and looked at me the same way she had the day before, tapping her chin with her pointer finger. “What is it?” “You are a handsome one. So, half French you say?” she asked with a grin. I felt my cheeks get hot. “Yes. Half French.” “Perhaps a trip is in my future!” she laughed. “Come down to breakfast, I set a place for you,” she finished as she walked away. She was so much like Adrienne, sweet and demanding at once, and yet they both saw different halves of me. Adri saw me as Italian, Calandra saw me as French. I wondered what Dia saw that morning, so long ago. I walked into their kitchen and they all greeted me like I was part of their family. And what a family it was. Calandra was a beautiful girl of perhaps twenty. Her mother, Cybilla, was equally beautiful and looked perhaps thirty, and in no way old enough to have grown children. And I guessed that ones who came from the immortal realm simply aged differently. But the most shocking was Oren Gale. He had to be in his middle fifties at the very least, he’d recorded the song nearly thirty years ago. And yet he looked no older than his wife. Impossible people. That was what Calandra called them. But they welcomed me with open arms and more warmth than my uncle had ever shown me. We sat around that table and they told me a love story that could never be matched and would likely never be repeated. It was because of that story that they expected me, and I began to understand the significance of some of the objects I carried. Oren Gale had to seek the only other ever to succeed, and that man expected him just as he expected me. And he admitted that he had begun to fear that I would never come. “Daddy, he didn’t even know her name,” Cala said sadly. Oren Gale sighed. “I should have stuck with English. I should have written the song in English.” “No! That would have ruined everything,” I said. They all looked at me. “My father didn’t speak English. He spoke Italian and French. The song would have had no meaning to him. I never would have heard it at all if it had been in English.” Cybilla began to laugh. “Oh, she is a tricky one, isn’t she?” Oren nodded. Cala and I looked from them to each other and back. “The Mother has made the song as much a test as the quest itself. You see, Sebastien, I had know with all my heart what I wanted and I did know. There was nothing I would not give to reach her,” he said slipping his hand over his wife’s hand. And I did it. I found my gate, I called her to me, but that was not the end. The Mother tested Cybilla as well to be sure her commitment to me was as strong as mine to her. The Mother said that if I kept my word to Dia, my song would lead you to her. Dia chose you. But The Mother will not release one of the Eternal Daughters to just any man. Just as I could not simply throw my coin into the fountain and wish for Cybilla, you had to learn why the song was important, even thought it is in a language you don’t speak. You must be fully committed to this and know with all your heart that Dia is the one you love. You must also find the place that Dia can enter the world. It is there that you will have to play the song. You do have the flute, don’t you? She has given you the means to open the gate, hasn’t she?” “The flute was left in a package for me on Armon’s boat. I have it. Lady Rhea Silva asked me to show it to her at Lago di Bracciano. But Kira told me that I will have to light the fires on the Kalends of the New Year in the place where the seas meet.” “Kira told you that much? That plainly?” Cybilla gasped. “Yes.” “What did you have to give her?” Oren asked. “A jewel on a chain. It had been my mother’s.” “Of course, a jewel,” he laughed. TREDICI: ‘At the place where the seas meet.’ That was the part that vexed me. There were many seas, and many places that the seas met. How would know the right place? I could not fail at this. I simply could not. ~ ~ I remained with Oren Gale and his family for a number of days. He told me many things about his quest as he taught me to play the pan flute that was left on Armon’s boat for me. Interestingly, he was nearly the same age when he met Cybilla that I was when Dia saved my life and just a little older than I, when he found her name and began his quest. He, however, was a talented musician. I was the son of a sailor. I had means. I could make a comfortable life, but I was no Oren Gale. And that worried me. But Cala giggled when I confided in her. “You do worry a lot, Bastien!” “I think life has given me cause to worry.” “Fair point. But not here, not about this. I think a muse must love a man of the arts. It is that gift, that passion that calls her. But a Nymph must love a man of the Sea, a man who loves the water as she does.” “Thank you. You have made this so much more real for me, you give me such hope.” “Well, don’t take my words too seriously, she may just love you because you’re handsome and that French accent is a little sexy,” she teased as she ran her fingers up into my hair.” I felt my face redden. “You do know that, right? Women must tell you...” “I have never made time for relationships, Cala. I lost my mother and then my father, I could not manage more heartaches. I shoved even this one miracle from my mind and hid it away with the last of pieces of my old life.” “That makes me so sad. Bastien, when you leave here tomorrow, you won’t lose touch with me, will you? My family can be your family too. We all share so much. I would like to see your wedding and the happiness it brings you.” “I promise you that I will stay in touch. I promise. You are so confident that I’m going to be able to find her and I am so afraid that I will not. I think I understand what I have to do and when, but where is still a mystery.” “Do you want my opinion?” she asked, but quickly backpedaled. “You can say no! It’s your journey, I didn’t mean to butt in, I just...” “Cala,” I interrupted, “I would love to hear your opinion. I really would. The Lady of the Lake at Bracciano told me to take all the world offered, not to turn anything away, so if you are offering me your thoughts, I welcome them.” “Okay. This might be really silly, it’s just an idea that sort of popped into my head when you were telling your story,” she said, blushing a little. “I won’t think it’s silly. Cross my heart.” “You’re French,” she blurted out quickly. “Okay?” Her eyes darted around the room, avoiding mine. “Well, you said you didn’t know who you were, and you were having to find yourself. I sort of had this idea that when you’re on land, you’re French, but when you’re on the sea you’re Italian. I mean, I guess I thought that the bond you had with your father and the sea was what called Dia to you, and that was the reason the song was Italian. So, anyway, I thought the place was, sort of, um, you. Not physically you, but...” I stood gaping at her. I had never thought of myself in that way. “It’s dumb.” “It’s brilliant,” I said, wrapping my arms around her. “Thank you, Cala. I can’t thank you enough.” The next morning I set out again. I still had a number of days to make my way to Marsala and frankly, I needed the solitude to think through all that had happened since I bought that necklace for Adrienne. And yet, in a way, I didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t want to rationalize it away, I wanted to blindly accept that there was still magic and mystery as Cala said. I wanted to believe that fate had my back this time. I walked a long way. I stayed along the coast, just to hear the water. I squeezed that coin in my hand and wished as I whispered her name in my head. But no mermaids swam in the blue sea. No nymphs swam into my dreams. I was just as alone as the past twelve years had made me. QUATTORDICI: I sat at the docks in Marsala for nearly the whole day waiting. I was beginning to fear that Armon met trouble or that the boat was not as sea worthy as he was led to believe and his plans changed. But he left me no messages, so I waited. At last, as the sun began it’s descent over the sea toward the west, a tall boat limped toward the harbor. Oh, she was beautiful from a distance, and yet she seemed to be foundering, almost forced along her path when she should have been flying along the water. I grabbed my things and made my way toward the slip where the boat seemed to be aimed. Armon was barking orders to two young men and they scrambled to get the mooring lines cleated and ready. I leapt to the deck as soon as the boat was near enough and began battening down the sails that had been lowered but not secured. One of the others tossed the bumpers over the side and Armon pulled the wheel hard to land the boat in the slip. He looked utterly worn out. The two young ones were very obviously Greek, brothers, and seemingly twins which sort of freaked me out a little, and yet seemed fitting. But we completed securing the boat and I walked the length and breath of her, admiring and mourning. She was a diamond that had been set in a cheap flimsy setting. The comparison to the boat we set out on was ironic. This journey of mine seemed to be lesson upon lesson, opening my eyes to not only what I was, but what I was meant to be. It was about stripping away that which was not original, not the heart and soul of the boat, of the man, and remaking it, reawakening what was underneath. It was about remembering the past, not hiding it, not covering it up, but glorifying it, giving it new life while restoring the old memories, hopes and dreams. The young ones disappeared into the day as Armon told me about his journey. He spoke in French, which sounded strange after nearly two weeks of Italian and English. “The trip was hard, Sebastien. The boat could barely pull three knots. The boys are grandsons of the owner. Nice kids, but they have no knowledge of sailing, only of speed boats. I am wiped out. I would spend an extra day relaxing here, but I think it is still going to be six days to get her to Toulon. I had hoped to stay east, bring her up the coast of Italy. There are more ports if we have troubles. I thought we might stop in Bastia and rest and then start west across the Ligurian, but the way she is now, I don’t think she is nimble enough for that route.” Bastia. My mind stalled. “So what are you thinking now?” I asked after a long moment. “West out of Marsala. Keep the coast of Sardinia in our sights. Then we bring her north into Toulon. This is a big job, Sebastien, are you ready?” “I am ready. I will do anything you will teach, Armon.” “Eh, I know you will, my boy. Did you find answers on your trip?” I laughed. “Some answers, but many more questions.” “It is the way of life. Always more questions than answers!” he laughed. “Come, tonight we will drink good wine and get good rest.” ~ ~ The day seemed so much more natural out upon the sea. The boat was surely crippled with the burdens of what some considered advancements and the going was definitely slow. I was at ease. Happiness was here upon the water and I began to whistle. And when I realized the song was coming from my lips, I clutched the coin in my pocket and called her name in my head. At last we dropped anchor and set about the business of resting. I lay upon the deck gazing into the night sky. The gentle waves rocked me to sleep. It seemed to be only a moment later that my mind registered the feeling of fingers stroking my hair. The desire to open my eyes battled with the desire to remain still and let that feeling continue. I flexed my right hand but I did not feel the smooth planks, no, I felt sand. I startled. “No! No! Not again!” I cried out. “Shh, you are only dreaming, Sebastien. It is just a dream, my love,” she said softly as she stroked my cheek and pressed her hand to my chest. “You’re fast asleep upon the boat. You are safe, I promise you.” And I opened my eyes and looked at her. “Dia,” I breathed. “It’s you. You’re here with me.” Never in my life had I seen a woman who stirred my heart as this stranger who sat beside me and called me ‘my love’. Her hair was long and colored like the setting sun. Her eyes were both blue and green at once, like jewels. She was long limbed, but delicate and though I did not know her, I knew her. “You said I was dreaming. Are you just a dream?” I asked. “No, Sebastien, you know in your heart that I am real.” “How do I find you? Can you just tell me plainly? What do...” But she began to cry and I did not know what I said that hurt her. “You don’t want me to find you,” I said as my heart cracked in my chest. “It is not that at all! I want you to come for me. That is my greatest wish.” “Then why do you cry?” She dropped her eyes from mine. “I must tell you something and I fear that you will not want to continue this quest when you know that what happened the night your father died was my fault.” I could not accept that. “I was supposed to be guarding the boat, Sebastien. Gian Parodi was a good man, a man who still believed in the old ways. There was such great love in his heart, and that was why he sang to the sea. My sisters and I loved to hear him. But my heart loved something else. I loved the one who sailed with him. I was not watching the sky or the water. If I had been, I might have been able to...” I shook my head. “You couldn’t have known the lightening was about to strike, no one could know that! My father sailed his whole life and he was sure we were ahead of the storm.” “But I...” “Please don’t. It was an accident, a fluke. It was just one of those things that happen, and I need to believe that because I have no memories of that night after the mast fell and if what happened could have been different, then I have to wonder if I could have saved him.” She began to cry harder. “Don’t cry, Dia, please! This is the only chance I have had to look at you, to see you, to touch you, and you’re crying. It’s breaking my heart that you don’t feel happiness in this meeting. You took me to the shore, didn’t you?” She nodded but she would not meet my eye. I sat up and wrapped my arms around her, and my heart said she was meant to be there, to be in the circle of my arms, pressed against me. She whispered, “you were thrown into the water. You were not moving. I got you safely onto a plank. He was calling for you, over and over, and I went to him, Sebastien, I would have taken you both but he was so badly injured. He begged me to save you and I promised him I would, but you were unconscious. I did all I could do. I’m so sorry. So sorry.” “Did he drown?” She shook her head. “He had the protection of the water. My sisters took him beyond this realm.” “You asked me to forgive you that morning, on the beach. I didn’t understand. I had no memory and I thought those beautiful eyes and that voice that was whispering my name were just a dream. But I won’t forgive you for that day. If I offer you forgiveness then that implies that you did something wrong, that I blame you. And none of what happened was your fault. We took the risk of setting out with the storm coming behind us. You granted his last wish and took me to safety. You saved my life and I will never be able to repay that. I just need to know one thing.” “What is it?” “Why me, Dia? Please tell me. So many riddles still stand between me and the answer to finding you, I just want to hear this one thing in simple words.” “I don’t know if words are ever simple, but I will tell you my tale. When Oren set out on his quest, he came to the fountain at Trastevere and he tossed that coin that rests in your pocket into the fountain. I grabbed it before it hit the water. I was bold then. I leapt from the water and stood before him. The gate he needed to find was his heart, and the moment I laid my hand upon his heart, I knew he had it within himself to succeed because his heart was filled with love for Cybilla alone. I had never felt such a thing before and I wished that there was a man who would feel such love for me. I still had his coin tight in my hand when my heart made that wish. When I went back to the water, my wish attached itself to the coin. Oren was a very fine man and I chose to help him succeed. The second time I went to him, I think he knew what was in my heart. He made me a promise that should he succeed he would sing a song to let the man who was in my heart find his way to me. For a time, I thought it was your father. He sang the song, my song. He believed. But I did not feel in my own heart what I felt in Oren’s heart. And Gian loved another. I lost faith in that feeling and I left the sea. I stayed in Lago d’Averno for a long time. Until one day I felt something in the water, something my heart said I must find and the water brought me to you. You were standing in the shallows, working the nets. Your father was on the boat preparing to sail. He was telling you something that I could not hear. You began to laugh and I fell in love, so deeply in love. I watched you many times but I didn’t know how to meet you. On that last trip you stood at the rail whistling our song to the wind. I was going to try to come to your dream. I wished to be as Cybilla was to Oren but it all went wrong so quickly,” she said softly as her tears began to fall again. “I left you the coin because my wish was bound to that coin and you were the one I wished for. But many years passed and your hand never touched it. I thought it was because you could not forgive me.” “No! No! Don’t think those words anymore, Dia, they have no truth. I had no memory. If I had known, nothing could have kept me from seeking you. Nothing.” “I felt it when you held the coin, Sebastien. I can hear what you whisper in the night when it is touching you. I knew you were coming back to the sea. I left the package on Armon’s boat and he took you in, as I knew he would because he believes in magic and fate.” “Did you send the twins to guide me?” “No. I did nothing after I left the flute. As I said, I did not think you would want to be with me. But The Great Mother made a promise to Oren and I think the moment the flute was in your hand she took over. I should not be here. Once a man has begun the quest...” “Calandra said as much. But maybe this is not so much a quest as the fulfillment of the promise.” “I needed to tell you about that night before you lit the fires, Sebastien. If you lit them and called me to you without knowing, my heart would be so heavy with guilt that I don’t know if I could have come forth from the water.” “There is no guilt, Dia. Tell me you will come. Tell me that you still wish I would continue.” She took the coin from my hand and she kissed it and laid it upon my heart. “I still wish for you, Sebastien. You are all I wish for.” “You would give up immortal life for me?” “Without a moment of hesitation,” she whispered. She kissed me, deeply, passionately, a connection so deep our hearts were bound through all of time and I began to sing the song just as my father sang it. But I woke up alone on the deck of a Greek boat that Armon and I were going to remake into a fairytale and I still didn’t really know how to find my princess. QUINZE: And then I was suddenly back in France. But who was I? I wasn’t sure anymore, but I knew who I wanted to be. So I quit my bank job at last and moved my sparse possessions to a small apartment in Toulon, near the market, not far from the house I lived in as a child. And I went and stood outside that house. A family lived there. They appeared to have small children from the items collected near the front door. I remembered what it was like when my Mama would comb my hair and tickle me when she tucked me in to bed at night. I remembered my father coming home with great stories about his travels. I remembered when I had a family. I wanted that life again, I wanted the love and the laughter. But no, I didn’t want that life, I wanted what Oren Gale had. I wanted love that broke the boundaries between the worlds. I wanted impossible children. I wanted something that would last forever. I wanted Dia. ~ ~ The boat was already in the dry dock when I returned. She looked absolutely enormous out of the water. I marveled. Armon was nowhere to be found, but he had fantastic drawings of the restoration and some photos with details of what the woodworking would look like. Every image made me more and more eager to put my hands to work. Suddenly there was a bang and clattering up near the entry. Armon was standing at the stern launching trash toward a dumpster. He laughed as some of the pieces found their mark and I chided him about the ones that missed. “You are back sooner than I expected,” he grinned. “Eager to get your hands on her, eh?” “Yes, I am. I feel like I am reborn. I am so grateful for this opportunity.” “You’re a fine seaman, Sebastien. Getting her back here with you at the sails was so much easier than getting her to Marsala. Get up here, now. We have much to strip away before we can begin to remake her.” “Aye Captain!” I teased. And we worked our hands raw for weeks, stripping away the facade to get to the heart of the project. I told Armon about my trip, even though I expected him to think I’d lost my mind. But he listened with rapt attention, eagerly eating up the details of walking with the twin founders of Rome, and setting off down the Tiber with King Tiberinus. And I described every detail of his boat from the carving to the oars. I told him about the fountain and the days I spent with Oren Gale and his impossible family. Armon told me I was blessed to have the immortals guiding me. He said he felt blessed that they chose him to take the journey with me. His words encouraged me so I told him about Dia with her hair like the setting sun. I told him what Kira told me at the fountain and how she chided me for not knowing my history. And I confided to him that even though I knew the date and what I needed to do to open the gate, I still didn’t really know where I was supposed to be to make it all happen. “All the seas meet at Corsica,” Armon said matter-of-factly. “Tyrrhenian and Ligurian on the west, Balearic and Mediterranean on the east. “Corsica,” I echoed. Of course Corsica was the answer. How could it not be the answer? French land that meets Italian water. And even more than that, Bastia was the dividing line. The place my old life ended and this fantasy began was the place I had to return to if I wanted this love to be real. And I wanted it to be real. I needed it to be real because I couldn’t stop dreaming about the way it felt when she touched me and how my soul began to sing when she kissed me. SEDICI: I practiced playing the song on the pan flute every spare moment. I’m certain my neighbors were beginning to despise me, but the days were passing me by quickly and that was both a blessing and a great cause for crippling fear and insomnia. I kept telling myself that I had it right. Bastia. March first, the night the new moon would have started the New Year according to the twin founders of Roma. I had the water from Bracciano to offer when I lit the fire on Matronalia and asked The Goddess Vesta for the hand of one of her eternal daughters. I had the coin that held Dia’s wish and the Lotus leaf, though I did not know what purpose it served except as a symbol of resilience. Cala called me quite often. I’m fairly certain she was just trying to keep me on track, but she was so much like Adrienne that I hardly got a word in when we spoke. Still I assured her that I would be in Bastia on the Kalends, and she was happy. Oddly, Adrienne did not call me. Not once since the holidays. Perhaps her father had finally had it with me after I quit my job, but if that was the case, it was okay. These people who took me in and encouraged me to find myself and my fate, they were my new family. And I was happy. ~ ~ “Bastien,” Armon started as we worked side by side, sanding away aged paint from the hull. “I was wondering if you wanted me to accompany you on your trip. I though maybe you could use a ‘best man’ so to speak, to stand up for you. If you feel you must do this alone, I understand. You can take my boat to Bastia...” I looked at him for a long moment, and I began to smile. He’d been treating me like a son since the moment I met him on the dock the day after Christmas. He was teaching me a skill that I was more than thrilled to learn and I could not even put into words the change he’d made in my life. “I would be so honored to have you stand beside me, Armon. I really would. I’ve been so afraid to hope for this. It seems insane and yet, I’m not the first to walk between the worlds. I lost my family and I lost myself for a long time, but I feel so lucky to be where I am. It seems fitting that you would be there with me, you’ve been the boatman twice. You got Oren Gale to his fate and it would be an honor to have you there as I attempt to meet mine.” “Not attempt, Bastien, you will succeed.” “I will. I will.” I replied, and my heart believed the words. ~ ~ The weather was perfect on the morning Armon and I set out. The sky was clear, the sun was shining and a light wind filled our sails as the boat flew across the waters. Hope filled me. And just that quickly, the time had come. Armon and I walked along the beach. We were both simply dressed to uphold the custom of Martonalia and we made our way to the nearest point to where the land met the dividing line of the seas. The sky was darkening around us as we set the ring of stones and stacked the timber high enough for a fire that we thought would burn through the night. I dug through my satchel for the matches I packed, but my hand found the silver lighter the world had given me in Trastavere. I looked at it carefully in the waning light, it was engraved with lotus flowers and I knew it found it’s way to my hand for this moment. I flipped the lid and the blue flame rose strong and high. I said a silent thank you to the world for the help. I took the lighter to the ringed timbers, knelt and set the flame to the wood. The wood crackled and the fire came to life unnaturally quickly. I stepped away, back to my satchel to get the lotus leaf and the water from Bracciano, but as I stood to walk back to the fire, a young woman blocked my path. “Welcome Pontifex,” she started. “You must pay the tithe and then place your offering before the fire.” She was dressed all in white with long hair that hung free on this night. She carried a small urn. And though I didn’t know the title she addressed me by, I knew that what I needed to give her to pay the way was the coin that held the wish that this day would come. I took it from my pocked and held it out between us. “This?” I asked. “Yes, Gatekeeper.” I kissed the coin and clenched it tight in my fist for a moment as I whispered to Dia to please come to me. Then I let the coin fall into the urn. “You and the boatman may enter. Make your offering as soon as the sky is dark and the first star lights the night.” “Thank you,” I answered with a bow. “Did you see that, Bastien? She she just walked right out of the blue!” Armon gasped. “We’re in Bastia, my friend, but I think we just crossed into a different world.” The sky seemed to be darkening very quickly. I took the lotus leaf and my thermos to the ring of stones and I set them before the fire. The first stars gleamed above me and I prayed to the fire to grant me success. In that instant, the fire began to grow. It was lit from within with colors unnatural to fire and for a moment it seemed that what blazed there was actually a gate. My heart was pounding in my chest. I thought the Goddess herself was coming for me, but a man stepped from the flame, a man I did not know. He inclined his head to me. “Sebastien Parodi, you have opened the gate. I am Folquet. I was the first. We have much in common, you and I. You see, I am a man of Marseille who is also son of a Genoese merchant. I have come to lend my voice to your song.” And just as I was about to thank him, he continued. “I brought another with me.” Out of the flame stepped my father. Tears flooded my eyes. I threw my arms around him and he laughed as he returned my embrace. “She kept her promise to me, Bastien. Now I will sing one more time so the promise made to her will be fulfilled.” “I will sing as well,” said another voice behind me. Folquet began to laugh. “Of course you will!” There behind me stood Oren Gale with his wife and his children. “It is time, Sebastien,” Folquet said softly. I held the flute that had come through the hands of countless men looking for this door way to the immortal realm. I held the magical instrument in my mortal hands, hands that shook just a little. I called out her name to the water. Armon and my father stood at my shoulders as I began to play the notes and three voices lifted in song to accompany me. The water began to froth out on the still sea. The Daughters of the Eternal Water rose to the surface, joyfully splashing the water into the air as they danced. And the one I wished for rose among them and she walked toward the shore. The water fell away from her as her sunset colored hair blew in the gentle breeze. Tears fell from my eyes as I played the song all the way to its climax. Dia stood smiling. She pressed her hand to my heart. “I feel it, Sebastien, the same love I feel in my own heart.” “You are all my heart has ever loved, Dia.” I told her. But as I reached out for her hand, here eyes grew wide. I turned. The fire grew strong leaping high into the clear night sky. The flames licked out at me, though the fire did not spread and none of the others moved from their places. Still, I shielded Dia from the fury of it with my body. “She is come, Sebastien. It is the Great Mother, ruler of all that is eternal.” Dia whispered as she held my arm. I dropped to my knees as she took form in the flame and stepped from the unnatural light. “For one who has felt unloved, many have come to uphold you,” The Goddess started. “Rise, Sebastien Parodi, let me look upon you.” “Great Mother, grant me this gift. I beg you find me worthy of this daughter who has been locked in my heart, though I denied the water and I denied my life. I repent. I believe in fate and in love. I give myself completely.” She reached out and touched my heart. That touch burned. She drew her hand back just a few inches and pure white light was drawn from me, making a bridge of sorts between her hand and my heart. I looked from that light to the woman holding my essence in her palm and I knew she was judging all I was. “Dia,” she called at last. “His gate is open. If you accept him place your hand here and you will be the key to his heart.” “I accept him, Great Mother. He is all that was promised and so much more,” she answered as she looked up at me with eyes that were blue and green at once, eyes like the sea. Then she took her hand, took the light from The Mother and became part of my soul. “The promise is fulfilled, you are bound in love and in life. You are one.” “I think that means you may kiss the bride, Sebastien!” my father said in his joyful voice. And I did kiss her, my dream, my love, my mermaid who gave my life a purpose. The whole company cheered. I knelt again and kissed the hand of The Mother on the night of Matronalia. “Thank you for this gift. I will cherish her, I swear it.” “Don’t thank me, Sebastien, thank all these people who have made this journey because they love you,” she smiled. “I think your father would like a few words before the gate closes.” And I turned away as she called Armon to her. I wanted to listen, but I didn’t want to intrude. I took Dia’s hand and we walked over to my father. “Papa, I’m sorry...” “Bastien, I am so proud of you. I was always so proud to be your father.” “I was so stubborn. I missed so many opportunities to learn from you. I missed you so much.” “You weren’t so stubborn, you were a child, remember that when you have children of your own. You have life, a good life ahead of you. The Parodi line will continue, and I have gotten to see magic happen for you.” He reached out and stroked Dia’ cheek. “Love her with every ounce of yourself, Son. Never forget how much love made this possible.” “I won’t forget, Papa. I won’t forget this time.” But just then Floquet laid his hand on my father’s shoulder. “It is time, Gian.” My father put this arms around both Dia and I for a moment, then he turned and walked back through the gate of fire with Folquet. Dia held me tight as I watched him leave, but I was not sad. My father was happy. Like the music, he became eternal. He gave the nymphs such joy in life that they took him beyond this world. The fire flared up into the sky one last time and then extinguished without any assistance and all that remained was the ring of stones. “What did she say to you?” I asked Armon. He looked at me with eyes filled with wonder. “She said when my time was come, there was a place for the boatman and the Nymphs would guide me home. Can you believe that? She would take me to the eternal realm.” “Yes, I can believe it, my friend. I can absolutely believe it.” And there we all stood, seven people who were tied together as a family because The Mother made it so. Oren Gale brought champagne with him to celebrate this wedding and we laughed and danced and sang under the moonless sky. Cala was just as lovely and as talkative as she always was, and I could see Dia’s joy as she spoke with her. I had not met Evan in Ostia, but as much as Cala might have been a muse like her mother, Evan might have been a God. He resembled his parents, but only mildly. He looked like every statue of Mercury come to life. Impossible children. And a life filled with love. This was my fate and when the morning sun sent it’s first ray over the horizon we all praised it and then we said goodbye. But not really goodbye because we were a family. IN SEGUITO: Years passed though time didn’t seem to match the numbers. Armon and I finished the Greek boat. Being the first that I had a hand in restoring, she was hard to let go, but we took on another and others after that. I woke each morning with this woman, who was more beautiful every day, pressed into my side. I was blessed. We had children, twin sons we named Gian and Zale. When I held them at their birth, I wondered if they would bicker like the sons of Mars, I wondered what fate they would find in the world. And I marveled that Dia would give me such a gift. A few years later we were blessed with a daughter, Merielle. Unlike her brothers, she had Dia’s sunset colored hair, and she was otherworldly like her mother. Dia and I sat on the beach at San Tropez, watching the children splash in the water. The boys held their sister’s hands as the waves came and they jumped and laughed. I wrapped my arm around my wife as we watched. “Dia,” I asked softly, “do you miss it? Do you miss the sea and your sisters?” She looked up at me, then she pushed me down on the blanket where we sat and leaned with her elbow upon my chest. “Never. Not even for a moment, my love.” “Never?” “I have love. I have a beautiful husband and children. Look at them, Bastien. Look what we have made! Would you change anything about this life?” “Not a thing, my angel. Not a single thing.” * * * “That was sweet. I liked the brothers, even through all the bickering there was still love.” “I liked them too, what is life without a little humor, right?” “Right! Tell me another. Tell me the most perfect story of the most perfect love.” “I don’t know if I know that story. I think you should tell me the perfect story. I have told a number of them, but I’m still not sure if I’ve made my way into your heart. Tell me what love is for you, so I’ll know what I need to do to make you happy.” “You don’t need to do anything. You already live in my heart. You are perfect to me. I don’t need a story to define what is right here in my arms. I just love that you tell them. It’s sweet, and it gives me so much hope to know what’s inside your heart. But I will tell the next story so you will know how I feel when I listen to yours.” * * * Beloved Disciple Ahat: ‘A woman’s heart is different from a man’s, I think. Even when she suffers, a woman’s eyes can still show the love inside her.’ Those were the first words Yeshua spoke to me. Those were the words that bound me to him for all time. He was a man set upon a task that would change the hearts and lives of men for generations to come, but ours was a story of love that would last for eternity. ~ ~ I sat alone at the side of the road. I was dirty in more ways than just the visible smudges and the filth beneath my fingernails. The pain and noise inside me were tearing me apart more than the abuse or my disgrace. The people making their way into the market looked away, avoiding my eyes, pretending I was not there, or whispering to their children to give a wide berth and beware the demons that hovered in and out of me. There were no tears left inside me to cry, I was too far depleted. Though I carried ample coins, I made no effort to replenish myself. I just sat, staring at nothing because there was nothing else for me to do. I saw his company from the corner of my eye as they approached the crossroad. I kept my head low and wished to remain unseen, though I watched them warily, discreetly. Men had caused me enough difficulties; I did not need any more trouble. But I could feel him like the sun shining upon my shoulders, and that feeling stirred something within. He stopped when he noticed me sitting there. He was not standing near me, he was still a good ways down the road, far enough that I could have left that spot before he reached me, but I didn’t. While I cowered from the masses, I lifted my head and met his eye boldly. I still cannot say why, his presence just seemed to call my soul and my eyes followed. There he stood, motionless for a moment, his head tilted just a bit as he watched me. I shrank back into myself, but I could not look away. He was average height. He stood amid his company; he should have just been one of the crowd, but he wasn’t. He stood somehow above them, as though he walked upon a cloud. The bright rays of Heaven shown upon him alone. He radiated otherworldly glory. His hair was dark, his clothes were simple, and his beard was neatly trimmed. He was beautiful in his ordinariness in a way that set him apart from all men in all of time. The others urged him back toward the road as he left the group and made his way toward me. “We don’t have time...,” the one at his side started, but he turned sharply and held up his finger in warning. “We always have time to heal a person in need. Always. That is our mission, that is the reason we walk this path.” The others whispered amongst themselves, but he let their words pass him by as he came and stood before me. It was then that he spoke those first words and my heart was changed forever. He reached out his hand to me but I felt ashamed to touch him. He was the Son of the Almighty Father and I was a sinner. I had never been whole. My father’s wealth and the traces of beauty I was born with hid the evils that plagued me. No amount of money could cure me and my appearance made me prey to men who would take advantage of my wish to be healed. So shame kept me from taking his offered hand even though my heart was already singing out his name. He seemed to know every thought in my mind. Soft words, meant for my ears only, came from his mouth as he crouched before this wretched mess of a woman. His voice was the music to which the angels sang, and my heart felt joy even as my eyes showed their pain. “I can help you if you will let me. If you could place your faith in a man just one more time, by the grace of my father, I would heal you,” he told me. “I will not let another hurt you and I will not mislead you with lies. My name is...” “I know your name, My Lord. I am not worthy of your help.” “There is no soul that is not worthy of redemption. I can see your heart. I can see that you have trusted others and that you’ve been betrayed by your desire to be made whole and hearty. I tell you that is no sin of yours, but a black scar upon the eternal life of those whose cruelty has led you here. Take my hand, Meiri, and together we will leave this place of sadness.” “You mistake me,” I whispered. “My name is...” “No, it is no mistake. The name means giver of light, and I give this name to you,” he smiled. “I see the light in you. I see the golden glow of Heaven that illuminates the soul within you. I think you wish to leave this person you are at this moment behind. So I will call you Meiri and you will be what guides me through the darkest hours.” “I will cause you trouble. I cannot contain that which possesses me,” I told him quietly as I slipped my fingers into his hand. “I have no fear. Walk beside me and I will bear your burden with you until I can free you from it.” The moment he clasped my hand in his own, I knew peace. More than that, though, I knew love. Boundless love. Love that was eternal, that was stronger than pride or self. Love that could overcome demons and death. That is what he was; the embodiment of love. That is what our story was all about. I stood just gazing into eyes that appeared to be so regular, so ordinary in shape, in size, and in color, but just beyond the color was paradise. I don’t know how others could stand so close to him and not realize that he was the gate to the almighty. But I knew from a single touch of his hand that my life belonged to Yeshua. Shtayim: Together we walked along, surrounded by his men, but at the same time alone in the world. Just the two of us. I did not know if he felt what I felt, I could not ask him. Falling in love was a woman’s weakness; surely he did not have such frivolous thoughts. But each time his eyes met mine, my strength grew, my mind cleared, and the world seemed to change, to open, before me. The others whispered and passed their judgments upon me. My dirty clothing was finely made, and they wondered whether I’d come from riches or stolen them from the home of a master. My long hair hung loose, and again they debated whether it was my social status or simple misfortune, though the tone of the conversation made it clear they assumed that I was no more than a prostitute or a concubine driven out of my home by madness or treachery. Yeshua shook his head just a fraction and sighed, but said nothing as we continued on the road. He lifted his eyes to the sky in silent prayer, and then he smiled at me. He walked with his hand in enclosing mine and peace written on his face, so while their words were an assault, I let them float away into the place where words can no longer hurt and not rile the vicious tormentors in my blood or the sharp words that sat upon my own tongue. Instead I soaked in the tranquility that he projected and bore silence and contentment like a sword and shield. ~ ~ The day waned as we traveled. The company did not stop for food or drink along the route. They simply walked. Yeshua stopped for a moment as the sun sank toward the horizon, gently pulling me away from the others and closer to his person. “If you listen closely, Meiri, when the sun meets the land you can hear all the Angels sing praise to The Father for his gift of this day.” “Is that true? Can you truly hear that?” “Yes, I can.” “I have never heard such a song. Perhaps I am not worthy to hear.” “Of course you are worthy, but you have to believe with all your heart that they are singing to you.” He slid his arm around my shoulder and he closed his eyes. I cannot describe in words the way he looked when the sun touched the land. Clearly he heard the angels. I wished with all my heart that I might hear them, but there was no sound beyond his breath and my heart. “You will hear them, I promise you.” “I believe you,” I whispered, though just hours earlier I would not have believed in angels at all. ~ ~ We took our rest in the home of strangers that night. They were acquaintances of acquaintances of the family of one of the twelve men called Disciples, who traveled at his side. Our hosts greeted us warmly and yet warily but Yeshua had a tongue of silver, and his words wove a spell of peace and hope among them. I stood away from him as he made the greetings. I did not want to sully his image with my filthy presence. I knew from my father’s house how important a man’s first impression was to the success of his endeavor. But he was grace and charm and his message was well received. Even my heart was moved. Our hosts offered a meal. The men said nothing, not even the one whose family had arranged this respite. They stood humbly awaiting Yeshua’s decision to accept or decline. I could feel the hunger and the need of each of them and it was at that moment that it truly occurred to me that this mission of theirs was one that had to be held close to the heart and firmly believed because there was no luxury. There was not even the promise of basic hospitality. There was only faith in The Father and in Yeshua’s ability to speak his message to the masses. Yeshua thanked our hosts kindly, but begged a favor for me before anyone would be fed. He asked the ladies of the house to bathe me, and to clothe me. They graciously agreed, calling it a simple task, but to me it meant the world. They could not understand what it would mean to me for Yeshua to see me clean. He was kind to the most unfortunate of women, but I needed very badly not to look disgraced. Perhaps that was just vanity. He said he could see the light inside me, but I needed desperately to radiate that light. And the first step was washing away the filth of the life he took me from. The ladies did not question my place among the company. They merely focused on the task at hand. My body was bathed in rose scented water, it was most likely a treasure that was being saved for a special occasion, but used upon a stranger. They fussed over my long hair, painstakingly washing the golden mane and brushing it until it shone in the lamplight. They dressed me in simple garments that were soft and finely made. They were modest. I felt more beautiful than I’d ever felt in my life. I offered them money for all they’d done, but they refused. They kissed my cheeks and brought me back to where the others awaited and the meal was served. Yeshua’s eyes met mine the moment I entered the room. Those two beautiful windows into all the mysteries of the world opened to me for just the smallest fraction of time as a hint of a smile turned his lips. And just that quickly it was gone. He returned to the conversation already in progress as we were shown to the table and I was seated with the women. I did not get another moment of his time. ~ ~ Later that night, I was given a place to rest, alone, away from the men. The room was finely appointed considering the modesty of the other parts of the home. It could have easily been the room I had grown up in at my father’s home with the soft bed and the fine furniture. But this room most likely belonged to an elder. From the mementos I could see, I assumed it was the mother of the man of the house. I was so tired. I could not recall the last time I rested my head upon a soft pillow. My previous days and nights were nothing but an incomprehensible tangle in my thoughts. The time and memory were distorted, warped with the anger and that madness which lived within me. Weariness was my only certainty. The long hours upon the roads we traveled passed so quickly, so innocently, as I walked beside Yeshua, that I did not notice the evils that possessed me until they returned to collect their payment as I lay in solitude. And even as exhaustion ravaged me, in this room of splendid comforts, I could not rest. My head ached. My hands began to shake. The urge to run was strong because I could feel those things that I wished to be quit of, awakening and I feared the shame of causing grief to Yeshua. I walked quietly down the hall searching for him. I needed to look upon him. I needed the peace of his presence. Some of the men slept in the main room, while others were in a room near the back of the home. Yeshua lay upon a pallet inside and I sat down on the floor outside the entry to the room, just looking at him for a long time. Seeing him calmed me, strengthened me. A great peace settled in my heart, and I finally surrendered to its promised relief as my eyes drifted closed. I felt myself begin to slide sideways toward the floor. Gentle hands caught my head, swept my hair away and laid me down. He was still asleep beside me when I awoke. Shalosh: Nearly a full day passed before we shared more than brief passing words. So many men came to speak with him. Some were greatly touched by his message while others disputed him vehemently. I did all I could to remain occupied, to keep myself from dwelling on the pain in my head and the voices inside that mocked me. I tried to wear a smile, but I knew it did not show in my eyes. And each time he glanced at me, he looked as pained as I felt. ~ ~ We found a private moment just before the midday meal was served. “Meiri, forgive me. I gave you my word and our day here has been more complicated than I thought it would be. I have not had a moment to attend you.” “Your work must come first.” “No. My word must come first. If the ones I love can’t believe in my word then I have already failed at this task.” “I believe in your words. I don’t want you to be a failure. I don’t want to cause you to be a failure.” “You are in pain. I asked for your faith and made you a promise to relieve that pain.” “You did make such a promise, but you did not set a time. You said you would help carry my burden until you could free me of it. I think you have kept your word, because I feel peace in your presence.” His mouth dropped open in surprise as a reply failed to find it’s way to his lips. But a moment later a smile curved those lips. He tilted his head and leaned close to me. “Tonight, Meiri, when the others have set to rest we will sit beneath the moon and speak private words,” he whispered as he kissed me softly upon the cheek. My hand immediately went to the spot, covering it, wishing to hold his kiss there forever. And I was perplexed. I did not understand how my defective heart could be bursting with love for this man whom I had only known for one day. I had been betrothed to a man once and did not feel anything for him. I had put my faith in men who claimed they could help me and though I occasionally felt glimmers of hope and small fragments of happiness, never had my cold, uncaring heart known any of the feelings I felt for Yeshua. I could not wait for the night. I could not wait to see the moon rise into the heavens so that I might sit in his presence and feel whole. But the day dragged on endlessly. I set about helping the ladies of the house bake the bread and cook a meal that would feed so many for so much longer than they might imagine. At last the sun dropped low enough into the sky that it shown through the narrow windows. I watched its descent until it approached the horizon. I excused myself and walked out into the garden. I stood alone, with my eyes closed, and prayed to The Father to find me worthy of hearing the song of the angels. At last that moment came. I turned my face to the sky. I stopped breathing so there would be not a single noise to prevent my hearing. But the angels did not sing to me. I was not worthy of their song. My shoulders slumped as I dropped my chin. He put his hand upon my golden hair and sang words in a language that was unknown to my ear yet resonated inside me. His voice was as clear and fresh as water from a spring. And though his song was brief, the moment lasted forever. Captured and saved inside me to be returned to in times of need. “You will hear them, Meiri, I swear it. One day they will sing your name.” Then he turned and walked back into the house. ~ ~ It was late when the men finally settled in for the night. The moon was already past its apex and was slowly moving toward the place where it would lie down and rest through another day. I sat alone in the back garden looking out over the fields and into the heavens beyond, pondering my purpose with this group and trying not to be disappointed that Yeshua had not come to join me. The weather was mild but I still felt chilled. I wondered what would become of me when we left this home. I wondered if he kept his word and healed me, if he would then leave me behind. I knew in my heart that I didn’t want to be healed if that meant being parted from him. But what use could I be upon his mission? Just as my thoughts grew too heavy to continue thinking, he sat beside me. “I have no intention of leaving you behind, Meiri.” “Do you know my every thought, Yeshua?” “No. But I can feel that which worries you.” “Why did you stop for me?” I asked. He turned his face to mine and looked at me with that tilt of his head that would be the look that would always make my heart pound in my breast. “You were promised to me,” he answered quietly. “What do you mean?” “The men that walk with my purpose at heart were all chosen by The Father. He set me upon the path to finding them all, except my cousin Yochanan who has been with me all of my days. Each time, he sent me a dream, a prophesy with some small detail of what I was looking for. I set upon my path gathering the flock he raised to do his will. I love them all, Meiri, but not equally. They all have greatness within them of some sort, be it courage or passion, but they all have flaws as well. There are times I do not like the words they speak and there are words inside me that I cannot speak to them because I must always be calm, focused on what I must do. I cannot let them know that sometimes I am only a man with the same weaknesses all men possess,” he sighed. “You are so much more than a man, Yeshua. You are a gift, a promise.” “No, Meiri, I am a vessel. The Father fills me with those things he wants me to share. He fills me with the things I need to spread his word and his love, but there are times when my vessel is empty and I have feelings I cannot share with the others. I prayed to him. I asked for help because I needed something that I could not find.” “What did you need?” “I needed someone to love me,” he continued quietly. “There is my mother, whose love has always been true. But even she cannot be my confidant because the love between mother and child is not the same love as that between soul mates. Yesterday my prayer was answered. The father sent me a dream weeks ago. He said I would find Nechama Li, my comfort, in a ray of golden sunshine that others would ignore. He said I would feel you. And I did. I watched the people shun you. I watched them pretend you did not sit in agony. My heart wept. The light of Heaven sat right there among them and they refused to see. Even those hand chosen by The Father refused to see and I am gravely sorry for the words they spoke as we walked. But I think on all that has happened at this very moment, Meiri and perhaps only I am meant to see what is really here because he made you for me. And that thought brings me great joy and overwhelming grief.” “Why does it bring you grief?” “Because, My Light, your path to me was so difficult. You carried burdens I would not wish on even the most vile man. He led you through the lowest form of existence to bring you to me and I am regretful that you had to suffer to be the thing I needed to continue.” I began to cry. He tried to apologize to me, but my tears turned to laughter. I threw my arms around him and held him tight to me. “Why do you laugh?” he asked solemnly. “Don’t you see, Dodi, you have just given meaning to all of my life! I would bear my torment again and again if that is what it takes to reach this moment.” “You call me beloved, but I still have not kept my word. I will heal you. I will give you the parts of me that no other will ever know. I will cause you sorrow, because what I am called to do can end only one way. Knowing this, can you always think of me as that which is beloved to you? Can you always call me by that name?” “Yes. I will be Meiri and I will call you Dodi.” “You are more than that. You are more than I can even tell you now.” “Please, Dodi, would you heal me? Can you have mercy upon me so I might have that redemption you offered? Can you make me worthy of walking by your side? Can you cleanse me so that I might hear the song that the angels sing?” “You are worthy already,” he said softly as he took my face in his gentle hands. “I will not heal you to make you better in virtue or more deserving of everlasting life. I will heal you because you are in pain and I wish to take that burden away. The soul within you is the one I want to walk this path beside me. You are precious to me. Can that be enough for you?” “Yes, it is more than enough.” He pressed his forehead to mine and called out, “Heavenly Father, grant me the means to heal this mortal body that you have chosen to house the soul of a blessed angel. Make my hands the instrument of your mercy so that I may bring her peace.” Seven heavy tears fell from my eyes as he spoke. They were my Grief, Shame, Pride, Envy, Discontent, Pain, and Anger. I felt those demons leave me. My soul sang Hosanna to The Father. For the first time in my life, I felt clean. “Let them fall to the earth, Meiri. Let those tears that have held you captive sink deep into the soil so that the light of Heaven within you can shine.” He let go of me and walked over to the well. He wet his hands, cupping the water. He thanked the father and he came back and washed my face. “They are gone, My Light. You are whole,” he whispered as he held my damp face in his hands and kissed my lips. His kiss was soft; his kiss was the purest love in all creation. There was no lust in that touch, just a bonding of two souls that were made to be together. Arba: Again, as it would be every day we were together, I awoke beside him. The moon was low in the sky when we took our respite, and the sun brought the day far too quickly. I wished he could rest a while longer, but he opened his eyes and even lying there he had that tilt to his head and that look upon his face that was love. “The Father restores me, Meiri. You needn’t fret over me.” “I cannot help it.” “I know,” he grinned. I stroked his hair for just the briefest moment. The morning brought with it a brand new life for me. I awoke in the warmth of his arms with a clear mind and joy in my heart. Never had had I known such a day. We were preparing to leave. It was a bittersweet feeling. On the one hand, a new life had begun for me within those walls and leaving was akin to leaving the place I was born. On the other hand he was taking me with him and that was what mattered most. I knew full well the road was not going to be easy. I did not walk out that door amid his company with any delusions. There would be days when food was a luxury. There would be nights in the cold. The facts did not dissuade me. I would be by his side. I would help him spread his word in anyway he needed because being near him was the only thing that was important, significant, vital to my life. ~ ~ The nights were my favorite part of this new life. Most days were spent in a crowd. He belonged to the people during the day. Wherever we traveled they came to listen. And whether it was one person or one hundred and one people he spoke his words of peace and love, of brotherhood and goodwill, of redemption and life everlasting. But the nights were mine. We slept under the stars. Well, that is to say that we lay side by side beneath the stars. No matter how tired I thought I was during our travels, sleep never seemed important in those moments when he was in my arms. I asked him questions, endless questions about his life, about his work, about his calling. And he answered them. He told me about his childhood. He told me he worked alongside his earthly father making yokes for the beasts of burden. He admitted that he didn’t like doing it, that he felt it very personally. “Every time my father and I delivered the finished product, and I saw it fitted onto the animals, I saw the subjugation in their eyes. They seemed to look at me accusingly, and sometimes, worse than that, I could hear their minds say, “what you do unto us shall be done unto you in tenfold.” I held him tight in my arms. The fears he would never let the men see he shared with me, but then he felt remorse for telling me such stories and he would try to tell me others that were humorous to him. He once fell from a roof during a sandstorm. He said for the briefest instant he knew what it was like to be an angel. He looked up at me with a smile filled with joy. “It was the greatest moment of my life at the time, Meiri! The Angels carried me along. I did not see them, but I felt them there. I think they would have set me down properly, but my poor mother saw me falling and she began to scream. The sound was startling and I must have twisted in their grasp. I hit the stairs quite hard. It left a good sized bruise upon my leg,” he laughed. I loved the sound of his laughter. I think only a pure heart can make such a sound: like a child being tickled combined with the pure notes of a Nightingale and the joy of the first rays of sunshine beaming through the clouds. “Dodi, do you remember the first words you said to me?” I asked as I ran my fingers into his hair and stroked his cheek. “Of course I do,” he said softly as he pressed his lips to mine. “Why did you say a woman’s heart was different?” “You are more complex,” he shrugged. “There is much more to a woman than there is within a man. A man feels hunger and he eats. A woman feels hunger and she makes a meal. She feeds her husband and children, giving them the best part of what she has to offer. She worries over whether they have eaten enough to sustain themselves. She weeps for those who have nothing to eat. She will feed herself last, making her own need the lowest priority. A woman’s heart feels her emotions differently than a man’s. I think it has a much greater capacity for love and compassion. “But I am not like that. I have spent this life in search of a way to help myself. To rid my mind and my body of all that plagued me. I am selfish.” He began to laugh as he rolled to his side. “It is funny that even you cannot see you. As surely as I am here beside you, you have a woman’s heart Meiri. The first thing you worried over was not that leaving with me would be a hardship for you, but that your ailments would cause me trouble. I have been first on your mind since the moment our eyes met. I know that, and I am grateful. You stood aside in fear that I would be judged by your appearance.” “I was dirty.” “Not where it mattered. If I were thirsty, would you find a way to bring me water?” “Yes.” “If I were bleeding, would you find a way to bind my wounds?” “Yes. I would do all you ask of me and all you do not ask but still need. I would protect you and shelter you. I would bind my hair and cover it so that you will not have to hear the rumors. I would...” He stopped me. He reached over and ran his fingers into the golden locks that lay about my shoulders. “No, I don’t want that. The angels in Heaven do not disguise the beauty The Father has given them and neither should you,” he said as he lifted my hair in his hand and nuzzled his cheek against it. “Do you know that with each passing day I am happier than I was the day before?” “Do you love me?” he asked with that tilt to his head. “Yes,” I answered simply because there did not seem to be words great enough to tell him how much. “But the others whisper, Dodi. They wonder if we lie together in sin, if I have led you from your path. I fear that they lose faith in you because of me.” “A man that loses faith in the words of The Father because he witnesses love is not a man I want at my side. I need for you to understand that he picked you for me just as certainly as he picked each of them. I draw strength from their numbers and their conviction, but not in the same way that you give me strength. They protect me from the dangers of those who fear my purpose, but not in the same way you protect me.” “Should you tell them so? I don’t want to be the wedge between you and the others.” “They don’t understand, Meiri. They will never understand. You are my Migdal, the fortress that my heart lives within. I am ever protected by your walls. We are one. We will always be as one. The bond that we have made here is more sacred than that between a man and wife, it is eternal. It is what I need to complete this task. As long as my heart is alive in you, I will be able to return. As long as you love me, I will continue. They may think what they like, but we are one and you stand above them in my eyes.” “My love will never fail, Dodi. Never.” Hamesh: ‘He kisses her openly, often.’ ‘They lay side by side in the night, but I have never seen or heard more than quiet discourse.’ ‘Do you think he has made her his wife?’ ‘He confides in her above all of us. He calls her Beloved...’ The whispers constantly followed me. They did not diminish with the years. The looks in the eyes of the men sometimes weighed heavily upon my heart and I prayed that their words would not reach Yeshua’s ears. He bore enough upon his shoulders. He did not need the weight of the doubt that burdened those supposed to be most loyal to him. Especially not on days such as this when those who sought him to hear his message came with blackened souls and daggers in their mouths. When honest words of love and eternal glory were shredded and debased with rhetoric and veiled insults. When men defamed the purest connection between two people until true love could be blasphemed into something ugly, something shameful. When his own kindness was wielded against him like a lethal weapon loaded with vile threats of death by the most brutal means. Days such as this, when he was condemned and sentenced by those who had not spoken a truthful word since the day they left their mother’s bosom, he did not need to hear whispers from those of his men who should have been his pillars, but instead chipped away at the foundations of his simple message. Faith and Love were all he asked. Faith in The Father, Love for each other. It was so simple, and yet, impossible for so many. But it was not so for me. Still, on days such as this, I knew in my very soul the truth he told me when he said his task had only one possible ending. The men who came only to discredit him, to make a mockery of his message, did so out of fear. And fear motivated men to do terrible things. These men who belittled The Father would publicly shame the one person who would give his last crumb to feed the hungry. They would remove the messenger because they feared the message. And I feared that day. He said he would return, and my soul believed him, but my heart feared the grief of the moment they would take him from me. I feared that first night when I would lie alone in the darkness without his sheltering arms. I feared seeing him in pain. I feared the moment when the Glory of Heaven would leave his mortal body and we would be of separate realms. Oh, I could not think those thought. I could not let him know that I feared his death when I vowed to walk beside him and be his strength in the hour of his deepest need. My love would not fail him. I would never fail him. ~ ~ Yeshua sat alone, plucking at the grass before him. His countenance my have seemed peaceful, but I knew his heart, and I could feel that the arguments and harsh words of the day had wounded him more than he would ever let the others see, probably even more than he would ever let me see. I sat beside him. He pulled me into his arms as he lay back, looking up into the night sky. The air was cool, but his embrace was warm. “It is on days such as this that I wonder why you stay, Meiri.” “Then you are a foolish man,” I quipped as I let my fingers tickle his side and felt him shudder just a little. “Am I?” he grinned. “Obviously. I do not care one single grain what ignorant men such as those we met this day think of me. I have spent all my life around men who twist words. I won’t hear them anymore. I stay with you only because I enjoy this life of luxury with its fine foods, rich wines and lavish accommodations.” He said nothing for a moment, but I could feel the laughter grow inside him as it made its way to his mouth. It was a beautiful sound; the sound of innocence and childhood, it was the sound of his soul. “That you can find humor after such disrespect is truly a gift, My Love.” “Look around, Dodi. Look at the accommodations The Father has made for us. All the world is yours. The heavens have cast their blanket over us and given us a glimpse of the kingdom beyond. I stay because these moments of lying in your arms and hearing your heart beat within your chest are my treasure. These private words between us are my jewels. I am the richest woman in the entirety of the world.” “You are the most beloved to me, Meiri. I know I told you that The Father replenishes me, but sometimes the strength to continue is not enough. You give me the courage and the will to do this task. I want you to know that I also fear the day it ends. I fear what will become of you when the day comes that they arrest me. I fear that you will try to join me. I know my fate. I don’t want that to be your fate. That cannot be your fate.” “Will you truly come back, Dodi?” “Yes.” Then I will be waiting. I will walk along side you even when everyone else falters. And I will wait where you rest.” “I will not hold you to those words.” I sat up and leaned over him. Tears leaked from the corners of his eyes. “My words are not the honeyed words of a man. I make this my promise. I will never fail you, Yeshua. If I am your Migdal, and your heart lives on in me, I will protect it until my dying breath, and I will rejoice in that last breath because when it comes I will spend the life ever after with you.” “You are a greater miracle than any simple illusion I have made.” “I am no miracle. I am a woman. And if you still believe the first words you said to me, if you still believe that a woman’s heart has that great capacity to love, then believe my words. I will love you with every beat of my heart and every breath in my body and I will be the light that guides you home.” He tilted his head and looked into my eyes, but beyond what was colored and into the part of me that The Father made for him and he kissed me. His kiss was deep and passionate. He ran his fingers into my golden hair and pulled me in tighter to his body. His heartbeat was my heartbeat. His soul was my soul and my love was his. It nourished him. It healed his pain. But alas, he lay back. His eyes were closed and his lips parted as though her were dreaming already. And then soft words filled the space between us. “I needed to feel that comfort, Meiri. When I press my lips to you, I feel the love that all creation is born from. But when my mouth meets your mouth I know why there is creation. I know why the angels sing.” “Dodi, that is the most wonderful thing you have ever said to me. I will gladly be your comfort whenever you need to be comforted. But if it pains you so greatly to listen to such men as we spoke to this day, why do seek them? Why not speak to men who would embrace your words?” “It is not the virtuous man who needs redemption, My Love. If I meet a good man who is a loving father, who helps his neighbor in times of need, who is generous and peaceful, and tell him that The Father wants him to love his neighbor and treat others as he would like to be treated, that is not news to him. The Kingdom and the Glory are already his. It is the wicked men who claim righteousness while they beat their children, the ones who oppress the good men with unjust laws and dubious intentions, those who see women as a lesser creation. It is those men that need to hear the word of The Father and find their way back to the path he’s paved. But they are the hardest to convince. The simplest truths become contorted in their minds. I ask them if they were robbed and left to die upon the road, would they not want their neighbor to stop and help them in their time of need? And they ask, ‘what sort of deity is this that you uphold that would let such a thing happen?’ They don’t see that it is not The Father, but men just like the one they see in the mirror, men with greed in their hearts, men who feel entitled, that are the downfall of all.” “Man is a peculiar creature. It is strange that they should all be made the same way, come into the world in the same fashion, with all the same attributes and abilities and grow to such extreme differences,” I mused. “That is why you are so very important, Meiri.” “Me? I am of very little importance.” “You complete the task which is most important to my mission; you speak to the women. You speak with love in your words. The men of this age are very likely not to change. Their ways are set. Some that hear the words of The Father will consider the life they want for their children, and that gives me great hope. That is how Yehudas came to be with me. But it is the women who will make a better future.” “Do you think they will rise up and become equal to men?” “One day. But who has greater power over the lives of the young than their mothers? Children who see their mothers treat people with love and respect will also treat people with love and respect. Who has a man’s ear more often than his wife? Even the wife of the sternest man has the power to subtly influence his mind. That is the reason the others whisper. I know you hear them. I know you wish I did not hear them, but their doubts give me direction. They fear that you have the power to change my path. And they should fear, because my love for you is equal in strength to my faith, but there are times when I need the love more. There are moments when I wish to abandon this cause with its hardships and threats and simply curl into the warm comfort of your arms. But it is those doubts, those troubled whispers that set my path. Those things the men fear are the things I must uphold or confront. I harden myself to the Pharisees so their condemnation is met with a facade of peace even when I want to shake them and say ‘where is your reason? How can you be so blinded by irrational fears that you forget simple goodness?’ And I uphold you above all else because your path to me was the most difficult to traverse and still your faith is strongest of all, your heart is purest of all. You do not lead me astray, Meiri Migdala, you simply love me with all you have inside you. Every private word I have is yours, My Light. Know that their whispers cannot change that which The Father has made as one.” The whispers faded after that night. I just did not hear them. Shesh: While the days were long and the roads we traveled seemed to stretch on endlessly, the years passed in just a blink of the eye. I was the apostle of Yeshua’s apostles, the follower of the followers, the companion, the quiet guardian of the most sacred parts of him. Always the crowds ebbed and flowed, a sea of people wanting to witness a miracle, without realizing they stood in the presence of the greatest wonder of in all the world. But that is the way of men, I think, to overlook what is given waiting for something more. It was not so for the women. So again, Yeshua was right. ‘You must be the most blessed of women for The Son of The Heavenly Father to hold you in such high esteem.’ While men scorned me, women said those words often. Sometimes they wanted simply to touch me. Other times they wanted to hear how I came to be with Yeshua. I told them in words used by so many others, so many times: “I was lost and he found me. I was sick and he cured me. I had no path to follow; he took my hand and showed me the way. He gave me life. There is light in this world for all who wish to see it. A heart that knows love and compassion shines brighter than the stars. Yeshua is a beacon. He is the light of the world. His message is so plain, so clear. Show mercy to those in need and withhold judgment. Know that no one walks this world free of weakness. There are moments in every life where simple kindness is the cure. Love your neighbors as you love your parents and your children. Find humility in prosperous times and earnestness in times of trouble. Treat others as you wish to be treated and the Glory of Heaven will be yours. Everyone has the ability to be a ray of light. Redemption and forgiveness are here for all who ask for those gifts. So yes, I am blessed, and I am grateful for his blessing. My heart is opened to a love that I did not know existed, a love that is stronger than this mortal life. Follow him, take his words inside you and live by them and you will understand his love.” ~ ~ It was upon days like this that my heart was most conflicted. The crowd that came to hear his words was great in numbers. And that was joyous news, but frightening. That there could be one among them intent upon his downfall kept my eyes darting about until they ached. Yeshua, as always, remained unconcerned. There were a good number of children this day. Oh, my heart swelled to see him sit amid the circle of innocents laughing at their tales. There was such a carefree beauty to those moments when he did not have to create a facade of happiness, he simply was happy. When his eyes met mine and he tilted his head, smiling as only he did, he shared those moments with me. And that silent connection was more than contentment or felicity. It was rapture. But my eyes only lingered for an instant before they were drawn away by something I did not wish to see. It was a man. He was older in years, his beard shot with gray, yet he stood tall. His clothes were fine though plainly made. He was a good distance from Yeshua but watched him closely until he caught me glaring at him. He was a man of the High Council, one of the Sanhedrin. He wore no robes; he stood falsely among Yeshua’s followers even as the Council plotted Yeshua’s death. Anger and fear pulsed through my veins. I was not ready for the day those men would take Dodi Li from me, and this man, hiding in plain sight, was the harbinger of what was to come. But Yeshua’s eyes must have followed mine, as I stood frozen. For the next thing I knew he was striding purposely toward that very man. A moment later Yeshua bent his knee and kissed the man’s hand. The man raised him and their embrace was joyous if brief. Quite words were spoken and their meeting was over as quickly as it began. The other man walked away. I watched him go. I was relieved. But the man turned back when he thought Yeshua might not be looking at him and there seemed to be a great weight upon his proud shoulders. Sadness seemed to age him before my very eyes. He noticed me looking, nodded his head in acknowledgment and continued on his way. I was restless. I could not seem to reconcile what I had seen. I only knew to my core that the tidings were not glad ones. I distracted myself as best I could. I made small tasks large enough to fill my mind while they kept my hands busy. I whiled away the day ignoring all the thoughts that might fill me with fear because I promised I would be the strength he needed. The daylight waned without my notice. And at last the thing I had prayed for all these years was granted. Music seemed to surround me, envelope me, overtake me. It came from everywhere and nowhere at once. I spun to see the orange sun touch the horizon and heard all the angels as they sang praise to The Father. I dropped to my knees and wept. It was not the beauty of the song that caused the tears to rush from my eyes, but the knowledge that my wish had been granted because on this day I needed to know with certainty that life everlasting was truly there. This day was the beginning of the end. Yeshua lifted me in his arms. He cradled me tight against his body and sang softly in the voice of the angels until the sun stole away the final ray of daylight and left just an afterglow of memory. He tilted his head and kissed my lips. “There is much I must tell you, Meiri.” “Why did that man come? Why did you kiss the hand of a man who would execute you?” I whispered. “Beloved, I will answer your questions when we are alone, I promise you. If you trust me, I need you to trust that man. He is Yossef of Arimathea. He is my uncle.” “But he...” “Tonight, my love,” he said as he ran his gentle fingers into my hair. “I will tell all I know tonight.” Shevah: “They intend to crucify me.” There did not seem to be words to answer him. A crushing weight sat upon my heart, so heavy even breath failed me. The night was darker than any night had ever been, though I do not know if the moon or the stars shown above. I do not know if any light shown at all because even the light within Yeshua seemed to falter with his words. “You will let them? You will go willingly?” “I must. It is not this life that matters, My Love. It is not even my death. It will be my return. That moment when I stand among the men again and show them plainly that all my words were true is what will matter. When there is nothing left to doubt, they will go out into the world with faith forged like metal and conviction in their words. They will not be followers any longer, they will be leaders.” I began to weep. And from there I cried violently until my body shook and my lungs ached with the labor of ragged breath. Yeshua held me tight. “Shhh, don’t cry, Meiri, this end has always been foretold.” “I must cry, Dodi. I must cry until the last tear drops, and I must do right now.” “Why? Do you fear...” “No! You are so wise, but sometimes still a fool. I have no fear for myself. I love you, Yeshua. I love you beyond what any heart should be capable of containing. I love the way you tilt your head and look at me. I love the sound of your laughter. I love lying here pressed against you, knowing that your heart beats in time with mine. And I must cry for all of these moments that I will miss when The Father calls you home. I must cry now because I will walk beside you as you bear that cross and I will sing praise the way the angels have sung them to me this evening. I will not cry in front of those who would hurt you because when I walk beside you I must show them the strength of my faith. I must show them that this sin they commit cannot stop the will of The Father or end life that is everlasting. And I do believe that, Dodi, I truly do. But I must cry now not because they will crucify The Chosen One, but because my arms will be empty, my nights will be cold. Dodi Li will be a memory that I alone will have. Yeshua will return and the word of The Father will be remembered, but this love that only exists here in the small space between us will be lost.” He reached up and wiped his own tears from his eyes. His fingers were damp as he closed them around my arm. “Thank you, Meiri, my Migdal. You do not know what your love means to me. I have kissed you and held you in my arms, but I don’t know if I have ever been able to express how deeply I love you, how intimately I feel your love. Don’t think badly of me, but just now, I am grateful for your tears. I needed to know that one person in this world would miss this man, this simple man, not the teacher, not the messenger, just the man who is flesh and blood, who has weaknesses he hides and fears he dares not speak. That you could love me enough to cry gives warmth to my soul.” “Tell me what tidings this Yossef of Arimathea brought today.” “None that you will find hope in, My Love. The council meets behind his back because they know he opposes their plan, but to my relief they don’t know why he opposes so firmly. If they knew he was kin to my mother they would most assuredly kill him or imprison him to facilitate their plans. He has been a follower all of my days, Meiri. His secret has kept me safe more times than I can count because he has sent messengers alerting me to traps and dangers upon my road. He is the divine hand of The Father in my times of peril, and I need you to trust him. He has agreed to risk himself and claim my mortal body upon my death. Doing so will expose his relation, and put him in a good bit of danger. Should he be granted that right, and survive he will take you to safety once I have completed my task.” “But I don’t wish to leave your burial site.” I will not be there, Meiri. When The Father raises me and I ascend to the heavens, there will be nothing here for you to guard.” “Thinking this wounds me, Dodi. I will not even have a way to grieve.” “Do not grieve for me. Leave this place with Yossef. We met upon the road, perhaps there is something else along the road that you must see.” “I cannot think of that, I simply cannot.” “Then don’t. Not now. But tell me you will trust Yossef.” “I will. What happens now, Dodi?” “We go to Bethany.” “And what will happen there?” “An ending. But don’t lose heart, My Love, every ending is only a gateway to a new beginning.” Shmone: Knowing our time was coming to an end, every moment away from his arms was agony. Oh, but there were so many rituals that belonged solely to the men. Exclusion was just a part of life, but some of them exalted in leaving me outside the door. I am ashamed to admit that such pettiness, though it mattered very little, still wounded me. The ones Yeshua called his Disciples, the men I had walked beside, the men I nourished and upheld, shut me out of the discussions at every possible instance. They did not seek my advice nor did they consider how the plans they made behind their closed doors would affect others who walked this path. But my heart was not bitter. I did not revile or rebuke them. I did not even truly begrudge their meetings, I simply knew my time was growing short and I wished to sit and look upon him even if they never bid me to speak. When, at last, we were alone in the night, Yeshua would tell me every word, spoken with every nuance and every implication. But the nights were too short. Sometimes, I knew well, he did not sleep. Those nights he was selective with his words as well. We were staying in the home of friends who were intent upon keeping me occupied as the hours ticked away. Mary and Martha brushed my hair and spoke of things their brother Lazarus told them. But I could not listen. They knew the High Priests plotted against Yeshua, but I knew they plotted against Lazarus as well. The Priests feared this man who represented a miracle. They knew Lazarus drew many to follow Yeshua and find faith in The Father. They would remove all who gave the masses reason to believe. Passover was very near. So many things were happening so quickly. Preparations for feast after feast were being laid. Crowds were everywhere. Yeshua spoke strong words to his disciples and to the masses that came to hear him. He went to them without fear, without doubts, but he came quietly to me. He did not fear his death, nor the circumstances or pain he would face before he met that end. He feared above all else that it would be for naught. He feared that he had not reached widely enough, that he not spread his word far enough, and that those meant to carry on his words would lose their focus and their faith when he was not among them. He knew they did not all believe in each other; there was doubt, there was mistrust. There would be betrayal. They were men. With each passing day and each confrontation their fears grew. Even I felt it. But I held him tight in my arms. I whispered words of eternal love. I sang the song of the angels to him, my beloved, who would be among them, who would stand above them at the right hand of The Father. And he slept peacefully, perhaps for the last time. Tesha: I followed at a distance. I knew Yeshua told the others that he wished to be alone. That he wanted to have final words with The Father before the soldiers came for him. They stayed upon the Mount of Olives while Yeshua went to Gat-smanim. I watched as he knelt upon the rocks near the old olive trees, folded his hands in prayer and bowed his head. I sat down near the oil press, not close enough to hear his words, but near enough to watch his actions. His plea was impassioned. My desire to comfort him was overwhelming, but this act of contrition needed to be carried out alone. I folded my hands and lifted my eyes to the heavens. “Father, hear his prayers. I know not what he asks, but he asks from his heart. Please grant him peace,” I whispered. “I shall, Daughter.” I startled. There beside me was a man, timeless in age, beauteous in appearance, but not of the flesh. He was divine, heavenly as surely as I was mortal. He was The Father. I moved to kneel before him, but he stopped me. He had that same tilt to his head that Yeshua had when he looked at me, and tears sprang to my eyes. “Sit, Beloved Child, speak with me. Say the words you wish to say. Ask what you will.” “Why do appear to me when he prays so fervently right there?” “But I am answering his prayers. Do you know what he asks of me as he prays on the eve of his final day of freedom?” “I would think he asks many things. I would think he asks why.” “No. Yeshua does not question. He understands. He does not pray for mercy or for more time. He does not even ask me to grant him success. He asks me to watch over you. He asks only that his fate is not your fate.” “What do I do, Father?” “Do as he asked. Trust Yossef. Protect what Yeshua has given only unto you.” “Why does it have end so? Why could he not live on and continue as he does?” “All life has a cycle and there is great purpose to that cycle. A seed is part of the living plant until the time in the life of that plant where it is harvested. The seed dies because it must. It cannot bear fruit unless it first dies and become buried in the earth. But from that one plant many seeds will be planted and many new crops will be sown. The hungry will be fed. The naked will be clothed. Yeshua is the seed from which all that comes after will be sown.” “Tonight begins the harvest?” “Yes.” “I know his purpose. I understand, Father. I cannot help but wish I had just a little more time.” “He could not live this life indefinitely, Meiri. The road is too difficult. Thirty-three years is enough.” “I know. But I love him, Father. I wish for his peace. I don’t know what purpose I can serve once he has completed his task.” “He holds you most beloved. Tell your tale, Daughter. And keep your eyes upon the road.” He leaned over, kissed my head and he was gone. It was but a moment later that the soldiers arrived. ~ ~ All of Jerusalem was in tumult. Confusion and noise abounded. People rejoiced and cried. They fought and hugged. They were at odds and in union all at once. I sat quietly, alone just beyond the place they kept him captive. No one spoke to me. No one noticed the woman who waited for the sun to touch the horizon and then sang with the angels. It was the one time of day I could hear Yeshua’s voice above the din as we sang the song none of the others could hear and their voices, all the voices in the world were silent. “Dodi Li,” I called out to him, as the sun left nothing but an orange stain in the distance. “Stay with me, Migdala. I love you.” ~ ~ I choose not to retell the ending. As promised, I did not cry. I sang. My voice gave him courage. Even as he hung upon his cross he tilted his head and looked at me as he had always done. Men can kill a body, but not a heart or a soul and even when the last breath tore from him and shook the world, I still felt his heart beat beside mine. Yossef came before the sun was low in the sky. He brought clean rich linen. He did what he’d promised Yeshua he would do and it was his tears that mixed with the water as he cleaned the wounds and we took Yeshua’s body away. “What did you say to be granted the rights to his body?” I asked as we walked. “I told Pilate that no descendant of the line of Nathan, son of David would lie in the grave of common criminals.” “And he conceded that easily?” “No. It took stern words. But the wrath of The Father was evident when the sky went black and the earth shook. He knew what he had done this day. He did not wish to see what might happen if he refused to show mercy to the elder of the family line.” “Thank you for risking yourself for him, Yossef.” “Pilate shook with fear when I approached him. He had not wanted such an ending for Yeshua. He’d offered to free one prisoner, offering up the most loathsome along side Yeshua thinking to sway the people in their judgment, but to no avail. He will be forever reviled, but he whispered prayers of repentance when no one but I could hear him. And he granted my request with eyes that begged for forgiveness. Yeshua would want me to forgive him and yet, I still feel anger in my heart.” I laid my hand upon Yossef’s heart. I felt the strong, slow rhythm. “Perhaps it is not anger, but grief. The council did many things to bring this ending. You could not have stopped it, but you have given him a proper place to rest.” “You do not despise me for not acknowledging my support?” “No. The Father told me, as did Yeshua, that I must trust you. That my road is to walk beside you for a while.” “I would be grateful for the company of one so beloved, Meiri.” We laid him in the tomb. I kissed his cheek one last time. The stone was rolled into place. Eser: I sat beside the stone all day. The sun approached the horizon and I knew in my heart I was hoping to hear his voice raised with mine, but it was not there. Yossef came at dusk and convinced me to return to his home. He gave me bread and meat, but I had no appetite. He kissed my hand and said his home was my home, but I knew in my heart that my home, the only home I had ever known was lying in a tomb. Day broke and I returned to that same place beside the stone. And I sat until the angels sang and Yossef came. But the third day, I began my walk feeling weakened. The loss was a heavy burden, which I bore alone, because no one loved him as I loved him. I lifted my eyes, to see the place of the stone. It was gone. Vandals! No! I could not bear it if they degraded his resting place! I ran. There were two figures standing at the entrance. They seemed to glow with the Glory of Heaven. They bowed their heads to me. “Blessed Sister, rejoice! The Son is risen!” Their voices were song. Almighty Angels came to give me the news that Yeshua had returned as he promised. “Go!” they told me, “you must spread the word, Beloved One.” “Where has he gone?” I cried out. But in that instant they were gone. I began to run. I did not even know where I was going for the tears that filled my eyes and ran down my cheeks. I ran toward the road, I would go to the Disciples and tell them what the angels told me. I would search the length and breath of Jerusalem for him. I would search the world over. My distraction was so great I did not notice what was right beside me. “The whole world?” he asked as he tilted his head and looked at me. I stopped in my tracks when I heard his voice and then I dropped to my knees and wept. He was there beside me, he was risen, but not as I expected. He was not a man, flesh and blood, as Lazarus was when Yeshua restored him. No, he was what The Father was when he sat beside me the night the soldiers took Yeshua away. “Meiri, do not weep, My Love,” he said as he lifted me. He pressed his hand to my cheek and I could feel it there, but it was not warm. I could see the damage done by the soldiers. The wounds would never heal because he was the living soul of The Chosen One, but he was beyond what was mortal. He was beyond what was warm flesh and a beating heart. When the sun touched the horizon, he would sing, but his voice would be with the angels, not with mine. I pressed my hands to my heart. As surely as I was a woman, I felt the beating of two hearts within me. He placed his hand over mine, kissed my lips softly and whispered, “keep it safe, Migdala. Love me as you have loved me before and there will be happiness. I promise you.” “I will never stop loving you, Yeshua. Never.” “There is a task I need to ask of you. I need you to bring tidings to the Disciples and tell them of my return. Tell them that the angels greeted you and that we have walked together.” “Why do you not go to them?” He smiled. He began to laugh a little. That sound of sweet innocence filled my soul with joy and lifted my heart. “The one who loved me above all else should tell them. They will know what the lesson is. They will know that the one they thought less important, the one they shut out, was exalted by the angels and The Father himself. They will know that the one who never wavered was rewarded. The one that was last in the eyes of men shall always be first in my eyes. Can you find the strength to bring them the news?” “Yes, Dodi.” There was not more to say. We walked along for a moment, but then he was gone. I walked alone. Wondering what I would say to Yochanan, while knowing that my joy at Yeshua’s fulfillment of the prophesies was tainted with new grief that there would not be nights of lying at his side, whispering together into the early hours of the new day. We would not walk the road hand in hand. I pushed open the door without the courtesy of knocking. I have no reason as to why, I simply did and I strode into the room. Yochanan stood. He looked at me as though he were seeing something he had never seen before. He crossed the room swiftly and took his knee before me. “Blessed One,” he started, “what news do you bring?” Yakov and Shimon came as well. My voice was strong. I gave them the message the angels had given me. I told them I saw Yeshua. I spoke to him. “Why does he not come to us?” others asked. Yochanan silenced them. He has honored her, most deservedly. She was the most beloved, and each of you knows that to be true. That is why you envied her. She was the most devoted, the most faithful. She walked beside him when we cowered. She upheld him when we denied. Her love never faltered. Holy Sister, forgive me,” he finished as he kissed my hand. “You needn’t ask my forgiveness. You need to carry on. You need to complete the task he gathered you for. The Chosen One is risen. Carry his words to the world.” “Will you remain with us?” “No. It is with Yossef that I must remain. I do not know where the road will take me, only that it is upon his road that The Father has set me.” “Do you know where we are to meet Yeshua?” I did not know the answer to his question, but the heart within me did and my voice told them it was Gat-smanim. ~ ~ Each day I visited the tomb. I sat alone beside the rock. The days were growing warmer but still I was cold. His visits were few and many times my only glimpses of him were from afar. Many days passed in solitude. At last, the day came when Yossef walked out and sat beside me. “You should try to see him today, Meiri, I have heard tomorrow is the day...” “Yes, I have heard that as well. It is a strange thing, Yossef. I stayed with him and saw the breath leave him, but I was firm in my belief that he would return. Now he will go on and I am not sure I can watch him leave me forever. It is not because I doubt his message. I fear my grief. I fear showing that grief at a moment when there should be rejoicing.” “You know I have been putting off my trip these past weeks, but I think maybe it is time for us to leave. The morning after next we should start out. Perhaps the road will lift your spirit.” “Perhaps,” I answered half-heartedly. He left me then, but I was not alone for long. “I miss the nights, Dodi,” I said softly as he stood with his head tilted and those brown eyes looking at me. “I miss them too, My Light. Do not fear tomorrow. And do not grieve. This is not an ending, but a beginning. I am waiting for you.” “And I for you.” The next day I watched his spirit ascend into the heavens. Angels sang. The people dropped to their knees and prayed, while I stood with my arms raised silently begging to go with him. Ahat ‘esre: It was many days travel to Glastonbury. Yossef walked briskly for his age. He was very much different from my original impression of him. How I ever feared this man with his kind eyes, gentle soul and deep voice I did not know. He knew many people in every town along our route. He’d traveled this way many, many times. He took great pleasure in seeing friendly faces, speaking to people and introducing me to them as well. He even told me that he’d traveled this same road with Yeshua when he was little more than a boy. The memories must have been sweet ones, for his spirits were high just thinking about those times. The days should have been quite hot, but we traveled north and the weather seemed to grow cooler and wetter each day. Some days we had to ride in the wagons, other days we were forced to stop and wait for the weather to clear. And always I was waiting for something I could not put my finger on. I had not felt so lost since the day Yeshua found me, back when I was dirty and riddled with demons. He came like the sunshine and warmed me. Now I was cold upon the road and I kept longing for that feeling again, that warmth upon my shoulders. But there was none. No man could fill his place; nothing could fill his place. Sometimes I felt the beating heart within me race when I knew my own feelings were serene and dull. I imagined that he was watching over me in those moments. Alas, even imagination was bittersweet. The trip took forty-three days. Yossef was pleased to have made the journey so quickly. I must have walked upon a cloud because I could not recall that number of days or nights passing. It seemed all one long event in my mind. Perhaps I just could not assign a number to my days alone. And such a big number it was. Our arrival was a celebration I did not anticipate. Oh, how the people of Glastonbury spoke of Yeshua with such joy! I did not know how so many from so far away could know him, could know his mission. I found solace in the presence of those who upheld him. Many days we stayed, with each day more people came to us. They wished to hear my tale. I told them all I could, but his deepest feelings were mine to protect. I told them stories he would tell the children. I told them about the angels. Every word I said to them they took into their hearts and asked me for more. Almost I wished to stay among these people who loved him. Almost. The nights changed my mind. I could not say if it was just dreaming in this place that was Holy, this place that had faith beyond what the people of our home land had, but I could hear Yeshua whispering to me in the night. It was as clear as if he’d been lying beside me. ‘Meiri, giver of light, I am waiting for you. Return to me.’ Each night, the same words came to me. Though my arms were empty, I could feel him. I grew restless and confused. How could I return to one who was gone from the world of men? Were my days coming to an end? I did not fear my end, I longed for it. I longed for that reunion above all else. I simply did not know how to answer his calls. Yossef seemed to grow more peaceful as my anxiety took over me Then abruptly, one morning, he woke and told me he must leave. He asked if I wished to stay at Glastonbury or accompany him, and again, my heart answered the words that came from my mouth: ‘Do you go to Marseille?’ “Yes.” “That is where I must go, Yossef.” Shteim ‘esre: We did not move with the haste that I wished for. I knew Yossef was not a young man. I also knew he was traveling faster than he was comfortable with because we both felt some pull to reach this destination. Still, his haste was not as hasty as mine. I felt like I was going to meet my end and yet, I was eager. It was a strange thing, to love. Remarkable and frightening in the hold it had over me. I grew to womanhood without feeling, but Yeshua changed me, to such an extent that I would embrace death to return to his side. Sleep became elusive the closer we came to our destination, and the whispered words vanished as well. The one thing I had, I always had, to hold on to was the song of the angels as they sang their thanks for the day and the sun went to its rest. We stopped each night at that moment. I listened. Some days when I could find my voice, I sang. Then we broke bread and made plans for the next day. The sun shone in a clear blue sky as we approached Marseille. Would that I could have enjoyed the beauty of the sight, but I was agitated. My eyes searched for some elusive sign of what was to come. My heart pounded in my breast. We walked along side the caravan toward the market. The road was busy. The smell of fresh bread was heavy in the air. “Meiri, we are fortunate! We have arrived early. The bread will be fresh. We should break our fast,” Yossef said happily. I nodded and he directed the wagons to continue as we walked away. I almost did not notice the feeling. Warmth like sunshine upon my shoulders was almost imperceptible on such a day, but it was more than just the warmth. I felt him. I stopped where I stood. I turned slowly. The crowd seemed to vanish before my eyes until only one man remained. He sat alone at the side of the road. He tilted his head when he looked at me. The sun seemed to shine down upon him. I met his eyes boldly and he smiled while I stood staring. He was more beautiful to my eyes than any sight had ever been. He rose and came to me. “A woman’s heart is the most perfect creation. It holds true to love even when there is so little to hope for. And her eyes are the gate to that paradise within her,” he whispered as he took my hands in his, lifted them to his lips and kissed them softly. His hands were badly scarred. His brown eyes were as clear as the night sky. “Dodi? How can this be?” “As it was for Lazarus, Meiri. The Angels brought me here. Healing was so slow. I longed for you every day we were apart.” “But I saw you there. I watched as you ascended...” “Yes. But the part of me that was there was only what they needed to see. They needed to see the part that was eternal. I could not go back to them as a man. But you loved the man. You were my fortress, the walls that kept my heart alive and for you I can be a man.” “You came back for me?” “I promised you a beginning, My Love.” “How long will you stay?” I asked as tears fell from my eyes. “Until the day The Father brings us both home to him.” And he kissed me. He kissed me as he had always done. We were one. We walked from that road together and off into the world where Yeshua and Meiri were simply two people in love. Because love was his gift to the world. * * * I looked at her for a long time when she finished. I got what she was telling me. She thought she was flawed. I thought the same thing of myself in each of my stories. Vatsya thought his work made him unworthy. Jonas couldn’t make a connection. Zal was cursed and abandoned. Liam was self-centered. Sebastien was afraid to hope. Every story was flawed with human nature. She wanted simply to love me and for me to love her in return, wealth and luxuries didn’t matter, just that I accept who she was. But I loved her for who she was, exactly as she was. For me she was every woman, all of them, a beautiful package that housed a beautiful soul and the heart I wanted mine to beat beside for a lifetime. “You haven’t said anything,” she whispered. “That was the perfect story. Pure love without judgment, without doubt. You are my Meiri, right here, and there,” I said pointing at the sky. “You are every light, in every one of my lives.” A tear rolled down her cheek, though she was smiling at me. “I love you.”

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