OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirteen

—Desert—

Forever in Your Debt

Ishtar stared at the bleating herd of sheep and sighed. “Move on, you stupid—” He glanced aside. Not another soul on the horizon. Three distant tents, green fields, and plenty of rocks.

He set his jaw. “Not your fault.” A memory flashed through his mind. His warriors lined up at his command as they faced the giants from the north…he and his men hunting for game…his men lounging around a sizzling fire, laughing, teasing, eating…” He closed his mind.

No!

Still, memories tore through his brain, searing all other thoughts.

He could feel his sweaty body steaming in passion as he and Haruz embraced on their first night together…the birth of his son with his head full of black hair…the ore-empty earth slipping through his fingers…the glinting knife in Haruz’s hand—

He screamed. “Noooo!”

The startled sheep scattered, their bleats high and terrified.

His eyes snapped open, his whole body shook.

Matalah stepped outside his tent and glanced up, shading his eyes from the sun.

Ishtar unclenched his hands and sucked in deep, calming breaths. He dropped his voice to a coaxing whisper. “Come, sheep. Green pastures…just ahead.”

A fleecy lamb scampered near and wagged its tiny tail.

Running his fingers along its back, Ishtar surveyed the landscape. All lay quiet. No Matalah. No memories. For the moment.

He struck the ground with his staff and started climbing. The sheep trailed along behind.

~~~

Ishtar stopped for a rest and stretched across a level spot. He opened his satchel, and slowly chewed his bread and cheese. Watching the rosy sunset deepen to black night, he battled every memory of his father. Neb in battle, jabbing a man with his spear…Neb sneering at Haruz, shoving her into a corner with an angry retort…Neb grasping Ishtar’s knife and plunging it deep into his own breast.

Ishtar choked, his head dropped to his chest, and his bread crumbled in his fisted hand.

A lamb rose and sauntered near, butting its head into his arms.

Ishtar clasped the lamb and sobbed on its shoulder.

~~~

Ishtar led the sheep to greener pastures as days passed uncounted. The tents moved with them. He ate his allotment of bread and cheese and sipped at the single stream that gave life to this barren land. His tears joined the stream.

One hot day, two lambs frisked in innocent joy and bumped into each other. Their collision sent them careening backward where they sat down hard.

Ishtar laughed. “You are like Caleb and Amin—children at play with no notion of—” A burning flush worked up his cheeks.

Fresh tears flowed.

~~~

Ishtar stood on the top of a hill and glanced at an approaching figure. He swallowed back a sour taste and tried to ignore a disconcerting tightening in his stomach.

The eldest son of Matalah wound his way toward him. Ishtar tipped his head in courtesy. “Abdul.”

“Ishtar.” Abdul did not incline his head but, instead, folded his arms across his chest and narrowed his eyes. “I’ve been watching you.”

Ishtar waited. He squinted in the bright light, watching the sheep, wary.

“You know your way in the world.” Abdul turned his focused gaze to the east. “Tending animals is hardly a fitting occupation for a man of your skill and intelligence.”

Ishtar’s fingers tightened around his staff.

“I’m sure my father didn’t mean to insult you, but he doesn’t understand the greater world. He travels but never goes anywhere.” A grin quirked on Abdul’s lips. “I’m a more fortunate man.”

“Fortune can be deceiving.”

A twinkle sparkled in Abdul’s eyes. “I’ve seen glorious horizons. There is a great deal to desire in this world.”

Swallowing, Ishtar shifted. He glanced at the three tents at the bottom of the hill.

“My family served you well in your hour of need. Perhaps you could render us assistance in return.” His broad smile flashed and disappeared.

A lamb butted Ishtar’s hand. He stroked its soft head.

“Of course, this is just between us.”

Ishtar glanced at Abdul. Their eyes met and fought for supremacy. Neb’s gaze glowed through Abdul’s eyes. Ishtar stiffened.

“Accidents happen. You understand.” Without another word, Abdul turned and strolled down the hill, his garments billowing in the stiff breeze.

~~~

Ishtar led the sheep back to the Bedouin’s camp, the cool evening air tingling over his arms. After washing at the well and nodding to the brothers around the fire, he made his way to the central tent.

Matalah sat cross-legged before a simple meal.

Ishtar remembered their first meal together. Weariness enveloped him.

Matalah’s eyes lit up with an inner fire. “Ah, my adopted son. Come, sit, and enjoy a well-earned rest.”

Ishtar offered a deep bow and sat by the old man. He leaned back on a firm pillow and stared at the array of food. “You are ever a kind host.” Ishtar clasped his hands in his lap and looked down. “I was never so good to my guests…not even to my own family.”

Matalah pressed his hand over Ishtar’s. “Kindness is a gift, given to me, which I pass on to you.” He smiled and met Ishtar’s gaze. “Share it well.” His smile vanished, replaced by a shadow of doubt.

As they ate, Ishtar peered out of the corner of his eyes at his host’s worried face. His stomach clenched even as the good food nourished his exhausted body.

When they leaned back and sipped wine, Ishtar wrapped his fingers around the vessel and lifted his eyes from its depths to Matalah. “My friend—for so I dare call you— it’s clear that something weighs heavy on your mind. If there is anything I can do—”

“I thank you, Ishtar. You’ve become like a son, though I hope not like some sons I must claim, though I’d rather not.”

A murmured conversation passed outside the tent flap, and Ishtar glanced over. The voices faded into the evening.

Matalah dropped his tone and leaned forward, tapping Ishtar’s knee. “You’re a more honest man, despite your troubled past, than my sons who, though they have been raised with love and security, are little less than cheats and thieves.”

Ishtar sat up. “I’m here to listen…though I may know your story in part.”

“My sons plan to gather men and take by force what would have been theirs if they had but waited for the proper time. I am not yet dead, but they wish me in the ground.”

Ishtar shook his head. “Why? They are free men in charge of a prosperous territory.”

“They wish to acquire more land and grow rich and mighty.” He spat to the side. “It is no use telling them that a man’s wealth grows cold and more heartless over time.”

“They’re willing to battle for more territory?”

“It’s what they look forward to the most.” He gulped the last of his wine and placed the cup aside. “My two eldest, Abdul and Wasim, asked permission to scout out the weakest tribes in the area, gather a strong force, and put our friends and neighbors to flight. Once the land is abandoned, they’ll claim the herds and servants for their own.”

Like a man witnessing before God, Matalah waved his hand high. “It is an evil plan, which under any circumstances would be difficult, but as they have little experience in battle, it’s preposterous. They received no permission from me.”

Closing his eyes, Ishtar clenched his cup. “But they did not listen?”

“Worse. They convinced my third son, Assam, to join them, and they’re gathering such a force that it makes my blood boil. Every day they bring in strange men, insisting that I am too feeble to manage matters. They invent troubles that never existed.”

Rising, Ishtar paced before the old man. “Your sons can’t control what they are setting into motion.”

Matalah waved to the doorway. “I told them—no one would be left unscathed by their evil ambition.”

Ishtar stopped and stared at Matalah. “Such was my father. A curse he passed to me.”

A shadow wavered at the door.

Matalah frowned. “Come!” His youngest daughter scampered forward with a full carafe of wine. Matalah gestured toward Ishtar, but Ishtar refused with a soft smile. Sending the girl away, Matalah wrung his hands. “Everyone must endure the battle between good and evil.”

Kneeling before his friend, Ishtar peered into his eyes. “But you don’t deserve such a fate. You are innocent.”

Using Ishtar’s arm as a brace, Matalah rose and strode to the doorway. He stared at the starry sky. “Innocence does not protect us. It only offers alternatives.”

Standing aside with his hand on Matalah’s shoulder, Ishtar gazed upon the same sky. “I will do anything you ask. Such ambitious plans take time. Perhaps your God will intervene in some way we can’t yet see.

Matalah turned and stared into his eyes. “If you don’t side with them, they’ll turn on you.” He gripped Ishtar’s arm. “You must leave—soon.”

Weaving around his friend, Ishtar crossed the room and turned at the doorway. “I’m not dead—thanks to your kindness. If it’s not disagreeable to you, I’ll stay a little longer. Let’s see what the future brings.”

Lacing his fingers together before his face, like a man in earnest prayer, a tremulous smile crossed Matalah’s face. “God sent you.” He peered at the twinkling sky. “My kindness has been repaid a hundred-fold.”

“Yet I am forever in your debt.” With a nod, Ishtar padded into the dark night.

~~~

“Truly great friends are hard to find, difficult to leave, and impossible to forget.”
– Unknown

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

It Might Have Been

A wrong number. Not a scam. Just some innocent woman looking for her sister Pearl. Jason assured her that he wasn’t Pearl, hit the end button, and slid the phone across his desk. He dropped his head onto his hand and tried to concentrate.

Inventory. Yay!

Even mental sarcasm fell flat. He should be pumped. The holidays approached with days off for leisure time, sleeping in, parties with assorted junk food, and perhaps a chance to head out to the park for a little fun and games. The image of a woman clad in a tight winter sweater and black leggings danced in front of his eyes. Heat licked his body.

The phone chimed. Jason tapped his fingers. Answer? Not answer? Hardly a life or death decision. He tapped the green button and slapped the phone against his ear. “Dad?”

“Jas?”

Carol? Cold water doused the flames. Oh heck, anybody but his stepmother. He’d rather have a root canal. Not that she wasn’t a perfectly nice person. It’s just that with a root canal, you know what you’re getting into. With Carol, Russian roulette seemed tame. Besides, he hated it when anyone shortened his name. What? Two syllables asking too much? Ja-son. Oh, forget it.

“Hey, Carol. What’s up?”

“Jas, I don’t want to take up your time, so I won’t beat around the proverbial bush, but your dad’s not doing too well. He’s really struggling, and I just want to give you a heads up before you come visit.”

Very subtle. Okay. It had been a while. A few weeks. Jason rolled his eyes over to the wall calendar—the one his wife had bought for him. Landscapes with hymns scrolled over the top. Oh yeah. Something safe that would keep his mind on celestial matters. Instead of other things.

Pine trees and a little manger scene. Hmmm…that time already?

He leaned back and let his chair fall into the relaxed mode. His head tilted, he considered the state of his office ceiling.

“You caught me, Carol. It has been too long. Waaay too long. I need to get my bu—, I mean, I should get Dinah and the kids and head out your way. Christmas season and all.” He grimaced at the thought of driving through snow and ice into Wisconsin but then the possibility of escaping Dinah’s family…

Carol ran roughshod over his thoughts. “You know, your dad always said that nothing mattered as long as his kids were happy. He still knows who you are. He recognizes me. Most of the time. But if you wait…”

Jason’s feet hit the floor with a slap. “What do you mean? He didn’t have any trouble recognizing me or the kids last time we were there.”

“A year ago.”

Jason smacked his forehead. He leaned in, peered at the calendar, and squinted. Was it? “Hey, you know. You’re right. I need to talk with Dinah and set something in motion. I’ll call you back, okay?”

“You won’t forget, now, will you?”

The snarky tone mixed with anxiety roiled Jason’s stomach. “No. I won’t forget.”

Once home, Jason perched on a stool at the kitchen island and outlined a quick road trip. Dinah listened in empathetic understanding. Such a generous spirit. Of course. She visited her parents every month. Good woman that she was. He couldn’t go most of the time, despite the fact that they lived only twenty minutes away, because, well, you know. He had a hell of a honey-do list and getting older wasn’t a picnic; let me tell you. Hey, I need some me-time, too.

His mind wandered back to the woman he’d met at the park last week. Gorgeous. Funny. Didn’t quote scripture while they strolled along the path. She wore a ring. He wore a ring. But still…

Dinah rattled on. “It’s all settled then. Next weekend, we’ll leave early Friday and be back by Sunday night. I’m sure your dad will be pleased. He loves you, you know.” Her eyes lingered on his face like she was sending some kind of coded message.

Sheesh. Lay on the guilt with a trowel why don’t you?

All evening, images of the park woman meandered through Jason’s mind. In frustration, he cuddled up to his wife in bed, but she was already asleep. Or so she wants me to believe. Great. Now I got nothing but a lousy trip to look forward to. He yanked the blanket to his side of the bed, exposing his wife’s slumbering form to the cold night air. She probably doesn’t even notice. Martyrs never do.

Images of the park woman slithered through his mind. Her perfect form, flashing smile, the teasing glint in her eye. Then, out of nowhere, his dad appeared on the opposite side of a busy street. The old man tried to cross, but trucks and cars whizzed by in city traffic madness. The old man locked eyes with Jason, bewildered desperation peering from the depths. He waved and called, “Ja-son!”

Jason dropped the woman’s hand, his heart pounding. “Dad? Hey, don’t try to cross there. It’s crazy traffic. You’ll get—”

Dinah’s scream ripped through the air as she ran out from behind, shoving the park woman aside. She dashed across the street, stopping traffic like magic. She reached her father-in-law’s broken body. In true superwoman form, she carried the old man across the street, tears streaming from her disappointed, despairing eyes.

Her words shot Jason like bullets. “All yours.”

Suddenly another man, a shrewd well-dressed gent with clever eyes and high cheekbones stepped forward and swept everyone else away. He pointed toward a wide doorway. “If you please.”

Heat flickered through Jason’s body, but he shivered uncontrollably. “What’s this?”

“What you wanted.”

“Wanted?” Jason wrinkled his nose at a strange stink. “I never get what I want! Seems to me that I have to pay a pretty steep price for everything.”

The gentleman chuckled. “Think so? But it’s all free. Free will and all.”

Jason looked around for his father, his wife, his home, anything familiar and comforting. “But I wanted to see dad. I could’ve—”

Laughter rang in Jason’s ears. “The saddest words man ever penned, were the words…”

Jason bolted upright. Sweat beaded across his brow. He shivered. “Oh, God!”

Dinah murmured and rolled over. She reached out. “You okay, honey?”

The Sahara desert had filled Jason’s mouth. He couldn’t utter a word.

Dinah sat up and leaned in, her fingers stroking her husband’s arm. “Worried about your dad?” She cuddled closer, pulling the blanket around them both. “It’ll be okay. He’s a good man. He’s made his life and even if he doesn’t remember now, when he dies, he’ll know the truth. Besides, he’s not dead yet. You still have time.”

Jason hugged his wife, tears streaming down his face. The words, “It might have been…” rang in his ears.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Love Alone

My daughter showed me a YouTube video recently of a little girl meeting her adoptive parents for the first time. The child, about four, could not have been more adorable. Beyond her innate cuteness, her enthusiasm, her voice quality and mannerisms, which all personified the very best of child-ness, it was her words that rang in my ears long after the video segment fell silent. After a rambling intro, the little girl launched into the core of her happiness: “When I saw you, my heart just fell in love with you.”

It’s funny how easily those words tripped off the child’s tongue. I had to remind myself, she is an orphan. She has lost her parents. God knows how. I had no idea what her life had been like up to that point, but losing both parents isn’t usually the direct road to happiness. Losing loved ones doesn’t usually make a person more loving.

In fact, it’s darn hard for most people to ever say, much less intend the words, “I love you.” Of course, we do use the words in a variety of ways, adding a few extras. “I love you…r spicy chicken.” But it’s hard to tell someone, perhaps a parent who has rocked us through childhood illnesses but drank a bit too much at holiday parties, a sibling who teased us unmercifully but freely loaned a hundred bucks for car repairs, a lover who understood our dreams but couldn’t accept our lifestyle, that we care about them, much less admit that let our hearts fell in love with them. Even when our love isn’t so much about “falling into” but rather a slow awakening. Or an admission of the obvious. “Heck, do you think I’d do your laundry if I didn’t…?”

Declaring our love gives another person power. He or she can choose not to respond. Leaving an empty hole where “I love you, too” should have flowed naturally. Or he or she can reject our love outright. Hurt us. Hate us. Make love feel like a curse rather than a blessing.

Perhaps I don’t feel enough. Or I feel too much. But in the end, I find that saying the words, “I love you,” without expectations but simply because it happens to be true— even when I disagree with that person over politics, religion, and how to properly laminate the floor—is very freeing. I can love even though the other person has bad habits, is an unresponsive jerk or jerkette at times, and worst of all, might not love me back the way I want them to. My love, like my self-esteem, does not depend upon another person’s acceptance. It is a free gift. Even when it stands alone.

The adorable little girl had no idea that she was giving herself the greatest gift she could. As she offered her heart, she became love personified. When Christ admonished the human race to become like little children, I doubt he meant we should toss our vegetables off the dinner plate or elbow our way to the front of the line. I suspect He meant exactly what the little girl meant when she told her new parents that “her heart fell in love with them.” She had love to give. And she gave. Freely. Abundantly.

She will never love alone.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

 

What Hope Looks Like

It’s cold, raining, near dusk, and I’m sitting in the back seat of my car, munching old trail mix. And why on God’s earth would I be doing such a thing? To be honest, I’m not rightly sure. Mostly, I’m waiting for two kids who are serving at a dinner inside the church hall. I could be inside, eating spaghetti with everyone else, but I’m not. Not because I don’t like spaghetti, or don’t like the people, or don’t think it’s a worthy cause, but simply because I’ve worked all week, and the idea of sitting with a large group overwhelms my tired spirit.

This week, I have interacted with a fair number of people online. Or through text. I’ve reconnected with friends I haven’t talked to in months and exchanged comments with people I’ve never actually met in person. It is a strange sort of world we live in. With media hysteria, click bate, subversive messages, and scams, anyone with an IQ over 10 wants to play it safe. It’s exhausting dealing with a world full of suspicion and innuendo. “Connected,” yet on some level, we’re starving from an absence of real human interactions.

The words faith, hope, and charity swirled around in my head this week. I have faith in God, and I try to show charity wherever I can, but I had to face my inner trauma-drama and admit that I don’t often feel a whole lot of hope. Hope seems a lot like trust, and it’s hard to trust these days.

But as I slathered dry lock on the base of the house—despite rain forecasts—and then painted the house a nice medium gray to match the siding, and it turned out better than I dared imagine possible, (I even got under the porch where spiders skittered about—except for one jumping spider, who made a fatal leap into the paint bucket—yes, it was rather pathetic.) I realized that, apparently, I do have hope. Every time I show even a glimmer of faith that something might work out, I act on hope. Every time I offer the slightest inkling of charity to another person, I embody hope. Granted, the spider didn’t make it but the house will.

When I look at the house, I realize that I have been hoping against hope for years. Planting bushes and trees, knowing that they might not make it, but some always do. Hiring fix-it guys to repair whatever is broken. Over and over again. Painting. Decorating. Improving.

It takes bravery to go into battle against the elements. It takes supernatural courage to go back into battle after you’ve been beaten time and again by leaking faucets, rain seeping under doors and through the ceiling, icky mold, and snapped tiles. But that is what life does. It beats us up, and we have to get back up and try again. Hardest of all, we have to try to hope even when we don’t know what hope looks like.

This week, I am pulling up the tiles in the old schoolroom, and then I’m going to do the dry-lock thing and paint the floor and the wall. Maybe I’ll decorate the space as a recreational room. So many kids have grown up and are leaving the nest that I have to reinvent our living space. I haven’t a clue how to do it.

But I know the broken tiles need to come up. And heck, I can slather paint with the best of em. I don’t know what I am hoping for in my house, in my human relationships, or in my life, exactly, but I do know that I have some measure of faith, and I try to be charitable. Hope lives inside those two.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Unless You Give Up

Grant dutifully signed the electronic notice declaring that his son was getting mostly Cs and two Ds—in English and Math of course—on his mid-term report and wondered what it felt like to not fail. Not that grades meant everything, and C’s were respectable enough, especially considering Jon’s disabilities. But he could hardly meet Ms. Berg’s direct gaze.

He nodded in all the right places. “Yes, mam. He has a quiet study place. No, we don’t allow that sort of thing in the house. Uh-huh…his sister helps him all the time. Yes, I know. She’s a bright little thing.”

Named after the General who helped to win the Civil War, Grant vowed at the age ten, when he read a biography of the hero, to never drink. But as the Parent-Teacher Conference wrapped up, and he gathered his two kids from the gymnasium, he wondered if perhaps the General had the right idea. After all, why not take the edge off reality?

Judy was a bright little thing. For some reason fathomable to God alone, she never grew beyond four feet six inches, but her brain—as well as her mouth—outran everyone in the eighth grade. Jon respected her academic abilities but hated her bossy “tude.” Grant dearly sympathized.

The drive home remained quiet as Judy was shushed every time she started extolling the virtues of her teachers, her wonderful grades, or the fact that school made life worth living.

It wasn’t until bedtime, while Grant sat on the edge of his son’s bed, folded his hands, and listened to their prayer time routine, that he realized that Jon was upset.

“And God, if you could just make me good at something—anything—I’d appreciate it.”

Grant frowned. He watched as the lanky young man, a freshman whose brain got stuck somewhere along 5th grade, climbed into bed. “You’re good at things.”

Jon reached for a dog-eared comic book. “My dad is still putting me to bed. How good can I be?”

Grant climbed to his feet and stared down at the boy. “What? I just figured that since I hardly see you…what with work and school…and sports…and…” He shrugged. “Praying with you hardly means I’m putting you to bed.” A flush burned his cheeks.

“You think that you have to check on me all the time.” Jon shook his head and slapped the comic book on his lap. “You don’t do that with Judy.”

“I never have to worry about Judy. She always brushes her teeth, puts on clean clothes, says her prayers, and gets up on time.”

“And gets all As.”

Exhaustion warred with frustration. Grant had suffered through a tedious meeting at work, waited through long lines at the grocery store, mentally calculated the years until his retirement, knowing all the while that he’d probably die in harness, and blindly stuffed aching loneliness to the furthest reaches of his mind. He started for the door.

The muffled words, “As usual.” stopped him in his tracks. He turned around. “What?”

Jon crouched forward peering at the comics like the nearsighted kid he was. His whitened fingers crumpled the edges so fiercely it would never lay flat again.

Grant stomped back and towered over the bed. “Say that again.”

Jon threw the comic book across the room. His eyes blazing, red-rimmed with tears, and his cheeks flushed, he thrashed his way free from his sheets and pounded to the other side of the room. With shaky hands, he rattled through his dresser drawers until he slammed one open and pulled out a sketchbook from between dingy pairs of socks.

Grant felt his heart racing. His latest story—unsold—sat quietly on a writer’s blogging site with only a handful of comments. He bit his lip.

Jon tossed the notebook at his father.

Too stunned to react, Grant watched the book flutter to the floor. He raised his eyes to his son as he picked it up. Then he leafed through the pages. The pictures were good. Not great…well…there was one. It held promise. Certainly creative. He frowned and looked up.

Jon had retreated to the far end of the room, leaning against the wall. The mast listing to one side after the bulk of the ship has gone down.

Honesty was hell. Vulnerability was worse. But watching his son die inside would kill him.

Grant dropped his head to his chest and exhaled a long slow breath. He lifted his hand in a wait-a-moment signal and left the room. He retreated to his room, picked up his laptop, and returned to his son’s room. “Here.”

Jon glanced over. Bored. “What? A new learning tool?”

Grant felt the smile even though he knew it probably wasn’t showing on his face. He needed to cry too much. “No.” He shoved three plants he had never noticed before aside and set the computer on Jon’s desk. Clicking on a link, he pulled up the writer’s site and scrolled through until he found his name. He clicked it, and his most recent story popped up with comments attached. He turned the computer so Jon could see.

If spent balloons could walk, they would look like Jon as he approached the table, flopped down, and crouched forward for a quick read-through.

But he wasn’t quick. He returned to the top and read the story again.

Grant’s heart clenched so tight he wondered if he was facing cardiac arrest.

Jon’s fingers hovered over the curser at the bottom of the page. He peered up at his dad. “You never told me.”

Grant shrugged. “I’m not very good.”

Jon shook his head. “But it’s creative. I think it’s good.” He pointed to the last comment. “This guy thinks so too.”

Grant swallowed the ache of loneliness and wondered where it was going. He crouched beside his son. “You know, there’s an art site where you can post your work. It helps to get other people’s opinions. Usually.”

“But I fail at everything.”

Grant rubbed his hand across his mouth and smothered a chuckle. “You won’t fail—unless you give up.”

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter Chapter Two

—Grassland— Begin Again

Jonas, in a simple gray dress with her black hair flowing over her shoulders, cupped her hands around her mouth and called. “Onia! Where are you?” Anxiety fluttered in her chest.

No answer.

Curious villagers weaving baskets, stirring bubbling cooking pots, tending to lines of dried fish, and other daily tasks swung glances her way.

After circling around her large thatched dwelling, she heaved an exasperated sigh and brushed strands of hair out of her sweaty face. Strolling through the dusty village of rounded huts and storage sheds, she continued the hunt for her youngest son.

Several heads lifted. Smiles crinkled in the corners of eyes, and lips curved in response to her plaintive quest.

A short, plump woman straightened before her loom and rubbed the small of her back. “If you find your son, maybe, you could find mine also? Send him home if you do.”

One grandmother called out in cheerful teasing. “Lose that youngest one again?”

Jonas controlled an urge to roll her eyes and merely shrugged.

The old woman pointed south. “When Eoban returns, he’s like the rain after a long drought—they flock to see what he’s brought and hear the news. I’ve seen many pass by this morning.”

Turning her head aside, Jonas caught her loose hair and braided it into a tight bun. She wrapped it with a dark woolen tie she pulled from her belt, squared her shoulders, and trudged on.

As the sun beat down, sweat trickled down her back. Her irritation building to the breaking point, she scowled. When she reached the edge of the village, a cacophony of voices met her ears, deepening her scowl. What on earth—?

Numerous boys and young men bustled around the framework of a new dwelling. Each youth appeared busy with a task. Two stacked mud bricks by an unfinished wall, three thatched a low roof, one braced a stout door, while two others dragged a wooden bench to the shaded side of the house.

Jonas stared, and her mouth fell open. As her gaze wandered, she found Onia, high on a rafter, patting thatch firmly into place. Her lips pursed, and she glanced about. Where is—

Eoban’s voice rose above the tumult.

With a quick shake, Jonas marched around to the back of the dwelling. She blocked the sun from her eyes.

His broad muscular shoulders barely covered by a sleeveless tunic, one hairy arm akimbo, and the other waving like a leaf in the wind, Eoban’s bushy beard moved in time with his words. His face crinkled in a grin. “Keep working, boys. That roof won’t thatch itself. Watch yourself there, son. Lay those bricks carefully. They’re worth all the time and energy it took to make them.”

Jonas’s hand dropped to her side as tension seeped from her body.

“No, be careful there, Malib! If you don’t do it just right, you’ll end up like a man I knew in Asher.” Eoban scratched his beard and propped one hand on a post. “He built his house so quickly; he thought he was a god, and everyone spoke of the marvel. Until the rains came and woke him from a sound sleep.”

Eoban turned his voice high and squeaky. “‘Never mind, I’ll fix it tomorrow.’” His voice returned to its usual rumble. “Then a cold wind blew and his walls cracked.” High and squeaky again. “‘I’ll take care of that in the morning.’”

Eoban spat on the ground. “Finally, the ground shifted, and the fool was just about to close his eyes—when the house fell in.”

The boys chuckled, all eyes fastened on Eoban.

Jonas’s irritation vanished with a laugh. She strolled over to Eoban. “You’re a wise teacher, my friend.” She swept her hand in the direction of the new dwelling. “Have you decided to move? Or do you build with someone else in mind?”

With a teasing sneer, Eoban waved her questions away. “No and no.”

Jonas poked his arm in mock severity, her tension rising again. “Don’t make me angry, Eoban. Tell me, why is every boy, including my son, helping you make a new house?”

Eoban stared at the sky, shrugged, and clasped Jonas’s arm. He led her aside, out of earshot of the bustling workers.

A gentle wind rippled the grass, and the smell of ripening wheat filled the air. A hawk soared across the sky and screeched as it dove toward a grove of trees in the distance.

“All right, I’ll tell you, but I wanted it to be a surprise.” Straightening, Eoban met Jonas’s gaze and puffed out his chest. “Lud and his family are moving here. They’ll be my neighbors.”

Her skin tingling pleasantly, Jonas inhaled. “Lud? And his family? That’s wonderful!” She squeezed Eoban’s massive hand. “I am so glad!”

Eoban grinned, his eyes beaming with joy.

With a quick pat, Jonas dropped his hand and stared over the horizon. “I only hope—”

Images flashed into her mind: Ishtar struggling with Haruz, and then her bloody body sprawled on the ground. Jonas swallowed and wrapped her arms around her middle. “After that awful night, I was afraid he’d never return. You know he only came for Pele. He couldn’t reconcile himself to her death.”

Eoban’s gaze floated west, across the river toward Ishtar’s village. “I wonder where he is now?”

She shivered. “She’s dead, and he’s gone. That’s all we need to know. I’m still frightened by the memory of that night. I’ll never forget it.”

Eoban ran his hand through his thick, disheveled hair. “It still baffles me too. But then, I never pretended to understand such things.”

“I had hoped that Lud would help Ishtar, but he left as quickly as he came.”

Eoban snorted and glanced into the sky. “No one could’ve helped Ishtar. Lud was right to return home.” He shifted his gaze to Earth and squeezed Jonas’s shoulder. “Lud’s a smart man—even though he is too skinny.” A smile twitched his lips.

Rolling her shoulders to release the tension yet again, Jonas faced Eoban. “So why does he want to move here, so near you, of all people?”

Eoban rubbed his nose like an abashed child and glanced about. “He never fit in back home. He’s seen too much, been too many places. He likes to welcome strangers and travel. His people don’t understand. They’re so suspicious. Even when I visited, they glared at me—like I was a monster from the deep. Can you imagine!”

A villager strolled by and waved.

Jonas waved back, glancing at Eoban. “Well, you’ve been known to intimidate even—”

Eoban raised an eyebrow and turned back to the half-finished structure. “We’re lucky that Lud married well. Dinah is a sensible, hardworking girl. They have three children all ready. Lud wants to enjoy the world as a gift, not a threat.”

Jonas chimed in, “A gift from God.”

With a noncommittal shrug, Eoban lifted a load of thatch and balanced it over his shoulder. “They’ll be good neighbors. Obed agrees. He says Lud is a unifying force since he’s been the slave of one clan, the rescuer of another, and a friend to all.”

Dropping the thatch against the west wall, Eoban lowered his voice. “I’ll stay closer to home now anyway. There’s more to life than trading and riches.” His eyebrows danced as his head tilted toward the assembly. “Someone has to train up the youth. Good warriors are good workers first.”

A cool wind swept through, and relief spread over Jonas, relaxing every muscle in her body. Affecting nonchalance, she suppressed an exuberant smile and merely nodded.

A shout and a sharp yelp turned every head.

Eoban jogged forward as a crowd gathered under a hole in the roof.

Jonas skirted around with one trembling hand clasped over her mouth and the other over her pounding heart.

Onia lay on the ground, peering through a mask of straw and mud. He attempted a brave grin. “Just slipped through a little hole.”

Eoban cleared his throat as he glanced from the broken roof to the boy. “Tell me, Onia, do you remember what I told you about laying thatch?”

Onia blinked, his mouth dropping open.

Eoban waved a finger, his voice rising. “What happens to the foolish builder?”

Onia’s eyes screwed up as he recited from memory. “Without a strong frame, the builder builds in vain.”

“Yes, that’s right.” Eoban swiped straw from the boy’s hair and pulled him to his feet. “Now go make bricks.”

Onia glanced at his mother and shrugged helplessly.

Jonas sighed as she watched her youngest son amble off to his next duty, knowing full well that by the time he got home, he would be too tired to be of any use to her.

She gripped Eoban’s arm. “You may have him until noon, but then I need him back. I have work for him as well. And feel free to tell your workers a little story about boys who help their mothers being the best of sons.”

Jonas and Eoban locked eyes in a struggle for dominance. Eoban broke first, and they both grinned.

Jonas turned toward home and peered over her shoulder. “You might want to check this house before Lud moves in, or he’ll be in for a few surprises.”

Eoban folded his arms high across his chest and surveyed his confused crew. He called after Jonas. “They do great work—you’ll see!” He nodded to the boys and lifted his hands like a warrior readying his men for battle.

Jonas walked backward, watching and grinning.

A fresh smile broke over Eoban’s face. “Back to work, everyone. Did I ever tell you about the Sun Keepers? No? Well, there’s a lesson in perseverance, let me tell you! You see, long ago…”

Jonas turned and strolled toward home, her arms swinging at her side.

—Lake Land—

Barak clasped his hands around one knee as he sat on a bench leaning against the back wall of his dwelling. His work-worn, patched tunic and leggings rippled around his thick, muscled body. He tipped his head up.

Brilliant stars twinkled overhead in miraculous glory.

Inside a nearby dwelling, a child murmured plaintively, and a woman crooned a baby to sleep.

Barak sighed as his gaze wandered the heavenly sphere. He whispered. “Aram, where are you now?”

Stretching out, he sprawled on the bench, one leg hanging over the side. “There’s so much I don’t know.” His brows furrowed. “I’m not alone.” He waved a finger at the sky. “Your God follows me everywhere, but He won’t speak to me!”

Clasping his hands over his face, he groaned. “If your God spoke to Eymard and comforted you, why won’t He do the same for me?” Barak ran his fingers through his hair. “By the cat’s paw, can’t He choose someone else? Eoban would make a great leader. He’s forever telling me what to do.”

A soft wind with a spicy, resin scent stirred his hair, sending a chill over his body. Sitting up, he snapped a broken twig off the bench. “Eymard, can you hear me? I can’t lead all these people! If Ishtar can return to evil ways, who can I trust?”

Slumping in exhaustion, Barak lay back down, pillowing his head with his arm and closing his eyes.

In a dreamy haze, Aram appeared before him, standing with a lean, sober-eyed, black-haired man, who looked somewhat familiar yet unknown. The stranger reached out with his palm up.

Fear warring with excitement, Barak lifted his arm. He clasped the man’s hand, and lightning raced through his body.

Jerking awake, Barak bolted upright and opened his eyes.

A pinkish hue on the horizon signaled the start of another day.

—Grassland—

Obed stepped away from his rolled-up bed, pulled an embroidered tunic over his broad shoulders, and let it fall gently over his white leggings. With care, he slipped his feet into a pair of new sandals.

Jonas stood near the doorway, her arms folded. “And about Tobia—”

Rounding on his wife, Obed glared, hot fury flushing his face. He slapped the wall post. “Why are you bringing this up again? It’s the best thing for the boy, and well you know it. He’s too retired and shy. He’s a man now, but he doesn’t seem to know it.”

Jonas clenched her jaw, her lips in a tight line.

“He spends all his time carving figures and dreaming. I can’t find him when there’s work to be done, and when I ask why he’s not at the field, he shrugs. He doesn’t seem to know that we need to work…to build homes…to trade and acquire the items that we can’t make for ourselves.”

Jonas glared, her eyes narrowing as she gripped her waist.

Obed swiveled away and pounded to the other end of the room. He waved and knocked a bowl of fruit askew, spilling a cluster of grapes. Ignoring the mess, Obed refocused his gaze on Jonas. “He’s consumed with carving, and even when he makes something decent, he’s reluctant to trade it for anything useful. He needs to grow up!” Obed folded his arms over his chest in a precise manner, his heart pounding against his ribs.

Readjusting the bowl and settling the grapes in place, Jonas, stiff as a board, choked out her words. “He is doing something important—his carvings speak to the part of us that makes us more than beasts.” She closed her eyes and swallowed. “Onias believed in the value of art. Tobia is following in his father’s footsteps.”

Obed’s jaw clenched. “Since I’m not his blood father, I can’t see his worth—is that what you mean?”

Her anger flashing, Jonas plunged forward. “I never said that! You’ve been a wonderful father, but Tobia is different from you. Even from me. Is that wrong?”

A knot forming in his stomach, Obed shook his head. “You and I hold this village together. What’ll become of our people if Tobia dreams his life away—even in the noble pursuit of becoming more than” —he gritted his teeth— “a beast?”

Jonas lifted her hands as if in a truce. “Stop! Please.” She sucked in a shuddering breath. “You’re right. Traveling and trading will probably do Tobia good. I just don’t think that Vitus is the right man to lead our son into manhood. He’ll never confide in Vitus, and Vitus will never understand him.”

Sensing victory, Obed’s heart leaped. “My point exactly! Tobia has been coddled for too long. He needs a man’s influence. A man who will not coddle him. Vitus knows a lot of people along his trade routes, and that’ll force Tobia out of his shell. He won’t stand by and let him stare aimlessly with those sad eyes, carving useless pieces of wood.”

Jonas wrung her hands and meandered to the open window, staring ahead. “Vitus is not the man you think.”

Swallowing his doubts, Obed hesitated a moment. But as irritation welled, he leaned against the wall and struck again. “Vitus will do more good than you or I. We’ve almost ruined the boy.” He slapped his hands together, lacing his fingers in a stranglehold. “Boy! Why, he’s a man in size and strength, but we speak of him as a child!” Pushing off the wall, Obed started for the door. “No, my mind is made up. Tobia is leaving with Vitus in the morning.” Looking back, Obed felt his stomach crunch. Standing stiff and unyielding, Jonas blinked back tears. With a shake of his head, Obed charged through the doorway and sped through the village.

—Wilderness—

Ishtar halted and stared ahead at a barren landscape. His long, unkempt hair blew around his dirt-smeared face. A rough beard sprouted along his jawline, accenting the hollows of his cheeks.

The sun rose into a hazy sky. Clouds swirled through the red glow of an angry firmament that bespoke of troubles in the heavens. A sharp breeze blew, and a line of pine trees behind him groaned in warning.

His toes bled onto the hard rocky ground. Ishtar peered at his torn skin and clothes—a ragged loincloth and a sleeveless tunic—hung loosely about him as if they might sail into the wild wind. Long strands of hair obscured his vision, but his ears thrilled to the howling wind through the heavy pine boughs. His lean body, sunken to near emaciation, bowed to the tempest. Neither fear nor pain accosted him.

He waited. But death did not come. Pain did not come. Sorrow did not fill his heart. He felt nothing. He cared for nothing. He wondered if he had, in fact, become nothing. Was he a man or had mere shadow engulfed his very being?

Without thought, he strode on.

The sun crawled overhead as he paced out his measured steps. Slipping on an incline, he instinctively grabbed hold of a rock embedded in the dirt to steady his balance. He climbed for time uncounted and, without interest, crossed a flat expanse.

Finally, the fog-ridden landscape cleared. To his utter amazement, he peered across an enormous desert. After an entranced moment, he glanced down at his torn feet and realized with the first tremor of fear that he stood with his toes pointing over a vast and mighty cliff edge. If he took one more step, he would fall to a bone-crushing death.

In the distance, mountains dwarfed the hills he had already ascended. Purples, blues, and pinks vied with one another to create a rainbow landscape over the barren land.

He gasped, sucking in the breathtaking beauty. Tears coursed down his cheeks. Grimacing in pain, he curled his toes around the rocky ledge. Birds, swirling in the heights, crisscrossed one another in innocent delight, dancing for him alone.

Ishtar raised his hand to his face and brushed his hair behind his ear. He stared at the glorious sky, never looking down at the depths that beckoned.

A vision of Pele, her gentle eyes set in her perfectly oval face, wisps of hair swirling as if in the evening breeze, swayed before him. But unlike the birds, she gazed upon his troubled face. A faint message traveled through the harsh wind. “You live, Ishtar. Begin again.”

Ishtar’s heart pummeled his chest. Begin again? He was an exile, an outcast—no longer a man. Twice cursed. Was redemption possible after such a fall?

The birds faded like specks of dust into the horizon as his vision paled into vaporous clouds. He stared into the suddenly clear blue sky and wiped away fresh tears.

He took one step back.

 

Enjoy a new chapter from OldEarth Ishtar Encounter each Tuesday and Wednesday.

Blessings,

Ann

“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift of God, which is why we call it the present.”
― Bill Keane

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

Back to Shore

When I was ten, my mom began renting out rooms to foreign students. Over the next eleven years, while I lived at home, I became friends with students from countries all over the world—Japan, China, Taiwan, Singapore, Venezuela, Germany, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, India, and many others. Each man widened my understanding and appreciation of humanity.

One summer, my mom decided that we (the remnant of my family) deserved a little break. A change of pace. So she rented a little place on a lake for a week. Lake Danoon. It was beautiful, and the first real “vacation” I could ever remember. As glad as I was for a chance to enjoy “free time” without the daily grind, I soon realized that our renters made my life far more interesting than it would ever have been without them.

Three of the guys showed up on Saturday, and I remember how glad I was to see them. Not only did I miss our “Hi, how ya doing?” as we passed in the kitchen each day, but I also missed their presence. Their scholastic-obsessed good sense and hardworking example.

I had, in a fatally flawed bit of logic (given my arm strength) tried to row myself out onto the lake in the morning and did nothing but bump up against the shore for an hour. So when Wael, a Lebanese student studying engineering, Ting, a student from Singapore also studying engineering, and Bala, an Indian student, (I have no idea what he was studying but I knew he was deeply spiritual, making him wise if not brilliant in my eyes) showed up, I grabbed my chance and convinced them to get in the boat and head out into the middle of the lake. With me—of course. I was about fifteen at the time and acted like the cajoling little sister who could do no wrong.

We had a great deal of fun.

Until the boat started to leak.

Then the engine died.

No problem thought I. I have two engineers and a guru. Who cares about a little leak?

They did apparently.

Not one of the three men could swim.

Now that did surprise me. But good sense kicked in, along with engineering skills, and we, (they) managed to maneuver the boat back to shore. Safely.

So when the rental guy came over, I explained about the leak and the engine trouble, expecting him to apologize and show some level of gratitude for the fact that my friends not only saved their own lives but the boat as well.

But no. The rental guy broke into a tirade. For some odd reason, the leak and the engine trouble was our fault. My fault.

Being true to my nature, I immediately felt guilty. Not only had I risked innocent lives on a lark, but I had also managed to enrage a boatman. Sheesh. I hardly deserved to live.

Now I had seen these guys deal with all levels of stress during the time they rented with us. Final exams, being away from family, economic hardships, cultural crisis, so I knew how each of them might react when confronted with trouble. I stepped in front of Wael, expecting him to bellow back at the boat guy. But no. He crossed his arms and glared. Then I glanced at Bala, expecting him to offer some consoling wisdom and smooth the fellow’s ruffled feathers. But no. He clasped his hands and stepped aside.

It was Ling, the quiet and most mild-mannered of men, who stepped up and described to the boatman—in a clear and loud voice—the exact disastrous proceedings and with admonishing finger pointed at me. “And what about her? She could’ve drowned!” With matching glares, Wael and Bala nodded emphatically. That was the crux of the matter as far as they were concerned.

Without further argument, the boatman apologized and offered to refund the rental payment.

My mom, brother, and I returned home the following week, and life resumed its normal pace. School. Exams. Meals with spicy scents lingering in the kitchen. Cups of hot tea shared at the table. Hot summer days. Freezing winter evenings. Holidays. Ordinary realities.

But all my life, I have remembered those three men’s outrage. Not because they got stuck in the middle of a lake in a leaky boat with a kid who couldn’t row herself to shore. No. They were outraged because they feared for my life.

And I was the only one who could swim.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z