Authors: Wanda Ann Thomas
Wanda Ann Thomas
Copyright © 2015 by Wanda Ann Thomas
Published by Wanda Ann Thomas of Maine. All rights reserved. This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.
This is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents and dialogues in this book are of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is completely coincidental.
Mary of Rumah hoped to be a mother. She did. Babies were a blessing.
But as she followed her dearest friend Tabitha out the door of her family’s roomy stone house for a stroll around their olive farm, Mary wished the getting of children wasn’t quite so burdensome.
Waddling gait. Gourd-shaped belly. Pushing an object the size of a breadbasket out of your body.
The prospect held more appeal than marrying an old, fat goat herder, though. But not much more. Her family often warned that such a husband awaited her if she kept rejecting prospective grooms, but she was content to put marriage and motherhood off a bit longer.
She shaded her eyes against the burning midday sun. “You should stay inside where it’s cool.”
“But we usually spend time sitting and chatting in the goat pen or the orchard,” Tabitha said in her singsong voice.
Mary slipped her arm under Tabitha’s. “The spring lamb and goats are half grown now.”
They strolled toward the rock and mud goat pen that had served as her home until six years ago, when her brother Nathan constructed their large, beautiful house before marrying Alexandra.
“Two more families moved to Rumah when they heard Nathan would be hiring extra men for the harvest,” Tabitha said.
Mary surveyed the olive grove, which was bursting with fruit ready for harvest. Workers snapped green and purple olives from the lush canopy, filling baskets and emptying them into waiting donkey carts. “Nathan expects double the olives now the additional trees have reached maturity. The old press can’t keep up. Pinhas is hurrying to finish the new olive press.”
“Where did they decide to put it?”
Mary sighed. “The stone outcrop you and I and Timothy used to pretend was a fort or castle. Remember how much fun we had playing on it?”
“I adored our little castle.” Tabitha’s pretty face glowed like she was ten, instead of an eighteen-year-old about to give birth to her first child.
“Pinhas promises to have the press finished in time to process this season’s banner crop.”
Pinhas and Cephas waved when they saw Mary and Tabitha walking toward them, then the two stonecutters turned back to unloading the wagon full of chisels and hammers and pointed tools.
“I didn’t know Cephas would be working with Pinhas,” Tabitha said, sounding very pleased.
Since Cephas was a stonecutter acclaimed for his exceptional talent, his offer to help Pinhas finish building the bigger new olive press had been welcome news. Cephas was also young and handsome and unmarried. Mary swallowed. “It took us all by surprise.”
“I told you Cephas was staring at you during last year’s Maidens’ Dance.”
“You know the idea of marrying and staying in Galilee makes me feel like I can’t breathe.”
“You are too finicky. All the unmarried girls in Rumah want to marry Cephas.”
Cephas came walking toward them with his head down, making a trip to the well with several leather water pouches draped over his broad shoulder.
Tabitha nudged Mary. “Talk to him.”
“Don’t play matchmaker. Please—”
“Cephas!” Tabitha called out, her smile rivaling the brilliance of the crystal blue sky. “We’re so glad to have you visit Rumah. Will you be staying for the harvest celebration?”
He lifted his chin, revealing lovely nut-brown eyes. “I’m not sure.”
“You have to stay,” Tabitha said. “Mary is graceful as a butterfly floating through the orchard when she dances with the other girls.”
Mary’s cheeks heated.
Remaining calm as a palm-shaded oasis, Cephas glanced about. “Nathan’s orchard is the most beautiful in Galilee. If everything goes as I hope, I’ll stay.”
“Will you watch Mary dance?” Tabitha asked coyly.
“We don’t want to keep you from you work,” Mary said hauling Tabitha along by the arm. She cherished Tabitha. She truly did. But wished Tabitha would stop trying to
Tabitha patted Mary’s hand. “Cephas is smitten with you. He thinks you’re beautiful.”
“You practically forced the compliment out of him.”
“I hope the baby doesn’t come during the harvest celebration. I don’t want to miss your engagement announcement. Your mother and Alexandra and Nathan will be beyond joyful. I think you should marry in the orchard and—”
“I’m going to scream if you don’t stop talking nonsense,” Mary said, laughing, unable to resist Tabitha and her exuberant enthusiasm.
Tabitha smiled back. “I thought you would marry before me and Alya. But Alya was the first to stand under the canopy.”
Mary and Tabitha and Alya had been best friends since they were young girls. “I miss Alya.”
“Me too. Especially during harvest time, when I remember how happy we were, skipping arm in arm through the orchard, hoping the boys we admired would make eyes at us.”
“We were silly and giddy, weren’t we?”
Tabitha slowed. “I’m afraid something will go wrong when the babe comes. Alya told me she was scared, too. But I smiled and babbled on like I do.”
Mary wrapped her arm around Tabitha. “You were trying to cheer her.”
“I wish I was brave like you.”
Mary wanted to confess how she’d begun to fear for Tabitha as soon as she learned she was with child. Mary had scolded Tabitha for walking so far when she arrived this morning. Her face flushed from the heat, Tabitha had laughed away Mary’s concern. If it was up to Mary, she would wrap Tabitha in wool for safekeeping.
“Brave?” Mary protested, doing her best to sound carefree. “You married Saul. Alya and I were tongue-tied when Pinhas’s handsome giant of a cousin came to live in Rumah. But you charmed and tamed him, and six months later we were showering you with marriage blessings.”
Tabitha’s furrowed brow smoothed. “Saul has kind eyes. So does Cephas.”
Mary planted a smacking kiss on Tabitha’s pale cheek. “You are incorrigible!”
Still arm in arm, they rounded the corner of the goat pen and found Pinhas’s curly-haired dog, Euphrates, whining and pawing at the door. Hens stood at attention, clucking and blinking. Mournful baas and bleats escaped the pen, raising gooseflesh on Mary’s arms. She fumbled the latch open and pushed the door back.
Hay dust and flies clouded the slanting light striking the mud floor. Goats and sheep stopped their nervous milling and stared dolefully at Mary. Their sweet-tempered she-goat, Rachael, lay stretched out on her side, dead, circled by a trio of bleating four-month-old kid-goats.
Mary rushed to Rachael. Tears stinging her eyes, she dropped to her knees and gathered up the bawling kid-goats. “Poor babies,” she said, her throat tight, remembering the heartbreaking devastation she’d felt in the wake of her father’s death.
Tabitha’s tunic brushed Mary’s shoulder. “Was Rachael sick?”
“No. She was in perfect health.”
“I’ll go get Pinhas and Cephas,” Tabitha said, hurrying fast as she could go toward the door, a hand on her lower back for support.
A frightening premonition struck. Tabitha dead. Drenched in blood and sweat from childbirth. Mary squeezed her eyes shut.
Dear Lord, no, not Tabitha, too.
One week later, Mary swiped the tears from her cheeks and hurried into the embrace of the ancient olive grove, seeking the comfort of the gnarled tree trunks and canopy of green where she'd grown up playing and working.
The sky was blue. The sun was warm. Clusters of ripe olives hung from the branches overhead, but her dearest friend lay cold in her grave, cradling a stillborn baby in her lifeless arms.
How would Mary ever find happiness in her memories? The whispered secrets she and Tabitha had shared while picking olives. The time they had climbed the tree bursting with white blossoms to rescue Mary’s kitten. Dancing under the stars the first night she and Tabitha and Alya had been old enough to join the Maidens’ Dance.
The rustle of grass and murmur of conversation announced the approach of someone coming to check on her. Mary hugged the stained reed basket tighter to her stomach. Much as she loved her family, she was tempted to run away, and not stop running until she was far, far from Galilee.
“How are you, Sweet Lamb?” her brother Nathan of Rumah asked when he emerged from a screen of saplings guiding his wife, Alexandra, who was heavy with child.
More tears welled. Mary swiped them away. She didn’t want to be a cause of more worry for her brother and sister-in-law. An orchard's worth of choice olives awaited harvesting, and the bulk of the family's yearly income came from the sale of Nathan’s premium olive oil.
Determined to turn Nathan and Alexandra’s attention back to running the farm, Mary took a deep breath and plucked a plump, purple olive. “I am fine. Work is good for me.”
Nathan studied her with concern. “We could keep you company.”
Mary forced a smile. “Wandering through the orchard soothes me.”
Alexandra put a comforting arm around Mary. “Are you sure, dear?”
“The best thing you can do is not fuss over me,” Mary said.
Alexandra rubbed her rounded abdomen and squeezed Mary's arm. “We will be at the olive press if you need us.”
“I'll come when my basket is full,” Mary promised.
Nathan gave her a peck on the cheek. “You spoke beautifully at the burial. Tabitha's mother was touched and comforted by the lovely memories you shared.”
Mary’s throat closed. Bursting with the need to escape, she grasped onto a notion that had been floating through her mind for months, a plan she hadn’t shared with anyone, not even Tabitha. A plan to escape the suffocating memories associated with the olive farm.
“Nathan, I would like to go to Hammet with you again. Visiting the Sea of Galilee and the colorful market would be a lovely distraction.” She wouldn’t tell them just yet about the merchant’s son who lived in a snug house tucked up against the sea.
Nathan’s face relaxed. “I will hire a boat while we’re there and take you for a sail out on the water.”
Mary fought back a watery laugh. Sailing on the Sea of Galilee was one of her fondest dreams. “You have always been so good to me.”
“You know I would move the heavens to see you happy?”
She swallowed tears and nodded.
Nathan and Alexandra walked back toward the farmyard, arms around each other’s waists, and Mary moved deeper into the grove, passing under spindly branches that had shaded this bit of land for hundreds of years. Olives hung thick from the squat, twisted trees. Mary's family had farmed here for generations, and everyone assumed she would live and die here too. But first her father had died. Then Alya. Tabitha's death had been one tragedy too many.
She moved farther and farther from the farm, picking the green and purple fruit until reaching the border of the orchard, to an area where the low-hanging fruit had already been picked. She scanned the trees, looking for a ladder.
Twigs snapped behind her. She turned and a hard body barreled into her. Olives flew up and out of her basket, and she landed flat on her back with a heavy weight pinning her to the ground.
Pounding feet crashed through brush and a high-pitched trill filled the air.
Mary's heart pounded. Memories of the raid invaded. Men emerging from the orchard. Bandits swarming over the farm. Her father's head cracking hard against the side of the well. The long, terrifying march to the caves in the hill country. The smell of blood, smoke, and death.
She slapped at the thick shoulder of the man sprawled on top of her. Six years had passed since she'd been abducted by the bandits, but her fears hadn’t fully faded.
“Mary,” a familiar voice gasped. “Did I hurt you?”
Soft brown eyes regarded her with concern. “I didn't see you.”
Aware of the hard muscles molding her body, she braced her hands on his wide chest, and pushed. “Get up. You are crushing me.”
A swarm of feet trampled the ground around them and peals of boyish laughter rang through the orchard.
“Mary and Cephas are wrestling,” someone said.
“No, they're kissing,” another boy said.
“You have to marry now,” Timothy, her younger brother taunted and chortled loudly.
Ready to choke her brother and his friends, she pounded on Cephas's shoulder. “Let me up, you ox.”
“Watch out,” Timothy warned. “Our Sweet Lamb has become a lioness.”
She ground her teeth. Was a little peace and quiet so much to ask for?
Cephas scrambled to his feet and held out a hand.
She sat up, brushed crushed olives from her stained tunic, and slapped his palm aside. “I don’t need help.”
A stricken look crossed his face.
Regret welled. “Forgive me. I shouldn’t have lost my temper with you.”
“You’ve had a difficult few days,” Cephas said, his voice a soft caress. “There’s no need to apologize.”
Timothy flopped down beside her. “I'm sorry, Mary. I didn't mean to upset you.” He might be twelve years old and full of mischief, but Timothy didn't have a cruel bone in his body.
She patted his dirt-stained hand. “You and your friends scared me. Running and screaming that way.”
His frown deepened. “I hope you don't have one of your bad dreams.”
A shiver of dread raced down her spine. “It has been six months since the last one.”
Cephas knelt beside her. “You don’t look well. Please allow me to carry you back to the farm.”
“Don't be fooli—” She stopped. He was trying to help. How was he to know she hated being coddled? “It’s very kind of you, but I'm not sick or hurt. I came out here for the quiet and to be alone.”
“Are you sure? You hit the ground pretty hard.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “What were you doing running through the orchard like a charging bear, anyway?”
A few years older than she was, and a loner, Cephas didn’t normally engage in the foolish play her brother and his friends excelled at.
Amusement lurked behind his nut-brown eyes. “These rascals were threatening revenge.”
Timothy pointed to the wet stains on his tunic. “Cephas lured us to the waste pile and pushed us in.”
The olive mash was knee-deep by now. Mary winced.
Cephas shrugged and his checks dimpled. “They wouldn't stop pestering me,”
Framed by a neat beard, his dimples were stunning. Why hadn't she noticed them before?
Growing bored, the other boys raced off. Timothy mumbled a farewell and followed.
Her face heated. “How is the olive press coming along?”
Cephas offered her his hand. “We will have it ready before the harvest is completed.”
She placed her hand against his broad palm. “I’m keeping you from you work.”
Warm, callused fingers closed around hers. The strength and vitality pulsing below his calm exterior thrilled and unnerved like a sudden, summer thunderstorm overtaking a sunny day. He helped her to her feet. “I'll walk you back to the farm.”
Unsettled, she pulled her hand free. She was ashamed, feeling and thinking such thoughts so soon after leaving Tabitha’s sealed tomb. “Thank you, but I'd rather be by myself.”
“I'm sorry I frightened you. I hope our foolish play doesn't give you nightmares.”
Images of her most recent nightmare flashed through her mind. Rough hands grabbing her. Drunken men cursing and fighting. She rubbed her chilled arms. Nathan had rescued her before the rebels could do real harm. The past couldn't hurt her. She was safe and loved and well cared for. What more did she need?
“Go back to your work. There is no need to worry about me.”