This weekend, I decided to have my very own writer’s retreat.
Not a conference.
Conferences feature boring speakers and inedible buffet food—at least the ones I’ve been to.
Seriously, at the last teacher’s conference I attended, I ended up in a lecture where a professor talked for an hour about how to use rubrics.
This is a rubric I used to grade oral reading when I was teaching. As you can see, it’s self-explanitory:
Listening: 1 2 3 4 5
Mechanics: 1 2 3 4 5
Dynamics: 1 2 3 4 5
Pronunciation: 1 2 3 4 5
Attitude: 1 2 3 4 5
Total score: __________________________________________
Thank you for coming to my lecture.
When I heard we were going to take a last-minute trip out of town, and I was promised some alone time in the hotel room, I decided the time was right for a writing RETREAT—not a conference.
I planned my retreat carefully. First, I started with a little gift bag for myself since every good retreat has a strong welcome-bag game. To my delight, it contains all the stuff I like to have on hand when I write (the chick putting this retreat—not a conference—together really has excellent insight).
My retreat started with a four-hour road-trip with my favorite person. My husband and I got a chance to talk, and it was fantastic. Now that we no longer work together, we don’t get much opportunity to chat about big life-stuff. It was lovely.
In the morning, the retreat started in earnest. We started with brunch at IHOP, then did a little writing “research” at a nearby Goodwill. Everyone knows that good writers are also good readers (and I realized this morning that I only have two more months to complete my Goodreads Reading Challenge and I am ridiculously far behind and freaking out a little bit).
We returned to our room to relax and read before the hubby had to leave for a reunion with some college friends. I kissed him goodbye, then ordered some vegetarian and vegan dishes from a local Indian restaurant for my retreat “banquet.”
Next came the decision of what writing shirt to wear. Okay, that one was a no-brainer. The Duran Duran tee won.
And now—THE TIME HAD COME!
Word document opened? Check.
Subject chosen? Check.
Timer set? Check.
And I’m off and writing for the next hour.
DEVOTIONAL SPRINT—The Women Who Set the Precedents
☐ Choose a biblical woman who embodies one of the rights listed in Proverbs 31.
☐ Write rough draft of devotional chapter with outside sources (if applicable) and word studies.
This sprint is part of the devotional I’m writing. The book is called The Women Who Set the Precedents and covers women’s rights in Proverbs 31. Each chapter delves into the biblical lives of women who serve as examples of those rights. For tonight’s devotional writing sprint, I chose Tabitha: The Compassionate Woman.
Proverbs 31:20 She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.
She has the right to be charitable and generous. She has the right to help those who cannot help themselves.
TABITHA: THE COMPASSIONATE WOMAN
Now there was at Joppa a certain disciple named Tabitha, which by interpretation is called Dorcas: this woman was full of good works and almsdeeds which she did. (Acts 9:36)
As beautiful as her name is, her works are even more pleasant. She is full of good works and almsdeeds. She is known for her compassion as she expresses her faith through action.
And it came to pass in those days, that she was sick, and died: whom when they had washed, they laid her in an upper chamber. (Acts 9:37)
Tabitha falls ill and dies. Her friends prepare her body for burial, but they laid her body in an upper chamber before entombing her.
And forasmuch as Lydda was nigh to Joppa, and the disciples had heard that Peter was there, they sent unto him two men, desiring him that he would not delay to come to them. (Acts 9:38)
The other disciples who lived in Tabitha’s town heard that Peter was in the nearby city of Joppa. Two men were chosen to give a message to Peter. They asked him to come right away.
Then Peter arose and went with them. When he was come, they brought him into the upper chamber: and all the widows stood by him weeping, and shewing the coats and garments which Dorcas made, while she was with them. (Acts 9:39)
When Peter arrived, Tabitha’s friends took him straight to the upper chamber, where they laid her body out. All the widows in the community pushed toward Peter, showing him the clothing Tabitha had made for them.
Tabitha displayed “pure and undefiled religion” through her works. Many people do not like to use the word “religion” to describe how they worship—and yet, that is what the word “religion” means.
Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world. (James 1:27)
Because humans have added their doctrines to the pure principles set out in the Bible, religion has become more man-centered. Once humans become the center of worship, worship becomes highly flawed. Instead of praise, there is criticism. Instead of freedom, there is legalism. Instead of liberty, there is stricture. People blinded by leaders presenting their opinions and preferences as biblical doctrine become prisoners to their churches. They tend to believe teachers without looking into the truths of the Bible for themselves.
Tabitha is an excellent example of a religious woman who is compassionate to those who desperately need help. She practices “Pure religion and undefiled” by helping widows in their “affliction.”
The people she helped praise her work.
But Peter put them all forth, and kneeled down, and prayed; and turning him to the body said, Tabitha, arise. And she opened her eyes: and when she saw Peter, she sat up. (Acts 9:40)
Peter ejects the witnesses out of the upper room, then kneels to pray. Any miracle performed will not be due to Peter’s spirituality or strength. Miracles require the power of God.
Peter had witnessed first-hand the power of Jesus while Christ was on earth. Peter was one of His three closest followers. He was present when Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, was one of only three people who witnessed Jesus resurrect Jairus’s daughter, and saw Lazarus brought back from the dead. Peter walked, talked, and ate with Jesus when Jesus rose again.
Now, Peter has the opportunity to do as Jesus had. He calls Tabitha’s name. She opens her eyes, sees Peter, and sits up.
Tabitha’s resurrection wasn’t a way for Peter to brag about his abilities or his spirituality. He was merely the conduit through which the Holy Spirit works.
There is no fanfare. It is a quiet resurrection, a silent miracle. It is as simple as the religion Tabitha lived every day.
And he gave her his hand, and lifted her up, and when he had called the saints and widows, presented her alive. (Acts 9:41)
Once Tabitha is brought back to life, Peter presents her to the people who love and appreciate her. They recognize the truth in Tabitha as she reaches out her hands to the poor and needy.
She has the right to be compassionate. By expressing that right, she cares for the most vulnerable in her community. Tabitha’s religion is pure, undefiled, and hands-on.
And it was known throughout all Joppa; and many believed in the Lord. (Acts 9:42)
Tabitha’s resurrection—and the reason why so many of Tabitha’s friends sent for Peter—becomes a well-known story throughout the region. People who hear about Tabitha’s example become believers in Jesus Christ.
 disciple: mathētria, math-ay’-tree-ah, A female pupil: – disciple.
 Tabitha and Dorcus: Tabitha, tab-ee-thah’, Of Chaldee origin the gazelle; Tabitha (that is, Tabjetha), a Christian female: – Tabitha. Dorcus, Dorkas, dor-kas’, gazelle; Dorcas, a Christian woman: – Dorcas.
 almsdeeds, eleēmosunē, el-eh-ay-mos-oo’-nay, compassionateness, that is, (as exercised towards the poor) beneficence, or (concretely) a benefaction: – alms (-deeds).
 upper chamber, huperōon, hoop-er-o’-on, a higher part of the house, that is, apartment in the third story: – upper chamber (room).
 religion, thrēskeia, thrace-ki’-ah, ceremonial observance: – religion, worshipping.
 pure, katharos, kath-ar-os’, Of uncertain affinity; clean (literally or figuratively): – clean, clear, pure.
 undefiled, amiantos, am-ee’-an-tos, unsoiled, that is, (figuratively) pure: – undefiled.
 afliction, thlipsis, thlip’-sis, pressure (literally or figuratively): – afflicted, (-tion), anguish, burdened, persecution, tribulation, trouble.
I completed an hour of writing, then took a quick break that included dancing to a couple of Mercy Me songs and time to blog. Now it’s time for writing sprint two.
Twists, Turns, and Curves is the second book in the Rose Collection. The first book is Plague of Lies and is already available to purchase from Amazon. Click on the link to read a preview:
Twists, Turns, and Curves is going through the final editing process in anticipation of it’s release in May. My main character, Caroline Taft, is a teacher in full-time Christian ministry. Because she is plus-sized, some assume she’s undisciplined or even unspiritual. Still, she works—and she deals with what most people in full-time service face: poverty, over-scheduling, and a complete lack of personal life. Before spring break, she is told that she will be let go at the end of the school year. She learns, however, that now that her career is over, her life can start. She can look for a good-paying job. She can enjoy more free time. Most importantly, she can finally build a relationship with a man she’s had a crush on for years.
CONTEMPORARY FICTION SPRINT—Twists, Turns, and Curves
☐ Edit Twists, Turns, and Curves for two hours.
Below is the first chapter of Twists, Turns, and Curves:
Dr. Hammond’s lips move, but I tune out his voice.
My teaching career at Benchmark Baptist Christian School is suddenly over.
Dr. Hammond began our meeting by telling me that the school’s budget is too tight, so they have to make cuts. Next year they’ll combine classes, but they have to let someone go. That someone is me.
My mind is swimming with questions. Why, out of the sixteen staff members on campus, am I the one to get the boot? I’m not the newest hire. I wonder if maybe I haven’t done enough, but what else could I do? I’m already at visitation every Saturday, teaching Sunday school, singing in the choir on Sunday mornings, leading children’s music on Sunday nights, directing Wednesday’s Bible club, and, of course, teaching third grade—my actual job.
Dr. Hammond stands up. The meeting is over. I haven’t said anything since, “Dr. Hammond? You said you wanted to see me?” I’m still mute as I shake his hand reflexively and zombie-walk out of his office.
My eyes start pricking with tears, and I realize that a big ole ugly cry is about to commence. I duck into the staff bathroom and rush to lock the stall door before my emotions have their way. I’ve given my all to this school—to this church. I’ve followed all the rules, kept my nose clean, lived a life “above reproach.”
“Not much of a life,” I mutter. I sit on the lid of the toilet, shocked at the bitterness of my thoughts, but it’s true. I’m either working at school or working at church or working a side hustle to make ends meet. I won’t miss the schedule. But I’ll miss the people—some of them anyway.
Ty. I’ll miss Ty.
I have an embarrassing Jr. High-style crush on a guy who doesn’t know I exist outside of my teaching his nephew, Josh. The guy is gorgeous. Sandy blonde hair, green eyes, and a chiseled jaw so sharp it could cut glass. The first time I saw him, he took my breath away. I’d always thought that phrase was hyperbolic, but the air swooshed out of my lungs, leaving me gasping for oxygen.
Then I got to know him. If his outside is handsome, his inside is gorgeous. And he’s so far out of my league he’s in a different sport altogether.
My path crosses his whenever his nephew, Josh, forgets something he’ll need for homework, so I see him every day. I love absent-minded Josh, but it is Ty I look forward to seeing. I have never met a man so kind. So sweet. Part of me wishes he attended Benchmark Baptist so I can see him on weekends too. Part of me is glad he goes to the church across town. I don’t want him tainted.
I shouldn’t think like that. There are some wonderful people here—I assume. I rarely get to say much more than, “Good morning/evening, how are you. That’s good.” I guess that won’t matter now that I’m leaving.
Then, I remind myself that I’m not leaving the church, just the school. But we’re the only Christian school in town. If I get another teaching job, that means I’ll have to move—and join that school’s church. I won’t see Ty on a nearly daily basis. I’ll lose my chance.
There I go, kidding myself again. I know I have no chance.
I snatch a length of toilet paper off the roll and begin the mopping-up process, ending with a brash blowing of my nose—no delicate sniffles here—and I start all over again. I tell myself to knock it off. I’m not a crier. My whole body shakes and gasps in its rebellious effort to prove me wrong. The ugly cry gets so intense it hurts.
When it’s finally over, I mop up again and make my way to the sink, expecting red, blotchy skin, but only my bloodshot eyes give me away.
Straightening my blouse and skirt in front of the full-length mirror, I run my hands over my hips, making sure my business-cut shirt lays smoothly over them. I have to buy my tops a size larger than I need to accommodate my pear-shaped body, which means my neckline gapes open, and I have to wear a camisole underneath. To keep the camisoles from riding up, they get tucked into full-length leggings that help control the bottom half of my body. They suck in my belly, shape my bottom, and round my hips. Over that, it’s a blouse and skirt. I live a life of layers.
Once I smooth everything out, I take one more look. I may be the plumpest (fattest) female staff member, but no one can accuse me of being a slob.
I let out an angry huff as I remember last Sunday’s guest speaker. He used his place at the pulpit to accuse all fat women of being undisciplined slobs. “I can tell at first glance the spiritual state of a woman by the size of her thighs,” he had crudely bragged. “We need more women to get their inspiration from the Word of God rather than from a box of donuts.” He paused for the customary amens. “We need women with discipline and modesty, not churches full of fat aunts in their tight pants.” Laughter and more amens. Even a Hallelujah from the front row.
Sitting in the choir loft while the evangelist hammered away at the idea that fat women couldn’t have any spiritual worth made me feel like exhibit A for the defense. What man would want me? No one, according to the enthusiastic response of my “brothers” in the church body.
My eyes widen in the mirror’s reflection as the thought hits me. Maybe that’s why they’re getting rid of me. They don’t want me any more than Ty would.
It doesn’t matter that I work hard to afford stylishly modest clothes made especially for my plus-size body type or that I never leave the house without my hair and makeup done. It doesn’t matter that I exhaust myself with work. It doesn’t matter one whit that I’ve given all of me to this place—to the point of losing hope for marriage and children.
Nearly every single man in our church is already paired off. Dating outside of the congregation, while not forbidden, is frowned upon.
I’ve given the church my life, and it isn’t enough.
One more dab at my eyes and I venture into the hallway. I need to grab my stuff and get out of here before my emotions get the better of me again.
“No, I think she’s still here.” Ty’s voice comes from inside my classroom. “Her purse and keys are on her desk.”
I can’t face him today, but I can’t hide out in the bathroom anymore, either. I run my fingertips delicately under my lower lashes to brush away any tell-tale moisture and paste a lie onto my face.
“Hi, guys! Forget something, Josh?” I walk straight to my desk and fish sunglasses out of my purse. I slip them on, but not before I accidentally meet Ty’s gaze.
“I forgot my spelling book.”
“Caroline—I mean, Miss Taft—is everything okay?” Ty’s brilliant green eyes draw me even through the dark lenses.
“Fine.” I choke on the word. I want to tell him everything, for Ty to hold me while I cry against his chest. It’s a good chest. Muscular and defined. I shake the fantasy from my head and ask God to forgive my thoughts. If Dr. Hammond could read minds, he would have fired me the first moment I laid eyes on Ty. I can’t count the number of times Dr. Hammond warned against “emotional investment.” I carefully keep my physical and emotional distance, treating Ty the way I would treat any parent—or uncle—of one of my students.
“Are you sure? Do you want to talk?”
I want to run away with you.
“I need to get home.”
I sling my purse over my shoulder and pick up the oversized tote bag filled with answer keys and ungraded homework; my head is buzzing.
I turn to find Ty standing in front of me. Alarmed, I glance around the room for Josh.
“He’s getting a drink.” Ty’s expression is all sympathy. “I don’t think you’re all right. Why don’t we—”
“Miss Taft?” Dr. Hammond’s voice echoes from the hallway. I start like I’ve been caught doing something wrong and hurry to step around Ty, nearly running into Josh, who raced back from the water fountain.
“Just reminding you to turn in your weekly paperwork before you leave.” Dr. Hammond extends his hand toward Ty. “Mr. Lang. Good to see you again. How’s Josh enjoying his school year?”
“He’s doing great. Miss. Taft is an excellent teacher.”
“I saw your catering truck in the parking lot. I wondered if you had a few moments to discuss putting on a banquet for us. We’re raising funds for a new gym.”
I grab a handful of papers from my desk and take off for the office while Dr. Hammond keeps Ty occupied. The lesson plans, already written, go into Mr. Fisher’s box. My fingertips seek a pen at the bottom of the tote bag so I can fill in the other forms—records of how many tracts I’d passed out that week, a checklist of all the services I’d attended, a report of the church ministries in which I’d participated. Each paper goes into Dr. Hammond’s box.
By the time I get to my car, Ty is hopping into his truck. Josh sits on the bench seat behind him. I watch Ty pull his seatbelt down over his shoulder. He has nice shoulders. And long tapered fingers. And a sharp jaw-line I stare at every chance I get. He is one stunning man.
He pulls up next to me on his way out of the lot, and I roll down my window, watching his jaw give a nervous twitch. He looks like he wants to say something, but he doesn’t. I try to think of something that doesn’t sound like a raving fan-girl, but I can’t. We let Josh talk for us. He always has something to say. He chatters while we sat in awkward silence until Ty finally blurts, “Well, have a good spring break!”
“Thanks. You too.”
“Still need help hanging posters in your classroom before the kids come back?”
“You don’t have to.”
“It’s my pleasure.”
“I’d appreciate it.”
He gives a little wave and drives off. I take a deep breath and count to twenty before I follow down the curvy two-lane road in the hills surrounding Posting, California. The church nestles in a level area known as The Bench. I make sure all of my windows are up before I turn on the CD already in the player. My sister teases me about still buying CDs, but my car isn’t new enough for a digital streaming service. I download music to my phone, but I like having the music surround me in the car. Now I let the alternative stylings of Arctic Life wash over me as I guide my car around curves lined with palms, pines, and pepper trees. Their music is my guilty pleasure. I’ve filled my glove box with church-approved CDs, mostly gospel or quartet numbers that border on childish, but I never listen to them when I’m alone in the car—or at all. Instead, I lose myself in lilting Irish voices crooning about love and loss and pleasant memories.
The sky is its usual impossible shade of blue, and the mountains in the distance are so vibrant they seemed minutes rather than hours away. “I want to go there,” I murmur. “I want to go there with Ty and forget the rest of the world exists. Maybe I can hypnotize him and cart him off to a mountain cave.” I shrug at myself. “Or maybe I could be brave enough to ask him out.” That’s a ridiculous thought. He isn’t for me, I know it, but I like the fantasy too much to give it up.
Ty hasn’t noticed my crush, or if he has, he’s too sweet to mention it. He is a rare nice guy who helps out wherever he is needed. Like offering to help the guys on staff get the school grounds ready for fall or assisting me with some occasional classroom decorating since Ty is a good eight inches taller than I am. I bought him a Starbucks gift card at Christmas, passing it off as a thank you for all his help, hoping he’d take pity on me and ask me out. Instead, he gave me a thank you note and bought me a cup of tea the last time I had a cold—nice unattainable guy.
Even if I was braver and willing to risk the humiliation of rejection, it is too late now. In three months, the school term will end, and I will be …
I don’t know where I’ll be.
My next sprint is to edit the very first book I ever wrote. It is an historical novel based on the life of Ruth. I wanted to focus on her life in Moab, before we get to her story in the Bible. My rough draft was over 100,000 words long and needed trimming before I could submit it to any contests, agents, or publishers. I cut the book into thirds to create a trilogy. I’ve completed the first two books, but have procrastinated writing the third. I’ve decided that will be my NaNoWriMo project. In the mean time, I’ll edit the first two books. This will help me get back into the headspace of the story and characters.
HISTORICAL NOVEL SPRINT—A Life of Prologue
☐ Edit A Life of Prologue for one hour.
Here is the prologue and first chapter of A Life of Prologue:
Leaving Love Behind
She kept expecting to see blood.
Just moments—minutes—hours ago, she stumbled through a crowd whose faces and bodies dripped with it.
And yet not a drop, not a splatter was on her.
Her feet were bare. The sandals she had kicked off at the shore had been forgotten in her haste to flee.
She stared at her foot, hanging limply over the camel’s side, only mildly surprised when a steady hand cupped her heel and worked an everyday leather sandal onto it. Nimble fingers tied it in place, then disappeared. She felt the unseen hand at her other foot.
Occasionally, a canteen was to her lips, but they left her alone for the most part. She heard sobbing but didn’t know if it was herself or someone else.
Between Love and Destruction
She knew Sheeva was watching her.
Sixteen-year-old Ruth appeared to be sitting quietly, calmly stitching a woolen blanket, but inside her nerves jumped and thrummed. It didn’t help that the pattern she was following was mentally complicated as well as artistically demanding. Her mother, Thisbe, was not only the First Wife of the king of Moab, but she was one of the Women of Wisdom in the kingdom, and she expected Ruth to follow her example.
Ruth’s eyes cut to the right to see if she was still the second wife’s focus. The woman turned to another girl, so Ruth quickly counted groups of stitches while remaining unobserved. Once she got the final count, she spent a few minutes pretending to unravel a knot until she got herself settled enough to start sewing again.
She caught the eyes of her half-sister Orpah, a girl only three months her junior, and smiled wryly. Orpah gave a quick smirk back, then lifted her chin slightly, so Ruth knew her mother had come in. Ruth released a captured breath. Thisbe came and sat close, putting her arm around her only daughter.
“And how is your blanket coming along?”
Ruth put her head on her mother’s shoulder for just a few seconds and showed her how far she had come with the design. “I think I’m getting it. I like the way the colors blend into each other when they follow the pattern.”
“Are you still counting the stitches?”
Ruth didn’t want to admit that she was, but she kept her eyes on the pattern and nodded.
Thisbe ran her hand over the section Ruth had just completed. “Do you know how many dark stitches are in this panel?”
Ruth’s mind went blank. Again she had to shake her head.
“Remember, darling, that the purpose of this exercise is not just to create a blanket or even to perfect your needlework skills…” Thisbe’s voice trailed off as the project slid away from her. Sheeva had taken the piece and was carefully examining each stitch.
As the king’s second wife, Sheeva was responsible for training each girl in the women’s palace. The daughters were prime commodities of the kingdom. They spent their girlhoods being shaped and perfected to bring the highest possible value to the nation.
Sheeva examined the blanket with one finely-drawn eyebrow raised. “This is good work, Ruth. The design is simple but well done.”
Ruth breathed calmly, deeply, the way her mother had taught her. She didn’t say anything, but she knew the design was much more intricate than Sheeva was letting on.
“It’s more complex than it appears,” Thisbe explained to her sister-wife. “I call it ‘The Lamb’s Tale.’ I used the idea of two sheep reproducing themselves by two every moon of the solar year and posed the question, ‘How many sheep would be born at the end of that year?’ You see, the panels answer to each month’s question in light and dark stitches. When one views the blanket as a whole, the shades mesh together. I gave the project to Ruth to encourage her to think while she embroiders.” Thisbe smiled while Ruth continued her controlled breathing. As happy as she was that Thisbe was there at that moment, she knew that Sheeva would somehow make her pay when her mother wasn’t looking.
Ruth didn’t have to look to know that Sheeva was irritated. The air around the two women crackled like the air before a lighting storm. Thisbe was always polite on the surface but made it clear she had no respect for her sister-wife.
There was a good reason for mutual hatred between the two wives. Sheeva was stupid, and, like most ignorant people, she was perpetually offended. Thisbe had once remarked that Sheeva would be insulted if someone said she was on fire and offered to put her out.
While Sheeva tried to decipher how First Wife had just slighted her, Thisbe deliberately turned her back on the woman and gave her full attention to Ruth. “Are you ready for tonight?”
“I just need to put my sewing away, and I’ll be ready to leave.”
Thisbe’s eyes never left her daughter’s face as she reached over and yanked the project out of Sheeva’s hands. Ruth turned pale as her mother continued chatted with her, and they folded the piece of heavy cloth between them. When they finished, Thisbe asked blithely, “Is she still glaring at me?”
Ruth bit her lower lip, careful not to smile, and nodded solemnly.
“Then put this away and get on your warm things. I suppose we really should try for a graceful exit.”
Ruth avoided Sheeva as she moved to the storage basket near her bed. She replaced her house slippers with a pair of sturdy and battered work sandals. While slipping into a heavy woolen robe, she noticed that the voices in the room suddenly increased in volume. Without having to look, Ruth knew that Sheeva had left the house for the night.
Ruth looked over at Orpah and her mother, Cera. Cera and Thisbe were best friends as well as sister-wives, and they were laughing together. Orpah grinned at her, but Ruth didn’t return her smile. As much as she loved watching Thisbe put Sheeva in her place, it made Ruth a target for Sheeva’s venom.
Ruth twisted her hair into tight braids that were sure to stay in place throughout the evening’s work. Her high cheekbones, usually softened by wisps of curls, stood out, giving her round face some contour. Her eyes were dark brown surrounded by darker lashes—definitely from her mother—but her skin was a creamy brown that was a perfect mix of her parents’ tones. Ruth moved towards her mother, the woman she thought to be the most beautiful in the world. Thisbe’s dark smooth skin glowed in the firelight. Her hair was cropped short and sparkled as if laced with tiny jewels. Ruth watched as her mother laughed and joked with the other girls. Ruth didn’t have the deep exotic flair of Thisbe, with her hooded eyes and full lips, nor did she have her father’s sharp features, but she was coming into her version of beauty.
The moon was hanging low and full. Ruth and Thisbe followed the familiar path through the canyon to a hill that overlooked the sheep’s pasture. Thisbe had responsibility for the king’s flocks, and it was the birthing season. Ruth could tell her mother was satisfied with the night’s preparations. A detachment of shepherds marked the perimeter, keeping an eye out for predators. Within that protective circle were thousands of sheep. Many sheep were down for the night, but the ewes about to lamb were milling around restlessly. The shepherds allowed them to wander the meadow, keeping their distance but ready to assist if needed. It was a well-developed and proven organization, one that had steadily increased the king’s flocks.
Thisbe suddenly sucked her breath through her teeth in a hissing sound. Ruth scanned the pasture in alarm. Only one thing ever made Thisbe that angry. Coming from the main gate of the city was a line of priests dressed in ghostly white robes. “Bekk!” Thisbe muttered the name in disgust, “What does he want?”
As Thisbe marched to the edge of the pasture, she said to Ruth, “I want you to stay in the shadows, out of his sight. Don’t say anything, not even if he addresses you.”
Ruth nodded and fell behind to avoid being within the circle of firelight. She melted into the shadows at the fire’s edge, pulling her heavy woolen veil forward so that its folds covered most of her face. Sheeva called this hiding in plain sight “being demure.” Thisbe called it “becoming invisible” and had insisted her daughter learn the skill well.
Thisbe’s bow to the under-priest was nothing more than a perfunctory nod of the head. Bekk pretended to ignore her while he tried to see past the light to the field beyond. Ruth shivered as his eyes moved past her.
Bekk said, “Our Most Holy High Priest, Ebar…”
Ruth sighed. She’d hated learning the drawn-out lists of names and rank required for the court’s extreme formality. She wished people would say what they needed to say—especially in times like this when ceremony was out of place. They were in a pasture, so why was this man talking like he was standing before the throne? Who did he think he was impressing? Ruth’s attention drifted until she heard Thisbe’s agitated response.
“That would decimate the flock!”
“It’s what Ebar requires.”
“Well—too bad. I cannot allow you to take both the new lambs and first-time mothers…”
“‘Cannot allow’? These are Ebar’s orders. You have no say in what can and cannot be ‘allowed.’
“You have Ebar’s orders, but I’m in charge of the king’s flocks, and when I say I cannot allow you to take a third of the animals, I speak with the authority of the crown.”
Ruth watched as Bekk’s lips tightened and narrowed. Thisbe continued, “I’m aware of the ritual sacrifices. We’ll bring the firstborn lambs to the temple just as we have done every year.”
“You must send the ewes too,” Bekk insisted tersely.
Thisbe sighed and said, in her most condescending voice, “You can’t remove the new breeding females. In the name of the king, I will only send the lambs …”
“Ebar speaks for the Hand of Chemosh—a rank even higher than that of the king— and he speaks for Astarte, wife of Chemosh and mother of us all…”
“This is the season of the wounding when Astarte takes revenge against the boar that killed her son. Shouldn’t Ebar be looking at his herds of swine for the increase in sacrifice instead of among the king’s flocks?”
“Ebar says that Astarte, the Earth Mother, wants the lambs and their ewes,” Bekk said hotly.
“If the earth were a mother, she’d desire her children’s prosperity, not cry out for their blood.” Thisbe retorted.
Bekk put all his weight behind the back-handed blow he delivered to Thisbe’s mouth. The strike was so quick, so reflexive, that even Bekk looked momentarily stunned.
Ruth spontaneously shifted her weight forward, wanting to go to her mother’s aid. It was only years of training that kept her still. She would stay in the shadows.
By the time Thisbe lifted her head with a little snap of imperial pride, Bekk had regained his composure. He seemed satisfied with the sight of Thisbe’s split lip. Bekk moved aggressively close, attempting to tower over the tall woman. Her response was a half-smile that sparked his anger further. Thisbe didn’t look angry or shamed. She looked like a person who had just completed a hard-won contest against someone she despised. He snapped his fingers and motioned for one of his stunned priests to move forward. “Ignore her. Let the other shepherds know that we’ll be taking the newborns and their ewes and…” here he looked over at Thisbe to see her reaction “…any lamb we think is too frail to live. We can’t have weaklings in the king’s flocks now, can we? I’m sure he’ll appreciate our removing those who wouldn’t survive on their own. We don’t have hours to devote to the feeble.”
There was no change in Thisbe’s expression. Ruth wondered if Bekk got the response he had hoped for but guessed not since he continued.
“This will be a long night for the servants of Astarte,” Bekk gave Thisbe a wolfish grin. “Perhaps we’ll begin the sacrifices now—keep our priests well fed as they work through the night—and of course, spill a ring of blood around this pasture as we call on Astarte to protect the flock.”
Thisbe kept her posture, her only movement the dainty wiping of her bloody mouth with her veil. “You’ll do no such thing. The scent of blood will attract predators, not protect the flock…” Thisbe’s words slurred as her mouth continued to bleed.
Bekk laughed at her, “Then I’ll just insist that the auguries showed blood must be spilled for the lambing to be successful.”
Thisbe bowed her head and stepped back, seeming to concede the contest of wills. Then without warning, she spat a stream of bloody saliva on the ground at his feet. “There’s your blood sacrifice,” she said in a quiet voice. “In front of witnesses, I offer it of my blood, and I place myself under the protection of Astarte—the goddess of shepherds.” She flipped her hand at him dismissively. “Go back to your chanting. We will deliver the firstborn to the temple tomorrow. The ewes will stay with the flock. The weaklings strengthened…”
“Yes, we all know how you cherish the weaklings…”
Without acknowledging his cryptic barb, Thisbe turned to walk away, but Bekk’s voice pulled her up short, “…and as for Astarte being the goddess of shepherds, you would be wise to remember her other names. Your sister-wife has often pointed out that you may have something to offer the temple besides sheep.”
Ruth saw her mother search for her in the dark. When the two women locked eyes, Thisbe adjusted her stride to avoid walking in her daughter’s direction. Ruth walked parallel to her mother’s path until they could meet near the center of the pasture.
“Are you all right?” Ruth asked in a frightened voice.
Thisbe stopped to scan the field. Wordlessly, Ruth pointed to Jepeth at the far edge of the pasture, and the women moved to join him. The unusually tall shepherd had folded himself in half and was squatting down next to a ewe whose breaths were coming in deep, tearing gasps.
“How’s she doing?” Thisbe asked quietly.
“She panicked a bit at the beginning. She’s fine now.”
“Good. Is this the ewe’s first? I can’t see her ears; it’s too dark.” The shepherds cut a small notch out of the ears of the ewes that had given birth for the first time. The marks distinguished them from those who would reach maturity during the coming season and have their first lambs the following year. Every first-born lamb became a sacrifice—subsequent lambs added to the king’s flock.
“She’s notched,” Jepeth replied, “but judging from her behavior, it’s probably only her second season.”
Thisbe waved over a man with a torch, then turned and spoke in a low voice that only her daughter could hear. “Ruth, run and fetch a blanket from one of the shepherds.” Ruth returned just in time to see the new lamb plopping unceremoniously to the ground. Ruth and the lamb both gasped reflexively. When she was a child, Ruth thought it was cruel to let the lambs endure such a rude jolt upon their entrance into the world, but Thisbe had explained the impact of the drop was crucial to the lamb’s well-being—it shocked them into breathing on their own.
Sure enough, the thud of hitting the ground caused the lamb to kick its legs and struggle against the birthing sack clinging over its nose and mouth. Jepeth quickly cleared the little animal’s airway and began to tend to the ewe. Thisbe pushed in and gathered the new lamb to her. “Ruth, the blanket,” she ordered and gently wiped the delicate creature.
Jepeth turned in surprise. “Thisbe, what are you doing?” Once examined, the ewes cared for their young themselves, licking their babies clean, encouraging them to stand and nurse.
“The priests want the weaklings.”
“But, that lamb is perfect,” Jepeth protested. “It doesn’t need any special attention. It’s fine.”
“Bekk is the one evaluating the new lambs.” Thisbe’s hands never stopped their ministrations.
Jepeth watched her silently, a flicker of pity crossing his lined face. He glanced over at Ruth and didn’t say any more.
Thisbe drew in a shaking breath. “Bekk also wants to take all the ewes who have lambed their first time this season.”
Despite that news, Jepeth seemed calm as he turned his attention back to the ewe, but Ruth noticed the muscle in his jaw clenching and unclenching in anger, and she knew he was trying to keep his fury under control. After a long silence, he unwound himself from his squatting position and stood, towering over the little group. “That’s all we can do here,” he said tersely. “Let’s move on.”
As he turned to walk away, Jepeth looked down at Thisbe in the torchlight and gasped. “What happened to you?” his voice was rough and demanding in its concern.
“I had a theological debate with Bekk,”
“He raised his hand to you? But that means…”
“That’s not important right now,” Thisbe interrupted, “he’s a threat to the flock.”
Ruth could see a line of torches heading their way. A soldier jogged up to Thisbe and bowed low. Thisbe swiveled her head around to survey the new arrivals even while placing the lamb at its mother’s side. With one fluid motion, Thisbe rose from the ground. She shed her persona of shepherdess as a robe, and she strode toward the growing knot of people with the bearing of royalty. Thisbe didn’t push through the crowd; it melted away from her intended path. Ruth was awed by her mother and followed her confidently.
Bekk was talking to someone. Ruth couldn’t see who it was at first, so she stepped a little to the right and unexpectedly found herself at the front of the crowd. Bekk was speaking to Ebar. Feeling suddenly overexposed, Ruth longed to step back but instinctively knew that the wall of people had closed up behind her. She would draw more attention to herself if she withdrew than if she stayed put. She focused on becoming invisible.
“I told the shepherds to bring all the new-bearing ewes and their lambs to the temple,” Bekk was speaking loudly in his affected and self-important voice. “You were right. Thisbe refused to send the sacrifices, so I added to your requirements the addition of the weaklings. She objected to that as well and even questioned our authority to speak for Astarte. But, like most women, a strong hand can silence her.”
Moving only her eyes, Ruth glanced up at her mother’s left profile. It was unmarked by the priest’s blow, but Ruth knew the right side of Thisbe’s face was already swollen around the cut lip and bruised jaw-line.
Thisbe looked peaceful as if nothing Bekk said was of any import. Ruth followed her mother’s gaze as she stared unflinchingly past the back of Bekk’s head and fully into the face of Ebar.
Ebar’s eyes were darting back and forth between Bekk and Thisbe, furrowing his brow at the mention of increased sacrifices and the comments he had made about the First Wife. Ruth imagined that Ebar was silently telling his protégé to shut his mouth.
“It doesn’t sound as if your servant paid very close attention to your instructions, Ebar,” said a voice from behind the soldier’s torches.
Bekk drew himself up. “I’m not a servant!” he snarled. “I am a priest of Chemosh and Astarte. I speak for the great gods and their chosen one, Ebar.”
Ruth watched as Ebar’s face turned from one of near panic to one of anger. “You take too much upon yourself. A few ewes that hadn’t lambed—a token is all I required.”
Bekk shifted his weight, his head shaking slightly in confusion. But when the voice behind the torches spoke again, he involuntarily took a step backward, his face bending swiftly towards the ground.
“I’m sure Ebar will clear up all of this misunderstanding—but—I’d like to know…” the guard’s front line opened, and Ruth’s father came to stand next to Ebar, “exactly how you ‘silenced’ my wife.”
Too late, Bekk realized that the voice he thought belonged to a temple guard belonged to his king. Suddenly unable to speak, he held up his palms to the king in a silent effort to beg for mercy.
The king reached out and took Bekk’s left hand in his own, turning it over to examine the spreading bruise across the priest’s knuckles. Bekk had turned a strange, ashen color.
Without a word, the king, still firmly grasping Bekk’s hand, pulled the priest around so that they were both facing Thisbe. Bekk started when he saw her. The king lifted Bekk’s bruised knuckles and laid them against his wife’s jaw. Thisbe looked into her husband’s eyes with a calm but challenging look.
“Did you raise your hand against my wife?” the king asked in a quiet voice.
Bekk didn’t answer, didn’t even attempt to. Instead, he began to tremble violently.
“You realize, of course, that your life is over. No man can touch a wife of the king.” He motioned one of his guards over to carry out the sentence.
“My husband,” Thisbe interjected, gently laying her hand on his arm and leaning closer to him. “Please—not here.”
Bekk’s ashen face took on a light of insane hope at her words.
“You would show mercy to this man?” The king asked curiously.
“No, my lord—only that the sentence be carried out elsewhere; the smell of his blood would disturb the ewes.” Thisbe’s face was mask-like in its serenity and at odds with her cold words.
Questions played over the king’s features, but he shrugged, “As you wish.” He nodded at the soldier to take Bekk to the stronghold. Before the soldiers led Bekk away, Ebar took a step forward and bowed before his ruler.
“Most gracious king,” Ebar began, using the formal language of the court, “I would ask a request of thee.”
“Since this man is of the priesthood and has shamefully disgraced his calling, let him face his punishment in the temple of Chemosh, the unerring god of judgment.”
Bekk gibbered and twitched when he heard his new sentence. His hands reached out to beg for mercy, but the soldier at his side jerked him away and led him in the direction of the temple. Bekk left behind a befouled and wet earth as he was dragged to his house of worship to make the ultimate sacrifice.
The king took Thisbe’s hand and led her away from the dispersing crowd. “Ruth,” he called, “bring a light.” Ruth was surprised. She didn’t remember her father ever addressing her before; she hadn’t even been sure that he knew her name.
One of the guards wordlessly handed Ruth his heavy torch. Using both hands to steady the flaming knot, she picked her way over to Thisbe and the king. “Come over on this side,” he ordered, and Ruth moved to their right. The king was pressing gentle fingers against Thisbe’s jaw. “You’re right; nothing’s broken. How about your teeth? Did he loosen any of them?”
Thisbe’s swollen jaw protruded even more as her tongue gingerly felt each tooth. “No,” she confirmed. “It’s just my lip. And the swelling is already going down.”
“Good.” The king was relieved.
He turned to look at the pasture. “Everyone seems more relaxed now,” Balik noted.
“Yes,” Thisbe agreed. “Before you came, we thought our losses would be incalculable.” She turned to him, “You don’t believe that Bekk simply misunderstood the order?”
Balik chuckled humorlessly, “He misunderstood part of it, yes. Ebar has a banquet planned for tomorrow night. The highest-ranking brother priests of Chemosh, Molech, and Astarte from the rest of Moab and Ammon are coming for the festival. Increasing the number of sacrifices was simply a way to provide food for his table without taking too much from his flocks or herds. Bekk mistakenly asked for the ewes that birthed for the first time this season. Ebar wanted the ewes that wouldn’t birth until next season. They would be more tender meat.”
“Either order would have devastated the flock. When are you going to do something about that man?”
“Ebar?” The king shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ll probably wait until he makes a mistake he can’t pin on his underlings.”
“Don’t you mean under-priests?” Thisbe smiled crookedly.
“They’re pretty much the same thing,” he smiled back.
Ruth watched her mother’s face growing pensive. “Balik, what are they going to do to Bekk?”
“The rites of Chemosh are secret, my love,” he caressed the bruised side of her face with a gentle hand, giving a sympathetic smile as she winced. King Balik’s voice became grave, “You can assume it won’t be a pleasant death. It would have been better for him to be executed by royal decree—faster and less painful, at any rate.” Balik dropped his hand and looked out at the pasture again, “Why didn’t you want him executed here? Surely, it wasn’t because of the sheep.”
“They were part of my decision,” Thisbe insisted. Her eyes darted toward Ruth, “and there were other reasons as well.”
Ruth stood patiently, still holding the torch and feeling every second as if her arms were about to give out. She wasn’t sure how long she could hold on.
“Here, little one,” Balik said, seeming to read her mind as he took the torch from her hand. “I’ll carry it for a while.” His dark eyes bored into hers, and she found herself flushing as the blood rushed to her face. She nodded a shy thank you to her father, charmed by his broad smile and dark eyes.
“Ruth, why don’t you see if Jepeth needs help?” Thisbe’s usual self-confident expression was replaced with a look of concern as she slipped a hand into the crook of the king’s elbow, bringing his attention back to her. She pressed herself against him and nuzzled his neck breathily. “Come, my lord, and I’ll show you around the pasture.”
I had planned to do one more sprint to get a head start on NaNoWriMo, but by the time I finished my work on A Life of Prologue, I’d written for close to five hours (with breaks, of course) and my brain was mush. I closed down my computer and set writing aside for another day.
I love writing and I love challenging myself so this writing retreat was a great experience. What I really enjoy, though, is waking up every morning and working at a career I love.