A harlot’s way: 1 Bethlehem

They still call me a harlot. I got used to it a long time ago. It ceased to bother me a long time ago, and this memoir is to explain the hows and the whys of a story with no ending (yet).
Elsewhere I have written of an encounter which, though I did not know it then, changed my life in two very different ways. That night in Bethlehem when I helped Salome the doula at a birth which would intersect with my life and change it in ways no man could have predicted, took me in a direction which seemed to go in a direction which condemned me, in the eyes of my fellow Jews, to the Pit.

I served at my uncle and aunt’s inn. My mother had died giving birth to me, and my father had no use for a young daughter and asked his sister to care for me. She came to Magdala one hot morning and took me back with her. As I grew towards womanhood it was clear that men found me attractive, and like many young women, I found that intoxicating.

But I was not, even then, a silly woman. I knew well the dangers of men. Salome, the doula who helped that fateful night in Bethlehem, was a wise counselor. She told me much about the way of a man with a woman and more about how to avoid becoming with child. I didn’t like the sound of some of the alternative ways to keep men happy, but saw the wisdom of her counsel – at least they would not kill me like birthing me had killed my mother. Did that leave me with a fear of giving birth – yes, of course, how could it not?

That night when I met Miriam and Joseph, I had been waiting for three sages from the East. A man of business had come to our inn asking whether there were rooms that could be booked for his masters. My uncle told me to deal with him, as he was busy. The great census meant good business, and he did not have time to deal with foreigners. I did the necessary, booking three rooms, collecting thereby three deposits which went into my running away fund. I had no intention of staying in Bethlehem all my life, and even less of being married off to old Aaron, the local landowner who wanted a young wife to keep him warm at nights, and with whom my uncle had been talking.

I missed the three men, but they caught up with me at the birth.

I was impressed. Their wealth was plain from the way they dressed and from the retinue which accompanied them. As I was drinking a cup of wine following the birth, their man of business said he wanted a word with me. “My master likes you and wonders if you would come back to Babylon with us. He will make it worth your while.”

Salome cocked an eyebrow and I asked him if I could give an answer in a moment; he assented. I asked what she thought. She asked me what I wanted. I remember my words to this day: “A better life than this.” I recall her words too: “If you can profit from what other women give away for free, then you need to be aware you will pay a price as well.” I looked at her. “Tell my aunt and uncle thank you. I just need to go to my room and collect a few things.” By that, I meant my gold. I was no fool. I had no idea what would await me in Babylon, but the possession of some means of escape would make my life easier. I told the man of business I would be back, and I was within the hour.

As they left the stable, I embraced Salome and said goodbye to Joseph and Miriam – and the baby. That, I thought, as the caravanserai wended its way out of Judea, was the end of them and that; I have seldom been so wrong.

 

Rowan’s way: 1 Opening skirmish

“Rowan? What sort of name is that for a girl?”

“It’s my name,” I replied, somewhat irritated by his tone of voice. He wasn’t to know I’d had that reaction over and over again from the moment I went to school. My tutor at College had been taken aback when “Rowan” turned out to be a red-headed woman with attitude and legs rather too long for the skirt I was wearing (as a male friend kindly put it), and that was pretty much standard all the way through to theological college and into my first curacy. That being so, I should not have been as short as I was with Ryan, but he was, even at the start, irritating as well as charming. He was one of those men who knew he was handsome and clever – and he knew I knew and thought I should react accordingly. Since I never liked doing what I was expected to do, I reacted according to my own lights. That was my introduction to our local lord of the manor – or at least to his heir.

My rector, Susan, was simply the best priest a girl could have wanted to serve her ticket under. She was a no-nonsense woman from Manchester who saw the Deanery as her challenge. Rural Suffolk was hardly home territory, and wealthy Tory landowners not her natural constituency, but she proved as adept with them as she did with all the locals. With seven parish churches to curate, she needed a curate and got me. Unlike Susan, I had grown up in the countryside and loved the rural life. She noticed, and as time passed, tended to let me deal with the outlying rural parishes.

Though it had happened when I was a girl, out here in the countryside, twenty years ago was but a moment, and there was some hesitation about the presence of a “lady Vicar”. My favourite comment was from Mrs. Bertram, who must have been ninety if she was a day, and leaving Communion one day commented: “Don’t worry love, it’d be easier for them to accept if you looked like the back of a bus. Pretty Vicars are harder on them.” She made me laugh, and I reflected that if one of the oldest inhabitants had no problem, I should lighten up with those who had. Time showed that was the sensible thing to do. Ryan later maintained that what was really wrong with what he called “Vicars in knickers” was that we made the “Tarts and Vicars” fancy dress ball problematic by being both.

Ah, yes, Ryan again. He keeps popping up. His family owned the old Rectory which the church had flogged off in the 1980s, leaving the then Vicar with a little suburban box, which made do for a busy curate. Said box was next to the Old Rectory, and it had been the habit of Lord Surtees to invite the old Vicar to lunch once a month. I inherited the invitation, and it was with some consternation that the butler received me.

“Hi there,” I said cheerily, noting the puzzlement on his face, “I’m Rowan, the Reverend Topham, the new curate.” I thought that his head would explode, as his eyes seemed bent on popping out, but I suppose the jaw dropping let out enough air to prevent that. He recovered quickly, and inviting me in, offered to take my shawl before showing me to the drawing room.

“The reverend Topham, my Lord.” If Lord Surtees was surprised, he did not show it.

“Delighted to meet you, and so glad you could come. Though I don’t often get to church, it matters in this community, and I like to keep in touch. Have you met my son, Ryan?”

He steered me in the direction of a very tall, bronzed figure who looked as though he was channeling Michaelangelo’s David – and knew it. I am on the tall side for a woman, five-nine, in my heels five-eleven, but he towered above me, he must have been at least six foot four.

“My, what have they done with Vicars? They didn’t look like you at Dover Court.” Now why was I not surprised to learn he’d been to one of the most exclusive, and expensive public schools in the country, famous for producing goodness knows how many Conservative Prime Ministers. Craning my neck upwards, I smiled:

“Thank you, but they do say that altitude can blur the vision.”

He laughed: “Touché, nice return of serve. Now, what can I get the prettiest Vicar I know to drink?”

“A g&t would go down nicely. How many Vicars do you know, by the way?”

Fixing me a stiff gin and tonic, he smiled broadly: “If I’d known they made them your model, I’d have made sure I knew a lot more. But you have me at a disadvantage. You know my first name, what’s yours?”

“Rowan”, I said.

“Rowan, what sort of name is that for a girl?”

And that, as they say, was how it started.

[Part 2 coming soon]

The Ashes’ B & B

This is the first of the short stories written for our new fiction category. Quite a few more already are here, and I know there’ll be more. Enjoy! Neo
image

They were on holiday, of course. They’d been in several locations but found one that was unique – it was perfect. It was wonderful. It was everything they’d hoped for. Beautiful sunshine, lovely breezes, a peppy little river, lots of food, and accommodations. Yes; it was perfect.

Phineas and Francesca Frogge had waited for this holiday. The winter had been long, cold, and hard and the summer was completely different and more to their liking. This particular holiday place, The Ashes’ B & B, was more than they could have hoped for. Out on the grounds, next to the bubbling little river, was a sitting area with several umbrella-like gunnera leaves, perfect to sit under when the sun was the hottest. Dainty morsels of food drifted languidly on the river, little flying things happened by frequently. Whenever they felt like it, the Frogges could avail themselves of the river and swim.

Late afternoons at the Ashes’ was a particular treat. The hosts brought out serving trays of all the finest repast. The slugs and the worms were of the finest sort – plump and juicy and right in front of them. The cocktails – well, there’s hardly any words fine enough to describe them, and the Ashes’ made sure there was plenty to be had.

In the evenings, Phineas would serenade Francesca. He had a wonderful basso profundo voice and Francesca, utterly charmed, would sit and listen, eyelashes fluttering, as she nipped the occasional mosquito from the air. It was, according to their glowing descriptions, idyllic.

Phineas and Francesca had such glowing things to say about the Ashes’ B & B that I find myself longing to be at that place; to sit under the gunneras, swim in the river, nibble on slugs. Oh that my holiday will come soon!

Goldilock’s Syndrome

And so it continues! Quick now, while Nightmarish Evil Ogre is spell-bound, read the next of the horrible horror stories!

This is from Dave Smith, a friend of Neo and all of us at the blog


I awoke and immediately went to the light switch on the wall and flipped the switch. And once again nothing happened. There was no consequence of my action; it was ineffective. The room remained eerily lit as though it were dawn. And so I proceed to peer into my bedroom mirror and once again am expectantly met with a face which was not my own reflection. What greets me is a grotesque monstrosity staring back at me with a Mona Lisa-like smile and unexpected movements which frighten me every time I witness it. This is the ritual to which I have grown accustomed. First the light switch and then the mirror-gazing. These are the tests I have developed so that I might differentiate reality from non-reality.
I have lost track of time altogether; for I know not when this began or how long this has been going on. I do remember thinking that it was not dissimilar to Franz Kafka’s experience as witnessed in his famous novella, Metamorphosis and that perhaps his work was merely being mimicked in my mind or worse, that it might be a manifestation of what we call reality. How will I know?
Indeed, I do not know anymore if I am dead or in a coma and have but little hope of returning to that reality from which I started. Or if it even still exists. For I have tried thousands of times to escape this nightmare and hopelessness and despair are my constant companions with each attempt. My life has vanished.
Within my mind, I constantly think of my return to the Goldilock’s Zone of reality. It is not unlike the Goldilock’s Zone spoken of when we think of the placement of the Earth from the Sun; a place just right. It is a place where the temperature is perfect for water and life to exist. A place where the Moon is seen as exactly the same size as the Sun. A place where men contemplate the cosmos, their existence and consciousness itself.
I have now come to see another Goldilock’s Zone as well; that zone between the Micro and the Macro universes of existence. For in the subatomic universe we have no ability to have active consciousness and in the stellar universe, it is impossible as well. We are at the optimal, nay, the only spot in the spectrum that exhibits what we call reality. For reality is merely the ability for creation to self-direct thoughts, actions and reactions to an infinite stretch from the infinitely small to the infinitely large. From the heavenly to the deep dark corridors of hell. It is from this perfect zone from which I have fallen.
And to think that this zone might be lost by such a simple and natural process as sleep. I did wonder at times if that third of life spent in dreams was not akin to going from the last sentence of a book’s chapter to the first sentence of a successive chapter without any notice that perhaps a great deal may have transpired from the last to the next. But somehow we take up where we left off without any thought of lapsed time . . . an enormous percentage of our lives having been spent in slumber. But that is merely what passes for amusement for me these days.
And so I dream. I think that I awake and to my amazement, I can no longer find a way back to my previous life and take up where I left off. My friends and family are lost to me as they are in the Goldilock’s Zone and I reside in a dream within a dream within a dream. My only path is to try to sleep and awake once more until I might find myself back where I began.
But time has stood still or moved so far from where I started that I have lost all measure of it. It is like my dreams have been stacked up like a deck of cards and that I go three cards up or two cards back but never go far enough in one direction to pop out at the top of the deck. For I have no ability to self-direct where a dream will take me; further toward my escape into reality or further into the prison of my own subconscious. So I live an eternity of repeating the above sequel of sleeping, dreaming, awaking and then realizing that I am still lost in sleep without any certainty of the outcome. At one end of the spectrum awaits the Goldilock’s Zone and at the other, harmless dreams or night terrors of the most terrifying and frightening experiences.
I can only send out warnings of this malady which awaits us in sleep should anyone or anything I meet within my dreams be able to find their way out of this labyrinth. Do not take it for granted that the reality in which you awake is necessarily the reality from which you left in sleep. Someday soon you too may be lost in an eternal maze of unreality and see that your perception of life was a phantasm; no more real than the dreams you used to enjoy as a release from the troubles of the day. Instead, they may be quite worse than any trouble you have yet witnessed and I conclude that they may even last for an eternity. Sleep at your own peril.

From the Email

A friend sent me this in an email the other day, they said they didn’t expect anyone to believe it or be able to help but they just wanted to tell someone, I wrote something about how Audre hijacks the blog now and again for her Halloween stories, did they want to enter? That was a week ago and I haven’t heard back from them. I don’t know what to think. Any ideas? Neo

There is a growing dis-ease in my mind. I think better when I type as I can watch the words appear and determine if they are the right words. I feel I have to choose my words carefully or whoever reads this won’t understand what’s going on. Not that I understand it, either.

Of late I have noticed some things I can’t reconcile. The need to look behind me. The quickest of glimpses of something besides myself when I walk past a mirror. The need to listen closely to something just under that which can be heard. It’s unsettling. I’ve ignored it for days until I can’t ignore it anymore. There’s something going on – is it inside me or something external – and for my sanity I have to determine what it is.

At first, I thought it was simply a case of jangling nerves. This year of 2020 has been fraught with things we never could have expected. I suspected what I needed was ‘enforced isolation’ – from all news related things. I took a couple of days just watching the occasional ‘puppy’ video or how to build a barn video or trail cameras showing how nature goes about her business. But even then, even relaxed and comfortable, that feeling would creep on me and I’d have to take a quick look behind me. The trail camera videos were especially off-putting; just under the sound of the breeze and rustling leaves and snapping twigs – was there talking? Could I hear talking? These were late night, night sight videos. It’s not hard to imagine, I guess, that there would be some people around even in the ‘o dark thirties’. The thing is, the talking didn’t really seem to be part of the videos. It seemed more like something ‘outside’ the videos. I stopped watching those altogether.

Another thing I’ve noticed is there seems to be more odd sounds about the house. This is an old house. Like all old houses, it creaks and cracks and pops but for the last few days, the sounds seem to be closer to the room I’m in than elsewhere about the house. How can that be possible? The sun in its travels touches all sides of the house throughout the day, as does wind and rain. Why have the sounds seemed to concentrate just outside the door of the room I’m in? I find myself checking the hallway just outside this room. I don’t know what I’m checking for and fear finding something that does require checking. From where I’m sitting, I have only to slide my eyes to the right to see the hallway. I am finding I do it quite a bit now.

To distract myself, I force ‘normal behavior’. Get up, go in the kitchen and cook, or clean up the kitchen, or empty the dishwasher but that ‘look behind you’ sensation comes over me and I feel I am only safe in my room. The bathroom is a door off the hallway. I find that I determine just how badly I have to ‘go’ before actually going there.

This room has three windows; bright sunshine or cloudy skies and rain are fun to watch. There’s a cat that has taken up a sleeping spot on the deck. He shows up after a night of tom catting and then sleeps blissfully in the sun-shaded shadow of the overhanging eaves. In the afternoon, the occasional chubby raccoon will waddle across the deck and the squirrels use the top of the fence to avail themselves of a scrub pine in the yard behind mine. It’s really quite delightful. Until night time.

At night, the windows become something like big black eyes, looking in at me. It got so uncomfortable that I now close the curtains on the windows at night. Oddly enough, that’s even worse. What’s behind the curtains that I can’t see? I both want to know and dread to know.

Now I wonder what I’ll do when the sounds and the shapes enter this room. What will I do when I can distinctly tell it’s no longer just the hallway but actually part of this room? I have a sort of amorphous thought that were I to spend as much time in any other room of the house, it would become like what I’m experiencing here. That would break my mind. I can’t do it and find out if I’m right. This room is manageable. It has no dark corners as long as the very strong light bulb I installed is lit. It does have a closet with a door that will not close tightly. The normal flow of air and air conditioning will make the door move slightly, close and open, close, and open. But I don’t think the thing I fear and can’t define is in the closet. It’s just part of what I fear. A small part.

I thought putting this down in words on paper would help distill my dis-ease and make me laugh at myself. That’s what I thought. That’s what I hoped. That’s what I prayed for. But it hasn’t helped in that way at all. What it’s done is focused on something I’ve tried very hard not to focus on.

What if the thing I fear – is me? What if something is happening to me, giving me signs of something changing within myself? What if – did you hear that? I know you can’t have but did you hear it? It was a very loud crack sound just in the doorway to the hall. It was so loud I jumped. This is bad. This is very bad. Now, what do I do? Did typing these words bring it inside the room? Oh, my God – what if it’s in here with me? I want my head to spin 360 degrees so I can see the whole room at once. My heart is pounding. My pulse is visible in my wrist. I’m suddenly sick to my stomach and my bowels have gone loose.

Oh my God. It is! It’s in the room with me now. It’s  

 

Under the Skin

And so it continues! Quick now, while Nightmarish Evil Ogre is spell-bound, read the next of the horrible horror stories!


‘Ssshhhh!’ His hands gripped the wall, his fingers slipping in the gaps as he heard a yell nearby. He peered tentatively around the corner and saw a lone figure out in the street, looking around frantically. ‘What’s going on?’ asked a hushed voice behind him. He turned to answer but the sound of footsteps cut him short. Lots of footsteps. He looked back to the street and saw the figure turn tail and run, a few seconds later followed by around a dozen masked figures. More yells, more shouts, and the footsteps died away. ‘I think they’ve gone,’ he said turning to the woman and child behind him. ‘Look, I don’t think we can stay here. We need to move.’

The child gripped his mother, the woman looking up at her husband, her panicked eyes searching his face. Blood was
gently falling from a large gash at the side of his face and his shirt was partially ripped and covered in what looked like dust. His wife and child were physically unhurt but their fear was evident. He gripped his wife’s hand and looking once more around the corner said, ‘come on, let’s move.’ The child grasped his mother’s hand, his mother grabbed her husband by the hand and he led them away from the police building they had hidden behind. As they approached the street, a small fire smouldering in a bin, he looked up at the building they were just hiding behind. Its main doors were hanging off, the windows were either cracked or completely smashed and small fires licked the night air through some of the open windows. Various messages and warnings had been graffitied on the brick, some a call to arms, others political or organisational logos. There was no one around but he could hear the echo of a megaphone in the distance and the roars that greeted each pronouncement which, from this distance, was a low murmur in the breeze. ‘It sounds like a good way away,’ said the man, turning to his wife. ‘Probably still back home.’ She gripped his hand tighter as he whispered, ‘come on, let’s go.’

He led them onto the street and headed towards a group of buildings from which, he knew, was only half a mile from their destination – his in-laws, who owned a large house just outside the suburbs. It was neatly tucked away from the main roads, their own private getaway, and, most importantly, safe from the violence that was occurring on the main streets. They moved quickly but quietly, not wanting to draw attention, but they had to be careful; the streets were littered with rubbish, cars were burnt out – though fires were still crackling away in some – and the dark of the night felt more oppressive than ever, especially since many of the street lights had been damaged and the lights that would usually have come from closed shop windows had been destroyed. He’d have led them around the back of some of the buildings but the silence had been deafening and the sharp cries that split the night reduced his son to tears and his wife to a nervous wreck which forced him to change tack. He just had to hope that the trouble remained where it was and there were no splinter groups wreaking their own havoc elsewhere.

Every step felt like an age. Any sound, whether it was the crackling of a fire or the occasional shout cracked the night air like a bullet, forcing them to stop, take stock and listen before continuing. On one occasion, a crowd of people, wailing and yelling, ran through a nearby alleyway, forcing them to duck behind a shelter and wait. While his wife and son crouched lower down behind him, he took a furtive glance to see what was going on and, with a fire reflecting the shadows on a huge wall a few hundred yards from him, he saw a ghoulish zoetrope flash up and disappear in an instance, the yells vanishing with them. He turned back to his wife and son. ‘They’ve gone. Let’s keep going, we’re nearly there.’ His wife pulled him back before he could take a step. ‘Jerry? What about Brian? We should find somewhere safe and wait for him?’

Jerry looked down at his wife and though he was hoping, praying that his brother was in one piece, his only thought at the moment was getting his wife and son to safety. ‘We can’t, Susan..’ and seeing she was about to interrupt him,
‘Look, I’m sure he got out safely. If he’s got any sense, he’ll be looking to find somewhere safe himself…Maybe, he’ll be heading this way.’ As a scream rent the air, she acquiesced silently and gripped his hand, allowing him to lead them on. They kept low but moved quickly and in no time at all, they reached safety behind the town’s hardware store. He breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that the journey from here to his in-laws would be largely interrupted; the violence was mainly concentrated around the towns. He looked towards Susan and his son.

‘That’s the hard bit out of the way. If we get onto Martha’s neighbour’s field, we can blow right through, as easy as….
aaAAAAHHHH!’ He leapt around as a hand crushed his shoulder and found himself facing his brother, a wild look on his bruised and dusty face. ‘Brian!’ he yelled, gripping his brother in a tight bear hug. He let go after a few seconds and looked him in the face. ‘What happened? Where did you…how…were you there?’ His brother looked back at him, sweat mingled with dirt slightly glistening on his forehead. ‘I got there when the first floor collapsed.’ He looked towards his sister-in-law and nephew. ‘I’d hoped you’d got out before then…I think I was knocked out by the garden door.’ He glanced back up at his brother. ‘Jez, what happened? Why did they go for yours and how did you get out?’
Jerry looked down at his wife and grimaced. ‘I don’t know. We heard the shouting on the streets at the same time we felt the heat on the floor. The alarm was blaring and before we knew it, we felt the floor move.’ He looked to his wife, who continued. ‘I think…I think we might have been targeted.’ A curious expression crossed her face, fear mixed with anger, as she looked from Brian to her husband. ‘As we were leaving, we saw Barry from Tellers in the street.’ She moved slightly away from her son, as she whispered, ‘…they were killing him.’ Jerry and Brian exchanged worried looks before Susan continued.

‘Look, we need to do what Jez says…we need to get to my parents, we’ve got to get off the streets before they or their allies find us.’ She lifted her son to his feet and the two men nodded. ‘Keep quiet, keep low,’ muttered Jerry and once again, they swept into the night, following a route they knew all too well, from the car park behind the hardware store to an alleyway which led into the countryside. They scampered into a field, hunched closely together, and ran through the rapeseed, hands in front to stop it flicking back into their faces. After ten minutes or so, a large house came into view, behind a high walled garden and wrought iron fence. It was lit by spotlights under the large, mullioned front windows, its sandstone walls reflecting the shadow of a fountain that stood at its entrance.

When the small group reached the edge of the field, they looked out onto the driveway, making sure it was clear before stepping into the moonlight and heading towards the house. As they moved towards it, they noticed that the gate was open and the sound of music whispering into the night. Figures moved on the lawn in front of the house and around the fountain and the edge of a large banner could be seen just above a statue of a gargoyle, one of two, positioned on either side of the gate. Brian put his arm out and Jerry walked into it.‘What are you doing?’ he said looking into his brother’s face, as Brian allowed Susan and his nephew to pass.

‘I’m sorry, Jerry,’ said Susan, as she took hold of her son and fled towards the house. He watched her go and there was a short lull in the night before Brian broke it. ‘Yeah, I’m sorry too, Jez.’ ‘For what?’ Jez said, turning to his brother.

It was a few hours later. The horizon glowed a muted pink and smoke from the overnight fires continued to rise into the air, dissipating as it reached the heavens, which was slowly turning from purple to blue, the last of the stars flickering into the ether. A crow flew through one of the plumes and glided over the town while below, a lone figure ran through a gate towards a large house, leaving another lying in the grass behind them.

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