Each day at dusk, a pillar of fire erupted over the treetops and gyrated in the air above the ruined temple that James and his team of archeologists called the Temple of the Flame. And everyday, Rachael Murray stood outside and regarded the pillar the way a jealous lover might a rival, and wondered if James would come home for dinner.
Tonight, he climbed up over the hill, lit up in the glow of the pillar and Rachael rushed forward to greet him. “I brought you something,” he told her and dropped a smooth white stone into her hand. As she watched, starbursts of color lit up the stone like a miniature fireworks display. She laughed. “It’s lovely.”
“The natives called them meditation stones. Marta thinks the colors are caused by the same anomalies that cause the mirage.”
“Oh.” Marta. Rachael closed her fist around the stone, as if to shut out the sound of Marta’s name. Beautiful, brilliant Marta.
“I think we’ve hit the inner sanctum now.” James clapped his hands together. “We found hundreds of meditation stones in there.”
“Does it ever bother you? Poking around in someone else’s sacred places?”
“Not when the someone else is long gone.” He swung his arm around her shoulders and kissed her cheek. “And don’t worry. We treat everything in there with the utmost respect.”
“Daddy!” Max came tumbling out of the pre-fab dome that had become their home, and Rachael took the opportunity to slip out from under James’s arms.
“Hi there, bud.” James hoisted Max onto his shoulders.
Inside, Rachael could hear Lessa stirring, waking up from her afternoon nap.
She patted James on the back. “It’s nice to have you home.”
“Actually,” James set Max down and looked apologetic, “I have to get back.”
“Oh.” She held up the stone. “So, this was just to butter me up?”
James grinned his dimpled smile. “Maybe just a little. You know how it is, Rach. We’ve found some exciting stuff down there today. Nobody wants to quit now.” He shrugged. “And I’m the Director. I need to be there.”
Rachael sighed and pocketed the stone. “I know.” She picked up Lessa, who had toddled outside. “You can get a Quik-meal from the fridge.”
James ran his hand along Rachael’s smooth, dark hair, and kissed Lessa on top of the head. “I’ll be home in a couple of hours, okay?”
“Okay.” She fought down a sigh.
“I love you guys.”
She stood with the children and watched him disappear down the hill again in the fading light of the pillar. Then she took the kids inside, fed them dinner, read them stories, helped them say prayers, and tucked them into bed.
James didn’t come home until nearly midnight.
Early in the morning, before dawn, she and James made love. Afterwards, she leaned her head against his chest and listened to his heart beating. He ran his fingers through her hair. Almost she could forgive him for coming home late. She traced designs across his chest with her fingers and sighed.
James sat up straighter. “I’ve been thinking. You should go visit the homesteaders,” he said.
She lifted her head to look at him. “The polygamists? Why?”
“Why not? You could use the company, and there are plenty of kids for Max and Lessa to play with.”
“I don’t think they want visitors.”
“Sure they do. Why wouldn’t they?”
“Don’t they keep to themselves?”
“They aren’t going to turn away their only neighbors on the entire planet, are they?”
She sniffed. “Hard to believe that we of all people would end up with pseudo-Mormon polygamists in our backyard. I mean, isn’t there some other planet they could have chosen?”
“That’s not a very Christ-like attitude. You may not approve of their lifestyle, but you should still be neighborly.”
“They make us look bad. I’ll bet half your team thinks you’ve got another dozen wives socked away in their settlement.”
He chuckled, a warm rumble through his chest. “Oh, they do not.” His voice softened, grew serious. “You’re lonely, Rachael. I think you should go visit. Make some friends.”
Rachael snuggled her head against his shoulder. She didn’t say that she wouldn’t be lonely if James put the same effort into his family as he did into his dig. That she wouldn’t be lonely if the other archeologists thought of her as an intelligent human being instead of dismissing her just because she had chosen to stay home and raise children. She didn’t say any of that. She surreptitiously wiped a tear of her cheek. “Well?” James said. “Will you go?”
She pushed herself away from him and yanked on her pajamas. “I guess so.” She kept her eyes on the floor. James grabbed her shoulders and turned her around for a last, lingering kiss.
“I love you,” he said. He dressed and was gone. Rachael lay back down and dozed until the kids woke up. She thought about James and his temple, how it pulled him away from her all the time. Even when they made love he wasn’t really there. He was caught up in a pillar of fire, lost in some vanished civilization. She had followed him here, had given up home, family, and friends, because she didn’t want to sacrifice her family to archeology. But she feared they had been sacrificed just the same.
Brilliant bursts of color exploded in the meditation stone on the nightstand. Rachael watched it for a minute, then sat up and put it in a drawer.
She didn’t visit anyone. What with the garden and the laundry and the baking and Max’s lessons and Lessa’s inexhaustible well of energy, who had time to pay social calls?
“When’s Daddy coming home?” Max asked her over dinner.
“I don’t know,” Rachael said, more sharply than she intended. Max’s face fell. Rachael shoveled in a bite of rice and pork chops. James should see it, that look on his face. She closed her eyes, set down her fork, and rumpled his hair. “I’m sorry. I’m sure he’ll be home any minute.”
Lessa squealed and dumped her milk across the table. Rachael dropped her head into her hands as the milk puddled around her elbows and dripped onto her lap.
James showed up an hour after she tucked the kids into bed. Rachael was at her makeshift desk working on a sketch for her latest story. They were nothing more than silly fairy tales, really. But Max and Lessa loved them, and creating them took her mind off of endless hours of solitude. At least, it usually did.
She put down her pencil when James came in. “So, you finally decided to show up.”
“You won’t believe what we found today.”
Rachael clenched her teeth. He was exuberant about his find. Either he didn’t notice she was angry, or he didn’t care. She stood up in the middle of his description of the “beautifully engraved alter.”
“I don’t care what you found today.”
James stopped with his mouth open. “What’s wrong?”
“What do you mean, what’s wrong? I haven’t seen you since six o’clock this morning. Lessa doesn’t even remember that you exist. I’m here all alone all the time with the entire responsibility for the family on my shoulders.”
“That’s why I suggested you go see the homesteaders, so you wouldn’t be lonely.”
“That isn’t going to solve anything! We need you, James.”
“I’m not exactly on vacation down at that temple, you know. I’m responsible for this project. It’s important.”
“Your family is important, too. At least we’re supposed to be. Do you realize how much I gave up, how much the kids gave up, to be here with you? If you can’t give us any of your time, then why did you even bring us?”
James’s face grew hard. “I’m beginning to wonder. I’m really beginning to wonder.”
He turned and walked out the door. Rachael choked back a sob. She picked up her pencil and threw it after him and burst into tears.
Sometime around two or three in the morning she realized he wasn’t coming back, and she wondered where he had gone. She thought of Marta and her insides went cold. He wouldn’t do that to her. Would he?
She thought about praying, but the words soured and turned to dust in her throat. She curled herself around her pillow and fell into a bitter, unhappy sleep.
The day dawned gray and heavy and Rachael was in no mood for forgiving. Lessa crawled into bed with her, all giggles and curls, and wrapped her baby arms around Rachael’s neck. Rachael sat up and kissed her chubby cheeks. “Baby doll, we’re getting out of here.”
“Where are we going?” Max bounced onto the bed.
“We’re going to make some new friends.”
“Yippee!” He jumped up and down on the bed. Lessa joined in, clapping her hands and shrieking. Rachael got up and left them to it.
She packed a basket of fresh vegetables and a couple of loaves of bread, and piled the kids into the jeep. At the last minute, she went back inside and took the meditation stone from the nightstand drawer.
The polygamists had homesteaded a fertile little valley about eighty kilometers from the dig. There was no road, but the jeep was meant to handle all-terrain travel.
Temporary domes like the Murray’s, only bigger, dotted the settlement, but the men and boys were already at work on more permanent homes. Rachael parked the jeep and sat tapping her fingers on the steering wheel. She shouldn’t have come. Was she just supposed to walk up and knock on the nearest door? She hadn’t brought enough vegetables for the whole settlement. They were probably all busy anyway. She almost left when a woman with short blond hair come outside and waved cheerfully. Rachael waved back and got out of the jeep. She scarcely had Max and Lessa unloaded before a group of kids swept them into a noisy game.
The blond woman held out her hand. “Hello there. I’m Priscilla Pullman.”
“Rachael Murray. My husband’s a scientist over at the dig.” She handed Priscilla Pullman the basket of food.
“It’s nice to meet you, Rachael. Won’t you come inside?” Rachael glanced toward her children, and Priscilla took her by the arm. “They’ll be fine.”
Rachael followed her in. The main living area was filled with a long wooden table and benches. Boxes half unpacked lined the walls and counter tops. “You’ll have to forgive us. We haven’t quite settled in yet.”
“I hope I’m not intruding.”
“Not at all.” She produced a knife out of a pile on the counter and cut two thick slices of Rachael’s bread. “I’m afraid I can’t offer you coffee. We don’t drink it.”
Rachael sat down at the table and accepted the bread. “It’s all right. I’m a Mormon.”
“Really?” Priscilla handed Rachael a glass of milk. “Then we have a lot in common already.”
Rachael took a drink of milk, unsure how to respond to that. Two more women come in from the back of the dome. One of them had brown braids that stuck out from the side of her head as if she were a child. The other practically was a child, with bright red hair pulled into an untidy bun. They were both laughing, flushed, and carried buckets of cleaning supplies. The redhead was pregnant.
They dropped their buckets and sat down at the table. “Rachael, meet my sister-wives,” Priscilla said. “Amelia and Lorraine. This is Rachael Murray. She’s a Mormon, and her husband’s a scientist.”
“He’s a Mormon, too,” Rachael said, feeling stupid. She shook hands with Amelia in the braids. When Lorraine took Rachael’s hand her eyes widened. “Did you know you’re pregnant?”
“Me?” Rachael asked, shocked.
“Oh, yes.” Lorraine winked. “I have a knack for knowing these things.”
“Congratulations.” Priscilla beamed at her. “Lorraine’s never been wrong.”
“Uh, thanks.” Rachael took another swig of milk and pressed her hand to her belly, wondering if Lorraine could be right. She tried to remember the last time she’d had a period, but couldn’t.
“So, you’re husband’s digging up an old temple?” Amelia asked.
“Yes. He’s the project director. Very busy.” She tore off a crust of bread and looked down at the table. Her heart grew heavy in her chest.
“Ill bet they’ve found some interesting things,” Lorraine said.
“Yes.” Rachael took the meditation stone out of her pocket and set it on the table. Brilliant colors exploded and faded, exploded again.
Priscilla picked it up. “Beautiful.”
“It’s called a meditation stone. They found hundreds in the temple’s inner sanctum.”
“Hard to believe there were people living here once. Aliens.”
Rachael nodded. “I often wonder what happened to them.”
“They were destroyed.”
Rachael looked up at a man that could only be Mr. Pullman. He was tall with a thick black beard and though he was slender, he filled the room with his somber authority. “They were wicked, and God destroyed them from the face of this earth to make room for us in our promised land.”
Rachael could only stare. She wanted to point out that the natives had disappeared a thousand years ago, and that Heavenly Father would never prepare a promised land for someone like Pullman. Or would He?
Priscilla broke the awkward silence. She rose to her feet. “Rachael, meet our husband, Isaac Pullman. This is Rachael Murray. Her husband is working at the old temple.”
Pullman nodded. “I spoke with your husband when we arrived. He seems like a good man.”
Rachael nodded and tried to smile. He was a good man, kind and generous. But he hadn’t come home last night. She felt slightly sick.
“Get the children inside,” Pullman told his wives. “There’s a storm coming this way.” He turned to Rachael. “It looks like you’ll be with us for a while, Sister Murray.”
She bristled at the appellation. “I don’t want to impose. I’ll leave now before the storm hits.”
“That would be unwise. You underestimate the severity of the storm. It is no mere thunderstorm out there.”
Rachael stood and started to protest, but Priscilla laid a hand on her arm. “It’s no imposition, dear. We’d love to have you ride out the storm with us.” Her voice was quiet, but carried a hint of pleading. Please don’t defy my husband.
Rachael forced a smile. “Thank you. I’m grateful for your hospitality.”
“Your husband knows you’re here?” Pullman asked her with a frown.
“Uh, no actually. It was sort of a spur of the moment trip.”
“I see.” His expression darkened into disapproval. “We’ll try to contact him over the radio. We wouldn’t want him to worry.”
“That’s very thoughtful.” Rain had already started to drum against the roof of the dome. Rachael helped the women gather in the children. Max and Lessa rushed to her arms, flushed and breathless, offered whirlwind kisses and were off again. She smiled to see them so happy.
The main room was filled with children. The older kids gathered in clumps around board games or sat alone with hand-held games or books. Younger children lined the tables working puzzles or making pictures, while others ran noisily around them all.
She met two more wives, Joanne and Michele, and the five Pullman women churned out a miraculous amount of peanut butter sandwiches. Someone cleared the dome roof so they could watch the storm. The rain came down heavy without stopping, and lightning laced the sky above them. Thunderclaps loud enough to shake the dome caused moments of awestruck silence, so that the noise level in the room rose and fell like the swell of waves on the sea.
Pullman informed her that radio communication was down. “I couldn’t raise the dig.”
Rachael nodded. “Thanks for trying.” She felt suddenly, horribly cut off from James, from her home. Lessa climbed onto her lap and sucked her thumb. Rachael stroked her dark curls. Her heart was dark and heavy as the sky outside.
Pullman sat down on a couch with Lorraine and Michele on either side. He put an arm around each of them and they laid their heads against his shoulders. Rachael frowned, then realized what she was doing and tried to keep her expression pleasant. After all, they had shown her nothing but kindness even when she intruded on their work and interrupted their routine. The Pullman children had circled her kids with friendship without hesitation. She may not like the marriage arrangement, but for now the Pullmans were all she had.
Priscilla sat down beside her. “Do you get a lot of storms like this here?”
Another thunderclap brought an ebb in the general noise. Rachael shook her head. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” She wondered what was happening at the dig.
Unremitting webs of lightning covered the sky. The lights flickered and went out. A few of the little ones started to cry. Rachael held onto Lessa and tried to track down Max in the dark. Someone produced a flashlight, and Priscilla and her sister-wives proceeded to light candles around the room. The tension subsided.
Pullman sent his older boys out to check on the other families in the settlement. Rachael finally got Max in hand and sat down in a rocker with both her children in her lap. She closed her eyes against the darkness. It might have been midnight outside instead of mid-afternoon.
“Look at that,” someone said. Rachael opened her eyes. One of the older girls was pointing at the meditation stone still sitting on the table. It was glowing, not with colors but with a pure white light. She stood up, knocking Max and Lessa off her lap. They trailed behind her as she went to the table and picked up the stone.
Priscilla came over and touched the stone almost reverently. Lorraine, looking over her shoulder whispered, “Like a light from God.” It cast a soft gleam over Rachael’s hand and formed a circle of light on the floor around her. It lit up the children gathered around her knees like little angels.
“Let me see it.” Pullman strode toward them. She held it out for him, though she wanted to stuff it into her pocket before he could touch it. He held out his hand, and she would have dropped the stone into it, but she glanced out the window just then and dropped the stone on the floor in her astonishment.
The pillar of fire had appeared. Only it wasn’t a pillar. More like a wall of flame filling the sky. Rachael picked up the meditation stone off the floor. Pullman had turned around to see what had upset her, and soon the whole family was gathered around in a knot watching the flames dance, shot through with lightning. “It looks real,” someone said softly.
“It isn’t real,” Rachael whispered. “It’s just a mirage.” Just a mirage. Lightning split the sky and thunder roared like the wrath of God. She wondered if lightning had struck the temple, if some of the flames were real. Her mouth went dry. “I should go.”
“My husband. They may need help down at the dig. I have to go.”
“That’s insane.” Pullman looked at her as if she were an unruly child. “You’d never make it in this. There’s not even a road.”
Rachael looked past him out the windows at the red sky. A horrible dread crept through her veins. “Something’s wrong.” She shuddered. “I have to find out if James is all right.”
She turned to Priscilla. “Can Max and Lessa stay here?”
Rachael headed for the door, but Pullman moved to block her way. “Your children will have to stay here permanently if you get yourself killed out there.”
“I won’t.” Her heart tried to pound its way out through her throat. She clenched her hands into fists, ready to swing at him, so help her, if he wouldn’t let her past.
“Mommy?” Max tugged on her sleeve, and the air all went out of her. She stooped down and hugged him. “Where are you going?” His eyes were wide with fear.
“I’m going to check on Daddy and make sure he’s okay.”
“Is he hurt?”
“No. I just want to see if they need help at the dig, that’s all.” She stroked his hair. “Say a prayer, okay? Everything will be fine.”
Lessa toddled up to her and started to cry. Rachael held her. “Hush, darling. Hush. I’ll be back. You. Be a good girl now.” She handed Lessa off to a teenage daughter and gave Max one last kiss. “Be good, Max. Watch your sister for me.”
Max sniffed and nodded his head. With one final glance at Isaac Pullman’s dark scowl, she was out the door and in the storm.
The rain slammed into her, and the electricity in the air stood her hair on end. She sprinted for the jeep and jumped inside already drenched. She put the meditation stone on the dashboard. The soft glow calmed her shattered nerves somewhat.
The jeep started easily, but the nav system was down. She could have used the pillar of fire to guide her home, had it not spread itself across the sky as far as she could see. Shaking she pulled out and drove in the direction she thought the pillar should lay when confined to its usual limitations.
The storm had turned the terrain into a boggy mess. The jeep’s tires threw up great chunks of mud that splattered against the windows. Only in the bright flash of the lightning could she see the landscape around her.
She lumbered over rocks and around trees. She knew she was lost when she came to a thicket too tangled to take the jeep through. Frustrated, she tried another direction, but she had no idea which way to go.
The ground grew softer the further she drove. Before long, the front wheels sank into the mud and try as she might she could go no further. Isaac Pullman was right. She was a fool.
Already the mirage was fading and true darkness coming on. She supposed that meant that the temple wasn’t on fire and James didn’t need her at all. Her stomach clenched. She was hungry and hadn’t thought to bring any food.
She dared not get out of the jeep with the lightning arcing overhead. She tried the radio to no effect. The deluge continued, and the temperature dropped. She huddled into her flannel shirt, shivering and wondering how she had come to be here in the first place.
She choked back a sob. All she had ever wanted was to keep her family together. This isn’t how it was supposed to be. She should have been somewhere surrounded by friends and family and fellow saints. She should have had neighbors to call on when she was in trouble. She should be teaching primary children on Sundays and planning Family Home Evenings, not stuck in the mud in some abandoned wilderness freezing to death all alone.
She bent over to retrieve the meditation stone from the floor where it had rolled during her precarious drive. She cupped her hands around it, letting it warm her. The prayer that had died on her lips last night came pouring out of her in a torrent, not so much of words as in a swell of emotion. Dear God if you can hear me, then hear me. Help me.
The stone glowed brighter the warmth spread up her arms and through her body. The light brightened until it filled the jeep, filled her vision, and consumed the darkness outside.
Except there was no outside. She wasn’t in the jeep anymore. The light dimmed and resolved into a chamber suffused with warmth and music -- beautiful, unearthly music that seemed to emanate from everywhere and nowhere at all.
She recognized the place, though she had never been there. She was in the Temple of the Flame, in the inner sanctum. There was the engraved alter just as James had described it. Only, she’d been too angry to hear him.
She knelt and traced the pictures with her finger, the pillar, the forest, others that she couldn’t decipher. She saw no meditation stones other than the one she still clutched in one hand.
She set the stone on the alter, and settled cross-legged onto the floor to listen to the unseen choir. She closed her eyes. The music washed over her, washed away the jeep and the mud, the rain and the thunder, the pain and the fear. Her burdens sloughed away. She was light as a sigh, empty, and ready to be filled.
Images wandered through her consciousness, faces and bits of conversations. She let them go, sliding around and bumping into each other. Lessa threw her arms around Rachael’s neck while Isaac Pullman condemned the vanished natives, and Lorraine leaned over saying, “Did you know you’re pregnant?” as James pulled her into the warmth of his passion.
Max tugged at her sleeve and watched her with his plaintive eyes, and James slammed the door behind him. Priscilla handed her a slice of bread, and James dropped a sparkling meditation stone into her hand.
Then the pillar of fire appeared, bright and compelling. She knelt before it and watched all the disparate pieces of her life come together, pieces as delicate as butterflies and bright as lightning, pieces hard as diamonds and soft as a whisper, pieces wonderful and wicked, sorrowful and exalting. They shifted and rearranged and slid into her soul, fitting together as snugly as a jigsaw puzzle.
She was filled again with all the burdens and blessings of life. She let them settle inside of her, the bitter and the sweet. Then she stood and spread her arms out and let the pillar embrace her.
“Rachael? Rachael, please respond.”
Her eyes snapped open. The jeep was cold and dark. The storm had ended, and the stars shone bright in the sky, but the gray edge of dawn brushed the tops of the trees.
“Rachael! Can you hear me?” Marta’s voice crackled from the radio. Rachael fumbled for it. “Yes. I’m here, Marta. I hear you.”
“Oh, thank God. Are you all right? Are you hurt?”
“No. I’m not hurt. The jeep is stuck in the mud.”
“Okay. Just sit tight. We’ve got you on the nav system now. James is almost there.”
Rachael leaned back against the seat. The meditation stone had stopped glowing. Even the shifting colors were gone. It sat in her hand as lifeless as any rock, but the warmth remained inside of her.
Another jeep pulled up behind her, and she had to shield her eyes against the glare of the headlights. James pulled open her door. She tumbled into his arms.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m hungry.” She shivered. “I’m sorry.”
“Oh, Rachael.” He held her against him. “I’m the one who’s sorry. I shouldn’t have stayed away.”
She kept her face pressed into his shoulder, suddenly afraid to look into his face.
“I was miserable. Barry kept telling me to go home, but I was stubborn. Forgive me.”
Barry. She breathed again. Barry, not Marta. Of course not Marta. Had she really suspected that? She looked up at him and smiled. “You’re forgiven.”
Over his shoulder, she saw Isaac Pullman directing his boys to bring their truck around to pull the jeep from the mud. He didn’t look in her direction. Just as well.
“How are the kids?”
“Fine. They’re sound asleep over at the homesteaders’.” He led her toward his jeep. “It’s nice to have neighbors, isn’t it?”
She murmured her assent as James bundled her into the jeep, wrapped her up in a blanket and handed her a cup of cocoa. “Even if they are polygamists.” She popped the top of the cocoa and the cup grew warm in her hands. James climbed in beside her and put his arm around her. She sipped cocoa leaning against his shoulder.
“You should have seen the temple during the storm. You wouldn’t believe what happened.”
“I think I would,” she whispered.
“They weren’t primitives, Rach. We’re looking at technology far beyond our own. The storm brought it to life. This could be the most amazing discovery of my career.”
“Congratulations.” She yawned. She wanted to tell him about the meditation stone and what she had seen, but suddenly she couldn’t keep her eyes open. She would tell him later.
“It might extend the project, you know.” He hesitated. “We could be here longer than we planned. If you’re unhappy, if you want to take the kids and go home . . .” He stopped. “Please don’t leave me,” he whispered.
Rachael sat up. She cupped his cheek in her hand. “It’s okay, James.” She leaned over and kissed him. “I am home.” He bent over to kiss her again, when she remembered Lorraine and laughed out loud.
He straightened. “What?”
“You are? You’re sure?”
She laughed again. “A psychic polygamist told me. She’s never been wrong.”
A smile split his face. “That’s wonderful. Wonderful.”
“An amazing discovery.” She yawned again, but James interrupted it to kiss her, and the sun rose, effulgent, above the treetops.