“There’s been no change in your husband’s condition, Mrs. Whelan,” the nurse told Christine as she replaced the sheet over her husband Jeffrey and opened the curtains around his bed. Seeing the young woman’s pale, shell-shocked face, she added quietly, “I’m sorry.” Christine sank back into the chair beside Jeffrey’s bed as the nurse left the room. Tentatively she brushed a hand across his cheek. It was still hot, so terribly hot, and no one could tell her why. Even worse, nothing could lower his body temperature. The doctors had tried the strongest medications that they dared, and the nurses had taken so much of Jeffrey’s blood for tests that Christine was worried that he might have none left. But so far, nothing was working, and Christine was close to despair.
It had only happened this morning, but already it seemed a lifetime ago. One moment Jeffrey had been his wonderful self, moving around the kitchen, cleaning up from the pancake breakfast they had shared. They always had a breakfast of homemade pancakes every Sunday; it was one of the little rituals of their life together. And then the sudden pallor, the weakness, the heavy fall back into the dining-room chair from which he had just risen, the frantic check to make sure he was still breathing, the call to emergency services, the ride next to him in the ambulance. ...
Christine put her hands over her face and tried to put it out of her mind. Don’t think about Jeffrey getting sick. Think of him getting well. Thought has power. Just think about him getting well. ...
Christine looked up at the sound of her sister-in-law’s voice and smiled, then got up to give her a hug. “Sarah, I’m so glad you’re here. I’m sorry, I’m a bit smelly, haven’t showered all day. ...”
“I don’t smell a thing,” Sarah said, hugging Christine tightly. “How are you feeling?”
“As well as can be expected, I guess. Jeffrey’s still the same.”
Sarah sighed and shook her head, then brightened a tiny bit. “Well, at least he hasn’t gotten any worse. We can be glad about that.” Sarah walked to her brother’s bedside and looked down at his face. “Hi, Jeffrey,” she said. “It’s Sarah. I’m going to steal your wife for a bit and give her something to eat, and then we’ll be back.” Turning to Christine, she said, “Come on out to the lounge. I’ve brought us lunch.”
“But Jeffrey ...”
“We’ll be right outside the room. The nurses will tell us if there’s any change.”
“All right.” Christine followed Sarah to a table. In seconds, Sarah had it set for two and laid out the food she had brought.
“Here. Fresh green salad with feta cheese. Your favorite. C’mon, eat up.”
“Sarah, I can’t ...”
“You really don’t have much of a choice, you know,” Sarah said, handing Christine a fork. “When Jeffrey wakes up, he’s going to need you to drive him home and feed him something decent, and you’re not going to be able to do that if you’re half-dead from hunger. Now eat.”
Obediently Christine took a few forkfuls. At first she had to force them down, but soon the hunger she had denied asserted itself. The salad was gone in seconds.
“I’m sorry, Sarah, I didn’t realize ...”
“Of course you didn’t. That’s why you need me to take care of you. Water? Apple juice?” She held out a cup and poured. “I’ll bet it’s been hours since you drank anything, too.”
Christine nodded, taking the cup. “Sarah, I don’t know what on earth I’d do without you.”
“Oh, you’d starve and dehydrate, and the nurses would find you next to Jeffrey’s bed looking like something the bears wouldn’t touch,” Sarah said, finishing her own salad. “Come on, you’d be fine. I know you know how to take care of yourself. You just needed a bit of reminding, that’s all.”
“It’s been so hard ... you have no idea ...” Suddenly, the tension and fear of the morning broke over Christine like a wave, and before she knew it she found herself in Sarah’s arms, sobbing as though her heart would break.
“It’s all right, go ahead, get it out ...” Sarah held her, rocking Christine gently until she had wept herself out.
“It was horrible,” Christine said through her sobs. “I thought: this is it, Jeffrey’s gone. ... When he went pale and fell into the chair like that, I thought, it’s his heart, that happens to young people sometimes, their hearts just go ...”
“But it wasn’t,” Sarah said softly. “As far as the tests show, his heart’s fine.”
“Why won’t his fever go down?” Christine shook her head. “They say they’ve tried everything. Medication, baths ... nothing. They say that sometimes a person’s internal thermostat can just go haywire ...”
“I guess it can, but we still don’t know for sure if that’s what we’re dealing with.” Sarah pursed her lips and closed her eyes.
“If only we knew what this was. If only we could give it a name,” Christine said. “It’s crazy, isn’t it? It wouldn’t change a thing, but knowing what to call it would make it a bit easier to deal with.”
“Christine, I was thinking ...” Sarah looked over at her sister-in-law. “There’s someone I’d really like to go see. He’s an old friend of mine with a very interesting way of looking at the world. Maybe he can help us deal with this. ...”
“Who is he?”
“His name’s Paul. He’s a shaman.”
“A shaman. That’s a kind of priest ... but not of any church; the path he belongs to is much older. I’ve known him for years. He can be a bit uncanny at times, but he’s honest. He sees deeply into people and situations and has a lot of wisdom. I’d like to go see him, today if he has time. Maybe you’d like to come with me?”
“All right,” Christine said. “I’ll try anything once.”
“Great. Let me give him a call and see if he has time for us today. He has a lot of clients. Sometimes he’s swamped, but seeing that it’s the weekend, maybe ...” Sarah took her cell phone out of her purse and went off to make the call. She was back in less than five minutes.
“He lives about a ten-minute walk from here, and he said he’s free in an hour. Let’s go sit with Jeffrey for a bit, and then we’ll go. All right?”
* * * * *
“I have to admit I feel a bit funny about this,” Christine said as they crossed the street in front of the house Sarah had pointed out to her. “Why exactly are we here? How can this friend of yours help Jeffrey?”
“I’m not sure he can help Jeffrey,” Sarah said slowly, “but maybe he can help us. I believe that things happen for a reason, and we can’t always see the reason. Sometimes Paul can see more of it than many people can, and he helps me get a different perspective on things. I think that seeing him might give us a bit of comfort, help us deal with what’s going on. And, for all I know, maybe there’s something he can do to help Jeffrey after all. It certainly can’t hurt.”
“Well, all right,” Christine said, but she couldn’t ignore the prickle at the back of her neck as she followed Sarah past the bright, well-kept yard to the door of the trim wooden house and waited as Sarah rang the doorbell.
The sound of footsteps came from inside, gradually growing louder, until finally the door opened. “Come in, Sarah,” Paul said, shaking her hand, then extending his hand to Christine. “And this must be your sister-in-law. Christine, is it? It’s nice to meet you. Please come in.”
Christine looked up at Paul as they shook hands. He seemed an older man, though she could not place his age. His hair was black, without a trace of gray, and his features looked—Christine couldn’t put her finger on it, but it was clear that his roots came from a very distant place. He looked very fit. As he spoke, it seemed to Christine that he had a tiny accent and spoke just a bit more slowly than most people. But that’s no reason to be biased, she told herself. Sarah trusts him. And I trust Sarah. Well, here goes.
Paul led them past his airy, well-furnished living room into the smaller room where he saw clients. He sat down in one comfortable armchair and motioned Christine and Sarah to two others. “So how can I help?”
Sarah and Christine glanced at each other, and Christine began.
“My husband, Jeffrey—Sarah’s brother—is in the hospital with an extremely high fever,” she said. “It happened this morning, out of the blue. No one knows what’s causing it or how to bring his temperature back to normal. As you can imagine, Sarah and I are extremely worried.”
“I see.” Paul sat back in his chair, pursing his lips. “How long have you been married?”
“Three years,” Christine said. “But we’ve known each other for five.”
“Do you have children?”
“Not yet, though we were—we’re planning to.”
“Did you perhaps bring something that belongs to him?” Paul asked. “Something of his might help me get a better look at his energies, and maybe give me a clue about what’s going on.”
Christine held out her hand, showing Paul her wedding ring. “This ring was in Jeffrey’s family for generations,” she said. “Will it help?”
“It might. But do you have something that is specifically his?” Paul asked.
“No ... oh, wait, of course I do. I’m carrying his wallet. How about his driver’s license? It has his picture, and he always has it with him.”
“That should be fine,” Paul said. Christine leaned forward to hand Paul the license, and Paul stretched out his arm to take it from her.
Sarah caught a glint of silver around Paul’s wrist. “What’s that silver bangle you’re wearing, Paul? Is it new? I don’t remember seeing it before.”
Paul gave a small, embarrassed smile. “It’s from my order. They give it to us after we have reached a certain level of accomplishment, or after we have gone through an ordeal, which amounts to about the same thing. I just got it last month.”
“Oh. Well, congratulations,” Sarah said with a grin. “I won’t ask you how you got it, then. I get that part’s private. I’m sorry if I was too nosy.”
“You weren’t nosy,” Paul said graciously, “and it’s not as secret as all that. Here, you can hold it if you like.” He slid it off his wrist and handed it to Sarah, who admired its intricate pattern.
Christine said, “May I see it?”
Christine held the bangle in the palm of her hand for a few moments and closed her eyes. Then she gave it back to Paul, who looked at her with what seemed like new respect.
“Ah, so you sense energies. What did you feel, Christine?” Paul asked her with a companionable smile as he put it back on his wrist.
“I’m not sure,” Christine said. “It felt ... like being in a very large room, or like the way the piano in my teacher’s house used to feel when I played it.”
Paul nodded at Christine, and it seemed in that moment that a special communication had passed between them.
“So. Back to your husband and brother,” Paul said, picking up Jeffrey’s driver’s license and looking intently at his picture, then up at Christine. “Christine, this is the first time we’re seeing each other. Has Sarah told you what to expect?”
“I’m not sure,” Christine said. “A little, I guess.”
“It’s very simple,” Paul said. “I will look at your husband’s picture and connect with his energy as much as I can. As I do this I will go into an altered state. You might call it a trance. In that state, I may be able to find out more about what’s happening with him.”
“An altered state? A trance?” Christine asked. “I don’t understand.”
Paul smiled. “It’s a bit like radio. When you raise the antenna, you get better reception, more stations, more information. So for me, going into this altered state is like raising my antenna. And once I’ve received all the information I can, I’ll tell you what I receive and we can talk about it. Are you ready for me to start?”
“Wait,” Christine said. “Where do you get this information from?”
“An excellent question,” Paul said. “Some traditions talk about gods or guides giving people information. You’ve heard of that, yes? Well, my tradition teaches that all the information in the universe is available to everyone simultaneously. We learn how to quiet our minds so that we can get access to it, but actually that’s the easy part. In my order we concentrate on learning how to separate the pure information from our own personal desires or interpretations, and we go through strict testing before we are allowed to share what we receive with anyone else.”
“How long have you been doing this?” Christine asked.
Christine blinked. Paul grinned, catching her thought. “I started young. So, are you ready for me to begin?”
“Yes,” Christine said.
“All right, then.” Paul took a deep breath and gazed at Jeffrey’s picture, then closed his eyes and settled back into his chair.
For some minutes there was no sound in the room except for Paul’s deep, measured breathing and the ticking of the clock in the hall. Then Paul opened his eyes and looked first at Sarah, then at Christine. His gaze seemed troubled.
“What’s wrong?” Sarah asked him.
“Sarah, is there something of yours that I could hold for a moment?” Paul asked.
“Sure,” Sarah said, taking off her watch and holding it out. “Will this do?”
“I’m afraid not. Its magnetic field is too strong. But your necklace would be fine.”
Sarah took off her necklace and handed it to him. Taking it, Paul closed his eyes once more. After about a minute, he opened them and handed the necklace back to Sarah. Then he turned to Christine.
“Christine, would you mind letting me hold something of yours?”
Christine took off one of her pearl earrings—a gift from Jeffrey for their first anniversary—and held it out to him. He held it carefully in his hand and closed his eyes, breathing deeply once more. He remained that way for several minutes, and when he opened his eyes once again, he looked at Christine, his expression carefully blank.
“Christine, I’m sorry. I don’t have any information about your husband. But I did get a message for you.”
“A message? Please, what is it?” Christine almost whispered.
“It was only one word,” Paul said, “and I’m not sure what it means or even if I heard it correctly. It sounded like ‘Alkestis,’ or something close to that.”
Christine stared at Paul in bewilderment. “Alkestis? Why would—what does that have to do with—” Suddenly her eyes grew wide. “Oh, my God ...”
“Christine, are you all right?” Paul asked with practiced calm. Evidently he had many years’ experience in dealing with distraught clients. “Sarah, would you bring Christine some water, please? You know where I keep the glasses.”
Sarah got up and left the room.
Paul turned back to Christine, who was slumped in her chair. “Alkestis ... it’s a name. A woman’s name.” She closed her eyes tightly for a moment, then met Paul’s gaze once more. “Paul, do you know anything about Greek mythology?”
“Only a little,” Paul said. “Just the B-movie stuff. The twelve labors of Hercules, the quest for the Golden Fleece, a little bit about the Trojan War. But I never studied the subject in depth.”
“I did,” Christine said, shaking her head. “It was a hobby of mine for years. I know exactly who Alkestis was.”
“Yes, I can see that you do,” Paul said softly. “Would you like to talk about it?”
“Yes,” Christine said as Sarah returned, carrying a tray with a pitcher of water and three glasses. She picked up one glass and drank. Her hand shook.
Christine put down the glass and began. “It’s an old legend, and an ancient playwright wrote a play about it, too. There was this king named Admetus. He was pretty clueless, but he revered the gods, and once when the sun god Apollo was in trouble, Admetus helped him out without asking for anything in return.”
Christine’s breathing began to ease. Greek mythology was one of her favorite subjects, and talking about it made her feel a tiny bit better. “So Apollo gave Admetus a special gift as a reward. He said that when his time came to die, he would be able to survive if he could find someone else to die in his place.” She reached for her glass once again and held it as Sarah poured. Then she drank.
“Well, that time came pretty quickly. While Admetus was still a young man, married and with two small children, he got sick and realized he was going to die. He remembered Apollo’s gift and tried to find someone else to take his place. He asked everyone in the kingdom, even his parents. No one was willing. Finally, when there was almost no time left, his wife volunteered.” She looked up, her eyes meeting Paul’s. “Her name was Alkestis.”
Paul nodded slowly. “What happened after that?”
“Well, Admetus got better and Alkestis died.”
“That’s a sad story,” Paul said quietly.
“It would be if it ended there,” Christine said, “but it doesn’t. On the very day Alkestis died, Heracles—that’s Greek for Hercules—came into town. He and Admetus were good friends, and when Heracles found out what had happened, he was so upset that he went to Alkestis’s tomb and challenged the god of death to a wrestling match with Alkestis as the prize. He won and got Alkestis back for her husband, and they all lived happily ever after ... or as happily as anyone could have lived in that world.”
“Alkestis must have really loved her husband to have agreed to die for him,” Paul said softly.
“I’m not so sure about that,” Christine said. Talking about this subject had calmed her a little, but her voice still sounded strained. “In the ancient play, it looks more like she did it for her children than for him. In that time and place, she’d be easy prey for any invader once her husband was gone, and she may have figured that they’d be safer with him than with her. She spends her whole farewell speech begging her husband to take good care of them, and she mentions her love for him almost in passing.” Christine took another sip. “But that’s not the case with Jeffrey and me. We don’t have kids yet, and we love each other very much.”
Suddenly she sat up in her chair and looked around. “This is crazy. My husband is in the hospital, maybe dying, and here I am talking about ancient stories!” She got up from her chair, stretched her legs. “Paul, thank you. I’ll think about this. But now I really must get back to the hospital.”
“I understand,” Paul said. “Thank you for coming, Christine. I wish you well.”
As they were leaving, Sarah took Paul aside. “Paul, thanks for agreeing to see us on such short notice, and on a weekend, too. What do I owe you?”
Paul looked at Sarah, and it seemed to her that his expression was the saddest she had ever seen it. “You don’t owe me anything this time, Sarah. Good luck.”
And he saw the two women out.
“Don’t go back to the hospital now, Christine,” Sarah said as she and her sister-in-law reached the sidewalk. “You look like you’re about to pass out! Go home and get some sleep. Or you can come back with me to my place and rest there. I promise I’ll wake you in a few hours and give you something to eat, and then we’ll go back to see Jeffrey together.”
“Thank you, Sarah, but I really should go back. I’ll take better care of myself, I promise.”
“I’m not so sure,” Sarah muttered under her breath, but she left it at that. “I’m going to go home for a rest. I’ll see you back at the hospital in a few hours, all right?”
* * * * *
Christine threaded her way through the corridors, making her way back to Jeffrey’s room. She looked down at her husband, at the tubes coming from his arms, at his chest rising and falling with his shallow breathing. Other than that, he lay so still. ... She touched his forehead softly. It was still so hot, so terribly hot.
“Jeffrey, please, you have to fight this,” she whispered to him. “Come on, you’re strong. I know you can beat this.” She sat down in the chair at his bedside and gazed at his face. “You have to. Please. I don’t know what I’d do without you.” Embarrassed, she wiped her eyes on her sleeve and swallowed hard. “Sorry, hon. I’ll try to be stronger than that. But right now, it’s a bit of a challenge. ...”
She heard a footstep behind her. “Mrs. Whelan?”
Christine turned toward a young woman wearing a white hospital coat over her clothing. “Yes?”
“Mrs. Whelan, I’m Melissa Lowry, Jeffrey’s physician. We met briefly earlier today. ...”
“Yes, I remember,” Christine said. “Is there any news? Have you found out what this is yet?”
“We’re still doing tests, Mrs. Whelan, and we’re doing all we can to keep your husband’s condition stable. In the meantime, we’d like to move him into the ICU.”
Christine’s heart pounded. “The ICU? Why?”
“He’ll be under much closer observation there. I really think it’s the best idea right now.”
“All right,” Christine said. “Do whatever you have to do. Just get him well.”
“We’re doing everything we can, Mrs. Whelan,” Dr. Lowry began, and in that moment a scream tore from across the hall. “Excuse me,” she said, and took off at a run.
“She’s not breathing! Doctor, do something!” The cry from the room across the hall beat at Christine’s ears. She walked to the door and watched numbly as Dr. Lowry raced inside, followed by more staff pushing a cart with resuscitation equipment. Slowly she went back into Jeffrey’s room and closed the door, then turned toward her husband, hoping that the noise had awakened him.
He lay as still as before, showing no sign that he had heard a thing.
“Come on, Jeffrey,” she said, shaking his shoulder as much as she dared. “You’re a light sleeper. A scream like that should wake you up in no time.”
Suddenly Christine swayed on her feet. The weight of the entire day came down upon her all at once, making her feel weak and dizzy. She sat down in the chair near Jeffrey’s bed and breathed deeply, then took a long drink from the water bottle on the nearby table and closed her eyes. A few moments later she opened them and stood up.
“Jeffrey, I need some air. I’ll be downstairs, and I’ll come back as soon as I can, okay? I promise. I love you, sweetie. See you in a bit.” Christine walked into the cool evening air and breathed deeply as the memory of her meeting with Paul came back to her. Alkestis. What did that mean? Would I lay down my life for my husband if that were the only way for him to get well? Is it even an option? Almost without thinking, she began to walk down the street, away from the hospital. Would I have enough courage to do a thing like that? Jeffrey would never ask it of me ... but if it had to be done, would I do it?
She was at Paul’s door almost before she realized where she was. As she raised her hand to ring the doorbell, the door opened.
“Come in, Christine,” Paul said. “I’ve been expecting you.”
“I’m sorry,” Christine stammered. “I really didn’t mean ... I was just walking, and suddenly I found myself here ... I don’t want to bother you ...”
“It’s perfectly all right, Christine. Come in and we’ll talk.”
He led her back into the room where the three of them had sat before and offered her a glass of water. “How is Jeffrey?”
“There’s been no change. His temperature is still very high. No one knows what’s happening or how to deal with it. They’re about to move him into the ICU. Paul, I’m really afraid he’s dying.”
Paul nodded. “Have you thought about what we spoke about before?”
“About Alkestis? Yes. Yes, I have.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Yes, I guess so. Why else would I have come here, almost without meaning to?” Christine gave a short, sharp little laugh. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I don’t even know that I’m supposed to do anything. But I do know that I want to save Jeffrey if I can, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”
“Even to the point of giving up your own life, as Alkestis did?”
“I think so. I’d like to believe I would.”
Paul looked steadily at Christine, then nodded. “I would like to read the energies for you, Christine, only this time I would like to do it a bit differently from the way we did it before. Do you mind if I hold your hands for a few moments?”
“No, not at all.”
Paul grasped both of Christine’s hands gently, then closed his eyes and began to breathe deeply. Almost without realizing it, Christine found herself doing the same. Soon she felt herself drifting.
She stood in a vast, silent space that began to fill slowly with sound. Light coalesced into a form that seemed to fill all the space before her. Beside her was a solid, steady presence that seemed familiar, though she did not turn to look at it.
“Why have you come here?” asked a voice that seemed to emanate from the form of light.
“My husband is dying. I want to save him,” Christine said.
The form was silent for a few moments, then spoke. “It can be done, but the price is high, perhaps higher than you will be able to bear.”
“What is it?”
“Do you truly want to know? Knowledge carries consequences. Take our warning, woman: if you wish to live, do not seek to know any more. Go back and mourn your husband, and get on with your life.”
For a moment Christine’s spirit seemed to tower over the form before her with a light of its own. “How dare you judge what price I am willing to pay for Jeffrey’s life? Tell me what it is, and let me decide for myself!”
The form of light seemed to nod, yielding. “Woman, you have courage. Let it be as you wish, then.”
The scene shifted, and Christine stood in the midst of a forest clearing. Before her was a tall wooden stake. Bundles of wood were piled around it. Stunned, Christine stared at it, unable to speak.
As she watched, the scene changed once more. The bundles of wood were now alight, and in the center of the fire, bound fast to the stake, stood Jeffrey. His eyes were closed and he hung limply in his bonds, as pale and unconscious as he had been in his hospital bed. The flames were licking his naked flesh. Screaming his name, Christine started towards him, but found herself rooted to the spot.
Desperate, she raised her eyes to the being of light. “Let him go,” she begged, straining against invisible bonds. “He hasn’t done anything. He doesn’t deserve this. Please, let him go.”
“Deserving has nothing to do with it,” the voice said with calm detachment. “These things simply are.”
“Does it matter?” Christine demanded. “My husband is inside that fire! He’s going to die! Let him go!”
The voice spoke with the same eerie, detached calm. “If you would save your husband,” it said, “you must take his place in that fire. You must be bound to the stake and burned alive as a sacrifice. That is the price for his life.”
Trembling, Christine looked at the flames slowly rising about her husband’s limp form, holding herself back from screaming by main force. With an effort she turned back to the being of light.
“All right,” she said. “I agree. Sacrifice me, burn my body—only let my husband go.”
Suddenly finding that she could move again, she rushed toward the burning pyre. As she felt the first blast of heat, the flames disappeared, and the stake and bundles of wood remained as they had been, unburned and ready. Jeffrey was nowhere to be seen. Christine sank to the ground, sobbing with relief that he was safe—but at the same time knowing that her debt would soon be claimed.
A pungent smell jolted Christine awake. She opened her eyes to see that Paul was holding a small bundle of herbs under her nose. “You were in pretty deep,” he said. “That’s quite a talent you have. Are you all right?”
Christine gazed up at him, her eyes wide in her white face. “They spoke to me. The gods, or whoever they are,” she whispered. “They said ... they said that I can save my husband, but only if ...” She could not go on.
“If you are willing to die in his place,” Paul said, very softly.
Christine stared at him. “How did you know?”
“I was standing next to you, Christine. I saw what you saw.”
Christine went on, nearly distraught. “They showed me a clearing in a forest with a stake in the middle, and wood all around it. Then, suddenly, Jeffrey was there, tied to it, surrounded by fire. And I couldn’t move, I couldn’t do anything to help him. Finally they said that if I wanted him to live, I must allow myself to be tied to that stake ...”
“And burned alive as a sacrifice. I’m so sorry, Christine.” Paul bowed his head.
“Did you know? Before?”
“Then why didn’t you say anything?”
“I wasn’t sure you’d believe me if I told you. I felt you had to hear it for yourself.”
The room seemed enveloped in a heavy silence, as though the world outside had stopped. Christine sat with her head bowed for a long moment, then looked up at Paul. “There are only three things I want to ask now,” she said quietly.
“Yes?” Paul said.
“If I die, what will happen to Jeffrey? If my death were to destroy him, then there wouldn’t be much point. ...”
Paul looked at Christine. “You still have a choice, you know. You don’t have to do this.”
“It’s the only way to save Jeffrey. And I already agreed to it.”
“But it’s such a hard way to die, Christine.”
“We all have to go one way or another,” she said with forced lightness. “Just tell me—if I were to die now, what would it do to Jeffrey? Would he be able to get over it eventually, or would it kill him?”
Paul closed his eyes once more and breathed deeply, composing himself for trance. Christine held out her hands once more, but Paul did not grasp them. After several minutes, Paul opened his eyes and spoke.
“Jeffrey loves you deeply, Christine. He would suffer terribly if anything were to happen to you. But he is strong. In time he would recover, and eventually, he would even find love again.”
“What about Sarah? Would she be all right?”
Paul closed his eyes once more. “You are very dear to her, Christine. She considers you closer than a sister, and if anything were to happen to you she would be devastated. But she, too, would recover in time.”
Christine closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Then I’m ready.”
Paul looked at her, incredulous. “Christine, do you understand what you’ve agreed to? Do you realize what this means?”
“Paul, listen to me.” Christine touched his hands lightly with her fingertips, then drew them back. “I’ve never told a living soul what I’m about to tell you now. Not Jeffrey, not Sarah, no one. I’ve known for years already that I wouldn’t reach old age in this life. And for almost that long, I’ve known that my death, however and whenever it happened, would have some connection with sacrifice.” She met Paul’s calm, steady gaze with her own. “So this is it, then. Though I didn’t think it would be quite this soon. I thought we’d have a little more time ...” She took a breath. “I still have one last question.”
“Will you ... would you sacrifice me?” she asked in a small voice. “That is, if you’re willing, and if we can do it in a way that won’t get you into trouble. I don’t think I have the courage to do this by myself.”
Paul sat silent for a moment, a look of deep sorrow, even dread, upon his face. “Christine, you have told me one of your secrets. Now I will tell you one of mine. Even before I entered my order as a young man, I had a vision that one day I would have to offer a human being as a sacrifice by fire. The vision terrified me, and I kept it secret for years. But on the day before my first initiation, I couldn’t bear it anymore. I asked for an audience with our highest teacher and told him about it. He confirmed that the vision was true, not some wild product of my imagination, and added that there was no way for me to escape my fate. Even if I were to end my own life, the gods would simply send me back, lifetime after lifetime, until it was done. Whether as sacrificer or as executioner, at some point during my existence I would have to burn a human being alive.
“After that, I prayed that the gods were only testing me, that they would never actually call upon me to do it, but now I see that it has come. And so ... if you are absolutely willing, if you are sure beyond any doubt that this is what you want to do—then yes, Christine. I will do as you ask.”
* * * * *
Throughout the long ride, Christine focused her mind on the bizarre incongruity of events. Classically trained as she was, it seemed odd to her, even funny, that she should be going to her sacrifice in a dented pick-up truck instead of on foot or in a horse-drawn cart. She focused on the dark humor of that idea in order not to have to deal with the fact that this was her last ride, and what would happen once they reached their destination.
How would her death become known? She decided not to think about that. Paul’s word and her own strong intuition told her that no one would get into trouble for it and that Jeffrey and Sarah would be all right in time, and that was all she needed to know.
She had thought that the trip would pass in silence, she alone with her thoughts and Paul alone with his. But she found that she and Paul had a great deal to talk about. She had always been interested in things not quite of this world, and now she had several hours alone with a high adept of an ancient tradition. And so they discussed matters of the spirit, karma, reincarnation ... anything but the purpose of their trip. Christine knew that while she and Paul were enjoying the discussion a great deal, they were also using it to push their knowledge of what was to come to the back of their minds for as long as they could.
The ride took them farther and farther into the countryside, to roads that grew more and more narrow, until Paul turned the truck onto a dirt road and pulled into a clearing. There was no artificial light, but there was a full moon. It would be enough.
Paul stopped the car and looked at Christine, who nodded and opened her door. When she stepped out into the clear night air, she looked around her in surprise: there were clean, dry bundles of firewood stacked neatly to one side of the clearing, and several yards away was a fire pit with a tall stake already dug into the ground. She shivered.
“Paul, this is exactly how it looked in my dream! How did all this get here?”
“I don’t know, but I can guess,” Paul said quietly. “I often come here to be by myself and meditate. I was ready to make the preparations myself, but I guess we’ve been given some help.”
Christine decided not to ask further. Things were strange enough, and in any case it made no difference.
Paul walked over to the stacked bundles of wood and began to bring them, one by one, to the foot of the stake. Christine went to help, too, but he stopped her with a gesture.
“No, Christine,” he said with a gentle smile. “You are now a designated sacrifice. You must not do anything that could blemish your body.”
Christine smiled to herself at the irony of that. “Then what should I do?”
“Sit here,” Paul said, directing her to a small stone bench. Christine obeyed, immediately realizing that this was where Paul often sat to meditate.
She shifted her body in the unaccustomed dark-blue robe. Paul had given it to her after she had asked to bathe before the rite. The weave was unusual and the dye was a shade she had never seen before. She guessed that it came from Paul’s ancestral country and that it was quite valuable. It was well made, appropriate for a sacrifice, she thought.
She closed her eyes, feeling strangely calm. So this is it, she thought. The end of all things for me, or at least the end of them for this round. I wonder what the next one will be like. She realized that she was thinking that far ahead in order not to have to think of what awaited her in the more immediate future. She watched Paul with odd detachment as he built the pyre, shaking her head slightly and thinking to herself: I am going to be burned alive right there, not ten feet away from where I am sitting. Burned at the stake, like a woman convicted of witchcraft or treason.
“Or like a very brave and loving woman who has offered herself as a sacrifice,” Paul said quietly.
“You can hear me?” Christine asked, amazed.
“Yes. And you could probably hear me just as well if I had the time to teach you. Christine, this may sound completely bizarre at a time like this, but if you possibly can, I would ask you to give a thought to your next incarnation. You’ll have one, probably sooner than you think. It would be good if you could set it in your mind that when you return, you will explore your gifts further. They don’t disappear between lives, you know. You’ll still have them when you come back, possibly even more strongly than you do now, as a reward for your sacrifice.”
Christine nodded, accepting. “Tell me what I should do.”
“Just tell yourself, in whatever way you’re most comfortable with, that when you come back, you intend to learn how to use your gifts to their fullest potential for your own good and the good of everyone around you.”
Christine nodded again, closing her eyes and breathing deeply, giving her intent in silence, but in words that both she and Paul could hear. She felt the air around her shift and felt the same great vastness that she had felt before. She felt slightly surprised at the degree of peace she felt, and wished that she had discovered this quiet inner space sooner and been able to share it with Jeffrey.
Jeffrey. Oh, gods, or whatever you are, grant him healing. Grant him strength and peace. And, if at all possible, grant that he never finds out exactly what I have done, or why.
Paul’s quiet voice broke the silence. “Christine. It’s time.”
Christine started to rise, but Paul gestured to her to remain seated. “Take my hand,” he said. “I must lead you.”
Christine obeyed, putting her hand in his. Gently he helped her to stand. Then he turned around, putting one hand on her shoulder, and guided her forward, towards the pyre.
Christine noted with relief that there was a great deal of wood, and that it was clean and dry. The fire would at least be quick, or so she hoped.
When she reached the stake, a new instinct told her not to turn on her own, but to wait until Paul guided her. Gently he pressed on her shoulder, turning her body and moving her carefully toward the stake until her back pressed against it.
She stood quietly as Paul bent and lifted a heavy chain from its coil on top of the wood. Finding one end of it, he began to wind it around Christine’s body, beginning with her shoulders and chest. Christine had never experienced what it was like to have her movement restricted. For the first time since she had offered herself, she felt a rising panic, but she subdued it quickly.
She relaxed somewhat as Paul wound the chain around her waist. Then he put it about her thighs, crossing it in front, and bent further, lashing her calves and ankles to the stake. Finally, he picked up a length of stout rope and tied Christine’s wrists behind her.
Christine was now bound securely to the stake. She could feel the wood beneath her bare feet, the chains pressing against her body, the texture of the stake beneath the fabric of her robe at her back. She looked up to the sky, which was full of stars despite the light of the full moon. Then she turned her gaze toward Paul.
“Now?” she whispered.
“Almost, Christine,” he said softly. “There is only one thing more. You can still change your mind. No one will ever have to know. And I will never say a word to anyone; even if I wanted to, my oath to my order forbids it. So if you want to change your mind, tell me now, because once the sacrifice begins, it cannot be stopped.”
Christine heard once more in her mind: If you would save your husband, you must burn. ...
She raised her eyes to Paul’s. “I came here of my own free will, and I choose to stay. I am ready.”
“Then you consent to be sacrificed by fire?”
“Yes. I consent.”
“So be it,” Paul said, and it seemed to Christine that those simple words echoed between the worlds. She knew, even though the fire had not yet been kindled, that she had passed the point of no return.
Paul bent to the stony ground, where he had placed a torch he had made of wood and oil-soaked cloth. Taking wooden matches from his pocket, he lit one and carefully touched it to the cloth, which caught fire instantly. Then he picked the torch up from the ground and stood still for a moment, regarding the bound woman before him. “Gods,” he prayed quietly, but loudly enough for Christine to hear, “accept the sacrifice of this woman, who has offered herself to the fire. Be merciful to her and give her her heart’s desire for the good.” Then, looking up toward Christine, he told her: “You may speak, Christine. You do not have to keep silent.”
He could see Christine’s chest rise and fall with her rapid breathing. She closed her eyes, as if focusing her concentration inward; then she opened them and gazed upward. In a low, clear voice she said: “Gods, accept my sacrifice and heal my husband, and grant him a good life after I am gone.”
Paul walked slowly forward, holding the lit torch before him. Christine watched him, a feeling she couldn’t quite place beginning to rise inside her. With a start, she realized what it was: excitement. Now? she wondered. Now, of all times?
Doing her best to slow her breathing, she watched as Paul bent and touched the torch to the outermost bundles of wood before her. Slowly he walked around the pyre, keeping the torch in contact with the wood until a ring of fire began to form at its perimeter. This is it, Christine thought with a strange calm. Within a few moments the fire will reach me, and within a few minutes—if I’m lucky—I’ll be dead.
Yet now, as she stood inside the rapidly growing ring of flame, she remembered the desire she had felt years before but had forgotten for years: to be bound to the stake and burned, slowly, as a living sacrifice. Long ago, she had wondered whether that strange desire would disappear once she married or at least found a steady boyfriend, and mostly, it had. But now, as she faced the flames moving steadily toward her bound body, she felt it flare up with renewed force. Barely stifling a groan, she closed her eyes and squirmed against the stake in anticipation.
The wood at her feet crackled as the fire took hold, and Christine cried out as a tongue of flame licked at her calves beneath her robe. Looking down in horrified fascination, she watched as the fire fastened onto the fabric and began to burn it from her body with almost surgical precision, exposing her bare skin. The cloth beneath the chains binding her took only a little longer to burn, and Christine gasped at the touch of the heated metal on her flesh. Within moments she stood almost naked in her chains, her only covering a shifting veil of flame that so far reached to her knees, leaving the rest of her body exposed and lit by the fire. Probing fingers of flame caressed her thighs, pausing there as if to gather strength for the climb upward. Christine moaned and struggled against the stake as the fire grew stronger, wrapping itself tightly about her legs.
Her body thrust forward as she felt a sudden blast of heat at her hips. In an instant, hungry tongues of flame rose to taste the flesh there, then began their meal in earnest.
Excitement mixed with Christine’s torment as she arched her back against the stake, whipping her head from side to side. With every breath she cried out, her body writhing in its bonds, as the flames licked steadily at her buttocks. It seemed that she could no longer endure the mixture of agony and pleasure. Suddenly she gasped and convulsed, closing her eyes tightly and crying out as much in amazement as in ecstasy, as the fire found its way to her very center.
Christine’s head fell forward and she hung for a moment against her bonds, the sound of her breathing mingling with the crackling of the wood. When she opened her eyes, she saw Paul standing before the pyre, gazing up at her. His lips were moving; perhaps he was praying. Then he seemed to come back to himself and carefully added more bundles of wood to the pyre. Sparks and flames flew upward, throwing a lurid glow onto Christine’s bound and naked body even as they hid it from view. Now completely surrounded by fire, Christine shrieked in terror and shrank back against the stake, but there was no refuge: behind her, the flames at her buttocks rose to seize her bound hands, climbing slowly upward toward her arms, back and shoulders. Her fingers trailed tiny flames in the air as they flexed, vainly seeking relief from the fire that consumed them.
She sobbed helplessly as the fire in front of her rose past her navel and gripped the flesh of her slim waist. She could hear the clink of metal as she squirmed and struggled against her chains.
The stake itself caught fire and began to burn, sending out streaks of flame to wrap around Christine’s breasts as she writhed and screamed. She flung back her head as a dart of fire shot from her chest to her chin. The heat was unbearable; she could barely breathe. Yet a thread of ecstasy still wove through her suffering, so that even as she burned in agony she reached peaks of exaltation that she had never imagined even in the greatest pleasure of her most intimate moments.
Christine gasped and sobbed as she felt the fire engulf her completely, rippling upon her flesh like a robe of light. Then she shrieked, long and loud, as her entire body convulsed once more against the stake. Finally she slumped against her bonds, still in terrible agony but too weak even to struggle. Slowly, steadily, the fire continued to consume her, the roar of the flames swallowing her cries.
Her eyes seemed to be losing their focus; she could no longer see through the flames to where Paul now knelt absolutely still, his hands spread out as though in invocation. Her own body, shuddering weakly in mingled torment and rapture, now fueled the fire as her cries slowly diminished. She felt her consciousness begin to slip away and leaned harder than ever against the chains that held her to the burning stake, surrendering to the flames as they consumed her. The sacrifice is accomplished. Receive me, gods.
And then she felt nothing more for a very long time.
* * * * *
Slowly, sound came to her. She opened her eyes, blinking in confusion.
It was then that she realized she was lying down, and that she was completely drenched.
But I’m dead, she thought hazily. I died in the fire, just now. I was at the stake, burned alive as a sacrifice. I remember it all as if it had just happened. And it did just happen. Didn’t it?
She opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out.
“Shush, don’t talk. Can you swallow? Your fever just broke; you need to drink.” Expertly Sarah raised the head of the hospital bed and held a cup of water just below Christine’s chin, putting the straw in her mouth. Christine drank until the large plastic cup was empty.
Christine shook her head.
“All right, then. I’m going off to refill this and get a nurse to change your sheets and gown. You’re soaked.”
“Jeffrey ...” Christine’s voice was little more than a croak.
“He’s fine. His fever broke a little while ago ... just after they admitted you, I think. But they say you’ll both be staying the night for observation, just in case. They’ll probably let you out in the morning.”
The water was having an effect; Christine regained her voice. “What happened, Sarah? Tell me ...”
Sarah leaned close to Christine. “All I know is that they found you on the lawn outside a few hours ago. It looked like you’d gone out to get some air, but suddenly you collapsed. Good thing one of the nurses saw you fall. She yelled for help and had you brought in.” Sarah took a sip from her own bottle of water. “Are you sure you don’t want anything more to drink?”
“In a minute. Go on.”
“At first they thought it was exhaustion until they felt how hot you were. They figured that you had come down with the same thing Jeffrey had. So they started tests and were about to move you into the ICU. Jeffrey was already there, but they’ve moved him out now.”
“How is he? When can I see him?”
“He’s sleeping. Dr. Lowry said you can see him as soon as he wakes up.”
“Will he be all right?”
“There’s been no brain damage, though she said it was close,” her sister-in-law said. “She said that if his fever hadn’t broken just when it did ... but there’s nothing to worry about. He’s going to be fine.”
Christine sighed, relaxing visibly.
“Paul called a few minutes ago to ask how you were doing,” Sarah said. “I told him what happened and he seemed very worried. He’d like to come visit you if it’s all right.”
“He’s here?” Christine murmured in confusion. “I thought—”
“Tell him that will be fine,” Christine said. “And—Sarah? Thank you. So much.”
* * * * *
If she and Jeffrey had to wait until morning to go back home, a sponge bath, a clean, dry gown and fresh sheets were the next best thing, Christine decided as she sipped from her cup of water. She put it down on the bedside table and pulled the sheet up to her shoulders when she heard the knock on the door. “Come in,” she called softly.
Paul walked in and stood next to Christine’s bed. “How are you feeling, Christine?”
“Like I’ve been through the wringer, but otherwise all right,” Christine told him. “Jeffrey’s fever broke. He’s going to be fine.” Does he remember anything? Was he really there? Did any of it happen?
“Sarah told me. I’m glad,” Paul said, reaching out to touch her shoulder.
“What’s that?” Christine pointed to the long, livid mark on his forearm. It looked fresh. “While you’re here, you should have it looked at.”
“I have some herbal stuff for burns back at the house. It’ll be fine.”
“A burn? You?” Christine looked at him, bewildered.
“Christine,” Paul said very softly, “do you remember what happened?”
“Yes,” she said, lowering her voice and looking around cautiously to make sure that no one else was within earshot. “All of it. I died in the fire, at the stake.”
“Of course,” Paul said. “But you couldn’t know what happened afterwards.” Paul sat down in the chair beside Christine’s bed. “Christine, I told you before about the vision I had just before my first initiation into my order, and how the head of my order told me that I would have to carry it out in one lifetime or another,” he said gently. “But what I didn’t tell you was this: at that time, I made a private vow to the gods that if the vision had to come true, if I had to burn someone alive as a sacrifice, I would not survive them. As soon as I knew that they had died, I would follow them into the fire.”
“Then that was the reason you were so sad when I saw you before,” Christine said.
“Yes. I was sad, for myself and for you.”
“Then you mean you actually ...”
“How did we survive? Let’s just say that my training includes bargaining with the gods—and luckily for both of us, they decided that I was of more use to them alive than dead. When I passed through the fire to stand before them they told me it wasn’t my time; they wanted to send me back. I told them the price of my dying a second time, and having no choice, they agreed.”
“The price ... ?”
“Your sacrifice had already saved your husband, Christine. The price I named was your return to life in your own restored body, healthy and intact. Since I had forced their hand, they could not let me go without some punishment, and so”—he glanced at his arm—“I have this to remind me of what happened. A small price to pay, if you ask me; it could have been much worse.”
Christine could not hold back her tears this time. Paul handed her the box of tissues on the bedside table.
“But the nurses said I was here all the time,” she said when she could control her voice again. “Sarah told me that one of them saw me collapse on the front lawn, and she had me brought in. But I remember everything from when I came to you until I was in the fire. Everything.”
“What is it you Westerners always say? The gods work in mysterious ways,” Paul said. “They control place and time in ways we can’t understand. However you interpret it, you did burn, and you saved Jeffrey.”
“And then you saved me,” Christine said, wiping her eyes. “However it happened, you saved me, and I owe you my life.”
“You don’t owe me anything, Christine. I only did what I decided long ago that I would do. The rest wasn’t up to me.”
Christine shook her head but didn’t press the point. “So what happens now?”
“Now you go home with Jeffrey and live your life,” Paul said.
“But it can’t be that simple,” Christine protested. “You don’t die as a sacrifice and then pick up and go on as if nothing had happened!”
Paul smiled. “That’s exactly what you do. It’s true that from now on you will not be exactly the same person you were before. There will be some differences, but that shouldn’t stop you from living your life. On the contrary, it should help.” Paul smiled sand rose to go.
“Wait,” Christine said. “Paul, what does it take to become a member of your order?” She managed a shaky grin. “It’s not the bracelet, you understand. ...”
Paul smiled. “I thought you might ask me that,” he said. “We can talk about it later, after you and Jeffrey have a chance to recover.” For a moment, his face assumed a faraway look. Then he turned back to Christine. “I have a message for you.”
“What is it?”
“Hold out your hand, palm up. Yes, like that. Now, concentrate.”
“What am I trying to do?”
“You’ll see. Just concentrate. See the light at the ends of your fingertips, and feel your body heat gathering there. Yes, that’s it.”
Before Christine’s astonished eyes, small blue flames flared at her fingertips. As she concentrated harder, the blue changed to orange, then yellow, then white. She glanced from her hand to Paul, her expression a mixture of excitement and apprehension.
“Don’t be afraid,” Paul said. “It can’t hurt you; it’s not real fire. It’s your own concentrated energy, which you will be able to use now in ways that you hadn’t been able to before. Do you remember what I said before about being reborn with greater gifts? This is one example. But be careful with it. Even if it’s not an actual flame, it can still get pretty hot.”
“Well, that’s fine, but how do I use it?”
Paul started to laugh.
“What’s so funny?” Christine asked.
“Oh, there are lots of ways. I can show you some of them. But they just told me to tell you ... start with Jeffrey. He’ll love it.”
Christine blushed, and her laughter followed Paul as he walked down the hall to the elevator.