It began with an invitation to a party. A most innocuous announcement which landed on the desk of one Anna Steine, Owner and President of Steine & Steine Publishers one of the few independent publishing houses still standing after a wave of mergers decimated what once had been an elite industry.
The day the festive invitation arrived was an ordinary day, in a series of ordinary days which were quickly adding up to ordinary years in the life a career woman who was nearing her milestone thirtieth birthday.
Two decades of her professional life were commemorated on her shelves which held her Bachelors’ degree from Syracuse University – S.I Newhouse School of Communications, her Masters from Columbia Journalism School, several professional awards of achievement, book covers of her bestselling and award winning authors and little else.
Anna stared at the reflection peering back at her from the sunlight protected floor length window pane in her corner office on the 12th floor in downtown Los Angeles which overlooked the iconic Bonaventure hotel, the site of her wedding to the other Steine in her company’s name, and the attorney’s office adjacent which was the site their contagious divorce. When the signatures were signed on the settlement, Anna was awarded all current and new titles in traditional print, audio and digital format, while Henry went on to form a new print-on-demand e-book publishing venture totally separated from Steine and Steine.
Even though she had come out of the divorce with a major win, the last few months of legal fighting were starting to show on Anna’s face. Under the diminished fluorescent office lighting only emphasized her much-too-old-for-freckles skin and much-too-young for the dark circles under her once sparkling blue eyes. If she had the time, or a reason to go to a hair dresser, she could have lightened her mousy brown hair back to its original auburn of her younger days when she was an up and coming editorial assistant working at a now defunct publishing house.
Three months after being hired at Beacon Press, a twenty-four year old Anna was introduced to the charismatic Senior Editor Henry Steine. When the light in Beacon started to fade, Henry took full advantage of the situation and walked out the door, taking fifteen of his best-selling authors, and Anna, with him. Henry’s charismatic personality convinced her to join his dream of forming his own publishing company, which she’d excitedly agreed, as well as join him in marriage, which she equally excitedly had agreed. Three years later, he left the company to become the CEO of a younger e-book publishing house and the marriage for a younger editorial assistant.
Anna devoted herself to building the company name and the reputation. She attended every book festival from BEA in New York to the LA Times Festival of Books in Los Angeles to Washington D.C.’s National Book Festival. She traveled to Scotland for the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the International Literature Festival in Berlin and, her favorite, the Sydney Writers’ Festival in Australia.
At a time when traditional book publishing houses were shutting their doors, Anna kept hers wide open. She nearly doubled the number of editors, creating several new divisions Henry would never have considered, including Young Adult, Science Fiction and Erotica. While Henry’s business strategy had been schmoozing with a few select authors on the golf course, Anna was driven with determination to succeed. In spite of having to deal with disgruntled agents who demanded a higher budget for publicity for their authors and obnoxious book distributors, Anna would negotiate, but never compromise her integrity or ethics, no matter what the cost.
Her number one policy of not reading any submission that didn’t come through an agent, or a referral had cost heavily. When Henry’s company signed first-time author Matt Reed, it was all Anna could do not to throw her shoe through the television screen every time Reed gave an interview. For weeks, Anna wrestled with her no-direct submission policy, until the news hit all the trades that an old college roommate had actually written the book and that Reed had paid him several thousand dollars to keep quiet. The scandal really exploded when the author discovered that Reed was about to sign a multi-million dollar movie deal and had approached Reed for a larger cut, or else he’d sue. Reed refused, the author called a press conference and “Greedy Reedy”, as the media was now calling him, lost the movie, lost the advance on his next book and Henry’s company nearly went bankrupt. All because Henry had accepted a manuscript directly from an unknown author.
The cost to Anna’s personal life had been severe. While many of her high school girlfriends had married their “soul-mate” immediately after graduation, Anna was more focused on being accepted into the number one journalism college in New York. Once she achieved that goal, she found the dating scene to be as disappointing. Looking back, Anna calculated that the longest relationship she’s ever lasted an average of eight months.
Somehow the script was always the same. She was perfect partner for a week or two, but as soon as Anna started to relax and be herself, the guy would start making subtle suggestions on how she could improve, especially when they would be invited to a party. First came the suggestions; can you wear your hair like this, can you put on a different shirt, followed by the criticism as soon as they left the event, and the inevitable break-up a few days later. Henry had fit the pattern perfectly. After this last failed relationship, Anna was beginning to think she was cursed.
Anna exhaled a wistful breath as she turned back to her desk. She picked up the invitation and tore open the envelope, relaxing a bit when she saw it was only an innocent announcement of a holiday party. Anna had purposely kept her upcoming birthday out of the office gossip pool and she was relieved that the invitation had nothing whatsoever to do with a celebration of an event she neither wished to acknowledge let alone celebrate.
The R.S.V.P.O.E. revealed that the invitation was sent by her best friend, Elaine Levine. Well, best friend might have been a bit strong of a title, one that Anna has bestowed on Elaine purely because the two women had known each other literally since the day they were born, although Anna never failed to remind Elaine that she was, in fact, exactly two days, twenty minutes and fifteen seconds older. When she first opened the envelope, Anna thought Elaine was inviting her to a… gag, birthday party and she was already contemplating a believable excuse to decline, but when she read the print on the card, she was more than intrigued.
You are requested to celebrate the Feast of Esther
at a Purim Party Masquerade Ball
13th Day of Adar, 5777
Eat Hamantashen and drink Kosher wine
From 3:00 – till you can’t remember your own name!
Anna laughed aloud when she read the last two lines. The added “O.E.” stood for Or Else, it was a sure fire way to make certain invitees would definitely respond. She and Elaine were notorious for finding creative ways to make their invitees regret a non-response, from multiple pizza deliveries, to sending their e-mail address to twenty different charities, all of which they were too embarrassed not to follow through with. Over time, not a single invitee would dare not call, and more often than not, the call would be an acceptance. This time, however Anna wasn’t quite sure what her response was going to be.
After running an internet search for a current Jewish calendar, Anna saw that the 13th of Adar was Saturday night. On the other hand, or rather on the other side of her desk, was a stack of manuscripts she had planned on reading over the weekend. With her recent acquisitions not even breaking the digital e-book top-twenty list, she was desperately trying to climb out from under an uncomfortable and uncharacteristic slump.
Anna was still recovering from passing on another first-time author’s vampire novel because she felt the genre was as cold and dead as the main character. When it shot to the top of the New York Times best-seller list, then optioned for a television series, she had to fend off several letters of resignation from the agent who had recommended the novel as well as ten other agents who all thought anyone over the age of thirty was a literary dinosaur.
Perhaps a work-free, worry-free, stress-free Saturday night was just what she needed, Anna thought, even if it was for an archaic Jewish holiday. She picked up the phone and called the number on the invitation. She could have easily sent Elaine a text, but for this celebration, she wanted to give her girlfriend a more personal reply. Even though Anna grew up with instant communication technology, she was somewhat old fashioned in her desire to connect with an actual person, even if it were only a voice on the other end of her phone; her very old fashioned and out dated land line phone. After the forth ring, she was just about to hang up when she heard the familiar voice say.
“Hi, Anna. I assume you received my invitation?”
“And I assume you have caller ID, so that’s how you knew it was me.”
Anna’s disapproval was evident in her voice.
“What is it with you and technology, anyway? With your line of work, I’d think you’d love being able to carry ten books on your phone.”
“Elaine, I’m not going to get into a philosophical discussion with you on print verses digital book. It’s bad enough I have to explain that to my authors, but then again, they have to do what I say or else I won’t read their books.”
“I know you enjoy the power.” Elaine’s smile came through the receiver.
“I enjoy the power I pretend to have, anyway. In the end it’s the reading public who dictates my paycheck. Sometimes I wish I could just leave and find something else to do with the rest of my life.”
“Right, leave something you’ve always wanted for, well since high school I recall and do what?”
“Well, I could go back to school, maybe law school like you did.”
“Ahhh. Please tell me you’re joking. For one thing, you’d have to change your name, we already have too many Jewish lawyers at my firm. There is a quota, ya know.” Elaine laughed. “There’s a rumor when our grandparents came through Ellis Island, there were only two doors, one marked Doctor and one marked Lawyer and the rest were sent to Jersey!”
“You’re terrible.” Anna laughed. “About this party, are you serious about the costume?”
“Of course. I know you only go to services on the High Holy days, but my Temple’s Havarah thought it would be a lot of fun for the adults to get together and have a full blown Purim party without the kids for a change. At our age we no longer get presents for Hanukkah and forget trick and treating for Halloween, so I thought this year, instead of celebrating our…”
“Don’t you DARE say it!” Anna interrupted.
“No worries, that forbidden number will not escape my lips, at least not for another four months. I really think we’re going to have a really great Purim tradition celebration.”
“No cell phones?”
“No cell phones. My Rabbi has a real Magillah scroll she’ll bring and I’ve got noise makers left over from New Year’s Eve, and I invited a genuine Kabbalah Tarot card reader, so please come so we can have a real Purim party and celebrate our heroine Queen Esther.”
“OK”, Anna surrendered to her friend’s pleas. “Maybe that will make my parents happy. With the book expo coming up, I told them I was going to be too busy to spend Passover with them this year.”
“I know, that’s all I’ve been hearing from my mother who talks to yours almost daily, thanks a lot.”
“They’ve been at it since the day we were born, literally! I probably won’t be able to stay very long, I still have these manuscripts to finish reading and my agents and their author’s dreams to crush. I’m sure none of them have any idea who Queen Esther is if she’s not a vampire or a zombie!”
“Well, there certainly won’t be any of those at this party, Jews are forbidden to drink human blood or flesh, unless of course it’s been certified as kosher.” Anna and Elaine both laughed. “So, take a few hours off and go get a great dress for the party. We’re going to have a lot of Esthers in my apartment.”
“Esther? Elaine, you know I always dressed as Vashti at our Purim party when we were kids. She was the real heroine in my opinion.”
“Yeah, she’s the one who didn’t want to show her face because she had a pimple. If I stayed home every time I had zit, I’d never go anywhere. Wear whatever you want, just make sure you’re here tomorrow night.”
“I promise, O.E.”
Anna placed the receiver back into its holder. Purim, she thought. The story of Vashti who refused to dance naked, wearing only a crown, for her husband’s wild drunken friends, so she was sentenced to death and demonized by orthodox Jewish women. Anna remembered her religious school classes and how the other kids would laugh when she dressed up as Vashti at their annual celebration. It didn’t help matters that Anna’s straight auburn hair and bright smile made more of the frizzy-haired girls jealous than just playing the character she chose to portray in a Purim play. Those Esthers were more than happy to see a beautiful Vashti banished from the stage so they could get on with their own beauty contest. Anna didn’t care, while the other girls were competing, she was behind the curtain making out with the boy playing Esther’s uncle Mordecai.
Maybe a party would be fun, Anna thought, at least it won’t be a birthday party, even though she was sure she would drank and curse just as much if not more if it were.
She buzzed her assistant.
“Janet, clear my calendar for the rest of the morning. I’m going shopping!”
At some future time Anna would remember that it was exactly 2:18 on a Friday afternoon in March when she returned to her office, shopping bags in hand, to finish what was left on her schedule before closing for the weekend. Yes, Anna would remember this day because the events which followed would change not only her life, but the lives of millions in nearly every corner of the globe.
The office was unusually quiet for a Friday with most of the staff leaving early to join the festivities on the second floor where the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. headquarters were celebrating Founders Day. Over the last few years, Steine and Steine worked with the organization as well as the National Jewish Committee on Girl Scouting, hiring interns interested in pursuing a career in publishing and stretching their business and leadership skills.
She’d hired her assistant Janet part-time after Janet earned her Gold Award and graduated high school. Janet was promoted to Executive Assistant soon after earning here Associate Degree in business. With all the changes in her personal life, Anna couldn’t imagine running Steine and Steine without her valuable assistant. Up until 2:18 pm on that particular Friday afternoon, Anna didn’t think she’d have a reason to.
That reason came in the form of a large manila envelope that was creating silent chaos in the middle of Anna’s otherwise perfectly organized desk. Even before she touched the offensive package, Anna knew what the envelope contained.
“JANET”, Anna shouted into the hall. “Come into my office, NOW!”
In under three seconds, Janet was next to Anna’s desk, visibly shaken.
“How did THAT get on my desk?” Anna pointed to the package. “Did you put it there?”
“It wasn’t me. I’ve never seen that before,” Janet sputtered. “I was downstairs at the party and didn’t see anyone come in. Your door was locked when I left, Anna. I swear. Is there a return address?”
“No, there’s just this.” Anna handed the package to Janet who read the hand-written lines.
“Vashti’s Daughter by Nathaniel Braverman, Ph.D.”
“I didn’t’ know Vashti had a daughter,” Anna laughed. “This was obviously a practical joke Elaine concocted with this Nathaniel guy.”
Noticing her boss’s mood had lightened, Janet turned to leave. “Have a good time at the party tomorrow, see you on Monday.”
“You can shut down the office early, Janet. I’m going to finish a few things and head out myself.”
The first think I’m going to do is file this Anna said to the now empty office. She tossed the manuscript into the garbage can and walked over to the portable bar cart on the far side of the office where she poured herself a few shots of Jack Daniels on the rocks. Henry might have taken some clients and the assistant, but the one thing he did leave her was a fully stocked bar, and for that, Anna was grateful, especially when mysterious packages showed up on her desk.
Anna sat back in her ergonomic chair, put her feet up on the mahogany desk and took a long, slow sip of bourbon. She felt the delicious decadence flow through every frazzled nerve ending from her lips to her toes. Her and Jack, she thought, who needed anyone else?
Looking over at the Vashti outfit waiting for her in the shopping bags, Anna was starting to look forward to Elaine’s Purim party. She wasn’t looking forward to going alone.
Anna closed her eyes and tried to recall the names of the men who had come and gone in her life after the divorce. The list could have filled several pages of her address book, if she had bothered to write them down, or even bother to ask them their last name. Anna was totally convinced that it was easier to read an author’s relationship fictional story then it was to live her own real one.
There was no doubt in her mind that a party was just what she needed. Her social calendar of late had been sparse and when she was invited out, it was usually an event connected with her work, like the writer’s awards, or a book promotion. She couldn’t even remember the last time she attended a purely social event with a group of friends, or even strangers who she could kibbitz with on some unimportant small talk that had nothing whatsoever to do with reality. And Purim was certainly an event that had very little to do with reality.
Anna thought about how bizarre Elaine’s concept of Judaism had become since they were children. Raised in a small town in the Catskills, religion was never very important to either of them. The only religious experiences that Anna remembered was having to attend services and being totally separated and, in her opinion, excluded from the entire service. It wasn’t until Elaine introduced her to the alternative Reform congregation that she finally felt as if she belonged, at least during the High Holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
It was at Elaine’s Passover Seder where they sang Miriam’s song and there was an orange placed on the Seder plate to visually challenge a statement made by a male rabbi who had said that a woman belonged on the bema as much as an orange belonged on the Seder plate. So, it wasn’t that much of a stretch that Elaine would want to embrace a crazy holiday like Purim where the heroine was a woman hiding her true identity in order to fit in. Her last name before she married Henry was Cohen. Anna had thought about changing it, but if Elaine was brave enough to keep her Levine last name through law school, Anna was going to keep her married name as well as keep it for the business.
While her professional resume listed a series of successes, her personal resume wasn’t as glowing. It was, in a word, pathetic. It certainly wasn’t for lack of trying, or that Anna was particularly picky when it came to meeting a potential male partner, it was just that if a man was fortunate enough to make to a second date, they very rarely made it to a third. If not for the exceptional tailor who could turn any obnoxious bride’s maid’s outfit into haute couture, she wouldn’t have a thing to wear, or any money left to buy normal clothes.
Anna hadn’t had time to alter her latest “runner-up” dress, and for once, she was glad that it was still hanging in her closet. The spaghetti-strap black velvet formal she had been forced into last spring might not have been something she would not have been caught dead in on the streets of New York City, but, with a little bling she had just purchased, was perfect for a costume party. Especially a party where most of the women dressed in brightly colored taffeta and faux diamond tiaras, portraying the beautiful Queen Esther, while she was now, as she had as a child, epitomized her hero, the much berated and, as the story went, beheaded, Vashti. Who, Anna was absolutely positive, never had a daughter.
Anna finished her drink and grabbed her bags. For a second, she felt an uncontrollable urge to rescue the manuscript from the trash, but managed to shake it off before closing the door behind her and heading home. Perhaps she probably should have eaten something before indulging in bourbon, she thought. She was certain it wasn’t the bourbon that was creating a sense of foreboding that followed her all the way home and kept her awake most of the night.
When Anna arrived at Elaine’s Brentwood apartment, the smells of traditional Jewish food reached her nose a mere seconds before the sounds of music and laughter reached her ears. Even when they were in high school, Elaine was notorious for throwing the best parties, and Anna was very happy that her friend hadn’t lost her touch. Elaine was busy handing out greggers and other assorted noise makers, and was just able to raise her hand in a hello, which Anna returned momentarily before Elaine went back to her party guests.
As Anna predicted, the women were adorned in the festive garb of Queen Esther, and then men wore robes and tunics. There was plenty of wine and plates piled high with the three corned Hamantashen cookies, filled with every fruit imaginable. There were prune, peach, cherry, and even chocolate. More plates with corned beef and pastrami on rye, sour pickles and a huge bowl of pickled herring in sour cream and, of course a huge mountain of bagels, platters of lox, cucumber slices, cream cheese and onions.
Having not eaten in 24 hours, Anna was staved, but no sooner did she take a bite of the Hamantashen when Elaine’s cousin Dennis came over and handed her a glass of wine, along with a huge smile.
“I should have known you weren’t going to break tradition.” he said. “The lone and apparently all alone Vashti, I presume?”
“Right on both counts,” Anna replied after she had swallowed the cookie, followed by a large sip of wine. “Although I would have to disagree with you on the alone part, I had no idea that Elaine had so many Jewish friends.”
“They’re all from her Havurah group, which you would have known if you bothered to join our Temple and come to services more than once a year.”
“Dennis, enough with the Jewish guilt already. You sound like my mother!” Anna slapped him playfully. “I don’t see you here with anyone, where’s your latest shiksa?” she teased him about his reputation of dating non-Jewish women.
“Believe it or not, my date is over there getting me some wine and not only is she Jewish, the Rabbi is her aunt, so there!”
Anna looked to where Dennis had pointed to see an attractive blond wearing a pastel blue dress.
“Congratulations,” Anna said looking around the room at the other guests, she noticed a fairly tall dark haired woman standing in the far corner also watching the crowd. She looked strangely familiar to her. “Is that the Rabbi?” she asked Dennis.
“Who?” he replied.
“That woman standing in the corner over there.”
Anna was about to motion to the corner, but when she turned around to show Dennis who he was referring, the spot where the woman had been standing was vacant. Just then Elaine introduced another woman as the Rabbi.
“Oh, I guess not.” Anna said. She wondered who the other woman was, and where she had disappeared to, but before she could ask, Elaine began gathering the guests into the living room to begin the reading of the Story of Esther – the Megillah. All the furniture had been replaced by huge pillows, although there were a few chairs for those who might not be comfortable lying on the floor. Anna didn’t have any trouble sprawling out on a fluffy pillow, although she was wondering, after all the drinking, if she would be able to get up again. Elaine refilled everyone’s wine, explained the tradition to those who might have forgotten, offered her guests overnight accommodations if they made it to the goal of getting totally wasted, and turned the festivities over to the Rabbi.
“Isn’t this a blast?” Elaine said.
“Absolutely! I’m so glad you talked me into coming.”
The Rabbi took the scroll from the case she had brought, started to unravel the parchment and began reciting the story.
“Let’s not forget,” she started, “and I’m sure most of you won’t, every time Haman’s name is mentioned you need to make enough noise to drown out his name and when I saw Mordechai’s name you can, if you want, no pressure from me,” laughter erupted. “You should take a drink. The goal is to keep drinking until you don’t know the difference between the evil Haman and the righteous Mordechai, unless you’re the designated driver. There will be NO DUI tonight!” she warned. “Ok, if everyone’s ready, let’s get started.”
“Long ago, in a land far, far away, in a place called Shushan, of the famed empire of Persia, there lived a king, whose name was Ahashuerus, and his queen, Vashti. King Ahashuerus was a haughty man who liked to show off his riches with fancy parties and celebrations, and on one such occasion, he even wanted to show off his own wife. He summoned Vashti and asked her to dance before all of his party guests, but his queen refused and told the king, “No!” This made King Ahashuerus furious, so he sent Queen Vashti away.
With Queen Vashti gone, King Ahashuerus had to find another queen. He held a beauty contest, and all the women of the land came before him to see who would be chosen. The King saw many fair maidens, but he only had eyes for one, a young woman by the name of Esther. Esther was a brave and beautiful girl, and she was also, most importantly, Jewish. But Esther’s cousin Mordecai warned Esther never to tell a soul about her heritage. Her Jewish identity would be her secret.
King Ahashuerus loved Esther above all other women, and she found only favor and affection in his eyes. Esther’s cousin Mordecai was also looked upon with much favor, because he had saved the king from a murderous plot, hatched by two of his palace guards.
Now, King Ahashuerus’s most senior official was a very mean man named Haman. When Haman walked down the street, he told every person who passed before him to bow down. Most people were afraid of him, so they complied. But when Mordecai passed Haman, he did not bow down! Mordecai made it known that he was a Jew, and as a Jew, he only bowed before God. Mordecai’s refusal to bow made Haman very angry.
Haman decided that he wanted all of the Jewish people to go away. When Haman told King Ahashuerus of his idea to remove the Jews, the king consented. He told Haman to do as he saw fit. The Jews of Shushan were in great danger!
When Mordecai found out about this evil plan, he was devastated, as was the entire Jewish community. Mordecai knew that Queen Esther was their only hope. He told her: “Now is the time to reveal your secret! You must tell King Ahashuerus that you are Jewish. You must speak out on behalf of your people! You must ask him to reverse Haman’s decree!”
Queen Esther was scared. No one could approach the king without first being summoned! But Esther gathered all of her courage, and she made her way into the king’s chamber. With all of the strength she could muster, Esther invited Ahashuerus and Haman to a large feast.
When the time for the feast came, Esther knew what she had to do. She took a deep breath, stood up before the king and Haman, and told them she was Jewish She begged the king to spare her and her people from Haman’s evil scheme. It was a moment of true bravery. Esther risked everything she had to save the Jewish people of Shushan. But because King Ahashuerus loved her so much, he did all that she asked. The Jews would be saved! Haman, meanwhile was executed.
News spread fast. The Jewish community rejoiced and declared the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar a day of celebration. To this day, we celebrate Purim on the 14th of Adar with parties and music and great celebration.
By this time everyone at the party was shouting and celebrating as if it were New Year’s Eve. Anna could hardly hear the Rabbi over the jubilation as she tried to complete the Magillah, but finally decided no one was listening, so she rolled up the scroll, replace it in the case and joined the celebration.
Deciding if she couldn’t beat them, she should join them, Anna joined the circle and danced the Hora with everyone else, but then she suddenly felt dizzy. The faces of the other guests in the circle dance began to blur so she went back to her pillow and sat down. Anna didn’t think she had drank nearly enough wine, but she definitely was having a difficult time focusing on anyone in the room, except for the dark woman who was still smiling at her from across the room. The rest of the guests were all so absorbed in the dancing and celebration, no one seemed to notice her or the sudden drop in temperature. Noticing her friend has left the dance circle, Elaine went to her.
“Are you feeling all right?”
“I’m just a bit dizzy, I’ll be fine. By the way, who is that women over there?”
“She’s the Rabbi,” Elaine whispered “I know we were used to men at our Temple, which is why I joined the Reformed. Wasn’t she terrific?”
“No, not the Rabbi. The woman sitting over there, to her right. Is she another attorney with your firm?”
“You mean Barbara? She’s Dennis’s date, and the Rabbi’s niece.”
“No, not Dennis’s date,” Anna was beginning to lose her patience. “The woman next to her, the one who looks like she’s not exactly enjoying the party. Actually, she looks pretty disgusted with the whole thing.”
“What woman, Anna? What are you talking about? Dennis is sitting next to Barbara and she’s sitting next to Jackie from my office.”
Just then people began shouting “L’Chaim” and everyone drained their glasses. “That’s my cue,” Elaine rose to refill everyone’s glasses, standing in front of Anna and blocking her view. “I’ll be back in a sec.”
“Ok, but I’d really like to meet…” she never got to finish the sentence. As soon as Elaine left to get the wine, Anna looked over to where the mysterious woman had been sitting. She was no longer there. Anna looked at every face in the room, but the woman she was searching for was nowhere to be seen.
Elaine returned. Taking hold of Anna’s arm she led her to a corner table where a young woman was sitting holding a deck of strange looking cared. “Anna, I’d like you to meet the Rabbi’s sister Shifra, the Tarot card reader I told you about. She’s been studying Kabballah in Israel and is really good.”
“I don’t really believe in…” Anna started.
` “Maybe she’ll help you find that mysterious woman you’ve been looking for all night!” Elaine whispered. “Either way, we’re here to have fun, so have it!”
Elaine walked off and Anna sat opposite Shifra who starting shuffling the cards before placing the first one in the center of the table.
“Ah, the Empress,” she said. “Is there a child in your life, or someone you know who might be pregnant?”
“Hell, no!” Anna shrieked. “Oh, I’m sorry, had a bit too much Purim celebration. But to answer your question there is no pregnancy, there’s no chance of that and no man, but that’s a really pretty card.” Anna tried not to smirk.
“I’m just telling you what I see. Of course you can’t get the entire story from one card, let’s see the card that covers yours.”
The next card was the Knight of Swords.
“I do see a man, dark eyes, dark hair that will be coming into your life very soon.”
“Well, I hope he’s not on horseback, unless he’s a NYC cop!”
“Could be. Before I deal out the rest of the cards, can you tell please tell me what day and year you were born?”
“July 18, 1987,” Anna replied. “Why, is that important?”
Shifra wrote the date on a piece of parchment, then made a few calculations before continuing with the reading. As she began laying out the cards, Shifra started to shiver and small beads of sweat began appearing on her forehead. When she put down the last card, she could barely form the words. Anna didn’t know if this was part of the act, or if what Shifra was doing was what she was seeing.
“Is it that bad?” Anna asked, almost afraid of the answer.
“No, just very strange. The first two cards in the spread tell me there is definitely a child, a daughter maybe yours, maybe some you know, I’m not sure and a young man in your future, but I’ve never before seen such a personal, powerful spread in all the years I’ve been reading Tarot.”
“Is that a good thing?”
“Your birthday in the European format is 18, July, 1987 – 18 for Chi, the 7th month of a number 7 year. Seven is one of the greatest power numbers in Judaism, representing Creation, good fortune, and blessing. A Hebrew word for luck, gad, equals seven and another Hebrew word for luck, mazal, equals 77. There are seven cards surrounding your center. You have all the number seven cards in the Minor Arcana, and one Major Arcana.”
Shifra pointed out each card and told Anna the meaning in order and further explained their meaning.
“First we have the Pentacles, showing your hard work as your foundation. Next is the Swords, a nasty dishonest card when it’s straight-up, but reversed it shows that you always try to do the right thing, even when it’s the hardest thing to do.”
Like not reading an unsolicited manuscript, thought Anna.
“In the future, the Wands means there will be a time you’ll need stand up for what you believe in, fight the good fight, even though it might seem that winning is impossible.”
“Sounds like fun,” Anna didn’t think this was all fun.
“You also have the Moon, number seven in the Major Arcana, again its reversed which tells me you listen to your dreams, there is a very strong message there. You should write your dreams in a journal as soon as you wake up, so you remember them. Do you do a lot of fantasying, daydreaming perhaps?” Shrifa asked.
“Not that much. I’m more of a practical sort of gal,” Anna was becoming more than a bit skeptical, if not more than a bit annoyed.
“Well, the reason I asked was the next card, the seven of Cups is the daydream card, filled with illusions, visions and fantasy.”
“Sounds like one of my young adult fiction novels.”
Shirfra continued. “The Chariot, again a number seven card tells me there’s something in your past that’s going to become very important as to the direction your future holds. I wouldn’t worry, at the end of it all, the last card, is the World. You will successfully complete your mission, whatever it is and achieve a feeling of elation and completion. You are going to find great joy and happiness, but in a way you never imagine. With all these number seven cards, I have no doubt!”
“This all sounds really, but can you tell me who that woman is I keep seeing tonight that no one else seems to see?”
“Here, choose one more card and see what the cards say.”
In spite of all the wine she had consumed, Anna’s hand was trembling as she reached out and pulled the last card from the deck. She turned it over and let out a gasp. The photo on the card was the woman she’d been seeing all night.
“Ah, this is Justice,” Shifra said. “The meaning is pretty clear. Justice is being done and you need to trust that you are now seeing the results of past actions. Things are being made “right”. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what those things are, you’ll have to wait and figure that out for yourself.”
“Well, I’m not being sued, the divorce is final. There’s no injustice at work, that I know of, so I really have no idea what that means, but thank…”
Anna stopped in mid-sentence. Standing behind Shifra, in full regal garb was the woman depicted on the Justice card, and she was smiling.
“Look, she’s standing right behind you!” Anna shouted at Shifra, but when she turned around, there wasn’t anyone there.
“I don’t understand this. A woman dressed as the Justice Tarot card was standing right behind you. I’ve been seeing her all night. I’m going to ask Elaine. Thanks for the reading, it was a bit more than I expected.”
“Life always is.?
Anna left the table and found Elaine refilling the wine glasses. She took hold of her friend’s arm and pulled her aside.
“Elaine, I just had my cards read, that woman I’ve been seeing all night is dressed in a Justice costume. She looks a bit older than your other guests and if I didn’t know any better, she could have been my older sister. Her hair was as dark as mine, olive complexion, it was so eerie the way she was staring at me, I could have sworn she knew me, but I’ve never seen her before in my life. You must know who she is, this is your party.”
“She might have been a guest of one of my guests. Well, you know how it is in a city this size, everyone is either a stranger, or someone who you think looks like someone you know, and turns out to be a stranger. I think you should stay the night, you don’t look so great.”
“Thanks a lot,” Anna said to her friend who obviously thought she looked as terrible as she felt. “But you’re right; I think that last knish didn’t go down so well with the Merlot chaser.
“That’s what you get for not drinking the Manischewitz like everyone else,” Elaine joked.
“You know I can only drink that sweet stuff at Passover, or the tiny shot they give you after Shabbat.”
“When was the last time you went to a Friday night service?” Elaine joked.
“I’d go more often if they served Merlot.”
“If that what it will take for you to go with me, I’ll be sure to ask Rabbi Meyers to buy some kosher Merlot from Herzog Winery just for you! Speaking of the rabbi, I’m going to say good night and thank her for a great reading before she leaves. You can crash in the guest room.”
“Thanks, El, I’m feeling a bit better, but maybe I’ll take you up on you offer. I wouldn’t want to take the chance of this great kosher food ending up all over some stranger’s back seat.”
“Sounds like a plan. I’m going to mingle, you go relax and try not to stress out too much about the Justice lady, I’m sure she’s not here to sue you for copyright infringement and if she is, you have a best friend who just happens to be an attorney!”
Elaine made her way through the crowd and Anna returned to the buffet table hoping to find something to settle her stomach. Somehow she didn’t think that gefilte fish was quite what the doctor ordered, not even a Jewish doctor. She was relieved to see a crock pot filled with matzo ball soup. Anna poured the hot broth into an authentic looking pottery bowl. When Elaine threw a party, she really stuck to details, Anna thought, and she had to give her the name of her caterer, the soup was amazing.
Feeling a bit better, Anna decided to join in the conversation with some of the other guests, most of whom she knew from Elaine’s other parties and business networking dinners. Sometimes, more often than not, Anna was a bit envious of her girlfriend. They were both the same age, but Elaine had married right out of law school and not only did her career take off the moment she passed the bar, she took on cases in the appeals court who had been unjustly convicted, and some who had been justly convicted but needed a strong defense anyway.
Her husband Brian took his degree into an entirely direction in the New York State attorney’s office, and with two years had gained a reputation of being hard nose on the law. There were times when they actually sat on opposite sides of the courtroom, but they never took their adversarial arguments home with them. In fact, they gave a whole new meaning to the phrase “make up sex.” It wasn’t unusual for Brian to miss Elaine’s social engagements, and tonight was no exception. Although when he did accompany her, Anna thought he was a bit over-protective and subtly manipulative and she couldn’t help but notice that Elaine has an infuriating habit of capitulating to his opinion about what she wore and what time she got home from a night out with the girls and sometimes Anna felt that her friend was being a bit condescending, but it wasn’t her business as long as Elaine was happy and after all Brian was Elaine’s husband not her, thank God!
Anna, on the other hand, had woken up with more hang-overs than lovers since her last break-up more than three years ago. It seemed that every relationship always started out with fantastic expectations and ended in disastrous disappointments. Maybe her standards were a bit high, or maybe she shouldn’t try so hard, but she was getting awfully tired of playing the same game and having the other side throw in the towel even before the second half.
While she knew she had to be a professional in the board room, and maybe she was a bit harder or intimidating to her fellow male workers, or even some of the male authors who thought the way to publishing fame was by way of a fancy meal, expensive champagne and some great sex. She was always surprised when they were surprised that she didn’t accept a second date, but she knew, deep down in her soul, that the one man who was able to reach that second date before he tried to get to second base would be the one she would want to keep forever. Her new motto was no expectations, no disappointments, only delightful surprises. She just hoped that those surprises would come before she was too old to know what to do with them.
Pretty picture cards or no cards, if there were a knight of swords in shining armor going to gallop into her life, Anna thought, he’d better get here fast.
“That soup smells good, just like my bubbe used to make,” Brian came up to Anna and poured some soup into a mug. “You’re certainly uncharacteristically quite tonight, except for those pro-Vashti outbursts,” he said. “You should remember, it’s only a story.”
“I know, you’re right Brian, but everyone always cheers for Esther and her bullshit saving the Jews, and makes Vashti look like some kind of vain slut. It just makes me a bit angry. It’s biblical stories like these, written by men of course, that have demonized strong, independent women from the time of creation, and every year when we celebrate Esther’s so-called heroism, we forget that we’re also celebrating the way Vashti was so horribly treated, not only by her husband, but future generations who made up lies about her just to make Esther, the fraud, look good.”
“It’s too bad you weren’t the publisher of the original bible, Anna,” Brian joked, “If it were written your way, who knows how things would have turned out.”
“The original publisher, as you well know, deleted the story of Esther out of the anthology, and put it in a separate section where no one could find, so I guess they weren’t as smart as they thought,” Anna said.
“Just goes to show you, that good stories will always find their way to the masses, in spite of the publisher’s worst intentions!” Brian left to help Elaine organize the Purim party games.
For the first time that night Anna laughed. She didn’t know why she just wasn’t feeling her usual party self. Not even six glasses of her favorite wine was helping her mood. She couldn’t stop thinking about the stranger who had seemed to have crashed the party, because no one Anna asked knew where Justice has come from, or anything about her. What was stranger, was that no one even remembered seeing her at the party at all.
A few more hours, and several more glasses of wine, Anna also forgot all about the mysterious women as she finally got into the festivities and crazy Purim adult games. It was nearly two in the morning before the last of the guests descended the stairs. Anna was trying to decide whether or not to follow them, or take Elaine up on her offer of spending the night. Her body made the decision for her when she was suddenly overcome by a wave of exhaustion.
“Don’t worry about it, Anna,” Elaine said, “I’ll call the cleaning service and they’ll have this place back to Brian’s immaculate spic and spanliness before he steps a foot in the door on Monday. Why don’t you take a hot bath, those jets are exactly what you need.”
“That sounds great, Elaine, but I’m so tired I don’t think those jets will do much for me, unless there was a real New York Jet in your tub.”
“If you see one, don’t tell me. Brian is the jealous type.”
“So, I’ve heard. Well, he doesn’t have anything to worry about with me in your guestroom. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Don’t worry. A pot of very hot, very strong coffee will be ready whenever you wake up.”
“That will be around noon.”
Anna was grateful that Elaine let her keep a few things in the guestroom closet for nights that she stayed over. Before Elaine and Brian were married, Anna had spent many nights listening to Elaine’s tales of joy and tales of despair on the topic of her boyfriend then husband, although recently there were a lot more tales of joy than of the other variety, Anna thought, correctly, that was due to the amount of time Brian spent at his job, which made their free time together so much more intense. The perfect man, Anna thought, was one who would be close enough to know when to give her space, even if it meant that space was in a different time zone.
Her nightshirt was exactly where she had left it the last time she stayed over, in the third drawer in the back of the guest room closet. Along with her toothbrush, deodorant, clean pair of panties and a box of tampons in case that stay over was during that “time of month.”
Anna took her toiletries into the bathroom, turned on the hot water in the sink and was about to open the cabinet when she caught her reflection in the mirror. Or what she thought was her reflection. For one second the face staring back at her was an older, more mature vision of the mysterious woman who Anna had seen at the party.
A sudden chill went up her spine, and for a moment Anna was worried that someone at the party had drugged her wine. The steam from the hot water covered the mirror and for a second, Anna felt apprehension as she wiped it clean, but the only image that appeared in the mirror was her own.
“Ok, now I know I’m either too drunk or too tired, but whatever, I’m going directly to bed.” she said out loud. “I’m sure my head will clear in the morning and I’ll be fine.”
After she got into bed, pulled the covers over her body and turned off the light Anna was fast asleep in less than five minutes. In less than ten, she felt someone’s hand on her arm and heard a strange voice whispering in her ear.
“Adara, Adara. You have to wake up. It’s time to leave.”
When Anna opened her eyes, she was no longer in Elaine’s apartment in New York City. She was lying on a bed of silk in a room draped in royal purple and gold, and the woman she saw dressed as Justice at the party, was now standing over her. Solid, flesh and blood and frighteningly real.
“What the hell?”
Anna sat up, shocked to see the surroundings were definitely not Elaine’s guest room. There were marble statues lining the walls, and tapestries hanging from the ceiling, covering the windows. She shook the woman’s hand from her arm, grabbed the bedcover and jumped from the bed.
“Where am I? Who are you?” she yelled.
“Adara, stop joking. You know perfectly well who I am. I know you’re nervous about the coronation, but we’ve been preparing for this day since you were born and you don’t have anything to worry about. Deborah and Ruth will be bringing your breakfast in a few minutes and then they’ll help you dress, so hurry up and I’ll see you in the grand ballroom.
The door opened and two young women, Anna assumed were the Deborah and Ruth the woman had mentioned, entered the room. They were carrying trays of fresh fruit, including apples, dates and sliced pomegranates.
For several seconds, Anna didn’t move. Her body felt strange, even for a dream and she forced her neck to turn so she could see her reflection the mirror on the far wall. Anna had to force herself to remember this was only a dream, or else she might have screamed. The image staring back at her with shocked expression appeared to be a young man who couldn’t have been much older than seventeen.
Anna put her hand to her face and the reflection did the same. She quickly explored the more intimate parts of her body and confirmed that she was, in fact, a girl, no matter what the reflection was showing her. The voices of the other women distracted her momentarily.
“I’m so glad you two are here,” the older woman said to the other two. “I don’t know what’s wrong with my daughter, but I’m certain you’ll have better success helping her get ready, she’s always been so head strong, as you both know.”
Daughter? Whose daughter? She’s crazy!
The women giggled in agreement. “Don’t worry your Majesty, Adar and Adara will both be on time. All your loyal servants have been looking forward to this day for many years.”
“As I have as well. Thank you ladies, I’ll leave you to prepare her. Adara, this day you will make history for our people. I’m so very proud of you.”
“Uh, yeah, me, too,” was all Anna could say in response. Once the door closed, Anna asked the remaining duo the one question that she needed the answer to more than all of the others, “Who was that woman?”
The two looked at each other, not knowing whether or not she was joking.
“Adara, I know we had a bit too much wine last night celebrating your long-awaited ascension to the throne, but we didn’t think you would forget your own mother.”
“Yeah, well, my mother is living in a retirement village in Rancho Mirage. I have no idea who that woman is, or who you two are, or why I look like someone who just graduated high school, so why don’t you answer my questions before I start screaming for the police.”
For a moment the women didn’t say a word, but their eyes were doing a great deal of expressing themselves without any words. Their look was at first amused, then puzzled, then a bit frightened. The one who looked to be a bit older spoke first.
“M’Lady we know not of the village of ran-cho, nor what a high school is and I’m guessing by police you mean the palace guards, who as you well know are positioned right outside your bedroom, so there is no need for you to scream.”
“Well, if I don’t get some answers, that’s exactly what I’m doing to do, now spill it, whoever you are.”
“As you wish,” the older one answered. “I’m Ruth, and this is Deborah.” The younger women bowed slightly. “And the women who just left us to help prepare you to become the next ruler of the realm, is your mother, Queen Vashti.”
No sooner had the woman spoke the name when Anna felt the room began to spin. She was to just able to reach the edge of the bed before her legs gave way and then everything went dark.
When Anna opened her eyes, she was very relieved to see the very familiar surroundings of Elaine’s guest room.
“Thank God!” she said out loud.
She could smell fresh coffee coming from the kitchen, and she knew she needed at least three cups to clear her head from that very strange dream she had just awoken from. Looking at the bedside clock, she was happy to see that her girlfriend had let her sleep until nearly noon. She decided she needed the coffee more than she needed a shower, so she got dressed and went into the kitchen where Elaine, looking as if she had only just woken up herself, was on the phone. When she saw Anna, she motioned to the coffee, and the left-over bagels, and Anna helped herself, just as Elaine finished her call.
“That was the cleaning service. They’re sending a couple of people over in about an hour. Of course I have to pay extra since it is a Sunday, but it will be worth it. I’m way too hung-over to even look at the after-party disaster in my living room.”
“Tell me about it. That tarot card reader you hired really spooked me. I had the strangest dream last night about Vashti and something about a daughter. It was probably a wine induced hallucination.”
“You can always judge how great a party is by how intense your hang-over is the next day,” Elaine joked, “Brain’s still sleeping it off. You know where the clean towels are. I’m going to make an attempt to put away some of the leftover food, and collect all the empty wine bottles and cans for the recycler before the cleaning crew arrives.”
“Still trying to save the planet, Elaine? I bet you kill a least a half a forest of trees in your law firm alone with all the paper you use!”
“Me? Aren’t you the one who still refuses to accept electronic book submissions?”
“Guilty as charged,” Anna smiled and headed for the shower. “I’ll be back in a bit.”
The hot water felt great on Anna’s back and shoulders. The last remaining visions of her dream flowed down the drain along with the shampoo and conditioner and she was very thankful that her real hair was still shoulder length and straight. Ten minutes with the blow dryer and she looked and felt like her old self.
“Vashti’s daughter? No way, but just in case I think I’ll call my mother when I get home,” she laughed.
Feeling much better, Anna returned to the kitchen and was delighted to see that Elaine had laid out a beautiful platter of bagels, lox and cream cheese and also had some fresh fruit, including apples, dates and a cut up pomegranate. Anna was about to take a piece of the red fruit when her hand stopped in midair. There was something eerily familiar about the food on the tray. Then she remembered, the items on Elaine’s table were exactly what the women had brought to her in her dream.
“What’s wrong?” Elaine asked.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Did you have this food at the party last night?”
“Just the bagels, lox and cream cheese. While you were in the shower, I ordered the ladies from the cleaning service came by and brought the fruit. I told them it wasn’t necessary, but they said this was the 100th call they had this weekend, so it was they’re way of saying thank you.”
“That was nice of them. Are they still there, I’d like to say thank you myself and get their card for my apartment too.”
“I’m sure they’d like that. They’re in the living room, I don’t like to get in their way when they’re cleaning.”
“I’ll be right back.”
Anna took her coffee with her and went into the living room where the ladies were busy tossing confetti and streamers into a trash bag.
“Excuse me,” Anna said, “I’m Anna Steine. Do you have a business card?”
“Sure,” one of them said. She reached into her pocket and handed Anna a card.
“I’m Ruth and this is Deborah. Give us a call anytime.”
Ruth and Deborah? Anna thought. Was it a coincidence that the women had the same names as the two she had met in her dream? Anna’s suspicions were beginning to become more intense when she read the name and slogan of the cleaning company; “R & D – At your service. We’ll treat you like royalty”. Anna put the card into her jeans pocket and quickly returned to the kitchen. Her knees were shaking so hard, she could hardly stand.
“Elaine, this is really crazy.”
“They’re not crazy; they get paid extra on Sunday.”
“NO, not that! The dream I had last night. I swear those two were in it, and the fruit platter, too!”
“You’re kidding, right? Your face is white as a sheet. Here, put something a little stronger in that coffee.”
Elaine found a bottle of Kahlua and offered to pour some into Anna’s coffee.
“Thanks, but I think I’ll just go home. I still have a stack of manuscripts to read through. Maybe if I read someone else’s fiction I won’t be confusing my reality with a dream. It’s a beautiful day, I think I’ll walk.”
“Now, I know you’re not feeling well. It’s ten blocks to your place from here.”
“I need the fresh air, believe me. I tell you, if this is what happens after your Purim party, I hate to think what would happen if I came to your Passover Seder!”
“You’d probably dream you were Miriam dancing your way across the Red Sea!” Elaine laughed.
“With my luck, I’d probably wake up with a giant zit and contract leprosy. Thanks.”
The first thing Anna did when she arrived home was call her mother, Calling her mother was totally out of character for her since her overly protective Jewish mother called Anna at least once a week. Anna spent the next half hour trying to convince her mother there was nothing wrong, although Anna wasn’t fully convincing herself or her mother. After she confirmed where and who her mother was, Anna put on comfortable lounge wear, made herself a hot cup of herbal tea, picked up her loathsome eyeglasses and prepared to dive into the first of five hot off the presses manuscripts which she had agreed to read.
First, she read the cover page from the agent with glowing review of the confident Anna was going to love it and offer them a contract. Over the years, she had developed close relationships with a very select group of agents who she trusted not to send her unedited garbage that would not only waste her time reading, but piss her off to the point where she would no longer accept submissions from that agent. In all her years as an editor at Beacon Press and then with Steine and Steine, she had only needed to do that once, and it was only because that agent would not accept no for an answer. It’s not that Anna enjoyed rejecting manuscripts, but she had specific guidelines and genres that her house would accept and no matter how much an agent pleaded, called, texted or emailed, about how this author would break the mold, she would not comprise her company policy.
Not unlike the Seven of Swords interpretation, Anna thought.
The one genre her house never accepted was anything with a religious story line. No matter that most of the submissions were fiction, if the author wrote anything that would be considered controversial, her company just didn’t want to take the risk. While it was true that when it came to controversy, titles would skyrocket, but the added negative publicity, boycotts and the rest took too much time, energy and money if there was a lawsuit, that no matter how popular a book it was, the headaches and strings attached was just something Anna wasn’t going to deal with, even if her best friend was the best intellectual property attorney in Los Angeles. After reading the synopsis of the first several manuscripts, Anna put most of them into the slush pile, feeling a bit sorry for Janet who would have a good list of rejection emails to send in the morning. The ones that sounded a bit intriguing were put into the pile for her to read the entire manuscript, or at least the first few chapters, hoping there would be something new to excite her to read the entire book, but she doubted that would be the case.
Anna was bored with the same old and tired murder mystery, cookie-cutter romance and science fiction the reading public devoured. Unfortunately all she was finding in the pile of pages on her coffee table were more of the same; characters who were in danger or in love or in love with danger. From a business perspective, Anna understood Steine and Steine needed to publish these titles if only to keep the lights on and the staff employed, but just once she would love to be surprised by something totally new, thought-provoking and maybe a bit controversial. She was beginning to think that creativity, originally and inspiration died with her idols Victor Hugo and Ayn Rand.
It was close to midnight when Anna finally finished the first read of the stack. Nothing had really impressed her and she wasn’t looking forward to going back into the office on Monday with the bad news she would deliver personally on the phone to a few of her longtime agents, but giving bad news was part of her job as well as giving good news. After all these years, Anna she knew they didn’t take it personally, at least she hoped they didn’t. She desperately wanted to be able to tell one of them, or more, that yes, the book was great, let’s schedule a meeting and finalize the contracts. That conversation would have to wait for another time.
Just as she was about to turn off the lights in the living room and head for bed, Anna heard a loud thunk at her front door. She waited a moment before cautiously looking through the peep hole to see if anyone was there before opening the door. She noticed the hallway was empty, but when she looked down, she discovered the reason for the sudden intrusion.
Lying at the base of her front door was a large envelope. Printed on the outside was two lines; Vashti’s Daughter by Nathanial Braverman, Ph.D.. Anna picked it up, walked across the hall to the garbage chute and pulled opened the heavy door.
“Get an agent!” She shouted, her voice following the package as it traveled down the metal tube, landing into the waiting garbage bin at the bottom.
Anna returned to her apartment, finished her nighttime routine and set her alarm for 6 a.m. Vashti didn’t have a daughter, she thought right before drifting off, all thoughts of the dream of the previous night fading from her mind.
Anna was in a field of summer flowers and tall grass. She could hear children laughing and singing somewhere in the distance, and she turned her head toward the sound. It was all so vivid she could actually smell the fragrance of the petals, and feel the cool grass in between her naked toes. Although she wasn’t in the habit of lucid dreaming, Anna was quite aware she was doing just that, as she heard her voice say out loud.
“This is defiantly a dream.”
Looking down at her body, she was shocked to see that she was quite a bit shorter than the last time she was in dreamland. Judging by the sound of her voice, a great deal younger as well. She’d read a great deal about lucid dreams and in none of the books did she every remember anyone dreaming they were a younger version of themselves. “I guess this is definitely one for the books as they say,” she thought.
Anna started walking toward the sound of the children swimming in the lake. She could feel the heat of the sun on her face and, since she knew she was only dreaming, decided to take off her clothes and join them. She was just about to remove her shirt when she felt a pair of strong hands pull the cloth back down.
“Adara, what do you think you’re doing?” a woman’s voice whispered in her ear. You know those girls can’t see you naked.”
There was that name again, Adara. Anna was starting to get upset with her subconscious self, when she turned to argue with the woman, she was stunned at who she saw. It was the same woman she had seen in her dream the previous night, only a bit younger. Dreaming or not, Anna had to ask her.
“Are you Vashti?”
“Adara, you know very well my given name, but I’m still your mother and you’ll address me accordingly. And don’t forget when your friends come out of the lake, your name is Adar, although the way you’re growing, I’m not certain we can keep the secret of your true identity until you turn eighteen.”
“Look, Vashti, if that’s who you say you are, but since this is my dream I’ll play along.
The woman who called herself Vashti handed Anna a metal shield and a large sword. Although Anna had never held any weapons in her life, these felt strangely familiar in her hands.
“I don’t know what dream you’re talking about,” Vashti said. “It must be the heat of the sun, but you’re late for your lesson and you know how your father worries. It won’t be many more years before you take over the throne, and you need to be ready, Prince Adar.”
“Prince who?” Anna replied.
Suddenly the sword caught a ray of sun blinding her. The level of the other children’s laughter increased to a deafening buzz. When Anna’s sight cleared, she realized the buzzing sound was her alarm clock going off. The bright light was coming through her bedroom window from the early morning sun.
“This is getting ridiculous,” Anna said, smacking the off button of her alarm.
Although she had slept for a full eight hours, Anna was still half asleep. Her head was still foggy even though she had consumed three cups of very strong espresso on her way to the office. Anna couldn’t remember the last time she had a vacation, but a few more nights like the past two and she might have to make a reservation on a cruise ship, before someone made her a reservation at the local loony bin, she thought.
As she expected, there were more than a handful of pink phone messages waiting for her on her desk. Anna wasn’t in any shape to answer her email, which was usually full of spam, after a weekend. She delegated that job to Janet who sent a generic form reply to any authors who ignored the “no unsolicited manuscripts” in the guidelines, then forwarded any email of importance to Anna’s private inbox giving her some time to organize her desk before opening her inbox.
With the stack of rejected manuscripts she brought from home under her arm, Anna walked through the aisles, as was her custom, greeting the staff individually by name before using her electronic key to open the door to her office. She was just about put the items down when she spotted a much-too-familiar manila package in the middle of her desk.
“Not again!” She screamed. “Janet, come in here NOW!”
It took Janet all of five quick steps to walk across the hall from her office to Anna’s. Janet had been Anna’s assistant since Anna took over as President of Steine and Steine and she never once in all that time heard Anna’s so much as raise her voice above conversation level, so she knew this was not an ordinary request.
“Janet, how the hell did this get back on my desk?
Anna pointed to the package. It appeared to be the same one she had thrown out on Friday in her office and the one dropped at her apartment door she had thrown out the night before. Just like the other two, there was no postage, no return address on the package, only the words; “Vashti’s Daughter by Nathaniel Braverman, Ph.D.”
“Janet, you were here earlier, can you tell me how this got through a locked door and landed on my desk?”
“I have no idea. No one was in the office when I arrived at seven and I didn’t see anyone come in. I’ll check with security at the front desk and see if they know anything.”
“Make sure they check all the security cameras, also. The first two times this happened I was just annoyed, not I’m a bit concerned that someone might be stalking me. Either way, this is definitely not the way to submit a manuscript. Just to be on the safe side, can you call security, have it x-rayed or whatever to make sure there’s nothing dangerous inside, then toss it into the nearest trash bin.”
When Janet left with the manuscript, Anna closed the door behind her. She could barely stop shaking, and she knew it had very little to do with the amount of caffeine that was running though her system.
If this was a joke, it was a very bad one, she thought. How could the people in her dreams appear as a title of a manuscript? If this was some sort of mysticism, or just weird coincidence Anna needed answers, and only person who might provide any was the woman at Elaine’s Purim party. Anna picked up the phone and hit the speed dial key to Elaine’s cell. The last thing Anna needed was for Elaine’s law firm receptionist to charge her for the call.
“Elaine, what was the name of your Rabbi and do you think she’s free for lunch?”
“Why? You suddenly needing spiritual guidance?” Elaine asked.
“Either that, or a spirit guide. I’ve been having weird dreams since your Purim party about Vashti’s daughter and now someone dropped off a manuscript with that same title.”
“Wow, what a weird coincidence. I only have the phone number of the Temple, I’ll text it to you.”
“Thanks. By the way, do you happen to know anyone by the name of Nathaniel Braverman?”
“Let me check my data base, hold on.”
Anna waited on hold for what seemed like an hour, but it was less than a minute before Elaine came back on the line.
“I can’t find anything here. He’s not a client, and there are about seven thousand listings in the search engine. Let me know if you find him. If you need a restraining order, you know the gal to call!”
“I certainly do, but I really hope it won’t come to that. I’d say I’ll see you at Passover next month, but I don’t want to start having hallucinations that I’m Miriam!”
“Or her daughter.”
“Or her daughter!”
Anna hung up the phone and took a cigarette from her purse. She rarely smoked, but kept a pack to relive stress when it snuck up on here, and the events of the past few moments were definitely causing her stress. Was it just a coincidence as Elaine had said, or was there something more going on? Maybe she needed to read that mysterious manuscript, she thought. Maybe there were answers there.
Anna buzzed for her assistant, “Janet, on second thought, I think I will take a look at that manuscript as soon as it clears security.”
Janet came into the office looking a bit frayed and more than a bit nervous.
“I’m sorry, Anna, but I told them to throw out as you told me to. I can go downstairs and dig it out of the garbage if you’d like.”
Frustrated, Anna resigned herself to another unanswered mystery.
“No, that’s all right Janet. I shouldn’t break company policy no matter what the title. Probably won’t see it again, or maybe that Braverman guy will find an agent and we’ll see it again.”
For the rest of the day, Anna stuck to her normal routine. She scanned though her social media sites, read the latest publishing news and checked her email. As promised, Elaine texted the phone number for the Temple. She stared at it for a few moments before decided to call the number or just delete the text.
How was she going to explain why she wanted to get in touch with the rabbi’s sister? That she was having dreams about a fictional biblical character that wasn’t even given enough cadence to be included in the Torah? She would think Anna was as delusional as she was thinking she was. Anna decided to first do a search on the character of Vashti, hoping to find something more than the short paragraph that was written in the Megillah. It didn’t take her more than a few key strokes to find the information, but what she read made her even more upset.
According to the history, Vashti was the daughter of King Belshazzar of Babylon and the great-granddaughter of King Nebuchadnezzar, the man who destroyed the first Temple in Jerusalem. The night her father was murdered and she was captured by the succeeding king who gave her to his son Achashverosh as a wife.
Well, Anna thought, that much made sense. Women of that era were often married off to men without their approval. This part of Vashti’s story was fairly well known to Anna, but as she continued her research, she discovered there were many disparaging stories about Vashti that were never mentioned at Purim. One text claimed that Vashti was some sort of vain bitch who actually hated Jewish women because they represented a threat to her superiority.
“WHAT THE HELL?” Anna shouted. “Obviously, it was men who wrote this crap.” Just as she was about to save the file, Anna received a text message reply from Rabbi Meyers. Although she felt a bit embarrassed to talk to the rabbi about her ridiculous dreams, she did have questions about what she had just read about Vashti.
Anna decided it might be best not to reveal the real reason why she wanted to talk to her, and instead asked about the Vashti character and if, in fact, the interpretation she had just read was accurate.
“Yes, I’m afraid that description of Vashti is the accepted translation of the Midrash,” Rabbi Meyers replied. “But like the discussion of the first woman before the one that came from Adam’s rib, some call her Lilith, Vashti’s story is open to wide interpretations depending on who you talk to. The Purim story wasn’t even part of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Unfortunately, like most of the Torah, these are only stories. There is no real evidence one way or the other.
“That’s what Elaine tells me all the time when she’s writing her closing arguments. She can have the best presentation, but it’s the evidence that proves the case and you can’t argue with facts. I sure don’t want to talk to the men who wrote all these disparaging stories about Vashti, those who believe it. Vashti is still a heroine in my book.”
“It is more a matter of faith,” Rabbi Meyers told her. “And what you choose to believe. Elaine told me you’re a publisher, maybe you should write your own Vashti story. I’d be happy to be of any help. I’ll also text you my sister’s email and phone number in case you want more information. She studied at the University of Haifa and was a member of The Jewish Renewal movement. She might have more research on the subject of Vashti.”
“Thank you, Rabbi. I’ll get in touch with her next week when I have some time.”
Anna felt a bit embarrassed to call Shifra, since she’d only just met her a few nights ago. She might never have another dream, or see that mysterious manuscript again, so there really wasn’t any reason to talk to a total stranger.
Anna checked her watch and was surprised to see that was getting close to five and she hadn’t even had a chance to call any of the agents she needed to give the bad news about her passing on their author’s titles. Jewish guilt was weighing very heavy on her as she picked up yet another pile of unread submissions and headed out the door to the elevator. She was trying to balance her purse and the papers and wasn’t looking where she was going when she bumped into a body walking the opposite way. The pile of manuscripts was spewed all over the floor along with the contents of her purse. She was about to curse the clumsy jerk who had caused her to lose her balance, but when she looked up, there wasn’t anyone in the hall.
“Coward. Probably ran away.” She thought.
Anna picked up her belongings and headed toward the elevator. She hailed a cab that dropped her off at her apartment where she tossed off her shoes and put the pile of manuscripts on the table. Realizing she hadn’t eaten since breakfast, Anna suddenly got a strong craving for Mediterranean cuisine, which was very strange, since she had never eaten it in her life. She checked her computer for Persian restaurants in the area that delivered. Although she had no idea how to pronounce most of the items on the menu, she ordered Khoresht-e Bademjan, an eggplant stew and a rice and green beans side dish called Loobia Polow, her mouth was watering with the anticipation of the arrival of her meal.
Anna opened a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, that she definitely was familiar. While she waited for the food to arrive, she picked up the first envelope in the pile opened it, read the synopsis and returned the rest of the pages. Another rejection she would have to make, she thought. Three more packages, three more of the exact same response. At this rate, she was going to be on the phone most of the next day disappointing a lot of her closest agents.
Her food arrived. Anna put the bags on the kitchen cabinet, arranged her plate and utensils on the table, along with the remaining stacks of manuscripts so she could finish reading while she was eating.
“I hope none of these submissions or this strange food I just ordered is going to upset my stomach,” Anna thought.
Her right hand was poised to put a forkful into her mouth, while her left hand picked up the first manuscript in the file. Both hands froze in mid-air when she read what was written on the outside of the envelope.
Vashti’s Daughter by Nathaniel Braverman, Ph.D.
“What the hell?” Anna shouted at her hand holding the now, very annoying and very persistent manuscript. “I thought Janet told me security threw this away. All right Braverman, you win, I’ll read some of your book, but not until after I finish eating this weird dinner.”
Anna was very surprised how much she enjoyed the meal and added the restaurant’s app to her favorites list. After putting the dishes in the washer and the leftovers into the refrigerator, Anna changed into her lounging clothes and made herself comfortable on the couch with a refilled glass of wine and the manuscript.
She was still annoyed at the audacity of the author, but she also had to admire him for his persistence. Perhaps her curiosity was overcoming her stubbornness, Anna thought. She removed the stack of pages from the envelope, laying it on the coffee table. She was about to change her mind about reading seeing no cover page or synopsis. Even first time authors knew the protocol of putting on a cover page with the name, address, email, word count, or at the very least a synopsis and genre so as not to waste the time of the person who they hoped would not only be interested in reading the entire story, but would be so enthralled by the writer’s words had to say and the expertise in the way they told the story, they would actually pay to see the rest, and make a ton of money sharing it with millions of readers.
But this Nathaniel Braverman whoever didn’t seem to want to follow the rules, or else he was so full of himself that he didn’t think they pertained to him. Either way, rules were rules and no matter how curious Anna was about the contents between the cover and the final pages, she was infuriated that this guy had the audacity to put this pile on her desk and somehow manage to sneak it into the pile she had taken home.
As she thought about it more, Anna was trying to think about how he had managed to do that, when she remembered what had happened while she was on her way to the elevator and the stranger who had bumped into her. It was probably then when he had put his manuscript in her pile. The thought made her even angrier. To think he would have purposefully have knocked into her, then disappeared. Men can be such jerks.
Anna relaxed on the couch but just as she started reading page one, the words went blurry and the room started to spin. She felt herself floating, or falling, she really didn’t know which. Just before passing out, she heard her voice cry out:
“Oh, shit, not again!”
Anna awoke, or at least she thought she was awake, if one can be awake and dreaming at the same time. She found herself in the same dreamscape bedroom she had been in when she had the first dream, but this time she appeared to be older than the teenage she had seen the first time, and much older than the child she was the night before. Two huge differences between this dream and the last time she was in the enormous bed was that this time she was naked under the covers, and she wasn’t alone.
The man sleeping beside her appeared to be around her same dream age, with dark tanned skin and some very well defined muscles. His back was to her, but she could see his thick, black wavy hair that was shaggy on his neck. There were a few scattered hairs over his back and just as she was wondering what was on his chest, he rolled over to reveal just the right amount for a boy in his mid-twenties.
My subconscious can sure pick-em, she thought.
Anna didn’t recognize the man lying next to her, but somehow knew that dreams would often have people in them which were a combination of various real life personalities, but she was certain that she had never met anyone with these features before. He was so totally perfect, if Anna hadn’t known she was dreaming, although she had no idea how she knew she was dreaming, she could have easily tried to wake him up in a most delightful way, but just in case her dream could very easily turn into a nightmare, she buried the thought immediately. Not wanting to wake up her sleeping prince charming dream boy, she carefully removed the sheets from her side of the bed and, finding a silk robe hanging on the wall, put it on. She was amazed at how detailed her subconscious imagination was.
“Is everything to your satisfaction, m ’lady?” the stranger had woken and was speaking to her. “Did I please you, Adara?”
“There was that name again, Anna thought. She wasn’t about to admit she didn’t remember if he had or not. “I would think that my subconscious would have at least allowed me to have a little physical fun.” The dream man seemed to be in a talkative mood, she might as well go along with wherever her imagination was taking her.
“It was fine, uh, what’s your name again?”
“Joshua. I would have thought you would have remembered.”
Joshua looked a bit sad, as if she’d hurt his feelings. Damn, even in dreams men have ridiculous egos. Well, a little lie would work as well here as it did in the real world. She walked over to him and lightly touched his cheek.
“I’m sorry, Joshua. I’m still under the spell of your wonderful prowess. I’m not thinking clearly.”
That little lie was all Joshua needed to produce a self-centered smile.
“Joshua, my mind is still a bit cloudy, do you mind answering few questions for me?
“Of course, m’lady. You command, I obey. Whatever your pleasure.”
This is one kick-ass dream, Anna thought. What she would love to do with her fantasy if she didn’t have more important mysteries to solve.
“Let’s play a game.” She purred. “Pretend I really don’t remember who you are, or for that matter, who I am. Let’s say this entire bedroom is nothing more than a dream, can you tell me where we are?”
“Oh, I know how you like to play games, Adara, but this one is easy. We’re in the kingdom of Baddishere, just south of the city of Qumis. You’re Queen Adara, daughter of the late King Astanizar and Queen Vashti. You’ve been the ruler of this kingdom for the past five years, and, if I may say, your rule has been nothing but spectacular.”
“Oh course it has.”
There’s that Vashti person again. She thought.
“Although we were all shocked when you revealed your true identity at the coronation, and there was that little uprising, the Queen managed to take care of the insurgents. Now, we’re all your loyal subjects and everyone is looking forward to your wedding in a fortnight, well, everyone but me and I’m sure the rest of your harem. I doubt that King Darius will wish to share you.”
Married? Ok, thidream has gone far enough. Time to wake up, Anna. She closed her eyes tightly, but when she opened them again, she was still in the bedroom with a very puzzled Joshua staring at her.
Shit. “Look, Josh, nothing personal. This is really great dream, but I need to wake up now. I NEED TO WAKE UP NOW!” she shouted and stomped her foot. Fortunately the combination of the two seemed to have worked, because when next she opened her eyes, Anna was back on the couch, thankfully, alone.
“This has got to stop,” she said to the empty room.
Anna had no idea how long she’d been sleeping. The living room was getting brighter as the sun was beginning to rise indicating that it was nearly time for her to start her day. Anna felt as if she hadn’t slept one wink.
“That’s the last time I eat strange food before trying to read a submission,” she said to an empty room. Maybe that was the problem. The first dream had taken place after Elaine’s Purim party, after eating more than her share of Hamantashen, was this one the result of the strange Persian food she’s eaten last night. Maybe if she had a big bowl of spaghetti she’d dream about waking up in an Italian villa with Antonio instead of Joshua. She could only hope.
Anna showered and made it to the office in time for the weekly editorial staff meeting. Although she had done her best with make-up, she knew the dark circles under her eyes were reveling her restless night. The dream, and the manuscript was fading from her memory as she struggled to pay attention to the other editors and listen to their story pitches. If not for Janet gently kicking her under the table, she probably would have completely passed out. Anna thanked her staff for their suggestions saying she would get back to them, even though she didn’t remember a single pitch.
The next hour was spent making notes on which agents she wanted to personally call on the few manuscripts Anna did have a chance to read and which ones she would send an apologetic emails. Anna knew her company wasn’t going to be able to meet payroll in six months from now unless she gave the green light to at least five titles. What was worse, the other editors knew it as well. It was ridiculous that her strange dreams would have such an impact on her waking life, but if they continued, Anna might not only need a vacation, but possibly a psychiatrist.
Janet knocked on Anna’s open office door carrying a large cup of very strong coffee and a very heavy look of concern.
“Anna, you look terrible.” she said, sitting down opposite.
“Thanks a lot, Janet. I’ve not been sleeping well and I guess it’s finally starting to show. I actually started reading that mysterious author’s manuscript, but fell asleep before I even got to the first page. Next thing I know, it was morning. If I didn’t have so much work to do, I’d go home and back to bed. ”
“Maybe you should” Janet said. “I can let the editors know you’re leaving early and call the rest of the agents for you. I don’t mind.”
“No, that’s still my job. At least I managed to read through that last pile of manuscripts, so I have the rest of the day to make those calls.”
“That’s good. I think your problem with sleeping is your reluctance to make those rejection calls.”
“I hope you’re right. Anyway, I guess I should get to it. I’ve been procrastinating long enough.”
Anna wasn’t in any mood to pass on bad news, but she also knew that making people wait for a decision was worse than getting a rejection. She made a quick stop in the ladies to splash cold water on her face and straighten her hair so she looked a bit more awake. When she returned to her desk, she sat down and was about to pick up the phone when her hand froze.
Sitting directly in the middle of her desk was an unmarked envelope, this time it didn’t have any writing.
Her assistant ran into the office. As soon as she saw the envelope, she didn’t need to ask why her boss screamed her name.
“Anna, I swear I didn’t put that there, and before you ask, I didn’t see anyone come into your office either.”
“This is becoming a serious problem. I may have to install hidden cameras in my office. Well, Janet, maybe we’re wrong. This envelope doesn’t have anything written on it. It could be something else?” Even as she said it, Anna already knew her suspicions were accurate.
“Here, let me.” Janet picked up the package, opened it, and pulled out the stack of pages.
“Well…” By the expression on Janet’s face, Anna already knew what was inside the unmarked package.
“I swear I left this on my coffee table last night. How the hell is he doing this?
“If I knew who Nathaniel Braverman was, I’d ask him. The one thing I do know is that he certainly isn’t ecologically conscious with the number of trees he must be killing with all the pieces of paper he’s sending. Good thing we recycle.”
“This is the forth one. You threw out the first one at the office, I tossed the one that was dropped off at my apartment, then the one I found in my stack I’d taken home to read yesterday and now here it is again. Honestly, Janet, I don’t know what to think about all of this, especially with the weird dreams I’ve been having.”
“Yea, that’s why I’ve not been getting a lot of sleep and look like I’ve gone three rounds with Mike Tyson. Believe it or not, I’ve been dreaming that I’m someone named Adara, and my mother is, get this…
“Don’t tell me,” Janet said.
“Yup. Just like the title of his book.”
“You’re dreaming you’re Vashti’s Daughter!” Janet started laughing, till tears began flowing down her face. “Sure and I’m Mother Theresa! Really, Anna, what have you been smoking?”
“Laugh all you want, Janet, but I’m telling you what has been going on since Elaine’s Purim party. First, I saw this strange woman that no one else remembers being at the party, then I have this weird dream that I’m in some kind of ancient city eating strange food and wearing even stranger clothes, and last night I dreamt there was some guy named Joshua.”
“Was he good looking?” Janet had to stifle a giggle.
“Well, yes, but that’s beside the point.”
“Now you’re talking my kind of dream.”
“I wish. Anyway, you know how sometimes you wake up and a dream seems real, but then a few hours later you forget all about it?”
“Well, I remember every damn detail and I have no idea why, or how to stop having these hallucinations.”
“Try warm milk, or a hot body, either way what do you want me to do with this?” Janet held the manuscript up to Anna.
“You might as well leave it here. If you throw it out, it’ll probably come back anyway. This way, we’ll save a few trees. I’ll decide what to do with it after I finish the phone calls. Maybe one of the agents knows the name of the author who wrote it.”
“Good luck. I’ve been on the other side of those calls and I don’t envy you one bit.”
Janet left and closed the door behind her, leaving Anna alone to contemplate which name on the list of agents in front of her she was going to call first. She decided to go alphabetically, by last name and seeing as there were only fifteen names, she could comfortably give each agent ten minutes of her time, she calculated she could have the entire list finished and still have time to make lunch will Elaine, who she called first. While Janet was someone she could talk about work related issues, Elaine and she’s friendship shared a friendship nearly as close as sisters.
After firming up the lunch date with Elaine, Anna started with the first name on her list. At first she could hear the disappointment in their voices, they were hoping for good news, of course. Then there was the inquiry, as to what other genres she might consider, then the subtle pleading asking her if she would be interested in reading another author.
Anna couldn’t fault them. Some of their authors had been trying to break through into traditional publishing for years. Many had fired their agents and went the self-published route which was really awful for the agent who had worked so hard for their author.
No matter the percentage an agent received, once a book was sold, it could be months before the title made it to the shelves of what was left of bookstores. Until that happened it took an enormous amount of patience to become successful. Once an agent found the golden key and a golden author, she or he no longer needed to seek out publishers, the publishers would come to them. Yet, even the best had their off days, sometimes off years. Anna’s fingers pressed the keypad on the last name on her list, she was dreading this particular bad news call the worst of all.
Sarah Blakeman’s very first submission when Anna worked at Beacon was the one that started Anna’s career. Sarah and Anna met at Columbia Journalism grad school and had stayed professional friends ever since. Whenever Sarah signed a new author, Anna was the editor who would always have first crack at the manuscript. The last ten titles had gone to the top of the New York Times best seller list in record time and both agent and publisher had made a great deal of money off their percentage. But once authors started to take the short cut with self-publishing, both Sarah and Anna were finding it harder to find the best of the best when there really wasn’t anything all that good to work with in the first place. So, Sarah hadn’t been all that surprised to hear from Anna, in fact she had sounded almost relieved.
“At least not that pain in the ass author will stop calling, texting and emailing me every hour to ask if I’d heard anything.” Sarah said when Anna told her she was rejecting the submission. I think I’ll make up something that will let him down a bit easier, then I’ll pawn him off to Danielle. I never did like her very much.”
Anna laughed. “I know what you mean. She doesn’t take no for an answer as I recall.”
“No, she doesn’t. I wish I had someone else to send you, but the pickings are getting slimmer and slimmer. It doesn’t help that you’re so damn picky, either.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, your policy on not even looking at those popular vampire books or anything with a religious backdrop. Pity.”
Anna let out a heavy sigh. “I’m beginning to rethink this policy of mine. Have you read something that looks interesting?”
“Nothing I’m excited about, but if you’re open to seeing a few submission that are out of your comfort zone, I’d be happy to send them over.”
“Sure, why not. I’ll distribute them to my editors and let them decide. They’ve not had much to do lately. I’m currently being stalked by an unsolicited manuscript written by some guy named Nathaniel Braverman. Ever hear of him?”
“No, he’s not one of ours. You have his submission, isn’t there any contact information?” “No, it’s a long story. I’ve only seen the manuscript. I tried reading it last night, but I fell asleep.”
“That’s not a good sign,” Sarah said.
“You don’t know the half of it!” Anna ended the call. She picked up the manuscript and walked past Janet’s office.
“Janet, I’m going to lunch with Elaine. I’m taking this with me, so we shouldn’t have any more surprises. I’ll be gone the rest of the day.”
Anna rode the elevator to the parking garage, the manuscript clutched tightly in her hands. She laid it on the car seat next to her, glancing at it occasionally to be sure it was still there as she drove off to meet Elaine at their favorite Mexican restaurant. She was really looking forward to a nice long conversation with her girlfriend and a nice cold Margarita, on the rocks.
“So, you’re going to actually read the manuscript?”
Elaine asked Anna while they were waiting for their server to bring their drink order. “It showed up on my desk again today, if you can believe that. It’s in my car. I’m going to make a real effort when I get home tonight, if I can stay awake that is.”
When the server arrived with their drinks and asked if they were ready to order, the women told him to come back in a few minutes. They were in no hurry to return to the office.
“Are you still having those dreams? Elaine asked.
“Every night since your party. I’ve search on all kinds of dream interpretation websites, but there’s not a single mention about what I’ve been going through.”
“You could be the first. I can’t wait to hear what that book is about. Vashti didn’t have that much of a story in the original Magillah and she certainly didn’t have a daughter. I’m ready to order.”
The waiter brought their menus and the women looked over the selection. When Anna told the server her selection she noticed Elaine was staring at her.
“What’s wrong? Do I have something stuck in my teeth?” Anna asked.
“Anna, didn’t you notice that the waiter gave you a menu written in Farsi?”
Anna looked at her menu. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Elaine. This is a Mexican restaurant, not at a Persian one. The menu is in English, here look. I couldn’t read it if it was Farsi.”
“Anna, I’m looking right at it. This is not English, or even Spanish for that matter. We have several Persian attorneys at the firm who represent clients from that part of the world and I’ve been in conference meetings with them so I know Farsi sounds like. Believe me when I tell you that menu is not only not written in English, but when you ordered, you spoke fluent Farsi if you’ve been speaking it all your life. Now you’re really scaring me.”
To prove her friend wrong, Anna motioned to her waiter. When he came by, she asked him, in perfect English, to see the menu again. As Elaine had stated, the water gave her the Aramaic menu. When Anna looked at this time, she couldn’t read it at all.
“Why did you give this to me, I can’t read it.” Anna handed the menu back to the server who look very confused.
“I am so sorry, Miss. We have quite a few Middle Eastern customers who enjoy Mexican cuisine, so we had a few menus printed in Farsi. You ordered your drink in Farsi, so I assumed you wanted to order from the Farsi menu. I hope I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Let me see that menu, please.” Anna took the menu from the server. At first the symbols were completely foreign to her and she was about to hand the menu back to the waiter when she turned it over, she could read every word.”
“Anna, what the hell is going on with you?”
“Elaine, I honestly have no idea. I’ve been craving strange food, and now I’m fluent in a foreign language I know nothing about? Along with these crazy dreams I’ve been having. I swear if I didn’t know any better, I’d swear I was possessed.”
“Then you’re in real trouble. I’m pretty sure Rabbi Meyers doesn’t preform exorcism. Jews we don’t even have satan or hell for that matter, so you’re really screwed.”
“Somehow when the priests talk about speaking in tongues, I don’t think ordering Mexican food in Farsi is part of the curse.”
“Here, let me try something.” Elaine handed Anna a copy of The Forward she had picked up from the newsstand before they met for lunch. “This is for Brian, see if you can read it.”
Anna glanced at the paper for a moment, read the headline and a few sentences and handed it back to Elaine. “So, what does that prove?”
“Anna,” Elaine whispered, “This is Brian’s Forward Newspaper. He always reads the Hebrew version, not the English. You just read this without any problem and as far as I remember, the only Hebrew you know is the blessing over the wine we say at Passover.”
“Is this some kind of joke?” she looked at the paper again, and although she understood each word, the letters were definitely Hebrew.”
“Unless you’ve been taking courses with Babbel I’d say your dreams are very definitely affecting your waking hours. Now, if you could only have a few dreams that take place in Spain, we could use a good bi-lingual paralegal at our firm.”
“Sorry to disappoint you, Elaine, but no matter what languages I’m able to read, I’ll never be crazy enough to work in a law office!” Anna laughed, but she was desperately trying to hide her worry from her friend, only it wasn’t working and she knew it. What was worse was that she wasn’t hiding her own worry either.
The rest of the meal went by without incident. Anna told Elaine about her latest dream, the dreamy guy she’d found in her bed and the strange story he told her, thinking she was Adara, about her all male harem and having her pick of the litter until she was married, even though Anna felt that Adara wasn’t all that excited about getting married, and less than excited about giving up Joshua, and the rest of the men in her harem.
“I told Janet I’m taking the rest of the day off,” Anna said when they were finished with lunch. “I’ll call you later, after I finish the book,”
“You’d better. Then you’d better send me a copy. I want to read it cover to cover. You know I’d never cheat on Brian, but hey there’s nothing wrong with a little wet dream, is there?”
“I’m not so sure about that, if you wake up hungry for the real thing or start quoting the Quran” She laughed.
Once Anna arrived at her apartment, she tossed the manuscript on the coffee table, checked her phone’s email, text and voicemail to see if there were any messages. Seeing none, she changed into her comfortable reading clothes and settled down for a long quiet afternoon. She was fortunate that she had the freedom to take her work home with her. It was so much easier to read through several manuscripts without the constant noise and interruptions of her office.
Before picking up the manuscript, Anna decided to try a little experiment. She turned on the television, checking the listing for the foreign networks that broadcast either directly from the Middle East, or for that audience in the states. She turned to ITN and then switched to JLTV Much to her amazement, she understood every broadcast whether it was in Aramaic, Arabic, Farsi or Hebrew. She could even distinguish the different dialects depending on which area of a country the broadcast was originating from.
Contrary to what most American’s thought, the foreign newscasts were pretty much the same in other countries as what is shown on local and cable television, Anna noticed. Reports of failed peace talks, more terrorist scares, increased security, less safety and of course the political pundits who blamed everything on Israel and the United States. The biggest difference Anna noticed was in the way some female anchors were allowed to reveal their hair and even wear bit of make-up while on a few, all she could see were the woman’s eyes through a full body covered burka. It always amazed Anna the archaic religious rules of dress that were always so strict on the women. Even in her own faith, the females within the Orthodox community wore long dresses and covered their arms, and once they were married, were required to wear wigs so that only their husbands could see their natural hair.
Whether any of these customs brought anyone closer to spirituality, the one thing that they obviously did was keep women under the control of their male counterparts. Anna couldn’t wrap her head around how any faith based on such inequality to the point of enslavement, could have lasted in the 21st century. She often wondered how the world would have evolved had the stories been written by women, but Anna would have to just be satisfied with the strides her foremothers had made that had paved the way for her and Elaine to be able to go to college let alone work in what had once been male only professions.
While it was certainly fascinating that Anna was somehow able to read, speak and understand several foreign languages, seemingly overnight, she felt normal otherwise. She wasn’t in any pain, her head didn’t hurt, she wasn’t feeling dizzy, and for a series of ailments, this certainly didn’t qualify as anything life threatening, or even worth a trip to the doctor. As long as she still understood her own birth language, even with the occasional heavy Brooklyn accent, she figured she was just fine. But if it continued, she would think about having a complete physical, but, she thought, as long as she felt fine why go asking for trouble?
Since it was a warm afternoon Anna decided to relax on the balcony to read the manuscript. Suddenly, a cold breeze passed over her when she placed the three inch stack of papers onto her table and she put her notebook on top of the stack to prevent any loose pages from blowing away, although considering how the book keep showing up, she was confident that even if the entire manuscript was blown all over Brentwood, another envelope would have been back on her desk the very next day. Anna made herself comfortable on her lounge chair, with the sun above her face, and the streets of the city beneath her feet, she felt as if she was being energized by the best of both worlds. Or possibly a third, she thought as she turned to the introduction.
The title page didn’t have any information on the type of genre the submission was intended, so Anna thought, at first, Vashti’s Daughter was a fiction novel. It was clear to her from the reference text written on the paragraph that was not the case.
“The Book of Esther doesn’t actually say about Vashti herself. The megillah tells us that the king threw a banquet, everyone got very drunk, and the palace stewards were ordered to comply with every man’s wishes. The midrash is apparently just as horrified at the idea of women refusing to obey men’s orders, because it goes out of its way to insist that Vashti is utterly awful, accusing her of contraction an unattractive disease, but abusing her Jewish employees and some claim that she refused to appear naked because she had grown a tail.”
“Dr. Braverman’s explanation followed: It’s not clear whether Vashti was executed or just banished since there is no mention of her in any other texts following. This book will reveal not only the truth regarding the life of Vashti, but that of her daughter Adara.”
As soon as she read the words “daughter Adara” a wave of intense fatigue surrounded her until Anna could barely hold the manuscript. It was all she could do to stand, forcing legs to keep the rest of her body upright. Fighting the dizziness that was threatening to take over her movements, Anna was able to make it back to the living room where she collapsed on the couch, still clutching the manuscript.
Somewhere in the distance, Anna heard a woman’s voice calling her, or at least she thought she heard her name. Once she was awake enough to recognize the name, and the voice of the women who was saying it, she decided it might be best not to open her eyes at all. “Adara, you must wake up now,” the woman calling herself Vashti was pulling on Anna’s arm. “I have so much to tell you, and we have so much to prepare before the coronation tomorrow.
Considering she could actually feel the woman’s hand, Anna wasn’t going to take any chances that any other injuries she may experience in the dream may transfer to her waking life, so she went along with the woman’s request.
“What coronation?” she asked.
“Adara, I’m getting very tired of your games and pretending you don’t know who I am, or who you are. Tomorrow is your 18th birthday when we’re going to reveal your true identity as Adara, the new queen and not the male King Adar that everyone is expecting.”
“What are you talking about? I’m not…” Anna started to say, but Vashti’s stern voice interrupted before she could finish the sentence.
“Look, my daughter, I know you weren’t raised like other young women, in fact we both know you weren’t raised a woman at all, but now it’s time you assumed your rightful destiny. In order to do that, you need to know the truth of your birth and our history so you can assume the throne without any challenges to your rule.
Anna decided it was probably better to stay silent. If she could get the woman to tell her what she seemed to be so anxious to reveal, like what she had meant about her not being raised a girl, the hallucination would finally end. These dreams were certainly getting more interesting at the very least. She decided she would play along until she returned to the real world.
“I’m sorry, uh mom?”
Since the woman had said she was her daughter, it wasn’t a huge stretch to call her mom to be sure. The woman wasn’t appeased by the gesture.
“We don’t have time for apologies, or for your problems with your memory, Adara. I’m just hoping you’re not going to forget what I’m about to tell you, because there are still those out in the world who would like nothing more than to see another female ruler dethroned or dead.
The world hasn’t changed all that much in 2,000 years, Anna thought, “Ok, I get it. These are violent times. What is it you need to tell me?”
“First, get dressed and join me in the parlor. The bedroom is not the proper place for us to have this conversation. It’s not well protected, nor secure from spying eyes or ears.”
“My bedroom isn’t secure, either?” Even in her dream state her living quarters needed added security.
“Don’t worry. We’ll go far down river where no one will hear us. Quickly get dressed and meet me in front of the castle gate. We’ll walk to where I’ve hidden the boat.”
After the woman left, Anna found a dress of sorts hanging in the closet and put it on. Even in her dream state, she could feel the softness of the silk on her skin and was amazed at how vibrant the colors were. She was very happy that she was one of the lucky ones who dreamed in color. A few minutes later, Anna was dressed and on a small boat alone with the woman who called herself Vashti. They rowed in silence for a while, then Vashti steered the boat onto shore and held out her hand for Anna, who took it as she stepped onto land. Anna followed Vashti through the woods to a small, secluded cabin. From the outside, the cabin appeared to be shabby, but once they entered, Anna was surprised to see the interior was plush with furniture and carpeting. Paintings of Vashti hung on the walls. A few depicted Vashti by herself, one with a man Anna didn’t recognize, some with other women at a celebration and one with her holding a baby. Anna assumed the baby was Adara.
“This is really nice,” Anna said.
“Does it look at all familiar?” Vashti asked.
Anna could hear the hopeful tone in the question, and didn’t think it would so any harm to lie.
“I’m glad. This is where I hid after I fled your true father. He never knew I was pregnant and by the time you were born, he had chosen another to be his wife.”
“I think I know the story,” Anna said, “You are Vashti, right?”
“Oh, Adara, you know perfectly well that is my name. Now, sit down and ask me no more questions until I’ve finished. We don’t have much time.”
In spite of the fact that Anna knew she was in a dream, she was fascinated by the clarity of her surroundings. She did as she was instructed as Vashti began reciting a story which was completely different from any Magillah Anna had ever heard.
“I’m certain you will hear many horrible things about me once you’re crowned Queen and venture from the protection of our kingdom, so I had to tell you the truth of why I refused your father’s request, and how I was able to escape his degree that I be killed.”
“Women have such few choices in this life as you know, Adara. I was raised, like many of our sex, to obey our fathers and husbands without question. But there were a few, especially in the Amazon region who fought for their rights to their own destiny no matter what was expected of them. When I was married to King Achashverosh, living in Persia I met one of those women one day by the village well. She was old, and sick, but she had an expression on her face I had not seen in my maidens, or the other wives, or even the women who lived in the village. There was a light in her old eyes, a brightness I had never seen.
We spoke for a while and she told me she had come to town to spread the word of women having power, the right to their own choices, their own lives, and the absolute right to refuse a man’s physical needs. I had never heard of such things and wanted to know more, but I was never given the chance. The next day she was in the village square trying to convince other women when she was arrested for heresy and imprisoned.
Because I was the queen, I was able to visit her in the dungeon. I noticed she was very frail and ill, and I begged the king to have mercy and release her, but he refused. I would visit her many days after and we would talk of other groups forming all over the land to protest for equality and women being murdered who dared rebel against the man’s law. Even though she was in chains and with death at her door, she showed such courage and conviction, something in me changed. So that night when the king ordered me to come to his party, not as his wife, not as the Queen, but as a symbol to women everywhere that they should always obey their husband’s commands, no matter how humiliating, the way a dog would, I knew it was my chance to take a stand, and perhaps, by example, carry the woman’s message to other women throughout the land.”
“It’s didn’t go so well, did it?”
“No, unfortunately it did not. The King’s guests began calling for me and demanding my submission. The men knew that if the King allowed me to refuse his command, their wives might do the same. Achashverosh was a weak man. I believe in his own way, he did love me, but he couldn’t allow my defiance to cause a revolution, so he had no choice but to order my execution.
“Obviously that didn’t happen even though everyone thought you were dead.”
“Yes, I know. That was the plan. When I was thrown into the dungeon, that courageous woman, I never know get her name, offered to take my place. It was dark, all we needed to do was change clothes and once she was taken in my place, my faithful handmaidens were able to seduce the guards and help me escape.”
“That was brave of them.”
“Yes, it was, but I’m not surprised of their bravery. They were of the Jewish faith and in the days following our escape, they taught me the ways of their God, and of the first woman, they called Lilith. It all made so much sense, I vowed that I would never again be treated as property by any man, nor let that happen to any daughter of mine.”
Anna was amazed by what she was hearing. She didn’t really know if what Vashti was saying was true, or if it was just her overactive subconscious imagination, but she definitely wanted to hear more.
“The three of us traveled together for a while, then I discovered I was with child. We came upon a small castle, made friends with the local villagers and found out their king had recently been widowed and didn’t have an heir. I’m sorry to say I used my woman skills to convince him that I would be a dutiful queen and my beauty would increase his status with the other men under his rule. We were married shortly after.”
“And he never suspected you were pregnant?”
“My servants dressed me well. By the time I could no longer hide the truth, he was so enamored by my beauty and kindness, he never calculated the days, nor allowed anyone to question the timing of your birth. He wasn’t that smart,” She smiled.
“After you were born, I named you Adara, but except for a very close friend who knew the truth, my mid-wife announced to everyone the King had a son. We named you Adar. We kept the truth a secret, raising you as a boy, then a man until you could ascend the throne at eighteen years of age. It was more difficult the older you became especially when you wanted to go swimming.”
“I remember that day.” Or rather I remember having a dream of that day, Anna thought.
“Yes, it was only a few years ago, so you would remember. Soon after the King took ill and never recovered. He went to his death believing he had a son who would assume the throne on his 18th birthday. Tonight, the moment King Adar is crowned, you’re going to let your hair down and reveal your true identity as Queen Adara, ruler of the kingdom.
“This is going to piss off a lot of people,” Anna slipped a modern phrase into the conversation.
“I do not know what this pissed off means, but we must prepare for what might happen next. Some of the court may challenge the assertion, but the laws of the land state that once a ruler has been duly crowned, if they are male, female, or goat, their rule cannot be challenged.”
“Lucky for me, I’m only a woman and not a goat,” Anna had to laugh.
“Yes, lucky for us all,” Vashti laughed. “Our kingdom is small and vulnerable to attack, especially one which is ruled by a woman, so we may have to arrange for you to marry as soon as possible. I do not believe in arranged marriages, as everyone knows, but if the political pressure is too great for us to fight, so for the sake of our kingdom, we may not have a choice.”
“There’s always a choice, Vashti. If I’m forced to marry no matter what the reasons, you’ll be betraying everything that woman gave her life for. You’ll be admitting that women can’t defend themselves, can’t lead an army and that they need a man to protect them. That’s bullshit, and you know it!”
“Adara, I’ve never heard you talk so strangely. I know what a bull is of course but what is this shit you speak of?”
“It’s an expression, Vashti. It means that what you’re asking me to do goes against everything you ran away from and I will not allow that to happen. Queen Elizabeth didn’t need a man to help her and neither do we.”
“I do not know of this Queen.”
“You would like her. She ruled a great kingdom called England when she was only twenty-five, and like what nearly happened to me, her father had her mother killed. If you’re telling me our only hope for our kingdom is to marry quickly and lean upon a husband for support, I say Queen Elizabeth proves that isn’t the case.”
“Is her Kingdom near, I’d like to this Elizabeth.”
“No, it’s very, very far away, (several hundred years in the future to be exact) but she’s always been an inspiration to me, so let’s not admit defeat before the battle even starts, ok?”
“Ah yes, you certainly are your mother’s daughter.”
“And, apparently my mother’s son as well.”
“Yes, that is true. The sun has set. There is wood for the fire. We’ll sleep here tonight and leave at first light.”
Anna found a comfortable spot on the couch and curled up to sleep. She hoped that first light Vashti mentioned would be coming through her apartment window in Brentwood, California and not through one in an old abandoned cabin wherever the hell town she was.
“Dammit! This is getting ridiculous!”
Anna opened her eyes, and immediately put her hand over her eyes to shield the light of the sun which was blaring through the window. Her head was throbbing and the screaming ringing of her telephone wasn’t helping. Once she felt more awake, she moved from the couch and picked up the receiver seconds before it went to voice mail.
“Anna, where are you? The staff meeting starting twenty minutes ago. I’ve been covering for you, but the editors are becoming antsy. What do you want me to tell them?”
“Tell them it’s a boss’s prerogative? Seriously, I’m sorry Janet, I just woke up. Just order some of those fancy pastries from the café downstairs. Sweets solve everything.”
“I’ll take care of it, no worries. Anna, is everything all right?”
Janet’s voice was somewhere between concern and panic.
“I’m fine, Janet. I just overslept, that’s all. I’ll take a fast shower and be in the office in less than an hour.”
Anna hung up the phone, ran into the shower and was dressed in less than fifteen minutes. She was upset with herself that she had fallen asleep without having even looked passed the first page of the mysterious manuscript, but she was even more upset with her inability to sleep through the night without dreaming that she were living someone else’s’ life. Even though she had, by her clock, gotten more than twelve hours of sleep, she felt as if she hadn’t slept a wink. Her body ached all over, even her hair hurt as she mentally forced her limbs to put clothes on her body and her legs to take her to the elevator, get in the car and drive to the office.
She could hear the worried whispers coming from the conference room from the moment she stepped out of the elevator. The nervous atmosphere she felt as she took her seat at the head of the table calmed down a bit after she’d apologized for not hearing her alarm. Taking personal responsibility for her mistakes was one way she solidified the loyalty and respect she received from her associates and they to her as well.
One by one, Anna’s editors presented their pitches. Much to their surprise, Anna green lit more than half. Her staff didn’t realize Anna was only listening to a little more than half of what was being discussed at the meeting. Her thoughts kept drifting to another time and another place from where she felt she had just returned only a few hours ago.
Anna closed her door as soon as she returned to her office. She needed to concentrate on her company first above all else or the next dream would be the real nightmare of going out of business. She forced the residue of her dream from her mind and pushed all plans of reading the manuscript to the back burner as soon as read her appointments calendar. Nearly every time slot on every day of the rest of the month was in various shades of red.
Seeing her schedule gave Anna a sense of normalcy. Planning meetings, scheduling events, dealing with other publishing house, all of it was Anna’s world. The real world where she worked, where she lived and where her friends would interrupt her whenever they liked. Elaine was one of those friends, Anna thought when she saw her girlfriend’s name pop up on the caller I.D. of her cell phone.
“I’m glad you finally answered,” Elaine said. “I was calling you last night and you didn’t answer. I was about to come to your apartment, but Brian picked that exact time to come home from his club meeting and I didn’t want him to know about your little, uh, episode at the restaurant.”
“Thanks, Elaine. The less people who know about my little episodes, as you call them, the better. I had another dream last night, and this one was so vivid, I swear I could smell the wood where the cabin was.”
“Wood? Cabin? Anna, what on earth are you talking about?”
Anna told Elaine the details of her most recent dream. She knew she sounded crazy, but that wasn’t anything like how she was feeling. She could swear she could feel blades of grass stuck between her toes from the walk to the cabin. She was even more concerned that parts of each subsequent dream seemed to be creeping through to her waking existence, like what had happened at the restaurant, and she was beginning to feel a bit more than a little frightened.
Maybe she was having a small stroke, or a brain tumor, or an aneurism, she thought. Or maybe she just needed a vacation. Whatever was happening to her, she knew she had to get some answers. If the cause wasn’t physical, maybe it was something metaphysical. Before she spent her medical insurance deductible on cat scans and MRI’s Anna wanted to try something a bit less intrusive, even if it was a bit unorthodox.
“Elaine, I was going to call you when I had a chance anyway. You remember that hypnotist you defended who was on trial for fraud?”
“Of course, how could I forget? She was claiming that she could transgress people to help them relive former lives. She was being sued because one of her patient’s former life was supposedly a Nazi prison guard who murdered her grandmother. When her patient committed suicide, her daughter sued my client for wrongful death and fraud.”
“And you won the case.”
“Not really. The judge threw the case out of court. Not exactly a win, but I got paid anyway.”
“I call that a win. Anyway, do you happen to have the name of that therapist?”
“Of course. I keep all my client’s data. Give me a second and I’ll get it. You think you were a Nazi in a past life?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s just a hunch, that’s all. I don’t really believe in all that hypnosis regression stuff, I think it’s just planted memories from what I’ve read on the subject, and I’ve read plenty.”
“I’m sure you have in your line of work. I’m texting you Dr. Walters v-card now. Have you even finished reading the book?
“No. Every time I try, I keep passing out and having dreams. Maybe I should give it to you to read and you can tell me what it’s about.”
“No thank you,” Elaine replied. “It’s all I can do to read through these briefs and deposition transcripts I have piled on my desk. It’s enough I have deal with my real life irrational clients, I don’t need to add imaginary ones. Speaking of clients, the reason I’ve been calling is that our firm just won a multi-million dollar discrimination case. Our client is a USC graduate and a huge Trojan basketball fan. They happen to be playing Syracuse in a charity event this Saturday. Our firm has premier seats at the San Manuel Club at Staples Center, and we’re taking the client and our entire team to the game. I know you went to Syracuse, and I happen to have an extra ticket…”
“Oh my God! Absolutely yes, yes!” Anna accepted the invitation even before Elaine asked.
“Are you sure?” Elaine teased. “You said you had a lot of work and there’s that dream you’ve been worrying about and then the manuscript you’re supposed to be reading.” The dripping sarcasm in Elaine’s voice nearly shorted out the call.
“Forget all that, my blood has been running orange since they won the NCAA championship in 2003. It was the reason I chose to go there, you know that.”
“Really, I thought it was those wonderful frigid winters.”
“Sure, and that’s why I moved to California because I love frigid winters.”
No matter what else was going on in her life, Anna could always count on Elaine to come up with a way to take her mind off whatever problems she might be having. Anna knew she would never have had the opportunity to attend a Syracuse basketball game in Los Angeles with anyone else. One of the many reasons Anna divorced Henry was that he had no interest in sports. Anna didn’t have other friends, male or female who did. Even if she had, she never would have been able to afford premier seats.
“What time does the game start?”
“Three, but we’ll be there around two. I’ll leave your ticket at the box office.”
“This is just what I need. Thanks, Elaine and thank also for Dr. Walter’s contact info. You are a life saver in more ways than one.”
“Just be sure I get credit when that Vashti book wins the Pulitzer.”
“I have to read it before we can submit it. At this point I don’t know if it’s fiction or non-fiction.”
“I’ll see you Saturday and maybe by then you’ll know which one it is.”
“One can only hope,” Anna said. “See you on Saturday.”
Anna opened her calendar and added the item “Syracuse basketball game” in bright orange.
“Sure, Mrs. Levine. I’d love to see the game. See you on Saturday.”
After hanging up the phone, Nathaniel Braverman, Ph.D., put his feet up on the desk and his hands behind his head, his mouth stretched into a huge grin. His associate Aaron Berger didn’t waste a second calling him out on his posturing pose.
“Well, aren’t you proud of yourself? What did you do this time, get the Presidential Medal of Honor or something? Hate to point it out to you Nate, but I don’t think there’s any space to hang it.”
Aaron pointed to the plaques, certificates of appreciation and other awards of merit that were displayed on the wall behind Nate’s desk.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Aaron. That’s only for military, Aaron. I would receive the Medal of Freedom if that was the President on the phone. Believe me, that call was so much more exciting, at least to me. You remember I was called as an expert witness for a defamation law suit last week?”
“You know the case involving the Muslim comedian who sued the neo-Nazi group for calling him a Muslim terrorist on their website? The attorneys representing the comedian were the ones who hired me as their expert witness. That call was from Steven Jackson, one of the senior partners on the case. Him and Vickie, another senior partner, are fierce basketball rivals. Vickie is a USC alum and Steven graduated Syracuse, so they invited members of both teams to play a special charity game this Saturday to celebrate the firm winning the case. They’re going to donate a portion of the proceeds to fund a special anti-decimation scholarship on both college campuses.”
“It sounds like fun, I guess.” Aaron didn’t quite understand why Nate was so excited about going to a charity event if he wasn’t going to be receiving any of the charity himself. “I didn’t know you were into sports, Nate. I don’t see any trophies on that awards wall of yours.”
“The wall is only for my academic accomplishments. The University suggest I put them up to impress people, or something,” Nate explained. “I keep my NCAA 2003 championship trophy in a locked case at home. Steven and I talked SU Orange for about two hours after the hearing was finished. He told me just now that it was because of our conversation he approached the Trojan alum with the idea of hosting an East coast/West coast basketball match-up, so that’s why I was invited.”
“Now, I feel really terrible I went to UCLA.” Aaron pretended to be jealous. Even if he had attended a different college, he very much doubted he would even have gone to one single game.
“Steven just invited me to their charity event this Saturday at Staples, premier seats at the San Manuel Club no less. You can see why this is so much better than going to the White House?”
“Not really, never been much of a sports fan myself. Where I grew up Jews didn’t really play basketball, we were baseball fans. Our heroes were Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg and Shawn Green. Basketball was never really our thing. I’m going to lunch, want to join?” Aaron headed for the door.
“I have a few papers I need to grade before the weekend, I’ll catch up with you later.”
Nate didn’t have any papers to grade, he just needed an excuse to be alone to reminisce with the one person who would be able to share his excitement about the upcoming basketball game. Nate picked up the phone and called his dad.
Nate wasn’t sure exactly where Aaron grew up, Nathaniel Braverman was born and raised in Brooklyn. His grandfather Max started the family’s first hair salon in the predominately Jewish section of town. His grandmother Celia was a Sheitel hair stylist for the Orthodox Jewish married women in the community.
Max bought the adjoining space where he opened a barber shop. While his clientele knew Koufax, Greenberg and Green, the photos in the Braverman hair salons were all Jewish basketball heroes. In the center was a New York Knickerbokers star Ossie Schectman, who had scored the first basket in the first NBA game on November 1, 1946 He was surrounded by action pictures of Leo Ace, Sonny Hertzberg, and Hank Rosenstein.
Celia believed the reason why her husband only displayed basketball stars was so that he could tell the story whenever anyone asked. She has heard it so many times, Celia knew it by heart, but she never tired of hearing Max tell it, especially as it was also the story of how they met.
Summers in New York City in the 50’s were unbearable. The stifling heat and humidity drove many to seek the cooler climate and fresh air of the Catskills. The Braverman family were fortunate to be able to make the pilgrimage every year. From the time Nate’s dad Michael was five years old the family would pack their car and head to Kutchers Resort where they would enjoy great food and plenty of activities, including basketball. Little Max couldn’t connect a bat with a ball, but no one could touch him when he bounces a basketball on the court.
By the time he turned seven, Michael had extended his skills from bouncing to shooting hoops. As soon as the family arrived that summer, Michael jumped out of the car and headed for the basketball court. He didn’t notice the very tall bell hop who was helping the family with their luggage. Later that day, the bellhop joined Michael on the court during his break. They played for the rest of the afternoon, the bellhop giving him some pointers and encouraging him.
While the rest of the family participated in various activities that summer, Michael’s only interest was basketball, his new friend and the athletic director who brought in other campers to play a full game while the parents cheered them on.
After that summer a new item was added to the photos of the basketball players hanging on the wall of the Braverman salon; a framed dinner menu made out to Max and Michael signed by Wilt Chamberlain and Red Auerbach.
Even though basketball no longer attracted guest to the resort, the Bravermans continues their traditional vacation destination with their son Michael who argued with them the entire drive on the Quickway the summer of ’69, there was nothing that interested a sixteen year old boy less than spending a summer with his parents. Elizabeth Feinstien felt the same way. The entire camp could hear her screaming how unfair it was that all her friends would be at the music festival in Bethel and they would not let her go. Michael and Elizabeth spent the rest of the summer consoling each other, and the summer after that on the lake, and the one after that in the social hall and the one following where they exchanged vows with their family and friends who were all sitting outside on the basketball court.
The changing of the clientele forced the Bravermans to convert all but one of their salons to a low-price franchise chain. After closing the barber shop side, they sold the original site to the Hasidic community, and moved to a condo on Long Island.
Nate’s oldest sister Charlotte studied environmental engineering at Cornell, married a geologist and moved to Houston. Laurie began a career in computer coding and moved to Silicon Valley. Family summers at Kutchers had come to an end, but Nathaniel’s passion for basketball had never waned. At 6’2” Nate wasn’t the tallest player on the team, but he was their star shooting guard which caught the attention of several college scouts right before his senior year. When Syracuse offered him a full four-year scholarship, the choice was made.
In spite of his vast knowledge of Jewish basketball players, Nate found himself feeling isolated during the team’s practices and after game celebrations. He thought about joining ZBT, but Nate knew he could never fit into the fraternity lifestyle, even a Jewish one.
After winning the NCAA championship, Nate felt as if he had accomplished everything he could playing basketball. The joy of winning games, even playing basketball at all was becoming less and less fulfilling. Nathaniel couldn’t shake the feeling there was something more he was supposed to be doing with his life, only he had no idea what that was, or how he would go about finding it.
Nate was walking uncharacteristically slow that particular day in March. The sky might have been bright and sunny, but a dark cloud was shadowing every step he took from his dorm to the Carrier Dome. On any given day, while walking to practice, Nate’s full attention would be the playbook he’d read the previous night, but on this day his mind was wandering. He thought he’d stop for a minute to read the announcements posted on the quad’s bulletin board, in case there might have been something more interesting than basketball he could attend Posted on the board was a colorful flyer inviting students to attend Hillel’s annual Purim party at 3:00 that afternoon.
Nate read announcement then continued his walk, then stopped and turned around. He copied the information on the flyer onto a blank page of his play book. That act was not only going to change the direction Nate was walking, but the journey his entire life was about to take.
Not once in his three years of college did Nate ever miss a practice. He might have come in late due to a class that went a bit long, or ask to leave early to study for an exam, but he never ever skipped out on basketball to attend a party. Until today. His hands sweating, Nate took out his phone and tapped a one-line text to his coach; “Not feeling well, sorry can’t make it today.” He read the line three times before his thumb hit the send key. He half expected an angry response, a demand he show up no matter how he was feeling. Instead the reply was a simple; “Ok, feel better.”
Nate thought he’d feel guilty lying to the coach, but what he felt was relief, and a bit of excitement at the thought of doing something so out of character.
“It was only one night,” he told himself. “They’ll be plenty more practices what’s one little Purim party going to hurt? Before I go to the party, might be a good idea to find out exactly what Purim is.” Nate took out his phone.
After having a lengthy conversation with his mother; no, I’m still not dating anyone. Yes, the guys all think it’s great you were elected vice-chair of the WNBA, I do too, mom. Yes, I’m eating, stop worrying, (never say that to a Jewish mother), and all the news about his sisters, Nate was finally able to hear a very abbreviated Purim story and the celebration of the holiday. Memories of his sisters fighting over who was going to play Esther and not Vashti, singing Purim songs and eating all those delicious cookies came flooding into Nate’s present. He was genially looking forward to rekindling those memories and making a few new ones as well.
Nate found the directions to Hillel and headed out. Since he didn’t have a costume, he put his Syracuse University t-shirt on inside-out. He was going as an orange. The party was going strong when he arrived. Although he didn’t know anyone at the party, they all seemed to know him. It was hard to stay in the background when you’re taller than everyone in the room, Nate assumed, but it didn’t take very long for him to realize his notoriety as Syracuse’s only Jewish basketball player had made an entrance long before he walked in the social hall.
He was met by a young man dressed, Nate assumed, as King Ahashverosh “Well if it isn’t Nathaniel “Kareem” Braverman, the star of the NCAA.” He handed Nate a large glass of wine and a noise maker. “You’re just in time, we’re getting to the good part where the Esther tells the king to spare us and he orders the beheading of Haman. I’m Habib Elghanian, but everyone just calls me Bib, or King, whichever you prefer. Come meet everybody!”
Nate was not used to such a warm welcome from a complete stranger. Most of the time when he was invited to socialize, it was to a booster party with other players. The conversation was usually only about how much money they could raise after the team won the championship.
After the story had been read, everyone went to the table where a large spread of food was waiting to be consumed. It seemed to Nate that Bib knew everyone there and spent the rest of the evening making sure Nate did too. After they had exhausted the entire room, Bib found them a couple of empty seats.
“Now we have a change, let me ask you, what are you doing here?” Bib
“What do you mean? Celebrating Purim?”
“No, I mean who invited you? I didn’t know you knew anyone at Hillel.”
“I wasn’t exactly invited,” Nate was starting to feel a bit nervous. “I saw the flyer on the bulletin board and thought I’d stop in. It’s been many years since I’ve been to a Purim party. To be honest, it’s been many years since I’ve celebrated any of the holidays, I’m ashamed to say.”
Nate suddenly did feel a bit embarrassed.
“Sometimes you have to make choices, basketball or observing your religion. It can’t be easy.”
Up until that moment it hadn’t mattered to Nate that he played basketball on Friday nights, or had to cancel going home for Passover, except when the holiday landed during spring break.
“You’re right about that. Wish there was some way I could do both.”
“Stay here, I’ll be right back.” When Bib returned he handed Nate some brochures.
“I think I have a solution for you, if you’re serious. Do your senior year with Hillel’s Study in Israel program and play basketball for the Israeli Basketball Premier League. I hear they play with kosher basketballs. They’re like matzo balls, but don’t taste as good!” Bib laughed.
Nate looked over the brochures.
“Bib, I think they call this Bashert. I think this is exactly what I was looking for.”
Nate took Bib’s advice. He spent his senior year in Israel and playing basketball. He graduated Syracuse a Bachelor degree in Modern Jewish Studies. Nate and Bib became close friends, both completing their Masters degree at Columbia in Iran/Israel studies which led to Nate earning his Ph.D. in Bible and Ancient Near East Studies from Brandeis University and hired as the University Professor, the title that was under his name engraved on the door of his office.
“Dad, you’re not going to believe where I’m going on Saturday!”
“You’re going to schul? It’s a miracle!”
“No, a bigger miracle! I’m going to see Syracuse play USC at the Staples Center in Los Angeles!
Dr. Walter’s office looked pretty much like any other therapist’s office, not that Anna had ever been to a therapist, only that she had read enough authors’ descriptions in way too many murder mysteries that she could have furnished it herself. The moment she opened the door, she felt silly. Having to admit to a complete stranger that she was worried about some strange dreams, saying it out loud sounded as crazy as sitting in a plush chair in a therapist’s office made her feel. Anna hoped that Dr. Walter’s techniques were more successful that other hypnotists had been, which weren’t successful at all. She had gong to parties, and hypnotist shows in Atlantic City, and while everyone else had succumbed easily to the main event, nothing had ever worked with her. Some people just couldn’t be hypnotized, she was told, if a subject didn’t want to be, or was too strong minded, but she was hoping if the subject was willing and she was more than willing, then she would open the flood gates into the depths of her subconscious.
“So, you’re a friend of Elaine’s?” Dr. Walters said.
“Yes, pretty much our entire lives, which is why I trust her when she said you were successful with hypnotic regression. I’ve been having some very strange dreams the past several nights and I thought, since you deal with the subconscious mind, you might be able to get through to mine and shut it down so I can get some real sleep.”
“I’ll have to remember to thank her for the compliment,” he said. “I certainly understand your skepticism, and there no guarantees, but we can certainly try if you’re willing. Let me ask you a few questions first. Is there anything about this dream that seems familiar?”
“No, not at all. The location and surroundings are no place I’ve ever visited. There is one person I’ve read about, but I don’t know why I’m dreaming about her and in the dreams, I’m someone called Adara, and…”
The Dr. interrupted her. “Anna, I’m going to stop you there. The less I know, the more whatever it is you tell me while you’re under will be coming from you and not something that I suggested.”
“That makes sense.” Dr. Walters’s honesty was refreshing, Anna thought.
“I’ll be taping everything that comes up, so you don’t have to worry about being embarrassed or uncomfortable. Just sit back and relax. Take a few deep breaths, listen to the sound of my voice, and we’ll get started.”
At first, Anna tensed, her body instinctively protesting the intrusion into her natural instinct to be in control, but in a few moments listening to the soothing voice of Dr. Walters, she began to relax and soon felt herself floating beyond her body. In the next moment, Anna felt the leather couch beneath her back suddenly transform into soft feathered pillows, and before she opened her eyes, she already knew she was back in her dream, or at least she thought she was only in a dream. She not only vividly remembered everything that Vashti had told her before she fell asleep, or woke up, but every detail of the room where she had been told the unbelievable story of Vashti’s past.
“The sun is up, Adara, it’s time to head back to the palace,” Vashti said.
From someplace far away, Anna could hear Dr. Walters’ voice asking her questions and her own voice answering, but she couldn’t quite make out the exact words. She forced the conversation from her mind to try to be more present in the dream. Anna rose from the couch, tripped and hit her shin on the edge of a table. She was stunned that she actually felt the pain; something she knew wasn’t supposed to happen in a dream.
“Ouch!” she said, rubbing her leg. She wondered if she also voiced her pain in the real world and if Dr. Walters had heard her yell out. Being in two places at once was getting more confusing, but if she could put some kind of clarity to why she was having these dreams, so at least some kind of explanation, maybe she would be able to get some sleep.
“I’m right behind you.”
Anna followed the older woman through the woods and back to the boat. As they rowed up the river, Anna thought it might help the doctor if she engaged Vashti in conversation, even though he would only be able to hear her side of the conversation, they might be able to analyze the recording when she was brought out of the hypnotic state. It wasn’t so much a conversation as it was a repeat of everything Vashti had told her that would be recorded. Yes, she did defy the king. No, she never treated the Jewish women with disrespect, that was a rumor the king and his cronies spread to further discredit it. Her two best friends were not only Jews, but the women who rescued her and saved her life had convinced her that the ways of the Jewish faith were such that she had decided after her daughter was born, that she would be raised as a Jew, in as great a secret as keeping her sexual identity a secret, as both truths would have certainly gotten them both killed.
Once they returned to the castle, Anna said that she needed to rest and went to her room. She wasn’t the least bit tired, but she needed to be alone so that she could speak out loud the description of her surroundings so that Dr. Walters could record every detail. Anna went through every corner of the room, touching and describing the tapestries, the furniture, and going into her closet and describing every piece of clothing and shoes which filled her closet. One thing was certain, her Adara persona had excellent taste in clothes and she was almost jealous by the number and style of shoes.
From her window, Anna could see several large ships entering the harbor as the guests were beginning to arrive for the coronation, or Grand Reveal as Vashti has explained. It was one thing living in two worlds, it was quite another living different genders in one. Anna started putting on her Adar outfit when she when she heard a loud knocking on the door and a voice, somewhere in the distance counting down, “Three, two…” when the voice got to the number one, Anna’s eyes opened and she was back in the Dr. Walters’ office. Only Dr. Walters wasn’t the only person with her. Two others had joined the session while Anna was under.
“What is going on?” Anna was visibly upset. “Dr. Walters, you said this was a private session, who are these people?”
“Don’t get upset, Anna. After I put you under, it was a lot easier than I thought, I started asking you questions and realized I needed to call a couple of colleagues to help me. This is Rabbi Tarlan Rabizadeh. She teaches classes in Farsi at the Persian Jewish community center across the street and Rabbi John Sherwood who translates ancient texts for the Skirball Museum. I wanted them to listen to your session and meet you in person so we might be able to clear up this mystery.”
“Why? What did I say?” Anna’s anxiety about being hypnotized was returning.
“I have no idea. You were speaking what sounded like a middle-eastern dialect, so I called the center and the museum and asked for them to come here and interpret what you were saying.”
“It was a bit difficult at first,” Rabbi Rabizadeh said. “It appears you were speaking in an ancient form of Farsi. Do you know the language?”
“Apparently only when I order Mexican food,” Anna tried to joke, but she wasn’t succeeding.
“You weren’t ordering food while you were hypnotized. Here, listen” Dr. Walters turned on the recording. Anna heard her voice saying exactly what she had said to Vashti in her dream in perfect English.”
“So, that’s everything I was talking about in my dream, what didn’t you understand, Doctor?”
“Anna, you understood all of that?”
“Of course, I remember saying it in the dream, I wasn’t sure it would come through, but I’m glad it did, but I still don’t know why you needed to call an interpreter.”
“Because, Anna, according to these experts, you’re speaking in and apparently understanding an ancient Persian dialect, one that hasn’t been spoken in centuries.”
“I’ve never heard anything like this before.” Rabbi Rabizadeh added.
“I know. I’ve regressed many patients, and a few have actually spoken in a strange language, but none have even come through the procedure being fluent in that language. I really don’t know what to think.”
Anna was beginning to feel as if she wasn’t even in the room, the way they were talking about her, she might as well been invisible. She hadn’t meant to cause such excitement. All Anna she wanted the Dr. to do was give her a relaxation technique that would help her get a good night’s sleep and not have the strange dreams, instead she not only didn’t get any rest, but seemed to have created a major paranormal event.
“Excuse me, people,” she nearly shouted. “But if you’re all through discussing my strange dream, I’d really like to as the Dr. Walters how he can help me get some sleep, which is why I’m paying him the big bucks.”
“I’m sorry, Anna,” Dr. Walters said, “We’ll have to discuss this at a later time. Right now I really need to talk to Anna.”
Once everyone had left the office, Dr.Walters addressed Anna.
“To be totally honest, Anna, your session has me puzzled. In all my years as a hypnotherapist, I’ve never had anyone speak in a different language while under hypnosis, or having an actual conversation with someone while they were under. I suggest we schedule more sessions.”
“I don’t see the point if you’re telling me is that you can’t help with my dream problem, right?”
“I wouldn’t even know where to begin. The only advice I have at the moment is maybe a glass of warm milk, or an over the counter sleeping pill, but since none of those really has any effect on your dreaming, I’m afraid I’m at a loss.”
“YOU’RE afraid? I’m the one having the crazy dreams, Doc. But I’ll take two aspirin and call you in the morning, if that’s the best you can do.”
“There is another suggestion.”
“I’ll try anything.”
“From what little I know about regression, is that there is usually always some unfinished business that the person’s subconscious is trying to resolve. Is there anything like that going on in your life at the moment? A personal relationship or something at work?”
“Well, to be honest, the only unfinished business is that manuscript that I started reading last night when I fell asleep, or passed out. It keeps turning up and I haven’t had a chance to even glance passed the cover page.”
“Well, maybe that’s it. I suggest you go home and start reading, or if it puts you to sleep, maybe have someone read it to you.”
“Not THAT would definitely put me to sleep! Thanks.”
“I would like to continue exploring this further. If the dreams persist, then give me a call and we’ll schedule another session.”
“Ok, sure. I’ll do that. ”
She might have agreed to make another appointment with the hypnotherapist, but Anna had no intention of keeping that promise. It was quite obvious Dr. Walters couldn’t help her and she wasn’t about to be a test-subject for anyone. Anna had pay for the hour, but felt it had been a complete waste of time.
Anna left Dr. Walters’ office with more questions then she had answers. She was surprised to see Dr. Sherwood waiting for her in the hall.
“Anna, do you have a few moments?” he asked. “I have something I’d like to show you that might be helpful to both of us.”
If the hypnotherapist couldn’t help her, Anna thought, maybe this guy could. It was worth a shot. “I was on my way back to the office to get some work done, but I have time for lunch if you know a place we can talk and eat?”
“Good. I do know a great deli just around the corner. The knishes are to die for.”
Anna followed him into the restaurant, and even though she hadn’t felt hungry after her strange experience, the moment her nose smelled the aromas of fresh corned beef and pickles, her stomach started growling and she was suddenly famished. They found an empty booth and sat far from the other customers. After the waitress took their order, Dr. Sherwood reached inside his jacket pocket and handed Anna a faded piece of parchment.
“Can you read this?” he asked.
“Of course, it’s in English. The writing is faded, but it says something about a queen Adara being betrayed by someone called Darius? Where on earth did you get this?”
“Well, for one thing, it’s not written in English, it’s in ancient Farsi and for another, it was brought to me when I was a student in Israel by an archeologist friend of mine who found it while on a dig in Iran. I was an expert in ancient languages, so he thought I could translate this, but I’ve not had any luck until just now. Can you do me a favor?”
“I guess, what do you want?”
Dr. Sherwood took out a pen and a notepad.
“Can you write what you’re reading on this paper?
“Sure. But I don’t know what this has to do….”
“Just indulge me, ok?
Anna shrugged her shoulders. She had no idea why the rabbi wanted her to write what was on the paper, but she didn’t see any harm. She coped the text and handed the paper to him when she was finished.
“Here you go. I think it’s English.”
“Actually it’s not.”
“Of course it is. I just wrote it, you saw me write it. What is going on?”
Instead of answering, Dr. Sherwood put on his magnifying glasses he had in his shirt pocket and compared the papers side by side, carefully checking each letter and each pen stroke. He placed both papers into a small plastic folder and put them into his pocket. He took a sip of water, put the glass down, folded his hands and looked directly into the eyes of the women sitting across from him. Dr. Sherwood knew what he was about to tell her was going to be not only unbelievable, but she had to know what he had undoubtedly proven beyond any doubt and the realization terrified him, but not nearly as much as he knew how it was going to affect Anna.
“Anna, I’ve compared the handwriting on both of these papers. The one from Iran and the one you just wrote. Of course I will want to verify them with a handwriting expert, but I’ve been doing this a very long time. The handwriting is identical.
“How is that possible? I only copied what was on the parchment you gave me, I didn’t write it!”
“I don’t have any explanation either. I do know this, you’re having dreams, you’re speaking, writing and understanding a language you never studied and under hypnosis you were talking to someone Vashti, a women who’s been dead for hundreds of years. I’m taking this back to the museum. In the meantime, I suggest you don’t mention this to anyone else. I’ll be in touch.”
Dr. Sherwood picked up the lunch check and headed out the door before Anna had a chance to question him further on his ominous suggestion. Why would she mention what had been happening to her to anyone? That guy spent way too much time in a dusty museum, she thought as she headed to her car. As soon as put the key in the ignition, she told the auto dialer in her dash to call Elaine. At first she chewed out her friend for recommending her to that hypno-quack, then realized she needed to calm down when she turned onto the freeway exit.
“I’m really sorry, Anna,” Elaine said, “I met Dr. Walters and he seemed quite legit. Do you want me to come over after work? I don’t have to be in court until eleven tomorrow, so I have all night, if you want to talk.”
Anna’s first reaction was to take Elaine up on her offer, but she was determined to get her hands on that manuscript and she wasn’t going to allow herself any distractions.
“I’m fine. Elaine. I was going back to the office, but now I think I’m just going to home and start reading that manuscript that keeps showing up everywhere.”
Once she checked her mailbox, and collected the stack of junk that had been piling up for the past several days, Anna threw away nearly half of it in the garbage chute, opened her apartment door, threw the rest of the mail on the coffee table along with her purse. She took off her shoes and put on a pot of coffee so that she would be sure not to fall asleep. She was absolutely determined she was going to stay awake until she read the very last line on the very last page of Vashti’s Daughter.
Filled wine glass in one hand, the manuscript in the other, Anna settled back in her reading lounger and began with the first chapter. For a non-fiction dissertation, it was surprising well written. The introduction explained the controversy that still existed between the two women in the Purim story which was well-known throughout the Jewish community. What was not as well known, for that matter, not known at all, according to Dr. Braverman, was the truth about what happened at the banquet and subsequently what happened to Vashti after she left, including the daughter who was totally written out of history.
Anna had never been able to read the introduction, having passed out every time she tried. She had assumed by the title that Vashti’s Daughter was a work of fiction. She was more than a little shocked to discover that was not the case. What was even more shocking was what Dr. Braverman had written about Vashti’s life in the palace and her escape.
The text was nearly word for word what Vashti had told Adara, or rather Anna in her dream in the cabin the previous night. Anna started shaking uncontrollably. Either someone was playing a very bad practical joke or had slipped her a post-hypnotic drug at the Purim party that induced continuous hallucinations. How could she have possibly dreamt the exact story, word-for-word that some unknown academic professor wrote in his book?
Of course, there was a logical explanation to what was going on, Anna thought. She must have actually read the manuscript, then had the dreams and totally forgot what she’d read. She’s been tired lately, she’s been distracted, there was a lot going on at work and in her non-existent social life. Maybe she was drinking too much. Or, maybe she was just losing her mind, there was an explanation and whatever it was, regression hypnosis and speaking Farsi or not, she knew one thing for sure, it had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Anna being the reincarnation of a non-existent biblical character.
In spite of her telling Elaine she didn’t want company, Anna needed her friend more than ever if only to verify that Anna wasn’t completely psychotic. Just as she was about to pick up her cell phone, Anna felt a powerful, and irritating familiar wave of exhaustion sweep over her. In an instant she knew she wasn’t going to have a chance to make that phone call, at least not until she returned from wherever dream she was going into.
Anna didn’t know very much about her dream world, but one thing she was very certain; there wasn’t any cell service.
“Well, at least this time I have some idea of where I am.”
Anna found herself sitting on the edge of a bed, not that different from the last time she’d fallen asleep. Although she knew where she was in her dream state, Anna had no idea when. She glanced at her attire which appeared to be, at the very least, of the feminine style, which meant she was no longer masquerading as Adar.
Just then, the two women she’s met in her first dream entered the room.
“C’mon Adara, you’ll be late for the procession. The horses are all saddled and ready, here’s your riding outfit, get changed, everyone’s waiting.”
“One second, please. Ruth is it? Can I have a little more information? I had a bit too much wine last night and my head’s a little fuzzy,” Part of that line is true Anna thought.
“You are so funny, your Highness. Every year for the past three years on the anniversary of your coronation as Queen, you’ve lead the procession through Baddishere, handing out coins, food and gifts. How can you not remember? It’s the highlight of the year.”
“On a horse?” Anna never rode anything larger than a pony when she was seven. Even then, she was terrified.
“Of course, of course you’re on a horse,” Deborah laughed at the rhyme. “Don’t worry, Ruth and I will be riding next to you. Now, let’s get you out there, your subjects, or as you call them, your support staff, which everyone finds quite odd, if I may say, await.”
The ladies left Anna to change into the riding outfit they had brought. “Well, one thing I know now,” she said to the strange clothes. “Time is certainly different in this dream world. Last time I was here was just before the coronation and I was eighteen, which would mean I’m around twenty-one now, and I call the people support staff? Seems I’ve got one foot in the present and one in the very far past.
Of course if she were dreaming and made some comment about the future it wouldn’t have mattered because it was, after all just a dream. Even though she didn’t’ seem to have any control over her time travel to the 4th century BCE, she certainly did have control over what she said and how she acted while she was here. It would certainly be fun to see just how the people of ancient times would react to a modern day American Queen, especially a women who was a card-carrying feminist. Maybe she could shake things up here a bit before she woke up, Anna thought. If there was something in her life that needed resolve as Dr. Walters had said, there was no place like the present, or in this case, the past, to make it happen. Still, there was that little issue about the horse.
This time, her dream seemed to be lasting a lot longer than her previous ones. Anna had no choice but to play along, even if that meant getting on the back of a huge four-legged animal.
Surprisingly, when Anna approached the animal, all her fears dissolved. She sat straight up in the saddle, feeling quite comfortable as if she’d been riding horses all her life. She grabbed the reins and with Deborah riding on her left and Ruth on her right, she proceeded from the castle toward the town.
Anna could feel the excitement in the air. The cheers that greeted her all along the route was electrifying. “They like me, they really like me,” Anna whispered to Deborah.
“Of course they do, your Majesty. With all the edicts you enacted after your coronation, why are you surprised?”
Edicts? “It’s been awhile, Deborah. Can you refresh my memory?”
“For one, you eliminated all mandatory taxes and created new ways to raise funds for the kingdom like the non-violent dancing and singing competitions and sporting games where you invited contestants from other kingdoms to compete and charged them an entrance fee.”
“Really? What else?”
“With the people having more money, they were able to increase their business, hire more people and you built a strong defense on land and sea to defend the kingdom from outside enemy’s, ended torture and death sentences. I’m really shocked you don’t recall these acts,” Ruth added.
Holly shit, I did all that?
“Yes, of course I recall now that my head has cleared a bit. I think my horse is getting thirsty, I’m going down to the stream and rest awhile.”
“Certainly, we’ll wait for you here.” Deborah and Ruth dismounted.
Anna needed to be alone to absorb what she had just been told. She was finding it harder and harder to separate her dream world from her real one. Eliminating taxes? Ending capital punishment? She wondered what other real life dreams were going to become reality in her dream world.
Anna continued riding alone to the stream where she dismounted while her horse refreshed itself. A rustling behind her startled Anna momentarily. She moved behind her horse for safety when she saw a tall man emerge from the brush with his horse in tow. Anna was mesmerized. He was definitely no one Anna had ever met in either worlds. For a micro-second she was very thankful for the gift her subconscious had bestowed. Standing before her was the most perfect specimen of a male form Anna had ever seen. The length of his wavy jet-black hair came just below his neck, and although he appeared not to have shaven in a few hours, on his suntanned face, the five-o-clock shadow only enhanced his attractiveness as he cautiously approached.
“Excuse me, m’lady. I’m a bit lost. I’m Darius. Can you direct me to Baddishere?”
Anna moved out from behind her animal barrier. She couldn’t take her eyes from the man’s features. Darius had a high, strong forehead that had a wisp of bangs just above his eyebrows. His eyes were the depths of black onyx. Anna could almost feel herself being pulled into the dark pools of his gaze, and she had to steady herself on his very muscular arm. Her clumsiness seemed to have amused him, his smile literally lit up the entire courtyard. Anna’s knees were having a difficult time holding up the weight of her body. She knew he’d ask her question, but all she could remember was hearing his name. For some reason, Anna did not want to reveal who she was.
“Sorry, I was tending my horse. What did you ask?”
“I just would like directions to the castle at Baddishere. I’m going to be performing a sonnet this evening for the Queen’s poetry competition and I have no idea where I’m going.”
Before Anna had a chance to answer, a woman approached.
“I met two women on the road, they work for the Queen and gave me directions.” She starred suspiciously at Anna. “Come along, Darius. You two can get better aquatinted at tonight’s performance.”
Thinking the woman might be his girlfriend, Anna was disappointed, until Darius identified the woman.
“My sister can be so demanding. Maybe I’ll see you later at the competition?” Darius whispered into Anna’s ear. His warm breath sent shivers through her entire body. The air was suddenly thick with sexual heat, Anna felt her knees give way. She held out her hands to cushion her fall, expecting to feel scratchy weeds, but when she landed she didn’t feel rough terrain but a very soft, plush carpet.
“DAMMIT!!” Anna exclaimed. “Who was that strange man and why the hell did I wake up before I could find out?!!”
After she washed her face to rid herself of the last remnants of the dream, Anna phoned Elaine and gave her a rundown of the details of her dream, including how she somehow knew how to ride a horse.
“I know how much you hate horses, even though I’ve invited you to our ranch in Thousand Oaks many times” Elaine said, “This is really incredible. You’re sure you’ve never seen the man who was looking for directions in your real life before?”
“Absolutely. He’s not someone I’d forget, I’ll say that for sure. Of course there are tons of photographs that cross my desk of authors’ head shots with their bio and the back jacket of their book covers, but no artist drawing or publicity shot came even close to this Darius guy. Oh and one more thing you’re going to find really strange.”
“I can’t begin to imagine there would be anything stranger than you on a horse!” Elaine laughed.
“This is. In my dream, I slipped and fell on the ground. I remember scraping my hands on the dry weeds when I put them up to protect myself from the fall and just now when I went in to wash my face, guess what I found?”
“Don’t tell me, your hands were red.”
“Not only red, but there are actual scratches on them. Elaine, I don’t know what I’m going to do. There are entries in this manuscript almost word-for-word what I’ve head in the dream but I didn’t read them before I dreamt them. I’ve only gotten through the first few pages. Every time I pick up the damn thing, I get dizzy and then I fall asleep and my subconscious puts me right back in the dream.”
“Well, from what you’re telling me about meeting a handsome man, that dream doesn’t sound so bad especially since you haven’t had a date in months.”
“Just what I need, a dreamy guy who only exists in a fuckin’ dream!”
“I hope you can stay awake long enough to sit through four quarters of the basketball game. I hear it’s going to be quite a rivalry, and the food is going to be fantastic. The kick-off is at three, but we’ll be there around two-ish to do the usual meet and greet schmoozing.”
“You mean the tip-off is at three. You don’t know anything about basketball, do you?”
“I know it’s a sport with a ball and a basket and usually plenty of beer and hot wings. That’s about it.”
“Oh boy,” Anna was getting a bit frustrated with Elaine’s lack of sports knowledge.“Well at least I’ll know one person who knows the game; your senior partner, the Syracuse fan.”
“They’ll be others there, I’m sure. I heard Steven invited a good back-up crowd to drown out Charles’ USC side. There might be more of a competition in the San Manuel Club seats than out on the field.”
“The court,” Anna corrected her. “I’m going to make some breakfast, see you at the game.”
After she got off the phone, Anna looked at the clock and realized that, although she felt as if she the dream had lasted hours, in reality, in her reality, only a few minutes had passed. She went into the kitchen to see what she could make for breakfast, but when she opened her refrigerator, like the proverbial Mother Hubbard, her cupboard was quite bare. Anna knew she had been neglecting to buy groceries, and for that matter, do the laundry, but clean clothes would have to take a back seat for the moment. The grumbling in her stomach demanded to be satisfied first. She could have called the delivery, but she needed some air and to get out the apartment, even if it were to feel the concrete beneath her feet instead of dirt and weeds that continued to feel from her dream. Shaking off the feeling, Anna grabbed her purse and headed out the door.
It was such a beautiful day, Anna decided to do the un-L.A. thing and walk to the coffee shop. The barista greeted her by name, even though she wrote everyone’s on the paper cups, Anna had been a familiar face for the past five years so it wasn’t unusual that she didn’t have to bother to give her name or, for that matter, her drink order, unless it was to a new employee.
Anna never forgot to say thank you and put some extra change into the tip jar. A little smile and some respect went a long way, no matter how menial the job appeared. Anna always showed appreciation toward those in service. She had a bad habit of over-tipping the servers at restaurants and bars, and never failed to say thank you to the pilot who safely landed the plane when she traveled by air. She certainly knew many of her peers who didn’t treat those they considered beneath them in a respectful way, and she could never understand their attitude. Elaine, fortunately wasn’t one of them, and their mutual respect attitude had been rewarded at their frequent hang-outs where they were always seated at the best tables first, no matter how long the line.
Anna didn’t think she was acting out of the ordinary. She knew if her life had gone in a different direction, it could have just as easily been her serving coffee in the café. Anna never once took for granted her success, or achievements, nor did she ever feel that she didn’t deserve them. She had worked hard for every author, had negotiated better than any other editor for the best deal with the agents for their authors, and sweated every time an author was late for a book signing appearance that she had spent hours organizing. Anna was a success, but she never let any of it get to her head, which was why she usually found herself standing alone at an industry mixer. She just didn’t have the stomach for the hot air being exhaled by all the male egos in the room.
She’d been called bitchy, she’d been called frigid, and she was certain that, behind her back, she had been called many other unattractive adjectives, especially by her ex when she won full control over Steine and Steine after the divorce, but the one thing Anna knew they would never be able to call her was failure. So what if she had a bit of a cold spell when it came to the publishing business, she knew the risks were many, but the success, that fantastic feeling when a book she really believed in hit the best seller list, and the author and their agent was toasting each other, there was nothing like it in the world. Nor was there nothing as horrifying as when a book she thought was going straight to the top, was left collecting dust on the bookstore shelf. That was a nightmare that kept her awake into the wee hours and there was nothing that terrified her more. Until this past week when her strange dreams were doing just that.
As Anna sat drinking her coffee, she took out a pen and began doodling on the napkin. Quite unintentionally, her hand began to sketch the face of Darius. Anna’s artistic skills were limited to stick figures, but in less than the time it took for her to finish her coffee, she had drawn a perfect likeness of the stranger she had only just met in her dream.
She folded the napkin, put it in her purse and headed back to her apartment to get ready to go to the game. Once she returned to her apartment, Anna turned on the television, more for the noise then to watch whatever Saturday sports or news was on. She zipped by all the reality shows, she found them to be pure money making garbage that pandered to the lowest common denominators of the idle masses.
Maybe she was out of touch with what those idle masses considered entertainment, she thought, if this was the type of drivel that was so popular, it was no wonder that her choices in the literary world had missed the mark the past few months. Successful publishing wasn’t so much what the publisher liked as it was knowing what the readers wanted. Anna was well aware that sensationalism and controversy won out over intellectual creativity any day. Maybe it was time she stopped fighting so hard for what she thought was right and just simply went with the flow of what was going to produce the most money, for the greater good, as they say. Them that compromised their principals said it anyway.
Wearing her bright orange t-shit with a white outline of the state of California with the collegiate lettering spelling out the word SYRACUSE within the diagram, Anna was dressed and ready to cheer on her team.
At some future time Anna would remember that it was exactly 2:18 on a Saturday afternoon in March when Elaine introduced her to Nate after she arrived at the San Manuel Club. Anna never attended live sports events, preferring to watch on the 52” flat screen in her apartment where she didn’t have to wait on line to go to the bathroom, but she had to admit she could easily change her mind if she could watch from the opulent premier seats.
Seeing her friend talking to a group of casually dressed men in USC jerseys, Anna was a bit wary to join them while wearing the rival team’s t-shirt. Anna ordered a beer at the bar and met Elaine who was just finishing her conversation.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” Elaine took Anna’s beer. “You have no idea how difficult it is to pretend to be interested in a topic I have absolutely no interest in, but I fake it pretty well. Here, let me get you another beer.”
The women walked over to the far end of the bar. Anna noticed several men wearing conservative – style Syracuse scarves were deep in conversation at the opposite end.
“Ah, a friendly crowd,” Anna said, “Do you know any of those SU fans, I think? You may know the law, but I know basketball, I’d be more than happy to be your wing-gal as long as we don’t miss the tip-off.”
Elaine checked her watch. “It’s only eighteen past two, we have plenty of time before the game starts. Let me introduce you.”
Elaine and Anna walked over to the end of the bar where Elaine began making the introductions. Anna smiled politely, shook their hands, pretending to be interested in the conversation about the area of law they practiced, who the opposing attorney was who had lost their last case, what they thought about the judge. Anna was very disappointed that not one word about basketball was uttered. Anna totally identified with what her friend had commented on earlier. Now, Anna did have an idea how difficult it was to pretend to be interested in a topic she had absolutely no interest in. And just like Elaine, Anna could fake it pretty well, too.
Anna was trying to think of a good excuse to politely extricate herself from the conversation. She deiced it was just best to make move to leave the bar area when Elaine stopped her by pointing out two new men both wearing bright Syracuse Team Orange shirts approaching.
“I know you’re probably bored to tears, but don’t leave yet, I want you to meet our chief witness Nate. He’s our expert on Muslim stereotypes and his friend, Habib Elghanian,” Elaine started. “These two really helped our client win the huge judgment I told you about, which is how we could afford this exuberant party.”
“Please just call me Bib, its easier to pronounce.”
“Habib Elghanian isn’t at all that hard to pronounce. Wasn’t there a prominent Jewish businessman in was executed by an Iranian firing squad in 1970 after they convicted him of being a spy?” Habib means beloved, right?” Anna didn’t have the slightest idea how she knew how to pronounce his name, let alone what it meant or the history. Anna gave her unfinished beer to the bartender and ordered a double Jack Daniels.
“You’re absolutely right. Hey Nate, can you believe this lovely lady and, I see by your shirt, you’re a Syracuse University Alum like us. We’re also huge Orangeman fans. Did you know Nate played on the NCAA championship game in 2003?”
“I did not know that.” Elaine said, “Let me introduce you two. Anna, this is Nate, our genius witness extraordinaire I told you about. Nate, this is Anna, she also graduated Syracuse, Newhouse in journalism. She’s a big time publisher now.”
“Hello, Anna, nice to meet a successful SU alum.”
When Nate turned to face her, Anna had to grab the edge of the bar to prevent herself from falling off the stool. Nate was the mirror image of Darius, the man she had met in her dream. He had the same high forehead, the same wisp of bangs that fell just above his eyebrows and his eyes were the identical shade of black onyx which were having the same effect on Anna’s knees as she had in her dream the night before.
“Uh, nice to meet you, too.” In spite of taking several large sips of Jack Daniels, Anna’s mouth was so dry she could hardly annunciate more than four words.
“The games is starting, lets grab some front row seats,” Nate said to Anna and Bib. The two followed while Elaine joined the legal conversation with the other attorneys at the bar.
As much as Anna wanted to focus her attention on the basketball game, she couldn’t stop concentrating on the man sitting next to her. Even his voice was the same, she thought. At least I know I’m not dreaming.
The teams were tied at half-time break, but it didn’t take Syracuse long to pull away from a tiring USC team. After their star player fouled-out, it was obvious who the winner was going to be and Bib wanted to be the first to congratulate his winning team, several of them he knew from the Alum Booster club events.
Bib started to collect his things. “We’re going to the locker room to congratulate the team since it’s obvious we’re going to win.”
“Sounds great, Bib. What’s the score?”
“You’re kidding right? What have you been watching for the past four hours?”
Nate didn’t quite know how to answer his friend’s question. Other than teaching and archeological research, basketball was Nate’s passion, so he was quite amazed that during the entire four quarters of the charity game, he was so distracted by the woman he’d just met sitting next to him, he had absolutely no idea what the score was, or anything else that had occurred on the court.
Nate knew there was nothing wrong with the environmental controls in the San Manuel Club, having asked the staff several times during the game to turn down the thermostat and was told it was set at a comfortable 72 degrees, but he was sweating nonetheless. He hoped he wasn’t coming down with anything, although he felt the reason for his discomfort had nothing to do with his physical health as it was the affect Anna was having on his physiology.
He had an overwhelming desire to see her again and knew he had to make some kind of move before he left, or he may lose the chance forever. He felt awkward asking for her phone number, after all they’d just met and, other than basketball stats, had only spoken a few words the entire afternoon. To Anna, he was a total stranger, yet somehow Nate felt as if he’d known her his entire life.
Nate decided a professional invitation would be a lot safer at this juncture than a personal one. Just before he rose to follow Bib to the locker room, he took a paper from his pocket and handed it to Anna.
“I have to go join Bib in the locker room, but I’m giving a seminar tomorrow night at House of Books at Brandies-Bardin. I’d really like you to come. It won’t be as exciting as basketball, but I think you’ll find it interesting.”
As she took the flyer, she felt a jolt of electricity from Nate’s light touch on the back of her hand.
“C’mon Nate. There’s only eighteen seconds left before the two-minute warning. We’re going to the club house to meet the team.”
“Ok, ok. I’ll be right there.”
Just before he left to join his friends, in a voice that sounded eerily familiar to Anna, Nate whispered, “Bib can be so demanding. Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow at the seminar.”
Anna watched Nate leave with his friends. She couldn’t shake off the intense physical attraction she felt or how much he resembled the man in her dream.
Anna turned over the flyer to read the information;
“Vashti – Heroine or Villain” Presented by Nathaniel Braverman, PhD.
Nathaniel Braverman? Nate was the mysterious author Nathaniel Braverman? Anna was stunned. She frantically searched the room, but he’d already left. As much as she wanted to follow him, being seen in the men’s locker room might be a bit too awkward.
Anna found Elaine still talking so her attorney friends. She grabbed Elaine by the arm and pulled her to a quiet spot away from the crowd.
“Elaine, why didn’t you tell me that your witness Nate was Nathaniel Braverman the mysterious author of Vashti’s Daughter?”
“He is? I had no idea, Anna. He wasn’t on my team. I only knew his name was Nate, I didn’t’ even know his last name. I honestly didn’t make the connection.”
“Well, here’s another connection for you. Look at this.” Anna showed Elaine the drawing she had drawn on the napkin earlier.
“Wow, Anna I had no idea who were so talented, but I don’t understand if you never met Nate, how did you draw his image so accurately?’
“Because this is not Nate, or Nathaniel. This is the man who called himself Darius who I met last night in my dream!”
“You have got to be kidding!” Elaine exclaimed. “What are you going to do?”
“Apparently, I’m going to a seminar tomorrow night where I’m going to meet Nathaniel Braverman, Ph.D. and get some answers other than if Vashti is a heroine or villain.”
“Good luck, Anna. If you find out the answer, please do let me know. I may need to buy a new costume for Purim next year.”
The victory party moved to Bib’s apartment where he, Nate and the rest of the Syracuse University fans celebrated their historic win over USC. The festivities lasted a lot longer than Nate had planned. Considering he had to prepare for his presentation the next afternoon, he thought it would be prudent to stay the night, but with the after-image of Anna’s face burned into his eyelids, sleep wasn’t something he was able to achieve.
Being the great host Bib was, a steaming pot of fresh coffee was waiting for Nate as he compelled his groggy body to get out of bed. He stumbled into to the kitchen where he nearly collapsed on the counter stool.
“Not that I’m stating the obvious, Nate, but you look like one of the mummies we dug up on our last exhibition,” Bib poured the coffee.
“I feel like one, too. Did you happen to see the woman wearing the California Syracuse t-shirt last night I was talking to? I know her name is Anna, she’s a friend of Elaine, one of the attorneys from the law firm I testified for, and she’s a basketball fan, but that’s all I know.”
“You didn’t get her phone number? Nate, you are really losing your touch.”
“Well, it was you who insisted I leave to go meet the team remember, so it’s your fault. I gave her an invitation to today’s seminar, I really hope she comes.”
“In that case, you’d better get cleaned up cause if she does and sees you like this, you’ll never get her phone number!”
Nate picked up his coffee cup and headed to the shower. Bib was right, he thought. He never had this reaction to any women he’d met before, not even in high school or college. For some reason Anna made him feel like an awkward teen-ager who was afraid he was going to get rejected if he asked a girl to the prom.
When Bib helped Nate put his computer and hand-outs into the back of the car, he noticed a large envelope on the seat. He reached over to pick it up, but Nate stopped him.
“It says Vashti’s Daughter, isn’t Vashti the topic of your seminar? I never read that she had a daughter.”
Nate was visibly shaken, “You can leave that, it’s not part of the presentation. Let’s get going, I don’t want to be late to my own show.”
The drive up to the House of the Book was a narrow, winding dirt road on the campus of Brandeis-Bardin Institute just north of Simi Valley. Bib and Nate were met by the set-up crew who helped them unpack and set-up on the stage in the auditorium.
“What do you need for A/V – we can set up your computer on the podium and connect it to our control panel if you’re going to use a PowerPoint presentation,” asked the maintenance crew chief.
“That’s fine,” replied Nate. “I never use it. I find it to be more of a distraction for the audience and I’d rather have their full attention on me than a screen. I do have some photos and text pages you can connect and I’ll just switch them from here.” Nate handed him a flash drive and waited until all the connections were made and tested, before joining his friend on the side of the stage where they could count the number of people enter the auditorium.
Nate was relieve to see the seats were filling up fast. He was also disappointed there was no sign of the one person he was hoping to see walk through the entrance door. After everyone was seated, the house lights dimmed and Nate was introduced by Jacob Swartz, the head of programming. He was greeted by a somewhat muted applause as he made his way to the podium.
“Welcome everyone to what I believe is the definitive answer to the question of the role Vashti played in the story of Purim. Was she a heroine or a villain? I hope this talk will provide you the proof so that you’ll arrive at the correct answer, or give you a reason to question your presumption of the alternative.
As we know, in the actual text of the Book of Esther, Queen Vashti is unequivocally a heroine by any modern standard. Historical attempts to vilify her are the result of a combination of fear of women in power, xenophobia toward non-Jewish women, and the trope that there can be only one Good Girl in a story.”
The first picture on the screen showed an illustration of a woman holding a Book of Esther megillah scroll.
“But what does the Book of Esther actually say about Vashti herself? Not much. The megillah tells us that the king threw a banquet, everyone got very drunk, and the palace stewards were ordered to comply with every man’s wishes. At the same time, Queen Vashti threw a banquet for women in the royal palace. On the seventh day, when the king was sufficiently drunk, he ordered servants to bring Queen Vashti before him wearing only her crown, but she refused.”
Another picture on the screen of Vashti at a banquet, refusing the king.
“That’s the whole of Vashti’s actions in the story: She gives a banquet for the women and she refuses to come “display her beauty.”
The story records plenty of discussion of her actions afterward, mostly in the form of men spluttering how dare she, but all we’re given about what Vashti herself does is those two things.
In this plain reading, Vashti is a hero. She throws a separate party for the ladies, which has the practical result of ensuring they’re not putting up with the predations of drunken men who expect to have their every wish fulfilled. When she’s given an objectifying and potentially humiliating order, she refuses to obey. The story doesn’t beat around the bush as to why all the men were upset by her refusal.”
A text page appeared on the screen. Nate read his copy.
“For the queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands, as they reflect that King Ahasuerus himself ordered Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come. This very day the ladies of Persia and Media, who have heard of the queen’s behavior, will cite it to all Your Majesty’s officials, and there will be no end of scorn and provocation!
The midrash is apparently just as horrified at the idea of women refusing to obey men’s orders, because it goes out of its way to insist that Vashti is utterly awful. The Talmud doesn’t waste any time in getting to the slut-shaming.”
Nate read the next two slides.
“In Esther 1:9, the verse states: ‘Also Vashti the queen made a feast for the women, in the royal house, which belonged to King Ahasuerus’. The Gemara questions why she held the feast in the royal house, a place of men, rather than in the women’s house, where it should have been. Rava said in response: The two of them had sinful intentions. Ahasuerus wished to fornicate with the women, and Vashti wished to fornicate with the men. Esther Rabbah 3:13 the midrash to the Book of Esther, announces that Vashti’s issue with the command wasn’t that it was humiliating, but that it wasn’t immodest enough. Rabbi Pinchas and Rabbi Hama bar Guria said in the name of Rav: she requested to enter even wearing bells like a prostitute, but they did not allow her.”
Nate paused for a moment to hear any reaction from the audience. Hearing none, he clicked the button to advance the slide and continued.
“But the commentators don’t stop there. Rashi insists that not only did Vashti have an unattractive disease, but she abused her Jewish employees, making them work on Shabbat. Another midrash claims she held the banquet because it gave her the opportunity to hold other noblewomen hostage if there was a coup, and another claims she refused to appear naked because she had grown a tail.”
A bit of uncomfortable laughter echoed throughout the auditorium.
“It should be clear by now that the intentions of a lot of the classic commentaries weren’t exactly pure where Vashti is concerned. Given the brevity of the actual text of the Megillah when it comes to Vashti’s disobedience, it would have been just as possible for midrash to interpret in the opposite direction: to portray Ahasuerus’ reaction as cruel and expand the story out into one in which Esther tames the beast. Instead, Ahasuerus is absolved and Vashti is villainized, because defiance of male authority is apparently a bigger problem, in the eyes of the rabbis, than abuse by male authorities. Vashti was a member of the elite. She was in a position of relative power in a patriarchal society, and she used that power to make a stand against being objectified, sexualized, and humiliated for male amusement.
It may be difficult for my male associates to agree, but there is little doubt that in our society, the first woman to speak up about problems, to refuse to play nicely with the old boys’ club, or to refuse an unjust order is usually punished harshly. But sometimes that sacrifice makes it easier for the next woman to get others to listen. Vashti didn’t sacrifice her position as Queen for Esther’s benefit, in fact, the women never met. Ahasuerus held the beauty contest where he met Esther occurred after Vashti was out of the castle.
We’ll know we’ve moved past our fear of women in power, our virgin-whore binaries, and our need to try to force women into competition when we get modern midrash in which Vashti and Esther can be allies, or maybe even friends.”
The last slide depicted two women, smiling at each other in warm embrace. In stark contrast to the response Nate had received when began his presentation, more than half the audience stood and applauded.
Jacob came to the podium. “Thank you, Dr. Braverman. We’ll now turn the lights on and open the discussion for questions.”
Nate was more than prepared to answer the usual questions that challenged his interpretation of the importance of Vashti to the Magillah story, he’d heard them whenever he hosted the seminar, however there was always one that he was never able to provide a satisfactory response. He always hoped that the question wouldn’t be asked, but it invariably was and this afternoon was no exception.
“Dr. Braverman, your interpretation of the megillah was fascinating, but many of us believe that Vashti was put to death after she rebelled against the king. Do you have any actual proof to the contrary?”
Actually I do, Nate thought, I just can’t tell anyone.
Nate answered the question the way he always did when asked, but not answering it. “Rabbi’s and scholars have been arguing these texts for millennia and millions believe what they read without any proof that any of the stories were based on facts, that’s why they call it faith”
Nate could tell by the sudden silence the room that his answer wasn’t what they wanted to hear, but that was the only one he was going to give. The follow-up question was a bit trickier for Nate to answer. He was more a pantheist Jew than a spiritualist Jew, many times arguing in theoretical debate that the universe what hot a haunted house.
“You speak of faith, Dr. Braverman. Can you tell us why there no mention of God in the entire story?”
“That’s a very good question,” Nate replied. “In fact, if you’ll pick up the schedule, you’ll see I’ll be presenting that topic at a future date. I have no idea when. In the meaning, there are plenty of interpretations on that very subject you can find on-line.”
Jacob came back to the podium for the closing. “That’s all the time we have, today. Again, thank you Dr. Braverman. Don’t forget to pick up a flyer for a list of all upcoming programs on your way out. Drive safe.”
As the procession began to exit, Bib packed up the materials while Nate answered questions from several of the attendees who hadn’t had the chance during the session. When the room was finally emptied, Nate followed Bib into the lobby where, to his delight, Anna was waiting for him. He tried to suppress a smile and calm the frantic rhythm his heart was beating when she walked over.
“Sorry, I missed the beginning of your talk” Anna said. “I couldn’t find a parking place.” Her smile was radiant, Nate thought.
“That’s okay. I’m glad you made it. What did you think?”
“I couldn’t agree with you more. I’ve always been a Vashti fan. Speaking of, I have to ask. Are you the Nathaniel Braverman, Ph.D. who wrote Vashti’s Daughter?”
“Guilty as charged, why?”
“I’m Anna Steine. Your manuscript has been showing up in my office and my apartment for the past week. I’ve been really busy and have not had a chance to finish reading it,”
Because I keep falling asleep and dreaming of you in a different time.
“I’d like to talk you about it. Do you have time tomorrow around eleven?”
Please say yes, please say yes.
“Let me check.” With a sweaty hand he was trying to conceal, Nate took his phone from his back pocket, read his calendar. “I’m totally free tomorrow, what’s the address and phone number?”
“Here, let me.” Anna took the phone from his hand, brushing her fingers slightly over his she felt a familiar shiver surge through her body. It was all she could do to control her fingers in order to tap the information into the keypad. She turned the phone. Nate gave it a quick glance.
“Eleven o’clock tomorrow. I’ll see you then.”
The two men watched Anna leave the building. The sun pouring in through the glass cast a glow over her body that radiated waves of warmth throughout Nate’s entire system.
“You have her information now. See how easy that was?” Bib said to his flustered friend.
“You have no idea just hard easy that wasn’t!”
As soon as she opened her apartment door, Anna’s cell phone buzzed. She didn’t have to look at the caller ID to know it was Elaine wanting to hear all the details about her going to Nate’s presentation. Elaine was a bit disappointed that Anna didn’t have that much to tell her since she had only spoken to Nate for a few minutes and that was only to set up the meeting in her office to discuss his book.
“You didn’t tell him anything about your dreams, or that sketch you drew, or that you’re suddenly speaking and reading a foreign language?”
“No, he would have thought I was a nut case. I will say that after hearing his presentation on Vashti I might really be interested in his book. That’s what I plan to discuss with him tomorrow and nothing else. We’re meeting at eleven.”
Elaine sounded disappointed. “That sounds boring. Try to get a good night’s sleep for a change. We’ll talk again, I’m sure.”
Anna had planned on reading more of Nate’s book, but she was exhausted and really wanted to be well-rested for their meeting which was going to be totally professional. Contrary to Elaine’s queries, Anna was determined not to mention anything about her strange dreams especially the man who had shown up in the last one.
Anna was torn between wanting to further her dream scenario, and wanting to have at least one uninterrupted night’s sleep. Although she wasn’t a big fan of drugs, except for the rare occasional aspirin for a headache or a hangover, she took two sleeping pills per Dr. Walters’ suggestion, more of an experiment to see if they would actually help her sleep through the night in her very own bed and not have her dream wake her up in a totally different location. Somewhere in the nether world between sleep and awakening, Anna hear a repetitive annoying buzz. It took her a while to shake the cobwebs of the night from her mind, and even longer for her to recognize the sound of her alarm clock. Before opening her eyes, she reached her arm from under the warmth of the covers to her night stand and smacked the top of her alarm clock turning it off for at least another five minutes. When she realized she was safe in her own bed, Anna tentatively opened her eyes. She breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that her experiment to stay in her own time had been successful. She felt a slight bit of sadness when she realized that her experiment had been successful. Maybe it wasn’t the sleeping pills, she thought. Maybe her subconscious was done sending her to meet Darius in a dream when she’d just met what might have been him in real life.
Whatever the reason, for the first time in days, Anna felt well rested and eager to return to the office. Anna showered and completed her morning routine, grabbed the manuscript and headed out the door giving herself extra time to stop at the café in her office building to pick up a croissant and latte.
It was times like these that Anna was thankful that she’s won controlling interest in Steine and Stein in the divorce. Even though she kept two names on the masthead, figuratively hers had a capital S and Henry’s was only a very, very tiny one. Anna really didn’t have to punch a time clock, but she always got to the office by nine so that she could organize her notes in time to contact her national agents who lived in other time zones. If she left her apartment by eight, she could spend a quiet hour in the café with her breakfast and sometimes meet up with other publishers where they could discuss the latest trends in the book business in a private setting.
Rumors of secret dealings and behind the scenes cut-throat deals were rampant in the business and having firsthand knowledge as to which ones were true and which were mere speculation gave Anna a huge advantage over the other publishing house. She learned the hard way not to pay much attention to the editors in the office who thought their instincts were so good they didn’t need to talk to, much less listen, to anyone else’s knowledge or advice.
Early on in her career at Beacon Press Anna had attended all the book expos and conferences. She spoke little, listened much and asked the right questions, even though she wasn’t always happy with the answers. Now it seemed that everyone was an expert at one tend or another and the competition was so intense in the publishing industry, and their careers so precocious, that no one was willing to share anything, in the fear that another house would somehow discover the secret to the next hot new fad, and it wouldn’t be them.
Maybe it was a generational thing, Anna thought, but it just seemed to her that the recent hires were more the cut throat secretive types while the more mature, she shuttered at the thought that twenty-nine was considered mature, were a bit more relaxed and willing to support each other without fear that support came with strings, or a hidden agenda. A few years ago, Anna had taken a new editor under her wing, only to later find out that he had been contacting her stable of agents in an effort to lure their authors to sign with him. After she discovered the betrayal, she had sat him down, raked him over the coals, and subsequently not only fired him, but sent out several emails warning other publishers of his actions so that they would be hesitant to hire him. It had taken Anna a long time to get over his betrayal and it was even longer before she was able to fully trust anyone the same way. The last thing she heard, he had moved to New York City to pursue an acting career on Broadway. It was a fitting move for a guy who was such a good actor, he even had Anna fooled, but not for long. Even in a competitive business, you still needed strong relationships and fellow professionals who you could trust and Anna prided herself in the fact that she shared that philosophy with so many in an ever shrinking business. She didn’t have any difficulty keeping her trusted staff on payroll after the company split and had hired a few more to fill the vacancies created by those who went with Henry.
Anna was about to take a bite of her croissant when she spotted one of her favorite editors who ran his own non-fiction political publishing company on the floor below hers. She waved for him to join her. Arthur Phillips had been with Steine and Steine as long as Anna. Prior to the finalization of her divorce, Arthur had become a friend with benefits, but after Anna became sole owner and president of the company their relationship was benefits free. It was good to see him, even though he looked a bit disheveled that morning, Anna thought.
“Double espresso morning, Arty?” She asked when he sat down.
“Triple, Anna. It’s been one crazy week. Three more agents have come in to renegotiate their author’s contracts. They’re all threatening to jump on the self-publishing wagon unless we increase their royalties and we’re stretched to the limit now.”
“I hear you. With all the print- on- demand subsidy publishers out there, we’re losing a great deal of talented authors who want to take a short cut to seeing their books on Amazon. We’re seeing a lot less submission, too. I had to let a few of my editors go last month even though we’re still receiving at least ten manuscripts a day.”
“Anything you want to share?” Arthur already knew the answer, but asked anyway.
Anna smiled. “Nothing you’d be interested in, unless you’ve opened submissions to religious genre.”
“Good God, No. No pun intended. We’re still paying the lawyer’s fees for the last, and I do mean the last book we tried to publish with a religious theme. You know I’m still getting death threats, not as many, but enough so I’m not about to go anywhere near that topic. Why, do you have something?”
Even though he was a good and trusted friend, Anna wasn’t sure she wanted to tell Arthur about the manuscript that was suddenly burning a hole in her briefcase.
“I might. I’m not sure yet. Haven’t had the time to read the entire manuscript, and to tell you the truth, I’ve been a bit distracted.”
“Really? What’s his name? Arthur sent her an evil grin.
“No one you know, that’s for sure.” Anna’s smile was a bit more mysterious. “I tell you what, after I’ve read the book, if I think it’s something we don’t want and if it’s good enough, I’ll send it down to you.”
“Don’t kid a kidder, Anna. You know damn well that if you think it’s good enough to publish, you won’t let it out of your pretty little fingers. When was the last time I felt those little fingers on my back, anyway?”
“Long enough that the scratch marks have healed, I’m sure!”
Anna swallowed the last bit of her croissant, emptied her coffee and began to gather her belongings.
“You’re probably right. How about you check that out for yourself say, after the book festival next month?” Arthur asked.
“Sure. If you think Sharon wouldn’t mind.”
“My fiancé? Why on earth would you think she’d mind?”
“You’re engaged? Congratulations, Arty. I always liked Sharon and hoped the two of you would make it legal.”
“Well, I’m not married yet,” he said.
“And if I took you up on your offer, you probably will remain single, but thanks for the offer anyway. It was nice to see you again.”
Anna could feel Arthur’s eyes on her back as she made her way out of the café. He had been a really nice occasional bed partner, and she while hated to admit it, she was going to miss their infrequent hook-ups, but she was happy for him. After their conversation, she was a bit more hesitant to even finish reading Vashti’s Daughter because, even with Arthur’s warning, she knew damn well that if the book was good, it wouldn’t matter how many lawyers they would need, or how many death threats she might receive, nothing would stop her from publishing it.
Anna only hoped that Nathaniel Braverman was a terrible writer and Vashti’s Daughter was an unpublishable piece of garbage that she could toss it into the trash once and for all. If all it took were a few sleeping pills to stop her from having weird dreams maybe she could throw those into the metaphysical trash as well.
By the time Anna arrived at her office, the staff was well into their routine. Some were on the phone, some were on their computer and some were sifting through more stacks of manuscripts that were still being sent by agents who weren’t as yet confident about the security of electronic submissions. Seeing everyone behaving normally, Anna was starting to feel as if the strange experiences of the past few days were just an extension of her subconscious and like a normal dream, would simply fade from her thoughts. That way she could concentrate on what she knew to be real including her appointment later that morning with Nathaniel Braverman who, after their brief encounter at the basketball game the day before was, undeniably real.
“Hi Janet, any calls for me?” Anna asked her assistant just before opening the door to her office.
“No calls. I’ve cleared your calendar for your meeting with Dr. Braverman in case it goes though lunch. I’m also kind of curious to meet the author of that manuscript that keeps getting past me.”
“Thank you for taking care of that for me, Janet. I’ll be sure to ask him how he did it. Buzz me as soon as he arrives.”
Janet buzzed the intercom to let Anna know that her eleven o’clock appointment had arrived. Usually when she met with an author, especially for a previously unpublished author, they would be accompanied by their agent, or agents depending on their representation. Obviously that was another policy that Nathaniel Braverman either wasn’t aware, or chose to ignore as he had done by directly dropping off his manuscript. If only he knew as much about the publishing business as he did about basketball, Anna thought. She was more concerned about his knowledge of Vashti than either of the other two.
Nate followed Janet into Anna’s office, mouthing a silent “he’s gorgeous” to Anna behind his back before she turned to leave. Seeing Nate under the bright florescent lights, Anna could make out more details in his face than she’d been able to during their earlier two brief encounters. She was amazed how many of those details were exactly the same as her Darius dream character as well as the picture she had etched on the napkin down to the slight dimple on his chin.
“Thank you for coming in today, Dr. Braverman,” Anna reached out her hand. She was using every ounce of her prior business experience to maintain an aura of professionalism, but was having an enormous amount of difficulty maintaining her physical composure as she felt her knees start to weaken as soon as Nate’s hand met hers. She quickly returned to her chair.
“It’s my pleasure, but you can call me Nate. After all, we’re both Syracuse alums.”
Nate’s radiant smile was making it hard for Anna to concentrate. She forced herself to shake off the sensations raging through her body. Anna turned to pour herself a glass of ice water from a pitcher on her veranda behind her desk.
“Would you like some water, Nate?”
“I’m fine. What did you think of the book?”
Breath girl, breath.
“For one thing, I think you have a lot of nerve dropping this off on my desk instead of going through normal channels.” Anna tried to fake annoyance. “I had to tighten security in my office because of you.”
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” Nate was visibly puzzled. “I only left one at the front desk downstairs for the Arthur Phillips agency. I assumed he had given it to you.”
Anna was completely shaken by what Nate said.
“That’s odd. I just had coffee with Arty this morning and he didn’t know anything about it. You didn’t come up to my office or visit my apartment?”
“No, that would be weird. I have no idea where you live. I only had the one printed copy. I keep the original on a zip drive and a back-up hard drive.”
“That is odd. Oh well, we can solve that mystery at some other time. To be honest, I haven’t had the chance to read the entire manuscript.”
Because I keep falling asleep and dreaming the entire manuscript.
“I have to admit, the title intrigues me. I’m very familiar with the story of Purim, of course, and I’ve done a great deal of research on Vashti, but there are absolutely no references to her ever having a daughter, not in the megillah, or any midrash I’ve been able to find. While I believe you have a unique niche market in Jewish historical fiction, we’re really not the right publishing house for the novel. We don’t publish religious genre, I’m sorry.”
With Anna’s comment, Nate’s raised his eyebrows in confusion.
“Anna, I think we may be talking about a different book. Vashti’s Daughter isn’t a novel. It’s a factual account of events that occurred in the years after Vashti was banished from Persia. Why did you think it was fiction?”
“I just told you. There isn’t any mention of a daughter, so I just assumed you made the whole thing up. I never once thought this was a true story. Where did you obtain the information? Do have any proof or evidence to support your theory?”
Did you dream all this, too? Do you any facts about Adara or Darius?
“As a matter of fact, so to speak, I do, but you wouldn’t be able to verify any of this with my source.”
“Oh great,” Anna said, “Not another anonymous source. I’m sorry, Nate. We wouldn’t be able to publish this without verification. In this volatile climate, I doubt any publisher would.”
Attraction or not, Anna was beginning to think she had made a huge mistake setting up the appointment with Nate before she had a chance to conduct a more thorough background check, especially since he didn’t have an agent. Just another experience that further supported her company policy of not accepting unsolicited material, even if the author believed he had representation, Anna thought.
There was a few seconds of awkward silence followed by Nate’s cryptic comment.
“I’ll tell you everything, but not here,” he whispered. Nate checked his watch. “It’s past lunchtime. I know a place down the street that has a private room. We can have lunch if you have the time.”
“My office is secure. We can order in and you can tell me anything you want.” Anna hesitated. She wasn’t that certain she fully trusted Nate enough to go with him to an unknown location, even if it was just down the street.
“If someone was able to break in and drop off a copy of my manuscript, you have no way of knowing what else they might have done while they were here. Trust me, we’re only going to Denny’s. I know the owner, he has a filtered room in the back for his regular customers who still smoke. He’s breaking the law, which is why it’s totally secure. Just don’t tell anyone.”
Anna grabbed her purse, and the pack of cigarettes she kept hidden in her desk drawer and followed Nate out to the elevator, stopping by Janet’s office to let her know when she would be back from lunch, even though Anna wasn’t that sure exactly when that would be.
As they followed the hostess to the backroom of Denny’s. She handed them the menu and left to fill their drink order. Anna was beginning to feel a bit more relaxed in the familiar orange and yellow surroundings, even though they were the only two people seated in the room. Anna looked over her menu, when the server came to take their order.
“I’ll have the fesenjan, please.” Anna pointed to the photo on the menu.
The sever and Nate both looked at Anna puzzled.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am, we don’t have whatever you said on the menu.”
“What do you mean?,” Anna pointed to the photo “It’s right here, fesenjan – stew made with pomegranate paste and ground walnuts with chicken. Are you out of it?”
Nate took the menu from Anna and looked at where she had pointed, and handed it back.
“Anna, you pointed to the club sandwich. Is that what you want?”
Anna stated at the menu. Where she thought she had seen a picture of the fesenjan, it was a club sandwich. Anna had no idea what fesenjan was, or why she would order it even if it had been on the menu.
“Sorry, must be the lighting in here. I’ll have the club sandwich.”
Trying to hide her embarrassment, Anna lit a cigarette.
“I know, don’t lecture me. I’ve cut back to only two or three a day and usually only when I’m home. I swear there was a different picture on that menu when I ordered whatever it was I ordered.”
“If you want to know, fesenjan is one of my favorite dishes when I was in Iran with Bib the year I was completing my Ph.D. dissertation. I’m just surprised you would think it was on a Denny’s menu in the U.S.A.”
“There are Persians in the Los Angeles, you know. Something similar happened to be last week when I went to lunch with Elaine The menu was in Farsi, and I could read it like it was in English. So, I’m pretty sure whatever it is you have to tell me can’t be as weird as what’s been happening to me. Maybe I should stop going out to restaurants.”
When their food arrived, Anna tried not to make eye contact with the server. In between bites of his French Dip, Nate continued with his explanation.
““The reason why I wanted to have this conversation with you in private was because the back story on how I came to write Vashti’s Daughter is pretty unbelievable and I didn’t want to be thrown out of your office in front of your entire staff.”
If you knew what’s been going on with me, I could say the same. Anna thought.
“Nate, I’m sure that wouldn’t happen. I’ve heard all types of story pitches. There’s really nothing unusual in the fiction world, believe me. The weirder is it, the better it sells.”
“That’s just it, Anna. Vashti’s Daughter isn’t fiction. It’s real. I have to publish this book and you’re the one who has to publish it,”
Nate paused when his sentence was met with a glaring stare from Anna. He quickly continued before she has a chance to verbally communicate her displeasure. “but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you about my trip to Hamadan.”
“As I told you, I was finishing my Ph.D. dissertation in Iran, which would have been very difficult in the current political climate there, but Bib’s family fortunately has connections with the government, so it wasn’t a problem. Bib and I visited some of the most popular cities, ate some great food,”
“Including fesenjan?” Anna smiled.
“Yes, including fesenjan.” Nate returned the smile. “The trip was part research and part vacation, although with Bib, it was more party than study. We even had a chance to see the Israel basketball team play Iran. It was really amazing how well the teams could play on the court and how much they don’t off the court.”
“I’m sure.” Anna sipped the last of her iced tea. She could tell it was going to be a very long lunch.
“One day, Bib tells me he’s arranged a tour to Hamadan to visit the shrine over the graves where Esther and Mordecai were supposedly buried. He thought it would be interesting to see where the story of Purim might have actually occurred and I agreed, but I wasn’t prepared for what I was going to happen when we got there.”
So far, Anna hadn’t heard anything that would have warranted the need for a secret room. Anna’s full attention was on Nate when the waitress came over to refill her iced tea, she asked her if there would be anything else she’d like to order. When Anna looked up, she was stunned to see the waitress looked exactly like the Vashti from her dream. She was smiling warming at Anna as she poured the tea. Anna looked back at Nate, who was adding more sugar to his iced tea and didn’t notice the waitress. Anna was just about to say something, when she looked back at the waitress, she had transformed once again.
“What happened to the other waitress?” Anna asked her.
“What other waitress?,” the woman was puzzled. “I’ve been here the whole time.”
“Are you feeling okay?” asked Nate. “Not to sound trite, but you really do look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Oh, sorry, it must be the lighting in here.”
Anna wished Denny’s served something stronger than ice tea. The waitress walked away shaking her head.
“You were saying something about your visit to the shrine?” Anna wanted to hear the rest of Nate’s story if only to take her mind off the strange things that were happening to her.
“The tomb itself is quite an extraordinary building with beautiful brick and a huge dome covered in blue tiles.”
“Sounds nice, but I don’t quite understand…”
“If you stop interrupting me, I’ll get to the good part, sheesh. Don’t be so impatient.”
“Nate, I have other authors you know and we still have a great deal to discuss, so just get to the good part, as you said, already.”
Nate let out a sign. “Bib left me alone to get a smoke. While I was walking near the steps, I heard a woman’s voice calling me by my Hebrew name Netan’el, which no one but my parents and grandparents know.
“I walked all around the dome, and didn’t see anyone. Then, the voice continued. She said ‘You have to tell the true story of me and Vashti. The megillah has it all wrong.’ I tell you, there wasn’t anyone there. I was really freaking out as you can imagine.”
“You have no idea how well I can imagine. Did you find the woman?”
“I never did, but there’s more. While I was waiting for Bib to return, this voice recited to me the entire story of Vashti and her daughter. Then, the voice tells me she’s Queen Esther and that I’m a direct descendent of her son Darius. She said I looked just like him and it was my destiny to tell the world the truth, but it gets even weirder.”
“I’m listening.” Anna was mesmerized by Nate’s every word.
“I swear I was there for at least an hour, but when Bib came back, he said he’d only been gone for a few minutes. When I got back to the hotel, I took out my laptop and transcribed every word the ghost, I guess that was she was, had told me. I wrote Vashti’s Daughter in one night.”
“That in itself is unbelievable,” Anna tried to lighten the mood, but was not successful.
“I didn’t mention any of this to Bib when he dropped me off at the airport to fly back to L.A. I also didn’t mention to anyone that the voice insisted I give the book to someone named Anna Cohen Steine, that’s you.”
“You have got to be kidding!” Anna exclaimed.
“She also said to deliver it to you without any contact information, which I thought was really strange, and not let anyone else see it, so I dropped it off on your desk and left. How you and I eventually met is yet another mystery to this strange set of circumstances”
“That’s a lot to take in over one lunch,” Anna said. “I can’t say I believe you, but I can’t say I don’t believe you, the important thing is that you believe you. This voice didn’t happen to tell you why you had to give me the book specifically? There are many other publishers who specialize in this genre and we’re not one of them.”
“Anna, All I know is what I just told you. I’m not crazy. I don’t believe in ghosts and I’m not at all religious, but I know what I heard at the tomb site, I know what I wrote and I know this intense feeling that I have that you and I have met before, and I’m talking about a Syracuse basketball game, is real. I think you feel it too, am I right?”
Anna didn’t want to admit anything, even if Nate was right.
“So, what do we do now Madam Publisher?”
Anna took a deep breath before answering. Nate might be delusional but he might also have written a best-seller and she wasn’t about to pass on it no matter what she believed.
“What we do now is go back to my office and get you an agent, then we talk contracts.”
Walking on their way back to the office, Anna was so deeply involved with her own thoughts, she could just barely engage in the continuing conversation with Nate. What he had told her at lunch about his experience in Iran was, on its surface, completely unbelievable, but then again so was her ordering an item off the menu that wasn’t there and her seeing a waitress momentarily transform into a different person.
Until Saturday Nathaniel Braverman had been a total stranger. In two short days, Anna felt as if she’d known him for years, but she still couldn’t bring herself to tell him about how the dreams she’d been having were so similar to his manuscript. She only knew Steine and Steine had to publish “Vashti’s Daughter”, if only for her to be able to control the narrative.
“Glad you’re back,” Janet said to Anna as her and Nate walked by her office. “Your mother is on the phone.”
“That woman has a way of knowing exactly when I didn’t want to talk to her,” Anna motioned Nate into her office. “Can you tell her I’m in a meeting and I’ll call her back?”
“You want me to say that to your mother? No way, Anna. I’m not that brave. Best I can do is put her on hold, but you know what’ll happen.”
Janet knew all too well how insistent Anna’s mother could be when she wanted to speak to her daughter. No assistant was going to stop her.
“Yes, I won’t hear the end of it.” Anna resigned to answer the call. “I’ll take it in my office.”
Giving Nate a “be with you in a second” smile, Anna walked to her chair and picked up the phone. Although Nate could only hear one side of the conversation, he instinctively knew exactly what was being said on the other end. Over the years, Nate had many similar conversations with his own mother especially when he knew he was about to be deluged with an enormous amount of guilt. He did not envy Anna one bit.
“Hi mom. I’m in a meeting.”
“I know mom, but the Festival of Books is held in April every year.”
“I hate to miss the family Passover Seder too, but it’s going to take us at least a week tset everything up.”
“I know I promised last year, but I have no control over the calendar, I’m sorry.”
“I’ll call you tonight when I get home” The conversations ended just before Anna said, “Love you.”
“Missing Passover this year?” Nate empathized.
“This year, the year before, the one before that. It’s not that I don’t want to go, my mom makes the best chopped liver but I have a business to run. I know it’s hard for her to understand, but the L.A. Times Festival of Books is the biggest event on the West Coast next to Book Expo America in Chicago and the Pitch Conference in New York City. Before the divorce, Harry always went. I have no choice. I have to be there in person representing the company.” Anna stated.
“I’ve always hated that expression,” Nate scoffed. “There is no such thing and having no choice, you always have a choice. It’s the consequences of whatever choice you make you have to deal with, not the choice itself.”
“Aren’t you the philosophical one? You do have a point, though. The consequences of attending Passover with my mother and not attending FOB could be I’d lose my business and have to move in with my mother!” Anna laughed.
“We’ve not had a family Passover in decades,” Nate lamented. “Our family is sprawled out all over the country. My parents retired and moved to Florida, of course. My younger sister Charlotte lives in Huntington Beach, her daughter is an attorney in North Carolina and my older sister Laurie is divorced. She still lives in the condo we grew up in on Long Island in. Her son in a freshmen at Stanford.”
“You’re right, they are all over the place. I’m an only child. Jewish holidays weren’t really all that big a deal at my house.”
“It was in mine. I can still remember the three of us walking home from school and smelling the brisket from three blocks away. We would all yell “PASSOVER” and race home, even though we wouldn’t eat dinner for hours.”
Anna was beginning to feel slightly uneasy with the personal direction their conversation was going. She almost never discussed her family or her religion, yet with Nate words seemed to be coming out of her mouth her brain couldn’t control. She found herself saying things to him she’d never told anyone. On one hand, it was embarrassing, yet on the other, it felt as if it were the most natural thing for her to do.
“The ritual blessing over the wine in Hebrew is the only one I still know by heart, even though I went to Hebrew school once a week when I was in high school and could actually read and write Hebrew script, even though I couldn’t translate more than three words. To this day, I can’t read English transliteration. If I get lost I look for the double-yuds and go from there.”
“I think that’s cheating, right?” Nate grinned. “I can read and understand Hebrew. I had to learn it when I lived in Israel. Ever been?”
“Not yet. I was hired at Beacon Press the year I applied for the birthright tour, then I married Henry the last year I was eligible. Worst decision I ever made.”
“Not going on the birthright tour, or marrying Henry?”
“Both, but I’m sure planning a trip to Israel to correct that mistake will be a great deal easier than correcting the other one. Enough about past regrets, let’s talk about the future possibilities, shall we?”
“Absolutely,” Nate responded enthusiastically. “I know nothing about the publishing business, what do you suggest I do first?”
“First, let me make a phone call. I’m going to set you up with Arthur Philips. He’s one of the few honest agents I know. His offices are on the floor below, let me see if he’s available to meet you.”
Anna picked up the phone and pressed the speed dial number on her phone which rang directly to Arthur’s office. Anna wondered if it were just a coincidence that only that morning she had mentioned Nate’s book to him at breakfast. As she expected, Arthur told her he would be happy to meet with Nate in about an hour. Anna ended the call and was just about to related the information to Nate when she was interrupted by two loud voices in the hall. She recognized one as Janet’s, the other caused her to jump from her chair to reach her office door to close it, but she didn’t get there in time to stop the owner of the male’s voice from charging in, followed by a frantic Janet.
“I’m so sorry, Anna. I couldn’t stop him.”
“That’s fine, Janet. I’ll handle this. Henry, why are you here and how fast can you leave?”
“Anna, Anna, is that any way to speak to your co-host?”
It was all Anna could do to keep from swiping the smirk off of her ex-husband slash ex-partner’s face.
“What the hell are you talking about? What co-host?”
Henry handed Anna the printed schedule of speakers and forum topics which were being presented at the Festival of Books. Anna nearly gagged when she saw her name side by side with Henry’s on the topic of Traditional Publishing vs. Print-On-Demand: Pros and Cons for Authors.
“You have got to be kidding me!” Anna shrieked. “I agreed to be on a discussion panel, but I never agreed to share the stage, especially with you.”
“. I wanted to drop this off in person, because I knew if I’d called first, you would have hung up on me.”
“No, Janet would have hung up on you to be precise.”
“Either way, I think it’ll be fun. I just wanted to tell you how much I’m looking forward to debating you on this. You were always up for a good fight as I recall. Not that you were always right, I recall that, too.”
Pretending to just at that moment notice Anna was not alone in the office, Henry introduced himself.
“I’m Henry Steine. And you are…” Henry held out his hand. Not wanting to get in the middle of a hurricane, Nate headed for the door. “Just leaving.”
“Interesting,” Henry smirked as he watched Nate exit. “I do so hope I was interrupting something important.”
“If it was, or wasn’t, it’s no concern of yours. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”
“Okay, I’m gone. I was just stopping by to give you the heads up so you can prepare for the discussion, or debate, or battle, whichever you prefer. I’ll see you next week.”
The cheerful mood Anna felt moments earlier had quickly deflated with the appearance of the other Steine in her company’s name. Part of their divorce agreement stated that Henry wouldn’t ever enter Steine and Steine offices without an appointment, but it was just like him to ignore anything he’d agree to do or not do.
As Anna watched him leave, she was overcome with images of their brief relationship that made her skin crawl with disgust. Two years after their cantankerous divorce, Anna still had difficulty forgiving herself for her naivety when it came to believing the bullshit men somehow think she’d enjoy. How she could let herself be so easily fooled by Henry’s act when they first met that she would mistake his sleazy charm for love that she would have agreed to marry him kept her from trusting anyone since, especially herself.
When Anna met Henry at Beacon Press, she’d been impressed with how he could interact with authors and sell any title to whoever publisher he chose. His blond wavy hair and baby blue eyes were magnetic, especially when he used them expertly to his advantage. She didn’t realize until it was too late, that he was also a slick salesman when it came to her. At first, he was all charm and passion. Anna felt so incredibly special to be seen on the arm of such a well-respected member of the publishing world. He was also overly generous with dinners and gifts, Anna never suspected that these were all ploys in his arsenal designed to achieve his goal which was to marry a young, vibrant woman to be seen as an accessory to his other possessions.
The first clue that Henry wasn’t what he portrayed himself to be Anna would later discover was the wedding. Henry’s list of guests were only business associates, no family or friends. On her side, those who were invited all had strange excuses as to why they couldn’t attend. If it hadn’t been for Elaine being the Maiden of Honor, Anna wouldn’t have had anyone at the event. Henry’s true nature was exposed on their wedding night. Anna would say once Henry had achieved his goal, he became a totally different person. She soon realized that the different person was the person Henry was all along.
With every deal that didn’t close, Henry became more agitated. He demanded that Anna wear different clothes to company events and would become increasing hostile if she disagreed with a particular outfit she wanted to wear, or a hairstyle she wanted to try. It was Henry who decided they were going to live in a brand new apartment in Brentwood. It was Henry who decided to buy overpriced designer furniture that no one could sit on comfortably. If Anna voiced her opinion, Henry threw a fit as well as several dishes against the wall, then he’d lock himself in the bedroom. The one decision Anna agreed with Henry was to start Steine and Steine publishing. Anna thrived in the office environment while Henry spent most of his time and a great deal of their money, entertaining business associates.
In the office Henry would put on his jovial façade, but at home his moods became darker and darker. Henry’s obstinate attitude resulted in his top money making agent taking three of his best-selling authors to HarperCollins. That afternoon Henry’s temper erupted. When Anna came home she’d found all of her books, unread manuscripts and client’s notes torn to shreds all over the living room floor. Her paintings she bought before they were married were slashed and their wedding album had been reduced to a pile of ashes in the fireplace.
Henry had blamed Anna for his failure, screaming insults and false accusations through the night while Anna had sat in the kitchen emptying the last of the bourbon. Naturally, as was his pattern, the very next morning, Henry displayed intense remorse. He made her breakfast, told her how beautiful he was, how very sorry, while blaming the agent, the author, the thieves at HarperCollins for how he acted and assured her that it will never happen again. The worse part of his behavior, was that Anna believed him. It was Elaine who tried to educate Anna on Henry’s classic abusive behavior, having represented many abused women in their divorce proceedings, but Anna would always argue that she was nothing like the women Elaine had represented.
Anna might have continued in the marriage for many more years if not for the event that occurred at Henry’s fortieth birthday party. In spite of Anna’s suggestion they invite couples Henry had insisted on an all-male stag party where he could show off his beautiful wife and business partner. Henry told Anna she would be the center of attention and would enjoy the admiration of his friends who never thought a woman could succeed.
To insure she would be properly attired, Henry bought Anna a Christian Dior flowing black beaded gown, diamond earrings and matching necklace. He hired a hair and make-up artist to come to the apartment to complete the living statue. As his guests arrived, Henry made it a point to only introduce as “my wife,” never using her name, which Anna felt very pleased at first, until she began to feel like an extension of her husband and not an individual human being.
About halfway through the evening, Henry announced he had a special birthday surprise that he was going to show on their new 52” flat screen in the living room. Anna went to the bathroom to freshen her make-up, when Henry knocked on the door and told her to join them. Instead of finding an empty seat in the back of the room, Henry insisted she sit in the front, with her back to the screen so the men could alternate looking at the screen and looking her. Every time she wanted to leave, Henry shot her a threatening glance, so she stayed where she was. Once the movie started, the men began applauding and howling at the images on the screen.
At that point, Henry told Anna to get up and join the fun. She didn’t move. The yells got louder. Anna finally turned around to see what they were looking at and was appalled to see the movie they were enjoying was the 1972 porno Behind the Green Door. It became clear to Anna at the moment that Henry was going to ask her to act like the woman in the movie to entertain his guests.
When she’d refused to move, Harry had grabbed her arm, thrown her out of the room screaming for her to get out and never come back, all the while his drunken friends were cheering him on. Anna put as much as she could fit into a suitcase and walked out the front door. She kept the dress and the jewelry, of course. She spent the next two months at Elaine’s house in Beverly Hills solidifying her life and two days in Elaine’s law office dissolving her marriage. Before the ink was dried on the divorce papers, Anna heard that Henry had remarried. She guessed he’d found someone who was more amenable to his demands.
After Elaine worked her legal expertise, Anna won the bulk of the business. Henry slithered away with only the print-on-demand portion which was now, along with Henry, totally severed from the Steine and Steine corporation.
Anna didn’t know where she would be without Elaine. With the all the bizarre events going on in her life surrounding Vashti’s Daughter and Henry’s surprise appearance she needed her friend now more than ever before.
She also needed a double martini now more than ever before. With one phone call, Anna took take care of both of those needs before the sun disappeared over the Pacific ocean.
Anna was on her third martini when Elaine finally arrived at the bar.
“Sorry, I’m late. I had a last minute response that had to be filed with the court first thing in the morning and I didn’t want to try and write it under a hangover cloud.” Elaine stole Anna’s drink then signaled for the bartender to make two more. “So, tell me everything!”
“We better order some food, everything is going to take a few hours.”
By the time Anna finished telling Elaine the full story about her lunch with Nate, Anna’s misreading the menu and having another Continue reading latest chapter by clicking the Vashti’s Daughter tab above to find out what happens next! Vashti vision, what he had told her about how he came to write Vashti’s Daughter, and Henry’s annoying trespass into her office, it was nearly two in the morning. Elaine was understandably skeptical by what Nate had revealed, but she was even more annoyed at the audacity of Anna’s ex’s actions.
“Do you think Henry arranged for to be on that panel with you?”
“I wouldn’t put it past him,” Anna said. “It didn’t take him very long to replace me, but I don’t think his ego ever got over the fact that when he pushed me out of the party that night, I didn’t come running back, or that the company is doing so much better with him gone.”
“And, what about Nate and his book?”
“It is the strangest thing, Elaine. I’ve met him exactly three times, but there is something so familiar about him. Not to mention the details that mysterious voice told him about Vashti’s daughter are nearly identical to what my dreams have been. Plus, I have an overwhelming need to publish it, even before I’ve finished reading the thing and I’ve never done anything like this in my entire career. I even set him up with Arthur tomorrow to sign the contract and I didn’t even mention the amount of the signing advance!”
“Well, if you want my advice, do what you know best in the practical world, which is to finish reading the manuscript and call me when you have the contract draft in hand so I can do what I do best, unless you’d like to read a very boring personal injury insurance brief.”
“That would put me to sleep for sure.” Anna laughed.
The first thing Anna did when she returned to her apartment was to change into her comfortable reading clothes. She was too wired to even try to attempt sleep, even though she needed to be in the office at seven to start putting together the list for the book festival, her top priority was to finish Nate’s manuscript. Pulling an all-nighter wasn’t anything new to Anna. Some very strong coffee would do the trick.
When the manuscript first appeared on her desk at work, Anna thought Vashti’s Daughter was a work of fiction. Vashti in the title was evidence the theme was Jewish. Jewish Historical Fiction was a genre Anna had absolutely no interest in publishing. Except for exchanging occasional gifts at Hanukkah, or attending Elaine’s Purim party, Anna wasn’t really so she couldn’t understand why Nate’s “ghost voice” would have insisted that he give her and only her the manuscript.
For the longest time, Anna didn’t reveal her religion. She owned several ornamental Star of David necklaces, but never wore any out of fear of standing out or attracting unwanted attention to herself as being “different’ in an almost one hundred percent Christian work environment at Beacon Press.
Before she married Henry, she had even considered changing her name from Anna Cohen to Julie Russell, but Elaine convinced her not to. Or rather the 435 dollar name change filing fee convinced her not to. Instead of name change filing papers, Elaine had given her a copy of Michael Shapiro’s book Jewish Pride: 101 Reasons to Be Proud You’re Jewish. From that day on, Anna no longer felt reluctant to proclaim her Jewish faith, but only when she felt it appropriate. After the divorce, she kept her last name and the company name, but her policy against publishing religious genre didn’t waver.
As only one of two Jewish editors at Beacon, she would get a minimum of two-hundred submissions both fiction and non-fiction written by Jewish authors. The themes were all, one way or another, centered around the Holocaust. On one particularly stressful December day, she got so fed up, she went directly to Henry’s office, dropped ten manuscripts on his desk and proclaimed loud enough for the entire office to hear;
“Jews have been around long before the 1930’s. There’s a lot of other things we know how to do other than die en masse!” Three days later, Henry and Anna quit to form Steine and Steine publishing.
Anna made herself comfortable on the couch determined to finish reading Nate’s manuscript before the sun came up. He was a very good writer, she observed even if the text was a bit dry. Anna attributed his writing style to his professorial background more than that of a creative writer, but the prose held her interest even if he had told her most of the content at lunch. The description of Vashti’s escape from her fate was exactly what her dream character had told her what Anna had previously read. What astonished her was Nate’s description of the main character herself. The fact that Vashti had a daughter, but raised her as a male until her eighteen birthday and her name was Adara.
When Anna read that name, an intense chill ran through her entire body. Continuing on with the text, Anna couldn’t believe how accurate Nate’s story was in comparison to the dreams Anna was having, including the young man who, according to Nate’s text, was destined to marry Adara; Esther’s son Darius.
Darius is Esther’s SON? Anna shouted to an empty room. No Way!
With trembling finger, Anna continued to turn the pages. Her eyesight was beginning to blur. She went to the kitchen to make a fresh pot of coffee, then went to the sink and splashed cold water on her face.
I have to stay awake to read the end of the manuscript and find out what became of Adara and Darius, she thought. If she was going to have another dream, at least she might have some idea of what to expect. Anna picked up the filled coffee cup and returned to the couch. The next several chapters didn’t reveal very much. Nate described a thriving kingdom, Queen Esther met Queen Vashti, they became friends. Esther promised when she returned, she would make a proclamation absolving Vashti of any wrong doing and in fact, exhorting her as the true heroine of the Hebrew people.
This part of the story Anna knew wasn’t true. None of the ancient texts mentioned any of this story. Anna read further. There was a successful peace agreement, a banquet, an engagement, but no wedding. Darius and Esther left the banquet in a hurry. According to Nate’s account, there was an accident on the road and Esther was killed. As a result, she never was able to tell anyone the true facts about Vashti and Darius went on to be King with no mention of his subsequent wives, none of whom were Adara.
Thinking she might have missed something Anna searched through the remaining pages for any mention of Adara, but there were none. For no logical reason, tears began flowing down her cheeks. Anna felt an enormous sense of loss and deep sadness, and an emptiness she couldn’t explain.
Followed by an irrational desire to invite Nathaniel Braverman to her apartment, to her arms and to her bed.
The editors and assistants at Steine and Steine respectfully focused their eyes away from their boss when Anna arrived at corporate headquarters two hours late. Without greeting anyone, Anna walked swiftly from the elevator to her office and closed the door. A few moments later, Janet entered carrying a stack of phone messages in one hand and a large cup of espresso in the other which she carefully put on Anna’s desk.
“I know an all-nighter when I see one,” her assisted whispered. “Dare I ask, work or play?”
“All work all night. I finally finished reading Dr. Braverman’s manuscript.”
“And, it’s well written for academia, I’m just not sure how well it’s going to sell, which is, of course, the true determination. But, I’ve already offered him a contract based on specs. He should be meeting with Arty any minute, then they’ll come up here for final contract negotiations.” Anna’s stomach loudly reminded her, and anyone within hearing distance, that she hadn’t eaten breakfast.
Janet giggled. “I think that’s my cue to make you a bagel and cream cheese from the office lounge before you pass out from starvation.”
“Thank you, Janet. You’re too good to me. Can you please call Arty’s office and ask when they plan on coming in so I can at least appear to be coherent?”
Two hours later, the receptionist buzzed Janet to let her know that Anna’s clients had arrived. Janet knocked on Anna’s door alerting her that the meeting was about to start and went to meet Nate and Arthur in the lobby. She led them to Anna’s office purposely giving Nate a detailed overview of the publishing house as they walked down the hall in an attempt to give Anna a bit more time to recoup from her lack of sleep. She hoped the bagel Anna had eaten would have been sufficient nourishment to last her through the morning’s contract negotiations.
Janet opened Anna’s office door and walked in followed by Nate and Arthur. Janet was relieved to see her boss looking more alert than she had appeared earlier. Anna thanked her assistant who turned to leave.
Just as Anna rose from her chair to greet the men. She returned Arthur’s handshake and warm smile before he sat down. When she placed her hand in Nate’s she suddenly felt a rush of fiery desire overcome her. Anna felt dizzy. She grabbed onto the edge of the desk just before the room started spinning and then everyone and everything dissolved into a psychedelic blur.
Once Anna was able to focus her eyes she wasn’t at all surprised the office walls and the men who had been there were replaced by the medieval bedroom of the castle in her dream world and her two servants Ruth and Deborah.
“This is getting really annoying,” Anna thought. “One minute I’m in my office in an important meeting, the next I’m back in this fantasy. I just hope Janet doesn’t call the paramedics.”
Looking around at her surroundings Anna realized she wasn’t alone. She cursed under her breath. It was difficult enough to conceal her true identity when she was alone in her dream state, but she didn’t know how long she could keep up the pretense when she had to interact with other characters she didn’t know who appeared in her dream. Nonetheless, Anna was determined to play out the fantasy, if only to somehow find a rational explanation that would ground her in reality permanently.
“There you are, Adara,” Deborah said. “Everyone has been looking for you since you fainted in the courtyard. Are you feeling well?”
Anna wondered if her nearly fainting in the real world had somehow transferred to her fainting in her dream world as well since she didn’t remember fainting the last time she was in the dream. Anna decided the best way to answer was to lie. “I realized I didn’t have anything to eat since breakfast and felt a bit dizzy, but I’m fine now. Where is Queen Vashti?”
“I just passed her in the dining room with the chefs preparing the dinner menu. Do you need any help getting ready for the banquet this evening?”
“No, I think I can manage. Can you tell me the way to the dining room?”
“You must still be feeling dizzy,” Ruth gave directions in spite of her concern for the health of Adara. “It’s three doors down the corridor on your left. Shall I show you the way?”
“No, that won’t be necessary. I’ll see you later tonight.”
“Of course, whatever you wish. King Darius is quite appealing, is he not?”
Is he the guy I met by the river, or the one sitting in my office?
“If you say so,” Anna was getting impatient. “You can leave now.”
Anna waited a significant time to allow Deborah to clear the hallway before she opened the door and made her way down the corridor to where she hoped to find Vashti. She was, in this life anyway, her mother and she may have some of the answers Anna so desperately needed. Then again, explaining to her mother why she needed answers to questions she probably should have known would most probably lead to more questions, most of which Anna wouldn’t be able to answer.
Well, it was worth a shot, Anna thought, if only to make it easier for her to return to the world she belonged and not be forced to live in one she knew she didn’t.
After getting lost several times Anna finally located the dining room where Vashti was busy talking to what appeared to be the cooks and kitchen staff about the evening’s festivities. She was pointing to the chairs indicating where the guests would be sitting, when she spotted Anna walking into the room, she stopped to speak to her.
“Adara, I’m so glad you’re here. I was just telling the cooks what to prepare for tonight and I wasn’t certain if we should serve lamb or turkey. We have wonderful recipes for both, but the cook seems to think his specialty is lamb, so I’m inclined to go with that. What do you think?”
I think that my imagination would have put something a bit more elegant on the menu. Anna thought, but said instead, “Lamb will be fine. I know you’re busy, but I really have something important to talk to you about and it really can’t wait.”
“Of course, anything for my daughter, especially on the evening of her engagement.”
“Yeah, about that. We really need to talk.”
Anna could tell by the expression on Vashti’s face that her response wasn’t what she had expected, or was very pleased to hear. Vashti dismissed the staff and walked over to Anna. Her voice was dripping with controlled anger, which Anna wasn’t at all prepared for. After all, if this was her dream, the people she brought into it shouldn’t be so irritating since she could simply wake up anytime she wanted and leave them, or at least she hoped that she could and that it would be very soon. Anna was getting a bit annoyed at having to play a part she hadn’t even rehearsed let alone read the script.
“Let’s go outside in the garden where we won’t have any interruptions, Adara.”
Anna followed Vashti out to the garden. After she closed the gate behind them, Vashti motioned for Anna to sit on the bench, then sat down beside her. The first word from her lips left Anna speechless.
“Anna, I know you have many questions and I only have a few moments where I can answer them. There are spies everywhere.”
“You called me Anna? Then you know…”
“Yes. I’ve known since we returned from the cabin. You have to know it was never my intention to bring you here, but it is all my fault that you are.”
“Ok, now you’re really beginning to frighten me. This is all just a weird dream, right? I’m going to wake up at any time and be back in my own life, right?”
“I hope so, for your sake, but that’s not the real problem.”
“Not the real problem? You’ve got to be kidding!”
“I’m sorry, what I meant was that it’s not the real problem for us, right now. I’m certain you can return to your own time, you’ve done it before, right?”
“No buts. You can and you will, but for now you have to listen. What I’m about to tell you may seem unbelievable, but it is the truth.”
“I can’t imagine anything more unbelievable then this conversation, but I’m listening.”
“I already told you the story of how I was able to escape from Achashverosh’s decree that I be killed and how I raised you as Adar until you were of age to resume the throne of this kingdom. What I didn’t tell you was that the women who came to our courtyard talking about women’s rights was a seer of the future. Somehow her mind was able to travel through time and she heard how the priests and rabbis of the future had distorted the truth of what happened at that party with King Achashverosh, why I refused to dance naked for his friends, how I treated my maidens and respected my friends. She also told me of all the lies and false stories that were going to be repeated and believed throughout the ages about other women like myself including Lilith, Miriam, and Edith.”
“I know Lilith and Miriam, of course, but who is Edith?” Anna asked.
“Edith was Lot’s wife and she wasn’t the one turned to salt, it was Lot, but I’m getting away from my story.”
None of this was in Nate’s book, Anna thought. She had to wonder whether this was her subconscious making it all up, or she was actually in the past as Vashti continued her explanation.
“The seer gave me a potion that she said would take me on a dream quest to where my daughter, Adara, who was called Anna, was living many centuries from now. I couldn’t talk to you, but I think you saw me at your friend’s Purim party. I had to somehow find a way to communicate with you. I tried to send a message through the Tarot, but the woman reading the cards didn’t fully understand the message. I was only able to be with you in your time for a short while, the guards were coming to take the prisoner they thought was me to be executed and Deborah and Ruth were on their way to help me escape into the woods. I didn’t realize the potion that I took to travel through time would remain in my blood and would be transmitted to my unborn child. The truth is, you’ve been revisiting my time for the over 2,000 years, with different names, just before your 30th birthday. I’ve told this story to each incarnation of Adara. You’re the 100th generation and I’m convinced you’ll be the last.”
“Why is that?”
“Because you are the first Adara of my time who has met King Darius in your time. He goes by the name Nathaniel Braverman. It will be up to the two of you to break the curse, or these visits, or dreams as you call them, will continue onto your next generation.”
She might be dreaming, or she might be traveling in time, Anna thought, but either way, she instinctively knew that she needed to pay attention to Vashti’s warning or else she would regret it for the rest of her life. The life in 2017.
“This is the first I’ve heard of a curse,” Anna said. “I’m still not that convinced that this isn’t some very bad dream, but let’s for moments say that I believe you. What is the curse and just how do I break it?”
“That’s the problem,” Vashti’s voice was filled with sadness. “I have no idea. I can only say you’ll know it when it happens, there’s no way to prevent it and you’ll know when it’s broken, but I can’t tell you how, or where, or when that will happen. I have to get back to make the final preparations for this evening’s festivities. If everything goes as planned, we shall meet again, but do not reveal to anyone what I’ve just told you, or you may not be able to return to your own time.”
Anna watched Vashti leave through the garden gate. She didn’t want to believe a word of what her dream creation has just told her, but there were just too many facts like Vashti knowing Nate’s name, or her own for that matter, for Anna to simply accept this as a simple dream. She was just about to leave the garden when an intimidating male figure emerged from behind the bushes, grinning like the proverbial Cheshire cat.
“I was taking a walk through your lovely estate, Adara and seemed to have gotten lost. I didn’t mean to startle you.” Darius purred.
“That’s ok, but you really should make some noise when you sneak up on someone or else they’re going to think you’re spying. You weren’t spying on me, were you?”
“Why would I spy on such a beautiful creature who will soon be my wife? If you have any secrets, I have delightful ways of making you reveal them.”
Without warning, Darius put his arm around Anna’s waist, pulled her close and gave her a long very deep, passionate kiss that made her head spin and her knees buckle. Furious that he would have acted like some macho pig, Anna pulled herself away, raised her arm and slapped his face.
“What the hell was that for?” a startled Nathaniel Braverman cried.
“Anna, are you crazy?” Arthur said.
“I…I…” Anna didn’t know what to say. How could she possibly explain what happened that would cause her to physically assault Nate, and in front of a witness no less?
“I was just trying to stop you from falling,” Nathaniel rubbed the bright red bruise on his cheek. “You were looking a bit faint; I didn’t know you were so touchy.”
“Oh, god, I am so sorry, Nate. I don’t know what I was thinking.” Anna composed herself as best she could, grateful that only a few moments has passed in real time.
“Just for the record, I’m NOT a macho pig! It’s no wonder chivalry is dead, when a guy tries to help a maiden in distress he’s rewarded by getting slapped in the face!” Nate teased.
Did I really say that out loud? Anna thought. I hope I didn’t say anything else.
“I really haven’t been sleeping well for a few days. I’ll just have some cold water and I’ll be fine. Can we forget this little incident and get back to business?”
“If you’re okay, of course we can,” said Arthur. “That little display of physical violence is going to cost you a bit more of an advance than what you usually offer first time authors, right?” He smiled.
“Of course, it will be cheaper than defending an assault charge, Arty. Nathaniel again I am really sorry. Now, let’s talk about your book.”
For the next several hours, Anna, Nate and Arthur discussed the details of the publishing contract Janet had previously printed out before the meeting. The first ten pages were mostly boiler plate with the names of the principles, date and title of the manuscript filled in. The rest of the twenty or so pages spelled out the terms regarding copyright ownership, publishing rights, and the most important detail; advance and royalties. With any other literary agent, Anna could be negotiating percentages for days, but she knew Arty trusted her, as she did him, so it made the process go by much more smoothly. Besides, it was Elaine who had drawn up the original contract agreements, so she was more than confident her company as well as the author and his agent, was fully protected.
Anna sat back and watched as Arty explained the terminology before his client signed his name on each line. Even though her attention was focused on the contract, Anna was having a very difficult time keeping her eyes on the pages in front of her and not on the man who was sitting in front of her signing those pages. She had long before drained the entire pitcher of ice water Janet had placed on her desk and was doing her best not to notice the perspiration that was forming on the back of her neck and various other areas of her body. Once they had finished signing the documents, Anna buzzed Janet to come into the office to make copies for everyone and bring a fresh pitcher of ice water. Seeing Anna’s flushed cheeks, Janet gave Anna a concerned look before replacing the pitcher. Anna returned the look along with a silent “I’m fine” smile.
“Now that the legal process is over, I want to go over with both of you my plan for launching Vashti’s Daughter.” Anna took several gulps of water and continued.
“Usually it would take months for a new book to go from submission to distribution, but with the Festival of Books in two weeks, I’d like to have it ready for early pre-release.”
“That is unusual,” Arthur stated. “As long as you send the agreed upon advance, I don’t see any problem. How does that sound, Nate?”
“Yeah, it sounds fine,” Nate stammered.
From the moment his hand had touched Anna’s at the start of the meeting, his mind had been focused on something else that had very little to do with business. Whatever Arthur told him, Nate didn’t have any objections to anything Anna wanted.
“All right then. We’ll get started with the graphic artwork for the front cover, set up a photo shoot and bio for the back cover and get this process started.”
Anna buzzed Janet to show the men out. She purposely held the contracts and glass of water in her hands. She didn’t want to take the chance of having another episode should her and Nate’s hands touch.
In the elevator, Arthur scanned the contracts again to be sure they hadn’t missed anything. “Now, we’ll go to my office and make our representation, and my ten percent cut, official.”
“Sure. Arthur, just how well do you know Anna?” Nate said when the men returned to Arty’s office. “We only met three days ago at the Syracuse, USC basketball game. Then she came to my seminar and we had lunch yesterday, yet I can’t help feeling we’ve met before.”
“You both went to Syracuse, maybe you met her there and just don’t remember.”
“No, were in different parts of the campus. Besides I’m sure I’d remember meeting her.”
“I’ve known Anna since she was Anna Cohen, before she married that snake Henry. We had a few encounters after their divorce, but now we’re just than good friends. Why?”
“I honestly don’t know. There is just something about her.”
Nate wasn’t about to tell Arthur about his experience in Iran that motivated his writing Vashti’s story or that the imaginary voice insisted he give the book to Anna to publish. It was weird enough that Nate couldn’t ignore the intense reaction he was having every time the two of them met.
“Let’s finish the contracts. I need to go home and take a shower.”
After downing another full pitcher of ice water, Anna was beginning to return to her normal professional self. Between her reaction to Darius kissing her during her latest episode and how her body had reacted to Nathaniel’s touch in the real world, she was starting to believe her illusions were much more than simple dreams.
This entire craziness started with Shifra’s Tarot reading at Elaine’s Purim party, Anna thought. If there were no rational explanation for what was happening to her, maybe there was a metaphysical one. It was certainly worth some investigation. Anna picked up the phone and called Elaine to see if she still had Shifra’s contact information.
“I have it in my data base,” Elaine answered. “I thought you didn’t believe in this stuff.”
“I honestly don’t know what to believe anymore.” Anna told Elaine everything that had happened over the last few days, her sexual attraction to both Darius and Nathaniel and the most recent event in her office.
“Can you imagine what would happen if I passed out at the FOD panel? I may be going crazy, but I have to find out the source of what’s causing these dreams, hallucinations, or whatever this is before I commit myself to a psych ward!”
“If you think Shifra can help, here’s in phone number. She lives north of the Sunset Strip not that far of a drive. Let me know what happens. At the very least, you just signed a great book and met a really great guy.”
“You always do look on the bright side. Thank you.”
Anna hesitated a few minutes before dialing the phone number Elaine had given her. With only two weeks before FOB, Anna had hundreds of decisions to make not to mention a panel discussion to finalize. She didn’t even know if Shifra would be home, or if she was, would be able to shed any light on what was happening to her. She could spare a few hours to find out, Anna thought. And a scenic drive up Sunset Boulevard on a warm spring evening would be a nice distraction as well.
Shifra was delighted to hear from Anna. Of course she would be more than happy to delve further into her reading. After giving Janet some last minute assignments and entering the address into her phone, Anna headed out to her car for the drive to an area of Los Angeles she knew she would never be able to afford to live.
Anna pressed the passcode keys that opened the gate. Shifra was waiting for her when she drove up to the driveway of an opulent mansion. Shifra motioned for her to continue the drive around back where there was a much smaller house.
“I was just thinking I was in the wrong business if you could afford living here by reading Tarot cards.” Anna laughed.
“I wish. That’s my parent’s house. They’re television producers. The prodigal daughter lives in the back. I’m only allowed to poke my head out for family events. Come on inside.”
Anna was pleased to see Shifra’s home was a much more casual setting than she expected. Except for the table with Tarot cards, astrological charts, books on Vashti and an abundance of candles, Anna could have been in her own apartment. Shifra offered Anna a glass of wine and invited her to sit down, make herself comfortable and tell her a bit about what she thought the cards might be able to reveal. Anna proceeded to fill her in on everything that had transpired since the party, including the dreams she’d been having, her session with Dr. Walters and the man she had recently met. Shifra listened without making any comments, or judgments.
“That’s quite interesting. I think we may need to used other tools than just the cards to see if we can interpret what these visions are trying to tell you, especially where Nathaniel Braverman is involved since his book seems to be the catalyst for a lot of what you’re experiencing.”
“That’s sounds good to me, where do you want to start?”
“First, your visions are somehow connected to someone you think is Vasthi’s daughter, Adara?”
“It’s a start.”
“We’re going to start with numerology,” Shifra opened a large book and handed Anna a pad and pen. “Write done your birthday, Nathaniel’s birthday if you know it, and if you can think of any other numbers you’ve notice lately.”
Anna had a copy of the contract on her phone which contained Nate’s birthday. She wrote the dates and gave the pad back to Shifra who started thumbing through the books while writing notes on the pad. When she was finished, she refilled her wine glass.
“Now, you have to understand I’m only giving you information. It might mean something, or it might not. The interpretation of the information will be entirely up to you.”
“I recognize a disclaimer when I hear one. Don’t worry, I’m a big a skeptic as anyone.”
“Let’s start with Nathaniel’s birthday. March 11 corresponds to the 7th day of Adar on the Jewish calendar which also happens to be Moses’ birthday. Nathaniel was born in 1984, which added together, 3, 11, 1984 is a full 9. In gematria, which is a form of Jewish numerology, the number nine is the number of universal love, eternity and faith. Nathaniel Braverman is a very powerful love force. I’m guessing he is the Knight of Swords that covered you in your first reading.”
“You remembered that?” Anna was impressed.
“Of course, I always take a picture of my readings with my cellphone in case someone wants to book another reading, like you did. As I told you at the Purim party, your birthday, July 18, 1987 is very powerful and very lucky. Now, this is where it gets really strange. Your birthday is July 18 which corresponds to the 26th day of Tammuz. According to my research, if Vashti had a daughter she would have been born in 363 BCE and died in 333, another nine year, on her 30th birthday the 26th day of Tammuz, which is also your birthday.”
“I hope that doesn’t mean I’m going to die on my 30th birthday.” Anna refilled her glass of wine. “You mind if I smoke?”
“Not at all. I have plenty of ventilation with all the incense and candles. Let me get you an ashtray.”
Shifra left the room for a moment. Anna reached in her purse for a cigarette. When she picked up a candle to light it, a vision of Vashti appeared near the far curtain. As soon as Shifra returned, the vision vanished. Anna wasn’t sure if she had actually seen Vashti, or if the apparition was a result of the smoke created by the incense. She decided it would be best to wait until after the reading to say anything to Shifra.
“Here you go. Now, before we get into the Tarot, can you remember any particular number or time of day, or anything that you might have noticed appearing frequently.”
Anna took a sip of wine and a drag of her cigarette. Closed her eyes and tried to envision any recurring number she might have noticed. Flashes of memory came into her mind’s eye.
“There was one, now that you mentioned it. I recall Elaine’s invitation to the Purim party arrived at 2:18. When I arrived at the basketball game where I first met Nathaniel, I looked at my watch, it was also 2:18. His friend Bib and him left to meet the team eighteen minutes before halftime and today when I met Arty and Nate at the office, we shook hands at exactly 2:18! What does it mean?”
“Let me check my gematria book. It says here that 2:18 represents “two lives”. The number 36 is two times eighteen, eighteen meaning Chai.”
“That’s pretty complicated.”
“Not at all. For whatever reason you’re seeing 2:18 whenever you’re with Nathaniel Braverman could mean that your two lives are meant to be together.”
“I think I’m getting a headache,” Anna rubbed her temples. “What about the Tarot cards? Can we do another reading?”
Shifra gave Anna the stack of cards to shuffle. She pulled the first card. As in the first reading at Elaine’s party the first card drawn was the Empress. It was covered by the Knight of Swords. The rest of the cards were the Lovers, four of wands, and Justice. The moment Shifra revealed the Justice card, the spectra of Vashti reappeared next to Anna. This time, she was much clearer than she had been at previous sightings. Shifra calmly watched in silence as the apparition moved closer to the table where she first pointed to the Empress card, then to herself and then to Anna. She then pointed to the Knight of Swords and, just before she vanished pointed to Justice.
“Did you see that?” Anna could barely form words.
“Yes, I absolutely did. It appears she was trying to send you a message.”
“You saw Vashti? It wasn’t my imagination? I’m not hallucinating?”
“Apparently not. If I were to interpret the meaning of the cards she pointed to, I’d say the pregnant Empress is her and the unborn child is you. In addition to what you told me about your experiences this past week and your latest dream where she told you that you are an incarnation of Adara. You might be experiencing events that actually occurred in the past. If I were you, I’d pay as much attention to what is going on in your dreams as you can remember. You very well may be the reincarnation of Vashti’s daughter.”
The fact that Shifra made the statement with such complete conviction had Anna starting to believe the impossible might very well be true. Shifra continued reading the remaining cards.
“The Knight of Swords could be Nathaniel, or another dark haired man.”
“On a horse?” Anna thought of Darius.
“Could be on a horse, or some other mode of transportation. If I’m reading this correctly, I believe you and your Knight of Swords are heading on a path that is going to take you on a journey of enormous discovery to right a great wrong, and the four of wands signifies you will be victories, but what that is, the cards don’t say.”
“This is all very interesting, but can you tell me why this is happening now? I’ve never in my entire life had any psychic experiences, and suddenly I’m having them all the time. Then there’s Nathaniel supposedly hearing Queen Esther’s voice saying he was her direct descendant and dictating the entire manuscript to him with instructions that he had to give to me specifically. These all can’t just be coincidences.”
All the while Anna was talking, Shifra was busy writing everything she said. She then turned to her Zodiac astrological charts. Comparing the numerological notes she’s written down earlier, she drew some intersecting line on the chart and handed it to Anna.
“If you are, in fact, Vashti’s daughter and Nathaniel Braverman is a decent of Esther, the two of you might have met before. This curse Vashti told you about seems to be connected to both you and Nathaniel because according to these charts, an event of epic proportions is destined to occur on this date.”
Shifra pointed to the only spot on the chart where two large lines intersected. Anna stared at the chart with the lines
The symbols and notations on the chart were totally incomprehensible to Anna. The only reference she recognized was the date where the lines intersected; July 18th her 30th birthday and the date of Adara’s death.
“Seems like I only have four months to break a curse and bring Justice to someone or something I know nothing about. Piece of cake.”
“If it’s any consolation, you won’t be doing this alone. Go find your Knight of Swords.”
Anna collected the papers and her belongings and headed out to her car. “I appreciate you’re doing this. How much do I owe you?”
“I just saw the ghost of Vashti appear in my living room. No charge!”
As Anna drove to her apartment, she was more confused than before she had the reading. If what Shifra said was true, what horrific wrong was she supposed to put right and if what Vashti said was also true, how was she supposed to do this while also figuring out how to break a curse? And exactly what role did Nathaniel Braverman and his book have to play in all of it?
“Now that you know what I’ve been going though Bib, you have to agree this is one very weird situation on several levels.”
Bib ordered another round of hot wings and cold beer. When Nate called earlier, he thought it was to celebrate his signing with an agent and finding a publisher. Bib was totally unprepared to hear the entire story his friend had just told him.
“I’ve known you for a long time, Nate. You’ve always been a logical guy but what happened to you at Hamadan, the success of the book and your feelings for Anna Steine who you just met, is way beyond rational thought. I know how you like to analyze everything, but in this case my advice is to just go with the flow.”
Nate refilled his mug. “What is really strange, is how she reacted, or should I say, didn’t react when I told her the same thing at lunch. Then, when we shook hands in her office, I felt a jolt of electricity so strong my knees buckled. I chalked it up to static in the carpet, but when I had to steady her right before she toppled over, I was convinced she’d felt it as well. The odd thing was, she also shook hands with Arthur, and neither one of them reacted.”
“I guess it’s your electrifying personality,” Bib joked. “It could be your over active imagination, the just some unbalanced electrical charges in the room, why don’t you just give her a call? You’ve never had any problem with women in the past and if she’s as highly charged as you say, you two could ignite a lot more than just a few asperities.”
Nate reached in his pocket and pulled out Anna’s business card with her call phone number scrawled on the back. He looked at it then put it back in his pocket. Bib gave him a stern look, so he took the card out again along with his cell phone and pressed the keypad.
“I probably should have waited until I got home,” he said to Bib waited for the call to connect. “Calling from a bar isn’t the best impression, but if I waited, I might have chickened out.”
“I highly doubt that, but as a good friend, I’ll give you some privacy.” Bib tossed a few dollars on the table and headed for the exit just as Nate heard a sultry “hello, this is Anna.”
Trying to ignore his racing heart and the beads of sweat that were forming on his forehead and on both his palms, Nate waited what seemed like a momentous amount of time before identifying himself. He was annoyed with his hesitancy and diminished self-confidence he was experiencing with just the thought of his words traveling though the cellular network and finding their way to Anna’s receptive ear. On his travels across the Mid-East, Nate had been taught relaxing meditation breathing techniques and instantly knew this was the perfect opportunity to utilize the practice. He took a deep breath through his nose and exhaled the responsive greeting through his lips.
“Hello, Ms. Steine. This is Nathaniel Braverman.” Nate paused to wait for her response.
“Hi Dr. Braverman. It’s after nine, is everything okay?”
In his haste to make the call, Nate hadn’t thought about a reason he would be calling late at night. He wasn’t about to tell her the truth; that he desperately desired to hear her voice, but that wasn’t the reason he gave.
“I…uh… had a few questions about the distribution schedule and publicity for the book. Please call me Nate.”
Nate could hear Anna’s smile through the phone. He knew she didn’t believe him, but she played along just the same.
“It’s all pretty standard, Nate. I can send you an email in the morning, or you can come to the meeting on Friday around 2 o’clock when we finalize the FOB event.”
“Friday at two will be fine. I’ll see you then.” Nate returned his phone to his pocket, paid the rest of the bar tab and headed home.
Nathanial Braverman, Ph.D. was in a quandary. A renowned world-traveled intellectual, prominent guest speaker and a Professor at a prestigious university, he was far removed from experiencing teenage angst and the relationship uncertainly that raging hormones brought with them. At thirty-six years of age, Nate had certainly experienced his share of dating, some serious, most not-so-much, but the attraction he was feeling for Anna was beyond anything he had ever encountered, foreign or domestically.
From the moment he met her at the basketball game, his body had reacted in an alarmingly familiar way. Nate definitely knew the reality of lust at first sight, having taken advantage of that instant attraction on numerous occasions in college, but he was never convinced there was such a thing as love at first sight. No, that kind of deep, emotional connection was only what he’d heard his fellow female professors discuss over coffee in the professor’s lounge about the latest romance novel one of them had read. Up until the moment he met Anna, Nate firmly believed that the idea of a soul mate was a creative concept invented to sell books, movies, seminars and jewelry with absolutely no basis in fact. Meeting Anna Steine had shaken the very foundation of his relationship structure right out from under him.
When he arrived home, Nate put Friday’s meeting notation into his master calendar, not at all sure how he was going to be able to concentrate on all the other appointments and classes he had until then. For now, he was going to take a cold shower and crawl under the covers, alone.
Anna heard the annoying sound of her cell phone buzz and for a moment chastised herself for not turning it off when she got home, but when she saw the name of the person calling appear on the screen, she was glad she hadn’t.
“Hello, Ms. Steine. This is Nathaniel Braverman.”
Her body reacted instantly to the sound of his voice. She fought to ignore her racing heart and the beads of sweat that were forming on the back of her neck and on both her palms. Anna waited what seemed like a momentous amount of time mentally asking a series of questions before responding.
Why is he calling? Why am I reacting this way? Why is he calling?
Anna instinctively used the relaxing meditation breathing techniques she learned in her Yoga class. She took a deep breath through her nose and exhaled the responsive greeting through her lips.
“Hi Dr. Braverman. It’s after nine, is everything okay?”
The rest of the conversation amused Anna. She knew she had given Arthur all the copies of the documents. As his agent, it would have been proper procedure for Nate to have called him for the information. Anna knew the question Nate asked was only a ruse to call her so she played along, then invited him to a meeting she hadn’t even scheduled to see his reaction which was, much to her delight, agreeable.
Anna Cohen Steine was in a quandary. An accomplished businesswoman, renowned editor and owner of a prestigious publishing house, she was far removed from experiencing teenage angst and the relationship uncertainly that raging hormones brought with them. At twenty-nine years of age she had her share of failed relationships before and after the divorce, but the passion she was feeling for Nathaniel Braverman was beyond anything she had ever experienced. Anna took a hot shower, turned off her phone, then crawled under the covers, alone.
Anna’s thoughts brought her back to the meeting with Nate and Art in her office earlier and how her body had reacted to Nate’s breaking her fall. When she closed her eyes, she could still feel the roughness of his five-o’clock shadow as it had grazed her cheek. Her olfactory glands recalled his musty male scent that made her senses reel and his arms around her waist as if he were right there with her.
When she opened her eyes, Anna was startled to realize she was back in the garden and that the memory of the reality of Nate’s arms around her had been replaced by Darius’ arms pulling her close. This time, Anna, or Adara, or whoever she was, didn’t pull away, but instead returned his affection with heightened passion she felt in both worlds.
“You are lovely, Adara,” Darius whispered. “I have something special I want to give you before tonight’s events, but not here. I have our horses waiting to take us to the river where we first met.”
This is just a dream, Anna thought. a very delightful dream to be sure so why not make the most of it? Darius took Anna’s hand and led her from the garden to the entrance of the castle where, as he had said, two horses were being held for them with a man Anna hadn’t seen before on a third.
“This is Nizam al-Mulk,” Darius introduced the stranger. “He’s my Grand Vizier, advisor and consultant. I’ve known him since I was born.”
“Nice to meet you Niz, can I call you Niz?” Anna question was met by an icy stare by the skinny guy with cold eyes and jet black beard. She instantly took a dislike to him. He’s no Janet, she thought.
“He’s not very talkative, but I trust him with my life in a fight.”
Anna and Darius mounted their horses and headed to the river. The shadowy figure of Nizam kept a safe distance behind them. When they reached their destination, Anna was pleasantly surprised to see a blanket, a bottle of wine, two glasses and a burning candle were set up under a tree. Darius dismounted, then helped Anna off her horse. He took something from the pouch on the saddle, then walked the two of them over to the blanket. Darius raised his hand and motioned for Nizam to leave them. Once he had gone, Darius poured the wine and sat down next to Anna.
“I brought this as a gift for us to treasure,” he opened the box he’d taken from the saddle. Inside was a parchment with a drawing of Adara standing next to Darius.
“This design will be on our wedding invitations. I had it drawn by the palace artist. He’s painted all the royalty portraits since before I was born. Now to add the final items.” Darius took a knife from his belt and cut a lock of hair from the top of his head.
“This won’t hurt a bit.” He smiled as he cut a similar lock of hair off Anna’s head, braided them together, wrapped them in the drawing and sealed the box with hot wax from the candle. He handed the sealed box to Anna.
“I give this to you as a symbol of our eternal love. Hide it in a place no one will ever find so it will never be destroyed.”
Darius placed the box in Anna’s hand and closed her fingers around it. When she looked up from her hand, Darius took her face in both his hands, drew her to him and kissed her. His fingers caressed her back, then moved slowly to her shoulders as he lowered her to the blanket. She followed his every moment, enjoying the dance of seduction he was so adapt. Her body was on fire, even though they were fully clothed, Anna wanted to rip his clothes off and mount him like the horse she’s just ridden in on, but that would have completely blown her Adara identity, so she just laid back and let Darius take the lead. Which, much to her dismay, was not the time or the place for them to reach the peak of passion as Nizam, from a respectful distance, not too subtly reminded them with a loud cough it was time to return for the engagement banquet. Darius rose first, stretching out his hand to help Anna join him. As soon as their fingers touched, Anna felt a familiar sensation of dizziness as the landscape began to fade around her.
Even before she opened her eyes, Anna knew she was back in her own time. In her apartment, in her own bed, drenched with sweat on top of very wet, very uncomfortable bedsheets and her pajama bottoms that were completely soaked from the crouch on down. “Dammit,” Anna yelled at the mess. “I’m having better sex in my sleep than I am when I’m wide awake!”
Immediately thoughts of Nathanial rose to the surface inspiring her to quote a line from the movie Willie Wonka; Strike that, reverse.
Please God, make it soon!
For the next several days, Anna didn’t have a spare second to think about her Vashti fantasy as her concentration was totally immersed in the reality of preparing for the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Although the event was open to the public for only two days, for the publishers and authors, planning began weeks in advance. Even those years when Anna wasn’t scheduled as a guest speaker for a discussion panel, her and her staff was busy deciding which titles to spotlight at the event, scheduling her author’s personal appearances, book readings, signings submitting all the necessary information to the FOB by the deadline and praying there wouldn’t be any embarrassing last-minute changes to Steine & Steine’s line-up. When she had just started at Beacon Press, Anna painfully learned there was nothing more damaging to an author’s career than disappointed readers, when one of their star authors was a no-show, the back-lash from the fans was so brutal, the author and his editor were both dropped from the company the very next day in an effort to repair Beacon’s tarnished reputation. With the publishing industry just barely hanging on, she wasn’t about to take any chances. Anna always had a Plan B, a Plan C as well as a fully stocked emergency kit in her arsenal. Even though she couldn’t foresee every catastrophe, she was confident that she had enough contingency plans to ward off any serious damage, even a 7.5 earthquake, should one occur.
Whether it was preparing for the BEA in Chicago, or the local FOB, Anna both loved and dreaded the title selection process. These conferences were attended by the full staff of editors in all genres. The first topic would be which titles would be featured in their catalogue, which titles would be displayed on their table for sale and which authors would be invited to make a personal appearance. With only a limited number of slots available, the competition was brutal. Throw a brand new author and his not-yet-released religious themed non-fiction, and Anna knew there was going to be a much fiercer battle than they’d ever had before. She also knew the only way to defuse the anticipated confrontation was to have the author’s editor introduce him to the rest of the staff to put him above the rest of the pack. Even though hers was the final say, Anna needed to, at the very least, appear to be impartial, which in the case of Vashti’s Daughter was nearly impossible, especially after she received a number of complaints about her decision to have it featured on the front page of the 2017-2018 catalogue before it was ready for full distribution.
When she knew of impending chaos, Anna prepared by enjoying the quiet of a vacant office. Arriving an hour before the rest of the staff, Anna walked from the elevator through the aisles, to the staff lounge where a full breakfast buffet was waiting for staff to arrive for the meeting. (thank you, Janet). Anna filled a cup with hot coffee and a dash of cream before continuing her journey passed the editor’s stations where she glanced at their individual items that created a personal space in a very impersonal business environment.
Anna felt a sense of pride that, after evicting Henry from the company, she had been able to create more than just a successful business, but had grown a company of loyal associates who, although they would disagree frequently with her decisions, had mutual respect for their boss and each other.
It hadn’t always been the case. When Henry was her partner and husband, the atmosphere at Steine & Steine was filled with tension. Although Henry had demanded keeping their split confidential, Anna had insisted on complete transparency with the staff. Adhering to Elaine’s advice on what to keep confidential for legal reasons while keeping personal ones private, Anna would post daily updates to the company email which helped relieve the anxiety of their staff and to the editor of Publisher’s Weekly which helped relieve the anxiety of their authors, agents and distributors.
After the smoke, and Henry, had cleared out, Anna Steine, now President and CEO of Steine & Steine had not only retained all their authors, editors and staff, but when news spread about Anna’s integrity and reputation, the company attracted several additional editors and created several new divisions within the company, including audio and ebooks.
As she walked toward her office, Anna paused for a few seconds in front of the full-sized book cover posters of their number one best sellers which hung on the walls. She remembered the day each one had signed their initial contract, and the celebration the entire office held when the New York Times best seller list was announced with that author’s title as number one. Anna let out a small sigh when she recalled it had been nearly a year since a new poster was added to the honor wall. That slight moment of sadness was replaced by a self-satisfying grin when she thought about her newest title. Although the graphics department hadn’t as yet finalized the cover art for Vashti’s Daughter, Anna was confident they would need to make room for another poster in the very near future.
Flipping through the mail and memos on her desk from the day before, Anna found the FOB vendor application which Janet had nearly completed. The only blank pages were for the list of titles and authors which would be filled in later that day. Anna was making some notes when she was interrupted by Janet knocking on the side of the opened door. She took three steps into the office then dropped the manuscript on the desk.
“I just finished reading Braverman’s manuscript.”
“I’m glad to hear it. What did you think?”
“I’m just your assistant, and I’m not Jewish, so I don’t think my opinion is going to matter much. It’s well written in academic style, grammatically correct and all, but do we even have an audience for this What happened to our policy of never publishing religious genre?”
“I changed my mind.” Anna couldn’t honestly tell Janet why she felt compelled to publish the book because she didn’t know herself. “You met Dr. Braverman when he came in to sign the contracts last week. I think you’ll agree with me that he has something, I’m not entirely sure what that something is, call it a gut feeling, but we signed the contract and we’re publishing it. In fact, we’re going to spotlight it on our catalogue cover.”
“Anna, I’ve been working with you for a very long time and I’ve never, ever known you to move so quickly with an unknown author before. Can I ask a personal question?”
“Can I stop you?” Anna leaned back in her chair waiting for Janet to ask the question she already knew was coming.
“Are you sleeping with him?”
“I’m not sure.”
Anna knew that it was a strange answer but it was a true one. She had sex in her dream with a man who looked, smelled, felt and sounded an awful lot like Nathaniel. She quickly added, “No. You know me better than that, Janet. If I could be bribed to publish a book in exchange for sex, I’d publish erotica, not Jewish historic non-fiction. I’d rather curl up in bed with a good book.”
“Of course you can curl up in bed with a good book,” Janet quipped. “but it is much more satisfying to curl up in bed with a good man who wrote a good book.”
“On that note, I have to get ready for the meeting. I’m sure there are going to be many more questions and objections to my decision than just yours, but ya know I am the Queen around here and I do have the prerogative of exercising my power when I feel like it. You can go back to work now.”
“Okay, your Highness, whatever you say.” Janet gave Anna a little sarcastic bow and left the office.
Anna was a bit startled by what she had just said to Janet, but what was even more startling was just how easy it was for her to say it. While it was true, she was her boss, but she had never pulled rank on anyone, especially not Janet who was her very well paid assistant not her servant. She made a mental note to apologize to her later.
Or maybe not.
After everyone had their full of the catered breakfast, Anna called the meeting to order. As she expected, everyone loudly voiced their opinion about who they felt should be on the “hot” list of authors to be featured at the festival. The editors who worked closely with their authors who’s books were on the backlist and midlist knew they didn’t really have a chance for a slot, but were just as adamant about promoting them as those that knew there were in the running. After the finalist were selected, congratulations and condolences were exchanged. Anna called for a half hour recess so the editors whose authors had made the cut could make the necessary arrangements to attend the event at the designated time.
Janet called the caterer to clear the breakfast and set-up for one-thirty pitch session, then went to talk to her boss about her strange behavior, hoping she wouldn’t jeopardize her job in the process. Not seeing Anna in her office, Janet located her in the lounge lying on a couch with her eyes closed and her hand on her forehead.
“You need some aspirin, or something stronger?” she asked.
“What I need, I don’t think they sell legally or illegally.” Anna let her hand drop to her side as she slowly sat up.
“I don’t know what’s going on, Janet. I invited Dr. Braverman to the pitch meeting to talk about Vashti’s Daughter and you know I never ever, ever have an author attend one of our meetings. I haven’t even assigned him an editor yet. I don’t have anyone who has any experience with narrative nonfiction.”
“Since it is a Jewish theme, should he have a Jewish editor who would be more familiar with the story?”
“Not at all. We want this to appeal to all faiths, especially those who have never heard of Vashti or Purim. Besides, I don’t want to offend anyone, political correctness and all that. The last thing we need right before FOB is a scandal.”
“I can take care of it, don’t worry. You have more than enough on your Siddar plate. Did I say that right?”
“Thank you for taking care of this, you are the best, in case I hadn’t mentioned it.”
I hope that makes up for my acting like a bitch earlier. Anna thought.
“I’m going to freshen up before Nate arrives. Show him into the conference room so I can introduce him to everyone.” Then, just to be certain Janet accepted her apology she added, “Please.”
As soon as Janet left, Anna headed for her private bathroom. When she took over the company, she had planned on replacing Henry’s office with a half bath and shower for the times she might have to stay all night at work, but hadn’t yet had the time to call a contractor. She wished now that she had. Anna washed her face, brushed out her hair and re-applied fresh make-up, barely noticing how uncharacteristically meticulous her actions were. Anna never “dressed” for a client. She didn’t need to. Her brains, talent and position in the company was more than enough to attract the right business partner and seal the deal. Anything more than that was just pretentious and a waste of her time, Anna thought. For some reason all her previous convictions dissolved into a pile of mush where Dr. Braverman was concerned. Although Anna hadn’t thought that much about their initial meeting at the basketball game, the Tarot cards and her dreams were bringing out feelings Anna hadn’t allowed herself to trust since her divorce. She was terrified that, at any time, the interesting, kind, intelligent Nate would turn into a possessive, abusive monster as Henry had. However, Anna was not about to allow her fears dictate her business decision whether or not she succumbed to Nate’s charms in reality as she had with Darius in her dream.
Janet ushered Nate into the conference room and began introducing them to a few of the staff who were finishing the last bite of their lunch. Anna couldn’t help but glance at the wall clock, which showed, as Shifra had pointed out, precisely 2:18 pm when Nate walked over to shake her hand. In spite of the coincidence of the hour, Anna felt perfectly fine when their skin touched, if she could ignore the temperature in the room being a bit warmer than it had earlier, which was the reason Anna felt her cheeks flush. At least that’s what she told herself right before she started the second half of the meeting.
Once the caterers had cleared the tables, the staff returned to their seats. Each one had their chosen manuscript in front of them as well as notes and a blank pad as they waited patiently to have their turn at pitching their project to the entire staff who would vote on which title would move forward in the publishing process. Usually Anna sat alone at the main table in front of the room and called upon each editor, starting on her right, to come to the front and do their best to excite the rest of the team. In past pitch meetings there would be a great deal of chatter as editors discussed their projects and plans with their fellow competitors before Anna called the meeting to order, but this particular meeting was not going to be business as usual.
Every seasoned editor knew authors were never invited to a pitch meeting. As soon as they saw Nathaniel seated next to Anna, the chatter was replaced with curious whispers, then deadly silence when Anna stood to begin the meeting.
“I hope you all enjoyed your lunch and are ready to start our annual pitch session.” Anna waited for the predictable response. “Before we get started, I’d like to see a show of hands of those who have Dr. Braverman’s narrative nonfiction submission Vashti’s Daughter I emailed everyone on Monday.”
As she expected, every hand went up.
“For those of you who are not lying,” Anna smiled warmly, which resulted in an eruption of nervous laughter. “I need to assign an editor to work with Dr. Braverman on the final draft. Do I have any volunteers?”
Several hands went down, leaving six remaining. Anna visually scanned the remaining editors, mentally doing an eeny meeny choosing rhyme which landed on Freddy Tyler a senior editor who had worked with five of their last best-selling authors in the past. As soon as she called his name, she could see the relief in the remaining editors’ faces as they lower their hands, while they shot Freddy a silent look of sympathy which he responded in his usual professional manner.
“Thank you for your confidence, Anna. I did read the manuscript. Even though I had no idea who Vashti was before I read it, I found it very compelling. I’m looking forward to working with Dr. Braverman.”
“I’m sure you are, Freddy,”
Anna turned her attention to the rest of the room.
“We only have another week before FOD. My goal is to pre-release Vashti’s Daughter the day before the start of the festival. Toward that goal, our entire research department will be working full speed researching everything about Vashti you can find on-line and off, so when we’re questioned on historical facts, and make no mistake, we will be, I want to be 100% sure we have the answers and sites to where and whom they were attributed to. As much as I have full confidence in Dr. Braverman’s research, it won’t hurt to have a few other collaborative academics and perhaps a few religious scholars as well in the acknowledgments. Now, I’d like you all to meet Dr. Nathaniel Braverman, the author of our next non-fiction best seller, Vashti’s Daughter.”
Nate wasn’t sure if he was required to stand, or remain sitting in response to the polite applause that followed Anna’s introduction. He was much more comfortable in front of a classroom behind a podium than in a boardroom especially when he had no idea what he was expected to say in response to Anna’s instruction, so he simply smiled and waved.
“I’m happy to be here,” Nate lied, “I’m looking forward to working with Freddy and, of course Ms. Steine.”
“Before we get to the business of our next year’s publishing selections, are there any questions for Nate before he leaves?”
The room was uncomfortably silent, until Freddy spoke up. “I’m sure we’ll be working on these issues in detail later, Dr. Braverman…”
“Please call me Nate.” “Okay, Nate. After reading your manuscript, I do have many questions, but the one that is come to mind first is since the book is titled Vashti’s Daughter, the manuscript ends with the death of Esther, but we don’t know what happened to Adara.”
“I honestly don’t know.” Nate stammered.
Esther didn’t tell me.
The entire room went silent when Nate answered. The editors who had read the manuscript had asked themselves the same question which was why they didn’t want to be the assigned Nate’s editor. Those that hadn’t read it were just now silently asking Anna how she could green-light a non-fiction book that didn’t have a resolution to the main character’s story.
“Unless you want to publish this as fiction,” Freddy continued. “It would be a much easier sell and a lot less work for our research department if we went in that direction.”
Anna stood, glaring at Freddy and each of her editors, she responded in a forceful voice articulating each word.
“We are publishing Vashti’s Daughter as is by the deadline I stated. If anyone has any objection, you can see me in my office after you’ve collected your personal belongings. Any further questions?”
“Good. I want to thank Dr. Braverman for taking time to meet everyone. Let’s take a fifteen minute break, then we will complete our list.”
There was a stampeded for the exit, leaving Nate and Anna alone.
“What was that all about, Anna? You even scared me.” Nate grinned.
“I have no idea why I was so adamant about publishing your book as is, because to be honest Freddy had a valid point. When I finished the manuscript, I thought you’d left out some of the pages at the end because we don’t have the full story if we don’t know what happened to Adara.”
“I understand that, but I told you the facts of how I came to write the manuscript. Her narration ended when she told me about the carriage crash, so I assumed she didn’t know what happened to Adara because Esther was dead. I’m not an author, I’m a professor of Ancient Near East studies. I write academic papers, not books, that’s your area of expertise.”
“It was up until today, apparently. Go find Freddy and get started on the edits of what you’ve already written and we’ll figure out the rest over the weekend. I’ll call you after I get home tonight, okay?”
“Sounds like a plan to me. Just relax and everything will be fine.”
Nate walked toward the door, turned and gave Anna a little “Disney” wave. Somehow, the gesture helped her focus on the future business she needed to finalize and not on what had just occurred in her conference room.
Anna was perplexed. Everything she’d ever leaned about running a publishing company was crumbling beneath her and she had no idea why. She only knew she had better get a grip on reality in less than fifteen minutes or she might not have a future business to worry about.
When the staff returned to the conference room, Anna felt an uncomfortable chill in the air which was not caused by a faulty thermostat. She immediately knew by the tentative looks they were begin thrown her way, the topic of the conversation discussed during the fifteen minute reprieve was all about Anna’s odd behavior concerning Vashti’s Daughter and its author.
Anna was thankful none of her staff asked her the questions each of them no doubt had on their minds, because she honestly didn’t have any logical answers she would have been able to give them that would have not led to more questions. She had no idea why she was so adamant about publishing Nate’s book. At pitch meetings in the past, her gut feeling about whether to publish a new title and an unknown author was usually supported by the majority of her editors. More often than not, her instincts had been right on the mark, but her “gut” had always been supported by a great deal of research and established data on both the author and their book. As far as Nate and Vashti’s Daughter were concerned, she had neither.
The second half of the meeting concluded without further confrontation. There was the usual bickering competition that ended in the winning titles being put on the final list for the upcoming catalogue as well as the author line-up for the three major book shows. With everyone satisfied with the results of the meeting, Anna rewarded her staff by closing the office early giving them a well-deserved Friday night free.
Janet was the last to leave, her concern for her employer’s behavior was apparent when she didn’t bother to knock before opening the door to Anna’s office. What she saw added to her concern. Anna’s head was resting on folded arms on her desk surrounded by pages of what Janet correctly surmised was the Vashti’s Daughter manuscript.
“I’m not even going to ask if you’re okay,” Janet stated. “I can tell you’re not. I was just leaving, but I can stay if you need me to.”
Anna slowly raised her head. “They were right. I’ve read the last chapter six times, and there’s no mention of what happens to Vashti’s daughter. I don’t know how we can publish this as is, and yet I’m being compelled to do just that.”
Janet sat down in the chair across from Anna. “Who’s compelling you? Dr. Braverman? You just met him.”
“No, not Nate. Something else. I can’t explain it. Ever since this manuscript appeared on my desk, I’ve been having strange dreams, hallucinations and eating strange food. I might be going totally crazy, and we might lose a great deal of money, but I just have a very strong feeling we have to publish it.”
Anna began gathering the loose pages into a organized stack. Janet handed her a few that had fallen to the floor on the opposite side of the desk.
“You picked Fred to be his editor and he’s one of our best. I’m sure he’ll make certain this book will be ready for major market in record time.” Janet handed the papers to Anna. “Now, go home and get some sleep. I’m not one to promote drugs, but I suggest you take a few over the counter sleeping pills, maybe that will help.”
“I’ll be okay. You head home, I’ll see you on Monday.”
Anna hated to lie, but she felt anything but okay. Even though it was a short distance from her office to her apartment, the thought of driving home was causing her unfamiliar anxiety. She opened her drawer and took out a bottle of aspirin in the hope that swallowing two little white pills would, at least, solve the problem of the throbbing headache she was suffering from. The quiet in the empty offices was both comforting and disturbing. The added security she had installed helped ease her stress of being alone, so she decided it might be best to lie down for a few minutes to give the aspirin a chance to work before attempting to drive home. The couch in her office was one feature Anna had kept in her office after Henry had moved out. At the time, she didn’t think she would ever have an opportunity to use it, and certainly not the way her ex had been known to on occasion with young interns, but tonight she wasn’t thinking of his past escapade, only the present advantage she was about to partake.
After lowering the lights and turning on some soft music, Anna laid back and closed her eyes right after setting her alarm for one hour. She had no intention of spending the night in her office, and absolutely no intention of having any kind of lengthy dream, in this or any other century.
As the saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. In Anna’s case her intentions had little effect on where she found herself several seconds later. It wasn’t exactly hell she saw when she opened her eyes and the man tenderly holding her in his arms was certainly not the Devil, even if his name started with the same letter.
“I must say, Adara. You’re not at all what I expected when was told of our engagement.”
Anna fought to clear the fog from her mind before replying. She released Darius’ embrace, took a few steps backwards, then asked, “You were told of our engagement? Didn’t you propose at some point and I accepted?”
Darius’ laughter startled Nizam who was watching the couple from several yards away. “I do not know what proposal you are referring. I’m sure you know our parents arranged our union. Until I asked you directions to the castle, you and I hadn’t met. Don’t you remember?”
Looking at his puzzled expression, Anna couldn’t tell if Darius was concerned or angry with her question. Jumping from one century to another was becoming more difficult with each episode. The fact that Vashti seemed to know who she was in the real world didn’t make the situation any easier. It was a good trait that Anna was beginning to adapt quickly with each situation, and an even better one that she could respond as she thought Adara would.
“With all this excitement, Darius, I’m feeling a bit light headed. If you could please refresh my memory of how this arrangement came about?”
Darius tone was a bit patronizing. “After my father’s first wife, whose name is never mentioned by royal decree, left, my mother found out she was pregnant. After I was born, my father, King Ahashverosh decided we needed to form alliances to become a powerful force against our enemies, so he made a pact with your mother after your father died that we would wed, after you revealed your true identity as Adara of course.”
This could be messy, Anna thought. If Darius was the son of Esther and Ahashverosh, and she was the daughter of Vashti and Ahashverosh, Adara would be marrying her half-brother. She knew that cousins were allowed to marry in ancient times, but didn’t think that would be the case for siblings from the same father. It was something Anna would have to discuss with Vashti, if she could manage to find her before she woke up in her own time.
“Of course, that makes sense.” Anna touched his cheek affectionately. “Let’s get back to the castle, they’ll probably be looking for us.”
“You are the most charming, alluring and mystifying woman I’ve ever met. If our marriage had not been arranged, I surely would have taken you as my wife, one of them at least.”
“And I would have surely taken you as my husband, or at least one of my harem.”
This time Anna’s joke wasn’t as well received. Darius’ voice changed to a much more serious tone.
“Of course your harem will no longer exist once we’re wed.”
Not wanting their conversation to escalade further, Anna put her hands on the back of Darius’ neck, pulled him close and gave him a warm, tender kiss.
Just then, Nizam walked over with their horses. “I believe it’s time we return, your Highness. It’s getting dark and we don’t want to meet any road bandits on our way.”
Anna was about to argue that there weren’t any road bandits in Baddishere, when they were suddenly approached by several men on horseback with shields and swords drawn. It was apparent by their formation, they were soldiers. Judging by Darius and Nizam’s reaction, Anna was pretty sure the men were not friends of either country. Her assumption was confirmed when one of the soldiers approached carrying a blue flag with a bright yellow star at the center and demanded they clear the road.
“Make way for King Alexander III of Macedon.”
Anna sat frozen in her saddle. She turned her head slightly to see how Darius and Nizam were reacting to the announcement and was a bit relieved to notice that neither of the two attempted to draw weapons in response. The last thing she need to be involved with, dream or not, was any kind of bloodshed. The lead soldier spoke first.
“Let me see your identification.”
From her experience when she was first hired at Beacon Press, Anna knew how to deal with bullies. In her most royal voice, showing no fear, Anna stared directly into the eyes of the soldier and replied, “You don’t need to see our identification.”
Startled by her tenacity, the second soldier, a bit frightened, spoke to the first.
“We don’t need to see their identification.”
Anna was enjoying her momentary power over the soldiers, so she continued giving them orders, never once taking her eyes from theirs.
“We can go about our business,” Anna commanded.
“You can go about your business.” The soldiers put their weapons away just as a young blond haired man rode up to the front of the line. Anna could tell by the way the soldiers saluted the rider, that he was the king they had been ordered to make way for.
“We’re looking for King Darius III of Persia,” he might have been slight in statue, but his voice was deep and forceful.
Anna responded with as much intimidation as she could muster.
“This isn’t the Darius you’re looking for.”
King Alexander stared for a while at Darius, then turned to speak to his soldiers.
“This isn’t the Darius we’re looking for, let’s move on.” Just before joining his departing troops, the king smiled at Anna. With respect in his voice, he said, “I do not seek war, or death, but duty commands. For my own part, I would rather excel in knowledge of the highest secrets of philosophy than in arms. Good-day to you.”
Anna watched as King Alexander and his soldiers departed. She thought for a second and recalled a class in world history studies she’d taken as an elective then asked Darius
“Was that Alexander the Great?”
“I guess. I heard he was going on a quest to meet Darius III in battle, but if he goes to fight him wearing that little tunic, I don’t think he’s all that great. On the other hand, the way you spoke to those soldiers was pretty damn great. I thought we were going to be arrested, or even killed. Where did you learn to be so forceful?”
“I was taught that by a very wise teacher. Race you to the castle.” Anna galloped ahead of Darius and Nizam. She did not want to elaborate on what she had said to the soldiers seeing that her method wouldn’t be used for about 2,000 years and she would, most likely, not receive any credit.
Once she arrived at the castle, Anna left her horse at the stable and returned to the garden hoping that Vashti would still be there. She had many questions she needed answers to before this dream ended. The most important being the situation with her and Darius having the same father. Entering through the back gate, Anna was relieved to see Vashti collecting flowers for party.
“Anna, I’m so happy to see you. I didn’t know if you were going to return after our last conversation.”
“It’s not really anything I have any control over, Vashti, but I’m glad I’m still here because things in my time are getting very cantankerous.”
“I’m so sorry to hear. Is there anything I can do to help?” Vashti put down the basket of flowers and sat on the bench while Anna told her everything that had occurred at the staff meeting, being very careful to relate the events with words Vashti would understand. ‘
“I’m sorry, Anna. I can’t give you any answers to why Adara and Darius didn’t marry, or what happened to her because these events have not as yet occurred. If your Nathaniel did, indeed, receive a message from Queen Esther and she died, the only way you’re going to know what happened is for you to live it here and now.”
“I guess I’ll have to wait then”
and publish the book as-is since I’m on a deadline.
“There is one problem I think you can solve. If Darius is Queen Esther’s son and I’m your daughter, don’t we have the same father and wouldn’t that make us siblings?”
“Yes, that would be true, if King Ahashverosh was Darius’ father. My spies who are still living in Shushan told me that, in truth, Esther’s uncle Mordecai is Darius’ real father, only the king never knew. So at least on that note you’re safe marrying Darius. Even though it was an arrange marriage, I can tell by the way you look at him, there are strong feelings developing between you two, am I right?”
“At this point, I’m really not sure of how I feel about anyone, although I have to admit my Nathaniel is almost an identical twin to Darius, in many ways. I might be falling in love with both men in different centuries. But I still don’t understand why you arranged a marriage when you were so against these practices.”
“There is a much for you to know, and very little time to tell the story. Even though I ran from my home, I still loved Ahashverosh as I mentioned,” Vashti continued. “I had no idea who this Esther person was who had won the beauty contest and I was worried that she would hurt him, so I kept in contact through some of my more loyal subjects. After Esther revealed her true identity, saved the Jews from being annihilated and Haman was hanged there was nearly a civil war. Ahashverosh ordered his sons hung, but he ignored Haman’s daughters which was his big mistake.
Haman had many supporters who the women recruited to try to overtake the castle, but they were too few in number. Many of them were either killed, or fled to fight another day. That day is drawing nearer by the minute and Haman’s remaining daughters and their sons are gathering their armies to wage war against both our kingdoms. There was a similar reaction when we revealed you were Adara, not Adar, and now that Prince Darius is ascending to the throne, there are many more who do not wish that to happen. I have no doubt that you, or should I say my daughter Adara, has the strength to defend our homeland, but my spies told me King Darius will need our help, even if he won’t admit it, or ask for it himself and we need him as an ally in case we have to fight off an attack from our new enemies. I sent your brother Lemuel on a quest to find new alliances and was hoping he’d return before the wedding, but until that happens we’ll have to go with our plan for the two of you to marry.”
“I have to tell you that a great deal of what you’re telling me is in Nate’s book. Everything but what happens after the wedding doesn’t happen, which we should know after the banquet tonight.”
“I would hope so. In the meantime, what do you think about these flowers? I thought I’d pick them myself instead of having the servants do the task. Smell these beautiful white Jasmine flowers, I think they’ll be perfect.”
As Vashti brought the bunch of flowers up to her nose, Anna heard a loud insistent buzzing coming from the center of the bloom. Suddenly, a giant bee flew off the flower and started flying around Anna’s head creating a persistent buzzing. Anna raised her hand to swat the bee, but it came down on the arm of the couch Anna was lying on. Anna realized the buzzing was coming from her alarm and the bee was nowhere in the office.
The time difference between her dream world and her real one always amazed Anna. Although her recent dream seemed like hours has passed, the clock on the wall in her office showed that it had only been less than one from the time she had closed her eyes until the alarm brought her back to the present.
What also amazed Anna was, even though she had only taken a very short nap, she felt fully energized. If that’s what the scientists called a power nap, she thought, it certainly was working for her, dreams or no dreams. The thought of going home to an empty apartment on a Friday night was depressing. Anna knew that most of her single friends already had plans with their perspective dates and no wanted really wanted a divorcee third-wheel to join them. As much as she didn’t want to continually rely on Elaine for company, her friend never turned her down, even when the invitation came at the last minute. Anna walked to her desk, picked up the phone and hit Elaine’s speed dial key. It only rang twice before Anna heard her friend’s voice.
“Anna, hi. We were just talking about you!”
“We were? And who are the we?” Anna felt a bit of disappointment that Elaine might not be able to solve her being alone on a Friday night dilemma. Much to her relief, Elaine came to her rescue in a way Anna hadn’t anticipated.
“We are my women’s havurah group. We’re celebrating Rosh Chodesh at my place. Didn’t you see that beautiful crescent moon?”
“No, I’m still at the office. I was going to see if you were free to join me for dinner, but you’re busy.” Anna hoped Elaine didn’t hear the disappointment in her voice.
“You should come over and join us. We get together the first of every month on the Jewish calendar to celebrate women power. No men allowed!”
“That sounds like fun, especially after the day (and the dream) I’ve had. You sure I won’t be intruding? I don’t know anything about Rosh Chodesh.”
“Don’t be silly, of course you won’t be intruding. I thought of inviting you before, but when you were married, well, you know, and then you were so busy at work I didn’t think you’d have time.”
“Well, now I don’t have a husband, but I do have plenty of free time. I guess I probably should meet the “we” you’ve been talking to about me. I’ll swing Trader Joe’s and pick up a couple of bottles of your favorite Baron Herzog kosher Zinfandel. Should be there in about thirty minutes.”
Anna punched in the security code to open the gate to the driveway that lead to Elaine’s home on Rexford Drive in Beverly Hills. Anna was always proud of her friend’s success that included joining one of the largest law firms in Los Angeles a week after passing the Bar and was equally impressed that Elaine never let her financial success, or the perks that went with it, corrupt her as so many of Anna’s authors had after they’d achieved best-selling status. It never mattered how many hours she’d spent with an author, perfecting their text, setting up their public relations schedule, they would always jump to a more impressive publishing house the moment they saw their name on the New York Times best-seller list. A loyalty clause was never part of the publishing contract, much to Anna’s dismay. In many cases, as soon as the term of their contract expired, so did the relationship between the author and the publisher. Anna learned the hard way how to put a comfortable distance between herself and her business associates. With her failed marriage and a disastrous dating track record before and since, she’d also perfected the same talent with men as well.
True friendships were very rare and Anna felt fortunate that she and Elaine had been able to maintain theirs over the years. Both women came from single children homes. As such, Anna and Elaine’s relationship was closer than sisters. Having each other’s backs through junior high, graduation and well into their turbulent twenties wasn’t just a trite phrase for the two women, it was their unspoken commitment to each other.
Which was why, when Anna arrived at Elaine’s home, she was immediately welcomed into the group of women who were sharing a camaraderie unique to their religion. Anna recognized many of the guests from Elaine’s Purim party, even without the costumes. Elaine handed Anna a plate piled with a selection of delicious homemade Jewish hors d’oeuvres.
“I’m so glad you could join us, Anna. You have to try Rebecca’s chopped liver and Michelle brought her famous mini latkes. There’s enough food here for a small army, which is nothing new I’m sure you know. I’ll open the wine and we’ll get started with the festivities.”
Anna took her plate and walked over to the couch where several women were engaged in conversation. For a moment, Anna felt a bit uncomfortable not knowing anyone in the room, but her trepidation was instantly relieved by the warm welcome she received from the other guests.
“So, you’re the rebel who came to Purim dressed as Vashti,” the women sitting next to Anna introduced herself and the others. “I’m Stephanie, and this is Michelle, Rebecca, Jennifer and Cheryl. We were the Queen Esthers.”
“Nice to see you all again. This food is delicious,” Anna tried to change the subject. She hoped Elaine hadn’t mentioned her Vashti experiences to her friends when she said they were talking about her. As it turned out, it wasn’t Vashti they were interested in, it was her new author, the handsome Dr. Braverman that had their full attention.
“Elaine told us all about the basketball game, are you two dating?” Jennifer giggled.
Anna felt like she was back in high school, and for a brief moment was happy to remember experiences of her own past and not of someone else’s.
“No, Dr. Braverman is an author we recently signed. The only date we’ve had was to discuss the details of his contract.” So far.
Before she was asked to elaborate, Elaine returned to the living room with the newly opened wine and refilled everyone’s glasses.
“Okay, ladies, now that we have food and wine in hand, let’s get started with our celebration outside under the new moon.”
Anna followed the group to the back patio where Elaine had lit a circle of candles, one for each guest. Not knowing that much about the tradition, she was grateful that Elaine gave a brief introduction.
“Rosh Chodesh marks the beginning of each month as determined by the appearance of the new moon.”
The women raised their glasses as Michelle continued.
“Though all Jews traditionally observed this day, it is celebrated as a holiday for women whose origins go back to the Talmud. Because of these strong and unique links between women and the moon,”
Jennifer added, “Rosh Chodesh provides a wonderful and rare opportunity for women to connect Jewishly in an historical yet contemporary manner. Rosh Chodesh lifts women out of the observer realm and elevates us to initiators, full participants, leaders, and creators.”
“We value these opportunities to define our religious identity and to embellish in our own words, amongst ourselves, both the mundane and sacred aspects of our lives.”
In unison, the women recited the one Hebrew prayer Anna knew by heart having repeated it four times at every Passover Seder meal; the blessing of the wine; Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh ha’olam, borei p’ree hagafen, and then, they repeated the blessing in English; Blessed are you Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe who creates the fruit of the vine, L’Chaim!”
“Now, let’s eat!” Elaine led the women into the dining room. On what had been a clean table only a few moments ago was now covered, buffet style, with platters of sliced brisket, a baked potatoes and several colorful salads. At one end of the table was a large round chafer dish filled with matzo ball soup. At the other end Anna could make out a huge challah under a covered Shabbat cloth. Next to the challah were two silver candlesticks. Seeing the enormous spread, Anna wished she hadn’t eaten so many hors d’oeuvres earlier.
“Anna, would you like to light the Shabbat candles?” Elaine asked her guest. Anna shook her head, politely refusing the request. Other than her wedding and the Purim party last month, it had been over ten years since she had participated in any Jewish ritual and she didn’t want to embarrass herself in front of Elaine’s friends by admitting her ignorance. Even though she hadn’t heard the Shabbat blessing in many years, Anna felt her eyes tear up slightly as Elaine lit the candles, covered her eyes and recited the blessing, first in Hebrew“Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat. The women recited the prayer in English; Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to kindle the light of Shabbat.
Elaine uncovered the challah, lifted the plate and recited the blessing; Barukh ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam, hamotzee lehem min ha’aretz. Followed once again by the English; Blessed are You, God, Ruler of the universe, who creates bread from the earth.
The challah was passed around and each woman tore a piece from the braided bread until there were only crumbs left on the plate. They each picked up their own plates and bowls, walked around the table making their selections before finding a seat around the dining room table. Even though Anna had only met the women once before, somehow she felt as if she’d known them her entire life. They might have all come from different backgrounds, had different careers, but they all shared a common bond and a common history.
Everyone was engaged in separate conversations when Elaine shook a tambourine to get their attention.
“In Miriam’s honor, we are gathered on the Rosh Chodesh to celebrate our Jewish heritage and the women who came before us. Some of you already know my friend Anna Steine, who is joining us tonight for the first, and I hope not the last, time.”
Anna gave a little wave. “Thank you, Elaine. This really is great. I love the chicken soup and Gondi.”
The room was suddenly silent.
“What’s Gondi?” Rebecca asked.
Anna didn’t have clue what Gondi was, or why she said it.
“I just checked on my phone,” Rebecca announced. “It says Gondi is a Persian, Matzo Ball-ish Soup, served by Iranian Jews on Shabbat. We didn’t know you were Iranian, Anna.”
Elaine immediately covered for her friend.
“I believe Anna was doing research on the new book her company is going to publish, that’s probably where she read it, right, Anna?”
“Ah, yes. That’s exactly right.” Thank you, Elaine “I was born in Sherman Oaks, never been to Iran or anywhere in the Middle East.” Not when I’m awake, anyway.
“Great, now that the Gondi mystery has been solved, let’s get to tonight’s discussion. The topic, What does it mean to me to be Jewish? was emailed to you, so you should all have some really great answers. Anna, you’ll go last since you didn’t have anything to prepare, or you can just pass if you’d prefer.”
“That’s okay. Being Jewish means I can discuss intellectual topics while eating too much food at the same time.”
The women laughed.
“I’m sure I can come up with something better than that, or I’ll just plagiarize one of you when it’s my turn.”
“You’ll be fine. No one is going to judge you, it’s a safe place to express your opinions, even if they’re wrong.”
“We’re never wrong,” shouted Rebecca.
“In that case, Rebecca, you can start the conversation. What does being Jewish mean to you?”
Rebecca took a piece of paper from her purse and started reading.
“Being Jewish for me is a way of life, an ethos that underscores all ways that I am in the world. I give food to those who are homeless on the street because my faith reminds me that we are all connected and to see God in every person, that “B’tzelem Elohim” we are all made in the image of God. This guides my view on those who are LGBTQ, those who are of a different ethnicity/socially/culturally, or even those who are a little “weird”, that there is room for each of them in this world and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect as I would like to be treated. When it comes to my friends and family – Judaism has instilled in me a patience and deep appreciation and gratitude for what I’ve been given in my life – to constantly be thankful and show that appreciation in the way I treat those close to me. That is what being Jewish means to me in terms of how I interact with the world around me.”
The women applauded enthusiastically. “That’s going to be tough to follow, “Elaine interjected. “How about you, Michelle?”
“Mine is a bit more about who I am as far as being Jewish. For myself, being Jewish means that I reflect deeply and regularly about who I am, how I spend my time, how I treat myself and others, and knowing that the only time that matters is the time we have right now. To forgive myself for my shortcomings/mistakes as long as I recognize them and strive to be better tomorrow. That the only actions and reactions I have control over are my own and that the way I choose to be can either affect those around me positively or negatively and I have to actively choose the former. Equally, I value the importance of learning and always seeking new and interesting ideas and interpretations that challenge my view of the world and that the more I learn about myself and others, the better,” Michelle looked up from her paper. “Is that okay?”
“That was better than okay,” Elaine complimented. “Who would like to go next?”
The room went quiet. It seemed to Anna that no one felt their answers would be quite as good as the two previous ones. It was obvious that Elaine was not going to wait for a volunteer.
“Cheryl, what did you write?”
“Mine really isn’t all that great,” she started.
“Believe me Cheryl, there are no great writers,” Anna tried coaxing her. “Only great editors. Let’s hear what you wrote.”
Anna’s persuasion worked. Cheryl opened her paper and read her answer.
“Being Jewish for me is my connection to the natural world we all live in. Taking the time to be in nature, appreciate nature, nurture plants and watch them grow, do what I can to mitigate my own or others negative impact on the environment. Simply being in awe of the world we live in is deeply rooted in my Judaism.”
Anna was very impressed by the different aspects of the what one simple question could elicit from such a small group. This could be a project for another Jewish non-fiction book for her company, if she was going to expand into that genre. Up until she met Dr. Braverman, Anna had no intention of going down that road, but it seemed to her that she was being driven there in spite of her commitment. She would rather be in the driver’s seat than be a passenger. With Vashti’s Daughter and the possibility of a new anthology coming from these women, and probably many others responses to the question, she might have get behind the wheel. She was contemplating what her answer was going to be when Elaine took over the discussion.
“Jennifer gets a pass she said she’s recovering from laryngitis, so I’ll read my response after we take a short break. Dessert and coffee will be served in the den, if anyone has room for chocolate rugelach, macaroons and honey cake.”
Several sarcastic groans were shared as the women made their way to the den. Elaine walked over to Anna who was heading for the bathroom.
“About that Gondi thing, you still having dreams?” Elaine lowered her voice so the others wouldn’t hear her.
“More than ever, Elaine. I can’t help feeling there is something important causing these dreams, or nightmares than just some bad sushi. Those answers your friends gave were really extraordinary, but the way my life has been so nuts, I’m not sure if I’m going to be answering the question as Anna Steine in 2017, or Adara from 356 BCE!”
“And what about Dr. Braverman?”
“We’re having lunch tomorrow. I have to admit, there is something very familiar about him. I’d like to see where it goes, but for now I’m only interested in his book.”
“Of course you are,” Elaine smiled. “I’ll see you in the den.”
Anna went into the bathroom and closed the door. Walking to the sink, she turn on the cold water to give herself a wake-up splash before she returned to the group with some kind of answer to a question that was so simple, yet so very complex. Anna never felt as if she were a part of anything, but lately, she felt as if she were a part of everything. She neither had a way of understanding it let alone explaining it to a group of strangers.
She took the hand towel from the rack and dried off her face. When she looked in the mirror, she was shocked to see the woman looking back at her was Adara. After she splashed more water on her face, the reflection became her own once again.
“This has got to stop,” she signed.
Anna dried her face and proceeded to join the others in the den where Elaine was just about to add her contribution to the discussion. She hoped she didn’t look as disheveled as she felt.
“I guess it’s my turn,” Elaine began. “For me, being Jewish is all about community. Having others there for you when you need them the most. It’s having a space, large or small, to gather your friends and family in celebration, for experiencing life’s stages and cyclical holiday celebrations with others. To help nurture other’s children and watch others nurture yours. To share experiences, sorrows and joys, with others. This extends to my involvement in my professional Jewish community, being together with others who understand what it’s like to be in my role when no one else in my life or career connects the way our community does. This havurah group is a perfect example.”
The group erupted in loud applause. Cheryl brought the tambourine from the dinner table and was shaking it while everyone else were waving their arms in tune to the beat. Once the jubilation calmed down a bit, Elaine turned to Anna who was trying, without much success, to disappear into the couch.
“Don’t want to put you on the spot, Anna, but it is your turn if you want to contribute.”
“Hi everyone. First let me say your answers were exceptional. I only wish I had more time to think about the question, but I’ll do my best. To be honest, I never really thought about what being Jewish meant to me. I’m not a member of any congregation or organization and except for Elaine’s Purim party and tonight’s event, I’ve not even celebrated any Jewish holiday since I graduated high school. I don’t feel a religious connection. I think I consider myself more of a pantheist after reading “The Philosophy of Spinoza” in college. I do remember a Yom Kippur service I attended just before graduation. Standing in the packed synagogue, I could see, although it wasn’t really there, a bright white light that went from person to person, and continued outside to the next synagogue, and next throughout the world connecting everyone who were hearing the Kol Nidre at the same exact time, even though, of course we were not all in the same time zones and there was no light. That feeling was so intense. Even tonight I felt a deep connection to the candle lighting ceremony that has continued the same way for the many many generations.
Even though I have Jewish friends who think a “Hanukkah bush” is acceptable, I will never have a Christmas tree. Too many of our faith were murdered just because and I feel that symbol disrespects their lives and deaths. For me, being Jewish, especially being a Jewish woman, is not just for who I am in the present, no kidding, but it up to us, as Jewish women, to right the wrongs of the past, especially how women are depicted in the Torah, and create a better future in the process. How’s that for a quick answer?”
“That was pretty good,” Jennifer said. “I don’t have tree either.”
“ That part about women of the past getting a bad rap, now I know why you dressed as Vashti at the party.” Michelle added.
“You should read what was written about Miriam, also.” Cheryl shook her tambourine.
“Well, there really isn’t anything we can do about it today. What is written was written, and we just have to accept it.”
“Don’t be so sure.” Anna whispered as she exchanged knowing glances with Elaine.
As the women began clearing their dishes and started leaving, Anna stayed behind until she was the only one left. She wanted to talk to her friend without anyone else in the house.
“That was a very interesting night, I’m glad I came,” Anna said.
“We have some time before Brian gets home. How are you really doing?”
“I really don’t know. When I was in the bathroom earlier, I could swear I saw Adara’s face looking back at me in the mirror. At least I didn’t pass out and time travel again.”
“Again? What do you mean again?”
Anna spent the next hour telling Elaine everything that she had been going through since the Purim party. She only wished she had more answers to the questions her friend was asking.
As she drove back to her apartment, Anna felt more determined than ever to find answers to her situation. The best place to start was to go to the source who, she knew was the cause of her time-traveling dreaming journey. Come Saturday afternoon, she was going to have a serious talk with the attractive author who had left Vashti’s Daughter on her desk and it wasn’t going to be about the edits.
Saturday morning was unusually overcast when Anna took her coffee onto the balcony. Even though she knew from experience the marine layer that obscured her view of the Pacific ocean would eventually burn off, she was still a bit irritated that for the exorbitant price she had paid for her home because of the view was not depreciated by nature’s cruel joke. It was on days like these that made Anna even more appreciate the clear blue sunny skies she could enjoy nearly every day of the year.
Anna checked her clock. It was nine am, plenty of time to get ready for her meeting with Nate later that morning, Anna thought. She was uncomfortably nervous, trying not to feel as if she were on a first date and not a business appointment.
The sound of the phone ringing interrupted her thoughts on what she was going to wear, but the voice on the other end almost made the decision a moot point.
“Hi Anna. It’s Nate. I was calling about our meeting today.”
Anna hoped more than she wanted to admit to herself, that Nate wasn’t going to cancel. What he said next was quite the opposite.
“Rabbi Sherwood called me last night. He told me the Skirball just received a large shipment of artifacts from a dig he was overseeing and wanted me to help him catalogue and document the collection for the upcoming exhibition.”
Was that the same Rabbi Sherwood Anna had met at the hypnotherapist office? Anna thought. Nate’s next comment confirmed her suspicion.
“He also told me he met you a few weeks ago.”
“Yes, I believe I did.”
Anna hoped he didn’t tell Nate the details of their meeting.
“When I told him about the book and that you were going to be the publisher, he suggested you might want to join us. Since we already had plans to get together, I thought I’d ask if you’d like to meet at the Skirball say around 1 o’clock? We should have everything unpacked by then.”
“Sounds fascinating. I’ll see you later.”
Recalling her previous meeting with Rabbi Sherwood, Anna was a bit hesitant at first to accept the invitation, but her curiosity was stronger than her apprehension. Since she had a few more hours to kill before leaving, Anna thought she would do what she should have done when she initially met Nate; check him out on-line. She tried several variations of his name which only produced a dentist and a retired Maryland associate district court judge. Much to her chagrin, the only result she found on Dr. Nathaniel Braverman were innocuous references to his academic background.
This would definitely have to change once Vashti’s Daughter was published, Anna thought. She made a note to talk to their P.R. department first thing Monday morning and arrange an in depth interview with the author so they could write a compelling bio before the book was released. The fact Anna would also gain some insight into the man she was becoming more and more attracted to was definitely a perk.
The Skirball was only about a fifteen minute drive up the 405 freeway, but Anna drove the more scenic Sepulveda Boulevard. The winding road leading up to the entrance felt to Anna as if she were traveling a million miles from overcrowded Los Angeles. The view of the city from the Santa Monica mountains location was breathtaking, now that the early morning haze had burned off. Although she could have moved Steine and Steine to the publishing capital of the world in New York City after the divorce, Anna couldn’t have imagined ever living anywhere else. It wasn’t so much the weather, which wasn’t nearly as perfect as the poets wrote about and in fact, it actually did rain in Southern California, especially in early winter. Contrary to what her East coast college friends would criticize about the lack of seasons, Anna always commented that Los Angeles did have seasons. They were fire, drought, flood and an occasional earthquake to keep people from being totally complacent.
Anna sent a text to Nate who replied with the directions to the back entrance.
“Really glad you could join us,” Nate greeted her. “We’re just finishing putting the last pieces of the collection into the glass displays. There are some really impressive artifacts from 1290 BCE, when some scholars believe was around the time of the Exodus.”
“Hello again, Anna,” Rabbi Sherwood smiled warmly when Nate and Anna joined him. Anna was relieved he gave no indication he remembered the details of their previous meeting.
“What do you think of our exhibit? We uncovered an entire collection of Egyptian idols that were worshiped by the population before Moses came to free the slaves. The exhibit begins with this informational audio that was donated from Rice University Department of Statistics that explains how it all relates.
Anna put on a set of headphones and pressed the start button on the exhibit. She was a bit startled that the voice was female as she listened to the presentation and read the cards below each idol.
“Welcome to the Exodus Plague Exhibit. As we know from the biblical text, there were ten plagues in all. The number ten is a significant number in biblical numerology. It represents a fullness of quantity. Just as the ten commandments is symbolic of the fullness of the moral law of God, the ten ancient plagues of Egypt represent the fullness of God’s expression of justice and judgments, upon those who refuse to repent.”
As Anna passed by each idol, the audio presenter described each and how they connected to the suffering inflicted on the Egyptian.
The first plague that was that of turning the water to blood. Hapi- Egyptian God of the Nile was a was a water bearer. Second was the invasion of frogs emerging from the Nile River. Heket was the Egyptian Goddess of Fertility with the head of a frog. The third plague, that of lice was for the Egyptian God Geb who ruled over the dust of the earth. It was a bit of a stretch to associate lice with the dust of the earth, but that’s where they came from.
We get the infestation of flies from Khepri, the Egyptian God of creation, movement of the Sun, rebirth because he had the head of a fly. Hathor-Egyptian Goddess of Love and Protection was depicted with the head of a cow, which was the motivation of the next plague, that of the death of cattle and livestock. We’re not quite sure why Isis, the Egyptian Goddess of Medicine was associated with the infliction of boils and sores, other then the plague was in direct contradiction to a medical god. Nut was the Egyptian Goddess of the Sky. The next plague caused hail to rain down from the sky in the form of fire. All the prayers to the most power god, Ra, the Sun God did nothing to relieve the people from the plague of three days of complete darkness.
“The final plague, the one that came directly from Pharaoh was the death of the firstborn. Pharaoh was a human being, a man, however as king of Egypt, he was worshipped by the Egyptians because he was considered to be the greatest Egyptian God of all. It was believed that he was actually the son of Ra himself, manifest in the flesh.”
While Nate and the Rabbi were finishing unpacking the rest of the crates, Anna replaced the headset and continued alone to the other items which were on display. There were clay pots, a few shredded pieces of clothing and one item which was in a separate glass display in the center of the room. On the pedestal was the description which read the artifact incased within the glass was a tambourine, possibly one which was carried by Miriam as she led the Hebrews toward freedom.
“This is probably our greatest find,” Rabbi Sherwood joined Anna by the display. “We carbon dated the tambourine to around the same time of the Exodus. You know the saying from the Midrash – when they were at the edge of the Red Sea and Pharaohs army were after them, Moses parted the sea, but no one would move, they were all terrified of drowning. Miriam shook her tambourine and shouted to the frightened crowd, when you can’t go forward, and you can’t go backward, you go forward anyway, and she proceeded into the parted sea. When the people saw how brave she was, they all followed. She stood at the shore with her music making sure everyone was safe all the way to the other side.”
“I don’t recall every hearing that described in quite that way before,” Anna replied. “Are those other crates from the same time period?”
Nate continued to remove items and place them in the display cases. He put on a pair of surgical cloves and carefully took a parchment from a pile in a box. “This came from is a bit more recent, if you consider 900 years to be recent. Before these were shipped, they were analyzed to be from approximately 357 B.C.E. The writing is very ancient, we don’t have anyone who can translate it. It was found in a box with jewelry, might have been a gift. Don’t know if it’s Persian, Hebrew or Aramaic.
“This is a joke, right?” Anna wasn’t laughing. “It’s not in a foreign language, it’s written in English.” Anna pointed to the text. “See, it’s a recipe for lamb stew.”
Nate and the rabbi stared at Anna. Nate removed another parchment and showed it to Anna who read off the list of items that included flowers, table arrangements and guest seating. At the top of the list was the name Queen Esther, Queen Vashti, Prince Darius and Queen Adara.
“This is a guest list,” Anna began to feel queasy.
“How extraordinary!” Rabbi Sherwood exclaimed. “I had my suspicions after I witnessed your session with Dr. Bachrach that you might have a special connection to these artifacts. Here, put on a pair of gloves and help us go through the rest of the items and see if you can read them as well.”
“I think this one might be an invitation, the way the lines are centered,” Nate explained handing the parchment to Anna. “What do you think?”
Nate placed a larger parchment into Anna’s gloved hand. The moment she touched it, the queasiness she had felt earlier became a full body shiver that caused her knees to buckle. The feeling had by now become very familiar to Anna. Nate caught her in his arms as she was falling. Just before losing consciousness, she looked up at his concerned face and whispered,
“Don’t worry, I’ll be right back.”
By now Anna was no longer referring to her past life travels as dreams. The more times Anna was transported into her Adara persona, the easier it was becoming for her to adapt to the environment, so when she found herself back in the garden holding the wedding invitation in her hand, she wasn’t that surprised it was the exact same parchment that Nate had handed to her only what seemed like seconds ago. The biggest changes were that the faded print she had been looking at was now perfectly clear lettering and the hand holding the page was no longer Dr. Nathaniel Braverman’s.
“I believe the scribe really outdid himself,” Darius retrieved the invitation from Anna’s hand. “These invitations will be hand-delivered immediately after you’ve accepted my marriage proposal following the banquet tonight.”
“Aren’t you being a bit presumptuous? ” Anna knew she had to continue to play the part of Adara, but she was beginning to resent the demands on her that everyone seemed to take for granted in this time. Darius had no trouble at all.
“Adara, you can be so amusing. My mother just arrived. She and your mother are meeting at this very moment to make the final preparations. I can’t wait to meet her tonight.”
“You’ve not met my mother?” Anna asked. “Even though I was crowned queen, she’s still a very important part of the lives of our kingdom,” Anna was using every bit of her creativity to extract as much information from Darius as she could before agreeing to whatever was being planned. She knew these events had already occurred centuries ago, but she had no idea what part she was supposed to play in any of it, other than the cryptic curse Vashti had mentioned. There had to be some reason why she was traveling in time, Anna thought, other than simply playing out a part that was already written.
“It wasn’t necessary, but if it would appease your lovely mind, you could join them in the solar. I’m certain my mother would enjoy meeting you.”
“I’d like that as well. I’ll see you tonight.”
As Anna turned to walk away, Darius took hold of her shoulder, turned her around and gave her a long kiss. Forgetting for moment where she was and who she with, Anna responded. As much as Darius and Nathaniel were alike, Anna could tell from the dispassionate way he kissed her, that Darius was no Nate.
Anna had no idea where or what a solar was, but it was fairly easy for her to obtain the information with so many servants working to prepare the castle for the banquet. She asked one of the young girls who directed her to the room. The solar was similar to a modern guest room set away from the main rooms to avoid the hustle, bustle and noise of the rest of the castle.
Although she knew Darius was the son of Queen Esther, Anna was surprised that Darius didn’t seem to know who Adara’s mother was, or maybe if he did, with his low opinion of women, just didn’t care. Either way, Anna was very excited to meet the Queen Esther and possibly get more answers.
Responding to Anna’s knock, Vashti opened the door which led into an elegant room with a fireplace and several decorative tapestries on the walls. Another woman, Anna guessed was Esther, was seated on the couch beside a large table upon which was the book Vashti had hidden in the cabin.
“Adara, let me introduce you to Queen Esther of Shushan, Darius’ mother and your future mother-in-law.”
Anna was in awe of the woman she’d grown up hearing so much about, to meet her in person, even if it was only part of her illusion, was beyond anything she could have ever imagined. She wasn’t sure if she should bow, curtsey, shake the woman’s hand or rush over to give her a hug. She chose a combination of a cutesy and a bow, and nearly fell over. Esther’s amused laugh filled the room with a comforting sound.
“Come, join us,” Esther motioned to the couch. “I was just telling your mother of the events which occurred after she refused to obey the king and escaped.”
Vashti sat on a large cushion by the table. “You need to hear this, Adara. I had no idea what happened. I never met Esther and didn’t trust anyone except the women who helped me escape that day.”
“Trusted friends were how we were able to thwart the king’s edict, which would have been devastating had it succeeded,” Esther elaborated. “Vashti, you had no way of knowing what a weak-minded king Ahashverosh was. He really did love you, but he couldn’t go against the kind of influence his so-called friend had on him, which was why he made that stupid demand on you to dance naked. Having you ordered to be executed was not his choosing, but after he made the declaration, he couldn’t undo it, or else he’d show weakness, which would be devastating if the other kings thought he would be easily defeated in a war. It was his advisors who came up with the plan that would insure Ahashverosh’s power and prestige.”
Politician’s advisors are the same in any century, Anna thought.
“Vashti, you have no idea how much trouble your little act of defiance was going to cause every woman in every part of the kingdom if Ahashverosh’s plan had succeeded.”
“Honestly, Esther. I had no idea. This was my decision alone, it wasn’t supposed to start a revolution.”
“That’s how many revolutions begin,” Esther said, “With one strong, independent woman.”
Anna caught the warm smile Esther sent her way. Although Vashti knew the truth about Adara, she didn’t think she would have told Esther. A quick glance her way, received by a slight shake of her heard told Anna that Vashti hadn’t told Esther who continued with the story uninterrupted.
“Because of my close relationship with the servants, I was made aware of the manipulation by the king’s legal advisors; Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan.”
“Why am I not surprised that his advisors are lawyers,” Anna whispered to Vashti. “Even in my time, they’re self-serving slime, except for my best friend of course.”
Esther continued, “It was Memukan who warned the king if other women were to behave as you did and disobey their husbands, there would be real trouble in the homes and the men would blame Ahashverosh which might have led to an uprising. To avoid that, Memukan advised the king to proclaim an edict that all the women throughout the kingdom will respect their husbands, and that every man will be ruler over his own household. The proclamation was to be dispatched to all parts of the kingdom, to each province in its own script and to each people in their own language, using his native tongue. It was a pretty good plan, except for one small fact. Not a single man received the dispatch.”
“In my time, we would say they never got the memo,” Anna smiled.
“Why not?” Vashti asked.
“Before the ink had dried on the parchment, I contacted a few of my trusted close friends who immediately left on horseback ahead of the dispatcher to spread the word throughout Shushan to get the men drunk so they passed out and never heard of the proclamation. We also had troops on the road who intercepted the dispatches as soon as they arrived. When word got back to the king of his failure to enforce the new law, I was already integrated within the castle as King Ahasuerus’ chosen one. I played on his ego and convinced him to be the bigger man, forget all about Vashti, sorry…”
“Nothing to be sorry for,” Vashti replied.
“…and he secretly reversed the proclamation, but since no one had heard of in the first place, it was only a gesture. The other problem with the proclamation was there wasn’t any penalty or consequence mentioned in the dispatch if a woman violated it. It was very badly written, but I was still glad the king changed his mind.”
“I think it was more that you changed his mind,” Vashti stated. “You were right about Ahasuerus, as much as I loved him, and I did at the beginning, he had such low self-esteem he just went along with whatever his buddies told him to do.”
“That was pretty much the way he ran things until I came along. But now we’ve lost hundreds of our army wasted in little inconsequential battles he was pressured into fighting, even though we were ill prepared and I’m afraid Darius isn’t going to do any better as ruler of Shushan than the man he thinks is his father, which is why this alliance, this marriage, is so important for both our kingdoms, especially with Alexander’s powerful army conquering smaller kingdoms throughout the country.”
After listening to Esther’s story, Anna was beginning to have a new appreciation for the sacrifices women of previous generations needed to make, including Adara. Marrying for love was a luxury most women in power couldn’t even hope for yet alone achieve. As fascinating as Esther’s story was, Anna still had absolutely no idea what role she was supposed to play in any of these events.
“An alliance of our two realms is certainly a good start,” Anna said, “but is it really necessary for me to marry Darius? Can’t we just make a treaty, sigh a contract, or something?”
“I don’t quite understand, Adara. Women, even queens, don’t have any authority to sign contracts, or make treaties. Your father is dead, so there really isn’t any other option.”
“I do have a son,” Vashti interjected. “Lemuel has been living in Kush. The last I heard from him, he was visiting other kingdoms in an effort to have them join us in an alliance. I was hoping he’d come home before the wedding, but I’ve not heard any news in weeks.”
“Time is running out. Haman’s supporters are getting very close to mounting their own attack against us, so we need this marriage to happen. Darius might not be the best leader, but I do believe he’ll make a good husband for Adara.”
“As far as arranged marriages,” Anna said, “I suppose I could do worse?”
“But there is something I need to do immediately after your wedding. No one in Shushan knows that Vashti is your mother, not even Darius. There are those in our kingdom who still remember everything that happened at that banquet. Gossip, rumors, horrible stories about you have been told these many years and I need to set the record straight before our people will you accept you, Adara, as their queen. I also need to make amends for these same stories that have been proclaiming my heroism when I convinced the king not to kill my people, totally ignoring the fact that if you had danced naked that night, they all would have been murdered.”
“I’ve been saying that for years.” The words slipped out of Anna’s mouth before she had a chance to stop them. Vashti flashed Anna a warning stare just before distracting Esther by changing the conversation.”
“Take this back to Shushan,” Vashti handed the book to Esther. “It documents everything I told you earlier, including my escape, the deception about my pregnancy and everything you need to convince your people to accept Adara as their queen. I titled the book Vashti’s Daughter, because it’s as much your story, Adara, as it is mine.”
This was the first time Vashti revealed the title of her book. When Anna heard the title, she was stunned.
“May I see it please?” Esther handed the book to Anna. It was heavier than she thought it would be when she first saw it at the cabin. With trembling hands, Anna opened the cover and began reading the first page, and the next, and the next. The text was word-for-word the exact same as the manuscript her publishing company was about to release in a few days, plus several thousand years. Just as she was about to close the cover and return it to Esther, Anna felt a familiar dizziness and knew the reason why Nate’s book didn’t have an ending; she had to create the final chapters herself as Adara.
“I’m very flattered,” Anna closed the book and returned it to Esther’s hands. “But this story belongs to all the people. We should have copies made.” Anna was always thinking publishing, even in a fantasy dated more than 2,000 years before the printing press was invented.
“As soon as I return to Shushan I promise I will hire the finest scribes in the kingdom to do just that. It will be dispatched to all parts of the kingdom, to each province in its own script and to each people in their own language, using their native tongue, just as King Achashverosh had commanded in his failed attempt to subjugate women.”
“Sounds like the perfect revenge,” Anna chimed in. “I’m going to get ready for tonight’s banquet. I’m really looking forward to Darius meeting his new mother-in-law. He’s going to plotz!”
When she noticed the women giving her strange looks, Anna departed the solar in a hurry. She realized she’d used a modern Yiddish word and had no desire to translate it to whatever language the current residents were speaking.
For the first time since her time-travel adventure began, Anna wasn’t accompanied by anyone. Having spent so much time in the palace, Anna knew the fastest way to her room, but instead of taking the direct route, she decide to walk down one of the main corridors. Since she had no concept of the passage of time in this world she had no way to know for certainty exactly when the banquet was going to begin, so she decided to take her time to admire the many portraits on the walls and the various pedestals that supported impressive works of art displayed along the way. Anna felt pure elation to have the opportunity to experience the original pieces. The last time she had seen them was in the Skirball’s Mesopotamia exhibit. There the portraits were torn and faded beyond recognition. All that was left of the pottery were crumbled pieces of clay and the delicate art work and engravings etched on each was totally indecipherable in her own time. If only she could take even one of these items with her when she awakened in the future, but she knew from past experience that whatever she tried to carry back with her from past would turn to dust in her hand in the present.
Anna turned the last corner which to the guest area. She stopped momentarily when she heard two angry male voices were coming from Darius’ room. One, she recognized as Darius. Although she only heard him speak a few times, the other voice she recognized was that of Nizam, Darius’ Grand Vizier. She was about to knock on the door to join them, when she heard Nizam shout her name, or rather Adara’s name from the other side. Anna stood to the side of the closed door and listened to the conversation that she knew she was not supposed to be privy to since it apparently involved Darius’ plan for her and her entire kingdom after they were married.
“I really have strong feelings for Adara, but she has some strange idea that we’re going to be partners after we’re wed,” Darius barked.
“Rule as equals? That’s absurd.” Nizam replied. “You must put her in her place and do it soon or you’ll suffer the same embarrassment as your father.”
“Of course I agreed with her. I’ll say anything she wants to hear until she’s my wife and in my bed. Then, she’ll know precisely who is the ruler and who is the subject.”
“The most important part is that you have all the wealth and land in Baddishere and will be the commander of both armies. Then we’ll mount our forces against Alexander and we will be victorious.”
The sound of the men’s laughter followed Anna all the way back to her quarters. She shouldn’t have been surprised that Darius was plotting in secret, or that he would have agreed with her as easily as he had when they had talked about their future, but still she couldn’t help but feel betrayed. It reminded her of her own experience when she discovered that Henry had been plotting with the president of the Board of Directors of Steine and Steine to oust her as CEO just before she filed for divorce. Fortunately Elaine had crafted an iron-clad divorce decree and solid articles of incorporation that protected her from any future legal battles that Henry try to mount. Unfortunately, there were no such legal documents, or attorneys for that matter to offer such protection in 367 BCE.
Closing the door behind her, Anna walked to her dressing table, sat down and stared at the now familiar face in the mirror. There were subtle differences in her features. Her hazel eyes were a bit darker brown. Her hair was a lighter shade of auburn with red highlights, but the worry and anger emanating from those eyes were completely and totally her own. Knowing Darius’ plan, Anna knew she had to come up with one of her own. As Anna Steine, she knew exactly what she would do. The problem was, she had absolutely no idea what Adara was going to do. Anna decided the best course the moment was to get dressed for the banquet and play out the rest of the evening until she returned to her own time.
Just then she heard Deborah and Ruth at the door. Anna let the women in. They were not at all shy hiding their excitement about the banquet and engagement as they fluttered about picking out clothes and jewelry for Anna to wear. They were much more excited than Anna’s bridesmaids had been at her own wedding, she recalled. Then again, neither Ruth nor Deborah, knew what Adara was about to sacrifice should she allow the marriage to occur.
“You look beautiful, Adara,” Ruth gushed.
“Darius is going to fall in love with you so hard. He’s going to make you the happiest women in the land.” Deborah added.
“I’m sure he is,” Anna’s voice dripped with sarcasm which was totally lost on the giddy women. “I’m ready, let’s get this show on the road.”
“What road?” Ruth asked. “The banquet is in the Audience Hall.”
Damn, I did it again.
“Never mind. Let’s go meet our guests.”
The women bowed their agreement, opened the door and followed Anna to the entrance to the Audience Hall where Darius was waiting. Anna was relieved to see that Nizam was not with him. Darius stretched out his arm. At first, Anna wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do in response, but taking a cue from the countless Disney movies she’d seen as a child, she placed her hand over his. They turned together as the guards opened the enormous doors for their entrance.
Anna was a bit overwhelmed when she saw the huge crowd assembled at the banquet tables. There had been 250 guests at Anna and Henry’s wedding. At the time, she thought their guest list was a bit too large, but there were at least five times that number who were waiting to congratulate the engaged couple. They stood, they bowed, they cheered as Anna and Darius made their way to the two empty seats at the head dais. Vashti was seated on Anna’s right. Nizam on Darius’ left, next to him sat Esther. Seeing the co-conspirator seated in a prominent position infuriated Anna, but as Adara, she was powerless to voice her objections.
She desperately wanted to tell Vashti what she’d overheard. If she had, perhaps Vashti would have stopped the entire proceedings, but looking at how happy Vashti was believing that the marriage was going to secure her daughter’s happiness and her kingdom’s future, Anna didn’t think it was her place to destroy Vashti’s dream, even if it was with the truth.
The celebration continued for several hours until Darius decided it was time to make the official announcement of his and Adara’s engagement. Darius banged his flask on the table to attention. The entire room went dead silent as Darius tried to stand. It was quite obvious by his slurred speech and shaky stance Darius had consumed more than his fair share of Shiraz.
“Here’s to me, and my lovely wife to be, Queen Adara of Badasshere.”
The entire room exploded with cheers and cries of “Long Live King Darius and Queen Adara”
“I believe the heart of the king is merry with wine,” Nizam whispered to Anna behind Darius’ back.
“As long as he doesn’t ask me to dance naked in front of all these people.” Anna spat in response. Vashti and Esther both visibly cringed when they heard Anna’s comment. They hoped Darius hadn’t also heard, or that in his inebriated state, wouldn’t respond. To their dismay, they were wrong.
“SILENCE!” Darius shouted over the cheers of the guests who immediately shut down the celebration. “Adara, you will be my wife and will do as I command. You will not disobey me the way my father’s first wife, that evil Vashti, may her name be cursed forever, did to him.”
That was the final draw. Anna could no longer remain silent. This part was not in Nathaniel’s manuscript, nor anywhere she knew. Alliance or not, Vashti’s wishes or not, Anna or Adara was not about to marry Darius. She would find another way to strengthen their forces, or else she would just return to her own time. Damn the consequences. Anna glanced over at Vashti who already knew what she was going to say and even though she didn’t need to grant Anna permission, nodded to her to continue.
Anna sprang from her seat and stood eye-to-eye with Darius and shouted in his face,
“VASHTI IS MY MOTHER, YOU ASSHOLE!”
For an eternal second the entire room was frozen in shock.
“She’s WHAT? Mother, did you know this?”
Esther looked from her son, to Adara, to Vashti then back to her son.
“I’m sorry, Darius. It’s true. Vashti is exactly the person you just insulted. I think you owe her an apology and also Adara. We can get through it. They need this alliance as much as we do.”
“Hell no. That woman will never be part of our kingdom. Let them all die for all I care.”
Realizing her revelation might have had severe repercussions, Anna sat down. She noticed Vashti’s shoulders were bent in distress. Although she was proud to Anna for defending her and had supported her decision, she now was beginning to regret what losing the Shushan alliance might mean to her own people. Just as she was about to try to persuade Anna to reconcile, there was a loud commotion at the front entrance. Vashti signaled the guards to open the doors and was thrilled to see Lemuel walked into the hall followed by ten men and five women regally dressed in various colored uniforms.
“Greetings mother and Queen Adara,” Lemuel bowed. “I’d like to introduce to you the rulers of fifteen kingdoms from all over who have agreed to join us in protecting each other from outside aggression. Our joined forces are ten times stronger than that of Alexander, however we are sworn to only fight in defense.”
Lemuel walked up to the dais table and placed a scroll on the table in front of Vashti. As she began to unroll the item, Lemuel addressed the guests.
“This parchment has been signed and sealed. It states that we are now all part of a great Federation, sworn to protect each other’s kingdom, land, wealth and people. If one is suffering, or comes under attack the other fifteen will come to their aid in any form they desire.”
“So, it looks like I don’t have to marry you after all, Darius.” Anna proclaimed.
“That’s fine with me, I don’t want to have anything to do with you, your mother, your brother. This is what I think of your alliance.”
Darius picked up his glass of wine and turned it over onto the scroll. It was an empty gesture as he had forgotten he’d already drank all the wine in the goblet so only a few ineffective droplets hit the parchment.
“You can either join us, or be conquered by us – either way , it’s your choice.” Lemuel handed a quill to Darius who reacted instantly. He grabbed the quill, broke it in half and stormed past the other kings and queens of the new alliance toward the exit.
Although Anna was very happy to be released from Adara’s marriage obligation, she was afraid if Darius didn’t agree to join the alliance, he would be vulnerable not only to an attack from Alexander, but also from within his own kingdom. Darius needed them even if he didn’t want to admit it. Anna felt a bit responsible for putting Darius in a potentially life-threatening situation.
“I have to go after him,” She said to Esther and Vashti. “He’s really not a bad guy, he’s just been taking some very bad advice.” She shot a “looks-could-kill” glance directly at Nizam.
“I’m going to get my things and head home,” Esther said. “I’m sure Adara can handle Darius, but after what just happened, I must tell your story to everyone. The truth will help heal so maybe we’ll be able to join your alliance sooner than later.”
“You’re still Queen,” Vashti said. “Here’s the quill, you sign it. You can tell Darius after he calms down.”
Nizam angrily rose to leave. “You women think you know everything. I’m through with you and Darius.”
“Best not-a-wedding present ever.” Anna watched Nizam leave. “I’m going to find Darius. Safe journey home, Esther. It was a real honor to have met you.”
“Same here, Adara. I’m sure we will meet again someday and that you will be a fantastic Queen, with or without my son.”
To avoid answering any uncomfortable questions, Anna found a back exit that led to the stables where she mounted a horse and took off toward the river. She instinctively knew where Darius had gone to lick his wounds; back to the place where they had first met by the river.
“I thought I’d find you here,” She dismounted and walked to him.
“What do you want?” he spat.
“Darius, I’m so sorry. I should have told you who my mother was, but you don’t know the whole story. Your mother has a book that will explain everything. She’s on her way back to Shushan as we speak. Once the truth is revealed, ”
Alone together, it seems as if the events of the past few hours hadn’t occurred. Darius’ face was covered in tears. When he looked at her, the anger he had felt earlier was replaced by profound sadness. Darius put his arms around her and hugged her warmly and whispered,
“The only truth I know is how much I love you, Adara.”
Darius brought her close, touched her face lightly all anger he had expressed earlier vanished under his fingers. Anna was about to respond when they were interrupted by an unwanted intruder.
“Darius, come quick. There’s been an accident. Your mother’s carriage crashed on the road,” Nizam exclaimed. “I think she’s dead.”
In an instant, Darius mounted his horse, followed by Anna on her one. They rode a few miles before stopping at an overturned carriage, Esther’s bloody body lay limp on the side of the road. Darius ran to her side which Anna stood helplessly by. A few feet away was the book the Vashti had given her. Anna walked over to pick it up, but Darius got to it first.
“Is this the truth you were speaking of? My mother died because of you! If she hadn’t been rushing home, this never would have happened!”
“Darius, you can’t really believe…”
“This is what I think of your mother and her truth.” Darius threw the book into the river. “As far as your mother is concerned, she’s as dead to my people as my mother is now to me.
Anna couldn’t believe that everything Vashti had written, the truth of who she was, the story of her daughter Adara was now lost forever.
“You and I are done. I’m going home to bury my mother. I never want to see you again. You will never know another love like mine in this life and all others to come. I curse you for eternity.”
The curse! Anna thought. That’s the curse Vashti was warning me about in the garden.
As she watched Darius carry his mother’s body to his horse and ride away, Anna felt the all-too familiar dizziness as the scene in front of her began to fade. Second later she found herself back in the museum, Nate’s arms holding her a few inches from the floor.
“Are you alright?” he asked. “You got a bit dizzy there.”
“We thought you were going to pass out.” The rabbi added.
Anna realized that the hours she had spent living in the past had only been a few seconds in the present.
“I’m fine,” she replied. “Nate, I now know the ending of your book. We need to call Fred and have him meet us at the office for the re-write.
Because they were going to meet Fred at the office in a few minutes, Anna decided to take the more direct route on the freeway instead of Sepulveda. One of the reasons she had bought a condominium in Santa Monica after her divorce was that it was only a fifteen minute drive to her office on Wilshire Boulevard taking side streets.
Two miles after turning onto the southbound exit, Anna saw flashing red lights in the distance. She cursed under her breath as the traffic in front of them was beginning to slow to a crawl. The last thing Anna wanted at the moment was to be alone for a long period of time with the author of the book she was about to complete, or have to explain to him how she had come up with the ending without sounding like a complete lunatic. Anna realized it was too late to exit off the freeway to avoid the traffic jam and much too late to avoid answering the awkward questions she knew he was going to ask. In hopes of delaying the inevitable, Anna reached out to turn on the radio, but Nate’s hand intercepted hers before her fingers landed on their destination sending a static electricity jolt through both their bodies.
“Ouch,” Nate cried out. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to shock us, but I really think we need to talk about what’s been going on with your dizzy spells and the book. This happened at your office, and now again at the museum when you touched the parchment. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.”
I could say the same thing about this insufferable traffic jam, Anna thought. They really hadn’t had much opportunity to discuss the details of Nate’s inspiration for writing Vashti’s Daughter, or the strange circumstances of Anna’s dreams or illusions, or whatever they were. If Anna had any thoughts that Nate would bolt as soon as she admitted what was happening to her, there was nowhere for him to run at the moment. She clenched the steering wheel for courage and recited the Cliff note version of everything that she had experienced since Elaine’s Purim party.
“That’s the entire story so far,” she signed. “The last episode at the museum the book Vashti gave to Esther was your manuscript. Darius tossed it into the river just after Esther died. I know it all sounds completely illogical, but it is a plausible explanation to why the story never made it into the original Magillah text.”
“Or, since you read my book, it would make sense you would see it a dream.” Nate’s analytical brain immediately tried to come up with a more logical explanation even though it had failed him to explain that mysterious voice he’d heard when he was in Hamadan that led to his writing the manuscript in the first place.
As soon as the cars passed the site of the accident they picked up speed and Anna was able to exit the freeway. There was a great deal more to the conversation then they had time for at the moment. Anna replied the only way she knew that would postpone the discussion even though she didn’t believe a single word.
“That makes sense.”
When Anna and Nate arrived at Steine and Steine they met Fred in his office. The editor had the printed copy of the manuscript on one side of the desk, the file open and ready for final chapter to be written on his computer.”
“I read the manuscript yesterday and made the edits, so the first draft is finished and ready to send to the printer,” Fred placed his finger just above the keyboard. “Waiting for your final chapter, boss.”
Fred was a lighting fast typist, adding the text to the final document as quickly as Anna spoke the words. He transcribed the banquet, the new alliance, Esther’s death and the disappearance of the book. Anna intentionally left out the part about Darius’s curse.
“I didn’t really know that much about the book of Esther, so I just did my normal copywriting edits,” Fred stated when he’d finished. “After I decided to read the story of Esther in the Writings section of my bible and was very surprised that there really wasn’t anything written about Vashti except for a few paragraphs and nothing at all about her having a daughter. I tried an internet search, but all I could find was reference to Vashti having a son named Lemuel. I think we really should put this out as a work of fiction.”
Nate and Anna exchanged disapproving glances before Anna replied,
“I appreciate your opinion, Fred, however it has been my experience not to trust everything you read on-line. I’m the publisher and my decision on this matter is final. We’re going to put this out as non-fiction and preview the book at the Festival this weekend. If you would, please send the files to our printer and have them put a rush on it.”
Fred’s shoulders sunk a bit as he did complied with Anna’s orders.
“Okay, Boss. It’s done. Can I go home now? I want to catch the last half of the Lakers game.” Knowing his boss was a huge basketball fan, he added the last part of his reply in order to get back on her good side, even though her totally disagreed with her. The ploy worked.
Her tone was softer when she replied, “Of course and thank you for coming in on your day off.”
As soon as Fred left, Anna gathered the pages of the finalized manuscript trying to maintain a professional demeanor in light of the confrontation that just occurred in front of Nate. As a woman, even as the owner of a major company she found herself having to constantly walk a fine line between being assertive and being aggressive or running the risk of crossing into the “bitch” area. Under normal circumstances that line was not anything she was concerned with, but with Nate in the room, she was slightly more than a bit concerned that his opinion of her mattered.
“Thank you for supporting the book,” his statement alleviated her trepidation.
“Not a problem. You’re the expert. Your name will on the cover and if you say it’s non-fiction, then that’s the category under which it will be published.”
Anna hoped she sounded more confident than she felt about her decision. Fred was an experienced editor whose opinions on the books they published were usually spot on. If his initial assessment after reading the manuscript was in opposition to their publication category, she wondered if other readers would share the same opinion. Anna knew it was a risk she had to take no matter the consequences. Whether or not she believed in the events of the past several weeks, or Nate’s story on how he came to write the book, Anna felt an inexplicable compulsion to publish Vashti’s Daughter as a factual account of events and not a fictional story. She also felt an inexplicable compulsion to spend the rest of the day with the author, but didn’t have a clue how to make that happen. She really didn’t know that much about the man behind those gorgeous brown eyes, long lashes and disarming grin that took her breath away whenever he smiled her way, which was exactly what he did with his next statement.
“I’m not sure I’d call myself an expert,” Nate shyly replied. “I still have my own questions about what happened in Hamadan as well as what you think has been happening to you from what you told me on the drive here.”
Nate didn’t realize he had just given Anna the opening she needed to invite him back to her place.
“I have some data back at my place I think you’ll find interesting. It’s a short drive and since I’ve not eaten anything since before I went to the museum, we can order lunch if you’d like.”
“I’m hungry as well,” Nate agreed. “Just as long as we don’t order Pizza. You can’t find a decent New York pizza anywhere in California and I’ve tried.” He joked.
On the drive to her place, this time it was Nate who turned on the radio. It was very strange, he thought. Even though he’d only just met Anna, there was an odd familiarity about her he found to be both attractive and a bit unnerving at the same time. His scientific curiosity was propelling him to discover more about this woman with the alluring blue eyes and delightful smile that caused his heart to beat a little bit faster whenever she smiled his way.
When they arrived at her condo, Anna immediately removed her shoes and tossed her purse on the couch just before picking the phone to order lunch.
“There’s a great deli that delivers,” Anna said. “How does a corn beef on rye with a potato knish on the side sound? I have beer in the fridge if you want.”
“Sounds perfect, “ Nate headed for the kitchen. “How’s their chopped liver?”
“Not as good as my mom’s. No one makes chopped liver like my mom. It’s the only reason I drive to Palm Springs, just don’t tell her that, she’ll be cooking every weekend!”
Nate had to laugh when he saw the contents of Anna’s refrigerator. Judging by all the take-out containers it was obvious the woman wasn’t a great cook. In addition to the beer, the only other contents was a half empty bottle of Chardonnay and an unopened bottle of champagne with a post-it note attached. After opening the beer and getting a bottle for Anna, he joined her at the kitchen table which was covered by pages of charts and notes.
“This is a really nice place,” he said after he sat down. “What’s with the note on the champagne?”
“That was a gift from the previous owner, Melanie Tyler. She was a voice-over actress who moved back to her hometown in Minnesota to work for her uncle. She told me her number one rule was to always have a bottle of champagne in the refrigerator in case there was a reason to celebrate, you never want to be without champagne. It’s been in chilling there since 2015.”
“That must have been one hell of a job for her to leave this place and move to the sub-zero weather in the mid-west.”
“She didn’t really say. I was just thrilled to be able to afford it after the divorce settlement.”
Hearing the entrance buzzer, Anna walked to the intercom to let the delivery man enter. After checking the video before opening the door, Anna took the bags of food to the kitchen counter. With all the many times she ate alone, she was pleased to have someone to share lunch with for a change. For a flitting second, Anna thought how easy it would be to get used to splitting her order with another person, if that other person happened to be Nathaniel Braverman.
“I have paper plates and some plastic utensils. I guess you already figured out I’m not much of a cook.”
Although Nate had never been in Anna’s place before, he felt very much at home as he transferred the sandwich and knish from the cartons to a plate. The last thing on his list of attractive traits in a woman was the skill of cooking. Since he was away from home most of the time conducting seminars, researching projects and teaching at Brandeis University, his cooking method consisted of microwaving whatever was in the freezer.
Clearing a space on the kitchen table, Anna and Nate sat down to eat. Nate’s attention was focused on Anna more than the food on his plate. He glanced at the collage of book covers that were in a framed photo on the wall and illustrations of foreign locals. The landscapes were breathtaking, but not only of them had any people. In fact, except for a small photo of a couple Nate guessed were her parents, her college diploma and several publishing awards, the entire condo was void of any photos of people.
“Are those places you visited?” Nate asked gesturing to the photos.
“No. When I have a manuscript to read that takes place at a certain place, I like to have a visual of the location. It helps with the process.”
Having traveled to many of the locations that were on her walls, Nate felt a bit sad.
“Would you rather read stories about having adventures all over the world, or experience them for yourself?” his tone was almost patronizing.
“I’m only twenty-nine. I’m way too busy building a company to travel the world for pleasure,” She countered. “I already told you I’ll be in Jerusalem in July for the International Book fair and we have a booth at the Quebec International Book Fair in Canada, but I don’t really have any time for adventures as you put it.”
Nate realized their conversation was quickly morphing into a confrontation, which was not his intent. He quickly made the effort to change the subject.
“Is that your parents in the photo?” he redirected. “Your mother looks like she’s accepting an award?”
The very last topic Anna wanted to discuss with Nate was her mother, although the chopped liver comment was hard to ignore. Throughout her younger years, her mother Rachel Cohen was a force in the Jewish community that Anna was constantly having to defend, live up to, or be embarrassed by. The photo Nate was referring was an award her mother had received from Janice Kamenir-Reznik, the creator of Jewish World Watch for organizing the Los Angeles demonstration to protest genocide in Darfur, Sudan.
Rachel was an activist throughout Anna’s young life. When Anna was in elementary school, Rachel organized the first Jewish girl scout troop and received the prestigious Ora Award, the highest honor from The National Jewish Committee on Girl Scouting. She was an active member of the Jewish Defense League, the Anti-Defamation League and B’nai B’rith. When Anna was in high school, Focus on the Family tried to distribute their Christian literature to public high school students under the guise of abstinence education, it was Rachel who was interviewed by the local television news at the entrance of the school board meeting. The brochures were pulled the next day.
Anna never enjoyed the notoriety her mother brought into her life, preferring to stay out of most controversial situations. However, when Anna entered high school and joined the choir, Anna and her best friend Jennifer refused to participate in the singing of “Silent Night” because of the lyrics “Christ our Savior”, and just stood silent while everyone else joined in. That was the best Anna could do, silent protest of Silent Night. She remembered how proud her mom was of her even though that was the extent of Anna’s activism.
With her parents entering retirement, Rachel spent most of her time on the side-lines preferring to pass the torch to the next generation, which was perfectly fine with Anna. Now she wondered if her dreams or whatever she was experiencing about Vashti was in some way simply a product of her own mother’s battle for justice.
Anna reluctance to talk about her mother wasn’t lost on Nathan who quickly changed the subject. Instead, he turned the discussion to the papers on the table in front of them. Being a man of science, Nate was skeptical when it came to the ancient esoteric arts of astrology and numerology although his friend Bibi spent many hours studying Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah. It wasn’t any wonder that Bibi had accepted Nate’s explanation regarding the voice of Esther telling him to write the book without question.
“I have no idea what any of these mean,” He told Anna as he scanned the papers. Anna tried to explain as much as she could from the notes she’d written after her meeting with Shifra, but it was becoming more difficult to concentrate with Nate’s sitting so close to her. When he reached over to pick up a chart, his hand brush over her own sending waves of desire she hadn’t felt in a very long time. A few more minutes of his presence and she didn’t know how she was going to avoid taking him into the bedroom and tearing off his clothes.
As if reading her mind, Nate moved his hand from the table to her cheek, caressing it softly. He was about to move toward a kiss when he was interrupted by the annoying buzzer announcing a visitor wanted to enter the building.
Anna near toppled her chair when she rose to answer the intercom.
“Hi Anna, it’s Bibi. I finished setting up the exhibit, checked Nate’s GPS and saw he was at your place, so I thought I’d swing by and see if he was ready to go home.”
“We were nearly finished,” Anna managed to say. “Come on up.”
Anna didn’t know if Bibi had terrible timing, or if he had timed his entrance perfectly to prevent what Anna knew for certain was going to happen if he had buzzed a few minutes later. She turned to look at Nate who was still sitting at the table, a disappointed look on his face told her he had been having the exact same thought.
“We have a very early class tomorrow,” Nate tried not to sound as disappointed as he obviously felt. “Another time?”
Just before Anna opened the door, she tossed a glance in Nate’s direction and nodded.