The chubby gray mare stood happily in the cross ties, chewing on a bite of carrot. Her long, bushy forelock fell over her eyes, and every now and then she'd tilt her head to the side to see what the little kids were doing to her.
"I wanna hold the brush!" cried Ollen, a skinny seven-year-old with two missing front teeth. He tugged on his older sister's arm, whining. "Pleeeeease!"
"I told you already," said Savine, elbowing him away, "I'll brush the right side, and you can brush the left."
"But my side is reeaallly dirty."
Savine rolled her eyes and kept stroking the mare's neck methodically. "So is mine."
"But you're taking forever." Ollen's lower lip puckered out. He reached for the brush, tried to snatch it out of his sister's hands.
"Stop it!" Savine slapped his hand away. He burst into tears, and her head whipped around in disgust. "Miss Ally! Ollen's being a pest again!"
I sighed and stepped up to Sky's shoulder. Ollen was glaring at his sister, his face red and puffy. I squatted down beside him, grateful to be wearing long pants instead of a skirt, and took him into my arms. He hugged me back fiercely.
"All right, Ollen." I patted his back, cradled his head under my chin. "There will be plenty of time for you to brush Sky. Remember what we talked about last week? How Jesus taught us to live in a way that pleases God?"
Ollen bobbed his head up and down, lips quivering.
"And didn't He say that whatever we wish others would do to us, we should do to them?"
Again Ollen nodded.
"So…" I pulled back, held him by the shoulders. His big, tear-filled brown eyes stared woefully up at me. "Don't you think you'd like it if Savine waited patiently while you brushed Sky?"
"Then it's probably best if you wait patiently for her, right?"
He pawed at his tears and sighed. "She slapped me."
"Yes, and that was wrong. Wasn't it, Savine? Would you like it if Ollen slapped you back?"
She hesitated, her hand going still somewhere over Sky's withers. "No."
"Good." I ruffled Ollen's head and stood to my feet. "Then why don't you both say you're sorry, and we'll try to act more like Jesus next time, okay?"
Savine looked at Ollen and Ollen looked at Savine, and after a good ten seconds of deliberation, they simultaneously muttered, "Sorry."
Well, it was a start.
I helped my students tack up Sky, and then we took her into Qirtok Equestrian Center's covered riding arena for a lesson. The sand-and-rubber footing gave way softly under my boots, and the scent of hay and horse manure rode on the air. I took a long breath, drinking in the serenity of the morning and the first cool breeze we'd had in months, my heart overflowing with gratitude for the place to which God had brought me.
"Don't pull on the reins," I told Ollen, whose turn it was to go first. "Keep your hands low and forward and let Sky have her head. She likes to look around."
"She's gonna go too fast," Ollen whined.
I smiled, amused as always by the things that came out of his mouth. Last week he'd complained that Sky would swing her head around and bite his leg if he didn't hold the reins tightly.
"She won't go fast," I said. "You have to trust her."
Thirty minutes later his sister got on, and I worked with her on circles and bending around traffic cones. Afterwards we took Sky to the wash rack, and I let the kids soap her up with a new blue-dye I'd imported from Germany, one specifically designed to lift stains off of gray horses.
We were almost ready to rinse when Jina strode up with a chestnut broodmare named Poem. Sweet-tempered and intelligent, she was easily my favorite, and this year I'd been able to ride her as often as I liked since she wasn't with foal.
"I think she has an abscess," Jina said in English, her lips small and pressed tightly together. "She is off on her left front."
"Hmm. Let me take a look." I lifted Poem's injured leg and drew my thumb firmly along the sole of her hoof. Immediately she jerked her leg back, her ears flattening against her neck.
I released her leg and stood. "She's got a bad bruise. It must be those rocks in the pasture again."
Jina sighed and brushed the sweat from her brow. "I keep telling my husband to get the rocks cleaned out. But no, he will not waste the money."
"He'd save money if the horses didn't go lame every other day."
"You try telling him that." Jina huffed and waved a bejeweled hand through the air. "You know how he is."
I laughed and patted Poem's shiny red neck. "Well, how about I get Nate out here tomorrow morning? The three of us can take the tractor out and pick up as many rocks as we can find."
Jina wrinkled her nose distastefully. "You American girls do not know when to leave a job to a man, do you? Ah, well, I have lost my dignity already." She glanced at the gravel parking lot, where the truck she'd given me was stationed next to hers. "Where is your husband, anyway? He does not come so often as he used to, does he?"
"He's been up in Salena a couple times a week teaching theology classes. That's where he is today."
"Theology?" Jina frowned at the word.
"He teaches people about God. And Jesus."
"Ahh." She nodded, her fingers opening and closing around Poem's lead rope. "He is gone very much, then? You must miss him."
Salena was only three hours away, and Nate never stayed over night, but all the same, it had required a bit of adjustment. I was used to him coming out to Qirtok during the day, even if it was only to have lunch, or to say hello. The days he was in Salena felt a little…off kilter.
Jina must have sensed the change in my countenance, for she lowered her voice and leaned closer, as if to divulge a very important secret. "You had better be careful with that man of yours, dear. Do not let him get it into his head that he can run off whenever he likes. I know many a woman who lost her husband because he found someplace else he'd rather be." She paused significantly, fingered the layers of her black hair over one shoulder. "Your husband is happy here, is he not? I would hate for him to take you away. I am very fond of you."
"Of course he's happy," I said automatically, surprised but not bothered by her warning. She didn't know Nate like I did She could never understand that what drove him was so much more than a career, or some crazy need for adventure.
Jina watched my expression, one brow raised, her boot tapping against the concrete.
"Don't look at me like that," I said, playfully shoving her arm. "You don't have to worry about me leaving."
Jina sighed and jiggled the lead rope under the Poem's chin. "But I do worry, dear. It is only a matter of time. Your husband has no work here, and men are never happy without work. That is why he goes so often to Salena. Believe me, dear. You cannot always go on as you are now. I knew it the moment you told me your husband was alive."
Something cold and ominous trickled down my spine. I fought it - knowing in my head she was talking nonsense - but still it clung to me. "Are you suggesting he never wanted to come here in the in the first place, and wishes we were back in Salena?"
"Oh, how should I know?" She brushed her long black bangs behind her ear. "But I will tell you something about men. They need work they enjoy and a steady income. It is engrained in them to be the provider. If they are not out in the world contributing something, they die inside. And those who do not want to die, pack up and leave."
I stared at her as if she'd slapped me across the face. Never once had I thought, not even for a second, that Nate was dying on the inside. He had always seemed so happy, so vibrant and full of life.
But that was the problem, and it wasn't until that very moment I began to see it. Nate would never complain about our situation, not in a million years. He was so determined to be content and rejoice in all things, that even if his heart was breaking, he would not let it show. He would convince himself, even as he had during his captivity, that the most painful things in life were for his sanctification and good, and he should embrace them most gladly.
Suddenly I couldn't breathe. "Jina…he's always talking about Salena. He loves teaching there and being with his Shari friends."
"See what I mean?" She held her palm flat beneath Poem's nose, and the mare licked her hand. "You must do something to keep his interests here. Convince him to come work with us. I need someone to mend the fences and stack hay."
I wrapped my arms around myself and groaned. "No, he wouldn't like that at all. He's not happy unless he's talking to someone about Jesus."
Jina sighed and fisted her hand against her hipbone. "That is unfortunate. But I suppose it makes no difference in the end. He will soon want babies, and then you will have to leave me. I knew I would not have you for long."
I gaped at her, tongue-tied and more than a little flustered. This is ridiculous, God! Why am I even listening to her? Why am I doubting what I know to be true? You wouldn't have brought us here if Nate really wanted to be in Salena…would You?
"I do not mean to startle you, dear." Jina gripped my elbow with her tiny hand and squeezed. "But these are things a woman must think about, if she wants to fully live her life. That is what I did. I had the surgery, so I could not have children. I have been working with my husband for seventeen years, and I never regret my decision. He still thinks one day I will be fertile, but I am safe, see? I can give you the name of my doctor if you want."
I backed away, squirming at the thought. "Um…no thanks. I appreciate your concern, but everything is fine, really. Nate doesn't want to move, and even if I have a baby, it won't keep me from my work."
Jina's brow wiggled upward, and she shrugged nonchalantly. "As you wish, dear. But you can't say I didn't warn you. What should I do for Poem's foot?"
My head was spinning so fast I could hardly think. "Uh…twenty minutes in a salt bath and keep her inside until the bruise heals. I'll check on her later."
When Jina left, I turned around to find that Ollen and Savine had been arguing over who got to hold the hose, and had not gotten around to rinsing the shampoo out of Sky's coat. The mare stood with drooping eyes, flicking her tail back and forth, completely unaware of what was happening to her -
Which was that she was turning purple.
"Oh no!" My thoughts shifted focus in a flash, and I dove for the hose Savine was holding and grabbed it from her. She jumped back, eyeing me as if I had suddenly lost my mind, and then for the first time bothered to look at the pony she was supposed to be bathing.
"Um…Miss Ally…" She twirled her pointer finger around a lock of black hair. "How come Sky is purple?"
I rinsed off the dye as quickly as I could, but the damage was already done. Sky's formerly white coat ranged in color from blue-gray to deep purple, and only the top of her head between her ears remained white. Ollen thought this hysterically funny, and laughed about it until his mother came to pick him up. Savine, however, was a little more reserved, and apologized profusely.
"It's not your fault," I assured her. "I wasn't paying attention."
Long after they'd gone, I stood solemnly in the wash rack and stared at Sky. The significance of the purple horse was not lost on me, not even for a moment. It was a sign from God. A terrible sign. For I recalled the letter Nate had written, in which he'd shared his dream about the horses in the field. One of them had grown an extra leg, another had been polka dotted…and one had been purple. At the time I'd thought it bizarre, but now it was unmistakably clear. God had planned for me to come to this place, to see Sky turn purple and face these new, disturbing thoughts which I had previously been too self-absorbed to face. God wanted to remind me how important dreams were to a person - especially to Nate, who was driven almost entirely by his passions, and could not survive without them.
Oh God, Jina's not right, is she? I haven't been so caught up in my own happiness that I've overlooked what it might be doing to him? Have I?
I thought about the other things Nate had said in his letter. How he feared he had been keeping me from my dreams, and wished he could give horses back to me. Was that why he had agreed to live here? To address some kind of skewed perception of his that I had given up my dreams to be with him? Was he sacrificing himself just to make me happy?
The thought tortured me all day long, and even when I fell to my knees in the middle of the hay room and prayed for peace, I could not escape it. I was so restless that by the time I returned home, and found Nate's car missing outside the gate, I could hardly stand on my feet.
But collapsing on the kitchen floor didn't seem like a good option, so I threw my energies into fixing dinner - baked chicken with tomatoes, onions, and peppers. My hands shook as I chopped the vegetables and arranged them around the chicken pieces. As they cooked the heat became stifling, the scent of the chicken repulsive. Oh God, I don't think I could bear it if he was unhappy…
Ten minutes after I took the chicken out, I heard the front gate rattling and someone walking up the tiled steps. I sucked in a breath and forced myself to be calm, to act natural, lest he walk in and think something tragic had happened.
Nate burst energetically into the kitchen as if his day had been thoroughly stimulating and he couldn't wait to talk about it. He was carrying an envelope, which he tossed onto the counter before striding up to me and taking me roughly into his arms.
"Hey there," he said huskily, and pressed a rather indulgent, dizzying kiss to my lips. He smelled like clay and dusty streets, tasted like sweet black tea, and all I could think as his hands slid over me was that he couldn't possibly be unhappy and still have the inspiration to kiss me like that.
At length he drew back, his face close to mine as he smiled down at me. "So…how was your day?"
My lips tingled pleasantly where he'd kissed them, and for the tiniest, briefest moment, I forgot what in the world was bothering me. "Um…it was good. How was your trip?"
"Amazing." His hands were on my hips, and he shook them gently. "One of Achmed's friends has been having dreams about Jesus. He came to class today, and we talked about original sin and the purpose of the Old Testament law. Everyone got into it. It was the most fascinating discussion - I wish you'd been there."
He kissed my forehead, then released me and peered into the pan I'd left cooling on the stove. His eyes lit up when he saw the chicken, and he stuck his fingers into the dish to peel off a strip of white meat. "Mmm, I'm starved. Thanks for cooking." He tossed the chicken into his mouth.
I stared at him worriedly, my doubt rising. Now that I thought about it, he was always in a good mood when he returned from Salena. He was always bursting with excitement, full of news to share. How could I have missed it?
I forced back the first sting of tears. "Did you give Kaveen the CD I burned for her?"
"Yup. She was thrilled. She sang me one of her new songs…man, I wish we could go some Saturday and worship with them. Hearing the whole group singing praise songs in Shari like that, it's downright chilling."
He grinned at me, his eyes sparkling with that indistinguishable light. "I wanted to talk to you…Heath is thinking of repeating the course for those who missed the beginning. We might expand it a little."
I blinked at him, my chest growing heavy with premonition. "We? You're going to teach it again?"
"Yeah, if it's okay with you." He opened the cabinet door and retrieved two plates.
"Sure…of course…it's just…I thought this was only going to be for ten weeks. You've been gone so much..."
He paused and glanced at me, his forehead wrinkling curiously. "I didn't think you minded."
"I don't…I just…I wasn't expecting it to go on forever, that's all." Feeling guilty now, I grimaced and looked away.
Nate set the plates on the counter and turned to me. "I know it's not ideal, Al, but it's important. The new believers are desperate for Bible training, and the Lord has equipped me with the language to teach them. That's what I wanted to tell you. Heath is hoping to record the sessions on CDs, so he can pass them out to people who are interested. Isn't that incredible? For an orally-functioning culture, it's a huge step towards getting the gospel out."
My chest and lungs burned as I looked at him. He fairly glowed with passion, his whole countenance strong and upright, his voice trembling with awe. How could I not have seen it? His heart was not here in Begendal, but in Salena.
And I had torn him away from it.
Nate touched my arm, jolting me back from my thoughts. "Hey…is something bothering you?"
I stared at him miserably, wishing somehow I could go back two years and make all my decisions over again. But I could not. I had to face the present moment, had to know the truth, even if it meant opening myself up to pain and loss. I drew in a rallying breath, fixed my gaze earnestly on my husband. "Nate…are you happy here?"
For an awful second his eyes went blank, his body rigid, and I thought I had my answer. But then the shock wore off and he stepped back, half laughing, half choking on his own breath. "Of course I am! Why would you think I wasn't?"
I wrung my hands together, feeling strangely foolish but knowing I couldn't help it. He meant too much to me for me to always be sane and calm. "I know you love being in Salena," I said weakly. "All your friends are there. The church is there. The only thing you have here is a city full of angry Chazbets. I know you thought God was leading us here…but isn't there a tiny - or maybe not so tiny - part of you that wishes we'd stayed in Salena?"
His dark, piercing eyes went wide. His throat bobbed. A moment longer he hesitated, and then he closed the distance between us and gathered me into his arms. His embrace was so gentle and deliberate, and his gaze so compassionate, that I knew he must be about to say something momentous. "Honestly?" He combed a hand through my long hair.
I nodded bracingly.
I trembled at that one simple word as a beautiful lopsided smile lifted the corners of his mouth. "Ally, you know who I am. You know I love the freedom I have to evangelize the streets of Begendal. I would never be able to do that if not for you. And yes, there are wonderful people in Salena, and I love helping the church…but the Shars have already been reached. I have to be where there is no church, where the ground is hard and unplowed. Who would tell the Chazbets about Jesus if we were gone?"
I looked into his eyes and saw the truth there. He meant what he said, and I didn't have to go around wondering if he was sacrificing what he wanted to spare my feelings. It was his holy ambition to be here, to walk where no one else had walked.
Relief shuddered through me and I leaned into him, wrapped my arms around his waist. "I'm glad to hear you say that."
"I've been saying it since the day we moved here. Really, Al, what on earth happened today that spooked you so badly?"
I laughed softly, for it all seemed so childish now. "Just something Jina said…and then I saw a purple horse."
"A purple horse?"
I nodded, rested my head on his chest. "Ollen and Savine were giving Sky a bath, and they left the blue dye on too long, and she turned purple. I kept staring at her, thinking about your letter. How you dreamed of a purple horse, and how you said you were afraid you'd been keeping me from my passions." I paused, took a breath. "So I started wondering, what if I was keeping you from yours?"
"Ally…" He groaned and kissed the top of my head. "The only passion I have, is that whatever I do, I do it for the glory of God. It doesn't much matter to me where I am."
"It used to matter to you."
"Well, I've changed." He stroked the hair back from my face. "As long as you're with me, it's enough."
I cringed and pulled away, looked up at him dismally. "But it's not enough."
"Because there are other things that are more important. Like God, and your calling…"
His arms tightened around me. "Ally, the moment I married you, you became my calling."
My breath caught, and I stared up at him as if there was no way on earth I could believe what he'd just said. "That's ridiculous."
"Is it? A husband ought to love his wife as his own flesh, just as Christ loves the church. Your calling is just as important to me as my own."
I chewed worriedly on my lip. "But what do we do if our callings are in conflict?"
"They're not." He kissed my forehead, then turned me around and steered me toward the opposite counter. "And they won't ever be. Do you want to know what's in that envelope?"
I'd completely forgotten about the envelope. But now, with it right under my nose, I couldn't help feeling a rush of curiosity. "What is it?"
"Open it yourself and find out."
I peeled back the sticky flap and pulled out a tri-folded letter. The entire composition was written in Chazbet, which I couldn't read very well, and even if I'd had the inkling to try, the characters were so tiny and squished together I could barely distinguish one from another. I tossed the letter onto the counter and turned to Nate with a thoroughly amused glare.
"Really? You're in the mood for games now? I thought you were hungry."
He laughed and reached around me for the letter. "This, my dear, is the deed for our plot of land."
"The deed for our - what!" I blanched, and everything inside me shook with astonishment.
Nate grinned unabashedly, as if he'd planned to surprise me all along. "Riban called on my way out of town this morning, so I stopped in at the courthouse. The owner accepted our bid, and the place is ours. We can start building next month."
"But…" I sputtered, pressed my hands to my forehead. "But you said it was unlikely…we didn't offer enough…"
"We didn't. But God's taking care of us, and that's all there is to it." He tucked the deed back into its envelope and set it on the counter. Then he turned to me, took me once more into his arms. "So…do you believe me now that I want to stay here?"
My heart welled up with affection for him, and I was so overjoyed by this news I could hardly speak. I touched the stubble on his jaw, brushed my fingers over his ear. "I always believed you…it's just…when I think about everything you've been through, and how deeply you abide in the presence of God, it's hard to imagine that I fit into the picture at all."
Nate shook his head, laughing at me again with an ease that belied a tortured past. "Ally, when are you going to get it through your head that I love being with you? I love waking up in the morning and having you right there next to me. I love your eyes and your smile and your sweet spirit. I love that you always want to kiss me, and that as many times as I tell you you're beautiful, you still blush." He brought his palm to my cheek, ran his thumb over the bridge of my nose, "I love how soft your skin is. I love that when you look at me, I feel strong. And most of all…I love that no matter how many times in one day I quote a Bible verse, you never roll your eyes."
He grinned endearingly and rubbed his knuckles over my cheek. Suddenly my eyes were burning with tears, my gratitude so powerful I could not have begun to express it. I swung my arms up around his neck, buried my fingers in his hair, and whispered, "You make me so happy."
His eyes went dark and intense and profoundly serene, as if there was nothing more wondrous than looking into my face. My throat constricted, and I wondered for the thousandth time since marrying him, if there would ever come a moment when one glance didn't completely take my breath away.
"I want you to know," I said, my voice hoarse and wavering, "that my job means nothing to me if you're not happy. No, no, I know that you are. But if there ever comes a time when you're not, or if you ever hear God calling us to go back to Salena, or to the States, or to another country altogether…I'll go." I slid my hands down his chest, swallowed the lump in my throat. "I'll follow you anywhere."
His body trembled with emotion as he took my face into his hands and kissed me. I softened against him, felt the hardness of his chest and shoulders, breathed in his warm, intoxicating breath. There was nothing else like it, nothing else in all the world that could make me feel so senselessly and thoroughly happy.
Nate broke away then, just as I was beginning to think we might not make it to dinner for a while. He grinned mischievously down at me, then took my waist in his hands and feigned surprise. "Hey, did you hear that, Al? Our song is playing."
I blinked at him as if I'd just woken up from a deep sleep. "What? We don't have a song. I don't hear anything."
His eyes sparkled. "Exactly."
Then I understood, and rolled my eyes as he guided me into a dance with no rhythm and no steps. He pretended to be very bad at it, tripping over my feet and losing his balance, until I was laughing so hard I couldn't see straight.
But then the laughter subsided and he held me close, and his eyes got that far-off look they always did when he was meditating on the greatness of God. I knew that look well, and it could only lead to one thing.
"You're going to quote a Bible verse, aren't you?" I twirled a finger around one of his curls.
He raised an eyebrow. "So what if I do?"
I gently touched the side of his face, looked long into his beautiful dark eyes. "Then I'll worship with you."
He needed no further invitation. His whole being lit up with the very Spirit of God, and his words came out hushed and solemn, and forever the delight of my soul.
"'The angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and His servants will worship Him. They will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates." The Spirit and the Bride say, "Come." And let the one who hears say, "Come." And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price. He who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon." Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.'"
Matthew 7:12 "So whatever you wish that others…"
1 Corinthians 10:31 "Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do…"
Revelation 22:1-3, 5, 13-14, 17, 20-21 "Then the angel…"
Well, that is officially the end! Sorry it took so long to get the epilogue out...I had to completely re-write it because the whole thing just happened last week - in fact, it happened the day after I posted the last chapter. I figured it was a sign from God so I scrapped the old one. I almost didn't even post an epilogue because it really isn't much connected with the rest of the story. Plot-wise it doesn't add a single thing, but I figured some of you wanted to know what we're up to now. So...I hope it's not awkward and disappointing.
Anyway, I feel strangely relieved and also sad to be done. Thanks for reading and being patient and taking this journey with me. You guys are AWESOME! All praise and glory and honor be to God, who is above all things, my Lord and Savior, my very existence. Run to Him, my friends, and there you will find all the desires of your heart!