The slate gray car moved slowly along the narrow stretch of pavement, echoing the dull gray of the cold November sky. Bare fields sparsely covered in snow and peppered with wheat and hay stubble stretched out on either side of the highway as far as the eye could see. Here and there bluffs of barren trees sheltered farmsteads and barns and graineries. Fields of dull black earth dusted with snow waited quietly for spring planting ; everything was cold, gray, quiet and eerily still. Only the quiet hum of the motor and the low drone the driver’s voice broke the stillness.
“Soloman’s Vale,” the green and white country road sign was unremarkable in itself, looking like any number of road signs that dotted the rural Alberta highway. The car slowed pulling slowly over to the narrow shoulder then stopped near the sign. The lone occupant of the car bowed his dark head and gripped the wheel with such passion that his knuckles showed white in the gloomy interior. “Oh Lord,” he prayed aloud, “Lift the darkness that clouds the minds and hearts of the people of Soloman’s Vale; set the captives free! Speak to their hearts, Oh Father, and let them see the truth. Use me, Oh God, to bring them the message that they need to hear,” he continued on in silent prayer. At length, a truck horn blared and the man jumped in his seat, jolting him back to the present. Slowly he looked around him as if seeing it all for the first time. The cloud of darkness and deception that seemed to hang over the horizon was almost tangible. He drew in a deep steadying breath; he was here on a mission and with God’s help he would preach the truth. “Oh Lord ,” he prayed, “let the light of your love free some soul tonight from this spirit of oppression.” As one grain of sand turning, shifting, sliding down, causes the ripple that can topple the whole sand castle, so too the effectual earnest prayer of a righteous man avails much. The winds of change, for good or ill, were blowing into Solomon’s Vale.
Chapter One —Because of Andrea
Sarah ran the comb through her long ash-blonde hair thoughtfully. Today she wore it loose and flowing nearly to her waist, but soon she would wear a bun or a crown of braids like the married women. She pulled her hair into a long pony-tail, then twisted it into a bun to see how she would look. If anything, it made her face look more plain and well-scrubbed than usual. Vanity was a sin, she knew, so letting her hair fall, she did not linger looking into the small mirror. Sarah smoothed down her floor-length gray skirt that was teamed with a high-necked white blouse and sturdy flat shoes. No, she would never be the beauty that her sister, Andrea, had been and truthfully she was glad of it. Andrea had used her beauty to attract the heathen and she had paid a heavy price. Andrea……. she wasn’t supposed to think about her or ever voice her name. Why would she think of her now, on the very eve of Rueban’s proposal. Sarah knew that he was going to ask her to marry him tonight, for he had already asked father for her hand in marriage. It wasn’t often that one got the same chance twice, and father was still reeling from the blow that Angela had dealt him when she had spurned Rueban’s affections and run away. But Sarah, good, plain, sensible Sarah would put things right and poor father would be able to hold his head up in Solomon’s Vale again.
There was a brother coming from the Montana Vale speaking at the temple and everyone would be there. It wasn’t often that there was a guest speaker but Pastor Andrew Stone had come highly recommended. He could sing, play piano and guitar, and would probably teach them some new praise choruses. Sarah was looking forward to it, for although she would never admit it, she often found Pastor Soloman’s sermons boring. Mother had been acting strangely all day. Instead of her usual stoic self she had been humming hymns and there was a light in her gray eyes and high colour in her cheeks. Perhaps she was ill, or just excited about Sarah and Rueban’s upcoming union. Whatever the reason, it was nice to hear mother hum a tune instead of heaving deep sighs all the time. Come to think of it, she hadn’t heard mother hum a tune since Andrea left. Andrea again! Why did that name keep cropping up in her mind today. Sarah schooled herself not to think of her sister but everything suddenly reminded her of Andrea. Because of Andrea; it was as if everything in Sarah’s life began and ended with Andrea. Because of Andrea she was here now, anticipating an engagement to Pastor Soloman’s son, Rueban, who had once been engaged to her sister. Sarah would become the next matriarch of Soloman’s Vale, not Andrea who would have ruled with grace and love. Andrea’s name was never spoken in the Vale, her memory wiped clean everywhere, it seemed, except in Sarah’s heart. Andrea’s every belonging , her clothes, her small worn shoes, her sturdy white underwear and all her journals had all been burned in the Vale square. Even her blue hairbrush with shiny strands of glossy black hair still clinging to it had been hurled into the cleansing fire.
Oh yes, Sarah had seen the beginning of Andrea’s downfall coming but she had felt powerless to stop it. If only Andrea hadn’t had that questioning heart, always wanting to find things out for herself. Sarah sighed heavily, regret flooding through her. She had seen the signs of Andrea’s rebellion yet she had not gone to Father as she should have at the beginning. She could have saved the whole family so much shame and heartache. Andrea had started to read and study the Bible for herself and Sarah remembered her saying: “Why does Jesus say one thing and Pastor Soloman preach another. Look Sarah, Jesus says that if we confess our sins, he forgives us, so why does Pastor Soloman say sinners must be shunned and cast out. In the book of Matthew, Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.” Andrea’s beautiful blue eyes seemed lit with a strange inner glow as she pressed her small hand to her heart and declared, “I want to follow this loving and forgiving Jesus , not the one Pastor Soloman talks about.”
Sarah had been horrified and clamped her hands over her ears crying, “You must never ever question Pastor Soloman, Andrea—-Do you want to burn in hell. We are the only chosen ones, we should be so content,” she had grabbed Andrea’s Bible and tried to pry it from her fingers. “You’re reading things wrong; you just need Pastor Soloman to explain things to you.”
“Look, ” Andrea continued in her soft voice, “It says here that we are to spread the Gospel of Good News to everyone. Salvation’s not just for us , its for everyone who believes, can’t you see that.”
“No,No,” Sarah would cry out. Their conversations always ended the same way with Sarah flatly declaring, “Stop it, or I’ll tell father.” If only she had……….
Slowly their friendship became strained and Andrea spent more and more time alone reading her Bible silently. She no longer confided her secret thoughts to Sarah but wrote endlessly in her journals that she kept under her mattress. Each night she spent a long time kneeling by her bed in silent prayer. Sometimes Sarah would catch Andrea watching her with a look of such pity it scared her. Sarah worried and fretted but feeling some misguided loyalty to Andrea she held her peace.
Bitterness crept into Sarah’s heart as she thought of her perfect sister. Surely God had given to her with both hands for Andrea was beautiful, smart, a talented pianist, and could sing like an angel. While Sarah was tall and blonde, Andrea was barely five foot two with light blue eyes and long, wavy dark brown hair. Andrea had that certain sparkle that drew people to her like a magnet; her cheerful sweet nature and beautiful smile made everyone feel loved and accepted. She had a way of looking into your eyes and placing her small soft hand on your arm that could melt the coldest heart. Even at high school where the “children of the Vale” were shunned and considered strange, Andrea had shone like the star that she was. The boys were in awe of her and the girls grudgingly accepted that although she was different, she was “ok.” Not so for Sarah, she pressed her lips into a thin line, remembering. Being tall, painfully shy, and awkward, Sarah had always felt left out. If it were not for Andrea, school would have been unbearable. Andrea always sought her out at breaks and at lunch so she at least had somewhere to sit and someone to talk with. Everyone accepted that Andrea wore ankle-length dark skirts and high-necked blouses with long sleeves. Besides, Andrea looked more beautiful in her simple attire than anyone else in their worldly fashions.
Father had tried desperately to keep them from the indignities of gym class but the school board had taken a firm stand. Without at least one credit in gym, the girls from Soloman’s Vale would never graduate. Father had countered with his own rigid stipulation; no gym clothes were to be worn. Sarah’s cheeks burned as she remembered the humiliation of doing laps around the gym in her long skirt. Tripping and falling heavily, she had exposed almost the full length of her bare white leg. The boys had whooped and joked rudely while the girls giggled, pointed, and sneered. Only Andrea had run and picked her up and comforted her wounded pride. Soon some of the others came over to see if she was indeed hurt or just embarassed…. oh yes, school had been complete and utter humiliation. “Well”, she thought grimly, “the next generation of teens from the Vale need never face the horrors of a secular high school. Because of Andrea, no one from the Vale was ever allowed to go to high school again.
How Andrea had somehow convinced Father and Pastor Soloman to allow the sisters to go to high school was a mystery to Sarah. Andrea had reasoned that she could get the credits needed for university and then become a “real teacher”. “That way,” she had claimed, “the Vale children could have the same educational opportunities as others. It sounded plausible, but of course, shrewd Andrea was already planning her escape from Soloman’s Vale.
Sarah sank down on Andrea’s narrow bed. Everything was the same as the night she fled; the blue and white wedding ring pattern quilt, the round navy rag rug on the dark hardwood floor. Even her pillow was puffed and somehow waiting for Andrea’s dark head. She hadn’t thought of the white satin Bible cover for a long time. Now, Sarah moved to the small wooden chest at the foot of her bed and lifted the lid. She supposed it should have been burned, too, along with all of Andrea’s things but she had hidden it. Somehow it was tangible proof that once her sister had lived and breathed in this room, and slept in the small single bed that no one had touched for five years. Forlornly, Sarah fingered the whisper soft satin with the red roses embroidered in a circle around a golden cross. She had worked so hard on it for months, a beautiful gift for her perfect sister. Andrea would have carried it on her wedding day covering her white leather Bible instead of a flower bouquet. Mother had tatted the beautiful lace that edged the cover making it truly exquisite. Andrea had been so happy that day on her eighteenth birthday. She had wept tears of joy and hugged Sarah exclaiming over the beautiful gift. Andrea had praised her needlework and had declared she was wonderfully blessed to have her for a little sister. Sarah held the satin Bible cover to her cheek and drew in a sobbing sigh. Tears spilled down her cheeks as memories of that awful night burned her mind like fire.
It all began the last few months before graduation. Andrea seemed to grow more and more distant and no longer shared with her about her dreams and plans. When Sarah questioned her she would say she was very busy with graduation coming and exams to study for. Sarah noticed, however, that she always had time to laugh and talk with her friends and with a boy named James who had begun sitting at their table. Andrea said he was shy and lonely and needed a friend and that she was tutoring him and Sarah believed her. The girls were excited, picking graduation gowns, fancy shoes, and tiaras. There would be none of that for Andrea though; father declared that she must wear a high-necked flowered cotton gown and flat shoes. There would be no ogling his precious daughter; he was adamant about that. Pastor Soloman’s wife said she had just the dress that could be taken in a few sizes. But Andrea, with her tenacious spirit, had begged and pleaded to sew her own gown. She reasoned that it would show the townsfolk how well the women of the Vale could sew and probably even up their quilt sales. Andrea always won in the end. Her dress was exquisite. It was white with pink flowers so tiny that the dress seemed to give off a rosy glow as she walked. It was high-necked and long-sleeved all right, but beautifully fitted. All she needed was a pair of wings to look like a dark shimmering angel.
Andrea had been chosen to start the graduation ceremonies with a solo. Naturally it had to be a hymn and she had chosen “Morning has Broken.” Her beautiful voice cascaded over the notes filling the auditorium with a hushed awe. As the last note sounded, she bowed her head as thunderous applause broke out. No one saw the lone figure make his way to the stage and climb the three wooden stairs to stand waiting in the wings, his balding head gleaming in the harsh glow of the auditorium lights. As the applause died, Rueban boldly crossed the stage and dropped to one knee before Andrea. “This is my intended bride,” he declared in a voice rich with pride, “the next matriarch of Soloman’s Vale.” Andrea’s face blanched and she clutched her throat, her eyes wide with fear and mortification. Suddenly she turned and ran blindly from the stage bumping into the podium in her haste. Rueban rose stiffly from his knee and keyed the microphone. “My bride is obviously overcome with joy, she is young and easily overwhelmed.” Obviously his impromptu proposal was not met with the response he had hoped for but he had enough pride not to let it show. Mercifully, Principal Decker hurried to the platform, “No more surprises,” he declared angrily, “Let’s get on with the graduation.” There was nothing for Rueban to do, but to beat a hasty retreat as the auditorium buzzed with gossip and laughter.
Sarah had quickly left her seat and made her way back stage to find Andrea to make sure she was all right. It was there in the dull gloom of the backstage room that Sarah learned the terrible truth. There was Andrea sobbing in the arms of handsome young James; his arm circled her protectively as he pressed kisses against her wet cheeks. “Everything will be all right,” he murmured, “You will see. They can’t force you to marry that old fool.” Sarah gasped in horror and the two sprang apart. There was nothing to say, the truth was there before them all; undeniable, painful, raw and blatant. The truth changed everything!
Another memory followed closely on it’s heels; the memory of the white bible cover crumpled like a wilted flower and thrown on the floor beside Sarah’s bed. It was the first thing she saw that terrible morning. Of course, to protect Andrea, she had run to tell father what she had seen. At first, he had not believed her, saying she was jealous of her sister and always had been. But, that night Andrea had admitted that she didn’t want to marry Rueban and she was in love with James. Father’s face was ashen as he had cut the willow switch. Whipping his daughter troubled him deeply but such a terrible sin had to be purged. Andrea would soon forget young James and be the willing and dutiful wife of Pastor Rueban.
Sarah had collapsed on her sister’s bed weeping as she heard from downstairs the sound of the switch strike Andrea again and again and the pitiful sound of her sister’s cries filled the air. Finally it was over and Andrea stumbled in, her face red and blotched and stained with tears. She fixed Sarah with a cold blue stare as she spoke only five words; “How could you betray me.” then she turned her face to the wall and refused to speak. At length, Mother had come up with a cup of hot tea for each of them but Andrea refused to sit up. Sarah drank hers and although she had thought she wouldn’t be able to sleep, she suddenly felt so tired that she soon drifted off.
Andrea had taken nothing with her–only the clothing on her back. Sarah wondered, as she always did, how had Andrea made it down the creaking stairs and out into the dark yard without being seen. Had she run across the pasture wet with dew, or had she stumbled blindly over the rough plowed field as she made her way to the highway. Had she stayed in the ditches to avoid detection or run headlong down the paved stretch of highway, her footfalls echoing hollowly in the still night air. The night had been so dark with only the slightest sliver of a pale gold moon. Had the frogs been chorusing in the marsh or the night owls calling eerily as they watched the lone figure fleeing from a life she could not face. Sarah shook herself; she would never know and she should not even care. Andrea was gone from her life as surely as by death, never to return. Sarah folded the Bible cover and placed it back in the trunk. Soon she would throw it away, but she was not quite ready yet, not when the memories of Andrea were still so poignant.
Sarah turned and walked toward the door. “Enough reverie,” she told herself. It was time to forget the past and get on with her own life with Rueban. She drew herself up to her full five foot eight inches and drew in a deep breath; she would make father proud and she would be a fine matriarch of Soloman’s temple.