"Are you Sisko?"
Sisko turned toward the voice. A white-haired man leaned forward in his saddle. Sisko laid down the sanding pad next to the wooden table he'd worked on with the help of his two teenage children, Kaylee and Nathan.
Sisko nodded. "I go by that name, yes. And yours?"
Kaylee brushed the sawdust off her hands against the rough britches she wore. She pushed her golden hair back as she slid nearer to her sword propped against a tree stump.
Nathan stopped his polishing but remained squatted on the ground. His blue-green eyes stared at the man on the horse while sweat dripped from sandy hair.
The man rubbed his chin. "I understand you can do miracles with a ring of yours. I have need of such a ring."
Sisko sighed. He'd thought the stream of miracle seekers had ended.
"If you wish, I'll pray. What is the need?"
Sisko felt a pulling at his ring. He flexed his fingers, but a magical force pulled his hand up. Sisko gritted his teeth as the ring, stuck firmly to his finger, threatened to pull the digit from his limb.
Nathan flung a rock as he leapt to his feet. The rock smashed into the man's fingers cupped toward Sisko, resting against the neck of the horse.
The wizard grimaced and shook his hand. He clenched his teeth and thrust forth his other hand at Nathan. Sisko leaped between the two; a ball of fire raced from the wizard's fingertips and planted itself into Sisko's gut. Sisko slammed against the ground and rolled a couple of feet backwards. Pain vibrated through his body, erupting into a scream.
Kaylee pulled her sword and dashed after the intruder. He cursed and jabbed his heels into the horse's sides. In response, the beast lurched forward and quickly accelerated to a gallop, kicking up a cloud of dust. Horse and rider rounded a corner and disappeared behind a cluster of trees.
Nathan knelt beside Sisko. "What can I do?"
Sisko sucked in a deep breath before pushing himself upright. "Nothing. I just had the air knocked out of me."
Kaylee shook her head as she sheathed her sword. "Come on, Dad. That fireball should have done more damage. Why, you're not scorched at all."
Sisko smiled. "Comes from living right." And God's protection through the ring. "Why don't we finish for today? The sun is getting low and your mother will return from town soon. Let's rest a bit, clean up, and be ready to help her with supper."
They nodded and helped Sisko to his feet, then filed into the house. The main room contained a fireplace, a table with chairs, and an indented space where cabinets and a countertop propped up dirty dishes. Darkly stained walls surrounded them.
Sisko slid into a chair; his aching body thanked him with a wave of relief.
Nathan held up a pot of hot water. "Tea?"
Kaylee shuffled papers on a desk. "Don't forget me." She extracted some leaves of paper and a quill pen from the mess, then sat at the table with Sisko.
She dipped the quill into the inkwell. "Dad, tell me all your stories about the ring from the time you were first given it."
Sisko raised an eyebrow. "Why?"
She frowned. "I want to preserve them. What if you'd been killed today? Nathan and I would recall bits and pieces, but we'd forget too much."
Nathan slapped Sisko on the back. "Yes, I agree. Tell us the stories as best as you can recall. They make good bedtime adventures."
Sisko glanced from one face to the other. He shrugged. "Sure, why not?"
Kaylee smiled. "Good. I'll take notes."
Nathan set cups of hot tea on the table, pulled up a chair, and leaned on his elbows.
Sisko closed his eyes. "In Reol, where I grew up, there stood a very unique steam house . . ."
"Sir?" I looked up at the muscular man entering the steam house. "I don't think you want to go in there. Why don't you use one of the other steam houses in town?"
"What? Am I not good enough for your steam house? And who's gonna stop me? You?"
"Whatever. Don't say I didn't warn you."
He slung a towel over his shoulder, another already securely wrapped around his chiseled waist. He stared at me for a brief moment, as if deciding whether he should waste his time on me. He turned and walked into the wood frame building. A cloud of steam puffed from the doorway into the freezing air; the solid oak door slammed shut behind him.
The pungent smell of pride wafted in his wake. I'd seen his kind often. He wouldn't like the results.
The steam house had developed a reputation as a house of miracles. The sign over the door read, "Steamy Realities Steam House: Sweats out both body and soul. Warning: Only the pure of soul should enter. We are not liable for negative results." Despite that warning, most believed purity flowed from their soul and expected a miracle. They would enter anyway, often leaving with the opposite results.
The church and villagers of Reol viewed the steam house differently: as a rite of passage to adulthood. Young ones both longed for and feared entering the steam house. Everyone took it seriously, everyone except for those not familiar with the steam house's attempts to reveal and correct flaws of the soul.
My father said since I was fourteen, my time had arrived. I had prayed and prepared at the temple. Was I ready? I hoped so, but to tell the truth, I wasn't sure what I would find. I hadn't discovered my place in life, so if this steam revealed anything to me, so much the better. My only fear was in what it would reveal. Would I like it?
My own skinny waist wrapped in a towel, I glanced back at my family standing by a store entrance across the dirt road. My younger brother Jake waved and smiled, standing on his one leg and crutches. Father had talked about someday getting him a fake leg, so he could walk. We all knew our poverty prevented such a dream coming true. Not unless God performed a miracle.
I opened the door and paused on the edge, both fear and excitement holding me in place. I forced myself to take the step inside.
In contrast to the freezing weather outside, the heat hit me in the face. I took deep breaths, but a few moments passed before I adjusted to the hot, moist air. Wooden benches lined the octagonal interior. In the center of the dirt floor, a roaring fire beneath a mound of volcanic rocks heated the air. Fresh steam rose like a cloud; apparently someone had just poured water on the rocks. I moved to an empty spot next to a rather chubby man.
He, also adjusting, breathed hard and purposefully. He looked over at me. "Hi, boy." He paused to catch another breath. "My name's George." He didn't bother to shake hands.
"I'm Sisko," I responded. "You don't look like you're from here. Traveling through?"
"Yes, indeed I am." He relaxed and then stretched as if he lay on a sunny beach. "Right nice steam house you have here. I'm feeling more energy than I've felt in a long time." He had already adjusted to the heated air.
I smiled but said nothing. I could already see his body losing weight and shifting to muscle. He would be happy with his stay here, unless something worse hid inside. You never really knew. People hide lots of stuff where they think no one can see. The steam and heat had a way of bubbling that to the surface and dealing with it.
Yet, while in the steam house, people couldn't see the reality they transformed into, not until they exited the building. Others could see, but they themselves could not.
I scanned the room and spotted the muscular man I had met at the entrance. Already, his body displayed less muscle. If he stayed much longer, he wouldn't be able to lift twenty-five pounds. He lay back, eyes shut, half asleep as the steam heated his pores and soul.
Just four feet down the bench sat an odd man. In addition to his towel, he wore lots of jewelry: necklaces, rings, bracelets. As he chatted with the man next to him, he swung his arms in big gestures, the ornaments ringing with every jerk. I shook my head. This steam bath would likely cost him a lot.
Farther down the bench, a man held a steam-soaked book. He sat immersed in another world, oblivious to his surroundings. I saw in him what my father and priest had warned me about: depression. Shadows grew long over his face, as they do when the sun sets. The longer the shadows stretched, the more he focused on his book.
I moved over to him. He needed help. "Sir, do you mind telling me what you're reading?" People liked to display their knowledge.
He stared over his book at me. His eyes widened. Surprised, it seemed, that anyone would talk to him. Then his eyes narrowed, and he said with irritation in his voice, "Paradise Lost."
"Oh, I've read that. It gets better toward the end."
His eyes froze in place; one eye opened a little wider than the other. "I've never been able to get very far. Once paradise is lost, the story's over."
"Yes, it is!"
I jumped back, surprised by the force.
He continued, "You're all alone, no help, you're doomed. Might as well give up." He looked back into his book as if to say, "Go away."
I thought about trying again. He needed help, but the shadows grew longer. Soon he would exist as darkness. Depression sucked out every joy and ounce of life. Not a pretty sight. He had sunk too far; I couldn't help him.
Sweat freely poured down my face. One man arose and poured more water on heated rocks. Fresh steam sizzled and rose like a cloud seeking souls to squeeze.
One man walked out the door. I noticed the jackass tail that had formed on his backside. I heard him release a series of cries, receding as he ran away, his hooves clopping on the dirt street. Though he probably deserved it, I felt sorry for him.
I spotted three men conversing in a corner. I decided to listen while I waited, so I walked over. I wished I hadn't.
A man with a mustache exposed his sexual exploits to the other two. A real Don Juan, based on his stories. While he certainly exaggerated, I believe he told some truth. Already his feet had turned into roots. His listeners also stared as his skin transformed into a more bark-like substance.
"Sir," I broke in, "you might want to leave now. If you take root here, it could damage the steam house."
The man looked at me with a smirk; his mustache bristled. "Boy, what are you talking about? Taking root?"
One of the men said, "Yes, he's right. You're turning into a tree. I would get out while you're not totally changed." They backed away.
"I don't see anything?" the man said, staring at his body. No one said anything. He looked back at our shocked expressions and then ran out the door, leaving a trail of leaves in his path. He gasped as he left the building, and then a cry of anguish rolled down the street. It would get worse. If he stood in one place for too long, he would take root. I hoped he wouldn't take root in a horrible place like a toilet. There would be no more wandering and girls for him. The steam seemed to have a sense of humor sometimes.
One of the other men looked at me. "Boy, am I changing?"
"I thought one received miracles here?" The other man shook his head.
"Some do, it all depends on the character of your soul. Didn't you read the sign over the door when you entered?"
The two men glanced at one another and gathered up their things to leave. The previous man's condition apparently gave them pause concerning the risk they took.
"Of course, if you have a good soul, good things also come to the surface," I added by way of consolation.
Their eyes widened, and then they moved with hurried steps to the door. As they left, my gaze landed on the previously well-built man who now snored away. His massive body, I would guess around three hundred pounds, looked precariously perched on the bench.
Maybe I should wake him? I thought about it for a moment and decided it wouldn't do any good. Hope he has enough muscle left to walk out the door. I laughed despite myself, but then I pulled myself up short. Such an attitude could cost a person in this place. I walked over to him. Falling asleep in a steam house risked staying too long. He might not wake up in this life.
"Sir." I shook him until his eyes popped open.
"Oh…" He blinked a few times. "Must have fallen asleep. I don't know why, but I'm feeling heavy and sleepy."
"To be honest, Sir, you do have a great weight."
"Yeah, I know! With muscles like these…" He lifted an arm and arched it to pop up his muscle. "I've worked many hours to get my body into this shape."
Instead, I saw three inches of dangling skin wobbling under his arm. "No, not like a wonderful weight, but like a whole lot of weight."
He looked at me with a smile, "Sure, kid." He tried to get up, but fell back. He strained to rise a couple more times without success. Finally he said, "Uh, this is embarrassing, but it seems this steam has drained my energy. Could you help me up, kid?"
I gave him my hand. With a grunt, I helped leverage him to his feet.
He grabbed his towel, which had loosened with the widening of his girth. "I need to get out of here. I think this steam is causing an adverse reaction."
I nodded. Hopefully we could get him out the door before he hit four hundred pounds. He took each step in plodding fashion, pausing to work up the energy for the next step and to keep his balance. He eventually lumbered out the door.
For a while, I heard nothing. Then, a soft and solemn cry floated into the building. No doubt one of the few times the proud man had shed tears in his life.
I checked back with the jewelry man. He now wore necklaces, rings and bracelets crafted of flowers, moving soundlessly as he continued to wave his arms back and forth. His listener appeared more attentive to his flower-laden wrist than to what he said. If the steam held true, it could also mean much of his wealth had turned to grass and flowers. Here today, gone tomorrow.
"Sisko, wasn't it?" A man stood beside me. He appeared ready to leave. "This was great, I'll have to visit more often when I come through."
Then I recognized him. "George?" The overweight man I first met, yet now he sported a muscle set any bodybuilder would be proud of.
"Ah, good! Not everyone has a knack for remembering names. Thanks." He shook my hand with gusto. Then he skipped out the door. I soon heard a "Wow!" and a loud laugh with a few shouts of joy.
I delayed leaving, though I had stayed long enough. I feared to go out. What would I find? Would I finally learn my direction in life, or would I be horrified? I stared at the door, gathering the courage to walk through it. I knew my family would be outside, eager to discover how I'd fared.
There was no reason to put it off. Whatever the steam house had done to me, I'd have to deal with it for the rest of my life. Staying longer would only worsen a bad reality.
I arose and with gathering determination stepped to the door. I opened it and paused at the threshold. I could see my family waiting. They don't seem to be reacting yet. Maybe I'm okay.
"Hey kid, shut the door. You're letting out the heat!" someone said from inside.
I stepped out. The cold wind, reacting to the steam rolling off my body, tingled my skin. I examined myself. I looked normal enough, though older, like I'd aged. A good sign, meant I harbored a mature heart. But what else? Surely there must be more.
"My, you've grown in there, Sisko." Mother held me in her arms and then squeezed me in a hug. My father patted me on the back. He seemed satisfied nothing horrible had revealed itself, but I expected more.
While Mother hugged me, and my hand lay on her shoulder, I noticed what had changed. On the third finger of my left hand, a ring of solid gold glimmered in the sunlight. Intricate engravings of an ancient language decorated its otherwise plain surface.
"Am I married?" I pulled away from Mother and displayed the ring on my finger. I tried pulling it off, but it wouldn't budge.
A voice behind me spoke, "Yes you are, but not as you are thinking."
I spun around. The priest stood smiling at me. I lifted the ring on my hand for his inspection.
He continued as he examined it, "Not married to a woman, but to God's service."
"I've not heard of this order, Father. What service is this?"
He moved his eyes to meet mine without turning his head. "The steam revealed you have a heart for helping people. So He gave you the means to do so in greater ways." The priest straightened. "The inscription God wrote in Hebrew says, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.' If you use the ring to help others, it will be a blessing to you. But if you use it for your own benefit, it will be a curse. So don't use it without careful thought, or you will wish you had never been in the steam house."
I held my hand at eye level in wonder. "How do I use it?"
"Through your prayers. It isn't so much a magic ring in itself as it is a reminder of the commitment between you and God. He will give you whatever you need to help someone. Sort of like Samson's hair gave him strength."
"Me? Like Samson?" I stared at the ring. A weight settled over my heart. What if I misused it like Samson? What if I failed to be a keeper? I sucked in a big breath and let it out slowly.
"Thank you, Father." I turned to my brother Jake and lifted him into my chest. "You won't need those crutches any more." I placed him down on two solid feet.
He smiled, then laughed and ran along the dusty street. Mother and Father stood wide-eyed and mouths open, but joy etched their faces.
I discovered my purpose for existing after all. I didn't find it in the steam house; it already existed inside me. I simply couldn't see the truth until the steam revealed it. The reality each of us should know: we are one another's keeper.