Ruby (given the Jordanian name of Warda), is searching for her missing dog when she falls under the ruins of the ancient Temple of Petra in Jordan. She finds that every time she tries to climb back up to the surface she, and her dog Amber, age one year after every step. Will she and the dog reach the top before she dies of old age?
"....A cold wind blew down from the aperture high above her head, whipping a strand of her fair hair across her forehead and making her skin turn into goose pimples.
The dog whimpered.
She looked all around her at the dark and dank walls, at the winding, narrow stairs which threw shadows against the walls, then shivered at the thought of the spider. There was only one thing to do.
She and Amber would climb the steps and pray that she would reach the top in time. They would each need to lick the water dripping from the walls to sustain their lives.
The clock was already ticking. She would need every ounce of her strength if she was going to make it.
She took a deep breath and, with Amber clutched firmly to her breast, began her ordeal.
Warda was dreaming again.
It felt so good to rest awhile on the cool step. She had worked so hard and for so long, climbing, climbing, climbing. It seemed like forever, but somehow she had remembered it was important to count each step as she progressed. But as she became more and more tired, even the reason for remembering became cloudier and more vague.
Every bone in her body ached.
All she seemed to want to do was sleep.
And each step she climbed, she became older, heavier and more tired.
And the dog had become heavier and heavier, growling and snorting his disapproval each step she took. She thought of dropping and abandoning him to his fate, but somehow still managed to hang on to him, despite his heaviness and bewhiskered face. Every so often they would each turn to the damp walls and lick whatever drips of moisture they could. Instinctively they each knew that for them to survive, they needed water more than anything else. It was a far greater need than mere food. Man could live for a considerable time without solid food, as long as he had water.
Halfway up the steps she had stopped to look down into a puddle and hardly recognised the wavery image that was reflected back at her.
Who on earth was that old woman staring back so stupidly at her?
When did my blond hair turn silver grey? she thought absently
And what on earth’s happened to my teeth?
She brought her now wrinkled and mottled hand up to her mouth and felt the wide gaps between the few and rotting stumps still remaining in her pinched mouth. Why, my teeth seem to be falling out all on their own, she thought in wonder. Long, long ago she had still been waiting for signs of her first wisdom tooth to appear, and now all of a sudden she had hardly any teeth left at all!
She glanced down at the steadily receding dank water at the bottom of the steps and suddenly, surprisingly, thought she saw a vision of her two brothers. Yes, her two brothers appeared to both have their heads close together and were staring at her, dumbfounded. Please help me, she whispered silently to them. Oh, please help me! For a moment she thought they had heard her, as their faces registered first amazement, then shock. But suddenly, in a twinkling of an eye, their heads disappeared from whence they came, their faces becoming again a distant memory. But of course they couldn’t hear me, she realised, disappointed. They’re thousands of miles away. She shook her head at her own logic, before forcing herself to confront the still daunting task which lay ahead of her. She vaguely remembered a nightmare she had had long long ago. Everything in it now seemed to be coming true all around her. Here was the same narrow cave that she had dreamed of, and there on the damp mildewy walls were the horrid faces that had so frightened her as a young girl. Everywhere she looked was this massive hard rock with honeycomb tunnels leading off in crazy directions, and the very air she was struggling to breathe was depressing and had such a forbidding feeling to it. There was so little sunlight which had managed to find its way down to where she stood that the whole area had an earthy, deadly smell. And even though the caves lay under one of the hottest parts of the world, she felt so cold. Every so often an icy wind would come rushing down the hole towards her, striking a chill deep within her bones.
With thoughts of Emil, she smiled a horrible toothy smile. Oh, how handsome he was. She still remembered the embarrassment of youth, when just the touch of his hand and the feel of his dewy eyes on her had made her tremble. She realised that back then she must have been in the first flush of youth, ready to fall in love with the first boy she met. And she had been so young, with her whole life ahead of her.
But now? She looked down at herself and realised she was almost bent double. Her back ached and her knees were ready to give way at any moment. What would Emil see in her now? And indeed, was Emil still alive? She couldn’t work out whether it was just she who had aged, or whether – if she were lucky enough ever to escape this hell hole – the whole world outside would have changed forever.
She tried again to calculate just how many steps she had climbed. She knew it was important. She thought it must be approaching ninety.
She just didn’t think she’d be able to make it. Every step she took she got older. Of course, at first she had run and skipped up the steps, determined to reach the top and resume her old life again. What was it
had told her just before he left?
Oh yes. Even though I would get one year older with each step, if I could only reach the top, I would instantly become young again.
But now Warda doubted if she would make it. She just didn’t have enough breath left in her body to move any further.
It was then that she heard the shout. She thought she was dreaming, so far away did the noise sound. She realised that her hearing was becoming dimmer and dimmer and she now found it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction.
But yes, there it was again.
There was no doubt. Someone was shouting her name. She tried to answer, but it felt so good to lie down on that cool step for just a moment longer. Amber too seemed to be happy to rest awhile, her tongue lolling out of the side of her mouth. At first she used to give Warda cooling licks all over her face, but lately even that had stopped as she preferred to sleep most of the time. Her coat, which used to be so glossy and silky, had now become rough to the touch, and even her fur had turned dry, dull and grey, just like Warda’s.
With one last effort, Warda managed to whisper: ‘‘Emil. Emil! It’s me, Warda.’ She stopped for a minute, the act of talking at all taking all her strength. ‘Emil, can’t talk. Just help me, please. I’m nearly there, but every step makes me grow older. Already I’ve climbed nearly ninety steps….can’t go any further….please h.e.l.p……..’
That seemed to take the last of her strength as she subsided into thankful unconsciousness again.
An age later her nose twitched as something seemed to be brushing her face. Absently, unconsciously, she moved her arm up to tiredly brush it away, but there it was again. It felt like someone was brushing her face with a piece of rope.
As she opened her eyes, she felt for the dog’s pulse. It was faint, but there was still something there. She opened her tired eyes, every move of her muscles taking a supreme effort, and thought she saw a rope dangling there right in front of her face. And there was that voice again. She was sure of it. It seemed a lifetime away, but surely that was Emil? And then there it was again. This time she was sure. She recognised Emil’s voice shouting down at her.
‘Have you got it, Warda? Warda! Have you got it?’
With her wizened and wrinkled hand, she took hold of the stringy rope and felt it taughten. Could there be some hope for her and Amber after all? She had realistically given up all hope long ago. But now with a last ounce of effort, she managed to stand on her aching limbs and catch hold of the rope. She took Amber into her arms again and tugged again on the rope.
A voice shouted down again at her. ‘That’s it, Warda. Hold tight. I’m going to try and pull you up. All you’ve got to do is to hang on.’
Easier said than done, she thought as she looked down at the swollen joints on her fingers and felt the weak, hooded lids on her eyes stiffen and weep at the corners. And then, miraculously, she found herself being hauled up the remaining steps, one by one. In truth, her feet were by now dangling downwards as she was dragged and pulled painfully step by step, her arms straining horribly high above her head. But gradually, indubitably, the light above her head was definitely becoming brighter with each pull of the rope as bit by bit, step by step, she and Amber were being hauled up to the surface. But already her sight had faded, and the ringing in her ears became louder by the second, until she remembered no more....."
Note from the author: maybe you have youngsters in your family who would enjoy this series? Each Wednesday I'll include a link on the first three in this series plus an extract. Don't miss next Wednesday's blog when Ruby's friend Clementine goes back in time to 17C Italy in search of a missing Stradivarius.