You Were: The Sacrifice

(Above: Reliving the glory days.)

We're going way back for this one. I'm not even sure which country we're visiting--or if countries existed back then. All I know is this: There was a really big, angry volcano right in your backyard.

You were just a little girl when people in your village began to speak of your beauty. Most of them offered their compliments with sad little shakes of their heads. You see, beautiful girls didn't last very long in your neck of the woods. At the age of fifteen, before they had a chance to get too friendly with boys, they were tossed into the volcano to appease the god who lived inside.

The crazy thing was--it never worked! If it had, you might have accepted your role as protector of your people. But it made no difference how many virgins the god was given, he still sent a lava flow right down Main Street at least twice a month. You weren't the sort of girl who went to a firey grave for nothing. So around about the age of twelve, you started looking for a way to save your own butt.

Your first thought was to make yourself ugly. You hacked off your lustrous, long black tresses, only to find you looked super-cute with a pixie haircut. You stopped bathing, only to discover that your skin began to shine. Even the tattered rags you insisted on wearing looked amazing on your willowy form.

One afternoon, you were sitting with your wise old grandmother, staring mournfully at the volcano in the distance. "Pack up the family heirlooms," she suddenly said. "I can smell the lava coming." Sure enough, an hour later, the houses across the street from yours had been consumed by liquid fire. "How did you know? Did the god tell you?" you asked your grandmother. "God? There's no god inside that @*&$@ volcano," your grandmother said. "When you live with a volcano for eighty years, you get to know when the $@$*#'s in a bad mood." (Your grandmother cursed a lot.)

That's when you had your brilliant idea.

You began studying the volcano for hours each day. Eventually, you knew how to interpret every plume of smoke, every tiny tremor, every whiff of sulfur. You could predict, within minutes, when the lava would come--and whether it would swallow the village or miss it all together.

It was only a few weeks before your fifteenth birthday, when you decided the time had come. You stepped into the square at the center of your village and addressed the people. "You have angered me, and I have called the fire," you told them. "In an hour's time, it will destroy two houses. If you throw me into the volcano, I will destroy the whole town and everyone in it."

The people laughed. Back in those days, they didn't take pretty fourteen-year-olds with pixie haircuts and grubby faces very seriously. An hour later, they weren't feeling quite so lighthearted. Still, the village elders insisted it must have been a fluke. So three days later, you called the fire again. Four days after that, you summoned it once more.

Finally, the villagers got the message. The god from the volcano was actually a goddess. (That wasn't exactly the message you were trying to send, but you figured you'd go with the flow.) As a result, you were granted supreme power over the people of your island. You immediately did away with virgin sacrifices. The only tributes you demanded were five handsome boys to act as your personal servants. (That's as far as your imagination stretched at that particular moment.)

Then, once your rule of the island was unchallenged, you had the second of many brilliant ideas. You ordered the whole village moved to the other side of the volcano, out of the lava's path.

You Were: The head of the PTA

You can see ghosts. (It's something we share in common.) I'm not sure if you know this (although I suspect that you do). Sometimes it takes a while to discover the talents we've brought with us through our many lives. But if you ever want to test your skills, feel free to pay a visit to Brooklyn and have a nice chat with my ghost.

You've led countless interesting lives. It was hard to focus on one. But perhaps we should start with your most recent incarnation. In the 1950s, you were a housewife in suburban New Jersey. You were happily married with two lovely kids and a cocker spaniel. But from time to time, some of the ladies in town would whisper about the bags under your eyes.

"She looks a little tired," one would say. "It's hard being perfect," another would respond. "Did you see that cake she made for the PTA meeting?"

But it wasn't the baking that wore you out. Each and every night, you'd wait until the neighbors were tucked into their comfy beds. Then you'd put on your walking shoes and start your rounds. As you strolled the streets of your picturesque town, the ghosts in each house would come out to complain.

"They're going to burn the whole place down if they don't clean the chimney," a spirit would say. "He's having one too many cocktails before he picks the kids up from school," a ghoul would confide. "The woman who lives in my house is lonely. She could use a good friend," a particularly sensitive specter once told you.

You took careful notes and addressed their concerns first thing in the morning. The people down the street never knew why a chimney sweep just showed up on their doorstep one evening. How their children became part of your carpool. Or why the woman who never left her house suddenly started showing up at all of your cocktail parties.

You were the person who kept the whole town from exploding. (Literally in one case.) And how did the citizens thank you? By denying you the one thing you wanted most in the world: To be elected the head of the PTA. (Why was this your dream? I have no idea. There are some deep, dark chambers of the human psyche even I am not allowed to enter.)

Once you'd lost the title three times in a row, the ghosts started to notice that something was wrong. You weren't quite yourself, and your small talk was suffering. Finally one overheard his human housemates discussing your plight, and he and his fellow spirits joined together to come up with a plan. What you needed, they decided, was a fabulous campaign.

The next evening, as you were making your rounds, the ghosts came to you one by one. "There are six solid gold coins hidden where the outhouse once stood. Put them there myself back in 1878," one said. "There's a painting in the basement that they're going to throw out any day now. Looks like it could be a Picasso to me," another claimed. "The people who live in my house robbed an Iowa bank back in '42. Bet there's probably a price on their heads."

Soon you'd acquired a campaign war chest bigger than any ever seen in a New Jersey PTA race. You put up billboards, bought the front page of the local paper, and started your own radio station. The day of the race, no one was surprised when you won by a landslide.

Unfortunately your new PTA duties, combined with your nightly rounds, proved too much for your delicate system. You never got a chance to institute your new school lunch plan. But you were so eager to return to this world that you were reincarnated more quickly than most. (And I really hope you take it easy this time!)

You Were: The Fiancee

The last time you were a child, you had a bad habit of disappearing. One moment you’d be shopping on Michigan Avenue with your mother—or strolling along the lake shore with one of you nannies—and the very next moment you’d be long gone. It was as if the wind had whisked you away. The first three times you vanished, the police were called and search parties formed. The fourth time you disappeared, no one panicked. Everyone knew where to find you.

On a side street not far from your home, there was a cluttered antique shop that sold mostly junk. Few people could bear the dusty air that reeked of mold, but the little store was your own personal wonderland. The wizened old man who ran it rarely looked up when you walked through the door. And unlike your rather mean-spirited grandparents, he never shouted at you for touching the treasures he’d collected throughout his long lifetime.

When your furious father arrived to haul you home, he would always find you gazing at the same little box that sat toward the back of a glass display case. The box had been carved out of mahogany in some distant century, and it must have belonged to dozens of well-off young ladies.

“It’s mine,” you would tell your father. “It shouldn’t be here.”

Your father was a wealthy man, and he offered the store’s owner a fortune for the box. But the man always refused to sell. The box was locked, the owner explained, and he was searching for a key that could open it. It appeared to be empty—nothing rattled inside when he shook it—but the old man couldn’t be sure. Once he knew what the little box held, it would finally be put up for sale. Until then, it couldn’t be purchased at any price.

Much to your parents’ displeasure, you continued to visit the box whenever the whim struck you. You left in the middle of Sunday School. You snuck out of your grammar school classes. Once, you jumped out of your mother’s carriage when it stopped to let some firemen pass.

Even you didn’t quite understand the box’s appeal. All you knew was that it had once belonged to you. You knew you were the one who had hidden the key. And you knew the box should have been given to someone named Gordon.

Then one day, you disappeared again. When your father arrived at your favorite shop he found it empty. The police were on the way to your house when a neighbor’s maid arrived with you in tow. You’d been caught wandering around upstairs in the neighbor’s mansion. Your mother was mortified, but she wasn’t surprised. Even as a toddler, you had always pointed to that house and said, “mine.”

You were lectured, spanked, and sent to bed without your dinner. When you got undressed for bed, you made sure no one saw the little key you’d hidden in your shoe—the key you’d found under a floorboard in your neighbor’s bedroom.

The next day, you paid your last visit your favorite shop. The owner laughed when you held out the key, and stopped laughing when the box opened. Inside was a ring. Just a cheap gold band with a tiny diamond—nothing special at all. When your father arrived, he purchased both the box and the ring for less than five dollars.

The final time you disappeared, your family never knew where you went. You walked to a neighborhood three miles from your own and knocked at the door of a house where a handsome bachelor lived all alone. Two decades earlier, the girl to whom he’d been secretly engaged had drowned in Lake Michigan. After that, he had decided never to marry.

You gave him the box with the ring inside, told him how much you missed him, and then you turned around walked all the way home.

A year later you’d forgotten everything.

You Were: The Finder

In the aftermath of World War II, much was missing. People. Paintings. Prized possessions of every description. If they could be found (and many could not), you were often the person who found them.

In 1928, you were born in Zurich. For much of your childhood, you watched in horror as WWII raged around Switzerland. Refugees from all over Europe flooded into your small, neutral country, but those who needed asylum the most were often turned away at the border. You begged your father, a powerful banker, to do what he could to convince Swiss authorities to change their policies. He did nothing.

The war ended before you were old enough to offer your services to those in need. And when you turned eighteen in 1946, you still weren’t quite sure what you should do. Then one day, you happened to be sitting in the lobby of the bank your father ran when the answer came through the front door.

The young French woman was painfully thin, her hair had turned gray, and her shoes looked as though she'd walked all the way from Paris. Inside the bank, she was met by an officious little clerk who seemed anxious to show her the door. You overheard the woman inform the man that she was visiting all the banks in Zurich. Her family’s precious art collection had been stolen by the Nazis, and she had it on good authority that many of the works had found their way into Switzerland. She was destitute now and desperate to raise money to search for her brothers.

The clerk laughed and assured the woman that the paintings could not possibly be in one of the bank’s vaults. When she was escorted out to the sidewalk, you followed behind. Once you were both out of sight, you tapped on her shoulder.

You knew for a fact that the bank’s vaults were packed with paintings. Your father, an art lover, took secret snapshots of each Rembrandt or Monet that had come through the doors during the war. You made a list of the works the young woman was seeking and arranged to meet her at a cafĂ© later that night. When you did, you brought irrefutable proof that two of her paintings were inside the bank—proof that could have proven very embarrassing to the bank’s esteemed president.

As a result of your actions, you were kicked out of your father’s house. Which didn’t make much of a difference since your mother had recently acquired one of her own. And she was the wealthy one in the family. (Not to mention the one responsible for your big heart and bravery.)

The young French women quickly sold her masterpieces. The minute the money was in her pocket, she asked you to help her find her brothers. She offered you a fortune for your services, but you refused to take a dime. You traveled across Europe at your own expense, searching for traces of the two lost boys. (Did I mention you spoke seven languages back then?)

You found the first brother in Prague where he’d been in hiding for much of the war. Certain his entire family was dead, he had dedicated himself to helping put the pieces of the ancient city back together again.

The second brother found you.

While you were away on your travels, he had located his sister in Zurich. When she told him about the wonderful girl who had helped her, he couldn’t wait for your return. He immediately set out in search of you. His eyes met yours for the very first time when you stepped off a train in Budapest.

For the rest of your lives, the two of you traveled the world, looking for the things that had been lost during the war. I’d tell you more about your romance and adventures, but I’m afraid I’d need a book and not just a blog post.

You Were: The Pet

You were a Roman aristocrat in the days before the city met Caesar. You belonged to a filthy rich family that had produced ten senators over two centuries. Five of those men had been poisoned. Two were found floating face-down in the Tiber. And one simply disappeared on his way home from the baths. The people responsible for the murders weren’t political enemies. They were the men’s wives, sons, brothers, and mothers. It was widely remarked that being a member of your family was the most dangerous job in Rome.

After your father died fighting for Rome, your older brother inherited the family’s sizable fortune. He was assassinated when you were eight. Your next oldest brother immediately went into hiding. But no one ever worried much about you. That’s because you were the brightest member of the entire clan. And the only one who knew how to play dumb.

You resembled a cherub well into your teenage years—curly golden hair and big blue eyes that watched the world with a vacant stare. (You’d managed to perfect this look early on by imitating the lemurs your mother collected.) You showed no interest in anything but lavish feasts, exotic creatures, and beautiful togas. Your mother (who’d had her eldest son murdered) considered you more of a prized pet than a child.

But behind the scenes, her pet was making arrangements.

With your one trusted servant acting as your agent, you had begun building a private army of soldiers. They were never given the name of the person who paid them in gold each month, only told that they would be contacted when their services were needed. Who knows what they might have thought if they’d discovered their mysterious employer was a cherubic young boy. But they were shown such generosity and kindness over the years that you slowly earned their unwavering devotion.

Meanwhile, on a tiny island in the remotest corner of the Aegean, a palace was being constructed. It boasted lush gardens, a private zoo, and baths that were fit for the gods. The only thing it lacked was a means of escape. The island was the most beautiful prison on earth.

You tried for years to locate your older brother, hoping he could be persuaded to return to help banish your mother. Unfortunately, she found him first. When word arrived in Rome that your brother had died, you took official possession of the family fortune. Your mother was thrilled. Her “pet” would never question her spending. She could empty the coffers while he lounged on his lazy butt, drinking wine and flirting with the slaves.

But that very night, your private army was called into action. They pulled your mother out of bed and rounded up all of her cronies. While Rome slumbered, the most despicable members of your family were loaded onto a boat that sailed at once. The men at the oars had each been given a fortune in gold and told never to return to Rome.

In the morning, the citizens of the city were surprised to see a serious young man strolling through the forum, dressed in simple but elegant robes. His face was familiar to all, but only a few recognized him at first. When at last his name had reached every ear, a hush fell over Rome, as if the whole town were to shocked to speak.

That stroll was your only announcement that your family had changed for good. And it was the only announcement that was necessary. Five years later, you were one of Rome’s most respected senators. You never married—though your life was certainly not without love—and made your wisest nephew your heir.

Before you died, you told him a secret. Should any members of your family be born with your mother’s murderous genes, there was still a lovely private island that was waiting to receive them.

You Were: Justice

Throughout human history, there have always been lands where women are treated unkindly. Places where females are locked away inside their homes and denied even fresh air or sunshine. But while the laws of these lands never offer much protection, that doesn’t mean wronged women have always been without recourse.

You’ve experienced many lives and called countless countries home. And in each of your existences, you’ve provided the same service to your fellow women. You’ve been called a witch, a wise woman, and a she-devil. But these were the labels men gave you. Their mothers, wives, and sisters knew you as Justice.

Let’s take, for example, the five decades you spent in ancient Athens. You were a slave in a wealthy household. As a child, you’d been snatched from a distant land and put to work in your master’s kitchen. For five years, you scrubbed dishes and stayed silent. Everyone assumed that you weren’t terribly smart. The truth was, you were watching their every move.

As a slave, your work load was staggering, yet you enjoyed more freedom than the rich women you served. You could leave the house. Explore the city and visit the markets. Speak to men who weren’t blood relations. You may not have been Greek, but you knew much more about Athens than any woman who’d been born there. And it wasn’t long before you began to put your knowledge to good use.

Though they thought you a dunce, the men in your household had quickly learned to steer clear of the strange foreign girl with black hair and icy eyes. They were a mean-spirited bunch who enjoyed keeping order with their fists and their whips. But one harsh word to you, and they’d soon find themselves in agony, crouched next to the family’s foul-smelling latrine. One flick with a whip and your master’s beloved horse would go wild and trample him later that day.

They thought the gods were protecting you. You didn’t need the gods’ protection.

Those five years of silence had been well spent. You’d been born with a gift for horticulture, and you used the time to hone your skills. In the small garden outside the slaves’ quarters, you grew plants that could heal—and others that could annoy, wound, punish, or kill. A few sprigs of one would cause a terrible rash. A pinch of another could turn the darkest hair gray overnight. And just the smell of the pale yellow flowers you often wore in your hair could make a grown man lose control of his bowels.

Quietly, cautiously, you began to offer your services to the women who needed them. They’d find little packets of herbs tucked into their market baskets, along with detailed instructions on how to make use of them. Sometimes you’d even provide seeds so the women could enjoy a constant supply.

Most of the women never guessed you were responsible. But your masters’ daughters weren’t fools. They suspected you were the one who had saved them from terrible marriages. (One cruel suitor fled Athens when the city’s bees took to swarming around him the moment he left his house. Another found himself fainting whenever he came within ten feet of his wife-to-be.) And the daughters were suitably grateful. When they were finally allowed to marry the men of their choosing, they convinced their husbands to reward you.

At the age of twenty-five, you were purchased from your master and freed from slavery. Everyone expected you to leave Athens and return to your native land. But you knew there was too much work to be done in Greece. You married a kind man, raised six razor-sharp girls, and always kept an enormous garden behind your house.

You Were: The Adventuress

You grew up in a part of the world where the sun disappeared for half the year. Your parents ran the most famous candy store in Finland, a fact that should have ensured a fabulous childhood. But neither you nor your brothers were ever allowed to set foot in the shop or sample its delicious wares. (Do you often find yourself overcome by a craving for sweets? Is that craving often accompanied by a sense of injustice? If so, I think I may have discovered the reason.)

Until you were fifteen, you lived by your parents’ many rules. (Your mother kept a written list pinned to the nursery wall. It was well over three feet long.) You washed when they told you to. Studied in silence eight hours a day. Ate only the healthiest and blandest of foods. You went to sleep at eight o’clock and woke every morning before the crack of dawn to the sound of a clanging cow bell. (Do you despise waking up before the sun rises? Are you inexplicably annoyed by cattle? Have you ever thrown an alarm clock against the wall? If not, you will.)

Then one morning, when your mother came to wake you, she found your bed empty. And when your father went to open the candy store, he discovered it had been raided during the night. He later told the police that it looked as though the thief had taken enough candy to fill a large suitcase.

Actually, it had been a pillow case. With a three month supply of chocolate to keep you going, you had boarded a boat bound for Latvia. But that wasn’t your final destination. For the next fifteen years, you traveled through most of the countries on earth. You learned a dozen languages. Kicked hundreds of butts. Ate dishes that had barely stopped moving. Smuggled diamonds and searched the Amazon for El Dorado.

At last, in a bar on an island off the coast of Guyana, you finally discovered a reason to stay put. If you close your eyes and imagine these smells—sea air, frying fish, cheap whiskey and old fashioned cologne—you might just remember what it was.

You Were: The Photographer

On October 14th, 1963, you were given a camera and a plane ticket for your seventeenth birthday. The camera was a Polaroid Highlander. The plane ticket was dated November 20. The destination: Dallas, Texas.

Your father was a Venezuelan businessman with ties to the oil industry. He spent half of your childhood away from home while he took care of business in the United States. He spent the other half of your childhood listening to you beg him to take you along on one of his many trips north. Your father spoiled you senseless, and he would have done almost anything you asked. Your mother, like most mothers, was a much tougher customer.

Finally, she agreed to let you accompany your father on a short trip to Texas. Three days in Dallas, then back home to Caracas. For weeks your mother prayed that you’d have a safe journey. Perhaps she should have prayed harder.

On the morning of November 22, your father left for a business meeting. You were supposed to have breakfast at your Dallas hotel, get your hair blown out at the salon, and twiddle your thumbs until your dad could return. Of course the moment your father was gone, you slipped out of the hotel and set off on your own. The President of the United States was in town, and a bell boy who’d chatted you up the night before had said you might be able to get a glimpse of JFK as he rode through town. You weren’t about to miss the spectacle.

You reached Dealey Plaza at 12:15 and pulled out your camera. You weren’t interested in taking pictures of the President, who was a bit overrated in your humble opinion. You just wanted shots of the crowd. The crowd’s clothing, to be exact. Your mother had agreed to let you visit the US on one condition—that you take lots of photos of fashionable ladies so she could have their dresses copied by Caracas tailors.

Just as the presidential motorcade approached, you were aiming your camera at a woman in a fetching blue dress when something strange caught your eye. There was a man leaning over a concrete structure at the top of a grassy knoll with a rifle in his hands. When you heard the first shot, your finger twitched and a picture was taken. When you looked up from the camera, the man with the rifle was gone and the President of the United States had been shot. Either by Lee Harvey Oswald . . . or by the man you'd seen on the grassy knoll. Your father.

When you returned to the hotel, he was waiting for you. And when he asked where you’d been, you told him the truth: Taking pictures of ladies’ dresses. You never knew if he really believed it.

When you returned to Caracas, you had the photos developed. The picture of the gunman was blurry, but the evidence it offered could not be denied. Except, apparently, by the US Embassy in Caracas. The ambassador himself confiscated your photo without so much as a “thank you” and sent you home in a rage.

You hid the photo’s negative and started your own search for answers. You discovered two things almost immediately. Your father wasn’t Venezuelan. And he wasn’t a businessman. After that, all the information you collected went straight into the book you’d started writing in secret.

Two days after your father died in 1970, they came for you. Your photo’s negative and your manuscript were discovered and destroyed. When the men were finished, it was as if you’d never existed. They removed every last trace of you—but one. Sitting on an editor’s desk somewhere in New York City was a copy of your untitled manuscript. Where it is now is anyone's guess.

You Were: The Witch

I’m not certain which years I’ve seen, but they were dark. The events I’ve witnessed could have taken place in any country in Europe. A deadly disease was sweeping across the land. People lay dying in the gutters. Those who were still alive were busy looking for scapegoats—sinners to blame for the terrible fate that had befallen them. The first person most towns killed, tortured, or threw in jail was the local “witch.”

The lord of your lands had been looking forward to getting rid of you for quite some time. You were a healer, and your hands could repair most injuries. More often than not, that meant healing wounds inflicted by the lord himself. Wounds, it probably goes without saying, that he didn’t want to heal. That was enough to earn you the title of witch.

However, there was also the rather touchy subject of the lord’s son. (And I do mean touchy.) You two had been madly in love since childhood. Your beau managed to keep you alive and fed, but he was forbidden to marry you. His father, the lord, did not want his family’s legacy fouled by peasant blood. So when the town called for a scapegoat, you were the first person he imprisoned.

You watched from a cell in a dismal, damp tower as the peasants died of disease. You’d seen enough to know what it was—and how to heal it. But there was no way to spread the word. It seemed hopeless—until the lord’s son fell ill.

The lord had assumed that the dreadful disease only struck peasants. When he saw his son lying in a pool of sweat and blood, he finally started to panic. Not for his son’s sake. For his own. You were called to the castle and forced to listen as the lord begged you to save his life. You agreed on three conditions.

A year later, the town had a brand new clinic. The land had a new lord. And that lord had a wife beloved by her people. (Only a few jealous biddies still called her a witch.)

You Were: The Angel

It all started the year your parents decided to pack you off to a boarding school nestled deep in the hills of Vermont. You screamed and fought and argued about it for months. (It was just this sort of behavior that had led to your banishment.) But once you arrived in the tiny town that surrounded the school, a strange calm settled over you. Somehow you knew that was where you needed to be.

Less than two months after classes began, your school threw its annual Halloween masquerade ball. Most of your fellow students saw the party as a chance to put their wealth on display. The mail room quickly filled with packages from the most famous costume shops in New York and Paris. Jewels and tiaras were delivered by armed guards.

In your opinion, renting a costume or borrowing jewels was no different than cheating. You resolved to make your own outfit. You “borrowed” a crisp white bed sheet from a girl down the hall and ripped open the down pillow you’d brought from California. Three bottles of glue, a closet’s worth of clothes hangers, and a jar of pancake makeup were all you needed to complete your creation.

When you stood in front of the mirror that night, you had no way of knowing how much you resembled the marble angel that watched over the town’s only graveyard. Your classmates were equally clueless. And they weren’t impressed by your artistry. You endured a full hour of snickering and snide comments before you stormed out of the school, determined never to return.

As you made it all the way to the small bus stop in town. A lone woman was waiting on the bench outside, her eyes closed and her face troubled. She jumped when you dropped down beside her. But then a smile spread across her face, and she reached out a hand. For some reason you took it, and the two of you sat together for over an hour without saying a word. When the bus finally came, the woman said, “Thank you.” You waved at her as she rode away.

Back at boarding school, you folded your white gown and hid your wings in the closet. For the next four years, the townsfolk talked about an angel that sprung to life. Even your roommates never guessed it was you.