4:32 p.m. That’s when Jim first noticed that nine-year-old Alice was missing.
The tour had been one of the most incredible experiences they had ever had as a family, but right now it was the furthest thing from Jim’s mind. Alice was not to be seen, and the scare they had had last evening was still painfully fresh.
“Karen!” he whispered nervously. “Where’s Alice?”
“She was over by that piece of statuary just a minute ago, Jim. She was with Lucy and Rick. I’m sure she’s close. Ah, see, here come Lucy and Rick now,” Karen assured as Rick came around a corner, his striking seventeen-year-old sister in tow.
“Rick, where’s Alice? Mom said she was with you.”
“Nope—must be with Johanna. We just stopped to look at the elephant painting again. Lucy just can’t get over how cute it looks!” he mocked as he smiled at his younger sister.
“Not with me!” Johanna piped up as she stepped out from behind her mother.
“Jim?” Karen’s motherly instincts kicked in. Turning to the children she demanded,“When was the last time any of you saw Alice?”
And that’s when Jim first felt the magic of the place that was to enter their lives, for although he could hear their three older children stammer in self-defense, a calm unlike anything he had ever felt before enveloped him, not unlike the robes worn by the monks that still inhabited Angkor Wat—comfortable, warm, and just a little mysterious.
Without saying a word, Jim reached over and took his wife’s hand, motioning with a nod of his head to follow. Though he had no idea where he was going, he knew exactly where they were headed. They were going to find Alice.
Jim and Karen quickly retraced their steps about 30 feet back down the hall, then felt drawn to turn right, even though they had come from the left. There, 15 feet away and chatting with an older man was little Alice, as comfortable as young Jesus must have been with the learned men on the steps of the Jerusalem Temple. Though the Callisters had never seen this man before, they both felt immediately that she was in no danger; in silence they stood back and watched the scene before them.
The older man was not kneeling in a western position but rather squatted comfortably as he gazed eye to eye with their daughter. Extracting something from a pocket in his robes, he pressed it into her hands, whispering warmly as he did so. Karen could not resist and raised her camera to capture the moment. An unusual feeling of gratitude washed over her just as she pressed the button— warm light from the late afternoon sun flooded her subjects through a lower window as her viewfinder revealed an image normally reserved for the front cover of National Geographic. With or without the picture, Jim and Karen would never forget that moment.
The flash seemed to alert the old man that he had visitors. He looked over at Karen and Jim—and their children, who had caught up to them and had been equally captivated by the scene—and immediately recognized the situation. A concerned family had come looking for their precious missing one. He smiled warmly at the little troupe, and they knew that Alice had been in no danger. Then turning back to Alice, he clasped her little hands in his own, tapped at whatever he had given her, and whispered gently. At that, he rose and shuffled off down the hall.
“Alice, who was that?” Johanna blurted out, now that the magic of the moment had gone with the disappearance of the old man. “What did he give you?”
“And why didn’t you tell us where you were?” chastised the ever-protective Rick.
Alice gave her family the look that all nine-year-old girls seem to know instinctively, the one that says, I knew exactly where I was this whole time. Don’t get all huffy! There was nothing to worry about! Walking up to her mother, she opened up her hand and said, “He gave me this bracelet. Isn’t it pretty?”
Karen looked at the gift with a practiced eye—and was nearly mesmerized. It was simultaneously simple and elegant, bearing no precious stones yet somehow invaluable. Light blue stones were bound loosely together on a leather string—it reminded Karen of the old man himself: a simple exterior that belied the power that surged just under the surface. She reached out to finger the stones and sensed a warmth and peace deep in her heart as she did so. There was definitely something magical about this sacred temple!
Jim heard a step behind him and turned to see that Tree had joined them. “Did you see this older man, Tree? Do you know him?”
“I am sorry, Mr. Callister. I have never seen him before, although he walks as if he is comfortable with these surroundings. If that is the case, it is strange, for I give tours here regularly, and yet I have never seen him.”
“His robes—they did not seem to be the same as the robes of other monks we have seen today. Do they mean anything to you?”
“Again I am sorry, Mr. Callister. They were unlike anything worn by our local monks, and yet I must admit that there was something hauntingly familiar about them, as if I should know them by sight and know of their considerable meaning. Very strange, I must say.
“One more thing that you should know, Mr. Callister. I overheard just a bit of what he was whispering to your little one. He was speaking a blessing, the words of which are very ancient and very sacred. Few outside this temple know this blessing. I only came across it last fall as I was browsing the archives looking for descriptions of how the temple was built. I found an old but very well preserved text that spoke of an unusual spirit that attended this most famous of all temples, a spirit that connected this world with the world of those who had passed on before. The bracelet that he gave your daughter contains very old symbols that remind one of this blessing and its meaning.”
Though much of what the guide had said escaped Alice’s understanding, she understood enough to know that this was a very unusual gift. But then, that was something that she already grasped as soon as the old man had wrapped his worn fingers around her young ones and pressed the bracelet tight against the palm of her right hand. As she looked up into her mother’s deep green eyes, she smiled, then radiated the afternoon light in her smile. Somehow they both knew that she would never be the same after this day.