After a pathetic dinner of watery broth and spoiled potatoes on Tuesday evening, Jim stretched his tall frame and rolled his shoulders. Although his wrists were still zip cuffed in front of him, he could lift a spoon to his mouth and move his fingers slightly. Jim wasn’t sure how he would compensate for his bindings but he decided that he would not die without taking a few of these loathsome guards with him.
Suddenly, the guards began screaming obscenities, forcing prisoners to move to one side of the old store. Before long, prisoners were pushed into tight lines by the store’s entrance and given pieces of paper with the numbers ‘four, five, six, or seven’ written on them in Roman numerals. Jim looked down to find ‘VI’ on his paper. He wondered what being sixth meant. The imprisoned men scowled at the guards, women looked fearful, and children sniveled, clinging to their parents. Jim realized they were being prepared to move and watched for his chance to execute vengeance.
Large buses pulled up outside the store. The buses were similar to an old Greyhound Jim rode years ago when he traveled across country as a new recruit, except none of these buses contained seats. Prisoners were crammed into the buses by PeaceKeepers. Hot and crowded, the people felt like sardines wedged tightly into tin cans. While he wasn’t claustrophobic, Jim could imagine the distress, even terror, for someone fearing enclosed spaces. Each turn or bump in the road caused a sea of humanity packed into the buses to squeeze or fall onto one another.
After a seemingly endless drive, the vehicles stopped. Disembarking from the modified buses, prisoners were led into a large, open area fenced by concertina wire where armed guards and barking dogs patrolled the perimeter. A group of PeaceKeepers began to call for people to line up by their assigned numbers to be loaded into the railcars.
Suddenly panic broke out as prisoners begged and traded with others to get the same number as their friends and loved ones. Some families stayed together, but others were torn apart. Lines of captives were jammed so closely in the boxcars that everyone was forced to stand. Even sick and wounded prisoners stood or leaned against others because there was no room to sit.
Ugh, and I thought the bus ride to basic training was bad, Jim groaned.
Conditions in the cars were deplorable. The fetid smell of body odor mixed with blood and urine permeated the air, gagging Jim. Unlike many of the prisoners who simply gave up, Jim focused his hatred toward retaliation.
Sometime during the night, a pleasant sound interrupted Jim’s scheming. It was a song. One prisoner began to sing . . . and then another person started to sing. Soon everyone in the railcar, except Jim, sang. Bewildered, Jim looked around; he saw women, children and men singing a song of praise to God. People shifted their shoulders so they could reach their hands to heaven as they sang. Jim wondered how everyone knew this particular song, sing in such discomfort, and give praise to God who had so thoroughly forgotten them!
Curiously, the melody didn’t stop in their car. Soon, Jim heard the same music echo in other railcars. The men’s deep, rich bass notes harmonized with the light, airy melody of women. The longer they sang, the louder and more joyous the music became. People started singing in other languages, melodies fractured into multiple parts that resounded throughout the railway station. The sound was unearthly, a thunder of strength and resilience.
Undeterred by the guards’ threats to be silent, the prisoners’ music resonated across the landscape and into homes. People living in Marshall City stood outside their houses, listening to the strange choir. Many citizens covered their ears or locked their doors in disgust, but a few people fell on their knees, weeping at the beauty of the sound. Juan, Rosa, and Miah listened to the music from their hiding place on a hillside above the rail yard, captivated by the train and its occupants.
As night deepened, the singing gradually receded but the atmosphere vibrated with reverent power. Once the music ended, PeaceKeepers relaxed, leaned back in comfortable positions, and fell into a deep sleep. Before dawn’s first light, Juan, Rosa, and Miah saw three warriors wearing camouflage uniforms and carrying weapons, at the low ready, walk toward the railcars. Each warrior touched the padlocks on the boxcar doors, the locks broke open, and chains fell uselessly to the ground.
When the train car doors slid open, the warriors roused sleeping prisoners. Jim pushed through the drowsy crowd to the opened door of his railcar; he challenged the stranger, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”
“Neither, but as commander of the army of the Lord, I have now come.”
Praise for Unthinkable Dreams
“At the heart of this story is Jean Ballon, a woman of extraordinary contradictions—willing to astound and confound with her unbridled independence and salty language, while beneath the surface lie her passionate humanity and deep reverence … It is little surprise that her departure from life would be the source of this deep and revealing tale of conflict, compassion, forgiveness, and love.”
—David Saperstein, former US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom
“In reading Unthinkable Dreams, I fell in love with this family! I observed their devotion to their ailing mother, their grief after her death . . . and their subsequent sibling squabbles. Ballon delivers a touching and unvarnished story of a family physically and emotionally divided. It was inspiring to witness the journey of faith and love that ultimately reunited them.”
—Maggie Callanan, coauthor of Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying
“Ballon tells a passionate tale of his mother’s life and death. It is a personally unique and universally human story of a family wrestling with the complexity of love and loss. Interweaving personal narrative, ritual practices of Jewish tradition, and the reality of life immediately after the 9/11 tragedy, this book is profoundly relevant for all of us dealing with death and grief today.”
—Simcha Raphael, author of Jewish Views of the Afterlife
“Ballon offers many insights into how families handle the death of a parent … Many Jewish families who have dealt with death will recognize themselves in the particular dynamic of Unthinkable Dreams, but non-Jews, too, will relate to its deeper themes of grief, family tensions, the urge to reconcile, and the power of religious ritual.”
—Mark Edward Brennan, Bishop of Wheeling-Charleston
About the Author
Yeshaya Douglas Ballon, spiritual mentor, teacher, artist, and retired architect, received certification from ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal as a Mashpia Ruchani (Spiritual Director) and as a Vatik (Sage-ing(R) Mentor). He is editor and author of A Precious Heritage: Rabbinical Reflections on God, Judaism, and the World in the Turbulent Twentieth Century (2017).