An elderly woman has a meeting with an old friend.
|Summary: Written for the prompt: Photo of an elderly woman sitting on a bench in a sunlit room, with two rows of back to back benches. Behind the woman and facing the opposite way, sits another figure that is obscured by the woman.
She walked slowly, carefully down the aisle and, at whatever passed for random, chose a bench.
She sat down with a pained grimace and a grunt, and she waited.
And she watched the light change through the smudged windows as pale grey clouds engulfed the yellow sun. The clouds filtered out the yellow and left only a queer white light that illuminated everything . . . and spared nothing.
She watched as it picked out every wrinkle, every liver-spot, every bulging, arthritic joint on her fragile hands.
She watched as it picked out every grain, every fiber, every tiny splinter in her ancient cane.
She watched as the overcast day grew incrementally older.
But mostly, she waited.
And she had been waiting for neither a long nor short span of time, when she suddenly sensed another presence in the over-lit space.
It was behind her and getting closer, its tightly-contained, but enormous presence muted to spare her frail human form and, no doubt, its own. After a few watchful minutes, during which she felt its keen regard like the tip of a scalpel pressed to her skin lightly, she heard the shuffle of poorly-shod feet and a low, stifled cough.
The footsteps stopped directly behind her, and she caught its scent: Aqua Velva, cheap coffee, and the outdoors. And, underneath all that, it’s true scent: feathers, fire, freshly-turned earth, and old iron.
It sat quietly behind her with a heavy sigh, leaning back on their creaking bench before sliding along it, till it was closer to the smudgy, light-diffusing windows.
Suddenly, between the light and the other’s great presence, the space she inhabited was rendered . . . magical. . . .
Almost enchanted, she held her peace—basked in the strange atmosphere of its diluted Grace.
Behind her, it chuckled.
“It’s been a long time, has it not?” Soft, lightly accented, slightly archaic voice and tone.
So, she thought, mildly amused. It’s male, this time.
“That, it has, Melchior,” she replied, as mild as her amusement. Behind her, it shifted again. Sighed again. She smiled absently and studied her hand once more. The wrinkled were smoothing out as she watched, the liver-spots fading, the pain in her joints lessening.
Holding that hand up to the milky, almost opaque light, and turning it to see the palm—on which the long life-line was lengthening ever so slightly—her smile faded.
“It’s time, Melchior,” she announced flatly, in tones of stark denial. “My time. I’ve atoned.”
“Yes, you have,” Melchior agreed quietly. “For untild millennia, you have atoned. And yet. . . .”
“And yet?” she asked with an edge to her tone. Melchior shifted again. That feeling of being regarded intensified. Melchior had turned and was watching her.
“And yet, it is not your time. Not yet. We’ve had no word from the Most High.”
She snorted. “When was the last time any of you—even the arches—heard from the Most High? Since the Fall? Just after?”
Melchior huffed, and she knew she was right.
“The Most High won’t step off the Throne just to elevate me, Melchior. It has to be you. Or Gabriel. Or Michael. Or Raphael. Or any one of the other arches.” She paused and sighed, herself. “The Most High doesn’t give a shit about me, or whether or not I’ve atoned enough.”
“The Most High’s eye is on the sparrow. And it’s on you, too.”
“Platitudes,” she seethed bitterly.
“Truth,” Melchior insisted with a towering certainty she envied, even as she fought not to mock it. “You must do more than atone, you know?” it went on. “You must do more than repent. You must—”
“What?” she demanded, fighting another urge, now: the urge to turn around and look Melchior in the eye. But she knew that even with most of its shining, untarnished Grace hidden, looking it in the eye would be almost impossible. So instead, she watched the disappearing age-lines on her hands. The liver-spots were completely gone, as was the arthritis. “Tell me what it is I must do to regain Heaven’s favor, and my Grace.”
And, it went without saying, my wings.
“You must know and believe, in your heart and without question, that the part you played in the War was the wrong one,” Melchior replied quietly. She snorted again.
“I didn’t play any part! I was neutral!”
“You didn’t stand to be counted among the Righteous,” Melchior said with hammer-blow finality. “You thought to ally yourself with whomever won. You were a faithless coward . . . has that, in all the ages of Creation, changed?”
She closed her eyes and sat silent in the face of this question. Not because she didn’t know the answer, but because she feared she did.
“You don’t know what it’s like, Melchior,” she said in a broken, tear-roughened voice. A few rebel tears even tried to make it past her sentinel eyelids. “Living among them, being one of them . . . their hopes, their dreams, their loves, their hates, their joys, their sorrows . . . sometimes it’s more than I can bear.”
She fell silent again, then started a minute later when Melchior’s heavy hand fell on her shoulder. “But you have borne it. The Most High never gives us more than we can bear. It falls to us to understand this and accept it.”
More platitudes, she thought in shades of deepest rue. Then she shrugged Melchior’s hand away and stood quickly, easily. Her back was straight and supple. Her legs no longer shook. The faded flower-print dress she wore no longer bagged on a bent, sickly frame, but strained around the limbs of a tall, well-formed woman.
She smoothed one hand down the front of her dress. It’d been old when she wore it to Carl’s funeral, and that’d been twenty-seven years ago. It had been his favorite of her dresses, and when she wore it, he’d always called her his best gal. . . .
She glanced out the windows on their side of the aisle, into the overcast morning. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Melchior. The man Melchior wore had a mane of luxuriant silver hair.
“Can I at least say good-bye to my grandchildren?” she asked meekly, hopelessly, and not for the first time.
“I’m afraid you know the answer to that.”
More tears gathered in eyes that could nonetheless see clearer and farther than they had in decades. It wouldn’t be much longer. “You may not be one of the Fallen, but you’re as callous and cruel as any of them ever were.”
Melchior heaved out another sigh and stood creakily. “For all intents and purposes, Candace Stoppard-Beech is dead, now. And the dead don’t usually get to say good-bye to the living.”
Nodding, she looked down at herself again. Her dress was looser once more, the body it covered that of a young girl, barely touched by puberty.
Melchior’s hand landed on her shoulder once more, and it said: “It’s time, once again.”
And now, for the first time, tears began to fall from eyes that were wide open.
“The last time?” she asked, also without any sense of hope.
Melchior did not answer.
The elderly man stepped out into the morning, a small bundle wrapped in floral-print fabric in one arm, and an ancient cane under the other. He went quite unremarked throughout town, those who noticed him immediately averting their eyes, they supposed, because he was another reminder of that old axiom: There, but for the Grace of God, go I. . . .
Little did they know that there was another reason entirely, why they averted their eyes from the apparently indigent old man carrying a cane he wasn’t using, and a bundle that was squirming and whimpering. That for once, briefly, God’s Grace shone among them in one of its most pure, if largely obscured forms.
The old man moved slowly through the streets of Downtown, never stopping but for traffic lights (dutifully, gravely) and to let people crossing his path go before him, even as they, more often than not, swore at him to watch where he was going.
But for those minor delays, the old man did not stop till evening was nigh, and he’d come to the front steps of Saint Francis’ Cathedral. After a few moments of peering ponderously at the bundle, he laid it gently on the top step, out of the way of the large, wide door yet still under the overhanging entryway.
“Godspeed, old friend,” he whispered, before pressing the bell and ambling off, once more without the aid of the cane he carried.
It wasn’t long before the door swung open, its opener drawn not only by the bell, but by the thin, anguished cries of an abandoned newborn.