by Elle Cyre
On a Christmas night, in a prison of a war-torn nation, a rebel leader awaits the end.
Angels in Winter
Iron bars slammed shut. The hollow ring echoed through the cavernous prison. A young man watched the receding light vanish into complete darkness. Only then did his strong, proud shoulders sink.
He turned to face the grim interior of the large cell. The dim light of late evening drifted through a tiny window at the far end. It heightened the shadows of twenty odd men. Some stood against the wall. Others huddled on the filthy floor. A select few sat on wire cots. They all battled against the numbing cold of deep winter.
The newcomer exhaled a cloud of frozen breath. He lifted his collar over his ears and deposited his gloved hands into his trench-coat pockets. He stepped forward. The camouflage apparel, as well as his tall frame and rugged look, earned him several second glances from the men. Not a word broke the awful silence.
The soldier approached a cot. The occupants shifted to the side to provide a seat. The small sign of respect proved they recognized his handsome face. In such surroundings, however, his identity brought no hope. His capture further engulfed them in the sea of despair.
A half-hour passed in the miserable place. Marching boots echoed from the corridor. The guards escorted another prisoner. The cell doors rattled and screeched. Then they closed and the footsteps tramped away.
A black-cloaked figure shuffled forward. Gray hair and a beard covered the dark-colored face. As he lifted his eyes, the men fixated on their warmth and cheeriness. Several men exclaimed in surprise.
The religious man nodded. “Yes, my brothers. I have come to say farewell.”
He drew forth a book and adjusted his glasses. He proceeded to read aloud to the doomed men. The sound of his tender voice filled the dreary space with a strange calm. Most faces lifted from their misery to listen. Others, including the tall soldier, hunched their shoulders and stared at the floor.
A silence followed the short lesson, somehow different from the previous one. Then one of the prisoners ventured a question:
“How long do you have?”
The man closed his book and removed his glasses. Squinting in the poor light, he addressed the nearest person to him, which happened to be the seated soldier.
“Do you have the time?”
The man grunted. “They took my watch.”
The priest nodded. “Common occurrence. I have until the 18:00 hour; how many minutes that is from now, I do not know.”
He put his glasses back on and peered at the soldier. “You must be a recent arrival, as I do not recall you from before. How is it then, that I find your face familiar?”
The man shrugged. “Probably because you’ve seen it before, millions of times--plastered over every building and street corner from here to the border.”
“Ah! You are Captain Yousef, the infamous freedom-fighter, the Grand Chairman’s most wanted man.”
That revelation prompted a few low murmurs among the men but nothing more. The priest’s gaze wandered about the room before returning to the captain. His expression grew sad.
“I see much darkness in your eyes, Craig.”
The soldier looked surprised. “How do you know my name?”
Father Bartholomew smiled. “I remember from days past, when you were but a small boy in the city. It was I that baptized you, Craig Alexander. I recall those days with fondness--but perhaps you have forgotten them.”
The captain didn’t respond; either unable to find the words or unwilling to. The priest continued in a sad voice:
“I have seen many men who have crossed the subtle line between righteousness and vengeance. In the end, most of them descended into despair.”
Craig straightened his shoulders. “I won’t be one of them. I’m not ashamed of any of my actions and I’m not afraid to die--I’ve been staring death in the face since I was seven. So, if you see darkness in my eyes, I’m sorry; the world I live in is filled with it.”
“Yes…” the priest nodded his head. “Indeed, we live in one of the darkest times in history.”
The soldier frowned. “What would you know about it? You religious people wax eloquent on peace and love as you dwell in every comfort in your palaces and enjoy the favor of the Grand Chairman--all the while he executes hundreds of thousands and you don’t bat an eye. You are so far removed from our world that you can’t begin to understand what we are living through.”
Father Bartholomew glanced around with a mild expression. “Am I not within the same quarters as you?”
“At the moment, yes; you decided to visit us poor wretches to try and convince us to believe in some fairy tales before the firing squad loads their guns. I’ve had it with you black-robes. I suppose you have some excuse for all the films we’ve seen, the propaganda, where your precious Bishop Throd stands shoulder to shoulder with our fine Chairman.”
A cloud came over the priest and pain entered his eyes. “No, Craig, I cannot deny the facts. Some of us ‘black-robes’, including our bishop, have forgotten their true Master, the meek and humble Child of Bethlehem, and exchanged their duty for a place among men. I am sorry their transgressions have disillusioned you, but you mustn’t condemn God for the sins of men.”
The captain gave a harsh laugh. “Answer me this, priest: if there is a God, then where the hell is He?”
Bartholomew lowered his head and his gentle smile returned. “Right here.” He tapped the crucifix on his chest. “Let me assure you, Captain; this dark state of our world and these horrors you speak of--they persist, not because of God’s indifference to Man, but because of Man’s indifference to God--or in betters words, his complete rejection of God.”
Craig jerked to his feet. “All right; then where was He that day at the Square when my father and mother were gunned down in that massacre--and my little sister? They were good people; they never did anything wrong. Why didn’t He save them?”
The priest laid a soothing hand on Craig’s shoulder. “Perhaps He did, Craig. Have you ever considered that they may be in a far better place right now than if they had lived through that fateful day only to witness the war that followed?” He shook his head. “Don’t question God’s wisdom, son. Try to have hope. It was on this very night, two thousand years ago, during the darkest and coldest of hours, that a Child was born, to bring hope and light to a broken world.”
All of the faces in the room had grown somber yet peaceful. Only the freedom-fighter remained agitated. He shook off the priest’s touch.
“What would your God have us do, then? Lay down our arms? Give up all hope for freedom and surrender to the Grand Chairman like sheep to be slaughtered?”
“No, Craig; you must never give up the fight for peace and justice. But all these years you’ve been battling--have you accomplished anything? The many roads blockaded and bridges sabotaged and machines destroyed, and all the men you have killed, does the Chairman not replace them with ease? Don’t you feel sometimes like a speck of sand fighting against the ocean waves?”
The captain closed his mouth. He did not deny it. The priest shook his head again.
“It is because you are using the wrong weapons, son. You fight fire with fire--and you scorch the land. When you use violence and hate to defend peace and love, you have already lost it.” He smiled. “Combat hatred with love and heal wounds with forgiveness.”
A deep silence followed his words. Every man watched Craig’s reaction, waiting for his firm jaw to soften and understanding to enter his eyes. They waited in vain; the veteran buried his hands in his pockets and lowered his head back in his collar.
“I’m sorry, Father, but your words are old and dead; I have heard them before, over and over again, and they mean nothing to me.”
Bartholomew patted his arm. “That’s all right, Craig; you needn’t be ashamed. Only promise me you’ll think them over one last time before midnight.”
“No, I won’t need to.” Craig plopped back down on the wire cot and spread out his long legs. A sigh escaped him but his voice maintained a hint of levity. “Sorry to disappoint you, Reverend, but don’t lose any sleep on my account. Tell yourself I’m just one of those no-good men who were always destined to be that way.”
His joking manner visibly disturbed the priest. “It is never too late, son. Don’t give into despair. We shall all beg God to save you before the end.”
A low chuckle escaped the freedom-fighter. “If you want to save me, you’d have better odds petitioning the Grand Chairman for a stay of execution--and as far as I know, he never grants those.”
The sadness in Bartholomew’s eyes deepened into pain. Then a light dawned in his eyes. “I promise to remember you, Craig. When I reach Heaven, I shall pray that the angel of love and mercy descends to touch your heart.”
“Heaven!” The captain laughed. “Father, I’ll be dead before you even reach home tonight!”
A screech of iron interrupted them. Six guards entered the corridor and the keys clanked in the lock. One of them entered and waved an arm.
“Five to six, priest. Time’s up!”
A collective murmur passed through the men but Bartholomew smiled. “Do not fear, my brothers. We shall see each other again.”
He let the guards drag him away and the door banged shut after them. As their lights and the echo of their footsteps died into the former dark silence, a keen absence could be felt in the space. One of the men in the corner brushed tears from his eyes.
The captain merely shrugged. “Good riddance, I’d say…” He settled back against the stone wall and closed his eyes.
Five minutes later, the sharp report of gun-fire jolted him upright. An eerie silence followed the brief explosion. Craig’s rapid heartbeat did not lessen. At last he could bear the suspense no longer.
“You all heard that, right?”
The prisoner next to him glanced his way. “That was the eighteen-hundred hour. It’s like clockwork, every six hours.”
A horrible realization took shape in Craig’s mind. “Father Bartholomew…” He could not finish.
“Yes,” the man murmured. “He has gone home.”
“But…what for? What sort of crime could he have possibly committed? He seemed as harmless as a dove.”
The prisoner eyed him. “Does the Chairman need a reason? He probably convicted Father on spreading false information and aiding the resistance, as he condemns everyone.”
Craig stared at the far wall, his expression blank with disbelief. As the minutes passed, his eyes deepened in sad reflection.
“Wish I had known…” he mumbled to himself. “I misjudged him. I’d like to take back some of the things I said…”
Without being consented to, all the words of the gentle priest came flooding back through his head. His confusion mingled with fear and his pulse quickened. What had he meant by sending an angel?
The next hour, the soldier spent in anxiety. All his nerve-endings were hypersensitive to the slightest sound. He heard the wind rattling through the barbwire fencing outside and a bush rubbing against a window pane. He listened to the rhythmic respiration of his inmates; he could tell who maintained inner peace and who still fretted over their fate. As for himself, he kept his long legs relaxed and a stoic expression on his face, to mask the trepidation of his heart.
Not a word broke the long stretch of time between 18:00 and 23:00. Craig grew more relaxed as the hours passed and no heavenly body appeared to berate him. He rested his head against the frigid wall and hunched his collar closer to his ears.
A sudden light blinded them. It filled the whole space amid a loud crashing sound. Craig jolted from his doze and raised an arm to fend off the burning apparition.
The light moved from his terrified eyes to shine in the corner. A guard swung the LED flashlight beam in a circle and banged his rifle on the bars.
“Move aside!” he ordered. “Get away from the door!”
The prisoners huddled in the walkway scrambled to their feet and into the corner. The guards unlocked the barricade and thrust in their captives. Six more men staggered into the already full space. Then the iron bars screeched shut again and left them in peace.
Heart still pounding from the adrenaline rush, Craig scanned the faces of the newcomers. They came from all walks of life as did his current companions; business men, homeless scavengers, rebels like himself and some wasted away from disease. He even spied a politician and lawyer. He grinned to himself. The Grand Chairman does not discriminate.
Then Craig’s glance fell on a ragged child, dragged in with the rest. Scraggly hair full of snarls and a filthy red dress told him the gender. She huddled against the far wall, rail-thin arms clutching bony knees to her chin. Her bare arms, and the sight of her worm-eaten stockings, stabbed Craig’s heart with pity. He knew the black on her toes, which protruded from the worthless covering, was not just dirt. The child would freeze to death before 06:00 tomorrow.
The captain lowered his eyes from the horrible sight. They alighted on his own woolen socks comfortably nestled in his cargo boots. On impulse, he yanked them off and thrust them toward the child.
Dark eyes peered up at him beneath the ragged hair, like those of a wounded animal. Craig shook the stockings and he softened his gruff tone.
“Take them; I won’t be needing them in an hour anyway.”
The dirty hands snatched them from his grasp. Within seconds, the warm wool covered the frail limbs past her knees. Craig couldn’t bear the sight of her bare arms so he unzipped his jacket, too.
“Put this on.”
He wrapped the camouflage coat about her frame. It engulfed her entirely and left only her soiled face showing.
“You look warmer already. You feel better?”
The child didn’t answer--those dark eyes just stared at him. Craig returned to his seat on the cot and folded his arms against the sudden chill that invaded him. Dumb wretch. Least she could do would be say thanks.
As if reading his body language, the little girl flashed a brief smile towards him. Then she nestled her head into the warm jacket and huddled into a tiny lump. Craig pulled the sleeves of his wool sweater over his hands and tried to ignore the icy air that seeped through his trousers and into his boots.
Unlike the previous hours, which dragged by without end, the last hour seemed short. Before Craig had begun contemplating his final moments, a harsh order jolted him upright. The guards returned, armed and ready to escort the next wave of ten prisoners to the firing range.
It happened quickly. As soon as Craig reached his feet, someone grabbed his arms and shackled them together. Then chains attached him to the prisoner in front of him. In-line, the guards prodded them forward and they marched toward their doom.
The dark corridor stretched in a long line. Every twenty yards a dull overhead lamp illuminated the space. The freedom-fighter glanced at the faces around him. Everyone stared ahead with a blank yet peaceful expression. They were ready to die.
As they entered a larger room, the mess hall, the guards paused the line to open the outside door. There, in the shadowy corner, Craig recognized a face he knew.
A shifty guard turned about upon hearing his name. His eyes widened upon seeing Craig and he ducked his head, lifting his collar.
“Hey!” Craig lifted his voice.
The other guards cocked their weapons and stepped forward to keep Craig in line. He retreated a step but didn’t lower his gaze.
“Pultz, come here!”
The named guard wheeled about. He gestured to the other guards to move back to their positions and approached Craig. He kept his head bent to one side and didn’t lift his eyes to meet the prisoners.
“I heard you the first time, Yousef. Keep quiet.”
“Why? So your new friends here don’t realize you were a traitor to your old ones?”
“No,” Pultz whined. “Just…leave me alone.”
Craig looked the coward over from head to toe. In one glance he realized the doubt and pain of conscience raking the man. He lived in constant regret.
“Not exactly what you expected, huh? Is this dungeon duty the best the Chairman had to offer you for your information regarding the whereabouts of my safe-house?”
Pultz just shook his head. “I didn’t want this to happen, Yousef--none of it. I was just scared--a miserable, selfish coward. I’m really sorry.”
The last thing Craig had anticipated from the former rebel was an apology. Now he did not know what to say.
Pultz went on in his whiny tone. “Not everyone is as brave as you, Captain. I’m one of those who didn’t deserve saving--you should have left me to die that day.”
Recollection of that moment, when he had risked his life to save Pultz, flooded Craig’s memory. Coupled with the mournful tone and broken man before him, it washed away the bitterness long festered inside. Once that left him, and his anger and thirst for retribution cooled into an empty heart, Craig felt tired and weary. He sighed.
“The past can’t be changed, Pultz. I’m not sorry I saved you.”
The haunted man stared at him. “You don’t mean that. If I had died I never would have had the chance to betray you and the Chairman would not have found you or condemned you to death.”
Craig shrugged. “A man’s time comes, regardless of by what means. You have enough lives burdening your conscience--don’t feel responsible for mine.”
“You mean--” and Pultz wavered “--you forgive me?”
“Yeah, whatever,” Craig muttered, “as long as you try to redeem yourself.”
A deep bell sounded the hour: midnight. The procession moved onward into the yard and left the young guard frozen in place, wonderment still on his face.
Upon exiting the low building, Craig lifted his head. A few flakes of snow drifted down from the black heavens. It would be a white Christmas this year. Craig’s mouth twitched in a half-smile of irony.
The prisoners lined up next to the grim wall. The guards fastened their bonds to ten short pillars. As they reached Craig, a violent wind arose. Snow swirled in a frenzied hurricane and a bluish light illuminated the darkness.
Startled, Craig staggered back, heart racing in wild hope. Then his eyes narrowed on the prison helicopter, swooping low on its watch. A bitter laugh escaped him. You fool; you know angels don’t exist.
Despite his staunch exterior, Craig’s heart filled with agony. As the guard raised the black hood, he gazed one last time at the sky. The delicate snowflakes alighted on his cold cheek and gathered in his lashes. Then all became darkened by the cloth as the guard tightened it about his neck. The utter emptiness consumed his soul.
The boots of the firing squad crunched on the gravel. Their guns cocked with loud cracks. Unseen and unconscious tears rolled down Craig’s cheeks. He set his jaw but his heart throbbed.
“Oh God! If You do exist--just give me another chance! I’m not ready to die!”
A violent burst of gunfire exploded in his ears. His senses reeled and then he felt nothing. The infamous freedom-fighter--Craig Alexander Yousef--crumpled to earth.
Craig rocked back and forth in a sea of oblivion. Strange humming filled his ears; lights flashed by and distant voices, followed by rough laughter. He couldn’t think or focus on anything. His mind spun in an endless circle. Then he slipped back into unconsciousness.
Craig opened his eyes. All remained dark. The humming and spinning had ceased but his head throbbed near his temples. Then the veil lifted. Vivid light burned his vision and he grimaced. A face came into focus amid the brilliance--a young man’s countenance. Craig blinked, helpless in confusion and wonder.
“Are you the angel?”
“Angel?” The voice laughed. “That’s a good one.”
Hands seized his shoulders and yanked him upright. Craig realized the light came from an overhead streetlamp. He was in the back of an exposed army truck. The young man, a woolen cap atop his blonde crew cut, tugged his feet out of a gray sack. Nine other sacks were piled around and beneath him. Suddenly Craig understood.
“I’m not dead!”
The blonde soldier grunted. “Not yet, anyway. If you wouldn’t mind helping me--”
Craig came to life; he stepped out of the sack and leaped into the street to escape his gruesome location.
“I’m the only one?”
“Why me?” Craig demanded.
The soldier began filling Craig’s vacated sack with lumpy bags. He shrugged. “Sorry; no reason. You weren’t chosen especially--just random luck.”
Craig couldn’t believe it. “How?”
“I’ve been loading my rifle with blanks for the past three months. I’m the one in charge of disposing the bodies, so I just pile them up and dump the live one. So far no one has caught on.” He paused, trying to think. “I’ve saved, oh, around a hundred-eighty men, give or take a few.”
“But--I don’t remember a thing. I blacked out!”
The soldier grinned. “I know; my cohort takes care of that. He douses the hood with just the right amount of an odorless gas so that you pass out in-sync with the fall. We had a few mistakes but we’ve narrowed it down to a science.”
He tied up the sack and jumped down next to Craig. He closed the tailgate and shouldered his rifle. As he turned, he gave Craig a smack on the arm.
“So maybe you’re right--maybe I am your guardian angel.”
He stepped toward the vehicle but Craig snagged his sleeve. “Wait! There was an elderly priest, dark-skinned and gray-haired earlier--did you save him?”
The soldier frowned. “No; it was a skinny, long-haired fellow at 18:00.” When he saw Craig’s expression, he cleared his throat. “Sorry--I can’t save everyone. Was he a friend?”
“Sort of.” Craig bent his head and scratched behind his ears. “I just thought…well…it doesn’t matter now…”
The young guard returned to the driver-side door and pried it open. Before he climbed inside, Craig extended a hand again.
“Hey, wait! There’s a child in there--a little girl in a ragged red dress--can you help her?”
The soldier paused. “A little girl?”
“Yes! She’s all alone and I just can’t forget her face. Can you arrange to save her next?”
The man frowned. “There aren’t any children in that section--we keep them in a separate cell block or in the female prison.”
“But she’s in there. I saw her! Why, I even gave her my socks and trench-coat!”
The soldier shrugged. “I can investigate to make you happy.” He jumped into the front seat. Craig grabbed the door.
“Just one more thing; can you somehow let Pultz know I survived?”
The soldier eyed him. “Pultz…You mean Lt. Edgar Pultz?”
“Yes. Don’t risk exposing yourself of course, but I don’t want him to think my blood is on his hands. Let him know I escaped.”
The man cleared his throat. “Sorry, but I can’t.”
“I know you don’t trust him, but I just talked to him--he seemed like a changed man.”
The blonde guard shook his head. “Listen, that gas can do funny things to your head and you might want to find somewhere to hide and sleep it off.”
Craig frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Lt. Pultz died last week.”
“He was shot and killed in the mess hall for disobeying a direct order.”
With that, he closed the door and the truck’s engine roared to life. Any further questions by Craig was drowned out as the army vehicle bounced off down the road. It left Craig all alone under the lone streetlamp, mouth agape in confusion.
“I couldn’t have imagined him. I talked to him! And the girl…”
Craig glanced down at the sock-less feet in his boots and his wool sweater. His expression twisted into a puzzled frown. His heart-rate increased into a rapid beat. None of the conclusions he came to sounded very natural.
Craig thought of the final words that had escaped his desperate lips as the guns cocked. I begged for a second chance. Is this it? Or is it all just blind luck?
The storm swirled around him and he hugged his arms to his chest. The sudden chill prompted his feet into motion. He started off down the snowy road beside the massive retaining wall. He sighed in hindsight.
“I wish I had my coat…” He trudged up a slight hill. His mind worked over the last few hours without coming to a satisfactory explanation.
“I don’t know…” he muttered. “Maybe I’m just crazy…”
Upon reaching a street corner, Craig’s marching feet came to an abrupt halt. Stacked beneath the dim lamp rested a coat, folded neatly, and a pair of stockings. He blinked, not believing his eyes. Then he approached, casting a cautious glance about him. They were real to the touch--and more startling--the trench-coat bore his initials in the collar.
On a sudden impulse, Craig felt in the pockets. There he found the items taken upon his capture--his watch, pocketknife, handkerchief and a picture of his mother.
“I can’t believe it!”
As he lifted his head, Craig caught a glimpse of someone standing just beyond the circle of light. He stared into the shadows, shielding his eyes against the snowflakes.
“Who are you?”
He advanced a step. The figure became clearer; it was a child--the child. Despite the fact the face was no longer filthy and it wore a white garment instead of the red dress, Craig knew it was the same one.
The child smiled. At the same instant, it vanished, fading into the oblivion of the swirling snowflakes. Craig leaped forward but no trace remained--not even footprints. He whirled about.
“Why all the mystery?” he cried. “How do I know this isn't some hallucination of my twisted mind?”
His voice died away into the silent storm. Then the words of Father Bartholomew returned to the forefront of his mind. ‘I shall pray that the angel of love and mercy descends to touch your heart.’
Craig stood for a long time under the solitary streetlamp. He watched his frozen breath rise in clouds and listened to the wondrous silence of a winter night--Christmas night. He felt a deep-rooted, painful longing in his heart, previously dormant under all the other cares and worries of his life--and he understood at last why he was still alive.
“I gave my coat and socks to that girl and forgave a dead man--maybe this love and mercy stuff isn’t so difficult after all.”