Saturday, June 18, 2005

 

the child, seventy-two


Stone felt as if there was a stone inside him, weighing him down in the pit of his stomach. He really, really did not want to be anywhere near Mac just now! He stood where he was irresolutely, part of him still wanting to go get James to switch partners for him for the nightly watch - and part of him wanting to just deck Mac and get it over with. He had suspected for a long time that Mac had been cozying up to Starr behind his back. But he hadn't realized until now just how deep the friendship between the two of them ran.

Nor how deeply it bothered him.

'Good evening, Stone,' Mac said cordially.

'Yeah,' Stone replied curtly. And without another word, they set out on the slow work of walking round the camp, keeping guard over it while the others slept.

They walked on silence for a long time. Stone found that he was seething inside, and he didn't trust himself to be able to say anything to Mac without winding up wanting again to deck the guy. He kept catching his hands curling themselves into fists; it was an effort to force them to relax. It was an effort also to keep walking calmly, quietly, as he circled the camp at the side of his rival.

Rival. Yeah, that was the word for Mac, wasn't it? His rival for Starr's affections...

'Do not be afraid,' Mac said suddenly.

Stone's head jerked around to stare at him. 'What do you mean?' he demanded gruffly. 'Afraid of what?'

'Of losing her. To me.'

Stone's eyes hardened. 'I'm not,' he said shortly.

'She ran off into the rain that day, away from the camp. If someone had not gone out to find her, she would have become lost out there.'

'What are you...' And then Stone realized what Mac was talking about. He saw again the sweetness in Starr's face giving way to horror when he had told her to go away and closed the tent door in her face. And then he had turned away and gone back to his conversation, never checking to be sure if she had in fact gone back to the women's tent as he had ordered. He had soon been deep in conversation with Morgen and Mal...

And where had Mac been that day? He had been by the door when Stone sent Starr away. And then what?

'You went after her?' he asked Mac, his mouth suddenly dry.

'To bring her back to the camp, yes. She needed help; I went.'

'How did you know she needed help?'

Mac smiled slightly. 'Because that is what I do.' At Stone's uncomprehending glance, he added, 'I know what I am to do, and I do it.'

Then he's ahead of me on that count! thought Stone.

'It was never my intent,' Mac went on, 'to steal her from you. To become your rival, or to be as it were a ravening wolf to tear her away from the man she loves.'

Stone started at the word 'wolf.' Why did Mac have to choose that idea?

'Well,' Stone asked slowly, 'if that wasn't your intent - what was?'

'To be a friend to her, at a time when she felt very much alone.' Mac looked at him - not a look of accusation, but a look of... compassion? 'To be a friend through a time of temporary apartness.'

'Temporary apartness. From me, you mean.'

'Yes.'

'You knew this would be temporary? You knew I would come back to her?'

'Yes.'

'And you told her that?'

'Not in so many words. But yes.'

'How? How could you know?'

'I told you. That is what I do. I know what I am to do, and I do it.'

Silence. They walked the watch under the silent stars.

Until at last Stone added, 'I don't understand. How can you know such things? Who are you? What are you?'

Mac gave a small tight smile. 'That is the question, isn't it?' he said. And then he said, 'Look.'

Stone was going to say, 'Look at what?' But before he could frame the question, Mac had turned his face away.

Except...

He hadn't...

Except...

Stone broke out in a cold sweat. Mac had turned his face away. He was looking at Mac's back. But the back of Mac's head...

Was looking back at him.

And so was the side of Mac's head. Three faces! No - four!

And the eyes! So many eyes!

'What are you?' Stone cried in a strangled whisper. And what had become of his voice?

And now - wings. Great white wings unfurled around Mac, the wings as full of eyes as the faces.

Stone fell to his knees, his legs simply collapsing under him from the shock of what he was seeing. He slammed his hands over his eyes to block out that vision.

'Do not be afraid.'

Mac's voice. And now a hand touched him, lifting Stone to his feet again.

'Look.'

Stone didn't want to, but he, well, he couldn't not look. Slowly he peeled his hands away from his eyes, peered out again.

There was nothing there but Mac, looking frightfully ordinary. Eyes, wings, extra faces - he saw none of them now.

'...Mac?'

'Do not be afraid,' Mac repeated once again.

'Who...? What...? What did I see?'

'You saw me as Starr sees me, when she really looks.'

'But... what are you?'

Mac smiled. 'I am only thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren the prophets.'

Those words! Somehow, they were familiar to Stone's ears. 'An angel?' he hazarded at last.

A nod.

'And Starr knows this?' What am I saying? Stone added within himself. Of course Starr knows this! This is why... Ah - this is why she kept saying that Mac had never had that kind of interest in her.

And he hadn't believed her. He believed her now!

Mac turned and went on walking, calmly, serenely. Stone hurried to catch up. 'Why are you here?'

'There are angels about much more often than people know,' he replied. 'We are ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation. There are many who have, by welcoming strangers, welcomed angels unawares.'

'But why are you here?'

'This is where I was sent. Among this group. To accompany; to help; to protect.'

Stone passed a shaking hand over his face. 'Does anyone know?'

'Starr knows.'

'Yes, but... Man! Mal and Morgen - they share a tent with you. Do they know?'

Mac chuckled - which seemed suddenly weird to Stone - the idea of an angel chuckling! 'They know, yes. The others do not. Please keep it that way.'

'Why?'

Patiently, as he had so long before with Starr, Maccabees explained about the change in behavior that people were prone to affect, once they knew an angel was in their midst. 'But it is a mere show, a mask,' he said. 'And that will not do. It is not masks but reality that this party needs, for them to become who they must be, to accomplish the work they have been sent forth to do.'

'Oh,' said Stone. 'Then... why did you tell me?'

'To put your mind to rest,' Mac replied.

Their eyes met and locked for a moment. And then Stone nodded. 'All right. Yeah. You're right. I've been jealous, and I've been letting it tear me up.' And suddenly he stuck out his hand to the angel. 'I'm sorry, Mac. Please forgive me.'

Strange how the thing that had seemed so impossible that afternoon, was now so simple for him.

'Of course,' Mac replied. Solemnly, he gripped Stone's hand, shook it.

And to Stone, it was as if that stone in the pit of his stomach had suddenly vanished into smoke, and wafted away. Lightness came over him. He smiled, deeply, richly. Freely.

'Well!' he said, stretching out his arms as if awakening out of sleep. 'Now what?'

Mac smiled. 'She loves you. You know that. And you?'

Stone beamed, picturing her. Starr with her wide, trusting, child-like eyes. The sweetness of her hand in his; the sweetness of her voice confessing, 'I love you, Stone.'

He sighed contentedly. 'Yeah,' he said.

~first~ ~previous~ ~next~

Comments:
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