Monday, January 16, 2006

 

the child, part 2, chapter 2 - 'distancing'


***originally posted in mar 05, as chapters 40-45 - also, i did some rewriting on it while redoing it into one long chapter***



When they made camp before sundown that second night out, they found that it was just as well that they hadn't attempted to set up the tents the night before. They would never have been able to do so in the dark; it was nigh on impossible to figure out how to put the tents up in the daylight. And, of course, Forest and James were knocking heads over it, each of them sure that he knew the right way to do the job, and that the other knew nothing about it. To Starr's horror, the pair of them kept on and on, wrangling over which of them knew best how to set up the tents.

Until at last the two turned around to find that, while they had been arguing, the others had, through trial and error, managed to get all the tents up.

There were three tents in the company. After a brief discussion, it was decided that the women should have one tent together, Malachi and his companions the second, and the remaining four men the third. And then, following Forest's suggestion, they set a watch for the night. There were seven men, so each one would take a shift each night. Lucy started to protest the women not being included in the watch, but Linda and Joy quickly hushed her.

This night, Forest proclaimed, he himself would take the first watch. Which set off another argument between him and James over who had the right to set up the watch schedule anyway. Tired of it, the rest left them to their quarreling while they went ahead and fixed the supper.

The group ate, cleaned up afterwards, then spent a time of talking round the fire, before finally, one by one, retiring to the tents to go to bed. Stone and Starr said their sweet good-nights to each other.

And so to sleep.

Two nights later, it was Stone's turn to take the first watch. To Starr's delight, he invited her to keep the watch with him. And so they quietly walked round and round the camp, talking softly together under the wheeling stars till it was time to go to the companions' tent and call Malachi to take the next watch.

And so it went. The days hiking along the valley soon became routine to the group. The rest breaks were soon fewer and briefer, as their muscles grew more used to the exercise. It would be nice to be able say that the arguments among themselves also grew fewer and briefer - but that was not the case. Especially between James and Forest. But soon between Lucy and Linda as well.

Starr walked at Stone's side, grieving inwardly at every quarrel. How she longed for the real unity the Master had called for them to walk in!

Another problem they soon encountered was the weather. Here in this hemmed-in valley, it was often muggy. Direct sunshine rarely reached them, so that they mostly walked through gloom. As for rain, that did not come often, but when it did come, oh, but it poured buckets! That first time it rained, it didn't take them long to realize that there was no point in trying to press on through such a downpour (although Forest argued long and loud to press on anyway). And so they stopped and hurriedly set up the three tents - at least by now they knew how to do that well - so they could huddle within them to wait out the rain. The women gathered inside their tent, the men in theirs, the companions in theirs.

Well... not quite. For Stone drew Starr aside and led her to the tent of the three companions and asked to be allowed to come in. They wound up spending a delightful afternoon, that first rain, in lengthy conversation with Malachi, Maccabees, and Morgan.

Morgenstern, actually. For the first time Starr got to hear his full name. She sat by Stone's side, mostly listening, all that long afternoon as Stone and the others talked and talked. So caught up were they in their conversation, in fact, they didn't even notice the end of the rain. Jack had to come and tell them that the rest were packing their tents to get on the march again.

It was a fine time for Starr, those first few days. Walking at Stone's side, watching with him if his watch was an early one, listening in on his conversations with the companions...

And then there came a hard rain again - the fourth one of the journey. Everyone scrambled to get the tents up quickly. Stone, as usual, went to the companions' tent to wait out the rain in conversation. But when Starr hurried over after helping to get the women's tent up...

Maccabees opened the tent door and looked at her. Turning, he let Stone know she was there. And then, to her utter shock...

Stone frowned at her. 'This is our conversation,' he said. 'You should be in the women's tent.'

And when both Starr and Maccabees continued to just stand there at the tent door, stunned, Stone got up, came over, took the flap of cloth from Maccabees' hand - and said to Starr, 'Go on quickly before you catch your death of cold.'

And then he closed the tent door in her face.

~~~~~~~

The rain poured down. She stood there, stunned, the closed tent door before her face, her stomach feeling like it had just been sucker-punched. What had happened?

Stone had said for her to go to the women's tent, and also for her to do it quickly and get out of the rain. But Starr did neither. Gasping with tears, she instead spun away and ran off through the woods, blindly. Eventually she tripped on a fallen tree trunk. Landing hard, she just lay there on it, crying, choking, nearly sick with the shock of it all. For a long time she huddled there in misery, barely able to think.

The rain rained down.

What had happened?

Slowly, she began to remember the Master's warnings that this would happen - that she would feel as if her heart was being torn in two. 'But what changed?' she asked the pouring rain. 'Why did he do this?'

'You must ask him that.'

And suddenly, though the rain continued all around her, it was no longer falling upon her. She sat up, puzzled...

And saw a great white wing poised over her head, shielding her from the rain. Her eyes trailed over the wing, following it back to the shoulder it was attached to, and then to the face - 'Maccabees!'

His face was calm, unperturbed by the hard and chilly downpour. 'He told you to go back to the women's tent,' Maccabees said. And now the many-voiced aspect of his words she plainly heard.

'You are one of the cherubim. Like Mathilda. You, and Malachi, and Morgenstern. I thought you were.'

He gave a tiny smile. 'Yes. We saw you, that first day, trying to decide who and what we are. You have told no one of your suspicions?'

'No. What point is there, to say there are angels among us? No one else ever notices.'

'Some notice. You are not the only one with such sight. But very few have that gift. Please - continue to say nothing.'

'Why?'

'Because people begin to act differently when they know there are angels about. That is, they begin to put on an act. This company must learn to walk in reality, in honesty. As well as in unity.' He looked away, off through the surrounding trees. 'Only then,' he added, 'will they be prepared to take on the enemy. So long as there are factions and hidden realities - such things the enemy can and will exploit.'

Silence then for a bit between them. She sat on the log, and he stood by her, sheltering her still from the storm.

At last, he said, 'You should go back now. As Stone told you to.'

She got up and he took her hand, his wing still protectively over her head. As he led her through the woods back towards the tents, she realized how reckless she had been, running off like that. She would have never found the camp again on her own.

'You must ask him,' he said again, as they came into the circle of the camp. 'Only he can tell you what has happened. Ask, and keep silence once you have asked, that he may tell you all.'

'Thank you,' she said meekly, as he brought her right to the door of the women's tent.

'You are welcome,' Maccabees replied. And, as a flash of lightning sizzled across the rain-soaked sky above them, he turned away to return to his tent, while she opened the flap and entered her own.

~~~~~~~

Maccabees had said she should ask Stone for herself what had happened, but that was not easy to do. When they continued on the march the next morning (for the rain continued throughout the night), Stone walked with the three companions - the three angels - at the rear, and neither acknowledged Starr's presence nor included her in the conversation. It was a complete snub, and it hurt.

She felt apart. Not part of the group ahead, nor part of the group behind - just apart. Tears sprang up, and she tried diligently to swallow them.

And no one seemed to notice. James and Forest were, as usual, bickering over which way was best through the valley - as if there was much choice. Lucy and Linda were sharing sharp words. Jack and Joy were walking along, he by the arguing men and she by the arguing women, both of them looking quite miserable at the endless, endless squabbling.

And Starr was alone.

That day, and the next, and the next. And then the next night after they made camp, as they were eating supper, Forest pointed across the fire to Stone and said, 'You have first watch tonight.'

Oh! That hit Starr hard. The knowing that, where once he would have come to call her away to watch with him, now he would not call her at all. Would perhaps even be angry with her should she ask to watch with him. Not that she could ask him...

As she sat there, thinking these miserable thoughts, she saw from the corner of her eye - Maccabees. He looked at her till she returned the look, then he glanced towards Stone, then back to Starr, his expression plainly saying, 'Ask him.'

Gulp.

After the clean-up from supper, after all the others had gone on to bed, after Stone had started his slow walk round the perimeter of the camp... Starr slipped out from the women's tent and went to sit in a spot where Stone was sure to pass by.

Here he came. Walking slowly, looking all about. And then slower still, when he spotted her. Still more slowly, when he recognized her face. In fact, stopping dead in his tracks.

'Starr. You shouldn't be here,' he said.

'What happened?' she asked.

'What do you mean, what happened?' he said, drawing no closer.

'I mean...' and she dropped her eyes. '...us...'

'Oh.' And now he came closer. With a sigh, he sat down beside her. Not closely beside her, but close enough that her throat tightened as tears tried to creep up on her. 'Starr, I don't know what happened.'

If he didn't know, surely she didn't know! she wanted to cry out. But she kept silent, as Maccabees had told her to.

'I...' he said. 'Aw, Starr. I fell in love with you quickly, thinking you were the answer to that dream I had. You remember, the star falling into my hand?'

Mutely, she nodded.

'I wanted to be in love. I wanted a wife. I wanted that to be the meaning of the dream. But...'

She started to repeat the word 'but,' to prompt him on in the conversation. Well, the monologue. But there was no need, for he went on talking anyway.

'But then, I learned something.' He looked down, his mouth twitching a bit. 'I learned,' he said, 'that you are not the only 'star' in my life. Morgenstern...'

'Morgenstern?' she cried, unable to keep her silence.

'...means morning star. Yeah, I know - obviously he cannot be my wife. But... maybe that's not what the dream was talking about after all. Maybe... maybe the star dropping into my hand wasn't a wife, but a partner. A partner, for the assault on the dungeons. I started thinking about that, and then... And then I thought that maybe I was... jumping into things too quickly. When I fell in love with you. Maybe... maybe I was wrong. So...'

She remembered to keep quiet this time.

'...so... I think it's better for me not to... not to... be so close to you. For now, at least. Until I'm sure.'

Are you also going to back off from Morgenstern? she thought heatedly, but bit her lip and didn't say it. She knew already the answer. His actions already were the answer. He wasn't walking with all the companions; he was walking now with Morgenstern. And that made her angry.

Yes, and jealous.

'Do you understand, Starr?' he asked.

She jumped up. She had to bite her lips once more to keep from yelling at him, 'Does it matter?'

Without saying that or anything else, she turned and stormed away.

~~~~~~~

It hurt. Daily, it hurt. To see Stone, walking with Morgenstern, talking, laughing, seemingly carefree. Oh, it hurt.

She took to walking with the others. Sometimes with Joy, sometimes with Jack. Now with Lucy or Linda. Or even with Forest or James.

And sometimes... sometimes Maccabees sought her out and walked at her side.

Days passed. Weeks.

She learned much, walking with the others. She learned that Linda was as shy as she looked, and was quite puzzled that she had been given this new name when she was brought from the dungeons to the Master's house. Linda meant pretty, something the woman was sure she wasn't.

Starr learned that Joy had a problem with the deep gloom. It seemed to curl into her brain, she said, and she had to keep remembering how Josh had told them, that last day as they stood before that little house, to be filled with joy. How joy was their strength. To meet melancholy with the Master's joy. How often, Joy said, she had to keep reminding herself of that! How long this road was! And how wearying!

It was long... Days had stretched into weeks, and they were still passing through this same valley? How long could this valley be, anyway?

Starr thought about that one for some time, long after Joy had planted the question into her mind. Really, she should have noticed for herself! Starr thought. And then a few nights later at supper, Forest pointed at Maccabees and said, 'You have first watch tonight.'

Maccabees. If any of them would know how long this way through the valley was, surely one of the angels would know. And so, as she had done that night weeks before when it was Stone's watch, so this night Starr waited and sat herself in the cherub's path, to talk with him.

He did not sit by her, when he came to the place where she awaited him, but instead held out a hand to her and had her join him on his slow watchful walk round the camp. 'Yes, Starr?' he said.

Funny. She found it hard, now, to frame the question. 'We've been walking for a long time,' she said at last.

'Not so long,' he replied. 'We've barely gone halfway round the camp.'

'I don't mean tonight,' she said. And then realized - he was smiling! His too-many eyes were all crinkling in amusement. He was teasing her!

'I know,' he said. 'The journey itself. Yes, it has been long. Very long. And shall be long still.'

'But... how far could it be, to reach the enemy's fortress? We've been on the march for weeks.'

'Not far at all,' he replied.

She stopped walking and stared at him. 'I don't understand.'

He took her hand again and walked on. Shortly, they came upon a fallen tree, where he sat and had her sit beside him. And then, to her surprise, he unfurled a great wing and held it over her head.

'Why are you doing that?' she asked. 'It isn't raining.'

'You remember the day I did this. Because it was raining.'

'Yes. Of course.'

'Look around us.'

She did, still puzzled. Woods... What was she supposed to see?

And then, slowly, it dawned on her. Oh! 'This... this log! This is...'

'Yes.'

'...this is where I was crying that day. Crying in the rain, and you came to find me and lead me back to the camp. This...'

'Yes.'

She looked the angel in the eye. 'We've been going in circles.'

~~~~~~~

'Yes.'

'Why?' she asked.

'Why circles? Why walking round and round this mountain?'

'Yes.'

Maccabees looked her now in the eye. 'You yourself already know the answer,' said he. 'This group is not ready.'

Not ready. James and Forest arguing flashed into her mind. Lucy and Linda's squabbles. Her own anger - yes, anger - with Stone. All these things. And more besides, things that she had not seen. Yes. Maccabees was right. This group was not ready.

'How long?'

He stood, took her hand, walked on. 'Until they are ready,' he said.

'But how long will that take?'

He all but laughed. 'The group will decide that.'

On they walked through the silent woods. 'But...' she said slowly, 'what if the food runs out?'

'It will not,' he replied confidently.

'You're sure?'

'Did not the Master say it? All you will need, will be provided you. His word stands. He has provided, and that provision will not run short for this journey.'

Again they walked on, in silence. At last, Maccabees added, 'It is not good, Starr, for you to be angry with Stone.'

She nodded miserably. 'I know. But... we were so happy before. We were in love! And now... Oh, Maccabees! I could almost wish it was you I was supposed to be in love with, instead of him. At least you seem to like being around me!'

He said nothing, waiting till she looked at him. Then he answered gently, 'You know, little one, that I am not one who can marry.'

Yes. She knew. But it didn't make her a bit less miserable.

They walked on, her hand in his. Round the camp, keeping the watch. Round the camp again.

'Hi, Mac,' came a voice through the darkness. 'I couldn't sleep, so I thought I'd go ahead and take over the watch and let you go rest. Didn't figure you would mind. I left a note for James, to let him know I was swapping watches with him.'

Starr froze. Guiltily, she realized she was still hand-in-hand with the cherub. She dropped Maccabees' hand quickly and hid her hands behind herself.

For the voice, and now the figure looming up from the night, from the direction of the camp -

Was Stone.

~~~~~~~

He stopped, hesitated, then came closer. 'Starr?'

'Good, good evening, Stone,' she whispered.

His eyes were bouncing back and forth between her and Maccabees. And it wasn't hard to guess what he was thinking.

'Good evening,' said Maccabees. 'Thank you, Stone. I hope you will be able to sleep after your watch. I will go now.' And he walked towards the camp.

And stopped, Starr noticed, close enough to keep an eye on what would transpire between her and Stone. If Stone noticed that the angel had not gone all the way back to the camp, he gave no sign of it. He just stood there, looking at Starr, his eyes moving restlessly from her face to the ground to her face to the sky...

'Mac's not married, is he?' Stone asked at last.

'...No...' she answered slowly. Nor could he marry, she knew. But Maccabees had asked her to not reveal that he was an angel, so she didn't say the rest of what she was thinking.

Stone was silent for a very long time.

'Do you want me to go?' Starr ventured at last.

'Yes - no! Starr...'

She waited, wondering.

'Starr...' His face twisted, miserable. 'Look... If you'd... rather be with Mac than with me... I can understand that.'

She stared at him. Rather...! But she hadn't been with Stone in ages! He had thrust her away. How...?

She said nothing. There was nothing she could think of to say, that wouldn't just make things worse.

'...I need to walk, do this watch...' he added. 'So I need to go.'

She nodded.

'You get right to bed?' said he.

Another nod. She held the tears in till she was far enough away from him that he wouldn't hear her.

Maccabees met her, escorted her back to the camp.

'He thinks I'm interested in you now!' she whispered.

'I am sorry,' the cherub replied.

She shook her head, mopping the tears off her face before she entered her tent lest anyone within see that she'd been crying. That was all she needed, for one of them to start asking awkward questions!

Could it possibly, she wondered, get any worse?

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