The angel of death was used to getting a bad rap, but lately it was bringing him down. The last bunch of crossovers hadn’t had very positive experiences on their way out, and that was always more difficult for him to reconcile. He liked to see himself as a cosmic recycler, helping folks to elevate to higher levels of being after each death, but when they clearly didn’t, the negativity of the moment was hard for him to shake. He needed this next case to go well, both for his client and his own state of mind.
He parked his car in the lot of the suburban grocery store, making sure to find a spot close to the front doors; HQ said it would matter later. Taking a deep breath to calm & center, he began to morph his appearance to match that of the woman in the photo he’d been given. When he exited the car, he looked like a modern day Katherine Hepburn, dressed in a white collared shirt tucked neatly into navy slacks that belled demurely at the bottoms over a pair of black patent leather heels. His hair hung just past the shoulders, curled and pinned in the style of the 1940s. The angel always marveled at the feline grace of the feminine when he manifested as a woman. Quick check of his watch; rendezvous with his mark was just minutes away. He/she entered the store and hastily gathered a few items: two red apples, an avocado, some penne pasta and tomato sauce, small bottles of oil and vinegar, and fresh basil and parmesan, shredded. As he headed to the checkout, he caught first sight of the gentleman who would be passing in a short while. The man appeared to be in his late seventies or early eighties, but his hair was defiantly salt and pepper, with plenty of black left in his curls. He wore a pair of not quite crumpled khakis with a red and black plaid shirt. His posture was proud, though slightly shrunken, and his appearance was well kept, suggesting years of careful attention to such things. No sloppy beards here or shaggy hair there to indicate a certain measure of giving up, although he did seem tired, and sad. His irises were rimmed with the blue of age, but he still saw clearly through his horn-rimmed glasses.
It was then that the old man raised his eyes and caught sight of the angel in disguise. His face registered shock, briefly, followed by a half-smile that blossomed wistfully as his gaze softened, his breath catching gently as she walked toward him with her paper bag of groceries held at her breast. His own purchase he held loose in one hand.
“Excuse me, miss. Might I carry out your bag? Pardon my boldness, but I am harmless at my age and you remind me of someone I never thought to see again,” he said kindly.
“How unexpectedly lovely,” she said, passing the bag to his care. “Thank you. Would it be too forward of me to ask about the one you remember?” They were walking slowly together towards the angel’s car. Upon reaching it, the man paused, holding her groceries until she gestured for him to place them on top of the trunk. They stood facing one another as the sun began to set.
“Not at all. Her name was Marina, and she lived in Italy. I suppose I would never have met her if not for the war. I had been deployed there for four months before our paths crossed. I’ve often wondered why it happened in the first place. We were enemies, by all rights.” Here, he paused and sighed, mulling it over in his mind.
“I guess I’ll just start at the beginning?” he said, looking at her quizzically, receiving a nod in the affirmative accompanied by an encouraging smile. “The Italian Campaign is what they called our Allied intrusion onto Italy’s soil, and it was brutal. A full third of my company was gone in those four months, and the worst was yet to come.” His eyes clouded over with emotion for a moment, and he shifted his focus to the blood-red and violet display spilling along the horizon. The angel’s face warmed to him, and he/she placed an empathetic hand on his right wrist for a time.
“Thanks,” he nodded. “Before I went there, I believed war was noble. Now, I am certain I know what hell looks like, and I hope to never return. But you asked about Marina…so. We had been trapped in a small village for three days, playing cat and mouse with a platoon of Germans armed with tanks. For three days, we ran in and out of buildings, some empty, some not, hunkering down and returning fire until one of those tanks would rotate in our direction, spilling rounds of shot and sending us scrambling as the place fell down around us. We were waiting for another unit to reach us, but they never did. Turns out, they were having their own troubles about twenty-three miles away. Meanwhile, we were mostly just dying, trying to hold our ground. In the dead of the third night, our captain made the decision to pull us out of there, so we started running for the cover of some woods to our west. The Germans spotted our retreat, and began to shell us with heavy artillery, but they didn’t pursue. There really wasn’t much point by then. We all did our best to help the man on either side of us, and we all watched the earth explode and swallow our brothers before and behind us. I remember thinking that there had never been a darker night on earth, or a more blinding light than what came from those shells as they burst like demon spawn all around. I was certain I was going to die.” Here he paused, looking her full in the face, his expression as serious as his statement.
“I can’t even imagine,” she breathed, meaningfully, but of course the angel of death knew all about such things, and was no stranger to the fields of battle.
“As it happened, I came very close to death that night. I heard the shell as it flew over our heads, felt it heat and vibrate the air we were breathing. I instinctively tucked into a ball as it hit about thirty feet away, but pieces of it still found their way into my body, and then I was damn near buried by a shower of earth. I heard shouts and groans, and men crying. I tried to move but the pain I felt as a result made me stop. I gathered my strength and tried once again to get out of that dirt, but I lost consciousness instead.” Here the man paused again as the sun completely dropped from sight, leaving a still warm glow at the base of the sky. A few stars began to twinkle above, and a faint sliver of moon was shyly rising just above a stand of trees to their left. The angel felt that the old man was looking to sit down, so he/she climbed the bumper and sat on the trunk, gesturing to the gentleman to do the same. He managed it with surprising agility and thanked her, the bag of groceries nestled safely between them.
“I don’t know how long I was out. When I regained consciousness, it was daylight. I had a moment of panic, mostly buried as I was, until my memory of what happened came back, and my field training kicked in. I’m not sure what happens in a human body that allows it to keep going in such circumstances, but I was certain of one thing: I wanted to live. So I began to move what I could, slowly. It took some time, but I crawled out of that shallow grave and breathed in great gulps of air.”
“Next, I took a visual inventory of myself, and found the source of the pain: it looked like I’d been shot with a shotgun from my left thigh to just below my last rib on that side; shrapnel from the shell. The dirt and my time in it had done me the favor of helping the blood to slow its flow. There was not a living soul around me, and I suppose those that had survived took me for dead. The trees were about a hundred yards away, and I headed for their relative safety as quickly as I was able.” Here he paused and sighed again, looking as weary now as he must have felt then. “I breathed a little easier once I was inside the tree line, and after orienting the hands of my still intact watch with the sun as a makeshift compass, I struck out northwest, with the knowledge that a town should be somewhere there, several miles away. I didn’t move quickly, as you might imagine,” he said, checking to see that the angel was still listening, “but I was determined to at least try. I still had my pistol and a knife strapped around my waist, which gave me some measure of security. I had no plan, other than to find other human beings and throw myself on their mercy. If I was really lucky, I might stumble across more soldiers from my side. For now, my motivations were reduced to the most basic: find water, food and shelter; keep breathing. I walked in bursts, followed by prolonged rests that sometimes were bouts of unconsciousness. Time got kind of strange-I don’t know how long I went on like that. At some point, I began to smell something familiar: a wood burning fire. I honed in on the smoke and walked towards it, cautiously, to find the source. It was a small country abode, with a barn and milk cow and a few chickens keeping the yard free of bugs. I had the presence of mind to remove what was left of my uniform coat before approaching the door. I didn’t want to be shot on sight, after all. That action caused the wounds along my ribs to reopen, and I began to lose blood again. I made it to the door, knocked, dropped to my knees and passed out again. When I awoke, I was lying on a pallet on the floor in the kitchen, near the fire, my wounds washed and bandaged, wearing a pair of pants that were not my own. There was a canteen of water beside me, and I clumsily opened it and drank half its contents before realizing I was being watched. And that’s when I first saw her, the woman who looked like you do now,” he said, looking at the angel warmly and with a hint of wonder.
“My goodness, what happened next,” asked the stranger in disguise.
“Well, I sat up, awkwardly and painfully, and we looked at one another. She was sitting on a chair pulled from her kitchen table, which was on the other side of the room, and had propped a shotgun against the doorjamb, easily within reach. She looked at it, and then at me, as if to say she’d use it if she needed. I nodded my head once in understanding. Then she pulled a picture out of the inside breast pocket of her blazer and held it out for me to see.
‘Questo è il mio marito,’ she said. She indicated her wedding ring and pointed at the man pictured in an Italian army uniform.
‘Your husband,’ I said, trying to let her know I got her meaning.
‘Se lo vedi, non male,’ she told me, pointing at her eyes with her index and middle fingers, then at mine, pantomiming a throat sliced while shaking her head in the negative. ‘A capire,’ she asked? She looked at me questioningly, and repeated her words and gestures.
‘If I see your husband, I will not hurt him,’ I told her as reassuringly as I could, with my own sign language that she seemed to accept as accurate to her meaning.
‘Bene. E lo sappiamo tutti, quando lo vedi,’ she said, offering me the picture to keep. I gathered that she meant for me to study it, so I would recognize him if I saw him, and thus keep my word, given to her in the safety of this warm kitchen, filled with the delectable smells of an Italian dinner.
‘Hai fame,’ she asked, gesturing with one hand toward the table, which was set with two plates and cutlery. I suddenly realized I was quite famished, and my stomach let out a rather loud growl, at which she giggled lightly while gently herding me to a seat. She then proceeded to bring a bowl of pasta, homemade and dressed with crushed tomatoes, oil and balsamic vinegar to the table, followed by two small bowls which held cut apples and avocados. We shared that meal in silence, with only our eyes occasionally speaking to the other in the language of human kindness and grace.
I spent one more night on the pallet on the kitchen floor, sleeping hard and soundly, until I awoke in a circle of warm sunlight, flooding through the window. I got up gingerly, and made my way outside. I saw her working down at the barn, a few yards removed from the house, so that’s where I headed. She saw me coming and waved, continuing her work until I reached her. She smiled at me and indicated for me to follow her, which I did, to a stall that she had prepared with clean clothes and a wash basin. She left me to clean myself up and dress in clothes I knew had to belong to her husband. I made sure to transfer the photo of him into a pocket before exiting to find her once again. She was mending a gate in the small paddock outside the barn. When she saw me, she walked over to me with a map that had a route drawn in the black ink of a fountain pen to a town not three miles away. I recognized the name, as our army had previously overtaken it. She handed me the canteen, refilled with fresh water, as well as an apple and some cheese in wax paper. I was utterly overwhelmed by her actions toward me, her enemy.”
“‘Thank you,’ I told her. ‘I will never forget you or your kindness.’ I could only hope she understood my meaning. She seemed to get it, shaking her head yes. Then she gave me a look that conveyed so many of her complex feelings; her eyes shone with unshed tears and hope, one eyebrow raised pleadingly as she said, ‘Promettimi,’ with her hands clasped over her heart. I indicated yes, my own eyes showing emotion. I heard her sigh, and I took one of her hands in both of mine, squeezing it firmly yet gently. And then I walked away, to find my comrades.”
The angel sat enthralled, before asking softly, “Did you ever see him?”
“No. I don’t know,” the old man replied, “but I looked for him everywhere, and thought I saw him many times over. It was a different war for me, from that point forward. I realized that all of us belonged to someone; it didn’t matter which side we were on. We were all human, with loves and lives and stories. I guess you could say I lost my righteous indignation,” he said, ruefully. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about her, and him, over the years- wondered if he made it home to her, hoped that he did. She changed my life, and I’m forever grateful.”
“Would you do me a favor?” asked the woman on the trunk. “Would you please take these home with you and enjoy them?” She pushed the bag of groceries to him slowly. He startled as he looked at the contents of the paper bag. “This is the meal she made me. How did you know?”
“I didn’t. How could I? Sometimes, things just happen this way.”
He shook his head slowly, wonderingly. “That’s twice in this hour you have shocked me near to death. Wherever did you come from, dear lady?”
She just shrugged her shoulders in response, palms raised in innocence. “I suppose I should be going. Do you want a ride to your car?”
“No, I live across the street there. I enjoy the walking, keeps me spry. Thank you, I think. I am really unsure what to make of you.”
“I get that a lot, trust me,” she said, as she slid off the trunk to the ground. The old man followed suit, albeit more carefully. “Thank you for stopping me, for telling me your story. Now it’s something I will never forget either.”
“That’s something, for sure. I wish there was a way I could convey it to this whole bloodthirsty world,” he said tiredly.
The angel nodded. She knew that in a few more hours, she would be by his side as he left this particular reality behind, and she would make certain that thought and intention was imparted to the collective, with all the power contained in a dying wish. Strong magic, indeed.
They hugged warmly before he walked her to the driver’s side of her vehicle, opening and closing the door for her. He waited as she pulled out of the parking spot, then stepped out to view her departure, the lights of an incoming vehicle illuminating her rearview mirror, allowing him one last moment of eye contact with her. He was immediatley flooded with peace, and felt somehow that he would see her again soon.