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Waiting for Angels

a short story
by Lauren Halkon

The first time the hermit saw the woman Chrysalis by Lauren Halkonand her dog was just after the first snowfall of winter.

The mountains had changed from their usual deep green to a colour more pleasing to one such as him. The sky was an eggshell grey, ominous with snow, and the pines, still covered with their eternal needles, were nevertheless bowed down by the weight of the colour that could mean either death or life, depending upon the books you read and the beliefs you ascribed to.

The hermit had read much and had believed much. He strode forth from his cave to welcome the frigid morning air, both a little afraid and a little exuberant at the endless stretch of land and sky around him.

Then he saw them.

The woman and her dog stood together at the crest of the nearest ridge. Two black specks in the pristine whiteness. Unmoving, they seemed to have their eyes fixed on him, and him alone. How he could tell this when they were so far away he did not know But his heart and mind told him that it was indeed so, and those two unwavering gazes sent an ice-cold river streaming down his back.

Unreasoning terror gripped him and he began to shake. All those memories he had thought so long-gone reared once more in his mind. Giving voice to a small and childlike whimper he turned and flung himself back inside his cave, where he stood, gasping for breath, against the reassuringly solid door.

The woman and her dog stood for a long time watching the cavern entrance where the man had stood. It was a fair distance below them, but their eyes were keen and saw far. Wind tugged at them -- it was already trying to snow again -- and their breath fogged the air, ice-crystals forming on the dog's black fur and the woman's thick coat of the same colour.

The woman's eyes closed. She thought for a while. The man was too thin, his face too pinched and drawn. He would not survive another winter out here. Yet she knew he had spent many winters this way. She wondered how one so hostile to life could cling so tenaciously to it.

Eventually her eyes flicked open again, the only splash of colour in this monochrome landscape. She turned away and moved down the ridge, the dog following eagerly in her wake.

The next time he saw them they were more than black specks on the horizon. They were right outside his door.

The woman was as still as the statues that had lined the grand processionary ways he had once followed. Not a single line marred her face, not a single atom of light parted the darkness of her clothes. Her hood was drawn up high and her flame-blue eyes gazed forth, unblinking. The dog sat at her feet, an unwound automaton, eyes like glass, riveted on him. Only the woman's coat moved, flapping so hard in the breeze that it caught him on the arm with a dull wet slap.

He yelped and dropped his kettle. He had not expected to see them so close. Had thought it more than likely that yesterday's sighting had been but a figment of his imagination. He had not been sleeping well lately. Things kept locked away always seemed to find a way out in the wintertime.

The sun glistened blindingly on the world that surrounded the three of them, silent, cold, waiting for a single sound to set it swirling. He found it unnerving and debated for a while on whether to go about his business or disappear back to the safety of his cave.

Eventually he made his decision. The woman and her dog remained silent as he hesitantly pushed past them. They did not move while he gathered snow to melt for his morning tea, they did not move when he walked back to the cave.

Their eyes moved though. They followed his every motion. Like Owls. Night creatures. Predators.

The mountains gathered in, encircled them.

He shivered. What did they see? His breath became a whine. He pulled his ramshackle door tight behind him.

The woman stared at the door for quite some time. No emotions rippled across her features, her face was an endless expanse of soft white skin. The dog merely looked resigned, as though it had doors shut in its face all the time.

After a while the woman's fur coat moved, though not at the wind's behest this time. A hide-clad leg emerged from within the thick pelt and the woman carefully stepped down a small incline and into the hollow where the hermit had collected his snow. The dog stayed above. It wagged its tail slightly, creating a semi-circle in the snow behind it.

The woman walked to the centre of the hollow and looked slowly around, taking in every inch of her surroundings as though each single snow crystal were of vital importance to her. She knew this place, didn't she? Had been here, or somewhere like it, before. A place to play and be merry. She smiled as she gazed upon the eternal white and a small child took her place in her fur coat, the transformation so instantaneous that the dog did not even founder in the wagging of its tail. Even when the little girl tripped and fell over the superfluous yard of material it did not stop, merely let its tongue loll out between its teeth as though, again, it were used to this.

Then the girl rolled into the area where the hermit had walked and her smile snapped off as though it had never been. A shrill cry emerged from her lips and in an instant she was woman again, struggling to be free from the clinging snow.

The dog stopped wagging its tail, lifted its muzzle to the sky and emitted a wavering, bloodcurdling howl. The woman echoed its pain with a moan of her own, almost frantic now in her efforts to climb from the hollow. Just when it seemed she was free her feet slipped and the snow dragged her back down again. Her hands scrabbled for purchase at the hollow's edges, fingers trembling with the strain of trying to lift her body upward. The dog bounded forward and caught hold of her coat sleeve, scrabbled backward, paws skating, slowing pulling her free.

Once out of the hollow the woman lay still for a long time, her arms wrapped around the now quiescent dog. Through all her panic her adult face had not cracked from its perfect form, but the eyes she turned to the hermit's cave were, for just a moment, wild and afraid. Then, in one smooth movement, she was up and away.

The hermit shuddered as he made his bed for the night. All he could think of was the woman and her dog. He had tried so hard these last few years to leave the past behind him. Had tried to tell himself that what had happened had not been his fault. Indeed, there had been some who had said as much, but these were few and far between and powerless peasants at that. He had known full well that had the case come to trial he would have been found as guilty as any black magician or cold-blooded murderer and would have suffered the same death.

The flames and the stake.

And he had thought that up here in the most northerly of the uninhabited mountains he would be safe. He had thought that maybe the angels the priests so faithfully spoke of could maybe touch to ground and grant him peace.

Not to be, oh not to be. His guilt had followed him even here.

Tears squeezed from the corners of his eyes, but not from memory of the fate his timely flight had saved him from. No, not that. Villain that he was he cried for the face that constantly haunted him, the face that he had never meant to hurt, the face that had sent him finally running. The face the woman with her black dog all too surely reminded him of.

His wandering thoughts drifted off into sleep, but it was not a peaceful sleep and the night alone bore witness to his tossing and turning. By the time morning came the hermit's blanket was a sweaty and tangled mess around his writhing form and it was with a thin and mournful shriek that he welcomed the dawn.

Curled painfully in bed, cover gathered close to him, for a moment it did not register on his consciousness that his shriek had been answered by a dog's soft and muffled bark.

The hermit did not move, merely screwed his limbs even tighter and jammed his eyes tight, trying to discipline his accusing thoughts. Then he felt a wet nose force its way under his blanket and a soft tongue washed his face from chin to forehead.

The hermit's eyes blinked open. He stared incredulously. Still he did not move. He was not sure that he knew what to do. Nothing in life had prepared him for this. Always he had been the quiet presence in the background. Not even the cook's lazy lapcat had paid him any mind.

Yet here he was and here was the woman's dog, its gaze soft and liquid, full of compassion. Of a sudden the hermit felt fear; he pushed his heels into the ground and scrabbled as far away from this unnatural dog as space would permit. The dog looked disappointed -- could dogs look disappointed? the hermit mused -- climbed quickly to its feet, cast a reproachful glance the hermit's way and scampered out of the cave, its tail disappearing with a quick flick around the doorframe.

The hermit stood in his corner, chest heaving. He tried to swallow the lump in his throat, but could not. After what seemed an age but was more likely only twenty minutes or so he managed to pluck up the courage to climb to his feet and grab his kettle. Strange dog, terrible dreams and unwarranted fear aside, he must still have something warm inside him.

Outside his door a surprise awaited him. There in the snow lay a freshly killed hare, its winter coat making it almost invisible save for the moist blackness of its staring eyes.

Something made the hermit lift his gaze, and there, at the top of the ridge, was the woman. She saw him watching her and raised her arm in greeting. He hesitated and then slowly raised his in return.

He looked back down at the hare. How had she known he had not eaten these last few days?

How closely did she watch him?

When he looked back up she was gone. He did not know whether to be glad or afraid.

The woman welcomed the dog back to her fire by giving it a sizeable share of the meat. The flames crackled their challenge to the frigid early morning air. Several sparks leapt high and fizzled harmlessly out on the dog's fur. Stray flecks of ash spun upward in swirling currents of heat. The air shimmered and shook in their small circle of life.

The woman bit deeply into the hare's flesh. She did not bother to ponder how and why the two animals had found their separate ways so fortuitously into her traps. She and the thin man had not eaten in some time and she was sure he needed this meal as much as she.

And yes, he did eat. She had seen this much. For all that he tried to hide away, he still needed food, warmth, companionship.

It was why she had sent the dog. It was her messenger.

She dropped a gnawed-clean bone to the ground and rested her chin on her knees, staring at the dog, which, in its turn, stared levelly back.

"You're lonely," she said to it. "I know. So am I. It's been so long." She heaved a great sigh. She seemed to sink farther back into her dark coat, almost like a child playing dress-up in her mother's clothing.

"So lonely," she repeated. Another sigh. She had felt, for a moment, back at the cave, a sense of belonging, familiarity, as though she knew the man from another place. Then had come the terror of the hollow, the sucking snow, memories of a death she could not have witnessed.

She shivered. It was odd to remember and experience such things. Had been long indeed since she had remembered or experienced anything other than the endless round of surviving in the mountains. Her parents, her family, a life other than this she could not recall. How long had she been this way? So old she felt, yet so young.

A small form curled up inside the coat. The dog crept closer, knowing it was needed.

A tiny hand poked out from underneath the coat and pulled the dog close. Memories of a young girl spun their threads through a long-numbed mind.

That night the hermit's dreams were not so bad. For a while. Rhea's face appeared before him, as usual, in all its childish glory, but it did not accuse. This time she stood, dressed in white, limned against the trees, and looked on him with compassion and understanding. It was only when the boar stormed into the clearing and the blood hit his face in a sickeningly warm spray that he jerked from sleep once more.

For a few heart-pounding minutes he lay awake, staring at the ceiling of his cave, trying to see some pattern, some order, in the endless striations of rock. He fancied he saw the flapping pennants of the castle walls in one corner; the shaggy muzzle of his Lord's hunting dog in another. And there, in that shadow ... Rhea ...

He swung from his bed with a sob, sat for a moment with his head in his hands. A dream, it was just dream. Perhaps the woman and her dog were just a dream too.

Hope flared in his heart at this thought, yet battling with a sense of sadness so profound that he felt tears coming again. That it should be this way, his mind a constant torment to him, and he, helpless, not knowing even what his own desires and whims might be.

"I am so confused," he moaned and then set his mouth in a firm line. Dream or no, this woman must be kept at bay at all costs. Up until now he had, at least, understood the stream of guilt in his mind. And it was better the devil you knew than...

But she had not been a dream, for now his gaze was drawn to the hare's snowy pelt as a magnet drew iron. He choked and gulped, then tilted his head, eyes suddenly alight with possibilities. Did he dare make himself some nice warm boot liners from this fur? His feet were so cold, the leather of his boots worn so thin. He wondered further, daydreaming of how it would be to have a coat made entirely from this beautiful pelt.

His head jerked involuntarily as these thoughts overtook him. His heart stumbled to a halt in his chest. With a wretched groan he punched the wall then cradled his trembling and bloodied hand against his chest.

How could he think such things? He was cast out, strung with guilt like a hag-ridden mare. He had no right to comfort or joy. To hope.

But he had not meant to hurt her.

Then he heard the music. It drifted into his mind, soothing, haunting, like an old, wise bird whispering on the wind. Staggering, weak from loss of blood, he went to his door and flung it aside.

There, barely and inch before him, lay a coat of purest white fur. Only a single drop of his blood marred its surface.

The woman in the black fur coat put away her pipes and smiled a little girl's smile before she climbed the ridge once more. These new experiences came at her in droves. She remembered smiling, laughing faces, a hearth at which she had been welcome. She would be lonely no more.

It was almost time.

The dog at her heels let its tongue loll free.

It looked like it was grinning.

He knew, of course, that it was the woman who had left the coat for him, just as he knew that when the pipes began their song again that night he would find her waiting for him outside his door.

This knowledge did not stop him from sitting silently in a corner of his cave, held at bay by a whiter than white coat and the ever-revolving thoughts in his own mind. It took him till the darkest part of the night before he quelled them and finally opened the door.

She did not stop her playing as he stood over her cross-legged form. He wondered how she could sit so, seemingly oblivious to everything around her save the music issuing from her pipes. Yet how could it be that one as frail as she should wander alone in these inhospitable mountains? By all the Gods she was but skin and bone -- he saw this now that his sight was not so dimmed by fear -- these snow-ridden peaks should have killed her a long time ago. Just as they should have killed him. Was it then that she too stood on the blind side of justice's eye? Had she come up here to die for some unknown crime, only to find that eternal life seemed hers for the unwanted taking?

He sighed at this fantasy he so quickly formed in his head. Could he never stop this tormenting desire to find one with whom he belonged? Had he not given up on this baneful dream these three years past when Rhea fell?

Yet he could not deny her the shelter of his cave, and so he stepped back and beckoned her to enter.

She looked up at him, an unfathomable expression on her face, put away her pipes, rose to her feet and moved inside.

He found his hands shaking slightly as he rooted in the back of his cave for wood and tinder to start a fire. The woman's dog slipped inside while his gaze was so occupied. He did not notice it and it quickly became a canine shadow in the unexplored tunnels at the rear of the cave.

The hermit did not know what he had expected when he made the decision to let her in, but this was not it. The woman quickly took the wood from his hands and set to building a fire beneath the cave's smokehole. She had it flaring with life in a fraction of the time it usually took him to raise even a faint wisp of smoke. The cave seemed homely for the first time in an age as the flames greedily consumed the tinder and filled the shadows with warm orange light. The woman gave a soft and satisfied cluck and began to arrange on the ground around her a wide variety of meats, nuts and edible grasses. She made her selections and set them to cooking in a cracked and blackened pot. Then she sat back and began to play a soft and lilting air on her pipes once more.

He stared. This was impossible. No one could find such a feast in winter's depth. He shivered with disbelief as the warmth from both music and fire touched him.

How could she defeat the cold like this? How?

Oh gods ... his hands shook even more now, memories curled poison-tipped tails in his mind. Guilt flared and the flames rose impossibly high.

The woman looked up -- funny how she seemed smaller now than when she had first entered. She saw him watching her and gently took the pipes from her mouth to offer them to him.

"What?" he gibbered.

"Lost voice," she said as though that should make it perfectly clear. "Like the birds, like the air. Always there. Never lonely."

The hermit stared. He could not think, all of a sudden a wave of darkness rolled over him, and he saw Rhea's face, the tiny child, his Lord's only daughter, so beloved, a bringer of joy, he had been her guard, her tutor, her mentor, yet it seemed in the end she had been his. His saviour, with her he had found a simple love and trust that he had never found anywhere else, and he had betrayed it, he had let her be killed that day in the woods, a simple day-trip, meant to be fun, turned so quickly to disaster.

"No!" he cried, remembering the hate-filled faces calling for his death. They had never trusted him, a warrior-scholar from a foreign land, how could he guard their princess? He knew now that they had planned this, that they had lured the boar to a place where it would prove his worthlessness and take the heart from his life in one fell swoop.

He looked at the woman, no longer seeing her clearly. To him her lilting tones were but the cries for vengeance and with a great roar he picked her up and flung her into the fire.

A high-pitched scream filled the cavern as her small black form writhed within the flames. They flared high, fed on his desire for justice, consuming all, and at their heart a figure folded and collapsed upon itself like a phoenix struggling to be born again. Then, in a breath and an eyeblink, the fire was gone, the black fur coat lay as nothing but ash and in this pyre lay the body of a young girl.

The hermit did not move. A chill edged into his heart. Shock, realisation of what he had done. He made a desultory gesture to help her up, then staggered back, appalled, as the child grew into a woman before his eyes. The woman's arm stretched out, closed around the fallen, broken pipes. Her eyes opened and fixed on him.

He let out a cry of amazement. Rhea's green eyes gazed back at him.

Then she was on her feet, and, before he could stop her, she was gone, flinging herself through the door with a heartbroken cry. There was nothing he could do save bury his head in his hands and cry tears of his own.

Naked in the snow the woman struggled onward, her breath ragged, her heart a broken drum in her chest. The cold should have stayed her before now, but still she walked on, her tears turning to ice, molding her face into that of the mythical snow-queen. Caught in the moon's glow she was a pristine silver shadow, edged in blue and crystalline glimmerings. But it was too much, even for one of legend. Her legs gave way and she sank to her knees, snow crunching beneath her. She let out a single wretched sob for her second loss and collapsed into a dark hollow in the ground.

Her pipes dropped softly beside her. The wind whistled mournfully through them. Calling. Waiting.

The dog sat for a while at the entrance to the labyrinth at the rear of the cave. It had been enthralled to find the endless tunnels and had followed them all the way to the centre before returning again to see what its two humans had been up to in its absence.

It watched the crying hermit. One of its ear flopped down and it cocked its head to one side, a quizzical look on its face. Its sensitive nose twitched at the carbonized scent of ashes. It rose from its haunches.

Its claws clicked on the rock as it walked from its hiding place. Straight past the hermit and out into the night.

A black shape slunk past the hermit, and the entire cavern moved with it, the dancing shadows that had died with the fire momentarily reborn. The hermit jerked from his melancholy, sprawled as he was on the floor, and looked up at the swaying patterns sliding silken and endless across the cavern walls. They were beautiful, like a shadow play on his heart. He remembered taking Rhea to see such a thing when she had been very young. How she had laughed to see the cutout puppets fighting and cavorting behind the screen.

The memory brought him back to life. No more self-pity for him. He saw the dog padding off into the snow outside and understood.

He grabbed up the white fur coat, wrapped its warmth around his body and stepped out into the night.

The cold wind slapped him back into his cave, pinprick specks of snow stinging tears from his eyes. He gasped and clutched at the frame of his door to hold himself up. Wind surged in, tearing the air from his lungs, driving him to his knees despite his firm grip.

For a moment all the old thoughts and fears threatened to overwhelm him. His mind shrieked its anger that he should seek to be free of its tyranny, it battered and stabbed at him with all its might.

The hermit set his mouth in a grim line. It was an expression he had not born in many a long year.

"Shut up," he growled and stood tall before the wind, body shaking with the effort. The dog's paw-prints were clear before him. He followed them.

The snow drove down harder, the prints disappearing behind an almost solid white wall. The wind wailed and howled, pressing its mouth close to his ear, splaying its hands against his skull, peeling skin from his face and replacing it with crackling cold. He was so numb now he could not feel the tears of frustration crusting his face, could not feel the legs that moved beneath him. Only anger forced him onward, drove him to put one foot in front of the other, even when he could no longer see where he was going. He didn't even know why he was angry; maybe it was because he had lost the dog, lost the path. Or maybe it was because he had lost himself.

In this way he continued for what seemed an age and soon his world narrowed down to a single point and he knew not why he breathed anymore.

Sleep, he thought, sleep for a while. This is too hard; a little oblivion will be pleasant.

The thought, now materialised, was too enticing to ignore. His body was so heavy, his mind stuffed full of cotton, he could not remember anything. If he rested for just a little while, just long enough to regain his bearings at least. He sighed and crumpled. The snow met him with a greedy embrace. His eyes filled with ice and his mind veered off into nothingness.

The blizzard continued, laying blanket after blanket over the dying man. It seemed almost solicitous in its care, yet each finger brought the sound of oars closer, the creaking of wood on the River of the Dead. In the hermit's private world a boat hove into view, a dark-caped figure at its helm. He lifted a hand to bring it his way, the cold metal of coin in his palm. Then the sound of pipes swirled briefly in his ears, snatched away almost immediately by the wind. The dark-caped figure twitched its head; the hermit felt the coin slip from his gasp. Again the music sounded and he brought his head up, cracked open frozen eyelids and looked upon the world of the living.

Before him stood a woman in black. A dog at her side. Yet she was smiling, and her garments were not fur, but wings. A rider of another river.

The sailor of the boat threw back its head and gave voice to an enraged howl. The hermit did not listen; his head was still full of music, though the vision was gone.

"Lost voice," he murmured dreamily. And now he remembered more of Rhea, the little girl he had loved as his own lost child, the girl who had listened long to his tales of angels and spectres. The little girl who had so badly wanted to see, to be, to fly.

Agonised, he staggered to his feet, blundered through the snow, trailing gobbets of slush and ice-crystal hair.

He came to the rim of a hollow created by a body much the same as his. The angel awaited him below, part-child, part-woman. Her arms were spread wide and it seemed to him that feathers grew there, great wings that glowed just like the eyes that were set on him as though she had been awaiting his appearance.

He shivered, felt the ice enclosing her body as though it were his own. The dog, too, lay frozen beside her, its nose nestled at her throat. The pipes lay miraculously bare, continuing their serenade, as sweet as a child's voice. His eyes filled with tears that not even the wind could freeze. All these years of guilt, of waiting, of endless cold, and now here was his angel and he had almost missed her.

Softly, he wrapped his angel and her dog in his white fur coat and waited for the ice to melt.

© Lauren Halkon 2006.
This story was first published in Lauren's story collection Chrysalis (Prime Books, June 2006; ISBN 1894815726).

Chrysalis by Lauren Halkon

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