This story is by L.L. Gappa and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
My assignment’s name is Mary. “It means Sea of Bitterness,” I’ve heard her say, as if she wasn’t named after the most blessed and favored. She always disliked her name, as if it could infuse her with bitterness, even though she is one of the kindest humans I’ve witnessed. I have watched her for many years, and still she is a mystery to me.
She was my very first human assignment and I was decided that she would be my last. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to lose her. It felt futile to watch over this girl for so long, to know her for years, simply to have to let her go, and find another. Rinse and repeat, as they say.
She walked down the icy street, paying no attention to the ground and looking instead at the lights in the windows. A sigh escaped from my lips. This was not something I should have to worry about. But she insisted on wearing “cute” shoes while she was out shopping. Humans are always thinking about the silliest things.
I followed her at a short distance, looking around at the soft glow of the Christmas lights. It was a glorious time of year. There is no other time when people regularly acknowledge us, where they openly speak of our existence… even if their notions about us are often limited and misguided.
The bell over the coffee shop where she was meeting a man let out a jingle sound as she stepped inside. I remembered with a smile the words of the movie she watched the night before. Every time a bell rings… what a foolish notion.
This would be the last night I watched Mary.
She was with a man she had never met before, laughing. He seemed kind, and was obviously funny, though I knew he would not do for Mary. I did not know him, but I could tell that he was not headed in the same direction as she was. He seemed to be fairly taken with her however, showing many signs of attentiveness.
I had watched Mary long enough to love her. Long enough to wonder about the people who did not. She had so much to offer, such loveliness in soul and spirit, a kindness that radiated and touched everyone around her.
Then again, people were distracted by the unimportant. If someone said the wrong thing, if they didn’t fit a pre-conceived notion, had the wrong color of hair, or an extra bit of flesh around the waist, any of it could be enough to keep them from seeing another’s worth completely.
Looking at the man, I wondered if she would start to fall in love with him. I hoped not. I hoped he wasn’t falling in love with her either, though I found it hard to see why he wouldn’t.
“We are not meant to understand them,” my commander told me once, many years before Mary. Though I did not doubt him, I’m somehow always still surprised by their decisions.
Not that I was worried about Mary and the man. She was meant to walk through this life surrounded by love, but not of that sort. People would say she was alone but that wasn’t true. Mary knew that, but sometimes she struggled to remember it.
I sat down at a booth facing her, feeling sad and angry that this would be my last night on watch. I had my orders not to intervene. The moment would come, and she would not need me anymore. Then tomorrow, I was expected to find a new human to watch.
The two of them chatted for a while as people came and went from the coffee shop. It was getting late and with each passing minute I felt dread grow inside of me. I watched her closely, trying to memorize every detail of her face, her smile, her laugh, trying to ignore the ache inside of me.
It was all too soon that she checked her watch, having noticed the barista grab a broom. She stood and smiled at the man, thanking him for the lovely evening. He smiled back at her, an enchanted look on his face as he helped her into her coat and kissed her on the cheek.
The bell rang over the coffee shop door once again and they parted ways. She watched him walk away under the gently falling snow. I could see the hope and joy play around the corners of her mouth and eyes.
I took a deep, shuddering breath as I tried to steady myself. This was where I needed to leave her. She was to go, and I could not follow.
Gazing upon her for the last time, soft and joyful, standing warm in the cold winter snow, I forced myself forward, off the sidewalk, across the road, and away from her.
The car came and I realized then that this was the moment. I kept my face turned away, knowing that this was the great beginning, but still unable to watch the transition. Her pain, though brief, was something I did not have the strength to witness.
Hearing it was terrible enough. The sickening squeal of the tires, the thud and smack. The gasping and screams as people ran to her. Her presence, the one I was so attuned to, could no longer be felt. It had flickered and passed.
I wanted to leave. To return to the presence of the Most High, and no longer be subjected to this world of agony, this world full of sin and mistakes, a world that no longer had Mary. I was not cut out for this. How was I supposed to do it again? How did we handle it? Returning to this duty time and again, as if it wasn’t ripping us apart?
“What… what just happened?”
I felt myself freeze in place. It was her voice. But it was different now, clearer, somehow pointed. Directed at me. I tensed, hardly able to process what I heard, to dare hope that I was right.
Turning slowly, I dreaded the sight of her broken body sprawled out on the road. But all I saw was Mary, standing in front of me, looking at me as though I was the only thing she could see.
Her face was clearer. It was as if she was suddenly in focus, and all of her soul’s lovely qualities were represented in her features. It was Mary, my Mary, but different. More real, more tangible, more perfect than ever.
And she was looking right at me. Her face was confused, and a bit dazed. She stepped forward, gripped my arm and I felt a flood of emotion crash through me. I was struck, unable to speak. I had seen Mary cry many times and now my body ached to experience that same blessed release.
“I know you.” She said, her voice sure even if her face was still confused. It was somehow a statement and a question all at once.
I nodded, trying to find my voice. Would she hear it? “Child of the Most High,” I began, unsure how to talk to my Mary, to God’s Mary. “Mary. I have been watching over you since you were born.” My voice shook as I straightened, looking her in the eye, and watching her see me, after all these years.
Her eyes shone with a soft realization and she loosened her grip on my arm in order to throw her arms around me. I took a step backwards as her form collided with mine and, after a moment of shock, tentatively wound my arms around her. Such an experience was both startlingly holy and human.
She pulled back and smiled at me, her eyes sparkling with joy and purpose. “I must go to the Father.” She said.
I nodded, knowing that these few moments with her were a gift, a blessing beyond measure. I knew better than to delay or take advantage of my time with her.
She smiled at me, her warm eyes searching mine. “Thank you,” she added, pressing her hand gently to my cheek. “For watching over me.”
Warmth and love spread from her hand into the center of my being. And in that moment, I knew I could face reassignment. I would willingly and joyfully watch over another, all the days of their life. Nothing was more precious than this.
© Lydia Gappa 2016