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An Angel In The Rain
Mud. Snow, slush, worms. But mostly mud. Such was the nature of early spring that year.
Don Taft, as he slogged along the road from town, was abandoned by all that was bright and dry and airy to feel the full force of the elements. With each step his sturdy, thick-treaded boots slid further into the sloppy earth, submerging as far as the hem of his pant legs. Weary as he was, and with arthritic pains shooting through him, it was no small miracle he found the strength to pull his boots out with every step and continue on his way.
He kept his eyes trained on the path ahead, thoughts rushing through his mind like a tumbling river, louder than the birds perched in the still-bare trees. A horse and rider trotted past and he paid them no mind. Oblivious to all that went on around him, Don walked in his own world of dreams and fancy.
Words spoken long ago echoed in his ears, “I remember baby Eda, I do Papa!”
“But that can’t be child. She’d been dead two long years before your mother had you.”
“I do just the same.”
“Will you take your tea now, Mama?”
“Yes; you’re a blessing. A God-given blessing.”
“This is my tree, Papa, right?”
“That’s right. Planted it the day we found out; planted ten of ‘em but the maple was the one that grew.”
“And someday I’ll be grown enough to climb it all on my own!”
“Well now, that’s not the talk of a lady, is it?”
“But Leah told me a true lady…”
And then one phrase stuck in his mind, insistent as a fly around a horse barn. “Papa, I’m frightened.” “Papa…frightened…frightened…frightened…”
Don was powerless to exorcise these poltergeists from his tired brain, but something else did. A silent feline form advanced from the tree line, catching Don’s attention out of the corner of his eye. The cat, upon seeing him, raised its head and let out an amicable mrrow. It loped towards him and paused, undecided, at the road. The mud-polluted rivulets of water that ran parallel to the roadside were a serious problem for the small cat.
Don made his way over and reached out an arm, a beckoning gesture. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to. The cat sprang forward and was caught up by his thick, strong arms. Man and cat continued on their way.
They smelled the rain before they felt it, both of them. The wind carried a clean fresh scent of clouds prior to their arrival, and so when the first drop fell, Don had already wrapped his light burden tightly against him inside the toasty warm sheepskin coat.
He stroked the mottled black and white fur of the loyal old cat as they struggled on. The animal began to vocalize, low, rumbling sounds from the back of his throat. Almost as if he was remembering too. “I know Zinky, I know,” Don said. He knew all too well.
Don felt himself slipping, not down into the mud, but into the mire own thoughts. The voices returned, loud as before, but this time were accompanied by vivid images so real he involuntarily stretched out a withered hand to stroke his daughter’s cheek…
Don and Hattie knelt on the parched earth, disregarding their fine clothes that were rapidly becoming soiled. She tipped the water from their good glass pitcher while he dug holes with only his bare hands. Ten holes in all. She kissed each of her seeds before gently laying them in the ground and tucking the dirt around them. He barely noticed what kind of tree they had come from- oak, maple, birch, walnut, elm- before dropping the seed in, filling the hole, and moving on to the next one. For Don, it was enough that they were doing this. There would be much kissing of petal soft skin once the baby was born; they needn’t waste any on seeds.
Still, as they returned to the house hand in hand, he threw one glance back at the meager plot of earth and felt his heart lift. This was the first sign that the house would have another child in it, and soon, that the sorrow lagging at their heels like an afternoon shadow could be shaken off yet. He could only hope that one of the seeds would sprout and grow so that the child could feel always what he felt right now.
The winter that year was long and filled with fear and hardship. But as the earth, under the warm sunlight of spring, shook itself awake so did the young couple’s excitement. Soon the snow withdrew its icy reign over the soil, leaving the plot of land exposed. Upon realizing this, Don rushed over before he headed to his workshop to see what was to be seen. When he relayed the news to his wife, he couldn’t control the grin that plastered itself across his face.
Even after she fell ill, Millie was usually upbeat and amiable. She still looked after Mama faithfully, never failing to bring tea or mint leaves to chew on. She still swept Papa’s shop even when it meant sleeping through dinner that night. Don tried to hold her back, but Millie wouldn’t acquiesce to his pleas. He consoled himself with the fact that she wasn’t trying to move the furniture he was finished carving to its spot on display, as she had done in her stronger days. Once in a while though, Don would catch a flicker of foreboding in her face, and something beyond that. Something like wisdom. She was only seven, yet in those moments he would see in her solemn, tanned face an old woman, weathered by time and with many, many years of knowledge behind her.
It was raining. A thoroughly drenching rain, the kind that can only come in the middle months of the summer. Millie, lying smothered in blankets on the couch, was openly wondering if she was going to die. She didn’t tell anyone this. She had once before- kneeling on the hard wood floor beside her mother’s bed- but the look on Hattie Taft’s face heartily deterred her from ever doing it again. At times like those it seemed to Millie as if her parents were more afraid than she of this strange sickness that weakened you from the inside. But no one could hear what ran through her head.
All at once, as she stared out the rain-streaked windows, Millie knew the answer to her question. And just as suddenly she was seized by the gripping desire to die not imprisoned in this stuffy room but out in the fresh, open air. In the rain. Silently, carefully, she pushed the mound of blankets off her and slipped off the couch. Her bare feet pattered across the floor as softly as they could and she took care for the door not to squeak as she opened it. Stepping out into the rain, she felt an initial shock of cold rip through her, and then the rain fell wonderfully refreshing on her mostly bare skin.
She lit out across the lawn, a splash of blue and tan and brown against the vibrant green background of summer. Millie spun and danced through the sheets of rain, her weakened legs somehow able to carry her weight gracefully again. Her lips were wet and they curved into a glowing smile, revived by the rain.
She grabbed Papa’s hand and tugged him toward her tree, not quite remembering at what point in her joyous frolicking he had appeared, not caring that her efforts to keep her absence unknown to her parents were wasted. He was here now; that was all that mattered.
Sometime later they sat huddled under the thin canopy that Millie’s maple provided, Don curved around her, trying to keep her warm. It wasn’t cold. The air was thick with humidity and the rain was permeated with the heat of the day but still she shivered. For Millie, it was never warm enough. The girl’s pastel blue nightgown stuck tightly to her, and she stuck just as tightly to Papa. She realized now that she had been wrong. She didn’t want to die in the rain. She wanted to die right here in the rain with Papa and her tree. If only Mama could come out… but she was so sickly. It would do her ill. Instead of dwelling on this, Millie turned to the parent who was there and said simply, “I love you.” Don was glad for the rain then; it masked the hot tears that had sprung suddenly from his blue eyes. He had to be brave for his little girl. “I love you too.” he said, “Always have, always will.” She burrowed further into him, her auburn ringlets mashed onto his chest, and murmured something else. He had to lean down to catch it. “Papa, I’m frightened.”
He rocked her.
Don sat on the edge of her bed, his eyes struggling to make out his wife’s form in the eternal darkness of her bedroom, his heart struggling to make out the words she spoke. “Not his fault”? Of course it was his fault. Not only had he allowed her out in that storm when she should have been safe in bed, he had endorsed her flight, even prolonged it. He shook his head, guilt piercing him even sharper than before despite this talk with Hattie. “Don,” her voice floated, disembodied from the dark mass of pillows at the bed’s head. “Don, it was what she wanted. We should’ve allowed that last bit of freedom, don’t you think?” He couldn’t disagree.
Zinky, the old barn cat, caught a whiff of something stale as he slipped through the side door for his dinner. It was a scent he knew well, though it kindled a curiosity in him usually reserved for the unknown. It was the smell of death.
Hurrying through the house, the cat could not suppress a cry of fright at what he might find at the source of the smell. What he did find was Don and Hattie kneeling over the tattered old couch in the living room, a still form hidden by the blankets they had piled on. Zinky pushed between them and leapt up. A pallid arm reached out and pulled him over to her face. Millie managed a smile and a kiss on the nose before she had to lay down her head once more. Hattie nestled the cat into her daughter’s arms affectionately then drew back. Zinky let out a satisfied purr. His beloved friend and protector was not gone yet.
Evening ended and the candles lighting the room began their battle with the oncoming night. They threw fluctuating shadows that loomed over the foursome at one moment and retreated the next. Millie watched serenely from her place in the middle of it all; through the pain her mind remained sharp as ever.
Sometime in the small hours of the morning, just before dawn they thought they’d lost her. Millie’s breathing stopped and with it that of everyone else in the room. Hattie let a high whimpering sound escape from somewhere in the back of her throat, but that was all. The seconds stretched on, but in the end both time and the girl’s struggling lungs resumed their work.
The sun rose that morning veiled in rain. Its rays wavered through the west-facing window to fall on Millie’s pale countenance. This coaxed a smile out of her, but perhaps the light was too much, for her eyes fluttered closed. Don caught one last glance of them before they dulled forever behind dark lids. He thought how her frail body had been deteriorating around her soulful brown eyes, leaving them as they had been every day of her seven years of life, shining and bright.
He glanced up, out the window. The sky was clearing and the rain slowing to a stop.
Don lifted his eyes and found that at last the road was ending and they the had reached the driveway. Home. He opened his coat to let the cat go free, which he did, but not before giving Don a loving nudge with his rain-soaked head. Then he was gone, streaking off across the lawn towards the watery glow of the house windows. He looked after the cat but took a different course, one that took him to a place just as comforting as a dry house.
Upon reaching Millie’s gravesite, he bent down and traced her name on the freshly cut stone. Time had not yet had a chance to wear it down. Mildred A. Taft. He thought again how wrong it seemed to have this tiny, light girl who whirled through the day like the breeze itself, who ran to her death in a rainstorm just to be free, buried under five feet of dirt and enclosed forever in that dark, claustrophobic coffin. He felt the familiar anger well up inside of him at this cancer that had taken his daughter, and at the doctor for not knowing how to save her. Soon after came the undeniable despair that he fought to keep down every day.
Don reached a hand into one of his large pockets and rooted around until his fingers clamped on a piece of hard wood. He drew it out, felt it over to remember the strokes used to shave off each sliver, and then leaned over to place it at the base of her tree. He surveyed his work approvingly. A ring of carvings encircled the skinny trunk, sheltered from wind by the gravestone but left to the work of the elements. His final offering to his child.
His pain greatly alleviated by this small contribution to the shrine, Don turned to head back to the house and his waiting wife. His hunched figure did not move fast but was quickly swallowed up by the driving rain, and amidst the scent of fresh pine coaxed out of the wood by that same rain, the finely chiseled eyes of a young angel watched him go.