Lineage


             I awoke as if I had been summoned.

            A pile of glowing embers that only made the darkness more pronounced was all that remained of our fire. I heard someone say once that darkness had palpability, a thickness, that it wasn’t just an absence of light—can’t remember who said it. I never believed it.

Sat up and listened. Wondered why the darkness and the cold reminded me of what somebody said about something I didn’t believe, whose name I couldn’t even remember. Absence is its own presence and all that nonsense. Doesn’t feel like nonsense now, I thought. I wanted to laugh, only it seemed a sacrilege. Didn’t believe in sacrilege either, but night can make you renounce old doctrines and become a proselyte to just about any kind of craziness in the time it takes for a dying fire to draw the cold to it. I told myself that I didn’t laugh because the cave would just laugh back and wake Noelle.

I slithered from my blankets and crawled close to where she was—my hand bumped her, but she didn’t budge. Her breathing, faint and hollow as a ghost, was the sleeping kind; heat from her nostrils bristled the tiny hairs on my knuckles. Feeling her breath, I remembered what I had always known, that more than one kind of light exists. Sometimes it’s the light you feel but can’t see.

That’s what hope is, I thought. Faith and all that goodness Mom and Dad used to talk about before putting us to bed. All of it was light felt and not seen. That was why we were hiding in a cave, to protect the true light in a world of reversing polarities. What that man said, maybe he thought it sounded clever. I don’t know. Maybe he really believed in the palpability of nothing. The rest of the world seems to believe it—they worship it now.

Got up and walked to where the cave opened to the escarpment leading down toward corkwood and canarium trees. The full moon cast its light through the trembling jungle leaves and reached toward the cave’s mouth, but I didn’t let it touch me. Been teaching myself how to think fast and move slow; seems the best way to protect yourself in a world where people are doing just the opposite. God knows I wanted to bathe in that light, but I kept close to the shadows, listened and watched. You learn to listen and watch for a good minute or two.

“Addy,” I heard her whisper. Her cold hand on my dangling wrist.

“Go back to sleep,” I said. Wind whispered in the jungle.

“I can’t,” she said.

“Another dream?”

I could feel her nodding “yes” behind me. Didn’t have to look anymore. More than one way to see. More than one kind of light.

“It was Mom and Dad,” she whispered.

I heard an anomalous crunch of leaves and almost shushed her, but thought better of it. It was an animal’s sound—the other kind would never announce themselves that way. With them it was always what you didn’t hear, what you didn’t see. I knelt down and, taking her by the hand, drew her back into the greater shadow.

“What did they tell you?” I asked.

“Mom didn’t say anything,” she said. “Dad just said tell you ‘Genesis 12:1’. I asked him what he meant and he said ‘wake up now’. After that, they were gone.” She started to cry and so I held her close.

“Don’t cry, Noelle. I know what he meant.”

She looked up at me. “You do? I never know what he means.”

I smiled. “Gather up our things as quietly as you can,” I whispered. “I’ll put out the fire.”

“We’re leaving?”

“Yes,” I said. “Dad wants us to and so we’ll make for the mountains. Tonight.”

I nudged her off and followed her. Covered the embers with rocks and dirt while she rolled up the blankets and stuffed them into our packs. Dad and I had agreed on Genesis 12:1 well before the onset of things. Get out of your country. Noelle was special—the other kind couldn’t listen in on her dreams the way they could mine. Mom and Dad knew that. I seldom dreamed anymore; if I sensed a dream coming, I would wake up on instinct.

“Ready,” she said. She handed me my pack and donned hers. I looked her over and remembered I would kill or die or both if it meant protecting her.

“Me too,” I whispered. “Stay close. We’ll keep to the shadows.”

From the escarpment, we began climbing the layered ascent above the cave. When we had climbed for about an hour, I looked down through the wiry branches at the jungle floor touched by strands of a falling moon. Shapes of men, like bats fluttering, were darting between the rocks and trees.

“What is it?” she asked.

I turned away. “Nothing. Keep climbing.”

We climbed until dawn.

* * *

            When Noelle was three and I was nine, we drove up to the farm to visit Granddaddy and Grammy. Four hundred acres of arable land surrounded by a forest of pine and evergreen. The snow had fallen heavy on the earth, so thick that I could climb in through the kitchen window without having to jump for the sill. Dad had said it was more because I had grown, but I liked the idea that the snow had somehow raised me up, as if it were on my side.

One night Dad woke me up, told me to put my warm clothes and boots on and to meet him outside. I asked him what was wrong and he said nothing yet, but that I should hurry and make certain I layered up. Passing through the foyer on the way down, I saw Mom in the kitchen but she didn’t look at me. She sat holding a mug of coffee, staring down past its rim the way she always did when she was searching somewhere inside herself.

“Hurry,” she said. “Don’t keep your dad waiting.”

In her cold reclusion I sensed something inevitable—that I had been awakened in the night because I was about to be born and so I needed to be present for it. For a moment I watched her without saying anything, as though to preserve her as an icon in the shrine of my heart. I knew that I would never see her with the same eyes again. In my first birth she had played the most active part, the lead role even. But in the birth that awaited me out there in the winter night she could have no part.

When I stepped outside, I closed the door gently behind me and stared at my father standing at the edge of the steps that led down from the porch. He did not look at me either. I wondered if he even could.

“Ready?” he asked.

I nodded. He made me follow him and I could tell we were heading toward the barn. As he walked, he plowed a gulley through the snow and I followed in it as if it were a lighted path carving its way through a crowd of night.

“Why are we out here?” I asked him.

“That question can’t be answered in the time it takes from the porch to the barn,” he said.

Then he glanced back at me or past me, I’m not sure which. When he saw that I was lagging, he told me to speed up. His tone was calm but I could hear in it a chill that had its roots somewhere in the core of his heart, sliding its branches into his veins and spreading a deep freeze through him. And then I knew—he was afraid. My father. A man marked by an incapacity for fear, known and respected for it. That realization of my father’s humanity was the first rush of blood and water thrusting me toward a new advent.

* * *

            Noelle was asleep next to me while I leaned against a tree, watching the slope we had climbed that morning. We were hidden behind a thin veil of leafy bushes and projecting rocks, but I could still see the treetops in the forest below. The sun was warm and I could tell the day was going to get hotter the higher we climbed. I didn’t like the idea of stopping so soon but she was tumbling in her steps, slipping on beds of loose pebbles. If we didn’t rest, I would either have to carry her or let her sink face-first into the black dirt. So far from their nearest enclave, the other kind would be reluctant to travel by day.

At least, that was my hope.

From my coat pocket I drew my short knife with its fat blade and its polished horn handle. Held it in my open palm, watching the sunlight burn through the glassy edge, casting a rainbow on the tip of my boot. I had only used it to kill small animals for food; Dad had taught me how to kill a rabbit and then skin it so as to preserve the meat. I always told Noelle to hide and look the other way during those times but I couldn’t stop her from watching if she wanted to see. The first time she saw me kill an animal, she refused to eat it. It took an hour to convince her that we either ate or we starved. That had been right after we left the village—two weeks ago. Since then, life in the wild had thinned her out.

Still, I didn’t know how much longer I could keep up feeding the two of us while we ran for our lives. We had to find help. If nothing else, I had to get Noelle someplace safe. I didn’t care what happened to me anymore, not like I used to anyway. It wasn’t just me they were after—if they got me without Noelle they had nothing; they’d have to kill me. But if they got her… if they got her I’d do anything they wanted.

“Addy…” Her voice came up from some buried place.

“Yeah?”

Birds fluttered in the branches overhead; an ant was crawling across my knee and I flicked it away with the knife.

“How much longer do we have to climb?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Until we find Uriel, I suppose. He lives somewhere near the summit.”

“How do you know?”

“That’s what the doctor told us back at the village, remember?”

“What doctor?”

“The tall man with the big hands,” I said.

“Oh,” she said. “I didn’t know he was a doctor.”

“The village doctor. Kofi.”

“Did you believe him?”

Did I believe him? What other choice was there but to believe him? Either I believed him or I threw away everything Mom and Dad had fought for… were still fighting for. They had sent us to the other side of the world because of what they believed, and so far they had been right about most things. They had been right about Kofi; it stood to reason that Kofi was right about Uriel.

“Of course,” I told her. “That’s why we’re out here.”

“The other kind are close, aren’t they?”

No reason to lie to her. Dad always told me to keep as much as I could from her but to answer her questions truthfully. She was young but she wasn’t a simpleton.

“Yes,” I said. “That’s why we can’t rest for much longer.”

For a few minutes we sat and listened to the life of the mountain and the forest. The day was deceptive in its peacefulness, just as the night had been.

“Addy,” she said.

“Yeah?”

“What if Uriel doesn’t exist?”

I sat quietly for several lingering moments, waiting for an answer to come. It came with a renewed burst of sunlight as a cloud passed.

“Then God will send someone else to help us,” I said, wondering if I believed it. Hell, I had to tell her something.

As we returned to the slow labor of the hike, I kept sensing movement to my left. When I  glanced in that direction, there was nothing. We would go on for a while and then I would sense it again, like an extra shadow moving apart from our own, parallel to our ascent but keeping itself at a distance. Of course, when I looked for it again, I didn’t see anything except a bird hopping in the brush. I don’t know if it was really anything; it didn’t feel much like the other kind. I can’t really describe what it felt like—all I know is it was with us for a good ways.

* * *

When we came to the barn, he had to shove his full weight against the door to open it. The door squealed on it hinges and skidded against the concrete floor, sounding like fingernails on a chalkboard. The doorway loomed like a rectangular maw of shadow; the air within felt colder than outside and as Dad stepped over the threshold he was half enveloped by darkness. From the inside wall, he grabbed an electric lantern and, switching it on, was ignited in a soft glow that made me suddenly miss the warmth of my bed. I thought about turning around and running back to the house.

“Hurry up,” he said, beckoning me inside. I stepped across and thought of Julius Caesar. Except I had no army.

I was startled to see the blackened shape of a man sitting on a workman’s stool at the far end of the barn, barely visible in the dim light of Dad’s lantern. He sat beside Granddaddy’s covered-up 1959 Chrysler Imperial. As we got closer to him and the light revealed some of his features, I got the sense that he was out of place beside that American relic, not because it was American but because it was of time and space. When the light hit him full on, I saw his face clearly, and I could’ve sworn then that he was both the youngest and oldest man I had ever seen—he didn’t fit beside the car because he didn’t fit anywhere.

“Addy,” he said, looking me in the eye.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

He nodded, as if assessing my response. Then he looked up at my father. “Leave the lantern,” he said. “You can wait outside if you like but I would suggest going indoors where it’s warm.”

“I’ll wait outside,” Dad said. He looked down at me and started to say something, but a look from the man made him swallow an empty breath instead. He nodded at the man and then walked back to the other side of the barn. The door cracked shut and suddenly I realized I had been left alone in the bone-freezing cold with a man I didn’t know.

“Do you know who I am?” he asked me.

“No, sir,” I said.

“I know you don’t but I have to ask,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“In case you did know who I was,” he said, smiling.

“How would I know you?”

His smile faded. “You would only know me if you weren’t yourself.”

I started to say something but he lifted a gloved hand to quiet me. He wore a heavy wool coat that covered his knees almost to the rims of his black boots. His hair was long and gray and he had matching stubble on his chin and cheeks. His eyes were black in the lantern’s red light.

“I don’t have time to answer questions,” he said. “Rather, I’ve come to ask you a few myself.”

“All right,” I said, a little reluctantly.

He sat up and started to lean back even though there was nothing to lean on; he was taller than I had originally guessed.

“Let’s start with a hypothetical question,” he said. “You know what hypothetical means, right?”

“Yes, sir,” I said, and my voice croaked from the cold.

“Good,” he said. “Now, let’s begin. You live a very long time, so long that you don’t know how old you are anymore—we’ll just say you’re half a billion years old. You keep getting stronger but the earth is dying and its people are diminishing. The sun grows dim and the planet is getting colder. Then, you realize it is within your power to destroy everything and attempt to create a new world, but you still have a choice: you can let the earth and its people fade, or you can put it all to an abrupt end and try to start something new.”

I was quiet for a moment, then asked, “Can I do both?”

He shook his head. “You must choose between them. Also, remember that there is great risk in destroying the old world, because there is no guarantee that a new world will be created. Only the potential exists. Still, the old world is dying and another opportunity to create a new one may never come again. Knowing that, what choice do you make?”

I started to answer what I thought to be correct: that it wasn’t my responsibility to make that kind of decision, that it was not within my power—only something in my insides locked up when I tried to say it. I went rigid, felt a sudden upwelling of terror without knowing what I feared. He saw the hesitation and lunged forward. In less than a second he held me in an iron vise with his right forearm, and then I felt something cold prick the skin of my exposed neck.

“If you’re one of them,” he said. “I won’t hesitate to kill you. Answer the question.”

“It’s not a question,” I rasped.

“What?” His grip loosened a hair’s breadth.

“It isn’t a question,” I said. “It’s something I’ve already done.”

“Explain,” he said.

“A dream I had three nights ago,” I said. “In the dream, I destroyed everything. I had a choice, like you said. I couldn’t let things go on as they were. I didn’t want to tell you because… because it scared me that you knew.”

In the moment, I was shocked by my own explicit honesty. I had never spoken with such clarity.

I heard him let out a heavy breath; his arm fell away and I rushed forward about six paces when something caught me. I looked up at a man of similar build and with a face that carried the same aura as the other man but unique in its own right. My captor gently turned me around to face the other, who was back on the stool and smiling with a kind of warmth that seemed out of character for a man who had just threatened death. Out of the corners of both eyes, I saw two more men appear, one to the left and another to the right.

“These are my brothers in arms,” the gray-haired man said, indicating the men who had just appeared. Then he held aloft a shining, phosphorescent blade—I was startled by how sharp it seemed.

“Are you going to kill me now?” I asked.

He shook his head. “No, Addy,” he said. “I never held the blade to you. I only let the crest of the hilt touch your skin.”

“Why?”

“The simplest explanation? To test how you respond to fear,” he said. “I had no intention of killing you, but the threat was necessary.”

“But you said you wouldn’t hesitate.”

“I said I wouldn’t hesitate to kill you if you were one of them,” he said. “I already guessed that you weren’t. But then you hesitated to speak the truth. Why?”

“I already told you,” I said. “I was afraid.”

“Afraid because we knew about your dream?”

“Yeah,” I said, forgetting the sir. “That among other things.”

He smiled again. “The dream is proof of your humanity,” he said. “I sent you that dream to prove that you weren’t one of them.”

“But you said you already knew I wasn’t.”

For the present, I overlooked the revelation that he had sent the dream, whatever that meant. I didn’t understand it but I didn’t doubt him either—in some way, it made sense if only at a subconscious level.

“Yes,” he said. “I did know.”

“Then why go through all of that?” I asked.

His face grew solemn. “Because you need to know for yourself that you are not, nor will you ever be, one of the other kind. Do you know about them?”

“Dad has told me some things,” I said. By some things I meant very little, but I did not feel compelled to explain that to him. He seemed to know enough without me telling him anything.

“Did you know that they are incapable of dreaming?”

I stared at him. “No,” I said. “I didn’t know that.”

“They have proven more than capable of spying on the dreams of human beings,” he said, “but that is where their powers stop. Have you ever felt that someone or something in one of your dreams was both an outsider and a threat?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Lots of times. I always try to wake up.”

“Good habit,” he said.“The dream you had about the earth is one we sent to numerous individuals, but you are the only one who made the choice to risk everything. That makes you a very important person. And, while it tells us what we need to know about you, it also means you can never safely dream again.”

Never dream… never again. “Why?” I asked.

“Because the other kind were present in your dream too, if only as silent listeners,” he said. “And now they know who you are, just as we do.”

“And who am I exactly?”

He laughed softly. “Someone who might make a difference.”

* * *

            In a narrow cleft of rock we huddled, while from behind a thick bush of prickly needles I peered down at a silver stream, scanning the stony riverbank from the high ground to where it bended toward the lower valley. No one in sight but that never meant much. I listened and watched for a good five minutes if not longer. Below us, the sun was flooding the rocky slope with light and heat. There’d be nowhere to hide when I came out from our meager covering, but we needed water.

“All right,” I whispered. “I’m going down. You can watch me from here. Just keep low. Okay?”

She nodded. “Just hurry.”

Hurry. Everybody was always asking me to hurry. Just like I was always praying to God to hurry. Please help us and hurry and don’t let us get caught and hurry and send someone to help us and please, please hurry.

I climbed down from our lookout and ran with stunted strides toward the stream bank, skidding on moist pebbles as I neared the water’s edge.  A series of short, grassy shelves carried the stream into the valley like an uneven stair, flowing in little dips and falls that hummed with the surge of water. Trees were thicker on the opposite bank. I hunched down with my boots touching the stream.

Filling the first canteen, I scanned the dark network of leafy branches and low-hanging limbs as they swayed between narrow bands of sunlight and shade. And then I felt the presence, a noiseless shadow hovering toward me, and at the same time I heard Noelle scream.

The knife was out of its sheath and glistening in my right palm even as I turned toward the presence at my left. I saw the tall shape of the hooded man, the markings on the ashen face, the eyes gleaming like tiny shards of ice in the stream’s reflected sunlight—more light than they were used to and yet this one endured it.

In that split-second, I was aware of more than his proximity, of more than the long, outthrust needle between the knuckles of his left hand. How many were with him? They had heard Noelle scream; how long before they got to her? How many seconds did I have before the one approaching at my back would strike? If there was one in front then there was one behind. Count them when they’re dead.

The blade did its work quickly—the hilt left my palm and the knifepoint struck the enemy in the heart. Stained with his blood, the weapon was in my palm again in almost the same instant and I hadn’t even moved. I did not see him collapse before I felt the force of the blade leading me, and so I turned with it, all the way around toward the valley-side of the stream. But I was too late.

A shock of ice coursed through my arm as the whip struck, curling around my wrist and tightening like a boa constrictor. The knife twirled in the air as it spun loose from my hand, its guiding power lost to me now. It landed somewhere in the bed of long grass as my enemy tackled and drove me backward into a rush of cold water that swelled above my ears. He held me there while drawing something from his cloak, and then I saw the needle flash as it caught the sun.

God, not here. Not now.

His weight lifted from me as though it had been torn away. A yellow blur leaped across my vision and displaced the enemy’s black shape. I lifted my head in time to hear a wild animal’s roar followed by a crunching sound, like bones snapping. After that it was just the trickling of the stream, the slight hum of the miniature waterfalls.

Blood in the water but it wasn’t mine.

I saw the black-robed body lying face up against the opposite bank—a tawny lioness stood over him and stared at me, licking her teeth. This was the Africa I had been told about but had not yet seen, at least not up close. She stared at me as if waiting for me to thank her, but I couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. And then I thought of Noelle. Had they gotten her? Why wasn’t she calling out to me?

“You all right, kid?” A man’s voice from my right.

His low-cut boots, splashing through the slow current, seemed heavy enough to make the stream rise up and flood the bank. I looked up at his face: young and yet old. His blonde hair, suffused beneath a trekker’s hat, would turn white depending on how the sun hit it. I couldn’t tell what color his eyes were in the shade of his hat. Across his chest he carried what looked like an M-16 assault rifle. I didn’t say anything, but kept looking between him and the lioness.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “She won’t eat you.”

I stared at the rifle, at his finger resting near the trigger.

“And I’m not going to shoot you, either,” he said.

“Where’s my sister?” I said, but he just looked at me.

I jumped up and ran back toward the slope, calling Noelle’s name as loud as I could and not caring if the other kind were still around to hear it. She didn’t answer. When I got to our hiding spot, I found her pack.

Just her pack. No footprints, no sign of struggle. I remembered her scream. She had screamed only once. From behind, I sensed the man nearing and whirled on him as if he, like the other kind, had come with an ungodly purpose.

“Where is she?” I demanded.

He didn’t say a word, but just stared at me the way he had before. Like he didn’t know anything… or like he knew something I didn’t.

* * *

            That night on the farm, he told and showed me lots of things I can’t talk about. At least I can’t talk about them yet. He sent one of his men to bring my father inside and then had us stand together. Dad didn’t say anything, but waited like he knew all the rules; what you did and didn’t do. That was when the gray-haired man gave me the knife. As I held it in my open palm, it glowed with a pale, distant light… almost as if it were a mirror reflecting the farthest stretch of the known universe.

“Never let another man wield it while you possess it,” the man said. “Understand?”

“Yes, sir,” I said. “But what would happen—”

“What would happen is meaningless so long as you keep your word.”

I only nodded.

Seeing my withdrawn look, he added: “It will not bend to an evil will. Rather, it will destroy itself before it lets the will of darkness command it. That’s the way I designed it. Let it guide you only in times of need—otherwise, keep it hidden and don’t use it.”

I nodded. “I won’t use it. I hope I never have to.”

He smiled. “We all hope that, Addy. Though no man hopes for it more than your father.” He and Dad exchanged knowing glances. “Still, I feel better leaving you well-equipped,” he added.

I had been staring at the knife, at its inexplicable phosphorescence, when I was stricken by the weight of his words. He was leaving. Why did that matter to me? I barely knew him… and a few minutes ago he had threatened to kill me, or pretended to threaten I guess.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“My work does not allow me to put down roots, or to rest my limbs for very long,” he said, rising. The drape of his cloak hung below his knees. “I’ve already spent more time with you than I ought to have.” He looked at my father and said, “The rest of the work lies with you now.”

“I’ll teach him everything I can,” Dad said.

The gray-haired man only nodded. He gave a subtle glance to his men, and they moved to the back door of the barn—the one that faced the nearest vanguard of trees that led nowhere but deeper into a wild forest. One by one they vanished into the outer dark, while the winter chill howled at us from the open door. Following his brothers, the gray haired man was about to cross the threshold when I called to him.

“Wait,” I said. He stopped and turned his head. Standing in front of the covered car, he waited for me to speak.

“Who are you?” I asked.

He smiled. “Just a half-billion year old man abiding the space between you and everything else,” he said. “My name is Michael, or at least that’s what they call me in your world. So long, Addy.” He gave a little two-fingered salute and then stepped outside.

Compelled by some unnamable force, I sprinted after him. Dad just stood where he was like he knew what to expect; I could feel him watching me. When I got to the door, I stared out at the flat, white plain of snow as it stretched toward the forest. In the cloud-covered darkness, I could just make out the black outline of the trees.

Not a man in sight. There weren’t even tracks in the snow.

* * *

“Addy…” Her voice, unmistakable.

She came up from under a thick row of bushes, holding the knife. Still streaked with blood, it beamed a full spectrum of colors in the hot, midday light.

“I went down to help you,” she said. “But then the man with the lion came, and so I hid again.” She looked up at the stranger, and then at me. I found it curious that she seemed less suspicious of him than I was; it comforted me a little. She handed me the knife and I started to wipe the blood off on my shirt.

The man thrust his hand toward me as if I were about to step from a ledge. “No,” he said. “For God’s sake don’t do that. You’ll be lit up like a bonfire on a midnight plain.”

“What?” I looked at him with questioning eyes. Noelle crouched under the net of leaves, poised to dive back into her newfound hiding place at the first sign of danger.

“The blood,” he said. “They can smell their own blood better than they can smell yours. Come, we’ll wash it off in the stream. We need to be quick though. More of them are headed this way.” He started back down the slope.

I looked at Noelle. “What do you think?” I asked her.

“I think he’s Uriel,” she whispered.

I took her hand in mine and we followed him to the stream. When we got to the bank, I saw the lioness hovering over the water, drinking. She looked up at me, and then at Noelle; just as before, I was startled by the lucidity of her gaze. More than this, I discovered that I knew her by her presence more than by her look. She was the presence I had felt walking with us earlier that morning, during our ascent up the first slope.

“Let me see the knife,” the man said. The rifle was strapped across his back, while his hat hung by a thin, leather cord around his neck. He scooped water into his cupped palm and then rubbed it through his hair. The water ran down his forehead and along the curve of his narrow cheeks like tears.

“I was told never to let another man handle it,” I said.

He smiled. “Michael gives explicit instructions. But I’ve never heard of him giving away one of his weapons, least of all to a scrawny kid. You must be a very important person. You said your name was Addy?”

“I didn’t say what my name was,” I said.

He laughed. “No, you didn’t. But she did.” He pointed to Noelle with his eyes. “My name is Uriel, in case you hadn’t already guessed. I was told to expect you.”

“I told you,” Noelle said, looking up at me.

“How do we know you’re who you say you are?” I asked, ignoring her.

He laughed again. “Boy, there’s wisdom in caution. But don’t pretend you don’t already know who I am without me telling you. Learn to trust your heart. Things move a lot quicker that way. I am Uriel, and nothing else in this world can attest to being me. Now, clean that knife so we can be moving. I’ll fill your canteens.”

A red murk loosened from the blade as I dipped it in the water. While letting the stream do its work, I saw Uriel whisper something to the lioness and point toward the descending slope, where the stream curved and faded into the trees of the valley. She sprinted off in that direction and in less than a minute was out of sight.

When I had dried the blade, it glistened with renewed intensity. We set out just as the sun began curving toward the west. Noelle clung to my side while Uriel walked in front of us. A little ways into our journey, Uriel glanced back and saw that I was still handling the knife.

“You had best keep that hidden for the rest of the way,” he said. “It isn’t wise to reveal a weapon like that unless need demands it. Power draws lust from even the humble soul.”

I returned the weapon to its sheath. “Are there more people where we are going?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “But that’s another day’s journey ahead, which means one more night with the enemy tracking us. We’ll need to find a good hiding place sometime after sundown, but we should walk for as long as possible. I can carry the little one when her legs give out, at least for a while.”

When, not if. Noelle looked at me with clenched teeth behind taut lips—an expression I knew too well. I squeezed her hand the way I did when I wanted to let her know everything was going to be all right.

“Where’s the lion?” Noelle asked, her voice like a baby’s when contrasted to Uriel’s staunch tones. She seemed to have forgotten our guide’s prior foresight regarding her legs.

“I sent her to spy on our pursuers,” he said. “She will remain near our trail, but she will not approach us unless the enemy is too close to ignore.”

“I thought they were already too close to ignore,” I said.

“The two you met by the stream were scouts,” Uriel said, his eyes ahead of him. “The rest of their party is much larger, perhaps even more than I could handle in close quarters.” He lifted a low hanging, thorny branch so that we could walk under it. “That’s why we must keep moving for as long as possible. And we really shouldn’t talk either.”

And we didn’t talk, except to answer when Uriel asked us how we were managing. The landscape folded and rose, folded again and rose again toward greater heights as the sun sank toward the west and burned like the last strand of wick in a candle. When night fell, we walked in the dark, up and up, sometimes climbing with our hands in places where the slope was steep and rocky. By the time the moon had risen, Uriel had to carry Noelle.

I dreamed while I walked, even while I climbed. Of the night before, when it had been just the two of us in the cave. Of when we left the village and spent our first nights alone in this country’s wild jungle, more afraid of what was hunting us than any animal that might have killed us for food. Of Kofi, the village doctor, who told us where to seek Uriel. Kofi… was he still alive or had they gotten him too? I dreamed of Michael and the night he gave me the knife. Of my dad teaching me how to survive in the cold wilderness on Granddaddy’s four hundred acres. Of Mom sipping her coffee the night I was born, I mean really born. And through the haze of it all, Uriel was there—a fiery star amid the shades of my past.

When the dreams had at last abandoned me to the cool and hollow night, Uriel was still there, carrying my sister over his shoulder. He was that rare kind of fire that burned long after all the other flames turned cold. And then I wondered if God hadn’t sent us all the help we would ever need.

To Be Continued…

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