Good Angels Be My Guard
Edie was in the kitchen, making gravy for the roast, and meditating on the best way to interrupt her husband. Once he was in his recliner, his feet up, his attention on his football game, he never liked to be asked questions. But tonight Edie had too many questions inside of her, fighting to be heard. Like always, she began with the question that least betrayed what was on her mind.
She stood in the door to the living room of the old house they had lived in together for the last twenty years, wiping her hands dry on her apron. After about five minutes had passed, her husband’s eye flicked away from the screen to her face and back again. This was the signal that she might begin.
“It’s Christmas eve,” she said.
He made a sound of agreement in the back of his throat.
“I thought I might go down to the store after dinner.”
“Thought I might get some eggnog. Somethin’ special.”
“If you have to,” he said, shifting in his chair.
“I might get something for breakfast too,” she went on.
“You know I won’t be here.” Owen always took the extra hours to work at the mill on holidays. He did it for the double pay, at least in part, but he also did it for the sake of the other men with families, with children.
“I know,” Edie said, in a mild voice with large, staring eyes. Owen looked up at her with a frown.
“What’d you want it for then?”
“Oh, I just thought maybe – for Travis –“
“Is Travis comin’?”
“Edie.” He looked her in the eye. “He ain’t come here for Christmas for five years. He goes down to your sister’s house now.”
“They didn’t say where he was going this year.”
“They got kids over there. He’ll want to go with them.”
Edie bowed her head and looked down at her knuckles, wrinkled and white.
“I could just get some bacon maybe.”
“Suit yourself,” he said, with a shake of his head, and returned to his game.
“What is it?”
“When’ll you be home tomorrer’?”
“Maybe we could do something this year.”
“Well, just in case Travis comes – “
Owen let go a deep, rumbling sigh and said, “Go get your eggnog, Edie. Don’t worry about tomorrow. It’s just a day like any other.”
* * *
The angel had been there for five years. Through snow, wind, rain, hail, it had clung to the outside wall until its white paint had cracked and weathered to a dismal gray. The straw hair had melded into a brown mass that only parted into strands when the birds pecked at it for string to line their nests. The wings had held out the longest, the tinsel mesh holding tight to the metal frame. But they too were finally becoming tattered and twisted in the winter wind.
It wouldn’t be so bad, Edie thought, if it wasn’t for the wings going ragged like that. She couldn’t see the angel very well in the darkness, as she left the house for the car. It was just a paleness up there in the winter night.
She and Owen had picked it out together, at the hardware store, when the family asked them to take their nephew for Christmas. They had talked about a tree, but Owen didn’t want to clean up the mess. And when Edie saw the angel, leaned up against the outside wall of the store, she didn’t want to take her eyes off it.
“Sure, if you really want it,” Owen had said, when she meekly asked if they could afford it, and he carried it home in the back of his truck.
Travis was seven years old the year he came to them. His father had disappeared years ago, and his mother wasn’t doing much better, so he had become the responsibility of the family. He was sent to a special school, somewhere down near Essex Junction, but on holidays, he came to stay with the family. This was his first year away from his mother for Christmas, and Owen and Edie had been the only ones available to take him.
Edie remembered plainly the look of disappointment on his face when he came into the house and saw that there was no tree. But Edie took him outside in the evening, when the pale winter sunset turned the snow to pink and the angel’s paint shone and her straw hair moved in the breeze. “Just like she was really flying,” Edie said. She put her small hands on his smaller shoulders and said, “Look how pretty she is.”
Travis had smiled. “Yeah, like a real angel. Are there real angels, Aunt Edie?”
“Oh yes, of course.” she said.
“Do they ever come here?”
“Sure they do.”
“Why don’t I ever see any?” he asked wistfully.
“I don’t think they always want you to see ’em,” Edie said thoughtfully. “They like to do things without you knowin’. It’s like when you do something for someone that they aren’t expecting – makes it more special.”
Travis had nodded his small head in a somber way and they had returned to the house. Edie still loved that angel, and she had dreaded the thought of Owen taking it down someday. He had mentioned it occasionally, but he never had.
She drove slowly to the grocery store, looking at the Christmas lights along the street in town as she went, thinking as little as possible about going home again to the dark and silent house she was leaving behind. Edie didn’t normally reflect much on her life, but she couldn’t help being infected by the enormous glow of light, by some excitement hanging in the air that seemed to belong here. She couldn’t help feeling like a visitor from the outside, looking in.
The little market was packed with people. The checkout girls were wearing Christmas hats. People were laughing, calling out Merry Christmas to strangers, buying last minute presents. All the eggnog was gone.
Edie took a pound of bacon and half gallon of orange juice from the shelf and carried them towards the check out. As she went, she passed by a shelf in the middle of the aisle still boasting some Christmas novelties. Red and green sprinkles for cookies, a package of plastic bows, and at the bottom, spray paint. Gold and silver spray paint.
She bent down and took the can from the shelf. Gold wings, she thought. An angel with gold wings wouldn’t look so bad. Maybe Owen would like it when he got home tomorrow, to see that old angel with bright gold wings in the evening light.
Before she could think any more about it, she hurried back to the freezer aisle and returned the meat and the juice. Then she snatched the can of paint from the shelf and hurried into the check out line.
“Merry Christmas!” the check out girl said to her, and Edie smiled at her, and smiled all the way to her car. The tiny white lights in town looked even brighter as the night grew colder. An angel with gold wings. It would hide all the tears and ragged edges; it would be almost new again. She imagined a smile on Owen’s face when he pulled in tomorrow, the way he smiled when he had bought it for her, when he saw how much she loved it. And maybe if Travis came…
She pulled gently into the drive, her headlights shining on the side of the house, her mind on where she would hide the paint until tomorrow. She didn’t notice until she reached to turn off the headlights and gave one last look up at the house, and she could see – the angel was gone.
She leapt from the car without turning off the lights. No, the angel was still there. Only the wings were gone. The old ladder that was usually behind the garage was now leaned up against the side of the house, and there was a shred of torn fabric caught between one of the rungs. The wings were gone. Stolen. Stolen away. Before she knew what she was doing, she was back in the car, driving back to town with some half-formed thought of finding the thing that had been stolen from her. She didn’t know where to look, or what to look for, but she drove on anyway, the cold can of paint in her lap. It was beginning to snow.
* * *
“You were supposed to bring a bathrobe from home,” Mrs. Freshitt said with a resigned sadness. A dozen children in various stages of Christmas dress were moving around the Sunday school room. Danny was violently rocking three other children in the rocking chair, Margaret was chasing Anita in and out of the kitchen, and now here was Mark Hadley in his sweatshirt and his dirty fingernails telling her with pleading eyes that he didn’t have his costume.
“I’m sorry Mark, but everyone who isn’t an angel has to be a shepherd, and the shepherds need to bring their own costumes. Danny!” she shouted, turning her head. “Stop that!” Back to Mark. “Can’t your mother run home and get it for you?”
He stood very close to her then and said in a half whisper, “I ain’t got a bathrobe.” What he didn’t tell her was that he had walked to the church alone, leaving his mother alone and high, sitting on the living room couch watching reruns.
“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Freshitt said with a sigh, “but you’ll just have to watch this year. Maybe next time.”
“Can I still come to the pizza party after?” he asked, but she was already gone. She was replaced by the Bellevue twins in their new terry cloth robes and their arms folded across their chests.
“You forgot your costume?” said one twin with an ugly leer.
“You forget your brain too?” said the other.
“I bet it’s too dirty.”
“I bet he crapped on it.”
“I bet it has fleas all over it.”
He turned on his heel and walked out as fast as he could, out of the room, out of the door. He pulled the cuffs of his shirt over his hands; it was below freezing and he was underdressed, but he was usually underdressed, so he only thought of getting away from the church building. He walked so quickly that he was starting to lose his breath, and he had to take in big gasps of icy air, almost as fast as he could push air out into clouds of white around him.
He was walking toward home, his face burning with an anguish that he had no name for. He wished he could be angry, but he had no anger for any one but the Bellevue boys. Except thinking of them only made him more miserable, because he knew that he had just stood there and listened to them talk and walked out. He had nothing to say back.
He had left the lights of town behind and was climbing the sidewalk that led toward home. He was passing the old Fontescue house, with its bushy overgrown evergreens leaning over the sidewalk. For the hundredth time in his life, he saw that decrepit angel hanging on the side of the house.
But for the first time, he really saw it. The car wasn’t in the driveway, but the truck was, and he could see a blue glow in the windows from a television playing behind the shades. Mr. Fontescue would tear off his arms if he caught him in his yard, but he never came outside in the evening. A reckless surge of inspiration told him that Mr. Fontsecue would never know.
Mrs. Fontescue hardly ever came out either, but she was nice. She kept a jar of sticky old peppermints on the porch and would offer them to the kids playing on the street if she was sitting on the porch in the summertime. Most of the kids didn’t take them anymore, but Mark always did, because he could see that it made her happy. He would eat anything anyway.
He felt bad about Mrs. Fontescue, when he realized what he was going to do, but he put it out of his mind. Those bright silver wings just outside the circle of the porch light were calling to him, and his feet carried him almost against his will into the yard and out behind the garage where he knew that old wooden ladder had been lying for years.
By the time Mark returned to the church, there was already a line of children on the sidewalk, standing by the front door. They whispered to one another as they waited to file through the narthex and into the sanctuary for their performance. Mark had run most of the way back, and his heart was slamming in his head by the time he slowed down enough to walk up to the building. The church itself was lit up, with candles burning in little paper bags in the snow along the sidewalk. He was clutching the wings in his arms and hurrying towards Mrs. Freshitt on the church steps, trying to order the angels according to height. But here was the oldest Bellevue boy pointing his finger in Mark’s face.
“You stole Mrs. Fontescue’s angel!”
“You stole the angel?” cried another child.
“That’s your costume?”
He was engulfed in the sound of laughing voices, accusing fingers, scornful eyes. Mrs. Freshitt looked down at him with panic in her face, and once more Mark turned and ran, faster, faster, as fast as he could run, even though Mrs. Freshitt was calling for him to stop. He came to the end of Church Street and turned the corner without thinking of where he was going. Somewhere the wings grew too awkward, so he dropped them to the ground and sprinted on.
* * *
Helena Freshitt walked slowly down the stairs to the nursery in the basement of the church. Cindy Mitchell greeted her with relief plain on her face. Helena’s son said nothing at all to her, hunched over with his arms wrapped around him, rocking silently in the tiny plastic chair.
“He played with the toys for a little while,” Cindy said, “but then he just sat down. He kept asking for you.”
“Well, I’m here now,” she said. She was too exhausted to manage a sprightly voice for this response, but Cindy seemed satisfied and left her for the quiet of the sanctuary and the sermon that Helena’s husband had just begun.
“How are you, Jeremy?” she asked her son. He was eight years old, but looked six, his skinny body refusing to gain weight. “I brought something for you,” she said, taking the package of organic sugar-free fruit snacks from her pocket, one of the rare sweets he was allowed. She sat down in a small chair beside him while he tore into the package. She was careful not to touch him by accident; he couldn’t stand to be touched. “Thank you for being such a good boy and staying with Miss Cindy while Mommy was busy.”
Jeremy hadn’t slept well the night before and they were both tired. She wished that she could just take him home, but he might scream when he saw that the service was going on without him, and she wouldn’t risk that. She closed her eyes a moment and tried to think of something relaxing they could do together until it was time to leave.
He finished picking out all the red and green ones – he would never eat the others – and said, “I want to see the angels.” He had been to the full dress rehearsal of the Christmas play, and he had loved the children dressed in white with paper wings tied to their backs. “Where are the angels?”
“I’m sorry, Honey,” she said, “but the angels are all done.” She had decided to save this explanation for after, out of concern that he might react badly during the play if he knew he was missing it. He stopped eating the candy and began rocking back and forth again. He always did this, he was autistic after all, and this is what autistic children did. What worried her was the angry set of his face, the hard look in his eye that told her that he was not going to accept any simple explanation for this.
“The angels. I want to see angels.”
“You got to see them yesterday, Honey.” And yelled during half the rehearsal so that they had to hold it twice over.
“Angels! I want to see!” Before she could get hold of him, he crawled over the table and hurried across the room to where the crib stood in the corner. He crawled underneath and curled up in a ball. There were tears on his face.
“Oh Jeremy,” she said. Helena had been through this before. There were weeks when she went through this every day, sometimes many times a day. This, too, was part of having an autistic child. She had little resource left for this at the moment however. Her husband had taken a call at this congregation a year and a half ago, and she had done her best to be the model pastor wife, to teach Sunday school class, to sing in the church choir, to be a cheerful soul in spite of the constant exhaustion and wearying emotional work of raising her son. She spent nearly every hour of the day with Jeremy, since the local school was so underfunded that they had no resources for a boy like him. She spent day after day with someone so contained in his own mind that he was incapable of understanding what he was putting her through, of understanding that things simply couldn’t be the way he wanted them.
After a few minutes he began to cry out, and she was afraid he might start yelling soon and disrupt the service upstairs. So she got down on her hands and knees to look underneath the crib at her son, wedged tightly beneath the crib mattress and floor.
“Jeremy, I know you’re sad. I’m sorry.” There really wasn’t much point in explaining, but she never knew how much he understood and she always tried. “The angels all had to fly away. Let’s go look out the window and maybe we’ll see them.”
His balled up fist flew out at her, smacking her face, and she cried out in pain. She hurried away from the crib and went to the bathroom door in the back with her hand over her nose, waiting for the pain to stop. She kept her back to him, repressing the almost irresistible longing to scream at him. She knew she shouldn’t be angry. He just couldn’t understand – he couldn’t help it, but she hunched her shoulders just the same and took several deep breaths before she spoke again.
“Jeremy,” she said, her voice patient but firm. “You hurt Mommy. Jeremy – “
She turned around in time to see him slipping out the nursery door, just glancing over his shoulder at her as he went.
“No!” She chased after him, but he was at the top of the stairs when she reached the bottom, and he had already run away by the time she reached the back door.
No, not again.
* * *
Jacob Freshitt stood calmly in the pulpit, in his white gown and colorful surplice????, speaking to his congregation about Mary’s tremulous approach to Bethlehem and all the little fears and worries that conjecture could add to the young couple as they waited for their miraculous child to be born two thousand years ago. He paused to take a look around the sanctuary. It was a crowded room, with several faces he wasn’t accustomed seeing: congregants who only attended on holidays, grown children come back to town to be with their parents, their own children glassy-eyed and staring in their laps. Most of them, however, were familiar, and most of them quite old.
“Those famous words of the Apostle would not be written for many more years,” he said to the hushed room amid flickering candles and boughs of green, “that all things work for the good of those who love God. But Joseph and Mary didn’t need to be told those words. They showed that they believed it during their long journey to Bethlehem.”
Jacob was deeply committed to the pastoral ministry, but he had the misfortune of being plagued by a mind that wandered at unexpected moments, and as he turned a page in his notes, he was struck with a sudden doubt of the relevance of all this. What, after all, did such remote events in history have to do with the people looking up at him? They were thinking of presents that still needed wrapping, of meals to prepare and road trips to make and snow that would need to be shoveled. He had carefully written his sermon looking for ways to make the Christmas story seem real, and memorable, and deeply significant in some new way. But looking around at the politely attentive faces, he felt that the story was too familiar. There was nothing here to feed the soul, nothing to reach through all the other cares and preparations vying for attention in the minds of his listeners.
He looked down at his page, at a particularly elegant description of the shepherds on the hillside, and wished that he could sit down and rewrite it, to make it ring true somehow. It was too late for that now, though. Maybe next year, maybe next week, he would think of something better. This would have to do for now. He looked up after what had been a brief, if still a slightly awkward pause, and opened his mouth to begin the next phrase. The congregation, however, went on staring at a silent pastor, because at that moment Helena Freshitt hurried in through the doors at the back of the room and stood staring helplessly at her husband in the pulpit.
“What is it, Helena?” he asked, although he was fairly certain what the problem was. Every eye turned to stare at her, standing in the aisle with her hands clasped awkwardly in front of her red dress.
“I’m so sorry. It’s Jeremy. He ran away again.”
The congregation had been through this too. Pastor Freshitt hardly needed to say anything, before men and women stood up wearily and struggled into their heavy coats a half hour before they had expected to.
“I’m not sure which way he went,” Helena said.
“We’ll look for him,” Mr. Hendrickson said, patting her on the shoulder as he passed her on the way to the door.
“Come with me in my car,” Kitty Daniels offered. “Where’d you leave your coat?”
“Oh, it’s hanging up. And Jeremy’s too.” She was close to tears now, but there was nothing to do but to keep going. They would help find him – again – hopefully before too long. It was so cold outside, and he had only his dress shirt and sweater vest to keep him warm. Jeremy had so little to protect him against the world.
Jacob stood in the pulpit, silently watching his congregation abandon him mid-sermon to scour the streets for his son. He hesitated for a few minutes; he was always more prone to thought than action. He felt that he ought to direct, to take control of the search effort, and yet he abhorred the idea of leaving the pulpit before the service was over. Before long he was looking out at only a handful of people, all of them with hair whiter than the snow outside, if they had any hair left. Except for young Lucy Crawford with her new baby asleep in her lap – she was asleep as well, her head listing to one side.
“Well Pastor,” called out old Mrs. Carr into the waiting silence, her back so bent that she came no higher than his elbow. “We don’t need ya’ here.”
“Oh. Oh yes.” He hurried towards his office, taking off his stole as he went, and pulled his coat on over his surplice. The street had only a handful of people left, still discussing which ways had been left unlooked, and Jacob set off on foot with no clear idea where he was headed. The real danger was Main Street, where the traffic was heaviest, but then there were all those Christmas lights that Jeremy loved – he might head that way. He passed another church building around the corner from his own, still full of people, no doubt deep in a sermon nearly identical to the one that had just been interrupted. He went on in the general direction of the park, peering into driveways and into shadows behind bushes for some sign of his son. Giant flakes of snow were dropping from the sky, making more shadows and playing tricks on his brain, so that he went more slowly, seeing cold and crouching boys everywhere.
He crossed Main Street and looked up and down the sidewalk without any clue which way he should go. So he thought about where he would go, and looked at the park full of spotless snow, and the long shadows of lampposts stretching out across it. He began to walk around the park, looking for movement among the park benches, and had already reached the conclusion that he was not going to be very effective in the search for his own boy, when he came to a set of shuffling tracks. He hurried after them, the soft snow rushing over his dress shoes and freezing his ankles.
He came at last to a park bench in the shadow of a spreading maple, out of sight of the road, and was surprised by what he found there. An older woman, just passed middle age, was standing so that she faced his direction, but she didn’t look up at him as he came. She was not a part of the congregation, but he thought he might have seen her somewhere before. She was dressed in a long coat with a pale scarf over her graying hair, and she was looking down at the park bench, at something there that he couldn’t see. Beside her stood Mark Hadley, who should never have been out in this weather in only a sweatshirt, also staring down at the bench. Jacob thought Mark was supposed to have been in the Christmas play, but he had not noticed his absence until now. Mark gave his pastor a momentary glance, nodded at him, and looked down again. Jacob hurried up to them to see what was on the bench, and there was his son.
Jeremy’s skin was pale and white as death, his eyes closed, his cheek pillowed in his hand. On his back was a pair of wings, tattered looking things on a metal frame, ludicrously large for his narrow shoulders.
“Oh God,” he cried and stretched out his hands, as if he might protect his son from something he couldn’t see. Then he saw the little body rise with a breath, and realized that Jeremy was only asleep. “Thank God,” he said, to those two solemn spectators. He looked at them, and they both looked at him, somewhat bewildered, and not at all concerned at finding his boy alone and underdressed on a park bench. He whipped off his coat and laid it over his son, but he didn’t pick him up yet. He wasn’t sure how to set about the wings, for one thing. He had no idea where they had come from, or how he was going to get them off, or how he would pick up his child without taking them off, so he stood and watched a moment with them. The snow fall was growing less, but an occasional flake still drifted down, and one landed on Jeremy’s cheek and instantly melted.
“How did you find him?” Jacob asked.
“I just came into the park,” Mark said. “I wasn’t really thinking about where I was going.”
“That’s what I did too. But I was looking for ‘em.” the woman said, nodding her chin at the bench. “He could be a real angel, couldn’t he?” Her voice was nearly a whisper. “Poor little lost angel.”
Jacob made an affirmatory noise to this, because his child did look strangely angelic at this moment, in spite of the frayed fabric of the wings and the little cocked bowtie wedged under his chin. “Maybe he is,” Jacob said, a little wondering himself. Jeremy was certainly unlike any human Jacob had ever known, but he had a way of bringing people together, in ways that no one ever expected. “A little lost angel.”
“Mrs. Fontescue,” Mark said, looking up at her with an agitated face. “It’s my fault. I took the wings.”
“You did?” she said, her surprise plain on her face. “What for?” She sounded terribly weak and frail as she spoke.
“I – I didn’t have a costume for the play, at the church, and I thought I could be an angel. But – everybody just laughed. I didn’t mean to take them from you, I just thought it would work out somehow –” he stopped and stared at his sneakers in the snow.
She looked at him a moment and said, “That’s alright. You were trying to do something good. I understand.” Mark looked up at her, surprised, and nodded his head.
“Maybe you could help her with something to make up for it.” Jacob suggested. “Do they – do they go to something?”
“I’ll hang them up for you again,” Mark said, with newfound confidence. “I’ll come tomorrow. Oh –” Tomorrow was Christmas day. Everyone was supposed to be busy on Christmas day. Well, it didn’t matter. “I’ll come tomorrow.”
“That’ll be fine.” And although it hadn’t seemed possible, the woman’s eyes grew a little brighter. “I’ll cook something for you if you like. I’ll make you lunch. I’ll be alone all day tomorrow.” Mark nodded again, but they both went on staring at Jeremy.
A car was pulling up alongside the park, and Jacob recognized the Daniels’ old Ford and waved his arms. His wife emerged from the car and hurried in his direction, clutching the collar of her coat to her throat.
“Oh, Jeremy.” And turning to her husband she said, “Honey, is everything alright? How did he get here?”
“I don’t know. But here he is.” Helena looked to Mark and than Edie for an explanation, but no one seemed to have one. She leaned on her husband’s shoulder and the tears came at last, slipping one by one down her cheek and into her gloves as she wiped them away.
“I’m sorry this happened, Jacob. Tonight of all nights.”
“It’s alright, Sweetheart,” Jacob said, rubbing his wife’s back, trying to think of something to say that would actually mean something.
“I just don’t understand why these things happen. I try so hard, and nothing ever comes out right.”
Mrs. Fontescue’s solemn words returned to him and Jacob said, “We just try to do something good. It’s all we can do sometimes. God makes up for the rest.”
“If this is God making things right –” Helena said, but the ungrateful speech stopped on her lips. She knew she didn’t want to doubt the goodness of God, but she was having a hard time believing in it at the moment.
Jacob looked at Edie, and then Mark, and then his son. “I think it is,” he said. Helena looked at him, still confused, and Jacob was trying to think of a way to explain when Edie said,
“He doesn’t like to tell us what He’s gonna’ do.” They all looked at her wide, childlike eyes, a strange sight in that faded old face. “He likes to surprise us. Makes it more special that way.”
Jacob looked hard at her. He works all things for the good of those who love him, he thought to himself. Two thousand years ago – and right now. For Mark and Edie, for Helena and Jeremy, for a small congregation on a winter night.
“Yes. Yes I suppose it does,” he said. It was time to get back, to get Jeremy home, and to tell the congregation that the search was over.
Everything they had lost had been found.