A ray of hope flickers in the sky
A tiny star lights up way up high
All across the land, dawns a brand new morn
This comes to pass when a child is born
Johnny Mathis, When A Child Is Born
Snow had been falling most of the day, covering the city in white. Cars moved more slowly than usual, their wheels churning up fresh snow with a swooshing sound. The blanket of snow covered a multitude of sins. The litter that usually lined the streets had become invisible. Store fronts that looked shabby in sunlight or rain were transformed into bright niches of colour in the darkness. But there remained signs of the harsh city. Between the bright store fronts were others that had been boarded up and abandoned, some with obscene graffiti scrawled across the security screens. A homeless man huddled in a doorway, a three-day old newspaper covering his legs and a paper-wrapped bottle at his side. Footprints and scuff-marks in the snow near him were silent evidence of a street-fight.
Caitlin Priest, known to a select few as the angel Zerachiel, trudged slowly through the snow-filled street, her boots gathering ice with each step she took. She wore blue jeans and a light jacket over a cotton blouse: summer-wear to most people, but she didn’t feel the cold. She did have a wool scarf, her only concession to the winter, but she wore that only because it had been a gift. She could have flown to her destination and avoided even the minor inconvenience of ice gathering on her boots, but this was a good night to be human. It was Christmas Eve.
Caitlin felt such conflict in the humans around her about this holiday. Some clearly resented the holiday trappings and traditions: the tinsel and holly wreaths decorating the offices of the police department, the office party and gift-giving. Others seemed to be unhappy and Caitlin didn’t understand why they struggled so hard to appear “jolly”. But others were genuinely happy. Riley and Gillian were enjoying their first Christmas together as a couple. They had invited Caitlin to spend Christmas Eve with them. They shared wine and music and conversation and Gillian had given her this scarf as a Christmas gift. Caitlin felt warmed by their love for each other. But she also knew when to leave; the lovers wanted to be alone together and they deserved it.
The mass was just beginning as Caitlin slipped into the rear of the church. The high, sweet voice of a choirboy singing Once In Royal David’s City filled the air. The church was about half-full: a larger congregation than usual. Caitlin seated herself in an empty pew, behind a pillar so most people would not see her there. She had a human body now so didn’t have to struggle to conceal her true, angelic nature; even so, she was careful. Christmas Eve could be very special.
She wasn’t in the church to worship, not exactly. She was there to bask in the worship of others. The midnight mass was a familiar ritual. Caitlin knew which hymns would be sung, and in what order. She knew which Bible verses would be read. She could even make a fair guess at the content of the sermon. So following the service took little effort on her part. For the first time that week, Caitlin allowed herself to relax. She almost fell asleep.
When the majestic climax of O Come All Ye Faithful resonated through the church, Caitlin opened her eyes. Two rows in front of her, a little girl, three or perhaps four years old, sat beside her mother, craning her head to stare at Caitlin instead of facing front. The child wore a bright red coat and her curly black hair was tied into two puffy pigtails. The expression on her face made it clear that she’d seen something in Caitlin. But Caitlin knew the child would never tell. Children never did. Who would believe her anyway? Mommy, I saw an angel in church. No one else had seen whatever the girl observed.
Caitlin smiled at the child. When their eyes met, she got a quick flash of the little girl’s life. She saw a tiny apartment with tinsel and paper streamers covering up the peeling wallpaper and damp. There was a heavily-built man asleep in a chair. Near his feet, the little girl played with a rag doll someone had made for her. She giggled at something she imagined the doll said and hugged it close. That was all Caitlin saw, but it was enough. The child was luckier than many in the city: she had two parents, she was not starved or abused, but still she lived in poverty. Her life would not be easy, but Caitlin thought that with the right help, the right chances, this little girl had the potential to become someone very special.
The child’s answering smile was shy at first, then became a wide smile of joy. The congregants were beginning to rise, to file out of the Church. The little girl tugged on her mother’s arm, eager to leave. It was very late for a child her age to be up; she must be tired, but she was so well behaved. Caitlin stood, adjusting her scarf as she prepared to leave. She glanced back to the child and saw her mother stand up, her movements awkward. Caitlin wondered if she might be injured or disabled. When the woman turned she saw that she was very pregnant and that was the source of her awkwardness. She must be very close to giving birth. Caitlin hung back while the two of them edged out of the pew to join the crowd shuffling out of the church. She followed, a little concerned for the mother.
The snow was still falling, though not so heavily now. The combination of snow and the darkness would make driving difficult and Caitlin hoped the woman lived near enough to walk home. The little girl clung tightly to her mommy’s hand as they walked, slowly, through the snow. It was deep enough to give the child trouble.
Caitlin decided. She quickened her pace, approaching the mother and child.
“You look like you’re struggling there,” she said with a cheerful smile. “Can I help? Do you live nearby?”
The woman gave her a wary look, drawing her daughter in against her side. Her concern didn’t surprise Caitlin, not in this neighbourhood. It wasn’t No Man’s Land, but it wasn’t the safest part of the city, either.
Caitlin took her shield from her pocket. “I saw you in church. You can trust me, ma’am. My name is Detective Priest.”
The woman’s worried expression cleared. “We live in Scanlon heights. I’m Maya Holt.” She glanced down at her daughter. “This is Angela.”
Scanlon Heights was a high rise a few blocks away. It was further away than Caitlin had expected. She crouched down to speak to the girl, opening her arms. “Angela is a lovely name. So, little angel, why don’t I carry you home?”
Angela looked shy again, but she allowed Caitlin to lift her up. She settled the child on her hip and then offered her arm to Maya. “You can lean on me if you need to.”
“Thank you.” Maya took Caitlin’s arm, but she didn’t appear to need support, just a little help with her balance.
They continued on their slow progress through the streets, Maya making small talk as they walked. It was only a few blocks, but Maya could not move very fast. Caitlin wondered why she had been in church tonight. She understood that Maya was a devout woman, and attending midnight mass had been important to her. Still, it couldn’t have been comfortable for her, and being on these streets alone, after midnight, was far from safe.
Maya’s grip on Caitlin’s arm tightened abruptly. Caitlin had just been thinking that the streets were unsafe so her first thought was danger! She looked around sharply, seeking whatever threat Maya had seen. Then she realised Maya was fighting pain, and the danger wasn’t coming from outside at all.
“We’re almost there,” Caitlin assured her. “Do you have someone at home to help you?”
Maya shook her head. “Only my husband, and he’s...” she trailed off.
Caitlin understood. Some men could deal with this kind of thing, others simply weren’t equipped, or didn’t care. But the last time Caitlin attended a birth was two millennia before. She was probably a little rusty on how to help a woman in labour. She glanced down at the child she held. Angela looked back at her, her dark eyes trusting and solemn.
Caitlin smiled at her. “Can you ride piggy-back?” she asked, “and hang on really tight?”
Caitlin hoisted the girl up to her shoulders and showed her how to hold on. Then she turned to Maya, holding out her arms. “Come. I’ll carry you to the hospital.”
Maya, of course, looked confused, but Caitlin didn’t explain. She simply took the woman into her arms, spread her wings and flew.
All that night, Caitlin waited in a hospital corridor with little Angela asleep in her lap. She tried to contact Maya’s husband, but they had no telephone and Caitlin didn’t want to leave the little girl. The best she could do was to phone the police station and ask for an officer to knock on his door. Caitlin no longer thought she had encountered these people at the church by chance. Something deeper was happening. Caitlin was meant to help this family. So she stayed, protecting little Angela while Maya couldn’t.
It was almost five in the morning when Angela’s brother was born. Caitlin let the girl sleep while the nurses did what nurses do and moved mother and baby to a different room. She woke Angela then, and took her to see her mommy.
Maya sat up in the hospital bed, the baby in her arms. She managed a tired smile as Caitlin lifted Angela onto the bed. “Come and meet your new brother,” she invited, opening the blanket a little to reveal the baby’s face.
He was so tiny! So delicate. Caitlin was entranced by the baby’s tiny eyelashes. The boy looked plump and healthy.
Maya looked up at Caitlin. “Miracles happen at Christmas,” she said quietly.
Caitlin smiled, still gazing at the baby. “Yes, they do,” she agreed.
Maya understood her. “Thank you,” she said.
“God bless you, Maya,” Caitlin offered, “and your children.” She watched Angela snuggle into her mother’s side. “I have to leave you now.”
“Thank you,” Maya said again.
Some time during the night, the snow had stopped falling. The sky was clear, slowly changing from the black of night to the deep blue of morning twilight. Caitlin Priest walked out of the hospital on Christmas morning, her boots breaking through the thin crust of ice that topped the snow.
Miracles happen at Christmas.
She looked back at the hospital, just once, before the turned toward her home. In the sky above, a single bright star shone in the blue velvet sky.
~ End ~