Mrs. Falciani enjoyed watching the mysterious cloud of light grow and brighten in the western sky as the last tints of silvery dusk sank behind the silhouettes of the houses lined up along her neat suburban street. Night after night she would put down her knitting or her book, turn out the lights in her living room and sit before her open window as crickets chimed their tuneless music and the shape in the sky came into focus, sometimes showing faint but colorful details, sometimes radiating a rich, uniform gold or silver as haze absorbed its subtle hues.
Nobody knew what the thing was. Nobody knew exactly how far out in space it was or whether it would eventually collide with the earth or what the consequences would be if it did. Astronomers had guesses but nothing more.
Nobody knew but everybody talked, their cool considerations or wild speculations flying through the September air like ghosts, soundless and invisible until they were trapped, electrified and displayed on little glowing screens. Mindless natural malice or divine retribution, a warning, a sign, a hoax, a message; these were the suspicions and conjectures fired off into the ether to be captured, torn apart, reassembled as withering refutations and fired back again. Fear quickly defeated wonder and held its own against impassioned indifference as the eyes of the world twitched across two dimensions in the eighteen-inch distance, with few looking up at the light in the west.
Mrs. Falciani was happy to give the apparition at Virgo’s trailing edge the benefit of the doubt. All she really knew was that it was pretty.
One bright Wednesday morning, as she was returning from her daily walk through the park, Mrs. Falciani came across Father Dempsey leaving Mrs. Schrumpf’s house. The old widow was a shut-in and couldn’t make it to Mass, so the parish priest came once a week to give her Communion.
“Good morning, Mrs. Falciani,” beamed the young pastor, who was known to be a bit of an introvert. It was hard for him to take the initiative and greet parishioners “out in the wild,” but Mrs. Falciani was always easy to speak to.
“Father,” she acknowledged with a smile and a little nod. “Father” was young enough to be her grandson, certainly too young to be one of her former high school Latin students. “How is Mrs. Schrumpf?”
“Well, I’ll tell you,” answered the priest. Like many socially unskilled misfits he had a habit of forgoing pleasantries and getting right to the point. “She seemed agitated about something. I don’t know what; she wouldn’t say but it’s like she’s waiting for bad news.”
“The poor thing!” said Mrs. Falciani. “I wonder if dementia is setting in.”
“Could be,” concurred the pastor, “but she seemed sharp enough. She’s even keeping up with that, oh, what do they call it? That thing up in the sky.”
“Yes,” said Father Dempsey. “Apparently it’s headed right for us. Mrs. Schrumpf has its approach all marked down on her calendar.”
“Do you think she’s frightened?” asked Mrs. Falciani. “A lot of people are, you know.”
“But not you,” said the priest, a smile and a twinkle in his eye showing his admiration for his level-headed parishioner.
“I don’t see why… Oh, hello, Mr. Beech!”
Father Dempsey followed her gaze just in time to see a disheveled old man scurry from the porch of a dilapidated red house and through the front door, quick and quiet as a fleeing mouse. He’d heard about the reclusive Arnold Beech but sightings were rare.
“Well,” mused Mrs. Falciani, “I guess that’s progress. It’s only been a couple of months that he’d even come out on the porch. He’s severely agoraphobic.”
“Oh? That is a shame. This is my stop.” He turned to head up the flagstone walk for his visit with Mr. Lutrell, an ex- Marine living with his two daughters and one disability check. “See you Sunday?”
She started across the street to her house but stopped when she heard the pastor call.
“Mrs. Falciani! Just one more thing!”
“What is it, Father?”
“Induite vos arma Dei ut possitis stare adversus insidias diaboli quia non est nobis conluctatio adversus carnem et sanguinem sed adversus principes et potestates adversus mundi rectores tenebrarum harum contra spiritalia nequitiae in caelestibus. That’s Ephesians 6:11 and 12…”
“I know,” she replied. “The armor of God. Why did you say it in Latin?”
“Did I?” The priest shrugged and made a bewildered face. His Latin was almost as bad as his scripture memorization.
The golden warmth of September soon surrendered to the smoky bluster of brightly colored October. Not even the immovable Mr. Beech could resist the lure of tumbling leaves and cool sunsets watched from the precarious perch of his front porch, where he stood exposed to everybody in the world and they to him. Even Mrs. Falciani.
The gentle season of change heralded the approach of the crisp, white beauties of winter, when stars would sparkle like diamonds but the drafts would be cold and the emptiness of the exhausted red house deep and foreboding. Mr. Beech found his attention drawn to the widow across the street but the intrigue and affection she called forth would never fight their way across the moats and through the mazes surrounding his kingdom of personal dread. His every thought was a protective strategy, his every action a distress call to reinforcements. His tender-hearted neighbor could never be more than a dream briefly spied across a mighty, impassable ocean.
Mr. Beech was one of several neighbors on Mrs. Falciani’s list of prayers and concerns. Prayer and the occasional attempt at a friendly greeting, when the stars were properly aligned, were as much as she could offer. Someday he might soften up and consent to be a recipient of freshly baked cookies and bits of neighborhood news but for now all she could do was keep an eye on him and hope for opportunities.
Mrs. Schrumpf kept an eye on him as well.
Everything was hard for Mrs. Schrumpf. Now and then she would totter along behind her walker to the patio out front, lean over the edge and peer through Danton’s giant privet hedge to catch a glimpse of the old recluse during one of his five minute excursions to his porch. It was difficult and usually didn’t pay off.
When she needed to be sure to see him she stayed inside and used other means. That was hard, too.
Her life had not been hard until she decided to make it so by marrying Mr. Schrumpf against all advice, wisdom and good wishes from family, friends and clergy. She knew he was a bad man and that was exciting. She didn’t understand that he was an evil man. That cost her soul.
She didn’t understand the place he came from. That cost her sanity.
Now he’d returned to that place by way of the same natural causes that sent all mortals to heaven or hell, leaving her nothing but the momentum of the ungodly vocation he’d forced upon her.
The shape in the sky was coming again. Sometimes it was invisible when it reached down from space to the surface of the world. Sometimes it camouflaged itself as a hazy ethereal apparition or an especially bright section of the Milky Way. Sometimes it approached boldly, giving plenty of notice to the distracted, benighted creatures of Earth.
Mrs. Schrumpf mumbled to herself as she crossed the bare wood floors of the little house, gathering certain objects to be arranged in patterns narrating the story of the alien phenomenon and paying homage to the forces it answered to. She was ashamed of her work but there was no time to think about that now. The encounter would take place tonight. The shape in the sky would reach down with its quiet, ghostly tentacle to snatch away a man found and marked by its earthly agent and bring him along on its endless journey through the cold void of the cosmos.
Mrs. Schrumpf had found many such “passengers” for the alien visitor. This time she found Arnold Beech.
Expergiscimini, et filia.
Mrs. Falciani opened her eyes and she was wide awake, awash in the cool, satiny radiance of the full moon. Had someone called?
She knew at once that the world was not as it should be. Something was happening across the street. She was in her robe and slippers, moving quickly but carefully through the slanting pools of light and shadow on the stairs when she thought of Mr. Beech. Was it his voice she’d heard?
Outside the sky was brilliant, alive with shimmering, undulating nebulae that made soft, unearthly music as they passed overhead. Nothing else moved or made a sound. She nearly forgot everything as she stood transfixed, seeing and hearing…
The red house across the street stood beneath a showering rain of light, with drops like sparks bouncing slowly from the roof, tapping quietly at the windows. She wanted to stand, watch and wonder but she would not disobey the clear command. She ran, across the deserted street, up the steps to the faded sun-bleached porch, noticing an old, dusty telescope perched on a rickety tripod as she passed. That had never been there before.
Through the open door she went, into the entrance hall which was a dark, unsmiling mirror image of her own. “Mr. Beech!” she called, “Where are you?”
She paused to listen, looking around as she did.
The few possessions owned by the old recluse were carefully arranged in multiples of three and placed in obedience to the pitiless logic of his raging compulsion. She knew everything about him in that instant and her heart was shattered for him. The house was his life, its every detail ordered to protect him from the nameless catastrophe he could never define and never escape.
Ascendit, et filia!
Up she ran, into the darkness, heedless of hidden obstacles. A pencil-line of frosty light guided her to his room.
“Mr. Beech!” she called as she pushed through the door.
Arnold Beech stood backed into the corner next to the mirror on his closet door, his face whiter than the ungodly light wrapping itself around him, his eyes unblinking, the black circle of his open mouth speechless.
“Mr. Beech! Mr. Beech! What’ll I do?” Arnold Beech’s time flew from him like lightning from clouds, like flames from an explosion, drawn faster and faster by the quiet, beautiful light. She didn’t know how or why; she just knew it was so.
“God! What do I do?”
Without a thought she crossed the room and wrapped her arms around him before the thought of shielding him even occurred to her. It was like embracing ice while an arctic wind split itself across her back. It numbed her. It froze her thinking. She couldn’t tell where she was or what she was doing.
She did not let go.
Mr. Beech’s time returned, bring his warmth and color with it. There was nothing strange about the room when Mrs. Falciani came back to herself. There was only moonlight and her neighbor sitting on the edge of his bed, running a trembling hand through his mop of gray hair.
“It was cold,” he said. “There were people in it. Some of them were glad to be there. They liked the cold. I didn’t.”
“Are you all right?” she asked. “Do you need… would you like me to stay with you?”
“Not tonight,” he said distantly. “No. Maybe tomorrow, when the sun is out. Maybe… maybe we can walk to the end of the street.”
She took the risk and gave his hand a little squeeze. She was sure she saw the corners of his mouth rise just a little in the natural light of the full moon.
Discoveries crowded around young Father Dempsey as soon as he was through with his morning prayers. There were the rumors and reports of disappearances around the world. Not many, really, just enough to light up the electronic devotees and keep their fingers busy all day. Still, it was odd.
Next came the sight of Mrs. Falciani walking down the street with a much improved Mr. Beech, possibly hand in hand. By the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes, he thought happily.
His next discovery was not a happy one. A great deal of reflection would be needed to place it in some comprehensible perspective.
When Mrs. Schrumpf didn’t answer her door Father Dempsey had all the concerns one should expect. He was not shocked to find that she had passed away sometime during the night. He wasn’t surprised to recognize that she knew what was coming. It was understandable that she had prepared.
But how she prepared… That was a matter for prayer, deep consideration and a lengthy talk with the Bishop.
Mrs. Schrumpf lay face down on the floor with her hands spread as if in an attitude of worship. It must’ve been excruciating for a woman in her condition. Behind her were the ashes of the calendar on which she’d plotted the approach of the thing in the sky and a number of partially incinerated objects, all of which were vaguely unwholesome.
On the floor in front of the dead woman was her rosary. This was beyond strange; a Catholic with the presence of mind to arrange such a display would certainly want to greet the saints with the sacred object in her hand but Mrs. Schrumpf had laid the string of beads in a straight line with the Crucifix acting as a pointer.
At the end of the line was a Bible opened to the Gospel According to St. John. A photo of her mother and father lay across its pages. The picture was still damp with tears when Father Dempsey found it.
He made the sign of the Cross. He called the police. He prayed for the dead woman but all along he was nagged by the suspicion that all was in vain. She didn’t need his prayers, his intersession or his absolution.
I am the Way, the Truth and the Life…
Father Dempsey could read as well as the next man. Mrs. Schrumpf had turned her back on her old life, made her confession and thrown herself on Christ’s mercy. The Church had nothing to add.
He wondered what dear Mrs. Falciani would say to that.