Trudging through the sand, kicking rocks, I saw the sky is slate metal steel gray – not pretty dove grey, not snow sky grey – but plain old gray, harsh and a little scary. The ocean was dark, roiling and churning, darker than gray, but not quite black. The wind whipped my hair across my eyes, and I thought I saw – but I wasn’t sure – I thought I saw something sparkle in the sand ahead. I quickened my step, and then stopped. Bending down, I knew that this was not something to be picked up and held. Gently I brushed the sand from the surface. It was a shell, scalloped and curving and pink around the edges. It was larger than most shells I had seen in Virginia, bigger than my hand, even with all my fingers outstretched. And in the centre, it was polished to a high gloss. In it, I could see the sky, the clouds scudding past, and my face, barely distorted in reflection. My fingers reached unbidden, and just barely brushed the smooth, warm surface.
Another face appeared in that polished surface – not mine! – and I jumped. I looked quickly over my shoulder. Did someone approach behind me? In this wind, with the roar of the ocean, I would never hear another. But no, nobody was there. I looked back into the shell, and the face was still there. I thought it was a man, but his face was rather lumpy and misshapen. And yet, I could not call him ugly. Homely, perhaps, because in the midst of the lumps and bulges, his eyes sparkled and the corners of his mouth turned up, as though he was trying to conceal a grin. There was beauty to him, hidden behind that mushed-up face.
“Can you see me?” The words tumbled from my mouth, before I could think of something appropriate to say.
“Yes, and I can hear you, too. You have nothing to fear from me.” His voice was as beautiful as, well, as what I could see behind his face. A small sigh escaped my throat, and I had no idea what to say. I was talking to a seashell, on the beach on a February morning, while a nor’easter was approaching. I didn’t know the proper etiquette for this situation.
“Not many find me, though it is not from lack of seeking. Only one who does not seek me can find me. I live here, in the ocean, on the shore, at the boundary between land and sea.” My face must have betrayed my confusion at this, because he sighed and continued. “I’m sure you won’t believe this,” he said, “but I am an angel.” Okay, so this was the first thing that didn’t surprise me about this experience so far. See, I knew that angels were always pictured with great beauty. They were either cute little chubby babies – quite the opposite of the description of a cherub in the sacred texts – or the lovely, serene angels that attend Mary and Joseph in nativity scenes every Christmas. But I also knew that every single time an angel appeared in a story in the bible, the first words he had to speak were, “Don’t be afraid.” For years, I’d longed to see just one artistic depiction of an angel that would have to say “Don’t be afraid.” Just one! But I’d always been disappointed. This guy, though – well, I could see how he might frighten someone. But, I began to think, he’d really only frighten a person who wasn’t really paying attention to what was in front of them.
I could tell he was waiting for a reaction to this statement, so I nodded. Apparently, this was not the reaction he had expected. “I thought you’d laugh at that,” he said.
“No, I believe you,” I replied. “Somehow… you look exactly like an angel should. I never really knew what an angel should look like, but you’re just right.”
The angel grinned. “The power I bring is clarity.” His face curved in a wry grin, or at least, that’s what I thought it rather looked like. “But I don’t know if you need my power. Many seek clarity, but refuse it once it is granted. You have been the first to believe that I’m an angel, without demanding proof.”
I shrugged, not knowing how to respond to this.
“Little one,” he continued. “I have a gift for you. If you choose, you can look here into the surface, and you can see other times and places. I can show you any time within the span of your life, and any place on this earth. You only have to say what you would like to see, and I will show it to you.” I let out a long sigh. This was indeed great power, and could be a tremendous gift of clarity. “Of course, you’ve seen enough movies to know that any future you see may not be the future that comes to pass. The gift of choice granted to you humans is much more powerful than my gift of vision. Now, once you’re watching another time and place, I will still be here, but you cannot see or hear me. Just speak the word Return to come back to here and now, and then you can ask me for another vision or bid me farewell.”
I knelt in silence, in the gritty sand, as my hair whipped about my face. For a moment, I looked out over the dark ocean, into the steel-gray clouds. The air was heavy with anticipation, but there was not yet rain. I bit my bottom lip as I considered the angel’s offer, and then I pulled my jacket closer about me, and I nodded to the angel in the seashell. Okay, an easy one first. “I would like to see me, ten years ago today.”
“As you wish,” said the angel. His homely face melted, and then I saw myself. I was sitting in a cubicle at work. There were lines of COBOL code on the computer screen – and I shuddered at the memory of that tedious project assignment – and as ten-years-ago-me finished reviewing that file, she switched over to email and checked for new messages. I watched the tension in past-me’s body dissolve as she looked over the messages in her inbox. She scanned down the list, and the first one she clicked open had a familiar name on it. Then, it was the name of an online friend. Not somebody I knew terrifically well at the time, but somebody who’d been going through struggles with depression, as I had been, and somebody I cared about and wanted to see happy again. Now… it was the name of my beloved, who was moving in two weeks to marry me and live with me. I watched as ten-years-ago-me closed that message, sat up a little straighter, and clicked on a message with her then-husband’s name on it. Gradually, past-me’s posture grew straighter and tenser, and I could see tears rolling down her cheeks as she tried to stifle sniffs and sobs.
I didn’t need to see any more. I could already feel the tension in my own body from beginning to relive that terrible time. I spoke the word “Return,” and the scene in the shell disappeared abruptly. The angels face melted back into view, and he nodded at the sight of my tight expression and tense body.
The angel asked, “Would you like to see anything else?”
I nodded, not yet quite able to speak. “I would like to see ten years ago today again, but this time, I want to see my beloved. I think he was at university then.”
The angel smiled at me, and said again, “As you wish.” His face melted from view, and was replaced with a room full of computers. I almost chuckled, recognizing the big clunky boxes from ten years ago, with the small screens of the monitors. The room was clearly institutional, a university computer lab. Only two students were in the lab – typical of the morning hours, I remembered from my own college days. One young man, I’d never seen before, and the other… I gasped. I had only seen a couple of photos of my love when he was younger. His face had not developed into the man’s face that I had come to love so much. It was yet unshaped, unmarked by the years and experiences he’d encountered since. I watched as he opened his email and clicked to check his new messages. And I watched as the headers appeared in his inbox, and he relaxed. I saw my name appear on his screen, and just the barest hint of a smile crossed his lips.
I felt my body leaning toward the shell, trying to see more. And as the scene grew clearer, I could see the marks of tears on my love’s cheeks. I could see his hands twisting in his lap as he read the words on the screen in front of him. He managed to be silent, but his face twisted into the attitude of pain that I’d felt on my own face so many times. My heart leapt for him. I’d known at the time that he’d struggled with depression, that he had gone through some miserable times in those years. But to see it on his face — to see my beloved so wracked by pain — I couldn’t take that.
I opened my mouth to speak, but no sound came out. Somehow, I managed to whisper or croak that word, “Return,” and the view of the computer lab turned abruptly to the steel-gray sky behind me. I closed my eyes tightly, as my lips formed the words, “Oh, my love, I am so sorry. I am sorry that it took me so long to know.”
When I opened my eyes again, the angel’s face was back. I saw his eyes closed, but not squinched tight as mine had been. They were closed peacefully, gently, as if in prayer. I felt my hands, clenched tightly around the edges of my jacket at my chest, and a feeling of warmth filled them as they relaxed and released. I felt my shoulders lower, unclench, release. Warmth and peace filled my belly and my heart.
“Did you do that, angel?”
His eyes opened, and he smiled at me. The angel’s pupils had grown huge, and in them, I could see stars twinkling. “Yes. I have a few gifts at my disposal. I could help you release that pain, since it was not yours.” He shook his head at me. “Never take another’s pain and try to make it yours, child. You have your own pain. You do not need his.”
“But… but I love him!”
The angel nodded. “Yes, you do. But his pain is his to bear, and your pain is yours. You know this already. You can do the same for him that I have done for you. You can help him let go of his pain, that is true. But you cannot take his pain from him. If you do, your mind and your body will know it is not yours, and they will let go of it. And it will return to him, but then it will hurt him more because it has been absent. No, child. Let him have his pain. Hold his hand. Give him permission to let go of it. But never try to take it from him.”
I nodded, biting my lip again. A tear slid unbidden down my cheek.
“Would you like to see something happier? I cannot tell you what to see, but I see the hope and promise in you. I know that you can choose a sweeter time to view.”
“Yes, angel,” I said, and then cleared my throat. “I would like to see the future this time. Ten years from today, my beloved.”
“You don’t want to see your own future?” the angel asked.
I shook my head. “I hope – Oh, God, I hope! – that my beloved shares his future with me. But for now, I just want to see that he is happy.”
The angel smiled, his homely face shining and transformed into a visage of great beauty. “As you wish, child. As you wish.”
His face melted away, and I saw my bedroom. I gasped at this, so glad to know that we were together. The curtains were still drawn, though it was late morning. Someone was sleeping in the bed. The door opened, and I saw my love. His golden hair had silver threads in it, and his blue eyes were crystal-clear behind his glasses. He smiled, and his face transformed just as the angel’s had. His eyes shone, full of love, and as he stood in the doorway, the light behind him, and I knew him for what he is.
My beloved is an angel.
He said, “Good morning, sillyhead!” And I saw the woman in the bed sit up.
My voice caught in my throat, and I don’t think any sound came out when I said, “Return.”
The scene melted away, and the last thing I could see was the shining eyes of my beloved before the seashell returned to darkness. The sky behind me was almost black now, and the wind had increased in intensity. The waves were tipped with white foam out as far as I could see, and the breakers were crashing in on the sand much closer than they had been before.
I heard the angel’s voice from the seashell. “Child? Are you still with me?”
I nodded my head, not yet trusting my voice.
“Is there anything else you want to see, child?”
“No, angel. I think I’m done.”
I heard him sigh, and looked back into the shell, into his face. “I do have one other power.”
“I am not limited to only showing you other times and places, child. I can let you go there, if you want.”
I inhaled sharply, held it for a moment, and then let it go slowly, in a long sigh. Oh, the things I could do! I could go back to my life, ten years ago, and give myself advice on how to make it through that depression. I could tell myself that I was not unwanted or unloved, that my life was not hopeless or useless. I could convince myself to escape that marriage sooner – heck, I could advise myself never to get married! Or I could go back to my love, ten years ago, and tell him to have hope, tell him that we would be together. I could go to the future and ask our future selves for advice on how to navigate the coming years.
But… no. No, that would make us different people. I did not want this ability, this power, this gift. Clarity of vision, clarity of thought – that was one thing. Making these changes…? No. I shook my head.
“A wise choice, child,” said the angel. “I do not offer this gift to everyone, only to those who gain clarity from what they see. But those who do ask this of me, I try to dissuade them.”
I looked into his eyes. “Then why do you even offer it, if you try to dissuade them?”
Though I could see only the angel’s face, I could tell that he had shrugged. “That’s just the way it works. I didn’t make the rules, but I do follow them. That’s what angels do. We don’t have the choices you have.”
I smiled at him. “Thank you, angel. This has been an amazing gift.”
“You’re welcome, human.”
I started to stand, to brush the sand from my knees and shins.
“There are a couple more rules you must know.”
The angel sighed, and I could see regret in his shining eyes. “You will never meet me again, child, even if you find this shell. That is unlikely, but you would not be the first to find the shell a second time.”
I nodded. This made sense.
“And now, it’s time to pick up the shell and throw it back into the ocean.”
A sniff surprised me, and a tear rolled down my cheek. A wave of love swept over me, every bit as powerful as the wild breakers crashing on the sand. “Good-bye, angel. Thank you.”
“Good-bye, child. God bless you.”
I leaned back over and scooped up the shell in both hands, letting the sand fall through my fingers. “God bless you, too, angel.” Turning to face the dark, roiling ocean, I drew my arm back and hurled the shell as hard as I could. I watched for a moment, even though I had no hope of seeing the shell again, and then I turned back around. I trudged back to my car, emptied the sand from my shoes, and sat in the driver’s seat just as the first fat raindrops plopped onto the windshield. I closed the door and picked up my cell phone. I held it just for a moment, and then dialed my beloved.
“Hello, love,” I said. “It’s me.”
It was good to hear his voice again. His voice today. His voice full of love for me. His voice, marked by the trials and struggles that had come before. His voice that did not yet know ten years of marriage.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”