Hector lived at the very top of the mountain hidden within a thick forest. He hadn’t seen a single person in 346 days. He looked around his tiny log cabin. Hector kneeled down by his single bed and pulled up the scratchy blanket to see if there were any cans of food that he might have squirreled away. He pulled out several single, worn, neglected socks caked in years of dust. He went over to the cupboard and opened one, then the other. Only dirt and a few pantry moths flittered around. He sat down on the lone chair. There was one jar, on the rough wooden table that he had built with his own hands from the trees right outside his door. Hector picked up the jar of dried cranberries and shook it. There were just a few stuck to the bottom of the jar. The only remaining nourishment left. He pulled a spoon out of his pocket and dug the cranberries out of the jar. He savoured them as he rolled them around on his tongue. They weren’t enough to calm his growling belly. The truth seeped in through the walls of his tiny cabin. He felt it sink into the marrow of his bones. He would have to make the three-hour trek into the village. He would have to replenish his supplies.
Hector laced up his leather hiking boots. Each boot had a hole worn through the toe. He put on his overcoat and a cap that hid his scar. Hector trudged over to the only photo on his wall and took it down. He pulled on the latch in the wall and opened the compartment. He pulled out the wooden box. It had been a very long time. He hadn’t looked inside the box since his last visit to town. There had been no need. But now, he counted the coins and stuffed half of them in his pocket.
The trail was so overgrown that he could hardly make out the proper direction. Blackberry bushes and stinging nettles brushed his arms and left scratch marks on his hands. He checked the location of the sun and wondered if he would be able to get to the village and back home again by nightfall. It would be possible to sleep somewhere in the village instead of risking getting caught in the woods at dark. Possible but not preferable. Definitely not preferable.
Hector saw it. The village. A wave of fear engulfed him. Followed by a wave of sadness. The growl in his belly grew loud. With raw determination, he pressed on through the brambles and entered the clearing. He paused to brush himself off. To leave the telltale signs of the forest behind him.
Hector felt in his pocket. No coins. He felt in the other one. Nothing. He thought hard and turned to look behind him. He willed the coins to reappear. Nothing. He looked toward the village. Then he panicked.
He continued on and struggled to come up with a plan. Stealing was a possibility. Or he could offer to help a farmer in exchange for some food. He was strong after all. Able to do a hard day’s work. As long as he wasn’t asked any questions. He hated folks prying into his business. That’s how this whole
thing had started. Prying folks. Couldn’t keep their wandering questions to themselves. “Hey, mister. Where you from?” Hector spun around to see a girl and a boy, maybe about eight years old, each of them. It was the boy that had spoken. He had sage green eyes and sprinkle of freckles across his nose. The girl had deep brown eyes, the kind that could hypnotize an unsuspecting person.
“Just passing through,” Hector said, trying to sound as casual as possible. “To where?” the girl asked. “None o’ yer concern,” Hector said, wishing that these two would leave him be.
“You look like you could be lost,” the boy said. “Did you need some help finding your way anywhere?”
“Didn’t yer folks tell ya not to talk to strangers?” Hector replied, in hopes that they would get the hint and be on their way. “Nope,” the girl said. “We were told to help strangers,” the boy said, “’cause you never know if you might be entertaining an angel.”
“Are you an angel, mister?” the girl asked. “You don’t look like one, but maybe you are just dressed up like a homeless person, just to test us to see if we can be nice to a stranger.”
“Ya, I’m an angel,” Hector said. “That’s the honest truth.” He hoped that this would be enough to send them on their way. “No way!” the boy said. “Wow,” the girl said, her mouth wide open, gaping at him. “Mister angel, you have to come home with us and meet our ma and pa. My name is Timothy. But you probably already knew that because you are an angel and you know everything.”
“And I am Isabella. I bet you knew that too. We’ve never met a real live angel before.”
“Well now ya have, and ya best be on yer way,” Hector said, gesturing them away with his dirt-caked hand.
“You can take off your costume now,” Isabella said. “We know that you don’t really look that way if you’re an angel.”
“Where do you hide your wings, Mister angel?” Timothy asked. “That coat doesn’t seem big enough to pack wings under.”
“I take ’em off,” Hector said, growing weary of the questions. He strode away with the two kids trailing behind, hopeful that they would leave once they had their questions answered.
“Whoa! No way!” Timothy said. “Hey, Mister angel, come to our house for lunch. Ma is making stew and she will be surprised that we found an angel in the woods.” “No …” Hector began. “You have to come. If you don’t, they will never believe it,” Isabella pleaded.
“Well … all right,” Hector agreed as he realized that this was an easy ticket to a free meal. He only had to humour these kids and their parents for a short time to get a full belly and be on his way.
“This way. Follow us.” Timothy made his way, with Isabella following.
“If you are an angel,” started Isabella, “ish that like a fairy godmother? Do you give wishes too?” Timothy stopped and both kids stared at Hector. Hector felt the sensation of blood rising to his cheeks, which he had not experienced in a very long time. “No, I don’t give no wishes,” he announced. “That’s too bad.” Isabella let out a sigh as the twinkle in her
eye disappeared entirely.
“That’s OK, Mister angel,” Timothy said. “I know that angels and fairy godmothers are two totally different kinds of beings. It’s not your fault that you can’t give people their wishes.” “It’s a shame, though,” Isabella added. “We’re almost there,” Timothy said, rounding a corner and heading down toward an old stone house. “Ma and pa will be so excited!” Isabella said. Hector was starting to wonder if he should turn around, when a woman ran out of the stone house.
“Timothy and Isabella!” she scolded with her hands on her hips. “Where have you been? I expected you home almost an hour ago.” “Ma, sorry we’re late,” Timothy replied, “but we found an angel.” “He’s coming to have lunch with us, Ma,” Isabella added. Ma looked Hector up and down, disapproval marking her gaze. “He doesn’t look like an angel,” Ma said slowly. “That’s because he’s wearing his hobo costume today,” Isabella said.
“How do ya do, Miss,” Hector managed to get out. He could smell the savoury stew wafting from the open doorway. Hector managed a small bow, trying to look as civilized as possible.
“Your pa wasn’t expecting any company,” Ma said, “and neither was I.”
“Ma, you are supposed to be polite to angels,” Timothy whispered to his mom.
Ma frowned and gave Hector another once-over. “Fine. Do you have a name? Gabriel?” she asked with a slight tone of suspicion.
“Hector, ma’am. Pleased to make yer acquaintance.”
“Hector.” Ma rolled the name around on her tongue. “That sounds familiar.”
Hector swallowed hard. He hadn’t thought to use a phony name. “Maybe I should be goin’,” he said. “No, come inside for lunch,” Ma said. “I insist.” Hector followed the kids’ mom, and as they walked through the entrance, a black and white cat dreamily looked up at him. The cat was curled up on a soft blanket by the fireplace. The sun shone through the living room window. The crocheted cover on the sofa reminded Hector of years long past at his grandmother’s home. He had spent much of his childhood there. He had sat on his grandmother’s lap as a toddler. Hector noticed the photos and paintings adorning the walls. He followed Ma into the kitchen and passed by the well-stocked pantry. There was a full jar of cookies on the kitchen counter with a large bowl of fruit beside it. If only this was his home. Food. Warmth. Family. Things he didn’t have anymore.
Pa sat at a large wooden table that looked like it belonged in a medieval castle. “Who’s this?” Pa asked. “The kids brought someone for lunch,” Ma replied. “Mister Hector is an angel, Pa” Isabella exclaimed, tugging on Hector’s sleeve to show him off as though he was a huge stuffed animal that she had won at a fair.
“Pleased to meet ya,” Hector said, growing tired of the angel charade and wishing that he could just take a bowl of stew and go. “An angel?” Pa inquired. Ma plopped a bowl of stew on the table along with two thick slices of freshly baked sourdough bread. “Yes, an angel.” She addressed Pa with a wink. “Sit down here, Hector, and have some lunch.”
Timothy and Isabella sat across from Hector as he slurped his stew and chewed with his mouth mostly open.
“I guess angels don’t have to have manners,” Isabella said, dabbing her mouth with her napkin. “Isabella, don’t be rude,” Ma scolded. “It’s OK, ma’am” Hector said as he grabbed a napkin. “Are you from these parts?” Pa asked as he stared at Hector’s long beard. “Just passin’ through.” “Where you going to?” Timothy asked. “Just have to get food and go back to my home,” Hector said. “You need to take food back to heaven?” Isabella asked with wide eyes.
“Sometimes we run out of food there,” Hector said, aware that he was walking a tightrope between the kids’ expectations and the parents’ suspicions.
“We can give you food,” Timothy said. “Lots of it! Pa just came back from the village with food.” Pa was silent. He looked over at Ma. “We could probably arrange to send a few items home with you,” Ma said. “That wouldn’t be needed, ma’am,” Hector started. “We insist,” Isabella said, running over to the pantry. She read out the labels on the containers. “How about rice, and beans, and dried apricots? Do they need those all in heaven?”
Hector looked over at Pa and Ma. “That would be mighty sweet of ya.”
Ma went over and made up a big package of food for Hector. “Timothy, go get a bag to put all this in so that Mister Hector can carry it with him.”
“OK, Ma.” Timothy disappeared and reappeared with a burlap bag.
Pa slowly formulated his words. “I heard of a man named Hector a few years back. He lost his wife and son when the river flooded. Terrible storm. Horrible tragedy.”
Hector swallowed hard, the stew turning to lead in his gut. “That’s a sad story, sir.”
“That’s not exactly lunch conversation.” Ma wrinkled her nose at her husband. She put all the items inside and presented the bag to Hector. “We wish you well.”
Hector grabbed the burlap sack. “Why thanks, ma’am.” He turned to leave. “Mister angel,” Isabella started, “come back and visit us.” Hector paused. “I don’t know … Well … if ya kids behave yerselves, I just might come back and grant ye a wish.”
Hector made his way up the bramble trail. His pack was heavy and the blackberry bushes scraped his skin, but he hardly noticed it this time. Lost in the past. The past that he had tried to push back with all his might. It came in like a monsoon. Pelting him with memories. So many memories. Tiny hands in his. Then gone. A woman to care for that was no more. Hot tears carved their way into his weather-hardened cheeks. Tears that had never come. Hector cried out in agony. The trees witnessed his pain. He found his way to the tiny cabin, exhausted. He fell on his bed.
One lone photo gazed down at him. His wife and young son. Taken away. Stolen from him. He gingerly took down the photo and cradled it as though it was a newborn child. He rubbed at his scar. The angry reminder of how he had tried to save them and failed. He had failed his family.
Something in him let go. Let go of the pain. Let go of the disbelief that it had happened. They were gone, and he would have to go on.
A knock at the door. Hector turned in shock to look, as though he had been sucked through a portal from another land. A knock. No one ever came. No one ever knocked. Here. In the woods. He wiped his eyes with his dirty sleeves and opened the door slowly. Two children. One with freckles. One with soft brown eyes. “Mister angel,” Isabella said, “you forgot to take this with you.” She held out a ragged overcoat as if it was a royal robe. “Yah,” Timothy said. “You don’t want to be catching a cold.” “How did ya kids get up here?” Hector managed to squeak out. “We just followed you,” Timothy said. Isabella held out a bouquet of wildflowers. “These are for you, Mister angel.” Hector reached out for the flowers. “Thank ye, little missy.” “You are welcome,” Isabella responded in a sing-song voice, swaying back and forth with pride.
“Pa says that he would like it if you come and have lunch with us every Sunday,” Timothy announced. “He said that he would like to see an angel at his table regularly.”
“Yah, Mister angel,” Isabella exclaimed. “We all want you to come back.”
“And tomorrow is Sunday,” Timothy added, as though he was issuing a royal decree.
Hector stared at the floor. He looked around his cabin. “I don’t have nothin’ to bring to share with such fine folks.” “Just bring yourself,” Isabella said. “We got to get back home now,” Timothy said.
“See you tomorrow, Mister Hector.” The two of them waltzed out of his cabin, leaving the door wide open. He watched them skip down toward the trail.
Hector sat on his bed. It was all too much for one day. He looked over at the photo. The heaviness had lifted. Perhaps it was OK to move on. To say goodbye. To go on living.
Hector awoke the next morning. He had an invitation. His presence had been requested. Just maybe he would go. Maybe this would be a new start. He rustled through his drawer of odds and ends to find something he hadn’t used in a long time. There had been no need. A comb. He would comb his hair and go to lunch.
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