I furrowed my brow in concealed anguish as I looked into his eyes.
He lay underneath a pile of rubble that had fallen on him when the missile hit the children’s home, a home he spent much of his life building. I could sense his pain coming off of him in waves as his bloodied body started growing cold and pale. Tears tracked his dusty cheeks, all the while thinking this is all my fault, this is all my fault.
I finally raised the veil that made it impossible for him to see me and noticed him take a sharp intake of breath.
“Who are you? Have you come to take me to the other side?” He asked in a fearful tone.
“Fortunately for you, no. You still have some time left, I think. At any rate, your work isn’t done yet,” I said as I squatted next to him and tentatively tucked my hair under my ears, a habit that has never left me for two thousand years.
“What work? This is my work,” he gestured around the destroyed building with his head, tears glistening in his eyes, threatening to spill over any moment. He continued bitterly, “This is my life, if this building ends then so should I, rather fitting don’t you think?” He paused for a dry laugh, “There are ten children who are beneath this pile of dust and stones, most likely dead. I didn’t get here in time to save them, so why should I live when their deaths are on me?”
I closed my eyes and held back the grief that wanted to burst out. It wasn’t just his pain I could sense, it was the pain of everyone in that city. The women, children, soldiers on both sides of the fight. There was no real winner here. I took a deep breath and asked, “What is your name?”
“Mubarak, Azeez Mubarak,” he answered.
“Azeez, what is your biggest failure?”
“Not being able to take everyone’s pain away. Ever since the war started, I have tried to make people happy, make them forget, you know? But as you can see, my plan wasn’t successful.”
He was losing blood, I was losing him. I needed to act fast, time wasn’t on my side.
“Listen Azeez, I don’t have much time. I’m here to help you, only if you’ll let me. I’d like to give you a second chance in taking people’s pain away and making them happy again. That’s what you want right?”
“Yes,” he replied painfully.
“Then take my hand,” I said as I opened it. He struggled to lift his arm, but as soon as we made contact we vanished from the scene…
Rio de Janeiro, 1995.
I entered into the dark alley and found her crying her eyes out.
Her hair was dishevelled and her right eye was bruised, as if someone had punched her. Someone did punch her. I made myself visible and heard a slight scream coming from her the moment she saw me. Raising my hands as a sign of showing I had no hostile intentions, my lips curved into a kind smile that immediately let her guard down. She sniffed and asked in a broken voice, “Who are you?”
“I’m nobody at the moment, but I will be somebody to you, assuming you’d like to know me as a friend and as a sister.”
The word ‘sister’ seemed to trigger some more pain in her soul, which resulted in a fresh supply of tears trickling down her face. She had one of the most beautiful pair of green eyes I had ever seen. If things had gone the way she had wanted them to, and had fortune been by her side, she would have been an entirely different person, a happy person. “What causes you so much distress? What happened?” I asked as I gently stroked her hair and made it neat again.
“I demanded payment after…offering my services. I got a black eye instead,” she said as she pointed to the bruise on her face. She remained silent for a while, but then she continued, “You must understand, I never wanted any of this. I came to the city from my village so that I could try out my luck, but things didn’t go very well for me. I started working in a soda factory, the pay was too low to even send some money back home. Soon I quit my job and started singing in local bars, waiting for my big break. I thought I got it, but it turns out I was being used. My foolishness led me to do things that I thought was right at the time. After being dumped on the streets, I realised I had no dignity left in me, so I turned to the one thing I never dreamed of doing,” she paused, clearly struggling to hold back her tears. Once she regained her composure, she resumed, “All the things I have done, all the things I am doing is because of my little sister Maria, and our grandmother. My dream is to give them a good life where Maria can go to school, get a good job and live happily. The last thing I want is for her to end up like me. I’m willing to handle all the pain and humiliation that comes with this job, as long as she won’t go through it.”
This declaration of love and sacrifice made me give her the sweetest and warmest smile I had ever given anyone in a long time. Then I asked, “What is your name?”
“Sweet Consuelo, what is your greatest desire?”
“Aside from making my family happy? It’s to help people. The work that I’m doing right now made me discover that there are people out there who are going through worse than me. If I could, I’d become a lawyer and defend those who are helpless,” she replied as her face lit up with passion.
“Well, then I have a way of helping the helpless and I’ll show you, only if you’ll let me. Just take my hand.”
She raise her hand and was about to hold mine, but she hesitated, “What about Maria? And my grandmother?”
“I’ll ensure that Maria has a bright future ahead of her. You don’t have to worry about a thing,” I returned with a reassuring smile.
Realising she had nothing else to live for, she took my hand and we vanished from the scene…
I could hear the horse-drawn carriages rumble over the cobbled streets.
I was standing in one of the corners of his study, away from the light of the fire that was slowly burning in the fireplace, concealed in darkness. His maid was fussing over him, asking whether he needed anything else aside from the tea and biscuits he requested. “Wha’ abou’ ’em lam’ chops ya like so much Mister ‘Ardy. Yer ‘ar’ly eatin’ anything! Come now, let me fix something nice for ya. Won’t be long!”
The old man bowed his head in submission and sighed, “Very well Emily, at least I should have a decent meal I suppose.”
Emily’s curly red hair bounced as she clapped her hands in delight, then bounded out of the room and left the old man on his own. He shook his white head and had a ghost of a smile. I could taste the pain of sorrow and regret exuding from his self in waves. Some seconds later, I stepped into the light and made myself visible. No sense of shock or surprise registered on his ancient face.
“You don’t seem surprised to see me,” I stated rather curiously.
“Well, my dear, when you have been a writer for as long as I have, and seen as much as I did, then a beautiful and mysterious lady appearing out of nowhere in the middle of a study tends to be at the bottom of the list of things that should scare you,” he replied humorously, then he added, “Please have a seat,” as he gestured at an armchair that was beside his next to the fireplace. “Tea?” He inquired, but I shook my head, the last time I ate was….I can’t even recall properly when I last ate.
“So, how may I help you, Miss…”
“Helen, call me Helen.”
“Miss Helen, what an exotic accent you have. Is it Spanish? Or Greek?”
“You’ll know in due time, but for now I have come to you with a proposition. However, before I tell you what it is, answer me this: what causes you so much pain and regret?” I asked, intently studying his face. His cup froze midway between his mouth and the saucer he was holding, clearly unsettled.
He closed his eyes for a few seconds, then set his cup and saucer on a small table that was between us. His gaze fell on the fire that crackled and burned, lending his face an eerie glow. He remained mute for a long time, then he began, “I have been a writer for nigh sixty years now. I started with the intention of it being a medium through which change can be exacted, but somewhere along the way I lost sight, and used it for monetary gains and popularity instead. By the time reality struck a blow, I was old, weary, and unable to do what I initially wanted to do, that is, to help people and make this world a better place. I look at the wealth I have accumulated, the books I have authored, the friends I have made, and I realise now, too late, that it was a pointless endeavour. So you ask me why I feel pain and regret? This is why.”
He took a biscuit and chewed it slowly, all the time gazing thoughtfully in the fire. I then said, “My proposition for you is a second chance, a chance at doing what you initially set out to do as a young man. You’ll be able to help people, make this world a better place.” He stopped chewing and turned towards me, a spark of hope ignited in those pale-grey eyes.
“But I am old, I have little time left.”
“If you join me, time will be mostly irrelevant. It will not affect you the way it affects normal mortals.”
“Normal mortals, eh?” He frowned in contemplation. “I suppose I have nothing else to live for. I neither have a wife nor children, nor any next of kin for that matter. My wealth, I have bequeathed it to my maid, Emily, and her family, though she doesn’t know it yet. Imagine her surprise when she finds out! Which makes me think I should write a suicide note, in case people will think of looking for me.”
It took him a couple of minutes. “I believe everything is in order?” I queried after he finished writing his fake suicide note. He nodded in the affirmative. “Then let’s get to it Mister…”
“Hardy, Charles Hardy.”
“Take my hand, dear Charles. The greatest adventure you’ll never write awaits you.”
He took my hand and we vanished from the scene…
Rome, 2 BC.
The stranger looked at me with a calculating stare.
He was wearing a black, hooded cloak that covered his entire body, although I could see some white of his tunic underneath. His tall, muscular frame, bald head and thick, white beard made him an imposing figure. The most striking feature that I observed were his eyes. They were as black as the darkest night that usually comes before dawn. It was impossible to distinguish between his pupil and iris. I couldn’t manage to hold my gaze for three seconds without looking away. Something sorrowful was locked in those eyes, it’s weight I could not bear.
He twisted his face in brooding as he looked at the sea that stretched in front of the cliff we stood on. A few moments later his face relaxed, muttered unintelligibly under his breath and said in a gruff voice, “Of course it’s you, all the signs I have been shown prove that you are the one to take my place. I see that now.”
Needless to say, I was puzzled. I brought my confusions to light and he gave me a look that translated to “isn’t it obvious?”
“What?” I exclaimed in exasperation.
“The fact that you saw me walking in the market is the clearest indication-”
“You’re being vague,” I snapped.
“Let me finish. The fact that you saw me in the market is the clearest indication that you are the one to take my place. Helen, no ordinary human being can see me, unless I show myself, but you managed to do it without any influence on my part. The last person who did that was me, and that was almost two thousand years ago.”
I was still confused. He realised that. He chuckled heartily and continued, “I always have trouble explaining myself sometimes, but answer me this: what do you see when you look into my eyes? Be brave and don’t turn away this time.”
I looked into those obsidian eyes with purpose, and soon my surroundings changed to a swirling tornado of black. Sounds of miserable lamentations, images of teary eyes and broken hearts threatened to overwhelm me. My throat felt constricted and I could feel this asphyxiating sensation burn my lungs. I suddenly screamed until the sun was up again and the roaring voice of the sea flooded my ears. I was breathing heavily, eyes bright with tears while I clutched at the strange man’s arm. He looked at me kindly and sat me down on the grass. I was too shocked to speak, it was only after a long while that I had finally gotten my breath back, and I asked, “What was that?”
“I’ll answer that in a short moment. However, I have another question for you: why?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why are you doing it?”
It was after his second asking that I finally understood what he meant. It was my turn to frown at the sea in contemplation this time. “I started doing it after my husband died in the war with the Persians. He was just a foot soldier, but a brilliant one. I had no doubts about him rising in rank over the years, but his life was cut short. We had just gotten married, we didn’t even get the chance to start a family. I was barely twenty-one at the time. I didn’t know what to do, I felt like my life was over before it even began.
“But I came to the realisation that I wasn’t the only one who had lost a loved one. So I started visiting my fellow women, giving them words of comfort. For ten years I have been doing it, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but the one thing I realised is that there are a whole lot of people who are carrying burdens that are worse than yours. As long as you keep that in mind, you’ll be grateful and also have this desire to seek those less fortunate than you and help them in whatever way you can.”
He remained silent the whole time, barely making an effort to conceal his delight. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t impressed. But I already knew why you were doing it, I just wanted to hear it from you,” he said as he nodded in approval while smiling. “Anyway, to answer your question, what you saw a while ago was an accumulation of all the pain and grief of tortured souls past and present. It’s over a millenia’s worth of tragedies, based on words they never said to their loved ones, and never will. Granted, I do have helpers who assist me in this activity, though they answer to me because I’m the one who chooses them.”
“Who exactly are you people?”
“I’m what you described yourself to be, the taker of people’s pain.”
“You’re still being vague.”
“With good reason. I can’t overload you with information, it’ll be too much for your comprehension. Listen, my time is almost up in this world, I’ve lived long enough anyway. The only question that remains now is: will you join me? I can tell that deep down you just want to make people happy by bearing their burdens. This job is exactly that; bearing people’s burdens, burdens that they find impossible to bear by themselves. I believe you’re the only one who’ll be able to lead, after you’ve received proper training of course.”
This prospect excited me. “What do I do?” I asked, thinly veiling my elation.
“Just take my hand and we shall begin.”
I took his hand and we vanished from the scene…