We travelled for a long time.  Days, hours, years, none of those things mattered in this spiritual realm.  I had already learned that journeys lasted as long as they were supposed to here, and that time was a tricky concept.  I had already spent fourteen years in the desert, and it never seemed quite that long.  I could not tell you how long we walked along that safe green sward, only that we slept when we had to, ate when we were hungry.

            We walked in silence most of the time.  I didn’t want to interrupt Mara’s thoughts, or interfere with her decision.  Perhaps I was wasting the last few days we would be together, but at the same time I didn’t want to influence her.  It was confusing for me, to feel this need for her, to want her with me, to choose me, to give my life meaning.  But I also knew deep down that her happiness and well-being were even more important to me.  I had to let her be free, to make the choice not for my sake but for her own.

            I have never felt so torn.  I loved her so much, and could not imagine losing her.  But I also could not live with myself if I forced her to pick me, leaving her to wonder what her life might have been like if she hadn’t.  The choice had to be hers.  There were days in the desert where she would fly off to be alone, sometimes for hours, sometimes for what seemed like days. 

Whenever I was alone I could not sleep, and hardly ate the food a silent Raphael brought to me.  We did not speak, but I could see in his eyes that he felt as I did.  Raphael was torn with wanting his daughter at his side, or letting her be free to make her own choice in a world that could be dark and dangerous.

            It was odd, to communicate wordlessly this way.  I think we respected each other, somehow coming to an understanding, but at the same time we both wanted opposing things.  If he got what he wanted, I would lose her, and vice versa.  We both understood what the other felt, and empathized, but could not speak of it to each other.

            As Mara and I walked the green path, it began to grow wider.  Eventually there were more flowers, and then trees.  Soon there were entire forests and rivers, green growth all around us, the path widening to touch the horizons around us.

            “What is this place?”  I asked.

            “We are in a place where faith is not dying, but living.”  Mara said, pointing out what should have been obvious, given my previous experiences of the symbolic nature of this strange reality. 

            “Where in the world is there faith like this?”  I asked.  “I saw so much suffering, so much darkness…”

            “Oh, I think you’ll recognize it when you see it.”  Mara smiled.  We walked a short distance, and she stood under a large tree.  A tree I recognized.

            We were standing in a field, green grass all around us, with hills and more trees in the distance.  But the lone tree she stood under matched exactly my memory of a tree in our yard at the family farm, one that I had learned to climb on as a child visiting my grandfather, years before my parents had moved us into the house.

            “Are we…?”  I couldn’t say it.

            “We’re standing where your home would be, if we were in your world.”  Mara said, holding my hand.  “Your town has kept their faith, all these years.  Your sisters, your parents, neighbours, friends.  Here is a place where God is still worshipped.”

            She sounded proud:  proud of them, proud of where I came from, proud that some humans could resist the dark times that had enveloped the world, I couldn’t tell.  But I was proud of them too, of them for being who they were.  And I was happy to be close to my family, if only in spirit.

            “You’re going to have to make your choice soon, aren’t you?”  I asked.

            “Yes.”  She replied.

            I took her hands in mine, and fought back the tears I could feel welling up in my eyes.  I looked up at her.

            “Mara, I love you.  I have never felt safer in my life, than with you.  Or happier.  There is no place I would rather be than with you.  I have searched for you my whole life, dreamed of what you would be like.  The reality is far better than anything I could have imagined.”

            She kissed me gently, her way of saying thank you.

            “I want you to choose whatever you think is best.  But, Mara, I don’t want you to choose humanity because of me, if that’s what you’ll choose.  I would want you to choose it for yourself.  I don’t know what it would be like to be in Heaven, I’ve never been there.  But it sounds like a place where you won’t be able to choose for yourself who you want to be. 

            “On Earth, as a human, it can be frightening and scary, but it is also a place where you can be free.  If I understand anything about God, then the Lord gave human beings freedom to choose.  Between good and evil, certainly.  But also to choose what to have for lunch, how to dress, what to do for a living, how to have fun, who to be friends with.  All day long you get to make choices about who you want to be.  That much freedom can be confusing.

            “But it can also be wonderful.  Every day is a new choice, you get a new chance to be who you want.  You’ve never had that choice, to figure out who you want to be.  I think that if you choose humanity, it gives you the freedom to be who you want to be.  If you become an angel, you’ll never have had those choices.  And I won’t be with you in Heaven, if I understand anything about this choice.  Humans and angels aren’t the same.  But, if you choose to be human…”  I paused, choking on the words, but needing to say them.

            “If you choose to be human, I think you should go to Earth, by yourself, and figure out what it means to be Mara the woman.  I don’t want to be away from you, but I don’t want to be someone else telling you who you are, either.  I don’t want you to do this for me, I want you to do this for yourself.  I want you to be free, to do whatever you want.  If someday you chose me, that would be the greatest blessing God ever bestowed on me.  But the only humanity you’ve seen is through my eyes, in my life… I want you to have the chance to have your life on your terms.”

            Tears were flowing down my face, it was so hard to say all that.  But I knew loving her meant leaving her free, in every way.  Letting her go.  Loving herself meant finding out who she was, who she wanted to be, and she had never had that opportunity in Heaven.  It broke my heart, but I had to let her know that she came first, not my own selfish need to have her near me.

            Mara’s soft hands rested on my cheeks.  Softly, deftly, her thumbs wiped away my tears, and then she kissed my lips gently.

            “Sometimes we think so much alike it’s scary.” She smiled.  “For days I’ve been trying to figure out what it would be like to be human, because I don’t want to be an angel.  I don’t want to belong with people who would never take me as I am.  But if I became human, I wouldn’t know who I was, it would be so new.  How could I expect you to ‘take me as I am’ when I didn’t know what that would mean?

“Being without you, figuring it out my own way for once, seemed the only answer.  That’s the only way I would know if I could love myself, and then give myself to you.  If that was even the right thing to do.

            “But that was such a scary thought, and I didn’t know how to talk to you about it.  But you know, you feel it too.  It means that it’s the right thing, and that it will all be okay.”

            She hugged me tight.  I held her close, feeling our heartbeats in rhythm together, savouring the sensation of her warm body pressing to mine, feeling her breathe, smelling her hair.  I squeezed tight, and then let her go.

            “Now use your sword, Ethan.  Let it show us the truth.” 

            I drew my blade, shining white, and held it out.  She stepped forward, as strong and brave as always, even with tears in her eyes, and I pierced her with the blade.  I moaned, tears streaming again, and the bright flash of light knocked me to the ground.  There was a wind, but I could see nothing because of the light.  I shaded my eyes, blinking, as the light began to dim.  For a moment I saw a tear in reality, seeing my house beyond the tree, seeing a woman with wings growing shorter, her wings disappearing, and then as the window to the world closed I saw her turn and raise her hand in farewell…

            When the light was gone, I was alone in the desert.

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