The priest stood knee-deep in the shallow water of the bay, watching his town burn. He’d been awakened by the guns at dawn, forced to flee soon after. It was late afternoon but still they blazed on, though the siege had long since descended into lunatic rage. His small village was surrendered and abandoned. It offered no more targets to flatten. The steeple of his church had been the last to go, crumpling at noon. He had raised his arms as if he could enfold it and felt the bells convulse in his chest as they dropped.
Nature had fled at the first volley; the foxes and rabbits and deer from the woods, the birds from the marsh, the fish from the shore. The townsfolk soon followed, crowding onto fishing boats or wandering away down the narrow beach toward the distant point. Even the sea had pulled back so that the usually boisterous harbor lay flat, its waters tepid and oily around his legs. Just when he felt he was utterly alone, he saw a white crane emerge from the smoke rolling over the mire. It advanced with slow, deliberate steps, and studied the water before it intently, indifferent to the blasts, the brown clouds and the yellow heat.
A wayward shell flew out of the smoke, passed over his head, and splashed into the sea behind, sending spray into the air. He tasted a bitter salinity in the back of his throat.
The villagers had tried to take him with them. “Come quickly, Father!” they cried, tugging at his sleeves, trying to pull him toward the dock. Heads bowed, eyes wide, faces twisted, he barely recognized them as the same people who meekly brought him their sins and sorrows. Someone tried to take hold of his arm but he twisted away. “Go then!” he wanted to cry at them. “Flee!” Could they not see that God had turned his back on their village? Did they really believe that having him aboard their little boat would save them from the gunners? But he said nothing, only made the sign of the cross above their heads and hurried on, wading into the water finally to escape the heat.
Motes drifted past him, glinting in the light, whether ash or water droplets he could not tell. In his fevered imagination they became the souls of the dead, gathering around him to witness the spectacle.
He did not even know which army attacked them. For years, the fighting had swept back and forth across the countryside so that he was never clear to whom he owed allegiance. From time to time, a motorcade would pull into the square, a car and a truck or two. They wore uniforms so similar that you not tell them apart until you saw the insignia on their peaked caps or the flags flying on the fenders of their limousines. The officers would demand to see the mayor. They would stand on the steps of the town hall and read some proclamation. Then the soldiers would go from door to door demanding money, jewelry, food; anything of value. When they were satisfied that there was nothing more to be had, they would get back in their vehicles and leave. He would forget their banners as soon as they passed out of the gates.
The crane stilled, watched, then speared something in the water with its beak.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me,” the priest whispered. “Surely goodness and mercy…” It was his favorite psalm, the first he would recite for comfort. Why could he now not remember the rest?
The souls would tell him if he could hear. Tell him that he was learning that part of the canon he had found, in his comfort, easy to ignore. Rage and fury, fear and hunger, these too were part of the song of man. Verses everyone knew that, once intoned, spread like the crystals on a windowpane in the dead of winter until the world beyond was effaced.
Something caught the crane’s attention. It looked up at him then spread its great wings and, with a single step, lifted into the air. The majesty of its presence seized him. The bird flew out over the water, circled once above his head, and then turned back towards the town, climbing higher and higher. He reached out as if he could ward it away. The creature seemed so fragile. He pictured the men shooting at it for sport. But the crane continued to ascend until it passed in front of the sun where, spreading its wings wide, it transformed into an angel.
The light blinded him and when he opened his eyes again, it seemed he saw world through its eyes. The massed men, the burning ruins, the flashes and thuds of gunfire, all became smaller and quieter as he rose, a small scar surrounded by a wide world. And he heard a halt in the cannonade, as if the soldiers in the fields had also paused to look up and be called back, if only for a few heartbeats, to hope.
The sun sank behind a cloud. The crane turned and was gone. The priest looked around himself as if awakened from a long dream. He waded from the waters and turned back toward what was left of his town. Tomorrow, crops in the fields would ripen and fruit would color on the trees. The creatures of the sea and the land would return and, soon enough, his people as well. When they did, they would find him here. Whether rebuilding his church with his bare hands or shot dead by some solider for target practice did not matter.
Chet Ensign writes by the same window at the same desk in Maplewood, NJ each morning at 7:00. However the view outside always changes.