16

The Desert Rider

"The angel of the Lord encamps around those who honor Him,
and rescues them." (Psalm 34:7)

"Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me;
Fight against those who fight against me.
Take hold of buckler and shield
And rise up for my help.
Draw also the spear and the battle-axe to meet those who pursue me;
Say to my soul, "I am your salvation." [...]

Let [those who seek my life] be like chaff before the wind,
With the angel of the Lord driving them on [...]

With the angel of the Lord pursuing them."

(Psalm 35: 1-3, 5, 6b NASB)

"May! Help me! Maaayyy!" Never before had she witnessed such a panic in Margaret's voice. With shaking fingers Mariella dressed, flushed the toilet and hurried out of the bathroom without washing her hands or even closing the door behind her. As she entered the room of her absent friend Veronica, whom they were visiting, she froze on the doorstep. There beside the window, whose heavy black velvet curtains had been drawn so close that little more than twilight illuminated the room, stood a tall, heavily built man. Peering past the broad back facing her, she could scarcely make out her godchild cowering so timidly in a corner that it looked as if her slender body was trying to break through the wall of the two-storeyed house.

"Margaret." Mariella's voice was no more than a whisper. Then she recovered from her paralysis, fully entered the room and with a few decided strides approached the man, who – as she now saw – had grabbed Margaret and was holding on to her arm. Mariella's heart nearly stopped when she noticed that Margaret's dress was torn. Instinctively she knew that the intruder was bent on rape.

"Let her go!" Her voice nearly collapsed with rage.

The stranger whirled around, and a reek of cheap men's cologne mingled with the smell of styling gel assaulted Mariella's nose on the fringes of her perception. Horrified she started back as she became aware of the drawn switchblade in his hand with which he now started to approach her.

Too late the thought that she should have grasped anything within her reach resembling a weapon – a lamp, a stick, anything. Desperately her eyes were scanning the plushily furnished room, while she was simultaneously feeling with her hands for an object that could be used to defend herself, slowly retreating, trying her best to keep her enemy within range of vision. Margaret was doing nothing more than whimpering softly and pressing herself even further into her corner. The thought flashed through Mariella's mind that in contrast to her the girl was still cut off from any escape route through the door.

Hastily Mariella drew back from the man, still walking backwards, until finally she turned around on the doorstep and fled along the corridor and down the stairs to the ground floor. The assurance that the intruder could at least not harm Margaret as long as he was pursuing Mariella with his knife helped little in assuaging her worry about her godchild.

With flying fingers she tore open the door of the living room, where Veronica's aged parents were sitting. Veronica's mother, seated directly beside the electric fire, was just holding the telephone receiver to her ear, into which – entirely in her element – she was downloading a torrent of words that neither Mariella's appearance nor even her breathless plea for help was able to interrupt. The deaf old woman hardly looked at her and then progressed with her animated narration over the phone, accompanying it with gestures of her hands. Veronica's father, who was suffering from cancer in a late stage, was buried in his leather armchair, enjoying his afternoon cigar. He bestowed such an uncomprehending, critical, reprimanding and disapproving look on Mariella that she instinctively cowered, before a gruff gesture of his hand signalled her to close the door. Having processed all this within a few seconds, Mariella promptly rushed past the living room towards the front door, which she yanked open with a feeling of relief. Finally – she was outside!

Her gaze quickly scanned the driveway in this area of weekend homes up and down from where she was standing. Although she did not dare to turn round, she thought she heard the man's breathing behind her. She knew that she would not get very far without a car, moreover wearing nothing but socks on her feet, the way she had hurried out of the bathroom. There – behind a low concrete wall on the other side of the road she could make out a neighbour working in the garden. She started running a few steps towards him, until a sharp gravel stone pierced into the ball of her foot and brought her to an abrupt halt.

"Hey there! Can you please help me?" Her voice sounded hoarse and she had to try twice before she got the neighbour's attention. He looked at her blankly, almost stupidly, whereupon without a word he vanished through the open door into his house.

With an angry little outcry Mariella turned away, noticing a woman with a boy walking towards her still at some distance, followed by an elderly man with a hat and a walking stick. As her thoughts were still revolving around the most promising escape route respectively a convincing wording of her plea for help, she suddenly felt her right arm being seized from behind and brutally wrenched until she could no longer move without breaking it. She gasped with terror.

"Please help me!"she yelled. "I'm being threatened! By a rapist!"

The woman immediately turned about to hurry down the driveway in the opposite direction, yanking the boy with her and murmuring something about "insolence", "nuisance" and "harassment". The elderly man, being now level with Mariella on the opposite side of the road, uttered with biting sarcasm: "No one is taken in by that. Play your little games among yourselves and leave honorable people in peace." He spat on the ground and hurried past.

"Enough of that!" a voice hissed at her back, while her arm, hidden beneath folds of her large jacket, was being jerked painfully. "You better come with me now, kiddo, before my knife is sticking in your back."

Tears welled in Mariella's eyes. With a lost little shrug she turned on the pebble-paved driveway. Roughly led by the steel-like grasp on her arm, she went back up the concrete steps into the house, then ascended the darkly grained wooden stairs leading to Veronica's room.

With a jolt Mariella opened her eyes wide and half sat up in her bed, supporting her body with her elbow. Her pillow was completely rumpled, her blanket had slipped all the way down to the floor on one side, and her upper lip was covered in beads of sweat which for a moment she took to be tears. She sighed deeply as the horror of those impressions was slowly subsiding and she realized with an immeasurable sense of relief that it had only been a nightmare.

Mariella bent over the side of her bed, retrieved her blanket and drew it up over her body until it almost covered her eyes. Then she rolled herself together like an embryo.

"I'm not really surprised that I have dreamt something like that again, nor that it was set in the house of Veronica's parents. But why was Margaret there, too? Why anyone else at all, and why she of all people?" she pondered.

"Perhaps she represents a younger layer of your personality – the emotional age when you were traumatized, the you who stopped growing when that took place?" she gave herself a possible answer, falling back into the habit of dialoguing with herself that as an only child she had already adopted at a young age. "This could mean that your adult self is reproaching herself for not having better protected and defended the child in you, for whom you feel responsible, as you do for Margaret."

Mariella tried to ignore the slight pangs in the area of her heart as well as the sense of depression which this thought caused her to feel. "Whichever parts of that nightmare were real memories in a literal sense on the one hand or distortions due to it having been a dream on the other hand – such as the detail that in the nightmare the danger came from a stranger and not someone you thought you knew who then suddenly mutates into an alien monster – in any case the following becomes clear to me:" she continued musing. "Back then when I was... sexually abused," – she grimaced a little, though at the same time she was proud of herself for having called the events by their name, which already required courage, even if it was only in an inner dialogue with herself – "I was alone, my defence was left to myself, which overtaxed the girl I was. My own parents were far away. Veronica's parents – if indeed they were near – had not given me the impression of being people I could address or turn to for help. I had no means of transportation or other way of escape. But I am fed up with having those nightmares over and over again!" With a decided jolt she sat up and hurled her blanket to the foot of her bed. "We will summon up all our courage now..." – the pronoun "we" was directed towards her younger personality part – "...and cycle to that house of evil. I know that is it uninhabited nowadays, and whether we enter it or just peer through the windows from without, when we see that it is nothing more than a perfectly normal house – meanwhile probably even just a ruin – with perfectly normal rooms, where no one is lurking and nothing bad is happening any more, we will thus strip that place of its terror and power."

Mariella was softly humming to herself while brushing her teeth, not least because she wanted to calm down or drown out the growing sense of fear and aversion she could feel gnawing at her insides. The idea to revisit the scene of events she was actually trying to forget and leave behind had not sprung from her own mind, but rather stemmed from one of the countless books on coping with traumatic experiences she had read in the past few years. Precisely this fact made her even more determined to go through with her plan, since it seemed to confirm to her that she had made the right decision. Energetically she swung herself onto her bicycle, laboured up the hill to the area of weekend houses and was finally standing in front of the dilapidated exterior of her former torture chamber, her heart pounding, her gaze directed towards the weather-beaten shutters of the second floor, some of them hanging half down and clinging to one remaining hinge. In spite of the mild weather she was suddenly glad that she was wearing her black, laced biker pants with sewn-on wings in leopard print, her matching hoodie jacket with its shield-like front applique as well as her heavy black leather boots. She laughed out loud as she got herself psyched out.

"It's like in old times, when we had our hair cut short and stylized ourselves as a knight, isn't it?" she said loudly. Her voice echoed unnaturally high-pitched into the silence all around, and she suddenly noticed that not one bird was singing. Although the sun was shining brightly from a cloudless sky, Mariella instinctively wrapped the collar of her jacket tighter around her neck and zipped it up to her chin. She could barely refrain from pulling her hood over her head like a helmet.

„Was that in your daydreams?"

Mariella gave a little cry of surprise and whirled around.

A few paces behind her stood a slim middle-aged man of medium height. He was wearing reddish brown boots, black trousers, a purple linen shirt that had a medieval touch, and was enveloped in a loose cape of night-blue colour. Appropriately enough, this appearance looked knight-like to Mariella. Though his dark chin-length hair, short dark beard, regular, friendly features and candid grey-blue eyes did not exactly fit into the category of men whose attractiveness took Mariella's breath away, still those attributes made him appear innocuous, reliable and trustworthy, so that she was a bit ashamed of her vehement reaction.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to alarm you," the stranger said sympathetically.

Mariella exhaled loudly and realized that her body was shaking all over. Subconsciously she must have reckoned with a terrible realization of her nightmare. "Don't worry, it's alright," she hastened to reply. "I just didn't hear you approaching."

He smiled. "That's hardly surprising, I tend to advance very quietly."

Mariella did not know how to respond to that.

"How am I to understand your previous utterance?" her new acquaintance continued. "Are you in need of knightly assistance?"

Mariella felt herself blushing in the face of such straightforwardness. "Yes, no, I don't know." She took a deep breath and tried again. "I have to settle something in this house, and... I am not sure what I will find in there." She was astonished at her own frankness, even though he could not know what exactly she was talking about.

"I can have a look for you, if you like. To make sure that no ghost is hidden in any corner, or something like that, you know." He smiled at her, but it seemed rather conspiratorial than patronizing.

"I... I do want to enter first," she replied. She was not sure why that was so important to her all of a sudden. "But it would be nice if you could wait here till I'm outside again." This way she could look at the interior of the house undisturbed without anyone witnessing eventual emotional reactions, yet she need not be completely alone in this precarious place.

"That's fine," was the stranger's friendly reply.

Mariella took a deep breath, walked a few paces across the driveway overgrown with ivy till she reached the front door, put her hand as carefully on its handle as if she was about to awaken a sleeping snake, closed her eyes for a moment and then resolutely pushed down the handle. Nothing happened. She pressed it down once again, with more effort, then uttered a disappointed sigh and turned away. Why had the idea not occurred to her sooner that the building, even in its current dilapidated state, would most probably be locked? What was to be done now? With some endeavour she might be able to force open one of the shutters and could try to enter through a window, if contrary to her expectation one should be open. However, something inside her was loath to trespass into this building, to cause wilful damage to property, or just to touch more of it than necessary – especially since she was being watched by at least one other person, leaving aside potential passers-by or onlookers from one of the other weekend houses that might still be inhabited.

"I can have a look-see for you, if you want," her companion repeated his offer. He had come closer without her noticing. "You only have to tell me exactly what you want to know."

"Do you have a key?" Mariella asked dumbfounded.

"No, but I can get through the door without one – and without wilful damage, don't worry."

Mariella frowned with perplexity. "You could check whether in the second floor room situated behind this window" – she swiftly indicated the shutter above to her left – "well, whether everything looks normal in there... I don't know, I don't suppose there will be a human being in there" – she laughed nervously – "maybe when you return you could just describe the room to me as you will have seen it." Although he must surely consider her mad, part of her heaved a sigh of relief, because this way she could avoid having to enter the room herself. "I just hope this will be sufficient and won't be invalid because I'm cheating," her perfectionist part objected.

"All right." With these words the stranger approached the door, wrapped his blue woollen cape a bit tighter around his shoulders and went on as if the massive wooden door, still sturdy, was nothing more than a misty grey silken veil.

A small noise of surprise escaped Mariella's mouth as she saw first his right arm, covered in blue fabric, then his shoulder, then the dark-haired head, finally his back and the rest of his body vanish through the planks. Incredulously she stared at the empty black-brown veins of the wood. She had not yet recovered from her shock, when suddenly an arm re-appeared through the door, within seconds followed by the rest of the stranger's body, until the last border of his cape materialized in front of her eyes.

"Everything empty apart from dust, there isn't even any furniture, not even curtains any more, and much less any living being."

"Living being," Mariella echoed stupidly. "You are a spirit!"

He smiled a little. "Every human is a spiritual being, if you want to define it that way. Or at least every human has the disposition to be one."

"That's not what I mean... the door..."

"I know. You mean the fact that I have a transcendent body." He was silent for a moment, as if pondering his next move. "I am a messenger," he finally ventured. "I am here at the command of Someone Higher."

"You... you are an angel?" she whispered, her eyes suddenly radiant. Did he know that since childhood angels had populated her daydreams, had been the heroes of the stories she had made up before falling asleep, had been the prime subject of her paintings and drawings, the alluring element in her favourite books and films, the reason why she was so fascinated with the angel-like Elves in her favourite opus The Lord of the Rings?

He nodded in answer to her question. "I am called the Desert Rider."

Mariella stared at him with wide eyes. It sounded so majestic. So noble. So... different than this ordinary man of middle height and plain looks who was this very moment smiling at her in a genial, scrutinizing, almost a little self-conscious way.

"Does that confuse you much?"

"N-no," she stammered insincerely. "It's just that I have always imagined angels to be... well, to be different somehow, I mean, I thought an angel..." Her voice trailed off insecurely.

"... would look more attractive," he dryly finished her sentence.

Mariella felt the blood rush to her cheeks.

"The extent to which my beauty and fascination are revealed to someone I interact with or hidden from them, is not in my power, or rather, it is a privilege I have resigned, which I will now not seize again."

Mariella nodded wordlessly and was silent for a rather long time, during which she scrutinized the man in front of her skeptically, at the same time endeavouring to process the information she had just been given.

"But... there is no desert here," she eventually said lamely.

"A desert is a place where someone is suffering privation. Where there is no water, no bread, no help. A desert is a place of ordeal. Any place you would prefer to leave as quickly as possible."

Mariella's face hardened. She wondered if he knew that exactly in this house in front of which they were now standing, she had desperately longed for the support of an angel – in vain.

"This designation is connected to the fact that I was the one who went in front of the Israelites during their journey through the desert." He glanced at her as if to assure himself of the level of her general knowledge. "You know, the Angel of God who led, accompanied and protected Israel through the desert as they escaped from slavery in Egypt, the one who was before and behind them as a column of smoke by day and a column of fire by night."

"Then you could also turn into a column of smoke or fire, or anything else that is abstract?" Mariella watched his face slightly anxiously, realizing that in spite of her former disappointment his present manifestation was much more to her liking.

"No." He shook his head. "These options I have meanwhile laid aside."

Mariella heaved a sigh of relief. "And... what about wings?" She almost wrenched her neck in an effort to catch a glimpse behind his back, trying to guess from the contours of his cloak whether it was hiding the eagerly anticipated pair of wings that she considered an integral ingredient of every angel.

"This form of appearance is likewise not open to me at this time, at least not in the way you expect it," he shattered her hopes. "But enough about me. I am sent by the Father of the fatherless, the Defender of women without a husband."

Mariella looked at him mutely, while conflicting emotions were seething below the surface of her relatively expressionless face, from the deep longing these words were evoking on the one hand, to the question still piercing her heart like a knife on the other hand – the question where this supposed Defender had been back then. "And what is the message?" she finally said in a low voice.

"You need not be your own defender, Mariella. You need not impose that responsibility on yourself."

Without being able to control it, Mariella felt tears rise to her eyes.

"That is part of the message," the angel said cautiously.

"What else?" Even though she did not admit it, she was glad that the information came slowly in bits and pieces.

"He is sending you someone to help you." Her companion's eyes bored into hers, as if silently pleading to give him the slightest toehold of a chance despite all her objections, bitterness and accusation of having been left in the lurch. "Me."

Mariella gave a short and mirthless laugh. She hardly cared if it betrayed an ironic undercurrent. "And pray how could someone help me now after everything has already taken place? Apart from you being able to go through the door and look in – as if that mattered much anymore!"

"You have several alternatives to defuse the horror of this house, Mariella," the person opposite her went on unblinkingly. "One of them is exactly what you intended to do: you can enter this ruin and make sure that it is empty and harmless, as indeed you did through me just now. There are other indirect ways, for instance by writing about it, even if only in an encoded form." He paused shortly. "However, you are also offered the opportunity to enter this place together with me, not today, but back then, to revisit the memory – whether you access the house physically or not is of minor importance – and to let me show you the truth in what happened there."

Mariella flinched. "What do you mean by the truth?" she asked, also in order to gain time for her decision.

"The truth about yourself; as far as you want to know it, the truth about your tormentor; and above all the truth about God."

Mariella noticed that her arms were shaking, as side by side with her companion she was standing right below the closed shutters of the ominous room. Instinctively she flexed her fingers a little to feel the angel's firm, secure hand. He pressed hers reassuringly in response. She did not know who had taken hold of whose hand first, neither could she rationally explain how she was able to feel the fingers of a transcendent being touching hers in a way that seemed so real and alive, but she was deeply grateful for this gesture of solidarity.

"Regrettably I cannot take you through this closed door with your earthly body," he said. "But you can access the house in your memory."

She winced a little.

"Not by forcing it, Mariella, and not if you feel unprotected. We can leave this place without having done anything. We can come back another time, if you prefer, or stay away forever, without you having to feel bad about it. I know that you are often haunted by flashbacks of what happened, and that you feel as if you were at the mercy of those shreds of memory and could not escape them. There is a time to block them, to run away from them, and that is good and right; but there is also a time to allow them to surface, to face them and strip them of their power. This time has now come, if you decide to venture it. But not by throwing yourself in at the deep end without being prepared. Look into my eyes."

M ariella turned her face towards him and silently gazed into the grey-blue lakes that were offering themselves to her without guile. They spoke of purity, faithfulness, total absence of deceit. The longer she was imbibing this sight, the more it seemed to her that the shimmering, oscillating blues and greens of his iris, with specks of brown strewn in between that she had not noticed before, were forming a globe, displaying the ocean-blue and land-green of water and continents, while the sable vastness of his shining pupil resembled the starry, infinite universe. There was nothing she desired more than to get lost in its depths, to explore its mystery. Simple as a sunray, lucid as a shimmering rainbow, she suddenly knew that he was all she needed, and that this was enough for everything.

"May I offer you my protection?" His voice wafted into her thoughts like a soft breeze into the gently whispering leaves of a tree, making her heart vibrate like harp-strings.

He loosened his large cloak and carefully wrapped part of it around Mariella's shoulders before he softly placed his left arm around her on top of the velvety dark blue fabric, keeping his right arm free for action. "The wings that I still have are my arms," he said in a low voice. "They are sufficient to surround and protect you completely."

Mariella felt his right hand gently stroke her cheek, lightly like a feather. Then he bent down a little and kissed her on the forehead, again very gently. Cautiously he took her hand into his again, his left arm still protectively holding on to her shoulder.

„Whatever may happen, Mariella, when the two of us go through this door: Even if you do not perceive me, even if you do not know the way, I am with you, I am always with you and I will never let go of you."

He grinned at her in a conspiratorial way and folded some more of his cape around her body. For a moment it seemed to Mariella to shimmer in all the colours of the rainbow, like a promise.

Mariella felt as if she was jumping from the wooden planks of a fragile little boat into the ice-cold, heaving, bottomless deep sea, as she closed her eyes and allowed the memories to surface which, ever since she had arrived at this place and set her eyes on this house again, had threatened to break forth from the depth of her consciousness like dangerous water snakes trying to transport her into another time.

Reassuringly she felt the firm hand in hers, squeezing hers slightly.

"Do not fear, Mary – may I use that name?" She nodded quickly. "You are walking with the Desert Rider. I am the one who parted the sea. The one who travels on the clouds and the winds. I have been given authority over all the elements." He smiled at her encouragingly.

Mariella was marginally aware that his mantle, which he had wrapped around both of them as they made to enter the house, was now displaying the deep red tint of warm, unquenchable flames of fire, pulsating like a beating heart. What caught her attention to a much greater extent, however, were his eyes, which now that the blue of water had assumed a connotation of threat, were shining in a warm green-brown interspersed with small golden sparks. The hair framing his face had also adopted a lighter, warmer hue of brown, here and there shimmering in orange-golden reflexes of light.

She gazed in amazement, until she remembered that angels could change their outward features, or rather the way mortals perceived them. Even though this angel had been deprived of his wings and according to his own words had but little influence on his appearance left, still that limitation did not seem to be absolute after all.

"When you pass through the water, I am with you, it will not drown you," she heard the voice of her protector as if explaining the changes she had noticed.

Mariella took a deep breath. "With you by my side I do not fear – at least much less than usually," she added honestly. Taking a huge step in her thoughts, she readied herself to open the door to Veronica's room and enter the chamber of horror.

"Wait another moment."

She felt her companion let go of her hand and turned around slightly alarmed. With a swift, energetic movement he took off his side of their cloak. The clothes he had worn beneath had vanished, so that he was wearing nothing but a kind of loincloth hiding exactly enough of his body that Mariella did not need to feel uncomfortable. Maintaining a tactful distance, he turned away from her a little and lifted both his arms high into the air in a gesture of supplication or surrender. To Mariella's surprise a reddish white shimmering garment laid itself around his body, as if it had been handed to him straight out of the air and fitted on him by a supernatural hand. When he turned around to her again, Mariella realized that he was now clad in a short-sleeved, knee-length linen shirt reminiscent of historical films portraying Biblical times. Nevertheless she could still not decide whether its colour was white or red, for it seemed to oscillate between those two alternatives, as if both were true – white purity and blood-red suffering.

"It's a battle shirt," the angel said in a firm, decisive voice. "Our battle shirt for what we are going to face now. At the same time a garment of suffering and a royal robe, just like it was at the crucifixion of the Son of God. You fought in that place back then, Mary, as well as you could under all the circumstances, you resisted in your own way, if not outwardly then inwardly, in every second of your life when you did not want something truly with your heart, and you are not to blame for the things that happened. But now you may let me fight for you, for both of us. You may trust in my strong arm. All you have to do is lean on me."

Mariella nodded in silence. Cautiously, gingerly, as if stepping onto a bridge without being sure whether it can carry you, whether it will not break under the heavy weight of your body, she leaned her head on her protector's broad shoulder, then her shoulders, finally her whole body, and felt her muscles relax. She exhaled deeply with relief.

Warm and soft she felt his cape around her and noticed that he had left it completely to her, himself exposed and without protection apart from the thin linen shirt. She cuddled her cheek into the woollen fabric now shimmering in a dark, almost black purple like heavy velvet, bedewed with silver teardrops like stars in a nightly firmament. It seemed as if the whole universe was woven into this mantle – a good universe, not a fallen one, a universe well-disposed towards her, offering shelter, not intimidation or menace. Fascinated, Mariella studied the structure of the fabric right in front of her eyes. Suddenly she was taken aback. For a moment it had looked as if the fibres directly touching her skin consisted of minute, infinitely soft down feathers. She tried to grasp them – her fingers stroked the soft threads of velvety wool. At the same time a bit further, just out of the range of her hands, the dark contours of solid flight feathers twinkled forth from the night-sky-like material for a second.

A suspicion dawned on Mariella. With a little twinge of regret she disengaged her face from the hollow between his neck and shoulders in order to be able to look at him properly. "Did you...?" Her voice trailed off insecurely, before she started anew. "Your cloak – was that previously your wings?" She laughed nervously, because her conjecture seemed absurd to her all of a sudden. "I mean, you said you had given up your wings, or had to lay them down, or something of that kind. Well in any case you don't have any wings any more, and your mantle... is somehow similar to wings? As if they had been wrought into a mantle, or something along those lines?"

He nodded at her. "There's no reason to distrust your intuition, Mariella," he said with a friendly smile. "Nor your intelligence."

Mariella was staring at him for several minutes as ideas were flashing through her mind, thoughts she even less dared to utter than the previous one, for fear she might be in error after all.

"Why?" was finally all she brought out.

"You know the answer, Mary." He smiled at her kindly once more. "My wings – my cloak – are yours."

Unbidden and without her being able to repress them any longer, memories now began to rush in upon Mariella. She did not even need to imagine going through that door, perhaps did it as a belated additional gesture in her thoughts, but her consciousness was already present in the dreaded room, in the sphere of power of that person whose every detail had been burned into her retina, into her skin, into her sense of smell, into her soul.

"I am with you," she heard from afar as if filtered through thick cotton wool, while she was mentally struggling and fighting not to drown in the torrents of bottomless fear, the smothering, strangling welter of disgust, of shame, the load of the feelings of guilt that had been transferred onto her, heavy as lead, the degradation of abysmal failure. Somewhere on the fringes of her consciousness the corner of a red cloak was floating like the furthest feather of a mighty wing, and she grasped at it, desperately clung to it.

Gradually she calmed down a little. Her breathing slowed down again. Gingerly she looked around her, took notice of the yellowed wallpaper, the cold metal furniture, all the furnishings of this room at a time into which fragments of perception belonging to unprocessed events had transported her back. Her gaze shied away from the black tulle curtains of the broad bed, so she quickly glued her eyes to the wall to her left, desperately striving to block out the presence of the man hated above all else – when suddenly she blinked with surprise.

"Angels! There are angels in the room!" she shouted out loud with amazement. "The whole room is filled up with angels, there are so many I cannot even count them! I am not left alone in here, as I always used to think, left in the lurch and abandoned, exposed to evil while God does not care about me. He is here, with a multitude of His angels, being with me while I am suffering, while I am being tortured!"

"He commands His angels to guard you in all your ways,"1 she heard the voice of her protector at her side.

Mariella involuntarily gave a jump and whirled round. She had completely forgotten him for a moment.

"They are with us while we are suffering, while we are being tortured," he corrected her exclamation with gentle but firm voice.

Mariella stared at him and stiffened.

Her eyes roamed back into the room, upon the apparition still clearly visible. She was mutely gazing for some time at the ethereal, otherworldly figures who were floating in a beam of light as in a gust of wind, yet apparently not moving from their position within the space they occupied. Weightless those winged creatures seemed, emanating a graceful serenity that felt so alien, unfamiliar and largely unknowable to Mariella that she would have doubted their existence if she had not witnessed them right in front of her with her very eyes. Finally she slowly turned her head, as if in a dream, until her companion filled the whole range of her vision. Silently her gaze was gliding over his ruffled hair, slightly sweaty on his brow, his moistly shimmering eyes beneath the long dark lashes, loaded with emotion; she registered the rosy glow on his tanned cheeks, smouldering with zeal for her deliverance, while on his upper arm the sinews of his muscles were restlessly flexing beneath the flimsy linen, as if they could barely await the next step, full of zest for action. She did not need to look at the beings for a second time, neither did she need to look a second time at him.

"You are no angel." She said it matter-of-factly, almost without emotion. In some corner of herself she felt the small waft of disappointment as this dream, crumbled to dust, was swept out. Yet at the same time a wild hope was stirring within her, whispering of hitherto unimagined possibilities, endless new dreams not wholly unattainable emerging, being born out of the realization that she had a warm, breathing living being made of flesh and blood beside her – a being like to her.

Her counterpart silently gazed at her for a moment, before he carefully drew the mantle back over her shoulder; her vehement reaction a few minutes before had caused it to slip down. "No, I am no angel," he then said quietly. "Not in the sense that you imagined it when you used that term first a short while ago." A short while – it seemed to her like a different life, considering everything that had taken place since!

The golden-brown eyes looked at her openly, not to the ground. Still she could not discern any trace of insincerity in them.

"I am a messenger. Your servant, starting from before you were born and extending far beyond the end of your earthly life, your guardian and deliverer. Predestined to be your companion, your spouse if you say yes to that – like I have." He swallowed, paused for a little and averted his eyes from her, gazing into the distance. "And everything I have said is true."

"No." Mariella shook her head, as if trying to clear up her confusion. She thought of the column of fire, the column of smoke, the exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt... "Desert Rider"... "the one who travels on the clouds and the winds"...

"Look at them, Mariella," the man beside her interrupted her musings. With a little motion of his chin he pointed towards the almost translucent figures of light. "They are purely transcendent spirit-beings. A completely other form of existence than you. Immortal, like the Elves in The Lord of the Rings. They have never tasted death, do not know the mystery of mortals. They do not know what flesh and blood feels like. What it is like to be imprisoned in a human body that you cannot leave, no matter what is being done to it. They cannot surmise what it feels like when you lose your wings."

Mariella was startled to see a small, silvery shimmering tear run down his cheek, followed by more, larger ones, glittering like dew drops. She could not resist the impulse to gently stroke them from his skin with her index finger, even though she instinctively knew that they were falling for her sake, for her, that they were her own he was weeping in her stead.

"If angels could bestow their tears on you," he continued with a sad little smile, "they could at the utmost do it out of sympathy, because they can see the pain on your face, or because God shares His heart for you with them to some extent. They could not share your pain, share your whole life, experience everything that you live through the same way you experience it, if not more intensely still. They could not share in your suffering, carry its load with you, for you. They could not share death with you, they could not die your death – neither your physical death nor the thousandfold deaths of your soul."

Mariella backed away a little, almost overwhelmed by the many contrasting emotions that were whirling around inside of her: the wounds his words were touching, the soothing balm his obvious understanding, even knowledge of their pain was pouring out on them, the impulse to throw herself into his arms and savour the compassionate love she felt radiating from his person as well as each of his actions and words – and the countless unresolved question marks she was turning over in her mind which filled her with doubt and distrust. Without reflecting upon her words, without embellishing phrases or logical transition, she erupted, vehemently, almost accusingly:

"Who are you?"

Tersely, almost brusquely, his arm indicated the blazing, hazy cone of light surrounding the angels, whose contours evaporated indeterminably into the room.

"Ask Him. Ask God – your Father."

Insecurely, shyly, almost anxiously and yet filled with a sudden boldness by the urgency of her request, Mariella stared seeking into and up the immaterial field of light which seemed to elude her eyes.

"I am your Father," the thought suddenly wafted through her head, gentle and yet lucid as a shaft of light, so clear that she knew it was more than just her own imagination. "I protect and defend you in every instance where you are 'fatherless', where your earthly father was not there for you or failed you."

Mariella became tranquil under the weight of these words. How had the angel – who was no angel – phrased it? "A Father of the fatherless, a Defender of women without a husband."2

"Angels are My ministers," the gentle voice in her head continued. "They do what I say. They are around you on all your ways, for I your Father have committed Myself to take care of your protection. They surround you daily in thousands, armies of heaven invisibly pervading your world. Archangels are their leaders, entrusted with special assignments of honour, all of them executors of My will."

There was a little, momentous pause, before the voice in her mind commenced again: "I, however, am sending you My Only Son. He wanted to do it Himself."

Mariella's head jerked back towards the Man next to her, who was smiling at her in a slightly self-conscious way. In His golden eyes – majestically flaming like those of an eagle or noble big cat, and yet softly shimmering with longing and anticipation like a vulnerable, warm yellow candle flame – she read the wordless question: 'Am I enough for you? Now that you know who the one is who is offering himself to you – will you have me?'

Tears welled up in her eyes. "You are utterly beautiful," she whispered sincerely. "In everything you have suffered for me, in everything you have done for me. In everything I know about you so far."

The joy rising in the golden lakes, now likewise filling up with tears, washed over Mariella's heart like honey balm, showed her unmistakeably, now at the latest, that she was precious, that she was wanted – desired by the Only One who would never hurt her.

Only then did she become aware of her surroundings once more.

As if she was finally equipped to face the worst, the dams of resistance within her broke, which up till now had been quivering between her and the events like the half-ripped threads of a spider's web, frantically repaired and re-fastened every time they had been torn. The memory – always anew forgotten and still well-known in moments like this, its sequence anticipated with trepidation and yet again and again fitted with new surprises that had hitherto been repressed, like a well-maintained and constantly updated torture chamber – was now replaying itself mercilessly in front of Mariella's inner eye like the cruelest horror movie – with the difference that here there was no remote control to switch channels – and accelerated, almost head over heels, as it was surging towards the part most dreaded, which Mariella struggled to evade every time like a medieval citizen would have avoided the plague, usually with about the same amount of success.

Suddenly, in the midst of the most defenceless, powerless, terrible situation of her life so far, she saw a hand between her and the person assaulting her – a living, warm, real hand, exactly at the place of her body where she most desperately would have needed some kind of barrier, some kind of protective wall. Blood was flowing from this hand, spreading itself as a protective layer between her and the assault, washing in the same moment even every area of her body that was being usurped, absorbing every defilement she felt, annihilating it, washing it away, cleansing her at the very second she was being sullied.

"I am always between you and him," she heard the calm, sovereign voice of the Son of God beside her, of whose presence she was now very aware. "He abused me first."

Her eyes were captured by Jesus' appearance, followed His figure in the midst of this situation, and saw that He had placed His other hand, His left hand, protectively directly above her heart. She sensed His closeness surrounding her, His red cloak that was His blood, that was He Himself, encompassing her like a second skin, and she knew she was hidden in Him. As waves of warm sunlight melt the ice of winter, the insight suffused her that she was never without a boundary, that there was always a place in her soul, yes even her body, where an impassable barrier between her and her enemy could be found, beyond which no one could continue. The lie that she had been completely overrun, utterly polluted, totally destroyed, her heart broken and made worthless down to its innermost part – this lie was crumbling to ashes, to dust, blown away by a fresh breeze of spring. With a half stifled, undefinable sound Mariella cuddled deeply into the arms of her Protector.

Soothingly He touched her cheek, stroked her hair and cradled her head in both of His hands, while she herself was wrapping His mantle even tighter around her body until it encompassed her like the mighty wings of an eagle.

"I am always between you and evil, between you and the enemy. Between you and danger. What kind of protection would that be that left you alone in the moment of danger and was gone, only being there afterwards or in between the hazardous moments in the safety of a sanctuary?!"

How right He was – how could the logic of this thought have escaped her for so long?! Gratefully, almost laughing, she lifted her eyes to his face – and stopped short at the sight of his eyes blazing in a fierce fire against which his pupils stood out like sable lumps of coal. At the same time tears were rimming his eyelids.

For a split moment she shrank back, then she realized that this fire of righteous wrath was directed towards her tormentor. All that reached her out of the corners of Jesus' eyes was compassionate understanding and pity.

With a voice reminiscent of a lion's snarl He turned to the abuser: "You cannot pass!"

If comparable to anything she had known before, the situation, His words, His gesture of finality, His incontestable authority reminded her of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, when on the bridge of Khazad Dum he was denying passage to the Balrog, putting the demon of the deep in its place.

Still caught directly in the flashback, Mariella noticed with astonishment that she was completely calm, almost felt a kind of peace. All her fear had abated: the presence of these mighty hands – like Gandalf's staff on the narrow bridge between the aggressor and her body, between the aggressor and her heart – had taken the terror out of the previously nightmarish situation, had stripped it of its power.

"I always protect you." It sounded triumphant in spite of the circumstances they were in. "I Myself am your shield."

"You are my shield." She knew it was the truth. Knew it now...

Vulnerably she looked up at Him, tears on her lashes. "You didn't know it back then either, did you? That God was with you? On the cross, when they abused you? You also thought you were alone, abandoned by every help?"

A shadow clouded his face, as when a deep scar, healed and yet sensitive, has been touched. "You know the answer, don't you? You know what I cried on the cross. You have read it..."3

There was no chalice in her life that He had not drained Himself, too. "Thank you."

He smiled at the same time sadly and intimately. Then his expression grew cautious, probing. "Are you ready to leave this place, beloved?"

Mariella took one short look around, as if to make sure, then she nodded. "I want to leave it, all of this, I want to let it go as something that has been cleared up. But before I do that, I want to...," she hesitated, aware of how much pressure she had put on herself with exactly this topic, pressure she recognized as wrong only now that she felt the voluntary wish to do so. "...to forgive him. Can You please help me with that?"

He smiled. "Just lean on me, like you did earlier. You need not do anything out of your own exertion."

Warm and strong she felt His nearness, as He was standing directly behind her, His outstretched arms supporting hers. Suddenly she half felt, half realized that His heart, directly placed against hers, was causing the blood of His forgiveness to flow through her, donating it to her so that she could simply allow to be channeled through her what she could not have given on her own, letting it wash the remnants of bitterness out of her.

Mariella felt unspeakably relieved as the crimson floods of their common, united blood were flowing on her tormentor – on the one who had spilled it selfishly and ruthlessly – flowing on him to finally flush him away from the shores of her soul.

While she was still feeling out this new sense of freedom, she saw with a little shock that all around her the furniture had caught fire. The whole room was being seized by blazing flames. Instinctively she grasped her Saviour's hand and pressed her body against his. His cloak had now taken on the colour of turquoise water flowing around her shoulders like silk.

"When your enemy overpowers you with ocean floods, I am inextinguishable fire. When your enemy encircles you with blazing flames, I am life-giving water. "When you pass through the waters, I am with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze."4 And now – mount, Mary – if you like."

Fascinated, she watched the white crests of waves form on the hem of His turquoise garment, whitecaps spreading with rapid speed until they had taken on the shape of a horse. He was already sitting in the saddle and reaching out His hand to her in order to hoist her up to Him.

"It is like the Exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt, like the path through the Red Sea," she said wide-eyed, while the two of them were being carried off as if by a ghostly palanquin through the lake of fire burning her former torture chamber to ashes.

He smiled. "That's why I am called the Desert Rider. The one who travels on the clouds. I was the column of fire in the desert by night and the column of fog by day. "When you, God, went out before your people, when you marched through the wilderness, the earth shook, the heavens poured down rain, before God, the One of Sinai, before God, the God of Israel."5 Now He was grinning in an almost impish way. "Not many people know that that Angel was I Myself."

Mariella could not help laughing as she thought of the beginning of that afternoon. Without question He was a master of hide and seek!

"Let us stop here for a little."

Mariella looked around. They had left the house and were now standing again – no, still – in front of the old half-ruin, yet a little to its side with their backs turned on it. This must have been exactly the spot where the stranger – the alleged angel – had addressed her for the first time. Brambles at her feet, shot through with orange-red wilted leaves, were forming something like a small island around the two of them. Half hidden within their tangles Mariella discovered a weathered stone, perhaps an old boundary stone. She had never been aware of it before.

"Sit down – if you like."

Slightly astonished she seated herself on the weather-beaten landmark, whose flattened top was more comfortable than she would have imagined.

Meanwhile the sun was nearing the horizon, colouring the shreds of cloud hanging above the roofs and treetops with a purple red tinge.

Mariella yawned.

Suddenly her companion stretched himself up to his full height, raised his left arm to the sky and reached down his right hand towards her, like a bridge between heaven and earth. With astonishment she espied a small, glittering object on his upturned palm. It turned out to be a silver ring set with a many-sided, bright red gem.

"I am now officiating as an angel again – a messenger." He grinned slightly, which reduced the majestic aloofness of his awe-inspiring gesture a little. "This is God's signet ring. He as your real Father is offering to adopt you. He wishes to have you as His daughter. But He wants to let you decide for yourself."

Mariella's eyes filled with tears. Silently she took the ring out of Jesus' hand and allowed Him to put it on her finger. He got down on one knee beside her in order to do this, and immediately took her into His arms, soothingly, lovingly, wordlessly. Now and again He stroked her hair.

It took a long time for Mariella to loosen herself from His embrace, so that He could get up again.

"Can I ask you a personal question?" she then ventured a bit shyly. 'As if I hadn't done that before.'

"Sure." He smiled at her in an encouraging way.

"What God said earlier on…," she hesitated shyly, looked up at him insecurely, then mustered all her courage and asked, at the same time curiously and vulnerably: "Why did you want to do it yourself?"

"Do you really still need to ask that, Mary?" The intensity of longing in the dark lakes of His eyes was almost too much for Mariella – but not quite. "You have stolen My heart, with one look of your eyes!"6

Feeling as if she was inside a dream, she watched Him kneel down again, this time lowering Himself onto one knee, directly in front of her, so that their eyes met, their gazes touching, interweaving, interlocking. Again He was holding out a ring to her on the palm of His hand, this time a broader, golden one.

"Place Me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm. For love is as strong as death."7 His voice was unfolding the words in front of her like petal on petal of an invisible red rose. "I want to be yours, Mary – would you like to be Mine? Bridegroom and bride, Husband and wife, now and all your life, until death unite us forever?"

"Yes." It was no more than a whisper.

The radiance in His eyes appeared to her like a sunrise, like the first morning of creation.

Infinitely considerately, infinitely cautiously, He put the ring on her finger, as if He wanted to let both of them savour this unforgettable moment for as long as possible. Fascinated, Mariella watched the two rings on her finger being interwoven into each other.

Then her betrothed stood up and drew her into His tender embrace. She smiled happily and snuggled into His arms.

It took her some time to notice how softly the hem of His cape was tickling her cheek, like tiny hairs. She blinked, opened her eyes – and opened them even wider: Feathers were enfolding her shoulders, strong, solid yet fluffy white feathers with golden shimmering fringes. Strong pinions were unfurled around her body, seemingly spreading out from His back, white wings against which his dark head, bent towards her, was sharply set into contrast. Mariella caught her breath as she saw His hair adorned with a multitude of single diamonds like a velvety night sky bejewelled with stars. With a loud sigh she buried herself even deeper in the soft embrace and inhaled His incomparable smell.

Finally she stepped back a little as her perception of His nearness was fading.

"Was that real just now?" she asked, confused. "So you do have wings after all?"

"I am the fairest of all the children of men and the Lord of the heavenly hosts. I have thought up and made each being that has ever existed, in their original unmarred form, and every setting of any form of life imaginable. If in the Beyond it should still be your desire to feel my wings tenderly touch your cheek, My beloved, then that will be. None of your long-yearned-for wishes will remain unfulfilled when you are lying forever in My arms, My bride. In My presence, by My side, in My embrace is fulness of joy."

In a gesture reminiscent of affirming an oath He put His hand to His side, directly above His heart. With a sudden jerk He seemed to tear off something, and when He held it towards Mariella on His open palm, she recognized it as a small, white eagle's feather, whose hairs consisted of nothing but down and ended in a touch of gold.

"A pledge," He whispered, tenderly closing her fingers around it. Then He was gone.

Pensively Mariella trudged along the way home, fastened her hood more closely around her ears, looked at her empty hands, buried them in the pockets of her jacket, frustratedly kicked a stone lying on the path in front of her, and walked on mechanically, with her eyes cast on the dusty ground. The afterglow of the miracle she had witnessed not half an hour ago was slowly fading, leaving her more whole than she had felt in a long time, yet vulnerable to doubt and a sense of loss. The longing raging in her heart after the departure of her newly-found lover was so painful that she almost deemed to feel it physically, like a fire in her side. 'She who has once tasted of true beauty cannot be content with anything else any more,' she thought wistfully. 'I am wounded, one way or another. And still – was all that really real? Or was it just my own imagination and wishful thinking?' That thought hurt, in a worse way than the longing, in a colder way. It was as if the sky fell down on her like crumbling mortar, holey like a sieve.

She closed her fist around the air in her hand where the immaterial little feather had vanished as soon as the person who gave it to her was no longer visible. It had simply disappeared – like His cloak... like His arms... like His hands... like His face...

"God!" she finally cried with a lost little sob. "Will I ever meet you in earnest? Like today – it seemed so real to me – and yet it was only inside of me, somehow, and now you are 'gone'. I mean in real, to touch, you know what I mean. Like my friend whom I'm going to meet tonight and whom I want to tell about all this, although I have no idea how. Like... like my partner if I had one?"

She was just about to send the next stone a bit further with the tip of her boots, when at that very moment a white something in the middle of the road caught her eye. She stooped down and quickly picked it up, without even being able to say why. Softly a buzzard's feather was nestling into her fingers, like an answer, like a promise. A white feather with golden fringes.

"Courage, desert rider," a voice echoed through her mind. "All that is mine is yours. This was not our last encounter."

1 Psalm 91: 11.

2Psalm 68:5

3Cf. Mark 15:34.

4Isaiah 43:2

5Psalm 68:7-8.

6 Song of Songs 4:9.

7Song of Songs 8:6.