“So, what will it do?”
The young woman studied the contents of the glass bottle. Within was a single jade-green pill, perfectly round. The proprietor of the shop just smiled.
“No, honestly,” said Jill, looking up at the man behind the counter. “I need to know what I’m getting myself into.”
“It contains nothing that will harm you; be assured of that,” the older man said. “The ingredients from which it is compounded, I am intimately acquainted with; but their names would likely mean little to you. And to relate the history of the components and how each was derived would take us many long hours, I fear.”
“So, you’re simply asking me to trust you?”
“Not at all; I am asking you to do nothing. I am simply offering you an option. It is entirely your decision as to whether you make use of that option or not.”
Jill looked up from the bottle. The apothecary was tiny. It was not the antiseptic white of most drug stores, and Jill was unsure whether the owner ever filled standard medical prescriptions; she had never brought one in herself, and had never seen anyone else have one filled in the shop.
Late afternoon light flooded through the single storefront window, fracturing into every hue as it reflected and refracted through hundreds of glass bottles. These were of every size and shape, some ornate, some simple; some were clear, and others were brown, cobalt, and ruby-tinted. Each was filled with a swirling liquid, a cacophony of capsules, or tablets of every texture and tint.
Jill had stumbled upon the shop one foggy morning in autumn of the previous year. She had not been sleeping, and, trudging toward the university and the classes she was scheduled to teach that morning, she was startled by the sign, newly painted, that emerged from the mist. Acting on impulse, she stepped inside.
What greeted her eyes and ears was much more than she had anticipated. Aside from the myriad bottles that lined the walls, there were small pots of herbs growing under lamps, fragrant wooden cabinets lined with scores of brass-fitted drawers, and glass cases laden with bowls, minerals, dried herbs, and even roughly-cut gemstones.
The apothecary air was richly perfumed, but the longer she lingered in the doorway, the harder it became for her to identify the scents that swept around her. Were they sweet? Yes, perhaps. Musky? Certainly. Was that vanilla she detected? Or sandalwood? Or cinnamon? The aromas made her think of all of these, but there was something else it reminded her of entirely that she could not quite place.
She then remembered having had a girlfriend introduce her to single malt Scotch whisky. She had never liked distilled liquor, but Andrea had insisted. On the fated evening, the two of them had sampled dozens of tiny bottles over the course of several hours, never taking more than the tiniest sip from each one. In the end, mildly intoxicated, Jill had conceded; she had had no idea how much she had underestimated the bewildering variety of flavors and aromas that could be found in this seemingly simple spirit.
And so it was with this shop.
The proprietor heard the bell as Jill entered, and he soon appeared from behind a curtain in the back. He was an older man, tall, thin, slightly stooped, and with a closely-cropped gray beard and thick hair. “May I help you?” he asked.
Jill started to explain that she was having trouble sleeping, but the proprietor had been so kind that she soon found herself sitting at a small table, taking tea with the old gentleman.
“You can call me Burn, if you’d like,” he had told her.
“If you don’t mind my saying so, that’s a rather strange name.”
“That is my sir name. My Christian name is Ezekiel.”
“Ah, well, Mr. Burn, I’m Jill; Jill Shatten.”
“I’m very pleased to meet you Miss Shatten,” Burn said, pouring her some tea.
Jill had left the shop later that morning with a tiny pinch of pearly-white powder wrapped in tissue paper; Burn had suggested she take some with warm milk just before bedtime. Whatever the powder contained, it had helped, and Jill became a regular visitor to the shop.
Her discovery of the apothecary had happened just as Jill’s life took a turn for the worse. She had been dating an instructor in the Philosophy department for over three years, a handsome British man named Ian who taught existentialism and Marxism. But the relationship began to rend. Jill had always been attracted to intelligent men, but those in academic circles seemed never to have abandoned the profligate habits of their students; the result was that none seemed capable of committing to a long-term relationship. Even so, Jill seemed unable to avoid being attracted to them over and over again.
She poured out her troubles to Andrea and to her new friend, Burn. The older man was a patient sounding board, and although he sometimes would suggest remedies that eased her nervous anxiety, it was his calm willingness to simply listen that meant the most to her.
When the relationship with Ian completely crumbled, so did Jill. And although it took her some time, she was eventually able to confess the reason to Burn: Jill had become pregnant a few months after she started dating Ian, and at his insistence, she had aborted the child. She had felt that she was entirely justified in doing so; after all, she was a modern, liberated woman, and she knew that even Ian was not interested in marrying, at least not yet. “There’s always time to have children later,” she had assured herself.
But with the loss of the child and of her relationship with Ian, Jill’s moorings shifted beneath her feet. She became less confident in her ability to judge herself, her friends, or the bigger world around her. Her insomnia continued, and although she had always prided herself on being independent and decisive, she became unsure of even her most basic assumptions about life. And behind all of this, like a faint shadow, was the image in her mind of a newborn child: the one whose life she had taken.
In desperation, Jill sought a therapist and spent months discussing her anxieties and difficulties, only to be told that what she needed, no therapist could provide.
“But what do I need?!” she had asked in exasperation.
“Forgiveness,” said the therapist.
“Then where do I go for that?”
“That isn’t my field,” said the therapist. “I’ve done all I can for you.”
The apothecary was on her walk home from the therapist’s office, so Jill stopped in to see Burn. He offered her tea and listened to her tale. When she was done, he studied her closely for a few moments in silence.
“So, the therapist believes you are in need of forgiveness.”
“Yes, that’s what she said.”
“And did she suggest who might be capable of forgiving you?”
“No. She said that granting forgiveness wasn’t something she could do; that what I needed was some authority whom I trusted and who could tell me, unequivocally, that what I did was not wrong, or else how I might atone for it.”
Burn stroked his beard and looked past Jill toward the street outside the shop. “Did she suggest what authority could possibly do such a thing?”
Jill looked down at the table. “She asked whether I was religions, and whether I knew of some spiritual authority that I trusted.”
“And, do you?”
“No,” said Jill. “I don’t believe in any of that anymore, Burn. I mean, I was raised a Catholic, but none of what I learned growing up makes any sense to me now.
“I mean, isn’t this all there is?!” Jill gestured angrily at the shelves filled with bottles, and at the sunlight outside the shop window. “We’re stuck here, all alone on this earth…aren’t we, Burn? Well, aren’t we?!” Burn did not respond.
“I mean, if all the modern philosophers are right, then there’s no one who can tell us what’s right or wrong! And that means the therapist is…well…just crazy! I’ll never be able to find what I need; I’ll never be able to find forgiveness! I’ll never know what I should have done, or what I ought to do now…!”
Jill had suddenly burst into tears, and Burn gave her his handkerchief. After her sobs subsided, she dried her eyes and looked up at him with a wan smile. “You don’t happen to have a pill that could help me find forgiveness, do you?”
Burn patted her hand. “In fact, I may….”
“So, what will it do?” Jill stood looking at Burn. She was still holding the tiny bottle with the green pill inside.
“It will help you to see things more clearly.”
“But, I thought what I needed was forgiveness.”
“Yes, but before you can find that, you have to be certain where to seek it.”
“And this pill will help me with that?”
Burn nodded. “Yes, I believe it will.”
Burn ushered her to the door and they stepped into the evening air. Burn locked the shop behind them and led Jill toward the wooded town square three blocks from the apothecary.
“It would be prudent for me to stay with you,” said Burn. “I know the pill will cause you no harm, but its effects might be a bit disconcerting. Having someone you know with you will make it easier, I believe.”
“Can you at least tell me what to expect?” asked Jill. “I mean, am I taking peyote, or LSD, or something along those lines?”
Burn laughed. “No, no! Those are blunt instruments compared with this. All this will do is to temporarily amplify talents that you already possess: primarily your gifts of sight and insight. That said, some of what you see may be a bit of a shock, so I’ll be beside you in case you need reassurance.”
“Will you be able to see what I see?”
“Perhaps. But whether I am able to or not, you may wish to describe what happens and what you perceive. That may help you stay…tethered.”
They had reached the square. There was a plaza in the center, and park benches lined curved pathways around the periphery; these wove their way through immense oak, mimosa, and magnolia trees. The plaza was filled with mothers and infants, couples strolling through the lush oasis, and whole families with ice cream cones watching the light fade in the west. Burn chose a bench near the middle of the park, away from others, but with a clear view of the sky, the trees, and the open plaza through which the crowd passed.
“So, what do I do?” Jill asked.
“Place the pill under your tongue and let it dissolve.”
“How long will the effects last?”
“An hour, perhaps, or possibly a bit less.”
Jill pulled the stopper out of the bottle. She shook the pill into her palm and placed it under her tongue.
“Let it dissolve. Then, keep your eyes open and tell me what you see. In the meantime, tuck this away for later; you may want it before the night is spent.” Burn handed her a folded piece of paper. Jill looked at him curiously, but tucked the note into her purse without reading it.
“Things still look pretty much the same,” Jill said after a minute had passed, “although, you look a bit different…sort of like you’re glowing.”
“Don’t concentrate on me. Look around us at the other people in the square.”
“Well, some of them are glowing, too. But, they look…odd…like they’re almost transparent. And some of them are unusually tall. But most everything else still looks normal.”
Jill watched in silence for a few moments. “You know, there seem to be a lot more people on the square than there were before. For every regular person I see…well, there are maybe two or three of the others: the glowing people.”
“Describe the glowing people to me.”
“Like I said, they’re tall, and quite beautiful: kind of in a classical way, almost like they were painted by one of the great masters. And they each seem to be associated with someone; they’re either walking with them or sitting with them or….Oh!!!”
“I just saw one of them disappear! He just faded from sight! And one woman just appeared and started whispering in that young girl’s ear!”
“What do you mean, ‘just appeared’?”
“Well, she wasn’t there a moment ago, and then she…it’s like she materialized, slowly. And now, she’s stopped speaking to the girl. She’s turning away…and she’s vanished again!”
Jill turned to look at Burn as she spoke, but was suddenly struck speechless. Burn was still seated beside her, but he was completely transfigured; no longer a stooped old man, his hair and beard billowed and blew in a gale she could not feel. And, like the tall figures she saw in the square, Burn’ face and body radiated a bluish-white aura, as if light from another world flowed through him.
Burn took her hand in his and patted it. “It’s alright, my dear. You’re not imagining things. You’re simply seeing them clearly for the first time. Have no fear.”
“But…why do you look like that, Burn? And who are all of these people?” Jill looked in bewilderment at Burn and at the crowds of illuminated beings thronging the square.
“They are messengers; creatures of spirit who tend those who are still bound to this earth.”
“So, are you saying they’re angels?!”
“If you’d like. Each person on earth has at least one, and often many, of these whose sole purpose is to aid them and protect them.”
“Protect them? From what?”
“I could show you that as well, but the dark things will not come into the light readily, and we will not speak of them here. In such a wholesome place, they will remain hidden, leaving the messengers and their wards undisturbed. But they never cease trying to lure all away from the Light. And they have been at work on you for some time now.”
“At work on me? How?”
“By encouraging you in your despair; by blocking you from seeing, and by preventing you from shedding the tears that are ofttimes necessary for healing. But, behold! One comes who will help you to better understand….”
Jill looked up and saw an angel striding toward their bench. In his hand was clasped that of a small child, just a toddler, and immediately she understood.
“She’s mine, isn’t she?” Jill said, looking up at Burn, tears welling up in her eyes.
“Yes, Jill, she is. But she isn’t here to confront you; she’s here to help you to see. You have been the prey of many dark forces; yet you, nevertheless, were guilty of acquiescing to them. She has come so that you might know, for certain, that those forces exist, and that there is always hope for redemption. But she has not come here for you to hold her in your arms…you prevented that years ago, by allowing yourself to be deceived.”
The child came right up to Jill and looked longingly into her eyes. Jill reached out for her, but her hands swept through the still night air, encountering nothing.
“But can’t I speak to her?” Jill asked. “Isn’t there anything I can do to help her?”
“There is, but not here, and not now.”
With a final sad look at Jill, the child turned away. And slowly, she and her guardian faded into the night air and were gone.
And Jill wept.
Burn continued to hold her hand, and when her tears began to subside, he spoke to her again. “You asked whether I had a pill that could help you to find forgiveness. The only way anyone can find that is to understand the true nature of the world around them, and their own place in that world. You’ve taught in secular schools for so long that you’ve lost all sense of the mystery and the magic that envelopes each of us, and the great goodness that is available to you, always.”
Jill looked up at Burn again. He was no longer the blazing figure of a few minutes before, although he still glowed gently in the dusk. She glanced at the square; most of the angelic figures were gone, and those that remained were fading into ghostly shapes that yet attended the couples and families that strolled the sidewalks.
“So, what do I do now?” she asked.
“The paper I gave you has the name of a priest on it, Father Hildebrandt. Talk to him. He can help you better make sense of all that you’ve seen tonight.”
“But can’t you do that?”
“No. My work, for the time being, is done. When you next pass by the apothecary, you’ll find there only a deserted shop front, so I fear our regular chats, for now, must come to an end.”
“But why?!” asked Jill. “Are you going away?! What will I do without you to talk to?!”
“I’m not going away. But the apothecary has served its purpose, don’t you see? It was created for you so that I could help you; and now you need the help of someone else.”
“But where will you go? And can’t I ever see you again?”
Burn smiled. “You can talk with me anytime you wish, but I may not be able to answer you…at least, not directly. Don’t you see, Jill? You’ve been given a great gift. Most people never meet their guardian angels face to face until the final moments of their mortal lives. But you have. Use well that gift, and all you have seen this night.”
Burn lifted Jill’s hand to his lips, kissed it, smiled once more, and then faded away.
Jill sat dumbfounded. She swept her gaze over the square, and even the faintest of the angels had now vanished. She found the slip of paper in her purse and noticed that it, too, glowed gently, and seemed to be fading. She quickly memorized the address written upon it. “Father Hildebrandt,” she said to herself over and over again, “Father Hildebrandt…I mustn’t forget.”
Jef Murray is an internationally known Tolkien and fantasy artist/illustrator and counterfeit essayist. His paintings, sketches, and writings sprout sporadically from the leaves of Tolkien and Inklings publications (Amon Hen, Mallorn, Beyond Bree, Silver Leaves, Mythprints) and Catholic journals (The St. Austin Review, Gilbert Magazine, The Georgia Bulletin) worldwide. Visit Jef’s website at www.JefMurray.com.
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