Ruby was three years old when she died. She shrugged her tiny body off with relief. She didn’t know what the disease was called, but she knew pain well enough. For a moment she only stood in her hospital room, feeling the light shining through her, warm and clean. Her mother curled up on herself and the machines chimed to alert the nurses. Mother sobbed harshly, as if something vital was breaking inside her. Ruby felt sorrow swelling in her chest like a balloon. She watched her mother’s brown hand link itself around that of the empty body, placing a large thumb in the tiny palm. When Ruby was alive her skin would have erupted in blisters at even so light a caress.
I love you, Ruby whispered, but her voice made no sound and she knew she was useless here. She left there with little more than a desire.
The meadow was just as she left it. The grass was as tall as her knees, exuding the sharp, green smell of life. The sun was warm and bright as the face of God. Ground birds trilled. White flowers starred the fields. Far away, a line of forest smudged the washed-out silk of the horizon.
Ruby knew where she belonged, and so she started to walk. A bright eyed fox watched her with curious eyes and a doggy smile from among the clover. His brush was scarlet against the bright grass of the meadow. Ruby lifted a hand and smiled.
“Fox,” she greeted.
“Seraph,” the fox replied, nodding respectfully. “That was a quick trip.”
Ruby shrugged. “I taught a woman to love. What have you done since last we met?”
Fox fell into step beside her. “I hunted rats, mostly. “
Ruby laughed like a little child, bright and expansive with her joy. “Walk with me a while?”
They walked until they came to a broad, green river, glinting in the day. Ruby breathed deeply, smelling the good smell of wet mud. A toad sang to itself about the beauty of warm water. Crying out with delight, fox dashed after it, making it splash into the water with a plop. A nearby tree dangled a tire swing.
Somewhere in the distance, Ruby heard the sound of screaming, high and terrified. She cocked her head to listen. It sounded like a human voice. Ruby turned to follow the noise, walking down the bank of the river. The voice was hoarse, as if it had been howling that way for quite some time. Along this river it could have been making that sound for millennia.
The sky was lowering with storm clouds. At her feet the grass grew more and more sparsely and became littered with stones. Lightning flashed. Sharp cliffs rose up into jagged peaks, and bitter wind whistled around them. The fox stopped walking suddenly.
“I don’t belong here,” it told Ruby. “Neither do you. This isn’t our place.”
Fear settled in Ruby’s breast. The fox had a point. Behind her shoulder, the meadow grass waved in the soft breeze. Ahead there was only darkness. She had learned pain not so long ago, and this place was full of pain.
“It needs help,” Ruby told the fox. “Go and hunt your rats if you must.”
Ruby felt Fox’s clever black eyes boring into her as she walked further into the storm. Cold droplets of rain stung her skin. The trees that grew along the river were skeletal, scratching at the sky with fleshless fingers. Lightning cracked toward her from bruise-colored clouds. One of the dry trees was struck, and it erupted in furious flame. Beside it the river roiled.
The sobbing was screaming now, raw- throated in intensity. It was very nearby.
“Hello!” Ruby shouted over the roar of the wind. “Who’s there?”
Her only response was the sound of pain. Before her a boulder had been split into blackened halves as if it had been sundered by a lightning strike. The voice seemed to be coming from the other side. She reached for a handhold and found the stone rough enough to cut her fingers and bare feet. She climbed over it, squeezing herself through the cleft in the stone before she came to rest on still more rocky earth.
The screaming creature was before her. It was a man, though he was hardly recognized as such. His visage was twisted with his sustained screaming. He cowered before an imp with a spear. The imp stank of sulfur, with skin dark as shadows and broad, sharp, wings like those of the dragon that had birthed it. The imp jabbed at the man, leaving bleeding puncture wounds in his sides. For a moment Ruby could only watch the creature, amazed. How could such a creature of filth come to be here? This place was sanctified against beings of their ilk. But she quickly drew her fiery sword and moved toward the beast.
“Creature,” she called, her voice low and terrible. “You have set your feet on hallowed ground. Turn and face me.”
Surprised, the imp looked up. When it saw who challenged it the flames of its eyes grew wider with fear. It fell back a pace, hissing, “I feel almost honored, Seraph. I scarcely looked to be dispatched by one of your standing.”
Ruby narrowed her eyes. “This man is ours no matter what your whims might be, demon. Begone.”
Powerfully, Ruby swung her blade. The imp brought his spear up to block, but against the great sword the spear was but a matchstick. It fell into halves at the creature’s feet. The imp spun itself into a dark whirlwind and vanished, leaving behind nothing but a smell of rotting and a broken man.
Ruby turned toward the cowering human. She crouched beside him, placing a bright hand against the tattered flesh of his arm. The man‘s sobs were reduced to soft sniffling. He looked up at Ruby with wonder in his eyes. His gaze flicked up, and she knew he was looking at the four feathered wings that graced her back.
Quietly, voice raw with overuse and emotion, the man said, “Oh, angel. I don’t know why you chased my monster off. He was the only friend I’ve ever had.”
Ruby didn’t bother to justify her actions. Human beings were glorious creatures, but they could be easily fooled at times.
“I’m Ruby,” she said. “What’s your name?”
The man appeared to think about it for a long time, as if he had forgotten. Ruby studied him. She found his disheveled hair was dark as night, and the eyes that were rimmed with remembered pain were a rich, chocolate brown. He was thin, painfully thin, and his arms were lined with needle marks. He was worn, and weak, but he was beautiful despite it.
“Carlos,” the man finally replied. Then he laughed, sounding tired but amazed. “Did you say your name is Ruby? Shouldn’t you have some grander name than that?”
Ruby shrugged. “Sometimes I am called Gabriel.”
Carlos blinked with recognition of her name. Sometimes humans still remembered the old war stories, though these days such people were few and far between. “Gabriel? Shouldn’t you be…uhm…a guy?”
Ruby smiled. “You know little enough about our kind, despite all your familiarity with our lore. Come along, Carlos. This is no place for a human soul.”
With some coaxing, Carlos was able to stand on his own feet. He leaned heavily on Ruby, though, and she moved slowly for his sake. The rain had stopped and the sky began to clear. Around the edges the sky was becoming a warm and faded blue as it reverted to its natural state. Furls of young grass sprouted at their feet, pushing through the rocky earth as they were born. Soon, this stretch of meadow would be what it once was.
Carlos gained strength as they moved down the river bank. He walked more quickly, leaning less and less heavily on Ruby’s shoulder. As they moved into the thick grass of the meadow, Carlos stood straight. His wounds were gone now, and he looked well rested and refreshed.
Fox appeared, leaping through the grass to keep up. “Well,” he said. “Even when we both hunt you come home with a greater prize.”
Sounding amazed, Carlos exclaimed, “A talking fox!”
They smiled at one another, Ruby with all the warmth of an archangel and fox sly, with his pink tongue lolling between his teeth. They came to the bank of the river with the tire swing. The sun shone down on their shoulders and scalps, sparkling from the cool, green water.
“You cross here,” Ruby told Carlos.
Carlos frowned, looking confused, and for a moment he reminded her of the screaming creature from the wasteland. “How can I cross? There’s no bridge.”
Ruby pointed to the tire swing. Carlos gave her a doubtful look. “No. I can’t…I can’t cross a river with a tire swing. Maybe you, with your wings. But not me.”
“Try,” Ruby suggested. Carlos frowned, furrowing his otherwise unlined face, but he obeyed and moved toward the swing. He was awkward as he climbed up, too big as he slid one leg through the rubber circle. Ruby placed a hand against the small of his back and pushed. Carlos swung out, arcing over the water. He was smiling now, face full of joy. He seemed indefinably younger.
Ruby placed her hand again on his back, pushed. “When you get all the way out,” she called, “Jump as hard as you can for the other side!”
“What if I fall?” Carlos’s voice was high with excitement. His black hair flapped in the wind like a flag signaling freedom.
“Then swim, silly!” Ruby laughed. “It’s just water!”
She gave him one more hard push as he looped back to her, and suddenly Carlos was airborne, flying through the air with the sun gleaming from his brown skin. For a moment, as his body yearned toward the other side of the river, Ruby was certain he had become a slender boy of nine. He was laughing with glee when he vanished.
Ruby watched the place where he had gone, feeling the cool mud of the riverbank squishing between her toes.
“That was well done,” said Fox. He curled up in a red ball between the roots of the swing tree. Leaf shadows dappled his bright coat. Fox yawned, contented. “Maybe what you were doing down there this time was teaching yourself how to love.”
“Maybe,” Ruby said. One of the tree roots was broad enough to support her weight, so she sat down beside the fox. Ruby dangled her toes in the great river, kicking them just enough to send shining ripples looping out from her feet.
“What are you doing?” Wondered the sleepy fox.
“Waiting for my mother,” Ruby replied.