Living the Promise: Chapter Eleven

With a patience beyond his few years and bounding temperament, Jacob carefully finished filling in the skirt of the last shortbread angel with colored egg-wash paint. He tucked his little hand into the small pile of sugar on the edge of a saucer and deliberately sprinkled some of the crystals over his creation. Then he turned his beeming face up to his mother across the table. "I'm all finished now, Mama. They're ready to be baked."

Diana looked over to the tray of decorated cookies with wonder. She couldn't believe the little boy had been so meticulous with this job -- the angels' skirts were neatly painted in various pastel hues, the wings were sunny yellow, small dots of blushing pink graced the cheeks, and drifts of hair were alternately cinnamon sugar brown and a bright auburn mixture of nutmeg and ginger he'd carefully proportioned until it was just right -- Mama's hair color.

"Jacob, those angels will be too beautiful to be eaten," came his mother's proud comment. The little boy pondered an unexpected dilemma, then, with her words. He hadn't really thought about that. But, the angels were shortbread, and his father's favorite. What could be done?

"Could we save some?" a hopeful little voice asked.

"Why don't you use some as decorations for your tree?" Maureen left her place at the kitchen sink and joined the conversation.

"Yes, we've done that before," Samantha replied. "We need to leave a little hole at the top and then we will tie a ribbon through it after the cookie is baked."

"Should we do that to some of the angels?" Diana asked.

"Oh, yes! That would be perfect. We'll have some to eat and some to save."

"I'll help you poke the holes, Jacob. Here, you do it like this," Alex instructed after Laura had handed her a small drinking straw. In a few moments, the cookies were indeed ready to be baked.

Diana got to her feet to shuttle the tray over to the oven, easing her back out of the kinks it had fallen into from several hours hunched over a flour-strewn counter top. The fact she'd been placed on a stool to keep her off her feet apparently didn't do much to make her spine more comfortable. No matter. She hadn't felt this wonderful in days!

Now relieved of their decorating and cookie creating duties, Jacob and his seven year old cousin Alex were ready to make a bounding run out of their work area. "C'mon, Jacob. Let's read through one of my books," the bubbly, bright-eyed young lady called. But, before her younger companion could quit his place, Diana had set a retrieving hand onto his shoulder.

"Just a moment, young man," she admonished seriously, then proceeded to flick off some flour that had dusted the front of the little boy's sweater. "We don't need to carry all that about Laura's house now, do we?"

"Sorry, Mama," came the automatic contrition. Jacob brushed the remaining flour off himself as his cousin did the same.

"All that hard work deserves some reward, though, I'd say. Cookies are made to look pretty and made to be enjoyed, too. So, here are some for you both." Diana reached into the several storage containers of the day's bakery bounty and settled a half dozen varieties onto a small plate which she handed to Alex.

With easy mastery, Jacob turned to Laura, who was seated at one of the kitchen chairs, finishing up washing a cheery, dark-eyed face free of its obvious tussle with a mid-afternoon snack, and began signing as he spoke. "May we eat these there, Laura?" He pointed to a small table, child-sized, that was set up against the wall under the windows.

Laura smiled and nodded to the children, then signed in return, "How about some milk?"

Alex carefully set the plate of cookies down onto the still crowded kitchen table, then began to slowly sign also, "Yes, please."

Maureen looked over to her younger sister with a gentle pride. "She's learning quickly," Diana noted. The older woman silently thanked heaven that her child had been blessed by the nuturing and empowering presence of the others there in the room with her. She thanked Providence, too, that her sibling's face radiated only tender peace as she contemplated the children a moment. She'd seen the beauty of that face ravaged too often by unspeakable, silent anguish in the past.

With the children settled at their own small table, the women began to reclaim the kitchen from the effects of their marathon baking session. Samantha insisted Maureen leave her the dishes. Diana took to tackling the floury, tacky counter tops, and Laura, reassured her own little boy, Michael, was somewhat cleaned up, set the child to his array of stacking blocks so that she could put cooling racks and cookie pans away in their proper places in the airy kitchen. That left the visitor from Boston the highly involved task of dividing and packaging cookies up for transport.

"Laura, I must thank you again for sharing your home with us today," Maureen offered with sincere gratitude. The young deaf woman smiled, a gentle color warming her cheeks. She looked to Diana for a long moment, then began signing a response which Maureen was unable to follow enough. "I'm sorry, but I'm afraid Alex has become much better at signing that I."

With a patient smile, Laura then directed her attention unexpectedly to Samantha, asking her to translate, because, she signed, she knew "Diana would not feel it necessary." Turning back to Maureen with her continued reply, which could be followed within even only the soft, cherishing gratitude on her young face, Laura explained, "My family has a home because of Diana. The doors will always be open to her and those she loves."

The expectant mother-to-be paused in her assault on the flour-bedeviled surface before her to offer a modest smile. "Laura, I could think of no one else I would rather have living in this place than you and Jerry and Michael," she both replied verbally, and gestured.

And, it was true.

When Diana had accepted Vincent's pledge of marriage, she'd been faced with the highly complicated process of disposing of most of her worldly belongings in favor of the frugal simplicity of the tunnel world. Anything that could even remotely be of use to anyone Below she had happily consigned to community property with an ease that spoke so much of her formidible sense of self, given freedom at last. What could not be used she had had sold, the proceeds earmarked for the trust fund that was administered by Peter on the community's behalf. Her few most precious and personal articles had long since found their new home in the inviting, candlelit chamber that was her sanctuary now.

All that had been left was her loft, and it quickly became evident that the spacious apartment was a truly valuable asset in a housing-starved city. Yet, there was so much emotion that was unexpectedly attached to her life within that apartment, so many overwhelmingly . . . personal . . . memories created within its walls, that she had been startled to find the thought of simply subletting the place to a total stranger would be too heartbreaking a reality to her. Besides, she also reasoned practically, it was something of real value that she had a stake in, and her unshakable generosity urged her to use it somehow, also, to benefit those that had become her family.

The perfect answer presented itself in Laura and Jerry.

The young couple had long been attempting to find a place of their own that was suitable to raise their little boy. Laura had only been living with an elderly Helper in spartan quarters since coming Above. When she married Jerry, they moved into his own tiny studio apartment that was too near the deteriorizing neighborhoods that the young undercover police officer had to frequent for his work.

Six months before their baby was born, Jerry had taken on a transfer back into uniform in a precinct, citing the dangers of his clandestine work as too great a risk for a man with a young family to be constantly taking. When the baby came, Diana knew then that her loft would be a perfect place for the couple to move into.

Settling back down to her stool once her scrubbing had been completed, Diana momentarily took in what used to be her own apartment appreciatively, and without second thought. Though she had left Laura most of the furnishings which were still pretty much in the same arrangements as she had had them, Diana took note of the subtle transformations the space had undergone, transformations that were welcoming, and mirrored a gentle, happy family life far removed from the quiet anguish that had so often filled the space.

One addition to the home had been the child-sized bits of furniture scattered about -- the toy box and bookshelf set against the wall, the small table beneath the windows where Jacob and Alex now sat. Laura also had adopted those plants of Diana's that needed more light than the river chasm could offer. With steady, careful nurturing, those plants were now a riot of green hanging from baskets against the windows.

Recalling, with a pang of guilt, how often her distracted state and conflicted lifestyle and taken their toll on those poor plants, Diana was continually amazed that she'd been the one who had resurrected Catherine's rosebush from floral oblivion, considering how many times her own plants had been left to languish without water or care for days on end during her especially trying times.

The most welcome change to the apartment, however, from Diana's point of view, was the expanse of her former working board, taking up a large space against the brick wall across the room where her office area had been.

The blue board surface had so frequently been covered with forensics photos, newspaper clippings, pencil sketches of crime scenes and tagged bits of evidence that mirrored the details of the harrowing cases she'd submerged herself into for weeks, months, at a time. The expanse of that board, once filled with the trailings of the investigations she was involved in, had been spirit-crushing to her, all too often. She'd actually affixed pull-curtains across it to cover everything up on those rare occasions when she simply had to break free from the burdening load, when she had to look at, think about, dream about, something else, or risk her soul and her sanity.

Laura had taken the curtains down, and had instead framed the board's edges with a bright fabric trim that complemented the neutral colors of the apartment's decor. Now the board was filled with different bits of evidence -- the details of a cherished and gifting family life, happily shared by anyone entering the living space.

There were photos of Laura and Jerry and Michael, postcards of local attractions and places visited on day trips, also several pieces of paper covered with crayon squiggles that Diana recognized as two and a half year old Michael's first artistic attempts. Schedules of children's events in the park, a stray recipe or parenting article clipped from magazines, and a year's array of holiday greeting cards interspersed among all left a happy call to celebrate life no matter what notable or mundane date it happened to be.

Finally, the board also held a poster, of a beautiful, dark-eyed little girl, about four, in an attic surrounded by dusty treasures framed in golden sunlight pouring through a small eave window. The articles included old garments and costumes, and the child stood admiring herself in a cloudy cheval mirror as she tried on an old-fashioned formal gown that was so obviously large on her tiny frame, a cascade of pink, white, chiffon and lace that spoke of a special moment in someone's cherished past.

No matter that the gown didn't fit. The child's ecstatic expression, as she beheld her reflection, mirrored the poster's moral so eloquently: "God gives us dreams a size too big so we can grow into them."

It was so very much the truth, Diana had found out.

A moment later she felt a gentle hand on her shoulder. It was Maureen, who'd pulled up a bench beside her, having divided up their baked goods satisfactorily. She took in the sight of her younger sister with a sigh of unburdened joy. "I'm glad we were still able to do this."

Diana turned a genuinely happy smile to her sibling. "Oh, so am I! Except I know for a fact that Vincent is Below aging ten years because of it."

Maureen nodded in sympathetic understanding. Even though she'd never met her sister's husband face to face, she somehow felt as though she already knew him -- from Diana's words, from notes and letters they'd shared over the last few months, but most tellingly, from the radiant peace she perceived surrounding her sister's presence at last. "He worries about you," came the matter-of-fact observation.

"I know," Diana agreed with sudden blushing shyness. "It's been a long time since I've let anyone do that -- worry about me."

Maureen raised a practiced, motherly hand to the younger woman's braided hair. "You don't have to tell me," she scolded, bringing a look of contrite mischief into her sister's face. "But let me make a big sister-like observation, if I may: It agrees with you."

"Having someone worry about me?" The angelic face brightened with easy humor.

"Letting someone love you."

Diana swallowed hard at that, her eyes misting a moment as she settled her gaze over to Jacob now deeply involved in a game of Chinese checkers on the floor with Alex and Samantha. "That is the reality, the only answer to surviving life, isn't it? . . . Love . . . not being afraid to let someone into your heart . . . pain, terrors, secrets, shortcomings and all."

The elder sister held her sibling's face with gentle reassurace. How beautiful she'd become, Maureen thought once again, truly beautiful, beyond her fire and porcelain attractiveness -- the hard edges and distant attitudes of the past had been polished into something else altogether, something glowing with a gifting shimmer. Yes, there were a few lines of caring around the eyes, she was sad to recognize in Diana's face, no doubt the product of the past weeks' turmoil and pain, but the crystaline emerald depths were so true and . . . open . . . her face so honestly expectant and . . . serene. Maureen blessed the man that had been responsible for such a wondrous epiphany within her beloved sister's spirit.

"Oh, Dee, I've been watching you struggle since you and I were just kids. You were always so damn independent, fiercely so, swearing that you'd never need anything from anyone, that you'd take on the world on your own terms, come hell or high water! I envied you. You were so strong, so capable of taking on anyone and anything life threw at you. You could see people so clearly."

"And I was so scared to let anyone know how really . . . alone . . . I was, in everything," Diana confessed quietly.

Reaching around her sister's shoulders, Maureen hugged her, as Diana rested her head against her. This, too, was a gifting beauty of recent evidence within her sister's spirit. Diana never opened her inner turmoil to anyone easily. And with her compassionate sense of justice so deeply ingrained within her, that turmoil had so often been a staggering load for her heart to bear.

"I've come to see that there was so much that was fragile in you too, Sis. You'd never let anyone, not even me, get close enough to find that out, though. Not until you were in such pain you had to cry out for help out of sheer desperation, in spite of yourself. I don't think anyone could really see through you, you'd never let anyone see through you, except maybe, Dad."

"Until Vincent."

Diana's revealing admission shone through her eyes, sounded through the caress as she spoke his name. Maureen smiled. "And you apparently were able to see through him, too, from what you've told me."

Looking back over the past three and a half years, Diana had to admit that she and her beloved had shared at least as many moments of turmoil between them as they had gifting instances of communion. She'd always believed it was because they were so different in temperament and experience. Vincent was so accepting, stoic, even, in light of his dimishing boundaries of existence. He was always capable of submerging his own hopes and dreams beneath the needs of those he loved. His sensitive heart was open to anyone in need, in pain, yet he'd long feared his own responses to another such heart seeking to touch his own anguishes.

She'd always been outspoken, to the point of bluntness, with a "take it or leave it" truthfulness that might have been considered brutal, but that passionate honesty was ever fueled by her caring heart that refused to stand apart from another's pain. Though she ached deeply to respond to those around her in their need, she'd always kept herself, and her own yearning heart, at arms length, fearing God knew what calamity, if she let her guard down to reveal too much of herself too openly. How she and Vincent had ever managed to forge a fulfilling relationship and profoundly gifting marriage could seem beyond reasonable explanation to most uninitiated observers.

Diana, though, knew the true answer to that enigmatic puzzle . . . love . . . existing far beyond boundaries, limits, or fears.

"I guess we're more alike than either one of us will own up to," she responded, with almost incredulous wonder coloring her porcelain skin delicately. How often had she thought that, come to believe the reality -- that the compelling soul who had become her husband was, actually, the deepest, most profoundly intimate and true portion of her own essence she'd somehow been destined to exist bereft of without even knowing it. He . . . completed . . . her, and she, him.

"We've stood face to face and called each other to task without even considering the risks to either of our hearts. We're not afraid of each other; we've seen each other at our most needful moments as well as in our most uplifting ones." A quiet awe descended over the soft features. "Maybe that's why it all feels so -- right -- like its always been, we've always been."

Maureen took her sister's hand in hers and squeezed it softly. "Grandma Annie would have said that the two of you had been 'touched' in another life. But fairy magic, destiny, or providence, whatever it is that brought the two of you together, you deserve all of it, Sis, every breath of happiness you've found. Both of you do."

Diana rested her hand onto her swollen figure when her sibling released it. The warmth of the love filling her, embodied in that small soul she sheltered beneath her heart, was truly a gifting comfort she could claim without pain or guilt now.

"I can believe that, finally, especially with this little one coming. But, sometimes, I wake up at night and I find myself trying to understand it all, trying to hold the reality of it all.

"Just when I convince myself, it is only a beautiful, impossible, dream, I'll hear Jacob stirring in bed, or Vincent will reach out to hold me closer in his sleep, and I realize that, yes, this is where I am, these are the hearts that I can love as my own, the ones that love me as I'd only dreamed of being loved before."

"Well, I knew that you'd need to find someone extraordinary to understand that streak of fairy dust in your soul! And put up with your stubborn righteousness!" Maureen teased easily. "Maybe someday I'll get to meet him."

Diana eased a warm hug around her sister's shoulders. "We're working on it, Sis."

The two women sat side by side quietly for a long moment at that, content in the peaceful reassurance of each other's presence within the inviting confines of the bright apartment. Vincent had been right, Diana thought. Sharing this time thus had done her

battered spirit a world of good. There were so many quiet miracles that were enriching her life day by day now, not the least of which was having an understanding heart her own could always look to for sustaining support.

As if to echo her thoughts, even nature offered a bit of a gifting surprise. "Look, Mama, it's begun to snow." Jacob's bright voice broke into the reverie with the hapy news. Three days before Christmas -- it was sure to be a white one now. Diana knew it would be nothing less than a happy one.

"I'm going to need to get organized here if Alex and I are going to make the 5:20 back to Boston."

Maureen's words elicited disappointed groans from the children who had visions of frolicking about together in the winter landscape certain to be transforming the city in a matter of hours. Both mothers automatically admonished their respective children, then laughed at the sound of their equally disciplining voices. "Good heavens, DiDi, we've turned into Mom!"

Remembering how often their soft-spoken parent had stilled childhood rambunctiousness and impatience with only a carefully enunciated warning, Diana smiled genuinely at her little boy's reluctance. "Oh, Jacob, I know! but we've a long walk ahead of us. We'll get together again with Alex and Aunt Maureen and maybe go skating in the park."

"Oh, Mama, that would be wonderful!" came the sweet reply.

Maureen only looked doubtfully at her younger sister. "Do you have any idea how long it's been since I buckled on a pair of ice skates?"

"Since you took up Andrew's dare the week before you two got married and you almost ending up walking down the aisle on crutches!" Warm laughter erupted from everyone in the kitchen at the improbable sight conjured up within happy memories.

"Come to think of it, I guess you weren't the only one with fairy dust in your soul in our family," came the sheepish confession from the elder sister.

"More like fairy dust on the brain, I'd say!"

Another hug managed to just barely control the laughter that threatened to overtake the group completely once again. Then Diana held her sister in generous urging. "Well, you can't leave until we've opened presents, at any rate." She got to her feet and negotiated the width of the cheery kitchen to the couch, where her coat rested, along with several mysterious, small parcels carefully wrapped in white tissue paper with yarn bows.

"DiDi, you know I told you there was no need for gifts. Getting together with you is the best Christmas present I could have had." The words came from the deep devotion that the elder woman held for her younger sibling, as always, but it also had come from the realization that her sister's newly adopted lifestyle was far from the frenetic consumerism that they were surrounded by in the city. Diana only smiled softly in return.

"These are just some special things we made for you, Sis. It's how we celebrate Below."

Maureen found herself thinking once again, that her sister's transformed existence was a blessing and a gift of itself.

As the sisters got comfortable on the couch and the children joined them with sweet anticipation, Samantha began to put away the marbles from the game just completed with quiet ease, picking up around the space.

Laura was just inside the bedroom door, packing little Michael's overnight bag and struggling to fit everything a toddler needed to travel with into its woefully lacking size. Jerry was certain to accuse her of packing half the house for their long weekend stay with his family in Pennsylvania for Christmas. No matter. She'd become thoroughly acquainted with the motto of "Be Prepared" which served to describe both the spirit of Scouts as well as mothers everywhere.

At almost the same instant, both Maureen and Diana called out to the other two young women in the apartment with them, with bright-spirited instruction. "We need you ladies, too! Come join us."

Samantha signed the comment to Laura, who accepted quite shyly. Both the girls suddenly found themselves beaming with warm gratitude -- at their automatic inclusion in what was very much a family moment between the two sisters awaiting them. It spoke how close all the women had become with the regular visits they'd shared over the past months, opportunities for bonding friendship and trust each treasured.

When everyone was present, Jacob reached into the pile of coats nearby and drew out a small paper sack he'd carefully decorated with crayon designs of trees and stars. Maureen nodded over to Alex who also had collected a parcel she was eager to offer -- a beautifully wrapped gift that was obviously a book, from its shape.

"Why don't you go first, Jacob?" came Diana's urging to the little boy. He smiled with a great deal of pride and dug into his treasure bag, bringing out two small piles of writing paper and envelopes, each held together by a yarn bow. He handed one over to Laura who sat cross-legged on the floor with Michael in her lap, and one to Maureen up on the couch.

"These are for you to write letters with. I colored them all myself, and put everything together, too. Samantha helped me cut the papers," he added without hesitation, offering credit where credit was due.

Both women carefully studied the gift prepared for them from the child with obvious diligence. Sheets of plain lined school paper had been decorated with different crayon and marker designs on the corners -- trees, snowflakes, hearts, even musical notes. Envelopes of various sizes matched the different drawings. They had taken quite some time to cull from diverse sources Below, and the little boy was obviously proud of how cheerfully they complemented the writing papers into a stationery set.

"Jacob, these are beautiful," came Laura's signed thanks. "I will write to you from our trip."

"And I will be happy to write to you from Boston, too. Thank you, Jacob." Maureen gave the little boy a large hug, which he received with obvious delight.

"I have something for you Alex." Digging back into his bag, the small boy pulled out a treasure he'd long considered over before deciding on its appropriateness for his older cousin. It was a copy of "A Child's Garden of Verse," he'd carefully selected from his own library of books at home.

The little girl accepted it graciously. "Oh I do so love these poems," came her heartfelt reply. "Mama got the book from the library a while ago and we both read through it together. It was so much fun. Thank you."

"I know lots of the poems by heart," the little boy stated matter-of-factly, without a hint of conceit.

His older cousin exclaimed with obvious awe, "Really? Will you help me learn them, too, Jacob?"

"Sure," came the immediate reply.

After the gift was carefully set to her side, Alex then was eager to offer her own special treats. Shyly she handed Jacob her wrapped present. "It's for you and Uncle Vincent, for when you look at the stars at night together. The stories about the stars are all in there."

Jacob's eyes grew wide in amazement as he broke open a large volume on celestial mythology that was so apparently brand new -- and his. "This is so very fine a book, Alex!" Turning his intense blue eyes on Maureen with deepest affection, too, Jacob judged she'd been obviously listening carefully as well to his past tales of star-gazing with his father on occasional nights Above. And a brand new book . . . it was a treasure beyond belief to the little boy who was already appreciative of learning of any kind.

Alex smiled widely, pleased. Her suggestion to her mother about finding something related to stars as a gift for Jacob had truly been right on the mark. Her generous young spirit found itself more and more attuned to that of the small boy that her beloved aunt's new life circumstances had also brought into her own experiences. Feeling supremely happy that she had been able to share her affections with him, she continued with her gifts.

Small parcels were also handed to Samantha and Laura, two other new friends the little girl had been glad to welcome into her life. The gifts were brightly colored hair accessories that she'd obviously chosen herself -- a headband of silk fabric for Laura, and a pair of scrunched ribbon bands to hold Samantha's braid. The two women accepted their treats with hugs.

"This is for you, too, Alex," came Diana's gentle offer next. She set a soft parcel into the little girl's lap. When the tissue paper was carefully pulled away, a brightly-pieced vest of jewel and earth toned fabrics, rich in patterns, was revealed. The little girl smiled up at her aunt with about as much enthusiasm as Jacob had in receiving his book.

"Did you make this, Aunt Diana?" came her wondrous question.

"Yes I did, honey. The girls where I live like to wear things like it. Even Samantha has one."

The little seven year old looked in amazement at the older girl as well as her aunt, and was plainly overjoyed at having been initiated into something as highly mysterious and attractive as the fashion sense of her relative's new community. "Thank you, Aunt DiDi. It's so pretty, and soft, too!"

Diana smiled at that last comment, easily. It was the same thing that always attracted her to the simple garb of the Underworld: The use of much recycled and laundered fabric for clothing left garments with a wonderfully draping, comfortable feeling that was hard to describe. It was much the same sensation that she got from the candlelit world of her home . . . something soft and appreciated and comforting.

Alex handed her aunt a small thin parcel. Diana opened the box to find a baby's journal within, a sweet binder decorated with the wide-eyed Precious Moments children in pastel colors, their carefully patched clothing and gently uplifting sentiment seemingly drawn from the Underworld's own setting. The acknowledgement of her soon to be born baby set Diana's eyes filling with tears.

"We knew you'd be the kind of mother anxious to set to paper every last little particle of observation about that little one, so we thought you should have a proper way to get it all down and together," Maureen explained teasingly.

"Will the baby be born soon, Aunt Diana?" Alex asked in quiet wonder.

"Hopefully not too soon," came Diana's laughing response. "I need to get back home tonight, at least, or things could get a bit complicated!"

Maureen was close enough to her sister to detect the barest trace of concern in her green eyes, despite her easy good humor. She understood the reason all too easily. "Now, you'll let me know the minute that child comes into the world, Dee. You promise? I may not be able to rush to your side, but I want to know that everything's al right."

Diana hugged her sister tight. "I will let you know as soon as humanly possible, I promise. And everything will be fine. I have more medical and emotional support going into this than most new mothers ever dream of."

"Or can tolerate," came Laura's signing, that sent the women back into peals of easy laughter. She, too, had found herself the object of such tenderly overprotective attention when she was carrying Michael, the last tunnel-connected child born to the community. But, knowing the reality of how so many babies and mothers must begin their lives together robbed of such welcoming care, both women silently blessed their loving family members for their protective support.

Finally recovered from the happy laughter being shared, Diana set a small box into her sister's hands. "This isn't much, Maureen, but I hope you'll like it. It gave me a lot of pleasure to do it for you."

The elder sister carefully unwrapped the box, which contained an obviously antique metal picture frame. Maureen smiled at the sight of it, then felt the tears welling up into her own eyes after a moment. Then she found her words. "Oh, Diana . . . you're sketching again!" Her face was suffused with soft emotion as she lifted her gaze from the frame in her hands to her sister's tender countenance. "God, it's Mom and Dad! It is truly them, DiDi . . . you've captured them perfectly!"

A gentle hand slipped over the image carefully shelterd within the boundaries of the antique frame. It was a colored pencil sketching of Maureen's and Diana's parents, sitting together on a porch swing on what was obviously a summer evening. Timothy Bennett was just home from his duty shift, still in his patrolman's uniform, though his tie was removed and his shirt was unbuttoned at the neck. His cap was set on a small wicker table off to a side of the swing. His face was a bright, open, male version of Diana's own.

Maggie Bennett was in a comfortable house dress and apron, her golden brown hair gathered into a braid that slipped over her left shoulder. She was young, yet obviously possessed of a certainty of self, resting easily against her husband, whose arm was comfortably settled about her, tender green eyes holding his wife's quietly devoted blue ones with obvious affection and gratitude. On her left arm, Timothy's other hand rested with sweet affection, his wedding band plainly visible on his finger.

To complete the setting, an open window was enlivened by a billowing sheer curtain, attesting to the soft evening breeze. The bright faces of two young girls, both redheads with honest, gentle eyes, peered mischeviously, and with wonder, around the curtain, spying on the tender scene out front.

"I thought you'd like it. It's the way I always see them now, when I think about them," Diana spoke softly. Maureen kissed her sister on the cheek, unable to find words at the moment to express her thoughts any further.

Jacob sat quietly, attuning himself to both the warmth and the pang of loss channeling itself to his little heart from his mother's. "Are they really your mother and father, Mama?"

"Yes, angel, this is my Mom and Dad, and Aunt Maureen's. This is what they looked like when we were little girls."

Jacob took in the sight of the portrait in his aunt's hands with concentrated observation. Carefully he touched a hand to the faces in the picture, then he smiled softly up to his mother. "You and Father look like that, too."

Maureen picked out what the child had perceived, and what her sister's artistic gift had portrayed with such gentle wisdom: the radiance of love enveloping two consumated hearts. Diana kissed the little boy on the forehead, then took her sister's hand in hers. "I don't think that picture would have turned out half as well if I'd attempted it any other time before this," she conceded with her own generous offering of credit where it was really due. Her sibling understood.

"There is a bit of experience showing through that portrait, DiDi, I'll guess. Jacob is right. He's seen it."

Samantha couldn't help smiling, either, knowing first hand, too, what spark of communing recognition had so enlivened a pencil sketching. "I think everyone Below has seen that . . . specialness . . . too, and it's a wonderful thing to finally know. Vincent needed someone pretty extraordinary, as well." Diana offered her a look of pure gratitude, blushingly poignant in its true humility.

After a moment, Maureen handed her sister another box, carefully, with explanation. "It's so funny that you should decide to give me that portrait of Mom and Dad now, Sis. I was thinking along the same lines for you. Open it and see."

Slowly Diana tore open the wrapping paper on the small, heavy parcel. She reached into the cardboard box and found it filled with numerous tissue-wrapped bundles. Opening the first bundle she picked up, she sat totally speechless, as she took in the sight of a small bisque angel figurine.

Actually, the angel was a little boy, dressed as an angel, his gown held up above his little sneakered feet by a length of cording, his wings patched with squares of tape, a small wire from his shoulders lifting a circle of a halo slightly askew over his head.

There were three more angel-children that Diana quietly unwrapped. The tears had begun falling down her cheeks in earnest by the time she revealed the final pieces of the gift -- two small, curly fleeced lambs, a little boy leaning on a much too long staff, and a little girl in a veil and gown, gently cuddling a small, rosy cheeked baby against her.

"Mom's favorite nativity."

The words were softly spoken, waves of emotion sweeping over Diana's heart in the process. Her mother had collected different nativity sets and had them displayed around the house all through the year . . . wooden ones, fabric ones, sets from different countries.

Each had been a special Christmas gift from her husband Timothy, lovingly gathered over the years of their marriage.

Because of it, after he'd been killed, Maggie had been unable to bear the memories they'd triggered. She'd finally donated the sets to St. Elizabeth's as part of the school's fund-raiser for new library books. It had given her a great deal of comfort to know that her generosity had accomplished some good for the school, and that friends and neighbors would lovingly cherish her treasures. She'd been able to share Timothy's devotion to her

with them, and, somehow, that made it possible for him to still be a part of all their lives.

But, she'd kept the one set for herself -- the first one her husband had ever bought for her. It had come into Maureen's beloved keeping too soon . . . when Maggie herself had

died only a year later.

"She always said that it meant the most to her because of the joy of the children in the pageant. It mirrored what was truly special about Christmas for her."

Diana looked up to her sister in confusion, between her tears. "But you've had this set since Mom died. You want me to take it now?"

Maureen raised a gentle hand and wiped her sibling's tears aside softly. "I don't know if you use a nativity in your community to celebrate Christmas or not. You've said Father has taught the children to respect and be open-minded about everyone's religious beliefs in your world. But, you've left so much behind . . . you had the courage to leave so much behind ... I thought you'd take it now, to remember what was good in our lives together -- maybe to start your own traditions and memories with Vincent and Jacob, and the baby. I think Mom, and Dad, would have been happy to see it come Below with you."

With genuine gratitude, Diana swept a loving embrace around her sister's shoulders. "Maureen, I don't know what to say, except 'thank you'. You know how much I'll treasure this, always."

"It looks like the children are dressing up for a play, Mama," Jacob chimed in.

"Like the one we'll be putting on for the community," Samantha agreed.

Maureen wiped the last of her tears away, then tousled her nephew's golden hair. "You know, Jacob, your mama and I were in a Christmas pageant almost like this one, once."

"You were?" came the wide-eyed inquiry. "What parts did you play?"

"I'll bet you were both angels," Alex guessed.

Diana shook her head sheepishly. "Only your Mom. She could sing like an angel, even in fourth grade! I, on the other hand, was made the silent inn-keeper's wife. Couldn't sing worth a darn."

Maureen wrapped an exhuberant embrace around her sister, at that. "DiDi, you know why that happened, and it had nothing at all to do with your signing! You had a beautiful voice . . . you still do. Sister Mary Odelia was just mad that you'd protested, too often, that the shepherds should not all be boys. How else was she going to include you in the production, and shut you up, at the same time?"

The two sisters burst into shared laughter at the easily remembered incident. It had signalled to the world the advent of a red-haired prophetess of biblical zeal that civilization in a working class neighborhood in Queens would hardly be prepared to survive in easy complacency. Even in second grade, Diana's sense of justice, and her selfless commitment to it, burned brightly, often astonishing those around her who had absolutely no idea what to make of it all. Maureen, over the years, had mentally catalogued nearly every incident with generously amused, and amazed, awe.

"Do you remember every time I ever got into trouble, Sis?" came Diana's exasperated

question. Jacob and Alex giggled at the sight of their two parents taking each other easily to task.

"Every one!" her sister replied with certainty. That brought Samantha and Laura into the mirth, too.

"Well, then, I'm not so certain I should be too eager to have you and Vincent meet any time soon . . .You'll trot out one of those stories and his respect for me will just evaporate."

"I doubt that, DiDi. He'll only love you more for your humanity, because I'm certain he doesn't need any more evidence of your outspokeness!"

Diana simply looked to Samantha and Laura for help, but realized that her sister had scored her points already with them satisfactorily. She graciously conceded defeat, holding her sister in a laughter enlivened hug with meekness. Then she turned to one other intriguing parcel that she had resting next to her coat, evidence that even her husband had

happily connected to Maureen with only his letters and notes to her -- he had pressed Diana to bring the long, thin box with her this morning, explaining only that it was a gift to her sister, from him.

She handed the slender parcel over. "I have no idea what this is, Sis, it's from Vincent."

Maureen took the box with another hug for her sister. She opened it and a long roll of papered -- something -- slipped out and into her hand. When she uncovered the object from the cushioning wrapping, she found a sheet of writing paper still circling around it -- a letter -- and finally the gift itself: a long, exquisite candle, tri-colored, red at the base, yellow through the mid-section, and bright white at the tip.

"What a beautiful candle," was her immediate observation, as she held it in one hand, the scrolled letter in the other.

Diana swallowed hard, taking hold of her sister's arm with obvious incredulous delight. Laura and Samantha exchanged warm smiles of their own, in understanding.

"Oh it's not only a beautiful candle, Maureen," the younger sister explained, "it's a Winterfest candle!"

The elder sister questioned with a good bit of confusion, "Does it mean something, Dee?"

Diana nodded her head. "It means that you are invited to Winterfest next month! It's when our community celebrates its beginnings and our connection to those we love in the world here Above."

Understanding finally took hold and shone in Maureen's soft green eyes. "You mean I'm invited to visit your world?"

Samantha couldn't wait to add her own information, the joy in Diana's face radiating to the girl's heart as well. "It means you're invited to become a part of our world, as a Helper."

Softly, almost to herself, Diana, admitted, "I know Vincent was concerned about my having to sever my ties to you so completely, but I never dreamed of this, not yet, anyway. Father, the Council, are so cautious about whom they can consider as Helpers for our world. They have to be. It's usually a long process. There has to be so much ... trust ... involved. Maureen, this is so wonderful!"

Taking a moment to realize what a true gift had been presented to her in the form of a simple candle, Maureen held her sister with tender astonishment. She finally remembered the letter still in her hand, and setting the taper carefully aside, she unrolled the paper to read aloud:


"'It gives me great joy, Maureen, to know that you and Diana have been able to spend some time together today. She loves you dearly, and misses you dearly, as well. But, as I am certain you have come to realize, she is not a person that easily speaks of her own needs.

'There is little that I have been able to give to her, beyond the promise of my love, my precious son, and the limited confines of my world, yet, these she has accepted with a generosity and joy that I could never have dreamed of.

'Your own generosity, trust, and friendship, have come to our community, too, by way of Diana's spirit and heart. That you would be willing to accept her path in life, away from all that had been familiar and dear to her, is also a treasured gift.

'I feel as though I have come to know you already, Maureen. Your sustaining support for Diana has made her new life easier to embrace. Still, I also know that the ties that have bound you together as sisters also speaks to her heart, and claims it in her unspoken sacrifices.

'Our community's celebration of Winterfest is an acknowledgement of our beginnings, as well as of our necessary ties to the world Above, to those whose generosity and trust help us live our dreams Below. It is a time to give thanks for those who help us, and to embrace the promise of our hopes with them. Those hopes are symbolized by the candles we carry into our gathering, the candle I am sending along to you today, with an invitation that comes to you from all in our community.

"I could think of no more appropriate gift to offer both you, and Diana, than to have you join us for our Winterfest celebration this year, to have you become part of our world as a Helper.'"


Jacob clapped happily at the announcement from his father's written words. "See, Aunt Maureen, now you can come to our home!" The elder woman hugged him tight.

"I can't wait!" Holding her sister's sweet gaze for an instant longer, she continued reading the letter:


"'I wish I was able to give Diana the world! She has given hers up completely to be with me, so that we might fashion a new life together that speaks only of possibility and care. Perhaps, now, with this small gesture of invitation, I will be able to offer her back a bit of the world she has left behind, that part that is the welcome closeness of the sister she treasures.

'And perhaps, at the same time, I will be able to offer you a gift as well, Maureen, one that comes to you from us all -- the promise of a place of shelter, if ever you should need one, a community of friends who cherish your trust and vision, and the gratitude of a man who knows what a nurturing force you have been in the life of the woman he loves.

'Diana will give you the particulars necessary for your visit. Join us, please, Maureen, if you are able, and we will be waiting to welcome you to our community, soon, sharing our hearts and hopes with you.

-- Vincent '"


"Oh, Sis, this is really something special! Like I said before, Father doesn't extend an invitation like that easily. I can't believe Vincent was able to convince him to, so quickly!"

"Diana, you've done so much for Vincent and Jacob, for all of us. You shouldn't be so surprised! Vincent knew you'd never ask anything for yourself ." Samantha's conclusions reinforced the wonder of the gift to both women.

Laura signed, "You'll be a part of the community in no time, Maureen."

"Will you be able to come?" Diana questioned with teasing uncertainty.

"Do you think anything on earth will keep me away?" came the automatic response.

In a moment, the collective conversation converged into excited descriptions of the upcoming event. Alex was reassured that her time Below was certain to come too, and plans were made for a return from Boston. Then the sudden realization came to Maureen. "Good Heavens, DiDi! I'll be able to see that little one sooner than I realized."

She gave her sister's swollen figure a sweet, acknowledging caress.

"Great!" came the eager reply. "Then you can help me out, right from the start. I'm sure to need all your motherly expertise."

"You mean you haven't been offered any from Mary? And Olivia? And Lena?," Laura gestured with knowing, amused confidence.

"And Father!" Diana replied, an understanding smile radiating across her face

Yes, she thought gratefully, there would indeed be a great deal to celebrate this year at Winterfest. Diana let every breath of her thankful love release itself into the bond that held her heart to Vincent's own. She and her beloved, their community, and now her own sister, would be able to share so much. There would be many gifting beginings to look forward to. The fear and loss of the past weeks were far from her thoughts.

Diana's lighthearted spirit was even able to draw her awareness away from the annoying little twinge that still seemed intent on working its way down her spine.

Continued in Chapter 12