The Angel of the Direst Necessity
A story by Beth Birkenhain
Translated from Swedish to English by Anna
This tale has old Lovisa told me, old Lovisa whom I will remember for the rest of my days, as I saw her in my childhood, sitting in her chair by the window in her little chamber under the roof. She had served both my mother and grandmother before she grew old, and she was like a little elf to all us children. The best I knew as a child was to go and visit Lovisa. I admired everything in the little room! The wooden floor with all the bright carpets, the colour prints on the walls that all of the depicted scenes from the sea, and the treasures on her chest of drawers: yellowing portraits among pieces of coral and shimmering seashells. Lovisas family was seamen. Both her father and her brothers as well as the young man she had loved as young and who had drowned a winter night at Cape Horn had been sailors. But most of all I loved to sit curled up on a stool at Lovisa's feet as she, with her frail, kind voice, told me fairytales. "There was once a big forest", old Lovisa told me, "an enormous, 10 league forest. In the deepest part of the forest there lived the lady of the forest, and she ruled over the entire forest and everything living there in. One morning it so happened that she sent out her messengers, the shimmering dragonflies, all around the forest with a message that the lady invited all her subject to a feast the following day. But they all had to be there before nightfall! Because the gates would close when the sun went down, and woe to the poor soul that then still was outside!! The message brought a lot of commotion to the forest and they, that had a long way to go, set out immediately, because the lady of the wood was not to be crossed. The birds spread their wings, the weasels ran swiftly through the bracken, the bear lumbered away, the wolf sneaked pass him like a shadow, the fox followed the wolf, and the hart pranced down the path without any fear of the wild animals around him, because when the lady calls no one has time to hurt another. And think of what happened lower down! The ants came marching in their thousands, the frogs bravely leaped forward, the snakes slithered and the worms crawled. Everybody was in a hurry. At the edge of the forest there lived three brothers, all wood cutters, in a cottage. They too received the lady's message, and since they too were subjects to the lady of the wood, they put down their axes and set forth. They had a long way to go and dared not stop to rest. They walked all day and hardly rested that night. But the following day, towards evening, and they were soon to reach the lady's dwellings, they heard a whimpering sound from the side of the road: -Help me, help! I will not make it on time! Please take me with you! Please! Big brother, the oldest of the brothers, hurried on without acknowledging the cry. Middle brother, the second of the three, threw a glance in the direction of the cry, but did not slow down one pace. Little brother, the youngest, alone ran to the edge of the road to see who needed help. - Hurry on Little brother! his brothers called. Don't stop, you can be to late! And without waiting for him they continued their way. But at the edge of the road there lay a snail, and it was he who had cried. -Take me with you! he gasped. I have crawled and crawled as fast as I can, but the road is so long and I hardly move at all. So Little brother lifted him up and put him in his pocket. And don't you think that he minded handling that snail. Because in those days the snail's skin was dry and warm. Little brother started to run and had almost reached his brothers when he once more was stopped by a cry for help from the edge of the road. - Come and help, it said, Come and help! I'm stuck! Let me loose and take me with you, or I'm lost! This time the cry came from a blackbird, that had been caught in a thornbush, and before Little brother had helped the bird loose, the brothers had already disappeared out of sight. The poor bird had torn his wings so badly that he could not fly. Little brother put him in his other pocket, and the bird sang out with his beautiful voice. Because in those days the blackbird's song was just as beautiful as the song thrush's. Now Little brother was in a real hurry and once again he started to run, He was so tired, but the sun was starting to set and he still had a long way to go. It was quiet and still around him in the forest, as if all the living already had reached the feast. Little brother ran and ran with pounding heart and gasping breath. Already the highest tree tops covered the sun. When Little brother for the third time heard a cry of help from the edge of the road. -Have mercy and help me! it said. Carry me the little bit that is left or I will be doomed! It was a hare that was lying, moaning in a bush. He had hurt a paw and could not run any further. And Little brother just could not harden his heart even though he was scared and feared to come too late to the lady's feast. He lifted the hare on his shoulders and the hare wagged his tail out of pure joy. Because in those days, you see, the hare had a long and bushy tail. And so Little brother ran on as fast as he possibly could. The sweat was running down his forehead, because the hare was quite heavy to carry, and Little brother was the smallest and weakest of the three brothers. But although he ran as fast as he could, it still would not go fast enough. The sun sank further and further and the shadows grew longer and longer. Finally the huge wall appeared, the wall that surrounded the lady of the forest's garden. The gate was still open and it was shining from all the beauty and wonders within. Little brother gathered his last strength and stumbled forward. - Hurry! The hare called from his shoulders. -Faster, faster the bird chirped from his pocket. -Hurry, hurry! the snail groaned in the other. But the legs hardly carried him anymore. And still he bravely struggled forward.... Oh, now he was almost there..... The an ice cold breath came through the forest. The sun was setting. And the gate in the wall closed with a heavy thud. Little brother fell on his knees, filled with fatigue and grief. The hare jumped down from his shoulders, the blackbird flew out, and the snail crawled out, and all three cried in chorus. Yes, their lamenting made Little brother totally forget his own predicament for their sake. If I at least could help them, he thought. He crawled on his knees all the way to the gate - he no longer had any strength for walking. He tried to open it, but it was locked. Then he saw the keyhole. It gaped big and empty. He lifted up the snail - and behold, the snail could crawl through the key hole! At least he was saved! The joy gave Little brother new strength. He took the blackbird and threw him like a ball up in the air so that he fell down on the other side of the wall. Now the bird too was saved! - I'll help you, if you help me! the hare whined eagerly. And Little brother helped him. He lifted him up in his hands and stretched up as far as he could. That made the hare totally forget his hurting paw and he took a giant leap over the wall and was saved he too. Little brother waited with pounding heart. Would any one of his friends now open the gate for him! But nothing was happening. So finally he gathered up his courage and knocked on the gate. He knocked and he knocked. Finally he could hear a key in the lock and the gate opened. The light from within dazzled him, the sent of the flowers intoxicated him, and the jubilant voices deafened him. But when he came to his senses again he saw that it was the lady herself that stood in the gate, high and proud and so icingly hard to look at, that he felt the tears burning in his throat. -Why are you late to my feast? she asked. - I helped three of your other subjects he timidly answered, three that had suffered accidents on the road and would not have made it at all otherwise, lady mistress. I managed to get them in through the gate but I remained outside. -Call them, so they can come forth and testify, if you tell the truth! the lady said. -Snail! Little brother called. But the snail didn't come. He had crawled under a green leaf, and he lay there shivering of fright that he would be discovered. If I crawl out, he thought, the lady will surely throw me out again, since I did come through the key hole. So great was his anxiety that he broke out on a cold sweat all over . And so it has been ever since: the snail has been cold and clammy to touch ever since he betrayed Little brother! - Testify for me, blackbird! Little brother called as loud as he could. The blackbird sat on a branch singing. He pretended to hear nothing and continued with his song. He sang and sang, as if nothing else existed for him in the whole wide world, he sang even though his heart was stuck in his throat for fear of the lady throwing him out if she found out that he had been thrown over the wall. He sang as much as he could, he sang even more, he sang until he lost his voice. And so it has remained; the moment he betrayed Little brother the blackbird lost his beautiful voice and ever since he grows tired as soon as he tries to sing. - The blackbird doesn't know you, the lady said with a menacing voice. Is there no one who can testify in your behalf Little brother? - Hare, dear friend come out! Little brother whispered forlornly. The hare had even more pain in his paw after the jump and had not been able to seek cover like the snail, nor could he offer his song like the blackbird. Oh dear, she's going to flay me alive, he thought and was stiff of fright. If the lady hear that I came in after the gate had been closed, she'll surely throw me out again. He crept up to the lady with his tail between his legs and he spoke with his softest voice. - Gracious mistress he said, I do not know that boy. I just know that I passed him on the road. And I called out to him to hurry up! But he was so scared, that coward, that it would show how much he lied while he talked. And he crushed his tail between his legs to keep from trembling, he crushed it so hard that it broke. And so it has been ever since: the hare has had to go with a bobbed tail from that moment when he betrayed Little brother. The lady of the forest was terrible to behold in her anger. - Go away from here! she said to Little brother. You can expect no mercy here! Then she whistled on her shaggy wolfhounds - who's names were Cold and Darkness and Storm and Snow - and let them loose through the gate and locked it with double locks. In that same moment it was like all evil had been let loose and filled the forest. It became pitch black night, the storm howled, the snow where whirling, and the cold was biting. Little brother screamed, cried, and prayed, but received no answer from within. Then he understood that everybody had abandoned him and that he was doomed to go under." I cried when Lovisa had reached this stage of her story, I cried as if my heart would burst. - Don't say that, Lovisa I implored. Please, tell me that the lady showed mercy and opened the gate for him! Lovisa shaked her white head. - She did not open that gate my child! But tell me at least that a prince or a knight came riding through the forest and saved Little brother! Lovisa shaked her head. - There were no other human being in the forest besides Little brother, she said. - Is it really true, Lovisa, I cried. Lovisa put her old wizened hand on my hair. - Don't cry so, my child, she said. Wait so I can finish my tale. Finish? Then there was something behind the cold and dark and storm and snow. - Oh please hurry and tell me the end, Lovisa! I prayed. And Lovisa sat up in her chair and started to tell. But she didn't continue with Little brother in the forest as I had expected. She started to talk about Heaven instead. "High up above the earth, in the bright halls of Heaven there Our Lord is sitting on his throne of gold. And all around him his angels are standing. Michael on his right side and Rafael on his left, Gabriel in front of the throne and Uriel behind it. There stands the angel for all the little children, and there stands the angel who strengthens the sick, and the angel who comforts the lonely. Oh, there are more angels than you can count and Our Lord has given each and every one of them a special task. But at the feet of Our Lord there sits an angel who's name I don't know. Oh, yes, Our Lord loves all his angels, but I believe that He holds the one who sits at His feet most dear. And that is the angel of the direst necessity. He comes to all the forgotten and betrayed and who has sacrificed everything for others. Nothing on earth can be hidden for his eyes. Nothing can be kept a secret for his ears. The angel of the direst necessity forgets no one. The angel of the direst necessity is also a master of time. Even if hundreds of his charges were to perish at the same moment, he would still be there for each and everyone. And now you must know my child, that it was that angel who came to Little brother. His white wings shone bright and the night turned light. He spread out his blue mantle and the whirling snow came to rest. And Little brother rubbed his eyes as if he had awakened from a dream and asked in awe: - Why was I so sad? And the angel carried him into a garden, in whose comparison the lady of the forest's was like a wilderness." - Lovisa, I said, can you really not remember the angels name? I so wanted to know his name. - I don't know his name. And no one else on earth knows it. Our Lord has given him a name that Can't be pronounced by a human tongue. Because else, my child, would we not call that angel every now and then, in our ignorance, and disturb him in his vigilance, we poor sinners who believe that every distress that happens to us is the direst necessity.