Aphelion Issue 242, Volume 23
August 2019
 
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When Angels Dare to Weep

by Barney E. Abrams




…In the beginning, the Great Creator brought forth the

heavens and the world into existence. And the world

was called Paradise.

…From the soil, the Creator molded the Serpentine

after his own image and into them, breathed life.

…And unto the Serpentine all of Paradise was given, to rule

over for all time.

----- excerpts from the Serpentine Scripture



"Cry for me!" The Baron commanded of his small frail slave. And Ulira tried, but no tears would come. Enraged, the Baron struck her across the cheek. The dull glow of light from deep within Ulira's chest brightened momentarily as the pain seized her. Then several glistening tears fell from her eyes onto the cracked scaly skin of her master's forearm. Immediately, the scales began to soften and heal. The Baron smiled in ecstasy, letting the sensation of fresh tears rush over him. Ulira started to turn away. But the Baron held out his hand, as he often did, so she could wipe her eyes. The Baron rubbed the sweet nectar over his face and lips.

"May I go now?" Ulira asked softly, not wanting to provoke her master any further.

"Why do you want to leave my company so soon?" He asked, sniffing the last of the Weeper's tears that still lingered on his fingers. "Sometimes, I think you don't like me."

"Of course I like you. It's just that it's late and the tears take so much of my strength."

"You're tired, just after those few tears. I remember when you could cry for hours."

"But that's when I was younger. I don't cry so much anymore."

"Well, you better learn." The Baron grabbed the girl by the throat. "You're not much good to me if you can't cry. Weepers are supposed to cry, that is your only purpose." He shoved her away. "Go back to the arboretum. Tell another Weeper to come. My arm is still a bit stiff."

"As you wish." Ulira drew in her large white wings and left the Baron's chamber. Ulira tried to remember the first time she walked down the hall to the master's chamber. But the past was cloaked in a melancholy mist that she couldn't see through. For her, she had been there forever, and forever she would remain.

When she was younger, the ones that came before taught her that it was her duty to let the nobles use her tears to rejuvenate their bodies. If left unattended, their Serpentine flesh would crack to the bone. But now, she only wished for an end to her servitude. An eternity as a slave was much too long for her to bear.

In the arboretum, most of the other Weepers had ascended to the high branches of the Gargantuan Oak for the night. A faint glow emanated from dozens of nests and moonlight shown down upon them through the paraffin shell of the arboretum, causing the entire tree to radiate with a somber luminance. Ulira extended her wings. And with a single flap, she lifted herself up to a nearby nest.

"Cadra," Ulira said, coming to rest on a limb. "It is your turn to serve the Baron."

"Did he do that to you?" Cadra touched the bruise on Ulira's cheek.

"Yes, but it's a minor thing." Ulira closed her eyes and a single tear fell out over her cheek. Instantly, the bruise faded away. "Just remember to always save a tear for yourself."

"I will never be as strong as you."

"If you do your duty, the Baron will never have reason to strike. Now go, he doesn't like to be kept waiting."

The younger Weeper stretched out her wings and glided down to the floor of the arboretum. Ulira climbed up to her own nest and crawled inside.

Ulira laid there for some time. The magnetic anklet that she and the other Weepers wore used to keep her awake late into the night. But over the years, she had gotten use to its constant tug. It was such a small thing, just a few ounces of high grade steel fashioned into a ring around her slender ankle. At ground level, it was hardly noticeable. But Ulira also knew that when the power was turned up to maximum, on the control panel in the Baron's chamber, that it would bring even the fastest and strongest of Weepers crashing to the ground.

Ulira kept her eyes shut and her wings tucked closely around her soft grey body as she listened to the night time sounds of the Baron's house. It was a large grand structure, much of which she had never seen. Ulira use to wish for more, to read a book from the Baron's library or to have a conversation with one of the Mortal servants of the house. But Weepers were forbidden to do such things. It was the only explanation she had ever been given. The role of the Weeper was simple; weep for the nobles, eat, and rest. Nothing else was permitted, nothing else was required. And so she gave up wishing for impossible things. Now Ulira only served the master and waited. She didn't know what she waited for or if it would ever come, but she waited for it just the same.

In the nests below her, Ulira could hear other Weepers moving around, restless, too sad to sleep. Some of the younger Weepers still frightened easily and slept together in small groups. Ulira figured that misery loved company. Why should any Weeper have to endure it alone when others were willing to share it?

Further away, she could hear servants moving about the house, performing various tasks for the Baron. But beyond that, a different sound that came to Ulira's small rounded ears. It was very low and faint, like a whisper. This wasn't the first time she'd heard this sound. From time to time, it would come to her as she lay quietly in her nest, as she drifted between awake and sleep.

Ulira lifted her head just above the edge of her nest. She glanced around at the other Weepers below her. But she wasn't sure if they could hear the sound or not. They didn't offer any indication one way or the other. They merely laid there in their nests, with eyes shut, basking in the soft light from within their own bodies.

Ulira put her head back down against her folded hands and listened to the soft whispers again. She couldn't make out what was being said or who was saying it, but she was sure that it wasn't any of the Serpentine nobles she served. No, the voices were too delicate, like the sound of a flower blossoming in the morning dew. Ulira had the urge to drop from her nest and search out the origins of the whispers. But she knew better. Like most everything else, it was forbidden.


* * *

Ulira woke to the morning light shining down on her. She stretched out her wings, letting the sun's warmth fill her and restore her. Often, she would remain motionless for hours, soaking in the raw energy. But soon, the younger ones began to stir. And again it was time for Ulira to fulfill her duties and instruct them as to how to best serve their masters.

"Do not resist," she said to the small winged cherubs. "Let the fear and sadness overtake you."

"But I don't want be afraid anymore," a young boy pouted.

"It is your duty," said Ulira. "For when you are afraid, you will weep. And when you weep, the masters are pleased."

"And what happens when we're not afraid?" Embra asked. "What happens when we have no more tears to give?"

Ulira was caught by surprise. She had never been asked this before. She looked at some of the other Weepers, but they only shrugged their shoulders and shook their heads.

"You dry up," a voice said from above. Ulira looked up and saw that it was Taligra. She was balanced on the end of a small limb of the Gargantuan Oak.

"That has never happened before." Ulira argued.

"Then what happened to the ones who came before?"

"They went away."

"Where?"

"I don't know."

"I'll tell you where they went." Taligra glided down from her perch and sat down among the cherubs. "You see, Weepers are the saddest of all creatures brought forth by the Great Creator. Our only purpose is to weep for our masters. But when we have no more tears, we have no more purpose. Our inner flames will flicker and go out. Our skin becomes stone… and we will die."

"I don't want to die!" Embra screamed.

"You're not going to die," Ulira said, trying to comfort the girl. She looked at Taligra. "Why would you say that?"

"They need to know the truth."

"That's no reason to frighten them needlessly. There are other ways to explain the truth to them."

"How? By telling them stories."

"That is our tradition. We listen to the stories from the ones who came before and tell them to the ones who come after. That is our way."

"Then maybe we need a new tradition, one that is simple and to the point." Taligra stretched out her wings, and with a mighty thrust, she lifted herself high into the Gargantuan Oak.

"Can that really happen?" Cadra asked. "Can we run out of tears?"

"Don't trouble yourself with such thoughts. You are a gifted Weeper. You'll always be able to find the sadness in your soul."

"But if it's true…."

"It is not!" Ulira dismissed the young cherubs and flew up to her nest. She was unwilling to continue the discussion any further. She did not want to think about such things. Ulira knew that if she or the others could not weep, then they would have no purpose. And if they had no purpose… She didn't know what would happen to them.

Ulira stayed to herself for the rest of the day. She didn't want to remember the ones who came before. She didn't want their loving faces haunting her memory. It had been so long since anyone had asked about them, since anyone had spoken their names. But now, a young Weeper's simple question was causing their faces to return. Did they run out of tears? Were they granted freedom or did a worse fate befall them? Ulira didn't want to think about the answers to these questions. She wished she could forget again.


* * *

A few nights later, Ulira waited for her turn to serve the Baron. But when Cadra returned from his chambers, she said that no other Weepers were required.

"Did he give a reason why?" Ulira asked, knowing that the Baron usually required the tears of five or six Weepers each night.

"He said that his nephew was soon to arrive and he had to make sure everything was in order for his stay."

"His nephew? Do you mean Cruelot?"

"Yes, I think that is his name. Why do you ask?"

"Cruelot is a young hateful Serpentine. Just the mention of his name is enough to make me weep."

"What shall we do, Ulira?" Cadra's eyes were already beginning to water.

"Save your tears. If you are chosen to serve him, I will go in your place."

"I can't let you do that. I must fulfill my duties as well as any other Weeper."

"That is correct. But even brave Weepers need their rest." Ulira watched as Cadra ascended to her nest. But the thought of Cruelot being back in the house troubled Ulira. She remembered how he had humiliated and took advantage of her on his last visit. He enjoyed inflicting pain upon Weepers, Ulira in particular. But the pain he inflicted wasn't the kind that could be healed with a few tears. No, his cruelty ran much deeper, scaring the soul and breaking the spirit.


* * *

The Weepers and household staff were all summoned to go downstairs to await the arrival of Cruelot's carriage. In the main hall, the Mortal servants were lined up on the left and the Weepers to the right. The Baron and two of his Serpentine administrators stood near the door. The Baron wore one of his finer uniforms, complete with metals and ribbons acquired during his tenure in the Brigade. The head butler opened the door and cleared his throat. "Master, he is here."

Ulira waited with a sense of apprehension as the young Serpentine entered the house. He wore what must have been his finest coat, broad across the shoulder and ruffled at the collar. He moved with the same rigid gait that at all nobility moved with. And he had the same familiar look of disdain on his face that all nobility seemed to have.

He was quickly followed by two Mortal servants, both toting pieces of luggage. The first was an old man that Ulira guessed to be Cruelot's valet. All Serpentine had an affinity for fine clothing and Cruelot was no exception. The second was a young adolescent male, who probably served as a footman. Ulira could tell that he was new to being in the service of the Serpentine. He still wore the clothes of a county peasant. And unlike the other Mortals who had grown accustomed to keeping their eyes focused on the floor, his attention seemed to be drawn to the Weepers.

"May I present, Lord Cruelot." The butler stepped back out of the way. The Baron wrapped his arms around his nephew.

"It is so good to see you again."

"It is good to see you too, Uncle."

"And what news do you bring me of your mother?"

"Mother is well. She wished she could've made the trip with me, but the mines keep her extremely busy."

"Perhaps, once Grale and Kird here," the Baron said, referring to his two aides, "have taught you how to operate the new drill, your mother will have more free time."

"I'm sure she will look forward to that," Cruelot laughed. "But tell me, is the drill everything the engineers had promised?"

"It is a beautiful piece of technology. All you have to do is code in the molecular sequence of the mineral you're looking for and the disruptor beam strips away the rest. Rocks, trees, even the soil itself, are all turned into a sort of proto-sludge that can be easily filtered."

"It sounds promising."

"With a ninety nine point nine percent yield ratio, it's perfection."

"When do we get started?"

"In a couple days, after you've had a chance to settle in. Now, while you're here, please think of my home as your home. This is our staff." The Baron pointed to the Mortals. "They have been trained to look after every need of a Serpentine. And these here, these are my Weepers."

"You have so many." Cruelot stepped closer, inspecting one, then another. Ulira watched very carefully as his attention was drawn to Embra. She starred up at the large Serpentine, clearly frightened by his appearance. Ulira also saw how Taligra turned slightly, making ready to snatch the cherub out of harm's way. "It is very disrespectful to look your masters in the eyes."

Ulira quickly fell to her knees, letting her wings unfold in front of her in a submissive manner. "I apologize, my Lord. She is young and has not yet learned how to conduct herself properly." Ulira looked over her shoulder to Embra. "Turn away." The child did as she was told.

"And who is responsible for instructing this child?"

"I am, my Lord."

Cruelot approached Ulira. "Rise." Ulira stood up. She kept her eyes on the ceiling as he examined her very closely. She could feel his hot breath on her throat as he starred into her blue eyes, at her delicate lips, and down to her small breasts. His forked tongue flicked about tasting her scent. "I know you." Then he laughed and stepped away. "Weepers all look alike to me. Uncle, please, how do you tell them apart?"

"Trust me, each one is very unique. Once you get to know them, you'll have no trouble telling them apart."

"I can't wait." Cruelot smiled at Ulira, as he accompanied his uncle into the parlor. The staff and the Weepers were dismissed.


* * *

Ulira rolled around, hoping for sleep, concentrating on it. But Cruelot's arrival worried her. He could put on the façade of a respectful and thoughtful young Serpentine for his uncle, but Ulira knew better. He wanted her. But he was patient. He would bide his time until an opportune moment, then he would come for her.

And as she lay there, Ulira became aware of a sound resonating inside her ears. It was the whispers she had heard before. But now, they seemed stronger. More voices called out to her, one at a time, then in unison. Their sweet melody pulled at her, each soft voice begging her to seek them out. Even though she was afraid of what she would discover, Ulira knew she must find the source of the whispers. She had no choice about it anymore. So with great patience, she waited for the others to go to sleep. Then she slipped out of her nest and glided out of the arboretum.

Ulira touched down in the hall, careful not to make a sound. Years earlier, she had discovered a room on the east side of the house that had its own private veranda. The room was used for storage of the many pieces of art that the Baron had collected over the years. When Ulira reached the door, she stopped and looked around. Only when she was sure that no one had seen her, did she turn the knob and enter the room.

This was Ulira's secret place. She came here from time to time when she wanted to be alone. This was where she could let herself dream of a different life; one without magnetic anklets, an arboretum, or the Serpentine nobles. For a little while, she could imagine she was free. But when she left the room, her reality, her life of servitude, would always return. And then she would find herself sadder than before. Why did she let herself dream or hope for a better life? She knew that those things were impossible for a Weeper. It was a cruel game. And she had played it many times.

Ulira maneuvered around the many crates and boxes, pushing open the door to the veranda. Once outside, Ulira could hear the voices more clearly. They were coming from deep in the forest. They were singing to her. She didn't understand the words, but somehow they were still familiar. They reminded her of how the elder Weepers would sing to the cherubs when they were frightened. How could she have forgotten the comfort those lullabies gave to her? Where have the elder Weepers gone? Ulira didn't have an answer for either question. Her past had faded behind the veil of eternity. So much had been lost to her. So much had been taken away. And now the songs of her youth have returned, beckoning to her. But she dared not risk an excursion out onto the grounds tonight. She knew of a better way to leave the house, with less chance of detection.

A few minutes of solitude with the night time breeze washing over her would have to suffice. Ulira spread open her wings and lifted her arms above her head, letting the breeze filter through the light cotton robe that draped her thin grey body. She could've stayed like that all night, but something caught her attention. At the end of the hedge row, a figure sat on the ground in the shadows. Ulira slowly lowered her arms and drew in her wings. She took a step back toward the door. Then the figure moved slightly, letting a ray of light catch his face. It was a Mortal boy, the same boy who arrived with Cruelot earlier in the evening.

Ulira half expected for him to jump up and run to the house, letting the nobles know that one of their Weepers was running around loose. But he didn't budge. He simply leaned back into the shadows. Maybe he didn't even see her, Ulira thought to herself. Maybe that was where he slept? The Baron had said many times that the Mortals had the most peculiar of habits. And then another thought came to Ulira. Maybe he was watching her. But why would he want to do something like that? Ulira couldn't understand this odd behavior. No wonder Weepers were forbidden to speak to them.

The sound of the door opening caused Ulira to jump. She quickly moved back out of sight as two servants carried a crate into the room. They opened the crate and removed a sculpture of some sort. They sat it on a large wooden table, then collected the empty crate and left the room. Ulira looked at the sculpture for a moment, guessing it was probably a gift Cruelot had brought for his uncle. It was a Serpentine custom for a guest to bestow his host with a gift. And if Ulira knew Cruelot, the sculpture was as empty and valueless as his own principles.

Ulira then remembered the boy and turned back to the hedge row. But he was gone. She didn't know if she should've been sad or relieved at his absence. Where did he go? Was he just as afraid of discovery as she was? Ulira fancied the thought that she had found a companion who would sometimes break the rules of his servitude as she did. Ulira snuck back to her nest, not knowing if she would ever see the Mortal boy again. But she hoped to.


* * *

In the morning, the paraffin shell of the arboretum glowed with sunlight. Ulira could feel its warmth on her shoulders and back. She opened here eyes and was surprised to see Taligra perched on a nearby branch. She had been crying for some time.

"What do you want?"

"I…" Taligra had trouble saying the words. "I want to thank you for protecting Embra… and myself. You put yourself in jeopardy to keep us from harm."

"You do not have to thank me. You are my sister. I do it gladly."

"And, I wanted to say that I was sorry for frightening the cherubs with that awful story. I don't know what I was thinking. Forever is a long time to be a slave."

"We can never undo yesterday. We can only try to make tomorrow better." Ulira opened her arms and Taligra fell into them. She held the younger Weeper for some time, soothing her, letting their inner flames flicker in unison.

But as much as she loved her sister, Ulira's thoughts were far from her nest in the Gargantuan Oak. She could still hear the singing. She had to return to the veranda, she needed to be closer. And what about the boy? Would she ever see him again?

So late in the night, Ulira returned to her secret place. At first, she didn't see the boy and she was disappointed. But then, she noticed a figure moving about in the shadow of a tree. The boy stepped out to where she could see him and nodded pleasantly to her. Then he moved back into the shadows, leaving Ulira to enjoy the night as she saw fit.

Night after night, Ulira went back to the veranda. And it pleased her to see the boy standing nearby. She only saw him for a moment, before he disappeared into the shadows. The thought that the boy was close by comforted her. And although they had never shared a single word in conversation, she felt as though he was her friend.

But on one particular night, Ulira didn't see the boy when she stepped out onto the veranda. He had always been there waiting for her and she looked forward to seeing his familiar face. A sense of frustration fell over her as she stood there alone.

Ulira could hear the distant singing from the forest. The desire to follow it was a yearning that she constantly fought against. The presence of the boy made it easier for her to restrain the desire. But now she was alone. She wondered how long she could endure the temptation.

Just then, Ulira heard movement behind her. She turned quickly and saw that it was the boy.

"It is you," Ulira said with a sigh to the young Mortal.

"It is me," the boy responded. "My name is Rafe. It's nice to finally meet you, face to face that is."

"I am Ulira." She took a moment to study the boy's face. Rarely, had she the opportunity to be so close to a Mortal. The boy took a moment to study her face, as well.

"Are all Angels as beautiful as you?"

Ulira wasn't sure how to respond to his question. She had never considered herself or any of the other Weepers as beautiful. That was a word used by others to describe her kind. So she said, "I am not an Angel."

"Are you sure? I could've sworn you were an Angel." He sat on a small wrought-iron chair.

"I know nothing of Angels," Ulira said as she sat on a chair next to him. "I am a Weeper."

"The saddest of all creatures brought into existence by the Great Creator. But why must you be so sad? Can you not find joy in even the simplest of things?"

"When I was younger, the elder Weepers told me of when the Creator brought us forth. We were perfect in every way, more so than the Serpentine, more so than Mortal man. Our beauty was so great that the Creator could not bear to look at us. So, he cast us out of heaven to live among the Serpentine and Mortals. The Creator's heart was broken and his sadness filled our souls. And we were left to weep tears of sorrow, forever and always."

The boy took off his hat and pulled out a small flower. He held it out so its blue petals glistened in the moonlight. "Once, I thought that this flower was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. Its petals are the same shade of blue as your eyes. I wanted to share it with you so you could enjoy its beauty as well." Carefully, he placed it in her hair, just above her left ear. "But when I do this, I know I was wrong. You are far more beautiful. And this flower is merely a weed."

"What are you doing with your face?" Ulira asked, having never seen anything like it before. The boy thought for a moment, then realized what she was referring to.

"I'm smiling," he said, broadening his smile even further. "It's what you do when something makes you happy. And being here with you, makes me very happy."

"I have never been happy," Ulira said, bluntly. "And I have never smiled."

The boy seemed confused. "Never?"

"I'm afraid not."

"And for that, I am very sorry." The boy turned away, his face loosing all expression. Ulira could tell that he was troubled by what she had said. This surprised her. No Mortal had ever been concerned for her well being. Ulira placed her hand on his. It was a simple gesture, but a sincere one. She had never touched Mortal flesh before. It was forbidden. She was amazed by how warm it was. It tingled with life.

"If I could see the world through your eyes, I would," she admitted to the boy. He glanced down at her hand touching his. Another small smile appeared on his face as he cupped her hand between his, bringing it up to his lips, and kissing it gently.

"Then let me tell you of my world and how I see it. I want to tell you everything, from the day I was born, to how I came to be in the service of the Serpentine."

And Ulira was eager to listen to the boy. He told her about growing up in a small village; of the school where he learned to read and write and of the kiss he stole from his best friend's sister. And then he told her about the terrible drought and how his family left their farm to travel to far away places. Ulira's mind was filled with images of mighty waves crashing against serene shorelines and snow covered mountains that seemed to rise up to touch the sky.

She returned night after night, ready to hear another story from the young boy's life. Her desire to go the forest, to follow the distant singing to its source, was always close at hand. But the urge seemed to subside when she let herself be carried away by the stories the boy told her. Ulira had never heard the roar of a river or felt the cold stinging at her fingertips. She had never tasted the sweet berries that grow in the high plains to the north or smelled the smoke of a freshly lit cigar. And she had never enjoyed the company of family and friends as they sat around the fire late into the night sharing stories and laughter. Ulira had never imagined that such a world existed outside of the Baron's house. So much had been kept from her, so much had been forbidden.

"I've been in the service of Lord Cruelot for just a few months," the boy explained.

"What do you do for him?"

"Usually, I tend to the horses and do odd household chores. But sometimes, I work at the mines. It is terrible what they're doing there. Their energy drills strip away the land, dozens of acres every day, just for those small shiny rocks."

"They call them gemstones. I don't know why they're so important, but the Serpentine will do anything to get them."

"Even destroy all of Paradise."

The sound of a door shutting caused Ulira to jump. She turned to see who was there. But she couldn't make out anything in the darkness of the room. Then she saw someone moving about, coming closer.

"Hello Ulira," a familiar voice called out to her.

"Good evening, Lord Cruelot." Ulira bowed her head, as it was customary for all slaves to do in the presence of their masters.

"Oh, don't be cross at me. I mean you no harm. You know you could get in a lot of trouble wandering about the house unaccompanied. Why don't you let me escort you back to the arboretum?"

"As you wish." Ulira took his scaly hand and was led from the veranda. Once inside the store room, Cruelot stopped and turned toward her.

"I've thought about you often since my last visit. Have you thought about me?" Cruelot placed his hands on Ulira's hips, giving them a slight squeeze..

"I've tried not to," she answered, trying not to look him in the face.

"Well, that doesn't sound very nice. I thought we had a pleasant time, you and I. But maybe you remember things differently than I do. Maybe I should refresh your memory." Cruelot pulled the Weeper close. The thought of pressing her lips against those of the Serpentine disgusted Ulira, causing her wings to shudder violently. "Why do you resist me? You should be grateful to have this chance to serve your master."

"I am a Weeper." Ulira pushed as hard as she could, but she could not break free of his grasp. "That is how I serve my masters."

"Then I will have to show you other ways." But as Cruelot started to force Ulira's mouth to his, the door opened. They both turned to see the Baron.

"What do you think you're doing?" The Baron hissed.

"Nothing Uncle. I was just having a bit of fun."

"Weepers are very expensive. They're not play things."

"Of course not. It's just that… it's very lonely here. There are no Serpentine women for leagues in any direction."

"Well, I don't know what to tell you Cruelot. But I can't have you treating my Weepers like your personal concubines. They are very delicate and frail creatures. If you push them too far, they'll dry up completely. Besides, this is one of my favorites." The Baron ran his fingers though Ulira's hair. "I don't know what I would do if something happened to her."

"I am sorry Uncle. I will mind myself better in the future. It won't happen again."

"See that it doesn't."

"Thank you, Uncle. And good night." Cruelot turned and left the room. Ulira stood there alone with the Baron. She waited for him to lash out at her for roaming about the house alone, but he neither yelled at her nor struck her. Instead, he took her hand and led her back out onto the veranda. Ulira looked for the boy, but was relieved to see that he was gone. She didn't know what the Baron would do if he would've caught her there with a Mortal.

"It's quite peaceful here, isn't it?" The Baron asked cordially, as he looked out across the grounds.

"Yes it is," Ulira answered, unsure if the Baron was trying to bait her with polite conversation.

"Is that why you come here, night after night?" He looked at Ulira, as if he knew more than he was telling. She searched her mind for some explanation to offer to her Master.

"I like to watch the moon rise across the sky and feel the cool breeze against my face."

"Are you sure that's the reason? You see, I've been watching you. And I think I know the real reason you come here."

"And what is that?" She asked, halfheartedly.

"The singing." He looked at Ulira as if he was confessing a terrible secret. But it was her secret. How did he know about the singing? Was there anything else he could tell her?

"Can you hear it?"

"No, it is much too delicate for me to hear. But it calls to you, doesn't it? It wants you to go out there." He pointed toward the forest.

"The forest is forbidden, Master."

"Yes it is. But the singing calls to you just the same. Scripture tells of how Paradise was brought forth by the Great Creator. It was given to Mortal man for they were his favorites. But they betrayed the Creator and they were shunned. And we, the Serpentine, inherited it. We cared for it, tended it, and made it our own." The Baron reached out with his scaly fingers, touching the cheek he had struck only days before. "But no matter how much you are drawn to it, you must never go out there. It's not meant for you."

"But what if I can't help myself?" Ulira asked, knowing how strongly the singing called out to her. The Baron sighed.

"Then, I'm afraid, you will die."


* * *

Ulira was taken back to the arboretum. She expected to be punished severely for sneaking through the house unaccompanied. But to her surprise, the Baron gave no indication that he was angry. To the contrary, he seemed to be genuinely concerned for her well being. What had brought on this change in his demeanor? Ulira didn't understand.

"I know I cannot hold you accountable for your actions," he whispered. "You are merely a Weeper. And you will behave accordingly. But still, I cannot have you roaming freely about the house." He took the portable controller from his belt and pointed it at Ulira's anklet. "Believe me when I tell you that it's for your own good that I do this." He pressed the green button and Ulira felt the anklet become heavy. It was as if a lead weight had been anchored to her leg. She tried to lift it. But she could only manage to raise it a few inches before she was forced to set it back down. "I regret doing this, but you leave me with few alternatives. It's now set at medium strength. Don't make me set it any higher." The Baron clipped the controller to his belt and left the arboretum.

Ulira stood in the middle of the arboretum for a moment, looking up at the Gargantuan Oak. She knew that there was no way she could climb up to her nest. Weepers began peaking out of their nests. Curiosity brought several gliding down.

"Have you been punished?" Cadra asked.

"Yes I have," Ulira responded.

"But how could he punish you? What did you do?"

"I broke the rules." Ulira tried to take a step, but almost fell over. Taligra swooped down from her perch and took her arm.

"Our master is so terrible," Taligra said. "He is cruel and wicked."

"No, the Baron could've done much worse."

"Gather fodder," Taligra ordered the other Weepers. "We must make a nest for Ulira." Suddenly, the arboretum was a flurry of activity as branches and leaves were gathered into a pallet at the base of the tree. Even the small cherubs floated down with handfuls of dried moss from their own nests.

"This is for you," Embra offered Ulira a pillow woven from long blades of grass. "I filled it with the feathers I shed during the spring."

"And it's absolutely wonderful," Ulira said. Embra gently hugged her. One by one, others followed suite while offering words of comfort. Ulira turned to her brothers and sisters. "I love each and every one of you very much. Thank you for your compassion." Then Ulira climbed into her newly made nest and laid her head against Embra's pillow. For some time she listened to their whispers, voicing their concerns for her and themselves. But soon, they settled back into their own nests and the arboretum was quiet once more.

Ulira appreciated the kindness of the other Weepers, but they could do little to calm her fears. The Baron's warning about going into the forest still resonated in her thoughts. She could not imagine the kind of evil that could take the life of a Weeper. It was clear to Ulira that the Baron wanted to protect her. But she wasn't sure if it was for her benefit or for his.

#

The sound of cherubs talking caused Ulira to wake suddenly. She peeked over the edge of her nest. Several of them were huddled around Taligra, asking her questions. Ulira could tell that Taligra was uncomfortable in the role of teacher. But instead of shying away, she made an effort to answer their questions as best she could.

"Why can't Ulira sleep in her own nest?" A young boy asked.

"Because she is being punished." Taligra made her answer simple and to the point.

"Why is she being punished?" Another cherub asked.

"She didn't follow the rules."

"She said that she loved us." Embra said. "What is love?"

"What is love?" Taligra was caught off guard by this question. "Don't be silly. You know what love is."

"I know," Embra admitted. "But I like the story Ulira tells us about love."

"Do you mean the story of Jatira?"

"Oh yes." Embra nodded her head. "I think that's my favorite story of all."

"It's one of my favorites, too. Jatira was a Weeper who lived in the forest before the age of Mortal man, before the Serpentine took Paradise as their own. You see, Jatira loved the forest. She had spent an eternity playing there and being friends with all the animals and trees."

"She was friends with the trees?"

"Of course. Trees have souls like all living things. You only need to listen closely and you can hear their conversations."

"I can't hear nothing," a cherub said, holding a leaf to his ear.

"It takes practice. But now, Jatira was nearing the end of her time. All she had left was a single tear that contained the last bit of love that kept her inner flame burning. And when that was gone, her flame would flicker and go out."

"And she would die?" Embra cringed.

"Yes, she would die. One day when she was picking berries, she heard a voice call out to her, 'Jatira.' She looked over and saw a young sapling, frail and starving for light. She knelt down beside it and said, 'Hello there, my dear friend. What can I do for you?' 'Please help me,' said the sapling. 'Shed a tear for me so I might grow up tall and strong.' Jatira wanted to help the young sapling, but there was no way she could. 'I am sorry, but I have only one tear left and I was saving it for myself.' But the sapling pleaded with her. 'Please help me. If you don't shed a tear for me, I will never grow tall and strong. I will die.' Jatira thought about this. You see, she had already lived for an eternity. She had traveled to the far reaches of Paradise and had seen all its splendors. How was she to continue knowing that this young seedling would never get the chance to have a life of its own? Her decision was simple. 'I will shed my final tear for you,' she said. 'But you must do something for me.' 'Anything,' said the sapling. 'What could I possibly do for you?' 'Sing to me,' she said. 'Sing to me as I become one with Paradise. Sing to all the Weepers that will come after. Sing to them of this day and how the Weeper called Jatira gave her last tear so you might grow tall and strong.' And the sapling was so very grateful to the Weeper. 'I will sing for you, dear friend. And I will sing to all the Weepers that come after. And they will all know your story.' Jatira lay down beside the sapling. She closed her eyes and her final tear rolled off her cheek and onto its leaf. The sapling soaked it in. And in her last moments, Jatira could hear a small voice singing out to all of Paradise, telling of how she sacrificed the last bit of love that fueled her inner flame so that a young sapling might grow tall and strong." Taligra lifted her eyes up at the Gargantuan Oak. "Now look at it. And in return for the love Jatira gave to it, it gives all of us a place to call home."

"Do you think it still sings?" asked Embra.

"Of course it does. But you have to listen very carefully."

Ulira lay quietly until the lesson had come to an end. She didn't want to draw any attention away from Taligra. It pleased her that Taligra could keep their interest. The cherubs seemed to respect Taligra and were eager to learn.


* * *

For many days, Ulira waited for the Baron to summon her. But he never did. Taligra told her that the Baron wanted her to rest. So, she stayed in the arboretum while the other Weepers served their masters. In the mornings, she basked in the sunlight that filtered down through the branches of the Gargantuan Oak. And at night, she listened to the distant singing from the forest. The melodies from her past called out to her and often they were difficult to resist. This was when Ulira thought about Rafe and the many stories he had told her. Sometimes she envisioned herself skipping stones at the edge of a lake, and other times, she was laying in a field of crimson poppies as they glowed in the moonlight. And then the singing would recede from her thoughts and she could finally drift off to sleep.

One night, just after Ulira had fallen asleep, she was awakened by a terrible scream. Weepers were quickly swooping out of their nests and gathering at the entrance to the arboretum. She pulled herself out of her nest and limped to where the others stood around someone laying on the floor. Ulira pushed her way through and saw that it was Listra, a juvenile. She had been beaten ferociously. Her robe had been ripped apart and her pale blood seeped from the claw marks all over her small grey body.

"Who did this to you?" Embra asked, kneeling beside the injured Weeper.

"Lord Cruelot," she answered between sobs. "I wept for him. But he hit me anyway."

"Can you heal her, Ulira?" Cadra asked as the others turned toward her. Ulira stood over Listra, concentrating on the sadness the situation demanded. But no matter how hard she tried, she could not shed a single tear.

"I can not help her." Ulira finally admitted.

"How can you not weep for our sister?" Cadra demanded.

"I tried, but I have no more tears." Ulira turned away in shame as a silence fell over the group. Their confused faces looked to her for an explanation. But for the first time, she had none to give.

"We must heal her." Taligra approached her brothers and sisters. "Our sister has been hurt. Let this moment break your heart. Let the sadness fill you soul until it cannot be contained any longer." All of the Weepers gathered close to Listra's broken body. They let their anger and sadness build up in them until they began to weep. Their tears fell over Listra and her grey skin soaked them in. Slowly, her wounds began to heal and the bruises began to fade. "Now place her in her nest. Tomorrow, she'll be whole again." They did as Taligra instructed, leaving her alone with Ulira.

Ulira was not surprised by the way Taligra took charge of the situation. It filled her with a sense of pride. Taligra was becoming the leader Ulira always knew she could be.

"She will be all right," Taligra tried to reassure the older Weeper.

"I know."

Ulira waited patiently until Taligra had ascended up into the tree. Then she made her way down the hall and into the Baron's chamber. He was at his desk, going over his ledgers. He was startled by Ulira's entrance.

"What can I do for you?"

"Cruelot has gone too far." Ulira slammed her fist on his desk.

"What has he done?" he asked, closing a large book and pushing it to the side.

"He has beaten a Weeper, for his own amusement. He is a monster."

"That's a strong accusation."

"Throw him out of the house!" She screamed. Instantly, the back of the Baron's hand caught her across the face, sending her small body through the air. Dazed, Ulira realized she was on the far side of the room. The pain was incredible. She touched her face, making sure it hadn't been split open.

"How dare you tell me how to run my house! You must know your place." The Baron picked Ulira up and stood her on her feet. "Go back to the others." Ulira stumbled toward the door way. But before she left the room, the Baron added, "Cruelot is my responsibility. I will deal with him."

Ulira returned to the arboretum and collapsed into her nest. Taligra and Cadra rushed to her side. They lay down beside her and wept for their battered sister.

That evening, Ulira was summoned to eat in the main dining hall with the nobility. It was a rare privilege few Weepers were ever given. But when Cruelot entered the hall and sat next to the Baron, Ulira understood why her presence was requested. His left eye was swollen shut and some of the hard scales on his cheek and chin had been torn away exposing the raw flesh underneath. The Baron had kept his word and wanted Ulira to know it. But she had no idea he would be so severe.

Cruelot looked down at the animal on his plate. After a moment of hesitation, he cut off a small piece and carefully put the portion in his mouth. Ulira could tell that it caused him a great deal of pain to chew it. When he had finished, he reached for his glass and took a sip of wine. It was then that he made eye contact with Ulira. The look of disdain on his face frightened her. But he said nothing. He simply ate his meal in a quiet and calm manner.

Ulira knew that Cruelot would do what he could to get back into the good graces of his uncle, but that wouldn't stop him from venting his anger on her. He could come after her at any time. And sooner or later, he would. As long as he was in the house, Ulira knew that neither she nor any of the other Weepers would be safe. Something had to be done.

All the next day, Ulira lay in her nest and waited. She expected Cruelot to summon her at anytime, but he didn't. In fact, he had not summoned any of the Weepers since the Baron had beaten him. This was very unusual for a Serpentine. They required a regular infusion of Weeper tears to rejuvenate their dry scaly skin. Ulira was certain that the Baron had forbidden him. Slowly, a plan began to take shape in her mind. It was a simple plan that could mean her freedom. But if she was wrong, her punishment would be unimaginable.


* * *

"I don't like this," Cadra whimpered, as she placed a small bottle to her cheek and let a stream of tears run into it.

"She's right, it's too dangerous," Taligra said as she added her own tears to the bottle.

"I know," Ulira admitted. "But the singing calls out to me. Every day, it grows stronger. And then there's Cruelot. How many Weepers must suffer at his hands? When will there be an end?"

"It is our duty to serve our masters." Taligra reiterated the same words that Ulira had said to her so many times. "When we are afraid, we will weep. And when we weep, our masters are pleased."

"And what happens when we have no more tears to weep?"

"Don't say that." Taligra put a stopper in the bottle and reached it to Ulira. "You just have to find the sadness in your soul."

"Tell me what happens?" Ulira asked a second time, refusing to take the bottle until Taligra answered.

"You dry up! All right! But that can never happen to you." Taligra was caught by surprise when Ulira opened her hand to take the bottle. Taligra gasped and stepped back. "No."

"It has begun." Ulira held out her hands for Taligra and Cadra to inspect. They looked at them carefully, touching them with her fingers.

"Your skin… It's like stone." Cadra started to cry over them.

"That will do no good." Ulira held her young ingénues close, wrapping her wings around them, pressing her cheek to theirs. "This is the one thing our tears cannot heal."

"I thought it was just a story," Taligra said between sobs, "to frighten the cherubs."

"No one should know too much about her own fate. And I was hoping to spare you the truth about our own."

"There must be something we can do."

"There is nothing. This is the proper order of things. My time is coming to an end."

"We must talk to the others. Perhaps they know something…"

"No! You will only frighten them needlessly. They can't help me in this."

"But I've got to do something."

"You will." With the back of her hand, Ulira pushed the hair out of Taligra's face and gently wiped her eyes. "Taligra, I choose you as my successor. When I leave this place, you will look after your brothers and sisters. With strength and compassion, you will tell them our stories and teach them how to best serve our masters." Taligra stood up straight and composed herself.

"I gladly take responsibility for our brothers and sisters. I will do my best to carry on with the lessons you've taught us. I will encourage them to be brave despite our life of servitude. And I promise, most of all, to put their well being before my own."

"I know you will."

Ulira left the arboretum. The soft light of the glowing nests faded behind her. From this point she could only move forward. She didn't know if the others understood or not, but she was never coming back to the arboretum and the Gargantuan Oak. She was leaving the Baron's house or she would die trying. Her days of servitude were over.


* * *

Cruelot was sitting on the corner of his bed when Ulira entered his chamber. At first, he didn't notice her. But suddenly, he looked up. The paper he was studying slipped from his hand.

"Why have you come here?" Cruelot's face was full of fury. "Did you come here to revel in your handy-work?"

"No," Ulira said in her sweetest voice. "I came to apologize. I know the Baron hurt you on my behalf. For that, I'm truly sorry."

"I don't believe you. Weepers may not be able to feel joy, but they can still lie." Cruelot moved to the far side of the room, putting an obvious space between himself and the Weeper. Ulira stepped closer.

"Is there no way I can make it up to you? Let me serve you, not in the way I've been instructed, but in the way you require." Ulira loosened the sash around her waist and then pulled her robe over her head. Cruelot's eyes grew large as he gazed upon her naked form. "Is this what you wanted?"

"You are so beautiful… so fragile." Cruelot noticed the bottle Ulira held in her hand. "What is that?"

"Tears. You must be in so much pain. Let me heal you. Let me serve you in the way you desire."

Cruelot fell back on the bed and Ulira climbed on top of him. Lovingly, she touched his battered face with her small fingers. A gentle moan escaped his mouth as he smiled with anticipation of what was to come. Ulira removed the stopper from the bottle and let a few tears fall onto his face. Slowly, it began to heal.

"That feels wonderful."

"This is just the beginning." Ulira opened his shirt and pushed the side of her face against the soft scales of his belly. Then she poured some tears onto his chest and massaged it in with her fingers. Cruelot cried out in ecstasy.

"No Weeper has ever touched me like that before. Please, give me more."

"I'm gonna give you everything a true master deserves." Ulira pressed her lips to his, letting him explore her mouth with his forked tongue. Then she pulled away and put the small bottle to his lips. "Drink," she whispered. Cruelot opened his mouth and let Ulira pour the tears over his tongue and down his throat. When the bottle was empty, she tossed it to the side and watched as Cruelot began to shake violently.

"What's happening to me!" he cried out.

"You seemed to have overindulged, my master. Your body has absorbed too many tears, too quickly. You must learn to pace yourself."

"You did this on purpose!" Cruelot reached out for Ulira, but was unable to grab a hold of her. "You will suffer for this!"

"I am a Weeper! What more could you teach me about suffering?" Ulira starred down at him as he slipped into unconsciousness. Her first thought was to grab a letter opener and push it between the hard scales of his throat. But she couldn't bring herself to take the life of another creature, even one as nasty and mean as Cruelot. Ulira thought that it was best that she continued with her original plan and make her way into the forest as quickly as she could.

Ulira felt around on his belt and removed the small controller for her magnetic anklet. She turned the setting to minimum and pressed the button. Suddenly, she felt the weight around her ankle dissipate. She had hoped to find a way of removing the anklet altogether, but she didn't have the time to figure it out. Ulira put on her robe and silently made her way to the servants' quarters. There, she was able to slip out the rear entrance of the house undetected.


* * *

The moon shined down on Ulira as she ran across the yard and into the forest. She stopped for a moment and looked back to the house. It was larger than she had imagined. Through the paraffin shell of the arboretum, Ulira could make out the faint glow of her brothers and sisters as they slept in their nests. But now, they were starting to stir. Something was causing them to panic. The Serpentine were looking for her. She had to hurry. There wasn't much time.

Ulira followed the singing deeper and deeper into the forest. The melodies called out to her, louder and more distinct than before. Her ears began to ring as words like sorrow and pain became recognizable.

And then she saw it, a large stone wall. Ulira had never seen anything like it. She looked to the left and to the right. The wall extended as far as she could see in either direction. She had no idea what was on the other side. But if she was to find the source of the singing she knew that she would have to get past it.

Ulira stretched out her wings and was about to flutter over the wall when she was aware of someone standing nearby. She was relieved to see that it was Rafe.

"What are you looking for?" the boy asked

"I'm not sure," she answered. "But it's somewhere on the other side. What is this place?"

"It's a Garden."

"It looks ancient."

"It is. Some say Mortal man once had a sanctuary, given to us by the Great Creator. It was a special place where we could worship and know peace. But that was when we were his favorites, before the Serpentine came." He pointed to his left. "I think what you're looking for is over here." She followed him to where a tree had grown up beside the stone wall and broke its foundation, leaving a narrow crevice to the other side. "It will be a tight squeeze, especially with those wings. But I think you can make it."

"I appreciate your help. But they're coming. If you're discovered helping me, your punishment will be great."

"Then we better hurry." The boy slipped through the opening. Then he held out his hand and guided the Weeper through. Ulira could not believe the incredible splendor of the Garden. Ornate fountains and cobblestone walkways lay before her. Exotic plants of every size hung down touching her skin with their velveteen leaves.

The singing was even louder now. It screamed out to her, begging her to join them in their misery. The pressure in her ears swelled as jolts of pain shot through her head. Ulira quickened her pace. She had to find the source. She had to be with them. The boy raced after her, but he couldn't keep up.

Unable to resist any longer, Ulira stretched out her wings and took flight. The singing drowned out all of her other senses. It was almost impossible for her to concentrate on flying with the singing ripping through her head. Near the center of the Garden there was a clearing. As she glided closer, she could make out dark figures all gathered there. She had to talk to them. Perhaps they knew about the singing? Ulira quickly swooped down and made a hasty landing in the grass. At that moment, the singing stopped.

The dark figures did not move. But as Ulira stepped closer, their shapes became familiar. A great emptiness opened up in Ulira and her inner flame began to dim and quiver. Ulira had never known such sorrow. It was as if a great wall of water had fell over her and swallowed her completely. She touched the dark hand of a young female. It was as hard and cold as stone.

"Why must this be our fate?" Ulira asked, hoping the statue would reveal its secrets. But the statue remained silent.

"What are they?" the boy asked, catching up to Ulira.

"They are Weepers, every one of them. They came here to die."

"Look here," the boy pointed to a statue's face. "I think this one was crying."

"Her final tear," Ulira said. "She saved it for herself."

"It didn't help, did it?"

"No, I'm afraid not."

"Let's leave this place." The boy started to reach out for Ulira's hand, but she pulled away.

"How can I leave here? These are my brothers and sisters."

"Ulira, this is a graveyard. It's not a place for the living. Please, let us leave."

But before Ulira had a chance to respond, she noticed movement to her left. She turned to see the Baron standing only about thirty lengths away. Cruelot and two Mortal servants stood with him.

"This Garden is forbidden. I cannot tell you how disappointed I am." The Baron came closer, shaking his head. "I was hoping that you were different, that you could resist their song."

"It was much too strong. I had no choice."

"That's a pity." The Baron turned to the servants. "Take Ulira back to the house. Put her in the cell." Ulira had heard stories about the cell. It was a dark and lonely place where disobedient Weepers were taken, separated from the others and completely shielded from the sun. The servants grabbed Ulira by the arms and forced her in the direction of the house.

"Get your hands off her!" The boy struck the closest servant in the jaw, causing him to stagger back. Then he grabbed the other servant by his jacket and flung him to the ground.

"Who is this boy?" The Baron hissed. "Doesn't he belong to you?"

"Well…," Cruelot tried to explain. "He actually belongs to Mother. Unfortunately, he has never learned how to respect his masters."

"My name is Rafe!" The boy charged at the Baron, shoving him back several lengths. Cruelot grabbed the boy by the shoulder, forcing him to his knees. The Baron and the boy glared at each other for a moment. No Serpentine had ever seen such defiance in a Mortal.

"Please, don't hurt him," Ulira pleaded, knowing that the Baron couldn't excuse the young boy's behavior.

"Why have you tempted my Weeper?" The Baron drew close to the boy, his eyes wide, searching for some kind of explanation. "Can you not understand the consequences of your actions? This… is her destiny, a fate I was hoping to keep her from. But now, the truth of her demise will germinate in her like a seed. It's inevitable."

"It's my fault," the boy admitted as he lowered his head. "But if you are to punish anyone, punish me. Let Ulira go."

"Mortal man was cast out of the Garden, for they betrayed the Creator. And you have betrayed this house. Unfortunately, I'm not as forgiving as the Creator." The Baron reached into his coat and pulled out a flash pistol.

"Run!" Ulira screamed. The boy looked up and saw the pistol. He tore loose from Cruelot's hold and darted in between the statue-like Weepers. The Baron fired twice. Both times, the high energy bolts streaked just pass the boy.

"If I may," Cruelot said, eager to please his uncle. The baron nodded and handed over the pistol. With a steady gaze, Cruelot took aim and fired. The energy bolt hit the boy between the shoulders, knocking him to the ground.

And as the servants drug her away, Ulira kept looking back. She hoped to see some sign that the boy was still alive. But he didn't move. He was dead.


* * *

Ulira sat alone in the cell. It was a cold damp place located somewhere in the lower depths of the house. Wet stone walls surrounded her on all sides. From an opening, somewhere above, a small shaft of light shown down. Her body was changing quickly now. Most of her skin had become hard and cold like stone. Every movement hurt, each breath caused her pain.

Every day, a slit at the bottom of the door opened and a bowl of broth was pushed inside. Ulira was hungry, but she had no desire to eat. And she knew she should stretch out her wings and try to catch all the light she could, but she had no desire to stand. To return to the Garden, to die with her brothers and sisters, that was all she craved. Everything else had become secondary.

Then she was aware of a shadow underneath the door. It remained there for some time, keeping her company during her time of misery. Finally, the slit opened.

"Ulira?" The Baron's voice came to her in muted waves. "I may not have been the kindest of masters, but I did not want this for you. I was hoping to spare you. I wanted you to be with me forever." It wasn't the apology Ulira was hoping for, but what else could she had expected from a Serpentine.

"The Garden…" Ulira found it hard to form the words. Every muscle in her body was becoming rigid. "Let me return to the Garden."

"Can we not find another way?" The Baron pleaded, pounding the door with his fist.

"As you said… It's my destiny."

"Then it's finished." The slit in the door slammed shut and Ulira could hear the Baron walk away. There was so much sadness in his voice. But Ulira knew that he was only concerned with his own needs. He had no remorse for any of the pain inflicted by the Serpentine on her brothers and sisters. He did not show a single trace of regret for taking the life of the young boy who died on her behalf.

Ulira looked up at the faint light from above. It glowed with the crimson shades of the setting sun. She thought about the veranda, where she had spent so many evenings listening to the stories Rafe told her. The sun was setting there. And in the forest, with its light sifting down through the tree tops. The sun was setting there as well. But she did not have to wonder how many sunsets she had left. She knew this would be her last.

The door to Ulira's cell opened. The Baron stood in the doorway, frowning as best a Serpentine knew how. In his hand, he held a controller for the magnetic anklet on Ulira's leg. He pointed the small device at the anklet and pushed a button.

"Remove it," he ordered a Mortal servant. "There's no further use for it." The servant rushed over and unlocked the anklet with a special tool. Then he returned to his master, handing over the anklet and the tool. "Help her up." The Baron and the servant led Ulira upstairs and out the main entrance of the house. Ulira could barely feel her legs. They seemed like stone to her, hard and heavy.

Outside, a small wagon waited for her. It was the same wagon used to transfer animals bought at market. The servant lifted her into the back before climbing into the driver seat. Ulira looked to the arboretum. She could make out the silhouettes of all her brothers and sisters as they stood by. They couldn't see through the paraffin shell, but they could sense her sorrow just the same.

"What are you doing?" Cruelot came running out of the house.

"Releasing her," the Baron answered reluctantly.

"But Uncle, she's a Weeper. You can't just release her."

"Look at her. Her spark is nearly extinguished. It's best to let her go and be with the others. She is lost to me."

"But couldn't we…" Cruelot took a step back when the Baron turned toward him.

"If I thought your actions expedited this in any way…" the Baron was too upset to say anything else. He could only clench his fists and go back inside the house. Cruelot watched as the wagon pulled away. He waited until it had disappeared from view before returning inside.

Ulira could make out the final rays of daylight filtering through the trees. It was the last time she would ever see such beauty and wanted to hold onto it for as long as possible. She acknowledged it for the life it gave to her and all of Paradise. And as the sun's last rays dwindled to a soft smolder behind the distant hills in the west, Ulira knew that its work was done …and so was hers. It was time for Ulira to be with the rest of the Weepers in the Garden and share in their eternal desolation.


* * *

The wagon came to a halt.

"We are here," the Mortal servant said as he jumped to the ground. But they were not at the Garden. They were in front of a small cottage. Small makeshift cages sat on the ground with squirrels and rabbits in them.

"Why did you bring me here!" Ulira demanded. "I must go to the Garden!"

"Don't be frightened," the Mortal tried to speak in a soothing tone. "I am the game keeper for the Baron."

"How can you be so cruel? Death can overtake me at any time."

"I don't mean to be." He struggled for the right words to say. Then he simply pointed to the cottage. "He's in there."

"Who?"

"The boy." The Mortal walked away, vanishing into the darkness. Ulira didn't understand why he would bring her to this place. Rafe was dead. There was nothing she could do for him. But at the same time, she thought she should go inside. The boy lost his life trying to help her. It was only proper for her to tell him how sorry she was. At least she could do that one thing for him, if nothing else.

The inside of the cottage was very dark, except for the glow of the hot embers in the fireplace. Long shadows spread out over the walls and ceiling, creating an exotic dance between light and dark. Ulira could tell something was lying on the table. It was silhouetted by the bright flames of the hearth. As she moved closer, Ulira saw that it was Rafe.

"Poor boy," she said, caressing his face in her hand. But she could not feel the dirt in his stiff matted hair or his cold skin. Her small dark fingers had lost all sense of touch. "You wanted so much to be my friend. You had nothing but your friendship to give to me. And this you gave freely. But I was not of your world and you were not of mine. We were so foolish. I'm sorry. Please, forgive me."

Ulira sat down at the table. She was too tired to continue. This mere Mortal had sacrificed his life on her behalf. She thought it was only appropriate that she would die by his side, offering her last breath to him. So she folded her arms and laid her weary head down beside his. She closed her eyes and waited for the end to come.

And as she lay there, images of the boy filled her mind. She thought about the first time she had seen him sitting in the shadow of the hedge row. She thought about how he would wait for her, not wanting anything from her, but to share a few moments of her day. Visions of his beautiful face flittered inside her mind. She could almost hear the sound of his voice as he explained about his family. She could almost smell the sweet fragrance of the flower he had brought to her the first night they spoke.

But the end was upon her now. All the pain and suffering she had endured began to melt away. The Garden, the Serpentine, even Paradise itself fell to the side. And in those last moments, nothing else existed but the two of them, a universe unto themselves.

Only then could Ulira take pleasure in the fact that the boy had been a brief part of her life. It seemed like a small and trivial acknowledgement, but to Ulira it was the most important one she would ever make. For it was then that she became aware of something else she had not realized before. The boy had made her happy.

Just then, Ulira felt something quiver from deep within. She opened her eyes and sat up. The faint glow in her chest, which was nearly out, had now begun to grow. It was a sensation that welled up out of her soul, from a long forgotten place buried under an eternity of servitude and misery. It rippled through her body like pulses of love and hope, touching every fiber of her being. The sensation was so profound that tears filled her eyes and flowed over her cheeks as easily as a drop of water was pulled along with the surge of a river. But Ulira could tell that these tears were different from any she had ever wept before. They were not caused by fear or pain. These tears came from a completely different emotion. These were tears of joy.

Suddenly, the table moved. Ulira looked down and saw that her tears had fallen on the boy's shoulder.

"Could it be?" Ulira leaned closer to the boy, looking for any signs of life. The boy took a deep breath and slowly opened his eyes. Ulira gasped. "You're alive!"

"Yes… I am," the boy managed. "And behold, an Angel weeps for me." The burns along the boy's neck and shoulders faded away. Slowly he sat up. Ulira's face began to move and contort in ways unfamiliar to her. Then she realized, for the first time in her life, that she was smiling.

"I am happy," Ulira said to the boy with a laugh. "Being here, with you, makes me very happy."

"I am glad."

The sensation that Ulira had felt growing inside her was now becoming stronger. Her skin was starting to glow.

"What's happening to you," the boy asked.

"I think this is what joy feels like." Ulira stretched open her wings and a brilliant flash filled the cottage. Rafe shielded his eyes with his arm. Gradually, the glare receded enough so the boy could look at the Weeper. Her skin glistened like jewels, barely containing the light emanating from within. Ulira pulled in her wings and left the cottage.

"Where are you going?" Rafe ran after her. Ulira stopped and turn back to the boy.

"I must go to the Garden. I must help my brothers and sisters find the joy they carry within them."

"But they're dead."

"No more than you were, dear Rafe." She touched his cheek with her hand, causing it to tingle. "Don't you see, there is no death. We are eternal beings, every one of us. We have only forgotten"

"Then let me help!" He grabbed her robe.

"You know I can't do that."

"Let me come with you!" he cried out, refusing to let go of her. She pulled him close. Her eyes, once a dull shade of blue, now burned with the intensity of the sun.

"Thank you. You helped me to discover the joy that was locked away in my soul. But now, everything is about to change. Your time has come. Paradise belongs to you."

Rafe started to say something, but a great light fell over him. Love and joy soaked into his pores and filled his entire body. He could not resist its sweet embrace.


* * *

With a flutter, Rafe opened his eyes. After a moment, he realized he was back inside the cottage, lying on the floor. Light filtered in through the window. It was morning.

The boy got to his feet and went outside. He wasn't sure if he'd been asleep for a day or a thousand years. The world looked the same. The trees were filled with leaves and the sky was still blue. But yet, it was different. Something was missing. Something had been taken away.

And then he remembered. Rafe bolted into the forest, making the quickest route to the Garden. He ran as quickly as could, never pausing to catch his breath. He had to find Ulira. He needed to tell her something that he should've told her many times, but never had the courage to do so. He needed to tell her that he loved her. But when he got to the Garden, no one was there. Neither Ulira, nor a single Weeper could be found. The boy fell down on his knees and cried out. He was too late. Ulira was gone.

For some time, Rafe wandered through the forest. The one thing that he wanted most had been taken away. Why did she have to go? Why did he have to stay behind? He searched his mind for some kind of reasoning that made sense. But he found none that he could accept.

The boy sat under a tree with ripe fruit hanging from its branches. From there he watched as a small herd of deer grazed in a clearing. They were beautiful creatures that had a simple existence. And then he thought about how much Ulira would appreciate this moment. But it was just one of many moments he would never get to share with her.

Rafe picked a fruit from the tree. It looked sweet and delicious. But when he bit into it, he discovered that it was rotten all the way through. He looked closer at the other fruit on the tree and realized all of it was rotten. Something had spoiled it.

When the boy neared the Baron's house, he could hear the Mortal servants shouting with euphoric abandon. They had always conducted themselves in a manner becoming of gentlemen, but now they seemed more like wild animals. From the upper levels of the house, clothes and furniture were being tossed out of a window to make fodder for a bonfire. The Mortal, who cooked the Baron's meals, was crouched behind a planter. He was drinking whiskey and laughing wildly. The energy bolt from a flash pistol drew Rafe's attention toward the back of the house. A man chased after a half naked woman, confessing his love for her with one breath, then cursing her with the next. The utter chaos frightened the boy.

"Where did they all go?" he asked a maid, who busy admiring the pieces of jewelry she had collected from the house.

"No one knows, but they're all gone. And not just here, but in every county. There's not one Serpentine or Weeper left."

"Paradise is ours once more!" shouted another servant as he threw a dresser onto the burn pile. "It has been given back to Mortal men."

But Rafe couldn't share in their joy, not just yet. His heart still ached for Ulira. What became of her? Did the Weepers and Serpentine destroy each other or did the Great Creator call them back to answer for their deeds? But most of all, he wondered if they would ever return.

Just then, two servants began arguing over a pair of boots. Both men wanted them and neither were willing to yield. They tugged at the boots, fell to the ground, and began hitting one another.

"Give them to me!" The older man shouted.

"I saw them first!" The younger one shouted back. Then he struck the older man repeatedly until he gave. The boy wanted to intercede. But he could only watch as the younger man tucked the boots under his arm and headed back into the house to claim more items.

The boy sat down on the steps to the main entrance of the house and began to weep. So many thoughts and emotions flowed through him. He wept for the joy of being alive and the joy of being free. He wept for the delicate angel called Ulira and the emptiness he would feel each time he thought of her. But most of all, he wept for the generations of Mortals yet to follow. They would never know the hardships and turmoil endured by others on their behalf. And they would never understand how a tear shed for a single joyful thought could change their fate.

It was true, Paradise had been given back to Mortal man. But could they do any better with it than the Serpentine? Were they ready for such a responsibility? Rafe didn't have an answer to these questions. But as he looked about at the chaos that surrounded him, at the fire that grew bigger and bigger or to the old servant who still lay on the ground bleeding from the mouth, Rafe couldn't help but to have his doubts.



And on the seventh day, the Great Creator looked out

upon all that he had brought forth into existence

--- and said that it was good.


THE END


© 2013 Barney E. Abrams

Bio: Mr. Abrams is a previously unpublished author from Ohio. He's married and has two sons. He is currently working on a graphic novel idea.

E-mail: Barney E. Abrams

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