I live in wet city sidewalks, puddled with acidic rain. I live in clouds wrapping tenderly around grey-glass skyscrapers. I live in the sigh and bow of heavy tree limbs, hanging over residential streets. Where there is beauty in a city, I live. The timorous hopes of millions of humans close together allow me to be.
I’m rarely corporeal. What little energy I still have after all these millennia, I rarely waste on occupying a body. Eating, sleeping, excreting - wastes. And time is one of a few things I now consider a scarce resource.
Different people have considered me many different things. Long, long ago, in a place far from this cold city, I was considered a God. They offered me fruit and flowers on altars and I was flattered. Today, anyone who somehow managed to glimpse my form might consider me a ghost, or if they were more practical, a sign they weren’t getting enough sleep. It is a skeptical world now.
When I am present, I take care to occupy unseen spaces. I live inside walls, in the asphalt of potholed roads, in the flickering beam of a shoddy streetlamp. Like mist passing through reeds, I can move through the hard surfaces people erect to conquer the wild, the world, themselves.
I try not to let people see me. It complicates things for them, being confronted with what I am, what they cannot understand I am not. I have no face, no arms or legs. I have nothing that a human person would consider a body. I cannot be perceived in the way that you or your neighbor can look at birds in the sky, or a stone in your hand. But the few who have observed me understand what it is like to truly perceive, to have impressed on your mind a cosmic form, the likes of which most people can only comprehend once their physical body has deteriorated.
You’re all cosmic forms in essence, temporarily animating much cruder, much higher-maintenance vessels conjured of water and carbon.
I do not know what comes before or after the physical period. I do now know how I exist, or by what force I was created. Perhaps I was sparked into existence by the same force that initiated the universe. Perhaps I was sparked into existence much later. The first moment I remember is when I appeared by the banks of a river, summoned by the hum of an early village, far from the city I now occupy. You were different then. You all had such simpler tools, simpler tasks, simpler journeys. It was simpler for me, too.
You must understand, while I know nothing of my parentage, I understand my charge. All along, I have existed for a sole purpose. I solve problems.
I cannot save every sickly child, or return every lost pet to its owner. I wouldn’t if I could. I cannot undo tragedies or prevent extinctions. I cannot disrupt the order of things that must be. But occasionally, when a soul cries out for help, for a salve to soothe them, for someone to care, I can respond. And I can work a miracle.
The miracles have changed over time. In the early days, I was asked for signs from deities. Prayers for rain, for sun, for an end to war. These, I cannot provide, but I can respond, can provide an answer. The people with whom I communed at least knew there was something out there, listening to their cries, listening and with the desire to help at least some of them. I can only intervene in simple matters. An end to an illness, more bread on a plate, a sudden epiphany of direction for one lost in the forest. In these matters, I can help.
More recently, the prayers have changed. There are always the mundane things - prayers for currency, for the body of another. These never change. But this colder, more skeptical world has different traps. Prayers for understanding of injustice, for a reason to carry on without faith, for something to believe in, are recently more popular. I cannot provide these anymore than I could provide rain or peace, but when I was able, I worked what miracles I could. I cannot say with certainty what impact my miracles have had.
Human lives are so short, you see. Time passes differently for me then it does for you. I can see the entirety of the existence of your kind with ease, like stepping back to observe a work of abstract art. But seeing any one point of paint, understanding the particles that make up a spot of oil or acrylic, is considerably more difficult. Pulling out any one human thread to examine it, let alone seeing it all the way through, is like watching a single pixel on a bright television.
So I cannot know whether my responses have helped. Still, I have tried. Especially when I was new, I felt I had to know if my miracles were helping. I would expend much more energy to occupy a body, to follow those who had prayed to me, to make sure that they would be alright. Sometimes it assuaged me. Mostly it did not. Even when one is saved, there are always thousands I could not help. Furthermore, the energy I expended to watch over those I helped took a toll after several millennia. When I responded to a prayer, when I occupied the physical world, I lost small parts of my being.
Now that I am older, I have such little energy left. You have all developed such incredible things, though you don’t share them as you could. The gleaming, metallurgical wonders you have harnessed have spared uncounted miseries, untold loss. This is good. When I am gone from you, when I can no longer respond to your prayers, these wonders may fill some of the gaps.
I think I will be gone soon. My thoughts slow, my force diminishes. I have no fear of this. I know that the energy that once belonged to me will return to the great mix of forces powering the death of time, rushing ever forward, sparking new lives. I only wish to answer one more prayer before I dissipate.
I find my opportunity at the top of a condominium in my city. I am relaxing in the thick, clear calm of a window pane on the second-highest floor of the building when I hear crying. It’s barely audible over the bluster at this height, but it’s there. Laced with the crying is a whispered prayer, a plea for an end to pain.
I emerge from the pane to investigate the sound. Riding a breeze to the roof, I find a woman standing alone on the edge.
Her face is red and wet. She teeters on the edge of the building, toes hanging off, wobbling perilously in the wind.
I know what it will cost me to take a human form at this moment. It will take the last of me. I do it anyway.
I feel my awareness solidifying, growing aches and pains and weight. It feels like the body I have conjured is mostly male, which surprises me. I speak in a quiet voice, not wanting to startle her.
Despite my effort, she jumps slightly, mercifully stepping back towards the roof. She spins, a mixture of shame and despair wafting off of her heart. I can hear the questions bubbling in her mind.
There wasn’t anyone here before. I was alone. Was he hiding?
I gesture casually to the door a few paces behind me, leading to the stairwell back into the safety of the building.
“Just came out for some air a second ago.”
She nods, sniffling.
Now that she faces me, I can understand. She has done something she regrets, something for which she feels terrible guilt. She does not believe she can go on feeling this way. She wants the panic and the loneliness to end.
“You shouldn’t do it,” I offer, gently. I can feel myself wavering already. I hope she cannot see me fading in and out of this time and place.
I’ve embarrassed her. I’ve interrupted an intimate act, and she feels small. Her knees buckle, and she collapses. She begins to cry loudly and I rush to hold her. Cradling her gently, I whisper on.
“I understand. I need you to know you’re not alone. Not ever. There is always a listening ear. There is always a reason to stay, even just one more day, one more hour.”
She continues sniffling. Words are a poor tool of communication. If I could show her my true form, if I could show her the world as it really is, all the joy and goodness and wonder, she would understand. But instead I have to use clumsy, mouth-formed shapes to sculpt stone into snowflakes. To help, I conjure a breeze, carrying the scent of her favorite flower from a shop at the bottom of the building. Hyacinths. This pleases her.
“Can I walk you back to your apartment? Will you be alright?” I ask.
She nods against my chest and I believe her. Offering my arm, we rise together. As she leans her weight on me, I can feel myself dispersing. I don’t have long.
I open the door to the stairwell and welcome her to go through first. Once her back is to me, I know I cannot walk her back to her apartment. Through human eyes, I see the hand I have on the door handle is going translucent, and then disappearing.
While I wish I could see this young woman through to the end of her journey, I know it is futile. Instead, I enjoy a final breath in this body, a deep inhale that carries the scent of flowers.
The young woman turns, curious why the stranger helping her hasn’t followed her into the stairwell. When she faces me, I can no longer contain myself. She sees my true form in its entirety, my millennia of quiet observation spreading out in front of her, my place and hers in the grand scheme made clear. For a moment, the expression on her face is one of horror, of rapt disgust, before it melts into a small smile. I know that she understands.
With this, I release my breath and let myself dissolve. She will be alright, and I will return to whatever I came from. All miracles have a cost, and I’m happy with the price I’ve paid.