She gave the bookshelf one final swipe with the dust cloth and returned it to the closet. She slipped her pile of books into her bag, and poked her head into the office.
"I'm leaving now, Miss Grey."
"I shall see you tomorrow, Jana." the head librarian returned primly.
Jana walked slowly toward the park, gazing at the windows on both sides. The stars in the windows spelled joy or desolation to the residents. For ever star she passed, she prayed. In one window, the last of four stars had changed color. There would be no more prayers for those represented, but even more fervent prayer for those left behind. The last house before the park had one single star, which had not changed. Jana's prayers over that star were more passionate than the rest. She felt a strange camaraderie with the lone person the star represented.
She sat on her customary park bench and removed the heaviest book and began reading it. Her greatly reduced work hours meant more time for her reading and writing, but significantly less resources for food and clothes. She was immensely grateful for the job, even though she felt ever-so-slightly guilty for taking it from one of her stars. Miss Grey had told her that the assistant librarian's post had been abandoned by a young man heading off to the war, with the implication that, if he returned, the job would be returned to him.
The inevitable afternoon rush to the playground pulled her attention to the children running, and laughing and dancing about. Jana slid the heavy book into her bag and pulled a smaller and much brighter book out. She began to read, holding the book so any curious child could see the pirates on the front. As she had expected, a boy wandered over carelessly.
"Why are ya always here readin'?" he asked.
Jana set her book in her lap, "Because I like to read, and it helps me to write better."
The boy did his best to appear disinterested and utterly failed.
"Do you write stories like that?" he queried, pointing at the book in her lap.
"I can tell them." she told him.
He cocked his head speculatively, then settled himself in front of her. "Okay. Go ahead."
Though she had expected to be called upon to read, she had not thought of being requested to tell an original story. She fell back upon a story that had been vastly popular with her brother, and quickly gathered an audience. When parents began to appear to collect their children, she stood, and promised to return tomorrow to finish her tale. The children left dejected, to spend their entire evening imagining how the fair maiden could possibly be rescued from the evil pirate captain.
What Jana had expected to be a single story stretched into a daily ritual, which stretched her imagination to the limit. The strictly enforced 2:30 quitting time that she had rather resented had become a privilege. Her prayers from the library to the park were no less sincere, but her pace had certainly quickened. The delicious summer afternoons were ideal for their gatherings, and the children's enthusiasm carried throughout the park. Pirates, cowboys, kings and queens, explorers, soldiers and Bible stories all had equal draw, and had been repeated to parents and grandparents with great joy.
This particular summer day, Jana was exhausted and her steps dragged slowly as she prayed over the stars. From a distance, she could see that the last star had been moved or changed in some way. Her breath caught even as she chastised herself for caring so particularly for someone she did not even know. As she neared, she sighed in relief. The change was a single word added beneath the star. "HOME" Stitched, perhaps with a mother's loving hand, it was evidence of great joy. But in painful contrast, the one other thing evident in the window was a pair of crutches. Jana prayed, happy that the soldier was home, yet grieving that it was not the perfect homecoming of which every family dreamed.
When she finally slid into her accustomed bench, the children looked at her rather worriedly.
"Are you all right?" they asked in concern.
Jana smiled wanly, "Just sad." and that day told them a true story--the tale of a soldier who never came home. She finished her story by telling them of her prayers and encouraging them to do the same. The oldest boys had sat up straighter, attempting to hide their emotion. All of the girls had tears in their eyes or streaming down their faces. The entire group was solemn.
"Did that really happen?" one of the boys asked.
"Charlie was my brother." Jana said softly.
One of the littlest girls sprang up and flung her arms around Jana, then flew back to her seat. They sat in absolute silence until the quiet was broken by a muted thump, thump. The children and Jana looked up just in time to see a man on crutches limp around a curve in the path leading toward the park bench. He slowed as he saw the group but with obvious effort, continued on with his face set. Jana ached when she realized that he expected rude stares and ridicule. At the same time, her eyes widened as she realized this, this man, was the star she had prayed for so long. This was the soldier that had been represented, the man for whom she had prayed.
When he was only a couple of yards away, Jana first, and all the children after her, stood. The respectful, almost reverential silence caused the man momentary pause as he realized this group was not staring out of unkindness, but grave respect. The silence was not broken until the soldier had crossed the last few feet to the bench. He stood for a moment, then spoke softly.
"May I sit down here?" he asked in a low voice.
Jana nodded, unable or unwilling to actually speak.
"You're almost like Charlie, aren't you?" one child said earnestly.
The man's one word inquiry proved to the children that he was friendly, and a low chorus of voices re-told the story in explanation.
When the recital finished he looked to Jana for confirmation.
She nodded, "My brother."
"And that's why she prays for the stars." one child piped up enthusiastically.
Jana blushed. She had told it to encourage the children to do the same, but had never thought that one whom she had prayed for would hear of it.
"The stars?" he asked, slightly bewildered.
"I walk here every day from the library, where I work, and on the way, as I pass the stars, I pray for each of the living men, or grieving families they represent." she explained, gazing into her lap, and hoping the children would reveal no more.
But with the constantly manifested ability of children to calmly reveal secrets, they continued talking easily.
"She prays 'specially about one." one boy said.
"The lonely one." a girl continued.
"Because it is like her."
"And like her brother."
"Only one star in the window." a child finished, as if the explanation had been rehearsed.
Jana could not look up. There were five windows on the street with stars, but only one with a single star--his. As she looked down, unable to look anyone in the face, she realized that he had been fortunate. Unlike many who had lost limbs, though he was on crutches, he did have both legs. But as the children crowded against him, she felt, more than saw him cringe.
Staring at the ground, she missed the smile that crept to his face as he realized it was his star that she had been so entranced with. He shifted on the bench and leaned forward.
"Do you know what God sometimes gives to people when they pray?" His voice was low and rich, drawing the children's attention and bringing Jana's eyes up.
"Miracles. Would you like to hear another story?"
The children could not possibly refuse another story, from a real, live soldier. They re-settled on the grass, their upturned faces and wide eyes drinking in every detail he spoke.
The story was more poignant to Jana than it could possibly be to the children. The details he left out, for their sake, Jana could read in the pain-filled depths of his eyes. This story of war was even more exciting, and yet, more sorrowful than Jana's had been. Though he did not explicitly say so, even the youngest child was aware he told his own story, and they absorbed every detail. Jana watched him speak in amazement. He spoke and gestured with the grace of a natural storyteller. Pain, sorrow, and everlasting hope glittered in the picture he painted. When he finished, everyone was left breathless and gaping. Jana could hardly believe her ears. The miracle he spoke of was that he was alive.
She shuddered to think of anyone so close to bullets and exploding shells. Even though that was how Charlie died. When she finally looked up, and breathed again, the children had drifted away to the swings or gone home, and she, and "her star" were the only two left in the immediate vicinity.
When she was finally able to look him in the face she found watching her intently.
"Will you be all right?" he asked carefully.
She summoned a weak smile. "Yes. It's been a year today since Charlie died, and I've never quite understood the war before. It.....hurts to feel it so close."
"I think you understand better than you realize. You have been touched by it personally, you understand it enough to pray for it, and you understand it enough to impart your story, and your prayers to others. War is horrible, but even though death does happen, miracles happen too. And it because people like you, who understand, pray for them."
Jana's gaze fell back to her hands at the fervency of his tone. She did not know him any more than a casual acquaintance, but she had felt the pain of loss from the war, and she had prayed for his star, and for miracles. Surely the miracle had happened for a reason.
And when he asked if he could walk her home, she consented.
© 2013 Copyright held by the author.