She pushed the cart forward along the rocky path, reaching out to steady it as the wheel went over some bumps. It was before dawn, and even though this was usually a warm part of the country, the damp air chilled her fingers as she pushed some flowerpots back towards the center of the cart. She had never sold her flowers in this market before, and she would have to remember not to take this path the next time she came.
She heard a voice behind her. "Oi!" It sounded familiar. "Rachel, is that you?" She stopped the cart and delicately placed one end on the ground so she could turn around and see who was calling her. "Yes it's me," she said, turning to see the face of her friend Denise. She was carrying vegetables. Since Denise could make as much money selling a few pounds of vegetables as Rachel could selling thirty pounds of flowers, Denise needed a much smaller cart and she could move quickly with it.
"Denise, it's been so long since I've seen you. Have you been selling at the markets recently?" Rachel felt relieved that it was a friend and not a stranger who had been accosting her in such a remote place. She and Denise had met on the local circuit of markets, and they always took time to catch up when they found themselves selling at the same place on the same day. Rachel smiled, despite the cold and despite her fatigue.
Denise smiled back at her. "I haven't been selling as much. I've been staying at home more to care for my grandfather. He's been suffering lately and he may... pass soon." Her smile faded a little as she said it. She had spoken the last part slowly and haltingly. Maybe it was the first time those words had passed through her lips. Rachel had just been the sole audience to a tragic revelation that Denise had never shared with anyone. Whenever a secret is told for the first time, the universe changes, becomes a little wiser and a little older, a little fuller of knowledge about life's mystery. Knowing more about Denise's life made Rachel feel closer to her even as she felt a pang of sympathy for her grandfather.
"But did you know?" Denise asked quickly, evidently trying to change the subject. "This is my hometown. I just went to the nearby farmer's house to buy these vegetables, and now I'm heading back towards town and then I'll sell them at the market - my hometown market. I can still do my sales here because I don't have to leave my home and grandfather for days to travel around."
Rachel looked around, and wondered what it would be like to grow up in this area, and to call it home. She saw gently rolling hills all around, with tall, thriving trees. She heard the gentle sounds of the insects and the frogs of the early morning, and the beginnings of the birds' songs. They were still on the road outside town, so she couldn't yet see the town or the market. But the land was beautiful. Even the air itself, though still cold, felt crisp and smelled pure, and the occasional burst of firefly light made the scene seem magical. The king of a trading empire or the possessor of a thousand bars of gold couldn't ever buy an experience greater than Rachel's at that moment, as she breathed deeply, felt a calm peace in her heart, and took in the magic of the place.
Rachel was glad that Denise had changed the subject, and continued the conversation. "You have grown up in a beautiful place. I'm surprised that you ever leave to travel around and sell at the markets."
Denise smiled again. "I love it here. Caring for my grandfather lately has given me chances to connect with all my old friends here, and now I know all the latest gossip before anyone else." She laughed and Rachel couldn't help laughing with her.
"So what is the latest gossip?" Rachel asked, although she immediately regretted asking.
Denise's face looked serious yet again. She looked away and paused a moment, as if trying to understand something she already knew. "My grandfather is not the only one who's been sick. The old man Abon passed away yesterday. Have you heard of Abon?"
Rachel shook her head. "Who was Abon? Was he an honored man in your village?"
Denise was still serious, and got a faraway look in her eyes as she continued. "He was a seer," she said, and then paused again. "He could see the future, and he could predict things that were coming, things that would happen."
"Did he win a lot of bets on sports that way?" Rachel asked, trying to keep the conversation light.
Denise shook her head. "He didn't do that kind of thing. But yesterday, just before he passed, he made one final prediction," she explained. "He said that an angel would come to our town today, and that everyone would be able to see the angel in the market. What do you think that could mean? Do you think an angel will really come to town today? And we're both headed to the market, do you think we'll get a chance to see the angel?"
"If there's an angel, he can push my cart for me," Rachel joked. She noticed that Denise looked tired. "Denise, your vegetables look heavy. Here, put them by the side of my flowers here, and we can roll everything in together."
It didn't take them long to get in to town as they walked together. The dark blue sky lost its heaviness, as the sun, still hiding behind the distant mountains, began to paint the world with brighter hues. The birds had grown more confident, and their impromptu choir greeted the morning. Each dawn is a miracle, Rachel thought, and a new creation just like the first day that Adam and Eve greeted.
The town was old and small, but showed signs that it had recently been growing. Some houses on the outskirts looked new and fresh. A growing town would mean a busier market, which could be good news, unless...
As Denise and Rachel arrived at the central town square that was dedicated to being the local monthly market, they saw that other ambitious sellers had taken every available stall and selling place. Rachel was shocked - she was usually among the first at every market she attended, and she hadn't arranged in advance to have a place where she could set up to sell her flowers.
"Do you have a spot already arranged?" Rachel asked Denise.
"I do," Denise said. "You see, my brother is holding it there. You didn't arrange a spot?" she asked incredulously. "Our town is big now! But our market is still small. You have to arrange a spot well in advance if you ever want to take part here. I have to go set up. Good luck and please come see me before you leave!" Denise grabbed her vegetables and ran excitedly to her brother and the stall to begin setting up. She turned around just before getting out of earshot. "And tell me if you see the angel!"
Buyers would begin arriving at the market any minute, and Rachel had a hard task ahead: finding a place to sell where they may not be one available. She tried to think of a strategy. She saw stern men who looked like policemen walking around in a few places. She supposed that they were there to make sure that no one set up in an unauthorized place along a side street, or infringing on a pre-reserved place.
She imagined going into stealth mode, setting up a surreptitious area away from the main plaza, where she could maybe entice a few wayward buyers to look at her flowers outside the gaze of the police. But she knew it wouldn't work - the more invisible she was to the police, the more invisible she would be to marketgoers, and she needed many sales to make a profit on the day's activities.
She looked around the stalls. Could it be that even though the market looked completely full, there was still an empty space she hadn't noticed? She wakled through the narrow streets of the market, looking closely at any stall space that looked empty or neglected.
What a thrill it was to sell at the markets! With each step, a new miniature world opened to her feasting eyes. A spice seller, his hands multicolored and powdery, may have looked at first glance like he was selling only piles of dust. But those piles of dust connected this tiny market in this little corner of the world with a trade network spanning thousands of miles and connecting the humble market with thousands of people in faraway lands speaking incomprehensible tongues and worshipping strange and unknown gods. The ginger may have come from Chinese cultivators, who packed it into carts and drove it through their deep forests and across their distant seas to get to this town. The rosemary and thyme may have come from southern Europe, where sunkissed farmers with bronze skin harvested it within sight of the sparkling Mediterranean waters. A simple spice salesman connected their little town with all of that and much more, and besides that gave them beautiful colors to look at and, the final goal of it all, tastes to delight the tongue.
She walked further, and found a man selling knives and swords. Just as the spice stall connected her market with faraway places, this sword stall connected her and the market with faraway times. Crafting a sword was not something that an amateur could teach himself in a day. The process of smelting iron and purifying steel is complex, and it took humankind centuries to discover and perfect it. The discovery and perfection of this process was its own kind of miracle that happened centuries ago and whose evidence Rachel could see in this little stall today. Besides the metallurgical miracle, there was great art shown in these swords. The precise curvature of the blade, the carving of the hilt, the sureness of the construction, all came from ancient crafts that had been passed down through countless generations. Though this swordsman was only in the market for one day, yet his wares provided a connection to centuries of faithful toil.
At last Rachel found a stall that looked empty. She moved quickly, beginning to unload some of her flowers on the cart so that she could "own" the stall at least long enough to earn a little money. Almost immediately after placing a first flowerpot in the corner of the stall, she heard a yell that she felt must be directed at her.
"Oi!" This "Oi" sounded much less friendly than Denise's from before. She turned and looked to see where it came from. It was a middle-aged woman, dressed in masculine clothes, stomping towards her angrily.
"This is my stall!" she shouted, even though Rachel was close enough to hear her. "What are you doing in my stall!"
"Please pardon me, ma'am," Rachel began, speaking softly and looking downwards humbly. "I was only looking for a place to sell my simple flowers. Please accept my sincere apologies," she said, even going as far as bowing slightly to the imperious woman who stood before her.
Her modest apology successfully defused the hot anger of the woman. "It's my stall," she said. "I'm an important woman in this town." She moved aside while a servant of hers tugged a cart, carrying some assorted fruits and kitchenwares. The servant started methodically unloading the cart. He had clearly done this before and knew the right placement for every orange and strawberry, every pot and pan.
Rachel considered her options. There were two main approaches to confronting this lady: the direct and the gentle. She doubted that she would be able to compete in the arena of directness - her adversary was physically formidable and wouldn't back down from any argument or challenge, and could probably even get the police on her side if she needed to. She looked around again, didn't see any open stalls, thought of her poor flowers whose lifespan would be limited, and tried to imagine a way through the predicament. On the spot, as if receiving a revelation from a god, she thought of a gentle solution.
"Ma'am," Rachel began, softer than ever now. "I noticed your oranges there on display. Goodness, they are ripe and full. And their color is especially beautiful."
The woman looked at her suspiciously. "Thank you," she said flatly.
"Ma'am," Rachel continued, knowing she could defeat this hardness if she were just soft enough. "might I show you my dearest chrysanthemum? You may notice its fiery orange color. Can you see how well its color matches that of your ripe oranges? If I place it here next to your oranges, you can see that they complement each other. The wild, bursting openness of the flower is the opposite of the contained serene sphere of the orange, yet their colors match nearly perfectly. Might I suggest that we place them together here at your stall? Perhaps the sales of one might increase the sales of the other, as they are attractively complementary."
She had made up the speech entirely off the cuff. It wasn't her greatest speech, but surprisingly, it had done the trick. The woman nodded and allowed her to place the chrysanthemum by the oranges.
"Ma'am," Rachel said again, fishing in the same pool. "Might I ask you to also consider these kousa dogwood flowers on my cart? Their pale green could provide a good framing for the richer, brighter green of your apples, as if they are the frame of a painting." It was easier now, Rachel noticed, as the woman grudgingly nodded again.
"Ma'am," Rachel said, trying to bring it all home. "Might you consider that my flowers could fill in the empty spaces in your charming stall. I could assist you in all of your sales, and maybe my flowers would be sold also. And our wares can help each other appear more alluring."
She had stuck the landing. The woman agreed to share the stall. Her name was Ana, and actually she was not such a bad woman after all, after they had been able to come to an agreement. During a lull in the market's activity, they were able to converse in earnest.
"Your wares are big and call attention to themselves through their finery and quality. They take up the most honored, visible positions on the table," Rachel mused. "My flowers are smaller and came after, filling the spaces in between your products. They came like water flowing around rocks. The water can take any shape and fill any space, flexibly and without complaint." Ana nodded again.
"My mother told me that a good woman should be like water," Rachel said. "Men will be hard and cold like stones, and women can be gentler and flexible like water, filling in the spaces around the men." Rachel could tell from Ana's face that she disagreed.
"You seem to think that women should be weak, compared to the hard strength of men. I cannot agree," Ana said. "For me, it was a great challenge to succeed in business. Look at this stall. It is the largest stall, with the best position in the whole market. Do you know how I was able to secure this position, and become an important woman in our local politics? It was by being hard, by always butting heads with the stubborn men, and by never allowing them to be harder or colder than me. If we are like water, they will smash us."
Rachel nodded. "I admire your great success, as you have competed with stone-like men," she began, softly. "But may I say, I think that you have not grasped the comparison. Water is soft to the touch, and makes way for every stone immediately. This makes you think it is weak. But as water flexibly moves around the stone, it can reshape the stone. It can move the stone wherever it likes, even hundreds of miles away. It can even destroy a stone, as you can see on a rocky coast: the constant barrage of 'gentle' water brings down great rock formations and turns them, literally, to sand. When stone and water fight, the water will always win in the long term. The soft, gentle water is stronger than the hard stone. I believe that gentleness can be the greatest strength."
Rachel continued. "Even your own analogy is not consistent. You say that the stones will smash the water. But have you tried to smash water? It cannot be done. A stone can be smashed. It is inflexible, and when it is hit hard enough, it is cracked and destroyed. But though you hit water as hard as you like, it keeps its properties and returns to how it started, before long looking as serene as ever. Its flexibility is from its lack of hardness, and this lack is what makes it more resilient than stone. The water is not only stronger than stone, it is also more resilient," she reiterated.
"Gentleness is not the same as weakness," Rachel said, as Ana seemed to be considering all of this. "The gentleness of women can be more powerful than the raw strength of men." A customer approached the stall, so they needed to wrap up the conversation. But she wanted to add one final thought. "Consider: why do people want to buy my flowers? They value the flowers' soft beauty more than the hard strength of their silver coins."
The customer was a good one, buying both a large ladle and a Tibetan orchid. The market was in full force now, and it really was crowded. People must have come in from miles around to buy at this market. The sun had come out in full force. It was a clear day and it had grown noticeably warmer.
"Little sister," Ana said solicitously. "You're still wearing your coat. Look, I took mine off a while ago. You should take off your coat and put it next to mine."
Rachel was about to respond, when they heard some loud shouting at the other end of the market. Both Rachel and Ana craned their necks to see what was happening. There was a crowd gathering at the entrance on the other side of the market. The crowd seemed to be slowly moving closer to the center of the market. For a moment as the crowd shifted, they could see into its center. There was a woman there, young and beautiful, surrounded by some bodyguards and staff. Rachel didn't recognize her. "Who is she?" she asked Ana.
"Mmmm, that's Yolanda," Ana said. "She's the latest star in our area. She has won all the beauty contests and all the hearts of the young men. And the old men," she added as an afterthought. "They say her beauty could launch a thousand ships or power a rocket a thousand miles or some garbage like that," she said, rolling eyes.
Yolanda was apparently just browsing through the market, out for window shopping. Rachel saw her, or at least saw the crowd the enveloped her retinue, move up and down the little pathways of the marketplace, up and down the rows of stalls. Rachel had never cared much for celebrities, having experienced that they never really lived up to their hype.
Rachel then noticed that the young girl, about 11 or 12 years old, in the stall next to hers was looking dejected. Rachel realized that earlier, there had been a young boy playing with her, but that boy had gone to the crowd surrounding Yolanda. In an 11-year-old's life, this temporary competitive loss would seem heartbreaking and insurmountable. Rachel remembered those kinds of feelings keenly.
Rachel motioned the young girl to come over to her flower stall. When she had obediently arrived, Rachel picked out a small lily, young but with a striking purple color. She put the lily gently behind the little girl's ear, and tucked her hair around it so it wouldn't fall out easily. She looked the young girl in the eyes and said "Remember that you are beautiful. There will always be challenges and heartbreaks. But remember who you are and what your life means, and you will always be able to overcome everything." It wasn't clear whether the girl really understood what Rachel was saying, but she smiled anyway. Rachel patted her on the head and sent her back to her own stall.
By now, Yolanda's crowd was getting close indeed, and showing no signs of thinning. As Yolanda slowly drew closer to Rachel and Ana, Rachel got a closer look at her. It would be exhausting to be a beauty queen, Rachel thought. All the attention all the time, and the constant need to live up to expectations, to never blow your nose or wear a frumpy shirt. At first glance, Yolanda had a charming smile that she flashed almost constantly. But as Rachel looked closer, she could see a disturbing fierceness in Yolanda's face. As she looked at the products in the stalls, there was a hungry greed in her eyes, a desire to possess exclusively.
Of course the desire to possess products in the market was not so out of the ordinary - everyone felt that desire. But Rachel thought that she saw the same thing when Yolanda looked at people. As Yolanda surveyed the crowd around her, it was as if she saw them all as commodities - as things she needed to own and control to keep her empire growing and strong. She could look in your eyes, but really she was looking past you, or trying to determine how much you were worth to her. Rachel supposed that that was the price of celebrity. In order to maintain your place at the top, you had to constantly look for people to climb on.
Yolanda finally arrived at Rachel's stall. Yolanda gave her acquisitive smile and Rachel tried to return a sincere one. Yolanda paused, looking over all the products. "I want a flower," she said simply. "Which do you recommend?" she asked, smiling fragilely all the while.
Rachel thoughtfully considered how to answer. "Ma'am is very beautiful," she began. "I suggest a pink polyantha. It is a simple flower, uniform in its light pink coloration. They grow in France and are favored by the simple peasants there. Its pretty color will complement the tone of Ma'am's beautiful skin, and its simplicity will ensure it doesn't distract from Ma'am's arresting face." Rachel felt that this was a suitable recommendation.
"Simple," Yolanda said brusquely. "I am not interested in simple. My life, my plans, my relationships, are all complex. Complexity is required for the leaders of the world," she said. "I want that one," she demanded, pointing.
"The toad lily," Rachel said. "Of course this is also an excellent choice. An intricate shape and spotted petals. Ma'am has chosen wisely."
"Wrap it up for me," she said casually, expecting to be obeyed. Rachel wasn't sure whether she had been speaking to her, or to one of her caravan of servants. Apparently reaching out to touch a flower was beneath her. It was her loss, though. Rachel felt that touching a flower was like touching another person: you get a sense of the soul of whoever or whatever you are touching. By refusing to dirty her hands, Yolanda was denying herself of a valuable and life-affirming experience.
As Yolanda walked away, her crowd of admirers walked with her. Near the end of the crowd was Denise, who was beaming at Rachel.
"I can't believe she bought from your stall!" Denise gushed. "Wow, I'm jealous! Haha. Rachel, I think this is her!"
"What do you mean, this is her?" Rachel asked. "This is who?"
"This is the angel! The one Abon, our seer, told us about. The one he prophesied!" said Denise. "It must be her. Look, she is so beautiful and radiant. Maybe Abon didn't mean a real angel, he just meant a star and a great beauty."
"Ah of course, I almost forgot," said Rachel. "What an experience to interact with her." She smiled at Denise, who was already starting to walk off with the crowd as it followed Yolanda.
After Yolanda's departure, the rest of the day was pretty quiet. There were no more disturbances or other obvious angels walking around. Business was good and Rachel was able to sell more flowers than she had expected to sell, including all of her toad lilies.
After the market had closed and the stalls had been packed up and Rachel had said goodbye to Ana, she went to a local inn where she arranged to stay in a small room for the night. Before going to sleep, she looked in the mirror. She didn't have a face like Yolanda's, and she was a little short and didn't know how to bat her eyelashes in a flirty way. But she didn't mind any of that.
Rachel continued to look in the mirror. Ana had suggested that she take her coat off, but she had kept it on, fastened tightly, all day. Now, looking in the mirror, she took it off. As she slipped the coat off, her body felt freer and some muscles that had been cramped all day suddenly loosened. Something moved on her back, near her shoulders. For the first time that day, the angel Rachel looked in the mirror and saw her unfurled wings.