The packs on their backs filled with hiking equipment and lunch were starting to get heavy. Albert had been trudging behind Mileva for nearly two hours. He was ready to eat. Pine needles crunched underfoot, and the breeze whistled through the woods fragrant with the scent of pine. The sound of squirrels chittering and scurrying through the trees caught his attention. He smiled, “See, Dollie, the tree rats are playing the mating game.” Dollie was Albert’s affectionate nickname for Mileva because her small stature reminded him of a delicate figurine. The racy reference brought a flush to Mileva’s face but her deep-set, dark-brown eyes twinkled as she twirled around and shot back, “Oh, my wicked sweetheart, do you fancy he will catch her?”
“Well, that depends. If little Miss Squirrel is as Bohemian as you are, then perhaps,” Albert teased as he snatched a crimson wildflower and proffered it to her.
While their passion for math and physics had initially drawn them together, something else—a mysterious sense of familiarity—propelled them into a romantic relationship that had grown and flourished in just six months. This morning, the couple had taken the early morning express train to explore the Sihl virgin forest on the slopes of the Albis hills together; a last carefree time together before parting for the summer vacation. With each stride along the trail, Mileva’s limp became less troublesome. Tuberculosis in her pelvis as a youngster had caused one leg to become shorter than the other. While she had never let that hold her back, climbing up the slope of the spinner’s pathway made her disability seem less pronounced since equal-length legs were not an asset here. The higher they went, the wilder the flora and more peaceful the feeling became.
They aimed to arrive at the summit of the Albishorn Mountain by mid-afternoon, where they could enjoy a picnic overlooking the picturesque panorama of Zurich and the lake. The sunlight shone through the leaves, creating flickering shadows on the earth. The cry hoopoe, hoopoe of the hoopoe bird, trailed in the wind.
Their final outing was bittersweet. On the one hand, it was the celebration of the end of a long school term. On the other, Albert had decided to visit with his family in Italy, while Mileva would go to be with her parents in Serbia. They would be separated from each other and the other friends they had made at the school.
Mileva laughed off Albert’s Bohemian remark, then changed the topic to divert her sweetheart from his current train of thought. “You know, when I think of physics, I imagine Almighty God in the hidden forces of the natural laws of the universe. Do you suppose there are secret rules about him waiting for us to discover? Sometimes I hear him whispering when I read Newton or Descartes. What do you think, Johnnie?”
Albert, who had been dubbed Johnnie one evening months ago when the two were being playful with each other, walked up to Mileva, a thoughtful look on his face. He took off his Bavarian hat and spread his fingers through his wavy brown hair, collecting his thoughts. Albert was not one to respond frivolously to such a weighty question. “I am not positive if Providence is speaking—though I remain convinced that there is more to the world than what we see.”
“Me too. It’s going to be fascinating,” Mileva said, her eyes glowing brightly. She was as entranced by science as Albert was—and she was quite brilliant.
As if stirred up by the conversation about forces beyond man’s perception, a surge of wind swirled through the trees around the couple. Butterflies came out of nowhere, and Albert felt something brush against him. A warm glow broke over his body, and the hair on the back of his neck stood up. Beads of sweat gathered on his forehead.
“What was that?” he asked, recoiling from the mysterious energy.
“What was what, Johnnie?” Mileva asked, puzzled by his behavior.
“I don’t know. It seemed like something... someone... brushed up against me.”
“I’m sure it was nothing, Albert, just your imagination or something caused by the wind.”
“Yes, I’m sure you’re right,” he smiled, calming down, “nothing at all.” He kissed Mileva’s hand and took a step forward up the inclined path. “Come on, let’s get up this mountain before I starve to death.”
The temperature dipped as the climbers ascended in silence, still pondering the questions of science they had been discussing. The gurgle of water flowing downhill filled their ears as they crossed over a footbridge. In less than an hour, they reached the edge of the woods. In the distance, the hikers saw mountains, their tops shrouded in mist. A pebble path led to the vista of a landscape dotted with rocks and boulders. The two stood for several moments gazing upon the majesty of the scene. On the crest of Albishorn, they looked down upon the town of Zurich and the pristine lake with tiny sailboats, their sails billowing in the breeze.
Free from care, Albert dropped his gear. With outstretched arms, he breathed in and shouted into the lapis-blue sky, “Oh, how I love the pure air!” Then he dropped his arms and with a smile declared, “I’m famished. Are you hungry, Dollie?”
Mileva nodded happily and tugged Albert’s arm, urging him off the path toward the crumbling remains of a stone building long abandoned. Mileva threw open a patchwork quilt and began unwrapping the meal she had prepared. As Mileva busied herself setting up the picnic, Albert ambled to the edge of a nearby cliff. Humming a melody, he stepped down onto a five-inch-wide ledge that rimmed the cliff’s edge. Like a tightrope walker, he stepped foot to heel along the narrow ridge, a drop of several thousand feet just a misstep away.
“Luncheon is almost ready, Johnnie!” Mileva called out.
Turning to look back at her, Albert missed his footing and stumbled. Unable to regain his balance, Albert’s body pitched off the ledge and plummeted, twisting toward the rocky ground far, far below. He screamed in terror, “HELP ME."
The sound of his voice echoed off the cliff. As he plunged, his arms flailing, the compass tumbled out of his pocket. Then, out of nowhere, a hoopoe bird swooped in and snatched the compass out of the air.
As the hoopoe circled him, Albert closed his eyes, let go and waited for the impact. Time seemed to stand still. I don’t want my life to end like this at the bottom of a rocky ravine. Within twenty feet of the ground, he felt pressure under his back. His descent stopped and like magic his body suspended in midair, then slowly floated up. In the next moment, as he tried to gain control of his breathing, he began rising toward the ledge from which he had fallen.
As Albert was deposited gently onto the grass near the picnic site, Mileva turned back from the picnic basket. “Where have you been Joh—” She paused in mid-sentence, astonished as she watched the hoopoe bird swoop gracefully to the ground, drop his prize onto the grass next to Albert, and fly away. Her eyes widened even further as Albert, in a daze, began addressing a bright cloud that hovered near him. His lips were moving, but Mileva could hear no sound. Transfixed, she could only stare in silence.
“Johann, what are you doing here?” Albert blurted out.
His friend smiled and answered, “I am your Guardian Light Being. Well, technically, guardian in training. Did you notice my spirit in the forest earlier?”
Albert shook his head. “No, I... wait, was that pressure I felt you?”
Johann nodded eagerly. “Yes, I wanted you to know I was near.”
Albert blinked, trying to make sense of what he was hearing and seeing. “Do you remember when Pater Benjamin told you I was going to help protect you?” Albert looked blank, and Johann’s eyes suddenly grew wide as he realized he had made a mistake. “Um, never mind. That hasn’t happened yet.”
“What in the world are you talking about, Johann?”
“Uh, nothing. Forget about it,” Johann stuttered as he reached down and picked up the compass the hoopoe bird had dropped nearby. “Just trust that I’m looking out for you.”
Before Albert could question him further, Johann’s face became stern. “But what were you thinking, walking on that ledge? You could have died!”
Albert shrugged, “I guess I wasn’t thinking. I’m happy, and I wanted to look over the edge.”
“Well, please be more careful. That’s not like you.”
Albert nodded. “I will, Johann.”
“Good.” Johann took a deep breath. “Now, I have some information for you. It’s not good news.”
“You actually came to tell me something?” Albert was surprised.
Johann put his hand on Albert’s arm. “Yes, I can tell you some things, and I am here to warn you about Professor Meiss.”
“What do you mean?” Albert said, with a scowl. “He’s a kind old man and I like his class.”
Now Johann shook his head. “He was a kind, old man. But his body has been taken over by a... a malevolent force. He is not what he seems.”
“Malevolent force? Johann, whatever do you mean?”
“I know this is a lot to swallow,” Johann patted Albert’s arm, “but trust me, Albert, the man you see in the classroom now is not the man you knew before. He is a deadly threat to you—and to your compass.”
Albert rubbed his forehead. “What—” Albert started to ask, but Johann held up a hand.
“We’re not allowed to interfere, Albert. I’m sorry, but I can only give you clues.” Albert started to glare. “I’m telling you all I can. You will discover the rest of the details in due course, Albert. Trust me. He is dangerous. Be on guard around him. Never be anywhere alone with him.”
“Yeah, okay. But—”
“I’ve told you all that’s permitted, Albert. Now I must leave.”
“Wait!” Albert cried, but Johann’s image was already fading.
Albert blinked, refocusing on his surroundings. As his vision cleared, he saw Mileva staring at him in disbelief.
“Johnnie, what just happened? It was like you were in another world... and you were talking to a... a... cloud or something.”
“I honestly can’t say what is going on,” Albert said, shaking his head to clear it. “I had a friend who was killed and—” Albert stopped. He took Mileva’s hand in his and kissed it, then looked in her eyes. “Do you trust me, Mileva?”
Mileva paused and became thoughtful. After a moment, she nodded once. “I do, Albert. More than almost anyone in the world.”
Albert released a breath he hadn’t been aware he was holding. He smiled and squeezed Mileva’s hand. “I am so glad you do.”
I have a story to tell you. But I am going to ask you to be patient with me. I need to figure it out myself before I can say it to you. Will that be okay with you?”
Mileva hesitated but nodded again.
“Good, because now I am really starved,” Albert said, grinning as he turned toward the food Mileva had set out.
Mileva shook her head, then joined him in their picnic lunch. She tried not to overthink about Albert talking to a cloud, or what a bird might have dropped in the grass near where they sat.
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