I am speaking from a place where thoughts never die, where they catch on the immediate atmosphere like torn spider webs on brush and thicket. Are you brushing across my imprint now, are you hearing my voice now, or is this the first time I’ve ever told this story?
When the angel came I was young. I was two years out of school and I thought by getting a job I would no longer be waiting for my life to begin. But my life would end if I got the wrong job, so I said no to any job on a farm or in a store. Nothing in my hometown. No caregiving, but that was never expected of me anyway. The first job that wasn’t any of those things was handed down to me from my father. I was to work alongside my uncle, a mortician in a town three hours away. That was a brave enough, a solid enough step. I thought it could change me. Unlike life as I had known it, this task would be like a high stone wall. With its height so well defined, the climb would measure me in turn. At the wall’s high threshold, I’d look upon a red sun setting on a new country, a new man, its long and generous rays knighting me. This is how little sight I had, how vague and romantic my projections.
The town was like my own, a steeple, a road, women who wouldn’t look at me. Some swallow had carried in news of my new profession, robbing me of my new beginning. There would be no flirting over the bakery counter with the young gentlemen with formaldehyde covered hands. To my regret, the hours I spent not working were the same hours I left behind. The same waste. My time at work was fruitful only in that I proved to be such an abject failure that I at least could dream of triumphant redemption.
The gravedigging, the coffin bearing, the rigging of pulleys and the shoveling of ash, it was all beyond my strength. The easy jobs were worse, making up the face, lifting limbs into the final dress. It was too frightening to handle bodies with nothing inside them, because, what about me, one day, also a body with nothing inside me? So I was useless.
Christina and Max, my uncle’s assistants, looked down on me. I thought they were unfair but I’ve come to understand why they didn’t respect me. It wasn’t because I was bad at the work, but rather because I didn’t mind making more work for them. I escaped when I could, and did only what I was asked, if that. I insisted on my right to be weak before these inhuman tasks, that my strange and human coworkers somehow managed. I shielded myself from the shame they hoped would motivate me to pick up the pail, the mop. The stone wall crumbled before me from want of character. I started imagining another life, another new beginning somewhere.
Then the angels began to fall from the sky. That brought its own kind of order.
There was a panic of information yet we spoke fluently. Talk nestled across the land, sprouting and frothing from the cities before being carried down the path of ever thinning roads. It was exciting, at first. Making plans, preparing to survive in a new way, hand to mouth, neighbor to neighbor. We thought we were going to war, we looked eagerly around. It mattered who was next to you.
These angels turned out to be a disappointment. They landed and did nothing, only perished, leaving us with weapons we couldn’t use. The towns and villages where the angels alighted became spots of static, as if that land existed past a horizon that we could never cross again. Sensing the futility of thinking of those people, and those now disappeared places, we gracefully let our memories of them go. I cannot say if this willful forgetting was the first spell the angels cast or just the sort of behavior one should expect of this species. One is forever wondering what is normal and what is not, and none of us live long enough to make the needed cross reference. And then it’s also a matter of perspective.
Our turn now.
A figure appeared in the sky, penetrating the low, gray cloud bank and continuing its slow fall towards the Earth. Eventually, it disappeared from view, but the farmer had traced its descent and had guessed the fallow field where he was sure the angel would have landed, and if it was like the others, died on impact. It seemed, to him, in absence of official directives, that this was a job for us. Might we meet him there? In, say, a half hour?
The call ended. Uncle, Christina, Max and I stood around the phone. Their faces shared something with each other but not with me. I turned inward, toward my agitation. All that talk that I partook in, all those calculations I had made, were based in such false knowledge, the imprint of trees that hang over water. It was satisfying to read what rippled in this mirror, because it could be useful, because it was a game, because there was nothing else to do. But now, I looked over my shoulder, and to my horror, discovered I had turned my back to the ocean. A wave of immense proportions was curving over me, casting its shadow of imminent collapse over my one and only life, so I attempted to save it, though unfortunately, I said exactly the wrong thing.
Max and Chirstina left the office, disappeared into the unlit rooms beyond. I stared at the back of my uncle’s thick neck as he collected his things, wrestling with my shame, knowing how he would take it. He looked at me the moment before I opened my mouth, expectant and weary.
“This must be someone else’s job,” I told him.
“I bet you think that’s true,” he said, but I pushed on.
I told him that he was right to think that this was one more moment of laziness, “But this is obviously different.” It was a monster, a creature, an alien, how could we be expected to approach it? I gripped him, I twisted his jacket in my hands.
“We just have to put this thing in the ground, Thomas,” he said, and he shook free of me.
We climbed the hill to the place where the angel came and heard snatches of the farmer’s children’s voices in the air above us, caught the tips of their fingers and shiny brown heads and a piece of ribbon as they darted here, there. My heart hammered and I wished only to slide back down that hill, as the wind wished us to do, because it pushed hard against us as we made our final strides over the ridge. We came onto even land and I braced myself.
I peeked. Then was hit with the shining scene.
Great, white wings, shimmering, huge, attached to a body that I could not see but knew was there, two uncertain outlines just next to it. All the gravity of the world in that pillowy, billowing whiteness, sucking all of matter into it, stealing light as it emitted it.
The moment rippled, a moment and another moment more, before the edge of its intensity relinquished its hold over my skull, and I noticed the girl’s stocking, up against the miracle, grass stained. The farmer’s daughter. And the other figure, her mother. Like a falling, clattering plate, everything settled abruptly into familiarity, the glow subsided, and everything was fine.
“Well there it is, now we’ve got one of our own,” said Christina, her hair darting and poking out into my periphery, voice wind aided just into my ear like a personal whisper. I looked to my uncle, wearing a furrowed brow. He turned to the farmer.
“And it is, dead?” he asked the farmer, who passed the rim of his cap through his broad fingers, worrying its edge into fray with his thumbs.
“Mmm. It doesn’t breathe,” the farmer said, taking a deep breath through his honking nose as he looked dead on at it. “But maybe it doesn’t need to.”
It had no pulse either and no warmth. But it had eyes, ears, a mouth, and it used none of them. If it had the parts to speak and did not speak, could we say then that it was dead? The little girl at its side kept whispering to it and the farmer’s wife kept petting its curls, as if to say come out of your sleep, come out of your fever, like she had to each child that occupied the field, on some lonely, scary pre-dawn mornings. There was a kind of pity in the air, like we wished it was alive.
We folded it into a wheelbarrow that my uncle pushed, and Max and Christina carried the wings so they would not drag. I followed behind. That responsible little girl who didn’t play with her siblings stared accusingly at us as we took it away, farther away until she was small, smaller yet high at the lip of the hill. Many children love to play the nurse and I wouldn’t be surprised if that one brought cracked turtles into the house and road run dogs. I looked into her snake eyes, and she seemed to hiss at me, before disappearing back into her own land.
How does one bury an angel? Not such an easy question to answer, we discovered. The old plans were forgotten, and our human habits were resuscitated. This led to some comical situations but none of us laughed.
We tried to put the angel in a coffin, but it wouldn’t fit. We had hoped that the wings could be tucked in under the body neatly but there was some unforeseen musculature, an extra joint or bone that vaulted the chest forward, arched the back, and left the arms hanging limp from the shoulder. We observed our shoddy work surrounded by dark wood and fabric roses edged in dust, with the damp of the carpet coming up.
Poor feathers, pouting feathers crooked over the edge of the coffin. I flexed my own wingless nub. Sympathy pains. How uncomfortable, to have your feathers going the wrong way, and the joints like that all cramped. A molasses that had been settling between my eyes grew heavier and I was simply stuck looking at it, feeling the rawness in the place a wing should be. My heavy eyes settled on the white expanse of wing before me, but my sight kept slipping. The details, the feathers, failed to individuate, again, and again. What poor feather, quill snapped, unhooked and scraggly, where poor feather? All that was left was a frustrating suggestion. Then my mind stepped back and shifted.
I took Uncle’s elbow and led him into an adjoining room, stepping lightly, not wanting to wake the dead thing. I whispered to him through the density that enveloped me, not noticing my uncle’s dull, confused look as he tripped over the back of his own foot. We needed to wake up, to move quickly, I told him. He needed to lead, to help. Let us make do, perch the lid atop the jutting sternum, have someone sit on it, like a piece of unruly luggage, tucking in the stray feathers before each pass of the hammer into the long nails. Let the bones crack and the meat crush but for God’s sake we have to do something, and quickly!
A voice, like a cartoon pig, came from the coffin room, “Oh that’s just not right!”. My uncle, breathing heavily, put his hands around my neck. My head inflated, I heard a barking. Was this supposed to be happening? Because I was so bad at working? We moved together through pulsing panes of time, now yellow, now red, now green, now blue. Fending, fighting through the veil of a drunkenness I had never known before.
I found myself back in the stream of continuous time, wrapped in my own arms in that dark, adjoining room, next to the fold up chairs. Through the door, in the warmth of yellow light, I saw uncle back in formation around the coffin, waiting, it seemed, for me to rejoin them. I did, and I searched their eyes for some trace of what had happened, but there was nothing.
“Maybe Thomas has a point,” Max said. “We could remove the wings and bury them separately.” No one attacked him and for this something inside me still human keened Why!
We lay the angel on the steel table in the morgue, cold, dark morgue of chrome or, it should have been, but it had the warmth of a fire in a cave. Max took his position at the shoulder blade, ensconced in the angel’s white tresses. They were nice wings. Soft, as soft as a mothers chest, ear on her heart, wrapped in her arms. I wish I was a baby again, I thought, and Max began his sawing.
He passed and passed the serrated edge of the blade across that place that joined wing and body but the blade would not bite. If an angel walked through the woods no branch or thorn would catch at it, that was my last, straining thought, not that I thought it but rather saw the angel pacing in a dark wood passing through the illusion, step by monotonous step. My mind stopped there because what we saw could not be but it was. We watched that place where the impossible concentrated like ants to a wound, focused on that spot until it radiated a heat, until all that was left of us were charged filaments of neural bone floating and wound in the tension of a whip mid crack, speared into dull gray mass, in the ether of fire. Circles and circles of orange pulsed and its vibration sounded in the drum of our ears, tuning our bodies to a higher and higher frequency.
“Um, um, um.” That sound penetrated with all the perversion of one who wakes a sleepwalker, unceasing and dumb. Pairs of eyes emerged from the fire, dark and angry and pointed at me. The moment began to fade into blue reality. I understood Uncle and Christina were angry with me, but I didn’t care. “This is, this is,” I shook my head, “No, this is, this is. Not right.” My gaze roved unfocused until it caught on Max, who was still rocking his sword back and forth. I rushed over to him, I entered that willowed world of white tresses, where the smell of sugar took host in my lungs. I put my arms around him, took his hands in mine, “Stop, Max, stop!”
His fingers clutched, unyielding, and I pried those dead fingers one by one until the saw fell to the floor, but he kept rocking. “Uncle!” I cried out to him, “Help! Look, look!” I turned back to Max, “Max please, stop!” There were tears in my eyes, they were flying about like crystals, fat candies. But no one helped, no one moved. Who were these people, with these bear faces? What was happening? Nothing was happening, nothing! I let him go, stepped back.
“Fuck this, fuuuuck this,” I said, voice stupid and trembling. I left, fumbling with the knots of my smock, and just as I passed through the sheaves of plastic, away from all of them, I heard Uncle say, somehow restored, “Typical.”
I hid under the covers at home and waited for Uncle to arrive. Straining for hours in the dark, I finally heard the sounds I had been waiting for. The turning of the door, the scrape of the chair. Against the black form of the banisters, peering into the kitchen, I saw Uncle sitting at the table with a glass of water before him. His mouth pursed, flattened, smacked. He said ummmm and the glass swung its ropes of iridescence across the room, singing its wobbly high note, Ummmm!
Day came eventually. Things had evolved rapidly. We woke with no voices, but some intelligence, some clarity, was given back. In this silence species knowledge rose into the vacuum and I was no longer alone and I was no longer I. I left the house and Uncle followed. Christina and Max emerged from the abandoned streets and joined the pack. We communicated our secret agenda with panicked glances. I retained something they didn’t, I don't know why. I began digging and so we spent the day digging. They mirrored me at a one second lag. With shovels, or with hands, we dug until a deep square of earth was excavated. We looked at the hole. It exhaled its clay breath into the humid air.
Hands behind us, noses in the air, eyebrows knit together, we carried the angel from the bed of the truck and lowered it in the ground. We smiled, hoping it would not notice what we were doing. We pushed dirt, we scrabbled in the dirt, chests to the ground, working our failing bodies what way we could with the sole purpose of sealing the thing into the earth. It took some time for us to see that the hole wasn’t filling. The dirt was there, it fell, it touched the body, it slid off, it was deposited, and yet the hole never filled. We didn’t cease until the dirt was all run out. Christina began shucking up little breaths, wet and whimpering. She fell suddenly into a squatting position, with her hands gripping her head, and her eyes staring deep and hard into the hole with the sounds still coming out of her. Thomas tore at his hair, Uncle beat his chest.
The clouds moved back and forth very quickly, and the sun low on the horizon flickered on and off, lighting the sky red sunset to ink blue full of stars. Cold moved in, and with cramping hands we reached for the angel. The truck moved like a broken snake, piloted by monkeys, across the field of graves, until we arrived at the crematorium. By now we screamed and yipped without meaning as we stoked the fire, a fire for horses and bulls, feeling chased, feeling the eyes at our backs.
In went the angel, not our fault! It was okay to do that! We launched it away from our grossed out fingers, our shivering hearts. We perched around the room as the fire went on behind the metal door. Experienced what it was to be a gargoyle, an unwilling beast, cursed, bidden.
We rested in our cave and our hearts eased. But breaking through the atmosphere of sleep, I noticed Christina crouching and shifting. She snuck up to the leaded quartz window, her eye flat pressed upon it, like a lily pad stuck to the water staring into the sun. Her hands curled to the iron, burning! I grabbed her away, I held her in my arms, I wanted and did not want to know what she had seen. Were we free? I pet her sweaty head and looked into her illuminated eye, darting, blue, wet. I hit her, just a bit, until her eye stilled, willing her to speak. She said it all with her eyes. I saw that in the deep cosmos of her pupil there glinted a splinter, a seed of fire. I knew, I knew, I knew what it meant, not knowing but feeling the truth of it. I tossed her away. I opened the door and let them loose into the night and their paws hit the earth hard and fast. I let it go, I let it all go.
Another day, somehow. Someone knocking at my door. I went to answer, the answer my presence, because still I could not speak. Out of a clown car spilled humanity’s own angels, the bureaucrats, the scientists, in lab coats. They were angry and incomprehensible. “What have you done!” Squeak! “What were you thinking!” Squeak! They sped me away, beep beep, down the town, back to work, to the cold crematorium. The angel on its tray, pulled out of the oven. That put me back down, not so funny, that, not so funny.
“See what you’ve done!” said the head. They brought tools and could not lift the angel, soldered as it seemed to be from its iron bed. The lackeys wrote note after note, and I looked over their shoulders and saw only chicken scratch. A wave of alarm passed through me and then I settled back into my exhaustion. Nothing to do but play my part. I approached the angel, took its wrist into my grasp and pulled it, as I had pulled it before. The arm lifted. The lackeys pounced upon the angel again, but it would not move. Oh, rejection?
Without thinking I lifted the arm again, watched it dangle in my grip, whatever it was, whatever it was, because it was not an arm, and I glanced back at the body, saw it in my periphery, yet clearly for the first time. It was not a body, it was a sagging, breathing, porous shape crudely molded into just the barest suggestion of appendages, torso, neck, face. Face.
I screamed. I attempted to run, to leave, and there were hands on me, white wings descending on me.
I tried very hard to stay where I had been, in not being, but questions and terror woke me. I was in a hospital. It seemed odd that there could still be hospitals. There were a few moments where I hoped that things could stay together, that I had gone back to the world I was born into. That hope died when I saw my hands. I don’t know how they looked, only that they were unfamiliar to me, they were something hominid and grotesque. I could feel their wetness, the oil and the dirt, the things I touched were on me and I was on them. My right hand felt very dirty, and I held it away from me, because it was the hand that had gripped the angel, so it was no longer mine, it was infected and it would infect the world. It was distressing to me that the doctors did not seem capable of understanding my request that they remove this hand, and for good measure, both hands. A kind nurse wrapped it in a plastic bag, secured it around my wrist with tape. Not enough, and too late anyway. That I knew. Too late.
In time they let me on walks. Or, there may have no longer been nurses and doctors and people. Maybe there were no more doors or stairs or walls. So I went down paths, in the yard, on dark asphalt, I peered into the thicket and looked for my lost family but mostly I walked to walk.
One day I came across a twig. It had rained hours before, and all the wood was black and the lichen bright. I picked up the twig with my left hand, I could sense it was full of water, that it would crumble if I held it too tight. It was the teal-green of lichen but also dotted with black spores. The dots swam in my vision. I looked away from it and into the forest. There were dots and there were shapes. Each tree and each shrub was made of many parts, an infinite amount of parts, dilating, waning, in a slow, staccatoed pulse. I felt my body prepare: I began to breathe heavily, saliva came alive in my mouth, and my heart knocked hard against my sternum. I became afraid, and I began crying my story into the world, this thick world where even the air is full, and now it is fuller still with all the things I said with my mute mouth. I am finished now but other things have just begun. Everything sticky, now, everything thick, the twig in my hand a part of me, I a part of the world, and so the sky, with its black veins, and the black coming through, stars coming closer, cracks widening with the weight. I see it coming down. Everything.