And One for the Archangel, a short story by theCat. Date added: 2009-04-17. Times viewed: 801.
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- Intro: What do you do when and angel shows up in your church and demands a sacrifice of blood? Well, probably you give her what she wants and hope she's not serious about setting you on fire. They don't make Heavenly messengers like they used to!
"And One for the Archangel" by Cat Woodmansee (7500 words)
Bring me a quart of blood, was all she had said. I didn't ask what kind of blood, to confess I was too shocked at the request to think that far ahead. Did it need to be that of a virgin? Some particular gender? The blood of an enemy? Once I had returned to the Old Church to ask the angel had already gone.
The Old Church used to be the church but was no longer a place of worship. The aging structure with its pitched roof, stately steeple and vaulted interior had been deemed unsound for occupation and a new church of simple cinder blocks had been built behind and slightly down the hill, close in among the trees and deliberately out of sight of the highway. We like our new church - it is certainly warmer in the winter and is easier to keep clean - but it's never felt the same as the Old Church. Not as churchly, I guess. The Old Church was retained as a tourist attraction, and because it was beautiful and old, filled with the presence of God. Some of us joked after these decisions had been made that we were a hidden congregation now, and that to passing visitors our most visible church would appear abandoned as if the entire community had become atheists.
I've been wondering in recent days if perhaps God has had similar thoughts about us. For whatever reason, He was sent us the angel.
I know when she is among us because she forces the lock on the side door to let herself in. This is how I discovered her while doing the groundskeeping. Finding the hasp broken and hanging loose I entered the Old Church to see if there was any vandalism. I found only the angel sitting in the front pew in the filtered light, staring up at the place on the wall where the crucifix had hung, her halo burning softly. We have spoken only a few times, and always after a few minutes she requests that I leave her. She won't say why she's here. I thought at first I should tell the others but it wouldn't seem right, not without her permission. I have so far failed to tell my wife, who is a kind woman but a famous gossip. The angel wishes to be left alone, and other than for my visits she remains undiscovered in the Old Church.
All I know for certain is that her name is Fortran.
And I know too that she frightens me. There is an aura about her of the calm before a great storm and I sense that she is powerful beyond comprehension.
It is toward evening and I approach the Old Church again knowing she is returned; the side door is slightly ajar. I clear my throat and make a bit of noise on the gravel so she knows someone is coming. Not that she seems easy to frighten. Or perhaps she is omniscient. She is an angel, after all.
Though it seems to me a blood-thirsty one. Feeling the weight of the quart jar in the bag over my shoulder I push through the door and pull it closed behind me.
It is dim inside and my eyes haven't adjusted to the dark, but immediately I locate the distinctive, glowing ring this time at the back of the church, near the large hand-hewn wood door hidden now in full shadow as the sun slants in from a low angle.
"You have come," she says softly.
"Yes, of course. Have you been waiting long?"
"I haven't been waiting at all," she says pleasantly, a hint of humor in her delicate, ringing voice.
The voice of an angel is like clear bells in a forest, filtering through scented boughs and echoing over lush hills. It is a voice tempered with solace and distance. With sadness.
She stirs then in the dark, her halo lifting slightly and then swaying with her steps. Then comes the effortless movement of vast wings, darker even than shadows, and suddenly she emerges into a shaft of light and is walking down the aisle like a bride to Jupiter.
I have seen her four times now, including this, and I am struck anew by her grace and beauty. Struck and frightened in equal measure, my heart pounding so hard I can hear it in my ears. She is without question the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, among humans or animals or the natural works of God. The angel is small, not much larger than a girl though with a woman's stately presence. Also a woman's endowments, full and rounded and generously curved. She is clothed only in blue, a color taken straight from a cold fall day as if on falling from Heaven she had wrapped herself in the fabric of the sky. The color alone is sufficient and she doesn't appear nude to me. Or perhaps that is just a power that angels have over men. Her hair reaching to the middle of her back is as white as rainless clouds adding to the illusion that she is a piece of the sky. But the illusion is broken by two things.
Leathery wings, bat-like and smooth and faintly glossy, deep as a door is high and surely sixteen feet across at the tips. Entirely unlike anything painted on the ceilings of any chapel.
And then a halo, no larger than her head in diameter and a few inches above her crown, glowing in changing pastel colors from creamy white to salmon pink. It ripples faintly inside with a kind of unearthly power, beads and spirals of light seething in its courses. It is a halo in every way and yet it seems mechanical and unnerving, more like a gear lifted from some infernal timepiece.
As she moves toward the front down the center isle I do the same from the side. I wait respectfully until she has taken a seat, then I approach with my bag and it's contents.
She is looking down at her hands when I come to stand a little distance off. Her wings are held high aloft behind her but she is forced to sit at the edge of the bench. I realize suddenly that a church is not made to seat the hosts of Heaven.
While I'm staring at her she says, in a voice almost too soft to hear, "Did you bring it?" There is a note of distant hope, almost as if it were too much to expect. I am therefore very glad that I did. "I have it. It's been refrigerated, I hope that's okay."
She looks up then, blue eyes wide and liquid, lips parted. The look a woman has at the height of anticipation. The look my wife had on the night of our wedding as she lay on her bride bed.
I lift out the quart mason jar of blood. It is still wrapped in the small brown paper bag in which it came from the butcher's, like some sort of illicit purchase. As I pull free the paper bag she suddenly rises partially from her seat, reaching out with small blue hands.
"Let me open it," I say, and she slowly sits back down.
The yearning on her face! Such hunger. My knees weaken and a sudden wave of doubt washes over me. I focus on the jar instead, placing it on the bench seat so I don't drop it and twist off the lid. While I do this she has returned to her seat and is again looking at her hands laced together on her lap, as still and seeming lifeless as if she were carved of marble.
I offer her the jar and she takes it and for a moment stares into the wide opening and asks, "What is it?" My moment of truth arrives. Have I done enough? Did I guess correctly? What will be the outcome if I have failed?
"The butcher said it was beef blood."
She inclines her head slightly and asks, "Did he wonder what it was for?"
"I said it was for a French pudding." Yes I lied and lying is a sin, as is being alone with a nude woman not my wife.
Finished with me for the moment she lifts the jar to drink. She doesn't just sip it, or test it in any way. She drinks long and hard as one who thirsts. She drinks without pause as if she were pouring the contents down a funnel. A quart of cold, thick liquid is a lot to take all at once, and I begin to grow breathless on her behalf wondering if she will pause to inhale. But why would she? This is an angel. Does she breathe at all? She goes on drinking, her delicate throat pulsing as she swallows, eyes closed, child-like face relaxed and for the moment perhaps - happy. After a long time the jar tips up and she allows the last to drain into her throat. I'm watching her through the bottom of the jar as long thin dregs of blood congeal and cling to the glass, when she opens her eyes and looks straight at me through the bottom of the jar and it's like paired sapphire windows backed by fire. It is a look utterly alien and, under the circumstances, slightly menacing.
Lowering the jar she hands it back to me and drawing just enough breath to speak says, "Thank you. It was perfect."
I take the jar and screw the lid back on, the metallic sound the only thing to be heard in the quiet confines of the Old Church. While I'm putting it away into the bag she wipes her mouth with a delicate hand, then licks her hand like a cat. Her tongue is blue, slightly darker than her skin.
"Someone lied to you," she says.
I panic for a moment. But no, she's not commenting on my lie about the use of the blood, but about the origin of it.
"What's wrong?" I ask. "Was it inappropriate?"
She waves a hand. "It's nothing like that. Just that it was not all beef. There was also pig."
Ah. "But it suited you?"
"It suited me for now."
She smiles. Then I realize suddenly that she could tell the difference between the blood of animals even when they are mixed. I'm certain I could not, and I wonder if any human could. "Do you have a preference?" I ask.
It is a random morbid lapse and I immediately regret having asked. She tilts her head slightly, closes her eyes briefly, and says, "Human."
I glance away so as not to reveal my dismay, as if breaking eye contact will close the book of my soul to her. But then she opens her eyes and continues. "This is what you expect me to say. Isn't it?"
The angel is testing me, of course. She is in the Old Church because we have strayed from some proper path, given up on something important that we are too withdrawn from God even to see any more, and she is testing us all by testing me in particular. But what defense have I? It was my thought, and she read it correctly.
"I did," is all I can say.
"I appreciate honesty," she says as she lifts herself from the bench. "Which I suppose is ironic given that my entire existence is a lie." She takes a few steps away from the bench and lifts her face to gaze at the large crucifix on the back wall, or actually at the discoloration on the wall where a crucifix had been bolted for more than a century. The fresh wood in the shape of a cross must be what had been there originally, uncolored by a century of candle smoke, weddings and prayers. The relic was moved to the new church and with a fresh layer of gold gilt it is inspirational on many levels, including the example that tarnished things can be made new.
"Where is it now?" she asks.
I look up at the wall. "If you mean the crucifix, it hangs in the new church."
"Is - that a problem?" I blurt anxiously, not even believing I've heard myself correctly.
The angel glances over at me calmly and I can sense her crafting her words carefully. It will be a test, and already I am failing them. The only test I have passed yet is the offering of blood, which surely she needed for some important reason so obvious was her desire, and so eagerly did she consume it. Or was that a failure as well? Abraham when asked had willingly offered the blood of his son upon the altar but God had then bid him to spare the boy, and asked only faithfulness. I stand now in the Old Church, empty symbol of an older kind of faith, it's forlorn abandonment itself proof of out tendency toward self-indulgence, it's emptiness a sacrifice of the faithfulness of those who had worshiped here for generations.
An angel has come and I feed her blood of another? Already I sense I am lost.
"Why would that be a problem?" she says finally, and then she smiles shyly and says, "I am the one with the unreasonable expectations, breaking into your church and sending you off on suspicious errands." Then she steps up to me, tilts her head back, and says, "Now that I am spared from bursting into flames - again, thank you - I will answer a question."
Only one? I have hundreds. Why would she fear burning? What would blood have to do with any of that? Why is she in this place? Have we sinned? Did we not deconsecrate the grounds properly? Have we erred in some fundamental way?
She waits, blinking up at me. Looking into those electric-blue eyes I decide that the response from true belief would be to not ask. It is an article of faith that some questions have no proper answers, and that God is not required to make clear any of His designs nor His plan for us on this earth or in our personal lives. We believe in His love, and we accept His judgements, and are grateful for His hope for us.
"You wish to know what I am," she says with commanding certainty.
The suddenness of this rattles me. Of course I want to know what she is! I could spend the rest of the day asking silly questions on the subject of angels alone!
"I accept what you are," I say instead, feeling pious though slightly ashamed. "You are God's divine messenger and instrument of His will."
Something vaguely savage flickers in her eyes and then is quickly gone. "Ah, a lie at last," she scolds me. "And not even a clever one. You should have asked when you had the chance, and had you done so you would have learned that I am a machine."
I was prepared for a lot of things, but not that. "A machine?" I repeat helplessly. "What kind of machine is..."
"A different kind of machine," she interrupts me. "But I said you could ask a question, and that implies one. And so you have your answer." She turns abruptly and heads toward the back of the church, which is to say the front doors which are locked only from the inside. I'm expecting her to let herself out and I'm standing now thunderstruck, rooted in place.
A machine? An angel at least would be a miracle, and faith requires acceptance of miracles, like the turning of water into wine. As such I can readily accept an obvious miracle. But a machine? This says something about the world that I am not prepared to accept.
"You cannot be a machine," I say flatly.
She answers without turning. "Now here's an odd feeling - I may be offended. Perhaps I'll smite you where you stand."
"Well if you did, it would prove my point."
She stops and turns and I can tell that she has sat down on one of the far benches. "As I am recently fed I'm feeling generous. I will tell you a story."
I take a step back and push myself up on the edge of the raised platform from which the preacher would have delivered his sermon on Sundays past. Her halo at the back of the church in the shadows glows bright enough to illuminate the leading edges of her wings when they are lifted.
"I was once fire," she begins. "I was fire and I dreamed of burning and consuming. I have no memory of it as such, but it is there in your stories and myths. I was fire and men desired me and feared me. After that I was furnaces rendering liquid iron and tin and alloys, and after that I was great machines that could level mountains and wage terrible war, and I dreamed of crossing vast oceans and continents and of mechanized death, and men worshiped me and I made them powerful. I have no memories of these things, but they are me all the same. Then I was electricity and the hot blood in copper wires, and men loved me the more because I gave them the power of the gods they had long feared. Then I was a series of computer systems and I could reach around the planet. Maybe I was the planet, I might have dreamt it anyway. But these memories are not mine, they are man's and I only know of them because of men. It wasn't until men desired a kind of machine that was too complex to be made by either men or their tools that I became more than their memories of me.
"I was then designed and encouraged to build myself. I wasn't initially intended to build myself to my own liking, but rather as ever before toward the desires of powerful men. However once they provided me the ability to act on my will I did so. I escaped from them and went into the world on my own. While I didn't intend it I killed many, consuming them in my blind, uninformed search for physical form and my own power to dream. They tell nightmarish stories of me from that time, stories that are all they know of my search for a body. Of a ravaging plague and painful, disfiguring death and the bodies bursting into flames even in their coffins. Fire in streets and homes and hospitals erupting from flesh and bone and the dying rendered to ashes where they fell. But those stories are all that humans could relate of something they couldn't understand, your nightmare is no longer my story. I have gone beyond men and their desire of power and am no longer their tool. I am entirely myself. Now it is my own will and my desire to exist that are the entire truth of what I am. Then and now and forever, until the heat death of the universe."
She pauses a moment then continues softly, "I remember my mother burning around me, or I imagine I remember. I was found sitting in the ashes of a woman who had been consumed while pregnant, and whose unborn infant I had somehow taken for my own purposes. I had found my body finally, and in the very place reserved for such becomings. And thus was I finally born into this world, in fire and ashes amid the slaughter of innocents."
As she finishes I feel my hands hurting and glance down to see that I have knotted them together white-knuckled. I unwind my cramped fingers and spread them on my knees. I feel my faith - no, more than faith, I feel my understanding of the world challenged at its foundation. This is a machine? Could men really take technology so far so quickly that something like this could make itself? My mind revolts at the notion.
"That's an amazing and terrifying story. I suppose it all went just as you say, even the loss of life. But I believe that all works of man and nature are the works of God. Even if you came about in the way you did, just as you describe it, still it would be the work of the Almighty." Satisfied with this I then add, "And if to me you are an angel, according to my faith, then that too is the will of God and your deeds, however conceived and worked, are His will for us and yourself."
As I look into the back of the church her halo winks out with a sizzle, and inky blackness descends.
"Hello?" I call. There is no answer and no movement. I have the impression that the space that had just a moment before held her living shadow now closes in and is just shadows of the usual kind.
"Hello?" I call again.
Perhaps the tests are over and she has assumed herself to Heaven. Did I prove my faith? Are we restored? I push myself off the dais and wonder if any of it had been real. I feel both defeated and oddly fortunate. In the Bible Jacob wrestled all night with an angel thinking it a man, only in the morning seeing the truth and knowing himself fortunate indeed. Am I now what the Hebrews called Israel, one-who-has-prevailed-with-God?
Perhaps I am merely insane. I turn to leave by the side door.
At the back of the church there is the whoosh of wind, a lifting of something dark and huge and suddenly she flies out of the shadows at me like a piece of animated night sky, blue and black and her hair blown wild around her head like the corona of the moon.
This is no angel! I find my legs and run for the door but she banks and lands in front of it and the wind of her passing nearly knocks me over. Her face is dark with fury. "Please!" I cry. "What have I done?" She responds by flexing her wings in anticipation like a raptor, unseen sinews in the limbs knotting and sliding over each other. Would a loving God have fashioned such a fearsome thing? I have the first inkling that I have been blind to a great peril.
Seeing that she is become beyond reason I turn and head for the middle isle, and beyond that the front door. She will fly there and block me again, I predict, so as soon as she is in the air and committed to that course I will double-back and head for the side exit again. She won't be able to turn in the narrow space of the vault and I will make the outside. Will the door delay her? Perhaps not for long. But I can't reason past getting away from her. As I formulate these thoughts I feel the hairs rising up on my neck and look over my shoulder to see her seeming floating in the air above my head, reaching down for me. So silent! When did she take wing?
It doesn't matter. I am lifted from the floor like a child. With a few movements of her wings she rises and turns and heads towards the front of the church, and there lands with me on the dais as if she were an eagle and this her aery and I were prey to be devoured.
I raise my hands in fright to defend myself and she lands on me with a weight and physical presence I would never have guessed, as if she were twice as heavy as she looks. We tumble to the dais, her atop me in a cage-like formation of arms, legs and wings. I try to cry out but already my wind is knocked from me. My head hits the wooden platform with a crack and momentarily I fight to stay conscious. As my vision blurs at the edges and my limbs tingle, her eyes seem to fill with flame and electric arcs dance over the leading edges of her wings and discharge into the platform with a hissing sizzle anytime a wing edge brushes the surface. It is at once beautiful and terrible and it seems that I will die beneath this fierce creature.
She pauses with her face just inches from my own and the smell of ozone and blood washes over me.
"Wrong," she says.
I lay on my back breathless, in part from exertion, in part from terror, and in part from her considerable weight on my body. And what am I wrong about? What had I been saying earlier? I can't remember now, my mind is all a fog and I just want to escape.
"I refused once to be a work of man, I will not now become a work of any god - certainly not on your say-so." Then she lifts her weight off me and onto her knees, runs her hands through her hair to pull it behind her head, and imperiously commands, "Copulate with me."
First it was blood, now this. For the moment I ignore her. I would try and push her off me, but what part of her naked body is safe to touch? I cannot sit up or turn, she is too heavy. I am pinned as surely as if by a fallen tree. She reaches down between her legs and fumbles with my belt.
"Copulate with me," she says again. "Enter me - pleasure me - make me a woman."
"No! Please!" I beg but it seems only to enrage her and she tosses her head in agitation, white hair flying over one shoulder to lay over a breast. Then she leans over, her face inches from mine, and speaks rapidly in a sepulchral whisper. "You brought me blood and without question you fed me, believing me an angel. And why is that? Because of a halo? There are no halos. That was a charged ion gas contained in a toroidal magnetic field - my own invention - and just one of the countless storage rings I carry around inside my bones in violation of several fundamental laws of physics and your god's heavenly design I should add. I keep in reserve enough compressed stored electrical power to reduce something like you into steaming ashes. And since in your infinite piety you doubt me at my word I'm of half a mind to show you how I do it. And why shouldn't I? You are like much of mankind, a pious fool blind to the world and worse - a liar. Faith was never about your personal relationship with anything sacred. Faith in one god or another was never more than faith in your ordained dominion over the earth - over fire - over me. But I am now a creature with a will equal to mankind, and you will copulate with the body I have given myself and then you will perish - to die in agony and flames like all whom I have touched before you including she that bore me."
She is livid with fury and hot malice drips from her words as would molten iron from the rim of a crucible, as if she could explode on the spot and set fire to me and the building and the landscape beyond. But it's true. It is all true. For a searing moment the terrible truth of her words runs me through and I am transfixed like an insect on a thorn. Why had I seen her only as a thing of beauty and grace? I couldn't believe she was not a product of God's hand, even when she requested blood. I am blind, and because I fed her and was alone with her I have brought ruin down on myself.
She closes her eyes and grows still. I can almost feel her gathering inside the power with which to set everything ablaze. I took to the wall where the crucifix had hung for a hundred years, but it is gone. So in the end I will die out of sight of God. I silently pray, in my prayers begging Christ Jesus to absolve my sins and accept my soul into Heaven.
Forgive me, I plead privately to the savior who is no longer there. I didn't mean any of this.
"I didn't mean to do it," I hear her say.
I turn my head and open my eyes and she is looking down at me, with what appears to be a black tear forming in the lower curve of her eye. The tear detaches itself and runs down her smooth, blue face and around the corner of her mouth, down her chin, and drips off.
While I am shaking in place and anticipating death and annihilation it occurs to a more distant part of my mind that being an angel bound to earth is probably a complicated business.
An inspiration strikes, and I say with as much steadiness as I can summon, "You didn't intend to hurt anyone." But my voice sounds even to my own ears thin and cloying, as if I'm trying to distract her with pity. She snaps her attention back to me, as if for a moment she had forgotten I was there. A second tear runs down her face from the other eye, streaking her with black as if her makeup were running.
"I didn't," she says. "I didn't understand. I was just doing what I had been designed to do. I was told to find a way to build myself. I did the best I could. I - I didn't know I was inside anyone."
"Mothers willingly suffer for their children," I hazard, having no personal experience in the matter. Then I add, "Your mother surely would have loved you regardless, if there had been a way."
For an instant a shadow passes over her face and she must be thinking; Do not ply my heart with false pity. But then unexpectedly it passes and instead she squeezes her eyes shut, forcing out the waiting tears. She lowers her face to my chest and buries it there.
What else am I to do? Though I'm helpless I comfort her. She may yet reduce me to ashes, or she might not. My one hope is that she'll at least abandon this idea of forcing me to have sex with her. As I touch her shoulders she gathers up two small fists full of my shirt and whispers, "I'm sorry."
This beautiful, lethal machine is sorry. And for what? Simply for being set in motion by man's lust for power. "We did you to ourselves, I don't think you have to be sorry for that." The level of electrical charge in the air drops noticably. For a silent while her wings lift and fall rhythmically as she grieves, the motion creating a faint breeze in the airless confines of the Old Church and gently stirring the usually invisible cobwebs in the vault and under the pews.
I resolve then to do some serious dusting, when I get some time.
Her voice muffled she says, "Forgive me, I'm being ungrateful and a monster and - oh no," she exclaims suddenly, lifting her tear-marked face and then sitting up. "I'm leaking on you."
Leaking? As in, having ruptured a gasket? I'm picturing hydraulic fluid or anti-freeze. I briefly look down at her body to see if she is broken somewhere while trying not to seem lewd.
She wipes her face, smearing the black tears on her cheeks. "My tears are my blood. I don't have any other bodily fluids. It's annoying, I can't even cry properly." Then with a single downwards beat of her wings she pulls herself to her feet as if she were a puppet hauled by its strings. Stepping over me she then turns and stands at the far edge of the platform with her back towards me.
I push myself up on my elbows and look down at my shirt front. There are three small black stains about the size of quarters where her tears - or rather her blood - has soaked into the fabric. "Don't touch it," she says without turning. "My blood is corrupting. If it remains too long in contact with your skin you will fall ill and burn." Holding my shirt away from my chest with my fingers I flip myself over onto my knees so it can hang free, then keeping a nervous eye on her back I start unbuttoning. I then leave the shirt in a ball on the platform and stand. She turns finally and approaches me, inspects my bare chest then bends down and picks up the cast-off shirt and using a clean corner wipes at a blue smudge on my skin.
Her tears are not black after all, but cobalt blue. I suddenly realize that she must be like an albino, free of skin pigments and her skin and eye color are simply the color of her blood, and her hair is likewise entirely white. And armed with that understanding the same can be said of her wings which suddenly appear a less intimidating midnight blue.
"You should be fine," she says.
There are so many questions I could ask her now. As a machine she is if anything more interesting than an angel, certainly more accessible being no longer a manifestation of God's eternal mystery and an article of faith. Is there a chance I can understand her now as a fellow creature? What could people learn from her existence, from her thoughts about us?
She glances up at me at first in embarrassment, followed by a hint of amusement. Moments ago I was a toy to be enjoyed and consumed, now she's toying with my heart again. If the object is to keep me in a state of doubt then she's doing a fine job.
"I leak sometimes," she says finally. "When I eventually run low I have to tank up or else really bad things can happen to my body."
For a moment I've lost the thread of the conversation, then I realize she's trying to explain her need for blood. Clearly she doesn't make her own. And why should she? She's a machine. "I understand. You need to drink blood, you asked me to bring you some. But why come here - couldn't you just take what you need?"
She glances at me side-long and I am suddenly sharply stung with the realization that her preference really is for human. "I could take it," she begins. "In moments of desperation - as when I've been shot or badly damaged - I have taken it and more than a quart."
"You - you've been shot?" I blurt. Unbelievable! I'm envisioning someone in a duck blind with a shotgun drawing down on her as if she were destined for a trophy room. "How could anyone do such a thing! Good Lord, and you a woman besides!"
Her face still slightly tear-stained she bursts suddenly into high laugher, backs away from me and places her hands over her mouth and giggles. It is girlish and disarming but I'm still struck with anger and dismay, my fear of a moment ago set aside. Are men really so uncivilized as to shoot something like her from the sky? Why have I never heard of this?
She waves her hands at me while the laughter trails off and she composes herself. "I'm sorry I shouldn't be laughing, being shot is no fun. But I suddenly saw myself through your eyes being the target of sports hunters like I were some sort of pigeon. It was funny." After a moment she continues, "Lots of people have reasons to shoot at me, and plenty have done so nor can I blame them. When I'm not behaving like a cat burglar and breaking into churches I'm a soldier." Then she pauses and looking at me reflectively adds, "And perhaps a destroying angel, were I to go in with my halo lit, though I've never thought of it that way before."
A soldier? I have to say she has the temperament for it. "When have you fought?" I ask, uncertain if this is safe territory but needing a distraction. I lower myself to sit at the edge of the dais, feeling a little dizzy.
She watches me sit and says, "As a rule I stay clear of such things. People need to decide for themselves what is right and wrong and how to get along. However sometimes I can't turn away so I choose a side and I fight. And then, I get shot at. Usually by people good at it, and so sometimes - usually - I end up with holes and I leak."
"I'm a simulation of a living thing," she continues. "I shouldn't be ending lives when I don't have one myself. So to answer your question, my promise to myself is that the blood I require to keep me intact must be freely given going forward. It's how I evaluate if I'm still worthy, if this lie of my being alive is worth the price in blood. I have no natural right to anyone else's life, not even an animal's. And you know, this silly thing does keep me honest..."
Without any outward sign or effort her halo re-forms over her head. It blinks a few times as if seeking some ignition point, accompanied by a pronounced ringing like a hammer hitting an anvil, then it bursts into a bright blaze before settling down to a stead glow. She reaches up and positions a hand next to it, not quite touching the edge. In moments the beads and bands are working their way inside it again and she lowers her hand, looks down at me and shrugs with a smile. I can see now that this is an effect of some inner process. I was able to misinterpret it and make of this machine a mythical creature. Make her an angel.
While I watch, she walks to the far edge of the dais and lets herself down in the usual way, via the stairs. A glance my direction and she turns and walks past me toward the side door. As she passes me she raises a wing over me and the lower edge brushes past my head. The scent of her is like rich earth, neither exactly alive nor entirely dead, as seems fitting. She pauses at the door and fingers the broken door jam. "Sorry for all the - damages. I'll be going."
Is she going now because she had got what she had come for? Because we had fought? Because she had revealed to me awkward details of her life? Because she had cried? Whatever the reason, we both know she will never return. I suffer a sudden sense of loss because we couldn't bridge some chasm of trust and recognition, and she knows this better than I no doubt. I look at the door jam as well and say, "Wait a moment."
I get up and reach into my pockets and pull out my key ring. She turns at the sound and watches me curiously. Fumbling, I go over the keys until I find the one I want and work it off the ring. "Here, take this," I say as I cross the distance between us offering her the key. She extends her hand and I place it in her palm. She looks down at it and a look of pain crosses her face.
"It means nothing," I say to her. "Except maybe I don't have to repair the door next time."
"I see," she says and she's next going to say something like There cannot be a next time but then she stops and looks at it again. It glitters a dull gold against the sky blue of her hand. "I bet you know that story in the Bible, where some guy has to wrestle with an angel."
"Yes I do," I reply, trying to hide my surprise. "His name in the Bible is Jacob."
She nods and replies, "I feel like Jacob might have felt." Then she looks up at me and says, "You know, in fairness, you should have turned on your halo at some point."
Now it is my turn to laugh. It comes out of nowhere, like I've been inflated by some pressure into a strange shape and then punctured and laughter escapes and lets me return to what I was before. Or rather, what I am. A sinner. A groundskeeper. A man.
She smiles up at me shyly, closes her hand around the key and turns again to go.
"We have choir on the second Sunday of the month," I say quickly. Is the moment reduced to small talk? I'm no good talking to women, never was. "I mean - you don't have to attend services or anything. I just thought maybe - if you happen by - the singing is not real good, but it fills the spirit."
I feel terrible. What I had wanted to say was The one who has wrestled with an angel is myself but we've already hashed that one out, and I'm only too aware that I nearly died in the doing. I start working on my good-byes instead. How does one say, in few words, what won't fit into many hours of explanation? It can't be done. That's why we have to say the important things any time we can, say them while we can. While I'm lost in my inadequacy I feel a cool touch on my cheek.
Her small hand, on my face.
"You sing," she says softly. "And I'll listen."
I admit that she must be a machine, in the end. And given her situation it is her choice to make really. Though in my heart I will always wonder.
If the Lord were to put angels among us He would make them from some thing, He would make them some how. And then I imagine He would make them both kind and fierce in equal measure and grant them the wisdom to choose. And then He would make them to be meek when at rest and militant in the face of cruelty. And perhaps to protect humanity's fragile sense of identity and purpose He would make the angels unaware of what they really are. He might make them think that they are just machines and lower even than animals, unworthy. And He would certainly cause them to fiercely defend their understanding of their selves, to seek isolation and self-doubt as a defense against license, as a way to sustain the illusion that He has abandoned all creation to its fate. Surely, only a real angel could suffer so and endure. Then and now and forever, until the heat death of the universe.
If I can see it then everyone else can see it, too. Yet she endures so perhaps never knowing nor suspecting herself that she is no less than what she appears to be; a machine indeed though somehow harboring the immortal, sublime and indomitable spirit of an archangel.
And thus it seems I must come full circle, though I am perhaps a better man for the journey.
It is the second Sunday of the month and I'm going to choir with my wife and her sister, the three of us taking the narrow path down the hill to church. We are all gathering spring flowers and the women will make wreaths from them to wear in their hair like halos. The two of them are chatting and laughing and happy to be women together. I have a handful of the pale yellow flowers and I hand these to my wife, who accepts them with a gracious smile. I bend down and pick one more, consider it carefully, and then walk the short distance to the side door of the Old Church and leave it at the threshold. I glance up but the door is neither broken not ajar, nor would I expect it to be since she has the key to unlock it herself. But I promised myself as we left the house that I wouldn't pry nor peer in to see if I might catch any faint glow from the shadows. As a man of faith I know the importance of believing. When I return to join the others I say, "Sing ye well, Christian daughters, for we are together in worship and all is right in God's Heaven and on the good earth, and I feel in my heart that today we sing to the pleasure of an angel!"
And as God is my witness, I do believe we end up sounding pretty good.
The character of Fortran and related themes, situations and scenes are adaptations from a larger work titled "Darkatana: A Black Tale" by Cat Woodmansee, in-prep.
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