Chwal: Part 2

Part 1

The winters come and go, and I grow up.  I trade in my crayons for pens, braids for free-flowing curls that blow like a lion’s mane.  Raff don’t age at all, but that’s to be expected.

I’m twelve, finally in sixth grade, and it’s Christmastime.  Granmama’s sitting outside on the front porch, watching the fresh falling snow.  I lounge in the bay window, inky papers in my hand.  It’s pa’s legal pads, all stacked together with my stories, and the smudges bleed over the edge like some battle scene.

Raff smiles, watching me scribbling my next great novel.  I know writers are supposed to wait til their thirties or something to pen the Great American Novel, least, that’s what pa says, but we all start somewhere, right?  Even angels and Zora Neale Hurston – my momma’s favorite author, who maybe I shouldn’t be reading now at such an “impressionable age,” as granmama says, but I do – were in diapers once.  Well, angels wore something, because diapers probably weren’t around back then.

Raff’’s given me one of his feathers to write with, a different one on each of my birthdays.  This is the largest yet, and let me tell you – it’s impossible.  Impossibly beautiful, that is.  All long and plumy-white like something from a dream.  The nib etches lil streams of golden ink, and jack’s rabbit if that isn’t a miracle.

Raff sits crunching sunflower seeds.  “What part are you at, May?”

“The part where Keisha raids the moon base.  She’s freeing the rebel aliens from their prisons so the revolution can start.  It’s like Star Wars but better.  Instead of light sabers, Keisha has a light arrow.  It’s more precise, like a laser beam, with a hundred percent casualty rate when aimed exactly right.”

“Sounds exciting.  Want edits?”

“Sure thing, sweetheart.”

He always blushes when I call him that.  But I’m old enough to give Raff nicknames too now.  I like watching him squirm.  Angels ain’t got nothing on me, after all.

Leggie left a while ago, when I started asking questions.  Raff tells me only kids can see him, but I’m not so sure about that.  Sometimes, outta the corner of my eye, I swear I can see the old man sitting in the pews like usual, on rainy days, when there’s a stillness about the place some would call holy, and granmama’s soft snores touch the lights.  Sounds can touch lights, you know.  Raff explained that everything’s just a wave, like in physics, except his explanation is more poetic.

“It’s all a dance, May.  Like butterflies in an Indian summer.  Everyone has their time.”

He draws out his words like a painter.  His time stretches on forever.

I’m old enough now to see the scars behind his eyes.  Like a war vet.  Pa says grandpa came back from Korea and was never quite the same.  He died with that same bruisyness Raff has, the poky bits like a cactus.  Once I cut myself after falling at the quarry, and Raff tore off his robes below the knee and bound it with the fabric, then flew me home.

His legs were criss-crossed with scars, like train tracks over his skin.  I never dared ask him about it, but I have nightmares, sometimes, about what they mean.  I’m old enough to read the Bible all the way through now, after all.

“Raff?” I ask, one day as I’m waiting alone at the bus stop in the rain, and he’s hovering beside me, whistling to a bird in his hands.

“Mmm?”

“Your legs.  Do they hurt?”

He’s silent.

After a while, he asks: “How’s your story going.”

“Good.  It’s about a war.  You ever seen a war?”

Tears prickle his eyes, and I feel like I’ve kicked a puppy in the gut.

“Yes,” he says faintly.  The bluebird in his hand trills sadly as my angel hangs his head.  Raff shields me from the rain with his wings.  “But that’s something you already knew.”

I reach for his shoulder, but he turns away.  “I’m sorry I asked.”

“No.  It’s alright.  You have a right to know.”

“About the blackness?” I ask.  My shoulder bag suddenly seems ten times heavier.  “The Devil’s real, ain’t he.”

“Yes, but not in the way you would think.”  Raff lets the bluebird go.  It shakes itself free of rain and hops down his wing onto my shoulder.  Birds act strange around Raff, more friendly.  “He’s a custodian of sorts.  I think you’re old enough to understand what angels do.  We clean up after people and take care of them.  Well, he deals with the less fortunate souls.  Some people are lost, May.  They’ve fallen by the wayside in life.  He gives them a chance.”

I shiver.  “That don’t sound very pleasant.”

“Some people can be downright nasty, May-flower.  It takes a hard man to help harsh souls.  There may come a time when I have to leave you.  Not for long, but sometimes.  I want you to know that you’ll be safe on the nights the darkness comes, as long as you don’t leave your room.”

Just as he speaks, the bus rolls up.  I sit at the back where I can whisper to Raff.

“You’re leaving?  When?”

“In a while.  Before you were born, I was a doctor.  I help heal souls and the dying.  Your grandmother: she’s nearing her end.”

I stare out the streaky window to the gutter swollen with leaves.  Granmama’s been in the hospital for a while, and I knew it was coming sometime – sooner, rather than later.  “Jack’s rabbit.  She is, ain’t she,” I say quietly.  Raff pats my shoulder in an effort to comfort me.

“I’m going with her.  Whoever’s important to you is important to me as well.”

“Can’t I go too?  Please, Raff.  I gotta know that she’s safe.  She can’t go to Heaven alone, she’ll try to reorganize everything and clean the entire Heavenly Kingdom with that bad back of hers!”

He smooths my hair just like when I was younger.  “I promise on my sword she won’t come into harm’s way.  She’s a good woman, May.  No need to worry about her.  Now finish that math homework.  I’m off to work.”  And like a firecracker he disappears.  I slump into my seat and sit crying for the rest of the ride.  Ever since I’ve gotten older, he’s been leaving me alone more often.  Him being gone is like having a missing limb.

That afternoon I visit granmama’s bedside.  I bring her a bouquet of daisies from the soccer field where I had practice and a few tomato sandwiches I fixed up at home especially for her, with mayo for her aching joints – a silly family superstition, but I swear it works.  The moment I step into the room, I see Raff stroking her hair and massaging out the kinks in her shoulders, caring for her like a nurse.  He wears yellow scrubs just like the hospital staff and looks pretty handsome at that.  I stand speechless and nearly drop my flowers.  My throat burns with a kind of gratitude that is too dang hard to put into words.

Granmama can’t see him, but the rise and fall of her chest eases up as Raff works out the knots and kinks in her frail creaky shoulders, where she carries nearly a century worth of the Laveau’s family burdens.  He smiles at me all gentle as he looks up from his work.  “Hey May-flower,” he says, then leaves the room to give us privacy.  I mouth a “thank you” to him, swallowing back a tsunami’s load of tears.  Granmama looks at me with rheumy cataract eyes.

“May-be, baby doll.  Is that you?” she asks, voice all soft and fragile like tissue paper.  She reaches out with a tremble-spider hand.  I take it and hold it to my cheek, biting back my crying.

“Yeah, granmama.  How you doing?” I ask all forced-bright.

“Just fine, baby doll.  I could’ve sworn on Moses’ staff an angel of the Lord just visited me.  I feel light as a feather.  You scraping by at school?”

“Yes m’am.  I aced a test on negative numbers today.  And look!  Tomato sandwiches, just for you.”

We eat them together in companionable silence.  I talk about how handsome Billy Morse’s gotten and lick bits of mayo from my fingertips.  It’s hard for granmama to eat so I help her in lil bits, wiping crumbs from her neck.  One of those nasty IVs is a thorn in her skin and she near cusses it to Hell, invoking the Lord in a whole lot of creative ways.

“Pray for me, baby doll,” she says, her rickety voice outta breath.  I do, the Lord’s Prayer, followed by an invocation to St. Michael, and then a petition to St. Gabriel for healing.  Granmama’s been collecting prayers all her life, no matter if they’re Catholic, Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist – it don’t matter.  She writes them down on lil notecards as if they were recipes for some heavenly cook book.  I guess, in a way, they are.  From what I can tell, there’s a prayer for everything.

“I got one, granny.  To Raphael.”

“Who’s he, doll baby?”

“The angel of doctors, granmama.”

“That sounds downright perfect, child.  You’re a darn precious thing to have around.”

Momma picks me up in a thunderstorm after I’m done visiting.  I’m glad the rain hides the tears on my face.

“She’s looking better, momma.  That cancer’s been whipped to submission, hasn’t it?” I ask.

Momma smiles half-heartedly.  “Sure.  Nothing beats your granmama, not even Death himself.  He’d hightail it to the bayou once she got out her knitting needles and used them as pokers for his bony behind.”

“Sure thing!”

We entertain each other with tall tales of granmama’s Lordly wrath late into the night.  Raff sits around munching on cookies, entertained by the talk, and pitches one to me:

“Your grandmother’s tough as nails.  With a look she’d staple the Devil to his throne so he couldn’t move a lick.”

“That’s right, sir.  Raff, what’s A-squared equals B-squared plus C-squared?  I don’t see any squares, only a triangle.  I gotta talk to Leggie about this math stuff if he ever gets back, it just ain’t right.  He should tell God to change it up so it makes a lick of sense.  God messed up geometry big time.”

Raff helps me, and it’s a great distraction from what’s really on my mind.  He notices later on, of course.  Nothings quick enough to fly by Raff, not even those falcons that go hundreds of miles an hour.

“She’ll go peacefully, May.”

“Oh can’t you tell me when!”

“You know I can’t.  I already told you far more than was proper.”

“It’s not just that though, Raphael.  It’s the other angels I was wondering about.  I ain’t never seen any of them but you.  I got to thinking, you can’t be the only winged man in the world.  There ought to be other angels.  Angels of music, and traveling.  And – and of… of death.”

He sighs like an old wind blowing through an empty carnival.  “In time, May, just wait.  You’ll meet them all eventually.”

I raise my brows.  “I will?”

“I just wish it would be later rather than sooner.”

 

 

Granmama’s funeral is a stately affair, with the entire church gathered on the village green to pray for her immortal soul.  It’s just how she’d of wanted it, with eloquent speeches and an ocean of tears.  Only I don’t cry.  It’s like a plug has been put in my throat to stopper the sorrow.  All I can do is stare at the coffin and her empty face.  Raff is hidden like the sun behind a storm-cloud.  I can feel him, but I see nothing, just darkness in the shadow of Spanish moss swinging on the trees in a storm.

She passed in peace with us by her side.  For days afterward, Raff was gone.  I make the trek down Main Street, up the church hill, out to the graveyard each day, carrying brier roses cut from granmama’s favorite bush out front.  Sunday afternoon is dark as the Devil’s pit.  It storms as I walk to the graveyard.  The trees lining the iron fence stand like daggers against the sky.  The graves go back to Colonial times, as Snake’s Hollow used to be a kind of resort area in Louisiana, a home away from home for New Orleans elite, fabled for its mineral springs that can cure any ailment, so the stories go.  The tourist shop even sells bottles of it.  Now it’s just another small town, but the mystique remains, and in this hundreds of years old graveyard with stone angels and mausoleums, I can believe in the water’s magic, almost as if it has the power to revive my sweet granmama.

I come to her grave – as humble as the woman that shaped my life in so many ways, but stately, elegant, godly, and wretchedly beautiful.

“The sky’s crying for you,” I whisper, my lashes wet with rain.  The stone in my throat dislodges and the tears that pour forth are thick as the Red Sea.  Heaving, I sink to the ground, knees muddy as I kiss the gravestone.  “Granmama, there’s so much I wanted to tell you.  So much I don’t understand.  I feel so, so alone.”

Lightning illuminates the plot.  “Raff?” I cry out, sobbing in earnest now.  “Where are you?  God, oh God, why did you let her leave?”

An engine starts in the distance.  I steady myself, shaking like the Tower of Babel.  The cemetery gate creaks open.

“Hello?”  I rise, bunching my coat close around me for warmth.  Four figures peter in, hidden by the Spanish moss.  My hairs stand on end as I hide behind a stone angel.  Through the vegetation I can see them.  Wings drape around their shoulders like capes.  My jaw drops a country mile as they approach.

“May?” Raff calls, his face brilliant as the sun.  “It’s okay, May-flower.  You’re among friends.  There’s no need to be afraid.”  The clouds part above and his companions step out into the light.  A shaft of sun wreathes them in glory and glances off the halos above their heads.  I sink to my knees in wonder.

“Raff?”

“We’re here to take you home,” he says quietly, coming to me and picking me up off the ground, cradling me against him like he did when I was young.  He hushes me as I sob into his shirt.  The other angels stand back at a respectful distance.  “But first, hot cocoa.  And answers.”

 

 

“I’m what?”

The four angels look at me like I’m Kingdom Come.

Raff watches close, blowing steam from his mug of cocoa.  We sit in a booth in a small country diner, his coat over my shoulders as I stare wide-eyed at the three strangers.  One has hair like saffron threads, another slanted eyes rich as loam, and the third skin like champagne.  Their wings are tucked into their backs, and somehow the waitress can see them.  The four angels have a gravity Raff usually doesn’t, a presence like they’re actually here, with wings hidden from view.

“The Lord’s god-daughter,” Raff says quietly, arm around me as he hugs me tight.  He pushes a slice of apple pie my way.  “Eat, May.”

I pick at it, jaw dropped too far open to chew.  If I’ve learned anything from Raff, it’s that angels are many things, none of which are subtle.  I could kick him halfway to Heaven right now, springing his friends on me like daisies pushing up from a coffin.

“Jack’s rabbit I am.  That’s impossible!”

The angels laugh.  Michael’s stern face is softened by a smile.  He’s the one with the ruddy hair, the general of the angels.  A wicked scar juts over his brow, makes his face thick with ridges, like a mountain.  “Each generation, there’s a child raised by angels.  We’re their teachers.  Soon, May, you’ll inherit the Earth.”

“But why?”

“Because Father needs a guardian.”

“Like a guardian angel?  But that makes no sense!  I’m just a Southern girl that doesn’t know cat clawings from chicken scratch.  I write space operas – my head in the clouds as momma says, not a lick of common sense about me.  How am I supposed to help someone as mighty as God?”

The one with earthy eyes takes my hands into hers.  Gabriel – the messenger angel, I think – whose smile is like a bark whorl.  “God’s old, May.  Older than you can know.  He has places waiting for Him.  He needs someone to look after the world while he’s away.  That’s why you’ve been raised by Raphael.  The time will come when you’ll help others as He helps them.”

“How?”

“By answering prayers,” answers the golden angel.  Azrael, the angel of death.  Weird enough, I feel no fear under her swirling eyes.  Just peace.  “You’ll be a guardian like us.”

“But I’m not an angel.  Not at all.  I’m mortal.”

“Exactly,” Raff says, licking his fingers clean of the remains of my pie.  “Angels were created to serve humanity.  We bowed down before God’s creation out of love long ago.  Well, all but one.”  His face darkens.  “The point is, while we can do many things, we can’t interfere with occurrences directly.  We can help, of course, like I did with your grandmother, but we cannot change things outright.  I could ease her passing, but I couldn’t prevent her from dying.  We must respect the order of things.  But mortals can make choices, and we can influence them.  That’s where you come in.”

“Why?  What can I do?”

“You can make choices.  You’re the Guardian, May, the Guardian of this generation.  There is always one walking the earth, unbeknownst to humans.   To them, you appear an ordinary girl, but in truth, you’re an emissary of God, here to oversee things while He’s away.”

“Where did God go?  I thought He was everywhere – isn’t that kind of His point?”

Gabriel grins, her slanted eyes glimmering with amusement.  She nurses a tall coffee that’s black as sin.  “Even the old man needs a break.  We help Father take care of business.  We’re all different parts of God.  For example, I’m God’s strength.  That’s what Gabriel means.  Michael is God’s general, Raphael is God’s healing, Azrael his help.  It goes on.  And when you were made, sweet little thing that you were, we put something special into you.”

I tap my fingers on the table, nervous.  I glance at Raff in suspicion.  “And what exactly was that?”

Michael’s golden-green eyes focus on me.  “God’s love for the world.  It will give you the ability to take on the pains of this world, people’s suffering, and turn them into joy.”

“I still remember you up in Heaven, cooing away as I held you in my arms,” Gabriel smiles.  “You know the old wives’ tale that the indentation above your lip is God’s thumbprint?  It’s mine.  I cradle all babies before they’re born and whisper God’s Word into their ears.  I press life into their lips and shepherd them on their merry little ways.  You were delightful, and your soul shined just so, thrumming with God’s beauty.  To meet you again, all grown, why, it’s wonderful.”

Gabriel takes my hand.  She runs her fingers over the lines of my palm like she’s a fortune teller. “I can feel it in you, Father’s love.  It courses like lightning through your veins.  Raphael, you’ve been selfish, keeping her to yourself.  She’s too precious to bear.”

Raff squeezes me with his arm.  “She’s darn precious alright,” he grins, pulling my ear.  I fight him off.

“I’m too old for that nonsense, Raff.  I’m fierce now.”  I look at the archangels: “You guys better watch out.  Keep calling me precious and I might smite you with my supposed ‘powers.’”

“You sure are brave,” Gabriel laughs.  “Just like your cat, eh?  Raff keeps coming to work covered in calico hair.  He won’t shut up about how much it sheds.”

“If he’d stop petting her so much, maybe he wouldn’t get so messy,” I say.  I eye Raff.  “So what do you do up there, anyway?  Angels must be awful busy.  I don’t see how Raff has the time to spend with me.”

Azrael smiles serenely.  “We have many roles.  I’m the angel of death: I transport souls to the next plane.”

“I’m Heaven’s general,” Michael says.  He absently touches the scar on his forehead.  “I protect the world from demons.”

My heart races at the mention of demons, and I remember the blackness that terrorizes my nights.  I mask my fear and nod.

“I’m the angel of souls,” Gabriel says cheerily, drumming her thumbs on the table.  “I pluck new spirits from the Tree of Life and send them off to their birthing.  We all do a lot of things: odd jobs.  Answering prayers, for the most part.  I also play the trumpet pretty well.”

The table collectively groans.  “Not that stupid thing,” Raff teases.  “Gabby never shuts up, May.”

“Gotta practice for the Apocalypse!” Gabriel says.  She winks at me.  “All hell might break loose pretty soon – you’re growing up to be a head-turner, May, and men are the devil around pretty girls.”

“I’m not letting anyone touch her,” Raff mutters.

I roll my eyes.  “I don’t need two dads, Raff.  Ain’t no way you’re gonna tell me what to do.”

Michael laughs.  The sound shocks me, all deep and rich like dark chocolate.  I can’t imagine what it’s like when they all sing with their sweet-as-honey voices in the heavenly choirs.

“You’ve got a fireball on your hands,” Michael says.

“Yeah, he does,” I say.  “I’m not worth anything if I’m not trouble.”

“Keep that spunk.”  Izrail smiles. “It’ll help you down the line.”

Raff ruffles my hair.  “You’re a headache, a precious, precious headache.”

“I ain’t precious!” I protest.  “My cat’s precious.  You’re precious, in your silly yellow Sunday suit and top hat in church.  I got better fashion sense than you by a mile.”

The angels laugh at Raff’s expense.

I continue: “You’re all chivalrous and fluffy-winged.  You don’t have a bad bone in your body.  But I got a temper, and I know how to use it.  Ain’t nothing precious about me.”

Raff sighs.  “Whatever you say, May-flower.”

 

My Experience with the Archangels (UPDATED)

Updated with Uriel, my Khaleesi.

There are a lot of things I love – green curry, mythology, a good book when it’s raining outside, next to a cup of tea, in a blanket burrito, tall tall trees – but nothing gets my heart singing like angels.  I have always adored the idea of angels since I first learned about them as a preschooler and gravitated towards anything with angels on them – Hallmark cards, children’s bibles, classical artwork, stained glass windows in churches.  Whenever I saw them it felt like I was wrapped in a warm blanket of energy, my hairs standing on end and skin buzzing with pure love like electricity.  When I was old enough to have imaginary friends, I made mine an angel of lions, destruction, and fire that was a stand-in for the older brother I never had: my best friend, protector, and teacher.

I called him Star after the morning star which to my young eyes, was the brightest thing in the night sky, standing sentinel to the moon.  I would sing to him at night and pray to him and tell him my deepest secrets – in dreams we’d play in heaven with other angels, fight demons, and I’d be carried on his back as we flew across the Milky Way.  Star stayed with me until I was about twelve in dreams – I remember saying goodbye to him officially when I thought I was too old to write stories about imaginary friends anymore, that I should start believing in “real” gods – too bad I never read about Archangel Ariel – angel of lions, fire, and destruction – whose flip side, as the Demiurge lion-faced serpent, is Samael.  Sorry but the Gnostics have been dead for a few thousand years not counting the Cathars.  Also this was the nineties-early 2000’s and I was more concerned with playing Pokemon than researching the occult.

Star had an “evil” side like I swear all small children who like explosions make their OCs have.  Normal Star had tan skin, with azure blue eyes and platinum hair – his evil side, which in my third grade mind was the embodiment of chaos in the universe I had created, was a spirit of dragons, poison and snakes with porcelain skin, red eyes, and black hair.  Right when “Star” exited my dreams he was replaced by a character I named “Samael” that looked suspiciously like his evil side, yet still had the same snark as Star.  Pale olive skin, red eyes, long black hair.  I was still reeling from the fact a name I’d pulled out of my posterior was real (It’s happened twice, with my characters Samael and Ragnar) and that my computer was for some reason claiming a twelve year old had edited the Lucifer Wikipedia page.  This was also the time I had my first vision of an angry ginger angel general who saved my life then thrust me back into my body, so alongside puberty and hair growing in weird places like my armpits, also middle school, life was getting increasingly weird.

After I found out Samael was “real” – as real as a mythological figure can be – I went into denial about angels.  I was still a budding pagan, had been since the tender age of seven when I first got my hands on D’aulaires, so I decided that all Abrahamic religions sucked because the Messiah couldn’t be a woman, and hey, if I wasn’t good enough to be the Messiah, then I wasn’t good for anything.  I also wanted to be the President at this point and was in my angry feminist phase so anything that stank of the patriarchy – read Bible – I abhored.  Still, I devoured Madeliene L’engel’s Wrinkle of Time quartet and fell in love with the angels in those books, from the first to Many Waters, and I continued dreaming of angels and demons who I then wrote about in my stories.  Samael took me on crazy adventures only a drunk would take a young teenager on in my dreams, and through them I met the archangels and archdemons.

To me the archdemons are like the drinking buddies you don’t want to be seen with in public – they’re good to party with, but too crazy for day-to-day interactions.  The archangels are the opposite – kind, the essence of love and compassion, with hidden quirks and complexities, servants above all to humanity and God.  They treat me like a younger sister and I often dream I am a young child playing with them, or that I am in the audience of their Heavenly Council or Michael’s prayer garden.  This is a list of the ones I interact the most with, because I’m bored and still have an hour til my train:

Michael: The head honcho and first angel I “officially” met at the age of twelve, barring Auriel and Metatron.  I’ve written about my vision of him here.  To say he is terrifying is an understatement.  Too tall, I see him as Islamic mystics describe him – saffron thread hair, emerald eyes.  His wings are white and armor golden with a red sash, blue cloak and fashionable tunica and sandals.  This guy reminds me of Thor in that he has muscles on his muscles and basically looks like Hercules.  He’s a lot less huggable than Thor and much more a sad plant man who only ever smiles when he is gardening.  His voice is like thunder, his faithfulness and steadfast love to God keep Heaven together, and he is the most fearsome being you will encounter on the battlefield whose strength is only matched by Samael’s.  I often dream of them fighting or politicking Cold War style minus the whole ping-pong diplomacy portion.  Michael is above all a defender – of the innocent, truth, the oppressed, everyone and anyone – your pet, your wife, your child, that sad dandelion that is dying of thirst in a crack in the sidewalk.  He cares so deeply about everything that he often times grows weary, but he listens to every single prayer to himself and his Father – every single one.  His laugh is rare but the most wonderful sound in the world.  So is his smile.  Some mystics say he hasn’t smiled since his brothers fell, but that just isn’t true.  It’s fast: a small soft quirk of the lips, a crinkle of his ancient eyes, but it’s there.  He listens to prayers, and answers every single one of mine in the most unexpected, but beautiful, of ways.

Gabriel: This is more Izzi’s territory, but Gabriel has always been a lighthearted presence in my life.  He/she looks nothing like the actor on Supernatural minus the dark brown hair, but they got one thing right: GABRIEL’S MALE ASPECT IS A HUGE ASS TRICKSTER AND FLIRT.  He has a smile more devilish than Samael and is one of the few that can make Michael laugh.  He’s an angel of water, peace, souls, good cheer and jokes, and messages.  Her female aspect to me appears with long blonde hair and is much more maternal, but is vicious on the battlefield – I mean she razes legions of demons with a flick of her saber, she’s that powerful.  Gabriel shifts between genders easily and is a very go-with-the-flow guy/gal, at least in my dreams.  They often speak in riddles or parables.

Ariel: I get Zadkiel mixed with Ariel and am not unconvinced they are one and the same.  Anyways, he’s like my older brother and main defender besides Michael – for some reason he likes to play with hair – like he will literally braid mine and make me a flower crown and I’ll have to tell him to bugger off in dreams because I’m trying to have adventures.  He loves children and nature, and is associated with all four elements – I see him mostly around ocean settings and bonfires.  He sometimes carries a torch or shoots arrows.  He usually wears white or purple robes and has long blond hair like Fabio.  Lions are his signature animal and most people apparently see him as a woman, but not me.  I get Blond Wonderboy.  He’s also a major flirt and is very playful and creative, but don’t piss him off.  Then he goes all destructo on your ass.

Uriel: The Khaleesi of my heart, queen of my fangirling, I have known Uriel since I was seven and she has almost always appeared as a woman to me: black and blonde dreadlocks, umber skin, freckles, and hazel eyes.  As the Light of God, she is an absolute delight and ball of radiant energy, childish and talkative, but by god do not piss her off, as she is built and trains like an Amazon warrior.  She usually favors cyan blue or seafoam robes or exercise gear, and loves beaches, starfish, shells, and anything tropical.  To me, she looks Melanesian and her heavenly home reflects that – it is a tropical paradise.  I’ve even seen her swimming in a bikini on one of her off days, then practicing on her beach with her most trusted spear.  She is very much an earthy angel to me, the element she presides over, extremely grounded, kind, and kind of a pack mother like a wolf, the animal I associate with her.  In her own words she is good for bringing friends together, settling disputes, and promoting peace and justice.  She always has time to peck you on the cheek or ruffle your hair and will usually treat me like a beloved little sister.  She and Ariel are a Hot Item and she is one of the only ones that can make him take things seriously.  She is usually spotted in Michael’s company and they are very, very good friends, bringing out a softer side in him not many see.  Her male form has golden eyes and looks a bit like Denzel Washington – there I go again with the weird celebrity references.  He appears usually around Christmastime in a festive outfit of red and gold and delights in giving gifts to children and snow.

Raphael: I love him so much I’m writing a whole book about him.  Raphael is like if sunshine were bottled into a person.  Always optimistic, good-humored, loves children, wears bright yellow with a megawatt smile.  For some reason to me he looks like Idris Elba.  I don’t really know why.  Maybe I just like Idris Elba too much and have projected it onto my favorite archangel.  He’s the best cook in Heaven and often tells jokes to lighten the mood in angelic councils.  I mostly dream I’m a child when I’m with him and he plays with me – we build sand castles, he pulls me in a wagon, we play tag.  He will bring out your inner child for sure.  Also the best angel to go to if, like me, your toenail falls off and you’re grossed out to the max and want a fast recovery, as he’s the physician of the angels.

Samael: About 50% of this blog is about Bonebutt so I’m not going to say anything except that he is a piece of work, lousy lazy archangel, stinking wino and obsessed with being “cool”

Azrael: In my dreams, the angels call Samael the “Red Reaper” and Azrael, his much kinder counterpart, the “Blue Reaper.”  Azrael has two forms: a Grim Reaper form with glowing blue eyes like Discworld death, and this chill Middle Eastern Goth dude that is always reading a book with headphones on.  He is soft-spoken, introverted, calm, peaceful, and endless like the depths of the ocean.  For some reason he also likes baseball – as in he has taken me to baseball matches in dreams.  I wonder if it’s an Angel of Death thing because Samael just has this thing for baseball too.  Anyways, Azrael likes to stay out of the spotlight, in the shadow, and chill.  He won’t directly come up to you at a party or whatever but is very witty if you talk to him.  He’s a loner for sure, but one of the kindest angels ever.

Raguel: I’ve only seen him once in passing and got this overwhelming sense of peace and compassion.  He had long chestnut hair and was dressed in a gold robe with Roman sandals, carrying a Very Important Book.  I don’t know if it was the Book of Life or not, but he was in a hurry to get somewhere that was also probably Very Important.

Metatron: Best for last.  The grandpa of the angels.  I’ve known this dude since I was like seven.  I called him the President of the angels because he ran Heaven and drank a lot of tea and was always doing paperwork.  Ain’t nothing Metatron loves more than entertaining children’s precocious questions and tea.  Black tea, specifically, with cream and sugar.  He stirs it a lot when he’s doing Very Important Paperwork and sometimes accidentally spills it.  He is easily distracted as he gets so absorbed in the topic at hand.  He presides over angelic councils and I swear he’s the only one that can make Samael behave, or at least shut up for a period of five minutes max.  Also for some reason to me he looks like Elrond.  Like circlet, receding hairline, everything.  I don’t know if that’s as weird as Raphael looking like Idris Elba but whatever.  He’s very good-humored and very much the elderly British gentleman – obsessed with genteel good manners, likes gardening and formalities, and above all, order.  He can get flustered easily but if he is serious about gaining control of situation, AIN’T NOTHING STANDING IN HIS WAY.

I’ve met lots of other angels in dreams but these are the archangels I know best.  Heaven is like one big bureaucracy, whereas Hell is kinda like if society collapsed into this endless apocalyptic orgy.  I still don’t know which place I like better.

Eve’s Unexpected Teenage Motherhood, Samael is a Wino, & Jesus Drives a Yugo

The end of the first book in the Death and the Maiden Trilogy and a hint of the second novel.  I had far too much fun writing this.

The Gaia hypothesis states that the Earth functions like a living organism – upset the balance, and everything hangs askew.  As a biology major, I was intimately familiar with the theory.  Scientists said we had exacerbated the planet, accelerating climate change.  Zealots said it was the End Times.  For the first time in history, the fanatics were right, and the rationalists wrong.

Natural disasters increased tenfold – each week, a hurricane, a tsunami, an earthquake.  The death toll climbed and climbed.  Wars broke out over resources.  I read the papers, numb.

It had been easy enough to lie to my parents.  Samael had bound the horsemen in my twin’s comatose body, but when he had wanted to keep Mo under the archdemons’ watch in Hell, I had exploded.  And so we’d staged a car crash, wrecking Mo’s car, with my brother behind the wheel, limp like he’d had a head-on collision with a tree.  I had called my family from the passenger seat, faking panic, when all I could feel inside was nothing.  Nothing but bitter cold.

The ambulance had arrived, sirens wailing like the cries of a banshee.  They had carried Mo out in a stretcher.  He was a prisoner in his own body – brain activity raging, trapped immobile in his own limbs.  I could only imagine what war burned on in his undead mind.

I was beside him in the hospital, reading him his favorite author, Stephen King, in the hopes that he might hear.

Mo’s heart rate spiked.

“Mo?”

His eyes shot open.  He began to seizure.

“Mo?  Mo!  Doctor, doctor, he’s awake!”

The hospital staff flooded in.  Nurses ushered me out of the room.  And so my dead brother rose, soul trapped in his body, Samael’s binding not strong enough to stand up to the horsemen.

 

“I’m fine, Shannikins.  Stop watching me.”  Mo tried to move from his bed.  He lost his balance and fell onto the mattress, clutching his temple.  “Ugh, my head.  Man, I feel like I ran skull-first into a tree.  Wait – I did.”  Mo grinned.

“Don’t joke about that,” I said, secretly relieved he didn’t remember what had really occurred.  He was pale, so pale, almost the same shade as Samael.  I set a breakfast tray on his nightstand.

Mo’s recovery had thawed my heart.  For the first time in weeks, there was a flicker of hope – Samael’s binding had contained the horsemen in my brother, and for all intents and purposes, Mo was alive, with no knowledge that he was a vessel for Pestilence, Famine, and War.

Things weren’t as bright in the celestial realms.  Michael, Heaven’s foremost archangel, was possessed by God’s Word, forced to act out his role as Heaven’s general in the final battle between Heaven and Hell.  At his side were countless angelic drones, unthinking vessels of God’s wrath.

The other archangels, their free will still intact, had sided with Hell to prevent a premature Apocalypse.  Forced out of Heaven by Michael, they had taken refuge in Hell, much to their chagrin.  It was an awkward family reunion, especially considering that a third of their siblings had been disowned.

The only angel who seemed happy was Raphael, whose joviality wouldn’t deflate even if he was a balloon with a pin pushed in.  He had taken over Samael’s kitchen, treating me daily to a world of cuisine – Creole recipes, Thai curries, Mexican innovations.  Tonight was his famous gumbo.  Demons and angels lined up with bowls, stretching out into Samael’s parlor, waiting for the archangel to ladle out gumbo by the liter.

I stood between Uriel and Izrail, salivating at the scent of the stew.  Uriel’s tattoos shone on her dark skin.  Izrail, the angel of souls, was busy studying one of the butterflies that she carried on her shoulders.  The subject of Izrail’s fascination was a blue Morpho, just like I had seen on my trip to the Amazon.

“Shannon, hold out your finger,” Izrail said, voice like wind chimes.

I obliged.  Izrail coaxed the scintillating blue insect onto my hand.

The butterfly crawled onto my wrist.  “It’s beautiful.  Like a slice of sky.”

Izrail smiled.  “Butterflies are symbols of the soul.  Isn’t that right, Beelzebub?”

Beelzebub glanced over his shoulder.  “Flies are better,” he grumbled.

Uriel snorted.  “Flies eat crap, Beel.  They’re disgusting.  I hate bugs.  Bugs and worms.”

Samael sidled up to me, glass of absinthe in hand.  “Did someone say worms?”

I rolled my eyes, handing the butterfly back to Izrail.  “Thanks, Izzy.”

“Someone said worms, right?” Samael repeated, clearly drunk.  Alcoholism was his coping mechanism for the Apocalypse.

Uriel ignored him, holding out her bowl for Raphael.  Raphael gave her a hearty serving of shrimp-and-sausage gumbo.  It was my turn next.  Samael hovered beside me.

Raphael grinned.  “If it isn’t my favorite human.”  He held his hand out for a fist bump.  I pounded it.

“Hey Raff,” I said.  He filled my bowl to the brim.

Samael reached for my spoon.  Raphael swiped his hand away.

“Sam, back of the line,” Raphael chuckled.  “You can’t mooch off Shannon.”

Samael narrowed his eyes.  “I’m the eldest, Raphael.  I should eat first, especially before a mortal.”

“Hey!” I said, punching him in the side.

Samael smirked.

The gumbo was delicious.  I ate it in the courtyard, which had been converted into a mess hall.  The archdemons’ dwellings, including Samael’s, had become living quarters for the angelic host.  Hell’s cramped capital, Pandemonium, already overflowing with immigrants from the otherworlds, had little space for Heaven’s inhabitants.  The angels sat with the angels and the demons with the demons, still uncomfortable with their forced closeness.

Samael was a drunken heap at the head of the archdemons’ table.  He leered at me as I bit into a sausage chunk.

“What?” I said.

Samael looked at his empty bowl, then back to my half-filled one.  He pursed his lips, pleading.

“No!  This is my dinner.”

“Stop bothering her,” Beelzebub said.  “You’re irritating everyone.”

“Irritating you?” Samael said.  “I’m not the one who’s been a pill since two-thirds of our family gate-crashed the underworld.”

Beelzebub narrowed his eyes.  “No, you’ve just been an alcohol-ridden slob.”

Samael blew air through his teeth.  He surreptitiously reached for my spoon.  “Give me a break.  It’s called the demon drink, after all.  How else am I supposed to blow steam in this hellhole?”

I wrestled my spoon from Samael’s grip.

“Maybe by relying less on absinthe and more on your supposed wits to plan our next attack,” Beelzebub said.  “Michael’s forces are making advances into the Sixth Heaven, moving down the celestial ladder rung by rung.  We have little time for dinner parties or flirtation.”

“We’re not flirting!” I said, anger red on my cheeks.

Samael laughed.  “I am.”  He released my spoon without warning and it went flying across the table, into Astaroth’s champagne.

The demoness smiled and delicately removed my spoon.  “Remember when we were young, Beel?” Astaroth said to her husband.

Beelzebub grumbled.

“Beel wrote me poetry, Shannon – sonnets, villanelles, ballads,” Astaroth teased, taking Beelzebub’s hand in hers.

Beelzebub adjusted his collar.  He said nothing, eyes burning holes in the ground.

“Crappy ones, if I remember,” Samael said.  “A Shakespeare Beel is not.”

“I thought they were lovely,” Astaroth said.

Someone cleared their throat.  I looked behind me to see Asmodeus, bowl in hand.

“Any room for me?” Asmodeus said.

“Sure.”  I slid over on the bench to make space for him.

“How’s your brother?” Asmodeus asked, carefully eating his gumbo.

I sighed.  “Mo’s doing better.  He doesn’t remember anything.  We’re getting ready to go back to college, and he’s pissed he can’t play football.  Maybe all this sitting around on his butt will turn him into an intellectual.”

Samael snorted.  “That kid has about fifteen brain cells, maggot.  Probably less now that he’s the Horsemen’s vessel.”

“Hey!” I said.  “Mo’s smart in his own way – a way that doesn’t involve school.  He’s people-smart.  A lady-killer.”  I shook my head.  “God, why is he dating my roommate?”

The demons laughed.

“Probably to torment you,” Samael said.  “I’ll need you to keep an eye on your twin on campus and make sure he remains stable.  The closer Michael’s forces get to Earth, the more likely the horsemen will act up.”

I nodded, nervous.  “Okay.  And what about Metatron?  Where is he?” I asked, referring to the Watcher’s ally, the angel that had made it possible for Raziel to start the Apocalypse.

Samael’s face darkened.  “We don’t know, not yet.  After the chaos of the Ark of the Covenant’s destruction, the Watchers fled, supposedly to wherever Metatron is hiding.  They’re biding their time, waiting for the chaos to begin.”

“We can’t let that happen,” I said.

Asmodeus gave a throaty laugh.  “You don’t have to tell us that.”

Dinner passed and I found myself on the outskirts of Samael’s practice field, in a section that had been converted into a shooting range.  Angels and demons ran drills around me.  Having already mastered Samael’s scythe and Asmodeus’ swordstick, my training with the shards of the Lapis Exillis had progressed to Beelzebub’s revolver.  The compound-eyed demon guided my arm into the right position.  I aimed at a target’s bullseye.

“Get ready for the recoil, Shannon,” Beelzebub buzzed, letting go of my arm.

“Okay.”  I pulled the trigger.

The bullet ripped loose, faster than any manmade weapon.  Smoke that smelled of brimstone rose from the barrel of the gun.  I missed the target by a foot, further proving I was a lousy shot.

Beelzebub sighed.  He crossed his arms.  “It’s about perspective.  You have to have a feel for your target.  Samael tells me you’re an artist.  Apply that eye for detail to your aim.”

I stared intently at my sneakers.  “I just can’t do it.  Every time I fire a round, it’s like my vision goes wonky.  I focus so much on the target that I miss it, if that makes sense.”

Raphael, done jogging laps with his regiment, smiled toothily at us as he came running over.  “Go easy on her, Beel.  You were always the best at marksmanship.  Living up to your legacy is hard.”  Raphael ruffled my hair.  “God knows I’m a lousy shot.”

“We don’t have time for anything less than perfection,” Beelzebub said.  “She’s obstinate – like she’s not even trying.”

My patience snapped.  “I am!”

“Beel, relax,” Raphael said.  “She’s only human.  Not a war drone.  Shannon, have you tried closing your eyes?”

My lips opened in an O of surprise.  “What do you mean?”

Raphael grinned.  “Exactly what I said.  Trust in the weapon.  It’s a shard of the Lapis Exillis – it’s alive, in its own way.  You might be surprised.”

Beelzebub narrowed his eyes.  “You know, that sounds ridiculous, but might possibly work.  It can’t make her any worse than she already is.”

I looked at the revolver and shrugged.  “Here goes nothing.”  I raised the gun, focused on the target, and closed my eyes.  The weapon was hot in my hands.  It seemed to hum.  Curious, I slightly lowered, then lifted, the gun, until the humming was near constant.

I pulled the trigger.

The bullet cracked out of the barrel.  I heard Beelzebub draw a sharp intake of breath.  I opened my eyes to see a perfect hole in the center of the target.

I gaped.  “It worked?”

“Told you,” Raphael said, slipping his headphones back on, humming along to rap music, and running like a gazelle into the night.

Beelzebub smiled, a rare sight.  “Perhaps I misjudged you.”

“You think?”  I handed him the gun, which he slipped into a holster at his belt.

I smelled alcohol.  I turned to see Samael stumbling towards us.  “My maggot, lethal as always,” he slurred.  He collapsed against a fence, a dopey smile on his face.  Samael reached for a flask from the pocket of his robe and drained the remnants of absinthe within.

Beelzebub cursed.  “You git.”

Samael gazed at the stars.  “Please, spare me your lecture.  I’m just trying to enjoy the fact that my home has been turned into barracks.”

Beelzebub muttered to himself and left without a backwards glance.  Samael slumped to the ground, yawning.

“You smell like a bar,” I said, leaning down to help him up.

“It’s my aesthetic.”  Samael burped.

“Being an alcoholic?”

Samael hooked his arm around me, pulling me unceremoniously down into the dirt, wrapping his arms around me.  “Don’t judge me.  I was ancient before atoms were created.  I was millenia old before you were a figment of God’s imagination.  I have been to the outer boundaries, seen the face of existence, and laughed.  Laughed at the folly of being.”

I pried his viselike grip from my shoulders.  “You’re ranting again.  I think you should go to bed.”

Samael mumbled and tried to kiss my neck.  I grabbed his hands and hauled him to his feet.  He stumbled after me into his mansion, up the main staircase and into his room.  It was more cluttered than usual, which was saying something.  I shoved a heap of laundry off his comforter – all black reaping robes that smelled of cigarettes – and forced Samael onto the bed.  He protested half-heartedly, squirming as I drew the blankets over him.

I dimmed the lights.

“Don’t I at least get a goodnight kiss?” Samael said.

“Fine.  Just one.  I have to go, it’s late – hey!”

He caught my wrists as I was leaning down over him and pulled me on top of him.  Samael burrowed his head into the crook of my neck.  “You’re not going anywhere.”  He hiccupped.

I struggled to rid myself of him, to no avail.  “Yes, I am.  You’re plastered, and I’m moving back to Hortense tomorrow.  I need sleep, and if I stay here, I won’t get any.”

He smoothed the hair on my forehead.  “But I have to show you something.  Something beautiful.”

“If this is you trying to seduce me, I’m going to castrate you.”

He twined his fingers through mine.  “No.  It’s more important than that.  Close your eyes.”

“If you’re trying to fondle me-”

“Please?”

Okay, okay.”  I squeezed my eyes shut, humoring the addict.

The air cooled, and I opened my eyes to see that we were in the Cave of Souls, the candlelit repository of spirits at the base of the Tree of Knowledge.  I was calmed by the lullaby atmosphere.

Samael released me, and I rolled off him, staring up at the roots far above us.

“Why did you bring me here?” I asked, mesmerized by the candles’ slow burn.

Samael smiled.  “To show you this.”  He flicked his wrists, and the stone pews of souls shifted, parting like a curtain to expose more tapers.  The gulf of candles widened, leaving a stretch of darkness.  A single candle emerged, high above the others, three-quarters full.  Its flame, unlike the soft yellow of the others, was a bright blue.

Samael sighed.  “Gorgeous, isn’t it?”

I squinted, trying to see what made it so remarkable.  “Umm, not really – it looks like something I could buy at the Yankee Candle Factory in Williamsburg.”

Samael lightly squeezed my arm.  “It’s your soul, Shannon.”

My skin crawled.  “Oh.  Why… why is it blue?”

“Blue flames are the hottest.  Your soul and Adam’s, as the first humans created, are closest to the Source.  They’re the brightest of them all.”

“The Source?”

He snaked his arm under my waist.  “You, me, God – we’re all just emanations of the Source, the force that binds Creation together.  It’s what makes up your atoms and my ether.  It’s what joins us.  Angels call it Shekinah – the Holy Spirit.”

I thought back to Sunday school.  “I thought the Holy Spirit was God – part of the Trinity.”

“It’s more complicated than that.  The Shekinah has no personality.  It’s the eldritch mother of all, the faceless Source from which we spring.  Think of the Venus figurines ancient man carved.  Gods, angels, mortals – we’re all just dancers on the Shekinah’s stage.  If we were actors, the Shekinah would be the theater our lives played out on.  My Father fancied Himself one with the Shekinah, but He’s no more one with the Source than I am.”  Samael scoffed.  “My Father is a fool.”

“Why is God letting the Apocalypse happen?”

“My Father tends to be very laissez faire with humanity – He lets free will play its course.  You chose to start the Apocalypse to save your brother’s life, and so it came to pass.”

I slumped.  “I didn’t mean to.  I wasn’t thinking, Sam – I just couldn’t let my brother die.”

Samael hushed me.  “It’s alright.  No one blames you.  Fine, maybe some do, especially Beelzebub, but I don’t.  And you’ve met the angels.  They’re a very forgiving lot.  Raphael has nothing but glowing things to say about you.”

I rolled onto my side, facing away from Samael.  “But Raff likes everybody,” I muttered.  “The world might end, and it’s all my fault.  Look at all the wars that I started.  The outbreaks of disease.  The natural disasters.  They’ve all been exacerbated by my… my decision.”

Samael ran a finger down my spine.  “Shannon, you’ve been kicking yourself in the gut ever since the Apocalypse started.  Go easy on yourself.  We’ll fix this.”

 

 

August heat beat down on my back as I hauled my belongings up three flights of stairs to my new apartment.  Rosanna, Divya, and I had lucked out in the housing lottery, securing a spot in an on-campus apartment complex right near the dining hall.  With three bedrooms, a living room, and communal kitchen, we were living large.

“You’re not putting up that god-awful David Bowie poster, are you?” Mo teased, carrying a box of my clothes.  He dumped it on my bare mattress.

“Be careful with that!” I said, watching dresses spill from the container and onto the floor.

“Sorry.  Ever since the accident my hand-eye coordination has gone to crap,” Mo said.  He helped clean up the mess.

“Sorry,” I said.

“It’s fine,” Mo said.

“Hey, kiddo.  Where does your chair go?” my dad said, entering the room, trailed by my mom.

“In the corner near the window,” I said.

“That’s the last of your things,” my mom said, gently putting my printer on my desk.  Within the hour, my room was cozy as a clam.  I hugged my parents goodbye and lounged in the living room, reading a travelogue by a turn-of-the-century naturalist.  Mo rigged our TV so he could play a first-person shooter.  My page-flipping was interspersed with screams of virtual characters meeting untimely demises.

I finished my book and looked up to see my twin, still absorbed in his game.

“Hey Mo?” I said.

He cocked his head over his shoulder.  “Yeah?”

“You’d tell me if you started to feel off, right?”

Mo’s temple throbbed.  “Shannon, would you do me a favor?”

“What?”

Mo flicked the controller.  “Stop treating me like broken glass.  Ever since the accident, you’ve been walking on eggshells around me.  It’s like you think I’m a different person or something.”

“I don’t.  I’m just worried.  I know how much football means to you, and – and if I were in your position, I would be pissed at the world.”

Mo shrugged.  He gave me his signature crooked smile.  “Don’t sweat it.  To be honest, I’m kind of glad I’m not playing football this season.  I’d rather spend more time with Rosanna and my friends, maybe get in some practice on the drums.”

I raised my eyebrows.  “Drums?”

Mo smirked.  “Yeah.  I’m taking drumming lessons.  Rosanna and I were thinking of starting a band.  She sings like Amy Winehouse, but you knew that already.  Baxter is a bassist, and I figured the three of us together would make a kickass group.”

I grinned.  “That sounds like a great idea.  Maybe you’ll actually learn how to keep tempo.”

Mo laughed.

There was a knock at the door.  “Hey, Shannon, it’s me.  Unlock the door!” came Rosanna’s voice.  I jumped off the couch and welcomed her family in.

We hugged hard, and she pecked Mo on the lips.  “My two favorite twins,” Rosanna said, one arm around each of us.  “Mo, I was so damn worried about you.  The minute I leave, you become a reckless driver.”  She shook her head and mussed his hair.  “I’m glad you’re better, cariño.”

We helped Rosanna unpack.  She talked our ears off about her internship at a literary agency in New York City and the hundreds of romance novel queries she’d had to read:

“Really, guys, these women have never had sex in their lives.  The way they described anatomy made me want to stab myself with a pen.”

We laughed.

“Why romance novels?” I asked.

Rosanna smiled.  “I thought they would be more entertaining than highbrow literary fiction.”

Divya arrived soon after, with boyfriend Seth Yoon in tow, and the five of us went to our usual hangout, the Golden Dragon.

“I can’t believe we’re sophomores already,” Divya said after taking a delicate bite of a bubble pancake, the Golden Dragon’s specialty, which deflated when she poked it with her fork.

“Yeah, crazy,” Mo said.  “So much has happened since last year.  I even built up my alcohol tolerance: I can do keg stands now without puking.”

“Heck no.  I’m not letting you drink anymore,” Divya said.  “You crashed into a tree. If you were intoxicated you would have driven straight off a cliff.”

Guilt flared in my gut.  I hadn’t told Divya, or even Rosanna, that Mo was the horsemen’s vessel.  I didn’t want Rosanna worrying that her boyfriend was a puppet of the apocalyptic squadron.

I stared at my chicken feet, which I had ordered on a whim.  I wasn’t really sure how to eat them.

Divya took pity on me.  “Put the chicken in your mouth, suck off the skin, chew the meat, then spit out the bones.  I promise you won’t turn into poultry.”

Mo snickered.  “Shannon’s real good at putting her foot in her mouth.”

Rosanna ribbed him.  “Play nice, Solomon.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell my brother to shut it.

Seth looked at my appetizers.  “Hey, I’ll eat those if you can’t handle them.  We can get you dumplings or some other white chick fare.”

“I’m not that pathetic.”  I put one of the chicken feet in my mouth then subsequently spat it out.  “Oh god.  I’m a stereotypical American, aren’t I?”

There was laughter.  I smiled weakly.

The first day of classes drew close, my practices in the shooting range with Beelzebub intensified, and Samael was still drunk as a wino.  I took to jogging in the College Woods to relax, the tried and true method of a runner’s high helping to settle my mind.

I kept worrying everything would blow up in my face like it had in New York.  That I would fail at mastering the Lapis Exillis, at saving Michael, and stopping Metatron.  That my brother, already technically dead, would have to be put down like a rabid dog.   Images of Mo’s comatose body were imprinted on the black of my eyelids, always there when I lay down to sleep.  No wonder Samael drank.  We, specifically me, had royally screwed things over.

The night before classes, I went on my longest run yet, exploring a forgotten path in the woods.  It was overgrown with roots and moss, with outcroppings of stone it was easy to stub a toe on.  I sprinted until sweat drowned me, trying to evaporate the miasma from my skin.  I imagined my sins pooled in my veins, screaming to be released through my pores.  Crazy talk, probably, or just PTSD.

I pounded the ground hard, desperately trying to forget everything but my movement.  I entered a primal state, becoming one with the dirt I crushed relentlessly underfoot.  I was running away from everything, seeking solace in a place beyond the reach of disaster.

Your brother’s a walking corpse, and when the time comes, you’ll have to kill him.  Only mortals can kill an immortal.

I took turns: a ragged right, a jolt to the left.  Like a hart pursued by a hound.  My petersword necklace burned.

Everything’s gone to hell because of your selfishness.  You should have let Mo die.

I tripped over an outcropping, falling head over heels down into a gully.

You can’t handle the Lapis Exillis.  You couldn’t save your twin.  What makes you think you can stop the end of the world?

I kept rolling, keeling over as sharp rocks tore at my skin.  I didn’t even bother to fight gravity.  My failings had voices, a chorus of those dead at my hands, taunting me with my every screw-up.

Come at me, I wanted to scream.  I’ll take my punishment as it comes.

Finally, my body came to a stop, bruised and bloody at the grassy bottom of the ravine.

I let out a mad laugh, fracturing.   This is where I belonged, low as dirt.

The petersword continued to feel like a spill of piping hot coffee.  I laid on my back, staring up at the emerald canopy.  The air smelled like flowers.  Crimson, pink, and white blooms fluttered in the breeze.

“A bed of roses for the ruined,” I muttered, as overdramatic as Samael.  Maybe he was rubbing off on me.  Now that was a scary thought.

“Or a bower for renewal,” came a child’s voice.

I was so far gone that I didn’t care if some kid saw me in my extremely pathetic state.  “That’s poetic.  Why don’t you let me wallow?”

Laughter.  An olive hand plucked blossoms just beyond my line of vision.  “You don’t get Purgatory, do you?  This is a place for beginnings,” the mystery boy said.  “Sure, you can lay in the mud all you want, but this land shifts so often that you might find yourself swimming in the sea.”

“So I’m in Limbo.  Perfect.  I could never bend backward enough for that stupid pole at Rosanna’s quinceañara.”

No wonder the petersword was acting up.  I had unlocked the unlockable through my desire to escape.  A place beyond the reach of angels and demons: the repository for souls, where the original apple-picking ditz had disappeared to for millenia, only to be reincarnated as me.

Mystery kid picked more roses, then deftly wove them into a garland.  He had wild curls of black hair and a tan my ginger complexion would kill for.

Dark eyes lit like sparklers.  With a hop, he joined me in the ravine, then placed the flower crown on my head.

I guessed he was an adolescent, twelve at most.  However old he was, the kid didn’t know when to shut up: “How pretty.  I’ve been waiting for you for a while.  A lot of people have forgotten me.  Sure, they remember my name, but they don’t remember me.  Like Dad, I’m a wanderer.  Maybe it’s my fault that my words have gotten twisted – I’ve been away for ages.  Enough time to turn water into wine.”

I groaned.  “You are not who I think you are.  I can’t deal with any more revelations.”

I sat up.  Kid offered me his hand.  He was one of those saplings that shot up on the cusp of puberty, too tall for his lanky body.

The kid grinned.  God, that smile: he could charm a lion away from its kill.  No wonder he was holy.

“You don’t have to call me Jesus.  Just Yeshua.  I know you have hang-ups over religion.  Remember, I hear people’s prayers.  You sure did pray for BLTs a lot during services.  As a fellow sandwich lover, I can respect that.  Anyways, fact is, Dad’s missing.  He’s the only one that can stop the Apocalypse.  And we’re the only ones that can find him.  You have the keys, and I have the map.  So what do you say, Shannon?  Want to find God?”

Against all common sense, I said yes – yes to a road-trip with tweenage Christ.

“Great,” Yeshua said.  “You’re driving.”

 

 

The land of Nod wasn’t so hard to find with Jesus behind the wheel.  Well, technically, tweenage Yeshua was sitting shotgun, doing Sudoku.  With my petersword wedged into the ignition of Christ’s favorite 1985 Yugo, which were apparently plentiful in Limbo – a repository for forgotten things like horrible cars – we were cruising down the celestial highway.  Yeshua periodically reassured me the Yugo’s engine wouldn’t explode:

“See, I tinkered with it for a couple decades, blessed the wheels, then got myself a solid vehicle,” he explained.  “When it comes to cars, there’s nothing more poetic than a Yugo.”

“Will I be back in time for classes?”

Yeshua kicked his feet up on the dashboard.  “Time is inconsequential when you’re riding the galactic freeway.  Don’t worry, Shana.  I can call you that, right?  Means beautiful.  You look just like my favorite disciple.  Bloodline of Solomon and all.”

“Um, I guess?”  I took a left at a neutron star, then, after the highway narrowed to two lanes, sped past a nebula.  “This is what I imagine an acid trip would be like: me cruising the galaxy with Christ.”

“Yeshua, please.”  He scribbled something onto the newspaper puzzle he was doing.

“Right.  So who are we looking for?”

“The bearer of the Mark.  The Mark will point us in the direction of Dad.  The Mark’s owner is a bit of an asshole.  He got all the bad genes from his father.”

Mark?  Like Mark Zuckerberg?  Were we using a social network to stalk Yahweh?

Wait – land of Nod?  Something sounded annoyingly familiar.

I screeched the Yugo to a halt.  “We are not finding Cain.  He’s the first murderer!”

Yeshua looked at me with honey eyes.  “Huh.  A pity.  I told him you were coming.  He’s already started making salad.  Even cleaned his bathroom, which is surprising, considering how disorganized he is.”  Yeshua rummaged through the globe box and pulled out sunglasses to fend off the glare of a supernova.

“Cain’s like the Biblical definition of asshole.”

“Nah, he’s only as bad as his father.  They both have a roguish charm.  Oh, park here!”

Despite the exploding star, I pulled over to the side of the road, by a run-down joint that boasted “Milky Way’s Best Burgers.”  I pulled my petersword out of the ignition and looped it around my neck, glad to have a sacred weapon in my possession when confronting the world’s worst brother.

The celestial highway was what I imagined the love child of the Great Plains and Hitchhiker’s Guide the Galaxy would look like.  Rolling hills of grass and wildflowers on the ground, astronomic monstrosities of black holes and dying stars above.  Everything was washed in psychedelic colors from galactic combustion.

Yeshua led me to a recently mowed path behind the burger joint.  Sunflowers tall as saplings bordered the freshly cut grass. “Cain dwells in the wilderness.  When you’re cursed to eternal exile, you kinda have to like liminal backwaters.”

“At least he can get his cheeseburger fix?”

“Cain hates meat.”

“Sure he does.”

I glanced at the resturant: the burger place was hosting what looked like the Wild Hunt motorcycle gang, complete with helmeted valkyries.  I was pretty sure I saw one-eyed Odin sweet-talking a waitress.  With its greasy windows and broken neon sign, it was a dive, but if the Norse pantheon, who were licked out of ice by a cow, dined there, it probably had good beef.

The breeze carried the scent of lavender and my own summer sweat.  The Border, as Yeshua called the supernatural highway, sure was pretty, in a kind of forgotten way.  Maybe Cain’s taste in a podunk nowhere wasn’t so bad.  All it needed was a trucker strip joint, maybe a casino, and it would have a definite vibe going on.

The farther we got from the highway, trees started creeping up from the plains, until after wandering for a while, we were in a picturesque forest, hung with vines.  The sunflowers gave way to shrubs, and everything looked lovingly tended, as if someone had clipped the pungent brier roses and trained the wisteria to artfully drape from the willows by the stream.  Round a bend, a wind chime made of bird skulls and river-smoothed glass clinked in the breeze.  I felt like I was meeting the village witch.

I turned a corner to find a certain ghostly menace bathing in a bend of the stream, where it eddied around jutting rocks.  Black hair spooled down his back, veiling his face from my view.

Man, he had a nice butt, despite it being paper-white.  His perfect, sorry ass was probably on a bender again.

“Samael?” I called.  “What are you doing here?”

Samael turned.

Only it wasn’t Samael: he had grass green eyes, with a constellation of freckles over his face, just like me.

Not-Samael covered his well-endowed nether regions and, to my surprise, blushed.  “Mother?  Um, you weren’t supposed to be here yet.”

“Did you call me mom?”  I stuttered.  “You’re older than me, freak!”

I looked to Yeshua for help with the confused nudist.

The Son of God had stripped down to his boxers and, with a definitive plop, cannonballed into the stream.  He surfaced and treaded water, a serene smile on his face.  “Cain, Eve doesn’t remember.  Recall how reincarnation works.”

Crap.  I was Eve.  I felt like barfing.

Cain’s face softened.  He pulled a green towel from a rock and wrapped it around his waist.  “Right.  Well, I suppose this is awkward.  You look just like her.  You are her.  I thought that, if you saw me, you would remember.  I just wanted to see you again.  After what father did to you, to us, I never thought I’d see you again.”

I squelched my shoe in some mud.  “Um, Henry and I, er, your father and I aren’t really a thing.  Like at all.  He’s kinda a jerky Harry Styles lookalike.”

Cain’s lips, who had the same dramatic Cupid’s bow as mine – urgh – parted..  “I wasn’t talking about Adam.”

“Uh… okay then.  Look, sorry I look like your mom or whatever, but you’re a stranger, and whoever your mysterious father is, if he’s not Adam, I’ve never met him.”

Cain laughed.  All dark and earthy.  God, he sounded just like Sam.   Why?

The world’s worst brother squeezed water from his long, luxurious hair.  How the hell did he bathe and not get a rat’s nest of tangles?  “I’m sure you two are very close.”

Dread gripped my stomach.  Yeshua was busy blowing bubbles.

I sat down on a boulder, dizzy.  “Wait, no.  That’s not what the Bible says!  Sam doesn’t have a fatherly bone in his deadbeat ossified body.”

Cain deftly changed into a black and green cloak that hung from a clothesline.  “Apparently you haven’t been reading between the Biblical lines, or the Kabbalah, for that matter.  That John fellow even calls me ‘son of the wicked one’ in the New Testament.  I never did like the apostles.”

Yeshua was sunbathing on a rock.  “John liked to exaggerate.”

“But Sam hasn’t mentioned you once!”

Cain gave a wild laugh.  “He inherited his parenting habits from his Father.  Both like to sacrifice their sons and ignore their cries for mercy.”

Yeshua rolled onto his stomach and sighed.  “Dad’s not all bad.  Just consumed by his Work.  I served my purpose.”

Cain rolled up the sleeves of his robe.  “At least your Father cares for you, Yeshua.  Mine?  He’s an idiot.”

Chwal: Part 1

I have a big brother in the sky. His name’s Raff, he likes ice cream, and his eyes are yellow like the sun. He’s real tall and takes me out flying with him to catch lightningbugs. He’s got these big old white wings that are fluffy as my kitty.  Sometimes, when it’s dead winter and I’m shivering, he’ll wrap his wings around me like a blanket. I know I can always count on him to make me laugh when I’m crying or tickle me awake when I nod off in church, like now.

Raff’s perched by the edge of my coloring book like a bird: “May-flower, time to wake up: Sunday school’s over and you knocked over your juice when you nodded off.  The sermon’s soon.  Don’t worry, I cleaned up the spill.”

“Aww, Raff, why did you ruin my dream?  I was like Princess Leia, except instead of being captured by Dark Vader-

“Darth Vader, sweetheart.”

“Yeah!  That scary butt.  Instead of being his prisoner, I beat him up really good with a pink light saber.  It went pow-pow and sliced him right in half!”

Raff frowns like he just smelled an onion from granmama’s garden.  “That sounds unpleasant.  I think I should start taking you to more kid-friendly movies.”

The sermon starts, and Raff goes away to do whatever the silly fool does.

He’s up there in the sky, I’m guessing, going about his heavenly business. He tells me it’s real important, but I dunno if I believe him. My pa’s a real businessman – a lawyer, he dresses up in a suit and tie and everything, but Raff wears these silly outfits like you see on those Christmas cards, with those funny looking angels flying round the manger of baby Jesus.  Except those angels are all white, and Raff’s brown as a sun-baked potato. I told him so later that night: angels are only pretty blonde women in white dresses that sing soprano, and he laughs so loud I think the sky’s falling.

“We’re not all white, May.  Look at your Papa.  He’s one of the most holy men around.”

Raff’s sorta right, I guess.  Papa Leggie is a nice old man with a fine long beard and skin the color of wrinkly wood, with a big long cane he carries everywhere with the keys to Heaven clinking on the grip.  

Raff says he’s something like a saint.   I don’t know about saints, but Leggie’s a real charmer.  He laughs a lot and says he likes my curls, and sometimes, he even lets me play with his dog.  It’s a white dog, real fluffy, and real little just like me.  Leggie likes sitting in the park and watching flowers grow.  I say: Leggie, what are you doing alone?  Why don’t you have a wife?  You must be awful lonesome.  But he ain’t.  He’s happy, in his quiet old Papa ways.

Momma don’t believe me when I tell her about my friends. She tells me I’m just indulging in childish fantasies, and oh honey, isn’t our child just so precious! Sure I am, but just because I’m precious doesn’t mean I’m lying. That’s the problem with grownups: they’re stupid. They can’t see what’s right in front of them, the silly coots.

Dinner rolls around, and granmama sits on the porch sipping on sweet tea and talks on and on about Satan and how I better watch out! – otherwise he’s gonna come snatch me up because you’re playing on the wrong side of the street again, you silly child, so come back to your granmama and stay away from the traffic. She doesn’t like me playing over there, but I do it anyway when she ain’t watching. Raff helps me cross the street.  Mostly I just don’t wanna eat dinner because I know momma made peas again, blech.  Guess I’ll feed them to Raff or Leggie’s puppy.  I don’t know why they like peas?  I bet the mean old Devil grows them in his garden just for me and delivers them straight to momma’s door.

Why this Satan man would want me, I don’t know: maybe it’s because I’m just so precious, like the diamond on momma’s wedding ring. I ask Raff if that’s so, and he laughs again, then wraps me up in his big old arms and tells me: “Honey, I’ll never let that fool get you. Satan’s scared of little girls.”

“Well,” I say, “he should be.  I’m mighty fearsome.”

I tell that to granmama and she says: “Child, how do these silly ideas get in your head?”

I tell her Raff said so, and she just smiles.

She never believes me either.

 

 

It’s some holiday or something, and church is awful boring. We sing these silly songs and clap our hands and sing, Alleluia!  Praise the Lord!  The granmamas shake like Kingdom Come and belt out the lyrics.  It sounds oh so beautiful, and I like to dance to everyone’s song.  

I don’t know what an Alleluia is. I ask Raff, and he says it means we’re praising God. Then I ask Leggie why God wants all that praise, and Leggie smiles a bit and says He don’t need it, but people do it anyway, so it’s fine by Him.  Leggie’s real close with God, he tells me they’re poker buddies.  Don’t know how I feel about that, but I guess it’s okay to gamble if you’re a saint.

I ask Leggie if God goes to church, Leggie says no, so I tell him God’s a bad Christian. Granmama says if you don’t go to church, Satan’ll get you, so I tell Leggie God better watch out.

Leggie gets this sorta sad look on his face, so I tell him I’ll protect God because Satan’s scared of little girls. Leggie smiles then and lifts me up, up, so high in the sky, I’m flying with the stars. It’s awful cold up there, so he gives me a special blanket that feels like a kitten’s kiss.

I have a little kitten, y’know, and she kisses me all the time. It’s cute as a button. My kitten is just so dang adorable.

I tell that to Raff, and I ask him if he thinks so. He pets my kitten’s back and watches her purr, like a lil fire engine, then tells me she’s gonna be a mean fierce momma cat someday. I ask him if I’ll be a mean fierce momma, and he tells me not to rush my childhood.

I hate it when adults say that, and I tell him so. He tells me he ain’t no adult, but I don’t believe him. Tell me what you are then, I say. He tells me he’s an angel, just like before, and I laugh so hard I almost fall down the porch stairs.  Ain’t no angel got a five o’clock shadow!

 

 

Raff’s pretty gentle, but he’s got edges.  Poky bits like a knife.  The kind I use to mush my gross nasty peas with.

Raff’s covered in scars he says he got in a war, and his face is awful fierce sometimes when he ain’t smiling. He shows me his sword, and I say it’s cool, but not as cool as a light saber. I have a little blue light saber – my second favorite color, there were no pink ones, a shame! – that lights up and makes blasty woop-woop noises, just like Dark Vader’s.  I wonder if there’s a Light Vader too, a princess of the galaxy, except her armor is white like Leggie’s fluffy puppy?

I take out my light saber and show it to Raff. He has to admit my light saber’s darn fierce, but then he says wait, honey, watch this, and fwoosh! His sword lights on fire! I scream and giggle and tell him he’s gonna burn himself, but he doesn’t and just holds it all superhero-like, and then I gotta admit, it’s almost as cool as my light saber.

My kitten don’t like the flames though, she cowers and mews, so Raff puts it away and goes back to petting her. Raff likes cats a lot. I tell him he better find a wife soon, otherwise he’s gonna be an old cat lady, just like Leggie and his dog, and he looks at me all funny and says: I can’t be an old cat lady, honey, I’m a man.

I say no you ain’t. Men don’t have wings. Raff says: I know, honey, I’m an angel and a man, and I says: no, you’re an old cat lady, you silly fool. Now go dress up in a nice suit like my pa and find yourself a job, then a girl, then buy a house and stop squatting on my roof.

I’m still working on him, but I think with a little training, Raff’ll make a nice husband for someone someday.

I just gotta find the right woman for him.

 

 

It was raining awful hard today, so I just sat at my table, bored as anything, drawing Raff with a crayon.  He posed for me real nice, all still as a painting, and I just feel so bad, because he don’t know what I’m gonna do.

“Raff?  How do you spell batch-a-lore?”

He looks at me all funny.  He’s always looking at me funny, head sideways, lips squiggly like chicken scratches.  Maybe I’m a funnyman like Bill Cosby.  “And why do you want to know that, May-flower?”

I start stumbling over my words, then cross my fingers behind my back to save myself from the sin of lying.  It’s awful hard, lying to an angel.  Something about it ain’t right.  “Because I’m drawing a storybook, and this is the prince.  The princess’ll only know he ain’t taken if he’s got batch-a-lore on his crown.”

Raff takes a slow sip of his Coke.  I steal him food from the fridge every morning.  Momma always wonders where the mac and cheese went then gets all huffed up at my pa.  Mac and cheese is Raff’s absolute favorite, next to my granmama’s gumbo.  Yum yum yum!

“You’re a funny kid,” he says, ruffling my hair like a momma bird.  Then he tells me how to spell it, and I write the word real careful in big blocky letters, just like my teacher taught me to.  Her name is Missus Lovelace, and she’s sweet as anything!  She makes us apple pie and lets us play with hamsters.  She even let me bring my kitty in for show and tell, once.  That was before it peed on the carpet.  Oh well.

It’s still nasty as mushed peas outside.  The Devil must be beating his wife – that’s something my granmama says when it rains.  I tell Raff that, and he bursts out laughing.

“The Devil’s scared senseless of his wife, honey,” he tells me.  “All men are, deep down.”

Since we’re on the topic of women, I just gotta ask.  “If Satan’s gotta wife, then why are you and Leggie alone?  The dirty old Devil ain’t got nothing on you.  He’s not a pinch as pretty like your fluffy wings – all he’s got is gross spidery bat wings and fangs – and, and slimy scales!”

“I don’t need a wife – May, why in the world are you doing drawing hearts on that paper?”

“Nothing,” I say, real real guilty.  I cross my fingers even tighter.  I hope God doesn’t look down on me from his poker game with Leggie and see me lying to an angel.

Raff gets this look like he knows I’m up to no good, and in that moment, I swear, he’s just like Santa Claus.  I pray to the Lord I don’t get a big stack of coal for Christmas.  I really really want another light saber or maybe a cassette player.

“Let me see that,” he says, and before I can hide it in my jumper, he snatches up my drawing.  He reads it, and his eyes get wide as the moon. “Raff – heart, another heart- illegible?  Oh – eligiblebachelor?’ Eligible bachelor?  And more hearts?”  He looks at me mighty scared.  “Raff the eligible bachelor?  Is this a personal ad?”

I look down at my sneakers.  “No,” I mutter.

“Now May, look: I appreciate your wanting to help me, but this is way too far.”  The scars on his pretty face twist into a kinda smile.  “I like the way things are.  You’re the only girl I need.”  Then he tousles my hair and hands back the paper.  He delicately takes a crayon in his long, thick hand, just like he’d break it, he’s so so strong, and draws a crown on himself.  “There.  Now I’m a real prince.”  He crosses out ilegible bachelor, then draws a lil girl right next to him, holding his hand.

“That me?”

“It sure is,” he says, writing my name in beautiful teeny-tiny letters next to his.  He makes crayons look like a painting.  I add a big red bow in my hair, then the picture’s perfect.

“I don’t wanna be a fairytale princess, Raff.  They’re boring.  They sit around in towers waiting for dumb knights to save them. Real princesses are like Leia: they got guns.”  I launch outta my seat, and grab my lightsaber from my dresser.  “I wanna be the one that slays Jabba the Hut, and I want a flaming sword like yours!  You can’t beat up aliens in a dress, or climb trees, at least.”

My kitty’s curled up on Raff’s lap, purring like an engine.  He pets her absentmindedly, watching my antics – that’s what my momma calls them.  I think they’ve got something to do with ants?  

I swoosh my lightsaber through the air, chopping an alien to bits.  “See!  Just – like – that.”  I punctuate my words with vicious lil thrusts, stabbing it again and again.  The dragon dies, and I run up the tower to save Raff.  I bow, then draw him a pink paper flower.  “Here you go, m’lady.  I saved you!”

Raff pales a bit, which is funny, because he’s so darn dark, and his face turns the color of pa’s tea.  “I ain’t a princess,” he says, all low I nearly shiver.  

I giggle like a maniac, then draw a dress on him.  “Now you are, Raff-ay-el.”

“You’re as bad as Michael-” Raff begins, then freezes like a snowman.

Something clatters in the kitchen, and my granmama comes out with her afternoon sweet tea.  Quick as a minnow, Raff disappears.

She tsk-tsks, shuffling about, reprimanding me for the “Uncleanly state of my room!  And May, it might as well be a pig sty in here, for the love of the Lord.”  I wish right then I could disappear, just like silly old Raff.

The Devil may be scared of his wife, but even angels are scared of grannmamas.

 

 

Church was awful boring today.  The reverend droned on and on about sin and salvation, and I think: h’oh Lord, make him stop.  Leggie’s sitting in the back, humming to himself, reading the newspaper, and all the while I wait for him to butt in and correct the minister.  But Leggie just chuckles at the Sunday funnies.  They’re the best part of the day of the Lord, he told me.  Leggie says you can learn a lot more about the world from comics than you ever do in church.  Leggie says God likes Peanuts and that’s why Leggie’s dog is called Snoopy.

I start humming to myself under my breath.  Making sure no one’s watching, I take out my pretty red crayon and start drawing hearts on granmama’s hymn book.  She’s snoring like a groundhog in February, hiding under her big purple hat.  It has this kinda dead-looking plastic bird on it.  I feel a little like the bird.  

Momma and pa don’t notice me drawing because they’re too dang busy listening to the reverend, trying to get a slice of their own salvation.  I guess salvation is like apple pie at a family reunion: the folks here sure are trying awful hard to get it, and there doesn’t seem enough to go around.

“May, sweetheart: listen,” Raff whispers, gently taking the crayon away from me.  He’s sitting all solemn-like at the end of the pews in his canary yellow Sunday suit.  How can I take him seriously in that suit, I tell you, it’s gotta be a joke!  I glower, leaning against Raff’s strong arm and poking him in the side.

 “Raff, you gotta get a job.  I don’t need a stupid babysitter,” I tell him, trying to get my crayon back.  But he hid it real well in his pocket, and there’s no hope – just none at all.  I sigh.  “I’ve been on this green old earth nine years.  And I work more than you on an honest day.  I don’t need to listen to a silly reverend, and I sure don’t need you stealing my crayons.”

Raff draws his lips real thin and sighs, mussing my hair.  “You’re my job, sweetheart.  I look after you.”

I cock my brow all sassy, just like Leia.  “I don’t need any looking after.  I can tie my shoe, braid my hair, and cross the street all by myself.  You don’t even do that.  You just fly over like a fat New Orleans pigeon!”  

I like to feed the pigeons in New Orleans.  They’re real pudgy and squeaky.  So fat they can’t even fly!

“A pigeon?”  Raff tickles me with his wing, and I scream, laughing.  He smiles bright as the sun.  No one can hear us when Raff doesn’t want them to.  Not even my granmama, who has ears like a submarine spy ship.

Nobody notices me when I’m talking to Raff or Leggie either.  Dunno why.  

Raff might not be good for much, but he’s got a few tricks up his sleeve.  I like Raff anyways.  He’s kinda like my kitty: cute in a scruffy way.  Sometimes he forgets to shave and I gotta remind him.  His kisses are scratchy then.  What a mess!  I don’t know what he or the cat would do without me.

“Yes sir.  I’ll babysit you!” I say, smacking him with the Bible.  He bites his lip and sits ramrod straight.  “That’s it, Raff.  Sit all nice and straight, mister, like my daddy, and ask for God’s forgiveness.”

“Why?”

“Because, silly, you sinned.”  I show him how to pray.  “I’ll pray for your forgiveness:  Dear God.  Hello.  I really like Snoopy – she’s cute as a button.  Maybe Leggie will let me play with her in the park today?  Thanks a bunch.  And Mr. God, I’m sorry Raff is no fun.  Please forgive him for stealing my crayon and momma’s mac and cheese.  Amen, Mr. God, and please save the funnies for me.”

I wink at Leggie.  He has to keep himself from bursting out into laughter.  Raff don’t look none too pleased.  

“I am too fun,” he insists.

“No you ain’t.  The last time I tried to get ice cream, you started yapping about how ‘Bad ice cream is for you, so why don’t you just go eat your vegetables?’  Everyone knows peas are gross, Raff.  Now I dunno what angels eat, but it sure ain’t quality food if you think peas taste good.”

He don’t know what to say to that.  As momma says, Raff ain’t the shiniest penny in the pail.  But it’s okay.  I take care of him.  

Sometimes he comes to school with me.  I sit with him at the table all the way in the back, where the toy kitchen is, and help him with his math.  I’m awful good at math.  I can add and subtract like nobody’s business, and Raphael asks me bunches of questions.  He’s teaching me this funny language that he calls our secret code, and lemme tell you, it’s the most beautiful sound in the world!  All clear and clean like a good wind or rain.  He speaks it a lot with God when he prays.

Miss Lovelace’s passing out snacks now.  Me and Molly run up and grab the best chocolate chips, then bring them back to the girls at our table.  Raff’s sitting on the beanbags, sleeping like an owl.  I think of drawing a mustache above his lip, but then I remember the Golden Rule and think that I’d hate to have one.  Mustaches are only for distinguished gentlemen.  That’s what granmama says.  

I say they’re only for gentlemen and God.  Raff’s got no business going around unshaved.

Halfway through my cookie, Raff wakes up.  Billy Morse is pulling my braids and I’m hollering at him.  Miss Lovelace is too busy dealing with another dumb boy, so I get out my lightsaber from my backpack and thwack Billy on the head right hard and good.

“May!” Raff says.  “Don’t break that Golden Rule I told you about.”

“Then why else do we have lightsabers and swords?” I groan.  He takes my lightsaber away from me and slips it into his robe, then doesn’t give it back to me til we’re back in my room, the silly coot.

“To remind us what the cost of failed peace is.  Swords and lightsabers aren’t for fun, sweetheart.”

“Jack’s rabbit they ain’t!  What else are we gonna slay the bad guys with?”

“Kindness, May.  You kill your enemies with kindness.”

And I ain’t got nothing to say to that, so I just sit there, looking at Raff.  He laughs at my expression.

“What is it, May-flower?”

“You may not look it, but you’re pretty smart, Raff.  For a wifeless fool.”

 

 

Later that night Raff tucks me into bed and helps me read Nancy Drew.  I wanna be Nancy Drew because she’s always solving mysteries and going on bunches of adventures.  I’d have her spy-glass and precious skirts, except I’d take Raff along with me, and my kitty.  

I tell him I’m gonna be Sherlock, he’ll be my Watson, and we’ll go around saving lost pets.  He asks what I’m gonna pay him, and I say I’ll give him granmama’s cookies, because the old fool’s always stealing them anyways.

Raff blushes.  “I’ve never stolen from you.”

“Oh yeah?  I’ve seen the crumbs on your lips.  I know my kitten doesn’t eat chocolate chips.  She only eats oatmeal raisin, and granmama never makes those, only Missus Lovelace.  See?  I just solved a mystery.  Hah!”

“There are greater mysteries than that.”

“What?  Is Leggie’s puppy missing?  And don’t spout silly Sunday school nonsense at me, Raff-ay-el.  I see straight through that molasses.  Angels don’t have halos, God doesn’t smite nobody, and the Devil’s a big old sissy.  If I were some big mighty God, I’d come down as a little girl and give Satan a real good scare!”

Raff suddenly looks all concerned like pa does when I give the kitty makeovers with momma’s lipstick and my cute little markers.  “May, don’t say that.  I don’t even want to think about it.”

“Aw, horseradish, Raff,” I say, punching him in the arm.  “We’re gonna find that Devil-man.  It’ll be our greatest adventure yet!  I’ll beat him up real good with my lightsaber and let you finish him off with my squirt gun.  Then we’ll marry the old fool off to granmama and he’ll be too scared to torture even his peas.  Granmama says all men are the Devil, but she’d make a Christian out of even him.”

“What is it with you and marrying people off?”

I sniff and cross my arms.  “I just want them to be happy, Raff.  Is that really too much to ask?”

He buries me under the covers and tickles me.  I scream: “Stop it, you fool! Stop!” but he just laughs and turns out the lights, then climbs outside to sleep on the roof.  

Sometimes he snores real loud and the roof shakes, and I have to throw rocks up at him.  It’s hard getting them over the gutter but worth it for his screams.  He wakes up crying like a little girl, speaking our secret language, and I cackle like Alice’s Mad Hatter and go back to bed.

But sometimes I’m scared, and I need Raff.

I can see a darkness others can’t.  

Granmama might call it sin.  

I’ve seen it in the eyes of killers, on people whose souls are downright nasty.  They’re black, I tell you, black as tar, and I cry when I think about it.  Sometimes the blackness creeps in at night, when the dogs howl, and the lights turn off in the streets.  Raff shuts the windows and bolts the door, and I’m not allowed out of my room.  

Granmama sings feverish hymns in her sleep and Raff hides me under his wings, his face all fierce like a lion.  When I was little I used to cry, but I ain’t very little anymore, so I make him feel better.  He won’t tell me what it is, but I know he’s scared to death by it, so I make up stories about me and him.  He listens and braids my hair and just holds me like he thinks I’m gonna slip away.  He asks me to sing and I do, and no one else can hear us, not in the whole wide world.

Leggie don’t come back for days after that blackness, and when he does, he’s got ten more lines on his face.  Pretty soon he’s gonna look like momma’s garden gnomes.  He won’t tell me where he goes or what he’s seen.  It must be mighty fearsome if it makes Leggie scared, just like Jabba the Hut.

 

 

We’re eating oatmeal one day, and it’s gummy and gross because momma made it wrong, so I spit it down the sink.  Raff eats what I don’t want, and in between spoonfuls he asks the darndest question:

“May, have you heard of destiny?”

I puff out my lips and roll my eyes.  “Sure I have.  Destiny’s what all heroe ha’ve got to do.  I don’t know exactly how they get them, but I figure it’s some kind of instruction book, see?  Like pa’s car manual, except it’s written in pretty gold ink and looks like a fairy tale.”

He finishes the last little bit of gross oatmeal.  He don’t seem to get what I’m saying, so I try to explain it easier to him.  Like I said, Raff’s pretty slow.  Anyone who eats peas and actually likes them has gotta be missing a few brain cells I’d guess.

“All heroes have got quests, Raff, and before they get them, they need to know their destiny.  Except sometimes, they don’t find out til the end, and by the time they slay the dragon, they realize who they were all along.  Knights don’t know nothing, anyways, not like Yoda does. They don’t need to kill something to find out who they are.  That’s why Snow White’s queen had a talking mirror.  It told her who she was every day!  She didn’t need a silly knight, or some loony prince.  Except one day, the queen’s destiny changed, and she wasn’t very happy about that.  So lemme ask you, Mr. Raff-aye-el, are you happy with your destiny?”

He looks all shocked and bites his bottom lip like a rabbit.  “You’re very wise, May-flower,” he says finally.

“It ain’t hard to be smart.  I’m not some dumb grownup.  You’re only kinda one, so at least you know something.  Now take me flying, or you ain’t getting chocolate chips ever again, I swear on granmama’s Bible.”

Raff’s better than an airplane because he can talk.  We fly out to the apple orchard past the pancake house, and I eat so much fruit I think my stomach’s gonna explode.  I’m moaning and acting out under the tree like it’s Kingdom Come, and Raff finds a bee’s nest and whispers the little buzzers to sleep, then coats his wings with honey.

“Watch this,” he says, then he fans his wings out in the sun, like he’s drizzled in maple syrup.  Suddenly, the butterflies come from every corner of the woods.  They land on his feathers like he’s a buffet.  I gasp and go catch them, and he puts them on my nose and in my hair.  The honey makes them stick.  “Here you go, sweetheart,” he teases, making me a crown of orange ones.  “A tiara fit for a princess.”

“That’ ain’t very funny, Raff.  Look, here’s a halo for you, so you can finally be an angel.”  I take a bunch of yellow ones and stick the bugs on his head.  “Now you’re finally fit for God’s marching band.”

He smiles kinda funny.  “You think so?”

“Yep, I sure do.  All you need is a bed sheet and you’ll be ready for the Heavenly Choir.  How’re your hallelujah’s doing?”

“Pretty good, I think.”

He makes me a wreath of daisies and puts it on my head.  I twirl around and chase after a lil precious squirrel.  

“What do you think makes me an angel?”

I shrug.  “You help people.  That’s what angel’s do.  Momma’s an angel, pa too, except they don’t got fluffy white wings because they’re not dead yet.  You got them because you died, I guess.”

“Is that it?”

“Yep.  Though you can be a devil at times.  Can you reach that apple up there?  And did you make the sandwiches?”

He pulls the PB and Js out of his robe.  I don’t know how he fits so many things in there.  It’s just so strange, like all the things Raff does.  I have half the heart to tell him he should be a magician, but he takes himself too seriously.  That would break his pride, and momma said a man without his pride is nothing.  

Raff puts peanut butter on my apple slices then sticks raisins on them, just how I like, and my full belly grows like a balloon, with room for more food, because who can turn down even more yummy dessert?  

“Y’know, May, I’ve never been a man.  Not really.  It’s… different.  Up there.”

“Mmhmm.  Over the rainbow.  Just like in the song Satchmo sings on momma’s records.  You guys have bunches of bluebirds and golden doors and rivers of jewels, just like in Revel- revelah- um, how do you say it?”

“Revelations.”

“Dang, that’s a mouthful.  The people that wrote the Bible have to make everything difficult, don’t they?” I say, bits of peanut butter falling out.  It’s the chunky kind, with nutty bits, and they stick to my shirt.  Raff wipes them off.  “I think Heaven should be an apple orchard.  Oh, and it should have lots of cute animals, too.  And maybe waterslides, and bad guys, so it doesn’t get too boring.  Are there light sabers in Heaven?”

“If you want one, I’ll make one just for you.  I’ll even make it pink, out of starlight.”

“M’kay.  I’ll pay you in chocolate chip cookies.”

We watch the clouds roll by.  

“What’s it like?”  I ask.  “Sitting on one?”

Raff fans us with his wings, scaring away the swarming skeeters.  “Hmm… like a kitten.  Curled up beneath you.”

“Well that seems worth waiting for.  No matter how many Sunday schools I gotta go to.  Raff, does everyone go to Heaven?”

“Of course.  Anyone who tells you differently, sweetheart, they’re lying, or they don’t know God.  But even we forget sometimes.  There was a time that I was young.  That’s why I wear my scars.  To remind myself, each day, what I stand for.”

“Then what does the Devil do?”

“The less pleasant things, I suppose.  Someone has to do them.”

“So there’s no Satan?”

“No.”

“Then what does granmama go on about?”

He lures a white butterfly into his hand and puts it on my shoulder.  “Sometimes, May, people need someone to blame.  They get old and set in their ways, or their minds aren’t open like yours.  They’re afraid of differences, of change.  From that comes pain, war.”  A wind picks up around us, and Raff closes his eyes.  “Others have nasty lots.  They suffer, ask God why, and then… then there’s no reply.  Just silence.  It’s the hardest lesson of all.”

I don’t know why, but I find myself crying.  Raphael dabs my eyes.

“Oh May, I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“Tell me there’s a happy ending.  I need to know.”

He hushes me and fixes me another apple slice.  “Of course, sweetheart.  Sometimes, it just takes a while.  For humans, life seems long, but in the end, it’s a dance.  They switch partners, change songs, and move on.  In order to have summer, one has to go through winters.  It’s like… the dark nights.”

“The black?”

“Yes.”

“I hate that.  I hate it I hate it I hate it!  What is it, Raff?”

He hangs his head.  “People’s sorrow.”

The apple farmer’s wind chime rustles in the distance on the dusty old barn.  I shiver, thinking about it.

“Even it has a place in the world.”

“What does it do?”

“It takes their pain away.  Then it moves on, and people wake up.  You can’t hide fears in your dreams.  All your sufferings come out.  It’s like Confession each night, a cleansing.  Then, the blackness goes away.  It’s cleaned by the morning sun, and poof!  All troubles are gone.”

He scrunches his face up like he’s lying, but I don’t press further.

Sometimes, with Raff, there are things better left unsaid.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Red Sultan

Spring came this year

with blood

Columbine bloomed the same.

crimson like a slashed throat,

scarlet like my heart.

Like some secret hidden

under your abaya

I crept in.

Do not mind my sting.

*

Immolation, martyrs

A fruit vendor set the spark

Israfel weeps for the damned.

Jibreel blew his horn, you know

That goddamn trumpet I can’t stand

just as the first bullet flew

and Egypt’s first victim fell.

I descended with the flies,

hauling corpses

of my people,

my people!

Egypt, Arabia, Syria, Iraq

They have forgotten me.

*

Yes, I saw her blue bra

I saw her stripped and beaten.

No, that is not what I wanted for my blood

I ride the women in zar and dance them into oblivion

they are my little Brides

My zayran reign over their wombs

but even jinn of the blood cannot control a woman

The men are fools. You cannot bind her

no matter how many genitals you cut off,

how many you stone to death.

I haul corpses stripped of ears, plucked eyeless

beaten black and blue.

Who is the victim of who?

There is no honor in death.

*

We malakhim, we watch

Mikhail frets as ever

Jibreel weeps and weeps

our Word is corrupted and rots.

I ride my pale horse

I bring in the dead.