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.
“Your legs. Do they hurt?”
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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.”