Call to Adventure
A Danyael story
Start at the beginning of the Danyael series
I woke early the next day, just after dawn. The angel had left my room during the night. There were a few feathers scattered on my bedspread, dark grey. I picked one up and it felt greasy in my hand. I tossed it into the trashcan next to my bed. The feather left a greyish stain on my fingers, almost like ash. I rubbed them on the bedspread and only succeeded in spreading the stain. I sighed and lay back for a moment, enjoying the novelty of waking so early and not feeling tired. A few minutes passed before my body told me it was time to get up and get to the bathroom.
I relieved myself, and then walked around the house in a pair of sweatpants. I could feel the chillness of the early morning on my newly shorn skin. It felt nice, like a crisp swim after a long nap in the summer. I stared out the front window at the early red morning sky. It was going to be a clear day. I ran my hand over my head and felt a hard crust under my fingers, and then what felt like a tiny bit of dirt dragging across my head. When my fingers came away there were bits of dried blood on them. I had cut myself shaving my head and not realized it. I must have been in quite a frenzy, because I'm usually kind of a wuss when it comes to pain.
I rubbed my fingers together to dust the blood off, and then decided that I wanted to go outside to feel the air on my skin. The front door was sticky in its frame, as we didn't use it often, and it took me two tugs to get it open. It popped open with a pained gasp of suctioned air, and brought with it icy cold. I cracked open the screen door and stepped out onto the front step. The cold hit me like a wave of fire, lighting up my pale skin in the morning light and burning me. My eyes closed of their own volition against the bright sheen from the ice, and through a half-lidded view I could see my breath billowing out around me. I started to go numb almost immediately, and my muscles quivered uncontrollably. The cold of the concrete steps was like a knife stabbing into the soles of my feet, and I hopped back and forth for a minute, my teeth clacking together like a woodpecker against a tree. I counted forty-nine beats of my heart, and then ran back inside to shower.
I gave myself a few moments to warm up a bit before jumping under the warm water. I'd heard that if you put frost bite victims into warm water too quickly, their blood vessels will rupture. You're better off putting them in cool water and gradually warming it. Even after a few minutes inside, the sensation of heat and returning feeling in my feet was almost more than I could bear. Only the stinging pain of the water pounding onto the little nicks and cuts I'd given myself the day before distracted me. I put my head down and let the water run over me, watching as small bruises formed on my feet. The pain felt good, like I was feeling sensation again for the first time since I could remember, maybe ever. The cold, the pain, the light, everything stabbing at me, but at last I was open to it. I got out of the shower and touched up the shave from the previous evening, and then got dressed.
I'd quit my job, and was going to need some way to get by until I figured out my next move, so I put on a decent shirt and pair of slacks and decided to head to the unemployment office. Unemployment checks didn't seem like a very dignified way to go about living, but it seemed better than starving. Even the faithful must eat.
In the absence of the television, the angel had perched itself upon my kitchen table. It watched me as always as I cooked myself breakfast. I started to break out some bacon, and then thought better of it. I wasn't sure how much of kosher law the angel cared about, but I decided not to play with fire. Instead I poured some pancake batter in a pan and watched it sizzle for a while. I was tempted to poke a finger into the syrupy off-white mixture as it bubbled, just to get another jolt of feeling. Pretty much every religion out there that believes in angels has a prohibition against harming yourself though, so I decided against it. Also, I figured I might need my finger for something, who knows?
When the pancakes were done I poured myself some orange juice and went to sit at the table and eat. The angel crouched over me as I quickly cut up the pancakes and slathered them in syrup. I was pretty sure Mrs. Buttersworth was kosher, but even if she isn't, the angel didn't strike me down. It just hunked down over me, occasionally dipping its head down to touch the syrup with its tongue. I ate as quickly as I could, polishing off my plate and then cleaning it and the pan. When I finished I put on my coat and knelt down in front of the table, my back to the angel.
It seemed heavier than the last time I'd picked it up, though more steady. It quickly wrapped its arms around my neck, and as I stood, I felt its legs wrap my torso and lock at the ankles. I braced my feet in a wide stance to make sure I had my balance, and then moved out to my car. The angel coo'd softly as it curled its wings in help me get through the doorway. It seemed to have more flexibility today, with less pain. That thought cheered me as I loaded it into the car through the hatch.
Driving around at six in the morning is a strange experience. I'd been used to having the road to myself late at night, but in the day it's a little different. Without the darkness to cover our conceits, and with no traffic or bustle to distract, it's just the raw pale light of day and the bones of our life. Most people had brought in their outside accoutrements, but a few lawn ornaments decorated neighborhoods here and there – gnomes or gazing balls. I even saw a pedestal with a Darth Vader helmet set atop it. The snow had frozen over one of the eye sockets of the mask, leaving the Dark Lord staring out of one eye of whitened, faded plastic.
Mornings have a very uplifting feeling for me. Everything seems fresh and full of potential. I usually slept it away, but just after sunrise is one of my favorite times of the day. That morning I was content to let the car cruise along side streets toward downtown. I avoided the highway and just let the feeling of newness wash over me. My stomach felt high in my chest, as if I'd just tipped over the edge of a hill on a rollercoaster and the cart was picking up steam. I felt as though the world around me was sliding into the beginning of a freefall of the new day. As I rolled through the neighborhoods, I could see it picking up steam. A man going outside to fetch the morning paper out of his box. A group of kids watching the road from their picture window. Dozens of people making their way out of their houses; bundled in coats and hats, to scrap the night's ice from their windshields. I passed one man banging away at the ice surrounding his garbage can on the curb. It had frozen in place, and he was futilely trying to knock it free with an umbrella. He kicked it as I passed and then slipped on the ice and fell. I could hear him cursing as I drove by.
Mornings that early are the pause before a choice. Anything can happen, but nothing HAS happened. Pure possibility. Choices are the chains that tie us down, that lock us into place during a day, and limit our options. I always wanted to keep my options open. Driving through the world that morning, I could see people strapping the chains on themselves. The man with the frozen garbage was chaining himself to anger and frustration for the rest of the day. It would be a boulder that he dragged with him everywhere he went until sleep at last shook it off. The kids staring out the window were chaining themselves to the longing for independence, to not go to school, to drive where and when they wanted. They'd have no concentration or patience that day.
I felt a great sense of relief as the world developed around me, and I felt the weight of no chains on my shoulders. I had no decisions to make, no possibility of finding myself chained to some emotion or circumstance that I didn't like. My path was clear and straight. At times it might be difficult to follow, but I had a guide to point my way. My chains were worn by the angel riding beside me in the car. I had purified myself of their burdens, and was free to simply enjoy the beautiful morning and the world around me.
I parked my car a few blocks from the unemployment office to enjoy the brisk walk. That early I was able to find a non-metered spot next to an empty unpaved lot. The lot had been the site of many winter battles between neighborhood kids, and the field was torn by the turmoil of childhood war. At the far end of the field I could see a great snow fort that had been erected against the side of a drugstore bordering the lot. The fort had a wooden gate made out of the side of a crate that was pushed up against the front, and crenellations running along the top. Someone had taken the side of a twelve pack of Coke and attached it to a stick, then put that in the top of the fort, flying the sugary flag of youth. All in all it was an impressive site.
I popped the hatch and let the angel crawl out. It put one foot delicately on the ground, and quickly pulled it back, hissing against the cold pavement. I knelt down, soaking the knee of my pants, and it slithered out directly onto my back. I stood back up, careful to keep its wings from banging the edge of the open hatch, and then closed the car with a slam that echoed through the open field. My back complained a bit as I straightened, popping in the cold air. The angel wriggled up and rested its chin on my shoulder. I could hear its breath echoing in my ear. Strangely, it didn't form a cloud of steam like mine did. It just made a wheezing noise and left the feeling of hot, clammy skin on the side of my face.
I made my way down the sidewalk, making sure to choose my steps carefully. I had never been possessed of a cat's grace, and walking around with a messenger from God hanging onto your back never made things easy. As I approached the snow fort, I paused to get a closer look at it. Someone had put garbage bags and cardboard across all of the windows, sealing them up. A big green peace sign had also been painted across the front of the wooden crate gate. I smirked at the irony of a peace sign on the front of a castle, a building of war. I scrapped up enough snow from the top of the chain link fence surrounding the lot to make a snowball, and tossed it at the gate. It hit with a dull thump, being as much ice as snow. I was pretty surprised when the gate opened and a man stepped out.
He was dressed from head to toe in long scarves wrapped around and twisted in on themselves. I could tell he had on a sweater and jeans under them, and a long shabby wool coat with the buttons missing over them. His face was almost completely covered by more scarves, and a red winter cap with earflaps, one of which was missing. He had a garbage can lid strapped to one arm like a shield, and in his other he carried a snow shovel that had its handle cut down to half length. He carried the shovel in front of him like a weapon, and raised it in challenge as he stepped out of the gate. When he saw me standing there gaping at him, he lowered it. "Oh. I thought it was some kids getting an early start on me."
"No. Just me." I put my hands in my pockets, and leaned forward against the fence, letting the weight of the angel shift a bit. "Sorry for banging on your door so early."
The man shrugged, then looked at the sky and pulled the scarf down from his face. He had a raggedy, unkempt beard, and as he leaned over to spit into the snow, I could see several gaps in his teeth. He spit through a hole left by several missing teeth in his lower jaw. "Eh, it's ok. I rise and set with the sun."
"That your castle?" I said, pulling out my hand and pointing behind him.
"Sure is," he replied. Standing close to him, he smelled a lot like the angel on my back.
"You sleep there?"
"Yep. A man's home is his castle." He gave me a gap toothed grin. "Besides, it doesn't get as cold as you'd think. I get a fire going in there and the place warms up nice and toasty. Been doing this for three winters now. Johnston at the drugstore tosses me a couple of bucks now and then to shoe kids away from doing the graffiti on his walls, and lets me use the bathroom when I want, so it's a pretty good deal." He paused for a second, then thrust the shovel down into the snow and held out his hand. I took it and we shook. "The King of Winter."
I chuckled. "Who are you in the summer?"
He laughed in return. "Wally."
"So, uh, sire . . .what's with the sword and shield?" I pointed down at the shovel. He lifted it up and twirled it a few times. I suppose that if he'd been a bit more deft with it, or I'd been a little more fanciful, I could have described it as a flourish. But, it was just a shovel, and we were standing in a vacant lot.
"The kids like to come toss snowballs at my walls, and I sally forth and drive them off." He lifted the shovel and ran it into a snow bank, then flung a full shovel load through the lot. "They love it, and it keeps me warm for a bit. Such things you do with a degree in Medieval English Studies." He thrust the shovel down once more and leaned on the handle.
"You've got a degree in Medieval English Studies?" I felt my eyebrows moving toward my hairline.
The King nodded. "Yep. Ran into some hard times a while back, the usual sob story. But, hey, I'm alive, and I'm getting by, sort of. And out here, I'm the sovereign of my kingdom." He gestured around him at the lot and smiled.
"Sounds like a good life." I pushed myself back off of the fence and stood up straight.
"It's a shitty life. I sleep in a snow fort, man. I don't recommend it. It's amazing how quickly you figure out which parts of your life were utter bullshit, and which were important when your worries are suddenly more about finding food and a safe place to sleep, rather than a credit card bill or what's gonna be on cable. Still, I answer to no one, and I make my own decisions. Gotta be grateful for something." He reached down and proceeded to retie a plaid scarf on his leg that was coming undone.
I turned and started to walk down the sidewalk. On the other side of the fence, he turned and walked next to me. "Sounds pretty scary to me. Any decision you make could screw you. You got no one to fall back on, or help you out. That sounds like a lot of pressure."
He shrugged. "No one has anyone to fall back on in life. You reap what you sew and all." As we approached the wall of the drugstore he angled back toward the gate to his castle. I yelled, "See you, King.", and he raised his shovel in the air over his shoulder just before he ducked under the open gate.
I shook my head as I kept walking down the sidewalk toward the unemployment office. I couldn't even consider myself the King of the Remote Control, much less the King of Winter. I shifted my weight from side to side, swaying a bit as I walked, almost a swagger. It helped ease the tension in my back. The angel coo'd at me a few times as I moved past the drug store and crossed the street to the strip mall where the office was located. It opened at 7:30, and I'd arrived a half hour early, so there was little to do but wait in the cold. I shivered, but nothing could break my mood.
The front of the office was mostly glass, and I put my arm around one of the poles supporting the awning of the strip mall and watched a few people bustle about inside. A secretary shuffled papers around on a big desk in the front of the office, and a large area with some tables was set up behind her, in front of a row of cubicles lining the sides of the room. The secretary looked up from the papers and smiled at me, and then flashed ten fingers at me. Ten minutes. I nodded and waved, and then turned as a car pulled up and parked in the spot right in front of me.
A bald guy in a suit with no tie, and no winter jacket hopped out of the BMW. He was one of those young looking bald guys whose lack of hair makes them look sharp and sleek, somehow cleaner than people with hair. He had little round glasses that he pushed up onto his nose as he hopped up onto the sidewalk and slung his satchel over his shoulder. I nodded at him, and he glanced at me as he passed on his way to the door of the unemployment office, but he didn't respond at all. Just looked at me and kept walking. He went inside, and I sneered at him a little bit. I hated it when people made like I wasn't there or hadn't greeted them. Still, it was early and I was willing to let it go.
A few minutes later the secretary opened the door and told me I could wait inside. She spoke with an accent I wasn't familiar with, and as she was white with dark hair and a great mole on the corner of her mouth, I called it a Bavarian accent in my head. I think that means German or something, but I'm not sure. The lady looked Eastern European, and when I thought about Bavarian accents my mind jumped to Dracula or Romania, so I just went with that. She asked me for my social security number and name, in that order, and then started clicking through some program on her computer. She clicked a button and the printer next to her made a whirring noise as it started spitting out paper. A manila folder was produced, and in went the papers.
There were a few chairs in front of the big window for people to sit, but with the angel I had to stand. There were a few space heaters around the office cranked up and humming, but I couldn't take off my jacket, so I started to get hot. I unzipped the top as much as I could without dumping the angel on the ground, but it was still stifling. I started to sweat, and took off my hat and gloves, shoving them in my pockets. After a couple of minutes of standing around, the secretary pointed back to one of the tables and told me to wait there.
I walked over to the table and pulled the chair out away from it, then sat on the edge and leaned way forward, putting my elbows on my knees. The angel shifted and rested itself on the back of the chair, taking some weight off of me. I could hear its wings flex and strain a bit against the splint and bandages. It shifted around and scratched at the dried bloody bandages. I wanted to stop it from scratching, but didn't dare say anything to it. You don't tell an angel to stop scratching at itself or it'll never get better.
I was looking at its wings over my shoulder when someone sat down in a chair opposite me. When I turned back the bald guy was sitting there looking through the manila envelope I assume contained the files about me the secretary had printed out. "My name is Mr. Solomon. You're here to open an unemployment claim?" He continued looking at the papers as he spoke. His voice sounded disinterested, as if he was speaking more to the paper than to me.
"Um, yes sir. Yesterday was my last day on the job, I thought I'd get down here right away and get things started." I was fairly proud of myself for getting here this early, actually. I thought maybe my papers might show me as a lifetime procrastinator, and I might score some bonus papers for my initiative today. I had no idea what sort of files he was looking at, but they were obviously about me in some way.
"Ok, well, we should be able to take care of this quickly. What was the reason for the termination of your employment?" He took a pen out of the front of his shirt pocket and clicked it precisely three times, then made a quick slash on the manila envelope. Satisfied that the pen was prepared, he held it over the top part of a form he pulled from the envelope.
"Uh, well, I had pretty much all I could take, you know, mentally there. I'd been there for a few years, and just had enough." I leaned even farther forward for a second, stretching out my back. "If I'd stayed along longer I kinda thought I might kill someone or something."
The pen hung in the air over the paper for a moment. "You quit voluntarily?"
"Yes, sir. I wasn't fired, if that's what you mean." I was pretty sure that getting fired meant you couldn't get unemployment, being a bad citizen or something like that.
The pen moved from where it was to the bottom of the form and checked off a single box. Then with another three clicks it returned to the pocket, and the paper was whisked into the envelope. "Well, that'll be all I need from you then. People who self-terminate their employment don't qualify for unemployment." And with that, the man started to get up.
I stood too, eliciting a small squeal from the angel as it tightened its grip, forcing me to take a small step forward. "What do you mean I don't qualify? I mean, I worked for two years at that place, I know they paid into some kind of fund or something for when I was out of work. Now I'm out of work. Why don't I get unemployment?"
The bald guy stopped and looked at me for the first time since he'd come over. It was the same blank stare he'd given me while passing me outside. I wasn't really a person to him, just a file in an envelope. "Sir, people who quit their jobs don't qualify for unemployment insurance. The purpose of unemployment insurance is to let people who have been cut from their positions get by until they get back on their feet. It's not to fund lazy people sitting on their couch and watching television. Now, if you'll excuse me, it's going to get very busy in here soon, and I need to get my appointments ready." Then he turned and walked back to his cube next to the wall, leaving me staring after him.
With one quick penstroke and a self-righteous attitude, the guy had screwed me. I worked hard for SitSurvey. Sure, I wasn't digging ditches or defusing roadside bombs, but I put in my time. I imagined a small pile of money that I'd contributed to the unemployment fund sitting in an huge safe, the kind with a big spinning wheel on the outside. Then I imagined the bald guy swinging the safe closed, and driving off to Hawaii in his BMW while I built myself a castle out of snow and froze to death. I'm not sure how he was going to drive to Hawaii, but I was sure he had enough money garnered from ripping off the hard work of other people to buy some kind of hydromobile or something. I stood there staring at the back of his head as he flipped through files, and realized that he had already forgotten about me. I turned around and walked out the door, not even bothering to zip my jacket or put on my hat and gloves.
Outside, as I started to pass his car, the angel leaned forward and spoke into my ear. "An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth." I stopped short in surprise.
I slowly turned my head back over my shoulder, looking at the angel as best I could. "What?"
It opened its mouth to speak, and from that distance I could that it had only jagged and broken sharp teeth. At first I thought it had two tongues in its mouth, one lying on top of the other, but as it spoke, I realized that it had a lot more than that, more than I could count. Its tongue stack flapped and moved, and with its words came the breath that smelled like candy canes planted in a grave. "An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth."
At first I couldn't figure out what it meant. I looked at it in confusion, my neck crooked at a weird angle. Then it reached on a long spindly arm and tapped on the window of the BMW. I looked through the window, and inside I could see the greenish corner of some money poking out from the closed console in between his seats. I looked back at the angel. "Wha . . .you want me to steal money from that guy? He was a douche, but . . .?"
Again, I received the same response. "An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth."
I looked back into the car at the money. It was just a few feet from me. It seemed strange that only a thin sheet of glass and the full weight of the law separated me from it. That abstract force that guides the motion of our lives each day, an agreed upon construct that only worked when everyone went along with it. Every nation and religion has their own law, and interpreting where each of those laws overlapped and how they interacted is a field of study far more complex than anything I've ever dealt with. For me, the decision wasn't a decision at all. I was being spoken to by the SOURCE of a law higher than that of man. Gravity is a law too, but it's not one you argue in court.
I looked around quickly to see if there was anyone else around, but there wasn't. I gave the handle a quick try, and to my surprise, it opened. From there it was easy, I just reached in, flipped open the console, and grabbed a pretty large stack of bills. I stuffed them into my pocket, closed the door, and then tried to walk in what I thought was a casual fashion to the sidewalk and down the street.
I can't describe the feeling of exhilaration that filled me as I swaggered down the street, swaying with the angel on my back. From time to time it would spread its wings a bit and catch some wind, lifting me a bit and giving me more bounce in my step. Adrenaline made my heart race. I didn't even notice the cold on my hands and face. The power of leveling instant and righteous justice on the world filled my veins with what I can only describe as glory. It was a small blow to the skewed and sinful world around me, but it was a direct one, and I felt my first true action since I'd been born. I had seen a wrong being done, and with guidance had stepped in and rectified it. I was on top of the world, the sun shining on the snow and filling the air around me with light.
As I passed the castle of the King of Winter, he was out tossing shovelfuls of snow at laughing kids. He saw me pass and waved. I waved back and broke into a huge grin as I watched the kids assault his castle. He defended it with gusto. I thought I understood why. Around me, I felt the roller coaster pick up speed.
Story and image by Nick Bergeron, Copyright 2009