The next day found me still on the couch. The dawn had rolled in slow and grey. The light trickled into the room and slowly filled it like liquid, starting at the ceiling and pooling downward until at last the quixotic light of the in between times draped me like a shroud. Dusk and dawn are times of reflection and decision, respectively. I desperately wanted the dawn to feel fresh, like yesterday's new beginning. Instead it stank of sweat and old failure. The same smell I'd woken up to every morning for as long as I could remember.
The angel had walked around the house all night, if you could call what it did walking. It hunched over on the balls of its feet, wings draped out and down like a tent around its shoulders. As it walked it would raise up on its tiptoes for a moment, stretching its legs and taking a quick step forward with one spindley ankle and then sink back down. It never straightened its back to stand at full height, moving forward instead like an angry dog. The dulled grey and ashen stained wings would rise with it, the tips still trailing on the ground, and then come down with a whoosh as it dropped. The creature stalked the quiet darkness and inspected every nook with its nose, and if somehow necessary, its tongue. When the sun rose it had reached my room, and in its inspection let out a hissing snarl at Billy D, then swept he and his nemesis, Boba Fett, off of my nightstand. They hit the wall with a clatter and dropped to the floor.
The angel moved about the room, sometimes on all fours, other times with its lurching walk, gathering up the things I'd left from my mad cleaning session. When it had tossed them all into a corner, it crouched over them, wings sheltering its head in the dark as it stretched its neck down and breathed on the pile. The air around its mouth seemed to quiver and ripple, as if a great heat was passing nearby. Billy D's famous grin twisted and became a rictus of horror as the plastic of his head melted, the teeth collapsing into the hollow before his eyes ran down onto Boba Fett. Poor Billy, going out like a Nazi looking at the Ark of the Covenant. A few minutes passed, and still the breath came, the angel leaning even farther forward and flexing its wings out behind it for balance. Only a melted pile of plastic with noxious steam rising from it remained on the carpet, but still dark breath gushed from the creature. When it finally rocked back onto its heels and let its wings come to rest, only a dark black burn remained. The fibers of the carpet were melted and fused together in a circular scorch, and the air was nearly unbreathable. The angel clucked with satisfaction and lurched out of my room, back into the kitchen.
I looked at the angel and tried to let dawn be a watershed for me, to have it be a time of deciding. The problem was, I couldn't figure out what to decide. Finally I just queried the angel directly. "Look, I don't know what to do. I . . . I tried yesterday. I tried really hard, and just . . . nothing. I dunno, nothing. I tried to bring good into the world, to do for others out of my own pocket, and I was punished for it. In fact, I was apparently making other people's day's even worse, which is just great, because not only was I punished, I was punished for doing the exact opposite of what I wanted to do. Isn't charity some kind of cardinal virtue or something? I mean, couldn't you help me out there? What am I supposed to do now? Just give up? With you here? Are you going to go away if I do? Are you going to STAY if I do? I tried the doing good thing, I suck at it. What am I supposed to do now?"
The angel stooped in the middle of the room, swaying and bouncing a bit in an unsteady rhythm. At first it ignored me and continued to chirp to itself. I stepped toward it. "Look, I need some guidance here! What am I supposed to do?!" Frustration and exhaustion tipped me past my breaking point and I raised my voice. I knew my mistake immediately when the angel froze in place for a second, and then its head swiveled on its neck to stare at me. The deep sockets of its eyes seemed to flex and narrow, and I felt an icy bolt of fear pass into my heart. I stepped back immediately and lowered my head, breaking the momentary stare down. My boots were still stained with yesterday's tromp through the snow, and I picked a particular small dark spot on the leather and tried to pour myself into it. It was no real use, I stood there feeling the irritation of the divine and waiting for my face to melt just like Billy D's. After a long silence, it's thin and whiny voice pierced my ear. "Find the wicked."
I looked up, and it had gone back to its swaying and chirping. My stomach roiled with tension. I could feel the acid burn in the back of my throat as the fear slowly subsided. I had asked for instructions, and it had given them. Now there was no choice but to do my best to follow them. I went and put on my jacket, and then paused by the door. The angel lurched over to me, and climbed onto my back under its own power. It now was the arbiter of when to ride on my shoulders, and when to walk on its own.
The ride was long. Rather than crawl in through the hatch, the angel scratched at the passenger door handle until I opened it. Then it backed in wings first and sat on the floor, knees pulled up to its chest and shoulders hunched forward with the wings filling the back of the car. As always, we rode in silence - the angel not choosing to speak, and me fearing the result of any speech. The radio remained safely off. Ice and snow crunched under the wheels of my car, and the heater rattled a bit as the defroster came to life. I felt wired to the car as it rumbled over the frozen road. The tension in my gut and spine had become a part of me at this point. It was my conduit and connection to the world, the central axis around which my life revolved. I was a marionette strung up and dancing as I drove from place to place with the great weight of the angel hurtling with me.
I drove aimlessly around the neighborhood looking for signs of life where I hoped to find some strange marker of wickedness. A left-handed person, or someone with a unibrow or witch's mark. Any simple sign that would mark them as being a terrible human being. I wasn't exactly sure what to do when I found them, but I thought maybe more commands would be forthcoming. The first person that I saw was an older black guy standing in the window of a butcher shop. I pulled over and sat in the car, watching him.
The shop was offering a special on lamb, and the sign kicked off a Rube-Goldberg memory train in my head. I remembered from Saturday school growing up that lamb's blood had something to do with the Final Plague in Egypt. The Jews had painted the doors of all of the wicked Egyptians with lamb's blood, and the Angel of Death had come in the night and taken their firstborn children. It was part of Passover. My mind strayed to thoughts of previous seders with my father, but I quashed the tired daydream before it started. I shivered and looked down at the angel next to me. Then I got out of the car and went inside.
The shop smelled of fresh blood. I mean, it's not like I actually KNEW what fresh blood smelled like. The shop just smelled, so I assumed it was blood and meat. Could have been Old Spice or moldy Werther's Originals for all I know. It was that kind of place, a holdover from the time when a transaction was conducted between two people, not between consumer and provider. When a man's product represented himself, and there was pride and personality invested. By the time I got inside, the owner was back behind the counter, framed by two hunks of meat hanging from hooks. "Hi." My voice cracked a bit, dry and sore from disuse. I stood in the doorway with my hands jammed into my pockets.
"Morning." He gave me a long once over, his bushy mustache wrinkling in slight disapproval. When his eyes finished drinking the empty canteen that was me, he returned his attention to slicing the slab of meat on the counter in front of him. "Anything you need?"
"Umm….yeah. This may be, uh, odd, I guess. Do you sell any of the blood?" He stopped slicing and looked up at me, pushing his thick glasses up farther onto his face with the back of one hand. His head was bald on top, with wings of salt and pepper hair on the sides. He ran his hand over the top of his head and rubbed it for a minute while he looked at me.
"Well, I don't really sell it. I could probably part with some depending on what you're going to use it for. Why do you need it?" I felt a stab of panic in the back of my throat as my heart skipped a beat. I had no real answer for him. I couldn't say that I was going to go vandalize people's property with it. I just cast about and came up with something resembling the truth. "I, uh, need it for religious purposes."
He raised an eyebrow at me. "Religious purposes? You don't look like you're into voodoo or anything, son. You're not into any of that Satanistic crap are you?"
I laughed nervously. "No sir. No demonic Satan worship for me. I just need it to do some, ummm… recreation of Biblical rites, sir. I'm trying to get a better understanding of the Bible and the way they used to do things." Now his brows furrowed and he frowned.
"You're not going to drink it or anything are you? You have no idea the kinds of diseases you could get from drinking animal blood." I shook my head vehemently. I was definitely NOT going to drink the blood. "No sir, not going to drink it. I, just, uh, do you have lamb's blood? I saw there was a special . . .?"
The butcher looked at me again for a long minute. I got the feeling this guy could actually read an entire book just by staring at the cover long enough. Then he gave his head a half-shake and set the knife down. He turned and walked through the clear plastic strips hanging in the open doorway behind him, leaving me standing alone with the hanging carcasses. I tapped my foot awkwardly and tried not to look around. I liked to eat meat, but only long after it ceased to resemble an animal, or any kind of reminder of death and slaughter. I decided that I was ok with impersonal interactions to get my meat. I didn't like the thought of this butcher cutting up Bambi's mother and hanging her on a meat hook. After a few minutes the guy came back with a big plastic ziplock filled with a deep maroon liquid that sloshed around thickly in the plastic. He held it out to me. "Remember, don't drink this shit."
I took it out of his hand with my fingertips and almost dropped it immediately. The butcher gave me a look like he would put ME up on one of his hooks if I dropped a quart of blood on his shop floor. The blood was still warm in the bag. My stomach turned and twisted, and I held it away from myself and tried not to look as I headed back out into the cold.
The angel kept its head fixed on the horizon as I drove slowly through residential streets. Once again I was present for the waking of the world. It seemed like the only times I was aware of my surroundings for the last few days were at dusk and dawn. Everything else was robot time when I was on autopilot, following the instructions I'd decided to carry out for the day. It made my life seem shorter. This time, drifting along slowly through oblivious people's lives, I just felt disconnected and lonely. People had a purpose about them in the morning while going about their routines. They were starting their day, enacting their plans. I had an actual God given mission presented by one of his Holy Host, but I didn't have half the fulfillment and sense of purpose that I saw on the face of people just getting their newspapers. Rather than filling me with an energy and force of momentum, I felt as though my failure the day before had transformed that holy fire into lead. Even sitting in the driver's seat I could feel the weight of the angel on my shoulders. I began to feel jealous of the people I saw. They had no burning bush to lead them, but they were still managing something I never could seem to grasp. I wanted to pound the steering wheel and shake it and scream at the top of my lungs. The presence of the angel stopped me. I sat in seething anger and tried to drive at a reasonable speed.
Eventually I saw a few kids sliding along on the icy sidewalk, and it reminded me of the man I saw fall on my last morning drive. He had started yelling, and I'm pretty sure that he had taken the Lord's name in vain at least once. I was pretty positive that was a pretty big sin back in the day, probably punishable by stoning. Hell, if you wore your sandals on the wrong foot back then the village got together and had a stoning party in your honor. I guess it was the old school Hebrews version of tailgating - throwing big rocks at your neighbors until they died.
I turned the car around and drove back to the neighborhood where I'd seen the guy. I couldn't quite remember the exact street, but as luck would have it, he was chipping the ice off of his driveway when I drove by. He was wearing a big Russian fur hat and a red and black checkered wool jacket. I guess he didn't have a shovel, because he was using a baseball bat to just beat on the ice until it broke, and then sweeping it out of the driveway with a broom. I slow rolled past twice to make sure it was the same guy, and on the second pass the baseball bat glanced off the ice and hit him in the foot. I recognized his voice when he started swearing again. He definitely took the Lord's name in vain. The angel next to me looked out the window and hissed.
I didn't want to look completely ridiculous trying to creep up to this guy's house during the middle of the day and sloshing blood on his front door, so I figured I'd wait until it got dark. People would be home from work then, but people don't generally look out of their windows after dark during the winter. I just hoped he didn't have one of those automatic lights that turned on whenever anyone walks past. That left me with a lot of time to kill, and I had no idea what to do with it. I ended up just driving around different neighborhoods all day, watching empty houses and the occasionally other midday traveler. Around an hour or so before sundown, my car thudded and sputtered a few times, and then died. I managed to guide it to the side of the road before I lost momentum. Then I sat there staring stupidly at the dash, wondering what had happened. A few minutes passed before I figured out I'd run out of gas.
I didn't really know what to do. A car is a SERIOUS possession. It's one of those things that is linked into your identity as part of you. Now a big chunk of my sense of self was a huge paperweight on the side of the road. I felt like it was a lead ball chained to my leg. I had a mission to accomplish, nervous and unexcited about it as I might be, but how could I just leave my car there? I didn't have a gas can, and didn't even know where I could find a local gas station. I didn't even have a roadside service I could call. In short, I was screwed. I got out of the car and stood there looking at it in the cold. I finally kicked a tire and hurt my toe.
A shrill whining sound behind me made me turn. The angel stood there, half hunched against the cold wind. When I turned it held up one lanky arm and beckoned me with an enormously long finger. Only then did I notice that where a normal finger was jointed at the knuckle, then once in the middle and once at the end, the angel had FOUR joints in its finger instead of three. I walked toward it, and when I was a few feet away it gave a lurching step toward me and swung around me onto my back.
Luckily my car had died within walking distance of the guy's house. It was a long walk in the cold with the sun going down, and the weight of a divine mission on my back. The cold air burned in my lungs, and my lips chapped and cracked almost immediately. I tried to breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth, but nose just started to run, and soon I had a pounding headache from sniffing so much. It took me about an hour and a half to get there. I crouched behind a small bush at the edge of the guy's driveway and pulled out the bag of blood I'd tucked into my pocket. My body heat had kept it mostly warm, but there were already bits of coagulated yuck clinging to the plastic.
I didn't have a brush or anything to use to apply the blood, so I broke off a bit of the bush. It was a crude implement, but probably a lot like what was originally used the first time the Hebrews in Egypt did this. I looked around carefully to make sure no one was out and about, and then ran up the guy's driveway. When I reached the door I unzipped the bag and as soon as I did the angel started to go nuts. It hissed in my ear and started to choke me with its arms while it jumped up and down on my back. I choked a bit and hit my knees, barely keeping the blood from spilling. When I went down the angel let go and leaped along the driveway on all fours away from me. It stopped at the end and hissed again, trailing off into a yowl as it wildly rubbed its hands over its head and face.
I was terrified that the man inside had heard the ruckus, so I dipped the bit of bush into the bag and made one big slash across the door as fast as I could. I had originally through I was going to paint the blood on somehow, but instead I just whipped my arm in an arc and it sprayed in a thick diagonal line down across the door. I watched it bead and start to run for a second, and then turned and ran back down the driveway, sealing the bag as I went. The angel yowled a bit and skittered away from me down the street, pacing a bit in a circle. I jumped behind the bush again and tried to think of what to do next.
The angel sniffed at the air. I could see its tongue come out of its mouth just a bit. It crooked its head to the side, looking at me, and then stood in its half-upright position and lurched over to me. It hissed at the brush in my hand, and then swung onto my back again. I went from a crouch to a kneel to support its weight, and looked around again to see if anyone had noticed anything. The street was clear. In fact, I was more than a little annoyed that no one had come out. I was here on a mission to mark someone as a sinner, and no one was even noticing.
I stood up from the bushes and walked to the middle of the road. The street was empty of traffic, and there were few streetlights at that part of the block. I waited to see if anyone would see me and come out. No one did. That anger I'd felt in the car came boiling back, pushing away winter's cold. I'd come on a mission to SAVE these people. To mark out the sinners and bad seeds and winnow them from the innocents. I'd come to protect their purposeful lives of contentment, with their newspapers and dog walking and 2.5 kids. I wasn't out to do good in the world for my sake. I was out to do it for theirs, and they didn't even know I was doing it. It was maddening to think of all of them in their houses living satisfied lives, when all I'd ever felt was adrift and confused, and now I was the one given the task to fix everything!
I walked up the sidewalk to the next house on the street and then just strolled up the path to the front door. I popped open the blood bag and dipped my stick into it, and then slashed this door like I'd done to the swearing guy's. I don't know what the people inside had done, but I was positive they'd done SOMETHING worthy of being marked. There's no way people could lead full lives without indulging themselves in ways I never had. The blood slopped on the door and immediately ran in the cold. Clumps of it bounced from the door and squished to the ground. I looked at it and felt the anger still boiling inside of me. It wasn't enough. The angel was whining and bouncing around on my back, its high pitched stale breath stinging my ear. It made me even more furious.
I turned and started jogging across lawns, dipping my stick into the bag and slashing across each door as I passed it. After a few houses I started to slash windows as well. Soon I ran out of blood in the bag and started to run the stick across the houses, leaving a dirty brown trail. My hands were covered in the drying lamb's blood at this point, so when the stick stopped making a mark I tossed it aside and used my hands. I starting running faster and faster, trying to outrun the sound of the yipping and moaning the angel was making, trying to force all of the anger and depression into my legs to burn it out. Finally I stumbled to the middle of a yard and fell down onto my face. The angel remained on my back, pushing me down into the cold slush and ice.
I lay there for a while, trying to get my breath back and wondering what the hell I should do now. My car was over an hour's walk away, with no gas. I was covering in blood and now soaking wet in the cold. I thought about just giving up and going to sleep, hoping that the cold would take me during the night. I closed my eyes, and suddenly a weight was lifted from me. Maybe in letting go I'd finally find some peace in the afterlife. I waited for the golden glow of a light at the end of a long dark tunnel. Instead I felt thin, cold hands grasp my shoulders and lift my head up off the ground. When I opened my eyes in front of me sat an idling car. Atop the roof was a lighted sign showing fresh pizza with wavy lines coming off of it. I guess the pizza was warm. The delivery guy must not have seen my laying there, or not have cared, because he was walked toward a house on the other side of the street. I decided to go get some wavy lines of my own, and hauled myself to my feet.
I moved in a crouch, kind of like the angel. I lurched forward a few feet at a time toward the car. My knees were killing me, but the thought of heat and the smell of pizza lured me onward. I reached the passenger side door just as the delivery guy rang the doorbell of the house. I tried the handle and it opened right up. I waited for the angel to climb in, and then scurried around to the driver's side. The last thing I heard when I put it in gear and pushed the gas was the delivery guy yelling at me as he chased the car. He took the Lord's name in vain too.
Story and image by Nick Bergeron, Copyright 2009