The Angel, by Olivia Friedman
Kneeling, staring into the puddle of translucent water, the rain sluicing over his form. A crash of thunder, the driving storm forcing him to stay down, bent, though he could not move if he tried. A bolt of lightning cracks through the sky, a jagged line through the thick dark clouds, purpling as though bruised. But he remains unmoved, the silver white rain falling all around him, dancing over his brilliant form.
An angel fallen from heaven, cast out by God. He is white, opalescent, pearly, a sheen to his skin, androgynous and handsome but bowed, kneeling, weeping tears that are not made of water but of shadow, falling only to disappear in mid-air. The rain dances all along his body but does not touch him, unable to make contact with the silvery flesh. His eyes are silver; he is all silver and white light, an angel, a true angel, kneeling before the storm.
He places his hands on the ground, feeling the rough earth, chafing against his silvered hands. He weeps, more shadow-substance, and again looks into the puddle, his face a bright reflection, a silvery lock of hair pushed over one ear. His skin is made of swirling white murkiness; it is not translucent but eddies with rainbows. His hair, nails and eyes are all silver.
He rises on one knee, runs his hands over his flesh. The glow is slowly leaving him, the white pure beauty of his skin seeping into the clouds that roil above him, washed away by the graying rain. His eyes lose their heavenly tint, turning grey, soft. His flesh hardens so that it seems human, still strange to the touch, still touched by soft tints that speak of rainbows, but now more a trick of the light. At last he rises, seemingly human; his skin glowing with life as though blood flowed through, his eyes grey with shadows, his hair still curiously silver.
He has lost his wings.
He stands and almost loses balance; he must learn how to walk without his wings, the two great silvery wings, large and perfect. He places a hand upon his naked back and feels two nubs where his wings used to be, slowly they are shrinking until they are hardly there, simply bumps upon the smooth surface. He weeps and the shadow-stuff transforms so that there are tears, salty on his skin. He presses a finger to them and licks it, almost in disbelief.
He does not speak or cry out, simply remains bowed over the puddle of water, watching himself change, watching as he resembles the forms of those he will come to now. He stands again and is still unsteady, but now it is easier, perhaps he will be able to walk. His nakedness is glorified; in this he is still an angel and will always be. He feels no shame, no sorrow.
The rain still drives him, stabbing at his back, but now it can touch him, an impact upon the soft skin. He starts as though he has never felt the rain before. He smoothes back his hair and a silver tress lays flat, caught by the water droplets. He blinks his eyes and his long silver lashes remain wet. The heavens themselves seem to dance glory upon the world.
He embraces the lightning, the thunder. “Asriel! Abniel!” he cries, as though he knew the ones who act as God’s assistants, the ones who throw down the lightning and create the thunder. But there is no answer; there is no sound.
He stands there, wild and fierce and strong, an angel, not a man, but an angel without his wings. He cannot attain heaven; he can never go back- he is an outcast, cast out by God, forced to wander the earth. There will be no end to his servitude; he cannot die and he cannot remain in one place for very long.
He throws back his head and laughs, a harsh sound, painful and cruel from so pure and perfect a being. His skin flares with a sudden light, illuminating two painful grey scars where his wings used to be. His heart pulsates; his fingers flare. He is sobbing, a horrible noise from so divine a creature, sobbing with all his heart. His tears mingle with the immortal rain, and as they mix it seems as though trails of fire wet his cheeks, so purely and brightly do they glow.
He lies insensible on the ground, waiting for the morning sun to rouse him, escaping the storm through sleep. In the morning he awakens, and upon arising, begins, painfully, unused to the movement of two legs, to walk.
“I am Cain,” he says to the two men who stand in front of the fruit stand, eagerly choosing their wares. They assess him and one of them spits tobacco juice on the ground.
“Where ye from?” he asks, still chewing on the plug. “You’re nekkid.”
The angel looks down at himself, almost in surprise. “I suppose I am,” he answers, a lilt to his voice, pleasant and sweet and utterly pure. “I am looking for work.”
“You ought to put on some clothes,” the other man says, and rummaging beneath the counter, hands the angel a pair of trousers and an apron. The angel looks at the trousers confusedly and tries to put his hands through them.
“Ye’re not from around here,” the man grunts, looking suspiciously at the newcomer’s silver hair. “Thas na’ how ye put on trousers.” Coming over to the angel, he demonstrates, miming placing one leg into the pants, then the other.
“Ah,” says the angel in a tone of slight distaste. He places his legs inside the trousers, then throws the apron over his head.
“Well, get to work then,” says the man chewing tobacco.
“What am I to do?” the angel asks gracefully.
“Whatever I tell you to,” the man replies, and showing him to the barn, he demonstrates his duties- Cain will feed the animals, milk the cows, help in the dairy, cut wheat, assemble grain into piles- whatever the man wishes.
The angel, still shining, looks down on his mortal employer. This man has never seen the glory of God, never witnessed the beauty of heaven, never seen the marble streets and silvering balustrades. He knows nothing of the Orient, nothing of the wonders that exist throughout the world, nothing of the Hallelujahs of the other angels, of the sweet songs that all beings sing to the Creator. This man does not know of his exalted station; he does not even know that he is an angel. This man knows nothing at all.
Still, Cain sets out to work, fumbling at first, then learning the slow rhythm that is the world of men, the dull routine that is their lot. There are no glorious paeans, hymns and songs, no dazzling displays of light and color, no beauty that echoes the beauty of heaven. Everything here is a shadow, a dark world that holds no joy.
After his allotted time, Cain moves on and leaves. He does not tell his employer that he is going, nor does he take anything with him other than the clothes. The clothes he feels he deserves; he has no need for money.
“Kevin,” she calls laughingly, dancing toward him, “come in out of the sun! Though it’s mighty queer,” she muses, “that you never do sunburn, and your hair always remains fair.”
“Don’t worry, Betsy,” the angel answers, shutting the door to the lion cage. His face is timeless, ageless, though Betsy does not know that. “And how are you, sweetheart?”
He has learned endearments in his time on earth, learned how to love women and to be loved by them. He has found an occupation that allows him to be consistently on the move; he manages a circus, complete with lions, unicorns, daredevils, freaks and dwarfs. At times he feels low, surrounded by all this, all this that mimics the grandeur that was heaven, the lies that he transposes for that reality. He uses fireworks in an attempt to recreate the gorgeous lights, firecrackers and poppers for sudden noises, has candles that burn different colors and cast different types of smoke, some that glitter, some that make the air swim, and some that fizzle, but none of this suffices. All these are lies, paltry tricks to mimic what he once knew, what he once saw. In fact, a good deal of the time it depresses him.
But there is Betsy, young and innocent, and though she does not know he is an angel, she cares for him as much as she can. The first time they made love she looked at the scars on his back and kissed them, and laughingly said, “Who did that to you? I’ll go and kill the man,” and he kissed her to silence her, because she did not know it was God who did it, and she could not kill God.
Her curls fall to her shoulders and they are golden, her laughing face and open smile, her big blue eyes and infectious humor; all these qualities serve to ground him, to give him some solace. She is excellent, besides; she performs in the circus as a trapeze artist, extraordinarily graceful, though never as graceful as the angels themselves. The two of them head to the mess tent, where cook has set up a meal; she twines her fingers through his silver hair and he smiles.
“It’s been a long day, Kevin,” she says, “and I’m excited for tomorrow. I love the first performance; it’s the most wonderful one, don’t you think?”
He smiles and nods, pleased by her happiness. She busies herself in greeting each of their employees, smiling at the dwarves and freaks, calming the dancers and officiously ordering about the clowns. He goes outside to look at his animals, false though they are. He himself has pasted the horn to the unicorn’s head, and he strokes the poor horse fondly.
Finally, she joins him in sleep, snuggling against him in their tent. She looks up at him with her laughing eyes and her red, red lips and then she is silent, quiet, softly breathing, sleeping. He sees the first crack of lightning dart across the sky, hears the thunder and remains awake. He always remembers when there are thunderstorms; he remembers that first fall, that sudden awakening as he found himself on land and felt himself change.
She nuzzles against him, her fingers playing against his chest and he turns to focus on her. Betsy, his Betsy, sweet and clever and beautiful, the Ringmaster’s wife. He, the owner of the circus, the ringmaster, the one in charge of this monstrous parody of heaven, of the glory that was his and that he lost.
Lost in heavy thoughts, he simply glances at the roof of the tent, feels the pounding rain driving against its fragile walls. He is simultaneously pleased and disgusted with his life; he loves Betsy but he cannot reconcile himself to the ugliness that he creates, the ugliness that was not his original lot.
At last he joins her in sleep, their gold and silver hair twining together, her cheek against his.
She wears a costume, all in white, with dazzling gems and mica chips sewn on to reflect the light. She is heavily made-up, sparkling blue eye shadow and bloodred lipstick; her cheeks deeply pink. She smiles at him and he touches her eyelids, runs his hands along her black eyelashes, so much at contrast with the gold of her hair. He smiles and kisses her, wishes her luck with her act, with the performance.
She begins her act, dancing on swings, whirling from one rope to another, gliding on silken scarves. She flips three times, then lands gracefully, then somersaults, always floating through the air, always perfect.
But this time there is a mistake; she misses the bars and begins to fall. He is not seriously concerned because there is a net, but then he sees that the net is not adjusted as it should be, so he lunges in the air as though he could fly, still expecting to feel the strong beating of his wings so that he could save her, but instead he simply falls flat and she keeps on falling, falling through the net to slam against the ground.
She is dead, of course; his Betsy is dead. Men immediately surround him but he pushes them away and runs toward her, kneeling over her. She is dead and he feels numb but not broken; he grieves but strangely, not in a human sort of way. He grieves for the loss of her life but he also grieves because he knows the Angel of Death is there, so close that if he reached for him, he could touch him, but he cannot see him.
The men think that he is shocked, stunned; they think his tears are for his wife, as they should be. But he cannot love as humans love, and he sheds them more for his loss than for hers, for the wings he wished and thought he had, for the Angel of Death whom he cannot see.
They bury Betsy in the place she loved best, near her home; her mother comes out, weeping, and gives him a look when she sees him standing, so cold, so aloof, so seemingly unmoved. Her mother never liked him, he knows; she will be glad to see him go. He turns over ownership of the circus to another man, and he begins to wander anew.
An architect now, he pushes back his hair against his face, wiping his hand against his forehead. He reaches for a glass of water and drinks mechanically out of it, as he would were he truly thirsty, and puts the finishing touch upon the plans. He does not like designing these buildings, so ugly and useful; he would rather design the buildings he knew in heaven, grand spires that reached upwards, ever upwards, made of gold and opal and silver, scented with the grandest spices.
He must meet with clients and he thinks this is yet another one, but this one is different. He is a wealthy businessman, but he seems different; after all he came in person to see him instead of sending an envoy. Kevin loosens the tie around his neck and pushes back his white sleeves, rolling them up above his arms.
The businessman explains his proposition; he has a rather wild idea; he would like a palace for himself, something beautiful but more gothic, not so modern. Could Kevin make something like that? The angel nods eagerly; of course he could. Designs dance through his mind instantly as he recalls the grand domes, the stately spires and pinnacles and balconies.
But he is interrupted by the businessman, who stares at him in awe. “Your skin,” he says, barely breathes. “It’s shining.”
And Kevin looks down at his arms to notice that the light has hit them in just such a way as to create the eddying rainbows that dance across the surface. He smiles apologetically at the businessman. “A trick of the light,” he says, and rolls down his sleeves.
“No,” says the businessman, and moving closer, looks at Kevin’s hand. “It is shining,” he says, but his tone is not accusatory, only glad, very glad. “You are the first person I have seen who has managed to make me glad,” he says, and looks at Kevin gratefully. “Your skin is shining. You are an architect with skin that shines.”
He looks at Kevin as though he sees a friend, someone with whom to speak and talk, someone who will not flatter him in order to get money from him; someone who will treat him with respect. He doffs his hat.
“I am excited that you have agreed to work on the project,” the businessman says. “I can see that I will enjoy working with you.”
“You were cast out of heaven?” Adam breathes, sweeping his hand through his dark brown hair. “What for?”
The angel looks at the businessman and smiles strangely. “I can see that you believe me, and you are not mad,” he says. “It must be that you are close to the angels. Perhaps the descendant of Jacob, who wrestled with one.”
“Was that you?” Adam questions, curious, his green eyes alive with wonder.
“No, that was not me,” said the angel, sighing. “I was cast out of heaven before then, for I protested the creation of Adam and Eve. I said that they would sin. Then, once created, I said that they were right to reach for the forbidden fruit, that if not for their action there would be no world, no life. I said they should not die, but live immortal. And so I was punished. Stripped of my wings, I was sent to Earth so that I might live out my days as I had wished them to, live in this broken Earth that they created, so different from Paradise. I would come to understand that mortality in such an Earth is a blessing, not a curse.”
“But surely there have been other angels since that time?” Adam continued. “What about the nephilim, the fallen angels? The angel who wrestled with Jacob? The angels who ascended Jacob’s ladder?”
“The nephilim became fully human and died out,” the angel answered, “and the others retained their wings. I cannot see any angel who bears wings, even if I know they are close to me. And they will not answer if I speak. I am alone.”
“Tell me of heaven,” Adam demanded, his eyes afire.
“Heaven,” said the angel, and paused, then closed his eyes, as though to recapture a memory. “Heaven is a feast for the senses, even though one has none. All that is beautiful in this world is a thousand times more beautiful there; there is music beyond compare, light that dazzles, a music impossible to recreate on earth. The stars themselves are jewels, jeweled maidens that light up the skies. All that exists sings to God; it is our greatest honor to be chosen to praise Him. I am more bound up with God than I can explain; my very soul and essence longs for Him, my very being shivers at every touch of the ground. All this is so unnatural to me and remains unnatural, so that every day I curse my rash pronouncement, and would that I had never spoken.”
“But Heaven?” Adam persisted.
“Heaven has all things within it- gold, jewels, diamonds; all that is beautiful. The castles there are dazzling; each one has windows of stained glass, the greatest masterworks and masterpieces hang in the corridors. There are plush carpets and gleaming wooden floors. And everywhere the righteous poring over their tomes, engrossed in their learning, seated in the study hall, fascinated by all. We angels look over them and some of us are in charge; one of us allows them admittance to the study hall, checking carefully that they qualify.”
“And what do you look like?” Adam asked.
“Ah! I am only a pale shadow of a shadow of who I truly am. When I was in Heaven, I was mighty and powerful, a gleaming figure in alabaster white, translucent and gleaming with rainbow light that glazed my skin. My eyes were silver pinpoints of light; my wings enormous and strong. I was the angel of Truth. Initially I protested the making of man, but once they were created, I decided it was good that they would sin, for they would have the world. So God sent me to walk among the world, to spread Truth. It is a punishment for me to be here, but it also has repercussions for them and for those like you, for where I walk, the truth follows. Whatever doom has been allayed, whatever concealed secret- all this arises. Only I abused my truth and engaged in falsehood, earning my living through lies, through creating creatures and donning masks. A Ringmaster, I was a Ringmaster!” He smiled. “But that was a long time ago.”
“You see, I have lived in stages. At first, when all was new to me, I saw the Earth as pathetic in comparison to the grand Heaven from whence I had come, and regal and proud, I refused to bow to anyone. I worked, yes, but I scorned m work, and saw myself as mightier than all. I could not accept the loss of my wings, the fact that God had hurled me to the Earth. I could not accept that I must walk among men, never to return, separated from God.
“I could not accept that so many men were liars, practiced at deceiving one another through terrible doings, that my name was profaned, that Truth was maligned everywhere, misrepresented and hurt. All these things I could not accept, and I felt a deep and abiding hatred of man.
“But I learned. I learned to feel for man, to feel compassion, and to love him, in the strange way that I can love. My love is tempered with justice, and though I know mercy, it is the merest hint, for I cannot be bribed, I cannot be changed. I am Truth and must remain as Truth. Though I attempted to rebel, I paid a price. I never liked the lies I told, never could reconcile myself to the unicorn with its pasted-on horn. My wife- I had married- died in that circus, and I knew that I could never deliberately pervert my nature again.
“And so I walk the Earth forevermore, never to be released from bondage. I do not grow old but remain always as you see me; a man with strange skin and silvery hair, my grey eyes disconcerting and knowledgeable. I cannot ever truly love as you can, though I can miss you when you are gone and realize that you are dead. But what I miss more are the Angels that I knew, and when someone dies, I desire to see the Angel of Death. This I cannot do.
“Truth has no partner- it is lonely, hated, reviled. I walk the Earth as Truth, but I am lonely, and though you listen to me, you cannot understand.”
Kevin gracefully rose and looked at Adam, who gave him a sad smile, expressing a sentiment that cannot be conveyed in words. Then he rose and hugged the angel, a fierce hug as though to express the love he felt, the love he felt but could not convey, and that Kevin could never feel.
It has been many years now since I began to walk the Earth, and many years since Adam died. At times I meet others, others touched by God or by angels, and I speak with them and converse with them, and they know me for who I am.
But all this does not suffice; as much as they try to understand me they only glimpse me, a portion, a piece, a part of who I am and what I was. No matter how I try, I cannot convey the grandeur that was Heaven; I cannot explain what Earth is like in comparison. I meet people and speak with them; they offer me kindness and understanding, and I accept that, for it is good of them. But it does not suffice. For who can understand an angel? Especially one who has been cast out by God; the only angel who has no wings.
I am a very lonely angel.
And I am tired of masquerading as a man.
Olivia Friedman is an avid reader who enjoys stories that weave together darkness, romance and elements of folklore. She loves the character of Saul in I Samuel, appreciates anyone working through an internal struggle or conflict, and believes that life is to be lived passionately and determinedly. When she’s not writing stories, she teaches Jewish Texts to grades 7-12 in Rockville, MD. She can be contacted at thecoruscation (at) gmail.com.
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