Friday, March 09, 2007

Damaged Goods

It was one of those blazing summer afternoons where the hands of the clock seem for a while to run backward, extending time, winding the clock tighter until it springs, suddenly, releasing night like a trap at the end of too much light, the famine brought on by the feast itself. I used to believe that God was doing it that way, really making time backwards to work it just like that, and it was as though I was the only one who'd ever guessed it. I didn't know if that would make God angry or smile that I was so clever. In my dreams, it could be either.

That day, I was tending my angels.

There's a flower that grows in the Maritimes... I suppose it grows elsewhere... but down east we called them lady's slippers. Somewhere along the line, I had realized that that the pale, delicate, frostly blossoms that hung like the scrotums of ghosts were the houses of angels. And not just their houses, but their birth chambres... they were the means by which angels entered our world, and their dwellings while here, all at once. This seemed self-evident. What else could these little chambres be? And once in Heaven, would it not be the same for us?

After lunch I would set out with a small tin watering can that had once belonged to my sister. Up along the path behind our street, into the worn hills behind our home at the edge of town. There was a patch of them on a hillside overlooking a stream and overhung by birch and spruce, the sun dappling the ferns that guarded them, plain plants of a lesser order given this great commission to which I was, in my own way, party as well. And I would crouch there, sprinkling water, showing my devotion, talking to the angels.

"Ellen, what are you doing?" My brother Chris.

"Well, what does it look like?"

"They get water from the rain, they don't need you."

I ignored him, turning back to my mission. "Other plants, maybe. These ones need more."

He came forward, the ferns licking at his tan shins, powerless to stop him. "Why? What's so special about them?"

I looked up at him. He had the sun behind his head; I could barely see his face. It was like he was Jesus. Maybe that's what fooled me. I said, "Well, the angels live in these, Chris."

He laughed, "What? Oh, man... come on."

I ran a finger gently under one of the blossoms; I could almost see it smiling up at me, the angel within it curled up, fast asleep. "No, really, it's true," I said. "The light is too strong for them. So they hide here all day and come out at night when we need them. When monsters are out, and the bad men."

"Guardian angels?"

"Yes." I nodded. Hummed. Tilted the can.

He crouched beside me. "You know what I think?"

I looked at him, uncertain what was coming. "What?" I said.

He reached down, taking the stem of one of the flowers between his finger and thumb. There was a moment where I knew, and he knew, but I didn't believe. Before I acted, he plucked it.

"Chris, no!" I made a grab for it, as if there were anything then I could have done to save it, reverse the damage. Chris's other hand flew to my shoulder and pushed me back.

He waggled the flower before me, and then caught the blossom in his fingers. The flower might have been picked, but at least the angel's home was still intact. I pleaded with him. "Chris, no! No!"

But he crushed it, grinding it back and forth between his thumb and index finger, until it was a pulpy mess smeared over his skin, and he tossed it aside. He paused to smell his fingers, interested in the scent he'd liberated, a Vandal pausing to admire the fragmented chisel work of a masterpiece he'd just smashed.

My face was hot and my eyes stung with tears. "It's just a flower," he said, mocking me. And a human is just a beast, all the more monstrous for its pretentions. He gave one shoulder a shrug. "Do what you want, crybaby," he breezed, rising to his feet and moving past me.

I was on my hands and knees, sobbing. "It was somebody's angel! Somebody's angel! What if it was my angel? Or Mom's or Dad's or Jamie's? What if it was your angel?"

Down the path he called, "There's no such thing as angels!"

And I forgave him. In time, I outgrew my vocation. I decided that God must have called some other little girl to take my place, and the idea absolved me somehow. I wished her well, whoever she was.

Years passed, and we were in high school. Young adults. Just after his 17th birthday, Chris was swimming with friends when someone's skiff caught him in the back of the head, knocking him out. He went under, and his friends couldn't find him... he drowned. I don't know how I got through that evening. I prayed as hard as I could for God to forgive him what he'd done, to forgive me for abandoning my call. In some way, I think I've continued to do so, every day since. While I know it isn't real, deep within I know it is.

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