Perhaps you were born for such a time as this 4:14
It is a scene more familiar to me than my own face.
The man lays broken on the wet pavement. Blood flows steadily from the wound at the base of his head. His frantic eyes begin to roll in his sockets.
Next to the man lies his crushed vehicle toppled onto its side. With my presence, the rain stops mid-air like sparks from a firework. I push the droplets aside as I step closer towards the man. I cannot feel the temperature, but I am aware of the cold. The man’s slowing breaths mist in the night air. I watch as his chest struggles to rise and fall against the blood that is filling his lungs from the puncture to his chest. After a century, I am disconnected with the act of death. It is as natural and as necessary as living.
I watch as his body turns rigid. His soul slivers from his skin as a ball of bright light.
It waits for guidance, hovering.
My eyes close, and I focus on the sky above. In my mind’s eye, I peel away the stars and moon to the place beyond.
The place between.
I watch as the ball of light dissipates and disappears into the glowing horizon. As soon as the luminosity has gone, the sky falls back into place as if nothing has happened. With time stood still, humans are unaware of the act that has just taken place. The world as they know it continues. They never see me. They are incapable of doing so. It makes my role in their journey far easier that way.
When God first told me of my divine purpose on Earth, I wondered if I’d be able to live out an eternal existence of guiding souls to their afterlife. It wasn’t something that I could negotiate or decline. It is both a duty and a curse. Yes, my work is important and honourable, but the sacrifice I make for helping others live on after death is to never truly live myself. Not anymore. At least I still have my memories.
I feel a pull across the city. Another soul beckoning for my assistance. I let my wings carry me through the blanket of frozen rain towards the magnetic force. As I approach, I see another tending to the person. White feathers shield the human’s face from my view. I do not interrupt the process.
One thing amongst many that the scriptures didn’t quite get right was the number of archangels in existence. Honestly, there are too many to count. With no pressing tether towards the dying, I take the opportunity to rebuild my energy. The break will no doubt be short lived. With a population of over 700,000, death in Denver is like playing whack-a-mole.
I soar over the sleepy metropolis and head for the Rocky Mountains. All the while, the sky flashes from pure white back to dusk like strobes from a lightning bolt.
Dust and rock scatter as my wings land against my favourite summit; a high, snowy peak that looks over the cacophony of conifers and the now black Colorado River. I perch over the edge enjoying the quietness and calm, for as long as it will last.
“Lovely night,” a voice erupts close by. I don’t need to turn around to know who is behind such a declaration.
“Gabriel, it has been too long,” I say with an embrace. “Where have you been?” My arms barely meeting around his broad back.
“With the President. For all good it has done me. You can protect and influence, but they forge their own path.”
It is a speech that I’ve heard many times, but I do not tell Gabriel as much.
“Free will,” he tuts. “God really didn’t think that one through when he appointed us.”
Gabriel sits alongside next to me with one muscular leg bent and the other dangling over the precipice. For all of Gabriel’s vast and ancient wisdom, he bares the youthful spirit and flushed face of a boy. Over the years, he has been pivotal in guiding nobility and the Heads of State in their leadership. He cannot change their course of action, but he can help them find and harness their voice. Sometimes, he doesn’t always agree with those appointed by the people, but it isn’t for him to judge. That doesn’t stop him sharing his opinions with me though.
“And how are you, Azrael?”
It doesn’t matter how much time has passed; I cannot get used to that name. I close my eyes and wince against the thought.
Anna. Anna. Anna. I recite. I must not forget.
A firm hand grips my shoulder blade.
“Azrael, are you alright?”
“Fine. I’m perfectly fine,” I lie. “Have you seen much of Michael?”
“I believe he is still residing in Africa. So much violence there,” Gabiel’s voice flattens as he shakes his head. “Do you remember when there was just one war at a time? Humans can be so self-destructive. Poor Raphael struggles to deal with the aftermath.”
Unlike Michael, who is an archangel of war, Raphael helps to heal the sick and weak. It is a tall order given the current state of mankind. He must not interfere with those dying of natural causes, but focus his efforts instead on those killed at the hands of others.
Whereas there are lots of versions of me, there is only one Gabriel, one Michael, one Raphael. Too much interference from archangels will alter the balance of nature. There needs to be some consequence. Cause and effect is a science even God can’t erase, but he can help. We can help.
Aside from politicians, Gabriel protects communicators in all forms from authors to journalists. He helps them to work methodically and to find the words they need most. To squash their inner demons. The part of themselves that doubts their capabilities and talents.
When Michael isn’t trying to defuse violence, he provides the police with clues to help catch murderers and rapists. Raphael enables doctors, nurses, and surgeons to care and revive those in need by keeping them calm and focused when they need it most. It is Raphael who shares their emotional burden, allowing them to cope amid mayhem.
“Any plans for the evening?” Gabriel digresses. “Apart from guiding souls to the afterlife that is.” I watch as his large, sculptured hand waves in front of us towards the infinite sky still popping with flickers of light.
“It has been a long time since I had plans, Gabriel.”
Gabriel leaps to a stand, majestic and proud.
“Come with me. Let the other archangels take over just for tonight. Let us be free to roam and to play.” His fingers stretch outwards, inviting me to join him.
“To play?” I scoff. “Surely, we are too old to play.”
“When was the last time you laughed, Azrael?”
I recoil at the memory. An alien sound bellowing from my belly as my children giggle in delight. What did they find so funny? I can no longer recall. Their faces. I can barely remember their beautiful faces.
Gabriel’s gentle touch rubs away the wet tears against my cheek.
“I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“I know.” I take the crumpled-up book from pocket and open the brown pages carefully so not to break the spine. I show Gabriel the numbers marked so far and cross off the latest date. “A hundred years ago today. A hundred years ago today, I died.”
Gabriel cups my hands with his and forces me to slowly close the book.
“A hundred years ago today you sacrificed yourself. A hundred years ago today you were turned into an angel.” Angel resounds on his tongue like a psalm sang in church. It once too filled my heart with awe and gratitude.
That was before.
It was my selflessness, God said, that made him choose me. I thought it was my duty as a mother to save my children. Something any mother would do. It was the way that I comforted my dying husband that struck him. I knew he wouldn’t survive the burns, yet I did not weep, I did not pray. I simply held his hand, as my children spluttered for clean air, until he took his final breath. I didn’t realise at the time that I too was dying. My hands were charred, and my lungs blackened. God said that I showed great restraint and that he could use a woman of such strength. He said that I could help Thomas cross over, watch over my girls until they were full-grown, and then live an immortal life helping others. At the time, the prospect seemed like a gift. To see my daughters marry and have children of their own. How could it not? The gift ended by the time that they both died. I opened the sky to the heavens above and watched their light cast off into the distance. Knowing that I will never see them again is a constant lump in my throat. An ache I cannot soothe.
“I know that I never lived a human life, but you did something spectacular. You are still doing something spectacular. Without angels like you, souls would roam the Earth lost and afraid. Because of you they get to reunite with their loved ones.”
I stare blankly at my hands resting on my lap as I mumble back, “And I? Will I ever reunite with my loved ones?”
Gabriel’s eyes glisten in the twilight. In his pupil, I see my slumped back and drooping shoulders. A shadow of a woman. A desperate attempt at an angel. Despite my sagged posture, Gabriel seemed to marvel at my question.
“I can’t help with that, but I can help in another way.”
My brows crease with wonder and confusion. “You can help?”
Gabriel’s features soften. He offers me a small, mischievous smile. “I can help you communicate with the living. You could feel human again.”
My jaw slacks open, and I forgo blinking entirely. “How?” The word barely audible on my weak tongue.
“I am the archangel of communication, am I not? I can make it so you can converse with humans, as if you are a human yourself. Of course, it would only be temporary.”
My eyes close with this notion. “For how long?”
A day. I agonise with the thought. “Why would you do this for me?”
“Perhaps, I’d like for my help to not go unnoticed, just this once.”
He wants to be seen. As do I.
“The choice is yours and yours alone, but if I may?” His gaze is steady and unwavering as he speaks. I simply nod in encouragement. “Of all the other archangels it feels that you have unfinished business. There is a sadness in you. Is it not worth trying to let go of whatever it is you are holding on to? Maybe then you might be able to move past it?”
Gabriel’s speech reverberates profoundly within me. How can I not take the opportunity to act and feel as a human once more?
“Okay,” I breathe.
Gabriel rubs his palms together in frivolity.
“When dawn breaks until the sun sets, you will be able to interact with humans. As long as you keep your wings hidden, you will walk this planet without suspicion. Which leads onto my final point. Your true identity must remain a secret, Azrael. If people know you are an angel, your day will be up, and I’d imagine God might have a thing or two to say about our meddling.”
My cheeks stretch with the instant grin upon my face. “You can trust me,” I offer.
Gabriel’s face is suddenly serious and still. His palms tilt up to the heavens and gold shines from his body like the unveiling of an aura.
I hardly dare move; afraid I will somehow interfere with the magic. Wondrously, the gold grows and spreads until it shrouds me in its effervescent glory. My skin hums with electricity. An exquisite warmth penetrates deep within me. In the blink of an eye, it is gone and with that so is Gabriel. My eyes, abruptly as heavy as stone, close shut. I feel myself losing consciousness…
It is the birds that wake me from my dream. Was it a dream?
Overhead, the blanket of night is now a horizon of florid orange. The dawn of a new day.
Gleaming rays from the tip of the sun envelop the clouds, meadows, and valleys. As I stare out enamoured by the colours, a strange loosening ripples through my muscles. The pull of the dying no longer affects me, I notice. Yesterday’s conversation with Gabriel did exist. I am free.
For a day, at least. I remind myself.
A squeal blurts from my gut as I jump to stand. In the corner of my vision, I see a brilliant, navy blue coat laid lovingly across a rock.
“Gabriel,” I say aloud while grabbing the coat and taking to the air to begin my descent off the precipitous cliff.
When my feet reach the base of the mountain, I tuck my wings firmly against my shoulder blades and fold them as tightly as possible against my body. The coat slips over my arms, hiding my wings from sight. Craving a mirror, I glance out over the glistening lake at my own reflection – a wobbly silhouette of a woman glances back. An ordinary human woman.
Where do I go?
It isn’t like I’ve been planning for this day. With every minute I ponder over decisions, the length of the day shortens. Staying in Denver seems like the logical choice now that I have to travel on foot.
There is something very relaxing about taking an aimless stroll amongst nature. The land slowly wakes as the sun rises. Insects buzz by, birds sing their songs, and even fish bubble along the water’s surface. Of course, I could see all this as an angel, but today is different. Everything feels like I am looking upon it with fresh eyes, a new perspective.
Some miles into my trek, I see smoke plume between the canopy of trees. Drawing close, I see that it blooms from the tawny chimney of a cabin.
Someone is inside.
The realisation causes me to retract behind an oak tree. After a hundred years of only talking with angels, the prospect of meeting a human that can see me, actually see me, fills me with dread.
Peering around the trunk of the tree, I tentatively watch as the cabin’s wooden door swings open. A tall man in a woollen hat steps out. The mug in his hand steams with heat. He sits casually on the bench next to his front door, gazing out over the valley.
What am I doing? I shouldn’t be spying on humans.
As I retreat backwards, my heel snaps against a fallen branch. Immediately, the man turns his head to see where the sound originated from. I try to hide behind the foliage, my breath catching in my chest.
I debate over my next move, then Gabriel comes to mind. I should take this as an opportunity. Instead of running away, I edge forward, pushing leaves out of my way.
“Sorry, I’m…lost.” Keeping my distance, I wait for him to respond, to acknowledge me.
“Can I help at all?”
He sees me. He really sees me.
“I think I’ve found my bearings, thanks.” As I speak, his wide eyes cast downwards with disappointment. Maybe he wants the company? “If it’s no trouble, I could use a drink and something to eat? I’ve been walking for a long time.”
The man’s eyes sparkle back to life. “Absolutely, how do you take your coffee?”
“However you make it is good for me,” I announce, my legs reaching his cabin.
The stranger heads inside his abode, and I find myself following him. Inside, I am met with the humble warmth and comfort of a crackling fire. The décor is simple yet homely. A rocking chair and leather armchair faces the fireplace, both are covered in fur throws. Instead of cabinets, shelves expose the contents of his life from books to preserves in glass jars. I can hear the man filling and boiling the kettle on the stove, but my attention is drawn to the photographs nailed to the walls.
“Do you take sugar,” he calls as my fingers rest upon a particular photograph. It is of the man in the cabin making me coffee, but his face is free of the thick, black beard that I see before me today. He smiles broadly towards a small boy leaning by his side. There is something about the boy that I can’t quite put my finger on. Before I can draw the image nearer, a cough gruntles from behind me.
“Here,” he says, passing me the mug of hot coffee. “Shall we sit outside?”
I follow the man back to the bench that he sat upon only moments ago. You can see all aspects of the area from the seat, including the peak from my favourite mountain. I take a sip and cradle the cup between my palms, unsure of what to say.
“I’m Edgar by the way,” he states with his rough, calloused hand outstretched towards me.
I shake it, taken aback for a moment by the touch of his living, weathered skin before replying, “Anna. Nice to meet you.”
“So where are you from, Anna?”
Where am I from? Such a small question with many possible answers. I decide to tell a version of the truth.
“I’m from a little town just outside of Denver called Cripple Creek.”
“And what brought you to the Rocky Mountains?”
An involuntary sigh leaves my mouth.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry,” Edgar expresses.
“No, don’t apologise. It’s just a long story. I guess I am running away from something that I don’t want to deal with.”
Edgar hums in agreement like he knows the feeling I’m describing well.
“How long have you lived in the forest?” I ask curiously.
“Going on fifteen years.”
Flannel shirts billow on a small clothesline to the left of the property. The photograph of Edgar and the boy comes to mind.
“And do you live out here all alone?”
Edgar turns away from me and focuses on the steam flowing from his cup. “Yes.”
I don’t press him on the photograph. “Good coffee,” I remark, changing the subject.
Edgar’s smile returns, but soon disappears. We sit idly for a few minutes in silence, peering out over the beauty of the land.
“You must feel lucky waking up to this every morning.”
“It is pretty extraordinary.”
I learn that Edgar worked as an engineer in the city before moving out here for a slower pace of life.
“I’ve always wanted to live self-sufficiently, to not rely on the rat-race. It’s hard work, don’t get me wrong, but I make what I need, I hunt want I eat, and I don’t have to follow anyone’s rules either. Except…”
“Except?” I push.
“Except nature’s rules. I have to abide by those.”
I nod at his words, not quite understanding what he means but appreciating them all the same. The cup in my hand is empty of liquid, and even though I don’t want to leave yet, I worry that Edgar feels that I’m an imposition.
“How can I repay you for the coffee?”
“Well you said you were hungry, so if you’d like, you could come catch some lunch?”
Coming from a time where hunting wasn’t a sport but a way of life, I agree.
We saunter through the labyrinth of saplings and shrubbery in search of fauna. Edgar, armed with a hunting rifle, gingerly navigates the terrain without a single wrong footing. It is clear that he knows the land as intimately as any aboriginal. I forgo speaking, knowing how even a whisper can frighten away prey. His feet tread low and slow as we open up to a clearing. At first, I don’t see what has caught his eye until I catch a glance of fuzzy ears twitching between the pasture. It stands on its hind legs, eagled-eyed to its surroundings. Edgar stays back, crouched in the shadows with the butt of the gun pressed snug against his shoulder, waiting for the perfect opportunity. The hare’s ball bearing eyes scan the landscape. I halter my breath and watch as Edgar’s finger pulls the trigger. Inevitably, I jump at the blare of the bullet and feel my wings almost open from the jolt. By the time that my body has retightened, Edgar is already ambling through the blades towards his kill. Our lunch.
“Have you ever skinned a rabbit?” he asks, picking up the lifeless animal. He walks a little ahead of me, leading us back to his cabin.
“Not for a long time.”
It was a weekly occurrence when I was just a girl. Mother taught me how to tear the fur from the muscle in swift, sharp drags. Given the force of the act, I was astonished by how bloodless the process was.
“I’ll have to remind you.” Edgar looks back at me with a glint in his eye. I get the sudden feeling that he’s been storing up all his knowledge and capability, unable to share them with another.
“Don’t you get lonely out here, all by yourself?” The words roll off my tongue automatically.
Edgar stops dead in his tracks. His fingers clench tighter around the feet of the hare swaying in his hand.
“I’m sorry,” I say, hoping to reignite the sparkle in his eye.
“I do. I do get lonely.” His voice is but a murmur in the air. The vulnerability in his voice forces me to stare at the ground even though he cannot see me stood behind him.
When we get back to the cabin, Edgar begins preparing his workstation. My attention deviates. I search for sippy cups by the sink or stuffed teddies scattered on the floor. Nothing.
Edgar slices the hare’s fur, going underneath the skin slightly to help with the separation. He pulls at the exterior, tugging at the seams like ripping wallpaper. He nods at me expectantly. When I return the gesture, he passes me the carcass and I begin to repeat the action.
You have to commit. My mother’s words resound in my head.
I yank hard and tear the flesh from the extremities. I glance up at Edgar. For recognition? For approval? He smiles softly and my heart swells.
“You’re a fast learner,” he remarks.
“I had a good teacher.”
The blush to his cheeks makes me think that he misinterprets this comment. I let him continue to show me skills that I already inhibit. Cleanly, he breaks the bones of the hare with his knife until the animal is unrecognisable. Together we place pre-cut wood into the ashy firepit outside, grey from years of being scorched. As I gaze at the flames growing and dancing against the cast iron pan, I am taken aback by the inferno. Edgar places the meat onto the pan, and it sizzles intensely. I cover my ears from the squeal of its crackling skin.
“Are you okay?”
When my lids flutter open, Edgar’s arm wraps around me.
“Hey, you’re okay.”
My hunched shoulders relax with his reassurances. For a moment, I forget about my wings. Before his hands can move too low, I shuffle away from his touch.
“The sound, the heat. It brings back bad memories.”
“I know all about that.”
The time feels right.
“The boy in the photograph, who is he?”
“My son,” he utters with eyes fixed on the smoke escaping into the sky. “He died.”
My brows furrow as I lean close to Edgar.
At first, Edgar does not say. I sit and listen to the hush of the wind, waiting for him to find his voice.
“It was an accident. He drowned. I should have been paying more attention.”
An intake of breath sucks into my lungs audibly, I knew I’d seen the boy before. My hand clasps against my mouth at the recollection.
A tiny body by the river bank, skin wrinkled and translucent. His ball of light so small and bright. The moan of a man breaking by his side.
“We’d moved out here, him and me, after his mother died. I thought the lifestyle would be good for us. Little did I know it would be the death of us.”
When I lost my husband, I was given a focus, a purpose. Yet here is a man stricken by loss, unable to forgive.
“My family are all dead too,” I finally say, my voice almost breaking.
Edgar turns to face me with this admission. A sharing of grief, of heartache.
“They are in a better place.” My hands cradle his as I speak.
“My faith has been shaken.” Edgar slides his hand from my grasp.
“Would you rather choose your own destiny or have someone else forge your path?”
“What do you mean?” he questions.
“Would you be happy being controlled all your life if you knew that you’d be able to live to be an old man? Or would you rather live a life of endless possibilities that can change as you do, but with risks attached?” When he doesn’t speak, I continue. “Dying at any moment is what makes us live our lives to the fullest. If God took the fragility of life away, what would be the point of living?”
I consider revealing my wings, my identity, to validate my point, but belief is a powerful thing. Far more powerful than knowing. I decide to return my touch to his hand, reaffirming my sympathy.
“We should think ourselves lucky to have experienced such love, no matter how short-lived.”
Edgar’s glossy, cobalt eyes, wet with realisation, focus on mine. “Thank you.”
We sit, we eat, we talk all day around the firepit as the flames demise. In the distance, I watch as the sky changes and darkens with impending dusk.
“It is too late for you to go home. Stay. Why don’t you stay?”
A large part of me aches to do so, knowing where staying may lead. My lips meet his, and I can taste the salt of his tears. It isn’t a kiss of passion or lust. It is a kiss of hope, of compassion. Edgar guides me into his cabin, onto his bed. We lay side-by-side holding each other’s bodies so that they do not fall apart, watching the sunset from the adjacent window. So many words weigh in my mouth, but they are all empty promises. I cannot say anything more than what our close embrace shows. With the sun’s glow vanishing, I close my eyes and get ready to let go. Not just of Edgar, but of my old life, the life I lived and lost. The life I feel so thankful to have had.
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