An Angel’s Graveyard
Thomas creates himself through the dreams of the experienced, as all angels do, perhaps as all humans will do, even as they prepare for their descent into their own dreams, and he doesn’t yet know why. Thomas is still weathering, still absorbing, still creating himself once more with his new senses. The smooth rain of silk, the coarse comfortable rasp of corduroy, the smug cotton fuse of North Dakota flannel … Thomas like a child gathering snowflakes, their melting only an excuse to gather more. Thomas beginning to decode the experience he gathers, drenched in possibility, confused and filling with what’s next. Thomas collecting himself once more, as he did long ago when he first became an angel, offering that unremarkable afterlife to this future.
And for this task he must first recapture his past although the memory of it will arrive through his new human body and not his thoughts.
You have to touch the past without thinking too much or it escapes you.
Some stones have been holding their breath, but they are not as patient as they appear to be. Some rivers have been arriving forever, but it looks like leaving.
And mourning because something is always lost at a birth.
Yes, Thomas is bewildered by the onslaught of information about his new neighbors, who take so much for granted. Is anything really what it appears to be?
Farmer Johnson whips his bull as it lags, not yet having smelled the objects of his approaching heated duty in the meadow where the Royer Twins will shepherd their two cows to couplings that may lead to a steadier supply of milk. What if they both “take” and offer twins? What then would next summer bring?
A man in chaps yanks a strand of barbed wire into place and hammers it to an already grayed pole. His daughter pursues a mother hen gone wild as she herds her brood into the hidden pathways of the wheat field.
Thomas respects these symbols, but this is a new life, and these symbols he has only an inkling of understanding for, must grow slowly back to their sources, from beneath his new feet, from beyond the reach of his current understanding, emptied of the memory contained in physical sensation. They must grow from the earth and from the sky, no longer as dreams.
Patient in the passage between.
Thomas has been digging comfortable shapes, earthen nests of dirt and leaves and feathers and fur, into the yielding ground for three days now. He does not understand why his new neighbors don’t seem to want to move in. All these homes left empty and his offering ignored.
“Don’t they understand what they owe their lives to?” Thomas wonders.
He spends a night in each shape, pulling up his dreams like a blanket until, in time, the blanket becomes another skin and he knows enough of himself to spend his nights anywhere. To reach gently towards the touching of anything. To bare himself and move where he can be accepted. Inside himself.
Must an angel enter a dream as if it were a landscape … here, the tree with the broken limb, there, the cracked sidewalk where the young blind boy holds the girl who was playing hopscotch? Is this how the angels begin to populate the undarkening night?
That is what the angel must imagine, which may be enough for the dream to begin again, inside its skin, where the angel can feel it.
It’s just the way the light falls, just a desire to go inside. Unsettling, like our own music doubting itself. Do we love it more when there’s no chance to think before it reaches us? Something approaching us from beyond our thoughts about it? Some ancient mystery grown old enough to see, before it’s lost again, brushed away, and freed once more from us?
Some of the neighbors here, where the angel has landed, celebrate each anniversary of ice, the only celebration completely without emotion. Each in different times and places, they hold it, throw it, lick it, place it where they wish to be touched. On this day, the Royer Twins and Red and Farmer Johnson and the cowboy and his daughter and a lost man in his room all have the impulse to reach for the cold suspensions of water and try to find a way to offer it. Its innocence changes because any moment flashing past, even without yet feeling it, renews it.
Today, in honor of tomorrow, quickly melting.
And the angels wrap their fingers inside their new blankets, soft with cool ripe earth, inside the same black handkerchief that held them above the clouds, which changes nothing yet, allows them to remain, for a moment, in both worlds, in the dream before it melts, in the dream of the blind boy and the girl playing hopscotch, who closes her eyes as she kisses him. Damp. Skin upon skin. And allows them to remember the gendered past and touch what they cannot yet see, which opens the dreams of the angels.
Some of the angels searching in the past put their memories in hotel rooms and wear red clothing in the morning when they eat their oatmeal. They visit the frogs by the wooden bridge and bask in the sun.
The postman stops by but does not linger because he has to deliver the bill for the white roses, already past due. He is a nervous man now and no longer skips stones on the ripples above the trout pool. The old Chevrolet his father wouldn’t let him buy from the neighbor, who may have crashed it to collect the insurance, gathers fishing lures with its rusted frame. It was the only white one for miles, and it’s gone green with moss now. A family of sunfish spawns generation after generation right next to it in the tire that fell from a rusted red pickup.
The pickup was driven by the postman’s first girlfriend, on her way back from a date with the senior from the next town over, just after the break up with the postman. She swerved to avoid Farmer Johnson’s resignation over the loss of his stud-service business to the greater reliability of Olaf’s new bull. Farmer Johnson carried that resignation with him in the rain that night like an oversized bag of onions. His defeat further manifested itself in the sudden motion of his red-flannelled arm jolting out ahead of him as he dove into the river to avoid the red pickup. He felt the tire enter the river with its last dusty breath from beneath the water, as he pulled open the door to the old Chevrolet, not thinking at all about why he was doing it.
The broken window has fallen now, finally, down into the rattling door that held for so long. And the postman still can’t seem to forget the rival that took the girlfriend from him, a man more flamboyant in his youth, a sedate doctor now. And the doctor still remembers far too much about the emotions that played themselves out upon those car seats, with the girlfriend before the one he stole from the postman, and he attaches too much sense of loss to that world as he once imagined it, a world into which he has now delivered hundreds of children on their way to similar emotions.
The doctor thought of those feelings as still there, inside the misplaced car, until Olaf gathered them up, not understanding what he had found, and poked himself back out through the broken window after the door he managed to open had shut behind him, falling back to its old position beneath the water, where his sagging body lodged, torn on the glass and metal. He tried then, while his body did all it could to survive by instinct, to think only about next year’s planting and the new sweet onions he would offer, as his breath rose and left him behind. And then he thought about following the bubbles, much longer than he was able to try to do so, and he began to place them into the bag of onions he had been carrying, as if that dream could save him.
And you are not here because it happened. You are here because you thought about it happening.
Deep in the eyes of that postman’s past rest the addresses of the dream palaces of wheat, in their touch, a seed smuggler’s fear of damp gifts.
Before long, a descended angel can see these people falling away from their bodies, slumping unexpectedly like distressed potato sacks. An angel understands this but remembers it only with the parts of his new body he has begun to know. His body begins bulging here, bulging there with new sensations as these people begin to bulge with the loss of them. Their forgetfulness opens up valleys in the surfaces of their existence. Their modest hopes still flicker like wind-polished ice on a moonlit night in the far dead of winter. It’s a kind of salvation none of them actually hoped for because it’s not really much of a salvation.
After you’ve lost all hope, and no one has come for you, and you feel so alone you could cry just to hear yourself speak, then enters the tiniest of noises, the crack of an ice cube in a glass you forgot on the porch, the glass wrapped in a towel, the towel with your monogram in blue on white terrycloth, the towel given you by the long-gone lover, the towel you held to your head when you fell from the small sky of your heart, the heart you can feel but not yet hear, the heart that has no smell, the heart that you wear on your sleeve now like another skin, the heart that melted there in the terrycloth towel and spread out over the nerves on your face, from the gift of the towel you can feel against your temple, the towel you are too consumed by feeling to see.
When it hails, there are those that take it as a sign from God, but a sign of what? And which God?
The daughter of a fence-mender runs out to play and returns covered with small bruises, happy and alone. Like Thomas. Whose body is still learning to understand him.
Some of these people live on both sides of a winding river that swells when the surprised light returns after the hail passes. If it returns suddenly through a tear in the clouds, their river sparkles.
Once, a photograph of the most prominent residents was planned by the mayor and several prominent citizens; but, every time the breeze stirred, several of them rushed off into the fields to listen more carefully.
Even the clouds seemed to wander off.
These people speak with their eyes. They learned this without intentions, and so they do not know they learned it. They think they have been intimate with words.
If they look at you, try to answer.
If they stare, listen harder.
Do not be frightened if you resemble the dust on the wing of an angel. The angels were not frightened by the moment they resembled the creature in the dream that was you.
Does Thomas know you have been expecting him? Why does this world not know of its own return?
Because an owl left behind a small pile of round leftovers, bones and fur and mouse parts.
Because the moon slipped behind a cloud and returned before anyone noticed.
Because someone’s curly-headed daughter bundled in a cream sweatshirt keeps touching the mole beneath her lip as if she were thinking of kissing and has grown scared.
Because several bats flew so close to the young girl’s head she could feel the breath of their wings, and she still did not scream out.
Because a young boy was lost for a moment when he turned to catch a firefly and forgot which direction he had come from.
Because of four children in a rowboat in the middle of a cornfield. Because the youngest holds her face to the wind in search of clues and the oldest watches the others to remember what it’s like to think dry land will appear before they forget what it’s for.
Because you have untied each knot and lived inside its past before leaving.
Because of a mouse in a white handkerchief. Because each night the young girl grooms her mouse’s mustache.
Because of the ghost of an onion, his tender layered horn.
Because of a too-dark daguerreotype of a young boy’s notorious grandfather under bowed glass in an oval brown rose frame.
Because of children with wings pouring from openings in the ceiling, which may not even have been there at all.
Because if you never create the beginning, it still won’t go away, but you will.
Because each beauty must be built again, so that the old shall become other and invite the past to alter it secretly, the kind of thing we like to think of as having been exactly what it is all along.
Because of a village with a hole in its side where Red used to hide her carrots.
Because lead figures of the village horses are revolving like a carousel, the fog eating away their legs until they begin floating. Because they, too, have wings.
Because the young boy jigged her laughing across the distance between stranger and friend and more, and spoke of his need as if it were hers, and so it was when she answered.
Because the young girl dreamt of marsupials and smelled deeply his sweat, and he thought, Help me, I don’t understand women, except as a slice of pale white bread with drops of blood rusting into its torn center.
Because her knowledgeable body, of course, is tumbling to its source, the mouth of a river opening out to the ocean it belongs to, on the same steps where the young boy was pushed to an immobile future for reasons only he can understand. Because the criminal was life.
Because everything known in that moment is unknown and holding on to itself, even as you steal it.
Because an old man on a porch awoke to darkness after a long nap and thought he was dead.
Because an old woman saw him and could not bear to acknowledge that she had noticed the death.
Even at night, the lake at one end of the river often glistens and shines like a mirror. Moonlight flickers across the smallest of motions. A fat-winged, pencil-bodied insect sips at a tiny green morsel. A nighthawk keeps on watching the difference between one end of the lake and the other. A mote of dust traveling for days finally sets down its diminutive burden, a moment of movement so tentative you convince yourself it was imagined. And as you consider this, that light that doesn’t wait for you begins licking the moonstone cobbles beside the wooden dock, their heads raised and soft with dew.
A brittle reed rasps against another brittle reed, and one of last year’s leaves falls finally from a long thin branch stretching out over the water. A blind child who doesn’t belong here in the late world is launching a makeshift boat to see where the water will take it.
It’s already there, that water.
Must you wonder why that child is not asleep?
Perhaps he is.
And still, we are waiting.
Not for the leaf to touch the shore, but for the shore to touch the leaf.
Rich Ives is the 2009 winner of the Francis Locke Memorial Poetry Award from Bitter Oleander and the 2012 winner of the Creative Nonfiction Prize from Thin Air magazine. The spring 2011 Bitter Oleander contains a feature including an interview and 18 of his hybrid works.