Publish the Word
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Angelus -- Chapter 25


 The Lord gave the word: great was the company of those that published it. Psalms 68:11

                              Chapter 25



The next afternoon, Friday, Ava bought a juicer at the health food store in Sturgeon Bay.  She selected ten pounds of organic carrots, celery and beets, high in iron and B-vitamins, the owner, a woman in her thirties with braided hair told her.  Sonia, who Ava thought had compassionate eyes, also suggested Ava try tropical periwinkle, valerian and ginseng root tea as antioxidants good for her blood.

In an encyclopedia of folk remedies, she found a passage she read aloud to Ava:  as a medicinal plant, researchers at Eli Lilly and Company have found that extracts of tropical periwinkle leaves could prolong the lives of mice with chemically induced leukemia.  This led to the development of two anticancer drugs, registered under the trade names of Velban and Oncovin.  Science is continually proving, Sonia said, what naturopaths have known for years  about the healing power of plants,

Ava received these words as confirmation because she had not mentioned leukemia, only that she wanted to find something beneficial for her blood.  She also bought jars of a synergistic multi-vitamin, echinacea, CO-Q10, and kelp, to stimulate hair growth.  As she was boxing up Ava's purchase, the woman said, at your age I might also take an herbal colonic cleanser every day, something with psyllium and marshmallow root.  So Ava added a box containing 60 packets, a two-month's supply, which the woman promised would have a gentle effect, she knew, because she used it herself.

When Ava returned home and went out to the mailbox, she found a letter from the Mayo Clinic.  Doctor Francesca had written to assure her, in his words, that he and Dr. Immergut were sympathetic to the emotional trauma of cancer.  They understood her reluctance to undergo further chemotherapy.  He advised her that at the very least, she should consider a stem cell transplant within the next 30 days.  Such a procedure, though less effective than anti-leukemic drugs, would be essential.  It would not debilitate her as the chemotherapy would, but at best, would effect a temporary defense against myelogenous cell growth, not the complete remission possible with intensive treatment.  And let me reiterate, he wrote, that whatever you and your family decide, our philosophy remains that of our founder, Dr. William J. Mayo:  "The best interest of the patient is the only interest to be considered."

David stayed home through the weekend, but he remained distant, his eyes glazed and wandering off past her distracted when she began to narrate what she'd read in brochures from the health food store.  She told him about bioflavonoids and free-radicals, the wonder of bee pollen, about macrominerals and electrolytes and detoxifying the colon.

My colon's just fine, he said, staring at her as he realized what she had been reading aloud to him.  He muted the television as if to contemplate the look on her face.  I think I'd trust the doctors before some pill-pushers, he said.

You weren't listening, were you?

Are you going to quiz me?  he asked, his sarcasm derailing any further conversation.

Ava went into her bedroom, but left the door open, allowing her room to fill with stray sounds: the staticy wisp of the television, David opening and shutting cupboards, pulsings and tickings from the pipes and wires inside the walls, a rustling beyond the window, perhaps the white noise of the universe shutting down.

She sat propped up in bed, drawing in warmth from her electric blanket.  She thought about Dr. Francesca's letter.  It was polite, but condescending.  It was cautionary, of course, but its undertone the same as David's voice, the same contempt for her, her failure to comprehend, her simple failure.  Period.  She may as well have been a cow, an aging Guernsey with dry udders.  Cows were stupid animals, prodded and told what to do.  Cows had no need to understand anything.  This was, after all, Wisconsin, America's dairyland where cows knew their place.  They stayed in line and took their injections and chemotherapy like the obedient cows they were.


The next several days she painted with a fury, transforming the stretched canvas from empty polar fields to tropical landscapes dripping with vibrant blasts of color: hibiscus, plumeria, toucans, pink and turquoise and viridian skies and seas and clouds and bougainvillea like a profusion of red, throbbing hearts.  And children, yes, a boy Udo and a girl Ava, children in her paintings.  She had always struggled with people in her work, never satisfied at how she depicted them, usually flat and anemic caricatures.  But now the images were springing vivid and effortless from her mind -- Udo leaping from the balcony, she scrambling up into a macadamia tree, both of them somersaulting across a lawn of such brilliance she could almost smell and feel and taste the grass trembling under her brush.

As she paused to examine one canvas, she felt if she stepped forward she could transcend the physics of light and dimensionality and critical mass.  She could step into her childhood, swept in a burst of electrochemical energy flowing from her brain into the Mbaracayu Forest of ancient Paraguay, of lapacho and date palms and cedrela, the hyacinth pools and lilac pathways, the infinite blue of her sky.  Maybe Euclidean space was not the only reality, she thought.  Maybe the angel could tell her that infinite possible worlds existed beyond this one.

She painted until late each evening, euphoric when she surveyed her output.  Her back ached and her hands reeked of solvent, and she wore the same faded overalls and paint-flecked slippers five days straight.  Throughout the morning she sipped from a 48 ounce vegetable cocktail she juiced fresh after a breakfast of bran muffins and fruit.  She nibble carrot and celery spears in the afternoon and as ten or eleven each night after showering, she would put on a CD of Mozart of Handel's Messiah and crank up the volume until the house vibrated.  She would have loved a recording of Udo's music and promised to ask him when she next wrote.

At the end of two weeks she had finished twelve paintings, more than she normally completed in a year.  Several were three by four feet.  Each glowed as if backlit, in her opinion, with an intensity of color she had lavished on as thick as peanut butter, so unlike her.  Some of the paint she scalloped with her palette knife, also a technique she had never attempted with such boldness before.  But her paintings were harmonious, she thought, filled with resonant activity and velvety shadows and crisp, tropical light.  And people.  Yes, in one her father waded in his carp pool, knee deep in sepia water and in another, her mother hunched over her treadle machine sewing with golden strands of light. 

She painted her parents and she and Udo dining in the courtyard, being served by a woman who looked like Carmela, an impossibility except in perfect world.  In another painting she paraded in a lacy party dress -- her fifth birthday which came back to her in exacting detail, while Udo slouched at the piano, both of them encased in aureolin light.  Udo seemed forever seven or eight in her paintings, often suspended aloft between branches and earth as if longing to be airborne, her reckless and defiant brother.  She couldn't capture her memories fast enough.

By the third week she felt as she entered the studio each morning that she was stepping into a trance, an auto-hypnotic state which became more real than the world outside.  The quality of muffled light made her room seem underwater.  The call of the orioles then the response of the warblers and mourning doves in aspens along the pathways seemed to announce she was blurring from the present into an imaginative nether-realm.  And the moment she stood before her canvas and dabbed her sable brush into the awakening oils of her palette, the past became fluid as it washed through her and flowed into the scenes which rose upward from the opaque shallows into three dimensionality.  Never before had she experienced such a dislocation in consciousness, almost of simultaneity, of being here and there, of stepping into her scenes.  She heard the sounds, the birds, Udo, her father singing, her mother's laughter.  She felt the same sensations, the very same and with such indescribable joy.

By the third week she also began to notice she was losing weight.  The first morning she decided not to wear her painter's overalls or nylon jogging suit with the elastic waistband, she selected a pair of faded jeans she had not worn in years.  As she sat on the Victorian fainting couch in her bedroom and pulled up the jeans, her initial reaction was perhaps they were David's.  They flopped at her hips, too baggy to have belonged to her.  She studied herself in the wall mirror as she puckered the jeans at her midsection and was shocked at how thin she had become.  Her diet was mostly organic fruits and vegetables, juices and distilled water, her vitamin supplements, whole grain, an occasional dish of pasta with marinara sauce, herbal teas before bed, nothing dead or devitalized.  She felt wonderfully energetic and slim with a dancer's suppleness, a girl's body she had not worn since she was 12 or 13.  But her coloring was a bit ashen, a sky grey hue as before storms, but not the deathly confinement grey of hospitals and cancer wards.  She was lean, but not fragile.  She was glad to have shed the flab.

Her students had been unable to come the past month because of a strep outbreak which had swept through the public schools and kept them home for two weeks.  On another Saturday they had driven down to Fon duLac to attend a speech tournament.  David still materialized on Saturday or Sunday as if for his mandatory conjugal visit, though he remained detached from her life unless they decided to phone Julie together.  At such times the illusion of Mom and Dad seemed to satisfy their daughter.  But on the third weekend after Ava had renounced more chemo and had decided to purse natural healing, David laid aside his pizza which had just been delivered to their home and said, my God, Ava, how much weight have you lost?  Are you still on that rabbit food diet?

I feel better than I've felt in years, she replied.

But you look emaciated.  Your cheeks are sunken and you've got dark circles around your eyes.  Do you feel all right?

You really know how to charm a woman, she said.

I think you should call the doctors.

I will if I feel it's necessary.

And when will that be? he asked.  When you can't get out of bed?  He stared at her over his steaming pizza, across the thousand miles of emotional void between them.  At last he asked softly, are you anoretic?  Is that why you're starving yourself?

She sighed and turned away, back to the book she was reading, Hitler's Willing Executioners, about the complicity of the German people during the Jewish exterminations.  The book depressed her even more, however, so she closed and slid it under her chair, then took a piece of cheese with Canadian bacon pizza and tore off a chunk with her teeth for David's benefit. 

See?  I'm eating real food.  I'm not anoretic.  And if I fast for a day or two, it's to cleanse my body of accumulated poisons, a build-up which leads to toxemia, then illness and disease.  Believe me, she said, suddenly wrestling with the rage with seized her voice, it's preferable to the drugs our wondrous oncologists want to pump into me.

David frowned at her and then clicked her silent and invisible with his remote control.  He stared at the television like a zombie and began to flip through the channels, pausing five seconds and then flipping, pausing and flipping until she got up, incensed and went into the kitchen to be by herself.

She stood at the sliding deck door.  Gone were the nightbugs which used to swarm the yardlight.  Gone too were most of the leaves, scattered about the ground like the mittens of small children.  Canadian geese were flocking south, and in a couple days, October would be gone as well.  Then the cold fronts would beset them and soon the first sleet or snow to herald winter.  She searched past the thermal glass to identify the vague forms of fallen stalks along the gravel pathway which disappeared upward into darkness twenty paces beyond the patchy light spread like oleo upon her geranium bed and lawn.  And she wondered if she did resent David coming home, his intrusion into her peaceable kingdom?  What if she were free of him, a small, plaintive voice asked inside her.  Free.  For once and forever.

The next morning she received a Hallmark birthday card from Julie and a card from her insurance company with birthday wishes and a reminder to reassess her whole life policy.  But David left early, before she arose, and when he returned that evening, she didn't remind him what day it was, or if he remembered, he said nothing.


Daybook, October 26 

I and you, once we,

have fallen from each other's arms,

have drifted, aft and lee, you and me,

apart.  There you all business,

here me all art, we, gone

our separate ways, unlike the start

when we were one.

Too much unspoken, left undone,

too many days grown into years,

too many open wounds that stay.

I am day, you say, a simple light,

and you the night, gone out

of mind and sight and with other me's,

until I wonder if the fractured we

will cease to be.  Please, please,

please oh please stop. 

Halloween arrived the following Wednesday as a cool mist slickened the streets.  Ava expected the weather to deter trick-or-treaters from trudging up the steep incline of their driveway, but children rang her bell all evening.  They ebbed out of darkness as witches and ninjas, clowns in smeared greasepaint, as superheroes and hobgoblins in gruesome latex.  One timid princess nudged by her mother to say thank you stood before Ava paralyzed and speechless.  Small groups of marauding children awaited her gasps and mock surprise with their outstretched hands and open bags.  For Ava, it was a holiday fraught with ambivalent memories.  Julie had crisscrossed the dark lawns with glee as she filled her bag with miniature confections, but her own mother, when Ava was a girl, had instilled a vague fear about the night which never left her.  She couldn't recall exactly why, other than their living in the country meant her mother would have to drive her into town and through unfamiliar neighborhoods in quest of treats.

She prepared an enormous bowl of Snickers and Milky Ways and Hershey bars that she set near the door and it seemed she was no sooner settled before the television then a new group of ghouls would summon her.  Midway through the evening she began to sample the bite-sized candy, like chocolate lozenges she let dissolve in her mouth.  She ate more than she should.

And at 3 a.m. she sat up in bed feeling nauseous and drugged.  She wobbled into the bathroom and bent over to steady herself, her stomach churning, its contents about to erupt.  When she began to perspire and shiver and feel faint she lowered herself to the cold tile.  A sugar reaction, she thought, like insulin shock, though she wasn't diabetic.  But she had OD'D on Halloween candy and now she was paying for her sins, on her knees and about to be sick.  She prayed for David to be there.

She scrunched her knees to her chest and laid her head forward, onto her arms.  A dull ache behind her eyes seemed magnified by the nightlight's dim glow.  She closed her eyes and tried to swallow down what was upwelling from her stomach.  She gagged and then began to vomit, again and again, her body shuddering as it expelled the semi-digested, dark chunks.  She tried to unhitch her mind, but whatever was writhing inside wouldn't release her yet from the agonizing pain.  She felt turned inside out.  Her throat flamed and the sour taste of bile filled her mouth and nose.  Wave after wave broke over and compressed her into each excruciating moment that began again and again deep inside her.

Gradually she began to exhaust whatever amorphous liquid was bubbling up until only the sensation remained, an urge to expel what was no longer there.  She was afraid of bursting a vessel in her neck or temple, but still she gripped the smooth porcelain and flung her body forward and down towards the pool of blue water, more wretched, she thought, than she had ever felt and shocked at the brutality her body was capable of self-inflicting.

After one turbulent spasm she was certain she blacked out, several moments of dazed and blank chaos.  She was shaking, her arms and legs tingly with needle pricks, her feet icy, though her face felt inflamed and she was sweating from her exertions.  Her hands felt numb and this frightened her.  She crawled to the phone on her bedside table and dialed 911.

The phone rang, then clicked into silence, then clicked again as the automatic switching mechanism transferred her call to a woman who answered and said, Door County 911.

I'm sick, Ava said, gasping air as she swallowed back the sound of another Ava's voice,  desperate and panicked.  She managed to give her address and added she was a cancer patient, as if the responders would give her highest priority now that they knew.  She said it and wondered why she had said it because this sickness was her own fault, all those tiny bars of  cocoa and corn syrup and diglycerides like amphetamines for kids.  She had restricted her own children to one or two a day and now here she was wallowing in the aftermath of ten or twelve, perhaps more if she kept track during her long night of visitations.

A county deputy arrived within ten minutes.  He appeared in her doorway, called Mrs. Hall? into the dim room, fumbled for the light switch, all at once flooding her with blindness.  She felt his hand at her cheek, fingers on the pulse in her wrist.  She smelled his cologne, a faint spice.  Soon others invaded her home, a woman kneeling next to her, a man lifting her gently , his voice soothing in her ear while a police radio sputtered somewhere beside her.  She opened her eyes for an instant but her optic nerves felt singed so she clamped her lids down and shut out everything.  She existed in her ears and then as from a distance: rustlings beside her, a blood pressure cuff squeezing her arm, indistinct, calm voices, movement all about her, the nausea now abated, a young man saying her name over and over again as she realized she was travelling under fathoms of dark air, travelling  fast, at the speed of sound inside a vehicle with no sirens or lights, only a male voice that was unfamiliar but reassuring.

When they arrived at Door County Memorial Hospital in Sturgeon Bay, she began to regain awareness.  She felt enervated, a throbbing in her head, her abdominal muscles aching.  She couldn't get rid of the bitter taste.  She blinked into the watery glare of the ceiling lights and turned her head away, toward the medical attendant.

Do I have permission to draw a blood sample? the woman asked as she leaned toward Ava.  Is there someone we can phone?  Do you have a husband?

I can't think of his number, she said.  He's in Bailey's Harbor.

What's his name? the woman asked.  She slid a digital thermometer into Ava's mouth.  Ava tried to arrange her thoughts coherently.  She tried to envision David jerking awake as the phone shrieked in his dark room.  The woman removed the thermometer.  She said again, what is your husband's name?

David.  But don't call him yet, she told the woman.  Something stung her left forearm.  Relax, Mrs. Hall, she heard.  The doctor is on his way, she heard.  She heard and then she didn't.

She drifted downward and seemed to float as if tethered to an orange parachute, a blindingly bright dome above her, a hot air balloon perhaps, tangerine gold, billowing above her like acres of orange sky, a fabric sky and an orange sun and winged creatures that hovered above her, not birds, but maybe Halloween stragglers, she thought, the last of the children in search of candy, swooping about her.  She could hear the swish of their wings.

Later that morning David told her what the doctor had told him.  Her platelet count was almost nonexistent and her spleen was enlarged, hypersplenism, he said, the result of reduced red blood cell production.  They had stabilized her with a transfusion, but unless she received clinical care, her anemia would worsen, she would suffer bleeding, infections and liver damage.

And other good news? she said.

Why didn't you tell me you had leukemia? he asked, his face pained.  Why are you doing this?  To punish me?

No, she said, thinking yes yes yes, but lying was easier than truth-telling when one was flat on a hospital bed in a state of utter supplication.  Say anything, she thought, to avoid his anger.  Say anything at all.

David drove her home that afternoon, his hands like boxer's fists the way he gripped the steering wheel, his voice as cool as menthol.  She pretended to doze.  An intermittent wind off the bay peppered his new Lincoln with sleet which froze on the window.  Background nose from the radio filled the car with aural fog, something about investing mutual funds, a phone-in program she tried to shut out.  Halfway to Egg Harbor he asked if she were hungry, but after she said no, they drove without speaking.  She felt bruised.  Her neck and back ached, a deep-in-the-bone ache.

At home he brought her a cup of minestrone soup she sipped in bed, pressed against her heating pad.  You need anything else? he asked.  I'm going to lie down on the sofa.

Thank you, she said.  Go lie down.  I'm fine.

The transfusion had restored her lucidity even if the ordeal had wrung her limp.  How submissive we are to pain, she thought.  We kneel and plead and promise never again.  We prostrate our bodies.  We offer our blood and receive the blood of others.  We suffer inside our bones.  We are betrayed and yet we go on.

She could hear the television droning late into the night.  Its smothered, faraway sound and cadence made her think of monks in brown robes chanting softly for the sins of the world.

When she awoke the next morning, several inches of snow covered the outer world with forgiveness and purity, an intensified luster of blue shadows under flocked trees.  She sat on the edge of her bed and watched wrens burrow into white loaves atop her bird feeders.  The first snow, she thought, a day of gentle disposition.  Of vast stillness, unbroken for miles.

A squirrel appeared -- an interloper who scattered the plump wrens despite a fussing of squatters' rights amidst feathered protest.  He (how did she presume his sex? she wondered) flopped the snow aside to reveal the seed tray, then balanced on his hindquarters, ate his spoils in rapid nibble and surveillance, a bully and arrogant too, she thought, by his posture and incessant chatter.  He had traversed the over-arching branches and returned by the same route, the ground below smooth and untrammeled.

She heard David scraping clear the driveway, and then a car laboring up the slick hill, winter sounds too premature for early November.  She hated early snows, how overnight they'd sweep down from Canada and gather moisture from the lake and then blindside them, erasing roads, freezing windows and doors, paralyzing everyone with little warning.  Now she's have to pray her uncovered plants would survive.  She would need to stock the pantry and winterize her car and assess their preparations for a long and merciless siege.

I can fix you breakfast, David said, dripping in the doorway.

No, thank you.  Let me scramble some eggs and hashbrowns, she said.  I feel back to normal today.  I even have an appetite.  She combed flat her unruly hair, then pulled on her terrycloth robe.  She felt the need to stand in the drizzle of a warm shower and lather her soreness and massage her creaking limbs as best she could.

David left for the office at ten.  He promised he would be home early if the highways were too ice-packed, otherwise he might run over to see how the weather was affecting the roofers.  Because he was spending sixty grand for his galvanized steel and asphalt roof, he told her, he didn't need any costly delays and definitely not until exterior construction was finished.

Relieved to be alone, she turned up her Brandenberg Concerto and opened all the shades to a blinding snowlight, snow sprayed over bushes, drifted along the sidewalk, the trees cloaked, snow that overnight had bleached the world and left such dazzling purity.  She considered slogging up to her studio but she lack the motivation.  She curled into an afghan on the sofa and let the music snow and storm about her.

When she awoke later, her eyes slow to fill with the sideways room in the muted glow of afternoon, she saw the angel.  She sat upright and said Oh! startled, but not fearful.

I'm sorry, he said, turning away from the window to face her.  I don't mean to be so unannounced.

Her breathing became ragged and she clasped her chest with her hands to calm herself.  She saw him as real as herself.  She beheld him, as improbable as that seemed to her.  As inconceivable.  Utterly inconceivable.  She would have shattered if not for his voice.

I should ring a bell, he said, but you were sleeping.  He paused, as if to gather in the quiet light and to allow her heart to re-engage.  She saw him outlined in windowlight.  He wore the same white slacks, as white as the snow frosted to the window.  His shirt was silvery, laced across his chest.  No radiant aura today, just the room's diffuse light.  My sudden appearance is jarring, I know, he said.  Please, relax and don't be afraid.

I'm not, she said, startled to hear her voice.

Good, he said nodding, his smile reassuring, his eyes reassuring, too.  His eyes.  How would she describe them?  Beatific?  Yes.  Finally she knew what the word meant.