Publish the Word
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Angelus -- Chapter 26

 

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

                              Chapter 26

 

 

In her perfectly mundane living room, Ava Hall watched the angel settle onto the overstuffed love seat across from her.  His face seemed so serene she couldn't look away and continued to stare impolitely.  She stared at his graceful hands, at the opalescent sheen of his shirt, at his hair, a copperish-brown.

You don't have wings, she said.

No, he replied.  Did she detect the flicker of a half-smile at his mouth?  No wings, he said.  Wings can be cumbersome.

She stared, incredulous, and wanted to etch every detail into memory.  The word enrapture rose in her thoughts, and other words for which she could find no expression, prismatic, for the light pouring in the window, and silence, the word encompassing them, and tranquility, his eyes were filling her.  She felt saturated and attuned and etherial and warm as if her body had shed its heavy flesh.  He was gazing into her inner soul -- that's how she felt.

I'm not afraid, she said, but I'm -- .  No word could rescue her.

Perplexed? he asked.

Yes.  Part of me says you're here, you're real, but--

She stared at him, unblinking and absorbed, his barely perceptible nod, the slight shift of his shoulders, his mouth opening to speak.  He said, if you can step outside human logic for one instant. . .  He snapped his fingers lightly.  . . . for one flash of time, you'll understand a simple truth about yourself.  And about me.

His words seemed to ignite something inside her.  I don't know how I know this, she said, but I feel like I've known you all my life. 

He nodded.  Since you were an infinitesimally small zygote fifty-five years ago, the union of two cells with the infinite.  He interlocked his hands as if to demonstrate.  You are at the very edge of knowing, he said.

Of knowing what?

More than you can imagine, he said.

But why me?  she asked.  And who are you?  How do you travel about and become visible?  What's going on?

He glanced toward the window where snow was falling again like chips of light.  When he looked back at her, she felt almost like he were emanating compassion, so much calm flooded her mind.  He said, you dwell in a physical universe of quantum matter, of space and time, as you conceive it.  But as we exist in this room, you and I at this moment, in the earth's gravitational field, which is electromagnetic energy -- radio waves are passing through here and television transmissions, ultraviolet, and infrared and cosmic waves, a multitude of invisible radiations.  All of this energy in flux co-exists, interpenetrating the same space.  Einstein and others have come to a limited understanding.

I'm not good with science, Ava said.

Think of your body as a universe, the angel said.  You appear solid with a structural density and a complexity of perpetual motion systems -- your circulation, your respiration.  But in essence, you are energy bound within a biochemical field.  The smallest atoms in your body are more than 99.9 percent empty space.  He paused for a moment and then went on.  These atoms consist of energy in vibratory patterns within a field of matter -- a unique field of humanness you recognize in the mirror as you, Ava Hall.  Now think of yourself as a universe, encompassing all the stars and planets you can see, the night sky filled with light, the product of energy in motion.  You are one universe, the Ava Hall universe, amidst innumerable universes.  And I am a photon, a particle of light energy passing through your universe of space and time.  Does that make sense?

But you're solid, she said.  You have a body.

He gazed directly at her, unwavering.  I am like your breath in winter, he said, pointing to the window and the snow beyond.  I am that which is -- made visible for a brief moment.

That which is?

Yes, he said.

She repeated the words to herself as if they might yield some meaning.  That which is,made visible.  What did he mean?  Was it a Zen riddle, beyond her comprehension?  She had already lost him way back somewhere in the Ava Hall universe.  Are you saying, she asked at last, that you live in some parallel dimension?

This physical and the spiritual co-exist, he said, braiding his fingers.  Here and now they co-exist.  Yes, I can be here and not here, even if that seems a contradiction of logic.  But you wonder, why am I now made visible?

Yes, why? she asked.

This journey you have been travelling for fifty-five years will soon require more comfort and knowledge.  Think of Beatrice guiding Dante -- you know that story.

The Divine Comedy, she said.  I've seen the illustrations.

Yes, he said smiling, his eyes closing momentarily. 


She heard the grandfather clock behind her, the wound-up heart beating inside its polished case.  She heard her breath escaping its cage.  She waited for him to continue, herself vacant of words.  She stared even as part of her insisted she was still asleep, a character inside a snow globe on someone's desk waiting to be upended and animated.  She saw snow past the window, snow falling upwards, she thought, like photons adrift in a starfield.  He opened his eyes and said, I'm here to comfort you.  I know about your sorrows.

What sorrows? she asked, but it was a moot question.  She could give him a grocery list of accumulated hurts.

The sorrows others have inflicted upon you, especially those you love.  Sometimes they sing like a choir inside you, the angel said, leaning forward.  So much pain.  He held his palms open as if he were about to receive something, no, she knew intuitively -- he was praying.  He said, your soul is torn.  You never healed from the loss of your son.

I can't forgive myself, she said.  Neither can David.

Come, he said, rising.  Come to the window.

He reached and took her hand and glided her forward.  She felt something flame up her arm -- again, she could find no word, her hand tingling in his, substantial, tangible, real.  They stood at the Cape Cod window so close she brushed against him though she lost the courage to look at his face.  Instead she gazed as the snow which fell like all the words ever spoken, white and glorious and so inexhaustible and soundless except to those who could hear.  If she were out in it and listened, she might even hear each flake as it melted upon her skin.

The snow looks like a lake, he said.

And it was the lake.


She saw the dock, the cluster of aluminum boats, haze evaporating above the placid water.  She saw azure sky breaking through.  The horizon of green trees.  She saw Jeffrey reaching down to grasp a handful of the lake.  He knelt on the dock.  He bent forward.  She saw the horizon tilt.  She saw the instant.  It was as if she saw time open to swallow him.  My God, she screamed, her hands frozen in dishwater, her heart in arrest, the sound of Julie behind her in the yellow plastic playpen.  My God, she said again, rushing for the screen door as he fell.  She felt her hand push the wood frame as he fell.  She felt, as he fell, rough gravel under bare feet.  As he fell she heard her scream in her head.  She heard him splash in her eyes.  She saw the lake enfold him.  Spilled sun on wooden slats.  Slats of grey water.  Boats rocking in their slips.  Panic like a wind in her throat.  She saw him thrash.  Saw him vanish through the mirror.  Saw herself kneel above the spot.  Four feet of air to twelve feet of water.  And she not a swimmer.

For years afterwards she was wracked with guilt.  Why did her mother never insist she learn how to swim?  Why had the resort not fixed the latch on their door?  Why, she wailed as she beat on David's chest with her futile hands, had he not warned their four year old about deep water, about unsupervised docks and the permanency of death?  Why could she not will him back above the surface?  She, frantic in her mind, could only kneel and not pray, kneel and shout his name and began to wail and grasp her hair and wish she was dead and not her little boy.

But now as she knelt on the dock, she sensed his presence next to her.  And she saw.  Her eyes burst open and she saw him step onto the water.  He reached down into green moss.  She saw him clasp the gleaming hand, so small and pale.  She saw the angel lift Jeffrey upwards,.  She felt flushed and confused but then she knew.  Her son was as luminous as the angel and now free of the inert body.  He was rising weightless above the water of his own volition, his hand in the angel's hand and both of them gazing upon her with tender eyes, Jeffrey's face not startled as hers must have been, but his eyes full of love for her, lingering a moment as something indescribable passed between them and seared her with joy.  She felt immersed in the bright air.  She felt absolved.


As they rose upward, she felt contained in her son's eyes, no longer earthbound.  Jeffrey's body began to change, shimmering and morphing -- she saw but could not explain even to herself when she recalled afterwards this moment, yes, the very moment she had been blind to for twenty years.  He was no longer four, but six, then seven, eight, a teenager, his body and face now a young man's, maturing as she watched him rise.  They drifted higher through the gauzy, dissipating fog until sun glazed her eyes.

She stood silent and alone, watching snow drift down or up, she couldn't tell.  It fell on all she saw, the garden path, her rose bushes and trellis, the street, her neighbor's homes, the world beyond, not much left to see.

Ava pressed against the window, left her hand in frost.  She thought of Jeffrey without aching.  She thought of the angel, not having noticed him release her hand and leave.  She stood watching the snow, her breath fogging the glass.  And then she began to cry.

 

She lay in bed for two days, depleted of energy and able only to drag herself into the bathroom or nibble at the raisin muffins David set on the bedside table next to cups of green tea.  She was adamant she would not return to the hospital.  She felt fine, she insisted, just exhausted.

If you're not up tomorrow, I'll call the doctor, he said, his shadow across her hands and arms.

If I'm not up tomorrow, she replied, I'll call the doctor myself.

On the third morning as she awakened into iridescent light she saw the angel sitting on her love seat.  She struggled up from the blankets and balanced on her elbow.  You're here, she said, overstating the obvious.


Take this, he said extending his hand.  He offered her what appeared to be a cotton ball.  She took and popped it into her mouth -- she was supposed to eat it, wasn't she? she thought.  She didn't examine or sniff it, but whatever it was, she felt an immediate fizz as it dissolved.  Sweet with a honey aftertaste, she thought.

It's manna, he said.  Remember Moses in the desert?

Manna, she repeated, at once exhilarated, her body lighter than air.  She swung her legs to the floor.  What a strange sensation, she said.

He raised his finger to shush her, his gaze shifting to the distance.  He seemed to be listening to something.  I must leave, he said, abruptly on his feet.  I won't vanish, he told her.  I know it's disconcerting. 

He strode across the room, slid open the patio door and stepped out of her sight.

She pulled the comforter about her as she went to close the door.  She saw his footprints in deep snow.  She counted five steps, each several feet apart.  Midway across the yard they ended.  Snow to the woods twenty yards farther on was untouched.

As David showered and dressed an hour later, Ava resisted the urge to point out the footprints which had begun to fill with snow.  What would she say?  Her guardian angel made them?  He would be on the phone to her doctor within five minutes.

Shortly after David left, a delivery van brought her a floral arrangement of multi-hued chrysanthemums, daises and baby's breath in crinkled tissue paper.  The accompanying card was from her husband.  Sorry these birthday flowers are belated, he had written.  I know I've been preoccupied, but I'll make it up.  Love, David.

So like him to be a week late, she thought, then apologize and make promises he would never fulfill.  And to have the florist drop them off.  One sent flowers for a retirement or when someone died.  Let's send flowers.  It's the impersonal thought that counts.  He wrote, I'll make it up.  He would need a second lifetime to make it up.  David preoccupied?


            She stopped herself.  She would not surrender to cynicism, not like him and not with so much to think about.  Not after what she had tasted and had seen with her eyes.  She had paintings to finish, a whole new series.  She felt rejuvenated and she wondered if the manna had awakened her from lethargy or her new resolve was because she felt healed.  Perhaps she no longer felt engulfed by emotion.  She could view Jeffrey's drowning with dispassion.  And now she could let him go.

After scrambled eggs, toast and tea, she shoveled a path up to her studio.  She had left a window cracked and the wind had pushed it wider open.  Snow had blown in and covered her shelves, counter and flat table, a dusting that had not melted.  She clicked on the furnace and swept snow into her papermaking sink.  Then for the next hour she worked in her coat and calfskin gloves, the paint congealing on her palette as she squeezed it from stiff tubes.

How did one paint an angel?  In her summer glade, the first time, he had seemed more dreamlike than real.  But now as he began to reveal more of himself, she was becoming obsessive.  Thoughts of him dominated her waking consciousness.  She could still see the faint hollows of his footsteps.  She thought about the manna.  She thought of his hand guiding her to the window.  Where had he been all these years, watching her?  Beside her?  Was he in the studio now?  She stopped herself from asking aloud if he was here.

The snow tapered off, but the weather channel had predicted another six to ten inches before the storm sagged south and east across Lake Michigan.


A new tropical scene began to materialize under her strokes.  She and Udo as children in their hideaway were eating a picnic lunch.  They sat on a red gingham cloth.  The surrounding trees were full of birds.  Her perspective was ground level to emphasize the towering acacias and butterplums whose indigo fruit hung like gems above their heads.  They were near the river.  She could smell it in her memory.  Udo was inventing a pirate story, Pizzaro and the lost Inca gold, she could hear his voice and her enthralled response.  They were eating boiled goose eggs and Guarani fry bread.  And above them with arms spread and semi-lucent against the emerald green forest was an angel, her glimmering angel.

He had always been with her, silent and unseen and watching from whatever crack in the universe allowed him to be invisible.  A day earlier when she was hovering between sleep and waking, a thought had occurred to her, a troubled thought she had been unable to dismiss.  If the angel had protected her all these years, why had he not saved her son?  Was Jeffrey destined to die so young?  All logic crumbled when she contemplated her child's death.  She would ask him if he came again.   And she had other questions to ask him, too.

She painted all week, six new canvases, more invigorated than she had felt in years.  She crawled into bed at midnight but was up wide-awake at six, grinding coffee and anxious for the sun.  She was percolating with images awaiting release.  She was painting like VanGogh at Arles.  David drove to Bailey's Harbor each morning and didn't return until after dark, but on Friday she found him in the kitchen eating pretzels at noon when she came in to replenish her tea pot.

What are you doing home?

It's Friday -- I told everybody to knock off early.  He got up from his stool and went to the refrigerator and took out a diet soda.  Your health seems improved, he said.  Your skin is not as washed out.

I am better, she replied.  I've had a productive week.  You should come up to the studio and see what I've done.

I will later, he said.  I have to make some phone calls.


He didn't come up, nor did she really believe he would.  She painted until the overcast sky and its fading, pewter light made the studio seem gloomy.  Then she went into the house and began to wash lettuce in the kitchen.  As she prepared to sit down to her vegetable salad, Julie entered through the garage door.  What are you doing home? Ava asked.  Thanksgiving break is three weeks away.

Julie hugged her mother and stepped back to appraise her.  You don't look so bad.  Dad said you were in the hospital with leukemia.  He said all you did was sleep.

When did he say that?

Julie removed her coat and hung it on the pantry door hook.  She shook back her hair then rubbed her cheeks with both hands.  My heater went out, she said.

Ava asked, when did you talk to your father?

I called last week, she said.  To remind him about your birthday which he forgot.

He never mentioned you called, Ava said.

You were in bed asleep, he said.  He didn't want to disturb you.  He said you were sick and that an ambulance had to take you to the hospital.  I was going to come home then, but he told me not to.  You have lost weight.

I'll take that as a compliment, Ava said.  Are you staying for the weekend?

Unless I get snowed in, Julie said, pausing.  After a few moments she added, he suggested I come home.  He said we should have a family meeting.

Oh, really?  About what?  But she knew the answer even as she spoke.  Even as Julie hesitated and stared down at her hands, Ava knew why David had requested their daughter to navigate three hours of icy, snow-packed roads to come home.


After a family meal of salad, garlic bread and spaghetti with a lightly spiced tomato sauce -- the first family meal Ava could recall since the last holiday, was it Easter or New Year's?, the three of them were almost festive and conversing with civility.  Ava herself raised the subject.  Please don't interrupt until I finish, she said.  I appreciate your concern.  I know you want me well.  I want that too.  But I won't subject myself to chemotherapy again.  I know you think I should.  Most people would do exactly what the doctors recommend.  But I don't have that kind of trust anymore.  Not after what I went through.  My cancer was localized and treatable.  I did what they told me.  I obeyed and took their drugs because I trusted them.  And now my whole body is full of cancer.  What went wrong?  I did my part.  And I know my relapse last week was my own fault, too much sugar and chocolate.  But I'm better now.  I'm optimistic.  From what I've read, alternative medicine makes perfect sense.  My body has a better chance to heal itself with proper nutrients and pure water and rest and exercise and a positive mental attitude.  Even Hippocrates said to let your food be your medicine and your medicine your food.  You can't imagine how chemo makes you want to die.  I won't go through that again.

We want you well, David said.  He pushed his plate to the side and smoothed the table cloth.  He laid his hands flat as if he were about to begin a seance.  He was careful to articulate each word as he said, we agree about the horrors of chemo.  If there were a better way, we would be the first to say try it.  He paused and when he continued, Ava realized he was speaking in someone else's voice, a voice intentionally casual to hide its fraudulence.  I called the Mayo yesterday--

Ava interrupted him.  You should have asked my permission.


With due respect, David said, I don't need your permission.  You're my wife.  I worry about you, whether you think I do or not.  Well, I do.  I spoke to Dr. Francesca.  I told him about your juice routine, your vegetables and green tea.  He said that's fine.  He understands your rationale.  But when I told him about your trip to the emergency room, he said we can expect more episodes like that and with greater frequency.  He said ten gallons of carrot juice a day won't stop Leukemia.  He said without clinical treatment you'll live three months, six if you're lucky.  You're statistically terminal, he said.

I know what he says, but doctors can be wrong.

My God, Ava, he's the best in the world, David said emphatically.  He deals with this every day.  Think about what you're doing.

We'll help you through it, Julie said, her eyes glistening.  We don't want to lose you.

I don't want to lose me either, Ava replied.

You can't let this go untreated, David said.  You may feel fine now.  He said it's not uncommon to have periods of well-being.  But it's an insidious disease.  The cancer cells are programmed to reproduce and consume every healthy cell until you die.  Ava, please be rational. You're relatively young.  With treatment and remission you could have twenty or thirty years.  Don't you. want to live to see our grandchildren?

Ava's throat had begun to tighten.  She was losing her resolve, the fierce determination she had erected around herself when she realized the intent of Julie's homecoming.  She didn't want to stand against the two of them.  And she didn't want to break down now, not start blubbering and give in and go back and let them poison her for her own good.  It's my body, she said.

That's a selfish attitude, David said.

Mom, I know this is difficult, Julie began, her hand suddenly on top Ava's.

You're making it more difficult, Ava said.  She was sniffling now, the rain clouds massing behind her eyes, releasing their first sprinkles.  She fought to contain whatever David and Julie were arousing inside her.  Was it pathos, all this sad, tear-jerking script they were reciting?  Why was pleasing them and preserving her own dignity so impossible?  Why didn't they understand?  Why wouldn't they, just for once in her life, let her decide?

No man is an island, David said.

I'm a woman, for your information, Ava snapped back at him, immediately overcome with remorse and then release.  I'm sorry, she said.  The rain fell unabated, wetting her hands, warm upon her cheeks, an isolated shower, riffling through her.  Julie handed her a clean napkin.

Mom? Julie asked.

Just a minute, please, Ava said.  She was waging her own effort to calm herself, to remain inviolable.  She dabbed her eyes, then blew her nose into the napkin and balled it into her palm.  I'm willing to compromise, she said.  You allow me to do what I'm doing until I get worse -- if I get worse.  I'm scheduled for a blood test on Monday.  We'll go one day at a time.  She paused to examine her daughter's face, then her husband's.  Julie was biting her lower lip and listening intently.  David was drumming his fingers, his face impassive.  Ava said, if I don't give my body's immune system a chance to heal itself, we'll never know, will we?  And I promise, if I don't improve, then we'll discuss more chemo.  She stopped again, surprised that no one rushed in to disagree.  She had one additional statement to make.  She hesitated.  I've never been a religious person, she said.  And I don't know why I'm saying this, but I believe there's a higher power at work here.

After several moments David said, we're not going to force you to do anything.

Thank you, Ava said.

After several more moments Julie rose and said, let me clear off the table.  And I'll do the dishes.  My roommates never let me do the dishes at school.

Oh, really? David said, his voice laced with familiar sarcasm.  We've seen your apartment.  Nobody does dishes or much else.  You forget your mother and I were college students once upon a time.

The sky cleared that evening and revealed such a vast dazzle of stars that Ava, who had stepped onto the back patio and was shivering in her wool cardigan, had the impulse to reach upward and pluck a handful.  She thought of her son amidst so much vastness.

 

Daybook, November 9

Where into the sky's glitter do our souls go?

What do they see in heaven's amphitheater?

Angels gathering what drifts up from this world?

All of time's lost watches?

Grief with its small hands and soft cries?

Other souls dancing in robes of light?

Which songs rise and which songs fall?

What smoke issues from our heart's censer, which fragrance?

What ripples invisibly across the infinite?

Into what blackness is our longing stored?

So much dark water above us, how will we ever reach you?

How will we hear with our tiny ears?

Even if we fall down on our knees and say the magic words,

will you drop your handful of diamonds?  Will you pause

and listen?  Will you say in your aura of flame

anything, anything at all to warm our hands?

Must we wait for death and his multiple afflictions,

his velvet cloak and sour breath?

What is the cloud that settles over us?

Where are the waves which rise up?

Who will tell us the questions we must ask

before we are allowed to enter?

Moon, snow, brightness of air--

these are the answers we are given.

 

Ava lay in bed that night after Julie had gone to her room.  She could hear the living room television.  David would have arranged himself with crocheted pillows and afghans on the sofa.  He would be bathed in bluish light and lapped by acoustics from his surround sound TV.  He would not want to disturb anyone, Ava told Julie, who asked Sunday morning why her father was sleeping on the sofa.  He says insomnia comes with growing older, Ava said.  Thomas Edison slept only four hours each night in catnaps, he claims.  Julie seemed unconvinced by their pantomime, Ava thought, but she let it drop.

They ate waffles and warm applesauce together, then as Julie stuffed her laundry into a duffle bag, they reminisced about their trip and Uncle Udo, Evita and those lizards whose tails would break off like glass.  They wondered about the tropic summer now that they were being romanced by snow and cold and Thanksgiving still weeks away.

I can't wait to go back, Julie said.  All summer in Paraguay if I can, if I can wait that long and can afford not to work, what do you think?

It would be wonderful, Ava said, rinsing their dishes.

They were waiting for David who had finally gone to shower after dozing with the Sunday newspaper on his lap in the living room.  When he returned, Julie would drive back to school and forget about them again and be independent, and the thought pleased and saddened Ava at the same time.  They had not discussed cancer since Friday evening.  Julie was weaving her fantasy in the air between them as Ava wiped the counter with a damp cloth.  This moment will never come again, Ava thought.  This intimacy.  She cherished these temporal, ordinary moments.  This was who they were.  These moments that almost always slipped by unnoticed.  Not the family meetings.  Not the trips she could barely recall.  If she flipped through an album of photos where the camera had only nibbled a bite of the landscape and foreground faces, she felt  sometimes they had never been to Quebec or the Field Museum or County Stadium in Milwaukee.  Those might as well have been other people who resembled them.

But this image of Julie perched on the kitchen stool, waving Paraguay into life with her golden hands in golden light, this moment she would remember forever as vivid and joyous and brimming with how much they really loved each other.

 

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