Publish the Word
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Angelus -- Chapter 27

 

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

                              Chapter 27

 

 

On Monday Ava drove to the North Shore Clinic where a nurse in blue lab coat extracted her blood into a syringe.  Ava shied away from watching until she felt the needle release her arm and cotton wadded to the sting.  As she bent her arm to stem any flow, Ava asked the woman how soon the test results would be available and could the nurse phone as soon as she knew.

The doctor will want to interpret the data, the nurse said.  He'll have a count of white, red and platelets per cubic millimeter, and a differential count, and also a percentage of lymphocytes, your enzyme concentrations per cell and your immunal globulin, which are your antibodies.  And of course, a thromboplastin time test to tell how fast your plasma coagulates.  People with blood disorders have bleeding problems or thin blood which doesn't clot normally.

I've been trying to learn all I can, Ava said.  But the human body is so complicated and amazing, isn't it?

I guess, the woman said as she packed up her plastic tote.  The abuse most bodies can take is what marvels me.  My father smoked all his life and died in his sleep at 90.

When Ava returned home she made a salad, her pitcher of vegetable juice, then she lined her vitamins in a row.  She listened to the radio as she ate lunch and thought about the war raging inside her and how little she really knew and took for granted about what happened to each pixie tomato she swallowed and cucumber slice and celery, what metamorphosis was taking place inside unbeknownst to her.


The weather had mellowed overnight and shrunk the drifts behind the house.  On the soggy path up to her studio she stopped to watch a raccoon scavenge the compost bin for discarded juicer pulp.  He in turn stopped to watch her warily until she continued up to her studio, his bandit eyes following her all the way.

She spent an hour stretching six new canvases while the public radio station sifted through Sibelius and Dvorak, then a string quartet by a Czech composer.  For the past week a flow of more primal, unformed images had flickered inside her -- not the glistening childhood scenes, but vague shapes and faces, phantasmal and deeply subconsciousness.  As an artist she had never cared for Abstract Expressionism and its automatic painting, but as she began to load her palette, she felt compelled to spread the unmixed pigments directly onto the canvas.  Her pastiche was the consistency of bean dip, but she felt something elemental and tactile as she smoothed the globs of color with her palette knife.  She was not painting an object, but an emotion, she thought, not a line, but a movement, an apparition.  The colors seemed to be summoning forth something buried inside her.

She layered on more paint and not the warm, creamy pastels of Paraguay, but Venetian Reds and Vermillion and Raw Sienna, paint which felt like a visual force alive in her hand and which was controlling her, sweeping her hand in bold arcs and geometric strokes.  She felt possessed of an alien hand that was frenziedly releasing itself into the rising texture of paint and light.


She painted all afternoon with a fervency that produced three finished canvases.  As she stepped back to appraise her work, she realized they were not three distinctly different paintings, not a triptych either, but identical images in essentially the same plane -- only time had changed.  And not time in a linear sense, she thought, not a rigid line from 1944 to today, but an elliptical time that seemed fluid, as the angel had tried to explain, a change of light with no vanishing point.  She saw the present flow into the past which had no existence until she created it, stroke by stroke.  In a gravityless void she could discern airy beings of light rising out of nebulous depths.  Was that her father as a boy reaching for Udo's hand, but Udo as he would appear in twenty years?  Was that her mother's face in light and shadow, either emerging or receding, or was it Eva Braun's face?  Other forms seemed less defined.  She had no clue who they were, but felt instinctively the figures needed to be present.  She felt slightly discomfited and yet morbidly fascinated to only now discover what she had painted, or rather, what she had exhumed.

Until this day, she thought, her art had been technically competent, but to be honest, she painted by the numbers.  Yes, her paintings were in private collections and had hung in galleries throughout the country.  And her landscapes were well executed and yet, the thought occurred to her, that to execute a painting was to murder its life, wasn't it,  as it struggled against her, imprisoned by the medium and desiring to be liberated as she would free a butterfly she held between her fingers.  All these years and now she admitted how frigid and self-constrained she had been, how ordinary an artist because she was so fearful.  The dark orbit of her life had been without quasars, only sparkles, landscapes to match someone's decor, not her inner soul, not really, not like the real artists who sacrificed everything.

She sat down on a wooden bench, weary and exhilarated, but disturbed by what was happening to her.  She didn't know what was happening.  She was unsure of where she had been the past several hours and why she didn't feel like herself at all.  Her only certainty, she thought as she contemplated her new paintings, was that she felt at the edge of a yawning chasm and if she took one step forward, she might burst into flight.  Or she might fall.


Her doctor phoned Wednesday morning just as David was going out the door.  She waved him back inside and relayed the good news as she listened.  Her test results were encouraging, her doctor said, no worse.  Her blood was holding its own.  He would fax a copy to the Mayo and schedule her for more blood tests the following week.  Keep doing what you're doing, he told her.  Let me know if your health changes in any way.

She would, she promised, radiant as she hung up.  She waited for David's reaction.  His first betrayal , she thought, was his eyes, the way he circumscribed her.  Then his voice concurred.  I'd rather be overly cautious than overly optimistic, he said.  One blood test doesn't a cure make.

You want to prove me wrong, don't you? she said.

For your sake I'd like to be wrong.  David stopped himself as he began to turn away.  Then he awkwardly drew her to him, though she didn't know if it were guilt or genuine affection, his London Fog coat against her cheek, a brief squeeze, his lips brushing her forehead before she could react.  I gotta go, he said and then left.  Hours later she could still smell his aftershave or imagined she could.

All week she continued painting with her palette knife, the imagery becoming even more violent and agitated.  She scraped and gouged the canvas and had to suppress the urge to fill her hands with paint and fling it.  The canvas seemed a barrier that kept her from breaking through to some new world on the other side.  But painting with such intensity wore her out after an hour or two.  She would leave her studio for lunch or a break, then have to lie down before she returned.


When her three teenaged students came on Saturday and brought a fourth who wanted to learn oil painting, Ava could only manage an hour with them before she felt her strength drain away.  She apologized and asked them to come another day, after school, if they could, but she needed to replenish herself with a nap.  They seemed disappointed, but understood and hugged her as they left.  Chantal, the new student, was a petite, raven-haired beauty spending the semester on exchange from Breton, in France.  She shook Ava's hand and said, au revoir, Professeur.

Ava began to allow herself longer intervals of rest each day.  She became more introspective as the brunt of winter bore down and the birds vanished, except for the grackles and starlings and an occasional cardinal fluttering past the window in red, ecclesiastical luster.  She sat at the kitchen table and watched the squirrels emerge from the snow laden trees and pause upright on their hindquarters and twitter enroute to the feeders, plumply clad to withstand the cold.  She felt insecure driving the icy streets, even for groceries six blocks away.  She could hear David's voice in her head chide her for wanting to be a recluse.  But she was content in her zone of tranquility and wasn't going to fret about winter and cancer and dying, though she did, often

Her appetite began to fade.  She ate less and less and had difficulty emptying her juice container.  She would leave peach or apple slices uneaten in her bowl until they turned brown and she would have to feed them to the compost.  The second week after Julie had gone back to Madison, Ava would rise listless and with no hunger at all for most of the day.  She forced herself to eat and faithfully took her vitamins and herbs which she realized had become her primary diet.

She didn't feel ill, just sapped, and she thought of Kafka's hunger artist who wasted away, her own skin a faint apricot color, becoming more translucent, her xylophone of ribs visible.  At night she lay in a hot mineral bath which became, when she closed her eyes, a thermal tide pool she scented with vanilla.  Her hour-long baths were the only times she felt thoroughly warm, suspended as it were, in a womb of nothingness, rocking in a pleasant state where time ceased.


David was spending his nights at Bailey's Harbor again and calling her around seven each evening to ask how she was feeling and did he have any phone messages.  In the past her periods of solitude were welcome, hours and days of amnesty without tension.  But now she preferred to read with the television murmuring in the background.  She left the floor lamp on all night in the living room.  She spent less time in her studio.  She laid aside her World War II books because they depressed her and made her think about him, the sperm donor.  Only when she sank to her neck in the steaming bath did she feel free of everything.

She had reread portions of Eva Braun's diary and struggled to find some echo inside herself, anything to connect her with this woman, her birth mother.  But she could arouse even less when she thought of Hitler, not even a revulsion because the idea was too abstract for her, that fuming little man with greasy hair and postage-stamp mustache.  Other than his failure as an artist, she could discern no appreciable similarity, nothing to link her to him.

One morning in her studio as she was sorting through her Paraguay series and the dozen new paintings she thought of as her symbolist phase, she sensed the angel's presence behind her.  Her skin prickled with static electricity and the fine hair on her forearms stood up.  She swiveled in her drafting chair, involuntarily startled and awed as ever to see him.  She no longer doubted his reality or thought of him as a figment of her longing.

Oh!  She said, jerking upright and discomposed.  I never know when to expect you.

He smiled -- no, he gleamed.  I'm here even when I'm not, he said.

I hope you won't talk in riddles again, she said.

You were just thinking, is he real or a projection from my imagination?

I've touched you, Ava said.  I know you're real.  I just don't understand why me and why I can see you.

If your husband or anyone else came through the door this instant they would see me.  Unless I de-materialize.


Is that what you call it?  De-materialize?

That's what you might call it, but no word can convey how a thought embodies this corporeal being in front of you.  He touched his chest.  I'm present with you, clearly visible, but you remember seeing your son?  You remember how he seemed clothed in light, that glow, the same essence of angels.  He was transformed into incorruptibility, no longer flesh and blood.

Can you appear at will? she asked.

I must be given liberty?

By whom?

The Most High.

God?

Yes.   The Alpha and Omega of all life in the universe, of you and I and all the generations which were and are to come has sent me to guide and comfort you.

I'm going to die, she said, stunned to hear herself speak the words with such detachment.  No emotion rose in her throat, nothing.  The angel gazed at her with compassion, she thought.  Or was it sadness in his eyes?  Now that she had confessed aloud the death she had been carrying for so long, how did she feel?  Did she feel anything?

Even the heavens and earth will pass away, the angel said.

How long do I have?

The angel shook his head gently.  That is yet to be determined.

Soon? she asked.

Yes.


I should be afraid, she said.  I should be upset and angry.  Shouldn't I be angry and shake my fist in the air and cry, why me God?  Why me?  She sighed, as if to remind herself she still occupied her body and was in her studio with an angel, a real angel who was composed of some spiritual essence that could materialize like Captain Kirk in Star Trek.  She wished this were a dream because she could wake herself up and go on worrying about Julie and David and teach and paint and wait for spring because she wanted to plant jonquils next year.

But she wasn't afraid or confused anymore and that insight troubled her worse than her future.  I'm overwhelmed again, she said.  I don't know how I feel.  I would give anything to see Julie grow up and get married and have a family, but I know that's not possible.  What do I feel?

Terrified?  No. I 'll be reunited with Jeffrey.  And I know I'll see my parents again.  What does lie ahead? she asked.

Eye has not seen, nor has ear heard the glorious mysteries yet to come.

She was silent, scrutinizing his face for some affirmation that this was exactly how her life was meant to end and wasn't she fortunate because she could prepare, unlike those who died suddenly.  Wasn't this a gift?  Wasn't she the lucky duck?  If only she didn't have to leave this life.  If only it could go on forever

Should I tell my family? she asked.

That's for you to decide.


She glanced down at her hands, her freckled and paint stained fingers, the blue rivers of vein under her skin, the tributaries and age lines, the worn mark where her wedding ring was absent.  She closed her eyes and de-materialized herself, the angel, the room and the barren world beyond the glass walls which enclosed them.  She sat in silence, in the cocoon of invisibility she had spun.  She thought how impossible to tell David any of this.  She thought how unprepared Julie will be to deal with loss and grief.  Julie had been a baby when Jeffrey drowned.  How would she and David cope?  She didn't know this or a thousand other details which would need to be managed -- her will, funeral arrangements, flowers, her paintings for the new gallery, her students, her brother and his family.  Why did she have to die now?  Why now? she asked the angel.

It is not ordained for us to know, he said.  There are many things even I desire to understand.  He paused as he started to open the door.  He seemed all at once about to vanish, to phosphoresce in the chill air, his skin and clothes so resplendently white that she had to squint and turn her head.  You will pass from life to life, he said.  Death is only a change of worlds.

When she looked again, he was gone.

 

Daybook, November 18

When you know you're about to leave this life,

you can divest yourself of everything :  free

of debts and worries about debt, memories

which cling like barnacles, your flesh shed,

eczema and cellulite gone, gone the embarrassments

you carry like a penitent, gone forever the joys

you embellished, fears which magnified themselves,

family and friends gone in a blink.  Blessed

are the empty fields, the lilies sing.  No more

the bond-slave of numbers, dates, windows

of opportunity, the uplink or downturn, the phone's

insistent shriek, you will release the red and yellow balloons

of desire.  All the moments you have stolen will return.

The winds will fall silent about you.  The sky will begin to open.

Unencumbered and naked as you entered this world, you will see

the animals of light begin to rise and the moon in its perambulations wane.

You will be encircled by violets with their lacy hearts and lavender sweetness.

So much sweetness!  In the twilight meadow to which you have come,

a doe will turn the two dark lanterns of her eyes toward you.

She will flick her ears and with no effort at all

leap softly into the golden air.  Follow her.

.