Publish the Word
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Angelus -- Chapter 6

 

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

      Chapter 6

On Thursday, an overcast, blustery morning, the day of her next treatment, she moved about the house listlessly.  She was indecisive about what to wear, unfocused when she tried to read the newspaper.

David's secretary had called to tell her he was delayed at Bailey's Harbor, but would try to be home by noon, though she knew he could have phoned himself.  He liked to create the illusion of strategic deal making with levels of people between him and the mundane world; of confidential lunches contractors, attorneys and zoning officials, but the truth was he sold real estate from  a modest office just off the business district with one secretary and three agents who worked more or less autonomously.

His development projects did consume late hours, but were not the monuments to architecture he would have you believe.  No, she had realized long ago that his time was his time and he chose to spend it how he wanted and with whom.

She had just gone out on the back deck to refill the bird feeder when the phone rang.  She expected David's apologetic voice, but it was one of the mothers wondering if Mrs. Hall would be holding her children's Saturday.

Unless I'm not feeling well, she told the woman.  Yes, bring your daughter.

How are you feeling? the woman asked.

Better, every day better, she said. I'm recuperating. I have chemo this afternoon, but I should be fine by Saturday.  Bring Amanda to class.

At 12:15 David did call on his cell phone.  She disliked its hollow, low-C buzz when spoke.  It's impossible for me to get away, he said.  Simply too tied-up with the utilities people, could she call and postpone until tomorrow, he could shift his schedule around, could he put her on hold for just a moment, he had an incoming call--

She expected this to happen.  She stared out the window, holding the empty hum of the phone, a tunnel of distance.  A grackle hopped across the backyard, diving for grubs, a hop, hop, hop,  then his beak would flick downward as he probed the spongy earth.

I'll drive myself, she said, when David came back.

Is that wise?  What if you get sick, what then?

Then I'll call you on my cell phone and give you an earfull,  she said, trying to modulate her anger.  She needed his support more than she needed his driving.  She needed to know he was waiting in the next room.  She needed him to steady her through the lobby toward the dazzling sunlight of the parking lot.  And if that didn't matter to him, then she guessed she would manage alone.

The instructions are in your glove box, he said.  I programmed my office number, so all you have to do is punch in star 54.

I'll be fine, she said, as much to reassure herself.  I'll pull over and rest if I have any nausea.

Call me before you leave the clinic, he said.  Or wait for me there and I'll drive down.

I'll be fine, she repeated.

The sky had grown ominous with swollen rain clouds as she backed her silver Lexus out of the garage.  The drive to the clinic normally took 70 minutes, but she was allowing herself  an extra hour in case the weather turned worse.  By the time she reached the hospital the storm had shifted north and blown out toward Lake Michigan.


The cancer clinic was in an L-shaped, brick wing of the hospital.  She sat in her car breathing methodically in short, puffy bursts as she had seen athletes on television who were preparing for the big jump.  Once inside, she answered a checklist of questions to assess her reaction to the previous chemo.  She sat obediently for the nurse who took her blood pressure, jabbed her for a blood sample, then pushed her in a wheelchair to the treatment room.

 

          After answering a checklist of questions to assess her reaction to the chemo, she sat dutifully for the nurse to take her blood pressure, draw a blood sample, then push her in a wheelchair to the treatment room.

I really can walk, she told the nurse.

Just think of this as red carpet treatment, the nurse said, patting Mrs. Hall on her shoulder.

She lay on her back for fifteen minutes, eyes shut against the ceiling lights.  Because you're doing so well, the oncologist said when he arrived, bending over her, we'll increase the immuno agents slightly to stimulate your body's own healing system.  The primary drug, 5FU, has been very effective in clinical trials.  But if you have any adverse reaction in the next couple days, we need to know.  We're receiving blood samples from the North Bay Medical Center, is that right?

Uh huh.  She closed  her eyes again and winced as the needle penetrated her sore arm.  Relax, relax she told herself, breathing rhythmically as if she were blowing out air bubbles.

You'll feel a little warm, Mrs. Hall, the nurse said.

What was happening, she wondered, as the chemical heat began to sweep through her, long intense waves surging up into her temples, beading at her forehead.  She listened to her breathing, like snorkeling  in tropical water, she thought, the Gulf of Mexico off Veracruz where they had gone for their tenth anniversary, cerulean blue water, salty and warm as a Jacuzzi, the hot, sugary beach stuck to her legs.

Are you doing all right, Mrs. Hall?


She nodded and heard the nurse say, good, we're finished, just lie there and relax.  I'll be back for you in a minute.

How long this time? An hour? Two?  She was drenched in perspiration.  Her mouth felt dry. and chalky.  She shifted to her right side and tried to massage her throbbing head.  This was the worst so far, she thought.  This was torture masquerading as treatment.

She lay still, listening to air rattle the ceiling vents, cool, calming air.  She heard voices in the corridor.  Her lips felt blistered.  She yawned and sighed and tasted the metallic room, iron in her mouth, aluminum shavings, a smelted, foreign taste.  From the chemo?

In a few minutes she felt well enough to sit up.  And when the nurse said Ava was free to leave, though she felt limp with exhaustion, she pep-talked herself out the door.  She still carried  steely taste, but the air was cleansing.  It buffeted her toward her car.  She had to slump against the seat with the door open and fan her face, but in ten minutes her mental fuzziness dissipated.    

   She watched a pregnant woman struggle out of her car clutching a toddler.  She appeared to be due any time by the way she listed from side to side with each step.  A minivan parked in front of the entrance and deposited an elderly man.  Then a zebra-striped cab collected a stout woman in a blue dress and drove away.

Ava leaned back and let the breeze flap about inside her car and over her, moist and refreshing at her neck.  As she started the ignition and checked the rearview mirror to back up, she caught her reflected eyes, unaware until that moment she had been crying.  This is so strange, she said to herself  This is not me.

After a couple blocks she pulled into a fastfood drive thru and ordered a soft drink, sipping  as she continued.  By the time she reached the outskirts of Green Bay she felt in possession of herself again.  The clouds had split open and late afternoon sun lit the road ahead in amber.  She would be home by dark.


 

A few miles after crossing the ship canal bridge at Sturgeon Bay, heading north on highway 42, her stomach began to churn.  She felt light-headed.  Her hands and arms tingled.  As she began to slow and scan ahead for some place to pull off, the light seemed to pinprick her eyes and her vision became myopic, fading as if someone were playing with a dimmer switch.  She remembered pumping the brakes as her car swerved to the right, rising in slow-motion from the roadway into empty darkness.

Her head snapped backwards and then violently forward and her hands, which clutched the steering wheel, slammed against her chest.  She stared uncomprehendingly at her hands, still gripped to the wheel, and a third hand, a masculine hand between hers at one o'clock.  They were caroming into the ditch, grazing a telephone pole, shuddering to a stop against a fence, the field jumbled about her as she blinked.  Alfalfa.

She next heard voices to her left, felt someone reach in through the window and grab her arm and squeeze at her wrist.  I'm okay, she told herself, forcing her chest to fill, her eyes once again to flutter open.

Her car had come to rest parallel to the highway at a slight left tilt. The people who had stopped could only force her door part-way before it hit the slope of the ditch.  Someone rolled down the window far enough for them to haul her free, into the shattered twilight. 

Are you all right?  Ma'am?  Can you hear me?  a middle-aged man in overalls knelt beside her.  It's a miracle she didn't flip, another voice said from behind her.  As fast as she was going, I'm surprised her airbag didn't inflate.


I'm a school nurse, a woman said. Let me see her.  Shadows about her now blended and separated on the ground at her feet.  She was sitting, now, her face compressed against her knees.  The woman gently took Ava's wrist.  She felt two fingers press her veins, awareness now flowing back.

I passed out, Ava said.  She lifted her head to see their faces.  A half-dozen strangers in silhouette against the sky, people she would normally pass without notice were staring, concerned and attentive, one man asking another if he should call an ambulance.  Then the man in overalls, a farmer from down the road, he said,  volunteered to get his Cat and pull her out.  Cat?  Did he mean like dogs hitched to a sled?  Ava sat dazed until he arrived shortly in a mud-splattered Caterpillar tractor.  He wrapped a tow chain underneath her car.  Her rescuers started to vanish into their own cars until she was left with the nurse and her husband who were on their way home to Egg Harbor.  He volunteered to drive her car and his wife would follow behind in theirs.  She could phone David from their home to come get her.

Halfway to Egg Harbor she remembered the cellular phone tucked under her seat.  I forgot I had this she said, reading David's taped instructions.  She pushed the numbers and listened to the time-delay blips, but his phone was busy.

Have you eaten, the woman asked in the driveway of their bluish-grey ranch house in Egg Harbor, a wooded subdivision of modest homes.  Ava felt awkward and didn't know how to respond.  I should introduce myself, she said, and no, she admitted, she hadn't eaten and it was foolish of her to drive on an empty stomach after her treatment.

The couple ushered her inside.  They set a bowl of warm minestrone in front of her, a slice of homemade bread, still warm.  It was wheat, the texture of pound cake.  She tried to phone her husband, but got another busy signal.  She tried his office phone, then her home but got answering machines.


It's not far, she heard herself say, rising, her hands flat on the table to steady herself.  Thanks for your kindness, for the soup and the bread, thank you, but it's not far and I feel much better, really I do, goodbye and thank you again..

Driving north again, less than twenty miles to home, energized by the food and fish-spray from the bay on her left, she felt embarrassed to think about the kindness of strangers, perfect strangers, people whose names she did not even know.

 

Daybook,June2

Drying off from this morning's shower, I found clumps of hair on the floor, then on my towel, patches of scalp visible in the mirror.  The realization stunned me.  I went out to the patio garden and sat on the wrought iron bench.  I wanted something to console me, but as I watched a moth come sauntering past, I thought,  life is just a breath, isn't it,  a shadow which sweeps across the grass and vanishes.

My sorrowful sisters

along the fieldstone wall

bent forward in supplication

some already fallen   

on your stems,

my dying rue anemone,

white and pink-ruffed blossoms,

shriveled, wind-thrashed,

sepals jaundiced,

your thin, patrician necks

cold-snapped this unseasonable morning.

Now the sun reveals the genocide


-- does no one weep for you,

yesterday alive and now so soon murdered

in your beds?  And what of this moth that lives

but twelve hours?  What of the that cloud drifting past?

We are, at any moment,  a step, a half-turn, a blink

away  from the tunnel of light, which as we traveling

do not know, is dark at the beginning

and dark at the end.

 

I did not expect to write such morbid meditations.  Mea Culpa.  I intend this book to be a celebration of life, so if the watercolor on the next page of yesterday's anemones is ultra-colorful and the blooms too radiant, I mean it as a commemorative.

 

Later, as she sat in her studio and read what she had written, she considered tearing out the page.  But she liked the illustration. It added balance to her bleak thoughts.  Life was ephemeral.  She recalled what her mother had said shortly before she died.


They had been sitting on the porch of the wooden frame house outside Lake Geneva where she'd grown up.  Her mother was in the maple rocker, staring hard at the glass of iced tea in her hand. Ava was sitting at her feet on the top step listening to cicadas in the poplar trees which ringed the small acreage.  It was the day after her mother's 70th birthday.  She could picture her mother so vividly in her cotton print dress, her scuffed, beige shoes, laces worn, her legs crossed at the ankles, lightly pumping the rocker, the ice sweating on the outside of the glass, the evening sky closing down around them as they reminisced, mostly her mother speaking in that German-accented English which made her uneasy all her life among other people.  Her mother had tapped her glass with the fingernail of her index finger and said, When I went to bed last night I was a girl, but when I awoke this morning and saw myself in the mirror, I had suddenly grown old.  I had become an old woman, a grossmutter.  How did this happen?  You are young, you are old --I could never have imagined how quickly my life would pass.  She raised her hand in an airy wave, almost a benediction.  And then, two months later she was gone.

Ava hung her paint-stained smock on its nail by the door and went into the house for her address book.  She flipped through its pages, searching for her hairdresser's business card.  Perhaps someone could salvage her hair before she looked like a prison inmate.  If not, she had purchased a whole drawerful of scarfs. She could be a pirate queen, Scheherazade, an ingenue, a little girl transmogrified by the witch of time.

 

   Daybook,June3

 

    A book of Verses underneath the Bough

    A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread -- and Thou

    Beside me singing in the Wilderness

My dear daughter Julie:  The photo accompanying these words was lost for years, but I found it pressed between pages 43 and 44 of The Illustrated Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.  You will not know these people who lean stiffly and unsmiling against the high adobe wall. The light is harsh on their faces; the shadows under their eyes suggest is midday.  The man and woman are your grandparents.  The boy, probably seven at the time, is your uncle Udo -- the girl is obviously me.  The year is 1949 or early 1950.


As I said, you don't know these people, and I'm surprised you've never asked more about your ancestry.  The tree rising behind the wall is the lapacho.  You can see the blossoms.  If this were a color photo, you would see pink, the pink of Easter, of terra cotta drying in the sun. Behind the tree is  a small lagoon garlanded with water hyacinths, lilac pink pancakes, darker than the lapacho.  My father would wade in the pond and net orange, slow- moving fish, carp, I think, and throw them onto the bank where I would watch them gasp and flop about until he clubbed them silent.

He and mother were Jewish, born in Austria, relocated to a work camp in Bavaria before I was born.  They fled to Switzerland and then to Paraguay in 1944.  They escaped the Holocaust.  Friends helped them escape, otherwise I wouldn't be here, nor would you. Look at the round face, the curly hair of the girl.  The resemblance to pictures of you at the same age is remarkable, I think.  Look at me and I see you.

My memory of them together is sadly indistinct.  My father brayed like a mule when he laughed.  He had large hands.  He would swim far out into the river behind our house, so far I feared he would drown.  Mother never liked the water.  In fact, she never liked Paraguay with its oppressive heat, humidity and insects.  I remember furry spiders, big as birds dropping from the ceiling onto my shoulders.  The air, for her, was hard to breath, like living underwater.  We lived  on the edge of the rainforest.  So much dense vegetation.  So many bugs.

My parents loved each other, but not enough, I guess.  When a cousin invited her to Wisconsin -- Lake Geneva reminded them of home -- she and I came and stayed.  At first, I thought father and my brother would follow, but months became  years and I grew up and went to college where I met your father.  You know this part of the story.  And you will recall, I hope, your grandmother, her small farm, the ducks and geese and chickens, Schatze her collie, the half-wild barn cats that climbed onto your lap and clung to you, their little motors purring.  I know you have good memories of summers spent with her.


Do you see my pouting lips?  Udo was pinching me behind my back.  See his wicked smile?  I remember that.  I was five.  We spoke mostly German, but I had picked up the Indian language from my friends, Guarani,  it's called. Udo was learning Spanish in school, but I was still at home.

When we came to Wisconsin, my mother could never master English.  These foreign words knot up my tongue, she's say, lapsing into German when she got frustrated.  She also never spoke again about being Jewish.  We have suffered enough, she told me on the airplane. You will be American and nothing else.  I took four semesters of German in college, most of my first language coming back like a woman awakening from amnesia.

This may not be of interest to you now, but some day you may wish to know these things, your family genealogy.  Your grandfather died years ago, but your uncle, though you've never met him, still lives in Ascuncion, having inherited my parents' home.  It occurs to me now my family had some wealth.  My father developed an export business, from which he sent my mother money. Though separated, they never divorced.  When mother died, I phoned my brother, but he said he was sorry she was gone, but it made no sense to that come. I felt bad we had lost contact over the years.

As I said, you inherit all this in your strong features, your bones and hair and eyes, the imprints of these ghosts that someday your son or daughter will bear.  When I can, I will try to rescue other snapshots, some adrift like refugees in my psyche.

 

Listen to this, David was saying.  He had brought home Chinese takeout, a dish of thin noodles with chicken, white rice, a styrofoam container of Wonton soup and two egg rolls, both for her, her favorite, but she wasn't eating.  She was watching him pluck at his food with chopsticks while reading a paperback that blocked his face.  She was also trying to suppress a gurgling discomfort which was rising in her stomach.  Food smells were lately triggering nausea.


Socrates, David said, is telling Crito who wants his teacher to escape imminent death, Think not of life and children first, and of justice afterwards, but of justice first, that you may be justifiedbefore the princes of the world below.  Yeah, right, when you're dead who cares, David said.  The problem with Socrates is he believes his own grandiloquence, like today's politicians, in my opinion, all sophists, of course.

I'm feeling sick, she said softly.

What?  He closed the book and placed it beside his plate.  You haven't touched your food.  Stomach upset again?

She nodded.

You want to lie down?  He came around to her side of the dining room table.  Your skin is pale.  He touched her forehead with the back of his hand.

So weak, she said, and cold, then hot, then cold again.

He guided her to their bedroom and tucked her underneath the duckdown comforter.  She slept then. When she awoke she lay in bed for a long while before she could summon strength to slide her feet down to the hardwood floor and stand.  The light was painful.  She steadied herself and tottered toward the bathroom where she sat down and closed her eyes.

          A persistent knocking on the door, then David's are you all right? drew her back from wherever she had drifted.

I'll be out in a minute, she said.  Her energy seemed to have drained out through her legs onto the cold tile floor.

He was waiting when she opened the door.  You're pale as a ghost, he said.

I feel like one, she said.  Like I'm not here.  Her tongue fumbles over the syllables.  David led her back to bed.

I phoned the clinic, he said.  A home care nurse is coming by at one.

Shouldn't you be at work, she asked.

I made some calls this morning.  I'm not sure I should leave you alone. The boss can give himself a day off, too.

My mouth feels dry and crusty, she said, but she was reluctant to have him wait upon her.

What do you want?  Ice water?  Juice?

Anything, she said.  She shut her eyes to stop their burning.  They felt inflamed, as if the light pouring in the south window was poison acid.

David was shaking her awake then, a woman's face floating behind him, then reappearing at her left side.  She felt a blood pressure cuff constrict her arm, squeezing her alert.

I'm taking your temperature now, the woman's voice said.  I'm Letty, call me Letty, Mrs. Hall.  I'm Filipino, in case you were wondering.  Most people are too polite to ask.  Your blood pressure is low.  You have a slight fever.  Do you mind if I draw blood to send the lab?

I can hardly lift my arms, I'm so weak.  She felt David take her hand in both of his.  They were rough, but warm, like oven pads.  He leaned close and brought a glass up toward her mouth.

Can you drink this?  You're dehydrated, he said.

A side effect of the chemo, isn't it? she asked.

Probably, the woman said.  Chemo assaults your entire body.  Have you noticed any bleeding?

No.

Diarrhea, vomiting, lack of appetite?

I don't usually vomit, but I haven't eaten anything.  No appetite.  None.  She shook her head, suddenly dizzy.  Some slight --  she couldn't find the word.  Her mind felt emptied, like she was tumbling slowly forward, into a void.  So tired.  She sipped from the glass again, eyes closed, and let the room settle into silence.

When she awoke once more, she was able to focus on the phosphorescent numbers buoyed in the darkness to her right above the bedside table, numbers she repeated to herself until they made sense:  6:15.  Evening or morning?  Early morning, she surmised. The window to her left was a black rectangle.

She listened to her breathing, felt the sheets upon her body. I'm clear-headed again, she thought, but cold.  Her feet had become two chunks of ice.  She moved them back and forth.  This too shall pass, she told herself.  This guerilla war, these chemical weapons, her own private Vietnam, these thoughts, this frigid cold, sunrise glowing around the edges of the window shade, 6:40 now, how many hours have I slept, her thoughts leapfrogging about the brightening room.

At 7:15 David came in from the guest room where he had been sleeping.  I checked on you several times, he said.  But you were dead to the world.  Your color's back, I think.  Hungry?

No.  Not at all.

He sat on the edge of her bed.  The doctor phoned last night while you were asleep.  He spoke to the clinic, and they want to admit you to the hospital for observation, just a day or two.

The hospital?  Why?

He said your white blood cell count is low.

Ava rose to one elbow and said, I may as well feel lousy there as here.


She was slow to dress, still debilitated, but the sickness was gone.  A sour taste in her mouth remained, even after she drank a glass of juice David squeezed from two oranges.  Her back ached.  She couldn't get comfortable in the car.  David talked as he drove, trying to be optimistic, she thought, but she found his voice annoying.  She preferred to concentrate on the whine of air past the window, the tires rhythmic bass line on the pavement.

She had no feeling either way about returning to the hospital. She felt drugged, disassociated from everything around her.  Her low energy had a definite drain on her mind, she admitted to herself.  This, she heard herself say, is as close as I want to ever get to a vegetative state.

What, David asked, turning down the radio.  Did you say something?  He reached over and patted her hand, but said nothing.

Within fifteen minutes of arriving at the hospital she was undressing, folding her fleece warmup suit into the bedside table drawer, anxious now and wishing she were home.

You want a magazine or anything? David asked.  I'm going to the coffee shop, but I promise I will be back before the doctor.  He was gone an hour, but it didn't matter to her.  The doctor hadn't come.  She lay stiff and cold, like a corpse she thought to herself, a body devoid of life, cadaverous, freezing in the air conditioned air in a faded hospital gown she wouldn't be caught dead in.  She asked the nurse for a couple extra blankets.

David went out for lunch at noon.  At 12:15 her oncologist arrived trailing a nurse who wore silver glasses on a chain around her neck and an attractive student with a healthy tan and cropped blond hair from the nursing program at the area community college.

How are you feeling, he asked, as he placed an electronic thermometer into her ear.  You've had an adverse reaction. Notice the alopecia, he said over his shoulder to the nursing student.  That's normal.  But look at her coloration here, especially around the eyes.  See?  He turned to older nurse and said,  set up straight line and filter and order 45O milliliters of factors VII and VIII.  Is your husband here, Mrs. Hall, he asked.

He went for lunch, she answered.


We're going to take you down for a transfusion.  Nothing serious, but when your platelet count falls below 20,000 we risk spontaneous bleeding, infection, possible bone marrow damage.  You see, he said to the student, myelosuppression of red cell and platelet production is a concern for  clotting and hemostasis and should cautiously be brought back into balance.  You'll feel much better in an hour, Mrs. Hall.

Can I go home then, she asked.

I don't see why not, unless you prefer our accommodations.  I know our five-star restaurant draws raves, he said, smiling, for the benefit of the nursing student, who had not uttered a word.

The transfusion took about two hours.  The phlebotomist told her a joke she wanted to remember to tell David about a frog going off into the world to seek adventure.  Hilarious, she thought, but she usually got halfway through and forgot the punch line. She began to warm as the liquid dripped from its baggie into the IV tube, but not like the chemo, no, this was a mild flush, the kind of mellow, pleasant sensation one got from sipping jasmine tea on a November evening.  She thought of the photo she had found of her parents,  their faces so youthful and younger than she was now, in their thirties, a lifetime away.

Her father.  She could not construct his face, just the featureless shape of his head, the backlight casting him in shadow.  What color were his eyes?  A Roman nose, with a bump at the bridge?  Yes, she thought he had broken it, but she didn't know how she knew.  Maybe she had invented that detail.  His mouth in the picture was open, as if he had just said something or was about to, but its shape was vague in her mind and this troubled her.  Now that I've dug it up, she thought to herself, I'll have to deal with this unresolved father thing, this newly excavated grave.  This deep and indistinct longing she felt.

 


She felt so reinvigorated the next day that she wrapped a silk scarf over her thinning hair, packed her watercolor tubes and brushes into her French easel and hiked up the path past her studio into the woods.  They owned fifty acres from the road to a cherry orchard which abutted their property on the east.  She could not resist the translucent, morning light, a light to savor.

Not since last October had she been to her favorite spot in their woodland.  It was best  when the oak and maple leaves drifted down like russet parchment, coloring the ground at her feet.  She was headed to a secluded hollow she had named Giotto's Grotto, after the 14th Century Florentine artist.  Shady limestone bluffs rose on three sides, frescoed with moss.  Water trickled down like silver tempera into a shallow pool.  The light was always scalloped from the trees, soft and magical.  She loved to wade in the icy water until her legs became numb..

She unfolded her easel when she arrived, wiped off a thin glaze of dust from the rich mahogany and tightened the brass knobs she positioned the legs.  She spread out her palette,

brushes and tubes which she sorted into a deep-welled tray.  From a portfolio she had slung over her shoulder, she selected a sheet of cold-pressed Fabriano paper. It was rough-textured with deckle edges.  She dipped it into the pool, the water almost painful to her hands. Then she taped the wet sheet to her easel's backing board and stepped away to select her subject.

Watercolor was unforgiving, unlike oils which she preferred, but today she felt ethereal, better than she'd felt in days, so the challenge of painting spontaneously in her grotto appealed to her.  She took her fan brush and began a variegated wash from top to bottom, first sweeping on wet ultramarine and gradually smoothing the overlap into a sap green, close to the hue of the watercress at stream's edge.  Satisfied, she took up a No. 3 Chinese brush and began to sketch with a diluted mix of orange and Naples yellow, as she saw the sunlight filtering through the trees.


She had painted in the grotto dozens of times from different angles but each day the tones and colors and mood were never the same.  Sometimes she placed an opossum or raccoon scaling a tree, or a deer drinking, as they probably did at early evening.  Once she had sketched herself skinnydipping in the pool as a young woman, but had blotted herself out before the paint dried.

Today she saw mostly the light with its golden shimmer and she thought of books she had loved from childhood, N.C. Wyeth, Edmund Dulac, Maxfield Parrish, the mystical illustrations in the German Bible her mother had brought from Europe.  She studied her wash, displeased that it was already flat and dull, not at all like the glowing landscape which enveloped her.

She unpeeled the tape and rinsed the paper, releasing it, suspended, just below the surface.  The light, the light, she told herself, how to translate her eye into the chardonnay of the water, the moss sponge and leaf speckle, dazzle of sun slant and sheen against the cobalt shadows -- how to catch every nuance on paper?  If only she were as gifted as the masters.

    An admirer had said of Velasquez that he dipped his Spaniard's brush in light and air -- how exquisite, if only she could.  She sat back on a flat rock and watched the floating paper.  Underground springs bubbled up from hundreds of feet below her, water which continued to flow upwards, defying gravity, even when the pool froze solid in December.

As she was about to retrieve her paper and begin again, a movement to her left, at the periphery of vision, drew her attention.  She turned slowly and was startled to discover she was not alone in her solitude.

A young man sat above her, twenty yards up the slope, his arms folded against his chest.  He was watching her. Don't be afraid, he said, raising his hand as if to still her.  I'm sorry to have frightened you.

I didn't hear you come, she heard herself say.  But her thoughts were flitting about like a flock of starlings.  She knew him, and yet she didn't, yes, she did recognize him, that was what occurred to her.  At the hospital, she said.

Yes, he nodded, as if to completing her sentence.

You sat in my room.  I knew your voice was familiar.

He smiled a disarming smile to ease her apprehension.  His voice seemed to resonate inside her as he said, your life is entering a new phase, and from this moment on,  nothing will ever be the same.

And why is that? she asked.  A rush of adrenaline began to radiate through her.  I hesitate to say what I'm thinking, she said, but I have this weird feeling that you are --  She hesitated, unable to vocalize what she seemed to instinctively know.

I'm an angel, he said

Ava shook her head as if to deny what he had said.  You can't be here, but you are real because I'm not talking to a hallucination, am I?  Of course I'm not.  But you can't be real if you are an angel because -- you can't.  This is too ludicrous.  I'm going nuts.

He was amused at her consternation and held his hands up for her to inspect, rotating them palms forward, then back.  Behold the hands of a hallucination, he said.  Your reaction is completely normal.

I'm stunned, she said.  But she wasn't afraid.  The subdued light or sudden hush or something which emanated from him seemed to have stilled the air about them.  You were at the hospital? Ava asked.

Yes, I was.

And were you in the car last week when I went off the road.  You were there, weren't you, helping steer the car?

I was there, too.


Time out, she said, pressing her temples with her hands, even more perplexed.  Forgive me if I seem a little disoriented, but my whole concept of what's real is a bit altered at this moment.  I believe that you are an angel and I don't know how I know.  Or what you're doing here.  Or what I'm doing here.  And this is really weird, if you don't mind my saying.  I mean, I've seen paintings of angels, and angels on TV and angel jewelry and I can even accept the possibility of angels -- it's just the reality I'm having some problems with right now.

Do you think a worldwide fascination in angels for centuries might validate our existence?

I need to catch my breath, she said, inhaling deeply several times and blowing the air out through her mouth.  He sat patiently waiting for her to calm herself.  You are real.  I see you.  I'm talking to you.  Are you flesh and blood?

Not the same as you, he said.  He held his right hand up to examine, then touched it with his other.  We're  not of earthly substance, though when necessary, I can assume a corporeal body.  Usually I am numinous, like wind, he said, tracing invisible figure eights with his hand.

Are you my guardian angel?

Like Clarence in "It's a Wonderful Life?" he asked, bemused at her reaction.  Not quite like that.  I am what you call a ministering spirit.  I do live among mankind.  You seem surprised.  Why?  That I have knowledge of films?   Or does my being here alarm you?  I'm not able to read your mind.  My abilities, though supernatural, are limited.

I am overwhelmed.  I don't know what to say.  Why have you come?  Why to me?  Why today?

Because you have found favor with the Almighty.

I have?  Why?  What did I do?


His eyes, she realized, seemed simultaneously fierce and compassionate, his gaze unbroken from hers.  I've come to bring you assurance that as you face difficult ordeals, your life is under divine care.  You are not alone.  This is the good news I am sent to tell you.

Do you have a name?  Questions were flurrying inside her, more than she could express. How do I address you?

I have a name, but I am not at liberty to tell you.  Not yet.  Call me friend.  He stood to his feet.  He was taller than she realized, as solidly muscular as a fullback, not how she usually saw angels depicted...  He wore a white linen shirt with gold-embroidery at the chest over loose-fitting pants.  His skin, she noticed, seemed burnished, Mediterranean.  She wanted to memorize each detail.

I must leave, he said.  But be assured.

And then, pinch me, she though, exactly like a computerized special effects, he vanished, leaving her in open-mouthed.  She sat for nearly a minute staring at the empty air before she was able to get up.  Then she climbed the slope to the rock and touched it, hoping to feel heat from where he sat, some proof he had actually been there.

I guess I should thank you, she called aloud.  If you're still here and listening.  Her voice thin and quavery, she thought.  Such a tranquil glen, she thought, such liquid light on her hands, spilling onto the rock.  She ran her hands over its surface.  I not sure what is real now, she said, but thank you.

To convince herself the angel was not a vision she had imagined,  she fished her paper from the shallow water, smoothed it flat on her easel and began to paint him.