FINALIST FOR SLICE LITERARY'S 2017 'BRIDGING THE GAP' AWARD
By Virginia Rand
How you are fallen from heaven,
O morning Star, child of Dawn!
- Isaiah 14:12
The archangels decided on a micro-banishment to the human realm. Pomp and circumstance for an innocent prank. My intentions were good, I swear! On the way out, Gabriel reminded me as to where ‘good intentions’ pave the road. It’s been awfully drab around here.
The message boxes had been overflowing with bummers. Was anybody doing alright down there? We’d been swamped! It breaks our gilded hearts when it’s all hair-tearing and woe amongst the mortals. They couldn’t figure out their own messes for the lives of them. Every tender brow was fraught with anxiety - I believe the stuff is contagious. It seeps through all the prayers we have to sort out. Enough exposure makes us sick too. The other day I tried to tell Maribel her robes were on the wrong way, amused that I was. She spun till the backs of her robes were facing me. Something in her eye was unholy, spitting “Mind your owned damned business, Zehavi!” Good Lord, I wondered if we were approaching the rapture. We’re usually a chipper lot.
It was meant to be a playful gaff, boost morale! Although, I’d be dishonest to say I wasn’t curious as to what six yards of fishing line taut between The Pearly Gates might yield. I thought it would come across as light-hearted! The transported pass through here from months of ‘serious’ talk - cancer, drug addiction, awful driving, fascination with firearms. Why not a demonstration to the newbies, and the other angels, that we could still have a laugh around here? Good Lord! Prayers and processions for all eternity in The Kingdom can’t be the most to look forward to. I know it wasn’t the most productive idea, but who wants the afterlife to be so tedious? I couldn’t have anticipated the busload of Mormons that would be coming through. Apparently I never got the memo that someone had called for them to rest. We can’t all keep up with His plans.
They proceeded in side by side like a chorus line. I watched them approach the gates with eyes cast above. They never saw it coming. I thought maybe I would get one or two, but a bus of27 plus the driver was more I could have ever asked for. I felt some concern when I saw how many were coming in, sure! But it’s not like I could have even hurt them at this point.
They made contact collectively. It was beautiful, like penguins cascading down an ice floe. They caught the trip wire around the knees and pitched forward straight into Heaven, eyes still looking up. I laughed so hard my halo clattered to the cobblestones. When I noticed it was the only sound around, I cast my own eye up. Gabriel was standing over me with a special shade of livid on his face. The transported were splayed out across the foyer with their white shirts and black ties askew. They were a puddle of good will and confusion in pressed trousers. Not even a bus crash followed by a trip wire could muddle those pleats. I never understood why they felt they needed those outfits, but I suppose I wasn’t assigned to Mormons. My own robe had grown so customary I didn’t really think about it, plus it gave a nice breeze up around where mortals chose to strap on underpants. I thought of this as the rosy air hummed with high tension. Someone’s patent leather shoe had tumbled to the ground between Gabriel and I. He smelled like lilacs and fury. Saint Peter called out “Where the hell did she get fishing line from, anyway?”
Seven days community service was the verdict. To rub salt in the wound, they sent me to the continental United States: The City of Angels, named so for the fallen. They always send us there for time outs. Los Angeles is teeming with banal prayers of self-indulgence. It makes your head spin in the crossfire of dreams and demands backed with little will to do the work themselves. Clairaudience in California must be what a human feels at an LSU football game with hearing aids. Good grief - so many dissatisfied souls in one place. We get sent to the frontline to remind us how cushy we have it up there. ‘Community service,’ the archangels call it, but we all know it as the micro-banishment. It’s not like I was the first angel to grow restless.
It was a brief congregation that decided on this, so they didn’t even let me go back to the barracks to collect my belongings. “What could you possibly need?” demanded Uriel, “A toothbrush?” I’d been thinking more along the lines of a change of clothes, the pleasantries needed in modern America, maybe a bag of good tidings or two. But Gabriel was stressed out, he just wanted me gone. Angels Marcus and Caroline (my so called comrades) giggled as I covered my blush. Cowards! All bent on keeping things PC up here. The other angels shot glares and judgements. If I had a tail like Lucifer’s lot, it may have cowed between my legs. I bet they don’t get reprimanded for such nonsense.
I made my way out through the very scene of the crime. Saint Peter was pretending he didn’t find it funny. That old sot has got to have a good sense of humor with his job. I turned back before I prepared for the descent. “You should all know, my intentions were good!”
Gabriel picked up a pocket comb that had been flung from somebody’s pants. The Mormon gentlemen were hunky dory as the greeting committee brushed them off and ferried them in. They just “oohed” and “aahed,” unfazed between the bus accident and the fishing line. They don’t get their feathers ruffled easily. They were just happy to be Here. I thought about pointing this out, along with the fact that (ahem) I never could have hurt anybody at this threshold. Maybe, though, that would be pushing it. Gabriel’s face confirmed this. “Good intentions?” His lips tensed, “You know what road they pave.”
Out in the Hollywood Hills, there’s a hole. It looks like plenty of other holes that could be a coyote den or a drug cache. Amidst the shrubbery, the discarded energy drinks and gum wrappers, this hole lays an unassuming portal to the Heaven realm. We could materialize in the Holy Light and all that crap, but in such circumstances we are asked (demanded) to travel through the portal holes. They say it’s to be ‘conspicuous,’ but really, they just don't want us to alight in glamor. I know, I’ve been grounded before.
I crawled out of the hole on my hands and knees, a little thrown by the sudden gravity. I rolled over onto my back, eschewing the need to keep a clean robe, and stared up from the little rock planet. When the LA locals drive to the lookout points on Mulholland ] and gaze across the city, they must feel the same nostalgia I felt when I looked to the stars. There was home, amidst all those little lights. Even as ethereal life forms, we are all so small in this universe, and yet so connected. My friends, my coworkers, all up there. Then I remembered I’d been micro-banished by those assholes. Certain they were watching over me, I concealed my indignation. I stood up with a straight spine, stashed my halo in a hidden fold and brushed my ass off. Now that I was shunted here for the time being, I set out to find a cigarette.
I felt especially justified to have a smoke when the clairaudience picked up. I started down the hiking trails toward the city lights, and with each step they grew louder. Pleas for money, attention, justified bad behavior, silicone in all sorts of strange places, cars and connections. Christ, I refused to do it, not tonight! I was 700 yards closer to the city from the hole when I fell to my knees. Hands clasped before my heart, I called on the one man I could always count on, Jesus. “Please turn the volume down, would ya? I can’t work with all that noise!” As always, when you ask Him nicely, He obliges. “Cheers, hon. And could you throw in a smoke?”
I realized my feet were bare when I stepped onto the concrete. There was still heat hovering over it, so the sun must have set a few hours ago. I figured I ought to head down toward the boulevards where the local crazies, homeless and meth heads stuck around, where I would blend in better. Wandering barefoot in dirty robes stood out in this neighborhood. Amid the darkened million dollar homes, I looked like a cult escapee. I tried to maintain a smile that excused me from looking like I needed help without a brainwashed creep grin. Cars sped up the curves with their brights on. I could feel confused stares emanating from behind the glares. “What in God’s name…”
A Tesla pulled over, and rolled down the window. A man with grey streaked hair that melded into a disaster beard peered out, “Excuse me miss?” I approached him and stood in the line of fire from a dark brown gaze. He held out two cigarettes “You look like you could use a smoke.” I stuck one behind my ear and let him light the other for me. Small blessings.
Down on Franklin, I began to think about what to do for the next few days. It was the middle of summer and the air was heavy. We were encouraged to go hang out by Skid Row or that sketchy part of Sunset or Hollywood. The front lines. Those who would appreciate the small blessings. Other times we hung out around the freeways to intervene on car accidents. Drug dens were another option, keep a pair of lungs pumping when all ought to be shutting down. There’s just a few things we can do without a whole herald. The more we get done on our own, the warmer our welcome is back through The Pearly Gates. Sticklers.
I maintained my visibility since there weren't too many humans around. I’d been walking in a huff for an hour trying to get into a place of serenity and good will. It had been a while since I’d been given a task on the little rock planet, I’d forgotten how filthy and delightful and bizarre it was. I wanted to enjoy the second smoke, so I bent a rule to summon a spark out of the air. We weren't really supposed to poke at the laws of nature much, but I wasn't exactly about to spawn some burning bush. Out from the friction of my fingertips popped a flame, I took to the cigarette, I inhaled. Human vices tickled me.
Between the smoking and the summoning of a flame, I knew I was stepping deeper into holy shit. My little tumble from grace had sore impact on my pride. Why did it sting so bad this time? Who is to say. I thought about the elbows nudging and the mutterings up there, they were keeping tabs on me. Or maybe they weren’t paying any heed to me at all. Well, fuck ‘em for now. I thought I may as well wax nostalgic with some food and drink. I just needed a means of getting it. I’d been sent off with no supplies (rude). Shady as it was, I figured I could just borrow a human form for a few hours, be a tourist for a little while, get reacquainted.
Cherubim come in male and female angel form, although all the archangels are men. Don’t ask me why, as they are more dramatic of the genders by far. They’re still stuck in some old ways up there. There's been some advancement for the lady saints and angels, but we were a minority in the heavenly administration. For this, I had grown fond of the female form. They don't want us to covet our bodies, but then again there's something to be said about enjoying your God-given splendor. Once I found a host as a canvas, I could spruce her up all I needed to with my own feminine graces.
I set my focus to someone of my build so I wouldn't have too much of an adjustment period. Cars rushed by containing the conscious bodies of some options that didn’t quite appeal to me. I posted up at a stoplight and waited. My dirty feet and wild hair helped me blend with some of the local panhandlers, and I wasn’t regarded much. A stray cat sniffed around, licking some chicken bones chucked out on the side walk. Then I could feel her coming up the road from about a half a mile, a host who would be willing. 24 earth years, fairly tall and strong, no silicone or any of that shit pumped into her, and she was driving a Mercedes 8 years her senior. As she approached, I encouraged the traffic light to turn red.
The driver’s side window was down. I took a step forward to meet my host. Angels have been know to speak through humans with messages from holy retribution and divine guidance etc. etc. white light moments and reverie. I’d been recruited for sacred answering service and all that - but this would be a bit more extreme than what our guild was usually sanctioned for. This might be considered a minor possession. Though my intents and purposes were all benign (cross my heart!) I could feel an eye on me from The Other Side.
“Well shit, guys” said I “You’re the ones who didn’t give me time to pick up any pleasantries before casting me down here.” I shook out a weight in my ribs that nudged me from the inside. And I’ll be damned, we’d been so programmed to reject material things, I don’t know if I’d ever taken a good look at a classic car before. A hood ornament winked at me and leather interiors beckoned from beneath the girl’s seat. The old engine, made to withstand a few hundred thousand miles or more, hummed a little tune to me. An open pack of parliaments and a Zippo sat in the central console. Why would such temptations exist during a time of inner folly, if they weren’t meant to be leant on? I caught the girl’s eye. Her mouth fell agape.
Now that I had her focus, I fumbled for a next move. We weren’t exactly trained for this, as it was considered an inverse of our sacred beings. It was within our abilities, that I knew from this histories of The Fallen - i.e. those of us who had started in heaven and then ended up Down There. The light was going to change, I had to make a choice.
I invited myself in, and she acquiesced. Well damn, that was easier than expected. She hardly noticed. One moment she was driving her car, and the next it was me in the driver’s seat. I looked at the hands on the steering wheel, felt the clothes on this skin and boots covering the soles of these feet. The nails were painted black and I felt the unfamiliar sensation of painted eyes. In the rearview I made eye contact with the body. She was beautiful, her dark eyes lined in black. Wild sensations of being human crept through the veins of my new digs. There were hormones and pulses and lungs a little weathered from smoking since thirteen. I could feel her memories floating around my peripheral like underwater flora. Her skin was soft and her hair was a little dirty, ink was embedded in the skin on her forearms. I supposed it was all mine for now.
Outside the body, the car was held still by the brakes and ready to go. A horn blared behind me with the new color on the traffic light. I allowed her instincts and memories to surface just enough to gain some traction on the road. I was moving, with wind coming through the open window. Cigarettes in the console and half a tank of gas. Her purse was in the passenger seat, and I figured it was mine now too.
There was noise. I reached for the radio. The sound coming from it sent electricity pulsing through the brain in this skull. I turned it up with the human hand. It was the devil’s music - rock and roll. The newly acquainted heart got up to speed with all the weird sounds. I didn’t turn it off - I listened. My soul caught fire, but it didn’t hurt. I hit the accelerator screaming. I thought I might fall in love with the noise on the radio. I didn’t know where I was going and right now I didn’t care.
The song ended and the stereo crackled. A familiar voice that came on sent this stomach spinning. It was Gabriel, that old fool angel on the airwaves. He was saying words to me that I couldn’t hear. I could only feel the blood in these ears throbbing from the resonating song. It felt good.
“Zehavi….What in God’s name…please….” Some crap about repenting what I had done. The street lights floated by and it smelled like concrete and aged leather. The air was hot. Heavy heels with zippers glinted in the footpace of the passenger side. Gabriel’s condemning voice. Fuck that guy. I pressed a button on the radio that said SEEK.
A thick tongued American speaking about Jesus Christ. I recoiled. He had no idea of whom he spoke. He simply spewed what he wanted to believe the Christ was about. I could see a bulging finger pointed at what he believed to be the sources of his misery, claiming he knew what Christ wanted. “DAMNLIBERALSANDHMOSEXUALSANDABORTEDBABIESWHATABOUTFAMILYVALUESLORDHELPUSTHEYWANTTOTAKEOURGUNSGODGIVENRIGHTTODEFENDOURSELVES”
The perverted view of The Other Side sickened me. It always had, deep in my feather light bones the voices nagged how we were misconceived. My heart broke briefly for the anger and the haughtiness ebbing from this radio voice that claimed to adhere to the way of Christ. He claimed to know. He didn’t know shit. Christ was the chillest guy in Heaven, for sure - meditating on the nature of being.
I saw Luke 23:34. The verse was written on a street sign and I glanced as I passed by, then it was behind me.
I had been heading east and wanted to try out these new limbs beyond a seated position. The road had become rugged with potholes and the car shook. I saw a sign that said Styx and I pulled in. I could smell steak and hops. I felt a hunger in the host. She hadn’t eaten for a while and needed to be fed. I thought I’d oblige her, seeing as I was making use of her figure. I’d wanted to anyway. I grabbed the purse in the passenger seat and checked the face in the rearview. She looked good. My presence in her made her eyes glow.
Out of the car and into the bar. I checked the name on the license to learn who I would be tonight. ‘Mary Virginia Bishop, born April 17th 1993.’ She was from Louisiana. I wondered what the story was that brought her out here, wearing black and listening to the devil’s music. I probably could have pulled on the clairvoyance, but it was all suppressed somewhere. My intuitions and abilities as a servant to The Divine were all set aside in a little box deep within. I suppose right there I could have opened that box back up, removed myself from Miss Bishop and left her bewildered in the parking lot of the Styx Bar & Grill figuring she needed to lay off the meth. I could have gone back all goodie two shoes with apologies and wings cowed. I could have done the work with the homeless, the faithful, the demanding, thankless, grueling work for humanity. Instead, I pulled the boots from the passenger side and switched into them from the low rises she’d had on to drive in. Tonight, I would be Miss Bishop - have a steak and a drink, smoke a few cigarettes and brush shoulders with the human people. I’d spent my other groundings doing all the shit I was supposed to do. Now, I would enjoy all the earthly delights I had missed out on when I was human, a thousand years ago when women had no fun at all, and I died in childbirth at 16. I had spent these eon in observance, and I was trapped in piety no more. I showed the doorman ID.
He bent it upward and stared into the information it offered. I could smell red meat and hear voices amidst the din of music. I worried for a second that she may have been sporting a fake. I’d also seen my occupancy had warp her features slightly to something that only resembled what she had been. But he handed it back, and beckoned me in.
And so I went. There were a few steps down and I was amidst moving bodies, tables with food and bottles atop. I felt hunger and thirst.
A tall skinny girl in black gestured me to a table. The brief menu accompanied a much longer drinks list. Mouth watering for whiskey and steak, I wondered if that particular craving came from me or Miss Bishop. A gaunt young man came up to the table and said hello. I sat there smiling at him for seven seconds before he asked me what I wanted. I knew humans did this from observing them, but hadn’t quite been in the driver’s seat to do so. I hadn’t used the voice box to speak, only scream. So I kept it minimal “Steak. Bourbon.” That's what Americans eat, right? He asked me how I wanted it. I said I wanted it on a plate and in a glass, respectively. He pushed all the air in his lungs out through his nose. I grinned, because I didn’t know what else to do. “I’m not from around here.”
The drink came out first and I looked into the amber invitation while people passed through the bar, the dining area, the smoking patio outside. I put my head on the table to gaze through the glass, touched the liquid with my finger, smelled it. Someone glanced sideways at me, and I pretended I couldn’t see. I put my hands before me in prayer. I’ve heard it said somewhere to not ask for permission, but for forgiveness.
I put it to my mouth and it bit my tongue. The hair raised on my arms and my nipples tightened up. I took another, and my teeth felt smooth. A lot more exciting than wine.
The steak was set before me and I had one bite. As I swallowed there was a cold rush down my spine and my palms began to hurt. A man had taken the seat across from me at the wooden table. The room was lit by Edison bulbs and filled with taxidermy. There was smell of herbs from the bar and butter from the kitchen. A tea light flickered on the table between us. There was ink embedded in the skin on his hands and snaked up his arms, little dancing devils and pinup girls, lassos and skulls. He was looking at me. The deep down box where I stashed my holiness was seething, but I didn’t move. I looked back. He threw his chin up and smiled.
His voice box sounded like it had been dragged through a swamp. It fascinated me. A sense of foreboding loomed over my head. I had an inkling regarding what he was on about, but I wanted him to clarify, just to make sure. I kept my hands on the table and said nothing. The drink rippled with reverberations from the floor. He leaned in so I could feel the heat from his breath and his eyes seemed to go black with dilated pupils. He said to me “I can see you in there” and his voice sent electric messages all throughout my nerve endings.
Why tonight? Why now? Why her? Why here? Who is to say? Perhaps there is some cohesiveness in seemingly random events. Upon reflection, it wasn’t some epic fall from grace that got me sat at a table with a demon. A misstep out of restlessness took a tumble and there I was, being commended for my possession of a human woman, whose body I took to engage in earthly pleasures. I thought about the bus of Mormons, settling into their eternal resting place up in Heaven with a thousand years of pleasantries and sacred duties ahead of them. I thought about my own enthusiasm, mirrored in their own, when I was bustled through those gates to join in the duties of a holy herald. I thought about a thousand years in servitude to tight lipped archangels; adhering to their unquestioned dogmas and tradition. I thought of Jesus, as he practiced quiet meditation and turned his cheek in passive allowance of free will as humans acted in anger and self-indulgence in His name. I thought of the condemnation of other people, and how many believe in their so-called good intentions, as had I. I thought of the futile efforts to micromanage and teach, as the message boxes overflowed with confused demands. I stared at this man, this body host to an agent of the other Other Side. He recognized me, for what I was, and what I had done. He winked.
“Down that right now, and I’ll buy you the next round.” I still had yet to say a word, but I obliged. I tipped the glass up and let it all fall down my throat. The chastising awaiting On High, the murmurs of clairaudience, distractions of clairvoyance, even the memories of Miss Bishop wafting in the peripheral - they all seemed to quiet down.
Still, silently I sat. He propped his arm up and crossed his legs, armed with the bottle and the glass he had summoned from the gaunt young man. The people were laughing and dancing around us. They were reeling and reveling in their loosened nerves - neurological effects from the drink. A few had rings around their nostrils. I later learned that they call those white powder rings ‘halos.’ The man before me gestured to his body. “I’ve been hanging out in this guy for a few weeks now.” He pulled out a leather wallet and the ID inside “Samuel Francis Cummings.” He tossed it toward me. “He’s been a solid vehicle, his looks sure do get by.” He grinned, lifted a finger toward me. “Who have you got there?”
I slipped out the ID I’d shown the doorman and pushed it across the table. “Miss Mary Virginia Bishop, southern girl!” He didn’t touch it. He uncrossed his legs. “You could enjoy her for a while.” I pulled the air into her lungs, and thought about smoking. All I wanted was a cigarette, and another drink. Their judgements and regulations scanned through my mind. He looked upward. “You know, they can’t really do anything to you if you take your will back.” Gaze on me, “And it seems you're already making your way down that road.”
He was filling my silence with his words. I didn’t stop him, I didn’t turn away, I didn’t leave. Fuck it, I made the choice to stay and to listen. He told me he was Ose (“like the sounds a woman makes if you know how to touch her”) and how he ran amok amongst mortals. He poured another drink.
“How much can humans know of what they call The Light if they don’t dabble around in The Dark?” He slipped in a coy grin. “You know, in their time of living, humans learn the most through their moments of darkness. Someone’s got to set up the circumstances.” Wind shifts sent the cigarette smoke straight in. I wanted another one, I wondered how many that would make and decided it didn’t matter. A a restlessness filling the gap in my halo was blooming. My intentions were good, I swear.. I was curious as to what walking down that road might be like. Ose raised a glass to me. I had come through The Gates.
But you are brought down…
to the depths of the pit.
- Isaiah 14:15