Angel, A Fable (or: Why Are Angels So Fascinating To Think About?)

by Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash

I usually write about politics here on 3QD, which often means trying to deal with my disappointment in America and the Disappointment-in-Chief Obama. But what with it being Christmas and all, I thought I should take this occasion to tell you a bedtime story for grownups. Here it is.

* * *

Angel1 There was great consternation on the day the baby was born.

“I never saw anything on the scan,” Doctor Brown said.

“How would I be able to tell?” asked Jane, the mother.

“There’s nothing odd about me,” said the father, Bill. “I’m very normal.”

But there it was. The baby girl was not like other babies. In fact, she was like no other baby born in the history of babies.

Snugly against her back, folded down so neatly that you hardly noticed them, were two wings.

* * *

Jane passed her hand over the wings.

“She doesn’t feel like a Miranda to me,” she told her husband.

“Please, Jane,” said Bill. “We can’t do that again. First Jennifer, then Shirley, then Priscilla, then Rose, then Emily, then Babette, then Courtney, and finally Miranda. I like Miranda. It’s original. It’s not like Jennifer or Shirley or Priscilla or Rose or Emily or Babette or Courtney.”

“I want to call her Angel.”

“Angel?” asked Bill.

“Yes, dear. Angel.”

“Please, Jane,” said Bill, and sighed.

* * *

Angel has Bill’s nose and my eyes, thought Jane. But who do these wings belong to?

* * *

“Your child will be famous,” said Doctor Brown.

“No, she won’t,” said Jane. “And neither will you.”

“We will study her from top to toe,” Doctor Brown said.

“You won’t,” said Jane.

“She will provide a solid knowledge base for the good of all humanity.”

“Humanity can go fly a kite,” said Jane. “Nobody is going to study my child as if she were some kind of freak.”

“This child is unique,” said the doctor. “There is much knowledge to be gained.”

“She is my child,” said Jane. “She is not your specimen.”

“She will be the glorious subject of great experiments.”

“Not your experiment.”

* * *

There was a court case. Angel’s identity was kept a secret. A team of three doctors, four scientists and two generals testified on behalf of the scientific community and of the Pentagon. A proper study of this amazing mutation, they said, would benefit science, humanity, the defense of the nation, and the genetic code.

But Jane was the mother. And the mother’s wishes had to be respected, said the judge.

The judge was a woman.

* * *

Angel grew up like any average, normal little girl. She played with dolls. She made little dresses for them. She loved soccer. She put posters of singers and actors and women athletes on the walls of her room. The only original thing about her was her interest in birds, and her refusal to eat eggs.

“Why don’t you like eggs, Angel? They’re good protein.”

“Mom, an egg is an unborn chicken.”

“Don’t be gross. Your father is gross enough for everyone in this house already. Between you and me, I think it’s time for your father to hook up with Alcoholics Anonymous.”

“Mom, Dad is not an alcoholic.”

“Listen child, when last did you see him without a beer in his hand?”

Angel considered her mother’s comment. Hmm. Mom was right. Her father always had a beer in his hand.

“All the men around here drink beer, Mom.”

“Well, then they should all go to Alcoholics Anonymous. There are enough of them on our block to make up their own chapter.”

* * *

The first time she saw a picture of an angel, she was overcome. She looked at it for a long time. It showed an angel standing beside a woman. The angel was bathed in light, with feathers, and a kind face. A male angel. She loved him. She had never seen a male angel before.

* * *

Angel began to spy on her Dad. She kept count: he drank five beers a night. That seemed quite reasonable to her. She tried it herself, but she became horribly sick. She spent half an hour in the bathroom, puking herself dry. She realized she would have to work very hard if she ever wanted to be an alcoholic.

* * *

She decided to skip that project for now. She might try it in her twenties. That’s when most people forge their closest bond with beer.

* * *

Bill and Jane began to fight. The same fight every night.

“You stink!”

“Woman, you’re very loud.”

“You never talk to me!”

“It’s hard to talk when I can’t hear myself because you’re so loud.”

“You’re neglecting this house!”

“I sleep here every night, what more do you want?”

“I want a husband!”

“And I want a wife.”

“I’ve always been a good wife to you.”

“Oh yeah?”

“What do you mean, oh yeah?”

“I mean oh yeah. Oh yeah means oh yeah.”

“Yeah, but what’s your implication, that’s what I’d like to know.”

“No implication. Oh yeah says it all. Pretty straightforward. Oh yeah.”

“Oh yeah says what?”

“It says oh yeah. Just listen to it. Oh yeah. Got it? Oh yeah. That’s what I mean, oh yeah.”

“Oh yeah?”

“See, you know what it means.”

“I don’t.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Oh yeah yourself.”

“Oh yeah?”

* * *

By this point Angel would be rolling her eyes and go on the Internet to look at pictures of eagles.

Under her feet in the living room she heard the “oh yeahs” swing back and forth, until a door slammed. Sometimes a glass broke. Her folks were nothing if not totally predictable.

* * *

When her Dad moved out, Angel was not surprised. In fact, she was quite happy, because she knew she’d now see him only on weekends, and he would behave himself and not smell of beer, and buy her almost anything she asked for, like CDs and an iPad and expensive sneakers, and maybe a big parrot from the rainforest. Her mother and father were saddened and chastened by the divorce, and terribly apologetic around her. It gave her a chance to forgive them graciously, which she thought she was good at, and getting better what with all the opportunities she got. It was good practice for when she was going to work among the poor in a third-world country one day, and become a saint.

* * *

A few months after the divorce Angel became rather quiet. Her interest in birds began to border on the obsessive.

“Mom, can we buy an ostrich egg?”

“Honey, I can get you a quail egg, which is very small, but otherwise we can only get chicken eggs.”

“I want an ostrich egg.”

“There’s only the two of us, dear. An ostrich egg would make an omelet much too big for this house.”

“I don’t want to eat the ostrich egg.”

“If you don’t want to eat it, what do you want to do?”

“Hatch it.”

“Child, don’t go weird on me now. Your father is weird enough already.”

So she printed a photograph of an ostrich egg off the Internet, and hung it on her wall.

* * *

A few weeks later Angel had a fight with her best friend Pamela. A proper fist fight. Pamela, who had straight black hair, was an Asian who was very un-Asian: not even her name was Asian: her math was atrocious, and she talked a lot, and was quite wild, the despair of her parents, who said she was like her great aunt, who had started a strange cult in their home country, and was a shame to the entire family. She punched Pam till Pam began to cry, loudly, in a most un-Asian way. Then three of their friends jumped Angel and kicked her when she was down.

* * *

“What happened to you?” her mother asked.

“I was in a fight.”

Her mother laughed. “You’re the funny one in this house.”

* * *

Her mother didn’t realize that this generation of girls fought like boys. In fact, Jane was quite clueless about most things her daughter got up to. Angel preferred it that way. Sometimes, however, she wished she could talk to her mother about everything that was happening to her.

* * *

She was practicing French-kissing with Pamela because she wanted to make sure she did it right when Victor asked her, and one afternoon she and Pamela got carried away and started doing other things and then they got embarrassed and she wanted to ask her mother about that, but the next day everything was cool and she and Pamela giggled about what had happened, and decided they wouldn’t do anything like that again — unless they were tipsy or something.

You never knew.

* * *

She French-kissed with Victor and it was weird, because it was even more awkward than the afternoon with Pamela, and when Victor put her hand between his legs, she stopped kissing him and started telling him about the nests that eagles built. He asked her if she was afraid of him and she said no, because she knew she could always yank his testicles really hard if he ever got too fresh. That was something she and Pamela had practiced too, with two ping-pong balls in their panties.

* * *

Nobody except her parents, not even Pamela, knew about Angel’s wings. Her mother had sworn her to secrecy when Angel was three, and imprinted the notion of secrecy on Angel’s mind as firmly as language itself.

“If anyone finds out,” her mother said, “you’ll never hear the end of it. Everyone will think you’re a freak, and the government will take you away for ghastly experiments on your private person. You’ll be like those rats they have in the laboratory. They’ll tie you up and inject you with stuff and cut little pieces off you and you’ll never live a normal life.”

* * *

The wings were behind her back, and fit so snugly between her shoulder blades, she often didn’t think of them for weeks on end. Especially during winter. Summer time she thought of them more often, because she always had to be sure to cover them up. She could never wear a bikini, or a halter top, or anything so sheer it would allow people to see through to the extra appendages on her back.

* * *

Her mother had instilled such secrecy in her, she never spread her wings until she was fourteen.

* * *

She had never had an orgasm until she was fourteen either. Pamela gave her a book which explained everything, so she did everything, sitting naked on the edge of her bed, and when it happened – that up-up, fabulous, leave-the-planet feeling – she stood on her toes, and her wings stirred, and they spread, and then, magically, they flapped, once, twice, and stopped.

* * *

Angel’s back feels alive.

* * *

The feeling shot through her like a new kind of air. Normally she would’ve suppressed it – that’s what she’d done all her life – but now it soared in her, helium into a balloon. Lighter, higher, possessed of a natural power: a bewildering flurry of perceptions took over her very self; she was the object of her own subject, the subject of her object: not only a human being, but a creature, with a connection to another species that truly hadn’t been seen before. To dive from the window into thin air: could she do it?

* * *

Victor had climbed up on the roof. It was two stories high. Come up, he shouted, come up. He pointed at the window he had wrenched open to get himself up on the roof. Angel thought, maybe I could fly there. No. Never. Nobody must know. Not even Victor.

* * *

Victor had full lips and long lashes. She loved stroking his face. It felt like she was painting his features into the present. As though they were reaching back to the past, when he was two cells, and urging them on to assume their present shape.

* * *

Growth was assumption: the taking of a throne: the seizing of the future: the walking, after a struggle, into the form which it was driven to assume. The arrival at the self.

Without knowing exactly what she was doing, Angel could do philosophy.

She had thoughts, but not usual thoughts. They were wide and deep.

* * *

We all live in two worlds, she thought. Our own and the world. The world is many other selves. These selves have nothing to do with reality. There is no connection between the self and what is. There is only the connection with other selves.

The world is not a relationship between a self and the world, or all the selves and the world. The world is simply a relationship between all the selves, not to the world.

The differences between the views of the selves create the idea of a world. Which doesn’t exist, except in the differences between the selves. There is no one world. There is only a world of differences between the selves, and in that infinite play exists the world.

Truly a world of our own, because our relationship with our fellow selves makes our entire world.

Our own private inside world is as true as the world of the selves, if not truer. It is the one we know best, and always will.

The world of another self is the one we know least, but from these least-known evanescent feelings come some shifting stability, often deceptive, that weaves the web of relationships that is our world.

* * *

These infinite overlaps are governed by only two sets of laws.

The first set is the laws we agree upon to construct the world, which we mistakenly call the laws of nature, instead of the laws of human nature. They change all the time.

Then there are the more fundamental laws that rule how the selves relate to each other, which change much slower. The most fundamental law never changes.

Like all great laws, it is very simple:

Pain is wrong.

Pain hurts, and therefore it’s an ethical mandate to avoid, prevent, soothe and stop it.

That is the most fundamental law. From this all ethics flow. The sensory is destiny.

* * *

Angel, the young philosopher. She loved philosophy, once she learned to put a name to the shape her thoughts wandered themselves into. One could remake-redesign-rebuild the world in one’s mind and come up with a new world that could enter into the worlds of many selves.

For example: how will a world work in which pain is right?

People would find amazing new ways to hurt themselves. Not that they aren’t expert at that already.

But many people would have their limbs hacked off, their eyes pierced by pine-needles, and their tongues snipped away.

* * *

Victor beckoned from the roof of his house. She could see her from her back lawn, and from her bedroom window. Come on, he said, come up.

She feels her wings stir. Then fall flat.

She can never do that. She can never reveal herself. This is one part of her self that can never be known to another self, except to her mother. To show it would be a betrayal, an intrusion, without the nobility of a rebellion.

She could never fly there.

* * *

Victor wanted to touch her.

He wanted to put his mouth there. He was begging her. Please, please.

No, Victor.

How could she? He didn’t have wings.

* * *

How could she do anything like that with a man with no wings? It was wrong. He was an alien. He was flightless. He had an inappropriate DNA set.

He was not like her painting of the angel.

* * *

He persisted, she resisted. If she didn’t let him do it, he said, she should do something to satisfy him.

You mean?


* * *

Sometimes she wondered why Victor called her up on the roof. Does he suspect something? She pressed her wings flat, flat against her back whenever he put his arms around her.

* * *

You can at least hold it, he said.

Hold it. His it. Why didn’t he say, hold me?

* * *

She ran fast and light. They wanted her to run competitively, but she didn’t. She didn’t want to be in a communal shower with so many girls, all naked.

* * *

Come up here, he said. What would they do up there? It was if he knew something she didn’t, and could only tell her when she was with him up on the roof.

* * *

Her mother wanted her to wear a white dress. Her favorite colors were orange and red. Her mother wanted her to look pure and virginal. When her mother put her in white, she looked like a pre-Raphaelite goddess of snow. Like an angel.

* * *

She wanted to dress in flames.

She wanted to be a fire in the crowd, a bright flight of color, a spume of eye-catching hues. If she couldn’t show her wings, she wanted to show her soul, which was burning and palpably hot, like a volcano on the point of blowing.

Her soul felt like it was lost, because she couldn’t show her wings. She couldn’t be herself.

She was a secret in the world, an alien in the life around her. She was in disguise.

Maybe she could find her soul in color.

* * *

She didn’t think she’d find it by doing with Victor what he wanted to do with her, or by wearing white, or by doing what her father wanted her to do, which was to play chess with him. He bought her a book about it.

* * *

She wanted a horse. She wanted speed. She wanted air flying past her ears.

* * *

She read that around the world there are 125 million children who have never seen the inside of a classroom. How were these children going to get out of poverty if they couldn’t read and write? Who were going to be their teachers? Where were these children? Did any of them have wings?

* * *

One day Victor called her again. He seemed more urgent than before. He waved his arms wildly. She walked over to his house and stood on the back lawn.

There is a place for us up here, he said. It was the first time he had told her about this. Here’s a little hollow where nobody can see us, nobody can find us.

The house had two wings, and where they separated, there was a little nook for them in how the roof was built, he explained. They could be there together.

He peeled an orange. I’ve brought food up here, he said. There are cushions to sit on. We can stay here all day.

It sounded nice. But she knew what he wanted. She wondered if she could convince him not to try anything if she came up to the hollow in the roof with him.

Come and be my queen, he said. I am the king of the block.

Her wings stirred again and she willed them flat. She did not want her wings to respond to his voice. They were her wings alone: her own untouched and untouchable secret. She did not want his words to reach her secret. She wanted no loss of independence. She was the sole commander of her limbs.

Yet she felt attracted as well as peeved. His voice pulled at her wings.

* * *

Once she brushed against the rock between his legs and her wings stirred again. A battle pulsed inside her. She could smell it: damp, musky, aching.

When she pleasured herself, she thought of Victor on the roof, calling to her to join him up there in the nook that he had prepared for them.

Maybe she could fly to the poor children in Africa one day. She could take a bag of seeds and plant them.

* * *

I am the Emperor of the Block, Victor said. Come and reign with me. Be my queen.

He made her a crown. It was made of pieces of glass that glittered in the sun. He kept it on the roof. You can wear it when you join me up here.

You are a boy on a roof, she said. You are the king of nothing.

He laughed. You say that because you are down there. Once you are up here, you will understand. You will feel like a queen. You will be a queen.

That’s funny, she thought. Maybe you can be what you feel. Feel it first, then be it.

* * *

Come be my queen.

I will be a queen, she said. But not your queen.

I don’t mind being your King, he said.

* * *

When you were someone’s king, you were their master. When you were someone’s queen, you might only be their mistress.

She pointed this out to him.

A king cannot sit at the feet of his queen, he said, except in their bedroom. Only one person can carry the scepter.

He held up a stick.

How wrong you are, she thought. Your scepter stands up for me. Your scepter is lost without me. Your scepter wants no other home but me.

Your scepter is homeless. How can you be anything else but the king of nothing? Your scepter will never rule me.

Look, he said, and threw his scepter – his stick – in the air. It twirled in the sun. He stepped forward to catch it, and stepped off the top edge of the roof. He fell. He rolled down the roof. He yelled. There was fear in his voice.

She stood there. Helpless. Her wings would not stir. I can fly up there and catch him, she thought. But her mother’s voice flattened her wings.

He rolled off the roof. The gutter gave way. He fell two stories. Head first.

His head struck the patio. His limbs flopped up and then froze in a strange position. He looked like a heap instead of a body. Blood came out of his mouth.

* * *

She looked at his full lips and long lashes. His eyes were glassy. They saw nothing. She listened to his mouth. There was no breath.

She walked to the phone in a daze. She called the police.

They came with an ambulance. Victor’s mother shrieked.

The police went to the roof and found the nook with cushions and fruit.

You were up there with him, his mother said.

I never went there. He called me all the time. He wanted me to be there. He slipped and fell.

She went home and stayed in her room. Her mother made her a big meal. She couldn’t eat it.

* * *

She could have saved Victor. She could have used her wings. He was a boy who liked her, and she had let him die. Was she a cruel queen?

* * *

Her wings had caused death.

* * *

She went to the garden in the middle of the night. The moon was shining. She could see Victor’s roof. Someone had left a cushion lying on the edge of the roof.

It perched there, blue-gray in the moonlight, like Victor’s tombstone. A little below it slept the scepter that had occasioned the fall of a king – a flowerless stem lying unforgiven at the king’s tombstone.

There was no gravestone. There was no wreath. There was no scepter. There was only a suburban roof and a meaningless stick that once belonged to a king of nothing.

* * *

She walked out on her back lawn in the moonlight and picked up the garden shears from the box by the patio.

She was going to make a sacrifice to the king of nothing. She would give him her wings in death because they had failed him in life.

She would lay them at his tombstone.


She would make one flight with them first.


Up to the roof where he had called her so often.

* * *

She took off her top. Her nipples bristled in the night breeze. A light wind thrust in between her wings and her skin, as if to pry those secret limbs from her body.

Her heart pumped fast. She was flush with blood. A great shush of anticipation shot inside her like spray from a cloud. All she could hear was the boom, boom, boom of her heart. She was going to betray her mother, her past, her utter, utter alienhood.

She was going to show her wings to the moon. She was going to fly.

Her first and last flight.

* * *

Victor’s tombstone called her. She could hear his voice: come up here.

She stood and flapped her wings. She felt excitement between her legs. Her wings tugged at her desire.

What would happen to her sex when she sheared her wings off?

She imagined a gaping wound in her being: a flower against her skin cut off, deprived of life, leaving a big hole where once her entire presence was.

She would be utterly changed. She would become human.

Something rebelled in her. Briefly. The revolt collapsed under her mother’s voice. She was doing what her mother wanted all along: to live without wings. She was merely making official what had happened all along. As an angel, she had lived like a human.

* * *

She had not for one moment been herself. She did not know what that self was anymore, did she?

Her whole life had been a lie that was now going to become the truth. Now she could live as one of them, except memory would keep her life ever in its long shadow.

* * *

Her wings flapped faster. She lifted herself on her toes. She flapped in earnest. Her toes rose slightly, then settled back again.

Would it help if she ran, and then jumped?

* * *

She stepped back against one corner of the yard, facing towards Victor’s tombstone, and looked at the moon.

“Here I come,” said.

She ran forward. As she saw the fence come up, she jumped, and soared, her wings flapping short, rapid flips – it was a matter of getting the beat right – and she was in the air, free, to turn and rise.

She rose.

Her wings beat confidently, like legs kicking under water, except this liquid was gossamer.

She was swimming in the air.

She rose above the houses.

She dropped the shears.

She rose and rose.

* * *

The stars were among her, she was among the stars.

* * *

There was a large shadow in the sun. The shadow had feathers.

It turned and looked at her. It had very wide wings.

It soared over her, and she was cast in its shadow, cool and protected.

They looked at each other.

* * *

The bird reached over and nibbled her on the shoulder. She ruffled its steel-gray feathers. They were wonderful to touch.

The bird flapped to her side and slowly dove.

She dove with it.

* * *

They were hurtling north, to a forest that never ended.

They swept over its green mass, its treetops dancing in the wind, birds turning in great gusts of flocks, birdsong and chatter threading the air into a carpet of carnival noise.

She flew low over the trees, and noticed a tremor from their passing, as their shadows swept over the smaller birds. The forest-floor was standing still, too, living creatures as quiet as roots, till their shadows were too far to see.

* * *

The big bird rose in circles, and she rose with it, making counterpoint circles.

Then the bird turned around slowly, sweeping its eyes over the whole panorama: the valley in which they were now at the center, its mountain sides all equidistant away from them. The bird hovered for a studied moment, then turned its head and pointed north, straight at the highest mountain.

* * *

They followed a river, thickly encrusted with trees and vines and tasty, furry animals. The sluggish push of the water swirled lazily along the banks of moss, leaves, grass, vine, and astonishing flowers, as well as birds too beautiful to eat. Birds protected by their beauty. Unlike humans endangered by it.

Ahead of them the canopy of the forest thinned out, and then it was abruptly stopped by sheer rock. Slabs, blocks, stones, fissures. Faces of gray. Smoothed by time. The weight of the ages.

They flew higher and higher, next to a cliff as sheer as a queen’s lingerie.

Something cast a shadow over the top edge. They shot up the sheer cliff and veered back from the ledge: perched there, airborne, flapping gently as they looked into the nest.

It was empty.

The big bird flew down to the nest and stood on its one side, like a human holding a door open.

* * *

She flew in.

* * *

The nest was slightly larger than her bedroom. She landed softly on a feathery bed. It had a rustic look, not quite bucolic.

She dropped to her knees and ran her fingers through the pervasive softness. The feathers gleamed with all sorts of colors. There was gray and blue and pink and crimson-parrot red. This was the inside of a heart.

She looked up at him. His wings widened, the room acquired a roof. He folded the ceiling and stepped into the room, his presence making it smaller and snugger.

* * *

She stroked his chest. He nuzzled her neck. She passed her hand over his beak and his tongue darted out, quickly, licked and withdrew. She touched the hoods of his eyes. His eyes sharp and bright. Twin suns on her horizon. She felt the places where his wings sprouted, felt the bone there, the sinew, the taut muscle. He brought his wings together under her buttocks and lifted her towards him.

She stretched her hands down and felt the wetness, of him and her.

She put him there.

* * *

His wetness pushed, and then she had a stranger inside her, a pulsing thing.

Then a whoosh of air, his wings flapped once, and they were off the cliff in the air, and his wetness pushed in as they jumped out at the sky, and her limbs stiffened in the leap of the moment, and as the leap and the awareness of it came together, the sky flipped and he slid in: she had an animal inside her, rubbing things as it put one foot after the other in her — the bed of the sky all around them — that hurt a bit and felt funny a lot, yet nothing to be afraid of, except that eventually she lost herself.

* * *

It didn’t take long to get used to eating raw, and building up an array of tastes in the variety of this new menu. She got very fat, and wanted to eat almonds, which was much more trouble than anything else, since he had to peck open every nut. She refused to do it herself.

She sat there getting fatter and fatter.

One night she had a dream in which she flew into the air and swallowed the moon, and struggled with it because it got so hot, shining bright inside her, and turning her into its volunteer light-bulb, when she woke up and there it was:

a big shiny round white egg.

* * *

She sat on it, gently, and imagined the life going on inside it.

* * *

She heard the first crack while she was sitting on it.

Something pecked inside. The crack split longer, then something broke through.

A beak? No, an arm.

A little arm slammed to and fro in the split and cracked it open.

She watched as a little creature stood in the remains of the egg, a bit of shell on its head.

The creature’s back was covered with feathers, but its front was skin like hers. Its legs ended in claws, but its hands were hands like hers.

She could not tell if it was a boy or a girl. She couldn’t ever really, but one day another boy or girl would find out.

* * *

She spoke to the big bird about it. He shrugged. Boy or girl, it could hunt well.

He snuggled one of his big wings up against her, and tilted her so she fell into the crook of his wing.

He asked her, in the new language: are you happy?

What is happiness? she asked.

Off they went on a philosophical jaunt, flying down the currents and crosswinds of shifting clouds of ideas.

After she learned the new language, she made up many new words in this language, until this language was as big as the other one, and he could invent other worlds himself, so she could live in worlds besides her own — many, many brilliant worlds.

She was at home in these worlds, and so was he, and so was their world of differences in the feathers of their nest, enfolding them like a language.

Like the feather brush of speech.

Like the tender touch of the wind.

Shaped by their child’s slow, soft wings.

* * *

Every life can be told. Every life is a story. Every life has a moral. Try this one: use what you have. If you're born with wings, use them to fly. That's how you give your story a point.