Kirsten Imani Kasai
—Leave it. Don’t go putting your hands on that nasty thing.
—But it’s so cold. Won’t it die out here?
—Look at it. It’s already doorknob-dead. Best thing for it.
—I said leave it! Get on back to the house.
I went, but I couldn’t leave it like he said, naked in the snow, its soft gray feathers soaked and hung with icicles. I waited. The sun slid into bed at 5 o’clock and He would go off somewhere to soak his bones in ambrosia, the liquorish nectar of the gods. The door snicked closed. An engine choked and turned. The smell of exhaust drifted across the muddy drive and buffeted the door, seeping through its wooden skin. Grandfather clock ticked off the hour, minute by minute. Fields rolled glittering and blue below a pale Trapper’s Moon. Scabbed trees with crackling bark hunched and trembled beside the road. The soft nattering of horses muffled by a black night pierced with glaring white stars, sharp points gouging the sky like needles of glass. My boots crunched through ice-crusted snow. I trod on broken glass dropped from the sky. I trod on fallen stars. My white breath billowed, curling around my head like Medusa’s writhing hair. I was a locomotive steaming along invisible rails, pulled toward my destination and powered by a red fire raging in my belly.
It was still there, stiff and frozen. Bedraggled. Even if it was dead, I wanted it. I looped leather reins around its wrists, flesh like hard marble beneath my wet gloves. I thought it would be heavy but it was light as dandelion parachutes and left no marks when I dragged it home. The old barn was best. No one used it anymore, a shoddy wooden structure dwarfed by the new pole barn’s glimmer of galvanized steel. The hay inside was wet and dirty. I mucked it out but the more I dug, the more it stunk of old horse shit and filth and rat droppings. I climbed up to the hayloft where the bales were pale and dry. I broke those bales and made a nest for it since it had wings and maybe things with wings don’t like lying in beds with blankets, or wearing clothes, for wasn’t it naked and shining with frost?
I could carry it up on my shoulders but the wings were clumsy and flopped every which way. I could see stepping on the fringed feathers, my boots tangling in their trap, and falling backward to my death. I tied the reins to the bale spear and hoisted it up. It hung there while I scrambled up the ladder. It didn’t move when I cut it down with my pocketknife. Its eyes stayed closed, not even a line to mark their openings.
He came home. Heaving up the long hill, His truck coughed and gasped. My boots slapped the ground. I tottered on the fence post and dragged myself over the icy cornice. He slammed the doors, out and in. I hung up my wet things and pulled down my nightie. I was stood before the electric fire, rubbing the blood back into my cold thighs when I heard His heavy tread on the bowed stairs. Here He comes, ambrosia in His mouth. The fireman quit shoveling coal into my firebox. The locomotive stalled on the rails. The door opened. I waited all through the dusky hours of a winter’s day for the next night to come and the ambrosia to call him. He was like to stay in though, in one of the moods I liked Him best—quiet. He did his work in the fields and came in early, saying nothing of the old barn or the strange things He might find there. His mouth moved around the fork. Gravy slithered into His throat. We sat by the fireplace in our night things like a proper husband and wife, me on his lap in the old horsehair chair. Under my gown, His hand was a brand on my thigh.
He slept, heavy as a stone in our bed, pressing the old mattress toward the floor. When the snores rumbled loud and long, I shifted from beneath his giant limbs. His arms were logs rolling down my body’s river, dangerous obstacles to dance across on my way to my coat, my boots, the silent treasure of the fledgling in my nest.
One thin peel of moon illuminated the weathered planks of the old barn. A white owl whooshed past my head, spiraled into the sky and vanished. Not a noise came from the hayloft. Not a single gold stem dropped down to show me that it might yet be alive, but it was. It sat in a ball with its knees drawn up to its chest, wings pulled closed around its body like drapes keeping out the winter chill. It opened its eyes and stared at me with yellowish-white pupils like splashes of milk on a dark plate.
Startled, I spilled the cream I’d brought, porridge-thick with crumbled biscuits. It looked at the bumpy white pool soaking into the hay and its mouth popped open. It smacked its lips like a chick awaiting food regurgitated from a wet beak. It had a pointed red tongue, deeply grooved and smooth. I poured cream into my palm but it only cocked its head and stared. Long, curling lashes the color of wood ash sprang wiry from its lids—had they been there before or sprouted overnight, like toadstools after a dense rain? It ruffled its feathers, sending gusts of heat over my bare legs. I glimpsed its body between the wings, the rump as red as a baboon’s. Closer I got, shaking and shuffling on my knees as I inched toward it. It grabbed my hand and licked. Its tongue felt like fire and ice, suffering and relief, the black eye and the steak. Its tongue flickered over my palm, curled around each finger and wrapped around my wrist. I thought it might bite me and drain my blood. He would never find me, then. He wouldn’t think to look in the old hayloft for me. He would rather think me run off with the handsome deputy sheriff or the butcher’s boy than taken up with one of Them.
It did not bite me. It sucked the salt from my skin with its fire and ice mouth. It poked its tongue between the buttons on my gown and fished in my navel. I fell back into its nest, hay flying up around me, a golden halo. Its wings enfolded us. He’d always told me that the creatures that plunged from the sky and fell into our fields were fugitives from the Devil’s zoo. It was to our everlasting misfortune that our farm sprawled beneath their flight path. He marked their migrations on our calendar and oiled His gun in preparation for His fun. He couldn’t steal them from the sky, that wasn’t legal, but He could shoot the ones that fell on our property. Or slice open their bellies with his knife and feed their guts to the dogs. Or jump on them with His big boots and laugh when they wheezed and snapped in two.
The migration had ended a week earlier. This one was a straggler. It was too late now to follow the others. It would have to wait out the winter and rejoin them in spring. I didn’t mind, for it meant we could stay here, just us two, through the bleak season—me and my chick.
It seemed to have no knowledge of the world, for it had come from the sky above the sky, the secret space we were not to talk about. I knew there was a mount somewhere, six million stairs with stations along the way to sell the seekers water and relight their dead lamps. Some said the stairs were black with blood, slick and gummy with the spill of ages—martyrs spread like margarine across cold toast. Some said they were white as sugar, white as holy robes, but I imagined they were sharp rocks that cut your feet and took their price in blood. No one had made it to the top and if they had, they didn’t come back down to tell about it. I used to fancy that there were piles of dry skeletons there, bound up like faggots of wood waiting for the fire. That the angels flew from their holy houses to snatch up tinder for their hallowed sacrifices. That one day I, too, might burn on their pyre.
But this one, still muddy and naked, was not what I imagined. It had no malice and its eyes did not judge me harshly, as I thought they would. It was a relief, that look— to be seen and not found wanting.
—What do you eat? It clattered its strange eyes at me.
—Are you cold? It did not answer. Never had it made a sound. I didn’t even hear it swallow when its tongue ran over my skin.
—Can you fly? Nothing. But those milk-pupils, white centered daisies, contracted and flared.
—No? Are you hurt? The dusty heat of its wings warmed my cheeks. Its feathers were impossibly soft, more than baby skin or the sweetest mouth. I pushed my hands into their mass and feathers rose up around my fingers, like vines climbing a trellis. Panic did not set in as I thought it might. The creature spread them wide, showing me iridescent under-wings glinting peacock blue and the dark red veins that fed them. It folded me inside its cocoon and the heat of its skin—how, when it had been so cold before?—nearly scalded me. I pressed my lips to the thickest pulsing vein just to see how it felt, warm and alive.
I could see no sex at all. Its belly was smooth and bare. How did angels make new angels? Did God take dead souls and remake them into these beautiful monsters? Was this creature a sort of holy husk wrapped around a real person, a body transformed by its brush with divinity? What sort of God would want serving by a heavenly host of silent neuters?
—What do you want from me? But it did not reply and pressed its face to mine as if I had never spoken.
His call cut through our moment and severed our connection. The creature released its hold and curled in on itself, nestling down in the hay.
—Where are you, gal? He hollered at me, His voice rough as split beams. His boots tromped over the ground and He cursed me under His breath.
—I have to go, I said. I’ll come back soon, promise. And I went, chewing on the heart in my mouth, swallowing the bitter taste that
bubbled up from below when He used that one. I crept round the old barn, ran a wide arc through the field behind the house and came out the other side. Let Him think me woolgathering on the hills or pulling up nettles for soup.
He said, Get your knitting needles.
—What do you need them for?
—For doing the Lord’s work. Don’t ask me any more questions.
So I did not ask about the bag in His hand or what it held. Why it squirmed like a sack of cats for drowning. I got the needles and brought them out to Him. He gripped them like arrows or knives, carrying them points up into the fields. I wished He would trip and fall, and put out His eyes. I ran behind Him, waiting for the snowy hillocks to turn His ankles but He was sure-footed and steady. He carried an electric lantern— pointless, as He’d committed the way to heart. We walked a long time, puffing against the cold. At the edge of our property, there was a barbed wire fence and He held the lines apart for me as I crawled through. It was a small courtesy, which I was sure I’d have to repay. There the hayfields petered out, swallowed up by sinkholes in the karst. Limestone boulders shone gray and gold. The plummeting vale below yawned its vast black mouth.
—Do you hear it? He asked, His voice gone queer and cold.
—Listen! You must hear it. Come closer, we’re going down. He grabbed my hand and yanked. Small muscles beneath my shoulder blade ripped, and pain pooled in their wake.
Trip! Trip! I urged but He did not fall and impale Himself on my needles. It was too much to hope for. Angels littered our landscape, but they did not heed my prayers. We came to a cave overhung with dripping slag and sodden moss, its gasping, hissing hole blowing hot steam that scorched my cheeks.
—Take the bag. I took it, dread full up in my throat, guts heaving with shame.
This was not the first time, nor would it be the last. He licked his lips and whistled, sharp and mean. Snow began to fall, white flakes wet against the empty sky, as if answering his summons. They came. Clawing and cracking, the sound of their teeth more brutal than knives. This was the worst of it, this first glimpse of Hell’s children. They spewed out, a river of earth-vomit. Not alive, not dead. Not spirit and definitely not human—but the pitch beneath the soil churned up its cache of bones and rotted skin as they came snarling for their meal.
He untied the bag and upended it. An angel tumbled out, a clumsy pile of limp limbs and draggled feathers.
—You know what to do. He said, hoisting the needles at me. —One through the forehead and one through the heart.
I thought only of my little chick, that gray and perfect nestling hidden in the barn, its velvet tongue lapping the salt from my skin. What if I refused?
—It’s you or it. They’ll want feeding. They expect it. Which would you rather they have?
—Why do you make me do it? My voice came out soft and broken behind the noise of hungry demons.
—It is your due and my right. Winged monsters fall from the sky and seed the Earth. We must stamp out the weeds before they grow.
—But why me? He grabbed me with iron fingers and shoved me down but did not answer. The angel quivered on the frozen ground, its daisy irises collapsing in upon themselves. Demons swarmed at the corners of my eyes, dogs kept at bay by their master’s command. Hot tears pricked my eyes and fell with a sizzle, leaving holes in the snow. He put the needles in my hand.
The angel stretched trembling fingers toward me, slid them down my cheek and across my nose. It spoke with a voice heard only in my mind. Rephaim, you shall not lie with the fallen mighty. Then its hand clasped the needle in mine, and its mind-voice said, Quickly. I feel the sting of their teeth. I leaned on the knitting needle with all my weight, felt it crack and splinter hollow bones and descend into soft tissue. The next, pushed into the shallow dent between the creature’s eyes, left a shattered ring of broken eggshell.
Released, the demons knocked me aside for their feast. Burning spit flew from their jaws, and blood ran like cream from a tipped jar. He grunted and praised them, licking gore from the needles in my fists.
I was right. I had to pay my due. The sight of all those beasts stirred him up inside something awful. He fed from their slaughter as if he’d done it himself, tearing wings from backs like wings from beetles, swallowing gutfuls of gray feathers and laughing all the while. His eyes gleamed red. He dragged me across the icy fields and down the lane to the house. I knew what was coming.
—Get on up there. He pointed to the stairs, as if I didn’t know what he meant. As if this were the first time.
I went, my legs shaking. Grinding my teeth. He came up soon, wiping the shine from His mouth as though He’d been eating roast meat and sucking the bones. Death was on Him, a stink of flesh and pigs, as when He came in from the slaughterhouse with blood beneath His nails. The bed springs yelped when He sat down. They wanted no part of it either.
Sleep wouldn’t come. The hooting of owls didn’t damp the sounds of demons feasting on fallen angels. Those sounds stuck in my head, repeating over and over, digging into my peace. Did the same fate await my chick? I knew it so. He would delight in its murder. I must be sure to keep it hid until it could fly away again, and return to the high place at the top of the stairs.
I knew I shouldn’t go, but I was compelled. Hooked by the thought of its tongue on my skin and the heat that radiated in echoing waves from the skin beneath its wings.
He slept beside me, oblivious. Dreaming of death among the sunken karst, no doubt. The mattress squealed and His hand rose up and reached out for me. Tugged. Bold, but trembling, I shook Him off.
—Can’t I go to the pot when I want?
He grumbled and waved me away. I saw my breath in our room, my exhalations a family of poltergeists flying on the air in that strange chill that settled when all this began and refused to ease. When the electricity died, and the sounds of screams filled the air and bodies lay by the road into town. It had been months since the sun went gray and the world upended, dumping its divine debris atop human landfills. Sometimes, I’d dream of a blue sky but it was so improbable, I knew it false. My world had always been ever thus.
Boots over bare feet. No time for socks. I pulled on my dressing gown and slipped through the door, wincing at its creak. Cold snapped the trees, their sap frozen and breaking inside the cambium. I thought only of my chick, that barn, that pulsing red vein outlining the edge of its wing, where I might press my lips.
—Are you here? My voice small and soft. I kept it gentle, full of welcome and invitation. Maybe it slept. I climbed the ladder to the loft and saw my chick—my very own angel—nestled deep in its own down. Blanketed by feathers, only the crest of its head showed. It didn’t move. I stretched out my hand, pushing between feathers, finding skin hot and alive. A fever took me over. I was compelled to shake off my boots, strip off my gown, cold air puckering breasts bruised by the fingers of the Devil-wrangler in my bed. The hay pricked but smelled sweet as I lifted a gray wing and slid beneath it into a pocket of heat. I curled beneath its broad wings and it shifted to enfold me.
—Why do you never speak? Tell me your name. I said, as if a wild animal might have a name for itself or a name chosen by others of its kind. As if lions and bears might address one another by Mr. or Mrs.
My chick rested its hand on my breast; the white pupils of its black eyes glinted like stars.
—My name? I asked. It nodded. I shrugged. —He calls me Peanut, sometimes. Or Scrag, if His mood is black. I lifted up my nightdress, the smell of His sex still clinging to me. —Are you hungry? Do you thirst?
The fever kindled and raged inside me. Made my blood run like hot syrup in my veins, simply for the nearness of the thing. Its long lashes tickled my breasts as it bent to take sustenance from me. A thousand shivers ran over and under my flesh, filling me up with a new sensation as foreign to me as laughter—something I’d only read about but never experienced. My chick opened its mouth and pulled my lips between small teeth. Its long, flickering tongue explored the corners of my smile and the crease where lips meet gums. It had strong arms and hands, long broad fingers, palms quilted with silk. Silken hands upon my breasts, my back, my hips. Humming far down in its throat, vibrations traveled from its skin to mine. Such a simple pleasure! I giggled like a child, with a sudden astonished spark. The sound of it startled me, so alien did it seem to my ears. That sort of joy was foreign to me and on hearing my delight, the angel flashed its slice-of-pearl teeth at me for to touch me was to wound yourself. I was full of sharp things—burrs and thorns, hard, razor-edged snowflakes, prickles and metal spikes, murderous icicles—but they melted away under my angel’s gaze.
I did not think that those creatures could hold so much power. Everyone said that the Nephilim were birdbrains, that the servants of the Lord were no better than trained pigeons following rote commands, but my angel held the light of the sun in its hands. The universe inside me expanded and begat galaxies and habitable planets. My angel birthed Edens in me, and secret gardens burst open and scattered pollen to the wind. New species sprang up, took to the skies, burrowed into the wet earth and filled the seas.
It tasted of brine, of raw, wet silk, of honey—that long tongue tipped with heat. The scent of its body poured in radiant waves from the folds of its damp skin, painfully familiar and yet I could not pinpoint what I recognized and it drove me mad. So like, and yet so unlike as to be entirely alien, five times removed from any of my small experiences. Not like milk, or vanilla, or burning wood, or the scent of rust and blood, or the stink of cadavers or newly-spread manure. Not like a man, a demon king, the sweet dust of haylofts or the offal on the slaughterhouse floor. It was something I would press my nose into and inhale, trying to grasp the elusive, tantalizing thread of intoxication that made my head swim. My angel tented me with its wings and stoked the bliss inside me until fire filled my eyes and the blood under my skin burst into golden flame.
Maybe I slept, or floated in the empty space between increments of time for the sun soon stabbed through the barn slats and poked my eyes. Fear shot through me, white-hot jets of shame and paranoia. I pushed that creature off me and leapt to my feet, naked, quivering, my nightgown dissolved by a single touch. I must clothe myself. Bathe, for I smelled of heavenly nectar, my skin dipped in the sweetest ambrosia. Glittering trails of angel kisses decorated my flesh. I pulled my dressing gown closed like a cloud barring the moon and descended the loft ladder on shaking legs. My bones had gone soft inside my skin and I was sure that light spilled from every pore. I must remove every trace before He saw me and punished me for my sin. Thank the stars He slept still, snoring in a pool of sweat with a strange red tinge. I washed in the water splashing from the half- frozen tap and pulled on layers of clothes. I would lose myself in work, for nothing else could pull me from my reverie while angel-song still danced in my head. There were goats and hens to tend in the warm, new barn. Ice to break from the waterspout and troughs. Hay to fork into piles. I worked hard, losing myself in the feel of blood thrumming through tired muscles.
My belly curled up in a ball with a hunger that food would not satisfy. I worked through my haze, my pain and fading bliss. As it so often did when I was alone, a nagging worry crawled to the surface of my thoughts. There was an abyss in the middle of my mind. I’d grown used to its presence, that yawning vacancy, and stopped peering over the chasm’s edges, wondering what lay in wait at the bottom and why I had so few memories of life before Him.
He found me naked in a glade, so He says. I wonder at the type of man who’d take a foundling for a wife. It left me feeling like road kill bagged for supper, my meat devoured, my skin tanned and made into a hat. It left me feeling loose and untethered to the world. I had no anchor and without weight, I could drift forever, lost and alone. Where had He found me? He would not say. What was my condition? Broken, He said. Broken like a stick of straw, hayseeds hanging limp. He liked to remind me that he’d rescued me. Saved me from the damnation of the streets, the wider world. His was a saving that did not salve or soothe any pains, but instead made deep, intractable wounds.
All that work made my skin itch and burn where my scarred back rubbed against the fabric of my clothes. Those half-moon shaped scars were so old and smooth, they never bothered me, but today, it was felt like fingernails scratching me from the inside out. I shucked off my heavy coat. Raised my shirt, relishing the air on my skin. Better to work half naked than scritched and scratched by hairshirts.
I jumped when I saw him, standing in the doorway, watching me with hateful eyes.
—Where are your clothes?
—I was hot. Red-faced and sweating, I hoped he’d believe the lie.
—It ain’t but 50 degrees in here. What have you been doing? He stomped across the floor, his heavy tread shaking up dust. He put his pointer finger to my forehead, right in the shallow divot between my brows and pressed hard. A watery black light sank down over my eyes.
—You forget where you are, He said. Who you belong to. You, among all the others, He said, his voice as low as the rustle of a snake slithering out from under a rock. —You I saved. Plucked up from the dirt like a worm for bait. Figured you were too young to give me grief, but you grow every day and make me wonder if maybe I was wrong.
The black light spilled down my neck. It stilled my breath, flowed through my veins and chilled my heart.
—Why should I keep you alive? He asked, almost to himself, his arm like a vise around my waist. —I can make any woman cook and clean for me, tend my beasts, grease my pole. My pets will put you in check, little witch. Come on.
And it was back across the snowy fields to the wet caverns beneath the distant karst bellowing and heaving, the hills rolling and rumbling like a bilious gut. Cold slapped my bare skin. Storm clouds darkened the sky and freezing rain began to fall.
He whistled for his pets and the ground opened, licked me up, drank me in. The caverns were hot and steaming, the air choked with sulfur fumes and the earth’s fiery breath. My skin bubbled up with boils and welts. When they had their way, the demons were odorous as vomit, and stinking and acidic. They flayed me with hot tongues like branding irons, scalded me with their dripping spit and jetting, bloody semen. Their touch scorched the flesh from my bones, and it shamed me that there could be any pleasure in such an act. But they were demons. It was their duty to pry the moans from my writhing flesh, to torment me with sensation and push me to the brink because it make me ill with craving. You’d think, being demonic, that they would just sate themselves with my body, my holes, use me up and be done with me but the sport was in making me cry and beg. Their sex was brutal, nightmarish. They raked sharp teeth across my thighs, drawing furrows in exposed muscle and fat. He held me down while His minions fed, crooked, wicked mouths clamped around my wounds like leeches. He never tired of watching. It was only the rising sun that ended our debauchery, for the light settled between the cavern’s cracks and warmed the karst, driving those devils back into darkness. He carried me home. Not from any sense of charity or kindness, but simply because it was faster to sling my broken body over his shoulder and stride homeward, rather than struggle with me, limping and sagging, slinking to the farmhouse and its cold porcelain tub. It did not end there. He must bite my breasts and slap the meat of my thighs, empty himself into me before He, too, tired. Only then, drained of His seed and dry and empty as the dead, would He drag His carcass to the bed.
I fled while He slept, needing the sting of winter to settle my restless heart. The yard was dead quiet. Gray smoke spiraled up and burst against skies that spanned as empty as the skins of ghosts. I could smell the stink of burning flesh in the towns, hear the riots and blistering pop of distant gunfire. Panic made people shriek and quarrel. Made them set things alight and shoot each other. The fear would spread to our farm soon enough, stragglers and strangers running down our road with crimson tears running from their eyes. What had there been before this? A memory itched below my skin, inside my bones, a festering of maggots—memory of something lost. I could rip out my own heart, squeeze it like a lemon and gain not a single drop of bitter juice. My chick’s light was but a pinprick inside me, a cheap telescope with which to view my soul’s eclipse. Brighten me, I thought. Warm me.
The old barn glowed in the morning sun, pink and gold rays frosting its boards with crystal drops of sunshine. I knew my chick waited. It was the only thing that gave me the strength to grasp the ladder’s rungs with trembling fingers. My arms and legs were soggy noodles, boneless and feeble. Blood ran from my wounds, burning demon seed dripped down my thighs and left trails of gore. The angel would clean me up. Soothe me. Erase that demon taint. So weak. Just halfway up and I lost my balance, felt the ladder teetering on uncertain legs and deciding the direction of its fall. A sound slipped from my mouth, thin and hollow, as I braced for the smack of the floor against the back of my head, the loss of light and consciousness. But it didn’t come. My chick caught me in strong, supple arms, the whoosh of its wings nearly silent—an owl on the hunt. We circled the interior of the barn before settling in the nest, where the angel cushioned me on one gray wing. A dot of deepest indigo glimmered in the center of each white iris, like a drop of ink.
—Your eyes are different, I said. My hand stroked its smooth cheek, and I smiled when it curled its tongue around my wrist. –What’s happening to you?
Pressure, then, in my mind. Softness, like a gust of tropical air, hints of sweet fragrances, mysterious and heady—the most potent and rich of roses. Open, It said. A fat droplet of glistening liquid rolled off its bottom lip onto my tongue. It sidled into my throat, sap-slow, and eradicated all my pains. Kisses then, deep and warm, our mouths melting together, my chick like some mythical animal eating the bloom off a flower.
An organ extended from some hidden sheath of skin, flexible and supple, more tentacle than rigid bone. My chick captured my lips between its teeth and squeezed, pinning me beneath it while its organ sought my heat, pushed into my softness and churned and wormed inside me. It was not unpleasant to be fucked back to life, rocked in a holy nest of feathers beneath the velveteen flesh of a fallen host. Subtle heat began to burn, deep in my belly. My chick lit a fire in my womb. Lights inside my head brighter than the new sunlight chinking the slatted walls. Heaving, consumed with need, my chick pressed against the rise of my belly, scratched and scabbed, into the bony rise of my sex, raw and red. Pushed into my dampness and waited. For my assent? My encouragement? I did not know. I did not find out.
His voice cleaved our reverie, cut my peace to ribbons, flying tattered in the sudden cold that swept over me when my chick leapt up, teeth bared, to peer over the edge of the loft. He stood below, pitchfork in hand. His glower was wicked but He kept His words soft, lulling.
—Come on down here, Peanut. You don’t know what you’re doing.
Afraid to move, I couldn’t answer. Shivers took me over, icy sting of fear, the sudden shock of my transgression as startling as the rumble that shook the walls.
—Hear that? He said, pointing his pitchfork at the open wagon doors. Fighting’s getting worse. Coming closer. We’re going to have to make our stand. You’ll stand by me, won’t you Peanut?
Against my will and better judgment, I nodded automatically. My chick hissed and snarled, a pathetic attempt to frighten Him and drive Him far from us.
—Peanut! He called. You really want to do this? The floorboards creaked as He advanced and my chick flapped its wings in a flurry. The hayloft window was latched. I felt I must breathe, have fresh air slap my cheeks and pull me from this nightmare. From that height, I saw the long road beyond the high fence at the property line and beyond it, an advancing skirmish. So far, the townspeople had kept to their muddy streets and impoverished warrens, but now they came, a skirl of violence.
The sky was white behind whiter clouds. Spring and the Nephilims’ return were still months away. Somewhere, my chick’s kin dipped and soared through blue skies. Somewhere, perhaps, I had a mother and a father, a family who sought me, missed me. If that were true, wouldn’t they have found me by now? No, I knew better. Knew myself lost beyond lost, deeply pocketed in His jacket, tucked away from prying eyes. Knew myself forever unfound, should I stay.
—Peanut! He yelled. Anger spewing from his throat—sour bile that sprayed the walls.
Too late, I reached for the ladder’s rungs, intending to pull it up but He had hold of it, shook it from me. Slammed it against the loft’s edge and began to mount the pegs. My chick had saved me once already.
—Help! I cried, gnarling feathers round my fingers. You can fly! Take us from here! I pointed to the open window and the creature cocked its head, dazzled by the endless open sky. Loud “boom” of bombs. Rattle of crockery and cabinets the world over. The townspeople hurled flaming jars, a useless parade of vengeance.
I stood, legs braced to jump, fly, fall. Raised my arms like a child.
My chick leapt and whirled on frenzied wings. Arched its back and darted like a dumb swallow among the rafters. It flew with difficulty, straining its damaged wing, muscles popping beneath its bared skin.
—Peanut, you goddamned waste of skin. Get your narrow ass down here! His head appeared over the loft ledge. Still, He clutched that pitchfork in hand.
I prayed my chick would savage Him, drive that devil back, but it darted and chortled, shedding bits of hay and litter upon our heads.
The window hung open at my back. Would the fall be enough to break my spine? Crush my neck and end my life? Or would I lay paralyzed and frozen, a living doll for my master to play with? I could see the faces of the townsfolk now, twisted with menace and fury. Blotched with righteous fervor and zealotry’s mania. What would they make of me? A fleshy little scrap torn by two dog’s teeth, a shabby, suicidal intermediary in the war between heaven and hell.
He made the loft and jabbed at my chick, stabbing into empty gaps of air and
feather. My chick smacked Him with a muscled wing and sprayed golden droplets from its mouth—ambrosial arcs of rain. The pitchfork’s handle smacked the side of my head, crushing my temple. Garnet blood flew. Sickness was in me then and I should like to end it all. I tottered. Saw black smoke stream from gasoline fires and a heap of burning tires. Heard the warning sirens blare as I fell. It took but a second to impact and I closed my eyes, once again, anticipating the smash of bone and brain.
It didn’t come. Feathers all around me, gray and downy soft. Was that a grin distorting my chick’s mouth? We had fallen and it lay crushed beneath me, a smothered cloud.
—No! I scrambled backward, all my light and heat draining away into the mouth of that monstrous leech.
He came upon us, a beast of fire and fury, prongs erect and gleaming. He would have stabbed us both, two morsels of cheap meat on the same fork, had I not grabbed my chick and rolled away. It was a bad move, for now I had exposed my beloved’s back and He was easy about snatching up the wings, pulling his knife from its sheath and slicing them off, leaving two half-moon scars to match my own. They seemed to rattle like windblown curtains as He shook them, feathers raining down and shattering into a million brittle bits. I clung but I was not strong. Flesh ran through my fingers like sand. Everything disintegrated and I could not clutch and contain it. My heart, too, then, running out like sand.
I was small and insignificant. The world was so much greater than I. Angels swarming above, demons writhing below and chaos flooding the streets with insanity. All I had left, all that was my own was this single small spark, this most recent memory of bliss beyond measure. Softness and sweetness unparalleled.
Blood ran into my eyes and I could feel the bruise swelling my temple, pressing my eyeball out of shape and making me dizzy. The knife was down, the pitchfork anchored my chick to the barn floor, pinning it down in the muck and shit. Where were my needles to gouge out His eyes? Why had I no minions to summon to finish my dark deeds for me? Blood was everywhere. My chick lay splayed open, faster than I could draw a breath. Its moonbeam skin lost its ethereal sheen, its beautiful daisy-white eyes grayed. He meant to hack into my love, to butcher it and feed it to his dogs. I fell upon him, turning the knife toward him but he shook me off as easily as a clinging terrier.
Alarms blared in the distant town. Almost loud enough to drown out the soft singing of a single bird. The song—a gorgeously tangled skein of mourning dove, thrush, oriole and hooting owl and wren whistles—came from my chick. Not its twisted mouth but elsewhere, beneath the flaps of stiffening skin. He would pull me aside, drag me off to the karst caves for punishment but I would have none of it. So what if the town collapsed, a smoking rubble pit heaped with waving arms and screaming heads? So what if He called his pets and they erupted, gnashing steel teeth and thirsting for blood? The world could turn tail and devour itself—it mattered not to me.
I pulled muscles from bone as easy as wiping butter from a knife. Something flitted and darted about inside a closed cage made of fragile, thin ribs. My chick—my beloved—had a bird for a heart. Alive inside its chest, a single, small songbird. I wept as I broke bones to free it. In direct proportion, my chick withered and crumpled to ash as the bird butted against its ribs and shot out. Flurry of wings and screaming. His eyes gouged and pecked, His face raked by a sharp beak. It snagged my collar and we made straight for the open barn door and took flight, up through spirals of smoke and fire into the blank and empty sky. The barn was a toy left behind on the lawn, a diminishing speck with an angry demi-god stood cursing in its hayloft window. Higher we rose, ‘til the streets and farm and town were brown and yellow quilt squares and the earth resembled a snowy bed. I dreamed that I was dead, for what else could ease the ache inside me? Locusts woke me. Chittering storm of crackling carapaces, a brown and living cloud swarmed the air. We pushed through them, sharp, sticky hooks and antennae in my mouth, snagging my hair. Filthy whir of wings, too many of them to breathe. Bugs between my teeth. Scratching my eyes. A plague of ruination.
Heads down, we burrowed through the swarm. They were but a nuisance, a single mosquito buzzing by my ear. We broke through. I could see the sky and breathe without sucking insect bodies into my mouth. Waves of dread flowed sluggish as cold blood. On we flew, noses toward the setting sun. I glimpsed the silver crags of the holy hills striped with veins of azure gems. Saw the emerald tracts of trees and the dipping river’s mercurial thread. Knew then that we approached the endless stair cluttered with pilgrims’ bones and martyrs’ relics, and would make the unceasing climb to the Nephilims’ realm.
The pale stairs were worn smooth and round by the eternal parade of feet. Here and there, the wooden railing broke and regained itself where exhausted seekers had fallen, I surmised. Lost balance, pitched down the slippery steps and collapsed against the ancient, weathered rail. How many bodies had gone over the edge and tumbled down the steep slopes? How could any deity be so careless with its flock?
God makes a poor shepherd, I thought. As if sensing my scorn, the bird hissed at the betrayal. Fine, I thought. Drop me. Toss me on the rocks—I won’t feel a thing—but we settled round the western side of the mount where sunlight painted rosy streaks and cast pink shadows below our eyes. Huge, extravagant nests dotted the mountainside, some as big as ten feet across. Strong wefts of twigs, bone and wiry stuff, each one matted with multicolored feathers and wind borne debris. These were not the nasty nests of city birds, caked with shit and leavings. Flecks of golden stuff, like bits of yellow foil, irradiated the lining, catching sunlight and echoing its heat. The nest was as soft and warm as skin turning damp and flush with passion.
Torn between desire and sickness, craving and repulsion, I bared my breast, indicating the sternum that barred our union. I would let it peck off my meat and peel me down to the bones if it meant I could take it into my own chest and make it a part of me. The bird bit at me with its sharp beak, and ate again of my sustaining flesh.
My skin was too small, too tight. I slipped it off—for I had glimpsed heaven and was no longer human.