It used to be more than his job. It was a career. It was his profession, his identity. No, it used to be even more…it was art. As surely as Picasso swished a brush or Michelangelo altered stone. A twist of experience, a dash of street sense. Don’t speak. Put the deal on the table and wait. He did it well. He did it easily. He thought he would do it forever. Rake in money. Toss crumbs to the cold and hungry gathered outside that fancy house he lived in. Put the deal on the table and wait. If old folks want to sell out, their house too cumbersome, their children caught up putting their children through school, make friends with the wives. Visit after all the lunch meetings when she’s just put the beef steak on the counter to thaw, covered with a bit of tin to keep the cat off. She’ll have time to talk then. Keep a ready supply of ink pens and contracts ready. Put the deal on the table and wait. Now, his Buick is parked in a great nephew’s unheated garage, and he can’t make it beyond the front stoop without his cane. From the senior van he eyeballs the value of houses on the way to buy groceries. In this market he’d be able to put in a second swimming pool, shallow enough for the babies to play in, like Margaret always wanted. He’d could take her to Belize. But he couldn’t take Margaret anywhere anymore; she lies in bed all day, staring at the ceiling. She doesn’t remember who he is. He plays cards with friends he’s made at the senior center. They bet straws and coffee stirrers. He does well. Puts the deal on the table and waits.
Most people who were in the mood for looking, kept their gaze on his shoulders. He knew it. He’d known it for years, and focused on it. He practiced in front of two mirrors to learn the exact way to flex them for attention, spent hours with his tailor draping fabrics across his back and arms to see whether the cloth would ripple or cling, and at the last faire, colleagues taught him a dehydration technique that thinned his skin across the shape of his muscles. Beyond all that, he made certain to exercise. His career warranted it, of course, but he put in extra, because of the stares he garnered.
He’d fathered several children, on both sides of the blanket, because of his shoulders. He’d wed twice, both times to women, although there were some fine young men in the world, and he never turned away what they offered. Neither marriage lasted. None of his relationships did. They were intense and flattering, but invariably short-lived. It wasn’t because of him. He never did anything wrong. He took care to be polite, gentle, and supportive. No, it wasn’t him. It was them. They couldn’t accept his line of work. He was successful, in fact, renowned — as renowned as someone deliberately anonymous could be. He owned a large house, ate well, and kept a smart team of fast horses. Yet, every single lover he ever had abandoned him once they discovered his line of work. He supposed, since it was so small of a city, it was inevitable that they all knew someone he’d handled professionally. Someone whose head ended up on a spike outside the city gate.
He wondered what more they wanted. After all, it was swinging the axe that kept his shoulders so strong.
He perched on the back steps, his long legs stretched awkwardly, his thin, shoulder-length hair tumbled into his face, his afternoon cannabis rolled in new papers and pinched between the index finger and thumb of his right hand. As he sat there alone, he watched their dogs bouncing in circles while tugging back and forth at the same tree branch. In the nearby shade, unsightly moss crept along the edge of the patio stones, and he supposed he would scrub the patio clean of it one day.
He had run out of words. The task was so simply. Wash the blue jeans. Put them into the dryer. Take them out of the dryer and fold them neatly with the seams apart so that the bellbottoms flared right to left when worn. How hard could that be? Folding the seams together so that the bottoms flared front to back was ridiculous. Nobody wore hip huggers that way.
He’d tried to explain the first time she did his laundry when they’d been married only a couple days. The wedding had been easy. They’d call their friends on the phone and said, “Getting married in the park on Saturday. Pizza at the house afterwards.” A good thirty people made it. It had been spontaneous. It had been fun despite the rain.
He’d tried to explain it again the next time she did his laundry a week later. She’d peered over her eyeglasses at him and continued what she was doing. It was a reaction he’d admired when he’d seen her target others with it.
When he’d tried to explain it two days ago, she opened her hands and let his jeans drop to the floor in front of the dryer.
Just five minutes ago he’d said loudly, “I guess I’ll have to pick my own jeans up off the floor.”
She simply answered, “Yes.”
He wished they could go back to that moment, before the phone calls had been made and the pizzas were ordered. When it was still fun. Before it was like this. Sighing, he pressed his left hand against the wooden step and pushed off to rise to his feet. The hemostat was in the living room and he’d need it if he were going to keep smoking. He’d picked the jeans up and put them away as he went by.
The young mother, clearly overworked, wore a thin, ill-fitting jacket and blue jeans. On her right shoulder hung her purse, a diaper bag and three plastic grocery sacks. In her left arm slept a baby bundled in a white snowsuit and pink blanket. There was one empty seat on the bus, so she told her three-year-old son to sit there.
The boy obeyed, but squinted suspiciously at the fortyish woman in layered work clothes and a reflective safety vest sitting next to him. He squirmed. He glanced over his shoulder to see out the window behind him. He turned his face the other direction and eyed the overweight, old lady with a gray, metal cane propped against her knees. The boy stared at her challengingly.
She smiled at him.
He dropped his head, squirmed again, leapt to feet, and darted to his mother. Flinging his arms around her legs, he buried his face against her knees.
“Mikey,” she said uncomfortably. “Mikey, go back and sit down.”
“No,” the toddler whispered.
She shrugged her purse and the diaper bag higher onto her shoulder, leaned forward awkwardly, and placed her hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Go. Sit. Down.”
Mikey shook his head defiantly, looked into her eyes, and started to cry.
Other passengers on the bus pressed against each other, some pointed, others jerked their chins in Mikey’s direction, and all of them snickered. The driver’s angry glare bounced off the rear view mirror and slammed into the harried mother.
“Mikey,” she said pleadingly.
The old woman canted her head as she measured the exchange between the boy and his mother. Finally, she called out cheerily, “Mikey.”
The child twisted around to look at her.
“Mikey, come back and sit next to your Aunties,” the old woman suggested.
The woman in the reflective vest nodded toward the boy, then patted the empty plastic bus seat invitingly.
The boy glanced at his mother, who smiled with desperate frustration and repeated, “Go sit down.”
Realizing that he had been saved by his “Aunties,” the boy raced back, and the woman in the reflective vest helped him climb onto the seat. The boy knelt with his nose and one hand pressed to the window. He used the other hand to gesture at all the wonderful things outside the bus window: the overhead train, another bus, a truck from the south side delivering produce. Tapping his hand on the glass enthusiastically, he grinned and cried out at the truck’s logo, “Let us!”
The old lady thought of the three-story walk up and the twice used tea bag waiting for her at the end of the bus ride. The string from the tea bag would be dangling down the side of the cup and beside it, along the edge of the saucer, would be the half-slice of cold toast she’d set aside for her lunch. She tightened her grip on her utilitarian cane.
“Lettuce,” she agreed feigning excitement. “And tomatoes.”
The old woman hadn’t thought of her grandmother’s bedroom in forty years. She lay in the snowbank and remembered the pale draperies that puffed at the windows; the round blue and cream hooked rug that even then had been in the family three generations. She loved to stand at the vanity’s huge mirror with dark wooden scrollwork of horses rearing up on each side of the looking glass. She wasn’t allowed to use her grandmother’s gold hairbrush and hand mirror. She did anyway, though, leaving brown hair in the bristles. If her mother found them, she’d be yanked over her mother’s lap and beaten. If her grandmother found them, the elderly lady would wink at her as she pulled out the long brown strands and tucked them in the small, oval wastebasket under the tissues and magazines to hide them. Horses also stampeded across the scrollwork on the bed. She and her one-year-older cousin would twist blankets around the footboard and pretend to be cowboys. Yippee-ki-ya.
Her bag was still on her shoulder, but the zipper had split open and the contents scattered, no doubt destined to remain under the snowdrift until spring. From the direction of the busy pharmacy down the block she heard voices.
“Are you alright?” one of the voices called out. “Did you hurt yourself?” the other voice shouted. Two young men hurried toward her down the center of the sidewalk where it was shoveled. One wore his store uniform. The other wore a parka. “Hang on,” they said. “Stay where you are. We’ll help you up.”
To her, the clomp of their boots sounded like galloping horses.
With each step, grit rasps more deeply into the soles of her bare feet. Finally, she pauses, sweeps her hand from the ball toward the heel. First right. Then left. Grainy pebbles scatter to the ground. She straightens, wipes her brow with the back of her hand, breathes in, breathes out.
Ahead and to the right a bird sings. Now two birds. Now three. Soon a symphony choruses through the glade.
Thirty years past, her father, a renowned ornithologist, would have told her the names of every feathered vocalist by sound alone . . . whether robin, jay, chickadee, or sparrow. The three of them would stroll twice a day. Going out in the morning before breakfast, then in the evening after supper dishes were cleaned and dried, they went out again. She held his left hand, her sister his right. They moved casually, without hurry and he playfully quizzed them on what they had heard.
She remembers their time together happily – how they laughed, joked, how her father always listened to what she and her sister had to say. After they’d grown and her sister married, she and her father lived in the cottage on their own until her sister divorced and came back. Being around his granddaughter seemed to give her father renewed vigor and enthusiasm. Together, she and her sister watched from the doorway as he strolled along, holding the small child’s hand the same way he had held theirs. The little girl would gleefully try to warble and chirp, mimicking the birds.
The truth of it is, these days, she identifies the birds as simply life.
Often on her journey she encountered skeletons of cows, horses, occasionally raccoons or mountain cats, and far too many once-beloved dogs and cats. For reasons she couldn’t explain, though, all of the plant life remained untouched. The forest quickly overtook trails, houses, and any modes of transportation left behind.
She turns toward the overgrown path winding beyond the glade and hesitates. She knows that if she follows the path far enough, stepping over the weeds and up-heaved bricks, she will come to her family’s cottage. Moss-covered, quarried stone. Roof sagging with age. She visits the cottage, but is careful to avoid bringing attention to it, sleeping each night in a different vacant house or deserted building. It has been illegal to reside in the Reclaimed since the mineral harvesters took over, and even they are trucked in and out daily.
The cottage door is crooked and worm-rotted. If she shoulders it open and makes her way through the four small rooms and up to the loft, her father will be there.
He loved gadgets and was always chasing down the latest technological do-dad. He installed cameras on the perimeter of the cottage, by the outbuildings, and scattered throughout the woods. He used the resulting imagery as part of his scientific journaling, but she looked forward to seeing the livestream with video notes from him saying things like, “that young red-tailed hawk caught a mouse today” or “these squirrels built a nest right next to woodshed.”
That’s how she knew he had been splitting logs behind the cottage when the sun-blast came. She was visiting friends a thousand miles away and had opened the livestream to show them how it worked. Her sister waved lightheartedly at each camera as she passed on her way to town, while the baby lay fast asleep on a quilt in the deep shade near where her father labored.
By the time he could throw down his ax, his exposed skin was blistering. By the time he ran to his granddaughter, peeling. By the time he covered the child completely in the quilt and ran to the cottage, flesh melted from his hands. She would never know how he summoned the strength to surmount the pain and crawl to the loft but he’d sheltered the child there — where no windows could let the inferno of light pour through.
She’d tried to get to them as soon as the sun-blast ended. Her friends piled her into their 10-year-old car and ferried her as far as the city line. They turned back, but she continued, catching rides as she could, but mostly traveling on foot, sometimes creeping through dense underbrush or fording streams when the roads themselves were impassable.
It took weeks.
When she finally arrived she found the cottage abandoned.
Her sister had scrawled across one of kitchen walls in marker, “Dad upstairs. I took the baby to safety.”
She doesn’t know where they went, nor whether they found shelter before the second set of sun-blasts pelted the town itself. She’d hiked there and searched for them, but found only the bodies of strangers. She supposes it doesn’t matter. This deep into the Reclaimed, there is no longer a way to reach them. Like everything powered by electricity, the video cameras had quit functioning immediately.
The Council insists that the sun-blasts have been contained; that there is no longer any threat or reason to fear. Nevertheless, she prays for her family and hopes, perhaps, that they’ll return.
She sighs, brushes hair from her forehead.
Someday she will bury her father in the family plot alongside her mother. She will need to bury the others, too; other folks unlucky enough to be consumed by the sun-blast. She started to do so once, but the vomiting and tears left her body too weak for the duty and her soul too bruised for the rituals. Instead she keeps the bones of the hand that once held hers in the spirit pouch around her neck.
She knows that her father would want to be at rest, and she will give him that when she can.
She nods the promise to herself as she turns from the path home. She cannot stop. Winter here will be long, cold, and dark. She must get to the southland.
High overhead cirrus clouds scratch against the blue sky.
She walks on.
Jayne shuffled from foot to foot impatiently while her mother clanged the bronze ship’s bell at the entrance to the garden.
“Put your phone away,” Mrs. Marble-Lynn said, dropping her hand from the rope dangling from the bell’s clapper. “I’ve searched for this sculpture a long time. You don’t need to be yakking away on that thing while we’re doing this.”
“I’m looking it up online,” the teenager protested. She pushed back her mass of blonde hair, rolled her clear blue eyes, and sighed. “You know I need to provide references if I am going to present this at school. I can’t just say ‘Mom told me’.”
“You don’t need to look it up online,” her mother retorted. She held up an old leather bond journal with ragged pages. “If you want to do ground-breaking research, you must leave behind what other people have done and see things for yourself. This diary I discovered while curating the stacks clearly says that the author was certain The Angel is here.”
“You should have gotten your hair done today,” Jayne said, ignoring her mother’s admonishment. “I can see the gray roots.”
“It was that or help you,” Mrs. Marble-Lynn replied. She yanked her reading glasses from the top of her head and balanced them on her nose. Holding the journal open in one hand, she re-read the handwritten notations.
When the large, wooden door slid open, Jayne turned toward it. Her mother took advantage of the distraction to snatch the phone from Jayne’s hand and deposit it securely into her designer shoulder bag.
“Mom!” Jayne cried, indignantly.
The gatekeeper who appeared in the entrance had thin, straggly hair and round shoulders stooped to the point where he couldn’t stand upright. His nose was bulbous and red, his eyes lost in a multitude of fleshy folds.
“He looks like he’s even older than the park,” Jayne complained to her mother loudly.
Mrs. Marble-Lynn turned a stern, no-nonsense glare on her daughter. When the girl dropped her eyes in defeat, her mother offered the book to the old man, saying, “Good afternoon. We’re interested in looking at your sculptures. This one in particular.”
He took the journal from her hands, shifted it back and forth in front of him as if to find a spot where it would be in focus and then read the page marked with a sticky note.
“Ah, yes. Yes. Our best. You have very discerning taste,” he said, his smile exposing worn, yellow teeth. He peeled the sticky note off the page and crumpled it between his wrinkled fingers.
“Wait. What? You mean it’s really here,” Jayne stammered in disbelief. “Of all places.”
The gatekeeper closed the book and stepped to one side. Smiling kindly at the teenager, he gestured with one hand. “Please come in.”
“Yes, of course,” Mrs. Marble-Lynn said as they crossed the gate’s threshold.
Once inside, both the girl and her mother gazed around in wonder. A quarter-mile wide and three-quarters of a mile long, the garden had been in the historic district longer than anyone alive could remember. Tall stone walls pushed back against skyscrapers, steered traffic away from the garden, and hid it from the eyes of the world. Every inch seemed to be devoted to walkways meandering around a multitude of lifelike sculptures. Jayne danced over to the closest ones and inspected them.
“Look how detailed they are,” she exclaimed, incredulous. “This one has the most delicate tear coming from the corner of his eye. And this one is eating a small section of an orange.”
Glancing triumphantly at her daughter, Mrs. Marble-Lynn waited while the gatekeeper closed door then shuffled over to a cabinet where he hung a ring of keys on an empty hook. Turning back to his guests, he swept his hand in another grand, welcoming gesture. “Will you follow me, please?”
“There must be dozens of sculptures here,” Mrs. Marble-Lynn commented as they walked.
“Hundreds,” he agreed. “From several different eras. A new one comes along every few years. The one you are looking for is at the center.”
“The one of the really hot guy?” Jayne asked, her pout now replaced by a wide grin.
The old man smirked. “Some people say so…”
“I can’t believe it, Mom,” Jayne continued. “You were right. Guillaume Geefs’ L’ange du mal, Jozef Geefs’ Le génie du mal –and this one, the lost, third angel, Le provocateur du mal – The Provocateur of Evil. Right in our neighborhood all this time.”
“We’ll have to examine it carefully,” Mrs. Marble-Lynn cautioned with a smile. “There is no record of either Guillaume or Jozef Geefs sculpting a third angel.”
Jayne bounced from foot to foot excitedly.
“Run ahead, if you’d like,” her mother said indulgently, waving her off with her fingers.
Jayne murmured a quick “thanks” then sprinted off in the direction the gatekeeper indicated. The old man formally held out his arm to Mrs. Marble-Lynn who started to laugh, then composed herself and rested her hand on the inside of his elbow.
“I’m looking forward to seeing it,” Mrs. Marble-Lynn replied. It has taken so long to track it down…so long to…so….” Her voice made a grating sound, like cement in a mixer, and then stopped. Her skin stiffened.
“Why is the dais empty?” Jayne called from the middle of the sculpture garden.
The young gatekeeper removed his arm from Mrs. Marble-Lynn’s stone hand. He extended his arms, bounced on his toes a few times then stretched out his wings and shook them. Lifting the journal on one, open palm, he blew gently across the front cover. Within seconds the journal vanished. He stood with his head slightly tilted as if listening intensely then straighten once he was certain it had reappeared in the stacks of the city’s library.
“Mom?” Jayne called again, the concern in her voice obvious. “Mom, where are you two?”
“Be right there, Pet,” he answered in the old gatekeeper’s voice.
To Amelia, the passing of time was important.
She stood proud as you please in the center of us, pointed her finger toward a blue sky we could only imagine, and declared: The eyes of posterity never blink. It knows who turns the keys in these locks and it will remember who shoveled dirt onto the bodies of our men.
The bit of illumination she followed was long and thin, taunting us through an arrow loop in the donjon wall the way guards sniggered through the iron bars. Long after the rest of us let go, she held on, tightly squeezing blood from welts and knife wounds to make one demarcation for dawn and another for dusk.
Dawn was easiest, not only for her but for all of us. The light would suddenly be there. Brilliant, even though without warmth. Tantalizing, even though unreachable.
Nightfall was harder, was always harder. Crying grew louder. Shrieking echoed off stone. Screams couldn’t be unheard no matter what we used to seal our ears. Amelia sprinkled a few drops where she thought the sun vanished. Coming back each day to scatter more, over and over. Loss of her drawing medium was never issue. What scabs dried and fell off one day would quickly be replaced, until finally she shouted triumphantly: Here. Right here. This is where day ends.
The next morning, they took her away. We sat quietly, watching the track of sunlight creep over the dirty, bare floor. They never brought her back.
I ask you: Does it matter where the shame lies, once the righteous are lost?