Love at the End of the World
My angel and I sat on the couch and wept as we listened to the reports on the radio of the falling bodies and the burning buildings. It seemed everything, even the sky was falling, and we wept, thinking of you, pressed into labor, as had been reported by Lionel, who stopped by in the early morning with some tomatoes he had grown and to say, “Jeffrey, you need to forget about her. You’re lucky things went the way they did and you need to move on. She is a married woman now and in labor with their first born.” I thanked him for the tomatoes, and offered him some coffee, which he refused. He just stood there, staring at me, and finally he said, “Jeffrey? You going to be all right?” I told him, sure, and it wasn’t until he was gone that I realized I clutched those tomatoes so tight they broke against my white shirt and left a pink stain which remained all that morning as I sat on the couch with my angel, weeping at the changing world and you, my dear Elisha, in pain of birth, weeping, screaming, reaching for the hand of a man who can never love you like I do, willing as I am, to carry your hate, if it lightens the load for you, willing to fall for you, if from doing so, you can be raised.
After all this time when I picture it, I cannot picture it, it always turns into something like a cartoon with cut-out paper people turned to black ash, and I am somebody who knows what happens to bodies in death, but I cannot picture it and I cannot taste your lips though once the taste was my own, I cannot feel your flesh, though once I thought we were forever joined, and I cannot remember you any other way but as perfect, beautiful, mine.
In all these memories, of all the days and nights spent with you, there is one I come back to most of all. Sheilah had her house decorated with gold lights and white candles and that big Christmas tree filled with colorful baubles of little snowmen in bowties and odd Santa Clauses carrying trout or driving convertibles and lace doily snowflakes and heavy angels weighing the branches with serene expressions so unlike my own angel who refused to enter the room and spent the entire night in the foyer where guests arrived with their cold, rosy cheeks, and winter coats decorated with candy cane pins, or blinking Rudolph pins, carrying casseroles and cookie plates and hollering, “Where does this go?” while my angel called to me in a white voice as flaky as snow (and as easy to ignore in the warmth of that hot living room) “Leave. Come with me now.”
Everyone was glittering in Christmas scene sweaters, ornament earrings, bright red ties, checkered shirts. Even Frank Mallody in his flannel with his gang of friends in assorted strange word T-shirts toasted everything, Budweiser’s lifted to the tree, the lights, the cookies, the smoked ham, the cheese ball, but raised highest for Star who you said must have thought she was still in California, with her purple shoes and that black dress with no sleeves and I don’t know what she said to them but they just hooted and laughed and then she sat with us on the couch, picked up a cookie and said, “I’ve been telling mother for years what that looks like but she says it’s a lighthouse. A Christmas lighthouse? Who ever heard of such a thing?”
Taste is the hardest memory to recall, but I do remember eating those Christmas cookies with colored sugar Santa faces, and Christmas trees, and stockings until you said, “Jeffrey, honey, don’t go making yourself sick on cookies and eggnog.” Oh, and eggnog! How I drank innocently, never suspecting that the frothy milk, sprinkled with nutmeg was laced with alcohol. “Jeffrey,” you said, “you’re going to get drunk.”
And I laughed as if, oh yes, that happens all the time, but set down my Santa Claus head mug and you said, “Are we going to dance?” So I walked over to make you a plate of cheese and ham and Christmas cake and when I gave it to you, you said, “But Jeffrey, I thought we were going to dance.”
I told you I didn’t know how, and you just smiled. “That’s ok honey,” you said. “But do you mind if I do?” I shrugged and said, go right ahead, and you stood on tiptoe to give me a kiss on the cheek and walked across the rug by the Christmas tree and started dancing with the dancing folks. It wasn’t long before Harvey Miller was dancing with you, but you turned to me and raised your hand and wriggled those decorated fingers of yours so I waved back and the next thing you know, Frank Mallody is standing next to me and he says, “She’s a good looking woman” and I say, “Yes, she is,” and he says, “Is she a nigger?” and taps me with the bottle “Don’t matter you know, me and my friends was just wondering.”
So that’s how I wound up standing next to Star who said, “What did he say to you?” But I didn’t answer so she shrugged and said, “You can’t pay attention to men like that.” So I said, “What do you know about men like that?” And she laughed and said, “Do you wanna dance?” So I said, “I don’t know how,” but she took my hand and pulled, gentle but it was a pull, and she didn’t let go. She just started dancing, holding my hand and dancing and I just stood there. “Try closing your eyes,” she said, “let your body go loose and just feel the music. There. Now let your arm move. That’s right. Sure there you go, yep, now your feet. I teach dancing. To kids, you know.” I didn’t know there was a problem until I heard your voice, and the next thing I know, we are getting our coats and saying, “Goodbye. Merry Christmas. Goodbye.”
When we walked onto the porch and got hit with that blast of cold I look at you and see how you have little tears on your face and I say, “Elisha, what is it, what’s the matter?” And you say, “Nothing.”
“Don’t tell me nothing.” I lean down real close and wipe a tear from your cheek.
“You were dancing just fine with her.”
I am so amazed I cannot believe what I’ve heard. I stand up straight, and put my hands on your shoulders. “Are you jealous?” You just look at me. “But I love you.” I say, and for a few seconds you look like you aren’t sure what you are going to do and then you smile and we walk out into that snow where I proceed to brush the glittery flakes that have accumulated there off the windshield and, in spite of me telling you to just sit in the car and be warm, you stood watching me and after a while you say, “Jeffrey Oxenhash, I love you too.”
I thought I was forgiven. That’s why I started spinning. I thought I was forgiven for everything. Not just for dancing with Star, but for everything else that happened before, things you didn’t even know about, but I thought if God let you love me, then He had at last forgiven me for everyone I had failed and hurt because of how I am. How do humans hug God? I don’t know. I just found myself spinning. I thought I was held safe by their loving gaze, and yours.
When I discovered that you had lost sight of the higher plane, that somehow your vision had darkened so that you could see ghosts but not God, that you, whose heart and body were so warm, were living with the cold shadow of sin, but did not know the truth of light that follows all of us in our little human lives with the promise of an existence beyond our worst mistakes (the women we’ve murdered and such) I decided to love you at the risk, the very great risk of your hating me. I’m not stupid. I knew this was possible.
Oh, Elisha, how I prayed your name and begged you to see, through the flame of accusation, the truth of what we had in spite of what people say about what happened, it was only you, and always you and for you that I did it, and tell me you didn’t see, and if not see, tell me you didn’t feel the angels? Tell me you did not cast, for just one second, a millisecond, or less, a prayer, a cry for redemption and recognize me in that? I only tried to make you see that we are more than our small miseries. I never meant to hurt you at all.
The Doctor at the jail listened kindly when I explained how I suffer no wounds, and yet I suffer. He was a kind man but I don’t recall his name, and perhaps he too is an angel, perhaps everyone there was, for the battle was fierce, but there was no blood.
In all our conversations I never told you what I am and only now at the end of the world between us I feel I can though will you even read this letter and will you ever understand? I remember going to the duck park with my mother, pocketing the treasure of fallen feathers while she sits on the bench next to the man. He is “the man” to me, though even then I recognize that he is no ordinary stranger, for my mother is always pleased to see him, and though they do not kiss, I sense, in the innocent, non-judgmental way of children, the kiss between them. He glows, even now at all this distance of time I can see the glow that emanated from him like a small sun, obscuring his features forever. When they were together my mother nervously fingered the gloves in her lap, laughed strangely, a wild sound like a plastic bird, while I plucked fallen feathers from the ground, though occasionally she took the time to scold me for touching the dirty things. Once, the man interceded on my behalf saying, “It’s only natural he would be attracted to them,” and because of this small moment, when he defended me, I remained fond of the man and looked forward to seeing him until the day when my mother sat alone on the park bench, tearing tissues with her nervous fingers and letting the wind carry them away. Time takes a great leap, as it sometimes does, to a day when she finds me in the kitchen, praying, which always upset her and led her into a scold, or drink, but on this day, she did both, mocking me for my strange ways, drinking until her voice was blurry, and finally, slurring at me in the dim light, “What should I expect, after all, you are the angel’s child.”
At the time I didn’t understand that she was trying to tell me the secret of my birth. Only later did I finally comprehend the ramifications. It wasn’t just that I had a different father than the one who called himself mine, but that my real father was an angel, which explains everything, don’t you see, all the torment of my life, trapped as I am between heaven and earth, part human, part holy beast?
Suddenly there are American flags everywhere, on trucks, and porches, school children’s clothes, women’s sweaters, it is autumn but it looks like some super Fourth of July, perhaps a centennial of sorts, except these flags wave in sorrow. I heard about your baby, about the small, sharp protrusions that rose from his back, a deformity of wings, they say.
I write this last from the picnic table at the farm stand out on the highway where I bought half a dozen apples, perhaps they are from your farm. I stood beneath an apple tree and watched the golden leaves flutter to the ground, and the families, coming to buy fruit and cider doughnuts, and I saw in the beautiful autumnal light the men in baseball caps, the women with purses slung over drooping shoulders, the children spiraling like the bees, loguey with end of summer and innocence. Baskets of apples, peaches, pumpkins, and tomatoes, everything shimmering as if touched by the love I could never achieve, and I bit into an apple and tasted the sweetest flavor, the juice dripping down my chin, which I wiped, first with my fingers, then with my sleeve, and I saw the intricacies of my hand, skin and bone, as if it were on fire, the beautiful fact of being human, and the possibilities of this luminous, and temporary existence. While once I cursed the mortal half of my soul, I now praise its very culpability. The culpability of being human is so much easier than the responsibility of God. How to choose? Who must die? Who will be saved? Who must burn a thousand years? Who rests in the wings of angels? Who will find love? I guess you could say I had a feeling too. A feeling that somehow, though not in the manner I would have most desired, I have given you the very thing I wanted you to have.
When I think of all those bodies falling, in a sky so blue it melts into everything, I remember the angels falling too; I see them folding wings and descending to earth like stone, like something without the freedom to choose flight. This is what I’ve tried to tell you, to show you with my love, which you would call hate, oh my darling, we are never alone, though our difference in faith may strain our bonds of affection, it will never abandon us, all we have to figure out is what we believe.
I believe in you. At some risk to myself, I stood behind the pine trees that bank your yard so I could be at your wedding. I wept. You might have heard me and thought it was the sound of a strange night bird, but it was me. Did you tell him? Did you tell him what was inside you? Did you tell him that you loved me too, before you hated me?
I fell for you from heaven’s arches, I fell to earth to live this painful existence, and I’d do it again, I’d do it all again, to give you what I think you’ve finally found, what I hope you’ve finally found, this certain knowledge of an existence beyond your body, this existence of love.
Everyone has an angel, and oh my darling, I gave you yours.
M. Rickert (December 11, 1959 in Port Washington, Wisconsin), is an American writer of fantasy fiction. Many of her stories have been published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her first collection, Map of Dreams, was published by Golden Gryphon Press in 2006; her second collection, Holiday, appeared in 2010 from the same publisher. She lives in Wisconsin.
Rickert’s fiction has won or been nominated for several major awards. “Journey into the Kingdom” was nominated for the 2006 Nebula Award for Best Novelette and an International Horror Guild Award, and won the 2007 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction. Map of Dreams won the 2007 World Fantasy Award for Best Collection and the 2007 Crawford Award, and the collection’s title story was nominated for the 2007 World Fantasy Award for Best Novella.