I am four when the door at the top of the stairs is opened to me for the first time. Mother has invited friends over—men who smell of tobacco smoke, women who reek the scent of too many flowers stuffed into a glass jar. They clutch handbags and hats, and fill up the front parlor with a mix of cigarette smoke and fear. I am too young to understand when I walk into the blue-papered room.
Their eyes are sunken, desperate, dead.
I don’t realize what it means when a man traces the bottom of his lip with the tip of his tongue, or a woman whose name I do not remember clutches at her stomach. They stare at me.
Mother enters carrying a Mason jar. She scans the crowded room—fifteen people pushed in like cordwood—and nods to them. They call her Sister Judith and, when she passes a basket from the buffet table, each puts money inside.
This is my job. When the basket returns, I take it from the shaking hands of a man with gray hair. His skin hangs from his bones the way Mother’s curtains hang in the parlor—limp and tired.
Mother nods and the rest stand, then she leads them from the cramped parlor to the stairs. They follow her like a slow-moving train. The men and women in their Sunday best take the stairs, as though afraid of what lay behind the old wooden door at the top.
God fearing people are born in these hills, walk the streets of Saint’s Crossing, bow their heads on Sundays. What is at the top of the stairs gives face to their fear.
Mother is wearing her china-white blouse and clutches the Mason jar to her chest. She opens the rickety door like Moses must have parted the Red Sea—like merging two worlds. The lady at the front of the line, the one who clutches her stomach, gasps.
There is an angel in our spare bedroom.
I do not know his name.
He is too large. His bare feet hang over the edge of the bed. His wings take up most of the room, pushing against the robin’s egg blue walls. His skin is pale, like his wings. Mother grows his hair long in the winter before cutting it to sell in the summer.
But today, with summer beating down our necks, his hair is a blond fuzz on his scalp, over blue eyes. The angel does not speak from the bed as Mother enters. His hands are bound to the posts, his feet are tied to the footboard. A thin sheet covers his modesty, though I do not know what modesty means when I am four years old.
Mother crosses the threshold into the room and the others follow. They press against each other, their faith only daring them across the threshold. Few enough are willing to get close to the angel.
She has staged two vases on the bedside table. One is filled with rotten carnations—black and brown. The other holds a single rose—a tiny stunted thing from the bushes she had planted outside but never cares for.
The angel stares at the ceiling, blue eyes memorizing the chipped white paint. Mother reaches out to touch his chest, where sweat has pooled in the hollow of his muscles. She makes a show of it, coating her fingers, then turns to the flowers.
Mother touches the carnations first, wrapping her fingers around the withered bloom. The flower changes as she does it, growing out, regaining its yellows and pinks and greens. When she moves to the second, it is as beautiful as it’d been the last time her friends came to visit.
The rose is a tiny thing—just a speck of red hanging at the end of a thin stem. She touches it with the tip of her finger. It grows, engorges, bursts from itself into a heavy-petaled bloom.
A man—the one with too much skin—falls to his knees and begins to shake like fire ants are crawling up his pants. I stand by the door, leaning against the frame, pressing my cheek against the cracked paint.
Mother has one more trick.
She opens the Mason jar and pulls a garter snake free. The audience is used to this—they have been to revivals, watched the snake handlers pass rattlers hand to hand.
But this snake hangs limp and dead.
They watch Mother as she approaches the angel. His wings do not move, his eyes remain locked on the ceiling. Sister Judith pulls a nail file from the pocket of her dress. It is metal but does not shine. There is brown rust at its tip.
Mother looks at where his ribs join together like two hands. There are silver lines in his skin—just above his heart. The nail file is set against the angel’s flesh and a line is drawn, its sharp edge splitting him.
It bleeds for a heartbeat, a track of thick, red blood. Mother lays the dead snake onto his chest. Then it changes. It grows larger and longer. The dull green and black scales glow like pieces of obsidian and beryl.
The snake turns its head toward the gathered crowd. Four turn and run down the steep stairs, taking them two at a time. The old man has fallen to the floor. He does not move. The rest stare.
“Is it real, Sister Judith?” one woman says. She has no hat and in the humidity her perm has begun to fall out. The snake has curled up on the angel’s chest, not watching them. In the heat of the setting sun, both angel and snake shut their eyes while the rest don’t dare speak.
Mother raises a manicured eyebrow. She smiles and it is not a happy smile. Even at four years old I know it is not a happy smile. The woman with her wilted hair takes a step forward and then a second, her eyes are on the angel. Before she gets to the foot of the bed, my mother stands in front of her.
“What will it cost?” the woman asks. “What will it cost?”
“The blood of the most high is too full of the grace of God for us. It would do…” she trails off and looks at the scene for a moment. The angel is tied wrist and ankle to the bed. His hands are clenched in the bindings, “strange things. It would do strange things. It is not meant for us.”
A sigh escapes the lips of Mother’s friends.
“Then why are we here?” a man says. He is fat and strains the buttons of his suit.
“I simply say the blood, my brother, there are other things to purchase,” she says and smiles. “And have you met my son? Come here, dear.”
This is my second job—my new job.
I walk into the room for the first time, pushing through the crowd. I turn and they stare at me. I don’t like it when they look at me. In the heat of the end of the day my Sunday suit itches around the collar. Mother has her back turned to the angel and as I glance back I see him watching us.
“Meet my son, Learner,” she says.
They do not speak.
* * *
I am eight when I ask her where he came from. We sit at the breakfast table stirring heavy cream into grits. I think that they look a bit like his feathers, ground down to paste. But I do not say it.
My mother is wearing pearls, a blouse with purple flowers with a white background. She has a simple black skirt and pantyhose. I don’t know if she is pretty then, I am too young to know or care. I can hear his wings sliding across the floor above my room as I try to sleep.
They are a lullaby.
When the breakfast dishes are put away, she takes a tea cup from the drying rack and sets the kettle to boil. It is winter and I know that she won’t mix it for sweet tea.
In winter, she does not save the dead carnations. Instead, she takes scissors to his wings. By Christmastime, there will be patches of skin where the primary feathers had been before the snow came.
An old woman comes to the door as Sister Judith is about to sip her tea. She is old like over-bleached sheets left in the sun too long. They do not speak as Mother turns to her special cupboard. I am not allowed to open it, but when she does I see the Mason jars, and the baskets, and the tiny vials.
Mother opens one—earthenware with cheese cloth tied over its lid. She has left a spoon inside it. She has scraps of paper as well. With deft practice she pours two small heaps onto the paper and twists it.
I do not know what the old woman would do with the shavings of the angel’s feathers. She hands Sister Judith a much-folded bill that Mother puts into the strap of her bra.
When Mother has the tea steeped the way she likes it and takes a sip, she answers my question.
“He fell,” she says, “a gift from the Almighty.”
I say nothing.
She looks out the window to where the snow covers the grass, only the tallest pieces push out through the whiteness. “My husband had just left for the last time. Slapped me until I told him where I kept the mad money and couldn’t move my jaw. Got into the rusted out truck and never came back.”
Sister Judith holds the hot teacup to her cheek.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do, Learner. I walked out of the house and into the fields. It was quiet as I stumbled on. The stars seemed larger than they should be—more like lightning bugs than pinpricks in black fabric. One just got bigger.”
She sips the tea.
“Bigger and bigger until it filled up the sky. It crashed in the field and by the time I picked myself up, he sat there while the grass burned. I carried him back to the house, a step at a time. He was so heavy that I tripped again and again.”
A noise breaks the silence, he is speaking upstairs.
“Anyway,” Mother says as she looks past me to the stairway and the growing noise, “he came to us by the grace of God and I have kept him safe all these years.”
She smiles and even at eight years old I know that something’s wrong with it. Her teeth are too large, I think, and the way her lips move put me in mind of a monster. I do not speak. More noise comes from the upstairs room. I want to say something, anything, when Mother stands and goes to the special cabinet again.
Mother pulls the shears from where they hang from a hook on the door and slips them into the pocket of her dress. Then she takes the stairs in slow steps, one at a time. By the time she reaches the top, he is almost screaming.
Mother is still smiling her ugly smile when she opens the door and enters, closing it behind her with a click. I want to say something, anything.
His tongue she sells as a panacea.
* * *
I am twelve and it is the middle of the night when I wake from a dream I can’t remember. There is a noise echoing through the house, but it is not the gentle scraping of the angel’s wings on the floorboards.
The bed squeaks as I get out of it and move to the window. The fields are summer-grown. There is the scent of tobacco on the night air. The moon is bright tonight, like a glowing white rock hanging in the sky. The stars are bright too. The sound comes again, slipping underneath my door.
I enter the darkened hallway with careful steps. Mother’s door, across from mine, is shut. The sound grows louder as I cross the foyer and stop at the bottom of the stairs. To one side, the kitchen is dark, the parlor the same. A yell, followed by another, comes down the stairs. Moments later, I hear the sound of footsteps.
Mother is in her nightgown. She shuts the door behind her. I hide behind the shadowy darkness of the stairs. She has never beaten me, but sometimes she smiles at me like she does when she is about to walk up the stairs with the shears in her hand.
She goes to her room and quiet fills the house once more. The room at the top of the stairs is silent. But it is a silence that rings, like a note too deep to hear.
I take the steps for the first time without Mother leading the way. The banister is smooth; she polishes it with Murphy’s Oil every Saturday while I clean the dishes.
My heart is beating in my chest, pounding against the inside of my ribs. My pajama shirt moves with how hard it beats. I touch the door knob, feel its smooth glass on my palm, and turn the knob.
The room is still small, made even more cramped by the angel. He is—as he has always been—bound to the bed. Mother hasn’t cut his hair yet, and winter is far enough past that his wings are broad and full.
That is what I think as I shut the door behind me—the angel is beautiful in the darkness. Moonlight comes in from the window and the feathers are etched in light. The planes of his chest are like mountains. His hair brushes his ears and the lines of his eyebrows.
He watches me.
I have never crossed the threshold in the dark, to stand witness and see him bound by moonlight. The ropes appear to be simple twine—like a farmer uses to bind hay bales. I wonder how he stays bound. Surely an angel from the Almighty would break the ropes, free himself.
“Do you want to be here?” I ask in a quiet voice, barely a breath between my lips and teeth.
“Yes,” he whispers back. His tongue grew back long ago.
I stare at him. There are strange colors in his eyes, like the filaments of a light bulb. They spin in the depths.
“I’m Learner,” I say. The angel doesn’t speak. There is another question I want to ask, but before I dare the words, the angel begins to speak. He has turned his head toward the open window and the words are a dirge, slow and steady.
“I fell. I fell. I fell. I fell. I fell.”
* * *
I am sixteen and the parlor is full to bursting. The basket is passed and for the first time I realize just how much money has been placed inside it, even before Mother has presented her crop for the buyers. In my starched Sunday shirt, collar biting into my neck, sleeves suddenly too small for my growing limbs. I am at a strange stage between boy and man. Mother is shorter than I am now, but I can’t grow a beard. When I look at the door at the top of the stairs my skin itches still.
Men and women wait in quiet, growing, anxiety. No one talks about what is hidden in our house, but more and more people know. They dream of powdered angel wings, or cotton swabs of sweat from his chest. Some braid strands of his hair into charms for luck or profit.
Mother does not sell his blood, her trick with the garter snake never lasts and she does not want to become another tent-evangelist. Word of Sister Judith is spreading out past the state line. Today there are men and women from a state over. They wait with the anxiety of the true believer.
Mother stands at the bottom of the stairs today. Her nails are painted tea-rose.
“Learner,” she says, “you will show them today.”
I nearly drop the basket, overflowing with money. She holds the Mason jar out to me. Her smile is that strange one that is twisted and leaves me cold. I take the jar in my trembling hands as my stomach clenches. I can almost hear the snake coil and writhe inside it.
“Mother,” I begin, but she pushes me to the parlor. They all look at me. Stare at me. I do not know what they expect, I have only ever picked up the basket and passed while they look on.
“We will follow Brother Learner today,” she tells them. The women don’t care who they follow—they want to see what is at the top of the stairs. The men are more skeptical, clutching their hats a little tighter in their hands, dragging on their cigarettes a little more heavily. But they want it, whether they are led up the steep stairs by Sister Judith or an almost-man who feels too big for his skin.
I reach the top of the stairs with no breath. I am shaking and it takes two tries to open the door. There is muttering behind me and I can feel Mother’s eyes on my back. I am not making enough of a show.
I don’t want to do this.
He is still on the bed, bound. His hair has only just re-grown, his wings are full. The angel is staring at the rotten ceiling paint but when I gasp for air he looks down at me. They are the same light bulb filaments spun together. When he sees me with the Mason jar, things change.
His eyes light as though fireflies chase each other in his sockets. The wings start to flail, kicking up a breeze as he pulls at the bindings. For the first time, we all see what Mother has trapped. He strains and pulls and begins to scream.
It is a wordless scream, but it makes my ears ache. Behind me, the gathered penitents scatter. One woman falls to her knees, a man clutches at his chest. The broken hallelujah of the angel’s voice is more than I can bear. The Mason jar tumbles from my hands and the snake corpse falls. The vases with their carnations fall and shatter.
The angel pulls against the ropes as much as he can. His muscles bulge, and where the flesh of his wrists are bound, blood begins to flow. He rubs himself raw against it. The wooden bed groans under the weight. The sheet falls from him and he is nude, and angry, and raving.
“I’m sorry!” I yell and sink to my knees. “I’m so sorry!”
Mother stares from outside the doorway. She does not know the nights I have crept from my room and up the stairs. I have watched him in the darkness. We have exchanged no words since that first night. We have memorized the planes of the other’s face—the cheekbones like steepled towers, the broad forehead.
I do not have the thin blade of his nose.
* * *
I am twenty when his eyes have grown back. I am a man, grown taller and broader, with blond hair that I keep short. Sister Judith has not changed, she still wears her paisley blouses and black skirts. There are no new wrinkles on her face, her hair has not gone gray.
I have no job. No one in Saint’s Crossing will hire Sister Judith’s son.
People still visit on Sundays, though there are fewer. They still put their money in the basket. I will not go into the parlor, I will not breathe the heavy smoke or watch the barren women stare at me. They will take the stairs like a pilgrimage and they—she—will hurt him. I cannot watch her take the file to his chest.
Something broke in him when he saw me with the Mason jar. Sister Judith curses when she cuts him, they do not heal as quickly, the snake she has found does not grow the way the old one did. The rose and the carnations do not grow so beautiful.
There are sores on his body, his feathers have begun to fall out. There is gray in the fields of his hair. Lines grow from his eyes and his skin doesn’t hold the light the way it did when I was eight.
She took his eyes when I was sixteen. I do not know which jar they went into in her special cabinet. I looked. When I couldn’t find it, I still sat with him in the darkness. I sang songs to him—silly, made up songs. He wouldn’t let me cut the cords. When she sold his eyes, she bought a pink hat—a bonnet like a fancy lady might wear. I had never hated my mother before.
After the guests have traded dollars for tears and sweat and the ichor that oozes from his bedsores, I walk up the stairs. I can feel Sister Judith staring at me as I do it, but we no longer speak. She will not come after me with shears or a knife. He will not let me cut the bonds on his hands.
We three trap each other in the tiny house in the woods.
I do not know why the angel fell. I do not know what it means to be Sister Judith’s son, and he will not tell me.
He does not speak, but I have learned his language. The angel tenses when the door opens. In the sunlight, with tobacco on the air, his skin has lost its shine, the wings that had whispered a lullaby on the floorboards creak now as they move.
“What’s happening to you?” I ask.
He does not look at me as I sit on the bed. In twenty years, I have only dared this recently. There is a basin and pitcher beside the bed now, between the flowers. In an hour they will wither and shrink, but in the meantime the room smells like a funeral home—the cloying scent of it is choking.
I wash the dried blood from his chest. There are a hundred faint scars now, one for every time he has been cut. He does not look at me, and I wonder not for the first time if he is ashamed that I exist.
“I would let you go,” I say, but then he looks at me. The filaments in his eyes don’t shine anymore, they have gone dark. He shakes his head, not daring to speak. He has not spoken since the day Mother took his eyes.
“We’ll wait then,” I say, and run the rag over his forehead. For what, I do not know.
* * *
I am twenty four and it is night again. Night is the time when the things happen that are neither good nor bad, they just are. Life changes in the dark. The angel came in the dark, I had learned to be a man in the house’s hidden shadows. The noise that echoes through the halls isn’t strange—Sister Judith slips from her bed most nights, closing the upstairs door behind her.
I hate her more with each passing year. She has drawn too much blood, her cabinet is filled to bursting with pieces of him and there are still folks who come. Day after day they come to buy pieces of him. She has not changed, has not aged, may never. I do not know what she takes from him to make the years pass so slowly. They hang on me heavy and slow.
A crash follows and I stand.
The hallway is the same it always is. The banister is smooth under my hand. A pale light comes from under the doorway and I pause, listening. There is no sound, no creaking flesh or bed frame, no breathing.
I reach for the knob and turn it.
Sister Judith is on the floor in a naked heap. Her neck is at a strange angle, her auburn hair has fallen loose from her last perm. The angel is still tied to the bed, but things are different now. New feathers have grown from the bald patches of his wings.
The moonlight catches in them. His skin is tight against his muscles and he shines from somewhere inside him. I meet the angel’s eyes. They are alive again.
“Learner,” he says. The angel has never spoken my name. The syllables have the weight of benediction falling from his lips.
As I move to the head of the bed, I wonder what it would have been like—if Sister Judith hadn’t taken a beating from her husband the night the angel fell. If she had done something, anything, but drag him through the fields, up the stairs, and bound him to the bed. If she hadn’t culled him like a farmer does their field.
As the last of the bale twine goes free, I close my eyes. I do not expect to live beyond the next few moments. Nothing—man or angel—should be bound to the bed, bound to the house.
I hear him stand, feel the air move around the shape of him. A feather tests its edge against the tender flesh of my arm. When it doesn’t cut, I am surprised. But no more surprised when I feel it. A soft touch against my left temple.
He is standing in front of me. We are the same height. He brushes down my cheekbone with his thumb, staring into my eyes. The fireflies dance in them again. When he reaches my jaw and then my chin he does it again, but on the other side.
“Why?” I ask.
The angel does not speak. He takes my hand in his—they are the same size as well—and leads me to the window. Outside, the scent of tobacco perfumes the air. The cicadas are cricketing back and forth to each other as they wait for morning to break.
And the stars are glowing, brighter than they have ever glowed before, like jewels affixed to the blackness of the sky. And as I watch, beside the angel who was the harbinger, they begin to fall.