Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles. Somewhere along the way it was abbreviated to “Los Angeles”. Object of the preposition, not the subject. The Queen of Heaven hadn’t minded – she was the most modest human woman ever to have lived, after all – but her Son had made the kind of comment that broadcast to all the angels. A comment from Jesu, the compassionate aspect of the Trinity, was the kind of thing that led to smiting.
And yet, everyone has gotten used to the earthquakes, thought Ellen, huddling with the other volunteers under the dining hall table. She was thankful that the shaking had started before they had begun serving; a room full of the destitute and the delusional during an earthquake could have resembled a vestibule to Hell. Though Marjory, on Ellen’s right side, crouched with eyes tightly shut, Patrick, on her left, was placidly praying in Latin. Marjory was from the Midwest, and had the rare career of housewife. Patrick, a native, taught at a magnet school in La Crescenta. Ellen caught his quiet “mi se re re nobis” – forgive us our sins – and seconded the request in a prayer of her own, knowing that they would be heard.
Time, in heaven, didn’t exist. Her mind, contained in a mortal body, could not fully grasp the timelessness that her memories held. In a slippery, dream-like way, she remembered everything from Jesu’s Ascension back through the War, Michael and Lucien and Uriel, the sixth Day when the Host watched the completion of Creation, and Gabriel, glowing with joy, his message delivered. Ellen couldn’t remember Judgement clearly. She was not sure yet what side she would stand on, on that Day.
She remembered the pride and despair on Lucien’s face when Michael raised his sword in defense of He Who Is. Michael had been just as arrogant as the Morning Star, but Michael was an archangel, and obedient without questioning.
The third aftershock was just a shudder through the building, and since it had followed almost a full ten minutes after the last tremor, once it was over the kitchen volunteers left their places of safety and returned to their routines. There were hungry people still waiting outside, after all. Despite the shockwave of the initial quake being strong enough to drop Ellen and some of the others to their knees, none of the waiting homeless had given up their places in line, because the kitchen always ran out of food to distribute before they saw the end of it. Jesu had made a loaf of bread and two small fish feed an audience of hundreds, but it was all that Ellen could do to stretch their donations to feed one sitting of the hall.
“What do you think?” Patrick asked, extending a hand to help Marjory to her feet as the group crawled out from the cover of the folding table. “Six-point-seven? Six-point-eight? It wasn’t as strong as the last one.”
“Oh, Lord, it was strong enough,” declared Marjory.
“You’ll get used to them,” said a young volunteer as he straightened some toppled chairs. They had been knocked over in the scramble, not in the quake. “My guess is six-point-two,” he added, directing his words to the white-haired teacher.
Marjory walked away on unsteady feet. “I don’t want to get used to it,” she said, shaking her head as she nervously re-tied her apron.
“Are you alright, Miss Kendle?” Patrick asked, concern in his kind blue eyes while he peered over his glasses at Ellen’s wan face. He insisted on calling anyone under thirty by that person’s surname. Sometimes, with the boys, he added the preface of “young”. He turned to the volunteer who was straightening the metal folding chairs and illustrated the tendency with, “young Mr. Grant, could you please bring Miss Kendle a seat? You’re looking somewhat peaked,” he added to Ellen, his hand protectively hovering near the young woman’s elbow.
“I’m really fine,” Ellen said, waving the assistance away. In her mind, she made her own guess as to the quake’s strength. Six-point-six, six, she thought, and the thought gave her an uncontrollable urge to giggle, causing Patrick and Taye Grant to both look at her strangely. “We had better get the doors open,” she said, moving away briskly to fetch an apron and take her place in the serving line. “It’s cruel to keep those Sidewalk Angels waiting.”
“Why do you call them that?” Taye asked her.
“What would you call them?” Ellen asked. “They are neither here nor there, shuffling on the edge of the easement into the afterlife.”
“You should be writing song lyrics or something, Ellen,” he said. “You don’t belong here, doing this.”
“Being here is something I can do,” she replied.
. . .
She volunteered at the soup kitchen twice a week, once on a weekend day – usually Saturday, because the church choir kept her busy on Sunday mornings – and once on whatever weekday that she didn’t work. She considered it part of her commitment to drive around and pick up donations once the serving hours were over. She had a car and a trustworthy smile; the combination made her the best candidate for the job. She left the managers of various local restaurants and bakeries with handwritten receipts and the feeling that they had done an act of charity by handing over yesterday’s unservable remnants.
Ellen had been a privileged teenager, but that hadn’t stopped her from stepping off a chair with a noose made out of silk scarves. The angel had lived her life for seven years since then, following a list of lost things: “I wanted to see the ocean. I wanted to help poor people.” Afterward, as Ellen, the angel had washed her body and cleaned up Ellen’s room. She told her parents that she was pregnant. At the shelter, after her parents threw her out of their home and their lives, her period came — seven weeks late. Five weeks more, and Ellen was on a train challenging the distant horizon, away from amber waves and toward blue waves under a blue sky.
In the late afternoon, she started off on her rounds to the bakeries and cafes that closed early, driving the route in her little fuel efficient car, feeling hopeful. Today there had almost been enough for everyone hungry. It was a shame that after all the angel’s lives, her many incarnations into a mortal body, that she still hadn’t learned to check the intersection before driving through a new green light. If she had been wearing her seatbelt when the other car broadsided her, Ellen would have lived.
. . .
It was impossible to tell if Peter was pleased or disappointed to see her. When he was like this, he resembled his name most – a stone – though when she had known him before in the timelessness of the Presence, he had been loud and boisterous and very human. The foremost Apostle met her at Heaven’s Gate with a severe expression that was no expression at all, and a silence that was a reprimand in itself.
“Tell me where I am to go next,” she said in an attempt to circumvent the discussion that she and Peter had each time she began a new life. Spirits, souls of mortals who believed that they had lived good lives, swirled around her and through the gateway in the way that iridescence moves over the curving surface of a pearl. She felt the Presence so closely and so purely; it tested her will; it was a battle not to sing out the Gloria. Once she began singing Hosannas, she would be choosing her side, and it was not something that she was ready to do. She had already spent millenia on earth in human form to avoid that choice.
“You have done so well,” said Peter. “Admit that you belong here, and come home.”
“Peter,” she replied, her voice so tight with restrained emotion that the first apostle yielded.
He may have been taking pity on her for reasons beyond the apparent pain of her struggle. “You have to go to Hell for this one,” he said.
“Why Hell?” she asked with anguish that was shifting in another direction. “In spite of what they say on earth, those who take their own lives aren’t condemned.”
“This one believes that he is,” replied Peter. “To ask permission for his life, you will have to seek him out in the pit.”
In a habit developed from living in flesh, the angel buried her face in her hands. When the War had ended, the angelic host were told to choose: remain obedient in heaven, or fall with the Morning Star into the Pit of Hell. Of all the angels, she alone could not make a choice; as much as she wanted to run to the defeated Lucien, all of her being cried out to say with her Lord. Her heart had been evenly split, and she had been paralyzed with indecision.
Lucien, once called the Adversary, now called Lucifer, had suggested the angel’s current state: she could live among mortals, as a mortal, until her choice was made. The Trinity had granted this to her, with one stipulation: she would continue the lives of those who had committed suicide.
She had been no closer to Him than heaven’s gates since her time on earth began. She had also kept an equal distance from Lucifer. The Lord of Hosts chose each of her successive lives; he was forcing her, with this one, to enter Lucifer’s realm. Perhaps he was pushing her to choose. Perhaps Judgement was closer than the angel could accept.
Wordlessly, she left Peter and the gates of heaven, and went to seek out the one who had discarded the life that she had been directed to take. Like a servant begging to wear the unwanted rags of her Master’s children, she would take up the mantle of a life cut short and continue it. These were always lives of pain and sadness, but she welcomed them.
. . .
Hell is always easy to find. A sideways slip through despair, a straight fall through dark thoughts, and Hell unfolds like a wet orchid. Diego, her suicide, was easy to find, too. His awareness was still intact, though the body he had left behind was not, and in horror he was cutting at himself with what appeared to be a broken seashell. The makeshift blade, smooth, pale, and luminously pink, bit into the semblance of his flesh, splitting open the skin of his forearms.
He could bleed for eternity without progress. Even madness was unattainable in Hell. The angel touched him on the shoulder, and her light made him jolt away from his desperation with a gasp.
“Diego,” she said, ringing the tones that used to chime Alleluia.
He had been fifteen at most, the down of chin hair just beginning. He looked up at her with eyes like shadows, Spanish eyes, long lashes under full brows. “What are you –” he stumbled, his tenor voice wavering on the edge of baritone.
She took the broken shard from his hands and replaced it with her own hands, and sank into the beach sand beside him. The water crested close to their folded legs. The shell littered beach, the sand, the sun sinking below the waves – everything in the scene was formed from the young man’s mind. “There is something I have to explain to you,” said the angel. “And something that I want to ask from you.”
. . .
An acerbic voice cut the silence after she had finished speaking.
“Straight to business, without saying hello to me first?” asked Lucifer, a smile in his voice to match the white-toothed smile on his face. It was a smile that didn’t reach his sharp, grey eyes. The angel didn’t need to turn to see him; he was everywhere. There are two kinds of pure, and the Morning Star burned pure and absolute. The soul of Diego could not have looked at him even if he had wanted.
Lucifer closed the distance to his visitor, and surrounded her in an embrace that made her own light flicker like a match flame against the sun. His voice dripped over her. “Long time, no see,” he said.
Angels are beings without flesh and without physical gender, but ingrained habits raised the angel’s response. She embraced Lucifer in turn, remembering and wanting the closeness of harmony. Chord and fermata: she was reluctant to pull herself away.
“There was no helping it, Lucien,” she said.
His smile grew flat at the use of his old name. “But you’ll approach heaven without hesitating,” he accused. His words were a rain of knives.
“That’s not true,” she said. She turned her face from him, and hardened her heart. “I can’t stay,” she said dismissively.
The Lord of Hell stopped her from leaving. “If you won’t come to see me, I’ll come to see you,” he promised.
“I am going,” she insisted, the tremor in her voice betraying mixed apprehension and anticipation. For a moment, she turned back to the tortured soul. “He doesn’t belong here, you know,” she murmured.
Lucifer shrugged. “He put himself here.”
“You don’t have to keep him.”
“I’ll trade him for you,” said Lucifer suavely.
“I haven’t chosen yet,” the angel answered tersely and took herself away.
. . .
A rich breeze blew in through an open window, a green scent filtered by thin liner curtains. The sheer cloth billowed upward into the white room.
I feel like hell, warmed over, she/he thought irreverently. The first few days of a new life were always disjointed; he felt like himself, but he also felt like Diego. He was Diego, but not completely. It was necessary to have the memories and feelings of the original soul, even though the soul was released from the body, in order to continue the life. He understood, too, that it was a kind of punishment to remember. Diego had fled from a mother who passed him around among her friends as a sort of party favor, and from a father who questioned the boy’s legitimacy and beat him worse as he grew into manhood. This was the life that he had been given.
He was in a hospital in Venezuela, the country where he had been born and had lived his whole short life. It was, from appearances, a private hospital. Diego’s parents were wealthy; he could afford to have a room to himself and an extended stay for recovery. It was, otherwise, an ordinary hospital room. There were no restraints on the bed, but there were also no flowers, or well-wishing cards, on the bedside table.
A nurse came through to check on him, going through the perfunctory routine in silence. A man in a doctor’s coat entered as the nurse left. The nurse passed him without acknowledgement; he approached Diego’s bed confidently and leaned his hip against it, crossing his arms over his chest with expectant speculation. The boy looked up, into a handsome face with evenly dark-tanned skin, short wavy black hair, and grey eyes. He knew those eyes. Recognition must have passed through the expression on Diego’s face, because the man smiled. The angel knew that smile.
Lucifer uncrossed his arms, twisting as he bent toward the reclined Diego. His eyes closed briefly while lips touched lips, but so did the boy’s. Diego’s fear didn’t have time to rise before Lucifer rose; the angel was enough present to catch the Prince of Hell’s hand before he stepped away.
“Your mouth tastes terrible,” Lucifer said wryly.
The angel let his fingers slip over Lucifer’s hand in slow release. “I think they pumped my stomach,” he said. Diego’s voice was sandy and thin, and it hurt to speak.
Lucifer drew lazy lines with his fingertips over the young man’s face. “I like this one,” he said. He strolled away, long strides taking him to the room’s doorway. He closed the door softly. It wouldn’t open again until he wished it.
There was enough of Diego, still, to tense at the small snicking sound of the metal tongue locking into place. He crawled backwards to an upright position, his jerking movement making the metal stand that held the saline drip rattle, pulled by the tether of the IV tube. Lucifer crossed back with a swaggering walk and tossed his head in an attempt to move an unruly curl away from his eyes. The curl dropped back when he leaned over Diego again.
Diego had only known kisses that were hungry, never ones that were loving, and learned fear and panic drove him out of the tangible embrace and over the opposite side of the hospital bed. An uneven landing brought him down to the cold floor, the thin cloth hospital gown providing inadequate covering or padding, an the tube under the tape pulled free from his hand. A habit of prayer came to Diego’s lips.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you…”
“Stop it.” said Lucifer, cringing at the hated name.
“…blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb –”
Lucifer’s face twisted from pained to enraged. “Shut Up,” he demanded, chasing around the bed toward the boy.
Diego lunged for the window and had it open before Lucifer could touch him. A fall from four stories is more thoroughly effective than an overdose of pills, and more definite.
. . .
Gabriel was with Peter this time. “They want to see you,” he said. He guided the angel with a touch of hand to shoulder, and as easily as that, she was in the realm of heaven. A sound, a perfect sound, was everywhere.
Take the words “I love you”, spoken into your ear for the first time; the soothing tether of your mother’s voice when your fever dangled you on the sweaty precipice of terror; fireworks bursting in a holiday sky; and the near silence of a calm vacation day – take
all of those things, all of the wonderful, powerful things that you have ever heard, and multiply them seven-sevenfold.
That was the sound of heaven.
And woven through the joy of souls that were content to be done with mortal life, and the complex melodies and harmonies of the angelic host, was a full-throated, engaging laughter. It was like new honey, poured in the sunshine onto elemental gold.
God was laughing.
It pulled a smile to the angel’s face; she could not keep it from happening. Gabriel was, of course, beaming, almost dancing, all his wings fluttering like freshly bleached sheets on a laundry line. When he opened his mouth to join in the Song, she caught herself on her own deep inhalation just before her own lips opened; she stopped herself hard by thinking of Diego’s life. She followed that thought with memories of other lives, before. At the sight of the dark pool that those thoughts formed around her, Gabriel’s voice faltered.
“But why is it so difficult for you?” the senior angel asked, with what would have seemed a non-sequitur had the angel not understood the timelessness of heaven. “I don’t see how you can doubt where you belong. You belong here.”
“It’s not about where I belong,” the angel, anguished, tried to explain all over again. “But to pick one, I will lose the other.”
Gabriel shook his head. He would never be able to understand. He himself had cleaved more than a few sets of wings during Lucifer’s rebellion, and he had never been especially fond of the Morning Star.
“Pick the wrong one, and we lose you. Don’t be so distant,” he appealed. “We miss your harmony.”
If her heart had not already been divided, it would have broken then at Gabriel’s plaintive sincerity. “Then,” she answered hopelessly, “you should understand.”
Silent afterward, Gabriel led the other angel the rest of the way to the Presence.
Michael was there, as it was to be expected. Michael was always there. She focused on the archangel so that she could keep her eyes averted from Him. If Lucifer was the sun, then the Almighty was All Light, and she was less than a match flame: a blurred shimmer, twice reflected.
“You called for my Intercession,” said a mild female voice. The angel’s attention shifted from Michael’s severe face and disapproving look; the speaker draped the angel in a gentle smile. “Thank you,” the Queen of Angels added.
“It wasn’t exactly me,” the angel replied to the Mother of God. About to say more, she was stopped short when the Trinity called her by name. She had free will as a birthright, but to say that she could refuse to answer when her Lord beckoned would be a lie of idealism. Nevertheless, she did not cower, or even kneel in genuflection, though in the moment she was glad not to be in a body. Her heart did not beat wildly, nor did her palms sweat, and her knees did not give way with weakness.
She wasn’t quite ready to hear his voice again. “Lift up your eyes,” He said, the tones of his speech so lovingly gentle that Mary’s would have seemed harsh by comparison. He smiled when the angel obeyed.
“I am sorry for what happened,” she said. “I didn’t have control of myself yet.”
“And I didn’t call you to me to scold you,” said her Lord. “You have been doing well, living with compassion and mercy. I know the difficulty,” He added authoritatively.
She knew what he meant: a life of a little more than three decades, two millennia past in the human time scale. She knew that he did understand, as much as any king could understand his subjects after living among them. Her Lord had glimpsed the mortal condition in his life as a man, a measure of life that would seem like a fraction of a day against the span of eternity. In that life He had had a loving mother and earthly father, had known the certainty of His value and his place in a greater Plan. Though He had suffered temptation, loss, betrayal, and torture, He had never swallowed tears, had never made Himself small, afraid to make a sound that would attract notice. He had loved, but He had also been loved.
He knew all things, but He didn’t know anything, she thought. If the Trinity heard her thoughts, He did not comment on them. He looked at her with solemn contemplation, instead.
“You are of my First,” He said. “Why do you persist in your stubbornness? Your indecision is an unnecessary descant line. Come back to Me,” he invited.
“And what if I choose otherwise?” asked the angel, sorrowed.
“You won’t,” said the Lord.
The War in Heaven had never ended; it continued its battles in the space of the angel’s heart. “Whose life,” she asked softly, “do I continue next?”
. . .
Summer had melted the ice in the river, and the warm, clear day beckoned people out of their houses and into the sunshine. The crowds were mostly on the banks and in the adjoining park, but Lydia wasn’t alone on the bridge. No one paid too much attention to one more babushka out for a walk on a fine day, except to return her smile when their paths crossed.
She was happy to be able to take this walk, having a good day from the cancer that was turning her guts into a useless soup. It was forever amazing to her that a body could continue through so many kinds of slow cataclysm. Everyone had been amazed at her recovery from the “accident”, as well; the doctors at the public hospital claimed that hypothermia had saved her. Lydia’s granddaughters attributed the old woman’s return to the world to prayer and a miracle.
She paused periodically on the bridge, to rest and to take in the surrounding scenery, and that is why she noticed him before he noticed her. Even at a distance, his grey eyes glittered like mica in stone. He actually seemed lightly surprised to see her.
“You’re a mess,” he said, looking her over.
“I wasn’t planning on important company,” she snipped. “Are you going to be taking a special interest in me now?”
Lucifer’s lips thinned and his smile evaporated. “I always have a special interest in you,” he admitted reluctantly. “But I wasn’t looking for you, today,” he added, his hurt feelings apparent. He made a vague gesture in an eastward direction. “I have another appointment.” Hands on his hips, he sat against the bridge’s stone railing. “A date to keep, as a matter of fact,” he tacked on smugly.
Lydia frowned. “Is it really necessary,” she asked flatly.
“No,” said Lucifer lightly. “They usually come to me on their own without encouragement.” His smile returned. “Well, I’m off,” he said, and pushed himself upright.
He paused, looking her over again. “Are you going to keep this up?” he asked, seriously.
“Yes. For now,” said the angel.
“Then maybe you’ll meet your brown-eyed boy again,” the Lord of Lies said, but she could hear that he spoke truthfully. “Out here somewhere. Maybe you’ll even recognize him.”
“What?” she asked with surprise.
“You left him with hope,” Lucifer said. He gave her a backward wave as he continued walking to the other side of the bridge. “He found his own way out.”
Lydia watched the brash figure walking away until he merged into the crowds, and then she turned to rest her elbows on the guardrail and looked at the reflections on the river below. She looked at herself – rheumy eyes and withered hair, papery skin – the mark of her poor health evident in her appearance. Still, there had been smiles for her today. Smiles are born in the soul.
Lydia had been sorry, when the angel came to ask for her life; the soul had been relieved that someone would watch over her granddaughters, and feed the feral cats that lived in the alley behind Lydia’s house. The old woman had left things unfinished, and she was sad that her loved ones would be marked by her suicide. The angel had made Lydia promises, just as she had made promises to every soul before.
None of the promises would be easy. She wasn’t immune to pain, or to any of the hardships that a human life could know, but it was her choice. On earth, she stood between Heaven and Hell, not on a fine line but on the broad spectrum that was one person’s life, with all of its rotting places as well as its pure, perfect notes. She had made choices… just not the one that certain parties wanted.
. . . end . . .