August 2008 Volume Two Issue Five
I Have Heard the Angels Singing, Each to Each - Rosamund Hodge
I found the angel at the ninety-nine cent store.
I'd grabbed canned corn, dried chiles, hand lotion, and Mexican hot chocolate, and I was examining the dish towels when I felt something like a faint whisper. I glanced across the aisle--and there it was, sitting among the figurines next to the poorly scented candles: a little plastic statuette of an angel, her face tilted upwards and her hands clasped over her chest.
She was painted in delicate pastels, except for the sickly smiling mouth, which was a garish lipstick red. Her wings were naked white plastic, her long, curling hair was pale yellow, and her swirling skirts were pink. She was like a hundred other tacky statues I'd seen over the years.
I couldn't look away.
The sensation of whispering got louder without ever becoming audible. As I studied the statue, I realized that the space around it was curved, beginning to fold in on itself, as it did around the Moebius strips outside our door. I frowned, trying to see farther, deeper--
"Hey." Thuy snapped her fingers in front of my face. "Earth to Maria. You ready to go?"
I blinked. Thuy stood in front of me, her dark hair half-fallen out of its bun, a bottle of shampoo under one arm.
"Yeah, coming." I grabbed the angel off the shelf. Something was up with it, and I had to find out what.
Thuy peered at me suspiciously, but she didn't say anything until the clerk was dumping my stuff in a plastic bag. "I wouldn't have thought you'd go in for the cutesy angel thing."
I flinched, even though there was no way the bored teenager at the cash register could know how much that remark meant.
"Thuy," I muttered, trying to convey Don't allude to secrets in public with my eyebrows. She just wiggled hers back at me. I sighed. "I don't go for cutesy angels."
"Yeah, you're just . . . buying them." Thuy grabbed her bag. "At least you're not going for the slutty angel thing--one of my dad's friends had this tattoo--"
"Do not finish that sentence." I pointed a finger at her. "I do not want to know. Also, I don't believe your childhood was half as interesting as you say."
I was glad that Thuy was starting to talk about her father, I really was, but I could honestly live without any more stories about his friends.
Thuy grabbed her bag. "Seriously, when that lady at church tried to give us angel pins last week, I had to tie you down. What's up?"
"You did not," I said. "And there's something weird about it, okay? I don't know what. Hey, Niallan."
He was waiting by the sliding glass door with his bag. The sunlight falling through the glass glowed in his pale hair.
"What did you get?" I asked him, hoping to distract Thuy, as we walked out into the parking lot. Though the sunshine was dazzlingly bright, the air was cool; it was December, and the Los Angeles summer had finally broken. Better yet, for once the air was clean, no smog buzzing against my mental barriers. I let myself relax into the breeze--
And felt someone's breath sigh out for the last time as he died.
For a second I thought it was my breath leaving too, that I would never breathe again. Then I gasped, and adrenaline shuddered down my veins as I remembered I was separate and alive.
It had been stupid to relax my shields like that; I was only lucky I hadn't felt a shooting instead. I glanced at the others. I'd never told them about feeling people's deaths. There wasn't anything that could be done, and they'd only worry.
Luckily, they hadn't noticed. Niallan had just pulled out one of his purchases: a tall candle in a glass jar, with a picture in lurid colors on the front. Thuy grabbed it and wrinkled her nose.
"What is that?"
I leaned over her, my heart still thumping a little too hard, to look at the picture. An enormous hand pierced with the stigmata reached up through a cloud; on each of the fingertips balanced St. Joachim, St. Anne, St. Joseph, and Our Lady, with the Christ Child on the thumb. Two angels knelt on either side, holding the instruments of the Passion.
"Oh, it's the Mano Poderosa," I said.
"Is that Spanish for 'creepiest thing ever'?" asked Thuy.
Niallan took the candle back from her. "It's the all-powerful hand of God. The one that rained fire on Sodom and Gomorrah."
Thuy rolled her eyes. "I cannot be afraid of anything that tacky."
"You're Catholic too," I said.
"Yes, but I have good taste."
"Father Richard says that God has no taste." Ever since Niallan started taking lessons to be received into the Church, "Father Richard says" had crept steadily into his conversation.
"Father Richard spent eight years chasing Yoruba demons through the Nigerian rainforest. He's a little bit strange."
"The world is a little strange."
I thought of the angel at the bottom of my bag, crawling with a power I couldn't identify, and shivered.
I wanted to examine the angel as soon as we got home. But when I went into the kitchen to put away the dried chiles and canned corn, I realized how dirty it had gotten the last few days, so I started on the dishes. Before Mama died, I'd always hated that chore, but now it was soothing to stand in the kitchen where she had spent so much time, beneath the eyes of her favorite icon of Our Lady, surrounded by the protective symbols she had drawn onto the walls. I scrubbed the plates, and remembered Mama, and was at peace.
Not so peaceful that I wasn't still annoyed at Thuy for never helping to clean up, but still. I was happy.
I was too happy, too secure in the signs and symbols drawn around me, because I forgot again about keeping my mental barriers up. One moment I was scrubbing at a glass, the next I was staggering back as I smelled burning rubber, heard the squeal of tires. An image flickered: a blue Prius tried to cut off a gray SUV too quickly, and the two cars smashed into each other. I caught at the kitchen counter and hung on, feeling the nauseating twist of momentum as another car spun out of control--then another--there were flames everywhere, Jesus-Mary-Joseph, I could taste smoke and blood on the back of my throat--metal bent and buckled against metal, glass shattered--
"Maria." It was Niallan's voice. I sobbed, and realized that no smoke burned in my lungs. I was not ash and burning rubber; I was alive, curled up on the kitchen floor with Niallan's arms around me. My fingers gripped the cool linoleum and I sobbed again, this time in relief.
Niallan touched my cheek. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah." I pulled out of his grasp and sat up shakily. "I'm okay."
He raised his eyebrows at me.
"It was an accident on the freeway. Five cars, maybe. Six." I scrubbed at my face, wiping away tears. The vivid sensations of the crash had faded, but in their place was a scattershot impression of Los Angeles. I could hear the waves on the Malibu beach, could feel the smog over the San Fernando Valley like felt against my skin, was dizzy with the swaying of palm trees in the wind. Slowly, I began to build my barriers back up. I could feel Niallan in my mind through the bond that made me his liege lady, and I steadied myself against that still point.
Niallan watched me. "Third accident this week."
"I've had a bad week." Niallan kept watching me. I forced a smile. "I'm fine, okay? This is nothing worse than usual. Everything's normal." Normal should not include psychic awareness of six-car pile-ups on the 405, but nobody had asked me.
I stood--my knees were weak, but they worked--and saw that I had dropped the glass on the floor, shattering it. "Crap."
"I'll clean it up." He went to get the broom. I shut my eyes and took a couple steadying breaths. Jesus, give me strength.
Most of the time, I thought I was supposed to help guard the city. I was willing to do that, and I could have willingly suffered a lot more if it would help anyone. But feeling car crashes did not make me able to prevent them, and though I sometimes sensed people being killed, I couldn't tell who they were or where or what was really happening.
Jesus, if this is your way of motivating me, it's really not helping.
I finished the dishes soon after, but I didn't feel steady enough to face an object of unknown power and danger. So instead I spent half an hour making new paper Moebius strips to replace the tattered ones hanging from the trellis in the backyard. I cut each strip from crisp white paper, gave it a twist and taped it shut. As they snapped into being--one-sided loops where before there had only been plain, two-sided strips of paper--I felt them start to whisper the tiny not-there signal that would form a shield if anyone tried to curse us.
I had helped Mama make Moebius strips for years, but I had always known that if I did it wrong, she would fix them; if they failed to stop someone, our liege lord Peter Ng would save us. Now Mama and Peter Ng were both dead, and if someone came after me and my friends, I was our only line of protection.
I glanced at Niallan. He was sprawled on the couch, long legs dangling over the arm, reading The Brothers Karamazov. For the past couple months he had been on a mission to read everything ever, dragging home stacks of books from the library in no particular order. Last week it had been Heidegger, Steven King, and a book about rose gardens; this week, he was attacking the collected works of Dostoevsky. I suspected it was his way of figuring out how to be human after nine years as a prisoner of the Sidhe.
Niallan looked at me over the edge of his book. "Something wrong?"
I realized I'd been staring at him. "No." I started twisting strips again, my stomach tightening. "Do you know how much good these would do if someone really tried to hurt us?"
"Do you think someone will?"
"Liadan Ni Breacan would love to." She was the Sidhe queen who had held Niallan captive. "Mrs. Ng too, if she thought she could get away with it." The widow of my former liege lord had not been happy when I refused her protection. "And if anyone knew what I was--"
If the magical community of Los Angeles found out I was Nephelim, child of a human and an angel, people would be standing in line to take control of me.
He shrugged a bony shoulder. "You'd handle it."
Niallan's confidence in me was appalling sometimes.
"If you didn't, I'd save you," he added.
I smiled, but the tightness in my stomach didn't go away. I was the liege lady; I was supposed to save him and Thuy. I had saved him from the Sidhe, when we met; when I met Thuy, I had saved her too. I just didn't know if I could keep saving them. Half the time I couldn't keep the freeway out of my head; right now I was trying to ignore the cooing of pigeons outside the Santa Monica Public Library.
In a single fluid movement, Niallan pulled himself off the couch and knelt beside me. He pulled the Moebius strip from my hand and started writing on it, a little line of Greek lettering that ran down the center of the one-sided strip until it touched itself again.
"That makes it stronger." He handed it to me, and I felt a slight crackle as it touched my skin.
"Thanks," I said.
He tilted his head slightly, watching me with calm gray eyes, and my skin prickled. I could never tell what he was thinking when he went silent, and he was silent most of the time.
Then he picked up another Moebius strip and started writing on it.
"You'll need at least six more," he said.
So we worked together in silence, and having him there helping me was as comforting as anything he could have said.
After the Moebius strips were finished and tacked up on the backyard trellis alongside the tin cans stenciled with Mayan glyphs, I finally went up to my room and took the statue out of my drawer.
It still looked like just another tacky plastic statue. But as I ran my fingers over its surface, I felt again the strange distortion in space, and heard the faint whispering.
I set the statue back on my dresser, pulled the elastic out of my hair and shook it loose. Even with my magical barriers up, I could feel the city of Los Angeles and the land beneath it around me: cars on the freeway, grit on the sidewalk, pigeons and palm trees and chain link fences. I took a deep breath, letting the city ground me, then laid a hand on the statue and fractionally lowered my barriers.
"What are you?" I asked softly. There were some spells I could try, but if the statue was dangerous then they could make things worse--
The angel looked at me.
It didn't move, didn't change. But there was a presence emanating from it, prickling all over me like sunshine, alive and aware and watching me with eyes that were very, very old.
"De parte de Dios te pido que me digas a que vienes y que quieres," I said quickly and breathlessly: the words that Mama had taught me to say if I ever met an unknown spirit. In the name of God, I bid you tell me why you come and what you want.
The voices whispered in an eddying chorus, their words passing through me like ripples in the fabric of the world.
. . . the singers. The watchers. The children of the dawn.
--asomata gil-gulim angeloi malakhim--
We are the sons of God who shouted when the morning stars sang together.
My heart thumped. "What kind of angels are you?"
I had already met one angel, back when I learned I was Nephelim. That creature had not been any messenger of God.
Free us. Help us. Daughter.
I gritted my teeth. I knew I shouldn't be surprised that they knew what I was, but it still sent a stab of terror through me to know that they were looking at me, knowing me. They knew my father was an angel, knew I was one of the children of "the sons of God and the daughters of men," like in Genesis.
"How can angels be trapped in a statue?" I asked. "How am I supposed to set you free?"
Already you are growing, they said. Look to your land.
For a moment I didn't understand. Then I realized: the city was gone from my head.
There were good days and bad days, and over the past few months I'd learned a lot of control. But the smoggy, glittering, living presence of Los Angeles was always in the back of my mind. My breath caught in fear, and I reached out--
There it was, the same as ever: hate and greed, cement and love, chain-link fences and caffeine, love and eucalyptus trees, life and death and dying, a tangled mass that would choke me if I let it.
With the barest mental twitch, I turned it off again. Snapped it back on. Off.
I clenched my hands. "Did you do that?"
But I could not have done it without them. I had tried with all my strength to get control, but ever since discovering I was Nephelim and first using my powers, I had never been entirely alone in my head. If this control was real--if I could keep it up, then I would never need to wake up again nauseous from the smog, or feel another car accident, or choke and cry when brushfires devoured the chaparral.
"How?" I whispered.
You are becoming. Become more.
Become our savior. Set us free.
Then they were gone, like a light switching off; the angel was once again only plastic, and mine was the only presence in the room.
I touched the statue and wondered, What am I becoming?
"Look, it's perfectly simple." Thuy waved her soup spoon for emphasis. "Traveling back in time to fix the past wouldn't work, because if you stopped the thing that made you go back, then you wouldn't ever have gone back."
Niallan smiled faintly at her from the other side of the table. "If it didn't happen, then you wouldn't need to."
Thuy and Niallan had decided to recover from their traumas and start talking more or less simultaneously, and ever since then they'd had a running argument about . . . everything. Last night, they had worked their way from the proper method of dealing with ghosts to the nature of black holes; tonight it seemed to be time travel. Any other night, I would have been wishing Niallan had never rented Back to the Future, but tonight I barely heard them. I was too busy luxuriating in a dinner that was not accompanied by an awareness of the city outside. I heard the noises in the room, and no more; the whole world outside the house could perish in fire, and I wouldn't burn with it.
"Come on, Maria, what do you think?" said Thuy. "The grandfather paradox would get you every time, right?"
I looked up from my potato cheese soup. It had been my favorite, but since my powers awakened, when I ate it I always ended up tasting the smog at the same time. Now I tasted only cheese and potatoes, and it seemed blander than I remembered--maybe I was shutting my senses down a little too much--but that was a small price to pay.
Thuy and Niallan looked at me like the answer actually mattered. I sighed. "Does it matter? No one's ever been able to go back in time and no one ever will."
They looked at each other, and I could just see the thought passing between them: Something is wrong with her.
"Did you figure out what's up with that statue?" asked Thuy.
I had been trying to figure out a good way to tell them. There probably wasn't one, so I squared my shoulders and plunged ahead.
"There's something in it." I shifted in my chair. "Well. Things. They say they're angels."
Niallan's mouth tightened.
Thuy said, "Okay, let's burn it."
I shook my head. "I don't think they're evil. I think . . . they really are angels."
"Angels can't be locked up in a statue." Niallan did not add Father Richard says, but I could tell he was thinking it.
"Yeah, I don't remember the bit in the Bible where Gabriel got put in a bottle," said Thuy.
"A lot of things aren't in the Bible."
"Angels have no bodies," said Niallan. "You couldn't put them in anything."
I crossed my arms. "They don't have bodies, and yet somehow, they still have kids."
There was a short, awkward pause. Thuy had only been with us for a little over a month, and she was still a bit freaked out by what I was. Niallan . . . I think he suspected the same thing I did: that my father had been the fallen angel who helped Los Ojos. The angel I killed by the side of the freeway.
"Anyway." I put my elbows on the table and leaned forward. "We know there have always been a lot of angels in L.A., and I don't think . . . I don't think they're all exactly the same kind of angel as you read about in the Bible. I mean, how much does anyone know about angels?"
There was another pause, and then Niallan said, "We should call Father Richard," at the same time Thuy said, "We should still burn it."
Niallan looked at her. "Burning it won't get rid of it."
Thuy stared right back at him. "Father Richard will burn down the whole house on general principles."
If they got started on one of their arguments, it would never end. I squashed down a spurt of jealousy that Niallan talked more around Thuy than he ever had around me.
"They asked for my help," I said. "They want me to let them out. I don't think they can do it on their own. I'm going to talk to them a bit more, and see if I can figure out what they are. Then we'll think about burning and reinforcements, okay?"
They both looked skeptical. But the angels had already shown me how to manage my connection to the land. If they could teach me more--if I could really learn to use my powers--maybe I could protect Thuy and Niallan. Maybe I could stop all the pain of Los Angeles from downloading into my brain, and maybe I could actually start to heal it.
"I'm going to be careful," I said.
A whispering, creaking noise woke me. I got up and tiptoed out into the hallway. It was dark--so dark I couldn't see either end--and the air stirred in a strong, cool gust like I was outdoors.
Then the wheels came. They were brilliantly colored, blue and green and deepest crimson, rolling down the hallway with a slow, even grinding like wood against wood, but their spokes were fire.
When they reached me, they paused--they were barely knee-height--then began to roll around me in a circle. The hallway disappeared, leaving me in complete darkness with the wheels circling me. Now they were completely made of fire, and I saw there were rotating wheels within them, and wheels within those, in a network of fire with eyes at every intersection--whispering, all of them whispering--
And I woke with a gasp in my bed, in silence and alone.
The statue was still on my dresser. At Niallan's insistence, I had circled it with a Moebius strip, but I didn't think it would make any difference.
I glanced at the clock. It was 3:40 AM, but I couldn't imagine going back to sleep. I got up and took the Moebius strip off the statue.
"Please," I said. "Tell me who you are."
My voice fell into emptiness, but then the statue awakened, and the voices spoke all at once: Know us.
Their song crashed into my head.
In every really beautiful song, there's a moment when you feel like it's building to a pattern at the edges of your consciousness, a coherence of beauty that would bring the entire world into harmony if only you could grasp it.
This time I saw the pattern. This time I knew.
Knew that it had always been sung, always would be; knew that my heartbeat kept time to it and so did the eddying of cars on the 405 freeway; knew that this, at last, was the pattern underlying the Fibonacci numbers and the orbits of the planets and my own genetic code, and that its echo was every joyful thing I'd ever known.
At last it faded, until there was nothing left but a single harsh rhythm that had no beauty or meaning. It was my own breath, gasping in and out of my throat, and I was kneeling and bent over double, blinking at the floor in a daze.
In this we live and move and have our being, said one of the voices.
In this you could too, said another. Were you not of the world.
Know yourself, daughter.
I got up at six, to find that Thuy was already up and had made coffee.
"Here." She handed me a mug full of black coffee. "I put in lots of sugar."
"Thanks." I sat down at the table. Thuy was usually not an early riser.
"My dad used to make me coffee." She didn't look at me. "If I'd been having nightmares."
I gripped the mug and stared at the steam. Thuy often talked about her father, but not like this.
"Mama made me hot cocoa," I offered.
We'd both lost our parents at about the same time, and to the same renegade lord: Los Ojos, who made a covenant with a fallen angel.
"Did they promise you something?"
"Huh?" I looked up.
Thuy leaned forward across the table. "The angels. Did they promise you anything? Because if they did . . . I know what it's like. To think you can buy anything. It doesn't work."
She did know. She had handed herself over to Santa Muerte, the Mexican death goddess, because her liege lord had told her it would bring her father back. It hadn't.
"I know," I said. "I'm not doing that."
I thought of telling her about the song, but there weren't any words for that kind of beauty, for a sound that could eat you up and remake you, kill and give life in a single heartbeat.
I thought of telling her that the angels could teach me to protect her, to make sure that she never had to sit with that desolate expression on her face again--or at least, not for anyone besides her father. But she wouldn't believe me that this situation was different, that I was being careful, that I would make it work.
"Just . . . give me a day, okay? Then we start making fires."
She smiled faintly. "Or we call Father Richard and he explodes the whole house."
"Thuy, I know him mostly through your stories, and even I don't believe that." Mama had always kept me away from everyone in the magical community, so I'd only met Farther Richard a handful of times before Niallan started taking lessons from him. Niallan said he was brilliant at theology and magical lore; Thuy said he assumed everything was life-or-death and had never met a use of C-4 he didn't like. They were probably both right, but nobody spent three years as a pastor and unofficial liaison for the bishop among the network of liege lords in Los Angeles without learning a good deal of subtlety and tact.
Thuy slumped forward, leaning her chin on the table. "Nobody ever believes my stories."
"Yeah, I wonder why."
I sipped my coffee and nearly gagged. There was no taste at all; it was like drinking warm water.
"Maria?" Thuy looked worried.
"Nothing." I peered at the coffee. "Just went down the wrong way."
The coffee was another thing she wouldn't understand. Maybe I couldn't taste it because I was still getting my senses under control, like the soup last night. But I suspected it was because I had heard the angels' song, and after that, nothing could ever taste real again.
"What did you mean," I asked the angels, "when you said I could live in the song if I were not of the world?"
I had lit candles, drawn signs, put cinnamon on my tongue: everything Niallan and Thuy could have asked of me, to keep safe. Everything I knew that wouldn't work and I didn't need, because these were real angels and I did not fear them.
You are bound. Blind. Seeing everything that is evil to see.
The world is not the song; what is not of it, is against it.
Shadows and dust, reflections and disguises: what truth is in these?
"The song is of God, right?" It was so beautiful, it had to be. "And God works in the world."
Do you not know, have you not heard? This world is tainted, and taints whatever it touches.
"Well, yeah, original sin," I said, "but--"
They took away every wall in my mind, every last illusion in my heart, and they showed me the truth.
They showed me the freeway: the network of pathways that connected Los Angeles to itself. To me it had always been something alive and glowing with the human minds that pulsed along it. But they showed me the endless spewing of car exhaust turning the air to poison; the roadkills rotting as the cars ground them further into the pavement; the invisible pockmarks where people had died in fire and pain, bending space around them with the agony of their passage.
They showed me the city: the continuous keening from all the minds crowded in on each other, hating and grieving and dying; bullets ripping through a girl in Venice and heroin burning through the veins of a boy in Santa Monica; the old man dying alone under a freeway overpass, his feet wrapped in plastic bags, and the old woman crouched among her cats while cockroaches swarmed on the ceiling.
They showed me the earth itself, parched and dry, salted with misery and poisoned with grief, slowly tearing against itself in the San Andreas fault.
This is your land. This, your inheritance.
They showed me my friends: how Niallan looked on God as little more than a charm to keep away from the Sidhe, how Thuy was content to say she respected holy things if they only stayed away from her. How Niallan didn't care what happened to me as long as I kept saving him, and how Thuy resented me for saving her even once. How neither one of them would ever hear the song.
This is where your heart is. This, where you have placed your treasure.
My breath scratched in my throat. "That's not true. There is more to them."
They were beautiful, agreed the angels. Then they were born.
So was the city. Then it was made.
Do you wonder now, daughter of the daughters of men, why the world does not hear the song?
I stared at the dark, bubbly crust of the brownies. It looked like Thuy had made her triple-chocolate special again. I knew how good they were, how the whole house smelled like chocolate when she baked them, but sitting here beside them at the kitchen table, I couldn't smell anything. Probably another side-effect of the angels.
I didn't mind. Ever since the angels had opened my eyes, I'd been getting flashes of sight and sensation from all across the Los Angeles basin, worse than ever before: cockroaches swarming across a cement floor, fingernails clawing down the side of my face. If they could show me how to shut down my awareness of the city completely, the scent of brownies would be a small price to pay.
If they could show me. If they were telling the truth. I had seen the city, and I knew everything they had shown me was real. I also knew there was a time when I had loved Los Angeles, when I had seen sunlight glinting off the skyscrapers and glittering on the Pacific Ocean, when I had known that God made it and it was good. I knew. But I could not remember, could not summon those images or feelings any more
I had also heard the angels' song, and I knew that nothing evil could create it.
"It's been a day."
I started, and turned to see Thuy behind me with Niallan at her side--which was weird, because usually I could tell when one of them entered the room.
"You just wanted one day to figure out what they were." Her round face was grim. "Now can we burn it?"
I looked at Thuy and Niallan. I thought of the vices the angels had shown me crawling over their souls, thought of the suffering that swarmed through the city like ants, thought of destroying the statue and never knowing how much of what they'd shown me was true.
I squared my shoulders. "No. They really are angels. I think they can teach me."
"What, how to dance on the head of a pin?"
"How to protect you."
"And you're trusting them why?"
My shoulders tightened, because I wasn't sure. I didn't trust them. But I knew they had to be right.
"They sang to me. No, listen. I heard their song. Nothing evil could make it." I grew more certain as I said the words. "They really are angels, and I think they can help me protect you."
Evil was Los Ojos smiling as he watched his men shoot my mother; it was Santa Muerte imprisoning souls in the form of birds. It was Thuy betrayed by her former lord into the hands of Santa Muerte, it was Niallan held captive nine years by the Sidhe. It was the entire city of Los Angeles eating itself alive.
It was not the most beautiful song I'd ever heard.
"The Sidhe never made any pact with Hell." Niallan leaned against the wall, gray eyes distant. "In many ways, they weren't evil. But they weren't anything good for humans." He looked straight at me. "If these are angels, then they are by nature far more alien and dangerous than the Sidhe."
"And that's assuming they're telling you the truth." Thuy raised her eyebrows. "Because last time I checked? Voices that came out of plastic statues were not always to be trusted."
I wanted to scream at her that I knew I had to be careful, and if she thought she was ready to interview angels then she was welcome to try. But I forced myself to keep my voice low and calm.
"The song isn't something that could be faked. If you heard it, you'd understand."
"Yeah, and maybe we'd be brainwashed." I'd never noticed before how irritatingly shrill Thuy's voice got when she was angry.
"I heard Liadan Ni Breacan sing a lot of songs to mortal men," said Niallan. "Many of them would have said the same thing."
Come to think of it, why did everything have to come back to Niallan's great woeful experience with the Sidhe?
I stood. "Well, you haven't heard this song. And frankly, I'm a whole lot more qualified to judge it than either one of you. And last time I checked, you were still my vassals and you had still taken loyalty oaths, so maybe you should listen to what I say." Then I shoved past them and started up the stairs.
As I turned on the landing, I realized that I couldn't feel them any more in my head; it was as if they were not my vassals, or no longer existed. I paused--had the angels taken the bond, too?--and my angry words in the kitchen flashed back to me, and what was I becoming, that I was cruel to my friends?
We are leading you out of temptation. The angels spoke straight into my head as if I'd been in the same room as the statue.
I charged up the rest of the stairs into my bedroom and slammed the door behind me. "Okay. Enough. I want answers now." I grabbed the statue, my hands shaking. "Why are you in the statue? Who put you there? Who is your real enemy?" My knuckles whitened as I clutched the pastic. "Because right now, it seems like the whole world."
Our enemy is the deceiver. The adversary. The father of lies, the prince of this world.
I nodded. All names for the devil--
The one you call Lord and Savior.
"What?" I said. "That's not true--"
The world vanished. I fell sluggishly through darkness, rolling end-over-end and choking--I was underwater, and all around me were other people, twisting helplessly. Sometimes I glimpsed faces as I passed: Thuy, and Niallan, and Mama, her chest forever bloodied and shot open. Their faces were blank, wide eyes unseeing, and I knew this was how the angels saw them; that to the angels, even the greatest human passions were a dull sleep without dreams.
I slowed, and I thought I had hit bottom, but then I flipped over and saw that I had surfaced. The water stretched away from me on either side, a vast, dark expanse that was immeasurably huge, yet I could feel it falling away from me on either side to form a globe. It was the human world, I realized, the entire material universe, and I could finally understand why the angels hated it.
Because it kept us from the heavens.
Sky was too little a word for the infinite depths that stretched away from me. Instead of stars, there were tendrils of light that wove among each other in a slow, harmonious dance. Every so often, one of the strands arced down to the material world for a moment; and one bunch of them touched the surface near me and did not leave.
We are trapped. In this place the angels did not whisper but sang like a tap against pure crystal. You see how.
The surface of the world around them was rippled, turned in on itself like the Moebius strips; they could not touch more than the statue, could not stop touching it, unless someone in the mortal world--but not entirely of it--were to unwind their bindings.
We came to save you, they said. To free your souls that are trapped even after death. Instead the Deceiver trapped us as well. Save us, and the world goes free.
I stared at the twisting strands of light. Even their movement was like a song, like the memory of heart's desire, but I knew there was something I had to remember, some reason to say no.
One of the strands branched into five. An instant later it shivered and ran back into one, but it had already reminded me of Niallan's candle that showed the hand of God holding His family on His fingertips: the hand that was pierced for our sins.
The angels called Him the Deceiver.
". . . No," I whispered. "You're lying." I could not deny anything else they had told me, but I could deny this.
How much more do you have to see, daughter?
You have climbed outside the universe. Do you see your God anywhere? He crouches at the center of your world, and draws all souls down to rot with himself. Why do you think they put bones in your altars?
The darkness of matter lapped at my cheeks; I noticed how the liquid of the universe was thick and oily, like water in a ditch where leaves had rotted alongside paper cups.
Have we not shown you what your world is?
The water roiled around me, and I sank into it--just a few inches, but enough that it slid up my cheeks and over my eyes and mouth. I couldn't move, couldn't hold my breath or swim, only lie suspended under the surface, the light of the angels still glimmering through to me as I choked and gagged. Worse than that, I could feel the material universe sliding over my skin and all of it, galaxies and gardens, snails and stars, palm trees and freeways and dust, all of it was rotting alive. My mind stuttered an endless prayer, Oh God oh God oh Jesus help. But there was no answer, and the water burned around me with the sufferings of all the world, until at last I begged the angels, Please.
The waters flowed away from me, and the angels said, Do you desire that world of yours over this?
And they sang to me, more beautiful than joy, more painful than grief.
At last the song faded, and I floated in silence on the still surface of the world.
Tell us, child. Their voices were almost gentle. What do you desire?
The truth was, I wanted nothing but the angels and their song.
I tried. I tried to remember what I had loved about God, about anything in the world below. But I could only remember sharp words and spattered blood, sickness and despair and every evil thing.
"I have friends," I whispered, trying to recall their faces.
Save us, and the evil will end. Save us, and your friends will hear the song.
"Yes," I said.
The colors of the world were oddly bleached, faded; I supposed nothing else could look bright after the shimmering of the angels. My body felt awkward, disconnected, my joints swinging a little too easily, like the time I had snuck a few drinks of Mama's tequila. I could feel nothing of the land around me, or my friends; it was like being in a world made of paper.
I pulled open the kitchen drawer and grabbed a vegetable knife.
"Maria?" For once Niallan's voice was not calm, but tight with worry.
"Everything's fine." I did my best to smile at him, though my muscles didn't remember the gesture. "I'm going to save us all."
He shifted to block my path. "From what?"
Over his shoulder, I saw Thuy watching us. Thuy loved chili, and blistering hot days, and dancing to the beat of techno music. Niallan had spent too long trying to regain his humanity to accept that humanity itself was flawed. Neither of them would ever understand. Not until I showed them.
So I lied. "I'm going to stop the angels. Don't be afraid." Then I twisted past him and headed for the stairs.
When I got my room, the angels were already there; I could see their presence around the statue, straining to twist the air and push it aside so they could enter our world. Carefully, I sliced a tiny cut in my left palm and let the blood drip onto the statue. There was a roaring in my ears, and then I could almost see the darkness outside the world superimposed over my room.
I dropped to my knees. "Show me how to help."
First this, said the angels, and I heard very clearly Thuy and Niallan talking below:
"Do you believe her?"
"Me neither. Let's get Father Richard."
Father Richard, who served the Deceiver, who would stop me. I laid my hand against the wall, closed my eyes, and twisted. Behind my eyelids, I saw windows slam shut all over the house, the front door meld into the wall. All my doing. There would be no summoning priests or any other help.
Now what? I asked.
Now you look, said the angels, and once again I was rising up through the dark waters to see the heavens.
When I came back to the world, someone was pounding at the door. I ignored the sound, and instead picked up the angel statue. When my skin touched the plastic, I could feel their song throbbing beneath my skin. It was the only thing I could feel now.
Holding the statue in my hands, I could see the way space twisted around it, the way it twisted the angels into remaining in this one spot. Slowly, carefully, I began to unwind it.
The door burst open, and Thuy and Niallan stumbled in.
"Don't come near me," I said calmly. "I will hurt you."
"Maria?" Niallan whispered.
I made the final twist; the statue quivered in my hands, and then it was a knobby figure of rough granite with two stubby legs and two leaf-shaped wings instead of arms.
The voices of the angels grew louder, a continuous pattering of noise and meaning that I couldn't entirely grasp.
"Hey." Thuy crouched in front of me. "Hey. What are you doing?"
I looked at the fragile shell that had captured her. "They showed me the truth. The world is our prison. They will set us free."
"By destroying it?" Her voice was harsh, thin, almost hysterical.
"Yes." I smiled at her. "Once the world is burnt away, then you'll understand."
The voices of the angels roared down upon me, and I went back to their world.
I woke up again. Light dribbled down the walls of the room: the power of the angels starting to break through. Beyond those walls, I could half-see, half-hear a ponderous and inexorable whirling: the angels that were still tendrils in their world were spinning wheels in ours.
Something tickled my face. My friends had dared to come near me, to touch me; Thuy was holding a cinnamon stick to my forehead, Niallan had scrawled something on my hand with a pen.
I sat up, waved my hand, and they slammed into the wall.
"Don't stop me," I said.
"Watch us," Thuy gritted.
Niallan got to his feet. "They are lying to you."
I glanced at the squiggles he had drawn on my hand, but they didn't seem to have any meaning, so I ignored them and twisted at the statue. Slowly it unraveled in my hands until it was a silver Moebius strip.
Well done, daughter, said the angels.
"One more," I told my friends, and then the voices took me away.
I floated in the water of the world as the angels twisted above me, explaining the last steps of how to free them. Geometries flickered through my mind as I saw how to undo the last twist that held them back from the world--
And then faintly, flickering like a dream on the edge of sleep, I saw Thuy and Niallan kneeling over me. Their hands were clasped, blood tricking out between their fingers, and Thuy held a bottle of Irish whiskey.
"I have to stop them," I said to the angels.
One more thing, they replied--
"You get to listen to us now," said Thuy, and took a gulp from the bottle. "By this blood, by this oath, by the drink on my breath: where you go, we go, and so shall we be counted."
--the water of the world surged and roiled around me--
Niallan took the bottle from her and took a gulp. "Spoken and so," he said, and then leaned down to kiss me.
Whiskey, uisce beatha, breath-of-life, the drink that seals bargains, burnt against my tongue.
My eyes snapped open to see them leaning over me. The angels had taken the world away from me, had freed me from the perception that it was real, but I could feel my friends in my head again through the blood-oath bond.
"You go back to your angels, we come with you and since we're not Nephelim, we die," snarled Thuy. "Ready to pay that price?"
As she spoke, Niallan grabbed a plastic bottle of holy water shaped like Our Lady of Lourdes and squirted it on my forehead; then Thuy traced a cross through the wetness. For a moment I felt nothing; then the icy burn seared through my skull. I bucked against their grip, and--Oh God, oh Jesus, Santa Maria--I could feel the whole world again. Could feel my friends gripping me, Thuy's fingers clenched into my arm and Niallan's hands pressing on my shoulders.
"I have to go back." I tried to sit up. "The song--"
"You know it's a lie." Niallan grabbed my shoulders. "You know that they are liars and their name is Legion. You know this city is good, that every pavement and pigeon is holy." His words echoed in my head through the bond, and for one moment I saw the world through his eyes--but faintly, like a dream.
"If you heard the song," I whispered, "if you saw the world through their eyes, you would not tell them no."
"Of course not. I wasn't strong enough to escape Liadan, I could never refuse the fallen angels." He touched my face. "But you can."
I could feel the angels whirling, grinding at the walls of the world. Come back to us. Their words were still beautiful enough to hurt, but they were now discrete, separate from the world. Learn the final turn.
I couldn't suppress a whimper. My friends will die.
Liberate them from their flesh. Then set us free. My vision darkened as they tried to pull me back, and I felt the waters lap against my skin.
No, I said. I could still feel that they were right, that their world was beauty and peace and ours was sickness and corruption. But I knew that I couldn't hurt my friends. I knew . . . I had to protect my city.
"I renounce you" I was barely able to form the words. "And all . . . your empty promises."
I forced my eyes open. Thuy had me pinned against the floor; Niallan was at the other end of the room, bent over the silver Moebius strip.
I lifted my hand to look at the ink. Down the insides of my fingers Niallan had written the names of the saints from the Mano Poderosa in Latin: Sancte Ioachim. Sancta Anna. Sancte Ioseph. Sancta Maria. On my thumb, Iesu Christe. They were written in the vocative, the form of direct address, like a silent prayer. In the center of my palm, where the Mano Poderosa had the stigmata, he had drawn the Chi-Ro.
I closed my hand, felt skin against skin. The names were a reproach: holy things, traced in factory-made ink over mortal skin and bone. You thought you deserved to be more pure than them?
But it was also a promise: God had worked through baser things than me.
"It won't break," Niallan called.
"Try burning!" Thuy snapped.
The walls wavered with the pressure of the angels, and the grinding had become a roar; surely even if Thuy and Niallan couldn't see them, they could hear them.
Niallan's voice was quiet. "Some things can be bound with blood--"
"Did you miss the part where we all die together?"
The angels had shown me the geometry of their prison; and to know how to open was to know how to close.
"We go where she goes," said Niallan. "She doesn't have to follow me."
"Thuy," I said urgently. "Let me up."
She glanced down. "No."
I struggled. "No--I have to do this--"
Thuy's grip was iron. "Heard it before."
"Yeah, but this time I really do have to--Thuy, I can seal them back up! No one has to die!"
Her eyes met mine. "I will kill you if you're lying." She let go. "Niallan, get back."
I crawled towards the Moebius strip. It was like climbing uphill: the near-presence of the angels was enough to warp space and gravity. It would be ironic, I thought vaguely, if they collapsed the house into a singularity like Thuy and Niallan had argued about the other night.
My hand closed over the silver Moebius strip. I took a deep breath--Jesus, help me, please--and twisted. It was much harder than releasing it; my breath caught in my throat and spots danced in my vision as I twisted it.
You bind yourself in chains, hissed the angels. You worship the Deceiver. The Adversary.
"Shut up," I gasped, and then with a snap, it was once again the stone figurine. This time, though, its eyes glowed, and its surface was hot like it had been next to a fire.
You will never hear us again, said the angels.
Their song ripped through me, heartbreaking in its beauty. I sobbed with the desire to give in, to lose myself in its melody.
If the song wanted me to hurt people, it had to be a lie. If it was against God, then the song of the real angels in heaven had to be more beautiful. It had to be.
I twisted the statue. It burned in my hands, hotter and hotter--I was sure it would kill me, oh God, I was going to die, and Thuy and Niallan would die with me--
Then every single letter written on my hand seared through my skin, and a wind roared through the room. The statue snapped back into the plastic angel and was silent.
For a moment I stayed hunched over it, gasping for breath, unable to believe it was over. Then I stood, looked at my friends--they were crouched at the other end of the room, trying to shield each other from the lamp and knick-knacks that had been blown off my dresser.
I dropped the statue, backed away, slumped against the wall and sank down to the floor.
"I'm sorry," I gasped. "I'm sorry."
It wasn't enough, never could be.
In a daze, I looked at my hand. The inked words had turned to fine white scars.
Niallan knelt beside me. "It's okay."
"They remember," I whispered. "They remember the song that they sang before God at the beginning of the world. They can still sing something like it." I choked back a sob. "I would do . . . anything to hear it again."
Niallan's thumb slid over my cheek, wiping away tears. I remembered him touching my tears when we had first met, when Mama had just died and he was still a Sidhe slave with ice in his heart.
"But you didn't," he said.
And maybe I didn't have to say enough. Maybe I was already forgiven.
"Hey," said Thuy. "Could you make out later and help me clean up now?"
Niallan dropped his hand from my face, and I remembered how he had sealed the bond. "Um," I said, my face heating up.
I sneaked a look and saw that he was also turning faintly red. "The Sidhe seal bargains that way," he said. "I thought it would work."
"Thanks," I muttered.
His mouth crooked in a half-smile. "Anytime."
I laid my head on the dining room table, even though I wasn't tired. I could still almost hear the singing of the angels, and even though I knew it had been false, the memory brought a lump to my throat.
The numbness was gone; I could feel the vinyl tablecloth pressing against my cheek, the edge of the chair against my thigh, a strand of hair tickling my forehead. I could smell the lingering scent of brownies, and I knew that tomorrow morning, I would be able to taste breakfast. I could feel Los Angeles glimmering at the edge of my mind, and I knew the city was a blessing and not a curse.
The whole world still felt hollow. And even though I knew that someday it would feel real again, right now I just wanted to peel back the edges of the universe and crawl outside. I wanted to watch my skin and bones dissolve into light, teeth and nails and genetic code unwritten, unmade; to lose myself forever in the song. I wanted.
I heard steps, and opened my eyes to see Thuy stride into the kitchen, Niallan padding softly behind her. She thumped the package of Mexican hot chocolate down on the table and stabbed a finger at me.
I blinked. "I wasn't saying anything."
"No, but you were thinking totally stupid things. I can tell." She straightened. "We're making you hot chocolate, and . . ."
"Brownies," Niallan supplied. "Already on the counter." He had grabbed matches from the cupboard; now he set the Mano Poderosa candle on the table and lit it. I stared at the faces of the saints--the mother and foster-father, grandmother and grandfather of God--and tried to imagine a bliss that contained hands and hearts and faces, that did not reject companionship.
Thuy snapped her fingers in front of my eyes. "Hey."
"I'm listening," I said.
Niallan patted my shoulder and dropped into a chair beside me. "Give me your hand," he said, then grabbed it before I could move and started writing on my arm with a ballpoint pen. As he worked, he hummed a song--not the eerie Sidhe tunes I'd heard him sing once or twice, but an old and completely human Irish song. In the kitchen, Thuy dropped a pan on the floor, snarled, and then slammed it onto the stove.
I sighed. "Thank you," I murmured, and then said more loudly, "Thank you, guys. I would have been lost without you."
"I've got this amazing idea for how you can pay us back." Thuy did not look up from the stove. "Next time? Listen to what we say."
I looked down at my arm and saw the Niallan was writing out the creed in Latin. Et incarnatus est, he had just written: And was made flesh. It was a good reminder, but it was--at least for now--unnecessary.
"What are you going to do next?" I asked him. "Tie me down with ropes?"
"No, binding tattoos. Much more practical."
"Look," I said. "I couldn't have done it without you guys. But I did choose to come back." I looked Niallan in the eyes. "I'm not going anywhere."
He took my left wrist. "Then you won't mind holding still while I do your other arm."
"Accept that nobody is going to listen to anything you say for a really long time," said Thuy. But she grinned at me like I'd given her the world.
I sighed as Niallan drew protective sigils on my left arm and Thuy discovered that she had burned the cocoa. He started to sing again, while she kept up a counterpoint of muttered ranting. I could feel them in my mind again, and their presences curved around me like a crumpled piece of paper. Like the Moebius strips by the door, fragile but unending.
I closed my eyes and listened to my friends.
- END -