“I don’t know how I can make it any plainer,” the angel said, “You have to drink.”
He didn’t look at all like your ordinary Biblical variety of angel; I mean for instance, the type in white robes which sit around all day on fluffy clouds, playing ethereal accompaniment on harp, and rustling its huge, snowy wings occasionally. This one had the white robe all right, but that’s where the similarity ended. He balanced an enormous double-edged sword in one hand and clutched a jewel-encrusted goblet with the other. In addition, he stood about six and a half feet tall and looked like he meant business. Hot sparks gleamed from under his lowered brow.
I looked around some more, stalling for time and trying without much success to get my bearings. For some vague reason, I knew I didn’t want to drink from the water of the dark river flowing sluggishly behind the angel. All around us, the land was barren. Really barren, which was no help at all. Other than the river and what looked like a dim forest on the flattened horizon behind me, I saw only the same orange-brown dirt everywhere. Definitely not a very popular vacation spot, I decided.
I still had absolutely no idea how I’d gotten there. Come to think of it, I couldn’t even remember where I had been before I woke up, flat on my back in the hard clay, looking up at an ugly gray sky. This Being standing near the river, leaning on the hilt of his sword told me to have a drink when I finally saw him, offering the goblet. I’d refused at first, not really knowing why, but positive I didn’t want any of that turgid river water. Whatever it was.
“Look,” I said carefully, climbing to my feet, “I don’t remember how I got here, and sure as Hell don’t have any idea what’s going on. Could I at least have a few explanations?”
“Ahh…This is easily summed up in one simple assertion,” he chuckled in rumbling bass tones, “You are dead, Benjamin Firth.”
“Right,” I decided to humor him, “I thought dead souls were supposed to end up in Heaven or Hell. My parents sent me to Sunday school for most of my childhood and I can’t recall anything about you or this place,” I spread my arms, indicating the vast empty landscape.
“So you were a Catholic this time, Benjamin Firth?” he smiled at me, “Very well, I will explain a bit further.”
He lowered the sword, wedging the point into the clay, and leaned upon the hilt once more. I remained standing.
“Behind me flows the river Lethe,” he gestured with the goblet, “the waters of forgetfulness, and I have been placed here to ensure that you and everyone who comes here drinks of it. Then I send you back to live again.”
“But what about Purgatory?” I asked.
“The Earth is sufficient, don’t you think?” he laughed aloud.
“A soul makes its own Hell,” he said seriously, “As for Heaven, to answer the next question on your mind, you are not going there, so there isn’t any point in discussing it further.”
“Why not?” I decided to be obstinate; besides, he wasn’t helping much.
“Because you’re not good enough. Now drink and forget, so I can be done with this,” he rumbled, proffering the cup again.
“Wait a minute,” I interrupted, “How can anyone get into Heaven if they can’t remember their past mistakes?”
“That’s your problem,” he said, the corners of his mouth ticking up to a malevolent grin, “Although, you do have one option, Benjamin. And you’ve taken it before. Nearly every time.”
“And what’s that?” I was getting perturbed.
“You can wrestle me,” the grin widened, and held no kindness whatsoever.
“I’ve done this before you say. Have I ever won?”
“Of course not,” he laughed.
“Oh. What do I win if I beat you?” It must have been something really worthwhile.
“Freedom of choice. Your memories if you choose to keep them,” he gave another smirk, “I tell you, Benjamin Firth, you have given me more trouble than just about any other soul I know. I’ve almost begun to look forward to your deaths.”
The angel spoke again into the silence that followed, “I am compelled to offer the cup three times and must be three times refused; will you not drink?” He held the goblet out at armslength.
He smiled, showing huge white teeth. Then he emptied the water onto the dry clay and dropped the cup after. “So be it,” he said solemnly, doing a lousy job of concealing rather obvious mirth.
He raised the sword and took a fighting stance. “Let us begin.”
“Hey, hold on,” I protested, “It’ll hardly be a fair fight, you with that sword and me completely unarmed.”
“Tough. I never said it was going to be easy,” he chortled.
“Well, come on then,” I tried to rag him on, “Fight if you can, you gutless eunuch.”
The taunt didn’t carry nearly as much bravado as I had wanted, but it did have the desired effect. The angel growled, stomped toward me and let loose a swing designed solely to remove a head from neck. It must’ve been a mighty blow.
But I wasn’t there; I lunged forward, under his sword arm, and took advantage of his momentum to turn the free wrist behind him. A sharp kick in the shin and thrust soon had him face down in the dirt. The sword flew away, flashing in the dim, diffuse light.
I forced the arm further up his supine back, hearing a satisfying groan of pain. Damn! This was going to be easier than I thought. Those self-defense classes Susan made me take with her had really paid off. I gave the arm another shove, “Gonna give up?”
The angel groaned and suddenly I was somewhere else.
And I was someone else.
I stood in front of the office building, near the entrance, with a plastic dish in my clammy hand. The few coins in it belied the time I’d spent there, all morning. I was hungry, cold, filthy, and tired, so I leaned against the stiff brick wall, resting my leg. I only had one. I’d left the other one in Viet Nam.
I closed my eyes and almost cried aloud. Why me? It wasn’t fair! I’d fought for my country. Now, no home, no job, nothing. No one would hire a filthy cripple.
I opened my eyes to see me coming down the sidewalk. No, really. In a clean gray pin-stripe suit, Benjamin Firth walked briskly in the weak afternoon sunlight, his eyes carefully avoiding me. And I was so hungry. I reached out and clutched his sleeve and said in a hoarse whisper, “Please sir, I need to eat.”
A look of surprise and then disgust crossed his lean, clean-shaven face.
“Bums,” he muttered, “Get out of here before I call the cops.”
“Please sir,” I pleaded, “If you won’t give me money, then let me have a job.
Let me prove myself.”
“We have nothing. You know how the times are,” he said coldly, and tried to pull away, “Try the shelter.”
He wrenched his arm loose and hurried inside.
I slumped against the wall again and held out the bowl, trying not to give up completely. Maybe by evening I’d have enough for a bowl of soup or something.
I remembered all of this and suddenly the angel under me erupted. He threw me off, and as I rolled clear, trying to regain my bearings, he leapt after me.
I jumped to my feet, and beating his hands aside, knocked him in the face with my forearm. Then, twisting behind I got the crook of my elbow under his chin and pulled it tight into a headlock. I yanked hard, bowing him back. The angel made a sound like, “Gurgle.”
And it happened again.
I trudged up the outside steps with two of the grocery bags in my arms, twin hot wires of bursitis burning in my shoulders. Along with my purse, I set the bags on the kitchen table once I got there. I rubbed my neck slowly and called out, “Benny, could you help me carry the rest of the groceries in from the car?”
“I’m busy Mom,” came the faint reply.
I sighed and went back outside.
Just as I picked up two more heavy sacks, the phone rang. Damn, I cursed silently.
But before I could put the groceries back down, I heard movements inside and Benny yelled, “I got it.”
I sighed again, and started up the concrete steps, looking at the old house. It needed painting. Ever since John died, a lot of things went undone. Maybe once Benny got older, he’d help out a little more.
Nearing the door, I could hear some of the conversation.
“I’d love to go to the movies but I don’t have any…wait a minute.”
Then I heard a low thud and some rustling noises. Mercy, I looked to heaven, he’s into my purse again.
I walked into the kitchen as my thirteen year old son picked up the phone once again and said, “Yeah, I can go,” then to me, “Can’t I Mom?”
He avoided my eyes. I pushed a stray hair back from my face.
“Yes, Benny,” I said finally, “You can go.”
“Thanks…Yeah, I can go. See you.”
He hung up and dashed out of the house.
I straightened my dress and started back out for the rest of the groceries.
I couldn’t see for a moment; I hadn’t known. And in that second, the angel jack-knifed forward and I pitched over his head to land hard in the dirt. He jumped at me and ground a knee into my back. I felt the vertebrae shifting. Then he yanked my head up by the hair and applied the same headlock I’d used on him. Readying myself to twist around and maybe get a shot at his groin, I levered my torso up off the ground and lashed out.
And I was now Bill Schreiber. I sat in a wheel chair, a nice warm, Tartan-wool blanket over my useless legs, just like the blanket on my useless mind. Oh, I could think clearly enough, but there was no way to express it. My tongue lay like a heavy piece of raw meat in my mouth, and I could hardly feel my hands. It hurt, not being able to talk.
I sat in front of a worn, wooden table while my daughter, Susan and her husband, Benjamin argued at the Admissions desk.
“But he’s my father!” she pleaded.
“Look Sue,” Ben said quietly, “He’s had a stroke. You can see him. He’s practically a vegetable. We can’t take care of him.”
I am not a vegetable, I cried out silently.
Yes, you are. I knew I was.
Benjamin signed the forms the uniformed nurse at the desk handed him, and pushed them back.
“There,” he said with a tone of finality, then softer, “Sue, we can still visit as often as you like.”
“I know,” she sniffed, “ But there won’t be any Love here.”
“Sure there will,” he said reassuringly, the nurse nodding in support.
“He’ll have the best care in the world,” she insisted.
Benjamin remained at the desk while Susan came over to me. I wanted to hug her so bad.
She did it for me.
Then Susan pulled back and promised with brimming eyes, “We’ll be back every week, Dad.”
She began to compose herself, but saw the moisture on my cheek. It completely shattered her.
Benjamin came over and put an arm around her, saying, “Don’t worry. It’ll be all right.”
He led her away. I heard her choke past her sobs, “But Ben, he knows.”
Soon afterwards, another faceless nurse came and wheeled me down an antiseptic corridor to a blank room. At least it had a window.
The angel was now standing with my head under its arm. He was dragging me toward the river, chuckling slowly in that bass rumble of his. I thrashed and struggled to free myself. I kicked at his shins.
“Sorry, Benjamin,” he laughed heartily, “Looks like you lose again.”
I bit him hard and he punched me in the face for my trouble.
And it was black outside. I pulled the shawl tighter around my bare shoulders as a stiff, icy breeze tugged at my dress. Fine night to decide to go without stockings, I chided myself. And this skimpy silk dress. Damn, should’ve worn the red cotton one. Oh well, useless to worry about it now.
Ben came out after having paid the dinner bill. He looked a little unsteady, and after watching him struggle with outside door, I knew that the two cocktails, white wine, and after-dinner drinks had taken their toll.
He draped his arm heavily over my shoulders and breathed whiskey at me, “Let’s go home, Sue.”
“Ah, Ben…” I had to put it right, “I think it’d be a good idea if I drove, O.K.?”
“Nonsense,” he attempted to say, and nearly got it right, “I’m fine. You’ll see.”
“It couldn’t hurt,” come on Sue, you can do it, “I know you can drive, dear, but if we were to get pulled over, you’d lose your license. I only had two glasses of wine.”
“Dammit!” he nearly shouted, “I said I’ll drive. Leave it at that!”
“All right, Ben,” I said quietly, and pulled him closer. We started across the parking lot.
At the door of our red Plymouth, I waited patiently as he fumbled with the keys. Eventually, he found the right one, and I climbed in. I leaned over and unlocked his door to save him the trouble.
But before he could get in, I fastened my seat belt and draped my shawl across my lap, crossing my legs just as he opened the door.
He smiled at me and I smiled back.
Much later, driving down the dark, deserted roads to our house, Ben put a hand on my knee. I took it up and held it close. Then he tried to put his arm around me and pull me over to him. From the hips down, of course, I couldn’t budge. He got a puzzled look on his face.
He glanced over and in the next instant, jerked the shawl away. Even in the dim moonlight, the black band of the seat belt lay highly visible against the white of my skirt.
“What’s the matter?” he demanded, “You never wore the belts before. Don’t you trust me?”
He glared at me as if I’d betrayed him.
“No, Ben,” I said softly, “It’s just that–Ben, look out!”
He never saw the huge oak tree rushing at us at forty miles an hour. The impact threw me against the seat belt, crushing my stomach, stealing my breath. I saw Ben go right through the windshield before I blacked out.
The angel had me face down before the river and was shoving my head toward the murky water. I had to do something.
“Wait a second,” I stammered, thinking frantically, “At least tell me how I died.”
The pressure eased the slightest bit.
“You fool,” the angel sneered, “You just witnessed your own death. Does it satisfy you?” A pause. “Drink!”
“Did Susan live?” I implored.
“Yes,” the voice said distantly, then stronger, “But she’ll never walk again.”
Oh, shit. I wanted the angel to finish his job. I was filthy. Evil.
Yet, I knew I was genuinely sorry for all of those things. Honest. How could I avoid doing them again if I couldn’t remember?
The tiny protest grew, as I pushed my arms under me and twisted my head to the left. Then I saw the sword, driven deep into the clay near the river-bank. And an idea occurred to me.
I ambled slowly across an autumn field in New England, the trees blazing with color. Sue walked as my side, holding my hand, her blue eyes out-shining the trees, and generally being incredibly beautiful. I was the luckiest person I knew.
A pair of robins swooped by above us in the clear, azure sky. And off to one side, near an old decrepit farm house, I could see a group of older children gathered around what looked like a well. The were laughing and I glimpsed one of the larger of the group hold up something that squirmed. But then he dropped it into the well. They laughed again, a raucous, cruel sound this time.
The mood was ruined.
I dropped Sue’s hand and started towards the group.
“Ben, where are–“ Susan asked behind me, worried.
The kids caught sight of me and took off.
I broke into a run.
“Ben!” Sue called.
I didn’t stop until I arrived at the piled stone wall of the well. About twenty-five feet down, a small brown puppy pawed at the dark water, yipping helplessly. Bastards, I cursed, immediately pulling off my jacket.
I climbed over the rim and swung my feet down into the well. I saw Susan nearly a hundred yards away, panting, “Ben why?”
“I’ve got to save it,” I shouted back and began the descent.
“Wait!” she called again.
I spread my legs against the walls, pressing outward and alternately using feet and hands, worked my way down.
And after about ten feet, I lost my grip on the slick, mossy walls and dropped. I tried to catch hold of the sides, uselessly scraping my palms until they bled. Near the bottom, a protruding metal rod gouged into my left arm, ripping the flannel sleeve, tearing flesh.
I plunged deep into the water and touched bottom. In a second, I pushed off to the surface. As I emerged, spitting water, the drenched puppy squealed and paddled toward me. I grabbed the rusted metal rod with one hand and the puppy with the other, setting him on my shoulder. He dug in with his claws and licked my ear.
I managed a laugh, despite the insistent, jabbing pain from all my injuries. Just then, Susan leaned over the edge. “Ben, are you O.K.?” she asked, concerned.
“Just fine,” I tried to reassure her, “Banged my arm a bit, though. Think you could get a rope somewhere?”
“Oh, Ben!” she cried, “You are hurt. I’ll be right back.”
She disappeared from view, leaving the clear blue sky above us. I looked down at the thick red swirling in the water. The puppy gave a little yip. “Don’t worry,” I laughed, “We’ll be all right.”
He licked my ear again.
I felt water on my face. I shoved up and away with renewed strength. The angel turned on me, surprised as I grappled with him. “A puppy?” he hissed. “You have got to be fucking kidding me.”
I swung around, and with a savage kick at his legs, reversed positions. I thrust his head into the river, bracing my knee on his back. I held him under for a long time, even after his violent thrashing stopped.
Eventually, I pulled his head up from the river, and satisfied with his condition, shoved his entire body into the dark waters. Kneeling, I watched the angel float away, belly-down, for a few minutes.
After a time, I got to my feet and picked up the cup, regarding it for a little while longer. And the sword, after removing it from its clay scabbard, I threw into the river after the angel. I had no need for weapons.
The sword dropped into the depths without a trace, while the huge, white-robed angel drifted slowly along the current, bound for somewhere.
And with that final glance at the river Lethe, I turned and started toward the dim forest on the horizon.
© Rebecca Morn, all rights reserved
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