Authors: Jacqueline Carey
In the Matter of Fallen Angels:
A Short Story
By Jacqueline Carey
Over the course of writing a non-fiction coffee table book on angels and developing the theology woven into the setting of the
series, I’ve done a fair bit of research into angelology.
In the Matter of Fallen Angels
has absolutely nothing to do with any of it.
Rather, it was inspired by the distant memory of reading a short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez,
A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings
, a piece of magic realism which uses the manifestation of the miraculous to explore unattractive aspects of human nature.
In the Matter of Fallen Angels
utilizes a similar device in an inverse manner. It’s a much lighter and more modest piece, surreal and absurd. And although it’s centered on the extraordinary, in the end, it’s the ordinary, simple joys and rhythms of small-town living that it celebrates.
In the Matter of Fallen Angels
No one could ever say for sure when it happened, that is whether it happened before midnight or after or on the stroke. Even religion was no help in the matter, because if you read the event one way it was likely that it happened on the Sabbath, but if you read it the other then it was likely that it happened after, and who knew what it meant if it happened on the crux?
And there's always heat lightning at night in the summer in these parts. Sometimes it flickers all night long and maybe that night it was an omen of great portent, but it seemed just like any old summer night in Utopia. If you had walked around town that evening and asked if anyone thought that an angel would fall to earth behind Garrett Ainsworth's general store, everyone would have laughed. Utopia may be a two-horse town in the middle of nowhere, but the people who live there aren't crazy and
of them even have satellite dishes.
It was one of those mornings when it seems like the atmosphere has cleared its throat overnight and awakened to sing the sun up into a robin's-egg blue sky, fine and bright and promising that all things are possible, which is exactly what Quinn Parnell was thinking
on his way to the General—what
everyone in Utopi
a called the general store—for
a cup of coffee and a quick catch-up on the weekend's news before his office
hours started. Being an atheist as well as the town lawyer, the
parameters in which the anything Quinn felt was possible might occur did not extend to include the supernatural. What he thought was that it was the sort of morning on which you might buy a winning lottery ticket or suddenly fall in love with a woman you've seen every day for ten years. And because this is the sort of morning it was, when Quinn first saw that no one was sitting on the General's porch drinking coffee and exchanging gossip, he thought that Garrett Ainsworth had woken up with fly
fishing fever and closed shop for the day.
This was something which happened without warning three or four times a year, a sort of Norman Rockwell syndrome. Utopia was prone to sudden attacks of rural quaintness. It was that small a town.
But today this was not the case, and when Quinn reached the porch he saw that the General was open, and when he went inside he found that the General was deserted. A fresh pot of coffee
sat full and untouched on the burner. The cold storage units hummed. The ceiling fan rotated on low speed, creating eddies in the dust motes that hung in the slanting beams of the early morning sun. Quinn
was standing in the main aisle and rubbing
screen door at the rear of the store
"Quinn," said Bobby MacReary, who did construction work when there was any to be had and played backgammon at the General all day when there was not. He wore a very peculiar expression that morning. "Come here."
Garrett Ainsworth lived above the General and his backyard was a large, fenced lot. At the far end it bordered Foxglove Creek and was shady and green. The area right behind the General was barren dirt sporting a barbecue pit, two picnic tables and, this morning, the recumbent form of a fallen angel.
"I'll be damned," Old Man Stoat was saying as Quinn followed Bobby out the back door. It sounded as though he were saying it for the fiftieth time already
that morning, which he
was. Garrett Ainsworth had his hands shoved deep in his pockets and wasn't saying anything, but then he was always more of a listener than a talker.
The angel at first glance looked like a toppled statue, except for the wings. It was lying on its side and would have been facing them, only its left wing covered its face so they couldn't see it. It was not moving.
"What the hell is it?" Quinn asked.
"Can't be sure," said Garrett Ainsworth, "but it looks like an angel."
This was true. It looked exactly like, and like nothing but, an angel.
"Is it alive?" asked Quinn.
"I think so," Garrett said. He also
a very peculiar expression on his face.
Except for a length of dazzlingly white cloth artfully girded about its loins, the angel was naked. Its contours were heroic and masculine. Its flesh possessed the hard translucency of marble and its hair was a bronze that glowed like a Greek shield in the light of the morning sun over the plains of Marathon.
"Maybe I'd better fetch Reverend Plunkett," said Bobby MacReary, and disappeared into the General. The angel did not move at the sound of the screen door banging shut. Its wings were a thousand shades of white, from the snowy whiteness of its down feathers to the ivory of its massive pinions, which were dove-grey at the shaft.
"I'll be damned," said Old Man Stoat again and spat tobacco juice into the dust. The angel's ribcage rose and fell slowly, steadily and almost imperceptibly, the way marble would if it could breath. Quinn's knees turned to water faster than a priest can transubstantiate wine and he sat down in the dirt.
"This is not happening," Quinn said very calmly, and as everyone knows did not say much else for quite some time.
Bobby MacReary came back with Reverend Plunkett, who was puffing heavily from hurrying. His black hair shone with Brylcreem and his cherubic mouth shaped an O of surprise when he saw the angel.
"How did this get here?" he demanded.
Garrett Ainsworth shrugged and looked at the sky.
Fell, I guess.”
After this things began to get a bit out of hand. At the insistence of Reverend Plunkett, because it was a
angel, Bobby MacReary went to the lumberyard to buy chicken-wire and 2 x 4s to construct a coop around the angel. He told everyone he saw and by the time he had built the coop, a good-sized crowd had gathered in the General's backyard, where the angel had not stirred and Quinn still sat in the dirt and stared unbelieving. Everyone was very nice about it and careful not to bump into him, recognizing what a difficult time Quinn must be having with this as an atheist.
The Utopian Chapter of the League of Women Voters decided to put aside their opposition to supporting stereotypical views of feminine domesticity and brought sandwiches and lemonade. Doc Hayward brought his stethoscope and listened gingerly to the angel's heartbeat, said it sounded fine and wouldn't do anything else. Bobby MacReary, who liked running errands, went to fetch Doc Farnsworth, who was the county veterinarian, but Doc Farnsworth was drunk and wouldn't believe him, which everybody said was just as well.
At around 11:00 a.m. the Reverend D.J. Breedlove and most of his congregation showed up. The two Reverends got into a shouting match, which always happened anyway. The choir from Mount Zion Baptist Church, which was accustomed to doing without its spiritual leader whenever he and Reverend Plunkett encountered one another, sang a couple gospel hymns which really got the backyard rollicking but didn't stir the angel, so they broke it off and went to have some lemonade. Someone had the idea to send Bobby MacReary to fetch Solly Morgan, who had a dry-cleaning business and was Jewish, but it turned out that the angel didn't respond to Hebrew any more than it had to hymns. Solly Morgan shrugged and patted Quinn sympathetically on the shoulder and went over to play backgammon with Bobby MacReary.
All in all, nothing really happened the first day except that most everyone had a good time and Garrett Ainsworth sold all his luncheon meats and most of his frozen lemonade to the League of Women Voters. When it started to get dark and no one could talk Quinn Parnell into going home, they decided to leave him to keep watch over the angel. Miss Jessamine Brown, who led Reverend Breedlove's choir and ran the boarding house over on Elm Street, brought Quinn a blanket and a thermos of soup even though it was 80 degrees with the sun down
because her grandma always said that soup nourished a body.
Nothing really happened on the second day or the third day either, except that the sun rose in the east and set in the west and the shadow of the coop that Bobby MacReary built moved across the angel. At least this is what most people, who got in the habit of coming in shifts instead of staying all day, thought. Quinn Parnell, who stayed, saw what happened. He saw how the angel's body slowly acquired gravity and he witnessed the adamant made flesh. As the hours wore into one another and the sun completed two measured circuits, the alabaster skin took on a subtle flush of humanity. The bronze corona of the angel's hair, seen from the back of its head like a shield-in-the-sun, dimmed to a tawny brown. Its wings; well, if you have ever seen a swan close up that looked as pristine and white as a bridal bouquet from far away, you will know how its feathers looked, disheveled and a little discoloured.
These are the things that Quinn saw happen, and usually when change happens gradually it is easiest to see it by leaving for a while and coming back, but this does not necessarily apply in the matter of fallen angels.
After a while Quinn got to talking and being able to carry on conversations about ordinary things, like the weather and what the weather was like this time last year and how Bob Angler finally had his license pulled for drunk driving and the Jacksons' youngest boy Will was going off to MIT in a few weeks and wasn't that amazing, and he could talk about these things sitting in the dirt in Garrett Ainsworth's backyard, but the only thing he could say when they asked him when he was going home was, "When it does."
And that was pretty much all that happened on the second day and the third day, but on the fourth day things changed again just when everyone was getting used to the way they were, because when the sun rose and threw the shadow of the cottonwood trees cool and verdant and westward along the banks of Foxglove Creek, the angel was standing.
This is what Garrett Ainsworth saw when he walked out his back door that morning: Quinn Parnell sitting Indian-style in the dirt, wrapped in Miss Jessamine's crocheted blanket, staring at the coop. And the angel, standing. Not moving but standing, its head turned in the direction of the sun, its wings neither folded nor spread but lifted, half-open, the way a bird's will do sometimes when it is roosting to remind itself that it is a creature of flight.
Early morning sunlight filtering greenly through the leaves of the cottonwood trees cast a honeycombed pattern of shadow through the chicken-wire onto the angel's skin. Garrett Ainsworth stopped and stood and unconsciously ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth, feeling for a loose tooth, a loose connection, some tripped circuit-breaker that he could reset and go back to yesterday when the angel that had fallen in his backyard was still faceless and like to stay that way. When this didn't work he asked Quinn Parnell, "When?"
Quinn shrugged his crocheted-blanketed shoulders, his bestubbled face haggard in the morning light. Across town someone's dog was barking in a steady, measured cadence, a distant, yelping metronome. "Well," said Garrett Ainsworth and sucked his teeth meditatively one last time, "I'll fetch us a couple cups of coffee."
Pretty soon the regulars started to show, and everyone who came helped himself or herself to a cup of coffee and put a quarter in the kitty. Used to be Garrett would ring up coffee like a regular sale, but not lately. Anyway, people mostly stayed honest about their coffee donations, what with the angel and all.
Somehow it made a big difference that the angel was standing, at least for a while. The kids who had been tossing a Frisbee around yesterday didn't today, although Bobby MacReary still played backgammon with anyone who would stand him a game. Old Man Stoat even got so he would step around to the back of the coop to spit.
Of course the main thing was that everyone wanted to look at the angel's face, which was no problem really since all you had to do was walk
right up and look at it. Mrs.
Patsy Tucker fell over in a dead faint when she looked at it, but after they laid her out on
one of the picnic tables—all
0 pounds of her squeezed
into a flowery summer dress—and
Doc Hayward examined her, he told Claire Williams privately that Patsy Tucker was a hypochondriac, which everyone knew anyway, and that he doubted it was any accident that she fainted right when Hank Baldwin was right there to catch her. In any case, she came to pretty quick after they put a cold compress on her forehead and chafed her wrists.
What did the angel do? Nothing. Even when Betty and Jack DeKalb's boy Rick, who was already a terror at seven, tossed a clod of dirt at it. Even when Rick howled while his mother hauled him off by the arm, swatting his behind at every other step: Nothing. It just stood there like a half-answered prayer by a homoerotic Pygmalion, tracking the
sun degree after slow degree.
Since no one knew what to expect, this behavior did not seen unduly strange and perhaps in fact was not so for angels fallen in either the literal or metaphorical sense. The angel's eyes were suited for gazing at the sun, at once fierce and fiery and distant the way a hawk's are, but altogether different. Its face was very beautiful in a way that seemed very simple and almost indifferent to itself, and so could almost be taken for granted; the brow was fair and broad, a graceful expanse over which the tawny locks tumbled in classic disarray, the nose straight in the manner one sees in profiles on ancient coins.