Ruffled feathers - Editor
La Cosa Angeli
by Don Norum
Oriel woke up in the Himalayas, tucked beneath a blanket of new snow. His wings unfolded and he rolled upright, sending a sudden plume of white powder into the wind screaming down the mountainside. Mikael stood before him, feathers unruffled by the howling storm.
"Wake up and get dressed. Today's important."
"Hmm?" Oriel ran his hands through his luminous hair, brilliant fingers vaporizing the ice that had locked around his head like a crash helmet.
"Dress warmly. We're headed into winter."
The younger angel had just enough time to cast ahead and see their destination, and then they were walking down the streets of Los Angeles.
"You said we were headed into winter," he asked the Principality.
"I meant you should be clothed."
A kid glided past on a skateboard, weaving around the two young men in windbreakers with oiled hair.
"What's the first stop?"
"Joseph Bonner, First United Assembly of God."
"What'd he do?"
The two angels paused before the glass doors fronting the cavernous building. Behind the doors was a series of vestibules, safety systems designed to prevent sparrows and robins from flying in during the spring months and getting lost and trapped in the thirty-thousand seat fellowship hall.
Two armed guards, off-duty policemen, stood around on either side to keep out another sort of undesirable interloper. Neither of them took any notice of the men conversing in front of them.
"Really, it's more a question of what he hasn't done." Oriel looked up at the multi-million dollar building that included two broadcast studios and a private sauna, and started to get the idea.
They opened the door and stepped through into Pastor Bonner's office in the heart of the church cum convention center.
The pastor looked up from his desk with a puzzled expression at the two sudden walk-ins. His eyes flicked to his open day planner and then back up, brow furrowing.
"Hello. Do you have an appointment?"
Mikael walked a few steps along the wall, casting a slippery eye over the shelves of Bonner's best-sellers before taking a seat in one of the cushioned chairs and answering.
"No. More of a standing invitation."
The Principality ignored the question and nodded to Oriel.
"You know the situation."
And just as it was said, so it was made true. Oriel's mind now held, as it now always had, the story of Joseph Broline Bonner's life. He had been the man's kiraman katibin since birth and he had stood beside the soul as it entered the womb. He saw the man reading his first Bible, learning at the feet of his father, working to produce the older man's radio shows, and finally taking over the congregation himself when a lump of cholesterol broke free.
Even now he saw himself standing by the door, reflected in the mind's eye of the mortal.
He knew what was to be done, but not how to do it. That was his test.
"How much has your church brought in, donation-wise, in the past year?"
"I'm calling security."
Oriel blinked, and the telephone jack on the wall behind the desk became a smooth plate of pastel plastic. The severed end of the phone cord fell to the carpet.
"No, you're not."
Bonner picked up the phone and heard nothing.
"What have you done?"
"Asked a question. How much money have your... parishioners donated, hmm?"
"Who are you? Private detectives? Gangsters? Get out now."
"We serve a higher power," Oriel said.
"What? The IRS?"
Mikael piped up from the chair. "I think you're losing him. He isn't getting it."
"What?" Bonner turned to stare again at the Principality.
"Don't take it personally," Mikael told him, "we didn't really expect you to. Give him a taste, Ace."
The pastor fell back from Oriel as the younger angel adjusted his windbreaker. His eyes swam across the nylon, holstering revolvers and Glocks behind every crease, every bulge. The angel saw his panicky fear and grimaced as he rolled his shoulders.
Majestic wings unfolded from his back, silver feathers chased with gold exploding out into the room. The atmosphere pulsed back and forth as they twitched, sending papers flying and the pastor's bestsellers sliding on their mahogany ledges. Oriel's wings spanned the room, suspending him in the center. He floated off of the carpet, his clothes appearing at once as both crude casual wear and flowing robes, like a mirage in front of eyes that refused to uncross.
"Oh Christ God Jesus, hallowed be Thy Name," Bonner babbled. Oriel dialed back the divine aura and started to nod.
"- protect Your servant from this demonic apparition, that I may consign my soul not to temptation in the face of evil..." the mindless mantra went on and on.
Oriel turned his head to Mikael, still sitting in the chair and still seeming very much the mortal.
"This has to be a first."
"Nope." He didn't even look up from the back cover of one of the Hungarian translations of "God's Wealth: His Plan for Your Life and Money!". "Happens all the time. He'll snap out of it."
The babbling went on for another minute before dying out in a fading trickle. At last, Bonner looked back up from unclenched eyes and stared at the angel with an expression of wonderment.
"You - you're not a demon. You're an angel. You really are."
Mikael raised his eyebrows and mouthed something quite temporal.
"Yes." Oriel pulled his wings back to half-span and descended to the floor. "We are."
"Now," he continued, "how much money has been donated by your congregation in the past year?"
"Um, ah, lots, lots, they're wonderful people."
"A number." Oriel waved his hand and the balance sheet for the previous fiscal year of Bonner Ministries, Inc. LLC, slid out of the stack of foldered documents on the desk.
"Uh, ten million, three hundred eleven thousand, nine hundred and thirty-two forty-seven, not counting -"
"Enough." Bonner fell silent.
"No," Oriel said, "I didn't mean that your words were sufficient. They never will be.
"You preach against hunger, and disease, and poverty. You seek to promulgate the word of God. An admirable goal."
Bonner nodded with quick, birdlike jerks of his head.
"How much do you do to alleviate the ills you preach against? Don't quote a number, and don't tell me about your political outreach. Don't tell me, or anyone else, anything. Just do."
"But, but," Bonner said, "but we do so much good in the community. The charities we fund, the causes we champion, the sanctity of marriage, you can't say that -"
Mikael closed his eyes and let the book in his hands sink to his lap. Oriel flew into the air and swept his wings out. They smashed into the walls, raking across the shelves as they beat. Bonner cowered behind his desk as the winds swept it clean, and the fury on the angel's face was written in cold lines.
One hand waved out from the golden robes and gestured, as if unveiling a new model year.
"Understand," Oriel commanded.
Joseph Broline Bonner had been born to Mfusi Tembo in the Sudan. His mother had given birth to six others before him, all girls. Their various fathers tolerated the girls only for their services' value in the marketplace. When the rebels came, and started taking rather than buying, the toleration vanished. His own father turned him and his mother out onto the streets so he could afford to buy a rifle from a Russian freighter moored in the harbor and guarded by fat men in black vests and hoods.
His father was shot through the chest by one of the loyalists he sought to join, mowed down from the back of a pickup truck on a slow day in the afternoon when the khat fever runneth over.
Now he lived in a camp, one canvas hovel among tens of thousands of others. His mother would be gone for four days out of the week, gathering firewood from the meager brush miles away. Not that there was much food to cook. When one of the other children died, if the mother was away, he and the other children would gather around the body with hunger gnawing at their bellies.
Cannibalism was not unheard of, but it was abhorrent to them.
They snatched at the flies gathering around the cooling body, some of them waiting until the insects swelled with blood from their feeding before gulping them down, guilty red stains on their lips as they sucked at their teeth.
He had lain for months in a bare cement hospital room, little more than a waiting room for the dead to shrink before burial. The watchers from the UN refused to allow them to dig mass graves, so the undertakers - construction workers for whom there was no other work - passed the time whoring while his body turned against itself and failed. Hard spit rattled from his lungs and fungus ran rampant through his mouth. He shrunk down until he was little more than a skeleton, as his bones died inside of him.
It made it easier to dig the graves, which was good, for there were many, and many more yet to be dug.
Bonner felt his insides turn to soup from disease, to rocks from hunger, felt his soul trapped inside a hydraulic press. He sold his mother for a crust of month-old bread and cursed her as he died from the virus passed down from her as his birthright and -
"Enough." Mikael had stood from the chair and placed his hand on Oriel's shoulder. "Enough. He is of no use to anyone dead."
The light in Oriel's eyes dimmed and his hand lowered. By the time it reached his side he was once again clad only in windbreaker and jeans. Bonner snapped forward and fell to the desk, his eyes churning.
Oriel pulled in his wings through the nylon of his jacket and took a few steps forward. He laid a gentle hand on the pastor's head and tilted it upright.
"Understand," the man with the greased black hair said, "understand. You know what to do."
As the two angels turned and walked out of the room, Oriel could feel the man's ego find its footing again. At the door, he paused and looked back.
"And see that you do it, or we'll be back again."
"That went well, I thought." Mikael just nodded in reply as they walked across the New Mexico desert in their true forms, a short intermezzo before their next appointment in New York.
"I know that I went a bit overboard, maybe, but, I'll learn. Right?"
Mikael was silent, striding across the ground in front of him. Oriel sighed, and jogged to catch up to him as they stepped out of a doorway into an alleyway beset by curling breakers of broken glass. Here winter was in full form, and the two angels wore black leather jackets over their polo shirts and trousers. Bare heads melted the snowflakes landing on black hair like a vanishing starfield.
Inside the church, Mikael doffed his hat and leaned his cane against the wall, then bowed his head and hung his jacket on the hook by the door. Oriel followed suit, after a second, and the two walked into the main hall.
St. Christopher's of Zachary had been built over a century ago, back when they built churches different from tenements and office buildings. Narrow stained glass windows looked out onto the small sideyards from stone walls, and thick oaken beams crossed the ceiling, buttressed arches rising up to the peaked roof.
They walked up towards the altar, past rich, dark pews of seasoned wood and worn velvet kneelers. The confessional had been faced with carved screens, not just hung fabric. Gold and silver, burnished with decades of incense and devotion, chased the fringes of the sacred items at the front of the church.
Oriel was just rising from his genuflections when he heard a sound from behind him.
"Hello, my son. Is there anything I can do for you?" The priest stood in his robes at the back of the hall, reading glasses perched on his nose. He capped his fountain pen and walked forward.
"I don't mean to intrude, but we don't usually get many visitors in the middle of the week, especially in this sort of weather."
Oriel realized that Mikael had vanished - he assumed before the priest had walked in.
"No, you're not intruding. In fact, you're just the one I was looking for." He didn't know what the plan here was, but he looked at the rich old building, in the heart of the city, millions of dollars an acre all around, the opulent candelabras and works of art, and had a hunch.
"Oh? What is it? Do you need to confess?"
"No, not exactly. This is a very nice church you have here, Father."
The priest smiled and nodded, eyes a little bit sad.
"Yes, it is. St. Christopher's was founded over a century ago, and we have been here ever since. Why, my own great-grandparents, come over from Scotland, were parishioners here, although I'm the first one in my family to join the clergy."
"Lots of beautiful artwork. The stained glass alone... It must have been expensive."
"Many of our parishioners have donated generously to the Church," the priest said with an uneasy glance towards the young man, "but what you see here was donated as is, not bought. I'm afraid I don't know what price it would command.
"I'm sorry," he said with a small smile, "you said you were looking for me. What seems to be the trouble?"
"No trouble," said Oriel. "It's a nice church you have here." He brought his gaze back down from the ceiling.
"Shame if something were to happen to it."
He raised his hand an inch from his side.
It was a Sunday morning Mass and every pew was filled with a mix of faces - old Italian men and women, younger Latino families, staunch Irish, third-generation Poles, all rising and sitting and kneeling and praying at Father Chilton's call. The last major trauma to the city had come almost ten years in the past, now, and they felt secure from all but an act of God.
The meteor was first spotted by a few keen observers on the west coast, as just a quick line of light across the early morning sky. When asked where they thought it had landed, most of them said it touched down somewhere in eastern California. Objects falling from orbit have a way of fooling the eye like that, though.
A chunk of rock about the size of a bathtub came down along a parabolic trajectory that just missed the surrounding buildings. It came through the roof at the speed of sound, the splinters of wood it blew ahead of it the first indication of impact.
The parishioners had all filed out into the front hall by now, and none of them would suffer major injuries. Father Chilton stopped at the door to the sanctuary and turned to close it, seeing the meteor land.
Tile bucked up in ripples from the floor as the rock punched through into the basement of the church. Pews flew into the air and shattered apart as the shockwave took them. Stained glass blew outside in a lethal hail to bounce off the brick walls on either side of the lot, and the crucifix over the altar looked down as the assembled wealth of the small parish church.
A howling wind slammed the heavy wooden doors shut in the Father's face and sent him sprawling backwards, trembling at the force, the fist of stone sent down from the heavens.
Oriel lowered his hand and saw the priest kneeling before him, weeping, his head pressed to the floor. The man's sobs shook his whole body, and the angel paused. He had no foreknowledge of this, no intrinsic sense of the situation.
"Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name..." the voice trailed off into a watery gurgle. He looked up, eyes trembling, at the angel before him.
"Forgive us for falling short of His vision of us, please, for we are but mortals. Our best is insufficient and incomplete, and we are all sorely wanting. Please."
"Peace; be calm." Oriel knelt to face the man, his human costume and fearful aura falling away behind him. "Do not be troubled so," he said, and with an outstretched hand bade the man look up.
"The parishioners, they donate the glass, the altar... they built this church with stone and oak before my parents were born. Don't you see? I can't sell their gifts, how could I, I can't reproach them for trying to express their devotion to God through art, I..."
He shook his head.
"I live here and take as little as I can - still too much - and the deacons and the ushers, they're all volunteers. Our collections go to charity, we feed the hungry, we house the homeless, we..."
The priest pressed fists to his eyes, glasses shoved up onto his balding forehead.
"There are still others hungrier, others sicker, others who face far worse whom we do not help, oh please, Lord, forgive us."
Oriel saw into the man's anguish, saw the humility. He saw the sleepless nights, the worries that fed on worries - was he trying too hard to be pious, or was he too lax on himself, and was feeling sorrowful for his shortcomings a perverse pride, a luxury of reflection he didn't deserve to enjoy?
"All have erred, and all shall be forgiven. You are a good man, Father Chilton, and indeed you are doing good."
The priest looked up to the angel and lost himself in Oriel's face as he mourned and cried -
"But all men are guilty still, for the good they know but do not do."
Oriel closed his eyes and opened himself to the heavens, and for one brief fleeting moment gave the priest a window into the Light.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you..." Oriel rose and left the man kneeling in prayer. A small certainty found its way into his mind from elsewhere, that his work here was done.
Mikael met him outside on the stoop.
"He's a good man," Oriel told him. The Principality nodded.
"We weren't here to enforce anything, were we?" he asked. The Principality shook his head.
"I shouldn't have given him that vision," Oriel said. "He was hard enough on himself."
"Only the Regni di Tutti Regni is omniscient," Mikael said.
"But all in all, we - I - did the right thing?"
Mikael hesitated, but gave a reluctant nod.
"It is one thing for the wicked to fear us, it is another for the righteous to cower also."
They walked in silence down the snowy streets until Mikael suggested lunch. They turned into an alley and emerged back into the foothills of the Himalayas.
Oriel was on his third stone cup of honeydew, his drink refreshed by millions of marching aphids from the branches of the oaks around them, when Mikael stepped out for a moment. When he came back, the dour angel had an even sterner look on his face.
"Something the matter?"
"No." Then, "Finish up. We have a meeting with one of the Metatrons."
The junior angel dropped the cup to his feet, where it molded itself back into the smooth granite.
"One of them. A small, subsidiary fragment of the Voice. Let's go."
Without waiting for a reply, they were whisked to the streets of a Jersey suburb, leaning against the wall of a corner store wearing jeans and windbreakers again. A portly man leaned out the door and waved them inside.
They threaded their way through the aisles of chips and soda pop to the back storeroom, where the man opened the door, nodded them in, and returned to the register.
The room beyond was deep in shadow, the only light filtering through the waxed paper on the door window. A figure sat behind a low table opposite, and both angels fell to one knee before the Voice.
They knew the command as fact, without the Throne deigning to utter it to the air. Mikael nodded at something only he knew and stepped outside, leaving Oriel to stand before God's subordinate.
<How long have you been an ally?>
"Forever," said Oriel.
"Eight thousand two hundred and thirty years."
<You started tending to the fish of the ocean and the birds of the field, yes?>
"That is correct." He licked his lips at the sound of one voice echoing in the room inside his head.
<And for the past two centuries you have been doing the Almighty's work with his people directly?>
There was a long pause and his knee began to ache from the cold cement.
"You have done well, Oriel." The voice came from all around him and pulled him to his feet.
"There is only one task for you to complete this day."
Mikael met him as he walked out of the store, leaning against the brick and pondering the clouds. A brown paper bag, as would contain a sandwich, dangled from his left hand.
"Are you strapped?" He asked Oriel.
"Here." Mikael handed him the bag and put his hands in his pockets. "Don't open it 'til we get there."
"Here." They stood in front of a six story apartment building in New York. Bundled ladies in coats pulled handcarts of groceries up and down the streets, while a few children ran out of buildings here and there to start running snowball feuds amid the plow-drifts. Oriel stuffed the bag inside his coat and they walked inside, holding the door open for a grateful young woman with her arms full of bags who rushed in after them.
They took the stairs.
A young girl stopped them on the fourth floor landing, not saying a word. She stood and stared at them. Oriel wore a sweatshirt underneath the thin topcoat, and he pushed the hood back off his head as he looked at the girl.
"My mother is very sick," she said. "Can you help her?"
"Do you know who we are?" Mikael asked her.
The girl kept up her steady stare.
"Angels. Mommy prayed for you to come."
Oriel followed her down the hallway as Mikael cocked his head in puzzlement behind them. Inside her apartment the girl pointed to a half-open bedroom door. He couldn't help knowing of the bills on the kitchen counter, or the sorry state of the accounts they concerned.
A thin woman with curly brown hair lay on top of the covers in her jeans and a sweater. Her eyes were closed, but she couldn't sleep. Unheard, Oriel reached out to touch her shoulder and knew of the cancer in her blood. He shut his eyes, opened them, and withdrew his hand. His face bore a sad smile. As he walked out, her eyes opened behind him and she whispered.
The girl stood by the door and watched him go.
"Thank you," she said.
He returned to the stairwell and the two angels went on to the sixth floor, to an apartment at the end of the hallway.
Oriel worked open his coat to make sure he could reach inside without hesitation, then they opened the door and went in.
A tall man with shoulder-length blond hair and bright blue eyes was in the kitchen wearing an apron, standing in front of a stove and stirring a simmering pot of sauce. He didn't seem surprised to see them come in, but his shoulders slumped and half the breath went out of him nonetheless.
"Hello, Mikael." His voice was cool and melodious.
"Baradriel." Mikael nodded.
The third angel took his apron off with a soft smile and hung it on a hook by the fridge. He stirred the sauce once more before turning the heat off and shifting the pot to a back burner. Spooning up a small taste, he rolled up one corner of his mouth.
"It could have used another thirty minutes."
Mikael and Oriel followed the other angel into the living room, where he opened a small hutch and looked at a row of bottles.
"Drink, either of you?"
"No," Oriel said.
Mikael said nothing, just stood by the door. Baradriel shrugged.
"Oh well." He poured himself a dollop of brown liquor and took a seat in a recliner next to a table topped with books and a reading lamp.
"All good things, eh?"
"Why, old friend? Why?"
He looked at Oriel and shrugged.
"You won't understand, not really, but... why not?" He took a sip and continued. "One day a man, living on an estate far from his home country, hears word that war has broken out there. Now, he could stay away - he is safe, secure, comfortable, there is nothing to oblige him to return - but for him such a choice would be unconscionable. He sees no other option but to return and fight."
Mikael turned and closed the door.
"A soldier, enlisted in that country's army, is called upon to go into battle. He enlisted just for the money, as a job, but now if he disobeys his orders, he will be killed. So he, too, goes and fights. I ask you," he said, taking another sip, "which one of them is choosing to do good?"
"Both of them," Oriel said, "the expatriate service over safety, and the soldier duty over death."
"No," Baladriel said, "we aren't assuming annihilation as an acceptable alternative."
"Then it is only the expatriate who is choosing to return and fight."
Baladriel finished his drink and shook his head.
"No, no. I never was any good at this sort of thing; maybe that's why I'm here right now. No," he continued, "neither one of them is making a choice, because for neither one of them is there any alternative. They can no more choose to do good than a stone can choose to fall to earth when dropped."
"Is that why you did it?"
"You don't understand, do you? How hollow our actions are when there are no other options available to us?"
"I understand that you made a choice, that your choice was wrong, and that now is the time for consequences."
Baladriel drained his glass and set it down on a coaster.
"Well, then." He stood up as Oriel took a step back and reached inside his jacket to his left hip.
He sank to his knees and bowed his head. His wings erupted from his back, his robes pooled around his legs, an aura shone from the crown of his head. Oriel drew the sword.
One quick, sudden slash severed Baladriel's wings, vanishing them into thin air and fading golden light. The fallen angel cried out and slumped over, robes turning back into human clothes as he rolled onto the carpet. Thin, wheezing breaths skated in and out of his mouth as a small puddle of blood soaked into the pile.
Oriel held his hand out and opened it. The flaming sword fell from his grasp, turning into a simple kitchen knife by the time it bounced onto the floor. He left it behind him as he turned to leave.
Mikael closed the door on the scene behind them and they walked back down the stairs and out to the street. On the way out, he held the door for a father bringing his kids back from the library, each holding stacks of books.
Oriel clasped his hands around the vision of the Virgin Mary. Mikael and Azuel and Nechazzah stood around him in the shadows, other figures from the Host spaced around the room unseen. He knelt and, as his hands burst into flames and bathed in the Light, he recited -
"As this fire burns, so may my soul burn in Gehenna among the Fallen if I should betray the King of Kings."
And Oriel was remade as a Principality, a full member of the Host.