Where am I? Tongues of fire lick my body, searing my wings. I try to hang in midair, but the loss of lift and force of gravity are dragging me down. A gaping black hole of the abyss looms beneath me. I feel my feathers detaching, heat transforming their tips into ember dust. Unable to ascend, I’m starting to fall. The fire liquefies my lower body. Wax drips down my legs. I am made of wax. I am an effigy, alive and dead, caught between resistance and release. Losing substance, drop by drop, I become lighter. Drop by drop--the dripping reverberates like tears falling into a well. My descent slows just as the fire reaches my heart. With the flames consuming the last vestiges of my form, my body vanishes and I fly free toward the moon. The cold, cold moon.
I awakened to the window in my room clamoring open, the lacy curtain flying to my ceiling. The temperature inside must have been close to sub-zero. The world was still dark, but I could hear Mom and Rena shuffling around and Dad loading things into our car and slamming the doors.
I stretched and shivered. I couldn’t remember when sleep took me away. The last thing I managed to recall was how bright the moon was, and me standing naked by the window—not the smartest idea. I could’ve gotten sick. My scowl brightened into a smile. It was all worth it because I got to see him, feel him even when his black wings closed around me. He told me his name. What was it? I thought hard, trying to remember, making a crease between my brows. Sariel. Sariel was his name! And he asked me to free him, something that brought up another memory before everything faded. But what was it that I could possibly free him from? And why did it make sense to me when he said it, like pieces of a puzzle snapping together for a fleeting instance? I felt the weight of the angel’s request press against my logic and a pinch of fear spread inside me like ice freezing the surface of a lake, halting all movement. Clearly, I was not in control. The thought crossed my mind that some form of a chain reaction had been initiated and there was not much I could do to stop it.
But maybe all this was only a delusion? I’ve always had a rich imagination, and it was possible that I’d outdone myself with this recent fantasy. But even if it was only my imagination, last night’s dream was a very visceral dream, a prurient dream.
I stirred to break my mind’s immobilizing spell. My sheets were tangled and binding my legs. My hands stained with blue ink, and my bed sheets soaked with sweat. I noticed crimson marks all over them. Blood? I scanned my hands looking for traces of cuts but couldn’t find any. It must have been the lipstick. My body felt tender, as if I had just caught the flu. But there was something else happening as well, a strange feeling in the lower part of my belly, a burning that felt like all my nerves had coiled into a tight ball down there, hypersensitive and fevered.
Wrapped in sheets, I leaped out of bed, shut the window and left the freezing room, aiming for the bathroom. The smell of fried eggs and coffee wafted through the air in the hallway making me hungry and think of Punk. I worried if he’d get to eat today. I knew so little about this strange youth and yet was beginning to feel closer to him than Ben. Last night he said I should I go with my parents if was serious about understanding everything better. Mom should be happy to hear I changed my mind.
I locked the bathroom door, turned on the shower faucet, and waiting for the water to heat up, looked in the mirror. I saw a solemn face looking back, her features sharper, more serious, before the steam obliterated the reflection. Stepping under the searing hot flow, I stood with my eyes closed, breathing slowly and letting the heat seep into my bones.
I left the bathroom wrapped in a fluffy towel and walked into my room, now also much warmer, my eyes fixed on the black book lying next to my bed, and shoved it into my backpack. I dressed in my usual black attire and walked into the kitchen. Dawn was beginning to break.
A cape of worry slipped off Mom’s shoulders once I told her that I would be coming with them to visit the most pensive of our family members. She liked having all of us close. Grandpa never spoke much, but when he did, he’d choose his words deliberately. He had told me many times that words had the power to move mountains. Since I was little, he had stressed how important it was to err on the side of the good, especially in most trying circumstances. He’d tell me war stories and sing Russian songs to me as we picked wild mushrooms in a forest laced with pre-dawn mist. Then after we returned home, with his blue pen he’d make drawings for me on scraps of baking parchment paper.
I knew that Grandpa Jan had almost died at the hands of the Soviets who had invaded Poland from the east in 1939. The country needed young and able men to fight the Red Army. His small battalion had been captured near the border and held in confinement for weeks. Many had died. Grandma would always call Grandpa’s escape miraculous. Battered and starved, he vowed never to fight again, his soul traumatized by the horrors he’d witnessed. He had hid in the woods until the war was over, had become a farmer and soon after met his future wife. They had three children. Watching them interact, I would notice that while he was firm with his two sons, he’d look at Mom with deep sadness, his eyes growing opaque. One Sunday, after a bad fight between my parents, I overheard Grandpa telling his wife how he wished he’d listened to his daughter when she was pregnant with Rena asking for permission to raise her child on her own, without having to marry Dad. But my grandmother wanted to hear none of it. According to her, the times were hard and my father was a resourceful man, and marrying him guaranteed Mom a level of security her own parents couldn’t provide. Besides, her daughter’s reputation would’ve been ruined, though I suspected that she also worried about her own.
The ride to the hospital that should have taken four hours, took almost twice as long due to roadwork delays and subsequent detours, many a time testing Dad’s self-control, and our ability to handle his outbursts. The day was wet and bleak, as was our collective mood, which Mom tried to alleviate with her sunshine smile and playful winks. Pools of ice had melted overnight, lining streets with uneven puddles and scattering muck on cars and passersby. Mom arranged a night at a motel for us to allow for a double visit and to break up the driving.
As we entered the city, Dad had to turn on windshield wipers because the soot that floated in the air hindered our visibility. It landed on the glass like black specks of dry ink, which the wipers only smeared. The soot came from welding factories that lined the streets, and a ring of coal mines surrounding the city. This region boasted the country’s highest child mortality rates due to leukemia. The public channel on late night television aired stories about those innocent victims making Mom feel sad and helpless.
Leaning into the car window and away from my sister, I tried to focus on reading the black book. Every few minutes my eyes would go out of focus and my memory of Sariel would return. I smiled in those moments, my little secret pulsing with life. Whenever I picked up on Rena staring at me, I would bring my eyes back to the book. It was harder for her to try to interrupt me when I was engaged.
The first pages described in verse the early life of a boy and his search for identity. From what I could glean, as the language was full of metaphors, he spent that time in constant motion. The landscapes were changing page to page, from mountains to sea, to dreary places swathed by clouds of coal smoke, much like the city we were in. It was becoming clear that he was an orphan, often mistreated and lonely. But he had a clairvoyant gift—he knew how to interpret dreams. I wanted to keep reading but the driving made me nauseous so I had to take frequent breaks, my eyes returning to the gloomy landscapes until my body reminded me once more of my recent encounter with the angel.
It was early afternoon by the time we parked our car in the hospital lot. Outside the front of the building, rusty ambulances were lined up like train wagons. We entered the fluorescent hospital lobby filled with the sterile smell of dry medicine. The front desk was empty. Mom tried to smile, though I could see repulsion torque her facial features beneath a layer of forced pleasantness. She and I exchanged distressed glances while Rena and Dad took seats in the waiting room, my sister diving right into a youth periodical she grabbed off of a newspaper pile.
“What a sad place,” I said to her.
“Do you remember the little boy we met in the hospital when you were four? The one who got ill because he ate too many green apples?”
Of course I remembered. It was the only time I was ever hospitalized, which was due to a severe drug allergy. The little boy came to visit me each day, holding my hand as Mom read to us. He stayed there after I was discharged. The nurses told Mom that there was nothing wrong with him and that he’d been there for over two weeks because his parents never came to pick him up. “I often wonder what happened to that boy,” Mom said, looking at Dad who appeared as if lightning had struck him, and immediately got up from his chair and stormed outside. Mom’s eyes followed after him. “He can’t stand when I bring it up.”
“Why?” I asked.
“He wouldn’t let me take the boy home with us.”
“But, Mom, that would have been more complicated than just taking him home.”
“At least we could’ve tried,” her eyes glazed with tears.
“How can I help you?” the nurse’s hoarse voice rattled my eardrums. She asked questions with the speed of a charging locomotive only Mom knew how to answer, and then pointed her pen up the stairs while looking down at her desk. “Room twenty-nine.”
Seeing the commotion through the glass doors in the entranceway, Dad put out his cigarette in haste and came inside. The four of us ascended the stairs that ended in a long train-like hallway, with rows of windows on our left and patient rooms on our right. Judging by ascending numbers, Grandpa’s room was on the far end.
The hallway smelled of illness and pain. Some of the rooms we passed had their doors open and while I tried not to peer, my head involuntarily turned, catching a heartbreaking scene. Pale afternoon light seeped through the window stained with long, white smudges, as if someone had thrown a carton of milk onto the pane and left it to dry. Three bald children sat on their rusty beds. One child was rocking back and forth, another was crooning a lullaby while dressing a doll, and the
third child sat still, looking out the window. Something made me stop for a moment, and the third child turned her head and looked at me. The girl smiled at me through her tears. I swallowed a hard ball down my throat and continued walking.
The next two doors we passed were closed. The corridor was eerily quiet save our footsteps on the stone floor. Just as we were passing the middle door, I had a strong feeling that the density of air had shifted. It became thinner and cooler. Tripping on my loose shoelace, I quickly bent down to tie it. My family passed me, drifting forward in slow motion. I looked up and a ray of light struck my eye. It was coming from a crack in those middle doors, a crack that was getting wider. Soon I could see the whole window inside the room. The clouds parted to let the sun through, bathing its bare walls in sepia light.
A slim figure stood by the door. He had a glow to him, enhanced by the sun illuminating him from behind. It had a textured radiance I could touch, shining from within. I could feel his gaze fixed upon me. I stood up and held still. Seconds dripped like honey, transfixing me in layered folds of time. With his slim hand, he beckoned me to come closer. I gazed down, watching my rugged boots step over the invisible line that divided his tiny room from the hospital corridor, until we were an arm’s reach apart. From up close, his body resembled a pale winter of frozen blue rivers snaking underneath his translucent skin. My gaze traveled upward: bare feet, yellowing pajamas draped over his thin frame, mossy patches of hair growing back, green eyes piercing right through me. My mind told me that he could’ve been on the verge of death, but to me he was glowing brighter than the sun.
“At last,” he said. “You came.”
“You sound like you know me.”
“You are a seeker. But I must warn you. The truth will make you the loneliest person in the world.” He reached his hand toward my face and touched the space surrounding it. I closed my eyes and felt the tickle of his touch transfer through air particles. He dropped his hand and coolness returned to my face. I opened my eyes. “You came here to see someone so I shouldn’t delay you.”
“Yes, my Grandpa.”
“You must come back and see me again later.”
“Come back?” I chuckled trying to imagine sneaking out of a motel room unseen in order to break into a hospital to spend the evening with someone I hardly knew. But he seemed serious.
“Best time is before the lights go out at nine, but after the evening walk-through. The front doors lock just after eight so you will need to get inside before then. Do you have
a watch?” he asked innocently.
“Get one. And bring a candle. It will be much better with light. It can get dark and cold in here once the lights go out.” I was amazed how convincing he was, already paving a way for me to return. “Don’t worry. You will find a way.”
“I will try,” I said, and stepped back, the heel of my boot bumping into the doorframe.
I walked into the hallway just before Rena peeked out of Grandpa’s room.
“Gosh! Can you be any slower?” she said, her voice carrying across the hall.
“Shhh!” I shushed her with my pointer finger on my lips. “Be quiet. People are trying to rest here,” she raised her brows before furrowing them again, surprised by my audacious reply.
When I entered the room, my eyes zeroed in on the shrunken man lying on a narrow bed surrounded by IVs and cables. I barely recognized Grandpa. He was thin, his eyes sunken and able to communicate only with faint smiles and occasional nods, motions that must have cost him great effort, due to the tube in his throat. He looked tranquil under the heavy load of medication, but seemed hardly at peace in his quiescence. His eyebrows were tense and the space between them marked by a deep wrinkle, a chasm of pain.
Mom relayed what the nurse had told them. The surgery had been successful and the surgeon was quite certain that he was able to excise the entire tumor. What Grandpa needed now was lots of rest.
Grandpa reached toward me so I rushed to his side and sat down on the edge of his bed. He took my hand into his. Inwardly I thanked Punk for convincing me to come here today, and immediately after, the thought of Sariel crossed my mind, shooting an electric current through my body. As if receiving the signal, Grandpa squeezed my hand, his eyes widening. I looked at Mom. Two long tears glided down her cheeks, leaving wet marks on her face.
“He just woke up,” she whispered, wiping her tears.
“We want you back home with us,” I said to Grandpa, prompting another hand squeeze.
“Yes, we do,” Mom stepped in and began to recite all that had transpired since his most recent departure, bringing him up to date on family affairs. There was not much to talk about, but she did her best trying to elevate the somber mood. “Your sister-in-law is visiting. She came for All Saints Day. She and your wife have been cooking up a storm, could feed an army,” her bubbly voice dispersed the tense silence. While she spoke, Dad sat bent over in a chair, grinding his jaws and studying his nails, while Rena looked out the window. “ And we just celebrated Rena’s birthday. It was a feast. We are still trying to eat all the food. . . Eve will be graduating soon and she is beginning to narrow down her high school choices. It looks like she may have to move away,” Mom continued her report.
Grandpa blinked and let go of my hand. Unfurling his forefinger, his hand bruised from IVs and bandaged around a needle that delivered nourishment to his tired veins, he pointed first at the ceiling, and then behind him toward the other patient rooms. My body dimpled with goose bumps.
“The boy. . . . You know him?” I whispered.
Grandpa inhaled deeply, his face contorting before a violent sob shook his chest.