My eyes skipped across colorful lights of our freshly decorated tree. Amidst lingering smells of an earlier Christmas Eve feast that consisted of fried fish and mushroom dumplings with beet soup, I sat wrapped in a blanket on the sofa, sipping clove tea, while outside thick snowflakes covered the frozen ground. It was two in the morning and everyone but me was asleep.
With all the frantic preparations, the dinner served as a great distraction that held my thoughts and emotions safely tucked behind a wall of denial. Over the past month, I had managed to push my thoughts of Sariel and Daniel to the farthest recesses of my brain, keeping the memories in a firm lock down. It was easier to live this way, believing that they were a mirage, personified figments of my overactive imagination, too intense to ponder, too pointless to follow. It smoothed out my relations at home, eliminated tensions. I didn’t want to wrangle with guilt and regret anymore, or trade my delicate sense of newfound order for another pandemonium.
But as I stared at the entrancing lights on the tree Rena and I had adorned with shining trinkets just this morning, I felt restlessness rise inside my heart. Maybe the exhaustion that ensued after a whole day of chores unraveled my focus? Maybe it was because of the tension I felt looking at Grandpa who sat across the table from me, avoiding my gaze? Besides a greeting and goodbye, we hardly exchanged another word. Whatever had caused it, all the thoughts I’d tried to hold back were now bubbling up to the surface at once. Too tired to resist, in a few short moments, my body relived what had taken me weeks of great effort and self-control to keep under wraps.
For several days after returning home from the hospital, I dreamt of my brother, each morning wondering if this would be the day I’d approach my mother with the question that might lead us deeper into the territories of the past. But by the time I’d have my breakfast and my opportunity, my tea and audacity would turn cold, and I’d postpone the task to the following day, until eventually forgoing the task all together. What would I tell her? After all, besides me, no one had seen the book of poems, the only proof I’d had to substantiate my theory. But even if I did tell her, and she didn’t deny it, what would be the point of probing her, a line of questioning that may take on the tone of accusation or attack, adding to the living hell she already had to endure?
Since returning home, the tensions between Mom and Dad had taken a turn for the worse. The onslaught of arguments—some whispered, most shouted—were testing her ability to keep a semblance of unity over a shaky foundation, which held us together by the means of tearing threads. It reached a point where my father was rationing food money to us, the way the communist government used to with food stamps, making her rely more on aid from her parents. Grandma was angry with Mom for not knowing how to please her husband, which in her opinion was the true reason behind his prolonged absences.
Grandpa returned home ten days after we did, which was now well over a month ago. He was still too weak to get involved in the family squabbles. Not to mention, it would’ve been rather awkward since it was Dad who was commissioned with the task of driving out to the hospital to fetch him. I cursed myself later for letting Dad go there without me, missing a chance of going to the clinic to look for traces of Daniel.
After returning home, Grandpa convalesced under a protective dome of Grandma’s care that consisted of pureed chicken soup, supplemented by a string of detective movies Grandma rented by the dozen from the town’s only video shop. Grandma was adamant that we should not bother Grandpa with anything even remotely distressing for at least a couple of weeks, as the smallest upset—down to stray down feathers floating dangerously too close to his breathing passages—could cause a bout of coughs that would take a great toll on his recovering body. Grandpa’s condition and delicate handling resembled that of a newborn child’s. He slept a lot, ate pulp, and was discouraged from speaking and emotional engagement that could throw his healing off course.
But I couldn’t restrain myself for that long before talking with him, which proved disastrous for both him and me. The evening he came home I was already by his side and holding his hand, waiting for Grandma, Mom, and Rena to leave the room. When they left to prepare supper in the kitchen, I got my chance to ask him, gently of course, for the reason why he cried that afternoon at the hospital, breaking Grandma’s cardinal rule of no disturbance. I thought I saw his pupils dilate with remembrance. With a scratchy voice that had lost its tone, he responded by uttering one word, children, before his chest exploded in a storm of coughs.
Grandma rushed in, and holding a kerchief to his mouth, patted his back. With each pat, my hope dwindled, cooler air entered the room, shapes lost their definition, and shadows elongated. I had to let it go.
Later that night, I concluded that Grandpa was crying for all the children that had to suffer the pain of premature mortality, not one specific individual, and put an end to it. Maybe there was never a Daniel, as the nurse had insisted. Maybe I had seen a movie about an orphan boy years ago and my subconscious mind made it into my story. Maybe I got high on drug fumes wafting through the hospital ventilation system and experienced a grand hallucination. With a tight fist pressing down my will, I forced my thoughts to leave my mind even though the effort resembled laying a basket of grenades under a bed covered with a dozen mattresses to muffle their successive explosions.
In any case, it was not my time or place to get my answers. I knew I should just forget it and let normal existence replace the shaky turf of navigating my way to the core of my family mystery, which could’ve been not much more than a manifestation of a teenager’s wish for an extraordinary experience in what was nothing more than an ordinary town. After all, even Ben had we make real where we choose to put our faith.
Soon, my initial resignation became an obsessive need to make anything that even hinted at the mystical leave my life. Especially since I grew a suspicion that something in the vein of impish forces had invaded my room shortly after our return. Coming home from school, I’d notice that objects had shifted on my desk; books on ancient history or the occult that no member of my family would ever consider reading would be left open; different cassettes would be left in my tape player from the one I had left in the night before. The pages of my diary bore the marks of liquid smudging the ink.
One Thursday, I detected the scent of smoke from an extinguished candle. The wax around the wick was still warm and easily gave in under pressure. Rena was at school, and Mom at Grandma’s apartment. The following day I found the shape of the waning moon painted with red lipstick on my windowpane. As I tried wiping it off with a sleeve cloaking my trembling wrist, the thought of Sariel kept crossing my mind. Was he back? Or was this a warning, much like the red wax effigy that Paula and Marta insisted represented the devil?
What if they had been right?
That Sunday I attended the eleven o’clock mass before joining my family for lunch at grandparents’ place. I attended another mass two days later, and then again on Friday, feeling noticeably better with each day. No more surprises waited for me after that. A new space was opening up inside of me, making it easier to concentrate on more earthly matters. The more I filled up my life with concrete spiritual practice rooted in tradition, the less I thought of the events from November. Consequently, my fantasies about Sariel and memories of Daniel receded, giving way to more peaceful nights and focused, practical days. Mom seemed relieved to have her old daughter back and Rena finally stopped teasing me. And when the next full moon came along, I slept through the night without a single dream disturbing my tranquility.
At school, gossip about Ben and me went from shimmering intrigue to shameful dismissal, inspiring a self-imposed exile. I felt too raw and sensitive to partake in any act of self-defense. Fragments of stories soon reached my ears. People spoke in hushed voices in the hallways about how Ben had left me because I was playing with demonic forces. The stigma of witchcraft was effective enough to keep most people at bay. I knew that once Marta caught hold of any buzz, she would spin and embellish it until it caught the wind and spread like coal fumes across our town.
From disjointed strings of chitchat I quickly discerned that Ben got a new girlfriend—much prettier than me, and a talented musician to boot. I didn’t see him behind the theater, but that was mainly my choice because I didn’t have the nerve to go there.
Day after day I’d leave school and trudge through the alley lined with naked oaks, loaded with the weight of my existential concerns crushing my budding sense of elusive identity. Occasionally, a thought would cross my mind of encountering the familiar stranger who, with a single glance, would notice the seeds that lay dormant within my soul. Punk’s knowing gaze would chase away my doubts, catalyze recognition, and make the whirling chaos raging under my skull settle into a kaleidoscopic pattern ripe for exploration. I would imagine us looking deeply into each other’s souls until our separateness melted into a puddle of common understanding. Words would be superfluous and serenity would replace confusion, anticipation edging out boredom. I desperately craved closeness with someone who would dare to understand what I was going through.
But Punk had left my sleepy town, quite possibly with no plans to return. Instead, one murky afternoon I encountered someone else, a meeting that filled me with terror and motivated an even more pronounced act of renunciation. The man in the black coat followed me home.
I hadn’t seen the man in the coat since he promised to find me, after hauling a rock at our car on our way back from the hospital. As I quickened my pace, so did he. His footsteps were soon on my heels, hands eagerly reaching. I could feel the chill of winter emanate from his body.
He would have had me in his grasp if a neighbor had not happened to drive by. I waved her down and she stopped, chuckling at me and asking why I was so distraught. As we drove away, I turned around to look through the back window of her car. The man was standing empty-handed in the middle of the road looking straight at me. I turned back around and sank into the back seat of her car, shivering.
“Pretty cold out today, eh?” she asked and laughed again.
“Did you see that man running after me?” I asked, once my breathing calmed down. But she only looked at me strangely and said that there was no one else on the road besides me. The incident made me think of Mom who also didn’t see the man at the candle altar in the cathedral.
Despite plunging myself into hot water and drinking a whole pitcher of hot lemon tea at home, I couldn’t free myself from the frozen grip of the man’s presence. Not until I aimed my trembling arms at my collection of my music cassettes, which people like Marta no doubt deemed came from hell, and cast them into a plastic garbage bag. My collection of hard to find esoteric books followed. I put them in a box, with the intention to donate them to the library. The activity warmed me up and I slept better that night. Maybe it was because of the music?
As much as I relished peaceful moments in the dark, I resented them in daylight. I used to love being alone. But having nothing left to explore, no mystery to untangle, and no music to listen to, silence became more of an aching burden than a welcome respite. Besides school, homework, and church mass, I had nothing left to do. Too much television left me feeling lobotomized, and too much sleep exhausted me more than its lack. My world became flat and predictable and I indifferent and numb.
As I sat reminiscing and watching the tree lights twinkle, the growing shield of oncoming tears distorted their radiance. But my crying only opened the gates to a much deeper release. I felt the saltiness burn my cheeks, and I opened my mouth to take in a shaky gulp of air, my first real breath in hours, if not days or weeks. I was reawakening, reuniting with all that I’d been trying to reject as mere fantasy. It was time to surrender and free myself from the chains of my own self-righteousness.
Much like a child learning to walk, I let myself stumble across the minefields of my mind, perceiving the past events as real instead of imagined, and watching my body’s reactions. To my surprise, there were no big earthquakes or tsunamis. In fact, my body seemed to open and root, stirring back to life. Tiny waves of resurrected emotions pulled me in their tides. Exhaling over a month’s worth of stagnant air, I was beginning to feel again. What if what I had discovered was true rather than imagined? What if I was sane and everyone else lived in some sort of a lie?
Casting the blanket to the side, I unraveled my joints that creaked from my sudden movement. I walked into my room and put a second pair of socks on my feet and a wool jacket over my shirt. I opened my desk drawer and took out a small object wrapped in aluminum foil and put it inside my pocket. I walked into the small foyer that smelled of shoe polish, laced up my boots, quietly turned the doorknob and slipped outside.
Dry snow cracked under my feet. I drank the frozen air in large gulps, the pain of cold serrating my lungs, waking up every cell. Inside my pocket, my fingers kept rubbing over the smooth surface of the one thing I had refused to forego—Daniel’s last relic—the hardened puddle of white wax.
Approaching the same stack of pipes I had used to check the shape of the red wax that revealed the profile of Sariel, I suddenly felt as if I had just stepped into a pool of hot water, a vortex that never closed. The heat shot up my legs, rising through my belly and back, exploding in my head. Before I knew what was happening, I was on my knees, sobbing like a child. My bare fingers gripped the snow. I realized that over the past weeks I had let others dictate my destiny, letting them take away my fledging sense of self, direction, and purpose.
The cold of the snow was sobering and I rubbed it into my face and hands until they stopped trembling. Taking out the piece of wax from my packet, I peeled the foil and placed it atop my open palm, snowflakes melting around it. Fearing what the contours would reveal, but even more fearing my own doubt, I brought the object toward the curved wall of a pipe to catch its shadow.
I had to turn it around and try multiple angles before my mind finally caught up. At first, I thought it was a jagged heart, then a leaf, but none of the images fully matched the concepts they invoked. The shadow’s transmission was a subtle inkling, a distant afterglow.
“Open your mind, Eve,” I said to myself. “See it.”
And then I did. The wax was an effigy of a wing—an angel’s wing. The physical and the mystical snapped into one giving rise to new questions.
Was there more of a connection between Daniel and the angel than I had allowed myself to consider? Was Sariel present with us in the room that night? The thoughts stirred more heat in my body. Familiar desire began to simmer my blood, engorging my veins. I held the wax as if it were my key to salvation, paving a way toward a deeper understanding.
But the subtle illumination also contained a shadow, a threat of danger. I didn’t want to burn myself on this fire, and again be cast into the pit of isolation and confusion, the pit of enigma. The pit out of which, like steam, raised a love—nascent and ancient, innocent and sinful—love that tasted like the mixture of sweet honey and bitter wine. But it alone was a taste worth living for, a feeling worth losing days of sleep for—a joyous celebration, and a mournful elegy.
Why did life need to be this complicated?
Once more I was caught in a war with myself. I could take being the outcast in school, but could I withstand that feeling at home? Clearly these were nothing but delusions. Or were they? Here I was, alone, but surrounded with a supernatural presence, while at home, I would be surrounded with faces of people who I was discovering lived in denial. I was starting to fully comprehend what Daniel meant when he said that the truth would make me the loneliest person in the world.
But also in that moment I realized that my desire to know was stronger than my need to belong. That unless I took a leap of faith to find out what really happened before my sister and I were born, I would always live with an unanswered question frozen on my lips.
I gripped the wax too strongly, denting its shape. What if exactly the opposite was real? What if perception was a mirror reflecting an opposite image, as my vision at the castle showed me? Like the moon, always half-shrouded in darkness. I watched my nails pierce through the wax, my fingers curling into a fist, bending the effigy into pieces.
Which was true? My burning emotions or the cold hand of reason? Was there room for both?
White bits of wax fell off my open palm and vanished in snowy whiteness. There was nothing left to do here, so I turned back home.
Tearing off my coat and unlacing my boots in haste, I walked into the living room and reached inside a credenza, filled with a jumble of books on one side and videotapes on another. There I found it—the Bible. It had a polished blue leather cover and gold embossing on the front and spine. It was a present from Grandma for my first communion.
I peeled open the cracking pages, its glued bonds stretching. Lying down on the sofa under the blanket, I leafed through its pages until I found the passage in Genesis:
Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose. The Nephilim were on the Earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.
It was true then. They existed.
I read the passage over and over until the words burned in my memory. Soon the weight of my lids obscured the text, sealing in the content and carrying the silent outcry of my soul into the darkest depths of my being, where only He could hear me.