Upon seeing Punk, Rena froze in place with her mouth agape. She seemed oblivious to the fact that we had just walked out of her private sanctuary, desecrated or otherwise. She stood watching us disappear in the garage, where Punk bit his lip and said goodbye. “Good luck,” he muttered.
“Who was that?” Rena asked, as I walked past her on my way upstairs.
“Does Mom know you are having boys visit?”
“It’s none of your business, Rena.”
“Who let you into my room?”
“I did. It’s a total mess. You should clean it up before she sees it.” Rena squinted her eyes at me. “Why don’t you at least take out the empty bottles?” I asked. “I could help you, if you want.”
“Because when I have a bad day, it reminds me of all the fun I’ve had.” Her comment made me wonder whether my sister, as tough as she was acting on the outside, was struggling inside. The thought awakened in me certain tenderness toward my sister, a rather rare occurrence.
“How come you’re home? I thought you were going to spend the night out?” I asked, following her into her room. I could smell alcohol on her.
“Yeah, we were going to. Then Mom called and asked me to come home. Apparently she’s been all flustered that I haven’t been home enough. But what sort of home is this?” she asked, lifting a bottle and taking a swig of the remains. I stared at Rena in disbelief. “It’s a broken home! An empty shell,” she dropped the bottle with a bang to the floor and watched it break, pieces scattering in all directions. The action dislodged tension from her face. “Look at us,” Rena said. “We are like two orphans. Haven’t you noticed? No one cares!”
“That’s not fair,” I said. “Mom has been trying very hard to keep us all together.”
“Oh? Then why is Dad never here?”
“It’s more complicated than you think,” I said, looking down at the pile of broken glass. “Here, I’ll help you clean up. You can’t be living in filth like this.”
“Whatever you say,” she said, falling backward onto her mattress bed and covering her face with her hands.
“You’ve been drinking, haven’t you?”
“That is what you do when you plan to go out,” she said, confirming my suspicions. “What? You never drink, Miss Perfect?”
“That’s beside the point. Get up, Rena! I’m not doing this without you. You’re going to help me. And then you will follow me upstairs and the three of us will have a nice dinner together, the one Mom’s been slaving all day to prepare,” I said.
“What’s his name?” she muttered.
“What’s the name of your new boyfriend? Don’t worry, I won’t tell Mom.”
“He’s not my boyfriend.”
“Thank you holy mother of God!” she cried out, raising her hands toward the ceiling. “He’s quite cute,” she said, turning to me and propping herself on her elbow. “When is he coming over again?”
“I’ll tell you if you help me clean up this mess.”
Rena rolled off her bed with a grunt and setting the radio tuner to the Top 40 hits, began picking her clothes off the floor. Hoisting a bag of laundry out of her room and leaving me to collect empty bottles, I thought to myself how ironic the situation was. After all this time trying to disentangle my family dynamics and melt the ball of wax that occluded our past, it had escaped me that Mom and I were not the only ones struggling. So was Rena. And apparently Dad.
“Do you drink often?” I asked Rena when she returned.
“Of course not. Only on the weekends.”
“It looked like more than that to me.”
“That’s not even mine,” she said, pointing at the empty whiskey bottle. “It was Arek’s.”
“Are you still seeing that jerk?” I asked. The boy she was referring to had a rather tainted reputation in our town.
“I used to be in love with the jerk.”
“That’s until I was illuminated by true handsomeness earlier today. That cured me. Arek lost his crown. What’s the name of this rare human phenomenon?” Rena asked.
“Umm…” I tried to think quickly. If I told Rena that he didn’t really have a name, it would probably start an avalanche of questions I’d rather avoid. So I decided right then and there to give Punk a new name, one not too common, but not too eccentric either. In the period of time it took me to draw in a single breath, I ran across the names of the four archangels: Michael, Gabriel, Rafael, and Uriel. The last one was by far the most mysterious of the bunch. “The phenomenon’s name is Uriel,” I said to Rena.
“What? Uri? Is he Russian or something?”
“No. I don’t know,” I shrugged. “Maybe.”
“How come I’ve never seen this Uri before?”
“Because he’s not from here,” I said, and before she had a chance to ask another question or insist that he must be Russian, I added, “I didn’t know you liked those types of guys.”
“Are you blind? He’s really good looking!” she said, and I chuckled inside, thinking of Punk’s look the day I met him, wearing his painted mohawk and torn-up clothes. Rena would collapse in shock if she ever saw him dressed like that. “This guy is not at all like what’s his name—”
“Yeah, Ben. All philosophical and brown. Ben is waaay too brown—brown hair, brown eyes, brown cords. Though I like the guy who comes to play his guitar here sometimes. The one with the black ponytail? He’s cute, too.” Rena’s assessment of my friends was quite comical, but as far as I could tell she was dead serious. I handed her a towel to dust off her desk.
“But I thought you were more into, you know, the techno, preppy kind with flashy shirts and fitted jeans.”
“Those guys are assholes.”
“Really? I could never tell,” I said, throwing the last bottle into the garbage can.
“Check this out. Just last week when we went dancing, this group of guys pulls up in a brand new Mercedes and one of them calls me over. So I’m like, cool, and I go to talk to him and he gives me every indication that he is interested in taking me for a ride. We talk and then his other friend starts to make fun of me for some unintelligible reason, but because I like the guy I’m talking with, I get kind of nervous and don’t know what to say to the second guy. Like I got tongue-tied, you know? I hate that feeling. I wanted to just leave at that point, but then this other guy comes over and slaps my butt in front of the guy I am talking to and—”
“I know, right? I hated it! Oh, how I wished I had an older brother to come over and kick his ass!”
It was not easy to imagine gentle Daniel kicking anyone’s ass, but I tried anyway. My dear brother… in a coma, somewhere in a dungeon. The thought stirred concern, and remembrance of the call I was supposed to get any moment from Punk, now also known as Uri, to add Rena’s spontaneous twist on the archangel’s name. The more I thought of him as Uri, the less the name Punk fit him, the new moniker becoming a much better match. I wondered what he would say when I told him I had decided to rename him.
With the music spewing out of the radio, we missed Mom’s multiple calls for dinner, prompting her to come downstairs to catch an uncommon sight: Rena and I hard at work. While I was dusting her shelves, she was fighting the vacuum cable that was too short and kept coming unplugged. The work was a panacea for Rena, who sobered up rather quickly. Not only was the fact that we were cleaning highly unusual, but also seeing Rena and me doing anything together was, in her own words, best grade medicine for her ulcers.
“Nothing makes me happier than seeing the two of you love each other,” Mom said, placing a sizzling pan over a cutting board in the middle of our dining table. It was sautéed onions with bread on the menu this evening, poor man’s food—simple but delicious.
“Don’t get too used to it. It won’t last through the night,” Rena said, making us laugh. Having humor replace animosity was refreshing.
Just as I was about to put away my dish, the phone rang and I rushed to get it.
“Hello?” I said, walking as far away from the kitchen as the cord permitted.
“I found the right train.”
“When?” I asked in a whisper.
“Be ready at five in the morning. I will meet you right in front of your house and we’ll go from there. Try to make sure no one sees you.”
“Anything I should bring?”
“Food would be nice. You make good sandwiches.”
“I decided to give you a name. Do you mind?” I asked, a bundle of nerves tying my gut into a knot.
“Depends on what it is.”
What if he didn’t like it? What if he thought it was ridiculous, or worse that I was ridiculous for coming up with it? This was a big deal. Names carried energy with them, a power that could influence an identity, he told me that night by by the castle.
“Hello? Are you still there?” he asked.
“Yes, sorry,” I cleared my throat. “The name I came up with for you is Uri.” I held my breath. “Short for Uriel. One of the four archangels.”
There was nothing but a quiet crackling on the line. Seconds ticked and I was growing more anxious.
“The angel of repentance,” his voice finally reached my ears and I breathed out.
“What do you think?” I asked. “Please be honest.”
“I like it,” he said. “Thank you. But do you realize what you’ve done?” he asked.
There it was. He was going to say it now. I made him become someone he was not, forced an identity on someone who wanted to remain free of labels.
“I’m sorry, I—”
“You’ve turned me into the one who holds the key to the Tartarus,” he said. “And Tartarus, as you know, is the place where your angel has been imprisoned.”
Later that night, with Mom watching some show and Rena back in her basement room, I was in the kitchen preparing provisions for our trip, trying not to make too much noise. Uri’s words were slowly settling in and growing roots around my heart. If Uriel was the angel who held the key to the underground where Sariel was imprisoned, maybe, just maybe, by giving Punk his name I had evoked the archangel’s spirit, and that could help me free him.
I wrapped four butter and cheese sandwiches in parchment, and hid them out of sight inside one of the refrigerator drawers. Just then, I heard the garage doors creak open and a car pull inside. I walked into the living room. Mom muted the television and we looked at each other, exchanging trepidation. After a long absence, his longest yet, Dad had returned.
I sat down next to Mom, who turned the sound back on, and we waited. Soon Dad entered the kitchen, and with two loud slams set heavy items on the table. I got up to go there to see what he was doing.
“Good evening,” he said, smiling at me. “I went shopping,” he added, pointing at the bounty. “Lots of chocolate and bananas. Just for you.” My eyes widened. I only got to taste bananas on very rare occasions, as the fruit was hard to come by in my hometown. Dad patted my shoulder and walked past me and into the living room.
Curious, I peeked into the bags, amazed at the cornucopia of color. I’d never seen so many items swathed in shiny wraps at once, unless they were stacked on the shelf of a western store in a city that sold imported goods from the west.
Rena burst in, her eyes bulging at the sight. “Should we unpack it?” she asked.
“I’d wait,” I said. “Want some tea?”
We sat at the kitchen table, staring at the bags in front of us, sipping the hot drinks and eavesdropping on our parents’ conversation. While we couldn’t hear the exact words, their tones were calm. But I could only imagine Mom’s internal conflict simmering beneath the surface. She’d been betrayed so many times, yet she kept welcoming him back for the sake of our security.
I looked at my sister playing with the string of her teabag when Mom entered the kitchen.
“Girls, I need your help with the groceries,” she said, motioning at the bags. I looked at her and she gave me a sad smile that seemed to say I know, but what else can I do?
I let Rena lead the pantry project while I followed Mom into the bathroom.
“Why do you think he came back?” I said, leaning into the door.
“He said he wants to make things right. Being away from us made him realize what he had been taking for granted.”
“But isn’t that what he always says?” I asked.
Mom sighed. “I want peace for you and your sister, and I want us to have a whole family again. You shouldn’t bear the burden of our problems.”
“I just think you deserve better, Mom,” I said looking down. “And if he ever lays his hands on you again—”
“Thank you,” she said and hugged me.
Thinking of the impending journey made it hard to drift off that night. Just as I fell asleep, my alarm rang. I got, dressed, and put the sandwiches I had made the night before, along with three apples, a carton of juice, and a handful of sugary treats into my backpack. In my room, I decided to also pack Daniel’s notebook, Sariel’s feather, and a roll of cash I had saved through my ear piercing operation.
At one minute to five, I was locking up the garage door when a pair of headlights swept across my house. I recognized the black Audi.
“Ready?” Uri asked, stepping out to greet me. I nodded and smiled and he held the passenger door open for me, but I told him I preferred to sit in the back. Rock was behind the wheel, fulfilling the role of our driver this morning. “How do you know Rock?” I gave Uri a quizzical look.
“I told you I made friends when I came here last time,” he smiled. “He’s one of them.”
“Does he know about where we are going?”
Uri shook his head. “Even we don’t know that yet.”
I thanked Rock for his help and he offered to come get us when we returned.
Rock dropped us off at the train station and a few minutes later we boarded a southbound train. It was a cold, crisp morning with a cloudless sky.
We found an empty car and took our seats, setting our backpack on the floor by our feet. Uri handed me a ticket. “Thanks. How much do I owe you?”
I opened my backpack and reached inside for his breakfast, wrapped in white paper, just as I had done that morning we met back in November.
“Déjà vu,” he smiled. “We’ve come a long way since that morning. Who would’ve thought?”
I smiled and looked at the ticket he handed me. “Katowice? This is the same city where Daniel and I last saw each other.”
“Is it?” He lifted his brows, chewing. “It was the first train out we could get on.”
“Are you serious? You bought us tickets on the first random ride out?”
“It felt right,” he said. “And if you say that this was where you last saw him, it must mean that my hunches should be right on target.”
At this point, I wasn’t even that surprised. This is how he operated and the best thing I could do was to accept it and come along. While Uri ate, I leaned into my seat and watched the landscape before me change from rusty rails to open fields in their last hour of sleep before spring tilling.
The journey to the center of town was going to take no more than three hours. Half an hour into the ride, my exhaustion set in, making my eyelids sink. Before I knew it, the outside faded into obscurity, the light shaking of the train lulled me, and I drifted off with my head resting on Uri’s shoulder.
My mind lifted above the train and flew southward to the place where I last saw Daniel. The sun had set and night befell the world in my vision. I was with my brother again, my head resting on his chest. I saw my face drenched in a rain of tears as my fist clenched the fabric of Daniel’s shirt, and I whispered, Sariel, please help Daniel. And I shall be yours forever.
But in that moment of remembrance, I knew that it was not the first time that I had given myself to the angel.
My mind ascended through the roof of the hospital and I soared toward the clouds. Breaking through the milky barrier of condensation, I flew higher until the sky grew dark and I could see the Earth’s curvature, the moon shining above, its position in perfect zenith pointing toward a location I kept returning to, a place I felt I knew so well: the frozen lake in the mountains. I aimed for a precise location and slowly descended, gliding through the air. I was beginning to remember.
Ninsal. . . . I heard his voice echo in a breezy whisper. Ninsal, remember your promise.
I wanted to surrender to his will and relax in his embrace. I wanted my body to touch his body, for all the space and time barriers between us to disappear. Imagining how that touching would feel sent electric ripples through my core and awakened more memories.
It happened during another lifetime, millennia ago. And it was here by this lakeshore where Sariel and I saw each other for the last time before the Earth was consumed by a war between kingdoms that brought utter destruction to all.
He was waiting for me on the banks of the frozen lake, his wings folded behind his back, dark cape and long black hair protruding from beneath his hood, billowing in the cold wind. I caught the elusive glory of his face, the light of my attention skimming across the polished surface of his pale cheeks, the amber shine of his flaming eyes drawing me into his world. Falling into an embrace, I wanted to forget about the foreboding conditions shaping our destiny. The opium smell of his skin opened a new dimension, a gateway in time. The journey of my soul came into focus through an array of feelings that kept surfacing in an orchestrated succession.
But our love was doomed. Close relations between angels and humans were forbidden, and so it carried through to my present lifetime. Their kind and ours could not coexist, and no matter how much I wished for it to be so, my dreams of flying with him remained just that, dreams.
Sariel and I met for the first time when I lived as a young priestess at a valley temple in a faraway land. My name was Ninsal, and just like my temple sisters, I was a scholar consumed by an unquenchable desire to glean the mysteries of creation. My closest friend, Saneel, was also a priestess, few years my senior, and responsible for guiding me in my studies. She was like a mother to me in many respects, and my closest confidant.
Using the sacred rituals of our forefathers, our secluded community began a series of ceremonies that lured the celestial entities to our temple. First they came to us in our visions, until finally we met in flesh. The angels were very tall and their skin glistened in light, shining bodies towering beneath the domed roof of our temple. At first it was enough for us to just look at each other and revel in how different we were. This was how our first teachings were transmitted. But soon we were busy sharing with each other what we knew, using signs and symbols.
The Watchers told us they came from the stars. Later we learned that while their chieftains supported their learning about us, any physical comingling was strictly forbidden. But this group wasn’t interested in studying us. They wanted to possess us.
As one of the youngest initiates at the temple, I found the presence of the angels somewhat intimidating. But there was one in whose presence I felt serene. His name was Sariel and he taught us the mysteries of the moon. Saneel also found a teacher. Her angel shared with us the secrets of universal forces and the power that ignites roaring thunders.
Due to the nature of our teaching, Sariel and I met after dark, outside on the land surrounding the temple. While he taught me how to read the sky, I showed him what it was like to feel with my body. Sariel was most gentle when he first laid his hands upon me. It was at my own asking, as I was running out of words trying to describe the feelings his presence evoked in me. I wanted him to experience it too.
Once my body tasted the radiance of his touch, I wanted more. Each month I waited for the moon’s entire face to illuminate, preparing for his arrival. We would sit on the grass in the garden’s orchards and sometimes venture farther out to the meadows. There, bathed in moonlight and alone at last, we’d trace our hands over each other’s faces, the secrets of creation coming alive beneath our fingertips.
Years had passed and our feelings deepened. Our temple thrived under the angelic influence, but one day everything changed. The king of the angels and the king of men entered into a deadly conflict, cursing our relations and turning our allies into deadly enemies. Accused of clandestine desire to control us, the angels were banished from our lands. But for many, it was too late. A new breed of beings was on its way and I was one of the human women carrying the fruit of his seed.
On the eve of the battle of kingdoms, I set out to see Sariel one last time. I walked to a lake high in the mountains, half way between our land and the place where the shining ones once dwelled. Standing on its bank and cross from him, I felt his fingertips touch my face. I closed my eyes and leaned my head into his shoulder, and he embraced me before his hands travelled to my round belly and an excruciating pain pierced my body.
My body jolted and eyes blinked open. The train was starting to move, leaving behind one of many stations at which it had stopped to let off and pick up travelers. The car Uri and I were in was filling up. I looked at my companion, his large blue eyes glaring at me.
“Are you sad to see him go again?” Uri asked, and I frowned. But before I had a chance to ask him how in the world he knew what I had just experienced, he added, “You were talking in your sleep.”