[ fiction - august 04 ]
Gabriel heard voices, and sometimes music, noises. And sometimes he saw things too. But mostly he just heard their words and wondered, why are they speaking to me?
He spent the morning at the edge of the pond, lapping cool dew off blades of grass, watching the orange sun rise, praying for inner peace. A Mourning Cloak rose up lightly from a willow. Gabriel bowed his head in deference. There was one butterfly he would never dream of harming, not even if the higher laws had not forbidden it. He savoured the sanctity and the blessed quiet of the pond. He needed a break from the headstones, much as he loved to climb up their rough and rocky arches and snatch midges from inside the deep-etched crevasses of the letters, much as he loved to hear the voices, especially the bright and friendly ones, but even the voices that tore at his heart - he loved those voices too.
But Gabriel needed a break sometimes, and just then by the pond he heard the song of a grasshopper calling to his mate. At last, a living voice in the natural world. Gabriel watched the hopper's lazy, languid movements in the tall grass. He swayed to the easy rhythms, leaned in to hear the hopper's song more clearly - admirable ardent! - then caught him in his spiny forelegs, chomped on his neck - the hopper moved no more - and had himself some breakfast. Gabriel wondered, as he ate, why the voices told him their troubles when there was nothing he could do to help.
But the voices gave his days a purpose and a shape and he felt, in truth, a certain responsibility. To sit on the headstones and hear all their stories. It was as if he were a guardian, a keeper of the histories. And it was a charming life, mainly. He could see the entire castle from his headstone vantage. And the duck pond. And the rolling green meadows dotted with white sheep.
He missed it already - too quiet by the pond - he'd make his way back. There were bridges to cross, fences to crawl under, hedges of sharp-thorned roses to tip toe around. But he loved the challenges of the journey and the wonder of a present so charged with pasts.
The damp earth of the graveyard cushioned his tarsi. Rain, rain, every day rain. And it was beautiful, yes, life-giving, but tiresome too, and sometimes it drowned out the voices. And today he was full and happy and anxious to hear them again. "Speak," Gabriel said as he climbed up his favourite headstone, stepping over fresh midges (the hopper had left him surprisingly satiated) and "Ready," he said, when he reached the top. Then he shut his large eyes and folded his tibia in front of his triangular pronotum.
Gabriel heard just a lot of static at first - the indistinguishable shouts and rough laughter of a rabble, a squeaky wagon on cobblestones, the lowing of a cow - but that was to be expected. It took a few minutes for the frequencies to settle and for the real voices to begin.
This day he heard music. Opera! Verdi, if he wasn't mistaken. The voices were singing in words he couldn't understand, but the melody was dark, throbbing - unexpectedly stirring. He wished, for a moment, that he'd found himself a female partner to share with him the mysteries of this earth and of this castle. Of course he'd heard that ugly rumour about females decapitating their mates, but he'd never quite believed it. Perhaps certain females might take the upper hand with more delicately constituted mates, but he was a strong male - rather strikingly so, when he caught his reflection in a puddle - and he'd allow no female to bite off his head, thank you very much. Still, he supposed that one couldn't be too careful. And he was somewhat set in his solitary ways. Probably wiser (and kinder too, in the long run) to remain a bachelor and to savour the opera alone.
The singing trailed off into a final sob. A female voice spoke: I longed for an opera passion... This was a new voice. Gabriel listened more intently... with spitless kisses. All angled shadows and high planed cheekbones. Gabriel straightened on his perch; he was rather vain of his raptorial good looks and she did seem to be describing him in her soliloquy, poor woman. I longed for a raw-boned man on a tall black horse. His mission would be urgent, but he would stop for me. He'd lean down from his tall steed to kiss me sternly, purely, with closed, dry lips and tragic eyes. And I, for my part, would lift my face to him and (static again)... but my father... the voice broke off here, began to weep. So often the case, thought Gabriel, to have an unrequited vision; he heard fantasies like this every day. He was beginning to think an unrequited vision even worse in its own way than was an unrequited love. Better to have loved and lost...and all that, he suspected. But he didn't really know. He'd been gifted with certain powers, he reminded himself, but wisdom was not one of them.
He heard swords clashing then, the clank of steel on armour. An adventure! thought Gabriel. Heavy man grunts and shoves. A good deal of savage swearing. The odour of onions and tinny metal. A sharp, slicing sound when sword met flesh. A groan. A final curse. And then, silence. Gabriel bowed his head respectfully. But wait. Not over yet. A young girl's cry, the slosh of water. A man's anguished voice: Leave me! I'm meant to die here! The sound of an earthen bowl being scraped across the floor, ripping garments, cloths rung out in water, moans, soft and sorry. Hush (the girl) - I'll not let you die. Heavy footsteps - the other man's return. An unsheathing of a sword. The girl's scream. No! (the first man.) Watch! (the second.) More screams and scuffling, moaning, clanking. The girl's strangled, blood-gurgling cry. The sword across her white throat, Gabriel suspected. Then a gallop of horses. Let me die too, the first man said to the girl in his arms. But he hadn't died then, Gabriel knew. Because then the man got to his feet, lifted the girl - cradled her nearly severed head when it fell backwards - and stood before Gabriel in the graveyard.
Gabriel was trembling. His own leafy coat had changed to the ashy colour of the headstone. Cheated! the man's voice cried out again - his must have been the voice that called to Gabriel sometimes in the middle of the night. It was sad, sad, unbearably sad. I was the one meant to die, the man said. Why was it I who kept living?
Gabriel closed four of his eyes, kept his tibia crossed before him. He felt as if he were supposed to have the answer. But he didn't. The ghost disappeared.
An old woman's quavery voice broke in: My darlings? Do not run from me, my angels. Gabriel had heard this voice before too. Something had happened to her children, Gabriel surmised from fragments of earlier visitations. The speaker appeared before him then, in the shimmering sunshine, transparent as a mayfly. She showed herself to Gabriel as a young woman, raven-haired, with an infant in her arms. You'll not have him, she said, to some unseen adversary. The old woman had been quite lovely in her youth, Gabriel decided. Elegant and slender, with a finely chiselled, triangular head - a nearly perfect specimen. Spirited. He liked that in a female. Gabriel felt the opera stirrings again.
Then, as if to throw a cold shower on his wandering thoughts, another, shriller voice said, Give him to me! You made your choice! A shattering of crystal, an infant's wail. Take him to the window, the speaker commanded. Heavy boots on a carpet. Gabriel looked up at the castle. Oh. That window. He'd seen it hundreds of times across the meadow. High, narrow, crooked. Cut deep into an eastern turret. Gabriel saw it all happen again - the baby caught in the grip of two black leather gloves, its baptismal gown dangling from that crooked window; the raven-haired beauty pleading for her child, clawing for him, screaming, Please God my son; the leather gloves opening.
Oh the suffering these creatures endured. Gabriel had never known anything like it and suspected that he never would. Still, he felt the weight of their sorrows press on him like loose floor stones in the chapel. He bowed his head. "God?" he said when the sun warmed his ocelli. No answer. He hadn't really expected one. But why was God so silent when His creations were so noisy? Gabriel gazed down at the weed-choked grave beneath him; immediately the sky began to tighten and a light rain fell through the still-glowing sun. Fine droplets pooled in the sodden earth. He started to descend but stopped, looked again. The world was upside down! The sun lay at his very feet, reflected in the sheen of shallow water.
So many miracles in one lifetime.
A tiny water beetle had already discovered the puddle. Hardly worth the effort, thought Gabriel, but a snack might be prudent. Very well then, though he knew he needn't hurry. Beetles were so single minded; they never thought to look above themselves. Plenty of time yet to savoir these fine, brooding clouds before he climbed down for his nourishment.
The darkening clouds oozed over the sky, shape-shifting as they travelled. Gabriel sighed. These were the times when he most yearned for a soul-mate. But one made of real cuticle and blood - not one of those sorrowing shades. To have a living soul to gaze with at the clouds by day, at the stars by night; to seek out with him the patterns in their shapes, stories, meanings; to reflect with him on the limits of the universe and on their place within it. He succumbed, for a moment, to his own unrequited vision. Well, to know that kind of companionship would be very close to paradise indeed.
Gabriel was beginning to feel a bit light-headed. He really should climb down - those crows with their cawings, with their beaks close together, were making him nervous. Not that they were any match for a mantis. They hadn't any foresight, for one thing. No instinct for strategy whatsoever. Nevertheless, there were six of them and one of him and perhaps it was time to toddle away, with dignity, before they decided to get those foul-smelling beaks any closer.
But before Gabriel could so much as clench his maxillae he felt something lifting him up, up off the headstone, up past the castle turrets, up past the very treetops. He felt helpless, outside of himself, but strangely calm, as if he were watching it all happen to someone else. "God?" he said again. No answer.
No pain either. No paralysis. No panic. He looked around, cautiously. He was not at all sure what kind of a device was keeping him aloft, but since his wits - and nary a crow claw - were about him and since he kept on rising higher, higher, he eventually ascended into an understanding that this was some kind of a bloody bona fide miracle, of all things, and he flapped his wings and he flopped around, sailing over the duck pond, the green meadow, again, again. But he didn't fall. He couldn't fall. Something would not let him fall.
He saw the earth as a soft, green lilypad, suddenly very dear and very far away. He felt a humming about him, as if thousands of thousands of insect wings were beating all at once. "God?" he said to the thrumming air. No answer, just ecstatic vibrations, as if thousands of thousands of tiny antennae were happily palpitating and caressing his exoskeleton at the same time. A perfect peace flowed in through his oesophagus, wound around his tracheal tubes, and flew out again from his spiracles. He had never felt so wholly alive. The world below him was filled with creatures, large and small. They all - humans and ghosts, elephants and aphids - seemed to him, suddenly, of equal worth and stature. His compound eyes saw everything at once, from every angle, stereoscopically. God was everywhere.
Gabriel watched, with new compassion, the strugglings of the tiny beetle he had only moments before regarded as lunch. He saw the beetle's very soul in his own expanded consciousness. Never again would he regard the rumblings of his own stomach as being more important than the needs of his fellow creatures. Never again would he witness the suffering of others without taking steps to ameliorate it.
Perhaps, thought Gabriel, God had chosen him for some special task. Perhaps he was an angel, already! Perhaps, and this thought filled Gabriel with so much self-righteousness that he began to sink under the weight of it, Gabriel was actually of a higher order than were all the other species on earth and God had lifted him up to the heavens to show him.
He sped down, down, through the vast Ethereal Skie, sailing between worlds and worlds, winnowing the buxom Air. At last he descended lightly, gracefully, and with a majesty, thought Gabriel, that befitted his new station on earth, into the castle garden. Paradise Lost thought Gabriel. It was walled on three sides and Gabriel looked with wonder on the abundance of colours and perfumes and shady retreats. He would settle here, he decided, and wait for a sign. He wandered up and around a vine of morning glories, savouring the divinity of its essence, and resisting a disturbingly powerful impulse to impale a honey bee that was just then probing for nectar with its long proboscis.
"Bless your spirit, honeybee," Gabriel said, with some effort. He was beginning to feel the rumblings of hunger again and to impale a fat honeybee had always (previous to the miracle) been one of life's sweetest pleasures. This was going to be harder than he thought. He hoped the sign would come soon. He hunkered beneath some squash flowers and prayed for guidance.
As if in answer, Gabriel saw a male honeybee fly down beside the female and, with no discernible foreplay or sweet talk whatsoever, mount her. Gabriel felt the opera stirrings again, along with a sharp stab of regret. For all his gifts, he was apparently fated to complete his life cycle alone. Perhaps, as an angel, he was meant to remain a virgin. He thanked God for this new wisdom, but kept one of his eyes open, nonetheless. He saw then a sight that made his ganglia shrivel. The mating apparatus of the male exploded inside the female and came unhooked from his body. Fool for Love! thought Gabriel. But then he thought again. About the perfect harmony of their lovemaking. About the interdependencies of all God's creatures - the cruelties with the kindnesses. About one's roles and purposes in this life and how best to fulfil one's potentials.
And as he pondered these unfathomable mysteries, the scent of something familiar but unfamiliar, longed for but dreaded, sailed to him on a breeze. "God?" he said. But when he saw her he said, "Ah. God's gift."
She was beautiful - all angled shadows and high-planed cheekbones in the twilight. She eyed him warily, stood her ground. "Husband?" she said.
He nearly wept. God's plan for him unfolded like the wings of the Mourning Cloak that just then fluttered above their heads.
"I'm hungry," said his beautiful Destiny.
"Me too," he said. And then he told her of his miraculous experience in the sky, and of the spirits that gifted him with their voices. He grew rapturous as he spoke. Here at last he'd found his helpmeet, to comfort him in his sorrows and to work beside him in his ministrations to the needy. "I will find you food," he said. "God had given us our choice of creatures. But we may not touch the Mourning Cloak." He indicated, with a jerk of his pronotum, the higher laws of the heavens. "That is forbidden," he said.
She was silent, though she appeared to understand. She swayed seductively in the blessedly gentle evening. Then, as Gabriel was looking down, checking anxiously to see if his hind legs were appropriately groomed, she struck at the air, caught the gold-fringed wings of the Mourning Cloak mid-flight, in the barbs of her tibia. She clasped the juicy thorax in her strong mandible. "Be innocent of the knowledge," she whispered sweetly, "though thou wilst applaud the deed."
Gabriel stood before her, paralysed with horror.
Night fell then, and swiftly. What to do. What to do. All darkness and no hope. They would be banished from Paradise. Shamed forever. "What's done cannot be undone," she said, as if in answer to his thoughts. But her figure in the moonlight was irresistible; the opera voices suddenly hurled themselves into the garden and wrapped themselves around her. The soaring sopranos, the boom of the baritones - all thrumming, beating, throbbing passion. They sang to Gabriel of ecstasies, of tragedies, of love, of life, of death. Gabriel gazed long at her lovely silhouette, more perfect than a spider web at dawn. She would bring him to completion; she would bring him to his doom. She swayed again, seductively. She moved in closer.
"Give him to me" an opera voice rang out, and Gabriel felt his body plunging, exploding, torn in opposite directions by hosts of unseen hands. "You made your choice," a second voice crescendoed into the misty, starless night and Gabriel felt himself rising again, separated from his body as before, though in a different, bloodier way, and then all the voices of the graveyard were there, intertwining themselves into the arias and oratorios. They were everywhere around him, holding him up, cradling his severed head, weeping and whispering in hushed tones, with reverence, and with some disappointment. "Do not leave us, Gabriel," they said. "Stay here with us," they pleaded. Then they touched each other's faces, with just their shadowy and trembling fingertips.