The Last Angel

 

“Wake up,” the old man whispered into the darkness of the room where his granddaughter slept. She was already awake, and dressed. She had been for a while, even before the smell of the side meat her grandma was frying filled the cool morning air.

Dressed, the girl listened to the whispered talk of her grandparents. They always whispered, even when she wasn’t around. She whispered too, like she was taught. It was for the best.

Sleep had not come for her the night before. Still, the girl wasn’t sleepy nor was she tired but she pretended to be. It was for the best.

She was too excited to be sleepy on such a day. It had been a year since she had last seen the angel with its wings, its smile, and its outstretched hand.

She remembered how she helped her grandpa hurry and hide it when they heard the sound of a passing car. She remembered how she pretended to be a runaway and cried when her grandfather scolded her to satisfy the suspicious eyes of the man and woman in the car.

Satisfied, they nodded then sped away, tail lights fading in the evening gloam. She remembered their stares, cold as the wind that made her eyes water. She didn’t turn around either and look back where the angel was hidden. Neither had her grandfather. This had been the promise he made, when as a little boy and his grandfather had taken him to see the angel. After all these years, he remembered how as a boy, the cold made his eyes water too, same as his granddaughter’s. Now it was sadness.

He wished a better coat for his granddaughter when she shivered, and better shoes, to keep her feet warm and dry from the snow. She wore her grandmother’s sweater under her thinning parka. It still wasn’t enough, neither were her boots, already worn out when she slipped her naked feet in them the year before. They  fit better though, a year does that, but they were still worn through.

She smiled at her grandfather, but said nothing, like she had been taught. It was for the best.

He smiled back, but only with his eyes which tried to drink up the sadness he saw mixed in the morning light.

It was a long walk to see the angel. They had started early before sunup even before the lights came on at the Kravitz place. The year before the old man carried his granddaughter in his arms when they passed by the Kravitz place. Two sets of footprints in the snow passing by the once grand mansion would have made the sharped eyed old man who lived there suspicious. Old man Kravitz was a whisperer, and not a whisperer like everyone else. The pile of coal in his side yard, was proof of that.

They got an early start and would probably be safe since new snow was beginning to fall. Still the old man made the girl step in his tracks the best she could. She was too heavy for him to carry this time. A year will do that.

This would be her third year seeing the angel and his seventieth, if his memory served correctly. He was seven years old when his grandfather had awakened him while the rest of the house slept.

His granddaughter would be seven in the spring. He had taken her to first see the angel when she was only four. The cancer made him do it. The fear that he would be gone before she turned seven, that and him being the only one who knew about the angel.

Not even his wife knew. Part of the promise he made to his grandfather all those years ago. It was for the best, only him knowing, for his best and for everyone else too, with him still being able to work enough keep to food in the pantry, and buy side meat for special occasions.

His wife didn’t need to know. She would never tell, but she still didn’t know, nor did his sons, or their wives or the other grandchildren. Someone would talk, and then someone would whisper. Most had forgotten what happened to those with secrets. He had seen the fires. He remembered.

He kept all that to himself. Who would believe him anyway? He kept the stories his grandpa told him about the times when there were angels everywhere to himself, too.

For a long time he hadn’t believed those stories. He listened though and remembered like he had when his grandfather told of the time when there were no airplanes. At first, he hadn’t believed that time had existed either. Now he knew.

He had lived long enough to become a stranger in his own world and to his own family. The cost of living.

They walked as far as they could before they stopped so he could rest, in the remains of a falling down barn. His granddaughter remembered it, but she pretended not to. It was one of the places he told her to hide. It was where he hid as a boy and watched the man from the government take his grandfather away. It had been the last time they saw the angel together.

“They were everywhere,” he remembered his grandfather saying and as a boy he had tried to picture that, angels everywhere. Then one day they were gone, all of them, taken away in big trucks, crushed and crushed and crushed again. In no time at all only memories remained of the angels, their wings and smiles and outstretched hands. And soon the memories were gone too. But not for his grandfather, or for him, and now his granddaughter.

In the spring when she turned seven, he would show her the secret things, even more secret than the angel. Maybe sooner if spring didn’t hurry and his cancer got worse. The secret things were closer to home, not too far too walk. They were where his grandfather hid them as a boy, before he buried the angel, now revenant, in its shallow grave.

It was a long way to walk and they doubled back three times in case they were being watched. He didn’t think they were. He had brought along a bag of discarded bottles and aluminum cans,  just in case. No one ever questioned toothless mendicants and shabbily dressed children who picked through tall grass for something they could trade for food.

He left the shovel at home. Last year it would have got them caught had his granddaughter not heard the approaching car. The shovel was probably still where he threw it when he told he his granddaughter to run. He would never know. They never went back. Like the angel, the shovel stayed.

They traveled by a different path this year, just to be safe. They would have to dig with their hands and be quick about it and careful too. Each would take turns as look out. His granddaughter could dig faster now. A year will do that.

She could moved the bricks also, she was strong enough now, and the burned timbers too. His grandpa said he had hid the angel under that building because after the movement burned them all down no one ever went near churches again, not even the preachers. His grandfather never said who preachers or what churches were.

After all these years, he still knew very little about any of that or the shiny gold “t”, the page of thin, thin paper from the special book his grandfather told him about. Sometimes his grandfather would tell him stories that he remembered from when that special book, like angels had been everywhere. His grandfather said churches and preachers had been everywhere too, but that had been hard for him to imagine.

In the spring he would tell his granddaughter the stories he could remember when he showed her the secret things. He would answer her questions too, if she asked them. She probably wouldn’t. She had already learned not to ask questions. It was for the best.

By next year’s snow he would be gone, that was what the people from the government told him with stone cold smiles, on his last visit to the doctor. It was what they told the doctor, too.

His wife knew his time was short, but she was the only one. His oldest son had an idea but never mentioned it when they piled on the train which took them to the mines. It was the only time he saw his sons, on that train. Sometimes they got to sit together but not often.

In the spring the secret things would be hers to protect, and pass on when she was old as him and had a grandchild she could trust. That was too far ahead for him to think about, and her too, as they doubled back for the final time before single stepping through the snow under low lying branches.

Had it not been for those branches there might not be ‘nary an angel his grandpa told him on one of their visits to exhume the winged stone. Branches of the same tree they pushed though had hidden it from those paid to travel about and collect such things after the movement took over. Three generations from all that, he wasn’t sure his granddaughter would understand last year so he had waited tell her.

Today, he would tell her as much as he knew, same as would when he showed her the secret things, the little golden “t”, the page from the special book, and the faded patch his grandfather rescued from an old uniform he was told to burn.

He wondered if she would count the stripes and stars like he had as boy when he held  the tattered patch up to the sun. Most likely. She was like that, thoughtful. She was careful too. He could tell by the way she stayed in his footsteps as they single tracked to where they would take their final look together, at the last angel.

I pray this is a work of fiction. Edward Reed 2020