Monday, December 20, 2010

Deathbed Angels

"Violet, is your upper story jangled out of tune?" - Henry Darger

We raised the silver mirrors at nightfall, hoping to let the deathbed angels through the socket after Lily's sun-flustered extreme unction. For there was no way to unbrighten this chamber, to make it appropriately dreary. All those angels and our little family would have to stand in our mourning tableaux, in our ill-fitting ferrotype suits, while the sun -- as if trying to alert us to some alternate truth -- baked our loss into the jostling plankboard floor. All that should be black turned to umber and raw sienna; our faces, ruddy with tears, to monk's colors. But we'd know the name of every angel as they passed through the criss-crossing rays of the sun, and we hoped that would welcome them and they would not be put off, or think us disrespectful, because we could not offer them a stately gloom. "Zadkiel, Israfel, Ariel...," we'd call to them.

We'd told our brother rabbits to remain in the lea, but a number of them had not obeyed, and soon these Dutch lops began scooting into the room, quietly, their guard hairs on end, as if they'd seen ignis fatui in the pastures. Like the rat and the horse, it's said the rabbit can't retch himself clean of indigestable matter, but these lops were making horrible sounds as they watched the skies for incoming angels. Trey said he'd never heard anything like it. I leaned sideways in the dignified familial diorama we'd concocted and whispered to Ari to shoo the rabbits into the yard. I knew Ari, being educated, could get the animals out of the death chamber with the least amount of pandemonium. He hunched over some, but kept his back very straight, then followed the rabbits into corners with a measured gait, cupped their furry bottoms with one dangling arm, and gently pushed them toward the door. The plankboards barely squawked during the entire operation, which took some time. The first round of it forced our lops into the middle of the room, where they obligingly milled without scampering off, and the second, using much the same posture -- his back at a 45 degree angle to the floor, one dangling arm, a series of shoves -- got them into the out of doors. Any of the others among us would have had to sprout a prehensile tail to get the rabbits out of the house, but Ari accomplished it with a minimum of fuss, and soon we were all lined up against the wall again, staring into the glass, and the socket, and beyond that, into paradise.

Above our heads was a cross, just two strips of pine, one nailed across the other. A circuit priest -- giving communion where no decent priest would go -- told us to take down our various effigies. We'd hung a different one on the cross for each day of the week. The bullfrog king was for Sunday; the salamander prince Ari told us was really an axolotl -- which sounded more like royalty -- for Monday; the black rat thief for Tuesday, our human frailties incarnate; the baby possum St. Dysmas -- to remind us even a thief can be invited to Heaven -- on Wednesday; the mottled gull, wings spread, with the prairie frond in its beak, on Thursday; the horned lark seraph which sings in flight like an angel, for Friday; and, on Saturday, we'd clip a common house mouse onto our niggardly crux, to mark the humble return of ease, and release the poor thing at nightfall, let it rummage in the bread drawer if it pleased him. The priest told us each and every one of these was a sacrilege to God. We asked him what we should do with our devotional menagerie, and he told us to "throw the vile things in the lake." When he was gone, we buried them all in little graves, with some potent thought given to what they'd represented to us.

Now, we were uneasy about the cross. It seemed so naked. If you'd looked closely at our line of faces, awaiting the coming of the deathbed angels, and seen some speck of doubt, some kernel of restlessness, the complete waste of a cross above our heads would certainly explain it. For there we were, complicated in our grief, and there was that toy of a cross, so crudely underestimating our nature.

Three days before this, Lily began the mope which led to her death. She and Ari were at one another's throat since the day of the wedding. She had real pride, he had shame dressed as pride. The difference between those two demeanors was the death of Lily. Ari had taken to the shed, where he'd been going at bottle after bottle of liquor, and sawing away at planks without method. Finally after a week of this, he came barreling across the field, grabbed her from the porch swing by her long coarse hair, pulled her to into the yard, removed a section of the filigreed wooden grates that covered the crawlspace, and pushed her under the house.

"You crawl around in there for awhile," He shouted, replacing the intricately carved fleurs-de-lis panel. Because the cuts in the design were small, it was difficult to see Lily for the next two days. Once and awhile you would get a glimpse of her eye pressed between a whitewashed tendril and stem. Mostly we just heard her shuffling about down there. It sounded, for all the world, like mice. She didn't dare escape, because Ari sat in a folding chair on the front lawn, able to see three sides of the house. Every twenty minutes he'd close his book of poems and go around back to see if she was trying to kick or scratch her way out. Although we'd never seen Ari smoke before, he took it up while watching the house. As far as we knew he never slept, and we were grateful he never asked us to play prison guard for him. It is almost certain that one of the younger boys would have set Lily free. They were all in love with her.

"You really need to sleep," I told him one evening, after bringing him a bowl of stew.

"I can't ask any of you to take this on, Frederick," He shook his head slowly, blowing into the steaming bowl of potatoes and carrots.  "It wouldn't be fair."

On the third day of her imprisonment, Lily began to sing. We could see a few strands of her long hair streaming across the weave of wooden flowers as she began the longish ballad, "Have You Been to the Fair, Young Ladies?" This seemed to eat at Ari -- he crossed and uncrossed his legs repeatedly -- but he continued to smoke and read his books of poetry. As far as I could tell the song had 30 verses, all accumulating and escalating to a hellish vision of star-crossed love unequaled in popular song. I'm not a musicologist, but it seemed to me the beauty of her reading -- this child bride trapped in the crawlspace -- was that she was not at all inspired to melodrama. Her voice remained even, detached. Her voice did not crack or rise in emotional timbre. She used none of the vibrato or ulalation that might overstate her case. The brittle voice, the humdrum delivery, the "that's just the course of it" mood she conjured, all steeped us in old world fated doom for many, many hours. When she was done, the young boys sat rigid in the chairs around the kitchen table, their hands tucked, diver-style, between their legs to hold them from action. They had in them the stuff of knights and the damsel-in-distress under the house had now become a siren.

Ari saw that he was losing the sympathy of the family, and extracted Lily from her crawlspace. With a series of rough shoves, so unlike the dignified scoots he'd given the rabbits, he forced her up the stairs into the house. They were locked in the upstairs bath for several hours. He told me later he'd made her stand in the bathtub and bathed her in gin, washed her tangled hair with turpentine, painted her finger and toenails with tar, and spread birdlime on the wings of her shoulder blades, to keep her from becoming an angel. Then he drug her down the stairs and made her kneel by the road that ran by the property. There he drove a stake into the ground, cuffed her hands, and chained her to the long iron spike. She lost sentience there, the ends of her shoulder blades pursed around the iron shaft, two lops nuzzling in her lap. Four muttering young boys unchained her and took her to the room in which we now awaited the angels. The first night of our death vigil, Ari tried to light himself on fire, pouring fuel over himself and furiously striking a match against a cement slab over and over to no effect. He kept adding more gasoline to himself until he was shiny with it. Our grandmother rushed out into the night, and struck him in the jaw with the gas can, to keep him from killing himself.

"The boy couldn't even fill his own shadow," She rattled.

The next day, Ari swore off drink and collected himself for the wait. Every death, we waited. We stood in our best clothes, in this formation, in the roofless room, and we waited. First we placed the mirrors, and waited until we could see the socket, and then the sun would open up slow like a stone was being rolled away, and we'd welcome our angels, call them by name.

- Charles Lieurance, Milshire Hotel, Chicago, Illinois 2002

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