On the fortieth dawn of our loss, the angels came.
It was late fall, barely light, and the road that curled around my lime kiln was an empty vista of frozen wagon ruts. I was leaning on my spade, taking in the grey sky and leafless alder trees, listening to the low roar of baking limestone behind me and thinking about my dead son. It was the fourth day of the bake, which is a time when the kiln must be kept at its highest temperature.
I recognized the familiar sound of angels before I saw them. Their cry is like the distant honking of migrating geese, but where the call of geese stirs something in my soul that makes me want to travel far from home, the cry of angels strikes me with the fear that I have been left behind.
Standing up straight, I wiped my eyes on the shoulder of my cloak, brushing away tears brought on by some mixture of the cold and the lime smoke. There they were: black silhouettes against the gray sky. A full choir of them, flying so low their dangling talons brushed the bare treetops. I could make out the details of their small bodies: bird wings spread and human-like hair streaming behind.
They approached, gliding lower and lower, and suddenly I saw they were on a path to hit me where I stood. I stumbled aside, dropping my spade and falling to my knees as they gusted by, so near I could feel the wind of their wings.
They plunged into the orange glowing mouth of my kiln—yes, the whole choir dove straight into the fire. It blazed white and emitted a stench of burnt feathers. Then the angels were nothing but dark bodies going to ash, leaving me on my knees staring after them shocked and silenced in disbelief.
Many’s the tale of a limeburner who sleeps too close to the kiln for warmth when days grow cold, half-drugged by the lime’s vapors, and rolls dreaming to his death in the flames. But I’ve never heard tell of any creature, man or beast, who voluntarily plunged into fire. Certainly not angels, who are usually only to be seen high in the sky, flying like migrating birds. They do not seek out fire. It is a terrible way to die.
I had trouble believing my eyes.
But I’m not a man prone to hallucinations. For many years my chief hobby was writing a mocking interlinear commentary on the Writ. I would spend my housebound winters annotating its myths and legends line by line. My cynicism was so complete and blinding that when I began to share my efforts with my wife and son, reading them passages from the Writ aloud together with my commentaries, I failed to notice how the book was affecting them. I woke up one day to discover my family had become religious. That’s how unfanciful I am: more likely to miss what’s happening in front of me than to see things that aren’t there.
So a choir of angels really had just plunged into my kiln.
Full of this news, I walked away from the limebake. It was ruined anyway, the quicklime now polluted by angel bones. I went around the hill behind the kiln, to the far side where our house is cut from sod. Long grass bent heavy with dew on our low roof. I smelled barley tea and porridge. My wife, Salem, was awake. I raised the sacking hung in our entry and stooped into the smoky, peat-fire warmth of our single room.
Salem was not alone. She knelt at our low table with four others, villagers. My old copy of the Writ lay open between them. Salem stood, blocking my view of the book, while the others leaned closer, murmuring and pretending not to see me. The sight brought me up hard, souring my desire to share my strange news. I knew Salem had turned to the Writ these last forty days since our son’s death, just as I had turned to my work—for comfort—but I did not realize she was hosting Writ-studies in our house.
“I was about to bring breakfast, you needn’t have left the kiln,” said Salem.
“I know,” I said, doing my best to ignore the others, “it’s just that something strange happened and I wanted to tell you. A choir of angels flew into it.”
That silenced the whole room, even the murmuring villagers. I heard the slow, heavy bubbling of porridge above the cooking fire.
“It’s true,” I said. “They flew in and burned up.”
“I believe you,” said Salem.
She disappointed me. Perhaps I had secretly wished for her to disbelieve, to tell me she’d never seen an angel do anything but cross the sky far above, or say that grief was curdling my brains into goat cheese. Then we could argue about it. But I was a fool to look for skepticism from her.
At the table, a voice whispered too loud, “it’s a sign, like the Feeding on the Peak.”
I rounded on the Writ-study circle, angered. I recognized the whisperer’s allusion and realized that in her mind, these angels were connected with my son, whom many roundabout had insisted on calling a martyr. The Writ tells a story about the prophet Serapis subsisting forty-two days atop a mountain on a diet of self-sacrificing angels sent to him by the Four-in-One. (In my commentary on this passage, I had inquired whether Serapis gnawed them raw or if the Four-in-One had sent pre-cooked and garnished angels, in which case it was difficult to imagine them flying to the peak.)
“It was the ruin of a good lime bake,” I growled. “Nothing more.”
I stomped back out into the drear day, wishing I had kept the angels to myself. Perhaps angels dropping into kilns was as normal an occurrence as smaller birds dropping into chimneys. But now a foolish version of the incident would spread in gossip, a version in which it was a sign or omen, a version folk would use to appropriate the memory of my son.
The sky had brightened. I realized in its light that I had neglected to collect my breakfast. But I continued back around the hill to my kiln regardless of my empty stomach.
“I’m sorry but I’ve nothing to sell you today,” I told Madigan, when his creaky wagon rumbled to a stop athwart my kiln. He’s a potato farmer and a regular, because I’m cheap and he’s poor.
“What about that?” he said. He pointed with his chin at the cakes of white powder I had raked from the ash.
“That’s no good. It’s ruined. Something got in the kiln.” Fragments of angel bone bristled like quills all through the quicklime, but I couldn’t start a new bake until the fires of the last one had banked down on their own.
He chewed contemplatively on the piece of straw he always kept in his mouth and digested my information.
The sun had risen, obscured by the gray sky. A cheerless dawn had become a cheerless midmorning. The only real change in the view from my kiln was that the road’s frozen mud had begun to thaw and stink as local traffic churned it up.
“Young ones from the village, was it? Tossing in trash?” said Madigan.
“No. Wildlife. Threw itself into the fire.”
Madigan leaned back and crossed his arms over his scrawny chest. He gave his straw a good few chews and eyed the red mouth of my kiln, as if considering what an animal with a death-wish might have seen in it.
“What manner of wildlife?”
I didn’t want to discuss it. When Salem had brought my porridge and tea, I had accepted them in silence rather than pursue the subject of angels. But Madigan has the patience and stubbornness of the old, the lazy, and the farmer of potatoes rolled into one. There was no avoiding an issue if he wanted to press it.
“Angels,” I said. “A whole choir of them. Flew straight into the flames.”
The only sign of Madigan’s reaction was the temporary stillness of his chewing straw. In him, this was the equivalent of a shout.
“I’ll buy that lime,” he said.
It was my turn to be surprised.
“It’s no good. It won’t do for your fields.”
“I’ll pay double,” he said.
My impression of the profitability of Madigan’s potatoes was that one crop barely paid for the next. What was he thinking?
“I can’t let you do that. I’ve a reputation to keep.”
“Triple,” he said.
I threw up my hands in exasperation. “If you’ll not let the idea go, I’ll give it to you for half the usual price and not a penny more. But I’m telling you, you’re wasting your money.”
He watched me shovel the ruined quicklime into his wagon, his straw bobbing to the thoughtful rhythm of his chewing. When I finished, he nodded his thanks, clucked at his donkey, and creaked and rumbled away down the road.
Though it seemed unlikely, for he was a man too mundane for superstition, I thought for a moment that his free hand flashed up to make the sign of the Four-in-One at my kiln as he left, like a pilgrim departing a shrine.
I spent the evening in my house, and I considered sleeping there too. From late Spring until the first days of Winter, I rarely sleep inside because the kiln needs regular stoking throughout its six day cycle. But night had come by the time I finished piling layer upon layer of limestone and wood inside the tall brick dome. The firing could wait until morning.
Salem sat in her rocking chair near the house’s peat fire, working at her darning, and I sat cross-legged at the table, picking with a knife at the ashen grime beneath my nails.
The absence of our son haunted the house, and the whole room seemed overlarge and cold.
In the waning days of the past summer, while I had been shoveling limestone and charcoal, loading quicklime for farmers and slaking it for masons, our son had been arrested in the byways around the capital. He was preaching heresy, as he had begun to do even before he left our village. He was imprisoned and interrogated by the University Inquisition in a public trial. There, he had refused to recant his unorthodox interpretations of the Writ. He had suffered the worst death they had on offer, burned at stake in public, alone and far from his family. Forty days ago—more than a week after he died—the news reached us here.
I knew that if I was not in our house, Salem would be poring over the Writ again. Personally, I could not bear even to look at the book. I knew that it—that I—was to blame for what had happened to our son. Last winter I had spent many a day in long discussions with him, attacking his newfound piety and inadvertently training him to be stubborn in the face of opposition. My own unbelief—formed in all those years when Writ-mockery was my innocent hobby—had undoubtedly twisted his perception of religion from the start, to the point that his views were unacceptable to the religious authorities. I could not have raised a more perfect victim for the Inquisition if I’d tried.
I looked up from my nails and caught Salem looking at me. She glanced back down, as if two old homesteaders acknowledging the presence of each other was some kind of offense. I could hear the rushing noise of wind in the grass on our sod roof. Then she raised her head again, cheeks already aflame with preemptive embarrassment and said:
“You should know there might be people coming.”
I knew what she meant, and it annoyed me. The stupid account of my angel problem, in which the angels were sent by the Four-in-One, must have traveled at the speed of rumor, and now there would be pilgrimages. To my kiln. Because our son was killed for stubborness. It was too ludicrous for words.
I nodded, once, a hard angry jerk of my head, and decided I would not sleep inside after all. I rose, though it was full dark and the peat fire dimming, took my spade, and left for my kiln. I would light the next bake.
I paused a few yards away from the sod house and looked back, to watch the silhouette of Salem pass behind the burlap on her way to retrieve the Writ. I watched her shadow carry it to the table and kneel above it, and the shape of her bent back and tilted head reminded me how she would curl her body over our son when he cried as a baby. Cold gripped my bones, and I hurried around the hill.
I fumbled in the dark to light the kiln, but eventually I managed it. I stood back to watch the fire creep up the layers of limestone and wood. It had been many bakes after I had first heard the terrible news before I could watch those engulfing flames without seeing my son’s agonized face screaming and sobbing, shriveling and flaking in them.
Night air clutched at me with sharp fingers. I shivered and stood closer to the fire, its hiss and crackle. Which was perhaps why I did not hear the angels.
They were on me and around me in a rush, out of nowhere, so startling I did not even have time to move before they plunged, like the last choir, into the maw of my kiln, hastening to flame like hungry birds to seed.
The grate was an old iron thing I had commissioned from the blacksmith years ago, with the idea that I could build my limestone and wood pyres taller if I augmented the layers with iron. It didn’t work. Ever since, the grate had leaned against the back of my kiln, rusting. I examined it and decided I could wedge it into the draw shaft if I bent two or three of its protruding edges. So I laid it across two stones and began to pound on it with a third. I’d just about finished knocking it into shape, around noon, when Madigan creaked up on his wagon.
I guessed he had come to complain about the lime I sold him the previous day, and I was prepared to give the fool his money back. He shocked me by instead clambering down from his wagon, beckoning me to follow, and trudging up the hill behind my kiln.
I had not climbed the hill in a long time. My son loved it, and he cajoled me often to join him up there lazing in the long grass, looking at clouds or the patchwork countryside, the cluster of houses that was our village, the distant ribbons of smoke from other limeburners. It gave a sense of wholeness to perceive the way our lives fit into a larger quilt of habitation, each quiet existence connected by the brown road to every other. But today the hill revealed only sere fields in all directions and leafless trees clawing at the sky.
Madigan waited for me at the top, and I arrived out of breath.
“You see?” he said, and pointed—with his chin and chewing straw, of course—in the direction of his own farm.
I squinted and saw, strangely, long neat lines of full grown potato plants. His green field was a solitary rectangle of color in the wasteland of fallow.
“Yestereve I strewed that lime you sold me on last year’s field. Sun set on nought but dirt,” said Madigan. “And today it’s sprung up thus.”
He turned to scrutinize my face. I could only stare at that improbable green square, my mind aswirl.
“Angel bones,” he said, as if I were slow to the conclusion.
My immediate desire to disbelieve him was forestalled by knowledge of his character. Madigan was too plodding and unimaginative to pull a prank.
“A wondrous thing,” said Madigan.
But I disagreed. I began to stalk back down the hill, and Madigan scrambled after me.
I strode to my grate and finished bending it with savage blows. Madigan stood some distance away, chewing his straw in bemusement. I picked up the grate and held it to the kiln mouth, which was still glowing gently with the embers of last night’s aborted bake. It fit. I wedged it in.
“What’s this then?” said Madigan.
“Anti-angel measures,” I said, stepping back to survey my handiwork. “The fool things came again last night.”
“Are you daft?” said Madigan. “Did you not hear me just now, explaining you’ve a fortune on your hands?”
“I heard you. But I’m a limeburner, not a purveyor of miracles. I didn’t ask for angels to hurl themselves into my kiln.”
Madigan drew a square around his heart to ward off evil. “If you’ll not accept the grace of it—and bethink what the Four-in-One are saying to you—what of the evil you invite by rejecting their gift? Have you not considered they are compensating you for your son? You should take the gift and be grateful. We could use some good fortune hereabouts.”
It was the longest speech I’d ever heard from Madigan. He stood with his fists clenched, brow furrowed, and I found I was breathing heavily, as if we were fighting.
“I do not want compensation. And what more can the Four-in-One possibly do to me than they already have?”
We stared at each other with bright, hurt eyes, as if we had exchanged blows rather than words. I had no idea Madigan felt deeply about such things, and perhaps he did not know how deep my contrary feelings went. I would trade all the graces and favors the Four-in-One had to give, if indeed the Four-in-One existed (as they seemed to be trying to prove to me), to have my son back for a single day, a single hour.
Then we heard the cry of angels in the midst of our disagreement, and we both swung to stare at the horizon. Another choir was coming, low above the trees, an arrow aimed at me.
I scrambled aside and watched them hurtle past and slam against the grate in my kiln. They rebounded, falling to earth in a flapping of wings, a waving of talons, a burst of downy feathers. But the grate held. The choir picked itself up slowly and began milling about on awkward legs—angels are as unnatural-looking grounded as fish beached—trying again to force themselves into the fire.
Damn the Four-in-One. I seized my spade and waved it at them. “Get you gone,” I shouted, and when they ignored me I ran at them, swinging my spade like a club. The choir scattered, flapping aloft like hunting birds, all except one.
One angel dangled, its talons caught on the grate. I shoved at its surprisingly heavy body with my spade, but it did not get free, only twisted on itself and made a hideous face with its half-human features, flat slitted nose and hawk-hooded eyes. It gnashed at me with sharp teeth. In its frightful face I seemed to see the whole affront of this world: its unreasonable stupidity, the Four-in-One, religion, the village, and above all my son, the dumb innocent fool who got himself killed, drawn to flame not unlike these angels. With a cry somewhere between a curse and a sob I raised my spade and brought its sharp edge down on the angel. It twisted away from me, exposing its neck, and the force of my blow sheered its small head right off. Its body dangled limp from my grate.
I stood still, panting, and I heard the rest of the choir, once again high in the sky, departing, and their sorrowful keening spiked my heart. What had I done?
I turned to Madigan. He was staring, mouth agape, straw fallen from his lips, looking at me like I was some apparition from the deeps. I stared back for a moment, searching for words, then merely shrugged and dropped my spade. I took up the dangling angel body, holding the remains of its neck in one hand—warm blood gouting over my skin—and used my other hand to unhook its caught talon.
“You’ve deep troubles, son,” said Madigan, in a strange voice. I stared at the dead angel hanging like a pheasant from my hand and could not but agree. “I’ll leave you to them,” he said.
I was still standing there staring at the small feathered corpse in my hands when I heard the rumble of his wagon leaving down the road.
Work no longer served to distract me from myself. I spent the whole afternoon arduously reloading my kiln, but the sweat did not feel, as it had those last weeks, like a paying out of pent up energy that would otherwise consume me—it felt like true work, exhausting work. Something was gone inside me, some restlessness with tight closed eyes and gritted teeth; I had spent it in killing the angel.
I buried the small feathered corpse and knew Madigan’s tight lips would never tell what he had seen, but I felt guilt. True, angels are just animals; and true, also, the thing had been trying to immolate itself. My act was wrong not so much in its outcome as in what it revealed about me. I thought I had been grieving, but it seemed mostly I was angry.
The clouds lifted briefly in the evening as I laid the final layer of wood in my kiln. Grey tore like fabric to let in beams of light which poured like wine into the goblet shapes of leafless trees.
I found Salem at our table, reading the Writ. She was not expecting me. She closed the book and scrambled up, but I waved her down.
“Stay. Sit. Read,” I said. “I’ll make the stew tonight.”
Nervously, she lowered herself but did not reopen the book. She stared at my hands. I realized that beneath the grime of kiln labor, they were still stained with angel blood. I scrubbed them hard in the bucket by the door, then settled by the peat fire to peel and chop potatoes.
“Some folk, some villagers, they brought...” She trailed off, pointing at a basket near the fire. I opened it to find dried and salted fish.
A surge of anger, like a tiny squirt of bile, rose in me at the thought that people were leaving offerings as if this place was a shrine, but I repressed it, the vision of a headless angel flashing before my eyes.
“It will make a good stew,” I said, forcing myself to smile.
Salem was beginning to relax, the very shape of her face changing as her muscles unclenched. What had I done to her peace of mind with forty-one days of simmering, self-blind anger?
“What were you reading about?” I said.
She tensed again, a bit. She searched my face for irony. At last, hesitant, she said: “I was reading the story of Peripullo, the prophet who... who...”
“Who was killed by the priests of the Four-in-One because they did not believe his revelation,” I finished for her. Of course she was reading that one. She would have seen my interlinear commentary pointing out that the priests had no way to know Peripullo was legitimate and therefore had every right to be annoyed at his presumptuousness. I winced to think of it. My heart ached to imagine how these last forty-one days had been for her, dealing with her grief alone in this house because I would not talk about it, only work. “What,” I asked, “did you think of it?”
I sliced a few strips of salted fish and added them to the stewpot. Salem took her time, lowered her eyes, gave thought to her answer, and then offered me a small smile. It felt like a gift, a grace, undeserved and wonderful.
“I think our son was a good man,” she said. “Stubborn about what he thought was right. Just like his father.”
Something in me broke. I dropped the knife and hid my face in my hands. Soon I felt Salem’s arms around me.
I spent that night inside, under our sod roof, close to Salem, and the memory of our son did not haunt but warmed us.
It would be my last bake of the year. The brooding skies seemed lower and grayer, and I had to stand closer to the kiln to stay warm. In morning’s first light I even saw a few flurries of snow wandering like dust motes through the brittle air.
It was that empty, solitary time again, and the rest of the village and world should have been packing in for winter too, but it seemed like everyone was here with me, waiting attendance on the sun. Farm wagons lined the road. Steamed breath rose from the nostrils of dray horses, donkeys, and patient men. Evidently word of Madigan’s miracle had spread, and, if the angels came again, there would be some demand for the quicklime of my final bake. And on the far side of the hill, the smoke of cooking fires rose from a small encampment where pilgrims were accumulating. Occasionally I heard snatches of their hymns.
I did not feel anger anymore, and I had begun to feel about these people as I felt about the seasons: their presence was inevitable, and so would be their passing. I would have to endure.
The angel cries brought silence to our spot of earth. The waiting farmers paused in their terse conversations, the pilgrims ceased hymning, and dozens of eyes looked up and squinted at the horizon. The choir was high, high in the sky, and I imagined the patchwork they saw below them, the pilgrim tents, the wagons, the unseasonal lushness of Madigan’s potato field, and perhaps my newly fired kiln beckoning to them with whatever strange promise it held for them.
But the choir did not bank or dive. It stayed aloft and pursued its path across the sky, like geese bent for other climes.
After the angels disappeared beyond the grey horizon, for a moment all was still but for the smoke of my kiln and the breath from our mouths rising in the air. Then the gathered crowds began to disperse. The pilgrims ceased hymning and began to take down their tents. The farmers rumbled away in their carts—all except Madigan, who had placed his cart at the back of the line, as if he knew I would not have any more miraculous lime.
When the road emptied, Salem brought out my breakfast, and her own as well, and we sat close, near the warmth of the fire, eating in companionable silence and watching the kiln-smoke rise like a prayer.
On the forty-second dawn of our loss, the angels passed on.