Featured Story • March 2014

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India Pale Angel

 

Robert Davies

 
 

Elizabeth Court’s angel died over the weekend, but it wasn’t until Wednesday that she could smell its sweet, luminous decay. She had assumed her Monday morning hangover was just taking time to uncoil itself from inside her skull, but soon realized that instead of the aching brain that filled the early coffee-drip hours of the workweek it was her angel’s corpse weighing her down. Dragged behind her, it got stuck in elevator doors and subway turnstiles and made dogs tug at their leashes and piss in uncertain fear. Escalator teeth bit harshly at the feathers until the wings resembled plucked chicken skin. The angel’s samite robes dragged on the floor, mud stained and torn.

* * *

With a name like Inexplicable Cain, it seems his dark proclivities were set in stone as soon as the ink dried on the birth certificate, and thus perhaps you can find some small measure of forgiveness for him. I can, for surely his given name guided his wet, glinting hands through many warm lengths of innards and cooling wombs. He spent his speechless years inside a Skinner Box. When his legs grew so much that his pale knees worried into his eye sockets as he crouched, he was moved into a Skinner Room. He then was given free reign of a locked House Without Windows and given wondrous, shivering playmates with whom to play. The toys of his childhood were stainless steel blades, scalpels, and specula that reeked of rubbing alcohol and the anxious sweat of his tongueless nannies.

Then he found the key.

* * *

Stephen Braddock, still drunk, murmurs in the darkness, fitfully sleeping over a thousand million words at Shakespeare and Company in Paris.

* * *

The used bookstore on the corner is never there when you want it to be. Every time you look for a bookstore in Harvard Square, you forget quite where it is, although it always involves at least ten steps up some stone steps and a turn or two down a narrow alleyway, and then at least thirteen steps down. It is always underground, except when it is not, and the sun that streams through the windows into the tiger cat’s face is one we have seen before.

The books lining the shelves are always in disarray; Clarissa, whose job it is to keep them straight, paints her ragged fingernails black, tells stupid little lies, and sticks needles in between her toes. She is kneeling over there, trying to decide if R coming after Q is really the best way to do things, and wondering if her self-published book of poetry Kama Sutra for Quadriplegics will ever sell. Clarissa ignores Elizabeth, indeed studiously ignores anyone not reeking of patchouli or inked with at least one mythical beast. She does not even see the decaying angel draped across the table piled with oversized cookbooks knocking Rachael Ray and Anthony Bourdain to the ground.

An astronomy book with a crater-pocked Moon on its dust cover looks slightly out of place. It is up there beside a coffee table book on Parisian architecture, the moonlit stones of Notre Dame shrouded in clouds on its face. Elizabeth tries to ignore the book and its misplaced Moon, but, of course, she can’t. She reaches up for it. It is awkward at first, as the angel weighs her down and makes her lower back ache, but she stretches and manages to grab the book with the tips of her fingers. It is insanely heavy, its weight almost tidal. She shifts it down one shelf and slightly to the right, where it seems to belong. For a brief moment, Elizabeth smells the silver of midnight Parisian rain and hears the brass wails of distant jazz.

She finds a paperback collection of Gene Wolfe stories and slips it into her coat pocket. A few bent angel feathers fall from her coat, but only Marcel Marceau notices, and as a cat he really doesn’t care. His sleep has been disturbed enough today, thank you. He wants her, her stolen book, and her dead angel gone. Now. His eyes close with feline disdain.

Elizabeth crosses the street against the light, and her angel is nearly run over by a taxi. She ignores the horn. She walks onto the grass, looking for a comfortable place to read.

When Elizabeth sits on the lawn, she knows she has to be careful; an angel’s corpse is something that acorns and green grass dream of often. In rot, an angel’s flesh is as rich and fecund as any soil known. Although it should be said that few soils have ever burnt their palms on the hilt of flaming swords or cast down impregnable desert-baked walls with a mere whisper or a trumpet blast, but it is true in as much as it is.

Inexplicable Cain scans the crowd, knowing that the time has come again. He has trimmed his nails to the quick and shaved himself from head to toe. He clasps his pale hands and cracks his knuckles. And like that moment a key snaps perfectly into a lock, he sees Elizabeth sitting on the ground, and everything in this world of ours ceases to exist.

The summer air is languorous and a bright-eyed girl is strumming an acoustic guitar and singing Joni Mitchell songs. Because the stories are byzantine and beautiful, and because her heart is broken, Elizabeth sits on the grass a moment too long. She is remembering old boyfriends, trying to forget one in particular, and, their patience ended, the grass and the tree roots quickly overcome her angel, spreading greedily, exploding in green, cellulosic joy.

An immense brown elm bursts from the angel’s chest and spirals upward, unfurling branches feathered with whispering green leaves that blot out the afternoon sun.

Elizabeth tries to stand, but can’t move. Inexplicable Cain tries to run, but can’t move. Stephen tries to awaken, but can’t move.

The bright-eyed girl begins another Joni Mitchell song.

A tall man in a well-tailored business suit stops before the singing girl and takes a coin from her worn guitar case. He spiders across the lawn and gives it to Elizabeth. Not a nickel or a quarter, but a coin all the same. He hesitates for a moment, as though waiting for his fortune to be told. This Elizabeth cannot do, much to her regret, wishing she could do something in return for his kindness. She frowns. She could tell him his past, though, for she can do that rather well. But for a long moment, held down as she is by the angel, her memories, and the vigorous, leafy tree, she has forgotten how to speak, has forgotten the mad intricacies of the alphabet and the glottal stop, and, dispirited, the tall man walks away.

Inexplicable Cain, leaning against a tree, is tempted to follow the tall man and show him the secret joys of flensing. But Inexplicable knows that way leads to madness. The girl is the only one who will set him free. He turns to watch her move, praying she will not turn around and walk the other way.

It is so easy to get lost in the heart of the big city, Elizabeth knows, but it is easier still to get lost sitting on sun-warmed grass with a stolen book of stories. She watches strangers pass by, counting those that have cancer and don’t even know it. She gives people newer, better names. She covets quirky shoes, and she waits for the first drops of the inevitable rain.

When the rain comes, there are many places in Harvard Square to run to, mostly underground, except when they are not. Elizabeth remembers that John Harvard’s Brew House has Willey’s IPA on tap this week. It is rather delicious with an order of fried zucchini sticks. Slumbrew Flagraiser is likely on tap at Grendel’s, and, in summer, there is always Harpoon IPA at Legal’s.

A pale man in a perfect black suit is leaning against a tree, watching her. Elizabeth blinks and he is no longer there. Where he had stood there is just the barest suggestion of presence, the silhouette of appetite. She blinks again and doubts herself.

Elizabeth then remembers the tall man’s past. His wife Moira, horse-faced and kind, died in childbirth; he is broken inside, but still manages to name the baby Stephen, after her father’s father, and the boy spends a mute childhood reading Marvel comic books and murdering butterflies by the thousands. He slips through the cracks at high school and three years of college before falling in love and then fleeing. He finds himself shivering in a musty sleeping bag on the third floor of Shakespeare and Company on the bank of the Seine, his ragged fingernails stained burgundy with wine and ink, his Moleskines stuffed with crude ink sketches of those moments when people decide to turn around and walk the other way.

It is just past midnight, and Stephen, in the mood for perhaps another Brasserie du Mont Salève IPA, stands up and makes his way through the snoring, dreaming, wine-blessed, trembling shapes that keep the floor from floating heavenward. He sneaks down the stairs, slips a Moorcock from the shelves, stamps it quietly, leaves a five-euro note on the counter. The door opens into the cold glistening rainy Parisian night.

He walks the few steps to the Petit Pont and crosses over to the Ile de la Cite along the Rue de Notre Dame, wet gargoyles shivering in the vast heights, their throats phlegmed with fog and mist. He fumbles in his jacket for his favorite pen, his only pen. He remembers too late that he lent it to a Czech girl at La Caveau de la Huchette so she could write down a fake phone number for some clueless guy with a technicolor bestiary tattooed on each forearm. It is a jazzy set of numbers slightly out of sync with her real number, adding one to the first digit, subtracting one from the next, and so on, throwing in a zero on a whim because the worn, black saxophonist is sucking in air and blowing out very early Trane, and the third bottle of wine is getting warm, and the air is too, too much, and your friend left with that guy with the just right jeans, and you need to hear one more song, one more song, one more song. She had said she would give it right back, but, well, we all know the type.

The moon shifts ever so slightly, as though moved, and the perfect dust of old books fills the air and a cat meows, and the rain and winds die down. It is no longer night. The unexpected sun is warm. Stephen wonders if he has already awoken, but when he see the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts, running beneath him he is sure that he has never really been asleep.

He runs across Memorial Drive, and heads up JFK Street, hoping beyond hope that he can remember English.

* * *

Pulled from her nap, Clarissa reaches for the ringing phone.

The guy on the other end is drunk and speaking in French about caves, dancing, and tattoos.

It is a wrong number, but she no longer cares.

* * *

Elizabeth watches Stephen as he walks by. His is the kind of beauty that breaks bones she thinks, as she did the first time she saw him, and then she changes her mind. Everything around him seems to shimmer, as though his breath were the gauzy heat of mirage, as though the brick sidewalk and the crowded coffee shop, the cluttered magazine stall, and the hipster clothes boutique before him melt, warp, and are sucked through his wrists only to then spill from the wounds at his ankles, swelling and popping back to solidity behind him just as they had been before he ever walked by, with the windows perhaps a bit more shiny, the bricks a shade darker. She turns away from him as though from the noonday sun.

It then occurs to her that there is no reason why she cannot carry an angel, even a dead angel, and the forest that now flourishes from its chest, and all the trees, and the gray birds and the red-chested ones and the baby blue eggs that crowd the nests. No reason at all, so she stands up. She begins to wonder whether not eating for a few days was the best course of action, and, feeling ravenous, decides to go underground to Grendel’s Den to get some fiery shrimp sambal and a CBC Spring Training IPA.

Inexplicable Cain watches her move, and it is a moment he savors. The urgency of her movements speaks to him, and he gnaws his tongue because he really needs to taste some blood. He considers following her underground, but thinks better of it. He slips himself into an empty doorway and moves the razor blades from his right pocket to the left. He will wait until nightfall, and then they will meet.

She worries her way down the narrow stairway, but has trouble fitting through the door, what with her dead angel, the oaks, the flock, the nests, the eggs and all. She perseveres and manages at last, turning this way and then that to get the wooden green adumbration of branches through the door. There is an empty stool at the bar, praise highly the god of hops, and, for ten minutes longer, the food is half-price. She orders her IPA and sips it gingerly. There is a sharp chip at the rim. A sign over the bar reads “No Bud. No Coors. No Coors Lite. No Bud Lite. No Miller. No Michelob. BASTA” She does not know what “BASTA” means.

A waitress with pendulous breasts trips over one of the tree’s wandering roots, nearly dropping her glass-laden tray, and Elizabeth turns to apologize but the words are stopped in her throat. Stephen is sitting by himself across the bar and he is looking at her, and his tree is far bigger than hers, its branches crashing through the ceiling. His decaying angel is almost gone. The wineglass in his stained fingers is a dwindling sunlit ruby. He looks away too quickly, but can’t hide his embarrassed grin.

Somehow he looks younger than he did. No, his eyes look older.

There is in every movement the suggestion of something held back, of some alternative breath or word that would change everything. As in the womb there is the promise of a child, and in the bulb the promise of the rose, so is there in every word the promise of new language, and perhaps even new understanding. Elizabeth wants to say something to him, anything, but everything she thinks of has been said before.

The birds from her tree and perhaps a few from his have lined themselves up on the low windowsills on either side of the fireplace, watching the feet of passerby. One dove fixates on a nacho chip on the floor.

She decides to say nothing. It is just easier this way, easier to walk away. She throws back the last sip of IPA, slicing her lip and tasting blood, stands, leaves a twenty on the counter, and turns to the door. Her angel almost refuses to budge, but Elizabeth is determined. She moves as though she were pulling the entirety of creation behind her. The night air is getting cold and it looks like rain.

Inexplicable Cain is watching her from the shadows, his heart pounding with a ferocity that astounds him.

Stephen, frozen, watches her go. He then knows this will end. There isn’t much time. He opens his Moleskine, smoothes the last empty page, and reaches into his pocket. He loudly curses drunk Czech girls. He stands to call out to Elizabeth, to say something witty or unusual, something that will make her stay, but he knocks his bag to the floor, spilling everything, his Moleskine splaying open, torn ticket stubs, bent paper clips, foreign coins, expired condoms, out-of-date train schedules, and postage stamps scattering.

A long, limp feather juts from his angel’s broken wing. Stephen quickly plucks it and spears his palm with the quill, worrying it around until the blood is plentiful. He finds that special page, that empty, dog-eared page, and begins to furiously draw, hoping there is enough time for one last sketch.

 
 

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Davies_smRobert Davies writes weird fiction. His stories have appeared in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2010, Weird Tales, Black Static, Interzone, Shroud Magazine, and elsewhere. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, with his high school sweetheart Sara, two cats Lilith and Tiamat, and a lot of books. He is working on his first novel, The Bitter Taste of the World Snake’s Tail.

Asked about the origins of “India Pale Angel,” he claims that it’s “a true story, except for the parts I made up. It began as a travelogue of Harvard Square and the best places to go for a glass of IPA (that most glorious of beers), but despite my best intentions it began to go wobbly and led to an exploration of interconnectedness and murder most foul. Over the course of several revisions, I edited out many of the bars and beers, along with some nettlesome chimpanzees and a Norse god, but I would be remiss to not highlight Cambridge Common as a brilliant place to get an IPA.”

 

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