Once and for all the rumor that angels are secretly
living in another dimension must be crushed. They are neighbors. It is not
their fault if you have not recognized them, if you stare right through them as
if they were not there when you pass them on the sidewalk. Their gardens are
just as colorful and optimistically tended as yours. Their children’s
shoelaces come untied as easily. Their noses run. Their relatives visit.
Their cellars smell of mold and sweat and the games no one talks about. Their
imaginations wander just as far.
A green branch enters another angel’s dream. Thomas
wakes and Harold is holding it in his teeth. The angel’s youth has arrived,
ready to romp in the raw sunlight. A dog is helpful. As long as the feathers
remain hidden. As long as abandon continues to grow.
One of the angels steps forward from the shadows and
throws a stone through your window. He is the one, of course, who looks most
like you and the other boys protect him from you.
When you pick up the stone, it fits perfectly in the
palm of your hand.
But the window is already broken. Is there another
Where is the house you used to live in?
Or was it the tomboy, the one that seems to have it in
for you, the one who taunts you with misplaced energy?
You deny her. Loudly.
A smell like children swimming in the ocean.
What language does an angel speak? It depends on who
is listening. If the angel’s eyes have lost the glow we grant them in our
dreams, they must learn to speak our way, or remain imprisoned in our sleep,
dismissed as “merely passing time” until we awaken.
Do we say “earth” or do we say “heaven” when we wish to
speak of waiting?
First the sound of a man, then the man.
First the angel, then, slowly, the senses attack
themselves. Do they belong to the angel or does the angel simply use ours for
that moment and move on? It’s a little sad to think of enough unused sensation
that it could form another life.
Or should we be grateful, like parents?
Oh yes, we do have names. That one there by the door
to the cemetery is called Soon-To-Be-One-of-Those-People and his friend with
the shovel is A-Gardener-of-Lost-Souls and they are going to visit the grave of
The-One-Who-Has-Left-Us, which is next to the grave of
The-One-Who-has-Left-Them, someone they heard about but don’t really know.
Outsiders would think, as they always do, that these people of the earth are
all alike. If there were any outsiders. But they are, of course, each one of
them, unique, and that is why so many of them can be dreaming at one time
One of the escaped pigs opens his umbrella and the wind
catches it. He is pulled out into the street and a truck runs over him. Yes,
it does. Can we all understand how sad this is? Can we all comprehend how
often this happens? Our children do.
Some of our children have goldfish or gerbils named Ben
or Sarah Lee. Some of them do not. But they all dream about what happens when
only the body remains. For this, death is not always necessary. Thomas is.
The chairman of the chair society proposes a chair
dedicated to the dead pig’s honor and the vote is unanimous. A plaque is attached
to the empty chair, but the chair society cannot decide what would be inscribed
upon it. Irony is seldom wasted on the young.
Sour cream cupcakes have been very popular here since
the invention of the muzzle-loading rifle.
One of our children is an expert on the history of
great torturers and explains their devices and family life in luminous detail
at social events and teas. The expert is fourteen and she reminds many of her
elders of their own childhoods. Her competition for the position of Superior
Retainer in the Field of the History of Famous Torturers and Their Devices
(she hates being called the “Torture Expert”) was previously a
seventeen-year-old boy who now collects moths and lives quietly with his
grandmother, who is deaf. His parents were killed in an automobile accident,
which decapitated his father. He is very fond of sugar.
The courthouse resides on the street of lost wind. The
jail flies south every winter, but returns, empty, each spring. None of the
officials have ever been caught. The statues in the Cemetery of Open Virtues face west every evening and east every morning.
The mother of forgetfulness and the governor of
animal-shaped clouds pass by in the windows of a long-distance bus.
When too many plans have been made to capture it, the
rain escapes under the river.
One of the young men felt as if his love were drinking
She kissed him and he felt his spent passion thick on
her tongue. Its taste surprised him, sweet and sour at once, as their short
life together had been. But for a moment he was inside her again, a glimpse of
her mixed pleasure at having drawn evidence of life from the foreignness of his
male body. And he thought to himself, “So that’s what it’s like to be a woman.”
But, of course, he was only partly right, and because he could not stay there, his
relaxed body began dreaming. He was asleep before she noticed the change in
Sometimes men give themselves up to their need for
women and try to restrain its power over them by acknowledging only the
physical, a lie they need in order to enjoy again and again the passage through
submission, instead of a life contained in it.
This is what she was thinking as he melted inside of
her and slid out like an exhausted wet mouse.
No, nothing about an angel between them. Not yet.
Then he woke and licked the sleep from the corner of
Two right tennis shoes two miles apart, there, on the
highway, leaving town.
And we bundled up everything we ever had in our arms,
gripping ourselves like priests or idiots, joyful in the wealth of existence,
generous in our misunderstandings, incapable of holding out on the moment.
Some of these people think the mountains belong to
them. They think the sky is theirs too. And the sun too because otherwise
they might have to wake up to a dream in which they discover an angel is living
in their place, dreaming the mountains closer, kissing the sky home.
A daughter with a box of clouds in her closet wrote:
The insects and rains quickly destroyed his books.
He had written three novels and eight books of poems, which had quite literally
been devoured. A kerosene lamp burned on into the damp night. Several wild
hogs began rooting in the underbrush.
One of the sons has been ignored for years, but a shy
young woman on the other side of the river, the one with a farm girl’s body and
wild hair, who would have been a tomboy if she weren’t so shy, has watched him
pacing and talking to the trees. She longs to tell him of her dream, which is
These people believe in such stories.
Perhaps you can imagine, as they do in this country,
that your death is that moment when, walking across the dream’s ocean, you suddenly
realize it can’t be done.
Here the people do not talk to themselves. They know
it is only an attempt to talk to God. And so, instead, they say to each other
unexpected and wondrous things.
Very few of these people do not understand the earth’s
Once, when someone got sad and then sadder and ate
sorrow instead of breakfast and spit out his shadow and went out into the world
as someone else, these people didn’t know what to do with him. So they left
him alone and many years later, after he made many people think about death and
about who they really were, he found himself sitting on a bench in the park and
took himself home to his wife, who had married another man, who had died, and
she recognized him by the odor of his fingertips when he touched her face.
The same man, while cleaning the window wells of his
aging house, found a rare species of salamander named after a forgotten
biologist. He decided not to disturb it. He decided not to speak to it.
Once, several art students were painting the river when
a sudden thaw separated the fragments of the frozen world they had claimed with
their easels from the one they were painting. The instructor smiled from the
riverbank as the students scrambled across the ice to safety. He continued
painting exactly what he saw and exclaimed when he finished, “Realism is
dead!” Many years later, in the museum, one of the tour guides was fired for
calling the painting “lifelike.”
Once not long ago, a “Cubist Festival” was held during
spring thaw, when the river ice broke. The art tourists gathered to paint the
thawing ice in hundreds of shades of white and transparent colors. Some of the
local residents gathered to paint the art tourists. And some of the unexpected
elements of the weather painted the entire scene white while the crows gathered
to scavenge food scraps overlooked by the surprised painters and to provide
shadows to replace the ones that had been eaten by the river.
At night, some of these people invite the moon into
their bedrooms and accept the consequences.
So someone said, “Listen to me,” and they all grew
quiet. They waited a very long time and they learned a great deal, but no one
could fully explain what it was that they had heard. That was how one of the
angels began speaking with her eyes shut.
Yes, these people have horses and the little old ladies
who live in them are saved such troublesome tortures as porch sitting, card
games and ice cream socials by prancing around the meadows and jumping in the
air and pulling milk wagons driven by little old men who comb them and curry
them and select the most tender carrots for their aging teeth and the brightest
flowers for their bonnets.
And if the younger men are still talking to trees,
well, the horses can still remember what it was like to rub themselves against
the rough outer ears that bark sprouts when the truth about the future is
seeping out all over.
Here nothing is horrible despite appearances. But many
things are misunderstood. Many things.
And more horses, more horses. Horses big enough to
hold operas in. Horses joyful enough to cheer up the city council. Horses
alive enough to contain all the sadness of three children drowned last year in
the reservoir. Horses strong enough to support the weight of hundreds of
It’s time. The children speak one at a time now and
the thread moves from one to the other and the needle is hard to see but
growing easier to use. All day they weave and weave and then in the afternoon
they take their blankets home and continue weaving. Yes, it is a hard life in
the cold world, but the entire village is speaking excitedly about the world
outside at play under a blanket of snow woven by a giant and the world at rest
inside wrapped in the comfort of their own dreams.
No, not God. Better. Something without the limits of
Some late visitors have come across places where these
people left small pieces of glass etched with stone and they have not been able
to understand the markings. Perhaps they are lost markers of exchange,
valuable in a former time. Perhaps they are broken shards of some vessel used
in a ceremony. Perhaps they are messages meant for the finder who now cannot
read them. Or discarded trinkets. Or useless children’s entertainments. Or
markers on the road to enlightenment.
Or simply mistakes.
Which are misunderstandings corrected by angels. Who
are lost animals found after their first death by their own bodies, which, like
ours, are made of earth and certain elusive questions which drive lives to
madness, pain, knowledge and joy.
A visitor asks about marriage and an elder who has been
standing by the river, wailing, picks up a pebble and with great difficulty,
and the help of other stones, breaks it. He places the two pieces in the
visitor’s hand, closes the visitor’s fingers around them and waits for a very
The visitor grows impatient and throws the broken pebble
at a crow flying over the river. The crow’s shadow in the shallows swallows
both pieces of the pebble and the visitor leaves.
The elder continues to wait.
The river waits and moves on at the same time, always
moving but never gone.
Towards dusk the elder’s breath can be seen in the cold
air. The crow flies through the cloud of breath. A game? A moment’s warmth
on the cold air? A gesture to the patient man on the shore?
A young man talking to trees may not understand the
significance of broken stones until long after his body has changed him and the
books he could write have left him behind.
A young woman may forget, for a while, her box of
clouds, choosing to touch her new box of buttons instead, first with the
shadows at her fingertips, then with the fingertips Thomas gave her with his
eyes closed, speaking about the pleasure he wanted to pass on, the cool river
of smooth bits of other’s lives cascading over the palms and the grateful
overlooked knuckles and the down on the back of her hands.
And now the same young woman gazing at a stone button,
trying to imagine the life of someone wearing a garment with this button
missing, shared now, because of the way the young woman caresses it while an
old satisfaction enters a more ancient hand worrying the tiny hole where the
thread once was.
A young crow may visit the river and swallow a pebble,
though it may not always be easy to see how he lives inside the stone.
Never discuss fate with a mirror. We know that its
honesty is backwards. But then so are many of our ideas about heaven. Some of
the people here do not rely on mirrors, but they have dreams and they have
friends and they have lovers and they have seasons and they have water and they
have crows. With these they understand more about what to change and what to
accept. Sometimes they call the missing parts “angels” in order to see
themselves in these parts they do not yet understand.
Once, a naked boy ran past the barn where a farmer’s
children were milking the cows in the evening and stopped suddenly on the lawn,
to remember, beneath the paper lanterns strung along the clothesline and over
the gate to the kitchen door. A dog barked and he disappeared into the
forest. A grasshopper clicked and whirred into the air. It sat on the corner
of the orange canopy for a long time before leaping with a soft rattle into the
breeze that carried it past the white picket fence into the wheat field.
It’s a gift so you give it away.
For a moment, we lost the sky. The thread broke. Its
generous wind melted.
Three friends with drooping beards parade towards the
horizon before kneeling at the bridge, in the dark loam where the marsh crawls
up to the road, lookouts planting their eyes like little trees, acorns
anchoring new taproots into the widening earth and reaching toward the errant
“We are not wise enough,” said one.
“We have not raveled far enough,” said another.
“We have not reached far enough inside,” said the third.
Because they believed people had to sacrifice.
Because they had not given away their borrowed smiles.
“Breathe clouds and listen,” angels have said for
centuries. The old ones can see the path of the rain while it’s still rising,
before it’s missed and called home. The young ones are still learning how to
hold the smell of the ocean, older even than anything that has been said of it,
between their wings.
Three women stroke the beards of three seekers,
building yet another horizon in the warmth. Three women each share the same
dream with a different man, for each man gave his promise like a large basket.
The three women filled the promise with offerings and
the ancient beast of their own hearts blessed them.
This too has been said for centuries.
Mostly by bearded men.
Who may have been in need of assistance in untying
One of the angels tells a joke and has a great idea
after the punch line. It leads the angel to the moon by way of the abandoned
hotel and the steady throb of the slaughterhouse windmill. The angel was seen
carefully selecting bones near the mortuary. The angel invented a musical
instrument that chops wood, but almost no one knows this. Now the angel lives
on a houseboat in the swamp so overgrown with moss it is seldom recognized as a
habitation. People say a hermit with a very long white beard lives in the
swamp, but no one believes it, except in dreams.
Then nothing happens and it takes a long time.
Then the darker side of life arrives like a gift. Long
after the laughter. Long after the neighbors have made up their mind.
Long after the light crawled inside the sweat pouring
from our skin.
Such beauty, such patience, such acceptance.
Why can’t we stay here?
A clutch of worry perched on your shoulders like a
basket of severed heads on the way to the market.
As if sunset were the only road.
As if the road were the only dream.
And so a man appears. He could be a boot after a long
journey. The dumb trunk of his stumbling heart sunk deep in a story someone
tells about him. Then someone else. Then someone else. Until it isn’t him
anymore. Until the life he has shared has fallen away and he is nobody, he is
abandoned pickup trucks, he is fishing with no bait, he is out to get even
without every getting out.
And she thought she loved him.
She loved him she thought.
She thought. Then she still loved him.
Wearing a speckled dress the color of quails’ eggs.
The future was hers until they spoke.
But you can’t really leave until you don’t need to.
How much beauty is left now?
And she knelt with him in the risky wisdom of shadows.
How much is left now?
Begin again by the fireplace. Casual, draped in a
graceful sprawl against the mantel corner, staring into the place where the
fire is telling her it has something to give her. Then move to the dark wood
of the railing and on, touching, stroking the velvet drapes, sliding
comfortably down into the divan, eyes glowing like tunnels. Behind their
patient certainty someone will meet us later, warm strong, waking from the
A little round one, furry and featureless, sitting in
the corner like a soft rock. It would be warm if she could touch it, but she
can’t. It would scurry back out of sight, further into the recesses of the
cave, and right now she would like to just watch it, imagining what it would
February 18, 1954. A small town in northern Nebraska. A shoebox addressed to Margaret Chandler arrives at a large farmhouse near the
edge of town. Margaret’s nineteen-year-old son has just returned from cleaning
the house of Angela Mann, Margaret’s neighbor and closest friend. He holds the
box knowing something important is inside. No one has ever sent anything like
it to this farmhouse in Nebraska. The boy’s mother is hanging laundry on the
clothesline. He can see her out the window, as he stands there, suspended in
his passing life as if this moment were not part of the rest. He thinks about
Angela. She has never before been absent when he arrived to clean her house.
Nor has he understood why she pays him to clean the house when it is already so
clean. And for a moment it is Angela hanging clothes outside the window and
his mother has become a pleasant and mysterious neighbor. Thomas places the
shoebox on his mother’s large quilt-covered bed and waits. He does not know
what he is waiting for.
From the chandler’s house at the edge of town you can
follow the subtle bend of the opening the deer have made into the wheat field,
follow the path they use to forage along the edge of the gravel road and, when
the dog is sick or too tired to notice them, into the Mann’s garden. You can
imagine space ships setting down in the field, leaving enigmatic signs,
accounting for missing animals or perhaps a lost human. Or you can watch the
sun going down at the end of the long flat empty passage from one farm town to
another just like it.
A cock pheasant stands guard, head perked and alert on
his long thin neck, his proud bright iridescent plumage a bit arrogant to those
who have not witnessed his patience while three mottled brown hens, effectively
camouflaged even in motion, eat the smaller gravel by the edge of the road, the
amazing muscle in their craw strong enough with the gravel’s help to break the
grain they’ve been quietly consuming as the afternoon heat begins to rise and
dissipate. When he is sure no motion is out of place, he will take his share.
Or you can imagine you are an angel just descended to
earth, watching the life in the farmhouses with envy, wondering why the birds
don’t see you, wishing they would because there is nothing you want more than
to become human.
Next to the house at the edge of town, there is another
field, then another house, a different shade of gray or brown or red but just
as much a part of the landscape as the next field and the next house painted in
yet another quickly fading earthtint. It’s as if, like the pheasant hens, the
houses wanted to camouflage themselves, perhaps to keep he landscape safe for
more of their kind.
And the people come and go in long slow warnings of
rising dust from the squarely placed grid of gravel. Unless it rains and the
sudden loud surge of welcome claps the earth faster than it can accept the
award, the way the satisfying applause of hooves at feeding time spills out of
the corral and carries down to the farmhouse to mingle with the smell of a
fruit pie, an oddly comforting confusion. But if you are lucky enough to
arrive as the suddenly clean smell of the cleared air opens into the evening,
there is no welcome more indiscriminant. You could be a murderer, a dying
saint, a devout misanthrope, or an angel, and you would sit down with a calm
smile at the same table and begin eating.
Or it could be winter, with time stopped between the
swirling, breath-consuming pulse of a storm passing like some gigantic animal
and your appearance out of the infinite emptiness of white might be received as
a kind of miracle, something no one mentions but everyone thinks about because
that’s the way miracles should be received. But do not wait. As soon as that
great wet animal has passed, the trail of every creature after becomes visible,
ordinary and revealing. And as the knowledge the tracks reveal grows, a crust
of pretense forms and you must learn to live beneath it or risk your every move
revealed at a greater and greater distance to the attentive ears of anyone
willing to stay quiet and motionless in one place long enough to set aside
their expectations in favor of whatever might offer itself.
Or perhaps you are lost, the relatives from the old
line of your immigrant family disappearing into the fields as you daydream
about the sparrows, uncertain which way to turn, unsure you would even
recognize those strangers from the past if they answered the door at the next
But they do not answer the door because you do not
knock. The sounds from the open window (it’s still afternoon and hot and every
window in the county is open) draw a grin from your down turned and lonely lips
as you pause on the porch, deciding not to interrupt, imagining a passionate
affair because you yourself desire one.
And if I told you the woman was married and yes,
lonely, and the man was also married and lived, when he was (rarely) home at
the next farmhouse up the road, you would be ready to believe me. That is the
way it feels after weeks of rainless heat in northern Nebraska. Perhaps that
is the way it feels when anything anywhere has gone too long without change.
But perhaps you find it hard to imagine this farmhouse
could be the home of your relatives. They are not the ones whose lives make
things happen. They are not the ones with these secrets. You are. And you
are not yet ready to share them. You may have to walk a bit farther, but your
family, when you find them, will be waiting there to make you feel you could be
accepted if you wanted it. But of course you do not. You want to know you
have a choice, but you want to show them you have already made it. You will
show them you have become what you wanted to be. You will not wonder what’s
next in the life you have chosen. You have already done that enough on the way
to this change to know what’s possible in that world you are convinced you have
chosen. But this world, this other world . . . In this one you have not
imagined what anyone would long for except leaving. But Thomas’ father has.
And that is what he is doing inside this house in 1935 before he has even
understood the possibility of Thomas.
Once, standing at the window, Thomas’ father tried to
see himself on the other side. There was a woman, his wife Angela, sitting in
a red stuffed chair. He tried to imagine what he might look like from the back
like this, from outside, framed by the window, with light from a failing fire
leaking out around him.
There had been gestures between them, but the gestures
had long since fallen away, not without touching a few worn truths, but quickly
growing careful, memories replacing revivals.
Before long his intentions of surfacing stalled. He
felt impulses to struggle but, like a drowning swimmer, couldn’t tell which
direction would lead him to the surface and failed to choose any direction at
all. Soon the impulses were little more than quiet yearnings till it was too
late, till they had already floated away, shadows falling from his raised
fingers, his body’s gesture unacknowledged by his heart.
This is when you notice that the house seems to be
growing smaller while the boy continues to hold the box, like a too obvious
special effect in a horror movie. And the young man can’t seem to believe this
could be his father in the box. But it’s so easy to feel the words coming
closer, aging him as he reads the letters, and then a past has sprung up behind
him and he turns and the old way of seeing his life is gone. Here in this
house he can’t seem to believe his few friends, who have been telling him for
years no one should be so alone. The walls have been so kind to him. The
floor mumbles softly at his step. Even the ceiling’s private contributions
have fallen with a modest benevolent ease on his sweatered shoulders. But now
it is different, more insistent . . . the walls want to marry, the ceiling is
too tired, and the floor has gathered up so many invitations from its
investments in dust . . . What will become of him when the house has grown too
small to curtain his future?
But for all the boy’s sudden knowledge of this man who
built a world around himself, he has not till this moment noticed an important
detail. The part of him which sees himself in this man has no need for such a
detail. But there it is, intruding upon his knowledge, a pair of green plaid
suspenders beneath the letters in the shoebox.
Perhaps the sadness of Thomas the elder started when he
realized he did not know what to do. He did not understand that if Angela told
him, no matter how perceptive and right it might be, it would not be his and it
would be wrong. His instincts were too tender, too uncertain, perhaps too
unformed, to act upon. He did not know it could be otherwise, that action
could be right even when it was flawed. He did not yet understand
imperfection. But his Angela did and she loved him for it even when she knew
it was keeping them apart.
And Margaret, his lover, a woman much like his wife,
also understood imperfection and loved despite or because of it. But she did
not tell Thomas’ father or her husband the whole story of the wonderful mistake
that grew inside her and she could not stop herself from thinking of it as
perfect when it came out.