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White Angel

Gabriel died three times. Some insist that even his third and last passing away was no genuine death since his papier-mâché souls still decorate countless streets during the village fiestas: statues of angelswith spread-open wings, angels in fluttering robes, smiling angels, angels with blue glass eyes, angels with arms cast toward the heavens; some holding a palm leaf, some a lily, a trumpet, while others hold nothing and simply curl their fingers in an elegant pose. Streets filled with angels resting on orbs of clouds perched on top of wooden pedestals painted in a marble finish and golden garlands cast in plaster. There isn’t a single village or town that does not own at least one collection of decorative angles masterfully crafted by Gabriel for the fiesta . . . the seven choirs of angels, cherubs, and seraphs . . . flocks of angels. Although Gabriel died his third death with complete solemnity, the delicate souls he fashioned will remain clasped to their wooden pedestals for eternity.

When the sciatica locked his feet and arthritis jammed his neck, Gabriel decided that there was no more room for his angels, neither in heaven nor on earth. He began to spend entire days outside on a wicker chair in front of his workshop; while life scurried before him he envisioned wings and robes fluttering around him in a haze, calling to him from beyond. In the gloomy workshop were numerous shelves. Some held plaster heads with hollow sockets, waiting hopelessly for a pair of blue glass eyes. Others revealed lines of fossilized hands, opened into postures of eternal pleading, or perhaps longing for a palm leaf or a lily stem. Even more shelves barely contained their many rows of stiff limbs and legs seeking a merciful cloud to rest upon. While Gabriel, in his wicker chair, attempted to nurse the sciatica and arthritis, the choir of heads, hands, and limbs on the shelves tune a Miserere imploring a body.

In the farthest corner of the workshop, a dusty white veil conceals the shape of a complete angel. Gabriel made this angel a few years before. After smoothing and refining the surface, Gabriel decided not to apply any paint so that like a soul it might remain more ethereal than all the statues that preceded it.

“This one’s yours!” he told his daughter Miriam. “He will find you a man!”

His daughter became sad. She had long noticed that her father’s words were becoming increasingly disjointed. She saw how he would stare into oblivion and often fall silent abruptly. After her father’s comment she became even more distressed; if all the matchmaking strategies of Aunt Saveria had failed to find her a man, no papier-mâché angel was going to import one from the heavens . . . especially now that she was over forty.

“Yours . . .” her father would mutter, “an angel coated in white plaster . . .” 

After about three years Gabriel died. It was on a Thursday morning. The village doctor, Dr. Debrincat, and the parish priest both hastened to reach Gabriel to successfully fulfill their duties. But, they got there too late. Gabriel was in bed; his mouth was wide open and his eyes fixed, more like glass than the ones he used to fasten on the statues. Chensu, the undertaker, showed up with his two assistants. They all agreed that Gabriel’s place in paradise had been long reserved by the scores of angels that he had known throughout his life. While Miriam was busy looking for her father’s black suit and squeaky shoes, Chensu and his assistants were undressing Gabriel so that they could wash the corpse and prepare him for burial. At that very moment, as he was lying naked, Gabriel opened his eyes and croaked:

“I need a glass of water!” 

The angels that had just taken off to proclaim Gabriel’s death around villages and towns had to start all over again to spread the good tidings of resurrection. Neighbors and friends gathered in a crowd at Gabriel’s house. But, although their intention was to see Gabriel and congratulate Miriam, they ended up huddled around Chensu and his shocked assistants, who were stuttering and drinking the coffee that Miriam prepared for them once she had hung the black suit back up in its place.

Within the week, Miriam received Chensu’s bill. It reflected the fact that he had carried out his services, and was made victim to a spectacular fright. The parish priest also informed her that he had already celebrated two masses in thanksgiving; Miriam felt obliged to offer him a contribution in an envelope that he only accepted after she assured him it was not a payment but merely a donation. For a week afterward, Dr. Debrincat checked in on Gabriel daily. Shaking his head and squinting his eyes in disbelief, he tested Gabriel’s heart and poked at him. The doctor would not leave the house until after Miriam had inquired as to what she owed. At the end of the week Miriam figured out her accounts and concluded that her father’s resurrection had ended up being more expensive than a funeral.

After the resurrection, Gabriel spoke no more. He would spend all day in his wicker chair in front of his workshop. He would nod his head and smile to passersby that stopped to congratulate him. But no words passed his lips. His gaze fixed in the distance, somewhere beyond the rooftops and bell towers. During the night he would make up for this silence. Miriam could hardly get any rest because of her father’s mumbling. In the past he would only snore and chew, but now he chattered entire conversations throughout the night with invisible companions. This was not the usual mumbo jumbo of dream talk. At first Miriam thought her father was calling out to her and she went running to his room only to find him face up, soaked in sweat, calmly uttering:

“You are all so adorable. I gilded the trimming of your gowns with garlands. People would ask me: ‘Gabriel, why do you go to so much trouble?’ and I would promptly answer, ‘It is never too much work! No beauty is enough for them. I want them to be one more beautiful than the other.’” Her father would pause at this point as if breathless before continuing in a slightly hushed tone, “And you . . . you are my chosen one. I want you to be pure, white and clean, concealed and hidden under a veil so that nobody will disturb your endeavor. No, no . . . I won’t give you anything to hold, no palm leaf and no trumpet. Your hands will remain empty for the time being . . . so that you can achieve what you need to accomplish . . .”

On he would ramble, patiently repeating himself over and over again until the time when Kelina’s rooster would crow. Only then would Gabriel slip quietly into slumber, awakening later when the rooster’s crow blended with the honking of cars and street cries. To a room bedazzled by late-morning sunlight, Gabriel awoke for another day of silence.

After exactly one year, on a Thursday morning, the rooster crowed, the cars honked but Gabriel did not wake up. Miriam checked his pulse, moved him, shook him . . . but Gabriel remained still. The angels, once again, spread their wings and took off to spread the news. The parish priest and Dr. Debrincat, once again, got there late, accompanied by a crowd of people who wanted verify that this time Gabriel was truly dead and that no one was going to take them for a ride. But, the doctor promptly threw everybody out to spend an hour privately examining Gabriel. When Dr. Debrincat had positively completed the inspection, he came out of Gabriel’s room, placed his hand on Miriam’s shoulder, and with a solemn voice told her.

“The Lord was kind enough to give him one more year. But it was only a loan!

With the death verdict final, the skeptical crowd went in to take a peek while the parish priest recited all the prayers. Chensu, the undertaker, insisted the doctor take an oath and swear on all the heavenly saints that Gabriel was truly dead. He then headed in with his assistants to finish where they had left off one year before. Neighbors and friends paid their respects throughout the day. The more poetic among them suggested that Gabriel should be holding a palm leaf, a lily, or a trumpet; everyone who touched his forehead confirmed that, yes, he was as cold as ice. Two neighbors offered to keep vigil over the corpse with Miriam during the night, but she would not accept. She had spent all these years watching over her father and did not want to change their routine in these last moments. She sat all night long by the coffin, reciting the rosary and drinking one cup of black coffee after another. Eventually all that drinking had its consequence; from the toilet’s window she watched as the first rays of light spread out over the sky and Kelina’s rooster opened his gullet. On the rooster’s crow Miriam thought she heard a squeaky noise. She ran out without pulling the chain and scurried out to find her father’s coffin empty. She heard sounds coming from the workshop. There was her father, neat and tidy, busily polishing the White Angel. He looked at her from the corner of his eye, smiled, and as he kept polishing, covering his black suit in white dust, he softly told her;

“This one is yours . . . he will find you a man!”

The next morning, instead of a funeral mass, the parish priest recited a Te Deum. Gabriel was sitting in his wicker chair on the curb. He kept his burial suit and squeaky shoes on. People came from every corner of the village. Everybody agreed that the angels were protecting him and rewarding him for all he had done. Gabriel smiled at everybody, shaking his head without uttering a word. The bills soon started coming in. The orchestra that was hired for the funeral mass, and suddenly had to perform the Te Deum, wanted extra pay. Chensu the undertaker made a big fuss. Not only did he send a bill for his services but also for the purchase of the coffin because, according to him, it was not appropriate to sell it to some other client since it had been already used. Although Miriam emphasized that in this case the coffin had only been used by someone still alive, Chensu kept insisting that he had never come across a comparable situation and furthermore that, if her father intended to keep playing this bizarre game of his until he was one hundred, it would be better off for them to purchase the coffin today rather than having to pay more money in the future. This, then, is how the coffin with the knockers ended up in the workshop next to the rows of heads, limbs, and empty hands. The only one who refrained from sending a bill was Dr. Debrincat. When Miriam was suffering a cough some months later and sent him a message with one of her neighbors for a house call, he said that he was sick, retired and no longer serving.

Now on his second incarnation, Gabriel began to spend all day in the workshop soaking papier-mâché in glue, filling up molds, casting hands, heads, and limbs, stocking up, and polishing. Occasionally he would unveil the White Angel to spend hours staring at him. It did not take Miriam very long to notice that he was doing this every Thursday morning. Without ever uttering a word, without looking at the calendar or asking her what day it was, every Thursday morning Gabriel would unveil the White Angel. He would sit in front of the angel, smiling at him and swinging shaking his head while murmuring in secret conversation.

He never took off his black suit and squeaky shoes. He would lock himself inside the bathroom, undress, and bathe, splashing water. Miriam ordered him not to lock the door but Gabriel would not listen. When Miriam removed the bolt with a screwdriver, Gabriel began to drag a chair inside the bathroom and secure it underneath the doorknob. Inside the bathroom he would wash himself, change his underwear and show up still wearing his black suit and squeaky shoes. Miriam would make a scene and nag that he was ruining the suit and beg him to at least allow her to wash his trousers. Gabriel would gently close his eyes, squint and place his forefinger against his lips. When she complained more adamantly than usual he would disappear hurriedly into the workshop, contentedly suited, to fill more molds.

After a while he took up a new habit. Rather than sleeping in his room he would huddle up like a small child on the wicker chair in the workshop and there he would remain all night. Miriam had always known well enough that her father was hard-headed, but she never expected that two deaths and two resurrections would make him even more stubborn.

“Now what if your head throws you off balance and you fall off the chair?!” she would argue.

In the beginning, she spent the nights climbing up and down the stairs from her room to the workshop to check on him, and to see if he was still in the chair, but since she always found him to be happily asleep and mumbling as usual, Miriam started to sleep as well. Until one night when she heard a strange noise emanating from the workshop; she rushed in to find him calmly and serenely muttering and arguing as he did on every other night, but instead of being huddled on his chair she found him under the White Angel lying down inside the coffin. The next morning brought a dispute between them that kept on going into the evening. As usual, Miriam finally had to surrender. After all, when she had calmed down and could reason things out, Miriam thought that since the coffin had cost them some money, and she could not tell when it would actually serve its purpose, there was nothing wrong if her father started using it now. She laid two thick blankets in the bottom, added a soft pillow, and hoped that at least her father would be more comfortable than sleeping on the wicker chair. This way, if her father was to pass away during the night, she would have at least gotten her money’s worth out of Chensu’s bill.

But Gabriel’s third and last death did not happen during the night. With some mysterious accord, it happened again on a Thursday morning while Miriam was at the grocer. She found him in the workshop in front of the workbench, sitting on the wicker chair with his head inside a basin of freshly hardened plaster. By the time the neighbors showed up to help her pull him out, the plaster had hardened completely. Before his departure, Gabriel managed to cast the impression of his face with all the details at the bottom of the basin. This time Miriam decided to take control. The suit that for years was destined for burial now was no good for public function and less so for the gloom of the tomb. She bought him a new suit with shirt and socks. She did manage to salvage Gabriel’s shoes; after dusting and whacking them with shoe polish, they even started to squeak again. Once all the details were attended to, Gabriel was once more comfortably laid inside the coffin that by now he was so familiar with, in the middle of the workshop, under the White Angel, covered with a veil. Chensu tried to sneak a peek but Miriam managed to get rid of him by insisting there would be no funeral before three days and three nights. And that is how it came to pass that Miriam spent seventy-two hours not knowing if she was keeping vigil with the living or the dead. Each time she left the room or when she snoozed, Miriam would expect to find the coffin empty once again. But her father did not wake up. She repeatedly shook him, beat the knockers of the coffin, shouted in his ears . . . but it was all in vain. On the second day, she decided to burn his finger. Then she removed his shoe and sock and burned his toe. No movement. On the third morning, Miriam thought she smelled a strange odor that within a few hours became more intense. So she closed the lid of the coffin and sent out an urgent call for Chensu and the parish priest. The burial was swift and although the service had no pomp, it was celebrated with all the dignity that is due a man who had spent his life with the angels, and had twice paid them a visit.

Peace, however, was not to come as certainly to Miriam as it had to her father. From the day after the funeral, Miriam was plagued with problems. She began dreaming they had buried him alive. She said that in her dreams she saw the gravestones shifting and caught sight of her father struggling between them—full of dust and cockroaches—and when he finally made it to the surface, he collapsed and died from the over-exertion. The Thursday after, she saw the veil covering the White Angel stir and began to suspect that her father had returned from beyond and was hiding underneath. When one of the neighbors volunteered to go into the workshop with her to uncover the veil, Miriam protested. She said that she had no right to spoil his game and to disturb whatever it was he was trying to achieve.

And so we come to my part in the story and how I know about all that I have been narrating. Somebody told Miriam that I was a good friend of the spirits. She got my number and called me at home; stuttering, she explained she needed my services and asked if I would come to her place. The hoarse voice that I heard on the phone led me to expect to find an elderly woman. However, I was wrong. I found this Miriam was an attractive spinster: plump and curved at the waist, with a pair of big black eyes and full lips. When she gave me all the details of her life I was surprised that her Aunt Saveria and all those angels were not capable of finding her a man.

She told me that she wanted me to get in touch with her father to verify that when they buried him he was truly dead, and to ask him if it was indeed he who was stirring the veil of the White Angel every Thursday. If it was him, she wished to know what it was that he needed. I immediately explained that matters were not so simple, but promised that I would try. I told her to prepare a table and two chairs in the workshop, and to light a candle in the candle holder. At nightfall we found ourselves sitting in front of each other. I told her to keep her eyes shut and not to be startled if she heard me breathing heavily and perhaps speaking in a different voice. We held hands and closed our eyes. Usually after a few seconds I would start to get a tingling throughout my body but that night nothing happened. I tried to focus and to clear my mind. I couldn’t. Miriam’s strong clasp was disturbing me. After a quarter of an hour I let her know that we had to stop for the night.

“We’ll try again tomorrow,” she promptly replied.

And, that’s what we did . . . the day after and after and after . . . for a whole week. But it was all in vain. I was not thinking of the spirits. Miriam’s hands immediately grasped mine and pressed with such a determination that it would almost embarrass me. Her fingers encircled mine . . . like the many plaster fingers on the shelves lying behind me, begging for a trumpet or a palm leaf. I noticed when I arrived on this, the final night, that Miriam had brought in a different table, a most definitely smaller table.

Here we are tonight, our legs touching, Miriam’s legs pressed hard against mine. I noticed, as soon as I arrived, that she was no longer wearing the black mourning dress but a sleeveless light dress with flowers. I can see her cleavage, white and bouncy, peeking out at the neckline. I do not think she is wearing a bra.

And so, here we are, hand in hand with our eyes closed and a candle flame between us, with our legs pressed together. I cannot concentrate. Miriam is clasping my fingers and squeezing them. My palms are soaking wet. I have not told her that yesterday I unveiled the White Angel and found that in one hand he is holding a sickle and in the other a cluster of harvested wheat. Today is Wednesday and the arms of the clock are moving toward midnight. Miriam is breathing heavily. I can feel a tingle run through my body. Yes, I think tonight something is going to happen . . .!    

Translation of “Anġlu Abjad.” Copyright Trevor Zahra. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by Ruben Zahra. All rights reserved.