Then there was a war in heaven; Michael and the angels under his command fought the Dragon and his hosts of fallen angels. And the Dragon lost the battle and was forced from heaven. This great Dragon–the ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, the one deceiving the whole world–was thrown down onto the earth with all his army.
I came into possession of my grandmother’s Bible, and I had heard somewhere that certain books will fall into certain people’s hands at the time that person needs some information. I know why, of all 21 grandchildren, this book came to me. Now I know.
When the house was plundered after her funeral, I had wanted nothing, not because I didn’t love my grandmother or want to remember her, but I am lazy and hate to move furniture. I do not put much value in silver and china and expensive couches, and, honestly, when I accompanied my mother to clean out the last of the knick-knacks, I was hoping to find cash. Grandmother had died crippled with scoliosis and Alzheimer’s, and I was certain, in the early stages of her disease, she had hidden parts of the family riches in a shoe box or in an old picture frame. Instead, I found her worn, green, leather-bound Bible buried under newspaper clippings in the nightstand. Her handwriting was still very much alive inside, revealing to me her thoughts about her own sin.
As far as women and sin go, my grandmother had been about virginal. I think she could have been a strong contender for Mother of Jesus had she not loved my grandfather so ardently in such earthly ways. I am mostly made of sin, which is why, even though my grandmother and I loved each other vividly and with longing, she only saw a slender angle of my face. The rest I hid from her, even until her death.
And so it was that I was alone one night, sitting on my living room sofa, the one next to the huge window overlooking the patchy front lawn, and I was lightly turning the pages of her book, seeking any passage covered in her granny writing with its sharp upward strokes and precise round o’s and curliques of r’s and s’s. It was like looking at her body, her earthly presence. In this book, she wrote her shortcomings, her self-admonitions, her warning to herself in Romans: the Price of Rebellion is high. Underlined: who will free me from my slavery to this deadly lower nature?
I closed the book and rested it upon my end table, then on second thought, brought it to my bedroom and enclosed it in my nightstand. I fell asleep, and that is when he came to me.
I have heard that, in most instances, angels open with the phrase, “do not be afraid” or “do not fear,” but not so in my case. The first thing he said to me was “wake up.” And I did. There he sat, on the edge of the bed, the way a mother does for goodnight kisses, the Archangel Michael. His chin rested on the pommel of a long, large, but otherwise unremarkable sword.
“Hi,” he said.
“Okay,” I said.
He was beautiful, with thick, luxurious sable colored hair that tumbled around his eyebrows and cheekbones. He wore a white t-shirt and a pleated leather skirt that stopped above his knee. The t-shirt was tucked in, nice and neat, although it appeared to be well-worn and it smelled freshly-washed and fabric-softened. That was the part that surprised me most: he smelled really, really good. Like dawn and ripe orchids.
“I’m scared anyway. Even though I know you’re an angel of the Lord. Sorry,” I said.
Michael’s voice, reported to be like thunder or trumpets, is not that way in conversation. He sounds very much like a middle school guidance counselor, its tone soft and swaying, full of purpose, the walk of a lion. “Now’s the part where I tell you do not fear. So, don’t fear.” He smiled at me, the sword’s hilt mushing into the side of his cheek, lights showering through his auburn eyes, a small summer shower of lights, his words padding like massive paws toward me and through me. In an instant it was over, I was no longer afraid and never would be again. At least not of him. It was done, like a zipper.
“Okay,” I said. “What now?”
“That’s all. Just don’t be afraid.”
We stared at each other for a long time, and I guess at some point I drifted off because I woke up to my phone alarm, and he was gone. I don’t remember talking, per se, but information had been exchanged, and I’m not even sure what type of information, such as it is with angels. He filled me with something–peace? music? an ability to see that life is one giant puzzle board? Our days and experiences the pieces, and when we’ve put it together, we haven’t built the Grand Canyon, we’ve only assembled a broken paperboard panorama of the Grand Canyon, and that is all and yet it is enough. I don’t know. My only certainty was that my life was not my own. Or, it does not actually belong to me, but is a current of energy affected more powerfully and greatly by forces I do not comprehend, forces, as it turns out, I do not want to comprehend.
For seven months, the Archangel visited me, came to me in dreams and in the middle of conversations with co-workers or at odd moments when I was dealing with a particularly snotty student who had ended up in my college classroom. I felt him around me, and soon I began to notice curios and icons of Michael popping up everywhere, and the feathers. Feathers appeared at my feet on the old cobblestones of my seaside town, on the shoulders of my winter woolen jackets, in the sewer grates, and I began, without being aware of it, to buy clothes with feathers embroidered or silk screened onto them. Feathers of blue jays and mourning doves, gulls, and robins redbreast. White feathers of a size I had never seen before floated on my back deck. My dog would retrieve them from the yard. I collected them, arranging them in a crystal vase on my nightstand. In an odd way, I felt I was being courted. Wooed. I loved it. I told no one.
At the end of the sixth month, my dog fell ill and died quickly from a tumor that had been growing silently for years. I took it hard, going so far as to sleep on his dog bed so I could smell him. I found no feathers for two weeks, and Michael did not appear in a dream. When I came home from work, he would be standing in the live oak that grew over my garden shed, and when I was safely in the house, he would disappear.
Angels are not like men. You know they love you, and how much. It is hard to bear, all that unflinching and unmitigated love, that unrestrained song of the high holy. To hear it? To feel it? An angel’s love tastes. It smells. I wish I could report it is like a living hymn made of stringed instruments and tiramisu, a roller coaster of light, but that is not so. It has the force and music and discipline of a tsunami. It hits like a lightning storm, and it tastes and smells like the earth after. I could tell him I loved him back, in my puny and pathetic human way, my dirty, small, creature-like way, with my mind. But to speak the words? I didn’t dare.
One evening, after a long struggle with myself, hugging my knees to my chest as I was sitting on the dog bed, I looked at the ceiling and said the most truthful thing I could muster.
“I will try,” I said, “to receive you.” And it was if, as soon as the words formed in the air, I knew I would fail.
Michael had not been in the room with me when I managed to get the words out. I never could have spoken it to his face, but I know he heard me. I know he hears everything I speak, every sound from my tongue a prayer, whether I want it to be or not.
Of course, by then the war had started. I read about it, my grandmother’s blue ball point pen, guided straight and true by a ruler, underlined the part he had to play. The book glossed over what happened next, and by that account omitted entirely the truth of the situation.
I heard the thump just as dark fell. It sounded as if someone had thrown a giraffe down on the lawn. I rolled open the Venetian blinds on the big window in my living room and saw a lump, a heap, a mound of shadow limp and twisted inside the white picket fence. I heard a soft whimper, the way my dog had done in his final days, the piteous self-soothing peeps of an animal mangled with pain.
What the hell? I rolled the blinds closed, stuffed my feet into my slippers, and drew my hoodie across my breasts then opened the door. As I approached, I saw exactly what it was although its back was to me, the spine plates like iridescent shovelheads glimmering in the moonlight. The scales of it were not red and fishy but like sequins covered in the soft golden fur of a Labrador puppy. There it lay, struggling for breath. When it heard my foot crack upon a maple twig, it let out three gentle whines and tried to lift a head to look at me, but it could not.
I thought I would be afraid, but I wasn’t. Not at all. I didn’t want to run, or scream, or call a priest. I wanted, of course I wanted, to help him. He looked no more threatening than a garden lizard tortured by cruel boys.
I saw Michael then, across the vale between heaven and earth, his sword dripping with dragon’s blood, the blade of it splintered and sparking where it had struck the beast and broken through its bones. I could see on his face that he had not known the creature would land on my lawn, that he was too late to change any of the directions. The Archangel knows my heart and dismayed when I took pity on the beast.
“Do not touch him,” Michael said, across the vale, but it was too late. My hand was on one of the seven heads, and I was looking into his eyes. They were eyes that looked just like mine, full of uncertainty and shame. Of hurt and humiliation.
“Please,” it said, hiding its seven faces, “help me.”
So I took the beast aboard my life, lurching him up the porch steps, arm underneath his spiny wing. He did not smell of sulphur, but of my grandmother’s knitting and of my father’s cork-topped cologne, of schoolbooks and sassafrass tea. When I drew out the poisons he cringed and howled for mercy, and he, too, wept.
I took the needles that had splintered from the archangel’s sword and dropped them in a metal bowl as I plucked them from the gashes, his raw meat dense and oily as a whale’s, the grain of it large, his veins white and pulsing with life. One wound in his breast opened deep enough to see the tip of his heart that I mistook at first as a honeycomb, buzzing and oozing a golden syrup, until I saw it beat. Once.
He patched well with liniment and packing gauze. That night he crept along his belly, eyes averted, to my reading chair and curled against my feet. He closed his eyes but did not sleep. As I tip toed off to bed I found him watching me, his face bewildered like a lost soul. He was embarrassed that I had caught him. At once, his eyelids collapsed, quickly, like night tulips.
That night Michael appeared in my dream, standing at the side the bed in his skirt and t-shirt, the abundant hair tossing about his head in black waves. I reached under the bed and withdrew the bowl, shards glittering inside. He sat next to me, soft as a feather, returning each quill of diamond to its place in the blade.
Love fizzed from his skin, made a small burp when it hit the air and then congealed into invisible ribbons viscous as warm fudge. All that love swam over me. “Go back to sleep,” he said. I did not notice when he left.
In the morning, I was alone except for the dragon, who sat like a sleek hunting dog at the threshold of my bedroom, not one toenail crossing over the threshold. His tail thumped the tile. At that moment I knew he would never enter. At least, not uninvited. I would never invite him in, no, never. Certainly not.
Days and weeks passed. The dragon made no noise, never begged at the breakfast table. He picked up my shoes while I was at work and place them, paired and straight, at the threshold of the bedroom. He slept at the foot of my reading chair, and in time, I removed his bandages, fussed over each ghastly scar, and encouraged him to walk and stretch to ease his limp. He would tell me funny stories, and he explained things to me, things about people. He answered my questions about heaven and hell and yet never offered to talk about it and never answered more than I had asked.
A stray cat had taken a liking to him, and they sunned together on my back deck. She draped herself across his snout and kneaded in between the reel of scales along his haunches. He seemed to enjoy it, emitting a rumbling purr like old wagon wheels ricketing along a dirt road. In time, I forgot who he was. I let him start to sleep on the old dog bed.
It was that simple. I forgot who he was. There’s no point in apologizing, anyway. Everyone knows that by now.
One afternoon, late, when the sunlight cut straight through the tops of the maple trees and planked through the backyard, I came home early from work to find the dragon perched atop the deck railing, flexing his wing, testing it.
He leapt, faltering, but only a little. He hit the ground, caught himself gracefully as a doe, then uncurled his spine, fluid now like a lubricated saw chain, stretching to his full length. His seven necks arched to the sun, his plaque-haired talons extended like a tiger’s paw, and the many faces, all eyes closed, all lips help in the smile of a sleeping child, tilted upwards like sunflowers. His hands pressed in prayer in front of the fatty scar at his breast, and then, right then I saw, in that glowing late afternoon light, the same effervescence of Love percolating in the air around him.
He, too, was an angel. He, too, was Loved.
That night, under the coned light of my reading lamp, I let him lean his main head upon my lap, and I stroked the fur behind his ears. When I let him out to pee, he found a white feather in the back yard, and he brought it to me in his hand.
“Thank you,” I said. “Come on.” I put the feather in the nightstand vase and patted the end of the bed. He jumped up, curled into a ball, and fell asleep, snoring slightly, like a cat or a baby. I stayed awake for a long time looking at the vase of feathers. For some reason, I couldn’t sleep.
Eventually, the dragon woke. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?’ he said. “What you humans will choose.” He closed his eyes, and so did I, but neither one of us slept, and when I reached out to hold one of the feathers, the beast wrapped me up in his arms and held me until the sun rose. It was a very, very long night.
Mid-week, the host of the fallen began to drop, as apples, as leaves, as pigeon turds and nasty thoughts onto the neighbor’s drives. The central park where babies and dogs stroll became littered with the soldiers of the dragon’s army and no one knew. Michael found his way back into my dreams, but I was always on the wrong side of the vale. He kept offering his sword and I wouldn’t take it. I would awaken with the dragon snoozing at the foot of the bed, the vase of feathers always too far out of reach.
Finally, on Friday night, as I was putting on my make up in the bathroom mirror, the dragon came up from behind to let me know he was leaving.
“You were very kind to me,” he said. “And I thank you.”
“I was wrong,” I said. “I felt bad for you.”
“That’s usually how it goes. You wanted me here, admit it. For your own reasons. You understand I can see right through you, you know.”
What can I say? He was right.
The dragon slithered through my bathroom mirror and turned to smile before he went. He had transformed into a beautiful man. I kept watching the man walk into the mirror until I could see him no more. I knew that was not the last time I would see him. And when I saw him again I would probably bring him home, tend to his wounds, and invite him to sleep in my bed.
“Why do you look after him when I love you?”
I recognized the voice, the feline prowess of it, the calm and fierce nature of it. When I turned, the Archangel was standing in my shower, leaning towards me, holding onto the curtain rod, his sword strapped to his back. He was smiling. His golden crown exploded with light.
I shrugged to keep from crying. “Why did you let him go?”
But I knew the answer. I know the answer. He has to until I make a different choice. That’s the way it is. That’s how it goes when you obey Love. One day, I will choose him instead, I will receive. And then the Archangel can fulfill his duty. Then, oh then, I will understand why they call it a revelation.