In the summer, if something falls from the sky in North Dakota, most likely it’s going to be rain. But that day, water wasn’t the only thing that landed in my backyard.
I’m used to the sound of branches rustling in the wind, chirps of birds or noises from cats because trees are all around the window in the attic where I spend more of my time in the summer reading. But the noises that day weren’t normal; it sounded like something much larger than a cat landed in the tree directly outside the window. I looked up from Moby Dick and saw a flurry of white wings, flapping to get away, yet they only got more tangled in the branches. I thought it was some giant bird – a swan maybe – and watched curiously but soon found out it wasn’t a swan.
A human foot peeked out from among the feathers, then arms appeared, then when I finally saw a naked torso, I realized a woman with wings was caught in my poplar tree. The light green leaves only highlighted how white her skin and feathers were. I stared for a few more seconds, trying to convince myself I was imagining it. I heard my brother shouting something, understood he saw it, too, and left my chair so quickly I knocked it to the ground.
“Joshua!” my brother, Charles, called for me. He had been outside shooting empty soup cans as target practice off the fence surrounding our property. He had done this almost every day since his seventeenth birthday two weeks before. Our mother had forbidden him not to shoot near the house but he always did when she left for her job at the post office. Charles told me that since our closest neighbors lived a half-mile away no one would get hurt, save for the stray cats he’d try to hit but was never fast enough.
I ran outside and down the porch steps as fast as my fifteen-year-old legs could carry me and met an incredible sight.
The woman that had landed in our tree was now stretched out face down on the ground underneath it. Leaves were scattered all around her and her face was turned away from us. Extended from her back were two pure white wings. The wingspan was massive; I could tell it was at least twice her height. She wasn’t moving. Charles crept closer and knelt down on one knee beside her. Her long legs made her look tall and she was completely naked. She barely had any hair on her head; it looked like she had just gotten a buzz cut for the Army. Her skin was as white as her wings.
“She’s breathing – barely,” Charles announced.
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. I got my first aid patch in Boy Scouts way before you.”
“Yeah but shouldn’t you check her pulse first or something?”
Charles looked over his shoulder at me, “I don’t want to touch her – do you?”
I shook my head, “Charles, what…is it?”
“It’s an angel, dummy. Haven’t you ever seen pictures of them at church?”
I had, but they were usually wearing robes and had glowing halos over curly blonde hair. They were also usually standing around Jesus, but I didn’t see Him in our backyard.
“Charles, are you sure?”
“Of course I am, Josh. Shut up.”
I stepped closer and watched her for a moment with my brother. She was taking in tiny breaths of air, but that was the only movement she was making.
“She must be freezing. I’ll go get her a blanket or something,” I suggested.
“Yeah, good idea. I’ll watch her,” Charles said with his back turned to me.
I raced back upstairs and went immediately to my mother’s room and grabbed the quilt off her bed. It was bright yellow and had little red farmhouses embroidered on it; I always liked tracing my finger over the precise stitching. It had been a wedding present, but mom never used it until my father passed away four years ago. She said she liked to curl up under it at night because my father wasn’t there to keep her warm anymore. I had just stepped foot on the back porch when I saw Charles raise the shotgun to his face. In the same moment, the angel bent down and put her head to her knees and extended her wings. Charles took several shots straight in front of him and the bullets made contact.
Her wings exploded like someone ripped open a down pillow and shook the contents out in front of a box fan. White feathers floated in the air above our heads, they twirled and twisted and drifted about in the breeze of the overcast day. Somewhere thunder rumbled. Feathers dropped on the surface of the tiny pond in the corner of our yard. They floated on top like little white boats. Seconds before, six brown ducks had been swimming on the pond but they had taken flight upon the noise of gunshots. The angel was curled into the fetal position, bare back covered in pieces of feathers, two stubs where her wings used to be. There was no blood. Charles lowered the shotgun and pointed it at the ground. His mouth was open and his eyes were wide. I shared the same face but was transfixed in the doorway of the house, my hands shook from the sound of the gun but they managed to hold onto my mother’s quilt. All was still except for the feathers. They gathered in the lawn like snow.
I watched, mouth open.
“What the hell, Charles!” I snapped back into reality and ran down the porch steps to my brother. He stood still, both hands on the shotgun, its barrel pointing to the feather-strewn ground. He didn’t notice me standing there. My eyes ended up where I knew his were: on the broken woman on the ground in front of us. She was still in the fetal position and rocked back and forth while she moaned softly. My brother and I stared at her for a few minutes until I broke the silence again.
“Charles, what was that for?”
“I…she just…I had to.”
“You had to?”
Charles turned his face slowly towards me. There was a dazed look in his eyes; one I hadn’t ever seen before, “She jumped at me. Like, attacked.”
“She tried to attack you.”
“Yeah, and her hands were out in front of her. I think she was aiming for my neck.” he gently rubbed his throat. “This chick is evil.” he pointed at her with the barrel of his shotgun.
I stared at the angel and didn’t believe a word my brother said. “Well, we’ve still got to do something with her,” I suggested. I looked down to the feathers under my feet.
“Man, I want nothing to do with this thing – she’s your problem now.”
“Charles! You can’t just leave me alone with her!”
“Watch me,” he said as he climbed the porch steps and disappeared into the house. The shotgun lay next to me, ominous and angry looking. The angel kept her eyes down at the ground.
“Uh, miss?” I tried. How does one address an angel? “I’ve got a blanket for you.” I spread it out and slowly approached her. She didn’t move and I took that as a good sign. I hesitated once I reached her, but then draped the blanket over her back. She wrapped it tightly around her body.
I pointed to the house. “I have somewhere you can stay.”
She turned her head up towards me, eyes opened wide. They were nothing like normal human eyes; no pupils and they were a stormy grey, very similar to the color of the sky. She made no response and just stared at me.
“Dude, you can’t bring her in the house,” Charles said from the porch and, to my relief, her gaze drifted towards him. “Mom would freak if we brought in something like that. You know how she reacted with the rabbit.”
“That was a rabbit, Charles. This is a human…or something.”
Charles raised his eyebrows at me. He pointed to the tool shed at the edge of our backyard. “You can put her in there.” He galloped down the steps. “Okay, I’ll help you. But if she freaks out on me again, I’m gone.”
The angel didn’t seem interested in standing up. She ignored all questions directed her way. Finally, I put my arms under hers and Charles grabbed her torso and lifted her up. Once in his arms, she flattened out, the blanket fell off and she reminded me of Jesus in Michelangelo’s sculpture Pietá. There was a replica of the statue in the lobby of our church. I walked past it so often when I was younger I committed it to memory. I was always awed by it. My father explained what it meant to him once a year before he died.
“See, Mary is young here, but Jesus is grown. She sees his future, she’ll be with him in time,” he said as he pointed towards it, his hand on my shoulder. “She’s there when he needs her, just how a parent should be.” He grinned happily, and then pushed me ahead to find a pew.
I opened the door to the shed and Charles walked in with the angel. He placed her gently down on her side. She seemed to have fallen asleep and didn’t move or open her eyes. We stared at her for a few minutes. I felt creepy, but curiosity got the best of me and my eyes wandered. Her body looked just like the bodies in the porn magazine I knew Charles kept under his bed. She had normal looking hands and feet; her breasts were small but flawless. Her legs were very thin and I tried not to look at what was between them. Charles, however, did. He grabbed a rake and, with the wooden handle, pushed one of her legs to the side.
“Josh, look, there’s nothing there!”
I immediately grabbed the rake out of his hand and stumbled back a little. “Shit, Charles, you can’t do that!” I looked down at her face, embarrassed for cursing in front of her but she didn’t seem to notice. I glared at my brother.
He shrugged his shoulders. “What, aren’t you curious?”
“What I’m curious about are these.” I pointed at the stubs where her wings used to be, “You think she’s going to be okay?” The stubs jutted out awkwardly from her back; broken feather barbs covered the white, bonelike stumps.
“Josh, I don’t know and I don’t really care because she’s evil. You know that when angels are banished from heaven they fall to earth; she probably tried to hurt the big guy upstairs and got sent down here.” He stood up, “She needs a different blanket.” He bent down, lifted the angel up and I pulled my mother’s blanket out from under her. I felt bad, looking down and seeing her rest on the cold dirt.
“So you think she’s a bad angel?”
“Obviously. Her landing on Earth is like a punishment or something. She probably missed her train to Hell and ended up here.” He opened the door to the shed. “Come to think of it, our city is a little bit like Hell.”
“We are only forty five minutes away from Devils Lake,” I suggested as Charles swore loudly. The explosion of white in the yard was completely gone. No evidence of feathers was anywhere to be found. The ducks had returned to swimming on the pond and a light rain was beginning to fall. It peppered my face with tiny, cold droplets. “What…happened?”
Charles started back to the house, “It’s an act of God, Josh. An angel falls from the sky today and you’re still questioning things? Stay in there with her, I’ll be right back.”
I hesitated, nervous to be alone with her. I wondered if she really did attack Charles. I picked the gun up from the ground and carried it into the shed with me. I sat in an old wheelbarrow and watched the angel breathe. She took very short and slow breaths. The dust in the shed floated around her face in the small beam of sunlight that squeezed through the grimy window. Every once in a while, she took a large breath and let it out. Her whole body shook when she did.
I looked around the tiny building and saw a piece of wood with my name carved into it hung on the wall. One with Charles’s name hung next to it. We made them as a brotherly project with our father. The paint was faded and cobwebs covered the front, but I grinned, happy to see them again. We used to spend most hours of the summer days in the tool shed. My father had wanted to fix it up for Charles and me when we first moved into the house, but the cancer made him too weak and so it never happened. Charles and I used to be close to each other before Dad died, but ever since then, Charles took on the role as father and we drifted apart.
He never really acted like a father though; he still called me a sissy for wanting to read instead of play football with him. He teased me for never even getting to first base with a girl. I think sometimes he feels guilty for not doing as good a job as Dad did.
Charles returned with another blanket draped over his shoulders, one under his arm, a bottle of water, an unopened loaf of bread and a flashlight. Together we lifted the angel and slid another blanket under her. She only breathed and made no other movement.
“You know, we could make money off of this.” He sat down on the other side of the shed on an old milk crate.
“Charles…you’re not suggesting that we charge people to see her!”
“Sure, why not?” He opened the bread and pulled out a couple of pieces.
“You just can’t! Are you joking? This is a creature of God, Charles. Not some freak in a sideshow!”
He shoved bread in his mouth and rolled his eyes. “Whatever.”
“Charles, you shot an angel.”
“She was evil!” He raised his arms.
“Even if she was, you had no right to do that!”
“No right but my own safety!”
We stared at each other from opposite sides of the shed for a few minutes.
“Listen,” he sighed, “I’m not totally cool about all of this. I’m scared shitless, actually.”
I laughed, “You? Scared? That’s a first.” Since our father passed away, he never exhibited anything but testosterone and confidence, save for the one time I saw him talking to a picture of Dad on Mom’s bedside table. Charles asked him for advice on what to do. I’m not sure about what, but Charles saw me looking and punched me on the shoulder. I wanted to tell on him to Mom but felt like I’d invaded his privacy, so I stayed quiet about it but did mention our falling out to her. She said it was normal to grow apart once we hit puberty.
“Shut up!” Charles threw a piece of bread at me. It bounced off my chest and landed in the dirt. “I have plenty of reason to be worried.”
I nodded, thankful that I wasn’t the one who pulled the trigger. “Why do you think she doesn’t talk to us?”
Charles thought for a moment. “She’s probably not allowed to communicate or anything. She’s probably here for punishment, remember?
“Yeah, probably.” I grabbed a piece of bread. “Hey, maybe God won’t notice,” I suggested.
He snorted, “Are you kidding? It’s God, Josh. Of course God will notice.”
To be honest, I didn’t know that much about God, let alone about what he noticed or didn’t notice. Growing up, the four of us went to church on Sundays, but I never paid much attention during the service. I just liked singing along to the hymns. I always stood on the right side of my father because that’s what wrist he wore his watch on. I liked listening to the tick tick of the hands, a little metronome of gold – like the one we would sing to during choir practice. After he died, I stole the watch off his nightstand and hid it under my pillow. My mother wanted to bury Dad in it, but I didn’t give it up. Sometimes, when I miss him, I’ll put it on, but never around her.
We stayed in the shed for the rest of the day and watched the angel breathe. The drizzle grew into heavier rain and Charles moved next to me. We talked about God and Heaven, Hell and angels. We weren’t sure what would happen to us, or to her.
We took a break and waited in the house for Mom to get home. Charles told her he’d be staying at his friend’s house and wouldn’t be back until the next afternoon. Instead he stayed in the tool shed to watch over the angel.
Dinner was a little awkward. When my mother asked me what I did all day, I told her I read. Charles had always been the liar in the family, so I feared she didn’t believe me. I mostly stayed quiet.
“So if you were in the attic reading all day, how did my quilt get dirty?” She pushed green beans around on her plate. I almost choked on my pork chop.
“Um…I…uhhh…”I stuttered stupidly for a few seconds as I racked my brain for another lie, “I got cold.”
She raised her eyebrows, “There are blankets in the attic.”
The bite I had just swallowed went down my throat as easily as a golf ball would go through a garden hose, “Those were already really dusty and I just grabbed yours.” I suggested, knowing it was a bad lie– but I also knew she would never think to check the tool shed.
“Joshua,” she sighed, “You know that blanket is really special to me, I’d appreciate you asking me before you use it next time.”
I nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
“But at least you put it in the laundry.”
I spent the rest of the evening on edge – afraid Mom would catch on, afraid Charles would reveal himself somehow, afraid he might not even be there the next morning. I stayed awake most of the night, my father’s watch next to my head, ticking away.
I counted the seconds until 10 o’clock the next morning, anxious for my mother to leave for work. She asked if I would be all right staying alone until Charles got back. I assured her I’d find something to occupy my time with. As soon as her car was out of sight, I bolted outside to the tool shed and flung open the door.
Charles was passed out in the wheelbarrow, snoring, a pillow I smuggled him the night before was under his head. The angel made no noise. She was so quiet, in fact that I bent down to check her breathing. She wasn’t.
“Charles!” I shouted. He woke immediately, a confused look on his face.
“What! What’s the problem? God, you’re loud.”
“She’s not breathing,” I checked her pulse but felt nothing. “Did she have a pulse to begin with?”
“What?” Charles jumped up and knocked the wheelbarrow over. “Yeah, she had a pulse yesterday and last night. It’s not there? Are you sure?” He bent down; touched her neck and his eyes grew wide. “There’s no way.”
I said nothing.
“She’s not dead,” Charles panicked. “Is she dead? She’s dead. Can angels die?”
I had no answer. I looked back down at the angel. She was in the same position that we put her in the day before. I grasped her hand. It was cold. I tried to lift her eyelids but they didn’t open. I shook my head. “I think she’s gone.”
“No!” Charles shouted and fell down in front of her to check her pulse again. I saw tears in his eyes when he stood up and paced the small bit of empty space in the shed. “I can’t believe I let her die. I did this. I killed her.” He pulled at his hair. “We have to do something. What do we do?”
“Charles, calm down!” I tried, “We could…bury her?”
Charles stopped in mid-pace, “A funeral?”
“Why not? We could put her under the tree she fell out of.”
“Mom would notice,” Charles said frantically.
“We can take her somewhere.”
“Are you kidding? Lug a body around in public looking for somewhere to dispose of it? Yeah, no one will notice.”
“You were the one that wanted to charge admission to see her,” I mumbled. “We can do it here. Mom never comes in here.”
“The tool shed? She deserves something better than that.” Charles started pacing again.
“It’s all we can give her.”
We pulled her out into the backyard to dig the hole. The soil was damp inside the tool shed, which made digging easier than I felt it should have been. Charles seemed distracted the entire time and we only addressed each other when we picked her up again to put her in the ground. We kept the ceremony short – Charles read from the bible anything he could find about angels.
He looked at me afterward, wide eyed, “I can’t do this, Josh. Are we sure she’s dead?”
I nodded. He walked over from the opposite side of the grave and stood next to me.
“What if she like, comes alive again or something? Are we doing the right thing?”
Thunder growled outside. I took a big breath in and let it out slowly. I’d never been the one that Charles went to for answers. I put down my shovel, reached out and hugged him. He held me tight enough to make me short of breath. We let go when we heard rain on the roof. Through the tiny, grime covered window, I saw lightning in the distance.
“I’ll do the rest. You go inside.”
He nodded and ran back into the house. Slowly, I covered the angel with scoop after scoop of damp earth. The fast darkening sky lit up every so often with the atmosphere’s electricity. I took my time and gathered a perfect amount of soil on my shovel. When she was half covered, I rested my arms. The humidity from the rain made the air thick and covered me in sweat. I took my father’s watch out of my pocket to check the time. My numb fingers lost hold of it and I watched the timepiece fall, like in slow motion, into the grave.
I stared at it for a moment; the gold watch ticked away merrily at the angel’s feet. I looked around, as if that would give me an answer on what to do. I bent down and reached my arm out to pick up the watch but stopped in mid-air. Her face was still uncovered and I looked for signs of life that were not there. I suddenly felt guilty, so I stood back up, grabbed the shovel and continued my original task. The watch and the rain echoed in the shed, as if they were a soundtrack for the burial. I scooped and sprinkled until the entire angel was underground. And even once she was completely covered, I knew she still looked flawless.
The next morning, Charles barged into my room.
“I had a dream last night I grew wings and this morning, when I woke up, there were feathers all over my floor.” He sat on my bed. “I woke up in a room full of feathers, Josh. When I blinked, they were gone.”
“Maybe you imagined it?” I wiped sleep from my eyes.
“No, Josh. No. I killed an angel. I didn’t imagine it. She is going to haunt me forever. God cursed me. I’m so cursed.”
I stared at him, not wanting to admit I agreed with him.
“She did, she really did attack me, Josh.”
I raised both my hands in surrender, “I believe you. Maybe that’s why she was kicked out of heaven.”
We sat in silence for a moment.
“But if she attacked you, why were you comfortable staying with her all night?”
“Well…” Charles hesitated, “One of the times you went inside for something yesterday, she…talked to me.” He confessed.
“Well, she wasn’t really talking as much as I heard her voice in my head.”
“What did she say?” I asked, bewildered.
“It wasn’t really actual words,” Charles sighed, “just, like, sounds. But I just got a good feeling all of a sudden. Like maybe everything is going to be okay. Like she was meant to die here.”
I stared at him for a little while before I climbed out of bed and walked to the window. The sky was already threatening rain. “I believe you. Maybe she was supposed to die in the first place. Maybe you didn’t do anything bad and you’re imagining all of this.”
Charles joined me at the window. “Since she was…murdered,” he cringed at the word, “you think she’ll go back to heaven?”
I couldn’t answer him. But I know we both stared at the tool shed and thought of what was inside of it, underneath the earth, everything that would rest there forever.
Delicate white flowers bloomed on top of her grave a week after we buried her. Charles thinks they’re symbolic, I tell him they’re just weeds. Charles doesn’t like to be in the backyard anymore and hasn’t touched his gun since that day. He’s more distant than he used to be and actually started going back to church. The time we do spend together, we never mention the angel.
After I buried her, I took our name plaques off the wall of the shed. Now they hang in the attic next to one another. Sometimes I take a break from reading at the window and look up at them, hanging there, side by side, and think about the ways we grow apart.
Carla Frazer is currently a graduate student studying library and information science at the University of Iowa. She finds pleasure in Samuel L Jackson movies, young adult novels and folding origami.
Photo: Heather Holtorf