they govern all our affairs and bring us succor…
St John of Damascus
In the evening he scuffled with his daughter to the point of complete exhaustion and their laughter filled the whole house. Dressed in pajamas, they rolled around on the thick carpet in the living room, had a pillow fight which she, naturally, won. She fell asleep on him and he was intoxicated by her milk-and-honey fragrance. He carried her over to her small bed and stayed there in the dark, feeling that his life was complete in the way only a witty and enchanting little three-year-old could fill it.
As he was taking a shower after the fight of the century, he thought that the psychiatrists were undoubtedly right, at least about one thing – interacting with children and animals is the best possible way to deal with stress. And in these hectic times, who was not menaced by stress, since the crisis had been stalking for a few years now and there was no evidence that it would subside any time soon?
His wife had long been asleep, she was capable of sleeping even through an earthquake. He slipped in bed quietly, trying to secure himself a small patch of space without waking her up. She had stretched over onto his side, which reminded him of their first night together. It was a casual encounter – he offered her his seat next to the window on a flight from Varna to Frankfurt. As they were changing seats, he felt he was sensing that whiff of dried grass and citrus… The odd part was that, as he would later learn, her natural aroma was of cinnamon. The flight passed as if in a dream. They were both supposed to cross the ocean but had so successfully ignored the rest of the world that they inevitably missed their connections. To save money, they shared a room in the airport hotel, which turned out to have a king-sized double bed. That evening he discreetly went out for a walk while she was getting ready for the night. When he came back, he found her asleep stretched out across the only bed.
He was watching her with a feeling of tenderness. She had kicked the sheets around her legs and even relaxed in her sleep, her naked body with its soft, rounded forms looked young and flexible. Her curly copper hair was scattered on every pillow. Her mother-of-pearl angel wings seemed to emit their own glow. The immaculate tattoo covered every square inch of her back – he had held her hands and kissed the tears in her eyes for days as it was being inked. It had been his wish for the third anniversary of that flight: “It’s just a whim,” he said, “I had a dream.” And she agreed without even asking what the image that would please him and the whole world would be. They had love and faith in each other.
He was falling asleep, smiling at the memory of the magic that had started ten or so years ago, a magic that was still there.
* * *
He got out of the car in just his bathing suit, with a towel and a thick hard-cover book in his hands. He set off down the dirt path across the plateau, his bare feet sank into the dust and a childhood memory emerged from that liberating sensation of feeling the earth beneath him. Back then, carelessly and tranquilly, he used to spend his summer breaks in the countryside, time illusively stopped and when he was about to head back to the city it seemed like the whole summer had been just a magical snap-of-the-fingers.
Ten yards away from the high cliffs along the shore, the path faded into stubble. The ground was dry and cracked. Only few days earlier, ripe wheat had been swaying there and now the low-cut stalks, sharp as spears, forced him to move like a sapper in a minefield. He stopped at the rocks, gazing at the idle sea drifting in the afternoon haze. The place was deserted, no fishing boats, no sails, not even waves – serene endlessness in which only sparkles of sunlight resided. The small clean beach that spread like a handkerchief before his feet also bore no signs of human presence. As he was trotting down the stony path, he cursed his foolish habit of seeing things in some pleasing, convenient and romantic way that was almost never real. He passed through this white-hot hell like a fire-dancer and didn’t stop until his charred soles touched the cold water. Nestled in the rocks, this sand pocket was a proof positive that romance usually came with a pitfall.
He spread the towel next to the water and lay down, resting his head on the smooth rock. He opened his book to a random page and covered his face, avidly breathing in the odour of sea and ink. Even in the car he knew there was hardly any chance of reading and had taken the fine edition with him just for company. Bertrand Russell was a pleasure on a rainy autumn evening, with wet smoking logs in the fireplace promising to flare up eventually. He felt it was sacrilegious to make the effort to fathom the world’s objective laws when he could simply enjoy it… in the burning rays of sunlight… in the whisper of the waves… in the silence… and the delicate ringing of tiny bells. His eyes closed.
She doesn’t notice my presence or at least she doesn’t show it. She is between me and the sun – a slim silhouette emitting innocence and a faint ringing of bells… She takes few steps, stopping right in front of the water, several yards away from me. For a moment she is perfectly still. I feel as if I could touch her if I were to reach out my hand. Now I see her clearly: a slender figure with a short straw-colored hair flying in all directions…
Suddenly she shrugs her shoulders and her white low-cut dress slips off like a snake skin. She steps graciously aside, ting-a-ling… She freezes for an instant, naked and gorgeous, only the gentle bracelet with tiny bells on her ankle. She rises up on her tiptoes as if about to fly away. She takes a step and the sea embraces her with a caress and gradually dissolves her. My gaze is mesmerized by the waterline slowly crawling up her body: calves, knees, softly tanned thighs. It crawls up the two opaque hemispheres resembling apricot halves and the body sun-marked by a bathing suit like spilled milk. Right in that passage from cream to chocolate, in the silky area between the soft hollows of her back, angel wings emerge. The tattoo sprawls up to her shoulders. I cannot take my eyes off these wings, enthralled by their genuineness and beauty, they seem so real.
She continues striding ahead with easy, rotating movements. She stops, scoops up a handful of seawater and takes aim at the sun. Her whole body is covered with pearly droplets and millions of slivers of rainbow. I am starting to panic – I don’t want my presence to disturb her, I close my eyes childishly, count to three and shyly open them up again. I’m not sure whether I’ve become invisible, but she apparently has.
I jump up and shade my eyes with my hand, carefully examining the blue sea, smooth as a Turkish bead. There is not even a slightest ripple on the surface hinting of her presence. Was it a dream? But her dress is still on the sand…
I enter the sea and as soon as it is deep enough, I hold my breath and dive in. The water is crystal clear, I can make out every shell on the bottom and I think I spot hardly visible footprints. I follow them, swimming underwater. Having drained the last molecule of oxygen from my lungs, I pop up on the surface in a panic. Fireballs spin before my gaze, but I can hear a delicate ringing. The sound of tiny bells. It comes from the shore and slowly recedes. When I am finally able to see again, as if I manage to catch a glimpse of her naked figure up on the rocks. Suddenly, the beach is deserted as before, but now it seems wretched, like a torn pocket. “Oh, is it possible… Will I never see her again?” I splash to the shore and rush out after her.
Later, not having managed to catch even a glimpse of her, I stay on the edge of the cliff and look at Bertrand Russell buried in the hot sand. Until this moment I haven’t felt the pain from my bleeding feet but now it is unbearable. Tears fill my eyes. God, bring me some hope that I will find her someday!
When he opened up his eyes the sun had sunk behind the high cliffs along the shore. He climbed up the path through the rocks, the red enchanting light of the sunset washed over him. He waded into the stubble field again, minding every step. On the track he spotted something shiny, half-covered in dust. He bent down and picked it up. Ting-a-ling – a slender golden ankle bracelet with three tiny silver bells on it.
For the next three years, every summer he looked for her whenever he could. He would fly over thousands of miles with the desperate hope of finding her. First, he would go to their spot and wait there for her for days on end. Then he would be overtaken by the alarming sensation that she was somewhere nearby – on an adjacent beach or in the next town. During the day he would explore different bays and in the evening he’d visit the night clubs. His memories were muddled by his constant attempts to retrieve missing details that would help him find her. He wasn’t sure about anything concerning her appearance except from the golden anklet with the bells. He was wearing it around his neck as a medallion. He would stare at the girls he encounter on beaches and swimming pools, in hotels and restaurants, bars and clubs… Sometimes he would kneel down by a woman with an ankle bracelet, sometimes he would get beaten up…
Peruvian or perhaps Bolivian jazz is playing in the deserted beach bar. In a few hours he has to fly back to the place he calls home. His faith is shaken and he is feeling immensely lonesome. He is examining the solitary shore, bidding a final farewell to the sea. The last tequila – salt, lemon and a raised glass to the only customer on the other side of the bar. A contre-jour of a woman against the sunset. He is too weak to go over and talk to her. That game is over now. He drains his glass. He takes the chain off his neck, slowly removing the golden anklet. He takes a final farewell glance and decides to hurl it into the sand, it might bring someone else luck. The bartender turns up the stereo and disappears. She gets off her chair, goes around the bar and sits next to him. Silently they watch the sunset. They smile, absorbed in the music and themselves. They turn to face each other, he sinks into her blue eyes. Her round shoulders peek out of the loose white shirt with the words YOUR ANGEL printed on. He stretches his arm toward her, his fingers in a fist. She puts her palm underneath his and in a moment there is the golden bracelet with the three silver bells glittering in her hand. Her bare feet – petite and elegant – touch the edge of his chair when she brings her knees up to her chest. On her left ankle there is the very same bracelet – golden with three silver bells. He can’t hear them ringing, the music or the emotions prevent him from hearing even his own thoughts. Together they adorn the other ankle, too. She gets up off the chair, rises up on tiptoes as if about to fly away but then she kisses him or rather her breath touches his cheek. Her scent is of dried grass and citrus… She is starting to leave. There are angel wings drawn on the back of her shirt! She turns her head, their eyes meet and her gaze promises things he cannot fathom at this very moment. He tries to jump up, to embrace her and to never let her go but it all feels like a dream – he is numb, not able to make a move, not a single sound escapes from his mouth. She waves goodbye to him. Beautiful, pure, out of reach. In the blink of an eye, she is gone.
Three hours later he flew off to Frankfurt. There he had to catch another plane and cross the ocean.
* * *
He woke up drenched in cold sweat. His heart was thumping out of time, he could feel the beats in his throat. His chest felt tight, as if caught in a metal hoop and inside he was being branded with red-hot iron. He was struggling with every whistling breath entering his half-open mouth. His jaw was stiff. When a dull pain crawled up his left arm, his half-asleep mind realized these were classical stroke symptoms. He started panicking; it was so sudden and overwhelming that he couldn’t cry out or even move. His brain was entirely blocked by the adrenaline and he felt colossally alone and helpless. Tears ran down his face, he wept not for himself but for his child. His daughter shouldn’t grow up without a father. If she ever grew up! What would she be forced to go through? In this vile world! Who would take care of her? Her mother, another man, people she didn’t know? Perhaps she should be send back to his parents in Bulgaria?
His thoughts were hectic: they were a few payments behind on the house but the mortgage could still be refinanced; expenses could be optimized… He had already taken measures but why hadn’t he started earlier?! Why had he slept through all the symptoms of this impending catastrophe?! There must be a solution, indeed there was. He would fix it, he just had to be healthy, to be alive! It would all turn out to be fine as long as he was alive! God, let him live…
There had been bad times but he had finally realized that happiness was taking care of his family, protecting them… And now he was about to die?
He remembered his close friend, a gynecologist, who awkwardly and nervously had explained to him that medically there was not even the slightest chance of his wife ever getting pregnant. Then he had thought his life was coming to an end, expiring, vanishing, he felt worthless and empty. That had been the time when he had gotten drunk and started dreaming for the first time… the same dream which had emerged on the seashore years ago… The next day he had woken up with the idea of an angel-wing tattoo…
He remembered the earth-shattering moment a year later when he had taken his daughter in his hands… her bare head had smelled of milk and honey – her very own fragrance. He had started to tremble, unable to bear all that happiness; he worried that his heart would explode and its shrapnel would harm his loved ones. He gave his child back to his wife, kissed them both – milk, honey and cinnamon, and left the hospital room in a hurry, rushed down the stairs – there was no time to wait for the lift, he darted outside, anywhere, into the frenzied evening traffic of the city, into the anonymous crowd that absorbed and extinguished any emotion, any impulse or wail. At that very moment pushed and tossed aside like a splinter, he raised his head and among the poles and trolley wires, the crooked facades adorned with antennae, the illuminated holiday decorations and flickering traffic lights he thought he could see the sky. That other sky – the clear primal sky as old as creation. One of the stars pulsated like a little child’s heart… He took a deep cold wintery breath and it smelled like… It smelled like dried grass and citrus.
He starts feeling profound serenity. His breathing stabilizes, the pain and the stinging subside. He manages to move his hand, pinching himself – he is awake! He is chanting like a mantra a phrase that has emerged from God knows from where:
… they govern all our affairs and bring us succor…
“What’s going on?” asks his wife, half-asleep.
“Don’t worry, my dear, sweet dreams,” he says caressing her hair.
“Who are you talking to?”
“Just… an Angel.”
He inhales deeply, but all he can sense is the comforting scent of cinnamon. There is not even a trace of the dried-grass-and-citrus aroma.
“Is she still here?!” his wife asks, falling asleep.
“No, she was here… and then she was gone.”
His lips touch hers.
She wasn’t here and then she was gone!