Chapter 24: Decisions

A week had passed on Earth while Gabriel spoke with his brother in hell. Audrey and Michael spent every waking hour together, on the porch or in the barn or in the yard. Most of the time they didn't speak. But Audrey had to admit that his presence was soothing.

It was mid afternoon, and they sat together on the back steps. Michael was shelling peas into a bowl for supper, his nimble fingers getting the hang of it far faster than Audrey's had. Millie and Howard seemed to think that giving the pair a daily chore list would distract them from their worry, and to the surprise of Audrey it was actually working. She stripped a ribbon of husk from the ear of corn in her hands and tossed it into the growing pile, sighing.

"I've never done things like this before. My parents would freak out if they saw it. Sitting here with no makeup on, shucking corn in a shapeless housedress and no shoes. This is 'The Grapes of Wrath' meets 'Beverley Hills, 90210'." she groused. Michael flicked another row of tiny peas neatly into the bowl.

"This is somewhat outside of my normal range of duties as well. But it's soothing, at least. I wonder why more humans don't spend their time shelling peas and shucking corn and cleaning out stables. Less time killing and enslaving one another." He stretched his wings slightly, testing their lingering soreness. "It would make for a world closer to Heaven. God smiles on those who grow crops and do not shed blood."

"Oh come on. Not from what I read. What about all that animal sacrifice crap? About the smoke of burning ox meat or whatever being pleasing to the Lord? And didn't He reject Cain's offerings because they were fruit? Abel gave the Lord dead sheep and He was all happy, but when Cain handed over his best fruits they weren't accepted. So Cain killed Abel and we had the first murder. And then there's that whole thing about Jesus casting the demons out of a little girl and flinging them into a herd of swine, who then went mad and ran off a cliff." Audrey pointed the ear of corn sternly at Michael, shaking her head. The black feather in her hair gleamed. "Don't give me any of that 'God loves a gardener' line. I've read the Bible. It's so full of blood, the pages stick."

Michael smiled, tilting his head.

"You are well read, after a fashion. Tell me, Audrey Anderson, did you read the entire book? Or simply skim the parts you wished to disagree with?"

Audrey thought about it for a few moments, then shrugged. "I suppose there's some beauty in there. But not nearly enough. Not considering how many people use it as an excuse to make life a living hell for others."

"Yet that was never its intent. I tell you, the Bible was written by men who lived long ago. And for them the world was cold, brutal, and largely devoid of mercy. That collection of stories and songs and prayers and lamentations and letters and myths speak of higher ideas and hope for a society that desperately needed hope. Read the Psalms, Audrey. If you read nothing else with an open mind, read the Psalms. They contain the whole purpose of the Bible. It is a species collectively crying out to the universe in their small, brief voices, and desperately awaiting a response. Mercy. Compassion. Love. Tenderness towards one's neighbors. Charity. Self discipline. And a restless seeking for God woven through every starving human soul as deeply as a child feels the need for its mother. You scoff at the Bible, but for what it is I believe that it has done well. There are those who interpret it narrowly, and that narrowness is what leads to strife. Human beings write books. The Creator does not."

"Isn't that….isn't that blasphemy?"

He had her full attention now, and she hugged her knees to her chest and felt as though she were learning all over again that Santa Claus wasn't real, or that elementary teachers actually went to the bathroom like normal people, or that gold fish and cats and grandparents and friends and trees and stars could die. Michael picked a pea out of its little green cocoon and looked it over.

"A human author of yours once spoke of a time in his youth when he pressed the paw of his dog into wet cement, to immortalize him. He said that this dog of his was a very intelligent and brave fellow, one who seemed to be possessing of a longing to join the human race as a fully respected and accepted member. I have observed that a great many of the less complicated creatures seem to aspire to achieving humanity. The family dog wants to be a person, a child of the household. And that paw print in the wet cement was the mark of a dog who very much yearned to express that humanity." Michael looked over to the edge of the septic tank, where Old Pete was stalking a bug through the grass. "Every ruined civilization is the mark of men trying to learn to be human, to transcend themselves. None have quite made it, but that has not stopped them from attempting it. The Shang bronzes, the silent dreaming faces on Easter Island, the Parthenon, the Sphinx, the Bible, the Qu'ran, the Vedas…the little paw print in some long forgotten sidewalk. All of you, trying to become more than what you are. And none of these things should be mocked, however rough they may appear to future generations."

Audrey looked at him, studying his profile against the distant sky.

"You really love us, don't you."

Michael turned to meet her gaze, and his eyes suddenly seemed very bright.

"With all my heart."

Howard came out onto the back porch and eased himself down onto the step above the two of them. He took his glasses out of his pocket and put them on, reaching out to take hold of Michael's wing.

"Yep. Lookin' like it's healed up fair enough. You were lucky, my boy. I've seen too many ravens and geese and other large birds lose a wing from that kind of dislocation. Lord, I wish I could study your kind in depth. I do believe I'm the first man ever to tend a pair of angels."

Michael did not deprive him of the notion. To do so would involve talk of Raphael and the Babylonian farmer, and he had no wish to bring it up in front of Audrey. Instead, he relaxed his wing and allowed the old veterinarian to tenderly squeeze the healing bones.

"Real strong structure, but your bones are still hollow like a bird's. I guess that's so you'll have the right amount of lift for flying. Now what about getting those feathers wet? Can you take off from the water?"

"We can. If angel wings were to be likened to any living creature's body structure, I suppose you could compare them to a cormorant or albatross."

"You know a fair amount about both, I should think. About all living things, seeing as you were here before them." Howard released his wing and took a seat on the closed top of the rain barrel nearby. He looked careworn and tired as they all were, but on the whole he was holding up as best he could. It was a terrible unspoken thing, the absence of Gabriel. They talked around it, but never about it. Michael fluffed his wings up a big, and then they smoothed.

"Every creature that has ever walked, or crawled, or slithered or flown or swum or grown rooted and sessile in the dark vents of the sea floor. I know them all. But there has been nothing like mankind, not in all the long history of the world. You are unique."

"Always thought of us as fairly common. We're like other animals, mostly." Howard rubbed the back of his neck and leaned against the trailer. "I do wish we could communicate better."

Michael shelled another row of peas, and glanced up to regard the old veterinarian fondly. "It has been a burden of terrible loneliness for your species. This isolation from all other animals, and from any of the higher forms in Heaven, and from any other worlds in the universe where life has arisen. Some of you have gone mad with it. Isolation can cause many unsavory reactions. Arrogance and delusional thinking. Violence and anger. Desolation, depression, sorrow. Unimaginable sorrow. I find you all beautiful as much for your frailty as for your strength. You live out your century or so, some more and some less, and you involve yourselves so deeply in the wondrous or wicked or beautiful things that surround you, and all of you weep when you have to leave. Like a child drawn away from his very favorite toys. Not understanding that the place you're being guided to contains such a wealth of gifts and joy that your human heart would break to see it all. You will find animals there, of course. Paradise is not limited to sapiens. It is the wellspring of life itself, of the spark that animates all living things, and the place to which that spark returns when complete. You, Howard, have lived your quiet, simple life in harmony with all around you. That draws Heaven closer to Earth. It is something to marvel at."

Howard bowed his head with quiet pleasure at the archangel's words, and he felt love and pride warm his chest. But he didn't speak about it. After a speech like that, the old veterinarian felt as though he lacked the oratory skills necessary to convey his feelings. Instead, he reached out and patted Audrey on her slim shoulder, smiling to see how far she'd come with the little heap of corn.

"Doing a fine job there! Millie will be real pleased, her fingers got the arthritis, can't shuck near as much corn as she once did. You've been mighty helpful, young lady. Havin' you here is a blessing. Both of you."

Audrey smiled, something she rarely did before, and held up a freshly peeled ear with kernels like little pearls of pale gold in the sunlight.

"First time for everything. You know those shows they have on television? With the bad kids who get sent out to live on the farm for a summer or something in order to straighten them out? I always thought that kind of thing was crap. It would never have worked on me, not the way I was. I think the real change was that I needed to be dragged off to a cave first, then brought to the farm. You think?" Her expression darkened for a moment at the mention of the cave, and she sighed and looked off over the brown fields. "I miss him."

In Paradise at the Citadel, The Shepherd and Gabriel stood together in troubled silence and watched the clouds roll by beneath them. Flocks of greater seraphs still in their battle armor wheeled by like kites, and Gabriel watched them go with a sense of nostalgia. It was not so long ago that he had little more to think of than war and justice and serving the Creator. Now all things seemed so complicated. They had not spoken much since traversing the red road home, and the spectacle of Raphael, broken and bloody and defiant and sightless, would not leave his mind. Hours passed in silence. The Creator waited, patient as a snowfall, for Gabriel to think and feel and decide.

Finally, the angel turned and looked down at God, and there were tears in his blue-gray eyes. The Lord reached out and put His hand on Gabriel's mighty arm, comforting.

"You saw Raphael. You witnessed his torment, a torment that even I cannot save him from. For it was his own decision that led him there and his own hubris that removed him from My covenant. I lament his loss. It breaks My heart. I cannot bear the thought of your loss as well."

Gabriel looked down at his own hands, and there was still blood on them. How many times over the long centuries had these very hands been dipped in blood? The blood of kings, of newborns. Of women and children, animals and warriors, demons and angels. His own brother's blood. And her blood. Audrey's precious blood. Was this weakness? He found himself speaking.

"I do not know how old I am, my Lord. It seems very long, though I do not count the days."

"As the humans figure it, you are a hairs' breadth from your 4 billionth birthday." God told him gently, waiting for his servant to come to the point. "The universe was set into motion already when I began to think about angels. I knew I wanted to make something special."

"Do you remember, my Lord, why it was that you created Life at all?"

At this, God turned and sat down on a white marble bench that faced the splendors of the cloud kingdom beyond. It was turning slowly to night, the pale amber and rose hues gradually fading to soft flannel gray and deep shadows. Stars had begun to appear in the endless dome above them. God fixed His gaze upon them, as pleased by the little lights as ever before.

"It was time to bring forth Life. Time to give a new gift to a universe that had never seen such a thing before. How could it see? It had no mind, no eyes to behold or ears to hear. It was a collection of physical laws and chemical reactions. A place of heartrending beauty that only I could see and appreciate. I created life because I was tired of looking at the stars in wonder all alone. Even God can feel loneliness. Yes, I suppose that was it. I created Life, and you, and your brethren, and plants and animals and human beings, because I was lonely."

Gabriel took all of this in with quiet understanding. And then he moved to kneel at God's side, also looking out at the galaxy. Together, they marveled at the sight and did not turn to face one another. After a time, Zeus padded out of some hidden sanctuary in the Citadel behind them, and he laid his great dark head in Gabriel's lap. The angel's fingers found the special spot just behind his ear that he liked best to be scratched, and soon the giant dog was asleep.

"How did it satiate that loneliness, to create such comparatively fragile and transitory things?"

"I knew there would always be more, I suppose. That Life itself is a perpetual motion machine, and when one little spark blinked out another would burn in its place. Dozens more. Thousands more. They went forth, and were fruitful, and multiplied. And for every soul that slipped free from its mortal casings and fled back to the wellspring of the boundless Heavens, another would open new eyes and have a world filled with wonder to behold. Fireflies and stars and grass and love and food and dancing. So many things to experience. The great mysteries of the universe and the world in which they live to mull over and solve. Or not solve, and die with questions. That is up to them." God smiled fondly. "They are beautiful in their smallness, in their fragility. I find something new to love about every precious little life in existence. That is why I sacrificed for them. Because I love them, and no sacrifice was too great. Just as I love you and your kind. But you never strayed from My side. None but your brother."

Gabriel sidestepped this last. "It was indeed a great sacrifice, my Lord. The humans still speak of it with reverence to this day. Some understand the magnitude."

God shrugged His shoulders. "What else is a Father to do? It pained Me, but I would not call Free Will a mistake, either. I want to see them live, Gabriel. I want to see them question, and go forth and seek. I don't want to watch them wither away in their brief span of years, sitting in an armchair indulging in gluttony and sloth while all the riches of a universe full of experiences wheels away from them a minute at a time."

Gabriel turned and looked up at Him. "Even though it breaks your heart to see them hurt, should they venture too far or question too deeply?"

God's eyes narrowed as He perceived the direction of the conversation.

"Careful, Gabriel. Humans are not angels. And the questions you are asking are far removed from 'Why is the sky blue' and 'How do gophers communicate'. You are wading into deep waters. Waters that could sweep you away from Me forever."

The afternoon sun sank lower toward the horizon, vanishing by degrees behind the mountains. Audrey and Michael finished their modest chores and walked together to the edge of the property, sat for a time on a flat rock and listened to the water rush by at the river. Now low and troubled with the drought.

"When the river makes a great deal of high, giggling noise like this, you know it is shallow enough to cross. As the pitch drops, so too does the depth increase. Fully silent rivers must not be crossed except by boat or bridge, they hold the swiftest currents." Michael told her, pointing to the turmoil. Audrey plunked a stone in.

"You know more than a Boy Scout." She observed, and threw another. Michael smiled and picked up a stone as well.

"I have always been fond of water. Constantly changing and always bringing with it something new. Do you enjoy swimming?"

"I'm no good at it. I always hated getting wet and cold, and I was scared of drowning."

"That is a valid fear, but once you know how to swim to the best of your ability, and you use your wits, drowning becomes much less of a concern. The cold and wet are things you would have to get used to."

Audrey reached down and splashed her hand in the water a bit, and made an exaggerated shivering gesture. "Yeah, no. Did you feel it? It's like ice in there. I'll pass."

"Not even to wade?" Michael rose to his feet and began removing the boots and socks Howard had loaned him. Audrey watched him sourly for a few minutes, then got up and kicked off her shoes as well.

"Fine, but if I drown out there you'd better make sure I don't get sent back to Uriel. Eternity with him would be hell."

Michael laughed, holding out his hand to help her down into the water.

"I realize that he is a bit abrasive, but he has his moments. It has not been easy for him, watching humanity from afar the way he does, when you used to be so close. None among us has loved you more."

Audrey paused in the water, pain crossing her features, and Michael felt regret for his words.

"Audrey, I am sorry. I spoke hastily. Gabriel's…love. It is undeniable. And if, that is, when he returns, he will surely make it known once more."

"I wish he would hurry. Or send word or something. This is excruciating and I'm sick to my stomach thinking about what might be happening to him."

Michael waded out a little farther, drawing her with him up to her knees, and the cotton housedress floated around her slim legs like gossamer. She didn't resist this time, only holding to his hand as he led her deeper into the water. Then she turned her back to him, and together they watched the river gurgle and dance away off through the rocky banks slicked with moss and wet stone. She felt it then, the sensation of all the waters of the world pulling at her legs, at every cell in her body. The water over whose formless surface the face of God once hovered, that ageless inexorable liquid from which life itself arose. The tears on her face, the blood in her veins, the looming clouds that rolled on and on above them. Water, all of it, and water below tugging at her legs. Urging her to lie back, pick up her feet, let the current carry her away on its journey.

"I didn't believe in God until I met Gabriel. Or angels. Or love, I think. Isn't God love? That's what they said in Sunday School. God is Love. They said it like 'Love' was a thing, like 'God is fat' or 'God is a tree' or 'God is a Bears fan'. I never got that. Love is something you feel, not a state of being. I don't get any of it, and I'm all small and human here and I don't get it at all."

Michael put his arms around her, gently and with respect, and let her puzzle it out on her own a bit more. After a moment, Audrey continued.

"He's a jerk. How can such a mean man be called 'Love'? Howard is Love. Millie is Love. Gabriel is Love. Even you. You're Love. Not God."

"What makes us Love, Audrey Anderson?"

She made a face. "I know you're going to say 'Oh, God made us all so that's why we're Love. That's why we're loving and good sometimes. But God himself is a jerk. Ok? The way he treats Gabriel, the way he treated me, the way he wants everyone to go bowing and scraping and sacrificing all over the place. That's not 'Love'. That's tyranny and bullshit."

The water eased around her angry legs and said nothing. Michael moved around her a little, his wings trailing in the river, wet feathers brushing her knees.

"The universe contained nothing like you before God called you into being. He dreamt of a species that would reach out to one another in mercy and gladness and compassion, that would respond to Him with that same joy. Like unruly children or uncouth guests in a civilized land, you sought to satisfy yourselves and your own desires and wallow in that selfishness. To eat, and glut on the pleasure of eating. To laze in the sun, to make much of whatever favorable aspects of strength or beauty you possessed and use these things to set yourselves above one another. You preferred to make war on those who offended you or who had things of value that you wished for yourselves. God's heart broke to see this. He tried to pull your attention away from the small and mean squabbling between one another, and it failed. You began fighting over Him as well. You see tyranny and anger…I see frustration. A being of Love created a life force of intellect and questions, and then gifted them with Free Will to develop in their own way. Only to see every gift handed to them twisted and warped. Pigs in a pen rooting and ruining a fine wedding cake, grinding it into the mud, grunting out curses to the baker. Do you not see? God is not Rules, God is not the Bible, God is not the mockery that has been made of Him by those in power. And God is angry and hurt and sad. His angels are still clean and close. But one of His most stalwart is in love with a human being. One of the race that He loves so dearly and who have hurt Him so much. I am sorry, Audrey, for the pain you feel. And for my part in having not enough faith in Gabriel or in you. I am capable of error. All living things are. But the love you feel and the love I feel and the love those two dear people in their little green trailer feel and the love Gabriel feels are all flames ignited by a great bonfire of Love who once, many eons ago, believed that the universe would be so much warmer if there were a little mercy in it."

His words settled into her heart, and she reached back and touched his hand. Nothing more was said. Nothing needed to be said.

"Gabriel," said the Lord, and He looked patient and weary as a careworn father watching his son wrestle some great decision. "Have you made your choice?"

"I have, Father."

"Very well."

The big angel sank to his knees, bowing his head, and God put His hands on that dark hair and lowered His own head. There was pain evident in both of their postures. An aching brokenness and sorrow and acknowledgement of one another's suffering.

"To have come so far, to be rent apart by something such as this. Gabriel, you break My heart."

There were tears in the eyes of God. And then He, too, sank to His knees and embraced Gabriel. Every moment, from the first spark of life to this bittersweet moment here in Heaven at the end of all things, slipped past them both as the two beings held one another in a silence so full that nothing moved.

"I will never see you again." God said softly, and then the weeping of the angels lifted and could be heard distantly. They responded to His pain.

"There shall be two beings, then, who carry their love for You into hell, Lord." It was Gabriel, now, who comforted. As it had been Gabriel who held back the lions from sinking their flesh into the boy Daniel. Gabriel who walked in the furnace with three men who had done no wrong, and he did not let them burn. Gabriel who soothed the troubled mind of Joseph. Gabriel who eased the anguish of Abraham in the seconds before he was to sacrifice his own flesh and blood to God, and stopped him. Gabriel. Always Gabriel.
But he had never comforted God. He had never needed to.

Now, a tender heresy. He took the Creator's face in his hands and lifted it, as the human girl had done for him, and he kissed God's brow.

"Not for me, Lord," said Gabriel. "Shed no tears for me."