From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Practicing Perfection

Amber never regretted becoming a giant, though she ached with the walking. It didn’t matter; she rejoiced to ride so high upon her long bones, never minding the precarious balance. She’d done it to be close to the angels.

She never saw the things the angels fought, way up there in the sun-white sky. She never knew the battles that they won. She only knew that every once in a while, an angel lost. She’d find him, then, as she trudged along the foot of the high stone wall that stretched across the face of the world.

Always on the wall. Always clutched by vines, whose job, it seemed, was to prevent an angel falling, desecrated, to the ground.

For years, she’d rescued each angel and fed it and healed it and set it free. And in that way, she’d contributed to purity.

Until one fateful day, Amber found an angel twisted in among the raspberry vines half a day’s walk from the great-pear trees. Raspberry and angel scent, heated by the sun, mingled in the air close to the wall. That’s how she’d found him.

The poor thing hung head down, one arm dangling free. He’d turned his face against the wall. She could see the top of one wing folded neatly back along his shoulder blade, its length lost, along with his legs, within the tangled vines.

His other wing twisted out from his body. His speckled feathers were all awry, and a bone shoved through the dusky skin. She approached the angel gently, close to the wall. He knew she was there, of course; giants weren’t quiet walkers, and angels could hear a baby’s sigh. But if she sidled along the wall, breathing shallow and keeping her heartbeat slow, she’d often kept an angel from startling.

Her eyes wide, drinking in the sight, she didn’t stop until she could pluck the prickly berries from his hair. She leaned her cheek close to his arm for a moment, imagining his heat to be the morning sun.

He raised his chin and his gaze met hers. “Do I know you?” His eyes were filled with pain.

No angel had ever talked to her before, and so she said the first thing that came into her head. “No, but I know you.” She didn’t, of course, but she knew what he was, and she knew what she’d given up to be close to his kind, even in those moments when they were in pain, imperfect.

He closed his eyes. “You think you do, but I might surprise you.”

He already had.

Amber dipped long strong fingers into the vines, careful of the raspberry thorns, to locate his captured arm and legs. Human-length legs, as hers had once been, but beneath the muscles, his bones were light, hollow.

She slid her hands along his trousers to his ankles, gripped tight by the vines until his skin was like to turn blue. She coaxed the vines to loosen him by stroking the delicate hairs along their deep-green lengths. “It’s okay,” she whispered, as she’d been taught to do. She showed them that when they relaxed, her fingers gripped his ankles just as tightly. “I won’t let him fall.”

“Was it your choice?” The angel reached to the crook of her elbow, where her loose sleeve fell away from the dry flaps of her skin, and he caught the bone-tie ribbon, there, between his fingers.

Amber caught her breath, watching as her ribbon, thin and fraying, curled around his sparrow-brown fingers. She wondered, just for a moment, if he’d tug the knot free, cause her arm to tumble to the ground far below. She shook her head. No angel would do such a thing.

The angel let her elbow-ribbon flow across his palm. He closed his eyes.

She stared at his battered face, seeing the battles that he’d fought in a lace of old scars. Where do you go, when you fly? But Amber grunted instead of asking him, for the vines had released his weight to her. Even with his hollow bones, he was bulky, his body longer than hers. She shifted her hip to align the rickety bones of her long legs and eased his belly over her shoulder.

His head and wings lolling, she stomped over the hills, keeping the Wall always to her left. She circled ‘round the great-pear orchard and reached her cottage on the orchard’s southern edge, built a respectful distance from the Wall.

The cottage that the other giants had led her to right after her making. She had swept the spider-webs from the ceilings and mouse droppings from the cupboards. One room, breezy, with a dirt floor that she was too far from, now, to care about.

The angel shuddered as she carried him through the door-less entry into her dim, cool room. She laid him down on the table where she’d made a nest, rushes almost free of the last angel’s scent. She talked to him–not words, really, just soothing sounds to keep him quiet–as she pulled her plait over her shoulder. Her hair hung down along her body and fell half-way to the distant ground, the perfect place to keep her wrist-wide ribbons with her, in case she needed to replace one that tied her joints together.

She un-wove her soft, brown hair enough to pull a precious ribbon free, and she wrapped it around her fingers so she could push the bone back inside his wing. The bone snapped together, and his skin closed up red and weepy. She sewed the tear in his brown flesh, avoiding the sticky-moist feathers. He didn’t speak again.

Carefully unwrapping the ribbon from her fingers, she used it to bind his wing, tucking in a clump of dried leaves, astringent, clean-smelling, that would keep away infection. The ribbon looked so frail and worn, faded almost transparent. She wondered if it would break as she wound it over and under his wing and around his chest, binding his wing close to his body so the bone could heal. This one used to be green, she thought, as she tucked the end of the ribbon under to keep it tight. She wondered how long it would be until they brought new ones. They knew she needed them, to walk, to heal.

The angel looked up at her as she finished. He took a deep breath, and she wondered if the ribbon would part from the strain. He sighed and closed his eyes, and the ribbon held.

He sighed again, and she watched his mouth. Had his question, there at the wall, been her own invention? She’d often lain in bed, imagining what an angel’s voice would sound like. She had thought his voice would sound like bells, but it hadn’t. The angel had sounded like a man in pain.

Her stilt-legged bed beckoned to her sore muscles, but she had to make sure the angel had water.

The bucket, swinging loose and dusty from its peg on the wall, had not served an angel for too long. That’s a good thing, she told it as she grabbed it and swung her long legs out to the pump. She hung the bucket from the pump-spout and stood well clear as she leaned on the end of the long handle, watching the water splash, chaotic. She breathed in the wet scent as she lifted the half-filled bucket off the spout, but she was careful to carry it high and away from her legs to prevent any drop hitting her dry skin.

She ladled water into a bowl beside the angel’s curly head, but he only sighed and twitched his nose, his eyelids fluttering. Did angels dream?

Amber left the bucket beside his nest, took two steps, and fell back onto her own high bed, sighing in pleasure at her mattress’s crunchy straw-sound. She shifted her hips carefully, her thighbones mostly on the bed, her long calves hanging down to the floor. Drifting toward sleep, she felt, far away, the cold ground against her bare, dry feet.

***

She woke, aching, from a dream. She’d cupped a dove in her hands and let it go. Its wings beat strong and white, blowing back her hair. She tried to follow it into the sky–kicking off from the ground–but she could only leap and fall back, jarring her spine, shattering her ankles, then her shin-bones, then her thighs, so that she fell onto her pelvis and stared up at the dwindling white dove.

Opening her eyes, she stared at the dark-rush ceiling and shrugged her shoulders and arched her back, testing for that loose-jointed feeling she’d come to dread. Sure enough, she felt a soft pull and give in one knee. Her loose-legged pants pulled up easily, and it was easy, too, to part the skin folds over her knees and peer at the ribbons threaded through her knee joints. Pale, mismatched pink and a gray that used to be blue, the ribbons looked wispy, thread-bare. As she tightened the left one she felt it part around the bones, and she stretched to clasp the shin bone as it started its slow tilt toward the ground. She laid it beside her on the bed. Her foot drooped woefully at the end of that long, pale thing, her toes dry and rough from the ground. She remembered, once, her daddy tickling her feet. She stared at her toes, but they didn’t wiggle, there, at the thought of that pleasant tickling.

Did she have any ribbons left? Amber glanced toward the angel’s nest, at the ribbon she’d used to bind his wing. He lay on his belly, draped over the soft straw on the tabletop. His unbroken wing, relaxed in sleep, lay back along his legs like a multi-brown blanket.

Amber shook her head and reached into her hair to find another ribbon. Her fingers threaded through the loose plait, feeling only strands of hair, until, yes. She brushed a length of ribbon. She pinched it hard and tugged it free. Almost the same sheen of brown as her hair, and thin as the others. Her hair floated free around her face, static-y from her fingers. She smoothed it behind her ears.

Sliding it through her calf-bone’s end like a thread through a needle, she snuggled the calf-bone into the worn socket in her giant’s knee and threaded the ribbon through the hole cut, there, before tying them together with a neat, wide bow.

Her fingers, her skin, the space beneath her ribs, felt so light and hollow, like she might float away, and she knew she had to take nourishment, soon, or desert her skin and bones forever. She smiled across at the angel, who had woken and sat up in his nest, staring at her. “You need to eat, too, so you can heal.”

He wouldn’t, of course. They never ate, at first; they turned up their noses at the fresh fruit she’d bring them, sullen and hurt and unsure of the smells. What did angels eat, way up there in the sky?

She made sure her re-tied leg was firmly set against the floor and pulled herself up with the bed’s stilted supports. The angel watched her.

His water bowl was empty, so she strode out to the well, first, and took deep breaths of the cold water; it pushed the hollow feeling back a bit.

When she bent near him to refill his bowl, the angel caught her face between his hands. His fingers threaded up into the hair at her temples, and his palms cupped her chin. “You never drink?” The angel asked her.

His questions, Amber decided, didn’t even startle her anymore. “The scent sustains me.” She resisted the need to touch him back.

He stared at her with sad eyes.

She pulled away, and he released her. “I’ll bring you pears,” she said, turning away from the anger that surged through her.

She walked into the great-pear orchard. The pears glowed like curled yellow ribbons among the dark green leaves. Standing close to a wide trunk, she stretched to her limit, cupping a single soft fruit in her fingers. One twist and it was hers. She sipped in the scent, sweet and tart and wet beneath its gritty skin. The juice was never hers, of course. Amber’s body stayed pure and dry as air.

“You found one, didn’t you?” A male voice echoed through the orchard.

Amber turned this way and that, peering between the lush-leaved branches to see who talked to her. The ground vibrated from her right, beyond the great-pear tree under which she stood. She leaned against the trunk beside her and peered around its bole toward the denser middle of the orchard. Boom. A male giant, dark beard bristling, stepped into view, ducking his head to walk beneath a pear-heavy branch. His shirt flapped loose around his thighs.

“What?” She laid her palm flat against the pear tree’s bark, alongside her shoulder.

“You found an angel,” he said, softer because he was closer. His eyes were almost as wild as the angel’s, as bright and brown-button, and there was pain in their depths, too. It deepened when he said, “What did he say to you?”

The giant’s name was Malcolm, she remembered. She’d met him, once, as he walked through her village. She’d been a child, a human, and he’d been recruiting, showing how powerful and pure you could become. Closer to the angels, if you wanted to be.

“I’ve found many angels.” Amber gripped the pear-tree bole. “It’s what we do,” she whispered.

“Has he talked to you?” Malcolm loomed up beside her, swaying on his long legs.

She blinked at him. “Angels don’t talk,” she told him, hoping her voice sounded surprised. “Do they?”

She’d had to lie, to lighten the pain in his eyes.

The wind made the trees sigh around them.

Malcolm squinted at her through the dancing shadows. “They do their job and we do ours, you know,” he said.

She nodded. She remembered the pain and the loss. As they made her, she remembered their cautions. “When do I get more ribbons?”

He looked distracted, startled, and she pushed her hand through her loose braid, feeling scattered bits of the pear tree’s bark peel off her hand into her wild hair. “I need more ribbons. It’s been so long since they brought new ones.” She pointed at the ribbons that peeked out from his elbows-length shirt sleeves, pale purple, wide.

Malcolm nodded. “I’ll pass that along.” He twisted his hips, positioning his long legs to leave, but he twisted his waist back to look at her, his body still supple after all that time as a giant. “You tell them if he talks.”

***

She cradled the pears in her long shirt and brought them to the angel. Angels never ate the first few days, but this one did. He ate them like any hungry animal, sucking back the juice that dripped down his chin. She watched him, remembering hunger.

He lined the pear stems up neatly on the table beside his nest and stared at her, licking his lips, still hungry.

She brought him more pears, and tomatoes that grew along a trellis across the cottage’s back wall, and finally, berries from the vines along the Wall. He ate them all. She replaced the herbs snugged up against his wounded wing, and it wept no more.

But she wanted to weep, for he talked while she dressed his wound, his voice deep and dark.

“Somehow, they didn’t finish the job on me,” he said. “They left my mind intact.” He rolled a berry stem between his fingers.

“Hush,” dhe told him, and she wouldn’t listen, but he talked just the same. She wanted to pretend he was not talking, because the look of pain in Malcolm’s eyes had been the pain of death.

After a while, the angel stopped talking, but when she looked at him lying there, his eyes dark and wild, she could not help but tell him things. She talked about things that she did when she was human. How she saw his kind flying up there, perfect.

“They made you,” he said.

She nodded. “But it was my choice.”

“They made me, too.”

She shook her head. She turned and walked away from him, falling onto her stilt-bed, turning her cheek to the crinkly-straw sound. She didn’t want to believe him but she did. “Where did you live?” she asked. Angels were like her? Not perfect.

“On the other side of the Wall.”

She rose up on her elbow and stared down past the edge of her stilt-bed mattress. Such an expanse of cold dirt between us. “I had a dream last night,” she said, not looking at him. “Of a dove, in my hands.

“I’m no dove, my dove,” he said, and the gentleness in his voice made him sound like the angels of her fantasies.

“I won’t tell anyone that you’ve talked to me,” she told him without looking at him. “I’ll release you when your wing heals, as I’ve always done.”

The long silence didn’t bother her. She was used to silence.

“I’m not going back.”

Amber sat up to look at him. Not perfect.

“It’s only my wing,” he said. “If you’ll lift me down from this table, I’ll leave.” He scrambled out of his nest and squatted at the table’s ragged edge. He looked like a man, there, squatting on the table, his wings unseen behind him. Just a man. “I thank you for the rest and the food.”

Amber searched his face. His human-ness was there in the pain-etched lines around his eyes. It was there in the way that his scars pulled the line of his mouth out of shape.

“Where will you go?” she asked him, but she tried not to ask herself, if not perfect, why am I here, lonely, in this place? Why do I pick fruit I’ll never eat and tie my joints together with faded ribbons?

“Back to my village, I think,” the angel said, staring down. “People should know.”

People should know what? But Amber lay back down. “Maybe,” she said, “They don’t want to know.”

“How can people not want to know?”

He was angry. What right had he to be angry? She turned her face to stare at him. “Sometimes, it’s not about knowing.”

He turned to look out the door, and his free wing twitched. “You’ve given your life,” he said. “But it’s not what you think it is. We’re not doves. We’re not perfect.”

Amber gasped and turned her face away. He had no right to say it. No right to make it real.

“Have I broken your heart?” He called to her, his voice full of pain and beauty, like an angel’s. “They’ve broken your body, and that’s worse. Don’t you see that’s worse?”

But she wouldn’t look at him.

The next day, she left while the angel was still sleeping. She wandered through the great-pear orchard, picking only the highest and most sweet-smelling yellow fruit, cradling them in her shirt-front. She didn’t realize that she was waiting until she heard the Boom of other giants walking. She walked straight through the orchard away from her cottage, listening to them arc toward her own sound. They met her in a clearing, their hair brightened by the sun. Malcolm and a woman giant squinted at her through the white light.

“Has he spoken to you?” Malcolm asked. He shifted, and Amber saw a staff in his hand, mostly hidden by the loose pants he wore.

She stared at that long polished thing that Malcolm gripped, his knuckles white. Not perfect. “Yes.” Through the thin cotton of her shirt, she cradled the weight of the pears in her palms.

The woman, too, had one hand behind her, but when she squared her shoulders, she brought her staff to her side, and Amber saw that it was weighted on one end, a club, for hurting.

“Take those pears to the wall and leave them,” said Malcolm. “Search the wall for other angels; there may be one who needs you.”

Amber shook her head. “I have an angel to care for.” She shuddered, and both giants moved their clubs behind their wide pants legs, out of sight.

“We’ll take him somewhere safe,” said the woman giant.

Amber closed her eyes and turned her face up to the sun. After a minute, she told them, “Let me feed him, first.” She needed time to figure out what to do.

“We’ll give you an hour.”

Amber turned back toward her angel. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the woman’s fist twitch upward. Amber could almost feel the wood. She imagined the pain, the sound of cracking bones. She imagined the feel of the cold ground against her cheek.

When she returned to the cottage, the angel had woken, and he sat up, his eyes hungry for the pears. He’s just as beautiful as when I first saw him, she thought. Just as perfect.

She dropped the pears into his lap and he grinned at her and filled his mouth.

If he’s a danger to them, who do they serve? Not something larger. Something larger couldn’t find danger in one man. One angel.

As he ate the pears, he laid their stems in a neat row on the table’s edge.

She reached to pick them up and felt her elbow pull; she held her breath, for if her elbow-ribbon parted, she had no other to take its place. But if I do not leave him, Malcolm is a danger to me. The elbow-ribbon held, and she lifted the pear stems. If they don’t find him, I’ll get no more ribbons. She remembered the feeling, in her dream, of lying shattered on the ground.

“Thank you,” he said. As she reached for the last of the pear stems, he laid his hand over hers. She looked into his face, at his wild brown eyes.

He sighed and rubbed the back of her hand, staring hard into her face. “What is it? Have I put that fear into your eyes?”

She pulled her hand away and turned, saying, “I’ll throw these out.” At the cottage’s doorway, she stopped, between the cool dark within and the bright without, and she closed her eyes. “There are berries that you haven’t tasted, far to the east on the Wall. Would you like some?”

“Take me with you, and I’ll eat them as I climb,” he said.

She hesitated, there, for a moment. Her gaze roamed to the great-pear orchard, and to the two giants weaving through the last pear trees toward her cottage. The sight of their clubs brought back the hollow feeling under her ribs. She strode quickly back to the table. “This will hurt,” she warned him, and she grasped him and pulled him up to drape him over her shoulder.

He was heavy, and it didn’t help that he squirmed. “I can walk,” he complained.

“Not fast, you can’t,” she said. “Not as fast as a giant.”

She felt him raise his head and look behind her, and then he was silent and still. Can I walk faster than they? She didn’t think so.

She stomped up and down the rolling hills, around the orchard toward the Wall.

Behind her, she could hear their booming steps, unhurried, but gaining ground. I could turn around, still, and give him to them. “What’s it like to fly?” She asked the angel.

He grunted.

“What are we doing it all for?” she whispered. He didn’t speak, and she wondered if he’d heard her over her booming steps.

“That’s just it,” he said, finally, his voice shaking from her jolting steps. “There’s nothing up there.”

She stopped, listening to the booming steps gain ground. She gripped his trousers in her giant fingers and heard him grunt. She wanted to throw him from her. She wanted to look at his face.

“How do you know?”

He put his hands against her back and lifted his face to whisper in her ear, “Because, in all that time, I never saw anyone.”

She turned her head to stare into his eyes, his face close enough to kiss.

“I let them put these wings on me, I followed their orders, I fought their wars.” His voice throbbed in time with the giant’s footsteps behind her. “In all this time, I’ve never seen what I’m fighting for.” He was out of breath, and his gaze was full of pain.

Amber could see the fear growing in him as the giant steps approached. “And that’s what you’re going to tell your village?”

He nodded at her, and his eyes asked her, Will you put me down, now, and walk away?

She sighed and started to run.

The Wall loomed close, and the sounds behind her dropped away. Up and down the rolling hills, she threw one foot in front of the other, sure at every step that she’d tip over and drop the angel to the ground. Up a last rise, and she lurched against the wall, throwing her unburdened shoulder into the vines. “Get up!” She pulled at the waist of his trousers, and he twisted to grab at the prickly green Wall.

“I’ve got it,” he said, and looked back at her. “Go on. They’re almost here, and they don’t look happy.”

“Angel,” she said, and she gripped his trouser leg.

His wild gaze dropped to hers. “Nicholas,” he said.

She smiled at him. “Nicholas,” she said. She leaned in close and pitched her voice to be heard above the giants’ booming steps. “Just because you don’t see something, doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

He stared at her.

“Climb,” she said.

He turned and jerked his leg, but he didn’t move.

The vines. They held him fast. She reached in among the thorns, found the vines curled tight about his ankles, and stroked them. “It’s okay.” She tugged them loose and they curled up and away.

“I shouldn’t leave you,” he said. His grip tightened within the green and he winced and pulled a hand free to suck the blood from his thumb. He stared past her at the approaching giants.

“You can’t stay here,” she said. She threw her hip to the side, so she could see the giants and still see the angel, Nicholas, dangling, half-tangled in the vines.

“They look angry,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter.” She raised her chin to indicate the Wall. “When you get to the other side, remember what I said.”

He reached to touch her, but when she didn’t move closer, he turned and scrambled up the vines, toward the top of the Wall.

Amber turned to face the giants coming toward her.


Cathy Freeze is an English teacher and lots of other silly things. She works on novels and finishes short stories and gets inspiration from all sorts of places.

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