Last Light

By Terence Kuch

 

Then was then; the ’40s. Father Anthony reached out to pat me on the head but quickly pulled his hand back. That was a long time ago, but I still remember it. I’m remembering it even more today.

 

We used to get hugs from Father, especially when we’d skinned a knee or taken a hit from one of the bigger kids, but not anymore. Sister Mary Vincent said something about “trouble” but wouldn’t say what kind. Then she changed the subject and joined our softball game, for just a minute or two until she was out of breath; but she’d shown us what a good sport she was.

 

It was many years later before I figured out what the “trouble” had been, because by then it was in the newspapers. But by that time Father Anthony was long since dead.

 

Sister had been my special friend all that time, especially after my dad and mom split up when I was ten and no one else seemed to care very much. I used to tell her my problems and she’d look into my face and say nice things and give me cookies. I liked the cookies, but I liked the nice things she said even more. She was a very blessed person, I believed.

 

One day I realized just how blessed she was. I saw Sister walking laboriously away from the church right next to the Catholic school I attended. She must have been at a meeting, or perhaps to confession. I ran toward her to say “Hi” and see if she had any good words or cookies for me. But then I saw it: right over her head, a faint beating of enormous wings — a lightening of the air. Anyway, that’s the best I could do when I tried to describe it.

 

When I caught up to her I told her what I’d seen. “Bless you, Andy,” she said. “That must be my guardian angel. We all have them, you know, even you! They watch over us all the time and help us. You’ll never be alone.”

 

I gawked at her. “Do you really think I saw your guardian angel?”

 

“Well, Andy, maybe and maybe not. Not many people see angels these days, their own or anybody else’s. Maybe someday you’ll see your own. God shows us what he wants us to see, whether we see it or not.”

 

With that last confounding statement, Sister Mary Vincent moved off heavily, her cane bending outward. Behind her the airy figure followed. It was more distinct now. I could almost make out fluttering wings, a head of long hair bathed in light.

 

I thought about what she’d said: “You’ll never be alone.” How warm and wonderful that seemed! It had been 267 days since I’d seen my dad, and 43 days since his last phone call. And Mom might be home when I got there, or might be out somewhere and tiptoe in very late, holding out money and shooing some fat bored babysitter out the door.

 

Sister died the next week. I prayed to her guardian angel and mine, not sure where to look, not sure if I should keep my eyes closed or not.

 

In confession a few days later I told Father Doug all about Sister Mary Vincent and her angel. I could tell that Father Doug was getting impatient because I wasn’t actually confessing anything, so I made up a few sins of pride worth a penance and left. I did double the penance because I’d lied to Father Doug about committing sins of pride.

 

Father Doug must have told Monsignor about the angel, as it turned out, because the next week Monsignor asked me to see him, which of course I did. There was no avoiding a summons from Monsignor other than by sudden death. Monsignor was a dreaded figure among us kids, even though he’d never been seen shaking anyone or even raising his voice. It was that cold look he had, the look that cut right through you. That’s why we all took the effort to find out who was hearing confession where, and lined up for Father Doug. No one lined up for Monsignor, except once in a while by mistake or not knowing any better.

 

***

 

“…and then your angel will come for you,” Monsignor said, and sat back in his office chair. His lumbar cushion gave an unpleasant wheeze.

 

“What then?” I asked.

 

“Why then it will carry your soul to heaven. You’ll be with the Lord forever!”

 

I pondered “forever.” I wanted to say “I don’t think I’d like ‘forever,’” but didn’t dare. I wanted to say “Would that make me a saint?” but double didn’t dare.

 

“No one sees his guardian angel,” Monsignor concluded, “until your time comes, until you’re ready to meet the Lord. Much less someone else’s angel. So, young man, I appreciate your devotion to the faith but I think you have a very active imagination. So perhaps you should consider angels part of your private devotions, as most of us do here, and not try to look for them or tell people about them. Angels, after all, have more important things to do than appear to a mere schoolboy!”

 

He smiled, the first time in recorded history anyone had seen him do it. I decided I didn’t like his smile. And I really didn’t like being called a “mere” anything!

 

***

 

The angels deserted me for many years; scared off, I used to think, by Monsignor. I grew up, married, had kids I probably saw too much of for their own good. Alice wanted to leave me but I pleaded and groveled and she saw how much I dreaded re-creating my own life all over again in our kids, and so she stayed with me. But it was never the same.

 

***

 

The week after I turned sixty-three I saw angels again. I was walking down Hopkins Street toward my office, Oh morning!, Counting the days until I knew I’d get a really nice retirement buy-out and could just sit at home and talk to my kids every day on the phone. They were all into texting and emails then, but I knew that after I’d left four or five phone messages they’d call back. But the angels, yes, that’s what I wanted to say. About the angels and what I thought they did. Well, there were three men and two women — neatly dressed, all navy blue and earnest, were getting into one of those big sedans. I envied them their youth, their eagerness, the scent of business. That was on Hopkins Street, as I said, near the river, on the brink eastwards.

 

Anyway, over their car I saw a — a disturbance of the field, that’s what I thought I saw, a shaking of perspective, and then — five angels hovering over their car, flapping wings, zooming upwards and downwards. It reminded me of gulls on the shore when people toss crumbs into the air: no matter how frantic and raucous their flight, they never touched each other, never collided.

 

The car drove off toward the interstate. Later that day the news said that a car had turned over on the interstate and caught fire, causing a seven-mile backup. All five people in the car had died. I’d never seen more than one angel at a time before.

 

The next year, I saw a man running from his angel.

 

***

 

Now it’s now, later than it was before. I’m in a hospital bed. My attention comes and goes, mostly goes. They tell me it’s a hospital, anyway, but I know it’s a hospice. I don’t mind. Alice came by and stuck some flowers in a pot. Then she looked at me and left. I can text now, slowly, but my kids don’t text much anymore; it’s all Facebook. I don’t do Facebook. I tell the nurses about the angels and they smile at me and tell me what a beautiful old man I am and that I’ve had a wonderful life and a beautiful family and would I like another pillow?

 

***

 

Evening is now. The angel has come. I see it above my bed in the last light, a rupture of the calm order, a refulgence of bright wings first, then the feather-like texture of its warm breast.

 

It turns its head to me, jaws a-gape. It is salivating, showing yellowed fangs. It comes nearer. I can smell its fetid breath, the stinking rot of human souls.

 

It seems to be hungry.


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