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Jeff Pearce is a freelance writer and former journalist who lives and works in Toronto, Canada. His nonfiction articles have appeared in publications such as Men's Fitness and Military History.


Dark Planet is designed and edited by Lucy A. Snyder. If you spot any errors, or if you have any comments, please contact her at lusnyde@cyberus.ca.

All materials copyright 1996-1999 by their respective creators. No stories, articles, poems or images from this webzine may be posted or published without the written consent of their creator(s).

Trenches of Light

by Jeff Pearce

 

     It was on a Wednesday that Timothy Hacker discovered there was no more heaven. This wasn't something he decided after much soul-searching or scientific reasoning. He was informed by the angel.
     If angels don't gracefully descend in halos of light, it's assumed they come shuffling out of back streets with the irony of humble beginnings. Small miracles to be performed later like throwaway card tricks. It didn't happen this way for Timothy Hacker, who found the angel on a late morning behind the public library where he worked. The angel appeared as a man, scrambling down a shimmering pipeline of curved sky. There were shadows in there that refused to leave the edges, hissing, neurotic cats of darkness. Timothy Hacker saw this bizarre sight, and in a single instant he grasped the scientific contradiction of light as rays and particles, then the understanding fled him. A human form with a nimbus of bleached hair, skin like ancient marble, his clothes ragged and frayed. With a stained coat draped over his arm, he shivered on the grimy street. Hacker didn't see a messenger of God. He saw a refugee.
     Timothy Hacker was a black man in his early forties, and he had a degree in Library Sciences. He led a quiet life of cardigans and Friday night video rentals. His apartment had creaking hardwood floors and a fridge that groaned like an idling diesel truck. Timothy Hacker relished the comfort of stacked shelves, of dry, crinkling pages. Relics from events that had been decided. Nothing uncertain.
     Still. He trusted his prescription glasses when they showed him this stranger had wings. They were not Michelangelo appendages of dove feathers. They were dirty and gray, the wings of a pigeon, and before Hacker's eyes, they faded to moth translucence like an afterthought.
     "Holy shit," said Hacker under his breath.
     The angel said politely, "I need to look up some things."
     Hacker stared at him and answered automatically. "I can help you. I, uh -- I'm the librarian here."
     The angel nodded. Hacker noticed that the pipe of sky and light -- ignored for just long enough -- had disappeared.
     "But then you already know who I am, don't you?"
     The ragged figure with wings looked at him curiously. "No. Why should I?"
     Hacker pushed his spectacles up the bridge of his nose. "I thought -- I mean, you're an angel."
     "I can see you're a man," said the angel. "That doesn't tell me what to call you."
     They stiffly exchanged introductions. The angel said his name was Anton Folio, and when Hacker betrayed his amusement, the angel cocked his head in the direction of heaven and said, "It's more bohemian than you'd think."
     Timothy Hacker heard the crumpling of fabric, an insect rasping that unsettled his nerves. He knew intuitively the angel had folded his wings, and now the visitor donned his coat. Hacker led him into the library. He asked with careful deference what the angel was researching, and the answer was, "Physics."
     Anton Folio began digging through old scientific journals. The work in 1972 by Daniel Pollen and Michael Tractenberg, Harvard researchers, into how holographic theory for the brain might explain eidetic memories (photographic recall). He went through old journals of articles by the physicist Roger Penrose. Superstring theory -- yes, of course, that. And Timothy Hacker realized the angel was piling up books and articles and photocopies on practically every new cosmological theory put forward in the last thirty years.
     "Is there something specific you're looking for?" Hacker whispered.
     The angel looked at him dismissively. "I'm fine. You've been very helpful."
     "I'm trying to be helpful again."
     The woman across the oak table with the nicotine-stained fingertips and copper-dyed hair looked up from her Silhouette romance. She glared at Hacker like a German matron suspecting a member of the underground.
     Anton Folio let his voice die on a breath. "No, you're not trying to be helpful. You want more information."
     "Can you blame me?" asked Hacker. "It's not like you've gone to great trouble to disguise what you are."
     The angel sat back from the table. "No need."
     He laughed and displayed his peculiar teeth, large like a horse's and infinitely old and white like piano keys.
     "I'm tired," he said abruptly. "If you'll take me to some place to ... taste things, I'll try to be patient with your questions."
     "There's an English-style pub around the corner," said Hacker.
     The angel nodded. Hacker walked beside him at an indulgent pace, as if escorting an elderly patient. They walked by a burned-out tenement with yellow caution tape barring the doors, and Anton Folio stopped here and remarked, "This could be useful."
     "As what?" asked Timothy Hacker.
     "A person could make do here," said the angel.
     "Meaning one of you? But you have abilities, don't you? You must be able to change forms, create things. You don't need something like this."
     The angel looked back at him as if regarding a slow-witted child. "I can see you've never really thought any of this through."
     Folio pointed to the street ahead, to where their pub waited.
     They got a booth. When the librarian ordered himself a lager, he glanced at the angel for approval, and Anton Folio simply shrugged: go ahead. Hacker didn't need his permission. Folio ordered a beer for himself and a ploughman's lunch of cheese and fruit. He ate and drank his food like a rescued Unicef child.
     Hacker dropped his voice conspiratorially low and fired off questions: Why had Folio come? Did it have to do with him? Had God sent the angel with a specific purpose? Had a time of reckoning come? What was Heaven like?
     "Heaven," Folio croaked, his eyebrows lifting in twin half-circles over his eyes. "Our landmarks are naturally far more ancient than anything down here, built with ashwood and marble and a phosphorescent lichen that makes a glowing crust on surfaces. We don't have lime kilns, but we have something like them to burn the marble, and the fires go all night and choke the air. I didn't think I would ever see huddles of people again, every one of them a son of Oedipus after the shock, or Antigone with a threadbare shawl."
     "You're quoting the Greeks," said Hacker.
     "Yes," said Folio.
     "I would have expected scripture..."
     He coughed. "You confuse my office with my personal tastes."
     "Huddles of people," said Hacker. "Up there?"
     "Yes."
     "Why?"
     "There was a war. It's all gone now."
     "Gone! What do you mean gone?"
     "Gone," said the angel, hanging his head over his beer. "Gone the way a bombed-out building is gone. Gone like what's after the wreckage of a fire. Gone like dead love. Remains, but what was venerated is no more."
     "A war between who?"
     "Does it matter?"
     "Yes!" Hacker insisted. "Between who? Armies of Christ and--"
     Folio let his albino face collapse into the cup of his hands. "Why do all of you down here assume we are connected to what you believe? It must be a land of the cross or the crescent or many-armed blue women. There is not a scrap there resembling your Baptist superstition."
     After a moment, Hacker said bravely, "I'm an agnostic."
     Anton Folio peeped at him through the curtain of his hands. "I'm sorry. I just assumed."
     "My mother was Baptist. It's a reasonable guess, I suppose. I don't understand this, man -- you're saying it's all gone? But people, millions of people expect --"
     The angel cut in harshly. "We're not interested in what you expect."
     "But those who struggled and suffered and worked hard, the ones who did good and tried to live good lives--"
     Anton Folio shook his head.
     After a moment, the angel told him, "I don't see why you're taking this so personally, as if you're the one betrayed. You don't believe."
     Hacker didn't respond to this. He didn't understand fully himself why the wound was so deep. "Then what's it all about?"
     "It's a different nation, one of consciousness," said Folio. "Look, if you emigrated to say, Italy, you wouldn't earn your way into the country. You're probably expected to show you won't be a nuisance based on prior behavior, and you'll be expected to fend for yourself. But there's no childish meritocracy associated with it."
     "But you once lived down here, like the rest of us, didn't you?"
     "Yes."
     "Then you must have evolved towards what you are now," said Hacker.
     The angel shook his head. "You might think you've made a great developmental leap if you learn to play piano or figure out how to do calculus. These are useful things, but their goodness is entirely subjective. They are extensions of you."
     Hacker heard the onion skin rattling of the wings. The angel flexed them like a swan settling itself.
     "It's the same with this," said Anton Folio. "I'm sorry ...."
     They ate and drank for a minute in silence.
     "Heaven is in ruins," said Hacker, scarcely believing it. "You're saying it's a shambles now?"
     Anton Folio nodded, as if he knew all too well to be patient with those hearing the news. "There were beautiful places where petalled and crawling things could live and flourish, but did not need to grow in a biological sense. They lie charred and burnt, yet white in their ashes. It's possible to make trenches out of light, to let them fill with shallow rivers of emotional cess to breed infections and despair. There were never homes in the conventional manner, but there can be homeless, and they line up in an orderly escape."
     "What about God?" asked Hacker.
     "What about Him?"
     Hacker stared at him in disbelief.
     "In your library, I read an article about a physicist named Lee Smolin," said the angel. "He suggests a theory of what he calls 'cosmological natural selection'. He thinks that maybe the laws of space and time aren't fixed, maybe universes give birth to new universes, and each one has a newly evolved set of physical laws. Universe begetting universe."
     "What's your point?" asked Hacker.
     Folio grinned. "There's your God."
     Hacker was irritated. He wanted to demand a fuller explanation, but he realized he would probably never get one.
     Instead, he asked, "What are you going to do with all this information about physics?"
     "Learn," said Folio. "Build. Each of my kind can build a square of the weave. So I'll build my piece."
     "Down here?"
     The angel laughed. "A new paradise on earth? Wouldn't that be a cliché?"
     He shook his head sadly. "Those who gained access would be too close to the Old World, they would import the tired habits of a narrow, desperate existence. I could see the place collapsing under the weight of such vulgarity. Oh, no. Elsewhere ...."
     He stood up and coughed, and Hacker watched as he went through a set of brushing-down, buttoning, preening gestures that seemed to be ritual. He looked at Hacker with sudden realization, his all too human gray eyes taking on a childish regret.
     "I have no money," he said.
     "It's all right," said Hacker.
     The angel smiled and nodded gratefully. He looked at their tired-looking, beefy waitress and said, "Leave a good tip."
     On the street, Hacker asked him where he would go.
     "Elsewhere," he said again.
     Anton Folio stopped in an alley and removed his coat. He stretched out his arms and summoned his wings, as if they belonged to a pet falcon come to rest on his weary back. Again, Hacker saw the shabby dirtiness of these mystical limbs.
     Hacker stood and waited, knowing the angel's departure was going to be a spectacle. He wanted very much for the angel to leave him with something, some look of blessing, some small gesture of grace.
     Timothy Hacker waited like a rejected lover playing out a domestic scene, but the angel mouthed the word, "Goodbye", as if to a clerk, and Hacker knew he couldn't expect anymore. He was a librarian who had provided books, he was a neighbor who took his guest to lunch. He had no claim to anything beyond good manners.
     Hacker realized the angel's haunted face stayed with him, so much that he couldn't even remember how Folio had left. Had he walked? Had the wings fluttered and lifted him? He remembered the pipeline of light and shadow, he remembered the expression of refugee hunger.
     All the great questions seemed to diminish, to become irrelevant as he slowly walked back to the library.
     One question remained and nagged at him, one shrilly demanded attention and created a bubbling dread. Anton Folio, angel, was gone. And Timothy Hacker needed to know: Even while heaven lay in ruins, there still must be people who die and move on. Some of them must still achieve Folio's state of higher consciousness.
     And when they reach the gnarled, twisted gates, what then? A disillusionment, greater than the Void.
     It occurred to Hacker that Folio had never made clear whether this metamorphosis, so rare, was voluntary.
     Down the street from the library was a Presbyterian church, and if Hacker had never accepted the beliefs, he could at least be charmed by the reassuring architecture. He passed a wedding party laughing and celebrating on its steps.
     For the first time in his life, he saw the crowd of faithful and was moved not to amused contempt, but to inexpressible pity.

THE END