To have died once is enough. —Virgil
Dante stared and stared at the corpse, but a blindness waited behind his eyes. It was as if he couldn’t see the body: couldn’t grasp it, or what it meant.
He had never felt fear like this, not in the worst moments of his life. The angel madness was thick in him, and with it came the inevitable dread. His skin crawled as if trying to escape; goosebumps sprang up in patches on his arms and neck and prickled uncontrollably across his face. His eyes were open but he couldn’t see.
What did it mean?
What did it mean?
“O Jesus,” he whispered. “Let’s pretend it’s all a bad dream, why don’t we? Leave the damn thing here and go back to bed and hope it’s gone by morning.”
His foster-brother Jet grinned as Cain must have grinned at Abel. “Over your dead body,” he said.
It wasn’t the corpse of someone who looked like him, but Dante himself: he could see the tiny scar above the body’s right eye where he had fallen into the stairs one Easter, hunting chocolate eggs. Just below the body’s left elbow was the long white gash where a bucking saw-blade had cut into his arm one day when he and Jet were building their tree-fort. (Father had been out delivering a baby, so it was Mother who took over, swabbing the cut with mercurochrome and putting in the stitches, all fifty-three of them. She joked she ought to save herself the trouble by running his arm through her sewing machine, but she had been trained as a nurse and her fingers were steady.)
Even in the cold, the boathouse stank of mildew and engine oil and gutted fish. Jet and Sarah had rigged up an operating table, laying two by fours across the thwarts of the flat-bottomed rowboat. They had laid Dante’s corpse with its head in the stern, just touching the little Evinrude 2-stroke motor.
Jesus. What did it mean? —That you’re going to die, he told himself savagely. What do you think it foretells — a downturn in the economy? A low pressure system bringing showers and scattered flurries? You’re dying, dying, good as dead already and you know, you know it, somehow you can feel it coming somehow the angel’s showing you O Christ Jesus —
He caught hold of himself.
Bad. Bad scientist, theorizing before all the data’s in. Father would be disappointed (as usual). Examine the facts. Don’t jump to conclusions. Lots of meanings for death symbols. Renewal. Sudden Change. Regeneration.
He looked again at his body, lying naked and pathetically vulnerable in the rowboat, with its feet hanging out over the stern. Renewal. Yeah, right.
In death, his pale skin was white as frost. His long white fingers looked sinister and strange. He imagined them creeping away, each hand a clumsy white spider crawling over the gunnels and dropping from the rowboat to scuttle out of sight, hiding behind the old oars and buckets of paint, the aluminum bait pails and fishing poles and disassembled Mercury outboard motor.
Dante’s hair was a red-gold fringe around a high white forehead. He had his grandfather’s ginger eyebrows, winging sharply up and out, like Satan’s. The eyes below were narrow and blue. They stared unblinking at the naked boathouse bulb hanging overhead.
With a shaking hand Dante reached out and closed his own dead eyes.
Jet was papering the cold concrete floor with aging pages from The New York Times, in case things got messy. “You make a lovely corpse,” he remarked. “I always thought you would.”
“Pity Father isn’t here to admire it,” Dante muttered. (At the end of his worst nightmares, his father came with a scalpel to cut him open. The memory always stayed with Dante long after he woke: the long slide of the scalpel through his organs. The feel of his heart, throbbing, cupped in his father’s careful hands.)
Strictly speaking it was Jet who found the corpse. Dante had wanted no part of it.
But once the body was there, lying on his bedroom dresser, even Dante admitted they had to know where it had come from and what the hell it meant. If it was an omen (as Jet pointed out) then they had better find out what the cause of death had been, so they could protect the real Dante from it. But of course they couldn’t do an autopsy upstairs, even in the bathroom; Mother was a light sleeper and Father got up twice a night to pee. The boathouse, though cold and damp, was the only safe place. There they would have privacy and lots of water, plenty of pails and good light overhead.
It was after midnight. Smuggling the corpse out of the house had triggered in Dante a flood of childhood memories from a dozen other times when he and Jet and little Sarah had crept down the stairs at night, whispering and shushing one another, bumping into banisters in the dark and terrified they would wake their parents.
Quietly Dante’s sister Sarah eased herself through the creaky boathouse door. In her right hand she carried an empty plastic ice-cream pail with a sponge, a pair of rubber gloves, and one of Aunt Sophie’s butcher knives wedged next to a small hard-cover book from Dad’s study.
Sarah looked older than her twenty-eight years, Dante thought. Grim and running to fat. There was a time when he had played peek-a-boo with her, tickled her until her little round face turned red from laughing and her limbs went weak; a time when he had flown her like an airplane through the house, harrying Aunt Sophie and strafing the mortified cats.
“That didn’t take long,” he said.
“You were enjoying the wait?”
Getting on the wrong side of Sarah’s tongue, as Jet had once observed, was like getting your face caught in a waffle iron.
Sarah studied her brother with eyes red from the crying she had done earlier, before she’d gotten herself under control. “You still want to go through with this?”
No! Dante started to say, but Jet cut him off. “We’ve got to know where the body came from. We’ve got to know what it means, and D’s the only one who can tell us. He’s the angel. He’s the man with the talent for impossibilities.”
“Well I guess that’s settled,” Dante said lightly. He was amazed at how calm his voice sounded. How strange it was, to sit inside his own body and see it walk with his usual easy stride, hear it talk with his usual easy flippancy, too blind to see that his life had just been blown apart. Too numb to feel the angel waking in his midst.
But Dante felt it. He felt his heart running dry.
Chains snapping inside his chest.
The unfurling of terrible wings.
Jet picked the old book out of Sarah’s ice-cream pail and flipped through its opening pages. “Miller’s Practical Pathology, Including Morbid Anatomy and Post-Mortem Technique. Perfect.” He adopted Father’s Demonstration Voice, the one he used when examining specimens under the microscope or explaining horrible diseases. “‘Standing on the right side of the body, the pathologist grips his knife firmly with the right hand (Figure 1).'”
Jet grabbed an aluminum bait pail and flipped it over next to the rowboat so he could squat by the corpse. He glanced at Dante, his dark eyes sharp as obsidian. “Keep your grip firm!” he commanded. “You wouldn’t want to make a mess now, would you? Not on this body.”
Dante scowled. “Shut up.”
“Yes, Master! It shall be as you desire,” Jet wheezed, using Aunt Sophie’s thickest Hungarian accent. Hunching his thin shoulders he fussed at the body in the rowboat, smoothing its red-gold hair, pressing its arms neatly to its thin white flanks. He bobbed his head at Dante. “Your subject, Baron.” A wicked grin flashed across Jet’s face; lacy wings rose and fell on his right cheek.
It had been years since Dante had noticed Jet’s butterfly birthmark, but now it fluttered before his angel’s eyes, an evil portent. “Master’s going to beat the shit out of Igor if Igor doesn’t shut up,” Dante muttered.
(It was always this way with god damn Jet. ‘Like the two serpent’s around Hippocrates’ staff,’ Father said once, chuckling. ‘All hiss and spit.’ …Easy to say if you weren’t the one with Jet’s venom in your eye.)
Dante swallowed. The hilt of Aunt Sophie’s biggest butcher knife seemed to crawl like a wasp in his hand. “Okay,” he said, licking his lips. “Okay.”
“Shit—you must be scared.” There was something like awe in Sarah’s voice. “To risk getting bloodstains on your jacket!”
Dante blinked, then looked down. He was still wearing his favorite Mandarin smoking jacket, the raw silk one with the wide lapels, wound about with dragons and steam. “Oh. Good point.” He pulled it off, looking for someplace where it wouldn’t get spotted with oil or old fish guts.
Perhaps it would be best if he slipped up to the house to hang the jacket up. He could pour himself three fingers of Glenlivet to steady his nerves—
Sarah shattered his fantasy. “Here—give it to me. The girl’s waiting and the condom’s on, Casanova. It’s time to perform.”
Dante surrendered his jacket. Then, methodically, he removed his gold and garnet cufflinks and put them in the pocket of his baggy black pants. He rolled up the sleeves of his rich brown dress shirt and pulled on the rubber gloves Sarah had pilfered from the kitchen.
Jet held up Miller’s Practical Pathology. “‘Care must be taken not to go too deeply when incising the abdomen, in order to avoid cutting the liver or bowel,'” he recited.
“Does this excite you?” Sarah asked, turning on him. “Having you got some money riding on Dante’s death, or are you just an asshole? I’m curious.”
Sitting on his bucket by the rowboat, Jet went very still. His eyes were hooded and expressionless; his face was as white as the corpse beside him. “I didn’t mean it to be like this.”
Sarah’s eyebrows rose. “Oh really? I would have thought this would be perfect, Jet. Don’t you just love scaring us shitless?”
Dante got his voice to work on the second try. “It’s not his fault, Sarah.” Didn’t she understand that Jet was dying inside over his part in this? Didn’t she know Jet loved Dante like his own breath?
Of course she didn’t. Somehow Jet remained a stranger to everyone but him; and this house was only home for him when Dante was there.
Dante swallowed. God, he wished he were braver. Why couldn’t he be like Sarah or Mother or Aunt Sophie? Even Jet wouldn’t be such a coward. “Jet just made me look. The body is some kind of angel thing. It grew on my dresser, it wears my face. It’s some god damn angel thing and I must have called it up. It’s my responsibility.” Once again Dante picked up Aunt Sophie’s knife. “It’s my responsibility.”
With a shaking hand Dante cut a line down the skin of his own dead throat, feeling it split beneath his blade.
A spider crawled out through the crack and scuttled around his neck, dropping out of sight.
As he fell he held on to one thought: this was his fault for being wicked, for having used his madness. He had let it out years ago, and now it was back to devour him.
Dante’s magic first escaped on a playground when he was six years old. Two henchmen were holding Jet down while Duane the bully kicked him in the side. Jet was flailing and screaming at Dante for help. Dante was crying and helpless, horribly afraid, but Duane and his buddies were Grade Threes. There was nothing he could do.
“Let’s p-poke out his eyes,” Duane suggested, looking around for a stick.
Something in Dante gave way.
It was the strangest feeling, like a tent peg pulling out, only deep inside. Something coming loose, water rushing, and looking at Duane he smelled a horrible smell, hot and dark and close, and heard a squeak, like a bedspring. He saw Duane lying in the dark with his eyes wide open.
Vision spilled through Dante like hot water. His skin crept and shivered and he felt sick to his stomach. “I’ll tell,” he shouted.
“Oh y-yeah? Tell what?” Duane jeered, flipping blond hair out of his round face.
Creak, creak. Creak, creak. A fan beating in the next room. The heat. “I’ll, —I’ll tell Uncle you told on him,” Dante shouted, not sure what he was saying.
The world stopped.
Dante’s words went through Duane like bullets. “I n-never,” he whispered.
Creak, creak. Dante smelt his fear like something cooking. Triumph rushed up in him, a flood of pure power because he hated Duane and now he had him, he could thread him like a worm on a hook. “Duane is a bad boy,” he sang. “Duaney is a bad boy.”
Because there was something, something in the dark room, in the heavy smell. “N-n-no,” Duane said. “I d-, I, I-” His stammer was back, so bad he couldn’t talk. A wet stain crept across the front of his pants. And Uncle sat beside him, and he closed his eyes, closed them hard, and suddenly Dante didn’t want to touch it anymore, but he couldn’t stop seeing Duane’s insides, as if he’d slit him open with one of his father’s scalpels. Duane’s buddies were staring at him, staring at the pee stain on his pants, but he just rocked back and forth, stammering, panic-stricken.
Terrified, Dante shook his head. There were spiders crawling in it. The madness was creeping through him, stinging him inside; his whole body curdled with poison. Frantically he tried to drag Duane’s skin back over him.
A heavy weight settled over Duane —over Dante too— and the dark air was hot and stank, and something stroked his leg, and he cried out.
Duane turned and ran blindly for the school. His buddies exchanged looks and backed away from Dante.
Jet had stopped crying. His black eyes were still wet, the butterfly smeared with mud. Slowly he grinned at Dante, wiping his tear-stained face on the arm of his shirt. “Hey,” he said. “Took you long enough.”
That night Dante stood for hours before the mirror in his room, staring. From time to time, a spider would slide from between his lips, legs waving, and creep across his face.
He could not scream. He could not move.
How could he have known that a monster crouched inside him?
There was an angel buried in him; that much he figured out. It was terrible and could not be controlled. At six years old he knew it would split his father’s head and eat his brains if Dante let it escape. It would tear off his mother’s arms and drink her blood. He could never, ever let it out.
It was impossible to ignore his talents, but it was easy to hide them. Once every two or three years all the kids in school would troop down to see his Mom in the nurse’s office to get their immunization shots and take their tests: color blindness, vocabulary, spatial manipulations, and the one the kids called the Angel Test. But the Angel Test was little more than a simple psychometry quiz: here’s the object, which nurse had it last? We’re going to put it behind one of these five screens, which screen is it behind? Easiest thing in the world to fail. Besides, psychometry wasn’t one of Dante’s strengths.
How could you devise a test for sneaking into someone’s soul, and freeing the wild animals there?
Some angels foresaw death. What school nurse wanted to hear a vision of her own ending?
Not Dante’s mother. Once or twice, administering the Angel Test, she’d given him sharpish looks when maybe he’d gotten a few too many answers wrong. He guessed she was fudging his scores, and he knew that she had looked the other way when Duane’s story, or ones like it, came to her ears. She did not want to lose her child to the angel’s world of ghosts and visions. That was a comfort to him.
Father was different. He pushed Dante to use his gift—but rationally, for the common good. He thought of magic only as a tool, a potentially interesting new therapy yet to be perfected. He didn’t understand about the madness.
He should have. It was Dante’s father who taught him about God. “If there is a Deity, the one thing we can feel of him is his savagery,” Dr. Ratkay used to say.
Dante believed him.
“A two-dollar holding clamp shears; three hundred people die in an airplane crash. Are we really expected to believe in so monstrous a Divinity?”
Yes, yes! Dante would think. That’s what it’s like to be an angel, too. A bully lords it in the playground and an angel spears him like a worm on a hook.
But Father never understood.
Dr. Ratkay was a man of precise and definite tastes. He read only Classical philosophers, drank only French wine, and listened only to German composers, except in certain frivolous moods when he might condescend to play a Hungarian, Liszt or Kodaly.
Dr. Ratkay brought his children up as atheists, on moral grounds. “You know what they used to call the graverobbers who sold bits of dead bodies for research?” he would ask. “Resurrection Men, that’s what. There’s your Christ for you, my children. A Resurrection Man, making pennies off a bag of old bones. —’Neither fear your death’s day, nor long for it,’ as Martial says. If there is a God, don’t give him the satisfaction. If there is a God, He is more than harps and grace and candlelight.
“—God hissed through the vents at Auschwitz,” Dante’s father used to say.
God creeps on eight thin legs.