Monday, February 22, 2016

Azrael’s Whispers

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I thought I'd let everyone read the short story that finished in third place in Red Toque's Canadian Tales Of The Fantastic Short Story Contest

Azraels Whispers


Desecraters of tombs, looters plucking at baubles, thats what we were.  Crowbars levered at nails screeched in protest as we tore at the boards erected to bar entrance to this once-hallowed ground. I wiped sweat and stared at rust flows etching down cedar planks, outlining the vestiges of the Catholic cross that once stood over the doorway. White paint crumbled, graying under the oppressive touch of the suns heat, only to be swept away by the breath of wind and rains caress to dim lands of memorys fading passages. Haphazardly nailed plywood concealed stained-glass windows that once danced with the colors of heaven.  None of us knew when this old angel of grace had been closed up.
            Behind me commuters motored past on another Abbotsford morning, oblivious. Did grave robbers feel like this as they broke into the pharaohs tombs? Were we all infidels born to be cursed, like Howard Carter? King Tuts curse had always fascinated me. How would I feel, if this were my sacred space? In the end, did it really matter? 
            Our job? To open the doors of this relic of a church one final time.
             After you.
            No, after you, joked two of my demolition crew. We stepped inside, disturbing dust that billowed up, sparkling in the brilliant rays of sunlight streaming into the chapel. Gods open arms beckoned in the echoes of chants clinging to cobwebs in the rafters.
            The crowbar fell from Rudys hand. Metallic echoes resounded.
            A slender figure sat in the front pew.
Jesus, Manuel uttered, frantically making the sign of the cross. 
  Stale air clung to our nostrils as our eyes became accustomed to the gloom.
            Is it alive? someone managed to croak. Then, it moved. Nicks hammer toppled from his fingers.
 Ai ... Madonna, Manuel whispered, emerging from his catatonia. He was from a devout Catholic family and had more respect for the church and God than Id ever had, but for a second even I nearly buckled to my knees, an instant convert.
            No one dared breathe as the figure rose. A frail old ladys fingers tracked the same concise movements over her chest as Manuels, only slower. She turned towards us, the holiest of smiles on her thin face, somehow personifying the ancientness of the building. Wordlessly, with a dignity that was as much a natural part of her as the Bible clutched in her hand, she moved down the aisle.
We parted to let her pass, keeping a respectful distance, unsure if she was real or some apparition that would spring on us and rip our throats out, like some bloodsucking vampire.
What the ? I squinted, half expecting her to turn to dust as she walked into the sunlight.
            One last time, she said as she carefully descended the church steps, grabbing the railing for support. The others looked to me for guidance. 
Look, lady, I said, hurrying after her, were here to tear down this place. You shouldnt be here, I blustered, trying to come across as the hard-nosed guy in charge. 
            Such a pity. She was grand in her day, you know. The wrinkles on her face smoothed as she stared back at the musty confines. I still hear the hymns singing out from the choir. Her eyes moistened, no doubt seeing this sanctuary as it was before, as it was meant to be, bustling with patrons in prayer and reverence. Dust-laden alcoves had once protected statues of Jesus and Mary. Yet framed in the softness of her gaze I spied a haunting presence shadowing her serenity.  
Howd you ...?
            Get in? I have my ways. Now if you'll excuse me, I must be going. 
            My crew merely stood there, faces blank. Ah, just an old lady, Rudy, a big youth, half-joked.
            Fingering the tattered Bible, clearly a well-used friend, she didnt move as I returned to join her. She could have been my grandmother. She was more than likely someones.
The fleeting hauntedness in her eyes stared back at me, speaking of the peace born from angels' graces. Yet hidden in the shadows where dark spirits congregated, one angel stalked. Azrael. Gods angel of death, his voice calling, bearing whispers of the finality of things.
            Ill drive you.
            I have money, she said indignantly.
            I could see that. Floral dress and long coat with a hat pinned sideways on her head, and on her ring finger a diamond that would make the Queen look twice.  Everything pressed and perfectly in place, as if she were attending some elegant ballroom affair. 
            I know, I said. This isnt about money. There were things money could never buy. Not for her. Ill drive you wherever you need to go. 
            She looked into my eyes and from that stolid, frightened gaze, I knew she needed a friend. Thank you. 
            I turned back to Manuel, his Mexican complexion still ashen from meeting his imagined Blessed Virgin Mary. Youre in charge. Have everything ready for demo tomorrow.
            Tomorrow? She was supposed to come down today.
            Big Rudy nudged his shorter friend. Hey, lets hurry and well have time for a couple of wobbly pops at the peeler bar. The irreverence of youth ... was I much better at their age?
            I dont understand, boss. Manuel scratched his head, staring at the elegantly dressed lady from another age. Time slid back fifty years, trolley buses clanked by, Edsels tooted their horns and I pictured her standing there in her youth.
            Neither do I. Call it giving two graceful old ladies another day. 
            I opened the door to my pickup, wishing it wasnt full of signs reading Aggressive Demolition. Hastily I cleaned papers, lunch bags and coffee cups off the seat, and she climbed in as regally as a movie star entering a limousine. I really appreciate this. 
            I know. Youre welcome. Where to?
            As we drove around the older section of town she asked to stop here and there, sometimes staring at empty lots with buildings that no longer existed. Sighs occasionally escaped her lips and shed talk softly of memories. Often shed get out and walk to the front of some house or store and stand there, remembrances of earlier days shuttered in the silence of the minds eye. I didnt ask any questions. If she chose to, wed talk more later.
Mill Lake, please.
Damp pungent earth, so foreign compared to the construction smells I was used to, greeted us. Help me, please. This will be hard on these old feet.
Under her clothes she was paper thin.
            Few people were around, only natures smells and sounds. Now and then Id have to hold her up, as if my strength and the Bible she cradled so fervently to her chest were all that were keeping her going.
            Arm in arm we walked along the trail a little ways before sitting down at a park bench that had a view of the entire lake in the heart of Abbotsford. Cant go any further, she gasped, tears slowly ebbing down her face.
            The November day was warm and hints of cedar drifted in the moist air, the lake surface smooth as glass. Canada geese honked and ducks squawked as if sharing a bawdy joke between themselves.
            There really used to be a mill here, you know. Right about over that playground. I met my husband when he was working at that mill.
            How long you been here?
She chuckled, a surprisingly rich voice from earlier years. All my adult life, since I was twenty. At first I could count the number of buildings in this town on my fingers. John and I used to walk around this lake nearly every evening. Wed feed the ducks that stayed for the winter. Back then wed get a couple feet of snow and some years we could skate on the lake. The paved walkway was just a muddy trail. Oh, by the way, I'm Agnes McCurty.
            I grinned, surprised that the frail woman sitting beside me was the same Agnes McCurty whose voice had been one of the loudest raised in protest against the Adams Block reconstruction project. Dale Green. My folks moved here from Ontario about fifteen years ago.
            Youll have seen some changes here too, then. She sighed. After the church closed in seventy-nine, I used to sneak back in every so often just to sit and pray. I was one of the ladies who helped out, arranging flowers, Sunday school, bake sales, what have you. I guess I kind of forgot to give my keys back. 
            A few years later my husband died and my three kids moved out east. Oh, they phone from time to time, and my eldest begs me to move in. Claiming they could keep more of an eye on me, but without my home, my roots, what good is that? She shivered, the wind seeming to ghost right through her. The birches and poplars were bare, huddling for the winters that never seemed to come anymore.
            Take me home, please. 1173 Essendene.
            I knew the address. Only half a block from the church and slated to come down next week for a shopping mall. Revitalization, businessmen called it. In her pre-war house, furniture was covered with dust-sheets and boxes were stacked carefully, many marked Goodwill. A suitcase sat by the door. 
            Will you take that for me?
                Her front door sighed closed behind us, her hand shaking as she struggled with the key in the lock, and I drove her to one last address. St. Andrews Retirement Home.
     Two attendants in white came to greet us. We were starting to worry about you. Expected you a few hours ago.
Agnes, who had fewer movements of times hands left than any of us, regarded him with a quiet smile. I knew this wouldnt be easy today, she said as I unpacked her bag from my truck and she stood hugging her Bible. Thank you.
             My pleasure, Agnes. I gave her hand a gentle pat. I doubted Id display the same braveness, nor muster half her charm if I found myself in her situation one day. Nowadays retirement homes were much more than places where old folks went to die, but in the hush of the doors closing behind her I heard the whispers of Gods angel calling.
Id never forget that sound.
The shutting of a life.

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