Staircase of AngelsThomas Ray
I stare up at the sky, squinting at the burning sun as I take another aching step up the Staircase of Angels. Heaven is silent for now. Eventually, if the angels continue their silence, my father and I will reach the top of the summit, where the perpetual clouds will provide the welcome, blessed chill usually found only through death. The angels will have to come then, to listen to our pleas. Whatever we ask of them, they will then be obligated to provide. Whatever boon we request will be given to us, else the rage of heaven fall upon the pure white wings only angels can bear.
Or so the stories say. No one has ever gotten to the top of the stairs. The angels come before that, called down by sheer human perseverance. They will come to us. Any day now.
“Tarian,” Father says between heaving breaths, “How are you faring?”
The sun is constant on my forehead, the wind stopped long ago, and the waterskin hanging at my waist is uncomfortably light.
“Well enough, Father. I have only one question.” I take another lurching step up.
Two more steps, silence, heat. “It might not meet your approval.” Father glances at me.
“I will forgive.”
Permission. “How long will the angels make us suffer? How much—”
Father raises a hand, cutting me off. “No. You asked your question, and you knew that it would upset me. My only regret is that you did not use that knowledge to keep your mouth shut.”
He sighs. “Tarian, you must learn to respect the will of Heaven. The angels know our hearts. It is possible that the only reason they have not come already is that you are not prepared to accept their will. They will not grant the wishes of impure beings such as us, unless we respect them!” His temper is thin today. The rage is just barely hiding behind his eyes.
“They will have to come, whatever our hearts look like.”
Father stops walking. I turn, and his eyes meet mine.
“Tarian, you will be the one to bring calamity upon this endeavor. Do you not care about your mother? Do you not care that your black wings prevent her from being healed? Do you not care for me?”
“I never chose my wings. I did not make Mother sick, I did not curse your business. I simply stood by and watched heaven ignore our troubles.”
Father bridges the gap between us, gripping my shirt in his right hand. “You will not disrespect me. You will not slander the angels! They are our only hope, you imbecile! Our only hope!” His anger is revealed now. I would be frightened if I wasn’t too amazed. Amazed that it’s stayed buried this long. Through the past two days of climbing, resting, climbing, resting, it’s taken him this long to lay a hand on me.
His hand releases my shirt, falling to his side.
“Now,” he mutters as he passes me, “Climb. We must show faith if we wish them to appear.”
I never chose my wings, Father.
I could use my wings, here and now. I could fly upwards, toward the clouds, and the angels would come much faster. Father would go mad if I used them, though—if I even summoned them, he would probably throw himself over the edge of a cliff. Especially here, on the Staircase.
I still want to. To try to fly. I haven’t flown in years.
But I won’t. For Mother.
Somewhere below us, an eagle screams. We’re past the birds now. The air feels suddenly thinner, but it’s all in my head. I can breathe. I’m breathing. One stumbling step after another, my legs move as if they aren’t my own. The pain is numb, now.
When will they come? When…
Will they come?
The sky explodes. Falling in columns, glory thunders down like lightning in a storm, crashing against my soul, bringing tears to my eyes. The sun shifts, rotates in the sky, brightens, then the light cracks, and heaven opens to my view.
A being appears, silhouette against sun, wings outstretched, feet above the ground. It’s an angel, a woman of unearthly beauty. With the gentleness of a kiss and the power of an earthquake, her feet come to rest of the ground. The same ground I stand on.
Before I do something irrational, stupid, disrespectful, I fall to my knees and touch my forehead to the stone. The stone is cold against my skin. Blessedly cold.
I almost thought they would never come.
A hand—far too gentle to be Father’s—touches my back, firmly tracing a finger along one shoulder blade, the place where my wings grow when I summon them. The angel is touching me, and she knows about my wings.
“You’ve come.” Her voice is like a million lullabies. It echoes in my head, repeating the two words as if a legion of angels is still speaking. My breathing stills. Father, kneeling ahead of me, is whispering a prayer just loud enough for me to hear. The angel’s finger lifts from my back and I feel tears come anew.
“You may speak. Do not fear me.”
Father tries to speak, but it comes out like a moan. I don’t even try to use my choked-up throat.
“Your faith is evident by the steps you’ve climbed. You called me. I’m here at your request. Ask.”
Father remains speechless. I try to speak and hear my words more clearly than I’m thinking them.
“We’ve come to ask for a gift. Healing.”
“A gift of healing?” She says. I nod, head spinning at the sound of her voice. “Who requires the healing?”
“My mother.” If she’s still alive.
“This is true?” she asks my father quietly.
His head moves like something resembling a nod. It’s enough for the angel.
“Good. Both of you, stand.”
An order from an angel. I hurry to my feet. Father is already standing, head bowed, arms open in complete surrender. My eyes find the angel and freeze as if they’ll never move away from her. Her face is so perfect, too perfect. The curve of her cheeks, emphasized by both her jawline and her cheekbones, come together with a perfect mouth that speaks perfect words. Her eyes are pools of light, void of any pupils or irises found in human eyes. Somehow, I can still tell where she’s looking. She’s looking at me. Me.
“Your mother’s sickness is terrible, but it is not the most important thing in your life. Your lives,” she adds, glancing at Father. “But I will give you what you ask for.” A pause. “For a price.”
Father collapses, arms raised toward the angel. “Anything! Anything.”
She ignores him.
“Show me your wings.” She says. Father gasps, a strangled sound. But he does not argue with an angel. He would never.
Now is my chance.
I summon my wings, feeling them pull at my back, jerking me to the right, then left, then I rise, and feathers explode from my back, black and gold and green. Silky smooth and cursed. Compared to hers, mine look microscopic, not to mention the color contrast. My wings are not pure.
She reaches a hand out, brushing a hand along one of my golden tertiaries. Her eyes follow the curve of my wings, stopping where the muscle meets my back. She glances at me, then back at the wing.
“Why,” she asks monotonously, almost coldly, “have you not used these?”
“I—” Her head is tilted just so. My lungs won’t breath, my voice feels like it’s been taken from me. I try again, to no avail. The angel shifts her stance, waiting.
“It was my fault, messenger!” Father whispers, pained. “I told him not to.”
The angel turns from me, her attention directed completely to the old man. “Why?”
A long pause. Father’s head drops, face disfigured with sorrow.
The angel beats her wings, rising six feet into the air in a single beat. Her hand reaches for the sky, and the sun comes to meet her, light forming into a beam, thinning, dimming—but not all the way—into a sword as long as I am tall. The sword falls, cleaving the air, coming to rest two feet deep into the staircase, inches away from Father’s feet.“You fool!” Her voice is thunder, wind, and fire all at once. Father falls to his knees, tears streaming down his face as his body is racked with sobs. The angel meets the ground again, lifting her hand from the hilt.
“You thought to hide him from us? You thought you could keep him? You do not deserve him!” Her robe billows as if in wind but the air is still. Deathly still.
She lifts the sword from its sheath of earth, touching the tip to the center of Father’s back. Her voice is quieter now. “You do not realize what you have done.”
“Forgive me,” he cries, “I meant no harm!”
“Perhaps not.” Her gaze is hard now, judgement like light. “You will not be forgiven. I will not grant your request.”
“Please!” Father cries, desperate. “Please heal my wife! She is everything—” His voice falters. “Everything to me.” Please, he mouths, again and again.
“I will not grant your request, unholy,” she repeats, “You have fallen too far.”
Father whimpers, hope visibly fading from his eyes. He’s like a statue, a shattered, hopeless, dying statue.
“But,” the angel reaches again for her sword, “She will not die.” She raises a finger to silence any response Father might attempt. “She will not die, as long as your son does not return to her. If one lays eyes upon the other, she will succumb to the sickness. Until then she will suffer for your foolishness.”
What of me?
The question consumes Father’s eyes.
“Your son will come with me.” she decrees. “His wings merit him entrance into our realm. But you knew that all along, didn’t you?” Her gaze is fire pouring on my father. My ears are hearing every word but my mind refuses to keep up. I know the implications of her message, but the strange new apathy within me grows stronger the more I think of them.
The angel raises her sword, thrusting the tip into the sky as she commands my father to leave. She uses words but they’re suddenly… irrelevant. I don’t need words. Just like I don’t need my father.
He doesn’t beg again.
The sky opens and I summon my wings to fly through. I beat them once, twice, and I’m in the air. I brush past the upraised sword, closing my eyes as I feel my body pass through the doorway. Through the gates. Into a heaven. My body seems too heavy, unnecessary, irrelevant like everything else. Maybe I can slip out of it. Maybe I can leave it behind. Leave everything old behind. Leave behind… I left the angel behind.
She will come. She will show me everything I need to know—
My eyes are open again. I’m seeing. I see grass below my feet. I see white fabric piling around my ankles, then I see my feet through the fabric—despite the fabric. Is the fabric really even there?
My wings are no longer summoned, but I can feel them more strongly than ever before. If I wanted to, I could fly away, without a thought, like I just did.
Am I still flying?
… Flying. I should fly.
“Tarian.” She speaks my name. Then I see her, standing before me. Her wings are gone. Her beautiful wings are gone. Where have they—
“Tarian, stay with me. You are in our realm. You are standing. You are safe.”
“Do not fly yet.”
I will not. I must not.
“You are home.”
It feels right. I must be. I want to be.
Author Notes: This will never have more. Hopefully that's okay.
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