This is a little different as word tastings go. But then I often veer more into fantasia than simple sniff, swirl, and spit. This is a short story on annunciation – on the idea of The Annunciation, that point of departure in the Christmas story where the angel tells Mary she’s going to be the mother of the saviour. But this isn’t a story about Mary. She’s just the springboard. It’s a more modern and personal idea – fiction, but with a seed in my life. This is a short story I wrote 14 years ago, and I think it’s about the best I can do on this theme.
Incidentally, today is the twelfth anniversary of my wedding to the woman who helped give me the resolution to the inspiration for this story.
by James Harbeck
Dark, rich, loving asphalt, comfort me. Dark, rich, loving asphalt, heal me. Pavement of the wounded souls, reach up through my feet-hearts and caress my unwanting being. In your stillness there is confirmation. And the echoes of my hard heels on your flat and gum-speckled surface are the sound of chants in cathedrals. With you flowing through me like a river, I am not alone.
* * *
It starts with an idea that angels could be dirty little children, or stones, or spires of cement, or thickets of nettly shrubs, or cats and dogs. Or the lady standing on a sidewalk in minus five doing her makeup in a palm-sized mirror. What is special, what makes an angel an angel, is the grinning joy of reality, the peeking underskirt hem-edge of the universe’s delight, the spirit-tickle of sanctity, showing through like a delightful joke. And not the person’s joke, not the stone’s or the tree’s or the dog’s or the child’s or the woman’s, but rather the universe’s itself, in such a delightfully unselfconscious way that the only way one can be an angel is first of all not to be in the slightest bit conscious of the fact that one is an angel.
And so it was. This idea, you see, did not show up internally first, as they tend to do. This idea came in the back way. It was a physical entity first. It was five grinning children in white cotton nightshirts, standing barefoot in the snowy ground and lifting their arms in what might have been an imitation of wings. Five grinning children, not singing glory to God in the highest but physically manifesting it. Not some stern glory, either, but a rather wobbly and sometimes distracted one. For unto us a child is born: I knew the meaning. A new spirit enters the world, an action waiting to be seen through to its completion. Some of it for me, some of it for others. And those five silly grinning kids in the snow, just waiting for God the almighty to call a juice and cookie break.
* * *
I took my leave of Carrie in the bus station. We sat staring across steaming coffees at each other, each speaking not a word, wondering what the other was thinking, thinking that it were best to say little. How much can be said? Once there was something between us; now there are thousands of miles between us. She left to make a new life in another city with another job, and I was left in a Toronto now wiped clean for me, empty of family, my rarely-seen acquaintances stale past date. The aftertaste of yearnings and attachments has an aging sweetness, but the promise of a fresh slate, a city sparkling in the frozen air like new-fallen powder, is another sweetness, and this one flashed of a history to be found in the future. As Carrie blew on her coffee, an angel walked behind her, muddy-hemmed white dress sweeping the loose papers on the floor. Oh, what a city! And then I looked at Carrie and her smudging lipstick coffee-flavoured and I saw—in her hopefulness and her slightly-used floppiness, in her blue hat and the air about her that suggested that things and persons would be parted with regretfully but hopefully like an outgrown favourite shirt deposited into a basement box—I saw the same angel. The angel of the muddy skirts and of the blue hats and of the coffee that was proud of getting to be $1.35 a cup. It was just in that breath, I think, that I realized that they’re all the same angel, there is only one angel, just as there is only one primary blue, only one 440-hertz A, and every time you see the one or hear the other, it is the same as always but also its own instance.
And so there are angels and angels, and angel and angel.
My angel. My fresh, new, empty city. And Carrie’s angel, in her wet Vancouver.
I began to walk. I have always walked; I began to walk even more. Motion was my holy spirit.
* * *
My sense was that the angels were—even always are—heralding the advent of some new spirit, some saving light; they were, as I watched them, the forerunners or fingertips of a miracle, of a divine sneeze. I was a shepherd, watching my flocks by night. As I stood in the front of the subway train, seeing through the window the blackening walls flow toward me and past me, every concrete tie whirring beneath me another beat in the anticipatory drum roll, I felt as though I were being sucked into the future. Bursting into the light of the platform at Bloor, it was as though I had made it through the after-death tunnel into the other world, and the down-coated muesli of transit passengers edging the yellow line were heavenly hosts. I would step through the door and it would be Christmas morning, and the truth would be made known after all our living.
Maybe it was the flowers or the bonsai bushes in the underground mall, or perhaps it was the empty fountain that begged me to be its water. Perhaps it was the thrusting, punching, humping music following me from the HMV, asking me to live it, to be its avatar. All I know is that somewhere in the Holt Renfrew Centre, as I walked between the four-foot-high poster heads and headless lingerie mannequins, I became aware that the one who was to give birth was I. Me. The entire world had turned into an annunciation for the beauty of God, and I was the one who was going to have to bring it forth.
Quite naturally, I panicked.
* * *
What did Mary feel? Alone in that room on a bed of straw, only twelve years old, her life neatly arranged for her, nothing to have to worry about or think about, what did she feel when an angel appeared? And how did it appear? Did she roll over and realize the light of God was emanating from a piece of straw near her eye? Did her vision suddenly become so acute that every atom, every whirring electron, in the glistening walls was visible, could she hear it hum the music of the spheres?
Mary gasps as she sits bolt upright, dropping sleep like an iron pot. Something is stirring inside her. He own body, her own soul-manifested flesh, is creating God, and it presses the understanding into her mind. Wherever she looks, she sees angel. Door-shaped angel, ant-shaped angel, shoe-shaped angel, dog-shaped angel, straw-shaped angel, air-shaped angel. And she knows what the angel’s going to say even before the angel says it, so the angel doesn’t have to say it.
The angel tells Mary—Mary knows the angel is telling her—not to be afraid. Don’t be afraid: that’s a bad sign right from the start. Like when a person begins with “Don’t get angry, but . . .”
So she’s pregnant. Bad enough for her. But how can the small, insignificant girl that she is, engaged to a carpenter at that, how can she be the mother of the great saviour of Israel? It’s not a small responsibility.
Either she’s losing her mind, or it’s true. Trouble no matter what. How can she be comfortable, insignificant Mary? How could she ever stand having her name invoked by hundreds of millions every day, as though she were some rock star?
I understand Mary now, or so I imagine it. Her predicament. Glad tidings of great joy? What a crock! Doesn’t God know my eating habits?
Depression is my delicacy. I feast on it raw like sushi or ever so lightly sautéed. That sweet taste of “I can’t,” the relaxing reassurance that I’m not worth anything. And when I want some zip, I pour on liberal dashes of anxiety. Nothing makes me feel more real than questioning my own existence, attempting negation of everything that’s important to me. I can moan in weakness: “To you do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To you do we send up our sighs, moaning and weeping in this vale of tears. Turn then, most gracious advocate, your ears of mercy towards us, and after this our exile show unto us the blessed fruit of your womb, Jesus. O pious, o clement, o sweet virgin Mary!”
Only she’s on my side of the fence. How could she go to the other side of the equation without losing herself entirely?
Now I walk like a madman up and down my beloved streets, my face twisting with my inner dialogue. I pound on walls at the slightest noise. I am unbearable. And I am alone: all my loved ones are in other cities. I have left them all behind, chasing after the rescue from God like a dog chases a car. I leave behind me a trail of unfinished friendships. Now I have caught, or I have been caught.
* * *
Your arrival is the death of my comfort. I hide when I smell your beauty approaching, I tremble like a dog fearing its master, for you dare me to be someone worthy, you dare me to live up to potential I kept buried, slumbering, unacknowledged, safe. I will have to burn my mediocre works, and this self-absorbed story will burn first.
* * *
In the evening pool I float, eyes to the ceiling, ears tuned to the clotted sounds of the water. It’s still in this room, and the water is warm. The lifeguard shuffles and kicks, walks this way and that, nothing to do. I flip over and, expelling air, strive for the tiled bottom, for the amniotic comfort of a watery womb. But I don’t stay down. I can hardly even touch the bottom, though it’s only four feet beneath the surface. I float back up and spew my remaining breath into the air.
My angel is here. I know it. Somewhere between the tiles, somewhere in the spaces between echoes, in the gap between inhale and exhale, the tentacle of God slips and sneaks. This calmness is resounding with the portentous peace. The air, by its very leanness, is fat with blessing waiting to be grasped. Me, I would hide from my joy. If I were to let it in I would burst.
My life is a balloon full of blood and the angel is a razor.
* * *
Days go by. Sometimes I feel that I am back to normal living, that everything is as it used to be and my panic was a passing illusion. Underneath it, most of the time, is the side-glimpsed sense, like an itch you can feel but can’t find, that the “normal” is the illusion, and reality awaits through the next door, smoke gently curling from its green nostrils, its squamous tail coiled, tip tapping. And at moments I am like one drifting to sleep who suddenly jerks awake as though sparked by a plug, my gradually accreting sense of existence scattered as a film on stirred water. I work and bury myself in yes, no, and projects that I must do. Then I walk and I am alone, alone with my thoughts and fears, and from the bricks behind me in the after-work alleyway I think I hear again the angel breath.
* * *
The glow of the dirty brick walls, the rust on the bumper of the 1970s Impala, the transcendent shimmer of the kneaded and crumbled pavement, the wan but hopeful halogen glow from the light in the concave corner, it is all new, new like I am new. I left something behind, I left somebody behind; I can’t find myself now. This alleyway is empty. I am empty. I’ve tried on all the definitions and in frustration I’ve shredded my persona, crumpled it, left it in a corner or on a pile of perceptions somewhere. I’m like the patch of land where a building was, is not. If these walls up and down this alley were to evanesce, what would I see? If the brick structures were gone, or if I reversed the clock to before they were built, what would come next? Must something be built at all?
I feel that I will have to build myself a new living space. Right now I’m like a squatter in my body, taking cover in the most ramshackle hut in a barely sheltered corner of my head, a refrigerator box and a few blankets perhaps. Has there been a hurricane? Or did I blow the walls down myself? Were they ever there?
If I turn around and go back, will the alley look the way it used to?
* * *
Mary is the angel, projecting her angel-ness on the whole world. Before she even knew it, she had manifested God, she had become the miracle in order to bring forth the miracle. Everything she eats now, all her blood, her breath, her body, all feeds into this child. The child is made of Mary just so the child can be apart from her and give back to her the miracle. Or draw the miracle out from her.
Lightning does not come down from the clouds. It comes up from the ground. The clouds wait; the earth gives.
* * *
It’s like waking up.
I haven’t had a coffee in months and still I’ve been a nervous wreck. I’ve cut my sugar intake down to near nil and the walls of my mind are furrowed with fingernail marks. Finally, finally, after tearing around the palace of my potential being, I found a familiar sofa to sit on and feel like myself again. I wasn’t lost, I’m not lost.
And now this.
Like someone tapped me on the shoulder and I turned and opened my eyes and realized that I had been dreaming and was now in the world I had forgotten. Back in Kansas with Toto. And you, Auntie Em. You, my omnipresent angel. You, my firstborn.
It’s like that moment in Tolkien when they realize the password to Moria was, had always been, right before their eyes, wasn’t even intended to be concealed. Not “speak, friend, and enter,” but “speak ‘friend’ and enter.” And you, angels, are my friend.
When I first knew the birth was going to happen, it had already happened. The angels: they’re the miracle. The angel is everything. Everything is the miracle.
But I already knew that.
* * *
Dark, rich, loving asphalt, you are my city. On you I walk, in you I curl. On my way home I pick up a bunch of flowers, limply dripping with the first mists of artificial hothouse spring. I am the bee. I find the honey where I flit, or I come home to the honeycomb. What will it be? It will be a table already set, steam rising from pots. It will be a kiss in the doorway. It will be a comfort I left behind in search of the comfort I had left behind. It will be a failed sojourn in another truth, an abandoned voyage. It will be my return as well as hers.
And yet my comfort is in searching, my place is in walking. I can only know where I am when I am moving.
The kids are there again, only this time they’re five superannuated t’ai chi practitioners swimming their molasses arcs into the air. The ground is covered with mud and the black slip-on dollar-forty-nine shoes of the air painters are already tempura-battered with it. They dance their impossibly slow and smooth abstractions and the mud eats them gradually; they sink further and further into it, to knees and to waists, their motions not slowing, and they become golden black-and-white-topped windbreaker- or track-suit-clad flowers, waving in their insouciantly oblivious spirals a goodbye from the angels.
I want to look at my bible: did Mary see the angel again afterwards? Having made the messiah out of her flesh, did she even need to? And having become separate from her miraculous child, having parted from her night-tickling angel, did she not spend the rest of eternity dining on the sorrows and cares of others, becoming in her angel-consciousness the mirror in which all the other, unconscious angels could look and see the divine fingertips reflected? What things did she, does she, see and feel?
I am at the door, quivering flowers in hand, lips prepared. I hold the key, and she is on the inside. And?