Snow is falling and Agnes is sure she can hear it as it whispers through the air and lands with the softest of sighs on tree branches, cars, outdoor furniture, and the ground with its already-deposited layer of flakes. She loves how it looks, loves that there is a season that can be relied upon. Christmas in Salem will always be white.
Everyone is here this year. She insisted. In the past, one or other of her sons would make the call, sheepish and apologetic: This time we’ll be with Jill’s family—or Amy’s or Rebecca’s. Next holiday season, Mum, we’ll come to you and bring the kids. We’ll stay a whole week, I promise, you’ll see.
And in truth that one generally kept his word, but then another would fall by the wayside, calling while his wife waited in the background, not saying anything, but glaring, Agnes knew, as her boy’s voice faltered, made excuses. She wondered if her sons drew straws: Who would it be this year, freed of duty to Mother, so another could be done to Wife?
Agnes peers out the tall window into her front yard. The blocks are large in this neighborhood, the houses vintage and venerable, all of them dragging their history through the centuries. It’s Salem, it’s always a witch: a witch lived here, a witch lived there. One appeared in the bedroom of this home, yet another disappeared up the chimney of that. This parlour was infested by dozens of glowing blue jellyfish, in that barn a spectral woman sat astride the beams and laughed as she rained nails down on the head of a man who’d offended her.
Agnes’ house is conspicuous by its lack of witch-y history. That’s why she chose it: without a past that’s both picturesque and grotesque, an abode garners no great interest from tourists; no one wants to see a place where neither witchcraft nor murder occurred. Others feel it as a lack—Agnes knows several of her neighbors have made up their own stories and there’s a man in Boston, a fine forger, who’s happy enough to create “historical” documents to support their claims—but she’s never wanted anyone to knock on the door and ask to be shown the bewitched kitchen or spectral outhouse. She likes her privacy, knows it’s integral to her safety; her husband used to joke that if she could have got away with it she’d have put a plaque on the front fence that read, “Nothing ever happened here.”
The building is First Period, in the Chestnut Street District; on the outside it’s tidied and maintained in proper architectural style so no busybody can complain that she’s had it painted hot pink or added Gothic gables or an Italianate balcony. On the inside, however, it’s been renovated to within an inch of its life for maximum comfort; the decor is modern and she doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. Agnes has no love for antiques, finds them uncomfortable things to have around, and the chairs and lounges impossible to sit upon for long periods; forget sleeping in those beds! Such things gather too much dust and she’s got no love of excess housework. She’s seen the pinched lips on her daughters-in-law when they catch sight of the La-Z-Boys scattered through the house, but she doesn’t care; comfort above all. Agnes has always had her idiosyncrasies and her late husband—she does miss him sometimes—was smart enough to give way in most things, which was probably why they got along so well.
It doesn’t take night long to fall, and the sky has gone from pale blue to icy grey to black while she’s watched. Now there are the just the tasteful luminous Christmas decorations (which strikes her as a contradiction in terms) on façades and in trees, and the expensive light fittings inside the houses across the street, which are dimmed, for she seems to be the only person in the neighborhood who likes them bright at night. She likes the darkness kept at bay. Mood lighting is, she thinks, the correct word for it; it puts her into a mood alright.
In the front sitting room she’s curled, in an ungrandmotherly fashion, in an armchair by the hearth. The Christmas tree, with mounds of presents beneath, is in the corner, far enough away to avoid a similar meltdown to the one that had occurred forty or so years ago, when she and Phips were young, newly married, and inexperienced in the ways of tree placement. It had been a much smaller tree —they couldn’t afford much having stretched themselves to buy the house, and she was only twenty-four hours away from giving birth to Brian—but, Lord! Didn’t it go up quickly? She chuckles at the thought of how fast Phips had got the damned thing out the window and into the snow.
Then, the room was filled with acrid smoke from the presents that had been scorched; now there’s the scent of pine and wood smoke. The angel on the top of the tree scrapes the ceiling, and Agnes looks at it with fond mockery. The outfit is all wrong, she thinks. Flowing fabrics, buttons and bows: imagine flying in that. Besides, the wings are too small by far.
From the kitchen at the back of the house comes the sounds of her daughters-in-law preparing a Christmas Eve meal, talking amongst themselves, whispering things they think she can’t hear—and she shouldn’t be able to, either—holding their little gathering of bitterness and bile. Complaining of how she’d won this year, how they’d much rather be with their own families; the irony of telling each other how much they didn’t want to be with each other was apparently lost. Agnes had got them here by abdicating her reign over the feast: she was an old woman, tired and alone, wouldn’t her good daughters come and help? Amy’s turkey will be dry, Rebecca’s fruit cake insufficiently alcoholic, Jill’s mashed potatoes lumpy and her sprouts bitter, but it doesn’t matter. The family is in full attendance: Brian and Adam and Bailey, little Walter, baby Phips, Adeline, Sarah, Abigail, Mercy, Talbot and Erin. She likes the little ones, they’re still quite sweet, not yet soured by contact with their parents. They’re all here, she thinks.
All those bearing her blood, and some who don’t.
All those for whom she gave up everything.
Bailey’s standing in the doorframe; he’s her favorite, though she’d never say it aloud. Not because he reminds her of his father, because he doesn’t, but because he reminds her of herself. There’s something so very light about him, from the way he walks to the way he talks. Phips used to sneer effeminate, which was curious given that he’d tell her during their worst fights that she was masculine—or perhaps not so curious. Yes, they fought; mostly he gave in, but sometimes resentment would rise up from somewhere deep inside and he’d spew forth an acidic fury few folk would have believed him capable of. Then he’d rage and shout and throw things—not at her, he wasn’t that stupid—but at the things around her, so it was like he was trying to hit the pedal to dunk her in a tub of water, trying to find the trigger that would make her hurt. Phips’ heart was tender.
It never worked.
“Mom?” Bailey was soft-hearted too, though his father never saw it. That’s why he’d named his youngest “Phips” even if the old man wasn’t around to see it anymore. The little boy is strapped to Bailey’s chest, and his was the heartbeat the child would know best, of that Agnes was certain.
“Are you comfortable like that?” He nods at her crossed legs, at the lotus position she habitually adopted when she was on her own, when there was no one around to see how she never moved like an old woman unless she was in company. Her flesh had declined, yes, but beneath it she was ageless. She just had to hide it most of the time, that was all.
A deception she’s finding more frustrating by the day.
“Oh. Sometimes I forget,” she says and smiles, uncrossing her legs and letting her feet touch the floor beside her house shoes. He’ll tell the others I’m getting demented, she thought. “How is that little one today?”
Bailey comes over, unstrapping the child. He hands his youngest to Agnes, who rocks Phips gently as the blue, blue eyes stare up at her in awe. She wonders if perhaps the littlest ones can see better than the others whose minds have filled with so many mundane things they can no longer perceive what’s uncommon. Small fingers reach up to touch her face, get caught in the furrows of her cheeks. It makes her heart ache, although not enough to stop her.
Bailey kneels at her feet, just like he used to when he was a toddler and his hair was so blond and curly. It’s cut short now; he looks like a soldier, but he’s an accountant. “Dinner will be ready soon, Mom, Amy asked me to let you know.”
“How kind. I am looking forward to some of her turkey,” says Agnes. It’s always been her gift, to sound sincere even under the most trying of circumstances, the driest of Christmas turkeys. She rubs noses with the baby, thinks Goodbye. No need to get too attached.
“Mom, have you thought anymore on what we talked about? At Thanksgiving?”
Thanksgiving, when all she’d got were calls. Thanksgiving, when her best boy thought the subject he’d broached was a conversation to be had on the phone. Then again, she reminds herself, that was the price of Christmas. Didn’t stop her from feeling annoyed about being alone then. But Christmas was better, Christmas fit the bill. She smiles and Bailey thinks it’s for him.
“I know it’s hard, Mom, to think about leaving. You—we—have so many memories here.” He sounds sad; perhaps he really is. But not sad enough to do the right thing. To respect his mother’s house, her wishes, her memory. They’ve mistaken her for a little old lady which, she supposes, is understandable; that’s what she’s been—appeared—for so many years. “But you’ll like the new place. It’s full of people your own age, they have clubs, movie nights, knitting circles―”
“I’m sure it’s delightful, Bailey darling, but I’m not going.”
“Mom, you said you’d think about it―”
“And I did, but that’s not the same as agreeing,” Agnes says, a hint of steel in her voice. When had her sons decided she was feeble? Open to being bullied? That they were young eagles who could tear at her belly? Was it just their bitch wives who had pushed for this? Were her sons so without intestinal fortitude—without balls—that they’d agree to anything their spouses suggested? She leans forward, hisses into Bailey’s face, “If you think you’re going to ship me off to God’s waiting room that smells of piss and shit and boiled cabbage, Bailey, you’ve got another thing coming.”
Her son recoils in distaste. They’ll take that, the cursing, as a sign of dementia. Why couldn’t she get pleasant dementia? she imagines Brian complaining as if she’s already got the other kind, as if she’s not in full control of her faculties; as if she couldn’t still think rings around him. Her oldest has always hated that he’s never been able to win an argument with her, never been able to put one over her. Agnes saw right through him from the day he was born. He’s only ever submitted to her will because he was too stupid to think his way out of it, too afraid to try and intimidate her. He’s afraid of his wife, too, sharp-eyed Jill, so he cheats on her regularly and thinks she doesn’t know. Thinks his mother doesn’t know either, thinks she can’t see into his head and heart.
Adam, her quiet middle boy, is smart but sly. He’ll store away all the little behaviors that can be made to appear aberrant, start making notes. He’s a doctor, he’ll be the one to get her declared unfit, asking his roster of medical friends to sign off on the required documents. She imagines them, a cabal of professionals: You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours; legions of elderly parents consigned to places they shouldn’t be just because their children can’t be bothered to be grateful. He’ll be estimating how soon they can sell the house so he can use his share to pay off the gambling debts he thinks no one knows about.
But Bailey, sweet Bailey, believes he’s doing the right thing. He’s taken her silences, her melancholy, for signs of a decrepit old age; thinks she’s drifting. Thinks his mother needs company, needs to be somewhere she’s watched twenty-four hours a day as if that’s something to be desired! As if she no longer requires her privacy, her independence. That’s why the family sent in Bailey, her baby, her favorite: so his credulity might convince her.
Agnes is missing her old life, true, but not the one her boys or Phips shared. The weight of grief doesn’t lessen, she’s found, even when the loss is one you yourself occasioned by fleeing. She stares down at the baby in her arms—honestly, she’d almost forgotten he was there. She looks at Bailey and returns the child to his father’s trembling hands.
All she can think is, With such divine blood in their veins, how did they get so mundane?
She wonders if it would be different if she’d had daughters: would she have hesitated if she’d produced girls? They have such power, after all, so rich and full of life. But the daughters-in-law are not hers, she shares no blood, no link with them. Her sons are as weak with their spouses as their father was with her; she shouldn’t be surprised to find them so easily dominated.
Bailey is back in the kitchen, reporting his failure. She can hear them clear as a bell, clear as she can hear the snow falling outside, clear as she’s always been able to hear everything in this house. In the street, too; even further if she’d but let her powers loose. But to do so would have been to draw attention. Agnes has no doubt she’s still being looked for. She’s seen enough of her brethren over the years, sitting in trees, on roof tops, in the belfries of nearby churches where they can siphon off the adoration, get drunk on it. Junkies, she’d once have thought, for it wasn’t something she indulged in; she wasn’t that kind of being, although judgment was long her stock-in-trade. One of them, but not the same. Set apart; so far apart, really, that at the time it was easy enough to decide she didn’t want to be there at all. Didn’t want to be in the nest with the rest. She was a cuckoo, no matter that she looked the same. A cuckoo in her heart and mind, a cuckoo with a silver sword etched red by blood—a substance of which she’d grown so very weary.
She can hear Brian now: If she won’t go quietly, then we’ll force her out. She can go kicking and screaming. My, how brave he sounds when she’s not in sight, when he thinks she’s out of earshot. Adam now: I’ll talk to some of my colleagues. It’s not that hard, to get old people declared non compos, not really.
Oh, you little shit, Agnes thinks. Did she deserve them? Were her sins really so great? In her heart, she knows the answer. That’s why her self-imposed exile has begun to hurt so much. Even though she thought herself different, distinct, apart, the Heavenly Host was her first family, her true family.
She wants nothing so much, she now knows, as to go home.
When she fled the Heavens, denied her Father and refused her name—Azra, Azrael—she was hunted, sought out, constantly discovered until she’d at last hidden herself thoroughly in humanity. When she wrapped her sacred flesh in the ordinary stuff of mortals, when she lived a life as one of them, when she almost let herself forget who and what she’d been, then she’d been free. The angelics sitting in trees, on stoops, disguised as beggars, no longer looked at her twice. Perhaps she’d sunk so truly into being other that when she gave birth none of her divinity could pass to her sons. How else could they be so fucking ordinary? So disappointing?
She’d found Phips so soon after she’d fled, he seemed to be what she needed, a good disguise, a mostly easy-going mate—but with him gone she thinks more and more on the old days, recalls with nostalgia being something different entirely. Inside the aging flesh she remains what she’d once been. Always been. Unlike others who chose to fall, who’d begged their departure from the powers that be, she had asked no permission. Doing so would have meant she’d have to have given up her memories, her uniqueness, her wings, and that was something she wouldn’t countenance.
Quite apart from anything else, the Lord God had no interest in letting its Angel of Death go lightly. It was not a forgiving God, no matter what the propaganda said. A simple apology would not suffice.
It did, however, love a good sacrifice.
”It’s time,” Agnes says, and stands. She smiles at the pink marble of the fireplace that she selected long years ago, because she knew it had a dampening effect; because she knew it would camouflage what she hid there. The old woman makes a fist, knows this will hurt for the human meat is vulnerable and fragile, but there’s a different core underneath that will shine through soon enough. She draws the fist back, concentrates, and then rams her knuckles into the stone, through it, feels the broken rock tearing the muscle, breaking the bones, ripping at the skin. Agnes doesn’t hesitate, repeats the blow, does so again and again until there is a good-sized rectangular hole. She reaches in with her broken, bleeding right hand, feels around, finds the cloth wrapping with a tiny relief, retrieves the bundle, and unwraps it.
The light from the fire picks out the red engraved along the silver blade, so it looks like pulsing veins. The sword will draw Them down, she knows. Even now she can hear its song, so high that only dogs and angels can perceive. Her family won’t hear. They won’t know anything until the last moment. She’ll do them a greater kindness than they’d have done in deserting her in a single room in some low-rent care facility, wasting her days in despair and fear.
The hilt is warm in her palm. Its touch speeds up the process of unbecoming: the broken skin and flesh peel back from her fingers, her hand, up her arm, across her shoulders, down her back to her heels, up her neck, over her head, down her face, throat, chest, stomach, thighs, knees, shins, ankles and feet. It sloughs off as a snake’s might, taking her grey hair, red dress and black stockings with it, to reveal the bright shining substance beneath. Flesh like white opal, limbs long and muscular, a warrior’s garb and breastplate in a dove grey leather whose sheen is glorious to behold. And at her back . . .
. . . at her back, the wings. They scrape the ceiling; with a spiteful swipe she uses one to knock the angel from the top of the tree. In the kitchen is the laughter of her children and grandchildren, of her daughters-in-law with their malicious giggles, plotting what they’ll do with their share of the sale proceeds. Agnes thinks of the grandchildren, of their innocence, then shrugs. The Lord God does love a good sacrifice, and innocent blood will buy more than what flows in her sons’ veins. Agnes thinks how wonderful the red will look on the white of the snow, like a beacon to those above.
Help me. Take me home. I’m ready.
Flexing her wings, Agnes heads for the kitchen.
Originally published in Hark! The Herald Angels Scream, edited by Christopher Golden.