November, seven p.m.-ish, Celeste pauses, shovel poised, in her garden. A faint glow pulses from the compost, and since rain smashed out any last daylight hours ago, her first impression is bioluminescence – a fungi? She brushes away leaves gone to lace, carrot peel, eggshell, a matt-black beetle. Toes? She slices her shovel into the dirt and peels off wilted lettuce, coffee grounds, a worm. Feet? She uncovers legs, a body, a face. Almost a face. Definitely a head, the place for a face, but no nostrils, mouth, or eyes, only warm white skin. The glow is from the body. Celeste works her fingers under the shoulders and sits it up. The body is light and stays seated when she lets go; the compost where it lay steams, and flat-backed centipedes scuttle to re-bury. The rain that has un-relented for the past month threads down the body’s head and pearls off two full-length wings.
Celeste feels her fingers between layers of feather and is suddenly, unaccountably, warm. ‘Angel angel angel!’ Celeste is drunk and she knows it, but that’s normal. If she was laid open her belly would spill an ocean of red wine and root vegetables: carrot, potato, parsnip, rutabaga, acorn squash, yam – anything the late garden still has to offer. Her yelling has goaded the neighbour’s Labrador retriever into defense. Celeste is too caught up to care. She rubs her hands over the head of the body – the angel – down its shoulders and ribs on to its rump. Her fingers streak the compost and the glow brightens. Automatically Celeste looks up, but what she’s looking for – the orbital scrawl of stars – is blotted out.
She maneuvers the angel into a standing position, bends it over her shoulder, lifts, and carries it up three flights of wet stairs all the way to her attic suite. The angel lights her way and she unlocks the door easily. She carries it through to the bathroom, stands it on the bathmat and lets it drip.
Her phone is ringing, but she ignores it. Water broils up the cream porcelain tub and churns coloured salts into foam. A wine glass and uncorked bottle perch prepped and handy on the vanity. Celeste folds the angel into the tub and lets its head settle gently on the lip. She kneels, scoops bath water with a mug and pours it over the shoulders, then sets to work with a soaped poof. Coffee and scabs of mould slough off. First the legs, then the abdomen and chest, illuminate the froth. She bends the angel’s knees and slides the torso, shoulders and head further into the tub. The phone starts again but she’s dripping wet.
When the dirt has spiraled down the drain she tilts on her heels and wipes her forehead with the back of her arm. She’s warm from the work and wine, and tired. She stands the angel up, towels it off and carries it to her bed. Its skin feels cleaner, but the same: warm, hairless, with a soft babyish down sprouting at the base of the neck and running the length of the spine. She covers the angel with her blanket and sits beside it. When she’s finished the wine she gets in bed too, surprised by how late it seems – it’s only nine – and by how she feels: happy.
Celeste stretches towards the clock. Eleven a.m. Usually she stays in bed until twelve – she doesn’t let herself have a sip before noon and it’s just easier this way; headaches and bung. Today, though, the angel lies beside her – shocks her a little and she shivers out onto the scratched hardwood. Where are her scruffies? Sweatpants collapsed on the floor, grey hoodie caught on the doorknob. All her shirts need washing. Socks are on her feet. Celeste wiggles the sweats over her woolies, works into the hoodie – screw the shirt. The hood clings around her neck, damp from lasts night’s rain and bath. She ties her hair up, wipes crusts from her eyes and mouth. The water’s cold, the floor is cold, the room is cold. Wind seeps through the window panes and it too is cold. Celeste eases the angel out of the sheets and the bedroom, past the kitchen, the bathroom, and into her one other space: what would be a living room if she had a television, but is currently ghosted by a grand pianoforte. She stands the angel beside it. Her fingers, lingering in its light, shine so white they seem either dead or new. The piano itself glints inkily, but is for the moment closed and dormant.
In lieu of wine Celeste fetches a jar of olives, pickled green and speared with a slash of red pimento. She carries the jar in from the kitchen and sits on the piano bench beside the angel. She selects and chews, sets the rest down and runs her thumbs over where the angel’s eye sockets should be. Is it not fully developed? Should she have left it to compost longer? Can it form further here, with her? She velvets her fingertips into the spinal down. Again: rosy warmth. She breathes in and closes her eyes. Three, no five years ago now Celeste rode a pony trail with her brother. Five years isn’t many, not enough to push her below thirty-two, but far enough back that she feels nostalgic. They’d twisted up old logging roads and cell tower repair trails to the tip of a mountain. Her down jacket had swollen with air pressure, ebullient. At dusk stars crackled, the sky shattered to luminescent dust and dropped itself into glacier-fed pools. Her phone rings; she snaps her hand back from the angel. Ignore, ignore. She goes for a glass but she’s out of red. And she’d hoped not to emerge today.
When she gets back her brother stands at the top of her stairs pounding on her door. She ducks round the side of the house, but he’s seen her and yells out:
‘There you are, what gives?’ His galoshes smack down each step. Is her phone not working? He rang her for days. He sniffs and grins wide, red, friendly. Water drips off the crest of his rain jacket and gets her in the eye. ‘Let me take those,’ he says, and grabs at the bags. Celeste grabs back. Of course the bottles clink, and when James pulls the bags open the rain hits them and they twinkle greenly. ‘Celeste.’ He sets them down and hugs her. ‘All this goes into you?’
Celeste grants him his hug. When he lets go she picks up the wine and starts up the stairs.
He follows her, a hand on her shoulder. His coat is covered in tiny dappled hairs, some of which brush onto Celeste and she sneezes.
‘What do you want,’ she says. She knows what he wants. He wants an update with news that she’s still functioning, that she hasn’t dropped to the floor and fermented. She’s surprised when he says, ‘I want you to come to the stables with me. You need to get out.’
‘I need to get out why,’ she says. They’re all the way up on the miniature landing in front of her door. It’s dark – did the sun even crest today? Celeste is suspicious and tucks her bags behind her. Is this some new intervention? Her shoulder blades are against her door and she’s sweating – she feels her personal space siphon off. ‘I can’t go anywhere.’
James throws his hood back and roars into the rain. ‘Celeste Celeste Celeste!’
He’s frustrated for her, not at her, she knows. The last time she stored herself away she’d pried up the rotten stairs, forcing James to replace them to reach her.
Celeste panics and smacks her hand on his mouth; her palm slaps his teeth. ‘I can’t go out because I have something to show you.’ Shut up, she thinks, but the words are out of her and she can’t pull them back, though the air she just breathed hangs misted between her and her brother. James grins under her hand, she feels it in the scratch of his stubble. She lets her arm drop and he says OK.
Inside Celeste sits on the piano bench parked against the wall opposite its counterpart while James circles the angel, posed in the centre of the room. He squats, his knees pushed out, khakis tight over his buttocks and thighs. Would she have had his definition, she thinks, if she had scraped manure and groomed palominos? James reaches up and unfurls first one wing then the other. He snorts.
‘Holy wingspan!’ He laughs, and Celeste laughs too.
She’s curled around a wine glass with her feet tucked under her. She feels congenial, generous and suspects she’s already lush, dusted pink in the cheeks and nose, sweating a little. James is flushed too, she notes, though the drink she poured him sits full on the windowsill.
He measures the wings with his hand, finger to thumb as he does with horses, inching crab-like across the width. He pinches the skin, rubs his fingers together like he’s checking for a film, but none of the glow has transferred. ‘It grew in your compost,’ he says. ‘Maybe from a spore?’
Celeste doesn’t answer; this is the first time she has seen the wings flaunted. Three, maybe four foot flight feathers fractal into smaller and smaller replicates from base to tip. They cast so brilliant a light that her ficus tree has cut a shadow into the drywall. Con brio, since English is not enough. Con fuoco, even. Though possibly it’s the wine firing her blood.
James brushes the length of a wing, lets his fingers drop and pause on the back of the grand. He looks her way and Celeste tenses, then taps her empty glass and migrates to the kitchen. She twists the corkscrew into a second bottle. The beauty of the angel’s wings, its potential for flight, has startled her. She closes her eyes and silently recites multiplication tables. The kitchen is noticeably cooler. She sets the bottle aside to breathe, rinses a knife and peels a stripe from a butternut squash. James rests his hand on hers and says, ‘Let me do that.’
Celeste hesitates, then lets go and refills her glass. She perches on a stool and watches the blade skim skin from the yellow flesh. Finger-width peels litter the counter.
‘Wouldn’t want you nipped, hey?’
James is referring to her hands, her career: musician. Celeste pulls back. James smiles and Celeste realizes he’s misinterpreted her action. She’s not worried about her fingers, rather she is annoyed, both at James for the comment and at herself for the defense she feels crowding out her civility.
James scrapes the peel into the bucket and starts on the flesh of the squash. ‘When are you going to get back on that beast of yours?’ He clicks the hot plate on and sets out a pot.
Her piano, he means. She dips a finger in her wine and hums it around the crystal rim. What right has he, she thinks. She thinks: it’s been two years since she played. She thinks: how many years will have passed when he stops asking? The element hisses. She tries not to think. She tries not to remember pieces, practice, but the dog that her brain is won’t leave it alone and roots through what she’s buried. Here is Young Celeste, sitting at the keyboard until she’s flushed of notes and laughing at how score – chewed her mind has become. There she is, vibrant for hours in that vortex of polished ebony and ivory, in the thrall of that acoustic blanket – the resonant swell and glow of tone–that left her exhausted, ancient, and with merely manuscript. There, in the distance, the sky is scorched and brilliant.
James finds balsamic and olive oil, drizzles it over the steamed squares of squash. He chatters on about a piebald gelding and segues: ‘So will you come to the stables with me tomorrow?’
Celeste picks at her squash with chopsticks and lets the room grow silent. She stares out the kitchen window. Tries to perforate the clouds. James again fills the room with his voice, and though at first she’s put out, his sunny tone and rhythm relax her. When she again tops her glass he says nothing.
At eight, after he’s done the dishes, James stamps into his boots and kisses her hair.
‘Wait.’ Celeste lifts the bucket slick with bruised peels and slips into her shoes. They both hesitate at the angel, its wings spread, and Celeste wants to take it with her. Instead she grabs a third bottle of wine and follows James down the stairs. At the base he gives a final look at Celeste, her compost and her bottle, before he tugs his hood up with both hands and disappears into the dark. What does it matter, thinks Celeste.
The rain in the yard is light, strung in the air, and it beads on Celeste’s eyelashes, on the stems of the last closed daisies, on the fine-haired leaves of the hazelnut tree that pushes over both the garden and the neighbour’s fence. Celeste sets the bucket beside the shovel – still propped in the dirt from yesterday – and the wine beside the bucket. She handles the shovel, breathes heavily as she tugs it from the garden. Her lungs feel violet, and she can taste the wine in her throat. She squints at the mist, her breath, but none of it is purple.
This ritual. She digs around a melted pumpkin. This burial; usually it calms her, but since the angel she’s been rattled. Tonight, more so. It’s as if she’s missed a deadline she wasn’t aware of. She rolls aside a fur-swaddled cabbage. She can’t have drunk more than usual, has drunk less in the presence of her brother; he wouldn’t know that though. The squash peels flake out of her bucket, stick to her hand as she flicks them into the hole. She closes the dirt and impales the pumpkin with the shovel.
When she reaches for the wine she sees the neighbour’s dog on its haunches watching her over the fence. She takes a drink, but it doesn’t break its gaze. It’s almost hidden in the night fog. Celeste lets her mind go, remembers an earlier version of herself turning away a student, a concert. And now, Hermit Celeste – stagnant. She is hit by a memory: in the dusk on the mountain, watching the sky, more mosquitos than possible rose from the still pools, prickled her blind.
The dog still watches her. Judgmental? Sad? She’s afraid at how unsettled she is, its just a damn dog. She swings her arm back and hurls the wine bottle over her head into the yard. Wine circles out, splashes her face and hands. The dog yips. Celeste is thrown off balance, more drunk than she thought, and trips into the dirt, cracking her legs on the shovel. She crawls back up the stairs, not trusting her balance or the bug-riddled rail.
Celeste wakes in the tub, naked, bathed in tepid water. She rubs her eyes. Her fingers have pruned. She moans and rolls on her side. The angel is where she must have dragged it, on its face beside the bath. Her mind throbs. She pulls the plug with her toes, waits for the water to drain, starts to refill the tub. She cranes forward and sips from the faucet. Pulls at something on her lips: fluff, chapped skin. She hangs her feet and hands over the rim to let their skin tighten.
When she opens her eyes she sees that James has let himself in, realizes that his pounding on the door was what woke her. He fills the doorway, his eyes wide and full of water. Tears prick out, pick up like he’s a swollen brook. Celeste imagines the drops as notes, pieces them together as scales and arpeggios. It’s not until he breathes that her mind focuses and she sees how he’s taken her in: naked, hungover, a bouquet of bruises blossoming on her shins.
‘Celeste,’ he says. ‘Fix this.’ Sleep it off. And he leaves.
Celeste folds. She reaches into the angel’s down, but her fingers are too soggy and the water in the tub seems warmer. She sits up and leans over, grabs the shoulders and bends the angel at an odd angle. No twinge, no heat-tingle. She steps out, dripping, and stands it up beside the piano. No need to panic; give it time.
James has taken all the bottles she had out. She limps to the front door and opens it. The rain rips her hair and the Labrador starts barking so she slams it shut. Sighs. Thank heaven. He’s missed her bag behind the door. She grabs a knife and cuts the seal, uncorks it. When she’s half through the bottle she tries again: presses herself against the angel. Nothing. If she could hide in its wings. She pushes against it, topples it and stretches over it. If she could be it. She digs into it with her nails, and bites its shoulder. Celeste knocks over the wine, tries to set it upright but kicks it past the corkscrew and knife under the piano. Her phone rings and she screams, ‘Angel’, grabs the knife and carves into its chest. Then instantly regretful, remorseful, she slices the tips of her fingers, her thumbs.
When she comes to she’s sprawled on the floor, the wine finished but not gone – dried as sour purple vomit on her cheek, puddled under the piano. The dog is barking, and she thinks she can hear James call to her from the yard. Wind spills over her. She sits and wipes the corners of her mouth. The little slits in her fingers throb and she wishes she had more in her to vomit. Green glass bottles are rolled into graceful constellations around the room. The angel is how she left it, on its back with a thin black line cut into its chest. Celeste rubs a swollen index over it, and when its skin parts she reaches a finger, a hand, her arm – more than should logically fit – into the cavity. She feels nothing. The phone has started up too. She pulls out her arm and reaches forward with both hands, peeling the skin until she can look inside.
When her eyes adjust to the dark she sees it is full, so full: the lights from long dead stars churn elliptics, spiral with dying vibrations and decaying harmonics.
When James arrives, having navigated the stairs, he finds the door open, the angel open, and when he looks closely he can make out Celeste’s tiny figure falling into the dark.
Photograph © Kr.B