A Vision Of Heaven
Ben turned slowly, blinking fast to try to make his eyes adjust faster. There she was, standing near the foot of that fancy bed. Ben's jaw dropped.
She was beautiful.
Not, like, crush-on-your-teacher pretty. She was straight out of one of those really classy magazines, or maybe a museum painting. She wasn't the kind of person Ben ever saw in person. She was the kind of person who was way too good to ever meet somebody like him.
It wasn't just her face, or the shiny golden hair she kept pinned up in a pretty comb and carved chopsticks. It was the way she was put together, from head to toe. Not a flaw to her milk-white skin. Not a strand of hair out of place. Perfectly shaped nails on slender fingers, and little toes peeking out from shapely bare feet, both sets of nails elegantly and darkly tinted. She wore one of those embroidered Chinese dresses-- they had a funny name Ben couldn't remember. It had a high collar, short sleeves, and shimmering golden threadwork stitched into deep red silk. It wasn't like the cheap printed patterns normal people wore, either. The flowers and feathers winding their way around the dress didn't repeat. The dress was like one painstaking work of art, from her neck to her ankles. Gold piping ran down the seam in front, and lined the collar, shining like her hair.
"Oh dear," she said, a gentle lilt in her voice making the words sound almost like music. "I can't be that scary, can I?"
"Umm..." Ben finally found his voice, and shut his mouth for a moment. "No, you're not that scary--" He clamped a hand over his mouth. "Oh! No! I mean, you're... I guess..." He looked away, embarrassed. Suddenly he was painfully aware that he was shirtless. He just wanted to crawl under the dresser behind him and hide. "I just didn't know you were in here, and, uh..." This was just going from bad to worse. He sounded like an idiot!
"Oh man!" He rubbed the back of his neck, "I'm sorry, I don't even know what I'm doing here," He could feel himself blushing, and the light from the living room was like a spotlight he couldn't get out of. "If this is your room, I can go!"
"Relax," she said, and Ben couldn't help but comply. It's not like there was any dignity left in the situation for him to lose, anyway. "You've done nothing wrong," she told him, her eyes soft and kind. "You're here with Nathan, which means you're among friends now."
She took a step towards him, bringing more of her face into the light. She had dark blue eyes, and a pert little nose that made her cheeks seem even rounder than they were. Her lips were dark, and full. Everything about her seemed welcoming, and Ben couldn't help but take an answering step towards her. As embarrassed as he was, it was just so nice to have somebody smile at him.
"There's no need to worry while you're under our roof. That's my speciality--" She gave him a little wink. "While you enjoy the hospitality my husband and I offer you, no harm can come to you."
Ben's eyes went wide again. "No way!" he gawked at her. "YOU'RE May?" Ben blinked hard. "Wow... You're married to-- I mean, he's-- and you're--"
May smiled. She closed her eyes, and wagged her finger scoldingly at Ben. "There you go with the shocked looks again. You'd better be careful, you might just stick that way." She opened her eyes again, and they sparkled with mirth where they caught the dim light. "If things like that make your eyes pop out, you'll never keep them in your head around this home." She looked towards the door, her smile turning even warmer. "And Nathan can muster more weird on his own than Juno and I put together!"
"It's just that when I saw Juno, I guess I thought you'd be really old or something." Ben caught himself, and stammered, "Oh! Not that he's really old, I mean, I guess--" Ben fidgeted, trying to find his way out of that one. "I mean, I can't tell because you look my sister's age--" Oh, yeah, that totally made it better!
"God I'm such an idiot!" Ben looked down, wishing he could sink into the floor. "I just keep making it worse! I didn't mean to make it sound sick or wrong or anything."
"You're so cute!" May's nose wrinkled up just a bit, adding a touch of extra amusement to her grin. "It's all right," she soothed. "I know how it appears, actually. Appearances can be deceiving." Her smile shifted, and there was something a little sad hiding in the new expression. "You'd never believe it if I told you how old I really am."
"Oh." Ben wondered if there was somewhere even lower than the floor he could sink. "You're one of them, then." He took a deep breath, and confessed-- "I'm just a monkey, you know. But I would believe it if you told me. You're like Nathan."
"That's funny." She looked a little perplexed. "I thought, since you could see--" A sudden thought seemed to stop the sentence in its tracks. "Well." May brought her right hand to her mouth, a mirror image of the way Nathan had begun his final attack at the canals. She breathed into it, and cupped it to her chest. A soft lilac glow seeped up from the palm of her hand. In the darkness behind May, Ben could see answering shimmers, the ghostly outlines of massive feathers. May cupped her left hand over the right, and teased that frail glow up into the air. A tiny flower shape-- a lotus, that was the word, like the ones carved into the bedposts-- sprung up out of her hand. It was tiny, it was delicate, and it was entirely made of light.
"I'll make it a little more obvious for you." May slid one foot back, as if she were going to bow. She curled in slightly, sheltering that tiny flower of light. The ghosts of white wings spread into the air behind her. "You're right, and you're wrong, all at the same time. I'm a Malakh--"
Suddenly the little bloom of light burst from her hand, suffusing the room with bright shocks of purple and white. They streaked through Ben, warming him all the way down to his bones. He took a step forward. He couldn't help reaching for those snow-white wings before they shimmered out of sight. The breath stopped in his throat, but he didn't care. He didn't need to breathe. He didn't need anything but her light, and he needed it with all his being.
May looked up at Ben, and her bangs lifted away from her forehead, as though blown back by the explosion of light. There he saw a symbol, like the one he'd seen branded on Nathan. It looked almost like a piece of musical notation-- two curls joined by a sharp diagonal line, crossed with two delicate tick-marks, and braced by something that looked almost like a stylized, inside-out Z. Warm lilac threads traced the brand, bathing her face in unearthly light.
"But NOT like Nathan."
Darkness fell over the room again. Ben took a breath. A scent like the fancy carved jewelry boxes in his mother's room filled up his senses. What did she say they were? Cedar, and sandalwood, and some other stuff like that. The kinds of things people put in fancy soaps. He didn't really know why, but that scent made him feel safe. Better than safe. It made him feel welcome. He took a few more deep breaths, trying to gather it all inside before it faded away.
"Whew!" May said. She turned, beckoning him to follow her to the other side of the room. "See? That's what an Aspect's like. All warmth and connection, there's no aggression in me." She cocked her head, giving him a big smile. "Follow me back here, OK?"
It took a minute for Ben to find his feet. Listening to her talk could make a guy forget he even had a body. It was so easy to just fall into the sound.
"Feels good!" She chuckled musically, "Haven't done that in a while. Can't do it too long, though, it draws too much attention."
"Attention--" Ben watched his feet as he followed her. He didn't want to stare. He spent so much time staring these days. "Nathan said that too. I don't get it. I thought I could only see that spirit stuff because I was dead."
May stopped, and looked him over as if seeing him for the first time. "I don't know why you can see it, actually," she mused, "because death isn't even enough to do the trick right away." As she spoke, Ben started to see shadows forming in the room around her, indistinct shades of people and buildings. It was like the world outside was bleeding in around her. Distantly, Ben thought, this should surprise him. But it seemed so natural. "It's about shifting your perspective utterly," May explained. "Seeing the world from eyes with different priorities."
The shadows and people, the objects and even the trees that lined the sidewalk, all looked so mucky, they were hard to tell apart. "Imagine you were living in a place that was entirely made up of one thing--" May tucked her hands behind her back, her dark blue eyes picking up the gentlest of glows. The bedroom was all gone now, all that remained was a sea of vague shapes around them both. "Like fog, or vapor. Putty. No matter what it was, it would all still seem like one thing to you."
Ben nodded. That's what the world looked like right now. As people moved, he could pick them out of the darkness. But when they were still they blended into the murk around them.
"Someone who grew up there wouldn't realize there was so much similarity, because to them the differences would be all that mattered. But you'd have to work past everything you knew to treat one piece of putty differently from any other. You'd look for a point of reference."
Slowly, dull pinpricks of light began to blossom in the living things. They grew brighter, and left little trails wherever a living thing moved. Trees drew the glow up from the ground, and scattered it into their leaves. Buildings built up layer after layer, gathered residue in well-trafficked doorways and in sheltered corners.
"For us those points are how things relate to the spirit," May explained. "Ever since we realized Awas was capable of interacting with it, that energy has dominated our perception of the place."
As Ben listened to her, the light in people got more and more clear. It gathered in places like their hearts, and behind their eyes, and somehow that made sense to him. The places where they kept their innermost selves sheltered, and the places where they reached out to interact with the world. That's where their presence was strongest, where the sense of them mattered most.
"Whether it's the signature left by thought and will, or something generating those things by itself, the energy of the spirit dominates our perception."
"Awas-- 'matter' is the closest translation I can think of-- is a curiousity. It is energy packed so tightly that it takes on an objective existence of its own." Ben could see right through one of the people, to the places where the putty thickened and formed structures, like bone. "To you, it forms everything there is to creation. You name it according to its behaviour and its form, and we name it for what it is to us-- the material that coalesced as reality formed under Father's hand."
Awas. It was the first angelic word anyone had explained to Ben. So it was like 'matter', like the molecules he'd learned in school. Anything with mass that takes up space. But deep down, Ben could feel that Awas was more than that. Awas was the entirety of Ben's universe, everything that insisted on an objective reality of its own. Awas was light, and air, and electricity, and space, and matter, and everything in between.
And Awas was just a tiny part of what Nathan knew, so insignificant to him that at times he forgot to respect its existence at all. That's why the fire fled away from Nathan when he stalked through the burning apartment with Ben at his heels. Awas was afraid of creatures like him. Ben was too.
But May didn't scare him at all. Her voice pulled him out of those thoughts, and back to the skeletal structures of people walking past her.
"We can interact with it on our own, but to it we are diffuse-- we never really understand it, so it's hard to meet Awas on its own terms. We'd have to condense ourselves into its limits and its rules; that's not easy for us to do."
A tall, thin skeleton stopped next to May. As Ben listened to her, its bones began to pick up a turquoise glow. That was a familiar sight by now-- the same shimmer that pulsed through Nathan's eyes when he got mad.
"So we stuff ourselves into bodies," May explained. "Certain creatures, like yourselves, formed out of Awas a structure that-- much to our surprise-- can generate and house energies very much like our own." The skull's sockets filled with vibrant blue fire, and a knot of brighter light collected above and between them. "We can cram our perceptions, more or less, into the space that houses all which makes you more than emotional alchemy of nature and nurture."
The back of that skull began to flood with the same blue-white glow. The brighter it got, the more tongues of flame began whipping down the neck, and coursing down the other bones.
"The bulk of our energy remains trapped in this structure most of the time," May explained. "Just as you do, we let the rigid structure of the brain do most of the work, generally." As the bones glowed brighter, Ben started to see the putty around them again, lighting and becoming more distinct. Nathan's frame solidified around them, camel coat and all. He was surrounded by people, each of them letting out their own kind of glow. But where their eyes were embers, Nathan's were pure flame. Where their hearts had gentle luminance, Nathan's seared out into the darkness. Their light was foggy and indistinct-- Nathan's took on shapes, hints of armor, bits of outspread wings.
"What seeps out of our confinement is not much more than you broadcast without ever knowing," May continued softly. "So even a creature as old and powerful as Nathan can go unnoticed unless you're looking for him." May paused, letting Ben look everyone over, and measure the differences himself. "As long as he's dormant, that is."
The people around May began to fade. There was something emerging from the darkness that replaced them. Ben tried to focus his eyes, but he couldn't make them fix on any one point. That smell-- that sandalwood and cedar scent-- kept getting stronger. Ben couldn't get enough of it. The more he breathed it in, the brighter and clearer everything seemed to be. There were wings behind May, but they seemed oddly disconnected from her. There, behind her! It was trembling, its arms were drawn in tight, looking bound somehow, though there was nothing holding them-- a thin, pale body holding those wings aloft.
Ben swallowed hard. Its ribs looked sunken in, like the starving people on those holocaust movies his mother made him watch at Passover. Ben thought it looked like a woman, though maybe that was because of all its swirly, platinum blonde hair. Its eyes were closed, its face turned upwards in silent prayer. Its wings moved in and out as if with May's breathing, but its withered chest stayed still.
Despite its condition, the creature was stunning. Its skin was flawless, even stretched tight as it was across joint and bone. Its features were elegantly sculpted, like the fairy figurines Ben saw in comic-book shops. But better. So much better. If only it didn't look like it was in so much pain! Ben reached out a hand as though to touch it, then quickly drew his hand back. May didn't react. She just gave him a wistful, tired smile.
"It's true we're trapped in these bodies," she continued, as though nothing had changed, "but at the same time, very little of us can actually fit into a body at all. The human being is left without a soul, drawing only on its thoughts, emotions, and memories-- devoid of all the support you take for granted from what you've got."
She closed her eyes, and the figure behind her placed slender hands on her shoulders, steadying her though she didn't seem aware of the touch. "The brain forgets, gets lost, forges ahead as bravely or as badly as the personality that has grown inside that body." The figure behind her bent lower, so its head was nearly beside hers, yet she still seemed unaware of it. "It's not another person--" she explained, "-- you're not another person when you talk in your sleep, right?" She smiled, a thin weak curve to her lips that fell away so quickly. "It's about the same."
Ben watched, rapt, as the thin figure wrapped its arms around May's shoulders. It held her gently, but firmly, and she didn't even react to it. This is what she meant, Ben thought. It's not another person. That's her. That's what's inside her. Something like that is inside Nathan, too.
"To do the work we set out to do," May's voice kept threading through the dark, "We have to push close to the surface. Even though that's a terrible load on the body, it feels good to get close to the timelessness and power sleeping inside." The figure behind her placed its hand on the back of her neck, whispering urgently to her. Her head tipped forward, her eyes closing slowly to listen.
"Everything we are is contrary to Awas," she said softly, and her voice had taken on another quality. It was her voice, but it was someone else's too. And he could see her, as though she were standing on the street in the midst of a crowd, right in the middle of the city. Everything was putty again, the muddy mix of Awas all around Ben, even May's form had dissolved into the crowd. But there were little traces of that other form. There were still hints of cedar in the smoggy air. Soft white wings faded in and out of view, passing effortlessly through the people and things around her.
"We disrupt and destroy its processes. We don't really believe it is as objective as it wants to be, and we are creatures used to shaping our reality ourselves." That lilac flame she'd shown him began to whip around the suggestion of her form, licking higher and higher until it was threading up into the sky. Suddenly Ben was floating, getting further and further from her. Everything in him knew he was safe so long as he kept looking into that glow.
"On a conscious level, and even a subconscious level, we're constantly at war with ourselves--" Her voice went through him, more felt than heard, but it was still such a comforting sound. "--trying to hide but at the same time so desperate to feel like ourselves that we even reshape our bodies to feel more familiar, over time." Ben thought of the weird blue tassels in Nathan's hair. Maybe that's what those were, he thought, maybe they made Nathan feel closer to home. "It's hard to feel like a stranger," May told him softly, and a thought stirred deep down-- maybe she knew that too.
He could see the whole city now, buildings glowing here and there where they were lit up with human emotion and faith. Ben wasn't surprised to see the downtown church lit up, but the courthouse was easy to see, and that was a surprise. There were restaurants giving off a warm glow, and bits of the park too. He didn't feel comfortable taking his eyes off May for long though.
He needn't have worried. Her licks of purple flame were stretching high into the air, her white wings lifting up towards the sky. It was a struggle to look at anything but her. She was curled in a little, her hands crossed over her heart. All the people around her faded into a mass of indistinct putty. All there was, in all the city, was that angel calling out to him.
"A Malakh extending into this world is an unmistakeable, irresistible attraction--" May explained, "-- familiarity sings through us and wakes us up in response." Ben could believe it. All he wanted to do was get closer to that warmth, that connection, but he just kept floating further away. "We seek each other out, no matter how wise or not that might be... because this place is very lonely for all sides of our war. Even battle is better than the nothingness that lets you forget yourself, and that you were ever anything more."
She was so far away now. The people were tiny little dots moving against the city streets, and there she was, her beauty undimmed even from Ben's vantage in the sky. Her energies spilled out into the world around her, lighting everything in their comforting glow.
"The need for kinship is instant," he felt her speak into his heart, "the recognition undeniable. From inches, or from miles, it makes no difference to us--" Something like a chuckle ran through him, and almost escaped from his own lips, "It wouldn't be much harder to pick an orange from fifty marbles or from fifty thousand, after all."
Everything was black. Bit by bit Ben started to feel his body again. Slowly it dawned on him that his eyes were closed.
"Turn the light on." He still felt her words more than he heard them. "You've had enough darkness for now."
He opened his eyes upon the darkened bedroom, and found himself searching for May's face. It came into focus gradually, and so did the lamp beside her. As he approached it, she slipped past him, past the divider that rested at the foot of her fancy bed. Behind it there was a desk with a big computer-- one of those big heavy towers with three kinds of drives and a clunky monitor. It even had one of those squarish mice with three buttons and no wheel. There was a huge mask on the wall and some kind of beaded art hanging in the corner. Everything in this place was just so OLD! Everything but May.
"Uhh, May?" Ben fumbled with the lamp, his fingers feeling thick and clumsy. "I'm not very good at this, but..." Ben cleared his throat, keenly and uncomfortably aware of how exposed he was without his customary turtlenecked shirt. "Thank you for talking to me." It felt good to dislodge those words, and the next few came easier. "Not just talking to me, but talking to me. Like I can understand it. You make me feel like I can."
Ben looked away from her; he couldn't stand for her to see how ashamed he really felt. "No matter how hard I try," he said, softly, "I can't do anything but make Nathan angry at me." He looked up at her quickly. What if that made her angry too?
May's expression was soft, her eyes surprised and sympathetic. "Oh, Ben..." That sound was so tender. If only she could just say his name that way again. It had gone by too quickly. But she was already saying more.
"That's just his way. It's not your fault. He's..." She closed her eyes, and sighed, wringing her pale hands just a little before she stilled them. "He's complicated. We all are. Some of us just walk paths that are easier to walk alone."
"Oh!" Her expression brightened, and she gestured to the computer. "I almost forgot!" Her voice got playful, a sound that lifted Ben out of his gloomy thoughts. "Speaking of our other guest-- he left something for you! He asked Juno to post it on the web, but Juno didn't think he really knew what he was asking." May chuckled. Her laugh warmed Ben and drew the corners of his mouth up in a little answering smile. "Nathan wouldn't know code from codex! He's hopeless with computers."
Ben could believe it. The computer Nathan had in his crappy apartment was even older than this one, and it looked like it had been knocked around something fierce. There had been keys missing from the old spring-loaded keyboard. Just trying to type on it made Ben's fingertips hurt. He hoped this keyboard was better. May made way as Ben sidled up to the computer. Ben was so eager, he didn't even bother to pull up a chair.
"Juno left it on for you," May explained, "Just shake the mouse to stop the screensaver."
Ben was already in the menu by the time she said it. Nathan.DOC was already open, and Ben was fishing around for how to scroll it down. "Oh, wow!" Ben rocked forward on his toes, sliding the document up to see more and more of what was written there. "This is, like, all the stuff I've been asking him! And he wrote it before the fire! No wonder he didn't want to answer me..."
"Looks like you got discouraged a little early, eh?" May smiled softly back at him, but he was thoroughly lost in what he was reading. She nodded gently, and turned to leave. "I'll leave you to it. I wear out so fast these days. I'll try to see you again beefore you leave."
She paused, just as she was about to round the divider. "Oh-- and Juno got you some new clothes." She gestured towards a big comfy chair tucked between the lamp and a bookcase in the corner of the room. "He had to. The shirt you arrived in was ruined, and those jeans have sure seen better days!"
Ben looked down, embarrassed. He remembered the mud in her sheets, the sand he'd tracked all over her pretty gray carpet. But she was already on her way out of the room again, waving his concerns off with a casual hand.
"You should get changed," she urged him, "Don't catch cold! No matter how dead Nathan thinks you are, trust me, even the dead get sick!"