Unlike Baal and Asmodeus, we were not, are not, fallen angels. Not even Rachmiel, who no longer resides among us.
It began with an old man, a man who had spent his life editing moving pictures in early Bollywood, before sound—and afterwards as well, but with less satisfaction. He could not stop thinking about the bitter taste of black walnuts on his tongue. As he worked, there had always been a bowl at his elbow, and he cracked the walnuts in his left fist. This was what he missed most about being alive. His yearning was a magnetic storm, a riptide. We were infected with longing as if by a mighty plague. Then there were the others with their baked beans, their goat curries, their steel-cut oats with maple syrup, even the recollected taste of their own blood.
Bitter, sweet, salty, sour. Just when we thought we understood, that we could arrest the contagion, it was rumoured there was a fifth flavour. Umami. How was it mortals could conceive of a fifth taste when all of the heavenly host could not?
The Children of Arcadia Court
Bashaar Khan (14, athlete & dancer): inhabited by Zachriel (an empathetic angel)
Stephan Choo (12, good student): inhabited by Elyon (a practical & vengeful angel)
Leo Costello Jr. (14, nice dude): inhabited by Barman (a learned angel)
Jason Wadsworth, a.k.a. The Wad (15, school bully): inhabited by Yabbashael (a cheerful angel)
Jessica Wadsworth (15, Jason’s twin, anorexic): inhabited by Rachmiel (a merciful angel)
Gary, Lubbock, and Sweeney, a.k.a. the Three Wise Men (homeless men living in the rough)
Cullen (16, Jessica’s boyfriend)
Gabriel (an archangel and head messenger)
Also featuring various parents, grandparents, and other antagonists
There we were, in the grip of an intense curiosity about the senses that had been tamped down since time began. Sight and sound we could almost comprehend, but taste and smell, and, most unfathomable of all, touch—how was it these things could conjure ecstasy and revulsion in equal measure? (The Christ, who had suckled at the teat and could have spoken to the matter from experience, is such an ascetic that he remained silent when quizzed about the wine, unleavened bread, and olives, not to mention the fine ointments administered by women’s hands. The pain and suffering, on the other hand, these he never minded sharing.)
The five of us—Barman, Elyon, Rachmiel, Yabbashael, and Zachriel—were selected as emissaries. (Note to Gabriel: “Conscripts” would have been a more appropriate term. Or “guinea pigs.”)
Lacking corporeality, we have no distinguishing physical characteristics, but, unlike the sentinels and tutelary geniuses, we messengers do have traits that set us apart. In our small group Barman is the preternaturally intelligent one; Elyon, the efficient and vengeful one (best known for bringing the plague of hail upon Egypt); Rachmiel, the merciful one; Yabbashael, the cheerful one; and Zachriel, the understanding one.
We have no gender, of course, but on Arcadia Court we became four teenage boys and a girl. At the time that distinction meant nothing to us. With at least 3.8 million millennia of combined experience, the one thing we had never suspected we were was naive.
The morning we arrived, a number of things happened—or didn’t happen—inside the homes on the quiet cul-de-sac of Arcadia Court that the observant might have recognized as miracles.
Bashaar Khan had gone to bed the previous night with a new eruption of acne across his cheeks but woke with clear skin, a fact he celebrated by working an excessive amount of “product” into his dark hair until it resembled the varnished shell of a rhinoceros beetle. Stephan Choo’s mother did not have to carry her son’s bedding straight to the laundry room, holding it at arm’s length to maximize her distance from the sadly familiar acrid smell. Leo Costello Jr. did not begin the day by giving his little sister and brother the usual cheerful noogies, so that their wailing did not wake their parents and the family members ended up clambering into their lease-to-own Ford Escape later than usual. This gave them the opportunity to witness the hitherto mythic shopping cart racers hurtling down Mountain Highway, daredevil homeless men who had, as Leo Sr. said, “obviously nothing left to lose.” They collected bottles and dwelt in the rough of Hastings Creek, where the children of Arcadia Court were frequently warned not to go.
And, perhaps most significant, Jessica Wadsworth sat down and ate breakfast for the first time in three years. Her brother, Jason—who we would shortly learn was almost exclusively referred to as The Wad—greeted his parents not with a grunt but with a beatific smile. This inspired his mother to head to his room to ransack it for illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia, while his father turned to Jason’s twin sister, urging Jessica to take another helping of yogurt and muesli.
“Do we have any walnuts, Father? ” Jason asked. “Or baked beans, perchance? ”
“Oh my God,” his mother yelled from the hallway. “It’s the munchies!” There ensued a spirited debate between the two adults about whether crystal methamphetamine caused the munchies or whether that was just pot. (“Just pot? Is that like just one more before hitting the road? ”)
That Thursday was, as Barman, our specialist on world religions, later pointed out, the Catholics’ Feast of Scholastica, patron saint of convulsive children. “Isn’t that ironic? ” But when asked in what way, Barman, being new to the concept, just shrugged.
To err is human, to forgive divine. That old trout. We can tell you now that it’s the other way around; a complex vice versa.
We hope the records will show that what we did was undertaken not as a lark but in the true spirit of exploration. In other words, like Vasco da Gama and Neil Armstrong, we were sent.
That first morning the rain and the smell of damp cedar and the ozone-charged air overwhelmed our just-awakened senses. How can we explain it? It was as if magma flowed in our veins, rather than blood.
And everywhere the taste of the undiscovered was practically vibrating on our tongues.
Our first heady days went by in a blur of rampaging sensations so intense we thought we could understand how overwhelmed autistic children must feel, or someone newly awakened from a coma who finds himself on the streets of Pamplona during the running of the bulls. But one particular day does stand out: February 14, St. Valentine’s Day, 2011.
It was only our third day of school, a Monday. We’d had a relatively quiet weekend after the initial tumult of familiarizing ourselves with the young people whose bodies we now inhabited.
Rachmiel and Yabbashael were hosted by the fifteen-year-old twins Jessica and Jason Wadsworth. The former was a small, winter-melon-coloured thing with brittle hair, thinned flesh stretched over pointy bones, veins cross-hatched under the surface of her skin. As if they were siblings in a nursery rhyme or Biblical parable, her brother, in contrast, was a ruddy young ox, golden hair razed close to the scalp, a boy whose idea of a joke was to stick a tree-trunk leg out from under a cafeteria table, trip up a student carrying a loaded tray, and gaze around in feigned bewilderment.
Zachriel was now Bashaar Khan, who was handsome in a fourteen-year-old way and knew it. Athletic and talented in the arts, he was a boy destined to make his mark. Some older youths from the North Vancouver musallah had noticed Bashaar’s capabilities as well and had launched a stealth campaign to radicalize him. Fully enamoured of Western excess, Bashaar had so far rebuffed their advances.
Barman was inhabiting Leo Costello Jr., a shaggy-haired boy of fourteen who was as agile as he was quick witted, and loved, or at least tolerated, by everyone, it seemed, save his younger brother and sister. We couldn’t help but notice that of all our hosts Barman’s was the most congenial. (“A match made in heaven,” Barman agreed.)
And Elyon had borrowed the body of Stephan Choo, the only progeny of an aging couple originally from Guangzhou who had given up on having children when unexpectedly blessed with Stephan. An intelligent, much-adored, and coddled boy, he had trouble navigating the shoals of childhood. Although only twelve, Stephan was completing his first year of high school, in the same grade eight class as Leo Jr., due to a well-intentioned school board initiative called “acceleration.”
Stephan’s only valentine cards that day were from the school librarian and the rest of us. “You got a valentine from The Wad and The Stick Insect? ” asked one incredulous backbencher, a boy with a lazy eye and a hairstyle we came to know as a faux-hawk. He plucked from Stephan’s hand the cards he had received from the twins, rather modest declarations of friendship from cartoon characters named SpongeBob and Squidward. It was fortunate he didn’t notice the ones from Bashaar and Leo Jr., one featuring a prancing pony with the words, “I sure get a kick out of you! Be My Valentine!” inside the stylized shape of a heart, and the other a sock puppet mermaid: “You’re my fish come true!”
The heart, we were to learn, is a lonely muscle.
As soon as school let out that afternoon, Stephan was surrounded by a group of boys making off-colour suggestions about various activities he might get up to with the twins. They tied him to the neglected tetherball post at the far end of the sports field with a skipping rope and subjected him to a vigorous round of three-on-three. By the time Leo Jr. and Bashaar intervened, the boys had fled hooting and there was a puddle on the cracked asphalt around Stephan’s feet.
It seemed nothing in Herodotus, Sun Tzu, or even Revelation had adequately prepared us for teenage mores and the indignities of Elysium Heights Secondary.
Adjusting to our bodies at the beginning was difficult. No longer discarnate, we had to focus on negotiating doorways and stairwells. Bruises bloomed on our hips and shins like exotic fungi. Jason had a split lip and a black eye, and was summoned to the principal’s office to be quizzed about whom he’d been fighting this time. Bashaar, a.k.a. Bash, a power forward on the school’s basketball team though only in grade nine, found himself warming the bench. (The militant musallah youths took the opportunity to milk this: “In Mecca, true believers are not benched… ”) Stephan had a reputation for being clumsy, so no one, not even his parents, thought anything of it when he broke his glasses three times in one week.
And all that effluvia. Sweat, nocturnal emissions, the transit of liquids and solids from one end to the other. The human body, a moody and capricious marvel. It is little wonder St. Francis called his own Brother Ass. (One of Barman’s favourite authors, the late American satyr Henry Miller, wrote, “To relieve a full bladder is one of the great human joys.” A sentiment worthy of a T-shirt, Yabbashael noted after one particularly satisfying visit to the second-floor boys’ room.)
The amount of time we spent behind bathroom doors did not go unnoticed. It was the worst for Rachmiel. Years of deprivation had left her host Jessica’s digestive system as fragile as Malaysia’s ravaged mangrove forests, her newly robust appetite triggering bouts of gastrointestinal distress and vomiting. And now that she was no longer anorexic, it wasn’t long before she finally began menstruating. This discomfited some of us more than it did Rachmiel.
“The array of feminine hygiene products at the Lynn Valley Centre’s Shoppers Drug Mart is staggering,” Rachmiel told us, eyes as round and darkly glistening as a mouse lemur’s. “An entire aisle.”
To which Yabbashael, a.k.a. The Wad, speaking for the rest of us, said: “TMI, dear sister, TMI.”
How mystifying it is that knowledge and experience are such utterly different beasts—one a contemplative water buffalo, the other a wild mink.
Why Arcadia Court? Why not Jammu, the ancestral home of our black-walnut-loving tempter? Or Barcelona or Manhattan, where our taste receptors might have been set abuzz? Why not an outpost in sub-Saharan Africa, where we might have been of some use?
The truth is that, like a child spinning a globe, eyes closed tight, the compact planet skimming rapidly under his index finger until it slows and then stops (There! The Bonin Islands? Wuhan? Tucuruí? The world suddenly seeming larger than large, wanderlust abruptly sated), our choice of destination was rather whimsical. And we did like the name and the way clouds sat low on the mountaintop just above that enclave in North Vancouver. There was, we admit, a waft of something compelling from a small wooded area nearby, beside Hastings Creek. “The smell of destiny,” Rachmiel had called it, rather portentously, considering we could not yet smell anything in the literal sense. At the time, we believed “destiny” to be one of those weasel words beloved by those with little insight into the workings of the universe.
Our fact-finding mission was to last as long as it took to discover the zenith of each human sense. Barman’s best guess was four years; Elyon thought a week or so should do it. At any rate, time had, for us, never been of consequence. Now we were to be human in all respects, bound to the limitations of the species—no being in two places at once, no interventions, no miracles.
Arcadia Court itself comprised just seven houses arrayed around a horseshoe-shaped road opening off Arcadia Drive, which lay between the steeply graded and winding Mountain Highway and Lynn Valley Road. It had a neat little physicality to it, a sense of order challenged by the surrounding wilderness.
It was during our second week there that we first wandered into the forbidden woods by Hastings Creek. Almost hidden amid the foliage, in a clearing on the east side of the creek, a soiled blue plastic tarp strung between two hemlocks caught our eyes. And from under it came guttural laughter, voices simultaneously muted and oddly amplified. “Here, mix these two together and now try it,” said one, followed by a sidewinder of a cough, while someone else gagged.
Yabbashael went first, fording the creek without even bothering to take off Jason’s prized Air Jordans. Stumbling over a pile of debris, Yabbashael sent empty bottles and cans clattering in the relative silence of the clearing. Three old men emerged from under the tarp, red faced, two of them with matted greyish-brown beards, all looking as if they were wearing clothing made of sodden cardboard.
“Shit, kid, we’re trying to have a board meeting here,” said the bald, leather-faced one, waving in Yabbashael’s direction a bottle with a cigarette butt (or a fly?) floating in it. A decidedly human pong swirled about the men, a cloud of urine, sweat, and cigarette smoke.
And that is how we met the genius loci of Hastings Creek, the near-mythical shopping cart racers of Lynn Valley. They were the kind of men the Christ would have consorted with, and who could blame him? They were the lepers, the untouchables, of this place, and so forbidden fruit to us.
Yabbashael and Barman were particularly drawn to the Three Wise Men, as they took to calling their new friends. To this day, Yabbashael swears that a dried pepperoni stick the men shared with them came the closest to what we understand to be the spirit of umami.
“It’s as if they have some deeper understanding of the true pleasures of life,” Yabbashael said after one visit to Hastings Creek, prompting an unheeded warning from Rachmiel: “Nothing good has ever come of romanticizing the downtrodden.”
Toward the end of our first month, Elyon had a particularly bad day at school. When Ms. W. asked Stephan about Hamlet’s indecisiveness, Elyon quoted the famous soliloquy almost in its entirety. Stephan was set upon on the way home by some future captains of industry regurgitating their bastardized brand of poetry. “Slings and arrows of outrageous faggotyness!” “To be a fucking geek or not to be a fucking geek!” and, perhaps the worst, “To sleep, perchance to wet my bed!”
“Ms. W. cut me off at ‘conscience doth make cowards of us all,’” Elyon told us later behind the Wadsworths’ carport as we took turns holding Jason’s gym shirt to Stephan’s nose and forehead to staunch the flow of blood and tears. Zachriel gently cautioned that no one likes a show-off, while Barman couldn’t resist dispensing some advice: “The cool answer would’ve been ‘What is existential angst, Alex? ” Like his avatar, Leo Jr., Barman was a fan of Jeopardy!
Although none of us was having as hard a time as Elyon in the guise of hapless Stephan, Arcadia Court was not exactly living up to its name. Yes, from the ravine behind our houses we could hear fern song, the endlessly unfurling fronds in the ceaseless rain. But beyond that, the equally ceaseless whine of power tools as farther up the mountainside residents sought to improve the value of their lots. From the Wadsworths’ came a constant muted stench, the distinct whiff of unhappiness, and next door, from the Costellos’, often the smell of scorched fish sticks and Leo Jr.’s mother singing, off key, something about sistahs doin’ it for themselves.
Barman, as Leo Jr., had adjusted most easily to life as a suburban teenager. Skateboard under one arm, fingers casually pinching a “spliff,” revelling in the role of free spirit. “The Dude abides with me,” Barman liked saying—quoting from a Hollywood movie that had recently achieved cult status—amusing us all with the double entendre. “Nice guy, that Leo Jr.” was what everyone invariably said.
Jason was a nice guy now, too, thanks to Yabbashael, but this only gave people more cause for suspicion. “Why isn’t The Wad acting like a wad? ” students asked, and gave him a wider berth than usual, while the teachers continued to watch him out of the corners of their eyes.
Jessica’s formerly papery skin shone, and curves appeared in places where before there had been alarming concavity. The boys were paying attention, although some kept their distance on account of her being The Wad’s sister. The girls were a different matter. A tiny, curly-haired warlord named Montana puffed out her cheeks and told her posse: “If she doesn’t stop stuffing her face she’ll end up like that blimp in Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire.”
“Well, you know how girls can be,” Zachriel said.
“In fact,” said Rachmiel, uncharacteristically snappy, “I don’t.”
It turned out that Bash, who had a fine tenor and could dance, had been cast as Judas Iscariot in the school’s spring production of Jesus Christ Superstar before we’d appeared on the scene. His role made the rest of us nervous, but Zachriel had begun to admire Tim Rice and Sir Andrew’s sympathetic view of the betrayer. “Besides,” said Zachriel, “he gets all the best songs.”
During the day we did our best to avoid one another as our social hierarchies dictated, but at night we lay in our beds in welcome darkness and communicated again without the boundaries of language. Speaking in tongues without need of tongues, bodiless once more.
On the ceiling of Stephan’s bedroom was a glow-in-the-dark solar system, the North Star peeling away. On the wall of Leo Jr.’s room, posters from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Beside Jason’s pillow, a plush dolphin and an oversized neon pink hedgehog won at the previous summer’s PNE and hidden away under the bed each morning.
“How is this really different from texting? ” Zachriel asked one night. Zachriel was the only one of us who’d taken to social media.
“It’s different in spirit,” Barman said, “and, besides, there’s no need for opposable thumbs.”
For some of us, high school was shaping up to be a regular pit of Acheron. (“The hue of dungeons and the scowl of night,” quoth Elyon, who was finding solace in Shakespeare despite the earlier classroom misadventure.) Only ten more days to go before spring break. We began to think in terms of miracles. And while we inhabited their bodies, Bashaar, Stephan, Leo Jr., Jason, and Jessica, the children of Arcadia Court, partook of a heaven-sent dreamless sleep. There were times, we admit, that we envied them.
How much easier it had been for Muhammad and Siddhartha, not to mention the Christ, who did not have to wander the earth incognito. “If only we could smite just a little to blow off some steam,” Elyon said.
“I love that word, ‘smite,’” Yabbashael said.
“You guys,” Rachmiel told them, “go to sleep.”
Stephan didn’t leave the house the whole week of spring break, and when he finally emerged we almost didn’t recognize him. Gone were the too-short sweatpants and checked shirts and white socks; gone were the duct-taped glasses. In their place, oversized jeans, black hoodie, and red-framed Soulja Boy sunglasses. (Gone, too, was approximately $500 from the university savings his superstitious parents kept hidden in a jade fortune vase in the pantry, behind tins of water chestnuts.) When we converged on him, Stephan simply raised a hand and said, “Word.”
He failed a math test that week, the first of many, and when called on in English or social studies he’d say things like “Existential angst, man,” ignoring meaningful pokes from Leo Jr. (“Stephan’s so random,” his male classmates said approvingly, so we could only conclude this was a good thing, this doing poorly in school and waxing random.)
Stephan spent much of this time on multiplayer role-playing games online. By all accounts he was a master at World of Warcraft: Realm of Cocytus, “smiting the enemy,” who consisted of a new kind of Wyrm and Nephilim. (Barman scoffed at how the game developers stole so readily from ur-Biblical sources. “Nephilim. They have no idea what they’re dealing with. No wonder Elyon has their number.”)
We soon heard reports that Stephan was hacking for his classmates. His new admirers were his old adversaries, pimply boys with too much pocket money who took to intoning “S’mite” to each other in greeting.
Yabbashael and Barman tried to talk sense into Elyon. “You two should talk,” Elyon said, eyes non-existent behind those disconcerting lenses, avoiding directly addressing Barman. “His guy was already cool, and your guy is an armoured vehicle.” Barman asked if this was all some kind of twisted revenge scenario, but Elyon only said, “By the time we leave, Stephan will be made.”
On an early April morning Stephan’s parents slowly chewed and swallowed their shame dumplings and visited the school counsellor, shuffling along the main hall of Elysium Heights Secondary, their son strutting behind them.
Stephan’s ancient grandmother, who lived in the basement suite of the family home, had been making twice-daily offerings to Kwan Yin, the Bodhisattva of compassion, on her small Buddhist shrine. Zachriel saw her that day walking along the edge of the ravine behind Arcadia Court, bending painfully to tug up freshly blooming false Solomon’s seal and collect choice pine cones. The moist earth aroma, Zachriel said, was almost indecent. Nearby, on a dying Douglas fir, a pileated woodpecker let loose with a maniacal laugh and went back to his drumming. Stephan’s grandmother raised her tortoise face and (Zachriel swore on Bashaar’s J.C. Superstar script, rolled up in his back pocket) echoed that lunatic laughter right back at the bird.
What karmic justice, she might have been thinking, had led her to be a ninety-six-year-old woman traipsing through the rainforest at the edge of the world, mother to an aging son whose own child had lost all sense of filial piety?
We couldn’t help but wonder how was it that we could be drawn to an object, that a pair of sneakers dangling from a telephone wire, the rubber curling back from the heels, could break our hearts, yet we felt so little for the suffering of these parents?
That same day, Jessica’s mother steered her to the couch when she came home in a shirt two sizes smaller than the one she’d left the house wearing and tried to engage her in a heart-to-heart about birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, and dressing like a harlot—although the word she used was “slut.” We found it both interesting and disturbing that people’s attitudes toward women and their bodies had changed so little since the days of Nebuchadnezzar II. (“The Madonna/whore dichotomy is so tired,” sighed Barman.)
This was Jessica’s opportunity to tell her mother she loved her and that she was looking forward to being guided through womanhood by her sagacity. Instead, she turned her head, looked pointedly at her own chipped nail polish, and sighed dramatically.
“I don’t know what got into me,” Rachmiel told us afterwards. “I wanted to put my arms around her, tell her that life is too short, too precious, to spend it endlessly worrying about things we cannot change, and that I could take care of myself, but she was just so—”
“Irritating? ” asked Yabbashael.
We couldn’t help nodding in compadreship; we all had mothers now. Maryam, Um Isa, Our Lady of Sorrows, Panayia, Kali, forgive us.
Toward late April, Jessica began consorting with an older boy, a certain Cullen, who rode a coveted make of British motorcycle. Sullen Cullen, Barman nicknamed him, after his propensity for moping about, leaning against his bike with his head in a copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet when Jessica wasn’t with him.
And so Rachmiel stopped talking to the rest of us in public while Jessica was busy romancing Cullen, but still joined our nocturnal debriefings. Unlike Elyon. Stephan was by then making “good coin” cracking codices for his classmates, and Elyon didn’t want to be privy to our “sanctimonious brand of negativity.” Stephan took to wearing bulky jewellery and talking in rhyme with his escort of swaggering boys, whose ears were stopped up with neon buds at all times.
Yabbashael and Barman were by then enjoying themselves as Jason and Leo Jr. and spent much of their free time visiting the Three Wise Men of Hastings Creek: Gary, Lubbock, and Sweeney. None of them were as old as they’d initially appeared. They’d been prematurely aged by an adult life spent living rough, and not always by choice. Yabbashael was certain—following an afternoon of warm beer and discussions about the philosophy of shopping cart racing—they were zeroing in on the ne plus ultra of human experience.
Our carnal senses had also fully awakened by then. Jason was “spanking the monkey” so often that Yabbashael complained Jason’s foreskin looked—and felt—like tenderized minute steak. Leo Jr. gave and got his first hickey, although Barman was oddly bashful when asked with whom. Jessica and Cullen were spotted, more than once, coming out of the Wadsworths’ laundry room, sheets of fabric softener clinging to their dishevelled hair. Rachmiel seemed to have taken a vow of silence about the affair and shared nothing with the rest of us during our after-hours conversations.
Bashaar was busy with the school’s rock opera preparations at that point. Each evening after rehearsal, in the encroaching darkness outside the gymnasium, the two grade ten girls who played Mary and her understudy, and a grade eleven girl from the chorus, would take turns administering oral sex to Bash with lipstick-thickened, smoky mouths. (“Rainbow party,” Zachriel told us, and in a tone of reverence up to then reserved for Psalm 19, New International Version, tried to describe the sensation. One of the Marys evidently swallowed, but Zachriel couldn’t recall which.)
It was after one particularly long rehearsal that they were interrupted by a couple of the radicalized Islamic youth. As the girls scrambled to their feet and vanished into the night, Bash zipped himself up unhurriedly and said, “Ma sha’ Allah,” attempting to be polite.
One of the young men fingered his sparse beard and asked, equally politely, whether Bash had decided to drop a blasphemous line from the song “Superstar.” The way Bash’s interlocutor put it, it sounded more like a threat than an entreaty, especially since his silent colleague kept smacking his fist into his palm to punctuate the request. We wonder now, after everything, what would have happened if Bash had revealed that he was inhabited by a messenger sent by the same Jibrail who had delivered the Koran to their prophet. Would they have believed him, laughed, or condemned him on the spot for blasphemy?
Why, they appeared to genuinely want to know, would Bashaar waste his time with these infidel females when seventy-two virgins awaited him in paradise?
“I wanted to disabuse them of their ill-conceived notions of martyrdom right then and there,” Zachriel would later claim, almost five years to the day after we left Arcadia Court, when a defaced For Sale sign went up on the Khan family’s lawn and the street was a jumble of yellow police tape, “but I just couldn’t stop thinking about those Marys. Their lips. Their tongues.”
By then we knew the body inevitably betrayed the mind.
Are we good? The question is often asked. We transcend the notion of good or bad as understood in the human sense. We simply are. An idea difficult to grasp, like the workings of the Hadron Collider or why the caged bird sings.
The afternoon Leo Jr. died and was reborn and our days at Arcadia Court became numbered was a fine Saturday in late May. Gary and Lubbock had convinced Sweeney that Jason and Leo Jr. were spiritually primed to undertake their first shopping cart race. A picture of what happened that day has been pieced together from Yabbashael, Barman, and Rachmiel’s separate accounts.
In the parking lot of Save-On-Foods, Sweeney instructed the boys to approach the carts as if they were wild stallions and try to sense which ones spoke to them. Lubbock said, “Forget that farting around, just grab one and let’s get going.” An argument broke out but was quickly resolved when Leo Jr. threw himself across the parking lot on a cart, “popping a wheelie,” and landed on his backside while the men laughed and coughed and forgot what they’d been raging about moments before.
They hefted hunks of concrete into their shopping carts at a nearby demolition site, and, all five carts balanced, wheels true, they rattled toward Mountain Highway. After some last-minute adjustments and a reminder to use the inside left foot as a brake, the men and boys howled down the winding road, motorized vehicles honking and veering around them. “The eighteen seconds or so before I blacked out were the most thrilling of my human life,” Barman told us later.
According to Yabbashael, Barman (that is, Leo Jr.) went screaming out ahead, perhaps emboldened by his skateboarding expertise, misjudged the first curve, and flew several metres into the scrub off the side of the road. Gary administered mouth-to-mouth even though Leo Jr. had no pulse. Barman later told us a tunnel of white light beckoned to Leo Jr., but something (the yeasty taste of stale beer mixed with damp tobacco strands?) pulled him back.
Heady with stirred-up testosterone, Jason and Leo Jr. made for Hastings Creek. What met them was a sight Barman described as “something out of the Apocalypse of John the Divine.”
Amid crushed ferns, a two-headed beast writhed, while the sound of trumpets sundered the welkin. On the blast of the seventh, they perceived “a woman clothed with the sun, the moon, and the stars, and Satan cast down to earth.”
Barman insists to this day that the visual confusion was a trick of filtered light and shadow through the trees, and that the sound of trumpets was thunder preceding a storm. What they’d stumbled onto was simply a private scene of two young people in the thrall of carnal exuberance. (Some of us believe what occurred there by the creek was a result of Yabbashael’s taking the protector role of Jason as “big brother” too seriously.)
Jason heaved up a large, muddy stone from the side of the creek while Leo Jr. stood by as if in a trance. He brought the stone down on the back of the “beast,” at which point a scream cleared the air. Jessica lay under a seemingly lifeless Cullen as blood ran into the boy’s ponytail from a fissure in his neck. Her eyes, Barman recalls, were terrible, like the maw of a deep-sea dweller. When she spoke, it was in the inner voice of Rachmiel, who said, as if it cost everything Rachmiel had to give, “May the God forgive you.” The sky thundered again as the deluge started and Jessica struggled back into her clothes.
The rest happened almost as quickly. An ambulance was fetched, a tale concocted. Lubbock, Gary, and Sweeney, swearing their innocence, indignant spittle flying, were arrested by the end of the day. Leo Jr. took the extra keys to the Costellos’ Ford Escape, and—with only eighteen months of payments remaining—totalled the front end by driving into the side of a Dairy Queen. Jason went into his bedroom and refused to come out for three days, almost as comatose as Cullen himself. (Yabbashael planned to remain in self-exile for forty days and forty nights until Barman pointed out that Yabbashael was not the Christ.)
Amid all this drama, Bashaar had his star turn in the school musical, which, according to the local weeklies, was a hit, and Stephan was suspended and threatened with repeating grade eight.
“So what.” Elyon shrugged. “He’s never had this much fun in his life.” The Choo house visibly sagged in on itself as his parents shuffled downcast from room to room. Stephan’s grandmother no longer gathered offerings but sat in front of the basement television set watching Fox News.
Leo Jr.’s neck brace stayed on for almost a month, and to this day his right hand is not as mobile as his left due to the manner in which the broken bones fused.
Even now, so many years on, we take pains to remind each other of what Augustine once said: “Angelus est nomen offici,” which Barman suggests translating as “ ‘Angel’ is the name of their office.”
In other words, it’s our job, not who we are. We mention this as a fact, not as a kind of apologia.
Jessica skipped school regularly to visit the hospitalized Cullen, who was hooked up to all manner of medical equipment in Lions Gate Hospital’s ICU. She held his hand for hours every day. (Once, when he blinked and appeared to part his lips, his mother said, “She’s an angel of mercy!” before leaving the room, crying. Rachmiel admitted praying for intervention from St. Jude. But did Rachmiel ask for a miracle? We think not.)
In mid-June, Bashaar was at the Shoppers Drug Mart buying condoms when he spotted Jessica pulling a pregnancy kit from a shelf. Bash slid up behind her and whispered, “You weren’t going to tell us, were you? ” She was so startled she dropped the Very-Berry Slurpee she was carrying in her other hand, splashing them both with what looked like clotted blood.
After everything that had happened, at last a true crisis was upon us, one we could not simply turn the other cheek on and hope for the best.
Even Elyon joined us as we debated late into the night whether to destroy the child or both mother and child—deep within us stirred and rumbled the fear of waking the slumbering Nephilim. Rachmiel argued, in the end effectively, that the warlike giants of old were the spawn of rogue angels and mortal women, not of angels and mortal men, so we agreed to stay our hands.
No one used the word “smite.” Not once. Not even Elyon.
The summons that came from Gabriel that night was firm and unequivocal. We were recalled from earth with no time to say our goodbyes.
We took our shameful leave as day dawned on Arcadia Court, all but Rachmiel, who made a choice one of our kind has seldom made, and not without enormous sacrifice. Jessica’s small, moon white face was pressed to the Wadsworths’ bay window as if there were something to see besides a blue, cloudless sky. Zachriel wrote a message across the firmament in white wisps: Errare humanum est. Perseverare diabolicum. He meant it kindly.
Our mission aborted, we took sensory experiences with us as if we were junior entomologists pinning to a corkboard butterfly specimens snuffed out with ethyl acetate. But what we left behind is what we remember most vividly. One thing we all agree on: the much-vaunted human heart is just a wayward muscle.
Not long after we left, young Stephan Choo was found face down in Hastings Creek, near the place where Cullen had sustained his injury. His suicide note remains hidden, to this day, in the jade fortune vase in his parents’ pantry. Six months later, on the adoption papers Jessica Wadsworth signed, her premature daughter bore the name Stephanie in complicated and guilty tribute. Cullen emerged from his coma with no further interest in either Rilke or Jessica and her predicament. We could have told her so.
It took a while, years in fact, but Bashaar eventually succumbed to the enticements of his patient recruiters. The Khan family’s garage became a repository of Kemira GrowHow fertilizer and pallets of nail polish remover. Local authorities were tipped off. The rest was all dutifully reported in the media, including Bashaar’s bewildered parents claiming they believed the supplies were for their son’s year-end biochemistry project at SFU, their dark eyes a haunting. YouTube footage of the much younger and still beardless “homegrown terrorist” dancing on the stage of Elysium Heights Secondary’s gymnasium singing “Strange Thing Mystifying” went viral.
The Wad carried on being a wad.
As for Leo Jr., he turned out fine. Like his father he became a forensic accountant. He auditioned for Jeopardy! once while on a business trip to Atlanta, but after the eighteen-month waiting period lapsed, simply forgot about it. We try not to judge, but we had imagined a life of more freedom for him, perhaps as a first AD for local film productions or a tennis coach. In another era he could have joined a travelling circus. But he abides.
And us? We have a special dispensation to watch over Jessica’s child, even though we know she is more than capable of taking care of herself.
On our phantom tongues the taste of humanity lingers. But something else as well. The fifth taste?
That thing that eludes us still.
“We Come in Peace” appears in expanded form in Zsuzsi Gartner’s short story collection, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, published by Hamish Hamilton, a division of Penguin Group (Canada).
This appeared in the May 2011 issue.
Zsuzsi Gartner was shortlisted for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize, for her story collection Better Living through Plastic Explosives.
Elizabeth Zvonar has exhibited her work in New York and Europe. In 2010, she presented a paper at the Glasgow Centre for Contemporary Arts symposium on feminism.