Ⅰ. Picture Alaskan snow and meteors that drop like baseless promises and dissolve away like morning kisses.
The sky is indigo and crooked, leaning right into tomorrow, and Raphaela is tracing cold hearts of ice into the windowpane with her nails. Not the romantic ones shaped like clovers that rip into tissue paper halves, but the human hearts that quiver and bleed and only last a fragile lifetime.
The stars are falling, but Raphaela isn’t wishing. She’s praying. While looking past the white expanse, her arms snake across her chest, biting into her ribs as shallow gasps slither from her mouth. Because she knows that shooting stars are really one of two things:
a. dying rocks
She knows because she was the latter once.
When she floats past the threshold, flakes tickle her nose as if they're prisms and mayflies, born to reflect light and meant to die shortly on warm skin. The snow crunches on her boots like ivory teeth but in a pulse of madness, she almost wishes it would nibble on her bare toes instead. She finds the cold works better than lukewarm beers and often finds herself perched on the front steps of her withering cabin, the heels of her palms wheeled under her chin until her cheeks colour like freshwater salmon.
Ⅱ. Picture steamy glasses and glass windows fogged from mist.
The internet in Yakutat trembles like earthquakes — she hears it's relatively better in Anchorage — and electricity is sometimes only found in thunderclouds. Living almost completely off-grid makes Raphaela feel both lost to the world and like a distinct piece of something bigger. Like a smudge within an oil painting and a fingerprint among thousands of interlocked hands.
Her days are covered with bubble wrap and loop through a conveyor belt so that she never knows when they begin or end. Every breath is wrenched from her throat with the sticky fingers of guilt and stolen by constellations poking the sky like frostbite.
Stephen’s pickup has a chipped bumper and wears necklaces of hooked chains. On weekends, she lies slack against the tailgate as he drives her into town and pretends there aren’t singed stumps planted between the spades of her shoulders like daisy seeds.
That maybe she’s human.
Food is expensive in Alaska, so halibut has been her bread and butter lately and she’s discovered a decent sourdough starter that correlates well with her wireless bread machine. Raphaela has a humble amount of cash holed up from jobs she was assigned once upon a past life. Twenty-eight years have passed since then and time is still allergic to her face, which is taut as a tightrope and smooth as fondant.
She’s meant to meet Stephen when the noon sun dries into a brushstroke, but as she paces onto the pier, the shadows in her wake shrink and blur together while her stumps tingle with the chill of being watched by marble eyes.
Ⅲ. Picture toasty flames that curl into lions and dated photo albums speckled with decades and coffee and pinching nostalgia.
Raphaela places a large cooking pot on the woodstove, the water forming eyes of hurricanes as the steam escapes into miniature tornadoes. The reservoir of humid vapour keeps her warm when the bulbs in the sky short circuit and blackout, preventing her lips from cracking into canyons.
Her candles are shaped like coins that travel across her dresser like the ellipses at the end of an open sentence, a hint at something more. Stephen had once offered to hook a deep-cycle battery (powered by solar panels) to LED lights, but she told him she preferred candlelight because it reminded her of wax moonbeams.
While searching for a wooden spoon, she comes across the picture album. She flicks the switches of her battery-operated radio, which drones '90s songs through its teeth with an underlying static hum. Burying into a cocoon of tassel blankets, she swirls her pinky in a mug of hot cocoa, marbling the foam into waning moons through the Belgian truffle shade of liquid. Marshmallow snowmen drown just under the surface and thick cream splatters over her upper lip like the aftermath of a snowball fight.
The photographs take her tripping backwards along the patterned hands of time. To when she still had dove wings stapled to her spine. When she still belonged to the sky. She used to take photos of all the humans she was designated to deliver hope to:
a. the girl bullied at her birthday party with balloons spiralled into horseshoes
b. the man who lost both the love of his life and the ability to see sunrises
c. the kind boy with a broken heart and caterpillars of IV fluid coiled over his hand
There were so many others, but she remembers the boy’s face and what he’d said when she visited his hospital room while he had faced the agonizing side effects of a periodic chemo session. His name had been Sasha.
“It hurts, Ms. Raphaela,"
“It’ll pass, dear heart,” she squeezed his hand, “Sasha, you’re the bravest boy I’ve met.”
Now she’s hurting but isn’t sure it will pass. It’s been too long since then and she’s stuck her heels into the dirt of many cities — New York City, Tangier, Amsterdam, Naples, Buenos Aires, Cairo — but unlike them, she’s never aged. She has no idea where the living versions of her photographs are, or whether they’ve returned to the stars when all she can do is capture them in her eyes.
Ⅳ. Picture red planets like drops of blood and melting suns dripping into puddles of honey.
Sometimes, Raphaela tries talking to the galaxies in her veins (that once flowed with golden blood). They used to respond, but now they are black holes that swallow all sound. She’s used to the reflection of silence, and isn’t sure what’s she more afraid of:
a. the echo
b. or the answer
Tonight, after years of echoes, she gets an answer. The firewood crackles into ashes and sequins of ice decorate her door. The cold causes the cottage to shiver and when umbrellas of frost unfurl over her window, she wishes she could call upon fire. It starts slowly, impossibly, but her stumps scream and her fingers paint themselves the angry orange of Jupiter. Globes of fire orbit around her cuticles and dance like wolves.
After years of silence, her fingers sing, and though her arms burn, she doesn’t care. It’s there, at the smoked edges of her sanity, that she almost remembers what it was like to live in the sky.
Ⅴ. Picture shadows that have faces and know your name, and glass vials filled with ink, labelled 'fear'.
She’s buying overpriced creams for her lovely burns the next day, when someone reluctantly pats her shoulder. She hasn’t had tea with fear in over a decade, but now it’s sipping champagne in her mind with eyes sewn from buttons of night and a grin sharpened into a scythe.
The man who tapped her has tender eyes, but there’s something she doesn’t like. The way his shoulders are old with regrets and his young heart has thorny roses growing out of its arteries. Raphaela makes sure her quickened footfalls are imperceptible.
“So I didn't imagine it. You really are—”
“Nobody,” she pants breathlessly, “I am nobody.”
Memories unroll behind her eyes and make her arms crawl, as she relives the agony of lashes burying into her back. The image of shears flash in her mind, with blades made of comets slicing through her feathers and the hopeless feeling of plummeting from the heavens.
Ointments forgotten, she hauls herself out of the supermarket, her legs rigid as pines and stiffening into icebergs. She can't afford to stay any longer when he could potentially be a spy from above, deployed to finish her off for whatever reason.
The man jogs after her, colourful words trickling off his tongue. “I know you’re a guardian angel,” he deadpans and Raphaela stops, but doesn’t turn around.
“Who sent you?” is all she says, yet doesn’t wait around to hear his answer.
Ⅵ. Picture lights. Neon signs twisted into calligraphy over smirking sidewalks and taxi headlights that blink like tiger eyes through the rain. Picture lights brighter than that.
After frantically waving off Stephen, Raphaela flutters into her cabin that glows slightly, like a lantern in enchanted woods. The sun is a single firefly that drowns under the horizon as she hurries to feed her candles.
She keeps her wings in the closet with wooden hips and ashy wounds. All her pain and terror sifts to dust when she touches the softly charred plumes. They cling to her thumb when she strokes them, like a stray kitten. Her wings; cleaved from her flesh, blackened to the edges, but still her wings. But should this be the price of aiding an ailing child, of lending them a breath she didn’t need? Then what was the point of all she stood for?
Raphaela holds the wings to a window and whispers secrets to the clear, Northern sky. It threads its fingers through a string of lights, rivers of colours possessed by the Arctic air. Raphaela thinks the bright ribbons in the night look like crowns, and she allows her barriers to crumble and wash away every emotion that’s been trapped inside her bones.
Amidst the gentle torrents of closure, she doesn’t notice how the strong feelings set sparks to her fingers or how her hands bleed whips of fire that lick her cabin walls.
Ⅶ. Picture wildfires that singe, yet cleanse. Of butterflies with clipped wings that know they’re going to die, but still lay their eggs to save the future.
Raphaela is aware of the dangers, of how quickly the dry evergreens embroidered around the hem of the chalet pluck flames and strike into matches. She’s even mapped out possible escape routes for times like these, but those plans are now fuel to the inferno.
As her cabin burns into the snow and spreads to the bordering wood, she feels like she’s falling again. Cradling her wings, she knows she has three options now:
a. succumb to the tongues of fire
b. fight until the bitter, cold end
c. pray to a sky that has turned away its ears
In her panic, she chooses to run, but finds herself in the clutches of nowhere. Toxic fumes entwine into phantoms around her, until she’s coughing bullets into her palm. The forest is ablaze in all directions, but Raphaela only chuckles madly at the irony of death — the strange ways it chooses to make a statement. She even hears it calling her name, delicate as a mother’s lullaby and formal like a queen. Miss. Miss. Miss! M—
Raphaela pivots around and meets pensive eyes. The man with tired dimples and muted words from the supermarket. “You,” she hisses, hobbling into blunt angles, “did you follow me home?”
“I mean no harm.” The man combs through his hair and gestures to an SUV clouded by smog in the distance. “Gosh, this’ll sound so weird, but yes I did. Please understand, I didn’t know how else to—”
“Leave!” A wispy birch faints through the fire. “I don’t know you.”
“Miss. I've never stopped believing in you.” The man chokes on a ring of carbon monoxide and her heart sinks. His desperate tone stirs through the black-and-white memories of her past. “I’m Sasha. Do you remember me? From the hospital, um. . . twenty—”
“Sasha,” she sobs, cupping his cheek and breaking into quarters, “Little Sasha?”
“Yes, little Sasha. It passed, Ms. Raphaela. Like you said it would.”
She's wheezing from smoke, but her lungs taste fresh air. "You're alive. You're here?"
If her heart is winter, then his smile is spring. Even as the world ignites behind their crouched forms, he guides her across the snow and she feels like she can still fly. They reach a patch of scarred ice and he tells her how to step and where to crawl. Raphaela hesitates for a second. Then she swallows her worry and imagines she's a careful dancer in pointe shoes, tentatively balancing her boots on the safe spots.
The glaciers in her eyes melt into mountain lakes that reflect the sky, and when she tiptoes over the ice like flute notes, for once her laughter sounds like music. The Northern Lights crisscross into wings that beat across the night and as the stars begin to fall, Raphaela makes a single wish.