*** The story also contains controversial themes as lethal injection/death penalty and abortion procedure etc. ***
(Joshua name in Hebrew - "God is my salvation"
Anne name- “God has favored me”)
It may surprise you that a celestial being like me is fascinated by a mere mortal like you. I am not ashamed to admit that often times I roam the earth to observe beings like you. You don't know it, but humans are such riveting creatures, that even us - heavenly entities - leave the presence of God to meet you. To get an eyeful of you.
I have seen you before, but I decided to finally introduce myself that night, at the cemetery. You were sitting on the ground, the unearthed dirt still damp and fragrant, in front of the tombstone. Shivering in a thin coat hanging on your thin frame. Elbows resting on knees, your red eyes were boring a hole in the fresh etchings of the tombstone.
There was a book next to you on the grass. “God is dead" by Friedrich Nietzsche. And an empty bottle of vodka.
I didn’t bother to obscure my appearance. You were too distraught, too broken to care about the luminous presence descending behind you.
“The angel of death, aren’t you?” you asked with a scowl.
Perceptive for a drunk philosopher, I thought.
You remained seated, unimpressed by my presence. Or the meaning of it.
“Off duty,” I assured you and, as I came nearer, I dimmed my radiance completely, so we could sit together and have a normal conversation.
I enjoy the simplicity of such intimate, human act. I sat down on the bench next to you.
You were in mourning, so I kept quiet for a minute or so, uneasy to have disturbed your peace. I can be nosy, though, and impatient. Sorry to ruin the impression of us, flawless beneficent beings. When interacting with humans, I tend to mirror them. Forget about rank and decorum for a little while. It’s refreshing.
The inscription on the tombstone read:
“Anne-Marie Brown, 1994-2021.
‘You are a little soul carrying around a corpse.'”
“That’s all she wanted on her… tombstone,” you explained, your voice quivering. “Epitectus.”
“They don’t teach philosophy where I come from,” I replied with a chuckle.
Philosophers don’t abound in heaven, either, I thought, but kept it to myself.
“It was her favorite quote. She was a librarian, and a wide-eyed believer.”
That’s how you two met, at the library. You were looking for "Beyond good and evil," by Friedrich Nietzsche, your favorite author.
Such title was bound to prompt a debate between an unapologetic believer and an equally stubborn philosophy teacher. It lasted long past business hours. For several weeks afterwards, in fact. And throughout your honeymoon.
“She wasn’t afraid to embrace philosophy,” you said. “Unlike me, she was brave and open-minded."
I knew Anne, but you could barely hold yourself together, in front of your wife's freshly dug grave, so I just nodded, in agreement. My silence had the opposite effect, though.
“If you're not here to drag me to hell, what ARE you doing here?” you asked.
“You don’t believe in heaven and hell, do you? In angels and demons.” I replied.
“And yet, here you are, in your ridiculous robe and sandals in December. Drawn to the stench of my corpse, no doubt about it. Sorry to break it to you, Angel. I have no soul. I have nothing to give you."
“One who loves so deeply can’t be without soul, Josh,” I added.
“What would you know about love, Angel? Besides blind devotion to your God?”
“A God whose existence you’ve denied all your life?
"Don't flatter yourself. You know absolutely nothing about me. Come back when I’m sober. I’ll debate you then, if you dare.”
You laid on your side and closed your eyes. Felt asleep with a deep, shuddering sigh. When the cold of the ground seeped through to your bones, you got up and staggered home. I made sure you found the bed before collapsing, sinking into a fitful sleep.
“What do you know about love?” you asked me the other day.
I am sorely obtuse when it comes to human love, you’re right.
I am one of God’s myriads of angels, created eons before the earth’s foundation was laid, long before the first seed was buried in the garden of Eden. And yet, I know nothing about human love.
Adoration, lust, infatuation. Parental love, brotherly love. Camaraderie.
You, on the other hand, were created in God’s own image. Love was one of the many gifts you've received at your birth. And attached to it, was free will, to use or abuse it, as you wished.
Can you grasp such a notion, Joshua Goldstein, professor of philosophy?
You, in your godly beauty, are above us, indomitable angels.
Had I been gifted with feelings, I would have thoroughly envied you. Hated you, even, for having been created in such glorious way. You don't know it, but angels and seraphs pause in their earthly duties to gaze at you. Marvel at you, humans. God’s earthly children.
And yet, you choose to believe Nietzsche. That miserable creature you worship.
I wish I could tell you of his fate, where his wretched soul rambles around these days. But I am not allowed. There are truths your frail being can not endure, your mind can not comprehend without imploding.
He was right about one thing, though, your Nietzsche.
“In heaven, all the interesting people are missing.”
Nobody misses him, I assure you.
While you were sleeping, duty called.
The execution of an inmate. Triple murderer.
Just about your age.
I wish you could witness this, Joshua. In fact, I wish you and I could trade places sometimes. It would be enlightening, for both of us, I believe.
There were two dozen witnesses there behind the glass, eager to see their fellow human put to death in such barbarous way. Gnashing their teeth, hatred running hot through their clogged arteries.
The inmate was laying on his back, his hands and feet strapped tightly to the gurney.
He was calm, obliging, unlike the technicians around him and the skittish prison officials, bracing themselves for any screw-ups that would embarrass them in the press.
The condemned was smiling, looking up at the ceiling. I wondered if he could see me, as I was waiting patiently for the procedure to be over.
Or maybe it was the last meal he had had earlier. His last supper.
A fascinating aspect of human society: Granting a death row inmate a lavish meal before pouring poison into his veins.
He had requested something his grandma cooked for him as a child: three pieces of fried chicken, collards with ham, buttermilk biscuits, a thick slice of hummingbird cake and thee scoops of peach ice-cream. A bottle of Coca Cola.
He didn’t waste a crumb, licking the fork, nodding and shaking his head with pleasure. Letting the sweet bubbles of the beverage tickle his tongue.
An hour of bliss. A feast his body would not even begin to digest before life would be squeezed out of him.
I watched him eat, in awe at the pure happiness that feast gave him, less than an hour away from his gruesome demise. We, celestial creatures, don’t require physical sustenance, yet, I wish I could experience that bliss once. It would so enrich my existence, I believe.
After failing to find a suitable vein in the young man's arm, they tried the neck. Then the veins between his neck and shoulders. They were still struggling to insert the catheter in.
"Should I lean my head down a bit?" the condemned offered.
The executioners' hands were trembling, nervous at the commotion of the crowd behind the glass, irked by the amateurish spectacle. The condemned assisting his slayers in the contract killing. The eye-rolling and head-shaking stopped when the inmate's body began to convulse and contort, his chest heaving, gasping for air. Sputtering. Babbling. Their ears pricked up, straining to make out what he was gushing:
"Jesus, remember me when You come into your kingdom!" he cried while poison was snaking its way to his heart.
They blinked in disbelief. A degenerate like him calling out to Jesus?
After a while, his body stopped twisting and twitching. His torso settled down, his forehead unwrinkled, the corners of his mouth lifted in a radiant smile.
"’Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise,’" he whispered and gave his last breath.
Like vapor escaping freshly turned up soil, his soul left his body and rose to the ceiling where I was waiting. He walked into my arms and smiled, the smile of a newborn feeling the warmth of the sun on his cheeks.
You’re crashed on your bed, boots and coat on. I’ve been waiting for you to wake up so we could talk, but you drink yourself to sleep these days.
I made sure Anne's grave had fresh peonies today, though.
So, sleep some more, friend, if you need it, while I attend to my duties.
I'll be back to check on you.
It took me a while to figure out who was I there for in that hospital room.
The young woman was laying on her back, her bare feet resting in stirrups. Her aura was strong, pulsing with vigor. There was another being there, though. Small and anxious, blinking in the dark of her womb. His aura was pallid, vacillating. His little heart was beating rapidly in his collarbones, his tiny fingers probing the walls around him, looking for a way out.
He wasn’t bigger than the size of your palm, Josh, but he was a fighter, sensing the threat looming in the room. He turned his head when the doctor came in, listening, one tiny finger in his mouth.
The doctor approached the patient and injected a numbing medication into her cervix. He then sat down, between the young woman’s legs, and proceeded to dilate her cervix to get to the uterus. He was talking to her in a soothing tone, explaining each step of the procedure.
He had no words for the other being, a few inches from his face. The little human grew agitated as the doctor opened the uterus and slowly inserted a tube attached to a suction device. His little heart was beating wildly, so visible through his translucent skin. I marveled at the weave of veins and arteries, his fully-grown organs, his tiny fingers and toes, his nose and ears with which he was trying to assess the danger he was in.
Unlike you, Josh, he so desperately wanted to live. You should have seen him. He was jerking around, away from the mouth of that instrument pressed against his side.
I closed my eyes when the doctor turned the sucking machine on. I could hear the screams of the little being, being sucked out of the uterus, limb by limb, into that odious contraption, but my hands were tied. All I could do was wait for the screams to die out and for his little soul to emerge in all its splendor. I smiled at him and opened my arms.
I named him Dominic. “Belonging to God. “
No one ever enters the kingdom of heaven nameless.
“I don’t want you here,” you said and leaned against the headboard. The mere effort made you lose your breath. Wince in pain. You hadn’t eaten in days, hadn’t showered since the funeral.
The bookshelves in the bedroom were bare.
Just like the floor, your bed was covered in books, all debating heaven and hell, good and evil. Life and death. And bottles of vodka.
“I went to the cemetery. You weren’t there.”
“Go to hell,” you said. “Oh, right. You belong there. My bad.”
“I don’t, actually. That’s a common misconception, Josh. You’ve read all these books here and still have no clue of the most rudimentary notions of heaven and hell.”
“I’d like to debate you, Angel, but my head is killing me. Come another time, would you?”
“I had the florist place fresh peonies of Anne’s grave. Pink and white, her favorite.”
That had you speechless for a few seconds. You closed your eyes at the mention of her name as though it pierced a fresh wound in your heart.
“How decent of you. That still doesn’t make you any more welcome here. I want to be alone. Die alone already.”
“That’s not what Anne would have wanted for you.”
“She shouldn’t have left me alone then.”
“It’s not like she had a choice. She was sick, dying from cancer. In enormous pain. No human should have to endure that pain.”
“But she did have a choice, Angel,” you shouted. “While I was here praying to God to spare her, to save her life, she was in the other room, praying to God to take her. To take her away from me!” The woman I loved more than myself! The woman I would have gladly died for!” you cried in despair. “And who did God listen to? Her, of course! He listened to her! He favored her prayers over mine!”
You grabbed books off the bed and threw them at me. They went through me as through steam in a shower. You then grabbed half empty bottles and hurled them against the walls. They shattered loudly, sending shards flying, spraying the books on the floor with vodka.
“That’s not how prayer works, Joshua. God doesn’t have favorites, either.”
“Go away, Angel," you replied, exhausted. “I need to be alone.”
Nobody dies alone, Joshua. No one departs from the earth unaccompanied.
Is there any consolation in that? I wouldn’t know it.
I had the florist deliver fresh peonies to Anne’s grave today. It gives me pleasure seeing her name surrounded by fresh, scented petals.
He did not favor her prayer over yours.
But God answered her prayers regarding YOU, Josh.
Those type prayers never remain unanswered – and that’s all I’m going to reveal about it.
My duties took me away for a while. But I was brought back in an instant when the fire erupted in your bedroom.
I could only stand there and watch you, on the floor, surrounded by flames, torching the vodka-soaked pages along with the rug underneath. Some of your precious books were still burning in the fireplace.
As the smoke started to fill the room, I wanted to call your name, to shake you to consciousness. But it wasn’t my duty to intervene.
So, I stood there and guarded you, instead. It didn’t take long for the whole room to be engulfed in flames. And for the firefighters to arrive, along with all the chaos that a house fire ensues.
All your books were destroyed. Under your charred body, however, Anne’s favorite book had survived. Humans would call it a miracle. Not even one drop of water had touched it.
Anne's bookmark laid on top of the pages. A paragraph highlighted, underlined, jumped from the page:
“For God so loved the world that he gave His One and only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
Was I mistaken, Josh? When you gave your last breath, it sounded like Anne’s name.
At last, your soul drifted above your remains. You smirked when meeting my eyes.
“You’re hard to get rid of, Angel,” you said, and squeezed me in a bear hug.
“You just have to try harder, my friend. You have an eternity to do so.”