UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 10/2012
THE MAN WITH WINGS
The first time Levi heard about the man with wings, she laughed.
As if to say, it isn’t possible.
As if to say, don’t treat me like a fool.
They were at a dinner party in Tangier. In honor of one of Sam’s exhibits—hours spent circling the small gallery filled floor-to-ceiling with his oversized prints. Mainly black and white photographs: children lying in a field, either asleep or dying; a mortar wound (in flesh? a doll?); a woman buried to her neck in sand, staring back at the camera with accusation. Rendered sharp, but also blurry in places, some heavily pixilated until they were distorted beyond anything familiar. And the shocking size of them—it was mostly this that drew in new collectors, Levi knew that, and yet it was something she couldn’t grow accustomed to. One close shot of a severed hand lying palm side up on a bed of gravel, fingers enlarged the length of her arms. As though it meant to grab her, enclose her full in its fist. And then there were the hors d’oeuvres, the aperitifs, the table set up like a banquet and the faces everywhere, both moving and still, the room rotating like the hands on a clock.
Levi hadn’t wanted to go to the party, though she couldn’t say why. Sam had found her in the hotel bathroom, her hair wet and soaking through the sterile white fabric of her robe. He was knotting the ends of his tie together, not hurried but impatient.
Why aren’t you ready yet? he asked. We’ll be late as it is.
She looked at his reflection in the mirror, the way he bent slightly in front of the mirror to check the angle of his tie. It’s straight, she said. He only glanced at her warily and left the room. She picked up her brush from beside the sink and began to run it through her damp hair.
Like this, she thought. So simple. Only one thing at a time until it’s done.
At the party Sam held his arm out to her, and she laughed brightly in conversation. When he finally moved away (as she knew he would, he was always moving, this is what he did, this is what all this was for, the movement that necessitated the stillness of his art—or was it the other way around?—she found she couldn’t remember) she was left beside the host of the party, a short man who had his arm around a slim blonde. The woman wore a black dress that exposed her shoulders and the sharp angle of her collarbone, the hem of her dress cut short at the very top of her thighs. She stared off distantly into the middle of the room, oblivious to the hand resting on her waist. Once, she bent her head so her lips brushed the host’s ear, and gestured with her slender hands to his pocket. The host pulled a pack of cigarettes from his jacket and lit a small silver lighter, which the woman bent over without looking at either of them. …Morocco, the host was saying. When he smiled, Levi saw how perfect his teeth were. Long white stakes tucked straight into pink gums. Beautiful country, he said. There are many things you must see here, of course, he continued. Landscapes, mystics. Sam has said this is your interest too, you write about these things. You’ve heard about the man with wings, yes?
That was when Levi laughed. She hadn’t meant to, but she couldn’t help herself.
An angel? Levi asked, raising one eyebrow.
No, said the host, shaking his head. Just a man. I’ve never seen him myself, but locals say there are wings growing from his back. Silver ones. They swear to it. The way they talk! I always wanted to see.
He leaned in close and she could smell whiskey on his breath, mixed with the scent of his cologne. She turned to go. I won’t listen to a drunk, she thought, but he put his hand on her arm and bent over until his face was only inches from her own.
How is that? he asked. I actually want to see, to believe, but I don’t. This is the problem with those things.
The woman in the black dress was looking at them now, her cigarette held still in the air. She could have been smiling or not. The host grinned at her with his pink lips, his soft, old man skin. Levi felt tired suddenly, tired enough to go upstairs above the gallery and find a bedroom behind one of the closed doors and lock it behind her until Sam came looking. She shook the hand off her arm and walked away without replying, without even looking back.
Later, Sam asked about their conversation. He told her he had seen them, her and the host, standing so close together, touching. She shook her head at the dark night sky outside the car window, the streetlights passing by in flashes. No, she said. No, you are mistaken. He never touched me, she said. She could still feel the place where his fingers had rested on her arm, the same way they had touched the woman’s black dress. She could still feel it, like a bruise on her skin, but she did not say so, did not explain, and Sam did not ask again.
They had met at a breakfast bar in a hotel outside of Shanghai, Sam and Levi. He told her later that he knew, seeing her there alone, her open notebook and instant decaf, a cigarette stubbed out on her plate. You weren’t waiting for anything, he said. You were just there. She thought this was funny, later, when he told her this. She couldn’t remember what she was thinking then but she knew she had been waiting, as she’d been waiting for everything, all her life. For something to come and announce itself. For something to begin. She did not tell him this. She liked the way he looked at her too much in those early days, the way he saw her so differently from the way she saw herself.
Instead she asked: Tell me. Tell me again how you saw me that first time. How you knew.
After the exhibit they went back to their hotel room in Tangier, and Levi told Sam the story. They were in bed and she pulled the sheets up over her bare chest, and made it sound like a silly fairy tale. She liked retelling these kinds of stories to an audience of one. It let them laugh together at the things others would allow themselves to believe.
And it turned out Sam had heard the story before too. He didn’t—or claimed not to—know when he first heard about the winged man. He thought it was just a tale of course, a village joke meant for the missionaries and the tourists. He was only there to take pictures, he told them. Maybe an article or two. The magazine that had sent him never bothered with specifics so he only cashed their checks and sent them rolls of film wrapped in socks. But that was some other country, some other time. He traveled too much to remember these things clearly.
They did not intend to look for the man with wings, to seek him out. Before they left Tangier they had discussed the things they would see, the places they would stay, the foods they would like to try. The man with wings was not on their list, could not be found in the travel books they highlighted with markers, pages folded so that they would remember all the things they meant to do. They traveled down the coast—Kenitra, Rabat, Casablanca, El Jadida, Safi, Essaouira, Agader, Guelmin—and sometimes days would pass where they wouldn’t hear of the man and his miracle and they would forget about it, or appear to at least, Sam’s camera gleaming in the sun as Levi posed with children in streets and bought oranges from vendors that clicked their tongues against their teeth while they counted back change.
Then they would overhear someone at a nearby table in some cafe, a whispered word, a sudden reminder like a pang. Wings. And they found themselves slowly listening to every boy they gave small coins to, to women who covered their mouths when they smiled and pressed warm fabric into Levi’s hands. The stories were always the same, or close enough. A man growing wings. Some of the older women crossed themselves to hear it mentioned, to speak of it, rolling tasbeh beads between their fingers with a soft click-click-click. A demon, they said, using flesh as a disguise. Sam and Levi listened to the stories, nodding their heads in unison, always agreeing, always hoping to hear more.
Then there was the day of rain in a town that had no name on their maps, when the streets flooded and the afternoon became sudden twilight, and they stayed in their hotel room listening to the sounds of thunder and the drum of water on flat stone roofs. Sam turned to her.
Why not? he said. Levi did not have to ask what he meant. She looked out the window at the rivers of water, the ground turning slick and soft with mud that had only yesterday seemed hard as stone. Water, all that water. For years afterwards, that would be what she remembered most. Those rivers of water, that churning of earth. Why not. And so she had agreed.
Up north, they were told again and again. Go back north, where the mountains are, where the air is cooler, thinner. Better for flying.
Before Levi met Sam she had been teaching English in south China. A two-year contract full of cramped rooms and children’s faces that blurred together as if she were moving in fast-forward, spinning past them each day and unable to stop. She wrote alphabet letters on the board and recited numbers, taught the children Hangman and Duck Duck Goose. At night she erased herself so she could do it all over the next day.
I’m not proud of it, she told Sam. That I didn’t love them, or even want to. But at least I was fair. None of the children ever thought I was unfair.
Still, a year was enough. She took her contract bonus early and she wanted to see, she told the headmaster, a few things before she left. Some temples, the Yahtzee, walk the Great Wall. It wasn’t a plan so much as an impression of one. She woke up in strange hotels, made herself dress for coffee in the mornings, spent most of her time staring out windows at landscapes of rooftops. Sometimes it seemed as if the only real things were inside her, that the outside world was only a moving picture of how things could be, a shoddy reproduction of the same things shown over and over.
Maybe I was just looking for you, she told Sam. Maybe I just didn’t know it yet. Well here I am, he said, taking a drag off her cigarette and passing it back to her across the bedroom sheets. Here I was all along.
Not far from Marrakesh a man sat by the side of the road. The skin at the corners of his eyes was cracked and red from the wind, and he held a white piece of cloth over his mouth that he did not lower as Sam and Levi approached. Sam fiddled with his camera case, muttering under his breath.
I can’t find the lens, he said. Levi, what did you do with the lens?
Levi turned to see Sam kneeling on the ground, but she didn’t answer. The man by the side of the road stared, his eyes dark above the white cloth. She could not think of the word for water, so she motioned the act of drinking. When he didn’t move, she made the motion with her hands again, cupping them together tightly, tilting her head back. The man didn’t nod, only lowered his head and spooned water into two cups, which he handed to her.
Sam was still a distance behind them. Levi looked at the man. We’re getting married, she said.
The words had slipped out of her mouth before she could stop them. They weren’t true. She thought of ways she could take them back, laugh at herself, change the subject.
In the fall, she added instead. The wedding. We’re having the wedding in September. She motioned for another glass of water and the man brought it to her, his eyes never leaving her mouth. I love him, she said. She took the lip of the glass between her fingers. I do, she said. The man didn’t blink.
I found it! Sam said, coming up behind her. He held the lens out as he took one of the cups of water from her hand and drank quickly. Levi took Sam’s arm. We should go, she said, but Sam held out his empty cup to the man in front of them. Do you speak English? Sam asked, squinting slightly against the glare of the sun. The man did not answer at once, only looked at Levi’s hand on Sam’s arm.
You are going to see the man with wings, the man said.
It was not a question. Sam leaned in closer to the man, interested. Do you know where he is? Sam asked.
The man looked at Sam, dropped the cloth covering his mouth just enough that Levi could see him smile.
Everyone knows, said the man, pushing the cloth back against his skin, his eyelids lowered until they were only slits. He is in the church up on the hill. It is the only place that will have him.
Their last night in China, Sam did tell her. He said, There’s someone else. A fiancée, a girl he’d known for years, since high school even. He meant back home, in that other country of drive-thrus and lottery tickets, car payments and CNN. Nothing that felt real in the moment. And so Levi heard what she wanted to hear. There is. Someone. It felt easy to agree, to make herself believe that ‘someone’ could be her one day and only.
It was what she thought of, months after they parted and she got his first email. He was in L.A., so many exhibits to attend to. But he was headed to Morocco in the spring, for a month, maybe two. Come with me again, he wrote. Travel.
And then, that first night in Tangier, she tried to think of nothing when he told her this was his last trip alone. The wedding already planned for September, the honeymoon they would take in Turkey. Congratulations, she finally made herself say, trying to imagine his look was grateful even though by then he wasn’t looking at her at all.
The door to the church was locked. The sun was bright and heavy on their shoulders. Sam swore and knocked impatiently on the door. Levi turned away from him. The steps to the church were bleached white. Levi took a breath, closed her eyes. She felt dizzy suddenly, unable to breathe deep enough with the heat weighing on her shoulders, that excess of light. We shouldn’t be here, she thought. It was not something she had considered until this moment, whether or not they had a right to be standing there. She had not considered it a choice, and now she did not like to think of it in that way. Not while they were standing there. She turned to Sam. Don’t…, she began to say as the door opened.
They both watched as a woman’s face appeared at the crack of the door. She wore a layer of white cloth over her hair, framing the dark texture of her skin as she stared at them. Sam cleared his throat, but the woman didn’t move.
We were told to come here, Sam said. Levi looked at him, but Sam only smiled at the woman. May we? he asked, his voice cool and soothing like the surface of worn stone. He was used to this with his travels, his photographs. The art of coaxing people into positions of belief, into seeing his authority.
The woman glanced at Levi, who thought of the dust in her hair, the mud that by now must have caked and dried in layers on her shoes. She expected the woman to turn them away with just this one look at her inadequacies, and she felt relieved. Instead the woman stepped back and let the door swing open on its hinges.
They entered and the woman nodded at them. They stood in the entranceway uncertainly. Even Sam appeared not to know quite what was expected of them, what came next.
A man? he said to the woman who was still holding the door. The woman did not answer, but closed the door behind them, sealing off the afternoon light. For the first time since they arrived, Levi could feel dust settle on her shoulders, the lightness of cool air brushing her cheeks. She felt her breaths slow and even in her chest. The woman turned and began to climb the steps directly in front of them. Levi felt Sam’s hand reach for hers as they followed.
Levi was trying to remember something she had forgotten. Something, a long time ago. The steps were steep and she placed her feet carefully down one after the other. She did not want to stumble. This was just another moment, another small task she had to complete. One thing at a time, until it was done. She had told herself this before, had made herself concentrate in just this same way. But that happened a long time ago, or so it seemed, and she could no longer remember what all of it had once been for.
There was a light at the bottom of the door. It made Levi realize just how dark the stairway had been, how dark the hallway they stood in was. She hadn’t noticed before, her eyes adjusting as they climbed. Then she saw the light at the bottom of the door and remembered day. She drew closer to Sam’s side.
The woman gestured toward the door. She spoke then, a word that neither Sam nor Levi understood. They both leaned in closer, but the woman did not repeat herself. They looked at the door, at each other.
We came all this way, Sam said.
Levi nodded. He was right, of course, and yet she still did not want to open the door. She took a step backward. She wanted to sink back into the darkness of the stairwell, past the damp stones, down and down into the pale scorched earth waiting outside.
But the door opened then, light flooding into the hall. Bright white light, the light of high noons and bones and the cool interior of shells. The room was open to them, the domed ceiling, the deep cut windows, the blue sky just beyond. And a bed, a man turning, twisted in white sheets. All of it, rushing in and onto her as though the sharpness of that image was something she would have to carry from that point forward. Levi closed her eyes. It was too much, too quick, and she wanted to block it all out, if only for a moment, if only to save herself from drowning in its radiance.
And then she remembered something, fractions of somethings. Did we, she wanted to ask him then and suddenly. Did we have a love story? Is that what this was supposed to be?
And still she thought about it, would always think about it. There would be years left for this kind of regret. She would see herself sometimes as she was then, just a girl really, anxious and unsure of herself and all the things the world had yet to bring. And she would hang onto the final portrait she kept—of that time, of herself—the one she wanted to always remember and believe in. And play that version over and over in slow motion: watching herself walk calmly through that door to stand there like an angel in her own right, no longer in waiting. Knowing by then exactly what she wanted, and how not to show disappointment at its arrival.Amelia Boldaji received her MFA from Hollins University, where she was a teaching fellow and Editorial Assistant of The Hollins Critic. Most recently she has been awarded grants from the Elizabeth George and the Helene Wurlitzer Foundations to support work on her debut novel, and she is currently a doctoral candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Utah, where she is also the Assistant Editor of Quarterly West. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as CALYX, Compass Rose, and elimae.
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