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Fiction

Angels

The creature she’d had them make cost her the last piece of forest outside Siena. The one with the little medieval chapel in it, the tall umbrella pines shading a forest floor no tourist had ever walked upon.

It cost her the two rocky islands just south of Elba, and the lead mines at Piombino, which she had never cared about, and the villa on Lake Garda, which she had, because, so small and intimate, it had been one of her father’s favorites.

When she ordered the doctors from Milan to alter the creature’s spine and shoulder blades to accept the remarkable wings, it cost her the thirty-meter ketch as well—the one with the artificial brain that trimmed the sails perfectly—the one she had used only once, forty years ago, and had never really wanted anyway. And when the wings did not take, when the doctors needed to try again, it cost her the two altar paintings of angels by Giotto from her father’s hunting lodge outside Siena, where she had spent her childhood with her brother and sisters, and which her father had loved. She had not wanted to sell the paintings, but selling them had helped her to remember him—to see him standing in the long hallway of the lodge, on the green Carrara marble floor, looking down at her and smiling in the gray suit he always wore. He seemed to be laughing, to be saying: Yes, you may sell them!

It was the wings, she realized—the sale of the ketch through an electronic brokerage in Nice—that had alerted her older brother, who found her one day in her apartment in Lucca and in his rage shouted: “What are you doing, Pupa? What do you imagine you are doing?” She knew he meant: You are doing this to hurt us. We know you are.

• • • •

She had taken a room in the old walled city of Lucca, near the ancient university there, above a store that still sold wood-pulp books, but Giancarlo found her nevertheless and shouted at her, as always. As did her sister Olivia the very next week, while Francesca, the youngest at ninety-three, sent a letter instead. “How can you be doing this?” they all asked her, when they actually meant to say: How can you be doing this to us, Pupa? How?

They did not know she knew what they had done to her children, and this gave them the courage to ask, she told herself.

They were afraid, of course, that she would continue to sell her possessions until everything their father had left her was gone. They were so afraid, in fact, that they were arranging, even now, for doctors from Rome and Turin to testify about her “illness,” this madness of hers, in court. These doctors had not interviewed her in person, but that did not matter. What she was doing, her lawyers said, was enough—enough for doctors with reputations like theirs to testify against her. “This thing you are having made for you, egrigia Signora, is quite enough,” they’d told her.

At these words, the world felt a little darker, and she had to remind herself that this was why she was so willing to leave it.

• • • •

The first time she was allowed to see him, she found she could not look at him for long. He wasn’t yet finished; that was all. A woman of child-bearing age, chosen by the doctors from a list, had carried the fertilized ovum for her. At one month, they’d removed it. It was not like a fetus, the way an infant grew. There were ways to make it grow quickly outside a woman. It would take six months, they’d said.

He was already the size of a man, yet the skin was like scar tissue, covered with a dozen layers of gauze as he lay in a room-sized tent whose material she could barely see through now. The room smelled of chemicals. The light was too bright. His face was covered, too—with a mask that made the eyes bulge like an insect’s, which frightened her. It should not have, she knew. It was simply the way he was being grown, she told herself again.

But it did frighten her, and she had to turn away.

• • • •

When he was at last finished and the gauze was removed, he appeared to be sleeping. Blood substitutes rich in glucose and oxygen were flowing through his veins, the doctors informed her, but from where she stood outside his tent she could not see tubing: There should be tubing, shouldn’t there? She could see only the jaundiced color of his arms on the bed, his legs parted akimbo under the sheet, like a child’s. For weeks she had imagined that he would be able to say something to her at this moment, but that was silly, she knew. It had been a daydream only, week after week, in her little room in Lucca; nothing more. It was not something the doctors had ever promised. Even if he had been awake, he could not have spoken, she knew. He knew no words to speak.

The eyes did not open for days.

• • • •

When they allowed her into his tent for the first time, they made her bathe first, dried her with gusts of hot air, then gave her a thin garment to wear. As she approached his bed, she saw that his eyes were open at last, that they were watching her, although now and then they rolled back into his head like white marbles and his mouth fell slack. She looked at the doctor beside her, questioning, but the woman nodded, as if saying: Do not worry, Signora. He is doing fine.

She was afraid—more afraid than she could ever remember being—but she leaned over nevertheless and touched her lips to his forehead, the way she had done so long ago to three children . . . her own . . . or someone’s. She could not remember. No. That wasn’t true. She could remember. She’d had three children—a gangly, dark-haired son when she was very young, and then, when she was nearly sixty, two daughters as well. She’d touched her lips to their three foreheads in this same way.

She put her lips to his forehead again and felt his eyes roll away. But he did not pull away from her or hit at her, and these, she realized, were the only things she’d really been afraid of.

• • • •

One afternoon in August, when the tent was gone and she was standing over his bed, she asked the doctors and nurses to leave them alone. The bed was only a bed. It was the kind any human being could sleep in comfortably. A father, a mother. A child. She could not remember a bed like it from the long century of her life, but it was somehow familiar—a bed a father might sleep in, one a child might climb into in the morning while he slept. A dream, a wish. Nothing more.

His body was blond, just like hers. As she’d told them it should be. It was long and heavy-boned, too, like hers, but the curls on his head were those of a marble god—Athenian, not Spartan—as she’d requested. It had not been difficult, they’d told her. The genetic material was there, they’d said; the alterations, where necessary, would be easy. It was only that no one had ever asked for something like this to be done, or had had the money to pay for it.

The wings had been another matter entirely. Caravaggio’s sweeping feathers, the glory of Leda’s swan, not the puny things a Giotto might paint. Grown separately—not a part of him at all—and perhaps that had been the problem.

• • • •

Later, as she sat in a small room that smelled faintly of jasmine, she would remember how on this very August afternoon, when the doctors had left them alone at last, when the first pair of wings were doing their best to take, and the osteomyelitis had not yet set in, there had still been hope. The shoulders looked massive; and they would need to be, whether he ever really moved the wings or not, whether the shoulders did nothing more than keep them away from the naked back, so that the stiff quills would not rub the skin raw. He would never fly, of course. No amount of wealth could buy that and this she had known all along. She had simply wanted him to have wings because they were beautiful, because she could remember seeing paintings of beautiful wings somewhere.

The organ between his legs was beautiful, too. Pale, golden, and rosy—and perfect. It hung like David’s, like the white marble under its new dome in Florence, where tourists could walk by it each day. Just as she’d told the doctors it should be. She’d told them: Make it so that even when it is soft, even when he is sleeping, or spent, it is beautiful. Make it so that women will want to touch it even in death.

She had offered them the director of archives at the Pitti Palace, the man who could provide them with drawings by Michelangelo, or arrange for holograms of the statue itself to be delivered if they were needed. But the doctors had said No. There were equations for the arc and symmetry of such things, they’d told her, and they would use these.

His arms were covered with hair the color of sunlight, a golden down, and this had been easy, too. Her father had been German, her mother Northern Italian; the blond hair was there to work with. The doctors had seen it in the genetic mapping. It would cost little. Growing the fetus outside a womb would be the costly thing.

He was awake and staring at her now, the wings bound tightly with gauze behind him and supported by a pillow, the sheet gathered to one side of his naked body. He was not embarrassed, she saw. Embarrassment would be one of the things he would have to learn, of course.

One arm was across his stomach, the other by his side. The wings, even with the feathers bound, did not seem to bother him. He looked relaxed and the legs, as always, lay akimbo. They would always lie that way—for as long as he should live, she told herself. These were the habits a body was born with. She could see clearly how each of her own three children had slept—a boy, two girls—each lying a bit differently, like paintings in a hallway somewhere, like holograms inseparable from their souls.

She could not help herself. She tried, but she could not. She imagined what it would be like to make love to him, to feel that perfect organ inside her, her own arms strong once more, her hands on his shoulders perhaps, or her palms on his chest, his curls bright in the sunlight of the garden at Assisi or the topiary garden at Parma, the wings moving as if with a life of their own, his naked back reddening under the sun, arching even as her own back arched, then falling slowly like a sigh from the roses and snapdragons around them.

On that August afternoon, when the doctors left them, she imagined what it might be like to make love with him before words and deeds would change him forever.

• • • •

When they had boosted his immune system with antigens and the engineered leucocytes, and felt it was safe for him to leave the room, she took him to the beach at Viareggio—three weeks before the floats were ready for la festa, three weeks before the crowds would parade themselves down the shadowy King’s Highway with their rubber clubs and strange masks. The city was dead as winter now. She’d had her people clean the beach around the pines for two hundred meters in all directions, testing it for salmonella, typhus, any of the things the beach had become famous for in the past thirty years: all the microbes that might hurt him.

Her bodyguards remained in the shadows of the trees, like shadows themselves.

She laid out an old blanket of Yugoslavian cotton embroidered with silver—the one her first husband had given her when they’d begun a life together in the floating city of Taranto, right before the turn of the millennium. The young man could walk now, though unsteadily, the weeks of antibiotic treatments and hydration leaving him weak but happy, his head turning to look at everything, just like a child’s. The scars on his shoulder blades were as pink as the bottoms of putti in a Tiepolo fresco, as the soles of the feet of the babies she could remember a little more clearly now, and no longer seemed to bother him. The eyes were alive with a feeling she could remember feeling, and as she watched him she felt it, too.

They sat down together on the blanket and she gave him an orange, the small red kind they grew in Jaffa. He took it from her but waited, wanting to do it exactly the way she did. So she did it slowly, peeling it carefully, keeping her eyes on his and smiling with each bite, until his movements had lost their nervousness and he was calm again.

She looked at the trees. Later, sitting in the little room, she would remember looking at the trees, seeing the shadows there, and for a moment feeling they were something else . . . a darkness moving closer and closer to her. She laughed. It wouldn’t come now, the darkness, unless she asked it to. It was hers to invite. It wouldn’t come until she wanted it to.

And it was not the same darkness as before, she knew. The one she had felt in Pisa long ago . . .

She thought of her father, who had left all four of them many things, but who had left her so much more, and how this had driven her brother and sisters to do many, many things.

The shadows remained where they were.

When she turned back to him, he was sleepy again, his eyelids heavy, his left elbow barely holding him up. He would not, she knew, lie down unless she lay down with him. The blanket was big—colorless now in the glare of the sun—and warm, and she lay down with him, making sure that their arms touched.

She watched him as he dreamed. He made a whining noise, the kind she had heard a child make long ago. Then he frowned, his eyes still closed, and the dream gone. His face was quiet again.

The chemical they had put on his skin to protect it from the sun glistened like ocean waves. She let her own eyes close.

Even in this darkness, she was not afraid. The shadows under the trees did not move. Nothing moved toward her that she would not have welcomed.

• • • •

When he was again rested, she took him by helicopter one evening—in the one infrared Pirelli that remained to her—to the town of Assisi, where they slept together in the largest canopy bed of her villa. He tossed and moaned all night. He hit her four times with his elbow and lay against her quietly only once, for a few minutes. She thought at first that it might be the wings. But that was wrong, wasn’t it. The wings were gone. Even the scars could not be bothering him now, could they? Why had she thought he still had wings?

In the morning, her guards escorting them like priests, she took him by the hand down the stone path to the courtyard of the church, to the hologram of Saint Francis that had been there ever since she could remember. The tourists had left. They had been asked to leave. Those who’d objected had been paid handsomely.

The hologram was much larger than life, a full three meters, and the grainy texture of the ruby light made the saint look almost ill. They sat together on one of the benches. The tape played on.

The young man at her side, dressed in summer linen while she wore silk, looked at the grass, at the bees and the bright farfalle on the flowers near them, and did not listen. The tape was made of words, she realized suddenly. He did not yet know these words. He did not even know what words were, perhaps.

The red arms of the hologram moved as if in prayer, moved again in exactly the same way, while the voice said:

Laudato si, mi Signore, per frate Vento, e per Aere e Nubilo e Sereno e onne tempo, per lo quale a le tue creature dai sustentamento.

It said:

“Praised be my Lord for our brother the wind, for air and cloud by which Thou upholdest life in every creature.”

The voice then repeated the words in French, in German, in four other languages, but she wasn’t listening. She was watching the ground, too. She was watching what he was watching there: the green lizard making its way in fits and starts across the stone path, the insects moving through the grass so near their shoes, and the white butterfly that wanted to land, but never did.

“Praised be my Lord for our brother fire, through whom Thou givest us light in the darkness,” the voice was saying somewhere. “Praised be my Lord for our sister, the death of our body, from which no man or woman may escape.”

An angry voice made her look up suddenly. Two of the guards were arguing with a man, a tourist who wore a single, heavy holo-camera around his neck. She recognized the camera. Her father’s factory in Rimini had made it. She got up quickly, took the young man’s hand in hers, and pulled him with her, his eyes never leaving the ground.

That night in bed, she took his hand again and thought she might teach him, that it might be possible, that he might enjoy it, but when he looked at her in the dim light of the room and cocked his head like a child, she knew she could not.

• • • •

They tried to kill him the very next week. They were afraid that she would find new ways to spend, on this thing she’d had the doctors make for her, the very wealth they believed was theirs, the wealth their many lawyers had assured them would indeed be theirs, because at her passing—the one they knew she was planning (an injection in the vein of one arm? a perfumed gas in a little perfumed room?)—it would pass to them. There was no one else—no children, no other siblings, no organization whose rights could not be successfully contested to whom her wealth should go. Their lawyers could not assure them, however, that she would not put a new skin, another pair of wings, a scaly tail, a second head on this creature, and so it needed to be killed, didn’t it?

They tried at Lake Como during the height of the tourist season, while she was sleeping on the deck of the biggest villa, tired out by the sun. The young man was standing on the dock just below her, looking down into the dark waters as he always did, and only a movement by the quickest guard was able to save him. The hydrofoil removed the first ten meters of the dock, somehow avoided the retaining wall, and moved down the lake without stopping. Shaking, naked, she stood in the sunlight and knew.

To the guard, a middle-aged Tuscan by the name of Cichinelli, she gave one of the new apartment buildings in the Ligurian castle-town of Pozzuoli, smiling as she presented him with the papers the next day. To the other guards, who would certainly have done the same had they been able, she presented new Alfa Stellanovas. Someone back at the lodge would report it all, of course. Even the smile, she knew.

When they tried again, at Assisi, in the garden there, while she sat with him quietly on a bench watching the lizards move on the walls, and the bullets from the assassin’s rifle shattered the marble corner, she had him moved back to Siena, to within the grounds of her father’s hunting lodge. It would cost her two of the gambling barges in Trieste to establish the newest security technology on the grounds. It would cost her half of her interest in the cablecar network on Anacapri—the one her father had given her when she was twelve—to establish the same for the building in Lucca, which she no longer used. All of this would be reported to her brother and her sisters, she knew.

Being with him each day, holding his hand, helped her to remember. Was this perhaps why she’d had him made? She saw it clearly the day she led him through the hallways of the hunting lodge to show him all of the paintings of wings—the very kind she had once hoped he might have. Caravaggio’s Angeli di Dio. Fra Angelico’s Il Sogno del Cielo. The dancing angels of Turacco, the long wings of Pagano. The paintings had always been there. They lined the oak walls of the hallways, as they always had, but as she watched him look at them, as she watched him turn to her with questions in his eyes because he had no words to ask them—it came to her suddenly:

They had been her father’s paintings. He had given them to her. He had loved them; he had loved the wings.

How could she have forgotten? How?

• • • •

They were never going to try the poison, she admitted to herself finally. The cardiotoxin they had used on Piero, her gangly son, sixty years old the day he drove his two sisters, teenagers, from Old Genoa down the galleria highway to the birthday party for her in Pisa—the gradual poison in his veins, the Alfa Romeo d’Oro tumbling to the rocks at Cinque Terre, the bodies floating in the bay, like pale ghosts, for three whole hours. For some reason they were not going to try it this time and she was sorry. Perhaps they knew; perhaps they did not. The doctors had made alterations and it would not have worked this time.

It had cost her half of what her father had left her to have the creature made. The other half remained, and this was what her brother and sisters wanted—more than anything in the world.

Love is sometimes a terrible thing, she would remember thinking, sitting in a little room.

• • • •

In September he began to make sounds with his throat at last. He tried to make her understand what he wanted by them, and she did her best to understand. But she did not try to teach him a language. It would have taken too long, she knew. Others would have the time. For now she wanted him to herself, before words could change him.

• • • •

She could remember it now. Lying on the beach at Viareggio as a child, her father, his beard, the crow’s-feet at the corners of his eyes, his eyes bluer than any Italian should have had. His hands were in his pockets, his legs only a few steps away in the warm sand. The sunlight seemed to go forever. A poet had died there, she knew. Even as a child she had known this. It had bothered her even then that a poet could have drowned in such a beautiful sea, the Ligurian Sea, near where her own mother had been born, and where she, even now in memory, was a child playing in the sand, her father, his beard, his legs so near her in a sunlight that went forever.

She could remember it now. She could remember him standing in the sand, day after day, and saying: Tu sei mi’angelo, Pupa.

You are my angel. You will always be my angel, Pupa.

It was the last thing she would need to remember, she knew, sitting in a room that smelled of jasmine, breathing it in at last.

• • • •

The young man sat in the corner of another room and tried his best to think. It was difficult. The men and women around him were telling him—in words, ones he had only recently learned to understand—how many things in the world were now his, how these things could never be taken from him, and how this was all that the woman had really wanted.

Bruce McAllister

Bruce McAllister

Bruce McAllister’s short stories have appeared over the years in many of the SFF field’s major magazines and in various “year’s best” volumes, and have won or been short-listed for awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Shirley Jackson Award, the Nebula, the Hugo and others. He is the author of the novels Dream Baby and The Village Sang to the Sea, and the collection The Girl Who Loved Animals.