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OUR arrival didn’t exactly go as planned. I remember it was almost dawn when we landed because the streetlights were still on. We had hoped our descent would go unnoticed, which it mainly did, save for a thirteen-year-old boy doing a paper round.
He was on his bicycle with the newspapers rolled like batons in plastic wrap. It was misty and the boy was wearing a hooded jacket. He seemed to be playing a mental game with himself to estimate where exactly he could get each paper to land. The newspapers hit the driveways and verandas with a thud, and the boy smiled smugly whenever he estimated right. A Jack Russell terrier barking from behind a gate caused him to glance up and alerted him to our arrival.
He looked up just in time to see a column of white light receding into the clouds, leaving three wraithlike strangers in the middle of the road. Despite our human form, something about us startled him—perhaps it was our skin, which was as luminous as the moon or our loose white traveling garments, which were in tatters from the turbulent descent. Perhaps it was the way we looked at our limbs, as though we had no idea what to do with them, or the water vapor still clinging to our hair. What ever the reason, the boy lost his balance, swerved his bike, and crashed into the gutter. He scrambled to his feet and stood transfixed for several seconds, caught between alarm and curiosity. In unison we reached out our hands to him in what we hoped was a gesture of reassurance. But we forgot to smile. By the time we remembered how, it was too late. As we contorted our mouths in an attempt to get it right, the boy turned on his heel and fled. Having a physical body was still foreign to us—there were so many different parts that needed to run concurrently, like a complex machine. The muscles in my face and body were stiff, my legs were trembling like a child’s taking his first steps, and my eyes hadn’t yet adjusted to the muted earth light. Having come from a place of dazzling light, shadows were foreign to us.
Gabriel approached the bicycle with its front wheel still spinning and righted it. He propped it against the closest fence knowing that the boy would return later to collect it.
I imagined the boy bursting through the front door of his home and relating the story to his stunned parents. His mother would push the hair back from his forehead to check his temperature. His father, bleary-eyed, would comment on the mind’s ability to play tricks on you when it has time to wander.
We found Byron Street and walked along its uneven sidewalk, scanning for Number 15. Already, our senses were being assaulted from all directions. The colors of the world were so vivid and so varied. We had come from a pure white world to a street that looked like an artist’s palette. Apart from color everything had its own different texture and shape. The wind brushed against my fingertips, and it felt so alive I wondered if I could reach out and catch it. I opened my mouth and tasted the crisp, sharp air. I could smell gasoline and burning toast mingled with pine and the sharp scent of the ocean. The worst part was the noise. The wind seemed to howl, and the sound of the sea beating against the rocks roared through my head like a stampede. I could hear everything that was happening in the street, the sound of a car ignition, a slamming screen door, a child crying, an old porch swing creaking in the wind.
“You’ll learn how to block it out,” said Gabriel. The sound of his voice startled me. Back home, we communicated without language. Gabriel’s human voice, I discovered, was low and hypnotic.
“How long will it take?” I winced as the shrill cry of a seagull sounded overhead. I heard my own voice, which was as melodic as a flute.
“Not long,” Gabriel answered. “It’s easier if you don’t fight it.”
Byron Street rose and peaked in the middle and there, at its highest point, stood our new home. Ivy was immediately charmed.
“Oh, look.” She clapped her hands in delight. “It even has a name.” The house had been named after the street and BYRON was displayed in an elegant script on a copper plaque. We would later discover that the adjoining streets were named after other English Romantic poets: Keats Grove, Coleridge Street, Blake Avenue. Byron was to be both our home and our sanctuary while we were earthbound. It was a double-fronted, ivy-clad sandstone house set well back from the street behind a wrought-iron fence and double gates. It had a gracious Georgian façade and a gravel path leading to its flaking front door. The front yard was dominated by a stately elm, wrapped in a tangled mess of ivy. Along the side fence grew a profusion of hydrangeas, their pastel heads quivering in the morning frost. I liked the house—it looked like it had been built to weather any adversity.
“Bethany, hand me the key,” said Gabriel. Looking after the key to the house was the only job I had been entrusted with. I felt around the deep pockets of my dress.
“It’s here somewhere,” I assured him.
“Please tell me you haven’t lost it already.”
“We did fall out of the sky, you know,” I said indignantly. “It’s easy for things to go missing.”
Ivy laughed suddenly. “You’re wearing it around your neck.”
I breathed a sigh of relief as I slipped off the chain and handed it to Gabriel. As we stepped into the hallway we saw that no expense had been spared in preparing the house for our arrival. The Divine Agents who’d preceded us had been meticulous in their attention to detail.
Everything about the house suggested light. The ceilings were lofty, the rooms airy. Off the central hallway were a music room to the left and a living room to the right. Farther along, a study opened onto a paved courtyard. The rear of the house was an extension that had been modernized and was made up of an expansive marble-and-stainless-steel kitchen that spilled into a large den with Persian rugs and plump sofas. Folding doors opened onto an extensive redwood deck. Upstairs were all the bedrooms and the main bathroom with its marble vanities and sunken bath. As we walked through the house, its timber floors creaked as if in welcome. A light shower began, and the rain falling on the slate roof sounded like fingers playing a melody on a piano.
THOSE first weeks were spent hibernating and getting our bearings. We took stock, waited patiently as we adjusted to having a physical form, and immersed ourselves in the rituals of daily life. There was so much to learn and it certainly wasn’t easy. At first we would take a step and be surprised to find solid ground beneath us. We knew that everything on earth was made up of matter knitted together in a complex molecular code to form different substances: air, rock, wood, animals. But it was very different experiencing it. Physical barriers surrounded us. We had to navigate our way around these barriers and try to avoid the accompanying feeling of claustrophobia. Every time I picked up an object, I stopped to marvel at its function. Human life was so complicated; there were devices to boil water, wall sockets that channeled electrical currents, and all manner of utensils in the kitchen and bathroom designed to save time and increase comfort. Everything had a different texture, a different smell—it was like a circus for the senses. I could tell that Ivy and Gabriel wanted to block it all out and return to blissful silence, but I relished every moment even if it was overwhelming.
Some evenings we were visited by a faceless, white-robed mentor, who simply appeared sitting in an armchair in the living room. His identity was never disclosed, though we knew he acted as a messenger between the angels on earth and the powers above. A briefing usually followed during which we were able to discuss the challenges of incarnation and have our questions answered.
“The landlord has asked for documents regarding our previous residence,” Ivy said, during our first meeting.
“We apologize for the oversight. Consider it taken care of,” replied the mentor. His whole face was shrouded from view, but when he spoke small clouds of white fog appeared from beneath his hood.
“How much time is expected to pass before we understand our bodies entirely?” Gabriel wanted to know.
“That depends,” said the mentor. “It should not take longer than a few weeks, unless you resist the change.”
“How are the other emissaries coping?” Ivy asked with concern.
“Some are adjusting to human life, like yourselves, and others have been thrown straight into battle,” replied the mentor. “There are some corners of the earth riddled with Agents of Darkness.”
“Why does toothpaste give me a headache?” I asked. My brother and sister flashed me stern looks, but the mentor was unfazed.
“It contains a number of strong chemical ingredients designed to kill bacteria,” he said. “Give yourself a week, the headaches should pass.”
After the consultations were over Gabriel and Ivy always lingered for a private discussion and I was left hovering outside the door, trying to catch snippets of the converation I couldn’t be part of.
The first big challenge was taking care of our bodies. They were fragile. They needed nourishment as well as protection from the elements—mine more so than my siblings because I was young; it was my first visit and I hadn’t had time to develop any resistance. Gabriel had been a warrior since the dawn of time, and Ivy was blessed with healing powers. I, on the other hand, was much more vulnerable. The first few times I ventured out on a walk, I returned shivering before realizing I was inadequately clothed. Gabriel and Ivy didn’t feel the cold. But their bodies still needed maintenance. We wondered why we felt faint by midday, then realized our bodies needed regular meals. The preparation of food was a tedious task, and in the end, our brother Gabriel graciously offered to take charge of it. There was an extensive collection of cookbooks in the well-stocked library, and he took to poring over these in the evenings.
We kept human contact to a minimum. We shopped after hours in the adjoining larger town of Kingston and didn’t answer the door or the phone if it happened to ring. We took long walks at times when humans were occupied behind closed doors. Occasionally we went into the town and sat together at sidewalk cafés to observe passersby, trying to look absorbed in one another’s company to ward off attention. The only person we introduced ourselves to was Father Mel, who was the priest at Saint Mark’s, a small bluestone chapel down by the water.
“Good heavens,” he said when he saw us. “So you’ve finally come.”
We liked Father Mel because he didn’t ask any questions or make any demands of us; he simply joined us in prayer. We hoped that in time our subtle influence in the town might result in people reconnecting with their spirituality. We didn’t expect them to be observant and go to church every Sunday, but we wanted to restore their faith and teach them to believe in miracles. Even if they stopped by the church on their way to do the grocery shopping and lit a candle, we would be happy.
Venus Cove was a sleepy beachside town, the sort of place where nothing ever changed. We enjoyed the quiet and took to walking along the shore, usually at dinnertime when the beach was mostly deserted. One night we walked as far as the pier to look at the boats moored there. They were so brightly painted they looked like they belonged in a postcard. We reached the end of the pier before noticing the lone boy sitting there. He couldn’t have been more than eighteen, but it was possible to see in him the man he would someday become. He was wearing cargo shorts that came to his knees and a loose white T-shirt with the sleeves cut off. His muscular legs hung over the edge of the pier. He was fishing and had a burlap bag full of bait and assorted reels beside him. We stopped dead when we saw him and would have turned away immediately, but he had already seen us.
“Hi,” he said with an open smile. “Nice night for a walk.” My brother and sister only nodded in response and didn’t move. I decided it was too impolite not to respond and stepped forward.
“Yes, it is,” I said. I suppose this was the first sign of my weakness—my human curiosity drew me forward. We were supposed to interact with humans but never befriend them or welcome them into our lives. Already, I was disregarding the rules of our mission. I knew I should fall silent, walk away, but instead I gestured toward the boy’s fishing reels. “Have you had any luck?”
“I come out here to relax,” he said, tipping up the bucket so I could see it was empty. “If I happen to catch anything, I throw it back in.”
I took another step forward for a closer look. The boy’s light brown hair was the color of walnuts. It flopped over his brow and had a lustrous sheen in the fading light. His pale eyes were almond shaped and a striking turquoise blue in color. But it was his smile that was utterly mesmerizing. So that was how it was done, I thought: effortlessly, instinctively, and so utterly human. As I watched, I felt drawn to him, almost by some magnetic force. Ignoring Ivy’s warning glance, I took another step forward.
“Want to try?” he offered, sensing my curiosity and holding out the fishing rod.
While I struggled to think of an appropriate response, Gabriel answered for me.
“Come away now, Bethany. We have to get home.”
I noticed how formal Gabriel’s speech pattern was compared with the boy’s. Gabriel’s words sounded rehearsed, as though he were performing a scene from a play. He probably felt like he was. He sounded like a character in one of the old Hollywood movies I’d watched as part of our research.
“Maybe next time,” the boy said, picking up on Gabriel’s tension. I noticed how his eyes crinkled slightly at the corners when he smiled. Something in his expression made me think he was poking fun at us. I moved away reluctantly.
“That was so rude,” I said to my brother as soon as we were out of earshot. I surprised myself with those words. Since when did angels worry about coming across as slightly stand-offish? Since when had I mistaken Gabriel’s distant manner for rudeness? He had been created that way, he wasn’t at one with humankind—he didn’t understand their ways. And yet, I was berating him for lacking human traits.
“We have to be careful, Bethany,” he explained as if speaking to an errant child.
“Gabriel is right,” Ivy added, ever our brother’s ally. “We’re not ready for human contact yet.”
“I think I am,” I said.
I turned back for a final look at the boy. He was still watching us and still smiling.
Excerpted from Halo by Alexandra Adornetto.
Copyright © 2010 by Alexandra Adornetto.
Published in 2010 by Feiwel And Friends.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.