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Two young people sat quite comfortably on the grassy bank of a stream, leaning against a willow whose ancient body seemed designed for leaning. Plangent water reflected the little green leaves of the willow, including even the tiny round crystals of dew which hung from the leaves, with only artistic distortion, while below the line of the water cool fish brooded, wearing coats of bright enamelwork.
On either side of the stream a lawn spread out, tended by cloudy sheep. Other beasts, too, roamed at their graceful will across the landscape: the ox and the wide-horned aurochs, the slouching camelopard, the corkindrill—each animal as fat as a burgher and similarly complacent. None were ragged, none scarred. None raised its elegant head except in wonder at the sweetness of the air.
Of course there were birds, and even in the lacy mass of the willow they sang, regardless of the presence of two or three sleek and platter-faced cats who meditated while resting upon the largest branches, their white, gray, or many-striped tails curled below them like fishhooks trolling the air.
Although there were aurochs and a camelopard, and it has been said that these are wary beasts and unsocial, this park which contained them had not the appearance of wilderness. Beyond the copse of fruiting trees on the far side of the river rose a white palace of intricate shape and exquisite proportion, though through distance and the balmy air its exact lineaments were confused. Another, more homey sort of house rose closer to hand, on the bank of the stream itself. This edifice was square, three stories tall, and also white— sparkling white—except for a roof of red tile and certain tasteful borders of red and gold about the windows.
These windows were large, as though the house had been built without care for winter, and they yawned wide and shutterless, as though no thief had ever been born. From these windows hung pots of divers herbs. A pretty gravel path wound away from the tower and kept company with the stream for a while, before humping itself over on a painted bridge and heading toward the ambiguous palace.
The two young people who lounged beside the path (and beneath the birds, and the cats, and the willow leaves all hung with dew) were both decorative and restful to the eye—of a piece with the rest of the scene. One was a small and delicately made maiden all dressed in white save for a red kerchief which she wore around her neck, hanging down in back. Her hair was not flaxen, but as white as her dress —and yet there was no mistaking this child for an old woman. Her pleasant triangular face was as innocent of wrinkles as it seemed of thought. Her eyes were soft and brown. With a yawn and a stretch this child rolled away from the tree and began rooting about in the grass in the most unladylike fashion, on all fours, apparently searching for something, while she turned those strange, heavy-pupiled eyes on her companion with a mixture of fawning and mischief.
He, too, had large brown eyes, and he was also dressed in white, though upon his glimmering garment there were certain touches (as there were in the square tower) of scarlet and gold. He was not pale, however, but swarthy, and his hair was a mass of lazy curls. He continued to lean against the willow tree while his hands played over the strings of a perfectly plain, perfectly perfect lute. He happened to be seated (in seeming content) on a dead branch, which he took care should not be visible to the girl.
The music he made was like the light which bathed and enfolded this garden without a wall: impossibly rich and simple, too fine-textured for the world of days. And he didn't play alone, for his melody was answered by a descant from the winged sky, while below the grass murmured a sweet continuo.
It was a piece without beginning or end, and a glance at the rapt face of the musician communicated that he was well satisfied with the work. But at some time during that long morning, the musician raised his head and left the music to continue without him. His eyes, like those of the girl, were drowned drunk as though they witnessed something beyond sky, river, leafy tree, and rippling grasses.
As though they witnessed glory.
His eyes were so because he, she, the corkindrill, and all of those who strolled, slouched, soared, or sang their perfection in that crystal air, were the dead—the blessed dead—and this was their realm.
And in truth there was neither stream nor willow, nor leaves of the willow nor dew to hang from its leaves, nor tower nor palace nor pretty gravel paths winding between them.
There was only peace here: great peace, bought with pain, perhaps. Redeemed by love, most certainly. Peace, at any rate, and it had shattered the bonds of time.
But this particular blessed soul (the one with the lute) raised his head and the beautiful drowned eyes squinted, like those of a nearsighted man trying to focus at a distance.
"What is it, Dami?" asked the white girl, and she plumped herself down in front of him.
For some moments he did not respond, but stared past her, and past the stream and the copse of fruit trees and the white palace beyond, into unimaginable or unremembered distance. Then he met her gaze, while his fingers evoked a trickle of emotion from the lute strings.
"I felt, little dear," he said slowly, "as though someone had floated here on the wind from far away, offering me all of heaven and earth to follow him."
She scooted closer, until her soft and innocent (though not particularly clever) face rested mere inches from his. "What did that feel like?" He sighed. "It felt like a stomachache."
Macchiata snorted and sat back heavily on the grass. "But, Master —Master! You don't HAVE a stomach!"
She peered at him sidelong, grinning, and sought again in the grass around the willow. At last she found the branch Damiano had concealed, and she pulled it out from under his legs.
"Hah! There it is.
"Come on, Dami," she wheedled winsomely. "Throw the stick for me again."
He looked into her eyes. "Are you pining for your natural form, little dear? Would you like to be a dog once again?"
Macchiata slipped his gaze and looked hungrily at the branch in her master's hand. "Not pining. I like my girl shape. Especially the hands, which make it easy to pick up sticks.
"Please, Dami. PLEASE throw it again."
The greatest of the archangels, Lucifer by name, had a palace as grand as that behind the orchard in Tir Na nOg—the Isle of the Ever Young—though Lucifer's watchful fortress was neither white nor charmingly situated. Atop the square box of it was a small, high chamber possessing four windows. These reached from the floor to the vaulted ceiling, and they stood always open.
One of these windows looked grudgingly toward the clean north, just as one beheld the generous south with due suspicion. The third window kept a wary eye against the wisdom of the east while the last window denied all hope of the west. Despite this eclectic airiness, the atmosphere in the chamber was a bit stuffy and it smelled like a dead fire. A single grayish, dirty fly droned in frustrated circles through the air of the chamber, as though despite all the windows it could not find a way out.
Within the arches of this high room stood only a table and a chair. On the table was placed a small replica of the palace itself, which was as intricate as its original—as squatly heavy and as drear—and only less fearsome because of its size. At the very top of the model perched a tiny cupola of four windows, within which rested two tiny atomies of furniture: a table and a chair. The chair in the model, like that in the original, was empty.
But the owner of the palace (and the model) was returning, ploughing his way through the sky on wyvern's wings. He came not from the north or south or from any other clear direction, but in great, frustrated circles, and he stopped to pant on the black iron roof of this highest chamber before slithering in.
As the light of one window was darkened for a moment by his serpentine bulk, the fly found its way cutely into the model of the palace, where it settled itself upon the matchstick perfection of the tiny table in the highest chamber.
Lucifer sloughed off his hideous wyvern shape and appeared with a sneer upon his elegant carnelian features. He despised ugliness almost as much as he distrusted beauty, but since his own angelic wings had shriveled long ago, he had to take some other shape if he were to fly. He threw himself into the hard chair and scowled out each window in turn.
A long climb and a bootless errand in a place which could not be seen out of any of his watch windows. A place beyond the limits of his dominion. Lucifer was in a foul, foul mood.
Curse the deaf, dimwit shade!
If only Lucifer COULD curse him, or indulge himself in any deed on physical or spiritual plane which could do damage to the object of his dislike. But he could no more sting the little creature than he could sting God Himself, who held it in His infuriatingly careful hands. He could only call it names out loud, not the worst of which was "dago." He stared at his new toy palace, unseeing.
Someone new entered the chamber through the hatch in the floor which led into the rest of the palace. This someone was a small demon, raspberry-colored and raspberry-shaped, with two long feet and a very small head. Observing that its master had returned, the demon waddled over to the table and pulled itself up with its very agile and workmanlike hands.
A single glance at the Infernal Face led it to slip once more to the floor, where with a muted, worried buzzing it started to waddle its way once more to the door hole.
But Lucifer reached out and snatched up the thing, which was named Kadjebeen, plumping it ungently down on the tabletop.
The demon, thus presented, had a strong resemblance to that sort of fat-bottomed toy which has lead weights built into the round wooden base and which cannot be knocked over, no matter how hard or how many times one hits it. Lucifer was very aware of this resemblance, for he had used the little demon in this manner many times. Now he did not strike it, except with a glare.
It had feet longer than its legs. This was perhaps necessary in order to keep its rotundity in balance when it walked. It was not strictly necessary, however, for its feet to curl up in ornamental curlicues at the toes like Turkish shoes. This was a piece of pure individuality on the demon's part, and Lucifer—who was in many ways responsible for the rest of the demon's appearance—ground his predatory teeth at it.
The demon cringed. "Y—Your Magnificence's new palace image is finished," it announced, its voice the timbre of a tree frog's. "D— does Your Magnificence approve?"
Lucifer let his eyes slip for a moment to the marvelous model on the table beside the demon. Then his baleful gaze returned. "There's a fly in it," he stated flatly.
The demon rolled his eyes. (He could do this very well, because they were on stalks.) He examined the work of his hands carefully, and he, too, noticed the insect. He stuck one of his spider-thin fingers into the cupola window and made shooing gestures. A bad-tempered buzz responded.
But Lucifer was no longer paying attention to the image. He had sunk back into his throne with an almost adolescent sullenness, and was biting his fingernails.
"Something isn't right, in all this," he grumbled between his teeth.
"From the very beginning, every carefully thought-out plan I made regarding that—that Eyetalian—went awry."
The demon knew better than to ask questions of its master; it merely held one rococo toe in each nervous hand and pulled on them alternately.
"It wasn't my failure, either," continued the twisted angel, as he brooded and destroyed his cuticles. "I led him to me with perfect logic and baited every trap with his heart's desire. I should have had him a hundred times." He shot a pointed look at his servant.
"Not that Delstrego had any importance in himself, mind you. No more than any of that ... that mortal tillage of mine. But such as he was, he was Raphael's weakness."
Lucifer straightened in his chair and dropped his fist to the table. His face was a sculpture of cold hate, at which the demon stared in a terror of admiration. "Raphael's weakness," repeated Lucifer, gaining fury as he spoke.
"Oh, my sickly sweet, sainted brother!"
The Devil flung himself to his feet. The table was jarred and the intricate, careful palace model skidded over its smooth surface. The raspberry demon flailed and caught it just before it went over.
"Don't do that, please, Your Magnificence!"
"Raphael! Raphael!" hissed Lucifer. His face went from coral to blotched snow and rubies. "After Michael, I hate you more than any created being! And since you've never had the Sword-Angel's hard-headed good sense, you have let events carry you to ME.
"And you did it all by yourself." And at some sudden memory, Lucifer snickered, as his anger was cut with ugly hope. He stopped before a heavy metallic tapestry which hung between north and east, and he fingered it, following its embroidered story with his eyes.
"Once you were no more than a mirror for Him, like that other sheep, Uriel: beautiful, blank, and ... and quite safe from influence.
"Now you've become nearly as much a slave to the earth as some sylph of earth's air, brother. You bob right and left as the winds take you, and there is no one down there— absolutely no one, you will find—who can protect you."
And with these words, and the more complex thoughts which went behind them, Lucifer's mood flipped over, from immediate disappointment to eventual success and he looked inward upon a balmy future steeped in revenge.
"You see, Kadjebeen, my playing at dice for the soul of the little witch man wasn't a loss, after all. No—for every time he escaped me, it was by some great expense of Raphael's, until now, after only a little time at the gambling wheels of earth, my brother is near bankrupt."
Lucifer giggled then, and in a moment he had himself convinced that he had never been interested in Damiano Delstrego's soul at all.
"My only mistake," concluded Lucifer, raising his eyes and pointing at the raspberry demon, Kadjebeen, who still sat on the table, clutching his cunning image between his curly feet, "was in trying to use the man as the final bait to my trap now that he is dead and therefore untouch—or rather, I mean, without importance to me. Though as a gesture it would have had such artistic merit ..."
Kadjebeen folded his hands and stared at his model, lest he be accused of acquiescence in the idea that Lucifer had made any mistake at all. And that he was wise to do so was proven in the next moment, for Lucifer smote his palm with a fist and cried, "Why, by my own powers! Of course. There was no error! He CAN be the bait of my trap, even now."
And then Lucifer strode over to the window of the south, where lay expanses both of desert and plenty. "Woe, my dear Raphael," he whispered, as his blue eyes wandered, making plans. "You have loved well, but not at all wisely."
The baked white earth threw the heat against the baked white wall, which threw it back again. Hidden cicadas produced a tranced droning which was the perfect aural equivalent of the heat shimmer: a sound which a person might ignore for hours at a time before his consciousness came up against it, and which then would become unbearable.
Above San Gabriele the dark hills gathered, looming over the village like large friends who stood too close for one's comfort. Their blackish evergreen slopes promised a relief from the August heat to anyone who had the energy to walk so far.
For the most part, the San Gabrieleans preferred the blackish relief to be found within the wineshop. There, stretched out on the bosom of Mother Earth (the shop boasted no other floor), a handful of men with nothing to do let the sun fry the world outside.
Not that they were all drinking wine. Signor Tedesco, proprietor of the little store, would have been very happy had that been the case. But in all the village of San Gabriele there was not a man who had the money to spend his weekdays in a haze of vinous glory.
Excerpted from Raphael by R.A. MacAvoy. Copyright © 1984 R.A. MacAvoy. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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