A week after midsummer, when the festival fires were cold, and
decent people were in bed an hour after sunset, not lying dry-mouthed
in dark rooms at midday, a young man named
Sobran Jodeau stole two of the freshly bottled wines to baptize the
first real sorrow of his life. Though the festival was past, everything
was singing, frogs making chamber music in the cistern near the
house, and black grasshoppers among the vines. Sobran stepped out
of his path to crush one insect, watched its shiny limbs flicker, then
finally contract, and sat by the corpse as it stilled. The young man
glanced at his shadow on the ground. It was substantial. With the
moon just off full and the soil sandy, all shadows were sharp and
Sobran slid the blade of his knife between the bottleneck and the
cork and slowly eased it free. He took a swig of the friand, tasted
fruit and freshness, a flavor that turned briefly and looked back over its
shoulder at the summer before last, but didn't pause, even to shade its
eyes. The wine turned thus for the first few mouthfuls, then seemed
simply a "beverage," as Father Lesy would say, the spinsterish priest
from whom Sobran and his brother, Leon, had their letters. The
wine's now pure chemical power poured from Sobran's gut into his
blood. His balls began to ache again as his prick started to press, stupidly,
for its chances. Sobran ignored it he was miserable, overripe,
well past any easy relief.
Celeste was the daughter of a poor widow. She worked for Sobran's
mother's aunt, fetched between the kitchen and the parlor, was quicker
than the crippled maid, yet was "dear": "Run upstairs, dear ..."
Celeste kept the old lady company, sat with her hands just so, idle and
attentive, while Aunt Agnes talked and wound yarn. At sixteen Sobran
might have been ready to fall in love with her now, at eighteen, it
seemed his body had rushed between them. When he looked at
Celeste's mouth, her shawled breasts, the pink fingertips of her hand
curled over the top of the embroidery frame as she sat stitching a
hunting-scene fire screen, Sobran's prick would puff up like a loaf left
to prove, and curve in his breeches as tense as a bent bow. Like his
friend Baptiste, Sobran began to go unconfessed for months. His
brother, Leon, looked at him with distaste and envy; their mother
shrugged, sighed, seemed to give him tip. Then Sobran told his father
he meant to marry Celeste and his father refused him permission.
The elder Jodeau was angry with his wife's family. Why, he wanted
to know, hadn't his son been told? The girl didn't exactly set snares,
but she was fully conscious of her charms. Sobran was informed that
Celeste's father had died mad was quite mad for years, never spoke,
but would bark like a dog. Then at midsummer an uncle, in his cups,
put a tender arm around Sobran's shoulder and said don't don't go
near her, he could see how it was, but that cunt was more a pit than
most, a pit with slippery sides. "Mark my words."
At the service after midsummer, in a church full of gray faces,
queasiness and little contrition, Celeste had looked at Sobran, and
seemed to know he knew not that he'd either asked or promised
anything but her stare was full of scorn, and seemed to say, "Some
lover you are." Sobran had wanted to weep, and wanted, suddenly,
not to overcome Celeste, to mount a marital assault, but to surrender
himself. And, wanting, he ached all over, as a shoot must ache before it
breaks from the soil. When Celeste spoke to him after the service
there was ice in her mouth. And when, in his great-aunt's parlor, she
handed him a glass of Malaga, she seemed to curse him with her toast.
"Your health" as though it was his health that stood between them.
Sobran got up off the ground and began to climb toward the ridge.
The vineyard, Clos Jodeau, comprised two slopes of a hill that lay in
the crooked arm of a road which led through the village of Aluze and
on past Chateau Vully on the banks of the river Saone. At the river the
road met with a greater road, which ran north to Beaune. When the
two slopes of Clos Jodeau were harvested, the grapes of the slope that
turned a little to the south were pressed at Jodeau, and the wine
stored in the family's small cellar. The remainder of the harvested
grapes were sold to Chateau Vully. The wine of Clos Jodeau was distinctive
and interesting, and lasted rather better than the chateau's.
On the ridge that divided the slopes grew a row of four cherry trees.
It was for these that Sobran made, for their shelter, and an outlook.
Inside his shirt and sitting on his belt, the second bottle bumped
against his ribs. He watched his feet; and the moon behind, over the
house, pushed his crumbling shadow up the slope before him.
Last Sunday he had left Aunt Agnes's door before his family, only
to go around the back to look in the door to the kitchen, where he
knew Celeste had taken refuge. The door stood open. She was
stooped over a sieve and pail as the cook poured soured milk into a
cheesecloth to catch the curds. Celeste gathered the corners of the
cloth and lifted it, dripping whey. She wrung it over the bucket. Then
she saw Sobran, gave the cloth another twist and came to the door
with the fresh cheese dripping on the flags and onto her apron. Her
hands, slick with whey and speckled with grainy curds, didn't pause as
she looked and spoke, one hand gripped and the other twisted. She
told him he must find himself a wife. In her eyes he saw fury that
thickened their black, her irises so dark the whites seemed to stand up
around them like, in an old pan, enamel around spots worn through
to iron. His desire took flight, fled but didn't disperse, like a flock of
startled rooks, who, intact, will return to roost. Sobran knew then
that he wanted forgiveness and compassion her forgiveness and
compassion and that nothing else would do.
Sobran paused to drink, drank the bottle off and dropped it. He
was at the cherry trees; the rolling bottle scattered some fallen fruit,
some sunken and furred with dusty white mold. The air smelled
sweet, of fresh and fermenting cherries and, oddly strong here, far
from the well, a smell of cool fresh water. The moonlight was so
bright that the landscape had color still.
Someone had set a statue down on the ridge. Sobran blinked and
swayed. For a second he saw what he knew gilt, paint and varnish,
the sculpted labial eye of a church statue. Then he swooned while still
walking forward, and the angel stood quickly to catch him.
Sobran fell against a warm, firm pillow of muscle. He lay braced by
a wing, pure sinew and bone under a cushion of feathers, complicated
and accommodating against his side, hip, leg, the pinions split
around his ankle. The angel was breathing steadily, and smelled of
snow. Sobran's terror was so great that he was calm, a serenity like
that a missionary priest had reported having felt when he found himself
briefly in the jaws of a lion. There was an interval of warm silence;
then Sobran saw that the moon was higher and felt that his pulse and
the angel's were walking apace.
He looked up.
The angel's youth and beauty were like a mask, superficial, and all
that Sobran could see. And there was a mask on the mask, of watchful
patience. The angel had waited some time to be looked at, after all. Its
expression was open and full of curiosity. "You slept for a while," the
angel said, then added, "No, not a faint you were properly asleep."
Sobran wasn't afraid anymore. This angel had been sent to him,
obviously, not for comfort, but counsel, surely. Yet if Sobran confided
nothing, and received no advice, the way he felt enfolded, weak,
warm in an embrace itself as invigorating as the air immediately over a
wild sea that alone seemed sufficient for now and for ever.
"I can sit," Sobran said, and the angel set him upright. He felt the
callused palms and soft wings brace, then release him. Then very
slowly, as though knowing it might frighten, the angel raised his
wings up and forward they weren't as white as his skin, or the
creamy silk he wore and settled himself, the wings crossed before
him on the ground, so that only his shoulders, head and neck were
visible. When the angel released him, the world came back; Sobran
heard the black grasshoppers, and a dog bark down the valley at the
house of Baptiste Kalmann, his friend. He recognized the dog's
voice Baptiste's favorite, the loyal Aimee.
Sobran told the angel about his love troubles, spoke briefly and
economically, as though he had paid for the privilege of a hearing. He
told of his love, his parent's prohibition, and Celeste's father's madness.
He said nothing offensive, nothing about his body.
The angel was thoughtful. He looked off into the shadow at the
base of a vine, where, following his gaze, Sobran saw the second bottle
lay. He stretched for it, wiped the grit from its sides and offered it
to the angel, who took it, covered the cork with his palm and, with no
apparent use of force, drew it forth. The angel tilted the bottle to his
mouth and tasted. Sobran watched the throat move, and light catch
or come into a mark on the angel's side, on his ribs, right under his
raised arm a twisted shape a scar or tattoo like two interlocked
words, one of which flushed briefly with a color like light through the
flank of a raised wave.
"A young wine," the angel said. "Reserve a bottle and we can drink
it together when it's old." He handed the bottle back. When Sobran
put it to his mouth he felt the bottle neck, warm and wet. Again he
tasted the wine's quick backward look, its spice flirtation and not
"Was he mad, her father?" the angel asked.
Sobran licked his fingers, touched his own brow and made a hot-stove
hiss, as his grandmother had used to. "Barked like a dog."
"At the moon, or at people he didn't like?"
Sobran blinked, then laughed and the angel laughed with him a
dry, pretty laugh. "I'd look into that further if I were you," the angel
"This business of tainted blood," Sobran said. "There are so many
stories of gulled brides and bridegrooms. Men or women who watch
their own good corrupt and ail in their children." He offered the wine
again. The angel held up a refusing hand.
"It's too young, I know," Sobran apologized.
"Do you suppose I live only on thousand-year eggs?"
Sobran looked puzzled, and the angel explained. "In Szechwan,
China, they bury eggs in ash for a long while then eat them, ash-colored
"A thousand years?"
The angel laughed. "Do you think people could lay by, or wait so
long to consume, or even remember where they had stored,
anything, after a thousand years, whether appetizing, precious or
The young man blushed, thinking that the angel was hinting at the
Host, the thousand-year blessing which hadn't passed Sobran's lips
for five Sundays now. "Forgive me," Sobran said.
"I haven't received Communion for five weeks."
The angel said flatly, "Oh." He thought a little, then got up,
wrapped one arm about the trunk of a cherry tree and, with his other
hand, hauled down a limb. The branch stooped till its leaves brushed
Sobran's hair. The man picked some fruit, three on one stem, and the
angel let the limb up again gently, his strength direct and dexterous.
He sat, resettled his wings.
Sobran ate, his tongue separating the stones from sweet flesh and
rolling them clean.
The angel said, "You don't really know what Celeste knows, or
what she thinks. You should just let her talk to you. Speak plainly,
then simply listen. If the laws by which I have to live were numbered,
that would be my first."
A small crack opened in Sobran's self-absorption, his infantile certainty
that the night was there to nourish and the angel to guide and
comfort him. He said, "Your first law would be our first commandment."
"All angels love God," the angel said, "and have no other. He is our
north. Adrift on the dark waters still we face Him. He made us but
He is love, not law." The angel drew breath to say something further,
but stopped, breath caught and lips parted. The wind got up and
brushed the cherry trees, turned some of the angel's top feathers up to
show paler down. The angel's eyes moved and changed, so that
Sobran momentarily expected to see the small green flames he often
caught in the eyes of the farm cats.
Baptiste's Aimee was barking again, as if at a persistent prowling
fox. Sobran thought of foxes, then that God was listening, that His
car was inclined to the hillside.
The angel stood abruptly, like a soldier surprised by an officer and
jumping up to give a salute. Sobran flinched as another gust pressed
the trees. The angel said, "On this night next year I will toast your
marriage." Then the wind rose up in a whirling column, semi-solid
with leaves, twigs and dust. The whirlwind reared like a snake, swallowed
the angel so that Sobran saw the figure turning, face wrapped
in his black hair and white clothes wrung hard against his body. The
angel's wings snapped open, like a slack sail suddenly fully fed, then
angel and whirlwind were a league away and above, a dark blur in the
clear sky. The wind dropped. Leaves, earth, twigs and few black-tipped
fawn feathers sprinkled down over the northern slope of the
The following day Sobran collected those feathers and tied two with
dark yarn to the top side of the rafters above his bed. The third, eighteen
inches long, he put to use as a quill. Although it wouldn't trim
down, it made a fine enough line. At the kitchen table, surrounded by
his family, but in secret, since all but his brother were unlettered,
Sobran wrote to Celeste. He dipped, watched the ink penetrate the
feather's long chamber of air, wrote Celeste's name, then of his clumsiness
and their consequent misunderstanding. He paused to wonder
at his spelling, and ran the plume through his mouth, tasting fresh
snow, which made his mouth tender as he dipped once more and
wrote to beg a meeting.