He saw May look him over, wary as a rabbit.
"Right there?" she asked, patting her ear as if she might have misunderstood, looking skyward and squinting, glancing back in the direction from which she had come, toward the bowed passage through the hedge. "In the rain?" she asked doubtfully.
"Yes!" he said, dropping her arm.
But it was all over her face. Disbelief. Fear. Even sympathy. He cast around on the ground for something the angel might have left behind, some evidence--a curved feather big as a ship's hull, a burning footprint, still smoldering. But there was nothing.
May brushed delicately at her sleeve as though something had landed there. Conrad stared at her, saw her face fall softly. She lifted her hand as if she might press his arm, but then withdrew it and looked away, knotting her hands together beneath her apron.
"Well. That's something," she said. "Always something, I suppose. Must be going." And she left him.
Conrad stared after her a moment and then turned away, running his hands through his hair. He looked out over the terraces of his garden, down Paradise Hill to the silver arch of the river and, beyond, the rising mountains.
He and Rose had taken advantage of the intrinsic sense of expectation that clung to their house, with its high dormers like surprised eyes, by planting rows of Japanese maples across the lowest terrace, the grassy paths between them ending in a hazy vanishing point. Low-lying fingers of mist rose now from the ground on these ghost roads, snaking between banks of shrubs and conifers. Spiderwebs descended like sets on a stage, hung in the tree branches, threaded with drops of water. The bright,wavering air gave the impression of something drawing near, proceeding down the avenues of maples, emerging from between the fine curtain of the willows' leaves.
Rose had designed each of the four terraces below the house: one for the herbs and roses, another for the perennials, another for the vegetables, and a fourth, closest to the house, with a grape arbor, a ring of fruit trees, and a quiet diamond of grass, a circular pool like a blind eye at its center. Conrad remembered Rose as she had been her final fall--a frail, gray-haired old woman in a chair in the middle of the garden, a scarf around her head, a notebook on her lap, paper bags of bulbs arrayed at her feet. He had buried each bulb according to her plan.
In the field beneath the lowest terrace was Conrad's pigeon loft, a miniaturized two-story affair designed for him by his father-in-law, Lemuel Sparks, and modeled after a Belgian senator's loft that Lemuel had admired. Painted white, with louvered sliding doors opening to the roost compartments and a wide landing board running between the stories, it had an orderly, European appearance. Lemuel had roofed it in curved terra-cotta tiles, though they had cost him a fortune, and Rose had surrounded the loft with dwarf fig trees and plantings of shrubs that in the summer attracted migrating swarms of monarch butterflies.
Conrad glanced toward May's house now, saw she had abandoned the bundle of stakes for her sodden lilies. He imagined her standing behind her window curtain, watching him. Sighing, he headed over the grass toward the stone steps that led down to the pigeon loft.
Pearl, his rare frillback, was standing by the door to the first compartment. He reached in and took her in his hands, put his cheek to the whorl of white feathers at her crest, ran his finger over the curling dorsal coverts, which lay over her back in an elaborate cape. She dipped her head, rubbed it against his chin.
Conrad put Pearl back into her roost compartment, stood before her, and watched her neat motions. He did not consider himself a hysterical man, a man inclined to delusions or hallucinations. He understood that at seventy-five, and without Rose to take care of him, he wasn't likely to live so very much longer, a truth that, in his grief, he found comforting. And he believed it best to walk into whatever future he had left with his eyes wide open, gathering to him what he knew of himself and his life. But now an angel had chosen to make itself part of that life, had chosen to touch down like a spark at the end of a wire. What did it mean? And what would Rose have done?
She would have told anyone who'd listen. She would have celebrated. She would have told her friends.
But Conrad didn't really have any friends, he realized, not more than a couple anyway. He'd always just had Rose. That had seemed enough.
He returned to the house now, climbing the steps from one terrace to the next. Inside, he sat down at the dining room table, its lacquered surface holding the indistinct shape of his own reflection. He considered his story. Something unlikely, something unbelievable, something wonderful or terrible or even some mixed-up combination of the two--something he hadn't ever thought of, couldn't have imagined--had happened to him. He had become a stranger visiting his own life, and the sensation made him want to put himself at the heart of this mystery, claim it before it claimed him.
If you don't have many friends, he reasoned, you have to start with strangers. You never know who a stranger really is anyway, Rose always said. Anyone might be Jesus Christ, or an angel in disguise, testing the content of souls.
And so after some consideration--May Brown's skepticism firmly in his mind--Conrad got up, found paper and a pen in the clutter of Rose's kitchen desk, and then sat down again at the dining room table to write a careful letter to the editor of the local newspaper, the Laurel Aegis.
He shook out his sleeve and bent low to the page, tongue exploring his lower lip. It would be a testimony and an invitation, he thought: Here is what I saw.
The previous afternoon had been one of the worst he could remember, his most intense spell of unrelieved grief since the night Rose's body had been carried away to the funeral home. The needle of the barometer had twitched uncertainly. All day he had paced inside the house, sometimes bursting into fits of weeping that would overtake him from his knees up, doubling him over. Afterward he drew a shaky breath, stared around him as though he had been away on a long voyage. He thought he sensed a vibration in the air outside, a subtle intercession. Something was eddying down the garden's paths, winding through the leaves, unfurling. Coming closer.
He'd woken to the sound of rain and a sensation of terrible haste. His heart was racing. He sat for a moment, listening to the rain, and then turned to the cabinet at the other end of the room. He put the Schumann record on the phonograph, his beloved folk songs, and leaned over to blow dust from the needle.
And then he'd heard that owl. He'd returned to the French doors and looked out through the streaked glass. The garden had become a sea of dark crests and lime-colored breakers, the wind lashing at the white flags of the leaves.
Rose would have called this his Summer of Neglect. He'd left the vegetables to rot on the vine; he'd allowed the flowers to fall, unstaked; he'd watched, hardly even noticing, as the leaves of the roses were eaten away by black spot. He thought he knew that if he had been the one to die, Rose would have looked after the garden anyway. It might have been her most beautiful garden, in fact, just as now, despite her absence, the flowers themselves seemed to be responding to some distant urging from her, some expectation. And now, he thought, an owl would take one of his pigeons, a storm would ruin the garden. Don't let it go to waste, Connie--that's what Rose would have said.
So he had moved then like an obedient child, relieved to be of use, happy to be busy, pleased at what they had wrought by day's end in their garden--a border weeded, the lilies staked, rocks piled for a wall and studded with sea pinks and sempervivums, beardtongue and sunrose. She would have taken her finger and touched it to his brow, polishing the shining leaves of the bay tree with his sweat, filling her apron with branches of rosemary and lavender, with figs and persimmons.
Get your hat, he told himself now, and he did, pulling it down over his eyes against the sheets of rain.
The pigeons were safe, no owl in sight. Conrad adjusted the louvers that Lemuel had built for him along the north side of the loft, which protected the birds from slanting rains while still allowing fresh air into the roost. "Oh, you'll ride it out," he told Pearl, touching her crest with a finger. "Think of your ancestors on the ark."
The wind bearing down around him, he came forward on his hands and knees through the mud, toward the oak tree that sheltered the northern end of the garden, bathing the spinach and tender late lettuces in afternoon shade.
And at last he got his hands around something, a stone or a root. He'd pulled, bent his shoulders, thrown his weight into it. But whatever it was did not yield to his hand. He cursed, rain cascading over his hat brim. And he swore--at it, at him, not a lopped root nor the thick knee of the oak tree but the long shin of what looked like an angel, the thing that said it was an angel, the thing with the voice that said, "Rise up."
For there it had stood among the trunks of the trees, soaring up from the earth into the flooding night sky like a magnificent statue, its mouth gaped to the rain, its feet turned briefly to clay, its wings shuddering.
Yet this was not a heavenly angel, with a pure expression and an innocent brow, a harp borne at its hip. It did not look like an angel whose likeness might hang on a wall in the Vatican Museums. This was someone Conrad knew--an angel with a rutted, Abraham Lincoln face.
Conrad had raised his eyes and taken in the angel's towering form. It held its head nobly, a carved figurehead against the rushing black clouds. Its wings had rippled, an expanse of sailcloth behind its back. The pinfeathers crackled; the flesh had seized.
Oh, Jesus. Death becomes me now, Conrad thought, kneeling in the mud, his hands wrapped around the angel's foot. Dust to dust, mud to mud. I'm fit. It's over. And he'd lain there, had begun in relief to weep, thinking he would see his Rose again, thinking he had not been left alone to suffer so long after all, that he would take the wild Rose into his arms now, hold her gray head, her soft cheek, against his own. Here it was, in the devastated empire of her garden--the deep voice of his heavenly escort. So he had raised his face.
And there had stood Lemuel, his father-in-law, dead fifteen years now, his bony hands dangling from the vaporous sleeves of his robe, his gentle manner and wandering eye regarding him.
"Rise up," Lemuel said, but Conrad could not. He cast his eyes down, looked into the dirt. "You've come for me," he whispered. And it was not a question.
But Lemuel didn't answer, and Conrad was frightened then at the sensation in the air above him, streamers of wind and night wrapping themselves around the angel, around Lemuel.
"You've come for me!" Conrad had cried, insisting, lifting up his arms. "I can't stay here forever!"
"You don't have forever," Lemuel had answered, and Conrad understood then that he was not leaving. Lemuel's appearance that night was not a deliverance but a sentence. Not a route of escape but a path that would return him to where he began, back through old age, middle age, adolescence, childhood, birth, each stage a notch on a diving plumb line.
"Please! Lemuel! Where is Rose?" he had cried, struggling to his feet. "Can't you do something? Show her to me!"
But Lemuel had turned aside and averted his eyes, casting them upward to the roiling sky, to the black-and-purple geysers of cloud. His voice was distant when he replied; his answer was not an answer. "Go home, Conrad," Lemuel told him.
Lemuel's form had shivered, then contracted itself like a cloud.
"Wait!" Conrad cried. "Go home? What do you mean? What else?"
"Isn't this enough?" Lemuel said, and he had extended his wings then. They were surprisingly large, and Conrad saw an impatience to the gesture, Lemuel's strength boiling up inside of him, a flood ready to be unleashed. "Watch!" Lemuel cried.
Conrad had ducked as an enormous, invisible mass hovered over him. The trees themselves bent down in the wind that lifted Lemuel. Conrad saw the lights of his house flicker, the hexagonal enclosure of Rose's herb knots, the reflecting pool, the filigreed grape arbor encircling the house, the gilded trim of the eaves, the elaborate green framework of his garden falling into itself with a breath like a collapsing tent--all of it illuminated in a sudden burst of phosphorescent light. His world had grown small in that instant, a faraway place.
"She loved you," Lemuel called, his voice snatched and carried away. "Rose loves you, Conrad."
And then he was gone.