Short Stories by Adreyo Sen: The Angel of Death.
In the valley of children, that beautiful valley that wakes to the sight of the mountains, there lived a sad, silent girl whose eyes had a strange and haunting beauty. She went about her quiet ways, down her sweet and solitary paths, unnoticed by the other girls. And yet, when they fell on the hockey field, or caught a cold, or were suddenly vexed by the troublesome qualities of that strange creature called Life, she would appear silently at their side. She would sing to them and bring them wild flowers and tuck solemn little dolls under their pillows. And the girls would close their exhausted eyes and fall into a happy sleep.
In all the valley of the children, the little girl had only one friend, an older girl who only liked to teach and to play football. Of all the girls, she was the most children. They called her the headmistress.
The headmistress longed for those moments when she could hold the girl in her lap and kiss her gentle, pained face. The little girl gave her her strange and peaceful silence and wandered away to lie on the dewy grass and spin gypsy shawls out of the stirred firmament of the sky. But she always came back, with palaces made of grass and scepters that were once branches of the oak tree’s hidden empire. Sometimes she brought back a child, squat and blankly terrified, who would gape at the headmistress with perplexed wonder. These children learnt to love the headmistress with a steady affection and went away to become beautiful women who parceled their daughters with anxious eyes and sent them to the only home they had ever known. Your mother was one of them.
And one day, the silent girl became a silent woman with the kind of aching beauty that somehow slips unseen through crowds unaware of their own sorrow. She left the valley and became the quiet student at the corner of college classrooms who occasionally stunned her oblivious classmates to a strange yearning with the quiet wisdom of her voice. She became the solitary creature on the neglected park bench, nursing a cup of coffee with her white hands and staring back silently at the plaintive sky.
Quarrelsome old women yanked at her arms and angry boys with no homes kicked at her feet. She turned her silent eyes to them and began to sing that strange Romany she had learned on her mother’s lap. She spoke to them of all she had learnt in the valley of the children, all that lost wisdom that snakes its way through the lonely primroses and the thorny roses to the last resting place of the Raven Queen.
The old women fell asleep dreaming of their mother’s laps and little earthen homes where the fire always burnt and of the suddenly joyous fathers whose happy exhaustion was the steady train driving them to Death. They thought of the oak trees they had first confided their once carefree kisses to and all those petulant lines of bitterness and anger and heartbreak and loss arranged itself into the serenity we like to call Beauty and is often found unguarded in a woman’s eyes as she looks upon her boys pretending to be men.
And the boys grew over the years to a simple wisdom. They grew into strong and happy men who smiled but never laughed, who gave but never took. They placed their faith upon their firm chest and went out into the barren bleakness of the world loyal to each other and kind to their fellow men. Born to broken homes, they became builders. Their daughters went to the headmistress.
And one day when the silent woman had learnt all she could ever learn and when the giddy and manic inhabitants of the college’s ivied walls were just beginning to notice the raven-like figure in black, she left the college gates and her bench to become the overworked waitress at the café Impatience passes through on its reckless journey into the meaningless hurly burly of the everyday.
Uncomplaining, she mopped the floors. Unseen, she refilled the cups of frenzied, potbellied writers scribbling away on coffee-stained sheets with nicotine-stained fingers. And suddenly, their books would have a new character. A silent, strange girl who was sometimes the mute monarch of a flock of sheep, sometimes the coldly gentle Norwegian queen, sometimes the fighter pilot who appears out of nowhere and cleanses the trembling sky of quarrelsome planes with deathly precision. Understanding, forever patient, she became the passive recipient of the obese tea shop despot’s bitter recriminations against giddy, irresponsible Life.
And then the woman fell in love. She fell in love with the despot’s daughter, a squat, angry girl who lay on the counter and yelled incoherently at the ceiling. She knew that the pain in the girl’s eyes was her own. She knew that the girl was hurting and that she was trying to push away the one thing in the world she truly loved, her mother, before she could hurt her.
And so she silently took the girl into her soft hands and quieted her furious struggling with a kiss. She made her castles out of coffee cups and galaxies out of balled napkins. She brought out the child’s forlorn, neglected dolls and spoke of their story. And when the child tore at them in her wordless pain, she sewed them back again. And as the child’s pain grew worse, and even her eyes lost their strange, otherworldly beauty and dulled, the woman took her in her lap and sang to her of queens who travel the world as maidservants, of the Sinbad that wanders from the Taj Mahal to Stonehenge in a minute, of the ancient gargoyle that swoops from its lofty seat at the hour of midnight to scare the world into submissive goodness as a scarred nun, of the golden-haired children who suddenly appear out of nowhere on Persian carpets silently gleeful and clutching at dolls their size to their hearts. And when she placed her hand to the child’s quieting chest, all the pain and fierceness disappeared from the child’s face, to be replaced by a happy loveliness. And the child turned her face to the sobbing despot and stretched out her arms. And then she died.
And the woman’s gentle heart broke. She left the café and for years, she treaded the harsh, stony paths of the world, the sun beating down on her tired back. And at each wayside restaurant with plastic chairs and bitter habitués who argued ceaselessly, there were children who were once complete, who were once happy. She became their constant companion, their trusted friend, their gentle, uncomplaining servant. With slender fingers and scraps of paper, she fashioned them new worlds they could inhabit, worlds where they were once again complete.
And when the pain in their eyes was the pain in her own, she placed them in the silken night that was her lap and sang them to a wondering sleep. And then sadder and quieter than before, she left.
And as the world went to war with itself with a fury that feeds on love, the woman joined the army and softened the rough banter of her barrack mates with her unseen gentleness. She traversed the jarring, pained world of the sick wards with steady feet and sang to the once-soldiers of the men and woman they had left behind, of the homes where a mug of beer was waiting for them on ancient wooden tables. She sang to them of the moments they had been the most happy. She sang to them of the people they wished to become, the people they would be.
And her song became the little black boat that ferried the dying across opaque black waters to the quietly happy world of the dead. And those who merely fell asleep listening to her voice returned to life and left the army to become teachers and nurses, counselors and policewomen. Their daughters made their sedate and calm way to the headmistress.
And as the world died around her, the woman moved her graceful way to the front of the battlefield and shot down Hatred and Anger with steady hands. She shot cleanly, to the heart. And those who fell to her quiet mercy died painlessly, in a joyous suddenness that only afforded them enough time to think of their daddy’s stubbly kiss.
And when the woman’s wounds were too much for her and her song was at its saddest, she dropped her guns and made her weary way back to the valley of the children. Pain had made her more beautiful than ever and many who passed longed to make her their own. One of them was your father. But she was possessed of a gentle remoteness that knifed their ardor into a wondering respect.
And finally the woman reached the valley of the children and found the headmistress careworn. There was a sickness in the valley, a sickness that left no scars, a sickness that made the girls turn upon each other and their loving headmistress and say and do vicious and hurtful things.
And the woman held the headmistress in her arms and began to sing. She sang of the old women and the boys who’d given her so much joy, of the children that had been her sweethearts and her life, of the simple beauties her army brethren had left behind. And as she sang, discovering that her deep sorrow was perhaps an even deeper joy, the quarrelling girls fell to a tentative silence and began to link their hands.
And the woman continued to sing and the girls joined their discordant voices to hers. And the woman continued to sing and their voices blended in, into a harmony that is much like the stillness of a frozen lake. And the woman continued to sing and all the black-papered windows of the valley shattered and the moonlight filtered in.
And as the girls took up her song and began to dance under the somber needles of rain and the gypsy shawl that collects the stars and places them under its threadbare care, the woman kissed the headmistress again. And then she left.
That woman was the Angel of Death. Today is not the day you will meet her.
You have been sick. But you will get better. Because I’ll be with you. I am Life. I cannot sing as beautifully as the Angel of Death, perhaps I cannot sing at all. But mine are happy songs.
You are eight now, my darling. And you think you are all grown up. There are so many mistakes to be made, so many lessons to be learnt, so many heartbreaks and broken bones, so many little joys, almost as many greater joys, and finally the greatest love of them all.
And finally, my love, when you are an old woman half-asleep in a rocking chair with a grandchild in your lap and another pulling at your hair and yet another reading fairy tales at your feet, the Angel of Death will make her silent way to your tiny home and make you a cup of cold chocolate with her wearied hands.
And then she will take your arm and you will walk hand-in-hand into a great happiness as friends.