by S.E. Gale
I can barely see the road, but I feel every rock and stray branch beneath my feet. No moon, here. No streetlights. Just stars winking brilliantly through a canopy of black eucalyptus trees. The girl is almost silent. Just a feather of breath passes lightly from her mouth.
We walk as far from the edges of the road as possible. The trees that grow to either side of us are still strange to me. Strange and threatening. A night bird keens past my ear, perhaps mistaking it for something edible, and the girl ducks her head with a squeal. Nearly home, I think, and she relaxes her grip on my neck.
The distant roar of a road train with its violent stream of lights ruins my night vision and I must again rely upon the mild light I produce to guide my way. The girl stumbles on something, rights herself and says, ‘It’s creepy on this stretch of road.’ She sneezes and wipes her hand on her jeans. I hear her nails scrape through her dark hair. I hear the girl swear as a rough cuticle catches on the strands. I hear a set of footsteps behind me, and a skittering, as of talons upon stone.
Something whines and a deep voice cajoles. The girl runs her hand down my back and hurries me forward. Her breath catches and she says, ‘It’s so creepy out here. Hurry.’ The road straightens up beyond the trees and I can finally see the lit windows of our house. A figure moves briefly into view and slips out again. The girl begins to trot, anxious for the warm kitchen, the wood stove, for mum.
Somewhere a cow lows for her calf and wakes the neighbours’ dogs. Our front veranda light is switched on and the door opens. A large woman stands behind the screen door. The girl waves furiously.
‘C’mon, wave!’ she says, as she drags me along. I do, though the woman can’t see us yet. Behind us, growls, whines; liquid patters on the road. A man’s voice grunts in disgust. The lights in our neighbour's windows are turned off, blinds are drawn. The girl draws in a panicked breath and tugs at my arm.
‘Hurry,’ she moans. ‘I want to go home.’ The last statement ends in a wail and she takes off for the front veranda, leaving me stranded, alone in the dark but for the sounds of pursuit. The girl reaches her mother, who opens her arms wide. The girl falls into them with a short sob. I feel a prickle of jealousy.
‘Have you left that stupid beast on his own somewhere?’ Her mother says.
‘No mum, he’s just out past the light. He’ll be here any minute.’ My steps falter. Again I hear the footsteps, the ominous skittering behind me. I circle about in the shadows and backtrack. The strangers aren’t behind me anymore. They are right beside me. I see enough to know it is a tall man, thin, with a bend in his back. He holds a leash. The dog is staring straight at me as he pulls back hard on it; a frightened scream comes out of its mouth. The man, with his poor human vision, sees only a vague, phosphorous gleam, like swamp gas.
The big dog ducks behind the man’s legs. The leash twines around them and the man curses. The dog is still screaming and the neighbourhood dogs howl in sympathy. I let out a short howl of command and the dogs shut up. The man steps back at the sound I make and trips over his dog.
Light slips over his features and the man’s wide, wet eyes and open mouth are suddenly right in front of me. The dog shies from the light that I exude like sweat and pulls away from his master. The man loses his hold on the leash. The dog runs away. He is not a faithful companion. I am.
The girl’s mother raises a torch above her head, floodlighting us.
‘C’mon, hurry up you coward. It’s cold out here.’ I advance upon the man, timidly, I must admit. He is big through the shoulders and has that unmistakable air of self-certainty. I, however, have become a quivering beast, awesome and awful as I must appear in this compromised light that shines both from and above me. My needs have made a monster out of me. I was once considered beautiful.
The man whimpers deep in his throat, even as he picks up a heavy branch and thrusts it at me. He looks at the woman as the branch tickles the air about my nose.
‘Agnes? What’s going on? What is that thing?’ She shrugs her thick shoulders.
‘Don’t know, Pete. Alien maybe? Ali found it huddled on the veranda a year or so ago. Real frightened of the dark. Took us a bloody age to figure out what it ate.’ Then she smiles and even in the dim light, her smile is malevolent. ‘My daughter says he’s an angel, dropped from out of the sky. I think it’s more likely he came from the other place.’ She stomps a slippered foot on the ground and laughs low.
‘What does it eat, Agnes?’ the man says, backing away from me. Agnes laughs again.
‘What do you reckon, Pete?’ The man pitches back on his heels and tries to run, then. I slam into his body and pin him to the road. His hair parts beneath my mouth as I pant. Agnes smiles and pats the man on the shoulder, grunting a little at the effort of bending over.
‘Don’t fret, Pete. It don’t hurt much. In fact it ends up feeling really good; kind of freeing.’
‘Now, wait,’ the man says. He starts to struggle. His arms and legs flail. One hand strikes out at Agnes and she growls deep in her throat. I flinch as she rushes at the man and kicks him in the head. Blood erupts from his nose and I hurriedly spread my wings around him. He tries to stem the flow of blood, retching some as it flows down the back of his throat. His face glows, as the moon does, from my borrowed light.
‘Are you an angel?’ he asks, begs. He reaches into his collar and draws out some sort of amulet. He waves it between us, and I try to look interested. ‘I'm a Christian. Baptised and everything.‘ His tears dilute the blood on his face. I open my mouth to answer and a rough hand slaps the back of my head.
‘C’mon, get into it,’ she hisses at me through my feathers. So I do. He cries harder as I begin to feed upon him, but his tears soon stop. They always do. The light that I shed has had time to soak into his skin, to work its tendrils into his mind. My light lures his to the surface, and I drink. He sighs and lifts his head to the flood that rains upon him from my face and neck.
Agnes strokes my head as the light streams through her fingers. She wraps them around the heavy skin tag at the back of my neck. She shivers as euphoria hits. This is the reason she allows me in her house; tucked up in the cellar amidst the potatoes and the onions. This is why she locks me away in the fearsome dark, let out after nightfall to feed my appetite. So that she may feed hers.
‘C’mon dog. Time to go home.’ I shudder as her nails dig into my neck. I fold my wings back into my body and withdraw from the man. I look behind us as she marches me to the house. I watch the man pick himself up and brush himself off. He gives me a quick, hungry look before he wanders off down the road. He begins to whistle for his dog.
The man’s steps only falter a little, not enough for his loved ones to detect in any conscious way. In every way, but the most ineffable, he will be the same man he has always been. Just less somehow. He is lost. His light subsumed into the workings of my strange body. The man Peter can never go home again. Upon his physical death, he will encounter another dark road. The devil also has his dogs, but they are not in the business of working light. He will not find another such as I to give him the briefest taste of illumination, crude as it may be. And he won’t know enough to care to.
I look away with a small pang of guilt. You are, on the whole, such dark creatures. What then, the crime of depleting you of your one small light? Inside me, his luminescence keens, already lonely. It kicks and rages indignantly. It is not unpleasant. It helps the darkness recede just a little on this dismal, miserable orb that I once looked down upon with wonder.
The girl pats her knee and calls for me beneath the veranda light. I wag what passes for a tail and pull from the woman’s cruel hand. The girl is the light of my now earth-bound life.
I get what light I may. I can offer no other excuse.
S. E. Gale is an Australian writer with a temporary fixation on angels. Last week it was cryptids. God's Dog is the end result. When not obsessing upon ethereal or cryptozoological critters, she reads as much as she can, grows food, and hangs out with her surprisingly well-balanced daughter.
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