26. The Parable of the Supervillain
At four in the morning with the baby biting me,
I watched you call the President of Australia
from his velvet bed
and feed him to the army ants.
This poem appeared in Apex Magazine, in March 2014. Its inspiration was a moment I had with a then-close friend who was visiting me. I had a meltdown triggered by something, and yelled in awful ways – I very rarely yell during meltdowns, I’m usually more inclined to just freeze up and cry, but this one was really bad. Afterwards I was full of shame. I’ve had people who always yelled that way when I was growing up, I know how damaging it is, and I felt like a monster because I couldn’t stop myself. And my friend just came to me where I was sitting there crying and wordlessly put her arms around me.
I don’t want this post to turn into some kind of weird, “and therefore it’s okay to yell at people” apologia. Obviously, it’s not okay to yell, and it is damaging, and I’ve been actively working on training myself into alternate strategies so that I don’t damage the people on whom I rely for support. But in the moment, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for my friend’s forgiveness, and I decided to write about that feeling.
Back when I was more conventionally religious, the Parable of the Prodigal Son was a story that had immense meaning for me. It still kind of does. And you don’t have to know me all that well to know that I appreciate fabulous villains. Once those two elements were in place, with the emotional core to back them up, the rest of it was easy.
27. The Company of Heaven
She couldn’t say why the angels frightened her. They swelled with too much light, but so did the sun, and she didn’t cower away from that. Maybe it was the way they said her name. Like another thing that knew her. Another that wouldn’t leave her alone.
“The Company of Heaven” is an older piece that never quite found a home before MONSTERS IN MY MIND. It’s named after a little-known work by Benjamin Britten, which I chanced to see performed live back in, oh, it must have been 2010 or even earlier. I was struck by this particular part of the text, a quote from John Ruskin, which is spoken aloud during the sixth movement:
…suppose that over Ludgate Hill the sky had indeed suddenly become blue instead of black; and that a flight of twelve angels, ‘covered with silver wings, and their feathers with gold,’ had alighted on the cornice of the railroad bridge, as the doves alight on the cornices of St. Mark’s at Venice; and had invited the eager men of business below, in the centre of a city confessedly the most prosperous in the world, to join them for five minutes in singing the first five verses of such a psalm as the 103rd – ‘Bless the Lord, oh my soul, and all that is with me,’ (the opportunity now being given for the expression of their most hidden feelings) ‘all that is within me, bless his holy name, and forget not all His benefits.’ Do you not even thus, in mere suggestion, feel shocked at the thought, and as if my now reading the words were profane? And cannot you fancy that the sensation of the crowd at so violent and strange an interruption of traffic, might be somewhat akin to… the feeling attributed by Goethe to Mephistopheles at the song of the angels: ‘Discord I hear, and intolerable jingling?’
I knew immediately that I wanted to write about this scenario, about someone being directly confronted by Actual Angels – angels who didn’t appear to want anything of them, except that they consider joining in a song – and being completely unable to appreciate or accept the experience.
At first – being much more conventionally religious, back in 2010, than I am now – my view of what such a person would be like was very negative, and the story was going to be one of these unpleasant, self-critical, character study kinds of stories. But that version of the story never quite gelled, and I could never quite bring myself to write it down. Eventually I realized that Cassie, the story’s protagonist, needed to be much more sympathetic. She needed to have reasons for being uneasy around angels that parallelled my own – she is busy, yes, but she’s also queer and traumatized, acutely afraid of being called crazy, and suspicious that the social value systems that go along with believing in angels will also harm her in multiple ways. I needed to own those things as valid and relatable feelings, and write them accordingly. And I needed to give her, not a judgmental, downer ending, but a hopeful one.
So the story eventually happened that way, and was finished in 2012. It never sold, and I wonder if that’s due to the weird combination of both being queer and having heavy Christian overtones – who would buy that? I don’t know. I probably wouldn’t even buy that. It could also be that this is an earlier work, and maybe my craft just wasn’t quite there. But it’s a story I love, so I put it into MONSTERS IN MY MIND, and now you can read it, too.
By the way, all the words sung by the angels in this story are actual hymns, except for “Heaven is here, and the angels of heav’n,” which is from the Britten piece.
Song Pairing: Britten’s “The Company of Heaven” is difficult to track down in recorded form, but if you’d like to hear it for yourself, there appear to be several versions on YouTube.