A few chores remained--the floor needed sweeping, as always; a few final preparations for dinner needed making--but none would take much time or effort. Anouk usually liked to be finished with all of her work before sitting down to wait out the afternoon heat. But since the birth of her baby--her first, a boy--not only her usual routine but also her preferences had changed. Before Ali, distractions from normal business annoyed her. Now, the things that had once filled up her life seemed to be the distractions. Ali’s little being delighted her so much it hurt sometimes, so much that while watching his face break into a smile, for example, or touching his supernaturally tiny toes, she often cried while laughing.
And so the sweeping and the
food could wait while, with Ali nuzzling her breast, she surrendered
to the spell of the desert at the hottest time of day, when
heat put light in motion and the air moved in waves. Anouk’s
mother and other women had told her about the effects of new
babies on new mothers’ hearts and souls. Not always,
they warned, were these effects pleasant. But when they were
pleasant, even the most cynical crone agreed, they were sweeter
than words could express. And so it was, these same women
had said, with a woman’s experience with a man.
Ali’s suckling sent a shiver of sexual pleasure through Anouk. This feeling, although always satisfying, always embarrassed her. She had no choice, however, but to endure it. And as she did, her thoughts turned to her husband, Ahmed, whose attentions to her body she also endured. Also, praise God, with keen pleasure.
When Anouk, as a child, had peered into the future, she had never dared hope her living circumstances would be as lovely as they were today. Ahmed, the only child of a respectable merchant, appeared in her village as if by magic to claim her in love and bring her to this place of more comfort than she’d ever known--not a palace, nor even a mansion, but a solid house nonetheless, with several rooms and comfortable beds, and abundant food, and even a few, small luxuries.
More wonderful to her than her creature comforts, though, was her ease of mind this peaceful afternoon. She was safe, her child was healthy, Ahmed possessed a reasonable amount of wealth, and she knew love. Her worries, despite the recent occurrence of a number of troublesome natural events--an unusual reddening of the River Nile, a bothersome increase in the number of insects, the eruption of unseasonal thunderstorms--were trivial.
Sitting in the shade, breathing in rhythm with baby Ali, drifting in and out of hallucinatory, desert-induced half-sleep, Anouk, God be praised, could not have been happier.
* * *
right, angels, listen up.”
Gabriel entered the heavenly
staging area like a typhoon coming ashore. The seraphim and
cherubim, Ballial and Krillian among them, like palm trees
in a typhoon’s path, bent and shuddered, withstanding
as best they could Gabriel’s irresistible entrance.
“Time to saddle up.”
Gabriel’s voice filled the area like thunder.
Ballial turned expectantly toward
Krillian. Could it be this wasn’t just another tiresome
drill? Could it be they might finally, after all these eons,
be allowed--or, miraculously, even encouraged--to release
the colossal amounts of divinely instilled energy it was every
angel’s painful burden to contain?
The prospect was almost too
delicious to entertain. No Earthly top-gun fighter pilot would
ever yearn as desperately to point the nose of his plane to
the sky and open the throttle. No panting adolescent would
ever desire sexual release more fervently. The explosive potential
of all of Earth’s armies for all time compared to that
of the lowliest single angel was like the fire of kitchen
match compared to that of a hydrogen bomb.
“Licking their chops,”
“chomping at the bit,” “frothing at the
mouth” are the kinds of metaphors that might apply if
the shapes of angels off the earth conformed in any way at
all to the shapes of human beings alive in space and time.
“Now!” roared Gabriel.
The heavenly hosts sprang into
action, forming up smartly into orderly ranks.
When the angels had become still
and all their attention was upon him, Gabriel announced, “Seems
the old man’s got a temporal mission he needs us for.”
A silent thrill passed through
the heavenly hosts.
“As those few of you with
good sense wider than your own wingspan already know, the
boss has been having some fun dirtside.”
Many of the angels emitted noises
“And now he wants to turn
up the heat.”
The joy at large in the staging
area reached critical mass, revealing itself as flashes and
streamers of colorful light.
“Our mission,” Gabriel
said, “is to kill the first offspring of every animal
on Earth--the firstborn calf of every cow, the firstborn kid
of every goat, and the firstborn son or daughter of every
human being down there except . . .”
Gabriel referred to his orders.
“. . . except those of
the Hebrew tribe. They’ve been told what to do to protect
themselves, something about sheep’s blood. You’ll
get the details as you need them.”
Ballial and Krillian, like many
of their comrades, emitted so many sparks and flares of happiness
they risked disintegration.
“Knock it off,”
The fireworks in the ranks diminished
but not completely. The angels were far too excited to contain
themselves. Explosions of color erupted spontaneously. Waves
of illumination that would shame Earth’s most spectacular
display of Aurora Borealis undulated through the staging area.
Gabriel glowered at his troops
but the display, though curtailed somewhat, continued. Ballial
and Krillian cringed, fearful of how their formidable commander
might respond to the mass insubordination. But as they watched,
mighty Gabriel--the messenger selected by god himself to drive
Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, the chief of the angelic
army that confused the languages of and scattered the humans
at Babel, the officer in charge of protecting Jacob after
the massacre at Shechem--flickered slightly. The light emission
was slight but unmistakable. Gabriel himself was so elated
he could not maintain his conventional formal state of being.
A roar went up from the heavenly
hosts and Gabriel allowed them their moment of celebration.
Divine assignments for this elite corps came rarely. He acknowledged
their approval with another glimmer--willfully emitted this
time--before calling them to order once again.
“Before I go on I want
you to know that I disagree with the boss’s decision
on how he wants you to proceed,” Gabriel said. “I
told him so and I told him I’d tell you so. My reason
is that I know you. I know what you’re capable of. And,
frankly, when I think of what you might do down there, it
gives me the willies. But he’s in charge and what he
says, goes, so here it is: he wants you to be creative.”
Neither Ballial nor Krillian
understood exactly what Gabriel meant. Nor were they alone
in their confusion, as they could tell from the murmurs of
“He wants you to use your
imaginations,” Gabriel said.
The angels still did not understand.
“Blood and gore,”
Gabriel shouted. “Entrails on the floor. Fireworks.
Special effects. Are you getting the idea?”
Ballial and Krillian and the
other angels got it, though they could hardly believe it.
This was better than they had hoped, better than they could
have hoped. They were not only about to wreak destruction
in God’s name, but also to do it as extravagantly and
dramatically as possible. They had the tools, they had the
training, and now they had the freedom to do their best.
More than one angel blissed
out entirely when comprehension struck. Some exploded into
spheres of colorful sparks. Others dissolved into puddles
of light. Ballial and Krillian expanded and contracted at
the speed of thought, kaleidoscopically.
* * *
At dinner that night Ahmed seemed distracted and Anouk asked what troubled him. Ahmed explained that according to rumors among men whose opinions he credited, the recent spate of unusual natural events had something to do with the ongoing labor dispute in the capitol.
Although the capitol was many miles away, far to the north, Anouk knew of the dispute of which Ahmed spoke. She herself--or her family, at least--had faced the issue, on a small scale, years ago.
Anouk’s grandfather, who had lived with Anouk and Anouk’s mother and father, had owned a Hebrew slave, Shlomo, who had been awarded to Anouk’s grandfather as compensation for being himself enslaved under an earlier political regime headed by one of Shlomo’s people, a man named Joseph. When Anouk’s grandfather died, Anouk’s father and mother freed Shlomo, partly because they did not approve of slavery, and partly because slaveholding often proved perilous to the slaveholders.
Most of young Anouk’s rural neighbors also eventually divested themselves of their slaves. Only owners of relatively large agricultural or industrial operations, who could afford to hire overseers to keep order, found the arrangement either tolerable or profitable.
In the cities, though--particularly in the capitol, where Joseph had reigned supreme--few of Joseph’s people enjoyed freedom. Slave marketing flourished, and government contractors employed slave labor to build the massive construction projects favored by royalty.
Recently, according to Ahmed, not only had unrest among the slaves increased significantly, but also a number of politically influential Egyptians had begun to question the wisdom of state-sanctioned slavery. As usual in putatively moral conflicts, political rhetoric contained many references to god and religion.
Anouk asked Ahmed how this activity might affect their region and themselves.
“We need to remain aware,” Ahmed answered, “but we’re far away from the centers of trouble and have little to do with either slaves or slavery. I doubt very much,” he said, patting Anouk’s hand reassuringly, “that we are threatened in any way at all.”
* * *
“Nice work on the outfit,” Krillian said to Ballial.
“You like the leather?” Ballial asked.
“And the metal buckles, too.”
Many of the other angels had chosen to corporealize as animals or grotesques, but both Krillian and Ballial had adopted exaggerated human forms. They had discussed the issue thoroughly before deciding that although the appearance of a monster in a human home would spark instant horror, the appearance of an unfamiliar human would spark horror of a more protracted nature. The targets, they reasoned, no matter how badly treated, would probably--even if unconsciously--entertain some hope that their torturers would be moved to mercy either by commonplace human kindness or a natural revulsion to gore. The frustration of that hope, they concluded, would deepen the experience of both victims and onlookers. They acknowledged that although the increase in terror might be infinitesimal, it was worth taking into account. They were professionals. And professionals attended to detail.
“I see you settled on the pike,” Ballial said, referring to the smooth, thin rod with the sharpened end Krillian held in his hand.
“I figured the simpler
the better,” Krillian replied, tweaking the point of
the metal spear with his thumb. “That mace looks heavy,”
he said, referring to Ballial’s weapon of choice.
“Unwieldy, too,” Ballial admitted. “But it goes so well with the outfit, don’t you think?”
Krillian chuckled at his partner’s vanity.
Around them the sparkler-like effects that accompanied the materialization of other angels twinkled in the moonless Egyptian night. Gabriel’s plan was to sweep from south to north, from the lightly populated to the densely populated areas of the country so the troops could perfect their techniques before they reached the capitol where most of the action would take place. Although the angels would move fast--the schedule called for them to finish by dawn--Gabriel hoped word of the slaughter would reach the capitol ahead of them, prompting at least some of the residents to put up a fight. An angelic victory, of course, was assured, but a bit of a battle at the end of the exercise, he was convinced, would send his angels back to the barracks with healthily boosted morale.
Ballial and Krillian moved into position near their first objective, the house of a middle-class merchant. Three residents, two targets. Piece of cake.
They longed to begin but were under the strictest orders to wait for Gabriel’s signal. Gabriel, who had reserved for himself the right of first kill, hadn’t told them the precise nature of the signal. They’d know it, he’d said, when they heard it.
The night was as black as the inside of one of Ballial’s zippered pockets. Although some animals had stirred when the first angels materialized, silence covered the desert like a shroud.
Then the signal came: a human scream of pain. Its aptness prompted smiles in both Ballial and Krillian.
“Gung ho,” said Krillian.
He and Ballial exchanged high-fives.
“Let’s roll,” said Ballial, and kicked down the door of Ahmed’s house.
As they entered the house, Ahmed appeared in the archway to the bedroom with a candle in one hand and a knife in the other.
Krillian pointed a finger at the knife and the blade glowed red, turned molten, and ran down Ahmed’s hand in rivulets of fire.
Ahmed dropped what was left of the knife, howled in pain, and wheeled back through the archway, into the bedroom.
Anouk, sitting up in bed cradling her whimpering baby, cried out as Ahmed stumbled into the room followed by two figures more terrifying than the most frightening images of her worst nightmares.
Ballial’s and Krillian’s orders were specific: move quickly but put on a show. The show was for the survivors, so they would know the will of God, and remember.
Krillian thrust his pike into Ahmed’s stomach and lifted him off the ground.
Ahmed clutched at his midsection, threw back his head, and screamed.
Ballial swung his mace and bashed Ahmed’s brains out of his skull onto the bed at Anouk’s feet.
Anouk vomited spontaneously.
Ballial reached forward and snatched Ali from Anouk’s grasp.
“No,” she screamed, attacking Ballial with all her strength.
Ballial shoved Anouk aside as easily as shooing a fly, then said to Krillian, “Ready?”
“Pull,” Krillian joked.
Ballial tossed Ali softly into the air, lofting him toward the ceiling in the center of the room.
Krillian waited for the baby to reach the apex of its flight and begin its descent, then skewered it neatly through the chest, thrusting upward with just enough force to arrest its slide halfway down the blood-lubricated pike.
Anouk’s howl issued from her ruptured soul.
“Nicely done,” congratulated Ballial.
Krillian looked around the room for a place to deposit the carcass and spotted a likely receptacle on the floor in the corner.
“The bedpan?” he suggested to Ballial.
“Perfect,” his partner replied.
Krillian took aim and flicked his wrists.
Anouk watched her dead infant slide off the spear, sail across the room, bounce off the wall, and come to rest in the bedpan.
Krillian used the bedclothes to wipe the blood off his pike, and he and Ballial turned to go.
“Did you intend to use the backboard?” Ballial asked his friend on their way out.
“Sometimes you just get lucky,” answered Krillian, grinning.
Ballial slapped his partner on the back and the two angels left the house, hurrying on to the next of the many fun assignments they would successfully complete during that unforgettable Night of the Tenth Plague.