New Short Story: The Black Angels of Prague

Brand new, unedited short story! And it only took me, what, 3 months to come out with new material? -_0 speaking of which yes Path of Pins is still in the works. I think you’re gonna like it. Projected release date is December 2013*

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Prague is filled with blackened angels.

You don’t always notice them, at least not at first. The parts of Prague filled with office buildings and McDonalds are relatively mundane at street level. It’s only when you look up that you see the army of dark statues staring down at you from rooftops and balconies. They loom, these angels, and if you could find one with a friendly face I’d be very surprised. They look as if they have been transposed from a particularly sad cemetery and seem not to guard Prague so much as to watch it. What they are watching for is anybody’s guess.

Though perhaps it is less watching and more waiting. At least, that’s the sense I got after I saw them move.

Right before it happened I was walking down Narodni Trida, just past the National Theatre. I had only recently begun my first teaching job, and it was very late, and after three hours of steady Czech drinking I was also a little drunk. My fellow teachers and I had been celebrating a colleague’s retirement and subsequent move to one of the shittier areas of the city. Most of the road was still closed from a gas main explosion the previous week, and on the left great swaths of scaffolding and metal pipes (construction, not explosion) climbed up the Theatre’s walls. Loose police tape was sent fluttering by the wind to trail sadly through the cobblestones.

It began to snow, great, fat flakes that landed on my nose and melted down the back of my neck. As I had every day since I moved to Prague, I looked up into the silence, the fumes and vapors of the night mixing with fresh snow and the smell of motor oil. My angel leaned over a building ledge far above my head; it was of the weeping-woman variety, with pleading arms outstretched to someone just out of reach and a golden crown of laurel leaves on her head. It was faintly reminiscent of a monster I’d once seen on a TV show, though sad instead of menacing. Every time I passed her it seemed as if she was calling out to me. Tonight, that sense was especially strong.

I watched the snow gather on her extended arms, and imagined how cold it must be on top of the building at the highest point of exposure. There was movement; and then a wet flurry as the snow that had gathered on the statue fell around me. Some of it fell in my eyes, blinding me. I heard a sound like stone grinding on stone, and when I had cleared my eyes and looked up my statue was gone. The only proof that it had ever leaned out from the building was the melting snow caught on my shoulders and in my hair.

I was suddenly, acutely aware of the statues ringing the buildings around me. There was another flurry, like the sound of rushing wings; and then heavy whumps as piles of snow hit the road around me. I blinked, and the once-crowded ledges and crooks of the buildings around me were empty. I was left standing in a ring of piled snow.

I heard a noise like a sigh behind my back. I turned to see the weeping woman standing behind me, one arm folded across her chest, the other extended, palm reaching out to me. Her face was a mask of perfect sadness, and it felt as if her stone eyes were seeing something beyond me. I stepped forward and reached for her hand, not knowing why but unable to resist the impulse. Before I touched her the air filled with the sound of rushing wings, and she was gone.

There was flash of movement down the alleyway to my left; I ran towards it, slipping and sliding in the snow. I crashed into the brick (remember: a little drunk) and saw the hint of stone at the end of the alley, as if the stone were fluid, as if it swirled like a lady’s skirts around the corner of the brick.

I ran towards that glimpse of the angel, and then I was in the back alleys of Prague; dark, brick places of shadow and grime. The snow thickened as it fell from the sky, at times blinding me, at others catching in my throat and choking me as I slipped and slid through brick arches and around rubbish bins. Always my blackened angel was just ahead of me. And then the alley opened up, and I was in the open air once more, panting in the snowy streets, each exhale rising like mushroom clouds before my face.

Ahead was a dark cemetery. It was old fashioned and ornate, filled with tombs that jutted out of the gathering snow like granite monoliths. The gate swung open, making an eerie squeaking noise in the snow. There was a deep scar in the snow before me, the kind of track that something heavy would make as it dragged across the ground. It led into the cemetery. Slowly, I followed.

A subconscious force warned me to be careful. In the distance I could hear the chimes of the Prague Orloj as it marked midnight. Somewhere, a tourist was clutching a mug of hot wine, watching the disappointing puppet show that had been added to the clock.

I crept further into the cemetery, which was dimly lit by the street lights and reflected gleam from the constant buildings. The path was easy to follow, and soon the world was crowded with heavy tombstones and granite crosses. In a few places I saw more depressions in the snow as if something heavy had disappeared very, very quickly.

The alcohol that had dulled my fear was wearing off. I increasingly began to wonder what the hell I was doing, but the cold drove me on. Ahead, a small clearing appeared through the curtain of snow. In the center stood my still-weeping stone angel, right arm folded against her chest, her golden crown faded in the dull light. She had a granite finger to her lips and was staring at me. I opened my mouth to say something that would have broken that terrible silence—

There was a crash. I stumbled and fell in a pile of wet snow behind a large tombstone, hiding the clearing from view. The silence was shattered by the vicious grinding of stone and then a muffled thud, followed by more grinding, more thuds. Whatever protection the booze had given me was gone, replaced with the kind of terror that numbs you and holds you still, a survival mechanism, I’m sure, leftover from the time when monsters hunted us in the dark.

As quickly as it had began the grinding sound ceased, replaced with a silence made worse by the heavy snow. I listened to it, feeling it press down on me—suffocated by the whispers that floated just below what a human could hear. The last of my courage (or the last of the booze) reared its head, and I managed to look up over the ledge of the tombstone. The gap that led to the clearing was almost obscured now, clouded by a wall of stone. They stood in a circle, dozens of them, dark and formidable: An aesthetic Christ with a crown of golden thorns; a mother cradling a dead child to her breast; a winged virgin wrapped in tattered scraps of cloth; a martyr with bloody furrows carved into his bearded cheeks; and so on, a black, unmoving circle, empty gaze trained on the weeping woman in the center. I could just see her through a gap between Jesus and his winged martyrs. She was still holding a finger to her lips and staring.

The sense of menace increased. I sat up, felt the unreasonable urge to call out rising in my throat. A disembodied voice—old, full of stone and dust —whispered in my ear.

Shhhh, and then, Come. 

The menace reached a peak. I stood to the chorus of living stone that filled the heavy air with the sounds of thunder, or boulders crashing at the base of a mountain. I squeezed through the gap in the angels, bruising my shoulders on Christ’s outstretched arms and the tips of the angel’s wings, and found myself in the center of them. Now that I was closer I could see real tears falling from my stone woman’s eyes. The marks of sadness on her face grew more pronounced. It was a kind of knowing sorrow; she had the face of the mother and the wife and the sister of the dead.

The silent whisper grew louder, till it brushed against my skin like a living thing. It roared in my ears as I stumbled forward and put my hand in hers.

Her skin was smooth, and cold as ice; and as I touched her, there was a great sigh of relief. The whisper stopped; for one endless moment, there was complete silence, a stillness I had never known and will never know again, as the world stopped to witness my hand in hers and the angels in the snow.

Something—a gust of wind, or a hand on my back—shoved me into the angel. I caught my footing a moment too late. I felt the stone weaken, and falter, and then the angel crumbled beneath me, collapsing in a pile of black stone dust on the snow.

The whispering began again. There was another shove at my back, and I was kneeling in the snow, my hands wrist deep into the pile of dust that had once been my angel. In the center of the pile something gleamed harsh and gold in the dark. I reached towards it, brushing away the stone dust to reveal my angel’s laurel leaf crown. The whispers rose, becoming a roar in my ears; and I reached out and brushed my fingers against the gold.

A violent cold seized me, and I snatched my hands back before I understood what had happened. Around me, the angels had crept closer, moving while I wasn’t looking. A hundred dead eyes stared down at me, urging me forward, screaming silently for me to pick up the laurel crown. Why? Why would they—I looked down at my hands, to where the pain was the worst, and saw that the tips of my fingers had turned to granite everywhere they had brushed the crown.

Animalistic panic suddenly freed me from whatever spell they had cast. There was a last remaining gap between the statues—a small arch beneath the brushing wings of two angels. Clutching my stone fingers, I threw myself at it, feeling the stone closing in just as I emerged on the other side. There was a wrench—they had caught the sleeve of my jacket—I screamed and yanked myself free, losing the jacket in the process.

After that it was a blur. Most vivid was the moment I emerged into the public square. The clock was again striking the hour, and the few people who were around gave me cautious looks and quickly moved away. Time melts a bit then, and the next thing I knew I was at home, slamming the door to my tiny apartment shut behind me. I dove into my bedroom and wrapped my cheap comforter around my shoulders, sitting against the head of the bed, where I stayed until the morning. When I woke all my fingers were returned to normal, except for the ring finger—the promise finger.

A few days later I returned to the cemetery (in broad daylight, and armed with a water bottle of holy water I’d stolen from one of the hundreds of churches in Prague). There was nothing out of place. In my absence the snow had settled over everything, turning it into a uniformed white. A little bit of searching found my jacket, half buried in the snow, the sleeves ripped and useless.

I re-entered the clearing, not sure what I would find. There was no trace of the weeping angel or her golden crown, for which I was thankful. I decided to put it behind me as either a strange foreign adventure or the result of too much Czech beer. I don’t think my sanity could have taken it otherwise.

The tip of my ring finger is still grey and rough. When people ask, I say it’s a callous from working in my garden, or around the house, or whatever excuse sounds the most plausible. They never guess the truth. Most of the time, I don’t try and tell them.

*date is very, very tentative. Just fyi. 

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