by Ingrid Keenan
This is how the story normally goes: a young bride, a virgin, is sewing outside her humble home when the Angel of the Lord appears and says: Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the Angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God.
On another day, she gives him the hairy eyeball. “You what?” she asks. It raises questions, this announcement; honestly, you’d have to wonder about a woman who takes this sort of news unquestioningly.
There are bound to be questions: When? Where? How, exactly?
And most particularly: Why?
On another day, everything the Angel says is obscured by the total, blaring beauty of him. Mary hears nothing but static as she squints into his golden face. There is a humming sound, which she realizes is his wings, reverberating with the frequency of colors unknown to human eyes.
Mary can’t take it. Mary is shorting out. The blare and the blast of him deafens and blinds her, and she finds herself nodding dumbly. Her head is full of bees, but it isn’t bees, it’s the holy spirit, and it isn’t her head, it’s her womb, and before she knows it…
Another time, she can’t understand a word he’s saying.
“It’s all Greek to me,” she says helplessly as the narrow-eyed Angel squints at her and the ribbon of letters flows from his mouth and tangles around her, catches her and binds her to the pillars of her strange loggia-porch thing.
Mary sees the Angel appear in the backyard, but at first she doesn’t think he is an Angel. He’s so literal, so dress-up. Long robes, halo (obviously), glorious wings. She thinks it’s someone in an Angel costume, at best.
Mary thinks she’s seen an Angel once before. When she was a teenager, before she got married, back when she was a maid (hah!), an old friend of her mother’s came to visit. This woman had golden hair; not beach-bum blond like this guy in front of her now, but actually, preposterously, gold. The woman, Tabitha, was the same age as her mother, but looked younger; perhaps it was the gold of her hair throwing a glow onto her skin. Tabitha came for dinner with her husband, but the husband was a grey shape in Mary’s memory. The husband was someone in another room. Because all night Mary was captivated by this delightful woman, who told stories and smiled and was lovely all over their dining room. It wasn’t that she demanded attention, or that she acted in a show-offy way: attention just attached to her, swarmed around her like light.
At one point, the adults had all gone into the kitchen with the dishes, laughingly helping her mother to bring out dessert, which was complicated and involved setting things on fire. Mary went out to the terrace to get some cool air. When she came back into the room, there was Tabitha, coming back into the room herself carrying a brass bowl of cherries. The candles on the table illuminated the brass bowl, and Tabitha’s hair, and even the dark of the cherries themselves, so that Mary was dazzled with all the sunshine trying to get into her eyes, and she looked up at the woman and saw that it was all coming from her, all the gold and shining and Mary thought she would die for loving this woman – and then the other grownups clattered back into the room with crepes and dessert dishes and forks and the smell of cigarette smoke and brandy, and that was the end of it.
So Mary knows an Angel when she sees one, and this guy she isn’t so sure about.
“No, thank you,” says Mary, and takes two steps backwards. She isn’t turning her back on this stranger; she reaches behind her to open the door and swings herself inside with one clean movement. But the Angel has his foot in the door.
“I’d just like to talk to you for a few minutes,” says the Angel. “May I come in?”
Mary looks at her embroidery hoop, lying where she had dropped it on the patio. Where is Joseph? But you hate to be rude.
“Oh, all right then,” says Mary.
The Angel explains the deal.
You have got to be kidding me, thinks Mary, but she is wary. Only a crazy person would propose such a thing, and here she is alone in the backyard. Humor the crazy person.
“But I can’t have a baby,” says Mary. “I’m so sorry. I wish I could help you, but it’s impossible.”
“Nothing is impossible when you work for the circus,” says the Angel.
“No, thank you,” says Mary.
“Just humor me,” says the Angel. “Let me try to change your mind.”
Change my mind? Thinks Mary. My mind? How can I change that?
No one ever believes Mary because Mary always lies. Mary once told her fourth-grade class that her first language was Croatian, another time she told her teacher that she was left-handed, and in junior high she told people that she had a pet tiger, all white to match her wall-to-wall carpeting. She didn’t even have wall-to-wall carpeting.
One time she found a pair of eyeglasses on the subway and as she got off at the stop near her office she slipped them on, told everyone at work she had stopped wearing contacts because of an eye infection, and squinted her way through a staff meeting. Many times she has claimed to have seen flying saucers, four-leaf clovers, ghosts, and her doppelganger.
So no one is going to believe her this time, no matter what she does.
“Hey lady,” says the man under the trees. His boots are scuffed and muddy, but his wings are resplendent.
“Hey lady, wanna buy a letter Chi- Rho?” he says, opening his trench coat.
Mary is hiding. She scuttled into the kitchen as soon as she saw the Angel hop the fence into the backyard, and now she has tucked herself on the far side of the fridge where she can’t be seen from the patio doors. She can still see the Angel, though, reflected in the mirror over the sideboard.
He has been skulking around the backyard for about half an hour but it feels like an eternity. He slithers the length of the patio, testing the locks on the bathroom window, trying the French doors. He is wearing a trench coat but in the mirror, she can see that his back is given over to multi-colored wings. Greens and yellows that have no place in this misty backyard, Mary thinks. Like a parrot’s wings, like a giant parrot is burrowing its way into his back. He must have seeds in there, Mary thinks.
Mary has been standing perfectly still but finally she must move. She waits until she sees the Angel sizing up the Japanese maple, trying to gauge if it will take his weight, if he could reach from its branches to the open bedroom window. She rolls her shoulders, looks up at the ceiling to release the tension in her jaw. But even the small movement has betrayed her; when she brings her head back down, the eyes of the Angel in the back yard meet hers in the mirror.
“No, thank you.”
“Trust me, lady.”
Mary peers through the peephole. The Angel peers back, eyeball to eyeball. Mary tries to breathe as small as she can, but she knows he knows she is there.
“Knock, knock,” says the Angel on her front porch.
You may have already won!!
The envelope flashes with neon lights. Actual lights, not pictures of them. Mary has never seen anything like it. She looks around to see who left it; she knows it wasn’t the mail, because the mail already came (phone bill and an offer for a credit card she doesn’t want). She didn’t hear the UPS truck, but she has a vague sense that when she opened the front door, there had been something at the corner of her vision, some flare of light and unsuspected color twisting around the corner, a flash of crimson and gold hailing a cab on West Street. Something that didn’t usually take a cab.
Mary handles the envelope carefully. She gives it a shake, and holds it up to her ear. She gives it a sniff: bergamot. Mary reads the words again: Special Offer! You may have already won! And in the corner, a starburst with Time sensitive materials: Open immediately!
As if I wouldn’t, thinks Mary. She shuts the front door and walks slowly back upstairs to her apartment, holding the envelope in both hands. Mary shuts and locks her apartment door, and goes into the living room. The book she’d been reading when the doorbell rang sits on the arm of her chair, but Mary brushes it to the ground.
The envelope comes open, although Mary is sure it was sealed. A flyer and some return address labels fall to her lap. The return address labels are nice enough; she’ll probably keep them.
The flyer is weird, though. An image of a fetus, curled up on itself like a pea sprout, but purple. One giant fish eye. Creepy.
Mary! say the gold letters across the top. Blessed art thou among women! Mary!
“Knock knock,” says the Angel.
“Angel of God!”
“Angel of God who?”
The salesman sits on the davenport, his suit pants riding up around his ankles. He leans forward to open the sample case that he has placed on the coffee table.
“I think you’ll like what you see, Mary,” he says.
Inside the sample case is a series of photos: a tiny spark in the darkness grows, rounds out, reddens, and begins to look familiar.
“Oh, I see…” says Mary.
The salesman points to the text and reads it out loud, in case Mary can’t.
Four weeks: Your baby is the size of a poppy-seed!
Six weeks: Your baby is the size of a lentil!
Eleven weeks: Your baby is the size of a fig!
Fifteen weeks: Your baby is the size of an apple!
An apple? thinks Mary. That rings a bell. “No thank you,” she says to the salesman and closes the sample case, almost catching his beautifully manicured fingers as she does so.
“Just one drink? Come on. I don’t want to drive home.”
“Baby, it’s cold outside.”
Mary walks home from the streetcar stop, up the long slow hill towards the Fetus Tree. The Fetus Tree is a black walnut, a tall, ridge-barked city tree that gives shade but doesn’t really function as a tree should. A sidewalk tree, indistinguishable from a telephone pole, except for one weird detail: the word “fetus” carved into the bark, right at eye level, in letters two inches high. The word has been there as long as Mary has lived in the neighborhood; the carving is starting to fade back into the bark. But still it retains this air of accusation that makes Mary feel guilty every time she sees it.
Is it a generic reminder by a pro-life activist? Or a more personal rebuke by a would-be father? Mary builds stories: a young couple, not quite at this stage yet. An unplanned pregnancy, a unilateral abortion. Revelation, tears, words carved into a living tree. Mary imagines the woman coming down the path to the sidewalk one morning, dealing with what she had to deal with already, alone thank you very much, and seeing the words, the wound in the tree. She would have moved away; she couldn’t have seen those words every morning, every evening. Mary feels bad for this woman, and sends her good wishes, wherever she is. For what it’s worth.
Sometimes she forgets that the Fetus Tree is in the real world, not just her imagination. But then a co-worker, explaining that he used to live just a block away from Mary’s apartment, says, “You know, near the Fetus Tree,” or a little girl walking with her mother down the hill says, “F! It says F Mommy!” or two women behind her in line at the gelato place say, “mumble mumble Fetus Tree” and then burst into laughter.
Today Mary smells it before she sees it: the tree is alight, the letters blazing with fresh fire, but still as clear as anything, and Mary understands that the message is hers, alone.
“Mary. Mary! Just. Mary. Listen to me. Listen to me. I am a messenger from God, Mary. You have to listen to me.”
“I don’t have to do anything.”
“Jesus H. Christ, Mary! What is wrong with you?”
Mary is silent.
“What’s the big deal, anyway?”
“Why not? Why NOT? Because what on earth is the point? What on God’s green earth is the point of a second chance?
“Do you know what I saw today when I was at the market? A turtle, with a plastic web around its belly. The belly of a whale, full of plastic bags. A mountain beheaded so they could get to the coal. A funeral of birds. Birds we’ve lost, birds my children (which I don’t even plan on having) will never see. A tidal wave, racing towards the harbor, burying the port in brackish, dead water. Polar bears drifting in from the left, penguins drifting in from the right. A sky with no black, a sky with nothing but lights reflecting against the smog.
“It was so fucking hot, and everywhere, everywhere there were people. The trains kept pulling up at the station, and each one disgorged more people, children and old people and tortured people and ruined, traumatized people. By the time I had bought my olives and my tahini, the square was so full that I had to walk on the backs of the people to get out of there. I took one step onto the shoulder of an old man lying on his side, and I got my balance, and I held both arms out, one with the basket of olives, the other holding a plastic bag with the jar of tahini, and I took another step, onto the head of a woman sitting with her drowned child in her lap, and then another, onto an old woman, and then another man—and I made my way across the whole square like that: man, woman, man, woman, man woman, holding the tahini and the olives in my outstretched hands like I was on a tightrope. That’s why not.”
“I’m just not sure I want to be the mother of God.”
“Don’t be silly, all women want to be the mother of God. It’s natural.”
“You’re just scared. Don’t worry, once those hormones kick in, you’ll be fine. Nothing you have done up to now with your life will ever compare to the total awesomeness and naturalness of being the mother of God.”
“I’m not so sure—”
“Trust me. You’ll be great.”
“But what if I—”
“You won’t. There’s only one narrative here. Conception! Birth! Love! That’s the only thing that ever happens.”
“Don’t you want your life to finally have some meaning?”
“I SAID. No.”
“Nonsense. Everyone wants to have a baby.”
“Yes you do.”
“No, I don’t.”
“But you’ve always wanted to be a mother!”
“Surprise! Too late! Already pregnant!”
“Nothing is impossible with God.”
Something weird is happening. The bird that was flitting around the backyard has vanished, but Mary can feel him still close. Like he is actually inside her.
Did I somehow eat the bird? wonders Mary, and that movie they used to show at the library on Saturday mornings pops into her head: “I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.”
How absurd, thinks Mary, I swallowed a bird!
The Angel leans against the porch pillar, looking awfully pleased with himself.
Mary takes an inventory of exactly what is happening. She feels:
Her breasts growing rounder
Her belly beginning to stretch, to inflate.
An odd heavying in her lower abdomen, a dropping feeling of weight pulling her into the ground, as if she has ingested a magnet, not the Holy Spirit.
Her hair growing thicker and bushier and her face becoming wider.
Her eyesight goes a bit off and she gains a shoe size.
She wants to eat inedible things, like Windex and batteries.
She worries about everything.
People tell her she can’t remember things anymore, but she protests: “No – I just can’t account for everything.”
“Mom brain!” they say.
Heartburn. Nausea. An effort at escape, as if something inside her is rejecting itself.
“Just look at yourself!” says the Angel, and Mary turns to look at her reflection in the patio doors: fat, and pimply, and flushed. Dressed in a blue robe she doesn’t remember owning. Wearing a demure and patient look she thinks may just be a trick of all the extra weight in her face.
“That’s not me,” says Mary.
“Who cares about you,” says the Angel. “Watch!”
And her body continues to grow and her feet thicken and flatten and her ankles swell up.
“I don’t feel right,” says Mary to the Angel. I can’t run, she thinks to herself.
“It’s not really about you anymore, Mary,” he says. “It’s not really your body. It’s never been your body.” The Angel laughs.
Well, what is the actual point then, thinks Mary. “It’s always been about me,” says Mary.
The Angel looks at her coldly.
“Right then, that’s me out of here,” says Mary and she whisks herself out of her fattening alien body, and floats up, up, and away. It’s a bit giddy at first, but once she’s over the rooftop it’s quite pleasant, and at a hundred feet it’s divine. From five hundred feet up she can still see the Angel lecturing the husk of her old physical self, but Mary turns her eyes upward and ascends.
Mary sits in her comfortable chair reading her book. She hears the shuffling footsteps on the porch, and the knocking starting up again. But Mary’s chair-back is high, and it hides her from the glass pane in the door. Mary stays right in her chair and reads her book and knows her own mind.
“Mary! Come on, Mary!” The words are muffled and unconvincing.
Knock all you like, thinks Mary. I don’t answer the door to strangers.
INGRID KEENAN’s stories have appeared in Room, Iron Horse Literary Review, the Indiana Review and others. She recently completed her first novel, a feminist reboot of the Don Juan myth.