The early sunlight struck the dead seal pup just right. The angle exquisite, the pattern of light and shadow unworldly, making the sand sing.
At first glance the seal looked nothing like what it was. Rather, it looked like a small, smooth, seal-shaped hillock of sand, a miniature dune lovingly sculpted and then left behind by the tide. The retreating waters still licked its seaward edge now and then, as if not wanting to let go, proud of its creation perhaps, touching it, retreating, touching it, retreating, touching it, then not touching it, then not touching it. Letting go.
A small colony of algae covered one end of him, like a green, clumsily knit scarf.
Then, peeking out from this little wonder of sand and shadow, he saw what looked like an eye, black and glistening. Looking closer he saw that it indeed was an eye, still moist, freshly abandoned. He looked closer and saw that what he now looked at was a sandy face, with, yes, a glistening eye. And then, with a chill deep and terrible, he saw what he actually saw: a little seal so freshly and helplessly dead. So beautifully buried by the tide.
Or not. What if it was still alive? He took a quick step back, and another. Not really afraid it would suddenly stir, but not unafraid either. Well removed he looked and looked. There was no movement. Of course there was no movement. The little seal pup was dead. See how still he is, all that undisturbed, unmoving, unbreathing, glittering sand, and the little valleys of shadow equally still.
He approached again. Focusing on the eye now. Drawn to the glistening eye: which now blinked at him. Or he could have sworn it did. Something blinked or moved or shifted. Either the eye or the sand around it.
Or the wind, perhaps? He looked up and around: no wind. He looked back at the seal pup and the curious eye.
It blinked again. It did. He could have sworn it did.
He stepped back again and now his legs cried out for action: away from here. Real fear now, urging: away from here.
But something stronger than fear: a sharp mixture of fascination and curiosity had rooted him on his sandy spot.
After many heartbeats of stillness he approached again, and now bent down to look more closely at what could not possibly have blinked.
And closer still. The eye was wide open and unblinking, still wet with recent life and/or tide.
There it was again: something stirring in its center. Fear fountained anew and threatened to carry him away, but then he saw that what stirred in the eye’s center was his own reflection, looking back at him from the sealy darkness.
But as he watched, that something in the eye’s center that started out as his own reflection sprouted a life of its own and grew. He was no longer looking at himself, not possibly. Lighter now, and larger, and moving while he remained still, resting on his haunches. Then even lighter and larger still in the dark of the dead eye and now emerging.
First came wings: small and light and fine and golden and softly moving, flexing, struggling a little as if exiting a chrysalis and now free and flexing again, growing all the while, from an inch or two to three, to six, to ten, this little angel, or fairy, or spirit, he had no name for it: a foot tall now, full and beautiful wings still flexing, reflecting the sunlight in many directions, cascading it. Then it folded its wings behind him (or her) and sat down on the dead seal’s nose, now raising its gaze and catching his.
It drew breath as if to speak, but then said nothing. Thought better of it, perhaps. Instead she—sure now that the little angel was female, what with that wonderful, full dress shimmering—lifted and rested one knee on top of the other and drew her breath again.
And said: “A weak heart,” in a voice small but clear, not unlike silver bells talking.
He heard the three words just fine. They were unmistakable, and very much English, and he knew that he had heard them. Still, he found himself unable to connect dots.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“A weak heart,” repeated the small angel. “He was born with it. Was never going to make it. I am surprised he lived this long, and made it this far.”
“A weak heart?” he said, assuming—for some unknown reason—that this was something that never would afflict an animal, least of all a seal.
“Born with it,” she said.
“Are you,” he finally got around to saying, “a figment?”
“Of your imagination?”
She placed her hands behind her and leaned back on her arms, the better to take him in. “Is that what you think?” she said. “Or hope?”
It was hard to tell, her face was so small, but it seemed she was smiling. Enjoying his confusion, perhaps. At least a little.
“So you’re for real?” he said.
She nodded, “I am.”
“Do all seals,” he began.
“Come with angels?” she said.
“Yes. That’s what I mean.”
“Only the doomed ones, and only some of those,” she said.
He tried to picture this: the seal pup born with a poor, defective heart. How did she know? Did someone keep tabs on these things? How did word get to her about a doomed seal needing her services?
The little angel was nothing if not perceptive. “A bell rings,” she said.
When he didn’t say something in reply—he had absolutely no idea what to say—she continued. “We have monitors.”
As if that explained things.
“A bell rings?” he said.
“A small, blue bell, yes. It has small gray spots on it, but on the whole it is blue. Like the sky, this sky.” She looked up at it to indicate which sky she meant.
“There are small gray spots on the blue bell?”
She nodded. “It rings.”
“To say a seal is in trouble?” he asked. But what he meant to ask, and now did, was: “Where is this bell?”
“Why, in heaven.”
“So you are an angel?”
“If that’s what you want.”
His legs had begun to hurt, sitting for so long on his haunches. He meant to stand up, stretch them, work the stiffness out, but instead, and now crossing his legs, he sat down in the slightly damp and a little cold sand, to now find his face very close to hers.
“You look like an angel.”
“Well, there you have it.”
“And you’re from heaven?”
He tried to picture this heaven. Bells. “So there are many bells?”
“All kinds of bells.”
“And they all ring?”
“Not all the time, obviously,” she said.
“But at one time or another, each bell will ring.”
“How many bells are there?” he asked.
“There are as many bells as there are afflictions.”
Hard to picture. For there had to be quite a few afflictions. Hundreds. Thousands. Millions? “Many, then?” he said.
“Rows and rows and rows,” she answered.
“Do they all sound alike?” he asked.
“Not at all.”
“So you can tell one bell from the other?”
“Of course. Well, I can’t, but the monitors can.”
Rows and rows of tiny, colored bells among the clouds. Ringing. “Even if they ring at the same time?” he asked, not realizing he was actually thinking aloud.
“There are a lot of afflictions,” she said.
“And you can still tell them apart, ringing at the same time?”
“That’s what the monitors are trained to do.”
“They must have amazing ears.”
“They do. That’s their job. Watching and listening to the bells, and then alerting us when one of our bells rings.”
“You’re an angel operative?”
“And what do you do then, the operatives?”
His seat was growing moist, and colder. The impulse was to rise, brush the sand off and stay dry, but the impulse wasn’t very strong, and he wasn’t really listening to it. “How does it work?” he asked.
“A bell rings,” she said. “The monitor calls the corresponding operative. One of us, there are several assigned to each bell. The operative who’s up next, takes the call, receives the details, is on his or her way.”
“Yes, to help.”
“Help how? This seal pup is dead. Did you arrive too late?”
“Oh, yes, I see,” she said. “No, we don’t help that way. By the time the bell rings they’ve pretty much had it—doomed. No, we point the way.”
He didn’t understand, and his face must have said as much.
“After they die. We tell them where to go.”
This he understood, or at least thought that he did, “So you don’t cure them, you guide them. The bell only rings,” he began.
“When the affliction is fatal, yes,” she said, again completing his thought.
“For everyone, every affliction?” he asked. A massive project. Impossibly huge, really.
“Oh, heavens no,” she said. “There are nowhere near enough of us.”
“So,” he was trying to picture this more clearly, “rows and rows of different colored and patterned bells, each ringing when an affliction kills someone.”
“When a deadly affliction is about to kill someone,” she corrected.
“But not everyone,” he said.
“No, not everyone.”
“Who chooses?” he said.
“The dying,” she answered.
“They know about the bells?”
“Oh, I see. No, no. They don’t know about the bells.”
“How do they choose then?”
“By how they live their lives.”
“Boy, that’s quite a system,” he said, an image forming.
“Intricate,” she said.
He fell quiet, grappling a little with his next question.
“Complex,” she added.
He didn’t really hear that.
“Very complex,” she added, louder.
“How they live their lives?” he said. “What does that mean?”
“Some deserve to know. Others, most, do not.”
“Ah, so it’s about good and bad?”
“No. It’s about true or false.”
So much to process. “About to kill someone,” he said.
“It wouldn’t do much good if we arrived after the fact.”
“Yes, I can see that.”
“I really should be on my way,” said the little angel, sitting up now, her wings making a soft rustle.
This he either didn’t hear, or chose not to.
“How many afflictions are there?” he said. “Many, I guess.”
“Very,” she said.
Then the question that took the longest to form: “How do the bells know?”
“I thought you might get around to that,” she said. But said no more.
He waited. Then a little longer. Then, “So, how do the bells know?”
“They are very finely tuned,” she said.
He tried to picture that. But had to admit, “I don’t understand.”
“To be absolutely honest, neither do I.”
“Really. That’s what we’ve been told. Very finely tuned. Apparently it’s on a need-to-know.”
“So, who knows?”
“Oh, the monitors know. I’m sure they do. Part of their training, one would think.”
“And how do the bells know whether the person, or animal, deserves to be told or not? Where to go, I mean. And where that person or animal is.”
“Very finely tuned,” she said.
He nodded, “Must be.” Then summarized (more for his own benefit than anything): “So, the monitors know, from the finely tuned bells, who is about to die, where they are, and whether they deserve your help in heading out into the afterlife? Am I correct.”
“And what are you told, once you get the assignment?”
“We’re told who or what and where.”
“Which I take it are also very finely tuned.”
“And you get from heaven to the deserving dying, how?”
“So you fly?”
“Oh, heavens no. Would take far too long. We picture the very precise coordinates, and then we appear.”
“Inside or outside?”
“Well, you appeared from the inside, and you were much smaller at first.”
“Oh, I see. Inside, we appear inside. As gently as possible.”
“I bet you some are startled.”
“They are all startled,” she said.
At this point he took a long look at her, then a long look around. Then he pinched himself, very hard. It hurt.
“You’re not dreaming,” she said.
Still, this all had a host of unconnected dots, did not really hold up to logical scrutiny, which bothered him for he loved things to make sense. Then again, the little angel—which obviously existed, she was sitting right there—didn’t make much sense either.
“Would I deserve to be told?” he asked.
“How should I know?” she said. “I’m not a monitor. Nor a supervisor.”
“There are supervisors in heaven?”
“Of course. It’s quite an operation. Huge. Impressive. Hordes of monitors, and almost as many supervisors—if you ask me.”
“Messengers. We’re messengers.”
“I thought you said ‘operatives.’ That you were operatives.”
“Officially, we’re messengers. Operatives sounds nicer, though, don't you think?”
“I don’t think so.”
“You know,” she said. “I really have to get going.”
Again, he chose not to hear. “So,” he said, “where is the seal going next?”
“That would be none of your business.”
“The directions are very private,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” he said again.
She now slid down from the dead seal’s nose and rose. Stretched her wings. “Seriously,” she said. “I really need to get going. They expect me back as soon as I’ve pointed the way.”
“How do you tell them?” he asked. “Point? The animals, I mean. They don’t speak English.”
“Oh, there’s no difference between human or animal or plant. We tell everyone the same way.”
“Plants are afflicted, too. And they die. And some deserve to be told.”
“But plants. Are they conscious?”
“Plants are simple beings, more akin to God than any of us.”
“Oh, so then, what you’re saying is: there is a God?”
“We call him the Boss.”
“So there is a God?”
“Of course. An operation this size.”
More unconnected dots. And one more: “But how on earth can a plant be true or false?”
“You’d be surprised,” she said.
“And you give plants the same directions as all others? In the same way, I mean.”
“Yes, I do. We do.”
“What way is that?”
“We dance,” she said.
“Yes. We dance a final dance.”