The early sunlight struck the dead seal pup just so. It rendered the pattern of light and shadow unworldly and it made the sand sing.
At first glance the dead 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 abandoned by the tide. The retreating waters still licked its seaward edge now and then, as if not really 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 it go.
A small colony of seaweed covered one end of him, like a green, hurriedly knit scarf.
Then, peeking out from this little wonder of sand, light, shadow, and seaweed, he saw what looked like an eye, black and glistening. Bending down and looking closer he saw that, yes, it was an eye, still moist—freshly evacuated. He looked closer still 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 newly and helplessly dead, beautifully buried by the tide.
Or not. What if it was still alive? He rose and took a quick step back, and then another. He wasn’t really afraid that it would suddenly stir, but not unafraid either. Well removed now, he looked and looked. No, there was no movement. The little seal pup was dead.
Deadly still. All that unbreathing, glittering sand and those little valleys of shadow, all equally still.
He approached again. Still carefully though. He focused on the eye, he was drawn to the glistening eye: which now winked at him.
Or he could have sworn it did. Something winked or blinked or moved or shifted. Either the eye or the sand around it.
It was the wind, perhaps? He looked up and around: No, no wind. He looked back at the seal pup and the curious eye.
It winked at him again. It did. He could have sworn.
He backed away again, and now his legs cried out for action: away from here they cried. There was a real fear now urging him away from here.
But there was something stronger than fear, too: a sharp mixture of fascination and curiosity rooted him to his sandy spot, and after many loud heartbeats he approached again, and again bent down to look more closely at what could not possibly winked.
And closer still. The eye was wide open and unblinking, still wet with recent life and/or tide.
No, there it was again. Something stirred in its center.
His fear fountained anew and threatened to carry him away, but then he realized that what stirred in the eye’s center was his own reflection, looking back at him out 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. Lighter now, and larger, and moving while he remained stationary, resting on his haunches. Then 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 to two to three, to six, to ten, this little fairy, or angel, 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, raised its gaze and caught his.
It drew a small, soft breath as if to say something to him, but then said nothing. Just gazed at him.
It was an angel, he decided, and she—yes he also decided that the little angel was female, what with that wonderful, full dress shimmering—she lifted and rested the inside of one knee on the outside of the other, clasped her hands as if in prayer and placed them on her leg, and then drew her delicate breath again.
And said: “A weak heart,” in a voice fine 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. He meant it as a question.
“A weak heart,” repeated the angel. “He was born with it. He 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 reason that this was a condition that never would afflict an animal, least of all a seal.
“Yes,” she said. “He was born with it,” she said.
“Are you,” he finally got around to voicing, “a figment…”
“… of your imagination?”
She unclasped her hands and instead placed them behind her and leaned back on straight arms, the better to take him in. “Is that what you think?” she said. “Or hope?”
It was a little hard to tell, her face was so small, but it seemed she was smiling. Enjoying his confusion, perhaps. At least a little.
“So you are for real?” he said.
She nodded, “Yes, I am.”
“Do all seals…” he began. Then hesitated. He wasn’t sure exactly what he meant to ask.
She did not complete that question, but silently waited for more.
“… come with angels?” he said.
“Only the doomed ones,” she said.
“Such as those born with a failing heart.”
“Such as those born with a failing heart,” she confirmed.
He tried to picture this: the seal pup born with a poor, defective heart. How would she know this? Did someone, somewhere keep tabs on these things? And if so, 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 did not reply—he had absolutely no idea what to say to that—she continued. “We have monitors.”
As if that explained things.
“A bell rings?” he said.
“A small, blue bell, yes. It has some 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 gray spots on the blue bell?”
She nodded. “Yes. And this bell rings.”
“To say a seal is in trouble?” he asked.
She nodded. Yes.
But that was not what he had meant to ask. What he had meant to ask, and now did, was: “Where is this bell?”
“Why, in heaven.”
“So you are an angel?” With some relief.
“If that’s what you want.”
His legs were now beginning to hurt from him 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 damp and a surprisingly cold sand, to now find his face even with and very close to hers.
“You look like an angel,” he said. I’ve seen pictures.
“Paintings, I take it.”
“Yes, yes. Not photos, no. Of course not.”
“And they looked like me?”
“Yes. Well, some of them did. Those my grandma drew.”
“Maybe she had met some of us.”
That was a thought, and not too alien.
“She might at that,” he said.
“Well, there you have it then. I must be an angel.”
He tried to picture this heaven. A heaven with blue bells. “Are all bells blue?”
“Oh, heaven’s no. They come in all colors and sizes.”
“And they all ring?”
“They all can ring but don’t ring all the time, obviously,” she said.
“But at one time or another, every bell rings.”
He tried, but on the whole failed to picture this. His grandma Mommi had told him a lot about heaven when he was a child, and that was the heaven he still carried inside—a completely bell-less heaven.
What he ended up asking was: “How many bells are there?”
“There are as many bells in heaven—well, in my part of heaven—as there are afflictions. Heaven, you understand, is a huge place, there are not bells everywhere, just in our little corner, or department.”
How many afflictions could there be, he wondered. There must be hundreds, thousands, millions maybe. “Many, then?” he said.
“Rows and rows and rows,” she said.
“Do they all sound alike?” he asked.
“Oh, not at all.”
“Ah. But you can tell one bell from another, I take it.”
“Of course. Well, I can’t, but the monitors can.”
Rows and rows and rows of tiny, colored bells among the clouds ringing off and on. “Even if several bells ring at the same time?” he asked, not realizing he was thinking aloud.
“There are a lot of afflictions,” she said.
“But 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 to then alert us when one of our bells rings.”
“You’re an angel operative?”
“If you like.”
“And what do operatives do then? What’s your job?”
His seat was growing wet now, and even colder. The impulse was to rise, brush the sand off and stay dry, but that 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 bell monitor logs the ring and then calls the corresponding operative. One of us—there are several assigned to each bell, you understand—whoever is up next, takes the call, takes down the details, and is on his or her way.”
An uninvited image of a police station floated by. He did not fuel that image. Instead, he said: “To help?”
“Yes, to help.”
“But 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—they are doomed. No, we help by pointing the way.”
He didn’t understand, and his face must have said as much.
“After they die,” she said. “We tell them where to go.”
This he understood, or at least thought he did, “So you don’t cure them, you guide them. And the bell only rings...” he began.
“… when the affliction is fatal, yes,” she said, again completing his thought.
Again he tried (and failed to) picture this. His head was swimming with Mommi angels, God, and other celestial images, and none of them would reconcile, or even sit still.
Another question surfaced. “A bell rings for everyone, for every fatal affliction?” That would be a massive project. Impossibly huge.
“Oh, heavens no,” she said. “There are nowhere near enough of us.”
“So,” he was trying to piece this thing together, “rows and rows and rows of different colored bells, each ringing when an affliction kills someone.”
“No, it rings when a deadly affliction is about to kill someone,” she corrected.
“But not for everyone,” he said.
“No, not everyone.”
“So, what determines for whom a bell would ring, then? I mean, who chooses?” he said.
“The dying,” she answered.
“The dying know about the bells?”
“No, no. They don’t know about the bells.”
“Do they know about you—the angel operatives?”
“No, they don’t know about us either.”
“How do they choose then?”
“They choose by how they live their lives.”
He was not sure that he actually asked the next question: “Who keeps track of all this?” Perhaps it was just a fleeting thought, soon out of sight again.
“It’s very intricate,” she said.
He did not hear that, trying to formulate another question.
“Complex,” she added.
He did not hear that either.
“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 being good or being bad?”
“No. It’s about being true or being false.”
There was far too much to process. “The bell rings when an ailment is about to kill someone,” he clarified.
“We couldn’t do much pointing if we arrived after the fact,” she said.
“Yes, I can see that.”
Then she straightened up and put her hands back in her lap. “I really should be on my way,” she said. Her wings made a soft rustle.
This he either didn’t hear or chose not to.
“So, how many afflictions are there?” he said. “Many, I guess.”
“A lot,” she said.
Then the question that took the longest to form finally found voice: “How do the bells know?”
“I thought you might get around to that,” she said. But said no more.
He waited. Then waited a little longer. Then, “So, how do the bells know?”
“They are very finely tuned,” she said.
“I don’t understand.”
“To be absolutely honest, neither do I.”
“Really. That’s what we’ve been told. The bells are very finely tuned. Apparently it’s on a need-to-know.”
A long silence.
“So, who knows?” he said.
“I’m sure the monitors know. Must be part of their training, I would think.”
“So, the bells know when an ailment is about to kill some living thing. Does that include humans?”
“Okay.” More silence, though not as long. “But how do the bells know whether the person or animal deserves to be told or not? Told where to go, I mean. And how do they know where that person or animal is.”
“Very finely tuned,” she said.
He nodded, “They must be.” But he wanted to be very clear about this: “So, the finely tuned bells know not only who is about to die, but also where they are and whether they deserve your help as they soon head out into the afterlife?”
“And the monitors understand the bells.” More of a confirmation than a question.
“And the monitors then call you, the operatives.”
“And what do they tell you, say if you’re up for the next assignment?”
“They’d tell me who or what and where.”
“What, you get like coordinates?”
“Yes. That’s exactly what we get. Coordinates.”
“Which I take it must be amazingly precise.”
“They are amazingly precise.”
“And how do you get from heaven to the deserving dying?”
“So you fly?”
“Oh, heavens no. That would take far too long. No, we picture the amazingly precise coordinates, and then we appear at them.”
He was getting the picture. “Inside or outside?”
“Well, I saw you come out of this seal pup from inside his eye. And you were very 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.
“Yeah, I can imagine.”
At this point he took a long look at her, then a long look around. Then he pinched himself, very hard. It hurt.
“You are not dreaming,” she said.
This all had a host of unconnected dots none of which held up to logical scrutiny. This 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 bell.”
A brief silence.
“You know,” she said. “I really have to be on my way.”
Again, he opted not to hear. “So,” he said, “where is the seal going next? Where did you direct him to?”
“That would be none of your business.”
“The directions are very private,” she underscored.
“I’m sorry,” he said again.
The little angel now slid down from the dead seal’s nose and rose, stretching her wings. “Seriously,” she said. “I really need to be going. They expect me back as soon as I’m done.”
“How do you tell them?” he asked. “How do you direct them? The animals, I mean. Do you know animal language? Are there animal languages? And do you know them all? I guess you must.”
“Oh, there’s no difference between human or animal or plant. We tell everyone the same way.”
“Plants? You direct plants as well?”
“Plants are afflicted, too. And they die. And some deserve to be told.”
“But plants. They are not aware, are they? I mean conscious.”
“Plants are simple beings, more akin to God than any of us.”
More silence while a host of new questions crowd in on him. “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.”
A small sea of unconnected dots. And here’s one more: “But how on earth can a plant be true or false?”
“You’d be surprised,” she said.
“And you give plants their directions the same way as all others?”
“Yes, I do. We do.”
“What way is that?”
“We dance,” she said.
“Yes. We dance their final dance.”