Under the Sky

“Please don’t do that. ”

I glanced up from my suicidal reverie at the edge of the roof. It wasn’t just that I was certain that this roof had been empty when my despair and ennui had driven me to ascend to it. It was the voice…. there was something about that voice that was so unusual and compelling that I decided I just had to delay m righteous and rightful self-annihilation to investigate.

“….Hello?” I asked, in that special kind of hesitant tone one uses when you hear a spooky noise in an old mansion in the middle of the night.

There was a heavy pause, and a strange, soft sound I could not identify. Then the voice said “I know what you are going to do, and I am asking you not to do it. ”

So there was someone else up here on this rooftop. I carefully looked around the bleak and featureless roof. Nope, nobody here.

“What do you think I was going to do?” I replied stupidly, for lack of a better thing to say. Still going to do, said the dark and dominant side of my mind. Knowing it would all soon be over felt too good to go back now.

“You were about to destroy yourself. ” The tone was languidly accusatory. And that voice… it was like the richest, most soothingly pleasant voiceover artist’s voice, but also with the total assurance that goes beyond confidence. And there was something else…. something I couldn’t place. Something that sounded wonderful… but not quite normal. “You…. do that sometimes. ”

“I do?” I replied. So far, my side of this curious was not going well. Well, I was never any good at…. anything, really. Nothing that matters, anyhow.

“Not you, Mark. ” said the voice. Where WAS he? “Your…. people. Sometimes you destroy yourselves of your own free will. I have learned this. ”

Everyone knows that, I thought. This was getting creepy. “Why do you care if I kill myself?”

“Because if you do that, Mark, I will become very sad, and the universe will lose your diversity. ” said the voice matter-of-factly. And again, there was that strange soft sound, like silk sliding against glass.

I was taken aback by this frank and direct answer. It wasn’t the words so much as the plain and unquestionable conviction with which the voice said them. If I went through with my plans, it would make him very sad. It was unthinkable to doubt it. That voice…. its sincerity was utterly complete.

I fought down the urge to say something pointlessly flip like “Well, as long as it’s all about you” or “Sorry to ruin your day with my despair. ” I didn’t feel flippant. I don’t know what I felt, exactly, but it was not my usual sarcastic bitterness. It was something like wonder, and something like terror, and something like nothing I had felt before. A deep kind of thrill, mixed with a sense of something truly important going on.

Then a thought struck me so suddenly and so hard that it caused me to cry out in surprise. “Wait, how do you know my name?”

The voice, mildly amused, replied “How does one know that this beautiful sky is blue? How does one know that structure over there is made of red brick? How do you know anything? I look upon you and it is there.”

My mind and heart were racing. It wasn’t that he knew my name that was the true shock. It was that I had accepted it as perfectly normal and natural for so long before realizing it. Up until now, in as much as I had given it any thought at all, I had assumed he was a resident of this building, or maybe it’s superintendent, and talking to me from a crawlspace or something. But now… now I absolutely had to know just what or who I was talking to. My despair and ennui were gone, replacing by a curiosity so intense that it felt almost religions. I had to know. I needed it.

My mind raced for something to say, to keep him talking so I could find him. “So you can see me from where you are? ” I asked, hoping his reply would narrow down the possibilities.

“I can. Not as you might define, but yes. I can. I can see you now as clearly as you can see the sun in your mind even in the darkest night of the year. I know you as well as you know your fondest and most cherished memory. I feel you like you feel the warmth of a campfire even through the walls of your tent. And now I have spoken long enough for you to find me. ”

The last was said at the exact moment that I hesitantly peered over one corner of the roof (I’ve always been afraid of heights) and saw… an angel.

Let me be clear on this : I am not speaking metaphorically or figuratively. I am being completely literal and using the only reasonable word I can conceive of to describe what I saw that day. There, standing on a ledge one floor below the roof, was an angel. Big feathery wings. perfect body, golden halo, the works. Think of the most beautiful picture of an adult male angel you have ever seen, and that is exactly what I was looking at, down to the last pinfeather.

He wore no clothing, yet did not seem naked at all. I think the official term is “clothed in radiance”. I stared at him with eyes open wide, and yet, the overwhelming presence of him was so intense that all I can remember is how beautiful he was and his green, green eyes.

One more thing I have to make clear before we go on : I am a atheist. I am not prone to religious visions brought on my an excess of faith and/or frontal lobe epilepsy. You have to understand this in order to comprehend the full totality of my surprise at what I saw. I would have been less surprised to see a fierce Maori warrior in full battle paint strumming a ukulele and singing show tunes. Those, at least, exist.

And I am heterosexual. Finding anything male this beautiful is not something to which I was accustomed. And it wasn’t sexual. It included sexuality, but was so much more than that. Calling it sexual because of that would be like calling the Atlantic lemonade because you dropped a lemon slice into it.

“Please look away. ” he said.

“Why, are you shy?” I replied. This time, I was too dazzled and awed to keep my usual flippancy from slipping out. Besides, I didn’t want to look away. Ever.

“No. It’s just that for your kind to look upon mine for too long is…. not good. Look away now. And do not look back upon me. ”

I looked away, even though it was the last thing in the universe I wanted to do. It was like telling a man dying of thirst in the desert to pour his last drop of water out into the sand, but I did in anyhow. I had no choice. I could no more resist doing what he told me to do in that amazing voice than a clod of dirt could resist being washed away by the crashing tide. My will dissolved into his when he spoke to me like that.

To distract myself from the pain of looking away and the growing void in my soul that already threatened to engulf it completely, I asked “What would have happened to me, had I kept looking?”

“Your mind would have… become broken. What pleases the soul is not always good for the mind. You would have become… simpler. ”

I knew this to be true. I already felt like my mind was glowing white hot. It was like the feeling I had felt after a long and grueling exam in college, only pleasant. Any longer, and my mind would no doubt have melted into slag and the rest of my days would have been spent in someplace with “Ward” or “Institute” in the name and havng my diapers changed on the hour, every hour.

I knew what I had to ask. What was left of my atheist’s intellectual cynicism rebelled against it, but was pushed aside. “So are you an…. ?”

There was a long pause before he answered, long enough to strike me cold with worry that my question had offended him and he had left. Or that by questioning the dream, I had caused it to end and I would be forced to wake to the reality of my miserable life once more, all the worse for the glimpse of something more.

“My people and I are not…. servants of your God. We serve our own, in our own way. We are simply another race making our way through the Universe and trying to cope and grow and learn from our mistakes, like you. One of those mistakes has been, in our time here, to try to interfere directly with the course of your kind’s development, and in doing so, our interactions have inspired your myths in many ways. From the point of view of your culture, the most important of them is that we inspired your myths of creatures called ‘angels’. But we are merely…. travelers. ”

By this point, my thoughts and emotions were an electrical storm of titanic proportions. Part of me was glad he was not a traditional Western angel, because I didn’t know if I could handle a sudden proof of the existence of a God I had not believed in since childhood. And another part was bitterly disappointed. And yet another part felt guilty for being disappointed. Had my atheism been a sham, and deep down I longed for a paternalistic God all this time? And yet still another part said “Guilt? Smart people don’t feel guilt about their emotions. That’s for the religious sheep. ” And so forth and so on.

Amidst the chaos, a coherent thought managed to emerge. “So you are not from Earth? You’re… aliens?”

Against, that tone of mild amusement. “We are not from Earth, no. My people did not evolve here. I was not born here, though I consider it my home. We are children of the stars, and wander from planet to planet, solar system to solar system, looking for places we can live. ”

I tried to imagine that kind of freedom. “I think if I could travel between the stars, I would leave and never come back. I’d wander the Universe forever. ”

“That would be a pity. ” All amusement was gone from his voice. “Trust one who knows…. there is more beauty and wonder here, on a planet that bears life, than in all the stars and comets and lifeless rocks in this lonely cosmos. This planet… this world of yours… is a jewel beyond price, rare and wondrous and beautiful in ways you cannot even begin to imagine. I only wish you could see it as my people do. Knowing nothing else, you imagine this world to be a terrible place. Nothing could be further from the truth. My people wander for centuries looking for a planet as lush and diverse as this. One thousand light-years of dust and rocks and fire is absolutely nothing compared to life under the sky, like this. ”

I nodded, unsure what to say. His view of the world was not mine, at least, not the me who existed before this encounter. Already it was hard to relate to that person. Had I really been ready to kill myself just because I was bored and didn’t like how my life was going? Had I really condemned all of humanity as wretched and awful simply because it wasn’t as good as I thought it should be? Already, that person seemed like nothing more than an angry, spoiled child. I pitied him.

“Are your people still wandering? ” Are you going to leave me, I silently added.

“My people still wander. We have no choice. Not many of us can live in any one place, and so we must spread ourselves across the Galaxy. This great green Earth, as lush and rich and vibrant as it is, holds only fifteen of our number. Most living planets only hold three or four. And often, we are not there more than a handful of generations before we must move on again…. the price we pay for our interference in the natural order of things. We can’t stop ourselves. We have to help where we can. ”

“What makes you leave?” I asked. It was hard to imagine anything that could force creatures like him to do anything. I was still absorbing the fact that there were more like him out there somewhere.

“Once a planet’s sentients become sufficiently advanced, keeping ourselves hidden becomes more and more difficult… and once we are discovered and proven to exist, it is far too late. The damage we have done to the sentients would be profound. The effect we have on creatures like you is simply too profound to ignore. We would end up hunted, or worse, worshiped. This we cannot tolerate. So we try to make sure we leave before that happens. ”

I thought of Earth as it stood now, covered by satellites and telecommunications networks, with a video camera on every street corner and another in the cell phone in everyone’s pocket. My worry of them (him) leaving increased. “Are you leaving here soon? ”

“Not soon, no. Not by your standards. Not within your lifetime, certainly. There are still plenty of wild places and empty spaces for us to inhabit. And even in the cities, we can survive. You would be surprised at how infrequently your people look up. ”

Was that last part a joke? I still couldn’t look at him, and so I couldn’t tell. “Will I ever see you again?”

He paused, then answered : “No. You will not. You should not have seen me at all. My people will be disappointed in me. But they will understand. ”

Suddenly, I realized just what he had done for me. He had broken the rules of his society and risked my exposing them all to the world simply because he could nto stand the thought of my killing myself. I felt a rush of humility and gratitude.

He added “But it would be cruel to leave you with no proof but your memories that we ever spoke. So…. close your eyes and hold out your hand, palm up. ”

I did what I was told. I felt something small and round and smooth alight in my palm.

“Love this world, Mark. Love it unconditionally. Love it like a child loves its mother. Forgive it for all its flaws. And love the humanity in yourself, Mark. It is a truly special thing to be human. Once you love it in yourself, you will find it easy to love it in others, and thus love humanity as a whole. As I do. ”

“And please, if you ever think of harming yourself again, just remember that when things seem to be at their darkest, sometimes all you need to do is… open your eyes. ”

I opened my eyes, and knew that he was gone. I didn’t need to look to know, but I did it anyway. There was the ledge where he had stood, empty now, like nothing had happened.

But I knew it had happened. I had proof. I looked at the object in my hand, and saw that it was a sort of coin or token. One side was silver, and bore a picture of an open eye. The other was gold, and the picture was of a single feather.

I was puzzled by this gift, and then I understood. This token was pretty, but it was nothing that someone will the right skills and equipment couldn’t make. As far as anyone else knew, I might have bought this at a coin show or a carnival. Only I would know that I hadn’t. The proof was for me only.

I clutched my very own, personal proof in my hand, and looked up at the sky.

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