Fantasy Horror Angels magics

When an Angel Molts

By H.L. Fullerton
Dec 31, 2020 · 3,215 words · 12 minutes

Photo by Bryson Hammer via Unsplash.

From the author: Mother has lots of rules. One of them is to tell no one about the angel she keeps chained in the basement.

We keep the angel in the basement.  It's my job to collect the feathers.  Some Mother sells; others she uses in her magics; I'm not allowed to keep any.  I'm not allowed to leave the house either, unless Mother takes me.  I think she's afraid I'll tell someone about the angel and they'll take him away.  Or maybe she's afraid I won't come back and she'll have to train a new drudge.  You can never be sure with Mother.

She doesn't share her secrets.  Mother says, "Secrets are like diamonds.  You have to mine for them and when you find them, you keep them or sell them, but you never give them away.  Especially not to ungrateful daughters who don't finish their chores."  Mother is a very good miner.  She can even unearth my thoughts.  That's how she found me when I ran away. 

After she dragged me home, Mother made my leash.  She tethers me to the iron ring above my bedboard.  When it's chore time, she takes the lead off and I just wear my collar.  The angel has a leash, too, but his is more shackle and chain.  He never gets to leave his room.

Neither of us is going anywhere.  Mother binds the things she likes best.   

At first sight, I thought Mother had captured the sky.  Or stolen it.  The angel's body was cloud white with veins of gray; his wings, shades of blue.  Then I saw his face.  Cheeks like glaciers, pupil-less eyes flash blue then gray like tiny storm clouds, a sharp, hooked nose more beak than human, and, below, two angry slashes of blood-red lip. 

Mother pushed me into the cell and said, "Bring me feathers."

The angel screeched as I stumbled about the room, snatching fallen feathers from the floor.  And still I found it hard to take my gaze from his.  Even angry, he was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.

I crouched and ducked beneath flapping wings, like how I harvest priests' fingers in bat-filled catacombs--Mother always sends me into the darkness first because I am her eyes and ears. 

"To your right," Mother called and I turned in that direction.   Whack!  The angel's wing caught me.  Bones cracked and I fell.  The angel lunged, trying to tear my face, but its chain was too short.  I crawled to the door and begged for Mother to let me out. 

Mother said, "You dropped some feathers."  She wouldn't open the door until I recollected them.  She was mad because she heard my angel-thoughts.  Before today, she was the most beautiful thing in my world.  "Still think it pretty?" she said, taking the feathers from me.  "Next time it will be your neck."

I am better at feather-collecting now.

The day the angel lets me pet him, I almost cry.  His feathers are so soft, so soft.  I brush my fingers over them, catching the loose ones and tucking them away for Mother. 

I can't believe he's allowing my touch.  I keep glancing at his face, but he keeps his eyes averted.  My hands shake.  The more I try to steady them, the more they tremble.  His wing moves beneath my touch.

"Does it hurt?" I ask.  Even my voice shakes.

He cocks his head and stares at me.  His eyes like faceted gems, beautiful and hard.

"I'll stop if it does." 

The angel turns his head and acts like I don't exist.  He reminds me so much of Mother then.

I don't know if angels can talk.  Ours doesn't.  Sometimes I dream of growing wings and flying into the sun.  I never make it.  Even in dreams, Mother's leash pulls me back.  And I am careful not to think too loud about leaving--Mother might be listening.

Once I asked Mother if angels eat and she slapped me.  "It isn't a pet," she said and I didn't get food that night.  I worry our angel will starve.  He's been here three, maybe four, months.  His feathers aren't as shiny; his eyes are filmy; he doesn't flap and screech as much.  He no longer smells like fog and ozone.  If the angel dies, I will be alone again with Mother.  I will miss the silky press of feathers against my skin.  The way his vanes tickle.  The soft wispiness of his tightly-curled down.  The jerky tilt of his head and his quizzical eyes, so blue and deep. 

Mother is in her stillroom, making potions.  Soon it will be time to collect the feathers.  I shadow my thoughts, cloaking them to hide my secrets.  I stare out my window at the sky and think TIRED.  (Picture the angel soaring in the clouds, disappearing into blueness.  His coloration would make him near invisible.)  The sun pricks my eyes and they water.  I think of the heat of the sun on my (his) face.

I sit up suddenly, think of the dust on the stairs I must sweep.  The clothes in the hamper that need cleaning.  I wonder if there is enough soap (I bet the angel misses the sun's light) to wash them.  (Spell jars.)  We are low on furniture polish; I should make more.  (My collar feels tight.)  I head downstairs to the kitchen and begin washing dishes.  I dry the plates, the cups, the spell jars and put them away.  (One large jar finds its way into my pocket.  I hardly notice it.)  I sweep the stairs and make furniture polish.  I wash the clothes.  THERE IS ENOUGH SOAP.  I take my clean aprons to my room.  I put them away (Open my window.)  I straighten the quilt on my bed (stick the uncapped jar out into the light).  I hum (catch the sun in my jar) while I work.  MUST GET FEATHERS SOON.

I hear Mother at the bottom of the stairs, calling me.  TIME FOR THE ANGEL.  I (quickly screw the cap on the jar, trapping the fresh air inside, shut the window, hurry) hurry down into the basement. 

When I'm sure Mother isn't looking, I pull out the jar--it squirms in my hands like a living thing--and hold it towards the angel.  He shifts away, but I shush him and step closer.  "For you," I whisper and uncap the jar.

His nose twitches, he leans closer to the jar, sniffing.  My magic worked.  I can see the rays shining from the glass, bathing his face.  He closes his eyes and basks.  Too soon, it's all gone.  "I'll bring more when I can."

I think, maybe, angels drink sunlight.

Yesterday Mother searched my room and smashed all the spell jars I'd hidden.  She leashed me to the ring above my bed, muttering incantations and curses the whole time.

"Think I don't know about your feeding the angel?  I know everything you think."

(Except Mother is a liar.  She doesn't know about my feather.)  I cried because that is what Mother wanted.  "I had to feed him," I blubbered.  "If he dies, we won't have any more feathers.  Please, please let me go."  I had to beg all night, but by morning she freed me to clean the house.  And to collect the feathers.

I am lucky angels hate the smell of demons or Mother would have traded me to them again as my punishment.  People sometimes come to see Mother when they think demons are tormenting them.  These people are fools.  Demons may be invisible, but they are foul-smelling, nattering things.  If a demon is in bed with you, you know it.  Good thing Mother covets feathers more than demon spunk.

I will miss the angel when I go.  Since Mother is with a customer, I don't have to be as careful with my thoughts.  She's too busy making magic to worry about me, and I've been very good (ever since I found the feather) lately. 

When Mother finishes with her customer (next goes to market), I will (escape) pluck three long feathers from the angel's hide to keep her happy.  Mother doesn't like the angel is shedding less and less.  She stares at him and purses her mouth and shakes her head real slow like--Mother is deciding what to do with his body.

It makes me sad.

He doesn't flinch when I yank out Mother's feathers, but it must hurt.  I pulled three hairs from my head and that stung.  And his quills are so much thicker.  He doesn't bleed, which annoys Mother.  She says she can do great things with angel blood, if only he would shed some.  I cut myself with Mother's athame and willed myself not to bleed, but my veins didn't listen.  Mother got angry about the mess. 

Well, that's what she said, but I could tell she was more mad about not knowing that's what I intended to do.  Mother hasn't realized that her thought-mining is starting to work both ways. 

I dream of dead angels and it heartens Mother. 

My feather.  I hadn't planned to steal one, but when I undressed and found a pin feather nestled between my breasts, I tamped down that spark of hope like Mother extinguishing the flame in a fire moth's eyes.  I thought about the blisters on my hands (while my fingers caught the tiny, curled wisp) and how (easily it will slice through Mother's magics)tired I was.

I picked at the puffed skin on my thumb (pricked it with the tiny shaft) until it oozed (and hid the wisp in my pillow amongst the goose feathers).  Then I curled up (like a feather, like a feather) and rested my head on its softness.

I felt it shift beneath my cheek, settling into the down, secreting itself, and (forget, forget) forgot about it.

"Go on," Mother says.  "Say goodbye to the angel.  I know you want to."

I stare at my porridge and fill my head with thoughts of sky-bright wings and cloud-colored skin.  Once cumulous white, his skin is now rainy day gray.  I picture him decomposing, (flying free, sunlight caressing his face) wings spread, bald patches showing scaly skin. 

Mother laughs.  "You can't hide from me."

I think, I love him more than you, and fight not to smile when her lips tighten. 

I am an ungrateful daughter--her thought or mine, I'm not sure.

As I open the angel's cell, I am smiling.  Until I think of the coming goodbye.  Will he understand?  He never responds to my words, only rarely acknowledging my touch, but then I am his captor.  I WILL MISS HIM WHEN HE'S (I'm) GONE.  I open the door and shriek.

He is tearing mouthfuls of feathers from his already ravaged wings and spitting them on the floor.  A pile big enough to stuff a pillow covers his feet.  His eyes, more alien than usual, glow with feverish light.

I rush in and try to stop him, pull his head away.  "Your wings," I say.  "Your beautiful wings.  Stop, stop, please."

He shakes me free, his madness giving him strength, and continues plucking.

Mother pulls me from the room, a cloud of feathers enveloping us both.  She makes me strip to ensure she gets every last feather. 

I laugh because she is too late, too late, and my screeching echoes the angel shredding himself to pieces.

"I suppose I will have to sell it sooner than I expected," Mother says, shooing me out of her stillroom.  "I don't suppose you got any of its blood on you?"

But no, it’s all my own. 

Mother is going to Gackles to find someone willing to buy an angel.  I think (Today is the day.) disappointing thoughts as she chains me to my wall.

"It's your fault," she says, still angry about the angel eating its feathers.  They made her magics potent and now she will have to use inferior substitutes.  "You spoiled it.  You're lucky I don't sell you as well."  An idle threat; Mother has no intention of losing me.  Her thoughts are so clear now.

"No!" I say because she expects it and I don't want to raise her suspicions.  Gackles is the furthest Mother ever goes from home.  She took me there once--before I ran away and she brought me back.  Gackles is on the cusp of decency, where dark and light mingle.  Angels patrol not a block away.  It takes twenty minutes to get there.  That's how long I have to escape.  Maybe, when I'm amongst decent folk, I'll confess about the angel and they'll come and free him.  But most likely, Mother will have disposed of him by then and they'll blame me for his disappearance.

"I thought if he liked you, he would bleed for you.  But now...when I get back from Gackles, the demons can have you."

Mother smiles at me and leaves.  I keep my mind blank.  Then I fear that will be suspicious and picture terrifying things.  Her mind tugs at mine.  I feel her energy move down the street.  (Twenty minutes, twenty minutes.)

I think of my pillow (the hidden feather) and worry (what if I can't get the feather to work?) about what will happen to the angel (me).

Mother is almost at Gackles.  Her delight sizzles into my brain; she expects to make a good deal on the angel.  My fingers--I pay them no mind--worm their way into the goose down and sort through the feathers, feeling for a particular softness.  (Found it.)

I open my palm and, keeping my thoughts quiet, look at my treasure.  It is smaller than I remember and I don't have to feign disappointment.  I only have one chance.  If I mess this up, Mother will ensure I never get another. 

Maybe I shouldn't go.

Holding that thought in my head, I saw through the ring with the angel's pin feather.  Both my collar and leash are spelled; breaking either will alert Mother.  So will leaving the house.  I must time these perfectly or she will catch me before I reach the light lands. 

The feather is sharp, but the ring is thick.  My fingers are bloody from pinching the tiny shaft.  I make the final cut and the feather's shaft splits in two. 

I slip my leash from the ring and dash down the stairs.  The broken feather clutched in my hand will make messy work of the collar.  Trying to get it off, I may very well slice my own throat.  But if I leave the collar on, Mother will use it to track me. 

I feel a tingling at the back of my neck: Mother.  She's coming back.  She knows something's wrong.

At our home's threshold, I pause.  I could leave wearing the collar, cut as I run.  If Mother guesses my route, it makes little difference whether I remove the collar now or before I reach the light.  We both know where I'm headed.  Whoever is faster wins.  But Mother has magics to call upon to aid her speed that I do not.  Despite my planning, I've already failed.  Unless...

I steal another feather, a stronger feather.  If the angel has any left.  The angel!

I never said goodbye.  I hurry down the basement steps and fling open the cell door.  He is featherless.  My eyes scan the room and it, too, is clean of feathers.  I sob and Angel lifts his head from his chest.

Those blue gem eyes wound me.

Dots of blood appear on his hide, like pin pricks.  He is bleeding for me.

My hands clench into fists and his last feather stabs my palm.  If I leave him to Mother, I'm as bad as her.  Worse, maybe--because I know what he'll suffer in my stead.

"Can you run?" I say.

Angel looks at me, head cocked.

I rush to his leg chain and begin sawing.  "You have five minutes.  Turn left when you leave the house."

I can't tell if he understands me.  I picture my route in my head and hope he can mine my thoughts.  His chain is thicker than my ring.  Time is being eaten up.

"Run three blocks, then turn right."  Mother is coming. 

"Fly, if you can."  His wings, his poor wings.  They'll never work. 

"Go one more block and turn left.  You should be able find help there."  I can't feel my fingers any more.  I'm bleeding all over him. 

"You need to be fast.  She's coming back and if she catches you, it'll be worse.  Much worse.  Do you understand?"

He jerks and the chain snaps.  Something pops, black flashes streak about the room.  A spell.  Mother bespelled his chain.  "Go!"  I scream.  "Go!"

I pull at him, uncertain if he can support himself after so long in captivity.  He is heavy and nearly topples us.  I heave him up the stairs.  His legs start to work, but not soon enough, I fear.  Mother is running.  She is close.  Six blocks away.  I can hear her chanting in my head.

Angel flings open the front door and I shove him through.  Gloomy sunlight coats his skin.  How much worse he looks in the light of day.  I hold in my mind the image from when I first saw him.  He was magnificent then.  Now on the patchy lawn in front of our wicked house, he looks three-quarters dead.

"Call your friends if you can."

He doesn't move.

"Run."  I make shooing motions with my hands.  Blood flicks over him.  "She's almost here.  You have to leave."

The collar at my neck starts to burn.  One of us will be free, I tell myself, and what do I know of freedom, I've only ever dreamt of it.  He can't live without it--and Mother won't be able to track him.  If only he'd leave. 

He beckons me to join him.  "I can't come with you.  She'll find me.  She always finds me."

He spreads his wings and lifts his head to the heavens.  My vision blurs; I collapse against the doorframe. 

"Fly," I whisper.  "Fly."  But without feathers, he can't.

Then: his skin changes color.  No, his feathers grow back.  Shades of blue and white, patches of dove gray.  More beautiful than ever.  His summer eyes lock with mine and he shoots up into the sky like a reverse lightning bolt. 

I follow his flight until the sun blinds me and Mother blindsides me.  Her fists are so angry, she will make me pay in blood and pain, but I lock the image of my angel, wings spread, rising into heavens, in my mind and nothing can break through it.  Not even Mother, no matter how hard she tries. 

Through swollen lids, I imagine Angel standing, wings folded, in front of me.  I wish I told you how sorry I am.

You just did, his image says.

For real, I wish I could apologize for real.  I close my eyes one last time.  I hear the rustle of feathers and feel air rushing past my skin.  I pretend I am raised into the bright light of the heavens.  I turn my head and welcome the night. 

Mother always sends me first into the darkness--I am her eyes and ears.  But this time I'll search for patches of gray and eyes of blue and clouds like a summer's day.