Across the plains they come. With thunderclouds, all black and gray at their backs. The earth rumbles as they step together. They are immense. Ba-rum, ba-rum, ba-rum comes the sound of their footsteps over the plain. Ba-rum comes the thunder behind them. The women weep at their approach. Beside me, a once proud warrior says in half-whispered wonder and terror, “It is as if the mountains moved, or the ocean rose up to swallow the lands. Their ranks are endless.”
Ba-rum, ba-rum, ba-rum they come. They are closer now. Less than a candlemark’s time away. There is no time for the townspeople to gather goods. There is no time for the fathers to save the relics of the Church. They flee their homes without more than the clothes on their back and whatever they can carry.
Angel remains by my side. He slips his warm hand into mine. I lift my voice to the heavens. Over the thunder of footsteps and rainclouds I sing. I sing of honor and blood and glory. I sing of a life of service. I draw my sword. The blade shines true. Angel says to me, “You cannot hope to defeat them. You too, must flee.”
This is imperfect. He’s lying in my bed, asleep. His cheek on is my pillow. His limbs are stretched out gracelessly. He takes up so much more space than I would have thought. His shirt is crumpled on my floor. It’s not moonlight that beams down upon his lovely naked form, but rather the harsh orange-yellow glow of the streetlamp, filtered through my cheap venetian blinds. In a few minutes the alarm will go off, he’ll scramble to get dressed and go.
There’s a half-finished mojito from earlier in the night sitting on the dresser. His. I slug it down. It’s warm, and the sugar has settled in the bottom of the glass. It feels thick on my tongue. There’s a bit of mint stuck between my teeth. I sigh and he stirs slightly then settles again, breathing slow and deep. I walk into the bathroom, bare my teeth at the mirror and pick out the piece of mint. I stare at myself. I think, this is what it’s like to be the dirty little secret. My alarm goes off.
He calls for me from the other room, his voice thick with sleep. I walk over, sit on the edge of the bed and turn off the alarm. He reaches for me. Leaning back into him, I can smell the alcohol on his breath and in his sweat. He nuzzles my neck. The bristle on his chin scratches me, and I want to pull away but don’t. He says, “Davis, I have to get going. I want to stay but—“
“I know,” I say, “This wasn’t supposed to happen anyway,” I pull away from him a little. My chest feels tight. I turn to him and manage to smile weakly. It’s not a convincing smile at all.
“Look, I don’t regret what happened. I like you, it’s just—“ he begins. He puts his hand on my shoulder, I shudder at the closeness of him. He takes it away.
“You don’t have to explain,” I say, “It’s not like I didn’t know you had someone waiting for you at home. It’s not like I didn’t know that this wasn’t something lasting.”
He hugs me hard and tight. I put my head on his shoulder. I tried staring at the wall to keep the tears from coming, but that never works.
He says, “I like you, Davis. I like you a lot. I wanted this to happen – I did. It’s just that everything’s so complicated for me right now. “
He draws back a little, takes my face in his hands and gazes into my eyes. His expression is earnest and sweet and boyishly concerned and I want to turn away from him, I want to avert my eyes, but he will not let me. I feel like I will break under the weight of that gaze. I choke back a sob and say, “You should go now. You’ll be late. Drew will get suspicious.”
He sighs, gets up and gets dressed. We mumble goodbyes and I let him out. Neither of us makes eye contact when he leaves. I listen to his footsteps as he descends the stairs outside. Each one sounds to me like want. This is not what I wanted. I pull the chain across the door and turn the padlock. I walk across the room to an overstuffed chair in a corner. He was sitting in that chair. I find one of his eyelashes. I balance it on the tip of my index finger, make a wish and blow.
On a notepad I write his name, Gabriel. I underline it. Beneath that I write, “I would slay giants for you.” Beneath that, “except for one”.
They are closer. Their slow and steady advance across the plains continues. Over the deep thunder of their passage I can hear a grim and ancient war song. The words are harsh and guttural and mean no more to me than the howls of wolves or the braying of donkeys, but I know well the bloodlust and dread anticipation behind them. The fall of their footsteps is as steady as the beat of war drums.
Angel says, “My love, I am afraid.”
They are close enough for us to make out distinct forms. They tower above the plains,naked and bestial casting long, disfigured shadows before them. The storm approaches as they approach, riding with them. Lightning plays about the twisted horns of the tallest of them. Teeth gnash and tusks rend the air as they stamp on and onward.
“Go then,” I say, “Take to a root cellar, or the catacombs beneath the Church. There is no need for you to stay here.”
Angel rips a strip of linen from his tunic and daubs it in pitch. He pulls an arrow from the quiver on his back and carefully wraps the cloth around its head. He grins at me, “your flint, then? I seem to have misplaced mine.”
“Go,” I implore.
“I will not leave your side,” he says.
It wasn’t the first time I met him or the second that matters. Neither of those occasions distinguished themselves as something extraordinary. He was attractive enough when I first met him, but he wasn’t something I had to have. It was after the third time, when I saw him dance, that the trouble started. It was then that I had trouble sleeping, lying awake nights in want and envy. Then that I began to write his name in notebooks and on paper napkins and mumble it aloud as if I could call him to me, as if every time I scribbled out Gabriel I was invoking a charm.
It was during the heavy March rains. All the snow last winter had left me feeling cooped up anxious, and when Lori called to ask if I wanted to go to Course with a group of friends from work one Saturday, I shrugged off my normal anti-social tendencies and agreed. Course is an un-pretentious, noisy little nightclub with cheap liquor and cheerful bartenders. They mostly play forgettable pop hits from about fifteen years ago that are dance friendly and easy to sing along to.
I’m not a good dancer, but after I’d had a couple of cheap Cosmopolitans, I eased onto the dancefloor with Lori. It was crowded and there wasn’t any room for fancy maneuvers, so we mainly pulsed in time with the music. The DJ played a song that Lori and I knew and we shouted out the words tunelessly and full of alcohol-assisted gusto.
When the song ended, the house lights went dark and the DJ announced, “And now Course is pleased to offer live entertainment on the main stage. Give it up for our boy on the fire poi!”
It went dark. There, on the narrow stage, was Gabriel, with two flaming balls alight on the ends of chains, one held in each hand. He had a look of quiet concentration. He stepped forward and began to spin. The flames whipped through the air on the ends of their chains, rising and falling inscribing graceful yellow orange arcs with each of his movements. He spun and they spun and I nearly forgot to breathe. He was illuminated by fire, he had wings of flame.
Yes,” I said aloud, my whisper swallowed by the breathing of the crowd and the sizzle of the flames, “Yes, Jeder Engel ist schrecklich.”
When he stopped spinning and the flames went out and the lights went on again, I was startled by the wetness on my cheek. I had been crying.
The thunder of their footsteps and the thunder of the rain clouds crashes against my ears, my sword rings with vibrations. The first fat raindrops have fallen. Heavy and cold, they spatter against my brow. Angel’s eyes narrow as he nocks his arrow in his bow. The flame sputters and sends up tendrils of steam in the rain, but does not go out. He takes aim at the thatched roof of a nearby cottage. It is as dry as kindling and goes up.
“There,” he says, “A signal. Even the giants should take notice of this.”
As if in response, three of them lift horns as big as oak trees to their mouths and blow a call to arms. Their approach can only mean war. They are so close that I can smell their awful, meaty stink. The ground shudders. The rain begins to fall in earnest, plastering my hair against my brow.
I run towards them, my sword reflecting the dying light of the day behind me.
We met not long after that for coffee. He was animated and cheerful that afternoon and our conversation ranged from poetry slams to string theory. He was interested in everything and I was content just to listen to his voice. In the middle of a joyous exhortation of the virtues of Radiohead, he cocked his head to the side, smiled strangely and said, “You. You’re mysterious.”
I laughed, “Not really. I just didn’t have a whole lot to add.”
He grinned, “I bet you do. I just think you like keeping secrets. That’s okay, I like solving puzzles, so maybe this will be fun for both of us.”
“Hmm,” I said, “Maybe I should work a little harder on maintaining an air of mystery. I mean, I think I’m an open book, but I wouldn’t want you get bored.”
He yawned theatrically and stretched, “See, there you go. Open book. Now talking to you is like watching one of those instructional films on microfiche. “
My face must have fallen at this because he laughed hugely and pushed me on the shoulder, “I’m just kidding! I’m fascinated by anything you have to say. Really.”
I ran my finger around the rim of my coffee cup. My coffee had gone cold. Gabriel gave me an intense stare. I bit my lower lip. He laughed. I said, “I’ve never fascinated anyone before. Makes me feel like a basilisk or some other horrible mythical creature.”
“I think,” he said, rubbing his index finger along his chin, “I think that if you were a mythological creature, you’d be something amazing. Maybe something with wings.”
“If I had wings I’d fly to Paris.”
Gabriel’s eyes brightened, “Paris is amazing! I’m going there this summer for two weeks.”
“I wish I could afford a trip to Europe,” I said wistfully.
“I wish I could, too,” he said, “But I guess that’s why I’m dating Drew.”
“Oh,” was all I said.
When the first of them fell, there was a terrible howling. Roars of rage and disbelief echoed out over the plains. We are fleas to them, fleas to be picked off and crushed between thumb and forefinger. Hands with horny claws and fat fingers like tree trunks swat at the ground where I stand covered in gore. I dance away, out of their reach, stabbing ineffectually at their knuckles with my sword.
“Feel my sting,” I cry. I am no flea. And though their skin is thick and their hides tougher than leather, my sword is keen and its blade yet able to slice through them. Its point found the heart of the first giant and his life was loosed in a torrent of blood as swift as a river.
Angel cries, “Ai,make of me an eagle who flies seven miles without tiring or sweating!”
Talons grip my shoulders securely and swift, strong wings beat the air as we soar upwards to clash with our enemies.
Last night he came over, and amid the mojitos and bad jokes and the way his hands lingered when they accidentally brushed against mine, he kissed me. It was abrupt and we both pulled away almost immediately. I sucked in a sharp breath between my teeth. He looked at my with half-lidded eyes. His lips parted. I kissed him. This time was longer and harder. His teeth crushed against my lips. He pulled back again. He looked at me with something like concern and said, “We don’t have to.”
“No", I said, "We can stop this. Maybe you should go home.”
“Maybe,” he said half-heartedly. Then, “Do you like me, Davis?”
“Do you have to ask,” I replied incredulously.
“No, I mean, really like me.”
“Do you have to ask,” I said, softer this time.
He kissed me again. I wrapped my arms around him.
“We can still stop,” he said.
I sighed, “Don’t do anything you’ll regret.”
“No,” he said and then kissed me again. He began to unbutton my shirt. I fumbled with his belt buckle.
“Do you want to—“ he began.
“Yes,” I said, “yes.”
I am weary. My blade has chipped and shattered against dense white bone leaving me with a jagged and useless shard. Angel’s transformations have taken too much out of him, and he leans against a rock bloody and breathing shallowly. And still they come, in unending ranks. Their dead litter the landscape. Corpses lie solidly on the land like foothills. The earth is dark with their blood. Legions of crows blacken the sky. They caw in eager anticipation of the feast to come.
Still the giants come, ba-rum, ba-rum. What is ten dead or twenty to an army?
I am weary. But I am not yet defeated.
The phone rings. I wait for a second ring before picking it up. I know before he announces himself that it’s Gabriel.
“Hey,” he says.
“Hi,” I say.
We sit there for a moment breathing and listening to each other breathe. My hands begin to sweat. My mouth is dry and I swallow. He begins to talk, haltingly at first, “Look, Davis, I don’t know where to begin, how to start this but—I can’t pretend that last night was just a one-time thing. A lapse in judgment. I want to see you again—“ he trails off.
“I hear a ‘but’ in that sentence,” I say, closing my eyes and biting my lip.
“But, I don’t know if that’s a good idea. I think we—I don’t know if I could ever be just your friend. And I don’t know if you would be happy with that if I could. Could you?”
I sigh, “I don’t know if I could answer that truthfully. I think I’d lie to myself.”
“What I mean is,” he says, “is that we can’t go on like this.”
“No,” I say, “we can’t.”
And there is silence on the other end of the phone.