I suppose not much has changed. Fourteen years ago, I looked at grey, and tried to decide whether it was white or black.
The simplest description of where I was is that I was nowhere at all. I would say it was dark, except that I was not cast in shadow. I saw my hands before my eyes and my feet below them, bright and pink as ever. Even shadow has too much of a presence to be the word to describe that emptiness. It was nothing but me, severed from the world, deprived of sensation.
Eventually there was a stranger standing with me, if eventually is a valid concept in that non-place, if time passes. Years have distorted her features in my mind, but I remember the stiff bend of her slim, dark body as she stooped to my level, the way she stretched her great wings as she listened to me speak, and the long, jet-black hair draped across her shoulders, catching in her feathers. Her wings were the color of ash and smoke, but against her dark features, and the overwhelming, velvety-black nothingness surrounding us, they seemed to glow with light.
“I would like to give you something very special,” the woman said.
Angels had white feathers. Demons had black feathers. These were lessons from children’s books and old fables. All while she spoke, I watched her wings and tried to decide which kind of winged beast she was.
“If you want this gift, you must listen to me very carefully, Althea.”
I never really had a say in the matter, I think, because I fell under her spell as soon as I first heard my name.
“When someone gets hurt, how do you feel?” the angel asked.
I must have had only a limited understanding of my own emotions then, but now I have the words to describe how I felt all those years ago. My culture invited pain, even embraced it. The boys in my class were just getting to the age where they wanted to squabble amongst each other as a test of strength, emulating their warrior fathers.
“I don’t like it,” was what I said then.
“Can you tell me more?”
I wanted to be like the girls, who preferred to keep a loving camaraderie with one another. Despite my efforts, or perhaps because of them, the boys always cornered me into their fights. I needed to hurt others to avoid getting myself hurt, but I hated the way their faces broke in pain when I caused them harm.
“I wish nobody had to fight,” I said, “but we have to fight, that’s how it is.”
A cloud of doom surrounded me in those early days of my life. In a strange way, I thought my body was going to go on without me down the warrior’s path, because my spirit could not. At four years old, I was too young to know that I was wishing for death.
I think I learned to hate war from the scars on my mother’s body. If I had any memory earlier than this one, it was the visions of fissures on her back, the pinched skin from old stitches. I wanted to smooth her skin over as if it were clay, and I a sculptor of the human body.
It was the only way I could reconcile myself with my culture. “I wish I knew how to fix it when people get hurt,” I said, “so it wouldn’t be so bad when we fight.”
The woman smiled wryly at me. “You would have found this path whether or not I showed it to you, wouldn’t you?” she said to herself. “Watch me closely.”
I watched in horror as the demon lifted a knife and swept it across her arm, drawing a thin line of blood, bright red against her brown flesh. When she tried to hold the wound closer to me so that I could see it, I backed away.
Her opposite hand hovered over her cut and began to glow with a light of the same deep color as her hazel eyes. Once the light faded, she rubbed the smear of blood from her arm and showed me her unblemished skin. The wound had vanished.
Angels were beings of light. Demons were creatures of evil. Angels had white wings. Demons had black.
“Do you like fairy tales, Althea?” the grey woman asked. “Have you heard stories about elves?”
“If everything here is working as I believe it is, you’re going to meet a real elf. A young boy with a scraped elbow that you might be able to do something about,” she said with a knowing smile. “You’re going to meet a lot of elves, in fact. It’s almost time for the Celestial Event to begin.”
I found out later that, while demons did exist outside of the legends, and even the mythical elves had their own real-life equivalent, there was no such thing as an angel.
“So you would do well to wake up from this dream you’re having, little one.”