The angels arrive in the forest at the end of November. They arrive along with the first rime. To some degree they hide away from us, but it is not hard to find them on account of their flickering lights.
The angels arrive in the forest at the end of November. They arrive along with the first rime. To some degree they hide away from us, but it is not hard to find them on account of their flickering lights. They build nests from frozen leaf litter and broken-off tree twigs. Then they lay eggs. They eat hoarfrost. At night they venture to the edge of the village and sing. Christmas carols to the drunken postman and the dogs mating at the foot of fence.
Years ago the teacher captured one. He kept it in a cage for a few days, but he did not know how it should be fed, so that it perished before Christmas. Allegedly he asked what they were looking for there, why did they encroach on our forest every autumn. The angel apparently said something like they brought us joy and lights, but it is possible the teacher did not understand it, because it was hard for the angel to speak with a dry mouth. The teacher also did not know what to give it for a drink.
It is almost certain though that it was they who stole the bicycle bell from the next-door neighbour.
It is best to hunt for angels at nightfall on account of the light, because that’s when they are the most noticeable, and at that time the males are also asleep in their nests. With lead-shot, as for rabbits. An older, well-built specimen is as big as an ordinary brown hare. Though there are fewer of the older ones around here as just about all of them are shot each winter; the teacher said they ought to be shot like dodos — taking advantage of the fact that they have little fear and do not fly a lot better than hens. I don’t know what a dodo is, but it is quite sure that Teacher had to be right. With angels, though, the fact is that it is to no avail to shoot them all each year, the next year they turn up again from somewhere. True, in ever-smaller numbers. Teacher said they will still be around for ten years or so.
Angel meat is scrumptious, on the sweet side. Only it doesn’t keep very well. On ice, however, it will last until Christmas. Its skin, if left intact, is likewise marvellous and durable; all one has to do is wash off it the glistening pollen like on moths. Once cleaned it is like pigskin. It can be used to make shoes — and work gloves.
Of an evening, when the daily duties have been done, us menfolk of the village gather together, from time to time also those striplings who are keen to learn, to show them what a man’s job is. We carefully surround the nests. Who knows how dangerous a squad of sleeping angels can be. Then, all of a sudden, on a word of command we let blast. A few expeditions like that are enough to exterminate them completely. The very last of them, provided we already have an adequate meat supply, are dynamited. On account of the fireworks. On those occasions the womenfolk gather in front of the houses, wring their hands, and look with lamentations at the angels throwing out sparks as they whizz above the forest. That is when the celebrations commence.
This year the biggest bag was mine. It came at a good time as well since we did not have a pig slaughtered. Of an evening, as we trudged home my ankles were being knocked by the bunches of angels hanging from my belt. The wife spent the whole night scrubbing the powdered glitter from my trousers. Most of them I skinned. The skin gave school satchels and little boots for the kids. A trouser belt for myself. Even that worked in the kids’ favour, when it comes down to it. Part of the skins were sewed together the way hamsters are in the town. As it was the wife moaned anyway about not having a good winter coat. Like a sieve the skin on her fingers was from all the sewing, which was no more than she deserved. Then we made a lot of bacon fat. And sausages. As well as chitterlings from the delicious giblets of young angels. The hair was used to stuff pillows. It would rustle under one’s head and it had a peculiar smell like the priest on Sundays, but it was still good to sleep on it. From whittling the little angel bones one afternoon came toy soldiers, penholders, and from the skulls tiny white bells for the Christmas tree. The finest of them was put on ice just as it was. It will be set on the festal table on a nice decorative aluminium dish with a roast apple in its mouth. Roast angel with honey cake stuffing. Up till then there was also stewed meat and fried cutlets in breadcrumbs, pâté, and meatballs. We were the envy of the neighbours. It was the easiest for me. The forest began at the bottom of our garden When they came of an evening to sing, it was under our window that they waddled. I would shoot at them from bed. They would fly up at the sound of the reports and beat their stunted wing bones with silvery clouds of feathers behind them. However, they were unable to stay in the air for long and would settle back down again. They would encircle their fellows sprawled in the snow, groused in astonishment, but never fled. That was when one could fire at them a second time. If the neighbours were not awakened by the din. Because the others did not like me to hunt on my own. On account of the equality of opportunities. Fortunately, however, an angel’s blood cannot be made out in the snow. Its colour is that of snail saliva. It leaves traces on metal or wood, but it is not at all conspicuous on snow. I hauled in the booty from the snow with a fishing rod, I did not even have to get out of bed.
Then at Christmastime I had the neatest little hocus-pocus table. Also a fir tree. On it honey cake and little bells. And candles. Along with angel hair glittering in candlelight. The room smelt like in church.
There was soup and fish, cake as well. There were angel sausages, angel goulash, angel crackling. Plus roast angel, of course. With honey cake. Because angel meat is like fish; it can also be eaten at Christmastime. Only it is a lot heavier because it is fatty. And tastes of incense. We could hardly get up from the table. The world was already swirling before my eyes when I sucked out the last little bones. The kids supported me on both sides, though they could only just crawl along. We could hardly make it to the midnight mass. I could barely stand. I had to lean against a column and concentrated on taking deep breaths. I thought I would not survive, that all at once I would just explode. Especially with the chest pounding. That made all my insides quiver. The little angels wanted to come out for a while, to flutter around a bit. They are undoubtedly attracted to the light, I thought, like moths at night, and before long now they will work their way free and fly into the flames of the candles on the altar. I tried to turn away, but there were candles on all sides. When I could stand it no more I rinsed my face with holy water. That’s what saved me from apoplexy, I believe. By the end of the mass I was quite well again, though very thirsty. Back home we brought out the domestic wine and cumin brandy, and we started drinking to the feast. But my stomach started to churn again. Perhaps I shouldn’t have mixed wine and spirits. But I drank as they came. When I felt that I could stand it no longer I went down to the bottom of the garden. To start with I made do with scrubbing my face with snow in the hope that the cold would do me good as that had worked in the church. It didn’t work, though, because the snow still smelled of angel’s blood, I could sense the odour of incense, and that brought to mind the supper, and the angels again began to get fidgety inside me. In the end I bent forward, hanging onto the fence with only one hand, clutching my belly with the other, trying to pump out all the many delicacies that were in it: the wine, the brandy, the soup, the cake and all of the many angels, the tasty morsels of meat, my tears were streaming from the retching under my closed eyes since I had shut them so as not to see the appalling process that was going through me. And then all of a sudden I felt something warm and damp on my cheeks and a soft animal exhalation moved into the all-pervading, suffocating smell of incense, and as a result my seething insides all at once grew much calmer, although they still rippled and heaved for a while. I puked a bit with eyes closed, if that was how I had begun, and more and more I felt something warm on my cheeks, it was like being stroked, so at the beginning I even thought that the angels that I had bolted down had been resurrected and were now fluttering around me and hitting me as they took to flight, but then the nausea abated and I opened my eyes. I could then see that deer were surrounding me on all sides, quite a big herd as far as I could see, with more and more appearing, one after the other, the more fortunate of them licking from my cheeks the tears that had been squeezed from me, with the rest waiting in a disciplined fashion for their turn. Because these animals like salt so, so much, that was why they had gathered, while I proffered my cheeks to them, blinked, and tried to think of the saddest things in order to carry on weeping and so that they, too, should once and for all at last have a merry Christmas.
Born in 1989 in Cluj/Kolozsvár, Romania, Ilka Papp-Zakor published her first story at the age of 13. Her stories have appeared in various literary journals. Presently she lives in Helsinki.
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