It’s Uncle Pete’s funeral today, so he puts on his good brown suit with the brass buttons, and we all set out for the cemetery before the sun is up, because we don’t want to get too hot in our good clothes on our way there. Uncle Pete and Pa walk in front, me and Ma follow. When we get there, Uncle Pete’s grave is waiting, shallow and open, and the plaque has already been engraved with his name. Under it, there’s his date of birth and today’s date, even though we don’t know how long it’ll take him to really die.
A fall of angels is crowding around the grave, cooing softly at the hole in the ground. I try not to listen to what they’re saying because I know Pa doesn’t like it. He shoos them away, says “filthy bastards—if only I had my rifle” and spits.
Uncle Pete hugs each of us before he goes into his grave, but he hugs me the longest. “Remember me, okay?” he says. “And get a good job when you’re grown, don’t end up like your silly Pete.” I want to say he’s not silly, but I like that he’s my Pete, and anyway there’s something stuck in my throat and so I don’t say a thing.
• • • •
Back home, Pa grabs himself a beer from the fridge and curses when he finds it “warm as piss” because the fuse tripped again while we were gone and the fridge stopped working. He yells for Ma to go and fix it, but I tell him she’s already left for work, so it’s going to be warm beer for him until she gets back.
He slumps into his armchair with his beer. I make my body small small small and slide in the armchair next to him and take his arm and wrap it around my shoulder. I pretend he put it there himself and nestle my head against his chest and breathe in his Pa smell. He doesn’t mind. I know that because he doesn’t tell me to go away and he simply sips his beer over my head.
“Pa?” I ask, and he grunts. “Why did Uncle Pete have to die?”
He takes another sip. “Because his time was up, kid, and he couldn’t buy anymore.”
“Can you buy more?”
He unwraps his arm from around my shoulders and the space between him and the armrest gets smaller. “Pete was older than me,” he says, rubbing the stubble on his chin. “I still got time.”
Uncle Pete didn’t look much older than Pa to me. And if Uncle Pete couldn’t buy any more time because he’d lost his job, how will Pa?
“How much older?”
Pa sinks deeper into the armchair, squeezing me out. There’s no space left for me. “Go on now,” he says, his eyes glassy. “Go on and play outside.”
There’s no point arguing, so I leave the house and go to the back yard and wait for the angels to gather. I never play with them in the front yard because Pa might come out and shoot them and then sell them to the government man down the road. It’s only pennies for a dozen, he says, but they add up to beer money if you keep at it.
I take the piece of stale bread the priest handed out at the funeral and I scatter the crumbs around my feet, waiting for the angels to descend, and they do, two sets of wings to each flapping mightily, raising a ruckus. There is a fine for feeding angels—the government man says it gives them more time to make angelbabies if they don’t have to look for food all the time—but out here there’s no one to catch me, so I don’t care.
I save a few crumbs that I place on my palm and open it, a peace offering. “I’m sorry Pa kills your kind,” I tell them so that they know I mean no harm. Two small ones come and sit on my arm, peck at the crumbs and look at me with their large, hungry eyes. “I’m so sorry,” I say again, and they don’t say it’s all right, but they do speak to me of the sky, of heaven, and of the places people go when they die.
• • • •
Pa and I go back to Uncle Pete’s grave the next day. An angel with grey and brown wings is sitting on his tombstone, but it frowns and flies away when it sees Pa. I find a trinket left on the fresh soil we packed on top of Uncle Pete’s coffin, a gleaming little thing. Angels are like magpies, thieves of the shiny. Pa picks it up and throws it away in disgust.
He taps his foot on the ground.
“Not dead yet, brother?” he asks of the grave.
“Not yet, brother, not yet,” Uncle Pete replies. His voice comes out muffled from all the soil.
Pa pokes me in the ribs. “Talk to your uncle, kid, what are you waiting for?” Then he goes to the bar across the street for a quick drink.
I kneel on the grave and put my ear to the ground so I can hear my Pete better and he can hear me better as well, but I find that I don’t know what to ask of someone who’s dying.
“Is it dark in the grave?” I ask after a moment.
“Yes,” he says.
“Are you scared?”
He doesn’t reply, and I don’t know if it’s because I whispered too much but I don’t want to ask again, so instead I say, “There are angels on your grave. They bring you gifts. They told me you’ll go to heaven.”
Uncle Pete takes a long time to speak and I think he won’t say anything else but then he does. “That’s nice of them, isn’t it?” he says and then he goes silent again for a long time.
Then Pa comes back and sits on the grave next to me and talks to Uncle Pete about his bad back and the hard time Ma is giving him and then he tears up a little and talks about the time when they were children, hunting angels together with slings after they first fell, before the government issued rifles for everyone to get rid of the pests.
“You were always so much better at this than me, little brother,” Uncle Pete says. His voice sounds more distant now, as if his coffin is sinking further and further into the earth. But I don’t think that’s what is happening.
“Okay, say goodbye to your uncle now, let him rest,” Pa says, standing up, so I stand up too and dust off the soil from my bare knees and say “Goodbye, Uncle Pete.”
“Goodbye, sweetheart. Goodbye, brother. Don’t get yourself in too much trouble, okay?”
• • • •
At night, in bed, I imagine Uncle Pete in his dark grave. I imagine him lying on his back, his arms by his sides, but then I think he can’t move much in there and my chest feels heavy and hot. He definitely can’t sit up and he probably can’t even turn on his side. I remember that time when he got a day off work—that was before Pa needed so much rescuing and Uncle Pete still had his job—and took me to the river in the woods and we swam and then sat at its silty bank and angels sang above us like trumpets.
I turn on my side, as if to prove I can, but I can’t fall asleep, so I get out of bed and make my way to the kitchen.
The house smells like stale beer. Pa is passed out on the couch, snoring, so I walk out into the cold night. My feet are bare, but I don’t mind. There’s no moon in the sky, so everything is dark.
I think I see shapes moving in the trees above.
“Angels, are you there?” I whisper. But none answer.
• • • •
In the morning, Pa goes out to hunt and Ma is getting ready for work. I linger near the kitchen door, trying to stay out of her way as she tidies. There are dirty dishes piled up in the sink. When she fills the tub to do the washing up, I say, “I can do it,” and she turns around and looks at me, with surprise or something else, I can’t tell. “All right,” she says. “I’ll be late today so you and your father are on your own for dinner, okay?” This means we’ll have toast and tea for dinner again, but that’s okay. I can save the crusts for the angels.
I do the dishes and let them dry on the tray and then change my wet top and go to the cemetery to visit Uncle Pete. The grey-brown angel is sitting on his tombstone again, but this time it doesn’t fly away.
I stand on top of the grave and stomp on the soil the way Pa did.
“Are you there, Uncle Pete?” I ask. I know that’s not really what I mean, but I can’t bring myself to ask “Are you still alive?”
“Still here, sweetheart,” he says. “I’m glad to hear your voice.”
I notice a small brass bell at the bottom of the tombstone. I pick it up and shake it and it sounds like a door opening and closing.
“What is this sound?” Uncle Pete asks.
“The angels brought you another gift.” I shake the bell again. The angel looks at me and says nothing. I think it has kind eyes, but I don’t know if angels can be kind. “Why do they bring you gifts?”
“I saved one of them, once, when your Pa and I were out hunting. They can be good to you, if you’re good to them.”
“Good how?” I ask.
“I knew someone they liked when I was young. He broke his back saving a young one from a trap. The angels offered him a golden ring that bought him two whole years when he couldn’t work.”
“But they only bring you useless trinkets and shiny things.”
“They can’t tell the difference, sweetheart,” Uncle Pete says, “but they do their best.” He pauses and I think I hear him sigh, and I wonder how much air there is still left in his coffin. We packed the soil loosely on top of it and left a tiny gap between the shell of the coffin and the lid, but now I wonder if we should have nailed it tight, even though Pa said that might be murder and we would all go to prison and also to hell.
“How’s your father?” Uncle Pete asks.
I shrug, but then I realize he can’t see me, so I say “He’s out a lot. We don’t see much of him.”
“He’s lonely too, you know,” Uncle Pete says.
The angel coos, as if agreeing.
When I leave, it follows me all the way home. It perches on the tree outside our front door, and I have this feeling like a hole through my belly, where my navel is. “Is this what it felt like, when you fell?” I ask the angel, but it only looks at me with its large, human eyes, and it doesn’t even speak of sky.
• • • •
Pa is not yet home when Ma comes back from work. She spent all day cleaning gutters of feathers and angel droppings, and yet she sits in the armchair, waiting for Pa to come back, her head drooping forward every minute or so. There’s still angel down caught in her hair.
He comes home hours later, carrying two bunches of dead angels hanging upside down, little talons tied together with string, wings limp, faces calm, eyes open. Pa reeks of alcohol, I can smell it all the way from the back of the kitchen.
Ma tears into him before he even has a chance to put down his prey. She says his brother is not even dead yet and he’s already back to his old habits and the next time he finds himself in jail there will be no one left to bail him out. He screams at her to get off his back and that he’s just lost his brother and she should respect his mourning, and she says it was his fault his brother is dead because he’s the reason he lost his job and that he’s “a leech that will sap the life out of all of us.”
Then she turns to me and says my father is going to get himself a grave soon and that he doesn’t even care enough for me to do anything about it and even the pennies he earns from shooting angels he wastes on drink. She goes to the bathroom and slams the door behind her and Pa throws down the angel corpses and walks out of the house and I know we won’t see him again until morning.
I look at the angels crumpled on the floor, worried I’ll see the grey-brown one among them, but I don’t, even though they all look more alike when they’re dead than when they’re alive.
I lie on the floor and put my head next to them. They smell like baby powder mixed with dust. I run my fingers over their wings, the soft feathers of their bodies. I don’t want to touch the skin on their faces, but I swallow hard and I do, I close all of their eyes, one by one, so that they look more asleep than dead. When I reach for the last one, its eyelids flutter and it looks at me, giving me a fright.
It’s still alive.
“It’s okay,” I whisper, “you’re okay.”
I release it from the bunch and cradle it into my arms. Its body is shivering, its heart beating very very fast under the soft curve of its chest. There is blood under one of its top wings, but the pellet lodged there is easy to remove with some squeezing and a knife.
It looks stunned more than hurt. Pa must have forgotten to wring its neck after he shot it. I stand up and take it outside, its head draped over my arm, looking at its dead kin on the floor.
In the back yard, I kiss the wound until it heals. A fall of angels gathers in the trees, whispering, mourning. I release the angel and it flies up to join them.
“Can you give me something in return to save my Pete?” I ask them and they coo before they fly away.
• • • •
I leave for the cemetery as soon as dawn breaks and I lie on Uncle Pete’s grave. He’s too tired to talk, so I just stay there listening to him breathe, waiting for the angels to deliver their gift.
I hear their wings flapping before I see them. They come one at a time or two, dropping trinkets on the grave—a piece of glass, a nest of wire, a pair of copper earrings. “No golden ring yet, Uncle Pete,” I tell him every hour, “hang on,” and one time I think he replies “It’ll be all right, sweetheart, let me be,” but hours pass and then it’s night and there’s a small heap of shiny useless things at my feet, but I cannot hear my uncle’s breath anymore, and he doesn’t answer when I ask if he’s still there.
Something hot climbs in my throat and I want to cry or yell or both and I look up at the trees, at the fall of angels that stare at the junk they’ve spent all day bringing me—the grey-brown one is there too, looking pleased, cooing stupidly at me.
• • • •
When I get back home, the bunch of dead angels is no longer there, but there’s a heap of copper pennies on the kitchen table. There’s no one else in the house so I go out and sit on the steps at the front porch. The angel with the grey-brown wings descends and stands on the ground a few feet away. It looks at me with its stupid eyes.
Bile rises to my mouth. I don’t want to be looked at by an angel tonight.
“Go away!” I yell, but it just sits there, silent.
I pick up a rock and throw it at the angel. I miss.
The angel takes an uncertain step away from me and blinks, and then it makes a noise like something breaking and it flies away.
It’s not dark yet, but I go to bed anyway and fall asleep on my side and dream of black, black soil.
• • • •
My Pa wakes me up shaking my shoulder gently. It’s still night outside.
“Come on,” he says. “Time to go.”
“Uncle Pete is dead,” I tell him.
“I know,” he says. “Let’s go.”
“Where are we going?”
We walk to the woods and he holds my hand the entire way there. We arrive when the sun is rising over the mountain, its light splintering through the canopy. Then my Pa hands me a child-sized rifle and shows me how to prop it against my shoulder. He points at a thicket overhead and says there’s a fall of angels there. He says I can keep all the pennies we earn today. He says I’ll need to learn how to shoot them now that he’ll be going out every day, looking for a job.
I hold my breath and listen to the rustling of leaves and the whispers of angels talking about the sound that feathers make when they fall.
Then I press my finger against the trigger, and I fire, and then I can hear nothing at all.