Earning His Wings
We hunted angels every summer for as long as I can remember, the last weekend of July filled with boastful talk of kills and wingspans. My brother and I camped down at the lake each year at a spot our father favored before he passed away. The angels migrated south toward the Gulf Coast in the late summer, and, without fail, we’d see several choirs wing by in formation overhead.
My brother insisted we take his son along on our last trip. I told him I didn’t think it was a good idea, that maybe he should wait a few more years. Kids are different these days, more sensitive.
“Soft,” he told me. He didn’t want his son to be soft like all the rest.
To his credit, my nephew seemed eager to go. He was no stranger to firearms, having received his first rifle two Christmases ago. He cut out pictures of angels and glued them to empty detergent bottles, practicing his marksmanship in the backyard. On the eve of our trip, I asked if he was nervous, but he put on a brave face, smiled, and said, “I’m going to bag me a big one!”
My brother said he liked his spirit, but I could sense my nephew’s hesitation as we loaded up the SUV.
We wore the black, stiff-necked camouflage of the angel hunter; my nephew’s was actually something I had worn when I was his age. He was built a little differently and didn’t fill it out all the way. There was a saggy look to his midsection where the fabric hung loose around his waist. He looked the part, though, very much a little huntsman. I could tell it made my brother proud.
After we set up camp, my brother unloaded the angel lure. He had carved it himself out of a single tree, a rough mannequin just under four feet tall. The face was painted in a thick caricature like an Egyptian death mask, wide-eyed and staring, mouth neither smile nor frown. It wore an old day camp shirt my nephew had outgrown, bright yellow with smiling children holding hands across the front. My nephew watched as we took the decoy out into the shallow end of the lake, where any angel could clearly make it out among the dull browns and greens of the cattails and the beer-bottle glassiness of the water.
My brother used an angel call. A loud, pleading whine sounded from the bell-shaped plastic. We all sat crouched at the lakeside, waiting. My nephew winced every time his father sounded the call.
There’s a reason a flock of angels is called a choir; on the morning of the second day, we heard them before we saw them, a sonorous, musical hum drifting overhead. We rushed from our camp to the lakeside to see a large formation coming up over the treeline.
That first choir passed by our position without incident, too high for our guns and disinterested in the lure floundering in the water. By the time my brother pressed the call to his lips it was too late, and the fabricated cries did nothing but fill the space once pulsating with angelsong. My nephew watched the choir with a wonder I hadn’t seen in a long time, and I tried to remember if I had done the same when I was younger.
Several choirs flew by that day, but it wasn’t until the late afternoon that we got our big break. As we heard the angels’ approach, my brother sounded his call. After only a few pitched whines, a full-grown seraph, six-winged and magnificent, broke out of formation and descended toward the decoy.
My nephew gasped, and my brother motioned for him to be silent. Our breathing slowed. I don’t think my nephew breathed much at all; crouched down beside him, I noticed his heartbeat more than any intake of breath.
The seraph touched down, barely disturbing the water. It was a male by the look of it, robed and dark-haired, its wings covered with vivid white plumage. My brother and I would never see a specimen quite like it ever again, and both of us immediately realized the importance of the moment. Our guns were at the ready.
Then, in a show of fatherly generosity, my brother nudged his son, urging him to fire. He had a clear shot; the seraph was still examining the decoy and its back was turned. My nephew looked at his father, uncertain. He took the nod that followed as a command, and squeezed the trigger, but I could tell he wasn’t really ready. His heart wasn’t in it, and he missed.
The seraph was startled by the sudden report, head jerking around with surprise. It unfolded its wings, but before it escaped I fired a well-aimed shot of my own—there was no way I’d let a trophy like that get away. Time slowed, the lake otherworldly. My shot hit its mark, catching the angel in the ribs. The silence that followed the gunshot was so intense that I could hear the angel’s soft, delicate wheeze as the last bit of air was torn from its lungs. Only after the angel fell face first in the water, and the accompanying splash, did the world return to normal.
I felt my brother slap me on the back, congratulating me. Then he playfully elbowed his son, commenting on how he almost had him, and how proud his mother would have been had he brought that angel home. “It was a fine kill,” he then said to me. I looked at the figure in the lake, its robes stained with blood and heavy with water. He was right. It was a fine kill.
My nephew’s eyes were like saucers, staring at the dead angel. My brother and I put our guns aside and waded out into the shallows to drag the carcass ashore. I would have left the boy alone, seeing as how this was the first time he had witnessed an angel killed, but my brother coaxed him into the water anyway, asking him to collect the decoy. He quietly obeyed.
We made the formal measurements: the largest set of wings made an impressive 18-foot wingspan, tip to tip. It was a trophy that would make any hunter proud. My brother admitted he hadn’t seen one quite so nice in a long time.
We were careful to fold the wings and bind them close to the body before tying the carcass to the roof of the SUV. My nephew stayed in the back seat, and didn’t say a word on the entire trip back. He continued his silence even after we arrived back home. He didn’t bother putting on a brave face. Not anymore.
He didn’t start crying until later, when he found me in the garage cutting away the wings from the angel’s body.