GABRIEL MANNED HIS PERCH above creation. His realm was a cathedral of hydrogen and dust. Below his crystalline platform, the stars lived and died. In the cold of the distant Andromeda galaxy, a red giant swelled as stores of iron collected in its heart. Some light-years beyond, suspended against the fabric of space, a white dwarf flared and contracted, its electrons overlapping like riled animals in a sealed enclosure. The liquid-gold surface of Gabriel’s body reflected the cosmos like a mail of dark jewelry. The scatterings of a supernova gleamed across his chest. And he watched. And he waited.
In time, the call came.
It began with a web of light. Gabriel turned his head, almost imperceptibly, toward the great expanse above him. The fractured beams spasmed along the vault; if there had been sound in his realm, they would have crackled. The twin bows of his wings swung back. Empyrean energy coiled in his arm. And the orbs of his golden eyes, smooth and without pupils, filled entirely with reflected images of infinity.
And then it was over.
Dust blew across space. Gas roiled in the vast blackness. The stars shined below.
He rose from his crouch, lifting his horn. He dove from the perch. His lithe wings curved around his form, and the arrow of his body pierced the nebulae. Splashes of violet plasma rushed by as he punched soundlessly through the galaxies.
Gabriel fell to earth.
He landed atop a mountain of stardust. The collection of motes around his feet sloped away ahead of him and bled into the cityscape. He observed. The atoms before him were held together in foreign patterns. Everything seemed to vibrate in a new assemblage. A distant palace had been erected on the flatland; a watchtower stood alongside it. Together, they blocked the setting sun. All around, elements had been reshaped and reconstituted. He looked out at a profound crease in the dirt that formed a gulf at one end of the crowded plaza. Its depths were made darker without the intercepted light.
Gabriel’s wings rustled; he soared toward the Valley of Elah.
A cluster of children huddled near the crease. They looked down at their feet and cheered the legions of black ants rising from unseen tunnels in the dirt. They rose to challenge a mighty scorpion lashing its tail. They streamed upward, from the earth itself, flooding the gaps in the scorpion’s organic armor. The children bounced on their toes, suppressing their smiles. Soon, the scorpion disappeared beneath the writhing mass of dark bodies. Then a shadow spread over the huddle.
Behind the children, an armed sentry stood against the crimson twilight. He was a pair of eyes floating in a brass helmet, a corded arm grasping a spear. His presence stopped the cheers in their throats, and the children scattered like stellar remnants.
Their bare soles beat dust into the air. They dispersed into a massive queue that extended from the mouth of the plaza to the palace portico. The people in line gripped their mud-caked tunics and cradled their agitated babes. They loitered there, their sweat evaporating, as the watchtower extinguished the last glint of daylight from their eyes.
At the head of the long, winding chain of citizens, a boy and his father stepped forward. They approached the row of sentries standing before the colonnade. Above the aligned helmets, over the tips of the brandished spears, King Juron approached to address the father and son.
“Announce yourselves,” said the king. “And quickly.”
“I am called Jesse, your highness,” said the father, “of Bethlehem.” He glanced back at his son. “My youngest boy plays a harp.”
King Juron raised his palm to the area where his chin merged with his neck. He stroked his powdered flesh, the meat of his digits bulging over the gemstones in his rings.
“A song, my queen?” he said.
He turned from Jesse to a girl seated behind him in the portico. She held a baby in her arms. The girl was thin, almost frail, but her hair was dark and robust; it flowed like wine from a cask. Her nose was trim, her eyes large and symmetrical. And the face of her child mirrored hers. They shared a birthmark on their foreheads, near the hairline. The mother’s mark was the size of a shekel; the daughter’s was a brownish fleck.
“We will hear your song, boy,” said the king. “Give us your name, then entertain my queen for the chance to win your house a week without labor.”
The young boy shuffled forward. “My name is David, your highness.” He glanced at his father. “And this is my song.”
As David raised the harp, a shriek erupted in the distance, back near the mouth of the plaza.
“Stop,” said the king, rumbling down the portico steps. He sucked the air. “Who dares interrupt my entertainment?”
At once sentries marched away, single file, toward the source of the disturbance.
Jesse reappeared at his son’s side and bowed to the king. “Your highness, I trust this insult won’t affect my family’s chances for this week’s easement.”
King Juron turned his eyes on Jesse of Bethlehem. “Hold your tongue, peasant, or I’ll have it cut and dried and decorated to be my daughter’s newest plaything.”
The king brushed past them. Then he stopped. The dust he had roused settled around his sandals. He looked beyond the messy line of citizens. He saw that his sentries were trailing a golden figure, wings alight. The people kneeled in its wake. Men and women dropped to their weary knees and bowed as it flashed past them.
Gabriel stood before the king.
“King Juron of Israel,” he said, “do not be afraid. For I am Gabriel the Metatron, and I come bearing a message from on high.”
The node of the king’s chin bobbed in its field of fat. His eyes filled with twin reflections of gold. Then he found his voice, and his anger. “Where is my palisade of champions?”
The sentries activated. They formed a row, shoulder armor to shoulder armor, between the king and the messenger, staking the blunt ends of their spears into the dirt.
“You, creature, know my name and my status,” said the king, “and still you interrupt this ceremony. Explain yourself, or else fall by the blades of my army.”
“There is no need to fear,” said Gabriel. “I come—”
“I have no fear,” said the king, shoving the closest sentry aside. “I am King Juron the Great. Recognize me as ruler of this land and the next. I do not sleep. I do not bleed. And I most certainly do not succumb to fear.”
A number of citizens began to rise from their knees.
The spears thrust forward, and the sentries ringed Gabriel’s neck with their dozen points. But Gabriel’s eyes did not leave the king.
“I am here to deliver a message,” he said. “Then I shall take my leave of this place.”
The king said nothing.
“The wall,” said Gabriel, and his eyes swept the plaza, landing on a construction site just beyond the Valley of Elah where a trail of large stones cut into precise shapes rested on the dirt. “The wall you are erecting to divide this land.”
Branched blood vessels flared in the whites of King Juron’s eyes. Those in the queue who had not risen immediately now stood at attention.
“Your wall, King Juron,” said Gabriel. “Dismantle it.”
King Juron exhaled sharply to end the silence. Then he threw back his head and laughed. “What is this? Where does this joke of a message come from?”
“Where do you think?” said Gabriel.
The king shook his head. “Enough. Look at this disrespect.” He turned from Gabriel and approached his people. “This creature comes to our land uninvited, interrupts our court. This is why we build a wall. This is why we do it together, as a community. This creature is no man. Look at it.”
King Juron loped back to the spot where his sentries held Gabriel. He cleared his sinuses and spat at the golden feet. “Goliath, make an example of this alien.”
One of the spearheads retracted. The largest of the sentries gestured for the others to stand down. Goliath advanced, and his dim shadow fell over Gabriel’s body. He stood six cubits and a span, and a wild, black beard grew thickly over his chinstrap.
Goliath’s hands opened like fleshy vices. He took hold of Gabriel’s wing and, with a jerk and a crack, the ulna snapped.
Gabriel plummeted like a stone.
“Now the other one,” said the king.
Goliath’s hands opened again, and a second snap echoed.
“You see how I defend you against unwelcome invaders,” said the king in a soaring voice. “They will come dressed in gold. They will come with messages imploring us to lower our defenses.” He pointed toward the portico, redirecting the crowd’s eyes. “I will take our queen and our princess now, and we will retire to the safety of the palace. And all of you will report to the construction site tomorrow, so that we may build this wall to heaven.”
The king’s men swarmed Gabriel. They tore the horn from his grip. They stripped the loincloth from his hips. King Juron paused on his way up the steps to laugh at the smoothness between Gabriel’s legs.
Then the citizens dispersed. Jesse of Bethlehem hesitated, with people streaming all around him, before rushing forward. “Your highness,” he said, diving to his knees. “My son. His song. Surely—”
“You again,” said the king, turning his head only enough to confirm the owner of the voice. “You dare wag that tongue at me?”
“Your highness,” said Jesse, in the dirt, “please.”
The king smiled, showing his molars, and Goliath’s fist flew across Jesse’s face.
Gabriel saw it. As a team of sentries dragged him away, around the watchtower, he saw Goliath’s heel fire downward. They tore him across the ground by the crumbled arcade of his wings, and still he watched as the boy David, holding his harp to his chest, ran forward toward the long shadow the giant cast over his fallen father. A pair of laborers reached out and scooped the boy up. They carried him away, scattering from the plaza like insects.
David’s harp fell into the dirt; its strings sounded without melody.
Gabriel observed as the giant’s foot smashed the rebounding skull. Goliath’s power reconstituted the hardened stardust with each strike. Before long, Jesse’s head stopped moving on its own, and Goliath’s beard became heavy with its plasma. Eons before, the stuff of life had burned and roiled and bonded. Now, as Gabriel was pulled around the bend, he saw that it was no longer a celestial powder. Goliath snarled. It was a liquid on the ground. It was Jesse’s blood.
Gabriel tumbled into an austere prison.
It was a small, drab cell of hydrogen and dust. His broken wings bobbed as he turned on his bare haunches. Night fell, and the sky glowed against a single window cut into the far wall, a crooked rectangle the size of a tome. And there he remained, crumpled on the earthen floor, the surface of his body shimmering dully in the strips of starlight that fell through gaps in the iron bars.
King Juron came to examine him in the morning. He brought an envoy and a scribe and explained that he wanted the gold to be extracted from Gabriel’s skin. The papyrus filled with ink. They brought shears and lathes and tonics. They harvested the golden ringlets from Gabriel’s head. They moved iron teeth across his body. But they gave up sawing his skin once the edges of all the tools they tried became blunted and useless.
Some months passed.
Finally, after multiple threats to every blacksmith in the land, they developed a set of pliers strong enough to rip the quills from Gabriel’s wings, and harvesting them became a monthly routine. King Juron began visiting the palace prison with renewed interest. He would stand outside Gabriel’s cell to show off his new crown, an elegant garland plaited with golden feathers.
The giant Goliath also visited sometimes. Sentries always guarded the door. He would snap the bones in Gabriel’s wings again and again. Each time, he would have to locate a section that he had not previously broken, because as they healed the wings would refortify at the exact point of their past trauma, and not even Goliath’s hands were strong enough to crack through the density of Gabriel’s new bone formations.
Sometimes Gabriel was given cellmates. He would always offer them his basin of water and talk with them through the night. The prisoners would offer their clothing to make splints for his wings. Gabriel would listen to their stories. The prisoners were laborers, mostly. They would speak of their children, and of the wall. Many had family members on both sides. But most of the time, Gabriel sat alone, watching the stars through his crooked window.
There were instances, after several years had passed, when the king would show up without a sentry or a minister at his side. He would reach through the bars of the cell door and pet the smoothness between Gabriel’s legs. Then he would leave without saying a word.
It came to pass that the sentries noticed that Gabriel had no need for water, and that he had been sharing his basin with other prisoners. Fewer cellmates were willing to talk with parched tongues. More of them began to die of their wounds, or of thirst, in the cell. Gabriel sat with their bodies and watched how their atoms did not change, even as they expired. The composition remained the same. He would place a hand on their bodies, on their elements, and sit with them. He remained by their sides until a sentry came to drag them away in the morning.
The sun rose, and the sun set. More than a decade passed.
One day a young man was tossed into the cell. He set his back against the wall opposite Gabriel and struggled for air, his diaphragm expanding and contracting rhythmically as he fought to inhale the mix of oxygen and hydrogen that surrounded them.
“Your hair,” said the young man as soon as he could. “Your feathers.” He pinched his nose with the collar of his tunic to clear away the running blood. “They must grow back quickly, for you look exactly as you did the first time I saw you.”
Gabriel nodded. He said, “I recognize you also, young David.”
“The gold,” said the man called David, and he gulped the air. “Your gold. You have changed everything, forever.”
Gabriel examined his wings. His bones were thick and solid and upright beneath the surface and the feathers. The giant Goliath had not visited for some time. “All gold comes from stars,” said Gabriel. He pointed out the window. “When they die.”
David peeled his back off the wall and stepped forward with a start. “King Juron has not obeyed your message,” he said. “He has taken your gold. He has built his wall. He used it to purchase slaves and materials. The wall is immense. It does not merely separate us from the other side; it separates us from the world. He built it so that it stretches across this entire landmass.” David paused for breath. He cleared new trails of blood above his lip and continued: “And it does extend to heaven, just as he said it would. It is higher than any structure I have ever seen. So many men fell from the top during construction. Now it blocks out the setting sun.”
David sank to the floor, exhausted.
Then he said: “It covers half the stars at night. It is a new world, has been a new world for so long. Nothing—nothing is the same.”
Gabriel looked out the window. The daytime sky was a uniform blue. “Nothing is the same?” he said. “Young David, that statement will always be true.”
David searched the expressionless face of the winged figure. His breath shuddered. “But we have been powerless for so long. You have been powerless, too.”
“No,” said Gabriel. “I disagree.”
He rose from the dirt, his wings drawing back as he stood erect. Again, he looked through the iron bars of the window. His golden eyes seemed to focus through the great canvas of daylight, toward some imperceptible point deep in the cosmos.
“I am correct,” he said, finally, and he turned to face David. “Everything is in its right place. It has not been very long at all.”
David could only stare.
“I am not powerless,” said Gabriel, “nor are you. I have been watching you since you were motes scattered across the firmament. There is no star I do not recognize. Your hands made music when you were a boy. Is that not power, young David? I remember when those hands were furnaces burning in the hearts of celestial bodies. I watched the very dust fall to earth and become you. Young David, imagine what your hands can do now.”
“But your message,” said David.
“I have not yet delivered my message in its entirety,” said Gabriel. “Your king would not allow me to speak without interruption when I faced him before. He knows but half of the message I was sent to deliver, and that is his error and his alone.
“Now, you see, I am without my instruments of office. I will retrieve them, and I will fulfill my duty and then be on my way.”
David pressed himself to his feet with some effort. “When?” he said.
“In time,” said Gabriel. “In time.”
Less than a month later, Gabriel was disturbed on a bright and shining morning by colliding voices outside his window. The voices harmonized and began a chant. Gabriel watched as the stones beneath his barred window began to split behind the force of a battering ram. He watched rays of light shoot through the cracked mortar. Motes spun in space. The nose of the tool gouged a hole into his drab prison. The stones crumbled and fell at his feet.
David stood on the other side, backed by a multitude of citizens. Laborers and artisans. Men and women. Children bounced on their toes, failing to suppress their smiles. They cheered.
And Gabriel walked free into the sunlight.
At the colonnade, a squadron of panicked sentries—fifty men or more—raised their spears and their swords and their shields. The chants of the approaching crowd reached them first; it was one voice born of many. Armored boots shuffled on the portico. They looked out toward the watchtower and saw nothing. But the volume continued to rise in their ears.
Goliath, dressed in his breastplate and mail, threw open the palace doors. He slammed a brass helmet over his graying mane and rushed to the head of the formation. “Tighten your ranks,” he shouted, his voice already hoarse, “for they are without weapons and armor, no doubt.” But then his eyes widened and his words stopped.
Gabriel led the crowd around the watchtower on foot.
“King Juron of Israel,” said Gabriel, and the crowd hushed, and the sentries steeled themselves, and the wind swept through the plaza, lifting dust and scattering it across the land.
Gabriel looked up toward a balcony jutting from the palace. His eyes did not waver. Beyond the nearby Valley of Elah, past the palace and the sentries and the crowd, the great stone wall curved over the horizon in either direction. It cast its shadow over the neighboring land. Only the wind made a sound.
“You two,” said Goliath, gesturing to a pair of sentries. “Rush to the king’s quarters now. The infernal creature knows where he is.”
“No,” said David, shouting over a howl of wind. “Every man stays where he is, or my army charges the palace.”
Goliath spat on the steps. “What army do you speak of, peasant?”
David bent to dig a stone from the dirt. “Us, traitor,” he said. “You defend this king on this side of the wall while your own family suffers in poverty a mile away.”
“Shut up, boy,” said Goliath. “You know nothing of my history.”
David clutched the stone. “Perhaps, but I know something of your future, Goliath.”
The graying giant surveyed the crowd. They outnumbered the sentries sevenfold. He scowled beneath his helmet and gestured to his men. They let the palace doors shut in front of them and rejoined the standoff.
Inside the king’s quarters, the queen wept under the canopy of her marriage bed. She lowered the sheet from her eyes as she heard the balcony curtain flap. She looked up, her face wet with tears. Gabriel stepped into the room. He studied her. She had not aged a day. She was thin and frail, as always. Her hair still flowed like wine. And her dark birthmark was there, the size of a shekel, near the hairline.
Gabriel turned away. King Juron emerged, wearing only a towel and his crown of golden feathers.
“Leave,” he said, in an even voice.
“My clarion, and my garment,” said Gabriel. “Once they are returned, I can take my leave of this place.”
King Juron stalked across the room, his bare heels drumming the tile. Unlike the queen, he had been changed by the years. Without his wig, he was bald. Without his powders, he was the color of parchment. His whole body had grown and marbled, and the way he moved betrayed its disuse. And now, without his robes, a constellation of sores was visible in the hollow of his otherwise pale chest.
The king halted at the foot of the bed where a small storage casket stood open. He looked back at his queen. He reached in and tossed Gabriel’s horn and loincloth onto a golden rug between them.
Gabriel lifted his instruments of office. He donned the loincloth. “Years ago, you interrupted my message,” he said. “You will listen to the rest of it now.”
The muscles on either side of King Juron’s jaw bulged. “Do it quickly,” he said.
“Very well,” said Gabriel. “Walls fall down.”
The king stared in silence. Blood vessels clawed at the whites of his eyes.
“That is the remainder of my message,” said Gabriel. “Things fall apart and not without purpose. All structures shift. All matter is re-appropriated. It is a natural fact and a cosmic promise. And, not unlike the collapse of a star or the fall of an empire, the end always arrives sooner than one expects. That is the message from on high.”
“Understood,” said the king, through his teeth. “Anything else from on high, then?”
“No, King Juron.” Gabriel spread his wings and faced the balcony. “But tell me this, if you please: where is your queen?”
The king looked to the woman in the bed. “Where do you think, you damned fool?”
“No,” said Gabriel. “I am asking about the girl I saw years ago.” He turned and looked at the woman again. “That is the princess.”
The king displaced his crown as he reached up to massage his temple. “I have married her, so she is the queen.”
“I see,” said Gabriel. “Then, young queen, you would do well to cover your ears.”
The young woman, her tears drying, dropped the handful of bedding and clapped her hands against the sides of her head.
“But not you, King Juron,” said Gabriel. “I am afraid it will not help you to do so.” Then he walked out to the balcony.
Gabriel raised his horn to heaven.
Below, the sentries and citizens dropped to their knees, covering their ears. The king’s screams were swallowed by the sound. He tried, desperately, to stuff his fingers into his ears. Still, the dust of his being was altered. It leaked out between his fingers and covered his hands. It was liquid on the tile. It was his blood.
The people outside recovered and looked to the sky. They saw a figure skimming across the orb of the sun. It swooped toward the wall and skimmed violently along the edge of the structure. As feet crashed into stone, they exploded a section of the wall down to its foundation. Stones burst free from the fissure. Debris rained over the land.
Gabriel had called Michael down to earth.
His wings were heavy and scabbed. His face was a network of scars. And the golden helmet on his head sent bands of light in every direction.
He ignited his flaming sword, and the crowd rushed the palace.
David led the charge. He found a fist-sized chunk of debris and launched it at Goliath’s helmet. The crowd behind him pressed forward, overwhelming the sentries, forcing them back into the palace. David stayed behind. He straddled Goliath’s body and dropped a stone, again and again, until he was using it to strike sparks in brilliant showers against the portico steps.
Gabriel observed. He watched the streams of people disappear through the black mouth of the palace entrance. Michael flew down from the wall to usher everyone inside; when the last of them had charged up the steps, he looked back and saluted his brother. Gabriel nodded. He watched as Michael followed them inside, the flames on his blade snatching at the space around them. He watched until the large, ornate doors closed over the receding image of Michael’s scabbed wings. And just before the doors met, he saw that the scabs had begun to bleed anew.
It was then that Gabriel took his leave of earth.
He soared through the silence of space, up through the strata of galaxies. He climbed the gradient scale of plasma, across splashes of cobalt and plum, passing white dwarfs and red giants and a supernova spewing gold out into infinity. He flew by and reentered his realm.
Gabriel manned his perch above creation. The stars below him lived and died.
And he watched. And he waited.
Alexander Ramirez is an instructor and doctoral candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Previous work has appeared in Full Bleed, From Sac, and Black Rabbit. During semester breaks, he splits his time between Sacramento and Jalostotitlán.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.