by Elizabeth Kaye Cook
Before the headaches began, I thought myself sturdy: firm in my foundations, set square like a saltbox house. But then, I woke in the night — a dull pulse inside me. Bright colors crept at my head’s edges while my husband lay quiet in sleep.
I mentioned the headache to my husband while we were at the breakfast table — I, in my bathrobe, and he, fresh-shaven and dressed for church. Last night began quiet and still, I said, then I woke, my brain swelling against my skull. My husband pursed his lips and said, Hmm. He was a considerate, considering man. He scraped butter over toast, then refilled my coffee.
We attended the morning service, ate BLT sandwiches for lunch, napped till three, and went again to the evening service. We went in the evenings because we felt sorry for the pastor, whose second Sunday sermon was given for such a small crowd. The pastor had no charisma, but we admired his valiant efforts. When we came home again, I was too tired to eat, so I crawled into bed, tied up my hair, and read my magazines. My husband padded around the house, straightening books and tossing papers. He plucked clothes from the carpet and chair backs, setting them in the closet. Once the shoes were straightened and the supper dishes stowed, he brought me a tall glass of water. A lemon wedge bobbed with the ice.
Some headaches are caused by dehydration, he said, and when I woke after midnight, thinking my head might split down the back, I drank the whole glass, clutching with both hands.
Night after night, the headaches continued. I grew to recognize the world in my headached dreams. What had once seemed to be drifting amoebas of color crystallized into Parthenon pillars, a B-movie set-piece of rosy marble with gilded edgings. Between the pillars was a figure in glowing robes, its face bright, but indistinct — a thumbprint smear, like vaseline over a photograph, or a smudge of gold from a careless painter. Though my body lay in bed, in this other place, I learned to move. Each night, I took one more step than the night before; one step for each pulse of my aching brain. Night after night, I gained strength. I drew closer.
I was in the presence of something very horrible and very holy, but my nerves flickered like an anxious porchlight. I didn’t trust my instincts. These eyes in this headache-head were new and weak. It took time to burn the retinas with light so I could learn how to see — to see that the figure with the bright, blurred face was covered in spots, and that the spots had lashes, lids, pupils: thousands of eyes, fixed on me.
The figure was patient, hanging back, letting me learn to look. When a month had passed for my waking body, I did, finally, draw my strength and come close enough that I could reach out. I could touch the being’s blurry face, or its skin covered in small feathers, with each feather covered in its blinking eyes. I wanted its wings to cloak me and its gaze to burn my bones so dry that I would collapse into a wash of dust. One unveiled look, a statue of ash. A woman standing, then gone.
The next morning, I sat at the kitchen table sorting the mail while my husband made our toast. He sat with me, and I finished my breakfast, then said, Husband. Husband, I said, I reached the creature last night, inside the headache.
What was it like? he asked.
A thousand million billion beings in one body, I said. Changeable. Or maybe only one being and one body, but stacked onto itself over all time, the layers pasted together with glue. Hundreds of wings. Eyes and thousands of eyes. Simple and blinking, like the eyes of a fish in a cave, and all they watch is me.
Wife, my husband said, That creature and its wings and eyes are angels, and beware lest they catch you in their hands and burn you up.
Many people might not understand how my husband and I could talk so calmly about such things, but between a husband and wife there should be no secrets.
That night, as I slipped into sleep, my headache came earlier and caused more pain than any I’d experienced before: I was the clapper of a great bell, ringing the whole world to attention. If the headache was a clock, I was the hand ticking from its center. When I reached the angel, I realized she was someone I knew — my dead baby cousin Bailey. I hadn’t recognized her, buried beneath her thousands of wings and winking eyes. She stood only an arm’s length away, the wind ruffling the pins of her feathers, the feathers’ cave-eyes blinking.
You’re grown now, I said. I didn’t know you would become so strong. My dead baby cousin Bailey, drenched in glory, lowered her head. You had the cutest little curls, I said. I wondered if it would be impolite to say more, to reference the manhunt, the officers, the volunteers walking the woods with their arms linked, or the well where we found her a week later. I wondered if the angel that had been my dead baby cousin Bailey could see the shape of my thoughts.
When the angel retreated, I said, Please don’t go, but she did, or rather I did, as if I were pulled backward and into my body, and so I woke, sweating, the bed sheets pulled to my chin.
Husband, I said. I shook him awake. The windows were open to let the sweet spring air in, and the blinds rattled. Moonlight and headlights slid across my hands and his shoulders. The creature is more than an angel, I said. She is many, as you said. An angel and my dead baby cousin Bailey and more. She sends the headaches to take me past death.
My husband believed me. Many husbands would be concerned about their theology, or the complications, or the implications, or the state of their dinners, but not my husband. He has always known the importance of believing, but at the same time, he is a practical man. Have you received any word from God or Divine Spirits? he asked. Are you given charge over sins, oppressions, or hidden truths?
I had no secrets or hidden sins outside the ordinary, like a stash of jellybeans in my desk drawer or the unkind thoughts about my neighbors’ dogs. I had told the detectives all I knew, back before we found the body in the well, and though I had been only thirteen, I had linked arms and walked the woods with the rest of them. I was Bailey’s babysitter, and I loved her like she was my own. I loved her still, over thirty years later.
I told my husband how I thought my love made the angel angry.
Why would Bailey be angry at love? my husband asked.
I did start to reach out with my littlest finger, I said, to touch the smallest feather of her smallest wing.
That’s no crime, my husband said, to yearn to touch the one you love.
I had not touched her; I drew back because I could sense the dead inside her, its fury. It was not the angel or the eyes or the wings that wished me harm, but my baby cousin. She wanted to snatch me up. She wanted to drink me alive, eat up my life, and she hated me for it. I tried to say all of this to my husband, but I have never been a gossip, so I stumbled on my words and did not make much sense.
We sat in silence, both of us wide awake and thinking. Eventually, my husband fetched a cold, wet washcloth to set over my eyes. Eventually, we slept.
That night was a turning point for me. I began to think it cruel for the angel to make me know things that I could not share with my husband. I asked, After all, is not marriage a holy symbol?
Her many eyes blinked, and I peered into the larger ones. My own face reflected back, my hair in curlers. It was becoming harder for me to recognize the bits of my dead baby cousin Bailey as the angel grew larger and stranger every night. Soon, the angel was as large as the Empire State Building. I had to grow with her, just so we could hold a conversation. Dead baby cousin Bailey had sunk so deep inside that it was almost like she wasn’t there. Translucent white ferns sprouted around her necks and chins. I leaned closer and saw that the ferns were not ferns, but wings, and not bird wings, but mothstuff — furred antennae to feel through shadows.
Are your headaches growing worse, cousin? At the beginnings of our visits, the angel was polite, sometimes courteous.
Much worse, I confessed. Now, when I am inside of one, I don’t believe my original head exists anymore. Or if it does, there is no room for me inside it.
I could never read the angel’s expression, but I hoped that inside its many eyes, my dead baby cousin Bailey must be worrying about me.
Do you want the headaches to stop? the angel asked. We were standing so close that I could see the ribs and shafts and filaments of each feather, the twitching antennae. A dark insect crawled on the lash edge of one unblinking eye.
I would like my two bodies to be stitched as one again, I said, but if you bind them back together, then I can’t see you anymore. You died so young. We were just getting acquainted.
I hadn’t meant to mention the death, but she seemed pleased. For the first time, we touched. She reached to me — downy hands with ten feathered fingers — and she made a finger-and-feather crown around my skull. There was the softest pulse inside her touch. I had held a rabbit’s heart once in my hand, and it had gone on beating: a soft purple thing, faithful to its duty, even as the rabbit it beat for had already been stripped to its skin. My head beat back the rhythm: a bell, an earthquake, a heart going on and on and on.
I came back into my body, but it was no longer night. I was no longer in my bed. My body had gone on without me in it, it seemed, waking and drinking coffee and eating toast. When I came back into my body, it was already on the floor of the produce aisle, a strange woman pumping my chest with her hands. I’d dropped tomatoes, meaty and red, on the clean tile. She collapsed, someone was saying. Didn’t trip or cry out or anything. Just collapsed.
I couldn’t see much from where I lay. My eyes looked in one direction. I was between the headache and the world, between my two bodies. Either I had been stitched back together wrongly, or the stitching had come full loose. I could hear, but not move. I could see, but not blink. Neither body would obey me. Neither body was my own. Bailey! I wanted to cry out. Silent stiff tongue, silent stiff lips. Please! Come for me! I thought whatever of her was left might take pity on me, feel sorry for what she had done, and burn me free. She had to know how I had wept for her. How I had looked through the woods, and how I had told the detectives everything I knew, which seemed like nothing to me at the time because I, too, was only a child.
But she took no pity on me. I was innocent, but to be innocent is not enough; one must have a holy authority to ask and be obeyed. My dead baby cousin Bailey did not burn me, and she did not let me die, and now I spend my thoughts in the great open space between one second and the next.