Haniel

Sunday, 5 March, 2017 – Ann Arbor, Michigan and Late Sixth Century – Trier, Austrasia

The parking structure at Ann and Ashley is not the tallest building in the northwest quarter of Ann Arbor, but it is best positioned to afford long views up Miller Road all the way to the highway, as well as of the entire Kerrytown area from the farmers’ market all the way to the Broadway Street Bridge and the river, and even to some of the apartment complexes beyond. The highest point of the building is the top of the elevator enclosure at the southwest corner of the structure, which gives Haniel a vantage point eighty-five feet above the ground. The day is sunny and warm for a March morning at nearly sixty degrees, but the breeze is picking up, threatening cooler air later in the day. Haniel’s eyes, sharper than those of any baseline human being—or child, as the elders call them—can see a bumpy darkness on the horizon: a line of the tops of clouds in a front that has already crossed Lake Michigan and is now bringing falling temperatures and trailing rain to the state’s west coast.

On the edge of the elevator enclosure eighty-five feet above the pavement of Ashley Street, Haniel perches like a falcon surveying her domain and no human eye can see her.

~

Fourteen hundred and forty-five years ago, in the city of Trier, in the kingdom of Austrasia, in the empire of the Regnum Francorum, a girl was born to the prosperous merchant Radigis and his wife Bertrada. They named the child Adelheid, which means noble, for they had hopes of someday marrying the child well. The child was born in the fifth year of the reign of Emperor Chilperic of the Regnum Francorum, and, in Austrasia, the eleventh year of the reign of King Siegebert.

The first two years of the child’s life were prosperous and peaceful. There was no return of the terrible scourge of plague that Adelheid’s parents remembered only through stories told to them by their own parents. But before the infant’s second year had passed war came again, this time between Austrasia and neighboring Neustria, with Siegebert attacking his half-brother Chilperic to punish Chilperic’s earlier kidnap of him and the theft of his lands. By the time the bitter conflict had run its course, the infant Adelheid was orphaned and might have starved, except that her mother miraculously lived long enough, though dying of wounds, to pay the Benedictine sisters of nearby Saint Maximin’s Abbey to accept the child and care for her.

The aged nun who accepted the dying woman’s bequest was not, however, able to understand the woman’s last breaths and so the child’s name was lost. The younger nuns, who were glad to accept the raising of the child, dubbed her Haniel, which means God’s grace.

Young Haniel grew up knowing only the women of Saint Maximin’s Abbey as her many parents, and at an early age she showed intelligence and wisdom unusual in a child. In time, the child Haniel became the student Haniel, made a great journey of two hundred leagues to Ligugé to study at the Abbey of Saint Martin, and, after many years, returned to Saint Maximin’s, first as its youngest prioress, and soon after as Mother Haniel, its youngest abbess.

The years went by. Mother Haniel saw her twenty-fifth summer, and fell gravely ill at a time when many in the abbey and town were similarly afflicted. The abbot was summoned to anoint and to take the confessions of the dying many times in those days, and the day came when he was summoned as well for Mother Haniel. Afterward, as she lay shaking with the fever and making her peace with God, Mother Haniel opened her eyes and saw a woman dressed in white robes as the eldest of the Benedictines sometimes dressed, but light shone around her.

“Do not be afraid,” the woman said, but Haniel, still frightened, asked who she was.

“I am a friend, who has sat with you many times unseen.”

It took some time before Haniel was able to speak. “You are an angel, come to bear away my soul.”

“I am no messenger of death,” the woman smiled, “but of life. You have seen enough of death. You are healed now, child. Sleep! But you will see me again.”

And Mother Haniel slept, and awoke the next day having begun her slow recovery. The sisters of Saint Maximin’s called it a miracle, for many of the other afflicted had died in the night.

~

An hour later the advancing line of clouds has already hidden the sinking sun, and whatever cheer was in its light has departed from the day. The stiff wind felt all day has subsided, but only because the advancing cold air has driven out the warm.

A man, hurrying along the shadows on the north side of Ann Street with his coat collar turned up against the cold, attracts Haniel’s attention. He is carrying what appear to be two bags full of food, presumably just purchased from the final hours of the farmers’ market at Kerrytown. This may not be the wisest conceivable course of action, given the recent scarcity and rapidly rising prices of food.

And, indeed, as the man hurries past a group of younger men lounging in the shadows of an abandoned business at the corner of Ashley and Miller, even from two hundred yards’ distance Haniel can see their intentions as clearly as a mother would know the mind of a toddler whom she sees staring at a cookie jar.

He passes them by quickly, eyes downcast, and the young men give no sign of having noticed him at first. Then one of them straightens up, drops his cigarette to the ground, and nods. They split into two groups, three of the young men ambling after the man, two of them walking quickly around the north end of the small building. They know where he has parked his car, and that he has been shopping.

Crouched like a great bird of prey, Haniel blows out a long breath. She has never known a world in which the strong do not prey upon the weak, in which a man can walk home with his groceries unafraid. Most baseline humans—’children’—would proclaim with cynical confidence that there never has been such a world. Although not from personal experience, Haniel knows differently. Long ago, she was taught by a woman who had lived in that world. Now, five days a week, she works alongside those who not only lived in it but fought in its last days to preserve it. Fought and failed. Long since, Haniel has learned that this attitude that the strong should victimize the weak is not natural to all human beings, not the obvious default toward which humans raised in isolation would naturally gravitate, but is in fact a conscious tenet of a specific culture, deliberately taught, persistently suggested, by subtle means. Even the smug world-wise cynicism concerning this attitude is a cultural weapon, deliberately propagated.

It is foolish to think that one being at Haniel’s level—which the elders call Teacher—could make the least difference in a world so vast and so fallen. Doubly foolish when any action she takes could at any moment attract the attention of the ‘shepherds’ of the enemy. Triply so, when Michael himself has expressly forbade such action.

The evening breeze picks up for a moment before calming again, an echo of the day’s stiff breezes. Haniel rises from her crouch, mentally checking that her wards are well in place. They are. None of the baseline humans hurrying by on the streets below will deliberately look in her direction, and if one does by accident, or if one in an upper floor of a distant house happens to look her way—they will see nothing but a momentary blur, or a shadow that they will assume was a moving bird, before turning away again.

What would her lord Michael do if he ever learned how she polices this little area, the northwest quadrant of Ann Arbor, which she thinks of as ‘her’ little domain? Would he cast her out of his presence? Out of the Enclave? Cut her off from the supply of life which he guards in his vault, and send her to wander among the other expatriates, where she would then begin, slowly, to age as humans age? Haniel does not believe that he would. But if he did, would she repent?

Or would she walk away, as so many other have done?

And is she sure that Michael is unaware of her activities?

Some questions are best left unanswered.

The man’s carrying groceries is just reaching his car and discovering that two of the young men have gotten there before him. The other three are just now sauntering into the lot’s entrance, behind him. The lot is in a lonely one, between a closed two-story office building and the railroad embankment. From her high vantage point, Haniel can just glimpse it. The man is just now halting, realizing his danger.

Sometimes answers come from actions.

Rising to stand upright on the edge of the building, Haniel leaps off it into the air, and disappears.

~

In the sixth century anno Domini, in the prosperous environs of Trier in the kingdom of Austrasia, in good times like those of the early life of Mother Haniel—decades after the Plague of Justinian, but long centuries before the Black Death of the 14th century—one in every six children died before their first birthday.

Of those who survived their infancy, another one in five would not see their fifth year. Of those two-thirds of human births surviving past their childhood, another half would die before their twenty-fifth year, another half again before their fortieth, and yet two-thirds more in their next decade. So when Mother Haniel reached her fiftieth year, she who had once become the youngest abbess of Saint Maximin’s had now become its oldest, and was revered far beyond the confines of her own abbey as a holy woman.

Yet it was neither longevity nor reverence that she craved. What she did desire, however—she was unable to name and unwilling to pursue, fearing that any desire for a revelation outside of those already granted by her strict religion must necessarily be unholy. So she spent long hours every day in prayer, begging forgiveness for a sin not only uncommitted but as yet unimagined. Which of course only increased her reputation for holiness among those whom fate had placed in her charge.

Many times, during her prayers, she was further ashamed to find her thoughts wandering on well-traveled paths to a brief moment of her youth, in a night when she thought her life would end, of a visitation which she had long since convinced herself could only have been a fever dream of a foolish girl.

So, during one especially late night of prayer, she felt her heart stutter in her breast when she heard that voice again.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel spoke from a place far behind her in the large chamber.

But Mother Haniel fairly leapt from the prie-dieu at which she had knelt in prayer and fell backwards upon its step.

“What did I just tell you?” the angel laughed.

“You—you—” Mother Haniel could barely speak.

The being before her, seated in one of the large chamber’s more comfortable chairs, appeared exactly as she had so many years before, in her face, her dark, uncovered hair, her white robe. Even the light glowed in the air around her so long ago.

“You are real,” Haniel said at last, tears coming to her eyes.

“Yes,” the angel smiled. “Well—I think so.”

“You healed me.”

“Yes.”

Trying to compose herself, Haniel dried her eyes with trembling hands. She had hoped and prayed for this moment for so many years, imagining, considering what she would say.

“Why?” she asked. “Why me?”

“Because it was not your time to die. You had much yet to learn.”

Haniel considered this.

“Have I learned?”

“I believe you have. Your life here has served you well.”

“But now—my time has come?”

“The time has come when you must make a choice.”

“Make—a choice?”

“Is there an echo in here?” the angel smiled. “Yes. You may stay in this life if you wish. You will live for some years yet. Or.”

The old woman looks at the angel.

“Or?”

“Or you can come with me, now. Tonight. In the clothes you are now wearing.”

The stone walls of Mother Haniel’s rather grand chambers are lit only by her single lamp, the clerestory windows still pitch black. The dawn will not come for hours yet. The sisters’ rooms are some distance away, but even so the hall outside her open door seems unnaturally silent.

The angel’s eyes shine in the lamp light.

“Someone could come. If they see you—”

“The others will sleep until we are done here,” she says.

Mother Haniel looks up at the angel with wide eyes.

“Then—am I to die? Are you here to carry me to the life to come?”

“You misunderstand. And you have been taught many falsehoods, for this world suffers in the grip of the enemies of Truth. You are not ready to understand all things now, but if you choose to come with me you will begin to learn. I told you long ago that I am no messenger of death, but of life. If you come with me you will not die as your sisters die, but you will be born into a new life.”

“I will be—in heaven?”

The angel has a kind smile.

“The first lesson of your new life will end when you understand that you are already there.”

“But,” there is doubt on the old woman’s face. “But you would take me away?”

Her voice quavers, and she is ashamed before this being who is fearless and brave. She has know only these walls, this garden, this cloister walk for so many years. She has remained obedient to her order and to the teaching of the church. Yet in her heart, in spite of all her prayer, doubts have grown and strange questions arisen in her secret thoughts.

“And I am here to answer those questions.”

Haniel gapes at the angel.

“You hear my thoughts?”

“You don’t make it very difficult,” she smiles. “We will work on that. But now you must choose. Will you abide, or come away?”

Haniel feels each beating of her heart.

“But, what of these whom I care for? The sisters. If they found me gone—they would be lost!”

“In the morning, they will find an old woman’s body, and they will remember it as yours. There will be a grand funeral, for they love you. After three days, the sisters will choose their new abbess, whom the bishop will confirm. Your sisters will continue in their path of obedience, stability, and what they call the transformation of life. But only you among them will at last understand what the conversatio morum truly is. They will raise a tomb to you with a plaque that will read Hic Requieescit in Pace, Haniel Abbatissa, and they will remember you.”

Haniel is still for long moments, lost in thought.

“Do you know,” she whispers, “I was not born with that name. The sisters of this abbey chose it for me long ago. They said it was a miracle that my mother was able to come so far despite her wounds. My birth name was lost.”

“You name was Adelheid,” the angel says. “And your mother Bertrada. Your father Radigis was a prosperous merchant of fabrics and fine clothing.”

The old woman’s eyes fill with sudden tears.

“You knew them? You were there?

“I could not preserve your mother’s life after the soldiers killed your father and wounded her. It was a difficult time. But I helped her live long enough to come to this place. I did not want your life to end so early. It is not easy to find a soul like you.”

That statement confuses Haniel so she ignores it, and anyway is lost in wonder at the thought that she has truly had a guardian angel all her life.

“Yes, Haniel, all this life. But your existence extends long before this life, and will extend long after. But I will never take you nor teach you against your will. Now you must choose.”

And Mother Haniel makes her choice.

~

The man’s face, once he finally realizes what’s going on, is so comical that Terry laughs out loud, which maybe is kind of spoiling the mood. The guy sure doesn’t think it’s funny, though. He looks like he doesn’t know whether to drop the precious grocery bags and make a dash for his car, or hang onto them for dear life as a kind of shield between him and the scary dudes that he has finally noticed walking through the deserted parking lot to intercept him.

Well, that’s what you get for walking around town with your valuables in bags and your head up your ass. If you can’t keep it, you don’t deserve it.

At last the guy decides he can’t get to the car in time, but maybe he can just get the hell away. But when he spins back toward the parking lot entrance, he sees Brad, Russel, and Emilio walking in with their eyes on him. You can practically see the guy wilt. Terry thinks that’s funny, too.

Russel, however, is not in a funny kind of mood. He picks up his pace, stepping in front of Brad and Emilio, and pulls his piece out of his belt as he walks toward the guy.

Hey, man,” Terry says without thinking. You never want to be on Russel’s shit list. “There’s no need for that is there? We’re gonna get the stuff, right? Mister, why don’t you just put your bags on the ground, OK?”

“Yes, yes!”

The man bends over and puts his two bags on the gravel parking lot surface. But as he straightens up Russel is there, and he puts his revolver right up under the guy’s chin.

Brad and Emilio look like they’ve decided that this is just one of Russel’s bad days and you gotta let him do what he feels like he’s gotta do. Glancing aside at Marlon, Terry sees that he feels likewise. But to Terry it doesn’t seem right.

“Russ, listen, man! What’s the point? Let’s just take the stuff and go!”

And at that moment, a woman steps out of the air.

There’s no other way to describe it. Terry suddenly becomes aware of her maybe twenty feet to his left, in the direction of town, and she’s six freaking feet in the air and descending. And it’s not like she’s falling, it’s like she’s sort of stepping down with her right foot to reach the ground, almost like gliding down. Then she reaches the ground and looks right at Terry and says, “So your idea is to take just a little of this man’s life, instead of all of it?”

“Fuck!” Russel spins toward the woman, bringing the revolver to bear.

And then she just sort of moves her arm and there’s this blue-white rod of light—basically a light-saber without the noise—and without a handle—and she swings it so smoothly and quickly that Russel looks like a spastic kid by comparison. And his hand jerks as the rod hits it, thankfully opening rather than closing, so it doesn’t go off, and then Russel sort of gasps and the gun is falling to the ground, and—

Terry stares at two objects in the dirt: the gun, and Russel’s hand.

Incredibly, Emilio and Brad have their blades out, and Marlon also is moving toward the woman like he thinks he can just punch her. Can’t these guys see? Terry thinks wildly.

“Marlon!” he starts to yell, but then stops himself—because it’s already over. Flick, flick flick, and they’re all dead. The woman’s blade or whatever is so brilliant that it leaves arcing afterimages that float against the evening air in Terry’s eyes. But he can still see, staring with his mouth open, that Marlon, Emilio, and Brad have fallen to the parking lot’s rough surface. And so have their heads, separately.

“Khhk, khhk—” Russel says, grasping his stump of a wrist. Blood is spurting. Insanely, Terry wonders at that for a moment. It seemed like maybe the woman’s glowing blade would cauterize it or something. But no.

“You would kill a man, and rob him,” the woman says to Russel. “Find more wisdom in your next life.” And then flick! And there are four bodies and four heads on the ground.

No one moves for a few seconds, and then the woman holds up her hand—the one that isn’t holding the rod of light—palm outward, and sort of slowly waves it—and Terry looks down and they’re gone. The bodies, the heads—they’re all just gone. He looks at the woman, gaping, as she steps toward him.

Terry can feel every heartbeat in his chest like a hammer blow. She stops a step away from him, holding her glowing sword out.

Bizarrely, Terry thinks that she is not bad looking, but also nothing to write home about. Kind of a long face, and kind of severe. Especially underlit by her—sword, or whatever it is. She has reddish-brown hair a little beyond shoulder-length, gathered into a pony-tail. Terry realizes that he should not be thinking about her looks. She just stepped out of the air, killed everybody, and made their bodies disappear. There isn’t even any blood left on the ground, and there was a lot of blood. Terry realizes he is shaking.

Terry’s thoughts are speeded up, or everything else is slowed down. He is expecting at any moment to see a blur of that blue-white light as it arcs toward his neck. Is it true that when your head gets cut off a person sometimes stays conscious long enough to see their own headless body falling?

What kind of people step out of the air and kill everybody before they can hardly move, with a light saber? Terry’s parents used to take him to church every Sunday when he was a kid, and he still remembers some of the stories quite clearly.

The LORD kicked Adam and Eve out of the Garden, and at the entrance He put an angel who held a flaming sword to keep them the fuck away.

Terry realizes that this is a flaming sword that he is seeing right now, and it is one foot away from his face.

“You’re an angel!” he blurts. “Are you going to kill me? Are you real?”

And the angel speaks. But instead of speaking to Terry, she turns her head toward the taxpayer, who has pressed himself back against his car and looks just as terrified as Terry feels.

“Go,” she tells him. “Take your food to your family, Herman Schmidtke. Go now.”

The man grabs convulsively for his bags and practically throws them into the car. He starts it up and is out of the parking lot and turning right onto Miller in a New York minute.

Then the angel looks back at Terry.

Without any flicker of a warning in his own mind or body, Terry, to his ultimate horror, loses control of his bladder.

He forgets even the shining sword to look down convulsively at himself, and, sure enough, there’s a spreading wet spot all over his crotch and already halfway down his right leg. And that is just the last goddamn straw.

Terry begins to cry like a goddamn baby.

“Don’t kill me!” Part of him is disgusted with himself, but that part is very soundly outvoted. “Please! I’m sorry! I didn’t want to hurt him!”

The angel looks at him with as much compassion as a marble statue.

“You will live,” she says. “Because, unlike your associates, you might yet benefit from this life. But, where I come from, the minimum punishment for theft was the loss of one hand. Hold out one of your hands.”

“No!” Terry weeps. He sounds like a goddamn little girl, his voice an octave higher than it’s ever been since he was ten. “Oh my god!”

But he does bring his hands up, not to offer one of them, but more like with some dim thought of begging her to spare him.

The angel moves like she did before, so swift and smooth, with such control and precision, that Terry knows he must look like a bumbling child in comparison. Grabbing his left hand before he can pull it back she turns his palm upward with effortless strength and the sword dips toward him faster than thought, faster than he can even begin to pull away—

The pain is like nothing Terry has ever felt before since his birth. It’s like an oxy-acetylene torch turned slicing through flesh and bone like soft wax. The pain is so great that screaming is impossible. His diaphragm is paralyzed. He can’t control his muscles enough to even look down, and so continues staring at the angel’s severe face. Her shining blade is suddenly gone, with no transition. Just gone. She is looking into his eyes.

“Don’t forget,” she says. “Live a better life.”

And then she is gone, too, and somehow Terry can feel her departure in some part of himself that he can’t define, except that it feels like his guts are being pulled out.

But at least that breaks his paralysis, and he doubles over, gasping, grabbing for the stump of his hand—

But it isn’t a stump. His hand is still there. She only touched it. There is only a bright red line like a burn half an inch wide across his wrist. His left hand is clenched up. He tries to open it, and it responds. The fingers still work. It hurts like hell, but she has only burned him.

The way she moved when Marlon, Brad, and Emilio attacked her flashes through his thoughts again. If there had been a hundred of them she could have decapitated every one of them like a samurai chopping sunflowers.

He has received mercy from an angel.

Terry falls to his knees in the darkening parking lot and cries like a baby, holding his burned wrist.

~

From her perch atop the parking structure, Haniel watches the child bend over his injured hand, and weep. Haniel wonders whether she has done well. Did she improperly usurp the role of a Warrior?

Not a warrior. Today you have become a teacher.

The thought comes as a shock. Then Haniel weeps a little, too.

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