Fiery Angels

I suppose I always minded the fact that our parents denied that there was anything odd about my younger sister Celia. I was stuck with nursemaiding her from very early on, so I became quite accustomed to strange events and pronouncements, which I suppose, to be fair, Mother and Father saw little of. I spoke to them once about my suspicions, and was punished severely for telling stories. I soon learned not to discuss "kid stuff" with them.

My sister was angelic to look at, and I think our parents only saw her looks and her quiet, obedient demeanour and couldn't be bothered looking deeper. With silver-fair hair, dazzlingly blue eyes and elfin, almost ethereal features, Mother would show her off proudly to her friends, who were always terribly impressed by her gorgeous looks and silent obedience. I never got paraded around in that way, of course - with my mouse-brown stringy hair and buckteeth, I didn't look anywhere near as impressive. Not that I minded, you understand - Celia was so lovely, and she deserved the admiration.

Looking back, I sometimes wonder why I wasn't jealous of the attention that she got during that time. I can only suppose that even then, at the tender age of eight or nine, I had determined that Celia needed protection; that somehow the world was going to be too harsh for her and that my place was by her side, soothing away the hurts. She had a series of little rituals that she would run through when she needed to retreat from reality for a while, and sometimes my presence by her side when she did so provided consolation in some mysterious way. I never understood how her habit of intently spinning wheels on wooden toys was of help to her, but it did seem to ease her through many a difficult moment.

Celia was fascinated by lights. Before she could crawl, she would reach towards any lamp or lightglobe, and when she became mobile I learned to move all table lamps out of her reach. Live flames were an especial favourite of hers, and the first time she put her hand in a candleflame and discovered that it hurt, she was inconsolable for days. When I once gave her a coloured foil christmas decoration, she played with it and nothing else for several days, ceasing only to eat and sleep. She turned it over and over, holding it at various angles and studying the glitter and reflection from it intently. When it eventually disintegrated from excessive handling, she gravely informed me that she was going to bury it.

"In the garden?" I foolishly asked.

"Oh no! Then it'd be darked." She dragged me down to the creek at the bottom of the street, and we ceremonially "buried" the decoration by dropping it in the fastest-flowing part of the creek. She insisted that I watch with her until it was entirely out of sight. She then clapped her hands and skipped back home, the decoration buried and forgotten (or so I thought, until I found her later that day, miserably wheel-spinning).

Celia's mood swings could be very startling. She might be sitting quietly on my lap while I read to her, and suddenly she would see something out of a window that caught her eye and she would be off after it. If I tried to stop her chasing after something that attracted her attention (running onto the road after dark to look at car headlights, for example) she would throw a monumental tantrum. Or she might be quietly and cheerfully occupying herself arranging toys in rows, but if I walked past the wrong way, casting a shadow on something that she was doing, she would burst into wrenching sobs, and moving out of the way wouldn't help. Of course you couldn't explain all this to Father, and I would miss out on dinner or be beaten for "bullying my sister".

Apparently only my father had a right to do that. Celia had an advantage over me in that regard, though - because she was so beautiful, he would never hit her in places that showed. With me he gave full range to his creativity in that regard. For years I cultivated all sorts of escapist fantasies: that I had been adopted and was really the Princess of Ruritania, soon to come into my birthright; or that one day my mother would shed her meek plumage and spring forth bold and heroic, taking my sister and myself and leaving my father, bereft.

Neither happened, of course. Life went on, more or less. Bruises came and went, and Celia got odder. And then came That Day.

I didn't realise that it was quite so critical at the time, of course. But upon recollection, it seems clear that this evening was the turning point for my sister, and indirectly the rest of us.

If memory serves me correctly, I was sitting on my bed reading one of the "girl-and-her-horse" stories that teenagers are so fond of. Celia and I had separate rooms, and it had been so since she turned seven a few years before. I was considering putting my book away and going to sleep, since if I were caught reading after bedtime (about 9pm at that point) there would be hell to pay. Normally my sister would have been sound asleep long before, which was the reason that I was so startled when the door cracked open slightly and a waiflike form shot in and dove under my bed.

Now, Celia can be odd, but she has never spent a great deal of time under my bed. I was understandably surprised, but even so my first instinct was to shut the door so that Father wouldn't see her. I then got down on all fours and tentatively peered under the bed. Sure enough, there she was, huddled into a tight ball between a couple of boxes. She appeared to be crying, but I couldn't be certain. Not being quite sure what the correct thing to do might be under these circumstances, I squirmed under the bed beside her and snuggled up to her shaking form. She wouldn't speak a word to me, but she didn't push me away either so I stayed by her in this fashion for some time.

Eventually I persuaded her to come out from under the bed. I was appalled by what I saw in the dim light of the bedside lamp. Her eyes were huge, dark and shocked, and she shook like a frightened bird. Determinedly silent, she refused to explain the bruises (not that they needed much explanation in that house!). But neither would she explain the blood that spattered her thighs. There were no visible wounds on her, and she was still too young to have her periods. I asked if the blood belonged to someone else, and she ever-so-slightly shook her head. Was it hers? She nodded uncertainly, and started shaking so violently that I thought she would fly apart.

It is clear in retrospect what my father had done to her, but at the time I could make no sense of it. The reality never even occurred to me until well after the event. After cleaning Celia up and calming her down as well as I could, I put her back to bed and, taking my courage in my hands, went to speak to Mother about it. Of course Mother wasn't interested in hearing about beatings, since if we needed to beaten it was as well that it happened sooner rather than later, or so she would say. But this appeared to be no ordinary beating. Something extraordinary had happened, and I felt that she should know.

In hindsight, it is obvious that I would be chastised as a liar. But I didn't know that then. So when it occurred I felt wronged and betrayed. I stalked back to my room in high dudgeon and nursed fantasies of revenge. I decided then that I would never approach my parents in that way again. If Celia and I had troubles, we would simply keep them to ourselves, and when I was old enough I would take her away and look after her properly myself. I would never trust either of them again.

After that, Celia started retreating into herself. If she had been quiet before, now she was positively silent. School teachers said that they could do nothing with her - she was unresponsive, they would complain. The only times I ever saw her show any life was when she was studying her great passion, lights and reflections. She would spend hours on the bank of the creek when it had water in, watching the play of sunlight on the surface. Occasionally while doing so, she would still smile. But some days she would not smile at all, and would keep to herself in silent isolation and not utter a word to anyone. During these days she would return to her preschool habit of sitting in the corner of the room spinning wheels.

It was during this time that she first mentioned the voices to me. She had been showing me a piece of tinfoil, holding it up at a certain angle just so, and looking at it in a certain way just so, and she was telling me insistently that if I did this then let my eyes go out of focus and looked into the reflections, then I would see a whole new world in the lights.

One didn't argue with Celia when she was in this sort of mood. One simply did what she said and hoped she'd get over it soon. And I didn't want to shake the fragile confidence that she still had in me - these days she rarely spoke at all, so I tried to encourage her when she did.

After a little while, I succeeded in getting my eyes to go out of focus in the way that she wanted, and I think I saw what she meant. If you do that to a bright point of reflection, it grows and distorts, and takes on a sort of illusory depth and pattern. Celia had seen this, and decided that it was a real place in there rather than simply a pattern of lights. And on top of that, she told me that there were angels living in the world of lights, and she heard them talking to her now and then. I asked her dubiously what they said to her.

"Oh, nothing much," she replied airily. "They just talk. Now and then. Just to let me know they're there."

Well, what can you say to that? I hastily changed the subject, not knowing whether to encourage or dissuade this line of discussion. But a while later she came back to it. I gather that she had put a lot of thought into the matter of her people in the lights. The angels didn't only live in reflections, she informed me, but in anything that gave off light. That meant they lived in lightbulbs, the sun, mirrors and so forth. But they didn't actually live in the items in question. She felt that there was a whole universe of light and brightness, and that lightbulbs, candleflames and so on were simply the points where their world touched our world. This universe was populated with beings of light, with Celia's angels, and she said that she had heard them singing to her.

I was starting to get seriously worried at this point. My sister's hold on reality has always been a tad tenuous, and I was coming to the conclusion that this time she had really dropped off the edge. I asked her why they couldn't simply be lights, mirrors, candle flames. Why did there have to be anything more to it than that?

"Because they're so beautiful," Celia replied simply, a beatific smile on her face. "They call me, you know. When I'm good enough I'll go and join them in the bright place and leave this world behind."

I began to think that I was on familiar ground. After all, we had both gone to Sunday school for a couple of years, until Father had gotten tired of taking us. So I asked her "When you die, you mean?"

"Oh no!" she exclaimed. "That's quite different! This is now! They've told me that when I'm good enough they'll take me away from here." She then looked conspiratorial. "They say that. But I don't think they want me to ask them to. So I shall be as good as possible, and they'll see that for themselves, and when I'm ready they'll take me into the light with them."

It was then I realised that Celia had retreated into a world of her own. The real world was too awful for her to bear, so she had invented this fictional world where if she were good, the pain would go away. I hugged her quickly, not wanting her to see me weep.


Celia's fantasy world was a great comfort to her, so I stopped trying to talk her out of it. When things got too bad, she knew the angels in the lights were watching her - always there, always sympathising. When Father started taking her with him on Saturdays to the racetrack I knew that she wasn't accompanying him to watch the races, but it wasn't until some while after that I found out that he was selling her services to other men there. I went away and threw up violently, but I never saw Celia weep again. She was becoming more remote by the day. She passed through the world dreamily, not really touching it at all. Untouched by dross, smiling sweetly and silently, she spent all her spare time now watching lights. When she saw a kitchen appliance short circuit and produce spectacular blue arcs, she realised the world of lights encompassed electricity as well; and she began flicking power points on and off, hoping to communicate with the angels that way. She started watching untuned stations on the television, a habit that drove me to distraction, but she claimed that she heard voices in the static and saw her angels in the "snow". When she nearly electrocuted herself one day, I made her promise to me that she wouldn't repeat the exercise. I convinced her that if she killed herself, then the angels would forbid her joining them since she obviously didn't have the patience to wait until they were ready for her. I don't know if she understood the danger - she was quite far gone at that point - but I attempted to hammer it home anyway.

She then tried starving herself. I think the theory was that if the angels were in electric wires, then if she were thin enough to fit down those same wires she could join them. Fortunately for her, she was of a delicate enough constitution that she made herself ill from lack of food quickly, and no real damage was done. She thought about it and decided that maybe it wasn't such a good idea after all. I heartily encouraged this conclusion.

I wondered what she would do next - throw herself into the six-inch-deep creek, perhaps, to merge with the surface reflections? Whatever it was, I knew it would not be a good idea, so I attempted to keep a very close watch on her. The problem was that weird as Celia might be, she was faster and cleverer than me, and she could and did easily outwit my clumsy attempts to limit her creative suicide attempts. I don't think she thought of them as suicide attempts at all, of course. To her they were ways of escaping an unpalatable reality. And who knows? Maybe I should have let her. She was certainly emotionally damaged, probably beyond any hope of repair. But she was my sister, and I loved her more than I loved anyone or anything else. I could not stand by and watch her destroy herself.

As it happened, it wasn't Celia that was destroyed in the end. I certainly never would have foreseen the outcome. I had thought that she had given up all hope of reality and was passively waiting for her angels of light and fire to claim her, but I suppose there must have been one last spark of defiance left. At any rate, I was sitting quietly minding my own business one evening, when I heard a crash from the bathroom, and she came into my room with an angelic smile on her face. She seemed positively transported.

"It's happened!" she said, several times, all the while tugging at my arm. When I asked her what had happened, she declined to answer, instead pulling me into the hallway. At this point I noticed that she was standing there half-naked, a partly-buttoned blouse being her only garment. I told her that Father would have her guts for garters if he saw her going about the house like that, but she disregarded my hissed warning and pulled me along the hallway to the bathroom.

"In here!"

I entered the bathroom after her, and immediately I saw what was within I backpedalled as fast as I could, pulling Celia with me. I suppressed the part of me that wanted to collapse into hysterics.

"What happened?" I hissed frantically at her.

In the bathroom, naked and sprawling awkwardly in a half-filled bath, was my father. Or more correctly, the body of my father. Several glass bottles from the vanity unit were now lying shattered on the floor. His big old radio was plugged in and sitting in the bath with him. It was decorated with scorchmarks and no longer playing. His face wore a grimace worse than any I had seen him display in life. He was without a doubt stone dead.

I asked Celia again. "Do you know what happened?"

"They came," she said sweetly.

"The fiery angels. I called to them for help, and they came."

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