The black powder was an annoyance to brush off. He beat at the feathers with a small hair brush and blew through cracked lips to clear the dark stain. As tricky as the camouflage was to remove, it was coming off ten times quicker than the blood.
Saphrael beat his wings violently in an attempt to shake the black powder from the white feathers; the down-draft caused him to rise several feet into the air. Stray papers were blown from his desk. Perhaps he’d left it too late this time; maybe he should have risen a little earlier.
Weak grey light spilled in from the large windows above him. His chamber was cold this morning, he’d forgot to set the heating last night. He regretted that now, standing naked on the stone floor, dripping wet from his shower and with the December chill leaking into the place through the thin stained glass above.
Confident most of the camo-dust was off, he picked up yesterday’s damp towel from the floor and dried himself the best he could. Already the sounds of children’s voices filled the air, floating up from below. Not long left. Finding the iron, he plugged it in and set it on the ironing board as he went in search of his robes.
‘Never hung up’ he mouthed to himself as he searched the chamber for his ceremonial attire.
It had been the same since his school days. All the other Cherens had seemed very able to wash, iron and hang up their robes well before an important ceremony. Saphrael was always left to forage for his like a squirrel trying to find the nuts buried before winter. His unpreparedness had always been of interest to the Head-Fay, who, as Saphrael arrived late and crumpled to ceremonies, would always point it out to the others gathered there and embarrass the young Cheren.
‘What a prick’ he reminisced.
He thought back to the Theocracy lessons that same Head-Fay had taught him and the other Cherens. The sound of his deep voice still seemed to echo around Saphael’s chamber, even now after 15 years.
“…and what, class, is the main difference between a Fay and a human?”
Silence from the younglings. One finally raised a chubby little arm; not Saphrael.
“We don’t have any DNA, Master. The humans do.”
“That’s correct”, said the teacher, “and why don’t we have any DNA? Saphrael?”
The other children turned to look at him: all those boys who were further along with their reading, singing and flying. But he knew the answer, everybody did.
“Because God made us in his own image, whereas the humans were a mistake. They grew like weeds in the garden.”
“That is also correct, well done little one.”
‘Patronising cunt’, thought young Saphrael.
“But we must remember”, continued the adult, “that daisies are weeds, and yet they are quite beautiful. And so it is up to us, up to all of you one day, to protect the daisies from the other weeds, to allow them to grow and to allow God to select the ones he feels have earned passage into heaven”.
He remembered that day, mainly for the fight he got into later with another Cheren who called him scruffy, but also because it was the day he’d decided he didn’t believe what they were taught.
‘Weeds and daisies!’ he laughed then clapped his hands together in celebration as he discovered his robes, hiding below his cot. The left sleeve was stained with chocolate.
‘And then’, said the Archbishop, ‘they were all joined by the Wise men. So do we have any Wise men in the congregation?”
Saphrael watched from the high ledge outside of his chamber as several dozen children, dressed in various kingly styles, moved away from the gathered crowd at the centre of the cathedral and toward the High Altar platform. There, they sat with shepherds, donkeys and assorted little bodies with heads wrapped in dish cloths. At the centre a young girl and boy squabbled over a semi-naked doll. The perfect nativity.
Saphrael smiled as he noticed that the group of slowly gathering children contained many wizards and fairies, goblins and elves. He loved it when mythologies mixed.
Directly below him, some sixty feet to the floor of the cathedral and behind the Christmas Eve congregation, stood a verger. Saphrael forgot the man’s name but remembered watching him one night as he vomited fiercely outside a pub and then following him all the way home. Keeping to the shadows of the rooftops, he witnessed the man barge and shove other revellers that he passed. Another great servant of God, he thought.
The cassock-clad man peered upwards, found Saphrael’s perch and raised a single finger. Saphrael took this signal to mean ‘one minute’ and not ’stick that up your arse’ as others might have. Saphrael gave the man a slow, broad smile, purposely flashing his pointed canines in a passive aggressive manner; always a thrill to watch the humans’ reaction to that. The verger merely looked away, back toward the High Altar.
After adjusting the red sash he had tied around his arm to cover the chocolate stain, Saphrael listened once more to the amplified voice of the Archbishop.
“And then they had some very special visitors; visitors who came from very far away indeed. The Fay. So do we have any Fay here today?”
Whoops and cheers from the children revealed that the majority had come dressed as Fay; little white wings bobbed amongst the crowd as at least 30 or 40 of them appeared on the Altar platform to take their position behind the others; boys and, ridiculously, girls. Saphrael could see that the children ranged in ages from three up to about twelve, and were it not for the visible elastic straps holding the feathers on, they could be mistaken for a host of real Cheren.
‘They do like to pretend to be what they are not’ he thought, as he ran his hand through his hair and ruffled his light-brown curls.
“Is that all the Fay?” continued the Archbishop, his many chins wobbling with false enthusiasm, “I thought we had at least one more…?”
This was his cue. Without bothering to look down at the ‘thumbs-up’ signal from the verger, Saphrael leapt from the ledge, spread his wings and glided down the length of the cathedral’s interior. Below him he heard gasps and cheers from the children, silence from the adults. Once above the Altar platform he flipped forwards in mid-air and landed precariously close to the Archbishop who could not help but flinch. Saphrael knew he would later laugh about that to himself.
He gave the Archbishop the same broad and toothy grin he had given the alcoholic verger, before joining the other ‘Fay’ at the rear of the nativity scene. The children there were enthralled by him and wanted to touch his wings and white robes. Saphrael merely smiled pleasantly and waited for it to be over.
Watching him go, the Archbishop said “Well, here he is; our special guest. And that means our scene is complete. If mums and dads would like now to come forward and take a few phot…”
The horde advanced. Hundreds of flashes snapped before Saphrael’s eyes, dozens of cries of ‘Andrew, this way darling…’, ‘Celia, look at mummy’, ‘Girls, girls, smile for daddy!’ He closed his eyes against the flashes and hoped the Archbishop wouldn’t notice. He then stretched his wings out to their full size; telescopic bones beneath the feathers popped and snapped into position to attain the maximum thirty feet width. He heard the children around him cheer again and the artificial clicks of digital cameras increased. He knew some of the photographers had to be press; he wondered what the Christmas day front page would look like.
“Well thank you all so much,” said the Archbishop, somewhere beyond Saphrael’s eyelids, “both boys and girls, mums and dads. I hope you all have a very merry Christmas. May God bless those that deserve it.”
Saphrael heard the crowd applaud, most probably to the disgust of the Archbishop, and then the incessant questions began from around him.
“How do you fly?” “How old are you?” “What is your name?” “Can you pick me up?” “What do you want for Christmas?” “Where do you live?” “Can I have a feather?” “What’s it like to be a Fay?”
They were the same questions that children always asked, but Saphrael knew he wouldn’t have to answer them; he knew he wouldn’t have the chance.
“Right then children, let’s leave the Fay alone now shall we, he’s a very busy person.” The Archbishop approached and took Saphrael by the hand as if to lead him off. By then the parents of those children closest had already come onto the platform to usher their own little ‘Fay’ home.
As the crowd cleared from the High Altar and the congregation began the traditional procession passed the life-sized model of the manger scene, the Archbishop spoke quietly to Saphrael.
“See,” he said, still all smiles as he too knew that the press were present, “wasn’t too bad was it?”
“I was nearly blinded.” Said Saphrael, not bothering to smile anymore.
“Well it’s done now. Best be off back to the tower, no need to cause a scene anymore.”
The Archbishop flicked his hand up to the ledge from where Saphrael had appeared and then stepped down from the platform to speak with other members of the High Clergy. They shook his hand, patted him on the back and shot the occasional suspicious glance to the Fay.
Saphrael turned from them, toward the departing children and said loudly, no need for amplification: “Merry Christmas kids. I hope Santa brings you everything you wanted!”
The children go crazy at this, and satisfied he has pissed the clergy off sufficiently by mentioning Santa Claus, Saphrael beat his wings and took to the air, swiftly flying back to his chamber in the bell tower; cheers and camera flashes in his wake.
He could feel the eyes of the Archbishop burning into his back as he soared.
He enjoyed night time in the cathedral; no scolding clergy, no gawping tourists and no daylight streaming in through the stained glass windows, illuminating the images of sinners being damned. It was far easier to feel less guilty at night time.
Saphrael sat alone in the middle of the huge church at a grand piano. He would play in short bursts; violent and erratic things, loud and powerful to the point where his fingers ached and the piano moaned. He took in a deep breath, blocked out the sounds of a car passing outside and thundered away at the keys. Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor; fast, emotive and very loud. As he played, a piece he’d known well since a Cheren, he stretched out his great wings and allowed them to flap and fold, quite lost to the music.
As he played his mind wandered. He thought of this place, this cathedral, his new home. Quite why he had been given this particular assignment, at such a high profile church, he couldn’t guess; especially considering his history and tendencies. But the order came through, direct from the Vatican, to take up his new position here as the Cathedral Fay and Heavenly Guardian, only three months prior. The decision had depressed him deeply.
He took his mind from such thoughts and concentrated on the music. At least now he could play as loud as he chose. When he first arrived here the cathedral was protected at night by a team of security officers, who would patrol the building and watch the many CCTV monitors from the Control room. With the arrival of their very own Fay to guard the place, the Archbishop and High Clergy decided that these men were to be promptly made redundant; who needs mere men when you have God’s own soldier at hand. As regrettable as the men’s dismissal was, it did now leave Saphrael all alone to do as he pleased at night. Playing the piano was just one of the many things he enjoyed doing.
Of course he was paid to be there; even Fay occasionally need money. All food and accommodation were taken care of with Saphrael having his own quarters in one of the bell towers. A monthly salary was paid into the Vatican bank account by the High Clergy, of which a mere fraction found itself to Saphrael. He didn’t mind this, knowing that the money went toward things like the Cheren School and medical care for the Blessed Ones.
He stopped playing; his fingers froze. Always the same when he thought about that.
He remembered the image of his mother, not of her face but rather the memory of a photograph he owned until just a year ago. He never knew her; she died during childbirth; his birth. They all do.
Contrary to what children are told, those same children who gathered around him earlier that day, Fay do not fly down from Heaven. They are in fact born like any other human. Saphrael is constantly amused by humanity’s idea of an immaculate conception, but in reality, that is how Fay come into being. Some girls pray all their young lives to become one of the Blessed Ones, devote themselves entirely to God and the teachings of the Omega Book. To some it happens, one day they awake with a low and deep pain in their stomachs; the seed has been planted. Others it happens to quite accidentally; girls without any belief in God or the Book find themselves pregnant, and as soon as the ultra-sound detects tiny forming wings… well, it’s a death sentence.
Everyone dies. Everyone that sires a Fay either dies during the birth or during the final stages of the pregnancy. The human body is incapable of coping with the stresses put upon it by the developing foetus, despite modern medical innovations. Some girls, the ones who do not wish to die for the glory of God and the Fay, attempt to terminate their unwanted babies as soon as they discover they are pregnant. But since this act was deemed heresy almost 900 years ago, and punishable by incapacitation until the baby is born, most just accept their fate, or kill themselves.
Saphrael’s mother was one of these.
She lived in the small town of Longyearbyen on the arctic island of Svalbard, and when she discovered her pregnancy she attempted to commit suicide by taking a drug over-dose. She failed and was imprisoned in her own home by her own father, a devout believer. Saphrael burst from her womb eleven months later. She was 14.
He remembered the photo, lost now by an accident he couldn’t have avoided, of a young girl, a mere child. But it was still his mother.
After his birth he was immediately taken to the Cheren School in Saexland and he had remained in that country ever since. Apart from the brief visit he had paid to his human grandfather three years ago, after learning of his mother’s fate. The smile crept back onto his face as he thought about that.
He stood up from the piano, stretched his arms and his wings and took to the air. He flew the short distance upwards to the entrance to his chamber and went inside.
There was a smell of damp and the occasional dripping sound from the internal drainpipe but over the past few weeks he had grown to quite like his chamber. He had put a sign on the door leading in from a spiral staircase which read: ‘Fay here. Enter and die’. The vergers had joked with him about the sign, but he meant it;
“Invade this space, even by curiosity, and I will kill you”.
The shared jokes with the human staff soon stopped after that exchange.
He looked to the old clock on the wall: 11:56pm. It was time. Stripping himself naked of his ceremonial Christmas robes, he padded across the cold hard floor to a metal locker and retrieved a canister covered with language and symbols he had never understood. Shaking the can, he began to spray its contents over the fine white feathers of his wings, coating them all in a thick black powder.
Saphrael then dressed in a special outfit he had been working on for months now; all black, with interlocking plates of hardened plastic; a light-weight suit of armour.
So clad, he stared at himself in the mirror. It was time to go out now.
He wondered what would happen tonight. It was Christmas Eve; would that have any effect on the humans? No doubt their guard would be lowered more than usual.
He thought again of what the front page of the Newspapers would be tomorrow morning and took flight, his smile now bigger than ever.
Howard has worked as an actor, stand-up comedian, cinema usher and Roman history tour guide. His influences include H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Alan Campbell, the creepy cycle path near his house and the month of October. He writes science fiction, fantasy and slipstream. He lives at www.howardmosleychalk.com and welcomes you to visit. He has a wife and a baby daughter who likes to point at him.