The indigo-blue waves of the Yarlung Zangbo river, like huge fingers, skirted the ankles of the piers of the bridge in a leisurely fashion.
Ennio, still carrying the frozen, bloody remains of the stewardess in his boot, exited the Mount Galashan tunnel and drove onto the bridge. Then he realized Chinese soldiers stood guard at the other end of it.
‘I’ll have to get rid of this whore somewhere else, otherwise they’ll see me,’ he mumbled, scanning the countryside. Or I may wait until night falls. No. They’ll get here by nightfall. He thought of Ma-gios and his father, Kunga. Damn it, I must hurry.
He made a U-turn on the bridge and turned right onto the dirt road that led away from the entrance to the tunnel. The soldiers standing guard at the other end of the bridge followed his car with idiotic expressions.
He drove first through a village where grey, dice-shaped houses with carmine, copper-plated doors were being built. What atrocious taste they have around here. He was on edge because somehow the road did not seem to be getting any closer to the river. Finally, after half an hour’s driving, he saw a ledge he deemed appropriate. It looked ideal as the bank was a steep cliff dropping directly into the river. Ennio pulled over and stopped. The cloud of dust lifting in his wake dispersed, revealing a sparkling blue horizon. The mountains and the sky exchanged an eternal kiss while Ennio gathered stones from the roadside. He looked back towards the road he had come along but, unsurprisingly for Tibet, not a single soul could be seen. He opened the boot and unzipped the suitcases. He slit open each horrendous-looking sack a bit in turn. A stomach-churning odour emanated from them, but he ignored it and packed stones and pebbles of different sizes into them swiftly.
‘Dammit, Jiang Li, you should have a bath, you stink. Well, don’t worry …’ he grumbled and lifted one of the heaviest sacks ‘… you’re going to get a chance to soak your limbs at last.’
He flung the sack so violently into the river that he lost his balance and almost fell after it.
‘Dammit!’ he shouted, but cooled down when he had heard the splash of the sack on the water.
‘Deep down, love. Don’t come back again.’
He grabbed the other sack, the one with the bowels and the upper body in it, by the neck. Jiang Li’s last scream, just before the deadly blow of the hammer hit her, was still frozen on the face inside it. The girl was already purple and swollen. He flung it after the other.
‘Bye, Jiang Li. You won’t get a parting kiss. We’ll meet in hell.’
When that sack had sunk, he dusted his trousers, clapped his hands and laughed, relieved. He did not turn back immediately as he wanted to enjoy the magic of the moment. Life came back to his unresponsive limbs. Having committed a pleasure murder made his heart bloom.
Back in Lhasa, he checked into another hotel, returned the rental car and walked back to the hotel Xueyu Tiantang, where he had arranged to meet Ma-gios and his father. I hope they’ll be punctual. I don’t trust these Tibetans. He was wrong, Ma-gios and his father were already waiting at the hotel entrance. He had just realized he did not speak a word of Chinese or Tibetan. The interpreter in the Vatican translated everything necessary and gave me his private number as well. There won’t be any trouble. Buck up … Oh, God, they look so primitive.
They were at a stone’s throw from each other when Kunga and Ma-gios saw him. They were standing there like two beggars. It’s a wonder the receptionists haven’t thrown them out. The two “beggars” whispered to each other, then looked at him. Ma-gios began to chuckle. Curiosity swirled under Kunga’s lambskin cap, his brown fur coat and shabby felt trousers clung to his body.
’Look, son,’ he said to Ma-gios, ‘we’re going for a walk with a minister.’
’And how shiny his shoes are! And what are those grey things he’s wearing? There’s a Chinese word for them, you’ve said …’
’Yes, that’s it, tào zhuāng.’ The boy was delighted, but then Ennio reached them, slicked back his sparse hair, adjusted his glasses and summoned a diplomatic smile that rather resembled a grin.
‘Ennio Marino,’ he said, bowing before them.
‘Kunga.’ The puggish father with a face like a loaf returned the greeting.
Ennio held out his hand to be shaken. Kunga did not move, he only stared at the extended hand, as if with a presentiment. He may have been alarmed by a premonition that, should he take it, there was no turning back. He looked into the eyes of the archbishop, then darted a glance at Ma-gios, who could do nothing but accept his fate and shake hands with the archbishop.
‘Lhasa Badacang Hotel,’ the archbishop said, pointing towards the end of the street, then thought, He could have reserved a room for them at the Xueyu Tiantang too, but he was unwilling to attract attention. These two would simply not be let in here.
Kunga nodded, told Ma-gios something and they collected their things. There was some indescribable torment in his eyes, which even moved Ennio into picking up one of their bundles. They revolted him, but their confidence had to be won. Kunga smiled.
The odd group made for the hotel three streets away, which was by no means as elegant as Ennio’s previous accommodation. Its yellowed façade was staring into the bustle in the street with gaudy red-and-yellow windows; the blinds hanging from them had shrivelled into grey eyebrows. The archbishop had reserved a large room to share with his guests, one with two huge couches and an extra bed. Kunga and his son eyed the room, the windows and the doors with dislike, as if planning their escape. While Ennio called the interpreter via reception, Ma-gios quenched his thirst from the toilet bowl. Recognising what it was, and proud that he had already seen a water closet, Kunga rolled about on the floor in rough hoots of laughter, at which Ma-gios also began to laugh and cleaned his mouth with toilet paper.
Both of them were greatly surprised, however, when the Vatican interpreter talked to them through the hands-free telephone. They listened attentively as he informed them of their journey’s goal and gave them the required information. Ma-gios began to giggle in the middle of the monologue but Kunga hushed him. Inadvertently, the interpreter mixed up the words for excrement and present. Ennio kept butting in in Italian, then ripped open an envelope and gave Kunga their dearly obtained passports. It had been difficult to get through the labyrinth of Chinese bureaucracy. Procuring passports for two Tibetan nomads? Electing a pope is a simpler procedure. Father and son fingered the wine-red booklets all about themselves with pleasure. After telling them about everything, the interpreter stayed on the line for a bit longer. Kunga was at last able to pose the question Ennio had always feared.
‘What exactly does my son have to do there?’
The interpreter translated the question instantly. Silence followed at the other end of the line too. Ennio felt it was not only Kunga who was waiting for an answer.
‘I can’t give you precise details of the work, since I won’t be the only one to teach the boy.’
‘Teach?’ asked Kunga.
‘Yes, the work includes a short period of preparation as well, but I’m sure Ma-gios can manage everything,’ he said through the interpreter.
Kunga did not budge.
‘How long is my son going to be there? Can I stay with him?’
Forever, Ennio thought, then applied a simple trick. ‘Of course. And I’d like to give you the first instalment of the fee as a down payment from our organization.’
He smiled widely and handed over thirty thousand yuan to Kunga. The amount was several months’ income for a Tibetan worker. Kunga was scared by the three pale red bundles that were placed in his rough hands.
‘Oh, Mr Marino, this is too much money,’ he stammered.
‘This trifling amount may be enough to start our fruitful work together. Will that be enough?’
‘Oh yes, sir.’
Kunga was thinking of how many animals they could buy afterwards. He could also provide for Ma-gios’s education. Poverty and hardship were over. They would be honourable people. And the archbishop? He was bursting with pride because his theory that almost all people fall on their knees before the paper-based earthly god had again been proved true. Except Francesca, he thought with regret – with her, all his chicanery fell flat.
Ennio said goodbye to the interpreter, who remarked jokingly that those thirty thousand yuan could tell the nomads more than any top-notch interpreter.
That evening, Ennio tried to persuade Kunga and his son to have a bath several times. All he managed to achieve was to get Ma-gios to splash away the whole bottle of fluid soap. At least his hands are clean. The archbishop amused himself with the thought in the midst of the animal stench permeating the room.
The buffet dinner was copious; there was meat and cheese galore. Father and son, chattering away all the while, ate as if they wanted to eat enough for their whole life. Not understanding a word of what they were saying, Ennio tried to guess their feelings from their countenances. He found it remarkable how strong a connection existed between Ma-gios and Kunga. Watching those two wretched people, he was overcome by heavy feelings, including compassion, but he dismissed them irritably. He was flooded by anger when he saw that Kunga and Ma-gios were preparing themselves a bed on the floorboards. Beggars. He was an enemy of mediocrity in the Vatican too. Then they put the lights out and the room fell into darkness. Only the gauze veils of the four-poster beds stirred in the permanent draught.
‘Dad,’ whispered Ma-gios, ‘I’m afraid.’
‘Yes, I know.’ The response filtered through the darkness.
Ennio pricked up his ears. The desire to understand burnt him, but the family remained a closed book.
‘Can I beat my fear? I know that it’s important for us to have money to live on, now that Mummy has died.’
‘Ma-gios, you are my treasure.’
‘And Daddy, do you promise never to leave me?’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘I’d like us to die together, you and I.’
A short silence ensued. Kunga leaned on his elbow.
‘You know it’s not up to us to decide on that. Sleep, son.’
‘All right,’ the boy whispered, ‘but even so.’
‘I’ll never leave you, Ma-gios, I love you.’
Ma-gios crawled over to snuggle up to him like a kitten to its mother’s belly. He did not fully wake up at daybreak, but kept clinging to his father’s neck while they were driven to the airport.
After the terror of the flight, they were welcomed in Rome by a whole delegation. The rolling steel monstrosity Ma-gios had never sat in cut across the city jungle and cast them out into a garden fragrant with flowers. At nightfall, when the noises of the city pulsated through the windows like the murmur of organ pipes, Kunga sat his son on his lap.
‘Do you mind that we’ve come here, son?’
‘We’ve been told we’ll get a lot of money for it. We need money, don’t we, Dad?’
Kunga’s face softened.
‘But that’s not the most important thing. Aren’t you sad about it?’
‘No, Dad, I’m not. Though I prefer the mountains to these low, gaping pygmies with flashing eyes.’
‘They are blocks of flats, Ma-gios.’
‘I know lots of people live in them. I wouldn’t, if you ask me.’
‘I’d always fret about the one above me suddenly falling on me.’
The man pondered. ‘Well, I suppose people here have got used to that kind of danger.’
‘Sure. But if I had to live here, I’d only like to live at the top.’
The following morning they woke up in a plain, deserted room. After a fine brunch, a nice woman in deep blue clothes came to pick up Ma-gios. At first, the little boy hid under the bed in fear but, at a bowl full of chocolates, his protest abated and he left the room hand-in-hand with the woman.
The development of Ma-gios’ extraordinary abilities started. He was astounded to find out that a photograph album had been made about his short life. Someone said ‘You’ll sleep deeply now’, and then his words, uttered in deep hypnosis, were recorded on a Dictaphone. Everybody was interested in the evening when Rabten had been killed by the leopard. In the afternoon, he was allowed to return to his father. He told Kunga with shining eyes how important he had become.
‘I was taken into a huge room filled with books to the ceiling, Daddy. There was the scent of wood everywhere. Aunty Ines and I chased each other around the shelves and she said I could ask for any game. They were terribly pleased with me – but all I did was have a little sleep.’
‘I’m happy to hear that, son, but haven’t they told you how long we’d have to stay?’
‘Not that, Daddy. But I’ve never been to such a great place!’ he shouted. Then he was ashamed and added, ‘But of course, it was better when I was with Mum and you.’
Kunga took his son into his lap. The boy’s hands and feet were still moving about, so he stroked him. During the day he had had the opportunity to look around the building more thoroughly, but he was tactfully sent back into the compound when, in his curiosity, he wanted to go into the street.
‘You’re not safe outside, sir. You’d easily lose your way,’ the guard at the gate had warned him. He did not understand any of it, he only noticed the forbidding gesture.
Roses were blooming like a flaming sea of red brocade in the inner garden, but Kunga had already begun to get bored of the full service, kind manners and cleanliness. Ma-gios’s head was being crammed full of knowledge, but he was left to wither in the sun, or huddle in their boring room. He decided to slink out to the street the following day, but his plans were upset by wicked schemes. Ma-gios having been taken away to education around eight as usual, two men in white shirts who seemed to be nurses came in to see him and presented him with a piece of paper. On it was written, in Tibetan:
Please follow these men, who’ll escort you to me – Ennio Marino
Kunga dragged himself to his feet, although he did not feel like going anywhere with them. He was thinking of his little plan and the sightseeing that had now been foiled. One man was walking before him, the other behind. Kunga glanced back sometimes, but thought about the signature and was not afraid.
Suddenly, the green-painted corridor with the shimmering neon light came to an end and they started down the stairs leading down to the basement. Kunga halted, but the man behind him pushed him forward gently. He thought of Ma-gios and was overcome by panic. They reached a small door. That was when Kunga lost his patience. He spun around and, skirting the man marching behind him, took to his heels. He heard shouting punctuated by ‘Oh no!’ sounds behind his back, then the thumping of feet. Racing upstairs he instinctively ran towards what he thought was the door. He ran along the corridor like a gust of wind and when he reached a massive wooden door, he kicked it hard a few times, but it did not open. His pursuers caught up with him. He struggled, bit and scratched like a lion, but a well-directed blow to the back of his head silenced him forever. He collapsed like a puppet.
‘Merda!’ The bigger ‘nurse’ wheezed, having switched off his expendable baton**. ‘É una bestia!***’
That was the last day Kunga ever saw Ma-gios.
* suit (Tibetan)
 Shit! (Italian)
** Police weapon typically composed of a cylindrical outer shaft containing telescoping inner shafts that lock into each other when expanded and are usually made of steel. There may be a solid tip at the outer end of the innermost shaft, with the purpose of maximizing the power of a strike when the baton is used as an impact weapon.
*** A beest (Italian)
Angela’s father was sitting on the veranda when she got home from school with Edith.
Lost in thought, he was gazing at the pair of swallows sitting on the electric wires who were prodding their little ones to fly. The young swallows proved to be the most proficient learners in the neighbourhood. The survival instinct was coded in their genes and they knew their lives depended on how much they practised. Directions to the wintering place in South Africa that they would have to find at all costs were alive in their parents’ memory. None of them could afford to miss their target. The six-week journey would be a perilous test, fraught with danger. Memories of gigantic tropical storms haunted the parents. Thoughts of the crosses of huge birds of prey floating across the sky made their hearts pound violently. Not to speak of fatigue, the silent butcher, which made them stay longer and longer at each resting place. Old and wise swallows knew well that the flock must stay together. Those lagging behind would die, easy prey for the predators lying in wait. For now it was only the racing flies that dropped dead – in their beaks – but they felt the touch of death themselves on every journey.
Angela jumped out of the jeep, raced across the garden and climbed into her father’s lap. Her mother followed briskly and planted a dry kiss on her husband’s forehead.
‘Hello, darling. I’ll just rid of my bag and put a few things in the fridge,’ she said, lifting her shopping bag. ‘Then I need to talk to you.’
Joseph frowned and heard the door of the veranda slam shut behind her. He knew that slamming doors was a sign of stress for women.
‘What’s happened, dear? Has the school burnt down?’ he asked Angela, and gave her such a huge wink you could almost hear it.
‘Will you come to the stone bench with me?’ Angela whispered.
Joseph always melted at his daughter’s eyes.
‘Yes, my dear, I’d go anywhere with you.’
He stood up with a joyful sigh. The worm-eaten rocking chair inherited from the grandparents creaked with relief.
‘Come on, darling. I wanted to ask you how it went at school, too. Have you got friends? Are you happy that you can learn lots of new stuff?’
He took Angela by the arm and together they set out into the lush vegetation of the late-summer garden. The bench was still pleasantly cool. Joseph patted the carved stone. It had finely detailed stone roses running along its armrest.
‘You know, darling, this stone bench is one of the few relics left behind by the generations before us, besides the old wine cellar,’ he told her, but the little girl cut in.
‘Was the potato pit a wine cellar?’
‘Yes, completely. It’s just we use it to store potatoes. There’s still noble mould growing on the walls.’
‘Noble mould? Is it the king of moulds?’
‘No, dear, it’s the name of a good sort of mould. It makes sausages, cheeses or wines tastier. I’ll show you, the cellar walls are full of it.’
Above the granite columns of the cellar, overgrown with ivy, the pattern of a clover had been carved, marking the dignity of the place.
‘Perhaps one of the counts Zichy rested on this stone bench after an exhausting hunt – to quench his thirst and brag about his hunting adventures,’ the father continued his fable.
Angela was listening quietly. As if she were daydreaming, or meditating. Who would understand her? Her father was thinking, searching his child’s face. He that succeeded she would truly love. He would become her partner.
‘Darling, so what was school really like?’
‘Oh, Daddy, lots of good things happened to me. The teacher-lady was kind and I made friends with another girl. We’ll learn the Hungarian letters, but I prefer those in Mummy’s prayer book. She said I could learn them too – once I’ve learnt the Hungarian letters. On the way home Mummy got very scared of God, although she had no reason. And God sent along two angels to reassure her, but she was still scared.’
She kept kicking her legs excitedly, gradually mowing the dandelions trembling under the bench.
‘Go on, my dear. You’ve stopped at the most exciting point.’
Joseph was aware that Angela’s story had hardly scratched the surface of the complicated events that had taken place inside and around her.
‘Daddy, God appeared out of nowhere, can you imagine that? And Mummy got very scared. She also said maybe we’d only dreamt the whole thing and then I got very angry. In the end she admitted that she also believed God had been there. Perhaps that’s what made her angry?’
The little girl told him in great detail about the drive and the meeting with the other world. Her eyes filled with tears of joy, her heated words flowing out of her soul like a deluge.
‘But Daddy, you believe me, don’t you?’
‘Of course, because I know a thing or two about what happened to you.’
Angela suddenly looked up.
‘Oh Daddy, what is it? Did you see Him too? Did He talk to you too?’
‘I think He did, when I was a child.’
‘Did you also see the chariot?’ the little girl was shouting with joy.
‘No, I never saw images. That’s your privilege.’
He stood up, took her into his arms and thus carried her over the grass. He opened the door without a noise. The draught sucked in the curtain and a stray draught swept a few fallen hazelnut leaves into the hall. They both looked inside instinctively. Tabby was yawning in the weak rays of the afternoon sun. She was not interested in the creatures of any invisible world at all. She believed only what she saw or, better yet, had in her mouth. Once she got hold of something, she would not let it go for the whole world. Especially if it was a fallen chicken neck not yet cooked.
Uncharacteristically, Edith was sitting on a kitchen stool, munching a doughnut with a vacant look, and did not turn even at the noise of footsteps. Angela and Joseph hesitantly stopped by the shoe shelf.
‘Daddy, I think you should go up to her on your own,’ the little girl whispered.
After they had taken off their shoes quietly, Angela rushed up to her room. They’ll believe me eventually. The truth will be out at last, she thought, exulting. But she had still wanted to disappear from the scene as soon as possible. Expectant silence settled on the kitchen. The scent of apple pie lingered in the creases of the tablecloth. Joseph stroked his wife’s hair affectionately.
‘Feeling all right, love? I heard you had a little accident on the way. Angela says you were scared.’
The half-eaten doughnut shook in her hand.
‘We nearly died, both of us.’ Her answer was hardly audible. ‘I nodded off for a second and the jeep skidded off the road. It was a huge mistake. I don’t really know what happened next, but I think I passed out. Angela must have bumped her head too, because she spoke of weird things. Of angels, heaven and …’
‘Of God,’ Joseph finished.
‘Well, yes. Also of God. I saw bewildering things too.’
Joseph embraced his wife. He loved consoling her in her sorrow and caressing her in her happiness because at those times he felt he could get closer to her heart. Years had splashed water on the flames of their love; worries, those blood brothers of anxiety, had worn down romance between them.
‘But Angela’s story was quite convincing, don’t you think? She said, “Mummy believed at last.” What did she mean? Based on what’s happened, Angela seems to be guarded by some superior power. What do you make of it?’
The woman’s face stiffened and she pushed the man away.
‘Even you’re on about it now? You’re both out of your minds. What do you mean guarded? Is no one else guarded, or cared for?’ she asked, raising her voice.
In tears, she turned towards the window.
‘But, my dear Edith, a wonderful thing may be unfolding in our lives right now. I know it’s difficult to believe it, it seems to be against all common sense, but please, just let things happen. Try not to stick to your routine little world.’
‘Joseph, I live in the real world. It’s you and your daughter who live in a world of dreams. At least it’s forgivable in her case – she’s still a child.’
Joseph lowered his eyes.
‘I’m a bit tired, dear, I may take a nap,’ he answered. His head was still a bit numb. ‘Are you staying here or coming upstairs?’
‘I’m going into the garden to get some fresh air. I’ve had enough tales today, Joseph.’
‘There’s a letter on the phone stand. It’s addressed to you,’ mumbled the man and took a carton of milk out of the fridge.
The woman sniffed the air with her husband’s breath heavy with alcohol in it.
‘You’ve been drinking brandy, haven’t you?’
‘No, only a sip. There’s a lot anyway.’
‘Not with the postman, I hope.’ Edith’s look became threatening.
‘No way!’ he replied and, milk in hand, sneaked out of the kitchen.
Night was falling imperceptibly. Supper was an awkward affair as nobody talked about what was on everybody’s mind. Dangerous emotions strained behind affably smiling masks.
‘Everything can be discussed in a family, right?’ Joseph asked Edith while the latter was clearing the table. ‘I mean, I completely understand you.’
Angela squirmed in her seat, curious to find out what could come of this.
‘Possibly. Thanks for trying. I, for one, almost never understand you. I don’t know where you are when you’re daydreaming.’
‘Of course, he’s where I am,’ their daughter cut in.
Edith ignored her and carried on.
‘When we met, I liked what sometimes scares me off now – that you are different. As if you were spotted while the others are striped.’
‘Spotted? Hmm … but I haven’t got smallpox.’
‘See, Joseph? That’s what I’m talking about. You can’t take anything seriously. Life isn’t just a huge joke.’
‘Obviously. Our car bears witness to it. There was a gap in the crash barrier but you didn’t roll into the ravine. Edith, don’t you think it’s you who’d like to have been dreaming? But reality is here, you just have to see it.’
Listening to her father, Angela’s pupils dilated. She broke into a smile and stood up from the table. She had something important to finish: her plasticine loaf had just finished cooking and she had to adorn it with seeds before she gave it to Jerry, her teddy bear.
It was late at night when the couple retired to bed. In the dark, the man stroked his wife’s thigh.
‘This isn’t under the duvet,’ he murmured. ‘I’ll warm it.’
‘Are you getting up early tomorrow?’ the woman asked in the darkness.
‘Yeah, and you?’
‘You know I’m working.’
‘Are you tired? Shall I let you sleep instead?’
‘I’m not sleeping,’ she replied gruffly. All the same, impishness lurked under her pillow. ‘Could you sleep after a day like I’ve had?’
‘No, I don’t think I could. But tomorrow we’ll have to report that we’ve seen a broken crash barrier – though it’s possible someone’s told the mayor’s office already.’
‘Don’t worry, I bet they already know: the bus was full of people from round here.’
They began to laugh at the same time. They recognized the wonderful nakedness of the moment, which reminded them of their first romantic night. They had been in their twenties and camping illicitly.
‘I liked it when you stroke my thigh,’ remarked the woman.
As if only waiting for this, the man reached under his wife’s nightie. Edith sighed in response. She groped Joseph’s crotch. The thread of long waiting snapped in him and, grabbing Edith’s wrists, he pressed her to the pillow. He hugged her with unrestrained passion and pulled off her nightie swiftly. Edith hugged his waist.
‘I love you,’ he breathed into Edith’s ear.
A sigh trembling with desire was his wife’s answer. An owl hooted on the oak tree in the garden while Joseph lowered his tongue into the woman’s navel.
Edith shook with the faint memory of that mysterious night inside the tent in the forest. Drenched to the skin, they had taken shelter there, throwing their clothes on the grass and making love until they were swimming in sweat. That was when Joseph reached between her thighs.
‘My God!’ she cried out, grasping the sheet. Her body and soul were a vibrating cord and Joseph was the musician. Their thoughts ceased to exist, ancient movements came alive, mixed with sighs and muffled groaning. The slats of the bed creaked, the duvet fell to the floor. He entered her forcefully and she screamed out with euphoric ecstasy. They became one and did not cover themselves for a long time, warming each other’s bodies.
The next day they woke up to a dazzling sun, entangled in each other’s arms.
‘Haven’t you opened that letter yet?’ Joseph asked, caressing Edith.
‘I’ve put it into the Bible as a bookmark. It must be another of those stupid ads. It seems to be from a travel agency. I won’t open it.’
‘Open it anyway,’ Joseph insisted.
‘All right, but I bet it’s nothing. If it’s nothing, you’ll put the rubbish bin outside again. I wonder who the new garbage man will be. He’s smashed his car to smithereens. Drink-driving, I say!’
‘What are you saying?’
‘I forgot to say, I saw the garbage truck down the hill yesterday. It’d crashed into a tree. The firemen were chopping up the trunk that’d fallen across the street.’
‘Good God! And the driver?’
‘I didn’t see him, but not much was left of the cab. But he’d taken our garbage, hadn’t he?’
Joseph nodded and kept silent.
‘I’m sorry for him,’ Edith mumbled, ‘but he did drink all the time. That must have been his ruin.’
The man’s face turned white as a sheet.
The woman ripped open the envelope and ran through it sombrely.
‘Look, this must be a joke. It says here that we’ve won a trip to Rome. But I can’t find the little stars which should indicate the small-letter text.’
‘Where they’ve put in how much it’d cost to go on the trip,’ the man answered.
‘My dear!’ Joseph’s face lit up. ‘This is the competition Angela asked us to send in the labels for. Remember? This is the contest from the cooking-oil labels.’
A stunned silence ensued, then they began to laugh.
‘This little cutie-pie has won it for us,’ the woman roared and placed a warm kiss on Joseph’s forehead. They dashed into her room to kiss their daughter from head to toe, but the room was empty. They had been standing there petrified for a second when a spine-chilling shriek interrupted the twitter of birds filtering in from the garden.
Angela had got up before her parents and crept out barefoot onto the moss-grown path. It was paved with bricks, taking the stray guest along the shady side of the house. The cushions of moss sparkling with dew snuggled up to the soles of the girl, who was watching an unsuspecting tree frog. Ready to jump, she neared the frog, made a hollow of her palms and pounced. The frog, disregarding her, jumped aside nonchalantly. The girl had missed. The frog croaked in boredom and hopped further into the vast nettle forest, which would protect it.
However, something cast a shadow on the nettles. The little girl looked up. There, in the air, the lifeless body of Tabby was swaying. Her neck was stuck into a fork of the branches, her fur singed. A black five-pointed star still smoked on her side.
‘Did you hear that?’ Joseph asked his wife. ‘That was Angela screaming.’ He ran to the window and his blood froze as he saw the eyes of the dead cat staring back at him, dark and expressionless. Angela started to cry hysterically.
‘Wait, darling,’ Joseph howled to her, ‘I’ll be right with you!’
‘We’re coming, darling!’ shouted Edith too.
The family felt helpless as they looked at Tabby’s carcass. Only by climbing onto a ladder was Joseph able to free the unfortunate cat from the tree’s deadly grip.
‘We’ll bury her, right?’ Angela said in tears.
She curled up in the morning chill and crouched down on the brick path. Her mother rebuked her instantly,
‘Stand up quickly, or you’ll catch a chill! Put on your slippers now. And, you, why aren’t you speaking to her?’ she looked at Joseph. ‘She’ll catch a real cold one of these days.’
The father picked up his fair, pyjamaed angel.
‘Daddy, what’s going to happen now? Has Tabby really died?’
‘Yes, she has.’
‘Then we have to have a funeral,’ she blubbered.
‘Is it not enough to just bury her? Are you going to make her a gravestone as well?’ Edith inquired.
‘Yes, just imagine that!’ the girl snapped in irritation.
‘All right, my dear. But we should do it this afternoon.’
Whimpering, Angela caressed the cat laid out on the path, and Edith caressed her child’s head.
‘I can’t imagine who would do such a thing. There aren’t any other children around here.’ Edith turned to her husband. ‘Who could commit such an atrocious cruelty?’
Joseph shook his head sadly.
‘The Evil One! He did this. This is his sign,’ said the little girl, pointing at the star, and ran into the house.
At breakfast Angela mechanically ate her brioche. Tabby is dead, she was thinking, wringing her hands in pain. Edith had been quick to finish the morning routine and chivvied Angela on.
‘Get ready, darling. We’ll be leaving soon and you haven’t even combed your hair.’
‘Yes, Mummy, coming. But would you comb my hair for me?’
‘All right, my lamb, but bring a hairband as well. Imagine, I’ve got good news. We’ve won a trip to Rome in the contest from the oil labels. You’re fantastic!’
The girl was nonplussed for a second, then her earlier wilful expression returned.
‘Really? You go then, but I shan’t.’
‘You’ll see how nice it will be, and Daddy shall get you another pussycat.’
‘No, I don’t want one!’ the girl shrieked. ‘I only want Tabby and I don’t want to go anywhere!’
Her mother sighed sadly and tried to stroke her fair little head but the girl drew away from her. They left a bit earlier that day. Edith watched the white lines and the road like a hawk. They passed the crash barrier, which was now curled up like a broken watch spring. For Angela, it was the place where she had seen angels, for Edith, a place of horror. She glanced at Angela, who said, ‘I hope they won’t repair that broken barrier, Mummy.’
‘Why?’ Her mother gaped at her.
‘So that you will always remember God when you look at it.’
Edith smiled. ‘I love you, my little oddball.’
She glanced at her watch and stepped on the gas. Angela blinked, playing hide-and-seek with the sun like she did at nursery school. However, the sun was always there, however carefully she peeped from behind the teacher-lady. So she called her glowing friend God because she had heard He was everywhere.
‘Mummy, does it rain when God weeps?’
‘God never weeps, darling.’
‘But we would weep a lot without God.’
‘That’s possible,’ her mother shrugged her shoulders.
Angela looked into the sun again. Suddenly, a shadow moved in front of it. Was it a stray cloud, or an airplane cutting through the sky? She had a closer look at the shadow, and the blackness began to swell. It assumed a shape and approached alarmingly quickly. Frightened, she shook her mother’s seat, but Edith took no notice. Angela was seized by panic because the shadow now covered the forest as well. Her mother just kept driving, as if she had not noticed, nodding rhythmically to the music from the radio. Angela tried to free herself and climb over to the front seat, but a strong hand seized her throat.
It pulled her back onto the seat. A man with a walking stick, wearing a suit and an elegant jacket as black as jet, was sitting beside her. He was glowing, like the angels at the accident. The man did not wait for Angela to ask any questions. With eyes flashing green in the sunshine, he opened his pale lips to speak.
‘Greetings, Angela. Please keep quiet.’
The green glow surrounded his neck like a snake, its tangled outlines throbbing on his age-old skin.
‘I’m the Lord of this world. Everything here is mine, and it is I who am in charge of everything. Anything you’ve seen or heard otherwise was a lie. It’s only I who can manipulate reality and change things on this earth. Anything you wish for, only I can provide you. Anything you desire, only I can satisfy. All might and power on this earth is in my possession. Nobody may contradict me. Am I clear?’
‘Yes,’ answered Angela, shuddering.
‘You remember that iridescent man you talked to at the stone bench? He really was God, but he has no power in my empire.’
Thunder rolled in the distance.
‘It’s I who have the power over human hearts, and they must do as I order them until they die. There have been, are and will be some who revolted and will revolt against my rule and seek the path of light, but I will mercilessly torture them. Their wretched life will be accompanied by poverty, corporal agony, disdain and self-sacrifice. Those simpletons hope for a better future in another world after their miserable time here. But they are mistaken, damn mistaken. The iridescent man, your God, is only an illusion, a vain hope, a fancy and self-delusion. Everybody will be mine in the end, Angela, even you. It’s useless to fight me. You either yield to me and everything that you desire in this world can become yours, or you resist and suffer the agonies of hell.’
‘Are … are you the devil?’
‘Oh no, you silly little thing. The devil doesn’t exist. Because the real God … I’m the real God.’
The man laughed, Angela’s whole being shuddered. She was not sure whether what she felt towards this dark figure was disgust, anger or fear. She wanted to push him out of the car and destroy him. However, the more she wanted to do that, the brighter and more radiantly the man glowed.
‘C’mon, Angela, hate me and get angry. Your feelings are strengthening my power and empire. By hating me, you’re adoring me!’ he shouted and burst out laughing. ‘Give in to your feelings of hatred, Angela!’
‘Enough! Enough of this! Get lost! I hate you!’
She uttered the last words with a trembling voice and a lump in her throat.
‘Look, Angela, she’s already mine,’ the man sang, pointing at Edith.
Angela shuddered because her mother had turned green.
‘See how dark her soul is?’
‘No! Mummy isn’t dark.’
At this, the man stretched his hand across the foam of the seat and dipped it into the woman as if she were only vacuum. A pitch-black cloud puffed out in its wake.
‘Take your hand off her! You’re evil! Get lost!’ Angela bawled furiously.
‘Not so fast! Are you bossing me around?’ The man laughed. ‘You’ll have to wait a few years to do that, love.’
A mighty bolt of lightning struck near them. They both looked up and saw that the top of the car no longer separated them from the outside world. An angry, ashen sky stared down on them. Angela felt a pressure in her ears and chest; yet, she felt a familiar peace grow inside her.
‘You can now take your leave, Prince of Darkness, Father of Lies, Perverter of the Pure of Heart! You’ve done your job!’ thundered a voice from the cloud. ‘You can never take this life, otherwise I’ll make your hands account for her blood.’
The ether was buzzing around the Evil One. He was livid, but he relented. First his legs, then his body became transparent, and, eventually, his form dissipated and rose like mist. The little girl was looking for her saviour but saw nobody so she wiped away her tears. In the driver’s seat, her mother also became real again. She kept driving, drumming a rhythm with her fingers. ‘How deep is your love …’ The same refrain as yesterday.
‘I love this radio channel, don’t you, my angel?’
Still scared, Angela said nothing.
‘What is it? Did you hear the thunder too, love?’ asked her mother. ‘There’s a storm somewhere. There was a mighty clap of thunder. Strange, it rarely rains in the morning around here. I hope the sky will have zipped itself up by the time we get to school.’
She pointed upwards with her index finger.
‘Mum, the devil was sitting beside me, didn’t you see him?’
Her mother glanced back with a painful expression and sighed.
‘I guess I’ll have to talk to your dad.’