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Daydreams of angels, p.10
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       Daydreams of Angels, p.10

           Heather O'Neill
 
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  You could not ask why now, Major Olivier thought. You could not pause to think about the bigger questions while you were at war. You had had time enough as a child to do that.

  Instead, the major thought about how the little ship could possibly get to the shore with the waves being so wild this morning. The waves rose thirty to forty feet on either side of them. It was like a giant was making a bed and the sea was a great comforter, and the boat a tiny toy that was being tossed about on it. The machine-gun fire from behind him started its awful crackling, and the sounds of mortars exploding erupted. The world was going to pieces, wasn’t it? It was like someone had taken the whole world and stuck it in the blender at the five-and-dime back in Montreal and pressed the puree button. He wondered if his hair would go grey early because of this. His father always used to say that if you went to war, your hair went grey early. He had always been so vain about his jet-black hair. He felt as if he would never be able to eat again because of the seasickness.

  They all felt the bottom of the landing craft scrape against the gravel at the bottom of the shore and the ramp lowered. The men began to charge out and Major Olivier was right behind them when for a moment, at the edge of the ship, he was frozen in his tracks in a state of awe. What was he seeing on the cliffs? At first he thought that he was only seeing the smoke and debris from missiles that they’d launched at the shore, but as the smoke cleared, he saw it was something else. He slowly realized that the entire beach was covered with angels. They were standing on the sand, sitting on tree branches, perched on the rocks. You couldn’t even begin to count them. There were some that were still coming down from the sky.

  Some were holding up their gowns and walking with their feet in the water and kicking it about. One of the angels had made a beautiful pattern on the sand with clamshells. There was an angel with his arms stretched up in the sky, doing a backbend. One was juggling some stones.

  One was looking at a little bird hatching out of an egg. Some angels liked the simple things. Some of these angels hadn’t been down to earth in a while. One had caught a fish by the tail and was holding it in his hands so that the other angels could see how large it was.

  There were others that looked like they had been waiting patiently for hours, sitting on the cliff with their eyes closed, enjoying the salty breeze on their faces. Their curly golden locks were being whipped into a frenzy and tangled into dreadlocks.

  The angels didn’t see that there was anything particularly alarming about going to heaven—or that there was anything for people to get worked up about. Anyway, that was their job, to remain level-headed about things, so that they could calm you down and tell you that this was actually, very soon, going to be the best day of your life.

  The major saw more of them coming down from a parting in the clouds. He was amazed. Why was he the only one who could see them? He was absolutely certain that they were there. He had never hallucinated about anything in his whole life. He looked and looked and they were still there.

  What did God know that they didn’t know? Why would God be sending that many angels unless that many soldiers were going to be slaughtered? It could only mean one thing, and that was that they were all going up to heaven that very afternoon. He thought he had known that, but it was something that was impossible to grasp until the moment was upon you. Until death rings your doorbell, or tosses a stone up at your window from down below on the street, you never quite believe it exists, do you?

  Major Olivier was filled with so much dread that he puked all over himself. He began to beg everyone to come back. He screamed, but nobody could hear him. The noise of the waves overwhelmed his voice. The wind blew out his words like they were matches.

  He turned quickly, pointing wildly and waving his arm toward the shore. It was like he was in a dream, because nobody was paying him any attention. There was one soldier crouched against the wall to avoid the bullets. He crossed himself and Major Olivier could tell from the movement of his lips that he was supplicating to God and the heavens to come and protect him.

  Major Olivier wanted to say no, no, no, no. You don’t want to call on the heavens now. You want to tell the angels to go away. You should throw a stone at them, so that they will all fly up into the air like a group of pigeons. They’re here for souls—our souls! There were angels that were hovering over the water, like kites on the end of strings. They were ready to take up souls that hadn’t even got to the land yet. There were angels landing on the hulls of the landing crafts.

  The bullets were coming quicker and quicker. He could hear explosions. What could he do? There was nothing that anybody could do now but storm the beach.

  The praying boy headed out, and Major Olivier followed behind him. They were neck-deep in water and they were forcing themselves toward the shore. He ducked down because there was a volley of bullets whizzing over his head. He closed his eyes. He wanted to see his daughter again. He had no idea why on earth he had such a beautiful daughter. She would be sitting at the breakfast table with her curls all over the place, with one of her brothers on her lap, in a terrific mood. She would fling herself into his arms when she ran into him on the street, wrapping her legs around his hips and kissing him on the forehead. He felt blessed all the time.

  When he opened his eyes again he was underwater. There, right in front of him, was an angel with his hair swirling around his head like a Catherine wheel and his enormous wings spread out like great penknives. Major Olivier felt so terribly warm. He put his hands on his chest to see where the heat was coming from and he realized that there was blood all over his uniform. It was going to be all right now, as he was already dead. He had been dead this whole time.

  * * *

  Yvette was lying on her bed with her eyes closed and the blanket tossed aside when her mother came in the room to check on her. Her mother crouched down in the kitchen by the stove and wailed and wailed. The other children gathered around the mother, terrified and simpering. The neighbours could hear Yvette’s mother through the floorboards. The sound made them cringe and weep and cross themselves over and over.

  The doctor came sadly to the door. Like everyone else in the neighbourhood, he had a soft spot for Yvette Olivier. He looked at the body of the pretty young girl lying under the covers. What a shame that this girl, who still had so many days of partying ahead of her, had to be taken from this world. He looked at the symptomatic red rash on her chest.

  “Meningitis,” he said. “What an awful night she must have had.”

  It was peculiar though: the doctor couldn’t help but notice that she had such a happy look on her face. She looked as if she was still alive and was having the most fantastic dream of her life. She looked as if she was about to burst out laughing. Whatever else, the doctor seemed suddenly certain that that girl had gone to meet her maker in peace.

  THE ISLES OF DR. MOREAU

  Grandfather often enjoyed telling my brother about how, when he was younger, he was a ladies’ man.

  “I never had any trouble getting girls,” he’d exclaim. “None whatsoever.”

  It was hard for my brother and me to picture it. The grandfather we knew sat on the couch all day, sucking on chocolates with his dentures out and cursing the TV. Who could picture him on a date?

  Our mother didn’t like him telling old girlfriend stories, saying that most of them only served to objectify women and feed his own ego, but whenever she’d leave the room, we would beg for one of his tales.

  “Tell us about Dr. Moreau!” we yelled one evening when the washing machine had broken down and Mother had gone off to the laundromat. “Tell us about the Island of Dr. Moreau!”

  Grandfather often claimed he’d had a job working for Dr. Moreau and said that the women on the island were unlike any he’d ever seen.

  “No … I can’t tell you that story,” Grandfather said, playing possum. “Your mother would have my head.”

  “Please!” we yelled. “We won’t tell her you told us.”

  Grand
father sighed and agreed to tell the story if in exchange we each rubbed one of his feet, at which point he gave in, proclaiming that all stories needed telling eventually and this one was a doozy.

  “I was a slim, handsome devil back then,” Grandfather said. “But it wasn’t enough for me to seduce women. I wanted love. True love.”

  The story began, he said, one afternoon in 1945. He was out fishing in the Saint-Laurent River when a pompous fool in a white cardigan and sailor’s cap sped by in a motorboat, causing his rickety rowboat to be pitched out to sea.

  After two terrible days adrift, a large vessel pulled up and the sailors yelled for him to come aboard. Once he got on, Grandfather saw that the ship was filled with animals. It was like Noah’s Ark! He had never seen so many kinds of animals in his life. The zoo in Montreal didn’t even have a lion. All it had was a geriatric elephant that peed every time it sneezed. The sailors said that they were transporting the animals to the Isle of Dr. Moreau.

  * * *

  It had been years since Grandfather had heard a word about Andre Phillipe Moreau. Moreau had once been considered one of the world’s most eminent scientists. At the age of seventeen, he had famously visited Saint Petersburg to present the tsar with a mechanical monkey he’d built out of clock parts. The monkey was trained to move its head from side to side when someone was talking, in order to give the vague impression of actually listening. It knew how to diaper a baby.

  Of course no sane mother would leave her child with a robotic monkey, so the monkeys were purchased by orphanages, where they were wildly adored by the orphans. There was even footage that circulated of a little boy weeping and telling one of Moreau’s mechanical monkeys about how he had been picked on at school that day. The image of the little boy talking so intimately to a monkey with glass eyes and steel teeth filled the public with so much dread that the monkeys were very soon placed in storage in a Romanian hangar, where they probably remain to this day.

  Despite this setback, Dr. Moreau was still considered a young man of unparalleled brilliance, and after claiming in a medical journal that, given enough resources, he could cure male pattern baldness, a pharmaceutical company gave Moreau a massive endowment. He then moved to an island on the Saint-Laurent, where he used the money to commence work on his real project.

  Moreau called the small island “the Isle of Noble and Important and Respectable Betterment of Homo sapiens and Their Consorts.” Of course no one could be bothered to say this, so it became simply known as the Isle of Dr. Moreau.

  Occasionally, you would hear people speak of Moreau—about a new lawsuit brought against him by the pharmaceutical companies, for instance—but more often than not, as he had not been heard from in decades, he was usually spoken of as an example of wasted potential.

  “Some people said his downfall all began after he fell in love with a Russian princess,” Grandfather informed us knowingly. “She was too cold and cultured to love him back and it made him want to turn his back on society.”

  * * *

  When Grandfather first arrived on the island, he was eager to meet Dr. Moreau. The first time he saw him, the doctor was dressed in a three-piece suit and was reading a book of poetry. He smiled at Grandfather and said, “Welcome to this humble little piece of paradise, my child.”

  The island was undoubtedly the loveliest place that Grandfather had ever laid eyes on. There were lush flowers everywhere and monkeys and goats running all around. Moreau was in need of extra workers, and so when he was asked, Grandfather readily agreed to stay on.

  It was only after weeks of doing menial chores in the laboratory that Grandfather came to understand the nature of Dr. Moreau’s work.

  Moreau wanted to create a race of humans who could love more freely—a race who, unlike the Russian princess, would be willing to give their hearts to one another without fear. He believed that somewhere along the line, the evolution of the human species had taken a turn for the worse, and he believed that, by combining the genetic makeup of humans with the right animal, love would no longer need to be a tragic thing, continually questioned and denied until it drove us mad, but it would be something simple, good and pure.

  Moreau’s first step, as a means of experimentation, was to begin combining DNA from different animals. The workers Grandfather met were always talking about those first crazy days. They spoke of the ill-fated union of a hippopotamus and a sloth. The giant hippo would try to hang from a bar in its cage and then collapse on the floor and vomit. They spoke of the half gorilla, half parrot and how it would get all up in your face, repeating what you’d just said over and over. In the workers’ opinion, the worst combination was cows and bats. Eerily they flew through the night sky, dripping milk onto the heads of those below.

  After years of mixing animals with animals, Moreau finally felt he was ready to begin his true work: mixing animals with humans.

  * * *

  Grandfather was advised by the other workers not to become too close with these animal people who now populated the island, especially the women; but he was young and searching for love, and the only women who were one hundred percent human anyhow were a couple of older cooks and some washerwomen.

  “I had needs!” Grandfather cried.

  The creatures were a bit odd in general, since their idea of what it was to act like a human was derived from watching Dr. Moreau, and he was a man who sipped cocktails during surgery and kept his laboratory filled with birds, saying they reminded him to always make sure that his ideas took flight. Moreau spent hours contemplating matters ontological and zoological. He always used big, complicated words and you could only ever understand half of what he was saying. Grandfather said that one time, instead of merely instructing him to open the blinds, Moreau had cried out, “Remove the impediments that curtail my lumination!” Grandfather stood there, shell-shocked, until Moreau pitched a coconut martini at his head and got up to do it himself.

  So the half humans, in imitation of the doctor, could often be seen strutting about with walking sticks and saying nonsensical things like “Life is nothing more than a flickering candle. Troubled water that is not even water.”

  This is all to say that the island was afloat upon a sea of pseudo-intellectualism.

  * * *

  The creatures had such highfalutin ideas of what it was to be human that when Grandfather showed up, all the girls treated him as if he was a superstar. He had never been so popular in his life.

  At first it was disconcerting for him that these women, even if they were very pretty and often looked completely normal, were indeed half animal; but after a while, it just became commonplace to see a vaguely pony-faced girl throw back her head and let out a good-natured whinny, like a happy horse.

  His dating life on the island began one day while he was out for a stroll and ran into a half-swan girl.

  “But if I had known that swans mate for life, I never would have started with her,” said Grandfather.

  He first saw her at a small clapboard theatre that Moreau had ordered built to expose the animals to art. She was on stage, dancing the lead in the ballet Swan Lake. Grandfather thought he had never laid eyes on anyone so gorgeous in his life. She had such long legs and incredibly graceful movements. She was nothing like the girls he’d known back home in the lower-class district where he lived. She was the kind of girl that you could introduce to the Queen even.

  Licking his hands and smoothing his hair back, he walked into her changing room and handed her a daisy he’d picked from the shore. As soon as she saw the flower, she became hysterically happy, clapped her hands delightedly and threw her arms around his neck.

  Grandfather was amazed at how easy it was to win the swan-girl’s affections. They saw each other every night and couldn’t get enough of each other. She would ask him if he thought her neck was too long—which it was (it made her look like she was perpetually peering over taller people’s heads at a parade), but Grandfather told her he loved her neck. And to confirm this, he w
ould lavish it with kisses, which, because of its great length, was no mean feat.

  Although Grandfather found her endearing, there were aspects of her personality that got on his nerves. For instance, she would often point out children on passing bicycles and say that they looked like what their children were going to look like. And after having dated for only a few weeks, she showed up at his door with her suitcase in one hand and her houseplant in the other, declaring that she was moving in.

  Grandfather was almost relieved when she met a half-swan man who brought up marriage five minutes into their first encounter. Grandfather realized that she didn’t really love him anyway. She would have had anyone who came along and that wasn’t what he wanted.

  “To love everyone is to love no one,” he said. “My ego wouldn’t allow it.”

  * * *

  After that he decided to wait until the right girl came along, and not immediately jump into things. He decided to wait until he met a girl who was less forward, which might account for why he ended up with a girl who was half deer. The deer-girl didn’t have a wicked bone in her body, but she was so shy that when he took her out with his friends, she wouldn’t say a word. She would just sit there looking nervous, whispering that it was time to go soon.

  He practically had to move in slow motion around her, and when they kissed, he had to keep his finger on her pulse for fear of giving her a heart attack.

  Her panic and lack of social skills didn’t bother Grand-father, but her paranoia did. She complained about everyone looking at her funny—talking about her behind her back. She always thought there was someone out to kill her. She would put locks on her front door, and if someone rang the doorbell she would drop the plate she was holding and scream.

  Grandfather knew that loving someone is a risky thing that takes a lot of guts, and the deer-girl just didn’t seem to have the courage it takes.

 
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