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Daydreams of angels, p.2
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       Daydreams of Angels, p.2

           Heather O'Neill

  She packed up a tiny suitcase. The Gypsy knew this part of the story well. It was the type of story about orphans that was in dozens of books. He knew exactly what the Orphan was wearing without her having to tell him. She had on a little pair of black lace-up boots whose soles were worn thin. She had a pair of black tights that had been mended dozens of times and still had holes in the knees. She had a grey-and-blue-striped dress that was frayed at the bottom, and a wee skimpy coat that had gone to seed.

  The Orphan’s grandmother drove her to a huge stone building in the middle of the city. There were massive wooden doors that should have been impossible to open without three people pushing together, but they swung open easily. Such are the improbable physical laws that govern a world created by a child.

  The Orphan walked into the dormitory and saw that there were sad, skinny girls all over the place. They slept in rows of squeaky beds with cast iron frames whose white paint was peeling off. They often ate little bowls of gruel. It never tasted like anything at all, and there was never enough of it. The orphans were hungry all day long. They often thought of going up and asking for some more, but the young boy must have known that it would be a cliché.

  All the orphans looked tired and worn out. It was clear that they were not staying at the orphanage for free but had to earn their keep. One of the principal things that the girls did to keep the orphanage up and running was laundry. They would hurry up the back stairs of houses to collect baskets of dirty clothes and then pull them back to the orphanage in their wagons. They would sit at buckets, scrubbing vigorously all day long.

  They were beaten all the time for their misdeeds. No matter how much they toed the line and tried to be good, they were children and so they would make mistakes. They were beaten for spilling a glass of water or for losing a sock from their basket of laundry. Their laughter would be quick and furtive and frightened, and then disappear, like a mouse sneaking briefly out of its hole. And they were even beaten for laughing after the lights were out—although this was a very rare occurrence indeed.

  The Orphan often found herself having to lean over, with her dress lifted up, while she was viciously pounded with a wooden panel. She couldn’t sit down at all. And she wept whenever she had to have a pee.

  The orphans were also expected to perform in the Charitable Children’s Orphan Orchestra, which played at various functions in order to raise money from wealthy citizens. The orphans would ding triangles and bang cymbals. It made the noise of cash registers being rung up. There was one girl who played the trumpet a little, sounding like someone yawning first thing in the morning. They didn’t have to be particularly talented. Their job was mostly to look pathetic and adorable. Many of the girls liked it because it got them away from the orphanage and work for the day.

  The Orphan chose to learn the violin. She practised every evening. She practised when she had finished all her laundry. She poured all her energy into playing the instrument. She wanted to have a skill more than anything else because she knew that it was the only thing that could take her far away from the orphanage, not only for the day, but forever. It could save her from a life of servitude. If she could play the violin properly, she thought, she could have a whole different kind of life story. She could be a whole different kind of character.

  The priest who was the musical instructor was particularly violent during his lessons, but she didn’t mind. She was glad that he slapped her when she made a mistake. She thought that the sooner she was able to master this tempestuous piece of wood, the sooner she would be out of there.

  Her playing sounded horrible at first. All the other girls covered their ears and made fun of how badly she performed. The neighbours who lived in buildings around the orphanage heard the music but did not know what it was. It sort of sounded as if there was a little girl crying for her mother under their window, and they so wished that she would go away. Why should they have to deal with her stupid problems? They had enough of their own without having to deal with this. It sounded like a cat in heat. They prayed that the animal would hurry up and get laid. That some tomcat would put the silly slut out of her misery and knock her up.

  She knew that she would be good one day—she knew that all her pain had to translate into something. Because where art is concerned, pain can be transformed into magic.

  The Orphan did not like being a girl one little bit. As she walked down the street, pulling a wagon of laundry, she didn’t like the way the men looked at her ass, knowing that she was poor. She didn’t like the way they all thought that they might be her Prince Charming.

  Once she went to a house to collect some laundry and a woman gave her an old suit that had belonged to her father, who had recently passed away. She told the Orphan to throw it away or sell it to the rag dealer. The Orphan brought it back to the orphanage and tried it on in the closet. The old man had been tiny and was practically the same size as her. It was the first time that the Orphan felt comfortable in clothes.

  She found a pair of glasses in the breast pocket. The little boy had obviously recently started wearing glasses and thought it only fair that everyone should. She put them on out of curiosity and found that she could see much better. She knew that she looked ridiculous in the glasses, but it was better than being blind. She kept the glasses on and hid the suit in the closet. No one seemed to bother her about the glasses at the orphanage, or notice that there was anything different about her appearance.

  Then one day the Orphan did not tuck her sheet in properly after she made her bed. It filled the Headmistress with so much rage that she went after the Orphan, who was so busy scrubbing away with a bucket between her feet that she did not notice her coming.

  Swooping down behind the Orphan, the Headmistress grabbed the back of her hair with her fist and forced the girl’s head right into the bucket of water. She yanked her up for a breath, and the Orphan’s body shook and she gasped uncontrollably. The Headmistress pushed her back under the water again. She let her up and the Orphan collapsed, writhing and puking on the floor. Lying prostrate, with her little finger splayed beneath her on the tiles, the Orphan knew that she could sink no further in this world. And so she slowly rose up, straightened her tiny spine and knew for the first time, and without a doubt, what dignity felt like.

  That night, when the Orphan picked up the violin, she began to play a concerto by Mendelssohn. The priest looked up, surprised. He could not master such a tune. She was playing better than he had ever been able to. She was fourteen years old and she had surpassed him. Actually, her playing could even be described as miraculous, and everyone in the orphanage stopped what they were doing to marvel.

  Realizing that the orphanage now had a soloist, the priest’s head was filled with plans. Their Charitable Children’s Orphan Orchestra would be able to play all over the country, and perhaps they might even be invited to perform for diplomats. They would surely be rewarded financially for delivering to the world a child who could create such sounds!

  But this was not to be, because the very next morning the Orphan decided to run away. She put the suit and the violin at the bottom of a laundry basket filled with clean underwear that she was supposed to deliver. She carried the basket out the door and down the street, as if she was an ordinary woebegone orphan going about her godforsaken task. In any case, it wasn’t terribly hard to escape from an orphanage. All orphans who are the heroes of stories are able to escape from their orphanages.

  She changed into the suit in an alleyway. Only a black cat saw her, but it was too busy saying witty things to alert anyone.

  “By the time a child is eleven years old, it’s all too late,” said the black cat. “They’ve picked up character traits that will plague them like fleas for the rest of their lives.”

  The Orphan pushed her hair back and then reached into a parked car and took a hat off the dashboard and pulled it down over her head at a jaunty angle. She put the violin under her arm, and when she stepped out into the street she was no longer an or
phan, but a travelling Gypsy.

  The Gypsy sat up, dumbfounded by the tale. He got out of bed and looked into the Orphan’s closet. There was his famous suit hanging from the coat hanger. He looked in the corner and there was a dark burgundy violin case, that was none other than his own.

  Turning back, he saw that the Orphan was gone. The Gypsy avoided looking into the mirror, frightened of whose face he would actually see. The Gypsy knew something about himself now. He was only putting up a front to the world. He had to put a distance between himself and other people. It was because of his childhood that he couldn’t trust anybody. He had grown up relying on himself and being independent. He had never learned how to let other people into his life.

  As the Gypsy walked up the stairs to his room, with his shoes in his hands and his belt buckle undone, he was overcome with empathy for the bear. It made him feel sad that the bear was up in his room, reading paperback novels and trying to put himself to sleep.

  And of course the bear had been right. The Gypsy could never travel without him. And even though it was a monster, a beast that people had all sorts of preconceived notions about, the bear was really his own great big heart. The bear was who he would have been if he hadn’t had a difficult childhood. The bear was everything that was good and decent about the Gypsy, and it would follow him whether he liked it or not, everywhere he went. It would never let him just look at the world coldly. It would always magically make him notice that everything was full of wonder.


  Jesus and I were pretty good friends, and after he disappeared from our neighbourhood and all those TV reporters started showing up on our street, I was a pretty hot property. My mom would freak out and call them vultures when they tried to ask me questions, but I’d try and chill her out. “Be cool,” I’d say, and it wasn’t just that I liked being on TV; I truly liked talking about Jesus. I still do, and to this day, people are always asking me to tell them everything I know about him.

  Jesus and I were in Grade Six when we first met, and back then not everyone was allowed to hang out with me. A part of the reason was the way I dressed. I was the only girl in class who had a pair of high heels, and for my birthday my mother bought me a ton of black bracelets with studs on them. Other people’s parents said I looked like a whore, and they didn’t want their kids to get my whore cooties or something. But my attitude has always been to just be who you got to be. A part of this way of thinking comes from me, but a good part of it also comes from the stuff that Jesus taught me, but more on that later.

  Jesus first showed up in the middle of the school year and sat at the back of the class. On that first day, when our chemistry teacher put on this movie about molecules, Jesus held his hands up in front of the projector and made a shadow puppet of a dove. That’s how I first noticed him.

  It was about a week later when everybody started to notice Jesus. In moral ed. we had to give a presentation on a social concern, and Jesus did his on world hunger. He went up to the front of the classroom, without a loose-leaf paper or anything, and started going on about how there wasn’t such a thing as world hunger, which, as well as being a downright weird thing to say, was also factually incorrect. We had all seen pictures of Ethiopia on the news and those poor kids were definitely hungry. Jesus said that if God fed the sparrows and butterflies, then he would also feed humans.

  The teacher pointed out that a lot of animals had gone extinct because the environment hadn’t provided for them, but Jesus shrugged and went back to his seat, so we all figured he was really stupid.

  * * *

  A lot of the kids in the class tended to not like Jesus very much. This, of course, was not helped by the fact the teachers thought he was nuts. I know teachers aren’t supposed to think stuff like that, but you just knew they were thinking it anyhow. Like when we went on a class field trip to the zoo, Jesus went over to the lion’s cage and stuck his hand through the bars. The teacher was still screaming at him the next day in class, going on about how not only could he have lost a hand, but he’d also have been forced to go from school to school, giving lectures about it.

  “Why would you do something so stupid?” she demanded.

  “I knew that the lion wouldn’t have bitten me,” Jesus said. “I could just feel it in my heart.”

  You know he became the talk of the teachers’ lounge with that one.

  But you’d think bravery like that would impress kids, right? Well, you’re half right. Feeding your hand to a lion is cool, no doubt, but it’s just that he was also relentlessly lame. So lame that it undid all of the good. For instance, once when we were all in the back of the schoolyard and Judas was explaining to us where babies came from, Jesus positively spazzed out.

  Now, I knew about all that baby stuff, even then, and I knew that Judas was fifty percent full of crap, but if I piped in with my corrections, he’d be all “Excusez-moi, Professor Been-Around-the-Block,” so I made sure to keep my mouth shut.

  But Jesus, on the other hand, started having a complete breakdown. He said that Judas was a liar and that if a woman hears someone whispering in her ear in the middle of the night and if she sits up and looks around and no one is there, she’ll be pregnant by the morning.

  “If you think that’s the truth,” said Judas, “then I have some magazines for you to look at,” and everyone laughed. I’m sad to report that even I did, a little.

  * * *

  Since Jesus and I lived on the same block, we’d walk home from school together. One day, on our way home, he invited me over to his house to play with his Ouija board. I hadn’t played with one of those since I was a kid. Ouija boards reminded me of my mom’s creepy boyfriends, but since I didn’t get a lot of invitations, I accepted. Plus, in all honesty I’ve always liked weirdos into the occult. It’s just the way I’m built.

  As we walked to his house, Jesus told me that his father didn’t really love his mother. He didn’t believe that Jesus was his child. He told me that while swinging his lunch pail. He told me that the same way you’d tell someone that you liked apples. When someone tells you something like that, all casual, it sort of takes the pressure off. You don’t have to start rocking them in your arms and stuff. I appreciated Jesus for going easy on me like that, since we’ve all got our troubles.

  His family lived in a building that had a huge billboard advertising beer on the roof and there were dogs walking around in the stairwell like they owned the joint.

  We went into his room, turned off all the lights and set up the Ouija board on the bed. As soon as we touched the marker, it started zipping around like a cockroach high on roach poison. I had never seen such a thing before. Jesus and I took our fingers off the marker but it kept sliding around all the same. It spelled out, “I-AM-WITH-YOU-JESUS.” Jesus and I screamed our heads off. We jumped off the bed and ran right into the apartment hallway. Under the stairwell, I let Jesus put his hand under my shirt and on my chest to see how hard my heart was beating.

  * * *

  After that, things started getting weirder and weirder. Sitting in the cafeteria one day, Jesus put his juice box down and turned to me.

  “Tell me if this apple juice doesn’t taste funny to you,” he said.

  I took a swig. It tasted exactly like wine. I recognized it as wine because I’d had some at my cousin’s wedding the year before.

  “Why did your mother give you wine?” I asked.

  “I don’t think she did,” he answered.

  Word of the wine spread like wild. Pretty soon everyone in our class was lined up at our table, asking for a sip. Jesus passed around his box and everyone got some.

  When there was none left, we all sang this crazy fast version of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

  After that, everyone started letting Jesus hang out with them, and since I was his friend, I got to hang out with everybody, too.

  The socializing seemed to be doing Jesus wonders. He really came out of his shell, doing all kinds of really daring t
hings, like one time, during recess, he made his way onto the school roof and jumped right over the alley to the next building. We stood under him on the ground and watched as he sailed over us.

  A lot of boys in class took to following him around, anxious to see what he’d do next. The boys started calling themselves “The Holy Ghosts.” Jesus got mad and embarrassed when he heard about it, though. He didn’t think the gang should have a name. He didn’t even think that they were a gang, although that’s obviously what they were fast becoming.

  * * *

  Jesus showed up one day at my house. He was wearing no shirt and little red Adidas shorts. My mom said that, in general, guys who were as skinny as Jesus were embarrassed by how they looked without a shirt on, but Jesus didn’t seem to care. My mother said that that meant he had inner strength—a real screw-all-of-y’all attitude.

  I never invited people over, so I was a little put off having Jesus in our house. Once, I had Judas over and he said he found my apartment depressing. He said that the postcards of KISS on the wall in the living room made him want to off himself.

  “I like your place,” Jesus said, leaning against my bedroom windowpane. “You have a great view from here—right out onto the record store. It probably helps you dream of music. We have the best neighbourhood.”

  “Wouldn’t you rather we lived in Westmount?” I asked. Westmount was the fanciest neighbourhood in the city, and my mother was always going on about how if she won the Lucky Seven, she’d set fire to the building and move us there in a smoke cloud of glory.

  “Being rich is stupid,” he said. “It’s way better to have less. It makes you cooler. No one from a rich background can ever really be cool.”

  He said all of this in the same way that he dropped the news about his dad. Very matter-of-fact. Maybe that was why I bought it. It seemed to somehow make sense, like he was saying something that I had already thought myself but had never actually gotten around to putting into complete sentences. Jesus’ words made me feel like no matter how much there was something deep down wrong with you, there really wasn’t anything wrong with you at all.

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