Once upon a time in a rainy city, there was a young poet whom everyone called Starhands. Who had first given him the name he claimed to have forgotten. He was all long, sweeping lines, like a man made of drapery. He wore long, swooping coats and wrote long, swooping poems. He had long, dark hair that hid his face when he looked at the ground -- and he was always looking at the ground. He had long, white hands that shot through the air like comets when he talked. He had eyes like the fragments of green, melted glass found in the ashes after a bonfire.
He lived in a fourth-floor room, with one window, which looked out on the tracks; but he didn't write there. The footsteps overhead, the smell of bacon in the hallway, the trains howling and grumbling and shaking the window glass, tore the thin fabric of his poems before they were woven. He wrote elsewhere; in cafes, in parks, in bus shelters; in graveyards. Especially in graveyards. The ancient trees, the silent stones, the shreds of broken flowers strewn over the graves, were the opposite of the fourth-floor room that looked out on the tracks.
Sometimes he published. Sometimes he drank with acquaintances. Sometimes he brought home a bottle of vodka and fell asleep on the floor. Sometimes he thought too hard about his life and cried. He knew the moon was an airless stone a sixth the size of the earth, but he still fully expected to learn, someday, how to pull it from the sky and hang it around his neck like a locket with God's picture inside.
One foggy afternoon in early autumn, Starhands was wandering through back streets and alleys, savoring the fading shine of the fall. He was like a shooting star, he reasoned under his breath (moving his lips, hands looping in the air, so that other pedestrians crossed the street rather than walk near him). A meteorite, which is only visible, and only itself, as it disintegrates. But a meteorite only falls once, and is gone, and while that was certainly more romantic, he still had poems to write, and couldn't afford to go down in a final blaze of glory just yet. So, more like a comet, then, which falls toward the sun, being scoured, eroded, as it falls, its fading substance the source of its light; and then, failing at the last moment to immolate itself, is flung into the outer darkness. Where it finally reaches the aphelion of its solitude, and begins to fall again; a heartbeat so slow only planets could hear it. Losing substance with every pulse.
Starhands felt in his pocket for his book and pen. He looked around for someplace to sit and write about the comet. He didn't recognize the part of town his wandering had taken him to, which was part of the point of the wandering. This was a street lined with crumbling row houses hunched behind untended gardens. The one exception to the row was the building before which he stood: a small church that looked not only older than the houses, but older than the city. Its stone was blackened with the soot of generations. At the side, squeezed in between the flank of the church and the scabby wall of the next house, was a bent iron gate, and beyond the gate he could see a yard tangled in weeds and saplings. Among the green, Starhands could make out shapes of moss-eaten marble.
There was no question in his mind whether he ought to go into the neglected graveyard. It was only trespassing when mundane people did it. He pushed the gate. It screeched and shed rust, but it opened.
The monuments were old; older than anything he'd ever touched with his own hands. Their language was archaic, where it could be seen at all. The dates... it shocked him to feel, suddenly and intensely, the reality of lives lived before his birth. Beneath these stones lay the skulls of men and women who had lived and died without any need for anything he knew. He pushed his fingers to the knuckles in dripping moss and tore it away from a date, to find he was kneeling over the bones of a child that had lived only five years. So short a life, and so long a death, and yet the difference between five and five hundred is nothing compared to the rest of time... sick with vertigo, Starhands pressed farther away from the street. Wet grass tangled his boots; roses and raspberries snagged his coat with thorns, shedding worm-eaten petals and overripe fruit.
The graveyard was far deeper than he'd expected it to be. The undergrowth obscured any view of the houses to either side, and soon the church was gone too. It was as if there was nothing in the world but mist, marble, and weeds dripping slowly in chorus. He wasn't even sure anymore which way he'd come in. "I'm lost; I'll never get out," he said, and laughed. He didn't want to get out. He only wanted a tall monument to keep the drizzle off his page. Through the young trees before him, he saw a high expanse of pale stone, and made for it, ducking under branches. He pushed aside the last leaves and stepped into a small clearing. He looked up; he swayed; his heart shrank to a frightened stone in his chest, and then expanded like a dying star.
Before him rose a mausoleum of pearly granite. Carved among the symbols of resurrection, in deep relief, was a winged figure of such beauty it seemed certain no human hand could have created it from a human model; rather, this was a being that had served as a template for humanity. It was sexless, yet it seemed both man and woman; its mouth, which looked soft though made of stone, curved in a line that was neither smile nor mourning but a little of both; its pose was serene, but somehow tense, as if it were just about to fly into a passion. Its sad and joyous eyes seemed to fix on Starhands and hold him; squeezed the breath from him, filled him with a heat like drunkenness.
He stumbled forward, verses peeling away from the poem that had been forming in his mind, until there was nothing left but wonder at the impossible beauty of the carving. He put out a hand, and realized that hand was trembling. He touched the lips of the angel. They were cold, wet, and rough. He sat down at its feet and wept.
* * *
"Well, I must say you look romantic. Where have you been?" So said a fashionable girl, jostling the table at which Starhands sat scribbling. This casual acquaintance, once accustomed to finding the poet in this club of a Wednesday night -- nursing one glass of beer all evening, using the loudness of the music as an excuse to say anything he liked and deny it later -- was now surprised to find him here, so long had it been since anyone had seen him.
Starhands looked up from his notebook, giving the acquaintance a good view of his wretchedness. His hair was dirty, his eyes bruised, his cheeks sunken. He smelled of ashtrays and wet wool and despair. "Nowhere," he said. "Home."
The acquaintance took a seat, leaning close with prying concern all over her manner. "Did I say romantic? I was wrong; you look like hell. What did you do, pick up a junk habit?"
"No. I just...no."
"Are you sick?" The acquaintance sat back a little, thinking of contagion.
"Well, what happened? You disappeared for how long, a month, two? Talk to me. Is there anything I can do?"
"Without spoiling your nails? No."
"There, that's the old spirit. Go ahead, insult me and then pretend I heard you wrong because the music's too loud. It'll make you feel better."
Starhands drew a deep breath, and for a moment it seemed he was ready to start babbling as of old, but all he did was sigh. Now the acquaintance was becoming genuinely worried, not just putting it on for curiosity's sake. Perhaps he sensed this when she seized his filthy hands and implored him to tell her what was wrong. Or maybe some spark of his old garrulous nature remained, glad of an audience.
He gave a bleak fragment of a laugh and said: "I've gone mad. Or, no, not mad, because I was completely mad before, and it never harmed me. Something past madness. I used to ignore reality when it pleased me to ignore it, but I think now I've lost all reference to it, and I can't find it when I want it. Do you understand?"
"Not a bit, but go on."
"I've fallen in love with an angel on a tomb."
The acquaintance frowned. "Who?"
"Not a who. A what. A thing. An inanimate object. A piece of statuary. But -- God! What it represents to me, all the meanings, it's so full of prayers and terrors -- I am really in love with it, and there it ends. Because there can never be any change; the angel will go on being a stone made of dreams, and I will go on loving it. I wake up seven times a night from dreams so strange they make me forget my name, and I only eat when the pain in my gut reminds me, and this is going to kill me in the end... if only it would come to life and speak to me! Even if it hated me, I feel I might recover."
The acquaintance sat without speaking for a long time. So long that Starhands forgot she was there and went on with his desperate scribbling. Finally, she said, "You're right -- you're absolutely insane."
He glanced up. "What?"
"I said, do you want another beer?"
He forced a smile, though it was a little off center. "Thanks, yes, you're very kind."
She took his empty glass away. To get it refilled, or to get away and never come back, he didn't much care which.
He had barely set pen to paper when the table rocked again. He raised his head with a frown to find that the person opposite him was a complete stranger.
"It does happen, you know," said the stranger.
It seemed to be a man, but there was room for doubt. His voice was a smooth, genderless tenor, heavy with an unidentifiable accent; and his appearance was as indeterminate as his speech. Skin of a middle brown, features an aggregate of races, age somewhere between a hard-living thirty and a well-kept sixty. At Starhands' frown, the stranger smiled a mouthful of huge, white, crooked teeth, and clarified. "Falling for statuary. It happens."
Starhands sighed. "Please go away," he said quietly.
"Oh, no, I couldn't do that. Leave you hopeless and not give you the useful advice I have for you? No, no, no."
"Please." Starhands bared his teeth at the stranger's grin, not intending it to be precisely a smile. "I warn you, I'm not afraid to cry in public."
"Of course, the man who's dying for love of a chunk of granite wouldn't be."
"There is a cure. I know it."
Starhands curled his lip. "Therapy?"
"Piss off!" He grabbed his notebook, not sure whether he was going to leave with it or throw it.
The stranger's next words stopped him from taking either action. "There are ways to bring a statue to life," said the stranger.
Starhands paused, then slowly put his notebook back on the table. "You're playing with my head," he accused; ritually, because he instantly believed it.
"You know I'm not. You know that angel of yours is more than a hunk of rock. All it needs is the power to put on flesh. It needs enough energy to live. A sacrifice: a life for a life."
"A...?" Starhands discovered he'd bitten through his lip. The stranger offered a yellow silk handkerchief, but the poet ignored it; saucer-eyed and beginning to shiver, he didn't notice the offer at all. "Yes," he said at last. "It's killing me anyway. I can bear that, if I know that in doing so..."
The stranger slapped the table and laughed thunderously. "Oh, you child! You think it comes so cheap? No, no, no! You have live to watch yourself die. You have to live without yourself. When you're walking dead then that stone will walk alive, and maybe, maybe, if you're really strong, you can grow a new soul off the stump of the one you gave away."
At this, the stranger got up and slipped through a space in the crowd. The crowd closed after him.
Starhands sat, staring into space, pulling apart the stranger's words and shoving them back together again. The acquaintance came back, set down a glass of beer, spoke, waved a hand, and went away again, unnoticed.
Finally, the poet's face changed. It was a subtle change, but a definite one. His expression changed from that of a man dying of an incurable disease, to that of one about to undergo a dangerous cure.
* * *
From that moment on, he dedicated his whole being to the stone angel. Every action was offered up to his love as a devotion. Most of all, every word he wrote was a hymn to it, which had a curious effect on his reputation. At first, his popularity soared. He was producing his best work ever, and there was the additional romance of its cause, which had now made the full round of the rumor mill. The world loves a picturesque madness, so long as it keeps its distance. But the world also loses interest quickly, and when Starhands continued to produce poem after poem on the same subject, he ceased to entertain. He was forgotten between one day and the next. Every time he wrote, he brought the handwritten draft to the overgrown graveyard and laid it at the angel's feet. And every time he did, his obsession grew, until it was like a tumor, forcing aside all that was meat in him, until he felt he was nothing but fire and could live on sound and light alone. But every time he pressed himself to the carved angel and poured tears on its blind eyes, he felt only cold, rough granite, and heard only the wind in the leaves.
He went on like this for a little more than a year. He was never quite healthy. He became silent and still. No more did his white hands dart against the darkness like falling stars. They hid within the curtain of his tangled hair, writing paeans to stone.
One day in early winter, Starhands was at his usual pursuit in the window of a low cafe. He was hunched into his long coat, and wore gloves with the fingers cut out in order to be able to move his chilled hands. He was always cold, lately. Out the window, on the sidewalk that was at the level of his shoulder, boots disassociated from their owners slipped and splashed in snow the color of congealing oatmeal. Starhands paused, touching the tips of two fingers to the glass. A verse was forming in his mind about something other than the angel; this time, as he squashed it, he did it wistfully. He was so cold, these days. Could it be that the angel demanded a death after all? He didn't want to die in this dogend of winter.
"Didn't work, huh?" The voice; a thump of a body dropping into the other half of the booth; the table jogged. Starhands looked down from the window, but he knew what he would see. He knew the voice.
But not the face. For the stranger who sat opposite him now was not the man who had set him on his present course. This was a woman... he was fairly sure. Younger... maybe. The voice, however, was the same. Starhands deliberately capped his pen. "You look different," he said blandly.
"I got a haircut," said the changeable stranger, and laughed that same thunderous laugh. Heads turned from the corners of the cafe, but the stranger ignored the effect he... she... was causing. "So you dedicated a few poems, let your hair get nasty, and that's supposed to be the sacrifice of a soul? What were you thinking, boy?"
Starhands just looked at the stranger. He heard a small cracking noise, and looked down with vague interest to see ink leaking between his fingers. He set the pen down. "You failed to recommend a course of action last time, if you recall."
"You're still you, right? Then you haven't done enough."
"What," said the poet tightly, "would be enough?"
"Well, what are you? You're a poet, right?"
Starhands opened his mouth to reply in a terse affirmative, and the ramifications of that struck him like a fist to the chest. He produced only a small, strangled noise.
"I see you understand," said the stranger, taking her leave.
* * *
Starhands burnt his notebook at the angel's feet. With clumsy shears, he hacked off his long, dark hair and gave it to the fire. He stripped off his long, swooping coat and watched the blaze turn the soft black wool into rank smoke and furry ash. His many-buckled boots, his secondhand silk shirt, his silver earrings all joined the blaze. All the trappings of poetry burned with the poems.
He spread his bare arms across the outstretched wings of the angel and kissed its rough face until he left smears of blood on the stone.
Shivering, he blundered barefoot through the snow, out of the graveyard, into the street, mind blazing, spinning, cracking. Into the arms of the police. The officer had come to investigate the smoke coming from behind the old church. He had found his explanation: an emaciated boy wearing only damp-kneed trousers, hair mangled, wild-eyed, mouth bleeding. Brandishing a pair of scissors.
"This is a new one," said the policeman.
Starhands let fall the shears. He flung his arms out, cruciform. He threw his head back and laughed and laughed.
* * *
Singing gaily to himself, the vagabond swung his sack of groceries. They were the last of his government money for the month. Oranges, chocolate, and ice cream. He would feast tonight, feast until he was sick, and then there would be a bad time until the check came. But he had the trains to keep him company. His steps were unsteady, his back was bent, his skin was rough. It would have been easy to assume he was ancient, if the rotten spikes of hair sticking out from under his hood had not been still dark. He was staring at the sky; he never looked where he was going. People got out of his way, these days.
Starhands thought of nothing but the angel now. Nothing. Sometimes he laughed about it, and sometimes he wailed; right on the street, in front of everybody. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered at all but the angel. He visited it every day. It hadn't come to life yet, but it would. He sang, and people pretended he wasn't there. "I've got no soul, I gave it away, you pay me to be crazy, here kitty kitty --"
"No soul? No soul?" demanded a voice he knew, and a forceless kick struck his shin.
Starhands dragged his gaze down from the clouds. There was the stranger. Disguised as a small pink child in a puffy green anorak, this time, but Starhands knew the stranger now. "I've been thinking," he said carefully.
"Oh, have you?" The child put its fists on its hips and looked up sternly. "That's a new development."
"I've been thinking that perhaps your intent is to destroy me. Perhaps this sacrifice is useless. After all, I haven't been a poet for more than a year, and..." He could no longer even bring himself to mention the angel to anyone. It was his, and even a reference to it was more sharing than he was willing to do.
"You haven't? You just changed hats, threw off the poet hat and put on the nutcase hat, and that's it? You big baby! Have you no introversion at all?"
Starhands laughed. "Introversion? I live entirely in my head now. I'm imagining you, aren't I?"
"No," said the child, "you're not. And you haven't changed. You're still a romantic underdog, you're still a picturesque walking tragedy, you're still a stock character out of a Victorian novel. You're not dying, you're just slacking. What's your name?"
A pause. "What?"
"Starhands," said Starhands. And then he sucked in his breath.
Oranges rolled into the street. The child clapped its hands in delight.
"I understand," said Starhands. "This time I do."
* * *
John Pound strolled through narrow streets, looking for an address. He was an unremarkable young man. Handsome after the manner of all who are young, healthy, and even-featured, he had short, tidy, dark hair and wore neat, inconspicuous clothes. He was on his way to a job interview. Proofreading. It would be a step up from filing and answering phones. Not exactly a prestige position, but he had to build up a resume somehow. Financially, he was still struggling to bootstrap himself back into society a year after his breakdown.
Frankly, he wasn't sure working with the printed word was his best idea. He'd have to schmooze with literary types, and he didn't particularly want to meet anyone who knew him from before. Back when he'd been doing the poetry thing. Not that he had anything to be ashamed of in the stuff itself, he really hadn't been bad, but then he'd kind of gone off his nut for a while, and he didn't want to answer a lot of questions about it. But he'd written all his stuff under a silly assumed name, and he'd been such a drama hog, he doubted anyone would recognize him now that he was normal.
John turned a corner, glancing at the address on the card; when he looked up, his step slowed. That was all. His days of blanching and dropping things at every unexpected word were over. But it was funny to find himself here, of all places, just when he was thinking of his lunatic years.
The crumbling row houses stretched away into the distance. On the left side they were interrupted by an old church. The cemetery gate was gone; winter-killed grass hid the hinges.
He glanced at his watch, then at the nearby addresses. He was in the right street, and plenty early. He supposed he could spare a few minutes to have a look at the statue he'd once been obsessed with. Maybe it would help put to rest this lingering fear of a relapse. After all, if he could look at the carving and feel nothing, he'd know he was cured.
He stepped through the place where the gate had been, into the soggy snow. Wet spilled into his one pair of respectable shoes. He was going to show up for the interview with nasty shoes. Oh, well. Too late now.
As he avoided branches and carefully unhooked brambles from his sleeves, memory faintly stirred. When he'd first come here, he'd been so full of wonder. Everything had been so marvelous. Now it seemed there was no color; there wasn't even form, there weren't even people, just time and obligation.
But he had been so unhappy, and usually hungry, and he'd lived in such a hellhole.
And was he happier now?
Yes, he told himself firmly. True, he never felt himself filled with expanding suns -- he caught the poetic phrase emerging and killed it -- true, the highs weren't as high, but he sure didn't miss the lows. No, he didn't. So he was sort of lonely, and things got boring sometimes, but that was just life. At least he never wondered where his next meal was coming from.
Had he ever, murmured the little doubt, bothered worrying before?
He shoved a condescending smile across his face. Well, here it was, the old mausoleum where he'd spent so much of his crazy time. Just beyond the low branch with the copper-foil -- with the brown leaves on it. He ducked under the branch, removed a twig from his hair, straightened. Looked at the angel.
It was very pretty, in a weird sort of way.
Abruptly, he felt really stupid. Angry at himself. Almost angry enough to cry; but John Pound didn't cry. He shrugged instead, turning away. Glancing at his watch.
The last thread of Starhands snapped.
A soft, crunching noise from behind stopped him. His heart increased its speed as he turned. A hundred times in that second a dead hope fluttered, and a hundred times he crushed it. The hundred and first time it rose, there was no killing it.
He was crazy; he'd relapsed; was schizophrenic; would have to be locked up; would be made to take pills.
The angel was in the act of stepping down from the relief. Its great, white wings spread, feather by feather, out of stone, trading the mica glitter of granite for living iridescence. Its chipped and pitted skin smoothed, took on a blush of blood beneath the surface. The carved coils of its hair pulled free from the wall and drifted softly to rest on its shoulders. It paused, hand on sexless breast, and then reached, tentatively, for him. Its half-smile was as full of paradoxes as it had been the first time he'd seen it, and its eyes... color flooded them. The same fractured green as his own.
Oh, it was beautiful, beautiful, he wasn't mad, had never been mad. His hand shook, his whole arm shook, as he held it out to the angel's reach. Their fingers entwined -- its skin was warm, even hot, and it was more real than his entire life. It clasped his hand in both of its and inclined a silken cheek to the fingers.
"Thank you," it said.
He knew that voice. A smooth, genderless tenor. And the knowing smile, he recognized that too. "All you put me through..." he murmured. "I think I might be angry with you, stranger."
"You might well be. You walked through death so that I could live, and now you don't know what to do with me."
"That about sums it up." The absurdity of it all had been creeping up on him, and now it overwhelmed him; he laughed. And the angel laughed as well, like thunder. But in the young man's laughter, there was no joy. Only the reeling vertigo of a suddenly corrected perspective.
He stroked the angel's perfect brow, pushed his fingers into hair that ran through them like pouring cream, and kissed its ambiguous smile.
"I owe you my soul, John Pound," it said.
The young man sighed and turned away. "Don't call me that," he said.
Without looking back, he left the graveyard. As he stepped onto the street he heard behind him the rush of mighty wings.
* * *
In a storefront office, the head of a small publishing firm looked disapproval at the young man standing across the desk from him. The boy was a mess. This was how he showed up for a job interview? Not a good sign. He cleared his throat. "Had a fall in the street, eh?"
"No," was the cheerful reply. "I was in the graveyard up the street. Some really amazing statuary in there."
"Really. I mean yes. I feel I should tell you, though, that neatness is one of the first things we look for in an applicant, and, ah..."
"Good for you." There was definitely something manic in the fellow's cheer. "Bad for me, if I were applying."
"I'm here to talk to you about printing my next volume of poems."
The interviewer squinted at the forms on his desk, utterly lost now. "Wait. So you're not John Pound?"
The young man smiled a very peculiar smile and offered a muddy palm. "My name is Starhands."
* * *
Once upon a time in a rainy city, there was a young poet whom everyone called Starhands. When asked about it, he told an implausible story, a different one every time. He was all teeth and energy, like a man saved at the last moment. He laughed at everything, and wrote with a zealot's fire about footsteps overhead, the smell of bacon in the hallway, and the infant screaming of trains. He had messy, dark hair that flew when he ran -- and he ran everywhere. He had long, white hands that shot through the air like comets when he talked. He had eyes like the fragments of green, melted glass found in the ashes after a bonfire.