The Cherub

On the way to rehearsal, Amy thought she saw something flit away. An afterimage lingered in her eye, pink and faintly glowing, but she couldn’t make out what it was. She didn’t think about it again until the next day, when she was crossing the street on her way to work. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed something round and pink moving alongside her. When she turned to try to see it fully, there was nothing there, but as she walked past the deli on DeKalb, she glanced at her reflection in the shop window and that saw something really was hovering over her shoulder. She closed her eyes and reopened them; it was still there. She turned quickly, trying to look at it directly, but it was gone. When she looked back to the window, it had returned. Whirring above her like a hummingbird was an ugly Dürer cherub, its little wings barely keeping it airborne. She fixed her hair, pretending to be absorbed by her own reflection so she could peer at the grotesque little thing. It was naked, its skin the sickly pink of old ballet slippers, and it was sneering at her.

Then she remembered she was late to work, and as reluctant as she was to leave the reflected cherub, it was her third unavoidable lateness that week, and her pay was being docked each time. Even without missing hours, Amy could barely keep her bills paid, and she didn’t know how much longer her New York dream could stay buoyant, as making it to the end of each month without financial catastrophe had become her main ambition.

passiveagressive1

Passive Aggressive, 14″ x 11″, acrylic on canvas, 2013, Julie Torres

When she moved to New York for college and voice training, the last thing she’d expected was still to be scrambling seven years later, degree now in hand, voice supple and marvelous, but no professional chance to use it. Amy, like many creative people who had escaped to New York City, had found herself surrounded by people equally and often more talented than herself. The luckiest also had parental money to see them through. Amy had the talent and the discipline necessary to excel, but she had to run from part-time job to another—three in all—in order to be able to attend rehearsals and auditions. The jobs formed the jerky rhythm of her life: work at the children’s store, hurry, audition, work at the college writing center, rehearse, hurry, work at the bar, sing for free for exposure, work, work, audition, hurry, work. She never slept enough and was always running without ever quite getting anywhere. She looked stretched thin, no longer able to hide the strain. The young women she tutored at the writing center thought she looked edgy and glamorous, but her colleagues worried. Mostly Amy contemplated giving up, but the thought of retreating, a failure to the town she had escaped from, horrified her.

After five hours of tutoring, she broke free of the campus, running back to the subway to catch the train into Manhattan to her shift at the bar. To ensure better tips, she stuffed napkins in her bra before putting on her apron and her cocktail waitress smile, skipping out onto the floor as if she wanted nothing more than to help everyone by catering to their whims. She thought she saw the cherub reflected in dirty glasses on the bar, but no one seemed to notice anything out of the drunken ordinary.

The next day she had rehearsal. When she woke up, she showered and started her vocal exercises while letting the warm water spill onto her face and throat. As she washed her hair, she happened to look across the bathroom to the mirrored cabinet above the sink. To her horror, it revealed the cherub was in the shower with her. She whirled around swatting at the air, but he was already gone. She watched the mirror as she continued showering, ready to swat at him again, but he didn’t return.

On the way to the rehearsal, she caught sight of him hovering on her right side. She flung out her arm and grabbed him. She got hold of his blubbery little leg, and it felt cold and slightly wet, like eel skin. He did not cry out but managed to slip free of her grasp and disappeared.

She was concerned he would reappear during rehearsal and unnerve her or make her throat tight, causing her to be singled out by the conductor or composer. Part of her felt feisty—she was singing for free, so fuck them—but the rest of her felt nervous about losing the only opportunity she’d had in three months to sing in any kind of production; it was possible her performance would be seen by someone who mattered. She needn’t have worried, as her voice spilled out of her effortlessly, her breathing perfect and high notes pure and memorable. She could see the composer nodding as she sang his notes, and he shook her hand warmly just before she left the rehearsal space. For a few, short moments, she felt her life wasn’t ridiculous after all. She hitched her bag up on her shoulder and hurried off to the subway, not wanting to be late to the writing center yet again, and almost banged into the cherub. He hovered in front of her, blocking her entrance to the subway. She felt her hopeful mood fail as she finally got a good, clear look at him.

He was about a foot long from curls to toes, mottled pink, with dirty blonde, curly hair and sour, pursed lips. His tiny penis dangled from his chubby, naked body, which quivered a little as he fluttered his wings. As she walked towards him, his wings beat faster, and as she was passing him he leaned over and put his mouth to her ear.

“Cunt,” he said in a deep, masculine voice.

“Excuse me?”

“Cunt,” he said again. She swatted at him with her hands, but like a fleshy bumblebee, he dodged them miraculously. Rattled, she ran down into the subway and, once seated on a train, hunched over wondering what she could have possibly done to provoke a cherub. She didn’t realize she was talking out loud to herself until the woman across the way from her started nodding sympathetically. Amy did not mean to catch her eye, but as soon as contact was made, the woman started spilling.

“Angel babies,” she said entirely too loudly. “They’re angel babies.”

Amy tried not to react, but the woman continued.

“I have an angel baby. I see her sometimes. I should never have done it, never, but I had to, I just had to. She visits me, but I can’t call her. She comes when she wants, and she is so kind. She never says I’m a baby killer, but that’s what I am. Don’t have an abortion, don’t do it.”

“But I’ve never had an abortion,” said Amy, perturbed.

“Oh,” said the woman. “I guess it’s not an angel baby, then.” She gave Amy a look of suspicion, which quickly changed to pity when she decided Amy was just in denial.

“Most people don’t like to say they’ve done it, but if you let her into your heart, you’ll find she’s very good company. She won’t judge you.”

Amy got up and moved further down the subway car, noticing as she went how many women were talking to the air.

When she got out of the subway in Brooklyn, the cherub didn’t reappear. She walked down Washington Avenue, noticing the way the sun fell through the leaves of the trees, dappling the sidewalk; the world looked beautiful and she started to wonder if she’d been imagining it all.

“Cunt,” said a voice in her ear.

She turned and saw the cherub flying right beside her. She didn’t try to catch him this time; instead, she swung her bag and knocked him out of the sky. The impact with the cherub pulled the bag from her hands. It was heavy, weighted down by her score, a novel, and a can of coffee she’d promised to take in to the writing center. She watched as it pushed the cherub through the air then sailed down with him to the pavement, thumping down on top of him. He didn’t say anything, just twitched his wings weakly and refused to look at her. She put her foot on top of the bag and pushed him down further against the concrete.

“Are you real?” she asked.

He would not answer. She looked around her, wanting to see a pedestrian, someone to confirm that she was standing on a Dürer cherub, not just her bag, but she saw no one and cursed Brooklyn’s propensity for being either crowded or deserted, but nothing in between. She felt him struggling against her shoe, and she considered lifting her foot and spearing him with her sharp heel. He muttered something that sounded apologetic, so she lifted her shoe slightly, uncovering his face, which allowed him to talk.

“Fucking cunt!” he coughed, and then kept coughing.

She stooped down and scooped him into the bag, zipping it shut and slinging him over her shoulder. He banged around in the bag, muttering. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do with him, but she felt far more in control. When she arrived at the writing center with a shrieking, bouncing bag, the room fell silent as everyone swiveled in their chairs to look; she felt vindicated.

Her colleagues were intrigued, but they were always interested in Amy. They admired her beautiful voice and the sense of purpose that emanated from her. They admired her perseverance, but what they saw as laudable commitment to her art at all costs, she had felt increasingly had trapped her as if she were a magician onstage in a glass box full of water, chained by the knowledge of how good her voice and her training were, and how little that seemed to matter: She didn’t have the key to get herself out. Had she made a terrible mistake in pursuing singing in the first place? What else could she have done?

“What the fuck is that?” said Emily, another woman who had flown to New York on the wings of talent and the desire to use it, though she was now prepping to take the LSAT.

Amy shrugged her shoulders. “I’m not sure,” she said. “But it hates me.”

Emily motioned for Amy to meet her in the copy room where they all kept their coats. Once the door was closed, Amy unzipped the top of her bag for Emily, but only a few inches. The cherub seized the opportunity to thrust his fat little fist through the gap and wave it around, trying to open the bag further.

“Huh,” said Emily, staring at it and nodding.

Not able to make the opening any bigger, the cherub withdrew its fist and, instead, stuck its little penis through and peed on Amy’s arm. Before Amy could react, Emily grabbed the bag and zipped it shut.

“Little bastards,” she said. “They’ll do anything.”

Amy was too busy cleaning the lemon scented angel piss off her arm to notice Emily retrieving her own bag from the coat rack. It writhed in her hands and made little snarling sounds. Emily cracked open the top and a little curly head popped out. It glared at Amy exactly the same way her cherub did.

“Cunt,” it croaked, then swiveled its head to look at Emily. “Fucking cunt,” it growled.

Emily stuffed the cherub back down into the bag and they stood in silent solidarity, listening to the muffled cursing and fussing of the cherubs and quietly discussing what to do. When they left the writing center together, bags tucked firmly under their arms, no one noticed except the cherubs, who sensed something was up and began to yowl—as quietly at first as whining Chihuahua puppies, but then they got louder. The two women looked at each other, but their resolve did not waver.

By the time they got to Emily’s apartment a few blocks away, the cherubs were caterwauling, and curious children had started following them. The women could hear the children chattering behind them and trying to guess what was making the ungodly sound. Amy finally turned around and snapped at them:

“They’re cats! They’re coming home from the vet!”

The children were even more intrigued.

“Cats!” they sang. “Cats!”

Upon reaching the front door of Emily’s apartment building, ten children stood behind them meowing and yowling, and the cherubs had started abusing the two women by name.

“Amy,” one growled. “Cunt!”

“Emily,” the other whined. “Cunt!”

“Stop it!” yelled Emily. “There are children!”

But the cherubs didn’t stop it, and when her cherub snarled her name again and cursed at her, Emily thumped her bag against the front door.

“There are children!” she screeched as she did it.

Her cherub went silent, but the other one continued.

“Amy,” it bawled. “Cunt!”

“Enough!” screamed Emily. Enraged, she flailed at Amy’s bag, dropping her own in all the excitement. The bag hit the concrete with a sickening thump, then thudded again and again down each step of the building’s stoop. The children and Amy’s cherub all gasped, then gasped again and again with each step. Finally it lay still on the sidewalk. Emily went down to get it.

She wanted to look inside, but she was frightened the cherub wasn’t hurt at all, just coiled in the bag ready to force its way out, so she nudged the bag with her toe. There was no response. She picked up the bag and felt the angel through the fabric, prodding it as if it was a dropped grapefruit. It remained still, and she felt curiously calm. Part of her wondered if she should be feeling enormous guilt, but something akin to pleasure had begun to seep through her. Another part of her wondered if there was something morally wrong with her for feeling this way, and she couldn’t look at Amy as she climbed back up the stoop, got out her keys and opened the door.

Once inside the apartment, they took the cherubs into the bathroom and closed the door behind them. Emily’s bag still wasn’t moving, but Amy’s cherub, perhaps sensing freedom, was throwing itself to and fro, making the bag swing wildly. Without talking and thus giving away their plan, Emily walked over to her mesh laundry bag, dumped the dirty clothing and held it open for Amy. They shook the cherub from one bag to the other, and once in the bigger laundry bag, the cherub fluttered its wings, and stretched its naked body obscenely. Confused, it beat its wings harder, attempting to fly, but fly, but the mesh tangled around him and he fell back down. Undaunted, he began to pace, dragging the bag with him across the floor. Amy jumped out of the way when he walked towards her cursing at her again. She shook her finger at him:

“Just stop that!”

He shook his finger back at her but didn’t speak.

Emily upended her bag on the bathroom floor. The body of the dead cherub fell out with a small thud, like a ripe peach or a gutted fish. One wing was bent back, dislocated, and his neck was broken. There was no blood, but his eyes were open, bulging with cold accusation. Emily stood locked in his chill gaze. It was Amy who walked over and closed his dead eyes with her fingertips, and it was only then that her cherub spotted his dead cohort. He shrieked, making a sound totally out of proportion with his tiny body, and dragged himself over in his laundry bag cage. He threw himself on the dead cherub, wailing then whispering in some strange, ancient language that sounded like water, carved stone and smoke punctuated with the breaking glass of grief. It continued wailing and whispering, and the women were moved. They watched, tears welling, then spilling down their faces and falling to the floor. There were so many tears that soon they stood in a small pool of water that edged towards the cherub. Their tears wet the edge of the laundry bag, flowing toward him, and when the tears touched him, he leaped around, his eyes on fire and face twisted with fury:

“Murderous cunts!” he screamed, and kept screaming it.

Amy reached for Emily’s hand and they edged around him, then ran out through the bathroom door slamming it behind them. Amy sank to the floor, but Emily was energized. Her shoulders, long stooped from hauling heavy academic texts, had straightened, and she held her head high, making her taller. Emily was infused with life, but, in inverse proportion, Amy felt overwhelmed by everything that had just happened and was afraid of what was to come.

Emily’s lightness grew, turning into a sort of tangible joy; she exploded into peals of laughter. She couldn’t help herself; the thought of having killed a foul-mouthed cherub just made her laugh harder and harder. She turned to look at Amy.

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt so good,” she said while still laughing. “Really! In my whole life, I’ve just never felt so happy!” She glanced at herself in the mirror across the room: “And I’ve never looked so good! What is going on?”

Amy didn’t reply. She was lost in thoughts about the dead cherub, and the live one, and now Emily’s inappropriate joy fit. She felt helpless; there was a snarling, grieving cherub in the bathroom, and she didn’t know what they should do, and she worried there would be some terrible consequence for killing a tiny angel, however awful. While worrying through the events that had just happened and dreading their fates, she never connected Emily’s exultation with her release from the cherub. Perhaps if she had, she would have anticipated Emily opening the bathroom door, reaching into the laundry bag, and seizing the surviving cherub by the throat. It batted its wings and shrieked at her, but she kept smiling and pulled him out to the living room, holding him straight out in front of her, like a stinking diaper.

“Where are you taking it?” asked Amy, panicked.

“Nowhere,” said Emily while smiling joyously and squeezing his neck a little harder. “I’m just going to interrogate him,” she added as she carried the growling, wriggling cherub into the kitchen. She returned with a barbecue fork in her other hand.

“Emily, no, you can’t do that!”

Amy’s panicked voice seemed to shock the cherub into some sort of comprehension, and he went quiet, shrinking back from his captor as far as he could while still dangling from her hand.

Amy felt a sudden tenderness for him. He seemed so small and strange and completely at Emily’s mercy, and not at all like a tiny, hostile demon who had been stalking her. As he quaked in fear, for the first time he seemed almost wondrous, a real baby angel not of this earth, and she remembered looking at the carved cherubs near the altar as she sang in the children’s choir at church. It was there she had been told her voice was special, that she needed to pursue it. Had she really shaped her whole life around something she’d been told as a child? The faintest light of memory flickered, and she looked over to her cherub.

“When did you start following me?” she asked, her voice soft. “Can’t you tell me?”

He looked at her, his moment to beg for help or mercy had come, but he didn’t do it. Instead, he began to talk in the same curious language as before. He spoke very quietly, and just as Amy caught a glimmer of meaning and an image began to form in her head, he stopped talking and began to weep. Still hanging from Emily’s hand, he was unable to wipe his tears.

Amy was torn; she wanted to comfort him, but she needed answers.

“How long have you been following me for?” she asked again. “Can’t you just go away?”

He raised his face a little and, still weeping, whispered something to her in a thick, indecipherable accent.

“What?” said Amy.

“I can’t,” he said.

“You can’t?”

“You must be stopped,” he murmured, and lapsed back into his own whispered language.

Amy felt the words surround her, filling her with doubt, but they had no such effect on Emily.

“Well, fuck that,” she said brightly. “I’m going to wring his horrible little neck!”

She began to squeeze, but Amy stopped her and took the cherub into her own hands, careful not to crease his wings or bend his legs the wrong way. He let himself be handled, not lunging or growling, and then he crooked his finger and beckoned her to come closer. She leaned in tentatively, and he whispered something.

“Pardon?” she asked and leaned in again, almost touching his mouth with her ear.

“Cunt!” he whispered and spat on her. Startled, she dropped him. His wings were still stiff from imprisonment and couldn’t save him from the fall, so he bounced off the coffee table then landed ass up on the floor. Emily stood over him with the broom.

“Just give me the word,” she said, “And I’ll squash him like a bug!” She was so excited at the prospect that her eyes glistened. “Really, I can’t even tell you how good I feel now mine’s dead! Let me kill it, Amy, let me!”

The cherub sat up and stared at Emily. He wagged his finger at her, cursing her in his ancient language, and as he did so, Amy felt his focus shift away, like some sort of hand lifting off her, its force evaporating. However, right in front of her, she could see Emily’s grip on the broom weakening, and the gleeful look on her face softening. The cherub sat at Emily’s feet whispering to her, and she began to crumple. It was as if a plug had been pulled and she was draining away. She looked over at Amy, aware of what was happening but unable to stop it.

Amy, no longer enthralled, knew exactly what to do. She picked up Emily’s huge LSAT preparation manual off the coffee table and slammed it down on the cherub. She could feel him collapse, his body disintegrating as she flattened him with one blow, but she picked up the book and slammed it down once more, just to be safe.

–E. A. Fow

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