ON THE PEOPLE'S BUSINESS by John C. Wright
I was passing through one of the poorer sections of the country, going toward the capital.
Travel was difficult. There was occasional rail service, and overloaded trains (their roofs overhung dangerously with half-naked children, calm-faced mothers bent beneath drooping bundles) clattered their smoky way through narrow cuts and under stunted bridges—but no buses were running. To go from one tattered train station to another, one walked or hitch-hiked. Despite the recent violence here, people with cars (Europeans, shop owners, or Party Members) nearly always stopped, and nearly always made a detour if you were in need.
A man who owned a laundry drove me all the way to the train station, rushing with mad haste across rutted and potholed roads, chatting and laughing the whole time. In return I paid the overweight guards at the checkpoints their bribes. I gave him my bottle of aspirin for his sick wife: he seemed to think all Europeans were doctors. Despite the desperate poverty of the land, the people seemed cheerful, full of life. To my human eyes, there was nothing to condemn. I spent the first three day in his company. Like someone in a bad sitcom, I was always making oblique comments to the people around me to make sure they could see my traveling companion before I introduced him.
I first noticed the angel across the platform when I went in to buy my ticket. Admittedly, the sight made me nervous. I nonchalantly tried to keep him in view, and I even bought a newspaper so I could hide my face while staring, just like a spy in a bad sitcom. I relaxed a bit when I realized other people could see him, too, but I wondered at their fearlessness.
The angel was traveling incognito, which is to say, he seemed to have flesh and blood and to occupy space and time. He had no wings, or else he kept them folded, and wore no crown of light. I saw him buy a Pepsi form a vendor and drink it. He also went into the men’s room at the station house, I assume for the ordinary reasons.
I pushed myself in front of uncomplaining natives into the waiting line, so that I could look over his shoulder when he bought his ticket. It cost more than I could spare, but we ended up in the same coach.
Seen up close, he seemed to breathe, and his grip was real and warm when we shook hands. I would have taken him for an ordinary, if unusually handsome, man, perhaps a priest or a doctor, or someone else who lives his life in service to others—or perhaps his bearing was more like that of a soldier, someone who lives under authority.
We were the only passengers who had paid for first class accommodations. The others were relatives or friends of Party Members, and had papers marked “on the people’s business.” This mark required the train to carry them without charge.
The angel and I sat knee to knee, for even the first class accommodation of the wheezing old museum-piece coal burner was crowded. I felt sure someone was about to throw a bag onto the angel, or try to sit on him. I admit I was relieved when the conductor spoke to him (not meeting his eyes, of course) and asked for his ticket.
He gave his name to the conductor as Camael or Chamniel, or something like that, Prince Regent of the Choir of Dominions, of the Fifth Heaven, in the House and Sphere of Mars. He said that he went forth from standing before the lord of all the earth. The conductor did not ask him for his passport or papers, but wrote in his log book (I could not help but see over the conductor’s elbow as he spoke to the angel, since the man was practically standing on my feet) that he was travelling “on the people’s business”.
I don’t recall my first words to the angel after we shook hands and introduced ourselves; probably some banal nonsense about the hot weather, or a hope that the train would not break down again, which he answered (as one might expect) with a polite serenity.
I plucked up my courage and leaned forward.
“I know you,” I said. “I know what you are. I saw you lay hands on that child, the one begging at the train station, the one with the twisted little legs. The deformity was caused by phocomelia. When you left her she was dancing.”
He favored me with a tranquil smile, mysterious as the smile of the Mona Lisa. “The deformity was not caused by phocomelia, but that the glory of God would be made manifest in her.” I cannot describe his voice, except to say that from time to time I have heard a voice like that speaking in my own heart. “She was also singing. Did you hear her?”
It was an old show tune, written back in the days when show tunes still included Gospel themes. Something about the beautiful feet of the messenger on the mountain, bringing tidings of joy. A real belter of a tune, like the kind of thing Ethel Merman could sing, and even the thin voice of the beggar girl sounded full of power and volume when she sang it. “I heard. I saw. But why me? Why am I the only one to see you?”
He nodded as if I had said something to agree with. “The son of man has authority to remit sins, and all of nature is placed under his dominion. If the natural eye is filled with darkness, it is dark indeed.”
“You are talking in riddles.”
“Am I?” I could not tell if he was amused or apologetic, but his eyes were kind. “The minds of my order are not as yours. We were made for swift intuitive clarity; you, to please God with the intricacy of your intellectual striving. Your powers of reasoning are sufficient for your needs, and you have been given grace enough.”
“You are saying the others are choosing not to see you? But a man cannot turn his eyes off and on like that.”
“Sin blinds them. They see, but they do not see.”
“ Why – why didn’t you heal the other beggars there? That guy with the sores? Why didn’t you feed them?”
He shook his head. “I would not dare to take from you the labor or the glory of your work. The harvest is great, and I have a mission of my own.“
“Wait? Was it my work to feed those people?”
“Were you not told?” And at this, he leaned forward and touched me lightly on the chest, just over my heart, lightly with his finger, and a strange, warm sensation began to spread like a ripple through my body.
When I eventually opened my eyes again, he was still there. His face was half hidden behind a paperback book, the novelization of the film IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, with a black and white picture of Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart in the cover.
The conductor, who spoke excellent English, asked me is anything was wrong. I wiped my cheeks with my handkerchief, and blew my nose, and assured the man that I was fine, and thanked him. I am not sure if you are supposed to tip conductors, but I was in the mood to give. He pocketed the banknote without complaint.
After the conductor left, I blurted out to the angel in a thick whisper. “Sir—! Mighty lord! Spare me—I… I didn’t know…” My hands reached toward him, as if to grab his knees but I was afraid to touch him.
“Fear not,” he spoke absentmindedly, without looking up. “I am no more than a servant. I am not the judge set above you.”
A moment passed without speech, and the clatter of the train was the only noise. The question burning in my mouth would not come out, but I had to say something. Eventually I said: “Good book?”
He peered at me over the top of the book with his strange, bright, clear, non-human eyes. “I admire the purpose in it, but it contains an error. If Clarence is a man, he will never be an angel. We are a separate form of being, made from fire as you are made from clay. This talk of gaining and losing wings is incorrect: and it is churchbells, not merely any bell, which has the power to summon the hosts.”
“Then—there are angels abroad?”
“In our myriads. Thousands at his bidding speed, And post o'er land and ocean without rest.”
“And what about you? If… If it is alright for me to, um, ask…”
Now he closed the book on his forefinger, and did look me in the eye. “What about me is it good for you to know? Ask. If it is lawful for me to answer, I will answer. We must answer when Sons of Adam speak. That is why my darker brothers, whose names are no more said in heaven, fear you so.”
“What is your mission?”
“I am going to the capital, to see if I can find forty righteous men.” And at this, he opened the book again. Something inside the book made him chuckle.
I was filled with dread. My brother lived in the capital.
I said cautiously, “Sir? What if you can only find thirty-five…?”