It’s restful to work at the library, because very few people come through who are dying. Most of our patrons are young, enthusiastic school teachers, bright and bobbing with passion for their charges, or distinguished elderly ladies looking for books on herb gardening-just-herbs-now-I-don’t-need-anything-on-tomatoes, or adolescent boys sitting in the stacks reading books on paranormal activity and the female nude and other subjects not connected to their reality.
So their souls are all hidden from me. It’s only when the soul breaks free from the dying or from the newly dead that I can see them, and while I wouldn’t call it a terrible experience, it’s distracting when you can see something everyone else can’t. It makes you feel slightly crazy, and it keeps you from finishing sentences properly.
But in the library, tucked back among all the worn fabric hardcovers and greasy dust-jackets and colorful interlibrary loan slips, I am just me. It is my haven. I don’t mind being the girl locked away behind the counter and her wire-frame glasses. Peace is underrated.
* * *
I’ve seen souls ever since I was five. I was a long, gangly thing with no coordination, and when I fell down the long, concrete entry stairs at my school, no one was surprised. I emerged from the hospital with a long scar at the nape of my neck and eyes that saw things no one else did. Since then, I’ve seen hundreds upon thousands of souls: clustered near graveyards, fluttering limply in the trees beside the interstate, wandering slowly through our yard, knotted in the cobblestone square in front of the library. If you do the math, you understand in a second that the souls of the dead must outnumber us greatly.
They pay far too much attention to the living for my taste.
None of them look alike. Some shine with promise, others gutter darkly like a dying candle, some flap and some crawl. Some of them are so alien, so strange and so twisted, it’s hard to imagine they were ever contained in a human body.
So you’ll forgive me for thinking that the Paladin was one of them when I first saw him.
* * *
I first saw him standing on the great stone steps of the library, steps that mimicked, ironically, the ones that had given me my strange sight. It was a misty morning, and there were dark souls climbing the stairs slowly, pausing to fight with one another in their silent way, and at first, he seemed to be just another one of them. One of the less shocking ones, as he was very human, apart from the massive dark wings folded upon his back.
As I went to pass him on the stairs, however, I saw that his face was — firm. It stayed a face when I turned to look at him. Souls, above all, are hard to look at. Hard to focus on. They have a way of sliding out of your vision; blurring the edges.
But he did not. I could look at him long enough to see that he wore a long, dark coat, and that his face was both young and hard, and that the set of his shoulders was resolute rather than beaten. And he looked back at me, eyes drifting from my bright yellow bag on my shoulder to my brown boots and finally to my face. I was oddly stricken that this man had died so young.
He turned away then, and walked through the souls fighting at the other side of the steps. Stretching out his arms and wings, they clung to him, fluttering as if trapped in a net, and he bore them down the stairs.
Strange, but souls were strange, their behavior mystifying by nature and obscure by design. So even though the idea of the winged man stuck in my head all that day, I thought I would never see him again, and by bedtime I had forgotten what his face looked like.
* * *
But I did see him again. Not always in front of the library. Sometimes I saw him by the graveyard, perched atop one of the graves, his wings stretched as if he were sunning them, singing a tune that climbed an archaic scale. Other times I’d pass by a car wreck and see him standing beside the ambulance, a dark blot against the paramedics’ light uniforms. He was no soul, not anymore than I was, but he was not human either.
I knew, though, that when he was among the souls, there was no fighting. There were fewer of them, too; he was slowly gathering them under his dark wings and bearing them elsewhere. They no longer clouded invisibly around the heads of the children as they climbed the library steps or trembled inside glasses of water at the streetside cafes. When he was nearby, dark and silent like a fearful statue, they did not lean to inhale the breaths of lovers walking hand in hand or tangle themselves in the hair of the teenage girls coming out of the school across the road.
I didn’t know what he was, but I know that he brought peace. And for that I was grateful. I would nod to him, sometimes.
He just looked back, wings poised for flight behind him, expression unchanged.
I didn’t think anyone but me saw him until the day that a cat curled around the gravestone he sat on, mewling for food, her ribs visible under her dull coat. He reached a hand down to her, and the moment her nose touched his fingers, the cat sighed and lay down. I had thought the gesture intentional, a kindly relieving of her suffering, but when I saw him turn his face away, eyes closed, I realized that he had not meant to kill her.
Trees, too, withered beneath the touch of his fingers, and insects that brushed his cheek in the sticky summertime fell to the ground. His brand of peace was permanent.
* * *
One day, several months after I had first seen the winged man, he came into the library. It was a water-soaked day in June, so much rain and fog in the air that it was impossible to tell where ground ended and cloud began. The gray darkness pressed against the windows of the building, robbing our lights of any force. Though the library had been open for two hours, it was empty, save for me and one of the aides who was at work in the special collections. No one would venture out in this weather for the sake of a book.
I heard footsteps, soft on the carpet, and looked up in surprise as I hadn’t heard the door open. And there he was, standing on the other side of the reference desk. Again, I was surprised by his reality. I could smell the rain on the feathers of his wings and see the way the fluorescent lights emphasized the circles beneath his eyes. His arms were crossed, his wings held tense behind him.
I said the only thing that I could. “Would you like to open an account?”
One of his eyebrows quirked up. “Some other time, perhaps. How is it that you see me?”
“I have no idea. Why has it taken you this long to ask?”
He looked bemused. “Has it taken a long time?”
I wasn’t sure if whatever he was used sarcasm, so I waited until his expression assured me that he was serious. “I first saw you several months ago. On those very stairs out there. Don’t you remember?”
“I might later,” he said. When he saw my dubious face, he added, almost apologetically “I seem to be outside of time. I move back and forth in it. Some days I see innumerable times, and others — I miss huge chunks of time. So perhaps it will come to me later that we’ve met. A different version of me will remember. I’m sorry. I don’t know how to explain something I don’t understand myself.”
“There are plenty of things that defy explanation,” I said, to help him out. “It’s all right.”
He crossed his arms and backed away from my desk as if this kindness were painful to him. I remembered suddenly the cat falling away from his fingertips.
“Wha– who are you?” I asked, not catching myself in time. I saw his mouth tighten when he understood what I had been about to say, and his eyes dropped to my own name-tag.
He backed to the door. “I am the Paladin. That’s the what. There’s no ‘who’ anymore.” His wings curled around him, hiding his face.
“Well, thank you,” I said, in a rush, before he left. “For what you do.”
“It’s all I can do,” he said.
* * *
I didn’t see him for several weeks after that encounter, and the souls began to rise again. Some days they were so thick in the skies that they blocked the light of the sun, chilling the street below. People shivered and hugged themselves without knowing why.
I left for the library early on one of the good days, when the only souls were those floating in the fountain, waiting for a hand to break the surface. Hurrying down the empty street — no one else was awake yet — I saw a dark blot at the top of the stairs of the library. Even from several hundred feet away, I could see that there was something wrong with the Paladin’s form; his back was hunched, crooked, and his wings jutted into the air, feathers trembling in an invisible breeze.
When I got to him, I saw why; blood coursed down one of his wings, pulsing out onto the feathers in dull, rhythmic spurts. His face was smeared with it too, although I couldn’t tell if it was from the gash on his wing or from another injury.
“Paladin,” I said, and knelt hurriedly beside him. He jerked away from the sound of my voice, drawing the bare skin of his hands away from me. I ignored the gesture. “What do you need?”
“Now,” he said, voice tight, “Is not a good time to see souls, Emma-the-librarian.”
I didn’t know if it had ever been.
“That wound is terrible,” I said, glad at least that he recognized me this time. “You need it tended.”
“I cannot die,” he said. “What I need is a weapon.”
I didn’t know what he meant for me to do until he jerked his chin towards his wing. Close to where he touched his shoulder, a dagger with terribly beautiful hilt, all engraved with words and twisted animals, was shoved into the feathers, blood caked around it. “I cannot lift my arm to reach it. Would you pull it out?”
I pursed my lips. “Of course.”
“Don’t touch my skin!” he warned. I didn’t dignify his warning with a response; just clasped the hilt and tugged. To my surprise, it slid out of his flesh easily, and had only a thin trail of blood that adhered to the smooth blade.
I handed it towards him, but he waited until I rested it on the stairs to take it.
“That’s better,” he said, holding the dagger, his shoulders shaking in time with his breathing. “That’s better.”
“What did that to you?”
“Something that only cares if you’re watching,” the Paladin said. His wings stretched awkwardly to balance him as he struggled to his feet. “So I’m sorry for this, but it’s the only way I can repay you.”
And with his shoulder, he shoved me with all his weight. I had just enough time to see that he had drawn his bare hands far away from me as he did, and then I crashed down the stone stairs of the library, reaching for balance and finding none.
My head smashed against the stairs, and I felt my scar split open as my consciousness faded.
* * *
When I woke up, staring up past the paramedics’ faces at the sky, I smelled rain on wings, but I couldn’t see them.
Author’s Note: playing in Ballad‘s world.
photo vaguely based on athena kay’s photo.