a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
The pearly gates were some scrap of a thing.
I found that they were not wrought from gemstones. They weren’t framed in those ornate, sun-kissed curlicues you see on Christian billboards. Rather, they’d been thrown together from that back-gate, chain link kind of fencing. The kind that creaks, digging through the weeds every time you walk by. The kind that makes your hands smell of metal, left stuck with rusty colored flakes.
This gate had rusted into some autumnal thing. Ivy snatched the sides, dragging it all into a leafy, squid-like purgatory. I didn’t think there’d really be a gate.
A mailbox lay tucked into the tangle here. Barely held to its post, this box had been red once, now just the vague shade of a sunburn. I recognized the printed numbers, 1416, black digits on white rectangles. This mailbox had been knocked akimbo in some motor accident. My mother told me as we drove through the gate once.
That’s when I knew that I was gone.
. . .
I hiked up the driveway.
Framing the lawn was a wall of junipers, cone shaped and teeming with little blueberries. Before me was the ash tree cathedral; This angel-thing that loomed above the driveway, casting concrete with dappled shadows. It split at the bottom into four mossy stalks. Shriveled leaves and seeds collected in the base, strung into clouded cobwebs. I’d wanted to weave these things into bracelets. I’d wanted to climb so high I’d never see the bugs.
In life, the boxelder bugs marched about this cathedral, thinking it was some kind of shrine. I’d never gotten past that decayed basin. I’d never left the ground to see the sun rise, or some birds fly, and now those boxelder bugs were gone. Maybe I was higher than I’d ever been. It was something I still had no clue about. And maybe I’d never know why everything was the way it was.
Maybe I’d never be sure why this cathedral stood its ground, but the boxelder bugs were gone.
. . .
The house itself was unremarkable.
Its bricks had been sculpted from sandstone and clay, molded from the shapeless things in filing cabinets. They were like grit at the bottom of pretzel bags.
Acorn color made up the gutters, also trimming the roof perimeter. If you squinted at the windows, you might make out thin strands of dust that clung to red-checkered curtains.
The door was the only sort of heaven about this place. At least in the traditional way, same as how a mossy concrete angel might be heaven. The door was a nutmeg color, set with a cherubim knocker. Its doorbell was a creamy old thing, lighting up like a dying candle with a press. I didn’t expect much, but footsteps came shuffling from the hallway. I felt a dove wing flutter in my chest. The knob jiggled, and the door swung out with a whine.
The woman on the other side flashed a tired smile.
“Um…” I had nothing to say to this woman. She wasn’t strange, but I didn’t know her. I felt that I’d met her at the bus stop, or as a nurse in a hospital once. Somehow, I knew what she was.
She wore a white nightgown, tattered and smattered with little blueberries. Her hair was in braids, and they were messed like she’d slept in them. She gazed at me expectantly, but not unkind. Her eyes were the kind of cold that makes you feel warm inside. Like when you’re out in November. The air could be a freezer, and the trees make jagged, pencil-y scratches, but the sky is strawberry honey because-
“Do you know where we are?”
I snapped from my reverie.
She repeated her question. “Do you know where we are?”
To this point, I’d collected thoughts like rocks. I pored over everything I’d ever thought of. I was trying to arrange the fractals of something seen, but nothing seemed to fit together. “This isn’t heaven.”
She tilted her head. “And why couldn’t this be heaven?”
I felt like I was lying on a therapist’s couch.
“Where are we really?”
“We’re at my grandma’s house.”
“So, this was a special place for you?”
I didn’t answer. In her head were checkboxes, reflections in pencil lead pupils. Whatever I said she’d have already known, so what was the point in responding at all?
“This is the way you pictured heaven, so it must have been pretty special.”
“I don’t...not really. Couldn’t help but see it this way.”
That’s when I gave in. She back stepped as I shuffled past the door.
It clicked in some divine glory way, but I’m not sure that I heard. Something shifted within me. Cherubs returned to their bliss, sun-bleached, contented, and warm. That’s when we were gone to the world.
. . .
The place smelled as though it’d been woven by spiders.
Gritty bricks made up the walls, floors lined in rice-colored tiles. Cobwebs chained old spades to the windowsill, garden gloves hung limply from the ledge.
The angel moved through space like it was caramel. She traced grimy windows, seemed to sway dappled trees with her fingers. As she glided, sunny streams made a mural of the place.
My grandma was different. She never touched any windows.
Sometimes, I saw them glisten in her eyes like birdsong. Her eyes were made from moss on tree bark, and there were things locked inside I couldn’t see. She wore a white sweater, arms crossed to keep herself warm. There was warmth in her eyes, but I never saw much. I was young when she died. Now in my mind, she hobbled alongside the angel and I wondered-
“What do you think?”
I snapped back. Off the hallway was a living room, a place for silhouettes to catch their breath. I never did recall the wall color. Something dark. Gauzy curtains billowed in a breeze, clouded gray with the window’s shrub cover.
This room was the kind of place you’d see encased in plastic wrap. The couch had been patterned in pink peonies, blossoms bursting through seams. Along one wall was a glass case, home to tea cups, jade trinkets, and other things you couldn’t touch.
In front of me now was a coffee table. In life, I’d find some checkout aisle magazines, sealed letters, and old coffee cups on coasters. That was all gone. I found the King James Bible, gold embossed upon a cracked spine. I recognized it vaguely. Thin pages glimmered in aureate shades, craving every bit of light. Though bushes blocked the north window, syrupy sun pooled in from the south.
“How fitting”, I quipped of the Bible.
The angel flashed her tired smile. “Could I ask you something?”
“Did you ever believe in God?”
My eyes wandered up then. The air and the space seemed to hang in drapes. “I guess I just thought that… God was lounging on the living room couch.”
“And what about us?”
“Angels? Oh, I stopped trusting in God long before I stopped trusting the angels.”
Her arms crossed like cold had crept in. “Is that so?”
“Well, everyone talked about God like he was… quarterback of the football team. Like angels were fawning with pom poms and harps, and well… I just couldn’t see it that way.”
The angel said nothing. Just widened her eyes into two puzzled pools.
“I couldn’t reconcile it with everything.” I gestured vaguely around. “I started to think that maybe God had left. A long time ago, and then it was just angels…holding it down the best they could, I guess.”
Silence. This angel nodded along.
“There’s just too much wrong with everything. Sorry, this is awkward.”
“Well, you have it your way.” She spoke at last. “There is no God here.”
. . .
We stepped into the kitchen.
Counter tops were clover colored, the walls some shade like cracked eggshells. Nothing sat in the dish rack. My mom’s old drawings, once tacked to the fridge, had found someplace else to be. Sunlight shone from a window. This sunlight was honey spilled across the sink and the cooktop. Scents of cigarettes and bacon grease hung about inexplicably. On the stove was a greased-up pan.
I recalled the Easter of whatever year.
I’d pranced into this kitchen in a polka dot dress, pink sash primped into a bow. I felt that my world was my halo. I’d learned that this was the lily-bloom day, and people praised the downy fluff of chicks.
My mom still smelled of church perfume. Grandma rinsed her bacon plate from breakfast, eyes alight in the open-window sun. She swiped a cigarette from her pocket. She and my mom did that thing where they talked and they towered, but I couldn’t care. I stood there in the haze, thinking I’d weave my crown from her flower garden. I thought that if I were an angel, my wings would be dove wings, and I’d never quit singing my songs…
The angel wandered towards the breakfast nook. Sunlight bleached a wooden table, tatty chairs perched about in reverence. She spoke of the old flower garden.
Last I saw it, this garden was a bride. A bride in daffodil crowns, butter bleeding through the streams of her hair. Her dress was hyacinth, cream with the years since her mother had worn it before. Tulips were the blush on her cheeks, and the pink beneath her fingernails. This was a wedding after rain. I bet that everyone plucked little grass shoots and wove them through the tines of deer antlers.
As we left, the angel’s hand trailed the window ledge.
. . .
We passed quickly through the next couple rooms.
Sunlight bleached the bedroom walls, seeping in through blinds like egg whites. This was a warm vanilla cake of a place. Beneath the bed was a faded floral rug. The big wardrobe rested against one wall, stripped of all its knickknacks. What got me was the sheets. Thrown across the king size bed, sheets were messed from people’s sleep. It seemed as though two had lain here. I’d thought it weird that Grandma kept this whole bed for herself, but that was before I’d known.
My grandpa died when I was a baby. All I’d ever seen were pictures of him, glinting strangely in their frames. Sometimes he’d puzzled me. I couldn’t see how people died, but the clouds would keep rolling on. Birds would keep singing, and space seemed to broaden like billowed silk. There was levity in everything. But now that birdsong was gone.
I turned to the angel as we left. “This place is weird. If the bathroom tries to make me feel something, I might lose it.”
She merely nodded.
Sure enough, something was off as we passed the bathroom. I took a moment to note my grandma’s rosewater soap. Worn smooth into an oval, slipping suds spilled onto the sink ledge.
This soap was freshly used.
Something welled within me.
. . .
“And… we’re back.” The angel gestured as we crossed the living room.
This was the side where sun pooled into streams, dust bits dancing in the heat. Beside me was a writing desk that seemed to glow. I crossed to the window and pushed aside its pearly curtains. You could see the ash tree cathedral from here. Vines climbed the side fence, and flowers flourished in their beds, but all the singing things were gone. Or rather, all the things that could sing in ways I really understood.
Some seats and a table sat perched in high grass. I remembered these. Lacy-white like hyacinths, they’d sprung from some queen’s collar. Once I’d pictured a teapot that cracked and decayed.
I could see my live self now, dirty clothes with no shoes on. Grandma had settled beside me, cigarette held limp between fingers. I didn’t speak. Just searched for anything that might mark a weed-tangled teapot. She never broke my reverie, but gazed at me with eyes that sort of shimmered. She’d loved me. She’d loved me, but we’d never gotten close, and there was nothing to be done about it now.
It was all my fault.
“So really…” The angel spoke then, “What made this heaven?”
I stared out the window, barely hearing.
“Was it joy in simple things?”
I turned to her.
“You could be anywhere. You could…”
“It’s not that.” I cut her off, head shaking frantically. I took three shaky steps back. “It’s not that.”
“I don’t know.” My legs disintegrated. Carpet bunched in my palms, the first thing I’d really touched, and I was bawling. “I don’t know. Maybe you’re right, and I’m one of those people who just needs a sunset to be happy, but it’s not…”
“Hey”, the angel inched forward. “It’s okay…”
“It isn’t.” My voice was reedy, squeaking like an out of tune bassoon. “It isn’t, and I always felt that…”
The angel enveloped me. Warm caramel seemed to seep into my shoulders.
“I always felt that I had failed her.”
. . .
The angel rose.
Still collapsed on carpet, I heard a drawer open, the angel pulling pen and paper from the desk. I registered her shuffling footsteps.
She beckoned. “You’re part of here now.”
Shakily, I wandered towards the desk, and something seemed to heat and glow. I fidgeted with the pen.
The words I wrote spilled out in purple ink:
“The pearly gates were some scrap of a thing…”
And I didn’t know what I felt.
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.