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Horn Island, Rhode Island
The owl rises. A wrinkled blue spreads across the Atlantic. Above the brooding waves, winds blow to leave ancient face prints against the salt-caked windows in the house by the sea. Abasteron House is named for the angel who rules the fifth hour after sunset. A watchful creature, Abasteron can flash the air or whisper a note. She is known for her winter walks across the dunes in the tilting sun.
As angels go, Raphael rules the spring, Uriel the summer. Many know Duma as the angel-prince of dreams, blessed with spiky blond hair and shocking green eyes. The perfection of the universe requires these messengers who, on occasion, assume physical bodies or borrow them from nature.
From the rocky shoreline, all can see Abasteron House, a cream-colored wooden structure on a grassy hill. A fringed garden hugs the house bordered with sea lavender abandoned to run wild. Inside, the walls are painted oyster white. High bleached ceilings pitch into arches over the chimney room—named so because of the twin fireplaces set at each end. The wide floors spread with faded Carolina Ash: white wicker sofa, white stuffed chairs, and a bowl of yellow pears on the whitewood table.
In the bedroom, a woman sleeps under an iron headboard scrolled with delicate birds the color of eggshells. D. Kip Livingston clutches her pillow. Her coverlet is askew, bunched to leave a leg exposed, a foot to dangle on the edge. One hand grips a revolver beneath the lace trim of the sheets. Her night-bound eyes flutter.
Duma arrives. A chamber opens.
Pale light creeps over the ocean’s moaning verge. Kip stands on the beach, her ankles buried in spotted locusts. Thick bands of yellow nymphs and boat-shaped males with short horns swarm the shoreline like warriors on attack.
The waves advance. Battalions of quickened snakes shine the surface water. Above the grey sea, Kip sees a dark figure leaking streaks. It’s him. The firehawk.
He flies, full and fast, prowling the hump-backed crests. With a chest full of orange flames, the firehawk hooks his charred wings on a nest of stars. In a hot fit of pride, he races toward her.
A scream jams in her throat.
He hovers above her face, spewing ash, showing off one golden claw. He thinks himself full of beauty. What a plumage he has, all full of bone. The muscles on his neck bulge, lumpy veins galloping with blood. Greedy, his teeth plunge out. The beast lets go of his fire-tongue. From the open mouth, Kip hears his tumultuous heart.
He thinks himself a king.
Black snakes crisscross over Kip’s chest like a cage and propel her into the deepest waves pulsing with ice chunks. She twists and screams, but the high rollers crash over her, filling her mouth with foam. The firehawk soars in triumph. With his hairy ropes, he reels her out to sea like a thrashing trout. Blue arrows, boiling with fierce light, rip open the sky as she fights to keep her head above the freezing water.
A giant black-blue serpent swings up from the inky waves. It spreads its hood, expands its ribs to expose devouring jaws.
Kip bolted awake.
Shards of ice crashed the floor. She jumped out of the sheets before a chunk hit her. The black-blue serpent shot up from the mattress. His marble eyes darted just as he lunged at her like a sword.
Stunned, shaking, unable to draw a breath, she searched for the revolver under her pillow. Hurry! With slippery hands, her body dripping as if the sea were leaking from her flesh, her feet sliding on the wet floor, she found the gun. Kip tightened her grip on the metal, narrowed her vision into a pinpoint, and with razor-keen aim, she pulled the trigger. The serpent jerked and hit the floor, spurting filmy white liquid in all directions. Again, she pulled trigger, this time releasing a scream that knocked her back against the wall. She sucked in a breath, fists still clenched. Angel Uriel blew a clean breeze through the open window. Heart calming, refreshed, she rolled her head against the firm plaster wall. Steady. Awake. Safe in Abasteron House. Was it Tuesday? Wednesday?
On the floor, the serpent twitched with spasms. There was no time to lose. She reached into the night table drawer and removed a hatchet. For leverage, she separated her feet, gripped the handle with both hands, raised her arms, and slammed down the hatchet.
What a cruel chop. The head flipped and landed at her feet. Another chop and she separated the tail. Again the hatchet came down. Methodically, Kip joined the tail at the serpent’s head, positioned the middle sections at both ends. It shook violently. With a close of its gleaming fangs, the serpent convulsed and finally lay dead.
Battle won. She gathered sheets soaked with seawater, sand, and slime and dumped the dead snake inside the bundle, then tied it with double knots. The eyelet hem of her nightgown hung heavy. She wrung it out, grabbed the sack, and headed outside.
The Atlantic rolled forth; it reminded her of rhythmic wave trains. How everlasting the waves were, their sine wave patterns a muscular inexhaustible power. Perhaps only God was mightier.
She dragged the sack through the darkness to the far sand dunes and didn’t stop until she reached a wide expanse dotted with sea grass. With claw-like fingers, she dug a deep pit. Sudden winds blew her dark hair into her mouth—the strands tangled between her teeth. Salt stung her tongue.
With a groan, she heaved the sack into the pit. How many times had she buried the serpents? For how many weeks, these wretched dreams, night after night. Months now. Quickly she covered the hole with sand and sat back on her haunches. With a huff, she patted the sand into a hard surface and walked away. No, she wouldn’t look back. What for? The dream was dead and buried now. Until she dreamed again.
Kip walked home along the shore, sea spray on her cheeks. Full morning broke. Sun ablaze, gulls flapped at the chin of sky. Abasteron House appeared small with its evergreen shutters and peaked roof against the big sky. Was that a white crane soaring over the roof? Maybe she’d pick some fresh sea lavender and fill Abasteron House with shades of plum and violet. And she’d let the soft aromas act as a balm for her thoughts.
Kip climbed the hills to the beach path that lead to the house. The flagstones felt warm against the soles of her feet. At the porch, each step gave her pause. That white screen door stood ajar over a foot wide and hung perfectly still. But the hinges squealed as if the wind were batting the door back and forth. Her own shadow shifted. She watched it slip inside the doorway, yet she hadn’t move a single finger. Who’s there? She licked her thirsty lips, made a step back. Then another step. She grabbed the porch rail, a bad case of the shakes overwhelming her. Tears mounted. She swallowed them back.
Kip whipped herself around to face the sea. Her eyes wandered the soothing blues and greens. She swept her vision across the shoreline. Almost immediately, she spotted the sailor. “Good Morning!” Her voice cracked. She threw a wave even though he hadn’t seen or heard her greeting. Certain she was fully awake now, Kip saw this sailor as her guarantee she was back in the concrete world. Every morning, rain or shine, the man trotted the beach in his navy shorts and tee-shirt. That scoop of white sailor cap tilted perfectly to the right on his head. Some mornings he’d see Kip in the garden and give her a wave as he passed. What a smile. But not today. Today he was trotting up island, east to west, head down.
Oddly, the sky piled high with sudden clouds. Sailboats tossed on the horizon like twisted handkerchiefs. Even the beach seemed to retreat in the face of that ferocious surf heaving up sand and shells and driving the seabirds into fearful circles.
The shimmer off the sea swelled up like an old claw, long and suddenly greyed. Her tears surfaced but did not fall. Kip entered the garden and filled her arms with sea lavender.
Seven thunders rolled up from the sea, but she did not hear them.