Previously: Virginia Woolf, Beloved Chinese Novelist.
“I discovered that if I were going to review books I should need to do battle with a certain phantom. And the phantom was a woman, and when I came to know her better I called her after the heroine of a famous poem, The Angel in the House. It was she who used to come between me and my paper when I was writing reviews. It was she who bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her…And when I came to write I encountered her with the very first words. The shadow of her wings fell on my page; I heard the rustling of her skirts in the room. I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. My excuse, if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self–defence. Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing. Thus, whenever I felt the shadow of her wing or the radiance of her halo upon my page, I took up the inkpot and flung it at her. She died hard. Her fictitious nature was of great assistance to her. It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality…Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.”
– Virginia Woolf, “Professions for Women,” in a speech to the National Society for Women’s Service, 1931
“What’s your name?” he had asked her on her first day. There had been more of them, then. Before the Pennate Culling.
“Virginia, sir,” she had stammered, barely daring to make eye contact. That had been her first mistake. It had not been her last.
His eyes went dark with furious pleasure and she knew that she had given him the wrong answer. He swept the low, peaked cap off her head with a flick of his wrist and struck her full across the face. The force of it rang through her cheekbones. She could feel the strength of his hand in her teeth.
That had been the first time he corrected her. It had not been the last.
She smiled through the blood. They didn’t bother hitting you if they didn’t think you were worth their time. There was no point in correcting someone who would never hope to graduate to the Angel Corps. She was as good as in.
The second correction struck the smile from her face, and made swallowing difficult.
“Virginia is not a soldier’s name,” he said, “and we are all soldiers here. Your name is Virgil. Virgil passed through a heavenly host and survived. Virgil was the name of your predecessor. He died carrying it. If you’re very lucky, you might get to die carrying it, too.”
She hardly dared ask the question that had sprung to her mind almost unbidden the second she had seen his limp.
He smiled, and she knew she did not need to ask it. “You can call me Jacob,” he said, before he moved on to the next wide-eyed recruit, “and it still hurts, even now.”
Jacob had told her once — when, she couldn’t exactly remember; they had been in a desert, back when the desert still meant something because it meant there were still places that weren’t desert yet — that there had been a time, before she had even been born, when not all of the Angels were Fallen.
“We didn’t understand it then,” he said, looking at his boots, “the way they worked. ‘They neither marry nor are given in marriage, like the angels in heaven.’ You can’t marry something you’re already a part of. What one Angel does, eventually all Angels do. They’re the heavenly host; they’re the same creature in a hundred thousand bodies. They aren’t born and they don’t die because they’re all one.” He laughed a little at that and jutted his chin toward her MSR. “Well. They don’t die without a little help from us, at least.”
She laughed a little too.
“So when the first one Fell, it didn’t make much difference — there were so many of us here, and only one of them. You ever watch a Slinky go down a flight of stairs?” he asked suddenly, and she nodded.
“I think so.”
“Tumbles over, just like that. All connected. One Falls, they all Fall. Just a matter of time. Fall, or jump, or get pushed, sooner or later they all ended up down here.”
It’s in the house, They’re in the house, I can feel Them here, the Angels are in the house, don’t leave me here, don’t leave me here with Them to die.
All these years later, and Virgil still heard her mother’s voice as clear as if she were still standing in the yard, eyes muddled from sleep, flames licking the walls as her father held her back. Virgil’s mother had screamed for hours. The house was big and took a long time to burn, and the smoke did not close her lungs for her.
The doors and the windows were locked, and Virgil’s father had his gun pointed on the window of the upper landing. His face was red and white from crying, but the gun didn’t move an inch.
You can’t go in there, he told her. They already have her. Once They’re in the house, it’s over. You can’t save her, Virginia.
Her mother’s screams had already been replaced with the sound of a hundred voices bellowing a tuneless hymn. The voices were coming out of her mother’s rustling, rippling mouth. Even the roar of the fire couldn’t drown them out.
Jacob had smiled weakly at her, then shook his head, and she stayed obediently motionless, even though every inch of her was quivering to cross the room to him.
We are all soldiers here, he had said. And soldiers followed the Protocol. She would have liked to say goodbye, or at the very least to have killed him with her own hands, so he could die like a human, died touching somebody.
No time for that, he mouthed at her, and smiled the most luminous smile she had ever seen.
The blast from her gun split his smile into four mangled quadrants, and his throat came rushing out of his skin. There was a shadow of wings upon the wall.
All of them gone now. There was no room left in the world for victims, for fathers, for bystanders, for crooked-smiled soldiers. There was only room for the Hunter and the Fallen. There was only the empty motel room, and the bag, and the gun.
The bag and the gun. As long as you had a bag and a gun and a pentagram and a place to sleep, you stood a fighting chance of waking up on Earth in the morning.
Just outside the window there came the sound of the rustling of feathers. Virgil pulled the slide back on her shotgun and drew herself further into the corner.
It was going to be a long night.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.