2013 Fiction Prize Winner


Carol Philips,

The woman had not intended to meet an angel. She had planned to finish grading the statistics exams before Shai woke up and started demanding his bottle. She might even have enough time to make a few phone calls. Angels were definitely not on the agenda. If she gave any thought to it at all, angels were in complete contradiction to her worldview, but Mira had no recollection of ever having given the issue of angels so much as a passing thought.

The angel appeared suddenly. She raised her eyes from the sheet of paper, rubbed her neck a little, tilted her head slightly and there he was, right on the enclosed balcony behind her. He was surprisingly large—the size of a grown man—and it later occurred to her that this apparition should have been frightening. Mira thought he was too big. Entities of that kind were supposed to be able to stand on the heads of pins or fly into drawers, not to embarrass you with their overgrown bodies— although body might not be quite the right description here. He was fairly solid in the middle and his blurred edges blended into the early morning sun. He was wearing something with long folds and perhaps it was not a he but a she, how could anyone tell and maybe these descriptions, too, were not quite accurate.

“Go away,” she told him and rubbed her eyes behind the lenses of her reading glasses. The angel made no response. He did have ears, cute little ones, behind his long curls. With a sharp movement, Mira turned her chair.

“Go away,” she repeated, “Go. There is nothing for you here.” But the angel neither moved nor disappeared. He did not even blink. Mira took a deep breath. “Look,” she said, “I realize what you are. Don’t think that I don’t. It’s beautiful… it’s impressive, but I don’t feel like dealing with it right now.” He really was beautiful, dipped as he was in a sweet luminosity, shining in a wavy shimmer of light. It occurred to her that this was the kind of effect Steven Spielberg would have liked to be able to produce.

“The thing is,” she said, “that I am quite sure there’s been a mistake. Not, heaven forbid, that you are a mistake. I don’t mean to insult you. You’ve got me completely convinced. But I think you must have gotten the wrong address, because it’s quite obvious to me that you’re not my dream. Maybe you belong to the lady downstairs? She’s into crystals and stones and you might be just the thing for her.”

The angel made no reply. Perhaps he did not understand the language, or maybe angels don’t speak—they just stand there waiting for you to be awestruck. On second thought, it didn’t seem quite right for the downstairs neighbor, either, which made the wrong-address theory slightly more sinister, because it was now absolutely clear that this shining insect had intended to land in a completely different time and somewhere else altogether. And what if he had no way out? Like a car that had taken a wrong turn off the motorway and had no way of turning around and climbing back on again without taking a terrible risk. She would never have thought of hurting him and, even if he had arrived on an erroneous mission, she’d be sorry if he was punished for it, terribly sorry. She was coming very close to being full of remorse at the possible fate of this mute, wide-eyed creature, who had either fallen upon her or been sent to her, God knows from where, but mothers cannot go around identifying with just anybody’s fate. Wasn’t that the secret of motherhood: right or wrong, your own child came first? And, as far as she was concerned, angels were simply not part of the plan. Were it not smack in the middle of Passover, and had the nursery school not been closed for the day, she might have chosen to spend some more time with the extraordinary creature, which, for some reason, did not particularly surprise her. Why didn’t it? She’d think about that later, not now.

“Let’s do something like this,” said Mira, “I’ll turn back to my desk and grade another three exams. I’ll pick a few that are full of mistakes so that it’ll take at least fifteen minutes to correct them. Only then will I look up again and—let’s be quite clear about this—by then I expect you to have taken advantage of the time I’ve given you to disappear.” And returning to the exams on her desk, she was struck by the thought that he was probably not allowed to disappear right in front of her, which would be like giving a magic trick away, or undressing before friends at the beach—something quite different from turning up already dressed in a swimsuit. Immodest behavior, it was called. There was even some municipal law against it.

Seven minutes went by without Mira grading a single exam paper. She closed her eyes, never losing touch with time, giving herself up to the warm feeling on her back, like sunbathing. She did not doubt her senses for a moment. Angels do not arouse anxiety, not even this particular one. And she could smell the scent of honeysuckle from the garden below, garlic from the restaurant, sense the relative quiet of the town which had emptied for the vacation; and hear a number 62 bus letting off steam at the bus stop. Nice early summer weather, pleasantness in the air, honey flowing through your veins and only a fool thinks he knows everything and that everything is easily understood. Never mind. Never mind. Never mind what? After all, what’s wrong with spending a few minutes like this, on the balcony with an angel?

Shai woke up without crying for a change and it was only what is known as maternal instinct that caused Mira to open her eyes and see him standing at the door. The angel held out his arms and her son, chuckling, held his arms out, too.

“No!” With a single move, she rose quickly and swept up her son, something cold and pale replacing the denseness in her veins. “You mustn’t!”

The angel floated a step toward them, still not blinking, and smiled, bringing dimples to his face. Even the swift motion did nothing to alarm Shai, who only laughed louder, and the angel’s infectious laughter made the child laugh all the more, squirming as if she were tickling him, trying to free himself to run to the winged creature. What does he want? What does he want? I wish he’d go away. What a fool I’ve been for doing nothing until now. What is this awful paralysis he’s inflicted on me?

With one arm she held her son close—his head had already slipped down to her stomach—with the other she lashed out through what? Through a scorching nothingness. Before raising her hand to her mouth, she managed to slide the glass door shut.

“Man,” said Shai and dropped to the floor. Beyond the glass door, the angel moved its wings and then spread them to their full size until they touched the shutters with their tips. Circles of sunlight drew bright, transparent colors on the lintel, dots of dancing hypnotic light, rising and falling from the tips of the bare toes slightly above the floor and up to the gold of the curls. There was a shocked feeling in her fingers but she was not yet free to examine them.

“You want,” said the deeply moved child. He still hadn’t learned to refer to himself as “I.” “Want.” It had blue, spiteful European eyes, the angel. Veiled, like those of a psychopath. Hiding plans that no one could understand. How could she not have noticed it before?

“Go away. We don’t like you. Clear off.” Still, she looked vulnerable. From one of the adjacent apartments she could hear the beeps of the midday news broadcast.

Looking straight at them, the angel was moving in place — tiny dance steps full of ethereal charm. She did not like this beauty that belonged to nothing and scalded your hands. Holding her son by his shoulders, close to her knees, Mira retreated slowly, walking backward.

Perhaps it can’t see them. Like blind man’s eyes. Carved eyes. Eyes that saw something else altogether, in another time. Who made it like this, so out of place? Spread out it took up half the balcony, like some expensive but unnecessary artifact you’d inherited. How would it get out?

“Come on, you can have some Rice Krispies,” she said to her son.

The angel lowered its neck and, as if in slow motion, brought a wing up to its face. And maybe it wasn’t the movement that was slow but that time had slowed down, as the light grew stronger around the angel and two perfect tears rolled out of its eyes. Shai grimaced in unfamiliar sorrow. He was two and a half and had never, until then, suffered another being’s pain. Now he was not hurt, not angry, not frightened, but his chin started to tremble and his eyes filled with tears, because the image on the other side of the glass was weeping.

Mira, on the other hand, was merely annoyed at the sight of the crying angel. Pretty tears did not engender real pity. As far as she was concerned, he could take his weeping elsewhere, because she was now completely oblivious to the beauty. And what was that dank smell? That smell he was emitting of damp leaf mold? Walking backwards, she managed to navigate her son into the kitchen.

“Do you want some Rice Krispies? Here, Mommy’s getting you some Rice Krispies. Shall I make you a bottle?”

“Man,” Shai said and tried to dodge back into the living room.

“It wasn’t a man,” said Mira and picked her son up again. She held him with one hand and poured water into the kettle with the other. She didn’t have much time to think but the words came with a speed that she was later proud of: It’s not a man, sweetie. It’s Peter Pan.

“Petah-Pan,” he repeated after her, as she held him captive in his high chair. “Petah-Pan.”

When she returned alone to the living room, the angel was no longer there. It had disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. Had she been capable of it, she would have sat down for a while to contemplate what had just happened, but when a child starts kicking around in its high chair, a woman has no time for fantasies. She changed Shai’s clothes and took him to visit his friend from nursery school, a toddler whose mother was an acquaintance of hers but not quite a friend, and she would never have thought of telling her about it. Indeed, it would not have occurred to her to tell someone—anyone who hadn’t seen it would not have understood, and even she, who had seen it, did not understand. Because what on earth could you expect to get out of a story like this anyway? And what possible meaning could you attach to an angel? She didn’t even tell her husband, who wanted to know what she had done to her hand. “Nothing,” she said, “I just burned myself on the oven,” because she saw no reason to worry him.

For several weeks afterwards she was afraid that the angel would return, but her fear was restricted to a thought, not a gut feeling. Whether or not there was an explanation for the strange apparition, it was obviously something on the very edge of the margin of statistics. It was a rare event, negligible in essence and, as such, incapable of bearing a message of any kind. Also, she reckoned in retrospect, the occurrence had posed no immediate physical danger. She knew that she had seen an “angel,” and she was equally sure that it had been a “good angel,” one who would not have consciously caused her any harm.

“Remember once, I didn’t go to school and I stayed home alone with you, and we saw Peter Pan?” Shai asked her suddenly one day almost a year later as she was shampooing his hair in the shower.

“Of course. We saw Peter Pan,” she forced herself to say. Her son was quiet for a moment and only when she held the towel open for him to walk into did he say, “On the DVD in nursery school, there’s a different Peter Pan.”

Shai was seventeen when he began writing poems and even had several of them published. Mira, who didn’t understand a lot about poetry, would read his poems with tense caution. But no angels ever appeared in them, and neither did any other winged creatures. Except for a fly that returned twice, but there are plenty of flies in the world, and what meaning can a fly have, anyway.


Gail Hareven is the author of 14 books including the novel Confessions of Noa Weber. Her short story “The Slows” appeared in The New Yorker. Her novel Lies: First Person is forthcoming from Open Letter. In Israel she received the Sapir Prize and the Prime Minister’s Prize. In the U.S. she was awarded Three Percent’s Best Translated Book Award.