We've all had that feeling of danger. You wake up from a dead sleep with your heart pounding. But there's nothing there. Or was there? We are alone, ultimately, but there is someone out there. Watching.
I watched her as she entered the cathedral. She moved like the water under a bridge, with purpose but easily. My eyes followed her as she slipped into the protective shadows of the Saints, and my gaze fell upon her breast as she wiped away the droplets of glistening sweat from the hollow of her collar. I knew that my companion watchers saw her, but I could feel them dismiss her as she moved on. She fell short of their desires. She didn't meet their expectations, and she wasn't worthy of a second glance. But I saw something different.
We are the gargoyles.
They laugh at us now. We've been here since before their grandfather's grandfather. We've watched over them as children, running in the summer grass. In the spring, we've watched over them as friends throw rice to bless their marriage. We've smiled with them as they christen their children. We've guarded them in their grief as they say goodbye to loved ones. We've protected their sanctuary. We've kept away the evil doers who would violate the place they hold dear. But they do not love us for it.
Generations ago their ancestors created us. They needed us. They knew that this building they were erecting would become a symbol of refuge and safety. They knew that it would also become a target for those who carry darkness in their hearts. So we were made. We were carved from the stone to last forever. We were given faces to frighten even the most evil wrongdoers.
And for generations we were admired. People looked up to us for comfort. They knew that we were there to protect their wives and their children and their spouses. But then they stopped believing. The world around us became dark. No longer could we protect the people from evildoers. Evil no longer took its home in the hearts of men. It made its home in man's fingers and arms and hands. Evil took refuge in mankind's eyes and their teeth. Now that the wives and husbands and mothers could see evil, they stopped believing. They saw that evil was human, not spiritual. They saw the pain that humankind caused, and they thought that they were seeing evil.
But they were wrong.
They saw only the reflection of evil. What they were seeing was no more the true essence of evil than the reflection of a tree in a passing creek is the true essence of a tree. But since it comforted them, they choose to believe that they could see and touch and feel and control the bad things in the world. And then they stopped needing us. That's when they started laughing.
They still come to Sunday morning mass. They pass under our watchful eyes and light their candles and pray their prayers and sing their songs. They think that they're safe again because they've locked their doors and barred their windows, and that will protect them from the evil they know. Their children look up at the clouds and see our monstrous faces and they laugh. They think that we're the evil ones. They think that we're the ones that they're supposed to fear. And since they don't fear us, they feel invincible.
When they started to laugh, we began to lose our purpose. And a gargoyle without purpose is nothing more than a block of stone.
So we found a purpose. Yes, we have conscious thought and intelligence, and we feel the need to find reason in our existence. We are not human, but being created by men for an enlightened reason, we were endowed with certain aspects of humanity. Through their loving touch, through the caress of chisel on stone and the loving stroke of finishing cloth on rough edges the need for affection and love was breathed into us. It became part of our essence. Perhaps that is why, under the laughter and scorn, we could hear the uncomfortable edge of uncertainty in the belittling jeers. Mankind knew that they created us, then abandoned us and left us to the cruel elements.
Many of my companions turned hard and unyielding. They took comfort in their stone encasements and ignored the warmth inside that fought to escape. They could look upon the pain in the world and laugh. They considered it just retribution, an earned punishment for the people who could so carelessly fling aside that which they brought into this world. As they looked upon the dark acts played by man against man, by woman against child, and by child against animal, they laughed.
But the others cried. We saw mankind as they truly are. Lost and lonely. Sad and unconnected. Where once men and women and children came together for safety and companionship, now they build walls around their souls and fortified their battlements with barbed tongues and sharp eyes. They allowed themselves to grow cold-not only to the inanimate stone surrounding them, but also to the people who could have enriched their lives.
People live their lives like leaves in a galestorm. They flutter about, sure of their purpose and intent upon their destination, but they care nothing and notice nothing of those whom they brush against. No longer do they see the lonely eyes of the waif on the corner. No longer do they see the pain of the drunk in the alley. No more do they feel the cold of the forgotten ones.
We discovered that we could separate. Separate from our stone bodies and our fixed positions high above the dirt and grime of the city below. Late at night, when clouds cover the moon and the shadows fall short on the pavement, when the cold wind blows and the few lost souls still wandering the street shiver and draw deeper into their chins and collars. It's not hard. It's painful at first-pulling away from the security of the stone fortress that is the cathedral.
That became our purpose. We became not the hated and feared monsters, but the warm and comforting arms around the lost souls. Most couldn't see us. Most choose not to see the warmth that is surrounding them, especially when it is in a guise that is unreal and frightening. We were their dreams or their visions or their nightmares. We were the unseen hands guiding them away from the busy intersection or pushing them away from the predator in the shadowed corner.
And that was enough. For most of us. For a while. We became the guardian angels. People were so willing to believe in angels. They feared us, so they choose not to believe in us, hoping to kill what frightened them. But in some ethereal, light and joyous vision of wings and halos, they were comforted. So they choose to make us their angels. Our good works, our loving touch, our unseen support was credited to the truly uncaring 'angels.' Mankind refused to believe that the angels of which they spoke could not care an iota less for their insignificant lives. Mankind was mere amusement for the heavenly hosts. They were pets. Lower than pets. Ants in a Plexiglas box. Fascinating to watch as they went about their insignificant lives almost as though they had purpose, but not worth second thought as they burned to charred remains under the magnifying glass held in a thoughtless playground game.
No, the angels weren't mankind's protectors. We were. Mankind created us; then they attempted to make us less real. But it doesn't work like that.
One would think that we would be too frightening to be seen by humans. But over the centuries I've discovered one certain thing about the human mind. It has unlimited power to create and redefine. When we allow ourselves to be seen, people don't see us as the fearsome creatures with gnarled faces and steel-cold wings and talons. We're not seen as monstrous beings of stone. The human mind protects itself. If they see us at all, they see strangers. Cold and fearsome, perhaps, but human.
But usually they don't see us. They might glimpse from the corner of their vision a shadow on the wall, a spectral image quickly dismissed by their rational mind. So we travel amongst them. Observing. Listening. Following. Protecting.
Occasionally we force ourselves into their vision. We spread our wings and rise to our full height. We turn their eyes towards us with the strength of our silent voices, heard deep in their souls. But only when we must. Only for those who are truly beyond salvation. For the unforgivable evil ones who travel amongst people, disguised as human. For the destroyers of innocence. Those who prey upon the good and delicate that resides in all people. There are those amongst you. Do not doubt it. There are those people born with such darkness in their soul that goodness and light becomes physically painful. There are those who are truly evil. Blights upon the world. When we find them, we destroy them. They gaze upon us and know that there is something more powerful than the hate that fuels their existence. And that knowledge destroys their mind.
You've seen our work. You've seen them gibbering to themselves as they attempt to quiet their frightened souls with drink and drugs. They don't last long. The 'lucky' ones find their way to asylums, where they live the remainder of their lives in a haze of delirium and diagnoses of paranoid delusions. The unlucky ones live the remainder of their pitiful lives shunned and abandoned. They deserve no better.
I saw her first during the heat of summer. An early August evening, and the city was bound by the inhuman heat of the sun on sidewalk. Waves shimmered off of the pavement like ripples in the sand. She, like so many others, sought refuge from the blistering sun in the relative cool of the cathedral's pews. She walked like so many around her. Tucked in to her own being. Surrounded by people, yet cut off by choice. It was as though I could see the barrier she'd built, invisible to human eyes, but obvious to the human spirit.
So many people walked as she did. They were one within a throng of bodies. Shoulder to shoulder with the people of the city. All but touching one another. But so apart. The walls they build around their souls are palpable to the world. They are felt by anyone who comes close enough to feel the heat of the other's body. Then, confused, they refuse to understand why they are alone and lonely.
I watched her move. She slid through the church doorway like a snake through desert sand. Finding the path of least resistance through the worshipers. She moved with purpose and with a quiet ignorance. As though those around her were mere shadows.
She knelt, crossed her breast and shoulders and moved to light a candle. Her lips moved in prayer as the flame touched wick, sparked and crackled. I let myself drift closer until I could hear her whispered plea.
As her flame touched each candle, her lips moved. "Gabriel, hear me. Take my prayer."
Interesting. A prayer to Gabriel. To the patron saint of messengers.
Another candle, another payer. "St. Francis de Sales, hear my prayer. Open my ears, bless my hands."
Ah, of course. Her walls were not all self-imposed. She was deaf. Her world was silent not by choice, but by design.
Another candle. A whispered prayer to Valentine and Jude. To lovers and desperate causes.
The saints don't listen. They don't exist. But we do.
I followed her home that night. Through crowded streets and murky pathways through the park. She moved as one possessed with the knowledge that she is invisible to those around her. So many invisible people in this city! My stone heart aches to see them, alone by their own design. With my knowing eyes, I can see their souls crying out silently, "See me! Notice me!" But they move on alone. They fold their arms around their shoulders and hug themselves as protection. Even in the warmth of the summer sun they act as though they're freezing. I can see that the city has turned them cold from the inside outside. Upside down.
Watching her, I realize something about these invisible people. They think, they believe that they're at peace with themselves. They've tricked their beings into believing that what they crave is the safety of solitude. Words come to me. Words overheard, spoken by the philosophy students passing from the afternoon coffeehouse to evening pub. "He makes a solitude, and calls it-peace!" This is what Byron meant.
And I felt something else. A stirring in my stone cold center. A longing for something I'm yet to find a name for. I watched her back as she stepped lightly over the muddy puddles left by children playing in the illicitly opened fireplug. The way her hips moved beneath the thin cotton of her summer dress. There was a tug where my heart should be at the flash of pale skin as the hem of her skirt flipped up when she stepped from the curb to the concrete step of the brownstone house with the heavy wooden door.
The curve of her forearm, melding delicately into the bird-like bones of her wrist as she pushed key into lock drew me up the steps behind her. I didn't know if she'd notice me or not. Most people don't. Most people know that we can't exist, therefore their minds dismiss us as imaginary. She was no different. I slipped in easily before she thought to turn and pull the door tightly closed.
She went through the minutiae of life, which allowed me to watch her movements. Checking the mailbox, sifting through the circulars and "to occupant" envelopes, tucking the few bills into her handbag and tossing the rest neatly into the foyer trash can before mounting the stairs. No doorman at her building. No security beyond the heavy double-bolt door facing the street. No elevator either. A long walk up in this heat to her fourth floor apartment.
She walked quickly. No pausing at the landings. No stopping to catch her breath between floors. Keys out and ready. A woman trained for life in the city. No fumbling at the door, giving the thug down the hall a chance to attack. Keys out, key in the lock, turn, open, in, close, and lock. She was faster here than at the outside door. Interesting.
I stood for a moment outside her apartment, imagining her inside. I could so easily move into her space. I could without effort find her bedroom window and watch her as she undressed. I realized that I longed to see her naked form as she slipped between her cool bed sheets. I imagined her frustrated body, craving the touch of a loving partner, finding brief release and solace instead in the knowing touch of her own fingers.
I left her that night. But I knew I'd return.
But there was something I didn't know. As I was watching her, they were watching me.
She came back to the church. They always come back to light their candles and say their prayers. I followed her, this night bird. She drew me. Something alone in her soul called to me. I could hear her coming. Her footsteps were as loud and distinct as the distant jackhammers of the street workers.
Always at night she came. After work, perhaps. Always coming from somewhere. It told in her gait, in the set of her shoulders against the world. For weeks I watched, silently, from my perch above the entrance. And for weeks I followed her home, stopping only outside of her door, listening with my unnatural ears as she moved about her apartment.