Stained Glass Heart

as published in ASCENT as The Art Of Kissing

He was colored, colored from wrists to neck, up onto the sides of his face, and underneath his clothes, she thought probably, down over his stomach and thighs and behind his knees. Down his calves; eagles, flags, hearts and snakes, and names, no doubt, names and places and dates. She was thinking of how you color in coloring books, when you're a child, spreading out the crayons on the floor or table, choosing different shades for the sky, blue into purple, purple into red; coloring in cactuses on mountains, lights in houses, paths to doors. Some of the colors on him were pulled together like when you write on a party balloon as she did sometimes, "Gail and Joseph", "Richard and Jolene", or whatever, then all the air goes out. Some of the colors picked up the gold in his eyes, others seemed to fade in and out with what he was wearing, reflecting his belt buckle and plaid shirt, his turquoise bracelet, making him seem like a chameleon on a shaded wall, everything blending. Aura stood back watching him do what he had to do. Sometimes he stood and faced her, talked to her, wiped his face and forehead then bent down again to bring out the traps, the colors on his chest where his shirt fell open, looking like something you see through a forest of trees and can't quite make out.

"I wouldn't have known how to do that," she said, but he was back under the porch, one thin leg sticking out so that she was talking to the bottom of his boot. "Nasty little things, anyway," she said, peering down at one of them he had thrown over the side. "I guess it's because of the rain," she said, "There's been a lot of it. They've been scaring me to death."

He backed out from beneath the porch, his rear-end small, she thought, for his size, which was a head taller than she was. She was embarrassed for thinking this, embarrassed that she was more than just a little fluttery in his presence, aware that he was attractive in a grubby, lanky sort of way, unlike Jeffrey, her ex-husband, who was compact and meticulous, self-righteous, actually, anal, like they say. At any rate, she wasn't at all interested, Jeffrey and his rigid, unforgiving personality was enough for her for a long time; she appreciated the time to herself just fine, though friends and clients both, had encouraged her to get out and meet someone new. She stood out of the way, dirt and pieces of odds and ends from her sewing dangling from his knees, she noticed, mesmerized into identifying whether it was silk or satin, thread or what, when it had dropped or been swept there, what year it was, whose dress she had been working on, were they together still, or divorced like everyone else in the world.

"If they're alive they'll rare right up on their haunches and bite you," he said, and held up a scarred finger to see. "They got me a few times. I got scars all over myself from one damned thing or the other," he said, and Aura found, in spite of herself, she was thinking about his body again, her mind drawn under his clothing as if by a marker-pencil making a straight line, strictly for the design aspect, she told herself, the curiosity of how the design and color he had decided to put all over himself for some odd reason, unfolded "This one bit his last bite, though," he said, holding up a mangy looking, unidentifiable to her, brown rodent whose neck had been broken. It fell heavily to the ground when he dropped it then nudged it over the side with his boot. "Horrible," Aura shuddered. "Hey, they're just trying to make a living like everyone else. They got families too. He was probably beautiful to someone."

Aura started to say something.

"I can leave ‘me here or take ‘me," he continued, before she could get any words out. "It's up to you. I always figure leaving a few of the male ones is good. Kind of a sign to the others. Seems to be useful," he said. "I don't know if they don't like the smell, or what, but they sure as hell don't come back for awhile. Anyway, something will drag them off sooner or later, then just enough of the odor will be there to still scare the shit out of ‘em, excuse my French." He turned to her, waiting for an answer.

"I don't think I want them lying there," Aura resolved, but then she thought about others scratching across her porch at night like she had seen and heard while she was putting something together for a wedding or special occasion. "I don't know," she said, "I just, thought naturally you'd take them."

"Yeah," he said, lighting a cigarette he had pulled from his pocket, ''folks don't always know they have options. Always two ways of looking at things in life, it seems like." His eyes took in the long desert, the distant sulfur-colored mountains that came to an end somewhere in Mexico, he thought, closer in, Aura's property with its ramshackle barn and fences that needed mending, a sign, he was thinking, of no male presence, like the rodents; wondering who she had run off, so to speak, talkative as she was.

Aura was watching what appeared to be ends of dragon tails curling up around either side of his chin, tapering finely into his hairline.

"Where do they go?" She said, before she could catch herself, her finger rising to indicate what she meant. ‘I'm sorry," she said, wishing she hadn't asked. "I didn't mean to be personal. What I meant was, do they go down along your arms, or what?"

"Aw, yes and no," he said, "it's a whole intricate story. Words and everything."

Aura nodded like she understood.

"It starts here," he said, holding out his hand. "If you notice, there's writing right there. It says, ‘Mark of the Beast.'"

Aura started somewhat, but looked to see some kind of animal, or the beginning of one.

"It's just what we already know," he said, "just enlightenment. Do you have a bible?" he asked. "You could bring it outside," he said when she hesitated.

"I guess you could come in," she said, conscious that there hadn't been a man inside in a long time, not since Jeffrey, actually, and were there things lying around that might shame her, make her appear terribly untidy? She certainly wasn't in the market for any of the male criticism or scrutiny that seemed to come with the territory, in her limited experience, spoken or implied, all of it driving her to despair. Usually her customers, the women and girls who came didn't mind, their attention being on their own lives and the fabrics they brought for her to sew. Anyway, he just wanted to show her something, didn't he, regard-less of being a little unconventional maybe? Wasn't the least interested in her or her house, she was sure, and he was asking for a bible, to boot, which told her something though she didn't know what exactly; what was the harm, she guessed, and how bad could he be, was what it told her in case she was worried about him being a serial killer, or someone like that. Anyway, she had her doors and windows open and neighbors on all sides if she needed them.

They went up the stairs, Aura flattening her dress against herself as best she could so that she wouldn't be showing the backs of her thighs, going up, in case he was looking, which he probably wasn't; she wasn't looking that good today anyway, what with those horrible creatures keeping her up and frightening her half the night, back and forth on the porch, making their terrible racket. Inside the house she asked him to sit down on one of the kitchen chairs and she went to find her bible, pushing around in her drawers and closets where she might last have put it, though she couldn't remember. When she found it, finally, and came back, he took it from her and stood up, opening it.

" ‘And I looked,'" he read, when he had found the page, "'and behold a pale horse, and his name was Death, and Hell followed him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with the sword,'" he said, pronouncing the ‘w' in ‘sword', "'and with hunger, and with death, and with the beast of the earth.' It's all here," he said, "look around you. One World Order. Do you think everything that's happening is by accident? Volcanoes, hurricanes, tidal waves, starvation, shootings? ‘Beware the Mark of The Beast,' it says. Did you know that in Europe there is a computer ten stories high and three city blocks wide? What do you think this is?" he asked her, picking up a magazine, showing her the price code strip. "Ain't that The Mark of The Beast?" he said, handing her back her bible.

She took it from him, at a loss for words, wondering now if she should have let him in or not, wondering if he was harmless or completely crazy, or what his problem was, "Are there angels?" she finally did say, because she did love angels and used them in some way on most things she made, her customers loving that she did. He looked at her, considering what she meant. "I mean are there angels in there?" she said, "in there where the dragons are?" and she raised her hand, against her better judgment, as though she must see for herself.

He moved back, startled. "There are," he said, "'and their numbers were ten thousand by ten thousand.'"

Aura stepped toward him so that he nearly stumbled backwards. "Oh," she said, uncertain as to what she meant to do, aware that she felt compelled, in some way, she had to admit, to touch him.

"Do you ever see stars that ain't stars?" he asked out of nervousness or enthusiasm, she couldn't tell which, "comets that ain't comets?" and saying this, turned his back to her and dropped his shirt to hang at his waist.

Aura's breath caught in her throat, and she did find herself leaning toward the open door. Everywhere on him, as he displayed himself to her, were large and masculine angels, not the delicate, gilded ones she was used to; flying saucers and cities, thunder and lightning, towers and armies, snakes and many-headed animals. There were quotations and symbols of all kinds, faces from behind clouds, demons of assorted size and terror. He raised his arms, holding them out straight then moving his shoulders and rib cage to make the armies march, the flying saucers soar, the snakes and many-headed animals writhe and beckon, the words pulsate.

"Ain't it something?" he said, pulling his shirt back on. "Did you ever see anything like it?" When she didn't answer but simply stood with her mouth open, he continued. "Did you make up your mind?" he asked, nodding in the direction past her porch where she was reminded lay the disgusting pile of dead animals.

She thought, vaguely, about the rodents and the flies that would come heavy and green-eyed, to lay their larvae in them. "I don't know, she said, feeling rather faint from what she had just witnessed, or the thought of the carcasses, "take them, I think."

"Have to show ‘em who's boss, us or them, don't we?" he said.

"Yes," she said, uncertainly, thinking about how the men she knew, not very many of them, to be sure, seemed all to be halfway deranged in one way or the other, crazed about every little thing, taking the whole damned burden of the world on their shoulders and into their heads, like they had nothing better to do.

"Prob'ly millions of ‘em out there," he said, and Aura sat down, overwhelmed.

Outside, a hummingbird stopped at the window and was gone, a blue glass heart that Aura had hung from a branch of her mulberry tree, when she got divorced, blue for blue, like she was for awhile, spun on its string, throwing glints of itself around the room the way a water sprinkler throws drops of water. Some of the color went across the bible that he had closed but was still holding, some across his face and hands though in places it was harder to see than others, because of his own array of colors.

"Why would you want that all over yourself?" Aura blurted. "All those colors and things?" She leaned back, as if the question was too much for her, as if it was all to much for her, all that he had on him, plus everything else, had exhausted her. Women were so much easier to deal with, she was thinking, certain of their choices, buttons or snaps, carnations or violets, a golden angel here and there, plain and simple.

"Do you believe in God?" he asked, and she looked up at him, again, wondering what on earth was going on inside him.

"I do," she said, although it wasn't really any of his business, "in my own way. And angels, too, but different. I prefer mine dainty and small. She suddenly thought, crazily, that if she took a hose and hosed him down, like she did the porch every evening, everything might run off him, get rid of all his craziness; or she thought what would happen if she asked him to step out of all of it like he would a suit of clothes, like her clients stepped out of their dresses to try on something new. "It takes all kinds doesn't it? To each his own," she said, summing it up to herself satisfyingly.

He remained motionless as if considering what she had said, looking out past the porch where the rodents lay. "I would build a high mountain," he said, finally. "I would build a wall and raise up the sides. I would fortify myself. I would build a tower to reach up to the heavens," he said softly.

"Oh, my," Aura said, and he suddenly seemed so fearful in her eyes, so defenseless. "You know, that's what I've been thinking of," she added, "Excuse me, I know it doesn't make sense, but in the back of my mind I've been thinking of a church all this time, I just realized, or part of me has. With stained glass windows. That's what it reminds me of, what you have there. Church windows. Lilies and roses. And angels. The prophets and the depiction of history, how it is all condensed there to look at to remember beliefs, to remember strengths. I notice them in different churches where people whose dresses I've made are getting married. It's the same everywhere. Beautiful reminders. Of the choices in our life, too, just like you said. We do have choices. Maybe that's what you are to yourself, a reminder of your beliefs, so that you won't forget them, so that they can keep you strong. I guess I've been wondering something all this time, and maybe that's what it is."

‘That's good," he said, "I never thought of it like that. Stained glass."

"Imagine yourself with the light shining through, all the way through, way down deep inside," she went on, "way down inside to your heart. You'd be like a stained glass window. Then you'd have yourself a stained glass heart reflecting back out all over the place," she said and they both laughed. "Why, I could hang you like a lantern from my own window," she said, "keep all those awful things out there away, for one thing. Be a reminder to me not to be afraid. And you, too, if you ever are. You could be my lantern," she said, flushing a little.

"That's good," he said again. "That's really good." And then, "I don't like having to kill things. I don't like having to kill anything, take the life from anything, if you want to know, even those little things. What's the difference between me and the rest of it, truthfully, the rest of things gone nuts? Killing is killing, isn't it? That's what's in my heart if you want to know."

"It's not a very good job, is it?" she said, "I guess I couldn't do it."

"Who made me God?" he said.

"Oh," was all she could say, but felt suddenly, like she should touch him, find away to take this worry from him, like she did some of her clients' choices when they started going for the beads and rhinestones and too many flowers; that something about him was asking her to do this, asking her to lay her hands over the beasts, and the armies, the multitude of sins and transgressions, transferring this heavy weight to herself, hold it and then let it go when its power had diminished, when it was a more beautiful and manageable thing, the same as the fabric she worked sometimes that was stiff and unrelenting, and then became pliable in her hands.

"I'm just so fed up," he said. "Things falling apart all over the world, children shooting one another, and everything. I've always just wanted words where I could read them," he said.

"And you thought if you put what you believed all over yourself, you could fight against it," she said, "you could always remember what you stood for. That if everything else fell apart, you'd at least have that."

"You feel so helpless, sometimes," he said

"Ain't it the truth?" she said, and felt good when he sat down next to her.

"I'd do something about it all if I knew what to do," he said. "I would reflect out like you said, be what you said, a lantern, or whatever, change the world if I could," he said.

"Well, I would too," she answered.

"I like that," he said, "a lantern. That's good."

"Yes," she said, "It is, isn't it?"