This poem was written outside the fishbowl sessions to fill a gap in the Fledgling Grace series. It also fills a square on my Hurt/Comfort Bingo Card for "restrained." It has been sponsored by Shirley Barrette. You can find the other poems in this series via the Serial Poetry page.
They were working late, the priest
and the angel who had once been a devil.
There was never any shortage of work
that needed doing, and often a shortage of hands.
It felt strange to the angel, even now
with his sparrow wings taking the place
of the bat wings he had worn in Hell,
his new form the mark of his new life.
He felt secretly, piteously grateful
that he had fallen up only as far
as Earth and not plummeted all the way
to Heaven -- that he could not have borne.
So he worked alongside the priest
who had helped him through the moulting,
even though the work was strange to him.
Charity. That was a Virtue.
They were folding clothes that had been donated,
sorting them into piles by type and size,
and the priest had to show the angel how
because he had never done such things before.
The priest began to fidget a little, fussing with
his plain white shirt, grumbling as he tugged it.
Perhaps it was an allergy to something in the clothes?
The priest had explained allergies to him. Horrid things.
The priest dropped a pile of shorts on the wrong stack
and reached around to scratch at his back.
"Are you all right?" the angel asked, because the priest
had taught him to ask that when someone seemed upset.
"I don't know," the priest said. "It itches. It burns.
You don't suppose someone might have gotten
poison ivy into the clothes? Or itching powder?"
"You back is itching, not your hands," the angel said.
"I have no idea what else it could be," the priest said,
clawing at his shoulderblades through the shirt.
A fleck of red appeared on the white fabric.
"Take your shirt off," said the angel. "Let me see."
The priest peeled off his shirt, revealing
pale skin already streaked with long red weals.
The angel traced the marks with his careful fingertips.
There was something about this, something almost ... familiar.
He could see sweat beading on the priest's skin,
and along the worst scratches, pinpoints of blood.
From the corner of his eye, he caught a glint of grace,
but the angel had long since given up chasing it.
Under his hands, the priest's back felt warm, almost hot.
Burning, the priest had said; but the risen devil
had felt burning and this was not that. Not ... quite.
Yet something heated beneath his palms even so.
"If you're not going to scratch, get off me so I can!"
the priest snapped, twisting in his grip.
"I don't think you should," the angel said gravely.
"You've already scraped off some of your skin."
"Oh, God bless it," the priest said, and -- there.
Flicker, flare, grace billowing between their skin
like heat lightning hidden in heavy clouds.
"What was that?" the priest yelped. "What was that?"
"I do not know," the angel replied, rubbing
his fingers together, "but I think we shall find out."
He coaxed the priest into the break room
and urged him to lie down on the little cot.
There were ridges under the skin now, where
the red lines ran thickest, and at the base of the spine.
The angel pressed his fingertips along them,
trying to divine the shapes that lay hidden within.
"Can you feel that?" the angel asked the priest.
"Feel what? All I feel is the infernal itching!"
the priest complained. He squirmed on the cot.
"Give me your hand," said the angel.
He guided his friend's hand down the shoulderblade.
"Here," said the angel, "what do you feel?"
The priest yanked his hand away. "Something moving!"
"Something growing, I believe," the angel said.
"I'm not -- I'm not turning into a monster, am I?"
the priest stammered. "This is ridiculous!"
"As ridiculous as a devil moulting into an angel?"
came the soft query, along with another touch.
"What's happening to me?" the priest asked.
"From what I can feel ... you are growing wings
and a tail," the angel said. "The bones are there,
small now, but they are already expanding as I watch."
"Wings," the priest said. "That's new. This is too much, too fast."
"It is happening faster than my moulting," the angel observed.
"I think it is because you are already closer to God.
Perhaps you should give me the key for the holy oil."
The priest whimpered but surrendered the key.
The angel hurried to gather supplies, not entirely certain
what would be needed, only hoping that he would
think of everything and the right things.
He scrambled back into the break room with his hands full
of holy oil and clean towels and the first aid kit just in case.
The priest was gripping the frame of the cot so hard
that his knuckles turned white and the cot creaked.
"I want to scratch," the priest said through his teeth.
"You'll tear yourself apart," the angel said.
What did he know about this, really? Only what
this very man had taught him, on this same cot.
The angel hastened to spread the holy oil
over the straining skin, and it helped.
"The itching stopped," said the priest,
"but now for some reason I want to move."
Gentle fingers stroked along the buried bones.
"Your wings are trying to break through the skin,"
the angel said. "It's too soon, though. They're small.
Your skin is thinning, here, but it's not ready yet."
The priest heaved against the mattress,
his back arching like the line of a bridge,
bones pressing along the inside of his skin.
Then he fell gasping onto the cot.
"Lie still," the angel urged. "Conserve your strength."
He wet the cloth again, spread more holy oil.
Then he clasped the priest's hands in his, saying,
"What is it angels are supposed to say? Fear not?"
The priest laughed, a little harsh, but agreed, "Yes."
"Bide with me," the angel said. "Wait. We will
see this through together, as we did my moulting,
no matter how long it takes, no matter what happens."
Because that was all he had to go on, those memories,
soft cloth and the spicy smell of holy oil and a tender touch
that somehow soothed him even before he realized
that he needed soothing and touching and tenderness.
The angel was gentle as long as he could be,
but the priest's wrists trembled and twitched in his grip,
and finally one twisted free to paw at the straining back again.
What else was there to be done, without hurting the man?
Worried, the angel flapped his sparrow wings,
strong sweeps that stirred the air and the swirling grace.
That gave him an idea. Quickly the angel lay down
and pinned the priest's body beneath his own.
"What are you doing?" the priest said.
"If I hold you, I can keep you from hurting yourself,"
the angel said. "I was weak when you found me,
but I'm stronger than you now. I'll help you keep still."
He could feel the not-yet-wings creeping against his chest.
"All right," the priest said quietly. "We'll try it your way."
That felt so strange, to be the one relied upon, trying to guide
as he had been guided, when he had hardly a hint what to do.
What did priests do when they were at loose ends?
Ah, that was it! "Recite something," the angel suggested.
"Bible verses, quotes from a sermon, whatever you recall."
So the priest, warm beneath him, trembling, said verses.
The words tickled along the angel's skin, flicked at his feathers,
quickened the grace to a shimmer in the sighing air.
The angel listened, and gave what comfort he could,
poured on more holy oil when the priest's back grew dry.
Then there came a great wrenching shudder,
different than the others, and the angel rolled off.
He just had time to grab the wrists before the man arched
and screamed, "My God! My God! Why have You forsaken me?"
The thinning skin split, sloughing away like the shed skin
of a snake around the bases of naked wings and a tail
that sprang free and unfolded, growing more rapidly now.
The angel oiled them, and the healing skin of the back.
The priest was sobbing into the mattress
and the angel had no idea what to say,
so he simply stroked the tangled hair and hoped
that something he was doing would feel comforting.
Then there were words to say after all.
"Look, your feathers are coming in already,"
he told his friend. "I can feel the quills."
The priest reached a shaking hand to his wing.
"So they are," he said, a hitch in his voice.
Cloth and oil and grace. Comfort through the change.
This was what the angel had learned, what he returned,
and the priest lay still now beneath his hands.
The quills pushed through the skin of the wings,
and the angel worked the shafts until they crumbled
to reveal the tips of pure white feathers.
"How do they look?" the priest asked him.
"He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove
and coming to rest on him," the angel murmured.
"Dove wings?" the priest said, wondering.
"So it would seem," the angel said as he settled them.
"I look a bit like an angel," the priest observed.
"You changed. I changed. Could there be ... more coming?"
The angel wondered about such a possibility as he
smoothed the oiled cloth softly over the new wings.
They were huge, smooth and shining like the moon,
a robe of white feathers covering the priest's back.
"I was not the first devil to moult into an angel," he said.
"I doubt that you will be the last human to fledge."
"What fearful symmetry," the priest said, his voice worn.
"If we were baffled before, how much worse will it be now?"
The angel remembered how exhausted he had been
after his moulting, and lifted the cloth away at last.
"Sleep," he said to his friend. "I will stay with you.
Later we can worry about the meaning of all this."
"God has a plan," the priest mumbled, half-asleep already.
"God always has plan, even if we don't know what it is."
There was grace in the air all around them,
thick as clear honey, clinging sweetly to them both.
"Yes," said the angel who had once been a devil.
"I am beginning to understand that."