From the author: A child discovers the cost of sin is the price of forgiveness - and the angels' going rate is usurious.
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Grandfather squandered our family's fortune on forgiveness, forcing Father to enlist in the Legion and serve the angels. This was before he met Mother and they had me, though the angels' war still rages. Father doesn't say much about his years of service, except that it would've bankrupted us had he bought an honorable discharge. Instead he quit, kept his wages and is banking on God's leniency. He says he amassed those sins in God's name—he only killed those the angels ordered him to—and that should count for something, despite the angels' claim that sin belongs solely to the sinner. Father says God knows you can't climb to heaven without breaking a few bones.
In school, they teach us sin must be paid for, preferably in gold. My friend Tollum says angels also accept flesh, but Mother assures me this isn't true. She says not to listen to Tollum, that his family has always been poor and they don't know any better. I think Mother is afraid Tollum's family knows exactly what they're talking about. That's why she secretly saves coins to buy forgiveness from the angels. Father says we cannot afford forgiveness, that thanks to Grandfather we are too poor to sin, that if our souls must rot so that our bodies may eat, so be it, amen. Mother always gasps when he says that prayer. But one day I will restore us to riches and our family will be fortunate again.
Neither my teachers nor the angels will say how many pardons you need to get into Heaven, but if Grandfather was right, it's a lot. I save all the pardons I earn in school. I hope if I'm very good, I can save enough to get Father through Heaven's gates. I worry he won't use my pardons, that he will want me to save them for my children, but Heaven won't be the same if he isn't there waiting for us. Mother and I understand this even if he doesn't. Father insists he's spent enough time among angels. (He means his years in the Legion. Father's never been to Heaven, although when I was younger I thought the Legion and Heaven were the same thing. They're not.) I think he just doesn't want to see Grandfather again.
Today I earned three pardons from Teacher. Since I'm still too young to sin, I didn't have to give any of them back—not that I did anything wicked. Tollum got two pardons, but lost them immediately for tugging on Nin's braids. Braid tugging costs three pardons in our classroom (I've heard that in the better schools it can go as high as ten.) Since Tollum only had two, Nin gave him one of hers. Nin is from an almost-fortunate family and knows charity is even better than pardons. Charity shines your soul.
My soul is very shiny. Once an angel gave me a pardon just for letting him look at my soul. I gave him his chit back immediately because vanity is a sin. Mother was so proud she cried when I did that. "You will make it through Heaven's gates," she said. I pray she is right. Also, I ask God to make sure both my mother and father are allowed in. In my prayers, I tell him that if they don't have enough forgiveness, I'll pay their debt when I arrive. I hope He lets people in on credit. Mr. Soon at the grocery store doesn't allow credit; he demands coin up front. But I think God is nicer than Mr. Soon. I also hope He keeps track of how little charity clings to Mr. Soon's soul.
I reach under my bed and pull out an old aluminum lunchbox so I can hide away the wheat-paper chits I earned today. Father used to store his treasures in this lunchbox when he was my age. It's the only thing he took from Grandfather's house and I'm very careful not to add to its collections of dents. Father thinks I carry my lunch in it, but I keep it under my bed so I don't lose it like I lost my mittens last year. Mother had made them for me and although they were ugly, the love she made them with kept my fingers from freezing. She is working on a new pair for the coming snows, but wool is expensive and Mother is better at embroidery than knitting. (A silkworm lost in a sheep's fold, says Aunt.) If Mother doesn't finish my new mittens, I shall keep my hands in my pockets and her love in my heart and that will be enough to keep me warm.
I count my pardons. Seventy-seven. I knew that's how many I had before I counted: 74+3=77. Still, I like to make sure none have gone missing. Neither Mother nor Father would take my pardons without asking, but I don't trust the mice. I press the neatly stacked pardons back into the lunchbox and close it tight. I make sure to flip the catches so no sneaky mice can snack on my forgiveness. "If I have any forgiveness left after getting Mother, Father and I into Heaven," I announce to the mice, "I will bring you, too." I'm not sure mice are allowed into Heaven, but I'll ask. I think they're too greedy to make the climb, but Mother says mice can get into anything so maybe God can't keep them out of His home any better than Mother can keep them out of our pantry.
Father is late for dinner. Our meal is slowly burning as we wait for him. Mother worries the food will be too crisp. Also that we're using too much fuel for the stove's heat, but if she places the food on our table without Father here and it cools before he arrives, then we have relegated him to corpsehood and we would never, never do that—not even if our last crumbs were ash upon the stove. We may not be fortunate, but we still practice honor.
I'm scared, but stay brave for Mother. If Father dies, even in name only, then Mother and I would be forced to rely on Aunt, and Mother's family wants nothing to do with her shame—meaning Father. Father says I should ignore them, that they cling to the letter of the law rather than the spirit and what is God if not spirit?
If Father is dead, Mother and I will be worse off than Tollum's family and Mr. Soon won't let us buy groceries and we will lose our home and I don't think seventy-seven pardons is enough to cleanse Father's soul.
The door opens and Father says, "What's this now?" and plucks the pot off the stove. Mother is so relieved she sits before dishing out our dinner. When she remembers her gaffe, she starts to rise, but Father's hand on her shoulder eases her back into her chair. "I've got this," he says. "I've always got this." He tells me to sit, but I already am and then dinner is plated and he sits. We bow our heads and say grace. Father says it quickly so the meal won't cool before he finishes. It is crisp, but neither Father nor I complain. Mother doesn't notice because Father gave her the best portion—dry, with no black edges. If I were a teacher, I'd give him ten pardons for that. I pray for God to take note in case the angels aren't paying attention.
"Is everything—" Mother stops.
Father smiles. It is a great smile. All teeth and joy and it lights up Mother's face. "Everything is fine," he says. "A tax of angels was on the street and I had to wait for them to pass." He smiles again, the special one for Mother only. "They didn't notice me. My sins have not risen."
Mother nods. Her eyes mist. Father asks me about school. I tell him about Tollum's tugging and Nin's charity and my three pardons.
"But what did you learn today?" he says.
"Of?" As soon as he asks, he glances at Mother and realizes why I didn't share sooner. I pause to see if he changes his question, but it hangs there in the air.
"Lesser Sins, Greater Sins, Celestial Hierarchy and Mathematics. Teacher chose me to lead today's psalm."
"Very good," says Father. "Tonight we shall pray that you remember your numbers as well as your psalms." Father works with numbers. He thinks them very important. He says everyone has accounts, even angels. Once he told me that numbers can be tricky, that sometimes they don't add up to what they should, especially when forgiveness is involved. I asked him what he does when that happens and he said, "As with all things, I leave it in God's hands."
"Father? Do you ever run out of numbers?"
"No, there are always more."
"What if the angels take them?"
Mother scolds me for asking, but Father catches my downcast eyes and says, "Numbers don't work for angels. Only song works for them. That's why they need God's children to fight and to count and to write. Learn your numbers and letters, and you shall always find work."
I promise him I will. But I wonder, if angels can't work numbers, how do they count forgiveness? How do they know when a sin is paid in full?
Perhaps, I think, Mr. Soon tells them.
I ask Teacher how counting forgiveness works and he says that knowledge is only for angels. "But angels cannot count," I say, and Nin shakes her head at me. Tollum laughs and is charged a pardon. Teacher tells Tollum he'll have to join his siblings in the Legion to mortgage his soul and Tollum grows quiet. Tollum's favorite sister left for Legion training last night and he misses her already. She is soft, like Mother (but not as good as Mother, despite our current circumstances), and Tollum fears she'll die if she isn't assigned the same unit as one of their older siblings.
Teacher frowns at me. "Angels may not count numbers, but they can count forgiveness just fine." Then (even though I'm still too little to sin) he charges me two pardons for impertinence. I decide to ask about the mice another day. Father can't afford for me to lose any more pardons. I drop my pardons on Teacher's desk and say a small prayer that I may earn them back before the bell rings. Then, feeling selfish, I add a prayer for Tollum's sister. I don't remember her name, but trust God to know whom I wish safe.
I am full of questions today. When Father comes home—at his usual time, so dinner won't be crisp—I ask if he knows how angels count forgiveness.
"No one knows that except God."
"What do you think they use? If not numbers or letters? Can song be counted?" Could entry to Heaven be as simple as singing the right psalms? I am rich in psalms. If Father has forgotten his, I could help him to remember all the words.
"Do not worry about forgiveness. No one in this family needs it."
I'm almost impertinent twice in one day and tell him he needs it, but catch my tongue in time to flip my words. "Do mice need forgiveness? They are very greedy. Mother says they'd steal our walls if they tasted better."
Father laughs. I have pleased him, but am not sure how. "Mice do what God created them to do. But only God's children may walk through the gates."
"Not even the angels are allowed inside?"
"No, the angels must stay outside to serve and protect us. To guide us to God's love and remind us of His will when we forget."
I forget about the mice. I'm too busy thinking, If I were an angel, I wouldn't like us at all. "Do angels love us as much as God?"
Mother shoos me to wash my hands. "No one loves us as much as God," she says, watching me rub all my fingers and both sides of my palms with soap. "But I am a very close second." She kisses my cheek and hugs me tight until I squirm away clean. I forget about the angels, too.
Until they show up at school the next day.
A tax of angels parade through our school, glittering and bright. Not just any angels, but those from the Legion. Their robes are decorated with thick golden braids and, on their chests, an image of a red dove carrying arrows in its mouth. I have never seen warrior angels up close before. The one in front, with the largest wings of all and olive branches woven through his curls, sings his name.
Teacher kneels and we kneel and the entire tax sings out a blessing. Then Teacher motions for us to take our seats and we do and not even Tollum raises his eyes from his desk. We wait and when I think we can wait no more—someone will shift in their seat, but no one does—the holiest of the tax tells us about the Legion.
It doesn't sound anything like I've imagined from Father's few words. Before I can stop the thought, I think: the angel must be lying. Questioning an angel's word is a lesser sin and I worry their black faceted eyes will spot my perfidy. But I stay still, very still, and keep my eyes down, and they don't. I say a prayer of contrition and resolve to ask Father about what the angel said. Because despite what Mother's family think of him, Father wouldn't lie about the Legion and angels cannot lie (that is a Truth.) Yet both cannot be true. Can they?
Teacher has us line up and sing psalms for the angels. They don't smile like our parents do when we perform for them. Shouldn't the angels be as proud of us as our parents? Shouldn't they rejoice in our learning of God's words?
After our performance, the angels walk around us, sniffing, staring. One speaks to Tollum, his voice a pleasant hum. He tells Tollum news of his brother Hattan. He musses Tollum's hair and says something about soon being old enough to join himself and enhance his family's honor. I have never seen Tollum smile so wide. My eyes swish front and my breath catches. The holiest of them is a hair's breadth from my face. He says my name. "I know your family. I fought with your father. His sins linger on your soul." His words are F-sharp. He summons Teacher and asks about me. Teacher's voice shakes as he shares my progress. My knees wobble, but I hold them tight. We may not have fortune, but we have honor, I remind myself. Grandfather could not squander that.
The angel instructs Teacher that I am to receive no more pardons until my Reconciliation. He says Teacher cannot see my soul so his sin will be considered a lesser one, but that the stain on my family is deeper than he could imagine. The angel sings of my father's sins and my classmates move away from me bit by tiny bit. He finishes and leans down once more. "We will see you serve. You'll pay double."
Before I worried about the angels on Father's behalf. Now I am worried for myself. Will these warrior angels accept my pardons or will they demand a taste of flesh?
If I were brave, I would ask how many pardons Father needs to pay off his sin. I am not brave.
As we walk home, Tollum pretends he's already in the Legion and shoots at imaginary infidels with pretend arrows. When he lines me up in his sights, Nin pushes his arm down. "There aren't any infidels here. But you, Tollum, are in need of God's light. May it shine down on you," she says and tugs me after her. Tollum has never been blessed by Nin and stands staring after us.
"My father has no sins of his own," I tell Nin so she won't feel sorry for us.
"My father says dishonor is still honor. It is not our place to judge."
Tonight I will pray for God to bless Nin's family. They are more than almost fortunate.
Father finds me in my room. Pardons, all seventy-eight of them—all I am allowed—are fanned across my bed. I am not crying, but there are tears on my cheeks.
"What's wrong, my child?"
I tell him about the angels who visited our school. He asks me if I remember the angel's name and I sing it to him best I can remember. His face tightens.
"I don't have enough pardons. Not for you, not for me, not for Mother."
He sits next to me. "Your mother and I don't need your pardons. Those are yours."
"'A clean soul needs no pardons.'"
"Everyone is in need of God's forgiveness. We repent and he loves us more. Don't worry about the angels."
"The angel said I couldn't have any more. He said I was stained with sin, but that other angel, the one outside the church, he said my soul was the shiniest he'd ever seen. How can it be both? Is it because I thought the angel a liar?"
"Why did you think the angel was lying?"
"He said serving in the Legion is the greatest honor we can wish for. That fighting infidels would bring coin to our names, but Father . . . fighting bankrupted you. You chose gold and received dishonor. How can both be true? Was it because of Grandfather? Were his sins so great that they stain us all? The angel said I'll have to serve and pay double."
"You should not have to pay for my sins any more than I should've served to expiate my father's. Grandfather chose to sin. He— That does not matter. We are all sinners. God loves us despite our faults. Sometimes angels are too quick to sing of fault, but that is their nature. We do the best we can and you've done very well. Look, seventy-eight pardons. I never had so many when I was your age."
"You can have them. To give the angels for your sins." I gather them in my hands and offer him the bunch.
"That is very charitable of you, but you must keep them for your Reconciliation."
"I only need three for that. You need these more," I tell Father. "I will be very good."
He takes them and places them on my desk. "You keep them for me."
"If God calls you, tell Him I have them. Tell Him they are yours and I'll send them with His angels."
Father tousles my hair. "I would not step a foot inside Heaven without you or your mother. You bring the pardons yourself when it is your time. Remember, numbers and letters. Our family is done with fighting."
"Because fighting is a sin?"
"Yes. But only if you choose it."
"And you didn't choose it."
"I did not. I was conscripted. For my father's debts. You will not serve. Now, wash your face and come help your mother."
I wake to the sound of scratching, like a tree branch upon a window pane, but there are no trees in my room.
And Father's pardons are out. I left them on my desk. I turn on the light and see a family of mice atop my desk, nibbling on my pardons. I rush from bed and shoo them away. One steals the pardon it was chewing on and scampers to the floor. I grab the rest and stuff them into my lunchbox. I shut the lid tight and follow the mouse into the hall. I cannot see it in the dark and dare not turn on the light for fear of waking my parents.
But there! That's Mother's voice, then Father's. I creep closer, quieter than the mouse. I find scraps of pardon along the floor and put them in my pocket. Perhaps I can tape it back together.
Father is angry. ". . . not the Legion." I crawl nearer to hear his words better. I know he's talking about me. ". . . none but God's," he says.
This makes Mother cry, but not even her tears calm Father's ire. "The Legion is no place for man," he says. "God would not condone what they do. I will stand before Him and await His judgment. My heart is true even if the angels say my soul is not. I believe God will see that. You should believe that, too."
"But . . . conscription? Can they demand it? I could speak with my sister. See if she'll—"
"No. If they try"—his voice drops—"then they may have their flesh. I will give mine."
Mother's cries muffle and I know Father is holding her. I go back to my bed. If the angels get me . . . But no, Father said he wouldn't let them take me. But I don't want them to take him either. I cry softly into my pillow.
In the morning, Mother takes me to school. A message was sent before Father left for work that I am to receive Reconciliation TODAY. I carry my lunchbox full of pardons. It drums against my leg, announcing our march. Dressed in red (symbolizing the blood of my forefathers), I parade into school and down the hall to the chapel. Before we go in, Mother takes seventy-seven pardons out of the lunchbox and places them in her apron pocket. The white apron is not as nice as Mother would've liked, but on such short notice it was all she could borrow. There is a small yellow stain on one of the strings, but Father helped her tie the bows so it doesn't show. Father can't be here because he must work. But he says it is better if the angel taking my Reconciliation doesn't see him. Still, I wish he were here. Even though it isn't my birthday for six cycles, I know all the responses and prayers. In this, I will make my family proud. The angels will have nothing to complain about.
The ceremony begins. The entire school is here and four taxes of angels. My voice doesn't falter. Until it comes time to cleanse my soul.
Mother declares herself as my sponsor and the angel demands one hundred pardons to initiate me into the faith. One hundred.
"But . . ." No one has ever paid more than three. And they are always returned. I look at Mother. She withdraws the seventy-seven chits from her apron and places them on the gold platter. The angel eyes them and waits while Teacher tallies. We all wait. My hands sweat and stick to my clothes. Teacher finishes and whispers to the angel, who scowls at the reckoning.
"You are twenty-three short." The angel sounds like he wants it to be more.
"That is all we have." My voice cracks.
"We cannot proceed without the proper forgiveness in place."
Whispers break out from the pews. Sharp looks from the angels stop them. I wait for Mother to take my pardons back, to take my hand and take me home. But she doesn't. She reaches into her pocket, her dress pocket where she keeps her coins. I tug at her wrist. She can't give Mr. Soon's money to the angels.
"No," I whisper. "Father wouldn't want us to." If Father wouldn't take my pardons for his sins, then I will not take Mother's coins for mine. And I haven't sinned. I am too young to sin. Until I'm reconciled, I cannot sin. Yet the angels say I have.
I hear scurrying and think of mice. I wish I were a mouse. No one can keep a mouse out of anywhere. Not even an angel.
I am so angry that I jump when a small hand presses something into mine. I turn my head and see Nin. "Twenty," she says. "It's all I have with me."
I shake my head, but she is already placing both our hands on the gold plate. Then Tollum is behind me, offering me three pardons that he must've scooped out of the gutter. Mother would have been embarrassed to place them in her apron, but she puts them on the plate, then hugs Tollum and Nin.
"My sister sent them to me," he says. "But I'd just lose them. It's better if you use them." Everyone knows the angels won't be giving the pardons back after this Reconciliation.
Forgiveness accounted for, we continue. I say my final prayer and add a blessing for Tollum and Nin's families. The angel makes the sign above my head and it is over.
I want to leave immediately, but Mother says we must stay. The angels congregate in the front of the chapel and seem to be arguing. Then one comes over to Mother and me and offers us the plate with a small stack of crisp pardons on it. I take them. Count them. Twenty-five pardons. I hand twenty-one to Nin and four to Tollum. Nin tries to give them back to the angel; Tollum sticks his in his pocket. The angel won't take Nin's chits and it's then I recognize him as the angel who once stared at my soul because it was so shiny. I want to ask him what it looks like today, but can't get the words past my throat.
After school, Mother presses two coins into my hand. "Take them to the church and give them to the angels. One in your father's name, the other in yours." She whispers her instructions as if Father might overhear us plotting his redemption.
"But Father said—"
"Your father may be right about God, but we must still appease the angels. We mustn't let them keep him from the gates. Let's make sure he has the chance to plead his case with God."
I clench the gold in my hand. My seventy-seven pardons didn't cover my debt to God. How far will one gold coin go?
"One coin should be plenty. We're not paying for his service stains. Your father wouldn't want that and I promised I wouldn't. These are for any interest he may have accrued."
"Won't we need the coins for Mr. Soon?" On one side of the coins are angel's wings. The other has the word GOD. The embossings are separated by a fluted edge that marks my palm when I close my hand.
"Don't worry about Mr. Soon. These are extra."
I know we don't have extra coins, but take them to the church just the same. The church is surrounded by a fence that is tall and black and pointy. I swing its gate open and let myself in. I wonder if it is as easy to get into Heaven, but God probably has His gates guarded. Otherwise, anyone could enter. Maybe not, if they're so big and grand. Does God's gate require hands to open it or does your soul open it? Maybe that's why souls need to be free from sin: Because sin stops the gates from opening.
I stick my hand through the fence, pretend I am Father reaching for Mother and me through God's fence. (If he has a gate, he must have a fence.)
I think of coins with angels on one side and GOD on the other. I take one of Mother's coins from my pocket and turn it over in my hand, staring at one side, then the other.
Seems like God and the angels should be on the same side.
But if they aren't—if the coin is right—then maybe Father is right about God understanding that the things he did in the angels' war shouldn't be considered his sins.
Inside, I give a coin to the rector. He records our offering and notes our forgiveness in the good book. He assures me the angels will be informed and one gold coin worth of interest will be removed from my father's sins.
I turn to go, then ask, "Do you know about Heaven?"
"Why, yes, some," he says.
"How do the gates work?" I wonder if Father can wait outside until Mother and I arrive. I can't ask Father and I can't ask Teacher. If I ask Mother she might cry, so I can't do that either. And I don't know any angel I dare ask. If this man doesn't know, maybe Tollum will get his sister to ask for me. Being in the Legion, she must know many angels.
"I suppose like any gate. But bigger and grander and so bright it hurts one's eyes to look upon them."
"Have you seen them?"
"No. One must be dead or an angel to view Heaven's gates." He says this as if I should already know it.
I rub the ridged edge of the other coin. I am this narrow edge. All of God's children are this narrow edge, really, bridging the gap between God and angels, virtue and sin.
Should I pay for my sins or take my chances like Father? If I choose wrong, none of us will go through the gates and I will be worse than Grandfather. I will have tarnished our honor.
I thank the rector and leave.
Outside, the coin slips from my fingers and bounces between two pointy pickets, landing GOD side up. I laugh. Because yes. We do live on the edge. But if balanced just right, then—like a mouse that can't be kept out—we can scurry between God's bigger, grander pickets, bypassing the gates and rolling into Heaven.
I'll give the second coin to Mr. Soon. If our souls must rot so that our bodies can eat, so be it. Amen.
This story originally appeared in Mysterion.