An Afternoon in Peniel
"and do you know how much condoms cost when I was growing up?" my grandfather asked.
I wasn't much more than fourteen, sitting cross legged in front of his wheelchair, listening to his stories. "How much, grandpa?" I asked.
"I dont know, he said with a grin on his face, "never used em." He howled with laughter. I was too young back then, and even though I knew what condoms were, I wasn't exactly sure what they were used for. I laughed anyway.
It was a Saturday, sometime in the year after his accident. Ever since then, Id come down once a week to keep him company. Sometimes my parents came with me, sometimes they didn't.
"You know, Ray," he finally said after the laughter died down. "Did I ever tell you about growing up? Things were different back then. I was different. And you know, bud, Ive never told another person this whole story."
I leaned back against the corner, and listened.
"Give me a minute, son. Let me collect my thoughts. I dont wanna have to backtrack here."
I sat there awkwardly for a minute, twiddling my thumbs. A couple minutes later, his raspy voice began to speak again.
"Lets start at my first memory. Have I ever told you this? I don't think I have. I must've been five years old, and there were people in my house. I don't remember all of them. Aunts and Uncles and the like, I suppose. Some kind of family reunion.
I remember I was upstairs in my room when it started. Like I said, Ray, I couldn't have been much older than five, and at the time, well, that just seemed like the best thing in the world to be doin'. I knew there was some sort of party goin on out there, but I didn't mind. I was just happy to be alone. Next thing I know, my Mother charges in, scoops me up, and brings me out to the party. And there it started: Aunts and Uncles pinching my cheeks, telling me I looked like my uncle Hector, or my cousin Jeff, or this cousin, or that uncle. It went on forever.
And finally, my Father grabbed me away from her, looked me right in the eye and said No. He looks like James Dean. The room got all sorts of quiet then, and that was the end of that.
But that wasn't all. When I was growing up I guess I looked a little like everybody. Don't look like you don't know what I'm talkin' about, I see it with you too. Someone I don't know will see me, walk up, and say Hey, didn't you used to work at the Hospital? Aren't you my cousin? Then they get a little bit closer, and they realize that hey, wait a minute. That's not the person I thought it was."
"I don't know what it is, Ray, but I got that at least five times a day growing up. And like I said, Ive heard people say it to you too. Must be something in the family."
"Anyway, I didn't grow up in the country like you did. I lived in the heart of the city, although it was a lot smaller back then. But that's neither here nor there. The thing is, Ray, is that I was young back then. I was like you.
And I was small. Even smaller than you, Ray.
Every neighborhood has got a small kid. Maybe he has asthma, or polio. He can never play football and baseball with the big kids. And in my neighborhood, that was me. I couldn't run, I was too small to be picked on teams. Hell, I could barely do a single push-up!
You know, he said, interrupting himself, the funny thing was, almost every time I walked up the baseball diamond, or the football field to play, one of the bigger kids would call out to me before he recognized me. Hey! That;s Peter! or Jeff, or Ralph, or Frank or Bill. You know how it goes. But by the time they'd figure out who I was, they'd call off the game! But like I said. You're used to it by now. So am I. Its gotta be somethin' in the family.
In fact, its a little like chicken, I guess. We taste like everything!"
He threw back his head and laughed at that one. I just smiled.
"Anyway," he continued, a little more seriously, "Since I couldn't play with the big boys, I had to find ways to keep busy, didn't I? And one day, in the window of the downtown pawn shop, I found it. It was a bike. I saw that there bicycle, and I bought it right on the spot with money I had saved up since Christmas. I had a great many times with that bike, Ray, but that's a story for another time, I suppose."
"There was a trail a couple miles outside the neighborhood, ran right down to a lake outside town. Cant have been much for than ten, fifteen miles, I don't think.
Now keep in mind, son, this wasnt no Crystal Lagoon, oh no. This wasn't even as nice as the lake you got by your place, Ray. But for all I cared, it was paradise. So every Friday through that whole summer, Id hop on my bike early in the morning, ride down to the lake, swim for a while, and be back in time for dinner.
It was wonderful. I didn't have a care in the world."
"Grandpa, you've told me all this before," I said. "Remember? You met Grandma at that lake. Ive heard about it a million times."
"Now, hold on, son," he said with a hand on my shoulder, "You havent heard the whole story. Theres more."
"I remember, one day I was out there ridin', when I came over a hill. And what was at the bottom, Ray? At the bottom of that hill, across the trail stood a tall, beautiful doe. And, well, it came to my mind, that, heck, Id sure never seen a deer out here. Hell, growing up in the city, Id seen a deer maybe twice in my whole life! And here I was, face to face. I was cautious, Ray, I was. I pedaled down that hill slower than Id ever gone down before. I was worried about the rabies, to tell you the truth. And even though I made lots of noise comin' down, that doe didn't move an inch. And finally, I got as close as I dared to her. Five feet tall, her brown eyes met mine, and I stopped my bike. We stared like that, no movement for a while. Ten minutes? Twenty? I don't remember. Neither one of us moved an inch. But finally, she took the first move. Turned right around, pointed her rear end right at me, and walked away. But she didn't move across the path like a normal animal would, no. She walked, Ray, I tell ya, she walked right down the middle of the path towards the lake.
Now I wasn't about to turn around just because an animal on the trail. And I couldn't pass it. Pass a wild animal? No thank you. So I followed it. I followed it for miles. Through the woods, seein things that I dont remember ever seeing before. Forests, rivers, and fields like youd never believe flanked the path that day. Oh, those fields caught the eye. Great golden fields of grain as far as I could see! Id never seen a thing like it, Ray, and if I had stopped and gotten off my bike there, I dont think I wouldve ever kept going. I wouldve stood there and stared for the rest of my life.
But I kept going.
And soon, the path made its way through those fields and back into the forest. And still we went. A river, Ray, that was what came next. Wider than a single thing Ive ever seen, Boy. Wider than a highway. But she didn't notice. On and on, that deer went."
By now I was hanging on my Grandfathers every word. My neck began to ache, and I shifted my position a little bit. My eyes opened wide, I leaned forward.
"And after a long, long time after the trail curved back into the woods, we the end. A clearing in the woods. One of them culd-a-sacks. And that struck me as odd, it did, cause as many times as Id been on the trail, Id never seen me a clearing.
The branches were thick as ever above that clearing, winding together a thick little nest of sorts, except for one little patch of free space. The sun shone through there, Ray, And lit up the place like you wouldn't believe. And for a while, for a while I just stared, the doe forgotten. But I mustn't have been starin' too long, cause even though it seemed like hours, the sun never moved though that little patch. After a while, I just couldn't stare no more, and I turned to have a look at the path I had followed. But the second I turned my back to the clearing to look at where I came from, a voice called out to me.
I turned back to that clearing, son, and where that patch of light hit the ground, there was a man standin' right there in a long, long jacket. Just standin' there lookin' just like he belonged out in them woods. Just an ordinary man out for an ordinary stroll in the woods.
But the thing was, son, he wasn't no ordinary man, I don't think. There was a deep, bright fire in his eyes like Id never seen, and though I'm not into that queer homa-sexshul business, he was beautiful. Id never seen a man (hell, not a woman neither) like him before. He called out to me, Ray, in a voice that I wish you could've heard. It was terrible and soft and loud and quiet, all at once. His voice made the trees shake. He stopped then, and said nothing for a while."
"Church bells," my grandfather said, and after that he closed his eyes and didn't say anything for a while.
I thought he might've been asleep, but after a few
minutes he spoke again.
"I'll never forget what he said, Ray. Not in a lifetime. Not in three."
"Jacob," the man in the clearing said. An that was it.
And I looked at that man, scared as ever, and I muttered out something. My voice was high and frail compared to his, but I did my best.
"Mister," I said. "I don't know who exactly you're lookin for, but my name aint Jacob. Dont feel bad, though, Mister, folks are always confu-"
And that's as far as I got. Even though I could barely speak then, what I had said seemed to anger him more than if I had called him names.
And at that point, that there man stood up straighter, the fire in his eyes blazed, and he roared in a voice that must've shaken the entire earth.
"Jacob! I am the Arch Angel Michael, come to settle the contest which begun at Peniel six thousand years ago!"
And I tell ya, Ray, I was scared. But again, I spoke up, at barely a whisper.
"Mister, I said quietly, "I'm not Jacob."
And then, son, that's where I got really scared. He stood up straighter still, and the inferno in his eyes blazed. And that's where, honest to God, it happened.
I heard a great rippin' and tearin' sound, and that jacket he was wearing fell right off a'him. And behind him, honest to God, I saw them, reaching to the sky.
Wings. Wings of the brightest feathers you could ever
imagine. Now, don't look at me like that, Ray, I know how it sounds. Its the
truth, I swear it. Wings. He roared, and
flexed his shoulders, and then he stared at me again, and said
"Jacob! I am the Arch Angel Michael, Commander of the Army of God, Chief Prince of the Heavenly Host, Messenger of El himself! We sparred over six thousand years ago here in Peniel, Jacob, and here we shall again!"
My grandfather arched his back as he repeated these lines, drew himself upward, and I swear there was fire behind his tired grey eyes. And right then, I could almost believe what he was saying.
"Well that's all he said, boy, because then he threw himself at me, he continued. Now, I was the small kid in the neighborhood. Id never been in much of anything that could possibly be called a fight. Sure, Id had my share of scraps in the schoolyard, but an honest fight? A wrestling match? I was helpless.
But when that Man, or that Angel, or whatever he was came at me that day, I fought back my hardest. I was terrified of him and his eyes, him and those wings. So I let him have it as best as I could. He was throwing punches and kicks and biting, and I tell ya, Ray, I threw them punches and kicks and bites right back at him. We tumbled, and we tussled, and I imagine we looked a bit like one of those dust clouds you see in the cartoons.
I don't know how long it lasted. We wrestled for days. Years. Lifetimes, even. Things were different in that clearing. But after what seemed like a long, long time, he backed away.
"I know not who you are, Mortal," he said. "You are not Jacob, yet you have wrestled me and lived." And without another word, he vanished.
The fire had faded from the old mans eyes.
"There was a clutter of his feathers on the ground, Ray, there in the clearing, pulled straight outta his back. They had to have been seven inches long, the brightest white you could imagine. Damn near hurt to look at them. So me, bein' the smart boy I was, picked some up, and stuck em in my back pocket.
I went home after that, feathers in my pocket. I didn't know what to do. It felt like I had spent years there in Peniel (cause that's where it was, boy, weren't you listenin?), but how much time had really passed? I remember sidling up to my door, calling inside the house carefully. I was nervous, I tell ya. I had been gone a long time, Ray. I didn't know who would answer.
But it was my mother who answered, your Great-Grandmother Rosie, do you remember her? Things were right as rain, and that was the end of it. I took them feathers up to my room, and I put them in a little wooden box I had. By then, though, I noticed, that shine was fast leavin' em. They were still bright, Christ O'mighty, but somethin' had been lost.
I went down the lake path only once more that summer, and that's when I met your Grandmother. There were no endless fields, no rivers, no doe, and there sure hadn't been a trace of a place called Peniel. Nothing. A trail from one city to one lake"
"And there's your story, Ray. When I moved outta my mothers house, I took the box with me. I didn't look inside, but I remember the box was warm to the touch. I always wondered..."
He broke off then, and stared off into space for a minute before gazing at me intently.
"Hell, go in the other room there, and open my sock drawer. The box is right in there. Bring it out, Ray. Please."
I was speechless. I didn't know what to believe. But I was curious. I went to his room, and found the box. I picked it up, surprised at its weight, and I handed it to him. There wasn't a trace of heat, but I was more curious than ever. My heart pumped in anticipation as he opened its glossy wooden lid. He smiled, then turned the open box towards me.
My heart sank. There were feathers in the felt-lined box, yes. But they were brown. Spotted. Plain. Ugly.
"Grandpa, I said, That's a chickenhawk feather. That's all that is."
He smiled and looked at me knowingly. Finally, he took a deep breath.
"Yeah," he said without a trace of a smile, "I suppose they are."
He didn't speak another word.
I left for home a little while after that, still thinking about the story. My grandpa had told me plenty of tales, but never one like this. His eyes never looked at me like that, had never held that fire when he told me his stories.
And again, I found myself not knowing just what to believe. So I did the only thing I could think to do. I went up to my room, looked over the books on my shelf, and found what I was looking for: my dictionary. In between Pencil and Penile I found the word I was looking for:
pe-ni'-el, pen'-i-el, pe'-ni-el: Genesis 32:30: The name given to the place by Jacob after his night of wrestling by the Jabbok River, because, as he said, "I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved."
And although Jacobs life may have been preserved, my Grandfathers was not. He died last weekend, just after my 17th birthday. His funeral was uneventful. Run-of-the-mill. He didn't sit up midway through the service, no Angel came down from heaven in a long jacket, nothing. He was gone.
I was expected to stand and say a few words. I had been there, right there in the hospital holding his hand when he died, and holding back tears, I stood and made the long walk to the altar. He looks just like a young James Dean, someone said in a hushed voice as I walked up the aisle. I ignored them. I set my shaking hands on the edge of the altar, cleared my throat, and then I stood there for a minute, and just like my Grandfather I collected my thoughts.
My Grandfather, I started before blinking back the tears, was a great man. My voice cracked. I couldn't hold out much longer. Ill always miss him, and the stories he used to tell me. The tears started to flow, and I couldn't say anymore. I turned and leaned down over the casket. Rest in peace, Grandpa, I whispered.
I was about to leave when a strange man approached me.
He stuck out his hand. "John Delton. I was the Executor of your Grandfathers
will. Hes left you something." He reached into his coat pocket, and passed an
envelope to me. I turned to leave when I felt a hand on my shoulder. "You
know, he said, You look just like a nephew of mine."
I didn't say anything, and left the building. My parents were waiting for me out in the car. They tried to make small talk, but I didn't say anything on the drive home.
I went up to my room, and here I am, sitting at my desk, with the unopened envelope in front of me. Given to me in his will. I think I know whats in there.
You see, something inside the envelope appears to be burning. Even though its dim behind the paper, the light inside is shining bright enough to hurt my eyes. The paper is hot to the touch.
Yea, I think I know what it is.