by Nicholas Diehl
On the day Beth became an angel, the doctor put a laser in her index finger and a bomb in the back of her skull.
“Will it hurt?” she asked. She hadn’t thought to ask before, during the interview.
“Hmm? Oh, you mean the bomb? Oh, no, no, of course not.” The doctor sounded distant, probably distracted with the delicate work he was doing on her hand. “It’s not really a bomb like you would think. When the laser fires, the membrane of the bomb ruptures, the chemicals inside get released, and you go to sleep. The whole thing happens in about five seconds.”
Beth nodded, but the doctor was focused on the neurocircuitry again and didn’t give anything more than one-word answers the rest of the afternoon.
When he was finished, though, he leaned back and smiled a weary, compassionate smile. “It is finished, Elizabeth. Go with God.”
But the tall man waiting for her in the corridor was dressed entirely in black, save for a red Roman collar like a slash at the throat.
Beth liked Brother Dominic; he had a severe mouth and gentle eyes. He reminded her of Father Dev, one of the priests who had taught her at primary school, even though Father Dev was Indian and barely taller than some of the Year 6 boys. It was the mouth and the eyes.
Brother Dominic took her arm gently—her left arm—and walked with Beth, through the hospital and out into the parking lot. The nurse had wanted to put her in a wheelchair, bless her heart. Brother Dominic had run her off.
Beth might be dying of cancer, but she wasn’t an invalid.
He helped her into a sedan, a car so vanishingly black that Beth could imagine the order wanted it to pass unnoticed.
But she remembered then that the number plate was a vanity: GLADIUM.
“The fool sees contradiction in perfection, and so is blind to the greatness of God. For (so says the fool) justice is a virtue and mercy is a virtue, and how can a man be perfect in his justice and also perfect in his mercy? But God has not these limits….
“The destroying angel has ever been the hand of God’s justice and of God’s mercy. The angel is summoned by the sins of one accursed, one who has fallen so far from the glory of God that he is trapped in immorality as like in quicksand. Thus is the angel justly summoned, by the sins of the accursed, and thus the angel brings death upon him in mercy, that his fall from God’s presence be halted and his redemption in the hereafter may commence….”
(St. William of Salisbury, De iustitia Dei)
Dominic drove and spoke very little; like Beth, he had an appreciation for the sparser landscapes of language. Beth watched the slower traffic slide around them for a while and let her mind drift. The painkillers they had given her helped with that.
A month ago Beth had woken up in the morning, and she had been dying and didn’t know it. In the afternoon she met with the specialist, and he told her that the cancer had progressed.
“I’m sorry, Beth. There is nothing more our medicine can do.”
She had to lick her lips, the roof of her mouth, before speaking. She tasted ashes—she was reminded that she was ashes. “How long?”
“Perhaps…” Nervous, the doctor licked his lips too. “Perhaps six months.”
She nodded. She nodded again as the doctor explained options for home care and hospice, nodded because she was too exhausted to do anything more in the moment when her life was given an end.
Eventually the doctor left and Beth found the energy to leave as well. And there, in the too bright light of the lobby was a man with a close black beard and solemn eyes in his skull.
“I have the advantage, Mrs. Reeves. I am Brother Dominic. But you have heard of the Gladium Angeli, of course.”
“…. John’s break from the Church in Rome was the design of William of Salisbury, a soldier who went to the Holy Land in the Third Crusade, grew disgusted with the viciousness and venality in his fellow Christians, and returned to found the Gladium Angeli, a holy order devoted to bringing justice in the name of the destroying angel of God. The Swords of the Angel were quickly disavowed by Rome, but were embraced by John, who saw them as an ally against an otherwise unremarkable uprising of barons in 1215.…”
(T.L. Kedzie, A Brief History of the Anglican Church)
Now they sat in a comfortable room, tea steaming on the table between them. Brother Dominic smiled as faintly as the memory of sand. Beth’s finger itched where the thin scar was already starting to fade. The binder in her lap contained the profiles of ungodly potentates. It felt heavy with sin.
She turned the pages of evidence with her fingertips, as though their taint might crawl onto her skin if she were not careful. A tycoon who had made millions by manipulating the prices of life-saving drugs. Here, a preacher who had solicited money to build a church for God only so that he might build a mansion for himself. This one, an heiress who bribed away regulations and then collected insurance when her employees died in the mines.
Brother Dominic cleared his throat and templed his fingers. “These are individuals who have … fallen far from God’s presence. They have been tried in the Church’s own courts and found guilty of crimes against God and humanity.”
Beth nodded. A man who used his wealth to buy the bodies of children. She tapped the picture with her index finger.
“…from such an opening, a great transformation in English law was birthed. For what is law may be divided into two parts, that part which deals with such offenses as are mala in se (wrong in essence) and that part which deals with such offenses as are mala in prohibita (wrong by the prohibition of society) only. Such offenses as are mala in se are against the law of nature, dictated by God himself and binding in every place and time. Such offenses as are mala in prohibita are reflections of the society of men, as when one country prohibits the hunting of partridges and another the hunting of hares.
“Since the reign of John I, the law of England has divided the responsibility for what is law between the municipal courts and the courts of the Anglican Church. The municipal courts consider such offenses as are mala in prohibita, while the courts of the Church consider such as are mala in se…”
(William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England)
“He will dine at Chez Pellier on this Thursday night. It will be a personal appointment with a man he believes to be an influential lobbyist.” Brother Dominic had said that the Order had many agents. “There is a private jet ready to take you to Washington.”
“What if … what if he doesn’t come?”
Brother Dominic looked at her for a long moment before speaking; Beth thought she saw a terrible sadness behind his eyes.
“The … appointment … is part of the judgment of the court. If he does not come to the appointment, the judgment is vacated.
“But in my thirty-eight years in service to the Order, I have never known a man to fail to make his appointment.”
Beth knelt while Brother Dominic performed the extreme unction. She flew to Washington that night.
“A man of fierce intellect and conscience, Jefferson’s political ambitions were ultimately doomed by his radical view that the colonies should not merely separate from England, but also from the Anglican Church. In a letter to the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut, Jefferson wrote of “building a wall of separation between Church and State” and “abolishing the legal powers of the Gladium Angeli in their starry chambers”.
“When the Danbury letter became public, Jefferson’s statement of conscience was quickly appropriated by his long-time political rival, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton battered Jefferson with accusations of atheism and sedition, and goaded Aaron Burr into challenging Jefferson to the tragic duel that cost Burr his life…”
(Ron Chernow, Thomas Jefferson)
Beth watched the protestors in front of the National Cathedral—a ragtag group of Jeffersonians waving placards and chanting “Build the Wall!” They were mannerly, at least, however misguided. When Beth approached the front steps, they parted respectfully to let her enter.
She did not even need to show them the angel.
She stayed on the twelfth floor of the Ambassador Hotel that night, looking down at the trees in Franklin Square. She wore the silver angel around her neck now, heavy and unmistakable, its sword stretched out in judgment. It was the mark of her vocation and one of the most powerful signs in the Commonwealth. Tomorrow it would open any door that Beth needed.
Tonight she touched the pendant tenderly and spoke the Angel’s Creed again. “I believe in the one God, a God of justice and of mercy. I believe in His angel and in the sword I wield. With this sword I bring God’s justice and His mercy, and so I do sacrifice and consecrate my own life to God.”
Beth opened her coat to reveal the angel and watched every expression, every trace of emotion recede from the maître d’s face. He took a step backward from the desk and held his arm out, palm up. She walked slowly into the white tablecloths and the light chatter. Silence spread like ink wherever the diners caught sight of her.
She spotted her man.
He chewed his steak and laughed at some remark. She came up behind him and, softly, spoke his name.
He half turned, not really paying attention. “Who let this bitch in here?”
“Not a bitch,” said Beth, smiling serenely and lifting her index finger. “An angel.”
Nicholas Diehl was born in Detroit, attended Michigan State University (B.A. in mathematics and history) and UC Davis (Ph.D. in philosophy), and teaches philosophy at Sacramento City College. He has published essays on narration, satire, and the relationship of narrative to philosophical practice in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism and fiction in Daily Science Fiction and MetaStellar. An extremely photogenic corgi lives in his house.
This story is about the relationship of church and state, and how the American legal system might be very different if there were no Establishment Clause in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. My aim is to make that possible world both appealing and unsettling in equal degrees–provoking readers to think about the possibility (and of course, about our own reality) rather than arguing for a position.
I teach a course called ‘Law, Justice, and Punishment’ at Sacramento City College, and my wonderful students and colleagues there have surely given this story a helping hand through our discussions over the years.