Friday, August 21, 2009


The angels keep their ancient places;-
Turn but a stone and start a wing!
'Tis ye, 'tis your estranged faces,
That miss the many-splendored thing.

-Francis Thompson.

Some years ago I came across a short-story by Columbian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez entitled, "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings." It begins with a violent storm, after which a fisherman, Pelayo, discovers a half-drowned old man, lying face down in the mud in his courtyard. The man can't stand up because he's impeded by a set of enormous wings.

Staring at this bedraggled birdman, Pelayo and his wife Elisenda decide he is a shipwrecked foreign sailor, somehow managing to overlook the need to explain his wings. Assuming he is nothing but trouble, Pelayo locks the old man in his chicken coop, planning to dispose of him by putting him out to sea on a raft. He and Elisenda wake the next morning to find a crowd of neighbors in the courtyard and a far more complicated situation on their hands.

At first, the villagers treat the old man as a freak; they toss him food and speculate about what should be done with him. The village priest arrives to inspect the captive. He
finds the old man's pathetic appearance to be at odds with the church's traditional image of heavenly messengers. Finding the old man smelly and decrepit, his battered, moth-eaten wings infested with vermin, the priest concludes that, "nothing about him measures up to the proud dignity of angels."

But word has already traveled too far, drawing fantastic crowds and creating a carnival atmosphere. Surrounded by all this activity, the old man takes "no part in his own act," tolerating the abuses and indignities of his treatment with patience.

In time, and with other more exciting prospects, the crowds disappear from Pelayo and Elisenda's courtyard as suddenly as they had come, and the unexplained mystery of the strange birdman is quickly forgotten.

In time, the old man becomes a nuisance, dragging himself about, always underfoot. Elisenda seems to find him everywhere in the house, as if he were duplicating himself just to annoy her. At one point she grows so "exasperated and unhinged" she screams that she is living in a "hell full of angels." Finally the old man's health deteriorates further, and he seems to be near death.

As winter gives way to spring, the old man's condition begins to improve. He seems to sense a change taking place in himself and to know what it means. He tries to stay out of the family's sight, sitting motionless for days in the corner of the courtyard. At night, he quietly sings sailor's songs to himself. Stiff new feathers begin to grow from his wings, and one morning Elisenda sees him trying them out in the courtyard. His first efforts to fly are clumsy, consisting of "ungainly flapping that slipped on the light and couldn't get a grip on the air,'' but he finally manages to take off. Elisenda sighs with relief, '"for herself and for him," as she watches him disappear, "no longer an annoyance in her life but an imaginary dot on the horizon of the sea."

An old man with enormous wings, an inconvenient guest, a challenged child, an aging parent... "Some have unwittingly entertained angels."[1]


[1]Hebrews 13:2. Cf. Genesis 18:1-8

No comments:

Hunky-Dory? Life is not always "hunky-dory," as David Bowie and my father would say. Jesus agrees: "I did not come to br...