Authors: Sophy Burnham
The President's Angel
The Art Crowd
The Landed Gentry
A Book of Angels
For Writers Only
The Ecstatic Journey
The Path of Prayer
The Art of Intuition
The President's Angel
The Treasure of MontsÃ©gur
The Witch's Tale
The President's Angel
is the third and last of my angel cycle. Three books, two nonfiction and one novel, were written in a rush of creativity, all on some aspect of the spiritual journey. All three are about the visits of angels and what happens when you've seen an angel.
This last little novel came to me both instantlyâall in a flashâand slowly, painfully, crawling from my pen, my flesh. And yet, as with the two nonfiction angel books, the writing was also accomplished in a transport of joy.
It was in the mid-eighties, I forget what year. The world was gearing up for Star Wars and anxiety ran high. According to one poll, one-half of the American men under thirty believed an all-out nuclear war would occur within a decade.
A good friend in New York called to urge me to take to the barricades with the other artists in her group. “We're all marching this weekend against the XYZ Military Installation. You HAVE to come.”
“Oh, Ellie,” I said. “I don't do that.”
But I felt miserable about my inability to engage, and lying on my bed one afternoon I began to think about the fragile state of the world, and my own inadequacy. I had just finished reading a biography of Padre Pio, the Italian priest who died in Apulia in 1964. He was blessed with stigmata, the bleeding hands of Christ. He performed miracles, could bilocate, and was sainted, years after first publication of this book, in 2002. It was said that whoever prays to Padre Pio will immediately receive that prayer. Lying on my bed that afternoon, I prayed to him and God.
“I wish I could do something,” I prayed wordlessly. “I wish I knew something. I wish that I had some insight into what is happening, and since I cannot demonstrate with the others, that I could be of some help to this poor pretty little suffering world.â¦” Prayers like that, wordless yearnings.
A sentence came into my head. “It was on the 695th night of his reign that the President saw the angel.” And another: “He awoke from a light and fitful sleep to see the form balancing on the end of his bed.” By then I had reached for the pen by my bed and I was writing furiously. The words were pouring out. I wrote in a kind of delirium for possibly fifteen minutes, came to the end of the chapter, and stopped cold. Nothing. The Muse had fled.
But I read the chapter over in wonderment, feeling its power and knowing that I wanted to know the end of the story, what happened to the Presidentâand knowing too that I had perhaps been given an answer to my prayer.
Then began the slow construction of the tale, and the sense of gnawing at the story. Sometimes it came pouring out of me, thundering from where I had no idea, and sometimes I would wait for days, straining to hear the etheric words that did not come. I don't mean to sound magical about it. All writers believe their words are sometimes gifts of the Muse, and at the same time the writer works and works, preparing the soil to produce this fruit.
People familiar with my work will recognize two images in this novel. That of the picnic you can find in my novel,
, and the story of the black dog and prayer in
. But apart from those two images, this work is entirely its own. Indeed this fact of constantly breaking new ground presents a problem for the publisherâand also for an audience perhapsâthat I, the writer, will not be contained by any form, but write novels, nonfiction books, plays, essays, journalism, children's stories â¦ heedless of the marketplace that slots the writer to a certain form and place and subject and style.
But all my work is similar in having a spiritual as well as a physical dimension, in its hope and joy and love for the courage and idealism of humankind.
Writers have their own jokes. For those people happy enough to have had a classical education, I have hidden a little treasure in this book. It is a game of fox and-hare, a literary Trivial Pursuit, in which the reader may come across a phraseâfive words, a lineâthat rings a bell of recognition. Shakespeare, Gerald Manley Hopkins, John Cheever, Dante, Arthur Miller, Milton, Rilke, Voltaireâ¦ See how many you can find. There are twenty such little gold nuggets buried in the text, unmarked. Their presence is of no importance whatsoever; the text makes perfect sense without their recognition. You can read the book straight through and never notice one, and you should feel neither victory nor defeat either way; but for me they act as private, friendly signs, like the smile of a secret lover flashed across a crowded room. So I give them to the literary hound, an extra puzzle to sniff out, or to the casual reader as a kind of valentine. At the end of this e-book you'll find the answers, something I neglected to do with the earlier editions.
One other change has been made to this e-book, but I doubt if anyone will care. I have changed the name of the newspaper reporter, Jake, to Scotty, because not even I, the author, could keep Jim and Jake apart.
When I finished
The President's Angel
, it was met (as were all the other works in this cycle) by my agent's loud disinterest. Time passed. I had grown discouraged by then. My work was too philosophical. Or too unusual. It didn't fall into any category or genre by which an agent or publisher could sell the stuff.
No publisher, therefore, saw this little novel, although several of my writing colleagues read, edited, and gave wise comments.
Time passed, and to my surprise I found that many of the things I thought outlandish when writing them, like peace among enemies, have come about.
Is it possible that there are more things, Horatio, than this world dreams of? Are there angelsâprincipalities, powers, virtues, and dominionsâgoverning our nations and political affairs? Mystics say that we should have no doubts.
It was on the 695th night of his reign that the President saw the angel. He awoke from a light and fitful sleep to see the form balancing on the end of his bed. The President no longer slept with the First Lady by then. She said she could stand the snoring but not the moans. He had moved into the East Bedroom, where he found an unexpected benefit: Each morning through the east window, he could watch dawn break open the shell of night. Somehow that had become important to him.
The President had no trouble dropping off to sleep. He finished work around ten P.M. (and he counted state dinners as work these days, he who had always been ready to dance and talk till one). By eleven he retired to his rooms, to read or brood. Twice recently he found himself desperately holding on to Anne. “How was your day? What did you think of the Ambassador's new young wife?” He didn't want to face another pile of memos placed on the nightstand for him to consider before he slept. But the President was in bondage to the White House, to rules, to procedures, and to computer printouts. Sometimes his eyes were too tired to focus at night. He asked Frank to read the memos aloud while he lay in bed, eyes closed. They usually brought bad news. The economy recovering â¦ means rising inflation â¦. The Other Party is preparing an attack; your advisors recommend â¦. This is the latest news of war in the Middle East, war in Central America, war in Ireland, war in Africa, war in Asia, war in the Far East â¦. Good night, Mr. President. Sleep well.
Each night he fell into a pool of sleep, where he stayed suspended dreamlessly for as long as three hours at a time, before jerking awake, alert as an outlaw. A night-light on the bedside table permitted him to find his glasses. He would read mystery novels, plowing through one paperback after another until, eyes blurring with fatigue, he'd fall asleep again, but this time fitfully and fighting off the dreams.
Therefore it was not unusual for the President to awaken with a start at four A.M.
He regarded the specter without surprise. It was white. It was luminous. It seemed to have a human form, and yet no definition at the edges of its shape, as if, being made of light, it blurred away. And yet it had a face. An aureole of hair. And clothing of some sort of light. He (or was it she? The President could not tell its gender) it balanced on one foot playfully, then hopped onto the other in a kind of minuet. Seeing the President watching, it stopped and seemed to melt until both feet settled on the footboard, then slipped on past, or possibly through the solid wood, until they rested on the coverlet. Then the angel sat on the footboard and smiled at him with such compassion that the President felt a sob catch in his throat. Its eyes were filled with love. He wanted to weep. He passed one hand across his eyes, in hopes the hallucination would disappear, but when he opened them again, it was still there, resting its elbow on one knee and contemplating him, head cocked with puzzlement.
The President spoke aloud. “Aren't you going to tell me to Fear Not?”
He meant it as a joke, the quick good humor that had won him six elections before a landslide presidential race. It came out too loud and his voice quavered at the end. The angel, startled, faded almost into dusk. At the same moment, the President heard a knock on the door.
“Are you all right, sir?” It was Frank, his aide-de-camp, his valet, his guardian and guard. The angel shimmered dimly on the bed.
“I'm fine,” he said. “Go to sleep. Iâm just talking to myself.”
He sat up higher in bed and tucked a pillow behind his back. The silence drew out and the angel reappeared full force, an aurora of colors flaming in the room. He caught his breath, for the light was blinding him and the colors were no longer in front of his eyes but inside them too, and the light was no longer at the foot of the bed but surrounding him. He was electrified with heat. Again he cried aloud. Frank opened the door.
“Sir? Do you need anything?”
Officious bastard, thought the President. He lay on the pillows, washed in light. All he wanted was to be left alone.
“Your light's burned out,” said Frank, and he slammed his kneecap against the bed. “It's black as pitch in here. Iâll get a bulb.” He knew the President didn't like the dark.
The President wondered why he bothered when the room was full of light. He wondered why Frank did not comment on the angel smiling from the foot of the bed. His next thought was whether he was having a stroke or possibly dreaming. But Frank screwed the new light bulb into the lamp and turned on the switch.
“There.” He shook the old bulb at his ear, then looked puzzled. “Oh. It wasn't dead.” He tossed it in the trash basket anyway, not having registered his own words. “Good night, sir. Sleep well.”
“Good night, Frank,” the President said, and relaxed into that radiating light, the angel flaring, flaming on his bed.