Watching the Angels Die
by Ron Van Sweringen
Someone was killing the angels. Irish noticed it when he found the tip of an angel’s wing in the grass. At first he thought it might have broken off accidentally, but on closer inspection he could see that the white marble had been struck several times. Who would do such a thing and why? he wondered, sitting under a giant Pin Oak near the cemetery fence.
John Francis Sweeny, “Irish” for short, was a skinny fourteen-year old kid from the tenements on Mulhaven Street. He lived in a four-block square section called Little Ireland, with his newly widowed mother and a younger brother. His father had been killed fighting the Germans in France. Irish would always remember December 14, 1944, the day the telegram came.
He had just gotten home from school. His mother was washing clothes in the bathtub with the help of his five-year old brother Mick. A small Christmas tree stood on a table in the living room with two brightly wrapped packages underneath it.
Mrs. Carmichael from across the hall, called out his mother’s name, “Viola Sweeny.” Irish saw the heavy-set woman standing nervously in the doorway, a Western Union delivery boy at her side. It suddenly occurred to Irish how quiet everything was. No playing children or slamming doors in the red brick apartment building, just an ominous silence. Word of the event had spread quickly: a telegram was being delivered to the Sweeny’s flat.
Irish never got to see his father again. The coffin was closed because Sgt. Francis Robert Sweeny had fallen on a hand grenade, saving the lives of seven other soldiers. The telegram called his father a hero. All Irish could think of was that his father had been blown to pieces.
At night when he went to bed, hot tears flooded his eyes. Irish fought to keep his sobs silent and not wake his brother. He lay there trying to put the pieces of his father’s face back together again, so he could see him whole, the way he desperately wanted to remember him.
Viola Sweeny continued to do what she always did. She cooked and cleaned the flat and took care of her children, but now she only wore black, and Irish could see that the light in her eyes had gone out.
The spring of 1945, Irish went to the cemetery every afternoon after school. He would sit at the foot of his father’s grave, looking in the grass for four-leaf clovers. The marble headstone on his father’s grave was small. It was all his mother could afford, by making payments every month.
There were angels on both sides of his father’s grave. Beautiful white marble angels belonging to earlier and more prosperous tenants. Irish talked to the angels. Their faces were gentle and peaceful, and their outstretched hands, beautiful. They became his friends. When he went home in the evening, he knew they would be watching over his father through the long night.
Irish noticed it immediately, a finger on the second angel’s outstretched hand was broken off.
“Why are you doing this?” he said and then screamed as loud as he could, “Stop it!” turning in a full circle, searching the woods and grave stones. He placed his hand on the smooth white marble. “I’m sorry,” Irish said. “I promise I won’t let them hurt you anymore.”
That night his vigil began. Irish was at the cemetery by ten o’clock, sneaking out of the flat as soon as he was sure his mother was asleep. It was a five-block walk through the dark streets to his destination.
Irish was not alone. He had a friend. He carried the friend at his side, an oak hardwood baseball bat that his father had given him for his ninth birthday. His father had neatly carved his nick-name “Irish” into the side of the bat, and now the boy nervously rubbed his thumb over it.
The cemetery gates were locked at six o’clock, but he knew a place where the metal fence had been pried apart, enough for him to shimmy through. A bright moon lit his way through the woods and into the graveyard area. Although Irish knew almost every statue and monument by heart, they all looked different in the dark of night.
His father’s grave was just beyond a small clump of trees. He could almost see it, when he heard voices. His heart pounded as he moved forward quietly. Then Irish caught sight of them in the moonlight, standing near one of the angels. Three boys not much older than he, one of them carrying a brick in his hand
“Do it, Joey. Give her a black eye,” the tallest boy said.
“Go on, let her have it,” urged the other boy, “or I will.”
When the first boy drew back his arm, Irish raised the baseball bat and shouted, “No!”
All three whirled around, shock on their faces. Now that he was closer, Irish could see that he had been mistaken, they were older, probably sixteen or seventeen. He squeezed the bat in his hands and walked forward. “Drop the brick,” he said.
“Drop it or what?” the largest boy replied. “What’s a twerp like you gonna do anyway?’” He stopped in front of Irish, his hands on his hips, laughing.
“Well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.” he smirked. “The Irish kid whose father is the big hero,” he continued. “I hear they had to scrape your old man up.”
The words clicked in Irish’s head and his anger exploded. He swung the bat with all of his strength, and although the boy tried to get out of the way, it connected just above the kneecap. The boy screamed in agony and buckled onto the grass. Irish stood over him, the bat raised above his head ready to come down.
“Don’t do it, please, don’t hit me,” the boy begged, trying to protect himself with his hands. Irish looked up at the other two boys, their faces drained white in the moonlight. The boy with the brick laid it down carefully, while the other boy silently withdrew.
“If you ever try to kill the angels again,” Irish said, pointing the baseball bat at them, “ I swear on my father’s grave, I’ll break you both into a thousand pieces.”
The next afternoon, Irish knocked on the door of a small building near the cemetery gate, a door marked ‘Grounds Keeper’. When a gray-haired man opened the door, Irish took a folded handkerchief out of his pocket and carefully opened it. Inside was the broken white marble wing tip and the angel’s finger.
“I found these near my father’s grave,” he said, handing them to the grounds keeper.
One afternoon two weeks later, Irish arrived at his father’s grave, to find an old man packing up his tool box. When he saw Irish, he smiled.
“You must be the young man who found the broken pieces,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” Irish replied.
“Looks as good as new,” the old man smiled, pointing at the repaired angel. “Funny thing about putting broken pieces together. It does your heart good to see something whole again.”
Irish slept soundly that night. For the first time since the telegram arrived, he dreamed he saw his father’s face.
Copyright © 2011 by Ron Van Sweringen