One Night at the Celestial Bar

by

The celestial bar was busy when Gabriel arrived. Puriel and Dokiel were slumped at the corner table, weary heads resting on their palms, sipping their drinks and not saying much. Raziel was at the end of the bar, shuffling papers in and out of his black briefcase, glancing around every time the golden locks clicked open or shut, ensuring that no one was paying him much mind. Conquest and War circled a billiards table, keeping unsteady time with the clacking of ivory balls punctuated by the heavy thumps of them falling into pockets.

“Hey, Gabriel,” Ariel said, turning away from his dart game. His opponent, Seraphiel, gave an acknowledging nod and started lining up his throw. “How’s it going?”

“Not too bad,” Gabriel murmured, scanning for the one he’d come to see. He didn’t have to look very far – not much changed night to night, and the broad back occupying the third stool to the right of the bar’s bend was right where it should have been.

He asked about some of the others in an attempt to not be rude, but as soon as he could, he excused himself. He tried to hurry, but kept needing to pause to smile and greet those who noticed him. Though he was well known, he was also easy to miss, especially without sounding his trumpet as he did on those formal occasions when his status needed recognizing. The space was a sea of wings and haloes, and, rising like rocks from the surf, the four turning faces of the cherubim. Above the bar, beryl wheels within wheels hovered, constantly spinning, their hundred eyes watching. Among them, Gabriel looked much like a human man, small and clad in linen. But even so, there were plenty who noticed him, and stopped either to discuss the events in the celestial city or to show their reverence, as was proper.

When he finally made it to the bar, one of the cherubim vacated its seat, turning each of its four heads to bow at Gabriel as it passed. Gabriel nodded, and took the empty seat next to Seppo.

Seppo was hunched far over his empty tumbler, turning it in a ring of condensation on the crystalline surface. Gabriel hesitated before speaking to him, suddenly uncertain in his plan, and instead turned his attention to the windows looking out across the celestial city. The stars lined the roads like little glowing streetlights, and up on the hill the throne of God burned brightly enough to give an aurora of gold across the darkness. Gabriel looked away from the throne, out the other windows, and saw all the darkness stretching off, and all the planets caught in their orbits. Time slipped by at the pace it always had, everything plummeting through emptiness, but it had been so long since it all started that Gabriel could no longer discern a little time from all of it.

“What is it, Gabriel?” Seppo asked. He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. He was a big man, well muscled with bronzed skin from years of too much light. His hands were cracked and callused, and his beard fell black and heavy down to his belt. The tumbler seemed tiny between his massive, hairy fingers. He pushed himself upright, though seemingly with great effort, and looked at the archangel.

“I need something from you,” Gabriel said.

Seppo chuckled. “Now it’s been a while since you’ve said that.” He pushed the tumbler to the edge of the bar and a passing angel refilled it with sparkling, golden liquid. Seppo pulled it back and drank half of it down.

“I need a prophecy.”

Seppo’s eyebrows rose. “Been an even longer while since you’ve said something like that. A prophecy? Hard things, those, to make. I’m not sure I can even remember how to make them.”

“You never forget how to make anything,” Gabriel said. “You always know.”

“Yeah, that sounds like me. But an eternity of hard drinking and boredom tends to do bad things to the mind. And materials. Haven’t restocked materials in a while. Might not have what I need.” He finished his drink and the angel behind the bar refilled it. “Next thing you’ll be asking me for is a destiny. Outdated things that no one wants. What do you want a prophecy for, anyway? They don’t look nice up on a shelf like other antiques do. How about a flaming sword? Michael’s quite fond of his. I think those are still easy to make.”

The regret and hesitation Gabriel felt over his plan compounded. He considered leaving and coming back when Seppo was recovered and lucid, but he knew that he would have to wait until after the apocalypse had already passed before that would happen.

“I just had an idea,” Gabriel said.

“Oh, you have to be careful with those. They can get you into big trouble, don’t you remember?”

“Sorry, Seppo. I’ll leave you to it.”

“Hey, hey. Wait now. Just wait. Sit back down. Don’t be getting all grumpy and moody on me. The night’s still young and I don’t want to have to go turn in because I’m worried I’ve hurt your delicate feelings. We used to have fun together, didn’t we, Gabriel? We were close. That’s still worth something, isn’t it? So sit down and talk. This prophecy – what’s it supposed to be, anyway? The big man upstairs hasn’t asked me to make one since I had to make that prophecy to send down to John. And that seemed like the last one you’d ever need, really. So what has He told you to come and tell me to make this time?”

“He didn’t tell me to.”

Some of Seppo’s drink sloshed across his knuckles. “What?” Realizing the other angels were turning to stare at them, he took a shaky drink to steady his hand and turned fully to Gabriel. Lowering his voice, he said, “He didn’t tell you? Gabriel, you can’t just come asking me to make prophecies that you can toss around like seeds in a field. Prophecies tell the future, and only one of us around here knows what that future is.”

“It wouldn’t be a true prophecy,” Gabriel said. “Not in the strictest sense, at least.”

After a pause long enough for the angel behind the bar to refill the empty tumbler and move on, Seppo said, “You’ve gone out of your mind.” He reached out, picked up the drink, and lifted it. But he paused before it met his lips and set it down again. “I mean, it’s one thing for me to be saying that. Look at the state I’m in since there’s nothing to do around here anymore. But at least I have the honest nature to drink myself into oblivion each day and night and not go hatching crazy schemes that could get you tossed right down into the fiery lake with the rest of those old chaps.”

“I think making an unofficial prophecy is a little different than marching on the throne,” Gabriel said.

“You think He’ll see it that way?”

“But He knows I’m doing this. He knows everything. And He hasn’t thrown me down there yet.”

“He let the rest of them get to the gates before He banished them, too. He likes to let you follow through on your own folly before He punishes you. He’s honest like that, at least.”

“So you’re saying you won’t do it?”

“Look, Gabriel. I don’t have anything to do around here any more. It used to be that there was armor and swords needing made to outfit the Heavenly Host, prophecies needing to be delivered, destinies to forge, the occasional blight or plague. As unpleasant as some of those were, they still took time and skill to finish. But ever since that free will stuff caught on, there’s none of that anymore. The Heavenly Host has everything it needs and has had it for the last millennium. Even the Horsemen don’t need their bits and bridles fixed up. I made everything too good the first time around is the problem. And now everyone has what they need and I have all the time left in existence. But that doesn’t mean I’m about to start making you false prophecies to sprinkle around. I’m bored, but I don’t think burning in a lightless lake of fire is the way I want to liven things up.”

“I understand,” Gabriel said. “I suppose it was a foolish plan anyway.” He stood up and politely pushed his stool against the bar. He smiled. “Thanks for listening, at least, Seppo.” Gabriel turned to go, but Seppo snagged his sleeve. He was looking over his shoulder, squinting like he couldn’t quite see Gabriel.

“What type of prophecy? It’s not another one filled with death and destruction, is it? I made that one already. Don’t really want to revisit it.”

“No,” Gabriel said. “I wanted you to make me a prophecy filled with hope.”

“Hope?”

“Yes. I wanted a prophecy that showed a day when humans set aside their differences and lived in unity. I wanted a prophecy of peace and prosperity, of an age without worry and without strife. I have a little girl in mind that I was going to take the image to and show it to her in a dream.”

“What good would that do?”

“When she wakes, I hope that she will do what the others have done: she’d go out and spread the prophecy, and the rest of the world would make it happen.”

“No one listens to prophets anymore,” Seppo muttered, and let go of Gabriel’s sleeve. “Too many crazy men claiming to have seen God and too many dishonest men wanting to take advantage of believers and too many old fools that have had too hard of lives to believe in such things.” He sighed. “If you’d had this idea a few hundred years ago, maybe something could have come of it. The best you’re going to get now is some poor little girl put into a hospital somewhere, having little pills pumped into her until she can’t remember her own name, let alone what you showed her.”

“I like to have faith that mankind still believes,” Gabriel said.

“Not the ones you want to believe,” Seppo muttered.


The angels came and went behind Seppo, still at the bar, still treating his tumbler like a rusted pendulum, forward and back, tracking the hours of the night, which wore on longer than the nights on any physical planet or plane. Conquest and War played another five games of billiards and went off into the city. Raziel finished whatever reading he had to do and shuffled secretively out of the bar. Some of the beryl wheels drifted out through the ceiling without a sound, and others drifted in to take their places. Muriel came and lingered a bit, chatted with the others, and left again. It came to be so late that even Azrael arrived and, finding the room much less populated than earlier in the night, leaned his scythe against the bar and sat a few seats down from Seppo. They gave each other the familiar, understanding nod of those who have put in a full day of work, and, so acknowledged, were content to sit in silence.

Seppo watched everyone coming and going in the crystal mirror behind the bar. He watched the angels meet and bow and discuss whatever it was they discussed in their musical language. He watched the cherubim turn their heads about, each face speaking a different tongue, their conversations undulating between the syncopated rhythms of human languages, grunts of oxen, growls of lions, and shrieks of eagles. Some seraphim arrived, fluttering on their two wings with two more covering their faces and yet two more covering their feet so they appeared cocoons of wings as they drifted about the bar.

When it got to be so late, it was customary for most to stop and talk with Seppo, as he was the only one reliably there. But after a few went up and began speaking to him, and were greeted with a silent, brooding back, they wandered off and warned the others something was wrong with their old friend. Even the bartenders passed him by silently, refilling his tumbler when it was pushed out on the bar. But as the night began its slow ascent toward morning, they simply passed him by, as his cup remained curled in his massive hand. Most thought he had fallen asleep, but he sat with his eyes open, looking into the slick bottom of the glass, looking at the way the light passed through the last tiny sheen of golden liquid in the bottom and sparkled like sunlight on water.

It was earlier than usual when he pushed the glass away and staggered to his feet. The stool tipped and nearly went over before he caught the edge with his fingertips and righted it. He turned, almost tripped on the same stool, and went for the door. The late patrons called out their goodbyes and well wishes and their see-you-tomorrows, but Seppo didn’t hear them and didn’t pay them any mind. He plunged out into the celestial streets, still lit by the stars and the distant light from God’s throne.

He went through the city, following the streets of gold back to his workshop. Inside, dark shadows stretched across all the workbenches, the candles, the forge, the hammers and tongs, the alembics and retorts. Dust covered the floor thickly enough to be soft, like carpet, and swirls of it kicked up around Seppo’s feet. Deep footprints showed his usual path from the door to the bed, and across the tables and tools the dust had settled smooth, like freshly fallen snow. Arched windows stretched from floor to ceiling and let in the stars’ silvery light, partitioning the shelves on the opposite wall, glittering on the cobwebs, on the ancient tomes bound in copper and gold, on the sealed jars whose contents were hidden behind the films of dust embedded in the glass. The space was one room with a vaulted ceiling. The air hung heavy with old time, and Seppo realized that he felt, like he had eternities before, so small. He remembered how he used to try and fill the room with sound, with the hammering of his forge, with the bubble of potions, with a song pouring forth so the notes caught in the ceiling, bounced about, and returned as if an invisible singer sounding almost exactly like him lingered in the stone.

Now, there was only silence. Seppo shuffled to the bed and fell into it. He rolled onto his back and stared at the emptiness captured by the ceiling’s space. The silence hummed in his ears. And all he could think about was Gabriel’s mad plan. The room swayed like it floated on the tides, and Seppo’s head felt too large. He rubbed his eyes, closed them, opened them, tried to sleep. He remembered the times when Gabriel had come to him before, handing over a frail, earthen jar to be filled with destiny or prophecy.

“What’s it like?” Seppo asked him once, long ago. He had asked with all the desperate curiosity of a craftsman whose work was finished, before the results of the labor had been realized. He’d wanted to know what happened, how his work was received when it was revealed, something only Gabriel and God saw. There had been thousands of chances over the years to ask, but this time some instinct in him must have known that Gabriel would leave his workshop and that this would be the final meaningful moment between the two of them, the start of the swift decline into lassitude. The work slowing, disappearing, everything already prepared for all that was to come. “When you open it up, what’s it like?”

Gabriel had been leaving, his trumpet in his right hand and the jar brimming with the last prophecy cradled in his left. “The looks on their faces,” he said. “The looks on their faces.” He paused, and Seppo had seen profound sadness pass across the archangel’s features. “Sometimes it’s so glorious, but sad, because there will always be so much suffering before the glory that they see.” He’d turned away. “And sometimes . . .” He’d paused, and adjusted the weight of the jar. “Sometimes all they can do is weep.”

Seppo thrust himself out of bed. His feet slid in the dust and he stumbled a few steps, still uneven from the drink, until he was in the middle of his workshop. He turned in several slow circles, looking at all the old tools and equipment, all the tables that had once shone in the glorious light of a celestial day and sparkled all through the celestial night so brightly that he couldn’t sleep, and would go weeks without rest, working and finishing the projects God had sent to him.

He started lighting the candles. He moved between them too quickly, and kept banging his hips against the edges of tables, kept whisking out the flame on the end of the brand. His unsteady hands kept missing the wicks, but slowly, despite how quickly he tried to move between them, auras of light began to overlap and fill the room, though without enough illumination to see everything clearly, as in a deep, violet dusk. Dust dampened the light, and the air was thick with drifting particles kicked up by Seppo’s movement.

He started the fires in the forge, worked the bellows with uneven, heavy motions. After a few minutes, though, the memory of cadence took over, and the fires roared to life. The chill that had permeated the space – a chill that Seppo had not even noticed, but realized it must have lingered and crept into his body for hundreds of years – fought back like a phalanx unwilling to be conquered, but finally broke and collapsed. He went to the shelves and began pulling down canisters and jars, lining them along his massive arms until they teetered and clinked together. He hurried to the empty tables and began setting them down and opening them, breaking the old seals, dust grinding in the grooves. He didn’t bother to wipe away the dust, to see the labels with their sharp, angelic script. The smells that arose from each were the smells of old friends, familiar like family.

He went out to the well and brought in silver water. He filled the cauldrons, the alembics, the empty buckets next to the forge. The glass and wood seemed to give audible sighs when the water touched the dried interiors, like everything was taking a great, long drink in preparation for the heat that was to come. He ground ingredients with iridium mortars and pestles. He mixed the dusts and set them boiling and frothing. There was no time to wait for them to complete. While one heated, he rushed to the next table and started another. He took no time to measure, no time to leaven off excess. Everything bubbled and boiled and frothed with unstable interaction, and Seppo flew between the tables, keeping everything barely in check, pouring and mixing and adding the raw ingredients as were needed. At the forge, he hammered tiny bars of platinum and lead catalysts. He threw them into the water buckets to cool and lifted them out in handfuls. He hurried around, dropping them into the mixtures, drawing out sudden violence.

The hundreds of individual concoctions began to become too much for Seppo to manage, and they spilled over. Cascades of azure and cobalt; mauve and indigo; scarlet and vermilion; topaz and amber, all translucent, all sparkling, all falling as thickly as mercury and drifting as clouds, as vapor, wafted down from the tables. They fell through the floor, and Seppo knew without looking that they were falling all the way down to Earth, drifting across the cities and the homes, that they would merge into the clouds and fall as rain, would arrive as wind.

He was making everything. Prophecies. Destinies. Purposes and passions. Directions and healings. Miracles. All the old recipes sprang to his mind and he mixed them without focus, without constraints – too much to put into a sealed jar and give to Gabriel to carry across the dimensions and to open above a penitent man, a praying child. There would be no discretion – everything he made would fall where it would and be received by whomever it would be received.

The racket he made – the hammering in the forge, the roar of flames, the bubbling and hissing, and his song, that old song that Seppo had always sung, coming out off-key and at the highest decibels his form could produce – woke his neighbors, his quadrant of the city. The sounds of his creation – turning metal and stardust into things that were intangible and greater than any combination of ingredients – rippled through the city and caused the angels to pause in their tasks, in their flying, in their worship, and turn toward the forge, now seething with light. Even beyond the city walls, the other gods were waking, lifting their cosmic and heavy heads and looking toward the celestial city, wondering what could possibly be happening in a city so quiet for so long.

Angels began to congregate outside of the forge, murmuring among themselves, wondering if it was possible that one of their own could go mad. The racket from within only grew louder and the light brighter. Seppo’s shadow moved about in a flurry, never slowing, and it seemed only growing faster – some perpetual motion machine breaking all the laws in the universe.

By the time the news reached Gabriel and he arrived, there was a crowd matching the Heavenly Host in the golden streets outside of Seppo’s workshop. Dawn was breaking, and the sky was the color of amber and swirled with thick strokes like it was composed of honey. Gabriel pushed through the crowd – for the first time, and despite how he called out for them to clear the way, no one stepped aside in reverence to his high status – and he plunged through the door. A step inside, he drew up and stared at the clouds of creation lingering about, combining, churning more chaotically than the creation of the universe.

“Seppo!” he cried out. “What is this?”

“What is this?” Seppo shouted back, pausing for the first time, a mortar in one hand and a jar of stardust in the other. His eyes were wide, his beard speckled with ash and dust and ground metal. “What’s this? It’s hope, Gabriel! It’s hope! Why would you take it down to just one girl? Hope, Gabriel! Now the whole damned world can have a little bit of it!”