SFWRITER.COM > Short Stories > "Fallen Angel"
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 2000 by
Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved
First published in the anthology Lisa Snellings' Strange Attraction:
Turns of the Midnight Carnival Wheel,
edited by Edward E. Kramer, 2000.
by Robert J. Sawyer
Angela Renaldo never knew if it was an act of homage or of
defiance whether it was the ultimate show of faith in God,
or whether it was tantamount to flipping the bird at the
Carlo, the eldest of her five brothers, doubtless had an opinion.
From his position, planted firmly on the ground, near the
bleachers, hands resting on the gray rubber rims of the twin
wheels that propelled him along, there could be no doubt. God
had enough to keep Himself busy looking after regular folk; He
had no time for those who deliberately tempted fate.
Angela, the youngest Renaldo child, loved Carlo; she didn't love
all her brothers, but her affection for Carlo was pure. He was
the only one who had played catch with her, the only one who had
listened to her, the only one who never seemed to mind her being
Now, of course, things were different. Now, Carlo didn't play
catch with anyone. He just sat in his chair, almost never
There was nothing to fear, Poppa always said. We'll be so high
up that we'll catch God's eye.
The high wire ran for ten meters, three stories above the crowd,
below the peaked apex of the big top. Guys along the wire's
length anchored it to the ground, preventing it from swaying,
minimizing its sagging. A ladder at one end gave access to the
high wire; atop the ladder were three platforms, one above
Poppa left the lower platform first, a twenty-kilogram balancing
pole in his arms, a shoulder brace supporting an aluminum
crossbar that stuck out a meter and a half behind him. The
crossbar ended in another shoulder brace, and Franco, the
youngest son, donned that, following his father out onto the
wire, a wire no thicker than Franco's index finger, his own
balancing pole held underhand in front of him.
And then Momma stepped from the middle platform, walking onto the
crossbar that was supported by the shoulders of her husband and
her son, her own balancing pole gripped in her hands. And on her
shoulders rested another brace, with a second crossbar
stretching behind her.
Poppa and Franco inched their way across, locked together, the
length of their crossbar setting the distance between them.
Neither man looked down at the ground, nor up at Momma, whose
weight was distributed across their shoulders. Step, and step
again. In unison. An incremental dance.
Once Franco was far enough from the lower platform, Dominic
started across the high wire behind him, a third crossbar
supported by his shoulders. Antonio donned the shoulder brace at
the opposite end of that crossbar, and followed Dominic onto the
Mario, on the middle platform, stepped off, making his way along
the crossbar supported by Antonio and Dominic, just as his mother
had done for the one supported by Poppa and Franco. When Mario
was far enough out, he put the yoke from his mother's crossbar on
Below, the crowd was spellbound ten thousand mouths agape,
staring at the spectacle of six people balancing on the high
wire, four on the bottom supporting two more above.
And then it was Angela's turn.
Angela, the only daughter, the youngest, stepped gingerly off the
highest of the three platforms and inched her way across the
upper crossbar, supported between her Momma and Mario.
Angela had her own twenty-kilo balancing beam, and
The audience is amazed.
and a metal chair.
She's holding a metal chair, its four legs joined by thin metal
bars at the base in an open square, and she proceeds to balance
this square perfectly on the crossbeam, and then
The audience goes nuts. They've never seen anything like this.
They can't believe it's possible; it defies all reason, all
And then Angela climbs onto the chair, still holding her
balance beam, and suddenly, incredibly, fantastically, the
seven-person pyramid is complete: four members of her family on
the bottom, two more in the next layer, and her, little Angela,
balancing on a chair supported by a crossbar no thicker around
than her tiny wrist, above them all, the whole incredible thing a
feat of engineering at least as great as its namesakes at Giza.
The cheering of the crowd is thunderous, tumultuous.
It's almost enough to drown out the pounding of Angela's heart.
Angela was fifteen years old, blond, thin but not too
thin. Poppa said the audience liked to see curves on a girl:
give the divorced fathers something to look at while their kids
enjoyed the spectacle. Sometimes, thought Angela, Poppa looked
at her in that way, too.
He must have known it was wrong, she thought. She didn't get
regular schooling the circus tutor taught her, five hours
a day if they were in a jurisdiction that required that much;
less, if the show had traveled to places with laxer rules
but she heard tell from kids who visited the circus of the kinds
of things they were learning in normal schools. Things about how
to protect yourself; things about making choices for the future.
But Angela had no choice; her future was preordained. She was a
Renaldo one of the Amazing Aerial Renaldos, the star
attraction of Delmonico's Razzle and Dazzle Circus. And the
Renaldos were a family act; none of Poppa's children had ever
left. Instead, they trained day after day, from as soon as they
could walk, learning not to misstep (lest Poppa slam their ankles
with a stick), learning not to fear heights, learning to move
with grace, until they were ready to tackle the high wire, to do
stunts far above the ground, with no net never a net,
except when they were in New York, where a state law required
one; Poppa said he was never so ashamed in his life as when they
performed in New York.
No, the Renaldo kids had to stay. Poppa needed them. Who else
could he trust? Who else could any of them trust? A trick like
this, it required family.
They did the pyramid every day and every day it terrified
Angela. She'd position the chair just so, balancing it perfectly
on the brace for the only alternative to perfection was
death and then clamber up. She could feel the chair sway
back and forth as she stood up on it, but the pyramid always
held, a pyramid of flesh and metal, fifteen meters above the
She hated every moment of it hated the way her heart
pounded, like a jackhammer. Hated feeling as though bats were
gyrating in her stomach. Hated the overwhelming fear that she
would fall, that she would end up like Carlo, who was watching
and not watching far, far below.
She couldn't leave; she couldn't run away. She had to stay, and
not just because it was a family act. She had to stay to look
after Carlo. Franco, Dominic, Mario, and Antonio made little
time for Carlo; he was an unpleasant reminder of what could go
wrong. And Momma and Poppa felt too much guilt to really love
him. So Angela took care of him, loving him, and fearing that
she might end up like him.
The being came to her in a dream, as all beings whose visits
could never be proven must.
He wasn't as she'd expected. Oh, she knew who he was who
he must be; the Renaldos were Catholic, and Sunday mornings they
always found a mass to attend. Each week a different city, a
different church but, presumably, the same God.
Yes, she knew who this must be. But he looked unlike any drawing
of him she'd ever seen. Indeed, he looked like a clown. But not
Yuri or Pablo or Gunter or any of the other clowns who worked
here at Delmonico's; it was no clown she had ever seen before.
But his face was painted white, except for rims of red makeup
no, no, of naked red skin around his dark, burning
Some children who came to the circus were frightened of clowns,
their parents dragging them despite wailed protests to see the
harlequins, as if the parents knew better, as if they were sure
the fear their children felt was nonsensical. But children
"Don't be frightened," said the figure. He moved around the
room. Angela, lying in bed, wearing flannel pajamas, a sheet
pulled up to her chin, couldn't see his feet, but she knew that
they weren't encased in giant, floppy shoes; the click of
his footfalls made that clear. "I've come to help you." The
voice was smooth, and with an accent that didn't so much sound
foreign as it sounded ancient.
"Help me how?" asked Angela.
"You live in fear, don't you?" He paused. "Fear of falling,
"I fell once," said the clown. "It's not as bad as you might
"It was that bad for Carlo."
"That's because he refused me."
Angela felt her eyes go wide. "What?"
"I offered Carlo what I'm about to offer you; he turned me down."
Angela knew she should abjure the being, but ... but ...
He'd said he wanted to help.
"Help me how?" she said again, her voice small, wavering,
"I could make sure that you never fall," said the clown. "Make
sure that you will never hit the ground, never end up like
"You could do that?"
The clown cocked his head. "I can do anything, but ..."
"There would be a small price, of course."
"I don't have any money," said Angela. Poppa said he was saving
her money, her share of the circus take, until she turned
"It's not money I want," said the clown.
For a horrible instant, he was looking at her the way Poppa
sometimes did, as though he were hungry all over, eyes seeing
beneath her clothes.
"Not that ..." she said, softly. "I ... I'm a virgin."
The clown roared with laughter, a torrent of molten metal. "I
don't want your flesh," he said.
"Then then what?"
"Only your soul."
Ah, thought Angela, if that was all
"No tricks?" said Angela.
The clown looked sad; clowns often did. "If you are true to me,
I promise, no tricks."
Two years passed. The Amazing Aerial Renaldos formed their
pyramid another seven hundred times. Angela had come to enjoy
doing it; now that the fear was gone now that she knew she
would never fall she could relax and actually enjoy the
And, yes, she realized, when you're not afraid, the applause was
wonderful. Poppa had been no older than she was now when he had
first heard it, back in the Old Country. She understood,
finally, why it captivated him so, why he had to hear it every
day of his life. When you had no fear, it was a wonderful,
And Angela really did have no fear of falling, and
When she was younger, she had wedged herself against the wall
whenever she slept; she had to, or else she would wake up in a
cold sweat, arms flailing, certain she was plummeting to her
Now, she no longer had that fear, but ...
But, each night, as she lay awake, trying to get to sleep, she
wondered if she had given up too much, if bargaining away her
soul had been a mistake. She still went to mass every Sunday,
the family finding a new wheelchair-accessible church in the
Yellow Pages. She'd seen hundreds of Jesuses nailed to hundreds
of crosses above hundreds of pulpits; she used to stare into the
face whatever visage the artist had given the Son of God
this week but now she couldn't meet his eyes.
She couldn't meet him, period. Her soul belonged to another.
She was seventeen, going on eighteen, and
Going on eighteen ...
Yes, she thought.
Yes, indeed. That was it.
But how to plead her case?
Another day; another performance. A crowd, like every crowd
thousands of excited children, thousands of parents who
looked fatigued after hours of trying to win prizes for their
kids on the midway, of lining up for the roller coaster and
Ferris wheel. Angela paid no attention to the individual faces;
the Renaldo family was a single entity, and it played to them all
She positioned the chair on the crossbeam supported by Mario and
Momma, lead weights in the square base helping it to balance on
the beam, and then she herself stood upon it a girl, atop
six other people, high above the ground. The crowd cheered, a
myriad of voices raised in unison.
It was intoxicating, the cheers enough to quell, at least
for the time being, the unease that haunted her, enough
Angela felt the chair moving under her. Dominic, in the base of
the pyramid, had lost his footing, just for an instant. He had
shifted left; Mario, on his shoulders, had shifted right to try
to compensate. Antonio, he moved right, too, but perhaps a
centimeter too far. And Momma, feeling the pull on her yoke but
unable to look behind her, she let out a small yelp never
a scream, not from one of the Renaldo family, the fearless, the
brave. The metal chair leaned far back.
Giving the bird to the Almighty ...
Angela's heart was pounding, just as it had before she'd made the
deal, before she'd been protected. Adrenaline surged within her.
The chair teetered, and, for an instant, it seemed as though it
might right itself.
The chair resumed going backward. She felt it come free from the
crossbar between Mario and Momma's shoulders, felt it come free
from her own feet.
Angela fell backward, too, falling separately from the chair,
which, she imagined, must be turning end over end.
Time was attenuated; seconds became eternities.
Angela was indeed falling, too, but
The adrenaline continued to surge.
She felt something happening to her body, her face. Her features
felt as though they were contorting, and
No. No, that wasn't it. They weren't contorting.
They were changing.
Her face was drawing out, into a muzzle. She could feel it.
Flat nosed, wide-nostrilled; an animal's face.
And her ears
Her ears were spreading, growing larger. She couldn't see
them, but she could feel them.
And her arms, her fingers
Those she could see ...
Her fingers were elongating. Each segment was growing, each
phalanx extending. And, as they grew, something spread between
them, gossamer thin at first then growing more substantial, a
membrane of thick, rough skin, stretched between the bones of the
Wings. Wings like those of a bat.
He'd promised her she'd never hit the ground, promised her that
she'd be spared the same fate as Carlo.
If her hands had become bat hands, then her face must have become
the face of a bat the muzzle, the ears, doubtless even the
shape of her eyes.
Air was flowing by her like transparent jelly; she could feel it
pushing her enlarged ears back against her skull.
At last the wings were beginning to catch the air, beginning to
break her fall. She looked down. She was still wearing her
usual get-up, the tiny pink dress and the gold lamé top.
More like a ballerina, really, and
And now she was dancing on air.
She brought her arms forward, pushing against the air with the
wings her wings gaining altitude instead of
Below, the chair hit the ground, metal legs twisting and
breaking. The crash, with her attenuated time-sense, seemed low
Surely her metamorphosis would be temporary. Surely once she was
safely on the ground, she would regain her normal proportions;
surely her youthful beauty would be restored. After all, he'd
promised no tricks ...
She beat her wings again, rising higher still. The rest of her
family was now below her. They'd managed to keep from falling,
The one she had prayed to in all those different churches.
The one she'd turned her back on.
Angela had never seen the pyramid from above before. The Great
Wallendas had invented the seven-man pyramid in 1947; when their
pyramid collapsed during a show in Detroit in 1962, two members
of their troupe were killed and a third like poor Carlo
had been paralyzed. But if the Wallendas had invented it,
and the Guerreros had refined it, the Renaldos had perfected it.
Even without its apex, it was still a sight to behold a
thin wire supporting four people, with two more on their
shoulders, three stories above the crowd
A crowd that was screaming, the sounds low and drawn out. And
pointing, hands moving in slow motion.
She beat her wings once more, gaining even more height. Although
she'd never done it before, flying to her was now like walking
the wire knowledge ingrained, no thought required, her
body responding perfectly.
And up again.
She'd have preferred to become a bird a lark, perhaps, or
a jay. But he was a creature of the night; the gifts he
bestowed were crepuscular, nocturnal.
A bat, then.
A bat who would fly to safety; a bat who would never fall.
Who could fly to safety ...
She had sold her soul to the devil, and yet
And yet she was a minor. Delmonico's Circus traveled to many
jurisdictions. In some, the age of majority was eighteen; in
others, nineteen; in others still, it was twenty-one.
But nowhere was it seventeen, the age she was now.
Or fifteen, the age she had been then.
Surely, this deal she'd made this bargain with Satan
surely it could not be legally binding. Surely she could
get out of it. And when would she have a better chance to make
her case? If she flew high enough, surely she would catch God's
eye, just as Poppa had always said.
God was forgiving whether mass was in English,
Italian, or Latin, they all said that. God would forgive her,
take her back, protect her. She had but to confess her sins
within his hearing.
Another stroke of her wings.
Of course, she was still under the big top. She couldn't just go
up to escape. Rather, she had to go down.
Just not too far down ...
She folded her wings against her body, letting herself fall,
confident that she could gain height again with another beat of
the leathery membranes. It was an exhilarating fall, a thrilling
fall, excitement rushing through her, a frisson passing over her.
Her time sense contracted again, to let her enjoy the rush,
experience the headlong, overwhelming pull of gravity, what she'd
feared for so long now what she craved the most.
She had no doubt that she could stop her fall before she hit
he had promised, after all, and she wasn't the first to
have made a bargain with him. Thousands millions
before her must have made similar deals; even if she herself
didn't intend to keep it, he would have to hold up his end as
long as he thought he would eventually get her soul.
The screams from the crowd had risen in pitch as her time sense
had returned to normal, but now they were growing deeper again as
she neared the ground close enough now to see the spiral
galaxies of sawdust here and there, the circular pits of elephant
footprints, the cloud-freckles caused by a spilled bag of
She swooped now, heading out the great tent's entrance, out into
the circus ground proper, out into the stinging light of day.
And then, at once, she began to rise higher and higher and higher
and higher, beating her wings furiously, gaining as much altitude
as she could. Soon she was far above the big top. She longed to
look down, to see the fairgrounds from this new perspective, see
the trailers, the animal cages, the horizontal circle of the
merry-go-round, the vertical circle of the Ferris wheel. But she
couldn't. She had to concentrate, just like when she was on the
high wire, allowing no distractions, no stray thoughts.
Another beat of the wings, flying higher and higher
Incredible pain as though she'd hit a sheet of glass, hit
the ceiling of the world.
No farther, said a voice in her head, a voice with a
strange accent, a voice like liquid metal.
But she had to go higher she had to catch the eye of God.
She beat her wings again, and felt her face flatten but
not back into its original, human form. No, it was pressing
against a transparency; there was no way to fly higher.
It's too close to Him, said the same voice, answering her
She wanted to beat her fists against the transparency, but she
had no fists only elongated fingers supporting membranous
wings. If she could just get God's attention
You're not trying to cheat me, are you? said the splashing
metallic voice in her head.
Her breathing was ragged from fighting so hard to break through
the transparency. "No," she gasped. "No, I'm not."
I have a confession, he said. I lied when I said Carlo
had turned me down; I lie a lot. He did take the deal, but he,
too, tried to break it.
"And so you let him fall?" The words were forced out; her lungs
He didn't fall, said the voice. He jumped. He thought
if he jumped, then the deal would be broken. Oh, yes, he would
die, but his soul would go up, not down. A pause. The
irony was too much for me to resist: for one who had come so
close to touching the heavens to now not even be able to stand
a perfect living hell.
"No," said Angela, the words a hoarse whisper. "No, please
not that. Don't make me fall."
Of course not, splashed the voice. Of course not.
Angela breathed a sigh of relief.
For you, something different.
She was hit by an explosion of hot air, like the exhalation of a
blast furnace, air so hot that sweat evaporated from her skin as
soon as it beaded up. The wind slapped her like an open-palmed
hand, pushing her down, down, down. Its impact had slammed her
wings against her body, had flattened her little pink skirt
against her thighs, had, she was sure, plastered her bat-ears
flat against her skull once more. She tried to unfurl the wings,
spreading her arms, splaying her protracted fingers, fingers as
long as her legs. But the wind continued to blow, hot as hell,
and she found herself tumbling, head over heels. Instinct took
over, and instead of trying to extend her arms, she drew them in
now to protect her face, her torso. Soon she was only a few
meters above the ground, a ball of tightly wound limbs being
pushed laterally through the air.
No, no. She had to fight her instincts. It was like being on
the high wire. Do what your eyes tell you to do, and you'll fall
for sure; the human mind wasn't made for such heights, such
perspectives. She forced her arms to unfurl, forced the wings to
try once more to catch the air, and
Such pain, pain so sharp it made her wish her spinal cord was
The wings were burning now, sheets of flame attached to her
elongated, bony fingers. She could feel the membranes crisping,
reducing to ash. Her long digits raked the air, but there was
nothing much spread between them now to catch it just a
few singed and tattered pieces of skin. Incredibly, her clothes
remained intact or, perhaps not so incredibly, for all
circus clothing had to be flame retardant ...
She curled her sticklike fingers, as if clawing for purchase
but there was nothing but air, blisteringly hot, a wind
from Hades propelling her along past the freak show, haunted
faces looking up, past the arcade, children agape, past the
fortune teller's tent, the line of suckers somehow parting just
in time to permit her passage barely above their heads, farther
and farther still, toward
toward the Ferris wheel, it rotating in one plane, she
tumbling head over heels in a perpendicular plane.
She'd thought for sure that she would slam into the spokes of the
Ferris wheel, knocking herself unconscious, but that didn't
happen. Instead, she found herself reaching out instinctively
with her feet, and hanging like the bat she'd become from one of
the spokes, and
No, he could not be that cruel, that wicked ...
But, if he could not, who could be?
It was as though her ankles were pierced through, like Christ's,
and yet not like Christ's, for hers were joined now by a small
axle, a spindle upon which she hung, rotating along with the
great wheel, always facing down, pointing head-first toward the
She thought briefly of a butterfly, pinned on a collector's
sheet. He was a collector, too, of course ...
The wheel rotated on, and she hung from it, a macabre bauble,
with skeletal fingers that once had supported flight membranes
now hanging limp, like the boughs of a dead willow.
He had won, of course. Angela imagined he always won and,
she supposed, always would win. And, as she hung upside down, a
pendant, she thought of her Poppa, and her fear of falling, and
of failing him. No, things hadn't turned out as she'd hoped,
but, still, this wasn't so bad; the old fears were indeed dead.
The wheel continued to turn. She felt sure it would always turn;
no fireman could cut her free, no ladder would ever reach her.
She rather suspected that the devil did not leave fingerprints,
that she indeed, the whole damned wheel, and its other
occupants, whom she caught only horrid glimpses of could
only be seen when the lighting was just so, when it was not quite
dawn, or just past dusk, when you weren't really looking.
She was up high now, the wheel having rotated her to her topmost
position, the zenith of the cycle, the pinnacle of her
punishment. Here, facing down, looking at the ground, at the
hard, unrelenting earth the crust over the underworld, the
veneer over the furnace from which the wind that had propelled
her along had doubtless come here, it was frightening, for
if the spindle broke, if her ankles slipped off the axle, an axle
greased with her own blood, she would plummet face first to the
hard, hard ground.
But that wouldn't happen. It wouldn't ever happen.
The wheel continued its rotation, with Angela always pointing
down. At the nadir of the cycle she was indeed rather close to
the ground, the ground that had shattered Carlo's spine, the
ground that she had feared for so long.
But then she started upward again.
Had Poppa seen any of it? Had Momma? Had Carlo looked up long
enough to see her transformation, her fall, her flight, her
capture? Or had it all happened somewhere outside of human
perception; certainly, she, just nine when it had occurred,
hadn't seen anything unusual when Carlo fell jumped
from the high wire.
Poppa would now have to do what he'd always feared bring
an outsider into the act, take on someone new to be the pinnacle
of the pyramid.
She hoped whoever it was would look after Carlo.
The wheel took her down once more, bringing her close again to
It really was a comfort knowing that she was never going to hit
• The End •
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