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In the weeks after the Visit, Nathanael became increasingly agitated. During the night, if he wasn't tossing on his pallet, he paced the room. At dinner, his spoon dipped into his bowl with ferocity. He gulped his food. Madalyn could hear the constant tapping of his foot on the floor.
And he scratched. His head, his arms, his chest and then, as if finding the source of his unease, his back.
His food forgotten, he crossed both arms across his chest, reached around to the crevices under his shoulder blades and scratched. The shirt was in his way. It came off. He continued to scratch, tearing at his flesh.
Completely forgotten, Madalyn watched in fascination. Was this the madness of the divine? Surely, no mortal could live in the shadow of an angel and remain sane.
"Madalyn!" Her name tore from his throat. His eyes were wild as he clutched his back. His face twisted with pain and he fainted, falling over his soup bowl.
Madalyn put down her spoon. The sound of it rattling the bowl was loud in the quiet kitchen. The bench scraped against the dirt floor as she stood. She walked around Nathanael, afraid to touch him. He was drenched in sweat, and Madalyn's first thought was: Oh My God! The fever.
His eyes opened. They were swollen and red like a drowning man's eyes.
"The pain!" he cried, "The heat!" as if he couldn't decide which was more unbearable.
"Where?" asked Madalyn frantically. "Tell me where!"
She saw them: two red, round knobs pushing up through the skin below his shoulder blades.
Nathanael screamed again. He flailed his arms backward, trying to reach the source of his torment. His nails raked across one protrusion tearing the taut skin. Another scream strangled in his throat, and he fainted again, falling from his chair onto the floor.
Madalyn half dragged, half carried him to his sleeping pallet. She laid him on his stomach and then tore through the cupboards, looking for something to soothe his wounds. She grabbled a bottle of scented oil and warmed it in her hand before massaging his disfigured back. She hoped to ease the itch, but when her hands passed over those knobs, she knew this stage would not last long enough for the oil to have any effect. Nathanael flinched a few times as if he was only dreaming this madness.
Tentatively, she reached down and caressed a knob. It was hard and hot, like a boil. It strained to break through his skin and she thought that the pain must be unbearable. Better that Nathanael stay unconscious. Nira had been showing her some of the native medicines. She hurried to the kitchen and brewed a tea-like concoction that would help him sleep if he should wake. It would do nothing for the pain. This was no ordinary fever. She knew what would emerge when those boils split. She had known since the moment Nathanael disappeared into the angel’s embrace, but she still didn't understand. Why inflict this gross pain? If God wanted him to sprout wings then let Him point his almighty finger and say "LET IT BE DONE!" Why this horrible suffering?
Madalyn rubbed more oil into his back. The bones under her hands shifted, and surged, making way for the alien growth. She continued to care for him all through the night, not knowing what else to do. Near dawn, the muscles in his back relaxed for an instant and then his whole body tensed. He screamed in his sleep.
The skin split with a terrible ripping sound and tiny, mucousy wings were born from his back. His blood spurted, but as Madalyn frantically mopped it up, trying to shush Nathanael's screaming, she realized that the skin was already stitching itself together around the wings. They were small furled limbs, no bigger than her finger, and they hung limply from their tender new bones. Madalyn bathed them in warm water.
Nathanael slept on, unaware of his metamorphosis, but his brow was creased with his troubled dreams. Madalyn stayed at his bedside, worrying and hoping that Nathanael would turn in his sleep and crush the baby wings. They dried to a fine iridescent down.
Her fingers tingled when she touched them. The room was filled with their scent, like hot rain on long grass. Far from feeling proper awe in the presence of greatness, Madalyn only smiled, and stroked the wings. Nathanael had been off limits to her desires for so long she could only find humor in this new dilemma. The stakes have been raised, she thought, as she lay on the cot beside her angel.