An urgent voice in my ear commanded: ‘Now, Alia: it is time.’
Around me, people swarmed. Moving past, stopping and standing still. The sun hits the back of my neck, burning through the black cloth to singe my skin.
Sweat trickled down my back. It may be time, but it was moving so slowly I couldn’t bring my finger to pull.
But I knew would. The unfaithful would suffer the same pain that I had when they killed my father, ruined our lives; destroyed our home. They would die as he had.
Purpose fuelled me; I was God’s soldier and I would have revenge for all they’d done.
‘Are you waiting for someone?’
It was a boy. Taller than me, pale in that French freckled way. He squinted at me, trying to see through the black cloth of my Abaya. Seemingly friendly, where other people were uneasy. I could see their looks. I had to act soon or it would be too late.
‘Oui, just my brother. He’ll be back soon.’
I turned away, blocking him out.
I scanned the numbers of people surrounding me. Three buses sat close nearby, patiently waiting for what seemed to now be hundreds of passengers ready to board for Leon, Marseille, Nice, Paris.
And it was time. I pressed my finger slowly downwards. As I tensed for that final click an old woman turned towards me, her face melting into darkness.
Pain exploded through me — a boy held up a camera, face frozen in horror. And then I couldn’t see for the light.
I screamed as my clothes and the bombs fell away. Dimly I heard them crash to the ground, deafening.
I arched my back, unable to bear the tearing of my skin.
People around me screamed. I screamed with them; rage coursing through me and out through my fingers.
I fell down to my knees.The agony was unbearable, but then before me I thought I saw my father and mother. They were smiling, not very far away. The pain subsided and I struggled to my feet, reaching out to them but they’d gone. Was I dead? But I was still in pain and here in Avignon, people yelling around me. Boots stomped then stopped. I stepped forward and almost overbalanced.
Someone steadied me, catching my arm to prevent me from falling. A white feather landed on the freckled boy’s face.
‘We have to get you out of here,’ he whispered, leaning in as close as he dared. ‘Follow me.’
I stepped out of my clothes and the dead bombs lying discarded, he pushed me, none too gently, through the crowd who fell back before me. I was still in pain and clung to his arm, lightheaded.
Shocked faces gave way to an alleyway leading up; intricate pavement creating a series of large steps. Individuals watched. Some fell to their knees, but others were too shocked to move. Yelling behind us intensified.
We reached a laneway and turned left, going down a small street. ‘In here.’
A dark corridor greeted us while the boy fumbled with the switch. A voice called out.
‘Marcel, is that you? Did Stefan get on the bus OK?’
‘Oui maman. I have a headache. Don’t worry about me, I just need to sleep. I’ll call for you if I need something.’
‘Bien, mon amour.’
The boy Marcel half pulled me up the stairs; feathers fluttering around us as the things on my back brushed the walls.
The narrow stairs opened to a wide landing, lit by a large skylight. He opened a door and pulled me inside.
Clothes and stuff surrounded me. This was a boy’s room. Worse still this was a stranger, a kafir.
I lunged away from him, overbalancing and falling on clothes. I screamed and raged; crying under the weight of the things on my back.
Why had I seen my parents? They had looked happy, but how could they be? They were dead. But not me; here with this cursed kafir and very much alive.
After a while, the French boy knelt down beside me and tried to pat my shoulder. I pulled away, heart pounding with fear. Had he brought me here to rape me? I had been so dizzy, I hadn’t been able to resist him leading me away, but now I was feeling stronger. The pain had nearly gone, if only my head would clear. There were so many strange thoughts racing through my mind.
He moved away and returned, shoving clothes in front of me.
‘Here, you can put on these clothes. The shirt you could try and put on backwards.’
‘Leave me to dress,’ I hissed. My French was passable — I had had to learn, to blend in.
I used the edge of his bed to pull myself up. The tracksuit pants were to big but I used the drawstring to tighten them. The shirt I’d pulled backwards, as he suggested. Then looked over my shoulder properly for the first time to see what it was that had grown out of my back. Over my shoulder, from the corner of my eye, I saw what could only be the feathered tips of wings. These reached a little higher than my head. I couldn’t do up the buttons on the back though.
He entered and quickly closed the door.
‘Here, I can’t reach these buttons.’
I gritted my teeth, preparing for the unwanted touch. I could feel him behind me, could I sense fear? What was he afraid of — me?
This done, I felt better. I turned to look at him. He looked away, blushing.
My vision changed and I saw him differently. He was afraid; afraid I would be offended. Afraid he didn’t know what to do, but still wanting so desperately to help.
This calmed me somehow, knowing this. I saw clearly then he was not a threat and meant me no harm. White feathers teased me from the corner of my eye.
‘Marcel… do you have a mirror?’
‘Oui, here,’ he opened a cupboard door.
The wings curved above my shoulders. I turned side-on to see them better — they were like swans’ wings. They lay folded flat against my skin and ended at my ankles. The change didn’t end there: my skin glowed as though a fire had been lit, and my eyes were no longer dull brown. They were beautiful, like Lindt chocolate balls. He stood beside me, as mesmerised as I was.
‘Are you an angel?’
‘I can’t be…’
Whatever I was I had lost my phone, so I was uncontactable. They wouldn’t even know I had failed.
But if I had succeeded this boy would not have survived; Marcel, who had offered me his arm and pulled me away from danger. Even knowing who and what I was.
‘Are you tired? Do you want to sit?’
'Oui.' I still felt dizzy.
I realised I was. Famished.
‘Bien. I have a stack of food I keep up here for emergencies, when I can’t be bothered going downstairs. Or I don’t want to disturb my parents, they’re always fussing,’ he smiled, so I could see he didn’t really mind their fussing.
I perched awkwardly on the end of his bed and leant against the cool wall while he pulled out a couple of chocolate bars. I devoured both, savouring every mouthful like I’d never had them before. Even though I had. A couple of hours ago when they’d given me chocolate as a farewell gift, at my request.
But now it was even better. The creamy sweetness exploded in my mouth and my body tingled all over.
‘So angel, before, were you a terrorist?’
‘My name is Alia. Yes.’
No point in denying the obvious.
‘I thought so; when the light started I filmed you.’
He held out his phone. I saw myself pull the trigger and transform. I watched my Abaya and the vest, laden with its wires and now-dead lights, fall at my feet.
‘Oh, mon dieu. The news… others will have seen this.’
And there I was; a bomb that didn’t explode. People frozen, or running from me with expressions of terror at the burst of light, not explosives. Something much stranger. A small feather drifted down and landed gently on my hand.
We sat transfixed for what felt like hours; scrolling through the channels and watching You Tube clips. The internet was hot with speculation — was this some fantastical prank, or had I really grown wings? Avignon police remained tight lipped, saying an investigation was underway. Al Jezeera was reporting a terrorist group had anonymously tipped that a suicide attack was about to occur, but nothing further had been heard since.
I felt nauseous — my face was everywhere. There was no hiding from them; for what I hadn’t done.
‘So what do we do now?’
‘Je ne sais pas, Marcel. I do not know; I am scared.’
My mind wasn’t functioning properly. My old self still there — fearful and alone — but new ways of thinking were being added, demanding my attention then flitting away.
‘Do you have family… people who can help you?’
‘No. We don’t believe in angels.’ I didn’t mean to sound curt, but there was so much going on in my head.
‘I do, well at least I do now,’ he said smiling. ‘I was raised a Catholic, you know, with all the saints. Angels are in the bible. And here you are, so I really should have paid more attention in church.’
I shook my head.
’What’s more important Marcel is: how do I leave here? I don’t know if I’m an angel, but I look like one. Angels — for my people — are not supposed to exist. And if that’s the case, then my religion had this wrong. They will come after me, Marcel.’
At least the French would. My people would kill me to stop others knowing.
Panic was setting in; my old self knew the odds. My new self contradicted, but I was still coming to terms with what that new self was.
Marcel just sat there calmly, studying me.
‘Can you fly?’
‘How would I know?’
His first stupid question. But then, maybe not so stupid.
‘Well, angels can fly and I have wings,’ I could hardly believe I was saying this. ’It wouldn’t hurt to try.’
‘We’ll have to do this at night; we can move in the shadows.’
There was a sound outside the door.
‘Marcel, what would you like for dinner? Soup?’
‘Ah oui, merci maman,’ Marcel made his voice sound sleepy. ‘Let me rest awhile longer, this is helping.’
‘Rest, mon fils. I will bring the soup up to you.’
Her footsteps faded.
Marcel rummaged in his cupboard and made space between his jackets. ‘You can hide in here, when she comes back.’
‘Merci. For everything.’
‘De rien. But you have to tell me, why are you an angel? Do you even know?’
I wasn’t an angel. I was a bitter and angry girl who had believed for years that the only way to achieve peace was to kill.
My new self though, was telling me wondrous things. My new eyes were seeing the smallest details, beyond their physical structure to the essence within. Marcel had a light swirling inside him; it was somehow calming.
In my training they talked about processing. We were always processing what our enemies were doing to us and channelling it into constructive action; it allowed you to continually remind yourself of your place, your purpose within the greater fight.
I was a girl. I should never have power. But I felt it unfurling within me and the hatred falling away. My processing was being re-processed.
I had no idea what I would be but I had to start somewhere; I would take responsibility.
‘Marcel, you and many others would have died today if the bomb had exploded. I am sorry.’
‘But you didn’t and now you are an angel. So whatever happened in the past, it’s gone. What’s important is how do we help you? What are you meant to do?’
‘I am wondering this also. It’s going to take time to make sense of this — I am understanding and seeing differently all the time.’
‘Until you know, I think perhaps you should stay here with us,’ he offered, blushing.
‘But your parents…’
‘I know. It will come as a shock to them, but they are good people.’
I wasn’t sure about that. I’d only been in France for a couple of months; kept secret in a house with my people. Marcel was the first real contact I’d had with someone outside.
‘I guess I have no choice,’ I said, because my new self said that I couldn’t do this alone. So I told Marcel a bit about my story — how I’d been a refugee from Iraq when my father, a soldier in Saddam’s regime, had been killed during the invasion. How my mother had died in grief and my uncle in cross-fire, until I had no one left to care for me. How I had struggled to survive, living hand-to-mouth in refugee camps, before I’d been sponsored by some of my father’s cousins to join a new fight in Europe.
When Marcel’s mother returned, we heard her footsteps coming up the stairs. I stayed seated.
‘Marcel, sorry I took so long. Police are everywhere. There was a bomb the bus stop; everyone is panicking — I’m so glad you saw Stefan safely off. How are you feeling?’
‘Maman, come in —I need to talk to you.’
She came in, saw me and stopped.
‘Who is this girl?’
‘Maman, this is the terrorist, from the bus stop, but she changed and now she’s an angel. She can’t leave here, she was filmed at the bus stop— she’s on You Tube, everywhere.’
She took note of the wings curving slightly above my shoulders.
‘Marcel, I need to sit.’
She sat on the bed, as far from me as she could. I looked carefully at her; Marcel was right, she was a good person, but I’d needed to explain… fast.
So I told her what happened at the bus stop, then my life before that. Travelling backwards.
When I finished, tears were running down her face.
‘Ma petit, ma petit, you can stay here with us. Marcel has not properly introduced us; you may call me Francine,’ she said, smiling sideways at a self-satisfied Marcel. ‘We will protect you, until you know what it is that you are to do. Your wings, can I see them?’
I stood and turned. I thought about unfolding them and felt an unfamiliar movement under my skin, behind my shoulders, as they extended. I looked around and saw them properly for the first time; layers and layers of feathers, but would they be strong enough to bear my weight? What even would be the point of having bird wings if I couldn’t fly.
‘Ma petit, they are so beautiful. You will never go unnoticed, not now and not ever.’
‘I know.’ I didn’t know what my path would be, but I knew it wouldn’t be easy: it never had been.
‘We need to take control,’ she said. ‘I teach English and IT, so I can help you set up an internet dialogue, so people can reach you and you can reach them. It will help protect you because the authorities — as well as those that don’t like what you represent—won’t be able to hurt you.’
As I said this I could hear the fear behind her words. It was a good idea, but would it be enough to protect me from a world either clamouring for evidence of angels and God, or those seeking to destroy.
‘First, ma petit, the group you were with, we need to tell the police about them.’
‘Alia, you must.’ Firmly, as a parent would to their child. I wasn’t offended; this fair skinned woman reminded me of my mother and I realised her fear wasn’t of me, it was of what I represented.
I had been afraid she would say this. They... the terrorists... had become my family. I had believed in them for so long that it was hard to blame them. But my new part — my inner angel or whatever it was — told me their hatred should not go unchecked. It would only breed more hatred.
Four police came that night. They recognised me at once from the online footage. Marcel’s maman took charge, telling them I was an angel. Two of the policemen gazed at me with wondrous eyes, but the sergeant was a weasel of a man, small and suspicious. He looked at me as though my wings were somehow tacked on and this was an elaborate hoax to save me from jail.
I was so nervous I was shaking. I struggled to find the right French words, turning to Marcel for their dictionary; fumbling through the pages. I told them everything I knew, condemning my people for crimes they hadn’t yet committed; choking up when I remembered a random kindness. My new self had to keep reminding me that I had been just a pawn in a higher stakes game; it had suited them to keep me docile.
After four long hours they thanked me, looking to each other in some silent communication. The clock was ticking time, I itched in my skin, ready for it to be over.
‘Alia, we need you come to the station for further questioning.’
The sergeant’s eyebrows raised and the others shifted in their seats. The old Alia would never have said ‘no’, but the new Alia knew this was enough.
‘We have to insist…’
‘Monsieurs, with all due respect, it is very late and Alia is tired,’ Francine interjected. ‘We called you because we want you to act on what information Alia could provide. If there are any further details she can help with, you can call us.’
I would not be kept secret for long. Someone would come looking for me, but I was grateful to Francine for buying me time.
That night — on the camp bed Marcel’s mother had set up on the landing — I struggled to get comfortable. It felt too strange to lie on my back with the wings jutting out, so I tried lying on my side, which was fine but I couldn’t roll over to the other side. Sometime early morning the sun streaming through the skylight woke me, flat out on my stomach and wings spread out like white blankets over my arms.
I groaned and pushed myself up. It wasn’t a dream.
Marcel’s mother left for work early — warning us not to open the door for anyone — leaving us to devour the most delicious breakfast I’d ever had of croissants and hot chocolate.
Afterwards, Marcel and I spent the morning researching angels.
Francine returned at lunchtime, carrying bags of clothes.
‘These are for you, ma petit.’
She’d found girls tops that were deliberately left open at the back and singlets that sat below my wings. She’d even brought me jeans and long skirts. I got changed in Marcel’s room, delighted at having my own clothes and at the way my wings swished behind me. I tentatively opened them, lifting them up and down. It was getting easier.
That evening, seated at the kitchen table, we looked at maps. I had decided I would try to fly, what I didn’t know is whether it would be enough to travel out of France — otherwise I had no passport, no identification. I could not stay with Marcel and Francine, the Police would be back. With others.
Speculation was rife on social media as to what had happened to the winged girl, or whether I was a fake. French police had uncovered an extensive ring of terrorists and many people had been arrested, weapons downed. In Syria, things continued to deteriorate. Buildings like the end of the world, shelled and bombed; where people huddled in the rubble. Iraq struggled to regain its footing, slipping so often.
We had decided what I must do. I needed the best teachers, the kindest and most reasonable voices to protect me from the violence, as well as though I believed had potential to learn a greater truth. I told them I was going to the Kurdish territory in northern Iraq in a month; they could meet me there.
After midnight, when Francine was asleep, Marcel and I snuck out of the house. Marcel took my hand and led me through the paved streets towards the river. The famous bridge of Avignon ….. stood silent, waters running fast underneath.
Marcel stepped back, watching while I flexed my wings. I extended them fully and marvelled at how good it felt to feel the breeze ruffling through my feathers.
I moved them up and down, at first slowly, then faster. The air swirled around me and I felt my feet leave the ground. I hovered for a moment, looking down at Marcel’s enraptured face. I smiled and beat stronger, rising through the air higher and higher until the city of Avignon’s tall inner fortified walls encircled and excluded a field of lemon light stars; streetlights and hardy souls still awake.
I looked up to the real stars and soared heavenwards; the world fell away and I saw it in all it’s beauty and chaos. I knew who I was as I glided across the land, leaving Avignon behind. I sang, the most angel-like songs; pop songs, nursery rhymes from my childhood.
When I returned Marcel was still there, asleep with his jacket as a pillow. I woke him and he stood, hugging me like he was afraid I wouldn’t have come back.
‘Marcel, you were right,’ I told him.
We returned to the house, my wings again hidden beneath Marcel’s coat.
The next weeks were a blur. Because we had been in war and I had been a refugee, my writing wasn’t very good. So Francine and Marcel recorded me. Hundreds of clips, ready to upload when the time was right. We waited to hear from the world’s leaders, but responses were slow. But I had faith.
Sometimes I snuck out, up to the city walls or to the bridge in the middle of the night. Marcel would often come with me, a solitary protector. Sometimes I had nightmares, visions of things going wrong that I couldn’t stop. Marcel would pat my hand and tell me it was all right, that I was here to help change that. And if I couldn’t then maybe this was meant to be — a learning, a painful change. Sometimes I wished he would kiss me, but he didn’t.
When the time came I left Avignon; waving goodbye to Francine and Marcel as I glided from the bridge.
Marcel had found a backpack, which sat almost flat and mostly didn’t get in the way of my wings. In this I carried food and essentials. I flew mostly above the clouds, to avoid being seen from the ground. It was much harder to keep out of the way of aircraft, but after a few almost-crashes I worked out I could listen for them.
I rested in barns or small patches of woodland in Europe, before crossing the Mediterranean Sea close to Turkey and into the more arid terrain I knew was the Middle East — so called I supposed because it wasn’t the pure east of Africa. I had discovered early on I didn’t have whatever it was that birds had with respect to navigation so I used the phone Marcel had bought me, which I otherwise turned off to conserve the battery.
I arrived at Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq over a week later.
The rocky mountainside appeared barren, but I could sense hidden life in the few hardy plants, insects and small animals. A town perched half way up, with square adobe covered houses scattered here and there towards the top. I pulled out my coat and walked up the hill, looking into the houses I passed. There was no sign of human life.
I turned on my phone. Amazingly, there was reception. A few worried messages from Marcel and his mother, but nothing from the people I had invited to meet me here.
I reach the top at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. I had been worried I would be late — and I had cut it fine — but here I am. An hour early. I scan the horizon, wind whipping my hair into my face.
I sit down near a rough stone cairn with a plaque of lost names — a reminder this mountain had sheltered tens of thousands desperate Yazidi from the Islamic State in 2014. Before those fighting injustice helped them escape.
Two hours later and the sun is starting its downward journey. I watch a solitary Long Legged Buzzard circling, orange plumage highlighting white wings bordered with black. I know its name; its forms in other languages. This is a recent development — I have but to think about something and I know instantly what it is. It amuses me that I am a walking and flying internet search engine.
Already the first star twinkles into existence against a dusky sky. Below me, shadows lengthen across the valley, obscuring winding dirt roads and war-damaged villages.
I realised I am exhausted. I have given everything to get here and now I am beyond tired. Flying across the dry areas particularly has worn me out. I rummage in my backpack and inhale the last few dry biscuits. But this isn’t enough; I am light-headed with hunger.
Even worse; I feel the first tendrils of fear.
I try to quell them but doubt creeps in. Would anyone come? I have no responses to my emails, letters or phone calls. Why would they believe an invisible angel? Who was I to tell them what was needed?
I scan the mountain — still no sign of the helicopters; the soldiers escorting the worlds leaders. I reach out with my senses and feel… presences. Human, coming up the other side of the mountain.
I hastily discard my coat and fly upwards. It is time to be visible.
I gain a few feet. I see a figure, moving so quickly, broaching the summit. His face I instantly recognise. It is Marcel. I fly at him, collecting him my arms and hugging him tightly, torpedoing through the air.
‘Why?’ I gasped.
I lower him gently to the ground and beat my wings, gently rising a few feet above the ground so I can see. Francine arrives and stands beside Marcel; their love energising me so my hunger fades.
Thousands of people walk up the hill. From all races. Men and women in military uniform bearing flags. Local women wearing headscarfs and men in traditional clothes; Westerners in jeans and jackets.
I smile, elated, and they see; returning my joy. Some stare in complete astonishment, as though they had not really believed I would be real, but had come nonetheless.
The world’s leaders approach, people making way for figures surrounded by soldiers. Chairs are hastily assembled on the sloping ground of the summit for the leaders, while others find flat rocks as seats, glad to recover from the steep climb up the mountain.
I had thought for weeks about what I would say, practicing and perfecting my message.
I start simply.
I hear my voice echo across the mountainside in a multitude of languages.
Finally, it is time.
- ends -