In the Shadow of Thy Wings


by Dwayne Phillips


He held a piece of paper between his thumb and pointer finger. It was high-quality paper, and that quality pulled my attention because there was nothing about him that was high quality. "Down and out," was the description that we used to tag on people like him. People like him sat on the curb while the waste of the world flowed under his feet through the gutter into the sewer.

"Let me see that," said the patrol officer who was first on the scene.

That set him off. "No," he shouted as he jerked his paper-holding hand into his coat.

"Hey, let me see that," repeated the patrol officer with vile instead of mild interest in his voice.

He continued his change in demeanor as he stood and skittered away from the patrol officer. He wasn't paying attention or aware of his surroundings as he backed into the clutches of several other patrol officers who had been standing behind him for ten minutes.

"Let me go, let me go," he shouted as he squirmed to free himself from the men who had him.

"Look, buddy, calm down or else..." started the patrol officer.

"Wait a minute," I said. "Wait a minute, calm down, everyone calm down."

I approached the group of officers surrounding him and motioned for the officers to release his arms.

"Does that piece of paper have anything to do with, with this?" I asked as I motioned to the three lifeless bodies sprawled under a police tarp on the street.

His head trembled from side to side in a combination of fear, starvation, and acknowledgement.

"Okay," I said. "Let's have a seat and talk."

"Sir," protested the first patrol officer, "you can't, you aren't, that could be evidence."

I looked at the earnest officer. I turned towards the officer so that he couldn't see our faces or hear our quieted voices. "This curb is this guy's home. Does he look like he has any evidence or weapons or anything related to these bodies? This guy is lucky to be alive today, and being a witness to a triple murder is the only guarantee that he'll be alive in a few days. Cut him some slack. He'll be in protective custody in an hour, and we'll search through his filthy belongings while we put him in a tub and rid him of all the tiny crawling things that live in his body hair. In fact, you can search through his lice-filled clothing bit by bit. Good enough for you?"

The patrol officer dropped his eyes to the refuse-filled gutter, shrugged, and turned away.

I turned back to him, and we sat on the wet curb. The gutter water sloshed into my shoe and dumped something that I couldn't name into my mind.

"Did you see what happened here?" I asked. "What happed to these three people?"

He nodded. This time it was the considered, slow nod of a person who had returned to the human race, if only for a moment.

"Will you tell me?" I asked.

"If," he replied. His voice concluded the word with a period to emphasize that he had stopped and not merely paused.

"I suppose you want something," I said. "You want a deal or something, right?"

"No," he said with emphasis on the finality of the word.

"What would you like me to do?" I asked.

"Help," he said.

"What do you want me to do for you?" I asked.

"No," he replied. "Not me. The others."

"Them?" I asked pointing to the three dead bodies.

"No," he said, but this time there was a pause in his voice indicating that he was starting, not finishing.

I waited and after a moment that lasted too long, he continued, "In my home. The people who live with me."

I didn't know what to say. I looked at his face, into his eyes, trying to find something to grasp and use. Did he want me to clean up every cardboard hotel in every alley in the city?  I compromised a bit and told him, "I'll do what I can for them. Where are they? It may be a day or two before we can get to them, but I'll do what I can for them."

"No," he said. Somehow he had mastered the ability to trap the world with a single word.

I searched furiously but in vain for an escape.

"There is only so much we can do in the middle of the night like this," I said.

"Not we, not a group of people," he said. "You, just you."

I felt a sword split me in half exposing my soul. Who was this guy? How did an accidental witnessing of a triple murder transform him from a down and out no-longer-a-person into the king of the world dictating terms to a representative of the city government.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to hurt you, but you see, they do need help, and you can help them, and now that I know something that you want, I have to. You see, don't you see, I have to ask for them. There is nothing more I can do for them, but I think you can. I think you can help them, give them a chance."

This guy had some of that ointment that burns when you touch it to a paper cut and he was squirting gallons of it onto an exposed wound the size of Montana.

"It's the middle of the night," I pleaded trying to find another escape route. "We don't, wait, I don't have the resources to go through the city and find your friends and do something."

"They are here," he said. "Within ten paces."

My mind spun several times. I had a nut case. My only witness to a triple murder was a nut. Ten paces, he said. The only people in sight were police and dead bodies and this nut case.

"I'm not a nut," he said, again with that period on the end of his statement as if someone with great authority had performed weeks of tests on him and concluded with an AMA journal article.

I dropped my face into my hands. Through a crack in my clenched hands I could glimpse the police tarp covering the three bodies. This wasn't a good part of town. On a usual night the dead would be more of the "down and outs" like this guy. Tonight, however, the dead were "up and ins." They had wandered into the wrong place and met the wrong people. We, I, had to solve this one. I had to pay attention to everything. I had an eyewitness sitting next to me. I had to do what he asked or at least appear to take an interest in his request and satisfy him enough so that he would talk.

I lifted my pounding head from my hands and faced him. "Okay," I said. "Show me. Take me to them. I will do what I can."

"Good," he said kicking me in the gut with another one of his one-word paragraphs.

He stood and pushed me back with a gesture of his finger. He went to his knees into the filth of the gutter. Some instinct made him look from side to side as if the other police officers and I weren't standing next to him and hadn't been standing here for the past hour. He drug a metal grate that none of us had noticed until now to the side.

"Come," he said with yet another one-word declarative.

I looked at the other police officers and saw my puzzled face reflected in theirs.

"No," he said. "Just you. Just you for now, not the others, not yet."

I wanted to protest. I wanted to scream at him. He couldn't set terms for the city's police department. He couldn't demand that I crawl down into the depths of the filth of the city alone with some guy who wore the sewer and hid pieces of paper in his coat spoke and one word every few minutes. He was pushing too far.

"Sorry," he said as he looked up to me. I could only see him from the waist up as his legs were underground. "You might want to bring a flashlight. I don't expect your eyes to be adjusted to the dark as mine are. That is why it was easy for me to see the murders so clearly. I don't see well in the daylight, but after all these years I see clearly at night. I suppose you can find a doctor or two to test me and testify to that."

I looked at him for a moment.

"You do want me to testify, to tell you all about the murders?" he asked.

That was all I could take. I became enraged. I buried the rage down inside me. If this bum wanted to jerk me around, okay, I was okay with that. I would follow down into the dark. If he was lying, he would never come out of that hole. He had toyed with me too much.

I turned to the nearest patrol officer. "Five minutes," I said. "If you don't see me in five minutes, lift every manhole in ten blocks, toss in flares, and bring in everything and everyone."

The officer looked at me like he had been looking at him. "No," I said. "I mean it. You can stake your life on it."

I took the officer's flashlight, lit it, and followed him down the hole. The odor hit me in the face and shook me down to my feet. Somehow, I didn't know how, I didn't empty my stomach. I climbed down a rusted ladder made of reinforcing bars cemented into the side of the downshaft. I counted eight, ten, twelve rungs before my shoes went into three feet of what was mostly water. I didn't speculate about and certainly didn't look at the semi-solid matter that bumped against my pant legs. I liked that pair of slacks, but knew that they would be tossed into the dumpster before I went into my apartment tonight or tomorrow or whenever it would be.

"Come," he said. I found him by the sound of his voice. I then pointed the light at the point where his legs entered the water. I didn't want to blind him in the dark with the light. All I needed was to be in a sewer with my guide blinded.

We walked fifty paces, turned a corner, made a U-turn around a fork in the sewer, and walked another forty paces. He had told the truth as our destination was only ten paces from where we had spoke back up on the surface.

Red eyes peered at me. There were four pair of them, unblinking and unmoving.

"It is okay," he said.

I knew it was him talking as the two of us were the only people there, at least I thought we were. Still, his voice was not the voice of the down and out guy sitting on a curb above ground speaking on those declarative one-word statements. This voice was soft, calm, almost confident in some sort of knowledge that I couldn't identify.

"Turn on the light, now," he said. "This is a friend. He is here as a friend."

The word "friend" came softer than the other words. Somehow I felt as I had been complimented more than at any other time in my life. I wished for a recorder so that I could keep that word.

A faint light appeared extinguishing the red eyes. Humans appeared where large rats were supposed to be. Small humans. Children. He had four children down here in the sewer with him.

I fought off the reflex to reach under my jacket for my revolver. This guy had kidnapped kids and was holding them in his little prison underground. I was depending on a monster to be the key witness, no, the only witness to a triple murder. How could I contact the other officers above ground to have them down here immediately?

"Is he really a friend?" That was a small voice, not his, not even the subterranean version of his voice. It wasn't a frightened voice as I would expect. Instead, it was, well, I couldn't describe it yet, but it wasn't frightened. I had heard too many frightened voices to mistake them for something else.

"He is really a friend," he said with that voice that I wish I could have recorded. "He will be a friend to all of us."

I saw smiles on the faces of the four children.

"What is this?" I asked. "Who are they?"

"Children," he said returning to that voice that meant nothing was to follow.

I didn't ask any more questions. I surrendered to the surreal situation in front of me. He wanted to me to do something, something helpful for these kids, in exchange for testimony about a triple murder of some important people who were killed in an unimportant neighborhood at a lost time of night.

"Come boys," he said. "Come this way."

Given his use of "boys," I recognized that these were indeed male children. I saw nothing that hinted at a girl among them. My monster theory began to melt.

"Should we bring..." started one of the boys.

"No," he said slowly and gently. "Leave the things here. This man will provide all you need. He is indeed a friend."

"But what about this?" asked the smallest boy holding a dark bundle.

"Yes," he said. "Please bring that. You will need that."

In ten minutes we were above ground. The approaching dawn lit the sky so that we could see the four boys. The patrolmen couldn't hide there revulsion.

"Should we hose them down or something?" asked on patrolman.

I shrugged in sympathy. "Maybe not," I said quietly as I hid my voice from him and the four boys. "I don't want to embarrass them."

"Embarrass them?" spat the patrolman. "How can we embarrass them? Look at them."

"I know," I conceded. A moment passed while I took in what I now considered to be clean, crisp air. "I don't know what we should do. Call social services or something immediately. Get them here fast, faster than they've ever appeared anywhere. Maybe they will know what to do."

I turned to him and the four boys. I turned back to the patrolman. "Give them food. Now. Anything you have in your cruiser, anything to eat and drink. Give them something."

Curiosity finally overwhelmed me. I looked at him. The smallest of the boys was holding fast to his leg. In his other arm was that dark package.

"Who are these boys?" I asked.

"Boys," he said returning to his one-word statements.

"I need to know more," I said. "Sorry, but that is, well, I am obligated to know, that is my job."

"There will be time," he said. "Now, I suppose you would like to know about these poor people."

I waited for a good moment to start talking, but didn't find one.

The boy tugged at his leg. He kneeled to be at the boy's eye level.

"Can we read now?" asked the boy.

"Maybe a little later," he replied. "This man," he said pointing to me with his eyes. "This man wants to talk with me for a while."

"I know," said the boy, "but we have so much, so much light here. I would like to read in the light. It would be so much easier."

He looked up at me asking permission with the wishful gaze of the little boy. The boy's look erased the final traces of my monster theory.

"Yes," he said to the boy. "Let's read."

All four boys sat in or near his lap as he returned to his familiar seat on the curb. He unwrapped the package to reveal a Bible. For the next fifteen minutes he read to the boys in a language filled with "thee," "thou," and other old English words that I only vaguely recognized. As he read, he moved his finger under the words. The boys followed that finger with their eyes, and their movements indicated that they were reading along. He eventually closed the Bible, wrapped it back into a dirty, dark cloth, and gave the package to the smallest boy.

He stood and looked at me, "Okay," he said. "Let's talk about this, this horrible incident."

A patrolman gave packages of peanuts, crackers, and bottles of water to the boys who inhaled them.

I couldn't force myself to ask about the murders. "You taught them to read, didn't you?"

"Yes," he said.

"How much of that, that Bible have you done?" I asked.

"All of it," he said, but then hesitated. Somehow it seemed that he was speaking to an attorney about something that would be repeated in court. "Well, all of it but one page."

"That one page is the piece of paper that you shoved into your coat, right?" I asked.

He slowly, again as if he were surrounded by policemen with guns, which he was, reached into his coat and revealed that crumpled piece of high-quality paper.

"I keep this one with me," he explained. "It helps me keep going day to day. Here, it may help you."

I paused. This guy, and I realized that I didn't know his name yet, lived in a sewer and was nourishing four boys. This guy wanted to help me through this day and the next and the remaining days of my life.

I took the high-quality piece of paper from his filthy hand. The verse at the top of the paper read, "Be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful unto me: for my soul trusteth in thee: yea, in the shadow of thy wings will I make my refuge, until these calamities be overpast."