They still believed in angels – notes from a Gothic American tale


There were always rumours about the people in the small towns in the Delaware Bay region. There was a lot of nineteenth century Europe in those people, if you get my drift – cosmopolitan, yes, is one word. America, to my mind, had settled down by the end of the Civil War. You had Americans, at last, free of the British, at last, finding their identity as Americans, at last, had, in the main, a sensible religion, at long last. And then, late nineteenth century, all the upheavals in the Russias, in the
Balkans, the Ottoman Empire, you had all these downtrodden people making new waves into America. They brought darkness, superstition, brought vengeance and vendettas, they brought old religions and mumbo-jumbo, they brought magic, most of it not good.

So the story didn’t start, as people seem to think, with the Russian Revolution, but went way back before that, with men who’d been part of the Polish aristocracy, whose lives had changed when their country disappeared. It started with men who served those crazy Hapsburgs – you know, all that God and King and Kaiser, all that saber-rattling that went to its logical conclusion in the First World War, their ornate pastel uniforms covered in mud and blood.

Among the masses of laborers and steelworkers, lathe-turners, agricultural workers and what have you who lived in these towns and drifted into them to work, there were all these people who shone out because they were different. They worked sorcery with numbers, worked it with the discipline they put on their bodies and minds.

There was a psychic couple, felt the glow from within each other, raised two strangely determined kids, both with the shine of vocation in their eyes. One turned it to sport, became crazy about riding a bike in races, about climbing up mountains on it. He dreamed of racing in Europe one day, and he did just that, though not for long. The other turned her mind to God, gave all her stuff away apart from a scruffy icon showing Saints Barbara and Katarzyna, served God as best she could, barefoot among the poor of the world.

There was a sister the townsfolk wanted to make into a saint, despite the sum of her miracle being that she killed herself in the inept pursuit of good. They griped for years, those townies, done out of their saint. And yet all the while they had one among them, a magic midget, who worked only the purest good, and what did they do but despise her.

They had a vodka priest who once humped crates on the Baltimore waterfront, who then became a gambler, a man unafraid of his weaknesses. A bishop they had, who audienced with the Pope in Romeone time and never had a better day again in his life, unable to rise to any occasion again except with the bitterest cynicism.

There was an artist who was determined to depict life the twisted way he saw it. And again, driven by vengeance and cruelty, he damaged people, killed them with the power of his suggestion and their own superstition.

There was mystery and anarchy, a guy who broke into stores and didn’t steal their goods – oh no. He destroyed them, systematically, used noxious substances and metal filings, rabbit and fish glue, and left them there. No pattern to it, no fixed times, nothing for the police to plot in terms of habit. Went on for years, made itself into a mystery that, in the end, nobody dared talk about. The Devil had come to that town, they believed, had vanished into its bricks and stones, but stayed.

Guys who got shot with a Nagant pistol. This was the favored weapon of the Tsarist police, and was so reliable the Bolsheviks kept it on as a weapon of choice. Lots of Russkies and Poles, Ukrainians, Litvaks, Latvians, Estonians, Czechs, Slovaks in the area, so it figured. The Nagant was a devil to reload, each shell having to be picked out one by one, each new slug having to be squeezed in, so it was no good for combat. But you could seal in all its gases, so it was the one revolver that could be silenced, and that made it into the perfect assassin’s weapon. It was put to deadly use in all those towns in the region, the police pulling its giveaway 7.62 slugs out of shady men’s heads on a regular basis, all through Prohibition and beyond.

They loved their big events, held in their main square, loved their Fourth of July dinner, their Easter Day breakfast, their annual bike race and the balls held by their guilds, like they could only celebrate if they all had their eyes on one another. The kids had their own thing, their masked dance, where nobody knew who was who. And though the devil walked among them, causing death and misery, drunkenness and despair, the telling of sad sack tales and jeremiads, they still believed in angels, the people of that town. Those saps still believed in angels…