The first thing that happens is the birds stop singing.
It’s more subtle out in oldciv, in places where the sawtooth ruins scrape the sky with spires of concrete and steel. There just aren’t that many birds out here. It’s been fifty years since the city was abandoned, but nature’s still wary about moving back in. That’s the way it is with angelfall.
Crouching in the lee of a low concrete wall, Callis closes her eyes. She’s not so much listening as feeling—paying attention to something in the oldest parts of her brain, an ancient, adrenaline-fueled pattern-recognition engine that saved humanity’s ancestors when they couldn’t even put into words the nature of the threat. It’s a part that’s become more useful in recent history. It isn’t analytical, or even conscious—it’s more like a tripwire, a part of the brain that can only say ‘watch out,’ ‘something’s not right,’ ‘something’s missing.’ It’s something you train yourself to pay attention to, at least if you want to survive out here. Something twigs, but it’s not close, it’s not in front of them, and it’s not an angel—so it’s not an immediate threat.
“Alright,” she says. “You can breathe again.”
Her fares gasp for breath, and she wonders how long she’d made them wait. Even though her whole job is to get folks from one supposed ‘safe’ zone to another, she still forgets sometimes: there are people still living normal lives. Still used to breathing and talking and sleeping on their own schedules, rather than the angels’. Living in the places that the angels don’t go—or at least where they haven’t gone yet.
She looks at them: a small family of refugees, nameless because she never asks their names. Two men and a child—a girl of maybe seven, with dark hair and eyes. She isn’t gasping for breath; she’s just staring out at the world.
“You doing okay?” The parents look haggard with worry, and the last thing she needs is for them to fall apart.
“We’ll be fine, Wayfarer, thank you,” says the clean-shaven man. His face is haloed by wild curls of shiny black hair. His white linen shirt, typical for the provinces, is stained with age and wear. He’s swallowing his fear; it’s commendable. The other’s reserves are lower. She can tell, even though his face is hidden behind a well-kept beard. Is it his eyes, or the way he’s clinging to his daughter, the tension in his hands, the colour of his knuckles? She’ll have to watch him.
“The sun’s getting low,” she says. “There’s an island one point two clicks from here, in the basement of one of these towers. I stop, you stop; I run, you run—got it?”
They nod, following her lead and getting to their feet.
She cuts a path across the street, to an open palisade of columns and grass. Most of the building it once supported has fallen to one side, leaving a mountain of rubble to be reclaimed somewhere in the time between now and forever. Between the last two columns on the left is an excavated path. Sometimes she comes out here on her own to maintain it—other wayfarers do the same. No one who does this job lives very long if they don’t think ahead.
They move: sprinting through a low crevasse between somehow-unshattered panes of glass, slipping down a disused pedestrian underpass and under the next street over—they don’t know a lot about the angels, nobody does, but isolated, narrow paths seem the safest places. Even though Callis is almost certain the damn things can see through just about anything.
If they even have eyes is another question entirely.
They say that when the first angels came, there were attempts to communicate. Callis thought it was a joke when she heard that. People said we didn’t need to be afraid of them—said they were intelligent, superior beings that could be reasoned with. She wonders from time to time if that’s where the name came from. The angels in her grandmother’s old, dusty Bible had said “be not afraid.” Of course, the people who said that are all dead now. Those still alive are the ones who learned to trust their fear.
You can't so much see an angel as feel it coming. To see it you’d have to look at it, and that’s the last thing you want to do. You can’t look at it, you can't talk to it, you sure as hell can't do anything if you piss it off—except die, she supposes. But you know one's approaching by the way nothing moves right anymore.
The first thing that happens is that the birds stop singing.
Callis holds up a hand, clenches her fist, and they drop into a crouch and slip backward into the underpass, holding their breaths. The back of her brain is screaming. Then every part of her is. Where is it, how did it get so—
It’s on the street above them. It’s on top of them.
Angelfall denies any attempt to explain it; it’s unlike any experience you can compare it to. Wherever angels go, they shift, or unmake…they disrupt. Everything. The very concept of everything. The very concept of concepts. It all comes undone.
A tide of unrelenting change, of complete and perfect impossibility, washes over them in the tunnel. The walls taste metallic when she looks at them; her skin feels like the smell of rain on sun-warmed pavement. Her fingers are willow branches and her tongue is the colour of fear. She’s only been this close to one a couple of times before now; every time she’s wanted to puke, this time more than ever. She doesn’t even dare look at the things she’s escorting—that’s what they become, this deep in angelfall: things. The world itself is a catastrophe, but other people? Other people are a nightmare. She’s heard stories of wayfarers killing their charges in the presence of angels, terrified to the bone by what they’ve seen. She refuses to be the source of another one. She refuses to look.
She remembers her training, drilled into her over years, covers her ears with her hands, curls up in a ball still on her feet, trying to limit any sensory input. She tries to count backward from a hundred—only to find herself counting in primes, squares, fibonacci numbers. She was wrong: this isn’t as close as she’s ever been, it’s closer. The world is coming apart.
Her breath sounds like knives; her eyes flip through ragged pages. The ghost of an old wayfarer she once knew crouches by her fireside brain. A song says she’ll remember a time after angels, raining in the distance under steep steep hills like sleeping rats and monuments. Unbridled zephyrs dance in skyward angles, as black crows circle shining fields of blooming coal. Words lean in close and whisper in her nose a secret she can taste. Swim in the deep to taste the abyss—it tastes of bile—under the dunes wash the sand from the fire—the fire is in her lungs—rabid the dog that chases behind and hollow the air that screams for the child. The words augur and wane, summon in the now-day, the everyday, their meanings tangential to the real but touching a coming truth, light humming like the sting from a wasp, bright like lemon scent and bleach and pain. Next door to being is being on fire—she remembers it—getting close is burning and ash, so be clean. Don’t.
She catches the thread of meaning, cool, passing through her fingers, grasping it before it can fly. She wills herself to nothing, thinks of being not. There is no her. Buries away the idea of thought and lets unbeing be.
Accept. Allow. Let pass.
Soothing darkness reaches up and holds her, calms her, washes her up on oblivion’s shores, where she sleeps until, at last, she wakes.
Everything smells of vomit.
Is she alive? Are they all alive?
Callis drags herself to her feet. The vomit, by some grace, is neither hers nor on her. The two men haven’t been so lucky. Both are passed out in puddles of sick, unconscious but alive.
Her stomach drops: where’s the girl?
She almost runs out of the tunnel but remembers to stop at the entrance and close her eyes, wondering if the part of her brain that knows enough to be scared still works—or will ever work again. Nothing. When she opens her eyes the girl is standing in front of her. She seems okay.
The most severe angelfall she’s ever experienced, and they’ve all survived.
The girl looks up at her with quiet eyes, then holds out her hand as if to give her something.
It’s—Callis isn’t sure what it is. It’s about the size of her thumbnail, translucent, shimmering, thin like a fish scale. Some kind of plastic, maybe? You see a lot of it in the underbrush of oldciv, like the people who lived here had so much they couldn’t figure out what to do with it.
“It’s very pretty,” she whispers to the girl. “What is it?”
The girl says nothing, as though she hasn’t even heard the words.
Callis tries to give it back, but the girl shakes her head, pushes her hand back.
“Is this…for me?”
The girl nods.
“Well, thank you.” She puts it into her pocket and turns her attention back to the two men lying in the tunnel. It’s dark out already, and they need to get to the island of safety. It’s not far, if she can wake them up.
She shakes the clean-shaven one, gently at first, then harder.
“Hey,” she whispers. “Hey.”
He jolts into consciousness, looking all around. “Madah!” He almost shouts the word, and she shoves a hand over his mouth.
“Shut up!” she whispers. After a moment’s struggle, he seems to recognize where they are, and stops.
“Madah.” He speaks more quietly this time, looking past her toward the girl. It must be her name, as the girl walks over. “My child! Are you well?”
The girl nods. Callis guesses that not saying anything is just how the girl acts with everyone.
The man’s face relaxes, a physical sigh of relief. He turns to Callis.
“That was an angel,” he says. “That was angelfall.”
“Yeah,” she says. “And if you’re lucky you’ll never experience it again. Come on, help me with him.”
The other man isn’t in very good shape. They manage to get him to his feet, but they have to shoulder-carry him the final stretch, through the steel doors and down the concrete stairs to the island. Once stationary, his eyes close and he slips away again—this time into sleep, rather than unconsciousness. It’s probably for the best; she hadn’t liked the way his eyes had begun to dart back-and-forth between his husband and the girl.
Wayfarers call the tiny safe areas in hot zones ‘islands.’ No one knows why the angels can’t seem to see them. Trying to understand how the universe looks to an angel makes about as much sense as trying to talk to one. Maybe it’s a fold in the universe, some crag in spacetime is jutting out above them, hiding them from view. To Callis it just looks like some high-end market district-turned-crypt, lit only by her electric lamp and the tiny chemical fire she’s using to boil water.
After a somber meal of rice and jerky, the clean-shaven man puts the girl to bed and returns to the small circle of light. He makes a motion like he’s washing his hands; he’s done it several times since they nearly drowned in angelfall.
“Luis, he’s a good man,” he says. The words are quiet, but the bearded man could probably hear them if he were awake. “But this voyage hasn’t been easy. We started as six, three months ago, in Terrasalva, when it fell. Two we lost to the raiders, a third to a sect of adorers outside Belin.”
Adorers, god. Callis shivers. She’d take raiders over angel-worshippers any day. She rarely encounters them on this route—at least, not alive. They sometimes come on pilgrimage, to encounter an angel and have a ‘revelation.’ But then they do.
It isn’t the angels she carries a gun for.
“They tried to kidnap Madah,” he says. “Make her part of their strange mythology. Kaia—Luis’s sister—she helped us escape. Since then…” He shakes his head, stares at his hands and stops them. “He plays the piano, you know. So beautifully. His hands…” He looks up, but he’s not looking at her. Through her, maybe. For a moment she gets the unnerving feeling that there isn’t anyone on the other side of those eyes to even see her. “Will I hear a piano again, do you think?” His eyes don’t change.
“They have pianos in Cambria,” she says. She doesn’t know for sure, but they must, and she has a sudden fear of adding to his hopelessness. “A few, at least.”
He doesn’t respond, doesn’t say anything else that night, just shifts his hollow gaze toward the camp light and stares. His silence grows, metastasizes, until Callis can almost see the swelling of strangely menacing absence in the heart of their island of safety.
She waits as long as she can stand it, then rolls out her mat and lies down, but she doesn’t close her eyes until he gets up and takes the silence with him to bed.
She doesn’t sleep.
The next day, it rains. When she was a child, her grandmother had told her that the swirling patterns in the clouds and raindrops had only started when the angels came—the way they knot and ripple, the way the patterns start smooth and then twist and shear into sharp funnels and vortexes, thin fingers stretching impossibly down to distant ground. She’d shown her photographs of puffy, white, bulbous things, like frozen clouds of green-wood smoke. Alien giants, hanging overhead. Relics of a foreign past.
She has them stick to cover whenever they can, but the number of buildings starts to dwindle as they go. Her fares stay a little further back than she’d like, but at least she doesn’t have to talk to them. At breakfast, her imagination had snapped its insomnia-frayed leash and served up visions, leaving her able to almost see the men dragging around their slowly materializing afflictions. A pale, bloated balloon for the clean-shaven one, tethered to his chest by some shiny umbilical, slowly pumping him full of gasified absence. For the other, an oily, fanged goblin on each shoulder, dancing about, darting just outside his field of view as he looks from one side to the other. The girl had continued to carry her strange calm with her as she’d handed them each their bowl of morning porridge.
When the rain lets up a little, she thinks she can hear the men whispering to each other. Every time she stops to look at them, though, they’re not saying anything. She wonders if they’re whispering about her—or if yesterday’s encounter and her creeping exhaustion have made her paranoid. Both are possible.
Hands in her coat pockets to keep them out of the rain, she finds herself playing with the little piece of plastic the girl had given her. It almost feels warm to the touch. She’d thought it was totally smooth, but that’s only one side—the other has a series of fine ridges running from end to end. At one point she loses hold of it, a strange panic rising, only to find it on the wet pavement a step behind her.
“Is everything alright?” asks the clean-shaven one, seeing her stoop down to pick it up.
“Yeah,” she says. “Must have a hole in my pocket or something.”
She squeezes it tight in her fist like a talisman. She doesn’t want to lose it.
The largest of the ruins loom behind them, their peaks disappearing upward behind strands and webs of stormcloud. The densest part of her route—both for ruins and threat of angelfall—is behind them. Now it’s a steady walk to the checkpoint, twenty miles west. She pulls the pistol from its holster at her thigh and checks it. Different landscape, different threats.
She leaves the old road and leads them out into scrubland dotted by the occasional still-standing skeleton of a house. The wooden ones are long gone, frames rotten and collapsed, foundations swallowed by sand and brush. Even the brick and concrete block ones are scarce, between the unkindnesses of high winds, passing time, and the footsteps of angels. But there are occasional holdouts, doorless caves with darkened interiors; she gives them a wide berth. As the sun starts to set, she scans the horizon to make sure they’re alone, then crouches down near the side of a weed-covered dune.
“We can’t stop here,” says the bearded man. She hasn’t heard his high, reedy voice for more than a day. “We can’t stop here,” he repeats. His hand is tight on the girl’s shoulder, but she is calm.
The other purses his lips, considering, then speaks. “It does appear rather exposed.” He isn’t wrong: there aren't any structures for half a mile, and the landscape is relatively flat.
“Appearances can be deceiving,” Callis says, and hauls up on a handle just protruding from the sand. A door angles up, a mouth opening in the ground. “This is what you’re paying me for.”
She closes the door behind them, and they make camp in the cool dark of the underground. It’s a bunker, not an island, but a safe place nevertheless. As she does every time she stays here, she says a quiet thank you to the ones who built it, and another to the wayfarers who’ve taken care of it in the years in between.
They all turn in after eating, exhausted from the journey. It will end tomorrow, if they’re lucky. Or if they’re very unlucky. She tries not to think about the possibilities as her mind starts to wander in the direction of sleep.
She wakes in the hungry hours of the morning, a tripwire humming in her mind. Not an angel, this; instead, a sound approaching in the dark from the other side of the room. She tenses her muscles and readies herself to fight, hand on her pistol under her pillow—until she recognizes the soft footfalls as those of the girl.
Madah kneels down behind her, then curls up, forehead pressed gently between Callis’s shoulder blades.
“You’re not like my papas,” she whispers, so low she can barely make it out.
“You’re not afraid. You’re like me. You’re becoming.”
“What’s in Cambria?” Callis asks, talking around a spoonful of porridge. She doesn’t know why she’s even asking; she doesn’t want to know. She gets like this—what her grandmother had sternly labelled ‘chatty’—when she’s short on sleep. The description rankles, but she’s come by it honestly. The girl had crept away after lying behind her for a small eternity, an ember pressed against her back. Callis hadn’t slept again, after.
Luis answers; the other man is up on the surface after refusing to use the cramped and intimate chemical toilet in the back. “We’re seeking refuge,” he says. He looks less nervous, but she can still see his goblins. One whispers in his ear while the other pulls down one of his eyelids and gently slides a taloned hand up behind his eye. A tiny teardrop of blood dribbles down his cheek.
She blinks away the unbidden image. The goblins are gone; his face is clean.
“But why Cambria? You could have stopped in Belin, Acron, Tulle.” She’d grown up in Tulle, what felt like a thousand years ago, but she hasn’t even seen it in over a decade.
“Yusuf is a scientist. There’s work in Cambria.”
Madah. Luis. Yusuf. It’s been years since she last knew the names of all of her fares.
“Science, huh? That stuff goes over my head.” She swallows, then pats her holstered pistol. “But hey, if it keeps me alive I’ll take it.”
“He doesn’t make weapons. He makes people better.”
“What, like a doctor?”
He looks like he’s considering his reply when there’s a shout from outside and a loud clattering. Callis sprints up the stairs, muzzle first.
“Drop your weapon or I’ll shoot him.” The woman holding a gun to Yusuf’s back is short but muscular, her hair tied back tight in a ponytail. Her clothes are tattered and her left arm is winched up tight in a dirty fabric sling. Nothing about her makes sense: she doesn’t look like a raider, and adorers don’t have the kind of drive to self-preservation you need to take hostages.
“He dies, you die,” Callis says in response. She doesn’t lower her gun.
And damn it all if the woman doesn’t look surprised. Almost the first thing you learn out here is that if you disarm they kill all of you instead of just the hostage. Definitely not a raider.
“What’s your business?” Callis says.
“No business with you, Wayfarer.”
“Business with my fares is business with me, that’s how the job works.”
There’s a footstep on the stairs behind her. She’s about to yell at Luis to get back to cover when she hears his mystified voice say “Kaia?”
“Kaia?” Callis tries not to sound as incredulous as she feels. “As in your sister, Kaia?” The feeling behind them, from before the angel—she’s been following them alone. Through a hot zone. For days. Her skin has the twist-patterned grain of desert ironwood, and her legs are starting to grow bark. She probably got caught up in the angelfall along with them, and still kept coming. For a moment Callis wants to interrupt, to ask what she looks like to them, but she doesn’t.
“He said you were dead!”
“Stay behind me!” Callis snaps as Luis starts to emerge.
“I almost was, thanks to this snake!” The woman’s branches rustle as she presses the muzzle of her gun into Yusuf’s back to punctuate the sentence. He staggers forward a step, but the empty look in his eyes never shifts. His once-bloated balloon is now empty, having pumped him full of all the nothingness it held. It sags limp in the dust beside him, still tethered to his chest. She’s not even sure a bullet would kill him at this point, or whether he’d just start to slowly deflate.
Callis grits her teeth. “Now hold on a second and let’s talk this out. Until just now I had it on good authority you’d been killed by adorers outside of Belin—”
“The adorers saved me, after this sack of crap shoved me off a cliff and left me for dead.”
“…what is she talking about, Yusuf?” Luis’s voice is shaking. “You didn’t—you said it was the adorers…”
A hollow smile confronts them, a pretense dropped. “She wouldn’t understand. I tried to tell her, but she wouldn’t listen. Do you see, Luis? She wouldn’t believe we were only accelerating the natural course. She said we made our daughter wrong—”
“…you tried to kill my sister?”
“For Madah, Luis. For all of us! You know what she represents. The future she can bring—”
“Yusuf, no. No, I won’t believe it. You wouldn’t do this.”
“For our little girl. For Madah! She’s all that matters!”
They continue to argue, but even as Callis strains her ears, it’s getting harder and harder to hear. Within moments she’s lost track of it, of all of them. It’s as though their words have started to drift away, to decohere before they can reach her. They broadcast their emotions at one another—angry betrayal, hollow self-assuredness, steadfast wrath—but the specifics turn to mist. They congeal and hang above them, like the clouds in her grandmother’s photos.
Callis lets her arms drop to her sides, but no one seems to notice. The woman has grown thick roots into the sand. When she turns to look at Luis, his goblins have become gargoyles, perched on his shoulders and ready to leap into flight to murder his husband. She almost shrugs—it seems about right. It seems normal.
Something in the back of her mind is screaming.
At some point the birds stopped singing, and none of them had noticed.
A strand of clouds reaches a long, bony finger down to earth behind them, an inverted spire not a hundred yards away. From this close, it looks like it’s moving, but the direction isn’t one she can see, or even imagine. The place it touches the ground doesn’t change.
The place it touches the ground is Madah.
For the first time in her life, Callis runs toward an angel.
She crosses the finish line from sprints to the start of the race, lines up. Madah’s twisting into the storm a song from outside, her arms outstretched like linen threads, weaving patterns in the smoke. Callis wades through the shallows, struggling against the current, its knee-depth not enough to swim, but still a thousand-mile chasm down to her feet. She wants to crouch into a ball, to will to nothing like before, but that won’t save the girl—and anyway there is no before, because before doesn’t mean anymore—so she schools like minnows in the air to read the currents. She prays a grandmother’s psalm toward imaginary yesterday, bridges a tapestry to the center of the fountain’s breach. Reaching out with every ending to the smooth smell of sun and the bright taste of blood, she collides, arrives, catches the girl. She wraps arms around her, becomes an unneeded shield. The storm eyes around them, the sky prisms rainbows, thundering peace.
In her arms, the epicenter. Everything is chaos; everything is quiet.
Time passes, but that means less to Callis than it used to. She swings her axe in a smooth arc down to the log, splitting the firewood to stack and dry for next winter. She still has to think ahead, but it’s not the same as wayfaring—and anyway, that’s not her job anymore. She couldn’t do it if she wanted to: wayfarers have to trust their fear, and Callis hasn’t been afraid for years. Not since that day.
The cabin was built outside of Cambria before there was a Cambria to build outside of, but it’s been taken care of ever since, and when she touches its doorways, slides her bare feet along its smooth-worn floorboards, she knows it’ll outlive her. It’s stable, contiguous to itself. An island.
“Hey Mateo,” she calls out, moments before a young man’s mischievous face emerges from the stone-lined path leading down to the woods. He runs over in the sunlight, smiling and shaking his head.
“I don’t think I’ll ever understand how you do that,” Mateo says, grinning, his sun-freckled face still boyish and bright.
“It’s your crows,” she says, watching them careen around the yard, one of them landing on his shoulder and nuzzling his cheek before flying off again. “I can see you coming for miles.”
Mateo can’t see the crows—nobody can see the things she sees except the girl, except for Madah, wherever she might be.
“You always say that,” he says.
She grabs his shoulders, then pulls him in close for a hug. “Because it’s true.”
She lets him go, then heads into the cabin, motioning for him to follow. She always has fresh bread and a little ginger beer to share for the few welcome visitors she gets.
The welcome ones. Mateo’s crows aren’t the reason she lives out here. When she’d woken up, after the angel, after she’d seen—everyone had gone: Madah, Luis, Yusuf, even Kaia. Vanished like fog in the morning sun. Overnight she’d shambled her way to the checkpoint, the edges of her world still frayed and threadbare. It had taken a week to stitch it all back together, as best she could. By then some kind soul had taken her to Cambria, deposited her in a hospital.
Except the hospital had been full of monsters. The city, too.
Most people just carry their monsters around with them, little demons in their hair, ghouls dragging behind them, shadows flitting about behind their eyes. They’re looking for an opportunity, a tiny chance. All they want is to be, even just a little. And then some people don’t have monsters at all—Mateo has crows, and Shenna, the young woman he’s sweet on, she has a small bouquet of coal-black sunflowers that twist to face Callis whenever she smiles.
But for some people there’s no distinction, no distance; some people are their monsters.
They don’t know that they’re monsters, of course. No one does.
She met Mateo when he was just a teen, his crows coming to her aid during one of her first early forays to the trading post. A writhing mass of tentacles and eyes had put its hand on her shoulder and told her she was pretty, said if she was new in town it’d be happy to show her around, take her out for a drink. Mateo’s crows had dive-bombed and screeched at it, harried it until at last it had walked off and left them in peace.
He’d started to visit her after that, and then some of his friends. Just one or two at a time. Just the ones who heard his stories about her and weren’t afraid to come see her: the woman who sees things, who says she met an angel. She always knows when they’re coming, even when they don’t have crows.
She gets out the bread and pours them each a mug of spicy beer, asks Mateo the latest news, tells him a story from her days as a wayfarer. He always asks about Madah, whether she’s heard from her again, if there’s anything else she can remember. It’s been years; the girl must be in her teens, older. Mateo’s heard stories of a young woman out in the wild, an impossible creature who communes with angels. He wonders if it’s her. Callis doesn’t know.
As they talk, she pulls it out of her pocket, the iridescent scale Madah had given her, no more made of plastic than she is herself, and places it on the table in front of him. He smiles at the action and shakes his head. No, he says, he can’t see it, accepting this strange game she’s been playing with him for years. She smiles and puts it back in her pocket, ready for the next time he comes by.
She takes a sip of her drink and looks at the shape of his face. Of course he can’t see it, look at how young he is. He won’t be able to see it for years.
But he will, one day, she knows.
Because she can tell. He’s like her.
He isn’t afraid.
© 2023 Richard Ford Burley