Hands from the Sky
by Chris Capps
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
The rooster was trained to crow, so it did. Its voice split on the morning air, slapping against the thick boards of our cabin and pouring through the windows onto our beds where eyes snapped open and stared, frozen.
It had been at least a year since we had last heard it, a year of uncertain, helpless peace. Slowly I worked up the courage to move. I crept sideways out of my bed and poured onto the floor where I had stashed the rifle.
I reached into the shadow under my bed with blurry eyes, and Amanda’s hand grabbed mine. She was silent, watchful in the black and orange splash of morning beneath the bed, striped in the blinds like a jungle cat. In her other hand, she already had the gun. She shook her head.
“We promised. This day like any other,” she whispered. “We don’t do anything different today.” She was holding the rifle in her arm around the barrel as if it was a cold, rigid teddy bear.
I nodded and whispered, “Sure. Like any other.”
“Don’t go outside right away,” she said. “We’ll make breakfast first.”
I couldn’t remember what a morning like any other would look like, but I knew it didn’t involve Amanda leaping under my bed to grab the rifle.
But the rooster had crowed this morning. And it wasn’t trained to crow in the morning. It was trained to crow when it saw the cathedral.
Breakfast was simple. Eggs and toast. Neither of us ate much, but we sat there long enough to convince ourselves we weren’t in a rush.
Amanda was better at playing house than I was. She hummed and stroked her fork against the uneaten eggs, and she smiled when she caught me looking at her. When there was a knock at the door, neither of us was visibly startled, but my heart felt it was tap-dancing in my throat.
It was Edgar. “Come from the fields a mile off when I saw it. Wanted to make sure you and yours were safe. And that you had the news.”
The old man was smiling, but it was the kind of smile I’d learned to take with a dose of the nerves, a paper-thin deception that promised, “All is well. This is a day like any other.”
It wasn’t very convincing.
“Dave, there’s something I wanted to talk to you about,” he said, looking past me to show that smile to Amanda. She was back closer to the table, so I couldn’t see her, but I could feel her across the room, frozen, taut with fear.
Taking the old farmer by the shoulder as we stepped outside, I said, “Sure.”
“Came this morning,” he said under his breath after I had closed the door behind me. “I woke up expecting to see storm clouds. Air was heavy.”
Our German shepherd Bella stopped kicking fleas from her shoulder and trotted the gap between the trunk where she had been tied and where we were standing. She sniffed my hand ritually and whined.
“Heavy clouds,” he said, wandering to where the dog was sitting, wet in the dry grass and running his old hand behind her ears. “Heavy, carrying something.”
“Where was it going?” I asked. I knew well what he was talking about. That thing on dark clouds.
“Not going,” he said. “Coming.”
“Maybe it’s just passing through,” I said.
The old man pulled the sides of his mouth back, the movement telegraphing an understandable skepticism. He wasn’t shaking his head when he took the garden’s cobblestone path around to the back of the house. “C’mere.”
I followed him around the cabin to the eastern side. The back door and windows looked onto a small patch of well-scratched Earth and the fields beyond. The chicken coop stood back there with paint curling off of it in long chips.
The rooster was making use of the dead pickup truck to gain access to the roof, which it twitched and swaggered across. With cocked head and yellow eyes, it watched us as we stepped over the long, dead grass, kicking up a shower of upset, fluttering crickets in front of our work boots.
Beyond the chicken coop, we could see the emerald green of sloping hills and grass, the clouds, and another shape among them: the cathedral.
It was impossibly huge and silent, like the moon, as it drifted just above the clouds. Already, thin white lines were floating out of it, reaching across the sky, pale even as they dipped into the mist drifting from the Russian olives.
From this distance they looked just like spider silk pouring from the open windows dotting the building’s gothic spires and that massive door, always open. The stone columns and iron spires must have been weightless to be carried so high, and yet the structure looked heavy, casting an impossible shadow on itself and the still darker cloud beneath it.
“I’d say a few miles, if you’re wondering,” the old man said. “Could cut right down the property line between us if I had to guess.”
Miles. Miles away and as big as that. If it passed over us at noon, it could cast its shadow over either of our houses. Or both.
“You think we’ll see the hands?” I asked.
I never would have said something like that in front of Amanda, but the old man didn’t have the same finesse that she did. And neither of us were good at hiding what had grown into a grim and ever-calculating conspiracy of honesty.
“One of us won’t,” he said. “At least one.”
I looked back toward the window where I could see Amanda in the kitchen, eyes cast down over the kitchen sink as she scrubbed the dishes in a cloud of steam.
“Don’t suppose you have anything to declare,” I said.
“About?” he asked. After a moment, he nodded. “Oh.”
“Chest pains,” I said. “Gnawing lethargy, maybe a sneeze.”
With a grim smile he shook his head. “You’re describing my daily routine. That and a host of other ailments that would give you bad enough dreams.”
“So it’s you, then.”
The old man killed a laugh in his throat that became a cough, which he wheezed out as he sat down on the chopping stump. Clearing his throat, he turned red eyes up to the clouds again.
“I’m not a betting man,” he said. “But the two of you look pretty good. Can’t say it bodes well for me.”
Of course that’s why he had come out here. He was hoping to see either one of us with an unexpected and sudden illness. Either one, it didn’t matter. Anything to show that the cathedral wasn’t here for him. But here we were, perfectly healthy. The day was young.
* * *
Accidents weren’t common. Not the way we did things. I hadn’t been born a farmer, but I’d picked up a little bit at a time, living day to day by the rise and fall of the sun. You’d think we’d live a little more recklessly, knowing our deaths would be heralded first with the appearance of the cathedral the day before.
Imagine climbing a tree. You look up from the ground and you see a dead branch hanging over your house about thirty feet up, threatening to tumble down and crack the foundation in the next high wind.
You look around in the sky and you see no clouds, no gothic architecture. So you get out the ladder and you climb up. Only the ladder doesn’t quite reach where you need to be, so you step off, hearing dead branches crunch under your feet. Dried leaves get upset and drift out on the gentle breeze. You’re hugging the trunk, shimmying up with a hacksaw looped around your arm. Not the right kind of saw, but it’s what you had at hand. The limb is almost within reach.
No cathedral, no one dies. It’s a prophecy that’s right every time. You shimmy higher. Your tired arms hold the saw aloft as you begin to cut. You look down and realize the ground is shrinking beneath you. No cathedral above, impossible to survive jump below. Who wins?
Why not jump?
We used to have two neighbors. The other guy’s name was Frank. Frank was an odd duck: a grad student up at the university in Champaign before the night the lights went out. He came down here with the rest of us and settled where the trees got thin and the hills were pretty. He wasn’t a hard guy to get along with, except when he was drinking, which was a lot, toward the end.
“We’ve been looking at this the wrong way,” he had said the night he stared over an empty bottle of his own house-brewed beer. “We keep thinking of it as a curse. It doesn’t want to hurt us. It just tells us when we’re going to die off anyway.”
“Frank,” I said, “I think you’ve had enough for one night.”
“I’ve got a theory,” he said reaching past the bottle for the shotgun on the table. “If I shot you right now, they’d miss their catch. They wouldn’t be able to collect you in time. You’d be the first one since this all began that died without that thing hanging over our heads. You’d make history, for those who were still around to read it. I didn’t see anything in the sky this morning. That makes us immortal.”
He started laughing after that, and I left with him aiming at the doorway behind me. The laughter got louder. I sat on his porch for an hour afterward until I heard the shotgun go off, cutting all the sounds of night short for a while. The blast lit up the windows like a bolt of gold lightning.
Then I stood there in that ambient ringing sound until the dog back at our farm worked up the courage to start barking. As I passed the window on the way home, I looked in. I could see it by the flame of Frank’s oil lamp. His face was gone, blown apart by the force of two barrels full of buckshot. His head was rolled back at an angle, leaving enough to the imagination that I didn’t dare go inside.
Frank had jumped.
I remember not telling Amanda about it the next day. Frank must have found a way to break the rules. And if it meant I wouldn’t have to explain his suicide to Amanda, I wasn’t going to leap at the opportunity to share.
Thirty-six hours later, the cathedral appeared. That morning I remember walking out into the field with my ladder and chuckling at the thing, knowing Frank had scored a victory, however small, for the human race. Whatever power they had, whoever they were, they couldn’t guess every time. They could be beaten. You just had to be smart or crazy. Whichever Frank was.
It was a month later when I finally checked on his house. The ceiling still had a hole in it from the twin blasts of the shotgun, pouring a spotlight into the dusty room. There was blood on the ceiling too, but it wasn’t red anymore. It was that safe, aged color of blood that didn’t send the senses reeling in aposematic terror. It was dull, rusty.
I was about to leave too, when, just by chance, I looked down at the floor again. They must have collected him eventually, those thin pale spider-web arms, when they finally caught up with him. He had skirted his destiny to die in the shadow of the cathedral.
I saw the same rust colored smear on the floor. It was hand-shaped.
One smear was blurred into two, which blurred into three. Handprints of a crawling man.
For a while I wondered if he had been kept alive by some supernatural force. If he weren’t allowed to die, as if death just hadn’t claimed him, it would have been safer then. That shambling mournful body dragging itself into the other room without a soul... sure, that was okay.
But I knew better. The truth was dangerously simple. People have survived gunshot wounds to the head. Some of them far worse and for longer. Frank’s thirty-six hours would have been considered a miracle in a different context.
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Chris Capps