Hands from the Sky
by Chris Capps
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
“There’s something I didn’t tell you about Frank,” I said, tearing myself from that memory back to the old man as he sat on the stump.
He turned back toward me, smiling more genuinely now as if growing more comfortable with his own mortality. “Can I go today without you telling me this?”
“I can’t,” I said. “And eventually I’ll have to. So if you’d kindly—”
The old man turned up his palms, as if to shrug. “I guess I can do one last good deed.”
“I don’t think Frank died that night.”
Edgar sat, his eyes slowly drifting from the sky down to the woodshed ahead of him. He didn’t say anything, but I could tell he was thinking it through, hefting the weight of the thing I’d said in his mind.
After a time, he nodded. “It was two days later when the cathedral showed up for him.”
“Yeah,” I said, “almost two days. My best guess says thirty hours, give or take.” The six extra hours from my official estimate was rounded away. I’d already told the old man the bad news about Frank, and I saw no need to make it worse with my needless attention to every minute that would have followed.
“Got a mare back home that’s about to foal,” he said, grunting as he stood up. “You’re welcome to the lot if I’m not here tomorrow. Don’t know who the father is, I’m afraid.”
We walked in silence for a time, crossing from the field over to the perimeter line between Edgar’s property and ours. He stepped up uneasily on the wooden paddock fence, wobbling over it slowly, expertly like a sloth.
“What’s a mare?” I asked.
He stopped, straddling the perimeter fence and looked back at me. His eyebrows were pulled up at the center, wrinkling his old forehead as if he was concerned. “Horse,” he said.
The half-mile journey out to his farmhouse was pleasant as ever, even with the atmosphere of foreboding. Edgar lived in a circular clearing, about an acre in diameter deeper in the woods. The cabin at its center was old, older than he by at least a generation.
But the oldest thing on his property, of course, was the black pool. Soyoko, it was called. Hopi word. Don’t ask what it means, or why there’s a Hopi-named pond in Southern Illinois. That’s Chickasaw territory.
When we got to it, the pond and the cabin next to it, we could see the mare Edgar had mentioned, sleek and white as it stood stomping its hoof, black eyes staring at everything all at once.
“Huh,” Edgar said, his neck craned as he looked into the distance behind the horse. There was something small and grey, slick with a ruddy slime. It was a four-legged shape obstructed mostly from my view by the girth of a huge tree. “We missed it.”
“Did it already happen?” I asked.
“Good,” he said with a nod. “I didn’t want to spend my last day on earth elbow-deep in a breech birth.” His eyes softened as he turned away from the awkwardly wobbling foal twitching and sliding toward its mother. There was a smell like abscessed sulfur coming from Soyoko as he said, “I guess they don’t need me as much as I like to think around here. It’s good.”
“Edgar,” I said, “you remember when I showed up here.”
“Station Wagon,” he said with a sudden grin.“ That’s what Marge and I called you. Couldn’t put a worm on a hook.”
They called me Station Wagon before they started calling me Dave. My name’s David.
“Still can’t,” I said. He gave me another counterfeit laugh.
* * *
No matter what he had to say about himself on his final day, Edgar knew there was much left to be done. On a farm like his, there are a thousand or so very little things that have to be memorized.
“That tractor won’t start unless the coat hanger holds the throttle exactly where it is now. Don’t ask why, I don’t remember.
“There’s a can of insecticide in the far corner there that got rusted and started leaking. I don’t remember what kind of insecticide, but I wouldn’t eat the preserves next to it even if they are in cans.
“Speaking of preserves, the tomatoes have botulism so don’t feed them to the pigs in the winter and for God’s sake don’t eat them yourselves. For that matter, whatever preserves you see in the basement I’d avoid.
“This quilt is covered in bedbugs. At least it was last winter. I left it in the barn to kill them off, but it’s just something worth knowing.
“Don’t let the deer get near the goats. They carry more diseases than a dead raccoon. Also, there’s a raccoon that comes by from time to time. He’ll be looking for scraps. If you give them to him he’ll stay out of the garbage. His name is Gus, but you can call him whatever you want.
“Dump the garbage in the valley, but carry a gun with rock salt to scare off the dogs. They won’t bother you, but the dump is theirs. You can make your own salt shot. Just drop it down the barrel of your rifle. Black powder’s best for salt shot.
“The water heater is about due to explode in the next couple years. Don’t turn the gas up past the lowest setting or you’ll blow yourself up. Lower than that and you’ll be okay unless you’re in the room when it happens. You might replace it before then, but I haven’t had the time.
“All my treasure in the world is in the briefcase in the closet near the doll collection. It’s not much, but it is something. Mostly it’s jewelry, jewelry I found over the years. You understand. The dolls belonged to Marge, so I’d just as soon you keep them where they are.
“This goes without saying, but the water from Soyoko Pond is poison. Water the animals from the hand pump in the back. And that should be it. Now you know everything I do about this place.
“And it’s yours once I’m gone.
“The front door doesn’t lock.
“The outlets in the kitchen don’t work.
“I wouldn’t eat that roast in the fridge.”
The last bit he said in the kitchen as we sat after a long day of wandering. He was leaned back in his chair heavily, like this had been the longest day’s work he’d ever put in. There was a pitcher of lemonade on the table, cool as the cellar. He poured a glass for each of us and set it down, sipping it.
“Gonna need anything else?” he asked.
“We should be okay,” I said. “It won’t be the same here without you.”
“I give this place two weeks before everything goes to blazes. You remember everything I told you?”
“Most of it,” I said.
“Hm. Week and a half.”
* * *
Long trenches were cracking along the corners of his mouth where a long life of smiling had molded the skin. Wrinkles pulled back, revealing stone grey teeth in a grin that betrayed long hidden friendship. As he sat and sipped the lemonade, though, it slowly dissolved away. I told myself I could almost see his thoughts as they progressed from the mundane, the everyday, to the existential.
It was a melancholy sigh he gave when he said, “We don’t talk about where I’m going next, but I want to know what you think of it. Not just about Frank, and if it can be fooled. Where did it come from? Why does it look like something Gabriel and all the angels would ride around in?”
“The bible never said anything about arms flying out of a stone building to snatch up the dead,” I said. It was a simple statement, one I was certain held some weight with its honesty. “All they are grabbing is... I dunno, what’s left?”
“Even so,” Edgar said, “it’s exactly what some of them would have expected. And it’s silent too. It’s the silence that says, ‘I’m quiet, but do what I say’.”
“A paradox,” I said, “or else the picture of one.”
“Something,” he said. I knew Edgar probably didn’t have much to say about paradoxes, but the cavalier way he used to shoot down my reader’s vocabulary wasn’t something he was in the mood for now. He wanted the specificity of big words, the volumes of information per syllable.
Even if it was nonsense, he wanted to know that people had looked into the matter a lot longer than we had, and still were as lost. Finally, after a time, he said into his lemonade, “Numinous.”
I don’t know what that meant, but I knew the conversation we weren’t having. I’d had it several times in the first five years since the cathedral first arrived. It was the same day the power went out in Chicago.
The weird thing is, normally I associate the arrival of the cathedral with a news ticker across the bottom of the screen and a blurry image of the thing floating low over the Chicago skyline with arms spreading out in spiraling loops through the streets. But that had never happened. That was a phantom memory borrowed from a movie or some dream.
The radio and television stations went out at the same time. The exact same time. The grid in Chicago went out about a week later, after we’d stayed up nights, sharing rumors. In the detached reflection of memory, most of those rumors seem ridiculous now. But people were scared then.
It’s not hard to imagine why lots of folks would believe anything someone told them. A small-time know-it-all who’s crafty enough to siphon gas from derelict pumps might know a thing or two about the end of the world too. A guy who’s pulling power from hospital generators might have some strong opinions about his vision of alien life.
Suitcases filled, cities emptied. People fled from whatever sky showed the cathedral. No one knew if there was more than one, because no one could talk about more than one without using the word “fleet.” And that word had its own sort of baggage.
We didn’t hear much from the military. Surely the jets overhead knew more than we did, but the pilots weren’t talking. And they didn’t fly for long.
I don’t recall ever hearing of a missile being launched at the thing. Even in the times we lived in, with the words “alien invasion” sticking to the tongue of everyone who dared say it, I don’t know if a single general approved surface-to-air attacks against it. And if they did, I don’t know if those orders were ever followed. I can imagine the type of wrath they feared. And it’s not like the cathedral was grabbing the living. All those long pale arms were interested in was the dead.
They hung limp, the dead, naked in the hands that carried them up. Civilization slunk away like a sullen cat, something you could still hear yowling hungrily in the countryside when the lights were off. Church attendance might have gone up, but I wouldn’t know. The only things I really knew for sure were the little spots of horizon my own eyes could see as we fled south.
I did pass tents, sheet-metal buildings with cars parked outside. Once or twice, I passed by one with long arms trailing out of the windows like jointed white eels, telegraphs to the cathedral. Jonestown, my brain said to me when we passed them, Heaven’s Gate.
There were people standing outside, too, smoking in their Sunday best and watching my station wagon slow to a crawl before speeding away. They waved.
Hospitals too. The hands found them, and pretty soon I’ll bet the doctors stopped showing up. But the sick and dying still did. I can’t imagine working in a hospital where patients are being dragged from operating tables with heart monitors still chiming terminal music in front of terrified staff.
It’s not hard to see the resignation letters that would follow something like that, wheeling patients to the operating room only to see one of the white hands crawling through the window or tearing away an erected barricade with impossible strength, punching through stone floor to drag the dead through a fist-sized hole in however many trips it took.
At least that’s what I pictured. The truth is, there’s a lot about this that I didn’t know for sure. Every blank, every question, had to be filled in by shrugs and imagination. That’s all we had.
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Chris Capps