Herschel was a decent man before the angels arrived. Now there were no decent men or women, just the claimed and the dead. The dead were not truly dead, it was just the name the angels gave them. The dead referred to themselves as the decayed, as zombies, as dung beetles, as bodies without spirits, as the real McCoys. Herschel was one of them.
The streets were filled with the actual dead, the true-to-death bodies of those the angels had killed or, as they called it, Claimed for a Higher Purpose in the True Glory of the Universe for Our Lord. These bodies didn’t decay. They didn’t age. The angels protected the Claimed from those organisms which ate the dead. The bodies stayed, though they were colonized all the same, beetles taking root in their stomachs, fungus greening their eyes, spiders building webs in their nostrils.
With careful steps, Herschel walked between the bodies of the Claimed on Westheimer, stepping over arms outstretched in what looked like welcome. Those the angels claimed fell backwards, each and every one, their faces locked in ecstatic happiness, mouths open as though to say, “Wish you were coming with me!” to all those left behind. Their stares were creepy. At first, Herschel had closed their eyelids, but the eyes were always open again days later. The stares weren’t accusing, but benevolent and, at worst, condescending.
Herschel had been a nurse. Now he was a recorder. Under the eyes of the angels who floated in archaic and alchemistic patterns high above Houston, he was paid to record the last words of the Claimed.
It was a tricky and disgusting business. Hershel had figured it out by accident right after the angels arrived, when he’d tried to resuscitate a suddenly flatlined patient. Now, his process was perfected. Herschel held the body’s nose, avoided looking at those patronizing eyes, took a deep breath, and blew into the slightly parted mouth. The air backwashed into his mouth always tasted the same. Stale and dusty like his dead mother’s closet. And though he’d tried using a bellows to pump air into the dead lungs, it never worked. It had to be air from the living.
After he’d breathed in, the words would come broken and awkward like a person talking in their sleep, unaware and unconcerned with being heard. The words were gibberish, orphic prophecies which could mean almost anything. He’d played the recording aloud for the first few people who’d hired him, but their reactions were always depressing, bursting into tears at the bland pronouncements or accusing Herschel of lying, so now he transferred recordings to thumb drives and let his clients listen on their own under the veil of privacy, though he kept a hard drive full of all the recordings he’d taken.
Outside of a Smoothie King, a face caught Herschel’s eye. A wild beard and heavy brow, hair tucked tight to the scalp with styling gel. Herschel squinted at the photo the client had provided. The chin profile fit, and though the nose was a little too bulbous he was sure it was the same man. Out of habit, he checked the pockets for a wallet or a phone. Most of the Claimed had been stripped by thieves long ago, but sometimes he got lucky. Today though, he got a palmetto bug sleepily struggling against his closed fingers. He tossed it to the ground and crushed it under the toe of his tennis shoes.
An angel hung in the air over the City Mattress store on the other side of the street. It slowly rotated, one arm raised before it as though about to sing. Robes fell around the angel’s body, failing to define any of the flesh beneath. Even from this distance Herschel could pinpoint the alien nature of its face, how it lacked cheekbones or lips, a forehead crusted with eyes so wide and vacant they appeared to see both everything and nothing.
When the angel rotated away from him, Herschel leaned his phone against the lips and started recording, just in case the Claimed began talking as soon as he finished breathing into it. He glanced down every street of the intersection to make sure he was alone. Only the Claimed, as far as he could see, the sun’s heat rising in ripples from their incorruptible bodies. He closed the nose with his fingers and felt something pop inside. He ignored the squishy, slippery feeling between his fingers, took a breath, and blew into the claimed man’s mouth.
As soon as he took his lips away, wiping them free of the dust and oily grime which had accumulated on the claimed man’s skin, he could hear the answering whisper.
“Under the stone tree you will find the liver of gold. Three steps beyond the door, and your leg dissolves into tar, and no one hears you fall. Three two five nine eighty-one. Reverse too fast and you kill the cat. Johnny is my murderer and I’m eating him from the toes up, boiled and slathered in butter…”
On and on the claimed man went, words flowing smoothly as though someone had blended up his brain and was pouring it from his mouth like water.
Herschel sat up so the voice was reduced to a background hum. The angel was just a quarter of its rotation round, which left Herschel plenty of time to ply his secondary work. Though he’d heard some angels had faces on their backs or eyes on the soles of their feet, he’d never seen such a thing. Better to worry about what was, rather than what might be.
Herschel slipped a butcher’s saw from his satchel and set it against the first wrinkle separating the claimed man’s hand from the wrist. He cut with practiced movements, parting skin, muscle, and bone with ease until the hand fell into his grasp. Blood welled at the edges, but didn’t spill onto the sidewalk. He had the sudden urge to taste it to see if it was anything like his own, or had been changed into something else. Something sweet and addictive, maybe, like the ichor of the gods of old myths, their blood more like wine.
what are you doing?
The voice whispered in his ear. It was his own voice, younger and innocent and filled with a terrifying self-absorption. Herschel’s heart hammered, blood rushing to fill his ears with noise. He wanted to run and never stop.
Over the mattress store, the angel had turned to face him, every bit of dark skin haloed in the light of the sun. Clouds sped overhead in stop-motion. The sun jumped to hide behind them. In the sudden darkness, the angel’s skin glowed, providing its own light.
what do you desire?
Herschel blanked his thoughts. With his back to the body, he placed the hand of the Claimed into his satchel and, at the same time, removed a life-like silicone hand and placed it flush against the stump. He’d done this eight times before, always ready for an angel to notice him, but none ever had.
your heart is a sieve. your skin the soil over a grave.
“I’m a finder,” Herschel finally managed to say. “I’m finding the dead for those who still live.”
The silicone wrist slid on the stump as he tried to line them up before the glue dried. If the angel noticed what he was doing…
Empty skins blew through the city’s back alleys like plastic grocery bags. He once found a stoplight made of bone and muscle which never stopped screaming.
you are dead.
A threat and a promise. Herschel stared at the gloried face of the angel expecting his death.
Then he realized the angel was simply stating a fact. He was dead, according to the angel.
nothing can hurt you.
“No,” he agreed, even though the angel’s tone implied that, in fact, everything could hurt him. And would hurt him, if he wasn’t careful.
go. find yourself, finder.
The eyes of the angel left him as it slowly returned to its rotation, the absence of its gaze removing an itch from his skin he didn’t realize was there until it was gone. He couldn’t believe he was still alive.
He picked up his satchel and retrieved his phone and looked over the Claimed he’d stolen from. The man was the same as when Herschel had found him. The same amazed stare. The same parted lips. The hand Herschel had replaced was open and spread in supplication.
Quickly, he walked away. He texted his client he was on his way with the hand. The recording he’d made could wait, but he wanted to be rid of the hand as soon as possible.
His path through the city was a zigzag between angels. Most of the way he saw no one, but on Tuam he passed a living funeral, a priest sprinkling holy water over a claimed woman while two assistants kept her arms crossed over her chest. The face of the Claimed had been cut away to be framed and hung in the house of their loved ones.
Few people wanted to live where the angels watched, and so entire sections of the city were largely abandoned. Some still lived there. Drug addicts and the zealous. The rent was cheap, and those places were the safest in the city because no one knew what the angels were watching for, or what they’d do if they saw something they didn’t like. Herschel didn’t live under an angel. Too many people had gone missing in the neighborhoods where the angels hovered.
Which was one reason he wanted the hand away from him. The angels watched over the Claimed, and Herschel was convinced they recognized parts of the Claimed even when separated from their bodies.
The other reason was that the hands weren’t dead. Every so often, he felt a shiver in his satchel as though a tiny animal was adjusting itself in there, nesting among his tools. The people he procured hands for didn’t tell him why they wanted them, and he didn’t ask. But he knew, just from keeping his ears open, that the hands were like the voices. Weird and unpredictable. Some people set them up at a keyboard or gave them pens and placed them on notebooks. He’d seen people with hands on a chain around their necks. Others who kept them gripped in a handshake, rubbing their thumb along the back of the claimed hand like a worry stone.
In the distance, over what used to be the Houston Community College central campus, an angel wavered in the air like an optical illusion. He felt its attention on him. The angel flickered, and for a moment it was above him, burned, raw holes for eyes, a toothless wound for a mouth, and then it was back where it had been a moment before. The hand wriggled in Herschel’s satchel. He refused to look at any other angels.
A half hour later, Herschel opened the door to Frank’s Pizza. The lights were off. An angel hovered over Market Square Park, but Herschel had kept his eyes on the sidewalk. He let the door close behind him, relieved, and cleared his throat.
Through the dust on the floor was a scuffed path to the stairs which led up to a large, enclosed seating area. The back of the building was illuminated with a soft glow, and there was an insistent clicking like chattering teeth. Though he’d have thought his encounter with the angel would immunize him from fear for at least a few days, if anything, it made him more sensitive. The abandoned restaurant gave him the creeps as though it was a human-sized roach motel. He walked halfway to the stairs, each step harder to make than the last.
A woman appeared at the top of the staircase, holding a gun loosely in her right hand. “Who are you?” she asked.
Herschel slowly raised his hands. He forced some humor into his voice. “Need a hand?”
“Oh.” The woman tilted her head like a cat. “It’s you. The recorder?”
“I’m Maria.” She paused for him to say his own name, but he stayed silent. She motioned with the gun. “Well, come on up.”
Fully aware of the fact the woman was armed, he cautiously walked up the stairs. As he climbed, it became clear what she was holding wasn’t a gun. It was a hand, fingernails so black they seemed windows to the night sky. She noticed his surprise.
“Shouldn’t you be used to these things by now?”
“I’m used to them. I just don’t like them.”
The woman rolled her eyes and walked around the corner. Back before the angels came, Herschel remembered this part of Frank’s as a private alcove, windowless and separate from the rest of the restaurant. You could imagine you were in space or under the ocean instead of in the middle of Houston, a scientist-adventurer instead of a poor student.
He followed her through a black curtain into a room lit with dozens of tall candles. A cot rested against one wall next to a mini-fridge and a desk. Cinder block bookshelves covered the walls, each shelf overflowing with physics and anatomy textbooks, old religious texts, books with titles in Hebrew and other unfamiliar languages, every book sprouting dozens of colored plastic page markers. And there was that infernal clicking. It came from a long table, from underneath a stained white sheet that pulsed with every click.
The woman set the hand down on the desk so it pointed at Herschel. Or it pointed itself after she set it down, he wasn’t sure.
His stomach felt wrong, weightless or absent.
“Do you have the rest of my money?” he asked, shrugging his satchel to the floor. Honestly, he was ready to throw the hand at her and get the hell out of there, money or no.
The woman took a thick envelope from a drawer in the desk and walked towards him. The clicking grew frantic. She stopped just before giving him the envelope.
“Don’t you want to know what I want the hand for?”
“Look, lady, whatever you do with the hand is entirely your business. I know for a fact there are people out there who masturbate with them.”
She laughed. “And why not? It’s what hands have been used for for millennia.”
She handed him the envelope. He gave her the hand. It almost leaped from his palm into hers. He glanced at the table. Now he had the money he could leave, right the fuck now he could leave, but there were things he shouldn’t wish on his worst enemy.
“Whatever you’re planning, you should stop.”
The woman smirked in response and threw back the sheet covering the table. Underneath were dozens of hands stitched together stump to stump, stump to palm, back to back, some from thumb to pinkie so the hands resembled flowers or like they were folded in prayer. Their fingernails danced along the table top and bit against each other, the clicking louder without the muffling sheet. The hands made a pattern on the table, arranged in the alphabet of a language he was never meant to witness, much less understand. From the middle of the living sculpture of disembodied hands protruded a wrist-sized metal socket, hungry for the hand he’d brought her. He couldn’t look away. His vision tunneled until the hands and the table and the woman approaching were all he could see.
“Don’t,” he said, but his voice twisted back into his throat. Herschel lurched for the curtain, but his feet stuck. He looked down, and for a second couldn’t tell where his shoes ended and the laminated floor began. The woman’s eyes went wide with surprise. The hands all stopped clicking at once and the woman screamed.
Once when Herschel was very young, his mother took him to Galveston. The day was cloudy, the lukewarm water was a dirty gray, but his mother believed everyone should see the ocean once in their life. At that age, he didn’t know how to swim, just flail. But his mom wanted him to experience not just seeing the ocean, but being in the ocean, alone, held up by nothing but that too-big-to-comprehend expanse of water. She swam him out to where she could touch the bottom and went under, holding him just above the surface. He remembered being terrified and awed. His mom was gone, but he was still floating above the water, on his own but in safe hands. And then, what scared him into tears, was seeing his mom rise up under him, the ocean melting away and stretching over her face until it broke.
That was the way he felt as he watched the angel emerge through the woman’s face. Her skin thinned until it was transparent as rice paper, and then split to reveal the ebony skin of the angel, every eye on its forehead rimmed with fire, a tooth-edged tongue poking from its lipless mouth.
The upper half of the angel’s body wriggled free of the woman, then it turned to hold what remained of her head in both of its hands, cradling her broken skull like a baby. Then, grotesquely, it cooed. It soothed. It sang a lullaby as the rest of the woman’s body unseamed. With one hand it picked up a needle from the table, threaded some saliva through the eye, and pressed it into the woman’s flesh.
Herschel yanked his feet from his shoes and backpedaled through the curtain. The angel’s singing followed him down the stairs and out of the restaurant. But fleeing didn’t help. Even with the door shut behind him, he could hear the angel’s soft lullaby, and the tiny repeated pop of the sewing needle diving and surfacing through the woman’s skin.
Andrew Kozma’s fiction has been published in Escape Pod, HOAX, The Dread Machine, and Analog. His book of poems, City of Regret (Zone 3 Press, 2007), won the Zone 3 First Book Award, and his second poetry book, Orphanotrophia, was published in 2021 by Cobalt Press.