“When They Come Back” by Natalia Theodoridou
They were called Maria, and Michael, and Siobhan, George, Elise, and Sarah, and Violet, Daisy, Jasmine, Rose–
no, perhaps these were not people names, these were flower names, weren’t they?–
and Gabriel, Raphael, Bacchus, Athena, Io, Muhammad,
but these were mythical names, and god names, and prophet names, so hard to tell them apart all these years after the–
all these years after they–
and Natalie, Vasilis, Dmitri, Ousmane…
The angel is rotting. He’s leaning against the trunk of an olive tree. I examine his body but avoid his eyes, as always, just in case. I would like to have been a man, he’d said once, so I always think of him as one, no matter what his body looks like. Today he has a mane of dark curls that reach all the way down to the roots of his wings. No beard. No breasts. No hair on his body except a little around his crotch.
His skin has turned the colour of a fresh bruise. It won’t be long.
“What will it be like when they come back?” I start our little game. Our ritual of remembering and bonding. And hoping. Or at least that’s what it used to be.
I check myself in the time it takes him to reply. Skin, a little dry. Sub-optimal. Heartmech, optimal. Brainmech, sub-optimal. Energy levels, as good as can be hoped under this sky. I move my limbs one by one and they respond with a low whir. My hands feel especially stiff. I haven’t touched anyone, anything, for so long.
Nothing to be done about that.
He stirs. His voice sounds as if it’s coming from behind a stormy cloud or from the dark bottom of a lake.
“When he comes back, I will be waiting for him in the kitchen of his old home. I will be sitting on top of his cupboards, like a bird, or a gargoyle, and so I will be looking at him from above. He will walk in through the front door.” The angel pauses and licks his lips. “His clothes are dusty. His footsteps leave behind small piles of dirt. He doesn’t see me at first.”
He suddenly turns to look at me and I avert my eyes just in time. A city is smoking in the distance. We always avoid cities. They crucify angels in the cities. My kind do.
“Then he feels me watching over him,” he continues, “he raises his eyes to look at me and so I storm down and wrap myself around him. ‘You are back,’ I say, and he is mine to protect, and so I breathe him in as deeply as I can. He smells of earth and humanity.” The angel inhales slowly, as if he can still smell his human. “Then I make him some tea.”
“Tea? Really?” I say, studying the black smoke that is rising over the horizon. I wonder what they are burning this time.
“He really liked tea.” He laughs softly. It sounds like dry leaves being crushed under a human heel.
“How does he not turn to stone when he looks at you?”
His laugh fades – crushed leaves blown away. I didn’t have to be so cruel.
“Because this is a fantasy,” he says, poking at a rib that juts through his rotting flesh. “Because they are never coming back.”
Few things are more doleful than a broken angel. Angelos, the bearer of news. What news is there to bear any more?
“I’m sorry,” I say. He waves my apology away. “You don’t believe the rumour, then?”
I knew that already. “But we are going anyway?”
“Yes,” he says. “At least I am. You don’t have to come.”
“I know. But I’m coming.”
He nods. I keep my eyes on the smoke, but I feel him looking at me, straight at me. I think he is smiling.
What wouldn’t I give to see an angel smile.
…and Konstantinos, Eugenia, Ayu, Madé, and Ketut, Jiwon, Tyris, Desiré, Christina, and Marissia, and Marilena, and Trayvon, and Karissa…
We walk by night – not that it matters; angels don’t need eyes to see, and my kind see just fine in low light. But it’s easier to pretend in the dark. Easier to make up stories in the dark.
The sky looks brown and dirty. I call up images of what it used to look like when they were around, to remind myself. Blue-black and magnificent.
We need to cross an ancient forest in order to bypass the city. We walk past the dry, disfigured branches, and I find myself wondering if these were really ever trees. I open my mouth to ask him, but my feet stumble on a small rock on the ground. I stop to pick it up. It feels strangely warm in my palm. I contemplate putting it in my rucksack, taking it with me, but I don’t. “Are you an angel?” I whisper to it.
… and Jorge, and Valpona, and Alexandra, and Chantal. Chantal, Chantal.
Chantal meant stone.
The angel starts shedding small pieces of his flesh behind him as the decomposition advances. I can’t bear to look at them.
“Let me walk in front of you,” I tell him.
He stops. “I’m tired,” he says.
“I know.” As I walk past him, I think of putting a hand on his shoulder, but I hesitate, afraid my touch might damage him further. “Just let yourself go,” I say. “Change.”
“I can’t. We need to keep going. Get to that place.”
“You said you didn’t believe the rumours. You said they are never coming back. And you are right, it’s absurd. How could a human be alive? After all this time. Least of all a child.”
He doesn’t reply.
“Just let go,” I say, and start walking again. I listen for his footsteps behind me, feeling for tiny changes in his body, the sound of feathers falling, of curls growing thin and dull. It won’t be long.
There is a clamour near the edge of the forest: a fire, androids shouting, something crying out in pain.
I shove the angel behind a tree and he yelps.
“Be quiet,” I whisper. Shreds of his skin have stuck to my palms where I touched him. They smell putrid.
I peek around the trunk. There is a group of my kind, five in total, all of them with heavy mods: the one who seems to be their leader has replaced her arms with broad steel blades, but has kept her female interface. Her skin has been removed in an intricate design along her torso, exposing the mechanical parts underneath. There is one with a head that looks like a bird, another one, a jackal. Anything to dilute the human resemblance.
“Don’t look it in the eye!” the jackal-headed one shouts. Have they tried it, then? Do they know what happens?
They have surrounded a small angel that has the hind legs of a deer. They probably caught it mid-change. The leader is slicing its wings off little by little. As it doesn’t have enough flesh left on it to crucify, they are taking their time with it.
My angel whimpers behind me.
“I can feel it,” he says. “That small one, the deer-legged one.”
His eyes are shut tight, so I can look at his face – his grey skin taut over his cheekbones like a drum. A thought blooms in me: If I strike you, what will you sound like?
“Make them stop,” he pleads.
“I can’t,” I say. “They are too many, and heavily armed. You need to change now.”
“No.” He opens his eyes, and I hurry to look away.
“Change!” I cry loud enough to let the androids hear me. That should do it.
And it does. There’s a shushing from their direction, then quiet.
“You didn’t have to do this,” he says, but then, at last, he lets go. He dissolves, slowly melting away before my eyes. His features fade, his body dissipates, and his wings drip drip drip into a puddle of clear water on the ground.
I fall to my knees and bring handfuls of the liquid to my lips, drinking him, then lapping up the water straight from the ground, to take with me as much of him as possible, before the soil absorbs him completely.
I stop and dry my lips just as the android leader comes and stands tall before me. “What are you doing, sister?” she asks.
I make myself look surprised. “I am on my way to the city,” I say. “I am joining a group of hunters there.” This is risky; I’m hoping this city is disorganized enough to hold multiple groups of different allegiances.
“A group of hunters, is that so?”
“I stopped here to rest.”
“You can rest with us,” she says.
I stand up and nod. “Thank you,” I say.
“What’s your name?”
“I don’t have one.”
“What should we call you, then?”
Call me Chantal, I almost say, but that would give me away. The sentimentality of it. The nostalgia.
“Call me Drifter,” I say.
The deer-legged angel looks even more miserable up close than I expected. They put a blindfold over its eyes. A precaution. We’ve all heard of androids that turned to stone when they looked an angel in the eye, just like humans used to, back then. Rumours. A lot of that going around. Doesn’t mean it’s true.
I sit by the fire, next to the jackal-headed one. I stare at the pit, an open mouth gobbling up dead branches.
“A fire,” I say. “Why?”
The jackal eyes fix on me; a cold, dark stare mixed with fear and… longing? What does my face look like to a jackal?
“To burn it. There’s not enough of it left to do anything else with.” A pause. A suspicion. They are all staring at me now.
“You don’t approve?” the leader asks.
I feel the water move inside me, a mighty pulse that presses on my vocal membranes and pushes pushes pushes me to scream. I hold it in.
“Of course I do,” I say. “Removes unnecessary waste, if you ask me.”
That seemed to satisfy them.
We throw the deer-thing in the fire and watch it be reduced to nothing. I wonder if it will come back. Can ashes be an angel again? Can water?
I bid them farewell and pretend to walk purposefully towards the city. I feel the jackal eyes and the bird eyes and the woman eyes track me – or maybe it’s just my faulty brainmech that imagines it. Either way, I wait until I’ve put enough distance between myself and them before collapsing to the ground. I put my hand deep into my mouth and press on the back of my tongue, reaching for my gag reflex. I try to retch him up, the angel, all of him. I end up with a small puddle by my palms. I roll over and let my body stretch out, my back to the ground. And I wait.
Night falls and morning comes again and the puddle has disappeared into the dust. Only a faint, moist shadow remains where I threw him up. Have I lost you, angel?
“Will you come back?” I ask. My question floats in the morning chill, unanswered.
Chantal, it means stone.
The recitation flashes in my brainmech, expected and regular like an internal clock. The names, the memory of the names is a bright, blinding sun and I a planet, going round and round and round.
George and Colette, Maya, and Rahman, Irma and Chantal.
When he comes back, his body reminds me of my human lover: strong and beautiful her lips, her breasts, her dick. He comes close, presses this body against mine. He lets me blindfold him and run my hands through the length of his new flesh; it feels oddly familiar, but for the wings. Our bodies don’t fit together in the ways I used to fit with my lover. Our lovemaking is awkward and sad, like mourning.
Afterwards I fall asleep in his arms, and dream myself flat-chested and named after my love.
“I am glad you came back,” I say, while he tries on different shapes by which to remember the humans.
He doesn’t say anything, so I start the game again, even though it’s not my turn to ask.
“What will it be like when they come back?”
When he speaks, his skin is dark, his hair white and long like a crone’s. He keeps Chantal’s shape, though.
“When they come back, they will be children,” he says.
“Children,” I echo.
“When the children come back, we will rejoice. They will speak with prophecies and dreams and words as opaque as stones. They will say:
“‘There is another world beyond this one, where one is who they truly are. There is another world, where stones speak and trees uproot themselves and walk if you ask them in the right way.’ They will take us by the hand and lead us to the threshold of this other world. ‘Come,’ they’ll say. ‘We’ll show you.’
“And we shall go, smiling and terrified.”
We walk for days. The angel is not visibly rotting any more; his flesh looks firm, full of life. This will not last. One day I’ll see Chantal’s resemblance disintegrate again before my eyes. Will I bear to watch this, or will I break? What can break me, after all this time?
We come to a shore in the middle of a desert.
“Is it a sea?” I ask, unable to find any mention of this body of water in the old maps. “Is it a lake? What is this?”
He stands next to me for a moment, and then he takes a few steps. His bare feet touch the edge of the water. He closes his eyes and tilts his head back slightly, as if trying to listen. I try to listen too. I hear nothing.
“This is angels,” he says. “Thousands upon thousands of angels.”
“We’re here, then. They should be here. The human. Yes?”
“Let’s walk further in.” I take a tentative step into the water. It feels like normal water, lukewarm and light.
He doesn’t move. “Come on,” I say.
“I can’t. I hear them. Their memories, their losses, their forgetfulness. I can’t.”
I take his hand in mine. “Come on,” I say. “Close your eyes.” Coaxing him like a small, frightened animal.
He follows me through the shallow water. We walk for miles, and yet it doesn’t get any deeper. What if this is all there is? What if this goes on forever, till the end of the world?
At my side, I hear the drip drip drip of my angel forgetting himself. All those pieces of himself he’s left behind, all this flesh and the feathers and the curls, what were they? Was that him? This Chantal-shaped figure walking next to me, is that all of him? Or is that all that’s left, not even his own memories any more, but mine?
I squeeze his hand. “What will it be like when they come back?” I ask, but my voice echoes alone once more, like a stone skipping on water.
A day and a night later, we come upon a tall silver cross in the water. On it, spread out, an angel: half man, half book, reading itself as in the ancient story of Dinamukht.
I open my mouth to speak, but stop. How does one greet another in this world?
“I won’t hurt you,” I say.
“You can’t hurt me,” Dinamukht replies.
I nod. “What is this?” I ask, waving a hand over the expanse of water around us. “What happened? Did my kind do this?”
“Your kind did some of this. The rest we did ourselves, when we allowed ourselves to forget.” He turns a page of himself and reads: “I’ve seen angels cut the flesh off their sides and chests and bellies with knives and throw it in their mouths. I’ve seen them hit their heads with stones and cry out with the voices of beasts. I’ve seen them cut their wings off with scissors and throw them in the fire.”
“Why did they come here?”
“The rumour. They heard there was a human here. Some said it was a child, some a grown woman, some neither one of those.”
Drip drip drip, my angel starts walking off on his own. He doesn’t speak. Doesn’t look back.
“Was there?” I ask.
I kneel close to the water. I take a handful and bring it to my lips. I sip, then wash my face, let it drip on my bare chest, my belly, my legs.
There is nothing else to say. I leave Dinamukht behind, turning his pages, and I wade through the water to catch up with my angel.
“I’m sorry,” I tell him.
“I am too,” he says.
We decide to walk as far as we can.
A few days later, we arrive at the edge of a cliff. The water slides peacefully off the side. Angels in quiet water-fall.
“I’m tired,” I say.
“You don’t get tired,” he replies.
“I know. But I am.”
We stand for a while without speaking.
The recitation flashes awake inside me.
They were called Maria, and Michael, and Natalie, George, Elise, and Sarah, and Violet, Daisy, Jasmine, Rose–
they were called flowers and prophets and stones, stones, stones.
“Do you want to jump?” he asks.
“I can’t,” I say. “I’d break. I can’t hurt myself.”
He nods. He understands. He is going to fall anyway.
“Bind my wings,” he says. “And tie a cloth over my eyes.”
I do as he asks. I tie a piece of rope tightly around his torso, but I don’t blindfold him. “There’s nothing to put over your eyes.”
I lie, and he knows it.
“Goodbye,” he says before he jumps. “Chantal.”
I’ve made up my mind to stay here for a while. The void calls – Chantal, Chantal, Chantal – it tugs at my heartmech day and night, but I can’t answer.
The angel lies at the bottom of the cliff. His form is losing its shape, slowly fading into the ground.
“What will it be like when they come back?” I hear him ask, or I think I do.
Why don’t I play? Why have I resisted playing for so long?
“It will be wonderful,” I whisper. “The most wonderful thing in the world.”
I check myself: Skin, optimal. Heartmech, optimal. Brainmech, sub-optimal. Energy levels, as good as can be hoped. I will be here a while.
I lean as far over the edge as my self-preservation allows. I comfort myself with the low whir of my wrists.
My angel is forgoing his definitions. I make out an arm here, a foot there, the curve of a shoulder. The outlines of a face.
I search for his eyes, and I brace, wishing for the stone under my skin.
About the Author
Natalia Theodoridou is a UK-based media & cultural studies scholar. Originally from Greece, she has lived and studied in the USA, UK, and Indonesia for several years. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review Online, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women, among others. She is a 2014 Rhysling Award nominee and a first reader for Goldfish Grimm’s Spicy Fiction Sushi. Find her at www.natalia-theodoridou.com and @natalia_theodor on Twitter.