The Museum of Angelic Artefacts was a road–side attraction; a blip on the map where families stopped to stretch their legs and maybe take in an old film of the visitations. They would round out their break with a trip to the shops to buy coffee and ice cream, a postcard to put in a drawer and forget.
It wasn’t a big museum, as these things go. Most of the display was of small mechanical pieces; cogs and electrodes and bits of broken chips. A few whole metal skeletons were in the main display at the back of the house, and they were the pieces that drew the biggest crowds. The bio–parts of the angels were harder to find, although we did possess a small glass–topped trunk with an embalmed hand that was supposed to have come from one of the first angel visitations. Of course, there are fingers of Gabriel in several museums.
The last of the angels’ visitations ended before my parents were born. There are news–reels showing the first landings, gritty and sepia and jerkily out of time. The angels were taller than the people clustered around them, but they weren’t scary or anything.
They just stood there, blinking. No celestial messages of deliverance, no words from distant stars. After a while, they died. Fell apart. The visitations became so common that scientists identified over five–hundred types, and catalogued them all. We like to catalogue things, even if we don’t know why. Order.
We gave them names and ranks. It started as a joke — cherubim and seraphim, Michael and Uriel. The names lost meaning. Hard not to when there are hundreds of Gabriels.
Eventually we stopped caring. An angel would arrive, alone, would stand uselessly still, and finally crumple to its knees with a sad dusty crash.
The labs kept a few alive on life–support for a while, but it didn’t really make any sense in the long term. They switched off the last of them, CB #7 1397/168–sph, a few weeks ago. It was about three months before my seventeenth birthday, and I wouldn’t even have known about the angel if it hadn’t been the kind of thing my parents keep track of for the museum. They printed out the little article and put it up on the notice board to be ignored along with everything else.
I noticed that display #394 had disappeared because it was my job to Windex all the glass each morning, while Mom ran the office and tried to keep my baby brother’s screams from waking the whole neighbourhood, and Dad took the morning deliveries. On weekends we had help in the form of Elliot the Boy Wonder, so named because it was a wonder he came to work, considering how much pot he smoked.
The hand in the display had been very neatly taken — no broken glass or jimmied locks, so I went looking for Camelia.
She wasn’t in the back yard where the wreck of a 27–oph stood, like a giant hamster wheel slowly turning to rust.
“Cam?” The back fence, half–hidden behind a scraggly hedgerow of blackjacks and rosemary, had a torn section that Cam could fit through. Me too, if I crawled on my belly and didn’t mind getting mud all over my front, and black jacks in my hair. “Cam, you idiot,” I said to myself and knelt to peer through the gap. I didn’t need to look for clues. Of course she took the hand.
My parents moved from the city to Meriphem when I was five, so I don’t really remember much of what came before. My sister was one, a fat squalling nightmare, and the car trip was a mash of spilled cold drink gone sticky on the back seat leatherette, my mother’s eyes wobbly with tiredness. My father driving with the window open so that cold air sluiced over us, and like a generator powering us further and further away from the city tower blocks; my sister’s wail.
They’d left behind their city–jobs and bought a house filled with junk, with the tiny parts and empty corpses of angels. And they’d turned it into a business. There was a museum and little tea shop and curio shop where visitors could buy paintings of angels that looked nothing like real ones.
I should have told Mom and Dad when we found our angel. But that would have meant explaining what we were doing out in the little forest that edged the town, instead of being at school. Cam was twelve, so I guess she could have maybe cried her way out of it, but at sixteen I wouldn’t have had an excuse, and everyone said the second–last year of school was actually the most important and if you failed that your life might as well be over.
Mine already was, as far as I could see it. My parents had been saddled with the late miracle of Ivan, Cam was making a name for herself as some kind of violin prodigy, and I was doing nothing more exciting that getting mediocre grades and cleaning glass cases in a house full of dead angels.
“Cam?” I called again as I crashed through the little narrow deer trails that spread through the forest like veins and arteries through a sweltering heart. I found her exactly where I’d expected, sitting cross–legged in front of the angel.
“What are you doing here?” I asked. The hand was laid out on a maroon velvet cloth in front of her; an offering to the silent remains of an enigma. “Mom and Dad will kill you when they see that.”
Cam’s head turned like it was on a wire and she stared at me in that slow unblinking way she had when she was thinking deeply about something. “They won’t actually kill me,” she said eventually.
“It’s an expression.” I sidled closer and glanced at the angel. It looked the same as it did the day before. And the day before that and the day before that. I don’t know why we kept coming back. It was about a head shorter than me and it wasn’t new or anything, or alive. It just was. “Why did you bring it the hand?”
She shrugged. This wasn’t the first time Cam had brought it a gift. Only last week she’d carried her violin case all the way here to play for the angel. She’d kept to the more uplifting pieces. But she’d never brought it an actual physical offering before. The hand was a new development. “It doesn’t have one of its own.”
The angel didn’t have much of its own, to be honest. The parts of it that hadn’t rotted away had been exposed to air for too long, and the metal had turned a strange unearthly blue. The trunk was still solid, and the mechanised joints of its base skeleton were still there. The feet and arms and head were gone, along with any skin it might once have had.
“It’s dead.” I touched her shoulder. “Come on, Cam, put the hand back before anyone notices. Leave the angel.”
“It needs a hand.” She shook her head, the dark curls streaming like they were caught in a storm. But she clambered to her feet. “It asked me for one.”
My back prickled with sweat, and I pulled the front of my tee–shirt away from my chest. “Angels don’t talk, they never have.”
“This one does.” Cam folded the hand in its velvety shroud and followed me back to the museum.
Weekends we were supposed to help out at the museum, or if we couldn’t do that, at least help Mom with Ivan so she could have a break from his incessant screeching.
“I hate him,” Cam said, and glared at the demon lying in the pram, his fists and face scrunched up like paper full of angry words.
“You don’t hate him,” I told her in a flat voice, and jiggled the pram a little harder as we walked together down the road. A few joggers and parents out with their kids gave me disapproving stares. “Hate is a very strong word.” I thought about all the things I was supposed to feel, and how I didn’t really understand them. I didn’t hate Ivan, but I didn’t love him either. He was just an annoyance. I didn’t have a passion for music like Cam did. I didn’t even feel much about the knowledge that Elliot the Boy Wonder like–liked me, beyond thinking it weird.
Ivan paused in his screaming, probably to psych himself up for another round.
“You don’t know what I feel,” Cam said. “And I am a very strong person. And strong people have space only for the strongest emotions. Like hate.”
“Or love,” I countered, before glancing over at her. “Anyway, you were just as bad.” My blurry memories of my childhood always came back to me wrapped in cobwebs like forgotten presents. Maybe that’s why I never really felt much of anything.
Cam snapped out of her frown, her face flowering curious. “Was I? How did you manage not to murder me?”
“I almost did,” I said. It was a strange confession to make, I hadn’t thought about that night in years, but Ivan’s screams had brought it back to me with an unusual clarity. It made me uncomfortable to remember. I’d felt too much. “You’d actually stopped crying for a bit, but it didn’t matter because you’d kept me awake all night anyway.”
“How old was I?”
From the depths of the pram, Ivan’s wail began, slowly growing in intensity like an air raid siren. I raised my voice. “Two, I think? You must have been, you were still in your cot, but you weren’t in Mom and Dad’s room.” The edges of that night were knife–blue, slicing up through the fog I lived in.
Instead of facing her, I bent over the handrail of the pram as if I were checking Ivan. I remember doing the same thing that night. Standing on tip–toe in my teddy–bear nightie, my legs needle–cold, toes numb. The wooden rail of the cot digging into my stomach. Camelia sleeping. Not pudgy and content — that was never her way. She was thin and strange even then, and I thought oh it would take nothing now to make you stay quiet like this forever. I even took the yellow blanket that she’d kicked off, and folded it over and over and pressed it down over her face.
She would have died quietly. Maybe my parents wouldn’t have had another child. No whine of Cam’s violin when she practised a new piece, no screeching from Ivan as he shared his constant rage at the world. Passion was loud. It deafened everyone else in the world, pushed them under.
“Nothing,” I said, and skated Ivan’s pram faster down the sidewalk. “Obviously. So if I could live though the horror of you, you can live through the horror of Ivan. Fair’s fair.”
That week I went to the angel on my own every day after school. Mom and Dad had signed Cam up for a slew of extra violin lessons. While she had a middle–aged gentleman watching her with bleary eyes to make sure she stood exactly so, and played exactly such, I met with the angel.
The little glade it was in always seemed more peaceful than the rest of the town, even more peaceful than the surrounding forest. The sounds of the birds and rabbits became distant, as easily forgotten as the far–away drone of the highway. It was an oasis of quiet. I would take off my regulation socks and shoes, use my regulation school blazer to sit on, and work on my regulation studies. There was a sweet and simple rightness to it.
No screaming, no tourists, no child–genius little sister, no Elliot the Boy Wonder trying to stare at my tits between tours, no interruptions. I would get a lot more studying done in those two hours a day than I would manage the rest of the entire week.
On Wednesday I discovered that Cam and I were not the only ones who knew about the angel. I stepped into the glade, already smiling at how calm the place was, and stopped. Sunlight fell in soft threads through the leaf canopy, highlighting the damaged struts, the toxic blue of the eroding metal.
Someone had left a plastic bag in front of the angel. The bag stank sweetly, and a few lazy fat greenbottles crawled over and into the plastic crevasses, their buzzing amplified. It sounded like a million tiny aeroplane engines trapped in a cold drink can.
“Ugh.” Trying to touch the entire thing as little as possible, I managed to untie the packet. Inside was half a sheep’s head and two jointed pig’s trotters, both still in their cling–wrap, with the price on. Cheap meat cuts from the butcher’s. Gagging, I tied the bag closed and hunted around for a place where the ground was soft enough to bury it.
I had to dig the hole with a broken branch, and I moved the bag by using the same stick to catch the loops and carry it. The meat made a solid dead sound, and the patter of soil after was like the rain falling on newly–planted seeds. The flies dispersed, taking their unwelcome hum away, back out into the world.
With the offering buried, I didn’t want to stay. After all, what kind of weirdo brings body parts to a dead angel? Besides my sister. There was no way it could have been her. She was still in school, a prisoner.
But what if it was her? She’d brought it the hand, she said it spoke to her. I needed to make sure.
So I stayed, half–focusing on my studies, half–watching the leaves and branches wavering around me, the sun haloing everything in gold dust. But no–one came, and evening fell in long feathery shadows that painted the husk of the angel in alternating deep indigos and flame oranges
I thought as I left.
I need wings.
That evening over the screaming and the blare of the news, I tried to ask Cam about the sheep’s head and the pig trotters, but my tongue swelled up and stuck to the roof of my mouth.
All night I dreamt of flying.
By breakfast time my tongue had gone back to normal, and while Mom walked Ivan round in desperate little circles, and we ate our corn flakes, I asked Cam about the offerings.
My mother’s heels tack–tack–tacked across the floor. A rubbish truck reversed up our road, beeping incessantly. Ivan grumbled, a low constant growl that was his sleepy precursor to his all–day screaming sessions.
“There were weird things out by the clearing,” I said, keeping my voice soft enough to not compete with the rest of the noise.
“Weird things?” Cam raised an eyebrow, then shovelled another spoonful of yellow flakes and sugary milk into her mouth. The crunch was enough to drive me insane.
“Yeah. Meat. In a packet.”
The bovine chewing continued for a while. Ivan began to whimper. My mother said; “Ssh, ssh, ssh,” and jiggled him like a noxious water balloon she was afraid of bursting. It was starting. The whimper grew louder, higher–pitched, the sound driving into our eardrums like diamond–tipped drills.
Cam stared at me before finally swallowing. “They weren’t mine,” she said in a low whisper. She needn’t have bothered. It’s not like Mom would be able to hear us over the shrieking. “Someone else must be able to hear it talking.”
“It doesn’t talk. It’s a lump of rusting metal.” If angels had ever tried to speak to us before, perhaps it was through their silences, and we — stupid loud buzzing things — had simply not understood. There were texts that said the true voices of angels were terrible to hear. Maybe humanity was simply scared of facing a quiet world, a terrible silence. So instead of listening to the nothings of angels, we jabbered at them, prodded them, filmed them, attached them to clanking, wheezing machines.
No wonder they died.
We hadn’t taken the time to listen.
I left school after first period, faking menstrual cramps, and went to the clearing, back to Cam’s angel. No–one at school would even notice I was gone.
Whoever had brought the previous offering had come again, sometime between nightfall and late morning. An adult? Maybe. There was a new offering now — a stuffed toy cat, one of those hyper–realistic ones that cost too much money. It was brown, the tail tipped with a black tuft like a paint brush. Not a house–cat, but a lioness. The secret visitor had placed the stuffed lioness on one of the prongs that jabbed out from the top of the angel’s body.
I touched the plush fur, stroking it gently, running my fingers from nose tip to tail tip. A soothing moment.
“This is mental,” I said to the angel.
Wings it said back to me.
It hadn’t spoken. There was no head, no mouth, it was a piece of abandoned machinery. For all we knew it had never even been an angel in the first place. I was tired. I was tired.
Before I left, I put the piece of Angus steak I’d shoplifted in front of it.
“We should show Ivan the angel,” Cam said. It was Saturday. We’d been handed the Terror so Mom could go help Dad with the museum.
Elliot was apparently sick, but I’d seen him last night when Dad and I had gone to get take–outs. He’d been half–drunk already, standing with a group of friends, all of them dressed in those fake angel wings you could buy for kid’s parties. Elliot’s eyes had been rimmed with black, his mouth painted. They’d raised their Styrofoam cups when we drove past and cheered, and I’d tried to sink as low in my seat as possible while balancing four milkshakes on my lap. I still managed to get strawberry pink drips all down my leg.
“No.” I was pretending Ivan was an aeroplane. It was one of the few activities that kept him quiet for any length of time. It was also very tiring. “Wheee! Flying! Ivan’s flying!”
Because I didn’t want to see if other people had found my angel, if there were more packets of meat or stuffed toys or whatever people had decided to bring it in offering. Because I didn’t want it to see Ivan, and I didn’t want to hear what it wanted next. “Because I’m not going crawling through the woods with a one–year–old.” I made him balance on his little socked feet. “Walk!”
He stumbled eagerly along, my hands under his armpits. Then he laughed.
It was so unexpected that neither Cam nor I could say anything for a moment, we just stared at each other blankly, as if we couldn’t understand the sound he’d made.
“He’d like the angel,” Cam said, just as Ivan gave up on his experimental laugh and launched into another full–bellowed roar.
Ivan screamed all that night, and we took turns with him. Mom rocked him, Cam played him lullabies on her violin, a sweet tragic sob. Dad drove him around the block a few times, and the momentary stillness was a balm laid across the entire house. We could all of us breathe easily until his return.
When I held Ivan, his fat bottom cradled on my arm, his fists in my hair, his breathless, hiccoughing mouth right by my ear, I remembered wanting to snuff Cam out. That long ago moment where I’d almost silenced her forever. I never felt like that with Ivan. I wanted to give him a voice, instead. If he could tell us what he wanted, if he could fly, maybe then he’d stop screaming.
“What do you want?” I asked him softly, but it was lost under a wail, the heat of his breath against my cheek, his tears damp on his sticky face, pressed against mine. “What do you want?” I asked but there was no–one to hear me but the dessicated dusty remains of a thousand angels.
Ivan had another doctor’s appointment on Monday. Maybe this one would find the switch, would work out what was wrong and give us a simple answer. Maybe Ivan felt too much where I felt too little. Perhaps there was a machine that could drain off the excess, feed his passion into me like a transfusion.
That night when Ivan finally cried himself to sleep, I dreamt of flying and laughing, and I woke to find myself in the clearing before the angel. It was painted by moonlight and shadow, in every shade of blue and silver. Tied together with strands of hair from Cam’s violin bow were three sparrows. They were still alive, fluttering and chirring in terror. The flaxen horsehair was knotted around a spur of metal, keeping the little russet sparrows captive.
I stood barefoot in the dew–wet clearing, moon–annointed, and snapped the hairs strand by strand, while the sparrows beat at me with their little wings, pecked and clawed.
One died. The other two flew off into the night, and I dreamed my way back home.
A voice, said the voiceless angel.
While Mom was at church and the rest of our family enjoyed our atheism by reading or sleeping, Ivan went missing. It might not have been a holy day, but it was the only day the angel museum was closed, so it was pretty sacred to the rest of us.
I’d been studying, which actually meant I’d being lying on my bed with my textbook draped over my face. I woke only because the house was so eerily quiet that I heard the bells ringing. I was exhausted from another night full of Ivan’s keening, strange dreams, of swollen silence, beating wings and the smell of wet earth.
“Alissa.” My dad’s voice, sleep–addled and sick. He always sounded sick, thanks to Ivan. Ivan who never stopped screaming, even though phalanxes of doctors had told my parents that there was nothing physically wrong with him.
“Mmm?” I sat up, the text book falling to my lap with a heavy thump. “I was studying —”
“Do you know where your sister and Ivan are?”
Terror iced over me, freezing my joints stiff. “No.” I made myself swallow, stand, set my biology textbook on my little study desk. Normal things. “She must have taken him for a walk.”
“You think so?” He was frowning. His shirt and face were rumpled, like he’d been taken out of the laundry and left to wrinkle. “Maybe. I didn’t hear her leave.”
“I’ll find them.” I dug my slops out of my cupboard and tried to smile. “Don’t worry.”
I took the short cut; through the museum and under the back fence. I’d stopped only to check the case for #394, and as expected, the Gabriel Hand was also gone. I ran most of the way to the angel’s clearing, my heart thudding in my ears, driving me on. There was no screaming, the forest was heavy and dense, the sounds swallowed up and muffled.
I found them in the clearing, Cam on her knees, feet tucked neatly under, sun brown heels bare. Elliot was leaning against one of the trees, smiling beatifically, drunkenly. He had a bottle of whiskey cradled in his lap. The previous night’s make–up had been rubbed off, but around his eyes there were still smudges of black. He looked like a fallen angel in one of the paintings. Not like a real angel. The clearing smelled sweet and heavy; frankincense, myrrh, and marijuana.
“Hey, Alissa.” Elliot raised his bottle in greeting, rich gold liquid sloshing around. It was more than half–gone. “Welcome to the wake. A wake. Awake. We’re waking the angel.”
“Ivan?” My breath came short and sharp, I could barely say his name. My heart clamoured and seized, screamed and filled with silence.
The clearing hummed, but my own breath was caught in my lungs and I couldn’t force it out. I remembered the yellow blanket, the silence. How Cam grew up, and I didn’t. Not inside, where it mattered. How Cam could feel things and all I had was the emptiness. How Ivan could fill the world with himself, and I drifted through the universe doing nothing but polishing glass and dreaming.
“Where is he?” I asked, just before I spotted him, small and terribly silent. His legs were wedged inside the body of the angel. Ivan stared at me, eyes wide, contemplative. Elliot’s angel wings had been slipped over his arms. They were crumpled and dirty, and one of the feathers stuck out at an awkward angle.
“He’s fine,” said Cam. “Give him another anchovy. He likes those.” She raised herself, and leaned forward, still on her knees, with something small and dark between her fingers. A tin of anchovies sat on the ground below her. Her violin case was next to it, unzipped and opened, the maple shiny bright against blue velvet.
“What the hell is going on?”
Cam popped a sliver of tiny fish in Ivan’s mouth. He ate it silently. That was not Ivan, screaming, red–faced Ivan.
“You should know,” said Elliot. “You brought us here.”
I looked down at the ground in front of the angel. The Ivan. There were the remains of one of the sparrows, the steak. Someone had dug out the packet with the sheep’s head and the pig trotters and unwrapped them and set them out neatly. There was the toy lioness, Gabriel’s Hand. A box of complimentary matches from the Museum of Angelic Artefacts.
“Thank you,” said the Ivan. The voice was soft and adult. “For listening.” It fluttered its party–wings experimentally, then, with a sound like tearing spider silk, it moved one articulated arm out to me. The sun glinted off the blue of the eroded metal, and outside the forest the bells called soft.
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Cat Hellisen lives in Cape Town, South Africa, and writes stories that smell of iodine and dead fish. She’s the author of the fantasy novels When the Sea is Rising Red, and House of Sand and Secrets.