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Featured Story • December 2014

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All the Tribes of the Earth Shall Mourn

 

Nathaniel Lee

 
 

“Angels!”

Peary nearly got trampled when the cry went up down the street. Trust him to be walking on a crowded sidewalk when there was a visitation. The mob rushed past, and Peary fought his way against the current like an exhausted swimmer battling a riptide. At last, he reached the sheltered shoal of a shop display window, where a next-generation plasma-high-whatever television was showing the news. Peary tasted copper, touched his lip and found it bleeding. Someone’s stray elbow, most likely. He leaned against the glass, cold and hard and fragile at his back. A block away, the crowds were massing around a focal point, hands held high, fingers straining and groping to touch their heavenly visitor. A babble of voices cried out all at once; from this distance, Peary could only make out an occasional “heal me!” or “bless me!” There was an awful lot of “me” whenever angels showed up.

Peary raised a hand to shade his eyes from the glaring cotton-ball whiteness of the wintery sky. The multitude of arms were all reaching toward something he couldn’t quite make out, something small and pale, like a handful of snow. Peary wondered what everyone else saw. He tugged a handkerchief out of his back pocket and dabbed at his lip, waiting for the bleeding to slow. From the screen at his back, he could just make out the muffled sound of the news anchor, who was doing the day’s roundup of angel news. Peary smiled; if that wasn’t serendipity, what was? Angels were barely news anymore, but like a war or a long-running celebrity trial, the news programs seemed to feel obligated to mention them periodically.

Peary hitched himself to the side to avoid the continuing flow of would-be supplicants, slowed now from a rush to a trickle as the far end of the street grew clogged with bodies. The voices were a unified sound now, like a crowd at a stadium when the home team was at fourth and one. Peary couldn’t hear anything but a sort of worshipful roar, but from this angle he could now see the news anchor on the television, a serious-faced man with a gloriously brown and glossy head of hair. The background picture showed a crowd much like the one down the street, but on the news, the focus was invisible. Angels didn’t photograph, didn’t show up on video. Rumors were that even artists who tried to sketch them ended up with random scribbles or blank canvases. Peary fancied the newsman looked a little lost and confused, talking inaudibly about angels. It would be nice if he really was confused, if Peary wasn’t the only one who didn’t understand. That was probably wishful thinking.

There was a sigh, a collective moan of disappointment, and a thousand pairs of eyes turned skyward, watching something invisible float away. After a moment of frozen silence, like flicking a switch, the visitation was over. Everyone dispersed almost as quickly as they’d gathered, in clumps and pairs now, whispering and hugging and clutching hands to hearts. Peary licked his lips, felt the sting, and watched them go. When the street was more or less back to normal (though the traffic wouldn’t unsnarl for an hour or more, probably), Peary sidled over to the site of the angel’s visit. He scouted the ground for the white handful he’d spotted, the locus of adoration, the angel.

There.

Peary picked it up: an old, off-white sweat sock with three blue stripes, slightly grubby from the gutter.

He glanced furtively around, tucked it in his coat pocket, and trotted away.

* * *

At home, Peary left the angel on the chair in the hall while he got his shoes off, hung his coat, washed his hands, and started a kettle for a cup of tea. Once he was warmed up and feeling more relaxed, he carried his mug with him to gather up the angel and take it to his trophy case in the spare room.

He called it the trophy case, anyway. It was mostly a joke. So far, the little shelf contained a pinecone, an old Slurpee cup (cherry, to judge by the residue), a baseball, and a fluorescent-pink home-made poster for some band he’d never heard of. In the corner of the room, beside Peary’s laptop (his office, in the same way the shelf was his trophy case, and also mostly a joke these days), was a grocery store cart that had been an absolute beast to haul up the two flights of stairs to his apartment. Peary folded the sock neatly in half and tucked it between the pinecone and the cup.

Peary collected angels.

Every time he witnessed a visitation or heard of one close by, he waited it out patiently and gathered up the item that had sparked the sudden adulation, afterward dropped and forgotten like last year’s hot Christmas toys. It was odd how those at the center of the crowd would lift up whatever it was that was being an angel at the time without seeming to notice that they were the ones doing the lifting. Peary wondered if it was similar at all to the way Ouija boards worked.

He flipped open his laptop and opened one of the dozens of .txt files that dotted the desktop. He typed a quick note—“Angel obj. = Ouija? subcons manip? Check journals re ideomotor effect”—and moved the window to one side. His screen was a mess; he had to clear some of this junk out. His computer always got more chaotic when he was out of work. For a while, he’d been able to keep focused by posting his thoughts and discoveries on atheist and freethinker websites, but as time had worn on, more and more people had just stopped posting there. Sometimes they left semi-coherent rants referencing everything from Buddha to prions to Saul’s famous conversion on the road to Damascus, but in the end, they all saw the angels and left. Only Peary remained.

Peary typed another note. “Eschaton? Apocalypse?”

Maybe everyone else was right. Maybe the world would end now that the angels were arriving. Or returning.

He’d work on clearing out old files later.

Peary’s television was usually set to one of the 24-hour news networks. Today, the screen filled with an image of a rapturous crowd singing a hymn. The voiceover identified it as a spontaneous gathering that had turned into a makeshift worship service, with random members of the crowd climbing up onto trees or benches or monuments and giving passionate sermons that they swore they hadn’t planned. Some of them had spoken in tongues. Everyone had arrived in an orderly fashion, filing into the open and standing in neat ranks; a far cry from the scene Peary had witnessed. No one could explain it; they said they just felt moved to walk in a certain direction and the procession had crystallized around them. The panel of experts that came on after the raw footage thought that the visitations were getting more organized overall, as though whatever force was motivating them was getting better at it. Stronger. Knowing smiles were much in evidence. The lone dissenting voice, a tense woman with dark hair and sharp-edged glasses, gave a somewhat rambling explanation involving emergence, self-organization in complex chaotic systems, and a great deal of math. Peary didn’t quite follow it, and it didn’t look like anyone on the show was buying it, but he appreciated the effort. At least she was trying. He watched the rest of the segment, but they didn’t use her name, and he turned the TV off when they cut to a piece on the economy.

Peary opened his laptop again and went looking for a browser game to play. Something simple and mindless. He didn’t want to see anything else he didn’t understand today.

The personalized and context-sensitive ads on his home page offered to connect him with his own guardian angel. He didn’t click them.

* * *

Peary had three cups of coffee and a foul-tasting energy shot for breakfast. he sat for a while in his “office,” ostensibly working on an article – the same article he’d been working on for months, now long past deadline. He stared at his trophy case for a while. The objects arrayed along it were utterly ordinary. Peary couldn’t even swear he’d know if someone swapped out, say, the pinecone when he wasn’t looking. They were not pregnant with meaning. They did not whisper secrets. They just existed. He touched them, experimentally.

Solid.

He pulled on a sweater and went out.

Peary couldn’t afford the bus anymore. His savings were drying up, and a freelancer’s life was hardly Skittles and beer even at the best of times. He walked to the library instead, feeling the chill, smelling the exhaust and the distant echo of a departed hot dog vendor. The streets were quiet today, deserted. It felt like expectation. Peary didn’t know what they were waiting for, couldn’t know what everyone else knew, couldn’t see the way they saw. His stomach rumbled and lurched, full of stimulants and acid, and he tried to ignore the lingering scent of pork by-product and sauerkraut.

The public library was quiet, too, but it was always quiet. No one read much anymore, especially not books. Revelation was faster than research and orders of magnitude more comforting. Just knowing things was what was cool now. Learning was for dinosaurs.

And also for Peary.

The bitterness, he knew, was in some ways the inevitable result of his shelf full of discarded angels and his sense of kinship with the tightly wound dark-haired woman on the news. He tried to accept the resentment and release it, to let himself feel and let the feelings pass. He had an intuition he wouldn’t be able to, though.

The librarian nodded at Peary with a thin-lipped smile. She had a small television behind the counter and was glued to the latest news of angels; they had their own dedicated channel, now. At least her sense of duty had so far won out over her desire to wander the streets in search of enlightenment and spiritual healing. Peary nodded back and headed for the basement.

Paper, especially old paper, develops a characteristic smell as it ages, sometimes sour, sometimes bitter, always dusty. Peary could recognize some of his most-used books in the dark by now. He pulled his backpack open and tugged out his laptop. If he couldn’t know it when he saw it, he could at least research it until he understood it. Chasing obscure references was rapidly becoming the only pleasure left within his diminished reach. He plugged in his computer. The screen flickered to life, a plain black background with notepad files like pigeon droppings, groups in clusters and spirals of his personal correlations. It was almost a diagram in itself. Peary had no idea what it meant.

He settled down to work.

* * *

The first hint he had that something had gone wrong was when the lights went out. In the stacks, this meant Peary was plunged instantly into perfect darkness. His laptop beeped as it went to battery power, the dim blue-gray light of the screen now the only illumination available, making a puddle of light in the unbroken black. Peary sat in a tiny globe of solid space in a vast and intangible void. He hesitated. There was a muffled sound; more of a vibration, felt rather than heard. It reminded Peary of the naval base near his childhood home, when they fired the big guns during drills or demonstrations. He remembered feeling the ground tremble and wondering at it, tiny man-made earthquakes traveling from miles and miles away, their source hidden by the curvature of the planet.

Peary picked up his computer and disconnected the power cable. He left his papers and books where they lay. Using the screen as an awkward flashlight, he made his way carefully out of the basement and up to the first floor. The librarian was gone. The building was empty. From outside, he heard another rumble, sharper now, this one accompanied by a flash of light through the windows. Lightning? He set the laptop on a table and pushed out the front door.

Overhead, the clouds were black and furrowed, like plowed earth. Electricity crawled across them, branching lightning that never touched ground; dozens of hyperkinetic, glowing worms wriggled through the firmament. The streets were as empty as the library. No streetlights glowed. In the distance, Peary thought he could see movement. He glanced at the sky, then hunched his shoulders and went to find out. This was research, too; field research.

The crowds were packed like stacked marbles, like asparagus bundles, like pencils in a box. Peary hit the rear wall of people and could penetrate no further. He was too late, locked outside. Everyone was staring at something in the distance. No one spared him a glance, even when he tugged on their sleeves. Once, a pudgy matron with berries on her hat shushed him without turning her head. Lights flashed somewhere up there, and a finger of cloud was slowly wending down from overhead. A tornado? Here? Peary craned to see. Why weren’t the crowds running? Where was the panic?

Lightning flashed again and again, a celestial strobe light. Peary felt as though the world was on pause, held in place while he scampered back and forth in the background. The crowd gasped suddenly, and Peary jumped like a child trying to see over his parents. The lightning stopped like a mouth snapping shut. Everyone fell to their knees, bowing, throwing themselves on their faces. Peary froze, unsure what to do. The crowd was still and silent, though still a crowd; someone coughed, and someone else shifted their knees arthritically on the asphalt.

Ahead, in the street, a figure appeared. Peary swallowed heavily. It was walking toward him. As it drew nearer in the half-light, he began to make out the details. A pale face with bright red lips. Red hair, short and curly. A yellow jumpsuit. Huge, floppy shoes.

“Ronald?” said Peary, unable to help himself.

“Lord, Lord!” came the murmur as the approaching apparition stepped daintily between the prostrate worshippers.

Peary’s eyes darted from side to side as if trying to flee from his skull. Ronald was staring straight at him. Peary couldn’t move, couldn’t make his legs turn and carry him away. Wasn’t sure if he even wanted to.

Ronald stepped free of the last of the crowd and stood before Peary. Peary met those terrible eyes, panic in his gut.

“It’s a hap-hap-happy place,” said Ronald. He spoke as if imparting some deep secret, some ultimate wisdom. He reached out and gripped Peary’s shoulder. He smiled, but his eyes were sad, wide and brown and soulful as a cow’s. “It’s a clean and snappy place.”

“Why?” Peary managed to gasp between dry lips.

“Have you had your break today?” Ronald extended his other hand. He held a hamburger, warm and fresh from the griddle. He pulled Peary’s hands forward and deposited the burger in them. Hot grease dripped on Peary’s wrists and burned there. Ronald held Peary’s gaze for a moment longer, as though searching for something, some response, some glimmer of kindled understanding. He smelled of salt and greasepaint. “I’m lovin’ it.” His grip tightened. “I’m. Lovin’. It.”

With a rustle of polyester, the clown turned and walked away. Peary held the burger and watched him go. Already, the crowds were turning, questions in their eyes. Peary saw hope, fear, anger, lust, the whole panoply of human emotion sprayed haphazardly across the sea of faces. The whispers started again, the questions, the desires, the need to know. Ronald had spoken to no one else. Only Peary held a gift from on high. He wasn’t famous, not even Internet-famous. He was no one, a nonentity. He was everyone. He was a prophet.

Peary stood his ground as the crowd came back to themselves, as if awakening from a dream. His stomach gurgled; he never had gotten anything to eat that day.

Lifting the burger, Peary smelled the grade D meat and the soy filler, the rehydrated onions and the sour-sweet pickles, the tang of “fancy” ketchup and cheap yellow mustard. He wondered what it looked like to everyone else. He wondered if they saw the same thing he did.

He wondered if it mattered.

He took a bite.

It was delicious.

 
 

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me_NLNathaniel Lee lives and works less than willingly in North Carolina with his spouse and son. His fiction appears in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Ideomancer, and Daily Science Fiction, as well as dozens of other online and print venues. He also works as the assistant/managing editor for Escape Pod and the Drabblecast, respectively.

He says, “The genesis, if you will, of ‘All the Tribes of the Earth Shall Mourn’ has its roots in my childhood and teenage years. I attended small Christian schools from seventh grade on, after getting beaten up one too many times in public school. My reception there was warm—suspiciously so, to my paranoid way of thinking—and I spent months waiting for the other shoe to drop. Perhaps as much because of that unexpected and (at that time) utterly unfamiliar experience of being welcomed, I spent about a decade and a half as a Christian myself. To a certain extent, however, I was always a bit befuddled by many of the things I saw around me during my time in the Evangelical subculture. This story is one of my guesses at what it would be like if the person in such a situation were a prophet instead of just a very minor lay member.”

 

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