's 2019 Horror Write-off:

Angel Territory

Submitted by Jasper Belknap

What was the phrase? Water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.

The marshes stank, choked with disease and carrion. Stilt-waders with their long, narrow beaks stalked the waters, scooping up whatever lived or died that would fit in their highly acidic stomachs. They left us alone, even respectfully shuffled to let us pass in our meandering boats. Their blank, beady eyes seemed to pity us.

The boats were made from the huge, waxy leaves of the thick-rooted tree that squatted along the narrow stripes of land, coated together with sticky fat, and paddled gently across the deadly waters. We tossed a handful of spiked seeds into the water intermittently. These choked the fish that would otherwise tear off bits of the vegetable matter.

Our daily pilgrimage was all we knew at this point. We could not live where the water was clean, and we could not drink the marshwater. No available resources or knowledge at our command could filter the water of the toxins and microorganisms that came down in rains alongside the arrival of the angels.

The angels lived in the clear spot on the horizon where clouds never formed. We never saw them, but we knew. We paddled the channel every day, avoiding banks where the roaring junglecats, driven mad by their new eyes, paced restlessly. They were waiting for something to kill or to be killed. Sometimes they’d simply end up in the water, floating lifelessly, untouched until they decayed into pieces small enough for the stilt-waders. Their eyes oozed like a runny egg across the water’s tense surface. We made sure not to pass too close.

Where the angels lived, the water just stopped. No trees, no land. Just a large, jagged hole cut into the earth, reaching deep down into sightless depths, the marshwater barely trickling down.

And far out and above, in the epicenter of that earthless expanse, was clean water.

It held a shape, certainly, though not one of any specific geometric sense, and the angels seemed to mold it from day to day, like one might a ball of clay when absently passing it between hands.

Each day, a smaller nodule of pure liquid had been separated, and brought to rest over the very edge of the marsh’s stagnant waters. Just for us.
It was only ever enough to fill a small, bent tin cup. Our throats begged for more. We were no longer content to suffer. This time, we weren’t leaving yet.
It took a while to plan, longer to set up. The second boat had already been made, so food could be sought while the water boat was out. We had had a bumper crop of the spikeseeds, which unfurled themselves to us with heat, allowing the hunters’ boat to be utilized for a day.

It had also taken many weeks to prepare the rope.

On the far side of the rounded chasm, a stone sailed through the air, tailed by a tattering of rope twisting in the wind. It sunk into the marshwater, and we retrieved it with a long, hooked pole, grabbing hold of the braid with gloved hands. We tied it to the closest tree - no easy feat, on a small boat beside it - looping and sinching both lines of connected rope tight around the fat, stunted trunk that diverged halfway up to lean menacingly into angel territory.

With both sides tied, the rope straightened out into two lines running parallel across the chasm, intermittently connected, like a soft, frustrating ladder, laid horizontally. It swayed in the breeze, sagged in the middle, and hung far more than an arm’s reach below the clear water.

We had drawn lots to decide the burden.

So overwhelmingly, suddenly separate, I eased onto the rope. Testing its tension and strength with one foot, carefully and quickly moving the other over. It was not too hard. As long as I stepped carefully, the connecting ropes were close enough together that I would not be balancing on just one per foot.

I was handed the long, wooden pole. Another delay. It was cleverly made - a long branch, carved straight, and forked into a Y on each end. More rope was threaded through the forks, holding solid waxed buckets jostling freely within the pit of the Y.

It was still a long shot at best. But we had no choice.

I made my way, slowly, tenderly, across the rope bridge. The pole provided some balance. I made sure not to look down; only at the clean, pure water ahead, glinting in the cloudless expanse.

I never wavered or lost my footing. But we all had agreed, the way there was not the hard part.

Looking straight up into the water was dizzying, swimming like near-death. The blinding blue circle of sky was barely tempered through the liquid, and I had to squint as I raised the pole up, up, until the bucket’s lip smoothly broke into the water’s surface - with no surrounding disturbance.

I tensed, and waited. Tilted the bucket further in, and pulled it out, filled to the brim with water. Up went the other as I struggled not to drop the pole, one side now unwieldingly heavier. The air in the bucket, rising straight up from underneath, displaced the water with its surface tension, requiring a small shake to trigger a deluge into the container, the force of which almost staggered me. And still, the water’s surface did not disturb. And still, all was silent.

I balanced the pole across my shoulders like an oxen’s yoke or a bowed milkmaid. I hesitated for some wordless reason. Beyond the remaining length of the rope bridge waited, hidden among the trees on the far side, the hunters’ boat. There would be more strain now, but the return trip was feasible with the new counterweights. Here I was, waiting in between.

“Why do you hesitate?” a voice asked me.

The suspended water had changed. It was still clear as crystal, but it held itself now in a perfect, flawless sphere, alone against the blinding backdrop of the clear blue sky. A cold, colorless light flashed across its surface, rounding the curve and stopping organically, with some overshoot and correction, nearest to me as it could get. A swarm of dancing lights, a reflection of a reflection. Staring.

“You didn’t think you would get this far.”

The voice was unaffected, completely natural and conversational. There was no audibly or visually discernible origin, but the swarm of reflections wavered as it spoke, spreading slightly and remassing in its silence.

“No,” I said.

“So why,” it replied, the lights buzzing, “did you do it? If you expected this.”

The weight of the yoke, buckets leaden down with water, burned on my shoulders, in my calves, as I strained and cramped my feet on the raw-textured rope.

“To take a risk is better than to lay down and die.”

“Is it now.” It said this with no inflection. “Is it really so much better? To enter a war you have no chance of winning?”

“There’s only a chance if we try.”

“Your struggle is fascinating,” said the angel, for that is surely what it was. “To be so weak and have an ego so loud. To bite the giant’s toe and never let go, even when he is reaching to crush you like a bothersome ant.”

“If we may not live, we struggle so that others might. To survive is human nature.”

“If you can call it survival, what you’re doing,” said the angel, “and if you believe you are anywhere near as human as We.”

“You are cruel,” I snapped foolishly at the swarming lights, seeming to multiply within the water’s surface. “You are cruel to have done this to us.”

“Cruelty is defined by those who survive,” it said. Its voice had not changed all this time from the blank, conversational tone, but I could feel a cold, deep, disdaining hatred entirely beyond my understanding. “We are surviving, too.”

The lights rolled back into the sphere, disappearing as it lost its shape, roiling and slowly, painstakingly draining from whatever held it together - falling down, down into the black abyss below.

It began to rain.