PseudoPod 839: The Only Thing Different Will Be the Body
The Only Thing Different Will Be The Body
by J.A.W. McCarthy
My great-grandfather was an angel.
When I told men that, they laughed. When I made it clear I was serious, they looked at me like I was crazy. For some, their eyes took on a blood-flushed sheen as they calculated the kind of fuck I’d be. Those men were the typical ones, the wrong ones. The best ones—the almost, maybe, please be right ones—dared me to prove it.
Tonight’s man—Aaron, as he introduced himself upon pouring my third drink—grinned, lips parted on the edge of a laugh, when I told him. His smile twitched then flattened as I let the silence hang in the air between us. Prosecco sat uncorked, warming in the tepid swirl of bodies all around us. Marshmallowy perfume and patchouli-heavy body spray muddied the rich spice of the bourbon in front of me. Aaron’s eyes wandered somewhere beyond my head, perhaps assessing who might’ve heard my declaration and if they would judge his response. Still, I said nothing. Aaron cleared his throat.
“Define angel,” he said, a hint of a grin still hanging on.
“A celestial being, fallen from heaven.”
This was what I told all the men, what they wanted to hear. One in a million, the rare angel that tumbled from the clouds due to a terrible accident or perceived sin—the story changed depending on my mood—now resigned to a mortal life on earth. Mortal body, mundane worries, with the exception of a ticket straight to heaven and the possibility of future falls that would equate to eternal life on earth. My angel great-grandfather was raised by a homemaker and a traveling salesman. He met my great-grandmother in church, where she led the choir. He learned to affix doors to mid-sized sedans at a Chrysler plant in Missouri. They had three sons and one daughter, six grandchildren, seven great—
“But… I thought angels don’t have, uh, genitals, so they can’t reproduce,” Aaron said, fiddling with the cups of garnishes lining the bar between us.
“Mortal body,” I reminded him.
None of my great-grandfather’s descendants were angels, though; it’s not something that can be passed down. Angels fall from heaven, but most of them don’t know that. Once they enter the earth’s atmosphere, their wings sizzle then shrivel like meat in a frying pan, sliding from their shoulder blades, same as a scab or flake of dandruff to be swept into the garbage or rot unnoticed in the dirt, before their human mind finds consciousness. Most spend the entirety of their human lives with no knowledge of their divine lineage, except for a rare few who discover the truth.
This was the part of the story where the guy would make the usual joke about how I must hurt since I too had fallen from heaven. As stupid as it was, I would laugh because I wanted them to leave with me. Aaron, though, didn’t need me to laugh at another lame joke.
“So, when did your great-grandfather find out he was an angel?” he asked, shaking a martini for the woman next to me. He muddled mint and sugar with his other hand, eyes on that glass so I couldn’t tell if he was messing with me or if he was truly interested.
“He always knew,” I said. “He liked to lord it over everyone. He got people to do whatever he wanted because they thought he’d take them to heaven with him.”
Aaron poured the martini into a glass, topped it off with an olive, and placed it in front of the waiting woman. His eyes lingered on her, his grin devouring her polite, “Thank you.” I’d noticed this woman too, comparing her long blonde hair and wide mouth to my own pleasant but unremarkable features. Even in a plain t-shirt she looked both sophisticated and welcoming, that perfect edge of youth that made her an appealing and acceptable kind of vulnerable. Despite my age, I still got carded, but my face displayed the kind of youthfulness that made men nervous. They usually didn’t want that kind of attention.
“Why did people believe him, your great-grandfather?” Aaron asked me, still watching the woman as she took her first sip. She didn’t need a good story to hold a man’s attention.
“His wings grew back.”
“Oh yeah?” That got him. Now his eyes were back on me, hands busy stirring bourbon into the muddled mint and sugar. “You got a picture of him?
“I have something better.”
Aaron raised an eyebrow, his mouth taking on a curious if skeptical little grin. There was a glint in his eyes, that wet look of blood vessels swelling with anticipation. The woman next to me receded into the crowd.
“Prove it,” he said.
On his deathbed, clutching his daughter’s hand so tight she thought he’d pull her skin right off if she so much as twitched, my great-grandfather said, “Don’t you worry, sweetheart. I promise, this isn’t the end of me. I will come back. The only thing different will be the body.”
After his human form expired, the family waited for him to ascend before their eyes, anticipating a majestic set of wings to unfurl as his body was sucked into the heavens in a golden shaft of light. Instead, he lay there on his sweat-stained sheets, jaw dropped open, for three days before the family finally buried him. My grandmother—his daughter—was the one who cut the stunted, curled wings from his back. She didn’t see how those featherless limbs of webbed flesh over knobby-boned armature could fly her father all the way to heaven, but his deathbed promise cast a shadow over her every waking moment. To her brothers’ horror, she tried to burn the wings in the backyard, but the boys were able to save one of them. They made it into a relic, this holy remnant of their father, no bigger than a child’s arm. It was about as majestic as the newspaper-lined apple crate they kept it in.
The wing was passed down to the next generation, a token of the power in our bloodline, a power that my grandmother often reminded was not actually in our blood. “He can’t come back,” she would say, sadness, caution, or dread in her tone, depending on her mood that day. She wouldn’t elaborate, and she never said such words in front of her brothers.
The wing withered to nothing more than a slab of jerky on bone, much like my great-grandfather’s earthly form in the ground. His sons and grandsons waited for him to return, but the babies born into our family never landed bruised and ready to claim their glory. Generations of men rubbed that desiccated bit of angel flesh against their lips, eyes wet and feverish with prayer. They took their shirts off in front of mirrors and made their wives feel for stray nubs of bone sprung from their shoulder blades every night before bed. The women sighed and kept their secrets.
After the expectations dwindled, half of my family became even more fervently religious, sure that the angel would grace us with his presence again if we could just be more patient, if we could just believe. The other half—the women—swore my great-grandfather was proof there is no God, and never set foot in a church again.
As Aaron and I stood in my storage unit, I held the wooden box aloft, revealing the mummified length of flesh and bone atop crumpled newspaper.
“Jesus!” he exclaimed, taking a step back. His face was pinched as if anticipating the pungent odor of decay instead of the mild mustiness that dissipated in the air between us.
All the men reacted this way upon seeing the angel wing, but for most it was because they didn’t believe there would actually be anything in the box. Even after I told them the story of how the wing came into my possession, these men still believed it was an elaborate joke or a delusion they needed to humor in order to get into my pants.
“You’re shitting me, right? That’s, like, a seagull wing or something.”
“Do you see any feathers?” I asked.
Aaron approached the box again, daring a peek inside. I could admit that even though the wing wasn’t much more than a few scraps of leather on bone, it was still alarming to see, a piece of a corpse carelessly preserved by time and a lazy hand.
“You got me,” he said, a tight-lipped little grin surfacing as he shook his head. “That’s, like, something you found on the beach. I knew it.”
“Then why did you come here?”
I waited a beat, but he didn’t answer. None of them were ever willing to say it out loud.
“The men in my family believed they’d become angels too if they consumed a piece of my great-grandfather,” I said, setting the box back on the antique oak dresser that had also been in my family for generations. I leaned against the wall and watched Aaron’s chin recede into his neck in a look of disgust and disbelief.
“I thought you said it can’t be passed down.”
“That didn’t stop them.”
Arms crossed, Aaron leaned over the box again. “So they actually… ate pieces of this—your great-grandfather—like… cannibalism?”
I joined him in peering into the box, lingering as if we both expected our faces to light up with a reflected glow. I never saw that happen myself, but I knew some men did by the way they reacted, that prick of recognition then the gob smacked gloss when the promise of heaven unfolded in their widening eyes. That moment when the unthinkable became not only palatable but paramount.
“See that there, all these gaps?” I said, pointing out the snippets of naked bone between islands of tattered leather. What was left of the flesh was torn and pocked, a veil of desiccated skin and muscle at one time carefully pinched and picked by fingers searching for glory. I could imagine what it had felt like between the teeth of the men in my family, molars grinding meat that in the end gave the lucky ones nothing more than a stomachache and a bruised ego. “That’s where they tore a piece off,” I said.
Aaron’s grimace resurfaced. “And they ate it? Seriously?”
“You know how Victorians used to eat Egyptian mummies because they thought it could cure illnesses? It’s just meat.”
“You’re fucking with me,” he said.
“Why should I?”
I offered him my best coy smile. “Maybe it’s you. Maybe you’re an angel.”
Aaron laughed. “What about you?” he asked, closing in on me. He ran gentle fingers against my temple, pushing the hair from my face. “Did you try it? Are you an angel?”
“Sadly, no, I’m not an angel.”
He leaned in to kiss me, but I pressed my lips together and turned away.
“Not until you try it.”
“You’re serious?” Stepping back, he turned from me, his eyes traveling the confines of the storage unit, the heavy furniture lining the walls, the harsh fluorescent light overhead, the metal door I’d rolled back down. I wondered if he was cataloging every heavy lamp and book-laden box within his reach, anything that could do some damage no matter how temporary. “What was I thinking?” he asked, and gave a little shrug of a laugh. I knew the regret was setting in, the realization he should’ve kept his attention on the beautiful blonde woman at the bar instead of leaving with me. “I thought that was just a story to get me to—I mean, is this your idea of a game? I don’t know why the fuck I came here.”
“Consider yourself lucky you didn’t have to think about it.”
I reached into the wooden box and stroked the length of the wing, making sure Aaron’s eyes followed as I pulled a flap of dry, brown flesh between my fingers. There wasn’t much left to choose from, just a few little pieces of petrified skin and muscle clinging to grey striated bone. “It’s simple, really,” I said. “You could spend your life thinking you’re nothing special, wasting every opportunity because you were never tested. But this,” I tugged on the flesh, “this could change everything. If you’re an angel, that’s power. That’s a ticket to heaven. That’s eternal life. Isn’t that what we all want?”
Aaron didn’t say anything. He continued to stare at the wing in the box, skepticism tightening his brow and jaw. But in his eyes—that was different. His pale eyes shone with anticipation—just a spark, but it was enough—neurons firing, daring his fingers to touch that artifact of wizened skin and bone as I had. That promise, no matter how ridiculous, was ready to be tested with a why not? He was almost there.
“You want more proof?” I asked.
I opened the top drawer of the oak dresser and pulled out the photo I kept under the sweaters and blouses that hadn’t been fashionable in decades. It was the only photo I’d kept, the only photo I hadn’t burned. Aaron took it and turned it over in his hand.
Papa & Hilda 1947, written on the back in spiky cursive. I couldn’t remember—which of the boys had written that? In the faded black and white portrait, middle-aged Papa sat on the back steps of the family home, his seventeen-year-old daughter perched on the step below him. While his limbs were spread, relaxed, a grin—almost smug—on his trim face, Hilda kept her arms and legs pinned tight to her center, ankles crossed, hands clutching her elbows. Her smile was forced, ready to break if her brother didn’t hurry up and snap that fucking photo already. One of her father’s wings was tucked behind his back, only the tip visible. The other stunted, featherless wing was wrapped around his daughter.
That webbed flesh, speckled with red and blue veins, the skin between the armature of bone so thin you could see the sunlight right through it—that had always disgusted Hilda. His touch had been even worse, a pair of extra limbs he could take out and stow away at will. Even if he merely brushed past her in the hall his odor of pipe tobacco and sour milk would cling to her hair and clothes, and he would ensconce himself in the bathroom when all she wanted was to wash his smell off her. “Hilda!” he would call from behind the always cracked-open door. Her brothers would laugh as she grabbed the washcloth, the tears already starting.
Aaron looked from the photo to me, then back again. “The woman—”
“That’s my grandmother.”
“You look just like her.” He gave a little chuckle before handing the photo back to me. “If this is real, shouldn’t this be in a museum or something? Shouldn’t your family be famous?”
“It’s better that no one believes us.”
Nodding, he turned so we stood side by side, the dresser and the wing in its box behind us. His knuckles grazed my thigh, fingers lingering on the way down.
“I know why I came here.” He let the admission hang as if it was an intimate confession, a vulnerability that was supposed to draw me closer to him. “So, why did you invite me? Why do you care if I believe you?”
I pushed my thigh against his, just light enough to make him question if the movement was intentional or clumsy. Over the years I’d learned you always have to give a little to survive. “I saw something in you. I thought you might be the one. An angel.”
Aaron raised an eyebrow. There was that glint in his eyes again, blood moving, calculating, hope restored. “You do this with a lot of guys?”
“Every man I meet.”
This time I kissed him, my hands on his shoulders, the sweet hot spice of bourbon still on our tongues. His hands found my waist and he pulled me into him, thumbs pressing down to my hipbones as if he was worried I might change my mind. At the bar it had been impossible to smell anything over the suffocating blanket of dozens of colognes and perfumes, the hot breath of beer and charcuterie every time the patrons around me opened their mouths, maybe a hint of B.O. when someone brushed by me on the way to the bathroom. Though only inches from me as we’d talked, I hadn’t been able to smell Aaron from behind the miasma. Now, alone and skin on skin, I got what I needed. He smelled of pink hand soap, and pocket weed, and under that something familiar. The treacly vanilla and spice of pipe tobacco. Mildewy towels. The expired-milk tang of dried sweat on cooled skin…
Lips locked together, I pulled away. I didn’t want Aaron to feel me gag.
I didn’t answer. I gave him another coy smile, then reached into the box and tore free a swatch of shriveled flesh from where the wing once met the body. It came away easily, not much left to anchor it to the bone.
As Aaron watched, I opened my mouth wide and placed the piece of skin on my tongue.
He blanched as I made a show of grinding the skin between my teeth. “No way!” he shrieked, but he didn’t look away. The initial disgust on his face turned to the broad lift of excitement.
Now the wing was singing, and if there was a glow, Aaron was finally seeing it. He peered into the box again and reached a tentative hand towards the wing. It was when his finger grazed the leather that it happened: the subtle vibration as his limbs stiffened; the recoil of his finger from the length of flesh he’d chosen, a mixture of repulsion and pain on his face as if the wing had burned him; one, then two fingers sliding right back onto that petrified wing when the lure became overwhelming; the bright pop of a gasp as he realized exactly what he was in the presence of. He folded to it, both hands in the box now. There was no blood left in that wing, but its DNA was alive, same as my blood, ready to flow into Aaron as he opened himself up to every possibility.
“Just a taste,” I warned him. “There’s not much left, okay?”
This time, he didn’t hesitate as he freed a scrap of petrified flesh from between the radius and ulna. We faced each other, a thread of excitement trilling between us, that sacrament I’d been chasing since Papa died, since I realized what I could do. Just a scrap of an old deluded dead man imbued with more power than any one person—angel or not—should have. That power was now tucked under my tongue, bloated from my saliva, celestial leather pushing the musty blandness of fingernails and dried skin and other benign human detritus against my gums. I leaned into Aaron and kissed him again, tongue pushing against his so he could taste what I had. When he pulled back, I knew he was ready.
At my nod, he placed the scrap of angel flesh on his tongue.
I watched as that little piece of Papa’s body moved around in Aaron’s mouth, passed from molar to molar, bisected with great effort then tested on his tongue. His eyes narrowed as he worked to discern the flavors of rancid meat or dried blood, then widened in surprise when he didn’t find either. All of the men had been surprised; eating a piece of an angel wasn’t any more shocking than nibbling on a scab.
When Aaron appeared to stop chewing, the whisper of dried flesh between his own bones snuffed out, I opened my mouth and revealed the piece still on my tongue. I made a show of curling it to the back of my throat, then closed my mouth and—clutching the scrap of wing between my molars—made sure he saw me swallow.
“Eternal life, right?” I gave an easy little laugh.
He grinned and swallowed too.
“Fuck. I can’t believe I did that,” he said after swallowing again. His face flushed with a rush of adrenaline and pride, lust giving way to a different kind of hunger.
I glanced back at the box. Eight, maybe nine little flags of skin left. Time would deteriorate them further, reduce what little flesh remained to scraps too tough to chew but not enough to make anything happen—not for my needs anyway. Seeing Aaron’s face, the glow as he stood there, buzzing, both stunned and elated, assured me I’d chosen correctly.
“Do you remember my name?” I asked.
“Huh? Yeah, of course, uh…” He paused, eyes dilated, struggling to focus on me as his mind caught up to the subtle changes taking place in his body. “Heidi… Hil…? Fuck, sorry. It’s Hilary. Hilary.”
I held up the photo again, but he didn’t need to see it. As he realized what was happening—the seed already taken root in his stomach, sprouting in his bloodstream, racing long fingers up his spine to anchor in his shoulder blades—he stumbled backwards, arms crossed, hands reaching towards his back. My name didn’t matter. My words didn’t matter. Even if, in that moment when he touched the angel wing, he had believed me without reservation, it hadn’t occurred to him how it would feel to become an angel.
Or what an angel really was.
“Hilda,” I said.
Aaron reached out, grabbing the edge of the oak dresser, fingers flailing desperately towards the wooden box before I pulled it out of his reach. His face was bright red now, eyes bulging and mouth agape in a silent gasp. He looked like my brothers. Not all of them. Just the lucky one.He looked like my brothers, the lucky one anyway.
As his shirt bulged behind him, he made a wet gurgling sound then fell to his knees. He looked at me one last time, eyes pleading, then went face down on the concrete floor.
I spit out the flesh I’d been holding in my mouth and got to work.
The first time I tasted my father’s flesh, all I got was a stomachache. My brothers wouldn’t allow me near the remaining wing after I’d thrown those pieces of our father in the fire, but I stole a piece months later, after the flesh had dried to leather and it somehow seemed less repulsive, just a bit of magical jerky, as the Victorians must have thought of those mummies they consumed. Crouched under the basement stairs, I ground the strip of flesh between my teeth and marveled at how it didn’t taste like the chicken I’d imagined at best, or the pork fat I’d expected at worst. I swallowed, kept it down, and waited for wings to erupt from my own shoulder blades. Though I never fully believed I would become an angel—I ate that piece of flesh because it was a satisfying farewell to a man who would’ve burned his Bible at the thought of a woman ascending into God’s graces—I took pleasure in imagining how I would make my brothers wash my wings before I crushed them and took my place in paradise, leaving them to cry and plead in my shadow. The promise died that night with a dose of Pepso-Ginger, as quietly and inauspiciously as my father had expired in his bed.
My brothers intended to wait until they deemed an adequate period of mourning had passed, but the temptation to taste the wing broke them before their black suits were tucked back into the closet. Theodore, the oldest, tasted first, not noticing I’d torn a piece from the tattered edge of where the wing had been bound to our father’s body. I watched from the kitchen window as the boys formed a circle in the backyard, Thomas and Harold’s faces stretched in awe and reverence as they waited for Theodore to bathe them in his heavenly birthright. When Theodore doubled over in pain, the other boys dropped to their knees, palms raised to the sky. Theodore died five days later in our father’s bed, tears in his eyes as he told me how the body should have been his.
Despite what they’d witnessed, my two remaining brothers repeated the ritual a month after Theodore’s death, this time prefacing their communion with hours of feverish prayer in the basement before consuming their pieces. Thomas died within hours. Harold, experiencing neither illness nor glory, went back and ate a full quarter of the wing. Salvation or suicide, I wasn’t sure.
To my surprise, Harold survived. I thought he’d become ill like I had, but the only ache he experienced was from his shoulder blades stretching into the armature of wings. Once the pain of rapidly expanding bone and skin subsided, he took on a wild-eyed glow and talked of his impending fame and fortune. We would go on the road, he said, and I would receive the honor of attending to his needs while he was feted in churches and adored in Hollywood. “Finally, a purpose for you, Hilda,” he crowed, hovering to assure I cooked a meal worthy of his new magnificence. He demanded I save his sheets—“We’ll sell them as holy artifacts!”—but I couldn’t bear the smells of lukewarm milk and oily skin that permeated every room of our house. When Harold wrapped his wing around me, I was in our father’s embrace, that veiny webbed flesh marking me, making me his.
One night, while he slept, I took a kitchen knife to my brother’s throat, ready and willing to suffer eternal damnation for killing an angel. After Harold took his last breath, I cut his wings from his back. This time, instead of throwing them in the fire, I stored them in the basement, in their own apple crate next to our father’s.
Those wings, once mummified, called to me. Leather and bone sang in the basement—what I imagined every man in my family must have heard—and it didn’t take long for me to answer. I tasted, and with enough tastes ceased to become ill, not even with a stomachache. In the first year, I ate an entire wing.
From that first bite forward, I never aged a day.
Aaron’s wings emerged in a matter of hours, buds bursting abruptly through the back of his shirt while he bled out from a severed throat on the floor of my storage unit. I sliced the buds open and unfolded wings as delicate and firmly seeded as an ingrown hair. If I’d let him live—if I’d somehow convinced him to keep his transformation a secret and stay with me, live with me—those wings would have grown bigger, perhaps even eclipsing the size of a child’s arm. At the time of his death they would yield enough meat so that I could go longer between these kills. But I didn’t have that kind of time.
Besides, I’d already lived with an angel. I’d already lived through the ego and the injustice and the all-consuming ferocious hunger for power. Being of service to them—Papa and Harold—was enough for all my lifetimes.
I never thought I’d be seeking out these men, hoping to invite one of these terrible angels into my life, but once I took my brother’s wings and discovered what they could do for me, I never consumed my father’s flesh again. I only have to touch what’s left of him in these demonstrations, to lure new men—new angels—on which to feed. Papa has served his purpose in a way he never intended. With these new angels, I have learned to use the primal urge to mate to my advantage. And I’ve gotten very good with a knife.
After a few strategic cuts, Aaron’s wings disarticulated with the satisfying pop of cartilage releasing bone. The sour milk and mildewy odors eclipsed that of blood almost immediately. I’ve never understood why the pipe tobacco lingers, even in men who’ve never smoked. I guess that’s a piece of my father, stubbornly living on in every angel that’s awoken upon consuming him.
As I drained the wings over a bucket, I gripped the bones beneath the skin and remembered how Papa’s wing had felt around my shoulders. How my brother Harold’s wings had tried to make the same marks. I can do this—finding angels, killing them, taking their wings—forever, but, as my father said, each time the only thing different is the body, and I can’t find all the bodies. There are other angels out there, falling to earth every day, and I know there are other women out there like me. Other women who haven’t lost sight of the goal, who won’t get lost in the unexpected bonus of eternal life.
There have to be.
About the Author
J.A.W. McCarthy is the author of Sometimes We’re Cruel and Other Stories (Cemetery Gates Media, 2021) and Sleep Alone (Off Limits Press, forthcoming 2023). Her short fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including Vastarien, LampLight, Apparition Lit, Tales to Terrify, and The Best Horror of the Year Vol 13 (ed. Ellen Datlow). She lives with her husband and assistant cats in the Pacific Northwest, where she gets most of her ideas late at night, while she’s trying to sleep. You can call her Jen on Twitter @JAWMcCarthy, and find out more at www.jawmccarthy.com.
About the Narrator
Julia Rios is a writer, editor, podcaster, and narrator. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in several places, including Daily Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, and Goblin Fruit. She was a fiction editor for Strange Horizons from 2012 to 2015, and is currently the poetry and reprints editor for Uncanny Magazine and co-editor with Alisa Krasnostein of Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories, and the Year’s Best YA Speculative Fiction series. She is also a co-host of the Hugo-nominated podcast, The Skiffy and Fanty Show, a general discussion, interview, and movie review show. She has narrated stories for Podcastle, Pseudopod, and Cast of Wonders, and poems for the Strange Horizons podcast.