I hope you enjoy this story, at least as an entertaining diversion from all the news.
Ain’t No Grave: A Triptych.
It was just before dawn on Sunday –it was a lazy, chilly, midsummer morning; one of those times where the damp of the heavy pre-dawn dew makes rheumatics of us all. The fog lay sluggardly in the little valleys, while the little hills of the local terrain barley poked through the fog to observe the allegedly rosy fingers of the dawn. On every other foggy morning, the people of the little town in the little valley knew by experience that it would take the sun a number of hours to bake all the fog off and clear up the day. Nevertheless, Rudy pulled his mower (the one of the older riding kinds) off his trailer and into the town cemetery. The grass needed mowing, and he’d put it off and put it off, though it was his job and he got paid for it, and now there was a funeral today, so it had to be done.
He started it up just as the dim twilight of dawn shifted and the shadows appeared on the hilltops. Here in the cemetery, not quite at the bottom of the valley, but still below the fog, the visibility was low. Rudy put on his headphones and cranked the music so he could hear it over the mower. As he mowed, a shadow moved. It was just in the corner of his eye. Then he felt a bump and knew that something like a big stick had gone through the mower. It couldn’t have been a stick though, as there were no trees in or near the boneyard. He kept mowing and jumped: he’d jumped at one of the grave marker obelisks. It had crept up on him. Crunch! Just as his heart slowed back down, he hit another big stick, a little rotten too, if the sound said anything.
Rudy got down from his mower, and that’s when they got him. They swarmed out of the fog. They ate him alive. Two of them were missing a hand.
By midday in middle America on that Sunday, everyone everywhere knew what was happening. If scientists somewhere had an explanation, there was no way of finding out. The dead were not as dead as they had been and (in some people’s mind) seemed to be getting less and less dead by the minute. The useless wags pointed out that ‘Zombie’ was a particular thing, the creation of a Voodoo master not the general reemergence of all the dead bodies. The slightly less useless clucking hens said that the movies would call them zombies, zombies they were. The bold useless people discovered that removing the head or destroying the brain was not effective in stopping these zombies. A small group of the latter category of useless people were holding a defensive position on the south side of a street. The panic of the zombie appearances had led to looting, pillage and burning of the cities by a great number of panicked but otherwise totally normal people. Buildings were burning, and women who were sane this morning were walking out into the street to hack other woman to death: or to set a man on fire. It seemed though, as the little group watched, that none of the victims died: they walked (or dragged themselves) away from the scene of their murder to commit atrocities of their own.
The little group looked into the street. In the midst of this screaming frenzy and the smell of burnt hair, a man of nondescript age sat, reading a book of poems. And around him swirled the chaos and the crimes of the day.
‘Hallo!!!’ Called the de facto leader of the small group, ‘Why don’t you come over here with us, it’s safer here!’
‘Is it?’ the man said.
Nevertheless he walked over to where they huddled together. He walked slowly, deliberately over, still reading for a moment when he arrived.
He looked up and said ‘Why do you think so?’
The leader said: ‘What? What are you talking about?’
‘You said it was safer over here.’
‘Of course it is, we all still have our minds and we have some weapons too.’
‘You’ve seen someone get killed today?’
‘What happened next?’
‘They didn’t actually die’ He admitted grudgingly.
‘What were you reading?’
‘Donne: would you like to hear some?’
The man did not give them a chance to say anything: he immediately began reading:
At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scatter’d bodies go;
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you whose eyes
Shall behold God and never taste death’s woe.
But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space,
For if above all these my sins abound,
‘Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace
When we are there; here on this lowly ground
Teach me how to repent; for that’s as good
As if thou’hadst seal’d my pardon with thy blood.
They all decided that the poetry enthusiast was just as crazed as the woman who had lit herself and her family on fire in the street, just a different insanity.
At that moment, the undead and the maddened living seemed to have run out of other victims and they began to draw nearer and nearer. The zombies approached nearer and nearer. The group fired their guns into the ever larger crowd of zombies, but not even shooting them in the head stopped them for long. Their heads healed. Well, they didn’t really heal. The zombies were clearly in agony and their agony clearly increased when you hurt them. And when you blew off their head with a shotgun, the bits of it seemed to reassemble themselves somewhat where they belonged. Not quite the right way, though. And the agony of the zombie-person was apparently increased. Certainly their rage was. So the fight became a shoving contest, one small group of (fairly) sane people against an ever growing horde of furious, pain filled, zombies.
The poetry man was fighting back too, with all his strength (which seemed to be greater than theirs). He shouted encouragement and exhorted them to stand and fight, and to not lay down on the ground with the hopeless ones. When they had nearly fallen: when their hearts had nearly broken: a man leapt off the roof above them and landed right in the middle of their nearly crushed group. He laughed, a deep chest-ful laugh, and he stepped to the front of the group. He was a walking anachronism. He had on blue jeans and a leather coat, but rather incongruously, he carried a spear. He said (again in his voice full of chest) ‘Stand back, my brothers, and rest: for your battle is over and has been won.’ The battle between the spearman and the zombies was short lived. During the battle it seemed to their eyes that those pierced by the spear dissipated rather than lived on. At some point, the zombies fled.
There didn’t seem to be much worth doing, so going for a country drive made sense. The late afternoon sun burned warmly through his window. He smiled when the opening beats of ‘Ain’t No Grave’ came from his truck speakers. The cities burned and everything was happening too fast to really affect the countryside yet. There really wasn’t time for swarms of people to leave the cities: they probably got devoured instead. Eventually, he supposed, the zombies would pour out of the cities… but maybe not. Anyway, on he drove. ‘Ain’t no grave can hold their bodies down…’ Johnny sang. He thought, and drove on.
Have you ever driven through the vast seemingly empty rural America? If you have you’ve seen the churches in the middle of nowhere. They were for the farmers: the farmers would form the congregation and there wasn’t any real reason that a church had to be in a town, the town would be too far. (There used to be a lot of schools like that too, sitting alone on a hilltop, waiting for the farmer kids who no longer come.)
Well, the road he was on came to a T, and at the other side sat a big brick church. As he stopped at the intersection the bells began to ring. Each time it rang, he felt it shake him to his soul more and more. Perhaps it was the emotion of the day, the apocalyptic feel, but he could not resist getting out of his truck and walking, slowly, to the church doors.
He stepped inside. The smell of an old country church is nearly unique. It smells of old (but not rotting) woodwork and stale candle smoke perhaps. It is a hard smell to pin down, but if you have ever stepped into an old country church, whether it be Lutheran (for the Germans) or Catholic (for the Poles), they smell the same. It’s a good smell, though an old smell. Perhaps they always have smelled like that, perhaps that is the smell of the ancient faith swirling around the sanctuary and spilling over into the rest of the church. The carpet was red and the floors creaked. It was a little cooler than the just barely warm summer day outside, and as he walked further into the church he felt a slope in the floor. He stopped: suddenly realizing that, while hymn singing in church was very normal, what was not normal was the number of voices considering that there were no cars outside. They must have all walked in from somewhere, he thought.
He walked further into the church. As he entered the narthex, he looked through the doors into the sanctuary. The sanctuary was completely full. In fact, they were standing and there did not appear to be any more room whatsoever. And they all sang.
O Savior rend the heavens wide
Come down, come down with mighty stride
Unlock the gates, the doors break down
Unbar the way to heaven’s crown.
He turned. He went back. He opened the door, and looked out. The appearance on the horizon of a number of shuffling figures answered his first question: yes, the zombies will come out of the cities. And he turned to go back inside. If it were possible, there were more people in the church. In fact now there were a few in the narthex as well. One of them handed him a hymnal, and just before he started singing with them;
When I hear that trumpet sound
I’m gonna rise right out of the ground
Ain’t no grave
Can hold my body down
Ran right through his head and he looked around. He expected to be shocked, but was at ease, and sang with them.
(For an interesting, and not unrelated, take on the Zombie, see Spengler’s essay on Eternal Youth and the Living Dead.)
Also, I have two other short stories on this blog for free: The Final Crate and The Frame Shop. You can also buy for kindle a small collection or a long short story, The Magic Mirror and Other stories, and The Traveler’s Eye respectively.