Of one hundred million souls washed away
-Strapping Young Lad, "Devour"
I'd seen movies like this, as a child. It was hardly the first time movies had predicted reality, but certainly no one had seen this coming. Zombies, for god's sake! Zombies crawling out of their graves, smashing open their coffins with dirt-etched fists. Astounding.
Not the mindless brain-eating zombies we all were afraid of at first: many of them were actually still quite conscious and sensible, even well mannered, in their way. The more thoroughly rotten ones--of those well-enough together to rise up at all--just stumbled about catatonically. The lively ones, though! Ah, they were something. They thought and talked and communicated as well as ever; they still had personalities. They still had opinions and preferences and some hazy recollections of once being alive, before. Before. That was how they referred to it. They weren't dead, and they didn't come back. Everything was Now or Before. They had no memory of what was in between, no concept of being gone, elsewhere.
I'd heard about the zombies before I saw any. We're all victims of a news culture; nothing ever just happens anymore. It's all live on 37 networks around the globe, with uninformative commentary from a panel of experts. So before I had a chance to experience the zombies for myself, I had already seen them on 5 different stations, shambling around with their big weird grins and dull oily eyes. I'd already been assured that they were no danger, no one was being eaten, or brutally torn apart. They were conversing, for god's sake! Fucking zombies on talk shows. By the time I drove out to meet them for myself, all the tension and suspense, not to mention the excitement, I might have had upon meeting one of the undead had been entirely drained from the experience.
If my county excels at anything it is empty space, so I had a good drive out to find the dead. We share our cemetery with three other towns. The dead had been risen for four days when I managed to get out there, but I was sure there were still plenty of them milling among the graves. They had no pressing appointments to keep.
I drove my car through the cemetery gate, wrought iron fencing swirled in flowered designs over a grid of stately curve 8 feet high, electronic eyes somewhere seeing to open it for me, and down the path I drove. The sunlight wove through the trees erratically, casting fluid geometric figures across my windshield, shapes of white and yellow. This was not a path for the dead, or the mourning; this was Little Red Riding Hood walking to grandma's house unmolested by fear or wolves.
I parked in the shadow of a looming evergreen and walked through its sweeping needle curtain to the graves. And there they were. Ashen grey skin streaked with gangrenous ruddy streaks, muddy green splotches, loosening shocks of dirt-matted straw hair. Blind eyes, empty sockets, sepulturous cracked-jaw mouths. Embalming fluid leaked from nostrils and ears. Torn limbs. Palsied hands. Festering ripped skin. Rot. Ruin.
There are some things TV does not show us.
The film at 11 had been of dusty tired men who had crawled out of the earth to somberly contemplate trees and sky. They wryly brushed worms out of their hair and straightened the tattered remains of suits. By and large, the lucky few who had emerged so well intact had moved on, having no more inherent interest in graves and waste than their departed mourners.
Those who remained did so largely out of necessity. They were not equipped to deal with a physical visceral world that could shatter and rend their fragility. They stayed and paced the graves and watched the sun shine through their translucent flesh--paper skin and tissue muscle. They cast bone shadows, dark skeletons following them, reminding them of the precipice they somehow exist on.
As the weeks went on, the spectacle diminished enough for perspective to emerge. Concept became story. The initial terror that had quickly become joy had given way to something sadder. Pity, perhaps. Horror movie zombies they were not, but neither were they Lazarus returned bodily in perfection from the hereafter. The lepers did not die, but they were not healed. Mysterious rots afflicted them, they wasted away, they were weak and fragile, insects and filth burrowed and infected, strange parasites clung to their tongues and gnawed out their eyelids. It was degradation, simply, not a miracle. Their minds did not fare better: most were lost, confused, vacant, prone to bouts of screaming and fits, paroxysms of inexplicable dread. Most tragic to those still alive, they had not been granted a 2nd chance so much as a 2nd start. They carried no clear memories of past, of their relations, beyond simple comprehension that They Had Been. They emerged from their burial mounds with personalities, but often not the same ones they had died with.
For all the zombies now roaming, there were still far many more dead who remained beneath the dirt. People with visions of long-ago victims buried alive, found asphyxiated with shattered worn hands, had quickly moved to dig up all the dead and ensure their comfort and survival, such as it was. Despite the occasional protest of disturbing sacred ground (a curious thought at this point), the necessity of this was accepted and the digging began in earnest: full-scale excavations of graveyards, family plots, old tombs, and battlefields. As feared, people were found who had not been able to make it through to air; they were suspended in the ground, arms splintered or worn down past the wrist, lungs full of dirt. Some were still moving, eyes frantic with their aloneness. Some had seemingly given up and retreated to whence they had come, leaving a husk as dead as it had been.
One man was found with the earth dug out above his coffin in a thin tunnel, leaving him room to stand, stretch tired limbs among the tree roots and worms, and drift away, leaving his body with face held upwards as if basking in bright sun.
Those in the tropics were especially bad; the heat and humidity engendering far more rot than in dryer areas. Most of what was found there was too molten distended to be called human. I was thankful I did not have that to confront me, wandering here in the Cemetery. These horrors of normal decay were more than enough. I can't imagine. I tried to speak to some, and largely did not receive viable responses. They would glare and mutter, or simply turn and shamble away. One I found sitting under a tree, eyes closed. He looked like he was taking a light nap. Part of his jaw was missing and a large rent wound its way across the top of his head. He opened his eyes at my approach and smiled beatifically. A small bramble was stuck under one of his eyelids, distorting the orb.
"Zhha?" he lisped out softly.
"Hello," I began. "Will you talk? None of your friends will talk to me." I watched his eyes closely, trying to imagine how I must appear through an eye pressured almost into concavity.
He tilted his head slightly, producing an audible click of shuffling vertebrae. "Koan. Jzduuuo, Hehlloa. Hello. Koan."
"Koan," he answered, with a slight raise of his eyebrows. I was not sure if this was communication or parroting. I sat on the spongy damp moss, facing him, and spoke. Said nothing in particular, I was merely trying to get a response. Over the course of a plodding hour he was able to speak at a better level. He seemed somehow slow, perhaps from some brain trauma. Perhaps burrowing beetles.
I asked him about his memories, about what he knew. About death. His answer was all spasmodic words tumbling out, like some abstract poem. "Dark... yellow down up white black dig. Very! of is, for in out." Here he made a sliding gesture, like planes taking off. "Koan. Here for, is. Let of think for line line on line no think up down up no white red no think line black line, all..." He didn't stop talking so much as stop breathing, the words gusting out on a final crest of air to drift off to shore. I nodded, and stood up. It was too dark for nonsense, even from the dead. I had come to visit, and had found not pleasant corporeal ghosts but rotten jack-o-lanterns still full of pulp. I walked out to my car, under the clattering branches of dark gaunt trees.
Thus did the situation stay for a time, with people bereft of their loved ones who yet walked, left to mourn not a body but a mind. Our pity became disdain, and casual rage. These slovenly wretches, losing themselves as they slowly dissolved, leaving shards of bone like breadcrumbs from the soles of their feet, they were a blasphemy against the human condition and our reverence for lost loves. They were destroyed, filth with form, golems in the skins of our memories.
Crowds gathered. Mobs formed. They fled the cities, in their slow half-hearted way, and retreated to hills and forests. They slept in riverbeds and fields, were eaten by carrion birds. They did not weep and did not sigh, but their groans echoed up from the fringes to enter our world again. My Koan friend remained beneath his tree. Sometimes I drove back, to see that he was not chased away. His eye had come undone, a burst jelly cocoon spread down his cheek and dried there. He twittered at birds, unawares. Sometimes he spoke, sometimes not. Sometimes he spoke clearly, often not. I would still always ask him the same questions. Life. Death. Memory. Before. Now. During. In. Gone.
His answers to these were always inscrutable.
Groups of them were rounded up by the angry and disgusted. They were shot through the head and reburied. They were already dead, after all. Was there a second death, no longer reserved for cowards?
Koan one day was not beatific. He did not twitter at birds. He did not watch the sun. His one eye saw me and closed. He spoke many words I had heard from him before, but now joined by a slow becoming of awareness. He remembered. I stayed with him that night, asking questions and observing, and simply being present. He spoke of terrors and black visions. His eye flickered, watching indescribable fear descend upon him. His gnarled hands clenched and groped the darkness. His torn brow dewed with blood-flecked sweat and he recalled to me the noise of god. The god he had met was no being, nor concept; pure clamor and screech and wail spewing out sourceless and reverberating off every atom of the cosmos.
These memories returned to many who remained, who had survived and lasted. They came back now to the cities, eyes cleared of loss but dull with fear, and told us what they had known. The world awaiting us, the one they had returned from en masse, was nothing like we had imagined, or could. It was shadow geometry, the mercurial whims of abstraction, of other. Our embodiment of fear was not death, or life in death, but this awaiting strangeness apart from life and recognition. We quaked at the fractured descriptions, and avoided those remaining who did not speak.
Hope was found in those who had not risen. During the grave excavations, and then during the reburials when the dirt of our past was placed back in respectful row after row, like fields of withering grain, many were found who had made no effort towards escape. They were not frantic frenzied, they remained calmly asleep. Some remained in repose as buried, lying in state. Perhaps there were other worlds as well. Many had shifted, rolling over with a yawn to find a more comfortable position. Maybe like Heaven and Hell, or Charon wary on Acheron and Styx. Pillows were shoved aside, jackets and shoes were removed. We no longer had guides of our eternity; only the destitute had returned. Some looked happy in their rest, peacefully smiling, small crinkles at the corners of their softly closed eyes. Holy books were consulted and dropped. Some were resigned, content, settled in for a rest in warm earth and a journey in strange territories. Relics and totems were eyed critically, hopefully, longingly. Some were simply there, placidly inscrutable, buried sphinx.