This had not been a portentous morning. Bare feet on cold floor, dry tongue on cold juice, and I could go. I took the back roads to work, enjoying the collage of dyed leaves weaving in the wind and sun, like beautiful seaweed. The drive was a little longer than by highway, but I was in no hurry.
The first reports started coming in as I cut down an unkempt dirt road through a parched grass field speckled with brazen poppies. Announcers gravely stifling their smirks read headlines through my car radio: “Zombies reported in Midwest; sightings of the living dead coming in from seven states. Independent confirmation of...” I changed the station to something with more adjectives, and was treated to a lurid narration of the rabid undead tearing mourners and sightseers limb from limb, spilling over their vacated graves with blood and rage. I grinned sharply and drove on, expecting reports of drugs in a reservoir somewhere by nightfall.
I am an assistant editor of Spoken, a small newsmagazine. Most of the staff is listed as assistant editor, our actual positions having stratified naturally. I came in today, shaking out the dampness of the long hallway connecting our building to the parking garage, ready for coffee and the hushed clack of keyboards, and instead found everyone in the break room watching the TV. I tried to fidget my way through the door and craned my neck. My first thought was that the radio had been right.
I suppose a more sensible initial response would have been to assume this was a Hollywood set, union extras shuffling around dumbly in layers of makeup and smeared with dirt. We all believed what we were seeing, however; it had a grainy urgency and a CNN logo in the corner and we believed. The dead walked, squinted blearily at the cameras, coughed wetly. A few even smiled.
We all stared at the screen silently and intently. I don't know precisely what I was thinking at the time, probably nothing coherent enough to be written, but I know I was terrified. I did not dare speak; I couldn't deny how far this drove beyond my understanding, but I did not want to acknowledge that it was beyond us all.
No one at CNN seemed to know how to handle the situation. This is... not only here, but reports coming in from all... The film was badly edited and seemed to be stitched together from different locations, but they were never anywhere near their subjects, giving us the view of a jittery zoom, detached but intent. Initial sightings uncertain, the injuries seem not to... We do not have reliable... The voice-over would cut out every few seconds and was clearly the work of frantic adlibbing.
It was apocalyptic.
I forget who spoke first, mumbles and half-starts, but it was Stephen pronouncing judgment, with his hollow eyes flicking across the room, that set us all off. "It's the end of the fucking world."
Of course, no one knew anything, as I'd feared. The news told us little, and we certainly had no information. Not even the basics: why? how? We talked about things we could not understand, until suddenly I was crying. I didn't realize until it was happening. Not loud, not sobbing, but the tears were streaming down my face. People began to notice, but I was saved from having to explain when Jen started speaking to no one in particular.
"So hey, do you guys... you know how last year I was gone for awhile when... when my mom died, and I was thinking, I mean, how she looked at the funeral, it made me so sad, like a... she was like a fucking mannequin, all plasticy. And I always tried to remember how she looked before, you know? What if... I mean... if she is back, what will she look like now, you know?"
In the uncertain silence that followed, I felt an understanding choke the room. This was the end of the world we had to face: not in the basic questions and abstractions of a global event, but in particulars and personal confrontations with ineffable fear.
David had died when I was 14. He was seven, laughed like Pop Rocks ran in his blood, and his memory was what made me cry. I didn't tell many people about him, because I was never sure how to file away the memory. I had been a lonely boy, never really got along with people my own age, and I felt an affection with him I didn't get anywhere else. He should've been my little brother. I had confused daydreams of my parents adopting him, maybe if his parents were in some tragic accident. I was ashamed of wishing such things, but only more so when they drove into the headlights of an accident more pathetically real than I ever imagined, taking David with them. My first response was to be indignant and my callousness horrified me.
By cautious degrees over cautious hours, the news crew had made their cautious way towards the zombies milling about in restrained confusion. With every rabid fang and blooded wail that did not materialize, they grew bolder, until they were close enough to comment on the curious lack of a smell, close enough to note that the mumbles and groans were words. These were 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 interviews we watched were haphazard affairs at best. No one was sure how to proceed. The reporter was a man in his mid-30s, in a sharp suit that couldn't disguise his long neck, with an Adam's apple like an egg laid in his throat had begun to hatch. He shifted his weight and glanced at the camera. "This, um, this is James Tobleron with CNN, bringing you an exclusive: an interview with the... recently deceased. Sir, can you... sir?" He bit his lip as a portly chalk-grey woman smiled demurely at him and stepped around the pillar of a man James had been addressing, a pillar who was facing the sky and showed no interest in dividing his attentions.
"Don't bother the man; he's sightseeing. Is there something I can say for you?" Her dress was tattered down the front and one torn breast poked through. After a twitch of indecision, the camera stayed focused on her, without even a blurred square. The flesh of her face hung limply, sluggishly, around eyes that glinted like fireflies encased in marbles. She had a few wisps of translucent hair laying on the patches of scalp that weren't worn bone-thin. She appeared quite happy, and was more animate than many of the others, who seemed dulled by their rebirth.
"Well... could I ask your name?"
"You certainly could, but it won't be so helpful. I can't seem to remember, you see. I was actually wandering, when you finally stopped playing peek-a-boo from up the hillside and came down here, trying to see if I can't find which one of these was me." She kicked absently at a gravestone. A distinct tchk came from her foot, and she grimaced slightly, bending down to lightly massage it with the heels of her hands. Here the camera did turn away, after a moment to register the condition of her hands. Her left had two recognizable fingers remaining, the other three hanging limp masses. Her right had faired much worse, the entire hand worn down to a ragged clot at the wrist. The camera panned away to the right, where out-of-focus zombies wandered fuzzily past, as if underwater. "Ooh," her voice drifted over, "I guess I'll have to be more careful with myself. What an odd feeling..." The camera turned back to find her gazing down at her feet with a look of mild parental concern usually reserved for tired aged pets.
James nodded slightly and pursed his lips in an expression midway between sympathy and disgust. "Well then, miss... hrm, can you tell us anything about, well, about where you were? The afterlife, I mean."
She opened her mouth and then paused, for a breadth of seconds, before sliding into a soft imperceptible smile. "Son, you can't Miss me forever. Why don't you just call me..." her gaze flitted to the graves circling them, "Judith is a nice name, don't you think? Call me Judith, please. As for your question, I can't... I think I was somewhere. Else. And before, I was back here, but not as Judith I don't think. And in the middle, it's like this space. This... is it forgetting, if you feel you can recall the time, but not what occurred in it?"
This, it turned out, was how they all felt, of those who could express themselves. 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 stopped watching the news. Silently excusing myself as everyone else remained, engrossed, I walked down the long damp hallway back to the garage, mind in silence. I was feeling lightheaded; all I'd eaten was a bagel and some snack-size granola bars. I drove home with the radio off, by highway, following the long graceful curves of road that looped in abstract designs over the landscape. Nothing looked appealing at home; I took some chips out of the cabinet and sat on the edge of my bed, chewing and thinking. I felt as if I should be having grand thoughts after witnessing such a significant event. I felt as if I should be engaging in some deep theological struggle. Instead, between mouthfuls of stale chips, I considered the relative paucity of people I have mourned. My parents, of course. A few cousins I had been passingly close to. Two friends who had drowned together in Hawaii last year in an impossibly sudden undertow. I knew people who had lost friends and family in droves, people who had depth pooled in their eyes, who had learned to treasure the temporary. I felt very shallow, sitting there.
I woke up the next day with the TV on, buzzing soft static. Wondering how it had come on, I flicked it to the news--it didn't matter which station, they were all reporting on the same event. Sitcom timeslots had all been co-opted in perpetuity. There was nothing new to report, and the same footage, the same amnesiac interviews, was being played on loop. I decided I should meet the dead for myself. There was no one for me to visit in the nearby cemetery. My parents had moved south before they died, and were buried now beneath Georgia peach trees. My friends were college buddies, and neither from nearby. I had no-- David.
During the drive, I considered that I'd heard about the zombies before I saw any, and seen them before I'd met them. 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 area 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 the better part of two 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 veined 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 existed on.
I tried to speak to some, and largely did not receive viable responses. They would glare and mutter, or simply turn and shamble away. I wandered through the grasses, weaving between peaks and steep valleys in the dirt. One couple walked in the distance, hand in hand. They looked greyed and withered, but not rotten. Before I could get closer they were gone over a rise. I kept walking. A mangy old man grinned at me from the low limbs of a bowed tree. He was missing a foot and his left arm was folded at such an angle that I had trouble looking at it. "So quiet here!" he called down to me, his voice whistling out his nose rather than try to find its way past festering gums. I kept walking, noting now that there were also many graves which had not been disturbed. It wormed into my mind to wonder at how these dead bodies had suddenly risen. How, and why.
David's grave was empty. I was relieved to see that he had been among those who came back, but wondered how I was going to find him. He had spent 15 years underground while I grew, and probably neither of us would be so recognizable to the other. I absentmindedly wrung the scarf in my hands, that I had taken from my closet next to the jackets right before leaving, that David's mother had sewn for him. I found it in the woods, months after he died.
A voice came from behind me. "Hey, gentle with!.. that." The words reached me slowly, from a throat with barely the air to propel them free, from a small body covered in nettles. The skin was so worn and rubbed so thick with dirt that it was shifting tectonically over exposed muscles. The nose was sheared off. I held my breath. David walked towards me.
"Is the... I like the colors of that." He held out a small hand, and I placed the scarf on it and drew away in what felt like one sharp twitch. His skin felt like parchment, or the cover of a well-worn and loved leather-bound bible. He held the scarf for a moment in stillness, then held it to his cheek. The loose knit fabric bunched, and then caught on a flap of skin above his exposed cheekbone. He pulled it loose, drawing out a line of sticky fluid, and looked me in the eyes. "Is soft. I like it."
I shuddered and spoke to my friend. "It was... it's yours. Your mom made it for you." He blinked quizzically, and nodded, wrapping it around his neck jauntily. Its bright colors did not seem fitting on the faded remnants of charcoal suit he had been buried in. "Do you... David, do you remember me?"
He blinked again, puzzled. "David is me? I don't remember you... me. I don't remember things." A hand crept up to finger the material of his new scarf as he considered trees and sky. He had no fingernails. I studied his face. This was an expression I had never seen before, on him or on anyone. He seemed almost to be flickering, there gone there in the space of a breath.
"Yes, David was you. You really don't remember? You don't know me?"
"When I was David, who was I?"
My mouth was drying up, and I knew I would be crying soon. I tried to calm down. "You were always so happy. You laughed at everything. You were so excited by the world. You seemed like you would always be so content and... and live forever."
He was quiet for a time. "I sound so nice. A shame I don't remember." Beetles crawled in his hair.
"Where were you, David? What's it like? Where do you go? What's happened to everyone?" It was suddenly vital that I know all this. He was gone from me, and I demanded answers of his replacement. I needed some justification for this bait-and-switch.
He, of course, did not know, and told me it felt like he'd woken up in a foggy room with his ears ringing. Balance comes from the inner ear and he was falling upwards out of the earth and he didn't know anything. I had to go. I had come to visit, and had found not pleasant corporeal ghosts but rotten jack-o-lanterns still full of pulp. I told him goodbye and he nodded and he sat down on the dirt and I turned and I walked away and I walked out to my car under the clattering branches of dark gaunt trees and I drove home and I cried alone in my bedroom and I knew that everyone forgets, everything disappears, everything ends. Someday I will die, and I will be brought to wherever we go, where they were, and I will have to confront this for myself, and I will disappear.
I was far from alone in having terrible revelations. As the days 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.
Religions trembled at the touch of reborn souls. No one knew what to think. The Pope declared this a sign of the end times and disappeared from public sight. Jews found Messiahs and turned plowshares to swords defending their choice. The Chinese government had entirely collapsed and little news was getting out. People were afraid; if their religions were wrong and their traditions invalidated, cultural underpinnings would fall. They held on to faiths that could no longer accept the benefit of the doubt. If Darwin himself had risen, if there was more left of him than dust, there could not have been more fear of our unknown components. I tried to stop watching the news entirely, depressed by riots and malaise, but that felt too much like abandoning humanity. I had stopped going to work, living off my savings. I couldn't bring myself to write articles explaining to the world things that I did not understand myself. I had no religious beliefs in particular, having managed to coast through life on general feelings about the way things were. There was some sort of afterlife, I was sure, and we had some sort of souls that made the journey. That was all I was sure of. I hoped it would be nice there.
The world now tells me that I was right in my beliefs, but may be wrong in my hope. There was some life after this life, some other existence. But what it was no one could fathom; people had been altered, reformed, or stolen entirely. They were lost and confused and we followed them into an insoluble riddle. Have the dead lost their personalities or gained new ones? Was David in some other body somewhere in the world, or waiting still in the afterlife? This could be reincarnation, or recycling. What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, on three legs in the evening, and begins the new day with another set of legs entirely?
Perhaps I overstate my case. I hadn't left my room in three days, living on cereal and CNN and my thoughts. The world may be coping far better than I in my hermitage. Commercials began to tell me more of the world than the news: commercials for detectives who would track down the bodies of your loved ones and see that they stayed out of harm; commercials for bounty hunters who would bring your loved ones to you if that was not enough; politicians pledging to round them up or pen them up or free them; exorcists casting out demons and vampires. Some of it was simply inscrutable to me; it seemed that the iron rationality of our world had been cast a fatal blow, and who dared now doubt anything that might seem impossible. Perhaps, perhaps. It was noted, and forgotten, that animals had done us the courtesy of leaving this messy rebirth business to the animals that think too much.
The news began to grow grimmer. 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. Some of it burbled still. The frozen wastes were hacked open to birth those buried in icy climes, bodies near ossified. There seemed still some vague logic to this regaining of life: no hands were found crawling from battlefield trenches, no laboratory heads opened their eyes to the inside of a bottle. They could die again; one home was found in Brazil with rooms full of the remains of the undead, hacked and burned and destroyed, blood and slivers of flesh coated the walls. There was outcry, but it seemed nothing could be done. No laws existed, no decisions could be reached, on the right to life of a dead human. Surely, if the debate still rages on when birth meets life, we could at least agree on death? Death was an end. Estates had passed, wills had been read, organs redistributed. What right did they have to come back now? Morals began to decompose, as had religion. There was no truth; now there was no consensus.
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. 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?
I had to leave my room. The generalities of news chilled me, showing me anonymous masses destroying other anonymous masses. Fear. Pain. Hate. Anguish. There were no particulars, no subjects for me to hang these predicates upon. I could not take them into myself, I needed to leave.
I saw, driving down street and through city, more of society than TV had told me. Churches were vandalized and shattered, but the faithful crowded and jostled for a spot in the pews. They spilled out onto the sidewalks of their mosques and temples and candles flickered in many cracked windows. Grocers and corner stores still sold their wares, but signs advertising milk and meat now stood astride those for riot shields and gas masks. Police patrolled gas stations. It seemed no one knew what could be coming at any moment. Some met this tension with preparation, some with hope, some with terror. I came finally to the cemetery, praying abstractly for the strength to confront my own and be given an answer.
The only place that the dead had been left alone was in their homes. The cemeteries remained undefiled and unmarauded. The explosive uprootings of their breaking out of their graves, of the diggings, rediggings, reburials--more than enough damage had been done. I can't imagine. There were crowds of them now, staggering and leaning. The more desolate were taken care of by the more composed. They had filed themselves into long meandering rows, arcing around graves and over gently sloping hills. There was hushed speech, even a little laughter. They eyed me with what I could only assume was fear and anger, but mutely let me pass by. Now that I had come, I didn't know what I was here to do. There were children among the rank and file, but none the unDavid. No familiar faces, and certainly no familiar minds. They grumbled when I approached. I turned aside, went around, then started to work my way into the groups. They stepped aside to let me pass. I was surrounded by them. There was great heat, but not the comforting warmth of body heat; this was a wet rotten fruit warmth that I felt on my skin like grease. I began to walk faster, less polite, pushing through crowds, diving headlong past and through and I needed to get out, there were so many of them, I had never seen so many people in one place, real people, and here were all these creatures and I ran and ran and emerged in a kind of eye in this motionless storm.
There were some of them in here, but they had broken rank. Most of them seemed to be sleeping, as a horse sleeps. They stood, eyes closed, body rocking slightly. I cautiously approached them but they did not stir. Their muscles bunched and slacked; I could see the motion ripple up and down their bodies through slits and tears in the skin. One gasped loudly and rushed out of the circle. He seemed to melt into the throng surrounding us. After a few minutes another followed. There was a growing agitation and as each one left the circle the growing tension rippled through them all, like stones thrown into a pool of mud.
One I found sitting under a tree, eyes closed. The tension had not touched him; 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 don't understand this." 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. I babbled out all my fears and dreams and the pressures that were crushing the world. I begged him for answers. He responded in halting breaths and crumbled words, but I paid that little mind. 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. Clearly, these questions were still outside the bounds of whatever had netted their minds into their bodies.
I nodded, and stood up. I felt uneasy with the looming crowd. Darkness approached and I did not want to be here under the moon. I walked back to my car at a stately tempo. I did not let myself run, or scream.
I did not know what I had learned. There was some building electricity in the air, in their growing army. I wondered if this was going on all over the world. No one I spoke to seemed to know, and the news was cautiously reserved in all that was reported. No one filmed graves, having enough news in the slow smoldering cities. Society was calming and reassessing. People rebuilt their lives with a sigh of resigned fatalism. I couldn't bear to talk to most of them and hear the why not?s. Not everyone had given up hope--there were still those who clamored for their gods and Gods, and still those willing to preach. This made no more or less sense to me than the others. I felt I was losing touch. Surely there were others in the middle as I was, but I didn't know how to find them.
A fresh panic erupted in the city when more of the dead began to stream out of homes. A wave of suicides, not able to handle the Damocles sword questions of the Lazari, had now joined them. They hid their slit wrists with ribbons, gunshots under hats, and walked out of their homes with new eyes. These now, so fresh, were not the confused and frightened creatures we had driven out of the cities, nor the tense mass I had encountered in the graveyard. They came into their cities, eyes clear, and told us what they had known. They were prophets. They spoke on street corners
They spoke of terrors and black visions. 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. The new embodiment of fear--the new demon to be exorcised--was not death, or life in death, but this awaiting strangeness apart from life and recognition, destruction of personality. People quaked at the fractured descriptions, and avoided those remaining who did not speak. What secrets were left unshared?
I returned to the graves. With these revelations, I hoped that the tension I had felt building would be released, slip out like a weak knot. They still stood rank and file, still rippled with apprehension, but there seemed to be less of them. I couldn't be sure, gazing across them all like trying to count a field of wheat, but they seemed reduced. Trying to go around, find the easiest way back to the center, I saw that I was right. There were less standing because they had begun to rebury themselves. Some dug their beds afresh, some lay down in the abandoned graves of others, some went back to their own trench. Some were grimfaced and some laughed. They still would not speak to me, but there was no animosity in their silence. I watched this spectacle for a long moment, taking it in. The shockwaves of the recent past were reversing their course and reasserting nature. This looked as alien to me, as inexplicable, as the initial risings had. I stepped gingerly over bodies returning to sleep.
My Koan friend remained beneath his tree. His eye had come undone, a burst jelly cocoon spread down his cheek, and dried there. He twittered at birds, unawares. He stared up at the sun. I lay down near him. I did not know what to do, so I slept, off and on. 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.
I lost track of time. I slept often and did not eat. I was so tired. My mind raced in directions I cannot begin to describe. I could not have been there more than a few days; I had no food.
Koan one day, still under his tree, did not twitter at birds. He did not watch the sun. His one eye saw me and closed. He spoke the many words I had heard from him before, the nonsense sequences, but now joined by a slow becoming of awareness. I stayed awake with him that night, asking questions and observing, and simply being present.
He still was free of the tension that had taken his fellows. This was a frenzy without fear. His gnarled hands clenched 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. He leaned forward, released that noise which could not have been made by his body, that could never be received by my ears. My vision blurred, and the scream was drowned out by blood pumping violently through my veins, galloping. I saw Koan smile broadly, he was not screaming now. Still leaning forward, he smiled broader still and croaked out--his throat torn from the force of expelling that noise-- "Koan. Is pleasure my welcome." With that, he wrenched himself backwards in a motion of furious certainty and dashed his head open against the tree trunk. The pale pink eggshell tint of his mind spread out in a butterfly pattern across the grass and his torso slumped over across his lap. The back of his skull gaped up at me like a hooked fish. I reached out my trembling hands, my vision fading and blurring in and out as I tried to control my breath and blood, I was hyperventilating and my heart burned. I grasped the sides of his head and lifted gently. I had to make sure that he had really been smiling at the end. To my shuddering relief, he still was.
I'm not sure how I got back to the city. Perhaps other wanderers made the pilgrimage to the cemetery and found me there. Perhaps I drove myself home. My memory cleared the next day, as I was eating a huge omelet in a rusty diner and frantically telling what I had seen. The reporter on the scene. I told the people there--the customers eating their meals, the people at work--that we will be okay. Whatever rupture had brought forth the dead was taking them back. Or accepting them back. Or swallowing them up. I did not know any more than I had before, in real terms. I had not heard any news, I did not know if this pattern was repeating anywhere else. Perhaps it will radiate itself outward. I still did not understand. I had found no certainties and no answers. But I had been given back my faith that there are choices, that there is hope. I was content with knowing there was a place Koan could smile, remembering, and return. There would be answers somewhere.
The people eyed me warily, not sure whether to believe me. Some went out to the graves to see for themselves that I was not mad. Some, seeing this, nodded and shook my hand and went home. For some, who could not penetrate my ravings--it's true, I was raving--hope was slowly found in those who had never risen. During the grave excavations, and then during the cleanings, orderly 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.