Archive for March, 2017

Storytime: When Day Goes.

Wednesday, March 29th, 2017

Martin was pulled out of the white cold world on the day of his fourteenth first birthday and his first second birthday.
Sound was there again, washing in from above. Shadows and hands and darkened gloves. They’d seen his ski-pole, thrust up from the white into the who-knows-where, and they pulled him loose of the snow and took him away.
They asked him where Louis was.
“Louis?” he asked. And that was their answer, in the soft little whine of air that was all the noise he could raise.
A thought came to him, as he watched the hills roll away below the helicopter. It was why Louis had been there. It was why he had been there.
“It’s my birthday soon,” he whispered to them. And then he learned he was wrong. He’d been under the avalanche for five days.
So Martin was given a little piece of cake and ice cream in his hospital bed, once it was determined it wouldn’t upset his stomach or heart or liver or kidneys or brain or mind.
He didn’t eat it. He was busy watching. Watching the new red world around him. It was crawling into his arm from the IV stand; it was pumping through the halls, it was frozen and locked away downstairs, it was spurting, oozing, clotting, pooling, every minute every moment.
It was like seeing traffic for the first time.
Then he made up his mind, and put the cake and ice cream in the garbage, without spilling a drop.
In the black when the day had gone, he saw Louis again. Louis’s neck was bent. And his eyes were frozen. And he wouldn’t go away.
But Martin could turn away, and he did so.

The scalpel was very light. Its edge was very fine. There was almost no blood, and the little that appeared seemed too surprised to flow properly.
But Martin had the clamps ready anyways, and before anything could happen, it didn’t.
In, in, in. Find the problem. Find the issue. Find the incision. And quick and clean it was gone, in a sing of the blade.
Then came the stitches, inevitably and tediously. And when Martin was done he breathed again, and tied the last knot, without spilling a drop.
He knew he was a surgeon now. Everything after this was formality. It was inside the eyes and minds of the others around him, no matter what the papers and files could speak of.
He was a surgeon. He was the perfect cutter, the relentless hand of excisions. And it was not enough, but it was right, or at least closer to right than wrong.
He still saw Louis, in the space left when the day goes and the emptiness fills up with dark. But he still turned, and he still breathed, and it came again.

The old woman was very small in her coffin.
Death shrinks people, it’s true. But Martin found to his surprise that she’d been that size inside his head for years. A bare mouthful in a wooden maw, lost in the dress.
It made his fingers itch and his teeth ache. He looked out the window and thought until his eyes ran red over the green spring lawn. Grass cropped low by a mechanical chewing, every Thursday. A waste of food.
A friend was telling him respects. His mother’s friend, of course, not his. He didn’t need friends; he had colleagues.
“Thank you,” he said.
“What will you do now?”
Martin thought about green and red and the turning of one to the other.
“Feed the poor,” he said.

Wheat. Greens. Potatoes. All as massed as massed could be, accumulated under fields far and wide by his will and his word and his whim. Ordered and moved. Hectares and miles and millimetres churned and toiled at a command.
The beef was the hard part. It warranted a personal touch.
But not too personal. Martin had people for that.
The sun was so hot it ached, but the herd still shied from his eyes. Heads tossed, eyes rolled. No bawling, though. It was too warm to breathe deeply enough.
Martin patted the side of the animal gently. It vibrated in the hands of his employees, and he felt the flush spread under his palms, damp and thick.
“So, what do you think?” asked the rancher.
The field was more brown than grey. The stream was a trampled puddle. The air was thick and used.
“It’s going perfectly,” said Martin.
And the other end was even better. A scalpel the size of a stadium complex, fueled by arms that never slept while current flowed.
And vats and ponds and puddles and slurries, for disposing of the excess, with no speck wasted, no drop spilled. Shining red.
He shivered in the red world, under the heat.

The ribbon-cutting of the first restaurant had kept the morning fresh.
The final touch-ups on the last leg of the initial marketing campaign had made the afternoon pass swiftly.
But now was what he’d been waiting for.
He put down the folder of perfect pictures of perfect hamburgers from perfect angles onto the Desk. It was most definitely a Desk, deserving of capitalization by dint of capitalisation.
The sun was coming down. The world was red. The day was going. It was time again, for the first time.
Martin stood up and walked the two paces from his Desk to his window. He looked out over the world and knew how much of it was his and how much of what it was done was for him, somewhere under his bones.
He remembered Louis and his frozen face and his bent neck and the terrible hunger and the white cold world and the terrible hunger and the trembling of his teeth and the terrible hunger and the terrible, terrible, endless hunger.

And he opened up his long, lipless jaws into the red light and tipped back his head and he swallowed the thousands of cattle and the millions of acres and the steaming fields and the roaring factories
Without. Spilling. A. Drop.

Storytime: Shh.

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017

By the time your eyes cross this page, my dearest Helen, I pray that I shall be dead. If not, worse will have come to pass.
I know you must feel betrayed even as you open this letter – had I not told you that I was going for a mere afternoon saunter, to aid in my (delicate, owing to a family history of nervous disposition and artistic temperament) digestion? But damn my wandering feet – yes, damn them, even unto their very soles! – they led me astray from the sunny thoroughfares of our fair little town of Millford and through doors unknown to me. While my mind was pleasantly preoccupied by the question of biscuits or jams for tea-time, my foul legs were plying their treacherous work, driving me blind and heedless into uncertain paths.
But at last the deception could be hidden no longer: I walked into a post. And with that sharp, vicious slap to my sinuses and the stabbing pain of shattering cartilage, I cast about with wild glances and found myself a stranger amidst strangers.
And such strangers! A stooped, haggered crone of degenerate heritage leered at me from behind an alien desk of pale and shining complexion; a quarrel of noisome little urchin youth gabbered away in their strange jabbering tongue; an aged and rotted man with few teeth and a stained beard.
And all of them ignoring me, immersed in their books. And they were not spoilt for choice, Helen, for this was a true archive: a collection to rival that of Alexandria before the torch. Great steely shelves towered above out of my sight, stacked with manuscripts whose covers boasted lurid covers that only tempted one to speculate upon the depravities within.
“Are you lost, dear?” inquired the crone. My heart in my mouth, I retained what little strength of wit of which I could be sure of and managed a sharp jerk of the head. Simultaneously my groping hand found a bannister, and I fled up it, praying to the very feet whose treachery I had so recently cursed to spare me from this foul place.
Above was quieter, untroubled by the murmuring yammer of the hordes below. But it was no comforting hush, Helen: this was a sound I had heard before only in my boyhood illness, in the deathly-still wing of the hospital past the witching hour. It was the silence of an open grave, and in its thickness the walls grew ever higher.
Here is where my pen nigh-fails me, my dearest love, for it is here that I must admit the greatest stupidity that could be committed under the circumstances: alone, fearful, and bereft of companionship, I thought to myself that reading might be my solace, and I plucked a tome from the nearest – and lowest – of those cyclopean shelves. May I be forgiven for such hubris!

Helen, if your innate smallness and feebleness of spirit threatens to overcome you, I must warn you now: TURN AWAY! For the truths I must speak – and damn them, they ARE truths! – will utterly destroy, annihilate, and mangle any who stumble upon them unprepared. I would have never read them, but having done so, I find they must be expressed, as if they were a terrible venom lurking within my mind.
The first tome alone was more than I could believe. Within the slim pages of this volume, a ghastly series of images was prepared. They began innocuously enough – with a fish, of all things, a humble dinner-companion! – but lo! and horror, the very next page illustrated the beast crawling forth from the water to stand upon legs! My mouth dropped open, but my fingers turned even as they shook, and I saw the un-fish rendered swift and predaceous, possessed of a great shock of teeth and fierce will to boot! Hair sprouted from its pores, its forelimbs mangled, and its gait became bipedal until, at the very last page, the fish had become a man!!!
A fit of wildness overcame me, and when I was next lucid I was fetched against a wall, back aching; in my horror I had stumbled. The book was gone, but by chance – BLACK-HEARTED BITCH – another had toppled from the shelves and landed in my lap.
I opened it. Damn me for that. Perhaps I had thought that all the world’s lunacy had enveloped me, and that this would be soothing balm to a fevered brain.

The spheres. I swear on my grandmother’s grave, Helen, it spoke of the heavenly spheres. It shewed their orbits across the skies, it described their features and properties as vividly as I might my own back yard! It revealed those too far-removed for the most powerful of hand-held telescopes, it treated them as friends! And the numbers… god, no, no, no, there was no god in those pages, Helen, only numbers, ABOMINABLE numbers, figures of such size and scope as to render our dear Earth and all its inhabitants into utter nothingness in the teeth of a screaming void whose scope was immeasurable for it encompassed ALL WORTH MEASURING!!! The universe was empty, and we and all that we knew did not dignify notice even as a speck amidst specks – for the sum totally of all those specks was rounded to oblivion itself!

When I next knew the breath of life again, my watch and the daylight creeping through the unnaturally-formed windows of that dreadful place told me that some time had passed. How long had I been overcome? Who knew. My only thoughts now were of flight and home and bed and your arms, dear Helen, that might persuade me that all I had seen was but a fancy of a monstrous figment. Far better that my mind might harbor such deviant illusions than that they be reality itself.
Reality asserted itself heartlessly. Across my lap the book’s cold weight lay, as if a dead thing. My skin crawled, and – more’s to the pity – mine eyes did too. It was not the book I had perused. It was another.
Rocks. It was a book on stones.
I collected rocks as a child, Helen. It was a virtuous, nourishing habit that bolstered my frail frame and increased my health greatly. I loved nothing more than a nice amble to a lovely outcrop. But now those childhood memories led me into my final blasphemy, for it was in the coddles of their kindness that I stupidly made my final error and turned the page.
Have you any inkling, I wonder, of the horror that is time? Of the repellant nature of the second, the vileness of the minute, and the inutterable THING that is a millennium?
What of a million of them?
What of a million of THEM?
Time, time, time. The world was drowned in it, rotted and pustulent – it sores were bones gone to rock, its tumours the black lumps of oil and coal. Millions, Helen. Billions. Never speak those numbers again, and never let another say them to you. The ancient pharaohs were clamouring youths among the mammalia; the mammalia upstart peasants against the arthropods; the very existence of life grander than a cell a novelty, and life itself but a breath, a faint squeak, at the coldest and farthest edge of the mindlessly vast blade of the clock that measured the universe.

At this I screamed and vomited for a time. When I woke once more, I was writing. Writing this.

Only one thing remains left of my own will as I finish this revolting letter, Helen. Besides sharing my insanity with you, I must forwarn you of it. As I sat, pen in hand, my gaze hunted restlessly for some means, some beacon, some sign of which to warn you away from this place, lest its horrors infest all of mankind’s thoughts as mine had. And god help me, right above my very skull, on a foully obsequious and tidy plaque, I found it.
I slumped in my feet, my scream ate itself in my mouth. The unspeakable, inutterable, madness-ridden truth was revealed in the emblazoned placard:


Storytime: March.

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

Sorry I’m late.
I know, I know, I KNOW. You gave me VERY detailed instructions and I was diligent in memorizing them, I tell you no lie. But you know what it’s like out there!
It’s cold!
It’s wet!
It’s dreary!
And the snow’s come-and-gone so many times that nobody can keep track of where all the frozen dogshit is!
So because of all those VERY GOOD REASONS, can I be blamed so much for letting my mind wander? At a light, I might add? I was safely parked, one eye always on the intersection, and just for a minute – a moment, a milli – no, a picosecond! – my thoughts drifted the way of warmer things and times.
And so when my light turned green I twisted my grip on the wheel, without really knowing why, and took the right.

Let me tell you, it was a shocker. One moment bleak cold and wind, the next wet fists in my car’s face. Showers fit to kill flowers, hail turning into thunder turning into ice cold turning into a warm slush. I couldn’t tell if I was meant to switch to second gear or break out flippers or attach an icebreaker’s prow to the bumper.
And that sound! That pounding, pulsing sound! The trees all beating together like a heart the size of a mountain pulsing on a drum the size of a continent.

Now while I was distracted by all of this, you surely can understand why I’d miss the next few intersections. I was busy trying to stay alive and not hit anyone, as any responsible driver would prioritize. So my hands were on the wheel and my eyes were on the road and my beams were on low and my foot was light on the gas and my brain was spinning, just spinning out all over the place with the horn blaring and brakes pumping.
Look! Geese in the world’s only flying letter! They’re coming back!
Wow! Buds glistening on bare brown branches!
Gee! Bare ground turning green with rebounding life!
Willikers! A groundhog making ardent love to his shadow in the middle of the street!
That last one caught me a bit more off guard than all the others put together and I spun out all over the place, horn blaring and brakes pumping. And when I stopped spinning I was stuck in the rotting remnants of a giant snowpile in the far corner of a half-flooded parking lot in a dingy old strip mall that had been in the 90s once upon a time.

I bought fruit by the foot. Its bright colours pleased the atmosphere.
I bought fruit by the pound. It was seasonal and furiously unripe, shiny and hard and sour and tart.
I brought out my camera, and took picture after picture after picture. Click click click robins! Click click click flowers! Click click click puffy clouds on deep blue!
By the time I was done my car had melted free and the air smelled like plants fucking without limits. My sinuses were a roller-coaster of emotion and mucus and the tears that came down my face were emotional as shit.

I got back on the road and it was easier now. Cleaner. The old stale salt and dead black ice had been scraped away by the sun’s own shovel and the traffic was calmer, sedate. Everyone still had their winter tires and paranoias on, nobody’d yet started driving like the maniac that July made of you. There was a hint of slush that slapped affectionately against your wheels now and then, but it was more liquid than solid and it was nothing but love.
It was the most fun I’d ever had driving a car.

But all good things end. I came to a red light, and as I stopped there I looked ahead and I saw something new. Something REALLY red. Something burning and furious and real. There was dry grass in the distance and bonfires in my nose and I could almost feel the endless days creeping under my fingernails.
Dead ahead. Almost there.
Why not? My god, why NOT? Fuck this nonsense of waiting, why walk when you could drive? Get there in half the time with twice the fun at the low low cost of a lot of bills. Why not?
This, said the police car behind me. Its lights were flashing. Its sirens were not. This was the vehicular version of clearing your throat noisily. Behind its windshield a pair of sunglasses were watching me, and I could see the road ahead burning inside them.
I pulled over.
As the officer got out of his car, I felt no fear and no anger. I knew what I’d done wrong: in my heart if not my body I had speeded, I had roared down that road with both feet and hands on the accelerator and my soul in my teeth. It was there right now, at this moment, and it was amazing how close the warm air had brought everything to me. Until this second I’d never really seen the dew on my windshield, the dust in the air, the bit of snot on the police officer’s moustache.
I turned my smile to him and I knew at that moment that everyone and everything was my friend, speeding ticket or no. The world was in my heart and it was warm and soft. “What seems to be the problem, officer?” I asked.
And the next thing I knew his knee was in my back and the world was in my ribs and it was extremely cold and gravelly.
I asked him something very polite about what the fuck he was fucking thinking the motherfucker.
“It is illegal,” he told me in quiet, authoritative tones, “to take the right of spring before the end of March. You prick.”

The penalty was harsh but fair, firm but rigid. Two hours in the cooler.
So, that’s where the freak blizzard came from. And that’s why I’m late. And please, don’t make a fuss when I say this: I really am not shovelling tomorrow.

Storytime: Chalk.

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

“Why not?”
As far as questions asked in bars went, it was pretty typical.
“Because it’s stupid.”
“It’s not stupid. I’ve got the paper right here, Mill.”
“You know I can’t read.”
“No, but I can and I’m telling you, black-and-white, page one, there it is.”
“And I’m telling YOU, Tyle – you right there – that flesh-and-blood beats black-and-white hollow. I don’t care how many crazy professors you care to tell me of-”
“Hadly, his name’s Geistoff Hadly, and he’s found-”
“–I don’t care what his name is, I wouldn’t go out into the chalklands for the king of the world and his eldest daughter too. Count me out.”
Tyle frowned, and as usually was the case with Tyle’s frown, it was immediately followed by Tyle’s fist. Matters continued in that way for a few minutes, whereupon Tyle returned to his table.
“No luck,” said Ram.
“No luck at all,” repeated Ram, looking more than ever like a burnt-out tree stump. He shook his head at his drink, which was nearly as half-empty as he was. “But that’s not new, eh?”
“Mope less, help more. We still need that guide.”
“No luck.”
“I KNOW that,” said Tyle, but he left it there because beating up Ram was about as productive – and painful – as beating up a rock. At the end of it you had sore knuckles and no breath, all for a few nicks on its hide. “Miserable town this. A few hundred miles south, a fat old man can pull trinkets out of the ground worth more than gold with barely a spade. And here? You can’t so much as persuade ‘em to look outside.”
“They’re scared.”
“Of WHAT? There’s nothing out there but grass, rocks, and rocks on grass! It’s the most boring landscape I’ve ever laid eyes on!”
“Nothing left to see but yourself,” intoned Ram. “Nothing left to do but give up.”
“Oh, shut up. If you really believed that crap you’d have thrown yourself into a pond years ago.”
Ram shrugged, an expression as wholly unique to him as Tyle’s frown was. His shoulders didn’t actually move, but he somehow hunched even further inwards.
Tyle ignored Ram’s shrug and looked around the bar again. A bunch of miserable bastards here, nearly as bad as Ram in their way. They looked to hate each other as much as they did him; the whole damned building could burn down and nobody in town’d miss them.
Oh. Well that was a thought.
“Ram? Give me your drink.”
Tyle took Ram’s drink from his unresisting hands and strolled down to the far end of the room, to the darkest, dustiest table of them all. Its occupant matched it. A walking stick seemed to be supporting his entire body, even while seated. It wasn’t enjoying it.
“Say, friend,” Tyle said with the happiest smile in the world, “care to help me finish this? I seem to have half left.”

The sky was blue.
“That was a mean trick.”
The grass was brown, but playing it up as golden.
“Worked, didn’t it? Now look, he’s awake.”
And the world was creaking slowly and surely.
Hed was chained up inside a wagon made of rotten wood and crammed next to a barrel. Again.
“Hello there,” said the smiling one. Tyle. “Now, care to show us the way?”
“Sure. Where to?”
“The chalklands.”
“Nobody goes out to the chalklands.”
“Well, you’re nobody right now. But be nice and maybe you’ll leave a richer nobody than you came along with.”
“Got a drink?”
Tyle raised an eyebrow. “After what the last one I passed did to you?”
“That was you hitting me.”
“Fair enough.” Tyle tapped the barrel, which didn’t slosh in the way very very full things didn’t slosh. “Tell you what. Point the way into the chalklands, and I’ll give you two drinks. Get clever and point us back into town, you get last night over again.”
“On one condition.”
“You have one too. I don’t like to get drunk lonely.”
Tyle smiled. A big, happy smile.

Hed, after a lot of wheedling, had been given a replacement walking stick and a very very small knife to whittle it to his satisfaction. Tyle had been against it until Ram pointed out he couldn’t exactly chase them down with it, chained as he was.
“Not much use for walking either,” Tyle had said.
“It’s not for the walking,” Hed explained. “Just something that needs to be done.”
It was a beautiful day, even if the place was sort of ugly. Although that could be the whiskey thinking it.
“Ugly as sin out here,” said Tyle. “Sky’s wasted on it. All that sky and all it’s got to shine on is some lumpy rocks and scraggly grass.”
“Fair enough,” said Hed. “Let’s go back.”
“Alright. See that ridge?”
“Go over it. Then let me off and I’ll go back.”
“No. You’re with us ‘till the end, old friend. Can’t have the word getting out. Early, I mean. Before we strick it rich.”
“It’s the chalklands. There’s nothing here.”
“There was nothing on the mesas either, until Hedly dug there,” said Tyle. Then he laughed.
“Who’s that?”
“Mad old professor. Liked to play in the dirt and pretend he was working.” Tyle shook his head. “But he found things. Arrowheads that moved on their own. Bowls that filled with water at a touch. And that was in the badlands, with nothing but dirt and stone for miles. It’s uglier here, but it’s better living and nobody’s ever checked it before. Who knows what’s out here?”
A shadow of a frown passed over Tyle’s face, but the sun ironed it out before it finished.
“I need another drink,” said Ram. “For my other hand.”
“Shut up and steer.”
“I’d rather not.”

“We’re here,” said Hed.
Tyle peered up at the stones around them, past the dusk and the dim and a considerable amount of whiskey. “Really? Faster than I’d thought.”
“It’s as far as we’re going in this light. Unless you want the horses to step into gopher holes in the dark.”
Tyle smacked him in the shoulder. “Damn good advice! See, I KNEW any one of you little bastards could help us! This isn’t so bad, eh? The big, scary chalklands. All nothing but green and grey and empty. What’s the worry?”
Hed turned his walking stick over and over in his hands. The shaft was slim as a wrist by now, but the handle had been shaved down to a near-blade.
“You should leave, you know,” he said. “This is your last chance.”
Tyle sighed. “Scared of rocks?”
“Out west the stone’s full, but solid. Out east it’s near-empty. Here there’s too much empty space, and anything can come bubbling up through the cracks.”
Tyle laughed at that, a full-out-throated guffaw with a set of after-chuckles that took up at least a full minute. He laughed in Hed’s face, and he watched the whole time as the sunburnt wrinkles didn’t so much as crease.
“You should’ve stayed home,” he told Tyle, quietly.
Tyle frowned.

Hed woke up with his head dangling out the back of the wagon, eyes filled with a black sky – overcast with cloud and something worse – and he knew he didn’t have a lot of time.
Slowly, carefully, wincing with every rib with every step, he crawled himself upright, took out the odd bit of wire he kept coiled around his back tooth, and removed the clumsy chain from his arm. He leaned against the whiskey barrel, testing his strength, testing its weight.
Half-empty. It’d do.
Then he took up his stick in the crook of his arm and heaved the barrel out of the cart just in time to catch the first drops.
A fist picked him up.
“Rain,” muttered Ram. His breath was a fountain of alcohol and rot. “Shouldn’t go out in it.”
Hed shook his head.
“No,” said Ram. His words were fading into the background, being eaten up by the long slow roar of water. “You stay.”
“It’s not rain.”
“Oh?” Ram squinted up at the sky.
“It’s the sea.”
And it came down on them.

Lives fade after they’re spent. Everything but the most important bits.
For most of them, it’s how they ended.
The waves were strong, and the current deep. But the real weight of the long-dead water that pressed down on the three men was from the things inside it.
A billion billion schools of long-dead fish; uncountable clams and who-knew-whats. Swarms of spiralling things like squids stuffed into ram’s horns.
Tyle was screaming, and that made it fast. His mouth was still open as he floated beneath Ram, fading down and away. All slackness in his jaw, with none of the tight-skinned warnings his expressions had given it.
Ram, to his great astonishment, found that he wanted to live. His arms were thrashing, his legs were kicking. His body, in spite of all that had ever been, was trying to stay alive.
The water churned around him, then opened up into teeth.
Ram had never seen a swimming lizard before, let alone one quite that size. The startlement nearly dulled the bite.

Hed shut his eyes, felt which way the blood in his body was surging, then swam for it. The whiskey keg was an inert lump at his side, neither pulling him down nor buoying him up. But when it broke surface and he flung a leg over it, it did the job well enough. He took a moment to catch his breath, then dipped his walking stick in, blade-first.
Splish. Splash.
Now and again he saw a shadow or felt a current and dropped low, stopped moving. In this way his night was spent. And when the sun came up the water came down, so very quickly it couldn’t be seen. One moment he was sculling, the next standing.
He looked down under his feet and scuffed a toe. Grass and dirt peeled away and underneath was the chalk again, milky and unconvincingly dead to the eye.
“You’ll be back, you fucker,” he told it. And he spat and threw away his stick and started walking. Then running.

It was almost night again by the time Hed walked back into the bar. It was good timing. The keg had nearly run dry.

Storytime: Dig Yourself Deeper.

Thursday, March 2nd, 2017

She’d been a nice woman. Honest, upright, forthright, honorable, diligent, hardworking, and dependable. Hell, she might’ve even been good.
But that was past, and so was she. Elsie Holmes – ‘Granny’ Holmes for thirty years and counting – had been over and done with for days. This was just the catch-up.
It was a properly overcast day, and the rest followed suit.
The priest said her words.
The family sobbed theirs.
The gravedigger took up her spade.
And WHACK with one hard blow severed the spitting, slobbering, fanged skull of Elsie Holmes from her neck, cutting the spinal column and setting it into a more mellow sort of rictus. Then everyone slammed shut the coffin, nailed it, and shoveled it under as fast as we could before it could pull itself back together and crawl back out.
It was a pretty good funeral, as far as they do around here, and we all said as much.
“That’s a funny thing to say,” said the visiting girl – a friend of a friend of the deceased, or so she’d claimed. “I mean, she tried to eat you. Is this whole cemetery like that? Because that’d explain the barbed wire on the walls. And the walls. And the guard tower.”
We explained to her that it wasn’t the cemetery as much as the town. You get about a few days – half a week if they’re very old. Then they’re up and feisty. It’s a lot to deal with, but here’s like anywhere else in the world: folks get used to it. The sun’s too hot, the wind’s too cold, the rain’s too thick or too thin, the dead rise after a few days and thirst for your flesh and blood. That’s just the way it goes in Downsville.
“Fair enough. Ever thought of doing something about it?”
Now she had our attention – and our irritation too. But we kept our words and fists to ourselves, because it was obvious to anyone with half a wit that she was one of those travelling folks, the kind you don’t get a chance to see very often, those roamers. Appleseeds and Coyotes and others. You don’t start things with them, and you don’t hope they stay, but you keep your ears open if they happen to you.
“Right. So you don’t want to move, and you can’t fix it. But you can make it a lot more bearable if you just try burning them instead of burying. Saves time, saves on fortified cemeteries and reinforced concrete in coffins, saves wear and tear on shovels. Even saves space – what’s harder to keep aside for your grandpa; a six-by-three-by-six of nice land or a prize spot on the mantelpiece? Go on, give it a try.”
Well it was advice, of a sort. And the priest said it wasn’t traditional, but she only said the words as words; and the gravekeeper and gravedigger were a bit reluctant, but they liked the idea of never getting up at three in the morning to shovel someone back into their coffin; and the town was altogether reluctantly experimental and so we tried it.

It was a stupid way to break a leg, falling off that barn roof. All Teresa’d had to do was nail in a board and come back down the ladder but no, had to show off to her friends and do it one-handed and whoops down she came. A stupid way to break a leg, let alone her neck.
But tick tock, time was a-wasting. So the procession came, and the lumberjack with the driest cords he’d cut, and we all went down to the pavilion in the cemetery, where the bonfire could burn in even the most appropriately funereal of weather.
In went the torch, and up went Teresa, in smoke and ash and an awfully porky smell. Weren’t as many pig-farmers around here now as there were a generation ago; folks just couldn’t quite muster the stomach for it. But there went her stomach, and her eyes, and her face, down to the bits of the bits of the bits of the bones and then they were gone too, cracked up and cindered. And that was when we all put on our masks because Teresa came screaming out of the coals at us, bowled down the graveyard gates, and set three houses and the church on fire.
“Well that’s something,” someone said, and we knew it was a stranger because nobody else would be surprised and we knew it was the travelling girl because nobody else would get over it that quickly. “This happens every time?”
And we explained to her that yes, pretty much it did. Some of the older folks went quieter; some of the younger, louder. In general the more time they’d had to put themselves to peace the better. It was a sort of therapy. And the bucket brigade had things well under control. It might seem odd, but that’s just the way it works in Downsville.
“I see,” she said in the way that people did when they didn’t see at all but didn’t want to call you a stupid, inbred old so-and-so to your face. A lot of us had heard it before. We’d had kids. “You know, I was suggesting this to make things easier for you, right?”
We knew.
“This doesn’t look easier.”
We pointed out that the fire precautions were both cheaper and more generally useful than the old graveyard guard had been and we stopped when it was obvious she was just waiting for her turn to talk again.
“Sky burial. Lay out your dead for the birds. You’ve got crows around here, right? Ravens? Turkey vultures? Do it. Just smack up the bones with a mallet afterwards, they won’t go anywhere otherwise.”
And she walked out of town again.
So we tried it. But we kept the fire brigade at work anyways, and we were glad of it. We do what we know works, here in Downsville. And we don’t forget it, either.

It’s a long walk, the path out there. Well-worned, well-tended. There’s flowers, and people that tend them. And the pallbearers use oiled wood that doesn’t so much as creak, let alone groan, god no. No sound but soft footsteps and sobs all the way to the burial platform, where we leave them to be as they were born: naked and soft.
Then we walk back while the antiaircraft guns fire.
She was waiting for us on the road back again, hands bloody and covered in feathers. She didn’t have a gun, the travelling girl.
“So. I see people in Downsville still do things differently.”
Well, who doesn’t where?
“There’s different, there’s different, there’s DIFFERENT different, and then there’s just plain obstinate. So, when did the birds get this big?”
It was a bit of a fuzzy record, that. See, back in the old days they were the size of junkyard dogs and a strong arm with a bat’d keep them away. Then they got bigger and meaner, and we broke out the shotguns. Nowadays they’d carry your car off, if you let them, and the funerary business around here was awfully dependant on army surplus.
“Right. Right. Hey, any of you got a cigarette? I don’t smoke but I really need to say that. Right. Right. Okay.”
The travelling girl walked around town about three times saying things like that. In the end she wasn’t much calmer but she was sure dustier. Her patience hadn’t improved any either.
“I’m out of ideas,” she told us. “You’re all too stubborn, even after you die. You linger and make a mess for years after you’ve stopped being even REMOTELY useful and I’ve worn out the last threadbare hint of a germ of a ghost of a favour I owed Elsie. Wad it up and throw it all in the trash for all I care; I’m out.”
And the travelling girl left, but she left something behind by mistake: a damned good idea.

Downsville doesn’t have a cemetery any more. The bonfires haven’t roared for years. The old anti-aircraft guns were turned into public statuary, and the pigeons that poop on them are normal birds.
Our garbage dump does moan a lot, late at some nights. But there’s ten thousand tons of mangled, immortal plastic twixt us and whatever we put in there.
I realize this all might seem a bit strange to you, but you really must remember.
That’s just the way it goes in Downsville.