The Rapture and the Hive – Part I – Chapter 8Dec 28th, 2010 | By Guy Lancaster | Category: Series, The Rapture and the Hive | 791 views
The sign on the side of the highway reads, in painted red lettering: THE HIVE. IN OLD SEARCY. ALL ARE WELCOME.
“What’s that drawing next to those letters?” asks Austin because the crude drawing there demands the question, not because he is the least bit curious. I doubt he really has the energy for curiosity. He talks as if his voice is dredged up from the last human bits left him in this world, the part of him that will keep walking south, keep walking to his precious Air Force base, even if by the time he gets there he is staggering about like a zombie.
“You know what it is?” I say, rather taken with the sight of it. “My God, do you know what that is?”
“If I knew, I wouldn’t be askin’,” he says, glaring at me.
“It’s fucking beautiful,” I say.
“Beautiful?” he turns back around to it. “Beautiful? It’s like a big naked fat woman with a head covered in barnacles! What’s so beautiful about that, doc?”
“I’ll tell you what,” I say, and I can feel the smirk on my face. “It means that there’s someone out there other than me who knows what that is. That’s what makes it so goddamn beautiful to me.”
“Do I have to go find that person?”
I’m not listening. I’m staring at the little figure next to the words. It probably looks like it was crudely painted to the rest of them, but that’s only because the original—wherever it is, if it even still exists—is a rather crude artifact. I wonder what on earth would have possessed anybody to paint it there, on this sign, when I catch Gwen staring at it intently, as if her eyes might focus or unfocus just enough to reveal in the little blur of red paint a hidden dimensionality that will unlock its secrets, trying to discover if she can what makes it resonate with her, what hits her not at a gut level but almost at a genetic one. I know what I see—Figure 5.1 in some textbook, either a picture of the real thing or a sketch, there to illustrate just how ancient man’s religious quest is, a spirituality lost to us with the rise of civilization and of men, or a warning about discerning far too much of ancient modes of thought from a bit of stone, the purpose of which remains debatable. But what does Gwen, who probably knows none of these things, see herself?
I don’t know, but without turning her eyes from it, she says, “We’re going there.”
“Oh, is that a fact?” says Austin.
Austin appears to try to think about this, to try to access that part of his mind not occluded by hunger and fatigue. We really are on the verge of collapse. I can hear it in the way we talk to each other. I can hear it in my own voice, in the way I say things. Two days out from Bald Knob we are, moving slowly, moving down the interstate, for this stretch is about as unpopulated as any other, though occasionally littered with abandoned or wrecked cars. Just this morning, we ran across a station wagon with four passengers, all undead—your all-American mother, father, son, and daughter. How those four came to be zombified while still wearing their seatbelts, I have no clue, but there they were, moaning and reaching for us but held in place by restraints they no longer understood, restraints that now cut into their bodies as they moved, as they jerked hungrily toward us, just as the glass shards there in former windows cut up the arms they held out in our direction. I’m sure that if we stood there long enough, they might have cut themselves to pieces. As it was, we stood there for quite some time, waiting for Austin, who stared at them with that hatred of anger and impotence that is the purview of young boys in western films, boys not yet old enough to do away with the men who killed their fathers. Then he walked on.
That’s when I think we all knew just how much trouble we were in. If Austin thought it better not to waste his bullets on such easy targets, it meant that he felt we didn’t have the bullets to waste.
And what does he think now? Does he think that, given our dire straights, we might have no choice but to risk contact with actual people? I only know that every thought of his is toward getting to the Little Rock Air Force Base and that he is, even now, as he stares at the sign for any clues it might have, weighing all the probabilities against that ultimate goal.
“It’s called the Venus of Willendorf, Gwen,” I say aloud with a bit of a lecturing flourish. “It’s some twenty thousand years old, and no one really knows what it is. Some say it’s a representation of an ancient universal mother goddess. All those things on her head might be eyes, and all the woman parts are really exaggerated, you know. A lot of people say that’s reading way too much into things. I mean, could’ve been a good luck charm or an ancient girl’s Barbie for all we know. But that’s what it is.”
“Why would someone paint it on a sign like this?” asks Austin. “What are we supposed to think?”
“Gwen, what did you think when you saw it?” I ask, passing on the question.
She lets her eyes wander back to it and says softly, “It looks like a mother.”
“There you go,” I say.
“Doc, what’s that supposed to mean?” says Austin. I can tell he is getting frustrated, probably at so much talking, so much thinking, all on a very empty stomach.
“What’s a mother?” I say. “A mother’s safety. Deep down, you know. I mean, think about it. If the sign had a cross on it, wouldn’t you be a bit leery? You probably wouldn’t assume that you’re being led to some pleasant Episcopalian compound where you’ll sit down and have tea and cakes with the vicar. Uh-uh. Nope—Episcopalians somehow don’t survive the end of civilization, just a bunch of weirdo groups that want to believe this is the seven-year tribulation or some damn thing. Zombies and Revelations. But you see that, and you got a gut reaction another way. And if you know what it is, then you know that whoever painted it probably knows what it is, which means that they’re not run-of-the-mill people. And if you’re a woman out in this world, you might figure to take your chances there. It’s home, somehow. You see?” I say, excited. “Whoever drew that could be operating on several different levels. It’s a feast of semiotics. I mean, they could be matriarchalist Amazon types intent upon making all men their slaves, but chances are that they’re not.”
I don’t know what’s really going on in Austin’s mind. He stands there and stares at the sign as if waiting for whatever choice will pop into his head first, waiting for the voice that moves him one way or another.
Without looking at me, he says, “We end up at the door of some cult wants to sacrifice us to the zombie gods, I’m blaming you, Doc.”
“Yeah, for all the good that it’ll do us both,” I reply.
“Where’s this Old Searcy?”
“Don’t know about ‘old,’ but the town of Searcy is just down this road.”
“Know anything about it?”
I sift my brain for memories, and the best one, the shining gem lying in my pan when I am done, is this: “I was at a bookstore in Searcy once—one of those chain bookstores, not anything really nice. Anyhow, I was standing in line to check out, and the guy in front of me started talking to the clerk about something. I wasn’t listening at first. But it turns out that the guy was a youth minister at some church in nearby Bradford. For some reason, they’re talking about shoplifting, and the clerk says to the man, ‘Yeah, we get a lot of shoplifters in here. It’s a bit weird, but most of them are trying to steal Bibles.’
“That’s Searcy for you. The devout town where kids steal Bibles. It actually has—had—a Church of Christ university, if that doesn’t seem to much a contradiction of terms for you. Oxymoronical.”
Austin’s face wrinkles at the bitterness of the thought.
“Don’t you feel a little better about there being a fat, naked woman on that sign?” I say.
* * *
Another sign directs us to an early exit, rather than entering Searcy by means of the interstate. After Austin reads this new sign, he stares south, the direction we had pretty much been keeping, for a good, long time, perhaps pondering on just how close his goal would be had we just a car and a few gallons of gasoline—things we didn’t even think about in that past life. The two or three dollars of gas you bought just to keep the car going while money was slim, and you knew that it could ride on E for about thirty miles if you were lucky. That’s all we need to get there: the poor student’s used car and those few gallons. In this world, though, there may be no more poor students left, and the cheap car and few gallons of gasoline would be out of his reach anyway.
Austin stares down the highway for quite some time before finally breaking away from it and turning west to the exit directed. I try to tell myself that the air about him is not of a Captain Ahab, that this proves it—veering off path for the sake of his crew. But that’s precisely the point, isn’t it? Ahab needed his crew. They were his instruments, the means by which he could carry out his grand quest, and they did not mind being such, for it gave them their own purpose and got them away from land, where others—most likely women—would demand they work as instruments for some more domestic quest. But no one survives alone in this world, not anymore. And no one sails off the map to confront ancient enemies by himself. I think we all know that Austin is not taking us south to set up shop in a field somewhere and wait out the apocalypse growing oranges, but we apparently don’t mind. The people we’ve lost are victims of this world, not of Austin’s. That’s the distinction we make.
(Besides, I once wrote a paper for an American literature class in which I argued that, far from presenting Ahab as a dangerous obsessive, Melville meant him to be a symbol of the truly devoted religious searcher, the one willing to risk everything to confront ultimate truth. Ahab was to be praised for his tenaciousness, not condemned for megalomania. The professor gave me an A, though the class didn’t quite buy my line of reasoning. Maybe I saw in Ahab myself, as if going through so many different college classes to find the ultimate truth was somehow similar to sailing a whaling ship into the unknown.)
The occasional sign keeps us on course down this stretch of road, and soon we are crossing the Little Red River. I take a moment to gaze into its muddy, murky depths. A slight morning mist hangs over the water like clouds of incense. It still looks like a fairly calm river, poking along under the autumn sun as if it, too, is susceptible to that urge to slow down as the sun stays in the sky for briefer and briefer times each day, eventually settling down for its winter’s doze. Maybe the dam that holds it back up at Heber Springs is still there, if not exactly functioning then just holding still the river. Eventually, it will burst, spewing chunks of concrete and metal all down this river as decades of restraint finally give way. Such is all but written in the book of fate, for this is a world of entropy, of decay, as much as we liked pretending otherwise when man ruled this planet, despite the fact that so much of our economy and industry was predicated upon entropy, upon machines breaking down and roads falling apart and clothes being worn out—we could always buy new clothes and patch those potholes in the road. And the dam that sits up this river a ways, it keeps the river safe, flowing in much the same path as always. But rivers used to be wild creatures, used to flood over and change path so often that maps could quickly become obsolete. Despite all of the media craze I remember over the rate of change in the world during this twentieth century, what we’ve done is, on a fundamental level, try to reduce the amount of change we have to deal with, like freezing the course of these rivers, as if determined to model our world after the unseen and unchanging God who supposedly created it. But now the agents of un-change have been stricken. What does this say to us of our creator?
We take the second turn left, south again, as indicated by the sign, heading into Searcy proper now—the town hasn’t yet spilled across the river, though it was probably only a matter of time, time that may never now be regained. These occasional houses do crop up, and we can see down the road where Searcy lay. As we walk, I sift through my mind for any remembrances of history, for dad was from this place and always wanted to make his way back here at some point, to work and live and die, though we never did—or did he? I don’t really know. I’ve not had much time to think about him and my brother; or rather, I’ve had plenty of time but no inclination. Dad certainly could make it through all of this, I believe. My brother, on the other hand, suffered from the propensity to believe that, having read enough issues of Soldier of Fortune and other survivalist rags, he was automatically prepared him for the worst; too, he didn’t seem to understand the difference between being not fat and actually being in shape and thought himself the latter, though his skinniness was from his unwillingness to cook anything that did not come in a box. Dad, on the other hand, would probably be fine despite having spent most of his recent years behind a desk. I don’t, however, expect to find him here.
But what did he tell me about this, his home town? All I can pull out from the webbing of hunger in my brain, from the sweat-dripped worries as we slowly near the town at the end of this road, is the mention of a spring—White Sulfur Springs, that was it—around which the town was founded. Healing springs, as if right out of the Bible or the pilgrim’s Europe. Healing springs, attracting so many people to this spot even before it became a town proper. I look down the road at what is now Searcy, at the crumbled signs of chain stores, and wonder if those springs haven’t already been covered over with scabs of asphalt, if the healing call of this town hasn’t already been silenced, just a speck on the history of Searcy—no more.
We’re walking down what could be any street in any town in Arkansas, in America, and it all seems abandoned, just like Blytheville. Fast food restaurants and furniture stores and gas stations and all the accretions of modernity but not a person in sight, and the wind scatters leaves from a distance down the city streets. At each intersection, we look both right and left for signs of life, but—
“There’s nothing here,” I venture.
“You’re wrong,” say Wayne and Austin at the same time. They glance at each other with the recognition of some shared experience before turning their eyes back to the street.
“What is it?” whispers Miriam.
“We’re definitely being shadowed,” says Wayne. “By someone good, too. I haven’t been able to catch sight of them yet, but they’re definitely watching us.”
“Let’s test an idea,” says Austin. He starts walking to one small strip center, this one three stores all in the same building with a small parking lot, and peers into the window of one of the shops, some place that apparently sold bulk vitamins in times past, given the dead neon sign that still hangs from the roof. “It’s been stripped,” he says with his face to the glass. “Not just of all those tasty multivitamins—that might have happened in the panic. People will take anything if they think the world’s ending. But someone’s moved stuff around to pull up the carpeting. That’s a bit different.”
He turns around to us and says, “Just look around you. This town ain’t just abandoned. It’s in various stages of being dismantled. You see that car dealership over there?” He points across the street. “You see the windows are gone? I don’t mean broken out. I mean like someone’s gone to a lot of trouble to remove them carefully. It’s different from the usual bit of destruction that a mob or bunch of scared folks might deal a place.”
“Should we turn around?” asks Wayne. “Head back?”
Austin mulls this over for a moment and then says, “Someone’s got us in his sights, ain’t nothing to stop him from getting us one way or another. Best we could hope for might be finding some kind of shelter in one of these, but this ain’t your urban jungle, just small-town sprawl. Not a whole lot of cover here. Plus, they know this place—we don’t. I say we just assume there’s a reason they ain’t shot us yet and keep on.”
“That’s a risk,” says Wayne. “You don’t know what these people are up to.”
“I know they’d rather take the time to take out a window rather than just bust it open,” answers Austin. “I’ll take a chance on that person.”
He walks off, back to the road, and after a few bare seconds of trading glances with one another, the five of us quickly get in line behind him.
One more block, and as we step into the intersection, there are three people—two guys and a woman—working at taking down a neon sign from the other side of a corner building. One of the men is on the roof and holding on to a rope tied around the sign, while the other two, apparently at work with tools where the sign is bolted into the building’s face. I stare at them—we all do—in shock for a while, as if they had just materialized out of no where, had appeared ex nihilo at the command of some god, and there they are taking down a neon sign. It’s work like you might have done in years past, in the old world that is so much faded memory now. Work today is building barricades or rifling old stores and homes for food. Work today is just trying to survive. I’m watching these three in their overalls, and I’m wanting to help out. I’m wanting, one more time, to do something upon which my survival does not directly depend.
And I think maybe we’re all under the same spell, for all six of us just stand there, watching, until finally the man on the roof turns and sees us. His face breaks into a smile. “Hello!” he calls out. The other two also look our way and say their own greetings.
“You following the signs?” asks the woman. “Just keep down that road you’re on, and you’ll come to it in no time. It’s where old Harding University used to be, if that means anything to you.” She is the age of a new grandmother, maybe late forties, but looks as if she has been doing projects bigger than this for most of her life.
“Um,” says Austin. “Um,” he tries again. “Do you need any help?” he finally manages to say.
“Thanks for the offer,” says the woman, “but I don’t think we could crowd any more people in here. But there’s a ton of stuff needing doing. Just go on into town and introduce yourselves to folks, and I’m sure we can put you to use doing something.”
They return to work as if we were a normal occurrence, the regular unannounced guests, someone’s friends who show up at the party—no more.
The six of us slowly return to return to the path, casting the odd glance back at this trio, perhaps hoping to catch a spare smile from them. Then it’s back to the road, and maybe we are walking faster now, maybe there is a spring in our step not there since ancient times, but we are back on the road, hardly cautious anymore, wanting only to get to the end of this stretch of asphalt. We pass a few more groups of people at work on various projects—knocking down a wall with sledgehammers, removing plastic tables from a restaurant, pulling down long dead electrical wires—everywhere taking apart what’s left of the old world, and these people, these couples and trios and quadruples, all wave us on, on to old Harding University, just follow the signs and we’ll be there shortly, ever shortly, just a few blocks now, with the omnipresent Venus of Willendorf guiding us left this way and then right again at this corner. And then—
There it is, at the corner of Grand and Market streets, the center from which all this meticulous deconstruction radiates—what once was Harding University, now like some medieval town or market square, or a large gypsy camp, with people of all sorts milling about, strolling in and out of one-time dormitories and administration buildings, and there is the buzz of activity in the air, of fun and work and play and laughter. Of life. I’m lost, transfixed by it all, by the sounds and the sight. Sheets and blankets and afghans hang from the windows like ancient banners of celebration. I can feel myself going dizzy. Gwen actually passes out in front of me. I can see her there out of the corner of my eyes, but I cannot move to help her. Wayne finally does. How many people are there here? Maybe a few hundred, if I count all of those I cannot see but can only guess at. Maybe a few hundred souls seemingly not living in fear—how? It is almost unnatural in this day and age. Wayne lifts Gwen to her feet. There is the glint of tears in her eyes, down her cheeks. By some common consensus, we all step forward a few paces, gingerly, as if loathe to tread too far or too hard into this image lest our footsteps cause it to crumble, cause it to ripple away into a ill-remembered blur like the last wisps of a dream when the morning sun pours through the window or the alarm clock starts playing its notes to pull you back to reality. But the vision does not fade. We walk further down Grand Street, take it one more block until it terminates at the corner of a lawn around which all these buildings circle. More people amble about the lawn, and something which I have not seen in months now—children playing. A group of five of them, maybe running around and playing tag. And how is it that I’ve not seen children for so long? Until this point, have they been kept away, kept safe and hidden, or have they for the most part died out, as do the children of any population in times of plague or famine or war? Darwinian forces at work—the little ones are usually the quickest and safest meals. But here they are. Gwen is crying full force now, and I know that in her thoughts are the words If only. If only Jimm had made it here, if only we had taken a different route and not gone past Judd Hill, if only this world weren’t so mind-numbingly cruel. If only. But we are here to see this. We are alive.
And then it hits me—
—more than alive
—more than a place
—this is a university
—even though a Church of Christ university
—all these buildings still standing
—all these old buildings
—one of them
And as soon as this revelation hits me, this possibility that the library might have survived, that its books might have outlived its owners—here, in a place where people live, where they walk free from certain fears now so common—I am running. If Austin or Wayne or Gwen or Miriam or Selia say anything, shout any words at me, I do not hear them. I cannot hear them. I am running to each building here, looking for its name. Kendall Hall. Pattie Cobb Hall. Dormitories, maybe? It seems that people are making their homes there, and in a co-ed fashion that would have been anathema to the founders of the university. Pattie Cobb has a front porch on each of its two stories, a nod to those old plantations of history and dreams. Perhaps I bump into someone. Perhaps I mutter an apology. Ganus. What kind of name is that for a building? Did they mean Janus? There will be no two-faced gods here—not of the pagan variety, anyway. The administration building, once home to an endless array of chancellors and vice presidents and the secretaries who did their work. Ezell. Who was this? Some donor, some famous missionary, some leader in the whole Church of Christ movement? Of whom would I even ask that question these days?
And then—there it is. Bracket Library, with its large window in front and four glass doors beneath looking for all the world like the toothy maw of some gigantic beast, and I run to it, swing open one of its doors, and run inside.
The only light there streams through that front window and those doors, past the circulation desk inside, and it takes my eyes just a moment, just a slight moment to adjust to the dim world in here, to adjust to what I see before me, which is—
Shelves. Row after row of metal shelves, all empty. All stripped bare.
I run down the aisles, my eyes scanning quickly for anything that might have survived, for the least little book that maybe, maybe escaped the determined hands of whoever stripped this place, whoever stole—stole!—all of the books, but nothing remains. My heart pounding out its soundtrack of desperation, my vision already blurred by what might be tears, I find the stairs leading up to the second floor. The elevator is working no more. It may never work again. I find the stairs and emerge upon another level of bare shelves, the metal frames like the stalks of cotton plants after the picking, back in the days when human hands did it and not machines that left so much white strewn about. And human hands did this, too. There is nothing left, nothing which even the hungriest eyes and minds might peruse just to see the written word again, just to feel the brain working as it winds out those sentences into meaning. Not even a book on physical education or teaching math on an elementary level or some devotional work written by a lady with perfectly coiffed hair and rosy cheeks. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
I lean against one of the shelves to steady myself. There are tears in my eyes, and I rub my face into my shirt sleeve to do away with them. I am running the gamut of emotion. I hate whoever did this, loathe them for hoarding books that belong to the world, to all of us, to me. I try to tell myself that nothing has changed—I had no books before and have none now. In short, I lost nothing. But that’s not really true, is it? I lost the chance to return, in some small way, to that old life of mine, to be lost in different worlds other than this one, to be on firm ground again—the ground of language and ideas and the sorts of world-changing notions that can be discussed over a pint or two of beer. Not to be what I am in this world, the extra, the throwback who fumbles with his gun. The person who isn’t the hero. In books, I would have the chance to be the hero once more, the person who stands upon firm ground and knows the terrain, having at his disposal maps of research and weapons of knowledge. Just a book. That’s all I wanted. Someone didn’t just take the books from here. They stripped me of the chance of returning home. Who would have done this?
“I think it was probably all the teachers who did it.”
I turn with a start to where this voice came. There she stands in a corner, the light streaming in illuminating half of her face, and I realize that I haven’t seen anyone wearing glasses in this new world, but she does—those thick rims that once were part of a librarian’s uniform. Her face is almost porcelain, the sort of skin that grows freckles at a whim, that burns easily beneath the sun, maybe turning as red as the hair which pours off her head and down to her shoulders in rivulets of color. She wears jeans and boots and the sort of overlarge long-sleeved shirt that a woman might steal from her husband’s drawers for a day of working in the garden. I wipe my eyes again and see a soft smile playing at her lips.
Has she been here all this time?
She continues: “Of course, I don’t really know what happened, but it’s easy to see. As the whole world tumbles into chaos, and before Searcy really starts experiencing the brunt of it itself, the professors begin to wonder how they might preserve everything that is kept here. They are, after all, people of the book. If zombies come to Searcy, it might be the end of all of this. Even if they believe that the world is ending, that the Second Coming is at hand, they don’t want to take the chance that they might be wrong and abandon all this learning to the fate in store from a false alarm, now do they? Most people are leaving town anyway, so they get together, a lot of them, and decide each to take some of the library with them wherever they go, that way they spread the risk around. Maybe each person tried to take a few representative volumes, or maybe they selected what was their specialty so that they could use them as tools of teaching. But the end result is that they took the library. You can see that this wasn’t the job of ransackers. It was the job of people just like you who wanted to keep that knowledge around, save it for posterity. Would you have done differently?”
I do not answer. I just stare. The silence soon grows uncomfortable for me, though she seems perfectly at home. Part of me is still thinking of this empty library, is still trying to get over the fact that all these books are missing, are possibly scattered to every corner of the earth the wind might visit or maybe buried in plastic garbage bags six to ten feet beneath the earth or perhaps in the trunk of someone’s car, someone who didn’t make it out of town, all of them like little holy grails lost to history, no clue as to where they went and no divine visions guiding us onward, leading us on heaven’s ordained path. Nothing.
After a seeming eternity, she steps forward and takes me by the hand. “Here—let me take you to see our real library.”
Wordlessly, I follow her. I follow her out of this empty building and into the warming air of the day. She takes me across the lawn, through crowds of people who step aside for her, say hello to her, look at her with something approaching awe. Finally, we are on the steps of one of these buildings, sitting beside a middle-aged woman knitting away at a green cardigan. She seems to be clothed in her own creations, and I would wonder where she got the yarn, but in the end of the old world, few people probably looted yarn stores for green wool and size nine needles. “Tell us a story,” says my companion to the woman. The latter regards us, not with incredulity at the strangeness of the request, but as if weighing what story to tell us.
Finally, she speaks: “I remember when my father died. He had had lung cancer for quite some time, so we knew it was coming. You think you can prepare yourself for it. But my daughter was about four years old at the time. I tried over and over again to think of a way to tell her what was going to happen, but I never could. You don’t want to say something to her that might result in that question, ‘Grampa, are you scared of dying?’ You want to keep death out of the conversation, keep it in a little box tucked away under the bed so you don’t have to look at it until the day comes. And you never quite know if they really understand what has happened. But we died. It was the first death she had known. We went to the funeral and stayed there with my mother for about two weeks, and after a few days, I think she finally understood that her Grampa wasn’t going to be there anymore. But about a month later, we were sitting in our living room, and I was reading a book and she was playing with her little toy phone, just talking away like mad on it. When she finally hung up, I asked her, ‘Tara dear, who were you talking to?’ She said, ‘I was talking to Grampa. He says he’s coming back soon.’ I thought—oh no. I said, ‘Dear, he’s in heaven now, don’t you remember? We had the funeral and everything.’ And she just smiled and said, ‘I know. But he says that God won’t cook but Grandma will.’”
My companion smiles and lays a hand on the lady’s shoulder and says thank you and takes me off to see someone else, a boy maybe sixteen working with his father on digging some kind of ditch at the edge of the campus. “For my American history class in high school,” he begins, “I had Coach Calloway. He was a Vietnam vet. When we got to the part in the book about the Vietnam War, he would tell us all this stuff, like how they used to make their own explosives with bits of razor wire and stuff in them. Anyway, stupid me, I come into class one day, and he’s standing there with his back to me, and I sneak up behind him and poke my finger in his back like it’s a gun, and I meant to say something cool like ‘Bang! Looks like Charlie got you!’ But suddenly, it’s like the world spins, and then I’m there all pinned to the wall, and my feet are off the ground, and Coach Calloway’s the one holding me there, with this look in his eye like he’s trying really hard not to kill me. Finally, he put me down, and he told all of us to never come up behind him like that again. But that’s what made me understand that all the stuff in that book we were using, that it’s—I don’t know how to say it, but like it’s not just in the book, you know? It’s like in all of our lives. Like we’re still living all the stuff that happened before. Does that make sense?”
She nods her head and smiles to the both of them.
She takes me to see a man patching up old clothes with needle and thread, and he tells us about living as a homeless person on the streets of Little Rock and how he might have been the only one to get out because all the other guys he knew were old or crippled and couldn’t outrun one of those creatures. We sit down and have a lunch of vegetable stew with and old woman who, in ages gone by, would have been no one’s grandmother but rather the lady who lives beyond the edge of town and concocts potions and tells fortunes for those who seek her out. I gobble the soup hungrily, having forgotten just how empty I was feeling, as she recalls this set of twins whom she cared for in the house of Newport’s richest family and how she was fired when they started calling her “mommy” in front of other people and refused to stop, hugging her and calling her mommy in their plaintive little voices. A younger woman reminisces about all the history that must lie in secret files somewhere and which we’ll never know—“I was living on Guam where my husband was stationed. One day when I’m coming back to the base, I see helicopters taking off every which was and people scrambling this way and that. I’m already really scared when I get back to our house. And there’s Richard. He hugs me and says that if anything happens, little Davie and I will be one of the first ones off the island. And then he’s gone. We don’t see or hear anything for about a week, and then suddenly he’s back, and of course he can’t talk about any of it.”
And so it goes for the rest of the day as she takes me from person to person to listen to their stories, and as I listen, I try to figure out what is going on. Why are they so ready to share their life histories? Why do they never balk at her request, and just who is she anyway? But each time, I slowly get drawn into the cadence of the storytelling until I am living their memories with them, and at the end of the day, it is overwhelming—entire lives of pain and joy and death and birth, and all of them I have lived myself, for the memories of these strangers are now my memories, and they are a part of me.
At the end of the day, she walks me over to where about a dozen people are gathered around a fire that flickers and fights against the darkness that looms above us, a darkness more full of stars than I have ever seen it. This must be how ancient man contemplated the universe: with a fire at his hands and friends at his side and the star-dusted expanse of the universe overhead, as if each of those points of light were not a star hanging in the void but the distant fire of some lonely traveler walking the firmament. And here we are. I take a seat where someone has made room for me. Wayne is here, too, as well as Selia. I don’t know where the others are—maybe off helping with something. That would be like them. But here we are, and the woman who has been with me almost my entire time here, she stands up before the flames as if about to talk to the fire or whatever god lays therein, the flames sparkling in her glasses, inside her. None of us speaks. The air hums, waiting for something to happen, and finally she smiles, and her eyes let loose of the fire and turn back to all of us. She rolls up her sleeves slowly, like a doctor might.
That’s when I hear Wayne gasp out loud. I do not see what he is looking at until she turns slightly and I catch slight of some mark on her left forearm, some slight coloring that might be a tattoo, but when she returns to the fire, stretching out her hands to warm them again, the firelight illuminates her, and what I see there stuns and panics me.
It is a bite mark. It is the clear imprint of once-human teeth.
When she turns back around, all the questions I have are struggling to get free from me, struggling to be heard on this cold night, to be spoken in streaming clouds of sound, but there are too many, and all I can do is stare at her with widening eyes, stare at this woman whose red hair catches the glint of fire and becomes like the outline of flame that is the stand-in for the Holy Spirit in so many old paintings. All I can do is stare. It’s up to Wayne finally to ask the question burning in our own mouths:
“When were you bitten?”
She does not flinch at the question at all. This is what she has been waiting for. She lets a few proper seconds elapse before finally saying her first words before the fire.
“Two months ago.”
It’s impossible. It’s absolutely impossible, and yet I believe her completely.
She looks to the sky, to those distant points of flame and all the void between them. “It’s funny,” she says. “On nights like these, looking up at the stars—this was probably when men and women first began forming their ideas about the world they lived in. You almost can’t help it. Nights are better for it than days because the sun is so bright that you can’t ever leisurely stare up at it and contemplate, and whenever the sun is up, you feel it with you, on you, all about you. It’s like the air you breathe, and it’s hard to question the air. But the moon and the stars are so cold and so dim in comparison, and so far away, that they invite those questions. The dark sky above is so much fertile ground for ideas, and people would sit around these fires and share their own ideas. But soon enough, somehow, people began to imagine that the ideas had more life than the men and women and girls and boys around the same fire, that these ideas were somehow real, somehow free of the people in whose hearts they lived. That you could have a story without a storyteller.
“But all of us, we are all living and traveling and evolving stories, our whole human race a little web of miraculous narratives all tied together somehow. I am part of it, too, as are all of you—stories and inventors of stories. And the tale I will tell tonight is everyone’s story. It is the story of life against odds, so it is the story of everything that has drawn but a single breath. And it will tell you where the zombies came from, though it is no secret and never has been.”
The fire cracks and pops as she pauses to take in a deep breath, closing her eyes for just a moment to take herself back to wherever she is going.
And then she says, “I was born on one of those Arkansas August nights….”Help Support T21 with your Dollar Donation Today
©2009 Guy Lancaster All Rights Reserved