Happy Holidays from The Weeklings. This week and next to tide you over between chocolate and hangovers, family and gifts, we have zombie fiction The Cliffs by Eric LeMay. The story comes with a Katniss-Everdeen heroine and an embedded hybrid essay about said fictions. Including tests: true or false, multiple choice and choose-your-own-adventures. Today is Part III of our serial.
MIS FELT HER throat tighten and the salt stinging her eyes.
She spun away from Argie. She wasn’t going to let him see her cry, not him. And why had Argie told her like that, looking so grave, as though he thought something terrible had happened. He must have done it to taunt her, since she was sure things turned out just as he’d hoped. Now everyone in the caves would think Mis couldn’t tell a dust cloud from a true threat. Or, worse, they’d think she was a liar, that she’d made it all up.
“We scanned the road and also looked east and west,” said Argie, “but we couldn’t find anything.” His words rippled around Mis’s shoulders. “After an hour, your father called it off.”
Her father. He’d be furious. And why had Mis gotten so scared when she thought he’d died? That would have been better, wouldn’t it? It wasn’t as though he took care of she and Purcy. She cleaned the cave; she did the cooking; she tended her brother. It was Mis who foraged and brought fresh water from the falls. Her father, the great guard who held the gorge, what did he do but brood and storm and scare them? And he’d beat her for this. She’d made them weaken the defenses. To expose them like that, even for an hour, was dangerous. It would take only a moment for a necro to slide past an empty post. And a hoard of them could quickly swarm the few guards who were there. It wouldn’t take an hour to destroy the caves. It could happen in an instant.
“Wait,” said Mis, turning back to Argie. Mis realized his story didn’t make sense. It didn’t take an hour to get from the north cliff back to the caves, and she figured it’d been twice that long, maybe more, since the guards had left. “I thought you said my father ended the search after an hour?”
“That’s right, Mis,” said Argie. He squatted down so he could look right at her. He still wasn’t smirking, wasn’t speaking in that tone of “I told you so.” He sounded concerned.
“Then what happened? It doesn’t take that long to get home.” Mis glared at Argie. His eyes darted to the ground. She saw his neck and cheeks flush a shade of crimson. A blush. She was right. He wasn’t telling her the truth. He’d been toying with her all along.
“Uh,” said Argie, “when the other guards left, your father ordered me back here. To report to Cal.”
“And?” urged Mis.
“And I—” said Argie, speeding up, “I watched the road for another hour just to make sure we hadn’t missed anything.” Argie’s eyes went back to Mis, searching her face.
Mis didn’t know what to make of him? He’d disobeyed her father’s direct order and stayed there. Why? Argie knew he could get in serious trouble if her father found out. Did he hate her so much that he wanted to stay out there and enjoy her humiliation? Was he that awful?
“Your father,” Argie continued, “seemed— I don’t know—” Argie fumbled for the right word. “Mad.”
Mis went cold. If Argie could tell her father was angry, if he could see emotion in that stony face, how angry must her father be? Mis feared what would happen when the sun rose behind the eastern trees and her father returned.
Purcy’s voice strained from behind the door. It was barely a whisper, but Mis could hear it clearly. And in that moment, in that very sound, she suddenly understood why Argie was being so nice. He knew. He knew all about her and Purcy and her father. As sure as the two of them could hear Purcy’s soft voice, as sure as Mis herself could hear the current of the stream, Argie could hear them from his own house across the caves. Whenever her father had yelled at them or hit them, he’d heard it. And not just Argie, but everyone. Mis had always known that the caves held no secrets. The slightest cough would echo along the walls for anyone to hear, but she’d never imagined someone actually listening, someone hearing their shouts and cries, the sharp smack of her father’s belt, not, for some reason, until now. And Argie had. He felt sorry for her.
Mis sprung up, arrow-straight. “Go away,” she said firmly. New tears rimmed her eyes, and she wanted Argie to leave before they fell.
Argie took a step back. “Is Purcy okay?” he asked. “You want help?”
“We don’t need your help,” said Mis, heading toward the door.
“Mis…” said Argie. He sounded hurt.
Mis grabbed the latch and swung open the door. She should have gone inside, should have left Argie standing there, but she didn’t. She looked back at him. “You’ll hear everything you want when my father gets back,” she said. “Hope you enjoy it.”
Argie’s jaw went slack, and he stepped towards her, as Mis closed the door. She turned to Purcy.
“Why are you yelling at him?” Purcy asked. “He’s trying to help you.”
“Help me?” said Mis. “He’s laughing at me. At us!”
“Stop yelling,” insisted Purcy.
Mis hated how Purcy thought anyone not speaking softly was yelling. The slightest sound of anger in her voice pained him.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, trying to soften her tone. She wasn’t about to argue with him, not the way he looked. His hair was matted to his forehead, and his face had a fog to it, as though he weren’t entirely awake.
“I had another dream,” he said, shaking his head doubtfully.
“What happened?” said Mis, crouching beside his bed. She knew if he didn’t say it out loud, he’d forget it.
Purcy rose up and grabbed Mis’s arm. His palm felt cool and clammy.
“The north cliffs,” said Purcy. “I saw the vultures on the rocks, and someone—a hand, an arm—trapped in the rock or—” Purcy’s squeezed his eyelids together. “Or buried. And you, Mis, you were there.” Purcy looked at Mis. “And you were scared.”
“Was that all?” asked Mis. She was trying to stay calm, quell her heart, but Purcy’s dream didn’t make sense. Whatever she’d seen had disappeared. Argie had confirmed that. And yet what else could Purcy be talking about?
“No,” said Purcy. He looked as though he was struggling to remember. “I saw a necro. It was eating, ripping into something and eating it. There was blood.”
“Is that what happens?” asked Mis hurriedly.
“Yes,” said Purcy. “Wait, no. I think that’s what will happen. I’m not sure.” He shook his head.
“I can tell father,” said Mis. “If he knows you dreamed it, he’ll believe me. Maybe he can stop it.”
Purcy kept shaking his head. “No, it’s you. You’re supposed to go, Mis. There wasn’t anyone else there except this person and—”
And the necro, Mis thought.
Purcy’s head fell back on the pillow. “I think if you don’t go, whoever is down there is going to die.” Purcy eyelids were falling. He was already drifting back into an uneasy sleep.
“That’ll happen anyway,” said Mis softly, almost to herself. Even if she rescued this person and got back to the caves, no one ever left the cliffs.
“That’s true,” said Purcy, almost asleep, “but it will be your fault.”
Question Five: Matching
The law of noncontradiction governs a rational world. This law, as Aristotle voices it in his Metaphysics, states that “[t]he most certain of all basic principles is that contradictory propositions are not true simultaneously.” Thus, X=Y and X≠Y cannot both be true. The law of noncontradiction allows us to develop arguments, define identities, and achieve psychological coherence. Without it, the universe spirals into confusion.
And yet, in certain human experiences—dreams, hallucinations, the worlds created through art—the law of noncontradiction does not always hold. X can equal and not equal Y at the same moment. In a poem, a portrait, or a vision, a rose is a rose, but it is also not a rose; it is and isn’t a profession, a betrayal, a signifier that calls and cancles its signified. In some experiences, the law of noncontradiction cannot save us.
With this law in mind, draw lines matching the terms on the left with the appropriate term(s) on the right.
Mis’s and Purcy’s father
“whoever is down there”
As Mis worked her way down the cliff, she realized she was farther from the caves than she’d ever been, far enough, in fact, to break the most important of rules: she was leaving the cliffs.
Beneath her wiry hands, the striations of rock made the stone look cracked, as though it had split open a thousand years ago. And the small patches of green that rooted in its folds, the stunted pines and spidery ferns that she passed, merely stressed the vast bulk of the cliff, its great immensity and height. It was a natural barrier. Nothing human or once-human would be able to scale it, not without equipment and not without making a lot of noise.
And yet Mis had once watched a wildcat pick its way up the cliff, casually, as though it were walking along a forest path. It, like Mis, had been born among the rocks. Mis had scrambled up and down them her entire life. She could find footholds in the smallest lip of stone. She could hoist herself on a tree root. When she went birding, she could easily brace her legs against two sides of a thin gorge, hanging in midair, and hunt through its folds for eggs. For Mis, the north cliff wasn’t an impassable barrier but a slow descent.
She paused to check her progress. Already, she’d covered over half the distance to the boulders at the foot of the cliffs. Her eyes darted over them, but she spotted nothing unusual. No movement, except what the occasional wind sometimes stirred.
Mis did notice the shadows. The dark lines thrown by the trees stretched eastward. The sun was setting. She’d have to hurry. Soon, the moon would be a crescent slicing through the clouds, and she wouldn’t have enough light to make the climb back up.
She extended her foot, her toes automatically groping for the next crimp in the rock. Her body fell back into its rhythm, righting itself, lowering itself, grip by grip. This movement was so natural that Mis had time to wonder if she’d find anything once she reached the bottom. Now that she was away from Purcy and his urgency, she realized that she was here—she was leaving the cliffs—because of a dream. Yes, it was Purcy’s dream, and she had no doubt Purcy had a gift, that he could see into the future of things, the way she could see through a squirrel’s or a rabbit’s eyes, but it was hard even for him to understand what he saw. His dreams were dense and tangled, and Mis feared she was caught in one.
Not just me, Mis thought. Cal, too.
She lied to get past him. He’d heard from Argie that the sighting was a false alarm, so he’d accepted Mis’s excuse that she needed to go to the falls and prepare the acorn flour. Mis had even put the meal at the very top of her rucksack, above the water skin and hunting knife, in case Cal looked. But he’d taken her at her word.
“You keep them eyes bright, runt,” he’d said. “I believe you seen something that likely veered off or dropped dead.” Cal nodded, his massive beard bobbing on his chest. “Old Cal believes that and’ll tell your father as much.”
Mis almost burst into a sob at that moment. Cal, like Argie, knew what was coming. Mis could see it in his face, but in Cal it didn’t wound her. She could feel his concern, his care for her. It made her want to bury herself into that beard and hide. She’d wanted to say she was lying, she was heading back to the north cliffs because, if she didn’t, someone might die. She’d wanted to tell Cal she didn’t know what else to do.
Instead, she swallowed and said, “Thanks, Cal.”
Then Cal surprised her. With a sudden distance in his voice, he said, “Your father, he was a hard nail since I knowed him. The war did that to him, I think. Did that to a lot of ‘em. They all come back with the hardness.”
This was the war in the sand. Mis’s father never spoke about it, but some of the old men talked about it when they mentioned the time before the caves. There was a war. Or there were many wars. And men like her father fought in a land where the hillsides and valleys were made of sand. Somehow the wars had to do with the mines and the waste and the rigs beyond the gorge, but Mis couldn’t connect them. She just imagined the sand, covering everything. And her father, standing in the middle of that sand, firing his rifle.
“He was hard,” Cal went on, “but not like he is now. Not til Ellie died. That’s what done it to him. He loved her, he did, like fur on a coon.” Cal looked into Mis face. “He tell you about her?”
Mis shrugged. She knew her mother’s name and knew she’d died giving birth to her and Purcy, but that didn’t seem like the sort of thing that Cal meant.
“Hell, Mis,” said Cal, “you look just like her. You and Purcy. I expect he can’t but look at you two and not see her. You getting what I’m at, Mis?” Cal craned toward her. “Your father can’t put down his ghost. Not so well as the rest of us.”
Mis didn’t understand, but she nodded. She could tell Cal wanted her to understand something about her father, but she couldn’t, not quite, and she needed to go. She took a tentative step forward.
Cal watched her for a beat longer. “You keep yourself perked,” he said, then waved her through with one of his large paws.
Mis had raced down the tunnel and toward the cliff, and it wasn’t until now, as she moved down the north face, that she had a moment to gather her thoughts. She was shocked to think she and Purcy looked like her mother. She pictured Purcy’s face, with his delicate brow and fine jawline. Then she tried to blot out her father’s features, his dark coloring and squared face. It didn’t work. The image broke into fragments. She also tried to combine her and Purcy’s faces, to see where they overlapped. She could imagine how different they looked, but their likeness escaped her. Mis wished she had a photograph, a single one. She’d even settle for a single glimpse. How could she go through life and not know her own face?
And why, she wondered, was her father so angry at them? Shouldn’t he be glad she and Purcy reminded him of their mother? He’d loved her, after all. Shouldn’t that make him grateful to see her in his children? Why would that make him lash out? No, Mis didn’t understand.
She lowered her foot and shifted down another few inches, digging her fingers into a clump of weeds for support. As Mis reached out with her other foot, the weeds pulled loose, bits of dirt and root suddenly scattering down the cliff. Mis spun to the side. Half her body dangled above the drop, and she could feel her grip giving way. She threw her hip back into the cliffs, using her weight to press herself back against the rock. Her hand scrambled to find a hold, and she was able to hook two fingers inside the nook where the weeds once were. That anchor allowed her to secure her other foot, to steady herself.
Mis pressed her cheek against the stone, drawing in its coolness. She’d gotten angry, and her anger had made her sloppy. She needed to center on the rocks, on her grip and her footing. These made sense. With these, she knew who she was and what she could do.
Mis looked down. She was about fifty feet above the tallest trees and could see through them onto the boulders below. From above, she hadn’t realized how huge they were, but now she saw they were massive, chunks of the cliff that had fallen and splintered. From between them grew trees that had bent and swerved to reach the light, their trunks twisted like broken backs. Most of them were slick with lichen and moss. Mis couldn’t tell how deep they went, how far she’d have to descend down into them before she hit the ground. She searched for a spot that looked well-lit.
And that’s when she saw it. A clutch of young trees, not far off and half-hidden behind an outcropping. Mis saw their leaves tremor slightly and then go still. A moment later, another tremor, and then a thrash.
Mis’s eyes scanned the nearby treetops. Their leaves, in a splendor of green and gold and russet, were motionless. There wasn’t a hint of wind.
Question Six: Short Answer
1) The filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock makes a distinction between surprise and suspense. “We are now having a very innocent little chat,” he starts. “Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence.” That, Hitchcock explains, is an example of surprise. He then revises his scene so it exemplifies not surprise, but suspense:
The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene.
Hitchcock describes the first scene as giving the audience fifteen seconds of surprise, whereas the revision gives them a narratively superior fifteen minutes of suspense.
Using Hitchcock’s distinction, describe what should await Mis at the base of the cliffs?
2) The philosopher Noël Carroll argues that suspense involves the audience having a moral stake in the outcome of the narrative’s unfolding events. “In suspense fictions,” Carroll explains, “the audience is provided, often aggressively, with a stake in one of the alternatives by having its moral sensibility drawn to prefer one of the uncertain outcomes.” The audience, that is, believes one of the outcomes of the story is morally good. Suspense occurs, however, when the unfolding events suggest that this ending isn’t likely, that the likely ending will instead be immoral or, as he puts it, evil:
Suspense requires not only that consumers rate certain alternative outcomes to be moral and evil; suspense…also requires that the moral outcome be perceived to be a live but improbable outcome, or at least, no more probable than the evil outcome, whereas the evil outcome is generally far more probable than the moral one.
The potential for a bad ending, in one sense, makes, in another sense, for a good story.
Taking your cue from Carroll’s argument, what is the most evil ending you can currently imagine for Mis?
3) The professional baseball-team manager Yogi Berra once observed, “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.”
In light Berra’s observation, where is it that Mis might not know she might not get to?
Tune in on Monday for Part IV of The Cliffs.