The Cliffs: An Essay, A Fiction, A Zombie Fusion. Part IV

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 IV of our serial.

Part I, Part II & Part III of The Cliffs ran last week.

 

Chapter Seven

 

MIS HEARD THE bestial grunts and snorts as she moved overtop of the boulders.

She stayed high, picking her way across the backs of the largest rocks. There were places where she had to descend for a few steps into a break or leap between outcroppings, but the ancient remains of the cliff were so thick, so deeply stacked, that Mis found a path that kept her more or less level with the treetops.

As she approached the spot, she dropped on her belly. Whatever was making those sounds was just below her, just out of sight.

She could hear it clearly because the songbirds had stopped singing. None of the warblers or towhees or sparrows called out to one another. It was as though the forest had lost its soul.

Mis crept forward. Her chest scraping on the stone, even her breath, sounded loud. She kept her head ducked until she could crane up, without having to move, and see below. By then, she was pitched slightly forward, her torso and thighs curved against the stone slope. She lifted her head and looked.

At first, she saw the turkey vultures, filling the branches across from her. Their thick black bodies rustled and fidgeted, and their meaty heads twitched side to side. Mis immediately noticed their gaze, all those colorless eyes staring in the same direction, and followed it to the forest floor.

There, twisted up in the underbrush and the trunks of a few young elms, was a fallen horse. Its piebald coat was dirty and matted, and its neck arched upward, over the saddle strapped on it, like it could bend backward and bite its own tail. Its eyes were open, but they didn’t move, and Mis could see why.

Hunched over its throat was a necro. A huge one.

Mis recoiled at the sight of it. She could see its back, convulsing as it ripped into the horse. It had torn open the throat just above the chest and gouged out handfuls of sinew and muscle that had spilled into the blood pooled around its knees. Mis made it out to be six feet, maybe six-and-a-half. It had a thickness to its legs and arms that likely meant it had just turned. Not long ago, not far from the caves, there was a person who was as alive as this horse had just been, as she was now.

But Mis knew there was another explanation. This could be a necro that had never starved. Some of them managed to keep eating after they’d turned. Unlike the others, these necros didn’t waste away into walking skeletons, with their hollow bones pushing through their dead skin. These necros somehow grew stronger.

Mis’s father and the other guards called them “feeders,” because they were faster than the necros that usually came down the gorge. That’s probably why they survived. They could catch things the others couldn’t. At times, it even seemed they could think. They wouldn’t charge the guards like normal necros. Instead, they’d wait and watch, as the guard trying to bait them waved his arms more and more wildly. Sometimes, the guard would have to spill fresh deer blood near the edge of the pit. Supposedly, one guard had even heard a feeder speak. He’d said it had spat out words before it was thrust into the pit. The guard wasn’t quite sure what, but thought it sounded like “My God” or “Why, God?”

As Mis looked at the necro jerk back the horse’s hide and sink its face into the exposed flesh, she wondered what god—hers? its?—would create a thing so hideous. Why, indeed?

Mis averted her eyes. The horse must have had a rider. What had happened to him? Had he escaped? Had the necro already gotten to him? She didn’t think a horse would willingly run into such a thick forest. It couldn’t move well on this rocky ground, couldn’t see beyond the next wall of trees. Had its rider guided it here? Or had the horse panicked at the sight of the necro and fled against its instincts? Mis couldn’t tell. She figured the best she could do would be to follow its trail and see if she could spot the place where the rider had gone to foot. There she’d either find tracks or a carcass.

Or another one of them.

Mis searched for the direction from which the horse had come, combing the forest floor and noting what was amiss. The size of the animal, so much larger than deer, made it easy. The horse had kicked up the duff, the dead leaves and twigs and decay lying on the ground, and trampled five or six saplings that had been in its way.

Mis could drop back and cut a wide circle toward it. She’d pick up its path far away from here. The necro would be at the horse for hours. If she stayed clear of it, she’d have until dark to search. And if she hadn’t found the rider by then, she’d spend the night up in the rocks or maybe in the upper branches of a tree, somewhere a necro of that size couldn’t go. She’d follow the vultures. She’d stay high and stay safe.

Mis’s eyes went back to the birds, still patiently filling the branches. They were signs among the cliffs, messengers who could tell you what was happening miles below in the gorge or over on the far ridges. She’d seen them her entire life, these animals that took to the sky but ate off the ground, that lived by feeding off the dead. She wasn’t surprised they’d managed to thrive in a world with necros. With their scaly talons and their white beaks that hooked to a razor point, they were built for it. They were survivors. Mis could do worse than follow their lead.

And that’s when she noticed a few of the vultures weren’t staring at the horse. On an outcropping just above the necro, three of them perched with their backs to Mis and their eyes on something she couldn’t see. Mis reared up, stretched her head right and left for a better look, but couldn’t get one.

She studied the rocks that led from the birds back down to the forest floor. It was an easy climb, a few thick mossy slabs of sandstone that Mis could scramble up in a heartbeat. And there, just there—Mis could see it—a spot where the moss had recently been scraped away. A few feet above it was another, a small gash in the moss where something had torn it loose.

Footprints, Mis thought, leading straight from the horse.

She’d found the rider. She’d found him, and he was somewhere just above the head of the necro.

~

 

Question Seven: Illustration

 

The image below is taken from George A. Romero’s film, Night of the Living Dead. Released in the socially turbulent year of 1968, this film redefined the zombie in American popular culture. Prior to 1968, Americans associated the zombie with its historical origins in Haitian folklore. Night of the Living Dead, however, first gave us the zombie in its current state as a malignant, reanimated, flesh-eating corpse.

The image below captures the moment in the story when “Barbara,” after visiting her mother’s grave with her brother, gets her first full look at the film’s first zombie.

Ch7-Night-of-Living-Dead

In effect, this is the first sighting of the first zombie that will go on to define the monster and its genre from 1968 to our present.

Based on Barbara’s facial expression, draw your answers to the following questions in pencil or charcoal.

 

1) What does this ur-zombie look like? Keep in mind that Barbara has just been attacked by this zombie, then saved by her brother, who is currently struggling with the zombie, though not yet killed by it.

2) How does this zombie differ from the necro spotted by Mis in The Cliffs? Keep in mind that neither Mis nor, by extension, you have “seen” the face of this zombie.

3) How does Mis’s expression, upon seeing this necro, differ from Barbara’s? Keep in mind that you (now that you think about it) have also never had a full description of Mis, but somehow (indeed, how?) you can also “see” her.

 ~

 

Chapter Eight

 

Mis traced a route over the rocks to the outcropping.

She could easily get there if she stuck to the boulder tops, but not without exposing herself to the necro. If it turned, it’d see her. And then what? With its size, it could quickly scale the rocks, and Mis wasn’t sure she could outrun it for long. If it had chased down a horse, over miles, it wouldn’t let up if it went after her.

And what if whoever was over there was still alive? Purcy had said as much, and Mis believed him. She could lead the necro right to someone who was hiding, who was possibly hurt and helpless. That’d be some rescue.

Mis considered waiting. After nightfall, she could slide through the dark and see whom the vultures had found. Alternatively, she could double-back. If she circled around the necro, she could approach the spot from its far side. Yet in either case, she’d lose sight of the necro. At the moment, she had a vantage on it. She saw where it was, and that seemed knowledge too dangerous to give up.

Mis decided she’d have to distract it. Like her father, she’d have to lure it off and trap it.

Mis backed away, inching herself up and over the boulder until the curve of sandstone blocked the necro. She could still hear it, its horrid maws, but did her best to block it out and think. The path she’d taken here had a few big crevices. Maybe she could set up a makeshift trap, like the ones the hunters used for coyotes, and trick it into falling down the hole. Maybe. The drop, she knew, would need to steep. The necro would try to get out any way it could and it would try forever.

Mis crawled down the rock and headed back the way she’d come. Already, she was putting together the trap in her mind, and by the time she’d found the first crevice, she had a plan. She knelt next to the break in the rocks and looked down.

It wasn’t ideal. Mis could easily see the bottom. It was about twice as high as the necro. She’d hoped for a higher drop. However, the sides of the crevice were sheer. Mis could scale it, but only because of her fingers were thin. The necro’s very size would prevent it from getting out. And there was no light in the crevice except what shone from above, no folds or breaks in the rock down below that might tell of another exit. The only way out was up.

The width of the crevice also troubled Mis. It was wide for her, but she was much smaller than the necro. Mis hoped it was a normal one, one that lumbered slowly and awkwardly, not one of the feeders that could move like a man. If it tried, it could make it over the break with a long step.

Mis checked the sun. Already the smeary reds of sunset were coloring the horizon. She had time, but not much. Set the trap here or nowhere.

Mis put down her rucksack and took out her father’s hunting knife. She had to push back the thought of her father finding it missing, finding her missing. With a quick breath, she shimmied down the boulder to the nearest patch of trees.

There she began collecting branches. She cut a few, thick with leaves, directly off the tree trunks, splitting their green and white wood and smelling their fresh fiber. The rest she grabbed from the ground. She gathered dead and dry branches, ones that would easily break.

Once she had a good pile, she picked through the undergrowth, pulling out a few pieces of old bark, rotted with termites, and some fistfuls of ground cedar. Her pile soon looked like the forest in miniature, a mottled heap of greens and browns.

Finally, Mis cut loose two branches from a wild rosebush. She sheared off their thorns with the edge of her blade, then took the first branch and threaded it underneath her pile, looping it around and tying it off. She looped the second through the first, creating a makeshift sling, and slung her bundle over her shoulder.

Mis slide the knife into her waistband and made the short climb back up the boulder.

Now it was just a matter of covering the hole. Mis started with the largest, driest branches. She placed one at a slight angle over the hole, making sure its tip rested just beyond the edge of the crevice.

She had to concentrate. Moving the branch by its very end made it heavy and awkward to handle, and Mis didn’t want to drop it. She didn’t have time to gather more.

The next branch Mis laid, as gently as she could, across the first, so the two formed an elongated X. She continued this pattern, until the hole was crisscrossed with branches. Over these, she laid the fresher, leafy branches. These were light, but still she put them down with her breath held. She could easily catch a leaf on one of the base branches and entirely collapse the cover she was building. With each new branch, she blotted out more and more of the hole.

After the final one, Mis stood back. Her trap was hardly subtle. It looked like a bright green stripe running across the rock.

She sighed and began crumbling up the bark. She pulled it into small chunks and mixed it with the dust and dirt on the boulder. Mis did the same with the ground cedar, until she had a dun-colored pile of debris. Taking a handful of it, she began scattering it over the branches. Some of it fell through, and Mis imagined it thickening the air in the crevice, but gradually the leaves began to look more and more like the dingy ground next to them, especially on the side of the crevice nearest to Mis. She needed to work from the far side.

Mis stepped away from the hole. She’d expected this moment, the one in which she’d have to practice her leap and make sure she could clear not just the crevice but the entire trap. She needed to know she wouldn’t set it off or, worse, fall in.

She picked up two huge handfuls of debris and walked back until she had enough distance to reach a run.

You jump bigger than this all the time, she told herself. Mis nodded her head, targeting the ground on the far side.

With that, Mis charged the trap, her stride lengthening with her every step. She felt the power growing in her legs and, when she reached the trap, she sprung off the ground solidly and surely, knowing she’d make it across before she landed.

And she did, landing with so much momentum that she nearly toppled over her own legs. When Mis gained her balance, she looked back. Her tracks were a good foot beyond the edge of the crevice. She smiled. She could do this. She just needed to pretend that she was back on the cliffs, chasing down a squirrel or heading home.

But I’m not home, Mis recalled, as she felt her fists clinching around the debris.

She walked back to the trap and began scattering it. Her thoughts went to the dead horse, to its horridly gashed throat and the rips of flesh being torn from its spine.

I’m hunting a necro, Mis said to herself. And soon it’s going to be hunting me.

~

 

Question Eight: Analogy

 

Cognitive psychologists describe “procedural knowledge” as the kind of knowledge used to accomplish a task. Procedural knowledge is applied knowledge, the sort that allows us to do things in the world. How-to books and instructional videos aim to impart readers and viewers with procedural knowledge.

Surprisingly, a person who possesses procedural knowledge may not be able to describe their knowledge to others. He or she may know how to do something, but not how to describe it. The knowledge to describe something, which cognitive psychologists call “declarative knowledge,” is of a different nature from procedural knowledge: not knowing how, but knowing about. Indeed, the person who knows how to do something may not even be aware that he or she possesses that knowledge. Conversely, someone may know about something, but be unable to do that thing themselves.

In light of the difference between procedural knowledge and declarative knowledge, complete each of the analogies below. Remember the basic formula reads “A is to B as C is to D.”

 

Mis : setting trap for a necro :: author : _______

Mis : fearing a necro :: reader : _______

reader : reading about Mis setting a trap a necro :: Mis : _______

author : fearing, though he created it, the fictional necro :: Mis : _______

 

~

 

Chapter Nine

 

The first stone that Mis threw went so wide of the necro that it spooked one of the vultures into flight.

Mis blamed her aim on the lack of light. The sun had sunk behind the ridge, its final rays lingering in the blue-black sky, and darkness had already gathered in the trees. But Mis couldn’t ignore that her hand was trembling. When she held it out, she could see it shaking, as though some spirit possessed it.

Mis picked up another stone and dug her fingers into its sharp edges. The sting steadied her.

From atop the boulder, she judged the distance to the necro. It wasn’t so close, but certainly close enough to hit. Since Mis had gone to set the trap, the necro had worked its way down the horses neck, leaving a ragged sleeve of skin and gristle that stopped at the horse’s chest, where it was now muzzling its face into the thick meat on the sternum. The flies had also found it. Mis could see them swarming in and out of the shadows. The necro didn’t notice them, not them or the stone she’d just thrown. Only the vultures seemed upset.

Mis refocused on the necro, telling herself it was a target, like any other, like when she used to chuck stones at the pine cones dangling on the spruce trees. Usually, she could hit them. In the winter, she’d throw a rock at one and watch the snow spiral off it, drifting in the winter air.

Throw it like that, Mis told herself.

She slung her arm back and whipped the stone low, from her hip. She watched as it sailed through the twilight and hit a few feet short of the necro, skipping near the horse’s limp foreleg.

For a second, the necro seemed to stop. Mis couldn’t be sure, but it looked as though it paused from lurching into the horse’s flesh.

She picked up another stone, intent on nailing the necro, when something obvious occurred to her. For her entire life, she’d spent her time in the woods under the strictest rule of silence. Never speak when you can whisper. Never whisper when you can signal. And always step softly. Any noise, a snapping twig or a suppressed cough, could draw a necro to you. Stay silent and you survived.

But at this moment drawing a necro to her was exactly what Mis wanted.

“Hey!” she shouted. The croak in her voice surprised her. “Hey, over here!”

Instantly, the necro’s head clicked in her direction, and Mis heard a hiss spiral toward her across the rocks.

She’d never seen one, not this close. Twice she’d watched a pack of them coming down the gorge, but back then she’d been high up on the cliffs, safe with the others, while her father and the guards faced the necros down below. From that distance, they’d looked small and unthreatening, like a herd of drugged deer.

This necro didn’t look drugged. It shot up on its thick legs. It was much bigger than Mis had imagined. It stared right at her, its unblinking eyes flashing at her through a gritty mask of blood. What remained of its shirt hung in tatters off its shoulders, and beneath the dark stains on its clothes and skin Mis could see patches of rotten gray. For a second, it looked like a statue, as motionless and large as one of the nearby rocks. Then its mouth opened into a glistening slit and it hissed again—louder this time, aware, a snake about to strike.

Instinctively, Mis fired the stone at it. Before she’d even realized she’d thrown it, she saw the necro’s head snap back.

Got you! she thought.

And then the necro was coming at her, loping across the forest floor, moving through the undergrowth at a dizzying paze.

It’s a feeder, Mis realized.

Already she could hear the scrabble of the necro at the base of the boulder. Mis bolted, running headlong toward the trap, her feet picking over the rocks, the heat rising in her chest. When she reached the first turn in the path, she glanced back.

The necro was hoisting itself, leg and arm, directly over the ledge. Mis expected it would take one of the easy routes up the rock, but it had come straight up the steepest approach.

It can climb. Mis watched the necro pull itself final leg onto the boulder and rise to its feet. It knows how to scale the rocks.

The necro whirled left and right, its head and torso spinning in opposite directions, as if all of it were covered in eyes and searching for her.

The thought flashed through Mis’s mind that this might be her last chance to escape. The feeder was fast. And her trap might miss it. Right now, she could still turn the corner and scale the cliff, head straight up in the dark. She could move toward the sheerest rocks, where the necro wouldn’t be able to follow her, no man would, without falling. Maybe she could stop it that way?

And then the necro spotted her. Its lips split, with another hiss, and it rushed toward her.

Mis ran. She had a straight shot to the trap, up and over rocks that splintered and fell in heaps. Behind her, she could hear—could sense—the necro gaining on her. She willed her legs to move faster.

Go, she thought, hurdling over a cut in the stone.

She could see the trap, not far ahead. She’d have to adjust her stride if she was going to get the footing she needed. Mis drove, lengthening her step, covering more ground. And that’s when she fell. She felt gravel under her moccasin, and her leg slid out, spilling her onto the ground.

Immediately, she heard the necro pounding toward her.

Without looking back, Mis rolled to her feet and stumbled forward. The trap was just ahead, and she tilted toward it, trying to get her legs beneath her. Before she could, she was there, throwing herself across the trap and into the night. In that flight, in that wind that whistled past her, she heard a distinct hiss.

And then Mis landed, just over the cusp of the trap. She felt her heel catch the end of a branch, and the branch shifted. The trap collapsed, right there. Mis knew it as she careened forward. She’d sent the whole thing toppling into the crevice. The necro would see it, would leap right over it.

It’ll be on me.

Mis scrambled forward, when she heard a loud thud. She stopped and turned.

A bloody gray arm was extending from the crevice, its hand clawing and clutching at the rock.

Mis dashed forward and saw the necro dangling from the edge. It must have been too close, been moving too fast to stop when Mis sprung the trap. It didn’t have time to jump. Mis raised up her feet and slammed it down on necro’s wide hand. She heard it hiss. She twisted her heel. Mis expected to see the necro slide into the crevice, but when she released her heel, the necro’s hand swiveled and caught her foot.

Mis’s weight shot out from under her, and she slammed onto the rock. She felt her chest collapse. As she slid toward the crevice, she saw the necro’s other hand slap over the edge and its head rise over the lip of rock.

It eyes bore into her.

Gasping, Mis dug her palms into the stone. That slowed her, but not by much. The necro was either going to drag her into the hole with it or use her to climb out. Mis had to stop it. She strained against its grip, but the pull of it, the weight of it—Mis wasn’t strong enough to fight it.

And so she didn’t. Something about necro’s pull, something visceral, reminded her of being a child, of the times she’d pestered Cal into playing tug with her. She was no match for Cal’s strength, but every so often she could pull hard enough to get him to pull back. At those moments, she’d release the rope. Cal would stagger back a few steps, and Mis would cackle. She hadn’t won, but she hadn’t exactly lost. She’d turned his Cal’s own strength against him.

That’s what she would do now. Mis cocked her free leg and reversed her momentum. She pushed toward the necro and, as she moved, she smashed her free heel into the center of the necro’s face. It hit, squarely, and a bone-pounding jolt ran up Mis’s leg. She saw the necro’s chin crunch into its neck and felt its grip release. Mis threw herself back on the rocks and watched as the necro’s other hand slipped from the ledge and disappeared into the crevice.

Mis froze, listening for the impact, waiting to see if that lifeless hand would hurl back onto the stone.

Then, through the blood pounding in her ears, Mis heard something like a moan. Still trying to catch her breath, she dragged herself to the trap’s edge. Down below, in the darkness, she could make out the necro, circling and circling the sides of the crevice, tearing at the stone for a way out. Mis could hear it clearly now, as it thrashed at the unyielding rock.

It wasn’t moaning. It was murmuring, “No, no, no…”

~

 

Question Nine: Graph

 

In 1863, the playwright, poet, novelist, scholar, and soldier, Gustav Freytag published Die Technik des Dramas, in which he provided a model of dramatic structure. According to Freytag, a story works in five successive parts:

It rises from the introduction with the entrance of exciting forces to the climax, and then falls from here to the catastrophe. Between these parts lie (the parts of) the rise and fall.

The result—“if one may symbolize it by lines”—is, as Freytag explains, “a pyramidal structure.” He even provides an illustration, lettering each part of the structure.

Ch9-Frytag-Pyramid

A momentary passage in a massive book, Freytag’s model has outlived and overshadowed its creator, becoming a touchstone not only for playwrights, but for authors who hoped to create dramatic action. His initial model has been adapted and enhanced, yet each subsequent version shares the same belief that a line can capture the rising and falling action of a plot.

On the graph below, plot a line that symbolizes the action of The Cliffs thus far and predicts its future action. Once you have finished, plot a second line that symbolizes your reading pleasure.

 

Ch9-graph

 ~

 Tune in on Wednesday for Part V of The Cliffs.

 

Eric LeMay

About Eric LeMay

Eric LeMay (http://ericlemay.org/) is the author of two books and a forthcoming collection of essays. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, Gastronomica, Poetry Daily, the Best Food Writing series, and other venues. He teaches at Ohio University and also serves as the web editor for Alimentum: The Literature of Food and a host on the New Books Network. He lives in Athens, Ohio.
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