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 V of our serial.
BY THE TIME Mis doubled back to the horse, she was walking by moonlight.
She moved cautiously, not because she had trouble finding her way, but because she felt rattled. The adrenaline still coursed through her. She’d almost died. Almost been pulled into that hole. With that necro. And she shock at the idea of it and her, down there, with no place to run, of what might have happened in those terrible moments before it killed her.
If it killed me, Mis corrected.
She couldn’t quite see the horse, but as she looked toward the spot she could discern the black shapes of the vultures, swarming it. The horse had been alive when the necro first got to it. How long had it lived as the necro fed on it? How long had it suffered before it bled out?
Mis pulled her rucksack from the nook where she’d left it. The feel of its old leather reassured her. She ducked under its strap and heard within it the slosh of the water skin. The sound alerted her to her thirst, to the chalky taste of her mouth and the dried sweat on her face. She ran her tongue across her upper lip. It dragged over salt and dirt. Suddenly, Mis felt as though there wasn’t enough water in the world.
She pulled out the water skin, its folds giving under the force of her grip, and unfastened it. The water was lukewarm and full of that leathery tang the skin gave it, but to Mis it tasted wonderful. As it went down her throat, it seemed to seep directly into her bones. Mis thought she could keep drinking and never stop.
But she did, abruptly. For some reason, the image of the necro tearing at the horse shot to her mind. Something about the frenzy in it, the hunger for blood, the need.
Is this what it feels like?
A wave of repulsion rippled though Mis’s stomach. She wasn’t thinking rightly. She was human. Alive. She had more in common with those vultures than with that necro. So what if it had spoken? It had come at her like some unholy thing. And all those no’s that she’d heard it howl, those were probably some sort of echo, leftover from the person it once was. They were like the skins the locusts shed. On the outside, they looked alive, but within they were empty.
Mis refastened the seal on the water skin and started toward the far outcropping. She shuffled sidewise down the boulder toward the next rock. Mis feared she’d just find more vultures, feeding on another corpse. That or maybe nothing. Whoever was once there might have used the distraction she’d created to escape. That’d be a smart move. And that’d mean everything Mis had gone through, had risked, would be for nothing.
And yet she’d come this far. That’s what Mis told herself earlier, when she’d faced the prospect of jumping back over the crevice, in all her unsteadiness and with the necro just feet below her. She could have just continued on, gone back home, but she’d come this far. And that’s what she told herself now, as she scaled up the final shelf, working her fingers and toes into the dewy stone.
When Mis reached the top, she saw a pair of saddle bags, twisted on top of one another. Their pockets bulging against their worn straps. A dark patch at the bottom of one told Mis that something was leaking from it.
Looking up, Mis traced the most likely trail onto the rock. Another outcropping shot up on one side. It would make for a hard climb, especially if you were wounded. Besides, Mis could now see a pair of vultures, most likely the ones she’d seen earlier, perched in its lower folds.
Not that way.
She followed the bird’s gaze down to a cluster of hip-high stones. In the dark, they melded into one amorphous shape but, as Mis stared, they began to separate. And there, collapsed against one stone—Mis could make out a torso—was a person. Or at least what Mis hoped was a person. She had to allow that whoever it was might have been turned by the necro, might be, at this very moment, becoming undead.
Mis stepped softly forward.
The figure didn’t move, not as Mis drew closer. Mis could discern a thin shoulder, tapering into a thinner arm. She expected the figure to grow, but, as she neared within a few steps, it seemed to shrink. Whoever she’d found was no bigger than she was. Maybe smaller.
Maybe a child. Out here, alone.
Mis crept closer. She could make out some kind of synthetic jacket. A mottle of dark shiny hair. A leg, bent in. By now, Mis was certainly in earshot, but she didn’t see the slightest twitch. Maybe the person was unconscious. Or dead. At least it wasn’t a necro, not yet, anyway. A necro wouldn’t wait for her to sneak up on it.
Then Mis heard her father’s voice. Once, when she and Purcy were too young to understand the importance of the watch, she’d begged him not to go, to stay behind and protect she and Purcy from the necros. She’d whined, more than she should have, and when he father turned on her, she’d expected to get hit. Instead, he said, “It’s not the necros that will kill us one day, Mis. It’s other people.”
Others, Mis thought.
She reached into her rucksack and slid out the hunting knife. She’d thrust it through thick deer and rabbit hide. She figured she could drive it through someone’s neck or stomach, especially a child’s, though she hoped she wouldn’t have to. Mis drew back the blade.
“Hello?” she whispered.
The figure didn’t stir.
Mis extended the knife out and gently nudged the person in the shoulder. It gave, but only to the pressure. Mis pressed again, harder this time, watching the knife’s point disappear into the fabric.
Before Mis could finish, the figure spun. Mis caught the glimpse of an eye, a cheekbone, when a flash of dust exploded into her eyes. She tried to keep them open, but the dirt was already making them tear. She felt a hand grab her wrist and yank her forward. Mis fell, squeezing the knife tightly, trying to push it at the body she felt next to her, rolling over her, pinning her against the rock.
Fingers clamped around Mis’s throat, and Mis bucked, her air choked off.
Somehow, she managed to work her legs around her attacker. She hooked her heels together, the way she did when she steadied herself on a large branch, and pulled, simultaneously pushing the blade foward. Maybe she could drive the knife up, slice open the gut, before she blacked out. White spots flared in Mis’s vision, mashing with the tears and dust. She twisted the knife and arched. The knife drove upward—a half-inch, an inch—not much, but definitely into something.
Immediately, a release. Mis gasped, the air funneling down to her lungs. The grip on her throat was gone.
“Hey!” she heard.
Mis felt the weight on top of her rear back. She tightened her legs and leaned forward, placing her free palm on the heel of the blade, ready to hammer it into her attacker’s stomach.
“Okay, okay!” said the voice. It was high. It reminded Mis of the screech owl. “I give up.”
Mis kept her grip and blinked away the dust. As her sight cleared, she began to make a head and two hands, palms open and facing her. She saw high cheekbones and dark eyes shaped like the knots in the truck of a black walnut. The skin beneath them was sunken and sunburned, and the lips cracked and caked. It was the face of someone who’d crossed the wasteland, who’d been scorched by it, and it wasn’t a child’s.
“Hey,” said the woman, staring at Mis, as if she, too, was just now figuring out who she’d been fighting, “you’re just a kid.”
Question Ten: Reenactment
In the late 1980s, at Saint Xavier High School, an all-boys, Jesuit institution in Cincinnati, Ohio, the author read William Golding’s dystopian classic, Lord of the Flies. This novel tells the story of a group of English school children, all boys, stranded on an uninhabited island. Slowly, the boys devolve into a state of savagery and violence.
In his “Youth in Literature” course, in which the author and his classmates were approximately the same age as Mis, the author’s teacher stressed the significance of one episode that he and his classmates would otherwise have missed. In chapter eight, the boys hunt a wild sow. The description of this hunt has a relatively strong subtext.
The afternoon wore on, hazy and dreadful with damp heat; the sow staggered her way ahead of them, bleeding and mad, and the hunters followed, wedded to her in lust, excited by the long chase and the dropped blood.
Finally, after chasing the sow for some time, the boys move in for the kill:
Here, struck down by the heat, the sow fell and the hunters hurled themselves at her. This dreadful eruption from an unknown world made her frantic; she squealed and bucked and the air was full of sweat and noise and blood and terror. Roger ran round the heap, prodding with his spear whenever pigflesh appeared. Jack was on top of the sow, stabbing downward with his knife. Roger found a lodgment for his point and began to push till he was leaning with his whole weight. The spear moved forward inch by inch and the terrified squealing became a high-pitched scream. Then Jack found the throat and the hot blood spouted over his hands. The sow collapsed under them and they were heavy and fulfilled upon her.
As the author recalls, his teacher had to read certain phrases of this passage in a near-shout in order to emphasize for his students that this scene is, perhaps, about more than a bunch of boys hunting a pig.
The author further recalls that, in subsequent attempts to make the novel “come alive” for his students, his teacher resorted to having them enact some of the story’s more bracing episodes at the front of the classroom. These attempts, no doubt psychologically draining for the teacher, managed to impress more than a few of the students, as evidenced by many of them voicing an occasional “whoa” or “cool.”
Playing all of the relevant roles by yourself, please reenact one of the following episodes, making sure to bring out its subtext:
1) The fight in The Cliffs between Mis and the woman who attacks her.
2) The slaughter of the sow in Lord of the Flies.
3) The reenactment of episode 1 or 2 in the author’s “Youth in Literature” course.
“You have any water?”
For someone with a knife piercing her belly, the woman above Mis looked surprisingly relaxed.
“Yes,” said Mis, not knowing what else to say. She’d never seen a face like this one. Mis was struck by the woman’s high forehead and cheekbones. She’d learned from her teachers there were other types of people, different sizes, different skin, but the only person like that she’d ever seen was one of the elders, whose gray hair had strands the color of honeysuckle berries. And even though this woman’s face was beaten from the wasteland dust and lack of water, Mis thought she was beautiful.
“Well, if you’re not going to kill me, can I have some?”
The woman sounded exhausted. Mis could feel her struggling to hold herself upright. She hardly seemed a threat, but then Mis’s throat still burned from that throttle. Mis wasn’t going to give this woman another chance to get a hold on her.
“Clasp your hands behind you head,” said Mis.
Mis had seen her father do this with drunks whenever they got loud or violent. He’d get them on their knees or stomachs and make them put their hands behind their heads until he decided what to do with them. Sometimes all they needed was to calm down. Other times, he’d drive his fist or foot into their backs, just above their hearts, a solid blow to remind them who and where they were.
The woman sighed and laced her fingers, slowly sliding them to the crown of her head.
In a flash, Mis unclenched her legs and placed the soles of her feet on the woman’s chest. Her eyes went wide just before Mis kicked her, and she tumbled backward onto the ground.
Mis scooted in the opposite direction, keeping the knife in front of her and getting onto her feet. She could see the woman clearly. Splayed out, in clothes and boots that were a size too big for her, she was no larger than Mis and just as thin. Mis could see the rise and fall of her chest as she breathed.
“I guess I deserved that,” the woman finally said, talking straight into the sky. “But you must have seen that thing that was after me.” The woman paused, as though picturing the necro. “I thought you were it,” she finally continued. “I’m not in the best shape. No food, no water, now no freaking horse.” The woman let out another sigh, then sat up and looked at Mis. “No water since yesterday.”
Mis got the hint. She kept the knife at the ready and with the other hand she fished into her rucksack for the waterskin. The woman’s explanation made sense to her, although something about it—Mis couldn’t pinpoint what—didn’t feel right. Still, she’d come out here to rescue this person. That’s what her brother had told her she needed to do, and it didn’t seem right for Mis to save this woman only to deny her water. She tossed the waterskin next to the woman’s shoulder.
When it hit, she grabbed it and tugged at the seal. As soon as she’d loosened it, she upended the skin and drank deeply.
Mis watched the cords in her neck pulse with each swallow. She recognized that thirst, the one she’d felt moments ago, and yet—the necro, the chase—it also seemed like a distant memory. Maybe it was the strangeness, the newness of it all: this was Mis’s first time away from the cliffs, her first encounter with a necro…
My first kill.
The first time a new guard killed a necro was a cause for celebration in the caves. Cal would break out a jug of his elderberry spirit, and the guard would get hearty claps on the shoulder from the other guards, in the same way they did when one of the men’s wives had a baby, as though he’d done something good. Mis didn’t feel good about killing the necro, but then she hadn’t killed it exactly. She’d left it there, trapped, to die. That was a very different sort of first.
And now there was this woman, the first she’d met from the world outside the caves, drinking from her waterskin. No wonder Mis felt adrift.
“You hurt?” the woman asked. She was still trying to catch the last drips of water coming from the spout, her tongue half-out and her head tilted up. She was also looking at Mis, her eyes swiveling back and forth, from Mis to the spout, the spout to Mis. The sight almost made Mis smile.
“No,” said Mis, staying cautious.
“Your neck? Where I was choking you, that’s okay?”
Mis gave a quick internal check. Her throat burned less, her breathing was back to normal. “Yes,” she said. “It’s okay.”
“That’s good,” said the woman, “because I’m pretty strong.”
“Not that strong.” Mis surprised herself. Normally, she didn’t tell adults what she was thinking, much less right away. Normally, she kept silent. Her father had taught her that.
“I’m plenty strong,” said the woman, in a casual tone. “You just got lucky with that knife. I’d have choked you out, snake-style.” With her free hand, the woman made a striking motion, like she’d plucked an insect out of the air.
Mis’s brows furrowed. Snakes didn’t choke; they bit.
“Crap,” said the woman, lowing the water skin and turning toward Mis. “This is tapped.” Her brows lifted. “You have another?”
Mis shook her head. “But I can refill it in one of the runoffs.” Water was plentiful in the cliffs. The springs and rainwater at the top of the ridges flowed into hundreds of tiny creeks that ran down the rocks. Mis had passed a half a dozen since she’d made her way over the boulders. You could drink right from them so long as you avoided the ones with rusty stones and blue algae that meant poison.
“Good,” said the woman. “That’s good.” She struggled to her feet. “We need to get out of here, anyway.” Her eyes were taking in the swarm of feeding vultures. “There’s a lot of meat left on that horse.” The woman sights had turned to her saddle bags and she stepped toward them.
Mis pivoted, knife still extended, as she walked by.
The woman didn’t seem to care. “I can’t figure out why it left,” she said, crouching down and untwisting the satchels, “but then the stems have been acting weird lately.”
“What’s a stem?” Mis asked.
“Are you kidding? Those things that eat all the other things.”
Mis nodded. She’d figured as much, but had wanted to be sure. “Why do you call them stems?” she asked.
“I don’t, others do,” said the woman. She was shaking shards of clear glass out of the satchel that Mis had noticed earlier, the one with the stain. “I call them cocksuckers.”
Mis snortled, despite herself.
Searching into the recesses of the satchel, the woman made a tisk-tisk noise with her teeth and tongue. “This isn’t good,” she said in a low voice and then, more loudly, looking up Mis. “Why, what do you call them?”
“Necros,” Mis said.
“Necros,” the woman repeated. “As in ‘necrosis?’”
“I don’t know,” Mis answered. It was true, she thought. She didn’t know why the necros had that name; it was just what she’d, what everyone, had always called them.
“Huh,” said the woman, “that’s a strange name for something that won’t die.”
Question Eleven: Definitions
As a term, “zombie” has its origins in the Kongo or Kikongo language spoken in West Central Africa by the Bantu people. It doesn’t appear in English until the early 19th century, clearly as a result of the European slave trade. From that point, the term remains relatively stable for over 150 years, until Romero’s reinvention of the zombie in Night of the Living Dead. (Romero, surprisingly, does not call his living dead “zombies.” In his screenplay, he calls them “ghouls.”) With Romero’s film, the synonyms, alternatives, substitutes, equivalents, and euphemisms for “zombie” begin to proliferate in the American vernacular.
These new terms arise largely because the zombie shows up in post-apocalyptic and science-fiction stories. The stories in these genres invent worlds and, as a consequence, often invent names for the creatures that inhabit them. Alternatively, sci-fi and post-apoc stories also portray our world “in the not too distant future” as one that no longer has any centralized or stable authority with the power regulate words. In whatever worlds zombies walk, words drift with them.
Below are several terms currently used to describe the zombie. Please define each term, clarifying the particular nuance of meaning each term exists to capture.
|walking dead:||stiffs:||ghasts:||dead heads:|
Mis hadn’t thought the woman would have a gun.
Mis had stood there, watching, as the woman rummaged around in her saddlebags, talking about human cells and tissues. Mis couldn’t follow. Words she’d never heard, like “pathogenesis” and “blastocyst,” confused her, but she could understand the woman’s main point: although necros looked full of death, they were actually some tenacious kind of new life. They were made up of miniscule parts, of “cells,” that wouldn’t die.
“Which,” said the woman, pulling the nickel-plated revolver from her satchel, “is why ‘necro’ is just a dumb name.”
Startled, Mis took a step back. Stupid, she realized, I’ve been stupid.
But the woman didn’t aim the revolver at Mis; she cradled it, as though she were holding a mud clod. “Oh,” she said, noticing the knife that Mis still held out, then glancing back at the gun. “I guess somebody messed up, huh?”
Nonchalantly, the woman tossed the gun in Mis’s direction. It landed with a metal clack in front of her.
“No bullets,” she said. “I used the last one weeks ago. Maybe when that stem comes back, we can throw it at it.” The woman winked one of her large eyes at Mis. “The name’s Huilang,” she said.
When she said her name, her voice sounded to Mis like the sliding whistle of a cardinal. Mis knew she could have fooled her. The woman could have easily pretended the revolver was loaded. Mis would have fell for it. Maybe this woman was telling the truth? Maybe she had made a mistake in attacking her? As strange as she appeared to Mis, she didn’t seem dangerous, not since their initial fight. Mis lowered the knife.
“Way…lang,” she stammered.
“Not bad for a hick,” said Huilang, smiling. “You can call me ‘H’ if you need to. Chinese is probably hard on that Appalachian tongue.”
Mis immediately felt determined to call Huilang by the right name.
Huilang waited a moment, then said, “Now we’re at the time when you tell me who you are.”
“Mis,” nodded Huilang.
“It’s short for Promise,” she continued. Mis wasn’t sure why she was going on, why she felt the need to tell Huilang about her past, but she did. “My mother named me—me and my brother, before she died. Promise and Purpose.” Mis listened as she said their names out loud. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard them.
“Those are good names,” said Huilang.
“We call my brother Purcy.”
“He’s alive, then, your brother?”
“Yes,” Mis said, but the question reminded Mis of how Purcy had looked when she’d left him, his sallow eyes and cold pasty skin. “But he’s sick.”
“Well,” said Huilang, searching past Mis into the darkness. “I’m thinking sick is better than dead. Why don’t we head back to him before that stem—” Huilang corrected herself, “—that necro finds us?”
“It won’t,” said Mis. “I trapped it.”
Huilang reared on her heels, her brows raising. “Bullshit.”
Mis grinned. “In a hole, about a quarter mile that-a-way.” She gestured back across the rocks. “It’s in a split in the rocks.”
“In a hole, in the rocks,” Huilang sounded more like she was repeating the facts to herself, sorting them out, than speaking to Mis. “That’s one of the cognizant ones,” she continued. “It caught sight of me back on the road. Started tracking me. I could tell ‘cause I jagged through five or six streets in that town a few miles north. Enough turns that any stem would’ve headed off in the wrong direction. But this one—every time I’d slow back down, that thing would turn the corner. Tracking’s not that hard, I suppose, not with all the dust. I mean, it’s not that hard if you’ve got a functioning brain, but if you’re a stem…a necro…whatever. They don’t think. And they sure as shit don’t deduce.” Huilang blew out a big puff of air.
Mis couldn’t tell if she was bewildered or exhausted. Huilang’s face held something like excitement.
“At one point,” she went on, “I thought I’d lost it. On the road, not too far from here. I led the horse into that old hospital, the one with the big white cross. It was trashed, but no dust. Just that nasty linoleum, all scratched and crapped up. I wound up through a few floors, me yanking that stupid horse, trying not to make too much noise, but knowing that any we did make would echo down those halls every which way. I figured I could get the thing spun around, maybe bar it in a stairwell. So I’m listening for it and hearing nothing, not a sound. After a while, I stop in a service entrance, right by an exit door, and listen. The horse is puffing, dead tired from the strain and the stairs. I am too. Any minute, I think, I’ll hear it, somewhere deep within those hallways. I’ll get a fix on it, then I’ll know it’s safe to leave. But I don’t hear it. So I wait. And I mean I wait. And nothing. Nothing but that damned wind. Finally, after a few hours, I decide it must have latched itself into one of the equipment rooms or maybe got caught in an elevator shaft or something when I was busy with the horse. But still, I don’t want to be in there with it when night falls, just in case, right?”
Mis gave a nod. That, she thought, was why Argie didn’t see you from the cliffs.
“So out the door we go. I circle around the hospital, to get back on the road. I’ll make the treeline, I think, maybe find some water before dark. And there, right there at the entrance where I went in, is that big cocksucker. Waiting for me.”
To Mis’s disbelief, Huilang smiled. “Who knows what it was thinking. If it was. But it knew it had a better chance of eating if it stayed there.” Huilang shot a glance at her dead horse. “I guess it was right. I had nothing left to do but haul ass. The horse was wasted, though. I had to ditch it, hope it would buy me enough time.”
“You sacrificed your horse?” Mis asked.
Huilang’s smile thinned, and she gave another toothy tisk-tisk. “To that thing,” she said, “we’re just different piles of meat. The horse was the bigger one.”
Mis had skinned deer and rabbit, squirrel and possum, but she’d never thought of the muscle on her own bones as meat. Imagining the necro, she could see it was.
“And you trapped it?” asked Huilang, peering intently at Mis.
Mis gave a half-shrug yes.
Huilang unloosened a low whistle. “This,” she said, “I gotta see!”
Question Twelve: Multiple Choice
Select the best answer (or answers) to describe how The Cliffs manages the narrative experience of its readers.
A) The Willing Suspension of Disbelief
In 1817, Samuel Taylor Coleridge used the phrase “the willing suspension of disbelief” to describe a reader’s capacity not to reject a story that includes elements of fantasy, so long as the story otherwise adheres to a more or less realistic depiction of reality. Speaking of the “supernatural” characters in his own work, Coleridge claimed that a story needed to provide these “shadows of the imagination” with enough “human interest” and “semblance of truth” to allow readers to engage “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” For Coleridge, stories have to ground their fantasy in a world that otherwise seems true.
B) Secondary Belief
One hundred and thirty years later, J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, elaborated on Coleridge’s idea. Tolkien believed it wasn’t enough for readers merely to refrain from disbelieving the fantastical elements in a story. For such stories to work, the reader also had to accept—that is, had to believe in—the world of the story. Tolkien called this capacity in readers “secondary belief.” After readers willingly suspended their primary beliefs in the nature of everyday reality, they must embrace another set of beliefs based on the fantasy of the story. For readers to do so, a story does not require a semblance of truth, but rather “an inner consistency.” It must adhere to its own laws, however fantastical. If it doesn’t, “the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed.” Tolkien goes on to explain that, as a reader, “you are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from the outside.”
C) The Artistic Creation of Belief or “The Double Event”
When the musical adaptation of Disney’s The Lion King opened in 1997, its director, Julie Taymor, staged a story that complicates both Coleridge’s and Tolkien’s ideas. Taymor sought to engage her audience “by both the method of storytelling as well as the story itself.” To do so, she staged a story with fantastical events—singing lions, scheming hyenas—but she prevented her audience from sinking into this fantasy. Instead, she let them see her puppeteers manipulating her puppets and her actors working beneath their masks. Taymor called this experience a “double event.” In such a story, the audience not only believes in a fantasy, but also sees how fantasy becomes believable through art.
D) All of the above.
E) None of the above.
Tune in on Friday for the final installment of The Cliffs.