Oct 8: DAY OF THE DEAD

 

The end of the world came and went with such a voluminous roar that it seemed as though everything that had happened in the before should no longer occur in the after.  However, this was not the case.  Where anyone survived to continue the old enmities, old enmities were continued; where anyone remembered a tale, it was written down at once (not least of which rememberers were myself, with my perfect memory at last a blessing rather than a cursèd collector of old grudges); where prayers were once said, they were now repeated with double the fervor.

Finados, that is, the Day of the Dead, was one such tradition which survived, although in a curious manner.

Gone were the parades and the cleaning of the graves and headstones, the walking trees having long since torn up even humanity’s most sacred grounds, and the uncanny jaguars having long since learned to view any collection of humanity out in the open as a kind of game arranged for their deadly amusement.  Gone were the churches, rent stone from stone.  Gone was the tequila for offerings (although somewhat replaced by the humble sugarcane pinga that was often humanity’s most fervent spiritual solace).

But the dead?  They remained.  In fact, they returned.  Of the billions and billions who were killed in that war, only a few hundred thousand visited the area around old São Paulo—but visit they did.

They formed from the earth itself.

At first we retreated into caves, or climbed long ladders up into the thorn trees, or pushed rafts away from the shore and floated on any water we could find.  The dead did not like to go into the water, but everywhere else they could reach, they went, silently staring at the world that remained after they had been removed from it.

It was not that the survivors felt haunted, although we did.  It did not help that one seemed to see the faces of those one least wished to encounter.  Lovers who had parted with the bitterest recriminations, friends to whom one had owed a debt or favor, critics who had written one a scathing book review, an oft-ignored cousin…they seemed to follow one around willfully, appearing here, then there, then in a third place…no matter where one turned, one was surrounded by a tremendous feeling of guilt.

As to those whose guilts were more than petty, I cannot say, but of those who went among the dead, some did not return at all, and some returned befuddled by madness.  I have heard many tales…but being somewhat of a coward, I have never gone myself among the dead.  I might trip, and disappear with nothing but blood-stained footprints to mark my death.

It was when one of the largest thorn trees—who are treated as objects of worship among the trees that walk, at least in the area around São Paulo—was knocked over by the dead, who had lifted themselves out of the earth underneath it in such numbers that it toppled, that the strangest part of the new tradition began.

The trees formed themselves into labyrinths all over the old city; at the center of each of those labyrinths was an altar not made by human hands.  It was usually made of large pieces of gray concrete, put on top of each other, a thing which normally the walking trees would not allow.  On top of it was a mound of crudely made sugar skulls, brown in color, because while the sugar cane was still growing, it was as yet impossible to turn it white.  Often a large bowl of pinga would be set out, like punch.

The dead wandered through the labyrinths and became lost.  Later, they were herded by the trees to the center of the labyrinth, where they consumed what was offered to them and quarreled amongst themselves, snarling like dogs over the offerings.  These were not the honored dead of my childhood, great-grandmothers and children sadly found dead in the crib, but the lost dead of the great apocalypse.

Finally, at the end of the day, the dead collapsed once more.  The soil thus produced was of a fantastic richness.  It became a tradition to collect the gray, ashen earth piles and carry them to the base of any thorn trees, and to leave offerings for the trees to collect and place on their altars.

No one know what the walking trees think about all of this.  But it seems to me as though if any haunting were unjust, it is this—haunted by the dead of a race that had nearly destroyed itself and all life along with it, and which now rises from the earth to destroy that which the walking trees hold most sacred, by accident.

And so on one day a year, they must force themselves to stand almost entirely still, in elegant rows as they once were forced to do, as if that race once again was their master.

This story is set in a post-apocalyptic South American world.  It was supposed to be a pulp novel about new gods that had formed…I wrote like ten drafts on it, and it’s still terrible.  Then one day I had this off-kilter idea about an unnamed assassin and decided to set it in that world, as narrated by an alternate Jorge Luis Borges.  It’s going to be published soon in Aliterate as “The Name That Was Cursed.”  So if you liked this story, check them out.

I tried to make this scarier, but the narrator was having none of it.  “If the irony and injustice casually produced by humanity cannot terrify you, there is little that will.”