‘Let the Dead Bury Their Dead’ Excerpt
That night, she stood in the dust of the long dirt road, bound up in her arms, in the frailty of her gown. How she smiled when she saw you, as if she would dart, or melt, or disappear into the mist. And you held her, whispering, “The creature has decreed we must go forth into the world.” How strange her moonlit eyes, how she trembled against you, saying, “I love you,” and “Oh my dearest,” in what had been a child’s voice, in a voice no longer her own. Now her lips mashed against your cheeks and your throat and, finally, your lips. And you took her from her home, journeying along the roads, the black and narrow streams, shimmering, your few possessions wrapped in canvas and bound to your back, and in the morning you were married at the courthouse before a servant of the law, white haired, his spectacles smudged. There you slid a gold band over her finger, “My one remnant of Mother.” And afterward, in the dung and straw strewn streets, you held this girl as she sobbed into your chest.
You carried your bride across a threshold of long grasses, for your marriage bed awaited in grainy-fields. And here, in the shadow of the black mountain, you constructed a deer hide tent while the natives regarded you from the birch bark forest. And when she sensed their presence, the beat of their drums, the smoke of their fires, you explained you would build a cabin “where no heathen will dare trespass.” You said you would immerse your days in the ceaseless toil of chopping and hauling and constructing, while hers would be spent gathering nuts and berries in the day and preparing dinner in the evenings. And when you wearied of this game, you laid upon her lap, speaking of the wonders of the Almighty and His creature, and when you paused she always said, “Tell me more” and you always met her demands.
In those first nights you knew only this woman, her figure, her lips, the sound of her voice. And when she said, “You will tire of me,” you kissed her brow, and when she said, “Do not tarry with questionable men,” you insisted she had silenced the rowdiness within your soul. Now you wanted nothing of God or His works, for you desired only lie within her. You said, “My only city shall be the city we build here.”
In the early days you went into town for goods, and there the men whispered of the “infamy” of your union. You returned with axes, a saw, bundles of rope, and when you confessed your journey to your wife you never spoke of the way both men and women gossiped, the way you flushed to hear the names they gave her. In the morning you left her and now you spent many hours within the woods, hacking and resting on the handle of your axe, watching the bugs in the dirt and the leaves, listening to the birds, stripping the bark in near transparent sheets, lacing your fingers behind your head and napping against a sturdy birch, before finally returning in the dim light, raving of the great work you had accomplished and how your house was “within reach.”
And when you cooked the meat of a recent kill, you left the tent pulled open, and there your wife laid in the glow of the flame. And you followed the smoke drifting over her bare shoulders, and the shadowed rise of her buttocks as if dipped in ink. How your breath caught and she turned to watch you work. How her eyes seemed lost for the dark, for the smoke, for the fumes of the rabbit you roasted on dripping spits. And when you left the tent open through the night, the long fingers of the misty dawn chilled your flesh, and now you held each other, tight and shivering, the chattering of her teeth, and now you warmed her goose fleshed figure with your hands and your kisses. How she scarcely stirred against a new dawn and then the soft moan when you kissed her neck. How with your tongue you drew houses and roads and schoolhouses on her belly, her breasts, depicting the children you dreamed to create and name, and all the days you longed to know with her.
And there were evenings when the distant grasses seemed to glint with the eyes of natives, watching and waiting and silent.
And there were days you returned to the forest after a lapse, first, of a day, and then, after several days, and then, after a week. And then more weeks, and finally you dragged the logs into the field. There they lay, strewn, while you slept, exhausted and drenched with sweat.
And there were days the logs swelled and rotted and moldered while you held your beloved tight, whispering of the world to come.
And when the weather cooled you wandered the forests for abandoned cabins. You found them with roofs caved-in or the rotten-walls collapsed, and the doors ajar or no-doors-at-all. And within these weathered constructions you often found bodies, decomposed and mere skeletons, of what-were-once-parents holding what-were-once-children, the carpets and walls splattered with brown blood. And in others you found only the blood. And here you found dusty and unopened cans of beans and peaches, and you found the nests of birds and wild cats, and you found the ancient droppings of these animals, of wild dogs, and from certain corners came low growls, the opening of yellow eyes.
And in the forest you found the remains of what had been a man. The rope yet dangling from the branches, his flesh mostly eaten away while the attached note was yellow and wilted, smeared into streaks, the author’s signature incomprehensible at the bottom. How you observed the skull and empty sockets, the tattered coat and eaten away trousers, the shoes removed and placed neatly to the side and the pocket watch dropped within these. Your hand trembled to touch the smoothness of what remained, and no bug nor creature clattered anymore within. How you said, “Did you have no father? Did you never know the name of God? Did no woman ever love you? Was no child ever born of your flesh? Did you not know how far back go the origins of time?” And no answer came from the once-man nor did any response follow from the mountain.
And some days you made the pretense of stacking and arranging what remained of the logs, although soon you sighed and instead wandered the forest. There you found blankets and clothing and with these you patched the walls of your tent, layering the blankets for beds, while the wind howled, while the skins of the tent frosted and drifted with snow. And while you worked, your wife drew in the dust, smearing these figures into incomprehension when you returned. And she said, “We should move into one of those cabins,” and after some silence you almost said, “The other cabins are unlivable,” and you almost said, “I believe men and women have been murdered in them,” and you nearly said, “I would fear for our safety, even more, because we could not see them coming,” but instead you said, “These walls provide the only shelter we need. For the Almighty’s creature watches over us.” And when your wife fantasized about a house in town, desiring the presence of markets, the nearness of schools, the society of others, you gestured to the forest, saying, “Here is enough to quench our earthly longings.” She blushed, “Of course, your love is the only community I want, my darling,” and placing your hand upon her belly, the warm smooth flesh, she said, “But what if I was with child?” You paused, for the natives had lit the edges of the field, and in the shadows you saw their horrid dances, and in the lashing of the wind you knew their ghoulish songs, and your wife, oblivious to the horror, continued, “What would we name him?” Now the fires died and the echo of their drums faded, and you again regarded your wife, “Why do you say him?” before finally saying what you claimed to be your father’s name, and she said, “How would he appear?” and you described your wife’s complexion, the color of her hair and you described your own shape and you described the shape of the man you always dreamed was your father.
And in the hot days you laid opposite each other, unclothed and dripping, and in the cool days you wrapped in furs, locking arms, legs, hips. And inside this world you constructed there seemed no distinguishing the days from the nights, for you slept in the hours all others knew as the day, while during the night you made love and told stories and considered the possibilities of the world. And when you woke to her weeping, she looked upon you with red and fearful eyes, and when you spoke, she said nothing, and when you touched her shoulder, she left the tent.
And there were days when you held her, when you kissed her neck, her ears, and against the heat of your affection she talked of your child, how he would be as his father, how you would raise him into manhood. And she groaned when you said the Almighty’s name, and she went to the opposite side of the tent and she refused to speak when you reminded her you would be called to minister. There she sulked, withholding her favors, until you said, “Perhaps I may seek some … reprieve.” Now her eyes lit with a fire and she fell upon you in a fever.
And other days you went into the forest, into the deeper grasses, inspecting your traps for the stillness of a recent kill. Sometimes you returned with a deer or rabbit or squirrel bundled in dripping burlap, while other times you returned pale-faced and scarcely able to speak. Now you murmured that the shadow of the creature floated over the trees, cackling in the voices of dying lambs and in the snarls of jackals. You spoke in a delirious cadence until your wife turned away, saying, “Please, no more of this.” And you insisted you had pleaded with the mountain, “Is it not enough that I conduct myself with righteousness as a husband and a father?”
And you never confessed you sensed the presence of the Natives, the flickering of their feathers, the glistening of their greased arms, the almost silence of their movements.
And the hunched monstrous figure terrorized your dreams, the hoof tracks circling the tent, the sulfur smell. And the creature perched upon the hillside watched your shadow make love to the shadow of your wife, even as you suckled from her, even as you left her red-marked and moaning.
Your wife said nothing when you told her of the creature and she said nothing when the natives finally crept from their huts, their gray and white bodies, their smote-black feathers. The grim pantomime they performed, the elongated motions, fingers pointing from their heads like horns. You stood with your wife in the dirt until her teeth chattered, and she gripped your arm, emitting a low, breathless sound.
And still she refused to acknowledge the beat of their drums, the shadows of their dance. Instead she held your hand to her belly, whispering, “What would you tell him?” and you said, “To love all the inventions of the Almighty,” and you knew then the corn silk softness of his young black hair, the lazy weight of his skull against your chest, the distant murmuring of his child’s voice, and you said, “He will know his letters and he will know his numbers,” and “I will tell him always to run in the grass, for a child is too young to toddle in the dust,” and you continued with your instruction long after your wife fell to snoring. And through all the hours of the night, the natives continued their tumult, ceasing only with the morning silence.
At dawn their spears jutted the horizon, while the fumes of what they cooked carried pungent and wild. Your wife sniffed the air and cried that her child needed food. Now you opened your final tin of peaches, and your wife clawed for them, gathered them greedily, slamming them into her mouth. And still the child was not sated. Now you went to your traps, and here lay the shattered figure of a rabbit. The jut of native spears almost impossibly close across the grasses, the wild and incoherent language. Now you skinned and cooked the rabbit, and soon you wiped her greased face as she slept and stroked her belly, waiting for some movement within. Now you propped her head onto your lap, whispering to her dreaming mind, how she fulfilled what no other could, how all these years you had drifted and now you were happily moored in her arms. And then you placed your ear against her belly and from within there came no movement, no murmuring. And to this silence you whispered, “Sleep now, my dear little Isaac.”
In the morning you found your wife waddling in the snow-streaked fields. There she stooped and grunted and pulled at the stalks of brown grass. Her eyes, pale and dead, gazed upon you with mouth gaping. And you touched her shoulder, her hip, and when you could speak you whispered, “The ground is frozen.” She gazed beyond you, her hollow eyes, her cracked and bleeding lips, and finally she pleaded, “Will you try?” You pulled her against you, draped her in your robe, and when returned to the tent, you covered her, feverish and shivering. And you built a fire with the last of your cabin wood. Her visage in the flickering. And when you said her name she did not stir. And when you repeated her name the sound emerged as a croak. Now you beat the ground and you seethed and you moaned and you struck at the air, and you grabbed your skull, and you heaved, and you heaved. And now you left your wife, sleeping and shivering, slick with the heat of the fire, her fever, and you ventured across the grasses.
You babbled to yourself amidst the gray and brown stalks, broken and half protruding the crusted snow, how you would plead for gourds, for flesh, for herbs and medicine. And when you reached the far grasses, you found only the smears of dead-fires, animal bones charred beyond edibility, the beaten over places where they had erected their tents and danced.
And now within the forest you found no animals and the cabins were emptied of their goods. And the ponds contained only the unbreakable gleam of ice. And had you found cows milling in the fields you would have returned with jugs of milk, and had you found nests in the trees, the tufts of grass, you would have brought eggs. Instead, you heated lumps of snow and with this you boiled your left boot, wrapping your blistered and bloodied foot in rags. When the leather softened you disassembled the boot, feeding your wife the slices, and she sucked and supped upon these cutlets as if they were the finest veal, while you watched from the corner of the tent.
And you have said you faced the black mountain, your brow pressed to the snow, whispering, “Please, do not forsake us.” And you pledged further honesty and charity, but not your service. “Oh, Father, she is all my heart, can’t you know this?”
And that night you woke while she murmured to her belly. When you pressed your ear to the flatness she said, “Do you hear him sing? What a lovely melody there.” And how could you admit you heard only silence? That you felt no movement? How could you say other than, “Yes, he will be a lovely lad.”
And in the night you boiled your other boot, the brown bubbling and the murky fumes of rot, while the eyes of the natives glowed through the trees. Their silent creep across the snowfields, while your wife gnawed and slurped, while you watched the shadows flickering on the skins.
And how many days did you ask the Almighty, “O Father have I done wrong?”
And when the natives returned, their fires rose as shimmering walls, enclosing the sky with smoke, and their shadows bucked and convulsed. You pulled your sleeping wife against you, her belly and unconscious moans. The knife you clutched in wait.
And in the dawn the snow laid crusted with black.
And you awaited their assault and when no assault came you awaited their emissary, and when no emissary came you said, “He watches over us still!” Your wife did not reply. She slept against you, pale and sweating and murmuring, while you rubbed her brow with a cloth made cool with snow.
Then the snow clotted the sky, drifting thick against your tent. And the drums returned, the birdlike cries and rhythmic chants, and the fires flared and the snows melted. All the world become shadows and heat. All the world become the wife you held, covered in skins, your whispers lost in the ancient din. And you told the child in her belly that you would protect him always. And the Almighty would watch over the three of you, until the end of time. So you murmured until lapsing into sleep.
You woke alone, as a cold wind blew through the opened tent. Your wife laid in a patch of snow before the tent, bloodied and nude from the waist down, lines of soot drawn across her throat, her chest, while her eyes gazed with a child’s simplicity and confusion. Her clothing slashed away and cast to the snow. You gathered her into your arms and you did not scream and you did not sob. Inside the tent you wrapped her in blankets and skins. And she cried for her child, so you returned to the snows, and there the cord, shriveled and cut away, coiled in the red-soaked snow. There you dug until your hands numbed, raw and blood dripping. And you saw no bloody tracks of man or animal. And no wailing cry was heard. And no child was to be found.
Robert Kloss is the author of “The Alligators of Abraham” (Mud Luscious Press) and “The Desert Places,” a hybrid-text co-written with Amber Sparks and illustrated by Matt Kish, forthcoming from Curbside Splendor.