19. Surrounded by the Dead

Tereus hates to think of the water slipping away, so they  work side-by-side to repair the basins, dredging out silt, digging them deeper, lining them with flat stones. It’s taxing and absorbing work. After an hour, the sun emerges. The heat rises quickly, and clouds billow over the mountains.

As they dig and shape a basin at the foot of a mesquite tree, Tereus asks Inglorion, “Do you want to hear something mystical?” 

“Of course.”

“Ever since I was a child, I had a vision — a nightmare, really. Times when I did drugs, hallucinated with fever — a bout of delirium tremens — I would become convinced that I was trapped underground. I couldn’t see or move. I was surrounded by bodies. I felt their flesh and hair and smelled fresh blood.

“The horror was indescribable. It wasn’t because they were dead. There was something malevolent and sickening and unnatural about it. Something bad had happened, and the pain of the act had congealed, like cold air in a low-lying area.” His voice is quiet, matter-of-fact. They both keep their eyes on their work.

He continues, “I found this place the night I came here. I awoke in a kind of root cellar. The floor and walls were dirt, and it was too small to stand up or stretch out fully. I was whole and uninjured, but I remembered dying, and the pain and fear lingered in my body. I lay there and waited until I could move.  

“As I lay there, I ran a kind of inventory, checking in with each part of my body. I ran through my memory: What I could recall, what remained blank. I kept trying to sense if there were other bodies around me.” He stops for a moment. Sweat is streaming down his face. He mops it on his shirttail, pushes back a stray white-gold lock. “Eventually I worked my way out. I roamed the streets like a vampire, knowing that whole swathes of memory were missing. I couldn’t be certain who I was, or why I’d been killed, or how I came to be here. I felt physical sensations acutely, but was numb to what had occurred. Because, you know, I saw them all die.” His voice is soft and flat as he insists, “I was out of my head with pain, but I saw it all happen. I knew. My brother, Lucius, whom I’d tried to protect since we were boys –”

He shakes his head. He tries to look over, but can’t meet Inglorion’s eyes. “It was like a fairy tale. The streets were empty. The houses were abandoned. I was covered with dirt. 

“I came here. The gate was open. The house felt good to me. Something about the smell, the finish on the plaster. It had been abandoned for some time. The floor was strewn with dead sewer roaches.” He laughs. “I knew I’d come home.”

They’re standing in blinding sun, both of them drenched in sweat. They realize it, look down at the basin. “It’s close enough,” Tereus says. “Let’s get you out of the sun.” As soon as Tereus says this, Inglorion feels a migraine building in his left temple.

They go inside, strip to the waist, wash off over the kitchen sink. Tereus pours out black tea — lukewarm, since there’s no ice. Inglorion drains his glass without thinking, and Tereus refills it. 

Finally Inglorion asks, “What happened next?”

“I cleared a space in the bedroom and stripped the cushions off the couch to make a bed. I fell into trance, woke the next morning, and started to grapple with immediate problems.” Because Inglorion seems to expect more, he says, “It will sound mystical — I don’t think I can explain. The facts seem all wrong on the surface.

“I foraged for food and water, got the solar panels working, stripped out all the security stuff. The house bore the marks of everything the previous owners had done.” He shrugs, smiles, turns away to get more tea. “It was intimate to see their handiwork, the tools and materials they’d chosen, the temporary fixes. It was like they were there beside me.” He looks over, searching for evidence of sympathy, understanding.

Inglorion lowers his eyes, bows his head. “Tell me,” he says.

“That’s all. Michael told me about the civil war veterans and I thought, Yes, of course. We’re surrounded by the dead. They were far from home, without friends or family. To me, it made sense. It comforted me.”

Inglorion nods. “That’s why you’re here.”

“I think so,” Tereus says. “I feel more for them than I have for any living creature. They’re more present and real to me than anyone I knew in life.” Tereus smiles down at his clasped hands, then says with shy intensity, “The vision that pursued me my whole life, of being trapped among the dead. It stopped. I never had it again.”

Tereus has drawn the curtains against the sun. In the dim light, his profile burns white-hot. For the first time, Inglorion looks at Tereus and sees his father. Not his own face, stolen and twisted, or the visage of a man he hates and fears. Instead, the angle of his chin and jaw, the finely cut upper lip. His eyes: Heavy-lidded, deep-set, black against livid cheeks. The force of his intellect; his animal vitality.

His beauty blots out everything around it. For an instant, Inglorion forgets Tereus’s words, his own train of thought, and just marvels at the perfection of his features.

Inglorion thinks, What a dangerous gift. 

The moment passes. The sun retreats from its midday height. The clouds build and darken. Inglorion prepares to leave, finishing one last glass of tea, stubbing out his cigarette, peering out the front door. He draws back from the blast of heat, shields his eyes from the glare.

He turns back to Tereus, asks, “What happened here? Before Year One?”

“I don’t know for sure. What did Lucius tell you?”

“That the Navajo say there was a plague, and the Apaches don’t speak of it. If you ask, they’ll say there was nothing, just darkness.”

Tereus runs a hand through his hair, ruffling his queue. “I think elves would see it like the Navajo do: A plague wind, something like the Black Death. In just a few weeks, half the population died. The living struggled to care for the sick and bury the dead. After a time, they stopped trying and left.”

“When you got here….”

“It was empty. The bodies were concentrated in a few places. Makeshift morgues, I think. Like in my dream. Not here, in town.  The peaks to the west are riddled with caves: Cuk Son and Tumacoc.”

Inglorion leans against the doorjamb, laughs weakly. “I woke up in a cave beneath Cuk Son. Wow.”

Tereus nods, gives a twisted smile. “There’s some connection — the dead, the resurrected. I’m sure Lucius knows.”

“If I ever feel curious, I’ll ask him.”

Inglorion blows his father a kiss, steps into the roaring heat.

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