by Sara Tantlinger
Dozens of cold eyes stared up into the blue sky as Marie surrounded the bodies with fresh soil. While she hated every part of this, the eyes unnerved her the most — that vacant, almost-relaxed form of the lids partially closed. What did dead eyes search for in the sky? If they were hoping to ascertain some meaning, or steal glimpses of a god, good luck to the carcasses.
She snorted out the kind of laugh that her cousin would surely call “unladylike,” but Eddie was too busy on the other side of the burial pit tending to his own group of cadavers. Manners weren’t important in this place. She could curtsy to the upturned earth, bow to every tree, and compliment each blade of grass, but there would never be any reward, any escape…people liked to believe in a beautiful eternity, but Marie knew better.
Soon enough, the others still foolish enough to beholden themselves to hope would find out. They’d either end up like her, or like the bodies lined up neatly in the pit. Perhaps the burial tradition here was really no stranger than in other parts of the world. After all, when compared to endocannibalism or cutting up the dead to leave them for the vultures’ feast, this tradition looked downright tame. Or, Marie thought, perhaps she’d merely gotten used to the stench of corpses, to the changing colors of their skin, the leaking fluids that never stopped. The silence.
“What is it?”
She jumped at Eddie’s question; he’d appeared by her side with noiseless footsteps.
“What do you mean?”
“You keep sighing. What are you thinking about?”
“Oh,” she said, hesitation scratched at her voice. “It’s so quiet. I wish we could burn them. At least have the crackling of fire to keep us company. Spread the ashes.”
Horror stretched Eddie’s face into an elongated caricature of his normal self. He cared so much about the gardening now. Every day she felt him pull away from her a little more.
“No, cremation would be terrible. Human ashes don’t make for good compost. They’d actually do more harm than good.” He floated past her and patted the loose areas of soil where she’d only done a half-hearted job at tucking the growth mix neatly around the bodies.
“How so?” She kneeled in the muck and added alfalfa to the mix, looping in leaflets as if they were thread holding the dirt together.
“Well,” Eddie let out a deep sigh. “Human ash doesn’t decompose. Also, too much salt, just disturbs the balance of things, ends up harming the plants.”
Marie couldn’t help the bitter little laugh that trilled from her throat. “Of course our charred remains would be toxic to the environment, what else should anyone expect from humans?”
“Burial is better,” Eddie said, not at all phased by her questions and manic laughter, as far as she could tell, anyway. “We have a chance to give life back.”
From the depth of the wide grave, Marie glanced up at tall dirt walls which entombed her like a sunken earth foundation. Others who were stuck here, in what she could only assume was purgatory since no answer had ever been provided, dug out the pits with long, black shovels. They tore up the ground and then went away. It was hard work, and there were always stiffs needing to be buried, but Marie envied them. They dug, they shaped the pit, and then they left, onto the next one. Diggers never had to garden the bodies. She assumed other specialists were out there, doing what she did alongside Eddie, but she’d never seen them. Every day was the same, wandering through fields of ghosts and wildflowers, ready to prep the deceased. Together they worked, but Marie remained lonely in her mind.
She helped Eddie finish arranging the soil, wood chips, alfalfa, and straw around each cadaver in the pit. Initially, the process had fascinated her — the way those empty husks were able to activate something in their decomposition to eliminate germs and provide a healthy place for seeds and saplings to grow. But after so many times, fascination fizzled out. New life, it should have captured her lifeless heart, bewitched her within a world of April’s beauty; she should have danced alongside spring, exulted from summoning new life with cheery colors, but only restlessness and disgust settled in her chest. For beauty to exist, death must reign supreme beneath those blossoms. A cruel, cyclical world where she had no choice but to assist in its repetitious callousness.
“We’re done,” Eddie whispered. He helped her climb out of the hollow, and she followed him to rest within a grove of white dogwoods. Loose petals hovered around them in the wind, cascading through air almost like snowflakes, and it’s no wonder she always ended up here just before the sun set.
Eddie spoke but kept his gaze on the petals, and she knew what he would ask before the question finished leaving his cracked lips. “Do you remember, Marie, how we died?”
As if she had the luxury of forgetting. “Every night, I remember. I feel the cold. I see the gray land.” She reached into the air and snatched the white petals from the wind’s grasp. “I miss it.”
“Simple colors, and simpler times. We should have never gone out that day, but how can I regret seeing the fresh snowfall cover the mountain?”
His fingers found hers and she clutched his hand tight as they sat on the grass, watched
the whirlwind of pale petals. In the distance, a mountain waited. Their mountain. They walked toward it every day, but no matter how many hundreds of miles they traveled, the mountain never appeared any closer. It never would. The snowcapped wonder would forever wait there on the highland, far away, a muse existing only for the purpose to torture them. A reminder of the life they’d never get back.
Marie knew they were stuck in this world of flourishing spring where she and Eddie would tend to and bury bodies every day, forever. Cruel April, how it brimmed with bright tulips and strange hyacinths, all joined together in a mockery of life, feeding off the forgotten dead.
When she died alongside Eddie at the bottom of the mountain, buried in snow, a gentle peace had taken hold of Marie. Cold dissipated, and her paralyzed body embraced the soothing relief of heavy snow. White flakes, gray skies, it had been a somber comfort, one that didn’t hurt her eyes with kaleidoscopes of color. Winter had no need to pretend to be anything other than what it was.
Eddie had found her then, crawled his frostbitten body through the snowbanks after their crash, took her hand in his, and they were the same. Creatures of dark comforts banished away to a land of springtime apparitions. Were they meant to learn a lesson here, a lesson to appreciate too-bright blooms sprouting forth like flowered sleepwalkers after feeding from their chosen carcasses?
Perhaps this place had no meaning other than to torture, to taunt. Marie supposed she’d never know why something beyond herself compelled her each day to plant daffodil bulbs between ribs and beneath tongues, to tuck in bodies with blankets of earth and straw, yet she would keep going. Every day the same burial rituals, the same pointless lumber toward a mountain mirage, the same diminishing hunger to reach a comfort she never truly could.
Sara Tantlinger is the author of the Bram Stoker Award-winning The Devil’s Dreamland: Poetry Inspired by H.H. Holmes, and the Stoker-nominated works To Be Devoured, Cradleland of Parasites, and Not All Monsters. Along with being a mentor for the HWA Mentorship Program, she is also a co-organizer for the HWA Pittsburgh Chapter. She embraces all things macabre and can be found lurking in graveyards or on Twitter @SaraTantlinger, at saratantlinger.com and on Instagram @inkychaotics