by Ellen Denton
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Ayler opened his eyes and sat up in the center of a starlit field. There was no past and no future, just a rippling of bending grasses that murmured like harp strings in the wind. He could see bodies standing in the field all around him – dark, tattered forms that swayed like scarecrows in the singing breeze.
One by one, the eyes of those forlorn souls sprang open. There were pin pricks of starlight within the dark and otherwise lifeless pupils.
He was moving through the field towards a town along with the others but had no memory of starting to walk. Ayler knew he was going forward because necklaces of woods to the left and right of him drifted slowly past, and the lights up ahead got fractionally larger with each step.
When they reached the outskirts of the town, as though sharing a single mind, they stopped, and he innately knew that they would now wait here. He could see the top of the clock tower in the town square. The moon sat over its shoulder spilling frozen, white light onto the surrounding housetops. That, along with the sound of dogs barking in the distance, was as meaningless to him as the earth beneath his feet.
Daybreak came and the inert bodies jerked into motion. Ayler sensed an army of dead things rattling all around him like desiccated leaves in an autumn wind. He became aware of the ground beneath his own feet, then of the pressure of work boots against his ankles when he took a step. This sensation jolted him and he lurched sideways. He was so newly dead that things of the living, like a foot wriggling in a shoe, could still briefly enkindle something within him.
Ayler and the others, stiff-legged, moved slowly but inexorably through the town. The stench of their decay heralded their arrival so that, like a match flame blown to extinction, all sound ceased as they approached. The dogs that had defensively howled through the night, now slunk shivering out of sight, while behind boarded up windows and doors, human survivors huddled quietly.
Many of the others, trudging in oblivion, stumbled and fell over half-eaten bodies strewn throughout the street and then lay face downward on top of the putrescent corpses. Those that couldn’t regain their feet, simply buried their faces and mouths in the remaining juices of the decomposing dead, or licked the bones where only bones remained. Others rose and continued their march toward fresh, living meat.
Ayler, through some still-existing instinct, stepped around the dead and fallen as gnawing hunger within impelled him forward. He crossed a bridge, unconscious to the whoosh sound of rushing water and to the bloated bodies floating in swirling eddies downstream.
He passed three of his own kind fighting over the remaining carcass of a newly killed dog, even as they already held one or another of the creature’s torn off limbs within their teeth. Ayler then approached what had once been a man, drinking green fluid out of the chest cavity of a rotting, human corpse.
He slowly came up beside him. The man-thing raised its head. The side of its face had a clouded over, milky-blue eye and white, pasty skin flaking off in places. It then turned fully toward Ayler. The other half of the face was a dripping, half-eaten nest of maggots, some from the corpse it was feasting on, some from eggs hatched in its own body.
For reasons he would nevermore understand, Ayler shuddered and backed away.
With no sense of time passing and no memory, it could have been either seconds or hours that had elapsed when he found himself alone on a narrow, cobblestone street. Ayler vaguely sensed the subterranean groans of the others scattered elsewhere through the town.
He’d been jarred into this murky awareness of his surroundings by the sound of frightened whispers coming from somewhere behind him, followed by the scampering of feet and a door slamming.
The pumping of living hearts so near to him were thundering ocean waves in his ears, and the warm flesh smell flowed over him like honey. The black, relentless core of his hunger now exploded into a mindless, red frenzy.
Ayler spun around, almost tripping over his tangled-up feet, but with windmilling arms, righted himself before he hit the ground. He stumbled toward the fresh, living food source, drawn to it by the pungent magnet of its sweat. Two small children stood huddled together by a door that, in the basest moment of human terror, had been barricaded against them by strangers who would not risk their own lives or those of their family, by opening it for two street urchins.
Flesh-specked saliva containing bits of his own tongue, parts of it compulsively bitten off and swallowed in the throes of his hunger, dribbled down his chin at the sight of the children. One was a girl in a torn up, dirty dress, whimpering in terror, the other a boy who had his arms protectively around the girl, his own face white as a sheet.
Ayler, all blind appetite, lurched towards the children, aware of nothing beyond his all-consuming craving – not the panicked cries of the little girl nor the frightened, but defiant look of the boy, not the agonized shrieks from elsewhere in town as humans and animals were ripped to shreds while still alive and awake, and not the running footsteps that came up behind him. He didn’t even register the out-of-breath gasps from the person who had stopped there until, like a dove flying out of a fog, a familiar voice said his name.
He was leaning toward the children, but as though his legs were made of rock, they froze in place at the sound of the voice. His body, continuing its forward momentum, tilted forward like a listing sailboat, bringing his face inches away from those of the children, and then, supported by the inhumanly rigid strength of his legs, swayed back the other way, bringing him to an upright position again.
When he turned around, the woman who faced him was calm and had no fear in her eyes, only love and a pity beyond all words.
“Ayler. You could never hurt anyone. You won’t hurt those children now, and I know that you won’t hurt me. Even as you are, you still have a choice, and even as you are, I love you.”
For Ayler, in the dark world he had come to inhabit, the air itself seemed to be made of black, spinning spiders and their webs. He thrashed through the clouded, sludgy heaviness of this purgatory in a struggle to see his wife clearly, as she stood before him now, one more time.
The air-spiders spun wheels within wheels of webs in a fabric made from shadows, decay, graveyards, dark, airless holes underground, the wails of the lost, and the murmured refrains of the dead. As though waking from the worst of all possible dreams, he saw her, but only with eyes that look inward. When he looked outward again, it was at an empty street; there never was anyone there. He turned and looked at the two children. They stood silently watching him, the girl clinging to her brother, who still protectively held her.
The last, clear, conscious thought Ayler would ever have was that, even in the limbo of hell’s unending night, love still sits enthroned and inviolate in the heart. He held that love the way someone who moves through a dark house at night shelters a candle flame in their cupped hands. That love guided him back through the town and to the bridge where water still rushed headlong in wordless song, and there he stopped. A shattered statue lay in pieces at the entryway to it. With a strength born of all the good that resides in humankind, he lifted up the largest slab.
A few moments later, when he went backwards over the bridge into the water, the hundred-pound chunk of stone he held clutched to his chest would ensure he’d sink to the bottom, and rise no more.
The bloated, blue bodies of the hapless victims of the holocaust that swirled on the surface of the water were eventually carried out to sea, to be mercifully eaten by whatever predators they encountered there. Only one still lays nestled in the silt of the riverbed, pinioned in place by a massive rock. It will be there for a long time, because even hungry fish will not feast on such tainted flesh. Eventually though, time and tide will erode it away.
For now, in the darkest part of night, when the sky is clear, you can stand on the bridge, look down through the rippling water, and see two pinpricks of reflected starlight shining back up at you.
©️ 2021 by Ellen Denton
“Dead Man Talking,” by Ellen Denton, was first published on August 26, 2021 in Love Letters to Poe and can be found in Love Letters to Poe, Volume 1: A Toast to Edgar Allan Poe.
Interview with Ellen Denton, Author of “Dead Man Talking”
What inspired your story?
Many of the stories I write are not inspired by something personal involving my own life, but more by something randomly observed that somehow gets spun into a tale. But on THIS one, I heaved a deep sigh when I saw this question, and almost didn’t answer it, – like it was TOO personal.
A few years back my husband started to loose weight WAY too fast and too much, and was having other physical problems. I feared he may have cancer and would die soon. He eventually got test results and that turned out NOT to be the case – the weight loss and other symptoms were caused by something else entirely and got remedied.
It was that darkness and sadness, heavy as a steel weight upon me that inspired the story – this dismal coin of life and death, of love and loss, spinning round and round like the North and south ends of a pain – that darkness and mood drove the “texture” (for want of a better word), and mood of the story.
What’s your favorite gothic story or poem and why?
Growing up and as a teenager, I read a lot, but I do believe Edgar Allan Poe, when it came to what I think of as “Gothic” was probably my favorite. I read all his stories and poems.
How long have you been writing?
About 10 years.
Do you have a theme you return to time and again?
No. I’ve written and gotten published stories in every genre – horror, sci-fi, fantasy, crime stories, mainstream non-genre stories, and others. It’s what makes writing short stories so interesting for me.
What are you working on now?
I have a number of stories in progress. Sometimes I have to leave one for awhile because I don’t know where to take it next, and then come back to it.
What else would you like people to know? Where can people find you online?
Ellen is a freelance writer living in the Rocky Mountains with her husband and three cats. Extended families of wildlife sometimes appear outside the windows of her house and exchange a meaningful look with her before moving on. Her writing has been published in over a hundred magazines and anthologies.