Monday, February 25, 2013

Old Shame, By Request

I was over on Slacktivist last night and people were in a conversation about one of the Left Behind book except posts there (namely how the books' Antichrist was pretty poor at running an evil empire compared to certain other evil empires in fiction)... and inevitably the conversation turned to the lack of empathy among the "heroes" and the datedness of the technology in the books as it stands today...

Somehow, I wound up mentioning how dumb Young Me, who used to be a fan of the (first few) books was touched off in inspiration to write my own "post-Rapture" story.  I actually won a contest with it and got it published in a 'zine - not a Christian 'zine, just a plain ol' avant garde random content 'zine.  I described my story as I remembered it (very small scale, cozy, focused upon one character and an aspect of the Rapture as bandied about by "prophecy" evangelists that I seem to remember them forgetting about).  It's old shame now since I'm not particularly into that specific kind of theology anymore and because I'm embarassed about where the initial inspiration came from, but upon re-reading the story in my copy of the circa 2000 'zine, I decided that I was surprised about how "not-horrible" my story was.

Now, I didn't say "good," just... "not-horrible."

Since someone on the Slacktivist boards really wanted to check it out... I went to my computer with multiple hard drives and all my old shame stored on it and was pleasantly surprised to actually find the thing... after all these years. 

So, here it is. 

(Is it just me, or do I seem to really like cemetaries in my work)? 



Ruth was alone.

The night was as quiet and dark as the girl wandered through the cemetery. She stepped slowly, letting the cold dew on the grass caress her bare feet. She glanced into the clear indigo sky to watch the stars wink. She hummed, her humming slowly becoming words.

"Tiptoe through the tulips,
In the tulips, that’s where I’ll be,
Come tiptoe through the tulips with me…"

Ruth then began humming "Pomp and Circumstance" as she danced between headstones. She would have been marching to that tune in a few short months upon the football field of Middleridge High School. It would have been a proud evening. Ever since her first day at Middleridge High, the only thing that Ruth wanted to do was get a diploma in her hands and get out of that place.

It was not easy being the "class freak". Ruth was introspective and studious, someone who didn’t believe that school was just something to do between parties and she suffered for that attitude. The slender girl stretched her long arms to the sky.

As a child, Ruth’s big sister and her friends used to tell her stories about ghosts and vampires roaming around in the cemetery at night. They would weave tales of how if little girls wandered among the headstones on a cloudless eve like tonight, the angry spirits of the people buried there would reach up out of their graves and pull them straight into Hell.

Ruth became skeptical of her sister’s claims after their mother found out about her and those same friends toilet-papering the cemetery a few years ago as a Halloween prank. Lisa had returned alive and well from the graveyard that Trick-or-Treat night, but was grounded for two weeks.

Tonight, for Ruth, this cemetery was a refuge. She feared nothing from the dead. It was the reigning chaos in the places of the living that gave her terror.

She stepped gracefully past an empty grave, one of the many in this place. Dirt lay scattered in fresh heaps around the open depression and the casket lay haphazardly within it, half-in and half-out. Its lid was open and creaking on its hinges.

The utterly strange events of the past few days left Ruth wondering about many things. The week had begun mundanely, then began spinning into something out of a bizarre nightmare.

Ruth loved to read of the paranormal. Anything weird or spooky immediately captured her attention. She relished stories about astral projection, near-death experiences, cryptozoology, flying saucers, and alien abductions. She studied these with vigor and knew of the various theories proposed about them all: hallucination, collective cultural archetypes, parallel dimensions, and hypotheses claiming that they all pointed to some great underlying cosmic truth.

Ruth raised her head and let out a dark, semi-maniacal laugh, "Who’s laughing now, skanks?" she cried into the empty night air.

Her interest in the strange was part of the reason why Ruth was the "freak" of her Senior Class. Her peers gave her derisive nicknames such as "Ruthie Girl from Planet X", "Scully" and "Creepy Chic". Even now, she could hear Emily Hendrix and Patricia Whalberg cackling at her in the locker-hall.

"Too bad the aliens didn’t get you last night, Creepy Girl! Mrs. Johnson’s giving us that Algebra test today and there’s goin’ to be Hell to pay if you don’t let us copy your answers this time!" Emily and Patricia, always too lazy to study, always the first to call her "Creepy Girl", skanks.

Ruth did not know where Emily and Patricia were now, whether they had disappeared or whether they were, like her, wandering aimlessly somewhere despairing and alone.

Maybe the aliens had come. It was a very strange way to announce their presence to the Earthlings, if so. Perhaps Grandma was right; she used to talk about something like this.
Ruth’s Grandmother, like she, held an interest in the bizarre, though hers leaned more toward a theological nature. Ruth recalled the old woman speaking of the idea of resurrection.

"It is like the legend of the Phoenix."

echoed in Ruth’s mind. It was the mythical firebird that perished in flames only to rise again from its own ashes. There was a city named Phoenix-the capitol of Arizona. It had originally been built by an ancient native people called the Hohokam, only to be rebuilt by settlers centuries later.
According to the current Archeology, researchers were unable to decipher what had exactly happened to the Hohokam people. "It was as if everyone stopped what they were doing and left;" as one of Ruth’s junior high teachers had put it. The trail of their culture had simply run cold, whereas many other ancient cultures had left material clues as to what happened to end their societies. Ruth and her friend, Eva, had proposed a strange and humorous theory about alien abduction when they gave a report to their eighth grade class. They got a "B" on that report, and gave their fellow students a few good giggles.

Ruth was not feeling particularly funny now. Remembering what she learned of the Hohokam, she thought about what was happening to her own town-and to the entire world-now. Perhaps, She mused; every society must undergo some form of a "cultural cleansing". If not by human means, then by some cosmic or natural phenomenon?"

What Ruth did not understand was why so many corpses were gone. It would make sense for the living people to disappear. If it was some sort of mass alien abduction, why would the dead be taken? Perhaps curious and intelligent beings from another world would take fresh corpses for dissection and anatomical study, but not bones that lay for decades. Ruth walked past an open grave whose headstone read: Mr. Peter Sorensen 1879-1925.
If it was some sort of strange, cosmic spiritual cleansing, it also made little sense that so many dead people would be taken. The living, yes, by whatever forces or powers that be, but the dead? It was the living that made a society, not the dead.

A breeze ruffled the leaves of the cemetery’s great willow trees. Ruth listened to the sound and watched the moonlight play with their shadows. An amorphous winged creature played at her toes, the shadow of a headstone carved into the shape of an angel.

A phrase came to Ruth’s mind; "We, in this world, are all speeding toward our corporeal rot. But we have one great Hope…"

It was a quote from the Pastor of her family’s church, Pastor Rubens. He had been among the Vanished. Ruth was the only one of her family that had remained. Pastor Rubens had said that something like this would happen someday during one message she heard when she joined her family in church. It was the message of two Sundays ago, in fact. Ruth did not know why she had remembered it.

Rubens had said that Christ would come back for his people someday, and that the day would come "like a thief in the night". He said that the "saved" should watch and pray and work for the Kingdom of God, whatever that was, and that the sinners should not put Christ off until it is too late.

It was the same weird story that Grandma used to tell her. The woman was an enigma, she didn’t consider herself Catholic, but she loved those candles with paintings of Saints and prayers in Spanish on them that were sold in the local grocery stores. Grammy’s house was filled with those darn things and the many rooms always smelled faintly of smoke even though she said that she believed using them for prayer was a form of idolatry.

She used to tell Ruth that she bought them because she liked the pictures on the glass and because she liked to think of the Saints as examples, the candles reminded her of the stories of their great deeds.
Supposing that’s what happened? Ruth pondered, What Pastor Rubens and Grandma said, would that explain the cars careening off the road and all those prisoners ‘miraculously escaping’ from the prisons? And would it explain way my family disappeared?

Ruth could not stay home and watch the news anymore. All it was about was the Vanishings and the accidents, the suicides, and the outright murders that were happening because of the widespread panic and despair. Millions of people all over the Earth were suddenly…gone. Many living disappeared, but also, large numbers of the dead, their graves burst open like the many empty graves of the Middleridge Cemetery. Not every grave in every graveyard around the world, but many, lost their occupants.

The news didn’t even report half of what was going on after a mere three days. Martial Law had been declared in some areas, those places where the looting, rioting and general panic had been the worst. Some groups of armed soldiers had been wielding their government-given power at the media centers in order to control the news that was broadcast, for fear of more panicking and riots.

Ruth had come to the cemetery, to the only place that would almost surely be quiet and at peace in the town of Middleridge, which had suffered much of the chaos of the rest of the world, maybe more, since most of the town was among the Vanished.

The question for the dead was the same as the question for the living, why some and not others? Ruth’s Great Uncle Danny still lay underground, as well as her Cousin Martha, killed in an automobile accident two years ago.

Whatever was responsible for the Vanishings, what need did it feel to desecrate graves?
Ruth stepped lightly among the grass, dancing as a lunatic among the shadows, which was not entirely untrue, for she was nearly mad with sorrow and fear. The dancing…calmed her a little as she felt the dew on her feet and the breeze kissing her bare arms. She stopped dancing when she came to the grave of her Grandmother.

Grammy, the same Grammy who used to burn prayer candles and have long discussions of her thoughts on paranormal phenomena with Ruth had died of a sudden and massive stroke two years ago that January. Ruth was devastated when her mother told her the news. Mother had found Grandmother lying on the living room floor in her house when paying a visit and called an ambulance, but it proved vain. Ever since then, Ruth visited the cemetery on the first of every month with a Saint’s candle to light and place on Grandma’s headstone.

To Ruth’s horror, the grave was open, her Grandmama’s casket lying like a piece of shipwreck flotsam washed upon some muddy beach, just outside the massive hole. Dirt lay everywhere and the scene looked as if a small bomb had been detonated somewhere just under the casket. Wood lay in thick splinters in a vaguely circular arrangement around the plot and the purple flower-patterned dress that Grammy had been buried in lay sickly dangling out of the inside of the coffin, looking like it had been torn by a wild animal.

She…was among the Vanished, her body ripped violently from its resting-place. Ruth was swept over in a wave of confusion. Why? was the only word that came to her mind in that strange and terrible moment. She fell to her knees, awash in fear, in anger, and in confusion. She wanted to shout her indignation to the skies, but found herself too weary to raise her fist. Ruth simply sat in the damp grass and mud and pulled her knees to her chest. She curled there beside the desecrated grave of her Grammy, rocking back and forth and weeping.

Copyright S. E. Nordwall, 2000

All Rights Reserved.

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