By the time the bus covers the length of the thoroughfare leading up to the village proper, the sun is already kissing everyone good morning and handing out warm caresses through grimy windows. Everyone but him; he never sleeps and warmth is to him an irretrievable thought, a long-forgotten friend. In less than what it takes the passengers to disembark and shed the sticky burden of the travel-weary, the cameras are out, trained at the pink smoothness of the fountain, at the balustrades and columns, and at each other. Two dozen conquerors at the coliseum of unsolved enigmas are forthwith ready to be caught in their victory poses holding olden trophies.
As the flash bulbs open their floodgates and a sea of the whitest light drowns the scenery for fractions of a second, he believes he sees them, tucked below the awnings and their heavy shadows, wedged between walls and cracked doors, shying away from the harsh glare. Tricks of the mind, he knows; there is nothing here but cold ashlar, obliterated wood, and tattered fabric. Nonetheless, he reminds the group that flash photography is not allowed, as if the bombarding photons were to somehow erode the already thin presence of the departed.
He takes the curious to the first stop, thinking of them as dogged pilgrims feeding on catastrophe. White-collar fathers, housewives, and their spoiled get; raucous lovers holding sweaty hands; the rich and the not-so. Shallow vagrants, all, moving from tableau to tableau, partaking in every possible feast of vanished souls. But, is he not feeding on them as well? What should he be called?
The town hall doors swing inward at his prodding and they enter a cavernous space decked for the charade: benches, a lectern, a microphone. The walls are lined with washed-out pictures and fanciful memorabilia, an assortment of paper and cloth witnesses come tokens of a time when life did run through these streets and edifices. The visitors take their place. He takes his and speaks of how the townsfolk of Lucrest Hill got together to discuss matters of grave importance.
Hundreds filled the room with notes of anger and discord. They blamed, they mourned, and they cursed. The doors were flanked by constables wearing face masks, screening the healthy from the afflicted. Stern prejudice left hundreds more cramming the main square, but these mostly wailed or wept.
A gavel came down hard and silence forced its way in. The doors closed, giving the heads leave to offer what little guidance they could.
Councilman Florian recapitulated: People were sick; people were dying.
Councilwoman Cecile bore grim news: Doctors had not yet found a cure.
Councilman Kranner politicized: Other towns had turned their backs on them.
Councilman Bloch brought hope, but also fear: There was ancient knowledge in the mountains, past the orchards and the creeks, in that space where green-tipped peaks rose against the sky, grand and unchallenged. The lofty roads Gods tread upon.
He knows what to provide for effect and how to do so. The drama and the possibilities myth brings forth ensnare the assembled; the doomful retelling makes them huddle together for heat and comfort. He steps down from the dais and files out. They follow.
The next landmark stings; it always does. From a row of almost identical cottages he chooses one and welcomes the crowd in. Strangers gather in the eerie emptiness of the common room and around the atramentous hearth, speaking of dolls left behind and the imagined girls who once played with them, of camaraderie between neighbors, of rabbit stew and heady mead. Despite the pain, he allows himself a smile, for in this regard they hit the mark quite closely. His turn.
They were twins. The girl’s name was Chelsea; the boy was Hugo. Both sat at the table trading innocuous punches between bites of buttered corn. And Councilman Bloch was no lawgiver here, not at night in the temperate embrace of home. Only dad or dear. Dear James. Even fraught with worry, Elena’s voice was sweet and captivating when she called him so.
—Where do you think it comes from, dear James?
—I could not say.
—We don’t deserve this. We’ve done nothing wrong. What you suggested, today…
She trailed off but he understood. He knew that, near the tipping point, a last resort was all the more effective the sooner it was used.
The emanations from the lit embers played with her hair, orange and yellow tendrils that turned earth into gold. She smiled, and he could not have loved her—loved them all—any more.
—We’ll strike a good deal. Now, eat, love. Eat, children.
He shows a flair for the theatrical by means of an elongated pause, letting the weight of the tragic tale sink in. Someone, a gum-chewing youth with bad skin and even worse hair, asks where he gets all of this. The same way we know everything else, he replies. From the mouth of those that still have one to wield the words.
At the next location, empty hallways and broken windows speak of the same abandonment that mats the rest of the village: layers of dust settling in day after day, nature slowly reclaiming turf with soldier vines and artillery seeds. Flooring bursts out from under their feet by the thrust of thick, tangled roots they are careful to avoid while ambling through.
Despite the signs and the expectation, the school’s emotional impact comes in full and unexpected force; there is a different kind of evidence here. Not the talk of names, but the proof of them. The first page of a discarded notebook proclaims Betsy Tipps as its proud owner. A worn desktop chronicles in deep gouges a history of abuse and torment, Guy Powell the hapless victim. A yellowed piece of decorated construction paper still clings to a wall, keeping Garret Holmes, Ryder Price, and Allison Lynch aloft in their pride as members of that August’s honor roll.
And then there is the film.
A projection room opens for them and each one takes possession of a squeaky folding chair. Soon, a grayish beam of moving images pierces glass and air, crashing against the aging screen and the serenity of the unwitting audience.
A circle of children, six to ten in age, sang about a hot time coming down over the old town tonight. Rehearsal for a school performance, in case anyone still has an appetite for such things. Mostly, they did this for the kids; they opened whatever rift they could between the preoccupations of the adult and the sheer innocence of the unsullied.
The tempo sped up and the trumpets flared, sending boys and girls tracing big arcs with their arms while tiny feet stomped with gusto to the rhythm of the marching band. Then FIRE, FIRE, FIRE, they spoke when the leader took notice of the two girls with blood-shot eyes and irregular, inky splotches starting to grow like insidious moss across their foreheads.
—Oh God, no. Please.
They watch the grownup relinquish her hold on the camera. It clatters noisily on the floor and the image jumps with each bounce, as if trying to escape the screen, fleeing and saving the viewers from at least a fraction of the misery. But it is not to be so. The equipment spins some and stops with its sight trained again on the group of youths. The last few frames are frozen in retina and nerve: a slanted view of tiny legs on wooden boards, those downy, poisonous blotches also growing there.
At the hospital they learn it wasn’t the ailment what did away with the village; that is a common misconception. A disease discards spent bodies, rotted matter that has to be documented and disposed of. And while there is more than that here, traces of physical distress, slivers of rent spirits, and essences torn apart by unimaginable agony, true explanations are elusive. The charts reveal more names; faded plates in deep blue and white show debilitated tissue eaten from the inside out. But nothing can respond to the plight of the inquisitive. After all, evidence of a few hundred perishing does not account for thousands more simply vanishing.
He lets them roam free in this leg of the tour, free to score as many scout badges of gruesome provenance as they see fit. He slinks away from the group, making his way to room 464. He stands there, by the door, replaying the dialog between himself and a dying woman, as crisp and severe now as it was then.
—It’s alright, dear.
—I’ll do it myself.
—You’re not sick yet. You have to be here for the kids.
—I will be here for all of you when we pay her price.
—If she’s there at all.
—She will be.
A savvy excursionist who knows of the power a candid picture can store orders a mechanical diaphragm to suck his laconic mood into silver and gelatin. His reverie broken by the garish shimmer, he loses sight of his hand holding hers. The smell of sweat and gory bandages, the sound of ill-greased gurney wheels, it all discolors like perhaps the visitant’s photograph will one day if left to bask in the light for too long. But he remembers; he endures. And so do the memories.
The final vestige lands, after hours of passage, on sore feet and parched mouths, but the impassioned zeal of the committee remains. A jagged oval of twilight opens just in front of them, inviting, morbidly seductive. The mouth of this cave is where, he explains, it is believed the villagers flew to either find salvation or drink their last peace.
She was there, alright. The dank and cloying smell of death came from the pit and assaulted him like a myriad blows, repulsive and alluring at the same time.
This was to be their reprieve, their salve, he says. Their miracle. And they came, to something—or someone—older than the oldest and wiser than the wisest. Dangerous, too.
He came. Him alone carrying the burden of the hopeful.
He sees the group of quivering tourists bearing flashlights into a gargantuan nave of naturally hewn rock. Their feet skid on frass and guano; their noses itch from the scent of olibanum, but they ignore the inconveniences and carry on, eager to reach the last piece of the puzzle.
The stone felt alive, as if it had its own heartbeat and its own life stream of ore. Coming from it or from the maw of darkness beyond, a voice that carried authority and commanded fear beckoned.
—I have what you seek.
—Was this your doing?
—Does it matter?
—Name your terms.
Boys and girls ask what they would, but nobody promised them answers; the trail ends here, as anticlimactic as wet fireworks. Others came to help after a while, he says, tying the last knots. Diaries were read, records were pored over, footprints were tracked. Nothing. Only what remained of the dead lingered, like breadcrumbs leading to a chasm. The living had disappeared.
—I will hold them in escrow. I will preserve their bodies, their minds, and their time until payment is brought forth.
—One for one hundred?
—Taints for taint.
He could have curbed the toll, then and there. He could have saved only Chelsea and Hugo and Elena, be done with the somber affair quickly and with less inflicted ache. But the townspeople were his family, too, his charges. He had to commit.
A gust of wind that makes everyone wrap their arms around themselves marks the terminus of the expedition. He gives thanks, hands out free souvenirs, and serves a well-greeted lunch of chuck roast, mash, and carrots; heat courtesy of Sterno. Then, he walks with them down the mountain path, through town again, and into the swelter of the baked motor coach, easing them back to their bromides and humdrum.
Do you believe any of this crap? One asks.
Hell no. But it makes for a good bedtime story, doesn’t it?
The jumps and jitters of the vehicle in motion lulls many of them back to sleep, but their guide remains awake. He stares out the window as the driver leads the pack back to wherever it is they call home. The place James comes from, in turn, is in the background once more, with its ghosts and revenants trapped in lurid thaumaturgy until the tab is settled.
Dear James. How many, so far? When will you join us?
He stopped counting years ago, knowing that only through the passing of decades would the tributes amount to anything of significance. He lives while others slumber. He pays a debt of his own choosing, a treaty written in blood so they could all someday return to wakefulness. And he does not even watch the appearance of the mottled stains anymore, on camera-holding hands or tucked away, barely visible, under the bill of a baseball hat or beneath the cool metal of a wristwatch band. Thanks to the suffering of each outlander, one of his own is closer to purity.
However monstrous and in spite of the trying mourning that accompanies each foray, from the first one to this lot, it has always seemed a fair trade.