Walking northeastward from the trail’s end along a rocky creek cutting a cleft this way and that up the side of a mountain bench, we came upon any number of small, clear pools teeming with coho, a fierce, silver salmon also known as “silver salmon.” They shifted about under the water like mere ripples reflecting sunlight, their backs and dorsal fins undulating along in the shallows as they slowly made their way from pool to eddy, up the contours of the creek, toward their ancestral spawning grounds.
Several parties had set out from the dead end, heading up various footpaths and game trails. Here, on the meadow side of the creek, were Neo, Chief, Jason, Ragnar, Lard Ass, Pippin, and myself. I wasn’t supposed to be with this squad, but with Chucho and Starbucks, but at the last minute the first lieutenant decided to keep the rabble-rouser Huckleberry nearer to himself—probably to keep an eye on him and spare Neo that burden—and swapped us out. I was not so familiar with this crew and, honestly, they all made me a little uncomfortable: Neo because he was so jocular, Chief because he never said a fucking word and more or less looked right through me like I wasn’t there, Jason because I couldn’t look at him and not think about how he’d been forced to fight for warlords as a child, Ragnar because he just seemed so dangerous and I didn’t feel like I knew him, Lard Ass because he looked like a daddy longlegs wearing overalls, and Pippin because he’d had such a jolt of adrenaline back with the prisoners that his jaw was still spasming two hours later—and not only that but he’d started muttering to himself. And yet, for all the discomfort and the mad idiocy of pursuing rumors of Custer’s favorite zombie, I had to admit I was glad to be there, to see the fish thriving again in these waterways.
I wasn’t the only one who noticed. We’d all doubted the word of the old prisoner, but at least this much had turned out to be true, and it was enough to make us start wondering if he’d been square with us about Moby-Dork’s proximity, and whether we’d find him; and so the conversation drifted, like a lure on a line, down into this swirling eddy, where it was stuck, for a short while, on the captain’s obsession, on the callousness with which the stupid but brave prisoners’ bodies had been thrown into the box, with all the indistinguishable flaps of flesh, so that Pippin started growing agitated again; and here we were stuck until Lard Ass pulled the line of our conversation and tossed it back upstream, toward the more comforting topic of fish in the pool.
“Hey midget,” he said to Pippin with a little nudge, “did I tell you about the recipe for salmon where you wrapped your fillets in foil, butter, lemon, salt, pepper, tiny bit of dill? But that’s not the interesting part. The interesting part’s you cooked the packets in the dishwasher.”
When Pippin didn’t respond, he continued walking, and quietly talking: “It was okay. Mostly novelty. But I’ll tell you one thing: I sure am glad these populations rebounded.”
“Populations rebounded,” Pippin repeated under his breath.
“Yep. I can think of about a thousand ways to cook these. Maybe after we find this—”
“Populations rebounded,” Pippin said, trying out a new inflection, as if he’d noticed something in the sounds that he liked, that gave him comfort, but he wasn’t sure what. “Populations rebounded. Rebounded. Reboundead. Reboun. Dead.”
Lard Ass hushed him as we rounded a bend, veering away from the creek and back into a dense stand of trees and a steep incline in the overgrown trail.
“Populations. Rebound. Dead.”
“Dead populations rebound!”
“Shhh!” Ragnar said, turning back and glaring at Lard Ass, who glared at Pippin, who turned around and glared, by whatever logic, back at me.
With that, we came to a sudden stop.
Soon enough, it became clear that the men out front had exited the denser forest into a wide meadow stretching out to the side of a long, somewhat straight stretch of the creek and a gradual bank easing down to the water’s edge and an almost inviting gravel bar.
Here, wading slowly down the grade, along with the current, in the shallows, were three emaciated young zombies: two had been young men, boys really, 20, 21, perfectly of their time, place, and station, white, post-millennial concertgoers, perhaps, festivalgoers, like all the kids at Sasquatchfest, their bodies built for taking molly and dancing all night, wearing worn-out jeans threatening to slip off over their narrow hipbones, no shirts; one wore his hair in a kind of half-ironic mullet with a tiny braid hanging halfway down his back, the other in what amounted to a crew cut with a long swoop of thick hair jutting forward from the top and hanging down in his eyes; the third partygoer was a female wearing yoga pants so tattered that, with the paleness of her legs shining through, she seemed striped, almost as a white tiger, her purple shirt so badly stretched and twisted about her and crusted with blood that it looked more like a breezy scarf with which she’d been trying to conceal her young breasts.
They could easily have sensed us, seen us staring out from the edge of the wood, smelled the oniony tang of our body odor, heard our hearts beating, felt the subtle displacement of air, but they were more interested in the roiling water at their feet, their half-blind eyes trying to keep up with the darting fish they were scaring up with each clumsy step, frantic coho flashing out into the depths, or lifting a foot out of the water as they tried to understand what had just brushed against their ankle or calf, things they had no name for, touching parts that were only sensations with neither names nor origins.
The clouds had parted enough that a soft, gauzy sunlight shined down on them and all about their heads and shoulders were winged insects, dragonflies, black flies, and other winged fairies of the woods, attracted, no doubt, to their awful, sulfur-sweet stench; and yet, if you held your breath, and squinted your eyes just so, it was easy to imagine this as a fine, bucolic scene, just three young people experimenting with the world, whiling away an afternoon in a cannabinoid haze in some silent, forgotten wilderness. If a talented artist relegated their zombic images to the left side of a large canvas and used the exact same colors and strokes to paint their human onlookers on the right, both groups looking at the exact same school of salmon, just a few steps apart in that same softly yellow, late-afternoon light, at first glance we’d have been nothing but mirror reflections of one another, upright creatures gazing contentedly into the ripples of time, so that you’d be hard-pressed to say who was the man and who was the zombie or if it could even be said that there was any sort of objective line dividing the two; and yet, of course, as any true work of art bears multiple viewings, each subsequent viewing compounding on the previous, upon second look maybe a subtler difference might start to emerge in the smaller details, because the truth is you’d never glimpse a trace of fear in their eyes, nor even a hint of life’s discontents, as if all of existence were just a matter of stimulus and impulse, see thing, react to thing, as if they, not us, were nature’s own bipeds, eking out a humble living in the wilds, whereas, where their eyes reflected only those finer racing ripples and the nameless flashes and soundings in the stream, our eyes would reflect not only those ripples but also our doppelganger experiencing those ripples and each of us, too, each of us standing there, gawking after the other, wondering after fate.
What is it in the zombie, what is it absent from the zombie, that it can walk upon the earth without any conception of the past or the future or even, for that matter, the present, cut off from any semblance of what we call consciousness, without awareness of morality not to mention mortality or even that simpler, more primal amygdala knowledge of that base distinction between existing one moment and ceasing to exist the next? that is, without fearing death? All over America, presumably all over the world, their bodies were lurching and swarming and attacking or walking among fish and frogs and snakes and scorpions and every other kind of living thing, but, I presumed, without any sentimentality about any of it at all, or even intentionality, as if they were the very corporeal embodiments of the universe and all its chemical and physical processes playing out for time immemorial, a vast, cold, endless expanse: bacteria swallowing bacteria, whales swallowing krill, stars swallowing planets, the void swallowing all of energy and time.
Now consider these two things: on the one hand, endless, timeless space; on the other, earth. Do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling unawareness engulfs this planet and all its permutations of life, so in the soul of humans there lies one pale blue dot, full of peace and joy and war and art, all of this swallowed up by the horrors of the unknown beyond.
“Dead populations rebound,” Pippin muttered again. “DeadPopReb. DPR in the house, ya’ll! Heheeheeee!”
Lard Ass grabbed his young helper by the arm and held a finger to his own mouth to silence him. But there was no real need. Our three companions were clearly not hostile, and, in fact, at the sound of a voice breaking their peace, they seemed almost perturbed that their sensualist experiments were being interrupted, and turned, and started walking against the current—that is, away from us.
We watched them for a few more moments before Neo motioned to Chief, silently instructing him to do something, to take them out.
But the big Indian was not interested in harming them. You could see it in his face. He was grinning after the fish lovers, as mesmerized by them as they were by the fish.
Neo snapped his fingers twice.
Chief finally looked to him, the grin quickly fading from his face.
Neo made a series of gestures with his hand: Follow them. Drop them. But quietly! We will loop around wide. Meet you ahead on the trail.
Chief gave him a sarcastic thumb’s up, and started up the water’s edge, drawing his knife.
The rest of us moved out into the meadow to our right, working our way around as Chief stalked the trio up the creek. We fanned out, trying not to get bunched up, in case there were creatures lying in the tall grass, in case the marauders had laid traps. As we walked, my eyes bounced back and forth from my feet to Chief, my feet to Chief, my feet because I didn’t want to die, but Chief because there was something about the way he was carrying himself that seemed very unusual somehow, like some switch had been flipped inside him—or else been flipped off.
The events of the day had been trying, to be sure. None of us knew what the murder of the prisoners augured or if they augured anything at all, and yet there was plenty of evidence all around that we were unsettled by the trajectory of this stint—not the least sign of which was Pippin and his strange muttering, which he was still doing, despite Lard Ass’s constant shushing. But perhaps all could be made right anyway. As the past few years had shown us, terrible events happened, but that didn’t mean things were doomed only to get worse; in fact, on some level, we had to believe that things could get better. Why else were we here, working toward (re)civilization? trying to energize nothing? No. We must have been holding out hope even as we derided it. Yes, hope was nothing more than a defense mechanism against impending nothingness or doom, but for each of us to still be alive, we must have clung to it on many occasions despite ourselves, clung to whatever small, fleeting flourishes of beauty, like the fish squirming up the stream to spawn, like these three strange zombies playing with the fish in the stream.
Chief was over there smiling again; I could see it even from a distance, that big, bemused grin. He was practically giddy with watching these undead libertines splashing through the water ahead of him—in fact, he was going so slowly, so unpurposefully, that we were now passing him by.
Neo held up his hand and gestured for the rest of us to stop, then turned to Jason.
“What the fuck?” he mouthed.
Jason shrugged and chuckled without making a sound.
“Psst!” Neo called to Chief. “Pssssst!”
Chief looked over, but waved the lieutenant off with a dismissive flick of his wrist, and continued walking after his muses. Muse is the perfect word. Besides Neo, everyone was amused. Even Pippin had stopped talking about DPRs and was only smiling now, albeit a somewhat unhinged smile. We were all smiling after Chief, just as he was smiling after his quarry.
So it was that, standing there, waiting until the job was done, until we could all move back toward the trail, I looked down again and saw something curious, no strange, no terrible: all about my feet, interspersed in the soil and grass, were small clumps of serrated flesh, the sulfurous leavings of some massacre long since picked over by any number of eagles and crows and coyotes:
A killing field.
I looked to Chief again, who seemed to be in no hurry at all, who even seemed reluctant to do what he was supposed to do, and had settled into a pace not unlike the zombie’s, almost in a trance, or like a man with all the time in the world, taking in the works in a museum.
I turned my attention again to the ground around my feet and as I walked about, it started to become obvious that something had happened here, something awful: the remnants of death were rotting slowly back into the soil, so many and so thoroughly torn and ripped and tossed that you couldn’t tell for sure if a given scrap was a piece of a woman’s ear or a man’s nose or a zombie’s tongue and so thoroughly were these random bits and pieces covered over with beetles and writhing chancres of worms and flies and wasps that it was best to keep your head up and pretend the crunching underfoot was nothing but dry bunchgrass and twigs.
Off to my right there was a large impression where the grass had been disturbed, and in it were several bones, picked almost clean, femurs, a ribcage, a spine, a skull with its eye sockets and cheekbones and jaw crushed, pulverized, almost beyond recognition.
I looked up to say something to the others, but they were all frozen now, looking at Chief. I turned to look, too. There he stood, stock still, squinting beyond his three zombies, up the hill, toward where the trail disappeared into the meadow’s edge.
His eyes darted to one side and he raised his rifle.
I looked up into the trees just in time to see a flash of white.