-O-

Death

(or Worse)

In the Atapuerca Mountains of Spain, at the bottom of a 43-foot vertical shaft in a cave dubbed Sima de los Huesos—or Pit of Bones—archeologists found the skull of one of our pre-human ancestors, a Neanderthal precursor some 430,000 years old. His remains lay with 27 others of his species, but this ancient uncle stood out for one important reason: his skull had been bashed not once as in a fall but twice with what scientists decided must have been the same blunt object. Meaning? Murder. I remember reading about this before The Collapse and imagining various scenarios. In one, there was a brutal fight in which one combatant finally got the upper hand, landed a blow with a large stone and, while the other was stunned, struck again to make sure of it, then shoved the limp, bloody corpse down into the pit. In another, two people came to this place under some pretense—perhaps one said he had seen a white raven—and the one murdered the other, maybe for no other reason than to know what it felt like, then shoved the carcass, with its soupy, suppurating scalp, down into the pit. In yet another, a whole procession of Paleolithic ancients in ritual garb made its way solemnly to the pit one morning where one man in the prime of his life, purified in the ritual spring, knelt before the Great Circle of Light—not the Sister Circle of Light, what we call the moon, which was still setting, but rather the sun, which was then rising in the great cosmic cantilevering—as a shaman or priestess dressed as a bird strode forward with the ceremonial cudgel, held it aloft, dedicating this body to the Great Circle of Light, and brought it down on his head—once, twice—shards of skull digging into his brain so that he toppled over, legs kicking out several times like a dying deer, shuddering and twisting in on himself as the whiteness of his sclera pooled with blood and his eyes turned in opposite directions, his eyelids and eyelashes flickering and fluttering and the last of him, the little man inside, the spirit of his being, retreated into the subterranean tunnels of his quickly collapsing mind, light fading down and down into a kind of dappled blackness, down and down into the small grotto of his subconscious, down and down where the black silence finally resorbed him. At which point the others shoved him, their offering, back into the earth’s gullet.  

 

Of course, even before The Collapse, one other possibility occurred even to me: zombie. In this one, I imagine a woman walking alone, coming to stand at the edge of the pit. Maybe her people bring their dead here to feed them back to the earth, so maybe she is here to remember her mother or a brother or a lover, but now she is set upon by one of her own kind who is also somehow not one of her own kind, though the how and why of this transformation do not matter now because whatever it happens to be or not be is coming at her with hands outstretched like it is going to choke her and she remembers another time when another, furious for reasons she could not understand, wrapped his hands around her neck, forced her down onto her hands and knees, and she did not want that then, and she does not want that now, so she fights back, only this one is slower and not so powerful and smells not of death but almost of death and its eyes have that far-off look of the dead and its abdomen is split and caked with blood and soil like it was torn open by a boar’s tusk, but no matter how many times she bashes this … thing … with a tree branch, it won’t relent. Finally, when it grabs her by the hand and pulls her fingers toward its open, clacking mouth, she picks up a large stone, and slams it down on its skull with a sickening crack that immediately glistens white in the sunlight before the redness begins to bubble up, to glug out of the wound like magma from a seep. It must be mortally wounded—must be!—and yet it doesn’t quite stop. Its left eye is bulging out. It is spasming and its left arm won’t stop jerking, but it keeps clawing across the ground toward her so that she has to raise the stone above her head, with both hands this time, and once more slam it home. Here the thing falls to one side, shudders, twitches, curls in on itself, into the posture of a newborn. She falls back into the leaves, gasping for air. But she can’t rest. She isn’t sure it’s over. So, before it can move again, she forces herself up, drags the bloody ogre infant by its feet over to the edge of the pit where she shoves it over the lip with a scream and collapses, listening for the safety of that wet thud below.

Her story diverges here, wending its way branch by familial branch into the unwritten annals of history, until her kind went extinct or bred itself deep into the primal recesses of our own DNA, and yet I remain at the edge of that pit as if snared by a thought: what if the thing isn’t dead? what if it lays down there in this earthen womb, its brain damaged but not destroyed? Such a thing does not hurt. It does not pity itself nor have the capacity. Its senses lock on points of stimulus and, finding no connections between things, no order or logic, understands nothing, only reacts. Down in this pit, broken nearly in half, unable to move about, there are still things to react to: rocks, ribs, skulls, a centipede. There are smells—putrescene, methane, fungi—yet no words for them. The thing that might speak them cannot and, even if its brain wasn’t damaged, language doesn’t exist, not in the way we know it, so it cannot monger thoughts, but only experience this finite set of raw feels. Neither is there much light by which to see and the pit is already a dozen shades of blackness settling toward one, that is, until our zombie cranes its broken neck upward, vertebrae grinding, popping, and fixes one eye on the circle of light at the top of the shaft, not infinitely bright, but more muted, not unlike the Sister Circle of Light when she is high in the night sky and full. For months, as it slowly disintegrates under the constant onslaught of bacteria and the elements, this broken creature takes in the circle of light, this hole boring into the darkness, the circle shifting from gray to blue to pink and gold to gray to black to gray to blue to pink and gold to gray to black. Already in our universe there is more black than all the other colors combined—no colors challenge it but at best only emerge out of it—and the reality of this moves from the realm of the known to the realm of the felt when, down at the bottom of the pit, the zombie’s eyes are finally eaten out by bacteria and worms thin as hairs.  

There is something in this that haunts me. Zombies do get stuck from time to time, and you will see them trapped in places they will never escape, in brambles, in cables, but it has never really bothered me before—I’ve even sometimes fantasized they were sages of a kind, lost in reverential meditations—so what is it about the zombie down this earthen shaft that I can’t quite let go of? I have been wondering that myself for some time and it only just now occurred to me what it might be. People often say zombism is worse than death and I have been inclined to agree with that notion without much critical reflection, because, well, it is reasonable—we don’t want to become the things we despise—but it is the zombie down the shaft that strikes me almost with the force of a stone cracking my own skull: what if the man the zombie once was still resides down inside him? so that, even as the zombie is trapped down a shaft, what remains of the human is trapped down in the zombie? that is, if each zombie were a Pit of Bones and each once-human still gazes up through it toward a circle of light in an otherwise encompassing darkness? aware that he or she is trapped but unable to do anything about it?  

This puts me in mind of the Haitian voodooists who spoke of the bokor trapping and taking control of the petit bon ange (little good angel or spirit) and, with it, governing the body. Perhaps some new American shaman searched the spirit realm for whatever was causing our malaise, and discovered what it was, and found it was already too late for us, that we were done, the party over, that the best thing to do was prevent us from taking the rest of the world down with us in our death throes, and so devised a means of trapping the petit bon ange not in a separate container but somewhere inside the body—my god, but I wonder about that sometimes, and worry, and think of all the zombies that have attacked me over the years: to think that all that while maybe there was a lonely person inside, peering up out of the Pit of Bones, screaming and screaming and screaming for my help….

Yes, I saw it in their faces every time I fired or chopped or hammered down with a stone or indeed with a hammer: their endless, inescapable need. And yet I recall that same look in human faces, the same terrible loneliness, the same need, not unlike Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Yes, I struggled to understand why, for all our American optimistic posturing, that work set a New York auction record of something like $120 million—but of course that’s exactly it! the scream was the very embodiment of an endless despair in loneliness! What was it called in the original Norwegian? Skrik. But that describes the visage even more plainly. It’s all but onomatopoeic: skrik! skrik!

 

So can this visage truly be called zombie? Maybe, but maybe only if we hold a different conception of zombie in mind. Yes, there’s something in this: the one down in the pit who was bludgeoned was zombie before he could have possibly had time to turn. How could he have been otherwise? For it seems we carry zombies locked away in our very amygdalae, coded somewhere into the most ancient sections of our DNA, which is why it is so easy—so natural—to be able to imagine a scene 430,000 years old and know precisely why the one wielding the rock struck—the second strike—yes, the second strike! The reasons for the first strike are legion but the second reason is always the same. The ancient knowledge pulses inside us. A fear harkening waaaaay back. No one needs to teach it to us. It is inside, dormant, waiting. It may never even express itself and, indeed, there were several generations of Americans who lived their entire lives within the luxurious safety of its ramparts, never having to risk death—except, perhaps, by over-eating, or racing avalanches down hills on skis for fun—only having to send out warriors and threaten the world with nuclear blasts to neutralize anything remotely resembling a homeland threat, but this other thing was there the whole time all the same, safest generations passing it on in secret to safe generations to my generation and onto The Collapse and here, in the ruins, it expresses itself again, not diminished, but primal and vicious as ever: the moment we have struck a death blow, the second we have brought a club down on the skull of another, whether prey or enemy, why are we already poised for the second? There is nothing—nothing—more terrible than the visage of a living thing broken beyond all repair and gazing into its own eternal loneliness. We can’t bear it, what we ourselves wrought. It shivers, convulses, quakes. Its eyes roll back white. Its red mouth opens, sputters blood. It tries to stand again though its legs are tatters or even altogether cleaved away. It claws forward for flesh, kind for kind, so as not to feel alone. No, that dreadful visage does not evoke the zombie. The visage is the zombie. Ever rising from the liminal space between the first cranial hole and the second and final. Refusing death. Denying death. Looking helplessly out through a fading circle of light till the unthinking organisms chew him down to nothingness.

O, but I come to this point thinking I understand death, and yet what I truly yearn to know remains hopelessly out of reach, because experience and thought can teach me what death is but no amount of imagining will ever tell me what it is like to be dead. I extend myself toward it time and time again, but it’s ever-elusive; yes, I extend myself toward death just as I reach out through these scribblings in my notebooks toward you, dear reader, a silhouette peering down through a circle of light 43 feet above, registering my frustrated shufflings and scrapings on the surface below, but unable to fully see what all the hubbub is about, squinting, now and then just barely making out the form of this broken, slowly decomposing creature going through his clumsy motions in the darkness. Even if you could shine a light down in here, a terrific white spotlight that illuminated every inch of my pale northerner skin, even if you peered directly into the black depths of my pupils, I fear you might still miss the better part of me, which resides deeper yet inside, screaming to be released from this body of torment….

Behold, my Pit of Bones!