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Famous Last Words

There was a renowned, 20th century Welsh poet named Dylan Thomas who, among many other poems, penned a couple that I think bear new reading in light of the apocalypse and all the things we’ve seen herein. Here is an excerpt from one of his most famous, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”:

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

 

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

In “Poem on His Birthday,” he writes:

Four elements and five

Senses, and man a spirit in love

Thangling through this spun slime

To his nimbus bell cool kingdom come

And the lost, moonshine domes,

And the sea that hides his secret selves

Deep in its black, base bones,

Lulling of spheres in the seashell flesh,

And this last blessing most,

 

That the closer I move

To death, one man through his sundered hulks,

The louder the sun blooms

And the tusked, ramshackling sea exults;

And every wave of the way

And gale I tackle, the whole world then,

With more triumphant faith

That ever was since the world was said,

Spins its morning of praise,

 

I hear the bouncing hills

Grow larked and greener at berry brown

Fall and the dew larks sing

Taller this thunderclap spring, and how

More spanned with angles ride

The mansouled fiery islands! Oh,

Holier then their eyes,

And my shining men no more alone

As I sail out to die.

 

If interested, a reader could find these poems along with many others, in the stacks of this very bunker, but the point I am hoping to make here is somewhat other, that this man, like so many other men, had a lot to say about death, seemed almost to be prepping himself for that fateful day when he knew he had to die. It was, I think, a predominantly male preoccupation—not death, but the act of bolstering oneself against it with walls of words—and so, at a whopping 39 years of age, rumor has it that Thomas spoke final words that many a man, especially those whose lives have been dominated by thoughts of constant conflict and zombism, might consider to be among the best: “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies. I think that’s the record.”

To some, that probably would seem a mere petty brag, but I can’t hope to fully explain to someone who doesn’t already love the art form of final last words the wonderful irony of the boast, or the awful pathos that must have undergirded the act of incrementally obliterating the bounds of oneself via whiskey, or how endearing it can be to make light of one’s own suffering….

I’ve included a thoroughly researched book here in the zombie room, William B. Brahms’ Last Words of Notable People: Final Words of More than 3500 Noteworthy People Throughout History, which should serve as a nice primer on the subject I’m poised to discuss here. In it, you will find examination of the truth and lore behind famous last words, and, in reading it, and thinking about the great arc of history, and how we fit into it, I have also spent a great deal of time reflecting on the things I’ve heard people mutter or shout just before they died, as well as stories I’ve only heard second- or third-hand, and I’ve come to what might seem a somewhat obvious conclusion: people, unlike zombies, are lingual beings, always have been, so when we are faced with that moment when we must walk into the darkness of the unknown, it only stands to reason that a good deal of us will try to articulate something, anything at all, something, like art, that might prove our own fleeting existence as well as make use of it. The particular words simultaneously don’t matter and matter very much: on the one hand, we could say anything and it would serve the purpose of locating us within the continuity of humans (e.g., “You’re people, I’m a person, but who knows what we’ll be in a few minutes?”); on the other hand, the particular words identify us as individuals in the group, so idiosyncratic that we shouldn’t be forgotten (e.g., “Don’t worry; it ain’t loaded,” or, “The butterfly is already on the wing,” etc.). Looking through Brahms’ book, it seems that this latter attempt at words immemorial is a primarily male preoccupation, that men think way harder about how history will view them as individuals than women do, and yet one wonders if that very predilection is not rather a product of history that has all but ignored women’s last words just as it ignored their existence except in the narrowest ways. So pronounced is this skewing factor in favor of men that an alien perusing this title might wonder if death itself were a primarily male failing, or if insisting on speaking right up until the end caused men die, and that the women to whom so many of these men spoke their last, sentimental words were still alive somewhere, immortal beings of remembering, curating, and caring. 

At any rate, I’ve taken the time here to collect some of the memorable last words I heard people say just before dying or being zombified as well as words spoken against the encroaching darkness which others in our crew overheard, with just a little explanation to help put them into context so the reader might understand why, in certain small, provincial circles, these may have taken on an aura of legend:

Abandoned Soldier, Walla Walla, WA

About a week after the military’s last failed attempts to contain the zombie outbreak, Christopher Martin was rooting around under the shelves of a ransacked grocery store when he heard someone shouting outside. He made his way out, crept around the edge of the adjacent laundromat, and saw a young Latino man out by the highway overpass, in a tank top and military fatigues and boots, wearily dragging a wounded leg back and forth along the platform beneath a large billboard for a hotel that featured a crystalline swimming pool replete with water slide, a large crowd of zombies watching his every move from below. By the looks of it, he had been up there bearing the brunt of the heat wave for several days at least, caught between this idyllic image of a pool that no longer existed and inhaling the fuming rot of several cooking, gas-exploded corpses he must have left below with the last of his ammo. He was no longer shouting now, but only dragging that leg back and forth, back and forth, looking from the swimming pool to the zombies, swimming pool, zombies, until he shouted, “Cannonball!”

Christopher Martin said, for what it was worth, his form was perfect.

 

James, Postal Worker, Seattle, WA

In the first days of the interregnum, the spike in violence seemed like an aberration, something that might go away if we just remained patient and kept our heads. Even those who refused to believe the CDC’s initial assessment that it was possibly related to “tainted illegal narcotics” or Homeland Security’s claims that the outbreaks of “rioting” would soon be under control were hesitant to assume the worst and abandon the society that had known their whole lives.

So it was that, on Day 4, as the videos were circulating showing people attacking and biting one another in the streets, some people were still going to work, and that’s why I saw our mailman die that day.

I had heard a strange noise outside, some shouting. So I went to my front door and looked out just as a gang of kids flashed past, the blood, the gore only registering in their wake.

I looked down the street, saw our mailman about 20 yards away by the hedges, with a fairly small bag of mail, leafing through what I can only assume were ads for new cable and internet service that kept coming despite everything. This was James. He was a Samoan man, not particularly large, as many assume all Samoans to be, but rather a slight, flamboyant guy I’m about 90% sure was gay and 100% certain loved getting baked and delivering mail.  

I burst out the door and shouted, “Look out!”

James, focused on achieving a perfectly Zen arrangement of correspondence, flipped through his stack almost like a deck of cards, then looked up to see them coming.

He didn’t run.

He just looked straight into the gaping maw of his own impending death and said, “Honey, you ever heard of an Altoid ?” [1]

Then he slapped the first one in the face with a sheaf of letters and went down fighting.

Mike Sorenson, Puyallup, WA

Starbucks said he was once trapped with a group of people in a sawmill, all people he knew from growing up in Puyallup, several men, a few women, two kids. One of the women was Starbucks’ wife. One of the girls, his daughter. They had been hounded night and day for two weeks, had lost several, including Starbucks’ aging father-in-law. They were exhausted, on the brink of starvation. And now they were trapped here with a couple dozen zombies outside, hurling themselves against the door. The only windows were high up, but there was a ladder to a platform that ran along beneath them. So the men held the door as the others scrambled up the ladder.

 

One of the other men was named Mike Sorenson, a guy Starbucks had played football with back in high school and who had never once in his life stopped training as if for the Olympic weightlifting trials. He was huge, bulging with great slabs of muscle, a real asset in some ways, like if you needed someone to throw a zombie half a mile, but not particularly fast, nor particularly bright, but kind, self-denigrating, and prone to bouts of severe melancholy which he invariably countered by slapping himself in the head or face a few times and shouting stuff like, “I got this!”

Starbucks liked him even though he couldn’t stand being around most meatheads for more than a few minutes at a time. He always had. 

 

Well, once everyone else was up the ladder on the platform, it was time for the men to make their way, but they couldn’t all go at once or the door would have burst open. So they went one at a time as the door banged. As soon as one man was halfway up the ladder, another would go, and so on.

 

It finally came down to Starbucks and Sorenson, and Starbucks said he had the door, but Sorenson only laughed.  

“Fuck that, Goldenboy!” he said, Goldenboy apparently being Starbucks’ nickname in high school. “You go! I got this!”

 

Starbucks patted the big man on the shoulder and took off running.

 

As he ran, he heard the door splintering. He glanced back and saw the big man pressing the bulging, throbbing door like Atlas holding up the world.  

Just before they broke through, Sorenson shouted, “Um, maybe I don’t got this!”

 

Unknown Woman, Undisclosed Location

Chief drew us a cartoon of a woman he saw in a canoe floating out in the middle of a peaceful lake. He watched her through his binoculars for some time to see what she might do, if there were others, if they had a safe place off in the woods. But she just sat there. Her eyes were closed. She wasn’t smiling but she didn’t look miserable either. His drawing suggested someone not indifferent but perfectly balanced between the worlds of caring and not caring, at peace with things as they are. She wasn’t with anyone, just there by herself. But then her lips moved, like she was saying something. These mysterious words Chief denoted with a series of little symbols. Whatever she said, those were her last words, because a moment later she adjusted her position in the boat so that she was leaning just a little awkwardly out over one side, almost like she was getting ready to retrieve a net or trotline, but then she touched a revolver to the flesh beneath her chin, fired, and spilled out into the water. The canoe rocked for a while and then all was still again. It seems somehow appropriate that, whatever her actual words were, they were conveyed to us this way, behind a shroud of mystery, a most private moment between a human and the world she cannot continue living in.

Random Dumbass, Seattle, WA

When I was trying to get out of Seattle, going house to house, I watched a teenage dude in a backwards cap tell his friend, “Check it out!” Then he jumped out of a side door to shoot a zombie that had been butting its head against the front door. He didn’t even have to. There was no angle in it. All we had to do was wait a few hours, be quiet, sneak out when they weren’t so excitable. But no. “Check it out!” he said, popped the door, and jumped out like some kind of Rambo into the arms of another zombie that immediately tore his throat out so that all he could do was gurgle and spit blood and froth.  

Actually, I am far from the only person in Plymouth who saw a young man say something like “watch this!” or “look at me!” and then die horribly.

In fact, the phenomenon predated The Collapse by hundreds and hundreds of years, probably dates back to the beginning of time. So many of the people who used to go on online forums and talk big about how awesome they would be in a zombie apocalypse were these very same kinds of young men and yet where are they now?

 

Yolanda Who Everyone Called Yo, Tacoma, WA

Jason said he spent most of his time on the road alone after he lost the guys he knew from overseas, but, once, he was with a small group of mostly black men and women who took him in for a few nights in Tacoma. While he was there, the compound came under fire.

He ran up to the roof of a three-story apartment complex with this one woman he barely knew but had never been able to forget, a wiry young Dominican who said her name was Yolanda but everyone called her Yo. Her braids had been dyed bright red some time before and she was up there in a slim flannel shirt and black leggings, a striking but casual warrior, firing rounds from a hunting rifle down into an alley where men in denim and leather kept trying to race across, to get into a taller building on the other side of the street, outside the compound. Another started across. She led him for an instant before firing. He dropped and skidded across the pavement into the door he’d been going for. She worked the bolt, put another round in the chamber, and didn’t even take her eye off her scope as she muttered not to Jason but to the marauders down below who couldn’t even hear: “Sorry, but you keep making me shoot your dumb asses.”

Even as the final S lingered, her head jerked to one side. She convulsed a few times in a growing pool of her own blood and, just like that, Yo was dead.

Gramma, Reardan, WA

Once, I was scavenging the smaller towns west of Spokane. I set up my hammock like I did so many nights before between the branches of a large ponderosa pine on a small knoll with a good field of vision in Reardan, a small farming town. Late that evening I heard shooting. I followed the sounds and came to see a horde of some hundred zombies had cornered a small group of people across the tracks by a grain elevator. They’d had to rush up the side of a semi and onto the roof of a tin building and now they were desperately trying to fend off the more agile zombies that were climbing the rig. The men wore short beards and boxy coats and the women modest dresses with bonnets and I marked them for Hutterites, a traditional, pacifistic religious sect. One of the men, however, was aiming a rifle, and periodically firing into the cluster scrambling up onto the cab. Also among them were several Native Americans, including a teenage girl hammering down with an axe handle and an elderly woman furiously trying to chop bodies away from the roof with the spikes of some antique garden aerator.

The man fired and fired into the ghouls climbing toward them but when he stopped to reload one of them reached up and grabbed hold of his ankle and jerked down so that they both tumbled onto the hood of the truck, the zombie pinning him, trying to bite him as he barely fended it off with the rifle between.

The old woman, without even hesitating, started lowering herself down onto the hood. The young girl screamed, “Grandma!”

“Gramma power!” the old woman shouted deliriously, and started raking away at the zombie’s back with her rusty spikes.

By then, everyone else was rushing over, trying to help, but it was too late.

The zombie had already whirled, flung her from the truck so that she landed face-first down in the dirt. In that split second, the man swung the stock of his rifle and split the zombie’s skull, but the brave old lady’s diminutive form was already being swallowed up below.

Chucho’s Little Sister, Selena, Somewhere Near Bellingham, WA

Chucho finally told me the story of his sister’s last days. He said people in his family had always had a “thing with dark moods,” but out on the road, having lost everyone else, she had an even harder time holding out hope than he did. He tried to be enough for her, but he knew he never could be, that he’d fucked up too much in the years before, that he’d been away too long, and he told her he knew all this, and was sorry, but he still cared for her more than she knew, and she needed to know something it took him a long time to learn, that even when it feels like it’s not true we always have choices in life even if some of the choices are not good and one of the choices is always to die. He still believed that was true but wished he hadn’t told her that. Or had maybe put it another way. And at another time. Because, after that, he saw she did make a choice, and it was to give up, and yet she couldn’t quite give up all the way because she was scared of death. So she followed him around almost like a zombie herself, probably wanting God to strike her down, until the day they found themselves in a field running from a few and she stopped and looked back and he tried to drag her along and they were getting closer and he tried to pick her up but she fought and he screamed at her, “What, do you want to die?” and to that she said not yet and he said, “Then do you want to become one of them?” and she looked back at the five coming—it was a man, a woman, another woman like an auntie, and a couple of mutilated niños—all of them coming on like some grotesque parody of a family, and she said, “They’re in hell but they still got each other.”  

He slung her over his shoulder and carried her that way for days after. But those were the last words she ever said. He wouldn’t say how it happened. But he said he worried that the reason she gave up was that she saw it in him, that he’d be able keep on going, even after she was gone. And that tore him up inside. He didn’t say so. He didn’t have to. A skull may not be expressive, might be the final bastion of stoicism—death peeling away all our layers of meaning and leaving us as blank slates. But if that skull happens to have eyes, don’t be afraid to look into them, even as they dart away to avoid such soul-searching scrutiny.

 

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[1] A particular brand of breath mint that existed.