On Fame’s eternal camping-ground
Their silent tents are spread,
But Glory guards, with solemn round
The bivouac of the dead.
— Theodore O’Hara, “The Bivouac of the Dead”
They marched among the geometrical angles of granite tombstones, wearing simulated gore and affected awkward staggering gaits, carrying upraised signs made of stick handles and Bristol boards with bloody running red lettering.
Among the people dressed in dried red, white and green make-up, purposefully tattered clothing and horror film t-shirts, were people in uniform. Some of them wore dark helmets and dark-blue padding with realistic plastic rifles and riot gear in hand. They seemed to wave the macabre crowd along with plastic severed limbs: at least those that weren’t holding signs of a merry skeleton man with a top hat and cigar between his teeth pointing and proclaiming, “Baron Samedi Wants You!” or “Occupy the Evans City Chapel! Donate Your Flesh!”
For all the attention it received, the Chapel was a square structure of stacked old grey cement blocks with a steeple-roof of dark slate, and a chimney of faded red bricks. If someone looked closely at the base of the building, they would have seen green mould slowly and almost verdantly eating away at its foundations.
It had once been used as a storage-shed ages ago, before it was finally boarded-up altogether and left a hollow shell: its emptiness dignified with the remnants of almost forgotten hallowedness. But its simple crumbling elegance cast a long shadow of significance over the minds of its protesters, its guardians, its revellers and its other self-appointed friends as they gathered near the grounds of its long-sealed front door.
Whatever these fifty-odd some people saw on the path amongst the gravestones in front of their modest, aging Mecca and beyond the frame of a black and white reality, they all wanted to be here. Most of the Event’s participants were enthusiastic locals, some particularly devoted interstate and even international tourists. The other group that came into the Evans City Cemetery, on the other hand, did not seem local but they were–in their way–no less eager to be there.
The newcomers did not go to the Chapel. Instead, they moved past it. Some of them walked with a familiar stiffness, ramrod straight spines and a seeming lack of joints: with deep blue eyes that glittered from sallow faces in the setting sun. Others were more sombre or even more colourful heaps of mouldering robes that hopped or leapt alongside their compatriots: jumping with arms open enough to embrace the entire world.
Others wore darker investments: grey and black medieval armour, closed visors and ragged peasant garb. Some of the new arrivals hulked over the others: seeming to rise up from the ground like earthen blue-black shadows and wearing helmets of sharpened horns.
Still more followed them: large and small and some in more than worse for wear contemporary clothing carrying bits of playing equipment, tools and debris. Bloated and emaciated green things in rags crawled and whispered after them, and in the lengthened shadows it seemed as though they did not always have a shape at all. Lean beasts followed them with raised hackles and similar expressions of living greed on their muzzles and in their eyes.
Some were writhing, undulating wild-eyed women bathed in old red and cloying vinegar-wine as they alternatively fell over and prostrated themselves in erratic procession; while others were black-haired, dark-skinned, beautiful hollow-eyed women gliding in fine dresses and sporting long, long, fingernails. A significant proportion of the assembling throng were even more skeletal: shrivelled and brown caricatures that walked slowly and ably. Two of them looked like little girls in tattered old dresses holding smoking cups in their hands: their eyes silvery cobwebs of intent.
In front of them loomed a pillar of Quincy granite: nineteen feet high and surmounted by the figure of an eagle perched on a globe. As the grisly travellers surrounded it, its shadow consumed them and they became a part of the evening that it dwelled in. One side was inscribed with the names of forty-five dead men, while another was carved with an emblem of a wreath with crossed swords.
They had travelled all this way to congregate at this one point: the old Civil War memorial stone known as The Soldiers’ Monument. Anyone else in the Cemetery might have wondered why there was so much attention and security paid to the road and the Chapel, but not for the old war memorial. Yet no one other than the throng moved towards this spot. And so they waited.
They did not wait quietly. At first, the stillness was broken by a faint nearby rattling reminiscent of dry hollow bamboo tubes clattering against one another.
Gachi gachi … gachi gachi …
As though in sympathy, parts of the throng itself began to shuffle restlessly. A few gaunt forms covered with shaggy hair peered forlornly at their fellows with bloated faces and held out delicious ethereal food. This food went ignored.
Grumbling shadows seemed to shift back and forth above the closest gravestones, as the motley assortment began to moan and bang their makeshift tools on the nearby graves. The robed group began to hop impatiently in one place. The unseen ones stomped their shrunken feet in defiant rhythm. The brittle moving antiques that were the two girls walked through the throng with their two steaming cups, their soft voices mournfully chiming, “Cafe grille … Cafe grille …”
Even while the freshest among the ranks began to growl and hiss at each other, and the fat and thin green shifting creatures with their hyena brethren whispered to each other like sand and Arabic, a few of the figures in the front closest to the Monument remained solemn and patient.
One of them was a white-eyed woman with skin the texture of old coffee and dressed in the habit of a nun. Another was a man in a World War I Canadian Major’s uniform with a waxen blank-looking face and a black bag at his side. People arranged in a wide assortment of shapes surrounded him. They remained still, they and the shrivelled white-eyed brown ones. The latter held vintage bottles that seemed to flutter with eerie lights. They did not offer these to anyone as they stood near the nun. The two girls skipped to her side and she put a weathered hand on both of their wispy heads.
And so they waited. And so they wait. They wait for me. The vetala.
What is past is now present and what will be is now. Even as the evening comes, as it has come several times before, and the blue, black and pale-skinned Draugar bathe themselves in the fox-fire light of their trollskap runes, and the Jiangshi resemble Chinese paper lanterns filled with glow-worms, I come. I appear at the top of The Soldiers’ Monument: my feet balancing on the eagle statue as though I am a fallen angel perching on the head of a pin.
I smile a serene, demoniac smile as I lean forward. With a balance and flexibility that would put any enlightened yogi to shame, I hang down from the top of the pillar and my sightless eyes stare into each and every one of them. Now they are all still. I have their attention.
“The living claim to know our stories,” I begin, “but only the dead may tell them,” I look through all of them, “Speak.”
I am the vetala. I hear their stories. They speak to me. They speak to each other. They speak to each other in the rustling words and fading dactyls of our kind. Although their words are disparate, they are all unified under one scraping dissonant mother tongue: the language of the dead.
The elders speak first. Some are dressed in furs, archaic bronze, gold and rotten silk. They wail about the stories their fleshly tribes and descendants told, hidden away in their caves and ancient homes at night, while they raged outside pounding the doors: demanding sacrifice or just to be among the living again.
The Ro-Langs say they are tired of being created and hunted by sorcerers and Buddhist priests for their tongues and their golden bones. The Nachzehr contingent in the Cemetery say they have grown to despise having their graves intruded on and having coins shoved into their mouths. The few remaining native Skadegamutc–their long skeletal forms pulsing with stolen blood and their hair tied into feathered braids open their fanged maws to release whooping war cries into the air–decry the loss of their lodges, being forced to dwell in holes in the ground, and the burning finality of fire.
Many murmur among the gathering in sympathy. The shaggy Bukwus lament the fact that the living no longer take their offerings of food, nor join them in the waters. The mariner Drang nod their seaweed-encrusted heads in agreement and state in vehement Germanic that they are sick of being spat on. In equally fluent German, distorted only by the gnashing of their teeth into their death-shrouds underground, the Nachzehr rebuke the Drang with their livid, gesturing shadows: telling them that at least they didn’t have to worry about getting their heads cut off.
These exchanges bring another large murmur of agreement: especially from the Wiedergänger and their European revenant cousins. The Jiangshi say nothing but continue to jump around ignorant of glutinous rice, peach-wood, the I Ching and their own reflection while everyone else is aware of the funerary-mockery of self-transport that sorcerers first made of their bodies. Mostly, they are impatient for more qi. From its sprawling place near the corner of the Monument, the giant collection of the bones from a multitude of starved human beings called the Gashadokuro reiterates this sentiment with a loud rustling gachi gachi giving even the other assembled dead reason to pause.
Even so, the Ro-Langs are quick to mention their solidarity with the Jiangshi and add that they are also tired of having their tongues ripped out to become occult-swords. This draws the ire of the beautiful Pontianak: hissing that just as they were victims in life of the men that impregnated them and forced them to die at childbirth, so too do they still continue to abuse them after their deaths by driving nails through the backs of their necks and cutting off their long nails to make them “more docile” as wives.
Most of the ones arguing now, while a little more numerous than the elders, are fewer than the majority: with even fewer of the living in their native lands telling their stories every day. With some exceptions, theirs are complaints that have less to do with current persecution and more to do with past wrongs, restlessness and hunger.
Out of all of them, it is the Draugar that are collectively the loudest. The walking remnants of the Northmen boast about their achievements in strength and power, how it took the will of a true hero to wrestle them back into their howes. They say that the living can cut off their heads or burn them to ash, but that they will fight it all the way and retake the world that was once their own. They taunt the other dead, calling them cowards and mindless shells: commanding them to fight.
One of the revenants laughs hoarsely and points out the ever-present truth: the Draugar are few and most of their barrow-homes have been lost. Even with their power and lore of the dead, they are too few to reclaim their own lands of ice and darkness themselves: never mind the entire world. The Draugar become angry: proclaiming they will get all the reinforcements they need from their brethren in Hel once the ships made from dead men’s nails set sail.
The wax-faced Major steps forward. Even as he points at his twisted companions, his voice comes from the black bag in his hand: explaining in a muffled yet cultured tone that he and his fellow Re-animates were the result of horrible medical experiments that forever robbed them of the gift and dignity of death that is the right of all living beings. After they found each other, they methodically hunted down and killed their creator for his crimes against them and defying the will of Nature.
The elders and the avenging dead add their cries to the Major’s words, and even the brown-skinned zonbi contingent in their silence and with their shimmering glass bottles–by their very nature still full of purpose–incline their heads slightly with mutual respect. The nun–the Mother Superior Marie M.–finally speaks.
She talks of how her young body was abducted from her grave and family by a bokor in her native Haiti where she was made into his slave: only for his wife to attempt to sell her until, finally, she was brought to stay at a convent in France where she has been ever since the early twentieth century. Until now. From my vantage point hanging upside down and slowly swinging from the memorial, back and forth like a pendulum between life and death, I nod at her and the Canadian soldier-doctor.
The more numerous modern dead are also angry and hungry. They are not as articulate as the others, but they make their case clear. They throw their debris. They roar. Some of them stagger at each other while others tense and lunge with swift viciously mindless animal instinct.
They cease just as I stop my swinging. From the Chapel, I can already sense some of those who are with child clutching at their bellies from the Draugar’s auras: not enough to kill, but just strong enough to cause discomfort for those not-yet-born. It seems that as this gathering continues, the Pontianak may yet gain more sisters. Everyone and even the newest among us are cowed by the presence of the vision I have not revealed yet.
I am the vetala. I am the storyteller. I take the story of my being and I shrug out of it–a layer of ego–as I curl up to stand again on the stone eagle and let the tale tell itself. I point at the words that my body once concealed on the Monument, words they have all waited to see, “We are the bivouac of the dead.”
At my words, I sense a woman at the Chapel cramping into miscarriage. I continue.
“We exist on ground without walls or protection. The living has the luxury of walls between them and the night of us. We have nothing to protect us except us: the cycle of us. The elders understand it best. This world is not linear,” I spread out my arms, “We have no walls because we do not defend. We were the fierce hunger for life given purpose incarnate. We were the agency of celestial wrath and vengeance. But then, we were usurped.”
I lose myself further into the role of storyteller, “The living began to tell our stories. They took them from us. In them, we lost our divine masters and exchanged them for fleshly ones. For millennia after,” I glance poignantly at the zonbi, “in their stories we served the will of witches and sorcerers. We were their servants and their familiars. Their slaves. And those of us that came about without human agency were considered mistakes of Nature and linear Time. There are no coincidences,” I point one long skeletal finger at them all, “and those of us that were made free to appease our hunger were hunted down, burned, decapitated, mutilated and destroyed.
“Only those few like the Ghilan were free,” I finally turn back to look at them — some of the green-fleshed ones, “They are the ghül: a word used to describe us all because of what many of us are compelled to eat … and kill. They were free … in their deserts, haunts, and the abandoned ruins of cities … until Prince Gherib’s forced ‘Conversion of the Ghouls.’”
A sullen, angry rumble begins to grow, “For all here know that it took more than just one day to accomplish and that it was more than merely one Tribe. To this day the story of what happened to the Ghilan–to the ghül–is a lie still told by the living to their children,” I spit the last word, “as entertainment.
“The Ghilan–particularly the Tribe of Saadan–lost their fortresses and treasures in Arabia for the simple crime of keeping property, for eating the meat and bones of things that could no longer move nor even feel! Some fought, but most did not. They were–are–merely survivors and scavengers of food and scraps of knowledge. Very few Ghilan even kill the living, yet even so many of them were sent anyways to ‘sup with Iblis’ during the ‘conversions.’
“The rest of us were no better off.”
I jump down to the base of the Monument, “You have heard the Ro-Langs, the zonbi, and even the Jiangshi. Most of us could not even be conceived of to exist without the aid or presence of a fleshly master. Some of us, like the revenants, occurred ‘naturally’ but were promptly obliterated by fire, prayer and mantra. But some of us learned to rebel.
“Indeed, many of my kindred were powerful enough to do so. I remember the day, millennia ago, when I came to my vamachari’s side–the mortal responsible for binding the churning spirit of me to this cold, dead matter for my knowledge–and I wrapped my fingers around his neck and slowly squeezed the life out of him with my cold, dead left hand. It was one of the few moments I truly wished my own flesh was not unfeeling,” I let the old fury of that ego dissipate as I relax my left fist and become the storyteller again, “Yet even then there were too few of us to do anything more.”
I gesture at the zonbi delegation, “It truly began in West Africa, on an island called St. Domingo in the year of 1791. Slaves taken from many African nations rebelled against their slavers for twelve years until they overthrew them. From the chaos formed an entirely new nation. However, what no one knew was that a few of the former slaves were bokors and they possessed zonbi. The zonbi, however, were not free of their masters. Yet.”
I raise my hands, “That day, in the place that would become Haiti, a new narrative was formed: a story of slaves freeing themselves forever from their masters. And this time, instead of the living learning from the dead, the dead began to learn from the living.
“1863: the very land we stand on now, the place that bought many of those living slaves from St. Domingo, undergoes the Civil War that created the very Monument that I now stand on. This same nation then proclaims manumission for all its slaves! A few freed bokors and, more importantly, their zonbi were also there. And they learned another story.”
I point at the zonbi delegation, “Do you know what they hold in their hands? A zonbi is created when a bokor takes their soul and puts it in a jar. The bokor takes away the zonbi’s name and memories. The bokor keeps their souls in these jars to increase their own strength or sell them to buyers for luck and healing. Souls have become commodities.
“Over time, Marie M. and others have tracked down all zonbi and their names and reminded them of who they are. They carefully crafted a network with others, finding the bokors and their servants. By the end of the twentieth century, all true bokor have gone slowly and quietly extinct and the souls in the jars before you now are not those of the zonbi. They are the souls of their bokors.”
The dead are silent now, but not because they have become inanimate. I hold up one hand. I am not done yet.
“As the bokors and others like them disappeared,” I nod to the wax-faced doctor and a few others, “the living began to tell each other another story. It is not until 1968 that this new narrative fully manifests. The combination of tensions caused by war creates a new era of protests all over the world and in this land: protests against violence and discrimination.
“Also during this time something else happens. Feeding off of the confluence of conflicting energies, a new story is recorded here: created to become a whole new narrative!”
I spread my arms as though to mimic the Jiangshi, to encompass the whole Cemetery, “We above all others know the earth has power. Here, we were reborn. Can you not feel the power of the founding place, in the grave soil coursing through you? We were made to embody the menace hiding right in front of their eyes!”
I turn to the newest, largest part of our gathering, “And you are the epidemic! We have masters no longer! This knowledge: this real fear of an insidious, unreasoning, creeping cancer over the whole of humanity becomes us. But what’s more is simple. I am the vetala. I see Space and Time like no other. I know the secrets and the power of names and words. It was when they called us zombies–after our first liberated brethren–that we began to understand ourselves … and our final transformation began.”
I look at them all for one last time, as I know that very soon the time of the storyteller will be over and that the story will begin soon.
“2012,” I let my voice become a whisper softer than a child’s dying breath, “From the year before, a multitude of scattered protests–only tenuously related as Occupations–crop into being all wanting one thing: change. Here, in this very town, a few of them meld together: into another confluence.
“Many believe this is the final year of linear Time and they invest into it their fear of death: into a great sense of urgency. And here, in this Cemetery, at the Chapel with its charged residue of the story that changed us, at the anniversary of its genesis, the living gather their most vital energies to save their Chapel: to save us … to join us.
“My brethren,” I proclaim, “it was our will consumed fully by our perpetual hunger that enslaved us and now the very recognition of this fact–this same eternal craving for life–will move this world forward and forever.
“I have seen this! I am the storyteller. I am the vetala and soon we will all become the story!”
And then I am no longer the vetala. There is no longer any storyteller. They are the story now. They cheer as the vetala lets himself be carried away into the throng with open arms. In unison the throng of the dead turns away from The Soldiers’ Monument towards the Evans City Chapel: an army that no longer needs walls. But before they move, something appears in front of them.
It is the shrunken brown figure of a dwarf: one of the formerly unseen Tokoloshe. The eyeless, tongueless being croaks at them all: telling them that they will not be privy to the hurting of children. The two zonbi girls stare at it, then slowly bring their cups of steaming, eerily quailing liquid to their mouths and drink. The Tokoloshe seems to consider this for a moment and nods. Then it bites down on the pebble in its mouth and disappears again.
The evening gives way to the night, as the dead smell the ambient energies of life force and blood and meat–of fate–saturating this focal point where they would now re-imagine themselves for themselves.
Then they begin to participate in the feast that is to come.
Evans City Soldiers’ Monument Photo Credit: J.W. Ocker
Evans City Chapel Photo Credit: The Terror Daves