unless otherwise stated, all content is copyright © 2000
site design by
this site is best viewed with ms internet explorer and a screen res. of 800x600
A REPORT ON THE LIVING DEAD
I. In Which A Problem Is Brought to My Attention
When spies first reported incidents of flesh-eating zombies, I threw my hands up in disgust and said, "Sacre bleau! Next it shall be a plague of locusts! Will I have no rest?"
I banished my lieutenants with a snarl and brooded from behind my desk.
July 7, 1768, the hottest day, the hottest month, of the year. Grapes fermented on the vines beyond our walled city. Farmers fell from heat stroke - causing the price of legumes to rise to ridiculous heights. The garbage in the streets moldered and stank and added to the oppressive moistness. Garments clung to the skin, despite the application of powders and liniments. Dogs expired almost as frequently as peasants and the nobles rarely staged masquerades, for the heat ruined the painted disguises. On the Rue de Diablo, fanatical Jesuits traded insults with equally fanatical Jansenists. One learned to let them kill each other off, rather than risk the lives of gendarmes, who were in short supply.
A week before, a troupe of Hannibal's elephants had trumpeted their way through the mountain passes of the Southern Alps and down to our gates. Lost twenty centuries or more, Carthage long since razed and salted. Who could imagine such a thing - except, perhaps, our esteemed philosophe, Monsieur Applecart, who had devised the theory - and yet, there they were, stomping about and threatening to bring down the walls.
Mice appeared to be our salvation, and so my secret police combed the sewers and collected ten thousand of the rodents. We let them loose among the pachyderms...to no avail. Can you imagine the consternation? Quelle vacherie! The mayor - who prefers the title, "Chevalier" - almost had my head.
But I snatched victory from defeat, as I have done so many times before: giant rats, specially bred in Romania, drove them from our door, to roam toward Avignon, and from Avignon to Paris.
But I digress.
Watching the merchants haggle beneath my window, in the main square, I knew giant rats would not halt the walking dead. The Chevalier would not be pleased, but I was fortunate in this regard - the Chevalier had finally been driven mad by a protracted case of syphilis and no doubt would spend the remainder of his days bickering with hallucinations.
I wiped the sweat from my brow, indulged in a sip of burgundy, and read over the report filed by my spies.
Only then did I realize that my secret police had been under duress for many weeks (between the drought, the religious conflicts, the elephants, and now, the living dead) and perhaps they ought to visit Italy's famed bath towns to restore their good humors. Particularly the failed playwright-cum-spy, Abeille Montagne, who had written the report.
I sent a messenger to inform my wife I would be late and to keep the bouillabaisse warm. Then I awaited the arrival of an expert who had already begun to evaluate the situation: the British-born, Vienna-educated scientist and Doctor of Philosophy, Henry Edgerton Applecart.
When Doctor Applecart finally entered and took a seat, I could not help but be reminded of Duchess Jeanette's famous quote, "a man is his face." Applecart had the most peculiar moustache, the type of physical feature that makes a man invisible in all other ways. It appeared the moustache descended from the nose hairs rather than their cousins, the upper lip hairs. The moustache, of true Prussian lineage, had been oiled and often, as now, managed to interfere with the scales, abacuses, and other scientific paraphernalia that dangled from his neck. In short, a walrus of a man with weak eyes and stodgy legs who positively reeked of chemicals and whose skin had turned green in patches, giving him a mottled appearance.
Before I could offer greetings, Applecart plopped a dead, horribly pocked mouse onto my desk.
"This is your analysis, mon ami?" I frowned. "Surely you jest?"
Applecart shook his head and his instruments clanged hideously.
"No jest, Inspector. But it is definitely more than a mouse, if less than an analysis. It holds the key to the chastity belt of ignorance on your walking dead." I winced as he masticated a common figure of speech.
"Continue." I waved a fan to cool myself. The mouse smell spread across the room.
"This mouse was, by my educated guess, one of those which you sent out to attack the elephants."
"On your recommendation, I remind you." I held a perfumed handkerchief to my nose.
"Yes, yes," he said. "I am not pointing a finger - but look at it now. Dead. I have a hundred more examples in my laboratory." He picked up the mouse.
"Many of the living dead were bitten by mice or giant rats before beginning their...transformation."
"I have been bitten by rats many times, Applecart - well, at least three times - and suffered nothing more serious than a stabbing pain."
"Ah, but I submit to you," he said, leaning forward, moustache wriggling, finger pointed to the heavens (along with the mouse), "I submit to you a hypothesis: we are witnessing a time plague, brought to us by the elephants of a faded empire, and passed along through the elephants to the mice and rats. This time plague accelerates the aging process to an incremental degree, so that it appears the body is decaying when, in fact, it stops decaying at a set point perhaps days or hours after the victim would have died. Thus, the sores, the boils, the rotted meat stench. Alive and yet dead!" He rose to his feet in a clang of instruments, emphatically slamming the mouse onto my desk in the same motion. It promptly exploded. Only the tail remained. "A time disease! No doubt the contagion will spread across Europe and then...the world..."
I had experienced an intemperance in the stomach when Applecart had first flung the mouse upon my desk, but now my hands trembled and my mouth was dry.
"In your opinion," I said, dropping my handkerchief over the remains of the poor, misused rodent. The aroma of freshly-mashed mouse was overpowering.
"But an informed opinion, my dear Inspector," he replied. "Give me an hour with a human specimen and I will fully understand the phenomenon. Perhaps your men could...?"
"Perhaps," I said, imagining an army of the dead marching through France. "Should we warn the outlying farms and chateaux?"
Applecart shook his head, instruments rattling. "That would only cause panic over an unstoppable process, considering how little we know of the microscopic world."
"Microscopic world?" I said. It was Applecart's favorite topic of discourse, but seemed as appropriate a subject now as bestiality during a dinner conversation with the Pope.
"Yes," he said, nearly drooling with eagerness. "I believe the time disease may well be spread by microscopic creatures which ride upon the backs of mice and rats. The ancient Greeks documented such creatures in their writings."
"Yes, ahem, well," I said. "I will get you your specimen, Applecart, at a time and in a place where my men will be in least danger."
He peered at me from behind his moustache. "Are you ill, Inspector? You look pale."
"Pale?" I replied. "You have given me news of cataclysmic importance and you ask why I look pale?"
"I cannot share your concern," he said. At worst we shall all die and be granted eternal life - a new utopia, unlike anything ever dreamt of by Thomas More!"
The unwholesome gleam in his eyes, the look of the dedicated philosophe, told me he would relish studying the transformation.
After Applecart left, I disposed of the mouse through the nearest window and pondered the information he had given me. His theory bordered on the outrageous, but truth was often stranger than the romances that sold faster than the printing presses could produce them.
At dusk, I left my office and walked out onto the main square and the Rue de Triomphe. Although my spies reported the living dead confined to the poor southeast section of the city, I found myself alert to every shadow. I could hear the occasional clip-clop of a horse and carriage, see the odd man-servant hobbling to deliver a message for his master, but for the most part, the streets were deserted, suffocating under a gloom of heat and silence. Least reassuring was the clang of church bells sounding the call to evening prayer. Too often this proved a ruse by the Jesuits, who would no doubt rap unsuspecting Jansenists on the head as they responded to the bells and sell them into slavery, perhaps spiriting them away in the very carriages which now rattled through the streets.
Thus my terror when I felt fingers on my shoulder. I made a noise such as a rabbit will when bludgeoned and flinched, but turned to find the "fingers" were only the low-hanging branches of willow trees which ringed La Fontaine d'Or. The fountain itself was a commemorative statue of the Chevalier, rendered after the syphilis had taken its toll, and the silly grin mocked my unease.
Nonetheless, I ran the rest of the way, halting only to embrace my wife at the door to my house. She fed me and I then accompanied her to the boudoir, where I fell asleep attempting to complete my husbandly duty, much to her annoyance.
II. In Which I Am Attacked by A Scientific Curiosity
The next day I woke, bathed vigorously, and headed for my office, confident that we would soon solve the problem of the living dead. As I approached the main square, the sound of sneezing came as welcome proof that the dead had not yet compromised city life. There, under the shade offered by the same willow trees that had frightened me the night before, the nobles had gathered by the fountain for their morning ritual. I recognized many of them, most notably Robert le Grandnez, Helene de Narine, Jean-Luc Maseau, Pierre Muquex, and Catherine Mouchoir.
Sneezing individually and in unison, they sniffed their snuff from bejeweled boxes, always careful not to stain their velvet or sheepskin vests, their starched corsets, their Phoenician-purple cloaks. Two peasants watched with awed expressions from behind a hedgerow as the Monsieur Pierre Muquex, his great nostrils flaring, won a sneezing contest with the petit Helene de Narine by means of a loud and contemptuous snort. A splendid victory, framed by the decadent greenery of the square, the searing blue sky above. Ah, if only such a scene of good breeding and gentility could have taken place forever, come to fortify and edify our society. Many times in the next week, I would long to join the nobles beside the fountain as they flexed their nostrils for France. But such was not my fate.
My assistant, Trauffant - a faceless, gray bureaucrat from a lineage of such men - intercepted me as I walked upstairs to my office.
"Yes?" I stared pointedly at the hand he had placed upon my shoulder.
"There is a woman in your office, Inspector," he whispered, not relinquishing his grip.
"Not merely a woman, Inspector. One of them."
"Them?" I replied, thoroughly confused.
"The living dead." He gave me a knowing look, as if I had allied myself with them, the woman in my office a mistress, perhaps. "She says her name is Chanel."
The sour taste of incompetence filled my mouth. I shook off Trauffant's grip.
"Thank you, Trauffant. Not only do you allow this, this creature into my office, but you accord her an unseemly level of respect. She is a corpse! Perhaps you are unaware that the living dead have been eating people and perhaps you are equally unaware that your job is to put an end to this behavior!"
A deathly pale Trauffant at my back, I marched into my office muttering the last rites under my breath.
How shall I describe the Mademoiselle Chanel? She wore the ragged remains of a pink satin dress, the wire curvature of her corset sticking through it. Her shoes, perhaps once adequate, were now hopeless strips of leather. Her face had acquired the hue of week-old tripe and her left eye had, like some unreliable independent explorer, departed the socket.
I smiled with icy charm at the woman as I sat down behind my desk. "What can I do for you, my lady?" Sacre bleu, but the heat was unbearable!
When she replied, I winced, for she had a lisp, caused by the tendency of her teeth, unconnected to her palate, to slide back and forth in her mouth.
"You will lowah the pwice of bwead to twelve sous ow we will eat aww the wiving."
I was tempted to place a handkerchief over my face to block the smell rising from the lady, but I feared this would offend her and she might eat me on the spot.
"If you mean, my lady, 'lower the price of bread,' I am afraid I am not in the business of baguettes. I am the Inspector for this city, not a member of the Council of Produce."
She leaned forward. I leaned back.
"We woe, we woe. Bwut we also woe wat you can twalk to the apwopwiate awthowwities."
"I beg your pardon?" I said.
"Walk twoo wee apwowwia awwowwitwees," she said, spluttering in my face.
This was a member of the walking dead? Sitting down to negotiate the price of bread like a peasant intellectual? Her stomach could not possibly hold food or drink.
"No," I said. "No. I cannot help you. Your demands are unacceptable."
"Woooooeeeee!" she screamed in an extraordinary display of temper - foaming at the mouth, the one good eye bulging - before flinging herself across the desk. I pressed myself up against the wall and attempted to beat off her flailing limbs.
"Twaitor!" she screamed. "Twaitor!"
"Trauffant! Trauffant!" I screamed back.
To my amazement, upon Mademoiselle Chanel's third exclamation of "twaitor," her teeth - gums and all - slid from her mouth and, chattering, fell onto my desk. Quel horreur! For the second time in as many days a most disgusting morsel had been forced upon me.
Her intention to devour me forgotten, the woman raised her arm to point at the teeth. She began to wail and tears of blood soon covered her face.
Trauffant's balding, cowardly head peeked through the doorway.
"Trauffant," I said, hands ashake and voice atremble, "please escort this, er, delightful woman to the laboratories of Monsieur Applecart."
Trauffant led the woman away. When she was gone, I slumped down in my chair. I waved my fan frantically and gulped several glasses of wine.
After I had sufficiently recovered from my ordeal, I devised a plan of protection and containment. I would impose a curfew from six in the evening until nine in the morning. The Chevalier's soldiers would form a semi-circle around the highest concentrations of living dead, until we could discover a long-term solution.
Pleased with myself, I took a short break for lunch at the local patisserie, and was back in my office, where Dr. Applecart's report lay on my desk.
I groaned and buried my head in my hands. A man of science seduced by his subject matter. Quest-ce qui se passe?
That evening, as I walked home, the shadows which had been only willow trees seemed now to hide deeper, more hulking shadows. I must confess, I had begun to despair.
III. In Which My Spies Abandon Me For Roman Bath Houses
In the course of the next week, a flurry of reports found their way to my desk. Hannibal's elephants had died near Paris. Attacks upon the rich had become less frequent, but attacks on the living in general had increased in frequency. Tourists from Macedonia, Crete, or even nearby Italy were in short supply. Many of the farming families in the surrounding countryside had panicked and left en masse for the coast. Many more - peasants and nobles with strong ties to the city - had elected to stay behind, boarded up in their apartments and houses. More alarmingly, our attempts to burn down the poor sections of the city, and the living dead with them, failed when the wind shifted, destroying most of the Artisan's Quarter instead. A mercy, many said.
One report, from Trauffant, seemed to hold some promise of reversing the rising tide of misfortune. He had managed to place three men among the ranks of the living dead. All three had been assistants to the now mad Doctor Applecart and, as a result of this employment, had suffered facial burns from various and sundry chemicals. Trauffant had applied beef tallow to their features and, to my untrained eye, they closely resembled the living dead. However, Trauffant reported to me, the living dead did not share our opinion of the disguise and promptly ate all three men.
And so, disaster on every front! I imagined the Chevalier watching from his camponella, hopping and cackling at each new failure. I could no longer summon the energy to mutter "Sacre bleu!"
The next report, which I had commissioned from my dwindling cadre of spies - many having fled for the Italian bath houses despite my order to the contrary - concerned changes in law and custom.
M. Montagne's report on grave diggers? I rummaged through my files, finally discovered the document.
This farce continued for ten pages, much of the tightly scrawled script ridiculing my efforts to protect the city, each insult more pointed than the last. My only solace: that such a document would prove that at every level my efforts were stymied not only by the dead, but by my own men.
The situation could not have been more desperate. My own agents mocked me and at that moment I remember hearing howls and screams from the southeast section. The sounds had grown steadily louder as the Chevalier's soldiers succumbed to the time disease, no doubt hastened by Applecart's lunatic efforts.
Sacre bleu! One last sacre bleu for this entire sad affair. I, who had brought the street-mime pickpockets to justice, defeated Hannibal's elephants, and survived yearly religious riots, would be thwarted by the dead.
As the sun faded, I retired to my house and my wife. The bouillabaisse tasted sour and even the wine failed to revive my flagging spirits. I did not attempt to fulfill my husbandly duty.
The end was near.
IV. In Which I Meet With An Unexpected Demise
That final day, I hesitated at the door of my house and held my wife tightly to me. Already during the night Trauffant had woken me to bring news that the Chevalier's soldiers could no longer hold their positions: the living dead would soon overrun the city.
"Flee with me to Istanbul," Trauffant begged, but I refused, as did my wife, to her credit. We would stay until the end.
Thus, I continued on as if nothing had changed. I walked toward the main square, stopping at each street corner to breathe in the city's smells: shit and piss, yes, but also the aroma of newly-baked bread and the melange of spices from the occasional mule of a merchant, abandoned, but still moving through the boulevards with supplies upon its back. I heard, as never before, the soft cooing of doves in the eaves, the clank of the blacksmith's hammer, and the giggling of girls gathered around the well as pervert dwarfs pinched their bottoms.
But, as I approached the main square from a connecting alley, I did not hear the calming sound of sneezes, nor the snorts of snuff contests. Instead, a muffled moaning came from the square.
I turned the corner - and gasped, and clutched for support against the wall.
The living dead caroused across the square like mad Spanish flamenco dancers heading into their twelfth straight hour of revelry. Cocooned in their rotting rags, they stumbled and smashed into posts, horrific skull-smiles lighting up their desiccated faces. The vinegar smell of preserving liquids made my nose wrinkle.
The nobles who normally sat near the fountain had been rounded up. Three corpses had Monsieur Pierre Muquex on his back and stuffed snuff into his mouth while he squealed most miserably.
Nary a snort now as they snuffed him.
Gradually, as I watched from the safety of the alley, the random, spastic dances of the living dead took on significance. They were spreading their disease, I realized, in a series of bizarre duels, choreographed it seemed by Dante. Those who still lived ducked the thrusts of the dead, who held their arms like swords. A single touch by the living dead might doom the merely living. There was a gentleness to their touch that surprised me; the lack of cannibalism also surprised me. Snuff rose in clouds from where dozens of snuff boxes had been ritualistically dumped.
Then I had no time for contemplation, for I locked eyes with Applecart, who approached me from across the square. Quel horreur! Slides, scales, abacuses, and other instruments hung from the naked madman's arms, legs, even his wattled, green neck.
Clanging and banging, Applecart stalked me, startling me with his latest mannerism: he jumped up and down and swatted at his back, screaming, "The little creatures! The little creatures are riding my back!"
I resolved not to run, mostly because more living dead had come up behind me. I clenched my fists.
He lunged at me.
He lunged again.
I bobbed to one side.
He lunged a third time.
I may have neglected to mention that I am overweight and thus never much good at the fencing exercises that might have saved me. Afterwards, there seemed little point in going on to the office, so I went home and infected the wife.
Thus ends my report on the living dead, which I write from my office. My leathery hand holds the pen well enough. Below, in the main square, the living dead wander - some aimlessly, others with a purpose that escapes me.
Now that even the Chevalier has changed - lending a morbid cheerfulness to the expression, "The Chevalier is dead! Long live the Chevalier!" - the laws, the rituals, have been altered to a degree. Many people have forgotten they are dead and returned to their normal activities, though these have the look of play-acting in some atrocious fablieu.
The lawyers lecture the finer points of complex defenses to crowded halls of the dead, but for cases no longer on the docket. Vendors sell rotted fruit to equally rotted women, who "ohh" and "ahh" at the high quality. The Chevalier's parties continue for days, though the champagne merely softens them and the food soils them. Human magpies, the nobles bicker over baubles, cachet anything shiny.
The most shocking case may be that of Doctor Applecart, who now operates on himself, continually taking out his liver and putting it back in again, muttering all the while about the "unseen world." Mademoiselle Chanel dotes on him, despite his madness, or perhaps because of it.
In time, no one will notice the change. (Already, dead tourists shuffle in from Italy and Macedonia.) However, I doubt any of us will be procreative, though we appear to be immortal, barring decay. My own procreative organ has fallen off, though my wife tells me the difference in performance is slight. Kindly soul.
Many of us have lost our faculties altogether. I have seen a man look at a woman he has known for twenty years as if she is a stranger. I have seen a woman stop in the middle of the street and stare vacantly, having half-remembered something and then forgotten it again. Will my own memory wither until I am but a shell of cured meat?
I can, dear reader, discern our future: the cities of Europe will become as carnivals of the dead - each citizen a sword swallower, a flame eater, a lion tamer; everyone a curiosity without need of food or shelter, seeing the world through new, if mildewed, eyes. Who shall my spies infiltrate? What laws must I uphold amidst the lawlessness?
No, it offends my sense of order. I shall retire. All of Europe surrenders, mon ami. To whom? To Hannibal's elephants, of course. In their own peculiar way, the cursed pachyderms have indeed conquered the Roman Empire.
Your Servant, Inspector C____________
[Special acknowledgment to Duane Bray for French idioms and research.]