SACKCLOTH AND ASHES
In the carrying of our mother to the basement, I discovered that Chloe was well capable of following simple directions, and executing them with modest prowess. More arresting was her newfound strength, for her ability to raise our mother off the ground with one outstretched arm was formidable indeed. But investigation into this would have to wait, as I took Doris’ arms and Chloe took her legs, and within a minute our mother was prone on that dank concrete underground floor, awaiting revival. As Chloe followed my command to get dressed, I contemplated the charge before me. I knew the first part of the ritual would be the most awkward and unpleasant, disrobing my own mother to bathe her completely in the balm. But I was successful in convincing myself again that I was a physician, a fabulous necromancer of sorts possessing the most enchanted of powers, and who’s to say I didn’t, for wasn’t I at that moment a conjurer of life? Could there be any greater prescription? My patient mother lay before me to receive, so her naked state couldn’t bother me, though I do remember thinking that she should keep her body in better physical shape. Be that as it may, I applied the ointment with diligence, confident in my abilities, feeling even a bit smug, surprised only with the ease at which I was dealing with my mother’s “death.” Really, other than the fear of its public discovery, now I felt nothing, not even shame at my own numbness. I remember hoping that this was merely a survival mechanism, that I was coping in order to function, that the death of my own mother was of such severe trauma to me, that I buried it in order to attain the task at hand, which was of course her restoration into life. And wasn’t my act of resuscitation the ultimate kindness, after what was surely another grievous accident, befalling my poor embattled family? Wasn’t I now the only glue keeping my family whole? I had no time for grief, for I had a job to do. My family needed me. Whether it was forced upon me or not, I had to accept it.
As I massaged the oil into my mother’s every pore, I noticed Chloe watching me closely. I allowed this to continue, for though I appeared in all aspects to be Chloe’s “master,” such trust on her part bore a strong sense of reciprocity in me. I had to remain open to her, and hide nothing. We were embarking together on a new facet of our relationship, and the paradigm had shifted, to say the least, but I had to remain respectful. I certainly held no animosity toward her. That had all paled away, after that fateful moment on that rock face. No, I held nothing but love for my self/other, and it was warming, and good. So in this spirit, I had to share with her, even bestowing upon her the knowledge of the rite, which she watched with what could only be described as attentiveness. Whether there was any comprehension attached to this, I would not yet know, but then again, I could see no harm in it either, for the true power of the resurrection ritual lay only within me, and could not be appropriated indiscriminately by others. Only I held the power, for I was the one who was chosen, not her. Of this I was certain. Should Chloe mutter “eveiller zombi,” the air would surely remain rested and still.
But something curious happened when I completed the ceremony with my mother. Yes, indeed she rose back to life as expected (had this lost its wonder to me already?), but not in the same manner as Chloe, for Doris was in an unexpected feral state, and much more furious, scratching and clawing at any surface around her, frothing and convulsing and thrashing about with sufficient violence as to cause harm not only to anyone who dared to approach her, but to her own very body as well, as she had no regard, in fact no understanding at all, to what it meant to be alive. I could not allow this to continue, for reasons clear. I yelled my orders to her sharply, commanding her to stop, but unlike Chloe’s swift obeyance, Doris responded only in the half, quieting for a moment, before resuming her tremendous flagellation anew. Repeated instructions only restarted the cycle, and no matter how harsh and complete my invectives, my mother would merely pause, look confused, then carry on as if I hadn’t said a word. My only option was to incarcerate her, if only for her own safety. I saw no viable way for her to escape the basement space, for the window was too small to allow passage, and the padlock on the door was secure. I was able to calm her just enough for Chloe and I to back out of there, and I locked the door just swiftly enough to hold Doris inside. Though she flung herself predictably against the door with an impressive wallop, the door and the lock held sufficiently firm. I felt a brief rush of accomplishment, and took a step back toward the front of the house, but that’s when I heard it, the “mother” of all screams (pardon my pun). It was loud enough to garner suspicion from neighbors, to be sure. Feeling very pissed off about the situation, I told Chloe to stay as I went back to the car and got the tire iron. Then I went back downstairs, unlocked the door, and managed to confound stupid Doris with a loud shriek of my own, which gave me time enough to whack her hard over the head with that tire iron, and she slumped to the floor unconscious (if she happened to be “dead,” well so what, I’d fix it, I’m the boss of this family now). But she wasn’t dead, and I managed to find some rope in the car, and I tied her best I could to the workbench leg, going around her neck and waist and making sure her wrists and ankles were tied together behind her. She was essentially hog-tied like an animal on a spit. Lastly, and most importantly, I gagged her with duct tape, wrapping it around the circumference of her head at the mouth, several times to be sure.
Chloe followed me upstairs. Unlike Doris, she followed my simple commands to the letter, with no resistance, no forgetting, no lack of respect for my authority. All I needed to say was “stay behind me, stay quiet, stay calm,” and it was done. I led her up to her still-disheveled room and we sat on her bed next to each other. In that precious moment we sat together in silence. I savored the peace, unafraid of my new responsibilities, but praying for safe haven nonetheless.
I then gathered my thoughts, to take a systematic account of the situation, and the mere methodology of this I must admit was quite strange to me, for I rarely had to assimilate so much new information, and never stuff like this that bore so much weight. Where had I taken myself? Foremost in my mind were the differences between my Chloe and Doris. How could Chloe fall under my thrall with such apparent ease, whilst my mother had proven such a handful? It couldn’t just be ascribed to their personalities in life, I decided, since I had butted heads so strongly with them both. If my relationship with their “first lives” had anything to do with it, then not only Doris but Chloe as well would resist me, and need physical restraint. But here was Chloe, with every reason to hate me, her final living memory being me receding in her literal eye, as she fell from the rock face, certain as I’m sure she was, in that terrifying moment, that I was the author of her demise. But now, as she sat there on her bed next to me, I sensed no malice from her in the slightest. Of course she was my self/other, my Chloe, so one would expect some symbiosis between us. But it went beyond that, I thought, so marked was the difference between the two resuscitations.
Why would my own zombi mother freak out like that? The change may have root in how much she knew, for my mother had seen Chloe dead, then seen her subsequently brought back to life. But why would this simple realization have such import? I harkened back to something Mr. Spellman had told me in his class, on that fateful day before the rock face. A veritable fountain of general knowledge, Mr. Spellman had augmented my Vodou reading with a fact I hadn’t known, but now seemed pertinent in the extreme. In my mind I heard his voice, gentle and calm, reciting… “zombies need guidance from the priest, or else they go insane, because they’ve known the nothingness of death.” The nothingness of death. There was a phrase to repeat to oneself. I did this silently, of course, so as not to alarm Chloe. But it occurred to me, our denial of this thing called Death is wired hard into all of us. We deal with our own mortality by banishing it from our thoughts, so much so that it doesn’t even exist.
Now I can hear the veritable chorus of you that disagree with me, those who say that we live under the pall of Death every day. But this can’t be true. Why else would humans invent religion, invent a God, invent an afterlife, invent all these artificial pacifiers to the one and only great Truth that we all suffer unto? Because we don’t want to know It. We feel this denial so strongly that it permeates our every cell, and allows us to live without the every-lasting torment that otherwise would surely occur.
But this essential denial was lost to Doris. It had fallen from her spectacularly, and hard. She was thrust into grieving for her favorite beloved offspring, and then, to add insult, the offspring returned as an unholy monster, unreal, an insult and a joke that couldn’t possibly be. None of this, Doris’ infernal process, had happened to Chloe, who had merely perished, was brought back in love, and that was all. Doris had screamed in horror, then had fallen into that scream. She had seen too much. She knew the true nature of Death. No one should have to suffer that. None of us really do, much less come back from it. Mr. Spellman had predicted it with an aplomb that now seemed so cold. Doris hadn’t received the proper guidance, for how was I supposed to provide it? How could anyone? Mystery and events had all accumulated far too quickly, from Chloe’s death, to Doris’ grief, to her ultimate knowing. The result was inevitable. Doris had gone insane.
I turned my attention to the one person I could control, and guide, and redeem. My beautiful self/other, my Chloe, sitting next to me, a pore-covered canvas anticipating the light. For the first time since she became new, I spoke to her not in commands. I spoke to her as my sister.
“This is your room,” I said, not knowing if she would, or could, remember. Chloe shifted her head a little toward me as I spoke, but held no expression, and did nothing else. Like you would do with a small child or a pet, I deemed to speak with her as if she was cognizant.
“I’m sorry I messed it up,” I continued, “but you understand. I was angry. But I could never stay mad at you for long. I love you, Chloe. You’re my sister.” Chloe just continued her empty gaze, and I persisted in acting as if all was well. Then I turned my questioning back to an issue that had been postponed in all the agitation.
“You’re very strong. I mean physically, the way you lifted our mother off the ground like that, with just one arm.” I had a theory about this, so I told her. “Maybe you don’t feel pain yet, so you’re strong. Our mother didn’t seem to feel pain, so maybe you don’t either.” It seemed plausible enough. It was a lot to ask of the dead for them to come back inviolate.
But all this was just small talk compared to what I was really getting to. It was time to take the next step, it was time to ask Chloe a question, and no small one at that.
“Do you remember James?”
Chloe did not react even in the slightest. It was too soon. I told Chloe to lie down and go to sleep, and she did. I watched her for a minute before I left her there alone. I trusted her completely. And it wasn’t even until I woke up suddenly in the middle of the same night alone that I considered what Chloe had done.
She had thrown our mother down the stairs.