11:1: “Chorus of the Dead”, by S. E. Gale

11:1: “Chorus of the Dead”, by S. E. Gale

Dust motes moved like tiny dancers in the sunbeam that sought out the dead man’s face. They caught in his eyelashes, found his nostrils and touched upon his dry lips. His tongue peeked out and ran a thin glaze across his bottom lip and withdrew again, dust in tow.

Liza watched from the upholstered chair by the bed as the cat leapt onto his chest and settled into a sleek ball of orange fur.

The corpse frowned beneath the new weight. His hands slowly sought out the cat’s tail and twined it between long fingers. A small smile tickled at the corners of his mouth. Suddenly irritated, Liza swept the cat off Charlie’s chest and pulled the top sheet up over his face.

“For Christ’s sake, Charlie, you’re dead. Stop moving!” The sheet settled soundlessly over his vacant eyes and stuck fast to his mouth. It didn’t move with his respiration. There was none; just the twitch of his fingers on the mattress, seeking something soft, something interesting to the touch. His long fingernails scratched harshly upon the mattress. I’ll have to trim them tomorrow, Liza thought. She lit a stick of incense, though Charlie didn’t smell at all, and changed into her work overalls.

When she came home to their small house that evening she found the body of a young girl in Hannah Montana pyjamas curled up on the front door mat. Her open eyes were bright in the porch light that Liza had turned on that morning before she had left for work. Soft grey moths batted at the girl’s face. Liza watched as a huntsman spider scuttled across her face, drawn by the light-dazed prey. The girl’s eyes closed softly once and again at the sudden tickle of legs, before they resumed their absent stare into the middle distance.

Liza slipped her arms beneath the body’s neck and knees and struggled to negotiate the front door lock. The girls long black hair tangled about the key as Liza jammed it into the lock, pulling free a few strands. The girl didn’t flinch. Liza carried the dead girl into the lounge room and straightened her out on the couch. She was still pliable enough to rearrange into a pose of rest. The girl’s fingers stroked the thick upholstery once, before her hands curled like the talons of a dead bird. Liza sighed and stroked black hair back from the girl’s forehead. It was still glossy and smelt faintly of strawberry shampoo. Her face was achingly familiar; but perhaps it was only the sameness that death imparts to the human face.

“What are you doing here?” she said, dropping her backpack and kneeling beside the body on the couch. Liza expected and received no answer. She went into the kitchen to boil the kettle. She found the sugar bowl in pieces on the floor. Spilt sugar, rimmed by hundreds of tiny black ants, crunched beneath her work boots. The fridge door stood open; a carton of milk upended still lazily disgorged its contents. Her favourite mug stood lonely and upright on the counter, a teaspoon resting upside down within it. Liza ran into the bedroom and fell to the bedside.

“Charlie? Charlie, can you hear me? Charlie?” He lay still, the bed sheet she had thrown over him that morning bunched into a heap at his feet. Liza slapped his face hard, but no blood rushed to the surface of his skin. One eyelid twitched lazily and his mouth fell open. Liza gently pressed beneath his chin, crying a little at its coldness. His full lips closed over his teeth and Liza kissed them. Above them, a single blowfly hummed.

The next morning, Liza fell over the body of the dead girl curled upon the floor beside the bed she shared with Charlie. Her thumb was seated securely in her mouth, her other hand tangled in her hair. In singlet and underpants, Liza searched through the house she now shared with two corpses for any objects with which they could cause damage. She upended the kitchen drawers on the linoleum and raked through the cutlery and other odds and sods gathered over their few years together. She squatted over the sundry knives and spatulas, her short hair standing up in messy spikes all over her head.

“Anything sharp,” she said, packing knives into a shoebox; “anything flammable.” She threw in a box of matches and a lighter, evidence of previous bad habits. She turned the gas off at the mains and locked the windows. Surely dead fingers were incapable of fine motor skills. She laughed to herself and wiped moisture from her eyes, and wondered for a moment who she was trying to protect.

Liza gaffa-taped the shoebox and returned to the bedroom. Charlie’s hand had snuck free of the bed sheets, and now stroked the little girl’s black hair. Liza quickly stowed the shoebox on top of the wardrobe and rushed to the bed. She shuddered at the feel of the girl’s cold skin against her own warm shins. Liza slid Charlie’s hand free, taking care not to rip any of the girl’s hair out, and tucked it away beneath the sheet again. A tiny frown marred his peaceful features and Liza bent over him, studying his face for signs of personality. But his face soon slackened and Liza felt disappointment twist in her gut.

She jumped at the sudden brush of cold fingers across her ankle. Liza leaped clear, quick as a cat. The girl’s face, once turned towards the bed upon which her dead husband lay, now pointed in her direction. Liza felt strangely exposed to their scrutiny as she pulled on her work overalls. The nursery where she worked would seem like an oasis of breath and liveliness compared to the morgue she now lived in.

Liza thought she heard a sound as she locked the door behind her. Movement from the bedroom. Liza ran down the front stairs and hopped into her small car. It started with a grunt, and Liza wondered what strange communications would occur in her absence.

At work, Liza felt as if she dragged her guts behind her like a wounded dog. The smell of wet earth and growing things, the slip of leaves between her fingers as she buried their roots in colourful pots and passed them on to the next nursery worker, had once been boring, but in a vaguely pleasant way. Today the sun bored into her back and shoulders, burning the small scrap of neck not protected by her hair or her collar. She had forgotten her hat. Dirt had gotten into her shirtsleeves and rasped her bare skin.

Last week, Liza and then lively Charlie had watched a zombie flick. It had been late at night. They had been snuggled together on the couch, Charlie’s arm across her shoulders, a hand straying down now and then to tickle her breast until Liza elbowed him in the ribs hard enough to dissuade him.

“You’re a cruel woman, Liza,” Charlie had whispered in her ear, as a rotting teenager chewed through the side of a woman’s head. What were undoubtedly porridge or calf brains spilled forth, and the zombie lapped it up as the woman screamed and abruptly slumped into the dead man’s arms.

“Stupid woman,” Liza had muttered. “Getting devoured like that.” Charlie pulled her into his lap.

“Love’s like that sometimes, lovely Liza,” he said as his hands worked up her shirt and he muttered. “Lovely, lovely lovely…”

Liza looked around at her fellow workers. She watched a particularly sluggish woman break the leaves off the tender seedlings as she attempted to plant them. Liza swore as a tender sapling broke between her suddenly numb fingers. “Fuck,” she said her voice thick and complicated with unshed grief. The man beside her grunted and turned at her curses. His pale face was clean of sweat, his cheeks unflushed. At the rim of his left eyelid, a blowfly drank.

Liza dropped the plant pot and ran to her car. No one called after her. Bland faces merely turned to watch as she ran. She broke into a fresh coat of sweat as she sat behind the steering wheel; it slid beneath her wet hands. Her tyres squealed as she drove away. Looking into her rear view mirror as she turned onto the main road, she saw them standing at the end of the driveway, tools falling from slack hands.

The dead woman had only made it into the gate, before planting face first into the flower bed. A black lace thong tangled her legs together, and her mottled legs tensed and relaxed within the leg holes. The smell of semen was a bitter undertone to the fragrance of crushed yellow jonquils beneath the woman’s torso.

Liza grabbed the tyre iron from the boot of her car and ran up and down her street, suddenly infuriated at the likelihood of the dead woman’s violation. Surely she hadn’t made it all the way here with her undies wrapped around her knees like that? She saw no one. Nothing but a stray dog nosing beneath the bushes across the road. Something pale twitched behind the leaves and the dog ripped it free and jogged down the road. Liza averted her eyes and started tugging the dead woman’s underwear back up her thighs.

The corpse’s thighs were uncomfortably slick. Liza wiped her hands vigorously on her work overalls before she slipped her hands under the armpits and began to drag her to the front step. Across the road, a door opened briefly and Liza sucked in her breath.

“Hey! Hey! Can you help me?” The door slammed shut and for the first time Liza wondered whether she should call the police, a hospital; somebody who might have a clue to the situation. Surely that was what her neighbour would be doing right now. Calling the cops to tell them about the crazy bitch across the road that kept dragging bodies into her house. But she didn’t think so. The world had become so much stranger than the one she had inhabited a week ago.

The dead woman’s head knocked against the door frame as Liza hefted her inside. Liza winced, but stopped the apology that tried to leave her mouth before it was said. Perhaps her prying neighbour had his own strange visitors. She felt suddenly jealous of her own macabre secret as she dragged the woman into the bedroom.

“Here you go, love. Some company.” Liza made to leave and then finally, with an exasperated snort, tucked a pillow beneath the woman’s head.

There were more bodies in the morning. They dotted the front lawn and the garden beds; wet with the morning dew. Liza screamed until her throat felt as if it had been scraped raw with thorns. She heard a soft moan echo her anguish from within the house. Charlie’s. Then the woman’s and the girl’s. All around her, the corpses opened their mouths stiffly and yawned wide. They joined voices in a soft, almost musical cry that sent tingles along the hairs on her arms.

Liza stormed through the front gate and crossed the empty road to the neighbours’ house. She pounded on the door with both fists and heard the sound echo throughout the house.

“Let me in,” she yelled. “Let me in, for fuck’s sake!” She stopped to listen and heard nothing. No footsteps, no corresponding shouts or threats. She bashed upon the door again. Again, silence. She tried the door knob. Locked, of course. Liza ran her hand along the top of the door frame and dislodged a small metal object. She stooped to pick it up and unlocked the door.

It was cold in there. Dark and stuffy with the faint odour of a meal cooked so long ago that only a hint of normality lingered.

“Hey, I know you’re here. Where are you hiding?”

They were in the lounge room, tucked up under a yellow doona. A man, a woman and two tiny boys. Scattered about them were stuffed toys, a hairbrush, a feather duster and of all things, a bright blonde wig, which the man clutched between his fingers. She squatted down and looked at the man’s face. She recognised him from yesterday. A small tic counted time at the corner of his left eye. Liza checked his pulse. The woman’s and the twin boys’. She stood up and made a quick circuit of the house. There was no one else there. Nothing, apart from the dead family curled up together on the lounge room floor looked out of place.

“You were alive yesterday, like me,” Liza said. “Just like me.” The twins twined their fingers together in a cold knot atop the yellow doona. The woman’s head rested in the crook of the man’s shoulder; her painted nails scratched quietly through the man’s abundant chest hair. Liza watched them silently for a moment and then drew in breath. As she opened her mouth to scream at their placid faces, they opened theirs and that unearthly moan rose in four part harmony.

Liza retreated to the open door, aware of a silence made more so by the presence of other sounds that were usually drowned out. She slumped on the front step and looked out to the road. It was all just stage setting, now. Only the trees seemed truly alive or meaningful. Liza went home, conscious of the noise her boots made as she crossed to her side of the street; the whisk, whisk of her jeans legs as they rubbed together. The pounding in her head. She went inside and lay down beside her dead husband. Charlie tweezered her cotton shirt between his cold fingers and Liza sighed and pushed his hand away. “Just a minute more, Charlie.” She dragged herself outside.

It was true nightfall by the time Liza had pulled them all inside. No streetlights. The stars covered by a blanket of fog. She didn’t have enough pillows for them all, so she raided Charlie’s cupboard, rolled his jumpers up into bolsters and slid them beneath their necks. When she was done, she picked her way between the bodies stretched out on her floor, avoiding the occasional straying hand, and climbed into bed.

Liza lit the candle propped on the bedside table. She stared at the familiar crack in the ceiling that always reminded her of a young sapling, delicate cracks trailing away from a larger fault like tender roots. Liza wondered whether there was anyone left to water the seedlings at the nursery. Whether they would just brown up and die in their punnets. Or whether slow, clumsy hands would continue the business of watering and weeding.

Charlie slid his hand across her stomach and under her breasts. Liza shifted her hip against his, so they fit. She could feel the cold arc of his ribs through her shirt. But his body was firm against hers, his long legs socked into the back of her knees. A small hand reached up from the floor and Liza grasped it, mindlessly chafing it between her fingers as if she could impart some of her own warmth to the little girl.

Finally, Liza closed her eyes and listened to the small sounds of her choir of the dead. The scratch of overgrown fingernails on carpet. The dry parting of lips and the susurrus of clothes as bodies moved closer to each other. Perhaps even the dead have bonds of friendship, of love, Liza thought. She drew the sheet up over her face and sighed deeply. She breathed in an odour that now seemed to rise from the bodies around her. It was cloying and rich and as sweet as the mouth Charlie pressed to her cheek.

S. E. Gale is an Australian writer who lives in the goldfields of central Victoria with her daughter and a couple of feral cats. She has a BA in philosophy and literature and a particular interest in folktales and cryptozoology. Her work has been published in Overland magazine, Hecate, Centoria and other periodicals. She says:

This story is about grief and the feeling that the whole world should change when your loved one is no longer alive in it. In “Chorus of the Dead”, Liza’s world does.

3 Responses to “11:1: “Chorus of the Dead”, by S. E. Gale”

  1. […] “Chorus of the Dead” by S. E. Gale [Fantasy] […]

  2. Tim Ward says:

    I enjoyed your story, S.E.. I liked the twists on zombie tropes. Good work.

  3. Douglas Penick says:

    This is strange in such an uncomfortably domestic way and wonderfully done.
    Thank you.

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