‘What the Dead Are For’, Terry Grimwood

Artwork by Djibril

 [ Marscape: image (cc) 2005 Djibril ] Heaven, it seemed, was a graveyard, a vast hillside necropolis, a cityscape of a million, million tombstones that stretched away and out of sight to the left and to the right.

The funereal slope itself swept down to a river-edged strip of lush forest, beyond that was a monotonous ochre plain. Beyond the plain were mountains. There was no sign of God, or of any angels, prophets, or even the humblest doorkeeper in the House of the Lord. And except for a relentless wind-sigh, there was silence.

A man of lesser faith than Pastor Robert "Bob" Williamson, freshly resurrected and brushing grave-sand from his Sunday Preaching suit, might have wondered if this was that Other Place. But Williamson's convictions were strong. He had claimed Jesus as his saviour when he was nine years old and was sure of his Heavenly Reward. Hell was for the unbeliever and idolater and he certainly wasn't one of those.

Fully dusted, Williamson straightened his tie, tucked his Bible under his arm and wondered what he was supposed to do now. There was no sign, no guiding light, only an impassive, brown-stained sky and that eternal breeze gusting between the tombstones and troubling the dusty sand.

Williamson considered the forest, and the river, which shimmered with seductive promises of rest and ease—

And wrenched himself about to face the hill. Sixty-one years in the Good Fight had taught Williamson to beware of anything that shimmered and promised ease. The hard, narrow way was always best. So he stood rock still and, as the wind sprinkled dust in his face, traced the tombstone-fanged slope to its distant crest.

Now that was a narrow, hard way, which meant it must be the Right Way, the path to the Celestial City, the New Jerusalem.

Williamson began his ascent.

He was a tall, broad-shouldered and, even in death, handsome man. His jaw was square, his silver hair leonine. A heart attack had brought him to this place but, apart from that one fatal flaw, he had been fit and healthy. His progress here, however, was slow. The soft sand made walking difficult.

A cry for help stopped him, the voice old and querulous. Not wanting to pass by on the other side, Williamson left the narrow way and after a brief search came upon an empty grave guarded by a tilted, wind-scoured headstone. A figure in a dark, tattered dress lay at the bottom, struggling feebly among the remains of a broken coffin.

"Are you okay?" Williamson asked.

"Why the hell should I be okay?" the figure answered. "Jest fallen into someone's grave and can't git out."

The woman looked up and Williamson felt the first breath of panic. Her face was mostly skull. One eye stared hugely from its bony socket. She was badly hurt and he didn't know any emergency aid.

"Hey, fella, you gonna help me or stand there gawkin' fer the rest of the day?"

"Sure, sorry, here give me your hand." Williamson dropped to his knees, reached down into the grave and felt bony fingers close about his own. Her flesh was dust-dry. When he pulled, that flesh slid horribly over bone in a way that flesh should never slide.

"Not so hard you damned idiot. You'll pull ma hand clean off."

Williamson mumbled his apologies, then got a grip on her arm. The old lady wasn't heavy. In fact she was too light. Williamson scooped her up as best he could, and finally managed to wrestle her to freedom. She felt like a mouldering sack of bones and when Williamson had settled her against the nearest convenient tombstone, he saw that she was a mouldering sack of bones. Tatters of cloth and flesh hung from her gaunt frame.

"What're you starin' at?" she demanded. "Never sin a dead person before?" She cackled, the sound obscene. "Take a look in a mirror fella, and you'll have sin two in one day."

"Is this Heaven?" Williamson asked.

"Heaven? What would an unrepentant old whore like me be doin' in a nice place like that?"

She had a point. Maybe, then, this was some kind of turnpike in eternity, where the sheep and goats were sorted. Odd, Williamson mused, that scripture doesn't mention it, unless it got missed when they translated the original Greek and Hebrew. And if they got that wrong...

"Fact is," the old woman said. "This is Mars."

"Mars? This can't be Mars—"

"See that there star up there?"

Williamson followed her skeletal, sky-aimed finger. The light was fading and the first stars were alight. One was brighter, and bluer than the rest.

"That's Earth. Looks nice don't it, twinkling away up there."

"No, no, you're wrong." Panicked and angry, Williamson opened his Bible. "Look, it says here -".

"Don't care what it says in there. Mars is where the dead go." She folded her arms and cocked her head on one side. What skin remained was darkened and stretched tight over her skull. The eye in the denuded half glared fiercely. "Now you listen to me fella," she said firmly. "I fell into that there grave because I spied you toilin' up this hill when you should be joinin' the rest of the dead folks in those woods. That's where we're supposed to rest from life's labours and wait for our time. I was comin' to warn you like I warn all the other fools that try climbin' their way to Heaven or Valhalla or Nirvana or wherever the hell they think they're goin'"

Aha, so now the truth was out. "Bob" Williamson, former Pastor of Hartville County Evangelical Church drew himself to his full height and roared; "Get thee behind me Satan!"

"Ah, quit that. I ain't Satan no more'n you are. Feel that breeze? It's a beautiful thing, that breeze. When your time comes it blows your dust to the stars. It's what the dead are for, see, to feed the livin'."

"But I've been saved by the blood of Christ. Heaven is my Home, not the stars."

"Look, fella, it's dangerous up there. Lot of folk'll stop at nothin' to reach their heaven, or stay alive here forever. They turn to Stealin' and Stealers ain't nice things to meet."

Williamson straightened himself, squared his shoulders and jutted his jaw. "I will not give up the fight. I, madam, am bound for the bosom of the Saviour."

"You'll be back," the old lady called out as Williamson strode onwards to Glory. "Even if the wind has to blow you!"

The graveyard was not entirely Christian. Crosses mingled with Stars of David and Islamic crescent moons. There were the remains of pyres too, some long cooled, others smoking, and in the distance, one blazed brightly. At one point, Williamson came upon the charred remains of an ancient-looking ship beached amongst the mausoleums and weeping angels. He noticed cave entrances with rolled away stones and as he progressed up the slope, the distant tip of something that could have been a pyramid appeared over the shoulder of the hill. Well, cosmopolitan it might be, but only one set of people would be welcome in the Father's House. And, praise God, he was part of that set.

 [ Stealer: image (cc) 2005 Djibril ] Meeting the old woman had disturbed him, however, because she was obviously undergoing the physical dissolution of the dead, a dry, mummified kind of dissolution. She had talked of dust and it looked like that's what you became if you didn't make it up this hill in time.

Night came quickly and two small moons rose to spill silver onto the harsh landscape. The sky blazed with stars, but it was that troubling sapphire orb that drew Williamson's eye and transfixed him for long moments.

"Don't give into it my friend," came a soft, heavily accented voice. Williamson turned to see a slight-built figure struggling towards him from amongst the tombstones. He held out his hand.

"Pastor Robert Williamson," Williamson said. "Please to meet you sir."

"Jamal Khalib." Jamal's handshake was strong, sincere. Bones moved alarmingly beneath the skin and Williamson was glad of the dark because he had no wish to see anymore dissolution tonight.

"A word of wisdom to a fellow traveller," Jamal continued. "Keep your eye on Paradise, not Earth."

"Amen to that Mr Khalib."

"Ah, but she is beautiful don't you think?"

"Heaven will be better. Are you on the road to Heaven Mr Khalib?"

"I am. Soon I will look upon the face of Allah."

Allah? Not Jesus Christ? Words failed Williamson. Not many Hartville County folk had worshipped Allah. And besides, worshippers of Allah were damned weren't they? Awkwardly, Williamson cleared his throat and made his excuses.

"But it is not safe to travel alone," Jamal said.

"I'm sorry," Williamson answered. "But our paths are too far apart." And I don't want to be there when the Lord casts you into the Outer Darkness, he added silently.

"The paths of the faithful are never far apart. If you must go, go in peace."

"Uh... Thank... thank you Mr Khalib. God bless you. I'll pray for you."

Williamson strode away, then stopped. He glanced back to see the shadow named Jamal shuffling torturously from tombstone to tombstone. For a moment, Williamson was torn. Surely it was his Christian duty to help his fellow man. But hadn't he spent a lifetime doing just that? And did this actually count as lifetime? He sighed, and slowly, wearily returned to the narrow way. Surely there was nothing he could do for Jamal now. The man had chosen the false path of Islam. Better for him to crumble to dust than face God's judgement.

And on blew the wind. A caressing, softly whispering wind. A wind that curled itself about Williamson's soul and slid, electric, over his failing flesh. A wind that urged him to rest, to lie down and wait.

In the morning, just after sunrise, there were screams.

It turned out that they belonged to a young, fair-haired, women clutching a bundle of rags and huddled against the flank of an elaborate, angel-covered mausoleum. There was a second woman, black, elegant, all-but naked and brandishing an arm-length bone at a man with mismatched limbs and patchwork skin.

Stolen skin.

Wondering why he'd again strayed from his path to become embroiled in the affairs of the unregenerate, Williamson weighed a large rock in his right fist. He didn't remember picking it up. He only knew that he had to act, now, quickly. He lifted his arm, the movement slowed and laboured, as if he was moving through the sludge of a bad dream.

The man, the Stealer, darted in. The black woman struck out awkwardly with the bone club. The man ducked under her swing and grabbed her wrist. The bone fell from her hand. The Stealer hit her and she crumpled to the ground, hands over her face. The fair woman's screams became a hysterical shriek as the Stealer grabbed at one of the black woman's legs and began yanking and twisting.

"Here!" yelled Williamson, his voice more rasp than shout. The Stealer spun round and Williamson threw the rock, as hard as his weakening arm would allow. Baseball had been his idolatry. Shards of stolen flesh and rotting skull fountained. The Stealer lurched backwards, but didn't fall. Instead he picked up a rock of his own.

"Mind your own damn business," he snarled as he bore down on Williamson, who backed away, hunting desperately for another missile. Then it was too late because he was down and the Stealer was pounding at his face and chest with his rock. Williamson covered his head, felt ribs crack, flesh split. "Mind-your-own-damned-bus-i-ness" the Stealer chanted in time to each blow.

Then reared, twisted away from his work and staggered off to one side. Williamson heard the dull thud-thudding of rocks on flesh. He lifted himself awkwardly onto his elbows in time to see the Stealer retreat under a hail of stones hurled by the black woman and a gleamingly bald, middle-aged man with spectacles and a viciously accurate delivery.

A moment later, the man was offering Williamson a helping hand. As he accepted it Williamson saw that his own had begun to wither. His rescuer's was pretty much intact. In fact the man himself showed little sign of deterioration. Newly dead, Williamson presumed.

"The name's Letterman," the man said brightly, handing Williamson the bible he'd dropped during the fight. "And I'm real pleased to meet a fellow born again Christian. Praise the Lord."

Williamson returned the introduction, Praise the Lord excluded. That kind of religious exuberance was unfashionable in Hartville County.

"I was feeling lonely," Letterman said. "I mean, there's plenty of folk around, but you can't be too sure who you're hitching up with. Breaks my heart the way most of them are fooling themselves into thinking there'll be a place for them in Glory. I mean, take the lady over there, that African Voodoo worshipper or whatever. I'm real sorry, but Jesus isn't going to let Voodoo worshippers into Heaven."

Williamson heard himself agree as he probed at his chest. Ribs were broken, but, disturbingly, there was no pain. Letterman's Lord-Praising monologue gushed on, his narrow certainties suddenly as discomforting to Williamson as his injuries, because he realised that this was how he would have sounded back on Earth.

Excusing himself, he set off to offer what help he could to the two women.

"Be careful," Letterman warned, making no move to follow.

That Voodoo worshipper was old, her abdomen a hollow curve, her flesh withered and peeling. Bones showed through in places. She said nothing but smiled her thanks to Williamson as he crouched beside her companion, whose face, though wrinkled was mostly intact. Her yellow hair was falling out in handfuls, however. The bundle she clutched so tightly mewled. Startled, Williamson realised that it hid a baby.

"How... How are you?" The question was lame but Williamson couldn't think of a better one.

"Fine now Father," she said. Her accent was Irish American, or perhaps just Irish. "Thank you for being so brave."

"I'm Pas...I'm Bob." They shook hands and the woman named herself as Kathleen.

"This is David," she said gazing at the bundle. "My little David." She paused, studied Williamson carefully."Will you hear my confession?"

"I'm sorry. I'm a Protestant Minister. We don't hold with confession, not to a priest anyhow... To Jesus, yes, but never to a priest."

"You don't understand. I've committed terrible sins and I'm scared of what the Blessed Lord will do when I meet Him."

"He'll judge you fairly Kathleen."

"But my sin is mortal. I took my own life."

Williamson reached for the woman's hand. "I'm so sorry... I..."

"How could I live, after what I did? I couldn't bring that shame on my family or myself..."

"But this is the twenty-first century Kathleen. Surely no one would have thrown you out onto the streets." Wouldn't they? And what if one of my daughters had announced that she was pregnant? How would my standing as a Pro-Life Pastor have been? The man who presumes to lead a church but cannot lead his own family.

David whimpered again. Kathleen uncovered his head and Williamson saw a tiny, curled creature. An umbilical looped from its navel down into the front of Kathleen's pale yellow dress. Kathleen shushed the child, then began a quiet weeping of her own. "I'm frightened. I need to confess. I need a priest or I'll be damned—"

"Okay," Williamson said gently. "It's alright. I'll take your confession. Just tell me what I'm supposed to say."

"I hope you don't mind me asking?" Letterman said a few hours later as he and Williamson trudged on through the graveyard. "But did I hear you taking a confession? I mean, I'm sure I'm wrong, but it's been bothering me Pastor."

Williamson limping now, and finding it harder to stand up straight didn't answer right away. He lifted his face to the wind and not for the first time wanted to give in to it. Then, from deep inside, the fire that was Pastor Robert "Bob" Williamson raged back at his weakness.

"Yes," he said at last. "Yes I did."

"But..." Letterman stopped in his tracks. "A confession?"

"I'm sure the Lord understands."

"I'm sure He doesn't. Frankly, I'm worried about you Pastor. God's a consuming fire, Praise the Lord. He spews the lukewarm believer out of His mouth. This isn't about understanding—"

"Yes, I know."

"Look, between you and me, I think we should walk a little faster, leave those two ladies behind. They're a bad influence. They're dangerous. You know, 'silly women, laden with lusts,'."

"You can go on ahead if you like," Williamson said.

"Hey, no offence. But we need to be careful. We've come this far, Praise the Lord, we don't want to fall now."

Williamson held his peace.

Night fell. Stars burned. Phobos and Deimos rained silver and Earth smiled her sapphire smile. Williamson was glad of the concealment. He had glimpsed bone through the back of his hands. The landscape of his face, visited by touch only, was angular, withered and unfamiliar.

Letterman sang hymns, and prayed, but didn't talk much. The first wrinkles were showing, and there was discolouration on his once gleaming scalp. The women had caught up. David mewled and Kathleen cooed comfort. This night was noisier than last night. There were shouts of hallelujah, songs, some Christian, others not. There was rejoicing and there was fear.

Let me have you, whispered the wind from the stars. I am what the dead are for.

The night moved, in a way that unnerved Williamson. Until he was sure that their party was being stalked, convinced by glimpses, noises and trespassing shadows. He peered into the darkness that pooled between the silver moon-splashes. He picked up a rock.

"Not much further," he called to the women. To where? he asked himself silently. My Reward and your damnation?

He set his eyes on the crest of the hill, on putting one crumbling foot in front of the other, each step, a distance covered. The twin moons raced for the horizon. Earth slid through her blue arc -

They came, in a flurry of violent, night-blurred motion, figures bursting from behind the tombstones. Not, shadow, or illusion.


Folding swiftly about the women. Screaming started.

Williamson shouted for help, but his voice was a torn rag. He stumbled towards the melee, hesitated. "Letterman!" he scraped. "Help me! Letterman!"

 [ Mummy: image (cc) 2005 Djibril ] Letterman didn't move, but remained a shape in the dark. He was shouting warnings that were blotted out by the roar of Williamson's panic and rage. Then, with a yell of triumph, one of the Stealers lifted something high. It looked like an arm. Williamson howled out his despair and hurled the rock. There was a snarl of anger, a shape detached itself, lurched towards him. Williamson staggered forward to meet it.

There was an impact, flesh on flesh. Williamson stumbled backwards, sensing that more things were broken. The Stealer rushed in again, another blow, cracking his skull, jarring the world. No pain though, just sensation.

Rocks sliced past him. His attacker went down, and swore loudly as it scuttled in retreat and merged, once more, with the roiling shadow-mass and the screams. Williamson looked back up the hill, Letterman was no longer alone. People were coming. "Hey!" Williamson shouted. "We have to help them! Please..."

But they hauled him away, back up the hill. He struggled and sobbed sluggish tears until the screams grew quiet with distance. Prayer, they said, was all they could offer now.

After a while, Williamson couldn't hear the screams at all. There was nothing but the prayers and hymns of his rescuers, and Letterman's "Praise the Lords" which had become a litany, a rhythm for each footfall of that final ascent toward the crest of the hill. From somewhere off to the right someone cried "Allah Akbhar!" From the left someone said "Hail Mary full of Grace."

"Praise the Lord!" responded Letterman defiantly. His new found comrades joined in. Letterman's spectacles were long gone, his face was the dried mask of a mummified corpse. Mine must be worse, Williamson mused. Bared skull and dried parchment. I'm trailing dust, seeding the wind from the stars.

Close now, a few more steps and he would crest the hill and perhaps see Glory, the Celestial City. Oh the sight of it, oh the ecstasy.

And the horror...

Whose was it, that heaven, if it even existed? Jamal's Paradise, Kathleen's kingdom of terror and shame, the Voodoo worshipper's demon pit? His own and Letterman's exclusive celestial country club?

Williamson stopped. "No," he said. "No, I don't want it. Not a heaven like that, whoever it belongs to."

"What're you talking about Pastor?" Letterman demanded. "It's our Reward."

"Reward? For what? It isn't what the dead are for."

"Pastor! Hey Pastor, we're nearly there, Praise the Lord we're nearly there!"

But Williamson was already shambling downhill towards the upper reaches of the graveyard. He knew he would never reach the forest and the shimmering, sparkling river, but he would reach the stars.

© 2005 Terry Grimwood

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