Down the Chimney from Issue 88
You could say it started many Christmases ago. Some little boy with a list of things in his head: puppy, sled, baseball bat, tic tic tic. That thin pulse of thought that woke you up before dawn, listening for the clatter of hooves on the roof. I want. I want. A spondee of desire.
One night, in a nightlight-lit time past midnight, the call of a barred owl lifted Danielle’s head up from the rocking chair she’d fallen asleep in. Such a wild call, like round laughing stones clattering down a dark well. She hadn’t heard it since she was little, growing up in western Mass, in the little white house on the edge of the woods, the trees crowding around like old men. She remembered those trees here, sitting near the open window, cool air drifting in, a blanket on her lap, a baby on her nipple. A baby, Adelle, beautiful Adelle held in one crooked arm, and Dani lifts her other hand to stroke her baby’s monk-fringed head. The only trees on this street are saplings, planted in the middle of little grids of green. It takes one hour to rake. Every little house on this little street has a little tree and a square of green. Once more the owl’s call turned the night inside out.
You could say it started in a car, one fast car trying to go faster than the other fast cars. I want that lane, that space. I want your space. How much want before it crowds you out, before you become nothing but want? I want your space, I will consume your space, I will be your space. The I swans easily away.
Once she’d lived in trees, walked in forests, waded into swamps. Beavers, whitetail deer, raccoons, black bear. Everywhere leaves and roots, logs and branches, grass and fern and flowering bushes. Her parents long-legged and kind-handed, pointing. Look, wild strawberries. Look, red-tailed hawk. That was what she remembered of being Dani.
And later she was Danielle in college and shaved her head and tattooed her arms and stayed up late stayed out late stayed up went out went to clubs went to bars, ravenous for sounds, for new things. Look, in the back getting high by the bathrooms, the bassist for the Pixies. Look over there by the bar, you’d never know he was still pre-op. Look, look at that dark-eyed boy who works at the Vinyl Solution (actually owned it but she didn’t know), a record store next to a pizza place on one side and a Goodwill on the other. Look at his dark eyes, look at the long miles you’ll walk together, the days you’ll spend in dark movie theaters, the hours and hours you’ll spend in bed together being Danielle-not-Dani, the years that will lead her here, a scrubbed box of a house with a baby in her arms and the drip of a faucet and the hum of a refrigerator and sometimes, at night, when Jack is working or on the road prowling flea markets, sometimes that owl you knew when she was Dani turning her inside out. So much inside.
She’d thought she’d started to hate living in a box in a yard with one little tree plunked down in the middle of it, and then there was Adelle and Dani was wrong. So much need in that beautiful baby: it swamped and shamed her little wants. So much baby in her arms in her space in her mind. Beautiful inky-eyed, crazy-haired baby. So cocooned they are, so inside: the world swans easily away.
You could say it started in a landfill, a dump, some broken near-dead body stuffed with waste and pushed down into sewage, some wrong person wrong time almost-corpse turning in garbage, lifting a veiny hand, clutching a radiator hose, a broken chair leg, the coils of a window unit still seeping freon.
Oh but the world: things had been badly wrong for days before Danielle realized it. This was in late November, Thanksgiving break but not yet Thanksgiving, Jack on the East Coast buying old albums. She was at home with the baby. Six weeks old. Adelle. Six weeks old her baby girl and the days so mixed up in a lovely fuzzy way. Sometimes Danielle never got out of her pajamas. She often went days without turning on a TV or radio, or reading a newspaper. There as the dog to walk, too. And the baby to feed, pulling at her nipples, and to change and to wash and to hold and to love so fierce a love a bonfire flaring and settling as she drifted in and out of sleep and not-sleep, waking up in dark rooms, drifting off in a rocking chair, late afternoon October sun dying on her face the baby her darling Adelle drinking even in sleep.
She couldn’t just let the dog out because he would run away and get lost and she loved him, too. So when the baby was asleep she’d turn on the monitor and put the dog on the leash and walk him around the yard, close by because the monitor had a limited range. Around and around the house they went, anxious, listening to the baby breathe and murmur.
How quiet it was that October! And cold. It was day and it was morning and it was maybe early and the sky was an ocean-smacked blue and the leaves drifted down the empty streets. No cars. No sound of cars. Around to the back they walked, around to the front, the dog whining, nervous. Far away a car alarm started and never stopped. Where were all her neighbors? Around to the front. She was cold in her overcoat and pajamas. Bare feet in her old Doc Martins. From another life, those. Way down at the end of her street one two three stricken bodies converged. Four, five. Had there been an accident? The dog yelped and strained and broke free and raced snarling down the street. To protect her, because he loved her too. And she started after the dog and then stopped, baby monitor to her ear. What if she ran out of range? The staggerers six seven turned as if in slow motion to welcome her dog. It leapt for a throat. Put a body down, and all those other bodies turned and bent and fell upon them.
“Oh my God,” Danielle said. She recognized her neighbor Carol’s red raincoat.
And then a crackle of sound from the monitor. A thud and her baby’s wail and then no wail. But sounds.
When she got back inside they were bent over the crib and when they straightened their faces were wet and red. The old couple from two doors down but with their faces awry and the guy who fixed cars in his driveway, wearing a bloody Nascar t-shirt. Their mouths wet and working.
A month later in a houseboat anchored in a Florida cove, Danielle wished she wasn’t the kind of person who had been able to run. She wished she would have stayed, would have tried to fight. She wished she had not seen all those horror movies. She wished more than anything that she had not looked into the crib.
She had made her way south. Motorcycles, mini-vans, so many vehicles with gas in the tank and keys in the ignition. The dead were everywhere but so were the living. At least at first. They’d meet in Wal-greens, in Wal-marts, in liquor stores. Rooftops were good. She picked up tampons, vodka, shoes and a backpack and guns. She’d sleep on a rooftop with others and take turns keeping watch and she wouldn’t get too close, would move on when they started talking about last stands and last chances. Goodbye, rooftops. She kept moving South. Towards the water. Zombies hate the water. Who was she that she would have a thought like that as if it was the most natural thing on earth? Dani or Danielle? Did it even matter anymore?
Even if her husband was alive, they’d never find each other again.
And there was no Adelle anymore, and without Adelle there was no Danielle. Little thoughts tickling the edge of sleep that kept you alert to sound.
When you moved you didn’t have to think. And at last she was there: the Gulf and its beaches and off one beach a cove and at the end of the dock a skiff and in the middle of the cove a houseboat anchored. Surrounded by water. Just four people on board. They called to her from the deck and pointed guns and made her sing and hauled her up: Bob, Betty, Alicia, Kevin. The beaches white and empty. But plenty of time to think. Plenty of time to look South towards the Gulf.
From the roof of a Wal-Mart, Danielle had watched the dead. They moved through the empty parked cars of the lot. They were so slow, she didn’t understand how this could have happened. But so quiet. She looked out at the still highways, at the dead pavement. Already weeds muscled their way up through the cracks. Already grass crept over stony shoulders, leapt over pathways, swallowed up bottles and tin. There was fast and there was slow. But everything kept moving towards something.
The houseboat was in Florida, in a small cove on the Panhandle. The sand was smooth and warm. Danielle had taken off her boots, looked out at the houseboat, at the tiny outboard tied to a ladder on the side. She’d taken off her boots, tied the laces together, slung them around her neck. How far South could she go? A little further. Human figures moved on the deck, pointed and lowered rifles. She swam to them and they held out arms and lifted her up and she was surrounded by happy clamoring voices and so grateful she burst into tears.
In the houseboat they passed the time.
One game was Celebrity Dead. Bob said he’d seen Angelina Jolie eating the belly of a stripper in a club in LA. Betty was sure Jeb Bush was out there on the beach.
One game was I Miss.
I miss the Internet, Kevin said. I miss email. I even miss spam, he said.
I miss hip hop, said Alicia. I miss The Simpsons.
Joe missed the woods. He wasn’t from around here.
Danielle did not play I Miss. What would she say? I miss my baby Adelle. I miss her wrinkly feet, her clutching fingers, the fringe of black hair. I miss her dark inky eyes, the clutch of her mouth when she nursed. How she would cry with no tears.
But such things weren’t said. You never talked about your loved ones, dead, because they weren’t gone. You might say their name aloud and they would then appear stilt-legged on the beach. Even a baby, a small thing, torn apart, might puddle down between rocks make its slow way over the sand towards the tide.
You could say it started in the dark, in a sleepless turn of a restless body, a wanting. Wanting what? Not sleep, not peace. Just want. To not be this, perhaps. To be something else. Wanting to not want.
For a while it was good. No dead, and many Wal-Marts nearby. They grilled on the deck and played poker. Alicia was sixteen. Her boyfriend had attacked her family. Bob had been a University provost and now he loved Harleys. He was thick and gray-headed and did not smile but often laughed, sharp crowbursts of sound. Betty said she’d been an actress and that they could look her up on IMdB once the world came back. Who knew? She could have been. She was not plain. It was sweet that she thought the world would come back. Every time she said it Kevin would wince and go belowdeck with a toolbox and a bottle. They sunbathed and they wrote long letters to the unborn on legal pads. Eventually, of course, the dead arrived. A dull dark body staggering back and forth across the pale sand. Then another. There was some speculation. Did they communicate? Was it just a critical mass? A matter of time before more and more laced the earth? Or did they know where the human was? Did they know, and did they want to obliterate it all?
More and more. Alicia and Danielle were sitting on the roof of the houseboat, hugging their knees, looking out across the water at the shore. Down below, Kevin was trying to fix the engine. Bob and Betty were making a run into town for supplies. A few of the dead were wandering up and down the beach, turning confusedly towards the houseboat in the ocean, lurching towards the water then staggering back when the surf got too close. Nobody knew why they hated the water. They were dead. Why would water matter?
“I’ve seen seventeen of them today,” Alicia said.
Danielle put her arm around her shoulder. “They can’t get to us here,” she said.
Alicia nodded. “There were only five yesterday,” she said. “Five that I saw.”
Danielle was quiet. The tide rocked the houseboat in a way you could have said was gentle. Alicia shrugged Danielle’s arm away and took a pack of Marlboro Lights from her shirt pocket and a cigarette from the pack and lit one. The sky above them was clear and blue, full of seagulls. Danielle didn’t say anything. It’s not like she was her mother.
“What do you want for Christmas?” Alicia said to her suddenly.
“Today is December 17th,” Alicia said. “I found a watch when Bob and me went looking for groceries.”
Some days the ache for would never be cramped her unexpectedly. She rocked and held her knees.
Sometimes one of the seagulls would dive down and take a piece out of one of the dead as they staggered across the shore. If it was lucky, it would tear free a chunk of rotting flesh or a rope of tendon or muscle. If it was slow or greedy, a dead hand would move so fast it still made Danielle gasp, and tear at the bird, and shove it into its grinding mouth.
Alicia was smoking next to Danielle but not inhaling and trying so hard not to look at Danielle that it made Danielle ache a little and instead of saying “peace on earth,” she said “I think we could use a little Christmas around here.”
The seagulls swirled above them.
And then there was a body in the surf, one of the dead in the water, unable to regain its footing. Rolling up and back, turning, turning. Water-logged, eventually, and heavy, sinking. Something that could be stepped upon. How many bodies would it take to fill the ocean? How many before the dead could walk across the water?
You could say it started in the covetous gaze of a bright little girl, the daughter of a cleaning woman, as she stared up at the vaulted ceiling of the Art Museum. She’d taken three busses all alone to get here for a Saturday morning class in painting. I want this, she might have thought, thought so hard it was fierce tangle in her chest pulling her tight inside herself. I want this – air and art and space, to be it and be of it – and I will do anything to get it. Anything. Then down the dark stairs to the paint-crusted tables and bored teachers doing their charity class, their distracted glances just tightening the knot inside. I want.
One day Danielle saw a small airplane drifting south above them and she and Alicia cheered and then black smoke leaked out its back and it tumbled like a maple seed from the sky into the vast Gulf beyond. Maple, pine, swamp oak, birches threading the woods: she remembered being small in yellow boots and a yellow raincoat, holding her mother’s hand in a wet woods, staring at a beaver lodge, waiting patiently for those dark small shapes to emerge from the pond.
Not enough bodies to fill the ocean, surely, but how many to choke a bay? More and more each day. More white faces and pale limbs floating by, the skin splitting, the stomachs bursting open, the eyes watchful and the jaws clack clacking even as the bodies sank to the bottom of the bay, began to stack up in the putrid green water. The tide growing sluggish. More and more arriving on the beach. Staggering down into the saltwater. The seagulls whitening the sky. How long?
You could say it started when Hell filled up. You could say it started when a comet tail enveloped the earth. You could say it started in the laboratory of a well-intentioned geneticist. You could say it started in a Haitian cemetery. You could say it started with a pulse of thought, desire in a dead neuron, need beyond need.
More and more. They tried to get along with each other, they tried to pretend they cared. But nobody had sex and nobody fought and nobody really cared. Nobody talked. What was there to talk about? Christmas was a nice idea. They all had their private lists. But then you’d have to do something about it. And Joe was shooting the dead on the beach. And every day the water needed to be boiled, supplies needed to be stowed so they wouldn’t get wet. And Bob and Betty were the ones who slipped into town, taking the skiff out into the ocean and beaching someplace unexpected and sneaking in and coming back with batteries maxi-pads Cheetos bullets and drugs drugs drugs from the local Wal-Mart. In case of emergency. Syringes lethally loaded. Maybe Bob and Betty were fucking in the skiff. Maybe they held syringes against each others’ necks while they fucked in the skiff and the dead walked the beach. Dani had trouble thinking about much beyond the roll of the houseboat, blood-smeared faces lifting up from a crab. Joe, shooting, the rifle crakcracking. And the next dawn, twice as many. Alicia, smoking and pacing. Kevin, tink-tinking below.
I miss Thelonius Monk. I miss maple syrup. I miss spam from Nigeria. Is there even a Nigeria anymore? I miss my black shoes. I miss ice cream, I miss eggs. I miss ER. I miss the Red Sox, I miss my baby girl. More, more. Good night, internet. Goodbye, Taj Mahal. Good night, cell phones, good night doll houses and malls, goodbye Versailles, good night Petsmart and Blockbuster, goodbye Hank Williams and Julie Andrews and De La Soul. Goodnight, goodbye, goodnight.
And one night Bob was gone, overboard, swimming for islands, fucked in the head. They heard the splash. They called to him from the deck. And one day Betty took the Harley into town for more tampons and never came back. And one day Joe got tired of shooting the dead in the head and put the shotgun in his mouth. Danielle and Alicia threw him overboard, washed down the deck. And Kevin kept fixing the engine. They kept boiling water. They cranked the generator. They watched the beach get slowly crowded with the dead.
There might have been millions in the end, miles of bodies crowding the tiny stretch of sand. Uncountable. Kevin clattering around the engine still, hammering away. It was Christmas Eve day. The sky pale, lit by an invisible sun. Nobody could find the syringes. It was Christmas Eve day and they watched the pale sky bruise to olive to navy to Christmas Eve.
Just Dani and Alicia alone in the big room, the portholes gone dark. There was no tree, no wreath, no fireplace, no mantle. No Bob no Betty no Joe. They put Hershey bars in tube socks and handed them to each other.
Merry Chistmas, Alicia.
Merry Christmas, Danielle.
Dani really wanted to unwrap yellow boots, put them on little feet, hold a small hand in hers. Everything tumbled in her head. She didn’t know whether she wanted to have the little hand that was held or be the person holding the hand. She didn’t know whether she wanted shiny rubber boots or heavy black ones. For a dizzy minute she couldn’t figure out how old she was or how she’d woken up here. And then that moment passed and there was a narrative again.
Merry Christmas, she said.
They unwrapped the chocolate and ate it. The houseboat leaned. Kevin cursed and dropped a wrench and was silent. Everything went dark. You could telescope time and think, two thousand plus years for this? Christ died for this? In the dark they held each other. In the dark the gathering hands reached out for them.
The dead will walk until their feet are worn away and their joints crumble, crawl until their arms fall out of their sockets, worm across the green green earth until their skin falls away until their meat leaves the bone and eventually their bodies will drop to the earth and the green plants will grow up through rib cages and skulls. Goodnight to the dead, goodbye, goodnight. Not goodbye to need – the sheep will graze, the wolves will hunt – but goodnight goodnight goodnight to want.