Analee Kirby Kluge
“We shouldn’t be here,” I whisper.
“You don’t have to whisper. They can’t hear you.”
“But aren’t we trespassing?”
Lazarus gazes at me, his mouth upturned in a mischievous grin. His dark eyes flicker lure-like, enticing me. “C’mon.” He motions me to follow. “I’ll show you around.”
The forest floor is littered with human bodies. Monstrous cedars insulate us in the coolness of early morning and form a tent against a dawn we cannot see. They loom in stoic reverence over the silent carcasses, each one resting supine below. My nostrils flare at the aroma of musk and moss penetrating the air—a damp, rich earthen smell tinged with sweetness. Dirt and resin. We walk, weaving around the corpses and massive tree trunks.
He stops next to what appears to be the body of a woman.
Her face is empty of expression, reposed in the neutrality of unconcerned death. I shudder at her decaying flesh saturated in gray. Fear blows a cold breath on the back of my neck.
“Will we see any of them rise?” I keep my voice low.
“No, not these.” He waves a hand over the group we stand in the middle of. “They have more time.” He runs fingers through his thick, dark hair. “No one’s ever seen them rise anyway.”
“What about this one?” I nod toward our feet. The timber creaks above.
Lazarus shakes his head. “Not yet for this one either.” He traces a line in the air down the middle of the body. “See the hull crust?”
A crimson fault line, raised up like an immense scar, runs down the center of the ashen casing of the woman’s body. It begins at the crown, appearing out of the stiffened hair at the forehead and courses down the middle of her face. The line continues on, sectioning her in half, emphasizing the perfect symmetry of eyes, nose, chin, shoulders, breasts, ribs, stomach, and hips. At the pelvis, the velveteen crust splits and continues a dual path down each inner thigh and calf, ending at the ankles.
“Won’t be long before fracture begins.” He looks up, eyes searching. “See those there?” He points. “Those are closer to full-husk.”
I trail behind him toward the other group. Despite the decomposition occurring around us, woodland scents prevail. The slightest movement of air continuously filters through the canopy, bathing my senses with the sweet smell of cedar. I watch the breeze disturb the straw-like hair of a body as we pass—a scarecrow drained of color, resting monochrome against verdant ground. For a moment, I imagine it coming to life, crawling, reaching its zombie hands, clawing at my legs, howling out animal-like through the timber. The chill in my veins quickens my pace.
“Here.” Lazarus stops, standing over another body. He lightly taps the toe of his boot against a decaying hip. “See,” gesturing with his chin, “This one has cracked open.”
The line of dried secretions, the long center scab, has flaked and broken open, and the withered hull of decaying skin, muscle, and bone has cracked in two, rent asunder at the middle.
“Look inside.” He smirks, amused.
I twist my face in protest.
Dried and crumbling, the fingers and hands of the body have already atrophied, homogenizing with the dirt—dust into dust.
“Go on,” he says.
I take a step and peer down. It takes my brain some difficulty to understand what I am seeing. The old body has fully split open, creating a dark crevasse. Resting in the womb of the hull, waiting to emerge is another body, its skin porcelain with youth and slicked wet with the sheen of new life. I glimpse portions of a face—its eyes closed, serene.
“Ah—” I draw back, astonished, my heart beating wildly.
Lazarus laughs, glancing in. “Yep, there he is. Won’t be long before he gets his color.” He nudges the hull again with his boot. “The rest of him still has some perishing to do though.”
He turns and saunters off.
I am left frozen by the body, rooted in a dark curiosity. Lazarus calls out, “C’mon,” rousing me.
I lengthen my stride to catch up.
He looks back and in a quieter voice says, “This way. I’ve got more to show you.”
We come to the body of a baby.
“This one will be moved,” he explains.
“Most of the children husk in other forest fields. Here, where we’ve been walking, you see mostly the old and aged. But the children are elsewhere. And there are different fields too for the mangled and unbirthed.”
I wince and shut my eyes, fists forming at my sides.
Lazarus draws near. “Hey, it’s alright. Open your eyes. They’re well taken care of. The trees there are even stronger than these.”
I open them. The morning has grown brighter and courses through the branches in shafts of light like shards of gleaming glass. Lazarus is gazing upward, head bent back.
“The hulls feed the trees,” he says. “And they in turn, protect the husking.”
I look back down at the baby at our feet. The velvet fault line zippers down the middle, raised, but as of yet, unbroken. I bite my lip.
“It’s alright. It doesn’t hurt them. They just sleep.”
“How do you know?” I move away from him. “They don’t feel anything? Surely, they dream or have some idea? The change is so great.”
A fleeting look of incredulity sparks his expression, but it’s so quick I think perhaps I am mistaken. He slips a hand in his pocket, sighs, and rests a shoulder against a nearby trunk.
“How do you know?” I repeat.
Lazarus draws in a deep breath, exhaling, “Because I’ve done it too.” A pause, then another sigh escapes, “And now,” he nods and stares out at the timbered land that seems to stretch endlessly around us, “I’m the shepherd of these woods.”
“Shepherd?” I scrunch my nose. “But what’s to be done for them? Why do they,” I sweep my arm, “need a shepherd? If nothing’s to be done for them except waiting?”
He presses his lips together, dimples forming on his cheeks. “Yeah, in truth, I don’t do much with the bodies—except keep the elements from piling up.” He sniffs and scuffs a heel in the dirt. “In the fall, it’s the leaves. In the winter, it’s the snow. I keep them clear as best I can.” He shrugs and looks away, eyes glinting with pride.
If I were to write him, I might put a cigarette in his mouth. He hides a certain swagger.
“It’s just…so much death.” I fold my arms tight against my chest.
A loud laugh escapes out of Lazarus’ mouth, startling me. It crescendos, ricocheting back and forth among the tree trunks. “No,” he exclaims, vigorously shaking his head. “Not death.” His eyes crinkle at the edges, a smile spread across his face. “New life.” He laughs again, this time a quiet chuckle. “Let’s keep going.”
I follow behind unnerved, wringing my quaking hands together. Looking down at them, I stop in my tracks. “Wait—”
Lazarus stops and faces me.
“My hands…” Slowly I raise them. They are brindled with age spots, rippled with thick, sinuous veins. My knuckles are swollen, the nail beds yellow at the edges. I try to straighten my fingers, but can’t. “Look.” My voice is desperate. I hold them up for him to see, turning them over and about in the air.
His eyebrows rise. “You forgot?”
I cannot unravel the meaning of his question. I contort my face in confusion and stare down at my hands. They are as aged and colorless as some of the hulls we have seen. My ears burn with the shame of forgetfulness. I squeeze shut my eyes. Now, I remember. Now, I see. The hours and days and years of my life flow through me. The moments and memories pile up, building and building. Now, I remember. Now, I see. Long life belongs to me. These hands have held much, released more. My heart rises up, elated at the knowledge of who I am. Then, the wave of youthful vigor crashes and ebbs away. The longevity of my days comes rushing in. Now, I remember. Now, I see.
“Oh.” The word departs my mouth in quiet surrender—marvel and concession, wonder and weariness entwined in one simple sound. I am utterly spent.
I open my eyes.
Lazarus is looking at me, waiting.
“Ready for rest?” he says.
I bob my head. “Yes.”
He leads on. My heart is quieted by the sound of our steps.
We finally come to an open space beneath one of the giant cedars.
Lazarus lays me down against the earthen bed. Sunlight and shadows undulate over us. He takes my pale, gnarled hands in his own, dark as the soil and flushed warm with life.
“Sleep, my sister,” he says.
“Will you be here the whole time?” I feel like a child being tucked in. “Will you stay in the forest?”
“Yes.” He smiles down at me, then with a gentle touch closes my eyes. “Don’t be afraid. I keep out the wolves.”
Analee Kirby Kluge lives and writes near the beach in Jacksonville, Florida with her husband and three young children. Her speculative fiction and poetry have appeared in publications from Allegory Ridge, Haunted Waters Press, Barren Magazine, and in Raven Review. Find her on Instagram @analee_kk.