Click here for Ekundayo 1/3.
The girl plummeted into the fog, and into despair. Surprisingly yielding under her weight, the near-skeletal arms which reached upward cushioned the worst of her fall, and brought her down quite close to the muddy forest floor. Hardly scratching her likewise, the chipped and gnarled hands of the dead grasped her only as tightly as they needed to, in order to keep her from struggling free from them once again.
Still, she screamed and fought and kicked her feet, completely unhinging one side of the jaw of one of the dead things after she had begun the work in their last encounter. Her thrashing went on for some time, in anticipation of what was to come.
But nothing came. She gritted her teeth and shut her eyes tight, body going rigid and tense.
One hazel-flecked eye cracked open to peer around, and though she found the horrific stares of each dead eye upon her still, their owners had entered an almost placid stupor.
It then occurred to her that beyond the range of her attention, someone else had been shouting as well.
The shadowed figure strode forward in a huff, a hand deftly tossing and then choking down upon the length of a wooden staff, which then rapped admonishingly across the back of one bare skull among the huddled dead. The butt of the staff squelched into the mud again as they each groaned and turned their necks, and then a hand thrust into view. Wrinkled, mahogany-colored skin overlaid with dirt and grey-white patches of ash waved back and forth as a finger was thrust into the faces of the corpses one after another, like a mother scolding her children. A voice halfway between its natural state of measured richness and the quiver of the moment's excitement cut through the dead air.
"Bad cawpse! Bad cawpse, all of ya. Treatin' a chil' like that what you be 'spose to help her. Now ya let the gal down, an' you make ya manners. Open ya hats now, boys."
As if by magic, each dead and vice-like grip on the girl relaxed immediately, and she felt her heels sink into the spongy earth below as she was at last let down. But the urge to flee was superseded by her sheer confusion, and there her bare heels remained for a time. She stared up into the darkness as she reached back into memory, and connected that voice with a name.
"... Gran'puh Cawpse?" She asked.
"Abeni, my sweet'aat. Forgive the old boys their behavior. Ya been so quick an' vexin' to us awl night, they gone an' got bothered... We been lookin' for ya." The sodden grass pressed to the sides around his knees as he knelt down before the girl, who was much shorter than him despite his hunched and somewhat shriveled form.
Just then, a light flared up in the figure's outstretched hand, opposite the staff of twisted hickory. It was a pallid blue light which emanated from little tongues of flame of that selfsame color, each clinging to a fingertip. They illuminated the scene immediately around them, and it cast long shadows upon the trunk of the old tree beside them. Sure enough, the familiar face of the old man with balding head and grey-tinged eyes was revealed, smiling apologetically at her. And flanking them, the old corpses now bowed their heads and groaned in unintelligible apology to the girl for getting so out of hand. She was sure of it now, one of the bodies had belonged to the old butcher's father, died last year.
Abeni had recently turned eight years old, and she'd known the presence of "Grandpa Corpse" in the village for the entirety of her life up to that point. He was the weathered old man who tended to the rites and the burial of the dead, both in her home and elsewhere. But despite his ubiquitousness across the edges of the mangroves, even to the edges of the cypresses, she knew little about him. Even the name by which she knew him was a title ascribed to the man by the observant and uninhibited youths of generations past. Of course he'd never objected. And now suddenly he was in charge of the undead, as well as finding lost children?
"Ya mam an' pah been worried sick about ya, Abeni. They ain't seen ya since the fiah, an' they clingin' to hope that you come back home 'afore sunrise, safe an' sound."
Her heart leaped in her breast as she heard mention of her parents, and she seized the old man's hand in hers despite the flames. They gave off no heat which she could feel, however. His lips split into a smile and he gave a chuckle in response, before nodding his head.
"A'right then boys, she be ready to come on back. Hngh..."
The joints in his knees and hips popped or ground softly, but the man rose back up onto his feet once more. The oxhide sandals he normally wore were gone, and his feet too were bare but for the mud on them now. The little candle flames in his fingers rose up like a group of fireflies briefly, before settling upon the end of his staff and coalescing to light the way forward. Hands held firmly, the old man led the girl forward, followed after by the quiet procession of the dead. One step at a time, they walked slowly, and the swamp gently opened up to them.
The trackless wetlands gradually became more and more recognizable, until at last they were on solid ground again, rising up past the edges of the flood boundaries where it was safe to build homes. The hard-packed road which connected their village to the next stretched out before them, leading them along the gentle serpentine suggestion which accounted for so many drop-offs or thick knots of vegetation.
She saw the whisps of smoke rising above the treeline before she smelled them. It blended into the fog almost perfectly.
At either side of the road, so many buildings had been torched nearly to the ground. Their wood and thatching had been damp the morning of, yet the stubborn spark which had begun the conflagration was persistent. Abeni saw the charred husk of her family's own hut, and the hazy smoke from its smoldering joined the smoke above. She gave a soft gasp and tugged at Grandfather Corpse's arm, and he obliged her a few steps toward that side of the path as they continued forward. Nothing remained recognizable within the hut's walls. All of their possessions were gone. But she didn't feel the pain of it, strangely- at least not yet.
Past that and other hulks they walked, until the fire's limits were surpassed, and the untouched buildings remained. They had been more widely-spaced, closer to one of the wells, and plain luckier. Abeni thought she could hear the snores coming from within them, as families swollen with homeless relatives staying the night tried to catch as much rest as they could manage.
And these too, they walked straight past. Abeni looked up at the old man's face as if to ask, but the old man's eyes remained trained on the space ahead as he gave the same assuring smile. He looked tired.
Finally, he came to a halt, and she did too. A moment later, after bumping into one another, the dead stopped as well.
They stood at the edge of the wattle and daub fence which marked the edge of the village graveyard.
((As you may have noticed, I couldn't hold an eerie note for long. But it was all for a purpose! Following up on Halloween, this post furthers the cultural mish-mashing by honoring the first "half" of contemporary Día de Muertos, so to speak. Happy Día de los Inocentes to all.))
Click here for Ekundayo 3/3.