The archway stood firm under the shroud of night, its heart spelled in dripping letters: Hallowed Cliff Cemetery. He could still discern the entrance atop the sodden hill despite the starless sky, through the rain and sweeping winds. The image had been blistered into his unconscious. He marched on through the marshy soil as if he could rid himself of it by way of physical exertion; or perhaps cleanse his spirit with heaven’s baptismal waters. He dared not stop for fear of sinking through the earth and residing himself to an unceremonious yet eternal tomb. Though the world would not make it easy. Several times he lost his footing and slid upon the mud before slamming the shovel head into the ground and forcing himself up, carrying on with stubborn consternation.
He wiped the muck on his pants as he passed under the arch and trudged forward among the aisles. Over the fresh and dying roses, the pink and purple larkspurs. Past endless processions of graves. Stones of granite. Stones of marble. Sandstone and slate. Some brandishing themselves to the eye, almost arrogant in their novelty. Others having been neglected for centuries, their texts gone as if washed away by Mother Nature for some unutterable slight against her. He eyed the years as he went, capricious, interchangeable; like philosophical tauntings from beyond, calling to him, demanding he decipher their unanswerable ponderings.
The shovel struck into the ground as he removed a pewter flask from the inside of his shirt, then took a swig and stepped to the grave before him. He looked upon the head with bloodshot eyes, compelled to take in the marking over and over again by light of Zeus and Selene; inconstant; uncertain.
Eva Meridian Mara February 21st, 1981 — July 8th, 2021 A Mother A Friend A Person Rest in Peace Could’ve thought of better.
He drank, then replaced the flask and stepped to the grave opposite. He unbuckled his belt and pissed into the sloshy soil.
“Apologies, miss — errr — mister.”
He flicked his member clean and redid the front of his jeans, then took the shovel in hand and returned to the opposite grave. With a last look at the stone, he stabbed the shovelhead into the mud and lifted a mound of green and black muck from the earth, tossing it to the side and splattering little balls on the opposing marker. Shovelful after shovelful. Foot after foot. He spent an hour laboring deeper and deeper into the earth, stopping at several points to pour water from his shoes. Finally he was done, breath unsteady, a salty sweat amongst the rain on his brow.
A great hole sat before him, four by eight in dimension with a depth of six feet, the lid of a dark red casket peeking out the bottom. He lowered himself in and dug along the side until he found the latch. A light hiss escaped as he undid it, like a snake warning him from its burrow. It drew his thoughts toward the darkness within. Toward the all-knowing nothing entrapping the poor soul inside. It struck him with what he felt was an unnatural reverence. A connection and understanding unique to him and him alone.
He’d always found an allure to such things. A morbid, yet uncompromising curiousness for the shadows — of both sight and mind. For the implications they presented. The universal and contradictory lessons that fed him without frame left him frozen in place, unable to comprehend what lay before him, regardless what his conscious mind would admit. The horror. The humor. The eternal void just below the surface of all.
He lifted the lid by a foot and shined his phone inside. He saw an arm veiled by a wispy white dress, stiff and pale like a cheap manikin. Spitting onto the earth wall opposite, he slid his phone in and let the lid drop, removing the flask and downing what remained. He washed what mud he could from his hands, limbs, and torso, then rubbed his hands across his face and put his head back to run them through his hair. With a final breath, he gave a glance toward the waning moon in the east and crawled inside.
He set the still shining phone on the cadaver’s stomach and burrowed his way next to it, snuggling close with his arm under the neck. His hands grasped the rigor, the penetrating cold. His eyes traced up and down the ghostly vessel. He imagined her origins, physical and ethereal. Tried to unweave the mysteries and intricacies of her being as well as those who’ve come before and will come long after. The marks of his existence and what it all amounted to. The incalculable sum rendered indistinguishable from its antecedents.
Rubbing his fingers across her cheek, he stared at the unflinching eyelids, decorated with red and black eyeshadow. At the plush raven hair, the light reflecting off it like stars in the vacuum of space, ever expanding, shifting further and further away. His body began to shake. He smashed his eyes shut and swallowed the snot creeping down the back of his throat. Tears of regret leaked onto his cheeks. A great breath entered his lungs and returned as if unsure of the vitality of its own purpose.
He reopened his gaze to the eyelids. He reached with trembling hands and placed them directly under. He moved to lift the lids from their perch, but shot back upon touch, reeling as if scorched by some invisible spark. His head hung, he cried harder than he’d ever done. His eyes, half drowned in tears, stared past the light into the darkness and beyond. It stared back. He clutched the body close, burying his head into the bosom as his weeps filled the tomb, echoing back into his shattered sense of self.
They Did It for their Freedom
The sun rose as they moved the slaves young and old through the gates of Cathartra. Off the hardened pozzolana and onto the crude, unkempt path towards the Anglo River. The slaves in their thin, ebony rags amongst the Cathartrans in their flowing, ivory robes. Two days prior, the former had taken captive three of the most powerful families in the land, raiding their property and moving them to the valerian fields in the dead of night. Just before dawn, they allowed one of the captives to flee, instructing him to inform the Council of Six of what had occurred.
The child dashed through the streets in his soil stained garments until he came to the council building, a band of warriors stationed at the front. Flamed with righteous indignation, the Council rushed to conduct an emergency session. Noon came and the slaves approached with the three families in their grasp. They did it for their freedom, they said. They wished to speak with the council and negotiate a peaceful resolution between their people. To raise the land as equals under Cathartran law.
The eldest seven were invited to discuss terms. For hours the soldiers stayed planted outside, watching the slaves with distrustful stares that were readily reciprocated. The tension pranced amongst them like a phantomed, temptress mare, urging them toward bloodshed until the negotiators reemerged.
The slaves were promised full rights under the courts as well as a mule per person and land at the outskirts of town; roughly forty acres per family. Men were granted entrance within the military and the group as a whole would no longer remain responsible for the trades previously forced upon them. Rather, tasks would be split evenly between them and the Cathartrans and training was to begin immediately so that all could become educated on such matters. Upon graduating from this instructional period, the two groups would come together as a single labor force.
The last promise was, to symbolize their status as true citizens, each slave would be taken to engage in the Rite of Till at the Temple of Kings. In two days time, a party of Cathartrans would lead half the slaves to conduct the ritual while the rest would attend the morning after. This latter group would remain in Cathartra to commence preparations as they awaited the others’ return. Once these terms were announced, the slaves released the families and took camp in the valerian fields while the Council called the soldiers in for the night.
It was noon when the first party marched onto the boats. Cries from the infants had been audible since they left, resounding through the ranks and vexing the Cathartrans’ ears the further they traveled. They docked on the opposite shore and continued on through the Fifteen Fields. Soon the slaves began to sing songs of torment and sorrow. At first, but a single child recited the tunes, though, within the hour, the entire party had joined, rousing a powerful chorus that resounded through the land. Though they spoke in tongues foreign to the Cathartrans, the emotions touched deep within their marrow.
The vocals continued as they entered Brown’s Forest at evening’s dawn, sentiments still rocking like great, granite swings from the gods. From there, the Temple would not be far. As they trudged forward, the grass and trees grew thick and tangled, blocking sunlight from their struggling forms. It didn’t take long for the singing to diminish and eventually die within the darkness, giving once more to cries of infants.
The Temple was dilapidated, overrun with vines and other forms of wildlife. A screech sounded in the distance as an unrelenting stench sauntered about. The Cathartrans looked to the building with a familiar air while the slaves gaped with mixed emotions. Even the children fell silent upon arrival. The Cathartrans led them inside, the lone source of light now the torches in hand. Hordes of cobwebs were scattered about the place, all coated in a clean sheet of dust, including the aged, yet dominant obelisk at the center. It reached near the very top of the Temple, inscribed with pre-Cathartran text.
The Cathartrans rested their torches upon bronze sconces as the slaves gathered around the obelisk, vying for proper views. The eldest of the negotiators shuffled to the front and roamed once around the pillar, sliding his fingers across the text in a slow, gentle stroke, pondering as if caught in a profound, yet forgotten memory. He crouched to examine the base, then rose and whispered in a vernacular unrecognizable to anyone. It was as he did this the Cathartrans unsheathed their swords.
Evidence was taken of their deed as a warning for those left in Cathartra; menial objects such as clothing, necklaces, and bracelets. Some then graduated to thieving sections of the slaves themselves. Eyes, scalps, tongues — even severed legs of the children. The survivors gathered their torches and trudged out of the Temple. The return journey through the Forest was cruel and arduous on account of their labor and the blood-soaked robes holding them down.
When they maneuvered their way into the Fields, there was but a single ray of sunshine glistening over the horizon. The last image one could see as it disappeared and gave way to night was that of their demented figures, united in a call to slaughter. Crimson shapes in the dark. Hellish protectors of their way of life. They stepped forward and left the Forest behind them, marching backward through the night. On toward Cathartra, the glorious polis they loved without condition.
Dylan Thomas Lewis is a writer and musician from Kirksville, Missouri. He graduated from Central Methodist University in May of 2019 after serving as co-editor of the college’s literary magazine for two years. He writes screenplays, short stories, and music, playing guitar for Electronic Rock band Secular Era. His favorite writer is Cormac McCarthy. His favorite filmmaker is Stanley Kubrick.
His first submission “Hallowed Cliff”* can be classified as Southern Gothic. The second submission “They Did It For Their Freedom” is an experimental piece loosely based on a story from ancient Sparta, mixing elements of Horror, Fantasy, and Historical Fiction.