The cicadas were overwhelmingly loud, here, tonight. The big windows and glass doors all around the house were open to let air flow, so the sound of the cicadas was everywhere.
Thom Peele, his huge hands behind his head, stared at the ceiling overhead and wondered if they’d always been like this, and he just couldn’t remember, or if it was new, if the cicadas here were louder, more irritating. He remembered so much, but so much of it was… dead feeling, like it had happened to someone else. The irritation of an overwhelming chorus of cicadas was exactly the sort of detail that would be lost.
The girl moved in her sleep beside him. She was small, and warm, and she seemed to be able to sleep through anything, cicada or bed partner. Thom could hardly sleep at all, cicadas or no, so he lay here, enjoying the warm air and the skin of the naked woman against his and… he tried to enjoy the cicadas.
She’d asked him, earlier, whether it was true that he was a zombie, whether what the other girls whispered about him was right. He’d thought about it and asked… had she ever heard of an ex-zombie?
No, she’d said, of course not.
Well, he’d said, then he must still be one.
She thought zombies were a, a story, something that they said to keep you from wandering too far from home.
He had shrugged.
The sensation of having woken up from something was so strong, though, that he didn’t doubt for a moment that he had been… something different, from what he was now. His former Masters and Mistresses would have called him a zombie; it’s how he would have described himself, if he’d been asked.
When he’d walked out of the swamps, two months ago, in a ragged suit and top-hat, it’s what they’d called him, here; but he’d been waking up, and he wasn’t sure what to call himself, now.
He’d walked through the swamp for… well. It was actually pretty easy to go back and recollect the sunrises and the sunsets; it had been just shy of two weeks, going in circles and falling prey to… well, to everything. In the swam, everything is trying to eat you.
Something had gone bad for his Mistress, in the wake of the war. New Orleans had been in Union hands since fairly early in the war, and she’d made some sort of accommodation; with the war over and the City men who’d fought it back in the City, something she’d done didn’t sit well with someone, and there’d been an accounting; first a midnight fight in the townhouse, men with kerchiefs over their faces and pistols in their hands, and then flight, out of the city into the bayou.
And at last the confrontation, his Mistress at bay, a man Thom could only recall even in his dead, perfect memory as a shadow, striking her down, seizing the amulet she’d carried that made her Thom’s mistress.
Thom had faced this man, holding the amulet, and the man had pointed west and said, simply, “Walk, zombie, and keep walking.”
And then, at some point after Thom had been walking forever, the dark man had broken the amulet, and Thom had started to wake up. He’d felt it, somehow, when it happened, something about the world changed, shifted, came into focus.
It was easy to pretend, now, that there was no magic involved, that what had happened was just another fight between political factions, that he was just one more of the thousands upon thousands of masterless men roaming the county side in the wake of the war.
The girl shifted again, in her sleep. She was one of the twenty or so girls who were the business of this place; they’d followed one of the great armies, during the war, and now that the war was over they’d found this place, this house just outside a town just large enough to keep them in business, and here they’d decided to make a life for themselves, just in the path that a wandering zombie might intersect with, on his way west.
Here he’d finished waking up.
Having a big man who said little and could stand still and look menacing was a boon to a house like this; in exchange he’d gotten food and a little money, and though it hadn’t been stated outright as a perk of the job, he had found the affection of the girls forthcoming enough.
There was a sharp rap on the door of the room. The girl sat straight upright, suddenly wide awake; outside the window, the Cicadas stopped short.
A muffled voice from the other side of the door said, “Riders coming, time for work,” and then moved on to the next door.
The cicadas raggedly started back up again.
“I’ll say again, this is a hell of a setup you’ve got here.” The leader of the party of horsemen — they didn’t wear a uniform, but something about the man said “long time non-commissioned officer” — sat in the big chair in front of the fireplace, though no fire burned this hot night. His boots had been removed by one of the house-boys and placed in the row of boots along the wall near the door.
He’d given his name, variously, as “Jackson” or “Washington.” Every time, the men nearby had snickered.
The dozen or so men who’d ridden in with him were variously arranged throughout the house. It had been a slow night, and the house had more or less turned in when the riders had come in; within moments of their arrival, the house was lit up and made welcoming, the front doors thrown open and a score or so of scantily-dressed women lounging about the place.
Thom was in his place beside the door when the men rode up. He knew, from the brief time he’d been part of the household here, that loose parties of soldiers on their way… home, west, wherever… were a part of the life’s blood of the place, that they represented a very welcome occasional infusion from the regular business of townsmen and farmers, but as the designated keeper of the peace it made him nervous, having a dozen and more armed men in the place.
The first man who’d come up the steps had found Thom Peel’s hand on his chest, and Thom Peele’s eyes apparently trying to look in at his soul through the windows. The brief standoff on the subject of the houses’s no weapons policy — Thom Peele, all six foot ten of him plus his top-hat, versus twelve armed cavalrymen — had been disarmed by the simultaneous arrival of the men’s leader and Miss Amanda, whose house, technically, this was.
Accommodation was made: the house rule was relaxed, allowing the men to check their swords and pistols only if they chose… and the men all chose to surrender them.
That had been a week ago. The men had shown no sign of either paying up or being on their way.
“Why, that’s so nice of you to say.” Miss Amanda, veteran of half a dozen campaigns and tree houses before this one, fanned herself and sat at the edge of one of the smaller chairs, doing her best to be attentive.
The length of the mens’ stay, and the bill they’d racked up, had grown on Miss Amanda’s list of concerns until it overshadowed all the others. She had become fond of quoting an aphorism: when you owe the bank a thousand dollars, it’s your problem; when you owe the bank a million dollars, it’s the bank’s problem.
“Everybody,” she said, “should have a cozy home to go back to.”
The former cavalryman nodded amiably. “That’s a fact,” he said. “In our case, though… well, once a war’s been fought across your country, you don’t always have a place to go back to. These boys…” he made a gesture with his head that seemed to include everyone in the house… “These boys deserve somewhere to go, some place to call home, now that the war is done, don’t you think? And as their leader, now that the Captain’s dead and gone, it’s my responsibility…”
The man was nodding along with his own speech. Thom, standing unobtrusively in a corner near the stairs and the door, thought he looked as though he might fall asleep.
“That’s a fine ambition,” said Miss Amanda. “Are you planning to take them into the West? I’m told it’s just the place for a man who’s not afraid of adventure.”
“Hmm,” said the ex-cavalryman, amiably. “That was my thought, for sure. But seeing the setup you all have here, well…”
“I’m sure,” said Miss Amanda, “That some town in New Mexico or California would benefit from the, the sense of security…”
“I’m sure,” said the ex-cavalryman. “But then it occurred to me, there might be some security needed, closer by. And not just… do you know, I went in to town today and had a talk with the county clerk, and do you know what he told me?” The man met Miss Amanda’s eyes and paused for just a second.
“He told me there was no owner to this property, can you believe that? That the last folks who’d owned it, people by the name of Johnson, had run off when the war broke out, and hadn’t been heard from… well.
“Not filing a claim on a property you were in lawful possession of… that’s not a mistake a man would have made, now is it?”
Thom could easily see, now, that the man’s relaxed, sleepy posture was a mask, that he was wide awake and watching for any sign of negative reaction to the news he was delivering.
Thom Peel, a master of the art of standing very still, stood very still.
Miss Amanda’s amiable smile didn’t even waver.
“Why,” she said, “I guess it just didn’t occur to me that a woman might file a claim like that and be taken seriously.”
“It might be that you’re right,” said the ex-cavalryman. “Which is why I went ahead and filed a claim myself. On behalf of you lovely ladies, so to speak.”
Miss Amanda looked up and met Thom’s eyes. He could see the grim anger burning there, behind the smile.
Slowly, he blinked.
“I will not see it in the hands of these… these Mongols.” Miss Amanda was pacing the length of her rooms, back and forth, ranting in a low, angry voice. “God knows, it’s not much, but it’s ours, and to be robbed of it just because the God damned county clerk would deal with him but not with me…” She spun and began pacing back the way she’d come.
Something about her made Thom want to do as he was told, and he was comfortable with that. Left to his own devices, he had a tendency to stand still and lapse into his memories and thoughts; it was in carrying out someone else’s will that Thom felt most alive, so having someone like Miss Amanda meant that his life was full of purpose.
Thom had had a mistress like her before: Mistress Vanessa, Vanessa DeCombe. She was the granddaughter of the woman… who…
Watching Miss Amanda pace, he found himself lost in the last clear memories he had, before the long, long stretch of dead memories: He remembered getting off a ship, wearing a sailor’s uniform, walking through the city, drinking. He remembered going to see a woman to have his fortune read, in a room above a bar, and drinking the brew she offered him, and listening as she told him… she told him that he was going to be mighty, a hero.
For a man who was a head taller than the next-tallest man he’d ever met, that wasn’t much of a prediction, in Thom’s opinion.
He remembered getting sick, that night, and lying in the room that his fellow sailors had gotten for their shore leave, and he… he… fuck. He remembered dying, staring up at the horrified faces of his brethren, feeling his body stop and his eyes stayed open, seeing, and he was trapped in the body of a dead man, staring horrified as his fellow sailors abandoned the room — prudently — and as the proprietor discovered him there, cursing the sailors who’d left a dead body and then accommodating and all sweetness as the woman with the cards arrived, saying that she’d Seen the death of a giant, and that she had use for his corpse…
Silver had changed hands and Thom Peele was carried back to that room above the bar where the woman had spent days in some sort of ritual, Thom fading in and out of consciousness; and then, at the ritual ended, the dead memories began.
He ran down them, because there was something about those dead memories that was unbelievable: The sheer mass of them, the length… He remembered that woman with the cards, Nathalie DeCombe, remembered standing beside her, ready to respond to her any command as she gradually gathered together the threads of power, consolidating an underground empire in Port-Au-Prince, handing it off to her daughter before she died; remembered the daughter, not the woman that her mother was, presiding over the empire’s slow decline, until her daughter in turn wrested power from her and grew the empire to new heights, taking great pains to convert many of her holdings to form a legitimate family holding, becoming a member of Society…
Thom Peele remembered the frustrated fury, when that standing as a member of Society, as a leading Person of Port Au Prince, had meant that she had to flee the city, the whole island, when the revolution came. Thom Peele remembered walking behind her through the burning city at night, carrying huge trunks containing mostly cash in five denominations; remembered her finding them a ship — a boat, really — and pacing the deck, flicking her fan.
Miss Amanda flicked her fan in just the same way, as she walked, like she was murdering tiny vexations in the air around her face.
“I won’t have it, that’s all.” She stopped, turned to face Thom and the three women who constituted a sort of inner-circle, met here to decide what to do. “Time to move on,” said Mistress Amanda. “It was never really our house, it just suited us. The west is open and full of opportunity.
“Amelia, tomorrow afternoon I want you to take Frieda and both wagons in to town. If anybody asks, one of them needs work and you’re taking the other one to bring you back in case it’s going to need to stay overnight.
“Tess, quietly, quietly tell the girls to get themselves ready. We won’t have a lot of time to pack, so we’ll have to have thought out what we’re taking and what we’re not.
“Tomorrow night, after everybody’s finally gone to sleep, we gather everybody together and we bring what we can and we walk into the woods, where Amelia and Frieda will meet us with the wagons.”
She looked at Thom steadily. “And when we leave, we will lock the doors and bar them tight, and we will burn this house to the ground.”
He could see a wide-skirted figure silhouetted in the wide window, behind the lacy curtains and in front of the ominous glow: Someone had not made it out, or had gone back for something. Thom looked around in frustration: There was nothing ready to hand that he could stand on to get up to the balcony — really a second-story wrap-around porch — and see what the hell was going on.
The cicadas were even louder outside than inside. It was well after midnight, getting close to dawn, and still the chorus kept up.
Thom had seemed the obvious choice to stay behind and start the fire. He was trying hard not to think about why it had seemed so obvious at the time, but both he and Miss Amanda had made the same assumption, so here he was: He’d locked all the doors and windows at the ground level, and then he’d set lanterns in several rooms, around the outside of the house, in pools of lamp oil, and arranged extra cord in such a way that the flame would burn down to the oil… about ten minutes after he set them. He’d been clever about the timing of it, so that the wick on the last was the shortest, and they should all go at the same time.
He’d jumped down from the balcony and gone around tying the doors shut with stout rope. He only wished he’d had enough to wrap several times all the way around the house, tying everything shut… and here he stood, watching one of the girls still inside seem to putter around her room.
He wondered, briefly, if by some horrible misunderstanding he had the wrong night… but no, he’d seem them all off into the woods where the wagons waited…
Thom set the big shotgun he’d carried throughout this whole exercise down on the ground, and picked up a handful of gravel: A suitor’s trick, from New Orleans. He cast the gravel against he window of the upstairs room; saw the shape stop, turn. The window-door opened, and a woman stuck her head out; Thom recognized her, one of the younger ones. He couldn’t remember her name. She was saying something he couldn’t hear, because as soon as the window opened he could hear the fire from inside.
He gestured at her, imperiously: Come down, come down now.
She looked behind her, said something he couldn’t hear… then stepped out the window onto the balcony, and across it, climbed over the low railing and simply jumped, right at Thom, trusting him to catch her.
He did, of course, but he was amazed, momentarily, by the sheer faith of it: She’d been so sure he’d catch her — that he’d be able to, and that he’d do it — that it hadn’t even crossed her mind to check or…
“They’re not there,” she said. He blinked at her in incomprehension, then decided it could wait. He leaned over, set the girl on the ground and retrieved the big shotgun; as he straightened, the cicadas suddenly fell silent. He looked up just in time to see the cavalrymen filing out from behind the stable, lining up one rank deep, carbine muskets pointed directly at Thom and the girl.
The cavalrymen’s leader — Washington or Jackson or whatever his name really was — walked about halfway across the ten yards or so separating Thom from the men with guns.
“She could’ve just said no,” he said. “She could’ve at least left the house, we could’ve got more girls…”
Thom stood up, slowly, the shotgun hanging in his hand, pointed towards the line of cavalrymen but useless, not cocked or in position.
Slowly, deliberately, Thom Peel turned his back on the guns and pulled the girl close, shielding her with his body.
He was just turning his head to see what would happen next when the volley of shots fired, the immense booming crash of it filling the night air, obliterating even the rushing sound of the fire which was now openly consuming the house.
Thom Peele felt the huge balls strike his back and tear holes through his body, like a many-handed blacksmith drumming on his back. He closed his eyes and waited for whatever it was that happened, after you were shot with a dozen musket balls: Death, heaven, hell. What was it that happened to former zombies when they died?
After a while, it occurred to him that nothing was happening after all; he was simply standing there, in the night, the heat of the burning house on his closed eyes.
The girl coughed, sounding… bad. He opened his eyes and looked down at her: There was blood streaked down her chin, and her eyes were open, staring past him. He let go of her, and she fell to the ground.
Through the raggedly torn apart front of his shirt, Thom could see the flesh on the front of his body raw, ragged and open, hanging limply away from the holes where the shot had passed through him and into the girl.
There was no blood, though, and the pain was just… a distant thing, something to worry about later. He took a deep, experimental breath: There was a rattle that hadn’t been there, before, but otherwise everything seemed to work.
The silence stretched; after a moment, the cicadas started again, deafening.
Thom Peele turned, slowly, the burning house warming his back now, the muzzle of the big shotgun slowly raising to point at the massed cavalrymen, who were staring at him, openmouthed.
Jackson, or Washington, finally got himself under control and shouted, “Reload, God damn it!” just as the first barrel of the big shotgun roared and the tight mass of shot tore a big hole in his body and he flopped down, bonelessly.
The second barrel went off, aimed at the line of men, and two of them fell, shrieking.
Thom gripped the big shotgun by the barrel, vaguely feeling his flesh sizzle on the hot metal. Empty, the big gun was a large steel club, in the hands of a giant who could not, apparently, die.
Thom Peele, filled with sudden purpose, stalked toward the line of men, who gave way before him, though not fast enough.
Thom Peele shambled slowly down the road. The broken leg didn’t hurt too badly — it was a low grade alarm, his body telling him politely that something was wrong — but he had to make sure the foot landed correctly, and that the two halves of his femur lined up with one another before he put weight on them. It was like a little game to pass the time while he walked.
The couple of days since the fire had made him an expert player.
The rattle in his breath was still there; the burns on his hands had scabbed, and seemed to be getting better, slowly.
He hadn’t looked at the holes in the front of his body; he’d pulled his coat over them and buttoned it up and had been trying hard not to think about them. Either they’d get better or they wouldn’t, and he couldn’t imagine what he might do to make a difference.
Miss Amanda and the wagon loads of women hadn’t waited for him. He didn’t blame them, he supposed; hearing the shots from the house, they must have guessed he’d been found out and killed.
Thom Peele stopped and coughed. The coughing fits had not abated in two days, and he had to stop when they came on because they interfered with his balance, and it was hard to get up once he’d fallen down.
When he’d found the women gone, he’d simply begun walking west again; it seemed like the easiest thing to do. It also followed the last instruction he’d been given when he was…
It was less amusing, now, to think of himself as an ex-zombie.
In any case, it was deeply satisfying to be following an instruction, even if it made no difference to the person who’d given the instruction.
The rattle of tack prompted him to move to the side of the road. He hated this; the road’s soft shoulders made the game so much more difficult.
He kept his head down, concentrating on walking, listening to the wagon pass, and then the next one. Eventually he looked up, stopping so that he wouldn’t fall while he was distracted; there were wagons going back in a line until they vanished around a corner, like something out of a dream: They were all vividly colored and decorated, and driven by people…
As he stood by the side of the road, brightly painted wagon after brightly painted wagon trailing past, he wondered if he was finally, really finding that he’d died, standing in the yard out in front of the whorehouse, and here he was in the hell of walking through the endless desert, with occasional interruptions of outlandishness.
The side of the wagons all said some variation on “Castello’s Menagerie and Traveling Circus.”
Thom Peel felt a grin begin to tug at the corners of his mouth, and he turned and began to lurch, slowly, alongside the vivid caravan.
A pair of elephants shuffled wearily past, looking as tired as Thom felt.
One of the carts pulled to a halt beside him. A man in a wide straw hat leaned out and said, “Say, mister, you look like you need a ride like nobody I ever saw.”
Thom Peele opened his mouth, paused. “Thank you,” he said, his voice croaking.
Another coughing fit overtook him, and he doubled over, grabbing hold of the wagon to hold himself upright; something lodged in his throat, and he gagged on it, retching until finally he felt something pop up into his mouth.
Gently, he spat the thing into his hand: It was a bullet, or a piece of one, a twisted and misshapen chunk of lead. He took an experimental deep breath; the rattle was gone.
The man had jumped out of the wagon; all the wagons behind his had stopped, and the whole circus waited as Thom Peele stopped coughing.
“Hey mister, you need help there?” The Circus man reached out to put his hand on Thom’s shoulder, just now seeming to realize how large Thom Peel was. Thom noticed the man hesitate.
“No,” said Thom, “I’m going to be okay.” The words burned coming out; the bullet had scratched his throat, coming up. “I’d appreciate a ride, though. I’ve come a long way.”
Thom Peele appears again in Big Top Eschatology.