Happy Holidays from The Weeklings. This week and next to tide you over between chocolate and hangovers, family and gifts, we have zombie fiction The Cliffs by Eric LeMay. The story comes with a Katniss-Everdeen heroine and an embedded hybrid essay about said fictions. Including tests: true or false, multiple choice and choose-your-own-adventures. Today is Part 1 of our serial.
FROM THE CLIFFS, Mis could see the turkey vultures circling the distant plain.
Five, maybe six black specks hung in the sky, turning and turning in that slow spiral that meant death. A deer, maybe a wounded one, must have fled from the hills during the night and wandered astray. Mis knew the vultures wouldn’t circle one of the necros. No living animal, not even the scavengers who feed on carrion, go near the undead.
Never leave the cliffs, she thought.
She’d heard that rule a thousand times, from her father and her teachers, until she was sick of it, until it was just another rule among all the rules she’d stopped listening to.
But it wasn’t another rule. Mis knew that. It was the rule, the one everyone on the cliffs had to obey. If you didn’t, you died.
Mis crouched back down and ran her hand over the speckled moss beneath her feet. It felt cool. Its springy fibers bristled through her fingers. She blew a short sigh and went back to work.
All morning, she’d been foraging acorns along the cliff’s northern edge, moving through the crags and hollows of the sandstone, plucking the green and yellow nuts out of rocky cracks and scooping them into her rucksack. She loved the look of them, the tiny changes in hue, their crunchy caps. Sometimes, she’d find a cluster of them piled beside the roots of a tree or filling one of the small holes in the sandstone, looking like a lumpy green puddle. She’d see how many she could pick up at a time. Sometimes, she’d press them against her cheek, to feel their hard shells crackle on her skin.
Today, she hadn’t had that luck. She’s foraged this part of the cliff a few times and found most of the acorns that weren’t cracked or diseased. Soon, the season would be over, and the cold would come, and the nights would grow black.
Mis heard a quick scattering above her head and smiled.
But not yet, she thought. She looked up to see a gray squirrel spring along a low branch and disappear behind the trunk of an thick oak.
“I know you’re there,” said Mis. “It’s not like you’re fooling anyone.”
Mis stepped carefully to her side, hoping to get a look through the leaves. She noticed the tree was starting to turn. Streaks of yellow and scarlet flared along its green branches. Through them, she spotted a small twitching nose. She took another step, and the nose disappeared.
“You might as well come out!”
Mis knelt down and undid the strap on her rucksack. She fished out a few acorns, picked out the biggest one, and set it between her feet.
“Have it your way.”
She looked back at the tree trunk. And then she closed her eyes and imagined looking through it. She imagined the squirrel on the other side, upside down, gripping its nails into the thick bark and watching for her just like she was watching for it. And when she could imagine it, when she could see its furry gray body tensed and its tail twitching, she began to imagine seeing things through its eyes. She pictured the squirrel’s view: what the lichen-covered bark, with its grooves and fissures, must look like up close and how the uneven stones must appear from that height. She pictured the mottled colors on the leaves, the pale yellow splotches and brown stains, the thin veins that spread outward from the stems.
And then she pictured the acorn in front of her: its hatched top and its smooth olive sides, the sharp point at its bottom tip. She pictured it until it looked real, until it shined in the noon sun, as though she could reach out and pick it up.
Then she opened her eyes.
There was the squirrel, between her feet, causally stuffing the acorn into its cheek. When she titled her head, it glanced up at her with a look that seemed to say, “What? Like you didn’t want it, too?”
“Okay, tough guy,” said Mis, “let’s see where you keep your stash.”
She gave a little shake of her index finger, and the squirrel shot off to a nearby tree. Just as Mis expected, it stayed there, turning back to look at her, its cheek still puffed up with the nut. She smiled and followed it.
She’d follow it back to its nest, where she was sure to find more acorns than she’d gathered the entire morning. She didn’t feel too bad. The squirrel would have to start over, but it had nuts hidden in other places. More importantly, it would live. She wasn’t one of the hunters who would have killed it and skinned it. And besides, the squirrel could go down into the gorge or over to the southern cliffs and harvest all the acorns in sight. It was free to go where it wanted. Mis wasn’t.
This thought reminded her of the vultures, and she wondered if they were still out there. Probably not, but she glanced in that direction, expecting to see nothing but sky. And she saw them. Clearer now. Closer.
“That can’t be—”
As if spooked, the squirrel bolted away, and a sudden coil of fear unwound in Mis’s chest. She turned and plunged through the trees toward the cliff’s edge. With each step, the vultures came more fully in sight.
No, she thought, nothing comes from the North.
The North was a wasteland, burned out by the blasts and fires that had happened before Mis was born. She’d heard stories about it, that once there was a great city beyond the horizon and that it was named for the man who discovered the world, a man who came from what her father called “the ocean.” She’d heard, but Mis wasn’t sure she believed that someone named Columbus had really existed or that there were lakes so large you couldn’t see across them. She wasn’t even sure she believed in cites, places without trees and rocks, where hundreds of thousands of people lived in man-made caves, stacked on top of one another, like the hive bees.
But the vultures were there. And nearing.
Mis scanned the plain beneath them. It looked the same as it always did: a wasteland coated with dingy ash and wreckage. The gutted hulls of a few houses still stood, and running through them was the North Road. She could trace it because of all the abandoned cars and trucks smashed against one another, now a long line of broken glass and twisted metal. She couldn’t imagine these things had ever moved. To Mis, the sight of them looked as though the earth had once split open and God had tried to stitch it back together, tried and failed.
And then Mis saw something, small but unmistakable: a plume of dust that trailed upward from the road. It rose for an instant, then disappeared into the haze. Mis stared. She needed to make sure. Again, and then again, the dust rose and disappeared. Something was coming, from the North.
Mis turned and sprinted toward the caves. Something was coming, and all Mis knew was that, whatever or whoever it was, it wasn’t dead yet.
Question One: Essay
“It is always tricky, the question of whether to read an author’s work in light of his life of not.” Anne Carson makes this statement in regard to Marcel Proust’s fifth volume of À la recherche du temps perdu, arguably the greatest novel ever written about the inner workings of the self. In volume five, the narrator’s romantic obsession, a young woman named Albertine, “is believed by some critics, including André Gide, to be a disguised version of Proust’s chauffeur, Alfred Agostinelli.” As Carson explores this “tricky” connection between art and life, she calls her interpretive approach “a graceless, intrusive, and saddening hermeneutic mechanism” and yet she claims that “in the case of Proust it is also irresistible.”
You’ll notice that Carson’s phrasing captures not only a reader’s drive for greater knowledge about an author, but also an emotional desire underlying this drive. What we find irresistible, after all, is not for us merely a matter of knowledge. It connotes a compulsion: knowing fuses with wanting, perhaps even needing, to know. In this case, Carson imagines her approach will yield more than intellectual insight. She sees it as a means of revelation. Under the disguised version of fiction we can find the stark original of an author’s experience. From falsifying words, we can rake out raw life.
How useful is Carson’s approach in your experience of reading The Cliffs? Adapt your answer to this story’s specific characteristics: you’re reading young-adult literature in the popular subgenre of post-apocalyptic, near-future, zombie fiction. The story, featuring a protagonist who is adolescent and female, was written by a middle-aged, middle-class, middle-American man in the middle of he second decade of the 21st century. Make sure to address not only the role of the reader, but also the writer. Why, for example, would a writer utilize or “disguise” his or her life in a fictional narrative? Why not write straightforward nonfiction? Why not not write altogether or write something entirely fictional?
Keep in mind that your essay will likely be read in light of your life and, as a consequence, may undermine your position.
Mis tore through the undergrowth.
She leapt across the thin streams and gullies that cut through cliffs. She ducked under the fallen trees that lodged across the deer path. Her lungs burned. She could feel stray branches lashing her arms and hear herself rasping for air, but she didn’t stop. She had to tell the others.
As she came down the final slope, Mis looked up for a split-second to find the caves. She’d lived on the cliffs her entire life and knew this forest, with its smells and sounds, the way it hummed with locusts in late summer or creaked during the bleak winter, and yet she always had a moment where she had to make sure she’d found the gate to the caves. It was hidden in the folds of huge boulders and jagged outcroppings. As the sunlight moved across it, it disappeared into the shadows, never looking quite the same. It was one of the reasons they’d survived. You could walk within a whisper of the gate and, unless you knew to look for the seam of rust that marked it, you’d miss it.
Mis worked her way there. She had to move slowly, stepping on the flat stones that led to it. The stones were far apart for her. They’d been laid out for long legs, grown legs, and she had to struggle not to miss one. If she did, if she landed in the dirt and left a gouge or dint, she’d have to stop and hide her tracks. Even now, even with her desire to race ahead, she had to make sure the caves stayed safe.
She hit one step, then another, her moccasins landing squarely on the stones with a slight catch, until she was pressed up against the rusty seam that snaked backward into the caves. It led the way home.
As she started in, the air went cool and damp, and she caught the murky smell of must that filled all of these tunnels and fissures. The noises of the forest gradually softened. Instead, she heard the trickles of water that ran along the sandstone and her own heavy breath echoing back at her. The sound unnerved her. She didn’t like to think of meeting anyone or anything among these rocky turns. She could hardly see and, at times, she had to remove her rucksack and turn sideways so she could keep moving forward. Mis always felt relief when the walls began to lighten and she could hear the faint noises of the caves on the other side.
But before that, Mis stopped.
She’d spotted the second rusty stain, much like the one that marked the caves’ gate. It was also splotched and layered, caked with age, but it wasn’t rust. It was the blood from at least two necros that had somehow wandered this close to them, despite all of their precautions. It was also, if what her father had told her was true, the blood of one boy who had come back after curfew and failed to give the signal to the guard. The guard had mistaken him for a necro and done what he was trained to do. He’d hacked him down. Mis had never believed the story. The guards always kept track of who left the caves, ticking off their names on a makeshift chalkboard. Who was in, who was out. So the boy sounded to her like one of those things her teachers told them, the stories about how terrible things would happen to you if you didn’t stay quiet or if you lit fire a outside the caves. Most of all, Mis found it hard to believe anyone would be stupid enough not to signal the guard.
She pursed her lips together and gave a high, flute-like whistle, letting it rise and fall as it ratcheted down the walls. Then she stopped and listened.
An instant later, she heard the same whistle, deep and low, echo back.
At that, she dashed ahead. The light on the walls grew stronger and brighter until she could see the exit, a slash of light that opened from the rock. On the sides of it, she made out the silhouettes of the guards, the blades of their axes rising from their shoulders like tusks.
She recognized their shapes immediately: Argie and Cal. That was half-lucky. Mis didn’t like Argie. Not like everyone else in the caves, who thought he was so tall and good looking. He irritated her. He was only a few years older and yet he tried to act like her father, giving her orders or looking over her shoulder while she worked, pointing out her flaws with his big white smile. It made Mis want to smash his nose and see those bright eyes well up with tears. And Argie was always around, as though he had nothing to do but make things hard for her. Mis didn’t have time to deal with him.
But Mis loved Cal. He was older than her father and huge as a bear, but he had a way about him that made her feel easy. Every time he’d see Mis, he’d stroke his bushy beard and ask in a thoughtful drawl whether she was ready to join the guards. “How about today?” he’d say, as if he was saying it for the first time. “Your father and I could use you, runty though you be.” Mis would laugh—she knew he didn’t mean it—but he’d never let on that he was joking, and deep down she was flattered to think she could be a guard, not just like Cal, but like her father. He ran the night watch down in the gorge, the place that new guards like Argie called “the death watch,” because more guards had died there than anywhere else. Argie might give her trouble, but Cal would hear her.
“Hi, Mis,” said Argie. “You miss us?” He smiled at his own joke.
Mis ignored him and spoke right to Cal. “The North cliffs—there’s something—”
“What?” Argie interrupted. “We can’t understand you.”
Her words were halting. She couldn’t get out what she need.
Cal fixed on her, his eyes buried beneath his thick eyebrows. His face said he’d wait until she could speak.
Mis drew in a deep breath and let it loose. “I was foraging on the North cliffs,” she said, “and out on the plain I saw it. There’s something heading this way.”
“Nothing comes from the North,” said Argie. “You probably imagined it.”
Mis wheeled on him. “I didn’t imagine it! A trail of dust, I saw it, on the North Road. It was moving right toward us.”
“Necros?” Argie wondered, speaking almost to himself.
“The vultures were circling it,” said Mis. “Vultures don’t circle dead things.”
Argie shook his head, still not believing.
Mis turned back to Cal. “I marked it for a quarter mile. It never veered. Same direction, same clip. It’ll be here before the sun hits the western ridge.”
Cal looked at her behind that mass of beard and brow. At last, he turned his head and stared down the passage from which she’d just come. “The North?” he said. His question wasn’t a challenge to Mis, wasn’t even a question, really, so much as it was a chance for him take in what Mis had told them: there was life in the wasteland. “Well, damn my knees.”
Argie started to speak, but Cal rasied one of his big brows and shut him up.
“Argie, you make to the North cliffs,” Cal continued. “Get eyes on what Mis here has seen. And Mis, you best tell your father what you seen. He ain’t set out yet for the night watch.”
“What are you going to do?” asked Argie.
“Guard the caves,” said Cal.
Argie and Mis stared at Cal, struck by his answer. Of course. Always protect the caves.
“You two got legs?” asked Cal, breaking the spell, but before he could finish, Argie and Mis were on them, running in opposite directions.
Question Two: True or False
T or F
As a genre, young-adult literature panders to its intended readers by offering a simplified vision of life. It avoids the more ambitious aims of art meant for adult readers, particular the sort that strives for psychological realism and attempts to capture the complexity, nuance, and entangled nature of our inner lives. Consequently, YA literature shouts its plots, themes, and characters. The reader of The Cliffs, for example, will know that Argie has a romantic attraction to Mis, one that he expresses blatantly and that Mis blatantly misunderstands. Such a simplified vision allows readers to enjoy the story with a full, almost god-like understanding of its world, an experience that young adults find appealing, since they are at a developmental moment when they must figure out themselves and their place in the adult world. This pleasure, however, requires that the story oversimplify the very lives that young adults will eventually lead and the very selves they will eventually become. YA literature is, in a deep sense, false.
T or F
As a genre, young-adult literature helps its intended readers by offering an essential vision of life. It avoids the more obfuscating tendencies of art meant for adult readers, particularly the sort that indulges in psychological portraiture and devolves into emotional niggling and solipsistic navel-gazing. Consequently, YA literature blazons its plots, themes, and characters. The reader of The Cliffs, for example, will know that Argie has a romantic attraction to Mis, one that he expresses and she acknowledges in archetypical ways. Such a crystallizing vision allows readers to discover from the story’s archetypes the true nature of their typical lives, an experience that young adults find appealing, since they are at a developmental moment when they must figure out themselves and their place in adult world. This clarity, however, requires that the story accurately capture the timeless essence of the very lives that young adults will eventually lead and the very selves they will eventually become. YA literature is, in a deep sense, true.
T or F
This sentence is a fiction.
Tune in on Wednesday for Part II of The Cliffs.