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 II of our serial.
To read Part I of The Cliffs click here.
EVEN WHEN SHE arrived home, the blood coursing through her legs, Mis paused before pulling the latch and going inside.
This moment, when she traded the fears of what might happen outside the caves with the fear of what might happen when she got home, was never easy. She felt her stomach clench against it.
How would her father react?
Mis couldn’t tell. His face was as etched and stony as the cliffs, and he said about as much. Once, she’d seen him beat a guard half to death for returning from a watch drunk on elderberry spirits. And while the others had silently watched the fight, she couldn’t take her eyes off her father’s face. The whole time, as the guard swung and clawed at him and finally crumpled at his feet, it never changed.
He was like that at home, a blank. Mis couldn’t predict when he might sigh and ignore her or when he might erupt. In a flash, his hand could find her cheek and spin her to the ground. His word—even his mood—was absolute, and she and her brother had the lashes to prove it.
And she had sounded the alarm. What if Argie got to the North cliff, and whatever she’d seen was gone? What if it really was a stray deer? She’d be to blame, and her father would know it. For a second, Mis doubted her own eyes.
But she had seen it. She had. And, afraid as she was of him, no one in the caves was more capable of protecting them than her father. Mis pulled the latch and stepped into the house.
Her eyes took a moment to adjust. Slowly, the shadows formed into the familiar shapes: the chairs in a half-circle around the hearth that had been cut from the rock, the chipped storage racks tilted at odd angles and piled high with boxes, cans, and plastic containers, the three bunks lined up against the far wall—where her brother, ever since his sickness had come on, drifted in a haze between waking and sleeping, stifling the urge to moan out of pain. She spotted him there, a lump under a tatter of blankets, so much smaller than her, despite the fact that they’d been born together. Purcy had always been frail, but ever since the last snow, he looked thin and pale. And lately, his face twisted up more and more, almost like he was being stabbed from within, almost like one of the necros. Mis shook off the thought.
She turned toward her father’s voice.
He sat at the edge of the hearth, stringing a lace through the eyeholes of his boot. His fingers moved methodically. Over, under, in, out. He didn’t look up.
“I gave him a pain killer.”
Mis took in this information, which was almost as worrisome as her news. She knew her father had pills. They were in the lock-box he kept under his bunk, along with the bullets to his .38 and a yellowing envelope stuffed with papers. But she’d never seen him use one, not even when one of the bobcats took a chunk out of his shoulder. He just cleaned out the wound with rubbing alcohol and bandaged it up. If her father have given Purcy a pain killer, what sort of agony must he have been suffering?
Mis couldn’t ask, so she said what she had to. “There’s something alive coming toward us on the North Road.”
Her father stopped lacing his boot and looked up.
“I saw it when I was out foraging,” she went on hurriedly. “I told Cal. He sent Argie out to watch for it and me to get you. He’s still at the gate.”
He father stared at her, hard. Mis could feel his eyes bore into her.
“You sure?” he finally said.
Mis felt her mouth go dry. “I’m sure.”
“You better be,” he said and went back to lacing his boot. He didn’t ask anything else, and Mis didn’t offer, not until he’d laced up, grabbed his pack, and started out of the door, then she asked—she couldn’t help herself from asking—“Do you want me to go with you?”
Her father stopped. He didn’t turn, and Mis could see the shoulders sloping out from his pack become tense. She braced herself. And then her father stepped out of the door. Mis watched it swung shut. He never looked back.
“Ugh,” she sighed. Mis wasn’t sure if she felt disappointment or relief. She unslung her rucksack and tossed it on a chair. What was she supposed to do, pretend it was any other day and grind acorns into flour? Yeah, right. Her father knew she could watch what was happening from the north cliffs and be perfectly safe. And she’s seen it, after all. Now she was going to have to wait and hear what it was, probably from someone like Argie. Mis slumped down next to her rucksack and yanked at its straps.
“That was a dumb question, Mis.”
Mis craned around to see her brother, wide awake, facing her, his head propped on his cattail pillow. She grinned. “You spying on us?”
“Don’t worry,” said Purcy, “you aren’t that exciting.”
Mis bounced up and ran over to him. A year ago she would have leapt on him and wrestled him to the ground, but she checked herself and landed next to him. She watched him wince.
“Did you see what it is?” she asked, hoping to distract him. Often, in his dreams, her brother saw things, things that turned out to be true. The images could be hazy and cryptic, downright improbable, but Purcy seemed to know when a dream would become one with the waking world. On the night their father was attacked by the bobcat, Purcy had told him to watch out for “a big cat.” Her father came as close to smiling as Mis had ever seen. Neither he nor she had thought much of it until her father returned wounded later that night. Cal, on hearing about it, remembered that back before the cliffs there used to be ranches nearby where hunters could pay to shoot strange animals, personal zoos, full of ibex and pumas, buffalo and black bears. Maybe that’s what Purcy had seen in his dream.
“No,” said Purcy, “but it doesn’t matter.” The light had already left his voice. “It’ll either die before it gets here, or dad will kill it when it does.”
“But it’s from the north,” Mis stressed. “What if it’s a person?” Mis knew that was highly unlikely, but she wanted to get Purcy’s mind off dying. Or maybe not Purcy’s, maybe hers. He looked so worn out, but she couldn’t imagine life in this room without him.
“Then they’ll die in the mines,” said Purcy, his eyes already starting to close.
“Let’s talk about it when you wake up.”
“Never leave the cliffs,” murmured Purcy, already adrift.
Mis knew what he meant. No one left. Ever. If you were from the cliffs and you tried to leave, you were executed. No trial, no exceptions. It was another way they survived. They cut themselves off from the world. From the necros, but more importantly from outsiders. If outsiders found out where they were and what they had—if the raiders who were out there learned about the food and animals and children and guns—they’d come for it, as sure as the necros would come for their flesh.
The outside world was a war of all against all, and the only way to keep the cliffs safe was to enclose it in a circle of blood.
Question Three: Scale
Traditionally, the father symbolizes power. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, for example, “God the Father” is a creator and protector, as well as a giver and enforcer of laws by which humans are enjoined to conduct their lives. In the psychoanalytic tradition, the father is less an entity than a function, “the Father,” whereby children enter into the social world through the repression of some desires and the acceptance of others. As a traditional symbol, the father both restricts and enables. The father says, “No,” but also, “Yes.”
To what degree does the father in The Cliffs embody this traditional symbolization?
Minimally 1 2 3 4 5 Maximally
To what degree does this symbolization indicate a tradition worthy of embodying?
Minimally 1 2 3 4 5 Maximally
To what degree does the role of the author symbolically resemble that of a father and, by extension, your role as reader that of a child?
Minimally 1 2 3 4 5 Maximally
To what degree do a series of questions, in which a reader is asked to reflect on the experience of reading, alter the traditional roles of author and reader?
Minimally 1 2 3 4 5 Maximally
To what degree would your father agree with you about these questions of degree?
Minimally 1 2 3 4 5 Maximally
Mis watched the gate to see when the guards would return.
She took her work out on the ledge in front of the house. She had plenty of acorns that had already dried to a lacquered brown. Cracking their shells between two fist-sized rocks felt like a good way to wait. And Mis was close enough to Purcy that, if he called, she’d hear him.
Mis settled into the methodical work of splitting the shells and pulling out the meaty nut. Into one pile, she’d throw the scraps—the shell fragments and caps, as well as the black nuts that had rotted. Into another, she slowly piled the useable nuts. They looked like leathery teardrops or mushroom stems that had splintered and hardened.
When she had several handfuls, she started grinding them down. She took an oblong stone that she’d found years ago at the edge of the pines and rolled it over a few nuts at a time. To give the stone force, she put one of her knees on top of it and shoved down. Normally, she’d lift the stone and smash any nuts that wouldn’t give, but now she just bounced her weight a few times, until she felt them crumble. It hurt her knee, but it wouldn’t wake Purcy. He needed rest. More than rest, really. He needed one of those buildings that was supposed to be full of pain killers and machines that could breathe for you or shock you back to life without turning you into a necro. He needed a cure.
Mis decided she’d make pancakes for him with this next batch of acorn flour. It wouldn’t do much, but it might cheer him up.
And yet these thoughts didn’t take her mind off the north cliffs. What was happening out there? Had what she seen arrived?
Mis figured that if they hadn’t seen it, if it had turned in another direction, at least a few of the guards would be back by now, so she wasn’t worried about looking like she’d imagined it. That made her all the more curious. Something was out there. Maybe something good, something or someone who could help them, like a farmer who could stop the ramps from growing withered and sickly or a doctor who could help Purcy. And she was the one who saw it. Maybe now her father would realize that she could do important things, crucial things, not just crack acorns and clean the cave. Maybe he’d see she could be a guard.
Mis pressed down hard on the stone and felt it roll, unevenly, over the acorn pieces. How much longer would she have to wait?
Once or twice, she decided she’d sneak away and look. She could tell Cal that she needed to go to the falls. It wasn’t a lie, after all; she did. The acorn mash needed to be wrapped in cloth and soaked in the stream for a good hour. The water would pull the bitterness out of mash. In that time, Mis could get to the north cliffs and back. No one would ever know she was there.
But Mis always stopped. Deep down, she knew Cal would never let her out, not with what she’d told him. And what if Purcy got worse? No, she’d stay. She’d grind nuts and wait, even if right now, at this very moment, her father was meeting a stranger who’d managed to cross the wasteland. It felt unfair, being stuck here.
Mis looked up, over the ledge and onto the caves. She saw them every day, the same old view from her door, but what would an outsider see, someone from the flat plains to the north?
Mis saw anew the giant ring of rock that held all of their houses, how it curved upward from the sandstone floor. It was like a great cauldron, open to the sky. And as the sun streamed into it, the air caught the light and made it thicker. At dawn, mist could grow so dense you could hardly see the far wall, and the sounds of the caves grew muffled and dull, as though they’d stick to the stone.
The cave’s walls rose to the height of nine, maybe ten men. Everywhere Mis glanced, she saw grooves and grottoes that stacked and interwove with one another. Some were too small for children to hide in, but the large ones could hold two or three people, and the largest held a whole family.
Mis followed the stream than zigzagged through the center of the caves. Its rusty water wasn’t drinkable, they’d learned that early on, but it served for washing up or watering the raised beds of squash and bush beans that grew beside it.
After a rain, it ran fast enough that Mis could hear its low gurgle from her bunk. She would lie there in the dark, listening to it, and wonder where it ran when it left the cave. She knew it would flow down the cliffs, winding above and below the ground as it snaked into the gorge, but she wondered if it eventually met up with the river, the green one she had never seen, the one that Cal told her met a bigger river until, at last, the river reached that endless lake.
Maybe the creek just funneled into the mines at the foot of the gorge. Once, men had supposedly gone into them on purpose, so they could pull black rocks out of the earth and burn them.
That, Cal said, had happened in his great grandfather’s time. He didn’t know much about back then, but he said that he and his family watched when men came back to the mines, not to pull anything out of them, but to fill them. Trucks would arrive, a dozen a day, and pump waste down the shafts. The old tunnels were supposed to hold the poison, to contain it forever, like a water skin, but they didn’t. The waste seeped out, into the soil and the water. The forests turned gray, and the fish went belly up. Anybody who could afford it moved away. People went north to the city or west, away from the mines and the trucks and the drill sites that pocked and scabbed the countryside.
But poor people, people like Cal, people like Mis’s father and mother, had to stay. They had to figure out how to live in a place where seeds wouldn’t sprout and deer were stillborn and the water could catch on fire.
“That’s what saved us,” Cal once said to Mis. “Them moneymen, they didn’t give two copper cents about us, but tarnation if we didn’t survive. And when the world went all damn-it-to-hell, who was left? I tell you who. Us. Us folks who was left. And I tell you more, if we hadn’t been so few us, if we’d been city-thick, we’d had never made it. Sure as Jesus, we’d had torn the guts out of each other. Them mines, I tell you, they was our backwards salvation.”
The mines had saved them. Mis shivered at that, not because of the backwardness that Cal saw in them, but because they still used the mines. They still used them to bury their natural dead. Nowhere along the cliffs was there soil deep enough to make sure a body wouldn’t get dug up, most likely by coyotes. Necros, too, might also pick up the scent. The mines were all they could do. They’d say their goodbyes and slide the corpses into those great black mouths.
The mines were also where they lured the necros. When a pack of them came down the gorge, guards like her father used themselves as human bait and maneuvered them near the mines, close enough so that other guards could ram them down the shaft. Sometimes, Mis imagined their dead eyes, falling into the pit. Those eyes would never close, not in the dark, not even if the necro snapped its spine where it landed. It would just thrash there, on a pile of dead bodies, eating what it could until it eventually it had nothing left to eat and withered away.
And yet that wasn’t what Mis feared the most about the mines. Because there, at the mouth of the mines, was where the executions took place. If you betrayed the caves, if you hoarded supplies or stole food from the storehouse or tried to leave the cliffs, you were thrown into the mines. You were marched or dragged there, to the edge of that terrible shaft, and then you were thrown into it, with the poison and dead bodies and undead necros. If you were lucky, you’d die when you hit. If not—
Mis didn’t want to imagine that. She turned her thoughts back to the acorns, the safety of a dull task, until she realized that her brother was right: if a stranger came to the cliffs, his fate was at the bottom of the mines.
Mis suddenly heard the scuff of footsteps on the ledge. She looked up and saw Argie, walking toward her. The wave of excitement she felt was quickly followed by dread. Argie’s smile was gone. His face was heavy and his eyes were sunken. She immediately thought the worst. Her father had died. No, her father had gone undead—all it took was a bite.
“Mis,” Argie said. “I’m sorry. I tried. I looked and looked, but there was nothing out there.”
Question Four: Fill in the Blank
The setting of The Cliffs is inspired by the author’s immediate _______ in Appalachia Ohio, located on the unglaciated _______ Plateau, with its thick forests and rocky foothills. In the 19th century, the landscape’s rich resources of _______ and _______ resulted in the growth of the _______ and _______ industries, but this prosperity did not last, and the region has since become one of the _______ in the country.
Recently, however, the region has _______ from the development of hydraulic _______, which includes not only active wells, but also older wells now being used for the _______ of industrial waste. This “brine” contains heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, radioactive materials, as well as unknown amounts of _______. The residents of the region have regarded these wells with mixed attitudes, citing both the hope for _______ and fear of _______.
The worst of these wells is the _______ Well, located a mere _______ miles from the author’s home and directly linked to it through one of the _______ that crisscross the region. As early as 1988, a local _______ who lived near the well reported that he had “done studies on fish and various animals in the area and found them to have _______ tumors.” In its thirty-year history, the _______ Well has received multiple violations for substandard _______ and mechanical _______. Its owners have also repeatedly _______ government notices to _______, and the well continues to operate at this very moment.
Given this information, the setting of The Cliffs and, in particular, its use of “the mines” develops the story’s _______ to illuminate (indeed, one might even say “frack”) its deeper _______. In this, the story resembles the _______ that comes out of the author’s faucet, which may or may not be _______.
Tune in on Friday for Part III of The Cliffs