Death & Love

In Novel Excerpts by Scott Lambridis

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Photo by Weronika on Unsplash
Synopsis

Death & Love follows two medical researchers, Mirs and his supervisor Jo, as they travel to a remote island village to investigate a local psychosis involving a cannibalistic demon, the Wendigo. Mirs and Jo interview villagers with the help of Monsieur Goose, their suspicious and flirtatious translator. As they gather testimony, untangling the villagers' stories while retracing the steps of an investigation from ten years prior, the death toll rises. Mystery turns to terror, and frustration to despair, threatening everything Mirs and Jo believe about themselves, and each other. When the mangled corpse of a young boy is found, the village's secrets are exposed. In their struggle to accept it, Mirs and Jo die, and then fall in love.

A love story played out over the backdrop of supernatural horror and mystery, Death & Love raises questions about the stories our minds invent just to help us survive, and the truths they hide to prevent us from being alone.

Monsieur Goose

I was ten. My mother was in bed, rags over her head, buried among blankets. She’d been sweating for days, could barely turn her head without vomiting. I cleaned the ceramic dish we used as a bedpan. It wasn’t just her; everyone was sick.

Ten years ago, we’d relocated. I was just an infant. Neighboring warlords were having a dispute, and the Legion was called in to make peace. They helped the injured, relocated everyone they could. The land we were relocated to had been abandoned. There had been a factory there many years ago, and it had infected the ground and the air and the water and even the trees. But they assured us it was no longer toxic. It was safe, they said, so we made a life there. But ten years later, the Legion returned, accompanied by scientists in yellow suits. They showed us a clicking green box and said, “See, there’s sickness in the water, in the soil.” They’d been wrong, they said, and apologized. We couldn’t stay. “It’s not your land anyway,” they said. We were refugees, they said. They had special names for us. Names that described our sickness. Names I’ve long since forgotten. But we didn’t want to move. This was our home now. Some of us had been born there, grown up there, and some had died there. And besides, the land was free. We were free. Sure, people were getting sick, but my mother thought it was just a winter cold. And even if not, at least we were free. Where would we go? Some of us had jobs. When second hand clothing is dumped into third-world countries, someone has to go through it to decide what to sell again. But who could survive on that alone? Our cows, our cats, even our pigeons—they were our livelihood too. And it was killing us, they said. We drank the milk, and the rum. We ate the potatoes, the berries. What were we supposed to do? My mother played the radio, she mended clothing on her sewing machine. Irradiated, they said. We all drank the coffee. We all ate the beets. They destroyed everything. They even chopped down the trees, even dug up the dirt and burned it and hauled it away. Poisoned, they said, everything poisoned.

There was a young boy from the Legion, the 25th Parachute Division, barely old enough to be a soldier, who was kind to my family. He brought us extra milk. He made us laugh by chasing the geese. When the other soldiers tried to kill the last of our cows, my mother threw herself over it and wouldn’t let go. They tried dragging her off by the legs, and it was the young soldier who eventually convinced them to give up. “Fine, die with her cow,” they said.

Two weeks later, the cow died. Two weeks after that, my mother was bedridden, unable to move. She was exhausted. And like an overtired child, couldn’t sleep. She started mumbling and didn’t stop for hours. Like a balloon deflating, she spoke everything she knew, everything she’d accumulated. She spoke about her parents, she recited the day’s chores, the instructions for cutting fabric from a template, for taking apart and putting back together her sewing machine, she spoke all the days of the week and holidays, and all the names of all the gods she knew, and she spoke recipes for various chicken dishes, and the names of the songs she knew and the words of the few she knew too, war songs and lullabies, and she spoke the names of everyone she could ever remember meeting, and at the end, once she’d said everything she could say, she was deflated, and limp. The most comforting thing about death is that you hold onto nothing, nothing at all from before.

Not long after, the Legion left Senegal, and I followed the soldier. They’d abandoned their century-old command center at Sidi Bel Abbès. Legionnaires were dying four a week for eight years straight. I begged the soldier to let me join. He said I was too young. The recruiter said the same. Fine, I couldn’t join, but they couldn’t keep me away.

Like a shadow, I tagged along. Ivory Coast. Morocco. Somalia. Kenya. Libya. Algeria. The National Liberation Front. The ALN. The Armée d’Afrique was decimated and disbanded—Zouaves, Tirailleurs, Méharistes, Harkis, Goums, Chasseurs d’Afrique, and all but one of the Spahi regiments. The 25th Parachute Division survived, somehow. A small portion were sent to Kenya next, including my Legionnaire, to track a militia going village to village. They claimed the villages were sapping them of money and resources, so they had to minimize the costs. At first, they were just taking all the clothing, leaving the villagers to freeze, or starve. They were a gang of kids, not a real army. As they moved, the Legion followed, to assist survivors, and overtake the militia.

Is there anything more frightening than the living? A person on their own can be good, sure, but two people, together? Then the bullets start to fly.

The town where the Legion received orders was full of refugees. I stayed hidden in the brothels when the soldiers were around, helping them find women, and when they went on patrol, I tracked them at a distance. I tried to help, even fighting alongside them sometimes, even though I had no uniform. Once, they caught me helping a small boy escape a hail of bullets. The troupe made me an honorary member, silently agreeing not to say anything. It was my Legionnaire’s idea, but he was the only one to vote it down, and I was too happy to bother asking why. I was only a kid, but still I was tall, stronger and faster than many of them. They enjoyed the help, as long as they weren’t responsible if something happened to me. I’ve always been lucky, you see. Children think I’m funny. Women think I’m honey sweet. I had refugee women begging for me. Whenever I sat, someone wanted to play music for me. But I’m a pig. I never deserved the luck I had. I ate and ate and never exercised but didn’t gain weight. I’m selfish but everyone wants to be my friend. I moved around easily, then. It was never a problem. Bullets never came near me. Who but the angel of death would taunt a man with luck who knows he should be cursed? But that’s another question.

After two days of marching through the jungle on the trail of the liberators, and two more over the veldt, we approached a village in search of survivors, excited to help, but before we even arrived, we knew there were none. The plains around the village were covered with torsos, just torsos, as if people had been planted and grown—head, shoulders, chest, and stomach. What do you call that? Not decapitated. Not dismembered or disemboweled. Do you have a name for it? There were arms too, legs, heads, full bodies, all the rest, but from where I was, from that angle coming up from the valley to the veldt, it just looked like torsos. There was no village to secure, no one to fight.

We all should’ve qualified for sick relieve after that. PTSD. Shell shock. Traumatic war neurosis. The names change every generation, every war. Bullet wind, soldier’s heart, battle fatigue, operational exhaustion, combat stress reaction, irritable heart, railway spine, nostalgia, hysteria, heimweh in German, maladie du pays in French, estar roto in Spanish. I’m sure you know them better than me. They’re all in the CMC. They’ve documented over eighty names, but it goes back much, much further. There’s “combat-related stress” in the Mahabharata, the “blind sickness” of Herodotus’ Athenian spearman after returning from Marathon, and the “mind changing” of King of Elam on the Hasanlu Tepe hilltop in Mesopotamia. They all mean the same thing: to be broken. The battalion was told they’d be sent home for hospitalization only at the end of the mission. This wasn’t war, our superiors stressed. Wars were over. It was just territorialism. And so, there were no war-induced conditions, no help for soldiers.

We went back out. We got smarter, got ahead of the militia. First, we’d move into a new village they hadn’t yet reached. We’d provide weapons, food, medical help. But sure enough, we’d return after a couple days, and everyone was dead. We began evacuating instead. The plan was to take everyone to safety and when the militia got there, we’d intercept and take them out. We secured a bus. We rolled in. The moon was huge and orange. The bus wasn’t big enough for the entire village so each time we had to decide who would board, who to save first, where to draw the line on the piece of paper. I kept the clipboard for our third trip. I made the mark on the paper. We hadn’t been driving ten minutes when a pair of jeeps pulled up full of soldiers. They stopped the bus and boarded. Six of them. Mostly boys, with machine guns. They ordered everyone to stay seated. They asked for documents. They went through the aisles to collect them, as if there really were documents. They worked their way to the back of the bus, looking through whatever papers could be produced. I was in the back seat. They never reached the back. They had all the Legionnaires get up first, even the driver, followed by the rest of the men. Just the men. They took all the men—seventeen or eighteen—out of the bus. But not me. They skipped me, as if I was invisible, a shadow. I watched as they took the rest of the men outside. The women and children stayed inside, complaining while I was silent. Outside, they didn’t even line the men up first. We heard the loud shaking of coins in a can. You know the sound? The sounds made by kids, kids with machine guns. We all did. The women sobbed. The kids inside were quiet, the kids outside were loud. I got into the driver’s seat and drove. A dozen women and half a dozen children and me. No one looked back.

The other Legionnaires were in the village bar back at the command center. My Legionnaire was there too. The more he drank, the more he talked shit about the Legion, what they were doing. He even mentioned deserting. I’d never heard him talk like this. All over the world the Legion was suffering losses. Their numbers had swelled with World War II vets, but plummeted in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, before the valley fell. The 1st Foreign Parachute Battalion was annihilated twice and renamed. Down and down. That Khé, Coc Xa, Cho Ben, on the Black River and in Annam. My Legionnaire was tired and drunk and angry, and I grew angry too. I wanted nothing more than to be a part.

“Not my wars,” said the Legionnaire. He showed off the bullet hole in his great blue coat. The one that had gotten him in the leg. “Why get shot in someone else’s war?” His bus had been in a firefight. His gun had locked up, cheap Russian stuff, and he was almost choked out, hand to throat, the most demeaning and terrifying way to go because you can track it, every ounce of life slowly lost. One of his brothers saved him, and even as he railed against the Legion, I wished it had been me. On and on, he complained. How is there a world, he asked, where there are children playing, throwing balls to each other, to their parents, not caring about anything else, and also, some kilometers away, in the next village, it’s okay to hack a child to bits, not caring about anything else? How do these exist at once? He was saying nothing new. Smarter men and women had asked the same since the beginning. I just wanted him to shut up. In a rage I knocked him down and ripped a chair from the nearby table and placed it over his neck. I pressed down on the chair on his neck until the bones in his throat collapsed. I sat on the chair while watching his face, watching him gasp and his mouth opening and closing like a fish. His eyes bulged and then he was still.

I sat on the chair for many minutes after, unable to move. It wasn’t guilt or remorse. There was some of that, sure, but it went beyond. I felt a great love for him. A great and paralyzing love. His reason, his influence on me, his kindness, his weakness, his stupidity, his innocence, his cowardice—I loved it all. I loved everything I knew about him, everything I assumed I knew about him that wasn’t true, and everything I didn’t know too. And in feeling that love, that love for a dead man, no longer a stranger to me, I knew I was dead too, that I’d been for some time, and was at last, finally, remembering. What other way could I so love this man? If I had any life in me at all, I’d have hated him and would hate him still.

Once you take a life, nothing changes, despite what they say, unless you want it to. His death had no effect on me beyond the revelation of my own. There are countless ways to die, you see, countless moments every week when you make it through by the skin of your teeth. Death is always snapping at your heels, even outside of war. You piss off the wrong guy. You eat bad fish. You almost fall off a bridge. Automobiles, microbes, children with machine guns. How many times did the temptations of a girl in lingerie standing outside the entrance of a club almost lure me in during the day when all the rats were inside hiding from the sun? How many times did I almost look the wrong person in the eye, or linger under a bridge too long, or leave a store just before it was robbed? And those are just the big decisions with immediate consequences. What about the little ones leading to alternative paths, where the consequences took days, months, even years to play out to my death? Like following a Legionnaire because he slipped and fell while chasing a goose just to make me laugh. There’s death everywhere. How would I know which one had taken me? It doesn’t matter how you die. It only matters when you become aware and accept it.

I stripped him of his greatcoat and took it for myself. I left my name behind. I chose a new one. A memento mori for the past. I didn’t know where I’d go. Death is much better if you don’t have a plan. I followed the Legion for a while. Chad. Rwanda. Mali. Gabon and Kolwezi. I don’t remember the order. Everywhere the Legion went, Monsieur Goose had been there. In Lebanon I met some who would eventually follow me here. Members of the French 11th Parachute Brigade, the Irish Armed Forces, Italian paratroopers from the Folgore Brigade, infantry units from the Bersaglieri regiments and Marines of the San Marco Battalion. I left Africa behind. Cambodia. Sarajevo. Herzegovina. Kosovo and Macedonia. Afghanistan. Eventually, I left the Legion behind too.

I’d heard of a place where there had never been war or any conflict. I came seeking a place that already believed itself dead. There was the outline of the village that had long been abandoned, though I still don’t know why.

Those who arrive usually find their way here on their own. Most already know of their death; some have to be informed. Same with the ones born here; some naturally know, others must be taught. Yes, children have been born here. The dead procreate too. We multiply without the living. Sometimes the dead leave, but they return. Sometimes they bring others. I keep their names, their old names, from when they were living. I protect them. They’re sewn inside my coat.

Not all the dead are this way though, happy and full of love. You have to die happy to stay that way, I think. Screw all the rest. If they’re assholes in life they’ll be assholes in death. And assholes don’t look around, don’t see outside of themselves. They don’t know they’re dead, so how can they love? That’s what brought us together, brought us here, I believe. We’re the ones who noticed. I love all the dead now. I’m like the ferryman Charon. Or perhaps I’m like the devil, the only one to love all the demons, the only one always trying to protect them. No one is going to tell us this isn’t our land. No one is going to tell us to move. No one is going to tell me something will kill me. No one can kill me anymore. As long as we keep the living away.

My son? Oh yes, my son, of course. He was one of those who had to be convinced. You can’t tell them, at least at first. It was just a matter of waiting for the right time. Stories help. Even the dead like to have lived for at least a little bit.

Once, just like my Legionnaire, my son fell chasing a goose, and I knew that it was time. Amazing, no? Amazing, after the wound on his head healed, I sat him down.

“I watched you die,” I said. “Do you remember?”

He shook his head, confused. I kneeled beside his bed.

“Try to remember,” I said. “You were chasing a goose. You were laughing.” You have to be cautious in the beginning. They’re bound to spook. “You almost caught it,” I told him. “Your hands were at its neck, but when it flapped its wings, you slipped. The dust took your foot and you fell. Your head hit a stone.”

Five is a common age for boys. For girls, it’s a bit earlier. He was a bit later.

“Try to remember,” I repeated. I told him that I was dead too. “We’re all dead,” I said.

“This for play?” he asked. I didn’t answer. It’s hard not to answer. It’s dangerous to lie, and dangerous to rush. It requires great patience. Then he said it.

“I remember.”

“You remember?”

“I remember. You’re dead and mama’s dead and now I’m dead too.”

He stuck his tongue out. He laughed, like it was a game. He hopped off the bed and I started chasing him around, and then he chased me, both of us laughing and laughing.

“I’m dead I’m dead I’m dead,” he shouted over and over with his arms up, running after me while I ran in circles before turning around to chase him back. “Papa papa papa I’m dead,” he said and ran out of the room, and I chased him around the house and back into the room again. Very soon the game had gone on too long for him. He sat back on his bed. He was anxious. He asked for a different game. I knelt again before him.

“It’s not a game. I watched you die. Try to remember.”

“I’m not really dead. I don’t want to be dead.”

“We all are.”

“Stop playing.” He looked up at me. “I don’t want to play.”

“Little Goose, we all died. A long time ago. Please try to remember.”

He said he wasn’t a little goose. I smiled and insisted. His name died with him.  Little Goose was his name now.

It’s always tempting to give up as they begin to cry. He insisted he was alive the day before, even that very morning. He remembered gathering wood with me, and all of us singing around the fire. I assured him we could be a family again, with his mother too, though he never knew her, we could stay a family forever, if he’d only remember. I reached out to comfort him, and that’s how I got him to leave the shack and run into the trap of the village outside.

There were only a dozen of us then, all gathered around a small fire. The boy looked to them for validation. Without hesitation, with nothing left to lose after losing himself, he asked his question. “I’m not dead, am I?” They guided him to a bench beside the fire. He asked his question again. One by one the villagers nodded. The boy’s face filled with horror. “We’re all dead,” they said, together. They each put a hand on the boy. “Try to remember.” The fire crackled and shuddered light and warmth across their faces. It was not easy to witness the moment when he made his choice—to believe himself or to believe everyone else, but when my boy spoke next, his voice was clear, his choice made.

“I remember,” he said.

I put my warm palm against his young face. The rest of the villagers slipped back into the darkness as the fire crackled. I walked Little Goose back home.

It wasn’t over though. The slowest, longest part followed. Some weeks later, I found a small slip of paper tucked into one of the boy’s books, and then later it was under his pillow, or rolled into the leg of his cot. I didn’t need to read the words written on the paper. They’re always the same, for every child born here or arriving, but I read them anyway. I unfolded the paper with a sigh and read the words my son had tried to save.

“You are alive. Remember.”

I burned the note. After dozens of such notes were burned over many weeks, I stopped finding new ones. He was a man now. We celebrated.

The cemetery was already there when we arrived, but it held only sticks, no gravestones. We had a funeral for him. We gathered up souvenirs of the day—feathers from a goose, some dirt—and buried them, along with his name. We etched it in stone and stitched it into my coat. Food, wine, music, dancing, rum. The dead love to drink, never giving up hope that one day we might actually get drunk. Little Goose celebrated as much as everyone, newly free, full of love for all the things he could do now without worry, without fear.

It is not always so easy though. Sometimes, if they stumble in their belief, if they have trouble accepting, they must be isolated. Left to think about their error. They kick and scream and howl in protest and anguish. That was what disturbed the dental mission, what the doctor, Kotsovsky, heard. That was before we called it Wendigo. Before we took advantage of the doctor’s error, and before things had to escalate.

But my boy is happy, you know, as we all are. No jealousy. No tomorrow. No sickness. No chance of getting better or need to. He’s forgotten that he ever feared the end, just as he’s forgotten the notes he once tried to write to himself. Go ask him. The dead always tell the truth about themselves. We’re the only ones who do. Leave, stay, it makes no difference now. But you can’t take our stories with you; they stay with the dead.

About the Author

Scott Lambridis

Stories of mine have appeared in Slice, Fence, Cafe Irreal, and other journals, and my short story "Blind Sticks" was nominated for a 2021 Pushcart award. I completed my MFA from San Francisco State where I received the Miriam Ylvisaker Fellowship and three literary awards. Before that, I earned a degree in neurobiology, and co-founded Omnibucket.com, through which I co-host the Action Fiction! performance series. Read more at scottlambridis.com.