By Josh Barrow
It was as though they had melted into the sand. Their sodden shrouds, already yellowed with dirt and the ache of time, formed a seeping hue around them that in the darkness had made them look ethereal. The stars had made Barker the night's fool when he arrived at the beach some hours before, convincing him that they had fallen upon his world to bless his union with Marilyn. Now, rot rents the morning air and the lapping waves deliver more fallen stars to their final resting place.
It did not occur to Barker that whatever ailment had eaten these vessels alive might be infectious, nor did he consider the land they were washed away from. He merely experienced a twisting in his gut as he counted the fifty-four bodies dotted across the beach. He had never seen so many people at once. If they were people. His only reference was Mother, Left and Limping Soldier. To see so many beings collected together where once hearts beat and blood flowed warm made his world feel impossibly small.
No longer, he thought. The sky had changed from dark to light twenty-six times since he left Bus. His mission was clear; impart all the love you have in your heart. Simple.
Mother spoke of it often. That we are duty bound to the ‘right amount of world for tiny folk like us’, then when all is lost and done, we set out with our bags and give ourselves to a world dying to receive us, only then may we deserve a beautiful death.
Twenty-six days, and all Barker has experienced is his longing to be back in Bus. His days are filled with walking, lugging and the putting off of things. Tomorrow, cries the voice behind his eyes. Tomorrow, we will begin. But begin what he asks himself. What good can be done when all is empty and strange?
Left may have been his first chance. The first domino, as Mother would have said, in a lifetime of good deeds.
It had been his eighth day away from Bus. Evening was setting in. His bags had felt heavy all day propped against his aching back as he travelled North. He was already frustrated as the river had led him to a clearing of trees with no path to continue on so he was in no mood for any further interruptions.
He heard the wailing man before he saw him. Beyond the clearing were vast corn fields bereft of tending. A lone tree cut a striking silhouette against the orange evening that when he first heard the noise, he believed it was the tree itself. But as he approached, he heard the man cry out.
“Demon. Back demon!” Left had screamed, before Barker knew his name was Left. A thick rope had been tied tight around his middle covering his stomach with its wrapping. There were more ropes holding his wrists to the branches, opening his arms wide so that his free chest heaved away from the trunk. His feet were bound and around his neck; a single strand of barbed wire pulled taut against the skin.
Barker said nothing, analysing everything Mother had taught him to analyse when confronted with a stranger. Can they hurt you? Barker doubted this person could touch him, nevermind hurt him. Do they have a hand on all of their belongings? Unless the tree was his, no. Do they have anything that could be useful? Barker had string, miles and miles of it, but no rope. But what could he accomplish with rope that he couldn’t accomplish with string.
“The silence on it.” the man in the tree proclaimed to himself, “speak, or I shall assume you a Crasser and behead you in an instant.”
Barker said nothing. He was too busy imagining every scenario the man could behead him with bound arms.
“I cannot smell you, so I am to presume you are a mute man. I am left, you see, by the people who chose me to lead them. They have since disappeared from this land, and you are the first person I have seen in…”
Left trailed off, his eyes becoming vacant. Suddenly he began to writhe violently against the ropes holding him. Barker jumped back expecting it all to be a ruse, a trick Mother had taught him men were capable of, but the bound man’s rage gave up as quickly as it started.
“I am betrayed! Gods be quick and serve me death, I am betrayed! You sir,” he shouted at Barker, “do you know who I am?”
Barker just stared. Life with Mother had taught him not to answer questions of this kind, for there was only one true answer and every other answer was a new ocean to drown in. But the man peered at him expectantly so Barker, despite his ineptitude for talking, obliged.
“You are Left.”
The man disappeared again. Then he wailed a noise Barker had never heard before. A guttural crunching that rattled the phlegm in his throat.
“Traitorous wretches. I was their salvation. Their new world. I was to fill this land with light again and vanquish the darkness that swallowed it. You are just a man, they said, as they left me to fester. You are just a man and the darkness this unseeable thing, but I saw it; I worked in the factories, I stood with Torvare front and centre, I watched sister fight brother father fight son when the darkness promised an impossible future. You sir, you are what? Twenty-four, twenty-five. You were not even born the day this land lost its fight. There is no future here, only an echo from the past.” The man spat at Barker then, and threw his head back unfazed by it clattering against the tree. “I am left!”
Barker was not twenty-five. He had counted thirty-two September the Seventh’s since the day he first felt the scratch of the gaffer tape that held the backseat of Bus together. He wouldn’t correct Left, however. Correcting Left would prove as futile as glueing broken plates back together and hoping the cracks didn’t show. He had a keen sense for damage being irrevocably done.
He left Left then. Gathering up his many bags he didn’t remember dropping, he pulled himself away and carried on through the clearing. It was against his instincts to travel in the direction he was going. He just wanted to be away. No good could come here now, and steal the evening air back from the cries of a purposeless man.
Time had moved Barker's apathy aside, replacing it with regret at not helping Left. Mother’s voice stung him nightly and when he argued that he had his task and nothing should distract him, she answered with silence. This was the worst. It invaded his sleep pressing upon him that no man who cannot give love can ever receive it.
As the sand wedged itself in the gaps between his toes and nails, he took Marilyn from his pocket and stared at him. The days of wandering have frayed his white edges but the man in the photograph remained as glossy and stunning as ever. It made Barker feel closer to him, as though they had grown together since leaving Bus. He ran his fingers over Marilyn delicately tracing the edges of his arms, the gleam of the strings on his guitar. It soothed him until he looked up again and saw the bodies in their multitudes. Sixty-five of them now, covering the entire length of the beach.
From the thick yellow plastic bag labelled ‘knowledge’ he withdrew six books. He piled three on the sand, put Marilyn on top and placed the next three books on top of Marilyn. Those withered edges wouldn’t last long beneath Epfaltus volumes seven, eleven and sixteen.
With every step towards them, the smell grew riper. Bubbling flesh, sores and pus ran from the bodies with the devastation of seawater. Bandages mushed and splayed connected them like radio wires. Barker was drawn to a small thing lying as though she was sunbathing. She was no more than six-years-old. Where was her mother? Was she here? Amongst the ghastly dead. Her face was one that only a mother could love, though her eyes were a shocking blue and looked out of place. Barker did as his Mother had done to Limping Soldier and closed her eyes with his fingers. They stayed shut and she looked peaceful at last, until they sprung back open. In quick remedy, he squeezed her eyelids between his thumb and forefinger, but they only crumbled. He fell back then and struggled to keep his stomach from appearing. Is this world so unused to love that it naturally rejects it? What use was he then? He, who only wished to prove that he could love to a world that would consent to his union with Marilyn. But perhaps love was gone from this place, and monstrous spirits possessed the land like the stories Mother told him.
Left spoke of darkness dwelling in everyday places. Limping Soldier muttered of weapons for killing and people dying for a shouting man’s cause. So much hate, Barker thought. So much hate Mother had kept him from.
His years in Bus were undisturbed by the outside world. Mother committed her day to day life to ensuring nothing from the outside could penetrate. Nothing except what they foraged for themselves. She trained Barker to exercise balance, they were to gather ingredients for two nights worth of meals and a new book every second Friday. They took what they needed and nothing more. It was Mothers way to pass through life disrupting nothing, like a ghost unseen and silent.
Barker was eleven when Limping Soldier fell against the bonnet of Bus. He was the first man he had ever laid eyes on. The last man Mother had seen had been Patrick, but they didn’t talk about Patrick.
“Who are you? Where did you come from?” Barker remembers Mother saying as she pulled Barker by the arm and placed herself between him and Limping Soldier.
“J-Jawslock Bridge barracks.” Limping Soldier wheezed.
“Are there more of you?”
Limping Soldier shook his head and then stopped as his eyes fell upon the food Mother had been cooking.
“Then you’re a deserter.” Mother said, her face unmoving.
Despite his predisposition, Limping Soldier snapped his gaze back to Mother. Neither said anything for a moment, before Limping Soldier looked around at Bus and everything they had built.
“And you’re a Feather. Both are just words, and yet we’ll die for them if we’re found.”
Barker did not know what either word meant, but he assumed something bad when Mother tightened her grasp on his arm and pulled him closer to her.
“Report me, but let him go.” she said, a hardness in her voice Barker had never heard.
“I’m not reporting anyone. Can I please sit down?” Limping Soldier scrambled against Bus’s bonnet, reaching out an arm and catching himself before he hit the hard ground.
It was Barker who moved first, reaching out his hand to Limping Soldier and, despite his mother’s protestations, guided him into the chair he had been sitting in.
“K-kind boy.” Limping Soldier whispered.
Barker held his bowl of food out to the man, but Mother said “no, you must eat darling. He can have mine”. Limping Soldier ate quickly.
“Where do you mean to travel?” Mother asked after Limping Soldier finished what Barker could not.
“Home.” was all he said.
“Where is home?”
“There is little left in the South.” Mother said, the new hardness returning again.
Limping Soldier gazed into his empty food bowl, “then perhaps it is gone, and I will die in the soil I was raised on, but I will sing as I do,” he turned to Barker then, “no one should die too far from home and a song is the sweetest carriage to the next life.”
Mother let Limping Soldier sleep under Bus that night. Barker was awoken by a song coming from beneath him, faint and choked. He awoke the next morning to Mother digging a hole in the field next to Bus, “we should take him home”, Barker told her. She just smiled and shook her head. He helped her carry the body of Limping Soldier into the hole and patted down the dirt on top of him.
When the time came, Barker buried Mother next to Limping Soldier. Not that the man had any affinity with her, but Barker wanted her to have some company on the journey to the next life. And in all the years he spent with Mother, he had never heard her sing.
That had been thirty-six sky changes ago. Ten for him to weep and decide it was time to declare his love for Marilyn. Onwards he would walk, gifting the world with love wherever he went, just as Mother would have wanted. So that when his time came he would be served his song at last.
The tide was settling and there had been no bodies in some time. Barker became aware that he was entirely unencumbered by bags. He followed the footprints in the wet sand and saw everything he owned in small dropped piles stretching the length of the beach. Without realising, he had weaved between the bodies inspecting them all. Old and young, away from home and never to return. A lot like him. Older, but so young, in a world he had no idea could be so silent when atrocities happened every day it seemed.
Against every instinct she instilled in him, he suddenly yearned for Mother and for Bus and for Limping Soldiers song. ‘Yearning was weakness’, she would say. Then let him be weak. Let him need and want and desire to go away and find a land where love is a little easier to come by. Then he thought of Left, and how he abandoned the man. Not even Barker could be the love this world needs. He had failed Mother. He was unworthy of Marilyn. All he was was a beating heart surrounded by death and decay. How could someone so pure as Marilyn entrust his love to someone as uncertain and afraid as Barker?
And then, upon the wind, a plucky tune was summoned. Muffled, but loud enough for it to pull Barker from his despair. The urge to scream the culprit into silence almost overcame him, but there was no one there but the dead in their multitudes.
He began searching the corpses but they were as still as they were when he found them. And still the music played. He had never heard music before, and yet he knew it was music. The sound infiltrated his ears and massaged his sadness into calm. He listened, and followed the tune to the pile of books that were pressing Marilyn between their covers.
He lifted the first three and there he was, plucking a song that now filled the whole beach. Barker stood transfixed as his love moved his hand along the neck of the guitar stroking it into song.
“You know Limping Soldier’s song has a tune. I know because I wrote it. It’s one of mine.” said Marilyn. His voice was not how Barker imagined it to be. He picked the photograph up and instinctively held it differently. Had he known Marilyn was alive, he would never have kept him pressed in his chest pocket his whole life.
“Don’t worry about that.” Marilyn said, answering Barker’s thoughts, “I’ve spent this whole time pressed against your heart. There’s nowhere in the world I would rather be.”
Barker made a noise and realised he was crying. He wanted to shout and scream, but as always, the right words eluded him. Wetness drenched his cheeks running into his mouth and down his chin.
“You don’t have to speak when you’re with me, not if you don’t want to, I can hear you just fine.”
‘I just wanted it to be perfect.’ thought Barker.
“I know. A beach wedding is very romantic.” Marilyn said while he played.
‘But all this. I don’t want to marry you here with all this death around. We must find somewhere that bursts with love and light.’
“There is plenty love and light here. We bring it with us wherever we go.”
Barker looked around at the corpses and disagreed.
“Then we bury them.” said Marilyn.
Barker turned to his love again, ‘all of them?’ he thought.
“Every last one. You wanted to gift the land with all the love you have to give. Then start with these poor souls who, by the looks of them, died way before they washed in with the tides. Let them know that though they are dead, they landed in a loving place.”
Barker turned again to face the beach. The waves that crashed against their feet threatened to wash them somewhere they would be left, like Left was, and he would not leave these people. He would not make that mistake again.
He scanned the dropped piles of his belongings for the backpack with ‘tools’ stitched across it. He found it thirty yards away, and from a strap on the side he un-holstered his shovel.
Sixty-five graves. He would dig sixty-five graves and lay these exiles to rest in the love of a new life. Barkers life. His life with Marilyn was only just beginning. He could not predict if the putting of things would plague him again, but it was a plague he could control. Mother would be proud, he thought to himself, as he clambered up the dunes to a patch of dirt stretching two-hundred yards.
Sixty-five graves. Sixty-five acts of love making their mark on troubled land. Barker could only hope it would grow and spread. He swung his shovel high above his head and plunged it into the earth. And with the air still alive with the plucking of Marilyn’s guitar, Barker began to sing.