Jane Jago’s prizewinning take on the zombie trope.
It was the hottest June day since records began, or so they said, and it was certainly the hottest anyone could remember. In the mundane world of humans, roads melted, and people fell into inexplicable rages.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of people dealing with it, there was no arguing that it was hot, darned hot. And, if you think about that with any semblance of logic, it really wasn’t the best day for a zombie picnic. But the date was the date, and June twenty-three had always been the zombie holiday.
The Creator, not having the heart to disappoint these, the most reviled of all the creatures that crawl on the earth, opened the portals at dawn. The zombies poured in from every reality and every timeline, some bled and oozed, some stumbled and mumbled, others looked much as they had when they were whatever they were before death and magic had their way with them. All wore faces of shining happiness. The island dwellers ran into the pure blueness of the sea, while others grabbed beer or musical instruments, or searched out old friends.
All the while The Creator walked among them, with big bare feet enjoying the silkiness of the pure white sand, and a face wreathed in the gentlest of smiles. Many stopped what they were doing to exchange fist bumps or handshakes or hugs, and the outpouring of love from every direction warmed as no amount of worship ever could do. It was humbling to see how these, of all beings, were so open-hearted and joyous in the face of their eternal bondage.
Once, more years ago than they cared to remember, they had asked one of the crumbling oozing ones how it could be so happy with its lot. The creature had screwed up its face and scratched at its foetid scalp with one long, yellow fingernail. When it finally spoke, the simplicity of its reasoning pierced the heart of the Creator like the sharpest of arrows.
“Tiz having this day every year Your Honour. There ain’t many of the things back there what gets even one day of perfect happiness in their whole lives. We gets one every year. Makes us the luckiest of all your creatures.”
This was a shaming thought, and one The Creator didn’t care to dwell on. Instead they walked among the smiling crowds pulling the warmth of happiness and love into the very fibres of their being to last them through the barren days of loneliness in the marble halls of their mountainous retreat.
The fires in the barbecue pits were at the perfect temperature and the zombies rolled potatoes, and plantains, and bananas, and whole pineapples into the embers to join the pigs that had seemingly been roasting all night.
When they sat down to eat, The Creator broke all their self-imposed rules and sat with them – with a horn cup of mead in one hand and a sandwich of pulled pork and hot sauce in the other. The undead one at their left-hand side was assiduous in topping up the mead, and, later on, the usquebaugh. It’s just as well immortals can’t get drunk, because the booze was running like water.
A zombie kitten the immortal one remembered from last year’s festivities came purring and rubbing around, and it seemed the most natural thing in the multiverse to smooth its silky fur and rub noses with it.
As the day wore on the music got wilder, and the most scaly and scabrous of the undead performed an ad hoc ballet in which they mimed their short human lives, the way they died, and their rebirth as zombies.
The Creator clapped until their hands ached.
Then an oozy old female with only one eye and half a nose began to play the standing harp and sing. She sang in no language any person living or dead could comprehend but the sheer heartbroken sorrow of her song had tears standing in every eye and a lump in every throat.
As they lounged in the shade, with a stone jug of usquebaugh at their side, and a warm furry kitten on their lap, it came into the mind of the Creator that this was indeed happiness in its purest and least selfish form. All around them creatures were storing up memories to last for the next three hundred and sixty-four days, and in their innermost soul they had to admit to doing the selfsame thing. As the sun dipped into the sea turning it to molten gold, the zombie who shared their whisky jug spoke in a voice so quiet the Creator had to strain to hear.
“It’s a lonely thing, being undead. My wife and our babies died so long ago that I can no longer remember their faces. And where I spend my days the fear and loathing are like whiplashes against my skin. And yet. When I come here, for this one day I feel whole. The comradeship of those around me right now, gives me enough warmth in my soul to carry on for another year.”
The Creator felt shame. “Do we do wrong then to let your kind exist?”
“No, Great One. We serve a purpose on the faces of the earth. Some of us are old and ugly with our faces falling like autumn leaves, but we serve. We take the newly dead across the river. We cleanse the land after plagues. And always we stand between the children and the stuff of nightmares.”
The Creator bowed their head. “It is so. Indeed it is so.”
Their companion laughed showering the ground about it with flakes of skin and gobbets of things it is best not to consider. “It is, Magnificence, but for all thy beauty and strength and power I feel in my soul that you are as lonely as we.”
“That may be, my friend. That may be.”
The darkness around them was velvet blue and filled with little white moths and fireflies. It was beauty at its simplest and was as hypnotic as it was warming.
The Creator suddenly became aware of the time and snapped back to the realities of life. They leapt to their feet.
“Oh no! I can’t believe I forgot my responsibilities so easily. It’s time my friends.”
They opened their arms and all around the enchanted place portals opened. The undead filed out, most turning for one last look but none complaining at the necessity to return to whatever hardships the humdrum of everyday held for them.
As the last portal closed, the Creator’s shoulders slumped and they stood quiet for a second, trying to breathe in the last vestiges of peace and society.
Of a sudden something landed on one bare foot. It was a stick. A stick dropped from the mouth of a white puppy with floppy ears and mismatched eyes. The Creator bent down and saw this to be one of the undead. A very new one if they did not miss their guess. The creature had a plaited collar around its tiny neck. There seemed to be something whitish wrapped around that collar and they unwrapped it with unsteady fingers. It was a piece of slightly grubby paper.
This is Shoddy. He understands being lonely too.
When the Creator returned to their marble halls they carried a small furry bundle beneath one perfect arm.