[Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part novelette. Visit our previous post to read Part 1.]
Reading Dead Lips — Part 2
By Dustin Steinacker
They must have razed the entire village, Alex said carefully, rather than admit that ordinary people had killed the officers living here. Better for the city to appear a battle casualty.
“Why does it matter?” she managed. “Whether it was military or rebels?”
“Czir military all captured or killed. Nobody there left, but still guerrillas fighting. No need to inspire them.”
“But you know it was rebels.”
“Everybody knows. Propaganda.”
“Then why?” she pled. For understanding, for any way to put order to this. Questions of politics seemed so distant and sanitary to this charnel town before her. “Why the coverup?”
“We pretend not to. Same thing. Propaganda still works.”
These streets of death brought names back to her memory. Her friend, little Tibor, he of the harelip scar. The Valentins, who both shouted and struck their children and made Noe glad for her gentle mother. Petr Mátyás, an oddly well-to-do peddler who’d had the misfortune of settling in Óste just before the end. A nice man with a hard-to-place accent who loved a foolish pun.
All dead or enslaved or worse. This was a graveyard, as much as any she’d visited coming here.
Nouelle didn’t remember fishing the elastic from her pocket, but there again was that comforting sting against her wrist.
There were two likely directions for the bodies. Westerly, past the half-standing livestock fence, between the village and the capital. Or along Óste’s lower perimeter–it surprised her, how easily a martial word like perimeter came to mind when talking about home — flanking the river. She doubted they’d have taken corpses over water or dug up the rockier untilled land on the other side of the road. If they had, she’d expand her search.
It was late, she told herself, though the sun was only just beginning to glare as it set. Better to go spirit-hunting in the morning.
Mercifully, Alex had held back as she toured her blighted hometown and, also mercifully, had returned Lynn. That night they left the buggy behind a standing wooden corner of wall, hidden from the road.
More vehicles passed in the dark. She looked out to see open-topped jeeps housing five soldiers each.
“Is this unusual?” she asked, keeping her voice even.
Alex smiled gently. “These men are for you, you mean? No worrying. Separate thing, something else wrong.”
“But if they thought I was a scout of some sort? Maybe they recognized the buggy or the checkpoint guard said something–”
“Shh…” he took her hand and she could feel his good arm, steady.
“You have a gun?” Alex asked in the low light of the next morning. Why he hadn’t asked that until this moment, she didn’t know.
“I did, before, for the settlements. But not here.”
He laughed silently, though his eyes betrayed concern. “Ironic, I think.”
“I figured that if I really ran into somebody I couldn’t handle here, they’d be military anyway.”
“They see a weapon, and you’re killed. As a fighter.”
“More or less.”
“But untrue. Civilian small arms only, keep maintained but looking old, like your car. No long guns, no guerrilla weapons, carry few bullets. Keep shells dry but dirty. Not notable, not what they look for.”
She watched him, sitting knees-up against this weathered, toppled house beam; a mockery of the refugee she actually was. A chill ran up her back to her mind where it stayed.
“You know a great deal about this military, don’t you?” she asked quietly. “Tactics, mindset, equipment use. You’re a traditionalist society. You wouldn’t change much over the decades.”
Alex said nothing.
“I saw you when the jeeps passed, that night in the silo. I thought you were nervous. But you’re under no threat in occupied Czir. Even with an exile in tow, you can get around, can’t you?”
She pictured him then: his face going rigid and serious and perceiving, back suddenly ramrod-straight like a younger man’s. The very shape of formality.
And then she understood what she’d been seeing in his eyes.
“Do you know what I think? I think it was force of habit. Discipline. I think you were a soldier. Am I right?”
He regarded her a good long while. Then he nodded.
“You’d have come of age around the Ruining of Auden. I remember the stories.” Dessicated clans marched through the desert to die, mountain-folk worked to collapse in killing camps and then kiln-fired into dust. “You were there, weren’t you?”
Alex was silent. But he reached into his stow-pack and after fishing for a bit produced a rough aluminum disc the diameter of his index finger. There were words engraved into it. His knuckles went white around it as he gripped it, like some trinket of worship.
“Whose agony do you think you’re erasing?” she asked quietly. “What did you do, that you’re atoning for through me?”
His eyes were wet. “Not me.” He proffered her the dog tag, but she would not take it or look at it. “Not me, others.”
That’s how it always works, isn’t it? I wasn’t the murderous architect. The orders weren’t mine. I only played my small part.
“But you were at Auden?”
He nodded. He wanted to say more, she could tell.
“So that brought you to the border, looking for… for somebody like me. For some poor expat hoping to take back a tiny piece of the life they lost. Well, is it working? Do you think you’ll get closure through my closure?”
He looked down.
“All right — go. Take some water and a couple of pouches if you need to but go.”
He opened his mouth to speak.
“Why don’t you just get away from me?” She stood, and for a moment he was her bitter enemy, and she standing against him. And then, just as quickly, that flare of anger was gone, burned out.
There on the ground, Alex seemed aged almost beyond belief, far more even than when Nouelle had met him. Whatever he’d been before, whatever he’d done when he was that thing, he was no monster now. Just an old man wrapped up in pain and regret.
“I won’t lie — I like you. But I can’t have you here, not for this. Please understand.” She did her best to smile but she was sure it came out looking sick. She felt sick.
She offered her hand.
Alex nodded, lips tight, and rose carefully on his own. He gathered his things from the buggy in what felt like seconds — had he really brought so little? — and took his first slow steps away before turning to face her.
He tossed his dog tag Nouelle’s way with a flourish, as if he were presenting a rose to a performer. He gave her a shallow bow. And then he was gone.
“Just one drink,” Nouelle said to herself. The words came easily. She was suddenly very tired, body-tired. She tried not to look at Alex’s dog tag, settling into the warm mud.
Lynn’s voice came in. “You threw him away? Just like that.”
“It’s not my job to validate an old war dog with a failed liver.” Her callousness didn’t ring true, even to her own ears. “Listen, whatever crimes he’s trying to bury, whatever awful things he did—”
“He wanted to help.”
“He did, Lynn. I believe that, I do. But look at this village. This happened because of people like him. And so much more like this.” It wasn’t the man Alex she couldn’t bring with her, but everything he brought with him. How could she explain?
“He could have gotten you back to the border. Without him you’ll die.”
Her throat tightened. “I’ll be fine. Getting out is easier than getting in, and besides—”
“Do me a favor. Disperse me. Send me on, right now.”
Nouelle stepped back, shocked. “What?”
“I’m fading, Nouelle. Having trouble keeping ahold of myself. Unless someone’s talking to me, it feels like I’m dreaming, and sometimes even then. I can’t do this anymore.”
“Even for me?”
Lynn laughed. “You don’t need me. Maybe you did, once. I think you just wanted to prove to somebody that you could do this, go back home and own your past. But the person you needed? You sent him away.”
“I’ll do it,” Nouelle said, almost as if it were a threat.
She didn’t tell Lynn that she wasn’t sure it would even work, that Lynn’s quintessence would truly move on to some other plane or become one with all other departed consciousness or any such thing. That was still very much the realm of philosophy.
“Then do.” Lynn’s voice was suddenly very professional, more like her living self than ever.
A darker thought flitted across Nouelle’s mind: Lynn had no say in this matter. Nouelle could keep her like a pet, like a hostage. Keep her companion bound for as long as she liked. Lynn was the one person who would stay by her side because she couldn’t not stay, not if Nouelle wanted it that way.
“And for what it’s worth, if you don’t find what you’re looking for out here? It’s okay. Your recovery has nothing to do with—”
Nouelle crushed the globe with the heel of her boot, and with a sound like a sudden inhalation Lynn fell silent.
Blinking, looking about, Nouelle pulled out the earpiece, and dropped it to the ground.
She was alone.
Back to her makeshift shelter, enervated, depleted. After hours of fitful half-sleep, she went out with her flashlight and walked stooped in the dark until she found it.
Under the shroud of her thermal blanket, she read the fat aluminum disc by flashlight. Alex’s dog tag was pocked and scratched and grime had gathered in the old engravings but still she could read the words, written across two tongues:
SCYZAT – NAKAR-ANCRETCLAS
MESS COOK – PROTECTED NONCOMBATANT
The laughter came easily, cathartic and bitter both. Leave it to the old man to have one last joke.
She slept easily now, and dreamed of the work waiting for her in the morning.
No markers here, no headstones. Nouelle found white chive and gamagrass rising for another season of nourishment by human bodies.
It was as Alex had said. Two rows, separate. She didn’t have to guess which held the civilians; there must have been nearly twice as many of them. The officers must have buried them right where they’d done the killing, along the inner side of the fence, where her people had grown sugar beets and sunflowers. The killers would not sow here; they wouldn’t have needed the fields. And two years later, their own bodies had filled out a smaller row.
This is where she began digging. She didn’t even look up when she heard rifleshots, far away.
These were traumatized, addled corpses. West Noratian bodies which, by the circumstance of their deaths, had shed their spirit far. She knew better than to interrogate any who had been shot through the skull, but even the intact were hardly coherent. They couldn’t do much more than convulse minutely in place, or gasp for air inconsolable, or ask the same desperate questions over and over.
It had been theorized, but never with so perfect a case study: Spiritual matter released at the same time might mingle. These people had been killed in one swoop, and then buried together. Maybe she wasn’t really reviving one person but fragments of many, muddled together and indistinguishable.
“The children.” She abandoned the nurse act, asking over and over, asking outright. “You were here, yes? Where were they taken?” But even those who perked up at her words couldn’t follow them.
She couldn’t bring herself to check under these bodies and see if this mass grave ran deeper, so she went on, to the end of the occupiers’ row, where there were greater gaps in the grass.
She exhumed the last body.
He couldn’t have been older than his mid-twenties. He might even have been handsome once. She could see a hint of the severe features she preferred in a man, not muscled but lean and harsh, as if he’d been cut out of a mountain fully-formed.
She grimaced. Disgusting, to appraise a corpse in this way.
But no, there was something else. Something about what remained of his bearing, or his tattered officer’s dress, something that brought memories to mind. Real ones?
When she revived him, he was still, almost calm. She gave him extra time to gather himself. She might only have one good chance at this.
“Time to wake up,” she said.
“Is it?” he mouthed. His voice was clear from the first syllable. “I feel heavy.”
“If you have a moment, I’d like to ask you some questions.”
“Is this a trial?” His head bobbed from side to side in the soil. “I’ve been dreaming of a trial.”
“Just some questions, sir.” She couldn’t resist adding an ironic bent to the word.
He gained presence. “Just a few questions, she says. How brutal is the coda to an exchange which begins with that phrase. We use it ourselves. You’ve bound me tight, all the better.”
He was collected — she had nothing to worry about there. She smiled. “Think of it as a trial, then, if that helps.”
He sighed. “And would you believe that it does?”
“What is your name and rank?”
“Oh, none of that would mean anything to you. I’m far from famous, and in a sort of retirement.”
You have no idea how true that is. “Tell me anyway.”
He thought. “You may call me Yuras. My work was in Special Duties. Counterinsurgency.”
Of course that meant capturing Czir found beyond the bounds of their assigned settlements or workhouses. Trying them in sham courts as combatants responsible for every burned building, for every street killing. And worse.
She recognized this man’s demeanor, even dead. She’d seen his type before. Pleasant, even affable, until the moment brutality was called for. Then inhuman.
A scene flitted through her mind, and she couldn’t be sure she wasn’t inventing it on the spot: Nouelle looking back as she fled. And this man, fully-fleshed, wiping the sweat from his forehead as he raised a pistol to the head of one of her bound neighbors…
“Y-Yuras, I have some questions about the night you first came here, to Óste.”
The corpse laughed darkly. “How quickly you give yourself away. That’s no longer the name of this place. Might I venture a guess as to who you are? And where I am?”
Let me guess — captured by guerrillas?
“I’m dead, aren’t I?”
Nouelle jolted, but she said nothing.
“What you’re doing, I’ve heard of this. There was even talk of training officers against it, so as not to betray our country after death.” He smiled, a ghastly rictus. “It does seem silly now, I’ll admit, from this side of mortality.”
“You led this massacre, didn’t you?”
His movement might have been a shrug. “I can’t contest the word you use. I’m accustomed to slower, more intimate bloodshed. This was different.”
“This was premeditated.”
“Perhaps they don’t send Special Duties for nothing. A village refusing tribute? Still, I’d have accepted surrender, resettlement. But when things are building to a bloodbath, it’s safer to commit. Ambiguity kills soldiers.”
She fought the urge to rebury this man, while leaving him distilled. How long would his consciousness hold on?
“I’m looking for my sister,” she said through her teeth. “She was taken from this place, on the day you destroyed us. Take me closer to her, and I’ll send you back to your rest.”
“Was she old enough? To know what was happening?”
“No. Practically a baby.”
“Then yes, she would have been taken. Few of the youngest were intentionally killed. To Eskild, for processing. Then to the workhouses or adoption.”
Nouelle swallowed. “Adoption?”
“Oh, surely you don’t think the top brass believe that ‘human stratum’ canard. A Noratian mainlander is more different to me than we are to each other, you and I. A Czir baby might be raised a child of the Revolution. Or vice-versa,” he added off-handedly. “How old would she be?”
“She’d be… she is eleven.”
Yuras seemed surprised. “A great long while I’ve been dead, isn’t it?”
She shrugged, though she knew he couldn’t see.
On to Eskild, then. They would have records. Katty — she went somewhere. Even if Nouelle had to track down every damn Czir child they’d taken in, she’d find her, recognize her.
“El and I were the first to move here, did you know?” Yuras said. “Into a little cottage which had a windmill belted up to grind the grain. Quaint.” He smiled. “We took one of those Czir babies. Ivva, we called her. Little firebrand. Never would stay where we put her. A natural guerrilla.”
Nouelle’s stomach tightened.
“She was El’s pride, as if the girl were her own. We settled in, took my stipend, waited for another assignment. Waited still more. Before long we didn’t even carry weapons. We joked we’d become Czir ourselves.
“When your people came, they shot me first. I remember dying now, bleeding out, that euphoria shooting through my mind when I faded… They knew I’d been the leader, just knew it by looking.” Something approaching horror crossed his face. “They didn’t spare the families, did they? I remember the pears little Ivva would bring back from the orchard, always for her mother and never for me.”
Nouelle stood, vision fading at the edges, and stepped back. She put her hand over her mouth.
Beside Yuras, a grass-nourished stretch of earth like the one that had covered him. And, filling out the end of the row, another one half its height.
She felt weak. Her lungs wouldn’t fill.
Because she knew, she knew where Katty was, for the first time in eight years.
As she dug, it was too much even to allow herself the hope that she might be wrong. Yuras spoke on through her work, but his speech went through her.
A little body was revealed. Even six years dead, Nouelle recognized her sister. There it was in her face; that insolence that had so bothered Nouelle before it had bonded them forever. That aggressive love.
Her people, her own countrymen and women, had done this. The guerrillas wouldn’t have known her from a West Noratian, just another occupier. And, like their conquerors, they hadn’t spared the children. On future days, perhaps, she’d wonder: Could she forgive them? Were they only mirrors of the brutality they’d seen, or did they bear responsibility for where they’d let their rage and grief take them? But in this moment, she thought only of the ones who had set this in motion.
Yuras flinched only slightly as Nouelle’s right boot came down. Her first step dislocated his jaw. His skull gave on the fourth.
“You bastard. You bastard.” She wiped her cheek, and was surprised to find it dry. Her ankle throbbed. “You had to take one last thing for yourself, didn’t you?” A man like Yuras was toxic–even his compassion killed.
Nouelle returned to her sister.
Catherine had been given a sky-blue burial in the dress she’d been wearing when she died.
“I came back for you,” she whispered, and she let herself cry. “I came to find you, Sister.”
She had found her.
Katty had lived her own life for two years. Nouelle couldn’t imagine those days outside of vignettes no better than the ones she remembered from home: gifts of meadow’s cat-tails or fruit to her new mother (fallen and discarded or charmed from its harvesters), clenched-fist anger when told to wash up, cackling laughter as the shepherd dogs and half-tamed mouser tabbies fled before handfuls of thrown pebbles.
Those years were her own life. Nobody could steal them as they’d stolen away her adolescence and womanhood, not for themselves but to waste, to throw to the wind like spirit.
Nouelle’s hand trembled as she reached for the receiver in her pocket. She put a collection vial into it, pushed firmly until it clicked into place. She knelt and watched her sister.
In her mind’s eye she saw that mouth moving, her dead sister speaking to her in confusion or, worse, fear. Eyes that no longer existed trying to focus and lungs that were half earth laboring in vain to fill themselves. Nouelle struggling for closure, to speak to this addled, depleted spirit wrenched away from nonbeing.
Another interrogation. One no less cruel or selfish than any other she’d conducted to get here.
She put the vial away, closed her eyes and breathed.
Whatever peace or agitation or oblivion the dead kept, it was her sister’s to keep. Neither would she exhume her parents, even if she could bear to explore that hillock of the dead to find them. These bodies would rest. She could give them that.
In the end, Nouelle found a better burial for Catherine than she’d first been given, in earth shaded by green alder, near the sound of birdsong.
Later she sat, watching the setting sun not a hundred meters from the place where she was born. The place she had left in blood and fear, the place she had come back to. She owed this view to a dead woman and a dying man, and she thought of her travel companions now — and this surprised her — without regret. She sat and remembered and she imagined the mingled essence of the dead of Óste surrounding her, welcoming her home. She’d be far away from this place by the same time tomorrow, she knew, but for just the moment, she was here forever.