In the Shadow of Leaves 5: Despair

The swamp was silent, absent of the usual whine of bugs, chirps of birds, belching chorus of frogs. There was beauty in the silence, but a pervasive sort of sadness dominated it. Snow didn’t tend to linger in the swamp. The water never quite froze here; the roiling decay of underbrush and plant detritus kept things warmer than the rest of the region most of the year. Still, some pristine white clung to the top of the taller trees. The air had a crispness that was only slightly colored by the undercurrent of scent that labeled the region so very clearly a bog.

For generations beyond counting, the Chasseur family had lived in the depths of the swamp. Most folks tended to consider the area unlivable. It was hard to travel, if you didn’t know the ways, and eking out a living was harder here than most places. The Chasseurs were a stalwart sort of people, though, and rather than working hard against nature, had simply learned to be more content with less. At least they had. The last of them stood muddy on the largest little hill in the muddy region. Houses could be built on stilts, but the family graves didn’t have that luxury. Generation after generation had been laid to rest here. Markers ranged from coarsely chiseled stone to simple woodened planks. Most lacked writing, but had a picture carved or some symbol to indicate who lay buried there. Land was precious, so once the eldest forgot who was buried where, the markers were collected on the edge of hill, and a new body was laid to rest over the bones of the old. In typical times, this was a slow process, as the dead slowly overtook previous generations for dominance of the little hill. Today was different.

Over a dozen plots had been dug. Bones decorated with scraps of skin and hair had been wrapped in rotted sheets and gingerly laid in each their spot. The peat-rich soil had been replaced. A section of relatively clean wood had been carved with a symbol for each person who slept there now. Many had come out to help with the burial; more than had ever come from outside their swamp for a funeral before. More faces than could reasonably be remembered. They were gone now. The only living soul was seated at the edge of the smallest of the plots, legs tucked up to his chest, forehead resting on knees, tears streaming down face.

The darkness of the crypt was clinging, like a cold fog that set everything soaking with icy water. Each step was treacherous and forced a small, almost timid stride. The… *thing* that had spoken from the shadows had been cruel before. It had thrown rocks, or shadowy tentacles, or sharp pains at those brave enough to weather the assault and liberate the souls of the fallen. Henri had gone in several times, shrugging off some of the attacks, absorbing others. It was exhausting work, but Marionette had refused to quit. And Cadence had refused to quit. And Isabel had refused to quit. So Henri had refused to quit. Again and again, he guided someone into the dark, protecting them from what he could, and pulling them out again. The thing had called him light-bringer. The thing in the darkness had hated him. Then it had levied an assault against him that he couldn’t shrug off.

“What do you know of family, outcaste?” it had hissed, while Henri clutched a collection of assorted bones to his chest. “What do you know of a family staying together even in the darkness?”

Then it had grown quiet, mocking sympathy had colored its tone.

“Oh, but you do know. You know what it is like to lose family… and it broke you,” it had laughed quietly then and it was as if someone had ripped a warm blanket from the old man’s shoulders. A comfortable bulwark against the cold darkness had been shredded and discarded. Months of reflection happened in moments. He had been forced to see the truth of things and his own terrible cowardice.

He had seen, in full color and horrid sensation, the plague that had swept the town finally rolling over the swamp. His father was the first to succumb, a man who had never so much has had any sickness worse than a cold, had taken a fever and died within hours. Then his mother. Aunt. Brother. Sister. Cousin. Each had fallen as quickly as the last. Too quickly to bury. All Henri had been able to do was sequester the dead from the dying and pray for any hope of cure or succor to come. Alas, no panacea had presented itself; no divine miracle to save them. As his family fell one by one, his panic had grown, and his efforts to care for the dwindling survivors had grown frantic.

And then the unthinkable had happened. The dead started to return. For three bitter days, the family he had tried so valiantly to save would rise at night to try and claim the rest of their humble clan. His spear and fierce refusal to submit had kept them at bay, but he couldn’t stop the tears as his Aunt’s rotted face had dominated his vision, her boney claw-like hands grasping for her own son and shrieking a non-language at him.

Noémie had been the last to fall. She had been so frail and thin by then. Hollow cheeked, but bright of eyes. Lips chapped. Perfect blonde hair coming out at the roots in clumps. She’d smiled at him as she lay dying in his lap.

“We just need to rest now, Uncle Henri,” she’d said, in a whisper so small he could barely make it out. “We’s tired is all. Just let us rest and we be raat as rain.”

Then her unblinking eyes had stared off into nothing and his wails shook the house.

If only the horrors had ended there, perhaps the old man could have forgiven himself. But that wasn’t the end of it. He could see and not see. He was aware and unaware. The corpses of his family, too many to bury, too many to mourn, had seemed whole once more. They called to him merrily. He had blinked back tears and kissed each one. They were sick, obviously, but safe. They asked him for help, and he put them to bed. Each was tucked in and kissed goodnight. He hunted for turtles and made soup. The thick stew had dribbled down chins and caught in bedsheets.

He saw and didn’t see as his family’s eyes sunk away. How their lips and gums pulled away from teeth. How the flies collected. How they bloated and released their putrescence. He saw and didn’t see how the swamp consumed them. The heat of summer bringing their torrent of feasting insects. How discolored and rotted the sheets and bedclothes became. Every so often, one would rouse itself and attack him in an effort to eat of his flesh. He saw and didn’t see how he laughed at their orneriness, gently holding them until they were still again, and placing their diminishing remains back to bed.

The dark spirit in the crypt had taken away the didn’t see. Now he could only reflect on the horrors he had survived and the sad consequence. Noémie’s sweet angelic face had turned pale and translucent, floating after him to speak at times. Other times he had spoken to her bones. Other times to a compelling shadow that had been nothing. He saw himself speaking to the bones of his mother, soup coating exposed teeth, as he had provided her answers to himself.

This was monstrous. He was a monster. It had broken him; he knew that through and through. The tears had blinded him. The sobs robbed him of breath. He wanted to curl up until he was so small he would just disappear into nothing. But Marionette had worked through her blood. Cadence through her exhaustion. Isabel through her fears.

Wiping away his tears and wrestling his sobs to sniffles, he had gone back into the crypt again. And again. And again. One by one, the ghosts had been pulled from the gestalt darkness until only Roger had remained. The door had been nailed shut with spikes of silver and priestly rites. He had gathered his belongings, wounded and bloody, he’d shuffled to the place where he slept to weep until he had no more tears to weep.

There he sat, exhausted and alone, among the buried remains of his family. He’d gone to the other family homes and found them all in a similar state. They’d all been collected and buried. They’d had words spoken over them. They’d had stories told and names remembered, they would for as long as he could remember.

“I’m so sorry,” he muttered weakly against his knees. “Nonna this shoulda happened. Y’all deserved somethin’ better than what I done and what I couldn’t do.”

He’d sleep here tonight, he knew that much. His friends had given him the space that he wanted, but someone would come looking for him if he didn’t go tell them he was alright come the dawn. The exhaustion went beyond the physical- it has soaked past his bones and into his soul. He’d never been so tired in all his life. Shifting, he flopped to the wet moss covered earth and closed bloodshot eyes. Cuddling his knees against his chest, he cried himself to sleep. The morning would be cold, so very cold. But it would also be bright. And with the dawn would come hope. That sweet tingle of God’s light would set him right once more.

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