by Nathan Robison
The Vi11age woke one morning to an empty cemetery
and the streets full of the dead still dressed in their finest. They
appeared to me as the mummies in the monastery, very stiff, and
upright, clothes faded, the skin around the face desiccated and pulled
taut; yet I could still recognize them, remember their names though I
am an old man. At first they slunk like shadows. They appeared
around corners in the peripheral vision of the school children walking
down the lane, gone on second glance. They soon became more bold,
however, knocking on old doors, the shops and homes they knew,
begging bread, or just standing still and gazing.
I began my daily walk through the east gates, tall and iron, and as
usual the gates hung open in anticipation of my coming, and as usual,
the park was empty. I followed the path behind the museum, as is my
habit, looping around twice to view the marbles lining the reflection
pool. The slender body of the girl, about to bathe, arms up like two
poplars, holding long hair up against the top of her head. The young
man crouching, watching, body lean and lithe. Our Lady of the Pains,
nothing visible but her long hands covering her down-turned face,
body hidden in her robes. I followed the clay path around these figures
and passed the nude in the reeds near the pond, and wound toward
the back of the park, where the tall, thin pines make their little grove.
I first saw them here, near the path, among the trees. There were two
of them, an old man and an old lady, sitting very stiffly because of dry
bones and tendons, on an old checkered blanket. ] could see they were
picnicking from their withered reed basket. Their dry fingers made
scratching sounds on the china. I stopped a few paces away.
“What are you doing here?” I questioned them.
“We are picnicking,” the man said.
“Where have you come from?”
“Why, we came from the cemetery on the hill. The sexton is gone
for the day, and left his keys.” His voice Was the voice of leaves on dry
autumn nights, pushed along the cobblestones by the wind.
“And what are you eating?”
” We are eating,” responded the old man again, ” the usual fare of
late summer: cucumbers, the daily bread, a peach. And a light sherry.”
I bent my head nearer but could see only dust. They never looked
up and never said a word more than I asked. I tipped my hat and
immediately left the park.
By the time I had made it to Rua de Liberdade, the dead were
thick among the streets. They jostled in the crowds at the vegetable
market, demanded bread and cakes in the bakery. They sat playing
dominoes in the shade of the cafe terrace, slowly pushing the tiles with
fleshless fingers. At first terrifying to the children, the dead were
now merely a nuisance. Senhora Pereira chased two rigid old men out
of her courtyard with a broom. “Vizo-se embora, mortos. Get out of here!
And give back my clean sheets!”
We tried nearly everything to get rid of the dead. Some said they
would return to their graves on the hill at sunset. Others assured us
that they would return when the sexton and his assistant came back.
But the dead made no signs of leaving. After three days we met in
the village square, below the home of the mayor, to discuss a possible
solution. “Jose. Jose.” We shouted from the square. “This is your
village. What are you going to do about these dead in our streets? ” We
squabbled in the square for what must have been thirty minutes,
waiting for the mayor, not a young man, to come out and counsel with
us. The dead began to gather around the fringes of us, some trying to
“These dead must go,” Carlos the butcher said. “Why won’t the
mayor come and force them out? They frighten the women who come
to buy fresh meat. ”
“That is nothing, Carlos,” Ricardo the bookseller said. “These
dead come to my shop and tear through my books! They tear out
pages of my Biblias and Vidas dos Santos and scurry out the door. How
can I sell those books now?”
“And what of my situation?” Paulo the cafe keeper moved to the
head of the group of men. “For the past three days my deceased
grandfather and his three decrepit chums have sat on my terrace
demanding bicas. They do not drink when I serve them. They howl
even loude1~ ‘Paulo. Bring us a copinho. Paulo!’ Yesterday I left thirty
cups for them on the terrace, and nothing. They do not drink. They do
not leave.” But the angry crowd of men drowned him out. The mayor,
nearly a cadaver himself, made his way slowly down the stairs of main
hall with his cane. He waved the cane in the air like a conductor and
the men quieted down.
“Men of my village,” J ose began. “I, too, am aware and inconvenienced by this flood of the dead. But I am too old to be bothered. Soon I will join them, and the prospect of waiting out my share of eternity up on the hill where our ancestors repose in the dust does not
excite me. I, too, would be drawn to the village. Are they not our
fathers, our mothers? Our very ancestors? Let us ask them what they
seek, and maybe we can appease them.”
The crowd was silent. We could not blame the dead for leaving the
darkness of their tombs. Still, we did not want them, nor knew what
they wanted. Most of the dead had stopped talking with us after the
first day. Then it had been only muffled groans and screams for bread
or coffee. Nothing seemed to satisfy them.
“But how can we know what they want? None of them will speak
to us, or even listen,” Paulo said. This question had us puzzled until
Ricardo the bookseller had an idea.
” It was common knowledge to the Greeks that blood opened the
mouths of the dead. This is how Odysseus spoke to his father, and old
Tiresias. They want the warmth of blood. Once they are sated on the
blood of sheep they will answer anything.”
We all thought this was a fine idea, and so we sent two of the boys
off to fetch one of Carlos’s fattest rams. At first we were silent as we
waited. Then some of the men began to trace in the dust with sticks,
or whittle bits of kindling. The dead began to gather around the
square. They stood in the shade watching some of the men play
boules. Or they staggered over to the men carving. They were all silent.
“They anticipate the blood,” Ricardo said. “They are waiting for
the blood. See them come?”
Nearly all the dead had gathered around the square. I saw the
picnickers. Where had the basket gone? I wondered. Soon the boys
arrived, dragging the largest ram I had ever seen. It fought and bucked,
threatened to ram the boys. Carlos grabbed the tether and rolled his
sleeves. He thanked the boys and tossed them each an escudo. One
handed him his large cleaver
“Make a space in the middle.”
The crowd separated and made a little ring with Carlos and the
ram in the center. The dead pressed through us, fighting to see what
was happening. Carlos and three burly men bound the ram and turned
him on his back. Swiftly, Carlos moved the blade across the ram’s
throat and the four men hoisted it on their shoulders, spilling the blood
in a black pool at their feet. The eye cavities of the dead grew wide.
We all crouched in closer, waiting. A quick pang jumped in my chest,
but then, slowly, the dead paced off Back to the park, or the cafe, or
the bakery. One by one we followed them, leaving Carlos and his boys
to carry off the ram.
The next few days saw many attempts to relieve us of the dead. We
tried to lure them back to their graves with bits of bread and coins.
Few followed us all the way to the cemetery, and those that did refused
to step back into their crypts and tombs. In frustration, Carlos grabbed
a hag by the hair that refused to return to her grave and stuffed her
into a gaping, vacant tomb. Several of the men slid the marble lid over.
She was seen again at teatime, wailing and moaning outside her niece’s
home as usual.
Someone rounded up the stray mongrels that trooped through the
back alleys by night and released them in the square at noon hoping
they would glut themselves on the many walking bones and perhaps
bury them or stash them out of sight. The dogs fled as soon as they were
released, frightened by the scent of their old masters, and none
were ever seen again on our streets.
On Sunday the Padre made an appearance. Coming down the
avenida from the grey church, led by two boys swinging incense,
the Padre and the monks and nuns from the monastery slowly made
their way to the square. They all chanted something low and Latin.
The Padre was dressed in his ceremonial best: white, thick silk hanging
to his feet, richly embroidered with green vines and purple bunches of grapes. The monks knelt at the edge of the square, their lips moving.
The Padre approached a group of the dead that had been playing
dominoes in the shade and raised a small vial in the air. Among domines
and santos and pater nostm, the Padre sprinkled the dead with water. He
traced the sign of the cross on their foreheads and slung new rosaries
with splinters of the true cross around their necks. A nun whispered
that these were souls in limbo, come back for baptism and now released, but the dead simply returned to their games, pushing the tiles haphazardly around the table, ignoring the fervor around them.
I walked home in darkness of spirit that night. Nothing could con-
vince the dead to return to their Elysium. The blood, the dogs, even the church had failed. On return to the chapel it was said the Padre and
his brethren found the reliquaries sacked; the knuckle of Sao Sebastiao,
the heel of Santo Antonio liberated. As I passed down Avenida de
Liberdade they slid through the shadows, muttering to themselves.
T hey never slept, but paced the streets every night on their dark
errands, pounding ceaselessly on doors and windows. I myself had not
slept for a week, haunted by old neighbors beating on my door.
The sun took the last of my optimism that night as it swung to the
horizon. In the days following the arrival of the dead, I had found
a strange new sense of life. Perhaps due to the continual contrast of
myself to the dead around me, I became more aware of what life I still
possessed. But tonight I saw little, if any, difference between those wailing
dead and a shrunken old man. The dead jostled me in the streets, a
constant reminder of my inescapable fate.
When finally I arrived at my house two of the dead, an old naked
monk wearing only a crucifix and another I could not identify by his
tattered clothing, were tearing at the shutters, upending the potted
geraniums in the window boxes. I attempted to enter without them
noticing, turning my back to their mayhem as I fumbled with the big
rusty key. T hose damned dead were too quick for me, an old man. I
felt a bony hand on my shoulder, trying to turn my body from the door.
I slapped it away and renewed my efforts to place the key home and
turn the latch. I felt another dry hand grasp my arm, then they began
to paw and grope at my tweed coat. I swung to face them in anger and
stumbled over my own feet. I was on my back on the cobblestones, the
large naked monk at my feet with a firm double-fisted grasp on my old
key. The other rifled through my pockets, tearing the pages from my
diario, squirting the ink from my pen. I grabbed at the key in the monk’s skeletal grip. Though his arms were fleshless and weak, I could not
break my key from his hold.
“\Vhat do you want,” I shouted in his face. “What do you want
from me and my home?” T here was no answer, nor did I expect one,
but I continued to shout questions in frustration and anger as I tried to
retrieve my key. The dead were too strong for me. On previous nights
the dead and their contrivances were merely annoyances. Tonight,
however, due no doubt to the weight of my despair strength failed me.
I remember only the breaking of terra cotta near my head and the
monk pulling the key and turning to my door. I was alone in the street
when I awoke, perhaps hours later. My door was only slightly ajar
and initially, I hoped the dead had lost interest or perhaps left before
entering. A crash from inside told me I was wrong. I entered without
even glancing at the disarray of my sitting room. I knew the pictures
were shattered, the porcelain statuettes dismembered. I simply did not
care anymore. I paced down the hall past the study, catching a glimpse
of the monk tearing apart my books, surrounded by pages and leaves
drifting down around him like obscene snow. I put my back to the
crashes of dishes from the kitchen. I knew the other dead had found
the china my father had brought from Macau when I was a child. I no
longer cared about the china or my home. My only desire was to leave
the dead. I took to the narrow stairs and ascended to my room.
Thankfully, the dead had not yet reached my room. I opened the
dilapidated wardrobe and, amidst the pervasive smell of mothballs,
took out a tailored black suitcoat and threw it over my shoulders. I
brought the old hatbox out from under the bed and removed my
fa ther’s ancient English tophat. I found a piece of crepe in the desk
and fastened it over the silk band. In my funeral finery I checked my
appearance in the mirror. I had decided to retreat to the one place in
the village free of the dead. The cemetery on the hill.
I was the only living member of the village on the streets that night.
All along the path to the hill the dead were engaged in the activities of
the living: they threw boules haphazardly in the square, scattered ivory
dominoes on the tables of the cafe terrace. The dead became silent as
I passed. I had hoped I would pass unnoticed, but now I drew their
attention on my funeral march to the hill.
At first, I was followed by only two or three of the dead. Soon how-
ever, my following had swollen to a grisly procession. I doubted there
were any left in the village. M y heart sunk. Would they never leave me in peace? They continued to follow me to the one place they had
avoided for weeks. My despair grew until even the desire to turn and
shout curses on their heads left me. I continued my faltering steps to
the hill, the shuffiing noises of the dead growing behind.
The gates to the cemetery hung broken on their hinges like a
dislocated jaw. The iron gates reminded me of the park gates, cold,
silent and ever open. To my left as I entered the gates was a crumbling
doghouse. The sexton had written Cerberus above the entrance in
some sort of sick joke, but I entered unmolested.
The cemetery on the hill was a city for the dead. Plots were divided
by streets. Tombs sat like houses of the dead. The trees were leafless
in the little square before the chapel. I turned off the square, passed
the hollow ossuary and proceeded down the Via dos Martos to the
mausoleum rising from the center of the necropolis. It was here I
hoped I would finally rest in peace, free from the clutches of the dead.
I hobbled up the marble steps and pulled on the heavy grating, green
with age, entered and sat in the dust.
My peace was short lived. Immediately the dead crowded into the
mausoleum behind me. They milled about the tight room, staring
down at me. Those who remained outside howled and wailed, tried to
pull the grating ofT its hinges.
“Will you never leave me?” I shouted. “When will the dead leave
the living in peace?”
I forced my way through the forest of the dead and fell out onto
the dusty path. Gathering my strength, I began to run from the tombs.
I could run no faster than the dead. They pressed around me, eager to
watch my every action. I only wanted to be free from them. Why
would death not take me? When would I find my rest?
In desperation I moved to the nearest tomb. Its marble lid had
been pulled to one side, revealing a gaping hole. I crawled to the
mouth of the grave and dropped myself into the recess. The dead
stared down at me. I closed my eyes and for the first time in weeks slept
a dreamless fitless sleep.
To my chagrin I awoke in the tomb at first light, and not on
Charon’s shore. The morning was silent however. I listened for the
sounds of the dead I had grown accustomed to. The sounds that had
haunted the village for the better part of a month. I listened for the
howling, the wailing, the villagers’ curses. There was nothing but a
Eventually, I gathered the courage to peek out over the rim of the
tomb. I scanned in every direction but nowhere could I see a trace of
the dead. They have returned to the village, I thought. Quietly I pulled
my old body from the tomb and walked back to the square down the
Via dos Mortos. As I passed the ossuary I glanced at the open doors.
The shelves were filled with bones. Everywhere in the cramped space
of the charnel house were bodies of the dead. I ran down the path.
The tombs had been closed, their lids once again concealing the bones
beneath. Here and there I saw traces of silk or long hair caught in the
cracks. The dead had closed themselves back up in their tombs.
I silently ran back to the village, stopping only to close the monstrous gate at the mouth of the cemetery as quietly as possible. I wove the chains through the bars of the gate and snapped the lock shut through the links. Though it was nearly ten o’clock by the time I
reached Rua de Liberdade and the village square, there was not a soul,
living or dead, out in the streets. The villagers were sleeping a deep
and well-deserved rest.
The villagers will argue over the cause of the visit of the dead for
centuries, and have done so ceaselessly these last, quiet years since
their departure. Some claim it was the beginning of Judgment Day,
others the trick of demons. The theories for their departure are equally
diverse and heated. Personally, I do not think we’ll ever truly know
the cause of their sudden appearance and disappearance. Perhaps the
dead had only wanted to live in imitation of life one last time.
Regardless of the reasons, one thing remains certain: to this day no
one enters the old cemetery on the hill for fear of awakening the dead.
Nathan Robison graduated in English from BYU, after which he
disappeared off the face of the earth. At least as far as we can tell.