The first one came in the grey hours of false dawn.
It was a pitiful thing, barely more than bones, with a wooden leg on the left and a face cracked and scaly as long dried leather. I watched through the second floor window as thing pawed at the door with the fingerless stump of its right hand and moaned for admittance. Flakes of skin rained down from its dry limbs like rust falling from ancient metal.
For a moment I thought of ignoring it. The condition of the creature's legs told me that it was a very slow walker, and the rules were very clear: none of the dead were to cross the Borne Gap before midnight. Certainly this early guest had violated that rule. There was no way this shabby creature could have reached my station in a mere three hours.
But in the end I went down. The thing had only this one day to journey across Eastering. For one in such poor shape, I decided that an early start could be forgiven.
At the bottom of the stairs, I paused to dip my finger into a shallow clay jar. I drew gut a thick mass of potent, stinging unguent and smeared it along my upper lip. The smell was strong enough to make my eyes water, but I knew I would soon be glad. I pulled on my mask of stiff green cloth and thrust my hands into oil-soaked gloves. I swallowed hard and headed for the front room.
The pitch and cane torches burned brightly on either side of the door, filling the room with acrid smoke. Between the unguent and the smoke, my sense of smell was nearly overwhelmed. Satisfied that my protection was as good as it could be, I unbarred the front door and pulled it wide open.
"This is the day of the dead," I said solemnly to the thing scratching at my door.
"I amsh lifin' dead," it replied. Its tongue was rotten black and its lips all but gone, but it was clear that this thing remembered the ritual words well enough. "I claimsh rights'shof sh'dead."
"Then enter this dwelling and satisfy your needs," I answered. "For this is your day." I stepped aside and allowed it to come into the front room.
Though I had expected no visitors at that early hour, the table was already set with heaps of fruit and glasses of wine. I held my breath as the thing shuffled past on its mismatched legs to fumble at a bunch of grapes. Despite the creature's lack of digits, fruit disappeared quite quickly.
"Were do you journey on your day?" I asked from my place near the door.
"Mon'lay," it replied.
Monalay was a good four hours beyond the station, even for a healthy man. I could see why this thing had gotten on the road so early.
"Though this is your day," I recited, "remember that this is the land of the living. Approach none of the living while you are in our land."
It paused between grapes and nodded. Flakes of dark skin rained down from the cracked ruins of its face. "I'll be good." There was an edge of sarcasm in its slurred voice.
I turned away and gasped for a breath. Despite the sharp odor of the unguent and the thick smoke of the torches, the smell of rot was heavy and smothering. "By midnight, you must cross the gap and return to the land of the dead," I said quickly.
There was mumbled response as the dead one went on with its hurried meal. It reached for a ripe peach
I went as close as I dared and looked into the thing's ravaged face. "Do you understand what you've been told?"
The creature nodded with jerky impatience. "I un'erstan's." Its fingerless paws fumbled a peach from the bowl and it pressed the fruit against its brown teeth with a rough force that left juice running down its withered chin.
I was not certain that the creature was actually clear on the law, but I had withstood the reek of its presence for as long as I could. With a hand pressed to my mouth, I spun and hurried up the stairs. Once on the balcony, I pulled my mask away and drank in great gouts of the cool dawn air.
From downstairs, I could hear my visitor fumbling at the fruit. I should have gone down to see if he had any questions, but I stayed on the balcony, pulling in one cold, clean breath after another. After a few minutes, the door below creaked open and the one-legged thing came limping out.
About A Matter of Death, Mark says:
I'm the most death-obsessed person in the western hemisphere. I
jerk awake at 3 in the morning -- pretty well every morning -- with
the thought "I'm going to die!" I don't mean now, I mean someday.
That whole concept just seems awfully wrong.
In this story, I'm not sure yet that anybody's actually dead. It
could be that our wandering corpses just have a very bad disease,
something like leprosy times ten. Maybe they're only "ritually dead."
Then again, maybe their hearts have turned to worms and their veins
are filled with clotted dust. I'll have to write more to find out.
I am sure about our station keeper. He's not tending this remote
spot just for the good of his community, or from the kindness of his
heart. He's there because someone he knows -- someone he loves -- is
on the other side of the Bourne Pass. And he's waiting for that
someone to come shambling up his path leaving bits of his beloved in
their wake. He's waiting for that moment with a mixture of desire and
fear that's thicker than the smell from an open grave.