November 31, 1931--The cabdriver drops me at the cemetery gates and I manage to pay him without revealing that my hands and arms have turned to a sponge-like coral filled with dark holes and covered in a web of candy flesh. The infestation, if that's what it is, has spread throughout all four of my limbs and is moving slowly toward my torso. On my neck, I can feel small patches of hard, corrugated flesh that seem ready to give way. I wear a bandage over my left eye to keep others from seeing the spiny orb it has become. I am wasting away, and I am here because that frightens me.
The driver pulls away, leaving me alone before the endless sea of graves. The sun is setting, and the orange sky is dusted with factory soot. The cemetery is huge and stretches to the horizon. The ground is mostly dust, swirling in the wind, but a few dead trees stand still, dotting the arid ground throughout the expanse. I step carefully, wobbling slightly on my left leg, which has been eaten away more than the right and now looks like a slab of taffy, tearing and stretched to its limit.
After an hour or so, I make my way to the center of the yard, to where the tombstones are oldest, and rest on the steps of a rust-colored crypt. With trepidation, I remove my gloves and look down at my hands to check the progress of the infection.
On the back, where the spoke-like bones connect to my wrist, are gaping pits walled by dark jelly. Deep inside, resting on the underside of my palm, are crowded beds of red eggs nesting against the walls. Some are covered with a shiny membrane that looks like a placenta of some sort. I've tried scooping them out, but they just come back. When I first noticed them, on the night when my blistered skin finally peeled away to reveal the horror breeding inside my hands, I could see the eggs pulsating beneath their transparent skin, as if they had been gasping for air. Now, with the sun almost completely set, it's impossible to tell.
I slip my gloves back on my hands and stare up at the sky. In one of the trees nearby the crypt, a man's shoe is caught and sways with the heavy wind.
I mount the stairs to the crypt as carefully as I can, thinking how much easier it was the last time I was here. Reaching into my pocket for the key, my sleeve is pushed up and I glimpse the thin, worm-holed husk of my forearm, more a weave of dry, snaking tendrils than a part of my body.
The door to the crypt is cold to the touch and eases open with less resistance than I remember. The interior of the antechamber smells of dirt and mold, and the air is heavy and acrid. Two dried vines hang above the entryway and catch in the door as I close it, sending brittle particles fluttering down upon me.
I am in total darkness, but I know where to go. Carefully descending the steps leading down into the crypt, I reach out to touch the cool, mossy walls with both hands to steady myself. At the bottom of the stairs, I walk forward into the tomb.
The path slopes downward and continues for what must be miles. Around me, I hear no sound but the echo of my footsteps and the occasional trickle of water. This will be my eighth trip to see the shaman, and I have a feeling it will be my last.
The echoes begin to take on a strange tone, leading me to believe that the back wall is close, so I put my rotting hands out before me and slow to a shuffle.
The back wall is cold as ice, even through my gloves, but it gives way with ease.
The hissing sound of machinery fills the hallway, as does light from the torches placed along the walls of the inner sanctum. The light burns my eyes, and as I step gingerly through, I can see my breath in the cold underground air.
I close the door behind me and continue. The torches illuminate the moist bricks lining the corridor. The sound of the machines grows louder, and up ahead I see the line of torches drop into the pit.
Ancient stairs, chipped and worn, lead down into the cavern, and a small man dressed in a tattered red cloak sits at an enormous spinning-wheel below, nodding and humming.
"Hello!" I call out.
Startled, the little man hisses as his fingers are caught in the wheel. Sucking on his wound, he turns to look at me as I reach the bottom of the stairs. A sinister, yet not mirthless smile crosses his teeth and he draws himself closer to me.
"I know you," he growls facetiously in sing-song fashion. "I've been waiting for you to come around again."
"Yes," I say, smiling down at him. "But I think this may be the last time."
He smiles and takes my hand. "Wouldn't know about that," he says. "I don't keep score."
"Can I see him?"
He turns and gingerly pulls me along, deeper into the cavern. The tunnels here are not fortified, and the walls are made entirely of dirt. Tiny roots stick out and bristle as we pass. These are the catacombs underneath the cemetery, and the dead world above us peeks through along our journey. At one point, where the roof of the tunnel is built precariously close to one buried coffin, the brass handles hang through like jeweled fingers straining to be free. I've seen bones littering the side of this passageway before, but it seems to have been cleaned up since my last visit.
The little man stops before a large oak door and taps it open just an inch or two. He looks up to me and extends his hand again. Delicately shaking mine, he winks and says, "Luck," in a whisper, then hobbles quickly away. I push open the door.
The shaman lies on a concrete slab in a brightly lit room, his long, chalk-white face contorted and his lips wrapped around a clear tube leading up to a bronze coffin peaking through the earth above him. Plaster struts support the sepulcher. Around the tube's entry into the coffin, the metal is peeled back like the petals of a flower, and swirled yellow and red liquid jerks thickly down into the shaman's mouth. His eyes are closed, black slits in a chiseled face, and his red lips, stained from the cocktail, are wrapped luxuriously around the tubing as he sucks.
His head lolls on the slab and turns toward me. The lips curl into a smile and the lazy eyes acknowledge me. He turns back to face the ceiling and a bony hand reaches up to pluck the tubing from his mouth, around which are the remnants of a glistening meal.
He jerks upright with one quick movement and scuttles over to me. His face is long and muscled. The eyes are huge, perfect, and almost beautiful. The hair stands like straw, falling drunkenly around his skull. His throat makes liquid clicks as he speaks. "Back again," he says. "Last time. How are you?"
"It's getting worse," I say, removing my gloves. In the bright light, I can see the eggs imbedded in my hand pulsating against my own heartbeat.
"Take off your coat," he says, "and your shirt."
How I look in this bright light is startling even to me. I am no longer a man, but more a withering maze of dry infection. The holes in my limbs have expanded, and I can now see straight through.
"Very bad," he says knelt before me. His long fingers break off a piece of my leg and particles fall to the floor like those of the dry vine above the tomb's entrance. He holds it close to examine it, and twists it over in his hand as his head rocks back and forth. He breaks off a smaller piece and touches it to his thin, sharp tongue. When he looks up at me, I know that I am lost.
"Please," I say, "you've got to keep helping me. I know that the medicine hasn't helped before, but maybe it's helped me from getting worse."
He smiles with those thick, red lips. His throat clicks.
"I'm wasting away," I say, pleading, "but I won't die. You've got to help me."
Over his shoulder, I see the tube swaying, thick yellow liquid dripping onto the slab.
His voice is like the hiss of a snake. "I've helped many," he says. "People don't die anymore. And no one knows what to do." His body contorts into a strained crouch. "I know what to do."
And now it's clear to me what he means. The other visits were just preparation. The medicine, the treatment as he called it, was just meant to get me ready. Nobody dies anymore, that's what he said. And allowances must be made.
I take from him a map scrawled on a thick piece of skin-colored parchment and leave that place. I think about going home, but I've got enough money in my pocket. He told me that I would be among important people, and because I would have a long wait, this is an important consideration.
The night is almost over as I board the cargo ship and take my place among the rats in the hold below deck. Some of the vermin sniff around me, but I don't mind, and they go away without so much as a nibble.
When we set sail, it is almost light, and I disrobe completely, as I was told to do. I am unconcerned that anyone will find me: so far, I have not seen a single person on this death ship.
I lie, contorted amidst broken plywood and ropes of hemp. The sun peaks through the holes in my body and warms what is left of my flesh. Around me is nothing but ocean.
The voyage is long, but the time goes quickly. I am no longer a man, but I take solace knowing there were others before me, and there will be others after. This infestation is the new good night, I think, rising awkwardly from my place of rest when night falls.
The sound of the ship's motor fills my ears as I lean out over the bow. My head is now crimped against my shoulder and my legs buckle under me, forcing my meager arms to do all the work. Just before I vault myself overboard, I see that my hands have become engulfed in an undulating blanket of crab lice.
I hear the splash and the deafening sound of the ship's engine as I hit the water. As my head goes under, the sound changes to a muffled hum and the fluid creaks of my ears filling with seawater. I blow air out of my decrepit lungs and descend faster, the world of sound rapidly giving way to one of ominous silence, with my breath the only intrusion.
It seems I fall for miles; not surprising, this being the ocean's deepest point. Hours pass until I finally come to rest, nestled on the untouched, sandy bed of the ocean floor in total darkness and silence.
I roll over on my back and stare up through the black water. I can see nothing. I feel silken sand floating around my hands. I lie waiting, the darkness surrounds me.
But I am not alone. I was promised companions, and they are here. This is the new graveyard, and everyone rests here, waiting.
There are wooden doors in the floor of the ocean. I cannot see them, but I can hear them opening and closing with the undercurrent of the deep sea. The slow moaning of the aged wood travels through the current, slow and sure. Underneath lie the whittled faces of the wooden captains, alone in their world and begging for playmates. It is a lonely place, but we all must wait. And as the last scales of my skin float off, leaving a tendril skeleton behind, I think that I have found something in this deep dark silence.
The shaman waits in his underground cavern, but he is amassed in opium dreams.
My world is here, as yours will be. All of us will live again, I promise you.