The Slaughtering Pestilence
By Alexander Santo
"Raleigh has his ear to the ground. Says he gets his ideas from vibrations in the earth.”
Buck popped a match with his scarred thumb and lit the cigarette in his lips. The match burned out on the cold rock at his feet; he and Grimey watched the light go out and both men turned their gazes to the horizon. Between the setting sun and the steel toes of their boots was a gray, choppy sea of rock. Grimey turned his collar up against a gust of wind and asked if Raleigh was still in the cave.
“Take too long for him to get out,” Buck said. He turned his head to spit with the wind and stole a look at Grimey's neck. Whatever had caused it to swell wasn't quick to go away.
Grimey, always observant, pressed his tongue to his lower lip and sucked at the upper. “Yuh. Getting into my mouth, feels like. Head's gonna be the size of my uncle Joe's watermelons if this keeps up.”
Buck exhaled smoke at the horizon as if he could offend God so easily. “Let's go, huh? Get back to Raleigh before that head of yours weighs you down,” he said. They turned their backs on the sun and trod over the expanse of pestilent volcanic rock. They could smell salt in the air, but where the ocean was neither man could tell. They'd only seen rocks and some hardy lichen. And darkness—if that counted as a feature of the landscape. Buck would say it did. It was the dead eye of the cave, the darkness beneath a sharp pike of rock that had initially made the cave visible to them.
It was this black triangle in the solid earth they looked for as they returned to the cave. A piece of rock the size of a writing desk shot out of the ground at thirty degrees and below it was the cave mouth. Buck had figured it the result of a popping bubble, the buildup of gas in the lava and an explosion that cooled before gravity could take full effect and seal up the empty pocket. To get inside, a man had to lay flat on his stomach and pull himself forward with his hands. They kept their heads low, avoiding the drips of stone that would otherwise press into their scalps. They crawled the length of their bodies five times before the ground slopped down and flared out at their sides. The cave was tall enough for a man to sit comfortably, but the ceiling rose no higher.
Raleigh's anxious voice in the darkness. Buck felt Grimey's leg against his as the other man pushed himself to a sitting position.
“Who do you think?” Grimey said. He grunted and sighed and the old leather of his jacket squeaked on the smooth rock.
“Buck too? I can smell his smoke.”
“Yuh. Me too, Raleigh. Did the ground tell you anything?”
“It told me what direction the sea is in,” said Raleigh.
“Bullshit it did,” Grimey said. He coughed and struck at his chest. “If I can't tell by smelling the winds for two days you sure as shit can't do it with your dirty ear to the rock.”
“It's south,” Raleigh said, as if Grimey hadn't spoken.
“Can't go tonight anyhow,” Buck said. He went silent and let the patter of rain outside do the explaining for him. The cave mouth hissed at them. Acid constituted most of the rain, and it stung the rock as much it burned the skin. The men shared a pattern of welts from the Storm Before. Before they found their cave, and before the ground began to speak to Raleigh.
“Gonna have to drag me out with you when we go. My leg's stiffened,” said Raleigh.
“I don't know why I'd do that, since all you've done is took a nap and woke up with a direction in your head,” said Grimey. He sniffed loudly and made a noise in the back of his throat like he would spit. The air smelled like skunk spray and melted batteries.
Buck said he was going to sleep. “And since there's no point in your conversation, I'd say it's best you stopped having it.”
He felt the ground beside him for sharp rocks and lay down with his head on his arm. The rain turned to downpour and lasted the night.
In the morning some light came into the cave, but did not reach the men. It stayed hesitating at the entrance. Grimey went out first and pissed on the rocks. He watched with some interest as the spatter of dark yellow pooled in a shallow cleft. Buck and Raleigh crawled out of their hole behind him, and though he'd finished his business, Grimey made no move to help Buck. Raleigh, hoisted out by his shoulders, winced at the pain in his left leg. It had been broken—not bad enough to split the skin, but enough to make him lame. He unzipped his pants and rolled onto his right side to piss away from the cave.
“How's it we got so much water left in us?” said Grimey. “Feel like I'm taking an hour off my life every time I undo my fly.” He slapped his taught neck. “Of course I had that feeling before, with certain women in my life.”
“Your face is worse,” said Buck. He stood with his hands in his jacket and his mouth creased.
“Yuh, fuck you too, Buck.”
“It gets into your mouth we'll have to cut the swelling out.”
Grimey spit into his puddle of piss and sniffed loudly. Behind them Raleigh rolled onto his back and looked up at the gray sky. It took him some time to discern the location of the sun, but when he found it outlined in the mist like a tarnished ring he threw his hand to the right of the cave entrance and said, “There's south.”
Grimey turned around to see Raleigh. “Oh? You just start crawling that way, and don't you stop until you hit water or the water hits you.”
Buck produced his crumpled pack of cigarettes and lifted out the last of them. He tapped his finger on the filter, grit his teeth, and replaced it. With one arm he lifted Raleigh onto his good foot and placed the rest of his weight on his own shoulder. Raleigh extended his right arm to shake the stiffness out of it. The side of his face was dark from being pressed against the cave floor, and the collar of his white shirt was yellow with sweat. He asked Grimey if he'd come up with a better plan during the night. “You know we haven't gone in that direction yet,” he said.
Grimey pulled at his shirt sleeves and fingered the tarnished buttons on the cuffs. “You were right, Buck. I can feel it in my chin now. Got a feeling that by sundown I'll be talking like Elmer Fudd. But I suppose that's just as well. Never going to be a great o-rater.” Grimey didn't look at the others, but walked past them, heading south. Buck pivoted, keeping Raleigh's weight against his side, and followed after. They walked, Grimey always in front, always keeping the sun on his left, and did so until it burned above their heads and their shadows became gray pools at their feet. They sat down on the once boiled rock and pulled their coats over their necks to keep the skin there from frying. The mists had evaporated, but the horizons hadn't changed. Gray-blue sky met gray-black rock and sealed them in a cloudless dome.
“Two things we can do,” Buck said. “Turn back and hide from the rains at night, or press on and risk it.”
“You know my vote,” said Raleigh. “But I am in your hands.”
Grimey got to his feet. “That way is death,” he said, pointing north. “We can have ourselves a lovely tomb in the cave if we want. Christ knows I wouldn't eat another man if it came to it, but that don't mean I want to watch him hollow out and die either. Guess if it came to it, I'd like to see him die after going out of his own power, when he can't walk no more. That's a man I could watch die and still have respect for him. The other one would make me sick for him, and twice as sick for myself for sitting with him. We're going to die, boys. May as well have some dignity about it.” He started walking again.
Raleigh stared at his broken leg and spoke to Buck. “I am for the pestilence ahead of us. But I tell you there's water on the other side of it.”
Buck waved his words away. “I was merely stating facts. I don't give a damn either way.” He helped Raleigh up again and they walked until the crippled outline of their ship was exposed against the orange-red sunset.
The hull was rent where the engine had blossomed into a flower of burning gas. Black scorch marks capped frozen petals of steel. What remained of the fifty-foot deck was splintered and dimpled from acid rain. The Storm Before had plucked their craft from the ocean and left in the hellish desert.
Raleigh nearly dragged Buck to his knees. He lunged out to touch the ship's skin and missed by three feet. “Get me closer, Buck! The rocks don't lie, not to those that listen!” He marveled at the beaten hull as if it were the face of his god. Buck shuffled forward until Raleigh's fingers could brush the metal. “What did I tell you?” Raleigh said.
Buck wiped some sweat out of his hair and pressed his palm to the sunbaked hull. Several feet from his hand a tear opened up and a mass of burnt sea vegetables hung over the ragged lip. “What do you think, Grimey?” he called out.
Grimey had walked to the destroyed aft of the ship. “This is the ship we came in on, sure, but it ain't the one we're getting out on.” He pointed a dirt covered finger to the south. “And I still see nothing but rocks and gray air.”
“Doesn't matter,” Raleigh said. “This is a sign from the earth, a nod of approval.”
Buck grunted and took Raleigh to the starboard side of the ship. “I don't think I felt the earth nod, but I guarantee this will save our necks from the rains tonight.”
Grimey grabbed hold of the ship's rail and pulled himself onto it. He leaned awkwardly against the listed deck and rolled roughly onto his back. With his neck craned, he saw several rusted cages of rotted, melted fish. “Lookee there, stairway to heaven,” he said. He pointed to a stairwell that led down into the belly of the ship. The crates made a precarious ladder to the darkened opening. “Hey ya, cripple boy, if I toss you into them cages, you think you have the strength to pull yourself up?”
Raleigh's neck bent back as he examined the ascent. “God willing, I do,” he said. “If he doesn't, you'll give me a kick in the ass that will get me there.”
“I guarantee it,” Grimey said, laughing for the first time in an eon. “Hand him up, Buck.”
Buck’s eyebrows raised, but he didn’t voice his mind. He heaved out a sour breath, shifted his grip to Raleigh's waist, and hoisted him up. Grimey crouched against the horizontal rail and ground the rubber soles of his boots into the pitted metal. He hooked his hands under Raleigh's armpits. “I ain't letting your weight hit the rail, so get ready,” he said. Taking Raleigh from Buck he used his legs to pull the cripple man up and simultaneously launched him to the left. The maneuver was awkward and Raleigh's injured leg caught momentarily by its limp foot and he nearly collapsed backwards onto the rail. He lunged with his arms held stiffly out and a pained scream on his lips. His fingers caught the thick mesh of the cage and the stack rocked forward. On the ground Buck instinctively stepped backward, wary that the whole thing might collapse onto them. But the crates settled with the weight of the rotting fish, and Raleigh hung onto them; his fingers oozed blood. And epithet from Grimey snapped him out of his panic and he breathed a gagged word at the fish corpses.
“Haul your ass up there!” Grimey shouted. His hair and his dirty shirt had both gone dark with sweat. A red-blue vein appeared under the skin of his swollen neck. Buck reapproached the ship and, jumping, heaved himself onto the listed deck next to Grimey.
Raleigh managed to gain some leverage with the toes of his good foot and took some of the load from his hands. The knuckles of his left hand creaked as he let go and reached higher. He moved his right hand and his right foot in unison and brought himself half a foot closer to the stairwell. The cages moaned, but held together.
“Another night or two of that rain and those cages will pop and splinter until the whole thing goes and collapses,” Buck said. Grimey nodded, uninterested.
“Let's see if the cripple falls and becomes a pary-plegic,” he said.
“I saw Ral pull a three hundred pound swordfish out of black waters in Sargasso. Man's got arms on him.” Buck let his head rest against the deck of the ship and looked down and out at his feet. The perspective made him dizzy. He closed his eyes and tried to remember the rocking of a ship at sea. He pictured white foam atop blue scallops of water and for one moment felt the ship sway beneath him. When he opened his eyes Raleigh was nearly at the top of the crates.
“Come on you bastard son of a whore, get up there!” Grimey shouted.
Raleigh reached the top and found himself two feet from the stairwell. He jumped his good foot up, so his body made a C shape. He was covered in sweat and his breath was ragged and wheezing; his right leg shook violently. He paused long enough for Grimey to call him a bastard fuck, then launched himself toward the stairs and into the deck of the ship. From the rail Buck and Grimey cheered. They watched Raleigh drag his broken leg into the boat and into the darkness of the tilted stairs.
“You're next,” Buck told Grimey. “Hope you can do as good as a cripple.”
“If I don't, please have the decency to kill me quick,” said Grimey. He shimmied to the crates of rotted fish and seaweed. The sun had begun to set and the evening clouds rolled onto the horizon like lazy, grazing cattle. Buck watched them come closer and saw the sky darken with their painful rain. He followed Grimey up to the stairwell and pulled his boots into the darkness as the first drops streamed and hissed across the deck.
The interior of the ship was pitch black and Buck fell several feet from the stairs into a pile of unforgiving shapes heaped against the upright floor. Something moved against his arm and he reached out for it, but felt nothing save the texture of steel and hard plastic.
“There goes Buck,” said Grimey's voice. It came from very near.
“Where are you?” Buck asked the darkness.
“Not sitting in a pile of radio equipment. Follow my voice.”
Buck put his hand down on the corner of something sharp and he hissed at the pain. A drip of hot blood came out of his palm and he wiped it blindly on his jacket. He put his hand out more gingerly and conducted his way to Grimey, who hummed the refrain to “Moody River.” His song stopped abruptly and he said, “Hey, that's my leg you're fondling.”
“Ah,” said Buck. He eased back into the floor with a deep sigh. “Where's Raleigh?”
Right here,” Grimey said. Buck heard a hand slapping lightly on fabric. “Poor dumb bastard is out like a light. That climb tuckered him right out.”
“I believe I'm in the same boat,” said Buck. His flat laughter echoed in the hull of the beached ship.
The night went by quickly to the exhausted men, and in the morning Buck woke to a shaft of yellow light descending through the crooked stairwell. This illuminated Grimey's face, which during the night had fallen against Buck's shoulder. Saliva dripped from Grimey's swollen lips, and Buck saw that the man's chin and neck had inflated remarkably during the night. A bubble erupted from Grimey's mouth, and a choking noise emitted from his throat. Grimey's eyes went wide and he reached for his purple neck. Buck fumbled to help him sit up as Grimey wheezed and gagged. His coughs subsided after some moments and his eyes drooped. His breath slowed to a steady wheezing and he remained still, one hand pressed to his temple.
"You all right?” Buck said.
Grimey shook his head minutely. His voice came out slurred through his fat lips. “You 'us right...Gotta cut 'ee.”
“Yuh, I'ng fwucking suh.” Grimey lifted his heavy head and turned his dark eyes to look into Buck's. The light had intensified so that Buck could see how far the swelling extended down Grimey's neck. The purple skin crept below the collar of his shirt. Buck put his feet against the wall and pushed himself into a half standing position on his toes so that he could get the knife from his belt. Buck examined the unsheathed blade. It looked sharp, “But we should have some alcohol to clean it,” he said.
Grimey balled a fist and beat it against the hull. “Wight no' I 'orreed 'out cha'kin. Infwuction I'll 'orree 'out later.” He slapped his head once and squeezed his eyes shut. Buck slid to a crouched position. He looked at Grimey's neck, but something in his periphery caught his attention and his focus shifted to Raleigh, who lay covered in hard shadows a few feet apart from them.
Raleigh's neck was also purple, and the veins appeared black beneath his pale skin. Buck reached across Grimey's chest and shook Raleigh hard by the shoulder. His head flopped to the side and bile dripped to his chin; his bulging eyes had around them crusted rings of yellow.
“Oh chirst, he's dead.”
“He's gone. I don't understand what happened,” Buck said. He felt his chest deflate and he flinched, sucking in a deep, jagged breath. Grimey grabbed hold of his wrist. A wheeze left his throat in place of a word.
“Okay.” Buck took his eyes from Raleigh's corpse and examined Grimey's throat. It was covered in dirt streaked with sweat. He put his left hand against either side of Grimey's neck and felt for his carotid arteries. They beat beneath the taut, stubbled skin like clogged garden hoses. He felt for the adam's apple, but it was buried under the swelling; he felt higher up, and discerned no pulse there. A clicking, gagging noise emitted from Grimey's lips and Buck felt cold sweat drip down his back.
"Hold still,” he said, and clasped Grimey around one side of his neck. He wiped his blade on his pants and held the point just above where he thought Grimey's adam's apple to be. “I ain't a fucking doctor,” he said. The knife slid a centimeter into the swelling. A rupture of clear yellow fluid came from the small wound. Grimey thrashed and Buck held him back with his forearm and made another cut on Grimey’s lower lip. More fluid, swirling with blood, spilled down Grimey's chin and onto his shirt. His face creased into a painful expression and his boots struck out at the scattered radio equipment.
“Fucking horseshit!” he yelled through a bubble of saliva. He shoved Buck away and bent double with his forehead touching one knee. His mouth dripped with bile and his neck with poison.
Buck leaned on the tilted floor and watched Grimey choke. Grimey continued to breathe curses between dry heaves, which signaled to Buck that he could breathe again. Buck turned his gaze again to Raleigh. What he saw this time sent a jolt of lightning through his nerves. He didn't register a thought going through his brain, but his body jerked and his right hand lashed out with the knife. The noise Buck made was loud enough to break Grimey's preoccupation, and what he saw through his bleary eyes was this: A fat brown and green snake, its tail wrapped around Raleigh's ankle, its head a half foot from Buck's crotch, a knife splitting its egg-shaped skull, and its amber eyes welling with blood.
The echo of Buck's strike disappeared toward either end of the dark ship and neither man could fill its place for several moments. The serpent's body jerked and twitched. When death reached the tail and it loosed its grip on Raleigh's leg, Grimey pressed his palm to his throat and said in a hoarse voice, “Give me one of his shirt sleeves.”
Buck nodded and licked his lips; slowly he brought up his foot and slid the snake's head away. He turned the dead man's head and reached for the shirt. Its sleeve ripped off easily, and Buck helped Grimey to wrap it around his neck. They made the knot over the slow drip of the wound.
“Appreciate it,” Grimey said. He eyed the serpent. “Can we get the fuck off this boat?”
The climb out was slow. Neither of them mentioned Raleigh's body. It lay next to the snake in the jumble of busted transmitters and receivers. The mesh sides of the crates felt fragile and several times Buck’s weight was enough to break the metal apart. In another day they'd collapse and Raleigh's tomb would be inaccessible.
Buck helped Grimey down off the ship's rail and they were once again on the smooth, rocky plain. A frigid wind ushered away the southern mists, but their absence revealed nothing. Buck lit his last cigarette; his body shivered with pleasure and his head spun. Their going was faster without Raleigh, but they were weak, and their steps became halting. They kept on course with the aid of a blurred sun. Neither man suggested a break, for they knew it would take a colossal effort to stand again, and so they walked until the sun dipped low and the dark, nightly clouds rolled in.
“I'll walk until my boots melt,” said Grimey.
“I'll walk until one of those raindrops goes through my skull,” said Buck.
“I'll walk until I hit the ocean, that's a fucking guarantee,” Grimey said.
“I will walk until I stumble and stand upright again in hell,” said Buck. “And then I reckon I'll keep walking some more.”
Grimey's teeth flashed in a grim smile. “There's a plan.”
The men continued to walk, and their steps were muffled by the growling sky. Their vision was decreased by the night and they no longer knew in which direction they walked. A peal of thunder shook the air around them and it began to rain. Acid burned their hair and stung their scalps. Buck and Grimey raised their leather jackets over their heads for temporary relief. They bumped into each other as they stumbled forward. The rain ate through their jackets and in twenty minutes they burned again. Corrupted water streamed into their eyes and smeared their vision. They shook with pain.
Before them a white light arced across the sky and disappeared. They were nearly blind, and the light was all they could discern. It returned a moment later and swung away again. They almost went over the cliff, but some instinct stopped them. The invisible shore was a dozen yards below them, and black waves crashed against black rocks. The lighthouse turned and swept them with its glaring eye.
“Cripple bastard was right,” said Grimey. He hissed in pain. The sleeve around his neck was tattered and melted. It flew off and was swept over the cliff.
Buck put his arm over Grimey's shoulder and the other man did the same. Their scalps were gone and their exposed, bloody skulls shined like grotesque helmets. Buck felt ahead of them with his foot and found the edge of the cliff. A drop of water entered his ear and he nearly screamed. His welted hand clutched at Grimey.
Grimey snarled through his bloody lips and returned the pressure.
The beam from the lighthouse silhouetted two figures at the edge of the cliff. They were cast into darkness, and when the light returned, they were gone.
Photo credit: disanwstock.deviantart.com