“Jolly Jim” Cardwell opened a hotel. In fact, he owned several, but this particular hotel was something of an oddity. It was perched at the top of what is now called Donner Summit. This isn’t in and of itself an oddity, as people have been building resorts in picturesque places since the Roman times. What was unusual about this hotel was its positioning. It was beside the railroad, its front door directly positioned upon the entrance between two railway snow sheds.
You see, the Sierras are treacherous in the winter. As the oft referenced story of the Donner party might suggest, the snow could get twenty feet high. Avalanches were common. Blizzards were frequent. Even though most of the Transcontinental’s movements were cut into the very mountain, there were still portions of the rails that ran around the outer edges of ridges and along the sides of mountains. Where the tracks were bared, great wooden structures were erected, manmade tunnels with very few openings. These allowed the trains to come and go without becoming stuck in the snow, and at Tunnel 6, the Summit stop, the hotel took in all the off boarding passengers.
Before the highways and interstates were put in, there was an old mining road called the Dutch Flat. This too ran within sight of the Summit Hotel, and it was from this barely carved trail amongst the trees that I had my first view of the place.
Pardon me for not discussing all the particulars of how I came to be there. Suffice it to say that I had been forced to leave. Pinkertons can be a bit testy when you’re accused of massive theft and the murder of a lawman, and sometimes even faking your own demise doesn’t work out so well. I’d spent the better part of two months gambling on my earnings, growing a small fortune through the preternatural gifts I possess. But Truckee had run dry and truthfully, had taken an extremely hostile temperament with me, and so I’d determined it was time to move on.
So I spent a day walking, moving my carcass as swiftly as I could up the Dutch Flat road. For a number of reasons, the train wasn’t truthfully an option for me, and I wasn’t at my best. Then there was the added difficulty of my nearest cousin, who appeared to be following me. I decided it was time to stop, and that the Summit Hotel was as good a place as any.
The place was like a beehive in many respects, much of it a honeycomb of wooden tunnels connecting buildings, painted a pale golden color. I entered off to one side, thinking it would lead me to the entrance. I found, however, that it lead me straight into a bear cave.
I call it that, because at the mouth of this lean-to hallway, there was a bear.
He didn’t seem particularly interested in mauling anyone. In fact there were a few people entertaining him by tossing fruit at his head, and he seemed to be chained to the spot. Creeping around behind him, I was put in mind of the old days, of the South Bank and my time in the theater district. I don’t like seeing animals chained. It irks me in a way I cannot adequately put to words, but I’m also equally out of love with large predatory animals like bears, so in this case was willing to overlook his treatment.
He was a black bear, quite common in those parts, but his fur was a soft brown, whiter at the neck than the back. He wasn’t too large—I put his weight somewhere around three hundred pounds, but that’s far superior to my bulk anyway. As I snuck around his back, he caught the feel of me, and immediately wheeled round. The tourists were treated to a full display of him on his hind legs, grunting at me in challenge.
Animals don’t speak in words, my friends. They only know feelings. Normally, I own whatever land I occupy and assert dominance, but these weren’t my territories. I wasn’t about to put out anything that made me seem a danger to him. Instead I stood very still, except for a slight bow. I kept my eyes on the ground between us as the stupid people clapped. After a time, he accepted our truce, and landed back on all fours.
I moved inside as swiftly as I was able. The proprietor was there and seemed surprised to see me. Evidently this time of year, he had few patrons coming via the muddy road from Truckee. I got a room and was given a promise of exceptional food. He didn’t know the cooking I’d left was some of the finest I’d ever had, but how could he. I went up to my room and washed up.
In the evening, a train came through. It brought a number of new guests and some people who simply wanted to pop over to the hotel for the merriment. None of them were from Truckee, so I didn’t trouble myself as I looked out the window onto the gap between the door and the snow sheds. The bear was a cause for delight and many of the patrons gave him a wide but laughing berth.
Dinner was a bit of a fancy affair. Despite the time of year and the snow still plastered to the mountain outside, there were people of all types, some of whom had brought some very fine dinner attire. I sat by myself as usual, and ate my dinner in peace, until Jolly Jim came and put a hand on the back of my chair.
“Did you like the bear?”
“Someone said he gave yo a bit of a turn when you arrived. I hope he didn’t scare you.”
Those words had mockery to them. I wiped my mouth. The three men at the table beside mine gave a chuckle at my expense.
“He’s a fine chap.”
Jolly Jim grinned ear to ear. “You’ll be happy to know I’m bringing him inside for a bit, then.”
I stared up at him. Was he daft? Putting an animal like that indoors, with all the tobacco smoke and the food smells. The poor thing would be in misery in an instant. “Are you sure that’s wise?”
“Oh, he does it all the time.” Jim dropped his voice. “I do it for the guests! They love it. Bring him right up to the bar and give him a beer glass.”
As he walked away, I took a deep breath. The poor animal was dutifully brought in a few minutes later, led by a chain around its neck. As if it expected it, the bear waited beside the bar for his beer, which the bartender gave him very gingerly. The bear stood up and stuck its nose into the glass, sucking out the beer to the amusement of all. I sat back from the spectacle, aware that my mere presence there was a danger to everyone.
I ate and I pulled myself in as much as I could, but I could tell the bear’s behavior was off. Jim had to scold it several times and eventually, it became so belligerent that a somewhat apologetic handler had to take it outside via another door.
Jim clapped his hands. “Terribly sorry ladies and gentlemen! I’m afraid our friend is a bit irascible today! It’s my fault. I promised him a good wrestle this morning and only ended up giving him a hug.”
There was laughter. Some of the women were shaking their heads in astonishment.
“I’ll wrestle with him,” said a man whose accent was German.
Jim laughed, but I could tell from his voice that he wasn’t confirmed that was a good idea. “I’m sure you would, sir! And from your brawn I’d say you could win too!”
I shook my head and finished my meal, tossing my napkin upon the table. The audacity of a man doing such a thing to a large beast purely for his own amusement was obnoxious to me. I had no desire to see any more of it, nor to bother the bear further with my proximity. I stood up and began to make my way from the room.
Jim was telling everyone a story about the time the bear nearly took off the former bartender’s arm, when the German persisted. He wanted to have a go at this bear. Jim laughed.
“He chooses his own opponents!”
I looked up through the window. The bear was trying to come back into the bar, dragging the handler behind him. As he shoved his bulk into the doorway, the space between us opened and the bear caught sight of me. He let out a long growl and would have turned Sampson against the pillars if not for Jolly Jim jumping between us.
Chuckling nervously, he turned to me and whispered that I should help him for a moment. I had no idea what he was talking about, but the bear kept tugging and aiming for me.
“Go out to the front, Mr. Graves, if you please, sir!” Jim hissed at me. All at once, understanding dawned for me and with a long-suffering sigh, I turned on my heel. Walking out the front door into the sludge and dirty snow of the courtyard, I waited. The bear ambled out behind me, very swiftly, followed by a number of Jim’s patrons.
“It seems, Mr. Graves, that my friend here has decided he’d like to wrestle you!”
The crowd got a good chuckle from this—thin, darkly clad me with my silver topped cane and my sour expression. There wasn’t a person there who could have thought me healthy enough for such a leisure activity, but the bear could see through all that. He wanted a piece of me. He wanted to finish our conversation from earlier.
The handler tangled with him as Jim approached me, and in his low whisper promised me a free night if I could be asked to let it transpire. I glared at him, and he apologized profusely, but there was nothing for it. The bear had his eye on me and he would not be dissuaded.
I took off my coat and handed it off to Jim. He wanted a spectacle. He was going to get one.
I’ve never fought any large animal before. I seldom if ever need to. Usually, I either know precisely what the animal wants and make allowances, or I convince it to leave me alone. But this was a wild thing raised by a man who liked to entertain. It didn’t know the proper etiquette. It didn’t have the proper bearing…if you’ll forgive the pun. I was going to have to hurt it, I supposed. And likely end up killing one of these fine folk to make up the difference in strength. It would have to be Jim, though that would most definitely cause me a few problems.
I rolled up my sleeves and checked my braces.
There goes another suit, I thought. This trip was proving to be very rough on my wardrobe.
The bear was freed from his chain and immediately made his display of height and strength. I kept still, my arms at my sides. When he dropped, it was into a full charge. I heard the heartbeat of every man standing about leap into full race and a woman scream. I side–stepped. The bear wheeled around, very close to, and brought up an arm.
With the force of a stamp mill, the bastard swiped downward at me, caught me in the chest, and put me on my back. As I lie there, looking up at him in astonishment, he stood atop me, pressing me to the ground. His head came very close to my face and he let out a slavering roar.
I thought for certain I was about to be eaten, which would have been appropriate, to be quite honest. I raised my hands to take hold of its jaw, but suddenly the bear was being pulled backward by Jim and a few hotel staff members, one of whom threw a rope around the bear’s neck. Suprisingly, the animal allowed it, and in a sullen series of moans, was pulled back to his usual post.
They fed him a large sack of fruit, while I, covered in mud, was bodily lifted off the sticky ground.
I have fought many men in my life. From Burgundians to Red Coats, and this was the first time I’d ever been put on my back so easily. Wincing, pieces of my skeleton barely hinged together, I stood huffing in the cold air, several other patrons patting my back. A large glass of brandy was brought to me and I drank it up. It was good brandy too—Hine, if I’m not mistaken. I slurped it down and took a second when it was offered. The crowd got their laughter and commiseration out of the way.
As they all repaired back to the warmth of the hotel, Cardwell slapped me on the back and asked if I was well.
“I’ve just been stood upon by a cinnamon bear, sir. How do you think I feel?”
He laughed. “Give your clothes to the steward. I’ll have them cleaned up. Shoes too! And have a bath too. I’m sorry about that. I don’t know why he was so belligerent. It had to be you, I’m afraid.”
I stood up. Something cracked loudly. His eyes went wide.
“I’ll take some more chops up in my room if you’ll do me the kindness.”
“Of course, Mr. Graves.” I put out a hand for my cane, which he dutifully gave me. “Sir, you’re faring remarkably well. You wrestle with a bear before?”
“No sir. And never again, I’m afraid.”
He chuckled and saw me back indoors. As promised, I was given a free stay, but as I took my leave, I felt it incumbent upon me to say a farewell to my adversary.
He was sitting just inside the entrance to the tunnel, huffing at me, but I could see that he was afraid. Poor sap. He’d done the one thing most people never survived—getting drunk and trying to win a fight with a monster. No telling, but it felt as if he truly wanted to beg pardon and fall upon my mercy. As if a night of thought had made him look on his actions a little more sensibly.
I stood opposite him for some time. Talking with animals takes time. Stillness too. It takes a kind of poise that humans seldom manage. I took a seat on the footing of the snowshed.
“You gave me quite the walloping, sir,” I said aloud, but with my whole being, I told him it was all in good fun, and that I wasn’t upset about it. There were a few half barrels of fruit and slop just out of his reach. I tossed him a soft apple. It sat beside his paw untouched.
He made a small, plaintive moan.
“Go on then. I’ll have one too.”
I bit into mine. It was rotten, but so what. You eat a ten day old drowning victim a few times and an old apple gives no pause.
He ate his in one great bite. After I’d eaten most of mine, I tossed him the core and got on my way.
And that is the story of how I had a free hotel stay at the Summit Hotel, by virtue of wrestling a bear. Though to be fair, he won.
You might be asking yourself what happened to the bear, and I do know the answer to that. Why? Because I never take defeat without knowing my enemy better for the next encounter. It’s tragic, I’m afraid, which is one reason I hesitated to tell the full story.
Jolly Jim was forced to shoot the poor dear only a year later. According to what I was told, he’d tried to eat a horse inside the stables at Truckee, where he was housed after Cardwell purchased the Kaiser House. It seems a few boys threw some stones at him to stop him, and he chased them from the property.
It’s a sorry tale, but in at least one way, I am content. The only enemy to ever fight me and win, no longer exists to do it again.
And I have learned my lesson. I will never again wrestle a bear or even joke about it. They are lethal killing machines, to be sure.
As of today you can purchase all the Creature’s Cookbook series, which includes two novels (Let us be honest, the first book is the length of two novels) and a collection of short stories. They are available in every format.
It’s appropriate that these came today:
As I can now begin mailing out your prizes to you–those who won the Halloween challenges!
I hadn’t forgotten, but was merely waiting…
My second book and the collection of short stories are now available for pre-order, with a release date of July 2.
You can pre-order a copy in any format you wish. I believe that the Snacks are being released individually in ebook formats, and then released together in print format in a single volume. The relevant links are as follows:
The Creature’s Cookbook 2 Monster’s Mise En Place:
Frequently, I am asked if there are any instances that stand out to me as traces of my species. Often, I look to folklore or religion for such things, but there are others…if you know where to look.
Much is made of the suffragettes Helga and Clara Estby’s unescorted trek across the country in 1896. They had laid a wager to save their farm from foreclosure and at the time, for two women to walk alone across the country was considered a scandal and a triumph all at once.
However, they weren’t the first.
In 1874, the first of the Overland staff spotted a small person walking beside the tracks outside of Omaha, in the middle of nowhere. She was strangely attired, and gave no sign that she even cared about the train, though she kept out of its way. The conductors marked her presence. At refueling stops, stations, through trains crossing one another at passage points, her existence was spread up and down the rails. A timetable was even made of her journey, her progress tracked by the engineers who went back and forth across the transcontinental.
Rumors began to spread and people turned up as she passed through their towns, never stopping, never speaking, and looking quite the sight. Hair a mess, face and arms weathered and coarse, coated in dirt and exposed to sunlight. Wearing baggy canvas trousers, a burlap sack for a shirt, and draped with a striped shawl, she carried very little and said even less, looking every bit like someone on a mission. Her pace was incredible, she averaged more than 30 miles per day over the peaks that stymied the wagon trains of only forty years previous, such that not a man could predict her movements by any reasonable reckoning.
Conductors began to offer free tickets, each time they came by her in a way station or round house. She politely and succinctly refused. When pressed, she reticently replied that she could not subject herself to the dangers of railroad travel. This confused them utterly and grew her legend. Dangers? What possible dangers could a woman face on board a train that are greater than being alone in the wilderness?
Finally, just as she came over the Sierras between Nevada and California in the spring, arriving a full 12 hours early through Truckee, she was chased down the track by an overeager reporter, who managed to pry from her that she had no occasion or cause than that she was seeking her husband. What became of that quest is unknown, as she vanished from the tracks very shortly thereafter and her story was largely forgotten.
But not by me.
My memory jogged by a newscaster’s comment made of suffragettes walking the country, I could not put it from mind. In 1874, I was much of the opinion that i was a solitary animal, and perhaps the only one of my species capable of certain things, but I know now that this was a narrow point of view. Now I look back and wonder if she adhered to my slippery mind because some part of me recognized her story all too easily.
What woman of the age does what she did, without care, dressed as she was? What woman refuses the speed and safety of the confining quarters of a train, in preference to the wide open wilderness? What did she have in her bag? How could she keep such a pace, even over the mountains, day in and day out? Where did she sleep? What did she eat?
No one knows, for she never was seen in any town purchasing supplies. She was never seen sitting. Never seen standing still. The Ghost of the Overland Route was a wanderer and kept her face to her boots, her tongue in her head.
I built that railroad and on my path westward. I built my face into the minds of men. I made a few myths and contended with others. Perhaps I cut into the land and gave her a path, cut into the minds and made things easier for her. Perhaps she exists still, somewhere near the Summit. I have reason to believe that she does…
But that is another story.
What will be the fate of that truant husband when she sets her hands fairly tucked into his hair is not difficult to conjecture. Better would it have been for him had he never been born. There will not be rocks nor mountains enough in California to cover him from her enraged sight. – Truckee Republican, June 4, 1874
Art by tumblr user @ain-individual
I have been thinking a great deal about the human concept of time. How warped it is, both to the microcosm of one individual and to the macrocosm of the species.
When a human undertakes a difficult and critical task – like a revolution or exploration, to some degree they are contemplating the entire length of earth’s timeline. They are positioning themselves and their task on an immense continuum of cause-and-effect. They’re seeing a larger picture, as it were.
But then in a few short years, most of the species – which did in fact benefit from that perspective – condenses the timeline back to their own era, their own sphere.
What I mean to suggest this, that one man can consider the world, while ALL men consider only themselves. I suppose to some degree this isn’t universal. Large scale building projects, wars and so forth, could be argued as many men coming together in an image of the future, but also such decisions usually come down to one man. One Pharaoh who wants a tomb. One emperor who fancies and arch. One leader who wants a war.
And yes, we can talk about the tremendous complexity of decisions and survival landscapes and so forth, but I don’t really care about that. The confusion of the universe has a tendency to average out unless a man gets involved.
Back when we were building the Transcontinental, there weren’t that many of us. A few thousand workers total. We would set up advance crews that would go out and speculate, appraise the land to determine the route that the road should take. Usually the path of least resistance. Across the Midwest, the great plains, the land was remarkably flat and even. The advance crews determined that the levelers would have very little to do! It would be easy, this massive construction. That was…until they disappeared. Inspectors and levlers, sometimes even the telegraph line workers would find these advance crews slaughtered, 10 or 20 at a time. The crews shrank in size. The work became a hazard. But not for long. The chief engineer of the UP was a former General, one Grenville M. Dodge.
The man was militaristic and vicious. And very very clever.
At first he posted guards with the advance teams, but that didn’t help when the men were outnumbered. He didn’t bother with discussion. He knew that the road was cutting straight through the Bison migratory path. The natives were just tracking their main food source. They were simply trying to live. And he knew that, but to him, it was a savage lifestyle. To him it was something not worth having. These people had no value, except as pawns.
Dodge got as far as asking who the enemy hated most. The Pawnee? Ah well, lets hire some of them. And so he went to that dwindling people, also trying to eke out an existence in their changing home, and bargained with their young men. Once the road was built, they could have free passage. Once it was built, they’d have a lovely little nest egg, and their people would be spared. Then he gave the railmen a simple command.
Shoot every bison.
I will never forget the sight. The train clicking through the tall grass at speeds I’d never moved before, nothing around us but the sea of nature. Great crowds of seething humps and snorting noses – majestic, enormous creatures that had eyes that were so soft…and the glee, the vengeful, hateful glee and greed on the faces around me as every one of them took aim and fired. Every herd we crossed. Every animal on the tracks. Hundreds. All left to rot on the ground.
It is the only time I have ever witnessed such large scale extinction efforts. And it astounded me. I will venture to say it was thoroughly traumatic. I had been pursuing these amazing tasks, the canal, the rails, and so on…as some kind of achievement! This was meant to be a new world that would perhaps look on me with a kinder eye. This was meant to be a new time, that forgot the old ways. But forgetting is costly.
Every week or so, we would park the train – a kind of rolling work barracks – at the end of the line. We’d make our little camp. Usually the men clumped together and lit fires. Sometimes Towns of canvas tents and lean-to’s would spring up around us with signs offering the customary revels human men enjoy. Sometimes there was a lag, which meant for quieter evenings. I always offered to be on guard. I preferred it, because it gave me the chance to move backward along the track, sometimes for miles, and take what I could from the carcasses.
So many animals dead, and no way to tell the men who depended upon them to come and fetch what was left, to preserve it, to do it justice or the customary honors. Just a cloud of decomposition and flies.
One man and the few he convinced. One man, with one command, almost annihilated a species, and crushed the Sioux and Cheyenne into a remnant. One man could have done the opposite if he’d cared to. One man could have been flexible.
Impactful things are always done in smaller scale. Significant things (for good or ill) always begin with one man. One man sees a larger time scale, places his own actions in the continuum of humanity’s lifespan. One man seeks greatness. Dodge and the men who hired him, envisioned a land of industry and wealth. He saw a future that…well…largely came to be, because he acted on his vision.
Large groups move in tiny steps. To the tune of three miles of track a day, or five advance scouts, or ten years of marching, or fifty years of law suits, or a hundred years of tyranny.
I find this depressing, even though it can also make for positive results. One slave taking over a Confederate ship, rescuing his fellows, running a blockade in the dead of night, fighting for his freedom…becoming a senator. Even though that happens…it does not happen as often, because it requires that one man to fight the world. Dodge only had to kill. Robert Smalls had to live.
Time dilates for good, and for the good of all; human time opens its mouth and swallows righteousness. The Good Of All takes the longest. The villainy of one man is the easiest thing, the swiftest thing. Takes barely the breath to utter one sentence.
“Shoot them all.”
Recently, I was asked to describe the funniest thing I had ever seen. This is a difficult prospect, as I have seen a great deal and it largely depends upon the onlookers sense of humor.
Dark humor, someone has requested.
Therefore I will tell you the very first story I recall — that of my awakening on this earth (obviously it was not the first time, as my books record, but it is the earliest memories I have that provides the beginning of all the contiguous experience of my mind from thence to now. This is the beginning of “Simon” as it were, for I knew nothing else until recently, after some 7 centuries). Please recall, that because this is my first memory, it is jumbled, is pieced together from a great deal of hindsight, and really was quite a conundrum to me until I had experienced another hundred years of that certain mingled human stupidity and cleverness that alternately undermines and composes your condition.
Some of you recollect that I have mentioned awakening on the shore of the Black Sea in a pool of bloody ooze. I haven’t been much more specific than that, because I don’t know how to be. It is simply what happened. I opened my eyes, and there I was, and I was naked, and there was dirt and blood and I was covered in it. I have mentioned stealing clothes from a plague victim, and that is true, but I haven’t exactly said how that came about. So here we are.
How best to tell it? From the vantage of newly awakened me? Or from the all-seeing eye of modernity? I think perhaps, the funniest way to tell it is how it was lived, though at the time, there was nothing humorous about it. In fact, it was utterly confounding.
I stood up. I had a good sniff. After a bit of sussing, I felt I could tell that there were other living things around me. I felt I knew that there was a limit to my movements. I don’t know how else to explain it but as the mental equivalent of standing at the bottom of a steep hill and looking to the summit in that sensation of resignation that yes, you will have to climb the hill (this happens to monsters too. We haven’t any stamina.) As I stood there, looking around with more than just my eyes, I don’t recall thinking in words. I thought in feelings, impressions. I considered the feelings I was encountering- that notion that there were boundaries that had to be obeyed. For example, when I made to follow the coastline- it was obviously impossible in that direction, but what of the other? No? Oh. How nice.
So I did. I picked my way through a very lovely green terrain, until I came closer to the water. From where I was, I had an excellent vantage of what was a harbor. Of course to my eyes at the time, it was simply a busy place bustling with human life. I hid myself away and watched, for a great long while, learning furiously.
There were moving creatures on boats, and moving creatures on the shore. There was a city with high walls, not the highest I have since seen, but at the time quite formidable. A steep rampart made climbing to the foot of the wall a challenge, and several barricades had been constructed to lean against this. Creatures stood on them looking up at the other creatures on the top of the wall, and there was a curious exchange happening. Some shouting, but mostly, a calm conversation. This was my first experience with speech. I don’t rightly know what was being said, but it was clear that the creatures on the barricades wanted something, and the creatures on the wall were telling them to piss off.
On the ground, especially on the water’s edge, there were many creatures simply lying there, unmoved. I decided that I wanted to look at the still ones. So I snuck closer. This was the first time I remember seeing a dead body, and the hunger hit me with such force and sharp need, that I don’t remember much, except that I was on my knees and digging my hands in before I could blink. The body in question was…ripe. It was at least a day or two old, bloated and purplish. Its time in the water had done it no favors, and it had massive blackish splotches on its skin. To me, these seemed odd, but I did not poke at them. I ate what I could. It did not taste all that nice, but it made me less hungry, which was the point. As I ate, I looked back at the city and I watched what was happening. Every so often, a group of creatures would huddle at the wall overlooking the water, and they would toss a dead body over the side.
What an odd thing to do.
I watched the bodies hit the water and slowly sink. Some were wedged between boats. Some rolled in the tide and were knocked about like buoys. It occurred to me then that the creatures on the wall were not eating the meat if they were tossing it over the side. They didn’t eat the dead, and so how odd I was for doing so. Like Adam and Eve having tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge, I looked up from my meal and knew my nakedness. I stole the clothes. But having no understanding of how to put them on, it all happened in a rather comedic fashion. I removed the clothing with tugs that tore the fabric, and found that when I put my own limbs in, the things hung on me like sacks and stank of death. It didn’t bother me, per say. It was simply a little blinding.
I wandered along the harbor area in my ill-fitted, tangled clothes. I found that the people around the city seemed to avoid me, rather pointedly, but there was no malice in it. They simply glanced my way in expressions of wide eyes and open mouths (what of them had blank faces, as most were wearing cloths over their noses and mouths). I had no idea why they were not hostile to me, in fact they seemed as if they didn’t mind me at all, which was somehow comforting. I was nevertheless keen to stay away from them, but none came any closer than about thirty yards.
Then a curious thing happened. I looked on what I can now describe as an encampment of men. Many bodies were lying on the ground moaning. Some of them were dead, but most were either quite obviously alive and suffering, or were comatose and seemingly presumed dead, as they were unceremoniously dumped in piles. I could hear their hearts, mind you. It seemed obvious to me that most of these things were simply lying there, as if they couldn’t be bothered to move. I did not know about sleep really, but knew I had been on the ground but hours before and so they must also find themselves on the ground occasionally. The ones moaning and groaning were seeping all sorts of liquids, and some of them were splotchy. Their still-ambulating counterparts were paying them no heed. No one even came near them, except me. With one eye to the other men in their shiny bits and padded garments and one eye to the bodies beneath me, I picked my way through. Suddenly, several men stomped up to the edge of my little crop of bodies and plucked one. This one was still alive, as will become quite evident.
Faces averted as best they could, expressions of disgust in place, the men took hold of this comatose body and heaved it up. They carried it down the shore and came abreast of a large wooden…thing. I had looked at the thing before, but it wasn’t moving. I thought it some other construction, like a piece of the city jutting out. It wasn’t. It was a trebuchet – a catapult.
Up went the slumbering sick man, into a little bucket. Men worked at the wheel as the winder went. There were odd clicking sounds and a soft humming to my ear, deep and low. After a long while, someone shouted a word, and instantly, with astounding percussive compression and force, something triggered, the great arm swiveled, I crouched instinctively, and with movement like the wind, the poor- now awake- dying man was hurtling through the air, screaming like a terrified comet.
What the devil? thought I, though not in so many words.
Why should these creatures build such machines? And why would they throw dead or dying counterparts with them? What sort of madness was this? What is the point of hurling a dead animal at someone else?
Then I decided it was best not to come any closer.
I backed out of the bodies and retreated to a small copse of trees. It had been hacked to bits, it seemed, by the groups of creatures stocking along the ramparts and swarming near the ships- pieces of lumber and splinters of wood were everywhere. I sat down and watched in stunned fascination as body after body was hurtled over the city walls, and body after body was retrieved and tossed over the wall into the water. It was all a terribly amusing recycling process and I remember wondering what it could possibly accomplish except to give flightless things a chance at soaring heavenward in their final moments, before being dashed into the water to rinse off their dust. I wondered if the cycle would repeat, or if it was something they only did to fresh bodies.
Eventually, I left the area, but not before eating a few more times.
Much later, I realized the complete meaning behind what I had seen. What I witnessed was a full scale siege – that of the Genoese city of Kaffa. You see at this time, the Tartars of the Golden Horde had allowed this conquered territory to rule itself through commerce and capitalism. Italians had made many monetary investments and purchases in the region, stimulating growth and lining pockets. In a neighboring town, a scuffle broke out between Italians and Tartars, resulting in a Muslim death. The Italians at fault fled to Kaffa, and to the shock of the Tartars, the Genoese refused to let them in. The military showed up and laid the siege…never realizing they had already been infected with the new dread scourge- the Black Plague. When the army began to die off, the commanders made a shocking decision – to hurl the bodies of the plague victims over the walls of the city. The inhabitants tried to hurl the bodies back out, but the plague caught.
Enter me – wearing a dead man’s clothes, looking every inch the modern zombie, wandering the plague victims in vague, goo-covered ambivalence. Those who saw me were probably accustomed to the sight of staggering half-dead mean (that was then the natural course of many diseases), but I dare to guess that some probably thought me some sort of omen. They avoided me because I probably looked like the pale rider. The men of the day, especially the Tartars, were notoriously superstitious.
This artists’ rendering of the siege of Kaffa is inaccurate in most respects, but I thought you might enjoy it, anyway.
Eventually the siege broke and the scant remaining Tartars buggered off. The Italians ran as fast as they could to escape the plague with which they’d been confined. When their ships left port, I snuck aboard. We stopped at a few places. I got off at one. And by a skipping means, traveled my way across the Italian peninsula, and then on to France.
The year of this arrival to France was 1348. The year the Black Death came…in fact, it likely came from the very ship in which I rode. One of the reasons why my memories of Marseilles are not so fond.
This is a very horrifying thing, yes? But to me at the time it was completely ridiculous. I have laughed at the feelings I had that day more than once since then. I laughed again when I read an article written by a specialist in communicable disease that said there was no feasible way that a corpse could spread plague by being flung through the air. Dead bodies don’t carry the plague, parasites do, and parasites leave within an hour of death. And so it is more likely that the Golden Horde brought death-carrying rats and fleas with them, and that these somehow found a way into the city, breaking the siege much faster than the catapulted corpses ever would.
I can still hear that poor man’s yelp as he shot through the air. What a rude awakening. One is utterly spent, aching, feverish, bleeding from orifices, resigned to death, and then whoosh! One is shooting through the air as a cursed missile and one’s final moment is as blunt as the side of a building.
To me, at least, this is very funny.