THE CORPSE COUNTERS by Berit Ellingsen

July 5, 2018 by RJ

 

-from the novel Now We Can See The Moon

 

By the time he sensed them through the paralysis of dreamless sleep, they were already too close, coming up at the side of the punt. Instinctively, he held his breath and remained still. One of them bent over him, a shadow blocking the daylight, and lifted the mesh scarf he had pulled over his face as camouflage and protection against insects.

“Is he alive?” someone, a woman, said close by.

He opened his eyes, clasped the nearest wrist and struck the face above it as hard as he could from his supine position. The man that was bending over him swayed with the punch. He put both feet on the man’s belly and gave him a good kick.

“Ooff!” the stranger said as he fell backwards—disappointingly, not into the flood, but into the vessel he had come from. The whole world rocked with that motion and water splashed up between the punt and the inflatable three-bench rowboat. He pushed forward after the man, but a fan of liquid hit him in the face. It was sudden and cool enough to slow his momentum for a second.

“Stop! Stop!” the woman in the rowboat shouted. “We’re medics, we just want to help!”

He spat and wiped the fluid away from his eyes. It tasted faintly of sewer and rust, but didn’t sting more than clean freshwater did. Now he saw their bright red coveralls with reflective yellow trim on the sleeves and chest, and the surgical gloves on their hands. If they were medical personnel, he couldn’t hurt them.

“Take it easy,” the man breathed, a welt already blooming on his cheek.

He sat down, but kept the man and the woman in view. They looked unarmed.

The two exchanged glances. Their hair was as greasy and ruffled as he felt and their coveralls were smeared with stains.

“Are you hurt?” the woman said while looking at his face and body, not just him, but his physical and mental status, in a way he recognized from other medics. “Are you in need of assistance?”

“I am,” the man said behind her, but she ignored him.

“Are there more people further in?” he asked.

“No,” the woman replied.

“Yes,” the man said. The two looked at each another again. The man had a scruff of dark blond hair with paler streaks in it and looked to be in his early thirties. The woman seemed to be a few years younger than the man and had straight light-brown hair tied into a long ponytail at the nape of her neck.

“We’re the last ones here,” the woman said.

“Excluding the dead, of course,” the man said.

“Just the two of you?”

“No,” the woman said. “We’re a team, a small one.”

The man grimaced like she was betraying a secret, but didn’t say anything. He still couldn’t see any bulges of weapons or ammunition clips under their clothes, not even protective vests. Next to them sat a steel case with a handle on the lid. Their craft was so glaringly yellow it would be impossible to hide. It reminded him of the vessels his family sometimes rented at the beach he was headed towards, tiny rubber rowboats that were easy to paddle, but hardly more solid than a beach mattress and just a fraction safer to use.

“Who are you working for?” he asked.

The woman mentioned the name of one of the largest aid organizations, not only on the continent, but in the world. Were things so bad they needed help from other countries?

“What about you, then?” the man said. “Why are you here?”

“I live here,” he said. “Or I used to.”

“We’d better talk at the camp,” the woman said. “All right?”

“All right,” he said.

“Good.” She leaned forward and pushed a neon-yellow rope through the rusted ring at the stern of the punt, tying it in a clumsy but tight knot. Then the strangers brought two white plastic paddles up from the bottom of their rowboat and pushed the blades deep into the water.

#

At a grass-covered mound that rose like a thatched dome out of the floodwater, they disembarked and tied the rowboat to a lamp post. He climbed out of the punt and pulled it up the muddy bank as far as it would go. On top of the low hillock stood a large open tent, its pointed roof and octagonal shape resembling the structures he had seen in the park on the way to the city. The breeze wafted through the space, lifting the ends of the open flaps. He had expected other stragglers, people who were injured or waiting to be evacuated, like in the town he had passed. But inside the lawn-scented shade of the tent, there were only stacks of plastic crates and cardboard boxes of various shapes and sizes. In the back, a large collapsible table held an array of smaller containers and caches, paper maps, toolboxes, and an orange plastic case that looked like it might protect a laptop computer for field use or a satellite phone.

Someone in a red coverall and neon yellow vest pushed a foldable canvas cot over to him and he sat down on the navy blue fabric. As soon as he did, he was overcome by such a sudden, overwhelming tiredness that he took the chance of not resisting. No one seemed to be in a hurry to talk to him, and he was soon lying on the cot, gazing up into the puckered zenith of the tent. A little later someone approached and handed him a white plastic cup with transparent, clean-looking water, which he sat up and drank before he lay down again.

A broad-shouldered, middle-aged woman with dark hair and skin leaned over him and touched his clothes. When he swatted at her, she put a hand on his chest and said: “I just need to check that you’re not a danger to my colleagues.” He let her search him since he had nothing to hide. She took something out of the inner chest pocket of his jacket, leaving a scent of disinfectant and sweat behind.

“Wallet but no identification, a few notes and coins,” the woman said to a tall, solid-framed man in his fifties with thinning, silver-gray hair, slightly watery, but gentle-looking eyes, and a generous gut hanging over the belt. They were both dressed in light-colored slacks and jackets, with thick boots that had seen much use. He wanted to eavesdrop on them further, but a brightness flared up in him and engulfed the world.

#

When he woke it was dark outside, while a wide-brimmed steel lamp glowed in the interior of the tent. The woman who had searched him and the man she had addressed were sitting further inside, together with the man and the woman in the rubber vessel, as well as two young men he hadn’t seen before. Ceramic bowls were perched in their laps and they had cups or cutlery in their hands. He watched them and listened to their voices.

“Found a few more to the east.”

“Where?”

“Out by the roundabout.”

“Are you checking them tomorrow?”

“Yes, as early as possible.”

“Found data on the female, added her to the list.”

“We’re down to the dental records on most now.”

“Sometimes that’s all we need.”

“But most of the time it isn’t. Not by far.”

“Yes, I know.”

“I’m so damn sick of this place. Heard from anyone yet?”

“No. We have wait till the end of the month.”

“Come on!”

“First survivor in two and a half weeks, congratulations.”

“Three weeks.”

“Not a survivor, a traveler.”

“How did he get in?”

“Ignored the roadblocks, probably.”

“Any records?”

“Not yet.”

“By the way, don’t expect to get more supplies. Sorry that I haven’t told you before.”

“What?”

“No?”

“No.”

“Can you at least ask them about it?”

“I knew you’d say that, so I did.”

“And?”

“The answer was no.”

“Jesus.”

“There are other sites, with people who need help.”

“What do they think we’re doing here?”

“You know how it is.”

“We’re the ones sitting here, you’re out and about.”

“Yes, but . . . “

“We’ve got some bags left, it’ll be fine.” Silence, but not too tense, still relatively relaxed.

“Well, I’m going further west tomorrow, have a feeling there will be more there.”

“Be careful.”

“We’ll be ready for it.”

“Could be difficult if there’s more than ten.”

“One by one, as always.”

“I’ll see what I can do with the ice.”

“Yes, thank you.” More silence, the sound of cutlery against bowls, and running water.

“Good night then.”

“Good night.”

They stood and dispersed into the unlit parts of the tent where he could still hear their voices, but not see them.

#

A little later the tall, solid-looking man with the light-colored clothing and silver hair stepped over the crates and approached him. He sat up, trying to clear his mind, chase the sleepiness away. The man took a bottle from the table behind them, squeaked the cork open, poured water into a cup, and held it out to him.

“Thank you,” he said. He drank and the man disappeared for a moment. When he returned he held a bowl of food in front of him. Canned meat and vegetables, soft and warm, not just reconstituted freeze-dried powder. He took the bowl. “Thanks,” he said again.

“You’re free to leave when you wish,” the man said, “but we’d be very happy if you gave us a name first so we can delete you from our lists of missing persons.”

He considered giving the man Michael or Katsuhiro’s name to check if they were missing, but what if his own name was on those lists and wasn’t crossed off so his family could know he was still alive? He gave the man his real name.

“Thank you,” the man said, writing on a small pad he took out from one of the front pockets of his jacket. Other notes had been scribbled in blue ballpoint ink there, with a spindly, curling hand. The stranger rose and turned towards the table, but did not open the orange plastic case there, or anything else.

He ate the moist, canned meal and drank the clean, mild water. The dish tasted of beef, potato, carrot, onion, and turnip. The water was gently flavored from minerals, probably calcium, potassium, and sodium. It was so good he felt a little faint. He could almost sense how the dissolved nutrients rushed to the parts of his body that needed them the most. The tension which the moderate but near-constant hunger and thirst, as well as the journey itself, had created in him eased, making him shiver, despite the relative warmth in the tent.

The solid-framed man took a bottle of water, broke the sealed cap, then leaned back against the table.

“I’m sorry that my colleagues startled you.”

He glanced up at the stranger. “My apologies for attacking them,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting anyone.”

“Neither did we,” the man said. “Not after all this time. I’m Raymond, by the way. I’m a pathologist, and like the others, I’m working to collect and identify the dead that may still be here.”

He took the man’s hand. “Are there a lot of dead around?”

Raymond looked at him. “There are still some left, yes.”

“They were killed by the hurricane and the flood?”

Raymond’s face contracted and he felt the tip of an unease that wasn’t directed at him. “Most of them,” Raymond said. “Others had been unable to evacuate and starved to death before the emergency teams could reach them. Some drank water that was contaminated with chemicals, because there was nothing else to drink. Some had illnesses that were exacerbated or precipitated by the stress of the disaster, such as heart disease, asthma, or depression.”

Hearing that, he felt heavy, listless.

“Did you perhaps see any bodies on your way in?”

“A few, maybe four or five, close by,” he said. “Some in the vehicles on the motorway to the north. Then a whole column right outside the town limits.” He saw no point in not telling the stranger.  

“Do you recall approximately where?”

He nodded.

“Can show me on a map tomorrow?”

He nodded again and spooned up the last of the food in the bowl.

“Why are you here, then?” Raymond met his eyes directly.

“I’m looking for my family,” he said. “We live here.” He braced for the “No, where are you really from? The Eastern continent?”

“Are you local?” Raymond perked up.

He nodded.

“I am too!” Raymond said. “At least I was, a long time ago. My son grew up here, we had a lovely apartment near the city center. Always good to come home to. When he moved out we rented it to two students. But I . . .  I don’t know what happened to them in the flood.”

His pulse quickened, but he realized the source of the sudden emotion was not himself, but Raymond. Something sat like a barb in the man’s flesh as well as his mind, kept away with just the thickness of a paper sheet. The pathologist seemed sturdy enough, but there was something brittle in him, not his body or his external persona, but further in. He recognized the sensation from officers he had served with during his time of service, and in friends there, and shrank from it. But that didn’t work; he couldn’t get away. He could only sit and feel the emotions that churned inside the other man, and pity him.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said, not knowing how else to address the troubles in the other man.

Raymond swallowed. “I’m certain they evacuated with the others.”

He nodded.

The pathologist seemed to pull himself free from whatever was bothering him, and stood. “Let’s not keep the others awake any longer. We can talk more in the morning. I hope you can get some rest.”

“Thank you,” he said quietly. “You too.” He sat on the cot for a while, digesting the food and the water. When someone turned the lamp in the tent off, he lay back on the curving canvas and listened to the people around him fall asleep and start dreaming. It was a long time since he had shared sleeping space with so many people, yet it remained strangely familiar, as if he had never left that life.

Beyond the tent’s sheltering fabric the evening breeze rustled in the vegetation. He felt his body’s weight against the fabric and the heft of the cot against the grass and the soil. It was as if the night and the sky and the grass wrapped themselves around him and cradled him to sleep.

 

-RJ-

BERIT ELLINGSEN is the author of three novels, Now We Can See The Moon (Snuggly Books), Not Dark Yet (Two Dollar Radio), and Une ville vide (PublieMonde), a collection of short stories, Beneath the Liquid Skin (Queen’s Ferry Press), and a mini-collection of dark fairy-tales, Vessel and Solsvart (Snuggly Books).  Her work has been published in W.W. Norton’s Flash Fiction International, SmokeLong Quarterly, Unstuck, Litro, Lightspeed Magazine, and other places, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and the British Science Fiction Association Award. Berit is a member of the Norwegian Authors’ Union. http://beritellingsen.com.

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