after Joe Bucciano's "Dirge"
Copyright ©2016 by Christopher Conlon
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The first thing she was aware of was a red glow behind her eyelids. Then pain. Her neck ached, and her spine. Dimly she became aware that she was on her back, lying on sand; she could feel the grains shifting and slipping around her fingers. Then she realized that she could hear waves, ocean waves curling and bursting onto a shore.
She opened her eyes.
It was dark, but inside the darkness the red glow somehow filled her vision like some sort of filter over her sight. She became aware of sea-smells: salty, briny.
Sitting up on her elbows, she found that she hurt everywhere. But her attention focused more on the sea before her, which was suffused with a peculiar red light that seemed to glow from within the water itself. She stared at it for a long time, puzzled. She did not feel afraid, merely curious. Never had she seen the ocean glow like that, and such a strange color too. She wondered where she was.
It took her two tries to stand. When she did she realized her legs were weak and wobbly; her balance failed and she nearly fell, but after a moment the world seemed to stabilize and she was able to remain upright.
Looking down at herself she saw she was covered with white rags that looked like the remains of a little girl's dress. It appeared as if someone had taken it and deliberately torn it up, shredded it. There were streaks of red running down its front. In the sections where her skin was exposed she saw big black and gray bruises like storm clouds. She touched one, then another; they were tender and painful. She became aware that her head hurt, and raised one hand to her ear; feeling around, it seemed that her hair had been torn out in patches. There were areas of her head that were bald and wet and when she drew away her fingertips and looked at them they were stained with blood.
She looked up at the crashing ocean waves again, realizing that the color of the light was the almost exactly the color of her stained fingers.
Even more curious now, she stepped tentatively toward the water. She made three or four steps before nearly stumbling over something in front of her.
The obstacle was a small boy, perhaps four or five years old. He was curled up in the sand, eyes blinking rapidly, naked body quivering. There was a horrible gash across his neck that had poured blood all over him. The blood seemed to have dried now, painting his neck and shoulders and torso the same red as the red of the sea.
She looked up and across the beach. Hundreds of children were there, children as far as she could see, girls and boys, some naked, some in rags, some in regular clothes but all of them covered in blood, in bruises, in angry slashes over their cheeks and chests and stomachs. One girl near her had blood-soaked stumps for hands; another had a huge hole in her forehead, blood curtaining her face; many had torn and bloody areas around their privates. A few of them staggered about in the sand, but most sat listlessly by themselves, rocking back and forth or not moving at all. Some, she realized, were making high-pitched wailing sounds like nothing she had ever heard before.
Looking out at the water she saw that some kind of figure seemed to be materializing above it, like a gigantic white ghost. As the figure formed in the sky over the waves she saw that it was a huge man with a long beard, wearing what looked like long white robes. His eyes were fierce, as clear and hard as ice.
She watched. All the children on the beach watched. The ghost-man seemed to study them for a long time. Then his shoulders moved. They moved slowly, up and down.
He had shrugged.
His form began to dissipate into the darkness again. The children shouted. They screamed. Dozens of them, the ones who could, splashed into the sea and rushed toward the figure, grabbed it by the edge of the long robe, pulled it down into the water with them and pummeled it with their fists. But it had vanished and all they were striking at was the sea and each other.
After a time the children staggered back to the beach, covered in the red seawater which glowed on their bodies. All of them were crying, the ones coming out of the water and those still on the beach. She realized that she was crying too.
She dropped down on the sand before the shivering, glassy-eyed boy, whose cheeks glistened with tears. She wept there for a long time.
A while later—she had no idea how long—she felt something touch her arm. She looked and behind her was another boy reaching to her, this one older, nine or ten. The boy had no eyes. There were only blood-crusted holes where his eyes should have been. His lips had been sliced off, leaving him with a never-ending grimace. The boy opened his mouth, seemingly trying to speak. His tongue had been cut out.
She was aware of the sensation of the boy's fingers on her arm and after a moment she extended her hand to his. Touching the boy's skin felt good, somehow. She noticed that she was no longer crying.
Looking up and down the beach she saw that all the children had begun to find others, forming pairs or small groups, touching, making small sounds with each other, holding one another in the sand as the ocean curled and burst, curled and burst. She reached to the shaking boy with the glassy eyes and soon they were touching as well, and others too, a tiny boy with his head crushed in, a pair of girls in party dresses with the same gaping holes in the center of their chests, all of them together, nuzzling and touching as the ocean curled and burst, curled and burst.
The giant ghost-man never returned.