In the future, the only way to make a living is by digging graves.
Coffins are no longer made out of fine mahogany and walnut; they are planted and the bodies become trees.
Mateo steps as quietly as he can through the thick forest, shovel propped on his shoulder. He thinks of the dirt underneath his shoes, and the roots underneath the dirt, and the bodies entwined among them. The graveyard becomes less lonely: the rustling leaves are all ghosts, whispering.
Devils are no good in these woods; only each other, these lesser gods, and only freshly turned soil.
He rolls up his sleeve to check the time. Digitized numbers gleam up from underneath his skin, telling him it’s still early morning. If he didn’t know any better he’d think it was night. Any sunlight that threatens to so much as peek through the thick canopy overhead is strangled.
Lately, he’s been having dreams that make the scars on his chest itch. Dreams of the untranslatable kind – Starspeak, an old friend had called it – like running his hand over a curtain only to find that there’s no gap in the fabric.
More gravediggers move about between the trees, the gleam of their shovels dulled brown. They look like phantoms. Mateo wouldn’t dare even whisper his dreams to any of them.
Too many prying eyes in the dark of this Plague-Town.
Resting his shovel on the side of a tree with long, white branches – they twist like broken arms, he’s sure there was an illness, cancer bred from the time of radiation, rare but not unheard of, a little girl buried somewhere underneath – Mateo sits. Pinches the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. Dirt hides underneath nails from where he can never get it out.
In the dream, they’re all together: Rocco, Silas, and Cora. Rocco accidentally smears charcoal over her eyes. Silas sits with their sleeves rolled to the elbow, tattooed tree roots running along the veins of their arms. Cora smiles, all chipped teeth gleaming like sharp fangs. It’s been years now since Mateo has buried them as cherry blossom, beech, and alder, respectively. Oh, he remembers the roots, the way his hands shook, how he placed silver coins over their eyes and under their tongues.
(He knows this is real. Was. Sometimes, he doesn’t know. Sometimes, he doesn’t remember even simple things. The way copper tastes when he bites his tongue; an IV drip in the back of his hand; his own blood, cold.)
Cora breaks the silence. She always does – did, “Have you kept the streets empty for us?”
That can’t be true; there are no streets. His right hand becomes a clenched fist by his side; he can’t exactly place why that is. Mateo answers her question with a question, “What streets?”
When he focuses on Cora, her edges become blurry.
“Tell us the future, Mateo,” Silas calls over, climbing, spider-like, to sit on a branch overhead. The vertical slit of their pupils shrinks, giving Mateo a sense of unease. It reminds him of a life where he was called by a different name, a life where he was an animal peered at through a lens.
(What had they said to him? See, I’m here to smoke you out. See, I’m here to ruin. See, I am as close to you as your own flesh. See, I have made you, paradox. See, you rest in a coffin and you don’t even know.)
He closes his eyes and reaches into his mouth. When his finger brushes the end of something warm and fleshy poking from his throat, he grasps it, and pulls. And he pulls at the thread like a magician unraveling scarves out of their mouth. A long piece of blood-coated rope tugs free.
Rocco’s head tilts when she asks, “What does it say?”
Wrapping either end around each of his fingers, he tugs it taught and creates a web. (See, this cannot be undone.) In his ears, there is a hollow ringing. Finally, he says: “Hell is crowded.”