The Wind, the Wind
There at the end, we took up a collection of all we had left. Gone were the makeshift explosives that had derailed the train, the bullets that had cut down the soldiers who tried to escape, gone was our hope we would make it the six months lifespan our dearest had. What we had left amounted to some lint, a hard biscuit that we fought for crumbs of, a penny someone had pulled off a dead eye, and our monsters.
We had carried them with us all this way, out to the frontier line where we won the battle but knew our time was short, where the survivors spilled over, in numbers so much greater than ours, and we fell back and hid like ghosts over the graves. First we carried them in our nightmares, then we carried them in our fear, and then we carried them in our anger. Finally, we carried them as our only link to who we were.
They trailed behind us, too far to be seen. We heard the click of their hooves or teeths, looked back for them, saw nothing. But they trailed us always, ragged balloons on too-long strings, clutched in dirty hands.
There at the end, they weren’t all that followed us. The soldiers that had pursued us since the blast, the guns, hoary and hungry Death. The soldiers’ distance from us on the map shrunk, as our stomachs shrunk, as whatever force makes life did as well. We felt that force evaporating all around us, rising with the morning mist in the fields, drawing up and away from the skeletons that jutted against our taut flesh.
We lit a fire in an old barn, destroyed and abandoned on a field. We’d found and killed a chicken, broken its neck and pulled its feathers from its dimpled skin. We thanked it for its life, which we would consume and take as our own; Death’s nearness had made us spiritual. We felt monstrous as we brought it to its painful, clumsy end. We sealed that end with our myriad prayers. The meat would barely be enough for any strength or energy, for any of us, and it seemed so cruel to bring death for so little. But that dwindling force inside us screamed and railed against dissipating, against the urge to lie on the cold ground and never stand back up, to freeze into the landscape.
After we cooked and divided the chicken, after we ate it and the fat of its body still clung to our hands and the whiskers on our cheeks and chins, we warmed ourselves by the fire. Out in the open, we’d had no flames, had not wanted to give ourselves up by their dancing. Here, inside the barn, the fire was close, warm, a sun instead of a surrender. We hunched around it, our old coats smelling of sweat, our thin hands spread at the fingers like starfish above the dancing flames.
We slept that night, really slept, tossing under the weight of blankets and dreams, burrowing into the hay that still littered the corners and smelled of musky animal hide.
We had been unvigilant in our sleep. When we woke, Death had taken the Romani. His skin was still warm from the fire we had never put out, but stiff and waxen.
He had put his name in our mouths, though none of us were ever to know the others’ real names. We had called him worse, the Gypsy, the Gyp, and he’d corrected us each time until he died the Romani to us. We wanted to mourn him, but knew he’d have a better death than us all, better than even the bird we’d eaten for dinner who had thrashed and cried. He had exhaled and escaped on a breath into the mire of dreams, never coming out. All we felt was jealousy.
We were across the field the barn stood on when the Romani’s monster came walking toward us. It wore his body like a poorly tailored suit. Its teeth were sharp and its skin still the stiff wax of death. We hadn’t buried him in his custom for protection; we hadn’t removed his head, bound his hands; we hadn’t buried him at all. And the monster he had carried had found him, was now carrying him.
His eyes were dead and milky, swimming under the caul of death’s second sight. We slowed our pace until he walked with us, his cold bones cracking like gunfire.
We kept to the trees after the Romani’s monster joined us. Our ammunition long spent, we carried our guns uselessly. The Romani’s monster carried nothing in its hands. Its nails were long yellow daggers, having grown in death and the short walk to us.
Others might have feared, but we carried the penny from a dead eye, the bones of our dinner, our own monsters. We carried the weight of our own skin, growing waxen in the moonrise, breaking and tearing too deep to bleed.
The Romani’s monster walked counter clockwise around us as we laid our heads down, dust swirling at its shuffling feet in storm clouds. We coughed deep into our dry lungs and begged it to stop, which it did in time. It laid down flat in the dirt.
The Jew’s heart appeared to give out as we shuffled along the dirt road. We didn’t know where we were headed any longer except away; our maps had become strange sigils drawn over fantasy mountains. As we tried to walk quietly, the Jew gave out a cry, clutched his chest, and fell. As the warmth spilled from his body, we wrote the names of our gods on paper and slid them under his stone tongue. It had rained the night before, and we streaked his body with mud until he was Adam, the first of his monster’s kind.
Mute, unseeing, radioed to commands from who knew where, he rose to follow us.
There were two humans left to walk with the two monsters the dead had carried. We put down our guns.
We knocked on a door and the old woman who answered moved her eyes between us, speaking rapidly in a language none of us spoke. She finally took us, men and monsters, to a shed behind her house. Scolding, it seemed, she brought us dried meats, wine, cheese, bread. We wept and she wept and she and the monsters watched us eat as if we never would again. No politeness or prayer, wolves in our hunger.
We slept amongst the tools someone had once worked her field with. The monsters walked around the shed.
In the morning, when we rose to say goodbye, she was dead. The monsters couldn’t have stopped the single bullet as it went into her head.
The pursuit was almost over.
The Madman’s monster came in the night. He let us call him that because his monsters had always called him worse and he had become immune. He was still breathing when they came closer. They huddled beneath the trees, all wet wings, dripping hair, open mouths. They chanted, thought I could not hear them. Only he heard them, as he always had.
I don’t know if they chanted his suicide, but his knife flashed silver at his wrists and his blood was an oil slick in the dirt.
The dogs were close, the men were close; I could not bury him, I did not have the strength. So we walked.
And they touched me, one after another: the hand of clay, the long yellow nails with earth beneath them, the claws that rent the skin of my arm.
I wondered who would carry me, as the howling came closer and the torch fire winked with the night stars. My monsters had been amorphous, my histories burned. I wondered if I could claim protection from a fine ghost in a black riding coat, a moon boy sold to a fate he never chose. I thought of the woman who had brought us meat and bread and cheese; I thought of wine dribbling from our lips like blood as we wept and also of her face destroyed by a bullet — the hole of blackness, the well of blood – and I wondered if her spirits could carry me. My vision tunneled as I walked in the dust clouds. There were only the monsters and I, the companions I had found one at a time, with whom I had tried to stop the advance – runaways, escapees, the brutally damned, the unchosen, the cast out. My vision hurled itself to the margins and I wept and washed away the world and when I saw again, I saw myself in a shawl, holding a cane. I was an old woman, practicing my old woman magic on the empty fields, calling the wolves and bears to circle. And the monsters and the bears, the wolves and those mad with frenzy, we turned, we turned, we saw the dogs cower and the torches fall and the wind blow through the graves.
Alex DiFrancesco is a writer of fiction, creative non-fiction, and journalism. Their work has appeared in The Washington Post, Tin House, Brevity, Pacific Standard, and more. They are a winner of Sundress Academy for the Arts’ OutSpoken contest for LGBTQ+ work. Their storytelling has appeared in Life of the Law and The Heart podcast. Their first novel was published in 2015, and they have a collection of essays forthcoming from Civil Coping Mechanisms press and a second novel forthcoming from Seven Stories Press in 2019.