The smaller the southern town, the bigger the legends. I grew up in such a place, smack in the heart of the Bible Belt. In my little town, there were churches on every corner, more than any other type of building save houses. Always seemingly odd to me though, there was only one small cemetery. And this in a place where there were many old, both living and dead.
Most of my family was now buried in that old cemetery, including my great grandparents on my mother’s side as well as my grandparents on my father’s side. My dad was laid to rest there many years ago, having been killed at a young age in a tragic accident and my mother joined him just a few years back.
I still had my sister and grandmother but my sister and I had, sadly, grown estranged over the years. As kids, she and I attended the church with which the cemetery shared its acreage. I always thought it strange that, on Sundays after service, when the kids would rush outside to play immediately upon the closing prayer, the parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles (pretty much everyone a cousin) would warn us not to venture down the hill to the graveyard. There was, after all, plenty of open grass on which to run and roll and it wasn’t like we’d be hopscotching over the tombstones. We were good little Sunday school educated children.
Once a year on “Decoration Sunday” we would visit our deceased relatives with the presently living ones to sweep leaves off of the fake green grass and “decorate” the graves with cheap, silk flower arrangements which, only a week later, would be tossed down the side of a nearby hill now perpetually carpeted in silk perennials. I once asked my great grandma, with whom I was very close, why we couldn’t play there, to which she sweetly but matter-of-factly replied, “It’s best to let the dead alone.” From that day on, even now into adulthood, I’d think that thought whenever I saw or even thought of the old cemetery. It’s best to let the dead alone.
On my most recent visit home, I sat on the front porch with my grandmother, Nanny Faye, and having passed the cemetery on the way in, I was reminded of things that I had long since forgotten and so I asked her, “Nanny, why would they never let us play at the old cemetery when we were kids? I remember Pa taking me with him once when he went to cut the grass and, though I don’t remember doing anything wrong, he never would take me back. I loved helping him.”
She cracked a grin as if one of her fondest of memories had just been called to mind and spoke, “You know, I used to play there as a little girl.”
“Ma and Pa let you go there…play there?”
“Well,” she continued, “I was a quiet child to begin with and if I snuck off no one ever seemed to pay no nevermind, so, I’d find my way there, walking about the graves. I’d pull up weeds that had grown tall enough to cover the names on the tombstones and I’d read them one by one, memorizing them. Got to a point where I felt like I knew them all better than I knew some of the living.”
She paused for a moment, coughing, gathering her wind, and went on, “I liked it better out there than inside that old church anyway. Nobody out there was yelling at me about my sins or trying to scare the bejesus out of me—a little girl! I never bought into the hell and perdition thing anyway, the sleeping ones didn’t judge me. They were quiet. They’d just listen. I didn’t see then what I later came to see as the hypocrisy in the living ones in that old, stuffy church across the way. It was the real crypt, filled with the truly dead souls. There is no hypocrisy among the dead. I found that cemetery a quiet and beautiful place, in its own way. I’d stop there sometimes walking home from school. Mama and Daddy never seemed to mind and I am pretty sure they knew. I still go there on occasion when I take my walks of an evening…or I did when I it was easier to walk anyway.”
“Then why could we never play there?” I asked.
“Oh, some things happened there many years back…some bad things.”
“Like what Nanny?”
“Oh, just things. You know…legends. Can’t believe everything the old timers say. I reckon bad things always happen when someone disturbs something that ought not be disturbed. ‘Let the dead alone’ Mama always would say.”
“Yes, I remember. She told me that too. I had asked her why I couldn’t play there on the way back from church once.”
I wanted to ask just who they were, but I had learned over the years that “they” is just “they” in the South (one never usually gets beyond that upon inquiry for a more concrete source) so I took my grandma at her word. By now, I could tell that she wasn’t going to say much more on the matter in any event, so I resolved to let it rest at that. It was a mere childhood curiosity after all. It would have been just a story in any case, no matter how badly I wanted to hear it. I would have probably been disappointed anyway.
Time to go. I stood, walked over to Nanny, sitting in the same old rocking chair she had rocked me and my sister in as a baby. I hugged her, we said our goodbyes, and I turned to walk out the screen door. Before I had fully exited the porch, she had wrangled herself out of the chair and ambled over behind me to lock up. She said through the screen, “Stop at Ronnie’s and get a dozen red roses, would you? Pull three out, leave two on your mama’s and daddy’s grave and put the rest on my mama’s and daddy’s.”
“Okay Nanny. Love you. See you again before I leave. Oh! And what do you want me to do with the other rose?”
“Lay that one on the plot right beside Mama and Daddy.”
As I drove away, the chore and the cemetery slipped to the back of my mind. I finished the round of requisite visits that one simply must make when back home, then stopping by Greene’s for an early dinner, which happened to be in the same strip mall as Veronica’s (known by everyone in town as “Ronnie”) Flower Shoppe. I never understood why she needed that extra “p” and “e.” I finished dinner, paid my check, and then walked the three doors down to the flower shop. Ronnie and I exchanged pleasantries and, finally, I walked out with a dozen roses. Once in the car, the perfume of the roses hit me hard. I cracked my window slightly and drove back toward the cemetery, now nearing twilight.
Flowers, particularly the scent of flowers, always reminded me of death and funerals. Sure, they are beautiful to look at and I do give them to my wife on occasion as she loves them, but I have never been able to successfully divorce that connection from my mind. Funny how a thing can represent both love and death.
The old church came into view first, jutting up off the rounded hill as the final tinge of sunlight sank behind it. It was dark and the night had come quickly. I drove around to the left side of the building and parked in the gravel lot. I sat there for a moment, before getting out, and realized that I had only been there for decorations, once to help my great grandfather, and for burials. Too many burials, now that I thought about it.
Even though it was now dark, there was nothing scary about the place. I mean, what could the dead do to you anyway? It was dark and quiet…heck, I could probably sleep here. For a moment I thought I understood my grandmother’s fascination with the place. It was just the quiet and just the solitude—she was one of five children after all and the youngest. She had herself always been a quiet one.
I walked down the sloping way, illumined gently by distant streetlamps and, thankfully, the indirect beams from the church flood lights, equal in lumens, no doubt, to the bright lights accompanying Christ himself at the Second Coming. I came first to the graves of my parents. They were buried side by side though they didn’t live that way as my father was taken a long time ago and mother only recently. I took two of the roses and carefully laid them at the bottom of the tombstone, their names and short years etched into stone much like some posthumously awarded plaque. A few memories raced through my mind and I allowed myself to miss them.
Behind them, rested my great grandparents. After my dad, who I barely had the time to get to know, they were the next to leave me. They were more like grandparents to me and good ones at that. I never doubted for a moment that they loved me. I stood over their graves and carefully placed the remaining roses at the foot of their tombstone save for the last one. I stood there for a while and then, realizing that I had been standing for what seemed like forever, now darker and the wind howling, bringing with it a coldness that I wasn’t prepared for this time of year, I sat down on the cool, slightly wet grass for a moment and I thought about these people, Ma and Pa, once full of life and now gone, their physical remains having long since returned to the earth, the very earth and even cemetery which they tended with love and care for years themselves.
Just then I remembered a story about my Pa and this old graveyard. Once, while caring for the place, Pa, one of the most decent and honest people (and non-drinking I might add) I have ever known swore that he saw my dad float over him as he tended Daddy’s grave site. He came home as white as a ghost himself they said, shared what had happened with Ma, Nanny, and Mama then never spoke of it again.
A quick chill shook me awake from the dreamy land of memory. I stood, reminded of my grandmother’s request to leave one rose on the grave beside her parents. It dawned upon me, rather slowly, that this grave was for my grandmother, Nanny Faye herself. Like the other stones, there was a date of birth, but the date of death had yet to be etched. I always thought this a morbid practice. She was alive still, thankfully, and hopefully would remain so for a very long time. I thought of her now and I smiled. You can imagine just what kind of person one is if the mere thought of them can bring a smile to your face, especially in a place such as this.
I carefully placed the rose down upon the empty gravesite and I breathed in the suddenly cold, dark, damp air. And then another chill—a chill so cold that it raised the hair on the back of my neck and arms and then shot down my spine as though I had been struck by lightning. I now stood immovable, frozen in place, transfixed as I stared down at the rose. That same flower that I had just placed upon my grandmother’s plot. No longer was it the bright, vibrant red rose in full bloom as it was but moments ago, but now, now—in what could have only been a matter of seconds, it had turned black--the blackest of blacks—and was withered. It could have lain there for one hundred years.
I won’t say that I did so bravely, but I did manage to pick up the rose so as to inspect it as, truly, I imagined the darkness and the setting had conspired, playing a trick upon my eyes and mind but, as I grabbed the stem, the rose disintegrated into ashes and fell back to the earth.
At that very moment, pulled from the terror of the experience, I realized that my phone had been ringing but I was so far from that reality, truly in another world, maybe the world bordering this one and that one, and it seemed as though I came back to my senses in stages. I answered the phone. It was my sister.
Through heavy, wet sobs, “Nanny just died…”
I vaguely remember this much before sinking into sadness of the thickest and darkest kind. We may or may not have finished the conversation.
The next thing that I do remember is lying on the cold, damp ground wiping the tears from my eyes, the pinholes of light penetrating the black veil of sky distorted by saline mist. But somehow, through the heartbreak, heavy and unexpected, I managed a slight laugh, if such was possible. Perhaps it only seemed to me a laugh. It dawned on me that I had never told my grandmother that I was coming to the cemetery and, in fact, I wasn’t sure I would have had she not mentioned the roses for the graves.
I realized that she had told me first, in her own way. I didn’t need the phone call. She herself had been that solitary, vibrant, red rose in bloom. But as always, the rose withers. She had told me—she had shown me—in that rose, the rose which smelled of love and death…the rose which had turned black before my eyes…the rose that fell to pieces in my hand. And she made this place, which had been a mystery to me, a little less mysterious. She had always found peace here. And now she would have it forever. So I left, leaving the dead alone.
*First published in the October 2021 edition of Raven Cage Zine.
The sea was a flat sheet of glass, a mixture of blue and violet as the surface caught and dispersed the sun. The clouds thin and high in the azure sky. The mullet were jumping off the west rock jetty and he knew that this would be a good day.
An excerpt from the forthcoming work of microfiction, Heming Ways, by Shane Huey. Written on September 7, 2021 from Key West, Florida.
I have continued to work on my forthcoming book, Heming Ways, a tribute collection of 50-word microfiction stories in the vein of Ernest Hemingway but it took the backseat to some travel and a few other projects and opportunities (one of which is writing from Ernest Hemingway's personal writing studio at his former home in Key West in just a few days).
Below is a recent excerpt.
To write is first to watch…to observe. The devil is in the details and one must first see the things that others gloss over or miss entirely before one can write anything real and good. Watch people, listen to their words, then retell it all. Good fiction is truth.
-S. Huey, Sept. 6, 2021 from Key West, Florida
An excerpt from Heming Ways...
There is truth in every lie and, arguably, a lie in every truth. A writer, a good one in any case, walks the line between both worlds and not for the sake of writing but for the sake of living life itself. Living happens at the boundaries...the wild edges.
Moore's Law was antiquated years ago and is only half as accurate as it once was. The speed and power of computer processors more than doubles every two years these days. We could never demonstrate Moore's Law in the biological computer that we refer to as the brain. Even now as I write this in the year 2072, computers—digital, quantum, and biocomps—still can't compete with that soggy, grey mass of matter. Artificial intelligence remains just that, artificial. Yet the human brain remains as it was one million years ago, essentially unchanged save the one exception.
In its perpetual quest to defy God or Nature, humanity in all its genius and cerebral glory, decided that the best course of action would be to (humanely and safely of course) cull the population. On some level, this made sense though it never quite had the full support of the human race as, with a population of almost 8 billion in 2020, there were legitimate concerns. Overpopulation was a problem and a big one but, then again, so too were climate change, rising sea levels, wars, food shortages, disease, aging, and even death itself (work toward a vaccine is ongoing). The underpinning point of logic in all of this was, population controlled, major disasters related to the aforementioned would be reduced, for example, less human impact on the climate, fewer people to war over whatever it was that we were warring to begin with, more food, less disease, etc. A veritable “win-win” for the entirety of Nature.
The biggest problem faced by the scientists was just how to control the population (more problematic ethically than technically). Abortion, now legally sanctioned and supported by most, couldn’t solve the problem and birth control was such that the number of abortions performed annually worldwide had dropped due to the effectiveness of the newest medications and devices. But there remained those that either did not or would not utilize birth control whether for lack of access or on religious principle, both among the minority now. The population nonetheless continued to increase, albeit now at a slower rate, while resources diminished at a compounding rate worldwide. People continued, despite all measures, to reproduce. More still needed to be done. The planet itself was dying.
Medical science, having gained a stronger foothold in the political arena and commensurate freedom related to innovations for the common good, took it upon itself to develop a solution—no time for politicians and votes. This was easy enough, there were now plenty of options and, without the lengthy medication, medical procedure clearance, and safety proceedings required as in times past (thanks to a novel virus that killed millions of people worldwide between the years 2019-2021 and its subsequently fast-tracked vaccine).
Two significant decisions were made. The first was to "vaccinate” all newborns with a special strand of RNA using CRISPR (the now-standard technology utilized in the common practice of gene editing) that would modify what is referred to as the DRD4 gene. This particular gene was identified by Israeli scientists long ago as being the chief gene driving sexual desire (libido). By switching the gene off, no more sexual desire. That was step one. There are no guarantees with CRISPR technology and turning a gene off or on isn’t quite as simple as flipping a light switch—there is nothing binary about the process when it comes to genes, unlike digital systems. An additional measure had to be taken to guarantee the desired result.
Step two was a bit more invasive but relatively quick and painless. Any persons (due to age and/or other contraindications) who did not receive the DRD4 gene modification were required by law to undergo a procedure in which a small electrode was placed into the brain to lesion a small area of the basal forebrain referred to as the nucleus accumbens. This particular area of the brain is where the processing for pleasure and reward takes place and by removing the bulk of neurons in this area, pleasure was, effectively, rendered a non-experience. Sex and its related pursuits no longer able to be tied to pleasure by the brain made for an effective birth control in its own right. Thus, in two fell, technological swoops science had done what two millennia of world religion could not, despite its best efforts.
There were some positive effects to the erstwhile. One, for example, was all but the end of addiction. No longer did drugs and alcohol become so closely associated to pleasure that one could not function or live without them. The deranged (the few that remained in any case) no longer felt the urge to harm others as there was no pleasure to be garnered from it. But, as we now know, there were negative effects as well. Not only did we humans lose our desire (or most rightly stated, compulsion) for sex, we lost desire outright—a drive firmly rooted in our ancestral lizard brain and shared with all the other animals varying only in degree. Arguably, we humans felt it more so than any other creature upon the Earth. Goodbye joy! Then there was the complete loss of motivation. Most of what we humans did, before the man-god intervention, was predicated upon the perception of pleasure being associated to the activity or at least to a satisfying result thereof. Why do anything at all sans possibility of at least the sense of reward?
What was left? Depression and darkness. There was little motivation to pursue anything, even life itself.
The area of the brain lesioned contains (rather, once contained) the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is the chief chemical that circulates through the brain and system and most closely tied to the human experiences of pleasure and happiness. As the cells that both produced and responded to dopamine (as Nature intended) were now gone, the incidence of depression rose in the population. We knew about such beforehand, thus the mass marketing and overprescribing of “happy pills” in times past to such an extent that people were less anxious and less likely to be depressed just from drinking the tap water. Such drugs were endemic. Now, the drugs would be of no help. The “Black Veil” as it was referred to by the media was rent and from it flowed a worldwide pandemic of suicide. An inadvertent contribution to the planned population reduction but, nonetheless, something had to be done.
Our capable scientists were able to account for these things, at least somewhat. They couldn't simply provide more dopamine via injection or pill, as the neurons which need that elixir of joy were lesioned—burned—destroyed. They were no longer there. To be sure, dopamine plays more roles in the brain and body than pleasure alone but, that is the absence thereof took its toll. First they tried other drugs, such as serotonin, but a side effect of serotonin is the overproduction of dopamine which has the undesired effects of anxiety, insomnia, and, in some, even mania. In any event, the dopamine produced elsewhere in the brain or supplied artificially would never reach the area that required it most as those brain cells were simply no longer there.
But what they did do that seemed to work, somewhat and so far in any case, was to create the Eros chip—one of the smallest microprocessors ever made that could be implanted into the nucleus accumbens (where the dopamine cells used to live). This chip could be controlled in two manners. On the one hand, it could effectively be set to autopilot and, reading signals related to pleasure in other areas of the brain not directly responsible for pleasure (think trigger cascade) it would gently stimulate the accumbens such that the old sensation of pleasure, more accurately something resembling it, could be experienced by the subject. Conversely, it could also be controlled manually via an apropos (formerly called an application or, more nostalgically, an “app” up until the release of the TheosMobile X. Say one had the desire to eat dinner and thought it might be a nice one, they could open the apropos, select a few settings (e.g., duration, intensity, etc.) and actually semi-enjoy the meal. Of course, the only thing that both the chip and apropos did not work for would be sex due to the genetic modification coupled with the commensurate brain lesioning. Those who had not been modified genetically, were still able to find just enough desire to try for the old wet and sloppy but it was rare for any two persons to share that same desire simultaneously and thus, effectively, the grand experiment was a success.
Electrical outlets and wires, by now, a thing of the past. Most electronic and biologic devices powered via environmental ionization capture, solar power, or magnetic induction (currently, our most prevalent means of power, the other two only able to provide ancillary energy to lower-tier systems). But, sometimes, there is no escaping the past and its technology (there are still some fossil fuel-powered vehicles on rural roads after all) and powering the MagDuct stations requires the kind of megawattage that can only be supplied by the old grid and it is a well-established fact that the grid is antiquated and failing.
I write this now, apropos on and active, though fearing that the grid may yet again flicker or go down outright this time. Hopefully, there are still a few readers out there, apropos likewise on, and it is to you that I pose the most important question of our day--What will we do when the lights go out?
This work of fiction first appeared in Raven Cage Zine, Issue 59, p. 133 on July 29, 2021.
The old man sat down, middle of the bridge and watched his home and village burn. The others called to him but he would not hear. Some soldiers retrieved him and placed him down on the other side of the river. He lit a cigarette, drew smoke, and tears fell.
Youth has a way of slipping away from a man. Some don't take advantage of it while others abuse it. Ideally, one would walk the middle road but men are prone to extremes, one way or the other. The sun always sets just are surely as the sun also rises.
*The above is another excerpt from my forthcoming collection of Heming Ways (hopefully, to be published by August 13, 2021). Heming Ways is a work of 50, 50-word microfictions in homage to Ernest Hemingway, told in his style of prose with reference to his life and works.
"Did you start that medicine?"
"The one I told you about last time?"
"Last time what?"
"The last time we were here."
"In the bathroom?"
"No, not in the bathroom. In this restaurant."
"Well, did you try it?"
"Yeah, worked pretty good too."
"You bet it works good!"
"Wait 'til you are ninety, like me. Then you can take two. Woohoo! Let me tell you!"
"Oh, yeah. You're still young and only need the one though. What are you now?"
"Yeah, don't overdo it."
Drying their hands, the men finished their conversation. Opening the solid, oak door of the gentlemen's room, they exited, walking out past a large aquarium, down the ramp toward the front doors. En route, they passed an attractive, younger lady and one couldn't resist, "Woohoo honey! I like your dress...it's the color of my medicine!"
Once back to my table, I noticed that the dress did look quite nice on my wife. "Woohoo honey! I like your dress!"
Stay tuned for my forthcoming collection, Heming Ways. Heming Ways is an anthology of 50, 50-word "micro" stories and an homage to Ernest Hemingway.
Below is an excerpt -
Lawrence heard the rustling in the bush long before he saw movement. Gradually, a grey shape emerged and he raised the Winchester eye and sight and beast in line. He prepared to fire but could not hold his aim, formerly sure hands today unsteady. Abstinence would cost him the kill.
I stepped out of the hospital into a beautiful, spring day. It was one of those perfect days—that one day right before spring and summer collide. The birds were singing their best songs at fever pitch, flowers in full bloom with the bluest of sky for background, the color bursting forth onto a palette of lifeless, grey winter. The sun rested high and bright amidst cotton-candy clouds and a determined, but now weakening, winter wind still blowing. This is the season in which one notices things as if for the first time. The season of birth and life and new beginnings.
I found myself sitting on a park bench beneath a red maple, its leaves rustling a tune which I seemed to vaguely recall but could not place. I had not noticed this park before, nor did I realize the vastness of it. It was a park for children. One giant playground. Children were everywhere. The little ones ran to and fro, playing…swinging, scrambling across monkey bars, “Weeing!” down slides big and small, scampering up the ropes and down the poles, playing tag. Their laughter carried across the breezy air, a hypnotic and nostalgic symphony. It was clearly a place built for the children by someone who loved the little souls very much.
As I watched them play, they appeared so happy. And why should they not be? What I’d give to be able to go back and replay my life as one of those little creatures. Hard to believe, now, that I ever was one myself. So full of imagination and creativity, faith and belief, hope, trust, forgiveness, purity, and not a worry in the world. Life nothing but friends and play and ice cream and cake. Each day running into the next as one grand adventure inseparable from the previous. Stuck in the perpetual motion that is the innocence of childhood. Until we tell them that they “must grow up,” killing within them all that we truly cherish and miss in ourselves. Why must they grow up? Why must we?
We pretend to be the wise ones but look at them! Black, white, yellow…no matter the pigment of the skin…running together hand in hand, laughing, playing. Always together. Always happy and, when there is unhappiness, its origins are not of their world but of the big ones’. How often are we happy? How often have I been happy these past few years, battling my own particular hell of illness and mostly alone? Hell! If there is one, maybe we grown-ups deserve it but never the little ones, no. Perhaps children are too good for heaven itself. When I die, heaven or hell or nothing. But, for them, I will believe that heaven is just one big, beautiful spring day at the playground with friends. The children play on forever.
As I sat there, thinking to myself, I was startled out of my own mind and back to the world, noticing that several of the children now stood before me.
“Well, hi there,” I said.
They just stood there smiling at me. Two little boys and one little girl.
“Beautiful day to spend playing with your little friends.”
Slightly puzzled, I looked around and it struck me—there was neither parent nor chaperone present.
I inquired, “Why, where are your parents?”
Before this question had fully rolled itself off my tongue, a moment of bafflement then that sense of déjà vu—it seemed as though I had been here before and, now looking more closely at the children, particularly the little boy to my right with his shiny black hair and hazel eyes, standing, rather anachronistically, in his patched blue jeans and white t-shirt soiled from what could have been a lifetime of play…but no, it couldn’t be.
“Little fellow, you remind me of a friend that I had when I was about your age. His name was Heath. What is your name?”
Heath. I had not thought about him for so long nor spoken his name in years.
For logical reasons, it could not have been Heath. Heath had died long ago. A car crash back in 1959, I recalled suddenly, returning from summer vacation with his family.
Lost for a moment in thought, I was unsure as to whether or not the little boy had responded. I looked at him again and, in that moment, noticed that all the sea of children on the playground had turned toward me, gazing at me with the same silent, smiling faces. The eerie silence was broken only when the little boy who had reminded me of my childhood friend walked directly up to me, took my hand into his and said, “Don’t be silly Mikey! You can come play with us now.”
I stood and, as I did, though I should have towered over them all, I was eye to eye with the boy who reminded me so of Heath. And then we played.