Everyone needed the exhumer.
• • •
The exhumer could only be summoned by the sanduka, whose origins were beyond recall. The Holy Man would interpret the runes inscribed on the sanduka, and following these he would activate it. Strange sounds would emerge; tiny red and white lights blinked. Then it would cease, and the elders would lock it away. Within a moon’s span the exhumer would come.
• • •
The exhumer moved from village to village in a metal contraption the grumbled like an annoyed bear. He called this contraption a truck. To the village it was a miracle.
• • •
The reason to summon the exhumer was invariable. The exhumer removed the graves.
• • •
The graves were everywhere, and as long as anyone could remember the exhumer had removed them. Even to those who had traveled, who had traversed rivers and mountains and seen all that could be seen, the sheer number of the graves was befuddling. How could there be so many?
• • •
Even without the metal truck, the exhumer was different. He had no wings.
• • •
The graves were spiteful. They hated, and their hate was all that defined them. And that hate killed whoever was unlucky enough to encounter them.
Or just made them go mad.
There had been cases when entire groups tilling rows in new fields or digging ditches had fallen prey to one solitary grave.
The graves were spiteful.
• • •
Some of the graves had markers of stone. They were eroded smooth and covered by lichen and undergrowth and well obscured. But once you knew they were there you could spot them, often in neat little rows, like it had been planned. It was happening upon them at the first that was so dangerous.
The neat little rows perturbed villagers. Because it meant there was order to this blasphemy, this act of caging someone beneath the dirt and suffocating the spirit.
• • •
Only one person in all the world remembered the last exhumer. Her name was Fayeed. The woman Fayeed could tell you that the previous exhumer was a woman with skin the color of tilled soil. She could also tell you when that had changed. When she was seven her village had called the exhumer to clear out a graveyard that stretched across a vast valley between two mountains all the way to the edge of sight. The exhumer looked no different than she ever had. But when the village next encountered a grave, the current one had come. The woman Fayeed was still young enough to question this.
So that venerable elder, at 117 years old, remembered the previous exhumer. But she was one person.
• • •
The exhumer’s work was of strange ken.
He didn’t mind if people watched but most did not want to see. His main audience was children, those who had never seen the exhumer before, who were curious as to what this was all about.
But even those that came out to watch didn’t hold vigil for more than a day or so; this was because the exhumer’s work was dreadfully boring.
He had three tools. One was a shovel just like the village diggers used. This was rather disappointing to the children. The second was a pickaxe. This was a bit more interesting because while pickaxes were not uncommon, the exhumer’s was gleaming chrome and silver, pick long as a man’s arm and points so honed it looked as if it could stave through three men at once.
But it was still a pickaxe.
The third tool was a metal stake a winglength shorter than the exhumer, the greenish hue of old copper. The children did not pay much attention to this one because the exhumer never used it. It just sat in the bed of the truck next to a large barrel.
He would back up to the first grave and dig. Rarely, unless there was a stubborn clump of dirt or intervening rock, did he need the pickaxe. After some time–half an hour, a few minutes, the depths varied–he would reach the deadman sanduka, unveil it, open it and extract what was therein. Seeing the first batch of remains was enough to send most of the children home, pale and nauseated.
The remainder would watch as the exhumer took a handful of salty material from the large barrel and sprinkle it on the unearthed remains. He then calmly stamped on the remains, which fell to powder at the slightest pressure. By the next day all sign of the powder would be gone.
The exhumer worked faster than most would consider possible. Three strong men could plow a field in a day. The exhumer, with a single shovel, could unearth a hundred graves and powder them in the same amount of time. He did not stop for rest or to relieve himself. Interminably the blade chopped into the earth, and if they listened carefully they could hear the bones hiss when the salt fell on them.
• • •
In rare instances the exhumer would uncover a grave, gaze upon it for a moment or two, then close it back and move onto the next one. The children noted this but didn’t dwell much upon it. They just thought it was part of his mysterious process.
• • •
There were many types of graves.
Some were random, oddly placed here and there without cadence.
Others, more numerous, were compacted into small lots often adjacent to still-discernable outlines of an edifice.
Many were larger lots with concerns for adequate space discarded. The deadman sandukas in these were as close as bedfellows, and often the exhumer in the process of unearthing one would partially hit upon the adjacent. It was around these where most of the ruins were. Many of them were stories high, crumbling brick, gray stone, jutting blades of glass.
Others, in more spacious places, were spread far apart, in fields as large as a whole village farm, on and on until the end was lost in the haze of the burning sunlight, no markers save for an odd piece of driftwood jabbed into the harsh clay.
Beaches and deserts were the most difficult. The exhumer knew where the graves were, knew them like he knew his own true self, but in the sandy places, or places of running water, the logic of it went cock-eyed. Drifting dunes would have one sanduka all but revealed and another crushed beneath ten feet of burning, unwieldy sand. Anywhere there was sand was a problem. Rivers weren’t much better. Often they would have flooded over the intervening years and deposited a hard layer of brackish mud across the adjacent graves that the exhumer would sweat buckets breaking up with the pickaxe.
But these were not the worst. The worst by far were the mass graves.
• • •
If he were in a village long enough the adolescents would often gather the courage to ask him questions their parents had not answered satisfactorily. When they weren’t constantly showing off their newly engorged wings to one another they would walk with him and shower him with queries. They soon learned why their parents’ answers were unsatisfactory.
How do you work so quickly?
I’m in good shape.
Have you seen the sea (or forests or Great Southern Desert)?
Many and often.
How does the truck work?
A combination of explosive chemicals, heat and rotary components.
Who are they? In the graves?
The ones who came before.
No one ever asked why the exhumer had no wings.
• • •
There were often artifacts in the deadman sandukas. An ancient rite that that the villagers mocked. Did they think the objects would go with them? They would ask. The exhumer knew better, but kept his silence.
There were jewels and treasures, of course, which he carefully destroyed lest an unwitting villager stumble upon one after he had left and thus spark a jealous conflict. The treasures had their own pull, he knew, that with all his power he could not divest.
Sometimes the remains had clothes, tattered bits with hints of color and the texture of dead bark that crumbled in his fist. He had found satchels and other carrying bags. He had found sundry items with runes upon them, crusted, ancient words just beyond the range of legibility.
• • •
Often the adolescents wanted stories, part of the general mayhem that accompanied the epoch of life they were passing through. A latent expression of discontent. Almost all would stay in the village, but for a while they wanted excitement and adventure. As they could not do so on their own, they asked the exhumer for his. The exhumer gave them some tales about the expansiveness of the desert or the beauty of the waterfalls in the Southern mountains; they were generic and lifeless and soon the adolescents would lose interest and be well on their way to interacting with the exhumer as their parents did, with a real but distant awe.
• • •
He would return at nightfall and find the graves he had bypassed during the day. He would pull up to each in the truck and listen to the gentle idling of the motor and take a breath and get out and take up the shovel and the metal stake with the greenish tint from the bed of the truck. With his shovel he would pop open the deadman sanduka and the shade would be inside as he left it, the cheeks full and pale as the moonlight above, and the eyes suffused with loathing. The words of lore would issue from his lips and the shade would rise out of the deadman sanduka and the exhumer would raise the stake and smite it.
The stake would enkindle with a burst of light and heat and the shade would be aflame and a scream would rend the air. A scream of a mother with child dying in her arms. A scream of one begging to make the pain stop.
The stake would be hot in his hand and the shade would burn, burn with a black fire, a hellfire, the faded away until all that was left were the bones. The exhumer would pour the salt and stamp it into powder like the rest of them. Then he would move to the next one. He did this only at night because no one would be watching.
• • •
One of the stories he did not tell was of the time a shade possessed a young girl and made her cut her nascent wings off with a shard of pottery.
• • •
Perhaps the worst was the mass grave had found in the Deeper Forest near the Southern Mountains. The inert mass graves were bad enough, and this one was not inert.
A field plow had cut into it. By the time the exhumer had arrived–and he had rushed–three quarters of the villagers was dead and the rest were on their way. The contents of that grave were beyond his description and it had been the one time he had felt truly weak after he was done. He could hear the hatred and pain of the grave all combined in one nacreous mass waiting to exact whatever revenge they could on whomever stumbled across, whether deserving or not. They had cursed him when he had struck them and they cursed him to the very last voice. When he had climbed out he had to lie in the bed of his truck for some hours, shivering as with a fever.
The remnants of the village had welcomed him that night with unfailing courtesy, bloody smiles and yellowed eyes and thin arms reaching out to clasp him with sore-covered hands slick with pus. They had limped and coughed and gasped and showed the greatest hospitality, and he did not tell them that it was too late for them.
A couple of years later he passed near same place and made a short detour. He found a few remains in a couple of standing huts, the last survivors, who had no one to burn them. So he did that for them and sowed the ground with salt to make sure.
• • •
The villages wondered at the exhumer, and his duty, and his reticence, and his mystery. They depended on him, and they knew it. They gave him the greatest honors, as they had done for time immemorial.
The exhumers were the marked, the wingless ones, the chosen few. Only they were immune to the great powers hidden beneath the earth. The villages loved them and respected them. Many even feared them, in a way. But none envied them.
• • •
The villages threw a great feast at the end of the exhumer’s work. They would meet in the village hall with a roaring bonfire crackling merrily, a slaughtered goat or heifer marking the specialness of the occasion, and the exhumer would get first choice of all.
After eating they would go outside. The elders would sit him on the high bench. The village would crowd around to view a presentation by the adolescents, a collection of boys and girls who would bow to the exhumer and then, backed by drums and singing, spread their arms wide, their newly-full wings effervescent in the glow of fire, and take flight, looping and spiraling and crossing in an intricate dance as impressive as it was jejune, for the exhumer had seen this play out a thousand times.
Nevertheless, he gasped and cheered with the rest of the village and when the adolescents landed lightly and bowed once more the village would rise, all of them, cheering and whooping and stomping their feet, the adults’ own wings aglow. Always the exhumer celebrated with them, clapping until his hands stung, smiling until his cheeks hurt, trying, trying, trying to remember how it felt to fly.
Cameron Huntley is a freelance journalist in Asheville, North Carolina in a time when newspapers are shutting down all over the country and the vocation has never been less respected. Yay for him. When he’s not chasing down real stories, he’s writing slightly less real ones. This is his third published fiction.