Bennett Sims

What we know about the undead so far is this: they return to the familiar. They’ll wander to nostalgically charged sites from their former lives, and you can somewhat reliably find an undead in the same places you might have found it beforehand. Its house, its office, the bikelanes circling the lake, the bar. ‘Haunts.’ The undead will return to the neighborhood grocery store and shuffle down its aisles, as if shopping. They will climb into their own cars and sit dumbly at the wheel, staring out the windshield into nothing. A man bitten, infected, and reanimated fifty miles from home will find his way back, staggering over diverse terrain—which, probably, he wouldn’t have recognized or been able to navigate in his mortal life—in order to stand vacantly on a familiar lawn. No one knows how they do it—whether by tracking or instinct or some latent mnemocartography—nor why, but it’s an observable phenomenon. In fact, what it calls to mind are those homing pigeons, the ones famous and fascinating for the particles of magnetite in their skulls: bits of mineral sensitive to electromagnetic pulls and capable of directing the pigeons, like the needle of a compass, homeward over vast and alien distances. It is as if the undead are capable of ‘homing’ in this way.[1]

At seven this morning, an hour before Mazoch usually arrives, I sit down with a sheet of loose leaf to write out some of the sites where we’ll be searching for his father today. The list is for Rachel, who’s still asleep. I’ll leave it on the coffee table by our copy of FIGHT THE BITE, the infection-awareness pamphlet that the Louisiana Center for Disease Control doled out back in May, at the beginning of the outbreak (chapter titles include ‘1. A Bite’s Never Alright [sic],’ ‘5. A Knock To The Head Will Stop ‘Em Dead,’ et cetera). Recently Rachel has been requesting a list of those places ‘you two go every day,’ so that, if I’m worryingly late coming home,

[1] Sometimes I wonder whether we, the living, are constantly generating the magnetoreceptive memory pellets that will guide us in undeath. Could it be that each time a place leaves a powerful impression on us, it deposits into our unconscious these mineral flecks of nostalgic energy? Eventually, over the course of a lifetime, these might accrete and calcify into little lodestones in our minds: geospatial anamnestic kernels, capable of leading us back to places, but activated, for whatever reason, only in undeath. In that case, the undead mind would really just be a chaff cloud of remembrance, this mass of pellets causing sharp pain as it is shifted magnetically in the direction of various homes. And the undead wouldn’t remember memories so much as be shepherded by them, tugged by headaches toward recalled geographies. (It occurs to me on clear nights that the Pleiades, clustered like buckshot in Taurus’s thigh, might be like memory pellets of this type. When the Pleiades shift, the bull’s thigh aches in that direction, and it is a kind of homesickness that leads him sinking beneath the horizon.)

A Questionable Shape

she’ll at least be able to tell the police where to start looking. She’s right, of course. At the heading of the sheet, first item on our itinerary, I write down Mr. Mazoch’s old address.

He went missing from his house in Denham Springs several weeks ago, and Matt emailed me shortly afterward to enlist my help. We gave ourselves the month of July, just before hurricane season hits, setting this Friday as our deadline. Assuming that Mr. Mazoch hasn’t been detained, quarantined, or put down already, he might still be wandering, compelled, toward his remembered places. We figured it was only a matter of determining what places these would be, staking them out each day, and waiting for our routes to overlap. If our trip to his house in Denham coincides with Mr. Mazoch’s, then he and Matt will be reunited. To inspire us each morning, Matt copied out two Thomas Hardy quotations on separate post-it notes and taped them to the dashboard of his car: ‘My spirit will not haunt the mound/Above my grave,/But travel, memory-possessed,/To where my tremulous being found/Life largest, best./My phantom-footed shape[2] will go/When nightfall grays/Hither and thither along the ways/I and another used to know’ from ‘My Spirit Will Not Haunt the Mound,’ and, ‘Yes: I have entered your old haunts at last;/Through the years, through the dead scenes I have tracked you;/What have you now to say of our past— /Scanned across the dark space wherein I have lacked you?’ from ‘After a Journey.’ Each poem seems to speak to the other across the inch of dashboard leather that divides them, just as I imagine Mr. Mazoch letting out an unearthly moan, and Matt humming out the open window to keep awake as he drives, and that moaning and that humming speaking to one another across Baton Rouge’s fields and highways, across all the remembered and misremembered suburbs that separate Mazoch from his father.

[2] I like the phrase ‘phantom-footed’ because I’ve often imagined the footprints of the undead phosphorescing beneath moonlight, as if ectoplasmically, such that they glow in determined trails toward particular houses, restaurants, live oaks…wherever that undead had found life ‘largest, best.’ It would be like reading a map of remembering to look down on all the ectoplasmic paths glimmering through the city at night. Like Hardy’s spirit, our ‘walking dead’ don’t simply walk: anytime an undead is walking, what it’s really doing is remembering. It’s retracing steps from its former life and moving blindly along a vector of memory. In this way, the tracks that it leaves (of rainwater, of dirt across a carpet, of blood) record more than a physical path: they also materialize a line of thought, the path of that remembering.

A Questionable Shape is published by Two Dollar Radio. It is available for purchase here.

Background illustration by Marcela Gutiérrez