Tuesday, 20 August 2013

FLASH FICTION AT FIVE: The Corpse-Walker by Madeleine McLaughlin

Conversation stopped as if thrown from an abyss and empty silence settled over the saloon as the door closed behind the China-man. One fellow dropped his newspaper. The Herald of August 7, 1879 rustled a bit on the way down to the floor. A few men gathered their wits. One jumped up and shouted, “That man is dead! I know. I saw the fight that killed him.”

The man pointed, not at the China-man, ordering a drink, but at the tall, slumped over, ghastly gray corpse walking behind him. Two men overturned their chairs and flocked to the opposite wall. The farthest spot from the dead man.

“Hey, China-man. How is this man walking?” A gray-shirted man pounded on the table as he asked this. “Nobody likes mysteries.”

“I corpse-walker,” the Celestial answered. “This man go home now. Family want.”

He took a long sip from his ale then put the drink down on the counter. The barman wiped the moisture with slow swipes. He stared at the corpse, it's dead eyes unfocused.
“Should stop fights.” The China-man said and pointed at the man who had spoken. “ Then he not be dead.”
The men in the saloon watched as the China-man stroked the mottled bruising on the corpse's bloated face.
“Are you thinking about blaming us, you yellow-skinned, devil?” The gray-shirted man turned to the other men. Almost all the inhabitants of the bar were on their feet now and concentrated on the two odd figures. They watched the man's pudgy face pucker with anger as he heckled the duo.
“Not my fault everyone fight,” said the China-man.
“Get out of here,” spat the man, “no one should have to drink with a dead man. None of these men in here want to hear your voice berating them.” The man pulled himself up high and pushed his chest out. “And I volunteer to fight any man who disagrees, especially you, China-man.” He faced the men at the other tables. “We can throw this corpse out. You're not afraid, are you?”

“That reason this man die. Now you want others die, too. You bad man, not me.” The corpse-Walker pointed a finger at the man.

Again the saloon fell silent as a few men made a quiet exit, away from the shouting. Fights could not stop this dead man from rambling around. They had no intention of riling whatever devilish forces the China-man used for his magic. The Oriental took another sip and wiped his chin. The man glared at him. No one moved to help either of them.

“This place too many fights,” said the China-man. “Too many die. Need corpse walker. Wifey need to see him bury.”

“His little woman asked you to bring him home?” The man switched to curiosity.

“She pay me. Now no have to work railway or mine,” the China-man said. Gray-shirt gasped in irritation. He tried to rally the others.

“Come on men. Are you all just boys standing there, staring?”

Nobody moved. “This is the work of the devil.” One man said this but all the others nodded and a hum of support filled the saloon. “We have to get out of here. No corpse can walk without aid from the dark powers.” He left followed by more men, who talked about buying another Bible.

The corpse slumped over more, causing gasps and nervous laughter. A young fellow ran from the saloon. He screamed he would run all the way to the east coast just to avoid, 'that evil place where the dead walk.' Other men pushed their chairs back under the tables and shouted to the barman to close the place. They vowed never to return if the China-man was let back in and filed out. The man who challenged the corpse-walker was left alone and strode up to the bar.

The China-man put his empty glass down on the counter and wiped his mouth again. The barman was gone, too.

“No one around, Billy,”he said.

Two small hands appeared from under the baggy shirt of the dead man. They pulled apart the stitching at the front to release a short man from underneath. He took off the belt that held him and the corpse together and stepped out from the pants. The corpse fell to the ground.

“It sure was hard not to laugh, even harder than carrying him. If we have to do this again, maybe you can hold him up?” Billy said.

“Maybe. We made ourselves some good money, Billy and you, too, Mr. Severn. You did good riling the men up, trying to make them challenge a dead man. It scared them worse than a pit full of tar to think of fighting with a corpse.” The China-man shook hands with his supposed opponent. “The foreman says to me, Chang, I'll pay $1000.00 if you can find a way to stop them from fighting. His money is completely wasted when men fight, but don't work.”

Billy laughed, “By the way, Chang, you do a pretty good ching-chong Chinaman accent. Here's to
fooling those boys about your education.”

Billy toasted Chang with a glass of ale. “Come on now, let's get us out of here and find a place to bury him.”

The End

Corpse-walking is an ancient Chinese profession still practiced in some remote areas today.

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