Grandpa Vasile was laid out on the dining room table like a prize calf. His skin was gaunt and weathered and it hung on him in tenacious folds. In sunken, sallow sheets it drooped down his cheeks and bagged around the corners of his eyes. He was wearing his best suit-the one with the rip in the elbow and the dirt on the knees that he wore to church-and his coat-tails had been tucked in just-so under the quiet weight of his body.
At cardinal points around the table had been arrayed offering bowls. They were battered and bronze-marred by generational stains-and each was filled with a different sort of tribute. One of them held a sheep's heart: raw and purpling with coagulation. Another had been dusted with a few scant fingerfuls of pipe tobacco. The third, which sat by his head, held a libation of cola. The last, which had been balanced on stiffened ankles, contained only dirt.
There was no priest in attendance.
Nor was there any uniformity to the ceremony.
Grandpa Vasile's son and his wife and their children crowded in silence around him; their breaths held as they pressed in close. Then, with a slow exhalation, they broke apart.
The ritual didn't care whether it was observed, and their morning chores would be made no easier by a lack of sleep. Alone but for the hiss of carbonation escaping from the cola bowl, Vasile's corpse began to decompose.
Some time around dawn the next day, Vasile rose to feed the chickens. His back was stiff and his neck was kinked, but these were minor concerns. He had been living with stiffness in his joints for the last ten years. And, after all, he had been sleeping on the table.
The chickens were usually noisome, rowdy things, eager to get at the first handfuls of morning corn, but today they were strangely subdued. Instead of squawking and fluffing their wings in gustatory frenzy, they stood in mute rows. Occasionally, one of them would mutter her uneasiness in a gossipy bird-whisper.
Vasile just shrugged and threw out a handful of corn. None of the chickens moved to touch it. Were they sick? He would have to come back when the light was better.
The cow was of similar concern: lowing and stamping and pressing against the far wall of the barn as if the milking stool was the most terrible predator it had ever seen. Vasile clucked and whispered to it and adopted his most soothing of expressions, and eventually it let itself be cornered and milked-eyes rolling in crazed, shivering fear all the while.
Stranger still, thought Vasile, but he didn't say it in front of the cow. He didn't want her to hear the worry in his voice and then maybe work out a way to burrow through solid wood walls and escape onto the plains. If the chickens had taken sick and the cow had gone missing, the coming summer would have been a lean one. And the winter that followed it would have been killing.
Rounding the side of the fenced-in goat pasture, Vasile unhooked the door latch and let himself in. He was carrying a bucket of slops, which usually provoked an enthusiastic bleat and maybe one or two exploratory headbutts from the occupants. Instead, all three nannies fled to the far side of the enclosure. "Come back. It's just me," Vasile started to say, but midway through the first syllable something caught him in the stomach and hurled him back against the fence. Slops flew everywhere, painting the pasture, and Vasile felt something in his middle spine go click.
Old Scratch-the lean, silver-haired buck of the herd-stared at him with something that was very nearly contempt. He had always been mean-prone to nip and quick to ram the other members of Vasile's family-but he had accorded Vasile a kind of patriarchal respect. We are both nearing the end of our useful years, Old Scratch had once seemed to say. You haven't butchered me yet, and so I will extend to you a similar courtesy. Except now that courtesy had been revoked, and Old Scratch's eyes blazed and Vasile pulled himself as quickly as he could over the side of the fence. There, behind the comparative safety of a few latticed planks of wood, he sat bewildered.
That was how his family found him.
At first they must have thought it was some sort of cruel joke, because they kept their distance, but then he looked up at them and there were tears of confusion in his eyes and they rushed over-pressing in around him and shouting with joy.
Their financial worries were at an end.
Grandpa Vasile was presented to the recruiter a little after breakfast that day. The whole family had gone into town, leaving the hearth banked and the crops untended. When their stomachs had begun to growl, they had shared out pastries from a shopfront, paying in coin rather than trade. They had not offered Vasile any, but then he hadn't felt a touch of hunger since he had woken up. Besides, he could never have justified the expense.
Their fingers and faces dusted with crumbs, Vasile's family led him past butcher shops and greengrocers and farriers to where the squat concrete edifice of the recruitment office hunched like a tick. Its face had been plastered with patriotic poster-work, but Vasile felt no kick of national sentiment within his breast. The office just looked dark and stifling, like a bureaucratic tomb.
"In you go," prompted Vasile's son, ushering him up the rotting wooden steps. The building had been approved in a regulation size by the government, but that size had not been designed to match the land it had been approved for. No discretionary budget had ever been set aside to replace the steps, and so they groaned and squirmed under his weight like an arthritic cat. Vasile trod as lightly as his shuffling, uncoordinated feet would allow.
The office was not any nicer on the inside. Perhaps to save on heating costs during the winter, windows had not been included in its design. A massive oak desk had, and God alone knew how it had been gotten through the front door. Its right corner was lined with a dwindling row of candle stubs. None of them were lit, and it was only by squinting that Vasile could see there was a figure on the other side of the desk.
"Please, dear comrades. Come in." The clerk had the kind of voice that a spider might have adopted. And not a pleasant garden spider, either. A fat, black lurker that called out lurid promises to passing flies while its legs shivered the dew-stained expanse of its web invitingly. "Lets not be hovering about in the entryway, blocking the flow of fresh air, hm? The industrious machinery that powers our grand republic might well overheat." Fishing a sopping white rag from his front pocket, the clerk mopped his brow. "I cannot see very well in this gloom, so you will have to describe for me what your purpose is. If it is for general inquiries, we prefer those midweek and-"
"We have a contribution," Vasile's granddaughter spoke out from behind her mother's skirts. "We want money."
The clerk chuckled. "Oh, do you now?" His eyes seemed to focus a little more and he swept them all with his gaze. "Which one is it?"
Vasile felt a dull nudge to the small of his back. His son was gently pushing him forward. "This one," the younger man said. "He is fresh."
"Maybe. Maybe not." The clerk dug around in a desk drawer. There was a flash of sulphur-musk and a stab of brightness, and suddenly he held fire pinched between two fingers. Transferring the match flame to the stubbiest, most ragged specimen in the candle graveyard, the clerk settled a battered pair of spectacles across the bridge of his nose and leaned in, squinting ferociously.
Grandpa Vasile tried to take a step back, but he bumped into his son's broad chest. The younger man put a comforting arm on his shoulder and then pushed him forward.
"He is not young," said the clerk, in a tone that implied the idea was up for immediate-and financial-debate.
"You don't get so old without being strong," responded Vasile's son, and Grandpa Vasile felt a flash of pride. "He is also undamaged."
The clerk appeared to think about that. "I could give you twenty for him. Get him out of your hair. Save you the expense of a burial and give you a nice windfall besides."
Vasile's son frowned. "I did not think the government paid in single lump sums. I thought the wage was monthly."
"Of course. You are right. Being a generous sort, and not wanting to see my fellow countrymen fall victim to terrible mischance, I offer an alternative plan. A one-time payment of twenty, so that if your contribution should break or be mislaid, you will not be out any money-"
"Tell me your monthly rate." Vasile's son's voice was strong and confident. A millstone turning and turning words into profit.
"Well, to tell you the truth, the market here is a little swamped. I could give you three for the first month, and then more if a use is found for him." The clerk steepled his hands. Flickering candle-shadows played across them.
"That is lower than other families have been getting."
"As I said, the flooded market-"
"It is lower than the price listed on the posters."
"The ones that came in from the city just last month. They distributed them to the farms as well."
"A month is an awfully long time when it comes to prices. Our noble republic forges ever onward. Change is a way of life. Why, it would be downright unpatriotic to offer anything more than five per month to you."
"Seven. That is the lowest price listed on the form. The one for contributions that are 'impeded or otherwise in poor repair.'" Vasile's son folded his arms. "Ours is not. You may keep the remaining five. That is more than fair."
The clerk nodded. "Were you not such a civic-minded man, I might suspect you of being a capitalist. It has been a pleasure conducting government-approved business with you." Spitting daintily on one hand, he held it out. Vasile's son took it and they shook. "Now, perhaps you will help me by leading your contribution to the pen?"
Grandpa Vasile found himself being moved-nudged back out of the building, down the steps, and around its side-by his family and the clerk. In the narrow lot behind it, a wire-fenced enclosure had been readied.
For a moment, Vasile wondered who it was for. Then its doors were opened and he was pushed through.
Sympathy was an ill-considered thing for chickens, but nonetheless that's what Vasile felt. In so far as he had felt anything since waking up, the dumb, muted edges of his emotions shaped a curious kind of sadness. He had always kept his livestock in pens. They were livestock. That was where they belonged. But now that somehow felt like a shame. He explored the borders of this curious new maudlin and at the same time he explored the borders of his cell.
He had been a prisoner of the royalists in the war, back when he was sixteen and everything in his life had felt on the cusp of bleeding or breaking. Their accommodations had been about the same as this. Thick wire. Bare sod. A bucket in the corner and a scarcity of standing room.
The bucket was missing here, but for reasons he couldn't immediately fathom, he didn't think it would be necessary. He felt empty. Finished with digestion. Not starving or sated but like the neutral space between breaths, where all needs are fulfilled and thus there is no sense of immediate purpose. He felt like a corncob doll: all the features of a man but only decorating a husk.
There were others in here with him, although they didn't crowd so close. And, when they did bump him in the course of his explorations, it was like brushing against a fence post or walking over a stone. They cared for him as little as he did for them, and it was easy enough to put them out of his mind entirely.
Alone again in the comfort of his own thoughts, Grandpa Vasile sat down, resting his back against the taut press of the pen's wires. Something was clearly wrong with him; of that, he was certain. Perhaps that was why his family had taken him into town.
He could be sick. That seemed a definite possibility. Although any kind of sickness that took away a body's pains sounded more like a blessing than an ailment. Was he meant to spread it to other farmers? If so, there would be a line winding down the block full of people queuing up to get into Vasile's cell. A workforce that never hurt-that never tired-would be a wonderful, heroic thing for the government. A triumph of labor over aristocracy that would echo eternally.
Except the government already had that.
The resurrections had started a few months after the end of the war. At first they had been infrequent, but over time they had swelled in percentages until two out of every three corpses woke back up, to wander dumb and amnesiac across the landscape. Men had wailed and women had gnashed their teeth at the sight of it, and for a time they had had to lead their recently un-deceased relatives by the hand into towering bonfires, but fortunately the government had intervened.
By the time Vasile was twenty, the dead had been granted a work-release program. They were little more than brute machines with just enough memory to sometimes stumble the steps in their jobs, but there were so very many of them and they were utterly tireless. Soon they filled factories and construction yards, churning out the mass commodities than any healthy republic needed. Bullets. Uniforms. Saltpeter. Coal.
There had been a dip in wages for the pre-dead, but this had been offset by a generous federal stipend to families that produced corpses. For most of his life, Vasile had known this to be a good thing, and yet…
The train of thought trailed off. He had been on the cusp of thinking something else, but it slithered away from him, snaking down a disused stack of neurons and vanishing with a plop into the brackish waters of memory.
That was fine by him, of course. In his newly disassociated state, he felt like he could spend days doing nothing. Just staring at the sky and feeling painless.
He barely noticed when the first sunset came and went.
It had been almost a week since his imprisonment, according to Grandpa Vasile's admittedly suspect internal calculations. He could remember having seen at least three sunsets and seven dawns, and taken all together that meant that either the sun had slipped out of phase with the earth and was wandering where it pleased across the horizon, or the he was missing stretches of time.
He was not sure which option he preferred less.
His mind had always been sharp-even after his body had begun the long, weary trudge into infirmity-and to have it scarpering away from him like an uncaged chicken was unsettling. He decided to keep a more careful count of his thoughts. Perhaps that would let him-
The enclosure door opened with a rusty rasp.
All at once, Grandpa Vasile was part of a crowd of other senseless, moving shapes that were queuing by the exit. Over the heads of the smallest of them, Vasile could make out the shapes of men in uniforms on the other side. The men were wearing gray coveralls that had been embroidered erratically with republic flags and they were directing traffic from the pen into the back of a cattle cart. They seemed so full of certainty and purpose that Vasile followed their directions without thinking. He left the pen, scrambled awkwardly up the ramp into the cart, and then stood still while other cold bodies pressed in around him. The men in coveralls packed the cart full, cramming every last prisoner into the musty-smelling space, before closing the back with a definitive click.
Somewhere in front of Vasile, a motor started and then they were off.
Apart from his time in the war, Vasile had never travelled more than a few towns away. To go further would have been irresponsible, leaving the farm understaffed and unprepared for the tasks of the season. The cart, however, cared little for that. It drove into the night, stopping only at a public station in the small hours of the morning. The drivers rested and ate there. Vasile did not.
Another two days passed in a sonorous rumble. Vasile got so used to the thrum of the motor rising up through his boots that when the cart finally stopped, he shivered his legs out of habit. Some of the other bodies may have done the same, but he neither noticed nor cared.
Eventually, the cart arrived in a vast, crowded pasture. From the stark, authoritative letters of an overhead sign that slid by on his right, Vasile mouthed the words "sorting lot." He tried to say them, too, but midway through he forgot what he was doing. The cart wheels touched a rut and he reeled, jostling the body next to him. There was a gaping hole in its chest, like the blow-through a high-caliber leaves behind. Vasile's hand slid inside it, and he pulled it back quickly.
Bullet-hole groaned something unintelligible as the cart's doors were re-opened and those assembled inside it were shepherded back down the ramp. There a man in an overcoat, flanked by two coveralled technicians, inspected the crowd.
"Laborer," he called. "Mechanic. Crop-picker." His fingers worked quickly, scrivening notes onto a battered sheet of paper that was locked into a clipboard. "Medical demonstration. Candle-dipper."
As the overcoat man announced his list of professions, members of the crowd that had come down off the cart were taken by the shoulders and marched to other pens. When Vasile's turn came, the overcoat man inspected his fingers and said "assembly line," and then Vasile too was led away.
Pull. Twist. Slide.
Vasile fit the firing pin into the rifle and passed it vaguely to his left. Unnoticed hands took it from his grasp, did something else to it, and sent it on down the line, but at that point he hardly noticed. He was already being handed another gun. His fingers were bone-nubs, but this was what he did now.
Pull. Twist. Slide.
Vasile did not know how long he had been working. There were lulls, occasionally, when the line ran out of supplies. Then new boxes had to be unloaded at each station and in the meantime the workers stood around, mute and numb, with nothing to look at and no conversation to make. Their eyes-in places where they had them-were glassy and unfocused.
Those pauses were the worst thing in his life, but they weren't a particularly strong sort of worst. All they brought was disinterested tedium and a nagging sense of dissatisfaction. No pain. No physical discomfort. Just a brief flash of philosophical anxiety followed by nothing much at all.
Pull. Twist. Slide.
Vasile did not know why he had been chosen for this work. He had never done it before. Luckily it wasn't very complicated. He knew only three steps of the process, but that was because he only needed to know three steps. The neighbor that he passed his rifles to did something with flanges, but he would never know what it was. It was not his domain. He was the uncontested god of pull, twist, and slide. At least on his line.
There were others in the noisy dimness of the warehouse. He had to squint to see them, but he could just barely make them out. If, of course, he took his attention off the line. Every so often a tender would come by and tell him not to do that or reprimand him for being lost in thought, and so he tried not to let his eyes drift.
Mostly, it was pretty easy.
Rifles passed through his hands like water, pinned deftly and handed off before they could grow familiar. Slowly, the skin on his palms wore smooth as his calluses were ground away. Bits of bone jutted further and further from the ragged chunks at the end of his fingertips.
Pull. Twist. Slide.
He did not notice when the body to his left fell. Not even after he had piled a stack of guns on it. Not until a tender came and yelled at him to stop and dug through all the guns to find an old, gray woman whose brittle knees had given way, feebly feeling around for a set of flanges to affix. Vasile had tried to pass her a few more rifles, but the tenders had slapped at his hands and yelled again and he had subsided into quiet confusion. Half an hour later, the pile of guns was cleared away and the gray woman was balanced on a stack of crates. She worked just as efficiently as she had before, but there was a lagginess in her movements that forced Vasile to slow down. And, in slowing, he was given time to think.
Once upon a time, he had been given a gun and a wage and he had tried his very best not to die for a dream. That dream had never manifested during his life, but he could still recall clearly the bowels-loosening rightness he had felt during his bayonet drills. He could remember the acrid tang of fear in his mouth as he cowered in a ditch, and the sense of heart-jumping horror when he shot at and finally hit someone for the first time. Taken all together, it had scarred him; left a cut that was red and indelible on his soul.
When he had finally settled down to a family and a government-lotteried plot of land, it had been almost a disappointment. But he had taken to that disappointment well and made something lasting of it, and when his wife had died she had been so content that she hadn't risen again.
Slowly slotting the pin into a rifle, Grandpa Vasile found himself wishing that he had felt the same. And at that, something dark and sinuous surfaced again from the depths of his unconscious.
Pull. Twist. Stop.
Suddenly Vasile remembered the stroke.
It had begun with a headache: a blinding sear that had traced the contours of his being. Then a tingling numbness had replaced the feeling in his face, and his arms had slumped at his sides. He had fallen over then, just keeled over the side of the plow, and the horse had taken it on down the field, dragging him in tow.
He did not remember being recovered in the field, or being dressed in his finest, or the ceremony with the table and the half-broken, half-joyous tears that had preceded it. He did not remember them because, in a sense, he had not been there to experience them.
Grandpa Vasile gripped the realization so tight that his jaws locked closed and one of his molars shattered. It didn't feel painful, and that was just further evidence in support of the damning fact. He held it close, refusing to let it slip away.
If he was dead, then that meant featureless shapes on either side were dead as well. Turning to the gray woman on his left, he wrenched her around to face him.
"We're dead," he slurred. "We're dead and that's why we're working." The words came out like slushy gibberish, but somehow she understood. Her remaining eye went wide. She mouthed the words back.
"We're dead," he shouted, stepping away from his post. A few of the other workers stopped to turn and stare. Others froze mid-motion, digesting the words. Overcome with the revelation, Grandpa Vasile shouted it again and again, until it felt like the entire factory was at a standstill.
A pair of tenders had been approaching him, but they froze as well when he turned their way. Unbidden, one of them took a long step back and glanced at the factory door.
Underneath all Vasile's numbness, a twist of rage sputtered and kindled to life. He had almost given his life for freedom, and now his death was to be an endless span of slavery? "No," he barked and lurched towards the tenders. Some of the other workers moved as well.
The tenders ran.
He was not able to catch them. They moved too quickly for that, and the sinews in his legs had long since locked themselves into a standing position, but other workers gave a hobbling sort of chase, pursuing them to the edge of the assembly floor, and only stopping when the tenders slipped under a gate and slammed it down behind them. Other gates closed as well-all over the factory-as in pairs the tenders fled. Finally, it was only workers on the floor.
Vasile let out a guttering sigh.
He was free.
Free and purposeless and dead.
And as long as he remembered that, he could begin putting his life back together.
Foreman Sobolev sipped coffee from a battered cup, wrapping his hands around it in hopes that some of its warmth would leach into his body instead of dispersing as steam. The winter cold helped keep the contributions fresh, but he didn't see how the government could use that as a justification for sticking him in his freezing rat-trap of an office.
To make matters worse, the contributions were striking again. They did this every so often, when one of them remembered what it was and infected the rest of the herd with the idea that they could be people again. This routine disruption was even built into the monthly quotas, but still Sobolev hated the delays. You had to leave the contributions alone until they forgot why they had stopped working in the first place. Sometimes this took days. Rarely, weeks. And when you returned, you often had to reeducate them about their jobs on the line. You'd think that after the fifth time, instructions like "pull, twist, and slide" would be buried so deep in the brainstem that they couldn't be forgotten. But then you'd be wrong and left with a pile of half-finished guns in the middle of your floor.
The coffee was bitter, even under the double ration of sweetener, but it was all Sobolev had. He would work his post, no matter how the winter winds drafted in through the tar-paper walls, until he could retire, and then he would live in a quiet little suburb with a wife and a mistress until he died.
And maybe after that, he would work in a factory like this.
The cynicism brought a smile to his lips, which he washed away with more coffee.
A few days later, business in the factory resumed, and on a farm out in the country the monthly stipend checks continued to arrive.