“Gravedigger” by Danny Brophy


TWA 57 Brophy-01

“We’re lost out here,” Delvin said. He sat on the edge of the tower’s observation disc, his legs hanging over. Below stretched the town, all clusters of minor buildings, dull lights in empty window holes. Above stretched the nebula, dancing everlasting across the night sky. Delvin inched a bit closer toward the edge, not sure why he was doing it. Yet, he knew it was because he wanted to do it.

The Guin creature stood just behind Delvin. She laid a gentle hand on Delvin’s shoulder. In his peripheral, as he stared out on the town, the stretch of dead dirt where the graveyard was, and the edge of the melted forest was, he saw her/his/its hand gesticulate at the town. The arm undulated from a normal human hand, to that of a clawed being, to a withered tree branch. “Aren’t we all,” the Guin creature said in it’s vaguely female voice. “Do you see the end yet?”

Delvin had moved so that his legs hung completely over the disc edge. “You’re right. I have nothing here. No one is here for me. I bury the dead. I tell the leftovers everything will be all right. Everything won’t be, though.”

“Look, Delvin, you seem like a straight up nice human. Really. The biggest side-effect of me controlling your mind is that once I stop, you die.”

Delvin nodded. “You did what you had to do. You sacrificed one to save you all. All you Guin.”

The Guin creature now sat down next to him. Its entire form couldn’t decide on what to let Delvin see. One moment, a simple young female; and then she became a mass of tentacles with no determinable body; and then she was a void. “You were the only one that heard me. That I could–“

Delvin pushed himself off the tower.

Like a dead feather, he drifted on the prickly evening air. Like a forgotten stone, he plummeted towards the ground. The Guin creature appeared beside him. She managed to keep her face a young boy’s for two breaths until it shifted into a creature no human had ever seen. “You didn’t have to do this.”

Delvin took a deep breath and briefly spoke before the ground accepted him.

—–

Delvin had been sitting at his kitchen table for two hours. A big notebook with narrow lines was opened to the first page before him. He had managed to scavenge the notebook and the pen from the site of the Great Crash. Somehow the pair had been missed in pulling the wreckage of the Guided Voice. He couldn’t remember the last time he had written anything.

And yet, the urge just two days ago to spend a week and write, how his mind couldn’t shake, couldn’t erase, such a simple word: write. Sit down and write. Write what, Delvin never could figure on. It felt as if he had to do this, to sit in his apartment and write and ignore the world and the fading humanity for a week and put pen to paper and make words. What words? What should he write?

Delvin twirled the pen between his wrinkled fingers. No one at the pub understood this sudden need Delvin had, although no one expressed this, not even the bent bartender. No one asked questions; they leaned on blank stares and noises that sounded like ‘oohs’ and ‘huhs.’

—–

All these thoughts. Emers told Delvin he should write about the Great Crash. He should write about the coming in the Guided Voice and the survivors and this town and that would make Delvin feel better. Delvin asked what made Emers think he needed to feel better.

“Because,” Emers had said, spitting a bit of tobacco from his thin lips, “if I buried the dead for a job, I would want to feel better.”

Delvin clicked the pen alive and pressed the tip to the first line and then took it away. The lone window, sans glass, looked out on the town, the tower a lone loomer in the meager skyline. The daylight from the distant star gave days an old newspaper glow. Nights belonged to sickly green from the nebula. Perhaps a history of the town. Yes, that would be interesting to write about…

Except why was Delvin doing this? Forty years of no interest and now here was and the sun was gone and nighttime reigned.

Delvin leaned back in his seat, exhausted, his left hand not there. Sure he could see that his hand still clung to the rest of his body, yet he couldn’t feel it there. He blinked and in the silence heard his eyelids moisturize his eyeballs as if they hadn’t done their autonomous job in hours. He shook his head and heard his brain swishing about. He was about to push himself up when he looked at the notebook.

It was on the last page. A last page filled with words. He picked the notebook up and thumbed through the previous pages. The pages, so smooth and pristine upon purchase, now held wrinkles Delvin did not remember making. Smears and scratch outs his hand didn’t remember doing. Words. Words and words and words he did not remember writing. Every page in neat stanzas and verses and lines and lines of words. Big words. Little words.

His head swooned. It wanted to detach from his body and drift thorough the sky, breaking through an atmosphere he and the townsfolk might never breach again, and flitter among the tendrils the nebula reached out to the endless night with. He flipped to a page with room in the margin and wrote what he just thought, about his head. Then he smiled and underneath that wrote, ‘I am lightheaded.’

So that was what writing was like. It felt like he went from one moment to the next, but the rest of existence kept to its own ever-declining internal clock. His stomach demanded food. His rough eyes begged for sleep. He pushed the chair away and stretched out his stiff legs. How and why did he write all that? He read what he written in the margin, then read what he wrote on the lines.

The note he wrote was in his handwriting: scratches that only he knew were letters and words. Slants and dents in letters that came so natural to himself, to his hand. The ink embedded in the paper’s fibers, as he always wrote with a heavy hand when writing work orders or from the time before the arrival here, before the Great Crash, when he would write a small personal note in cards he would send to family members on the appropriate holidays and birthdays.

The words he had supposedly written, the ones taking up the notebook, held neat swooshes and arches; delicate spaces between words and subtle yet effective punctuation marks.

All of this was not Delvin’s handwriting.

—–

Delvin continued his descent to the town’s hard dirt ground.

“We didn’t come here on our own. Our ship crashed. No one knows why. I found a job here, something the people needed. I buried the first body on the planet. One day, I wanted to write and write I did apparently, because that was you doing it. I’ve done whatever I’ve done the last two weeks, you tell me that I took lives. I wrote and I took lives. I wrote about deaths and those deaths happened. So tell me why I should keep going? If I did all that, even if it was you making me do those things, then I should have been strong enough to control myself. I’ve never been strong enough, because before that crash? We drifted in space for nearly a month. No engines, and the ship had nothing in it that was to sustain us. We fought amongst each other, then we fought for what little provisions where in the ship. Once those went, we stopped caring about trying to fix the damn ship. A lot of those bodies that I buried after the crash, only one died in the actual crash. There was something like 400 of us. 43 never lived to see the crash. I killed two people on that ship. One I–“

None of the townsfolk were walking by the tower when Delvin collided with the ground.

—–

He somehow wrote an entire notebook full of…Delvin didn’t know, in the handwriting of someone else. He flipped to the first page.

There’s always a you or an I.

Who is you

And who is me?

Or I. I’m I. You’re you.

Or is you I or is I you?

Confused?

Me, too.

Huh. Delvin had written poems. He flipped to a random page (numbers along the upper corners, in the same neat handwriting the words were written in) and on page 43:

The necessities of sleep. How humans

Demand such life-wasting activities.

All you do is desecrate, add ruins

And dance about with such proclivities.

There was more to the poem, yet Delvin flipped to another page, and then another.

Delvin closed the book. Where had these words come from? First, though, he had to eat.

He had packed a week’s worth of food and other victuals in the small refrigerator. He walked gingerly, his shoulders hunched more than they should be. Every step had a clodding sound to accompany every footfall. Every second, his left hand throbbed a dull announcement that he had written so much, and he should not do that again for a good long while. Delvin had the sandwich unwrapped before he woke up in his bed. Yellowed sunlight permeated the shack, like the distant sun that glowed so bright, was right outside his door. He sat up and groaned from the effort. His head slowly moved around on his aching neck.

Words everywhere. On the walls, on his bed sheets, on the gray floorboards. He flung the blankets off his scrawny body and saw he was without his pants, without his shirt. Yet, clothed in words. Words ran along every spare place his skin could provide.

The words had the same swoops, the same delicateness as those in his expensive notebook.

Delvin found his clothes in the next room, draped across the small table. In this room, words occupied every available space. Had the sole window had proper glass, it would have words scrawled across it, too. He began putting his clothes back on, first his shirt, then his pants.

When he took the pants from the table, his pen tumbled and clattered on the floor. He picked it up and studied it. The grip had worn to such smoothness. He looked at the fingers on his left hand. Along his middle finger were bright red calluses which wanted to so desperately harden, if only they’d get a break. His pointy finger had a deep stain on its tip, blackened and smudged.

“What…what the hells have I–”

Delvin stood outside the building. The sun had gone away again. Night had arrived.

And something stood next to him.

He jumped and stumbled and tumbled to the ground. At least he still had his clothes on.

The something stood between Delvin and the building. It had the form of a human, if you were looking upon a simple human against a decent background, and then erased the human’s every feature and poured black tar all over the lacuna. Or the something was cloaked. Delvin couldn’t tell.

The blackness brightened and then a four-legged creature, with a head made only of an elongated snout, stood next to Delvin.

The creature said, “Finally.”

—-

Emers cracked the blister on the end of his cigarette. “You’re forty,” Emers said, standing a few feet away. “Right?”

Delvin nodded, and patted the dirt over the fresh grave of the Gitmer wife. He still had the inscriptions on the headstones to carve. “Right.”

“So you’re taking off a week to write, and you’ve been writing how long?”

Delvin shrugged. Another body to bury. “I have to. Okay? You know how you get an idea, and you can’t let it go?”

Emers leaned on his shovel and dug his pocket knife’s edge into the shovel handle. “Yes, boss.”

“Don’t try that.” Delvin stood, turned his head, looking west toward the town. “You weren’t talking to me like your boss before. Don’t try that now.”

“I’m just–“

Delvin tossed Emers his sweat-rag. “Finish up out here.”

“Let me do the carving. I can spell good.” Emers flipped the towel over his shoulder. “Might as well’s start now, since I got the next week to myself.”

“Next week, do everything I’d do. It’s not next week yet. When you can call it ‘inscribing’ and not ‘carving’ since it is not carving, you can do it when I’m around.” Delvin proceeded toward the town. He could see the back of a child reaching the edge of town. He could tell how much the kid was still crying.

“Maybe you are a writer. You’re giving me static about my grammar. Like that fuck writes for the paper. Never seen a man stand straighter.”

Delvin ignored Emers. He saw the kid stop at the first building on the edge of town. Delvin’s office. The boy stood there, head bent over. He hadn’t made a sound or a facial expression during the simple service. Delvin said the prepared words, the only ones he had ever written in his life. He wrote the words upon the first death since the Great Crash, when he became the gravedigger for the town, the curator and overseer of the ever-growing graveyard, where there was always vacancy.

Write.

The word dominated Delvin’s head. He heard it from his knees. He felt its reverberations in his toes. When he reached his office, the boy still stood there. The boy managed to look up. His hair hadn’t felt scissors in years. His wide face held no indication he just attended the funeral of his parents. “Mister…”

“It’s Delvin. Just Delvin.”

The boy gulped. “Delvin. Can you please…please say that prayer again?”

Delvin wanted to say no. “It’s not a prayer. Just some sentences to, I don’t know. Someone should say something at such a time.”

“Say them again…please.” The boy let his head slump.

Delvin couldn’t say no. “’On this day, while we bury those gone, think of what has happened to those that came before us. Think of what will happen to those that are here now. To let go and live, that is how to honor the dead.’”

The boy lifted his head. “Thank you.” He trundled off, his head held a little higher.

—–

“OK, you want an explanation.”

They stood atop the tower again. This time, Delvin stood, his arms wrapped around him despite the warmth. He checked his arms. The words were still there, yet faded ever so slightly. “I don’t remember anything.”

The shape-shifting creature now walked up to stand beside him. The sound of her boots made Delvin know she was real. Her clothing wrapped all around her like a thick snake. Her black hair, longer than her torso, hung in a comfortable pony tail. It made him want to laugh, if this was a situation where he could do that, how much her ears jutted out from the hair. “Controlling you, or anyone, will do that.”

Delvin didn’t bother cocking an eyebrow or showing any way that he was confused. He waited for the answers.

“Your kind came here a few weeks ago. Why, I don’t know. My kind retreated to another system many many many years ago, when the nebula above ruptured and decided to kill everything in this system. We had a great culture, you know. This planet? It’s just an outpost. A simple little place we used to refuel and stay over for a spell. Think of it as a motel, I guess. That’s what humans used to have, right?”

Delvin nodded, remembering an old word from an old time.

“You don’t know much, so asking you why you’re here, why you came here doesn’t really matter.”

Delvin shook his head. “We crashed here.”

The woman took a step back. “Oh. That’s what that ruckus was all about.”

Delvin faced the woman. “What is going–”

The woman held up her hands. “Okay. I apologize. You see, I’ve been trying to contact any of you since you got here. And all I can do is get in your heads. They’re rather easy to take up space in, you know.”

“What are all these–“

She held her hands up again. “Don’t interrupt me. Even with other civilizations, it’s rude to interrupt someday, especially when they’re answering whatever questions you think you can simply foolishly ask . You want explication? You are being controlled by the cries and the yellings of the last of the Guin. I was a poet, you know. A scrivener, you might say. A woman of letters. Anyhoo, I’ve been trying to reach one of you. Every time I get some sort of connection…I keyed in on you, simple Delvin, to channel and receive all these words.” She shrugged. “I went into your mind and made you write the words.”

Delvin stared. What…how…how does one comprehend all this? What’s the reason one’s supposed to make upon hearing something such as this? “I…I don’t’ know what to say to all this.”

“You don’t have to say anything. Really, Delvin, I’m doing you a courtesy by telling you all this. The last two weeks making you write the words has to be exhausting.”

“Two weeks!” Delvin felt the overwhelming desire to sit down. So he did, and looked out once more from the highest point over the town at the town. From this angle he could see where the Guided Voice had plummeted through the atmosphere and trampled over acres of forest until settling just a mile away from where the town sat. The fires from the Great Crash had only gone out a few days ago, finally burning through the fuel the Guided Voice had that was to power the ship and take them to another system, amongst the rest of humanity.

Instead, here they were.

“So,” the woman said, “Through my control, I siphoned the words from the other place. I’m sorry I don’t have a better term for it, but that’s what they’ve been calling it.”

Delvin sat back on his hands. “You could’ve asked.”

The woman crouched beside him. A breeze cascaded over them. “I could. But, where’s the fun in that?” She smiled, displaying a black mouth with no teeth.

Delvin sniffed. He bit the insides of his cheeks. The woman scootched a little closer. “What’s the matter? You have a purpose now. You heard me. You wrote my words. Now it’s time for me to take over.”

Delvin rubbed his eyes until they stopped themselves from leaking. “Did you all die?”

The woman put her arm around Delvin. It felt cold to him, like someone had had their arm around his shoulders and took it away. “You’re not the first human I’ve done the mind-control trick. Used a lot of you when you started settling in here.”

The buildings stood here when the Great Crash occurred and the survivors went out to search for anything. They found this town; multiple buildings empty in all the rooms, a thin layer of dust covering everything. The tower in the center of the town. The survivors gave no thought to overtaking the buildings and making it their own. There was no talk of contacting another ship, since there would be no other ship.

Delvin made himself the gravedigger. His was the only voice that said anything about the myriad dead bodies, including those not killed in the Great Crash, that littered the Guided Voice’s battered interior.

People picked rooms in different buildings. Delvin ended up with a two-floor place.  Delvin found himself in the basement. The words all along his body fresh as if he just wrote them. The notebook was right were he left it.

The Guin creature stood at the stairway. “Maybe you can read it now.”

Delvin flipped to the first page. The words were in English, written in the elegant handwriting he apparently had been writing before. He sat on the sandy floor and crossed his legs and read. Upon reaching the end, he slammed the book shut. “They…you…”

The Guin creature held its arms up, which rotated between a lithe woman’s and that of a hairless squid. “I know I know I know.”

Delvin opened the book and began ripping out pages one by one. “Stop.”

“Hey, I can’t do it, so someone has to.”

Delvin took each page and tore it until it was shreds. “Please. I don’t like this.”

“Now you don’t! I’ve been doing this for a while now. Look, it has to be done.”

“I…I don’t understand.”

“Oh,” the creature said and they were atop the tower. “Mind control of any creature takes a lot out of the controller, and the controlled. A little bit more out the latter, though. You humans are so susceptible to doing what everyone else is doing.”

“I’ve been the first you’ve got through to,” Delvin said.

“Yep. And then, I can start doing my thing with the rest of you. There’s what, about fifty of you left?”

Delvin looked to the graveyard. He never counted how many bodies he had buried in the last few weeks. “You tried all those?”

“Well, someone was gonna hear me sometime. The most I could make this couple do was look at each other and punch each other in the chest. Once I let them go, they dropped dead.” The creature shimmered as it held to its simple look. “I didn’t want the kid to see that.”

Delvin shook his head. “I’m going to stop you.”

The Guin creature smiled. Its features rippled like a dropped branch into a lake. It trembled from one form to another. “It’s funny. The smaller the being, the bigger their hopeless dreams. I simply want to leave this stupid rock. I want to find my people. Is that such a bad thing?”

“We’re lost out here,” Delvin said.

—–

The ground accepted Delvin. He felt his lungs die first. No matter how soft the ground was, he felt stretched out.

He groaned. No one around to see what happened.

The creature stood over him. She leaned forward at the waist. “You were gonna die anyway. It would’ve been quieter.”

“Ugh…”

“You think there’s something when you die?”

Delvin felt the light of the world grow dimmer. “Yes…”

“Let me spoil the surprise, because it will make things so much easier. I am sorry about all this, but self-preservation is something I believe you can more than rightly understand. So, as a gift, so you can die easy, this is what’s going to happen when it happens.”

And she crouched beside Delvin and whispered into both his ears. Delvin smiled, and stopped breathing.

 

 

 

 


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Danny BrophyDaniel Brophy: Daniel Brophy has been writing for nearly ten years. He has finished less than that number of stories and books. He has had one short story published, but that was six years ago and the name of the now-defunct publication escapes him. Born with a thirst for words and stories, Daniel owns enough books to open a small library, or to re-enact the ending of the Twilight Zone episode where the bookworm breaks his glasses at the end (spoiler alert). Thankfully, Daniel has eyes like baseball legend Ted Williams, so broken glasses are not a problem. It should also be noted that his pop culture acumen borders on worrisome, due to a Tarentino-level of knowledge. Dream projects for Daniel include: writing a book set in the Alien universe; building a life-sized replica of the TARDIS and setting it into a wall to act as a door to a room, giving off a ‘bigger on the inside’ illusion; and making a low-budget horror movie about a graveyard.

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5 Comments

  1. This is the thing I think I’ve learned about Danny Brophy’s writing after seeing his various attempts in the Arena: he does a great job putting together words to make sentences, but he sometimes falters when it comes to putting together sentences to make thoughts.

    Sometimes the dreamlike, not-quite-connected flow of his stories works for me, but not so much this time. I liked the idea of the alien as a literal muse, a force taking over a body and making it write, but that never quite congealed into anything more substantive for me. Multiple references were made to the crash that apparently stranded Delvin, but I still can’t tell exactly what happened. Delvin is a human, and the planet he has crashed on has a town in it? Who are the inhabitants of the town? Or was it the Guin that crashed? Why is any of this happening in the first place? What is the Guin’s objective in all of this?

    Maybe I’m just dense, but for my money this story suffered from too much poetry, and not enough point.

  2. This was…truthfully I don’t know what this was. And that was a problem for me. More than anything this seemed like a paragraph or two musing about writing with a very large scifi story crammed onto it for no good reason.
    I mean I don’t HAVE to know what’s going on in a story for me to like it. This has been proven in the arena again and again. Actually this has been proven by Mister Brophy again and again. But I do have to have faith that the author has some sense of the road they’re travelling (and that I’m sequentially travelling on) and with this story I was just kind of left with a “huh?”
    It’s entirely possible I missed something, or a lot of somethings. And I do need to add that there’s plenty of great details in here. Brophy’s musings are interesting enough at times, but there was a disjoint here that I couldn’t get over. The alien was freaking sweet with the constantly changing forms, the idea of a graveyard being filled up by the survivors of a crashed spaceship was also nice. Lost time is always interesting.
    But for me this didn’t really have a total that it added up to.

  3. Ok.

    I get what you’re trying to do here—or at least I think I do. The dying human colony, the dying alien race, the non-linear narration, the confusion of agency. They all combine to put the reader in a state parallel to Delvin, not knowing which end is up or who is controlling whom. A very clever idea.

    I think you may have overreached though. You have so many things going on here in addition to the mental confusion, things I’m not sure are strictly necessary. Could the story have taken place on Earth rather than an alien world? (Closer to Twilight Zone-esque paranoia then…) I also wonder if Delvin’s profession as gravedigger (and thus rememberer of the dead?) could be worked even more strongly into the narrative.

    I think the story would have been helped most with either having a stronger…”through-line” to the narrative, or perhaps a formatting change to better signal which timeline is in play. (For example, when I’ve experimented in non-linear narratives, I’ve sometimes used verbs in the present tense for one timeline and past tense for another—DM me if you’d like to see that story. There are other typographical signals one could use as well.) There is so much worldbuilding going on in this story that I think telegraphing the time-shifts would have helped the reader feel a little more at home.

    I guess this is a long-winded way of saying that I really, *really* like the concept here. The core idea (again, assuming I’ve understood correctly) is solid. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to leave the reader as mind-fucked as your character. But I think you need to bait your hook better in order to achieve the desired effect.

    My thoughts, for what they’re worth…

  4. Let’s set aside the fact that we’re competing for a minute.

    In past weeks, reading your Arena outings has been one of my favourite things to do. Your work always arrives from somewhere unexpected, or from an angle I would never have considered. It’s been trippy, it’s been feverish, it’s been dreamlike and it’s been haunting. You put together situations that make sense as you read them, and seem to flow effortlessly along, and you generally get my votes week after week.

    This story is a little different. I’m not going to cover the ground that other commenters have mentioned, I’m just going to say that this picture you’ve created needs a frame. With a little more structure, it would have been easier to make sense of. A second read through – while still fun – didn’t help on that score.

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