The Remains

by Leo David Orionis

Guillemette walked gaily through the Old Wood, enjoying the bright morning sunshine and the soft spring breezes under the shade of the huge old trees.  Her blue dress fell to just below her knees, with a white under-dress showing below the hem, and in the square made by the shoulder-straps and the straight top just above her breasts.  Her light brown hair tumbled free under the wide straw hat that shaded her face from the sun in between the trees, and she carried a large straw basket, presently empty, on her left arm.  A pouch and a belt knife, the latter blessed by the village priest, hung from her rope belt.  She should have been wearing shoes, as well, but had given in to whim, on such a fine day, and left her good wooden shoes at home, reveling in the feel of the warm earth and the cool grass beneath her feet.

Most days she didn't bother to come this way.  The village had dug up and transplanted most of the crops that had survived the Fall, and all the best fruit trees.  But there were still acorns, honey, and berry bushes to be found; truffles, if you kept an eye out for wild pigs; mushrooms, even, growing in the shade of a ruined wall.  And sometimes, Guillemette felt like she just had to get away from all the chattering mouths, or go mad.  Why, there must be forty people in her village!  That made it quite the thriving town, in this Year of Our Lord 2100!

She stubbed her toe in a block buried just below the surface of the dirt path.  "By Our Lady!" she swore, leaning with one hand against a mossy oak and rubbing her foot with the other.  "Stupid paving stone, why aren't you in someone's garden wall, where you belong, instead of bruising my toes?"  Then she heard a sound, and stopped muttering to listen.

It sounded like someone sobbing.  But some things that sounded like sobbing, were not; and not everything that wept was human.  She should turn around, and go, but it sounded like her sister!  She went forward to where the path curved left to avoid an ancient tangle of imperishable metal that sprang from the earth, and peered around the pre-Fall mystery.  "Juliette?" she whispered.

Something that looked like Juliette sat on a log next to the path and sobbed her, or its, heart out.  It had Juliette's black hair, and was wearing Juliette's clothes, almost identical to Guillemette's except that it had its shoes on.  But its belt knife, also blessed by the village priest, wasn't in the sheath on its belt, and its hands were covered with blood.

If it was Juliette, it was the only family Guillemette had.  If it was Juliette, she needed help.  If it had looked like anyone else in the world, Guillemette would have turned and run.  As it was, she cleared her throat, and said "Juliette?" again.

The thing on the log looked up.  Its eyes were full of tears, and its face was covered with blood from its hands.  "Oh, Guille!" it cried.  "I killed it, Guille!  It's really dead, now!"  And she sobbed harder than ever.

"You killed something, Juliette?" Guillemette said.  "You, who can't wring the neck of a chicken, or cut the throat of a piglet?  What did you kill, a beetle?"

"Ah, no, Guille, it's no joke.  It was no beetle, but a man!"

"A man?" Guillemette.  "You, Juliette?"

"The remains of a man," Juliette said.

"Ah, no, ma petite!  Not in this day and age!  It must be twenty years since the last Remains; you and I were but babies."  She took a step closer.  "Pfaugh!  What is that foul stench?"

Juliette held up her hands, the fingers spread wide.  "The blood, Guillemette.  You're smelling its blood on me."

"That must be removed, at once," Guillemette said.  "Who knows what effects such a vile brew might have?  Come, my sister.  We'll go to the river, and wash that filth from your hands and face."

Juliette laughed shakily, but stood up obediently.  "We may kill all the fish and turtles!" she said.

"Let the fish and turtles look to themselves," Guillemette declared.  "All I care about is my sister."

It was the devil's own work scrubbing the thick black stuff from Juliette's face and hands—literally the devil's work, if she spoke truly about its origin—but they got it done, finally.  Juliette was weeping slow, silent tears of grief and remorse when Guillemette sat her on another fallen tree's trunk to tell her story.

"You're certain you're not hurt?  Tres bien, my own.  Put your head on my shoulder, so, and tell me what occurred."

"I was not far from here," Juliette said, "looking for frogs and snails, and wishing I'd brought fishing gear.  You know how, when you've no line or hook, the fish leap and splash to mock you with their safety?  I had just turned to go back home, perhaps with a stop at a berry patch I'd seen this morning, when someone said, politely, 'Pardon me, miss.' "

"In French?"

"In perfect French, with not a trace of any accent to its 'Pardonnez-moi, mademoiselle.'  Which made it all the more hideous, coming from something that once had been a man."

"But how can you be so sure, Juliette?"

"Oh, I could not doubt for an instant, Guille!  For one thing, its clothes were like nothing I'd ever seen!  No proper hat, but a kind of cap with a bill on the front; no proper coat or shirt, but a kind of undershirt with short sleeves and writing on it; pants of some tough material with lots of metal things in it; shoes of hard black leather.  It was strange beyond anything, truly."

"But it was dead?"

"Oh, it was so very dead, and it smelled like it.  Really, Guille, it wasn't the fetor of someone who has gone a long time without washing, but that of something that has been dead for a long time.  Like the blood, but much worse."

"So when it attacked you…" Guillemette started to say.

"It didn't attack me!  That's what was so horrible, Guille.  It didn't know it was dead!  I had to stand there, and listen to its story, knowing it could turn into a monster at any moment, and it did not even know that it was dead!  It thought it was a man, Guillemette!"  And she began sobbing in earnest again, for grief at the fate that had descended on the man of pre-Fall times, and what she'd had to do.

"It said that it had been at work, in the basement of a building of some kind—so many strange words, I couldn't understand where it had been or what it had been doing, but that it was underground.  Then light shone through everything, it said, and its senses failed.  And when it woke—this very morning, Guillemette!—it opened the door to where it was, and came up to the surface, looking to get help.  And it wanted to know where all the people had gone, and where the city had gone, and where the forest had come from.  And what could I tell it?  'Your people and your city are all dead, and so are you.'  How could I do that to the poor monster, Guillemette?"

"You could not, I know.  You are a great deal too tender for this world, Juliette."

"I am but a goose," Juliette said, hanging her head.

"You are," Guillemette agreed.  She kissed her sister on the temple.  "So what did you do?"

"I lied," Juliette said, plainly.  "I told it that we all lived a few miles away from the old disaster, and I would take it to meet everyone; but first, it should rest, it looked very tired.  Why didn't monsieur lie on the soft grass, in the warm sun, for an hour or so, and then 'he' could come home with me and meet everyone, I said."

" 'You are most kind, mademoiselle,' it said.  'Not at all,' I told it.  'I should do the same for anyone, je vous assure.' Then it folded its hands on its chest, closed its eyes, and died."

"Truly?" said Guillemette.

"It had no breath, it had no pulse, and it had no heartbeat.  That is dead, ne c'est pas?  But I had to make sure.  I couldn't leave it there to wake up, realize it was dead, and start killing people.  Oh, how I wished that you were there, Guille!"

"Moi aussi, my own.  So what did you do?"

"I took my knife, which was blessed by Father Jacques, and I plunged it into the creature's heart.  I was so afraid it would wake and attack me, but it did not.  Only, when I cut out its heart, and cut off its head, the stinking black blood started oozing out, and would not stop, until there was a great greasy pool of it."

"My poor darling," said Guillemette.  "Well, come on."

"Come on?  Come on where, Guille?"

"We can't leave it there, my little one.  God alone knows what the blood will do, soaking into the good earth, or what would happen to a wolf or a raven that ate of the body.  You must show me where it is, and then I will stand guard over it while you go home and bring the priest and a couple of stout men with shovels.  After the good father has done what must be done, and the thing is buried, then you and I can resume our ordinary lives."

"Oh.  Yes, I suppose you're right.  This way, then."

After they'd walked in silence for a few moments, Juliette said, "It's a great deal too bad that there isn't some kind of constabulary force to deal with things like this, so that you and I don't have to."

Guillemette laughed.  "An armed force of slayers entitled to kill whenever they wish, and all they have to say afterwards is, 'It was already dead'?  Oh no, there is no way anything could go wrong with that, silly goose!"  She put her arm around her sister's shoulders, and they went on like that.

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