38 minutes | Oct 23rd 2020

PseudoPod 727: The Uninvited Grave

“The Uninvited Grave” originally appeared in the braided story collection The Unnamed Country published by Word Horde in 2019.

Roadkill by Mercedes Lackey

Heavenly Creatures trailer

The Uninvited Grave by Jeffrey Thomas

“Fuck my mother!” Depo Ep cried out when he saw the new tombstone in the precise center of his field of corn seedlings.

By tradition, the dead were to be buried in the town or city in which they had been born, not necessarily that in which they had lived—even if they had never lived long in their place of birth, and even if their place of birth was quite distant at the time of their death. Therefore, the families of the deceased often did not own a cemetery plot or any piece of property where they could inter a coffin and raise a monument.

It was thus a custom for relatives to purchase a plot of land from someone, perhaps an old friend or casual contact but usually a perfect stranger, in the city of the deceased’s birth. This might be a corner of their front yard, the periphery of a field if they owned one, but it might also be a spot within their very house (in the case of an above-ground sarcophagus). The conditions of such a contract were that the relatives could look in on their loved one’s resting place at any time without formal request. The contract did allow, though, because of their bulk, for an above-ground tomb to be respectfully utilized by the homeowners, who might very well use it as a coffee table, place quilts on its flat upper surface so that they might sit upon it to watch TV (unless they placed the TV on it), or even stretch out upon those quilts at night to use it as a bed.

But it was also an old tradition that, because of the often crippling expense of purchasing a grave plot and of possibly having to travel from afar to inter the deceased, that a family might simply claim a spot of someone else’s property without paying for it. This was permissible so long as it was done when the landowner was not present at the time of the burial or tomb erection, so that no violence would be instigated by either forceful relatives or landowners defending their property. So, a gravestone or above-ground tomb resting in one’s front yard or at the periphery of a field might spring up unexpectedly, and custom was—as reinforced by law—that the property owner could not in any way deface the burial site or deny the family the right to visit it. Such an unexpected tomb might even show up in the center of one’s living room, if one forgot to lock their door when they went to work.

The granite headstone on Depo Ep’s property, however, had not been politely tucked away at the border of his corn field, but planted dead smack in its center.

“Fuck my mother!” he cried out again, even louder this time.

He looked around wildly, as if he might find the culprits still lurking nearby, catching their breath after their labors. After all, he hadn’t really been gone that long. He’d ridden into town on his motorbike for a haircut, where his unruly graying eyebrows had also been trimmed and the wax excavated from his ears, all three aspects of maintenance long overdue. And what greater pleasure was there than to have a pretty young thing dig the wax out of one’s ears with her delicate little probes, leaning her breasts against his arm? From there he had run a few errands and ended his excursion with a trip to the little graveyard in the neighborhood where his wife had grown up, to leave a monthly offering at her gravestone: a pair of perfectly spherical green melons (representing the two of them, still symbolically united) and burning some incense sticks he slotted into the little holes in the base of her lichen-splotched headstone. He’d hated the stubby little bitch. When she was harboring bitterness, which was always, she would purposely probe too far when digging the wax out of his ears, turning the sensuous to the torturous. But, tradition was tradition. The gods were always watching. A man who didn’t honor his dead wife might very well, upon his own death, find himself called to the court of the Ten Demon Lords of Hell.

Depo didn’t spy anyone lingering nearby to gauge his reaction, so he turned his attention back to the invading gravestone and read its new, clean-edged inscription aloud, lighting a 777 brand cigarette with hands trembling with rage as he did so.

“Ecco Bin Bin,” he said in a mocking, disgusted tone, as if this were some absurd foreign name instead of one quite common in his country. “‘Beloved husband, revered father, reverent servant of the gods, faithful citizen of his nation, productive worker, lucky gambler.’ Pah! Would that I could engrave more words here, you pompous old goat’s scrotum! And that is what I would engrave: ‘Pompous old goat’s scrotum’!” But Depo knew all too well he couldn’t so much as spit on this tombstone, lest some police officer witness his offense. Or worse…the gods.

So he left his field (ah, but it was all right to deface his field, wasn’t it?) and stormed back to his little farmhouse with its darkly mildew-stained cement walls, and rusted corrugated metal roof, and the misleading address B-2 stenciled over the door by his deceased wife—who had been more faithful to her precious TV than to the gods—growling curses all the way. He felt violated, and yet he felt impotent to address that violation. Tradition was a kind of glue that held a country and its people together, but it could also be a glue to stick one’s hands together helplessly.

Still—except when it came to his domineering wife, may the Ten Lords of Hell feast on her heart through eternity—Depo Ep had never been a man to countenance helplessness.

Depo collected long stalks that grew from the swampy troughs at the sides of the dirt road running past the front of his property, but only those stalks that had gone yellow and hard from baking in the sun, and dragged bundles of them to the workshop at the rear of his humble little house. There, he separated the stalks into smaller bundles and with wire bound them into the limbs and long torsos of scarecrows. He had fashioned scarecrows in the past, to frighten birds from his corn field, before he had simply taken to shooting at them with an old bolt-action army carbine instead (oh, by the gods, if shooting were only an option now!), but these new scarecrows would be of another order altogether.

He tore to shreds some articles of his wife’s clothing he’d uncovered, faded from rough laundering, and wound the strips around the scarecrows’ arms in dangling tatters that would stir in the breeze. And upon the fronts of their roughly ball-like woven heads, he painted features. Fearsome, grimacing features with bulging eyes and wolfish tongues, his own tongue pushing past his teeth as he carefully rendered these details in black paint. These monstrous visages were the most important component of all.

His labors took him through the night, but he was driven first by his rage and then gradually by a gratified sense of purpose that grew into exhilaration, a bright aggressive pleasure. The sun set, and rose again to find him in his field, where he had dragged his brood of scarecrows, each one a head taller than himself. There, he propped the scarecrows in a ring around the tombstone of Ecco Bin Bin, facing inward as if to pay the dead man tribute. But the congregation of scarecrows were effigies of the Ten Demon Lords of Hell.

Standing back to admire the finished composition like a true artist, clapping his callused palms together, Depo Ep let out a little snort of satisfaction. Then, he turned back to his house to allow himself, finally, a well-earned sleep. Though he was utterly exhausted and basting in sweat, never had his work in this field felt so rewarding.

He awoke with a start, his heart nearly firing itself through his chest like a cannonball. Disoriented, he thought for a moment that he was standing in a courtroom surrounded by ten towering figures with hideous faces. The Demon Lords were chanting. The solemn chants were his sentence, condemning him to an eternity of torture. Hideous old crones, leaning their withered breasts against his arms, would insert metal probes into his ears and tease out his brains bit by bit, only for the tissue to regenerate to be teased out again…

But as his heartbeat came more under control, he realized that the chanting was continuing even with his dream having dissipated. And the chanting was coming from somewhere nearby, just outside his house.

Depo threw himself from his mattress laid on the cement floor and went to a small barred window without any glass, drawing back a lace curtain stained yellow from decades of 777 smoke.

Night had descended again, weighing black upon his field, but at its center—its exact center—burned a circle of torches. Incense smoke wafted on the warm night breeze. So did the chanting.

Before bursting outside, Depo Ep reached for the old bolt-action carbine leaning in a corner of his kitchen, but with an effort of will he withdrew his hand.

He tramped through his field unmindful of the delicate green seedlings he crushed beneath his sandals, not even bothering to walk in the rows between.

At the center of his field he found three mourners. One was a stubby old woman who, gods forbid, might have been a fleshly apparition of his own wife. But he knew whose wife she really was. Ecco Bin Bin’s widow was accompanied by two adult sons, short and stout like overgrown babies, their heads still shaven bald from their father’s funeral rites back in their own town, wherever that might be.

Joss sticks jutted from the holes drilled into the base of their father’s clean new monument. Four bright green melons rested at the headstone’s base, as well. The three of them at least had had the decency or respect—but of course, only out of fear—not to knock down the ten leering scarecrows. They knew the precepts of tradition as well as he. But they had stabbed a torch into the ground in front of each scarecrow to ward off their powers, and they had placed offerings at the feet of each of the Ten Demon Lords to placate them. Ten bottles of 777 brand whiskey, cartons of cigarettes, cellophane-wrapped packages of dried squid treats, and wads of colorful faux money. Everyone knew demons loved such things. Demons, like police officials, were easily bought.

Depo choked on an aborted exclamation. He was going to bellow at this trio to get off his land, and take their litter with them (though on second thought, it would be preferable if they left those ten bottles of 777 whiskey), but he knew that it was within the family’s rights to pay tribute to their fallen loved one whenever they saw fit. They ignored him utterly as if he were an invisible spirit, knowing that he knew these rules. There was nothing really he could say. He could not even disparage the man’s memory in front of them.

All he could utter, as a hiss under his breath, was, “Fuck my mother!”

But wait until they returned to their own town or city, as sooner or later they must. He would erect effigies of the entire Ten Legions of the Demon Lords’ infernal army if he must, to surround and glare at the presumptuous tombstone of Ecco Bin Bin. Even if he had to sacrifice every inch of his field to do so.

With a renewed sense of purpose energizing him—or at least allowing him the saving of face—Depo Ep turned on his heel and marched back to his house, slamming its blistered old door behind him.

Depo Ep couldn’t return to sleep that night, and paced his small house like a caged animal, wracking his brains for a means of exacting revenge against Ecco Bin Bin and his family in a way that wouldn’t overtly violate the codes of the law, and of the gods.

He thought of drilling holes in the earth over Ecco Bin Bin’s grave, and pouring in termites to eat through his coffin, no doubt a cheap wooden one, not nearly as pretentious and presumptuous as his thick granite headstone. Then, with the termites having paved the way, Depo would pour in a horde of hungry grubs or maggots or—yes!—the corpse-eating beetles of the type that the monks of the Va Tung Va temple bred and used to strip their dead brothers down to their bare bones, so that their denuded heads could be added to the walls of skulls that lined the catacombs beneath their temple. Depo didn’t care if the termites or larvae or ravenous beetles went on to eat every last seedling in his field. His pride couldn’t be bought for a corn field that spanned the entire surface of the world.

But then he considered that even if the beetles made their way into the coffin and chewed Ecco Bin Bin to the bones—so what? His family wouldn’t see him that way, wouldn’t even know it (however much Depo enjoyed the image of swarming blue-black beetles covering every inch of that goat scrotum’s body, feasting on his face, his eyes). And wouldn’t his family expect, anyway, that insects would one day whittle their loved one down to his inner architecture? Depo’s method would only hasten that outcome. Again: so what? No…this idea wouldn’t do.

Anyway, the gods might still view this as a direct attack against the deceased. Better to keep his revenge focused on proximity to the gravestone, rather than any kind of action directly against it or the arrogant old gambler planted beneath it, like a giant seed from which no profit would ever sprout. And how much corn would that tombstone displace, in the future? How much lighter would Depo’s pockets be for that loss, as the years went on and on and that shiny gravestone became spotted with lichen and spattered with bird shit? Depo Ep shouted curses as he paced, just thinking of Ecco Bin Bin down there grinning with his eyes closed in serene satisfaction. The thief! He might as well have wads of Depo’s future earnings clutched in his gnarled fingers, right now.

Depo considered that he could dump a huge pile of manure right next to the grave. Or better yet, he himself could shit in a bucket and dump that in front of the grave every day. Not touching the plot or its grave marker, oh no, not a single brown dot on that lovely grainy stone, and Depo could always defend himself by saying that he liked to produce his own fertilizer. He had always been frugal!

But even this idea didn’t seem sufficient. Maybe it just wasn’t…creative enough. To properly answer this outrage called for the strategy of a master general, the brushstrokes of a brilliant artist.

He returned to his idea of an army of scarecrows (let them put a bottle of 777 whiskey at the feet of a hundred soldiers!), but that idea was a bit…exhausting, now that he revisited it. Yet thoughts of demons led to thoughts of ghosts, and thoughts of ghosts reminded him of his dear nephew Kwen when he was only a child of seven. His brother’s stepson Kwen was one of the few members of his family he had ever really loved; only a demon wouldn’t have loved that child’s sad eyes and sweet smile, his respectful and gentle ways. And—truth be told, if only to himself—what man with blood in his veins wouldn’t have been heartsick in love with Kwen when she had changed herself into a woman, her eyes still sad and smile still sweet (or was it the other way around)?

In any case, one night a bullying schoolmate, perhaps responding to Kwen’s femininity, had placed a ghost melon on the window sill of Kwen’s bedroom while he slept. Kwen awoke to this frightful vision in a panic. For days afterward he refused to sleep in his own room, and as an adult woman she had once confided to her Uncle Depo that she still had the occasional nightmare about the ghost melon on her window sill.

(Depo had found out about the story from his brother, also a vengeful sort, who had enlisted Depo’s aid in passing a dozen large but harmless snakes through the bullying schoolmate’s own bedroom window while he slept.)

A ghost melon…of course. No sane fruit seller, whether tending a market stall or peddling their wares from a much-laden bicycle or motorbike, would attempt to sell a ghost melon, though they were said to be as edible as green melons. But Depo knew just where to find one. Not all that far from his property was a boggy area, once a rice paddy, where there grew in profusion tall stalks like those from which he had fashioned the Ten Demon Lords of Hell. In this marshy stretch, visible from the narrow dirt road, were scattered ghost melons…seeming to bob in the shallow water like the tops of the heads of a dozen drowned men.

And so, with the pink of dawn spreading, charged with another burst of inspiration, Depo Ep set out again on his dusty old motorbike.

But first, walking his bike toward the road, he glanced back toward his field, where a mist lay heavily like a cloud that had descended wearily from the sky. Because his was a newly-planted crop of corn, on the tail of the last harvested crop, the only things in the field that poked up from the blanket of fog were the dark hump of the tombstone and the circle of silhouetted scarecrows. No sign of the bereaved, though; they’d even removed their ring of tall torches. Depo was both relieved and disappointed to see them gone. So now they wouldn’t see the ghost melon, after all? Or were they crouched in the bushes at the edge of the field, waiting to spring forth at the slightest offense against their loved one, as had seemingly been the case before? If they were indeed gone, back to their home, so be it. He’d put a new ghost melon in his yard, at the foot of the grave plot, each time the last one rotted, from now until eternity if he had to, until Ecco Bin Bin’s family returned to pay their respects.

When he’d arrived at the bog, Depo rested his sandals on the seat of his motorbike, rolled up the legs of his trousers, then waded into the dark water. Mud and probably the things that lived in mud oozed between his toes, but he ignored this as he reached the first melon, tethered like a buoy by its vine underwater. He cut the vine free with his knife, washed the melon off in the water, then held it up at face level for inspection. Ah! It was perfectly spherical, like the green melons he had left at his wife’s tomb, but its smooth skin was a pale grayish-blue. Tucking this fine specimen under his arm like a severed head, he turned toward his bike leaning at the edge of the road. But it was not back toward his home that he steered. Oh no, not yet. First, another visit to the little neighborhood graveyard where his wife was ensconced.

Depo Ep sat cross-legged in the matted grass beside his wife’s grave plot, upon which he had set down the ghost melon as if it were an offering. But it was not an offering. It was a temporary vessel.

When ghost melons moldered, their smooth bluish skins became mottled with gray and black patches. In these patterns of decay, words were sometimes discerned. The word might be nonsensical or cryptic, though it could be something significant like a person’s name. Depo had a neighbor who swore he had once seen a ghost melon bearing the words, “Death! Death! Bloody Death!” He had asked Depo how someone could dismiss something that extensive as merely a trick of the eye. (Though his neighbor had been drunk at the time he related the story, and had most likely been drunk when he came upon that particularly wordy ghost melon.)

Often it wasn’t words that the rot formed, but faces. Usually these were vague like faces drawn by children, open to interpretation, though many people claimed to have witnessed the face of a furious demon…or the face of the ghost that resided for a time in the melon.

A ghost, because it was believed that if a person were to place a blue melon upon a grave, the hungry soul would be lured forth to feast on the succulent fruit and become trapped inside its skin. Only when the fruit rotted away would the spirit be freed to return to its resting place. That was why his beloved nephew Kwen had so feared the ghost melon he had seen in his window, looking in at him like a skull without features. Because, even though it had not yet become splotchy and thus bore no ghastly countenance, it was always feared that an egg-like ghost melon carried an angry spirit inside it.

“I know you hated me, you old bitch,” Depo spoke to the gravestone beside him, “as much as I hated you. Ours was an arranged marriage and I know you never stopped pining for that rascal guitar-player Zwoon. But if you ever loved your little home, where you watched your stupid soap operas and talked all day on the phone to your bitch mother and your bitch sister and your bitch sister-in-laws, instead of fucking me and giving me a few sons, then you need to help me now. It’s too late to protect our home from these parasites, but we can strike back in vengeance. Do you hear me? Come eat now, you fat old sow. Come eat the sweet thing I brought for you.”

Three days passed without the family showing up in his field again; at least, not that Depo witnessed, and he made sure to stick close to home, peeking out his windows often. Closer inspections of the grave site proved that no new joss sticks had been burned, no new green melons added to replace the four that were now rotting, caved in on themselves like battered skulls and attracting hordes of flies. His own single ghost melon, a few discreet inches away from the foot of the fresh dirt plot, had also begun its process of decay. Gray-black blotches had appeared here and there on its skin, which was beginning to lose its glossy tautness.

It was possible the last few days of heavy rain had discouraged the family from revisiting the grave, though they might still be visiting some old friends or relatives in town, but it was much more likely they had returned to their own town by now.

“That’s fine,” Depo Ep said to Ecco Bin Bin. “I’ll keep bringing new melons when this one has decayed. I’ll grow them in my field instead of corn if I have to, to keep myself supplied with them. I like that—yes! I’ll flood this field and grow ghost melons! I don’t care if my neighbors don’t like it, if the police come here to chastise me. I’ll do it, I tell you! One day your family will see a ghost melon waiting here, with my wife’s horrid soul bottled in one after another, and they’ll be terrified that the ghost inside will escape from her shell to sink down there to keep you company. Believe me, I’d be terrified too, if I were you, if my wife crawled down there for a visit.”

Depo laughed happily as he strutted back toward his house. There was no denying that this challenge had given spark to his life. It was a sport, a game. In fact, he’d even go so far as to admit he hadn’t felt this alive in a long time.

On the fourth day since having placed the ghost melon at Ecco Bin Bin’s feet, Depo still found no new incense sticks or green melons to replace those turned to muck. There was one very striking development, though. It should not have shocked Depo Ep, after the stories he had heard since his childhood, but nevertheless he was quite shaken when he knelt down to inspect the withering surface of his ghost melon, and upon its rind—facing Ecco Bin Bin’s tombstone—discovered a remarkable, unmistakable representation of his deceased wife’s face, rendered in inky blotches of black and gray. She looked so filled with fury he had at first mistaken her face for that of a demon—just like when she’d been alive.

After a few moments of stunned terror, Depo actually laughed with delight, and exclaimed, “Good job, bitch! Glare at him! Make that old goat shiver in his box with no escape from your ugly face! The gods know I suffered that fate for too long a time, myself.”

His wife seemed to be glaring at him, though, the longer he studied the ghost melon. So, feeling uneasy again, Depo rose and retreated to the shelter of his home.

“No,” Depo Ep moaned in his sleep. “Nooo…”

They stood in a ring around him, looming a head taller than he. Depo wheeled around desperately, at the exact center of that circle, with no avenue of escape. The baleful red eyes of the Ten Demon Lords of Hell blazed with harsh judgment, as if shooting fiery rays into his very core. The demons were oblivious to the field of dancing orange flames in which they stood, but those flames were cooking Depo in his own skin. Hotter every second…hotter…

He jolted awake. Smelled the smoke flowing in through his windows. Heard the crackling of the flames outside. Felt the intense heat against his skin. Depo leapt from his mattress and scrambled to the nearest window.

“Fuck my mother!” he cried out in horror.

His field was a sea of lapping flame. He saw that all but two of the ten scarecrows had already fallen and been consumed, but he failed to recognize the pole-like remnants of several tall torches. To his mind, the family of Ecco Bin Bin—still in the vicinity all this time, after all—had set his field on fire purposely, but it had in fact been an accident. One of the new torches they had erected as protection against the ghost glowering from the blue melon had accidentally tilted during the night, and set the nearest scarecrow alight. From there, the flames had spread. The family had already left well before then, expecting the torches to burn themselves out harmlessly after a few hours.

Depo bolted from the window to the door, but found the flames had spread to such an extent that they completely surrounded his tiny house. He darted from window to window, choking as more and more black smoke poured into those windows.

At last, knowing he was hopelessly surrounded, Depo sat down at his little kitchen table and lit himself a 777 cigarette defiantly.

“You were the one really behind this, weren’t you?” he coughed, as if talking to someone in the empty chair across from him. “You think you’re in heaven now, listening to your old boyfriend strum his cheap guitar? Pah!” He took another drag from his cigarette. “See you in Hell, bitch!”

Fen Pwee wagged his head in disbelief. How had they managed this outrage? (Whoever they had been.) He had only been away in the city—delivering a load of bricks to a work site in his battered old truck—for a few hours. But here it was, as if it had appeared by an act of black magic, nonetheless: a brand new, sharp-edged granite gravestone standing at the head of a fresh dirt plot, right in the middle of his front yard. He turned slowly, as if dazed by a blow, to stare at the road, as though he might actually find the culprits standing there grinning maliciously, waiting for him to discover their surprise. But of course there was no one.

With anger finally flooding into him, rousing him from his stupor, Fen stepped closer to scrutinize the words engraved into the headstone (unbeknownst by him, that stone purchased by the deceased’s beloved niece, Kwen).

Fen read aloud: “‘Depo Ep. Devoted husband, favorite uncle, faithful servant of the gods, honorable citizen of his nation, productive farmer.’”

Shaking his head again, Fen Pwee added his own verbal addendum to the epitaph:

“Fuck my mother!”

The post PseudoPod 727: The Uninvited Grave appeared first on PseudoPod.