Short Story – Corpse Pose
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Jill walked as silently as she could through the wasteland of abandoned suburbia, keeping her eyes moving in a constant scan of her surroundings. There was at least one zombie following her, its aura an angry red flare that stood out even with houses between them. She needed more, though, many more if she was going to fulfill her ‘running duty.’
When she had finally made it to Refuge, she thought she was done with zombies. She wasn’t a fighter, all she had ever been able to do was run, run and run some more. The zombie-sight had kept her alive, since with it she didn’t have to worry about stumbling on zombies unaware, but the constant flight, not to mention the loss of everyone she had ever known, left her soul-tired and nervous.
Even after the first rising, when everyone knew the zombies were real, nobody she joined up with would believe that she could see them through buildings, or in the dark. Five groups she had joined, and then left when they wouldn’t believe a horde was close and coming towards them.
But she couldn’t see when she was sleeping, and she had to sleep in order to have the strength to run, so she kept joining up with other survivors. The sixth group, finally, had brought her to Refuge, an actual fortified human settlement.
She saw a glint of red out of the corner of her eye and spun in a circle, taking a full gestalt impression of her surroundings before peering intently in the direction of the new aura. She now had two zombies approaching from tangent angles, but this other aura was further away, and more spread out – a horde.
She picked her direction and set off at a jog, fighting down panic. She couldn’t believe she was running towards a horde instead of putting as much distance between her and them as humanly possible.
Worse, she was running towards them in order to get their attention. She pulled the noisemaker off her belt and held it tight, panting more with fear than with exertion. How did she let them talk her into this?
Yesterday, when she walked in to Refuge for the first time, she was impressed by the gate, the walls, and the guards. The sheer number of people was almost overwhelming, even though there were no more than she might have seen in the street on a normal day, before the rising.
Now, after months in which she had seen less than a hundred living humans, total, even twenty together at one time seemed like a huge crowd. And the guards at the entrance claimed that there were hundreds living in Refuge.
There was a problem, though. A single blood-red aura within Refuge. She paused at the gate, looking at that aura and debating what to do.
“Something wrong?” The man who spoke to her sported the stereotypical white coat of a scientist or doctor, and he looked incongruously cheerful.
She looked at him, then at the aura, then back at him. She knew she had to try at least. “You have a zombie in the compound,” she said bluntly.
“Really?” If anything, he looked more cheerful. “And how can you detect it?”
She scowled at him, wondering why he was reacting so strangely, and whether she would be able to get away if it turned out that Refuge was a trap instead.
“Do you smell it? Hear its thoughts? Feel a grating on your nerves?” He paused, looking excited. “See it? Can you see it?” He stared at her, as if willing her to say yes.
She complied, still feeling very puzzled. “Yes.”
“Yes!” He shouted and pumped his fist in the air, drawing annoyed looks from the guards, and puzzled looks from everyone else. “Excellent,” he continued, tugging at her arm and moving away. “Come along, you’re exactly who we’ve been waiting for.”
“But the zombie!” She resisted, pulling her arm out of his grasp.
He raised his eyebrows, then smiled and shook his head. “Not to worry, my dear. It’s immobilized, guarded and imprisoned outside the main wall. We keep it there, as a quick way of finding useful people like yourself. Perfectly safe. Unless you see more than one?”
She shook her head, baffled, and let him pull her deeper into the complex.
The strange man was Dr. Harding, head of the Institute for Zombie Studies. He babbled on about their work as he dragged her through a dizzying maze of streets, then inside through equally extensive corridors, but she felt like she only understood one word in five. Finally, though, he lead her into a large lounge and stopped, clapping his hands for attention.
He introduced her to the staff of the Institute then, including almost a dozen people like her, people who had survived because they had more than the normal five senses to warn them of zombies.
One of them was Ananda. She was tall, thin but muscular, and moved with the sort of smooth confidence that Jill associated with dancers or gymnasts. Her smile was so warm and sincere that Jill felt an answering smile spread across her face, for the first time in months.
“Ananda is like you, my dear; she actually sees the auras of the undead. And the living, but of course that’s neither here nor there. Sight seems to be both the most precise and the most rare of zombie senses. Until you, Ananda was the only seer we had, which limited our more ambitious efforts quite a bit, I’m afraid. Tell me, Jill, do you know yoga?”
She stared at him, wondering if the question was a non-sequitur or actually relevant. He was obviously waiting for an answer, though. “Um. My mom had a couple of yoga videos… before… but I’ve never taken a class or anything.”
He frowned, then shrugged. “You were going to be on running duty to start with anyway. This just means it’ll take you a little longer to get up to speed on the rest of it. Now, you should eat and rest, and tomorrow we’ll send you out on your first assignment.”
The others had smiled and gone back to whatever her arrival had interrupted, while Dr. Harding lead her away to first the kitchen and then a tiny, dorm-style room. He babbled the whole time, but not about anything she actually wanted to know, like what running duty involved or why he thought he had the right to give her any sort of assignment.
Before she could interrupt him long enough to ask, he was gone, leaving her alone with food and bed. She ate, washed up in the bathroom next door, then locked and barricaded her door before falling into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Now, she knew what he meant by assignments and running duty, but she still didn’t know why.
She didn’t wonder why the actual Institute was located outside Refuge – that was an obvious safety precaution. But why did they need to bring zombies into the Institute? Why did they need a full horde, and why did they want it brought in all at once, at a run?
Dr. Harding had said, “You’ll see.”
Ananda had smiled and said, “It’ll make sense once you see it.”
The others just shook their heads and said they couldn’t explain.
Jill slowed, looking around in all directions and positioning herself carefully between the horde and the most direct path to the Institute. “I’d better see,” she muttered under her breath. “Because if I don’t, there’s no way they’re ever getting me to do this again.”
She edged into normal, physical view of the horde and whirled the noisemaker, making a show of looking at it while she watched the horde out of the corner of her eye. Their aura turned a darker, angrier red and a chorus of moans rose up as they started towards her at a slow shamble. She looked up, let out a scream that was only partly faked, and took off down the road.
Zombies were slow but implacable. She probably could have just sprinted the whole way back to the Institute and still brought them in, but Dr. Harding had warned her not to risk losing them. Every few minutes, she paused, looked around to gauge their progress and make sure no strays were flanking her, then made a show of “hiding” and catching her breath. As soon as they got close again, she would break away, running down the middle of the street in plain view.
Necessary or not, it worked, and before sunset she ran into the open warehouse bay, and back to the double-walled cage in the back. A teenage boy swung open the gate on the first layer of bars as she approached, looking anxiously past her at the approaching horde. He closed and locked it swiftly, then another guard opened the inner gate, locking it behind them before disappearing through another door, this one solid steel in a concrete block wall.
Dr. Harding stopped her, letting the other door close in front of them and nodding towards the open room. “You’ll want to see this.”
Jill turned, setting her back against the wall and trying not to doubt the strength of their cage. It had to be strong enough, if Dr. Harding was exposing himself as well as her. She looked around the enclosure to distract herself from the horde of zombies shambling rapidly closer.
“What…” Seeing Ananda in the enclosure with them wasn’t entirely a surprise, but to see her serenely balancing on her head while the zombies approached was a bit of a shock.
She cut off her own question, but Dr. Harding still responded. “You’ll see.”
The horde, over fifty zombies in various stages of decay, had reached the outer layer of the enclosure. The front-most clawed and pulled at the bars, sticking their hands through the gaps and trying to reach the living humans beyond. The last two stragglers passed from the outer yard into the warehouse, and the rolling door crashed down.
Jill jumped, looking anxiously at the other door, the one that lead to safety behind a concrete wall, and wondered when they were going to stop fooling around and destroy the horde.
Instead, Dr. Harding pushed a button on the wall, and soothing bell tones rolled out across the room.
Ananda swung her feet to the floor and stood up, stretching her arms out and then bringing her palms together in front of her chest. “Welcome!” Ananda said, her voice carrying to the far corners of the warehouse.
The zombies paused, shifting their focus from Jill to her, then redoubling their efforts to get through the bars.
“I’m so glad all of you could make it. Today we’re doing something special. Now, I know you think you want to get through this cage and get your hands on me, but first we’re going to have a little class I like to call ‘Yoga for Zombies.’ At the end of class, if all of you participate, I promise to open the door and come out.”
A few of the zombies slowed in their clawing and quieted their moaning.
“That’s right,” Ananda said, slowly, clearly, loudly. “I will come to you.”
Jill was astonished to see the horde still and back away, watching Ananda intently. “They can understand her?” she hissed to Dr. Harding.
He nodded, but put a finger to his lips, hushing her.
“But first,” Ananda said, holding up a finger. “You have to join my yoga class. I come to you, after you do yoga with me. Now! Arms up, reach for the sky, now bring your hands to heart center. That’s right! Spread out a little, give each other some room.”
She launched into a series of flowing movements, calling out directions as she went. “Mountain pose, now forward bend, now rise up to a flat back – no, keep your hands on the floor, that’s right. Forward fold, now legs back into high plank. Low pushup, then up into cobra. Keep your pelvis down, pull your chest forward, good! Now back, into down dog. Keep your heels pushing towards the floor.”
At first, the zombies just stared at her. Then, as she kept moving, kept shouting out directions in that calm, friendly voice, first one, then another joined in. By her second time through the cycle of poses, half of the zombies were following along, and by the third cycle, every last one of them was at least moving their arms in imitation of the poses.
Jill was stunned to see zombies, clumsy shambling zombies, moving through a yoga routine with something approaching grace.
Dr. Harding leaned over and whispered in her ear. “What do you see?”
She shot him an incredulous glance. What did he think she saw? “Zombies doing yoga,” she answered as quietly as she could.
“Yes, but what do you see?”
She looked back at the zombies, wondering what he was getting at, and gasped. “Their auras,” she whispered back to him. “Their auras are changing!”
She couldn’t usually see the auras of living things, though she knew in principle that they could vary in color. She had never seen a zombie, however, with an aura that was not red, usually the dark red of clotted blood.
The color of the horde had been just that hideous shade, but now the zombies’ auras had lightened, brightened. Some were even orange, and as she watched, all of them lightened further.
“What’s happening?” This was too strange, far too strange for her taste. Everyone knew that zombies were mindless horrors, that the only way to stop them was to destroy their bodies. But here they were doing yoga, of all things, obviously understanding Ananda’s words, and changing the color of their aura.
Dr. Harding caught her eye and put a finger to his lips. She let it go, not wanting to disrupt Ananda’s unbelievable rapport with the undead. She would wait and see, but when it was all over, someone had better tell her what was going on.
The class went on, and on, and on. Jill watched intently while the zombies’ auras shifted in color, first to orange, then yellow, then green and blue. Only when the whole room was glowing purple in her zombie-sight did Ananda change the cycle.
“Well done, all of you,” Ananda said, “Now it’s time for savasana, our final pose. Lie down on your backs. Let your arms and legs hang loose on the ground, palms up, muscles relaxed. Let your mind be still, let the world fall away. Let all your cares and concerns go. Just relax, and let yourself be.”
The room was silent except for the sound of meditation bells ringing softly from the speakers.
Before Jill’s eyes, one of the purple auras flashed to white and disappeared. A few minutes passed, and then another did the same, followed by several more in quick succession. A pause of several minutes, and then dozens more flared out, until there were none left.
Ananda unlocked both gates and walked out. “Namaste,” she said to the air, looking up. “Thank you.” Then she returned, locking the gates securely behind her, leaving the corpses where they were.
“Are they… dead?” Jill asked. “I mean dead-dead?”
“The spirits that animated them are at peace,” Ananda replied.
“I don’t…” Jill wasn’t sure she wanted to know, but she thought she might need to, if she wanted to keep surviving. “What do you mean?”
Dr. Harding answered with a question. “What do you think zombies are?”
She glanced back and forth between him and Ananda. “Is this a trick question? They’re undead. The risen dead. The walking dead. Zombies.”
“All right. So where do you think they came from? Why do the dead rise and walk and kill?”
She tried never to ask herself that question. She didn’t like any of the answers that she had heard. “I don’t know,” she said quietly. Then she squared her shoulders and glared at him defiantly. “Some people say it’s because we were sinful, and God wanted to punish us. Some people say the government was experimenting and lost control of some bio-weapon. But nobody actually knows. Not me, and not you.”
Dr. Harding raised his eyebrows at her last comment, but was still smiling. “True enough. I don’t know for sure. But I do have a good idea.” He waved a hand at the corpses on the floor. “These are now just corpses, not zombies. Do you agree?”
She glanced around, and nodded. There were no auras, and no movement.
“And yet,” he continued. “Within a day they will all be zombies again. They will continue to reanimate, no matter how many times we lay them to rest, until the bodies degrade to the point of disintegrity. But why? Is it the same spirits, over and over again? Were the spirits Ananda just released, in fact, the same spirits that animated these bodies when they were alive? I think not.”
Jill shifted uneasily and looked at Ananda, trying to see what she thought of this idea. The other woman looked her in the eye and nodded earnestly.
Dr. Harding watched the exchange and nodded himself. “Exactly. The first rising was a massive event. Dead bodies everywhere rose up in anger and started adding to their numbers by killing the living. Why?”
Jill just glared at him, wishing he would get to the point.
“Well,” he continued. “I don’t think it’s coincidence that first rising happened within hours, perhaps even minutes, of the Asian Apocalypse. Think of it: millions, billions of people killed in a matter of seconds, their bodies burned to ash. No warning, no preparation. Is it any wonder that their spirits were angry?”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Jill snapped. “Lots of people died in the past without warning. So why get zombies now, but never before?”
Dr. Harding shrugged.
Ananda wrapped her arms around herself as if she was cold. “It’s like you said,” she said, “we don’t know for sure. This is just a theory that seems to fit our observations so far. It might be the sheer number of deaths. If even a tiny percent of the people killed were able, for whatever reason, to inhabit someone else’s corpse and come back as a zombie, the rest of the world would still have been in horrible trouble. And with the communications breakdown, we don’t know how many people actually died, or how many zombies have risen.”
She waved a hand to indicate the corpses, and as Jill looked out at them again she saw a faint red aura tumble through the wall and into a body. It groaned and started moving.
“Let’s move this conversation inside,” said Dr. Harding. “No reason to rile them up until we have another full class.”
They suited actions to words, locking and barring the steel door behind them. Dr. Harding lead the way into a lounge and poured cups of broth for all of them.
“All right,” Jill said after taking a too-hot sip. “I can buy the idea of… calming the spirits. If your theory is correct, then just destroying the bodies like most people do only sends the spirits to a new corpse, maybe even angrier than before. And people are always dying, so it’s not like there’s a shortage. But why yoga?”
“That was Ananda’s idea. And thank goodness she came up with it!”
Ananda blushed. “I taught yoga… before. A lot of my students would come in after the work day with these dark, muddy, angry auras – some of them as dark as a zombie’s, though not as intense.” She looked at Jill, seeming to want confirmation.
Jill nodded, though she had never seen an aura before the rising.
“So… They would have these dark, muddy auras before class started, but as they got into the vinyasa flow, they always started letting go of whatever was bothering them, and their auras would get lighter and lighter, and clearer, if you know what I mean.”
Jill nodded again. She could imagine, after watching the zombies’ transformation.
Ananda shrugged. “I was lucky, I’ve been in Refuge almost since the beginning. So I guess I was able to feel a bit more sympathetic towards the zombies than most people, able to wonder what it was that made their auras so gross. And I thought maybe I could help them the same way I used to help my students.”
She paused, so Jill nodded again.
“Dr. Harding set up the first experiment. It worked, and now we’re just trying to lay as many spirits to rest as we can. And since you can see the auras, you’ll be able to lead classes too, as soon as you learn the poses. Some of the others can teach classes too, but they need me – or you now – to watch and tell them when the auras change. They can tell when the spirits leave, but not when they’re ready for savasana.”
Jill nodded slowly. The ‘class’ had gone on for hours before the auras reached purple. Knowing the auras had changed, and to what color, must help the ‘teacher’ to keep up their motivation, as well as knowing when to lay the zombies to rest.
“All right, I’m in,” she said. “But that reminds me – all through the ‘class,’ you were shouting out the poses in English. But that last one, you keep calling it ‘savasana.’ Why? Doesn’t it translate?”
“Oh…” Ananda blushed and shifted her weight uneasily. “It just seems too ironic, and I don’t want to offend them. Savasana means Corpse Pose.”