“The Zombies” — Donald Barthelme

“The Zombies”


Donald Barthelme

In a high wind the leaves fall from the trees. The zombies are standing about talking. “Beautiful day!” “Certainly is!” The zombies have come to buy wives from the people of this village, the only village around that will sell wives to zombies. “Beautiful day!” “Certainly is!” The zombies have brought many cattle. The bride price to a zombie is exactly twice that asked of an ordinary man. The cattle are also zombies and the zombies are in terror lest the people of the village understand this.

These are good zombies. Gris Grue said so. They are painted white all over. Bad zombies are unpainted and weep with their noses, their nostrils spewing tears. The village chief calls the attention of the zombies to the fine brick buildings of the village, some of them one thousand bricks high — daughters peering from the windows, green plants in some windows and, in others, daughters. “You must promise not to tell the Bishop,” say the zombies, “promise not to tell the Bishop, beautiful day, certainly is.”    The white-painted zombies chatter madly, in the village square, in an impersonation of gaiety. “Bought a new coat!” “You did!” “Yes, bought a new coat, this coat I’m wearing, I think it’s very fine!” “Oh it is, it is, yes, I think so!” The cattle kick at the chain-link fence of the corral. The kiss of a dying animal, a dying horse or dog, transforms an ordinary man into a zombie. The owner of the ice-cream shop has two daughters. The crayfish farmer has five daughters, and the captain of the soccer team, whose parents are dead, has a sister. Gris Grue is not here. He is away in another country, seeking a specific for deadly nightshade. A zombie with a rectal thermometer is creeping around in the corral, under the bellies of the large, bluish-brown animals. Someone says the Bishop has been seen riding in his car at full speed toward the village.

If a bad zombie gets you, he will weep on you, or take away your whiskey, or hurt your daughter’s bones. There are too many daughters in the square, in the windows of the buildings, and not enough husbands. If a bad zombie gets you, he will scratch your white paint with awls and scarifiers. The good zombies skitter and dance. “Did you see that lady? Would that lady marry me? I don’t know! Oh what a pretty lady! Would that lady marry me? I don’t know!” The beer distributor has set up a keg of beer in the square. The local singing teacher is singing. The zombies say: “Wonderful time! Beautiful day! Marvelous singing! Excellent beer! Would that lady marry me? I don’t know!” In a high wind the leaves fall from the trees, from the trees.

The zombie hero Gris Grue said: “There are good zombies and bad zombies, as there are good and bad ordinary men.” Gris Grue said that many of the zombies known to him were clearly zombies of the former kind and thus eminently fit, in his judgment, to engage in trade, lead important enterprises, hold posts in the government, and participate in the mysteries of Baptism, Confirmation, Ordination, Marriage, Penance, the Eucharist, and Extreme Unction. The Bishop said no. The zombies sent many head of cattle to the Bishop. The Bishop said, everything but Ordination. If a bad zombie gets you, he will create insult in your bladder. The bad zombies banged the Bishop’s car with a dead cow, at night. In the morning the Bishop had to pull the dead zombie cow from the windshield of his car, and cut his hand. Gris Grue decides who is a good zombie and who is a bad zombie; when he is away, his wife’s mother decides. A zombie advances toward a group of thin blooming daughters and describes, with many motions of his hands and arms, the breakfasts they may expect in a zombie home.

“Monday!” he says. “Sliced oranges boiled grits fried croakers potato croquettes radishes watercress broiled spring chicken batter cakes butter syrup and cafe au lait! Tuesday! Grapes hominy broiled tenderloin of tout steak French-fried potatoes celery fresh rolls butter and cafe au lait! Wednesday! Iced figs Wheatena porgies with sauce tartare potato chips broiled ham scrambled eggs French toast and cafe au lait! Thursday! Bananas with cream oatmeal broiled patassas fried liver with bacon poached eggs on toast waffles with syrup and cafe au lait! Friday! Strawberries with cream broiled oysters on toast celery fried perch lyonnaise potatoes cornbread with syrup and cafe au lait! Saturday! Muskmelon on ice grits stewed tripe herb omelette olives snipe on toast flannel cakes with syrup and cafe au lait!” The zombie draws a long breath. “Sunday!” he says. “Peaches and cream cracked wheat with milk broiled Spanish mackerel with sauce maitre d’hotel creamed chicken beaten biscuits broiled woodcock on English muffin rice cakes potatoes a la duchesse eggs Benedict oysters on the half shell broiled lamb chops pound cake with syrup and cafe au lait! And imported champagne!” The zombies look anxiously at the women to see if this prospect is pleasing.

A houngan (zombie-maker) grasps a man by the hair and forces his lips close to those of a dying cat. If you do heavy labor for a houngan for ten years, then you are free, but still a zombie. The Bishop’s car is working well. No daughter of this village has had in human memory a true husband, or anything like it. The daughters are tired of kissing each other, although some are not. The fathers of the village are tired of paying for their daughters’ sewing machines, lowboys, and towels. A bald zombie says, “Oh what a pretty lady! I would be nice to her! Yes I would! I think so!” Bad zombies are leaning against the walls of the buildings, watching. Bad zombies are allowed, by law, to mate only with sheep ticks. The women do not want the zombies, but zombies are their portion. A woman says to another woman: “These guys are zombies!” “Yes,” says the second woman, “I saw a handsome man, he had his picture in the paper, but he is not here.” The zombie in the corral finds a temperature of one hundred and ten degrees.

The villagers are beating upon huge drums with mops. The Bishop arrives in his great car with white episcopal flags flying from the right and left fenders. “Forbidden, forbidden, forbidden!” he cries. Gris Grue appears on a silver sled and places his hands over the Bishop’s eyes. At the moment of sunset the couples, two by two, are wed. The corral shudders as the cattle collapse. The new wives turn to their new husbands and say: “No matter. This is what we must do. We will paste photographs of the handsome man in the photograph on your faces, when it is time to go to bed. Now let us cut the cake.” The good zombies say, “You’re welcome! You’re very welcome! I think so! Undoubtedly!” The bad zombies place sheep ticks in the Bishop’s ear. If a bad zombie gets you, he will scarify your hide with chisels and rakes. If a bad zombie gets you, he will make you walk past a beautiful breast without even noticing.

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