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Empire Down

In his dreams she walked down inland highways, sticking her thumb out at cargo trucks shuttling bananas and sugarcane, untying her hair. It was always dusk, and she never cared where she was going. Just as long as I’m going. Restless spirit, you know. Vagabond.

Michael heard clattering and opened his eyes. An old native woman with a bouffant twice the size of her head had shuffled into the room, guided by one of the maids. She was bundled in dark ratty pashminas that caught under her sandals. A fist-sized satchel hung around her neck like an icon. He could hear her wheezing.

“If you’re here to seal the house,” Michael said, “the villagers behind that yonder wall beat you to it. Maybe you can tell. My wife is still inside.” He liked to think that Tuesday would have been in the house anyway, turpentine seal or not; the more malt he drank, the easier this was to believe.

“I know,” said the old woman, coming forward. “I want to talk with her.”

It was amusing, in an infuriating sort of way, that even in death Tuesday maintained a secret social circle. “Yes, so I heard. Her mausoleum is back down that hallway, to the right, inside the first door on your left . . . ”

The old woman scoffed. “She is not in there. She is restless. She needs guidance. I’ve come to show her a path.”

Where was this crone back when Tuesday was alive, before she utterly lost her way? “Well, good luck. Tuesday doesn’t talk much these days.”

The old woman sat down on the Versaillesian chair opposite Michael without being invited, the shrew. “Miss!” she shouted, revealing two rows of shovel-like teeth. It took Michael a second to realize she was screaming through him, not at him. “There is life after death! Walk with the God of Night!”

Michael recoiled. He wondered if she was one of those head hunters that opened graves and lassoed the dead for labor. She was shaking a rattle made of parched, human-sized bones now. Was that supposed to be a summons?

“O, Night! Open that dead soul’s heart!”

“Stop,” Michael said, suddenly feeling queasy.

“Listen! She is coming.”

“No, that’s it. Get out.” But the old woman didn’t move, so he lunged toward her, fists inches from pashminas, and shouted, “Get out!” One of the maids peeked in, brows arched in the mildest of concerns. “Get the guards. Get security. I want this woman removed.”

“Wait, wait!” The old woman reached around her neck and took the satchel off its string. “I will show you. I will show you the wonder of the Night. You and the Miss both.”

With careful nailwork, the satchel’s ties came undone. Michael stood there with hands on his hips, trying to stop hyperventilating, as the old woman threw her head back and let it roll from shoulder to shoulder, sighing loudly. She finally held the satchel open for show.

He was about to say there was nothing inside, and accuse her of being another snake oil dealer—no better than the men who peddled housework spirits in little glass jars—but then he realized he couldn’t see the bottom of the little bag, so thick was the darkness. He wondered if she had snared a particularly toxic waft of city smog, but the dark smelled clean, like fresh rain.

“It is the Night,” said the old woman, smiling.

“How can that be night, night’s a time of day.”

“The Night is generous. I go on a pilgrimage to Kanta Run. Do you know, Kanta Run?” He nodded—it was the tallest mountain on the island, and tour companies offered sunrise helicopter trips to the peak. Tuesday had wanted to go, but he didn’t see the point of subjecting himself to subzero temperatures at 5 AM. “I begin my walk at sundown. I get to the top at midnight. The Night comes to me and gives me this.”

“You’re a loon,” said Michael, even though he had a craven urge to stick his finger inside that satchel and see what Night felt like. Ten years ago, he might have—would have tried boiled ox brain too. He’d wised up. Found out Japanese Encephalitis turned out to be not only real but fatal. Dogs here actually carried rabies. None of the cars had airbags. Even with the Civic Peace running patrols and the Anchor of Empire on every armored tank, locals still hissed at him on the street, looking a knife’s edge away from treason. “Even Tuesday wouldn’t fall for . . . ”

The end of his sentence died in his throat as Tuesday entered the room. The curtains flew and the frame of the painting Hannibal Crosses the Mountains rattled against the wall. A heavy, earthy exhalation draped over the lampshades, the teak furniture, their bodies, released from some enormous mouth. It was Tuesday’s latest trick: swelling up to fill every crevice of the villa. That way when he drove up from a night at Plaza Three he’d see her enormous blood-struck eye like a captured moon looking out of the top-floor windows.

Michael swallowed. “You’re upsetting her.”

“No,” said the old woman. “She is not upset.” She held the satchel up toward the ceiling while Michael wondered where the hell she got off telling him about his dead wife’s emotional state. “Come! Come, Miss! Walk the path! Become a Friend of the Night!”

“Stop that,” he hissed, but his eyes were watching the swaying chandelier. “She’s fine. She’s fine the way she is.”

A tremendous, echoing groan—almost a growl if not for the pain and weariness within—rattled down from the rafters. Had she made a sound like that in death? No, he hoped not. He told Harlo to tell his men to make Tuesday’s death quick. For her lover Dolan Pura, on the other hand, he requested a shot in the stomach. “She’s fine,” Michael whispered.

They’d been yelling at each other all week. Life after the murder was strikingly similar to life before it, except that now she had become the violent one. At dinner with other imperials, she’d slammed full plates of food into Michael’s face. She’d already broken the expensive television he’d imported from Europe. After the old woman with the bag of Night left, Michael was on the phone with the governor to discuss a mine strike that needed breaking when Tuesday flew up and down the halls screaming, “I want to see him! My love! Let me be with him!”

He told her how embarrassing she was. How he never should have fucked her, let alone married her.

She materialized behind him in the bathroom mirror, her chin hooked on his shoulder. “Yes, Michael. I’m a disgrace. I’m a filthy little whore. You may as well throw me away.” The Civic Peace officer that found her said she’d been left in the street like garbage. Michael knew that he knew, but Captain Strada—so arrogant—didn’t want a bribe. Michael spat out his mouthwash. “Nice try, Tuze. You’re my wife, you stay here with me.”

“You’ve got no right, Michael.” A bullet hole tunneled into her forehead and blood dribbled out of it as her eyes rolled back. “You didn’t even watch me die.”

At midnight, Tuesday began to pound the stone lid of her sarcophagus. At first Michael thought it was his heartbeat. As it got louder he thought someone was banging on the front door, and then that he was being robbed, and then that the rebellion the homefront never believed would happen was finally underway. Where’s the alarm? Where are my guards? But then he noticed the pillars of his four-poster bed shaking and quickly rolled off the bed.

While Tuesday howled like a freight train for freedom and for Dolan Pura, Michael lay flat on his belly with his hands behind his head, imagining how terrible it would feel for one of those wooden pillars to stab him through the heart. Yet the house’s turpentine walls dug like teeth into the earth. The chandeliers fell and the dishes shattered and a maid broke her leg when the refrigerator toppled over, but the villa stood.

Beyond this bubble, the hills were not so lucky. Tuesday’s convertible disappeared into the vivisected driveway. A banyan that had heretofore stood stout and majestic as a palace guard broke its trunk and fell with a moan against the east wing. Falling roofs and landslides flattened entire villages of sleeping tea-pickers, while the terraces they labored over folded in like cake batter. Tremors rattled windows as far as the Hotel LeBlanc.

Tuesday’s earthquake killed nearly a hundred, including two imperials—a priest who had spent his days striving to fill the hearts of heathen children with God’s love, and a tax adjuster.

Harlo was distraught. He insisted on talking outside in the upturned garden; he would not set foot in the house, not anymore, whether he was Michael’s chief of security or not. Tuesday watched them from the door eaves, ashen and murky as a pond with too much algae. “You should give her what she wants, boss,” Harlo said. “You cannot let her kill more people.”

“She just threw a tantrum.” Michael glanced over his shoulder. She was thrusting her blackened tongue at them, whipping it from side to side. “I can handle her.”

“Captain Strada says a clinic got knocked down! What if . . . ”

“Strada’s a fanatic. You shouldn’t be talking to him. Three times we’ve tried to get him removed from Civic Peace.”

“He knows this island.” Michael snorted; he could hear the “Unlike you” lurking beneath that sentence. “Boss. My wife’s parents were killed.”

“So you should be thanking Tuesday, right?”

In his head this was a joke, but he delivered it glumly. Harlo stared at him with the big eyes of utter disbelief that he usually reserved for street performers and missionaries. “I don’t think she is worth all this,” Harlo said, but he had never liked Tuesday. “She was a useless woman. Never did anything except sit in taxis.”

“This is not goddamn economics,” Michael said, even though it certainly had been when he and Tuesday started dating. They were introduced at a rooftop after-party, and as soon as their eyes met they started running risk calculations. They each had their own secret formulae, of course—that was what made it “magic” when they exchanged smiles at the end of the night. Years later, on a Far East vacation, Tuesday told him the actual variables she’d used—“I thought you could take me places,” she said—and that was the beginning of the end. He should have cut her loose on that Tonkinese junk ship.

But he couldn’t. Tuesday had burrowed her way inside him when he wasn’t looking, and in her boredom she had started plucking at his tendons and gnawing a little niche for herself that no one else would ever be able to fill. Did she know what she was doing? Did she know what it would do to him when she tried to claw her way out? Maybe not. Maybe she was just gnawing.

“Imperial bitch,” Harlo muttered. Blood and possible responses surged to Michael’s frontal vein—from “there goes your kids’ tuition” to “I know”—but Harlo swiveled on his heels and marched away before he got the chance to let anything out.

Tuesday was miserable in her afterlife. Since her earthquake failed, she’d become less of an energetic poltergeist. It was common to see her as a full-body apparition now, thumping sullenly from the back of the house to the front. Her feet sometimes stuck to the floor, like the fins of a fish that had fallen out of its tank, and her wispy shadow would stay lodged in mid-trudge until she gathered the energy required to peel her feet off the tiles.

“Wait for me,” she would say as she passed, and her “me” would rattle on forever, like the buzz of a fly trapped under a glass. Michael wondered sometimes if dying had destroyed Tuesday’s already fragile sense of self. Regardless, she wasn’t talking to him. She was calling out to the man she’d been sleeping with for six months. “I miss you. Where are you?”

Michael tried to soothe her stress. He left her offerings of sweets and sugarcane juice, as was recommended for finicky spirits. She never touched it when he was around; once in a fit of insomnia he went downstairs and saw her sticking her proboscis tongue into the glass. When she saw him she threw the glass at his head. He even told her, once, that he was sorry. She did not say it back, even though this was all her fault.

He was convinced that her dead lover was pestering her, begging her to come join him. Jackals in life are jackals in death, after all. The security guards never caught Dolan Pura’s ghost pawing at the walls of the villa, but they never caught his breathing body with Tuesday’s either.

“I’m going to make him leave you alone, Tuze,” Michael said, to the high ceilings and barren walls that he knew Tuesday hid inside. “So you can be at peace.”

Harlo was not answering the phone Michael gave him, so Michael went to Lemon Row himself, a few blocks from the city’s waste treatment facility. In the half-light, the churning dome and its spider-leg appendages did burn a brilliant red, but no amount of incense and mosquito repellent could overpower that smell. Of course, this was a truth about her lover’s existence that Tuesday would never have seen. Dolan Pura with his cheap black suit would never have taken Tuesday to his chalky, shadowy tower block, even if he hadn’t had a family.

Michael and his driver climbed stairways filled with maladroit children and abandoned geriatrics, because the elevator did not work. On the eighth floor his driver banged on the door of Apartment 88 and yelled in native gibberish, while Michael watched pigeons dive past the railing.

A woman in a pink maid uniform answered the door. She was deferential, of course—opened the door for them and waited for their entrance with her hands clasped and her head bowed. The apartment smelled of mildew and old cooking oil. Two small children were sitting on a mattress watching ugly, off-color cartoons—they stared shamelessly at Michael as he passed. They were too young. They didn’t know better.

Dolan Pura’s wife opened the door to what used to be her bedroom. Save for a calendar of the most venerable saints, she had stripped the space clean, sacrificed it to the blurry man standing in the corner. She sniffed derisively in his direction and Michael could immediately tell that they held her husband in the same cockroach-level esteem.

His driver mumbled, “She says she keeps him in here because he scares the children.”

Oh. He and Tuesday never had those, so she had no one to scare. Was that her problem? The servants didn’t count, and the sick pleasure she derived from hiding in the refrigerator just when he wanted a Carlsberg had apparently worn off.

“Ask her if he ever leaves.”

“She says no.”

“Ask her if he ever talks about Tuesday Nunn.”

Oh, he could tell as soon as he said it that she knew that name. He had seen that flared face in the mirror. Michael wondered if she’d had the same fantasies about Tuesday that he’d had about Dolan: big ritualistic deaths, bloody and significant.

“She says he does not talk.”

She was looking at him now, biting her tiny nails. He suspected she already knew what happened to Tuesday. Civic Peace seemed to know. The governor seemed to know. “What happened is his fault,” Michael snapped, pointing at the blur on the wall. “So don’t go looking at me like that.” But she kept staring, her and her dead husband with his sunken eyes, and through the wall the grimy little children too. He opened his wallet and threw a few dollars at her.

The old woman who preached conversion to the God of Night was on the first floor, pleading with a man who was trying to shut the door on her. The man was too ashamed to meet her eyes—a tornadic roar was coming out of his apartment. Michael’s driver tried to hurry him along but Michael’s eyes lingered too long on a sickly little boy sitting cross-legged inside that apartment, mouth open in a scream. The shamed man glared at him indignantly while the old woman turned and lurched after Michael with her bone rattle, shouting “Mister! This is the end!”

“You stay away from me and my wife!” Michael shouted back. He could feel his driver tugging on his sleeve, trying to be discreet. “She was fine before she came here! Tuesday never would have . . . I never would have . . . it’s this shit island, with all of you animals!”

“The Night loves all! It loves you too!” Michael shuddered and turned away.

They didn’t take the southern overpass route like usual—not that Michael missed the mega-malls down that way, and not that he wanted to play golf in the dark. “Traffic jam that way,” his driver explained. Michael imagined masses of cars sitting on the concrete overpass, suspended fifty feet in the air. The ensuing vertigo kept him from arguing with his driver, who turned out to be right anyway: downtown was actually breathable. They only had to stop once— for a car accident on Bagasud Boulevard, just outside the city cemetery. A careless head hunter had awakened a corpse that turned out to be that of “a crazy man, a killer,” as Michael’s driver said; the head hunter lost control and the corpse went hopping into traffic, still tied up in its funereal bed sheets. People stood around gaping until some young men in red bandannas dropped their rice bowls and opened fire on the corpse.

“Where did they get guns?” Michael asked. His driver turned a bit pink and didn’t answer, as if Michael had asked about some surprise birthday party.

When Michael finally reached the padlocked gates of the villa, he saw that the banyan tree still hadn’t been removed. Its strangler branches now stretched across the ridges of the window frames, into the curve of the rain gutters. So it wanted the house for a host.

What a mess they’d made of this place. Like most modern imperials, Michael couldn’t claim the entrepreneurial and artistic pride of having built it. He and Tuesday bought it from a shipping magnate who, at age seventy, had been abandoned by his drug-addled children and in his madness and sadness decided to relocate to the jungle interior. They were all descendants of greater men. Naming their sons and corporations after Rhodes and McKinley and Leopold only made the devolution starker.

“Tuesday?” he shouted when he opened the door. No answer. He fumbled with the lights but a circuit breaker must have blown, so he fumbled for the Floodplain 9X in the console table. It was the new high-powered “never fail” model that the Air Torque catalogs were pushing, and it did not so much illuminate the house as it forcibly pushed the darkness back. He pressed the button and could feel the Night peeling off his body.

How curious that the little television in the kitchen was on. When he pointed the Floodplain at it he could even see an image: an overhead shot of billowing smoke and steel. He crept closer. A bombing at a refinery just inside the southern city limits, in golf course country.

When Tuesday failed to answer him again, Michael went into the next room. It had been the dining room once, before Tuesday made sure no roasted quails would be served there again. Now she stood by one of the bay windows, hollowed out, her skin a mere net of xenogalactic stars. He had a feeling he would have seen her even without the Floodplain. He walked toward her and felt an alarming, refreshing gust of cold. The Night had gotten in through a flaw in the house’s construction: one of the bay windows was not airtight against the wall.

He could see the china cabinet through her, but he could also see that she was smiling. Smiling! Not even her affair got her to smile like that. Her swarming, growing joy touched him and he smiled too, thinking about that wonderful summer in Santa Barbara before he signed an imperial contract, thinking that maybe everything could be put back together after all.

“The Night,” Tuesday’s ghost whispered. “Look at it, oh.”

Michael turned his head and looked out the window. He immediately wished he hadn’t. The Night was an eyeless smile and a dull moon. In their bewitched backyard, large insects floated slow like blimps, having gorged on blood and light. Two-legged creatures with canine snouts loped through the bougainvilleas, and a pair of long-tailed beasts sat on the remains of the property wall, picking at each other’s wounds. A pale and naked humanoid figure with unblinking bovine eyes on the back of its head grazed on the grass on all fours. In the Night everything was two-faced—even the rocks, and especially the grass.

“It’s beautiful.”

Tuesday’s grin widened—this was better than her wedding day, yeah, this was up there with hang-gliding over the West Indies—but Michael’s heart sank. He had the distinct feeling that all these horrible and splendid creatures were dead.

“There is life after death,” Tuesday said, still smiling. “Listen!”

“What’s it saying?” Michael put his ear against the glass and stared into Tuesday’s undead eyes. They were drains now, made for funneling. But her chin was nodding. Michael felt airsick. He had the sudden sensation that he was running out of time.

A voice came through the glass unhindered, clear and cold and effortlessly commanding. “Walk with me,” it said. Michael pulled away in shock, but Tuesday tried to force her head through the glass, even though the turpentine forbade her like a wall of concrete would forbid her husband. “I walk with you,” she whispered to the voice. “I walk with you, my Night.”

Michael tried to pull her back. She quivered when his hand slipped inside her shoulder, but she felt like cotton—no, less than cotton; she was smoke from a kitchen fire. He withdrew.

“You don’t know what that is out there,” he said. “It might be dangerous, Tuesday.”

Her eyes rolled toward him absently, then swung back to the window. “I’m not Tuesday.”

A strawberry-sized piece of her face shattered into a puff of dust. Tuesday barely noticed, but it worried Michael—especially when the same happened to her knee. Where were her particles drifting? Should he be collecting them with hopes of reattachment, like severed fingers? But then he watched the Tuesday motes swim toward the crack in the window and knew.

“You’ve got strangers in the house,” she whispered, and her collar bone evaporated.

Michael went back to the kitchen and grabbed a knife. The television had turned to a static image of the Anchor of Empire and a tinny off-air hum. Please Stand By, it said.

The last time the woman Michael loved (the woman Michael hated) hugged him was four months before her death. He had returned from a business trip to find her crying while putting band-aids on her feet. She said she’d walked five miles that day in four-inch heels, and for what? “But at least I feel this,” Tuesday said, laughing with unhappiness. She limped toward him and put her arms around him. “Do you hate it here?” he asked, nuzzling her hair. “You know me,” she replied, “I hate it everywhere. But when I walk, it doesn’t hurt as much.”

The back door was open, and muddy footsteps from the garden led down the corridor, to the first door on the left, into Tuesday’s mausoleum. Harlo stood over the open sarcophagus in a strange olive-green uniform that neither Michael nor the firm commissioned. He was slamming a black hammer down onto Tuesday’s bones. Michael retched. Fragments of calcium sprouted tiny wings and went airborne, like any other tropical insect.

“I’ve had enough.” More bone shattered and flew. “The two of you will sink the island.”

Michael rushed to the tomb. He meant to stop Harlo—with the butcher knife, could he really?—but when he looked inside the stone vessel, his body stalled. Here lay Tuesday, a corpse: shrunken, faceless, putrefied. Her classical beauty had been violently reduced to unseen, undesired, undying parts. He had the sudden urge to rip the lace chemise off her bones. What a lie that thing was.

“Tuze . . . ” he mumbled, and Harlo smashed her ribcage in, yelling about the end of “all this” and Captain Strada—“Strada says we must . . . !”—but Michael didn’t care enough to ask.

After Tuesday had become unrecognizable as having ever been a human being, Harlo stopped. A salty Night breeze blew in through the back door and carried away her shards, scattering them like seeds from Ragomaya to Barrow Point. Tuesday joined the panic of the revolution, megaphone to megaphone. She clogged factory vents and contaminated purity samples, fluttered to the peak of the holy mountain Kanta Run. Tuesday blew past the Empire’s ticky-tacky borders and into the diminished frontier. Anywhere she went, Night fell.

“No more hands. No more earthquakes,” said Harlo.

“But now she’s everywhere.”

Harlo leaned against the wall, drenched in sweat. “Go back to your own country, boss,” he said, pointing his hammer at Michael. “Go home. Before you get hurt.”

Michael thought of the homefront—a strange place, full of automata and warehouses—and breathed deeply. Something small and sharp, something calcified, fluttered in with his oxygen and settled at the back of his throat. He pressed his fingers to his neck as it nestled into his pharynx. Almost there. She was almost home.

“It doesn’t matter where I go,” he whispered. “I walk with her.”

Originally published in Walk on the Weird Side, edited by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.

About the Author

Nadia Bulkin writes stories, thirteen of which appear in her debut collection, She Said Destroy (Word Horde, 2017). Her short stories have been included in editions of The Year’s Best Weird Fiction, The Year’s Best Horror, and The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror. She has been nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award five times. She grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia with her Javanese father and American mother, before relocating to Lincoln, Nebraska. She has a B.A. in Political Science, an M.A. in International Affairs, and lives in Washington, D.C.