Five of them approach, half-human monkeys we created for our amusement long ago, before their rebellion left Earth desolate. They drag a body through the dust by its ankles. The skin’s grey pallor and clay-encrusted limbs tell me all I need to know before the stench of it reaches my nostrils.
“Help her.” One of them speaks in a hoarse bark, like a dog with surgically impaired vocal cords.
I stand outside my cinder block hut and patch the clay exterior with a trowel. The concrete inner walls are nothing against these desert winds. They require a natural barrier and regular maintenance to avoid erosion. From dust to dust.
“Bring her to life.” The fuzzy sun-burned creature points at the body. His four brothers crowd around, staring up at me with stark white eyes and pinprick irises. “Do like before.”
I set down my bucket and carefully place the trowel beside it. They must not think I am armed. The last thing the Church needs is to lose another missionary on this reservation. I would make three in as many months at the hands of these primates.
“That was different, Jason.” I shake my head. “You were not—”
“Bring her back.”
It’s a full-grown female, the same genetic hybrid they are. The flesh is in an extreme state of decomposition—not a surprise, considering the shallow graves they dig for their kind. But there are no ravenous beasts to consider anymore, and grave-robbing is not part of their culture.
Until today. They have exhumed an entire body.
“We want her alive again,” rasps a little one who jostles his way to the front of the pack.
“Now.” Jason is their leader; again he points. “Breathe life into her.”
How can I make them understand? “You were not dead. You fell from a great height and could have died, but all I did—”
“Do it for her.” They advance, and I can’t help cringing at the touch of their sticky fingers clinging to my arms, insistent as they drag me to the corpse of their mother. “We need her.”
It’s foolish even to think of resisting. They’re stronger than ten men, even as boys. But of course the Church doesn’t want me to think of them as “boys,” although it’s impossible not to. They carry human DNA, so it’s assumed they must have something of a soul. And if so, they can be saved from eternal damnation.
They pull me to my knees beside the emaciated body. Its head tilts back on a frail neck with yellow fangs gaping, eye sockets hollow and puckered, the skin equally parched and drawn back from where lips had been. The odor is too much to bear as her children shove me close and hold me down. Bile surges in a reverse waterfall. I choke.
“Breathe life!” Jason grips the back of my neck.
“She’s dead,” I manage over the battle between my heaving bowels and thundering heart. “I can’t help her.”
“Do like you did for me.”
Recoiling at the thought, I realize it may be the only way. I’ll have to show them the futility of their request.
Swallowing the gorge in my throat, knowing it is better than what I’m about to taste, I press my lips against the corpse’s mouth and exhale with great force, jerking back from the chapped leather with a wince as it releases a rotten gust all its own.
“She breathes, you see!” the little one cries.
“No.” I fight to keep myself from gagging. “There are gases inside her—”
“Do it again!” Jason forces me down, and I comply. I have no choice. And this time, he does not release his hold for me to catch my breath. “Again!”
I struggle to turn my head aside. “It won’t help. She’s gone.” My eyes smart with tears. “She has been in the earth too long.”
He tugs me back and I land sprawling in the dust. The others crowd around me, their simian faces comical if they weren’t blocking the sun from me and scowling.
Is this how my predecessor spent his last moments? Was he this afraid for his life?
“Why won’t you save her?” one of them demands.
“He beat on Jason’s chest.” The little one remains beside the body to demonstrate. Ribs crunch beneath his small fist.
Have they no respect for the dead? How to teach them something they cannot fathom?
“You must return her to the earth.” Somehow, I am able to keep my voice steady.
Jason turns to tower over me with his broad chest heaving, fists clenched at his sides. Behind him, more ribs break inside their mother’s body.
“Stop it.” The little one scampers to Jason’s side at the command with his tail tucked between his legs, so to speak. He hadn’t been engineered with one. Jason ignores him and narrows his gaze at me. “You are not Jesus.”
My lips part but no words come. I clear my throat. “No.” I never claimed to be.
“And I am not Lazarus.”
He turns on his heel, and his brothers move to follow, casting back curious glances. They grab hold of their mother and haul her away through the dust with a small plume in her wake, the rotten feet jiggling.
I spit to the side and wipe my mouth on my sleeve. Both knees wobble in their sockets as I rise and reach for the bucket. The clay inside has hardened in the direct sunlight.
The monkeys return the corpse to its grave and avoid me the remainder of the day.
The Church will expect my daily report. I’ll share the good news that these creatures have apparently been listening to the stories I tell them on Sundays. I won’t share that my interference—resuscitating one of the boys—may have caused irreparable confusion.
But as long as they allow me to live through the nights, I pray there will be a tomorrow to make amends.
Milo James Fowler is a teacher by day and a speculative fictioneer by night. Visit him on the web at www.milojamesfowler.com
Image by Sten Dueland