by D.M. Jewelle
Key Sand stepped out onto the porch of his house and out the front gate on his way to the cemetery. Down the road, he walked past the shops, the weathered stone pavement stained with black ink. Try as City Hall had, some of the ink could not be removed, and replacing the stones were costly (the stones were imported from the Hills, a place that no longer HAD the stones since they had all been taken), so the Tourism board tried to put a new spin by lauding them as the only ink-stained stones in the world. This had tourists from far and wide popping by to see the Town Ravaged By Ink, eventually having a Heritage Foundation declare them a national treasure. This proved to be the best stroke of fortune Asterwick had, since the new status enabled them to acquire enough money to rebuild the houses so long the ink stains remained.
The philosophers followed, each with their own theory of God’s plans for the town. Some hypothesised that God was out to prepare the world for an inky apocalypse; some thought that this was the price of humanity’s folly for rampantly polluting the rivers and seas, for taking so much of the Her resources and giving so little in return; some insisted that it was merely an anomalous occurrence in nature, and there was bound to be a perfectly logical scientific explanation once they figured out what it was. Asterwick welcomed them with open arms; the restaurants fed them the local cuisine of fish stew and potatoes while the innkeepers gave them beds wrapped in linen and pillows stuffed with goose down with which to rest their weary minds, since more curious people meant more town revenue. In turn, more revenue procured more facilities to rebuild the town, which brought more curious onlookers to witness a once-broken town rising from the ashes of the dead and ruined buildings, which meant documentary-makers felt the urge to base their potential award-winning documentaries in Asterwick, which meant that four years after, interest had not waned one whit.
Key Sand hated this.
He grew up walking along the pier, watching the fishermen lower their nets and the silver-white piles of fish slide into a heap on the wooden floorboards of their boats, whooping and waving their arms in joy at their bountiful harvest. He enjoyed the times his father took them to a restaurant nestled in an empty street, where the silence served to point out the aroma of fish stew bubbling on the stoves, prepared by the owner themselves. He would sit for hours at the stone banks overlooking the sea, watching Jan count the seconds before the sun sank into the sea and then they would run home under the star-filled sky, giggling at their private jokes. To Key, Asterwick would only be the quaint fishing village he knew in his boyhood days.
Too bad he didn’t picket the rapid exploitative development all those four years.
Walking down the ink-stained stone pavements, a signboard sponsored by a sponge manufacturer lauded the process of breaking up the stones to put on the pavement and the chemical properties of the strange ink that caused it to permanently bond to the stones. Tents were set up by enterprising (but mostly illegal) people who grabbed a pick and ripped a few stones off the base to sell to tourists as mementos of their trip. Imagine the possibilities; impress your co-workers with your artefact straight from the pages of history! No pen to spare? Just pick up an ink rock and start scribbling! In need of a dye job due to greying hair? A few swipes of the ink rock across your scalp, and voila, thirty years younger!
Key Sand kept his eyes to the ground, making sure he watched out for the small holes left behind from the rock-picking. He noticed how annoying it got when his leather Mary Janes were scuffed with ink bits that never left the stones. He turned to the left, and saw rows upon rows of shops rebuilt to the original designs but slathered with a coat of blinding neon yellow and green, the latest songs blaring from within. Racks of postcards and key chains obviously not made in Asterwick in the first place (a quick flip to the back of a plastic ASTERWICK fish keychain has the words “MADE IN ZHI LONG KA” in black chippable paint) tinkled and flapped to the wind’s rhythm, producing a makeshift wind chime.
The restaurants were replaced with cafes or had sold out to commercialisation, now hanging banners half the size of the shop, bragging that theirs was the original fish stew recipe. One was bad; six in one row with the same banner was disgraceful. Out went the quaint heavy wooden furniture and candle-lit rooms; in came fluorescent lighting and aluminium foil chairs with uneven legs. Half the people Key met on the street were so garishly decked out in khaki shorts and tank tops with tans that there was no way they were locals.
Asterwick had become a tourist trap.
Key Sand winced and avoided eye contact with the cheap establishments, fully focused on his goal. A kilometre away downtown was the cemetery. Now that he had come to his senses, he thought it would do him good to visit Jan’s grave.
He remembered the cemetery’s arching whitewashed gates, which seemed to reach beyond the clouds. He remembered the smell of freshly-cut grass, the tip of his shoes digging into the turf like a deep shaggy rug; the weathered, fading angels with their arms outstretched waiting to embrace him, and headstones and pavilions with their Greek pillars and domed roofs, inviting him to spend a moment in peaceful solitude.
When he reached the cemetery a gigantic stretch of empty land greeted him.
He blinked. He was sure he had to turn right after Blain Street, walk past the bus stop and down the dirt road, another right at the signpost, and back to the main road leading to Idlide Cemetery…but there he was, and there were vast tracts of brown soil as far as he could see. No arching whitewashed gates, no shaggy rug grass, no angels, no nothing no how no way.
Maybe blinking a few more times would clear the dust from his eyes, or wash the pixie dust that cleverly hid the graveyard from public view, not that anyone would want to do that in the first place, but might as well not take chances. Try as Key did, the graveyard did not magically rematerialise.
“S’gone.” A raspy voice called out behind him. Key turned to see an old man sitting on a rock, dressed in the rags and remnants of a rather distinguished suit that had certainly seen better days. His hunching saw the tip of his long grey beard inches away from his knees. Wrinkled and blemished with strands of hair dotting his balding head, yet he looked dignified and stoic. Well, at least more dignified than his grandfather, who merely stared at him mouth wide open and drool dripping out the sides of his mouth. Key often wondered when did senility seize his grandfather, but nowadays he suspected it was probably something to do with the tartan skirt.
“Waitaminit, waddaya mean gone?”
“Gone, like the wind. Kicked the bucket, served its last cuppa, closing time came an’ went, buh-bye, gone. Any other meanings I dinna catch?”
“The cemetery is gone?”
“Waddaya, deaf? I thought me hearing went bad.”
“B-b-bu-but-but-but…cemeteries can’t just be gone!” Key flailed.
“For starters, how do the people in there,” Key pointed at the empty brown soil ahead, “Pack up and leave??”
“Obviously they had a little help.”
“Are authorities allowed to do that??”
“They’re moving ’em to the Black Tsunami Memorial up in Wisty Park, y’see that big black slab ‘a stone, that’s where they be packed off.” A large black obelisk stood out in the distance amidst the tree-lined roads leading to the area.
“Tho I hear none’o them’ll make the trip in one piece.”
Key’s head snapped back to the old man. “Sorry, what?”
“Cremation’s the rage these days, can’t go a step withou’ summone declaring now’s a good day to turn to ashes and talcum powder. I’d reckon after the black wave flooded all those graves and dug up black skeletons, no one’s keen on being one ‘o the inking dead,” the old man replied, running a finger down his beard to remove tanbles.
“So they exhumed the graves and cremated all the bodies?”
“S’going to be the cleanest black slab ever, tells you. More reason for ’em nuts in rainbow shorts to trot by for a gander.”
“Guards been having trouble with that black…thing, people touching it and goin’ “ooh it’s so solid an’ black an’ shiny” and rubbing their hands allova’ it as if it be made o’ ink or summat,” the bearded chap rambled on, shaking his head. “Wotever happened t’ times when people actually looked sad at dead places? Young’ins are all a strange lot, s’truth.”
Key had tuned out, he was still taking in the fact that his selfish self-absorption had not only cost him a valuable opportunity at activism and town preservation, but now the grave of his dearly departed, the one place he could still visit her, had been ripped up and her sacred (he thought they were) bones ground to a fine powder along with several hundred others in some (probably cheap) pot in some big black…thing…that robbed him of seeing Jan be one with the earth.
“Just ’cause we got a big ink bath doesn’t mean everything’s t’ be covered in ink!”
The last chances of retaining his sanity gone, Key Sand handled it the best he could – He buried his head in his hands and screamed at the fluffy white clouds drifting overhead.
“OH GOD NOOOOOOOOOO!!”
The scream was long and loud and punctuated with strings of “NOOONONONONONONONONO” in it. Key fell to his knees and punched the ground repeatedly, making fist-shaped dents in the dirt path.
Even the old man stopped talking, content to stare at the ongoing public display of anguish, along with the fleeing birds, rolling thunder, and the really heavy rain that followed.
It all went on for quite a while.