Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror

#23


Zombies! Sure, they're the walking undead, but as hired help they can't be beat. Never tiring, never complaining, always there when you need them. Just one thing you must remember --
never, ever feed them salt...

Do Not Feed the Zombies

By "Terminal" Talbot Pratt


"Damn it, I haven't time to wait," the plantation foreman insisted angrily. Though his mother tongue was French, and though it irked him to do so, he spoke now in Creole to the Haitian ship's master. "I have to deliver my cargo to the sugar cane plantation outside Port-au-Prince by tomorrow morning. I must get down the river and it's already getting dark."

"I am sorry." The ship's master shrugged apologetically and made a loose gesture toward the dock where barrels were slowly being raised out of the ship's dark hold. "I must unload my cargo first, you understand? When I am finished, then perhaps we can sail again. It will only take an hour. Until then--"

"All right, all right. I'll pay you extra, how about that? I'll pay you... double if we can sail now. Understand? Double?"

The ship's master frowned, startled by this unexpected offer. But Jean Mercure, the foreman, knew he had won. Business had been poor of late and no Haitian ship's master could afford to turn down such a proposition. Still, though, the man was dubious.

"But, sir, where will we stow your cargo? The hold is full. There is no room for..."

At that moment, he chanced to glance into the darkness beyond Jean Mercure. There were deep shadows nestled between two rickety shacks.

In those shadows something moved.

His black skin turned an ashy grey, a hand flew before his face and he stumbled quickly backwards, almost off the dock and into the water. He gasped.

"No."

There were eyes in the darkness, terrible glazed, unseeing eyes. And beneath the eyes, dark, gangly limbs, nearly naked except for a few shredded rags. And now he could hear a sound. A dismal, muted moaning.

Jean Mercure cast an impatient scowl over his shoulder, then hissed urgently: "That's right--zombies. What of it? Will you take my cargo or not? I don't need you to empty the hold, they'll just stand on deck. What do they care? Stop staring at them, I say! Do you want my money or don't you?"

For just a moment, the ship's master continued to stare with wide, horrified eyes at the wretched creatures huddled in the darkness. Jean Mercure knew precisely what he was thinking. Zombies! No doubt the man had heard stories--who in Haiti had not? And perhaps, some nights, when the wind blew from the inland hills, he had heard the ominous beating of the rada drums. But he had never expected to encounter such abysmal things himself, no, not him--certainly never expected to find himself asked to carry them aboard his precious ship.

With a visible effort, the ship's master tore his gaze from the darkness and looked at Jean Mercure. He stared into the foreman's face, the expression of horror still flaring his eyes. But then, quite suddenly, the expression changed. It melted away in an instant, and what was left behind was oddly... hardened.

The man nodded once.

"Very well, sir," he said. "I will carry your hellish cargo down the river to Port-au-Prince. But for double the price? I think not. Three times the price, or you can find another ship--and there are no more ships available, I assure you."

Jean Mercure scowled, but knew he had little choice. He was working against a deadline and his job was at stake.

The plantation outside Port-au-Prince used zombies to cut the cane and, as foreman, it was Jean Mercure's task to take care of those zombies. For a year, things had gone well. But then, he had foolishly hired a new woman to cook for the workers, those who were not zombies. Though she had been told to keep away from the zombies, the stupid woman didn't listen. Seeing them lurching about in the fields, dressed in their shredded garments, their limbs so thin and malnourished--she took pity upon them. She cooked them a meal and brought it to them.

What she did not know, what no one had thought to tell her, was that zombies must never be fed salt. If they eat salt, they instantly become aware of their horrible state and...seek to redress it.

It took twenty men with axes and guns to put down the zombies. One man was killed and several others seriously wounded. Jean Mercure wasn't even there when it happened, but he took the blame just the same. And so, now, he had been given this one final chance. He must replace the zombies by tomorrow morning--or he would never work in Haiti again.

"Very well," he snarled bitterly. "Three times the price. But we must leave now. And we must reach the plantation before morning."

"Oh, I will get you there, have no fear of that."

There was still that strange look in the ship's master's eyes. Had Jean Mercure not been in such a hurry, had he not been so absorbed in his own problems, he might have paid greater attention to it. As it was, he merely put it down to greed. That was an emotion with which he could sympathize.

No sooner had the money changed hands than Jean Mercure went to work with the whip. The zombies did not feel pain, or so the bocor had told him, but they were slow, dim-witted brutes and often the sting of the whip was the only way to enforce his will.

The ship's five-man crew watched with wide, sickened eyes as Jean Mercure lashed away at the moaning, shambling creatures, cursing them with bitter heat. Slowly, with lurching steps, they moved out of the shadows and into the failing light. There were twelve of them, twelve black men, all gaunt and gangly, barely clothed in rags that fluttered in the rising breeze. Their arms hung slack at their sides, their murky eyes staring blindly ahead, half-lidded. From time to time, one moaned, a low, hideous song of despair.

Up the boarding ramp they slouched with bare shuffling feet, onto the open deck of the sailing ship. There Jean Mercure herded them together in the centre of the deck, where they remained standing, mindless of discomfort, never tiring or needing to rest. Still moaning dismally.

Jean Mercure noticed the ship's master shiver with revulsion, as did the five men of the crew, and, though he smiled derisively, he knew he too felt something of the same. But the job was good and paid well. He wasn't about to complain.

The ship set sail down the river. It turned dark soon after and Jean Mercure, peering out into the Haitian night, could discern the passing shore only as a deeper darkness; that and the occasional glimmering lamp from a rickety wooden shack.

He spent his time at the gunwale, staring out into the darkness, because it was better than thinking about those wretchedly moaning creatures at his back. The ship's master had been right about one thing--it was a hellish cargo. For all that he had spent a year overseeing such things, Jean Mercure found he could never get used to them. There was something about those horrible glazed eyes, that dismal moaning, the way they huddled together like mindless cattle--just the sight of them raised the hair on the back of his neck even now.

And his fear had only grown worse after the accident with the salt. Though he had not been there to witness it, enough had been described to him to leave him shaken for life. Now at night, he had dreams, horrible nightmares of staring eyes, and dreadful moaning...and hands...eager clutching hands...

While lost in his melancholy brooding, Jean Mercure did not hear the footsteps that crept up on him from behind. At the last moment, he noticed the creaking of a tarry board, but, before he could turn, something came crashing down upon his head. And a greater darkness overcame him...

***
The foreman opened his eyes to find himself lying stretched on the deck. Daylight dazzled him and he was forced to blink until he had grown accustomed to the glare. His first confused thought was that, it being morning, he had missed his deadline. He cursed the ship's master. Then he remembered what had happened in the night, recalled being struck from behind...

He lurched quickly to his feet and looked about. The twelve zombies still huddled together in the centre of the deck. There they had stood all night long, never thinking to sit down, creatures without wills, without even the least shred of self awareness. Again Jean Mercure shivered.

Then he glanced about, looking for the ship's master, ready to demand an explanation for the blow in the night. But the ship's master was nowhere to be seen. Jean Mercure was alone with his hideous cargo.

Suddenly he heard a distant thump of oars in oarlocks. He dashed to the bow--and stared, gaping in disbelief.

There was water everywhere, a vast shimmering plain gently rippling beneath a hazy sky. What had happened to the shore? It hung only as a low, green line on the horizon. It wasn't possible--they must be at sea!

Stranger still was the sight of the ship's master, along with the five men of his crew, all calmly rowing away in a pinnace. The man's back was to the bow of his little boat. Jean Mercure shouted at him and he looked up as if mildly surprised to be caught sneaking away. He touched the bill of his cap, shading his eyes, then he laughed. It was a fierce triumphant laugh, and it chilled the foreman to the bone.

"Ha, ha, ha! So you are awake! All the better, then. I had thought to leave you without a word, but perhaps this is best. Best that you know why!"

"Have you gone mad?" shouted Jean Mercure. "Where are you going? And how did we end up out here in the middle of the ocean. I told you I wanted to go to Port-au-Prince, you fool!"

"Fool, am I? Fool? Who is the fool now? You were the fool when you chose to take ship on my vessel, when you placed yourself in my hands. Do you not recognize me?"

Jean Mercure stared, then shook his head impatiently. "No. Why should I?"

"Because it was you who killed my brother. He disappeared a year ago and I searched and searched for him. Finally I found him. He was working on your damn plantation. You had turned him into a zombie!"

Jean Mercure turned pale. He began to speak, then faltered. What could he say? No doubt, it was true.

"Listen," he stammered numbly, struggling to remain composed. "If what you say is true, I'm sure we can reach some sort of...arrangement."

"Arrangement?" Again the ship's master laughed that triumphant mocking sound. "I have already made the arrangement! Look around you. We are at sea. Now look at the sky on the horizon. Those black clouds, a storm is coming. Without a crew, this ship will soon founder."

"You mean to drown me at sea?" Jean Mercure could hardly believe what he was hearing. "You're mad!"

"Drown at sea? Oh no! No, that would be far too easy! Look around. What do you see? Salt water! Everywhere is salt water. Soon the wind will rise and the waves begin to crash over the gunwales--and how long do you think it will be before the salt touches the lips of those zombies? Eh? That's right, I know they must never taste salt. I know what happens if they do. And that is the fate I have planned for you. I leave you with a choice. You can either wait until they kill you, or throw yourself into the sea. Now, farewell."

With that, the crew began to row once more, the mocking echo of his laughter drifting behind them like a wake. Jean Mercure shouted to them, but they did not look back. He screamed, he raged, he pleaded, but they were deaf to his cries.

Gradually they dwindled into the glimmering blue distance. And then, in a sudden rush of wind, the storm was upon him and he had no more time for pleas.

It struck with a force and fury which he would never have imagined possible. It was as if Nature herself was conspiring in this ghastly vengeful plot. In seconds, the sky was inky with thick, tumbling clouds and smothering darkness closed over the ship like the closing shutter of a lantern. The waves began to rise, and with them, the ship began to toss and pitch. The air came alive with screaming, yowling wind and lightning flashed and boomed against the hurtling sky.

Clutching the gunwale, Jean Mercure could only look around in helpless despair. The ship's master had been right. Without a crew, there was nothing to be done. The ship must eventually founder. But before that time came, before the sea claimed him, the zombies...

Click for the Conclusion




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Do Not Feed the Zombies is copyright 1999, by Jeffrey Blair Latta. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)