Closure, Limited and Other Zombie Stories, Page 6Max Brooks
I got within arm’s length of the nearest worker before he snatched the brick away. This man was from Taiyuan. I understood him clearly. ‘Well, what the fuck are you waiting for?’ He snarled at me, ‘We need more! Go! GO!’ And that is how I was ‘recruited’ to work on the new Great Wall of China.
She gestures to the uniform concrete edifice.
It didn’t look at all like this that first frantic spring. What you are seeing are the subsequent renovations and reinforcements that adhere to late and postwar standards. We didn’t have anything close to these materials back then. Most of our surviving infrastructure was trapped on the wrong side of the wall.
‘On the south side?’
Yes, on the side that used to be safe, on the side that the Wall, that every Wall, from the Xia to the Ming, was originally built to protect. The walls used to be a border between the haves and have-nots, between southern prosperity and northern barbarism. Even in modern times, certainly in this part of the country, most of our arable land, as well as our factories, our roads, rail lines and airstrips, almost everything we needed to undertake such a monumental task, was on the wrong side.
‘I’ve heard that some industrial machinery was transported north during the evacuation.’
Only what could be carried on foot, and only what was in immediate proximity to the construction sight. Nothing farther than, say, twenty kilometres, nothing beyond the immediate battle lines or the isolated zones deep in infested territory.
The most valuable resource we could take from the nearby towns was the materials used to construct the towns themselves: wood, metal, cinderblocks, bricks – some of the very same bricks that had originally been pilfered from the wall. All of it went into the mad patchwork, mixed in with what could be manufactured quickly on sight. We used timber from the Great Green Wall1 reforestation project, pieces of furniture and abandoned vehicles. Even the desert sand beneath our feet was mixed with rubble to form part of the core or else refined and heated for blocks of glass.
Large, like so. She draws an imaginary shape in the air, roughly twenty centimetres in length, width and depth. An engineer from Shijiazhuang had the idea. Before the war, he had owned a glass factory and he realized that since this province’s most abundant resources are coal and sand, why not use them both? A massive industry sprung up almost overnight, to manufacture thousands of these large, cloudy bricks. They were thick and heavy, impervious to a zombie’s soft, naked fist. ‘Stronger than flesh’ we used say, and, unfortunately for us, much sharper – sometimes the glazier’s assistants would forget to sand down the edges before laying them out for transport.
She pries her hand from the hilt of her sword. The fingers remain curled like a claw. A deep, white scar runs down the width of one palm.
I didn’t know to wrap my hands. It cut right through to the bone, severed the nerves. I don’t know how I didn’t die of infection; so many others did.
It was a brutal, frenzied existence. We knew that every day brought the southern hordes closer, and that any second we delayed might doom the entire effort. We slept, if we did sleep, where we worked. We ate where we worked, pissed and shat right where we worked. Children – the ‘Night Soil Cubs’ – would hurry by with a bucket, wait while we did our business or else collect our previously discarded filth. We worked like animals, lived like animals. In my dreams I see a thousand faces, the people I worked with but never knew. There wasn’t time for social interaction. We spoke mainly in hand gestures and grunts. In my dreams I try to find the time to speak to those alongside me, ask their names, their stories. I have heard that dreams are only in black and white. Perhaps that is true, perhaps I only remember the colours later, the light fringes of a girl whose hair had once been died green, or the soiled pink woman’s bathrobe wrapped around a frail old man in tattered silken pajamas. I see their faces almost every night, only the faces of the fallen.
So many died. Someone working at your side would sit down for a moment, just a second to catch their breath, and never rise again. We had what could be described as a medical detail, orderlies with stretchers. There was nothing they could really do except try to get them to the aid station. Most of the time they didn’t make it. I carry their suffering and my shame with me each and every day.
As they sat, or lay at your feet, you knew you couldn’t stop what you were doing, not even for a little compassion, a few kind words, at least make them comfortable enough to wait for the medics. You knew the one thing they wanted, what we all wanted, was water. Water was precious in this part of the province, and almost all we had was used for mixing ingredients into mortar. We were given less than half a cup a day. I carried mine around my neck in a recycled plastic soda bottle. We were under strict orders not to share our ration with the sick and injured. We needed it to keep ourselves working. I understand the logic, but to see someone’s broken body curled up amongst the tools and rubble, knowing that the only mercy under heaven was just a little sip of water...
I feel guilty every time I think about it, every time I quench my thirst, especially because when it came my time to die, I happened, by sheer chance, to be near the aid station. I was on glass detail, part of the long, human conveyor to and from the kilns. I had been on the project for just under two months; I was starving, feverish, I weighed less than the bricks hanging from either side of my pole. As I turned to pass the bricks, I stumbled, landing on my face. I felt my two front teeth crack and tasted the blood. I closed my eyes and thought, ‘this is my time’. I was ready. I wanted it to end. If the orderlies hadn’t been passing by, my wish would have been granted.
For three days, I lived in shame; resting, washing, drinking as much water as I wanted while others were suffering every second on the wall. The doctors told me that I should stay a few extra days, the bare minimum to allow my body to recuperate. I would have listened if I didn’t hear the shouts from an orderly at the mouth of the cave.
‘Red Flare!’ he was calling. ‘RED FLARE!’
Green flares meant an active assault, red meant overwhelming numbers. Reds had been uncommon, up until that point. I had only seen one, and that was far in the distance near the northern edge of Shemnu. Now they were coming at least once a week. I raced out of the cave, ran all the way back to my section, just in time to see rotting hands and heads begin to poke their way above the unfinished ramparts.
We halt. She looks down at the stones beneath out feet.
Here, right here. They were forming a ramp, using their trodden comrades for elevation. The workers were fending them off with whatever they could, tools and bricks, even bare fists and feet. I grabbed a rammer, an implement used for compacting earth. The rammer is an immense, unruly device, a metre-long metal shaft with horizontal handlebars on one end and a large, cylindrical, supremely heavy stone on the other. The rammer was reserved only for the largest and strongest men in our work gang. I don’t know how I managed to lift, aim, and bring it crashing down, over and over, on the heads and faces of the zombies below me...
The military was supposed to be protecting us from overrun attacks like these, but there just weren’t enough soldiers left by that time.
She takes me to the edge of the battlements and points to something roughly a kilometre south of us.
In the distance, I can just make out a stone obelisk rising from an earthen mound.
Underneath that mound is one of our garrison’s last main battle tanks. The crew had run out of fuel and was using it as a pillbox. When they ran out of ammunition, they sealed the hatches and prepared to trap themselves as bait. They held on long after their food ran out and their canteens ran dry. ‘Fight on!’ they would cry over their hand-cranked radio. ‘Finish the wall! Protect our people! Finish the wall!’ The last of them, the seventeen-year-old driver, held out for thirty-one days. You couldn’t even see the tank by then, buried under a small mountain of zombies that suddenly moved away as they
sensed that boy’s last breath.
By that time, we had almost finished our section of the Great Wall, but the isolated attacks were ending, and the massive, ceaseless, million-strong assault swarms began. If we had had to contend with those numbers in the beginning, if the heroes of the southern cities hadn’t shed their blood to buy us time...
The new government knew it had to distance itself from the one it had just overthrown. It had to establish some kind of legitimacy with our people, and the only way to do that was to speak the truth. The isolated zones weren’t ‘tricked’ into becoming decoys like in so many other countries. They were asked, openly and honestly, to remain behind while others fled. It would be a personal choice, one that every citizen would have to make for themselves. My mother, she made it for me.
We had been hiding on the second floor of what used to be our five bedroom house in what used to be one of Taiyuan’s most exclusive suburban enclaves. My little brother was dying, bitten when my father had sent him out to look for food. He was lying in my parent’s bed, shaking, unconscious. My father was sitting by his side, rocking slowly back and forth. Every few minutes he would call out to us. ‘He’s getting better! See, feel his forehead. He’s getting better!’ The refugee train was passing right by our house. Civil Defence Deputies were checking each door to find out who was going and who was staying. My mother already had a small bag of my things packed; clothes, food, a good pair of walking shoes, my father’s pistol with the last three bullets. She was combing my hair in the mirror, the way she used to do when I was a little girl. She told me to stop crying and that some day soon they would rejoin me up north. She had that smile, that frozen, lifeless smile she only showed for father and his friends. She had it for me now, as I lowered myself down our broken staircase.
Liu pauses, takes a breath, and lets her claw rest on the hard stone.
Three months, that is how long it took us to complete the entire Great Wall. From Jingtai in the western mountains to the Great Dragon head on the Shanhaiguan Sea. It was never breached, never overrun. It gave us the breathing space we needed to finally consolidate our population and construct a wartime economy. We were the last country to adopt the Redeker plan, so long after the rest of the world, and just in time for the Honolulu Conference. So much time, so many lives, all wasted. If the Three Gorges Dam hadn’t collapsed, if that other wall hadn’t fallen, would we have resurrected this one? Who knows. Both are monuments to our shortsightedness, our arrogance, our disgrace.
They say that so many workers died building the original walls that a human life was lost for every mile. I don’t know if it was true of that time...
Her claw pats the stone.
But it is now.
1. The Great Green Wall: a pre-war environmental restoration project intended to halt desertification.