Lux et Veritas
by Mikey Sivak
Ronjo slouched, made a broad poke at the fire with the seedy end of a dead grass sprig then pulled the little flame back to light the waded tobacco in the bowl of his calabash pipe. Beneath his heavy brow black eyes glared menace but then slipped quickly, their focus shifting from Aaron to a dark spot among the flickering trees, where presumably something like memory could drift past. Aaron tried not to look at him directly, but inspected his visage sidewise, wondering what the beast was thinking and anxious not to raise his ire.
At the fire’s other side, Osgood was snoring uneasy. His white-whiskered jaw chewed erratically and now and then he lifted an unconscious arm and slowly swatted at nonexistent insects his mind had placed dancing in the eddy of his phlegmy, emphysemic exhalations. A canvas satchel sat heavy across Aaron’s lap and he pressed his palms down upon its flat upper plane. He rocked his legs, raising and dropping them gently beneath the bag’s weight and thought I should toss it into the flames. Watch it burn in the night. But he did not destroy it.
Inside the bag was a large book, a first edition of Thoreau’s Walden Aaron had that afternoon lifted from beneath a heavy glass cube atop a cherrywood pedestal in the center of the dusty library of a hilltop manor house that stood empty and undisturbed amidst a field of meter-tall grass and car-sized meteorite fragments.
They’d approached the house with caution. Spending the better part of an hour in a genuflecting position behind an ancient and mossy stone wall. Osgood knelt motionless, watched the building through a pair of high-power binoculars. Aaron stood beside him, scrutinizing the old man’s face for signs of trouble. Behind them, upon a tangled mass of last season’s still-dormant bittersweet, Ronjo reclined, foot upon knee, wrist behind head, picking his teeth with a twig he spun between the long gnarled fingers of his other hand. Being an ape, he was less susceptible though not one-hundred-percent invulnerable to the zombie infection. Ronjo was quicker, stronger, and meaner than men, living or dead. So, his natural tendency to act as rearguard while stationary was tactically beneficial. During movement was a different story however. Though he would frequently amble, hanging back and with nonchalance at Aaron and Oswald’s walking pace, oftentimes he would disappear into the branches of trees or underbrush unseen and unheard. Though if any sign of danger appeared, so would Ronjo, almost immediately, as he had been there, above or beside them, like some apish phantom, all along.
Though mid-afternoon and spring, summer was still a ways off, and the air was not yet warm. Clouds moved across the blue sky like cows on a hillside, one or another of them passing slowly before the sun for minutes at a time, cooling things further, and inducing some quiet sadness over everything. Aaron watched their shadows move across the landscape, the overgrown pastures, and little white specks that were country houses here and there on the distant hills. A meadowlark zipped from behind them, a little flash of yellow, over the ancient wall between them and the field and down into the grass twenty or so feet away. It perched, for a moment, upon something rusty in the grass, vocalized a pleasant lazy song, then took off again like a dart toward and past the house in the field. Aaron had done well, these past months, to shed most emotion. But in this moment it occurred to him that in little points in time such as this, in the quiet outside and beyond humanity, is always some soft sadness. Even before the end came, especially as a child, he’d noticed it. On early-autumn mornings while waiting for the school bus. Or watching, from his second-floor childhood bedroom window, as the girl across the street posed for photos on the steps of her family’s home with her prom date, Sophocles the hamster running to nowhere endlessly on the squeaky exercise wheel in its cage. At the funeral of his grandfather, in the cemetery, beneath a sky with clouds like these ones. His mother’s boney fingers squeezing his small child’s hand. The smell of the grave dirt and the people. His half brother, ten years his senior and all but a stranger, on the grave’s other side, alone and away from the family, straight-faced and silent as a stream of tears ran down his cheeks from beneath Ray-Ban sunglasses. Squirrels in the graveyard. Leaves on the grass. Seagulls circling above the McDonald’s across the road. He wouldn’t think about Emmie and that time they sat in the bleachers of the high school near her house. How the sun was setting, and you could hear children in the distance playing. How she said she was pregnant but wanted an abortion because she didn’t love him really and they needed to break up. How he said okay.
Little birds flew in and out from beneath the eaves of the house’s roof and at the other end of the field a doe and its fawn moved noiseless and unworried.
Houses could be dangerous places, especially rich ones such as this. Sometimes people chose them as spots to stay in, perhaps drawn to the magnificence that had eluded them before what most called The Rapture but which held little similarity to the Biblical prophesy. For this reason smart ones knew such places were not safe. Just as they knew, unless one joined some kind of guild or encampment clan, moving was better than “moving in.” For the things that attracted you would draw others as well. Or, they would come because if they knew a group had settled, there would be things there they could take, namely any food, women, children or animals. And of course, regardless of what there was to take, the men would certainly not be left alive.
Though less dangerous than living men, zombies could smell a settlement as well. Stay in any spot too long and they would inevitably begin to appear. One at a time at first then in increasing numbers like proverbial moths to a literal flame. There was something about fire, and the other accouterments of human life that seemed, more than anything else, to attract them. It was as if this was the true thing they sought. Aaron thought about it sometimes. Perhaps these things still somehow represented for them the things they had lost.
Aaron had seen people consumed by the horde. Each time he sensed this strange, abysmal, existential sadness in the dead ones. As if, they fed not for hunger but compulsion, like some ouroboros thing, with the self being consumed their humanity. It was impossible though to ever know what, if anything, went on in their brains. Unless, of course, you became one of them. But this was something most people, upon infection, made sure did not come to pass. Most bullet holes you saw in skulls now were self-inflicted.
When Osgood said alright Ronjo rolled over, pushed himself up to hop the wall and walk across the field erect like a man. It was still disquieting for Aaron to watch the ape move in this manner. Not so much because it seemed unnatural for a Chimpanzee to do so but because he looked so normal doing it. Together with his near bald scalp and habit of wearing a baggy military surplus field jacket and burlap satchel strung across his wide chest, the upright locomotion made Ronjo appear downright human. His quiet thoughtful nature only added to the effect. And it was these human qualities that caused Aaron to fear him most. The volatility of an animal was something Aaron could steel himself against, but an ape that seemed to think and act like a man was a thing to fear and dread (especially in a strange time where men wandered with the aimless savage brutality of rabid animals). Where animal behavior could be deciphered, human actions often seemed sans logic. And recently Aaron had become aware of Ronjo’s strange glances. Aaron could not make out meaning. Mostly it was the lack of readability that worried Aaron, and on more than one occasion he had roused from his sleep in the night to see Ronjo crouched beyond the fire, watching him where he lay. Clearly, the ape had lived among men long enough to learn one thing well; the more you allow your thoughts and feelings to be known, the more these things can be capitalized upon. Ronjo kept these things mostly to himself, but as the weeks progressed, Aaron could sense a veiled smoldering, and he decided it best to grant him as much leeway as possible. But he feared the unavoidable moment when the ape would finally test him, and then he would have to make a choice, stand up to a brute equal to himself in height and weight but with three times the strength or admit subservience to a pipe-smoking circus freak. He knew himself well enough to know which he would choose.
Aaron prepared for a rifle report, the sight of Ronjo felled in his steps, but none came. Instead, the chimp made it safe to the house, then with no more effort then it would have taken Aaron to scale a handicap ramp, Ronjo pulled himself up the building’s ornate façade, arm over arm. He inspected the perimeter, as was established protocol for such situations, looking down into windows, scanning the horizon, and such. Finally he made his way up a brick parapet and sat. He pulled a windproof lighter from the jacket pocket and lit his pipe. The wisp of smoke was the sign and Osgood dropped his binoculars to his neck, lifted a hand to Ronjo, who waved back disinterestedly. Let’s go, Osgood said to Aaron as he packed away his binoculars then removed his nylon flight jacket and folded it into his knapsack.
In the field, Aaron made it a point to walk past the spot where the meadowlark had landed earlier, to see what it was it had landed upon. In the grass lay an old and rusted robot, forgotten and inoperable like some ancient plow half-buried in the scrub and the soil. It clutched something to its chest, a small skeleton about the size of a cat or a human infant, like some obscene parody of the Pompeii dead. He did not look long enough to tell what kind of bones they were.
Inside the house the three split up. Ronjo dragged a duffle and found the pantry, filling the bag with canned foods. Osgood searched elsewhere, looking for tools and supplies that might prove useful on the trip South through the backwoods of Maine. It was best to avoid motorized transportation, being loud and requiring fuel. The latter brought you into populated places. It was better to move on foot. Travel slowly, steadily, away from places more likely to encounter other men.
While Ronjo and Oswald scavenged for necessary things, it was understood that Aaron could do as he pleased, and as usual, he sought out the library. It was strange and invalid behavior he undertook without any true zeal. It was a remnant and a vague compulsion, but one he seemed unable to shake nonetheless.
The library doors were large and wooden, with handles and hinges of wrought iron like shackles. Each of the two doors was inscribed with a word: upon one Lux, the other Veritas. Aaron reached over his shoulder, slid his fingers into his satchel and grasped the taped handle of a sawed-off pool cue. He held the cue above his head with one hand the pushed the doors open slowly with the other and entered cautiously until he was sure there was no one inside. The walls were bookshelves stacked tight with hundreds of volumes from the dark hardwood floorboards to the ornate plaster ceiling no less then twenty feet overhead. The racks on the far wall were broke by two floor-to-ceiling windows with center portions of stained glass upon which were again inscribed Lux and Veritas. Before the window marked Veritas was a small wooden table beside a large oxblood leather chair facing out toward the high lawn. From the entryway Aaron could make out the cuff of a silk robe, from beneath which poked a decrepit, bony hand. His heart skipped a beat despite himself. It was unlikely this was a zombie. They never sat.
Aaron stepped forward cautiously nonetheless; ran his had across the leather spines of the library’s many fine books, thick wads of dark grey dust collecting at his fingertips, and slowly moved along the room’s perimeter toward the dead man. It was all there, every great work of human Literature, stacked upon the racks of a single tall wall. Upon the next were the great books of Philosophy, and the next of Mathematics and Science. The implications were not lost upon him and had the experience been new, Aaron might have lost control of his senses for a moment. He had in the past, in similar instances. But he had reached the shaky conclusion that romanticism, like sentimentality, had become obsolete.
Aaron approached the dead man, poked the wrist with his pool cue. Nothing. He placed his palm upon the high back of the leather chair and stood for a moment beside it and looked out at the lawn and the hills: the man’s final image. He tried to imagine the scene. Trimmed, healthy grass, full green trees. Perhaps it was that last summer before that yearlong winter. Perhaps grasshoppers were still flitting, little yellow butterflies flapping. Maybe birds zipped over the lawn and into the trees. Or maybe it was autumn, the black sky, the underside of smoke clouds painted orange with the blazing flames of countryside fires. Or maybe it was later, a time when hordes of choking men clamored like barbarians up the lawn, machetes and hatchets in hand to take the manor and kill anyone living inside its walls. Or maybe he had made it to the aftertime, the precarious new spring, the quiet, the wandering dead.
He looked down and saw the dead man, all beef jerky across bones. Long teeth like a hare’s forming a ludicrous grimace, poking between mummified lips split and twisted like hemp twine. The paisley patterned silk robe still shown glossy through accumulated dust. Aaron touched the dead man’s wire-haired scalp, palm cupped and downward facing, as if touching the head of some infant or catatonic grandfather. Beneath the robe the dead man appeared to be nude save a tarnished silver chain around his neck from which hung at the clavicle a sterling locket, in the shape of a book. It was engraved:
L + V
The man’s eyes were gone, and the sockets were matte black and soulless like the eyes of a shark. Aaron crouched down before him. Lifted the locket off his chest. Went to open it, but stopped. Placed it back where it hung.
The man’s other hand rested in a loose fist at his chest, and Aaron could see that it held a small brown glass vial. Aaron plucked it out with his fingers. A yellow paper label had been affixed to its surface with clear box tape, and upon the slip was a hand drawn image, a skull and crossbones, with x’ed out eyes and a little tongue that hung down from the upper jaw. Inside the bottle was a small pill-shaped object. Aaron jiggled the bottle. The pill bounced in a way that led Aaron to conclude it was mostly hollow and coated with something like rubber. Suicide pill, probably a glass ampoule filled with something like cyanide. He slid the vial in his pants pocket, touched the man’s shoulder.
At the center of the library were four wooden pedestals, each topped with a glass cube housing a single book. At first glance it was easy to see that three of the four were leather bound, quite old but in good condition, while the fourth was a worn comic book. The three older volumes were displayed with covers open to title pages, which read respectively: Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Sir Isaac Newton, Dante’s Inferno illustrated by William Blake, and Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. The fourth book appeared to be a Soviet bootleg of the Silver Age Comic book, Empire Comics’ Amazing Adventures #13, badly worn. It’s cover (famously featuring the first appearance of Amazing Boy) had begun to disintegrate, and been reassembled sloppily with scotch tape (FR /GD 1.5 condition probably, GD- 1.8 at best). The four pedestals formed a cross, and Aaron stood at the center, spun slowly, looking at each of the books in turn and contemplated their presence and the implications of each.
Soon, there was a creak at the door and Aaron turned to see Osgood’s head and right shoulder leaning in from the hall. “Time to get moving,” he said, then held up a hunting rifle he must have found somewhere in the house. “Got you a present too,” he said, then yanked a small pistol from the knee pocket of his cargo pants. He held it out toward Aaron by the barrel, but pulled it back for a moment when Aaron reluctantly reached out for it.
“We’ve all been traveling together for a while now. I don’t think I need to feel uncomfortable with giving this to you. We’re all on the same page, right?”
“Of course,” Aaron said, reaching out for the pistol but not really even wanting it.
Osgood handed it off then turned and left the room. Aaron felt the pistol’s weight in his palm, then stuck it barrel down at the rear of his waistband as he had see people do on television. He turned and looked back at the dead man for a second when Osgood’s voice echoed in from across the hallway, “He’s dead. Let’s go.”
Aaron tipped the glass cube upward, grabbed the Thoreau and slid it into his satchel. He placed the pool cue on the ground beside the pedestal then jogged toward the library doors. When he reached the doors he stopped. Looked back at the cube holding the Russian Amazing Boy, then walked briskly back to it, removing the comic book and sliding it into the satchel as well. He removed a small manila envelope from a group of about ten identical ones from his bag and placed it on the stand where the comic book had been. On the envelope was a pencil sketch of a flower and five leaves: Isotria medeoloides. When Aaron finally passed through the front entryway, Osgood and Ronjo were walking toward the hills, already many yards across the tall grass lawn.
 The cataclysm, when it came, had come and passed quickly, taking almost all the people with it, thereby leaving very few scientists to study all of which had transpired. There was very little science anymore to explain the new reality.
 Once, in the early days, having pointed out the inconsistency between the religious prediction and actual reality to an old man in a roman collar who called himself “Dad” and claimed to have formerly been a ordained Catholic Monsignor, the man replied calmly, “You’re splitting hairs, kid. Religion has always been more impressionistic than naturalistic. That’s something you liberals never understood.” Aaron figured the guy did have some kind of a point. But more than that he wondered if it could be said now that liberals were even a thing. Could anything still existent be considered political now that society had dissolved?
 At any rate, unlike in the movies, zombies were usually embarrassingly easily dispatched, and unless they caught you with your guard down a zombie “battle” usually was more of a slaughter and those who found themselves involved had mostly come to be so without joy or anger but because they had no choice. Putting down a zombie was, after all, a form of euthanasia. And though there were some, militia people mostly, who took joy in the killing and even orchestrated zombie hunts, for most the destruction of a so-called zombie was a somber affair. It wasn’t easy to forget your mother, or son, or the love of your life was maybe out there somewhere wandering, rotting alive. Which was why though “zombie” had in fact become the standard nomenclature it felt wrong to Aaron to use it. But he usually did. Sentimentality had become a dangerous trait in a time when human emotion was mostly all but vestigial.
 Kurtz, Jack. “Amazing Boy!” Amazing Adventures #13 (Aug. 1962), Empire Comics.
Mykl Sivak is a writer and artist unfortunately based in New Haven, Connecticut. His writing and art have appeared in a number of international indie zines, journals, and anthologies. He used to work as an animation artist for a global mass media corporation but he doesn’t do that anymore. Mykl is an atheist, a nihilist, and an anarchist, which means he doesn’t believe in anything. It is his opinion that you shouldn’t either. http://mykls.tumblr.com/