On the fifth night, she let me build a fire. This pleased me very much. I didn’t want to leave her alone, but I was no longer young. And the cave was damp and cold, and my shoulders and hips were sore.
From the other side of the fire, I caught the occasional glint of light reflected in her furtive eyes. She still wouldn’t talk.
“Can I tell you a story?” I asked.
A tentative nod.
So I started:
Once upon a time there was a Zombie Queen and a Zombie King. But this story isn’t about them.
They had a little zombie baby.
“This is not a very good baby,” said the Zombie Queen.
The Zombie King shrugged.
“I don’t think she likes brains,” said the Queen. “And why is her face so squirmy?”
The King shrugged again. He sat next to the child’s crib and watched her throwing toys at the Queen.
There was a noise in the room. A horrible noise. It was so loud, you could almost smell it. That is, you might have smelled it if you’d had a nose. The King and the Queen did not. Their noses had long since fallen off.
The child was screaming.
“I think there’s something wrong with her lungs,” whispered the Queen.
The King shrugged again.
One day the child’s Fairy Godmother came to visit. She gave the child an inflatable boat. “You’ll know what to do with it when the time comes,” she said, winking at her goddaughter. Complicated things happened to the child’s face, but nobody was watching. They were all drinking blood wine by then, and talking about brains.
They King and Queen did their best. Perhaps it was good enough. Eventually the child grew big enough for Zombie School.
“We should brush her hair,” said the Queen. The child fought her. She bit off several of her mother’s fingers. Her own right arm fell off.
“These things happen, dear,” the Queen said to her, “and people get over it.”
She turned to the King. “You deal with her hair,” she hissed. So every morning the King picked at the child’s scalp, until gradually her hair fell out. The King shrugged. The Queen fussed and decreed that the child must wear a hat to school.
The other Zombie children teased her about the hat, and a strange thing happened. Drops of water rolled down her face. This made the other children tease her even more. “Princess Running Water,” they called her.
Finally she decided to run away. She had never figured out what to do with the inflatable boat that her Fairy Godmother had given her. Godmother was strange but harmless, and the child liked to be reminded of her. The boat was small. She put it in her pocket, and set off down the road.
She came to the bridge where the Troll children lived. They had no parents. They grew from spores, like mushrooms, out of the damp ground under the bridge.
She still had her nose. She could smell their cigarettes. She heard them laughing, and the sound made her quake in her boots.
The largest of the Troll children came out from under the bridge and stole her hat. Then all of them laughed at her bald scabby head.
Ashamed, the Zombie Princess pulled the inflatable boat out of her pocket and tried to cover her head with it. It unfolded and fell down over her eyes. She was terrified, and began to scream. It was a horrible noise, so loud she could smell the stink of it around her own head.
The noise began to fill the boat, and it expanded. She tried to run away, with the boat still on her head. She tripped and fell into the boat. And the boat fell into the river.
The Troll children had never seen such a thing. They watched, mesmerized. Their eyes grew bigger and bigger until they exploded, leaving the Troll children blind.
And the Zombie Princess sailed away, and she lived hungrily ever after.
“And that,” I said, “is the End of the Beginning.”
I looked over at her, but she wasn’t watching me anymore. She was playing with a pile of leaves and twigs. She had built something that looked like a boat.