Love Letters to Earth

by Henry Quicke







 The Afterlife


The Umbas live in a chaotic and fertile rain forest, where contorted trees scuffle toward the light and vines weave themselves daily into nooses, whips, and webs.  Life’s cycles seem concentrated there into vivid tableaux: youthful plants and animals sailing close-hauled toward the sun, others falling away to the seething, regenerative cauldron on the forest floor--huge leaves tumbling like wounded birds, flowers and fruits like guillotined heroes, small animals like cliff divers.

The intensity of life and death in the forest makes the Umbas eager to participate: because eighty years is too long a wait, they die young.  And because death for them is a state of grace, they die often, passing away and reviving themselves perhaps dozens of times in the course of a normal life span.

When alive, Umbas are obsessed with order.  If they decide they need a new village, they walk off a plot of ground exactly one hundred sixty three steps on each side.  Then they take machetes and cut down every tree, bush, vine, and weed within the plot.  When the cuttings are removed, they have a perfect square of packed dirt on which to build their huts, which measure exactly six steps on each side and are made from a single tree, the walls of rectangular planks cut from the trunk and the roof thatched neatly from the leaves.  Inside, there are one-step by two-step sleeping mats woven from sweet-smelling vines.

Umba society is steeply hierarchical, with strict codes of behavior and a rigid division of labor.  The tribal chief has four ranked assistants who are local chiefs for the four known Umba villages in the forest.  Each village chief in turn has three assistants, the first an information officer who gathers reports of suspicious and unbecoming behavior, the second an enforcer for the chief’s rulings on such behavior, and the third responsible solely for matters of the dead, which include death announcements and, occasionally, burial.

Every man in the village works for one of these three assistants, and each man is ranked by age.  The women work for their husbands, first wives ranked higher than second.  Children answer directly to their mothers and are ranked by their ages.  In this way, the government of the village runs smoothly: every member of the tribe is also a member of the government.  No one can complain about the administration.

Social codes dictate almost every aspect of Umba behavior.  An Umba of a lower rank, for instance, may not look an Umba of higher rank in the eye, which means, because all Umbas are ranked, that living Umbas never have their glances met.  Neither may a lower ranked Umba speak first to a higher ranked one.  If an Umba has information to report, he must stand in his superior’s presence until commanded to speak.  Thus, idle conversation is rare among living Umbas.

On the other hand, when Umbas die, they may do as they please.

Sometimes the Umbas die for only a few hours, sometimes for a year.  With practice, it’s said, the dead learn to make their bodies rot.  That’s a sign to the living not to expect them back.

An Umba can die in a variety of ways.  He may sleep late one morning and not be roused from his sleeping mat.  He may eat too much, or not enough.  He may be on his way to the minister of the department of enforcement for punishment when, walking on one of the rock-lined, arrow-straight paths, he may suddenly clutch his chest or his throat or trip and fall a little too hard.  If something like this happens, an officer of the department of death must inspect the body and then relay his observations up the chain of command to the director of the department of death, the chief’s assistant, who reviews the symptoms.

Are the eyes closed?  Check.

Do they not open when the body is shaken?  Check.

Does the body not stir when its name is called?  Check.

If these conditions are met, the director declares the fallen Umba dead and then reports this information (with downcast eyes) to the village chief.  The death announcement descends the chain of command to the small crowd that has gathered around the fallen man.  Then the officer who first discovered the body announces to everyone, “This man [or woman] has been declared dead by his greatness the director of the department of death, whose decision is approved by the royal supreme chief of our village.  Let it be noted by all.”

The crowd disperses and returns to its daily business.  Shortly thereafter, the dead Umba also gets up and begins life as a member of the deceased.

For an Umba, death can be an attractive alternative to living.  A dead Umba is constrained by no social codes and needn’t obey any laws.  He can look at who
he wants, speak his mind to anyone, travel where he wants and sleep where he wants.

A dead Umba may laugh in the face of his still-living superior.  A dead man may steal vegetables from a garden, or pluck a bite of meat right off a living man’s fire.  A dead woman may sleep with a living woman’s husband, or a dead man with a living man’s wife (living Umbas explain this with their own versions of the incubus and succubus).  Dead Umbas habitually transgress against the living in countless ways, including theft, vandalism, and bawdy practical jokes.  They may be as troublesome or coarse as they like, without fear of the consequences.

Because, after all, the living do not recognize the presence of the dead.  A husband and wife might be having sex before an audience of dead voyeurs, but of course the couple feel no shame—the staring eyes of the dead don’t register.  The dead may shout in the ears of the living, but their voices go unheard.  If the living think they hear something and react as though startled, someone will laugh, “You must be hearing ghosts.”  And if the dead trip up the living or shove them to the ground, onlookers will simply call them clumsy.

Another advantage of being dead is the freedom to socialize.  Umbas as far apart in life as a second level officer and an eighth level officer’s second wife may, in death, look each other in the eye and carry on a friendly and aimless conversation.  The dead rejoice in gossip, since they are experts at uncovering secrets around the village.  Some who plan on being dead for months or longer even build huts and marry, but there’s a danger that because the living consider the mysterious huts unoccupied, they may one day take machetes to them and plant perfectly square gardens in their places.

The dead often go out into the forest at night and hold outrageous and orgiastic parties, making a mockery of the solemn density of life around them.  They dance, sing, and howl like the living would never do.  They strip themselves naked and romp like shameless animals.  They concoct a pungent alcoholic beverage called the Drink of the Dead, and they get so drunk that if they were alive they’d be hauled in front of the village chief himself for caning (and then they’d wish they were dead).  Sometimes the dead come running through the village in rowdy groups, shouting and banging on huts and vandalizing property.  The living, if they notice anything at all, will mistake this for a storm.

At some point, the Umbas get tired of being dead.  The bacchanalia wears on them, and their natural desire for order and propriety takes over.  When this happens, they return to the spot of their death and lie down in the position of their death.  After a few minutes, someone will come along and say, “I believe this body is stirring!”  The message is sent up the chain of command to the director of the department of death.

Is the body breathing?  Check.

Does the blood move beneath the skin?  Check.

Does the body stir when its name is called?  Check.

If these conditions are met, the dead Umba is then declared living, the ruling is passed down through the ranks, and the officer who first noticed the body announces to the small crowd, “This man has been declared living by his greatness the director of the department of death, whose decision is approved by the royal supreme chief of our village.  Let it be noted by all.”

The man then opens his eyes, careful not to look at any of his superiors, gets up, and returns to his hut to resume his carefully regimented life.

No Umba may be held accountable for any action performed while dead, of course, because no living Umba recognizes a dead one.  Neither may an Umba repeat any information learned while dead or relate any experience of being dead, which is a good thing, because most of a dead Umba’s behavior would cause acute embarrassment in life.

Still, the revived man feels a sadness he can’t fully explain, and which will eventually lead him back to life among the dead.  He has made friends in death that he’d never have made in life.  He’s done and seen things in death that he never could have in life.  He’s fallen in love a dozen times over, changed his name and ways a dozen times over.  He’s learned a new dance for each night of the week, a new song for each morning.  Back from the dead, his memories of it already fading, he knows he’s lived more each night of his death than in a hundred nights of living.