No one was dead, to begin with.
Strictly speaking, of course, that’s not entirely true. Many people were dead. Whole generations. Whole cultures. Whole species were dead.
But no one in the City was dead, and that’s the important thing to begin with.
When the wall was built and the gates were sealed, no one was dead.
The words were emblazoned on flags, stamped on official documents, quoted by the Council. Particularly patriotic citizens embroidered it into their clothing and used it as a daily greeting.
Before the beginning, the first rumors of a plague spreading across the land reached the City, and within months, both word and disease moved too fast to ignore. The Council brought the matter before the Eldest One to seek her advice, and she, in turn, brought the matter before the gods to seek their knowledge. For eleven days she remained secluded, seeing no one, eating nothing.
When she returned, she summoned the Council, and they approached her with requisite reverence, seating themselves in a circle around her feet.
“You must,” she began, “keep the scourge outside the city walls.”
They murmured their approval to this plan, but when she opened her mouth to speak further, they had already risen to go, their excited scheming drowning out her word of warning.
She spoke it to the empty room, for such was her duty: to give advice, to speak the words of the gods to the people of the City. Her voice rang out, clear despite her age, echoing in the vaulted space around her. “But you must not cut yourselves off from the world.”
To begin with, they built the wall.
The City unified in the construction. Priests offered blessings to all three gods, but especially to Lēkhaka, who built the world. The Eldest One watched from her window, which overlooked the City from one end to the other.
The wall, when finished, stood 100 feet tall, twice the height of any building in the City. There were only two gates—one to the west toward the sea, one to the east toward the mountains—and new laws were enacted to govern them. Anyone could leave the City. It was the coming back that required its own pass, for which one must petition the Council, proving both their own need for the journey and its benefit to the City.
To begin with, these were given freely, but as more and more citizens brought back tales of the spreading disease, the Council became stingy, causing a rebellion that had the Council back at the feet of the Eldest One, begging for advice on how to keep the City clean of pestilence without imprisoning their own people.
“You must burn the disease away,” they heard, after her eleven-day seclusion, and shuffled out again, beginning their plans.
“But you must not destroy the flesh,” she spoke to the empty space they left behind.
To begin with, the fire pits were built only to burn the clothing of those who returned. Priests offered prayers to Kepiting, who will burn the world. The Eldest One watched from her window, seeing only smoke, drifting up from the wall.
It was then the saying began. “No one is dead.” A reassurance that all was well.
And all remained well until the first merchant returned from a trading journey and coughed in the crematorium. The door to the City was immediately shut and barred, and a shouted conversation conveyed the situation to the Council, who brought it before the Eldest One, pleading once more for advice.
“You must pray to Putiputi, who grows the world,” she said, eleven days after the request, mere moments before the shuffling and planning commenced.
“But you must not neglect the other gods,” was her advice to no one.
Before nightfall, the temples to Lēkhaka, who built the world, and to Kepiting, who will burn the world, were destroyed. Not with fire—for the people still held the gods in respect at this time—but in a fury of tearing and clawing, pulling them apart stone by stone, beam by beam. A tree was planted in the center of each pile of rubble, a silent petition to Putiputi, who grows the world.
“No one is dead,” became the whole of their liturgy, a plea for continuance.
The Eldest One watched from her window to see their answer come.
The man with the cough was told to pray to Putiputi, who grows the world, as he was marched through the purifying fire. His screams resounded across the city, and when he stumbled out the other side of the furnace, they did not stop. All that night and all the next day and all the next week, he screamed, until the people of the City learned to shut their ears to him, his pain a continual background to their lives. He was given a place in the crematorium, where his charred and smoking flesh caused less disturbance.
Soon all who returned to the City were sent through the fire to be purified, and the screams became a chorus. It was not long before no merchant left the City, and food began to be scarce. Once more the Council sat in reverence at the feet of the Eldest One.
“The gods are angry with you, for you neglect them,” she said, needing no eleven days this time to answer their query.
They shuffled out, muttering to each other that she had gone mad, that Putiputi, who grows the world, would take her soon, as was the way.
“They leave you in the hands of Putiputi,” she said to the void, “who will never stop growing your world.”
They sealed the gates.
The fire chambers became quarantines. Merchants came and went only as far as these wards, passing their goods through to the City. They were looked at as the miracle children of Putiputi, who grows the world, and all said what an honor it was to be given to the wall.
Putiputi, who grows the world, grew their world in abundance. Children were born. Herds swelled. Gardens bloomed.
And no one was dead.
Years passed, then decades, then centuries, and the City grew up and up and up until it towered over its own wall. Millennia and beyond and still it grew. The plague of the rest of the world had long since burned itself out and still it grew. The people outside called it Imobilye Putiputi—the garden of Putiputi, who grows the world—and they told stories of the unending harmony of screams echoing in its walls, but no one in the City knew this, for none had the outside world since the day the gates were sealed.
The Eldest One watched from her window, raised each time the City grew, and she smiled, weak with the effort to move even so much after so long, to see the fire of Kepiting, who burns the world, sweeping toward the City at last.
But no one was dead, to end with.
Alisha A. Knaff lives in Seattle with her three cats, who consistently assure her that she is in no danger of becoming a crazy cat lady. By day she strives to impress upon teenagers the importance of the Oxford comma, and by night she weaves bizarre imaginations into hopefully coherent tales.