One Summer Night

The fact that Henry Armstrong was buried did not seem to him to prove that he was dead. He had always been a hard man to convince. That he really was buried, the testimony of his senses compelled him to admit. His posture — flat upon his back, with his hands crossed upon his stomach and tied with something that he easily broke without profitably altering the situation — the strict confinement of his entire person, the black darkness and profound silence, made a body of evidence impossible to controvert and he accepted it without cavil.

But dead — no; he was only very, very ill. He had, withal, the invalid’s apathy and did not greatly concern himself about the uncommon fate that had been allotted to him. No philosopher was he — just a plain, commonplace person gifted, for the time being, with a pathological indifference. The organ that he feared consequences with was torpid. So, with no particular apprehension for his immediate future, he fell asleep and all was peace with Henry Armstrong.

But something was going on overhead. It was a dark summer night, shot through with infrequent shimmers of lightning silently firing a cloud lying low in the west and portending a storm. These brief, stammering illuminations brought out with ghastly distinctness the monuments and headstones of the cemetery and seemed to set them dancing. It was not a night in which any credible witness was likely to be straying about a cemetery, so the three men who were there, digging into the grave of Henry Armstrong, felt reasonably secure.

Two of them were young students from a medical college a few miles away; the third was a gigantic negro known as Jess. For many years Jess had been employed about the cemetery as a man-of-all-work and it was his favourite pleasantry that he knew every soul in the place. From the nature of what he was now doing it was inferable that the place was not so populous as its register may have shown it to be.

Outside the wall, at the part of the grounds farthest from the public road, were a horse and a light wagon, waiting.

The work of excavation was not difficult. The earth with which the grave had been loosely filled a few hours before, offered little resistance and was soon thrown out. Removal of the casket from its box was less easy, but it was taken out, for it was a perquisite of Jess, who carefully unscrewed the cover and laid it aside, exposing the body in black trousers and white shirt. At that instant the air sprang to flame, a cracking shock of thunder shook the stunned world and Henry Armstrong tranquilly sat up. With inarticulate cries the men fled in terror, each in a different direction. For nothing on earth could two of them have been persuaded to return. But Jess was of another breed.

In the grey of the morning the two students, pallid and haggard from anxiety and with the terror of their adventure still beating tumultuously in their blood, met at the medical college.

“You saw it?” cried one.

“God! yes — what are we to do?”

They went around to the rear of the building, where they saw a horse, attached to a light wagon, hitched to a gatepost near the door of the dissecting-room. Mechanically they entered the room. On a bench in the obscurity sat the negro Jess. He rose, grinning, all eyes and teeth.

“I’m waiting for my pay,” he said.

Stretched naked on a long table lay the body of Henry Armstrong; the head defiled with blood and clay from a blow with a spade.


This flash fiction story was written by Ambrose Bierce.


Upsy Downsy

“What are you doing?” Father asked.

Billy removed the mirror from under his chin.

“I’m imagining what the world would be like upside down,” Billy explained. “You’d have to lift your feet to walk through doorways.”

“If gravity stopped, we’d all be dead,” Father said. “Nothing would keep us from flying right out into space, and there’s no air in space.”

“What about the clouds?” Billy asked. “If we could land on the clouds, maybe we’d bounce.”

Father shook his head.

“One day, son, you’re going to need to get that head of yours out of the clouds. They may look soft, but they’re just water vapor. There’s nothing to them. You’d fly right through, and out into space where you wouldn’t be able to breathe. Now put down that mirror and help your sister with the dishes.”

Billy did as he was told, though with a heavy sigh to let his father know that he wasn’t happy about it.

“There you are,” Lilith said when Billy entered the kitchen, “I’m almost done washing so you can dry. What’s got you so down?”

Billy shrugged and picked up a towel and a wet bowl.

“Oh,” Lilith said, plucking something from Billy’s cheek, “you get to make a wish.”

On Lilith’s finger was a fallen eyelash. Billy didn’t have to think long about his wish. He blew away the eyelash.

“There’s that smile,” Lilith said. “I was wondering where it had gone. I hope your wish comes true.”

“It won’t,” Billy sighed, “but I wished it anyway.”

“Father means well,” Lilith said after a while. “He thinks it’s important not to get caught up in daydreams. I think it’s also important to wish, and hope, and dream of things that are impossible. Life seems fuller when you do. What do you think?”

Lilith knew what Billy thought. Her little brother was the world’s biggest dreamer. Secretly, Lilith’s greatest wish was that one of Billy’s wonderful ideas might come true, just to remind the world that anything is possible. She gave his hand a reassuring, soapy squeeze.

The next morning, Billy awoke on the floor. He groaned as he sat up, feeling the ache of sleeping on the hard surface. When he focused on his room, it took a second to get his bearings. His bed was above him. So were all of his toys, his clothes, everything. The only thing sharing the hard floor with him was his ceiling lamp, dangling up. Billy jumped to his feet. He fumbled with the doorknob, nearly too high to reach, and tripped over his door frame once the door was open.

Lilith was already rubbing a bruised knee in the hallway. When she saw Billy, a wide smile spread across her face. They heard Mother shriek.

“How did… what on… George!”

Mother, though, wasn’t on the ceiling with Billy and Lilith. She was upside down, with the rest of the house. So was Father, whose mouth hung open when he saw his children on the ceiling.

“Woah!” their mother cried as her feet left the floor.

She clung to Father as her body spun around, and she joined the children.

“Come on, father,” Lilith called, “this is fun!”

She had found the stairs and was shimmying up the ramp to the living room. Billy was the first to reach the front door.

“No Billy, don’t go outside!” called Mother, but it was too late.

Billy and Lilith leaped out the door together.

They fell toward the clouds, laughing, hand in hand. Already most of their neighbors were bouncing from one cloud to the next. When they sank into the cloud, it was the softest thing they had ever touched. The next moment they were soaring back toward the earth. Billy reached out and grasped a leaf from a treetop before falling back again onto another cloud.

They played in the clouds all day. Not just the clouds, but the sky itself. The blue spaces between the clouds weren’t sky at all, but cool pools of water. They splashed and bounced, and laughed until their bellies ached. By mid-afternoon, Mother summoned the courage to join them, and even she laughed. Father, though, stood in the street with his arms crossed, and his feet planted solidly on the pavement.

“This isn’t possible,” he was heard to say.

At last, Billy decided to join his father. He built up his bounces until one sent him all the way back down to the street, where his father caught him and held him tight.

“I’ve had the best day,” he said happily. “I wish you could have played with us.”

A curious expression crossed Father’s face. He held Billy even tighter and placed a kiss on his forehead.

“Alright,” Father said, “what are we playing?”

Billy felt them rise into the air, and listened to Father’s laughter when they bounced off the first soft cloud. They laughed together when they bounced off another and landed in a puddle of blue water between. They played and jumped and splashed and laughed, and when the puddles of blue turned orange and red with the setting sun, they felt themselves drifting downward, back to their neighborhood and their awaiting cozy beds. Billy was asleep already in Father’s arms by the time he was tucked in. Father kissed his forehead and smoothed his hair.

“Thank you,” he whispered into Billy’s ear. And may you enjoy sweet dreams. Dreams are important, after all.”


Upsy Downsy was first published at Ms. McClure’s weblog.