Three years ago, Hurricane Irene surprised Vermonters – we who have grown complacent over our temperate, mostly gentle environment – with eleven quick inches of rain that led to the worst flooding the state had seen in eighty-four years. The rising waters forced evacuations, knocked out bridges, tore up roads, destroyed houses, left thousands of people stranded and in one case, took out an entire town, or most of it , and fiendishly wrecked the state’s emergency operations center. Three years later, people are still telling stories about the damage and in some cases, still rebuilding.
The story that sticks with me concerns the added injury suffered by Rochester, Vermont, where, according to one newspaper account, “a gentle brook swelled into a torrent and ripped through Woodlawn Cemetery, unearthing about twenty five caskets and strewing their remains throughout downtown.”
They now say that fifty graves were rooted out. I’ve no doubt that my imagination (and yours) can conjure up images far more gruesome than what actually surfaced that day. Even so, because aid and rescue teams were busy assisting the living in dozens of distressed towns (Rochester being one of the most distressed), an open casket with its remains plainly visible lay in the middle of the main thoroughfare for an indecent amount of time.
Eventually, volunteers ventured forth to try to identify the resurrected. Led by a former state trooper who just happened to have reinvented himself as a funeral home director, they marked and covered the muddy disarray of cracked vaults, overturned coffins, body parts, bones and tatters of clothing with blue tarp and little red flags.
Sad. But what a story. What a great writing prompt. A cop turned mortician. Consider the possibilities, the history, the secrets revealed and the multilayered plots set in motion by this mass eruption of graves. Think how this one event could veer off into a dozen different directions to tell a hundred different tales, the most poignant of which would concern the remains, mostly ashes, that are still missing and the state medical examiner’s philosophical observation that, driven by the implacable fury of nature, they had washed downstream into the White River and dissolved as though they had never been.
Several weeks before this happened, my friend Michele and I sat at the West River Marina staring at the placid blue water, waiting for lunch and wondering how we could make the magic quick buck that frees people to live life on their own terms. I was unemployed. She was underemployed. I wanted to write full time forever. She wanted to increase her capacities as a yoga teacher and massage therapist and make a good living as such.
So. How to make the quick buck?
We focused on products instead of services. We agreed that we ought to exploit the allure of things Made in Vermont. What could we grow or design, cook or invent and sell? Teddy bears? Ice cream? Well – no. Hardwood bowls? Handcrafted ales? Hand-dipped chocolates, hand-blown glass? Peace quilts, wood stoves. Custom-crafted furniture? Dated and signed, of course, made in an old Vermont barn one piece at a time, using hardwoods harvested from sustainable growth forests.
Michele started wondering about collectibles and what sort of people accumulated them; I contemplated the bizarre success of pet rocks and beanie babies. Our lunch arrived (hamburger for me, veggie burger for Michele), at which point I digressed into a writer’s lament over the reading public’s morally questionable fascination with vampires, werewolves, faeries and fallen angels, demons, zombies and ghosts.
Michele got us back on track by thinking of things Made in Vermont. Beeswax balm. Maple oat nut granola. High-energy snacks with organic seeds and natural sweeteners. Old hippies. I stressed the need for fixing on something trendy – like zombies.
And that was it. There they were. Vermont Hippie Zombies. Action figures, seven of them, each one with a name, a fully developed character and a riveting backstory. It would be easy to find a local struggling artist to design them – with detachable, interchangeable body parts, since zombies always seem to be dropping theirs – maybe a bit more difficult getting them manufactured. We needed seed money. Hell, why not a book? There was a name I had wanted to use for some time – Annie Quest, who is an actual person– and now I had a place to put her, a story with Vermont Hippie Zombies, for whom the action figures would already exist!
I lost interest, however, and my appetite, when I went home and Googled zombies and discovered what loathsome creatures they are. I couldn’t even bear to listen to the sound effects in the embedded movie clips of zombies slurping up human brains. I understand the germaneness of violence to our world and to every human story but I have zero tolerance for visual gore, especially when it’s excessive or gratuitous. I understand the depravity of which humans are capable but I have no interest in characters or stories in want of a moral compass. I had to make our zombies redeemable in order to continue with our project but as far as I could see, since they were already dead, they were incorrigible and doomed.
I let it go.
But when I heard the story a month later about the nightmare at the Woodlawn Cemetery in Rochester, I could not help picturing hippie zombies crawling out of those spilled coffins. I started playing with the idea again and tackled the first question: what would make them Vermont, hippie zombies?
This was a no-brainer. (Pardon the pun.) They would be agents of social change. Our zombies rise up not to annihilate humankind, but to save it. While moldering away in the good loamy earth, they had grown increasingly concerned about climate change and the perils we humans pose to the planet.
So here’s the pitch: When a flash flood rips through a cemetery, unearthing caskets and strewing remains throughout a small Vermont town, Annie Quest – high school student and renowned paranormal investigator – finds herself faced with a contingent of deeply concerned zombies who have returned from the grave to ponder climate change, conservation, waste and consumption, land management, pollution, resource depletion, intensive farming, alternative energy and other pressing environmental issues.
This is why I live in Vermont. It’s the zombie apocalypse in reverse. The Vermont Hippie Zombie possesses not only consciousness, but a conscience. Even in their dreadful state of decay, these guys will tolerate no sugar added, no fracking and no genetically modified organisms. They are certified, organic, gluten free, all natural, cob and maple wood-smoked zombies who come to us in peace, with goat soap and pickled garlic in hand and a balanced, sustainable plan for ensuring the long term survival of humans and zombies alike.
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