Fort Bard, French-Italian Border
Interview with: Philippe Verdu
“It was summer when they finally came. I’ve no idea why it took the swarm so long to get to us; perhaps it was the cold or just the sheer inaccessibility of the place.”
Philippe pauses at this point, his eyes appearing lost in memory as he looks out from the dappled shade of the porch which fronts his chalet. The old Frenchman has a weathered look to him; dark skin typical of life in the mountains, but, despite his apparent toughness, a tear gathers in the corner of an ice blue eye briefly before he wipes it harshly away. His wife brings us both a drink, resting her hand on a bony shoulder in support before moving back into the house.
He takes a sip of black coffee and reaches almost unconsciously for the sledgehammer propped against the back of the chair. Steadying himself, Rene continues the narrative.
“We’d managed to get to one of the alpine forts not far from where I grew up. The pass was difficult to navigate, even in the summer, but everyone knew that the fort had water, its own small hydroelectric dam, and access to the chairlift that went down into the valley.
“It seemed like the perfect place to try and hide. My wife and I made it, but so many others did not.
“Some of the older men in the village were in the Resistance during the Second World War, and remembered the old mountain routes that allowed them to move swiftly away from the occupying German/Italian forces; where to cache weapons and food, and how to lay booby traps or communicate across the valleys. Some of that was useful, but as we found out to our cost; this new enemy had no fear, no need for roads or bridges or food. This enemy was virtually unstoppable.
“The chairlift was our saviour in many ways. We used it to get raiding parties to the town below to find weapons, food, and other supplies, but every time we did, we seemed to lose someone. It was also used to monitor progress of the Zeds up the mountain, keep watch, and even drop the odd grenade on them from on high. Rifles were used to take out as many as we could from the pods hanging on the transit wires, but you could only get so many people in a useful position, and defence of the village took most of our resources once they got there in force. At least we were organised and prepared, unlike a lot of the lowland villages that either got overrun or Infected within days of the initial outbreaks in the cities.
“The village had been a stronghold during the Napoleonic wars. One of the battles had seen four-hundred men hold against forty-thousand of Bonaparte’s troops. The old walls still remained; a lower and upper tier protected to the rear by the mountain. We pulled down houses outside the wall and used them to shore up the defences, levelling the rest to provide a killing ground. Nothing stopped them but force. They just kept coming, climbing over each other to get to the fresh meat that was so conveniently confined in one spot for them.
“Guns were used initially to try and stop them closing on the walls. Then, as time went on bullets became scarce, and we used anything we could get our hands on; rocks from the ramparts, grenades when we had them, and then finally when the bodies had grown high enough, we ended up using any weapon that did the job.
“One of the old men who had fought in World War Two came up with an idea. He remembered his own father telling him about trench warfare and hand to hand fighting in World War One; his father had been an Englishman who had fought at Paschendale. The trick was to get a shovel, and sharpen the edges. It could still be used as a digging implement, but also came in handy as an edged weapon. Some of the lads who got more adept in using them used to play a strange game of cricket with the decapitated heads of the Zombies. Funny what you end up doing for amusement sometimes. A local hardware store provided us with a large number of makeshift weapons.
“The Zombies seemed to come in waves. In between each flood of the dead, we would run outside and try and clear the mountain of bodies, but you had to be careful, some were merely buried amongst their kin and would suddenly lurch back into motion as you tried to move them. We took to wearing bits of armour from the museum in the fort; the metal gauntlets were still useful even though they were hundreds of years old.
“Winter saved us in the end that first year. The harshness of it froze the bastards solid. We went out looking for them, shattering their heads and destroying all we could find. As we still had power and a working radio, we managed to contact what was left of the French military, and they dropped in what supplies they could spare by helicopter, advising us to stay put and in contact.
“All we did after that was survive as best we could. Every spring we would ready ourselves for battle, losing more and more people on the walls as we defended ourselves. Each summer we would pray there wouldn’t be a swarm. Come autumn, we would gather as much food as we could to last out another miserable winter. Every winter we tried not to freeze. It was utterly miserable, but choice was a luxury that had been denied to us by the ever-present Zombie hordes that crashed against us like a wave on a rock.
“We fought for every single second of existence. We won, but the cost was horrendous.
“The main problem was finding supplies. We ended up going further and further afield. I often went on the supply raids, that’s where I developed my fondness for the hammer I have here. Most of us wore a motley assemblage of armour of some sort. The most common injuries were bites to the arms, legs and face so we used everything from rolls of carpet to chainsaw masks to protect ourselves. The best stuff I ever found was chainmail from the town museum though: it was a modern mock-up, but still worked.
“We used to take the chairlift down to the town, and then fight our way out of the shed that contained the winching gear through whatever Zeds happened to have been attracted by the noise. Then, we’d lock the doors behind us and using wheelbarrows, shopping trolleys and handcarts, we’d load up whatever we could lay our hands on. Often we had to clear out a house of Zeds. Women, children, old people it didn’t matter, they were all Zeds.
“That’s what we kept telling ourselves anyway. Sometimes you recognised a face or had to take out a child. I never got used to it. Perhaps that’s a blessing, perhaps not. I still see the children in my dreams.
“Sometimes we’d clear a house, only to find that there was nothing of use there at all. Once we’d done a house we’d try and close it up so that no Zeds could get back in, and then we’d put a cross on the wall. The cross indicated that we’d cleared it and that we’d said a prayer for the finally deceased occupants.
“I cleared my old house on my own. Thankfully, the only Zeds there were ones who had wandered in from other areas. I have no idea what happened to my mother, my brother, or my nieces and nephews.
“We hit lucky a few times. Several people seemed to be hoarding food and equipment against the possibility of some sort of apocalypse. They were real finds, but we had hundreds of people to feed, so the search parties had to go out every day.
“Everything was done by hand. We had no fuel for vehicles, no bullets for the guns. One thing we did have was electricity, but a hot shower still couldn’t wash off the memories of what we had to do every day. I’ve lost track of how many heads that hammer crushed. Mon Dieu, we nearly died every day that we lived. How we survived I’ll never know.
“When it all finished I stayed here. I lost so many friends. I couldn’t leave them here alone when it had ended.”
The interview stopped there at Philippe’s request.