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Without a Body
(in which—sea monsters—and Ava’s wedding ring is returned to Jacob by a female police officer)
The evening and the morning were the fifth day. Whales with humps were made, fish with whiskers and scales and barely-birds straight from the black lagoon—that first stuff with guts and breath, the things that move, from water. Single cells multiplied, got together; sea monsters coupled on the fifth day, as was engineered, with a trick of the light and so forth through creation. They got mixed up together and were struck apart with a stick, and one was skinned alive, the other left with a thirst for all the water that flows from Jordan.

Then Aristotle said—which is how things get started, talk or stories or oaths sworn in front of familiar faces with teeth parted, people toasting. Something slips off the tongue into being. Living by the ocean is like living in the mouth of history, thinks Jacob, seated at a banquet table on the beach between his bride and his brother. Given time, the tide will lap up their bare footprints and carry stray sandals, stained napkins, the caterer’s fleet of chafing dishes, all evidence, out into the Gulf Stream to be digested. Water is as good a place to start, to end, as any. Aristotle said that Thales was the first philosopher because he made water the body of things, the principle. Body of water is a joke Jacob thinks he could make, and he moves to strike his glass with a knife, but he’s not sure how it will be taken. What one swears by is the most ancient thing, and if what one swears by is water, water is most ancient. Whether Aristotle was right is a moot point.

Jacob had never seen you swim until the summer of second year, camping on the North Shore—thought nothing of it, that ease, seamlessness. You waded in through rocks, fully clothed, your sundress swelling, a translucent jellyfish bell, your Gumby limbs elastic, soft with salt. Revisiting that day and the shared years that followed, he’s increasingly unsure your lit expression, upturned, had testified solely to the pleasure of complete immersion in the water. What if it was—each muscle, twitching lash—in sum, substantiation of water’s incorporation into you? You hadn’t gotten in, it had; breached and begun to exert tides. Easy enough to invent a beginning, in retrospect; you peg out the ground and pitch and then you lie in it, naked, your plot under the stars. That weekend trip stirred inborn hunger. It was the start of seeing each other, everything new. You slept back to back in the flat of a truck bed under thin night and when your shoulder blades finally stopped fluttering against his own, he beat off so hard that he barely came up for air.

We’re all neck-deep in it, you said. And from that point he would now swear he’d seen a cold swimming into you, through indiscrete skin. As you studied or talked or shopped or ran or biked or walked: lapping quietly around the edges, trying to get a rise out of him, an elemental propriety asserting that you would never be his. He would wake to the sound of you splashing about in his bathtub at odd hours; sometimes singing, then murmurs that lapsed into silence. And he would rise to find you sleeping there, or something, slumped to one side, a dropped pink or purple pen distant beneath the water like a diver’s baton. He would extract spiral bound pages plastered to warped cardboard; so many little notebooks ruined by dissolving ink, sentiments never to be recovered. He would pull the plug and watch the swirl and haul you out, wring you out, deposit you back in bed, while your eyes did not open and you did not speak to him. It seemed plausible, somehow, at the time, something that could be managed. Life is just like that occasionally, isn’t it, held dripping in your arms and heavy? Quoting Jeff Buckley, you told him once that songwriting is dreamlike, from your subconscious. You have to let yourself go and it can scar you or destroy you. It’s a bit like dying. Quoting Leonard Cohen, you told him: In dreams the truth is learned that all good works are done in the absence of a caress. You also told him that nothing would make you happier than to be with him, and he believed you. Nothing would make you happier.

No one can pinpoint when the two of you became so close, when you moved in together, the exact nature of your relationship, the circumstances of your first kiss, the statistically anomalous coincidence of your matching heart murmurs, pacing each other, your candlelit manufacture of a full spectrum of sympathetic inks, drunk on the juvenile novelty of lemon juice and licking flames: liquid conspiracy, language conspiracy. Little survives. Mushed up on the couch under blankets together, a toe or finger peeking out from under wooly folds could seem to belong to either of these linked creatures. It might even be a two-headed thing that read aloud from the Bible in a young woman’s voice above the mutter of talk radio abandoned in the other room. These were the best stories, you assured him—a chance to cast the voice of God any way you liked, and lots of blood and action besides. To Jacob it seemed all repetition, honestly, but your energetic accents kept him in it, and an opportunity to root for the underdog, the extra-celestial usurper, the one who would spit and kick at the stars … even if he knew it would come to a bad end. Jacob Lerner is in love with Leviathan, you say. But who can open the doors of her face? he replies.

Jacob is miffed by this fit of sudden sociability, why, in the immediate aftermath of a broken jaw, having your face wired shut, you’re so bent to attend a dumb party. Prescription drugs produce divergent effects, he concludes. You’ve fastened a masonite clipboard and notepad on a blue ribbon around your neck. Below it a chewed-down Bic ballpoint dangles from a looping chain of elastics. He considers this extravagant performance punishment enough; if painful, it is still not so impossible to speak as all that, but it seems you prefer closed lips to imperfection. When questioned about the jaw, your longhand is inexhaustible and everyone loves to watch you write:—we chose a fruit bowl to catch the blood and spit on the way to the emergency room … The most common causes of mandibular fracture are car accidents, assaults, sports-related injuries and falls. Jacob wraps his own mouth around the hollow word fall, coughs against a coiled tightness in his chest. Fall is a good, short word and he’ll keep it at that. Between beers he steals the rainbow assortment of back-up pens from your purse one at a time beginning with the red one, the one that cuts most deeply like a failing mark, a terminal edit. Tenth most broken bone in the human body, you write with your last silver pen at an hour when few remain to read it, or care. Getting you out is like herding cats, as Jacob’s father would say, or corralling a nerve-suppressed supernova with no sense of herself as a bruise. You’re brandishing the pen like a wooden stake without any apprehension of pointiness, and he can’t pin your arm in the sleeve of your coat. Also, it’s not your coat, which goes unnoticed, so he’ll be back here in the morning sorting it all out. When he counts backwards, Jacob works towards cause, towards first principles. As the months pass it is difficult to determine which fall he’s after. Which, he wonders, is the most broken?

Convalescence is fast, but courtship is slow. Meaning no sex, in the strictest sense, is what Jacob has run up against. You’re old fashioned, he reasons, religious in your way. It’s Romantic. With the promise within arm’s reach, why rush? We can wait, he says. Your face, burrowed into his chest, shudders snot and hiccups. Of course we can. It is widely accepted that Rome was not built in a day, that you have the rest of your lives ahead of you.

After they removed the wings and before they closed up his head, the anesthesiologist had once asked a young Jacob to count backward from one hundred. It is unusual to get past ninety-five, however, as far as Jacob remembers, he never stopped counting. The first thing he said when he opened his eyes was minus

Halfway down your back he always loses count. A spine is something sharp, he thinks—the protection of exotic fruits, of deadly blowfish. Touching you, he invents a vertebral abacus, invisible disks and beads by which he marks out these too-still nights together. His fingers inch, rigid, down your turned-out body, mapping knots of bone beneath the surface, checking for a pulse in all the wrong places. Under your skin: the muscled curves of a serpent bucking against the weight of sky. Your body alive in many creatures, many secrets. Yet, you can barely hold your head up.

He cannot tell whether weather or waves or waiting is eating you. He once thought you were waiting for him, for something that he could become, could be for you; now he no longer has any notion of what you might be waiting for. He remembers that first tentative night, before you’d even been introduced by name, when he’d come upon you lying on a bench in Point Pleasant Park; the dark-eyed Intro to Logic girl, an upper year, maybe, in a T-shirt and boxer shorts with a brown ribbed cardigan open overtop. When he offered to walk you back to campus you refused because you said you were waiting. He didn’t ask for what, only if he could join you. And you said nothing so he did. You read to him by penlight from a three-week-old copy of the Penny Saver recovered from the black, matted grass and then his right thigh was very near your left and he talked about the speed of light and stratospheric pressure.

On the first day of undergraduate classes that year, your newly minted logic professor stood at the blackboard snapping chalk, piece by piece, like dry bones against slate—never had the light touch, she’d said, in a way Jacob had admired at the time. He’d sat at a diagonal from you, two rows back; acquired your vocabulary of head tilts, your left hand’s reaching, writing, resting; acquired, impulsively, want. Wiping her palms on her pants, the prof pronounced to the class that a distinguished sage of antiquity, having once been asked the most necessary thing for the young to learn replied: That knowledge which would be most useful to them when they grow up. Is there an equation for that? someone asked.

Jacob often looks for his zero-sum in your wedding night, near a year ago now. And why not? He’s not the first to have lived through cliché, the teeth-jarring collision of blood-life and formula. He sifts through it fixedly, left fragments of the event; how hotels exist to make the strange desirable: the bathrobes that are not yours, shampoo and scrubs-of-sorts in translucent vials, open rose on the pillow, the body like a paperweight on the white of an anonymous bed. As if these items have been conjured into existence for one night only, to belong to the world momentarily, before the morning comes and the scene is irradiated, hosed down, and the pond restocked for tomorrow’s eager anglers. An elaborate ruse, the sure thing. The suite called Honeymoon is played nightly by different lips and fingers against different reeds and valves and Jacob wonders if the sound itself is always a touch strained, regardless. Sounds good, the set up, everything in place, the signs, he knows what to do, and you say go on. You say it again, but then just float there in that big stiff bed, kind of draped, but then taut, whimpering something encouraging, echoing something, since he’s already leapt, tucked up like a diver; now plunged into a contracted shock; now plugged like a human ear against the mounting crush: near half a pound per cubic square foot, descending. Your body gives way and he drops through your absence like an anvil. There is no breath, no bottom. And he’s vulnerable to losing self and other and something larger, suddenly, not like with previous girls, submerged beneath what he can’t help but carry forward as cries of anguish. Real blood, real consequences. A depth of isolation to be found only in the wake of miscarried intimacy. This is what he’s met with, what he waited so naively, so patiently, for—betrayal, abandonment—his first time with anything like love attached; the body incapable of irony.

Initial submersion—struggle, which subsides with exhaustion and then. Breath holding lasts until C02 build up pretends at being breathing inhalation of water. Gulping of water, coughing, vomiting, rapidly followed by loss of consciousness.  Profound unconsciousness convulsions—are associated with involuntary respiratory movements, a flooded vacuum, like the motor that won’t start the boat because it’s already taken in too much. However, there are no universally accepted diagnostic laboratory tests to confirm drowning.

What he is thinking in the marriage bed afterward is that being dead might be better. Being dead might be better than lying opposite, now, watching your set face bite its lips raw soundlessly. Lay your hand against her, do no more. That you have tricked him and he has hurt you, been made monstrous, is what runs somewhere through him; that you’re already gone. He should have been given to know, to see these things, by the sliver of light through the curtains, striking across the sheets. Instead, he lets his eyes close. No ground zero’s a clean slate, he’s since realized, just a bit of calibrated empty with a bull’s-eye drawn around it to focus the attention.

He looks down at the yellow police report in his hands, deranged with loose script, his cramped markings and symbols. He laughs at the absurdity of the conventions. Details of Loss, it says. Subject’s Experience, it says. Physical/Mental/Emotional Health. What he knows is that you won’t fit onto this page from the book of bureaucracy that’s been pawned off on him by the lady cop, this scored-up-with-boxes, set-it-out-for-us-like-you-remember, dates-and-place-names, what-she-was-wearing, and we’ll read the entrails catchall. Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a hook? Or her tongue with a cord thou lettest down? Canst thou put a hook into her nose? Or bore her jaw through with a thorn? Fuck.

He fills the final section on the form as follows: Sometimes I will say—he writes—I have read when I haven’t, when I have only myself written, or thought. I have no knowledge of her, but I have read … guidelines offered for resurfacing times: June to August: two days; April, May, September, and October: three to five days; November, December: ten to fourteen days; January, February: possibly no resurfacing. His knowledge of you is of nothing and too much—guidelines offer little. He blacks out the box entirely, stroke by careful stroke, across like the horizon and then downward like the rain. Jacob uncaps an acrid metallic marker and draws a picture in the margin, of two slugs kissing, which look like all of nothing, so he gives them shells and calls them snails. The scent of the pen is like ignition fluid, ether washing over him. Please help me recover my wife, he writes, the vein of light-caught gold cutting close-hatched dark, then underlines. She’s lost. But a strong swimmer, I promise, the strongest. His hand shakes. He pictures your arms, your legs, kicking. He pictures your breath-held face.

Somewhere the first human couple woke and they clothed themselves in garments of light made from sea-monster skin. The light was so bright that it out-sunned the sun, and they did not wonder what the world was before that day.

When the sergeant returns, she takes Jacob’s hand at last. She leads him to a mirrored room, in which there stands a desk, in which there sits a drawer, in which there lies a plastic bag containing a black hole ringed by a three-and-three-quarters platinum band.

In addition to sampling fragments from a wide range of online ephemera (personal blogs, obituaries, interviews, surveys, newswire items, etc.), the following materials have served as key sources of reference and intertextual incorporation for “Without a Body”:

J.A. Davis’s “Bodies Found in Water” (American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 1986); Katherine Gruspier and Michael Pollanen’s “Limbs Found in Water: Investigation Using Anthropological Analysis and the Diatom Test” (Forensic Science International, 2000); Derrick J. Pounder’s “Bodies from Water: Lecture Notes” (University of Dundee: Department of Forensic Medicine, 1992); and Jaap Mansfeld’s “Aristotle and Others on Thales, or the Beginnings of Natural Philosophy” (Mnemosyne, 1985). “The best love affairs are those we never had” is a line from from Norman Lindsay’s Bohemians of the Bulletin (1965).

Unattributed texts: The Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History’s “Ocean Currents” (Natural History of Nova Scotia, Volume I, 1984); “Processes of Water Cure” (Water-Cure Journal, 1845); “Management of the Sick Room” and “Woman’s Tenderness and Love” (Water-Cure Journal, 1848); the Philologos online Bible prophesy research archive; and the Encyclopedia Phoeniciana virtual center for Phoenician studies.


Kilby Smith-McGregor holds an MFA from the University of Guelph, and has received the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Bronwen Wallace Award. Her fiction has appeared in Dublin Quarterly and Descant, as well as Brick.