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Without a Body
(in which—the clavicle—Jacob refuses to fill out a form, and very little can be done without a body)
On the fourth day the two great lights: floodlight and flashlight, daytime and night. The sun. The moon. And the wide sky to divide; the stars also, set in, until the appointed time, just as a match is extinguished on the tongue. Let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years. How we count. Let them be the sources of illumination by which we are able to see our hands in front of our faces, and our faces in front of our faces hung above the flat of the water, reflected back, with bones in our mouths we should guard against dropping in want.

By all accounts a land search looks a lot like Red Rover. A chain of volunteers in reflective vests or crossing-guard-cum-pageant-queen shoulder sashes snakes across a lonely-looking field of high grasses holding hands, calling out. Other volunteers arrive with blankets, hot chocolate, sandwiches. The utility of the blankets is unclear—an expression of hope, perhaps, that the body will be found in a state responsive to warmth and comfort. By evening there are canister lights on tripods which look as though they’ve been stolen from a film set. Flashlights are distributed. Eventually flasks appear in the breast pockets of men’s thermal vests. Handkerchiefs are passed around. Other land searches, historically, have incorporated torches and pitchforks. It depends what you’re looking for. Of course it’s entirely different in the water. It’s impossible to hold hands in the water. There will be no calling out in the water, no blankets. This is still how Jacob imagines it, a volunteer army of hand-holders scouring the ocean floor with helmet-mounted flashlights, singing something, maybe, like the Men of the Deeps. No reasonable grounds, he’s repeatedly been told, for that scope of search, however.

On the fourth day he returns once again to the precinct, counting backwards with eyes like the eyelids of morning and he makes the desk sergeant tired with his whatever-this-is, this vigil, maybe even makes her curse a little, mouth without sound. Thing is—the thing is, he says, tracing his finger against glass, pacing along the windowed wall overlooking the street, then, in a moment, making back toward the counter as if he might leap it. But the sergeant’s already half up; hips over feet and fluid like I’ve never yet smashed teeth against this counter’s edge but could show you easy and my palm just there below your ear. She fixes his pupils: hasn’t slept, she would wager, these seventy-two hours.

I have new information, he says. The clavicle is the most frequently broken bone in the human body. I’ve not yet told you how I broke her jaw, he says, have I? Surely I am at least a person of interest. In the beginning … he says. She raises her hand in warning and sinks back to sitting. Have you filled out the form I gave you? Are you finally willing to cooperate?

In the beginning all Jacob wanted was to play soccer and to be a boy, to block a ball that spun like a devil towards his head, to be applauded for an instinct for physics. But that was before the breathtaking chutes and sometimes ladders of real book learning, those bound-up transmissions of things that have been thought, even proved, before the implications of predicting the path of the ball burst the world like a water balloon at his feet and he was overwhelmed with a sudden lust for the underneath and invisible forces. There were ways of tracing, he discovered, the arc of a trajectory only just beginning, like what he would notice beneath the snug sweaters of the girls with braces and headbands and the start of bad skin who sat in desks beside him studying to be hard, flat, measured, despite their open secrets. Or so it seemed, that there was no ease in it for them. He did not understand why they refused so stubbornly to smile, why, if they could also calculate what he could—future figures—they were not pleased.

Plato relates that Thales fell into a well while contemplating the night sky. Others say it was only a ditch. A Thracian slave girl heard his cries and her face appeared like a moon at the mouth of the well. How do you expect to know anything of heaven when you do not even see the earth at your feet? she asked him. The broken telephone has dropped details as to whether she lowered a rope to him or not, however it can be assumed that he resurfaced at some point and turned his attention to the matter at hand. Whether that matter was still the sky or now the girl is hard to say. He never married.

Jacob once awoke in the middle of the quad with a copy of Bertrand Russell’s Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy pitched like a tent on his face. He did not know how much time had passed, but the bright sun which had necessitated this makeshift canopy had retreated low into the west leaving only a trail of scarlet ribbons in her wake. As he sat amongst his fellow students in the dining room with his evening bowl of fruit loops in gray milk, Jacob was overcome by an anxiety that the slick pages’ formulae had transferred to his sticky skin in the afternoon heat, that his forehead was inscribed with arcane mirrorspeak running from right to left. When he cracked the book to its marked page under his covers that night (after scrubbing his face three times, brushing his teeth twice and gargling with salt-water to ward off the infectious eventualities of dorm living), Jacob was alarmed by a defacing longhand of bright green ink snaking across the neat slabs of text: The best love affairs are those we never had. A dispatch from his dreams.

The wedding of Jacob Benjamin Lerner and Ava Winifred Price on the midday ferry between Halifax and Dartmouth was a small affair. Hallelujah slipped from a portable disc player and escaped into the wind unnoticed. Vows, rings, spit were swapped and a picnic followed at the cove with egg-carrying, potato-sack, and three-legged races. As your father’s third wife pinned the tail on the donkey, you pressed the white-fretted small of your back against Jacob’s shins and he leaned from his folding chair and whispered into your braided hair: Will he make many supplications unto thee? Will he speak soft unto thee? Will he make a covenant with thee? Will thou take him as a servant forever? To which you replied, again, I do.

The form which Jacob returns to the cop is still largely unmarked. Today he has managed a surname, a phone number, to weep in her presence, twice; to recite something about serpents. They have passed this baton between them long enough that both are tired.

Abandoned bicycles found on bridges look like bicycles. Piles of clothing folded on rocks look just like that, just clothing, not even skin, doesn’t he know. Don’t they have real goddamned life in whatever away city he’s managed to spit himself out of, and was he thinking there’d be something else out on the coast here, an Atlantic Romance all fresh fish and oatcakes—Soon I’ll manage to give you what you need, he smiles at her, sniffs. I’m surely very nearly there—The desk sergeant arches against the ergonomic curve of her lumbar support. On the pebbled ceiling panel above his head she projects the arrow-headed hands of an imaginary clock. Soon a smoke break. Soon tomorrow and tomorrow and the next. It is already too late. She aches to tell him that he doesn’t really want it, what he thinks he wants, the knowledge, the matter, the proof—that closure is a cliché, that the word’s called putrefaction, and by this time the once-sweet skin, with nails still clinging, peels off like a glove or stocking. She could assure him that God will provide, that God will construct beautiful tents from this skin to shelter companies of the pious, like partygoers, smiling, while they enjoy dishes made from the flesh, that what is left will be elevated above the city as a canopy, and the light streaming from it will illuminate the whole world. She could paint an occasion of it, how the meat’s made use of in the way of the world’s continuance, if it was something she believed but—Very little can be done, sir, without a body.

He stares down into her face, unspeaking; swivels toward the door, but then turns back to ask her: Leonard Cohen or Jeff Buckley? Outside, sunset just beginning; outside, traffic—sinking, passing. Which Hallelujah do you prefer?

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.