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Without a Body
(in which—division—Jacob studies causal relationships and the possibility
By day three something has dried out, divided, as it is, from other water. A footing solid as sand, but into which descent is finite, into which can be planted green or green-to-be, with roots like ropes, things that grow up, whose seed is in themselves.

Day three he arrives armed with textbooks, sits between teetering stacks with his back against the base of the counter where the sergeant cannot see him even if he reaches his fingertips above his head, searching up the partition. Day three asserts itself in a lot of digging in on his part and trying to keep his face from view while his voice evaporates upwards but waiting to rain. I have the formula—his words rise and flare a bit, like sun striking rocks, through a wriggling haze. If A, B, and C are points on a circle where the line AC is a diameter of the circle, then the angle ABC is a right angle. It is possible to predict such things. From procedural to declarative knowledge. It is—and she can’t resist but shove a spare clipboard over the lip of the counter at him, hears it clatter, bright and final. Silence. Maybe he’s put his fist in his mouth, at last, or anything honestly, eaten the bloody paper, popped the tied-on pen-cap like a pill.

These forms, sly repetition, variation, produce a choking effect. Jacob does not like the way LAST is printed again and again in block capitals. Last name. Last seen. Last seen wearing. Last communication. Describe. Describe also: STATE, he is uncomfortable with these terms. Yellow Converse, he scribbles, then strikes through. Denim? The name of a band? A color like red. Halfway down her back. Still carrying the set of emergency wire cutters the dentist gave her nearly three years ago. But he can’t discern what’s relevant. And he can’t commit any of it to paper.

This past Christmas he’d landed in Toronto breathing hard and as he stepped into the terminal his brother had said—The trip that bad, kid? All Jacob wanted was to show them the photo he’d taken at term’s start and ask if there was a time when your hair had not looked all cut off like this—summer? Did anyone have a wedding picture handy? But no one did. That girl—Jacob’s father said, disappearing the photograph into his pocket and staring straight past into the middle distance of the Island Airport coffee kiosk. Jacob twisted to look over his shoulder and on the tarmac another nose touched down, slipped in like a needle pulling thread between the towers of the Toronto skyline. There are seven places these planes fly in from and maybe that’s enough. He doesn’t think this bathtub-rock with the hedge maze and the tiny amusement park, toy planes and rumored nude beach, counts much as an island anymore, though it was once to him like the ends of the earth, even just right there in the navel of the city. No swimming, mostly, more a stop bath in some photographer’s chain of pools, place most likely to be arrested. The lake is like a dirty basin and he’s embarrassed to come home alone with just a snapshot and his backpack with the college crest.

When exactly had you formalized it, this quaint hydrotherapeutic concern? Even as the previous autumn had quickened toward winter, with wedding plans tacitly underway, you’d rather consumed yourself with water-cure research, placed your sights and belief only there. You see—you said—with every water-cured person its efficacy will be an article of faith, unknockable, since the proof is so simply the water-cured person, that body herself. When you refused to fly home with him at Thanksgiving—just leave me, Jacob—he’d decamped the apartment, and returned to a ruined futon. The slime, the smell and color of a body’s history’s worth of muck wrung out in moldering sheets. An entire self expelled it appeared—perhaps, indeed, even healed? He’d been alarmed to find his fiancée incubating in a sarcophagus of filth but you were so ecstatically light that whole next week he took you out dancing and did not labor over talk about it.

Sites of recovery: Jedediah Island in the Strait of Georgia; Gabriola Island; Valdez Island in early February; Kirkland Island in the Fraser River in May, and a fifth further along the same river at Ladner in June … Four right feet, one left. Now newspapers thoughtfully contort their contents to meet the shape of his fears. When the fifth disarticulated limb washes up on the other side of the country it’s been a night and a day with no word of you and Jacob has started sifting through what anyone would be hard-pressed to recognize as a thesis. The subject is unclear and the pages seem to have begun to breed in the absence of their author. They are everywhere underfoot, your papers, falling on him from the tops of closets, and now in the door of the freezer, now behind the couch. Like dry scalp or the scales of a dragon once glued so tight with pride, they are sloughing off without you. Now news and your notations, all flayed scraps, conflate. The initial forensic question is always to determine whether or not the tissue is human, and in the Pacific Coast cases it comes to light that a sixth discovery was simply the hind leg and paw of a dog delicately laced into a child’s running shoe. He imagines, briefly, that one foot as yours. The left one. But it doesn’t really matter because every disarticulation, every dissolution is yours, is you, spilling out from under him. Every bone or tooth or bit of rot recovered in a sieve: impossibly constitutive of.

He rides the ferry back and forth across the harbour once again, Water Street to Alderney Gate, twelve minutes each way, give or take, as the light goes. He watches the sun sliced in strips across the water; watches her sink, quivering, into shadow, halo, both. The skyline’s corona, at last, blackens. Spring dark whips unaccountably cold against his face. If no one else will look, if no one else can look because they cannot conceive of what they are looking for, or at, then the burden of proof falls on him. There are, for example, a myriad of references to Thales which would allow one to reconstruct quite a number of details. A man awake in the morning is waiting. He stands on the sand in the sun in a desert country and waits as the sun peaks and his shadow shrinks to twin him—he marks the moment, before the sun shifts; then it slips under, incorporates itself again. It is believed that he measured the pyramids this way, by a mark of time, and a shadow. Thales of Miletus is famous for two things, the so-called advent of material philosophy, and the prediction of the solar eclipse of May 28, 585 BC. Predicting a solar eclipse is not easy. You need to calculate not only when it will happen, but where it will be visible. None of his writing survives so it is difficult to determine his views or to be certain about his mathematical discoveries. It is unclear whether he wrote any works at all and if he did they were certainly lost by the time of Aristotle who did not have access to any writings of Thales.

Prediction is based upon pattern. Documented outcome of stimulus and response. The eclipse comes, by degrees.

By the time Jacob started third year, you’d already begun your dissertation and trailed multiple texts and versions of the Bible in your wake around the small apartment; he was constantly reshelving your books, in no particular order—because time is not like that, he argued, creation is not from beginning to end. Which was a laugh, coming from someone who loved progression and solutions as much as he did, but you knew he didn’t know the sequence and was too proud to ask. He wanted to know if it was difficult to translate metaphor, and you replied that metaphor was translation, his punishment for which was a big wet raspberry on your squirming belly, an accidental knee to your ribs, or your face, or your ribs. Or you behaved as if, pulling up wounded. Only there were your lips again, come to me, your smile uneven. A fissure suggested itself in the matter of your shared experience. Your assumption of martyrdom to his desire, of you-cut-I-bleed, was what he’d never have been able to formulate, then. Yet hadn’t there been a frustration in his muscle which wanted to exorcise itself, to soften you? Had he, inchoate, burned confirmingly, to punish?

It has been said that the transformation of clues into recognizable patterns and the transformation of patterns into reasonable opinions is an artifice of logic.

He must go farther back. Still farther. In an ancient winter morning Jacob kneels by the tub in the dark, naked. He loves his private silence of before-the-sun, without his contacts in, an empire dark to the touch, written wordless and braille-precise. Twisting the lever up to the right, he waits for the stream from the spigot to turn from ice to heat through his fingers. He pulls a delicate chrome knob and the flow redirects itself seamlessly toward the sky, then descends, showering down on his extended arm like a flight of microscopic India rubber balls. He stands, draws the curtain back, bows his head and steps into the bathtub, palms spread flat on the tile before him. In the winter morning in the shower in the dark he is touched. Something animate stroking his calf. Slick terror overtakes him of otherworldly limbs, lips, teeth. He is pitching, buckling, the curtain—tearing. Vacuum of knocked-out breath slowly filling with pain.

Jacob’s previous relationship to falling is predicated on a two-story drop from his childhood bedroom window on paper wings at the age of eight, for which he received twenty-three stitches at the base of his skull, and falling in and out of love with the cashier at the Dairy Queen, his first-year logic professor, and the singer from that band which he can no longer identify by name. The fall in the bathtub is entirely unlike either flying or infatuation, which are short and hot and high. It is an elastic band of time bowed back against his body like a slingshot, an awareness of the whiteness of white enamel, even unlit, and the shadow of a ring of light at the farthest possible distance from himself as he sinks to the bottom of the ocean. Only the sound of the ocean. Until the sharp jolt of your teeth scoring into him, swallowing his elbow whole. The discretion of his body is breached, the fragments set back together at unthinkable angles. If his spine is not severed it is indeed a miracle, as with the casual cliff diver who escapes characteristic fractures of the ribs, sternum, and thoracic spine; who presents no lacerations of the heart and lungs. Yet he manages to make it upright, clawing over the side of the tub and half-rolling onto the fleecy mat. And the first thing he sees when he turns on the light is the pulp of your face folding in on itself. Your shattered thinness, eclipsable. He sees that likely you need help here. He needs to get help.

Based on the impossible geometry of bathtubs, the placement of a seated body, secreted, curled in dream, delusion, or waiting, of a wet man standing on a crust of white enamel, and the impracticality of measuring shadows in the dark, it is unlikely that such an occurrence ever took place. Or rather, if such a smashing together of bodies did take place in the shower that winter morning it is likely that the concurrently presenting injury of the jaw is owing to another causal relationship. Even as you devoured him, it is likely he landed his own defensive blows. He has been at the end of himself, exhausted. He has been angry. He knows this.

Thales stopped telling stories. He threw gods and heroes under the bus. He gave up narrative for the body. This is what they call the first philosophy.

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.