The Body

By J. R. A. McClure

At sunrise, we brought the body inside. Morning ahead of a long day—I had plenty of plowing to do, Henrik something or other with paper and pens. Little Lilah had packed for school and was ready to walk when Henrik hollered.

The body wore plaid pajamas and lay sprawled near our mailbox like it had been felled delivering a letter. I took its feet, Henrik its hands. Little Lilah grabbed the newspaper and trailed behind. 

None of us knew the body. We hadn’t seen it around town, nor did it look any relation to folks we were acquainted with. Such things were common. No one paid mind to the fact that walking-around people could at any moment become bodies: disturbing a rattler’s sunbathing, struck with an errant softball at practice, choking on a sundae’s cherry. Even from the exertion of too brisk a walk. We’d known bodies to wash up on riverbanks and tumble from walls during home renovations, to sprout from fields thought fallow, to ripen on trees beside apples and pears. There was no knowing. When it happened, taking care was simply the custom. No one wanted a body left alone in the cold.

Not to say it wasn’t an inconvenience.

We sat the body at the breakfast table. Better than stumbling over it at night if one of us came to the kitchen for a warm glass of milk or if Henrik couldn’t sleep and got up to pee and putter. Courteous anyway to offer guests someplace to sit. The body slumped against the chair, head lolling, blue-tinted hands hanging.

We sat watching for what time we could spare. Who knew how long the body would take? Some were ready in minutes. Others took longer. At least this one was fresh enough, not yet bloated or festering or falling apart.

Little Lilah said she’d skip school. She wasn’t one to shirk, so that seemed all right; someone had to stay with a body. Henrik offered his company, but she told him to go on. He’d be only upstairs.

When I came home that afternoon, little Lilah had stuck a daffodil in a drinking glass and set it on the table. She’d pulled the window shade partway down, so the sun didn’t glare. Behind the small of the body’s back, she’d added a throw pillow; the stitching—Your Head Here—was her handiwork too. She’d even spread a newspaper on the table should the body open its eyes and favor some diversion. Little Lilah was thoughtful that way.

Morning and night, we took meals with the body. Seemed wrong to disturb it once little Lilah had made it comfortable, and what was one more day?

Soon it stank something awful. We had known bodies to smell, but usually, they were ready before they reeked. It was a kind of signal—surely a body was about to get going when it became unpleasant.

Not this one. It assaulted our nostrils and stayed all the same.

After a week, I started asking around. Had anyone heard of a body taking so long?

Usually, you might host for a night or two, three tops. An old lady down the road told us she’d known one to stay six months when she was a girl. That had been during the war. So many piled up with no place to go. Her parents reckoned the body they brought inside had to wait on account of the surplus.

Unbearable, the thought of half a year.

Henrik counseled patience. Little Lilah begged not to send the body away.

I posted fliers in town. Wasted a whole morning nailing them up, asking shopkeepers if they’d seen this body before. Figured someone might know someone who might know someone kind of thing. Maybe the body had unfinished business. Such stories of the dead were common, though no one gave them much credence. Once you were dead, you were dead—what else was there to do? Labor is for the living.

Still, we couldn’t figure what the body was waiting for. Seemed only prudent to try and locate some kin, see if there was something amiss. Where was the harm in hurrying a body on its way?

One woman in town, only passing through, she said, looked long at my photograph before asking if she could keep it. But no, she said, she didn’t know the body. Nobody knew the body.

We gave up keeping watch, of course—couldn’t the three of us spare days without end to sit beside a loitering body. We had to hope it wouldn’t get lonely, that we wouldn’t miss when it needed help departing.

Henrik and I had it out when the critters started coming. It wasn’t the maggots and flies and such. Those did their work quietly enough, keeping to the body, not molesting the rest of us. Working the dirt gets you well-used to what slithers and crawls.

No, it was the buzzards bothered me, the skunks and rats and that family of raccoons, the coyote I came to the kitchen once and found. Had the gall to growl as if she paid the mortgage and I was the one disturbing dinner. I chased her away, shouting and shaking a knife by God I’d have used. I almost hoped she’d stand her ground. Would have felt good to tussle with something could fight back.

Seasons came and went. Our crop grew tall, and the harvest was good. Henrik kept up his scribbling, to what avail not even he could say. Little Lilah got a new bike when spring rolled back around. The old one had gotten small for her, or rather she had gotten big, and anyway, the brakes were iffy. Was her the body always seemed least to perturb. She’d say goodnight before prayers and bed, good morning over oatmeal. She demanded Henrik and I do the same.

Wasn’t until the following summer, the body lifted its head. By then, its eyelids were gone, the sockets more or less empty. Little Lilah was sitting at the kitchen counter and yelped, then clapped in celebration; she’d been so worried it was stuck somehow. The body had too little of its lips and tongue to frame words properly, but when its jaw moved up and down, we understood. We knew it was saying—I’m ready.

None of us grasped why the body had waited so long. Don’t suppose we ever will. Bodies have their own reasons. It was enough for it to announce the time had come and for us to get the shovels from the shed.

Little Lilah’s enthusiasm drained. Change can be hard, and she was never good at goodbye.

We propped the body against a tree. No one knew if bodies could see, whatever the state of their organs. This one didn’t anyway try to watch its grave be dug. It leaned against that old oak, facing the sun shining half-hearted down while we did our sweaty work. Its neck tilted back. The wind ruffled its tattered skin. It might have looked to passers-by like it was basking, enjoying a snooze after a morning of toil.

We found it fresh clothes. Henrik donated the tuxedo from his concert days. It was too tight for him now, and he no longer performed. Only sometimes on the porch for our neighbors, nights when he’d been drinking. Little Lilah found a flower to tuck in the lapel, a pair of purple, too-small socks she nevertheless insisted upon; it wouldn’t do for the body to go wearing only black and white. I supplied the hat.

When the hole was good and deep, we helped the body climb down. It settled in the ditch we’d made as flat as we were able. We didn’t know if bodies could be comfortable, but we thought it best to assume so.

When the body lifted its shriveled hand, we took this as farewell and started shoveling dirt over top. We’d heard of places where bodies were buried in boxes; cruelty was all we could gather of that. Why make a body wait for the ground to have it?

When the grave was full, when we could no longer see the shoes, the yellow-white fingertips, the exposed cheekbones we’d come to know well, we stood waiting for something to happen. Nothing did.

Only a few tears. Little Lilah sang a song she learned in school. A good one, we all agreed.

We’d never had a body with us so long before.

Henrik said, if it were him, he’d have stayed until his senses failed him. Little Lilah supposed she’d have gone when she got sleepy. They turned to me with anxious eyes as if I were holding up a parade.

I told them I wouldn’t go until I was sure they were happy and safe.

Henrik had to be returning to his writing. Little Lilah had homework. It fell to me to clean the kitchen, the chair where the body had been. I would tend the crops tomorrow.

Will our next body be like this one? asked little Lilah on the walk back to the house. I held her hand.

Never before had it bothered me not to know a body’s name.

I hope so, I told her. I sure hope so.