Under a low sun, pursued by fish and mounted by crows and veiled in a loud languid swarm of bluebottle flies, the body comes down the river like a deadfall stripped clean.
It proceeds as do all things moving down the Mississippi in the late summer of the year, at a stately pace, as if its blind eyes were busy taking in the blue sky piled dreamily deep with cloud. There will be thunder by suppertime and rain to last the whole night long but just now the early day is brilliant and entirely without flaw. How long the body has been floating would be a mystery if any individual had yet taken note of its passage and mused so upon it, but thus far, under that sky of blue and white and upon this gentle muddy bed aswarm with a school of sunfish and one or two smallmouth bass darting warily as thieves, it has passed only empty fields and stands of willow and thick brushy embankments uninhabited.
A crow screams and flaps off, bearing an eye as brown and deep as the Mississippi herself.
Sunday morning, early, and the river is without traffic.
An alligator gar, eight feet if it’s an inch, rises deathlike from the bottom and fastens its long jaw upon a hipbone, which snaps like rotten wood and comes away. The body entire goes under a time or two, bobbing and turning, the eggs of blowflies scattering into the water like thrown rice. The urgent sunfish eddy. The bluebottles hover, endlessly patient, and when the body has recovered its equilibrium and resumed its downward course they settle once more.
Boys note its passage first, boys from the village taking the long way to Sunday school, and their witness is as much nature’s way as is the slow dissolution of the floating body into the stratified media of air and water. The corpse is not too very far from shore and clearly neither dog nor deer nor anything but man.
“I’ll bet it’s old Finn,” says one of them, Joe or Tom or Bill or perhaps some other. On this Sunday morning down by the riverbank they are as alike as polished stones. “My pap says they’ll fish him from the river one day for sure.”
“Go on,” says another.
“Yes sir. A worthless old drunk like that.”
“Go on,” says the other again. He picks up a flat stone and tests it in his hand, eyeing the crow, which has returned and sunken its beak into a pocket of flesh. “Shows how much you know. That ain’t even a man.”
“I reckon you think it’s a mule.”
“It’s a woman, no question.”
The lot of them go jostling together and squinting into the sunrise and blinking against the glare on the water as if the only thing superior to the floating corpse of a man would be the floating corpse of a woman, as if seeking in unison for a lesson in anatomy and never mind the cost.
Finally, from one of them or another but in the end from the childish heart in each save the learned one, this confession: “How can you tell?”
“Men float facedown. Anybody knows that.” Skipping the stone across the water to flush the crow, ruining his good trousers with the offhand brush of muddy fingers.
They draw straws, and as the unlucky boy lights out toward the village to enlist an adult the rest of them locate a skiff and cast off and make for the body. They hook her with a willow switch, these boys inured to dead things, and they drag her like bait to shore. One of them has been keeping a dead cat on a string for a week now, a kitten really, just a poor stiff dried husk won exactly this way, string and all, in a game of mumblety-peg.
The corpse floats low in the water, bottoming out in the mud that sucks at heel and buttock and drooping wrist. During its journey down the river it has failed to swell in the common way of corpses left in the sun. It lacks for skin, all of it, from scalp to sole. Nothing remains but sinew and bone and scraps of succulent yellow fat that the crows have not yet torn free.
One boy panics and loses his balance and falls into the water, his clothes spoiled for Sunday.
The bootlegger stirs his fire, oblivious to the sparks that circle upward into the night sky. He hears everything, every whisper in the dry grass of the pathway that leads from behind his shack, every snapping twig in the surrounding woods, every wingbeat of sparrow or jay or owl. “You can’t steal whiskey from old Bliss,” he likes to say, as if anyone would stoop so low as to steal whiskey from a blind man.
He repeats this reassurance now to Finn, who has proven him wrong before. “That’s so,” says Finn.
Pleased with himself, Bliss cackles until he coughs. Then he spits between his crooked teeth into the fire, where the sputum lands with a satisfying sizzle. “You got a jug?”
“ ’Course I got a jug.” Finn is as regular around these premises as the weather, even more regular than Bliss knows. But tonight his first purpose is neither to buy whiskey nor to steal it but to dispose of something in Bliss’s perpetual fire. He has a tow sack between his feet, filthy even in the firelight and slowly leaking something into the dust. He bumps the blind man’s knee with his jug, a signal.
“Go on get it yourself,” says Bliss. “Can’t you see I’m occupied?”
“I’ll tend. You pour. Give me that stick.”
Bliss won’t let it go. “Leave an old man be. I reckon you know where I keep it.”
“I reckon I do, if I could find it in the dark.”
He has a point, so Bliss hands over the stick and limps off into the woods muttering to himself like an old priest.
Finn unties the tow sack and lays out its contents, long strips dark and dimly glistening, pieces of flayed flesh identically sliced save one. Their regularity in width and length and thickness speaks of a huntsman’s easy skill and a plotter’s furtive patience and something else too. He chooses one and throws it upon the fire, where it sizzles and smokes and curls in upon itself as sinuously as a lie.
“Hope you brought some for me,” says Bliss from the depths of the woods.
“There’s plenty.” Throwing another piece into the fire to blacken. “Bring a couple of them jars when you come back. We’ll have ourselves a time.”
Bliss, weighed down with Finn’s crockery jug of forty-rod, adjusts his course and shuffles down the path toward the cabin. Halfway along he uses his head at last, plants the jug midpath like a tombstone, and makes for home unencumbered, counting off the paces so as not to stub his unshod foot during the journey back.
By firelight Finn locates the piece he’s set aside for his host. He clears hot ash from a rock and places it there in the manner of an offering.
“I ain’t had nothing but beans all week,” says Bliss as he squats on his log. He swirls whiskey to cleanse a pair of canning jars. One of them is cracked about the rim and fit to tear someone’s lip, and this one Bliss chooses for himself as long as Finn is paying. He minds the crack with his thumb. Bliss is a poor drinker and he knows it. Not mean like Finn, but morose and persistent and beyond satisfying. “A little of your fatback would’ve gone good with them beans.”
“You’ll like it well enough plain,” says Finn.
Bliss sniffs the air with satisfaction and mutters something unintelligible, pours himself another whiskey.
“You be sparing with that.” But Finn doesn’t mean it and he knows that Bliss will pay him no mind anyhow. Once you get Bliss started there’s no slowing him down until the jug is empty. “Besides, I ain’t paid for it yet.”
“Don’t worry none. I’ll put it on your account.” Tapping the side of his head with a finger.
They sit in silence while the meat cooks.
“I’ve broken it off with that woman,” says Finn.
“You’ve made such a claim before.”
“This time I mean it.”
“I reckon we will.”
Bliss points his nose toward the spot where the meat sizzles on the fire just as surely as if he had two good eyes to guide it. “When’ll that be ready, you suppose? I don’t want it burnt.”
“Soon.” Tossing in another strip or two.
“Ain’t no good to me burnt.”
“Hold your water.”
“I’m just saying. Yours must be about black by now. The one you put up while I was in them woods.”
“I ain’t having any. She’s all yours, on account of how good you’ve always been to me.”
“Aww. Tain’t nothing.”
“A token of my gratitude.”
Bliss smiles in the odd unself-conscious way of one who has never looked into a mirror and learned thus to confine his expressions to the social norm. “So how long was you with her, Finn?”
“Ten, twelve years maybe. Fifteen, off and on.”
“Offer and onner, like they say.” He puts down his empty jar and rubs his hands together in a fit of glee, his whole brain a lovely jumble of women and fatback bacon. “What’ll the Judge think?”
“Can’t say.” Stabbing the flesh with a sharp stick and flipping it over.
“You’ve steered him wrong before.”
“I know it.”
“Me, I don’t believe you’ll ever make a dent in that Judge. He knows what he knows.”
“Your daddy’s one judge that’s got his mind made up.”
“He’s been that way all my life.”
“He was that way before you was born, Finn. It ain’t none of your doing.” He hawks and spits into the fire, and Finn throws in some more pieces. “Sure it ain’t done yet?”
“Just about. Have some more whiskey.”
“Don’t mind if I do.”
After a while Finn stabs the meat and places it upon a flat stone that he bumps against the bootlegger’s knee a time or two. “Can you set down that whiskey long enough to eat?”
“I’ll do my best,” says Bliss. Which he manages, just barely. And until half past midnight, while the silence in the woods deepens and the white moon looms and recedes and the owls grow weary at last of pursuing their prey through black air, the fire consumes Finn’s secret. Come noon Bliss will awaken on the hard ground, and in his mind Finn’s presence will have taken on the quality of a ghostly visitation.
He is between worlds, this boy. Between the river and the town, between the hogshead and the house, between the taint of his mother and the stain of his pap. He knows some things that he can never say, not even to himself.
He has trained his companions well—these boys forbidden to associate with him on account of his mother’s suspected stigma and his father’s famed trouble with whiskey, these boys who associate with him nonetheless and perhaps all the more intently for being forbidden his company although they do not generally encounter him at school or at church or at any of the other places ordinarily deemed suitable for boys of the village. They find his dark history as dizzying as a leap from some great bluff into a Mississippi pool and his scrapes with his violent pap as thrilling as a narrow escape from Injun Joe’s cave and his deep broad knowledge of woodsman’s lore and slave’s superstition as enchanting as a spell of protection against nightwalking spirits or werewolves, these boys forbidden to play with him yet drawn into his wake like needles to a lodestone, these boys whom he has trained well enough that at least one of them knows what he’ll say before he says it and indeed has said it already, that the body is not a man’s at all on account of it floats faceup.
When he can extricate himself from the widow’s he sleeps in a great barrel nearly as tall as a man and twice as big around, a sugar hogshead washed up among the rushes at the edge of the village. The barrel lies upon its side and he lies upon his side within it. Sometimes he locates a place between the staves where the rain and the riverwater and the barrel’s former purpose have conspired to leave behind a concealed crusty ridge of old sugar solidified, and with his clasp-knife he pries it loose for the pleasure of sucking upon it while he drifts off to sleep.
In the end it falls to the undertaker to load the corpse upon a wagon and remove it from the indignity of public display. Except perhaps for O’Toole, the giant who owns the slaughterhouse in the next county, there is none other who might possess the stomach for it. So here he is, rolling the sticky fly-blown thing into a square of old canvas and wrangling it up onto the bed of his wagon as if it were the featureless corpse of a slug and he an ant, strong beyond his size. His name is Swope, he is rail-thin and dressed in rusty black, and he has been a fixture in the village of St. Petersburg for longer than anyone can remember. From long association he has acquired both the air of death and some of its permanence, and his pale hair bursts from under the brim of his slouch hat like a pile of sunbleached straw.
The corpse for its part is well mannered, patient, and perfectly amenable. Leached clean of all fluids, it barely stains the canvas tarpaulin.
Swope mutters to himself as he works, complaining about the hour and the uncharacteristic heat and the unfairness of the world. He has long made a habit of talking to himself, since no one else will do it. The children believe that he speaks to Death, which hovers invisibly over one of his shoulders or the other, although their parents believe instead that he addresses his harmless old horse, Alma.
“As if I weren’t busy enough without goddamn half-pay charity cases come floating downstream. Won’t barely cover my expenses, may God damn the goodness of my goddamn bleeding heart, but who in hell else is going to do it? And at this time of the morning, as if the old gal couldn’t have kept till noon. A feller gets himself the idea to go skin somebody like a goddamn rabbit at least he ought to have the decency to set something by for the proper obsequies, mail it anonymous to the paper or the marshal or some such. A goddamn crime is what it is. The feller what done it deserves to be tried as much for one as for the other. Pitiful goddamn half-pay charity case.”