7 May 2008

Being Dead by Crace, 1999

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines — ktismatics @ 8:31 am

For old times’ sake, the doctors of zoology had driven out of town that Tuesday afternoon to make a final visit to the singing salt dunes of Baritone Bay. And to lay a ghost. They never made it back alive. They almost never made it back at all.
* * *
It must have seemed her leg had moved, a shrug of skin, a spasm of muscle, enough to dislodge some calf-sand and to shake the longer grass under her foot. Joseph tried to bark and squeak her name. His arm was heavy and numb, dislocated at the shoulder. The air seemed too thick to penetrate with anything as soft as flesh. Yet somehow, fortified by his self-pity, Joseph found the will and the adrenaline to reach across towards his wife. He wanted to apologize. He had to twist his wrist against the broken angle of his arm and weave his fingers through the heavy air. His hand — bruised a little when the wedding ring was stolen — dropped onto the stretched flesh of her lower leg, the tendon strings, the shallows of her ankle. Blood from his damaged knuckles ran over her skin but not enough to glue his hand in place. He spread his fingers and tried to grip a solid bone to steady himself. He had to stop his body being swept away, by wind, by time, by continental drift, by shooting stars, by shame…

It was as if they had been struck by lightning but the thunder, separated from its faster twin, had yet to come with its complaints to shake and terminate the bodies lying in the grass. Time was divided into light and sound. There was a sanctuary for Joseph and Celice between the lightning and the thunderclap. Such were their six days in the dunes, stretched out, those two unlucky lovers on the coast.

This is our only prayer: May no one come to lift his hand from her leg. Let thunder never find its voice. Hold sound and light, those battling twins, apart. There is a meadow that separates death’s chilly gate and the tumbling nothingness beyond, in which our Joseph and Celice are lying, cushioned by the sunlight and the grass, and held in place by nothing firmer than his fingertip.
* * *
By four the rain had stopped, although the sky stayed overcast and dull. Again the crabs and rodents went to work, while there was light, flippantly browsing Joseph and Celice, frisking them for moisture and for food, delving in their pits and caverns for their treats, and paying them as scant regard as cows might pay a turnip head.

So far no one had even missed Joseph and Celice. They were not expected back at work till Thursday. Their daughter, Syl, would not phone until the weekend, if she remembered. The neighbours were used to silence from the doctors’ house. So their bodies were still secret, as were their deaths. No one was sorry yet. No one had said, ‘It’s such bad luck.’ They’d perished without ceremony. There’d been no one to rub their skin with oils or bathe and dress the bodies as they stiffened. They would have benefited from the soft and herby caresses of an undertaker’s sponge, the cotton wool soaked in alcohol to close the open pores. No one had plugged their leaking rectums with a wad of lint, or taped their eyelids shut, or tugged against their lower jaws to close their mouths. No one had cleaned their teeth or combed their hair. The murderer, that good mortician, though, had carried out one duty well. He had removed their watches and their jewellery. There was a chance, depending on the wind and sand, that even their bones might not be found or ever subjected to the standard rituals and farewells, the lamentations, the funeral, the headstones and obituaries. Then they’d not be listed with the dead, reduced by memory and legacies. They’d just be ‘missing,’ unaccounted for, absent without leave. His hand could hold her leg for good.
* * *
Their wedding photograph was on the wall. Syl had looked at it a thousand times before. Her parents seemed so old in it, even though they had only been in their twenties. Her age now. They were not flattered by the wedding suits or by the hard light of the flash. She stared at it as if their faces would reveal a clue. Do faces in a photograph transform on death? Were their smiles a little more fixed and thinner now, as if their mouths had reached the point beyond which there is no going on?
* * *
There’s nothing more sincere than death. The dead mean what they say.



  1. Something oddly comforting about that. Six days…


    Comment by samlcarr — 8 May 2008 @ 10:41 am

  2. “Oddly comforting” is I believe what Crace had in mind, Sam. He’s thoroughly materialistic, and his minute naturalistic descriptions of decomposition, of the interdependency of life in the natural order, is appropriate in describing the death of two zoologists. But as you can see from this excerpt, he uses a lyrical, almost romantic, style of writing here, a kind of ode to mortality. And though dead is dead for Crace, he uses extended passages of flashback to bring these two people back from the sudden and violent death that befalls them at the very beginning of the book. I found this book to be quite moving. Next I’ve asked the library to find me a copy of another of his novels, Quarantine, which deals with Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness.


    Comment by ktismatics — 8 May 2008 @ 12:31 pm

  3. We want to keep going even though we are not there any longer. The living can’t let go either. But to be able to cease I think is a blessing. For one thing it provides a permanent space for those who are still going on or are yet to come.

    I wonder what we will really think of longevity after we do achieve it?


    Comment by samlcarr — 8 May 2008 @ 5:11 pm

  4. I don’t think I’m reconciled with the idea of not being, even though there are times when I wish it would happen sooner rather than later. I understand that whatever one accomplishes in life is soon all but forgotten by the survivors, but before I die I’d like to be able to have more of a sense of having achieved at least a little bit of what I’d hoped to do. I’d rather feel contented with life than resigned to death, though maybe the former would help with the latter if I don’t get too greedy.

    The characters in this book died in their fifties, with no expectation of the end being near. So they hadn’t reached any sort of closure, but at the same time they hadn’t started seriously succumbing to the inevitable and terminal decline. I’ve been with three different old people a day or two before they died, and they mostly seemed afraid.


    Comment by ktismatics — 8 May 2008 @ 9:20 pm

  5. Sudden death is something I think I’d prefer to a lingering departure. As to achievements, I guess what I would really like is to be a stepping stone. That has possibilities for a continuing impact and being generally helpful to those that will be continuing after I’m gone. In a sense I don’t think that we can live without making an impact. Our interactions make that inevitable though perhaps not always consciously visible nor exactly what we would have planned on achieving had we been more ‘in control’.

    I was rather disappointed after my heart attack when I realised that I had not come close enough to peer across. I’m sure I’ll get another shot sometime…


    Comment by Sam L. Carr — 9 May 2008 @ 2:05 pm

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