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.