If this had been the ruling way who knows what I might have done.
My thoughts are easy led astray by any shining sun.
From the notebooks of Nikolai Raisov
The guard was there when the body fell. It was the first time he had seen a human being die by violence. I say ‘the body’ because he did not know the man and he did not get to know him post mortem. He could not trace back from the body to the personality and he would not have tried.
He once found a man dying in the street, a derelict; this was years before when he was still a youth. He had called for help and the man had died, slipping quite peacefully into nothing over the course of about a quarter of an hour, time and his body of indeterminate age merging gently into nothing, but the guard had not been witness to the direct cause of the tramp’s death. As it had most likely been due to alcohol consumed in large amounts for many years only the man himself could have been a witness to the slow cause of his own passing. The guard, who was too young then to be a guard, was left with a vague sense of how easy it was to become nothing and of how much energy it required to remain something, anything at all.
This man, this body, was shot. He was not the last man the guard would see shot but he was the first and he did not die quietly or quickly.
This was just a matter of chance of course; of dumb luck and of circumstance. The man was injured in such a way as to be fatal but not rapidly so.
The body was not remarkably dressed, it had no remarkable features, nothing about it was remarkable except its location.
The fact that he had attempted to cross the border in the way he had, suggested desperation but could just as plausibly have suggested determination, audacity, insanity, or a plethora of other motifs reflecting mostly the turn of mind, and possibly the quality of diet, of the observer.
The fact of the matter was that he had never had a chance. The stretch of no-man’s-land between the border posts was wide, flat and open. It was lit with powerful electric lights by night. The border guards on the opposite side must have been taken by surprise for a moment when the man appeared running in that featureless limbo but they had more than enough time to recover and bring him down with one shot.
The shot had not killed the man immediately, this was clear from his loud moans, but it was certainly enough to stop him progressing. For this reason no one on the opposite side seemed willing to take another shot and finish the thing off. In this way his death became a matter of nature taking its course and no one felt completely responsible.
Should anyone from either side have made a move to recover the man their counterparts on the other side would have certainly shot them.
So the man lay there, his cries for help, heard but unheeded, growing weaker over the course of several hours until he became the body.
The guard had only a weak knowledge of the man’s language and for that he was grateful. He decided not to understand any of the words that came from the man, such understanding as his language skills allowed would do no good.
The situation was not even discussed by the guards. They would not do that to each other. They were silent and still initially, but gradually they got back to doing little things like making coffee and then returned to conversation of the usual kind. One of the older men had a bad tooth which became the topic of conversation. Everyone had a story about some tooth problem or other.
They noticed but did not comment when the man became silent. His passing marked by nothing more than the turning of a few heads for just a second.
The man had been shot around dawn and by dusk he was silent and dead.
The guard left the post and went home at six o’clock. It was a short walk to the town. It was an ugly utilitarian town built in squat, square, concrete lumps by immigrants returning from a stronger economic neighbour in the eighties. Land along the border was relatively cheap then and before long there was a settlement of several thousand people added to by the soldiers, border guards and their families that the government had moved in. The soldiers had a barracks outside the town but the guards lived in town with the teachers, butchers and everyone else being technically civilians.
He walked up to his apartment on the third floor. As always his dinner was ready for him. He was a young guard with a young wife and she still took pleasure in having his meal ready when he got home. Tonight he was not hungry. He found it difficult to get through the half plate of food he managed. His wife didn’t mention it and made no comment when he took his coffee out onto their small balcony alone. He looked over the small park and saw the refugees from the Northeast search for food in the municipal bins near its entrance. They lived in a shantytown a mile or so out of town and mostly fought a losing battle with the stray dogs and the rats. Never bet against the rats – it was a local joke and funnier in the local dialect.
That night sleep was slow in coming. He felt drained and was surprised to realise that a certain amount of energy was necessary to achieve sleep. It was the first time he became consciously aware that sleep was neither a lack nor an absence.
On his way to work the next morning the guard turned a corner and walked into the chest cavity of a boar, hung- split from sternum to pudendum, by a hook at the butcher’s door. He cleaned the blood off as best he could. At work he was embarrassed to find a small amount of blood still adhering to his cheek semi-crystalised in the cold air and clearly visible under the harsh light of the mirror in the toilet block.
The ground around the border post, normally a green brown mixture of short grass and mud was hard and stiff and the general process of disintegration, which is the main engine of life, had been slowed right down. It was November and as always in that part of the world it was very cold so the body stayed well preserved for quite some time.
It was the birds who took on the bulk of the work in breaking the body down. There were fewer rats than the guard had thought there would be but they didn’t like the electric lights at night and the low, hard sunlight by day. The crows didn’t care about being observed. They came and ate with an assertive vigour. It clearly required some force to tear flesh from the body with a corvine beak. He saw this as he scanned the border through binoculars, as was his duty, his job. He noticed the strength and vitality clearly evident in the powerful working of the birds’ neck muscles – Scalenes, Sternocleidomastoid, Iliocostalis Cervicis, Capitis Oblique, Levator Scalupa. Beautiful words in a dead language, a language that transcended culture and adhered to the body so perfectly because it was dead.
This second night he could not eat. He took coffee on the balcony and again he saw the refugees from the Northeast at the bins. When he reentered the flat he could hear the mad woman upstairs screaming as she often did and throwing things about in her flat. They spoke the same language, this old woman and the guard but insanity had twisted her speech and it was as incomprehensible now as the words of the dying man who became the body spoken in a foreign tongue.
Though he had never before, he went upstairs with the intention of talking to her.
Facing her door he saw the thousands of scratch marks she had made on its outer surface, like the nervous system of the body, and he found himself incapable of knocking. He could not have even touched the wooden surface. It was as if the networks of tiny lines on the door connected directly to his own nervous system.
His wife attempted to comfort him after what she intuited had been a bad day; clearly also needing reassurance of her power to physically comfort him, but he felt sick. She was too warm when she held him. He felt as if she might broadcast a kind of fever.
He found himself in the toilet spitting up some kind of acid or bile at 2am feeling guilty because his wife slept lightly and would be awakened by the noise.
On the morning of the third day little had changed. The birds had not worked through the night and so it seemed like the body had been waiting for him. The crows clocked on with the young guard and both got to work. He watched their industry. By the end of the day a large amount of the body was still extant. The birds and the guard clocked off about the same time.
That evening the sight of his own door caused him a nameless dread and it required a force of concentration and effort to go in. As his wife greeted him the couple next door began arguing violently and his wife’s words and their shouts mixed together into a kind of violent tinnitus that he could follow only with difficulty, trying to separate the streams. It crossed the guard’s mind that he could kill his neighbour, a dark-complexioned, skinny man with a dog he never exercised and was driving progressively insane. For an instance he really felt that it was only a lack of energy that stopped him.
This night his wife asked why he was not eating but he could not answer and he found himself alone on the balcony again. He could hear her speaking to him from inside the apartment. Her voice was beautiful.
The next morning he was surprised to notice that the body was almost completely destroyed. He looked through the binoculars and saw the violence that had wrought its dramatic transformation on the corpse. Some large animal had been at it overnight- a dog he guessed it must have been. He thought he could see the traces of its paw marks around the body. The crows were arriving again. Soon, he thought the body would be almost gone, it was already barely recognisable as human.
The noises coming from the apartment of the mad woman above were almost identical to the sounds of the crows with whom he shared the body. His wife spoke of moving as she placed his food before him. He looked at the liver, onions, gravy, potato, cabbage and carrots as his wife discussed how they had easily enough saved to move to a better place, a happier place, a more peaceful place.
“You’re right,” he said and the brightness of his own voice took him by surprise.
The couple next door started rowing just at that moment. He took his wife’s hand across the table, looked down at his food, raised his eyes to her again.
“Thank you,” he said and, with his eyes still on her, he began to eat.
Jamie Lynch was born in Dublin and now lives in rural Dorset. He is the author of numerous poems, children’s stories and longer fiction. He also writes the lyrics for the band The Two Man Travelling Medicine Show whose work is in the place where Johnny Cash meets David Cronenberg.