‘Lonesome Corpse’ by Barbara Jaques

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A nightingale upon the finger does not an emperor make.

And so, as I sit upon this log, which was once a fine straight trunk and now gives succour to beetles and other precious lives, I may strike this regal identity from my list.

Why am I smiling at you at a difficult time like this, you ask? Because I wish to be reassuring, is my answer.

Following the natural sounding words of trunk, beetles and lives, what I shall say next will have an artificial ring and rightly so, since it is a creation of man. Sellotape. Two clever souls thought to take vinyl and glue and put them together in one, handy roll.

You know this? Of course you do. I should think everyone does. I apologise. Doing what I do, I need to be sure that other people understand the bigger picture; it’s becoming something of a habit.

All words are artificial, you say. All words are human construct, even words mimicking the sound they represent. You offer an oink.

I hiss and buzz, meow and–

You interrupt me with information. You tell me this is known as onomatopoeia. I nod, and then agree with your further observation that ours is indeed an unusual conversation, given the circumstances. I am not smiling now.

The tape will not decompose quickly, though it will eventually perish and be gone, just as this magnificent log will rot away. But unlike the log, when the tape finally disappears, it will be without giving anything useful back to the world which made it. That aside, it is a remarkably convenient invention. Spiritually, Sellotape is up there with the best of them.

Ah. Now it is your turn to smile. Sort of. You did not realise I was serious, but I am. It is a symbol of how two things may be joined. I, for one, am very fond of it.

The presence of Sellotape does not a stationer make, nor salesman, or a teacher, or an expert in handicraft. We have four identities to strike off.

Rest easy. I’ve already told you that you must not worry yourself. Leave all this to me. Now then, who else might I strike from my list? Of course: policeman. I think I would know if this was a fellow officer. I do not edit my list in any permanent sense, you understand. It must remain fluid. First-appearances and final facts are rarely bedfellows, though rarity itself is exquisite. You like that idea? Good.

Please be assured that by reviewing and striking, I am merely seeking possibility; searching for a single likelihood which can offer direction. Think of it, as you sit. Think of this narrowing of all choices into one, beautiful, answer.

You don’t understand? I will describe it differently. I cannot look at this corpse and simply ask myself why. Why should never be singular. It is too general, too broad. Instead I ask myself, why here? Why him? Why do it? Why not? A truly curious mind is incapable of asking anything less. Each why requires an answer that when grouped will offer direction towards a solitary truth.

Naturally, I appreciate the all-encompassing why is attractive to most people. Why wear an outfit when an overcoat will do the same job? I would never wear an overcoat, though in many ways I am most people. Except most people are not involved with mysteries such as this.

Most people only delve into whodunits through television, whilst drinking wine and eagerly awaiting the final episode when the resolution will be revealed. They desire the hand of justice to land upon the shoulder of the one they personally suspect; a direction where, for them, the finger of guilt is already pointed. Hands and fingers provide symbols for us all, one way or another.

Do you always look so puzzled? So worried? I am merely referring to your own hand. Quaking, it reveals how it hit you, how you felt when you first stumbled upon all this. It gets easier, although I accept it is a difficult notion from which to draw comfort.

For me, the perpetrator should be unexpected, but equally should be a character already met by the audience. The skill of the inventor lies not only in the application of facts, but in assembling these details in the first place. Here, where you and I sit, we have no armchairs or wine to aid our deductions. There is just this one, remarkable, sight. But wouldn’t it be nice? Think of it, us here, comfortable and at ease, surrounded by trees, drinking a hearty red with tannins staining our lips.

You are not at ease? Of course not. Again, I feel the need to apologise. I am somewhat more familiar with all of this than you are. Exposure makes people numb.

So, no comfortable chair, only evidence. And the hipflask of whisky you are surprised I am carrying but are happy to sip to settle your nerves. Go ahead. Smother the shock. Knock yourself out. That’s it. Take a good long slug. You deserve it.

Now you’re staring. It’s the Sellotape, you say? It bothers you. How odd that this one detail affects you so. Well, not everyone has the fine-motor skills required for the tidy use of glue, is all I can say.

We must press on.

Our evidence: one naked male body, Caucasian, entirely without hair, aged approximately fifty. There are no tattoos or other distinguishing features, though one might think the curious detail you stare at would count as such. It doesn’t. A distinguishing feature is a scar, a larger than average nose, pierced eyebrow or missing toe. Permanence is key. Of course, anything permanent happening after death is in a category of its own. Do you know what the term is? No. Nor do I.

I am not convinced it is the Sellotape taking your attention. The thing you are really looking at might be described as an unusual feature. Taped to the right index finger, itself cocked at a right-angle with a clean nail finely trimmed, are the tiny feet of a nightingale. Attached to these feet the rest of the bird twitches, wearily.

I see sympathy in your eyes. Or it is empathy? Is this how you feel, as a bird with a beautiful song, trapped and no one to hear you? Strange how such circumstances can make a poet of the most mundane individual.

You say I am not mundane. How can you know? I might be the dreariest person alive. But, thank you.

I strike all manual work from my list. Those trimmed nails, those soft hands, he’s no farmer, this one. No builder, or carpenter, trawler-man or gardener.

Though the bird is alive, I cannot free it since it is vital. You cringe at the dilemma you perceive is there. There is none. The bird may live or soon die, may hold evidence or may not. Either way, it stays. You beg a little, because you are kind. I tell you again that I cannot do it. I cannot change a thing.

You and I, we must now stand up and view this body in greater detail. There is no blood or visible cause of death. Nothing to spoil the image. He lies face up, legs together, genitalia visible and intact, left arm by his side with his hand palm-down. The right arm is straight, elevated at a forty-five-degree angle above the shoulder, index finger as described.

Ah. You notice something and I am impressed. You have spotted strands of hair poking from between those bluish lips. His own hair, you think? The scalp is shaved and not naturally bald. You say this after seeing the faint rise of white stubble. Does hair continue to grow after death?

I do not answer.

The colder weather has kept the smell at bay, for dead flesh does not stay fresh for long. Juices rapidly ooze, and processes begin as bodies return to the earth; an elemental cycle. Never shy from it. This is the eternal wheel of life. The moment man is born and understands that he may wish for more, he begins wishing for this. Call it heaven. Call it nirvana. What else? Paradise? This is simply how it looks to the living.

He was a scientist, perhaps? Or bird watcher? A butcher, a baker? A candlestick maker? Now we smile together, grimly.

I ask you again how it is you happened across this scene. You ask me why it is I am the only one in attendance. Why it is, that after so long, we are the only two here. Don’t worry, I say. It is all in hand.

We are quiet for a moment. You remain standing and I retake my place on the log. I think you should sit, it’s been such a shock.

Would I allow you a moment away from the body? My reply is that you seem nervous and again suggest you sit. With plain reluctance, you join me. You are shivering.

I put my arm around you and question why you seem awkward, when you had been so relieved to see me. You, who did not think to question why. You, who strayed from the path for walkers and joggers, dogs and horses, choosing instead to traipse private land. You, who did not question the reason for finding a man in uniform wandering alone in the middle of a wild wood.

You see what happened? You did not ask even the broadest of questions. Why? You are very far from being a detective, armchair or otherwise. You are much more the actor whose role ends a quarter way through the first episode. I intend no offence. You have been a very fine player indeed.

Do not stand. Stay sitting. Sit close to me on our log. I place my other arm around you because you are afraid. Never be afraid, not of the worst thing imaginable, because the worst can happen only once. The result is to never feel afraid again, which is hardly a terrible outcome.

Ah. You have noticed, I can tell. The movement is felt, and you are sure the pocket nearest you contains something living. From your brief glance across, you see that my other pocket holds a roll of Sellotape. Our play is at an end. I have enjoyed it and thank you.

There is no pleasure in this, only duty. Today, I have no time to shave or wash you. Your hair, so soft and brown, must stay on your head, though I would prefer to contain it all inside the wondrous vessel I know you are. It is very long and will reach, so most of what is outside will return within. I will not spoil your scalp by pulling it out, please do not worry on that count. I am not a monster.

Take heart from the fact you will be nakedly dressed in the finest clothes imaginable. Only the best for you. You look to our unclothed companion. I may strike it from the list, is all I said. Here lies the emperor in his sumptuous clothing.

Your eyes look beautiful; glistening, as pearls from diamonds drop. You are so quiet now, no talk of any sort. The whisky was good. Your body feels strange, I suppose, as if it does not belong to you, almost as strange as the hair now filling your mouth. It will not last for long.

Better things last forever. Be calm and trust me. From a wider world you walked into this. As your body returns to the ground, a melodic freedom upon your finger will point to the heavens and lift your soul. Through a narrowing of choices, you found the eternally beautiful answer.

Emperors and empresses lie side by side; there are no lonely corpses in my wood.

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