A mysterious death, an old man and a taciturn coroner populate the strange landscape of Sese Yane's intriguing tale. Enjoy "The Corpse", which was originally published in our 2014 anthology, Terra Incognita.
The coroner, a pitiful recluse, once found himself burdened with a so-called occurrence at the morgue that he could not retell his wife, but could not keep from her either, it seemed to him. He lay next to his wife that night, listening to his silence and how it was being shattered in a manner that amused him. His silence, it occurred to him, was persisting throughout his speech, and therefore, in a way, he was never robbed of it; that overwhelming will to silence, that is—that fundamental part of his being. Naturally, as long as he avoided talking about this so-called occurrence, he was not saying anything at all, and that’s how we can only assume it seemed to him.
* * * *
One warm Tuesday afternoon, a middle-aged man snaked his way onto the bus, where he sat by the window and waited. His window was slightly open and he thought he might close it later when the bus got into motion and the wind became too much for his face.
The middle-aged man, it’s important to say, had sideburns that sloped sharply along his cheekbones to join his moustache. Naturally, this gave him a wolfish appearance.
A young man occupied the seat next to him, but the middle-aged man, a very private man, despite being the proud owner of very public sideburns, did not notice this young man. He only concerned himself with the general happenings inside and outside the bus, without focusing on anything in particular. Therefore it’s true to say that he indeed noticed the general fact that a young man had taken up the seat next to him but beyond that general activity of this sitting down by a young man, he noticed nothing about the particulars of the person doing the sitting. This was because, naturally, he was not interested, for sitting down has always been a mundane activity to some people. This folding up of one’s body, halving of oneself, so to say, has, for some curious reason, never interested many people in the world.
When the bus left the station, the middle-aged man kept himself occupied with the illusory movement of buildings and trees along the way. This illusory movement had always fascinated him since childhood. He’d kept his eyes so focused on things rushing by that by the time he got to the country, his head was pounding with a headache. But now, as a grownup, he knew how to regulate his observation. He did not, so he thought of his art, have to pour himself out of his eyes, because, so he said to himself, his eyes were narrow, far too small for the act of seeing, and to see, he thought, one had to be artful.
He would focus on something definite that was far away and watch how it slowly changed position almost anonymously, until it slid out of the window of perception again, almost anonymously. And so in this art of his, he followed a house perched like an old bird at the top of a distant hill, its red tiles fascinating him, its hedge of evenly spaced trees that had arrow-tipped crowns... He followed a purple-crowned tree by the ravine, and for the next few kilometres found himself counting every purple-crowned tree that appeared, without keeping up with the number—counting by beginning over and over, but counting every purple-crowned tree nonetheless.
On this day, he was greatly pleased, because he didn’t have to close his window. Its angle of opening and his angle of sitting allowed just enough wind without irritating his ears or his face, and just enough wind to allow him to keep his coat on, for, out of lethargy, he didn’t want to remove his heavy coat. Besides, it would have meant extra luggage for his hands, which were already busy drumming the briefcase on his lap.
The road that cut through the township was damaged from a poor drainage system that floods the asphalt surface, and here the bus had to slow down. At this point, there were more passengers alighting than those who were boarding. The middle-aged man had about three kilometres to go, he thought. As the bus slowed down once again to negotiate a puddle that might or might not have been concealing a pothole, the middle-aged man saw the rotting remains of a dog on the shoulder of the road. The smell of death hit his nose from the open window before he immediately decided to hold his breath. It was quicker than closing the window.
But as the bus tore its way farther and farther away from the black dead dog, the middle-aged man could still see behind his eyelids the sardonic smile of the black dead dog, that disturbing smile we see on naked skulls and rotting carcasses. The middle-aged man continued holding his breath out of disgust. Minutes rushed past his open window and they dragged with them trees and houses and people, and still the middle-aged man held his breath, amazed that he could do this. His eyes actually lit up as eyes do when they’re threatening to smile...way past a minute, past two minutes, past three minutes, passengers alighting, someone excusing themselves for stepping on another’s shoes, a hearty laugh somewhere at the front, perhaps the driver’s, or the conductor’s, still holding his breath out of fascination of his ability to do so.
But past ten minutes, and fifteen, he was no longer amazed but afraid that he could do such a thing. He decided, against this childish merriment, to get his lungs back to their use. Something was terribly amiss. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t suck in air from the outside world. His lungs impenetrable, his nose a pair of blocked tunnels, he seemed not to remember how to breathe in.
He dropped his briefcase to the floor.
Why won’t they fix this road anyway, he thought.
The young man who had sat next to the middle-aged man had already alighted from the bus, the man now noticed.
God! I have overshot my destination...
* * *
When the bus conductor found the middle-aged man, sprawled out, half on the seat and half on the floor, it was the hideous sideburns that struck him first. He prodded the body with the tip of his boot, and once he was sure, took the seat directly on the other side of the aisle and stared at the corpse for a while before calling out to the driver.
Death by asphyxia, the coroner wrote in his report then quickly moved the body to a small moveable freezer, covered it with rags and a broken squeegee, and pushed the small freezer into the store. For a moment, he could not decide what corridor to follow, and made his way for the toilet, but changed his mind halfway. He returned to the store and reset the squeegee, nervously patted the rag then hurriedly walked all the way past the lockers until he came to the fire exit. He ran down the stairs all the way to a dead end in what looked like it used to be a vestibule but was littered with all manner of equipment.
The effect it had on him was sudden. Entrapment. He forgot he had come down on a stairwell. Lost in this sea of broken chairs, broken lamps, broken trolleys, and bed-stretchers, old buckets, old stained books, and strewn papers, as three fluorescent tubes widely spaced above him illuminated this dusty sea of broken things. Under a sustained hum, he remembered, almost with what can be said to be an exaggerated childlike triumph, where he had run up the stairwell again, until he came to the correct corridor and made for the glass doors, heaving past the human-traffic, trolleys, stretchers, breathing hard but breathless nonetheless.
“No one saw me,” he said to himself, almost too loudly. What a moustache! But of course no one will suspect me, the coroner thought at the gardens. He didn’t notice the bench until he had sat on it. It is not unusual for the morgue to lose a body. They lose bodies all the time, all the time, certainly, and people pick up wrong bodies all the time. In any case, I won’t be here. I should call in sick tomorrow just in case. A headache, yes a headache, I have a headache, after all. It won’t be lying...
He fumbled a cigarette from his breast pocket and stared at it thoughtfully. What he felt was fear, not that he was afraid of being found out. After all, he wouldn’t be caned if he were to be found out. He was too old for the cane, it now occurred to him; he was afraid entirely for something else—the unnameable fear of being a source, or perhaps being at the source, of some vague disorder in the world.
The coroner lay next to his wife that night and thought of the moustachioed corpse, now lying in an old, unused water tank in his garden shed.
After several attempts at words, just as someone might wait impatiently for the mocking swash of a wave to lick their foot, he spoke, “This corpse, Honey, beautiful moustache, you see. That’s the first thing that tells you that he’s different, but that’s a disguise too... I’m standing there, I’m thinking... I have done this over a hundred times, right, but for some reason, and I don’t know how. I must say, one usually gets the feeling that something is about to happen before it happens... I may say I don’t believe what I finally see, but at the same time it’s as if I’m opening him up with the specific intention of seeing what I’m now seeing,” said the coroner and went quiet for a while, for it now occurred to him that he could not retell his story with the accuracy of how it had unfolded itself to him; the suspense and alarm of it all was now, to his frustration, being lost in his narration.
“Anyway, I write asphyxia in my report,” said the coroner, “because it’s asphyxia too... But I believe, strongly believe, the reverse is what happened. Not the reverse as we might know it but the reverse as we might speculate a new kind of reverse no one has ever experienced before. Well until this man.
“The man had no lungs,” said the coroner.
“Born without lungs, can you believe it? Ah, but that’s a ridiculous story. It’s unscientific.” The coroner laughed a silent laughter of embarrassment.
The coroner had not intended to disclose the incident of the strange corpse to anyone, or at least not yet. As he lay next to his wife, he thought how curious it was that his intern, this day of all days, had not shown up to work. She had offered the most ridiculous of excuses for her absence. “It’s as if the universe knew,” said the coroner to himself. I should not have known what to do in such event...
“Well, I guess, in a way, someone can,” said the coroner to his wife, absentmindedly, pulling the bed sheet to his side. There’s always an excuse, wouldn’t you say, one way or the other. I think people are naturally lazy. A word here to replace an activity there; you don’t have to show up if you can explain your absence. The grand miracle of words, so to speak, but don’t get me wrong. There’s a good reason for laziness, certainly. There’s always a good reason for everything, otherwise there would be nothing.”
The coroner was trying to avoid thinking about the corpse; trying to conceal his enthusiasm from himself. He was half tempted to jump out of bed and run to the garden shed to be with his corpse, but was held back by the even greater beauty of procrastinating and having something interesting to look forward to in the morning.
But he also wanted to talk about the corpse.
He sighed against his wife’s neck, ecstatic with this beautiful dilemma, and searched for her hand under the sheets until he found the small hand and clasped it tightly over her warm thigh. He closed his eyes and smiled to himself, snuggled closer to her so that he felt his skin being warmed up by her nightshirt as his body pressed hard against her behind. The coroner again sighed that sigh of defeat, and watched the back of his wife’s head. She had been quiet all the while and was looking away from him.
The coroner had never talked so much to his wife, he now thought. If he had to keep talking, he would have to explain his years of silence too—a silence that had always seemed to him to be executed by malicious will. Unless he was giving his report, and in a mathematical language, the coroner found it unbearable to talk to people. At home, he usually stayed in the library, dissolving himself in the dark timber shelving, and in the panelling, or turning the pages of one of his numerous books...or looking outside the window, at the twittering long-tailed birds jumping from tree to tree in the garden, now at the changing blue of the sky, now at the different shades of green on the foliage—basically hiding from his wife but trying not to think of it as such...
When his daughter stood at the door, watching him, (if he called her she would hide behind the door but if he decided not to notice her she would keep coming piecemeal until she reached his leg) he would sit her down by his side and passionately instruct her from one of his books, or from a train ticket for a journey he once took to Tbilisi from Batumi, or from a receipt for a latte in Turin, from anything, really. All this was to avoid or to atone for this avoidance, or even to punish himself for this avoidance, of talking to his wife, who might be in the kitchen or somewhere in the house.
You see, even after eight years of marriage, he still dreaded running into her in the corridors of their house. He got into bed with the airs of one too tired for a conversation; his consciousness of the exaggeration of conversation crippled his relationship with everyone. But this particular night, certainly because of the strange corpse, he had already said too much, and now he kept talking because he thought stopping abruptly would interfere with the equilibrium of a room he had already filled with his sound. In his estimation, he should perhaps keep talking until his words died naturally and proportionately to the falling volume of his sound.
“This intern,” said the coroner, “Apparently I’m too old-school. I know and yet...makes you think, though, so much has happened around you. Where were you, all this time... Christ! There’s nothing left for me to do. I’ve done everything. I’ve got everything. I don’t want anything. What am I going to do now? That’s exactly what I was thinking, standing there...before her frog-like eyes, big, beautiful,” said the coroner to annoy his wife.
“I’ve never been so scared in my life, I’ll tell you that. Have you ever lost something that never existed? That’s the greatest loss...and yet how careless of us? I mean the garret. I was thinking about the garret. It’s been years...all these years, so many years...
“Why was I still holding onto all these inaccurate tales? I’m thinking, it all comes back to me, flood-like, but I can’t discern a thing. Mr Monkey, that’s all I have on my mind, this vague memory, a silly sock monkey. I didn’t lose Mr Monkey. I threw him in the garret, and I lied because I love Father. Father thought I was afraid of him. I could see through him clear like glass. I am the one who made him,” said the coroner...
“Bring a cane! he would pretend to shout to me after being given the report of one thing or the other I had done during the day, a good cane! But I was never afraid of him. I pitied him instead. Brought him the best cane. I was very confident that he wouldn’t, but I wanted him to cane me too, badly...but, by my foolishness, I had already manipulated him by bringing him the best cane. Naturally he couldn’t cane me. The cane was too perfect,” said the coroner, “simply too perfect... Had I brought him a bad cane, a poor cane, so to say, there’s no doubt he should have gotten angry and used it. But the perfect cane incapacitated him, always...
“I used to wait for him at the gate every day as he came home from work. I don’t know, perhaps a little afraid that he wouldn’t come. And when I saw his figure in front of the sunset, like an apparition, as if he were walking from inside the sunset itself, I ran to my room and hid. In my childish soul I thought he was overburdened by his own presence. In a way, that’s why I believed I had lost Mr Monkey, for Father’s sake. I could never lie to him. I had to believe that I had lost the toy and not thrown it away, naturally for Father’s sake. I never attempted to fool Mother, though, never pitied her that way. We were equals in pitying Father, I thought,” said the coroner, “but I’ve always pitied her in her own way, and I’ve always pitied everyone else in their own way too...
“But it was those frog-like eyes of hers that reminded me of the long-forgotten, inaccurate tale I had made up for myself to protect Father from a lie. She’s young,” said the coroner, hoping this would enrage his wife, excited by the thought of the corpse in his garden shed. “Timid, like a sweet little kitten, domineering when talking to those corpses. In fact, she’s more eloquent when talking to them than when she’s talking to the living. She’s got a natural stammer, but very comprehensible when talking to a corpse, can you believe that? When I ask her a question, for instance, because she’s somehow comfortable in my presence, because apparently I’m too ‘old-school’, as she puts it, she answers me by way of telling the corpse and so I have to listen to what she’s telling the corpse because that’s meant for me.
“But she can’t do this when talking to the other staffers. For some reason, she chooses the option of stammering. I guess you can say I’m special in that regard,” said the coroner hoping to irritate his wife... “And so, for a laugh, because, naturally, that’s what she wants, you see, I will sometimes talk to her through all these things in the morgue. For instance I’ll ask the fluorescent tube to tell her to hand me a scalpel, the window to tell her that I need some cotton wool, etc, etc, and how she laughs when I do that.”
The coroner was overwhelmed with excitement just thinking of the strange corpse in his garden shed.
Oh, how right I was to be brave enough to move the corpse from the hospital’s storeroom this evening instead of waiting to come up with a better plan, thought the coroner.
There was no better plan, and it now indeed surprised him that he had gone along with what now looked like the worst plan. He could obviously not have gone through with such a poor plan the following day, he thought as he started talking about the lung-less man to his wife, again—talking of the lung-less man as if he were not real but a story he was inventing for the sole purposes of annoying her. Indeed, he talked about the corpse with the intention of annoying his wife; he described the corpse in flowery language, because poetry can never be believed, and is proof of madness. Similarly, according to him, verbosity was proof of deceit, for he had already talked too much. To justify this unnatural occurrence, the coroner was trying to convince his wife, but also more himself, that he had lost his mind.
He squeezed his wife’s small hand again, put his lips to her neck and, with that little touch, his mind dissolved into vertigo. He thought he heard the distant howling of dogs, the whistling of trees. Oh how beautiful life is, especially whenever his wife wore a pinafore dress, how beads of rain trickled down the windowpane, how nothing seemed to exist when you pulled away from the eyepiece of the microscope... How small and ridiculous and yet amazing everything seemed to be, especially because it was small and ridiculous. His eyes misted. To disclose by concealing, or to conceal by disclosing. This sharing with his wife was a truth he could not tell anyone else, not even her, and it gave him a thrill this making of himself unbelievable...and he, for his own amusement, and also to his utter disbelief, which was also part of his own amusement, was at this time convinced that he was making up the story about the corpse.
At that very moment, after his unprecedented monologue, loneliness finally crept in to claim what had always belonged to it, just what the coroner, unbeknown to him, had been desperately waiting for. He turned onto his side and slept.
Jason’s note: “Sese Yane provided me with an adequate bio. The standard run-of-the-mill “I am from, I’ve done this, here I am” sort of bio I know must have pained him to write. I’ve chosen to forget that bio existed, and instead, in the spirit of this interview, I’ve chosen to go with his explanation behind the bio – which I feel is far more entertaining and far more befitting his character. I don’t think he’d mind, too much. Enjoy.”
“… I had to avoid saying "Sese Yane is a writer etc etc" and had to settle for things like "He is from Kenya" simply to avoid saying "I am a writer", and so to say "his other works have appeared", which is pretty much an admission that "He is a writer" even though he disagrees with this... it's all confusing really. So, forgive me…”