In Defense of the Body
By Michael Shou-Yung Shum
On a very cold day in December, Salvador called a meeting of the Science Club to inform us that he’d discovered a body in an alley several blocks from our junior high, frozen to the pavement behind the dumpsters. This was no ordinary body, he proclaimed, decayed beyond definition. You’re going to want to keep it when you see it. We were skeptical, to say the least. Because he wants to be a forensic pathologist when he grows up, Salvador feels qualified to make these kinds of sweeping statements. But we went and looked it over, and indeed, it was a magnificent body, in the best condition we’d ever seen. All of us—with the exception of Jack—wanted it. However, we decided to defer an official club vote for three days, which seemed a reasonable length of time to allow the police to exercise their lawful claim upon it. Presently, the proposed time passed without incident and it remained very cold, whereupon we voted by a margin of 4-to-1 to move the body to our clubhouse. Personally speaking, I thought Jack should be the last person on earth to have a say in whether the body belonged in our clubhouse or not, but our rules are basic. Every member has the right to a vote, even if he’s two years younger than anyone else and in the remedial classes at our school.
The task of moving the body proved quite challenging, chiseling it out from its icy recess and raising it high enough to tip over into the wheelbarrow. Katrina, who wants to be a life coach when she gets old—she is in fact very bossy but, like Jack, is too small to really help in physical endeavors—encouraged us, held open doors, and generally guided the operation. We cleared out an area against the wall in our clubhouse for the body to lay against and once situated, Carla used a hairdryer to melt the residual façade of ice off it. Carla, in my opinion the most grounded member of our club—she’s not sure what she wants to be yet—had enough foresight to suggest laying out some towels underneath the body, or our clubhouse floor might’ve been ruined by its seepages. Once it was revealed, however, the body was all we could’ve imagined. It had a fine face, eyes and a thin mouth closed as if politely napping, dressed modestly as bodies go, in multiple layers the last of which was a navy suit whose cut Carla identified as being in the prime of fashion twenty-seven years ago. The body was so finely preserved that it still exerted presence, still felt alive. Salvador attributed this to the fact that other than breathing, circulation, and thought, the body was fully functional, and, biologically speaking, could not be considered entirely and wholly dead yet. At this point, Jack demanded that we establish some contingencies for its removal, and we decided we’d keep the body in the clubhouse for as long as this essence, this lifeness, remained, as determined by a 4-to-1 vote or better.
It took two days for it to thaw entirely, and then it became pliant enough to lay upon the outdoor chaise lounge we keep in the clubhouse. The lounge adjoins a sectional sofa that is our main piece of furniture, which surrounds the enormous, American television we like to watch before and after meetings. The body, of course, diverted our attention, demanded it even, so much so that Katrina had to create a schedule such that every day, we would each be assured of having our own hour with the body some time between the last bell at school and bedtime.
Carla, for example, took the liberty of washing and renovating the body along with its suit. The body looked even more glorious once it was freshly groomed and lounging on the chaise. Salvador had second crack at it. He brought his instruments—the tools of ignorance as we called them—and measured the body, weighed it, and performed some various other ghoulish operations upon it in order to determine cause of death (hypothermia). We agreed to allow him this freedom as long as he cleaned and sewed everything up afterward, and that whatever was removed remained the property of the club, to which he assented. As for Jack, he refused to interact with the body at first, as he found its tight-lipped expression stand-offish, but then he changed his mind as he realized that what he was interpreting as aloofness was actually an enormous capacity for it to be whatever he wanted it to be, which in his case was a good listener. Jack began spending his time chatting with it, informing it of his vague plans for the future. Meanwhile, as the club secretary, it was my responsibility to get in there and really feel the body, to sniff it and to taste it and to generally admire it. I recorded in our official logbook that it tasted salty and stringy. For her part, Katrina seemed the one least interested in the body per se, but she said she was extremely pleased with where the Science Club was headed now that we were the only one in the district with such a thing. She said she was happy when we were happy, which I think is an excellent characteristic for the person who assigns herself as your leader to have.
Our code was maximum confidentiality until the body turned against us and forced us to get rid of it. As long as it retained enough of its essence, the body would remain ours and ours alone. For the rest of the week, we spent long hours marveling at its lifelikeness (or lifeness, as Jack insisted on calling it), how it seemed to alter our reality by its very presence. The world felt amplified in a way, more real. Inspired, I drew several diagrams attempting to visually represent how this effect might be produced. These entries in the logbook were quite abstract, as you can imagine, and not for everyone:
About the same time, Salvador extracted the body’s appendix—for practice, he said—and placed the tiny organ in a mason jar on the bookshelf over the television. Carla cut its hair in an attractive, contemporary fashion that looked too much like Salvador’s hair for it to have been a coincidence. Katrina watched over all this and beamed with a kind of organizational pride. Jack kept talking to the body, telling it that his dream was to be lucky enough to never have to return to this neighborhood again, for which we chided him. Katrina warned Jack that self-loathing was the initial step on the road to clinical depression, and I was on her side about that.
At the end of the week, to my surprise, Katrina became the first member to request an official vote to remove the body. I think most of us thought it would’ve been Jack. The body had begun to smell, she said, a fact which none us could fail to recognize. Salvador presented the case that the body was still living, for only biological matter was capable of producing such an odor. Based on our previous discussion about the conditions for removal (i.e., perceived lifelessness), shouldn’t we in fact wait for the body to stop smelling to remove it? He said he was getting plenty of practice as well, as the increasing number of mason jars on the bookshelf could attest. Jack, of course, was on Katrina’s side. He said he felt embarrassed now that the body knew all his secret longings and he’d rather it not be around. Those of us in the middle—Carla and myself—argued that it was premature to move the body. Practical Carla said that she could apply perfumes and flowers to cover the odor and that at the very least, we should table the vote until it became obviously warranted. But Katrina was persistent that we have one. Unsurprisingly, only her and Jack voted to remove the body and it remained.
Carla spent the next afternoon spraying perfumes and scattering scented dead leaves and flowers around the body. It made the entire clubhouse smell wonderfully heavy and musky and reminiscent of her to this day. However, she turned out to be the next member to argue for removal. Our family conditions being what they are, it is not unusual for one of us to have to occasionally spend a night on the couch in the clubhouse. One morning, Carla informed us that the previous evening, she had been asleep on the couch when she was awoken by what she described as “wet noises” coming from the chaise lounge. Severely frightened, she turned on the lights in time to witness a most gruesome sight: a rat sat on the face of the body, and was gnawing upon the eyelids, trying to get at the softness underneath. The vision had greatly shaken Carla, and she said she wasn’t going to have anything more to do with the body, no matter how the rest of us felt, and that she was happy to donate her hour to someone who would (an offer Salvador accepted).
The vote was closer this time, 3-to-2 for removing the body, with only myself and Salvador dissenting. Clearly, its days in our clubhouse were numbered. But personally speaking, I didn’t feel like the time was right for removal quite yet. The body remained for me a positive presence, despite its smell and potential vulnerability. In other words, the body still looked great, perhaps even more distinguished now that it had lost some weight. Salvador, of course, loved the body and said that he’d take it home if we didn’t want it, an idea we dismissed outright. Like the couch, the television, and the chaise lounge, the body was either ours or it wasn’t. We decided that for the time being, we’d cover it with a blanket whenever we weren’t around, and that we would reconvene on the matter in a couple of days.
The following afternoon, I was using my hour to watch some television with the body. I looked over during a commercial break, and its expression had changed. The eyes and the tight lips, which had ever remained closed, now looked as if they were beginning to open. I wondered if after a week of thawing, gravity wasn’t finally exerting its control over the body’s face. As I watched, the gaps started to widen into openings, and the effect was chilling, to say the least. At some point, I attempted to close them, and I succeeded with the eyes, but the jaw felt inordinately heavy, and would not budge. In fact, it continued to widen, so that by the end of my hour alone with it, the expression on the face of the body had grown ghastly—it looked as if it were about to scream. I couldn’t stand looking at it. It was precisely the opposite of the thin-lipped sophistication I’d come to admire. When the others arrived, they were appalled at the drastic change. Carla said its expression was now inexpressibly creepy, and that, along with the issue of the rats and the smell, there should be no question but that we should remove it. Salvador said he could staple the mouth shut so that it was aesthetically pleasing once more, but that seemed wrong. I told him that the body wanted out of our clubhouse space, and that it was trying to tell us so. He remained unconvinced. We voted, by the required margin of 4-to-1, to remove the body to its original location in the alley.
It was much lighter when we lifted it, as it was now ten days after its discovery, and most of its essence was spent. Once Salvador felt its lack of weight, he reconciled himself with its removal, and said that it was most likely entirely dead now. Everyone agreed that it had become an awful, hideous thing, that it smelled awful. It wasn’t any different now than any other hideous thing—no one hated it more than Jack, who in his disgust wanted to deface it and dismember it so that it could never be used or even recognized again. We argued that this would take too much time to do properly, that we wanted it out of the clubhouse as quick as was feasible and back in the alley, and let the rats have it. But his argument was convincing, and I must confess, we’d ignored his ideas for so long that some of us may have been swayed to agree with him out of a spirit of generosity. Salvador and Jack appeared the most enthusiastic about the prospect of hacking up the body, so we left them with it for an afternoon with Salvador’s more severe tools.
After two hours, we returned to check on their progress, and the place was a mess. They’d fairly butchered the body, but the cuts were far from clean, the limbs still attached via splinters of bone, and we had to pitch in—some of us against our better judgment—to completely and utterly sever them. The head itself was in sorry shape, the face removed and the skull smashed open, and when we inquired, Salvador just shook his head and said that that had been all Jack. For his part, Jack seemed numbed by the whole experience, so we left him alone as we discussed the logistics of removing all the parts. As before, Carla, Salvador and I manned the wheelbarrow while Katrina directed traffic and opened the doors. Ultimately, it was during this final hasty process, dragging the dismembered torso from the wheelbarrow back behind the dumpster in the alley, that we heard the sound of sirens and subsequently were blinded by the great flashing lights of the police shining down upon us. We glared at Jack, our supposed lookout, but his traumatized expression made us immediately question our own sense in assigning him that position.
It turned out that the lawful claim police may exercise upon bodies extends far beyond three days, which obviously defies common sense. If the body could’ve spoken, we said, we were sure it would’ve vouched for our usage (except, perhaps, for the ending). However, the rule of law being what it is, the weeks that followed grew relatively complex. School officials were torn. Everyone agreed we had gone too far, but several notable administrators said that we were at least taking the responsibility for our education into our own hands.
As far as the Science Club is concerned, I’m confident that in the future all five of us will recall with great fondness the time the body was in our clubhouse, even Jack. Once he started speaking again, he kept insisting we’d made a mistake in moving the body in the first place. We finally had to tell him that it was already ancient history, and that he’d just have to let it go. Everyone else had. For her part, as the oldest, Carla was required to attend a taxpayer-funded institution upstate for an unspecified span of time. From the brochure, it was represented as a residential preparatory school for talented yet troubled teens displaying acumen in the visual arts. We threw her an enormous party in the clubhouse on the night before she left, and her farewell invocation to never change—never, ever—moved us so that I believe Salvador almost endeavored to kiss her. She promises to write and it goes without saying that we will all miss her quite dearly.
Michael Shou-Yung Shum teaches expressive writing in the Art Therapy program at Mercyhurst University. His stories and essays have appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, Barrelhouse, Midwestern Gothic, and Burrow Press Review, among others, and he has served as the Fiction Editor for Grist: The Journal for Writers for the past two years.
“In Defense of the Body” originally appeared in print in The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review (2013), where it placed 2nd for the Gertrude Stein Award in Fiction judged by Rick Moody.