I knew that it was him that they were screaming about in the streets and down the length of the halls. A body had been found on the beach where the decking met the sand and eventually gave way to the tepid southern surf. He had been strangled and exposed to the elements his neck had bruised into two small hand-prints the colour of black-currents. There was a book beside him but no one knew what it was. The police were already there and details that were gathered about the strange body on the beach, poised, almost as though it were waiting for the sun, are now fragmented and embellished, a hellish by-product of small town whispers.
My sister told me – about the hand-prints, the berry coloured bruises, the book that had been bleached in the sun – and how they weren’t sure who this mystery man was. I had been sitting in the conservatory reading when she burst through the door with the not-so-secret secret of her short, miserable life. Details tripped off of her young tongue and burst in the air, excited bubbles of misinformed joy. If my sister had seen the body, looked upon its face and likened it to someone she once knew, I was sure that the ecstatic nature of her gossip-mongering would fade into irreconcilable grief. Dead bodies were always exciting, unless you knew the sound of it’s voice.
The sun was rising high over the candy coloured houses of our little coastal town and in the streets, still the people hollered. I eventually shooed my sister away, a poisonous ball of anxious thought beginning to roll around in my stomach, shooting acid up into my mouth. When she was gone I went to the window, setting my book down on the ledge. I opened the single paned doors and stepped out onto the balcony where smoke was blooming low on the horizon. They planned to burn it; the body. And something about that didn’t sit quite right with me. I walked down the steps that led from the conservatory balcony to the pebble dashed streets below. It was warm and bright.
As I walked I wondered if he had known that he would die the day he had met his killer. At one point they had been on the beach together, throwing stones at the shore and talking, maybe even laughing if either of them cared to remember the sound of such joy. They had been reading together, talking about the book that had been found beside him as hours melted into memory and trickled down their throats like bitter lemon. And had he known, the first day that the dead man had been introduced to his killer, that that person would be the one to end his life? Had he dreamed of marriage and children, a white picket fence and dog named Dusty running and up and down the garden whilst his killer smoked on the decking and their children played along side the mottled hound? Had his dreams held water or leaked pus? I reached the beach and found the fire.
My heart was beating stoically in my chest. I had ran most of the way without even noticing, the spaces between my feet defying gravity with each slender stride and for a moment the sky swallowed the horizon. Then the hill dropped and the beach stretched out beneath me like a strip of shaven skin, bare and blistered. In the centred of this, a pestilent boil churned black smoke into the air. They had tied the body to a pyre and it had been burning for some time, the body already black and crumbling. I walked slowly down to the beach, trying to ignore the faces of those who had eyes to see what I was doing there.
I watched as the flames curled around him, licking at his hands and flitting lightly across his face. Could he feel it, somewhere, wherever his conscious mind found rest? A small part me hoped he could. His fingers began to twitch then, his head lolling to one side. I realised what was happening now, and by the sound of a thousand breaths escaping two thousand lungs, I assumed the crowd had caught on too. The dead man burning on the pyre was waking up. And when his eyes opened, they found mine in an instant. And the dead man smiled.
I went to him, stepped up onto the pyre and took his hand in mine. He was speaking but I couldn’t hear him. The flames stole his breath before it had a chance to mould itself into coherent words. But I knew what he was saying as he took me in his arms and pulled me into his bony chest, engulfing me in flames that I couldn’t feel. The crowd was now silent, the breeze and the beach, all without form or texture. Inside the fire I could feel nothing but his body and his presence, my own frantic heart drowned out the whooping beat of flame against flesh. I put my head against his chest and cried as the fire grew higher and masked our bodies. It didn’t hurt, not in the way it was supposed too.
When the flames died down they would find the ashes of two bodies, one living and one dead, by all accounts, but both very much united in their knowledge of each others demise. My sister didn’t need to tell me that morning about the details of the dead body on the beach, because I had been there when it became what it was when it was found and those tiny hand-prints the colour of summer juice trickling down a child’s chin; were mine. Fire to ashes, trust to dust.