DEAD MEN TELL TALES

There was no blood, he said. He said there was no blood. That it was a pale, milky white and had ghostly green eyes and algae-ridden hair. It was buried in the weeds before him, reaching out to grasp him. It was clinging onto the life of the frozen lake, yet still and forgotten forever in its own rancid death…

At least that’s how it goes and that’s how I pictured it in my head. The corpse that had met his eyes in the water.

It was my favorite story growing up, the best story, because who else’s father had found a dead body?

He had seen it, floating in the murky water and reaching out to him in the thawing Minnesotan swamp. He had begun to tell it at gatherings and in front of my friends upon request.

“Dad, can you tell the dead body story?” I would plead, and galvanize him to everyone’s shock and awe. 

He always included how cold it was on that March day, and how he wasn’t supposed to fall in, he and his buddy were just playing. He always said “buddy” not friend or pal. He never mentioned the other boy’s name. There were ten or so he used to hang with and they did not matter to the tale, so they were left to the wayside. Because it was his story, the other boy did not matter, and he told it to me, making it our story. My father always laughed brightly, in retrospect, always mentioning how absolutely terrified he was, how fool-hardy he was, when he found a bloodless body in a swamp. 

They were messing around, just about twelve years old, log-rolling, log running and my dad had slipped into the icy waters below, frozen and frightened. He sank before he swam. He hit the bottom of the swamp-pond and in the clinging seaweed, he saw it. Freakishly still, pale blue, vampiric and eyes open and slowly molding into the waters surrounding them. Then with a jolt of fear ceasing him and striking his muscles through the heart, he swam up, wriggling like a wounded fish and pulled himself onto the weedy shore. 

I would interrupt at this point, and ask loudly and half laughing, “What did you do then?!” 

He would reply, fully laughing, “Called the police!”

He never told much more but I imagine it from here on thusly: he must’ve pulled himself dripping wet and shaking onto the muddy shore and relayed what he saw in the depths to his buddy and they must’ve run together to the nearest pay phone because they did not have cell phones. He would have been soaking wet and nearly frozen, cold, shaking hands, dialing and digging for quarters in his pockets‒or it might have been nickels or dimes or something because he said a comic book back then only cost 75 cents. They probably didn’t even have coats and the brisk wind goosebumped his wet skin and shivered against his bones. A body, a body, a body, his body…When the call was over, they must’ve wandered back to the scene, waited, still shaking for the relief of flashing red lights and a siren. He would have tentatively sat down for an interview. 

I can see him, smaller and lean, but muscular, a youthful hockey goalie. Blue eyes still gleaming with excitement and fear as he sat before an officer. He would be wrapped in a trauma blanket on the shoreline of the marsh. Washcloth blonde hair still dampened, and maybe freezing as he lowered his face to the officers warning, “Don’t play in the swamp again,”

And I think he would smile up at the officer mischievously. 

I know this because he always smiled at me, out of the corner of his eye when he told the tale. It was one of the few things we shared, stories. In the midst of a slowly shattering family, we had little to connect on, but storytelling was one of them. He would read to me when I couldn’t myself, of far off, unknown lands. In places where when people died or got hurt it made sense, there was a cause, a reason, a fault. I took solace in the stability and predictability of plot and character arcs. In the real world, people aren’t predictable, and death feels reasonless. The man who fell in, no one knows why or how. No cause and effect, no purpose. My father, the keeper and teller of all the original tales, also proved them wrong. There were times when he’d read to me or tell me stories and there were others when he would yell at me like a storm yells at the earth. He struggled with depression yet not how to express it other than with violent words and aggressive action. And as a girl, I was helpless to his rages, but it didn’t mean I didn’t love him. Somewhere along the way, I began to view two characters within him, like within most of us, a kind, loving and funny father or a rage and depression fueled monster. 

“The Dead Body Story” as we call it became an instrument for this viewing, seeing the duality within him. When he told it to me as a girl, I saw him as a boy, a guilty smile on his face, that allowed him to grow into my jovial father. But now I can’t help but think how similar he must be to the dead man. Blueish gray eyes, dying of color, veiny unnatural hands, his hair going slowly white. It could have been him left to die in that pond. He’s a strong man, aging though not yet decaying, but near it. I see a glimpse of rotting time eating at him. He’s closer to death now than he was when he originally found that body. I know it comes for all of us and we often learn it too soon. Death is innately a host of pluralities; a corpse, a father, a monster, a man. A body, just a body, his old body

***

I saw my grandfather’s corpse at eight years old, and I remember him laying there white, and freakishly still. Pristine. It was genuinely horrifying but also fascinating. How could someone dead look so beautiful and so sinister, laying there, untouched? How could he have been dead when I had seen the old man breathing, his blue eyes still gleaming, not that long ago? Here he lay in a sleek oak box, the varnish gleaming in the white over-heads, the scent of chloroform and cleaning spray wafting off of him.

 When I was a girl in my mourning dress, approaching the coffin I had trouble looking up from my itchy white stockings and black ballet flats. But when I finally managed to gaze into the pale, dead face old man who I barely knew, I could not weep. I wanted to run away, but my father held me by my shoulders, staring, shaking‒like he would not allow me to move. I had to bear it all the same as him. 

Later, I found him tucked away in the dark, wooden halls of the church, such a substantial man, bent over weeping, small. I came and sat by him, took his large, scratchy hand. He looked at me and did not say a word. For his sorrow and pain and turmoil could only ever be released when the man that guided him, his father, was finally an empty shell. It was the only time in his mind, when he was allowed to weep. I feel sorry for him, then and now. 

It was the only day I ever saw my father cry.

***

Yet he had first seen death through a stranger, and much like him, the stranger had fallen into the swamp, drowned and been left to rot away. Both of them had been swallowed by the earth and dark waters. The boy I imagined him to be in the tale, is one I never knew. Time had gotten to him, like it does to all of us. Yet he still plays hockey, goalie, at 60, and although he can’t do the middle splits anymore to save the puck, yet he still tries to guard me. I see him now, post-injury, post-pain, post-divorce, and pre-death, with a tired, deteriorating body. His father died of cancer, a disease that kills from the inside out, like parasitic plants and creeping charlie. Like the seaweed that gripped the unlucky stranger and tore him down below. And yet my father freed him with his sight, spying him in the reeds, a ghost of the swamp released. 

Does that give me peace? Does it give Dad, or anyone peace? Death is death and dead is dead, nothing beyond, or so Dad believes. It is all left behind. 

Dad does not, or chooses not to recall the name or persona of the stranger he saved. I wonder if he had nightmares of that white face in the water. I know he had trouble sleeping, but in truth, most of my family was at one point or another insomniac. Did my persistent need for the tale demand a recall of his trauma? It makes me wonder, did I hurt him as much as he hurt me? We are lonely people, he and I. He is full of emotion that is trapped in rooms of his memories that do not breathe. But I am overwhelmed with emotion, pouring it out in literary swamps of bog-water. Opposites or similarities? I don’t know. 

We are diseased, taken into the earth and eaten by decay from the inside out; my father, the stranger, his father and I. A body is a body, a man’s body, a son’s body, a grandfather’s, a father’s, a daughter’s body…But I’m not dead, neither is my father…what awakens us? What saves us from the rotting reeds, not as a fallen hockey player, but…

I try but cannot hold my father up when he still tells me this story. Not anymore. The one I have recited, with edges of horror and glimpses of death. It’s the story I see his and my, and all our deaths in. I’m not so starry eyed for him anymore, but I will admit, this story and many others of his, made me love stories and want to pursue them with a fervor that bars me from insanity. But I’m just a body; hardly a storyteller, just a girl at the funeral, a woman who looks at her father with mournful eyes, for the empty body he will become. I am just an echo of his body, a reincarnation and amalgamation of flesh between him and my mother. Memory and story held in my sinew, and one day, I know Dad and I will be at the bottom of the lake too. Bloodless, pale, rotting corpses. A body, is a body, is a body. My body is a ghost of flesh, a corpse living with the sickly breath of my parent’s cadaverous marriage and rotting preservation for my father. Because we are a dead body, found in a lake by an unsuspecting boy on a spring morning, decades ago.

A.J.M. Aldrian is a graduate of Hamline University with a BFA in Creative Writing. She has publications in both Sharkreef and Ayaskala magazines. She loves many genres including fiction; horror, sci-fi, literary, fantasy, and poetry, and non-fiction, historical, nature and memoir. She collects books and loves spending time with her partner and cat.