A Novel

Chapter 1: Body

Wednesday, March 23, 1988 » Badly decomposed body discovered in a shallow, backwater wetland » Off the Illinois River » Just south of Hennepin » Inside a nature preserve. The body: completely naked, all tangled up in cattail, bulrush, and blue-stem.

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"Twenty-one fifty reporting a probable eight-oh-four, requesting backup"—Illinois State Police.

Hyoid bone broken: direction of fracture = victim had been throttled from behind.

Contusions around the neck, wrists, ankles, and waist, along with rope fibers embedded into the flesh at all six locations = the victim had been trussed with twine. The twine, police speculated, had then been tied to a heavy object that could anchor the body onto the river bed. The body had been under water for at least one month.

Who the hell knew how it ended up in this backwater.

The abdomen: partially eviscerated. Vine-and-leaf-covered flesh hung off visible white bones, like botanical-patterned bark cloth drapes drooping from broken curtain rods in an abandoned ranch house. Both eyeballs missing: just two large holes in the head where eyes should have been. Scavenging animals had fed upon the body, causing severe disfigurement, and making positive identification difficult. The identifiable features matched nobody on the missing persons registries.

The body was discovered by a conservation officer. For him, the body had become a part of the ecosystem: invisible, but native, organisms fed upon it. Was its inevitable removal to be regarded as conservation—the clearing away of an invasive element—or as a disruption of the finely-tuned ecosystem that had already claimed the body, and begun to use it? How managed should a nature preserve be?

He watched the police work. They had their procedures, their methods, just as he had his. They would try to hook an identity onto this residue of organic matter. A most unscientific method, he thought. Nothing empirically real connected the body with a human identity. And even if such a connection existed, it would be tenuous, as tenuous as the connection between a newborn baby and its identity. That identity, in turn, hinged upon the baby's connection to its mother. Did it not therefore follow that the identity of this corpse hinged upon the corpse's connection to its killer, which was to say its creator?

That corpse, when it lived, had been like a baby waiting to be born. And neither baby nor murder victim actually expects to be born; only the mother knows enough to anticipate the event, the mother and the murderer. Who can say whether birth is more painful for the baby or for the mother, whether murder is more painful for the murdered or for the murderer? The murderer creates something just as surely as the mother does, brings something into the world, a corpse and a baby, the murderer both creates and destroys; the mother does too, an undeniable if unpleasant fact. And neither a miscarriage nor an abortion can undo the gestation period, which must leave its mark upon the intended victim, even if he never knows it.

Weeks later, the conservation officer read in the newspaper: an anonymous tip to the La Salle County Sheriff's Department led to an "identification": XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX, male, age XX,XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX. Last address: an apartment at 2304 South Clay Street, Ottawa, Illinois. Victim had moved there XXXXXXX, after leaving his hometown XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX. Though he continued to be seen in the Ottawa area, police could find nobody who admitted knowing him well. He was last seen XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX 1987, but had never been reported missing.

The conservation officer thought back, to the day he found the body:

First responding police officer had pointed to the eye-sockets, and grunted, "Motherfuck. Looks like crawdaddies been at him."

The conservation officer corrected him: "Rusty crayfish probably. They've become a problem up here, the last five years. Hungry little things. They'll eat just about anything."

"That body must've been in the river a good god-damned while."

The body looked young, but you can't really tell when they've been in the water that long.

The victim, while living, probably thought he had a big future. The moments before he died, with his entire life at his back, he was almost certainly still looking forward to something that would never happen. Something = tomorrow.

The conservation officer thought, everything seems to flow on into the future, and just sort of disappear there.

The conservation officer remembered when he was young, and always waiting for the future to arrive. He had thought of the future as opportunity, when all along it was nothing but possibility at best. Really, just a great, big vessel-of-an-idea that he could fill with his inexhuastible fund of hope. Compared to the future, the past and present seemed like nothing. But it was the future that was nothing, just ideas and hopes and fears. At some point he woke up and realized that almost everything was already in the past. Just about everything in his present could probably be explained by his past. And when he finally realized this, it had nothing to do with aging or maturity. Nor was it a statistical probability, that when he reached a certain age the future began to diminish beside the swelling past. Even at the age of twenty, most everything was already in his past; he just didn't know it then, didn't understand, for example, that the water into which the City of Chicago dumped its sewage would be the same water that flowed along the shores of this nature preserve; or that even beneficial soil nutrients washing off farmlands here in Illinois could devastate entire ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico, creating dead zone the size of New Jersey; that the future was not opportunity, wasn't even possibility, really, but mostly consequences and reckonings.

March 23, 1988, however, was in the future. Even the victim's body lying anchored to the river bed, a temporary grave, water washing gently over him, and crawdaddies eating their way through his face, now just a sightless, waterlogged-and-bloated head with short blonde hair attached—that too was in the future, though not very far into it.