Brother closed his sweat-blurred eyes for a moment and opened them to see another corpse float into view, caught in the bloody light of the setting sun, moving like a supine shadow on the scarlet stream.
Brother knew. Before he saw the blue of the dress gathered loosely around her thin frame. Before he glimpsed the tangled strands of brown hair spread out around her head like a mass of seaweed. Before he saw her pale face, still lovely, slack-jawed and frozen in death.
Brother found himself standing, the pike in his hands, reaching for a final time out into the river. He hooked a fold of her dress and tenderly guided her to the shore. He wrestled her up the bank and gazed into her sightless eyes. Life flickered like a wind-blown candle there in the brown depths and Brother felt a surge of hope rise for a moment in his chest. But it was only the reflection of his face that shone in the dark of her irises, glowing before a dying sun.
Brother gathered the girl gently in his arms and hoisted her to his shoulder. He felt the blisters on his hands burst from the exertion and water began to weep from the wounds. His eyes were dry, but his hands mourned. Then, with his fingers dripping their salty tears upon his precious burden, Brother turned his back on the river with his pike imbedded in the shallows, and carried his sister home.
Written May 24, 1996
When the face was not a face, Brother used the pike to lift a rigid arm from the wake. His eyes would search the dripping, swollen fingers for the telltale glint of gold or gemstones until he was satisfied that the hand was not hers. Then he let that corpse too continue on its grisly way.
The pike was heavy, and as the day progressed, Brother’s arms began to ache with the strain of his work. Still he labored on, stretching out again and again to touch the endless epidermia until the pain lay like a fiery blanket across his rippling back. It was only when his throbbing muscles refused to obey the nerve firings in his brain that Brother reluctantly dropped the pike and sat down on the bank beside it to rest.
His hands felt different, bigger, and Brother looked down to find that new blisters had formed over the old ones of yesterday. Tonight, while he tossed and turned in fitful slumber before black-papered windows, the skin would harden in time to meet the hazy dawn when Brother would take up the pike again.
The faces were seldom complete. The violence of their demise, etched in every bullet hole and shrapnel scar, added to the speed with which they decomposed before the relentless onslaught of bacteria and fish. Sometimes, a meaty skull with dark pits for eyes turned its ghastly leer towards Brother, and his mind, prompted by the tattered skin of the cheeks, remembered the way the canvases hung in shreds from the war-ravaged walls of the city museum.
Brother was the caretaker of the museum. Cowering in the cramped shelter in the basement, he had wept uncontrollably when the first bombs fell upon the precious works he had so lovingly cared for over the years. He had cowered many days since and gradually the tears had ceased to flow down the cracks and creases of his countenance.
Brother sat beside the river, staring intently at the muddy water. It was Spring and along the twisting bank the flowering trees and perennials were in bloom. But Brother had no eyes for the kaleidoscope of color exploding around him. His burning gaze saw only the bodies floating like fleshy boats in the river.
On the crumbling loam beside him lay a long wooden shaft sharpened to a point and fitted with a steel hook at one end. Occasionally, Brother would take the pike into his callused hands and reach out into the current of corpses to poke and probe, turning a body ever so slowly like a pig on a spit. Only when another stranger’s face rolled before him, glaringly white against the brown waves, would Brother remove the pike and allow the cadaver to continue on its soulless journey.