Kathryn Davis, “Body-without-Soul”

Two snapshots from “”Body-without-Soul,” by Kathryn Davis

Eager for more? Read the whole story, coming next month in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer of Fairy Tale Review.

t was a suburban street, one block long, the houses made of brick and built to last like the third little pig’s.  Sycamore trees had been planted at regular intervals along the curb and the curbs themselves sparkled; I think the concrete was mixed with mica in it.  I think the street was so new it couldn’t help but draw attention to itself. The families living on the street came from all over, but the children had no trouble forming friendships, the boys’ based on rough-housing and ballgames, the girls’ on a series of strategic moves, tireless linkings and unlinkings, the bonds double, triple, covalent like molecules.  “Heads up!” the boys would yell when a car appeared, interrupting their play; the girls sat on the porch stoops, cigar boxes of trading cards and stickers in their laps, making deals.  School was about to start.  The darkness welled up so gradually the only way anyone could tell night had fallen was the fireflies, prickling like light on water.  The parents were inside, presumably keeping an eye on their children but also drinking highballs.  Fireflies like falling stars, the tree trunks narrow as the girls’ waists.

Occasionally something different occurred.  One girl pasted a diadem of gold star stickers to her forehead and wandered from her stoop to get closer to where one of the boys stood bent slightly forward, his hands on his knees, waiting for another boy to hit the ball.  This waiting boy was Eddie, who lived at the opposite end of the street from Mary, the girl with the diadem; their bond was exquisite, meaning it would never let go, though they were too young, really, to understand the implications.  Once she fell roller-skating and skinned her knee and he stood spell-bound, staring at the place on the sidewalk where he could see her blood.  “I shouldn’t have let it happen,” he told her, even though he’d been at the dentist having a cavity filled at the time.  When he described how much the drill hurt she gave him one of her two best trading cards, Pinkie, who she thought of as herself despite the fact that she, Mary, would never dream of wearing a hat that had to be secured with pink ribbons, not to mention the fact that she needed glasses and had mouse-brown hair and wasn’t especially pretty despite her nice brown eyes.  Giving him Pinkie meant she had to break up the pair with Blue Boy, who she thought looked like him with his dark hair and soft lips and studiously downcast expression.  But then she wasn’t sentimental like he was, either.

Bedtime, the end of summer.  In the brick houses the clocks kept ticking away the time, chipping off pieces of it, some big ones piling thick and heavy under the brass weights of the grandfather clock in Eddie’s parents’ hallway, others so small and fast even the round watchful eyeballs of the cat clock in Mary’s parents’ kitchen couldn’t track their flight.  The crickets were rubbing their hind legs together, unrolling that endless band of sound that when combined with the sound of the sycamore trees tossing their heads in the heat-thickened breeze could break even the least sentimental human heart.

Headlights appeared; the boys scattered.  The car was expensive and silver-gray and belonged to the sorcerer Body-without-Soul, a tall thin bald man with a small gray mustache who lived somewhere on the next block over with a woman everyone knew as Miss Vicks, the elementary school teacher, who also may or may not have been his wife.  One minute Mary was standing there in her plaid shorts and white t-shirt, balanced like a stork on one leg, the headlights turning the lenses of her spectacles to blazing spinning disks of molten gold so she could no longer see the street, the sycamore trees, the brick houses—anything at all, really, let alone Eddie—and the next minute she was gone.

“Has anyone seen Mary?” Eddie asked.

“She disappeared,” Roy Duffy told him, but he was joking.

Everyone knew how Mary was—here one minute gone the next.  Besides, they were all disappearing into their houses—it was only the beginning.  The game was over; the next day school started.  When the crest of one wave of light met the trough of another the result was blackness.


I think it’s harder to return to the place where you lived your life when you were a child than it is to change from a man to an ant and back again.  Eddie couldn’t stop looking at his human arms and legs, wondering what had become of those six graceful appendages he’d come to prefer to his own, each one as translucent as amber and delicately feathered.

The street where he used to play baseball was jammed on both sides with parked cars, making the idea of playing anything there, even if he’d still been able to, impossible, and the sycamore trees, having first grown so immense that huge holes had been cut in their crowns to make room for telephone lines and electric wire, in the end had gotten chopped down completely.  Mary’s parents’ house and the houses to either side of it had been changed into condominiums so you couldn’t tell where one stopped and the next began.  Eddie’s parents’ house looked more or less the same, except that the sloping front lawn his father had worked so hard to maintain was turned to chaff, the grass dead or dying and overrun with dandelions, and instead of the lush ivy plant his mother had kept in the front bow window there was a hideous gold lamp shaped like a naked woman.

Eddie was an old man now.  The hair he still had left was white and his teeth false, the youthful promise of his career all but forgotten, the portraits he had painted so many years ago possible to track down with some effort in private collections, but considered stylistically quaint.  The big yellow cat was dead, also the coroner, the cat’s ashes in a plastic bag in Eddie’s shoe box, the coroner’s in a cemetery Eddie sometimes visited before he moved away from the city.  The Poole estate had been sold to a developer who built a retirement community there, Poole Village, which included the nursing home where Eddie’s father lived the last years of his life.  But Eddie’s father was dead, too.

As he walked along the neat brick pathways of Poole Village, Eddie could barely remember what it was he was supposed to have come back to do.  The day was mild, the air sweet but with a smell of autumn in it, of burning leaves, and in the blue sky he could see a small wavering V of geese making their way south, hear the plaintive far-off sound of their honking.  Mary had always made fun of him, of the way the end of summer made him sad—her eyes would mock him, lovingly.  He remembered how she would sit on the porch stoop with one of the other girls, the two of them apparently in deep negotiation for some card, a dog or a horse or what the girls all referred to as a “scene,” meaning a painting from the Romantic period showing a world where beautiful places like the Poole estate had once existed.  Mary’s head would be bent over the cigar box, her shoulders hunched, but he could tell she was more focused on him than she was on anything.  No one or nothing else in his life had given him that same degree of attention.

Now a young woman orderly approached on the path, pushing an old woman toward him in a wheel chair.  The young woman reminded him a little of his old elementary school teacher, Miss Vicks—she had the same red lips and fingernails, the same birdlike way of tilting her head when she talked, and her name, amazingly enough, was Vicky.  The old woman was just an old woman; she wore the kind of sunglasses with side shields a person needed after cataract surgery, and her silver hair had been put up in a bun.  “Are you going to lunch?” the old woman asked Eddie. “Today is Friday,” she added, clapping together the swollen joints of her hands.  “Swordfish!”

Eddie was about to say no, that while Poole Village certainly seemed nice enough, he wasn’t yet a resident.  But then he was once again filled with a sense of having forgotten something important, something he was supposed to have come back there to accomplish.  He seemed to remember something about a sorcerer, but that was in a fairy tale he’d heard in his childhood.  Something about someone wearing a diadem of star stickers, about a girl wearing a diadem of star stickers on her forehead.

The three of them—Eddie and Vicky and the old woman—were making their slow way along an avenue of shade trees, the leaves casting moving shadows across their faces.  Eddie felt cold; what the stickers signified, it suddenly came to him, was more than the fact that one girl had been set apart from the other girls.  Something had happened to her, something bad.

He followed Vicky and the old woman into the building.  “Whatever you do,” the old woman told Vicky, laughing, “don’t push me down there.”  She was pointing toward the blue hallway that led to the level-three nursing home; when you went down that hallway you never came out again except as a cadaver.

Eventually they arrived at the dining room.  The room was full of old people sitting in groups of four or six around tables covered with white tablecloths.  It was a pleasant room, almost like a restaurant, with artificial floral centerpieces and aproned wait staff, except all the wait staff could perform CPR.  Eddie put the shoebox on the table beside him.  There was a plate in front of him with a piece of fish on it and a pile of peas and a pile of rice but he had no appetite.

“What have you got there?” asked the attractive young man who came to wait on their table.

“You have to speak up,” Vicky said.  “Otherwise he can’t hear you.”

The old woman reached across the table and put her hand on his and held it and he could feel a tremor run through his whole body that either came from him or from her, he couldn’t tell the difference.

He also couldn’t tell where he was but he thought he could see a sky like gray padding with a handful of black specks swirling just beneath it, birds busy looking for things to use to build their nests.  There was the smell of knotweed, a little like the smell of cat urine, and sure enough there was his yellow cat, big and sleek the way he used to be when Eddie first saw him, scratching in the dirt.  Eddie’s hands were shaking so hard he almost couldn’t open the shoebox.

“See if he can manage this,” the attractive young man said to Vicky.  He set a bowl of broth on the table.

“Here, let me help you,” she said, propping up Eddie, who had slid so far down in his chair he couldn’t reach the table.  “I’m going to break an egg into it to give it more body,” she explained.  Then she reached into the shoebox for the curved knife and gave the egg a whack, separating the two halves of the shell and dropping the contents into Eddie’s broth.

The room grew very quiet.  Shadows padded along the walls, poured over Eddie like rain.

The old woman leaned closer.  “Uh oh, “ she said.  “It looks like he’s wet himself.”

She took off her sunglasses to get a better look.

She was wearing a long robe of a heavy lustrous fabric like the satin they stopped making years ago, and it set off her skin—she allowed just the right amount of animal fat in her diet to keep it thick and creamy, hydrated it just enough to keep it translucent.  “I have something to tell you, Mister,” she said to Eddie, looking up over her fork at him, lifting her eyes which weren’t cloudy and dull but alive and dark and lit by the fire of her spirit which, like the sun, couldn’t be confronted directly but had to be filtered through the vitreous humor of her material self.  Eddie remembered those eyes watching him, and as he did he heard the sound of the crickets, a sound he hadn’t heard in a very long time, and with it the voice of his mother calling him in, and his father whistling as he adjusted the sprinkler, its lazy arc, above the freshly mowed lawn, and there was Mary in her plaid shorts and white t-shirt, standing on one leg like a stork.

“You look like you just saw a ghost,” the attractive young man said.  It was the very last thing Eddie heard before his soul flew out of his body.

For more dark enchantment, read Kathryn Davis’s six novels: LabradorThe Girl Who Trod on a Loaf, Hell, The Walking Tour, Versailles, and, most recently, a ghost-filled fable of modern village life, The Thin Place.  She has also introduced NYRB paperbacks by Tove Jansson, Barbara Comyns, and Jean Stafford.

Watch for “The Rain of Beads,” by Kathryn Davis, coming this fall in Little Star #2!


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