The Body

Caitlin O'Neil

She wants his body.

It’s all she can think about. His baby legs ringed with fat, like a tree made of dough. The scrim of glistening blonde that had no relation to the coming sprawl of black curls. His head, enormous, all out of proportion with his body but perfect too, so round the nurses commented on it. His skin, soft and dappled with sweat and dribbled milk. She would nibble his hands like ears of corn, nipping away soft half-moons of nail rather than risk nicking him with the clippers.

She is not supposed to care. He is no longer in it; this she believes as fervently as ever. Still, she wants it. The urge overtakes her like a rage. It is a physical ache that needs sating. So she has asked for it.

The day after the video aired, the news trucks arrived at the door and they’ve been there ever since, bright logos winking through the treetops like lost birds.

She did the Today Show. (Her mother would die. The Today Show! She’d watched it every morning for fifty years.) But after that she let Tom and Monica take over. The celebrity feels good to them. Tom says talking about Matthew keeps him alive. Monica’s just trying to avoid talking to Nora. She hasn’t said two civil words since the video aired.

As far as Monica’s concerned, it’s Nora’s fault, though they’d all sat in the pew each Sunday, Matthew in his blue blazer and rumpled gray slacks, Monica in a corduroy jumper, Nora sheathed in Laura Ashley. She cared about appearances then, wanted to be thought a good wife and mother, needed a way to telegraph it to the world. But soon church became more than that. Those quiet moments on Sunday were the only ones all her own; no other voices, no to-do list buzzing through her brain. For an hour, forty minutes, really, she lost herself. The words came from memory, her body moved by rote, while she dwelled elsewhere, apart. Alone. She goes every morning now, in her garden shoes and holed jeans.

She is a believer, and so was Matthew. It helped him get through his first imprisonment. He said the rosary using his fingertips, counting out the decades, murmuring the words beneath his breath. He saw the beauty that she saw; the peace and tranquility of belief.

The day before it happened there had been an e-mail asking for money, more money than she and Tom had, more than anyone could raise. Money that bought guns and bombs and turned little boys into sour warriors. Money that Matthew would have refused, but didn’t have to, because it did not exist. This demand still gnaws at her. If somehow, she and Tom had found the cash, would Matthew be here now? Did the men with their capes and swords—ludicrously like the action figures Matthew had played with as a boy—believe that any American, all Americans, had access to untold riches? Did they truly believe she could dip her ATM card and come away with bags full of money? Or was it part of the torture? Pointing to an escape that did not exist?

They found her through the college, where she taught ceramics. Then Pope Francis said mass, hoisting one of her chalices high over St. Peter’s, and the business took off. They are rough, earth colored. Humble. People think she intended them as a commentary on all the gold leaf and brocade, but really it is because of the tremors. Her hands are like pets she inherited against her will; high-strung yapping dogs that snap at anything. She can’t control the clay anymore so the cups come out wobbly and canted. She made a few for the parish, a favor to Father Tom, and has no idea how one made it to Rome. Her world burst its borders yet again.

Now they want her chalices by the hundreds, but she hasn’t been to her studio in weeks. Instead she sits here in the trees, staring at her computer screen, waiting for a reply to the e-mail no one knows she has sent. And then, one morning, it comes.

I have your son’s body.

Her hands wobble as she replies, unthinking: When? Where?

As she sits staring at the first e-mail, the reply comes.

Starbucks. Keene. 4 PM.

She checks her watch. It’s only 11:30. She might claw her eyes out before then. She replies, OK, hits send and only then pauses to wonder how this can possibly be true. It probably isn’t. But she doesn’t care. The message has come from the same e-mail that foretold her son’s death. And he is indeed dead. If that can be true, then anything can.

 

She wears her professor clothes—a long draping sweater, patterned scarf and dangling earrings—and tells Tom she is going to meet with a student. He is happy to see her dressed up and leaving the house, so he asks no more questions. Besides, he has a satellite interview with the BBC in twenty minutes.

The TV trucks power-down their windows when they see the front door open, but when they realize it’s her, the guys just smile and wave. Most of them are actually quite nice, just doing the terrible job we ask of them. More, new, better all the time.

Driving feels weird—fast and floaty, as if she’s learned to fly. Her foot is too heavy on the pedal but she can’t help herself. She wants to be there already. As she passes the lopped cornfields filled with stumped stalks, she thinks of Matthew running the trails by their house, running through the woods with the cross-country team, running as far he could go. His legs hadn’t stayed chubby for long. At first he would hold the dog’s tail and ride him around the house, like a skateboarder hanging onto the back of a truck. When he became steady, he let go and what she remembered most about his childhood was the back of his neck, covered in peach fuzz, craning forward into the world.

 

She’s in the front door before she realizes that she has no way of knowing who she is meeting. Still she knows immediately. He’s in the front window among the elaborately painted pumpkins that sneer and grimace at the sidewalk. He’s alone, nursing a small cup of tea that sends curls of steam into his beard. It’s close cropped, like his hair, nothing unruly or ostentatious enough to attract attention. His clothes too are unremarkable, black and brown, clean but rumpled, same as any of her students.

She sits in the empty chair and waits for him to speak.

“I think you and I are alike,” he says finally. He’s not smiling, but he doesn’t look angry either. She’d thought they all ran on anger. His evenness feels odd, unsettling.

She asks the only thing she wants to know. “Where is he?”

“You know that I cannot tell you that.”

“But you know.”

“Yes.”

“And you can bring him here.”

“Yes.” He clears his throat and sips his tea. “But you can tell no one.”

“My husband?”

“Not even him. This is for you alone.”

“You’re not one of them, are you?”

He smiles without showing his teeth. “Yes and no. I believe in the prophet Mohammed. I don’t believe in their cause. But if we abandon them, we are all lost.”

“You are their priest.”

“Something like that.”

So he was like her. And Matthew. A believer too.

He pushes back from the table and straps a messenger bag across his body. He dips his head as if for a blessing. “I will pray for you.”

There is a napkin under his teacup with an address on it. She stuffs it in her pocket and leaves without ordering the coffee she would have spilled.

At home, the news trucks are gone, the men eating dinner. Monica waits in the wicker rocker on the porch.

“They’re lying to you, you know.”

“Who?”

“You left your laptop open.”

If Matthew’s captivity had brought them together—they were kind to each other, held each other near, Monica even moved home, though Tom blamed that on the affair—his death has exposed their deep division.

“I don’t care if they’re lying. They’re all I’ve got.”

“They’ll take you too and proclaim it God’s will.”

“How many times do I have to tell you it’s not about God!” Nora says, not entirely sure this is true. She falls into the chair beside her. “He’s my son. I want a body.”

“I don’t see the point.”

“I want a grave to visit.”

“Graveyards are so arbitrary. They have nothing to do with him.”

“Except for the fact that he’s dead.”

Monica smirks, surprised by her mother’s ability to joke. “Well, yes, except for that.”

Monica’s smile fades. “Where do you think he is?”

Nora wants to make a joke about white clouds and wings, but she can see her daughter really wants to know.

“It’s probably blasphemy but I don’t think heaven is a different place from here. I think it’s all around us. It’s just a matter of awareness.”

“That’s nice.” Monica holds back the full force of her scorn.

Nora waits, then asks the question her daughter wants in return. “Where do you think he is?”

“Gone.”

This is no surprise; still, it makes Nora unbearably sad.

“Why did he exist at all then? Why do any of us exist?”

“For this moment. Now.”

Nora looks up at the space where the news trucks should be; it feels empty now, without them. “Why are they still here? Aren’t we old news?”

“Slow week.” Nora rises. “Also, I think they admire Matthew. They’re in the same business, aren’t they? Reporting the news. Only Matthew was more bad-ass.”

Nora smiles at the adoration in her daughter’s eyes. They have that in common, if nothing else.

“Please don’t tell your father.”

Monica smirks. Nora hopes that means yes.

 

On Friday night, she drives to the address on the napkin. It is a loading dock on the South Boston waterfront, flanked by anonymous grey and blue corrugated warehouses. There is enough traffic passing by on its way to the Seaport that her presence goes unnoticed. The people who might care have gone home. She sits in her car, waiting for something, she isn’t sure what, listening to Terry Gross interview a man who plays a werewolf on Broadway. It’s nearly Halloween. The air smells of burnt leaves and salt water. At one point, a man emerges from one of the warehouses and begins walking toward her. She opens the car door, but he walks past her to the edge of the harbor and lights a cigarette. She sits for a moment under the dome light, her heart pounding, then slams the door. Was she really expecting to see him again? The man from Starbucks? Matthew? Did anyone ever return after they had been lost? It was foolish, the idea that she could get his body back. But the ache remains. The man on the radio sings of fangs and fur, his alienation from the world, his lonely suffering. It is beautiful.

Everyone wanted to know if she’d seen the video. She said no; she and her husband decided it was best not to. But she has. One night when Tom was sleeping, she snuck down to the kitchen and watched it. Maybe that is where the desire came from, when it was born. Until that moment, her son had been missing; disappeared. But in that violence—the sere desert sand, the dull sword, the shouting madman, Matthew’s sad, scared eyes—he returned to her, not whole but real. All she wanted in that moment was to hold him again. She could not leave him out there all alone.

In some full-circle perversity, it feels correct for her to be sitting here in the dark holding an all-night vigil for her son. Their first days together were nights; long hours of feeding and rocking, of consolation and inconsolability. She hated him in those early days; his small voraciousness, his pathetic neediness. He grabbed at her with pudged fists, bit down with hard, wanting gums. He would not rest unless he was on her or attached to her. He seemed determined to drain her of all life and energy. Months later, she grew to enjoy their late night meetings; she cradled his curled body, inhaled his skin, stroked his bald head, let his flailing hands grab at her nose and ears, as if searching for a souvenir from their journey. Of course she should wind up here in the dark, awaiting his return to her arms.

He is becoming unrecognizable to her. A saint, her boy. She overhears Tom and Monica speaking about him to the newscasters, telling stories of his passion and dedication, his penchant for giving people his sandwiches in middle school, his backpacks filled with notebooks and pencils for faraway children. And the stories are true, yes; but only part of him. He was petty and small too; quick to judge others who couldn’t abandon their lives and join his crusade. Defensive about being freelance, which was his choice, his belief, really, that no one should own journalism, but that others saw as a failure on his part, a lack of legitimacy. He didn’t believe that his work could change the world; he wasn’t so naïve. He knew the forces at work were bigger than the small stories he wanted to tell. But he thought that small acts mattered; that was a lesson she had taught him. Some people lead small lives, without glamour or fame, but with dignity and purpose. The kind of lives the world didn’t care about anymore. Untweetable lives.

Of course, now that he is dead, he is famous. His picture is everywhere; the video has over a million hits, just as his captors hoped it would. He’s gone viral. All of this talk keeps him alive in some way, but not a way that matters to Nora. No one else has known him the way she has.

That his head has been separated from his heart seems correct to her too. That would be the only way to kill him, to take his mind away from his most generous organ. The news trucks were reporting now that he’d converted to Islam while in captivity, which was supposed to be shocking, a betrayal of some sort. Everyone expected Nora to be hurt—Tom couldn’t tell her, so Monica did, a look of triumph on her face—but she is actually proud of him. To her, it means his engagement with God is broader and deeper, more curious than the rest of us; it had to be, because he was suffering. He had reason to search. They had tortured him, in mind and body. Tonight in her car, Nora wonders if this pain, inflicted and endured, is the point, if it’s all an experiment in human suffering, in salvation. These dark boys seem hell-bent on finding each other, traveling across the globe to look into each other’s eyes, to confront the darkest parts of the world.

A squeal of tires breaks the silence. A squat black hatchback peels across the graveled dirt before her, launches a trash bag out the passenger side window, and peels away. Headlights flash briefly across her face, leaving bright dots in their wake. She lets out a high yelp and her whole body begins to shake. Hope fills her, unleashed by the bag’s horrible presence. It ripples in the cold wind, reflecting the security lights above them. Could it possibly be? Every part of her shaking body rejects the idea. And yet: her blood rushes toward the bag. Her fingers tingle.

The rap on the passenger window makes her cry out again.

“Let me in,” the dark body demands.

Nora’s fingers fumble for the lock. Monica slides in beside her.

“Holy shit.” She breathes the words more than says them.

Nora’s body is breaking apart, her eyes unable to send images to her brain. They flick to the passenger seat, then back to the bag on the ground. It is Monica beside her. Not Matthew. Which meant.

“It can’t be,” says Monica.

Nora flutters in silence, watching the bag.

“So are you going to go get it?”

Nora opens her mouth.

“Let me.” Monica places a hand on her mother’s trembling shoulder, then jumps from the car, runs to the bag and looks inside. Her fearless girl, just as brave as her brother. An easy baby. Content, happily grabbing handfuls of air with her fists.

Monica looks back at Nora and shakes her head. Then she reaches into the bag and pulls out a soda can.

A bag of recycling. It would have been one either way, Nora supposes. Matthew’s body, wherever it is now, is busy recycling itself. But still she can’t lose the idea that it holds the residue of her son’s soul; that the echo of his spirit still rings within his bones.

“Just trash,” says Monica, beside her again. She holds up the empty can, as if Nora requires proof. But she never has.

“You followed me?” Nora says, her body finally, growing still, though her hands, hyper puppies, still jump from time to time.

“Mom. These people are terrorists.”

Nora nodded. It was the one emotion that hadn’t occurred to her: fear. In the stillness, the light above them flickers off. A dark silence envelops them.

“The affair wasn’t Doug. It was me. You just assumed, so I let you believe it.”

“He called?”

“He wants to try.”

“That’s good, right?”

“I guess.”

It is Monica’s turn to nod. She brings her feet up to rest on the dashboard, the way she had as a teenager, the way that drove Nora crazy, dusty footprints lodged forever in the pebbled vinyl. Monica nodded toward the trash bag.

“You’ll believe anything, won’t you?”

Nora bristled; it was too soon to smile but it happened anyway. She too was grabbing at what wasn’t there. “You make me sound like a gullible old lady. Wiring money to the Nigerians.”

“You just have so much hope.”

“And you don’t?”

“I’m afraid.”

“Of what?”

“Running out of time.” Monica shook her head, as if Nora would never understand the urgency that seemed so obvious to her.

But what Monica doesn’t know, will never know if Nora can help it, is that she had done it too. With a mathematics professor of all people. She too had felt the urgency of each day. The invisibility of marriage. Forgiven by Tom, for no good reason she could see, it was the affair that began her penance, which led to her belief. She wonders if it will do the same for Monica.

Soon, they will drive home, one behind the other, in a small caravan, a funeral cortege for Nora’s hopes. In the morning, the news trucks will pull away, headed west to cover the riots, and Monica will return to Portland, leaving Nora and Tom alone in the house to orbit each other like distant satellites, unable to broadcast their grief. But for the moment they sit together in the dark and watch the trash bag catch a gust of wind, spill its load of cans onto the gravel, and disappear into the dark water.

Later, the FBI comes to her and asks about the priest. (She still thought of him that way.) He is wanted. A sympathizer. She tells them what she knows. That he was polite and devout. That he offered to help. That he was working to change them. That he had hope. Like her.

Then, after everyone is gone, she goes to church and returns to her studio to throw a chunk of clay on the wheel and watch her hands shake over it. She looks down at the cup forming beneath her fingers, thinks of the wine that fills it, the wafer that preceded it. Ordinary objects transformed by belief. But is she transformed? Was Matthew? She feels an unfamiliar pang: fear. The old loneliness drops in. She thinks of Matthew’s late conversion, wonders if it was not curiosity but cramming for some cosmic final. He felt this pang too; she is sure of it. No one wants to be alone, but in the end that’s all faith is: a wish in the dark. She mashes the ruined clay with her trembling hands and lets the wheel spin empty.

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter