The Fourth Person
I am here to watch my subject rot. That is my job. The subject died ten days ago, when I received the call that the time had come to fulfill the duty for which my family will be paid, for which I have been preparing these last three years. My moment has arrived to be, along with my subject-employer, permanently interred in the estate mausoleum.
On the marble slab, the body appears to have found a well-earned rest. The body’s breathing slows, chest heaving slightly. The look upon the body’s face during the final stretch of life, the countenance of determined focus, now gave way to the serenity of release. For the first day, the face remained this way. On the second, the expression shifted as fibers in the face and neck loosened, and the face, as a collection of muscles holding the memory of the contortions and contractions defining the expressive potentiality of a person now relented to uncanny configurations. The metaphor of rest must now be put to bed . . .
Their body has lost its affinity with the domain of life. In the months approaching death, they ate only dried fruit and small portions of bread. I am here to observe that they were human to the last, as well as witness the slow process of transitioning into matter. My task is to write the final chapter in the most physiologically thorough biography ever written.
My subject is on the marble slab. Its supports are carved with neoclassical flourish. A knowing grin seems to widen across their face each day—a rictus formed by tightening skin around the lips, exposing teeth. This was an undoing phase, where the subject’s personal features wore away. You could see their humanity adrift. First from the color of the flesh, which gave way to a gray pallor, then sagging and a hollowness in the eyes. The hair, quite brittle now, I would take in hand, measuring centimeter by centimeter as it continued to grow. These were necessary annotations that would contribute to my final manuscript.
The penultimate biographer, assuming I am the last, is dead and currently residing in another catacomb nearby. Soon I will die in the course of performing my duties. Perhaps I am dead already. Eventually, someone will retrieve my work and my corpse will be moved to the clerks’ catacombs. Our bodies and—after the sixth stage of decomposition—our bones will become a heap of parts overlapping one another, latticework of remains blurring our individual features.
The constraint imposed on my chapter is the challenge of writing about an inert object. That is how it was presented, anyway. Death is anything but inert. You might think that because we are hermetically sealed inside, our subject would take a long time to decompose, as it is in charnel practices of the ancient Egyptians. This was the intention, the source material, so to speak. But what our subject’s state of decay shows is that we are only the largest of living organisms in this chamber. I have noticed histerids and staphylinids around all nine entrances to the subject’s body.
Between my own work and that of my forebears, mine is almost exclusively a descriptive task. This stings my ego since it has always been my intention to make of this the best chapter in the biography—a grandiose mission on my part, you might think, but I am less concerned with my own legacy than that of the subject’s. My preparation was aided by Payne’s seminal work on decomposition which, however dated in method, remains a useful point of departure. The stages are accordingly:
i) Fresh stage
ii) Bloated stage
iii) Active decay stage
iv) Advanced Decay stage
v) Dry stage
vi) Remains stage.
My subject is currently in passage from the first stage to the second. I know everything about my subject. This is necessary; biography is thought to influence decomposition pattern. A booklet was given to me before I arrived so that I might review the details of their life. Except the name. Except the gender or sex. These were scrubbed from the record. Otherwise, I knew all that was possible to know. The sum of my subject’s worldly enterprise came to a small reference manual forty-five pages long.
The subject was born in France, 1632, convoked in the swamps of Saint Petersburg, 1720, fought in the American Revolutionary War, then spent time in Chile, Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina, whence they returned with to Europe to fight in the Crimean War alongside the Sardinians. Then they lingered a few years in Egypt protesting with the Wafd and were accordingly banished to Malta, where they played a minor role in the irredentist movement. In the 1950s, postwar England became the subject’s preferred habitat, where they spent their most productive social years, finding an affinity with the aristocratic elite in the countryside. Finally, in the early 1970s, the digital revolution took off and our subject failed to integrate their investments with the nascent industry, moving between Australia, Canada, Korea, and Japan. This was well documented, their hundreds of years on this planet. A medical anomaly. Or an elaborate falsehood. It is not my place to question. It is my place to read and to observe. To testify and to elaborate.
Under skin, a crimson hue spreads from the eyelids down the cheek resolving to a lavender turned plumb, lapis lazuli, and eventually a deep coniferous green as all remaining blood fails to oxygenate and sits still under the now oily and plump dermis while hemoglobin beneath breaks apart . . .
This commission began five years earlier when our subject retreated here with medical resources to ease the suffering of decline, then had the staff slide the marble slab in front of the entrance to this mausoleum in anticipation of their demise. The structure was on the far east corner of their sprawling 280-acre estate, enshrouded by rich foliage of mixed deciduous growth. In the side of an escarpment gully, the marble structure had been carefully built during our subject’s previous two years. The stone itself had been imported, as had the labor, to achieve a level of masonry unavailable outside of Mediterranean coastal mining towns.
All previous drafts are here, bearing the traits of their authors. Some are neatly stacked, carefully arranged, others show signs of haste, deadline. There is a stone desk attached to the head of the slab where the subject rests. The only light in the crypt flickers from a gas lantern hanging directly above as an incentive to write and a disincentive to explore the darkened perimeter.
What do the shadows disguise? Bones and vermin. The staff don’t get all the remains. For a multigenerational project, the funding is not robust. As I read the subject’s biography, I came to understand why. As a result, the staff—the internal staff, so to speak—are not the most thorough. Corners are cut. The demarcation of one set of bones from another. For what? This is a catacomb. But that’s that contract. That’s the job.
In spite of the circumstances, I am proud of my forebears. Their work was exceptional. Without access to their cadavers, it is impossible to tell how many there have been. Some have been slain, some mishandled, or underfed. Others succumbed to madness. All of this is finely detailed in the reference shelves, an area where clerks running out of time will include notes about sections in need of revision. Half of these shelves are filled with personal journals of the sort I am currently expanding. Sometimes I think we’ve spent more time writing about ourselves than our subject. Then I see the volumes of biography and remember. It’s all part of the process.
Manuscripts are strewn throughout. In total, I counted four hundred thousand pages—it took me the first two days to enumerate. Many of the clerks were here as a side job while attempting to finish their own projects: novels, plays, biographies of their own design. These palimpsests joined the annals on the shelves with detailed instructions addressed to publishers, agents, and family members.
The earliest drafts of the biography seemed to be penned by the subject in the first person. Perhaps this was meant as source material for the later clerks retained for the project:
Dear J, I have retired to the family mausoleum, which I believe I have greatly improved. Uncle Francis quietly believed I was the most useless of our clan. You were the only one kind enough to tell me; the duplicitous miser had convinced me I was his favorite. In any case, without mother and father, he was the closest I had to a parent and, before his death, he mentioned his intention to improve the family grounds. His financial infirmities prevented him from doing little more than accelerating the degeneration of our legacy. No, I cannot blame him for my share—though I believe that if there is one genetic trait we shared, it was for exuberant waste. The wealth I squandered will have to be reckoned with the accountants of the afterlife. In any case, now at the end, I recall how just before our divorce, you confided in me that Francis was untrustworthy, and made passes at you during our wedding. I regret ignoring your accusation. I thought it would please you to know that his were the first remains I left by the gulch for the coyotes to gnaw on. I do not regret my life, but now that the doctors have recused themselves from my preservation, I will deploy one final use of this vestigial wealth and preserve the family name.
As the illness worsened the subject shifted to the second person, in some moribund state of permanent address, to whom it was not clear:
You did what you could. Hundreds of years and you made some progress. Not enough, some would say. You made it around the world a few times, put your sigil on various epochs. First and foremost, you were a storyteller. This is what you must remember: you are at your best when you are telling the stories of others. This is why now, in your later years, you feel so hollow. You were a vessel, a prism for others. Now you must snuff out the light that only appeared to give you luminosity. But you are so much more, remember. You are your remains more than your heartbeat. You will be dead. Not soon enough. It is that final threshold that must be passed to ensure immortality.
Shortly after writing these transmissions, the subject fell into a coma. Possibly because of a failure to include a DNR clause in their last will and testament, the subject was placed on life support. This lasted ten years. The subsequent writing was done by the hired biographers and with that came the inevitable shift to the third person. Some wrote their own minor accounts of the experience of being alone in the mausoleum.
The old beast lies on the bed. For years. The only signs of life: a flicker of attention, the eyes that seem to follow my pen as I make revisions to previous manuscripts, scratch, collate, and combine. Perhaps the subject follows my edits because they are desperate to know how they are portrayed in letters, but they watch in vain.
There were strict instructions for how to deal with the matter after death. There was a method for writing. This included a limited supply of food. Starvation was part of the method. The best way to write about death would be while facing it yourself.
The first five days have been difficult. The smell is a distraction. There are things to describe, changes both physical and linguistic. For instance, by the third day, you, them, I, he, she, and they no longer seem operant. I am beginning to settle on it and that. The nomenclature with which you refer to the weather, or the ocean, or your mind. My subject’s fingers, once adorned with jeweled rings, became swollen, then those very rings cut into the soft swollen tissue and degloved the hand, leaving the skin above the ring bare and stripped to the bone below. In the night I heard the rings clinking on the marble as they fell from the detumescent phalanx.
As the face, arms, legs, and stomach enlarge with the gaseous accumulations of bubbled blood and fermenting inner fluids, the lips, still for so long, begin to ripple with escaping airs of internal transfiguration. The eyes, closed just hours ago, slowly open with the pressures this new process exerts. For days the body exudes odors and substances, a festival of biochemical alterations. After the ninth day, these subside, and an almost tropical odor replaces them. Skin becomes firm and the body desiccated with a tanned leather appearance . . .
On this sixth day, I have begun to doubt I am alone. Which, in the obvious sense, I know that I am not. Yet there is a sense of presence.
Because there is no light I sleep erratically. Where I sleep is a marble platform not unlike the one reserved for my subject, but smaller by approximately two-and-one-half times. Previous authors have speculated that this slab was for the subject’s schnauzer. There are marginal rumors that the dog may have been eaten by a clerk to lengthen their deadline and therefore gain a competitive advantage over their priors and heirs.
How many staff there are, we do not know. I was greeted at the gates of this estate by no fewer than ten sharply dressed associates. There was an administrative counsel before I was sealed inside, approximately four to handle the legal matters and establish the payment my family will receive. Then there is the question of who is down here, in the mausoleum outside of this particular chamber. Sounds have been documented in the margins, as well as the theories they inspire. Some authors believed that there is one steward of catacombs who retrieves corpses and finished manuscripts. Some believed there is a family who lives here, who tend to the shadows but who, for matters unrelated to the privacy of this arrangement, must also be entombed. Previous clerks have estimated there are fifty staff retained for this project.
Calliphorid, muscid, sepsidae, otitidae, and other larval variations of the common fly appear in great number now. They present a new pattern of life and economy of energy around the body, which now appears to slowly spread and flatten. The most accessible of the flesh goes first and the skull is left bare well before the species of insect approach the torso. After most of the flesh is removed the flies depart. Odor subsides . . .
The writing has become difficult. This is probably the reason for my dallying with these contextual matters. Had I been entirely confident in my enterprise, all that would remain is the manuscript and my corpse. I browse previous chapters looking for inspiration. The early chapters about the subject’s childhood show incredible panache and I have fallen into a despair, or at least a stupor of procrastination. Sometimes I pound my fists against the marble entrance, in pageantry of desperation as if to tempt epiphany.
The fourth-person perspective, if possible at all, is what I am to pursue in this chapter. One that subtracts the person from perspective. Neither omniscient nor even sentient.
The estate lawyer told me that most of my predecessors had between two to three months before “their contracts terminated.” But I have been clever with my rations, drawing them out—this way, I will have longer to write and longer to edit, which will set me far and above the previous authors, some of whom, adopting the histrionics of the artistic kind, tossed the rations out the door as it was being closed! Of course, those are some of the finest chapters.
I sleep on the dog’s slab. Sleep is believed to be counterproductive and reserved for absolute necessity. This morning I woke abruptly when a hunched slender figure was attempting to drag me from the dog’s pedestal. I chased him into the darkness of the perimeter, but it was hopeless. The light from the desk barely extends beyond the slab so, as I felt my way around the room, I knew that my aggressor had the upper hand. I proposed a truce, for the figure to join me in the light since the element of surprise was now lost. In time, he acquiesced. He was wearing a suit that, given its oversized dimensions and the skeletal figure contained by its folds, suggested to me my predecessor.
His eyes were rheumatic, and he showed signs of physical decay. The muscle tissue had wasted away. Some of his fingers were missing, possibly as the result of self-cannibalization. Fascinating, really, that a human could endure the first two stages of decomposition while nominally alive. The man, if it is not more fitting to say the living corpse, began to stutter out an apology. I assured him there was no need. I prepared us both a meal of half of one sardine and several canned peas. After eating, we fell into an overfed malaise. Once again, he apologized and explained that he had only succumbed to desperation as a result of starvation. Now that his few remaining wits were restored, he could explain himself.
He was indeed my antecedent, but the plan was hatched well before his arrival. The idea was a meager one, a method for passing idle time in the darkness of the imagination. But in those same dark recesses, the plan bored deep into his mind as soon as he read it, and finally could not let go until he tried. It had been him who killed the schnauzer. He had reluctantly eaten its flesh only as a means to dispose of rot and avoid suspicions. He discovered the plan in one of our predecessors’ journals. The dog’s bones, adequately but not entirely cleared of flesh, would be left out, excluding the skull, which he put aside and then showed me. It was heavier than one would imagine! The sustenance would enable him to survive beyond his allotted period. When he heard the door being moved to withdraw his remains, he would snuff out the light and place the bones near enough to the slab that it would appear he expired in a desperate attempt to move it. This would obviate suspicion to verify the taxonomy of the remains. He covered himself in the pelt and lay motionless on the animal’s slab. The second part of the plan was convincing the next clerk to participate in the escape. He had come to his point.
First, I congratulated him on his perseverance. How he had gone undetected in my presence was a matter of great stamina and finesse. Slowly I considered the plan, to survive as long as possible on my remaining food, then ration our own flesh and that of our subject, if necessary. Then, when the time came, overpower the mausoleum staff and escape. It was intriguing, and I thought about how my family would react to my reemergence, the time we could spend together. My daughter, Sarah, would be so glad to see her father and hike along the drainage basin behind our trailer, foraging for ramps and mushrooms like we had in her earliest years. My wife, Paula, would surely be happy at first, but over time the financial strain of the extra mouth to feed would restore the same foreboding that had motivated my application in the first place. Then there was the presumable effect my escape would have on my contracted payment. Would I be a fugitive? Over time, relief would succumb to starvation. Besides, I was only partly finished with my chapter. This was my obligation, to innovate the genre of biography, to execute my duty as a clerk and outdo everyone who had come before me. Why the ironclad grip on life when death had its own elegance? A notion passed swiftly through my mind.
A new generation of insects—euxesta, dermestids, and nitidulids—begin to help the body achieve its next form by clearing the remaining fluid and flesh. On the ninth day, the body is no more. What remains is dry skin, hair, cartilage, bone, all without smell. For a short time after the clearing work is complete, the chest and pelvic cavities become habitats for these insects to expend their abundance of nourishment on procreation . . .
I accepted my doggerel predecessor’s offer and suggested he take the slab that night. Then, when I was assured he was resting under the illusion that he was one night closer to freedom, I retrieved the schnauzer skull, raised it high overhead, and brought it down decisively. It did not take much. I wanted to avoid any suffering for my colleague. (I would soon join him and wished to be on good terms.) He was in weakened condition, the bone density already withered over the months he’d lain in wait. He made no noise. His body did not pulse, nor twitch, nor shake, and I am left wondering if he had already expired before I landed the blow.
What kind of escape could two men in our state hope to mount? The man had deluded himself to the point of shame. We were contractually entombed. Death was the only remedy.
After repositioning his body on the slab—I would sleep no more—I read his chapter, which was about the subject’s years in China. It was mediocre and motivated me more than ever. I even helped him, editing out the unnecessary deviations. Ultimately a clerk must trust their instincts above all else.
I will honor him, my new friend, by replacing our subject’s corpse with his when my chapter is complete. It will be our secret and eventually, the discovery and delight of scholars who will be preoccupied for years scavenging our bones, like the euxesta, dermestids, and nitidulids before them, to uncover the original set. A truth worth seeking, not beyond the grave but within it.
As the cartilage withers, the bones collapse and the body loses shape. The contour prolapses, spreading out, reaching for new space, groping for dissipation of its remaining matter and with it, the release of form . . .