My Life With Corpses
by Wylene Dunbar
Published by Harcourt
224 pages, 2004
Wylene Dunbar blends a sharply defined reality with a soaring, surreal leap of imagination in this story of an enigmatic narrator we know only as Oz, who was raised on a Kansas farm by a family of corpses.
My Life with Corpses is narrated with an irresistible combination of intellect, irony, and outright sorcery. If Samuel Beckett had been born in Kansas, this is the book he might have written.
Winfield Evan Stark is missing from his grave and in his place is my book. At least that is what an entire community of plainspoken, common sensible Kansas farmers has come to believe, that a man's coffin and the body in it have vanished, interred in their stead a "brand-spanking-new" copy of a book (an account, really) I wrote some years ago. Of course, I came here at once -- to Laurel Cemetery, I mean -- and that is where I am writing this. It is quite clear, you see, that Mr. Stark wishes that much of me, and when a man has rescued you from both corpses and corpsedom, a great deal is owed.
I have some company. My old dog, Annie, lies beside me, and across the cemetery, the diggers are here to work, but I mean the company of those persons watching from outside the field wire fence. They have gathered from a clutch of six or seven since my arrival yesterday to nearly a dozen early this morning, and the number is growing. They watch me at Mr. Stark's empty grave and when I tour the other headstones -- all the while as solemn as if they were here on the usual business. Once, I approached them to exchange greetings, but they spooked and backed away. My power to frighten these good people remains undiminished. There was a little stir earlier, too, when they saw I was holding the book, the very copy found in lieu of the old man's body and given to me last evening by Evan Crews. It was Evan, as well, who called me a week ago to say that his late grandfather had disappeared and to ask, very delicately I must admit, whether I knew where he might have gone.
"I don't know," I lied, and then corrected myself to say, "It is difficult to tell," the more usual case with what is so. While I did not know Mr. Stark's particular whereabouts, you see, neither was it true to say that I knew nothing of them at all. Half-truth is a special skill of mine, my life having required more of it than is usual.
But that was last week. What I write you now is not a fiction or even half-true but, instead, the whole of what I know, if long concealed. I have done with lying and, despite the perils that telling may present, even God's holding a finger to the divine lips would be insufficient to dissuade me from it. Just as before, you may not believe me, but that is no matter. I have appreciated for some time that what is right and true is rarely even given a pat as it trots by while the flimsiest lie is welcomed indoors, where it can take a community by the throat and never let go.
Still, knowing is not without its shortcomings and you might rather remain ignorant. If so, I will understand. Think of it as a war -- it is almost that -- where others will fight the battles for you. For my part, I will tell the truth and fervently hope that it is the wise, not wrong, act. The Holy Bible tells us, after all, that "wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good."
Now, as you may recall, this is what I wrote you then:
My Life with Corpses
You have heard the story of the boy who was raised by wolves. There were consequences: he did not learn to walk upright in the usual way; his vocal abilities were stunted. Or different, at least -- the vocal chords being used to bay and howl at a time other little boys were mimicking consonants. He was not, did not, become a wolf of course. But who can doubt the alternate perspective this child, then man, forever possessed -- was possessed by -- as a result of his upbringing?
My story is much the same. I was not raised by wolves, but I was born into a family of corpses: parents and a sister who, at different times, had left the world of the living. I think my father was the last to die and, in fact, it is only because he was still twitching in the aftermath of death when I came along that I suspected human beings might be capable of living at all. Otherwise, my early brushes with vitality were only through the creatures populating our small farm -- the dogs, the cattle, pigs and horses, and the wild animals -- that continuously drew my father. He brought home raccoon babies, box turtles, a pair of owlets, jackrabbits, cottontails by the score. We would, he and I, thrill to touch them (here, I am speaking metaphorically; the dead, technically, do not thrill); and we would care for them as we confined them and prevented their escape.
Even so, I had some notion early on that all was not as it should be in my family. I specifically do not say, please note, that I felt the wrongness. That is just the point. There was no feeling, or very little. It is well known that dead people do not feel, either tactilely or in their hearts -- by which I mean "emotions." I was not dead so I suppose I could have felt something, but I was like the wolf boy. Who could expect him to stride man, fully on his two legs when all he saw around him were four-legged beasts? He would eventually come to something like that, perhaps, but why should it ever occur to him to do it in the beginning?
But I am straying from my purpose, which is to sit here and to write down, in an orderly fashion, "what it is like" to be raised by corpses. I choose to do this now for selfish reasons. I am often besieged with questions about my upbringing by the curious or even by professional persons interested in making me an object of their research. Leaving my office today and putting my dog Maggie in the car, I was again approached by a total stranger intent on eliciting some previously untold information from me. My hope is that if I set it all down here for everybody to see and digest at leisure, these constant and disturbing probes will mostly cease. If so, my most pressing concern and burden will be made lighter. I need to concentrate now and to concentrate I must be left alone much of the time. If I do not concentrate -- and I am convinced absolutely that this is so -- I will die. | May 2004
Copyright © 2004 Wylene Dunbar
Wylene Dunbar, born to a Kansas cattleman and a painter, received her Ph.D. from Vanderbilt and her law degree from the University of Mississippi. She has taught philosophy and practiced law. She is also the author of the award-winning novel Margaret Cape. A longtime resident of Oxford, Mississippi, she currently lives in Nevada City, California.