“Corpse,” by John O.

Apr 20th, 2020 | By | Category: Fiction, Prose

The first thing that goes is your sense of time. Your internal clock. Your circadian rhythm. In the long term, disruption of the circadian rhythm can lead to serious health issues such as chronic fatigue, diabetes, obesity, and clinical depression. This is not our concern- I am at peak physical and mental fitness and my blood sugar is stable. I do almost wish I felt fatigued, chronically, even, as I am a nervous wreck, though I suppose those two things are not mutually exclusive.

But I digress. The long term is not our concern. My competitors and I are only set to remain in our caskets for as long as we can stand, and the record is just short of ten days, upon which Julian Capelle, the world-renowned French Corpse, emerged from his casket and croaked, “Eau! Eau!” That means water.

I wish I had not recounted that story- I am thirsty. So, so thirsty.

One of my competitors was French. It is my belief that there is something about the French culture that lends itself to the production of great corpses. A sort of fatalism and propensity for sitting in dark rooms dating back to Descartes. An outsider might think us stoic-seeming Russians would have a similar propensity, but it is not so- we are realists, not stoics, introspective, not unfeeling, and dark rooms are fine and par for the course, but only with a full bottle of vodka. Speaking for myself, that is.

But I digress. I will tend to do that, it is hard to stay focused in the pitch darkness. There is nothing to focus on. Normally, when you are talking to somebody, you are also doing other things, like looking into their eyes, or at the space between their eyes, or over their shoulder, or, if you are on the telephone, pacing, or fiddling with a rubber band, but in either case you are looking at something, doing something. Unless you are blind, but I am not, though I almost wish I were.

Maybe this would be easier if I were. I wonder if any of my competitors are blind. They should ban blind people from this competition. It is an unfair advantage.

Anyway, you cannot do any of those things in here. You must lie still, still enough that the motion detectors do not pick you up. There is some margin for movement, of course, but anything more than, say, the rising and falling of your chest, or the occasional wiggle of a finger, is grounds for disqualification. It makes it hard to talk, by talking I mean thinking, not talking, corpses do not talk, neither do they think but the motion detectors cannot catch you thinking, but you want to keep talking to somebody, otherwise you begin to go mad.

That was one of the first things my father taught me to do, to keep mentally talking. “If you do not,” he said while he and a four-year-old I watched the fifth worldwide Corpse Imitation Competition, “you’ll fall asleep, and who knows what you might do then?” He sank deeper into the couch. “It takes dedication, Andre. Great dedication. Strength. Resilience. To lie utterly still in the pitch blackness, when the hours have turned to days and the days to months. What animal but man could? No other living thing, I tell you, not of its own volition. No, only man. And to do it for days on end? Only the best of the best, the crème de crop of humanity, the pinnacle of mankind, can.” A tear rolled down his cheek. “And I could not,” he had whispered.

That was the beginning of my dedication to this noble endeavor, this ultimate expression of humanity. I went to my room and played dead that day. I fell in love with the feeling of total stillness, gained huge respect for the immense focus the sport demanded, and at the end of my first death, could not wait until I had recovered enough to die again.

But that reminds me. Time. The first thing to go.

As I said before, it is not the long term that concerns us. And perhaps it concerns my competitors not at all- perhaps they are happy lying there in the darkness, not truly knowing whether it has been a minute, hour, or day since their last breath of fresh air, not knowing how likely it is that their rivals have surfaced, figuring that they will come out when they have had enough and not a moment sooner. Particularly the French one.

Myself? I want nothing more than to know what time it is besides, maybe, a glass of water, with ice, drops of condensation running down its side. Yes. That would be nice. I grind my teeth, taking care not to grind too hard lest my false molar crack open and its contents be released.

I would like to know what time it is. The entire world knows what time it is. All the people, the dogs, the lizards, the birds, the bugs. Different parts of the world are, in a sense, at different times, but those times are all relative to one another and, most importantly, everybody knows that it is some time. Everybody but myself and my competitors. We are disconnected from the world. Collectively alone.

The inside of a casket can be a lonely place. Who knew?

The second thing that goes is your sense of reality. Your ability to distinguish between what exists and what does not. Your sanity.

“Andre,” my father’s voice whispers from the darkness, “you must win.”

“For your country, Andre,” President Putin whispers. “For your family’s sake,” he menacingly continues.

“Please.” My sister, Liliya. 

“Meow.” A cat.

And then I see it, an orange tabby with a long furry tail sitting on my chest. How did you get in here, tabby? It paws my chest with its sharp claws. It is painful. Go away, please, tabby. It does. I am glad.

And now I am in the President’s chambers.

“What makes you so sure that they would accept such a result?” I demand.

President Putin shrugs. “Nothing.” He takes a puff of his cigar. “But there is nothing about it in the rules. Besides,” he releases the cigar and a cloud of smoke drifts from his mouth, “it is merely a last resort, a trump card. I am confident that your talent and your father’s training will carry the day without it.”

“Then why the operation?”

He shrugs again. “Just in case. And anyway, it is at no cost to you; it is at the state’s expense.”

“And what makes you think I would resort to that?”

He smiles. “Well, if you are lacking motivation…”

And now I am back at the dentist’s office.

“No anesthesia? I cannot!” Doctor Lukashenko protests. “It would be torture.”

“Let me put it this way, Doctor.” President Putin picks a pair of pliers from an open drawer and tests it, opening and closing its clamps. “If you administer anesthesia to this patient, a certain somebody else will undergo the pain that the patient is alleviated of.”

Doctor Lukashenko gasps. “You don’t mean me?”

“That threat needed no further clarification, Doctor.” President Putin hands Doctor Lukashenko the pliers and walks out of the office, slamming the door behind him.

“Do you think he meant me?” Doctor Lukashenko asks me. I roll my eyes. Doctor Lukashenko looks at the pliers, looks at me, shrugs, then sticks them in my mouth.

And now I am in the competition’s holding room. Everything in it is red velvet.

“Andre,” my father says, gripping my right hand in both of his, “today is the day.” He gestures to the door through which my destiny lies. “That is the door through which your destiny lies. Make the nation proud, Andre. Make me proud.”

“You pose this as a request, Father, but you have given me little choice in the matter.” I fold my arms. “Nor has the state. Why did you not tell me, Father, that the state would threaten to exile our family if I did not win?”

“I did not want you to feel the weight of this burden in the casket. The task is demanding as it is.”

“So you would have me carry it without me knowing?”

“It is the mark of a good father that he protects his children from realities that are too harsh.”

“Then you are a terrible father for damning your child to this fate.”

“I saw your potential!” Father erupts. “I saw you in your bed after we watched the competition, doing absolutely nothing. I watched you lie there, completely still, for the entire day, not even reacting when you pissed yourself. You were a natural, the spitting image of Julian Capelle! What sort of parent would I be if I allowed you to waste that talent, sent you off into the world to become a cosmonaut, or nuclear physicist, or whatever the hell else you might have gotten up to?”

“A good one,” I lie through my teeth. I head toward the door.

“I will see you on the other side, Andre,” my father calls after me.

I consider telling him about the operation, but I do not.

I open the door. Through it, there is a graveyard. I am confused, and turn back towards my father to find that the holding room has vanished. If I were French, I might shrug, have a seat against a tombstone and light a cigarette. But I am Russian. What does a Russian do in this situation? I am uncertain. What will I do in this situation? I do not know.

“It is cold.” One of the graves stirs and Liliya, bony and grey, crawls out. “It is cold here, Andre. It is cold outside of Russia.”

“Russia was fairly cold, Liliya,” I point out.

“It is colder here.” Liliya pouts, crossing her arms. Her left forearm tears from its socket and flies across the graveyard. “See? I have frostbite.”

“You do not have frostbite, Liliya. You are a corpse.”

“Yes, I am. Because you were not.”

And I am back in my casket. My breathing has quickened.

The last thing to go is your composure. Your self-control. Your ability to sit up against a tombstone and smoke a cigarette. Oh, how I envy the French. I can feel it slipping, my breathing now irregular, heart pounding, palms sweating, teeth gently grinding, thighs twitching, every fiber of my being fed up with this casket, this isolation, wanting to rejoin the world, find out what time it is, have a glass of goddamn water! I remind myself that my life, my family, the nation, they wait for me outside, all hoping that I do absolutely nothing for longer than the Frenchwoman, but I cannot. I am not human enough. I am an animal, and the animal cannot become a cadaver of its own volition- it is only a cadaver in death.

So be it. I bite down and my false molar shatters. As the bitter taste of cyanide fills my mouth, I hope that my parents, my sister, the nation, the world, are witnessing my heroics, live.

But what if I have already won?

I quickly spit the cyanide out and push the lid of the casket open. The live audience cheers. Two men rush over to me, one holding a cup of water, another with a steaming towel.

“Did I make it?” I ask, my squinted eyes adjusting to the light. “Am I the victor?”

The man with the towel drapes it over my face and rubs vigorously. The other man hands me the cup of water.

“Well?” I ask again. “Am I the last one?”

“No,” says the man with the towel. “The blind French girl is still in her casket.”


John O. is a 25 year old single man who lives in a small bedroom in Brooklyn, New York. His bedroom is adjacent to a much larger common area which, his suitresses should take notice so as not to judge him on the fact that he is insecure about his room’s lack of legroom, is at least one-third his. He is looking for short or long term dating and spends his time writing humorous short story publications as a way to get himself out there. Potential suitresses and publications interested in his work should contact him via email at yo458@nyu.edu.

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