Under a low sun, pursued by fish and mounted by crows and veiled in a loud languid swarm of bluebottle flies, the body comes down the river like a deadfall stripped clean.
It proceeds as do all things moving down the Mississippi in the late summer of the year, at a stately pace, as if its blind eyes were busy taking in the blue sky piled dreamily deep with cloud. Thee will be thunder by suppertime and rain to last the whole night long but just now the early day is brilliant and entirely without flaw. How long the body has been floating would be a mystery if any individual had yet taken note of its passage and mused so upon it, but thus far, under that sky of blue and white and upon this gentle muddy bed as warm with a school of sunfish and one or two small mouth bass darting warily as thieves, it has passed only empty fields and stands of willow and thick brushy embankments uninhabited.
A crow screams and flaps off, bearing an eye as brown and deep as the Mississippi herself.
Sunday morning, early, and the river is without traffic.
An alligator gar, eight feet if it’s an inch, rises deathlike from the bottom and fastens its long jaw upon a hipbone, which snaps like rotten wood and comes away. The body entire goes under a time or two, bobbing and turning, the eggs of blowflies scattering into the water like thrown rice. The urgent sunfish eddy. The bluebottles hover, endlessly patient, and when the body has recovered its equilibrium and resumed its downward course they settle once more.
Boys note its passage first, boys from the village taking the long way to Sunday school, and their witness is as much nature’s way as is the flow dissolution of the floating body into the stratified media of air and water. The corpse is not too very far from shore and clearly neither dog nor deer nor anything but man.
“I’ll bet its old Finn,” says one of them, Jo or Tom or Bill or perhaps some other. On this Sunday morning down by the riverbank they are alike as polished stones. “My pap says they’ll fish him from the river one day for sure.”
“Go on,” says another.”
“Yes sir. A worthless old drunk like that.”
“Go on,” says the other again. He picks up a flat stone and tests it in his hand, eyeing the crow, which has returned and sunken its beak into a pocket of flesh. “Shows how much you know. That ain’t even a man.”
“I reckon you think it’s a mule.”
“It’s a woman, no question.”
The lot of them go jostling together and squinting into the sunrise and blinking against the glare on the water as if the only thing superior to the floating corpse of a man would be the floating corpse of a woman, as if seeking in unison for a lesson in anatomy and never mind the cost.
Finally, from one of them or another but in the end from the childish heart in each save the learned one, this confession: “How can you tell?”
“Men float facedown. Anybody knows that.” Skipping the stone across the water to flush the crow, ruining his good trousers with the offhand brush of muddy fingers.
Finn by Jon Clinch