"Being Dead"

An excerpt from one of Salon's 10 favorite books of 2000.

By Jim Crace

Published December 18, 2000 5:28PM (EST)

It was Celice, with better eyesight than her husband, who spotted the arrowed way-marker, tacked to a pine trunk, which showed the forward route of their disrupted path. But she and Joseph were nervous and reluctant to cross the open ground. They felt like trespassers. The clearance was intimidating, like some contested border from their youth. A DMZ, scorched clear to keep defectors in or out. A no man's land, to hold the easts and wests, the norths and souths apart. The Germanys and the Koreas. The Vietnams. It looked as if there ought to be guard turrets, land mines, Alsatian dogs and barbed tripwire. There were, in fact, two planes above the trees; one high, circling airliner and, at five hundred metres, a single-engined trainer, snooping directly overhead and looking as if it might release at any time a bomb, a canister of gas, a parachutist. Even if Joseph and Celice were not spotted by the plane, snipers would pick them off if they were mad enough to walk out from the undergrowth. Only animals were safe. Wood crows and pickerlings hopped across the naked soil. Rats ran along the flooded lorry ruts to feed on roots and bulbs. Two hispid buzzards -- lovers of the open motorway -- sat waiting in the pine tops for the carnage that would come. Celice did not regard the clearance as a metaphor, a thick and earthy line between their futures and their pasts. She merely was depressed by what they'd found and would have turned around and gone back home if she had the choice. If her husband hadn't been so keen to reach the coast, she would have died in bed.

Joseph and Celice began their trespasses. The wind and sun had dried and baked the surface of the soil above soft, ankle-deep mud, but that top layer was as thin and friable as pie crust, too thin to support two heavy mammals. They left deep footsteps in the soil, and the soil made its mark, too, on their shoes and on the bottoms of their trousers. 'Now what else?' remarked Celice, meaning that there could be worse ahead. They might spend the afternoon wading through the mud of endless building sites. Their outing -- post-study house -- had not begun well.

But once they'd reached the continuing path and had made their way through the remaining forest pines, salt marshes and lagoons (perfect for the planned golf-course; golf balls float best in brackish water) and had cleaned their shoes by climbing in the loose sand of the first dune ridge, all evidence of Salt Pines disappeared. From the summit of the dunes the wounds and scars were masked by trees. Even the clank of trucks and dumpers were absorbed. The training place had gone elsewhere. Here was their first view of the coast; the wine-deep, sad, narcotic sea.

-- From "Being Dead" by Jim Crace. ) 2000 Jim Crace. Used by permission, all rights reserved.


Jim Crace

Jim Crace is the author of several novels, including "Quarantine," "Arcadia" and "Being Dead."


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