At three AM it was quiet on the beach. The greedy gulls would come later. Lovers would stroll hand in hand beside the sea. But now the empty sand stretched out like an infinite desert, its surface stippled by a chill drizzle. Curtains of mist turned the scene into an apocalyptic postcard of ancient times, a dark river without beginning or end that flowed between two incompatible worlds.
No lights burned in the apartments that lined the dike. No one standing on a balcony at that moment would have spotted the man bent over beside the breakwater. Only if you stood right beside him would you have heard him grunt with the effort of his digging. He worked quickly, although it would be at least two hours before anyone else arrived at the beach. The local fishermen, on most mornings the earliest of early birds, were at this hour still fast asleep in their
beds, dreaming of perfect storms. The season’s first tourists would wait until the sun was high in the sky before settling into their rented chaise lounges and slathering themselves with coconut oil.
At this hour, the digger might have been the only living soul in all of Ostend, the sole inhabitant of a Sunday painter’s landscape. An observer—had there been one—might have expected to see him sweeping a metal detector across the sand, searching for buried watches, rings, or coins. Instead, his hands gripped a shovel, and, with short, jerky movements, he was digging a hole.
From time to time he paused, resettled the yellow sou’wester hat that matched his oilskin slicker, and rested for three beats as the rain kept time. All around him were traces of yesterday’s fun: collapsed sand castles, half washed away by the tide, a deflated beach ball, an abandoned pair of water wings, a kite’s ragged tail.
It would all be so desolate, so pitiable, were the man not doing his best to give the beach a bit more class.
The rain intensified. The hole was three feet deep now, an almost precise circle three feet in diameter, and only the top half of the digger’s body was visible above its lip. Another three—no, two—shovelfuls, and he would be finished.
Un, deux, et voilà.
He leaned on his shovel, considered what he had done, and saw that it was good. Turning around, he found himself eye to eye with the young woman lying stretched out on the beach beside the hole. Her naked body had been washed almost clean by the rain.
The man bent forward and rested his arms nonchalantly on the edge of the pit, as if awaiting his turn at a drugstore counter. From that position, he could look her in the eye one last time.
“I don’t know where I get the inspiration,” he told her. “But no artist can ever answer that question. Inspiration seeks him out, brings out the best he has to offer the world.”
When he felt recovered from his labor, he hoisted himself out of the hole. The rain drummed against his hat and slicker, danced off the plastic mask that lay near the body.
Between mask and body stood an overflowing plastic bucket. It was a standard sand bucket, decorated with cartoon images of Casper the Friendly Ghost, the sort of toy a child would fill with starfish and shells, crabs and jellyfish.
But this bucket held no such childish treasures. It was full of human organs, and sticking up from the slurry, like the stem of an amaryllis growing from a flowerpot, was the haft of his sica, a reproduction of an ancient Illyrian dagger.
He knelt beside the body and pulled the sica free. Its long curved blade, decorated with incised circles, was razor sharp, and he carefully excised the pièce de résistance: the heart. It was slippery, thanks not only to the blood but the rain, and he almost dropped it.
“My heart is in my work,” he said aloud. “Maybe you think what I do is not art, but it is, truly. Of course, it’s also a craft, a métier, and it can only be practiced by men of honor.”
He tossed the heart into the bucket with the rest of the organs: the liver, the stomach, the kidneys, the lungs. In the dark, it was impossible to distinguish one from the other. The rain had turned it all to bouillabaisse.
The man swiped at the blood on his pants and clapped the wet, bloody sand from his hands. The woman’s body was almost completely flat, like an empty air mattress. The sight stimulated him to hunker down beside her and fill his hands, not with organs this time, but with sand. He scooped up a double handful and let the wet grains trickle through his fingers.
He’d chosen this spot carefully, close to the third breakwater, far from the dike, knowing the tide here would leave behind a hard surface as it withdrew. The sand stuck to itself like potter’s clay.
“Some say that what I do is not a métier. The same fools who say that the matador denies the bull a noble death. But I say both arts are honorable. I give my women a second chance at life. I immortalize them, capturing the most important moment of each sad existence in its most aesthetically elegant form.”
As he spoke, he began to pack the hollowed-out corpse with fistfuls of sand. This part of the job required no finesse and progressed quickly. Removing the organs was always more difficult, more complicated, than refilling the empty container.
“The challenge is to find that one perfect pose. The ideal position. But I say it again: in killing them, I gift them with eternal life. What greater gift could any man offer them? If I die—and I say ‘if,’ not ‘when’—I want the exact same treatment. No wax Madame Tussaud replica for me.”
And once again voilà. He patted down the surface of the packed sand with the blade of his shovel, then glanced at his watch. He was pleased to find himself ahead of schedule. There was still plenty of time.
He sat with his legs in the lotus position and took the old leather cigar case from his pocket. He was about to unpack his tools when he heard voices waft across the sand. He rolled silently into the pit and froze. The voices came no closer. He waited a long minute, then carefully peeked out over the lip of his hole. There was no one there. It must have been a pair of night owls, taking the long way home from some late revel.
The man allowed a few more seconds to pass, then got to his feet. With his hat tented helmet-like over his head, he looked like a WWI soldier contemplating the Ypres battlefield from the shelter of a frontline trench.
He slid the cigar case open and pulled out his spool of fishing line.
In the beginning, the first time, he’d tried to use ordinary sewing
thread, but of course that proved far too thin to get the job done right. For his second victim, he’d switched to fishing line, which was much stronger. It was more difficult to manage, but he’d quickly gotten the hang of it.
He launched the stopwatch on his iPhone. Last time, it had taken him twelve minutes and twenty-four seconds to sew the body closed. This time, he hoped to break that record.
“I think I can do it, Carl,” he said, as if being interviewed by an imaginary sports reporter. “I feel good. My fingers are ready. If the wind’s with me, anything can happen. I don’t really know how fast I can go.”
He tapped Start and set to work. Anyone watching from the dike would have thought he was baiting a hook and preparing for a day of fishing.
He broke the record, finishing up in less than ten minutes, and he could tell right away that this would be—so far, at least—the masterpiece of the collection. His chef d’oeuvre. A piece that belonged in the Mu.ZEE, Ostend’s preeminent art museum.
“Let’s sit you up nice and straight, my girl,” he said.
He moved behind the body, grabbed its head, and hauled it to a half-sitting position, propping it up against the bucket of organs.
“Nice,” he said.
He examined her closely, like an artist positioning a painting in the place of honor on a gallery wall. He’d come up with the idea of mounting a public display nine years ago, during Ostend’s Beaufort 2006 open-air exhibition: all around town, statues had been erected, a bronze knight here, a wooden horse there.
“A revelation!” the critics had enthused. “Art for the man in the street!”
Well, now it was his turn.
And here it stood.
Or sat, actually.
His latest contribution to the city’s art scene.
But of course he wasn’t quite finished, not yet.
Again he reached for his sica, and, with the graceful economy of movement of a samurai, he sliced the four limbs from the body, then the head. What remained was a woman’s torso, planted in the sand, its breasts its sole distinctive feature.
He was carried away by the beauty of it, completely overwhelmed.
He set the head carefully off to one side, posed it so it was gazing up at its own dismembered body.
He nodded approvingly and took from his pocket the greeting card he’d bought in a gift shop on the dike several weeks ago, already preparing for this moment. On it he had carefully printed a legend:
#3 IN A SERIES: A GIFT TO ALL THE TOURISTS HEADING OFF FOR A FUN DAY AT THE BEACH.
He propped the card beside the torso. The finishing touch.
The man stepped back and admired his handiwork. The body was more alive now than it had ever been. If you looked at her, sitting there on the sand, headless and helpless and hopeless, she seemed to be a natural part of the environment, a sculpted piece of flotsam washed up by the tide from the other side of the Channel.
One more little chore, and he would be finished.
He picked up his shovel, planted his feet in the sand, bent his knees slightly, and lined up the putt. He drew the shovel’s blade back a few inches, then tapped the severed head neatly into the cup. Inside his own head, the gallery that ringed the green murmured appreciatively.
“It’s all in the wrists, Carl,” he said, smiling shyly.
Almost as an afterthought, he kicked the arms and legs and the plastic shopping bag that held the girl’s clothing and cheap clutch into the hole and quickly filled it in, leaving the naked body standing proudly on the beach, facing—if you could call it that—the shore.
Then he clambered up onto the breakwater, stripped off his clothing, and dove into the ice-cold vastness of the North Sea, half to cleanse himself of the blood and sand but also half simple ritual. Every artist has his routine.
He spent five minutes in the water, freed at last from the stress, from the pressure to perform. Swimming in the rain was a unique experience. He felt part of two worlds at once: above him the summer shower descending from the heavens, below him the roiling sea that seemed eager to suck him down into hell.
He emerged from his swim, muscles taut, and quickly dressed in clean clothing from his gym bag. He packed his bloody work clothes, his shovel, his plastic mask, and his dagger in the bag and carried it across the hard-packed sand toward the dike, where he’d left his black Hyundai Santa Fe and its trailer, retracing the path he’d taken an hour before, when he’d dragged the body from the trailer down to the breakwater.
Never in his life had he felt so vibrant, so full of energy.
But he knew that he would be dead again in the morning. And that would mean it wasn’t over, there was still work to be done. He would have to go on, to keep reinventing himself, time after time after time.
He slid behind the wheel, rolled down his window, and took one last lingering look back. From this vantage point, his latest triumph was hidden from the eye. All he could see was the sky, the sea, and the sand.
“Death and rebirth,” he murmured softly. “Forever and ever, amen.”
And then he put the car in gear and drove away.