The Corpse, the Ax, and the Ungloved Hand

On The Enduring Pleasures of Sad Stories

Gavin Paul
Human Parts
Published in
15 min readAug 21, 2021

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Photo by Angelo Pantazis (Unsplash.com)

The other morning I woke with a dead man drifting through my mind. I saw his body on a cold shoreline, grey skin tangled in seaweed as grey water lapped at his body, clattering the little grey stones that lay all around him. Ruined acolyte of some drowned god. The sight filled me with complete, utter sadness, sadness as cold and pure as the pealing of an iron bell. I could almost reach out to touch him, but the image slowly ghosted even as I tried to hold it steady in my mind’s eye, evaporating, distending, receding all at once. After the vanishment, what remained in my body was the sadness, a distillate that lingered long after waking.

The dead man’s face had been a blur. Perhaps it was obscured by long, dark hair or perhaps he lay face down. Whatever the case, my mind did not conjure a face for me to gaze upon. Nevertheless, the vision of the corpse brought with it an intense chill of the uncanny. I had seen this body before, though I didn’t know where. The body was not a fragment or splinter of a longer dream that I could place in a sequence or recurring series, but rather a kind of murky bubble free-floating around my brain, quietly bursting and slowly draining its contents, unbidden and unwelcome.

All that morning I hunted inward for an answer. The image of the body was too spectral and indistinct to be a memory of a film or TV show. This was my own creation, something I had imagined before. A story, then. This was from something I had read, long ago, and my waking experience was a kind of half-conscious paraphrase. Bit by bit, details came back to me. A short story. This dead body was from the end of a short story. A father and a son. A father in a small room surrounded by books, imparting profound life lessons to his son. A father lost at sea. A father’s broken body washing up on the shore. His eyes have been eaten by birds or fish. There is seaweed in his hair and beard. He is naked and something has happened to his testicles, something that horrified me when I read it as a younger man. The son who finds his father’s dead body.

The story as a whole would still not cohere in my mind. An avid re-reader, I knew this was not something I had read recently. After firing an assortment of keywords into a search…

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Gavin Paul
Human Parts

English Professor. Author of "Conspiracy of One," a small book of short stories, and “The Coward," a collection of essays. amazon.com/author/gavinpaul