Elena Megalos

Four little brothers found a dead woman on the beach. They'd wandered from their nanny, who was dozing on a blanket, full of lunch and deaf to the racket of scavenging gulls. The boys wore trunks, though the ocean was cold and teeming with jellies. They walked and walked until their nanny was a speck and their feet were blistered at the sandal-straps. The sandbar ended at a cave, its mouth dark and small.

One by one, the boys squeezed through. The cave was spacious, with a barnacled ceiling they could touch on their toes. They unfastened their shoes and tossed them aside. The surf beyond murmured: the airy voice of a conch shell's insides.

They gasped when they saw her; they weren't expecting a dead woman. She lay on her back in the center of the cave. Her body looked asleep, but her eyes were wide open. She wore a plain dress with pockets in front. There was no blood. The boys stepped closer, admiring the find.

"She's mine," said Sean. "I saw her first."

Nathan frowned. "We found her together."

"She's all of ours," agreed Daniel. "We'll share." 

"She's her own," said James. He was smallest and least liked.

Sean wanted to play House. Nathan said Hospital. Daniel, Church. James said nothing. He went to lie down near the mouth of the cave. He sculpted himself a blanket of sand, then crawled underneath to watch from afar. 

Sean found some driftwood and drew himself a home. He etched rooms in the sand: a kitchen and parlor, a den with a couch. He made rooms for the boys with four little beds. He gave the dead woman a Queen-sized frame, two pillows with fringe. 

He curled up beside her: "Can I sleep with you tonight?" She had the wrong smell, sour and meaty. Sean plugged his nose and breathed through his mouth. He reached across the dead woman's face, closing her eyes with his thumbs. "Good night," he said.

Nathan shook his brother. "Wake up. My turn." 

Nathan performed the medical exam, a length of kelp draped around his neck. He lifted a bulb and pressed it to her chest, listening. He bent her limbs at the joints and tugged her fingers one by one. He prodded her ankles and belly and sternum. "Does it hurt?" he asked. "Here? Here?"

After some time, he turned to his brothers. He shook his head and spoke grimly: "It doesn't look good. We've tried our best."

Sean's chin began to wobble. "Give her medicine," he said.

"It's too late for a cure." 

"That's not fair," said Sean. "You woke me too soon."

When it was Daniel's turn, he searched the cave for offerings, then dug small bowls at the dead woman's feet. He filled them with sea-glass and sand dollar shards. He pressed mussel halves around the dead woman's head, fashioning a pearly halo. He finger-combed her long damp hair, braiding it with strips of dark seaweed. He cleaned her dirty fingernails. He knelt and mumbled made-up prayers.

The following summer, the boys returned. Only James was still small enough to fit. The dead woman was only a skeleton now.

He coaxed free a rib and buried the rest. For years, he slept with the bone beneath his pillow. It followed him to college and remained through four apartments before getting lost in the shuffle of living.

Elena Megalos is a recent graduate of Columbia University's MFA program.

Detail of art on main page courtesy of Ellen M.

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