The spine unhinges when detached from the ligaments that bind it. How naturally a resting body lies on the damp earth, uninhibited. An alarming sense of reanimation, the way wisps of hair catch enthusiastically on the wind or an ant parades up a thigh thick with nutrients for the taking. Laced to the ground through a weave of decay – no longer human, just naked skin pulled tightly to bone. Such intimate moments – a disconnected arm, torn by a fox who slipped under the fence of the enclosure, grasping onward against the pull of time; the stomach of a fresh specimen, bloated with gas; a decomposing face blackened with sunburn.
These are the details of death. Within decomposition hides the incontrovertible fate of all humanity: if left to sit, we rot away to nothing but a cloying stain on the forest floor. We are picked apart and reused.
It was the professor emeritus who invited the scientist to the body farm. They had grown friendly in May of the previous year, before the professor had retired. Along with a small team of colleagues pursuing further knowledge in forensic anthropology, they would spend a week researching at a nearby medical facility that housed the body farm behind the compound.
The scientist learned that the body farm contained seventy bodies, all left to decay at different times. Naturally, the effects of time could be studied at one singular moment – bodies freshly dropped, water still within them, to bodies dried by the earth, hollow and thin. The varying degrees of decay. The concept of a complete chronology was enough to keep the scientist awake for long stretches of the night.
The professor emeritus assured the group as they drove to the facility in a large touring van, that the trip would be centered around individual analysis, and that group work, unless preferred, would be no more required than the grade they would receive at the end of the week. Those with humor laughed: they were all post-graduate and he emeritus, after all. Grades no longer concerned them.
The scientist offered a laugh, but stopped too soon to be genuine; nobody seemed to notice or care.
First Part: Skin
The pores of the skin, so dirty in life, muddled with the filth of the everyday, are now hollow and excavated, unplugged and naked among the nettles, cleaned by the organisms of the forest floor. Before the skin escapes, the bodies are beauty models, aglow in the fresh wash of death.
Yet some are left to decay in clothes, another research opportunity. Dark clothes attract sunlight, cause the bodies within them to deconstruct faster, to become crimsoned by sunlight sooner than their brothers. The white shirt of one man melds to the skin, becomes tanned with moist flesh – a view of the natural world extracting nutrients! It will be fascinating to chart his development, particularly this new layer of skin, during my time here.
The nature of existence seems to be coming from within me, unearthing itself from the many layers of the human anatomy. The nature of existence – to the untrained mind it seems commonplace, natural, but I believe that at the heart of nature lies something supernatural. These data entries contain what I truly hope to find in the body farm: that point when nature becomes strange and unreachable. Looking now at the man in white, I believe he is beginning to show me the truth. Each breath he takes seems to come from inside me.
The scientist had met the professor before his retirement, at a lecture given on postmortem decomposition. It was one of the few times in recent months the scientist could remember his attention held so fully. It did not wander to the other projects to which he devoted his spare time. Putting on the casual glow that came so easily to him after years of masking, he approached the famed professor after his talk. Together they spoke on an array of points the scientist gleaned from the lecture. In no time, a fast, sterile relationship formed. The scientist made sure their relationship contained such sterility – he was too clever to let a simple friendship corrupt his research. Friendships required trust, and that was a risk he wasn’t prepared to take. However, in due time, he would realize that a relationship with the professor had its benefits.
He had to refuse invitations to dinner, parties with dignified lecturers and doctors, friends the professor had made throughout his tenure. While these invitations were rejected, the scientist made sure to alleviate his refusal with well-placed excuses and levity. Things changed with the invitation to the body farm – the scientist could ignore the professor no longer with such an enticing offer.
Second Part: Muscle
The skin escapes slowly. The body bloats, full of gases, swollen and lost and alone in the forest. Seams loosen in the sunlight, are blistered apart by the air. I’ve never been able to witness the expulsion of these gases, but the idea is one of the reasons I study decomposition – the thrill of the hunt, the intoxication and discovery of the unknown. Nature is trying to reanimate the corpse, providing billions of bacteria with a body to inhabit, to fill with alchemy. The gases create pressure, attempting to lift a person back into existence. Perhaps this is the second soul, the duty of nature to supply to its creatures. But the process is flawed, and the pressure becomes too much for the human body. Fluids spill from the empty cavity, and lesions begin to cut through the skin. They will split a person in two.
Peeking through new splits are thick stretches of raw muscle, no longer in rigor mortis, but loose and yielding to the touch. They are loose because the blood once bound within them is no longer a necessity of the cardiovascular system, and becomes part of the ecosystem the body inhabits.
The heart, a machine that combated the force of gravity, no longer in use, loses control over its blood, now pooling behind the skin touching the forest floor. A woman lies on her chest, and she is decaying beautifully. The skin on her back is puffed with gases, and she has not been failed by reanimation; she remains whole. But the skin on her underside, I soon discover upon a more thorough examination, is ripe with blood. Her breasts are engorged and warm with the heat of the ground. They must be larger than they were in life, perfect receptacles for the blood that once swam through her. Her eyes appear to neither fear the end nor accept it. She almost looks familiar.
From her breasts I trace a small design on her taut skin with my finger, above her shoulders, past her jutting collarbones and up her neck, to look at her face. Her face. Once so alive, once near death. Too familiar.
The group spent long hours scattered around the compound, each with his or her field journal and clipboard. None but the scientist brought provisions or snacks onto the compound. They chose the less putrid medical hospital to spend the lunch hour. Through the others’ lunch break the scientist continued working, pulling out a small pouch of bridge nuts if struck by a sudden hunger. He was eager to complete his tasks, to fill his journal with factual observation and dreams of future experiments.
The group stayed at a nearby guesthouse sponsored by the medical department through which the body farm was funded. The rooms were standard but comfortable – tan walls, brown carpeting, faux-granite tile. The scientist found himself paired with a physician who specialized in crime scene autopsy. He noticed every shirt in the physician’s closet was white, sterile, and this appealed to his aesthetic. He considered offering a compliment, but instead opened his suitcase and, being mindful of the physician’s gaze, locating the small rip in the lining of the suitcase, removed his journal from it. It was small, covered with worn black leather. He turned the journal to a new page, dog-earring it, so he could record his thoughts. He noticed as he was rifling through how some pages seemed to remain open more easily than others, creased with memory. There too were pages removed, products of failed experiments and data the scientist had no desire to remember. Becoming distracted by the memories, his eyes fell on a page dated some months prior.
She was the unknown beauty, the castaway blurred in the background of pictures, but there was no mistaking that face, even when the depth of field tried to erase her. Tawny hair in a half-curl waterfall, too-round cheeks, an easel for her centerpiece smile, nose balanced between eyes soft and understated.
We had met by chance. Young and impressionable, newly admitted to medical school, we sought to bolster our residencies by attending as many lectures as we could. It was at a lecture given by the famed professor who specialized in crime scene forensics where we first spoke, though I must admit that I had seen her many times before, always so poised in the crowd, quizzical introspection and unspoken passion perfectly blended.
The lecture topic was postmortem decomposition, a subject I later learned fascinated her as much as me. Between interaction at the hospital and the weekly lecture series, we developed a rapport. Soon we found ourselves together off-campus, something I had promised myself to avoid during my time in medical school – there were more important accomplishments to be made than friendships. Friendships implied sharing, and there were certain pieces of information and experiments that must remain unshared.
But with her, things seemed different. She didn’t cause an upheaval, she stabilized. She took the thoughts swirling in my head and grounded them. She became someone to trust, not another person to fear.
She knew the field of forensic anthropology better than anyone I had met – the intricacy of decay, the strange and poetic recycling of our material. So I thought I could show her my plans for the body farm. That I could trust her enough to find the beauty and importance in my research. I thought she would understand how limiting modern science was, how conservative its approach, how uncreative its experiments.
It was a decision made blindly, and I’m ashamed to admit that I had only a slight reluctance to
failed to understand, to me, the human body is a byproduct to be reused, something nature holds no more sacred than anything else dropped in the forest. Human beings, embarrassed and saddened by the humiliation of a dead body lying on the ground, ruin the natural order, bury the dead, stuffed and powdered, in boxes. I can’t help but imagine she would agree with me (if only she had listened!), even now, as she’s become a part of the system herself.
Third Part: Bone
The oldest bodies are the driest, hollowed out and vacated; some whistle off melodies as wind floats through notches in bone as I pass; some are quiet, surrendering their final attempts at another life. All those in the final stages of decomposition look so old, so small and frail, so preserved. What skin survives decomposition clings to bone, searching for nutrients in the scraps. Hair, too, remains; it lies lank and dry atop skulls. One specimen has long, straight white hair that has fallen forward and into the dark depths of his eye sockets. Such a hidden beautiful moment, so warm that hair must be hiding in the caverns of its own existence, searching for its birthplace.
In death, age is exponential – what takes an animated body seventy years, a lifeless vessel can achieve in a month. We are destined to shrivel to nothing but a pile of bleached bones in the end, no matter the rate of decay. Bleached bones, cartilage and teeth – sunspots in the darkness of the forest, gleaming brightly. Such a beautiful ending to so harrowing a journey.
The scientist was growing impatient with the results on the body farm. While it was true there was a complete chronology of decay among the seventy bodies, one particular element of decomposition that intrigued him more than others. He desired to see the rupture of the body from the buildup of gas within the body cavity. This stage marked the beginning of true decomposition, when both internal and external body began to decay fastest. From his cataloguing on prior excursions, he had found only one of the seventy in the proper stage of pre-rupture. It was the woman he had discovered the previous day.
The problem would be observation. While the professor emeritus had said that all work would be done on an individual basis, the body farm still closed its gate at nightfall and didn’t reopen until morning. Added complication came from his roommate, the physician. Would he notice if the scientist failed to return to the room at the end of the day? As logical questions presented themselves, there was still one overarching question, perhaps most important of all: what if he missed the experience he had wanted to see most on the body farm? That one element of decomposition he had yet catalogue, the element that, at this moment, was buried deep inside the woman decomposing in the body farm. To this question, he could find only one answer. In the end, the scientist decided to spend as much time with this woman as possible – whatever the cost. The valuable research would surely be enough to appease the professor if he were discovered on the premises afterhours.
The next morning of their stay, the scientist phoned the professor emeritus’s room and declared himself too sick to be of any use. He, as always, maintained a level tone, and convinced the professor of his illness with ease.
Allowing the physician to leave, the scientist prepared for his long day of research. He found himself at the body farm at noon. His presence to the workers at the gate was unsurprising, as he always worked through the lunch hour. Upon entering the compound, the scientist searched for someplace to hide away until the compound cleared for the evening.
The scientist removed the flashlight from the interior of his lab coat and clicked it on. In the dark, he moved slowly through the body farm, advancing toward the spot where she slept, nourished with dreams of a second chance.
He felt the presence of the other decaying bodies on the compound watching him as he walked, but his view was limited only to the ends of the flashlight beam. Only twice he encountered bodies. Both looked up at him with eyes full of dark judgment, as if to accuse him of a crime. They leered at him, their mouths pulled, sinking inwards with the force of decay. He felt as if the body farm was turning against him. That everything was turning against him. Everything except her.
I can hear my heart beating I can hear all the human noise she and I made even in the dark as she lies here disintegrating before my feet. I had to destroy her so she couldn’t destroy me. I left her to rot in the forest, and she repays me by completing my research. She must be the woman before me now. She is near the edge swollen thick as the living matter inside her writhes to be set free. She knows who I am She remembers me now finally She can see me with her eyes, eyes that have yet to rot away eyes that refuse to fear or accept their demise. She was the unknown beauty the castaway blurred in the background, waterfall hair round cheeks smile understated. When we made love she moved her mouth with mine, reaching for my insides. Even now I can feel her breath inside me as she comes, dizzy and lifeless. Moments after, when all is quiet but our human noise, she holds her breath until she can’t until she
I am a scientist I can observe this I am a scientist I
Her final breath happens as softly as a pause between words. The skin finally compromised to its maximum capacity, she sighs into the ground. She’s opened herself to me, allowing an outsider to view her final attempt to reanimate. When the gases seep out they are compromised by oxygen. She has shown me a secret. She, lying there split – it had to be intentional. She finished my research on exterior decomposition, breathed the final note I had been composing for years. I must thank her, drop to my knees and fall into her.
As the scientist dropped to his knees, the search party made its way to the razor-wire gate of the body farm. The professor emeritus, the physician, and two officers comprised the group, all with flashlights in hand. The professor wore a look torn between confusion and grief. He had wondered for some time if the scientist’s motives might have been more than scientific, that the invitation might have been an unwise decision on his behalf. He began observing the scientist during field days at the body farm. The manner in which the scientist worked horrified the professor. Even after a lifetime devoted to decomposition, he handled and viewed bodies as by-products of the natural world. To him, they were no more human as any amount of organic matter. But the way the scientist handled specimens, delicately caressing and fondling test subjects, whispering things to them, crossed the line between scientific fascination and unhealthy obsession. He noted that the scientist had been spending the majority of his time with a particular subject, a woman.
When the physician had approached the professor, informing him that the scientist had not returned for the evening, he knew where he must be.
Down inside her caverns I dug for the treasure, for the small spaces between the marrow that hold the answer. Her body folded with mine, last breath exalted, and I grabbed for anything to anchor her here, to keep her secrets locked away in my mind, to give her a final farewell. To rewind and start over, so I could live in that moment of ecstasy forever.
My fingers finally embraced her bones, so sturdy and divine. I can imagine the marrow pulsing behind the hard exterior, I can feel it squirming to return my grasp, absorb into my skin. I hid inside her and let death fill me with new life. Winter was the marrow of her bones, ice cold, the dull yellow hiding inside her layers of muscle and skin. As they pulled me away, I took parts of her with me. Within my body now resides her soul, that thin finality where the unknown sleeps.
More on the inspiration of the piece here.