The stench at the body farm wasn't as foul as I had been warned. To be honest, when my boys left their soccer socks in the backseat, my car smelled worse.
In a fenced-in lot with a gentle downhill slope, a party of twelve dead bodies lies, each with their arms at their sides, staring at the sky through hollow sockets. I imagined them talking to each other at night when no one was watching. Their bodies in various stages of decay, some nothing but bones. Others still covered with skin the color of fall leaves and the texture of leather. Were they lonely? A little bit of sliding when the rains come would get them closer to each other. The clouds darkened. I could feel the air thickening with humidity and felt hopeful for them.
Surprisingly, there was much to learn on this body-farm tour. Did you know that sometimes cremation companies give people tiny chunks of cement and dust instead of their loved one's ashes because it's cheaper to throw a body in the woods than to put it in the crematory? Did you also know it’s against the law to scatter cremains?
Not to worry. For absolutely free and without fear of arrest, you can donate your body to the University body farm, and they will let you rot in a woodland setting, among other dead bodies, so that professors can study your decay, naked. That is, the bodies of the dead are naked, not the dead scholars. That's what you would call them, wouldn't you? As in—a person studying the Bible is a Bible Scholar. The dead scholars take off your clothes and lay you face up. They say they study how the bodies decay for forensic crime-solving purposes because as we all know, if you murder someone and hide them in the woods, you take all their clothes off first and lay them face up with their toes pointing downhill.
I tiptoed toward the freshest body. Placed there just that morning, he still looked, well, human. His eyeballs, still intact, had that come-hither look as though saying, “I saved a spot for you.” My feet crunched through leaf debris as I inched closer. "Watch where you're going," the professor of the dead yelled, “you're stepping on skin.”
Whoa, stepping on skin, how could that be? I was at least three feet from the nearest body. The professor leading the tour explained that buzzards snack there and often drop pieces of skin. And that led to the discovery of yet another interesting fact. There is a small group of professors whose line of research is the buzzards and how they feast on residents of the body farm. I wonder if I picked the wrong field of study.
I left the body farm with a change in attitude, reflecting on steps we take and regrets we carry. I can't take a step without wondering what I'm stepping on, a whole universe of microorganisms that had no idea my boot would pummel them. Am I an earthquake, a landslide, an alien spaceship, or just a black cloud that covers and stresses their world for a brief second? Do they bounce back?
Watch your step
Speaking of stepping on things, when I was a young coed, I dated a boy I madly loved and saw myself marrying even though his eyes bulged out a little too far, his hair looked like his mother cut it while he wore a soup bowl for a hat, and his too-big sweater draped like it was on a hanger instead of a human frame, the joints of his shoulder making points from where his arm bones hung. But he smelled great, like White Rain shampoo. It was our third date, if you could call taking a walk on campus a date. On that walk, visiting a dorm, my foot landed on something squishy.
A blonde freshman yelled, "Oh no, don't step on the chick." She was a few seconds too late. But who knew you had to watch out for chicks in dorm hallways? She picked up the fluff of yellow feathers and held it in the palm of her hand as it took its last breath. The fellow with the bulgy eyes, whom I’d thought I would marry, glared at me and then looked at the blonde. "You killed it," he said in a way that was more sympathetic to the blonde than to me.
One balmy summer after, when I was a teenager, I was walking with some friends in my neighborhood. A woman who was washing her car left her bucket in the middle of the road. I stepped in it. If I hadn't seen a bucket where one might have reasonably expected to see a bucket, how would I have had a chance to see a baby chick where there never should have been a baby chick, or keep a boyfriend who I thought was the love of my life except that his eyes were too bulgy and his joints too sharp? By the way, he ended up with the blonde chick with the dead chick in the palm of her hand.
Then much older, as a professor myself, a scholar of some things, I used to run on campus. Once alone on a Sunday in summer when the campus was quiet, I felt proud that I was out there getting exercise while most people either slept in, went to church, or ate pancakes with their families. I was jogging at a slow pace, nearing the end of my run, when my lead foot struck the edge of a manhole. The lid flipped up, my arms flew out, and I fell in. Had my arms not flung out in surprise, I would have fallen in the whole way, the lid would have flipped shut. I would never have been seen again, left in the sewer to rot like the bodies at the farm. How long would the police carry on a search for a dead professor?
Speaking of deep dark places
Sometimes when I lie awake at night, face-up in my bed, staring at the ceiling, pondering the wonders of the universe, I consider whether the world under my bed might be like the body farm, only with dead socks in place of dead bodies. I think I can hear their conversations.
"How long you been here?" one shouts to the other from an opposite corner.
"Oh, about three years," he answers back.
"Does anyone get out?”
"Once a few months ago, a bright white got out. He managed to shimmy himself right to the edge where the light could shine on him. The whites always get the lucky breaks."
"Yeah," said the brown one, "I miss my mate."
"Forget her. Once you're in here, that human out there puts your mate with anyone close, even if you're not a match. You can watch them parade by, a different one every morning. I saw my own mate, solid blue, like me, you know. She passed by with a blue argyle."
"I'd rather rot under here,” the brown one said, “than be paired with an argyle."
I live within a couple of miles of the body farm, probably less than a mile as the buzzard flies, on a road called Buzzard's Roost, a hill above campus. How many pieces of skin are camouflaged amongst the dead leaves in my yard? The buzzards do indeed roost up here on the ridge, serving the world by cleaning up roadkill.
I live three-tenths of a mile from my office door—all downhill on the way to work. Friends who have tried to walk home with me struggle with going up the hill. I don't even think about it most days. Except for after the accident. The one where the guy hit me head-on, along old highway 107. I broke some bones in my back and my ankle. I couldn't walk to work for almost a year. In spring, I finally hobbled to work for the first time without crutches, braces, or cane wearing the expensive feel-good socks the boys got me for Christmas, the only pair I managed to keep together. The buzzards circled me the whole way down the hill. I smelled fresh, I'm sure. I had just showered moments ago. I sniffed around for roadkill the buzzards may have spotted. I considered the buzzards.
Do buzzards hibernate or migrate? Do they get migraines on the cremains that people drop on the hills? Am I an injured animal to them? Am I like a dead body that floated too far from the farm? They watched for me to fall so they could feast. Not today, dear buzzards. Not yet.