Fiction: The Decedent
By Julian Donn
I strolled nonchalantly into the room, my hands in the pockets of my scrub pants. “They told me you needed some help in here,” I said, donning gloves. “Another one’s gone? That’s the second one today.”
Meryll glanced at me from beside the bed, her round, brown eyes glistening as her bottom lip quivered almost imperceptibly. “I know,” she sighed. “Thanks for coming to help.”
As a resource nurse, I wasn’t assigned any patients that day but instead had to assist the other nurses here and there with whatever they needed. I flipped on the lights, walked over to the bed, and saw the body stretched out beneath a long, blue patient gown and a few tan blankets. Meryll continued gazing affectionately at the dead woman while lowering the side rail. I looked down at the woman whose now pallid and motionless face, in tandem with her gray hair, made her appear older than she probably was. Perhaps sixty? I reckoned, not sufficiently interested to bother asking Meryll. I held the mottled wrist with my fingers for a few moments to check her pulse and confirm her expiry—she was dead indeed. The corpse kept staring at the ceiling, its sightless gaze fixed upon nothing in particular, exhibiting a negative doll’s eye despite the bed’s motion as Meryll brought it parallel to the floor. I closed the eyes with two fingers as they do in movies, knowing that most people consider that a sign of respect.
They sent me in to assist Meryll with the post-mortem care: we needed to bind the wrists and ankles with gauze, roll the corpse into a body bag (placing identifying tags on the zipper and a toe), and clean the bag with sanitizing wipes before transporting it to the morgue.
I set to work with the gauze while she removed an IV catheter from the limp arm. The dead woman was somewhat overweight, necessitating that we both turn her to slide the body bag beneath her heavy frame. I heaved, pushing the corpulent thing away with considerable effort, letting its flaccid limbs flop over indelicately. As I shoved, Meryll deftly and gently guided the body towards her from opposite the bed, and I thought I heard her whisper something to herself.
She held the body in place on its side while I slid the thick white plastic beneath it. As we began turning the body towards me, I heard it again: “Okay honey, now turn the other way,”
That barely audible whisper, for the briefest moment, wholly disoriented me. Had I stumbled into the wrong room? Had I entirely misinterpreted the charge nurse’s instructions, thinking she’d sent me to help Meryll bring a decedent to the morgue when she’d said something else entirely? Was this patient alive, and I hadn’t noticed? The next moment, I recovered. “Are you talking to her?” I asked incredulously. “She’s dead.”
“I know,” Meryll diffidently admitted, “but I can’t help it. It feels too weird just silently moving her around like this and not saying anything to her. I’m just not used to it.”
Her answer astounded me, and I almost laughed as much at its absurdity as at the pitiful expression she adopted while uttering it—her downcast glance and trembling lip, even the quaver in her voice. I comported myself, however, realizing the damaging social repercussions such “irreverence” would yield and merely thought instead: Is this what you need? to invent a fiction and pretend that what you manipulate isn’t a cooling mass of decaying flesh, sinew, and bone but someone’s warm, amiable grandmother? Is it an essential difference? If that corpse could speak to you, beseech you with its eyes, eloquently express its refined thoughts and convictions, if it read literature, passionately loved its grandchildren, and stood on a riverbank each Sunday afternoon throwing bread to ducks and geese, would it somehow gain significance? Would these changes in the phenomenon’s attributes suddenly imbue it with dignity and respect?
You do this with all things, no doubt. Invent stories, I mean. Everything must fit within some narrative; you loathe admitting of chance. You aren’t a frightened, damaged, defective, and opportunistic organism struggling to exist and driven by hormonal urges to reproduce; you’re a flawed but fundamentally good person seeking her unique place within the universe while pursuing true love.
You aren’t contorting yourself, stretching limbs and dislocating joints to fit within the division of labor imposed upon you; you’re engaged in demanding but essential and rewarding work—a vocation.
And when your frail little body expires, and you leave your meaningless, earthly toils behind, you won’t be a putrescent corpse, decaying as rapidly as it’s forgotten; you’ll transcend this world, reuniting with loved ones, and reflecting with pride and satisfaction on your telluric struggles, all while ensconcing yourself within divinity and eternal love. Or else you’ll be reabsorbed into the earth, donating yourself like a martyr to the soil and affording the beautiful cycle of life yet another revolution.
These stories doubtless ease your burden. They palliate brute life and preserve your happiness, even if you must occasionally reimagine corpses as persons. But suffering can only occur when the world denies you what you seek. You strive to make narrative sense of the innumerable, senseless phenomena of existence. You contrive to interpret the data in a way that justifies your romantic beliefs in immortality, love, and meaning above all. Perhaps you’ll endure life with these coping mechanisms, but the universe so delights in shattering our illusions. Were you to cease desiring these ends, however, you likewise wouldn’t suffer. You can’t suffer from an object’s absence if you care nothing for the object.
I thought all this in a flash but, for obvious considerations of social etiquette and consequences, said nothing.
After we rolled it atop the body bag and removed the gown, I noticed that its eyes had once again opened from the movement. I felt annoyed, for the insolent thing even appeared to glance at me, but I closed them as before out of politeness to Meryll and zipped the bag shut. For the rest of the shift, I adopted the requisite solemnity, and whenever the staff mentioned the dead woman, I mouthed the appropriate platitudes: “Such a shame,” “What a pity,” “At least she’s getting some rest now.” I’m sure they all thought highly of my sensitivity and compassion.
I had the following day off and left my apartment early that morning for a jog. A few clouds drifted aimlessly across the expansive blue sky, and a warm gust picked up, causing the palm and cypress trees to sway mechanically in the breeze. After circumnavigating the neighborhood a few times, I came upon a woman walking her dog at an intersection. She was tired-looking, middle-aged, and rotund, wearing a green floral dress with a broad, tan sun hat that shaded a pair of bright blue eyes. Her gray-streaked brown hair flowed down from under the hat, curling around her shoulders. The little, calico border collie accompanying her behaved itself, uttering neither bark nor yelp, engaged as it was in sniffing the adjacent yard’s grass. She smiled at me and waved as I passed. I instinctively waved back, perfunctorily returning the smile. But in the span of a single stride, I once again became thoroughly disoriented, as happens when a flash of false recognition obliterates all sense of setting and circumstance.
It’s the woman from yesterday, my mind heedlessly assumed, either forgetting or abnegating all rational constraints. Before my forefoot touched the pavement, however, reason reestablished itself. She certainly resembles that corpse. They’re difficult to distinguish, all things considered. One is now forever passive, nothing remaining to it but decomposition in a grave, while a bit of electrical activity in the central nervous system yet stimulates the other to form petty attitudes, convictions, goals, and desires. But one is not fundamentally different from the other, and only a handful of years separate them, perhaps.
I strode past the hulking shape of sweating, panting, thinking tissue and its canine, continuing my run. It busies itself with its trivial concerns, granting them enormous importance and crafting an entire existence from them. It’s no different from everyone else. We’re a society of irremediably ignorant great apes, unwittingly chasing stability and replication while layering veneer after veneer of meaning and concern atop raw, insensate experience. These chimeras pass the time, I suppose, until we’re laid out on cold metal slabs in the mortuary ourselves.
I inhaled the late-summer air as I ran, feeling its stifling warmth as sweat ran down my forehead, dripping off my chin. This fleeting existence will soon end for me too. The last ten years vanished in a flash. At the snap of a magician’s fingers, another decade will hurtle past, and I’ve no way to pin it down. I’ll die like the rest without ever penetrating beneath the surface of these impressions, forever spinning my wheels, making no progress toward Truth or genuine understanding but merely discovering endlessly varied interpretations of experience. There’s nothing for it, I suppose: only a fool craves the impossible.
By now, my legs burned from exertion, and my lungs heaved, struggling in the hot air. I yearned to keep running, feeling like I’d perish the moment I stopped, but my frail body couldn’t abide. In the end, I gave up and walked home.
Julian Donn lives on the road, dividing his spare time between his two passions: studying philosophy and writing fiction. Whether in a coffee shop, bar, or park, he always keeps a book within reach. His work can be read in Abergavenny Small Press and A Thin Slice of Anxiety. Connect on Twitter @JulianDonn7 or Facebook.