First published June 22, 2019
Have you ever watched a vulture swooping on carrion? They do not kill, not usually, but they can smell imminent death. They circle, waiting, ready to feast when their next meal takes its final breath.
You could say I was a human vulture. I removed corpses from various circumstances of unfortunate, unexpected death, and transported them to the morgue This was not a job many people desired, and those who did this work usually lived outside society as outcasts. Maybe it was because humans don’t like to be reminded of their own mortality. Or perhaps that’s putting the chicken before the egg. Maybe it was that people like me, who’d been ostracized their entire lives, simply felt more comfortable among the deceased. The dead did not insult or bully or disappoint the way the living did.
The pay was meager. Barely enough to hold body and soul together. Eventually I became emboldened; when the opportunity presented, I took for myself what the dead no longer needed: a jeweled ring, a gold necklace, a purse full of money.
After many years, by virtue of having been around the longest, I attained a modicum of seniority among the handful of others in my line of work. By then, I could sense which round trip to the morgue would be worth my while and which I could safely assign to the others. I could sniff out the death of a rich man in a bed not his own; the demise of a lady of some means who happened to be in town when the Angel of Death plucked her from among the living. These poor souls did not have the good fortune to die in the comfort of their own bed surrounded by loved ones. And if they were doing something sinful or illegal, all the better.
By the time the deceased’s family claimed the body, it had been through so many hands, it was impossible to say where or when the valuables had disappeared. I was careful to travel far away to sell what I had taken, lest suspicion fall on me.
I did not get rich from this enterprise but it allowed me a few small comforts that I could not have afforded otherwise — enough fuel to keep warm in winter; it kept my belly full with meat and ale; a new pair of shoes when the old ones wore out. I survived because they had died. They didn’t need their worldly possessions any longer. I, however, could make good use of them.
We weren’t so different, the dead and me. I was just holding on to life a bit more tenaciously