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The Saprophytes

I never did quite look closely at what had brought me here, my wheezy econobox's tires worming their way up one side of the deadpan ruts to lurch back down and slither up the other side, trying to steady my head enough to spot a mailbox through the overgrown willow locks at the side of the road. Back so far into nowhere, looking for another story. I knew I'd find one; I always find one when I bother to press my little four-banger hard enough for welts to show on the hood like this.

A funny thing about this one; the instant I stepped out of my car, the sweaty drive up here vanished from my head. I think it took until I poked my pinched-up face through the tattered screen door for my years as a reporter and student of humanity's seamy depths to scatter their cards, reach for their handguns, and run screaming into the storm cellar where only my pinkest youth normally hides.

A kitchen crouched back there, beyond a front room crusted deep with mud, rotting piles of something that might have once been burlap, denim, or maybe barbed wire and cardboard flung into the corners. Occasional patches of probably brick-red linoleum with a subtle octagonal pattern forgot to hide from my gaze as my eyes worked hard to distract my nose from its desperate howls of outrage.

The smell is what I'll always remember about that family.

Of the kitchen, I recall yellow. I couldn't tell you exactly where the yellow was, but my mind slides away from the image of refrigerator, stove, or even cupboard with a vengeance every time I call those names to the fore. I remember a coutertop, blistered formica with blond striated paneling underneath, dividing the two rooms. Perhaps that was the yellow; it was certainly the safest part of the house to dwell on.

Beyond the kitchen, all I remember is that there was a great amount of lead, and a great many dead. But I'll get to that later.

Their names are lost to me, even those of the living parents and their children. The children's faces I'm sure vied with those of the parents in grotesquerie, but I could never sketch them for you. The mother was waiting for me behind that counter, waving me welcome all the while I stood in the doorway trying vainly not to breathe.

She had some hair left, I know. Her features were almost delicate, but the skin of her right cheek and chin had sloughed off and grown back so many times that rippled bands of scar tissue winked through the grime whenever she spoke or smiled, like the growth rings of some twisted coprophagous tree's trunk. Her limbs were large and strong, and she wore a threadbare housedress through which had leaked a profusion of running sores seeming to go back years.

She held a small paring knife, and was deftly slicing something up and dropping the gobs of it into a plastic container. I could not step further into the room any more than I could bring myself to back up, and we stood like that for an age until a sound from the front porch made me whirl around and lay eyes on the father.

His face was as much a gangrenous mass of scars and goo as hers, and knots of whiskers bloomed through here and there from tangles of blackened flesh. A cloud of flies surrounded him, and as he waved to us from the porch, a few departed his face and flew past me to mingle with the ones on the meat she was cutting up.

As they passed me, something inside me broke loose and I knew I had to talk to these people. Had to get my story from them.

As it turned out, they were sometime cannibals; they didn't eat the flesh of strangers, but just the days-old meat of their own dead relations after digging them up for the skin games. Washing, of course, was an alien thing to them. The dirt a body collects is what gives it a shape, to this family, and they seem somehow to live despite the pus and infection that savages their features.

I stood by as they carefully dug an uncle out of his shallow grave, gingerly removed what was left of his skin, preserved it and prepared the stuffing while munching away at his viscera with scurvy-ridden teeth. Mother and father sat down and sewed the tanned hide onto their mannequin together, ritualistically murmuring "ouch" each time their needles pierced the fragile leather and grinning wider with every stitch.

The uncle stands somewhere in the back of their house now, every crater, bedsore, and boil of fungal pestilence preserved and rouged for posterity. He stands alongside the generations, packed into a room of several, waiting for the ones who poked him full of holes to join him.

For the living, there are no needles. For the living, there is lead. Wires and tapes and blocks of lead, from somewhere underneath the house, are pounded and bent into many shapes for the skin games. My head refuses to give a coherent picture of these games; the flash-cut images I toss at myself include lead thimbles cupping and pinching fingers, noses, nipples, genitalia, toes; wide bands of soft dusty grey metal wrapped around torsos in varying thickness and then tapped back and forth with sledgehammers while the banded youth's blue-lipped mouth opens and closes soundlessly in time to fluttering eyelids; molten plasters of the stuff applied gently and quickly to sores that have become filled with the flies' eggs, swelling and crisping the edges of the wound into an angry mess of blood and charred parasites.

Nobody ever screams during the skin games. Screaming is for the dead, who can't.

On the day of my leaving, I found myself standing on the porch talking to the father. The mother was expecting another baby, and I was about to ask him why and how. He kept me from it.

He barked, "That's enough out of you. The things we do, the very fact of our continued existence after all these generations of refusing to follow your advice to each other, the way we live and the way we look, our smell and our diet and our games, you find abhorrent, don't you? I know you're disgusted by me, you wish you were miles away, and you can't help retching in our presence. It's written all over your bland good looks. How could I not? We inhabit the same world, your family and mine."

As I scribbled frantically in my notepad, torn between my desire to escape this sudden salvo and the need to quote the first extended sentence I'd ever heard from this guy, I felt the ever-present buzzing of his flies swell and fill the porch from screen to screen.

"Are you trying to nudge our story into a frame of masochistic asceticism? These sores on my face are not a mortification of the flesh, and don't try to turn them into one. We are not cold. We live in the heat of rot, the warm glow of the compost heap."

The flies were getting thicker; from the kitchen there streamed more and bigger ones than I'd seen, even in the uncle's grave. They settled around the father's head, alighting and hopping from shoulder to shoulder until it seemed he was wearing a long black braid of scavenger bugs from nape to navel, coiling against the spiral scar of his skin games' lead pressing and humming the overtones of his words until it seemed every antibody and macrophage in my blood yearned to dig through from the inside and do battle with them at once.

"Our lives are times of deep itching and our paths are strewn with one great relief after another. We need never lack a purpose; there's always one more grub to burn away before it can lodge and feed, one more suppurating bloom to sear away before it invades the bloodstream. The art of preservation and the cleanliness of mere pain are wasted on the living, too grand to invest in a body that's still only dying. In between, of course, there is always lead."

Don't ask me for directions.

-skyler, June 9, 2000