As we pulled out of the driveway on Friday, a doe lay on the side of the road next to our mailbox. Her body stretched out on her right side, as if she chose to rest on this particular bed of pine needles. Only, her underside was exposed – glands swollen – teats protruding, and her neck curved toward the shape of death. This was my first glimpse of nursing and ending at once. There wasn’t much we could do except witness the moment – feel the pang as I imagined a vehicle striking her. But we were in a rush, so we turned and drove east. As we returned on Monday from our weekend trip, Dennis thought he saw a chicken on the south edge of the road across from where the deer had been. “No,” I said, eyeing the wrinkly roseate head on a black body. “That’s a turkey vulture.” I got out of the car and walked toward the bird, and sure enough, the deer had been moved (but how?) and this time, the mother was partially swarmed by maggots. The lower half of her body was made entirely out of maggots – thousands upon thousands transforming this deer into something else. On Tuesday, I walked down the driveway and caught the scent of death. I stepped off the gravel path, onto the oak and pine needle floor, hoping I could track the source. I gathered my clothes closer to my body, a futile attempt to avoid ticks. I lifted my feet carefully to avoid poison ivy, also futile. My nose led me to the side of the road where the deer had been. Now only a black smudge remained on the ground – some maggots still present – but mostly just the fingerprint of decay and the scent that draws death eaters born from mating on extinguished bodies – a feast frenzy for the next generation of flies whose lifespan is measured in days, sometimes weeks. Even here in Arkansas, death is impermanent – the deer now part of other creatures, now part of the soil – even the air. I continue to walk through the forest, and I continue to catch the scent that stops me in my tracks, an impulse I can’t resist to seek the source once again, wondering if I’ll be led to a new location – my body pointing toward this cataclysmic event. Like a dog. I need to know. I need to see. I need to make sure everything is okay and moving along as it should. I don’t know if what I smelled was the black smudge or if the body had been dragged deeper into the privacy of the forest where muscadine vines offer shelter within a shelter. Each time I stepped off the path, my nose delivered me to the same roadside shadow. Death does not last long here. If I were to believe in reincarnation, I might believe the deer was cared for by maggots formerly known as Buddhists – maybe ten thousand monks transformed her into new life spreading into the forest. Why not? Maggots, flies, vultures care for the dead – shepherding this motherly architecture – and these are the creatures I see in plain sight. Consider the less visible life tending to the departed. The bacteria, fungi, and countless microorganisms. The holy host of patient waiters and carriers – so many thankless jobs on the margins, just around the bend. Today, if you follow the scent of soured flesh, you will find my beloved home.
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“In the midst of life, we are in death…”
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