VULTURES (MOTHER TERESA HOUSE DIARIES)
When I showed up at Nirmal Hriday the next morning, there was a flock of vultures gathering outside the steel door.
Hmmm… Probably not the best of omens. I thought.
‘Hello Dick.’ A particularly large one with hooded eyes said in a faint midlands accent while ambling towards me.
‘Hello Mr Vulture.’
‘Can you let us in? We’re so hungry!’
‘You’re always hungry. When are you ever not hungry?’
The vulture laughed, a wheezing hoarse gasp, like air escaping from a bike tire.
‘You know us too well, Dick.’ It said shaking it’s head.
‘Still, you can’t blame a brother for asking.’
‘When it’s time, you will come regardless of whether or not I let you in so what’s the rush?’
‘Guess it’s the suspense huh? Rather just cut to the chase you know? My flock has places to be, things to do, corpses to eat.’
‘I understand, but I’m afraid I’m not the one who decides these kinds of matters.’
‘Fair enough, fair enough.’ The vulture said and smiling laconically, turned around and waddled back to join the rest of it’s flock.
I went into the building and met Santiago, a devout catholic from Argentinia, who was seated at the bedside of a man who had been brought in a couple of days ago. The selection process that decided who got to stay in Nirmal Hriday was an exhausting maze of bureaucratic red tape. Basically, once someone had died and there was a bed free, the nuns would go outside the building and pick whoever looked the most fucked up from the large numbers of fucked up homeless people who slept on the streets outside the building waiting to get in. I really felt for them. In the past I had waited in line to get into exclusive nightclubs sometimes for up to an hour, and once I’d got inside it had seemed hardly worth the wait, so I could really see where these dying homeless people were coming from.
The man in the bed was so emaciated he looked like an alien. When we tried to turn him on his side, I realized he was wearing no pants and bore several suppurating open wounds on his rectal area that were as big as his anus itself. Each wound was severely, severely infected. I have never seen the mouth of Hell, but these open wounds seemed like a good candidate, a direct portal to eternal suffering constructed out of pus, pain and cancerous tissue in an area no one wanted any such things to be. It was right out of a horror film, only it was totally, terrifyingly real.
‘You poor, poor fucker.’ Was all I could say.
‘Yes.’ Agreed Santiago. Santiago was only 21 years old and I could see something was ending inside of him while he witnessed this kind of thing, but he bore it’s passing with a kind of grace beyond his years.
Kun came around and wiped the sweat from the poor man’s brow.
‘It’s his final hours.’ She said calmly.
‘Spend time with him.’
She gestured for us to place him on his back once more and then carried on with her rounds.
Santiago held his right hand, I held his left and together we watched him slowly die. There was a look of quiet horror on the man’s face, a kind of superficial denial attempting to fend off the unavoidable and complete certainty that his time was fast approaching. Over the course of half an hour, this denial was slowly eclipsed by an acceptance of the brutal truth. The once quiet horror was now replaced by total abject terror. Each breath was an ordeal, his eyes bugged out almost cartoonishly wide and his head turned from side to side, looking for an escape from his situation other than the one he was staring directly at.
I started praying.
Yo Jesus, Buddha, Allah, Jah Rastafari conquering lion of the tribe of Yogi Bear, please, please, please lift this man’s pain. End this man’s suffering. Come on big guy or big gal or big intersex trans cis gender fuck, this is a really shitty thing to leave a brother like this, I mean seriously dude, this is just like totes fucked ROFL LOL #YOLO.
As I stroked his hand and watched him breathe, expecting every inhalation of his to be the last, I noticed that what I thought were bad teeth at first was actually a mouth full of tumours.
He was being eaten alive by his own body.
Come on Jesus, Buddha, Allah, whatever… Just please stop this. We get the point. We all know how this is going to end, let’s just skip to the end credits okay?
Suddenly the man shook our hands away and tried to sit up. He stared at us without seeing us, his eyes so wide they threatened to swallow us both whole.
I heard another patient call out for help from behind me. I didn’t want to leave the dying man, but there was no one else around to deal with it.
‘I’ll go deal with that. I’ll be right back.’ I said to Santiago. He nodded. I went over to the patient. It was Richard. He needed to go to the toilet. I took his arm and led him to the bathroom and helped him do his business. When we returned, they were covering the dying man up with a sheet.
‘Shit. What happened?’ I asked Santiago.
‘He died.’ He said in shock.
‘I prayed to Jesus, I said, ‘Please Jesus release this man.’ And ppffft he just breathed out and died.’ Santiago said.
‘You killed him. You murdered him through prayer.’ I didn’t say.
Even if he had, secretly I was glad. His death had been ugly, cruel. I was happy it was over, happy that the suffering no more. I stared at the limp tongue lolling out of his slack frown. I thought about what kind of life he had led only for it to end this horrible way. Had he once been happy as the street children playing in the garbage outside? What was his first memory? Where were his dreams now that he was dead? Did he prefer vampires or werewolves or did he think Hollywood needed to come up with some new original kind of monster instead of rehashing the same old shit?
None of it seemed to matter anymore.
I noticed a sickeningly sweet smell emanating from his corpse that I found surprisingly more repulsive then the stench of decay that one would expect.
Krishna came along with his typical gruff manner.
‘Brother! Take off his clothes!’ He barked. We stripped the dead man naked. His body and flesh was still soft and some unidentified fluid that had been released at the point of his death now soaked the sheets. For such an emaciated corpse, it was surprisingly heavy. I lifted his back off the bed while Santiago removed his shirt. I realized then he was missing his right leg from half the shin down. I stared at the dead body, misshapen by disease and rotten luck. The limbs and heads all lolled in every direction, destabilizing my grip on him and I found myself thinking about how fucking dark that movie ‘Weekend at Bernies’ actually was. The potential for corpse based slapstick was huge, but staring at his half-lidded blank eyes, each pointing in different directions, his arms and what remained of legs all akimbo, it just didn’t seem very funny at all.
Too soon perhaps.
Krishna returned with a white cotton sheet and white trousers.
‘Dress him!’ He commanded. We dressed the dead man in the white cotton clothes. Krishna handed us a bottle of talcum powder and gestured for us to douse his body and the bed in it. After that we went and got the stretcher from the storeroom. As I entered the I heard the familiar buzzing sound coming from the back of the storeroom.
‘You fucking took your time with this one Bertie.’ I said to the Angel of Mercy.
‘NoT mY fAuLt. GoT helD uP bY trAfFic.’ Bertie said, shrugging.
‘Who are you talking to?’ Asked Santiago.
‘Today, the Angel of Mercy.’
Santiago cocked his head sideways and looked at me as if I was crazy. We returned with a stretcher, which Krishna covered with a white sheet. Santiago and I picked up the man’s body and placed him on the sheet. Krishna then tied the body up into a neat package with several strips of muslin cloth.
‘Okay, now put him in the storeroom!’ Said Krishna.
‘We have to serve lunch! We take the body in the afternoon.’
Santiago and I exchanged raised eyebrows.
‘But the storeroom is in the dining room.’ I pointed out.
‘Just take it now! We have to serve lunch brothers!’
We picked up the body and took it into the store room and placed it on the ground.
Something didn’t feel right.
‘Isn’t it weird to be eating lunch while someone who just died lies a few feet away?’ I said. Santiago nodded.
‘AhHh mMaN! DiD yOu hAvE tO bbRiNg tHaT thInG iN hErE? It’S aLrEaDy sSsTaRtinG to sSstInKkK!’ The Angel of Mercy buzzed, hiding in it’s usual place up the back.
‘Hey, you’re the one who did this. If you really got a problem, just leave.’ I replied.
‘SsShIt. ThErE gOeSss tHe aFteRnOon nNnaP. OkKkAy, I’m oUt oF hErE. DeAd bOdiEeSss gIVE mE tHe cReEpSss.’
‘What? I thought you’d be used to this by now.’
‘HeLL oF a wAy tO mMmaKe a liVinG, kiLLiNg pEoPle, bUt yOu kNoW wHaT? I nEvEr wAnTeD tHisSs jOb. I nEvEr asSskEd tO bE mAdE oUt oF bEesSs. It’sSs a fEcKiNg dOwNer mMmaN. BuT tHisSs isSs tHe sSsiTuAtiOn.’
‘What are you talking about?’ Santiago asked me.
‘You wouldn’t understand. I don’t understand.’
Kun came into the store room.
‘We have an ambulance! Please take him to the crematorium now!’
We picked up the stretcher and headed outside. The flock of vultures were so thick they were blocking the door.
‘Damn vultures!’ I yelled, shooing them off with my right foot, while struggling to maintain my grip on the heavy steel stretcher.
‘It’s feeding time! Give us the body!’ One squawked. I was pretty sure it was the one who had talked to me in the morning but I couldn’t be sure. Maybe I’m a racist, but all vultures look the same to me. They began to pull at the sheets with their sharp, hooked beaks.
‘Get away from him! Not this one! He deserves something more dignified than being torn to pieces by hundreds of fucking vultures!’
‘Hey no need for derogatory language! Vultures are people too you know, well not really but you get my meaning. Umm vultures are vultures too you know! Hmmm that doesn’t quite work either…’ Another said.
‘Listen, I didn’t mean to offend you corpse turkeys, but you cannot eat this man.’
There was much protesting and we managed to worm our way through the flock, stepping on many pairs of bird feet and kicking the odd vulture in the chest feathers. Eventually we broke through the feathered wall. The ambulance was waiting only a few metres away and we made a run for it, the vultures shifting towards our direction. We loaded the body quickly and got in.
‘Driver! Please drive in the opposite direction of the vultures please!’ I yelled.
The crematorium was a short five minute drive away. When we arrived we headed straight to the main chamber. There were another two bodies waiting there, one was a middle aged man and the other was an elderly man. Both bodies were surrounded by garlands of flowers, incense and grieving family members. We lay the dead man’s body down in the middle. It seemed out of place with it’s face covered up and no flowers or incense or grieving family members there to accompany it. All the dead man had was two foreign volunteers who didn’t even speak the same language as him, who’d who met him for the first time that morning only to then watch him breathe his last breaths. And now they were going to watch his body burn to cinders.
The crematorium worker who may have been a priest as well, instructed the family of the elderly man next to us on how to pay the last rites, burning some incense and bamboo while walking around the body in a circle three times, while reciting prayers and splashing the body with rose water and some unidentified offerings. The family seemed in a daze. The worker then opened up the steel net door of the inner chamber and the male members of the family picked up the body on a bamboo stretcher and carried it inside. The cremation device looked like a big steel pizza oven and when the worker opened it up, it was burning red inside but with no flames. The body was slid in with one swift deft movement — much like a pizza would be, I noted — and the door was slammed shut.
‘PAPU!!!’ The daughter of dead man shrieked, breaking down into tears and falling to her knees. I held back the tears and wondered why I was even crying in the first place. I didn’t know the guy who was being cremated or even the daughter who was crying. I guess it was because I was human being now or some shit. We stood around awkwardly and some of the workers came and brought us a bamboo stretcher which we transferred the body onto. Another body quickly came to fill in the space left by the body that had just been fed to the ovens. It was another elderly man. Again it was covered with flowers and incense and surrounded by grieving family members. I couldn’t help but notice it’s head rested on a Mickey Mouse pillow. It seemed strangely incongruous and my eyes kept being drawn to it without meaning to. We stood around waiting for what felt like hours. I wondered what cremating Mickey Mouse would feel like. I kept staring at our patient’s body and then at the bodies of the people next to us. Unlike the bodies of the people who had loving family and friends there to grieve their passing, our patient’s final end was an almost totally anonymous affair. Sadly I realized, we were the closest thing he had to a family at that point. A couple of foreign strangers who’d held his hands for a few brief moments before he died. I felt bad. I wanted to ask the other grieving people there for some incense to burn for him. Just something to offer for him, something slightly more than the nothing he had at the present moment. I couldn’t work up the courage to ask any of them. They were too consumed in their own grief and I thought maybe they would take it the wrong way. We stood around waiting. My legs were tired so I went and sat down and left the body there.
I looked around and saw a complaints and suggestion box in the waiting chamber. I wondered who the hell would ever fill in a complaint or a suggestion slip at a crematorium and what exactly they would say.
‘Less death, more pizza.’
‘Less crying people, put a bit of a downer on everything.’
‘Quicker cremations, I’m missing ‘Masterchef.’
Santiago joined me on the marble bench nearby. I patted him on the back and we looked at each other and just shook our heads. There was nothing to say.
‘Why is it taking so long?’ Santiago finally said after some time.
‘I don’t know. Good pizza takes time.’ I mumbled.
We returned to the body and waited some more. I spied some incense on the ground in a pile of discarded flower wreaths. It was bad luck to take discarded offerings but I noticed they hadn’t even been lit at all. Fuckit. It was better than nothing. I grabbed six incense sticks in total and lit them with a box of matches that lay on the floor. When I looked up though, Santiago and one of the cremation workers had picked up the man’s body and were carrying it into the main chamber. I hurried after them, grabbing the rear of the bamboo stretcher. Once we were in, we lined the body up with the steel tray. I waved the incense sticks quickly around the body, slightly self consciously.
Jesus, Buddha, Allah, Jah, Shiva, Krishna, Brad Pitt, God, Dog, Something, Nothing… Whoever, whatever you are, if you’re even anything at all, please give this dead man some love and safe passage to the other side. I said silently.
The worker suddenly opened the iron net gate to the inner chamber.
‘Bring him!’ He said. I picked the back of the stretcher with one hand and tucked the incense into a gap in the rope that tied the stretcher together.
The worker opened the steel door of the oven and I stared into the red, red heat, transfixed. He slid the man’s body into the furnace. For a split second I saw the white shroud that covered the body turn tropical sunset crimson, then the worker closed the door with a loud clang.
It was done.
I took off my Winnie the Pooh apron and wiped my forehead.
I didn’t even know the man’s name.
We walked outside into the sunshine.
I looked at the time on my phone. All up it had taken 45 minutes from death to the oven.
The ambulance we’d arrived in had been called to take some patients to the hospital so we walked back to Nirmal Hriday in silence, the empty stretcher in our hands. Everything felt like we were in a faded home movie of a dream from long ago. There was a distinct feeling of unreality after seeing something more real than anything we’d seen before. It seemed strange for such a common occurrence such as death and the disposal of a body to be out of the ordinary for the both of us. Thousands of people all over the world died every second and yet it was something that was hidden from us, like a bad surprise birthday present.
When we got back to the doors, the vultures were back in a huddle.
‘You’re no fun.’ Said the one who had talked to me in the morning.
‘You snooze you lose vulture.’
‘We were hanging out for that all morning.’
‘Sorry. You can have me when it’s my time.’
‘Dog bless you.’
When I went inside there was a new patient already lying in the dead man’s bed.
I hoped they had cleaned it well.