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  volume 1. issue two  
A collection of poetry
by Patricia Wellingham-Jones

from Mongolian Art Exhibit

I turn a corner, stunned now by faces / on the wall—masks of deities, shamans, / in papier-mâché, carved wood, stuffed skin. / Black brows pull down over glaring eyes, / red mouths stretch in snarls or gentle smiles. (more...)
Patricia Wellingham-Jones
Isabelle Ghaneh
Todd Heldt
Pamela Miller
Joan Dy
Lina ramona Vitkauskas
Michelle Bitting
Arthur Joyce
Adrienne Lewis
Anne Durant
Kathryn Ugoretz
Cheryl Stiles
Ellaraine Lockie
Arlene Ang
Ellen Wade Beals
JeFF Stumpo
Lita Sorensen
Andrena Zawinski
Rebecca Clark
Jim Coppoc
Carly Sachs
Siri Steiner
Theodore Worozbyt
Hal Ackerman
Gretchen Skillman
Shawn Sargent
Rebecca Harper
Concetta Ceriello
Patrick Tucker
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On Coming Undone
by Siri Steiner

When I was five, my mom and I struck a deal. She handed me a rusty coffee can and offered five cents for each snail I could cram in. I spent a whole afternoon hunting snails: taking care to keep families intact, providing plump grass and leaves, wishing I could eavesdrop on the silent first meetings between Backyard Snails and Frontyard Snails. In the evening, I came out to the back stoop to check on them and found my mom throwing the little guys, one by one, against the wall. They left small, tan smudges on the stucco.

“This is so they can’t eat my flowers.”
“But why won’t they still be able to?”
“Because they’ll be dead.”
“Could I ever be dead?”
“Of course you can. You will die someday, it’s guaranteed.”
“If I die soon, will you die too?”
“No, but I would be sad for a very long time.”
“A very long time?”

I was just wrapping my mind around it, but it dawned on me that a long time meant nothing to a dead person. My non-existence would last not just for a very long time, but forever.

My family wasn’t religious. I could only comfort myself with the thought of nothing. I sat very still (a difficult task for me) and tried to clear my mind of everything—to play dead and see what it would be like. Try as I might, my mind raced and hummed. The harder I tried, the more I thought. I thought about what everyone I saw would look like dead. I thought about what I would look like dead.

I asked my mom about it and she told me that people, like trash, decompose. Plastic takes a long time to decompose, but people, because they were formed naturally, easily fall back to their basic pieces so they don’t look like themselves anymore. Later, nature puts the pieces together to make new things. With this reasoning, I thought, my great-grandmother who was buried nearby might have turned into a few young snails. If snails traveled at a steady pace, they might wind up in our yard, only to be thrown against the wall by my mom. Maybe my great-grandmother would come back in the tulips next spring.

This was all very comforting. But if my mom had used the word “magic” instead of “nature,” it would have been no more mysterious. I didn’t realize that in this case, “nature” simply meant bugs. Bugs invade the dead to make them new again. In a rhythmic symphony, little animals cooperate and compete inside a cadaver. They come in droves and eventually learn to share. From microscopic bacteria to giant crusty beetles, layers of action create a complex ecosystem, eventually determining the fate of the dead.

The creatures don’t all move in at the same time. Some come early to make the sour corpse more palatable for later arrivals. At first, the carcass is too acidic for most bugs because muscle tissue survives for a few hours after death, respiring without oxygen and building up lactic acid. But since gut-dwelling bacteria are used to acid (the fluid in your stomach could burn a hole in your shirt) they get the first crack.

During our lifetimes, the bacteria that live in our gut and aid in our digestion are poised for a promotion. Once we die, they begin to digest our defenseless intestines. From here they move through the body, breaking down cumbersome molecules to simple carbon, nitrogen and sulfur—the building blocks of new life. The bacteria are quite genial: They neutralize the acidic corpse as they go about their business, cleaning up their home and making way for visitors.

The next to arrive are the houseflies and the blowflies. They lay hundreds of off-white eggs in our orifices. Within twenty-four hours, the eggs hatch and the worm-like maggots push through the body, tearing up flesh with their mouthhooks, spreading more bacteria and digestive enzymes, and leaving ammonia in their wake. Bacteria eventually turn the ammonia to nitrate, which decomposes into oxygen for plants.

All of this ammonia is too much for the shiny green hister beetles, which are waiting to feed on the maggots. Mites (the spider’s tiny cousins) save the day by feeding on the rice-like blowfly eggs to keep the maggot population at bay. Now there are still maggots for the beetles to eat, but not enough to create dangerous concentrations of ammonia. The pretty beetle hides under the corpse by day, and actively hunts maggots inside the corpse by night.

The soft, seductively passive baby-blowflies invite more insects to help renovate the dead. Parasitoid wasps take advantage of the blowflies in the body, laying about twelve eggs inside each pupa. Some wasps lay an individual egg in a blowfly maggot, the egg develops into a wasp larvae that feeds from the inside, eventually “birthing” from the hapless creature as an adult. Like spirits, wasp broods soar from the corpse when they get their wings.

The hunchbacked coffin flies arrive later. They are attracted by the abundance of healthy, juicy maggots, but they also help to clean the skeleton. The little yellow ham beetle also comes late, and feeds on body fat as well as fly pupae. He gets inside a pupa case and seals himself in with his own silk thread. Then he chows down in his cozy home.

Once the corpse dries out, the maggots turn to flies and leave. The arid environment is no longer hospitable to the succulent fauna. The tougher, larger beetles come in to chew on the sinewy, leftover flesh with their powerful mouths. Carcass beetles have brown, bumpy exoskeletons and burrow in the ground underneath the body, entering only to feed. Hide beetles, with their specialized enzymes for breaking down keratin (a structural component of hair and skin), join them in feasting on the tough, dried flesh. Tineid moth larvae consume leftover hair, and bring the symphony to a peaceful end. When the grown moth finally flutters away, she leaves behind a polished bone.
I wish I’d known all of this when I was five. I wouldn’t have worried so much about what I’d look like as a dead person or what it would be like to not exist forever. As an adult, I find comfort in my convoluted prayer:
Please let the maggots move through my skin to create ammonia. Allow my bacteria to convert this toxin to giant pools of nitrate, plumping the tulips planted on my grave. Let the aphids flock to my succulent tulips to attract caterpillars. And, with your permission, can the caterpillars grow to be Monarchs?
I’ve watched them tremble over the ocean, with a huge sky above and salty mist below and thought: What a weird place for butterflies. Where do they think they’re going?

Siri Steiner lives in New York and has just completed her Master's in science writing at MIT. She has been published in Tikkun, Salt, and Shinygun. You can reach her at siri@mit.edu.
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