Beauty from the Beast

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After spending its youth feeding on carrion, the adult form of the secondary screwworm drinks nectar from flowers during the summer and fall.

Vultures are stereotyped as patient, but they do not appreciate interruptions during meals. The two black vultures on the sidewalk took off with disgruntled, clumsy flapping, temporarily abandoning their dining experience as I approached. They perched awkwardly in the trees and shifted their weight from foot to foot, ruffling and shaking their wings before settling down to wait me out. Dark silhouettes in the rainy autumn afternoon, they hunched their shoulders like teenagers engrossed with their smartphones—except the object of their attention wasn’t a glowing screen, but the deer carcass stretched out before us.

When I found the buck two days before, he was mostly intact, with only a small wound on the rump from where a car had grazed him as he leapt across the road. The shock of the impact was what had killed him. Now the vultures had joined the party, and transformed the deer from a recognizable animal to a smear of bloody meat on the concrete. They focused the bulk of their efforts on the torso, but the eyeballs were missing, too. I suspected those were a vulture delicacy, and had been eaten first.

In the first two days after the deer’s death, there had been relatively little insect activity, but now that there was an opening in the skull, the flies could enter in greater numbers. Forget the mousey grey of houseflies—these were bigger, brighter, shiny green blow flies, psychedelically iridescent and perpetually spasmodic as they zipped about. Many of them had three distinctive stripes on their back, marking them as secondary screwworms (Cochliomyia macellaria). Unlike primary screwworm adults, which lay their eggs in the tissues of living animals, secondary screwworms require openings in dead flesh. The adults of this species are harmless to humans, feeding on nectar from flowers, but, like the vultures, were drawn to the scent of decay to mate and start their life cycle anew.

Meanwhile, the original wound at the rump was a flurry of activity. The maggots that had hatched over the previous day had drastically increased in size and numbers. They writhed in fierce intensity in the wound, the anus and in the hair and skin surrounding both of those openings. There were so many that they jostled each other off the body entirely and tumbled to the ground below, flopping wildly on the way down. Were they leaving to pupate, or were they now doomed to starve? It was difficult to tell. The smell was intense, rank and primal—simultaneously foreign and intimate.

“…the flies were buzzing round the putrid stomach
from which was emptying black battalions
of larvae, which flowed like a heavy liquid
down the length of those living rags.

All this rose, fell like a wave
or emerged fizzing.
One could say that the body, inflated by some obscure exhalation
now lived by multiplying.”

So wrote the French poet Charles Baudelaire, in his poem “Une Charogne”, at least as I translate it. Charogne is an ugly word, even for native speakers—the last syllable sticks in the back of your throat like an unwelcome head cold, roughly approximating the English word ‘carcass’. It is dead flesh, spoiled meat, an object no longer human (though it might be used to refer to a corpse), some thing bestial, alien, strange and disgusting. Une charogne goes beyond the established boundaries in society to something thoroughly unwholesome, something that has no place, to the point where it can be used as the ultimate insult for a truly loathsome individual.

Poets were the 19th-century equivalent of rock stars, and just like their modern peers, the notorious one were emboldened by uncoventional sexual mores and plagued by depression, debts, drugs and addiction. Baudelaire was no exception in this regard—and, in many ways, a trendsetter. Nothing was too risqué or taboo for his personal and professional life. He enjoyed shocking Victorian readers of his verse with constant juxtapositions of their high ideals with the grim realities of modern urban living he observed on the streets of Paris. The title of his masterwork, Flowers of Evil, succinctly summarizes his aesthetic— beautiful things emerging out of the disturbing and depraved. Unsurprisingly, upon the release of the first edition in 1857, Baudelaire and his publisher were promptly fined for offending public morals.

In “Une Charogne,” Baudelaire’s speaker recounts a charming anecdote to his lover—on a stroll, he encounters a decaying carcass, which he describes in exquisite, and, I could see now, technically accurate detail. Except for the fact that the my carcass’s maggots were grey, not black, I could find no fault with Baudelaire’s depiction of events. Had it been a sunny day, no doubt I would have heard the flies buzzing like the “winnower’s fan,”, but the cool rain made them quiet and the writhing maggots made no sound.

Baudelaire’s realism wasn’t due to an interest natural history. Nor was he into gory descriptions without a purpose. Instead, he goes for the jugular, capitalizing on the age-old human fear of death and decay as he addresses his lover: “And so you will be like this garbage, / this horrible infection, / star of my eye, sun of my being, / you, my angel, my passion!” But not to worry: “Tell the insatiable worms / who will devour you with kisses / I have kept the form and divine essence of my decomposing loves!” (Presumably, he means in his verses, and not in a locked masoleum straight out of an Edgar Allan Poe short story, but you can’t always tell in this genre.)

For Baudelaire, poetry and art triumph over death, even when we find the details of that death to be emotionally and physically repellent. There is still “divine essence” to celebrate even when the beauty of the physical body is lost in the process of decay. It’s the flip side to “gather ye rosebuds while ye may”, the “marble and gilded monuments” of Shakespeare’s sonnets given a gothic twist. Other poets gloss over the gory details, but Baudelaire gives them center stage and even celebrates them, in a twisted way, in rhyming verse.

Just like Baudelaire, I encountered my own carcass on a stroll, but our reactions could not have been more different. Then, as now, death is hushed up, hidden away. We slaughter animals in factories, not in open fields, and quickly bury our pets. Reading Baudelaire in college, I calmly translated and analyzed the lines of his poem, discussed the uses of literary devices and the social implications of his work, but it lacked the vivid intensity of coming face to face with the dead buck on the side of the road. It was very clear to me now that Baudelaire had not been exaggerating for the sake of effect; he had been merely telling the truth. The shocking part was not what he had written, but that he had written of it at all.

Yet when I saw the deer, I was not repelled. Whatever else could be said, there was something inherently real about the maggots, something that could not be edited out, smoothed over and ignored. Almost everything else I had seen on my walk that day was in some way contrived, the result of human ingenuity: the smooth sidewalk appearing out of nowhere on the edge of the subdivision; the cookie-cutter houses with their neatly mowed lawns, the non-native landscaping. Here, I saw life literally emerging out from of death. Even the smell was real – unpleasant, rank, raw, nothing artificial or contrived about it.

Was it the fact that the new life was mostly flies that was the source of the problem? Would we find butterflies so beautiful if their caterpillars devoured flesh instead of plant tissue? No, I decided, it was just as Baudelaire had put it: we hated this sight, and feared it and found it disgusting because we did not want to think about becoming the maggots’ dinner ourselves. This was why Baudelaire had tossed this disgust back in his lover’s face, and why she had undoubtedly recoiled. I began to understand why the Buddha had encouraged monks to go to the charnel-grounds to look at death directly—in order to lose their fear and revulsion of it. After staring at the maggots transforming the deer from dead flesh to new life, and the vultures turning it from food to feathers, I felt appreciation, more than anything else. It certainly wasn’t pretty in the coventional senses of the world, and yet the process was somehow fitting and appropriate. And as I studied them, the flies and vultures became beautiful to me, too.

A few days later, most of the carcass was gone. There were eight black vultures feeding now, and they had stripped most of the edible flesh except for the head. Had they been the ones to drag the body farther from the sidewalk, or had that been done by squeamish humans who didn’t want reminders of mortality intruding on their walks? The majority of the maggots disappeared with the flesh, but a few clung to the remaining skin and bones, or wandered on the ground nearby.

The next day, a solitary turkey vulture picked serenely at the skeleton. (Unlike black vultures, which feed communally, turkey vultures always dine alone.) Most of the flesh was stripped entirely off the head, and the lower jaw had been dislocated. Now there was only a few tattered bits of skin, the connected spinal column, and misceallaneous scattered bones. The smell had mostly abated, but flared up strongly when I lifted the antlers to look inside the skull. The brain was the last thing to go.

In less than a week, the deer had all but vanished into a flurry of black feathers and buzzing wings, now dispersed across the landscape. The swiftness and efficiency of the process was startling, even as it unfolded in front of me. The tissues and sinews of the buck lived on in a multiplication of life forms, just as Baudelaire had described. He was a keen observer with a poet’s eye for details of beauty’s inevitable decay. But had he lingered longer over his carcass, he might have also seen what I saw—that beauty, too, emerges from the beast, and we need not fear the process.

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