Nebraska Center for Writers

by Gary Gabelhouse

In the shantytowns and in the huddled warrens of third-world countries, people just lie down where the reaper takes them, and they die. Removal of the bodies requires human intervention. The presence of a dead body somehow makes itself known up and down the alleys of a shantytown — carried on a line of nonverbal communication within these pits of despair. Untouchable workers, having no other hope, are charged with removing the corpses and disposing of them in a purifying inferno. Such employment Gabe found in Mombassa.
Each man on the crew had a handcart made of rough, wooden slats on a basic steel frame, with old lorry tires jury-rigged on a crude iron axle. On Gabe's cart, there was an iron yoke one could grasp for better purchase and leverage in wheeling around the necrotic cargo. The flat bed of the cart could accept two to three bodies across, depending upon the size of the deceased — three was the rule. Gabe, with his strong, Western muscles, could haul up to nine bodies on his cart — three layers of three corpses across. Crunching, crunching, the cart was wheeled to the crematorium on the beach — just in view of a mosque.
The bodies of the dead were as husks — light and free of the gravity of life. Gabe would reverently and gently pick up these husks of recent humanity and carefully stack them on his cart. At first, the smell of bowels set free of this world assaulted Gabe's senses. Rarely could he stack the bodies without an unspeakable stain appearing on his forearms or chest. Gabe wore the feces, blood, pus and urine like medals and epaulets on a ghoul's uniform. Gabe learned that feces and urine are death's fanfare.
Gabe's epiphany of horror came one morning as the dhows were coming in from the evening's fishing for jack mackerel. Wheeling his cart, Gabe was aware of only the syncopation of the tires on dirt in the giant shadow of predawn, as he made his way to the shantytown. There, by the road, a man in a long, white robe, who sold shells to tourists by day, silently pointed up a lane. Gabe doggedly pulled his cart up the lane as the lean-tos and housing took on a more desperate nature. Gabe plied his trade through the early morning. The eyes of a disheveled woman dressed in cheap Merikany cloth demanded Gabe's attention. She pointed with her chin down a dark alley between rows of shacks made of tin and cardboard. Old newspapers scattered about the alleyway flagged in the coastal breeze and Gabe could see dark, shapeless forms slowly going about their business. The dark wraiths sat around Billy cans in which burned meager cook fires that coaxed only a slight modicum of flavor from tired tea leaves. Gabe smelled the feces, and knew he had found work. There she was — a woman wrapped in brown, gauzy shrouds, lying still as death, for she was ... dead. There amongst the Blue Boy butter can and other litter, a Daily Nation newspaper as a blanket, and a cardboard mattress, a woman had simply quit living. Gabe squatted and studied the crypt and the corpse.

Reprinted with permission
from Dreams of the N'dorobo
Copyright © 2004
by Gary Gabelhouse
The Lyons Press

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