Serenna Svanoe-Werling | Staff Writer
Karen pulled a small jar out of her purse and handed it to me.
“Don’t break that. It’s full of cyanide,” she said as I took it.
Karen was thirty-something, older than most of the other grad students, with sand-blond hair past her shoulders and a wiry back covered in tattoos. She studied forensic entomology, which meant she spent most her time looking at the maggots, flies, and beetles found on dead bodies. Of course, she hadn’t been able to obtain human bodies for her research, but she’d gotten permission to hack out a little clearing in the weeds behind the cattle barn and put a dead pig out to study.
We stood out in the weed patch, holding insect nets and jars. The pig, or what was left of it, lay on a metal screen. It was withered and black, and it stank of ammonia and decay, but the stench was no longer overpowering. She walked me through the steps of collecting specimens, showing me how to pick maggots and beetle larvae from the pig’s blackened flesh and how to net flies and dispatch them with the cyanide jar.
I was a somewhat unlikely candidate for forensic assistant. Although I’d been a rather bold child, I had become increasingly neurotic as I’d gotten older, until I could barely stomach the thought of touching a doorknob in a public place.
My anxiety also produced dizzy spells and heart palpitations, which got so severe the doctors thought there might actually be something wrong with me (or perhaps they finally ceded to my hypochondria) and hooked me up to a small beeping heart monitor. The charm of the idea wore off once I realized that I would have to spend an entire month with my chest covered in itchy stick-on electrodes. After two weeks, my skin was covered in swollen red circles, giving the impression that I’d had a violent altercation with a squid.
I must have been a sight—fretful, rumpled, and sleep-deprived, face partially hidden by the brim of a sweat-stained hat—on my first day on the job. I hadn’t even meant to end up with the thing. My self-led campus tour had taken a strange turn at a broken elevator and I’d somehow strayed into the entomology lab.
That’s where I met Karen, and I guess I must have sounded a little too keen when I started talking to her because she made me a job offer in the first five minutes. I knew it wasn’t the right job for me, and I knew I couldn’t turn it down without looking squeamish. I asked her when I could start, figuring that a summer of death and decay would probably be good for me anyway.
My first day on the job was hot and clear. I felt sweat running down between my shoulder blades as I watched Karen work.
“It’s great that you’re willing to do this. I took my boyfriend out here and he passed out,” she told me, crouched over the pig, scooping maggots into a plastic sample jar with her bare fingers.
I put on a pair of rubber gloves and joined her. It doesn’t bother me, I told myself. I felt my skin start to crawl when I realized the ground I was standing on was covered in a wriggling layer of maggots, but it didn’t bother me.
It didn’t bother me until later that afternoon, after we’d returned to the lab. Most of the specimens collected from the pig either went in the freezer or into a vial of alcohol, but Karen always took out a portion of the maggots for rearing, as they were easier to identify once they’d matured into flies. They lived in small tubs of rancid liver until they pupated, at which point she took out the pupae, placed them in plastic vials, and waited for the flies to emerge.
The fly rearing room was where things went downhill. When she opened the door, a hot gust of air hit us like the foul breath of a carnivore. It must have been ninety degrees in that room. The smell followed, sick and sweet and bloody, viscera left to go rotten.
A massive incubator hummed along the back wall of the room. She opened one of its doors and took out a tray of plastic tubs, each holding a layer of sawdust and a bit of tinfoil with putrefying beef liver inside. I glimpsed fly larvae wriggling in the reddish sludge and gagged a little. I stepped back to collect myself. After that, I remained more matter of fact about things, or so I thought. She showed me how to dump out the sawdust, sift it for pupae, and throw the maggots back into the container.
Each tub felt like a new discovery. There seemed to be no end to the horrors that could grow on rancid liver. White mold, black mold, sweet-rotten fumes, or traditional stench of death. In some of the tubs, the liver took on an orange tint and started to liquefy, and we’d find it in a pool of its own juices, reeking of sulfur, a strange silvery film stretched over the surface of the liquid. In one of the tubs, I discovered to my disgust, a mold that gave the liver the appearance of being covered in bristly hairs.
To this day, I’m not sure whether it was the smell, the heat, the liver, or the sight of the maggots wriggling in and out of its bloody folds. The timing seemed strange, but people tell me it happens like that. I had just gotten over my revulsion towards the situation; I was even beginning to hum to myself as I sorted the pupae.
The first wave of dizziness hit without warning. Black spots danced across my vision. I stepped back from the table and blinked.
“Is something wrong?” Karen asked.
I had just enough time to set the tub of maggots down before I lost consciousness.
I came to on the lab floor with Karen’s concerned face peering down at me. I mumbled something about not having had enough to eat. Karen, believing me without pause, sprinted off to get my lunch. Desperate to escape the stench, I crawled across the lab floor, trying not to think about what might have been spilled on it. I made it into the hallway, where I lay flat against the cool floor. The heart monitor beeped plaintively, and I prayed this wasn’t my heart giving out.
When Karen returned a few minutes later, eating was the last thing I wanted to do, but I forced myself to choke down half a sandwich to maintain appearances. I waited for the shakiness to leave my legs and returned to the rearing room to finish my task. Karen was never any the wiser about my mental state, and seemed to assume I had rigorous dietary needs.
And Karen—good Lord, Karen. She always seemed to be dressed in shorts and a tank top, a reasonable choice for the sweltering weather outside, but much less so in the laboratory. I learned to follow her movements around the lab by listening to the sound of her flip flops. The threat of spills or broken glassware didn’t seem to faze her much. Usually, she smelled faintly of death and rancid liver, which stopped bothering me after I began to smell the same way.
I thought her fearless, or as close to fearless as a human could be. She rode a motorcycle unless it was raining, and when it was raining, she parked her car in the contract lot and hoped it didn’t get towed. She found little use for gloves, even when working with the rotting carcass. Instead, she scraped the maggots that got trapped under her fingernails out with a little stick. “Just living dirt,” she said.
I tried to mold myself in the image of her. Working for her did what seven years of therapy had failed to do: it started to calm my rattled mind. I never was able to collect from the carcass without gloves, but I eventually stopped putting them on to open doors. I made friends with the professors and grad students who haunted the department, and I learned the names of every beetle and fly I captured. I worked in the rearing room for hours at a time, only stopping when Karen popped in to remind me to eat lunch.
As tough as she was, Karen did have a few soft spots, the most notable being a deep love of spiders. Her desk was covered in tubs and tanks housing tarantulas. She seemed to come back with a new one every time she left to run an errand.
“I just can’t help it. I buy tarantulas like other people buy clothes,” she told me.
If spiders were clothes, she would have been quite a fashionista. Once, while I was cataloging dead flies, she burst into the lab, shouting that she had something for me to see. When I looked up from my work, she was holding a plastic vial inches from my face. At first, I assumed it was something to do with the parasitoid wasps she’d been talking about earlier. It took me a second to see the fat, black spider near the lid of the container. A red hourglass glowed on its underside.
“A black widow,” I said incredulously. “How’d you manage to get your hands on that?”
“Beauty, ain’t she?” she replied. “One of the girls at the reptile shop brought her back for me. I think I’ll call her Franchesca.”
Later, as the summer was coming to an end, I asked her what she would be doing over the winter.
“Are you still going to need my help?” I asked. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted her to answer yes or no.
She paused and frowned, and her shoulders slumped a little. The circles under her eyes suddenly looked dark.
“I don’t know. I don’t even know where I’m going with this thing anymore,” she said. “I’m lost in it.”
She sighed, and a quiet filled the hallway. Then she shrugged and the moment was gone.
“Do you want to meet the new tarantulas? I got a bird eater yesterday. Gonna be the size of a dinner plate when she grows up.”
I smiled and followed her back into the laboratory.