"A Key into the Language of the Dead" by Kathryn Kulpa

Kathryn Kulpa

Kathryn Kulpa

Kathryn Kulpa was a winner of the Vella Chapbook Contest for her flash chapbook Girls on Film (Paper Nautilus) and received the First Series Award in Short Fiction for her story collection Pleasant Drugs (Mid-List Press). Her work has appeared in Jellyfish Review, Monkeybicycle, Smokelong Quarterly, and Pidgeonholes, and she serves as flash fiction editor for Cleaver magazine. Kathryn leads writing workshops in public libraries throughout Rhode Island and has been a visiting writer at Wheaton College. She was born in a small state, and she writes short stories.

Then, my beauty, say to the vermin
Which will eat you with kisses,
That I have kept the shape and the divine substance
Of my decomposed loves!

          —Charles Baudelaire, “A Carrion” (translated: Geoffrey Wagner)



A Key into the Language of the Dead

We’re here but we’re not here. We’ve left our bodies but we can’t leave them—not yet.

Every so often voices fade. No one says goodbye, not really. We just hear them less and less. Then one day when we’re all talking in air, the way we do, someone will say “Lucy’s gone,” and we’ll realize it’s true.

Usually when that happens, soon after, someone will come to box up the bones. We’re a garden of sorts, here, and the living folk tend to us in their own way, watching and measuring, fixing the wire nets that keep us safe from birds and large animals. I grew pick-your-own blueberries once; we used canopies of chicken wire. It’s much the same. It doesn’t keep the flies out, of course, or the burrowing beetles, and sometimes a brave fox will dig under, or mice will slip through, the way mice always do.

I don’t mind. I like the small thoughts of mice. I let myself follow the small bits of me they carry off into the grass—scrub grass, to us, but a fierce dense forest, to them, full of checkered shadows and dusty hillocks and cool, safe tunnels. I’ll stay with the mice as long as I can, though it’s never long. Mostly what we have is the sky: sun through the squares of our cages, branches of trees that wave, or don’t, clouds, most of the time, and rain, much less often, for we’re a dry country here, and the heat that bakes our bones is an arid heat.

Our thoughts can rise beyond the mesh of our cages, though only so far; we’re tethered, it seems, to the flesh that remains. Though none of us touch, we’re not alone. There’s a meeting of minds—if ‘minds’ is the word I want. No one here thinks ‘ghosts’ or ‘spirits.’ Those words seem foolish now, campfire tales to frighten children, but very few of us are children, and none of us are afraid. What’s the worst that could happen? It’s already happened, for all of us.

The best thing about being alive: the taste of butter melting on top of hot blueberry pancakes, that first bite, when they’ve just come off the griddle.

The worst thing about being alive: getting hit. The way flesh gives under the fist. That burnt-metal taste of blood. And crying, though you’d promised yourself not to, not this time, not again.




Sometimes people—youngish, mostly, and carrying clipboards—come to observe. They take pictures of us in our various states of dissolution. They write notes on their clipboards or speak into recorders. They talk to each other, but not to us. Except once a girl with brown hair and black glasses bent over my cage and whispered: I’m so sorry this happened to you.

Was she sorry that I was dead? Sorry (though how would she know?) that my husband had beaten me for forty-three years? But I outlived him and had a few good years on my own. Just knowing I could sleep as late as I wanted: that was pure bliss.

The clipboard people don’t know we can see them, I’m sure. Who would have expected it? None of us did, whatever we believed. Some of the Catholics among us reckon that this is Purgatory, and the Baptists and Pentecostalists say we’re waiting for Christ to come again and raise us up, dead bones and all. They say we’ll get our bodies back whole after the rapture, but I’m pretty much done with mine—like when you’ve got an old nightgown so worn and full of holes that you’re just as happy when it rips, so you can tear it up for rags. Then there’s a Buddhist who claims we’re between lives and have to choose which body we’d like to hop into next.

I don’t know that we get to choose, but I’d like to be a mouse.




I was a farmer. I know how to wait. But it’s a long wait, for some. The one of us least happy to be here is the Dead Rock Star—he thinks of himself that way, in capitals. He says the company is fine, but he was hoping for nothing, and he had no idea nothing was so hard to find. He didn’t want a grave that fans could visit, leaving bad poetry and empty bottles of Jack Daniels; he wanted to be lost to history. He says the reason none of us can fade is because people in the world remember us, and he shouts into the sky: Forget me!

I tell him I’ve never heard of him, and that cheers him up a bit. He knows I’m telling the truth. That’s one thing about the dead: we can’t lie.

We can’t smell, either, which given our circumstances is probably a blessing, and if we had anything to eat we probably couldn’t taste it. But we can see and hear, and we can remember sounds and tastes so vividly it’s as if they were still with us, sometimes. Once I burned a roast and wasted meat and wasn’t allowed to eat for five days, and after the second day I’d go to sleep and dream of food. The simplest foods, but so real: a white, crisp apple veined in red, a loaf of bread hot from the oven. I’d wake, sure I’d be punished for sneaking food, and only then would I know I was still hungry. It was like that. Once we had a long discussion about the best thickener for blueberry pie, cornstarch or flour or tapioca or just natural juice, and I rolled them all around on my imaginary tongue and voted just juice.

We missed smells, too, smells we didn’t think we’d miss. Watching a family of skunks cross the farm in the moonlight, a girl remembered a family vacation before she’d gotten sick. They’d rented a small beach cottage on stilts, with no indoor bathroom, and at night she and her sister would have to walk to the beach bathhouse to pee, crossing the dry dune grass in their nightgowns, holding a flashlight and keeping an eye out for skunks. The skunks were everywhere that year, she said, a perfect promenade of skunks, the bright eyes of skunks watching them as they ran back to their bed, giggling, and always some faint smell of skunk in the air, clinging to the towels and bathing suits they draped over a fence to dry, and it was the best, the very best summer of her life.

She’d only had nineteen summers. We would have held her hand, if we still had hands that could hold. All of us, that night, wished we could smell skunk. Somewhere, in a place between a dream and a memory, I think we all did.

The mouse runs from the cat, and trembles at the shadow of the owl. But no one troubles the skunk. I think, after all, I’d like to come back as a skunk.




Things change. They leave and come back. When I was a small girl I kept my Halloween pumpkin past Thanksgiving, watched it grow spotty and soft, and tossed it, finally, into the bushes by the back porch. I saw it roll under the azaleas, and there I watched its carved grin widen, watched it fall in on itself, merge at last into dirt and piled leaves and grass. In the deep of winter no one could tell there’d been a pumpkin there.

In spring, I saw a vine. In summer, a tiny yellow pumpkin. In fall, full and orange, my next jack-o’-lantern.

What happened to the pumpkin seemed gentle and right, not scary at all. That was my reason. We all had one. The girl with the skunks wanted to donate her body to help others, but she’d been sick so long, on so many harsh drugs, that this was the only way she could. Another man—we called him General Lee—had been a Civil War re-enactor. One of his ancestors had been shot at Antietam and was counted missing after the battle. People thought he had deserted until months later, when a scout found gray-clad bones in the woods.

That man said his ancestor has a proper grave now, with the rest of his family in green Virginia hills. But he still thinks of him dragged off by animals, lying in the woods, fallen leaves and snow drifting through his bones. He said he always wanted to know how that would feel. And now, in his own way, he does.

They say mummies under pyramids still wear the features they bore in life. They say Lenin still lies under glass, pale and eternal.

I’d rather be a pumpkin, and scatter what seeds I have to grow again.

When someone new comes to our group, the girl who dreams of skunks and summer will ask them if they’ve ever been in love. I told her I was once, with Frank Sinatra: with his voice, really, played alone in my room with the lights off, but also a little with a haunted, fugitive look in his eyes. I said yes to my husband because I saw that look shadowed in his own eyes. I didn’t know what it meant. I thought it was a wound inside him, something I could heal. But it was something else. He didn’t want my healing. He was like a dog tied up in a yard too long, one that only wants to tear loose and hurt whatever comes close.

When my husband died I was happy to throw dirt on his grave. I only worried it wasn’t deep enough. I knew he was dead and not going anywhere but part of me still worried he’d climb out and follow me home. It took me months to stop sleeping scrunched up on my side of the bed. Two years after he was gone, and my heart would still hammer if I dropped a plate. The mind knows, but the body remembers. Only now, at last, it can forget.

Nothing hurts. In spite of everything, I’m grateful for that.




Today they brought someone new to the farm. Something was different, I knew right away: more cameras, an excitement among the clipboards. They took the new arrival to a hill, far off from the rest of us. We watched them setting up tripods, a video camera. A tenseness, waiting. When would they put up her cage?

We felt her thoughts testing, trying. No words yet. Dying is like opening your hands, letting all the precious things you’ve gripped so tightly fall away. You’re happy to let them go but it’s strange, at first, to feel so light.

Our voices weave round her in greeting, welcoming her to our long dream.

She sees. She hears. She’s happy to greet us. But she, too, is waiting for something.

The clipboards withdraw, leaving her alone on the hill. A turkey vulture hops one hop closer on the branch of a bur oak tree, cranes its long red neck. We hear its quizzical, grunting coo, halfway between the sound of a pigeon and a pig. We hear the beating of wings.

I wanted to fly, she says.

And then the birds blanket her.

It’s faster than any of us could have imagined, this fading. Darting beaks and powerful, rushing wings. A wave of birds that comes together, separates, reunites. One bird takes off and then they all do, flying into the sun, riding the air.

I have found peace in the small things of the earth, but I never thought of seeing what birds see. Upside-down trees. Pieces of sky. A turning, dancing sun. A sky that never seemed so close or stretched so far.

And that was how she left us, in a thousand ecstatic goodbyes.


Author’s Note: This story is fictional, in that it imagines the continuing consciousness and inner lives of donors at a body farm research facility, but the scientific background is true, and I am indebted to Mary Roach's Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (Norton, 2003) and Alex Mar's “Sky Burial” (in Best American Nonrequired Reading, 2015) for inspiration and research.