by Polina Danilyuk
-Strange – 2 Pages –
“What you have?” says Olaf.
Olaf isn’t like you and me. You and me, we’re sitting, baking, locked up in a stuffy school library, reading stories to each other. Olaf, he barely speaks a word of English. Until today, he’s never even been to the U.S.. Today, he lands in San Francisco for the first time, and probably for the last time, for he intends to stay, and Olaf might be in need of a drink.
The stewardess cocks her head to one side, flashing a phony, glittering, perfectly aligned grid of grin. “Tonic, gin, soda,” she recites. “Juice, tea, coffee. We’ve got beer, vodka. I could make you a Bloody Mary, sir,” she says.
Olaf grimaces and waves her away. “I have nothing,” he mutters, with a brunt Russian accent.
Olaf may just be the first Russian man in recorded history to have refused vodka. But then, he isn’t like you, or me, or the Russians.
If we were to crash on this airplane, they’d probably find Olaf’s body first. It could be in the desert or the ocean or on the damp, dirty floor of some long-forgotten jungle, rainshower or shine or monsoon, and they’d still find it first. Olaf’s got so many preservatives in him, so many pesticides and toxins floating around in his blood; he’s pumped with so many chemicals that his corpse would likely be rendered indestructible, virtually weatherproof, if we were to crash.
If we were to crash, he’d rot, sure. If you lie there, dead, long enough, the flies’ll get to you. They’ll get under your clothes and wriggle up your nose and deep down your ass crack and lay their eggs where it’s nice and moist and warm. And the hairy, juicy maggots that’ll hatch out of those, they’ll squeeze their greasy way under your skin. They’ll crawl in and chew their way through your soft palate and begin working on your brain. Like all your other organs, it’ll turn yellow with pus and fat and rupture. It’ll leak and bubble and froth out your ears and nose and mouth, along with those maggots. Not long before you’re reduced to a sticky, bony consistency, a soupy colony of pus and plasma and green mold crawling with sickly yellow insects. No, blood, no guts. No distinguishable features. Not long before all that’s left of you is a dark, smelly stain on the ground, in the place where you evaporated.
This would happen to Olaf. It would happen to us all, and it will happen to us all, at some point. The difference between Olaf and you and me is, he’ll boil over and fall apart in a period of about ten, twenty years. It would take us a few weeks.
Olaf has a big onion head. All of his dirty, brown hair stands up in one massive cowlick in the middle of his head and his jaws get progressively wider from the bottom of his colossal cleft chin to his ears. He’s got two big ears, not floppy or sticking out, but flat and pressed to the sides of his head. His pale, pasty neck looks exploded, a bulbous mass that only adds to the effect of his onion shape.
Olaf didn’t always look like a legume. He didn’t always smell like one, either. Now his skin is drained of color, hanging off in dead strips. His eyes glaze over, his fingers tremble, and he sneezes everywhere. Pills rattle in their bottles in his pockets when he shakes.
It wasn’t always like this. It wasn’t like this five years ago, when Olaf himself was just twenty years old. When he found a pretty girl and decided to settle down. When he picked the city of Chernobyl to live in. Not only because the best fields were there, for farming, but the biggest, largest nuclear power plant. After all, in a society defined by its struggle for world domination, who doesn’t want a piece of the pie?
Olaf always was a man of onions. A farmer. A Commie. Power to the Reds. In ’86, when the plant blew up, he took his pregnant wife to the rooftop and they drank champagne as they watched the nuclear embers glow red in the night. When the government refused to grant access to the plant, and when the Ukranian president refused to concur that a cloud of radiation was settling over the city, Olaf believed them. When they blasted announcements over the radio to remain calm and remain in place, even as hundreds of thousands of people were evacuating Chernobyl, Olaf and his wife stayed behind. Even as the onions in their fields quadrupled in size and took on an odd, fluorescent purple shade, Olaf and his wife continued to harvest them and to ship them out, and to eat them, too. They ate them not necessarily because they wanted to, but because there was no one left to sell to, and no place to buy produce from.
It wasn’t until his wife gave birth to an onion baby that Olaf began to have doubts.
She might have been a pretty little girl if she hadn’t had a giant head. Olaf’s daughter, she came out blue, and dead, and with a big, bulbous onion head, just like his.
She had a bloated throat. Thyroid cancer. What happens with thyroid cancer is the cells in your throat will swell up to make an enormous, hanging bulge at your neckline. If you’re an adult and you have this, you’ll probably get asthma and wheeze a lot. If you’re a fetus and you have this, you’ll choke on yourself before you ever take your first breath. And that’s what happened. Olaf got a slimy, blue, dead little alien, and his wife caught a fever died before ever hearing the news.
Olaf didn’t call the hospital. He dismissed the midwife and he wrapped up his family in their best sheets and he dragged them outside, to a wooded area of his onion field. He unwrapped his wife and he unwrapped his child and he laid them out in front of him, naked. He took out a digital recorder and he watched. And he sat with them on the radioactive ground, and he watched.
Death isn’t really a thing. It’s not an event. It’s a process. The soul goes God-knows-where, but the blood, once it’s got nothing to pump it around, it drains to the bottom. You become a bit bottomheavy, literally, since most of it will settle in your ass.
What lots of people don’t realize is that your cells don’t need you. They just need you to help them take a crap. They turn to autolysis-cannibalism. Digesting themselves and digesting their neighbors. Your cells can continue to respire without oxygen and secrete large amounts of lactic acid. That’ll cause your muscles to contract and stiffen. Rigor mortis should commence after about three hours and last another day and a half. With Olaf’s wife and child, it begins immediately and lasts two weeks.
For two weeks, Olaf watches his wife gradually tighten her fists and draw them to her. For two weeks, he only leaves his post to fetch soup or an onion from the house. He doesn’t sleep, doesn’t wash, doesn’t touch. For two weeks, Olaf sits and watches. He doesn’t know that what’s happening is out of place. He just really, really hopes that it is.
About ten days in, with the tenacity of the mortis fading, the cells run out of stuff to eat and die. They’re all bloated by now, acrid and gassy. All of this floating around in your body, you’re just a smelly, sloshy bag of liquid. The body can’t get rid of gas, either, so it builds up inside. Makes you look fat. Air from the lungs diffuses up and forces people to loll out their tongues sometimes.
Parts of your skin loosen their ties to your tendons and literally start sliding down, folding in over themselves as they fall to the floor in layers and sheets. Bacteria and enzymes grow mold in your liver and your lungs and your brain and eat through the walls. A flow of acid and dead cells and pus and mold and plasma pours out, the bacteria riding a wave of their own abundant food supply. All of these things leak out of you-through your eye sockets, your nostrils, your mouth. They ooze and froth their way out and spread in a puddle around you.
Olaf wonders when the flies will come.
Flies are supposed to come right away.
Flies, they love dead people. Dead people leak. Dead people are salty and sweaty. They drool and drip their snot wherever they’ve fallen. Maybe they’ll have pissed themselves if they were really old or scared. The flies love this. They get in there and suck it all up. Eye goop. Ear wax. The juice inside the pimples on your back. They love the stuff.
They lay eggs, the flies. Usually near the moister areas. In the mouth, in the ears. In the navel. Hundreds and hundreds of rice-shaped, rice-colored little eggs in and around. Maggots hatch. They’ll usually burrow under the skin, but not get much deeper. You can see their networks and highways, crawling around in there, juicy white bumps fidgeting and foraging just beneath the surface.
Beetles arrive, though they are more interested in feasting on the larvae than trying to chew through the tough, leathery ribbons of skin you’ve got. Wasps come and lay their eggs in the beetle carcasses. Moths come to devour the clothing.
Olaf doesn’t know about the beetles and wasps and the maggots, but he knows, at least, about the flies. He knows that, normally, his wife should by now be a gastronomical wonderland for insects. A rotten, musty, sticky paradise. And yet, they’re nowhere to be found. Olaf watches. Olaf videotapes. Olaf hopes to God this isn’t normal.
The bugs never do come for his wife, or his little kid. Olaf sits there for two years and watches their stomachs explode from the pressure of the gas inside. He watches their bodies collapse in on themselves. He watches the bacteria having their way, slowly decomposing the bodies.
Olaf watches his cows. He watches them keel over from starvation, their calves bleating helplessly without their mothers. He watches their skin shrink and their eyeballs dry out and their stomachs get gassy and their tongues stick out. He finds it odd, suddenly, that there aren’t any flies. There were always flies on his cows, dead or alive, and now there are none. He takes note on the absence of flies on his wife and his kid and he tapes and he hopes to God that this isn’t normal.
Three more years of watching, and Olaf is twenty-five years old. He has no money because no one will buy his onions because he’s abandoned the farm. He hasn’t looked in a mirror or shaven or washed since he laid out his family in the woods. He’s just watched. He’s watched them mummify and decomposed with them, only much slower.
Five years later, and he can feel a lump in his throat, Olaf. He can feel his face widening at the bottom, like an onion. He can smell it. He doesn’t just smell like a dirty person, but like a sick person, too. He can smell all the extra, dead cells at his neck. He can scratch them off so they hang in strips like garlands.
Olaf knows he won’t ever be able to pay for the operation. Not here. He goes to the U.S. embassy and he gives them the key to his shed of video tapes of his wife and his kid. He tells them about the flies, how the flies never came because of the radioactivity, and, through a translator, he says, “the same thing that did that to them, it’s doing this to me,” and points at his throat.
“Take it out,” says the translator to the embassy.
“Please,” says the translator.
Now Olaf’s on an airplane bound for San Francisco. Shaved and scrubbed, but still reeking of the dead, Olaf sits in his First Class leather seat and shivers and coughs and sneezes and decomposes. Just like you and me, only much, much slower.