Listen to Vertigo's playlist inspired by this story: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/1FZXKSREoQF7EGzQ6TK59t?si=3QLZaigOQt6mYrmcVydvVg&pi=a-jo0_60fYQMi5
Below a small shrub, a few minutes walk away from the path, lies a decomposing girl. Where her eyes used to be, there are now empty black sockets. A scruff of hair trails from her skull. What used to be blonde and maybe even beautiful, is now dirty and sparse. The forest path has been worn down over years of use, but the earth around this girl’s body is untouched by humanity. She is an intruder, an uncanny addition to an otherwise tranquil place. Her bones are snapped but still have small pieces of stringy grey flesh connected to them in places. She is perched at an odd angle indeed.
I haven’t been outside in a few days. I spent the past weekend pent-up inside the house, the windows rattling violently from a storm that left buckets of rain. This morning, sunshine was finally beginning to peek through the dark clouds, so I decided to bite the bullet and stride out into the mud. Now I am unsure that was the right decision.
As I inspect the dead body, my dog – whom I named Dog for convenience – wags her tail gleefully. Looking up at me with her tongue hanging out, I long to see inside her mind. To feel the freedom of being a simple animal with no troubles, to escape this problem lying in front of me. Envy isn’t something I usually feel, but Dog’s simple existence, all stretching and sleeping, is hard not to be jealous of.
Until recently, we had a steady routine. We walked along the same path of trees every day. Dog led the way, pulling me to different spots she wanted to sniff at. It was always the same for me, trudging along the track and swatting the bugs from my face. But for her, it was different each time. Dog was always enthralled. Some days Dog came across a particularly fascinating smell, that would make us veer off the path if I allowed her to follow it. But I never did.
My last pet, a tabby cat, was much less obedient. Eventually, I got bored of rousing her to play with her stuffed mouse on a stick, and she got too old to care. After that, she just stared at me all day, her black eyes boring into my soul. I feel like she was the only one who ever saw me for what I am. I much prefer the company of Dog, who will do anything I say, and not examine me too closely. Sometimes, I look down at Dog digging up some decomposing thing and I am struck by how stupid she really is. I could do anything to her, and she would let me because she is my most loyal companion. But other times, I adore the sight of her, and dread the day her eyes will gain a milky sheen, her walking will slow down, and age will ruin her. I’ll have to get rid of her then.
I like to maintain a daily walk for a couple of reasons. The main one is that if I don’t, Dog becomes increasingly erratic and hyper, to the point where I become so frustrated I fantasise about putting my hands around her throat and squeezing until I hear a snap. Also, I read somewhere that fog and dew are good for your skin. Something about the cool air and the condensation stimulating collagen, or keratin, or some other chemical advertised as ‘anti-aging.’ A little vanity never hurt anyone.
Just after my 25th birthday, after drinking myself into a stupor that lasted two days (in which I forgot to feed Dog and she covered the floor in piss), we started taking different routes on our walks. I began to allow Dog to pull me in whatever direction she pleased, so engrossed in my thoughts we would find ourselves in an unfamiliar part of the forest, staring down a collection of skinny, swaying trees. I would entertain my curiosity until I remembered the darker parts of the wood, the places where we couldn’t go, and then I would turn us back the way we came. My last pet was buried somewhere out in the wilderness, and I didn’t want Dog to defile the bones — she has a habit of chewing anything we come across, and it tends to upset her stomach.
This morning we crossed through dense shrubbery people haven’t walked upon in years. Deep in the forest, there were more places for Dog to sniff and investigate. We unearthed organisms from crevices undisturbed for aeons. As soon as the creatures stepped into the sun, Dog would seize and devour them. The smell of dirt after rainfall infiltrated the air and made me screw up my nose in disgust. I tugged Dog’s leash, beckoning her homeward, and picked up my pace. The squelching mud we kicked up stank like shit. The dampness of the air invaded my lungs and crawled its way to the back of my throat. That’s when we came across a far more potent smell.
I sigh as I take in the dead girl’s appearance. I have seen enough true crime on television to understand that her end was violent. Her bones are at unnatural angles and her neck is snapped upward. The empty sockets where her eyes used to be are staring towards me. I wonder how old she is, if her skin is still smooth, if her killer had liked watching the life leave her body.
I take my lip into my mouth and rip a piece of skin off, chewing once and swallowing. Looking at her, I expect a chill to go through me, but all I feel is emptiness. I always thought that something this horrific would make me cry. Burn my lungs. Make my brain go into overdrive. Maybe if she still had eyes I would have felt more unsettled. The heavy fog hanging over the forest is more eerie to me than this decaying girl. Honestly? The prominent emotion in my head is annoyance.
Who is this girl? What gives her the right to interrupt my walk?
“What should we do, precious?” I ask Dog, who strains against her leash, sniffing at the body. Unsurprisingly, Dog says nothing in return. I huff aloud and pull the leash taut, as though this act of passive aggression will spur her into speaking. She just sits down beside me, faithful as ever, breathing slow, stifled breaths. She stares up at me like I am a deity. In a way, I am her God. She worships me, and in return, I am her master. Without me, she would probably be wasting away in some house filled with people who don’t see her potential. Dog is lucky for the life I give her. I could just as easily take it away.
Suddenly I am struck with the thought that maybe someone has left this body here for me. I walk around here every day, each time wandering deeper into the forest and a little closer to where I now know the body lies. Someone has been watching my movements. Watching me, seeing I am different from other people. Thinking we are alike in that way.
Maybe this is a gift?
I step closer to the girl, her odour growing stronger, and hear the low sound of buzzing. Flies swarm about her, invading her flesh. No, it can’t be. I hate bugs, and someone who has supposedly observed me enough to leave this corpse here for me would know that.
Or maybe I just came too soon. Maybe, this had been left here for me to find later, but the storm uncovered her too early. Too soon for my gift to be finished. She is undercooked. Happening upon her was my fault. She would have lain here undisturbed and peaceful if it weren't for me daring to venture this far into the woods. I picture her fate if I had stuck to my usual path like a time-lapse in my head, her rotting flesh sinking deeper into the earth. Her guts sinking, falling, disintegrating. Her hair fading out of existence until she is just another piece of bone in this expansive wood, waiting to be dug up and presented to me by Dog on one of our walks.
Dog sniffles beside me, and I gaze down at her. I don’t want to think about what will happen when she dies. I can’t let my poor Dog rot away, like this girl. I will have to have her stuffed so she can stay by my side, my loyal companion, until I too become bones and dust.
I draw my eyes back to the corpse. You could hardly even call her a girl anymore, just a collection of dry leftovers and dirt-stained bones. Her blood is no longer wet in the earth around her and has long since seeped into the roots of these trees. This forest is made of her. Who am I to remove her from this place? She is endemic to the forest. It thrives off of her life source: Her sacrificial flesh feeds the organisms in the dirt. Her decaying body helps the plants create oxygen. She helps people breathe.
I stare down at her again, scraping, searching anywhere inside of me for an ounce of empathy — thinking that she might have a mother, a child, a family — but all I can find is a cold hollowness. A vindication. I have won. I am alive, and this thing is not.
It is decided. I will leave her here, and come back later when my gift is ready to be dug up. The silver fog continues to creep steadily over the forest, but my mind is clear. I feel serene.
“Come on then, sweet girl,” I coo to Dog as we turn away from my gift. We traipse back through the forest, stopping to sniff, or dig, or maul. Our long walk is once again peaceful, but the image of the girl remains in my mind. I picture her burial place becoming obscured over time with growing foliage and layers of mud and rock. People hiking through the labyrinth of trees, oblivious to the violence within it. I imagine a family picnicking atop her, completely ignorant that a desecrated woman lies directly beneath their lunch, her twisted limbs and leaking organs slowly decomposing.
She is my special secret.