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Tomato positive mice look like bubble gum and licorice inside. What isn’t red is pink, and what isn’t pink is red. Candy or plastic, glossy in the way organs tend to be beneath their thin membrane coatings. I neatly slice the layers of flesh, fat, muscle, and sinew to peel the skin back like wings and display these vibrant organs. Bedding scrapes and scatters nearby as the remaining borrowed mice scamper and fight. One mouse is loosely biting another’s scruff and kicking up against his stomach.

“Play nice boys,” I tell the little mice as I set the splayed open corpse outside the window.

Their black little eyes shine and their pink little noses twitch, swaying those whiskers like stiff wires. They dive into the cardboard tubes and cloth hides I’ve set up for them. I rinse my hands in the kitchen sink, two scrubs with the dish soap before and after stripping off my gloves. I don’t have biohazard waste at home. Hands damp and scrubbed raw, I grab my coffee, unfortunately lukewarm at this point, and sit at my small kitchen table. I run my finger across the grain, watching my window, waiting.

The first time I saw the creature, I was walking from school. An accident on the train track or by means of an over-eager vulture, left half a deer ribcage hanging in the dense foliage of a small triangle of trees. It was humid but the air was cooling, so I took my time on my walk. The glossy candy pink of flesh stretched taut over the ribs stood out like spring blooms against the bright green of freshly unfurled leaves and young vines.  It didn’t stink the way old chicken in crab traps did, slimy and green and so foul you’d vomit in your nose before you could fully describe the rotting chicken scent. This deer was fresh and vaguely damp, just sitting in the tree.

My legs stopped moving beneath me as I came up to it.  Leaned and tilted and raised my head, trying to decipher the body part. Initially I did not realize it was an animal corpse; that’s probably why I stood there so long. It was like a trance. The shape of the ribs against this pink bag like structure, a dark hollow stuffed with poorly defined shapes from my angle, my brain trying to decipher exactly what I saw. I may have stood there for hours, at least long enough for the light to change.

Eventually it clicked that it was part of a dead animal. I wouldn’t know exactly what until years later, when I worked at a nature reserve and put out roadkill for the vultures. I stood there a little longer before I gave up on trying to figure out what exactly it belonged to. Just as I was turning, the smell hit me. Like green, rotting, waterlogged chicken and perforated guts. I stopped in my tracks to gag and pinch my nose, rub the sight blurring tears from my eyes. The fresh piece of dead animal hadn’t smelled like that. The wind hadn’t changed.

The same curiosity that got me to stare at the deer ribs, urged me to turn back around, in the direction of the smell.

It wore no skins.

Instead, it had a mottled coat of pink, grey, brown, green, and black. The coat hung like tassels. Shredded muscles in varying stages of rot, stringy and clumpy all at once. Muscles hung from yellowed bones. Knobs of vertebrae, a radius hanging from the last strings of connective tissue to an ulna, ribs. The bones were lightly gouged, scraped clean of all flesh. All I saw was the coat as it rose and rose and rose. Then dropped, snapping branches on its way down with the partial animal corpse. An empty gap in the foliage was all that was left where the deer ribs once hung. 

I turned at the first snap, curiosity smothered, and I ran. I’d stop at that spot in the trees every day through the rest of high school, looking for a sign of that creature, but all it left were a couple of broken branches that were gone by late summer. It never came back.

The second time I saw it was working at the nature reserve. I spent a few years hauling the roadkill to the vulture fields, to make sure they didn’t get hit trying to eat on the roadside, before I caught a glimpse of it again.

Roadkill went out early, before the sun could start to sour the meat. Not for the sake of the vultures. They wait for rot to set in before they eat anyways. It just made them easier to handle. I was alone. It was only a fawn, and I could heave it out of the truck bed on my own. The less we interacted with the field and the vultures the better. We weren’t even really feeding them, just relocating their food to one of several safe locations.

I was late. Dawn had already broken, and the field was a misty orange. Dew soaked my pants, as I shuffled under the weight of the young deer. Its head hung at an odd angle and a tear in its gut was one layer away from spilling out all the organs. At least it would be easier for the vultures to dig in. I dropped the body just a few feet from the tree line. The thud made me jump. It was the time of day where nocturnal wildlife had gone to bed and the diurnal had yet to rise, true peace and quiet. I stripped off my protective coat and gloves before I could feel the moisture of the dead deer’s fluids, whatever it was leaking besides blood, got on me. Death is disgustingly wet. It was the only thing that ever really bothered me when I put out the roadkill.

I tossed them in the back of the truck. The first of the vultures, turkey vultures with their incredible sense of smell, had started to land on the branches, but they avoided the trees nearest the corpse. I watched as the sun came up and more birds filled it, flapping their wings and hopping between the thickest branches. 

The day got warmer and brighter. Black vultures started filling in the gaps. The same set of trees stayed empty. It bothered me a little. Black vultures are aggressive and not easy to scare. I made my way toward the empty trees to see what the problem was.

Near the tree line, I came across a little nest that must have been blown over. Pink little birds were inside, most already dead, but one was still struggling and squirming. It opened its frowning beak only for no sound to come out. Before I could pick the nest up, it had given in to the call of death. Then that smell, rotten meat and sewage, radiated from the woods. I froze up.

It slinked out of the trees, wearing its grand, mottled coat of muscle and bone. A train of intestines and organs dragged behind it. Death had swept through, then it came up after to clean up whatever remained.

The vultures began to jostle and call. The creature stopped over the little nest. It reached a long arm of weaved tails, all sorts of tails, some of hair, some of skin and muscle and bone, some of the shells and scales of sea life. I could make out the hair of a horse, silvery fish fins, and an entire grey and red line of shrimp and lobster tails along one side like armor. There were other tails I couldn’t identify that were longer, easier to weave. It didn’t end in a hand. Maybe it was more like a tentacle or club. I can't quite describe it. The appendage had some way to grab because it set that weaving of tails over the nest and when it lifted back, the nest was empty.

The creature hunched into itself, another appendage coming out of the coat also constructed in knots of tails. I shuffled half a step back. It was such a small, quiet motion, but it felt like the biggest mistake I had ever made in that moment.

The creature’s body snapped up and straightened. It peered at me from behind the coat. Its face was lumpy and pink, like a ball of chewed gum. It held out and opened its arms to show me the little birds, so small and pink. It began to pop the heads off the bodies. Loud, clean cracks silenced the birds above, silenced my breathing. One by one, the baby birds were beheaded. The creature tucked the bodies, such tiny bodies, somewhere in the shadow of the coat.

It lifted its head back up to me as it grabbed a head from its hand. It jammed the bird into its face. Frowning beaks, blue bulges where eyes would have eventually opened staring out at the world. Slowly, the creature gave itself eyes from the dead young. Five baby birds now five, pink and blue, swollen eyes. Beaks opened and began to call for their mother, but she did not come. Nothing came to their pleas. The creature nodded to me, before falling back into the cover of its coat and shuffling away into the woods.

I stood there until the sun got hot and I could start to smell the rot taking over the fawn’s body. I shuffled up the hill, leaving the vultures to enjoy their meal. I watched them drift down from the trees before I drove away.

I didn’t return to work, didn’t drop off the truck or safety supplies for days. I went home, and I thought and thought and thought. When I caught a mouse in a trap, I set it out on my porch, and I waited.

The creature came. Nearly a week passed, and the corpse was deflated and buzzing with flies, but the creature came. It took the tail to add to its arm. It took several dead flies to add somewhere else. It was hesitant at first, wouldn’t get close to me.

I started putting out any pests that died in my house. When that failed to attract the creature, I went out to collect recently dead or dying animals to little along my porch. Death would come and it would follow. Eventually I built a little structure with spikes and platforms to stick the dead and dying animals on, like a shrike.

I think its grateful for what I do. It brings me knick-knacks like a crow: coins, shiny buttons, jewelry, sometimes even pelts. It doesn’t seem interested in the skins. I don’t expect anything from it. I started setting out animal corpses out of curiosity, now I feel like I’m just helping it clean up what vultures and other scavengers miss.

The tomato mice are a treat. They are beautiful inside. Outside, the old wooden steps creak. The creature climbs up on my porch in an awkward shuffle. It reaches out, pealing the organs from the mice. It pastes them along its head in a carefully crafted spiraling pattern. I wave when it lifts its face to look at me with its baby bird head eyes.  It has added to itself since its last been here. An open smile of human molars.

Written by Cas Chessa
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