Yesterday I learned about vultures. I was watching a television show, and it said that some kinds of vultures live in North America. I did not believe this at first, but it is true. In summer they roost in dead trees, like in the movies, and in winter they fly to South America and live in caves. This is called migration. Vultures in movies have bald heads, which is also true. In winter, they tuck their heads into their feathers, and in summer, they stretch out their necks to feel the breeze and cool down. This is called thermoregulation. And I already knew that vultures can smell a dead animal from up to a mile away. This is because when you are dying, the air particles around you also die, and the ones around them die, until everything is dead. This is a very particular smell. When the vultures find you under the dead air, they start to eat your skin. When your skin is gone, they eat your fat and your muscles, and then your guts and your eyes last, so you are all bones and cartilage and hair. When I heard that, I thought it would be a nice way to die. To be used.
This morning I slept in until ten o’clock. I woke up because the phone was ringing. It was my boss.
Where are you, he said.
I told him I was dying.
Why didn’t you call in sick, he said.
I am not sick, I am dying, and that is different.
You’re not sick.
No, I am not.
Then please come in to work. Goodbye.
I pretended that he meant it. Then I got out of bed and went to the bathroom. I brushed my teeth with water so that my mouth would stink. I thought about peeing on my legs, which is something that vultures do, but I thought they might not like it if I was acting like a vulture. I thought I would just stick to dying.
I decided to pack a picnic. First I had to find a basket, which was difficult because you do not buy a basket unless you have already needed one, which I have not. Eventually I found a plastic shopping bag. I wrote PICNIC on it in block letters so that everyone would know I had a picnic and that I was not shopping, in fact I was dying and would no longer need to shop. I went to the kitchen and made a cheese sandwich. This was not for me, it was just in case the vultures wanted to try it before they killed me. When I had a dog it sometimes ate carrots, so I got some carrots too. I put on my shoes and packed my plastic picnic bag and walked to the park.
Here is the thing about vultures. They do not usually spend a lot of time in parks, even though a lot of little things die there. They only like big dead things. I thought I was bigger than a vulture, but I wasn’t sure. That is why I brought the cheese sandwich. I took it out of my picnic bag and dropped it onto the grass, and then I dropped the carrots next to it. Then I lay down on the grass so that the sandwich and the carrots were by my feet, because this would be more convenient for the vultures in terms of the order of what to eat.
I did not know how long it would take for the vultures to smell me, as I was still alive, so I thought I should try to help. I concentrated very hard on one air particle in front of my nose. I thought about how alone it was, and that there were millions of other air particles around, but none of them cared, and none of them would remember that it had existed. After a few minutes, the air particle got very lonely and it died. It turned hard and black, but it was not heavy enough to fall. Instead it touched the one next to it, and the second one also died and turned hard and black. Then all the particles around that one died, and the ones around them died, and I could smell all the hard black loneliness rising up into the trees.
Soon the vultures came. They hurtled down in rings through the dead air. I could hear their sheet metal shrieks and groans when they smelled what I had done. From below I could see the pee stains on their legs and their short tails, and I was proud that I had called them. They were wonderful and strong. Their feathers were mostly black except for the part under the wing, which looked like someone had dipped it in milk. I hoped someone had.
The first vulture landed at my feet, near the sandwich. It jabbed at the bread with its beak. Another landed next to it, and I heard it crunch on a carrot. I pretended that the carrot was me, that my whole body had broken into two parts and that only now that I was broken could I see how throttlingly orange I was.
The third vulture landed on my ankle and I screamed. The weight of it pushed through my body, into my fingernails and chest and between my legs and behind my eye sockets. Yes, this is it, the end, happy, happy, deliriously and hysterically happy! Today is judgment day! The birds know me! I am home! I am loved!
More were falling, more vultures vibrating in the sky. They tore off little pieces of my skin around my ankles and knees and gulped them down without chewing. Each bite made everything fuzzier and louder, my screams and their screams together. There was more skin on my stomach, so they ripped it off in long strings and fought over the pieces. Next were my wrists and ears and neck. The sky was hot black, full of vultures.
When the skin was gone, they started on the muscles and fat. Please! I coughed up dust. Let me help! They said, Okay. So I sat up and crawled out of my body, and I swallowed its flesh in wet pearly beakfuls, and everything died.
about the writer
Grace Coberly grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. Her work is forthcoming or has appeared in Cleaver, Border Crossing, and IceviewMagazine, and has been recognized by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. An alum of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio and the Adroit Mentorship Program, she was also the first-place winner of the LSSU High School Short Story Prize and a fiction finalist in the Young Authors Writing Competition at Columbia College, both in 2017. She is a freshman at Haverford College.