'Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,' or so they say. And maybe after you’ve been laid on a funeral pyre they’d be right. But in reality the human body is mostly water—like the bulk of the earth’s surface. So it isn't ashes we return to, but the primordial soup. I say this with confidence, from experience—though, needless to say, merely as a witness to the return and not—at least not yet—as a participant.
The experience came with the purchase of a new house last October. By 'new' I mean new for me and my family—not a new building. In fact, the building was quite old, constructed, as I later discovered, in 1903. It had plenty of charm—oak floors with walnut trim, cove ceilings, stained glass—but plenty of shortcomings as well. And two of these nearly scuttled the sale: the knob-and-tube wiring and the oil-burning furnace. Actually, the furnace had been replaced with a mid-efficiency natural gas unit, and all that remained of the original was the fuel tank buried in the back yard. But my insurance broker warned that I would be refused coverage unless I agreed to upgrade the wiring and remove the old tank. I had thirty days from the closing date to comply.
The rewiring was done quickly and without incident (except to the once pristine plaster of the walls and ceilings). Digging out the old tank, however, proved to be a bigger challenge than expected. The neighbouring houses were too close for a bobcat to pass through to the back yard, so the digging had to be done by hand.
I secured the help of some friends—with the customary enticements of pizza and beer—and got down to work. After a number of hours we had exposed the tank and started heaving it out of the ground. But as we were pulling it to the surface we heard the unmistakable grating of metal on metal. There was a second tank buried only a few inches in front of the hole we had just dug and not far below the surface. Had we made the hole even six inches wider we would have noticed it right away. But we didn’t, and it was only because the first tank cut such a deep furrow into the ground as we dragged it from the hole that we discovered the second tank at all.
Needless to say, this tank was both unexpected and unwelcome. The first tank had taken the better part of the afternoon to unearth, and there was only so much goodwill you could purchase with pizza and beer. The grumbling didn’t take long to start up. The prevailing opinion was 'see no evil, hear no evil'. The tank had no business being there. No one knew of its existence: it wasn’t our problem. I have to admit I was swayed by this reasoning. I was hoping to catch the second half of the football game.
But while most of us were standing around debating the matter, one of my friends jumped into hole and began clearing the earth away from the tank's partially exposed edge. He called us over to look: it wasn’t a tank after all; it was a steel drum.
Now, this new fact generated a great deal of relief and some of the guys took it as an immediate signal to start throwing the dirt back where it came from. As someone was still standing in the hole, this resulted in a predictable combination of anger, laughter and shouted promises of revenge. It was followed by the inevitable jibes about toxic waste and how it explained why I got the house so cheap. When calm was restored the previous discontent was replaced by curiosity. Why was there a steel drum buried in my back yard?
The curiosity, of course, didn’t reach the point where anyone volunteered to dig the thing out of the ground, but a few of the guys started clearing the earth from the top of it just to see if it was still sealed. The consensus opinion was that it was empty, probably left when the foundation was dug. But it turned out to be sealed tight, and the sound emitted when the flat end of a shovel was rapped against it seemed to suggest that it still had something inside.
The next question was whether or not we should bother opening it. If it were toxic waste it would be better left unopened. It might even be dangerous to open. On the other hand, no one really believed the drum contained anything toxic—and if it did, I would hardly be comfortable leaving it my back yard—sealed or not. So the initial relief at discovering that it was only a drum and not another oil tank turned out to be short-lived. However, despite the desire to be done with this business, there was enough curiosity that we decided to unscrew the plug and see if we couldn’t figure out what the drum contained. If it turned out to be harmless we’d fill in the hole and call it a day. If not, we would have to come up with another plan.
I grabbed a pipe wrench and a flashlight from the house and went to work on the plug. But it was rusted on tight, and I was finally forced to go back and bring out the WD-40. That did the trick, and the plug began to turn—accompanied almost immediately by the sound of gas being released. The drum was under pressure. We all ran as if it were a bomb, giddy from the surprise.
One of my friends was unfortunate enough to be in the hole when the plug was loosened, and the sight of him clawing at the turf in a clumsy bid to pull himself to safety had us on our knees in laughter. But the look in his eyes was one of horror. He was wide-eyed with fear and the colour had drained from his face. It was the first time I had seen someone turn green. He clambered out and began retching partially digested pizza and beer onto the lawn.
The drum was still hissing. There was a moment when I came to believe it actually did contain some toxic chemical. Maybe even a biological weapon of the sort you read about from time to time—but never expected to encounter on a sunny urban afternoon. We were stunned. Then it hit us. Words are inadequate to convey the complexity of the stench that drifted over the yard: brimstone was only a note in a mad chorus of odors. Though I had never before encountered anything like it, there was no mistaking the smell of death: recognition was instinctual.
The hissing didn’t last long. The air soon cleared and so did our heads. There was no point in cowering near the fence line, so we got up and made our way back toward the drum. We all had our shirts pulled over our noses. One of my friends came up beside me and, peering down at the source of the stench, said what we were probably all thinking: that was an awful lot of gas for a dead cat. One of the other guys grabbed a shovel and suggested that since we could be pretty sure it wasn’t toxic waste we might as well fill in the hole and be done with it.
But surprisingly, nobody seemed ready to call it a day. The horror had passed as quickly as it came and all that remained was a macabre curiosity. It really was an awful lot of gas for a cat. “Should I get the crowbar?” The question was out almost before I realized what I was saying. “Might as well,” a couple of voices replied in unison, and everyone burst into nervous laughter.
The ring nut was even more rusted than the plug, and even with a liberal wash of WD-40 all I managed to do was strip the thing. Every time I pushed down on the lid for leverage a waft of death would seep out. Most of the guys were standing at a distance guzzling the last of the beer, laughing and cheering me on as I choked on the stench and tried to work without breathing. Eventually, though, someone came back with a hacksaw and we just cut the ring bolt off.
When the bolt finally snapped, everyone pulled their shirts back up over their noses and pressed in close for the unveiling. I stood on the lid and peeled the drum ring off with a crowbar, then stepped back and used the crowbar to pry up the lid. A terrible miasma rose from the ground and we scattered once again, gagging and groaning. Then I picked up the flashlight and came face to face with the eternal return.
It wasn’t until much later, after the forensics team and detectives had reached their uncertain conclusion—and even then, only by reading about it in the paper like everyone else—that I learned anything about the woman in the drum. All that could be said with confidence was that it was a woman, and that she was probably buried shortly after the house was built. From these meager facts it was surmised that she was the wife of the original owner, Jonathon Patterson Grimshaw. City records showed that Mr. Grimshaw, who lived in the house until his death in 1956, and who was subsequently interred at Woodland Cemetery, was married to Jude Harriet Grimshaw. No record could be found regarding her death or burial. No record could be found of any children or close relatives that might be interviewed. And in addition to all the other uncertainties, the cause of death remained undetermined.
But as I stood in my back yard shining a flashlight into the bottom of a steel drum, what struck me was how the bones were floating in their own soup, a thick putrescent liquor that must have gone through countless cycles of fermentation. There were no ashes or dust in that rusty crypt. Later, when I reflected on what I had seen, I could imagine that as the tissue melted off the bones, there must have been a point—while tendons and cartilage still held the skeleton together—when the body might have been seen bathing in its own liquefied flesh: a final ablution in a dark canister as life prepared its return to the primordial sea.