1821 — Birthdate of Charles Baudelaire
Your current situation brings to mind the poem “Une Charogne” (“A Carcass”) from Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil.
“Do you recall that thing we saw, my love, / That beautiful summer morning…”
Two lovers out for a stroll discover a decaying carcass, its legs in the air “like a lusty woman,” the body swollen with poison and gasses:
“And the sky regards the superb carcass / Like a flower in bloom…”
The odor is so overpowering that the narrator’s companion nearly faints. But the poem does not look away — in fact, it luxuriates in queasy details of buzzing flies and clusters of maggots, finding unexpected beauty…a “strange music” within the decay.
For Baudelaire, the encounter is unusual. Perhaps, if corpses appeared around every corner, the sight might not have inspired his poetry.
For you, a surgical mask filters a portion of the odor, but not enough. As your shovel slides beneath the body, the swollen stomach bursts and a cloud of gnats rises into diseased air. You step back quickly, waving aside the spray of insects, then wield the shovel again, heaving the lower half into your wooden cart. The upper half has stuck to the pavement, which is why the body tore. You scrape at it, gathering the solid remains while foul liquid oozes onto the road and nearby grass.
One down, another dozen or so to go. You’ll wheel the cart to the edge of town, burn the multiple corpses, and hope you’ve curtailed further spread of the infection.
Sometimes you catch yourself trying to recognize a face, trying to match it with the list of the missing. But it’s better not to know.
It will be a long day. You move to the next carcass, more hideous and contorted than the one before, and wish you had a poet’s ability to find beauty in decay.