If you’re quiet, you can hear them munching and crunching. It happens when hundreds of them congregate for a feast of decomposing flesh. They are still juveniles at this voracious eating stage in their life cycle as flies. Initially, they are white specks laid by their mothers in wet, moist regions of abandoned human bodies — the eyes, the nose, and bloody wounds. They squirm through multiple growth spurts as maggots, discarding brown pupa casings as they enlarge. As they eat, they excavate brains, stomachs, and lungs, after stealthily entering through sinuses, mouths, and airways.
These necessary tasks of nature are usually unseen by people. We genteelly shoo away a bothersome bug at a cookout. Its delicate proboscis searches for a drop of sugar in the remnants of a festive meal. Finely lined wings allow for its quick escape from anyone threatening its life. The blue-green body sparkles in the sunlight. The beauty of the adult insect belies its immature phase, the one I’m more familiar with as a forensic pathologist. Mature blow flies are pollinators, drawn to the aroma of food or flowers. Their larvae are scavengers of dead tissue. Those of us who wield the fly swatter with murderous venom sense the disgusting childhood of these nuisance bugs.
“I can’t get her,” the investigator says as he balances on the concrete overpass ledge. He is reaching out toward a tree rising up from the ravine while another officer holds onto hisankles to steady him.
“We’ll go below and see if we can push her up,” another trooper says. Red toenails peek out from the brush of yellowing bushes. A young female body is suspended upside down in the early autumn foliage along this steep hill. From the sour smell and the green skin color, it’s clear she’s been here a while.
Wearing jeans, a teeshirt and sneakers, I have on a casual look today, not my usual scrubs, or lab coat. This is an outdoor murder scene. An early morning jogger had noted the crimson color in the trees and slowed, thinking he had spotted a downy woodpecker. His breath caught as he realized he was staring at the pedicure of a woman’s foot. Now, the response team is trying to recover her fragile, decomposing body from the trees where she is stuck, head toward the ground. I scan the scene attempting to determine the best approach. The slope is steep but passable.
“Whoa,” the uphill trooper calls as his hand slips on the de-gloving skin.
“Wait,” I say, as the physician in charge, wanting to preserve evidence and the woman’s dignity.
After descending the ravine to join the downhill team, I don gloves and move in to inspect the situation. Her head is precariously attached to her neck via strands of sinew. She is a foot above me in a tight stand of trees. The officers with me are too big to fit in the space. There is no way to tug on her head without dislodging it. We have to proceed in an upward direction. Wedging myself beneath her, stabilizing her head, I yell, “Okay, pull, now.” They do and she begins to move.
There is a shower of maggots that rain down on me as she is maneuvered uphill. They land in my hair and on my bare arms. I close my mouth and briefly my eyes. The cumbersome nature of the body retrieval prevents me from wiping them away. Step by step, we climb the grade, preserving her, and ultimately place her in the body bag. All the while, the fly larvae wiggle and crawl on my skin.
As soon as she is secure, I rip off my gloves and pull my shirt over my head. My body shakes in a frenzied dance to dislodge any insects caught in my long tresses. My hands swipe up and down my extremities to make sure the writhing critters are gone. Finishing by wiping my face, I look around. There are a dozen male law enforcement officers standing in a semi-circle, motionless. Some are staring at their shoes uncomfortably, others looking beyond me to the horizon, but some boldly peering at my pink lace bra. A light breeze chills my nearly naked chest.
A rookie officer, who I haven’t met before, comes up to me, handing me a starched shirt on a hanger. He blushes but continues to look me in the eye, never wavering with a downward glance at my breasts. I slowly unbutton the uniform and put it on.