People didn’t like Danvil but Danvil liked people. As a schoolboy, he’d been awkward and covered with greasy zits. Even with thick glasses to assist his sight, he constantly bumped into things and knocked over breakables. His voice was grating, nasal and staccato, abrading even the most tolerant listeners’ patience. His smile turned others’ into grimaces. It was a losing battle to get anyone to hold his gaze.
Born with an intestinal condition, Danvil took medicine every day that came with an unfortunate side effect. His body exuded the smell of stale bread. Born to exhausted parents with more children than funds to provide for them, he grew up wearing hand-me-downs of indiscriminate size and gender. He started balding before he was twenty. Yet, Danvil endured it all with a storm-beaten smile.
The closest thing Danvil found to a friend went by the name of Morana. All of Morana’s friends had drifted away, partly due to the post-high-school diaspora to colleges, but mostly because she had started exhibiting signs of paranoid schizophrenia. Morana and Danvil had graduated in the same class and enrolled in the same community college. In each other, they found someone who would not be scared away. His smile, his smell, his small personality made her feel safe in the eye of a hurricane of hallucinatory sights and sounds. He drove her to doctors and pharmacists when her friends and family didn’t care to make the time.
When Morana went off her meds at age twenty-six and disappeared, Danvil was the one on the front lines searching and leaving frantic messages on cell phones, all of which were dismissed to voicemail after two rings. He found her in their favorite place in the world, a park on the edge of town called “The Poet’s Garden,” full of willows and lilac bushes and a stream that fed a marsh. Morana had taught Danvil to do yoga there. She and he had visited there often, to feel the silence, to hear and see peace.
Her body was a downward-facing dog by the slow stream. Beside her on the bank rested a razor blade smeared with a dried, black hint of what had transpired. She’d opened her wrists and drained them away into the marsh.
Something about the bite marks on Morana’s toothsome legs—probably left by some coyote—made Danvil realize he was starving. Rather than alert the authorities to his discovery, he waited as darkness fell and then left silently—with Morana.
Back in his cramped, one-room apartment, he tasted for the first time—a soul. No kiss nor love-spurred tongue’s caress, but a baser mouthful. In the chewing, Danvil realized that, despite her death, Morana could still be with him.
“Oh, Morana, you’re just as sweet as I’ve always imagined! Truly a treat, I’m honored! It’s sad you can’t taste yourself. You know, you’ve shown me what we’ve both been too afraid to say out loud. You love me. And, of course, I love you! You knew that all along, didn’t you?”
For the first time in his life, Danvil spoke without stuttering, his vocal cords ringing with deep confidence.
The next day, he shaved his head clean, doing away with the male-pattern hairline he’d always hated. Reading the paper over a breakfast of Morana on toast, he noticed an ad for a job as an assistant to an embalmer. It paid twice his grocery-stocker’s salary. Danvil picked up the phone and surprised himself by securing an interview for the following Friday.
On the page opposite the embalmer’s notice, a half-page ad for a suit sale caught his eye and he hopped the bus downtown. The clothing displayed in the store’s window looked so dashing that Danvil figured it must be well outside his meager budget. But the ad had promised bargains, so in he strode.
As he crossed the threshold, confetti cascaded all around him. Cheery calliope music started up and a banner popped down from the ceiling. The store’s enthusiastic owner rushed toward him with several managers in tow: he was their one-millionth customer. In a whirl, he found himself standing in front of a three-way mirror, tape measures flying. He was the lucky winner of a new suit, custom made for him from decadent European fabrics. His smile finally began to look appropriate on his face.
As he sat down for his interview at the funeral home, before he’d even uttered a word, he knew had the job. He couldn’t wait to run home and tell Morana the good news!
Dinner, however, turned bittersweet. Danvil realized the provisions of Morana’s body were running out. After hacking off whatever he could salvage, he carried what was left of her back to the Poet’s Garden for a proper burial. He scattered lilac seeds over her plot in lieu of a tombstone and cursed his poverty. He would have loved to bury her within the confines of a backyard fence he didn’t own.
It took some time to adjust to his new line of work. Seeing so much life cut short taxed his senses and his emotions. He learned about faces—how to reconstruct and repair them, how they look under the light. The customers cared deeply about the faces and demanded perfection, regardless of the circumstances, all for that last glance into an open casket before shutting it forever.
One day, a man came onto the slab who looked familiar to Danvil. They had met when they were boys. Larry Jones, Danvil recalled. Larry was always inviting friends over to use his parents’ pool or play expensive video games. Danvil had always hoped, quite in vain, to be invited over one day. After studying the boy, now a man, now a corpse—he looked around to make sure that he was alone. Then, he sawed off Larry’s inanimate left foot, wrapped it in aluminum foil, and threw it in the back of the employee freezer.
At home, Danvil fried strips of Larry in a pan for dinner.
“Wow! Talk about flavor! I’m glad you decided to come over and hang out, Larry, I’ve always thought you were a really cool guy! Yes, of course I forgive you for those wedgies—already forgotten! I really think this is the start of a lifelong friendship!”
The next morning, Danvil slunk into work easing back dread. His boss would already be pumping the preserving fluids into the remainder of Larry’s body and as soon as they started squirting out of the left ankle, Danvil’s actions would be unhideable.
“Danvil,” his boss began, as soon as he walked in. “I need to ask you something.”
He gulped down anxiety. “Yes, sir?”
“How would you like to finish embalming and preparing Mr. Jones by yourself?”
“I’ve been watching you and you’ve made genuine progress since you started here. I want you to show me what you can do without any help. What do you say?”
“Absolutely, sir! I’ll make you proud!”
So of course, he did. Delighted at the chance to prove himself and cover up his proclivity, Danvil set about the task with gusto. And, unable to resist, he harvested a bit more protein before spoiling the rest with formaldehyde.
“Excellent job, Danvil, great attention to detail!” said his boss upon examination of his effort. “You filled in the bullet holes flawlessly and he looks like he dressed himself! The family will be delighted. I knew you had it in you!” He paused for effect, then said, “Danvil, my boy?”
“There’s something you should know. I’m moving the funeral home. Business has been booming and I found a new space downtown. There’ll be work for an additional full-time embalmer and the job’s yours, if you want it. Mr. Jones in there was a test of sorts. Needless to say, you aced it. I’ll still be your boss, of course, but you’ll have your own room. You’ll do all your own preservations from start to finish. The position comes with a sizable raise and, within reason, you can make your own schedule. What do you say?”
“Morana! Larry! I’m home! I just got a promotion—me!” Danvil chattered about his exquisite work that day. “You would be proud, man, I made you look like a million bucks! I should thank you, really, because I got this new gig because of you! Wow, what great friends we make!”
With more money coming in, Danvil soon bought himself a house—an updated colonial out in the suburbs. With four bedrooms and three bathrooms, it sounded unnecessarily spacious to his buyer’s agent, but Danvil didn’t want his friends to feel crowded.
Thanks to Danvil’s new responsibilities and freedom, more and more people—well, chunks of them, anyway—ended up on Danvil’s plate. The pastor from his childhood church turned up on his slab one day, dead from autoerotic asphyxiation. Danvil carefully applied makeup and putty to remove the blue tinge and ligature marks from the pastor’s skin, to preserve the serene visage for his mourners. Then he filleted the man’s meaty calves and thighs and masked the wounds with the cleric’s robes provided by his wife.
The next day before work, Danvil faced his own face in the mirror and decided to grab his makeup kit. Skillfully, he blended away his acne scars and brightened his sunken eyes. He took off his glasses and scowled at the blurry sight. A growing sense of self love welled up from deep in his gut, and he sat down at his computer to open Google.
After some hasty searching, he picked up the phone and called out sick from work. Then, he made an appointment with a laser surgeon. Over the course of an afternoon—a blink of an eye in his long-bespectacled life—Danvil found himself no longer encumbered with awkward, thick glasses.
Conversing idly with the surgeon after the procedure, he learned about a new medicine that had come out in recent months to treat just the sort of congenital intestinal trouble he’d dealt with all his life—with no strange-scented side effects. The same day, he called his gastroenterologist for a prescription.
The following Friday night, Danvil put on his custom suit in front of a full-length mirror while making an announcement to Morana, Larry, Pastor Roberts, and several other friends he’d consumed of late. He was going out. Once again, he made up his face.
In a wine bar called Sky Blue, he successfully chatted up women. Nobody avoided his gaze or made excuses to disengage with him. He naturally found words to say and his smile went viral.
That night, he went home with a woman: Meera. The sun rose the following morning on a Danvil uncharacteristically ecstatic! Just the thought of Meera made Danvil sigh. She wore her hair straight and black, the last vestige of a high school goth phase that had included bondage pants and chain chokers. She read Fitch and Palahniuk and loved the fact that Danvil worked as an embalmer. Danvil could never have imagined his fortune! Finally he was able to say he’d found someone; he had a girlfriend!
“I think I’m ready to meet your roommates, Danvil.” Meera began, one day some months into their relationship. “I know you said it’s complicated or whatever, but I don’t care. I’ve never been to your place and I think it’ll be fine.”
“Well, if you’re sure, I guess it’s OK. But you need to know that one of my roommates, we kind of dated and—to be honest—I think she still has feelings for me. But you don’t need to worry about anything.”
“Yes, you’ve told me all about it already. Let’s just go over there, OK?”
They drove to Danvil’s updated colonial in Meera’s car and parked in the driveway. In seconds, he was pushing the door open to his empty house.
“Hi, everyone! Come meet Meera! This is the girl I’ve told you all about!” Danvil called cheerfully, then grinned up into the silence.
“W-where is everyone?” Meera asked.
“Come on, don’t be rude. Come in, say hi! This is Pastor Roberts, this is Margo, here’s Morana, she’s—” He pointedly caught Meera’s eye and mouthed the words, ‘ex-girlfriend.’ “Here comes Larry; Garret’s here, too, and his wife Lacie and the twins, Micah and Seth. Don’t be shy, shake hands! They’re all lovely people!”
“Danvil…” Meera stepped backward into the doorframe and a cold-water sensation trickled down her spine.
“What is it?”
“Are your friends…imaginary?”
“What? Imaginary?! They’re as plain as the nose on my face!” He pointed to himself, creating a hideous gouge in his thick makeup.
“What the hell is going on?”
“Meera! Just listen to me!” He tried to think back…to his meals…his meat in the fridge…Morana. His thoughts formed a heavy lump in his throat that tasted like bile. “No! Go away! If you don’t like my friends, then I don’t like you! They’ve been by my side through thick and thin, through good times and bad times, and they would take a bullet for me! Would you take a bullet for me, Meera?!”
Meera ran to the curb, and Danvil watched her black hair flutter as she fled. The tires shrieked as she sped away.
The next day at work, Danvil worked on the class clown from his high school homeroom, the victim of a heroin overdose. Rather than embalming him, Danvil severed the head with a saw. After his boss went home, he took the entire body out to his car wrapped in a sheet. For the funeral the next day, he stuffed a suit with pillows and placed the head at the collar. The family didn’t notice anything.
“We have a new friend, everyone! Morana, Larry, you might remember Lucas from high school? Oh right, Margo, I think he used to mow your lawn, too. He’s still got the jokes! Tell ’em, Lucas, the one you told me on the way over here, about the nuns? Oh…wait. Pastor Roberts might get offended! Never mind—he said go ahead, he’s heard ’em all!”
It was all very festive, but eating Lucas didn’t ease a nagging doubt gnawing at the corners of Danvil’s mind.
Morose, he took Thursday and Friday off from work. He felt summoned to the Poet’s Garden, and when he got there, he sat down among the lilacs. Until long after the sun disappeared, he lingered in contemplation. Around midnight, an epiphany broke over him.
“I’m so sorry, Morana!” He cried. “She meant nothing to me! I’ll make it all better, just you wait!”
Fingernails clotted with grime, Danvil shoveled down under the lilacs, frantic to move the Earth away and find her. In tears, sweat, blood, and worms, he fumbled in the dark, not caring what he uncovered as he made his way toward her bones. He knew where to dig, of course, and although it would be impossible to locate every single piece of her in the dead of night, he piled up whatever he could find until he located the beloved skull that had once housed his favorite mind. He took the spoils to his suburban backyard and reburied them in a corner beneath a young alder. Maybe if he gave her a better resting place his mind would be at ease.
Back inside his kitchen, still muddy from head to toe, he gorged himself on Lucas.
First thing on the following Monday morning, Danvil’s boss called him into his office.
“It’s time,” the older man began. “I’ve been thinking about this for a few months now, and I’m ready to retire. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have succeed me than you. You’re a gifted embalmer and you understand the business. I want to leave it all to you. How does that sound?”
“Like Heaven on Earth!” said Danvil eagerly. “I didn’t know it before I took this job, but a dream is coming true for me right now!”
“I’m happy for us both, Danvil. I’ll be leaving the first of the month. Drink?”
For a while, Danvil distracted himself with the running the business of death. He needed to hire three more people to do all the work his boss had been handling. The funeral home had an excellent reputation and, to Danvil’s delight, people did die every day. Anytime the body on his slab belonged to someone he knew or admired or remembered from his life, he took a piece home—a grisly doggy bag.
His business flourished; he bought himself a Cadillac. His relationship with his friends, however, began to feel unnatural. One night, he woke up mucky with sweat.
“I’ve got it! I know how to fix everything! Morana, I know we’ve had our ups and downs, but I can make it all right! You wait here and I’ll be back in a jiffy!”
Twenty minutes later, his Cadillac idled on the curb outside Meera’s house.
Neighbors heard breaking glass and then screaming, and quickly called the police. Meera had to be rushed to a hospital. She needed skin grafts, blood transfusions, and a host of antibiotics to treat the numerous wounds where Danvil had gnashed off chunks of flesh from her living arms and legs.
In the back of a police car, Danvil sat shackled at the wrists and ankles. The officers had pulled his shirt up over his face so he couldn’t chomp at them.
The judge accepted the insanity plea offered by Danvil’s public defender and arrangements were made for him to be held in an asylum.
After he tried to eat his own arm, he had to be strapped to his bed twenty-four hours a day.
No one came to visit Danvil—but people visiting other patients heard him chattering away with nobody and assumed he suffered from severe schizophrenia.
But Danvil knew the truth. Even there, surrounded by sterile white and sickly green, subjected to daily injections, he kept smiling. All the friends and family he had ever needed or wanted lived on inside him, in his head, where everything was alive. They were all breathing, smiling, kissing, and hugging him and telling him all he ever wanted to hear: “You are loved.”