News, social media, strung-together tin cans—the whole mess of it is making the Burdon Brothers and me out to be flesh-hungry monsters. One, we didn’t eat anyone. Two, we didn’t make anyone eat anyone—no cult, no satanic rituals (the Satan thing keeps popping up; funny, but not true). Three, all we did was provide an environmentally friendly funeral service: no toxins sunk in the soil or CO2 diffused in the air. We made mistakes on the trail, but we didn’t do anything evil. We even helped out some birds.
I reunited with the Burdons about two months after I moved back down to Scrub Jay Sound on Florida’s Treasure Coast. I’d spent a dozen or so unsatisfying years up in Peytonsville, where I’d gone for community college and university but stayed to dick around in bands, work thankless survivor-wage kitchen jobs for cokehead restaurant owners, and avoid my restless and angry family down in Scrub Jay. My crappy Mazda died in the move, but I had a bike. Not that Scrub Jay was going to be much better, but I needed to change something, anything, and after my father died I was coming to peace with my mom and the rest of my family.
At some point, I think it was a Wednesday, I went for a bike ride and ended up at an old friend’s beachside bar, The Dead Marlin.
Jess gave me a couple of shifts a week working the door. Usually live music nights. The job involved a few hours of checking IDs, a lot of sweeping, throwing out trash, and cleaning bathrooms. Most of this was vomit detail: cleaning it off floors, toilet seats, around toilet seats, urinals, around urinals, on and around trash cans. Jess paid cash at the end of the night. It wasn’t much, but she helped slow the bleeding, gave me a schedule, and the mimicry of a social life. I began going to bed a little earlier and spent less time staring at the yellow walls of my efficiency.
The Dead Marlin is too nice a name for the place. The actual bar was—and I assume remains—pitted and worn with the dull luster of an old overwaxed surfboard. The worn tables and molded plastic chairs were worse. It’s little more than a dank hole decorated with recovered hurricane wreckage spray-painted black. Even after a sound mopping with bleach water it still smelled like a mangy dog had pissed in every corner before curling up to die. But it was the Dead Marlin that led me back to the Burdon Brothers.
As I said, I met them about seven or eight weeks after I’d fled Peytonsville with a pocket of cash. There was a show that night, some local swamp rock bands; old dudes playing beer-sodden riff-rock with a southern twangy edge. The clientele for these shows were men who called their girlfriends and wives “old lady” and women who called their boyfriends and husbands “old man.” They shouted their conversations, which grew in volume with the deepening night:
Man with Crisp Beard and Mullet: Me and my old lady used to go down to Bingo Tommy’s back in the day. Y’all remember Bingo Tommy’s?
Clean Shaven Man with Beer Belly: Bingo’s? Man, I met my old lady at Bingo’s! We’d do the Snapdoodle Two-Step in the stall while I whiffed blow off her who-diddle.
Man in Suit with Loosened Tie: Woo!
At the end of the night I dragged around an industrial black-plastic trash can and picked up bottles, plastic cups, and other garbage. I heard my name, turned, and there was that handsome bastard, Lee Burdon. Tall, broad shouldered, thick head of hair styled to look like he didn’t give a who-diddle. We’d bonded over rare punk records when his family had moved here from Northern England in eighth grade. I still remember losing my shit over the original pressing he had of the C.I.A.’s God Guts Guns 7” EP.
As we hugged, his brother Dumpsta popped up and slapped me on the back. Dumpsta is closer to my height, about a foot shorter than Lee, barrel bodied, and, like me, has a hairline offering an apologetic goodnight. But Dumpsta carries himself like he’s six-foot-three and bearing a stallion’s mane:
Dumpsta: What’ve you been up to, you mad fucker? You look great, brother.
I looked like shit and smelled worse, my skin and clothes coated with a veneer of stale beer and garbage slurry, but the brothers have a way with casual inclusion. They were visiting Scrub Jay to see their mother:
Lee: Me and Dumpsta been on Miami Beach for the past few years. You holding down the fort up here?
Dumpsta: Can’t blame you. Good town. Good people. Beautiful.
I should note that Dumpsta’s actual name is Desmond, but Lee always called him Dumpsta. I don’t know why. I didn’t know why back when we were teenagers with mohawks, flannels, and combat boots going to shows, and I don’t know why now. The name fits, though. Tough, ugly, and the charisma to borrow a new Maserati from a dealer, keep it for a week, and, when returning it, offer little more than a few words, a smile with a slap on the salesman’s back, and an empty promise to see him in the luxury box at the next Dolphins’ game.
One, we didn’t eat anyone. Two, we didn’t make anyone eat anyone—no cult, no satanic rituals.
They’d started an ecotourism company a while back. Didn’t take, so they transitioned into eco-friendly destination weddings. That business was going in the same financial direction as the first.
The thing is, the Burdons hustled. They’d hang out on South Beach, flash borrow money, charm their way into a sort-of friendship with some bored rich kid and get him to finance whatever scheme they’d dreamed up.
I never did understand how they’d pulled this off. I studied them while we were on the island, but never picked up the trick. I can be stealthy now and then—an opportunistic cash grab now and then—but the Burdons . . . those guys could get in your car, convince you to hook up a trailer and pack your jewels, drugs, credit cards, dog, and family, then drive off with the whole fuck of it while you smiled and waved goodbye from the driveway of your empty house.
Only a couple weeks before we met up, they’d procured the island that was to become our home for the next three years:
Lee: Some kid from old money.
Dumpsta: This kid wasn’t dumb, but he never saw us coming. Couldn’t believe we could be anything but a couple earnest, funny guys. Dumb bastard paid for everything. It was like dating a limitless credit card.
Lee: Kid’s family owned the island since the twenties. The twenties, right?
Dumpsta: Yeah, bought it post-Florida boom.
Lee: Right. His da left it to him as a joke. His family had abandoned it to the birds.
Dumpsta: Knew the kid wasn’t about to live on a tiny island out in the middle of nowhere by himself with a lotta crows.
Dumpsta: Caw caw caw.
Lee: Family had a thing for crows. Kid didn’t seem to like them. Or his family. Or much of anything.
Dumpsta: Angry, angry drunk.
Lee: Watched him smash bottle after bottle of Dom in a club on South Beach.
Dumpsta: Every time we’d mention his da, crash! Another bottle gone.
Lee: I told the host to bring us a dozen bottles, on the kid’s tab. Then we kept bringing up his da.
Dumpsta: Brilliant night.
The island is a small survivor a bit southeast of Florida, a touch west of the Bahamas, and a nudge north of Cuba. Cuba claimed it for a week once, to needle the U.S., but according to the Brothers, even Cuba didn’t want it:
Lee: Kid said his great-great uncle hanged himself out in the woods. He left a note saying he was off to . . . what was it?
Dumpsta: “Eat apples in an interdicted land.”
Lee: Yeah. Family thought he’d left for Florida or Cuba or somewhere. Bit of a surprise when they found him hanging out a week or two later.
Dumpsta: Animals and rain left just bones and bloody rags. Didn’t mention any apples.
Lee: Pretty eco-friendly, though. Supposedly, he’s one of the island’s ghosts.
Dumpsta: Let that be a lesson to you, son.
We walked down to the beach and took off our shoes. I’d brought a couple six packs of hard cider. We yammered while the ocean flushed over the cool sand and brisk salty air washed over our skin. This made Lee’s hair look even better, while I ran a hand over my balding head. My toes waggled furrows in the damp sand while I told the brothers that my past, present, and future were contesting for most-fucked; that I wouldn’t mind living on a haunted island. Better than trying to get another shit job:
Lee: Hey, brother, why don’t you join our latest venture?
Dumpsta: Yeah. How much worse can it be than living here in this ugly, shite town of backward-thinking bastards?
Me: I thought you said this was a good town. Good people and all that.
Dumpsta: It is.
Lee: If you want a life of fishing and tailgating.
Dumpsta: With backward-thinking bastards.
Me: I don’t know anything about destination weddings.
Lee: What do we know about them?
Dumpsta: Clearly nothing, or we wouldn’t be talking to you.
Lee: Cheers to that, mate.
We talked a while more and I said it might be easier to have a destination haunted island. Or maybe a destination cemetery. I laughed, took a swig of cider, but the brothers went silent. Then, not as silent:
Lee: What’d you say?
Dumpsta: Yeah. Say that again.
The next day we had burritos drowned in mole sauce and talked about Tropical Rites Eco-Funeral Services. A tropical take on sky burials, a traditional Tibetan funeral: leave the deceased on a mountainside; let the carrion birds have at it. We didn’t have a mountain, but we had an island, which I knew had crows, and probably lots of other birds and beasts that wouldn’t mind a meal. (Ended up too right on that count.)
The brothers spread the word to their wealthy contacts. They were careful to disclose that not only were our services eco-friendly, but that we were highly selective. This wasn’t about dropping your loved one into a damp hole after pumping them full of chemicals or sticking them in a kiln and sweeping the ash and bones into an urn. This was about the living giving new life to the dead; or the dead giving a new lease on life to the living; or the dead and living meeting in the circle of life. Something like that.
The island has one main house and three smaller ones. Each is white, with pastel blue and yellow trim. The main house, the family house, is the oldest and grandest. It was built in 1919, has two floors and a wide porch that wraps around it like a belt. The three smaller houses are low standing with wide columnar porches. One served as our living quarters, the second was for the kitchen, the third was office and storage. The compound also had a murder of semi-trained crows. Not pets, exactly, but not entirely wild. The rich kid’s family really did like crows, fed and cared for them going way back. They hung around the compound, like they were waiting.
When we first arrived, five or six of the crows greeted us as if we were loved ones reborn, hopping around and barking out little caws. There were another dozen or so that hopped about and watched us at a distance. One particularly large crow (the boat captain said her name was Demeter) walked up, squawked, and hopped behind us into the house.
She cocked her head when we checked out the fridge or a new room or spoke to one another about possible changes to the place. When we stepped back onto the porch, she gave a loud squawk. The other crows leapt into the air, settled in the surrounding trees, and watched.
Close by were the worn remains of an abandoned Spanish colonial house, built when Spain had briefly won the island from the Dutch. Shortly after this the Spaniards learned that the Dutch had “surrendered” this island in order to move troops to an island that they wanted more. Maybe the other island was better for tulips.
The colonial house had long been abandoned to hurricanes and tropical decay. What remained were three ten-foot walls and a stone shed, or what looked like a shed. We painted the three walls a soft marine blue, mounted solar-powered wall sconces, set a large horseshoe table in the middle, and used it as our courtyard for the official “funeral” ceremony. We set a new roof on the shed, new door, windows, generator, and solar-panels.
The crows settled in the surrounding trees and watched us work, dotting the foliage with shiny dark eyes.
The first funeral began well. Party of thirteen, they arrived at the large house at noon, rested until sundown then walked the solar-powered candle-lit path to the Spanish Courtyard. Demeter hopped along with us, despite Dumpsta’s initial hand-waving and shooing sounds. Lee made up a story about the good luck of crows at a funeral, that they would guide the souls into the afterlife. He offered the family’s elderly matriarch his arm and a roguish grin. She blushed, slipped her arm in his, and our procession continued with Demeter hopping ahead of us.
The family sat around the horseshoe with the body laid out on a slim table within. A priest rambled:
Priest: We are here today to honor the life of Elias blah blah blah . . .
When he finally finished, the family had a few drinks and Lee led them back to the main house. Now, if we’d been thinking—I mean, if we’d given even a moment of thought to what we were doing with the “Tropical Sky Burial,” rather than getting excited and praising each other’s ideas (like my idea to coat the body with honey so it would attract more animals)—we might have guessed at what was coming next.
Animals tore that body apart like shredded wheat. In addition to our crows, there were hawks, parrots, pewees, kingbirds, thrushes, warblers, wrens—a dozen more birds I couldn’t identify under pain of death—at least one ocelot, a couple of giant weasel-looking animals, and even a few mongooses:
Lee: Look! Rikki-Tikki-Tavi!
Dumpsta: Wouldn’t let that little bastard in the house, nevermind a kid’s room.
What finally got to me were the raccoons. They looked real out of place. I’ve never associated them with tropical islands and still cannot understand how they found their way out there. Caught a ride on a boat? Maybe stole one with those tiny little hands. Some guy pulls into port, leaves his keys in the boat’s ignition, and stumbles off to some overpriced tourist bar where the walls are covered in fishing nets. Racoons sneak on and a pair of them use their tiny hands to steer while a third one presses on the gas. Wily little bastards.
We hid in the shed and watched the slaughter for over an hour, huddled like children in a darkened house during a thunderstorm. Those animals were loud: snarls, growls, howls, and the gnashing of teeth. Very Old Testament, what I imagine drove prophets to take up prayer:
Prophet: Dear Lord, there’s all manner of bloody and lustful behavior going on down here that you might want to look into; it’s making a real mess of the place. And is there anything you could do about the Philistines? They’re just so . . . Philistine-y.
A family who saw their late relation go through that kind of slaughter would’ve done their best to have us jailed, international waters or not.
A tropical take on sky burials, a traditional Tibetan funeral: leave the deceased on a mountainside; let the carrion birds have at it.
Later that night, while drinking in the kitchen house, we threshed out some ideas. First, we could never let the clients see that carnage. Not that all clients cared to see. I remember a “conversation” I had with a square-jawed, thick-haired specimen from the group earlier that day:
Me: We’re excited about what we’re doing here, and that your family’s decided to . . .
Him: Uh huh. And what’s the name of this island again?
Me: The Dutch called it Martelaren Landen, after some murdered priests from back in the sixteenth century. But Spain briefly held it and renamed it La Isla Olvidada. Kind of a joke . . .
Him: Yeah, this is my wife’s deal. What’s the booze situation around here? Anything good or only what’s in the house?
We needed a new disposal system. Couldn’t burn the bodies. Lee had just rewatched Cannibal Holocaust and, after a long night of throwing out ideas, he joked that we should get the clients to eat their dead:
Lee: We have a fully functioning, solar-powered restaurant kitchen right here.
Dumpsta: Alvaro, you used to cook.
Lee: Did that for a long time, too, right?
Me: I hate cooking. And, believe it or not, not too many restaurants teach you how to prepare a dead human. I wouldn’t know where to begin.
Dumpsta: The legs.
Lee: Definitely the legs.
Late the next morning, after the clients left for the mainland, I went for a walk along what became my favorite trail. I loved every path I found on that island, even macheted some new ones, but I could have walked that one trail every day for the rest of my life. Demeter helped me that first day, leaping from tree after tree, cawing whenever I’d get lost in the overgrowth.
It corded out from our main compound and spooled around the island like hot entrails over trees felled long ago by hurricane; trees that remained rooted and alive, their branches growing straight up from downed trunks, enormous wet roots still digging deep into the earth. Entire ecosystems lived within those damp woody cables: moss, plants, spiders, crabs, lizards, even small glossy dark birds with gleaming black eyes.
The serrated path sliced in and out of the interior, dissecting the island. It led out to a blade of mangrove connected to the mainland on one side by a fallen tree, on the other by sharp mossy plugs of coral.
One day, I brought out a cheap blue plastic-mesh folding patio chair with little sack-like cup holders on the arms and a bottle of bug spray. I’d sit there for hours, perched in the mangrove’s high, spider-legged roots, Demeter next to me.
So we offered, for a substantial fee, the Secular Eucharist: beef, chicken, or fish to represent their loved one’s body.
I went there the day after our first ceremony and looked out over the flowing clear blue ocean, the noon sun shattering on the water like glass. I’d play a game where I’d follow the sky directly above where it’s this light blue, to off towards the horizon. The blue grew deeper and deeper in color until the blue of the sky collapsed into the blue of the water and blended into this dark-cobalt near-purple. I’d follow the sea back to our island, streams of green and black with flecks of yellow falling into the blue on the way.
It was later that week, during a dinner of pasta with roasted tomatoes and split pea soup, that I brought up the idea of cooking down the dead:
Me: I read something, not too long ago, about a murderer who cooked his wife’s body . . .
Lee: Where the hell was this?
Me: Germany, I think.
Lee: Dumb question.
Dumpsta: Cheeky Fritz.
Me: Wherever it happened, he cooked her down until she was liquified.
Lee: Bones and all?
Dumpsta: And shoes?
Me: . . .
Dumpsta: What? He might’ve left her shoes on.
Lee: Did he leave her shoes on?
Me: I don’t know, but the bones cooked down. The article said he slow-cooked her for three or four days.
Lee: Like a crock pot.
Me: He might’ve used the oven.
Lee: Either way, sounds like you’ve got a plan.
Dumpsta: Figure out that shoe situation.
A couple days later we slow-cooked the slight and slender Mr. Lance Corbin, Santa Claus-bearded former beer magnate, age ninety-one. Left behind eight ex-wives, a baker’s dozen of long-term mistresses, and twenty-two children. He was found dead in bed with his latest wife, a hefty young female Elvis impersonator he’d met and married on a weekend in Vegas.
Apparently, he fully recognized every child he’d fathered. Spent time with each of them throughout their lives—playing sports, taking them to ski resorts, teaching them about the business of beer. Gathered them together every year for the holidays. Who knows where he found the time.
His funeral was going to be quite the party, but my business with him was more grisly. I started with the legs. No shoes.
After taking a few swigs of cooking sherry I whacked a spindly leg. My cleaver jammed in the thigh bone with a jarring thud, as if I’d hewn into the trunk of a cypress tree. I stared at the cleaver’s handle standing stock still, the blade buried in liver-spotted skin, dug deep into muscle and bone. I walked outside, bent over, and basted the earth with a sherry-hued stew.
The sun warmed my neck. Light shone down from clear blue. The world echoed with the wash of the sea. A breeze wafted through the trees hurrying the bite of sea salt. A flock of small green parrots in a nearby cypress sang a high chorus then lifted into the air as one. Demeter landed, hopped over, and cocked her head.
Back in the kitchen, I wrenched the cleaver loose, shook my arms and wrists, and paced around the thin naked frame of the formerly hyper-virile Mr. Corbin:
Me: Come on, come on, you got this. This is going to be ok.
Me: Breathe deep, buddy.
Me: No big deal. It’s just meat. Like a pig, that’s all. You’ve prepped pigs before.
Me: Yes. Just another pig. But this one got to have a full life. And tons of money. And lots of love and affection.
I thought of a three-masted sailing ship sinking beneath the waves, its surviving sailors floating on an open raft in dark seas beneath the unrelenting sun, eyeing one another over who will draw the short straw. The meat they would call “long pork.”
I don’t know how many whacks it took to get through the first leg, or how many breaks I took to breathe, how many trips outside, or how many times I checked the windows to see if they’d open wider. Demeter eyed me from atop a steel shelf, giving an occasional caw. In time, I reduced the body to small chunks for the largest pots. After simmering for a few days, the body looked like thick pea soup.
Suddenly, we were the speakeasy of funerals. Or maybe the greasy drive-thru of funerals.
In an odd, roundabout way, it had been a pig that’d lead to my reunion with the Burdons that night in the Dead Marlin. This goes back to when I was still working at a restaurant in Peytonsville and my then-boss asked me to help him prepare a whole young pig. I’d done this a number times with him, but that day I said no; something in me was done with meat and anything to do with it.
He’d been a decent guy to work for. Had a burly beard and rarely betrayed much of anything beyond a bright smile, probably because he was usually drunk, coked to the gills, or both. But after I said no, his eyes scrunched a little and he stared at me all silent. He finally smiled, said it was fine, he’d get Paul to help. Our relationship soured after that—I was no longer reliable, no longer a solid dude. A couple months later I fled back down to Scrub Jay, found temporary work at the Dead Marlin, reconnected with the Burdons, and soon discovered what wild animals can do to a dead body that’s been basted in honey.
The body work grew easier over the months. Later, when we added the secret menu, I had to scorch and eviscerate the bodies like they were pigs. This added time, effort, and gore, but the crows enjoyed it, especially Demeter who kept me company in the kitchen, cawing for scraps.
The island always offered something new. One day a parrot nest or a new type of snake, another day blue crabs or tunnels of mangrove roots during low tide. Some days I’d just sit next to Demeter and watch the ocean flow through pathways of coral rock or wash over our small southeast corner of tan beach.
Cutting up and cooking dead old people was a small price for that island.
We installed solar panels on rooftops and open clearings; made a permaculture garden for vegetables; dug out enormous compost bins and multi-stage compost toilets for fertilizer; built bee hives for honey. We even brewed our own beer, although we weren’t all that good at this—most batches tasted like bitter soap; even the crows didn’t want it.
Apparently, old bastard Johnny had loved sea shanties and had spread that love to his brood.
We’d point out these features (minus the beer) to families on our short tours. In the evening we’d lead them along the path of solar-powered candles to the Spanish House, Demeter leading the way. They’d sit around the horseshoe table and go through the ritual of farewell: give memorial speeches, drink, share anecdotes, drink more.
After that first fiasco, we took to secreting the body back to the kitchen. The Burdons flipped a coin over who helped me and who helped the family. The one who had body duty usually cursed while the other laughed. After we finished cooking down the body, we’d add the slurry to the crow feed. All very win-win-win.
Lee had an idea as we cooked down a client, but didn’t share it until the next night at dinner, after the family had left the island:
Lee: It was a joke, but the more I think about it, the more I like it.
Dumpsta: Everybody likes to break rules.
Me: Eat their dead? I don’t think . . .
Lee: Ha! No, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they would.
Dumpsta: Twisted bastards.
Lee: No, I’m talking symbolism. Ritual.
Me: We still cook the dead?
Lee: Still do that, but now we offer an additional ritual . . .
Dumpsta: At additional cost. . . .
Lee: . . . where the family can eat their dearly departed, symbolically.
Me: You’re talking about a sort of secular eucharist.
Dumpsta: I’ll drink to that.
So we offered, for a substantial fee, the Secular Eucharist: beef, chicken, or fish to represent their loved one’s body. I got them to include a vegan option which we packaged as the “Shepherd of the Environment.” More than half our clients bought in. And the “Shepherd” plan was almost as popular as the beef and the chicken. No one wanted the fish.
We were more than a couple years in, and business was nothing but blue skies and sunshine. Clients arrived. Clients departed. We made money. There was a lot of free time. I wandered the island. I was part owner of the most environmentally friendly, and exclusive, funeral company. I had a future. We had a future. The business was a calm breeze in our sails and it blew us into the Andicotts.
The Andicotts paid for a week. Twelve guests. Family of the late John Whiting Andicott III, retired CEO of an international arms company. In retirement, the late Andicott said he felt the weight of spilled blood and history, and with the help of his granddaughter, Clarissa, a human rights activist, he began a non-profit to clear landmines and other unexploded ordnances from former war zones, as well as supplying aid to affected communities and families. Bravo.
They spent their week sitting on our small bit of tan sand beach, wandering the island paths, and napping in porch hammocks. When the sun fell, they’d meet for dinner, tell stories of childhood and Pater John, play card games, and, as the night grew deep and they grew drunk, sing sea shanties. One of the family, usually Clarissa’s uncle Ephram, started them off. Apparently, old bastard Johnny had loved sea shanties and had spread that love to his brood.
Each of the dozen took turns beginning the songs, most of which, I discovered, involved blood, loss, tragedy, and longing. Early in the evening they’d take a few moments between singing shanties, but as they dug deeper into the night, each song bled into the next. I recognized one that they sang over and over from a version the Pogues had recorded, “South Australia”:
In South Australia I was born
Heave away! Haul away!
In South Australia, ‘round Cape Horn!
We’re bound for South Australia
Haul away your rolling king!
Heave away! Haul away!
Haul away, you hear me sing!
We’re bound for South Australia!
They never started with this song, but once they hit it, they’d all sing like a room of old sea dogs. They’d climb on tables, dance, kick plates and cutlery, all of them shouting Heave away! Haul away! at the top of their lungs as they reeled about, sloshing dark beer and red wine.
Lee whispered to me the first night of this crazed display:
Lee: They’ve seen one too many pirate movies. But that Clarissa’s alright.
I should say something more here about Clarissa Andicott. The whole family was polite and pleasant, even apologizing each late morning for their behavior the previous night. But where they apologized and tipped, Clarissa grabbed a broom and dustpan and helped. Even the brothers recognized that she was different, special.
On their second day, she told me that she’d asked Lee to guide her around the island, but that he suggested I’d be better. She even asked for my number so she could contact me directly. I was happy to show her my favorite trail. She asked about the chair:
Clarissa: Did you place that there?
Me: Yeah. Yes. I sit there sometimes. There’s a good view. From up there. It’s quiet.
Clarissa: Do you mind if I look? This island is just so beautiful and unspoiled. I would love to see your wonderful view.
She clambered up and sat:
Clarissa: This is lovely. Calm, peaceful . . . deeply moving. I’m at a loss. The water and the sky, their clarity is almost too much. I see why this would be a special place for you.
Me: I come here most days. Not every day. But almost every day. Most every day.
Clarissa: I would come here every day as well.
She smiled and I froze. A quick breath and I turned my head. My skin grew hot despite the cool shade and ocean wind. I mumbled something about how she looked, but Demeter flapped down next to the chair and squawked at her. Clarissa took it alright, but her laugh was a little brittle as she jumped from the mangrove:
Clarissa: Well, enough of that. Shall we return to the house?
I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was some sad attempt at charm. Probably something about the sea and her eyes. Christ. I don’t want to think about it.
She had me show her a few more paths but grew bold enough to explore without me. I let her have one of my machetes, just in case. Not so much for protection, but for clearing blocked trails. Everything grows so fast on that island.
On the fourth day she came to me with a proposition:
Clarissa: I have a delicate issue I’d like to discuss. I was with Lee and he suggested that you are the one to be the arbiter of my request.
Me: Oh. Ok, sure.
Clarissa: It has to do with the final ceremony and the Secular Eucharist addition.
Me: Well, we can always make changes. That’s . . . that shouldn’t, wouldn’t, be a problem.
Clarissa: That’s exactly what I was hoping. You see, I studied anthropology and have always had a great interest in funeral rites. This was your company’s great appeal to grandfather and me. What I’d like to do is, rather than a symbolic meal, I’d like you to prepare Grandfather.
Me: . . .
Clarissa: Is this possible?
Me: I guess?
She showed me paperwork with his signature, stating he wanted this done. Looked good to me, so I prepped and cooked up John Whiting Andicott III: arms dealer, philanthropist, and dinner. The family asked for the Mexican-inspired meal. The dish that went over best was the spicy grilled Pater with a creamy pumpkin mole. While the lot of them were stuffing their faces and praising the food, Clarissa called me over and whispered in my ear:
Clarissa: Our little secret.
This came with a wink, a small wink that sliced through my chest and stewed in my gut. The acceptance I’d found with the Burdons had butchered my old life and prepared a new one filled with endless possibilities, like this. A private moment with Clarissa Andicott. A shared secret.
Back in Florida, she must have told her friends about the Secret Menu. Their requests usually came in a whisper, which was weird when the entire family was a part of the whisper. There might be a dozen of them, all leaning in to nod at you, as if the cops or the press or someone were about to burst through the door.
Suddenly, we were the speakeasy of funerals. Or maybe the greasy drive-thru of funerals. I texted Clarissa about this when she was back in Florida and, a couple days later, she agreed that “speakeasy” was better.
We got family requests for dead guy meals every fifth or sixth funeral. We made dead guy steaks, dead guy sauerbraten, dead guy chiles rellenos, dead guy lechona, dead guy bacon (this often went on a brunch menu that included pancakes, French toast, waffles, and mimosas), dead guy a l’orange, dead guy bone broth smoothies (very popular with keto dieters), along with a number of other dishes and various dead guy cookies, tarts, and tortes.
We soon brought in a couple more people to transport the bodies, passengers, and supplies. It meant the brothers no longer had to escort clients to and from Miami, but Lee made the trip for a few more weeks. I asked Dumpsta about it while we were pulling the organs from a body, my hands full of lung:
Dumpsta: He had a girl back there. Told him to hang on to this one, at least for the money. But you know Lee.
He gave a wink and tossed Demeter a piece of kidney. I still don’t understand how Lee found the time to secretly meet someone back in Florida, get involved, and then break up with her when we all barely left the island (I hadn’t left the island much in the first year, and by the second year I had no reason to leave the island at all). If anyone could’ve pulled it off, though, it was that handsome bastard.
Reducing a body to gruel for the crows took a while, but nowhere near the effort it took to prepare a body to eat. The Burdons vetoed my idea of hiring help to cook:
Dumpsta: That’d be the quickest way to shut this whole thing down.
Lee: We’d have the government dragging us off to Miami in a minute.
Me: I thought we were in international waters. That they can’t touch us out here.
Lee: That’d mean fuck all if word got to the FWC or the feds.
Dumpsta: I imagine the cops still frown on cannibalism.
Lee: The honest-enough ones.
Dumpsta: That’s a mouthful.
My kitchen work nibbled away at my island wandering. This was difficult, but at least I still had the island, even if I did resent the Brothers from time to time for my cooking duties. Of course, my former cook jobs never gave me the satisfaction I found in preparing Lothrop Grant.
Lothrop’s money came down from an antecedent who’d made a mint in the Caribbean slave trade. His father had been a dissolute playboy with a fondness for FDR, but Lothrop took great pride in his family’s history and business practices. He also had a taste for eugenics.
He decided that the U.S. needed a “neo-aristocracy.” Part of this included his proposed plan for birth control in the water and milk supply. He also created an eighty-five page literacy test for the vote. I found a copy of it online. Most of the questions are about royal lineages of European aristocracy, obscure European battles of the sixteenth century, and the “sound and feel of the color spectrum.”
His family hated the man. They wanted to see him consumed by animals. Magdalene, his eldest daughter, hated both him and her family. She wanted dad secretly fed to the rest of the Grant clan. She was footing the bill, they all seemed pretty awful indeed (the clutch of them referred to us as “the help” and were fond of snapping their fingers to gain our attention), and by this point we’d cooked up enough clients that we didn’t care what these people did to each other.
We cut out the liver, spleen, a bit of stomach, and chunks of thigh and rump; sewed the body up and set it out at the Spanish House. Served up various dishes of what all but Magdalene thought was faux-Lothrop while the family spewed curses and heaved canapes and bread rolls at their dead racist patriarch. A glob of gray Lothrop liver pate quivered on his nose.
When the time came for the body to “continue its eco-cycle” (as we say in our business literature), we moved the family back into chairs set behind a wide camouflaged plexiglass. They could see out, but nothing could see in. A few of the Grants wanted to remain at the table, but we insisted that their presence could deter most of the animals, and the animals that weren’t deterred were animals they didn’t want to meet.
The ceremony was about ten minutes in when the vomiting began. The group retching blended with the laceration and consumption of old Lothrop to birth a symphony of moans, wails, groans, and gurgles. I wish I’d recorded the whole thing to use as a soundtrack for future Halloweens. Or on a mixtape with Christmas songs.
Early into this performance art we retreated to the shed, Demeter hopping in with us. Tears streamed down our faces as we gasped for breath between fits of laughter:
Lee: You see that guy with the cop mustache?
Dumpsta: His face was like, Wha? Wha? Wha?
Lee: Pissed himself first thing.
Dumpsta: What a hero. We should’ve saved one of the bastard’s feet for Demeter.
Lee: One foot in the grave, the other a bird’s breakfast.
Dumpsta: Alvaro, go out and ask if anyone wants cake.
We were sobered by the mutilation of our first client. Two years in, by the time we were hosting the Grants, we made a joke of this whole mess. A raccoon scampered off with a mouth full of fingers as the family spewed up bits of Lothrop.
While petting Demeter, my gaze wandered beyond the shambolic funeral scene. A breeze waved the crowns of cypress, hard pines, and palms. A small anole sat on a rock jutting from the dirt path outside our window; the slim bright green lizard expanded its dewlap from chin to belly in romantic blood-red display—once, twice, three times—and executed a series of twitchy push-ups to exhibit its sexual prowess. One of the Grants cried out at a crunch of bone; in a scurried flash the lizard vanished from the window into the undergrowth.
It was December, a few months on from the Andicott funeral, when Clarissa told her family about Pater’s fate. Things went south after that.
I was cleaning the oven when Lee hurricaned up to me, still out of breath:
Lee: We gotta go. Right now.
Lee: For fuck’s sake. Come on.
In our rooms Dumpsta was jamming clothes into a duffel bag:
Dumpsta: Fucked up, huh?
Lee: He don’t know.
Dumpsta: Christ. How do you not know?
Lee: Pack. We’ll explain on the boat.
Dumpsta: Pissed her right off.
Lee: Not now.
We cut out the liver, spleen, a bit of stomach, and chunks of thigh and rump; sewed the body up and set it out at the Spanish House.
Clarissa hadn’t been kidding when she whispered, “Our little secret.” Not that I had thought she’d been joking, but I had, in some wordless way, convinced myself that the rest of the family either did know (as many families collectively chose this plan) or that when they found out they’d be fine with it. I might not have been thinking clearly.
According to Lee, she had opened up at a boozy and combative Christmas family dinner. In reaction, they hired a group of trained psychopaths from a mercenary firm. The Andicotts, for all their sea shanty fun times, were more bloodthirsty than pirates.
Clarissa felt guilty about our likely murders, so she called Lee to give us the warning, which was thoughtful. I’m still a little hurt she didn’t call me. She had my number.
Duffels on bent backs, we bolted for our bio-diesel boat. Dumpsta spilled the story to the boat captain about the mercenaries, if not the whole story of why they were coming for us. The stack of cash Lee shoved in the captain’s hand stopped any further questions.
We left so fast I didn’t have time to say goodbye to the crows, to Demeter. This probably sounds silly—to worry about some birds. She flew out over the boat as we raced away. We stared up as she floated overhead and waited for her to land. She rode the air currents, hovering in the cloudless blue sky without a flap of her dark wings, banked with the wind, and flew back to the island.
The Burdons crept back to Florida to see their mom. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission jumped on them. I don’t know how FWC could charge them with anything since our island wasn’t part of the U.S. I’m guessing the Andicotts fed them a hefty financial contribution. The day after the arrests, the Herald and the New Times led with our story, despite the Andicotts’ desire to keep quiet their one-night-stand with cannibalism.
I’ve been trying to find my way back to our island. The problem is the mercs. Most boat captains know the story by now. Few want to deal with the risk. There’s also the small detail that I have no clue as to the coordinates. I can point in the general area on a map, but that still encompasses a lot of small islands.
I’ve gotten a few captains to look for it, but most are honest about the situation:
Random boat pilot: I don’t know what to tell you. Even if we found it, I heard you and those other boys have some bad fellas waiting for you.
Me: I’ll pay.
Random Boat Pilot: I’ve got better things to do than risk my life for El Dorado.
I’m on a nice island, but it’s busy. I miss our island, especially at night when I’m staring at the yellow walls of this rented apartment. I miss my room with the big windows that let in the morning sun after it cleared the tree line. I miss my slim bed and my trails and my small foldable chair sitting on that little finger of mangrove peninsula. I wonder if Demeter waits for me by the chair so we can watch the sunlight shatter over the blue.