The building supervisor let us into the third floor apartment where we’d come to check up on an older woman who hadn’t been seen for several days. Everything was orderly and looked precisely as you might expect an elderly woman’s apartment to be. But she wasn’t there. A grey tabby cat with glossy fur and a collar with a little bell appeared, but seemed entirely unperturbed by our presence. We entered the bedroom and my colleague walked over to the sliding door of the closet to open it.
As he did so the corpse of an elderly woman fell into his arms. I noted she was mostly skeletonized and desiccated and commented that she had been dead for a lot longer than just a few days. For whatever reason my colleague put the corpse on the neatly made bed. Looking around the room I noticed several other cats all with glossy fur and collars. My first thought was that perhaps the cats had survived by eating the woman’s flesh. But she didn’t have any signs of animal activity and the cats were all very healthy looking. My next thought was that perhaps she had originally had two unspayed and unneutered cats and that after she died they had had kittens. But again, all the cats had collars.
I really love cats so I was quite concerned for their well being and wondered silently what would become of them after we processed the scene. Could I adopt one or two of them? Did she have relatives that could take care of them? I was preparing a body bag and taking samples when it occurred to me that something was very not right about the cats’ behaviour. None of them were hiding, none of them were concerned that strange humans were in their territory, and none of them seemed upset that their own human was very dead. And cats do mourn. It’s hard to pick up because they’re cats, but they do show signs that they miss people and other cats who have passed on.
I looked back to the woman’s corpse wondering if I had gotten it wrong. But the dry bone of her zygomatic was clearly visible. Then I noticed her eyes. In death, the eyes are the first thing to go. They might be eaten by scavengers or they might just dry up, but they don’t last long. And yet her eyes were there. Lidless, but there. And they were moving as a living person’s eyes do in sleep.
Surprised at this I looked to one of the cats which had curled itself squinting and happy in a small chair near one of the curtained windows in the room. I felt like I had hallucinated the desiccated woman’s living eyes so instead of mentioning it I went over to get a closer look at the cat thinking that somehow, something about this cat might explain things.
I did not feel it was wise to pet the cat or even let it smell me. It was not aggressive towards me and in fact squinted and blinked. I was about to try to read the tag on its collar when I heard one of my colleagues say, “huh.” I turned back and noticed that where the desiccated corpse with a scalp of white shoulder length curls and a conservative nightgown had once been there was now a body with youthful looking skin covering in a button down dress shirt and trousers covering more and more of the skeleton.
I stood and walked back towards the foot of the bed. My colleagues gaped watching the transformation. The nightgown and curls were replaced as if we had collectively looked away and simply missed where they had gone and once complete the body sat up, opened his eyes, adjusted his collar and smiled at us as if this were an entirely normal occurrence.
“Sorry about that,” he said amiably pushing himself to standing. “It’s my condition. Sometimes people get confused.”
I wracked my brain for an explanation. What sort of “condition,” could cause all this? My colleagues seemed to be a bit more accepting of the situation but still awaited a proper explanation. Without prompting and as if he heard or expected our confusion he explained.
“I have a skin condition.” I stared at him dumbfounded and felt my head go light as if I was about to pass out.
My boss, slightly closer to him asked the obvious question, “what sort of skin condition could do this?” Her voice was steady, but I knew she was deeply disturbed.
“It’s rare,” he began. “Well, it’s not rare, it’s just that no one really knows much about it.” He smiled a disarming smile as one of the cats rubbed his leg possessively.
I said nothing but continued to run through the limited skin conditions I knew about to try to explain what I had just seen. I am after all only trained to deal with the dead, not the living. I could think of no reason why he should appear as an elderly woman’s desiccated corpse one moment and a robust well-dressed young man the very next.
“During the day I appear dead,” he continued, “and dead such that my innermost concerns are revealed.” The cat that had been on the chair jumped down, sauntered over to the corner of the bed, jumped up and looked at the young man expectantly until he gave it’s head a little scratch. “People like me tend to try to hide it and only come out at night for somewhat obvious reasons. Actually,” he paused pointing to the bookshelf behind me, “I have a book on the subject just there.”
I turned towards the bookshelf and the first book I noticed — in fact the only book I noticed — was entitled Ghouls Among Us. Taking it down and opening it I flipped through to find pictures all at twilight of apparently animated skeletons. Glancing towards the window I noted that darkness had indeed fallen. Across the street, framed by the foliage and iron fencing of the nearby park a streetlamp glowed warmly in the night.
Following my gaze he frowned. “Light is my nemesis. If light shines on me, the skeleton shows through.”
“How is that possible?” I snapped. None of it made sense.
He did not match my tone and instead shrugged, “It’s just how it is,” he said by way of explanation. “I’m this way. I guess it makes me a better person. I appreciate others more maybe because I have this disability.”
“What do you mean?” My boss prodded more gently than I had.
“I raise money for women’s shelters, women’s healthcare, and lobby for women’s rights,” he answered. “I realized I cared deeply for my elderly mother because she loved me and went to great lengths to protect and care for me when I needed her most. I wished her life had been a bit better than it was, so ever since she passed I’ve devoted myself to women’s equality.”
He was in his thirties with well groomed blonde hair, nice clothes, and he clearly maintained his body. This man appeared like the type fully ready to indulge in elitism and privilege and yet he radiated sincerity and compassion. My colleagues and I looked at each other awkwardly.
The cats all seemed happy and while I recalled we’d found him in his deceased old woman form in the closet I figured that was his own personal business. “So,” I started, “you’re okay then. We don’t really have a reason to be here.”
“Yes, I’m fine,” he confirmed picking up one of the cats and cuddling it in his arms.
“Keep up the good work, I guess,” my boss completed my thought. “We’ll get out of your hair.”
And we left.
Genuinely, that was the dream I had last night. I do have some pretty strange dreams from time to time and it’s not really unusual for mythological imagery to appear in my dreams. My personal feeling is that I have an interest in religion from a cultural and scientific perspective so it’s on my mind sometimes when I go to sleep and as my brain is doing its little sleep repairs it reminds me of these things.
This one was not terribly mythological and usually when I dream like this it’s pretty clearly psychologically relevant. For example around the time a friend of mine was attacked and denied justice, I dreamt about being attacked and being unable to fight off the attacker. That’s pretty clearly connected to what I was feeling about her situation. This one seemed to be about gender and identity fluidity and … the man was literally in the closet and couldn’t go out in the light for fear that his inner self would be seen as disturbing to others. I also think it may have been about disability and societal acceptance.
I know I generally have some sort of point or lesson to my stories and articles, but in this case I don’t. I had a weird dream. I don’t know what it means for me psychologically or if it’s even relevant. Again, dreams are basically your body doing maintenance on your brain. But there you have it. I dreamed.