Where Dead Men Go | Castronova on Slaughterhouse-Five

The boss cleans up after, the boss is always the last one to turn out the lights and lock the door, which means the boss is the last one to look for spills and messes and things-out-of-place that will be a nuisance tomorrow. A good boss does that, anyway. She’d worked for jerks who left clean-up for others, went off to a cocktail hour or the yacht club and hollered at everyone over his shoulder to pick the place up before they go. The place never got picked up, nobody cared, so it was a nasty place every day. What does that make a boss who stays to the end and cleans up? A nanny. Elizabeth Eckert: Nanny. Nanny to a house of soul nurses and their clients. “I’ve had worse titles,” she mused.

The blood spots were small, thankfully. You always had to assume they were dangerous. Clients brought along all kinds of nasty little bugs. Elizabeth kneeled and worked her rubber-gloved hands back and forth, up and down, along the grain of the dark wood and then against it. The smell of bleach wafted up over the bed and into the curtains, a disinfectant smell that would have to be exorcised from the room before next afternoon. She thought about it and chose cinnamon for tomorrow. She wondered whether some clients might prefer hospital smells, smells of washing and purging. Many would. But these men no longer had any idea what was good for them. Therefore, cinnamon. Smells like home.

Most men did not bleed, but surprisingly many did. Cut up in their last fight, right before giving up. Or crying nosebleeds. Or they’d been wandering, gotten bug bites and scratched them too much. Sometimes they bled after hitting themselves, but usually those men were screened out. Anyone with that much passion wasn’t ready for the services. But men who needed it, in the mind, in the soul, often had holes in their skin too, as though the implosion of the soul drained matter from the envelope of a body, leaving not enough skin to cover the territory of a man. And from the gaps wept little red body tears.

This fellow was a cut. Cut hands. Martin van Dorn, self-employed, a man who saw himself as a builder but whose talents were better suited to office work. A wiry fellow with small hands, he’d tried to go it alone: Housing Development was his thing. So proud of his independence, which he kept for a while. But the company folded, and so did the second one. His wife got lonely and had an affair. He’d never known his kids, so they were gone too. He borrowed money from friends for company number three, lost it all, and lost them too. He got depressed, ate up his savings and his credit cards. Facing eviction and starvation, Martin van Dorn eventually had to go to the next town and seek work, any work. He got a job as a laborer on a building site. The first day, today, he cut up his hands on the stones and bricks. Almost broke his back too; old men aren’t supposed to haul 100-pound bags along narrow girders. He fell, took a lot of ridicule, handled it poorly, and was escorted off-site. He found his way here, passed the screen, and brought his wounded hands into this room, where Melanie patched them up. She patched up Martin van Dorn too, at least a little. As much as he could take, as much as he needed. Then he went on his way, a new light in the world.


The smell. The smell—that’s how they knew the village was live. What an incredible word to use, “live,” meaning there were people there, but those people were most certainly not alive. That’s why they had to be dealt with. It was so completely and utterly insane. Use your nose to find the live huts and extract all the bodies therein. Stack them in the clearing, where the living fire will consume them. The living fire had to come now, because the current smell wasn’t the worst smell. Sick people, newly dead, smell better than rotting ones.

He couldn’t write this. It was impossible to write, to say, even to think. Looking out the cafe window now, as an older man, seeing the people who were left, knowing that none of them had seen so much as a blister: He could not write about it. He could put words on paper, yes. But who would feel them? The task was not to describe, it was to immerse. Immersing people in a nice thing is hard enough. How do you immerse them in something horrible? Something horrible that they did?

He wanted more than that. He wanted to bathe them in the weeping sores until their souls were changed. Only that would be fair. Their souls should be seared like his.

He returned his focus to the scripto and spoke softly: “The world stands on its head. Nothing is true. Believe nothing. Our world is built on lies. Everyone is evil . . . ”

As he spoke, the words appeared in the air above the table. Disgusted, he wiped them away with his hand. That’s when the angel came in and sat down in the booth.


Elizabeth sat at the office desk, a dark cherry wood affair the size of a small sailboat. She wore flower-patterned white sheath dress with puff shoulders and a ruffled hem, and was writing a letter with a heavy fountain pen. The letter was addressed to the novice prospect Sara Kayla Kelonis. “Dear Sara,” she wrote, “We are thrilled to hear of your interest in our work. Every June, we have an open house, and I encourage you to visit us.” It was such an orderly way to get into the business, but that, of course, was one of the reasons Elizabeth Eckert was well known in this little field. She had made entrance to her house an orderly matter, with training and preparation and strict scrutiny. She had also focused on tragic men, the broken ones, leaving room for other houses to serve other clients. She had defined the mandate and the requirements for her employees: These services weren’t for just any man and they could not be given by just any woman.

Her own route had been chaotic. Madam Eckert had been a worker, a boss, a student, and a nanny. She had made boatloads of money and lost boatloads of money. She had slept on beds and on streets, and on just about every vehicular conveyance known to humankind. Often—very often, too often—she was not alone in her slumber, and sometimes not by her choice. She had owned people and been owned by people. They hated her and she hated them just as much. But over the years, the world changed. No, she changed. Or was changed.

As she aged, as Lizzy became Elspeth became Elizabeth, people, including men, especially men, meant something else. While her friends grew colder toward men and the world, Elizabeth Eckart became more compassionate. She increasingly saw the boy in the man, and many of them were foolish boys too. She was especially sad for the passionate ones, the men driven onward by some impulse or tragedy.

Her father was driven. He was a hyper-energetic bully. Lizzy’s theory, and her mom’s, went back to the time when her father was simply overlooked. His parents signed him up for a summer camp, but the placement system erred and the bots took him to jail. He languished there for the whole six weeks; his parents just didn’t think to check on him. He developed into a man with an overwhelming need to be significant, to matter in some way. “It is important to move the needle,” he would say, and on that needle he sacrificed every waking hour. People hated working for him and he was no better at home. Naturally, despite the hours, no needle was ever moved, not really. Edward Eckert tried to convince himself of his own importance, but any observer of his earnest conversations would have viewed them as a farce. This man’s path through life was annoying, then farcical, and finally pathetic enough to earn sympathy. He never had a chance of loving life. What little love he had was crushed in the mill of experience. The same was true of a lot of men. When you saw them late in life, they were pathetic. Lizzy hated them, but Elizabeth felt just as sorry for them as she would for any lost little creature.

Therapists told Elizabeth to resolve her daddy issues. Perhaps; but who knows why a person becomes compassionate in a certain way? Elizabeth Eckert’s heart went out to failed, broken men whose helpless lives had been scripted by horrible events in their past. What of it? She was compassionate: she was not in love. She knew better than to fall in love. She had suffered often enough at the hands of madly driven men, and had learned that they were only dangerous before they failed. Once their dream came crashing down, once everything inside them was dead, they emerged from the wreckage like pitiful little puppies. This moment earned Elizabeth’s compassion. It was a surprising compassion; it certainly surprised her; it was beyond all justification; but it was genuine and strong.
This turn in her heart led her to seek like-minded sisters, of her own age and wisdom, and bring them together in this old Victorian home, to make a place where men like this, the dead ones, went to find life again. For this service she had become well known, and she soon began receiving applicants for employment. Like this lady, Sara, who in her 30s was still far too young. But she had a heart. She could be made into a proper healer.

“Problem in the vestibule.” It was Archa, assistant porter, a novice. She had creaked open the heavy mahogany door and leaned in. Someone’s screening wasn’t going well.

Elizabeth Eckert rose gracefully from the chair and brought herself up to full and magisterial height, becoming Madam Elizabeth Eckert, Proprietor. Clasping hands together at her waist, she strode humbly but intently into the hallway, down the carpet runner, through the double doors and into the antechamber of the house.


The angel sat down and ordered a cup of coffee. The writer looked at her like a starving man looks at a friend who only brought water.

“You don’t help me write, you just occupy time,” he said.

“Let me see the latest.”

Apathetically he waved the scripto around so that it faced her. Her eyes scrolled rapidly over the text. It revealed a world where something is strange, something is bad, but everyone seems oblivious to it. Some people are angry defenders of the awful thing, and they are made out to be stupid, selfish boors. Of all these people, only one has an inkling of the truth, but they all think he is crazy. He is small, tiny. He can’t do anything but watch the world slide into a conflagration of its own making. Lots of wry jokes. Good ones. But nothing really about the One Big Thing, the writer’s insight, his secret knowledge, the evidence he alone has that could condemn the whole world. In other words, no progress. Naturally. She knew there was no progress to be made. But he didn’t, and that was his problem.


“Why can’t I come in?” the man demanded. He was in his 50s and wore a rumpled gray suit. His tie was loose. He needed a shave. “They cheated me, I lost half of my share, my own sisters. And the appeal won’t be heard for a year! I can’t wait that long, I feel like I am going to die.”

“Please be seated,” said the ruler of the house as she dismissed Anna and Archa, porter and assistant. The vestibule was appointed in soft burgundy and had a reception desk on one side and two cushioned rocking chairs on the other. Madam Elizabeth indicated these and relaxed into one of them, pressing her brightly flowered dress over her knees as she crossed them. The man plopped down.

They rocked for a moment. She asked him his name, and he said “Thomas. Thomas Trelane. Of the Merrimack Trelanes.”

“Well, Thomas Trelane of the Merrimack Trelanes. You know who I am. Why are you here?”

He began to tell a story about a dead rich man and all his money. Madam Eckert stopped him.

“I said, why are you here? Don’t tell me what’s wrong with the world. What’s wrong with you?”

The man said, “I can’t wait for this to be settled. I’m dying.”

“But you are not dead,” she replied.

“No, but I can’t take this. It’s not fair.”

“You are still concerned with justice.”

“Well, of course! I’m not going to get my full share, even if everything goes my way. It’s wrong and I am sick of dealing with it and I am done. Just done. This is the place to go when you’re done, right?”

She felt for him. But he wasn’t ready.

“Mr. Trelane, you misunderstand our criteria. Men who think they are ‘done’ are not done yet. We don’t take men who are still alive enough to be angry, high, or hopeful. We only take dead men, and we know who they are. We have seen thousands and thousands of them, and we know when they are dead. You, Thomas Trelane, are not dead.”

“Look, I need help. Can’t you see I need help?”

“Yes,” she said, “I can see you need help, and I am going to give it to you right now. But you must promise me that you will accept it as it is. Do you trust me to know what you need?”

His eyes softened. “Yes. Sure. I do trust you. Everyone says this is the place to go. For help.”

“Good. Then please stand.”

He rose, his lower lip trembling. Then she stood, her eyes on his. She placed four fingers of her right hand on his forehead. He closed his eyes as she gradually opened her hand until her palm was resting gently on him. She closed her eyes and began to whisper inaudibly. It was a soothing sound, the sound a mother makes when talking to God while holding a newborn. The man’s shoulders sagged, he began to lean forward into her hand, and she held him up. He began to breathe deeply. After a moment he straightened his posture and stood upright, his head breaking contact with Madam Eckert’s hand.

She looked into his eyes again. “Thomas Trelane, I send you forth. Return only in your hour of death.”


“You try to write about your experience, but find you cannot,” said the angel.

“Yep,” replied the writer. “That’s the basic problem.”

“Why does it need to be written?”

“Because it is being ignored. These people,” he said, waving his hand at the window, “these people have everything done for them, and they always have. From birth. They are served and pampered by the automata, just like I was, and know nothing, just as I knew nothing. But if they knew, they’d understand what they’ve earned: A rain of pestilence, a slow one, an agonizing, long, moaning death, like the recusants. They could at least be sad. They could be humbled, sorrowful. They could beg for mercy. They could seek atonement or redemption. But look at them—”
Here he pointed at a man stepping lightly and brightly along the walkway.

“Look at him. Just living, without a care in the world. There he goes, enjoying life in the hands of machines, machines that treat him well while sending so many others to their graves.”

“Maybe he knows and doesn’t care.”

“That’s even worse.”

He paused. “No, there’s worse than that. The ones who are not only stupid but pushy. They dream up these positions, platforms, and movements and then badger you endlessly about them. The point is, I don’t care. And no one should care. It does not matter that Verdomme is no longer taught in the schools, or that garden access is restricted. It doesn’t matter; having seen what I have seen, I don’t care; but they can’t leave me alone in my lack of concern. To the preachers, an indifferent fellow is a glowing target. And the more they harangue me, the less I care, the more absurd it all seems, and all I can think is that these people need to be slapped across the face and given the right perspective. There is evil far beyond the waning of ideas or the proper construction of flowers. There is gore, real, fleshy gore. That’s where they need to focus: What gives seeping sores to the innocent, how are we responsible for that, and what can we do to stop it.”

The angel tilted her head. “Stop it? Why?”

“Because it’s wrong.”

“Agreed. But why do you have to stop everything that is wrong? Why everything? And why you?”

The writer tilted his head in turn. “You’re nuts.”

“It’s not as obvious as you think.”

“So you’re telling me, I can be sent out there with those recovery bots, and they can get bogged down, so that I have to go myself, personally, into the villages to point the stupid bots to the right huts, the ‘live’ ones, and watch them drag out the corpses and burn them, all because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time; that I should see what no one else has seen and I should know what no one knows; and yet do absolutely nothing with that insight and knowledge.”

“I’m afraid so,” she said. Sympathy came into her voice. “One man can’t do anything. That’s always been true. You could write until your fingers bled, and people would still be given deadly infections; they’d still be burned, drowned, or left alone in a dark room. It’s not the vocation of one man to alert the world about evil.”
She paused.

“And God doesn’t want it to change anyway.”

“Huh. Well that’s a nice God, isn’t it.” He slapped his hand on the table just loudly enough to get the attention of the mechanic at the counter. “Sorry. Relationships,” he lied, indicating the angel. The mechanic nodded and went back into his headset.

“God doesn’t like it, but he doesn’t want to change it,” she said quietly. “He and I chatted about it just the other day.”


When the compassion arose in her heart, Madam Elizabeth thought about the giving professions. Nurse, teacher, nun, “life coach.” All disgustingly feminine. It’s always women in these jobs, she thought. Why are the givers always the women?

She sought the wisdom of the old. Waitresses, housewives, showgirls, bus drivers. She laughed at herself for being such a stalker: Sidling up to the unsuspecting gray-hair kneeling in her pew and chatting her up. Or pausing in the grocery aisle, pretending to survey the canned vegetables, but actually working to get an invitation to tea from the older lady standing there. The canned vegetables method brought her Maureen, the social worker, with more than forty years of counseling in emergency wards. “I had the terrible privilege of watching thousands of people die,” she had said, pointing with her dainty little spoon. “Let me tell you, people are good when they die. Doesn’t matter: men, women, rich, poor, young, old. Their hearts are open, the light comes all around them. It affects everybody. You want a good relationship with a man, get one who is dying. Dying today. He’ll be an angel to you. And you’ll be an angel to him.”

It was funny to think about. Not death in the abstract, but death now, this minute. What are people like when they die? Nice, apparently, some for the first time in their lives. That’s how it was with her father. He had been such a pain to live with, but in his final weeks he laid quietly in the bed, clutching his Indiana Hoosiers hat like a teddy bear. He would mumble, “Love love you. Hold you. Love love love,” over and over. The child inside was a delightful child. Elizabeth loved him for that, and in those last hours she did hold him, often, and she cried on his chest.

After talking to Maureen, Elizabeth started looking for people who seemed about to die. She helped emaciated young men cross the street and wheezing old women buy their prescriptions. She stopped wherever there might be deadly injury and watched the wounded. She learned that the Emergency Room taught a true lesson: People are wonderful in the moment of death.

It then occurred to Elizabeth that if death brought out the best in people, it would be good to hasten them toward the end. She was seeking a giving profession: Why not give people death?

There was an entire branch of the medical profession devoted to giving people the endless sleep, and she considered joining it. Then she spent time with a man who was dead but alive. She knew he was dead, for she had killed him herself. But she had done it in a way that left him living. And wonderful. So far as she knew, he was still wonderful, living a long life in the shadow of his own death, unafraid, at peace. She killed him and gave him peace. It was a peace he deserved. He had suffered so terribly. Every day was torture. He was a pierced, wracked man walking around in a world of fools. The man was going mad trying to change that world. It was such a masculine reaction: The world causes me to suffer; therefore I, I myself, will change it. Only men are stupid enough to think that the answer to pain is to get rid of its source, even if the source is human existence itself. They keep trying to cauterize the wound that won’t heal, layering suffering upon suffering.

To stop this man’s crusade, Lizzy Eckert, soon to become Madam Elizabeth Eckert, killed him. She took away his last hope of doing something that needed to be done. She suffocated his soul so that it could finally breathe.

After seeing the peace that descended, Elizabeth understood her calling: She would create a place where failed men could be finally and irrevocably killed to this world, a place where their last dream of achievement could be set to rest, a place where they could be set free. And that was how she became nanny to a house of soul healers.


The writer said a nasty thing about God.

“If he wanted to help you, he would,” continued the angel. “But he doesn’t want these things fixed. Evil is working as intended.”

The writer looked up with a wry smile and pressed his thumb on the payment cube. “Right. I better go.”

She took his hand and held it firmly. “You want to see all this as a story with The Writer as the main character. It’s not a story. It’s a game. In order to be any good, a game has to have winning and losing. Some people get boxcars, others get snake eyes. Snake eyes aren’t an injustice, they don’t make the game unfair. They make it worth playing. You think the world would be better without bad rolls? How boring.”

There was a long silence. The writer looked down at the table. Some water had spilled when he slapped his hand. It had pooled and was now draining slowly to the table’s edge. In a few moments it would go over the edge and drip down onto the floor. He watched the water creep along.

“You’re a writer. You like sci-fi, fantasy. The dragon always guards the gold, right? What good would an adventure be if there was no gold—or no dragon? Take away the dragon, and the quest isn’t worth pursuing.”

He leaned back in his seat, looked out at the lights coming on now that night was falling.

“You got snake eyes. You were the knight the dragon killed, the first one, that taught everyone what a nasty dragon it was. That was your job. To be the one who lost.”

She carefully and professionally spaced her words.

“It isn’t your job to tell the world about the evils.

Your job is to experience them.

You’re not a prophet.

Your book is about you, not the world. It doesn’t matter whether anyone reads it.”


At 5:00 pm a suitable client came to the door. Anna could tell at once he was broken, dead, so she rang the bell for Madam right away. Elizabeth led the man into one of the rooms of final rest and sat him on the bed. She listened to the man’s story, helping him out of his coat and shoes, cooing and encouraging, calmly taking his measure and mulling over the women who might help him. The man had led a political movement for some years, had worked and worked to obtain aid for poor children in another country. He had given up home, wife, family, children, friends in order to serve these poor children who starved in great numbers every year. He had cradled their little heads in his arms and cried out for some way to bring them a drop of water, a spoonful of rice. But the money he gathered was always stolen by bureaucrats and warlords. His program acquired a reputation for waste and ineffectiveness. Donations dried up. Leaders in the field told him his work was counterproductive. Today, this day, in the midst of the greatest famine his people had ever known, his foundation’s doors had been closed forever. He had been evicted and found himself on the street with only a cardboard box. A life’s work for nothing. The man was dead.

Madam Elizabeth held his hand and whispered, “Wait here for just a moment. Lie down and relax. There. Mrs. Navaz will be with you shortly.”

She chose Navaz because Navaz was attuned to the earth like few others. She had worked many soils with many tools and brought forth much good food. Navaz was the right minister for this man, and his death would be a good one. Lasting and wonderful. He would walk on in peace, a bright light shining into the darkness of the world.


The angel stood. “Come with me,” she said, holding out her hand. The writer rose and took her hand like a schoolchild.

Some weeks later, the writer gazed peacefully at his scripto and whispered, “Everything in here is real, more or less.”