Note: The following is an extract from a novel, a ghost story told in three first person narratives over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This section takes place in 1889.
I laid eyes on Alonso first. It was the day we laid knife to our cadavers. I recall it as if it were a tintype; the image is curiously inert, and dull coloured – perhaps because the memory lives in my intellect and understanding, rather than in my eyes.
There was no horror in that room. I was put in mind of York Minster, which I have seen once, and the cool effigies that lie there in the sanctified air. The corpses were washed and bound in cheesecloth. There was little in the waxy figures before us to revolt. They lay like brides, each on their bier, the white forms barred by a little sunshine that strayed through the high windows of that echoing hall.
It was a pioneer scheme, this allocation of one corpse to two students, counter to the accepted practice of lecturing from a platform, where we would stand around, craning our necks to see the quick and tiny movements of the knife. Instead, we were to keep this person, or these remnants of a person, for our very own, throughout Anatomy.
Month by month we would open them, piece by piece, organ by organ. The scheme was the cause of great outrage in the newspapers, for there was then need for thirty corpses, not just one. I had read an article in the Penny Illustrated only the day before, telling how it would lead to an increase in grave robbing, that the bread would be torn from the mouths of hardworking men and their families as a result. How the one would affect the other remains a puzzle to me. Burke lay in a glass case in the Edinburgh medical college, reduced to flayed skin and skeleton, Hare was forty years underground; both long gone. These cadavers had been obtained by means which were perfectly proper and according to the letter of the Anatomy Act. But this made no odds to the general populace, who wrestled with the conundrum: doctors must be trained, but corpses must be buried.
We set to work, with the stentorian tones of the lecturer in our ears. We began on a leg. The shape, the roundness of the calf, the muscles preserved so tight and solid beneath the waxy skin. There is a peculiar pleasure to it. The knife went in; the dermis, and layers of muscle were revealed like a flower, petal by petal. There were such colours and shapes. I had not known. The muscle is a rich purpled red, encased in marbled flesh, which is the colour of a baked salmon. The sinews and tendons have a white and yellowish tinge. The component parts lie tight together in symmetry, as if designed by a master craftsman, bound and run through by the lacework of corded vessels. The graceful long saphenous vein, from which other veins branch like winter trees against the sky. The rippling surface of the gastrocnemius muscle.
I was bemused by the vomiting and the distress that was engendered in my fellows. Unclothed, these forms retained their modesty. They were not awesome, but simply the carcase of man, sloughed away when need for it was done. The corpses were strongly preserved in formaldehyde; their flesh bore little relation to that of a living being. There could be no kinship to oneself – I could not think – there but for grace go I – or – one day I shall lie thus. Perhaps, upon reflection, I should have thought these things. Perhaps I was too sure and young truly to understand the condition of these cold figures, which submitted to the outrage of our knives.
Afterwards we sought the Lamb and Flag like hounds. Those of our party were seized by a hilarity commensurate to their previous unease. These young men now shed their fear and talked loud and brave. Scorning the hypocrisy of tippling by half measures, quaffing porter and blue ruin, faces grew rosier, lips wetter, eyes brighter. Their memories of the blood and the bones and the delicate layers of subcutaneous flesh were transmuted and the company waxed lewd.
Presently we were increased by a party fresh released from their lectures at Pall Mall East, and there was further frantic passage to and fro between tables and bar. We were busy as rats in an old cheese loft. One Irish gentleman whose name I cannot now summon besought me in plaintive accents to lay bets for the bareknuckle fight in the yard later.
‘For we have not enough entries, Danforth, for a book, and it is Murchison, you know, fighting against a Black, and the Black sure enough to win.’
I demurred. I have always abhorred and avoided all forms of gaming and violence; here the two were promised to be mingled in fine anarchy. My finances were somewhat straitened, anyhow. I could not have paid my shot. He would not relent, however, and shouted that not for nothing were we drinking in the ‘Buckets of Blood’ (for this was the casual name given to the establishment in which we sat) and were to see a little fisticuffs and make up a book, so that he may buy ribbons for his little sister after all! The mention of ribbons had the happy effect of diverting his talk and he began then to describe a house he had patronised the night before, with entertainments I would not believe, he assured me. He began to tell me a tale of a pair of little twins, as perfect as they could be, who would do something with a live snake, but as he went on, his urgency and his consonants would not ally together with the drink he had taken. His breath carried an odour of halibut, and sorrow. It was no trouble to get away, now, and presently I saw him collapsed on a settle, mouth open, forelock damp, sleeping like a babe.
As the sun fell, the light grew orange and straightened its beams through the casements. Without, ladies had begun to show themselves in the street, fresh from their couches, to take the cool, yellow evening air. Through the rippled glass there could be seen gloved hands and the pale silk of dresses. They did not linger by the house, and I cannot blame them for it. I imagine our hullaballoo could be heard perfectly well as far as Covent Garden.
One man alone I observed, who sat quiet and played with a penny on the rim of his glass, producing a tuneful sound, never loud enough to attract notice but so that the gathering became accustomed to the gentle noise running beneath the babble. I thought he had arrived with the others only that minute, then I thought I had seen him in the hall that morning.
This man was sallow, and vast. His hair stood up at the back of his neck like the ruff of a bird. His linen was ragged at the collars and stained with ink, which also covered his hands like a blemish. He hunched in the settle chair like a crouching beast, his great oblong face hung above the table, hollow eyes fixed on his task, which he performed with movements that were precise, and small. The great fingers manipulated the penny with a dexterity that confounded the eye, ran supple and light around the dirty rim. An image, a memory perhaps, arose unbidden to the surface of my mind: of him holding a knife, face solemn in the dim air.
No, I thought he had not, after all, been with us this morning, for I was sure I would have noted him. I shook my head to clear it of the heavy punch fumes and moved closer, under the cover of the shrieks. One bright spark had donned the tavern madam’s bonnet and was discoursing in a theatrical voice on her ‘pullets’ and ‘spiced wares’ which were for sale. This was enough distraction for the company, who rocked with laughter.
As I moved my stool, I was clumsy and made a business of it. The wooden legs screeched on the flags. The penny man lifted his eye to mine. Within the caverns of his face, it was that of a blackbird, bright, and deep like a glimpse of the bottom of a well. His finger sent the coin singing once more around the rim.
‘They hear it,’ he said, ‘but they do not mark it. It is a constant. They have accustomed themselves. But if I increase the pitch so,’ he poured more ale into the glass and it sang out higher, ‘and so on, eventually the glass will shatter. That, they will note. There will be a great fussing with cloths and restitution and a new glass, as if it were a surprise. But the warning has been sounding.’ He sang the glass again, ‘All along. Do you understand?’
‘I do not, I confess.’ I was held by the lights that moved in his eyes.
‘It is so that death sits beside us every day, until it is forced upon our notice. Until the vessel breaks open and life flows out we must be blind and deaf to its presence, or we could not conduct our carnival as we do.’ He gestured at the youth who entertained the company. That individual was now bright red. The bonnet lay askew over one eye, and he had begun a series of high kicks, as the Parisian dancing girls do. The penny man regarded this with kindness, but absently, as if it were an effort by a child to imagine a giraffe when they have not seen one. He went on, ‘But there are some who choose to listen to the song of mortality which underlies it, lies beneath everything. The long note beneath the cacophony. For those who can hear death, whistling always, underneath; who do not fear him, but see his part in the music.’ He grasped my arm as if in sympathy, ‘For them it is a vocation of the loneliest, and the highest order.’
We looked on one another. The finger turned and the glass whistled its distress. The pitch soared and enclosed us in its sphere.
‘It will break,’ I said.
‘Ah. Not it,’ he said. ‘Not yet.’
I offered him my hand then and told him my name.