“Mr. Heinrichs, can you tell me the position in which I have placed the body?”
“Correct,” replied Thomas, director of the Stalworth Funeral Home.
Jeremy Heinrichs had spent the last five years of his life ruminating and studying the human body. He recalled the first anatomy course he took in high school and the formative impression it had left on him. Prior to this class, Jeremy had spent a majority of his time sketching – an obsession that was often rebuked by his mother and ignored by his father. Even though Jeremy had possessed a seemingly preternatural ability to render static images in life-like detail, his grades suffered and he was often teased and ridiculed as a result, his mother asking: You want to be one of those starving artists, living in a gutter, drawing on pieces of trash while your teeth fall out? Will that make you happy? However, as soon as he began Human Anatomy with Mr. Scheuller in ninth grade, Jeremy eschewed the sketch books for Gray’s Anatomy, Frank Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy, and other seminal works, refocusing his attention on academia and foregoing the idle scratchings that filled volumes in his closet.
On top of the stainless steel table was the lifeless body of a man, naked, save for a cloth draped across his genitals, body cleanly shaven and strongly smelling of disinfectant.
Stalworth began examining the body. “The man’s name was Theodore Alfred Keaton, age sixty-two, blood type A-negative. Approximately five-foot ten-inches tall; two-hundred thirty-four pounds. The deceased arrived at the funeral home at 6:14 pm, September 17th, 1994. Eyes reveal slight petechial hemorrhaging. There is a large abrasion on the mid-thorax; dark-blue tissue between left and right rib-cage; breakage of sternum consistent with trauma from manual CPR, attempted by relative at the scene of death. Medical examiner has ruled death as natural, result of underlying heart disease; ‘myocardial ischemia,’ or ‘angina,’ if you prefer the more common term. Inflammation present along left posterior tibial tendon from pre-existing medical condition. End.”
Jeremy prodded a large container of Vicks VapoRub and smeared a line of the translucent substance across the crenulated recess of his philtrum, his fingers tracing the pliable tissue of oxygenated flesh above his lip. Jeremy couldn’t help but notice the difference between the cold, hardened lip-line of the dead man before him and his own: the unyielding rigidity of the skin as he brushed the razor across the man’s face, slicing miniscule hair follicles until only pin-pricks of darkened stubble remained. On one of Jeremy’s first passes with the razor, he dug too deeply and nicked the man’s face along the left jaw-line. Jeremy found it fascinating: the flesh, though it split open, revealing the raw, deep-red flesh beneath the layers of dermis, failed to produce any blood. It was a perfect divide – a miniature Red Sea, the curvature of the shoreline replaced with two symmetrical embankments.
“Relax,” said Stalworth. “Take your time or you’ll slice too deep. The body, once it loses its elasticity, is quite sensitive to cuts and abrasions. The skin becomes taut after the blood settles. Try not to think of it as shaving your own face; when you drag the blade across your own, living cheek, the skin will follow with the blade for a brief moment, gently sliding back into place as the razor passes. Dead skin doesn’t act this way. Much like the rest of the body it no longer has the impulse or the impetus to move. I like to think it’s happy just to play its part in becoming a snack for the bacteria that will inevitably devour it.”
Stalworth looked up from the body and smiled. “A little makeup will cover that just fine.”
Jeremy finished making notations on the deceased’s chart and watched as Stalworth kneaded the right thigh of the dead man, digging the palms of his hands into the fibrous skeletal muscle, easing the constant contraction occurring within. Jeremy was amazed by how fluid and subtle the old mortician’s movements were. His technique carried with it a sense of artistry, as though the somewhat bloated corpse before him were a mass of clay, being molded by a Grecian sculptor, the muscles momentarily yielding to the external force that compelled it, patiently awaiting the cessation of the biochemical process it had known since the beginning. Stalworth told him he often thought of rigor mortis in this light: the body as clay, the coffin as kiln.
After six months, Stalworth allowed Jeremy to lead the examination of the newest body to enter the funeral home. Stalworth blended into the shadowy backdrop, purposely removing himself from Jeremy’s line of sight as he prepared the body. Jeremy, as he had seen Stalworth proceed numerous times before, began studying the corpse of the woman before him; his fingers tracing the rigid structures of her hands and arms as he raised them up, peering for imperfections or inconsistencies in the documentation that accompanied the woman.
The body had belonged to seventeen year old Sarah Bergstrom; the police ruled her death a homicide. An appalling sense of guilt accompanied his gaze as it floated from her slightly engorged and erect nipples to the pooled sub dermal hematoma under her left breast; a purplish mass encompassing a fist-sized portion of her lower thorax. Jeremy scanned further along the contours of the young woman’s body, the pattern of bruising increased in quantity and concentration as it neared her pubic region. Jeremy grabbed a drape that lay nearby and covered the mutilated genitalia below.
The file denoted approximately nine, seemingly indeterminable lacerations on her left proximal radius, indicative of defensive wounds. The right wrist and distal ulna was an ironic mimicry of the left; a sad and horrific duplication, as if the left contained finite lines of scarlet paint, pressed upon the other like a Rorschach inkblot. The contorted angle of her left wrist, containing three compound fractures within the metacarpals and one spiral along the proximal radius, forced Jeremy to imagine the indeterminable pain and fear of her final moments.
The girl, for how could Jeremy think of her otherwise, was only three years younger than he. He noticed a tremor kinetically animating the girl’s shattered wrist and forearm in small, spasmodic vibrations. “I’m sorry.” He lowered the girl’s arm and stepped away from the table. “This is too much,” he said, looking away from the corpse.
Stalworth smiled, but did not move from the corner. “It’s fine, Jeremy. Take your time.”
Jeremy couldn’t proceed; he was aware only of his body’s complete unwillingness to respond to anything. Jeremy noted with text-like specificity the physiological reaction he was unable to control: his hands, now trembling fervently, were unresponsive to any cognitive impetus.
Stalworth approached Jeremy and placed an empathetic hand on his shoulder. “Let’s get some air.”
Outside, Jeremy sat under a large oak tree. The ground was barren around the base, the spindly knots of above-ground roots jabbed and prodded Jeremy, yet there was a certain tranquility in his discomfort – a connection to something tangible, as motionless and rigid as the bodies he had been examining for the last four weeks, but living; Jeremy could almost imagine the water, the tree’s blood, coursing through the roots’ capillaries, rising through the trunk and into the branches, finally hydrating the verdant leaves at the apex of every bud. Though these roots were as inanimate as the body of Sarah Bergstrom, it did not need him or Stalworth to preserve it – it just was.
“Why do you do it?” Jeremy asked.
“Not sure,” Stalworth said. He bent down and removed a small twig from the grass, resting his crackling body next to Jeremy. “My father did it; my grandfather did it – I was born into it.”
“You grew up with this?” Jeremy said.
Stalworth nodded. “When I was a kid, I loved the smell of formaldehyde on my father when he came in from the mortuary. Our house was connected back then, before the city re-zoned, so every night he would come in from the shop – that’s what he called it, the shop – just reeking of embalming fluid. He wore it like cologne. I didn’t know what it was at the time; had no idea what it was used for or how it worked, but he always smelled like it; even after a bath, it lingered on his skin. I can’t help but think of him every time I walk into that prep room.
“My mother, on the other hand, would make him strip down right in the backyard and throw his entire outfit, even his boots, into a tub of soap and water, scrubbing, trying to remove that stench from every fiber, but she could never do it; not fully, anyhow. My mother said it was something she could never get used to; when we moved the house, she moved on.
“We had to move it a few blocks east.” Stalworth pointed down the street, “Just down there; you can see it. It’s got the white arbor standing up near the street.”
Jeremy looked in the direction Stalworth indicated, but he didn’t see the house, or the arbor: all Jeremy noticed were the daubs of round, brownish-black spots on Stalworth’s hand and the bulbous knob of an arthritic joint encased within a shriveling finger. He looked down at his own smooth hand and saw the sharp contrast between the two. Jeremy wanted to cover up the blemishes on Stalworth’s hands: he wanted to grab a container of make-up and apply it to all of the spots, the smudge of blotched epidermis on the frontal portion of his skull, right below the hair-line; a wide stroke of rouge to color the sallow depression of his cheeks below the orbital bones; he wanted to preserve this man while he was alive, keep him from the clutches of death in the only way he knew how.
“How do you get over it?” Jeremy asked. “Doesn’t it make you sad?”
Stalworth looked down at the system of roots protruding from underneath Jeremy; a thick-bodied, black ant carried the remnants of an insect, perhaps a fallen comrade, toward the raised mound of earth near the base of the tree. Its legs skittered over the uneven grains of sand and clay until it reached its destination, disappearing within a tiny black hole at the summit.
“You have any idea how many bodies I’ve preserved in fifty-two years?”
Jeremy shook his head.
“Two-thousand and fifty-four, not including the one you’re working on. That’s about the only thing that sticks with me anymore – the number. There was a time, years ago, when every corpse I prepped after my father’s troubled me. Now, their faces all blur into each other, even his. I don’t know Jim Jones from Betty Hardwick these days, and that’s what bothers me – not remembering. I can look over some old chart, see their dead face, but never recall how they really looked, you know, when they were alive. This town’s big, Jeremy, but not that big. I’ve known almost everybody who’s been rolled in through that back door. At the same time, I’m positive this is what I was meant to do; no question.”
A single exam light hung above the lifeless body of seventeen year old Sarah Bergstrom. The halogen bulb cast a noir-like shadow as Jeremy propped the body on a vinyl-coated positioning wedge, elevating the upper-half in a forty-five degree angle; face full of artifice, eyes sinking, putrefying within the sockets. Stalworth had placed semi-spherical lenses beneath her eyelids, providing contour where there was none; an illusion of substance above the decaying matter below. Jeremy scanned the lines of the girl’s face, noticing the faint, almost imperceptible wisps of discoloration that demarcated a beginning of the creases that would have formed from smoking – had she been allowed to age.
Jeremy tilted her face slightly to the right, allowing the harsh fluorescent of the preparation room to cast a shadow on a portion of the girl’s neck that had not been touched up with cosmetics; a contrast to her fleshy, rouge chin – the blotchy, purplish welts seeping along the width of her neck, a jagged pattern of hemorrhaging along the carotid artery and jugular vein – strangulation.
Jeremy picked up a recently sharpened pencil that lay nearby; the tip hung motionless, poised in perfect isolation, above the blank sheet of paper. He scraped the graphite tip with the edge of his thumbnail, wearing away the crispness of the point, dulling it for the initial broad strokes as he’d done so many times as a child. With deliberate slowness, he began to outline the contours of the woman’s face. Jeremy’s nascent strokes were light, forming a rough image, beginning with the frontal bone, curving along the maxilla and ending near the bottom of her mandible.
He was in the middle of shading her neck-line when he heard the click of a door-latch behind him. The pencil almost slid from his hand, but Jeremy lifted the tip before it could drag across the page, saving his work. Jeremy sprang up, knocking the examination stool to the floor – the metallic clang reverberating against the cold, tiled walls of the mortuary.
Stalworth stared at him, his usual ashen pallor reddened and the quirky timbre of his voice was replaced with uneasiness. “What are you doing?” he asked. “What are you doing to that body?”
Jeremy backed away from the stool, wincing as his hip slammed into the cold, hard edge of the countertop. The paper fell from his hands. Stalworth snatched it up in a fluid-like motion, his knee locking mid-bend, but otherwise uninterrupted.
“What is–,” his voice trailed off as he scanned the page. Jeremy watched with apprehension as the mortician’s eyes roamed over every section, following each stroke of graphite he had placed upon it. “What is this?”
“What is this?” he repeated. This time, a faint smile trickled form the corner of his mouth. “You actually did this?”
As Stalworth flipped the page around, Jeremy saw his work from a distance for the first time. In the fifteen minutes Stalworth had left the room, Jeremy rendered an exact copy of Sarah Bergstrom: the faint tracings of his initial outlines were long-removed and the gradation from black to white flowed naturally onto her cheeks; the blackest portions were intensely colored, as if a splash of rich, black paint drifted across the page, seeping into corners and recesses where light could not penetrate. All of her facial features had been duplicated with life-like accuracy, but to Stalworth, the image on the page seemed more physical and real than the body that lay before them: it was alive.
There was only one discrepancy between the body and the image Jeremy had created – the presentation. Much like Stalworth’s reconstruction of the orbital bones forming her left eye-socket, Jeremy had restored her face to its natural, unembellished state; free of all the bruising and swelling; free of Stalworth’s learned hand and skill; free of everything that had brought it here in the first place. Stalworth smiled. “She was beautiful.”