He thrusts the shovel into the freshly turned earth, stomps on it with his foot, and clumsily throws the dirt to the side of the grave. He is tall and thin and wears flimsy shoes suited more for lecture halls than the dew-heavy grass of the churchyard. Despite his transgression he is unhurried in his movements; there are no guards here, the parish a poor and neglected one. The rich, mouldy smell of dirt hangs in the air, a scent one might describe as a perfume of rot and decay. He of course does not indulge in such reveries, focuses instead on the task at hand, allowing only for the worry of rain that threatens to fall. Digging is hard enough without the thought of mud.
Finally two figures approach, stinking of cheap wine and tobacco. He stands, stretches, and hands over the shovel. They are late. The younger of the two is wobbly with drink and nerves and is promptly sick down his front when he sets eyes on the open grave. He snivels and wipes his hand across his mouth and stutters an apology to the professor, who is rolling down his shirtsleeves and ignoring his young student. He has little patience for queasiness. Instead he focuses his attention on the second, a sombre youth called Richards, leaving him with curt instructions on how they are to smuggle the body to his rooms at the college. Then he nods at the dark hole at their feet, the shroud gleaming light against the black soil. “Fill it well when you’re done,” he says and bids them good night.
The heavens open during his long walk home. Soon the side streets are slick with water and the rain runs in rivulets down his face and neck, his hat long lost to an errant gust of wind. He slouches further into his coat and strides past leaning tenements and the wide-watching eyes of feral cats and abandoned children who congregate in small bands and evade the visiting women who would reform them. Slowly the buildings become sturdier, more respectable, with shutters closed against the cold evening rain and the vapours that drift up from Griffintown.
His own modest house is found on such a street, a squashed brick building nestled cheek by jowl to its neighbours. He carefully scrapes the mud from his shoes and gives his coat a quick, futile shake as he undresses in the foyer. Nora, as he expects, is waiting for him despite the hour. He tenderly kisses her forehead and admonishes her fondly, a ritual of the newly married. She asks about his work in the lab, for he explains away all late nights as work in the lab, and he shrugs and busies himself with hanging his steaming coat near the fire. “It will never be dry by morning,” she frets.
His name is John Mercy, and he is one of the most poorly paid professors at the medical college. The students he takes on cannot afford the fees and default on their tuition, leaving him cap in hand at the end of each semester. His hair is already hinting at grey, and he has taken to wearing spectacles when drafting his research papers. Despite this, there is much to be admired about John. He is a self-made man, has pulled himself up from the labouring classes through a mixture of brains and luck and stamina. His closed-lipped Presbyterian parents are even known to occasionally boast about him, their middle son, who lives so far away. See also his bride whose bright countenance is crowned with nut-brown curls, the long longed-for daughter of his former teacher; she had had her pick of suitors, John among them. He was not her father’s choice. Indeed, had the old professor not died, the two would still be waiting to wed.
But John does not consider himself to be a person who holds a grudge, or at least that is what he says to the spirit of his father-in-law, whose skull now sits on a shelf in John’s lab. He understands the old man’s reluctance to bless the union; a doctor too, he knew the difficulty of finding patients and establishing reputation, made more pressing by the demands of a young family. John even broached the same topic with his wife before they were married, but she dismissed his concerns from the comfort of her family’s warm stone house.
There are hints now that they might have waited a little longer before marrying. After he has washed, has scrubbed the crusted dirt from beneath his fingernails and scoured the strange fragrance of the graveyard from his flesh, and as he sits and eats his late supper in front of the fire, his wife speaks again of her brother’s practice, the examining rooms inherited from her father. She tugs absently at one of her curls escaped from its knot, a habit that John finds endearing, and asks whether he has considered his brother-in-law’s offer.
“Wouldn’t you rather that, darling,” Nora asks, leaning forward, “wouldn’t you rather work in a proper clinic, with proper patients, than at the General?”
He raises an eyebrow. “Are the poor not deserving of care as well?”
She has decency to colour at that remark. “You know very well that’s not what I meant.”
John sighs. The truth is that he has little interest in the living, rich or poor. At least his patients at the General are usually docile and do not bluster and debate the cause of their sickness or argue about the treatment of a gouty foot. Mostly John considers his work at the hospital as but a means to an end, a necessary extension of his work at the college. He is not eager for an argument, though, especially this late at night, and so to placate her says that he will think about it, will arrange to meet with Matthew in the coming weeks. She smiles, pleased, and leads him to bed. He barely sleeps, his mind alert to the day ahead, so instead contemplates the still novel sensation of a body resting next to his, the sound of breath not his own, and lightly touches the pulse of life that beats in his bride’s wrist, holding her slim hand in his.
He leaves before she wakes. It has been weeks since he’s had a decent specimen, and if John holds any envy in his heart it is because of his better supplied colleagues, men whose students are wealthier or more iron stomached than his own. He has great hopes for Richards, though, and on seeing last night’s body neatly placed on the slab, covered with clean sheeting, finds that his instinct has been rewarded. His exact instructions were to hide the corpse beneath the table in the specially built partition, to at least suggest discretion, but he considers this a forgivable lapse. Besides, he thinks, it saves him the trouble of moving the body himself.
Carefully John lifts back the sheet, revealing the prominent nose and whiskery cheeks of an elderly man. With a sigh of something akin to reverence, John places his hand on the man’s face, feels the stubble coarse against his fingertips. The body, as hoped, still fresh. Cold and stiff but not yet discoloured or bloated. Soon his students will crowd in; he’ll expect a larger group than normal. His attendance generally swells when word gets around that a cadaver has been sourced. But before that mad rush, John takes time to imagine how the dissection will unfold. Considers what secrets may be revealed. He wonders now about the cause of death. Given the man’s age, John considers dropsy as a likely culprit, or maybe apoplexy, or some growth around one of the vital organs. Infection is always a possibility, of course, and so John explores the body for some wound or laceration. But the skin is clean.
There is a light tap at the door and John swivels, hastily jerking the sheet over the body, a precaution borne of long experience. But there is no need for concern; it is only Richards, the very student that John has to thank for the specimen now in his possession. John absently waves him in, his attention once more centred on the figure on the table.
“I take it you’re pleased, sir,” says Richards, hands clasped behind his back as he leans forward to watch John’s work.
John nods. “I hope the other fellow was of some use at least.”
“Enough. Strong for his size anyway,” says Richards, shrugging. He stands quietly, watches as his teacher sorts through his surgical kit and notes his careful selection of saws, knives and forceps. John feels his student’s eyes following each motion, knows that he expects something for his work last night. There is something in Richards that John recognizes, the quiet, bright-eyed eagerness, or something more; a sort of greed, an urge similar to his own. He’ll allow Richards to assist, that will be the reward. He’ll trust his protegé to pay attention, stand ready in anticipation as John peels layers away, flesh and fat and muscle and sinew, holding his hand out for the next instrument, readying for the next incision.
If John is particularly skilled at anything it is this. Standing in front of a horde of medical students, his shirtsleeves rolled up, a butcher’s apron looped round his neck, he holds the first blade and the room’s attention. “Observe,” he intones, the first cut steady and true, carving the body from sternum to groin. The meaty smell of the body fills his nostrils as he labours over the table, pausing now and then to remark on the function of a glistening muscle or organ. The students crowd around and he must bark at them to step out of his light. He tries to ignore their glittering eyes, the way they shuffle around like pigs at a trough vying for a better vantage point, and instead concentrates on the flesh that yields beneath his hands. Eventually, as the excitement dulls, he peppers them with questions. He is merciless in this endeavour and only Richards, his answers clipped and sure, avoids John’s scorn.
He is drenched with sweat at the end of five hours. At last he stands back, gives Richards the floor and lets his young student supervise the closing of the body, Richards’ criticisms of his classmates’ techniques harsher than John’s own. The room is hot and frankly stinks. The lab is rank with the stench of sweat and blood, the unwashed and the unburied, the smells of the living mixing with the smells of the dead. John scrubs and scrubs after such mornings but yet the scent lingers on his skin. When he lies with Nora that evening, she’ll question the odor that clings to his hands, the very fingers which trace her mouth in the darkness, and he’ll mumble some excuse, all the while thinking that a mistress would be an easier secret to keep.
Though the city swarms with people, fresh bodies are in short supply. As John walks down the city streets he looks through the crowd, his eyes stripping clothes from flesh, skin from bone. He is lost in daydreams, strange musings that he attributes to the change in weather, the slow lurching of spring into summer. When he ought to be writing papers, he finds himself studying his hand instead, observing the threading blue veins and the ripple of muscle and tendons beneath the skin. Eventually he begins to avoid the lab. The emptiness unnerves him, gives life to thoughts he must repress. Besides that, Richards is always hanging about, hinting at guards and priests who might be bribed, and John realizes that he has misunderstood his young student’s ambition. He is little better than the others, thinks John; he enjoys the show too much, the clandestine frisson that accompanies the dark searching nights and the spectacle that follows. Instead, much to his wife’s dismay, John busies himself by working longer hours at the General.
In that place he walks unhurriedly down corridors, stops for long moments in front of the windows, and half listens to patients when they list their symptoms. Most are doomed before they enter the hospital. There is little he can offer to reverse the years of poverty that now mark their bodies. For the young labourer, whose death rattle John can hear outside the ward, he advises rest and sips of water. For the boy in the adjoining ward, John orders an extra blanket to mask the lines of poisoned blood that streak the length of his body. Sometimes John forgets just where he is, will take a moment to regain his bearings. Like now, when a patient is thanking him, trust and fear comingled on her face, and he must hastily pinch the bridge of his nose and think, think, think to remember what he is doing there. He smiles to cover up his lapse, says he will sit awhile to make sure she takes her medicine. The woman weakly protests but John is firm in this regard and even takes her hand in his after she has swallowed the bitter powder. Her head soon lolls across the mattress, dark hair fanning out like ink, and he feels the slowing pulse of lifeblood in her wrist. How easy, he thinks. How easy it could be. For the briefest moment he allows the lapse, gives into his most base imaginings, but then swallows the horror down, before he might consider it a kindness. He lurches to his feet and resumes his rounds, the sound of his own blood throbbing in his skull.
Much of the hospital is still a mystery to John. Indeed it begins to feel as though he has now spent more time at the General in a few short weeks than in all the preceding years. He finds himself wandering down unfamiliar hallways, his sudden appearance making staff jump to attention. Yet he finds himself being pulled ever deeper, ever inward. One of his finds is the boiler room, the constant mechanical pounding of the room drowning out the thoughts that rush through his brain. He’ll try to explain the heat and the overwhelming noise of the place to Nora, who will sigh and turn away in the dark, not bothering to ask whether he has met with her brother. The next day she will suggest that she retreat to her family’s summer home, a picturesque lodge that stands sentry over a smooth-surfaced lake. It’s there where the two of them first met, the old professor having invited John, his then-favoured pupil, for a weekend in the country. John wonders if she thinks of their meeting when she proposes her escape, of the moment when their eyes first met, but he only smiles and promises to make the trip once his workload lightens. She will wonder out loud when that might be but John will not hear her, will have already left the room.
Once Nora goes, there is little that connects him to the world outside, and it will seem to John as he roams the halls of the General that time has somehow fallen away. It’s Richards who finally comes searching for him, as John supposed he would. The pupil finds his professor slumped in the boiler room, lost to the heat and the noise, the strange thumping heartbeat of the place. Richards emerges like a spectre, and at first John thinks he may have lost his mind, that he’s being haunted after all these years. But when he wipes the steam from his glasses, he realizes his mistake and with a slow unfurling dread, John takes the outstretched hand. Wordlessly, for there is little use in shouting above the clatter of the machinery, Richards leads John from the boiler room and down another hall, a corridor John has never walked down before, despite all his explorations. And then, with no preamble, opens a door.
The room is cold and dark and smells like rot. John knows then what the room contains, does not need his eyes to see, the scent is as familiar as his own. As his eyes adjust to the gloom he sees the neatly laid figures, shroud-covered bodies awaiting blessing and burial. Later he will wonder why he had never given in before, will owe Richards more than what can be repaid, but in that moment he lets his nose guide him through the room. It is as though he is awakening after a very long and dreamless slumber. He stops at one low table, delicately pulls back the cloth and uncovers the girl’s face. A flicker of recognition runs through him, he’s seen this girl before. Had doused her with laudanum for an ailment he can no longer recall. But it was not her sickness that made an impression, but rather her similarity to that of his wife. She shared the same look, the same brown curls, skin still creamy in death. The two might have been sisters in another life. Tiredness overtakes him as he notices how rough the sheeting is, how it catches on his coarsened fingers. He tenderly replaces the fabric, the girl’s face hidden once more. He lifts her easily and breathes in the sickly sweet stench of illness that yet clings to her, the undercurrent of decay. He wonders at the weight of her, the shell of the spirit substantial still, and thinks of the mysteries of the flesh, of blood and bone.
He calls for Richards to hurry, hurry; the day is rising and there is much to be done.
Jill McMillan has a master’s degree in history from the University of Guelph (2008) and a bachelor of education from the University of Ottawa (2011). She plans to teach at an international school in Costa Rica this fall.
Reading this short narrative was good and interesting. It kept my attention. The writing was discriptive and entertaining.