Excerpt from “Anatomy Lesson”:
I had a lot of preconceptions when it came to handling corpses. I’d imagined myself standing before a wall of stainless-steel freezer drawers like at the Mortuary College in San Francisco. In my imagination, the cadavers were draped with crisp white sheets. The bodies would be antiseptic. I expected them to be frozen. I thought everything would be as clean and neat as a television morgue.
The cadavers would be male, of course. I thought I could depersonalize a dead man more easily; I might empathize too much with a woman as the scalpel in my hand sliced her flesh.
Tom quickly rearranged my expectations. “Three of the four cadavers here are female,” he said. “I usually start people out with the women, since they’re the most taken apart. That’s a little easier for people to deal with.”
The bodies weren’t kept in refrigeration units. Instead, they were already waiting in the front of the classroom, lying in long stainless-steel bins with wheeled legs and a hinged two-piece top. When Tom folded the top open, clear fluid spilled onto the floor.
“Condensation?” I hoped.
“And some preservative,” he answered. When the worst of the runoff had stopped, he let the top hang down and opened the other side.
I was amazed we’d been in the room with the bodies all along. One of my memories still clear from ninth grade dissection was the horrible, headache-inducing smell of formaldehyde. I was glad preservative technology had improved.
A length of muslin floated atop the brownish red liquid. Blood, I thought immediately, and recoiled. Too thin for blood, it looked more like beef broth. Pools of oil slicked the surface.
“See that handle there? You can help me by turning it.” Tom moved to the far end of the tank.
There should have been scary music playing as we cranked the cadavers out of the fluid. As the bodies slowly rose, the muslin took on their outlines. Through the shroud, I saw bared teeth and the flensed musculature of jaw. Two corpses lay head to feet. The skin had clearly been flayed from their muscles.
If Tom had made them twitch, I would have leapt out of my own skin.He pulled on some heavy turquoise rubber gloves and folded the muslin so it shrouded both faces and one entire body. The other lay revealed. Her skin had been stripped away. She had no breasts. The muscle fibers of her chest were very directional and clear, the raw color of a New York strip steak. Some of the muscles on her arms had been removed to show the bones and tendons beneath. Her fingertips still had nails and skin. The skin was the color of dried blood.
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