Monday, February 20, 2012

Winter 2011/2012 contest winner: Sarah Egelman

Contest winner Sarah Egelman has lived in New Mexico, New York and Seattle.  She is a professor at a community college teaching religious studies and humanities and writes book reviews on the side.  She likes octopuses and really really hates onions.  She blogs at Citizen Beta.

Absolute Dissection 401
Susan had heard cryptic mumblings about Dr. Ebie’s lab for years.  Maybe even as early as freshman orientation. At first she assumed these tales were meant to scare the underclassmen, to weed out the faint of heart.  But, every semester as AD 401 drew nearer her anxiety grew.  It grew because now she knew that even if exaggerated strange things (perhaps horrific, perhaps fantastic) happened in that lab.  And now, here she was in her final semester of medical school, hand on the doorknob, and she felt like she was going to throw up.

Over the last few years Susan had succeeded in all her lab and dissection classes.  She earned a reputation for fearlessness and a steady hand.  It didn’t matter what she was cutting apart, she was thrilled to do it.  She longed to be charge of an actual surgery cutting and cauterizing and plunging her hands up to her wrists in viscera.  Medicine, surgery in particular, was her calling, her vocation and she was pulled to it with a seemingly mystic fiery drive.

Absolute Dissection 401 met twice a week from 9 am to noon on the top floor of Blucher Hall.  In fact, the entire floor, the third, of Blucher Hall seemed to have been reserved for Ebie’s lab.  No one could recall it being used for any other purpose, therefore the physical space of AD 4001 was as mysterious as the curriculum.  And, while Susan and her classmates wondered about the lab equipment they would have access to in this holy of holies, it was the curriculum that kept them up at night in anticipation. 

After Susan opened the door on the first day and her eyes adjusted to the dim light she found an otherwise ordinary, if cavernous, room.  Filled with the usual assortment of objects and the usual lab tables, even the usual lab smells, she found it at once a comfortable place.  But, Ebie was another story.  Short with thinning silver hair and piercing blue eyes almost buried in his round face, Ebie had thick and bright red lips.  He wore, that day and nearly every day, a tweedy wool suit and scuffed but expensive looking black leather shoes.  On first glance he was ugly but as he lectured, pacing back and forth, his voice echoing through the lab, his frightening intelligence and strange charm transformed him into an almost handsome figure.

The first cadavers were shared. There were about ten for the thirty or so students.  Dr. Ebie seemed less interested in their command of anatomy—it was assumed they knew all that already.  He wasn’t even concerned with their dissection skills---they had been working on them for years.  He was, it seemed, concerned with their eye for defect.  Quickly the students realized each cadaver had some physical anomaly though it wasn’t necessarily was killed them.  A grotesquely enlarged lymph node, an atrophied spleen, a deformed uterus, a parasitic twin…While fun and interesting, students, including Susan, began to wonder what all the fuss about AD 401 was about.  Ebie had a knack for procuring odd corpses and an entertaining manner but that hardly seemed cause for the strange reputation of the class.

A second cadaver was assigned to each student individually near the end of the term. This, Susan thought, was what made AD 401 unique then! Her own body! 

Monday morning Susan drank too much coffee and cursed her shaking hands. She found her cadaver, marked with her name, in a back row of the lab near a grimy window, the sun straining to shine in.  She took a sharp intake of breath and drew back the sheet.  On the table was the body of a young woman not more than thirty years old though because of the slack muscles and lack of body fluids it was hard to tell.  She had medium length brown hair, perhaps once shiny and wavy but now dull and pulled tightly from her face.  She was, or had been, short but full figured, heavy through the hips.  Susan began to think of names for her in the med school tradition but stopped short.  The only name that came to mind was Susan. Susan.  The body didn’t look much like her. Or, maybe there was a resemblance. Something in the brow, the cheekbones.  Something familiar to Susan having looked at herself so closely in mirrors. Shaking her head, trying to clear her thoughts and steady her hands Susan decided the name Jane, as in Doe, would have to do.

Waiting for Ebie’s instruction, for suddenly Susan felt unsure, she noticed a ragged and simplistic heart tattooed about Jane’s left breast.  The heart, though really comically childish, weeping shaky black tears, appeared sinister to Susan.  Finally she heard Dr. Ebie’s voice entreating her to begin. Her told her this dissection was hers and hers alone.  She was free to approach it as she saw fit he only asked her to be as complete and thorough as humanly possible. Susan was relieved to make the first cut, her eyes and hands focused on the skin of the chest and abdomen and away from Jane’s face.

Her work progressed as expected.  Her thoughts were only a bit cloudy and she found herself moving to the rhythm of her own name: Susan Susan Susan Susan Susan Susan Susan Susan SusanSusanSusansusansusansusansusan.  Her back began to ache and her hands cramp and she caught a glimpse of the clock.  It didn’t seem possible but she had been at it most of the day. The sun moved from the window and the room grew cold and colder.  She was vaguely aware of other students, heard the scrapings of instruments, the squeak of shoes and occasional soft moans.  Just as she registered the passing of time and the pain she was in, Ebie was behind her.

“Susan,” he said.  “Susan, this class is called Absolute Dissection for a reason.  Your dissection must be absolute.”

For a reason she could not name Susan would not turn to meet Ebie’s eyes.  Instead with hands still moving inside Jane she listened.

“Absolute and complete,” he continued.  “Absolute.  All parts examined.  Yes, examined but also known.  You must dissect all of her, know absolutely all of her.”

Susan bent forward and reached.  Her scalpel continued to cut.  Deeper and deeper she went until she felt Jane’s spine sever under the thin blade.  It gave way like butter and moved itself aside for Susan’s hands, wrists, arms.  Through the last layer of skin she went and through the cold metal table.  The floor was next and Susan cut though the horizontal parts of Blucher Hall.  Head down but not at all dizzy Susan cut her way through the thawing ground under the building and through the underground pipes.  Soon the earth was hers to know and she cut through the geologic strata passing worms and insects and eventually fossils and she swam easily through pools of oil.  Steadier now her hands grew warm as the planet’s magma swirled around her and still Ebie spoke behind her.

“On Susan.  Move on. Keep going.  You must know her but first take her apart.  What is she made of?  Who is she?  Who is she, Susan?  Who is she? Susan!  She was but still is.  She still is. Who are you? Who are you?”

In a moment she was back through the earth’s crust but on the other side of the world, breaking through with a satisfying crack.  A crack like knuckle bones, like broken bones, like sharp smacks.  The sky was blue and purple, bruised and tender and she slashed through it slicing clouds and slicing into the atmosphere.  The air grew thin, like the last gasp of a choke.  But, there were no hands on her throat and even Ebie’s voice faded to a low rumbling like very very distant thunder.  Space was dark and cold and Susan’s body was dark and cold uprooted from the world and beginning to spread thinly across the universe.  Those familiar stars, gazed at out shattered windows, the place Jane, the place Susan sent all those futile prayers, all was gas and freezing and vast distance and sheer vastness.  Jane was so vast and Susan was the vastness and Jane was Susan or maybe they were nothing.  Now they were nothing as all cells broke into atoms and all atoms separated and there was nothingness or perhaps almost nothingness and Susan was dissected, broken into bits that meant nothing.  She was scattered over everything and it lasted a moment, a moment one lifetime short of eternity.

There was a voice.  Susan came together. The stars receded and the cold receded and even some splinters of pain were gone, pulled out, but still throbbing.  She was pulled back together not just by the voice but by a decision not quite her own but, as she thought about it over the following years, not quite something cosmic or metaphysical.  The decision was a fact that had paradoxically always existed and that was that and there she was by the grimy window in the back row of the third floor lab of Blucher Hall.  She was alone in the room, the sweat under her arms and across her hairline already drying into a salty crust.  She was alone but okay finally.  Alone, finally okay and finally put back together. With just the ghost of pain, like the spot where splinters are removed, throbbing just a little bit and then no longer.

Susan was not superstitious but even when she got the name tag from the hospital she didn’t try it on, pin it to herself, until she pinned it to her new lab coat on the first day of work.  Residency behind her she was on her own as a surgeon.  But the tag weighed heavily, pulled at the lab coat which rubbed against her sweater which irritated her new tattoo.  After a couple hours she ducked into the bathroom.  It was a dirty bathroom in a dirty hospital.  She shrugged off her coat and pulled up the sweater.  She found the tattoo, a painstakingly rendered human heart, inflamed and weeping out the open wounds.  The heart wept blood and pus and a clear shining liquid.  The heart wept.  Susan remembered: fear and screams and bruises and blood.  She remembered dark windows glittering with the sunrise.  She remembered a violent yet loving slashing of the world and her own breast carved, stitched and carved again.  Jane’s carved breast and her own inked.  The ink leaked, the heart wept.  Susan wept.  
She heard thunder in the distance.

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