By Aaron Donnenberg
Call her The Seraph. Certainly there is something of the angelic about her, in the vivid blue eyes and carmine lips beneath her shaven crown. The renaissance artists would have hailed her as the very paragon of beauty, and though modern tastes have come to reject the pale, blond deities of old, she has the very auroral features to rekindle some of the ancient passion for what is bright and human.
Her figure lies motionless on a stainless steel table, slanted at fifteen degrees, with raised edges to catch and contain the blood that would otherwise stain the immaculate tile floor. Her untainted skin, of a shade lying on the whiter end of pale, flows fluidly across her perfect form. She does not breathe.
Call him The Good Doctor. Indisputably he is a good doctor, or at least an expert medical student, with impeccable credentials from the most well-respected of institutions. He is to become a surgeon in three months, but for the time being he serves his university largely in the capacity of expert anatomist, performing minor surgeries, assisting the doctors in the operating room, performing autopsies.
He is discontent with his position, and it shows on his tired russet features. His eyes are too eager to find new focus, his tongue too reclusive behind his lips, his charcoal hair too meticulously disheveled. He flouts his inferior status, wears it as a battle scar across his fierce countenance. Nevertheless, he labors faithfully and fastidiously, driven by consummate ambition and perfectionism, awaiting his graduation with precise impatience.
This is to be his eighth autopsy for the university. The first seven were faultless. By now the scalpel has come to fit into the skin of his palm as two hands embracing one another in the ritual of introduction. He approaches his subject in the manner of one scratching gently at a wound to banish the pain. He extends his arm, and the scalpel hovers deferentially above The Seraph’s left breast.
He must admit that she is beautiful, even hours after death. Her eyes stare almost questioningly upwards, appearing perplexed that he should be approaching her with scalpel in hand as though she were a common corpse. He shifts his head so that his gaze locks with hers, and he experiences the curious flickering heartbeat of one receiving affection without having ever given it. He smiles at her, awkwardly, and then wonders why he does so.
The first incision is neat and skillful. It extends from just below the left clavicle to just beside the left breast. A thin line of blood seeps reluctantly through. The Good Doctor smiles at the tribute to his craftsmanship, and is engaged in the second identical cut along the right breast when an electric spasm runs suddenly down The Seraph’s vertebral column. She gasps.
The Good Doctor pauses in his incision. The Seraph is breathing, in brief, barely perceptible expulsions and intakes of air. She shudders quietly at odd intervals, with scarcely enough force to disturb the path of the blade. The Good Doctor tightens his grip on the scalpel that pulls exigently at his hand, trying and trying to force the blade forward, to allow medicine to proceed.
He pulls the scalpel from her skin, and its imperious wrenching ceases. He observes her closely, notes the disturbance of the air about her perfectly formed lips. He holds his scalpel to her mouth, and mist forms on the blade. He places his hand reflexively upon her wrist. Her veins pulsate gently.
Only now does he feel fear. A fragile human life has been placed in his hands, and he is not ready. The Seraph scarcely continues on, unconscious, unaware. Ineffectual. He determines to pass the problem on, quickly, before the music stops. He turns to exit the room, to contact somebody other, but the cuts about The Seraph’s chest are bleeding freely now, her active arteries forcing life from her body, and he must find something with which to contain the blood until he returns. His surgical instruments lie on a gauze sheet, and he pulls it swiftly from beneath them, disturbing the careful order of the room as scalpels and calipers and needles are scattered over the immaculate tiles. He places the gauze firmly atop the wounds, and waits for the blood to soak through.
The blood does not come. There is but a thin line tracing the incisions. He lifts the gauze.
She has not bled. Her arteries are still. Her lips are still. Her pulse is still.
The Good Doctor dazedly recovers his instruments from the floor and turns back to The Seraph, who remains as inanimate as any cadaver he has torn apart in search of the line between life and death. He leans toward her, his face nearly touching hers, and examines her carefully and expertly, his eyes tracing every nuance of her form. Several minutes pass before he is satisfied. At last he withdraws and tentatively draws his scalpel.
He checks her pulse once more, then chides himself for doing so.
The second incision joins with first below the sternum and continues downward to the sacrum. The Y-shaped cut is deepened, the blade driven through the abdominal wall, and the skin at last peeled back. With one deft motion, The Seraph’s paradisiacal features are masked by a thick sheet of flesh.
Reverently now, The Good Doctor selects a saw from his arsenal and saws off the ribs. He removes the anterior chest wall with his venerating eyes open wide as if to better admit the vital energy he has exhumed. Rows of organs lie naked and orderly inside the human cavern, their forms molding together in perfect communion. Life itself once passed through these organs, their interplay driving the mechanisms of humanity. They are dead now, the harmony of their utilities evidenced only in their arrangement.
There is an air of worship about The Good Doctor’s manner as he carefully reaches into The Seraph’s chest with gloved hands and scalpel, severs a number of links, and removes a lung. He lays gently it upon a scale, almost reluctant to let go.
Left lung. 380 grams.
Right lung. 410 grams.
Left Kidney. 130 grams.
Right Kidney. 125 grams.
Spleen. 130 grams.
Pancreas. 115 grams.
There is a hideous and pitiful wailing, and The Seraph pulls herself upright, the flap of skin and muscle that had masked her face folding back over her open chest. Se is crying and leaking blood, her organs writhing and pulsating and feeling for one another, lamenting in the absence of their bonds, and her hands are reaching for those of The Good Doctor, for the suddenly living, beating heart cupped in his hands. He should be repulsed, every fiber of his being cries out for repulsion, but he feels instead the most profound pity, and he lets the fall into her open hands. As she tries desperately to put it back in place, to mend the severed lifelines, he weeps, and she weeps with him and he gathers up her organs in a bundle and tries to replace them, but they are falling, falling and she is holding her heart in place and staring emptily at him, silently pleading with him to make it better. He cups his hands and scoops her blood from the table, but it drains through the gaps in his fingers, and at last he turns away simply to escape her eyes.
At once she stops her weeping.
The Seraph lies still, in the same rigid arrangement that she has held since her arrival. Organs have been haphazardly flung into her open chest in the panic of the moment before. Tiny pools have formed beneath the table where The Good Doctor has spilt her blood in his frenzy.
He shudders, and limply restores the organs to their appropriate berths. The scalpel is called again to action, but now The Good Doctor works automatically, with no regard for The Seraph. He acknowledges only her component parts.
Left Suprarenal. 9 grams.
Right Suprarenal. 8 grams.
Left Ovary. 15 grams.
Right Ovary. 15 grams.
Uterus. 70 grams.
The scalpel mechanically shears open The Seraph’s stomach along the greater curvature. The Good Doctor unconsciously makes a note of the contents. He removes the intestines and drains them in the sink. There is no reflection, no contemplation as he removes the scalp and saws off the crown of the skull.
The transverse incision of the brainstem is a complex one. The Good Doctor’s motions are deft and graceful, and the scalpel maneuvers agilely about the base of the brain, severing easily the connection to the brainstem. As The Good Doctor surveys the intricate and cryptic contortions of the brain matter, he at last feels delirium retreat from his mind, and he once more allows himself to feel awe at the grandeur of human structure.
The Seraph’s brain weighs 1,320 grams. The Good Doctor carries it to the jar where a twenty percent solution of formalin has been fixed, and tips it into the viscous liquid. The brain descends slowly and majestically to the bottom. The Good Doctor crouches down beside it and stares into the basin, allowing the image to imprint itself upon his mind.
The Good Doctor sees elegance in the brain, elegance in every canyon and fissure upon its surface, elegance even in its bearing within the jar that will slowly reduce it to meal. Reduce it to its component cells, and still he would see elegance; reduce these to their component molecules, and still he would see elegance; reduce these to their component atoms, and still he would see elegance. A human cut down to his barest elements is still a wondrous work. Better to be rent into flesh and blood than to turn to mysticism, to choose The Seraph’s path and defy extinction. Better to be nothing.
The Good Doctor turns back to The Seraph, whose own reincarnation is complete in his mind. She sits up, peels the flap of flesh from her face, gestures intensely to the organs sitting in neat rows before her. Why? She asks without speaking, and even stained with blood and drained of color, her features play on every nerve of The Good Doctor’s body in symphony. He has no will to refuse her the answer that he has forgotten.
He gestures weakly to his notebook and scales. To learn, he is saying, but his expression betrays his doubt.
The Seraph looks vacantly at the instruments and figures, then fixes a wholly desolate gaze upon The Good Doctor, who cringes.
What have you learned?
The Good Doctor endeavors to impress upon her the elaborate interplay of the organs before him, to demonstrate the perfection of human form, but he cannot produce a coherent message. Finally he turns away, and points wretchedly in the direction of The Seraph.
Nothing, he is saying. Nothing real.
The Seraph clutches the severed arteries and nerves and tissues that dangle despondently in the cavity of her body, and her gaze becomes suddenly passionate. Her eyes blush azure.
She collapses onto the table. Flecks of blood thrown up by her fall stain The Good Doctor’s shoes.
Several minutes pass as The Good Doctor stares lonely at the cadaver. He has remembered why. But she is no longer listening.
Finally he returns the organs to The Seraph’s chest, and stitches the fissures along her body. By the jar containing The Seraph’s brain he places the microscopic organ samples he has taken, where they will be collected and further analyzed by other doctors. He carefully cleans the autopsy chamber, washes the blood that has been spilt from the table and floor, rinses and sanitizes his instruments, and finally cleans the body, preparing it for funeral.
He checks her pulse once more, and it is still. I will not return.
And he checks his own pulse, and it is alive and vibrant.
Aaron Donnenberg is in the Eleventh grade at Towson High School, Towson, Maryland. His instructor is William Jones.