There's this old story, a dark, dusty thing, like a locked chest in the corner of a dark room. There's a father—a fisherman, a woodcutter. His hair is dark and grizzled, his hands calloused and his teeth yellow and broken. He has two daughters. One of them is blonde, her hair shining like melted butter poured over a potato, and a lover is drawn in like a moth by the gold of it. He is tall, brave, romantic. He wants to marry the pretty blonde and live with her in a hut by the river, fathering child after child upon her slim body, growing old and hunched and wizened with her until he dies of blood poisoning after slicing his hand open while fishing or chopping wood.
The other sister has dark hair and no suitor. We don't know what she will do. Perhaps, she'll take care of their father, and then die, alone.
The two sisters, fair and dark, walk together on a spring day by a river gorged with water from the snow melting in the mountains. Maybe the lovely one makes some unfortunate comment regarding the trials of being so pretty and fair-haired; or maybe the other figures that the tall brave young man who prefers blondes might take a cute brunette as a consolation prize, and so, distracting her sister easily with a flower, the dark one pushes—oh, the dreadful wind and the rain—her sister into the river to drown. Then the dark sister returns home to tell everyone her naturally silly and scatterbrained sibling toppled into the river, whoops. In her heavy skirt and useless petticoats, the beautiful sister cannot swim. Her pale body tumbles down the river to the sea.
Here, the story gets ugly. Fishermen retrieve the girl's blue, bloated body from the water and slice it open with knives used to clean fish. They pull out her veins for violin strings—or, for squeamish storytellers and small children, pluck the unnaturally thick strands of her hair. A passing musician or maybe a stranger finds her animal-cleaned bones lying by the shore and whittles a finger bone into a flute. From the meat of her body grow musical reeds that sing as the wind passes through them. The musicians play in this graveyard orchestra and the music is bitter. In every note the murdered girl tells her sad blonde tale.
But I don't know why I'm telling you this story. The two girls were clearly not sisters, although there were certain similarities between them: height and weight, ponytails, the shape of their faces, identical blue scrubs. Maybe it is because the blonde one didn't seem particularly bright: nice, hard-working, good at memorization, yes; but not one to make huge leaps in comprehension. And the darker girl, Indian maybe, was clearly clever, irritated at her lab partner's obtuseness, and ambitious: I could easily imagine her surreptitiously shoving the blonde girl into a river in order to raise her own rank in the medical school class.
And, of course, there was a flayed corpse there too, greasy, stiff and leathery, black trash bags covering its face and hands. The girls had done their job thoroughly. Flaps of skin, lined with thick yellow fat, had been pulled aside to reveal bone, muscle and organ.
The two girls were arguing about a collection of nerves in the chest, below the clavicle: the brachial plexus. I could tell immediately that they had used their scalpel too passionately. A blunt tool like a finger parts the muscles easily, but the thin, sharp edge of the scalpel can slice through everything, obliterating important landmarks. I rested my gloved hand on the cadaver's shoulder and told the girls to describe the plexus to me. The girls looked at each other, and the Indian began to outline the nerves, poking at them with her forceps.
The brunette wore a lot of purple eye shadow, a strange artificial color under the harsh lights; the blonde wore a layer of brownish makeup over the acne scars on her cheeks. They come to the lab from their lectures in their jeans and skirts, strip down to bare flesh in the locker room and cover themselves in blue scrubs and gowns: each step removing their uniqueness, making them uniform and indistinguishable, an unrelenting wave of youth and chatter and striving. I know nothing about your students, but mine are simple. The blonde girl, for instance, probably went into medicine because she wanted to help people and because her science classes were fun. She'll cry a lot during her first year working with patients and she'll eventually go into family medicine or pediatrics, part-time while her kids are young. The Indian girl, on the other hand, probably has two physician parents who determined she would study medicine when she was still in utero. She will specialize in orthopedics, maybe, or ophthalmology.
Since I'm apparently confessing, I can tell you that sometimes I imagine the students could turn to me and place the scalpel to my skin, peeling it away though it clings to the greasy yellow fat, marveling at the amount that lines even a thin body, mildly disgusted by the pale stringy muscle that resembles raw pork. When they begin to skin the hands to isolate each slim tendon, they may note the fingernail polish, the tended cuticles, an old scar. The TA will show them how the fingers move when they pull on the muscles of the arm.
They would cut through my nipples, remove my belly button, slice into my vagina. At the end they would remove the trash bag and begin to skin my face, removing the lips to examine the teeth I have brushed nightly, poking excitedly at a swollen lymph node or a cranial nerve exiting the parotid gland. They would remove my brain, snapping off the tiny nerves that exit through the base of my skull, slicing horizontal and vertical sections with a common kitchen knife, puzzling over the confusing gray landscape of brain tissue.
"You girls have made a classic rookie mistake," I said to them. "Too much cutting." I showed them how easily the muscles could be split at the seams with the careful pressure of a finger or the blunt edge of a pair of scissors. "With a blunt tool you won't accidentally cut through a nerve, like you clearly have here."
I lifted their scalpel. "And your area of dissection is too small—you won't be able to see where these nerves are coming from until you skin the rest of the shoulder." I began to cut for them, long sweeping incisions at the junction of skin and flesh, pulling the skin away with my non-dominant hand.
Cadaver skin is thick with fat and slippery from the preserving chemicals. It slid from my hand before I understood what was happening, and I dragged the scalpel across my palm.
The glove was broken, as was the flesh. The wound paused a moment in surprise and then began to bleed dramatically.
The girls reacted much like the wound: a moment of stunned silence and then movement. There was sound and commotion as the other students in the room realized what was happening. The blonde girl removed my glove, leading me to the sink as the dark-haired girl turned on the water and tested the temperature. They washed my hand, and I felt like laughing at the startling appearance of living blood in the dissection room—but if I made a sound, I was afraid I would cry.
This is probably not what you were expecting when you e-mailed to ask how my day was. Well, no matter. Bandages were brought and was taken across the street to the hospital. Everything, in the end, was fine. You should know that I've never done anything like this before, in all my years of teaching. I suppose I was distracted.
You know that my sister, Rose, has lived with me for many years. We live close to the university where I teach anatomy and Rose, who was never much of an intellectual, gives piano lessons to undergraduates. You have seen that we are quintessential old maid sisters, Rose and I, although we were each married once: mine a short, failed marriage and hers a longer one that ended after the death of their child. And you know that we don't have cats, although Rose did bring one when she came to live with me after the divorce. When it died, we buried it in the backyard and never spoke of getting another.
I am trying to explain to you that Rose and I have a quiet, dependent life together. We like to cook elaborate, difficult meals that we find in books at the library. We like to prepare complicated, labor-intensive foods: rye bread, stuffed grape leaves, lasagna, delicate French pastries, carefully preparing each single element and combining them in the end. We like to spend the day preparing dinner and dessert and the evening washing dishes, one sister holding the clean white drying towel and the other up to her elbows in gray dishwater.
Of course, tonight Rose will wash, and I will dry. I have a new bandage and stitches to take care of.
Now I will have two matching scars, one on each hand. I'll tell you the companion story: Rose must have been nine or ten then, and I, almost four years older, was assigned to watch her. You might have liked me back then. I was a studious and serious girl, shaky and shy around other people, but I think I may have been somewhat pretty nonetheless. I came into the kitchen and found Rose opening a jar of chocolate milk mix, her spoon and glass on the counter. She was one of those unbelievably thin, lanky young girls who shun all real food and constantly crave sweets and chocolate.
"You're only allowed one glass a day," I told her. This was true. But Rose was a little spoiled brat, and she would get her fix any way she could. And we both knew that even if she drank a gallon of chocolate milk, my mother would only scold me for not tending to her.
"I know," she said. "I haven't had one yet."
In the bottom of the glass on the counter I could see a thin brown layer of milky sludge. I told her to put the jar away.
"I don't have to do what you tell me," she said.
"I'm in charge," I said. "Put it away." We stared at each other. Suddenly she smiled, meanly. She picked up the spoon and, still smiling, put it into the mouth of the jar and ladled out a heaping spoonful.
"Don't you dare," I shrieked. I lunged for the spoon but she quickly stuck the whole thing in her mouth. Her eyes widened with surprise and joy as the sweetness hit her tongue and the powder sucked all the moisture from her mouth. She quickly scooped out another spoonful and popped it into her mouth, her eyes fixed on mine.
"Stop that!" I yelled. I grabbed her, trying to get the chocolate mix out of her arms. She tried to get the spoon back into the jar. Her flying elbow hit the glass on the counter and it smashed on the floor. This would also be my fault. I turned away from Rose to pick up the glass and she backed away from me, now ladling spoonful after spoonful of the dry powder into her mouth.
I clenched my jaw and crouched down to the broken glass from the floor. I picked up the large pieces and threw them away. One sharp piece cut my hand. We both watched as blood welled from my fingers and dripped on the linoleum.
I kept moving shards from the floor into the trash, ignoring the blood. Rose stood silently and watched me, holding her jar.
"I don't care!" she said finally, her teeth covered in chocolate, and ran to our room.
Now, older, wiser, we laugh about it: how Rose wept on her bed with her mouth full of sticky chocolate powder while I dripped blood and tears on our kitchen linoleum and despised her with a boiling, caustic hate.
But this isn't what I wanted to tell you, either. So, a different story, more recent: I came home late and found a whole chicken boiling in a pot on the stove. Beneath the dripping lid, carrots and celery and spices swam slowly in a shimmering, fragrant broth. I wish I could send you a photograph; it was beautiful, like a sunset or a canyon.
"Don't touch it," Rose said, coming in from the other room. "It's for my cold." She brushed me aside and bent to check the flame under the pot. "There was no food in the house this morning. None. I had to drag myself out to the grocery store. When I got back, the dishes still hadn't been washed and your papers were all over the dining room table."
I apologized and offered to straighten up the dining room.
"No, I already got them," Rose said, pulling a shredded tissue from her pocket and bringing it to her reddened nose. "They're stacked on your desk." She blew her nose. "I understand that you're busy with work and you can't find the time to help around the house. O.K., fine. But when you know I'm sick..." She broke off, her eyes tearing, and turned to stir the soup.
I told her it simply didn't occur to me.
"I know. It never does," she said, wiping away tears. "You didn't even stop by the grocery store on the way home, did you?"
I said that I couldn't read her mind, and she had to ask me if she wanted something.
"I'm not asking you to read my mind, I'm asking you to occasionally think about someone other than yourself." She hid her face in a tissue.
I told her not to be ridiculous.
"Oh, of course it's ridiculous. Why aren't I just used to your selfishness by now? But when I'm sick, and I have to get out of bed and shower and get myself to the grocery store." She shook her head. "I always think about you. I always take care of you when you're sick."
When she's not feeling well, Rose turns on the melodrama, which sucks every shred of sympathy out of me, and I can only feel irritated. I sat down at the kitchen table and watched her lift the heavy white chicken from the broth with two large forks, maneuvering the slippery creature onto a plate. She pulled off the skin and broke through the joints of the legs and wings with a practiced slicing motion of a knife, removing the bones gingerly with her fingers and dropping the dark meat back into the broth. Her nose was running and she sniffed as she carved the bird.
When she stopped to blow her nose I stepped in, using a fork to pull the rest of the meat from the carcass and tearing it into edible chunks with my fingers. Rose stirred the soup, lifting pieces of chicken with the wooden spoon and letting them splash back into the broth.
Finally we looked at each other. She put her arms around me. "I'm sorry I yelled at you," she said. "I'm sorry, I just got so frustrated." I rubbed my face on her sour-smelling bathrobe. "We're sisters," she said, "we take care of each other. Right?"
We ate the soup quickly, drinking the broth from the bottom of the bowls and using our fingers to pry the last of the meat from the cooled chicken bones.
I left work late the next day, and Rose wasn't there when I got home. I had bought a fish for dinner and began to prepare it, removing the head and filleting the flesh with a sharp knife. I'm good with a knife, as you may imagine. Rose was still out, so I cut tomatoes and sweet peppers. She still hadn't come home by the time I began wrapping the fish individually in parchment paper, surrounded by their vegetables and a buttery sauce I had prepared. Finally, I put the fish in the oven and sat down to wait.
When Rose finally arrived, her hair was different. Maybe you've seen it. I assume nothing. It's shorter, and colored, with highlights. "Do you like it?" she asked, as though everything were normal.
The smell of her hair spray was nauseating, and mixed noxiously with the smell of butter and baking fish. I didn't say anything.
"Lots of women do it," she said. She meant the color. I didn't say anything. She ruffled the back of her hair with her hand. "I just felt like I looked older than I am," she said. "I'm not that old."
"They didn't have brown?" I said.
"Well, I thought if I was going to dye my hair, then I should just try something new." Rose looked at her hair in the chrome grill over the stove, pulling at her bangs. "What's for dinner? Is that fish?" She smiled at me, brightly, and opened the oven door to see. Then she closed it and said quietly, "It's just hair."
When the fish was done I placed the little paper packets on two plates and we sat down to eat at one end of the large dining room table. Instead of asking her about her new hair or what might have inspired this change, I asked whether she thought we should make a beef stew this weekend, or maybe some kind of dumpling.
There is a point to all of this, I promise. Here's a story that will be of particular interest to you.
Once upon a time, you came up to our car in the university parking lot holding the head of a broken key in your hand. The key, you said, had snapped off in your bike lock, and you needed to get across campus in a hurry for a class you were teaching on nineteenth century German poetry. A quintessential old professor, a stereotype from another era, with your beard and your belly, your wild eyebrows and the bewildered look on your face as you held up your broken key, but then you said something, something intelligent and funny and self-deprecating, that made us look at each other and laugh in surprise, because it had been so long since we'd met someone whose jokes made sense to the two of us.
Once everyone had taken their seats in the car, it was Rose who said you should come to dinner at our house sometime, bringing with you your lovely wife; and when you told us you were divorced we told you we were sorry to hear such a thing, but that you should come to dinner anyway. "We make the most gorgeous melt-in-your-mouth brisket," Rose said, twisting to meet your eye in the backseat, but no: you said you were vegetarian, though you occasionally ate fish. And then you started telling us about how they kill animals for food, killing floors and stunners and paralyzation; I have to admit I tuned you out somewhat at that point.
I wonder how you tell that story, if you tell it. Two gray-haired but well-kept spinster sisters, getting into their car after a day of work, who drove you to class, laughed at your jokes and asked you to dinner. Did I smell of formaldehyde, did the car smell of formaldehyde? It's not the kind of thing Rose and I notice anymore.
Really, I started this letter with only one thing that I wished to say. But I want to keep writing; for some reason I want to tell you every story I can think of. I want to tell you everything that's ever happened to me in my entire life. Don't you know why? Because I want you to love me, to fall in love with me through my stories.
But let's be honest with ourselves: that can't happen, because just as I know you're the reason I sliced my hand open at work the other day, I know you're also the reason my sister's hair is a strange, false color. Aren't we too old for this? Are we still capable of fighting for the prize, squabbling over the biggest piece of cake, pushing each other into rivers?
I know my bratty little sister would never make the sacrifice and choose her older sister over the love of a man. So I am the one writing to ask you to leave us both alone. Walk away before you make any sort of decision regarding the two of us. Let us live out the rest of our lives like we have so far: old-maidish sisters, with our elaborate meals and our long elaborate history together.
There, I said it.
A final story though, before you go, because I can't resist: They let me go home after the doctor stitched my hand together, the one the scalpel broke open. Guess I'm getting old, I said laughingly to the nurses, and they said no, no.
But I didn't go home. I went back to the brightly lit windowless anatomy lab, where real skeletons hang from hooks and the stiff pickled reminders of my mortality lie in large, metal boxes, waiting for the next day's carving. I put on blue latex gloves and opened the tank where the girls were working earlier. I ratcheted the corpse high so I could remove the damp wrappings and investigate the girls' handiwork.
Very little had been done since I saw the cadaver last. The girls must have left their tank not long after I did. Dried brown spots of my blood stained the cadaver's shoulder, and it occurred to me that the cadaver and I were blood brothers, or some kind of blood/embalming fluid brothers. I found my scalpel and began to skin the shoulder again, slowly, shakily, more carefully this time.
Whenever the study of anatomy has been outlawed during the course of history, desperate physicians and scientists have used whatever cadavers they could procure, sometimes even cutting into their own relatives. I have often wondered if I could dissect Rose. When I put my hand on my sister's back to wake her as she dozes in front of the television, or to move around her as we work together in the kitchen, I can imagine so clearly the layers of skin, fat, muscle and bone that lie underneath. But the actual cutting would surely be another thing. Would my hand actually lower a scalpel into her flesh?
When you came to our house for dinner you asked me the right questions: what it was like the first time I went into the anatomy lab, what was I expecting, what did I find. So I described it for you, how I thought the dissecting students would be solemn, concentrating on each cut, and that I thought the cadavers would somehow be cleaner, the muscles as isolated and easy to distinguish as they were in the atlases. But my fellow students were still students, giggling, flirting, foolish, and disgusting fluid pooled between the muscles in the cadavers, whose poorly-preserved tissue was a smelly and impossibly jumbled mess of bright red muscle and sunflower-yellow fat.
What gross, gory work, you probably thought, you whose days are spent carving and analyzing books instead of bodies. Probably you thought Rose was the better sister then, more worthy of your love, with her shallow smile and her sweet work of teaching bland students to play great music blandly. But I'll tell you that there is something calming and peaceful about this mechanical work of dissection: slowly skinning the flesh, teasing apart the muscles, isolating each nerve and vessel. In the first days of class when the cadaver is still raw and stunning, my students are quiet and reverent, close to fainting or vomiting. They whisper "Oh my God, is that the heart?" and for once they aren't asking whether it will be on the test or how this can help them understand patients, but whether they themselves are like that, inside.
It never lasts long. They quickly grow used to the body, begin to make jokes and giggle, begin to skip class. Something changes in their brains as they work with the cadaver each day. They adapt to the presence of a dead body. They become accustomed to the idea of death.
But the students who cut you open after you die will always remember you: your liver, your intestines, your bones, if that's how you want to be remembered. And Rose will always remember me, though I'm sure her stories sound different than mine. She doesn't see that she was always the one who got whatever she wanted. Her stories are probably about a stern mother, a bossy older sister and a sweet willful girl; about a stern divorced sister and a young bereaved mother; about a life constructed around our daily bread; and now, about jealousy, and about desire. But you understand that I need someone to be there to remember me, even if she remembers it wrong.
So, there in the anatomy lab, I decided I would write a letter to you, asking you not to fall for Rose, not to split us apart. Once I could clearly see the nerves of the brachial plexus, I wrapped the cadaver in its clear plastic and lowered it back into its tank. I carefully removed my gloves, washed around my bandage, smoothed my hair. I called Rose once I got upstairs, to see if she needed me to pick anything up for dinner.
Tonight my sister and I will eat together, alone, as we always do, and instead of talking about you or her hair or how I cut my hand we will discuss how our food tastes, how it compares to past dishes, and what elaborate and delicious meals we might prepare and consume this weekend. And when we have eaten everything that we have poured our time into, we will wash the dishes together, and I will dry them with a clean white towel, and we will go to our separate bedrooms and sleep through the night.
Title graphic: "Inside Out" Copyright © The Summerset Review, Inc. 2009.