Isabel Cristina Legarda
During class the Body would lie still like the other cadavers, submitting mutely to the students’ scrutiny. On the first day, the students tried to hide their fear under façades of bravado. Gallows humor betrayed their nerves. It didn’t take long for apprehension to be replaced by morbid fascination, and then, when exams were near, resentment of the tedium and demands of their tiny labors.
One afternoon, late in the day, one of the students, the Boy with the Long Black Hair, entered the anatomy lab to cram for a practical exam. He stopped in his tracks when he saw the Body sitting on the edge of the dissection table. The Body was leaning on both palms and slightly hunched over as if trying not to throw up. Really, she was just thinking. She still had the head shroud tied around her face and a loincloth over her pelvis.
To the Body’s surprise, the Boy with the Long Black Hair spoke. “Are you okay?”
She heard him put his backpack down. Or rather, her mind heard; her ears no longer worked. She knew, too, without having to see him, that he was wearing a T-shirt with a checkered shirt over it and baggy jeans, and some of his long hair was tied back away from his face. The Body turned her chin toward the student’s voice, as if to look over her shoulder, but didn’t turn her head all the way. The student’s heartbeat was annoyingly loud and fast, but she noticed that it started to slow down when she moved her head back to its original position. He had an athlete’s heart rate at baseline—slower than most. He played intramural ice hockey for the med school. She saw it for a moment: his graceful way of gliding across the ice, stick in hand, feeling more at home there than almost anywhere else.
He crossed the lab and looked through the supply closet for linens. There were no blankets, of course—only the disposable chux they sometimes used to line the tables during dissection. He found some surgical tape and taped a couple of chux together, then approached the Body.
“Would you like a shawl?” he asked.
The Body nodded once.
“It’s not great. I can try to find better.”
The Boy with the Long Black Hair draped the makeshift shawl around the Body’s shoulders and taped the two upper corners together in front. Then he pulled up a wheeled stool and sat about ten feet diagonally across from the Body. He was a young man, of course, not a boy; but the Body had reached an age where almost everyone—certainly in that room, on most days—felt like a boy or girl to her, and she couldn’t bring herself to think of him as the Man with the Long Black Hair.
“We have our practical tomorrow,” he said.
The Body turned toward the other tables in the room, where the other bodies were lying as if asleep under their white sheets.
“That big guy over there—his group calls him Max. Short for Maximum. He’s built like a football player. And the one at Jen’s table near the door? Jen’s group thinks she was a ballet dancer. Really long legs.”
The Body moved her head as if to look down at her own legs. They were old and wrinkly like the rest of her. Unremarkable. But she had a vague memory of a sensation of strength, knees bent up, abdominal muscles hard at work, grunts and cries, sweat pasting hair to her brow like a slick glue, a rush of water or perhaps blood, more cries, feelings of happiness and relief. A daughter. Behind the head shroud, the Body closed her eyes. The Boy with the Long Black Hair didn’t see, because of the cloth over her face.
“The exam tomorrow’s gonna be a lot of naming. Name this structure—which of course looks just like the structure next to it. Or name a movement that the part marked by pin number seven can do. That sort of thing. I might be kinda screwed.”
The Body reached her left hand into her abdomen through the vertical incision that had been left there. For a moment, she missed ripe peaches and mint leaves. Crushed toasted almonds and caramel over ice cream. The first warm day after winter. The Boy with the Long Black Hair got a taste of peach cobbler in his mouth and was suddenly hungry. She withdrew her hand and placed it on her lap.
She turned her head toward the high, wide windows that, by day, flooded the anatomy lab with natural light. Beside her on the wheeled stool, the Boy with the Long Black Hair put an elbow on the edge of a neighboring metal table. Slowly she lifted her arm and pointed out the window.
“Yeah, it’s gonna get dark out pretty soon.” The Boy could feel a stirring in his chest, a vague sense of desire. “You wanna go out there?”
The Body lowered her arm in slow motion and nodded once.
“Well, dang,” said the Boy. He pictured himself sneaking out of the building with the Body over his shoulder. That wouldn’t work. He had another problem to solve first: how to get her out of the lab without spilling her organs.
“I’m gonna need to tape some kind of binder around you,” he said. “Otherwise we’ll lose some of your parts.”
He found a lab coat in one of the closets and some disposable shoe covers. He used one of the chux as a giant bandage and taped it over the vertical incision. Then he put the lab coat on her, which of course was much too large for her frame. She looked almost childlike in it. Last of all, the shoe covers over her feet. She had once had prominent dorsal veins on her feet. The veins were still dark but thin and flat.
“That’ll work,” said the Boy with the Long Black Hair. “Now we’re gonna have to get past Security.”
They were going to have to walk by the glass booth near the rear exit, where, every evening, a man in uniform sat suppressing yawns and counting the minutes till 10:00 p.m., when he could lock the building and go home. The Boy would have to carry the Body through the parking lot to his car. With his left hand he slung his backpack over his shoulder. With his right arm he lifted the Body off the table and held her by the waist. She was lighter than he expected, almost buoyant. He cracked open the door of the anatomy lab and peered into the corridor. “Clear,” he said.
He walked with her to the end of the corridor and started down the stairwell. He heard voices coming up from the ground floor and ducked into the hallway one floor below the anatomy lab. He waited till two students he knew from his anatomy class went up the stairs to the lab. Then he and the Body reentered the stairwell and made it to the ground floor. He propped her up in a corner between a set of lockers and a wall and unzipped his backpack.
“Here,” he said to the Body. “Take my hoodie.” He put the hoodie over her head and pulled the hood up to cover it. With the lab coat flapping over her legs below it she looked like a strange assemblage of discarded clothing. “Just play along, okay?” said the Boy.
As he approached the rear exit toward the parking lot he peered into the booth where the night guard was sitting, headphones on. The Boy with the Long Black Hair held the Body close to him, walked quickly past the guard with a smile and a wave, then pretended to talk to her.
“No WAY, I didn’t like that episode at ALL. Too obvious! Did you see the one where the captain has to go undercover? I know, right?”
They made it out of the building. The guard had barely looked up. The Body seemed to be gaining strength. She was able to stand on her own with just one hand on the car while the Boy with the Long Black Hair unlocked the door. He buckled her into the passenger seat of his old Nissan Sentra and took his seat on the driver’s side.
“Where to, Gloria?”
The Body turned her head sharply toward him, surprised. Like the other student groups with their cadavers, he and his anatomy lab partners had chosen a name for her. It was totally incorrect, but she didn’t mind.
She started thinking of the ocean. Waves rolling repeatedly onto sand studded with pebbles and seashells. The Boy with the Long Black Hair got a strong whiff of sea air in his nostrils.
“Whoa,” he said. “The beach? You wanna go to the beach?”
The Body nodded.
Aw, man, thought the Boy. I gotta study. I am so screwed.
“It’s about a half hour drive,” he said. “You up for it?”
The Body leaned back in the seat and put her hands in her lap. The Boy made sure the hoodie was still hiding her head, started the car, and backed out of his parking spot. He drove to the parking lot exit and tapped his ID on the keycard reader to lift the barrier. As soon as they were through and driving off campus, he let out a sigh.
“Wow. We made it, Gloria.”
Once again the Body turned her head toward his voice.
“We’ll just take a spin to the closest beach and come right back, okay?”
Gloria gave a thumbs up with her left hand. Her movements were surer, more precise.
Why not? he thought to himself. Even if I learn the name of every single body part, and what it does, and what nerves and blood vessels go to it, it’ll never be enough. “Hey, Glor, I’m just gonna take a detour here and grab some food. I’m starving.”
The drive-through wasn’t busy. When the Boy with the Long Black Hair rolled down his window, a redolent mix of hamburger grease, pastry dough, and fried potatoes wafted into the car. Saliva collected in the hollow under his tongue. He ordered a bacon cheeseburger combo meal with fries, superlarge soda, and two hot hand-held peach pies.
After a short stint on the highway they exited and arrived at the coast. The Boy helped Gloria out of the car and went to rearrange some things into the large duffle bag he used for hockey. A pack of condoms fell out from among his hockey clothes when he tossed them to one side. He glanced at Gloria. She flicked her hand at him and cocked her head in a way that made him imagine her rolling her eyes under the face cloth. He packed the duffle with a towel, jacket, blanket from the trunk that was big enough for three people, flashlight, lighter, some weed, and the food from the drive-in. With her hand around his forearm Gloria managed to totter to the beach. She picked up her right foot a little more than her left as they made their way along the path, almost as if she was repeatedly stepping on something that took her by surprise, and her ankle didn’t flex properly on that side. He spread the blanket on the sand and helped Gloria sit cross-legged on it. The water was calm.
Gloria shook her head while he ate. Nothing on this Boy’s body would sag or give out for years. How invincible. No wonder they acted as if they were, these young people. If only they knew how fragile it all was, how brief.
“My name’s Will, by the way,” said the Boy with the Long Black Hair. “And I’m probably gonna flunk out of med school.”
The Boy with the Long Black Hair sensed a chiding feeling from Gloria, though she hadn’t moved.
“No, I’m serious,” he said. “I try to study and memorize all this stuff. What goes where, and what everything does. But there’s just so much of it. And I feel like they’re expecting me to fail. Or at least be worse than everybody else. It almost feels like they want that. Maybe I’m just being paranoid.”
A seagull cawed somewhere over the water. Behind them, the sun was setting. Will got up and took off his checkered shirt, then his T-shirt. His body was all muscle and strength. Gloria could sense its energy, its youth, beside her. All those diagrams he was trying to cram into his head. Latissimus dorsi. Brachioradialis. The path of the vagus from the medulla oblongata through the jugular foramen and down into the thorax. The electricity lighting his mind and his body as he moved. On his abdomen, across the outlines of his rectus abdominis visible through his light tan skin, was a large scar crossed by several smaller scars from surgical sutures. Gloria reached up her hand toward it.
“Oh, that. Long story. It’s the reason I wanted to go to med school.”
Gloria put her hand back on her lap. He took off his sneakers, socks, and jeans.
“I know, I know, this is crazy.” He ran toward the sea and swam head first into the painfully cold water near the shore. The shock to his body terrified him for a moment. He came back up throwing his wet hair over his head. He submerged his body a second time, keeping just his head above the surface. A few moments was enough. Night had fallen quickly, and the air was noticeably colder. He ran back to where Gloria was sitting. She had stretched out her legs in front of her and was leaning back on her hands. He wiped most of the sea water off with the towel, put his clothes back on, wrapped half of the blanket around himself, and curled up shivering beside her.
“Summer is definitely over,” he said, teeth chattering. “That was probably a pretty stupid move. But I think I needed it.” The sound of waves returning to shore every few seconds soothed him. Med school seemed far away, almost non-existent.
“I wish I could ask you about death. I have so many questions. Were you scared?”
Gloria started thinking about the day she died. She could see her body from above, that last day. The room was full of people scurrying around, calling out names of medications, working as fast as they could, trying to save her. None of their knowledge or technology could prevent her death. Floating above herself, she felt calm and light. No pain. This should have been the goal, this freedom from pain and from the world’s harsh terrors.
“Do you have regrets? What did you love most about being here?”
Gloria remembered the weight of her infant daughter in her arms, and the baby smell of the top of her head. The infinite contentment of that sleeping bundle on her chest.
What is the point of it all? thought Will. He suddenly felt tired. His body was sinking into the sand. He could feel its weight against the surface of the earth like a boulder, immovable.
He had no idea what time it was when he awoke with a start. The stars overhead were so bright he could almost feel their light piercing his body. He turned to see how Gloria was doing. She was gone.
“Shit,” he said and leapt to his feet. He took the flashlight out of the duffle and ran across the beach toward the water. “Gloria?” he called. “Gloria!” He turned around to scan the rocky dunes behind him, then searched up and down the shoreline, running. After several minutes he paused to catch his breath, one hand on his hip and the other on his forehead. His palms were sweating.
Then he saw her, a tiny shadow standing near the shore several yards away. The tide was coming in, and each wave fanned closer and closer, threatening to sweep over her ankles.
“That would not be good,” Will said out loud. He ran toward her and pulled her away from the rising tide seconds before a mantle of sea water covered the sand she had been standing in.
“Man, you scared me. What are you doing all the way out here?” he asked.
Gloria buried her face in her hands and fell against Will’s chest. He put his arms around her to keep her steady. Some unspoken sorrow haunted her that he couldn’t reach, an untold story he couldn’t hear. Above them, the Milky Way formed a diagonal haze of light interrupted by darkened cracks that reminded Will of dendrites.
“The Path of Souls,” he said. “My ancestors used to dig up our dead. Between winter and spring, when the village was about to be moved. They believed we travel along the Milky Way with spirit guides when we die. And that we can come back to guide our loved ones if we want to.”
He took Gloria by the shoulders and lifted her off his chest. “I’m not sure why you wanted to come here. But we really have to go back now. I can’t fail this exam.”
Gloria put her arms around Will’s neck and whispered something in his ear. Then she put both of her hands on his head, standing on tiptoe to do so. Startling heat moved from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet. He closed his eyes and drew his breath in. He had never experienced anything like it. Then she collapsed into his arms.
Will was able to smuggle Gloria back into the anatomy lab in his hockey bag. The next day he stood outside the lab with his three lab partners waiting to be called in, feeling nauseated. The lab was bright with sunlight streaming in through the high windows. The students hugged clipboards to themselves with question papers and answer sheets and approached the Body. Their professor gave them a few instructions.
A pin in her leg was labeled “5.” On their question paper, number five read, “Injury to this structure will cause what type of gait disturbance? Name the structure and the resulting disorder.”
Will thought of the strange way she had picked up her thigh with each step at the beach, and the phrase she had whispered in his ear. He wrote on his exam paper, “Peroneal nerve. Foot drop/steppage gait.”
At the end of the exam they turned in their answer sheets. Will trailed behind his lab partners as they were leaving the room. He looked back at the anatomy table. The Body was cold and motionless, like all the others. He shut the anatomy lab door behind him and bounded down the stairs, his mind for a moment free of minutiae, his breath quick, his body light.
Isabel Cristina Legarda was born in the Philippines and spent her early childhood there before moving to the US. She attended New York Medical College and is currently a practicing physician in Boston. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in America, Ruminate, The New York Quarterly, Matter Monthly, Qu, West Trestle Review, and others.
Cover Design by Karen Rile