A Short Story by AJ Tompkins
My father used to have me help him clean the kills he would bring home from hunting. The smell of stale tobacco and blood mixed sweetly in the garage, and I was always so happy to get to spend those Sunday evenings with him. He would have me pluck the birds, a menial task no one could mess up. The feathers came out in clumps and left the skin coarse, much like the stubble did my father’s face. It wasn’t until I was six that he finally let me make an incision or get my hands dirty inside the creatures. The removal of the guts was my favorite part at that age, I would lay them out and ask questions about the purpose of each little meat pile.
My curiosity was usually met with gruff responses.
“That’s the liver. Gets rid of toxins.”
“Do people have livers?”
And so on. By seven I could identify each part, its purpose, and with a little help from the local library could point out on my own body where that bit was located in the human body. By eight I grew fascinated by the ligaments. Father let me clean the birds myself by then, as I had proven myself extremely adapt at the whole operation. It gave me ample time to stretch, poke, and manipulate the workings of the corpses muscles and bones. Birds are simple creatures, but even they have awe-inspiring masterpieces built into them.
Preparing for the surgery, today, I think back on those first days, those first cuts. Perhaps I would have been an ornithologist if things had been different. I certainly wouldn’t have become the artist I am today if not for Charlie and the bike crash.
His barred flesh, the white of the bone coated in blood hurrying to oxidize, I’d be lying if didn’t admit I found God that day.
She was in a fuss as she walked out to her mom’s mini-cooper. First Justin had dropped out of going to the dance with her, then mom had made a big fucking deal out of her exposed back skin. Of course she wanted to look slutty, Justin needed to be put in his place, he needed to know what a fucking mistake he had made. All this culminated in her practically snarling at the Doctor next door as he called out, “You look lovely tonight, little bird. Big dance?”
She slammed the door, shoved the key in the ignition, and attempted to take a brief moment to compose herself. She needed a plan when she got to the dance. Maybe Derrick, that fucking douche bag, he would love a chance to grind his small dick against her. Him and Justin were friends, which would make the pain more real for him. She opened her eyes, fired up the car, and noticed the doctor still standing there, staring at her. “Creep,” she muttered, and backed out the driveway.
After seeing Charlie exposed like that, birds didn’t do the trick anymore. I stepped up my game to small mammals first. Mice, rabbits, the occasional cat. I picked up a book from the library on veterinary studies, conscious to treat each creature with respect. They were always dead when I went to work on them, carefully deconstructing and discovering the inner workings of this ancient order. Each body was unique but the same in so many ways. I saw the same understanding in my father’s face when I helped him work on the family Town Car. I saw it in my grandmother’s face when she played with her watches. I was sharpening the tools of a trade, I knew this. I was born, bred, to tinker, re-assemble the world around me. I could see, with each cut, the proper way to give the bodies their own personality.
At first I had always just waited for the animals to pass of natural causes, but this bore too few canvases for my curiosity. I soon began selecting and acquiring my own pieces. The process actually helped me, for finding out how the creature carried itself in life made its insides all the clearer. Neighborhood cats were the easiest, but like the birds, they grew boring. I snagged a few stray dogs, and father brought home a deer a few times, but the animal kingdom was all a bit too obvious. Charlie’s gnarled arm remained in my mind’s eye, a constant yearning.
She was going 60 mph when the truck slammed into the passenger side and rolled the mini. It had been traveling next to her for several minutes, though she never noticed. The last thing she remembered was seeing her pack of smokes suspended in mid-flight.
By the time I got into medical school, I had thousands of hours of studying human anatomy. I still had yet to experience the true rush of playing with the only beasts God made in his own image. I missed the first day of cadaver studies, my own joy at finally being at this place, at having made it this far without giving into urge and still getting what I wanted, no needed, it crippled me. I cried in bed for hours that day, kissing my texts book and the scalpel I purchased as a young boy.
The class, the professor, they all admired my handiwork. Hell, they told me I had the steadiest hand they had ever seen, that I worked like a true master. I had to fight to hold in my emotions that first time. I pushed my crotch hard against the table to hide the erection, and was grateful when I came halfway through the work. After a few weeks of excelling at the course, a fellow student, this little mousy brunette girl, asked me to tutor her.
It went well at first, but there was a communication breakdown on our fourth date. I ran my fingers up her abdomen the same way as before, feeling the little hairs on her belly stand up as I did so. I quoted from memory passages on human dissection from the assigned Rutty textbook as well as more archaic sections. She lay perfectly still, just like we talked about. It was amazing, to feel the heat of the body, the quick pulses of the heart and feel her moist breath on my cheeks but to still go through the motions that were both natural and necessary to my being. I don’t remember grabbing my scalpel, but the first knick threw the whole thing off.
She squirmed, writhed away from me, hitting my face hard. She screamed, called me names. Threw my own books at me. Called the cops on me.
I finished school elsewhere, and changed my last name to my mothers. I was careful to hide my talents. I made sure to learn from this experience.
I craved the warmth, but could not tolerate the fear.
First, there was cold. No, first there was light, then cold. Or maybe both at the same time. she felt the air on her naked flesh, and the sterile sting of exposed wounds. The cigarettes suspended in the air still lingered in her eyes. And the anger. She was mad at Justin. She was mad at Justin and she had been going to the dance and, and where the fuck was she?
She was lying down. She was naked. She was on a table, a metal table. Big, bright fluorescent bulbs illuminated the area around her. She couldn’t move. Try as she might, something seemed to prevent her from moving. Her tongue was heavy, as she tried to cry out the only thing that happened was a ball of spittle gathered at the back of her mouth and lay dormant in her throat.
There was movement somewhere behind her head. The shadow flickered across her open eyes, and a thick, heavy breathing accentuated the air. The whole room smelled damp and old, the stale of a basement or attic. Other than the cold lights shining on her, the room was dark. If she tried to look down she could catch a glimmer coming from by her left hand. something reflecting the light up and back at her.
“I’m the hospital,” she thought quickly. “I was in a car crash and now I’m in the hospital.”
The temporary comfort brought on by this thought quickly abandoned her as the black beak of a plague doctor’s mask blocked the light.
After graduating, I dedicated myself to my work. I loved the operating room, the sanitation, all the people standing around handing me the tools of my trade. The shocked looks as I performed magic before unsuspecting eyes, defying the rules and turning the bodies before me, those broken bodies, into working, breathing, living art. The admiration of my peers only enhanced the eroticism of my work.
The philosophical immensity of my power hit me one day as I lay on the couch in the lounge after getting through one particularly amazing surgery. My pieces came to me on the back of destiny. They had been built with perfect systems, with all the parts in the factory setting, and the same creator who had designed them had thrown them against the wall. Pushed them down the stairs. Riddled them with bullets or glass or cancers. He had been watching me all this time, and he knew I needed a challenge, a constant stream of new and intricate ways to demonstrate my abilities. God not only recognized and helped me build my skills, like a coach, but he knew I was capable of taking what was his and improving it, like a collaborator.
I started in the E.R, and after five years got moved to working primarily on invasive cancers. It was a special challenge, removing tissue with the purpose of entirely stopping the disease. Taking out and then attempting to fill the hole with nothing. It was the best time in my life. I worked, I gave speeches at universities, I worked, and I worked. Every now and then a co-worker or administrator (or god forbid, a patient) would offer to take me out for socialization and I would have to find a way to back out. What were they to me, besides canvas not ready to work on yet. Projects stuck in Heaven’s bureaucratic nightmare.
The cancer gig turned out to be my greatest joy and my undoing. I was asked to consult on most cases at my hospital, and as I grew more comfortable in my life, as the admiration that oozed out of the people around me turned more and more mundane, I started to get carried away in my ideas. Ever time I picked up the phone, I found myself in a room, looking at some jaundiced, yellow beast in a gown and worming myself in just enough to convince them surgery was the best route. Well the other doctors offered long, painful processes, I came in with promised immediate results. Their bodies had already betrayed them, all it took was me to push their mind along the same track.
The lawsuits began piling up, as did the bodies. Eventually, the hospital fired me for gross negligence, and I lost my certifications. I made it year without making a single cut and found that life had lost all meaning. I decided to kill myself.
She couldn’t feel much of anything, except temperature. She only knew the blade had dug into her left arm because of the sudden dripping warmth that spread from her forearm. The plague doctor had forced a leather belt into her mouth, and she bit down on this not out of pain but fear. Her eyes remained mobile, but she only glanced at the man cutting into her once before sharply closing her eyes. The figure had been shivering as if cold, and it hummed softly to itself as it diced up her arm.
As the heat from her own blood worked farther and farther up her arm, she dared glance again. The skin had been peeled away, and various chunks of muscle and viscera had been removed and repositioned. Some was entirely free from her body, some was attached by sinew. The figure was working by her shoulder. Bone could be seen in several places. She wanted to cry, perhaps she was. The mask glanced at her face, and its empty eye sockets looked into her eyes.
Its head tilted, and it turned around and shuffled away. When it came back, the scalpel had been replaced with a comb. The figure began combing her hair and making soft cooing sounds, the type one makes when they want to calm down a crying baby. Gloved hands cupped her face, and fingers explored her forehead and the concaves around her eyes. It smelled like stale cologne and hand sanitizer.
The gun jammed. I had laid out plastic all over my bathtub, laid out the clothes I was to be buried in, everything had been made ready. At first, I was furious. I pulled the trigger a hundred times, I smacked the barrel, and still nothing came out.
Then I recognized it as the sign it was. God was not ready to lose me, I still had work to do, I still had to finish something truly glorious. I was put on this earth to show the full potential of the work God had started.
First, I began back with my old habits. Cats, birds, that sort of thing. I turned my basement into a workshop, spending nights on each piece, exploring a more… abstract side of myself. When I finished a work, I would take a single picture before clearing the workspace.
Picking a human canvas had been surprisingly easy. I knew, to truly create my magnum opus, I need something I could study for an extended period of time. First, my thoughts drifted to family and coworkers, people I had watched for years. Then she fluttered into my life. I had lifted my neighbors cat, and had been keeping it in my house to better understand the beast, when I saw her out placing “missing” posters in the neighborhood. It made the most sense. After all, I had been watching this girl grow up, albeit from a distance, for years now. This was the understanding I needed to accomplish what God, truly needed from me. I knew her toddler stumble, I had seen puberty lash its horrific claws into her, I had been afforded a front row seat to her blossoming into a young woman. At seventeen, she was the perfect figure. Supple, tender, and the inherited feline grace of a runner and acrobat made her bounce and glide across her parent’s lawn. She was the picture of health, something I had not been able to work with since my college crush, and I had to have her. I called two days later and returned the cat. I had been hoping the girl would be the one to come fetch it, or pick up the phone. Unfortunately I got the father.
I spent several weeks working on how exactly I would get her into my workshop, and several more gathering up the courage to put my plan into action. The anesthetics were easy to acquire from some old fans of my work at the hospital. The needles even easier to get. I began following her in my truck, waiting for the time to strike. There was a perfect stretch of road on her way to school, a corner that numerous vehicles had been pushed off, and wooded enough that it would be difficult for other traffic to see a stranded vehicle.
Her left leg had been opened at the ankle and worked up to the knee. The figure had entirely removed the muscle surrounding the bone. How she was still awake was beyond her. The temperature flashes had seemed to fade. She was somewhat aware of the sweat that coated her body. She was mostly aware of one thing. A fire, a hatred, a necessity. She needed to move. She needed to feel. She needed to escape. She didn’t have time to care about the figure, or her arm or her leg, or the pain she couldn’t feel yet. She had been reduced to an animal. Her brain could only process, not fear, but flight. She had to fly away from there, carried with all the strength that fear brings with it. Spittle bubbled out of her mouth, and her eyes moved with frenzy. All was a blur, all was red and bluish white, all was hummed out of the slow moving hand and blade of the figure, all was wrong.
It was working on her right breast, gently running the scalpel around the rim of her nipple when her head rolled away. The spit ran like a waterfall into her cut up left arm. She screamed.
She screamed, and she kicked, and she began to writhe with the intensity of a snake without its head. All the muscle left in her body contracted and pulsed, with no rhythm or plan, the convulsions spraying blood from her open wounds around the room and onto the lights. The table rocked.
It lurched back and let out a horrific, childish scream.
“NO! LITTLE BIRD, NO! YOUR RUINING IT, YOUR RUINING IT!”
The realization made her shake even more. She still couldn’t form words, but she screamed and gurgled as loud as she could, rocking and convoluting faster and faster. The little medical table tipped, and she toppled to the ground. The impact awoke the pain in her, and the sounds came faster and more awful.
How could she? How dare she ruin this for me! Together, me the artist and her the perfect clay, we were going to challenge the very concept of figure. We were going to change what the world recognized as beautiful. We were working towards a nirvana, and perfect shape.
How could she be so stupid? I had made the perfect finale for her, I was going to give her something no human can have, true permanence. Forever burned into the eyes of God, my art, my success in turning his opportunity into the great display. Did the Mona Lisa not offer every inch of her canvas to Da Vinci? Did the marble fight Michelangelo? Must the musician stalk and hunt his notes? Artists are only ever as capable as their medium, and here mine was attempting to flee immortality.
To work on her awake and alive, I meant to let her see the glory that was inside her. She was a co-conspirator, a muse that got to put even more of herself into the work. Yet she had given that all up, giving in to the same instincts of the beasts I had always began with. Like the first birds, she wouldn’t be plucked with her head still attached. So be it.
Art is pain after all.