The fluorescent light of the corridor flickers and the unmistakable scent of formaldehyde fills the void. I blink blue, the synaesthesia response I know well. The floor, old speckled linoleum, has streaks of black and tracks of wheels where gurneys transport the deceased from the mortuary to the lab.
There’s a buzz of noise from the twenty students gathering nearby, and a nervous energy permeates the air. A rush of hellos greets me and the chemical odour becomes stronger the closer I am to the door. Everything takes on a blue hue; unconnected senses merging into one, growing stronger with each firing neuron of my brain. I know this feeling; it hits me hard when the surrounding smells make colours in my head. Some people around me I know and some I distinguish only by face but one of them glows a preternatural green with the uplifting scent of oranges. My gut churns with what I know lies beyond the white curtain.
A mobile phone rings, silencing the low talk and the curtain parts and we’re ushered stage left to a preparation room. No one speaks as we place our bags in lockers and don our white gowns, tie our hair back tight and clean our hands. The only sound is of latex pulled taut and bouncing back with a snap.
We are ready, like a choir dressed in white. Our performance judged by the hallowed elders of medical school.
In the lab, the room is surprisingly bright, and the blue brightens across my field of vision to a stark unfiltered white haze. Given there are no windows, no flickering, just pure light, it’s as if we are about to ascend to a higher plane.
We don’t know who’ll they’ll be. We’re given a number and five of us stand around the metal table. When we pull back the sheet, it’s a woman, her face covered with a smaller sheet. In her seventies maybe, or older, her hair soft, wavy, and silvery pale grey.
I stare at her, thinking of my grandmother, but when the sheet pulls back, it reveals an unknown face. I jerk my head back, the unfamiliarity of her features yanking me from my reverie. She is a stranger, her beauty hidden behind soft, fleshy cheeks and colour-drained lips. There’s no real hue to her, only the blue of death remains.
Over the coming weeks we come to know her; the old scar on her left calf muscle, the moles of her back, the puckered skin of a low cut on her abdomen, the trauma of childbirth etched into her womb underneath. The sun-beaten pigment of her neckline and the faraway rheumy stare of her cataract affected eyes. It’s all there, the life she lived in flesh, muscle, sinew, and bone.
Her physical state is like any elder, but it’s not the glassy stare, the gooey internal orange of her gut or the flesh of her heart that sticks with me. It something else, the colour of her no-longer-present.
We’ve dissected every part of her, moved her in reverence from side to side. We greet her like an old friend as our scalpels cut through dead flesh, muscles, and tendons to the sweetbreads of organs in her abdomen. There are days when she’s nothing more than a lump, and other days where I weep for her, longing to know, was she happy? Was she sad? Did she live the life she wanted? What was her scent, her colour? Her favourite book or piece of music?
We are at an end, there is one part of her remaining the final piece in the story of one woman’s life.
It’s the hands that strike me the most, without the pigment effects, I see it clearly. The skin spotted, veined and with calloused where she wore rings, or maybe they bore hard work. I stare at the lines on her palm. Everything is there, yet it took months to get here. Her hands tell me a story, and I feel like an interloper, as though I shouldn’t be there. I wonder whose hands she held, who she nursed and brought to her breast, who she caressed in the throes of passion, whose hand she held when they told her they would soon die.
The hands of the dead tell more than a story of someone’s life: they tell us more about our own perceptions, our own fears about living and dying. I retreat from the post-mortem examination and the blue haze returns with a guilty spark. Her hands tell a story, but it’s not my story to tell.
Our final destination is the pub, our class done, dust to dust. Unlike the lab, it’s dark and dingy with an ambience of stale beer and cigarettes; the familiar, comforting smell of the wasted youth of my peers. There’s a clink of glasses from the neighbouring table. We drink. My synaesthesia returns, and although it takes more than one beer to vanquish the smell from earlier, the red in my vision dominates over the remnant blue.
I stare at my own hands, wondering in death and in the absence of colour, what stories they’ll tell.
Words by NM Cunningham
NM Cunningham is an aspiring writer who lives in Adelaide, South Australia with her family and several spiny leaf stick insects.
A love of science and reading set her on her first career as a research scientist in agricultural science and a love of writing her second – as a science communicator and scientific editor. For her third career she hopes to capitalise on her previous pathways for inspiration and focus on creative fiction.
She currently works as a research scientist in entomology and aspires to weave a love of nature, agriculture and science into her stories.