Fragment #005: What She Left Me
From an unlabeled journal, date unknown; collected Year 36. Best estimates put the date of writing in the last six months B.C.
Marjorie Scott was the sort of woman who looks best from a foot away, or from twenty. Something about her features twisted at any intermediate distance; perhaps the way the wrinkles around her mouth framed the center of her face, or the few gray hairs in her eyebrows, or the nose that twisted just slightly upward on the left side. She wore her age gracelessly, like a child in a tuxedo. Sagging skin and the general loosening of her years had been sloppily interdicted by repeated facelifts and her cheeks and forehead were slick with moisturizer. It was the face of a woman who had strenuously avoided frowning for many years. It was the sort of face I see almost daily, creased and frowning in spite of itself while the husk of its owner enjoys the cold comfort of my hospitality. The reluctant elderly.
My clients are a quiet sort, as a rule. They will never stare back at me, even when I have to use forceps to open their eyelids. I have to do that a lot, applying the eyeliner for the funerals. Even women who never wore a speck of paint in their lives get it then; extreme or subtle, it’s what makes the whole thing work. The blank dead are pale, listless things. Even their hair gets dull quickly. Making them look peaceful and at rest is sadly much more like painting a backdrop than a person. Anyway, this particular woman had come in late, as much a surprise for me as I’m sure it was for her, and I was sticking around later than usual to consider what I could do with the strange way her skin stretched and pooled around the crevasses of her skull. She had not gone into death happily or quickly, and even now there was something ghoulish about her.
I walked a pace away from her and considered the landscape again. I have found a magical threshold around all dead bodies; stay outside this barrier, and they are repulsive. Not ugly, exactly, or even necessarily disturbing, once you’re used to them; but there is something about them that simply repels, that makes you reluctant to approach or even turn your back on them. Once you’re within this boundary, when you’re close enough that you don’t even need to reach out to touch them, they lose this power. Close in, Marjorie Scott was simply another old woman, handsome enough and harmless in death. From where I stood regarding her, though, a good three or four feet off, the repulsion was powerful. I became gradually convinced that this body had been forced to squeeze out its former inhabitant like an infant out of its mother, resisting and screaming all the way.
I decided I liked Mrs. Scott’s body. I don’t know what I would have thought of Marjorie herself, but her husk and I had an understanding. I ran the palm of my hand over the sagging lump of her belly, waiting patiently for the habitual pang of disgust in my gut to pass. My body has never enjoyed these reminders of mortality. My body never liked spending this much time around death, regardless of what I may think about it intellectually. But once my stomach had lodged its protest it left me in peace, and I could get down to work.
This is my favorite part of any given job. Coaxing out the curves where cheeks used to be, soothing the skin into the illusion of sleep. I sat up with Marjorie for most of the night, tweaking and teasing her into shape, padding out her cheeks from inside with tissue and sawdust, disguising the blue twists of varicose veins, sliding red and pink brushes full of powder over her sallow skin.
The daughter came to visit the next morning, when I had finished, before we loaded Marjorie into the casket. She swept into my clean metal hall like a queen I wasn’t looking. When I turned around there she was, dressed like a lawyer, inspecting the smoothed contours I’d made out of her mother’s smashed raisin of a face. The daughter’s features held few of the wrinkles I’d spent all night etching out of her mother, but the deception was shallow, and her serene sculpture of a face couldn’t fool me. There was something fascinatingly corpse-like about her. I found myself wanting to get closer, to experiment; if ever a living woman had a corpse zone around her, it was her.
“You’ve done fine work,” she said, expressionless. “She looks forty years younger.”
“She was an easy job,” I say. The daughter looked over, almost in my direction. “Not the easiest bone structure to work with, but there was plenty of flesh left on her… cheeks…” This is the kind of thing I am not supposed to say. I turn to the shelves of tool, not wanting her to see me blush. “She was a handsome woman. I see it… runs in the family…” I don’t have to look at her, I can feel her eyes narrowing behind me. The dead don’t judge me. “Ms. Scott.” She was looking at her mother’s face with the literal eye of a born critic, searching for the seams in my mask.
“Doctor Scott,” she corrected me. “…Is that putty on her cheeks?”
“Probably.” I leaned in over the face with her, inspecting where the age used to show. “Ah, yes, that’s a film technique. It’s usually used for prosthetics. You know, elf ears and the -”
“You should have eaten more,” she told the body, softly. “I should have made you eat more.” She looked up at me. “Her cheeks were very hollow, in the last few weeks. She was very ill.”
“Oh.” I realized suddenly that I didn’t want her to leave. I fussed with the sheet covering most of her mother’s body, hating myself for using the excuse to get near her. I was right, this close in she felt kind of nice, warmer than most people I meet. Our sleeves brushed together.
She straightened up, moving back out into the no-corpse zone. “I wish the end had been kinder to her.”
“She was very old,” I said. The kind of thing I am supposed to say. “She is in a better place, ma’am.”
The Doctor’s eyes flicker momentarily over my lab. “I’m sure you did what you could for her,” she said, graciously. A prelude to a graceful exit.
“I did what I could,” I agreed. A headache was beginning to edge in on me. “With what she left me, anyway.”
The daughter’s face is much too immobile to betray the expression, but I didn’t miss the little spasm in her eyelids. I went too far again. Harry would be more pissed than usual with me. She paused at the door. “Thank you for your time,” she accused me, before skulking off. That’s unfair, she swept off every bit as regally as she entered. I wished she had skulked off. I skulked off, hours later. She was not a skulker.
“She must take after her father,” I told my corpse. She showed me the serene not-quite-smile I built for her.