THE BODY-BAG is brought into the mortuary and the corpse of William Burroughs placed on the slab beneath glaring strip lights. The room is decrepit and less than sterile. The tiled walls are cracked and there is the stinging aroma of toxic chemicals and human decay. The air conditioning is no equal to the sweltering Interzone weather and every surface is crawling with fat blue flies.
Voices are muffled, not so much out of respect for the dead author’s work as from a strange dread. The mortuary is like one vast memento mori and what is about to happen to William Burroughs reminds us all that the body is a temple. Like any temple it can be looted, its precious treasures scattered, its secrets and mysteries exposed.
Dr. Benway enters the room wearing surgical gloves, a white pathologist’s gown and the ceremonial mask of Anubis. He addresses the paying audience.
“Ladies, gentlemen, critics.”
It is an indication that he is about to begin.
A microphone hangs within a few feet of the slab. Benway turns to the technician.
“Is this thing on, Kiki?”
Kiki gives a grinning thumbs up. He is a gleeful boy with copper bright red hair, familiar enough with Dr. Benway to have prepared everything for the arrival of the deceased.
Photographers snap away, recording for posterity each stage of the process. Having stripped the corpse naked Benway points to a few areas meriting particular close-ups.
“Bruises consistent with heroin use, veins collapsed. No surprises there. Our subject was a self confessed addict and boy lover, not just a homosexual – take note – but a paedophile with a taste for Arab boys as young as 9 or 10. His one attempt at a heteronormative relationship ended with him shooting his wife in the head. All this suggests his addiction may have masked deep self loathing and was perhaps an attempt to control, if not completely deaden, his socially unacceptable sexual desires and attendant guilt.”
Benway removes a small sheet concealing what little remains of Burrough’s modesty. The penis has all but rotted away whilst his inflated testicles stretch their purple and black sack as tight and as large as party balloons.
Gasps from the audience. Someone throws up into their sick-bag, provided at the door upon entry.
“His balls weren’t that big when he was alive, in case you were wondering. That’s what we call dropsie, decaying fluids pooling beneath the skin. You see here where he’s been going into the groin, turning the whole area black. Onset of gangrene. Had probably been impotent for decades but that doesn’t mean he was wasn’t sexually active. Or passive, for that matter. I’m now rolling over the body.”
William Burrough’s lifeless buttocks hang like dirty grey dishcloths, their cold blue tinged skin striped with taut white scars.
“Clear signs of flagellation, possibly self administered. We shall now examine the anus.”
Benway parts the cheeks to reveal an orifice big enough to put your foot in, if it is a large foot and you really want to put it there. Just as you think his descriptive monologue could not get any worse, it does. You try to concentrate on what he is saying but it is not easy. Something about friction wounds, relentless dispassionate penetration and reverse engineered alien technology.
Someone in the audience faints.
Dr. Benway produces a crumpled Camel cigarette. He pokes it through the mouth hole of his mask and lights it with an army issue zipper
Measurements, a physical description – six feet one inch tall, grey hair, face like a turtle, that kind of thing. Fingernail scrapings and clippings are disposed of in polythene bags. The body is washed from head to foot in a concoction with a heady smell like spiced wine, after which Dr. Benway gives the body another cursory examination. Finding nothing new he gets down to the serious business we all bought tickets for.
A deep incision is made down the front of the torso. Ash from Benway’s cigarette topples into the gaping wound. Blood samples are taken and handed to Seth, who places them neatly beside a row of empty glass jars. More samples are taken; urine, faeces, stomach contents, liver, body hair (including eyebrows, eyelashes, pubic) and tissue.
Benway makes an aside to the audience.
“What we can see, the external evidence, is often not as important as what we can’t see. The tiny secrets revealed only by a microscope or chemical test.”
The process is long, drawn out. There is impatient muttering among the audience.
“Not boring you, am I?”
He reaches his hands into the corpse’s chest and forces open the ribs with an audible crack.
You close your eyes but the room swirls all the same. It is not so much the sight of the examination as the accompanying sounds. Tearing of flesh, like a butcher yanking meat from a flank. Bubbling liquids. The soft rasping of the cutting tools. Not just the sounds but the smell, too. The unmistakable aroma of raw meat, clinging to the nostrils, filling the lungs, catching at the back of the throat and clinging there, the tang in the mouth you can actually taste.
The abdominal organs – stomach, liver, intestines – are all removed and taken to a clean slab. Kiki washes them down with more spiced wine before transporting them to their waiting jars. As he washes down the cadaver’s hollowed out insides Dr. Benway presents the subject’s heart to the audience, waving it aloft in one hand whilst prodding it with the tip of his scalpel. It is around the size of a clenched fist, tubes flapping like pieces of rubber.
“The average human heart weighs in at around 11ozs, although of course it may feel subjectively heavier or lighter depending on our emotions. We see here significant hardening of external tissues, whilst these valves here, dealing with the flow of empathy and love for other human beings, have completely sealed over. Burroughs himself insisted that nobody ever loved him during his life apart from his cats.”
Benway returns the heart to its original place within the hollowed out cavity of Burrough’s chest.
Electric buzzing and the scraping of metal against bone as Benway’s circular saw cuts around Burrough’s skull. The job is soon done, but not before several more of the audience have fainted.
He takes hold of the top of the head with both hands and pulls. The whole room holds its breath.
There is a sickening shclupping sound.
The cranium in Benway’s hands looks like a bad toupee of thin grey hair. He places it upside down on the slab and stubs out his Camel in the empty bone bowl. He next turns his attention to the open head, digging his fingers into either side. There is a faint popping as he removes the brain. He holds it triumphantly aloft before the audience. It looks like a giant walnut made of grey and white jelly.
“Ladies, gentlemen. The moment you’ve all been waiting for. William Burrough’s soft machine.”
Gasps, vomiting, more fainting.
“Same size overall as any normal brain, weighing in at around 3lbs, despite having been pickled with every drug known to mankind. The hippocampus here at the back is shrivelled to almost nothing. It is often enlarged in sexual deviants but he put a lot of stress on himself, mentally and physically. The hippocampus also plays a role in immune system function. When its efficiency is compromised, so too is the immune system.”
He flips the brain into the air, spinning it like a basketball before catching it again.
“Also significant reduction in this area of the frontal cortex dealing with ethics, responsibility and conscience. Proportional increase in these right brain areas dealing with creativity, imagination and hustling. We can also see a huge capacity for delusion and self deceit. Again, no surprise considering his obsessions with magick and his well documented involvement with kooky secret societies like the Illuminates of Thanateros.”
Seth proffers a large lidless jar of clear fluid. Benway dumps the brain with asplosh.
The cranium is returned to its rightful place and the whole body covered with natron salt. After that it is stuffed with linen, giving it a fuller look, and wrapped in bandages.
Dr. Benway concludes with a sonorous recitation from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Something about the scales of Maat, whatever that is, and the weighing of hearts against a feather. It is long, boring and ludicrously pretentious. Everyone is glad when it is over.
The room is left in silent introspection. Each of us present is made of the same stuff as William Burroughs and now we stand, momentarily stripped of our individual personalities. We are all bodies, animals, collections of viscera. The only real difference between any of us and Burroughs is that our hearts still pump blood. But one day soon all of our hearts will have stopped and that will be the end of it, save for a visit to the mortuary and, if our hearts are not too heavy, our journey to the Western Lands.
From KHAOS AT TRINITY ROAD & OTHER STORIES by Nathaniel J Harris, published as Nathan Motlock, 2019