by Paul Mannering

When the chief medical examiner begins a dissection of a tattooed lady, he opens a door to somewhere else.

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The tattoo was of a set of doors, arched like those of an old church and completed in such intricate detail that the embossing of the flowers and gargoyle faces carved into the stone lintel seemed to be almost alive.

She had a fine figure, breasts that had no evidence of surgical enhancement, yet were as firm and semi-spherical as the half-grapefruit I had as part of balanced breakfast that morning. The tattoo was the only body art she had invisible under clothes, but now shining and complete, a special secret, shared only with her lovers and now me.

I took a photo of it and resumed my dictation.

"Distinguishing characteristics include tattoo on the chest, measuring nine inches by eight inches. This artwork extends from sternum to supra-pubis. Tattoo is recorded as photograph number 1009 on this case file."

I paused and took a last look at the artwork. My incision was going to go right through the middle of it, a long slit that would pass down the medial line of those beautifully wrought doors, separating them as if they had finally been opened.

I started in the prescribed manner, a scalpel slice through the skin, tissue and muscle from her left shoulder to the point where the tattoo tip began at the point of her sternum.

A second matching cut from the right shoulder to the same point gave her a bloodless V marking on her chest. The cuts bordered her breasts and when the two cover pages of skin and flesh were peeled back they would be lifted aside as well.

Here I paused again. She had been dead for twelve hours; the blood was pooling on the back of her buttocks, head and shoulders. The flesh of her chest and front was as drained and empty as a deflated sex-doll.

"Open Sesame…" I murmured too softly to be heard by the microphone and began the third cut of the Y incision of the autopsy dissection.

It is common for bodies to retain gasses, air in the lungs and methane in the bowels after death. It is standard autopsy humour, the urban legends of voices and utterances as air is forced out of the lungs, leading to stories of people not yet dead coming to consciousness on the autopsy table. I was not surprised to hear a hiss as I sliced a neat line between the two halves of the tattoo. The extractor fans would soon remove any intestinal gas, and I was accustomed to working with bodies that were in a far more advanced state of decomposition than this one.

Pressing harder I sliced through the firm sheet of muscle that defined her flat abdomen, a thin layer of subcutaneous parted under my blade, for even the fittest and athletic have some fat, and I reached in to the carefully packed abdominal cavity to lift the flesh and begin separating the connective tissue to allow the meat to be folded back, exposing the internal organs to examination.

An icy flush poured over me when I felt the firm grip of a hand grasp my wrist as it was inserted up to the elbow in that woman's livid corpse.

My initial reaction was to start violently, and then my rational mind told me that I had simply caught on an errant strand of connective tissue, or at worst I had gotten a length of intestine wrapped over my arm.

Moving gently so as to not rupture any delicate organ tissue and effect the evidence in situ I retracted my arm. It slid out several inches with that thick, wet, sticky sound of coagulating body fluids and then came to an abrupt halt. What ever had caught my wrist had come up tight. I gently tugged, and felt the grip tighten. I almost chuckled; this was embarrassing. If one of the morgue interns should come in at this moment I would never hear the end of this. Remember the time the Chief Medical Examiner got his arm stuck in that female corpse?

My brief consideration was terminated by the sensation of what felt distinctly like fingers sliding around my wrist. I stopped breathing as I became utterly focused on the tactile feeling of bone and flesh pressing against my wrist. There was the opposing thumb pressing against my radial pulse, which I could feel beginning to race in response to the flood of adrenaline.

Rational thought took a back seat to instinctive self preservation. I yanked on my arm with a ferocity bordering on blind panic. The grip tightened and I nearly whimpered at the definite sensation of an opposing tug drawing my arm deeper into the corpse.

"Johnny!" I yelled into the empty room. Johnny, the orderly, would be under the damnable headphones of his iPod killing his delicate ear follicles with a bludgeoning assault of noise.

"Johnny!" I shrieked the second time. A strong tugging on my buried arm almost pulled me off balance. The doors did not swing open, and I was still alone with this phenomenon.

I turned my attention back to the opened corpse on the table. Here I was with my right arm buried up to the elbow in the abdominal cavity of a dead woman and for the first time in my medical career I was terrified.

Panic causes a range of chemicals to flood the body and affect many aspects of perception. I say that with scientific certainty; however I know that what I saw next was no hallucination caused by my hyperventilation.

The tattooed doors on this dead woman's chest were swinging outward. Without separating from the cold flesh they moved like a projected image played against the white screen of her skin. The two doors swung slowly outward, and a gleam of reddish light shone up out of the incision where my arm was still held inside.

They say there are no atheists in fox holes, and my smug certainty in all things rational and scientific dissolved in the shine of that sanguine glow and I prayed in fervent silence to what ever loving force existed in creation to protect me from whatever polar opposite of light and love was acting against me.

The tattooed image of the doors swung wide, opening a way from which the light continued to shine. The glow pierced the covering flesh and grew brighter and brighter, shadows began to play across the skin, silhouettes moved, figures with humanoid outlines capered and scampered in a hideous shadow puppet display. Accompanying these grotesque miniatures was a maddening melody of demonic flutes, a tune that poured through this dead flesh and clogged my ears like burning venom. The noise rose in volume, shattering my senses and hypnotising me into an unwilling witness of this insane performance. As I succumbed I barely noticed that composure and I had parted ways. I gibbered and drooled, my face slack with shock. I would have fallen if my legs had not locked in a rictus of terror.

The shadow figures leapt and twirled in a frenzied tarantella before they collapsed and seeming spent they sank from view, exiting the illuminated screen of their morbid stage. The grip on my wrist lessened and I felt that hand slide back, retreating not into the organs and flesh from which it had risen, but somehow beyond that corporeal medium and back into what ever red-lit dimension it had emerged from.

When I was aware my hand was no longer gripped I tore free from the encompassing flesh and gazed in horror. A dark ichor with thick consistency dripped slowly from my latex gloved hand. The stench that came from it was beyond anything I had ever encountered from a corpse before.

The red light faded from within the body, leaving nothing but the neatly aligned curves and familiar forms of the organs of digestion. I staggered back from the table, tearing the gloves from my hand and stumbling in blind fear from the examination room.

Even out in the bright white light of the morgue I felt set upon by flickering shadows. I fled the hospital that night and I have been unable since to take a scalpel in hand with the intent of dissection without being overcome with an uncontrollable tremor of the hands and an incapacitating buzzing in my ears that is all my merely human mind can comprehend of that cacophonous orchestra from beyond the tattooed doors.






Copyright © 2007 Paul Mannering

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Paul Mannering: 35 years old New Zealander. Writer and Producer of audio drama plays across a range of genres. Married with a teenage son.

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