As we of the holy scalpel know, a corpse is nothing but the cast-off garment—a finite quantity of muscle, sinew, bone. By asserting this, we prove that we have triumphed over superstition. We have conquered the bleak, elemental fear that the living harbor for the dead.
There came a time when I thought Phillipa Pike deserved everything she got.
Not on that first day, though. I’m almost ashamed to admit it now, but on that first day, I was as much in love with Phillipa as anyone can ever be with a stranger.
She was unconscionably beautiful—the kind of loveliness that simply shouldn’t be permitted. She came into the dissecting room with her smock carefully ironed and her hair scraped back hard from her face and I was staggered by that cold, haughty beauty. Almost glacial.
“No,” Booker Wheeling said, following my gaze over the sheeted mound of our cadaver. “No, absolutely not.”
“She’s perfect,” I whispered, with a reverence generally reserved for undefeated sports seasons and very expensive cars.
“Of course. And capable and ambitious and rather brilliant. She lives in that mad, sprawling Greek house with Leslie and some girls from the nursing program. Completely unattainable though, so get it out of your head.”
The following week, I asked Phillipa for a date, standing awkwardly in the corridor of the lab building, stammering into the gaping chasm of her beauty.
“Phillipa,” I muttered, “I was wondering if you’d like to go out sometime. Maybe to coffee or a movie, or dinner, if you’d rather . . .” at which point, I faltered, my voice trailing off as I grew increasingly conscious of her stare. “Or, you don’t have to.”
For a moment, Phillipa did nothing at all. Then, with slow gravity, she began to nod. “You’re right,” she said. “I don’t have to.”
As I came to learn in the weeks that followed, this heartless manner was simply Phillipa. Unflappable. Even in the cadaver lab, surrounded by students who laughed the shrieking laughs of people playing at fearlessness, Phillipa only presided, unflinching. She stood at her gurney in her white latex gloves, scalpels lined up before her like tiny sentinels.
It was not until midway through the semester that I dared speak to her again. Booker broke our set of cartilage scissors and I was dispatched across the room to ask for the loan of hers. When I approached, she was absorbed in scraping the fat from her cadaver’s heart using the blunt end of her forceps, and barely glanced in my direction.
I opened my mouth and she cut me off without ceremony. “Richard, please, I haven’t got time for this. I don’t want to see you socially, and would be grateful if you would stop bothering me.”
“We ought to show her what you’re made of,” Booker said when I returned to our gurney, scissors-less and defeated. “You know, shake her up a little.”
I only stared blankly at the floor, humiliation blooming behind my eyes.
Booker stuck his dissection pick into our cadaver and continued. “I bet she’ s not always so damned cool. I bet I could fix up a trick that would make her scream.”
We got the leg out of cold storage after midnight, when even the most diligent students had abandoned the lab for the comfort of their beds.
It was a man’s leg sawn off at the knee, heavily muscled and terminating in a knobby, calloused foot. Booker wrapped it in a black garbage bag and we made the silent trek across campus, alert for any sign of witnesses, but on that whole surreptitious walk, we saw no one.
At the Greek house, Leslie let us in grudgingly. “You’re crazy,” she said, giving Booker a dark look. “Both of you—you’re crazy. You know that, right?”
The leg fit comfortably in Phillipa’s bed, foot cradled on the pillow and calf resting peacefully under the counterpane. Booker turned down the top sheet with the cheerful flair of a decorator.
When Phillipa returned at a quarter to four from a late-night session at the library, she barely glanced at us, clustered as we were around the kitchen table, playing gin rummy.
We heard her footsteps on the landing, heard her door close, and then we stole upstairs to witness her undoing. I cannot say how long we stood in that hall, waiting for the scream that never came.
As we listened at the door, the minutes lengthened and we became aware of movement. The sounds on the other side were soft, almost imperceptible, steady and methodical and rather wet. They were the sounds of someone eating.
When Leslie reached to turn the knob, we drew one collective breath, already knowing—or suspecting—what we would see, but oddly resolved to face the blackness anyway.
Phillipa sat in the center of the bed. In her arms, she held the leg with an air of protectiveness. She savaged it, worrying the flesh with her hands, fingers tearing at it with all the dexterity of talons. Her lips were drawn back, teeth delicately exposed as she gnawed and chewed and savored.
It came to me that we are all whistling in the dark when we say that the dead cannot touch us. Even the scalpel is no amulet against the unholy terror of the flesh. We are not the chosen, the anointed. No matter how raucous or irreverent, we are not impervious.
Phillipa sat placidly with her prize, regarding us as she chewed. Her eyes held the indifferent sheen of always. Remote as a star.