October 15, 2012

Two Surgeons


Two Surgeons (1570)
by Ned Thimmayya

James awoke to the crackle of the hearth. He could see Felix stooping close to the floor in front of the flames. The bony chin and the handle snout barely poked out of the hood. He was killing cockroaches again.

As James stretched in bed, he watched Felix drive several of the insects off the wall using his rag-wrapped broomstick. These ones arrived on the floor alive, but on their backs. The legs carried on running over the empty air and the lobed heads ticked from side to side. James wondered whether they could see death approaching behind all their thrashing about. If they see it, he thought, what does it look like?

Sometimes Felix raised a booted foot and stomped upon these survivors. Other times he applied the broomstick.

James rose from his bed and submerged his face in a basin of water. He wanted to enter and leave the churchyard well before dawn. He liked to have a few hours of night to spare after a job.

Felix squeezed out the cockroach-laden rag in a pail of dirty water. He had most likely been awake for hours, brooding over manuals and treatises. James’ glance at the cluttered desk confirmed this.

“There will be fog in the churchyard tonight,” Felix told him. “It should be quite safe.”

James nodded while he surveyed London’s dark rooftops through his window. There was no looking forward to the task. There never was on his part.

* * *

The churchyard was suffocating that morning. It might have been due to the blinding fog. The gravestones protruded from moving walls of gray. The two students passed between the stones in single file. Above all the vapors, the black cross at the tip of the church’s steeple provided a landmark. Between them they carried two shovels, a pickaxe, iron wedges, and a sledgehammer. It was James’ turn to push the wheelbarrow. They usually tossed all the equipment in it, but tonight they were leery that someone concealed in the fog might be close enough to hear them. They couldn’t afford any rattling.

This time Felix had received direct instructions from the head physician. This body had to be intact—no broken necks, quartered limbs, or decapitations. The college had received too many of those from the city council as of late. No, what the head physician needed was a fresh cadaver unmarred by torture or execution. An anatomy of an intact corpse was rare. For Felix, this was their most important assignment so far; the body was their greatest prize.

All the glory associated with providing the specimen was something of little gratification to James. He was only trying to keep his scholarship. Felix was the one who went in for the heroic and risky. James thought that maybe it was because Felix had less to lose. He didn’t have a friend, a woman, a humor, or a care.

James caught the wheelbarrow on a fallen tombstone. He fought to free it while he watched Felix wind his way down the moving gray corridors with back bent and disregard for the struggle.

Then again, thought James, Felix always did pursue his duties as a student and apprentice with a messianic sense of importance. It was Felix’s sense of duty more than the poverty of his personality. At present his north star was that cross atop the black triangle of the steeple. It was all Felix slowed down for. He lifted his hooded head, found the cross among the thick fog, then clambered on, never breaking his habitual stoop.

They stopped at a mound of naked earth. James dropped back into the fog to guard the approach while Felix penetrated the soil with the edge of his shovel. He then drove it in deep using the flat of his boot.

The shape of a body eventually appeared. The corpse itself was hidden under dirty linen.

“It doesn’t even smell,” James whispered. “A bit eerie to disturb such a fresh grave, even more so because it’s unmarked.”

“Better to know the name and family of whom you’re digging up?” replied Felix irritably. “This is the north side of the churchyard. Only papists and sinners up here. This body could have been buried months ago or just last week. It can’t have been too long as the earth above is fairly fresh. But the gases might have been released already.”

James shrugged and dropped into the grave. At least they hadn’t had to break through a coffin. He could be grateful for that.

He raised the torso by hooking his forearms under the armpits, and after he passed the weight to Felix, who knelt at the grave’s edge, he moved to lift the legs. They thus exhumed the body.

Felix arranged a woolen blanket over the limp corpse. They quickly returned the dirt to the grave, stopping now and then to listen for a disturbance in the bored hum of the crickets. Slinging their tools over their shoulders using ropes, they toiled through the fog and broken ground until they came to the cart. It sat along a lonely sunken lane. The head physician had left this cart at their apartment earlier in the evening and they’d used it to carry their tools to the churchyard.

Felix pulled two planks off the cart until the ends of each rested on the ground and formed a ramp. James pushed the wheelbarrow up onto the cart. Felix climbed up behind the horses and took the reins while James, between furtive sideways glances, quietly fed the planks into a slot of space next to the wheelbarrow.

They passed across the countryside. The city remained quiet and dark when they rolled up to the cellar stairs behind the college. Descending the steps, they sought out the usual vault, and within this isolated chamber, behind a stack of casks, they deposited the body.

James set the horses to a casual tramp on the way back to the gate though he was eager to be rid of their tools and the cart. Once outside the college grounds, he stirred the horses to a trot. They cast fearful glances into each dark window they passed along the way home.

* * *

The first day of the anatomy was like any other anatomy of a less pristine corpse. The gallery of students shaped an arc halfway around the floor’s edge. Four surgeons shuffled around a table beneath a raised chair. In this chair, Master Bridgewick sat, never raising his eyebrows. He tapped a scepter against the toe of his boot while the surgeons prepared the corpse and tools.

In a gallery of seats below James, closer to this scene, Felix had his head down and his pen busy. An anatomy usually lasted four days and James had never seen Felix’s posture change during the duration. Behind Felix, students craned their necks and leaned backwards and forwards. No seat was quite good enough. Even in the very front, in Felix’s row, they all seemed to think there was something more to been seen than that which was in front of them—all except Felix.

The dirty linen with which James and Felix were familiar was pulled off the body in one hasty tug.

It was a woman in the early stages of decay. The face was green and the textures bloated so that her countenance was plump and bumpy. The body was less disfigured. The veins showed as a red net ensnaring the whole corpse. The hair remained only as dark wisps over a cracked and peeling scalp. James wished the decay had been speedier in its work. This wasn’t a corpse so far removed from life as to not recall it, but the pageant of veins and the hollow eyes led death’s victory march. The conquest was so fresh as to be more apparent, as if the body was still dying before his eyes. The decline was still advancing. There was much worse in store for her.

The surgeons cut a sure and steady pair of incisions. The first was a long cut from the breastbone down to the end of the abdomen. The second ran along the waist like a belt. After flipping the flesh back, one surgeon drew out the stomach, which dangled some intestinal tubing. Master Bridgewick rested his chin in a hand and stuck his elbow to an armrest while somewhat wearily reciting the Latin describing the anatomy.

And then James decided that the sight wasn’t so ghastly. Under the skin, all the corpses looked the same unless justice demanded the executioner break their necks or behead them, remove their entrails or cut them into four quarters. This corpse had evaded such judgment and such consequences. This corpse had been more fortunate than others.

James looked to his notebook, now conscious that his mind was wandering. He had to restrict himself to his studies for another half hour. James was much too far away to make effective sketches, but it didn’t matter because he’d copy from Felix later. Everyone in the back three rows would have to copy diagrams from someone. Right now he would simply record the lecture. Though he did his best to register every word parting Master Bridgewick’s lips, the significance of the day kept teasing him out of the lecture hall.

It was the first day of a four day autopsy on a body he had personally supplied to the college, and not just a mere body; it was a body with all four limbs and a neck that hadn’t been snapped or severed. Also, Alice was to arrive in London that very afternoon. Alice. It would probably be the last time she’d visit him while he was a student. He had but one year left of his seven year course.

* * *


* * *

She arrived on a ship. She had stayed in Reading for a few days to visit her aunt and uncle before continuing on to London. James felt a flurry of joy when he saw her speculative face appear above the gunwale, but this feeling deflated just as quickly when he could see that she was miserable.

Alice had been ill on the ship. The malady was not caused by the trip itself but rather bad cheese she’d eaten in Reading. Her aunt had warned her against ‘white meats’, but she’d wanted to go and eat somewhere other than her aunt and uncle’s manor. Their cooks were so staid and predictable. This was one reason she was very keen to move to London as soon as James began his practice. She didn’t think city culture was as confining to a young woman as the manorial life. James never understood her beliefs regarding this matter because it seemed to him that she was often unhappy when visiting London.

Having escorted Alice to her uncle’s house in Southwark, James returned to his apartment and began to shave in preparation for dinner. Felix was slumped over the desk as he always was during the afternoon hours, when he suddenly threw down his quill in such determined resolve that James loosened his shaving blade. It clattered against the shaving basin and fell to the floor, sticking in the oak after a brief rattle.

“What is it?” cried James.

“You and Alice should join me and my mistress tomorrow. We shall tour part of the city this side of the river.”

The idea that Felix had a mistress stunned James, yet he did not reveal his surprise for fear of offending.

He saw no reason that he and Alice shouldn’t accept the invitation, and he agreed to meet Felix and his mysterious woman the next day. Besides, he wasn’t going to be doing much studying in the next two days since Alice was in the city. He regretted failing to warn Felix that Alice was ill; he conceded to himself that she did not always offer her best side when she was not feeling well. Then again, perhaps by tomorrow the evil cheese would have exhausted its mischief and Alice would be in fine spirits.

* * *

The next day, they met Felix outside of St. Paul’s Cathedral. He insisted on standing in the middle of the street, and the people hurried past them expressing annoyance. Alice was not feeling better. She was sniffing, and she kept pulling her hat further down her forehead. Now and then she aimed a disapproving glance at Felix. James figured they most have appeared as a pathetic little party, with Alice in the doldrums and Felix wearing his notorious hat.

It epitomized his tasteless fashion. Aside from its cavernous proportions, there was a patch of wolf fur sewn on the crown. He couldn’t afford to buy a hat without a tear and thus he required some kind of patch, and it damn well wasn’t going to be plain leather. A garish brass pin hitched the brim to one side of the crown.

James admitted to himself that he was ashamed to appear in public with them that day; they were such a sorry lot. But his self-consciousness vanished when she appeared.

* * *

This Persephone skipped out of the preoccupied urban turmoil like a kiss of pure countryside born from the furrowed lips of rich, unspoiled earth. Her eyes blazed as comets in wise orbits. She wore no whitener and her face was the color of sun-blessed soil on a fine summer day. Though many precious stones sparkled out of her hair, the onlookers could not figure whether they were gems or diamonds. It did not matter; the stones excited little attention compared to the delicate curve of her nose tip and the precious arc of her chin. And yet her gown was that of any common place seamstress; it had simple bows tied above the shoulders and appeared to contain nothing more than course cotton. Its willow color did not complement her but rather basked in its wearer’s natural and generous beauty.

Despite her unconventional makeup and rather immodest stride, all the awkwardness of the situation belonged to Alice, Felix, and James. They were speechless—even Felix who had presumably shared the company of his mistress before. Each was consumed by his or her own singular reaction to the woman. They did not possess words equivalent to their thoughts, and yet they were untroubled by their own muteness. The face and eyes, the two gentle waves of her lips, possessed a depth so inviting that James thought that by merely standing near her one could keep dry in a rainstorm. She invited, received, and encouraged.

Alice, her hair deChristinated by her own most valuable jewels, released a long sigh. James didn’t know whether she reacted to Christina’s outlandish lack of whitener or her undeniable beauty.

At last Felix took her hand, kissed it, and formally introduced her to them. The gesture was laughable and pointless, like someone telling you the iron is hot after you’ve already scalded yourself.

Christina suggested that they climb to the top of the cathedral. After absorbing her unexpected initiative and Felix’s unexpected enthusiasm, James said it was an agreeable plan. Christina led the way as Felix happily swaggered behind her. Alice and James followed, each possessing a curious sense of trepidation.

Alice whispered that Christina was certainly beautiful but that she should have worn a doublet under her gown so that her chest and neck were not so exposed. James told Alice that the woman could have avoided becoming such a spectacle if she’d simply drawn her hair back. She would have looked just as beautiful that way.

But to himself, James couldn’t imagine her hair any other way but tossing freely on the breeze. He secretly looked forward to the top of St. Paul’s, where the wind would increase and the locks would dance with even less restraint.

Yet when Alice and James reached the roof, they were arrested by a horrifying sight.

Christina had leapt atop one edge of the buttress positioned over two hundred meters of air. She was examining some feature of the façade, irresponsive to the windy death lurking behind her.

James called for her to return to the roof but she seemed to pay no notice and instead turned to Felix. He seemed caught between awe and fear.

She beckoned for him to join her but he said no. She asked him again to come and see the view from the buttress. He again said no and replied, “I can always come back here again. Maybe next time I will see it more fitting to risk my life for the sake of a view.”

Unwilling to interfere, James watched them in fascination.

“You can never be sure of returning to any place,” she said. Felix nodded but did not budge.

Finally, she hopped back to the roof proper. Relieved, James and Alice leaned on each other. Felix glowed with admiration.

* * *


* * *

James pulled him back as the women reentered the stairwell. He demanded to know where this strange woman had come from. Felix told him such questions were unbecoming, but he was willing to forgive one such trespass on the part of a longtime academic colleague.

Christina had been cast out of a great kitchen in Yorkshire when her employer parceled out his estate. She’d come to seek a means in London. Felix met her up at Curtain Close while he was attending a play. He was standing towards the back of the yard, when his enjoyment of the play was interrupted by him noticing something peculiar towards the front of the audience. Up there at the foot of the stage, among the backs of many hats and heads, was Christina’s splendid face. Staring right at him and disregarding the performance behind her, seeming to recognize him, she raised a slender arm. They’d gotten along quite well after that.

James begged to know how she could have recognized Felix if he’d never met her before Curtain Close. And how could she afford the theatre if she’d come to London penniless?

Felix insisted the answers to these puzzles were of no consequence and if James had any more prying questions about his beloved then he would be met by a duel instead of a retort.

Dismayed, James let the matter rest, and they set off to see a minstrel perform in Smith Field.

* * *

They hired a coach and the whole way Christina took delight in pointing out the best features of the ride, familiar sites they had long ago let fade behind all the complications and problems they confronted in their daily lives.

When they arrived at Smith Field, all in good humor after the invigorating tour, Christina danced to the music of the minstrels’ shawms and sackbuts.

As the performers puffed into the instruments, she caught the attention of all the onlookers and they smiled at this unexpected wonder. Many soon felt very fortunate to have come to Smith Field that day. It was as though they had happened upon a legend and recognized the telling aura even before the myth was fully shaped. They were soon clapping along to encourage her, even Alice, who helped keep time between pushing a handkerchief to her nose. Others just stood and watched in a haze of adulation. Felix was one of them.

They went to another end of the lawn and saw a puppet show. The crowd stood in riven expectance, withholding all applause and appreciation while the ridiculous figures bobbed back and forth across a miniature stage. But when Scaramouche scuttled around aimlessly, Christina’s rollicking laughter seared the very air. As though her reaction released a compressed spring, everyone burst out. Christina continued laughing with them and it seemed to James that everyone watching the show was more festive after Christina had blessed the performance with her merry approval.

In fact, James was very much enjoying the day’s activities when Alice began complaining about her stomach and requested that James escort her back to Southwark. Christina and Felix exhorted them to stay and then sadly waved them off when they refused.

Alice gazed out the coach window the entire ride back to the Thames. When James looked at her to say something, he saw the removed look in her eyes, and so he chose to hold his words.

* * *

The second day of the anatomy was difficult for James. He found it hopeless to attend to his notes. His mind was fraught with gnawing thoughts concerning Felix and his Christina. He supposed Alice’s poor health also hindered his concentration. Down in the lowest row of the gallery, Felix sat hunched over, pen busy, a beetle plotting mischief.

Using tongs, the surgeons unrolled the small intestine. They passed around the liver until it reached an examination pedestal right at the feet of Master Bridgewick. He sat on the throne and tilted his chin to take in the red lump. He droned on until James saw the tall windows of the hall grow dark, the stained-glass figures fading into the night of their own private world.

James replaced the anatomy with the image of Christina dancing in Smith Field. He forsook the bloated, violated creature before him for the bounce of rolling tresses and the sweet understanding of deep-set eyes. The Latin crumbled beneath her laughter as she strode closer and closer until her ringing laughter fully embraced his ears.

He leaned back and sighed. Below him, scarcely noticed by James, the surgeons were driving a saw across the corpse’s breast bone. The grinding sound hung just below the lonely laughter, and when James grew aware of the raspy undercurrent, it toed his spine and chilled his body.

* * *

Considering Alice’s condition during the previous day, Felix and Christina agreed to accompany James to Southwark instead of making Alice cross the river to join them. James intended for them to meet Alice at her uncle’s townhouse and then carry on to Bankside and perhaps see a bear-baiting.

He could scarcely keep up with Christina and Felix the whole way across the bridge because Felix was doing all he could to maintain Christina’s pace. She jumped from merchant to merchant and ruffled the shoppers perusing the wares. Whether a nobleman atop a carriage or a servant preoccupied by an errand, whether barring their teeth at her audacity or grinning at her stunning appearance, they all took notice.

Felix was one of the grinners, of course. James kept obliquely glancing at him, altogether uneasy at the visible transformation in his colleague’s bearing.

But he soon convinced himself it was only the suddenness of the shift that troubled him. It was a change for the better after all. As the three of them walked down the middle of the thoroughfare, he and Felix took to comparing the most spectacular baitings they’d attended. James said he’d once seen a dog rip the bear’s tongue right out of its mouth.

The mood soured when they realized Christina had become still and quiet. Her scattered forays to either side of the bridge in response to some fresh curiosity had transformed into an uneasy shuffle of soft, tentative steps. It was only when James traced the direction of her upward gaze did he begin to understand.

* * *

She was stuck upon the battlements of the Southwark gatehouse. Mounted on pikes, human heads rose above the turrets and stared at all those who passed below. The flies flew around their twisted gray tongues and ventured into the eye hollows where decay had delved tiny caves. Some wore mantles of tar that had crawled down to the ears.

The heads of these executed criminals worked a spell on Christina. It was startling to find an enchantress herself bewitched. She responded to none of her companions’ inquiries and remained morose until they passed beneath the bridge and had put the heads behind them.

* * *

They met Alice and she seemed to have recovered well from her ailments of the previous day. She and James shared some memories as the four of them took a carriage from her uncle’s townhouse to the recreations of Bankside. It seemed it was now Christina’s turn to become unwell.

Though not as despondent as when they passed beneath the severed heads, she was very pale and quiet for the remainder of the afternoon. Her cheeks had lost some of their earthy luster and at their centers they had dried up to the color of a dove. Yet she did not complain once, instead leaning on Felix and casting weary glances around her.

Alice was quiet beside James. He knew that her health had improved and that her restraint was now related to Christina’s mild affliction. She dared not appear too content while a friend was ill.

* * *

The bear baiting turned out to be a many-phased contest. Alice, James, and Felix all sat forward, nearly on their toes, ready to leap up when the tension broke. The dogs were swift, but the bear was massive. The dogs were never able to close with the bear. They nipped and lunged and dodged while the bear flailed and rolled its eyes.

At one point the assailants drew back some steps and seemed to reconsider whether it was all worth it. Then one nimble dog leapt up on the bear’s shoulder and tore out a crimson slab of flesh. This heartened the rest of the dogs. They resumed their leaping assault, and though some limped away with a whimper and a mangled ear, there was never a respite for the tiring bear.

One dog stumbled away from the carnage and found its way to the corner of the garden where the four friends sat. It fell down, convulsed in futile resurgence, and perished.

The bear’s resistance now eroded and the dogs began stripping its hide as fingers peel an orange. They’d catch a mouthful of its back or shoulder, and though the bear would toss the dog, the jaws remained clamped and would always take part of the bear with them. The black bear became a red bear. Its movements became labored. Its tongue lolled. After one last drunken spin of defiance, it toppled beneath a bloom of dust.

* * *

The audience exhaled a collective breath. An elated Alice turned to Christina’s seat but the bench was empty. She alerted the two men and Felix wasted no time in charging through the departing crowd in an effort to find the missing woman. James and Alice attempted to follow him but the jostling spectators came between them. James shouted for Felix to halt his rush against the tide of bodies but Felix paid him no heed, and so James left Alice at the entrance to the garden and jogged after him.

When James found him, Felix was outside the bear garden, under an archway spanning an empty lane. James spotted the pained countenance of Christina, and so he held back and let the two carry on their discourse without imposing himself. Though he ducked into a doorway, he could still make out their murmurs coming down the street.

He gathered by their words that Christina’s condition had plummeted during the bear baiting and she thought she could only find relief by leaving the garden. She apologized to Felix for her unsettled health. He swore before God and the Queen that his enjoyment of the day had not been impaired and that he would want nothing more than to spend each and every day with her whether or not she was feeling the least bit fatigued or ill. James heard a rustle and crooked his neck around the indentation of the doorway to see Felix step towards her, grab her hand, and pull her to him. He gave her a soft kiss on her lips, then let her hand fall back to her side—but her ring finger remained in Felix’s hand.

In a moment of denial, Felix held the detached finger and looked at it as if it wasn’t a finger and he couldn’t quite identify the object. His blankness turned to perplexity. Christina laughed in the way of gentle rain gliding through the lane and playing upon the cobblestones. Felix began to laugh.

James thrust himself back into the alcove and gagged, throwing a hand to his mouth in order to not emit a sound. No, his eyes could not have betrayed him. He let on nothing when the pair had finished their talk and he ambled out of his hiding spot as though just arriving. The pair exuded contentment and the three of them retraced their steps to locate Alice.

* * *

Later that evening, when James had finished his studies and stretched out in his bed to issue a thankful yawn, Felix explained the finger without provocation. Perhaps he realized that it could not be kept secret for long and he wanted to diffuse the inevitable shock.

When she was a child and her mother worked in a Yorkshire kitchen, Christina would often sit at the table beside the chopping block. Sometimes, during the long days, she fell asleep at this table while her mother and the other cooks bustled about. On one feast day, a frantic cook used the block even though Christina’s little hand was cast across its edge. His hasty blow severed her ring finger just above the middle joint.

The “finger” that Felix had pulled from her hand that afternoon was made of balsa wood stained to emulate the color of flesh. It had a simple hinge at the knuckle, and the wooden ring finger was attached to her intact middle finger by a looped thread so that she could form a fist and feign a complete hand.

James told Felix that this deformity was another reason to be cautious.

“That is one reason against a thousand reasons I should not be cautious,” Felix replied. Then, with spite, he added, “I should feel cheated if I were to court any other lady.”

“Even if her dowry is that of a cook’s daughter?”

“That is not so much a concern to me as my own family is well enough off.”

“It may not concern you, but it might concern your family.”

“And that it should not, and you either. Why at this time do you talk to me of something other than medicine?”

James withheld an answer.

“Why has this matter called forth your opinion?” asked Felix. “Why are you so sure that I should cast aside this woman who causes me great happiness—no, the most happiness?”

“I must put out the candles,” said James. He had no good answer, and Felix had made him feel sorry for wishing he had one. “Tomorrow morning the anatomy begins early.”

* * *

James’ attention switched to Felix when the lecture reached a phase he was uninterested in. He knew very little of Felix’s family or of Felix himself. His habits were apparent to James, but his thoughts concerning matters unrelated to medicine had long been concealed. James had never tested the secrecy, probably because he thought that there wasn’t much to be uncovered anyway.

Felix was a man who James supposed could go through life without marrying and become a crumpled hermit sealed up with his books and scarcely ever venturing beyond the walls of a university. Felix’s self-imposed seclusion wasn’t the only reason for James’ supposition; it owed more to the actual qualities of the unshapely body, charmless expressions, and lopsided glares.

Now Felix was in love, requited love with a woman, a woman who was—an absolute splendor.

Along the low tier of the gallery, James’s eyes fixed on the large round back and the dropped head. He wondered at how this man before him, the man who shuffled through life like he was anxious to be rid of it, was the same gregarious and dignified man who had escorted Christina on the sojourns of the previous two days.

Tomorrow Master Bridgewick would oversee the anatomy of the thorax. One more day and the anatomy of an intact adult cadaver would be complete. Their cadaver.

* * *


* * *

In the afternoon, Christina and Felix expressed a desire to leave the tumult of the city and see the countryside. Alice suggested a coach ride through the fields between Southwark and Lambeth. Everyone agreed that it was an excellent idea, and soon the four of them were in a coach trundling through the autumn pastures.

The day was cool rather than cold, and a breeze was just restless enough to give life to Christina’s unbound hair. The tresses weaved around the dark interior of the coach like streams of lava over a pumice landscape, while the locks on the side of her head facing the window cast to the kindred warm colors of the countryside and disappeared when they overlapped the wheat, as if returning home. The ends inside the carriage tickled Felix’s face and he paid no mind at all.

Alice talked of her family in Reading and her aunt’s theatrical neighbor Ms. Cone. Yet she was not very engaged in her own story. She kept loosing the string of her thoughts; she often paused. James noticed these pauses came whenever she stole a glance at Felix and Christina’s side of the coach. It was easy for James to detect her preoccupation because he felt his own curiosity drawn again and again back to Christina.

All at once, Christina cried out that they had to stop and picnic. According to her, they had reached a perfect spot. Unimpressed, Alice glanced around and frowned. James pointed out that the immediate fields were cow pasture and sure to be unfit for picnicking. But Christina said she hadn’t meant the field. She sailed out of the carriage and gestured into a belt of trees dividing the present field and the next. They could only suppose a field lay on the other side because the green barrier was thick and they couldn’t see through to the open ground. The pasture they currently stood in sloped down to where the shrubbery began overtaking the grass. The grove was shimmering with glossy hawthorn leaves and shaggy with the seeds of ashes. It was a dense arrangement, and Alice protested immediately when Christina again suggested they move into the trees. James was about to reinforce his mistress’ disapproval, when Felix bounced out of the carriage and actually began making his way to the tree line.

“Let us lunch down by the water,” said Christina to all of them. “I can hear the brook. It sounds too pleasant to forsake, wouldn’t you agree?”

And it was then that James noticed the water’s plea. It was young and mournful, promising and fragile. And though it was typical of these wooded boundaries to hide a brook, he thought it was quite strange that he hadn’t noticed the sound before Christina had mentioned it.

Alice glowered at James while he sought concurrence for his wife’s refusal to hearken to the alluring call. But he was only trying to convince himself.

“Go there if you desire to,” he said. “Alice and I shall meet you back here.”

Felix and Christina pleaded with them to come, but James knew that Alice would not compromise, and he wished them a pleasant lunch.

While Christina and Felix picked their way through the underbrush, snapping twigs and catching their cuffs and ruffles, James and Alice arranged their lunch in the weedy corner of the pasture. Not far away, their driver sat in the carriage and lit a pipe. An old cow hobbled around to their corner of the pasture and boomed a greeting so close to Alice’s ear that she yelped. They coughed when the wind blew the road’s dust at them. Alice whispered that it was a terrible decision to stop there for picnic, but James was pondering the trail of Christina and Felix. And as Alice followed his gaze through the thickening greenery she came to think it was not as much a look of curiosity as it was a look of longing. James became aware of his wife’s scrutiny and met her stare. She refused to break the lock, and James, guessing her thoughts, set about slicing their mutton pie and hiding his face.

* * *

After the separate picnics, three separate picnics since Alice and James had said scarcely a word to each other through the duration, they carried on to the parish church. Christina and Felix waxed long regarding the beauty of the small gully in the belt of trees.

The brook they’d found formed a shallow pool before narrowing and resuming its course. Many stepping stones broke the surface and the two had raced across several times. They had found a family of ducks winding through the secluded water, and they had spotted a kingfisher watching over them from a low limb.

James thought it all sounded far more enjoyable than his own lunch, but he knew that no matter how they described the gully, Alice would never sway from her belief that the decision to stop was absurd.

* * *

They arrived at the parish church. Christina and Felix took a walk around the chapel while Alice and James crossed the road to seek out a soft patch to rest upon. The Thames hooked south just north of the parish church and it was a novelty for them to enjoy the wide river without all the urban confinement of London choking off its soothing qualities.

As James and Alice surveyed the water together, their silence became less of an unspoken displeasure and more of a soporific blessing. They fell asleep, and when James came to, scratching his head and situating himself in time and place, he saw that the undersides of the walnut leaves were catching a lime green. The sun was dipping. Alarmed at having lost track of time, he woke Alice and told her that they should prepare to return to the city. She was happy to remain lying on the soft bank while James located the others.

He had passed halfway around the chapel, moving towards the rear, when he heard the harpsichord notes fluttering from the front of the church. Retracing his steps, he found that the chapel door was a bit ajar. It was from here that the music came.

The sun seemed to be sinking ever so fast, the highlights under the leaves had departed and the colors of the riverside had become dull. The fleeing daylight caused James to pause, but he was still ignorant of the powers that kept his feet on the threshold and only permitted him to poke his head inside the doorway.

Torches lit the chapel. They were mounted in the iron holders attached to the columns running down the length of the nave. He followed their flickering vigil to the altar where he saw the lonely dance for the first time.

It was a country step but not one James had seen before. They seized their legs and each others; they wound their torsos around each other and seemed to sway more often than step. Though they kept time to the harpsichord’s song, they did not obey its command, instead complimenting it. Felix swam on in between her arms and rose up to take her cheeks in his hands and kiss her. They held this kiss for long time while the rest of their bodies remained engaged with the harpsichord. Then Christina leaned close to his ear and spoke.

When she was finished, Felix drew back and seemed to wrestle with her message. He was about to speak when the harpsichord ceased mid-measure and a lute began chirping a feisty jig. Then they bounced and clapped as though the whispered words had never been.

James pulled his gaze away when the lute replaced the harpsichord, and in one low transept of the church he found a short and bubble eyed man playing the instrument. He was so large-skulled it was as though he wore a helmet under his skin. He plucked the lute with such flare in the wrinkles of his forehead that he might never have had the opportunity to play these compositions until now. They were tavern melodies unfit for mass or even an empty chapel.

A hand dropped upon James shoulder and he drew his head out of the doorway. Alice was standing behind him with crossed arms and a slightly guilty tilt in her brow. She apologized for disturbing him, but she did want to get back to Southwark before it became very late. She asked James whether their two companions had now taken to making love on the altar. James told her not be scandalous. She told him that she wouldn’t be surprised by anything at that point. Hearing the music, she stood on her toes and leaned to either side of James with half-hearted interest.

Of all James’ possible actions at that single moment, that never-to-be-recovered position half-in and half-out of the festive little chapel, the last action he expected to take was lunging at his woman’s waist, embracing her, and then pulling her into the torch light of the church. It was wholly unforeseen that they should join hands and jig in front of the altar, beside Felix and Christina’s consummate patterns. They would kiss and caress without stopping their dance and without testing the other’s reception. Like they were somewhere else. Like this was the world they actually called home.

To the end of his life, James could never solve the mystery of how something so vivid turned out to be impossible in the end. Instead of pulling Alice into the church, he stepped back into the gloom of the encroaching evening, took his woman’s hand, and announced he would enter the chapel and end the sacrilegious dance. Alice thanked him for being sensible.

Felix and Christina were happy to accommodate them. The parish musician wished them a good night, and instead of returning his lute to its hidden drawer, he gave it to Christina as a tribute to her dancing, though had he chosen otherwise he could have honored any number of her other incomparable qualities.

* * *

The ride back to Southwark was quiet in the way when something is hanging in the air and blotting out any would be conversation. James did not know whether Alice felt it; she was tired and kept nodding off. Felix was preoccupied, and stared through the window and bit his thumb while sorting out his thoughts in the blue evening. After they were well away from the parish church, Christina took up the lute and played a meandering and dipping poem that made James forget about their lack of words. The silence shed its heaviness. Her skill was remarkable. If he hadn’t already known her for two days he would have been shocked at her capability.

* * *

That evening, Felix was about to put out the candles when he asked James whether Alice and he would join them for one more evening’s entertainment before Alice returned to Dorset.

“I suppose so,” said James. “With one day of the anatomy remaining, it will be fitting. A celebration.”

“I think a better reason is that Christina will not be joining us again after tomorrow,” said Felix. He’d spoken as though reciting notes in preparation for an examination.

“Why is that?” James replied, equally as didactic.

“She has to leave. And she won’t be coming back. She extends her gratitude for your and Alice’s company over the past three days but the circumstances demanding her departure are insurmountable.”

Insurmountable, thought James. He wondered whether that was the way Christina had described the circumstances when she had whispered to Felix in the chapel.

Felix sat down at the desk.

“But she insisted I thank you, you even more so than Alice. She was very grateful for both of us helping her to enjoy London. She said she could not have had such a merry time without us attending to her.”

“We were blessed by her company,” said James. His enormous degree of gratitude was unmeasured by his words, though his words were true.

* * *

The next day, the final day of the anatomy, the dissection of the unbroken neck excited the students more than any other topic. Yet the description of the rarely-intact spinal cord passed so swiftly into an examination of the brain that James slumped under the weight of anticlimax. The secret trek to the graveyard, all the shoveling and bumbling through the night, resulted in nothing more than a fifteen minute lecture.

He spent the remainder of the anatomy in quiet frustration, shooting glances down at Felix and wondering whether he felt the same disappointment or whether he was wholly preoccupied by Christina’s imminent departure.

The surgeons were now cutting open the extremities. James drifted among descriptions of the bicep, forearm, and wrist. The surgeons took up tiny blades and sliced down the center of each finger to the palm. There was then a disturbance among the surgeons. They scratched their beards and held up their hands.

Now James sat up and refocused his attention on the anatomy.

Master Bridgewick leaned from side to side, attempting to identify the distraction. The surgeons parted their ranks and looked up at the head physician as if for instruction. Hushed words passed between the surgeons nearest to the high chair. Now all the students were peering over each other’s shoulders to glimpse the cause of the surgeons’ consternation. At last Master Bridgewick announced: “Digitus Ligneus.” A wooden finger. A wooden finger!

Ice drove deep into James heart. He grabbed his chest. Next his eyes shot down to Felix. He could only see the back of the man’s head but the body was paralyzed, the hands somewhere in front of him beneath the study bench, out of James’ sight.

After the anatomy, as soon as Master Bridgewick had dismissed the lecture hall and disappeared to his private quarters, James bounded through the university halls to seek him out.

The head physician instructed him that he was to re-inter the body at his convenience.

“I believe,” suggested James, “that it will serve our practical concerns to burn this body rather than return it to its former grave. The churchyard need not be revisited and suspicions rekindled. There will be fewer tools and delicacies required.”

“Is she not a Christian, deserving to be returned to consecrated ground?”

“No, she is not, master. If I may—you may recall we removed the corpse from the north side of the churchyard. She’s unbaptised; that I am certain of.”

“Then let the corpse burn. The wagon sits behind the college.”

* * *

Not long after James departed Master Bridgewick’s quarters, Felix dashed in from the opposite direction, wild with an urgency that alarmed anyone he passed in the corridor. But Master Bridgewick was gone; the door to his quarters bolted. For a long time, Felix rapped his fists against the oak, but his only reward were tender sores across his dry knuckles.

* * *

And so James burned the corpse. He took it that very night out into the fields beyond the city walls and brought with him a cauldron and an ax. He chopped the body into pieces. Without ceremony, he scooped up the parts and cast them all into the iron pot. He poured oil back and forth over the heap of flesh. Setting it ablaze, he stepped back as his pulse relaxed and his heart thawed. He whispered prayers until the fire had dwindled to glowing embers.


* * *

Felix and James never discussed the anatomy or the corpse. James did not dare broach the subject since he had always been generally unacquainted with Felix’s personal matters. They had much difficult study ahead of them, and the distraction of those unnatural four days would have done little to aid their concentration. They carried on as they had before the anatomy, studying medicine another year until they had achieved their degrees. Felix became more like Felix than the original Felix. He acknowledged nothing but the tip of his pen. Though surrounded by men of like-minded scholarship, everything living passed before him as though shades, dead and phantasmal. He was uncouth and uncaring, and most came to think he was as worthless as the value he placed on others.

After completed his studies, James returned to Dorset to marry Alice and practice medicine. Felix melted into the tangled fabric of London. James once heard about him practicing in the East End but did not know precisely where he practiced or for how long, and soon Felix became little more to James than that pedantic and grim colleague from the past who had said little to anyone.

It seemed to James that Felix so often paid less attention to society than the cockroaches he used to kill each morning when James was sharing a room with him. The swat of his broomstick often served to wake James for his morning prayers. On occasion the creatures would wiggle their feet in the air after a glancing blow knocked them on their backs. It was a hopeless, hysterical flight from death. Yet as James watched Felix brush others from the walls, he noticed that some did not twitch. These floated to the floor with grace and patience.

* * *

Ned Thimmayya is a lawyer who lives in Brooklyn, NY. His writing has previously appeared in Slice Magazine, the Foundling Review, Up the Beanstalk, and the Brooklyn Journal of International Law. He has read his work at the Franklin Park Reading Series, the Renegade Reading Series, and Hallopalooza 2011. He grew up in the lovely town of Kinderhook, NY.

What do you think is the attraction of the historical fiction genre?

History, after all, is in and of itself the ultimate story. All fiction, whether due to the narrative's setting or the circumstances of the author, emerges from our species' history or notion of that history. I believe historical fiction is only distinguished as such by the fact it calls greater attention to its place on the historical timeline than other fiction. Therefore its appeal rests in those eras that readers and writers continue to find most compelling. Elizabethan England, World War II, Medieval Europe, Renaissance Italy, and the Roman Empire all come to mind as periods that continue to fascinate readers and writers of fiction in the Western hemisphere.