Her Mother's Arms
Stephen Lawrence

"It familiarizes the heart to a kind of necessary inhumanity."
--William Hunter

It's light: white and blue. Rolls... it rolls up, and eye-ache fades. I sigh amid deep, muffled brown.

Arm-cradle tastes pink and creamy.

Smells, tastes of me.

Is me.


"No, Victoria!"

The handprint on the side of her thigh remains there all her life. It is impressed on her mind like blown paint on a cave wall.

She squashes herself back against a wall of body warmth. The arms come down over her, join in a V at her tummy. Victoria holds them like seat-belt straps. She pokes out her tongue at the girl that has bullied her.

"Hey -- you're invading my personal space, Diana," says Mandy, in the biology lab. She whips a thin cord of intestine at her friend, out of the freshly dissected rat splayed and pinned between them. At the next table, it catches Victoria on the cheek. Squeals of laughter.

When she is accepted into medicine, her mother gives her a rare hug. The maroon coat tickles Victoria's cheek.

"Oh, Vicky!" Over her shoulders go her forearms, and they each give two thrilled pats in the midpoint of her dorsal region.

"...core of the study of anatomy; there is no substitute... you should be relaxed, but this is a scientific investigation... respect and dignity. No improper... several weeks' focus is the trunk: thorax, abdomen... lucky enough to have only three per cadaver... start, isolate... identify with special attention to... stab incisions, then... separate... pull away along... feel..."

Curtis wears a creamy mustache.

"Vicks, ladies?"

Diana waves away the squat jar.

"Maybe soon," says Victoria, flexing her gloved hand, feeling prepared but still unable to fit her new role snugly around herself.

Curtis pulls down the sheet with a flourish that he immediately regrets.

A gray, bald woman lies there, waiting like a pharaoh for her remains to be transmuted into knowledge.

"Her...her skin! It's like...waxy...y'know, sheep brains... Like... Uh... If, if I, um," he babbles. "I do the sawing thing, later on -- y'know, the cutting through ribs, manubrium, xiphisternal joint, and that. The hard stuff. And you--" he reaches shakily for a scalpel and hands it to Diana " -- you do the opening body cavity thing. Right? That'd be fair. Right?"

Disgusted, Diana lowers the blade towards the crumpled surface of the corpse. She slows approaching the skin of the chest, pressing through a force-field like a cushion of air blowing from all the pores.

She unzips the flesh's coat. Diana has cut too deep, through the superficial fascia, and brown muscular tissue becomes visible where the subcutaneous fat is thinnest. The smell is sweet -- like cinnamon and fresh farts.

As she progresses, being more careful to apply traction, a trickle of formalin creeps around the flattened outcrop of breast and down the dead woman's side. Victoria follows its route with her eyes and then sees the arms. She looks and looks. It's her mother there.

"Cut further past the acromion this time."

"No, there's enough to fold -- unless you want to do it."

"Uh, what about Vick? Paying attention there?"

"We've got enough skin off this side now, I think. Vicky?"

The corn color of the fine down on the forearm, the arrangement of each mole, the prominent wrist bones, slightly swollen first finger-joints, two little creases above her rough elbows. "It's, uh... It's, uh..." Victoria keeps staring. She is not ignoring her fellow students' queries. Indeed, she tries to answer them. She searches for a path around her impossible conclusion, looking for more information, a detail that would deny the evidence of her eyes. There is nothing. The arms belong to her mother.

Victoria takes a step back as if gently shoved, and begins to pull off her gloves. "I'll watch for now." Her peers give her `I understand' messages, then return to their task.

She confides in Diana.

"But your mum's alive. You still live with her. Like, she's in really good health. Have you told her?"

"No. No point. It's not that we're close or anything. I don't even like her very much." Victoria begins to cry.

Curtis applies the handsaw with vigor and precision, cutting through ribs two through six on either side of the sternum, as required. He removes the chest wall. They all examine the thoracic cavity and the strange lobes filling it.

"Amazing texture." After the removal procedure Curtis, with dangerous pressure, squeezes one of the dark gray spongy masses.

"Look at the color. A smoker," says Diana.

"Or just fallout from city living," adds Curtis competitively. He now dominates the process and controls the instruments. Diana holds the anatomy book. Victoria is in charge of written observations.

The professor arrives and leans on one of the blocks at the edge of the stainless steel table. He queries the absence of disposable gloves on Victoria, then addresses her, gentle and admonishing:

"...first time, but... best practical analysis... hands-on study... critical to... overcomes this reluctance... more familiar with the body... touch it, palpate... professional versus a lay... be ready to make the move into the ward later on... so..."

They are an elite. In white coats, they sweep through the main library when in need of non-technical volumes. They cross open spaces between buildings, wide flaps opening in the breeze, feeling like angels or superheroes or camp commandants. At times they deign to lunch in the general refectory, some affecting soulfulness and abstraction, some the rushed-and-harassed aura of a surgeon in an emergency; strange stains mark their white garb. They act out -- often in parody -- their future profession and fit themselves into it.

They have seen and touched and explored things others have not. The places they have visited, the objects they have laid bare, set them apart; they cannot be the same people they were. They are not the same as others.

For some this is a horrible revelation.

Victoria sees the changes occurring around her. It is like an epidemic whose early symptoms are x-ray vision and prurient arrogance. She knows she also has the virus but is kept aloof from the experience. If she succumbs, if she touches the dead woman too soon, she will be giving away something of herself. Her mother's human arms flank the corpse, shielding her, urging: "Wait. Wait for the right time."

Victoria discreetly confines herself to the medical-center cafeteria for her meals. She eats a salad sandwich, taking sips from a carton of unsweetened lemon juice. Diana has cheese and savory biscuits.

"Do you want to talk about this problem with your mother yet?"

"It's not a problem with my mother. It's not a problem. I'm not the only one just observing."

"Er... you nearly are." Diana puts a hand on her shoulder in a gesture of concern. She has never touched Victoria before.

Victoria decides to treat it with humor, pointedly sniffing Diana's hand as she lifts it off and drops it away from her.

Diana lets her arm flop to the tabletop. "All right, all right," she laughs. "Ya can't get the smell off, can you? I wash them six times a day."

A group of fellow students approach the table.

"Oh no -- Rob and Gil are with Mandy. I used to think Gil was all right, but he's a perv," says Diana, grinning. "At least I don't think he looks at my breasts anymore if I'm wearing something low-cut."

The threesome arrive noisily. Gil mock-throttles Robert, then picks at something on his forehead. "What's this? Basal cell carcinoma, I reckon. Lemme pull it off for you before it kills ya."

"You're fucked. I'm livin' forever, man."

"Sure -- just like the stiffs, right?"

"Sorry," says Mandy to the two women. "They just followed me."

"You gonna give your body to medical science, Di?" bullies Gilbert, quickly reaching over and tousling her hair.

"Not to be fondled by someone like you."

"Hey -- they want to be touched. That's why they do it. Gives 'em a thrill in the afterlife."

"Does it give you a thrill?"

Gil blinks, not expecting such a jibe from a woman. The surprise draws something unexpected from him. He says in a slightly lower voice: "Nah -- still scares the shit out of me."

"...cut across the ascending aorta... transect... lift it by its apex... remove... use blunt forceps for the vessels... inspect the isolated heart..."

Her mother avoids knowledge of what Victoria does during the day. It is enough to be able to say to her own friends and relatives that "Victoria is doing Medicine."

In gratitude for the status it affords her (and in compensation for her discretional ignorance), she gives her daughter a car and a clothes account.

Victoria understands her mother's limitations, and forgives her.

While Curtis and Diana trace coronary arteries and explore the atriums and ventricles, Victoria shifts up, next to the table. Ungloved, her fingers momentarily reach out, then pull back to grip the edge of her jumper. Odd thoughts tumble in her mind.

We are this woman's future, and she has seen it. She's immortal through us. Her flesh will become our knowledge.

Victoria lays her naked hand on the arm of the cadaver. She feels her body heat soaking down into the skin.

The whole is greater than...

She lifts her hand, then replaces it, giving the waxy surface a small pat.

Diana glimpses her movement and turns. "Vicky! Put on some gloves first!"

"Well, Vick," says Curtis. "If you can do that with the bloody thing, get around here now and muck in with the rest of us."

Although Rob, Gilbert and Mandy sit themselves next to Victoria in the lecture theater, she is invisible to them.

"...stuffed up. I fuckin' cut the four, uh... arteries--"

"The pulmonary veins," Mandy corrects him wearily.

"Yeah. I cut 'em so close to the... um--"

"Pericardial sac."

"Yeah. So close I wrecked the ventricle--"

"Atrium. Well, Gil, maybe you're just not going to be a surgeon."

"Maybe I'm not going to be a doctor," he sulked. "What about your table?" Hoping for some evidence of an equivalent bungle.

"Fine," says Diana. "Very smooth. Very interesting, especially the--"

Gilbert immediately loses interest. "Footy tomorrow, Robbo?"

Rob stops exploring his nostril. "Wha...?" He farts.

The gloves are the color that she imagines dead flesh would be like. They simultaneously numb her hands and heighten the sensitive tingling of her nerve endings inside the latex.

She wears a smear of Vicks Vaporub on her top lip. In future years she will never be able to bring herself to wipe it on her children's chests.

The trunk before her is mostly a damp cave; its major contents are now stored elsewhere. Her protected hand, still spread, enters the cavity.

"You got a shitload of catching up to do, Vick. But, y'know, welcome to tactile city."

"You could spend some extra time and study her other parts out of the fridge-boxes," says Diana.

"Yeah -- you heard how tough the prof was on getting the right bits back together for when they're buried."

Curtis and Diana have become a slick dissecting team. Indeed, they have become lovers.

"The sex isn't the main thing," Diana had said yesterday in the cafeteria, laughing. "But maybe I'll feel like it more after we get through this part of Anatomy."

Victoria gently traces the twin paths of the woman's ridged trachea, through which a billion breaths once passed to the now-absent lungs. She seeks and studies the lymph nodes and tracheal rings. Then she incises the bronchus and finds the carina.

...Greater than the sum of the parts.

The arms are still her mother's. They will always be.

She is glad of it now: they have protected her and kept her human. Many of her fellows would have to struggle for years to regain that. Some would not succeed. (It is Rob who is reprimanded for putting his bare finger up his cadaver's aortic arch and making choking sounds, to amuse his mates. But it is Gilbert who eventually quits the course.)

Victoria's experience of dissection becomes an act of transformation and reverence, not one of disjunction and dehumanization. She thinks she might manage to become a good doctor. The woman's arms gesture in welcome.

Shopping, Victoria tries on a dark knee-length winter coat, which suits her. She buys it.

Her mother praises her choice, and they continue down the street arm-in-arm. The sun is shining, but there is a chill breeze that brings with it a rich, fecal flavor, a garbage smell that has swept out of an alley. Victoria pauses to inhale and take the human odor into herself.

Her mother pats her understandingly. But, of course, she does not understand at all.

Stephen Lawrence (verrun@ozemail.com.au) teaches English and writing in Australia, and writes a column for the Adelaide Review. His collection of poems is Her Mother's Arms (Wakefield Press, 1997).

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 7, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1997 Stephen Lawrence.