They looked more like shop mannikins than dead human beings. The preservation process had turned them into plastic so it was difficult to believe they’d ever been alive. But they’d all been walking around not so very long ago, just like her, drinking tea, reading books, saying their prayers. It certainly was novel to spend an afternoon wandering among the naked and dead. Especially if you were a nun. She’d been expecting curious looks from the other visitors, but so far, they only had eyes for the corpses. Just as she had.
You weren’t supposed to touch the plastinations, as they were called. There were signs forbidding it. But as you stood in front of each one in turn, you were itching to reach out with your finger and thumb and pinch, quite hard. Rose was, anyway. Not any of their glands or internal organs. She had no desire to feel a liver or a heart. Just skin would be enough.
She retraced her steps to one body she had already spent several minutes studying. She didn’t pretend to be an expert where men were concerned, but he was definitely the most interesting corpse in the exhibition, perhaps even the most interesting man in the building. He stood sideways on, cut into eleven slices from head to toe, his face separated into neat squares that looked as if they could be reassembled like a Rubik’s cube.
His eyes protruded on red stalks, which were labelled as the optic nerves. The skin on his body was still intact, unlike that of several others who had their skin and muscles peeled back and pegged out from their bones. This corpse had a number of what police investigations always refer to as distinguishing features. On his arm, just below the left shoulder was a portrait of a woman tattooed in blue ink. It was a pastiche of the Mona Lisa. On the flesh covering his ribs and his real heart, was a tattooed heart and arrow. Inside the heart was written in crude letters: Francis loves Mary.
Most of the exhibits were dissected to remain anonymous, their faces turned inside out or fanned like a pack of cards. Only one woman’s face was left intact – and it was coated with a thin shell of gold leaf, a mask to protect her from being recognised by an unsuspecting friend or relative. But this man’s tattoos were so individual, so much a part of him, that any relative or friend would surely know him immediately. Suppose you were Mary? How would it feel, to come to this exhibition and see the man who’d loved you enough to have your name and face etched painfully onto his body?
Her fingers twitched. She reached out her hand but when the tip of her finger was an eyelash distance from his elbow, she stopped. DO NOT TOUCH THE PLASTINATIONS, the signs read in two inch red letters. If anybody caught her, she’d have to claim she hadn’t noticed them. She could pretend she couldn’t read, but that would just be adding to her sins. After a minute’s hovering, she withdrew her hand and fingered her rosary beads.
Over coffee in the gallery cafe, she wondered what was stopping her. Did she expect an alarm bell to ring? That she would be marched away and forced to sign her body over without delay to the German professor who’d created the exhibition? When she was a girl she’d never been in the least afraid of defying authority. Seventeen years in the convent might have softened her body but it hadn’t broken her spirit. Take today for instance: Mother Philomena wouldn’t have been pleased to know she was coming here. There was a question mark hanging over the exhibition as far as the Vatican went.
Not that the Church had any right to make a fuss. They had thousands of relics on display in every country in the world, vials of black blood, fingers and toes shrivelled and dried, the discoloured nails still clinging to dessicated skin. All you were expected to do about those body parts was dedicate your prayers to them. St. Catherine’s body was on display in a glass altar in a church near Siena. Once a year the townspeople carried her around the streets in their Corpus Christi procession, toasting her with incense and wine.
Still, she’d committed the sin of omission not telling Mother Philomena and the other sisters which exhibition she planned to attend. She’d let them think she’d just gone to see the Marcel duChamp pieces at the Tate Modern, as usual.
Her thoughts went back to Francis, preserved for eternity, standing on one leg. As she tidied her styrofoam cup away, she made her decision. She was going to touch him before she left the gallery. And what was more, she was going to touch more than just his tattoos.
She made her way through the throng to Francis’s body and checked around carefully. There was no sign of a camera pointing an eye in her direction. She would wait until no-one was looking, then she would place her hands quickly in two places – his heart tattoo and his penis. If she was going to touch him, she may as well go the whole hog. Breaking the gallery rule of not touching an exhibit was nothing compared to the sin of touching a live penis – if you were a nun. And she’d never have the chance to do that. If she was caught and sent back to the convent in disgrace, at least there’d be a bond between them, something to remember him by.
A boy of about ten, black and skinny, was the only other spectator beside her now. Rose manoeuvred herself into position and the boy glanced up sideways at her. She nodded at him reassuringly and waited until he followed his group to the next exhibit, a display case full of lungs which had been burnt black by cigarettes.
Now she stood alone in front of the plastination. She stretched out her fingers, hesitated for a second and then, her eyes closed, she lightly grasped his penis. It felt hard and cool in her hand, like a frozen fillet of pork, shrink-wrapped in plastic. She let go, opened her eyes and moved her hand across to his tattoo. Here too the skin was smooth and unyielding under her fingers, not in the least like warm, living flesh. The blue ink beneath the surface reminded her of the markings on pig carcasses, hanging stiff and pale in a butcher’s shop.
Slowly she raised her hand and brought it to her lips, glancing behind her at the people milling around. No bells were ringing, nobody had come running. She was just beginning to breathe freely again when she noticed the boy was walking back in her direction, his mouth slightly open. She froze as she imagined headlines in tomorrow’s newspapers, in letters larger than the notices which forbade touching: Necro nun! or worse. But he was only a boy and there was a good chance he might not have seen her touching the penis. Perhaps he’d only seen her hand on the tattoo.
“I saw you touching him, miss. You aren’t supposed to. They told us when we came in.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Why was you touching him, miss, if you knew it wasn’t allowed?”
“I’m not sure. I just wanted to.”
“You’re not Mary are you?”
“I’m Sister Mary Rose. I took the name when I became a nun.”
“No, that Mary. ‘Francis loves Mary’. Mary in the tattoo.” He pointed at the picture on the man’s arm. “Your mouth looks a bit like hers.”
Rose looked closely where the boy was pointing. It was true the shape of the cupid’s bow was similar, and like hers the lower lip was much fuller than the top, but it wasn’t the kind of picture you could recognise anybody from. It was more like a police identikit than a portrait.
“No, I’m not that Mary.”
“Oh…” The boy’s voice told his disappointment.
“But I have been thinking about her. I wondered how she’d feel if she came here and saw Francis. Do you think she’d mind everybody looking at him like this?”
The boy considered his answer for a while. “I think she’d be proud of him, especially his tattoos,” he said at last. Rose smiled at him then and he grinned back, showing teeth that were much too large for his mouth. “Don’t worry. I won’t grass you up or anything.”
There was a long silence. Then the boy darted away to find his classmates.
Rose’s eyes went back to Francis. Had Mary been his only love or were there other girls? Girls much like her, when she was younger and still beautiful?
She’d been eighteen when she joined the convent and she’d kept her chastity vows. But once, long ago, there’d been a man she’d wanted. She’d met him on holiday in Wales when she was seventeen. They’d walked for miles along a beach in the hot sun and hidden behind gorse bushes on the dunes. He’d kissed her and held her, as the world behind her eyelids dissolved into circles of red and black. Despite the ache inside, she hadn’t let him touch her. Not with his hands, or any other part of his body. She already had her life planned out. Taking the veil wouldn’t be a sacrifice if she had no longings to deny.
She didn’t answer his letters, but sometimes she wondered how it would be to live with such a man and be his wife. She remembered his mouth and the fine, brown hair on his forearms, the coconut scent of gorse flowers baking in the sun, the gritty sand caught in the fold of his neck, the slippery taste of his tongue. And once in a while, even now, she dreamed about him. She woke herself at night, rubbing with her hand between her legs until she was sore from it all.
It didn’t matter. The Lord sees, the Lord understands and the Lord forgives. He, more than anyone, knows what it is to be human. She didn’t even bother to mention it in confession any longer – the priest said she shouldn’t feel responsible for what she did when she was asleep.
And what about touching Francis? Should she confess that to the priest? It was hardly a mortal sin and there was little difference between touching him with your hands and touching him with your eyes, like everybody else. And somehow it didn’t seem worse than fingering the images of Christ displayed in the convent chapel: the statue of Jesus crucified, the painting of his sacred heart. She would talk to Father about it, she decided. She’d tell him what she knew: if she could live three lives on Earth instead of one, she’d choose to live one with a man like Francis, and the other two she would give to God.
Rose no longer had him to herself. Strangers were crowding around now, devouring him with their eyes, wondering at his tattoos. It was time she started home. She bowed her head, made the sign of the cross and prayed silently, her lips barely moving and her eyes shut. She prayed that Francis had lived a complete life and that Mary had given him joy. She prayed that his soul was at peace and that he was with his God. Without looking back, she made her way through the rest of the exhibition and stepped out onto the windy street.
Joanna Ashwanden is an English teacher and writer. One of her stories was long-listed for the Fish Prize.
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