The archivist returns with the materials I’ve asked for, and I slant my shoulders so that he may place them in front of me. It’s a practiced motion done at the precise pace necessary to keep the box’s contents intact while still maintaining a librarian’s theatrics. To unbury: an act on loop until completion.
He sets the laminated photo on the table, delicately. Steps back, then examines me examining the photo. Of course, I notice the body first. He’s waving. Mouth agape, in a smile—at least with the hand positioned so it seems like one. I notice second: no man’s eyes meet another’s. The friendliest body is the dead one, and the only one left nameless.
m Frank E. Tasker, 1893
m Lilley Eaton, 1893
m Elmer E. Ladd, 1896
m n LJ Bowman, 1890
m n Frederick G. Burnham, 1890
m n H. H. Boynton, 1891
Those dates aren’t listed. That’s because I translated the blackboard script, and found the names and their associated numbers in an old Dartmouth Medical directory. I supply them for comfort. Math and science make it easier to confront bodies.
Each signature has been elevated to a kind of art, and so opened itself and its writer to critique. I feel sorry for Elmer, with a name like that, and then don’t. His signature “L” for Ladd is embellished to the point of illegibility, so I have problems finding his name in the records— and I begrudge him for it. L. Eaton offers a surprise. Lilley is his name; its femininity and unexpected ‘e’ make record searching fun, for a moment. Boynton is safe where Elmer failed; two perfect H’s stylized without total loss of resemblance. I find him simply, and appreciate it. Tasker and Bowman’s signatures are unremarkable.
If sequence is to be believed, and these men are arranged in the order the names appear on the board, if these are even really their names at all, Tasker and Eaton flank the left in matching bowling hats. Tasker sports a bushy mustache, and Eaton stands unconfidently, with a posture as diminutive as his namesake. It’s Mr. Burnham, then, who holds his scalpel poised—maybe already piercing flesh—and his gaze far to the far right, away from the body he carves. There’s something too walrus about his mustache and too farmer about that hat, I think critically. I’m getting into the work of revival now.
All self-consciously hold their bodies still for the photograph. Elmer holds the waving hand still, too, and then you realize: the hand isn’t waving at all. All bodies are props.
Here is a photo. See in it the inevitable insincerity of self-aware creatures. They offer their names for commemoration, an effort worth the posing, worth the chalk collected beneath their fingernails, dusting the body. All this holding still for posterity, so that we may know that they were learning here, and they were digging through the dead like us. All script is an epitaph.
To the right of Mr. Burnham: LJ Bowman. I can’t quite catch what LJ is doing. Maybe he unbuttons the corpse with his eyes leveled, leveling, at who is maybe H. H. Boynton, the man of the unoffensive curlicues. LJ’s hat is unrimmed, and his upper-lip clean. He accessorizes with a cigarette, dangling attractively, in the right corner of this lip, like it might fall. Would the body catch fire?
I ask why the cigarette. It’s the smell, I’m told: the stench of men exhumed and splayed—of clothes left longer than flesh. You need deaden it in order to learn. Smoke to mask more unpalatable smells.
Some other habits help their doers achieve happiness, too: invent easily achievable goals so that you may succeed; question only what has been questioned before; and pose often, you never know who is, will be watching you.
The m stands for medical student, and the n for non-graduate. “Was that common?” I ask but know it is already since there were so many names with the n denotation next to them in the directory. I want to know instead why it was so common, and the archivist understands.
He explains, “People didn’t go to school the way they do now. They went for some specific thing, found it, and left.”
These are things I found in school: decay is the path of least resistance; will is particulate, and need be gathered; I am a function computed many times before; all sensation is lost, eventually.
But I never knew how little I knew about this place, how little I was taught. To bury: an act on loop until completion. The work is never finished.
You will notice their bare hands, and the decomposed body. There was no formaldehyde here, just tradition. Those boys—maybe Eaton’s, his posture lending itself to sneakiness, maybe LJ, his dangling cigarette lending itself to mischief— dug up that body in order to learn about the living, the few of us who have not yet begun to show our rot. Perhaps no man’s eyes meet another’s out of shame; they’ve plagiarized a life, borrowed it without permission, leaving no bibliography.
People didn’t go to school now the way they did then. They wear silicone gloves and drink instead of smoke to obscure the obnoxious. Also, no one wears hats. But students still commit robbery when it is convenient. Teachers still encourage the digging up of strange bodies. All burials are repetitions, a thing done before, and a thing that will be done again.
Their hands are in that body, and there’s something sexy about it in that undead way that is so popular now. I skim directories. I leave fingerprints on laminate. Am I jealous of the contact?
“Too bad you can’t touch their corpses,” says the archivist, “they are dead now, aren’t they?”
The body giggles out a cry, from an open maw. The jaw unhinged and dangling madly, up and down and up. He’s quiet, finally, but the words stick for a good time longer, hahahahaha.