3 min #Calgary Story #Family #macabre

Illustration and Dissection

Erin Emily Ann Vance

Greta felt most at ease in the cadaver lab. She often felt uncomfortable in front of living patients, asking them to reposition their agonized limbs so she could better sketch them, or seeing the looks of horror on their loved ones’ faces when they caught a glimpse of the illustrated illnesses in Greta’s lap. Greta preferred to be in the lab, the bodies at her disposal like poseable artist’s mannequins. She could get as close to a diseased breast as she needed to illustrate it completely. She could stare at a cancerous kidney for hours, shading the tumours just right. She felt at ease with the medical students, knowing that she would never be in the position to treat or cure. Greta was only there to record and observe what had already taken place.


Greta never wanted to leave work. She had a fine home life. Her parents were doting and her younger siblings well looked-after; unlike most families, hers was a happy one. But Greta, though she loved her family, loved the way that painting leprosy was like painting mushrooms emerging from a man’s brow. She loved how a caved-in breast revealed ribs and muscle tissues like a geode broken open reveals a world of crystal.


Often, Greta would put a specimen jar in her bag, or tuck a body part wrapped in butcher paper under her arm and continue her work well into the night, reveling at the difference candlelight made in her perception, while her siblings snored softly on their shared mattress. If little Ingrid woke up crying, Greta would bring her little table with her pencils closer to the bed and rub the child’s back with one hand and sketch out a choleric kidney with the other.


Greta’s supervisors at the teaching hospital did not like that she took specimens home to work on. They also did not like that she stayed later than anyone else, enveloped in the damp scent of formaldehyde and dried blood. They thought it strange that they never saw Greta eat- all of the medical students were ravenous when working with the cadavers, the chemicals stimulating their appetites. When Greta was forbidden from taking home specimens and staying late, she wept briefly, and went to slaughter a chicken. She plucked its feathers and placed it under candlelight in the bedroom. She painted it, a study in flesh and blood. Greta was worried that she might lose her talents between shifts at the teaching hospital.


Greta’s father made her cook the chickens each morning before she went to work. Greta chewed on bits of raw fat as she boiled the bones for stock and dished out the meat for her family. When she was drawing, she could do nothing else. She no longer half-listened to the lectures. She no longer lingered over the last facial expressions of the patients. She no longer took a short walk at lunch. She played with the bits of fat stuck in her teeth, prodding them with her tongue as she shaded bone spurs and bullet holes. Greta took to hiding in the chemicals cabinet after nine at night, watching through a small hole as everyone left. She kept spare stockings and hairnets in her bag and went home very rarely. Sometimes she got hungry, but she shoved the feeling down inside of her and sketched until her fingers went numb. Then, she would curl up under a metal table, huddled under a fresh body, and sleep for an hour or two before the medical students arrived.


Greta did not miss her family, but she missed the taste of raw fat in her teeth. When she was taken into the hospital and the nurse asked why she did it, she simply said, “The smell made me so hungry, how could I not have?”


Image of Erin Emily Ann Vance

Erin Emily Ann Vance

Erin Emily Ann Vance is the author of Advice for Taxidermists and Amateur Beekeepers (Stonehouse Publishing, 2019). She holds an MA in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Calgary. She studies folklore at University College Dublin. Find her work in The Literary Review of Canada, filling station, Arc Poetry Magazine, Grain Magazine, and EVENT. www.erinvance.ca

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