Dr. Ludovic Bouland gripped a scalpel between his right thumb and forefinger, using his left hand to smooth the wide rectangle of flesh he was about to cut.
“Madame Nul de Nulle Part – Mrs No-one from Nowhere”, he muttered, arcing his arm over the prone form on the dissecting table before him, “my work here will give you posthumous fame and glory! The skin off your back is to serve as the binding for an important book, Des Destinées de L’âme – Destinies of the Soul. This is a profound meditation on the soul and life after death by my dear friend, the distinguished essayist and poet, Arsène Houssaye”.
But the doctor’s reverie was interrupted by a shrill, disembodied female voice.
“You, who cup my corpse in the palm of your hand, how can you know what Heaven has ordained for my soul or the after life? You seem to cherish books more than living beings. Why is this?
“Here, where I now dwell, there is neither time nor space that you could recognise. Yet we know everything – past, future, good and evil.
“In the time to come the world will learn that my husband flung me into the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, claiming falsely that I was an ‘hysteric’. This was after I’d told his mother that I had caught him in our bed with his mistress!
“So before dying unattended of a sudden stroke, I spent my prime years lying in the gloom on a thin straw pallet with inadequate food and no visitors.
“All this, mark you monsieur, was while my husband enjoyed sex with the over-fed, hideously painted cuckoo which had usurped my place and laid her putrid eggs on our goose-feathered mattress!
“Now I can tell you that within the first score years of the 21st century, savages living in what is presently named the Ottoman Administration of Iraq, will burst into a police officer’s house, hack off his head and tell the world ‘this is our football. It is made of skin’. The world, Monsieur Le Docteur, will become less human than you, a polished Parisian clinician and bibliophile, could possibly imagine.
“Before that though, in the mid-years of the 20th century, millions of people will be incarcerated in prisons far worse even than the hospital where you’re dissecting me, only to be starved, beaten, tortured, gassed then burnt. These barbarities will occur simply because the victims have not conformed to a peculiar notion of sterile purity.
“What will follow? Eternal arguments on earth as to whether these ghost people – like me, given numbers instead of names – also had had their skins reused – to cover a cigarette case, maybe – or to make a nice lampshade, perhaps two. I’ve yet to extract the truth from another so-called doctor, Josef Mengele, who was chief among the faux surgeons in these hellish prison camps”.
But Dr Bouland was unmoved by her speech. Surely, he mused, he was hallucinating, having spent much too long in the deepest bowels of the hospital, butchering human flesh.
“That reminds me, Madame. Are you sure your husband was the guilty party?Perhaps I should start to investigate who you really were”.
Author’s Note: Houghton Library at Harvard College, USA is the main repository for the university’s rare books and manuscripts. Arsène Houssaye’s Des Destinées de L’âme(FC8.H8177.879dc), bound in human skin, is considered to be among its most sinister.
(© Natalie Irene Wood –14 June 2014)