I drove my rental car straight from the Dublin airport to the museum but I still managed to miss the staff, who had all left for the night. I was greeted by the museum guard – tired, eyeing up a Thermos against the cold dark. I knew without knowing that it probably contained more than coffee, so I affected my best – or worst -- Appalachian accent, appealing to his blue-collar roots, or whatever they called it in the Emerald Isle. Maybe the working class wore green? I was wearing my great-grandmother’s favorite brooch, a glittering owl with two large diamond eyes and citrine feathers, grasping a green chalcedony branch. I took care to cover it with an obviously hand knit scarf. If he would have seen the jewels, he certainly would have balked and shut me out – he was the type. Hell, I was the type too. I shouldn’t have even worn it to travel in – it was too dear -- but I had brief hopes of getting an upgrade on the transatlantic flight. Sometimes that worked. It hadn’t worked this time, but it definitely was a good luck charm hidden under my layers, because he shrugged and decided I was boring enough to be a research scientist. I promised him I just wanted to be easy, stay out of his way, really I wanted to set up my workstation and apply the first coat to the specimen, that’s all, but he was already going back to his desk and small television.
I often joked that I was descended from lumber barons, railroad barons, but really, my grandbarons hadn’t pillaged land. They had pillaged people – factories where retirement funds weren’t necessary because the workers rarely retired, either choosing to die stooped over their workstations, or picking up the rare forms of malignancy that for some reason weren’t very rare in the buildings that bore my mother’s family name. My ancestors wouldn’t have approved of my line of work – or really, my line of very erudite volunteerism as the trust attorney liked to call it. When I made preparations for this trip, he had savored that line once again, rolling it around in his mouth like a pearl onion, and I had to suffer through it until he handed off my money. MY money.
I liked to say that my family had left me orphaned but comfortable – I had some trust money that kept me from being homeless, just barely. Tenure jobs in my field are less common than unicorns and you practically had to wait for someone to die to get their job but I never thought I’d be pushing forty and still doomed to an adjunct’s life of making less than $2K per month without medical benefits.
My coterie of past roommates always picked on my penchant for wearing my brooch. One thing I understand from my family, pinched scarce relatives that they were, is that real wealth always recognizes their own kind. That stupid owl brooch had gotten me into just enough places and rubbing elbows with just enough of the right kind of people. I always felt moments away from getting the big patron to support what my great aunt liked to refer to as my unfortunate history habit.
Once inside the antiquities lab, I found that nothing had been prepared for my work in advance, but this was to be expected – everything is always underfunded and academics were generally more interested in their own research unless they could get a co-credit. But there it was – my date for the night and I had it all to myself.
When the workers had found Cloonageeher Man, the body was curled in a fetal position, one femur snapped in two by the peat threshing machine, signs of ritualistic overkilling, its thoughtful eyes closed to the damp morning, its hair dyed red by the tannins in the sphagnum. They thought the body was a recent murder victim. Recent, they thought, as in the last few years, maybe a decade at most. They thought it was a fresh kill.
Most bog bodies look like empty people-shaped balloons at best, unidentifiable misshapen clumps of trash marked only by small terrible reminders of humanity, a blob with a perfect foot, a deflated football that turns out to be a crushed head, for instance, or, like Kayhausen Boy, looking very much like a discarded and dirty snowsuit that some child had forgotten after a busy day of make believe.
But Cloonageeher Man was mostly there, recognizable, unmistakably male, impressively rendered in its humanity, complete with a hammered copper armband. There was also a grinning slice under its chin where it had received the killing blow, followed by a braided leather cord that may have hung the body after death, or completed the dirty execution that had been botched in a rush or in a passion.
“Hello handsome,” I said. Maybe that was what did it, some kind of incantation. Handsome it was not, but I had started mentally referring to it as Clooney just the same. The face was one of the better bog faces I had seen – only some compression, eyelashes resting on the gritty brow as though it were still sleeping. The skin was rumpled in on itself, dark bronze, like leather, like statuary, an expensive leather throw one might buy in a fancy mall. Its chin still had stubble, the mouth closed to murdered secrets.
I had a powerful urge to lean over and kiss the lips, and caught myself. The things we think when we are all alone. Ultimately, people in charge of seductive human remains had done far worse. Eva Peron’s embalmed body, for instance, and that doctor in Key West who fell in love with his terminal tuberculosis patient. What was a little kiss here?
The team had done the medical imaging already, so we already knew the body still had internal organs. That itself wasn’t unusual. Usually bog bodies were murdered in a seemingly rushed affair, without the formal preparations for burial. However this one also had bones – which was very rare with bog bodies, especially ones as old as Cloonageeher Man. The bog juices and plant matter keeps the soft tissues and even the fingernails looking pristine, half moons along the fingernail beds as though the person had been only a nightmare away from waking – but the sphagnum generally leached out calcium, one thing healthy bones need. There must have been something special about the flora of that particular bog where Clooney had rested millennia, something about its long nap that made this one special.
Sphagnum moss was capable of holding over 25 times as much water as itself -- I felt like sphagnum moss sometimes, overly full of history and worries and inappropriate impulses. But unlike my anxiety, sphagnum prevented human remains from putrefying, essentially leaving the body preserved – but sometimes crushed eventually by the weight of water and time. Some kind of Iron Age magic tea, I had said in my grant proposal for this project, a grant proposal that was denied.
Cloonageeher Man was so freshly pulled from that quiet internment, a midpoint between earth and water that lacked oxygen – that its preserved flesh was still pure. Exposure to the air was only just starting to oxidize the muscle. Left out of the bog environment, the body hardens and loses plasticity, recoils as time itself speeds up or perhaps unravels, first cracking and then flaking, turning powdery and eventually crumbling into powdery dust in the period of just a few months.
To combat this rapid deterioration, I had tapped criminal forensic scientists who had been experimenting with a way to revive desiccated skin to help with body identification, retrieving fingerprints and identifying scars on corpses long exposed to more brutal elements. It was worth a shot the next time they pulled up a juicy one and given the decades before bog body discovery, I never thought I’d get tapped only a year after my paper was published theorizing this treatment. And then, the invitation from the Museum and then a quick money tap from my dwindling resources and then here I was and here it was, Clooney, my golden boy who would deliver me tenure on a silver platter.
The chemical broth smelled like moss – Icelandic this time, full of anti-oxidants. Rich wives discovered it first, anointing their décolletage to reverse sun damage from their bikini-wearing vacations in Bimini, Palm Springs and Monaco, or wherever it was the nouveau riche went these days. I still identified with old money enough to disdain the newly wealthy, even though I had only heard stories of my matriarchal family’s excesses and had never dipped a toe myself, a poor relation as those with wealth tended to whisper. It was my lot in life to be invited to distant family weddings and arrive with empty Tupperware in my tote bag so that I could dine on leftover prime rib. It would be better after tenure though. It would be better after I documented and preserved Clooney and took my place among the paleoanthropology glitterati.
For now, I started with the face, using a cosmetics-grade fan brush, purchased in a Sephora that smelled like lilies and copper balanced with acrid indulgence and need. I had to put it on my credit card but I had kept the receipts and was slightly worried that the university would think I had a cosmetics splurge on their dime. The cadaver forensic goop was cool to the touch. I applied a very light skim of it over Clooney’s amber skin. Up close, pores were visible, tendons, veins on a particularly strong-looking forearm. Was that a very delicate scar? Perhaps chicken pox? The first gel coat quenches oxidation. The next evening, the body would sink into a tank full of the stuff, some seven thousand dollars worth of fancy Beverly Hills housewife goo.
Already the facial skin I had treated looked more wholesome, a bit more vital. The reality of the body was hard to parse – Clooney performed as a doll when I had arrived, but now with the glistening salve, its skin was plumping up, looking more like roasted meat, like pork or perhaps a leaner game cut, something like venison.
I lost myself in the minutia, poring over its fundament with delicate kisses of the brush, whisk whisk whisk. The slurry turned bronze as well, the tannins oozing forward, a smell like burnt coffee and mushroom and sewage but somehow savory, like rotting beef stew. Venison, I corrected myself, its hand in mine, fingers outstretched, the index finger tickling my wrist while I brushed the goop around its thumb.
I had made it all the way down to the inner thigh when I heard a sound. Chaaaaaa wish. It was an owlish sound, a keening.
Again. It was the sound of something papery shuffling against dry wood. Dia hswith
I leaned back on the work stool and craned my neck to look through the open door down the hallway. The security guard was sure to be around. “Hello?” My voice echoed down the corridor. This was the beginning to every horror movie, the penultimate scene before a killer wearing a sporting mask stabs the heroine through the head with a machete. “Hello?” Dia dwish. The sound again.
I leaned forward and looked at Clooney. Its eyelids unshuttered, empty places where eyeballs once were. Like occurred in its kinsman Grauballe Man, the eyeballs of Clooney had shriveled and marbleized under the pressure of plant matter, decades of Irish peat cutting machines weighing down with every pass. There was nothing there, a dark clot of tissue in each socket, a mottled raisin that might once have been bright green or a dazzling hazel.
It was fascinating to see the body begin to articulate its extremities. The eyelid membranes were so thin; it wasn’t surprising that they should move slightly as the moisturizing liquid rehydrated the cells. I snapped several pictures of Clooney’s face, the lashes parted, the eyebrows seeming to furrow now.
All who had inspected Clooney agreed that it was definitely an overkill specimen, likely a former king given the body’s location near a king-making hill. In Clooney’s case, the leather garrote was still wrapped around its throat, which also had been sliced open -- and the skull was crushed, which might have been done post-mortem, but also might have been a bludgeoning. Clooney was scheduled to be undressed and the archaeologists firmly expected to find stab wounds under its wrappings. The unveiling would be delayed until the photographers from National Geographic were available, which could be a week or more.
I scrawled a reminder do more research into the Sleeping Beauty of Capuchin, a child who died of pneumonia after World War I and was essentially mummified and is displayed in the catacombs. With temperature fluctuations, her tiny eyelids partially open from time to time, revealing intact bright blue eyes under the lids – but of course, that body was only 90 years old and had been interred with more modern chemical cocktails of zinc, glycerin and aspirin. On second thought, I also wrote “Lady Dai Zhui?” and underlined it. Lady Dai Zhui might have walked the planet at the same time as Clooney, roughly 300 to 100 BC. Not only were her mummified organs intact and her limbs flexible but the blood in her veins could even be ABO typed – and to this day, researchers have not been able to figure out how she was prepared for mummification and, more specifically, why.
There was something fascinating about how we treat and mistreat our dead. Women generally seemed to get the brunt of it, although here we were, roles reversed, Clooney on the table and I with my fancy makeup brush. I thought again about the fund lawyer suggesting I go into mortuary science instead of archeological. At least it would provide a living wage, but I would have to deal with fresh grief, identities and legacies and mistreated relations cut out of endowments.
Diar wish. The feathery sound again, prickling the back of my neck. I dropped my fan brush to the floor. It did sound like the noise was right there next to me. The sound of maybe a knife being sharpened on a leather strap, a creaking empty sound.
Clooney’s lips had previously been pressed together, but now they had the appearance of parting, opening, jaw perhaps unclenching as the elixir did its work to saturate the ligaments and sinew.
I took another photo, and flipped backward to check the previous ones – the lips had definitely begun to get plumper and were dropping open. Clooney’s last moments still evident on the facial expression of grim endurance that it had worn throughout millennia. Now it was changing. My actions were changing it. Clearly the forensics fluid was more powerful than I had originally anticipated – less than an ounce applied to the mandibular area had penetrated the hinge joints, and gravity now pulled it forward out of the post-mortem eternal clench. I wrote furiously on a fresh sheet in my notebook.
Jihar witchhhhh. A sense of movement out of the corner of my eye. His face, the eyes, his mouth. Diaarrrr winch. His lips were out of alignment, air sucking from somewhere inside his body, a hidden fissure or stab wound through the ribs, inflating his old compressed preserved lungs.
What I want to say is “How is this happening” and what I want to do is run away and find that guard and what I want to think about is getting tenure and a job offer from Harvard and what I want to do is kiss his mouth and wake up because I’m clearly having a jet lag hallucination and what I do instead is remain sitting on the stool and instead I said “Oh, it’s you.”
The burnt corks in his eye sockets moved in concert toward the owl brooch pinned to my sweater lapel, glittering dazzling under the harsh examination lights.
His fingers flexed, twitching.
“Diar wish.” It was old Gaelic. Hello, he was saying. Hello again. We might only have moments together. Minutes. Seconds. Harvard. Maybe I’d prefer the weather in Stanford more. The staff would be here in the morning. This moment would never come again.
I picked up the fan brush and dipped it into the forensic balm. “Hello, handsome.” I said again. How this must seem to him, to be one moment a king and the next, lying on a steel autopsy table. How I must seem to him.
I brushed the saliva-like goop around his parched lips while picking up my phone to film. In frame, out of focus, the brush working around his mouth while the autofocus worked to settle on his brittle leather fingers, reaching out toward the camera.
-- Wendy Wimmer is a Believer Magazine fiction fellow at Black Mountain Institute/University of Nevada Las Vegas. She is the fiction editor of Witness literary journal and the founder of UntitledTown book and author festival in Wisconsin. Her work has been published in Barrelhouse, Blackbird, Per Contra, ANMLY, Jet Fuel Review, Drunken Boat, Paper Darts, Non-Binary Review, Salt & Syntax and more, as well as nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes, AWP Intro to Journal and Best New Voices. Her short story collection was recently named a semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize. She was most recently a featured reader at Believer Fest 2018. She lives in Nevada but her heart remains in the Midwest. Follow her on Twitter @wendywimmeror her very irregular website www.wendywimmer.com.