The face lies exposed under fluorescent lights as expert hands place the edge of a serrated blade against its forehead. (Do they call it forehead in the dissection lab? The word is too familiar, too human. In the lab, body becomes cadaver. And yet the students assign names: Eve, Johnny, Marco. The dead are stripped of identity somewhere between donation and distribution, then given new identities over the course of a semester of cutting. There is intimacy in dissection.) The cadaver rocks back and forth on the table. The sound of metal against bone. Dust flying.
The cadaver is turned over to reveal the back of the head so the blade can continue the cut, like a kitchen knife working around the pit of a stubborn avocado. The face is pressed against the table (oh god, the nose!) as the white-coated professor leans his weight into the work. It’s not easy to saw through bone, even the few millimeters of the human skull.
I hold my breath as the top of the skull is removed. Skullcap comes to mind. The spinal cord is snipped and gloved hands reach in to grasp the wrinkled gray meat of the brain.
I long to hold a human brain in my hands, to know the weight of it. For years I have studied the organ at a remove: in theory, drawing, and photograph. It started with popular-science books and glossy magazine articles, which led to the more rarefied world of scientific papers and journals, dense texts not meant for communication of ideas so much as proclamation of data, littered nonetheless with an accidental poetry that is perhaps inescapable when the subject matter is the meat of the human mind. I started going to conferences and filling notebooks. I visited research labs where eager graduate students slid subjects into million-dollar scanners that boomed and clanged like garbage-can marching bands while rendering technicolor images of neural activity. Curiosity long ago gave way to obsession. But the physical object of the brain itself remains elusive. None of this is easy to explain, but among the forms on the stainless-steel dissection tables, white sheets tracing the profiles beneath, no one asks me why I’ve come.
“These are all anonymous donors, mostly from Westchester,” says the lab manager. It is late on a Monday night, and the only other person in the room is a diligent medical student, hunched over the homework of an exposed foot. Leathered skin has been peeled back to reveal a tangle of tendons and arteries. The rest of the cadaver is hidden under the drape of white sheet. As a rule, only the necessary parts are uncovered at any given time. They do the head last, because by then students will have become more familiar with their materials, and the face will be less alarming. “They used to come from the public morgue, Bellevue, but that’s all different now.”
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