Prose Header


by David J. Burnam

Table of Contents
Part 1 and part 2
appear in this issue.

Barely making eye contact with her, he tapped his watch and signalled for her to get a move on; he wanted to go home. With no second bidding she was through the service room door, back in her coat and off up the exterior ramp, struggling with the trolley, but energised by the thrill of her own determination and audacity.

Aside from a few more strange looks, as she trundled along the trottoir, and a battle with the uneven ground of her road, she made it home safely. At one point a helpful gendarme had even helped her across the busiest road on her route, holding up the traffic as she crossed, aiding her getaway.

She heaved the urn onto a hover-plate, in the main laboratory, and skilfully lifted it up onto a sterile metal table. Rearranging the halogen spot lights, she fished out her glasses and could finally indulge in the luxury of a close-up inspection.

The surface was freezing cold, her fingertips almost stuck to it; as they would to a block of ice. A combination of magnification and colour enhancement revealed a rectangular area on the edge of the square base, four centimetres wide by two tall, in a direct line below the heart motif.

The alloy was slightly different in that section, something which her spectacles had been able to pick up on. She pressed it lightly with a finger, but nothing happened. Switching back to thermal imaging, she ran her finger around the edge of the section which she had identified and watched a trail of heat from it, as the metal drew warmth from it and then cooled again, once it had passed. She rested two fingertips back on its centre point, and watched the alloy warm up again, the heat spreading away from her touch, perfectly demarcated by the rectangular boundary.

As she watched it grew steadily warmer, so much so that she had to pull her hand away, as the heat being generated now far exceeded that of her own body. She had triggered something. Suddenly the panel shot forward, a drawer slid out, and within it lay a shiny red package, tied with a black silken bow. She waited for the compartment to cool down and then removed the contents with a pair of tongs.

Embossed into the thick red paper were golden letters, which read La recette de la vie. She transferred it into a kidney dish and cautiously undid the bow, with a pair of fine tweezers, before teasing the paper apart. Inside she found four equally sized cubes, each one a different colour. Uncertain as what to do next, she chose one at random and was about to try scraping the surface with a scalpel blade, but set it back amongst the others and returned to her study of the urn.

She idly touched the front of the drawer and it was pulled back into the base, until only her glasses could tell that it had ever been there. Once it had vanished, things started to happen. The silver vines released their grip on the clock tower and steadily withdrew, sucked into the base, like a diner slurping on lengths of spaghetti, or a natural history film on plant growth being played back in reverse. A division appeared between the upper and lower bowls, and with a dramatic hissing sound the urn split open, the northern hemisphere was hinged and came to rest after rotating up and back by 90°. The lower bowl contained a yoghurt-like substance, apparently the source of both the weight and its icy temperature.

The inner surface of the upper dome had a series of diagrams stamped into the metal. On the left was a naked human body, divided into 12 sections, but marked in the most peculiar manner. The right forearm was labelled as January, the left as March, the right foot as May, the left as July and the head as December. Each one of the crudely sectioned body parts was designated a specific month.

To the upper right was an image of the open compartment, and from it four cubes were caught in time, tumbling into the open bowl below. She crossed the laboratory and returned with the kidney dish. She turned the cubes over and scrutinised them more closely. A green cube had the word ‘Spring’ carved into its surface, a yellow one said summer, brown autumn and lastly a black cube declared itself to be winter.

One by one, she dropped each cube into the urn and watched as they melted and spread out on the white surface, like colouring agents dripped into white paint. As the colours came into contact with one another, so they seemed to cause a swirling motion in the surface, blending them together. Setting her glasses to colour enhancement, she could see hundreds of subsets, a kaleidoscope of hues and associated chromas.

Changing their setting again, she watched the colloidal soup begin to rise in temperature, almost to boiling point, bubbling like a thick, cheesy fondue in a punchbowl of secrets. She continued to observe proceedings — without her glasses now — that the introduction of the four cubes had set in motion.

Some twenty minutes after initiating the mysterious process, something floated to the top. Françoise leant over the creamy mixture, breathing in the sweet, warm aromas, akin to candle wax, brine, roasting meat and honey.

A hand reaches from the beautiful urn.

A hand rolled to the surface and, despite herself, she jumped back. In a way, she’d been expecting something like this to happen, but still hadn’t been fully prepared for the reality when it came. She steeled herself with the resolve of a professional medical researcher, popped on a pair of nitrile gloves, and reached for a large pair of forceps.

Grasping the hand by the wrist, she slowly lifted the macabre offering from the sauce in which it had been bathing. As she did so, the slimy covering peeled back off the emerging forearm with remarkable surface tension, and slid back into the stuff of creation. She carried the limb over to an adjacent sterile surface and studied it in amazement.

The long, elegant fingers and silky smooth skin, looked like they belonged to a child. At the severed stump there was no sign of blood, bones, nerves or tendons, just a layer of the same substance that continued to swirl in the urn behind her. That layer pulsed outwards at its centre, a thin, opalescent diaphragm, as though to the tune of a heartbeat. She returned to the urn in time to retrieve the rest of the right arm.

Instinctively she followed the diagram on the inner surface of the upper bowl, laying out the body parts as they presented themselves to her. By the time that the lower torso appeared, she had dispensed with the tongs and plunged her gloved hands into the mixture. It was with mounting excitement that she returned for the final piece of the puzzle, and she held in her hands the head of a stunningly beautiful young woman, probably no more than 15 years of age, a serene expression on her face and skin as smooth as a baby’s, like Cleopatra rising from a bath of ass’s milk. (The thought sped through Françoise’s racing mind, remembering research into milk’s alpha hydroxyl acid — which can remove dead skin cells and cleanse to the deepest layers — but her previous research had been like child’s play, compared to what she was undertaking now).

She’d laid the rest of the assembled body sections as close to their severed counterparts as possible. Once she had positioned the head, fine tendrils shot out from the pulsating layer of decapitation, grappling hooks drawing each of the twelve parts together, with the residual join melting away, leaving a seamless union.

Françoise ran an ungloved hand over the young girl’s arm, celebrating the completion of her task, staggered by the manner of her consolidation. She was captivated by the purity of her beauty, milky white skin, and the tranquillity of her quiescence. A sudden sharp intake of breath startled the old woman, and the child’s eyelids flicked open. Hesitantly the girl raised her perfect hand in front of her dazzling blue eyes, and smiled. It was like the first day of summer, that smile, radiant with relief, as the joy of being alive again lit up her face. She moved her fingertips to her mouth and withdrew a long silver filament from between her lips, then she turned her head to one side and vomited.

Françoise panicked and ran forward, fearing that she might choke, but she was fine and sat up quickly and gracefully. In her left hand, she held a pea-sized diamond, which she had just thrown up, and stared at it intently for a moment. Then she lifted her head and saw Françoise for the first time. A look of astonishment crossed her face and she lifted her right hand towards the elderly woman. Enthralled, Françoise didn’t flinch as the delicate fingers stroked the thickened and wrinkled skin of someone in their 80’s.

The girl knew that she had been brought back to life in a far future time, and that her longevity was assured, as she had never seen anyone as aged as this woman. Françoise took the offered hand in her own and whispered, ‘Mathilde?’ The girl nodded, leant forward, and tenderly kissed Françoise’s fingers, in thanks of the part they had played in her reanimation.

They watched together, as the contents of the urn fell still, and the lid hissed shut.

A few days later, Françoise went shopping for clothes, completely forgetting to return the book to the library. Telling the shop assistant that she wanted something nice for her granddaughter, she returned with three bags full of skirts, tops, dresses, assorted underwear and shoes. Mathilde giggled and laughed as she looked at herself in the mirror, both due to the skimpy and revealing nature of the modern designs, as well as continued delight from the transformation of her previous body, into the reflection of this lithe, juvenile form.

As the months went by, Mathilde learnt the updated form of her language, as Françoise versed her in the expressions, construction and idioms of modern French. They went on shopping trips and expeditions together, and Françoise delighted in Mathilde’s wonder at the future world, seeing things afresh through her eyes.

Sadly, only two years into their new life together, Françoise fell ill, subject to the ravages of time and the years of hard work and long hours from her research days. It was ironic that her time was drawing near, just as she was starting to truly enjoy life, and all its riches. She contacted a solicitor and put everything into Mathilde’s name, complicated by the lack of official paperwork on Mathilde’s parentage and origins, but settled by some skilful backdating of the registration of records; such that she became Matilde Sellière.

She was the daughter that Françoise had never had, and filled her remaining time with happiness. Mathilde tended to Françoise, but as she grew weak, an unspoken pact had formed between them. Finally, she helped the old woman to the room in which she had restored her own life, some three years before. Françoise had become so slight and fragile, that Mathilde easily lifted her onto the cool, sterile metal surface, upon which she herself had awoken. She took a golden locket from about her neck, opened it, and took out the diamond and silver thread, setting them down next to the dusty urn. She touched the hidden panel and the lid swung open, once again.

Taking a lock of Françoise’s hair, she dropped it into the inert mixture within the lower bowl, and steadily, it began to warm up. She returned to Françoise stroked her long grey hair and kissed her gently on the forehead. With a supreme effort, the dying woman lifted her hand and traced the outline of the girl’s face, before taking the proffered diamond and swallowing it. Within seconds the old woman appeared to be dead. Mathilde checked for an absence of pulse, returned to the urn and dipped the silver thread into the churning contents. When she withdrew it, a thin, sticky film clung to its surface and it passed through Françoise Sellière’s neck, like a hot knife through butter. She divided her body into twelve segments, coiled the thread and placed it in the old lady’s mouth.

Mathilde cradled the head in her hands, forced back the tears and consigned it to the swirling depths, before closing the small drawer at the base of the urn. Having dispatched eleven segments, the last to go was Françoise’s right hand, and it rolled away as if waving a final farewell.

Mathilde paused to reflect and then reopened the drawer. In it were four equally sized cubes. She carefully folded the thick red wrapping paper over them, tied the black silk into a neat bow around the package, returned it to the drawer, and closed it. With a familiar hiss, the Northern hemisphere was restored and the silver vines snaked their way over its surface before finally coiling around the base of the little clock tower, gripping it tightly.

During those closing moments, Mathilde reflected on Françoise’s life. She had helped so many to superficially reverse the aging process, but steadfastly refused to indulge herself in the fantasy of vanity. She had held out for the ultimate, and had been rewarded, snatching the gift of eternity from the very jaws of Death.

Mathilde took the death certificate to the solicitor, along with the last will and testament of Françoise Sellière. With everything in her name, Mathilde had all of her departed friend’s old books and papers boxed up and sent to L'Institut Dermatalogique, according to her wishes. She bought a house in the town of her previous life and moved away from Paris, taking Françoise’s personal effects as mementos. She returned to the city only once more, in order to accomplish two tasks.

Firstly to sign the papers that sold the old asylum to a group of developers, who had decided that the time was right to knock down La Rue des Fous, rename it, and convert it into a smart new residential area. The profits from the sale were insignificant, compared to the fortune which Françoise had left her, but the formality was a necessary precaution against any possible arousal of suspicion; although Françoise had no family or relatives to contest the will.

The other task was to attend an auction. Le Musée des Beaux Arts was selling off a few unwanted items from the storeroom and amongst them was an oil painting. The museum had never traced the stolen urn and had reorganised the display area in which it had stood, putting the associated painting into storage as well as radically tightening their security arrangements. Mathilde successfully bid for it and had it transported to her new home.

A few of the others present at the auction had been struck by the similarity of the features of the young woman to those of the subject of the painting, but assuming her to be an ancestor, they quickly forgot about it, as they turned their greedy attentions to more interesting acquisitions.

Mathilde lived to the age of 110 and bequeathed an ancient book, an oil painting and her favourite golden ornament to the eldest of her four daughters, with strict instructions that the three items should always remain together.

So it was that the mysterious, inexplicably heavy but remarkably exquisite piece continued its passage through time.

Copyright © 2005 by D. J. Burnam

The author thanks Melanie Vevers for her advice on the French language.

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