CAUSE OF DEATH by Madeleine Vigneron
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CAUSE OF DEATH by Madeleine Vigneron

CAUSE OF DEATH by Madeleine Vigneron


After they fish the waterlogged corpse from its resting place at the bottom of the lake, they arrange it on a table like a funerary slab. They detach the metal hooks from the dredging net and unwrap the layers of net away from the cold body. The ragged remains of clothing, drenched and muddy, are carefully sliced and peeled away, and they wash the silt and seaweed off of her clammy flesh. One picks the algae from her hair, disappointed that it falls in thick matted clumps rather than floating, long and light, about her head like Ophelia’s. The body’s surface, too, is a disappointment. It is not pale and marble-smooth to the touch; the lovely lines of the body are disrupted by bloating; the skin is pebbled and discoloured and, up close, visibly covered in short dark hair.

This is where it has not been bitten and torn away from its time on the lakebed. They might conclude, if they are particularly adept, that as the body drifted downward immediately after entry, it was curiously nibbled by small fish darting in schools through the sun-warmed water at the top of the lake. They might notice from the shapes of the small incisions that she thrashed, not against death but this small indignity and discomfort as she reached for it. The above is unlikely, as those small sampling bites are overwhelmingly hidden by the larger chunks of flesh ripped from the water-softened body by the creatures at the bottom of the lake, by which point she had learned, or at least tired enough, not to struggle. Most likely they will conclude she went to the feast willingly.

When the knife meets flesh, it yields easily to the dull metal, spilling turgid lakewater rather than blood. The muscles of the thigh are saturated, soluble, slowly drowning as the lungs did upon contact. They discuss whether this leg might have carried her to the cliffside, walking purposefully as a bride to the altar, or whether she might have been pushed suddenly and violently by a stranger lurking in the bushes. Ultimately this particular part of the inside of the corpse is too waterlogged to meaningfully study, a thin wrapper of mottled flesh broken easily like the skin of a water balloon. They move on to the head.

A long incision across the hairline, and they peel back the scalp from the white bone of the skull underneath. This, at least, is as hard and white as expected. As the serrated saw rasps through the chalky barrier of bone, the one not holding the saw remarks that he always tends to see bone as less alive than the rest of a body. The soft parts, sure, he can imagine life coursing through them. But, perhaps from all the skeletons he’s seen in museums, he imagines the hard bone as a frame for the soft living matter rather than living matter itself.

“Even the soft parts of this one are dead,” says the one with the saw, and he continues his work.

When they finally break through, cracking the skull open like an egg, it too has been filled with filmy lakewater, presumably broken into the skull through the same entryway as the body’s nervous system. The brain sloshes about in its fishbowl, flaps of flesh unfolding and surface area dissolving, surrendering to its surroundings just as easily as the leg did, as water filled the girl’s lungs and snuffed out her breath. It is impossible, in this half-decomposed state, for the brain to provide any meaningful information about how the body ended up underwater. It is hard enough to tell where the girl ends and the corpse begins; perish the thought of how the girl ended and the corpse began.

A vertical cut down the middle of the body’s chest, tracing the same line made through the layers of flesh by the corpse’s spine. They peel away the flaps of flesh and secure them to the side with hardy metal clamps, petals of flesh opening up like a flower. They begin to carefully cut away the organs, but they fall apart easily, and the ribs snap away like decaying twigs.

At the centre of the corpse is a blackened cavern where its heart should be. Not a muscle pumping life through a body, but scorched evidence of a fire burning its way self-destructively through bone and living flesh. This, at last, is something that makes sense. A flaw at the girl’s centre; evidence of a blaze that weakened the girl’s own bones and organs. It makes a poetic manner of sense, as well, in equilibrium; the fire inside her sought out enough water to tame it. Less a tragic death than an inevitable one.

They mark down the incident as a death of natural causes; both of the girl’s own nature and of the nature of her surroundings. One of them carefully cleans his blades, and the other hopes that their next corpse will be more beautiful.