talking heads

‘The first thing you notice,’ the man says, ‘is that she was treated with a lot of respect.’ He’s pointing at the veil underneath my cheek. In a minute, he’ll move his index to my ‘slightly parted’ lips and the ‘slender’ fingers of my left hand. He’ll stop at my closed eyes and will close his own just a little bit longer than a blink requires. For emphasis.

This man.

He doesn’t know how lucky he is the hand I was left can’t cuddle his neck. It would cuddle it good. It would spell out a couple of things, too.

For instance.

The veil wasn’t placed under my head because the man who put it there respected


No. The veil was placed under my head because the man who put it there didn’t want the ugliest cuts to upset


My dissected head was never meant to be your regular dissected head, you see. It was meant to be an aesthetically pleasing dissected head. No. Educational. It was meant to be an educational head, of course.

Hence the veil.

Good thing they closed my eyes.

Eyerolling this heavy would have sent my eyeballs straight out of their sockets, adrift in a jar we women would use to can pickles.

In the 19th century, one reporter said I looked asleep. And not just asleep, no, asleep and dreaming of my lover. If my mouth had been sewn shut (it wasn’t: made me seem stern), my lips would have cracked at the seams with laughter. Apparently, the first thing that springs to mind when you see a woman who had part of her head sawn off by a man

is that she’s fantasizing about a man.

If they really wanted me to fantasize, they shouldn’t have binned the right half of my brain. Fantasies on the right; words on the left. Even I could have told them that, if I had been asked. But I wasn’t asked anything: that’s what you get for being parentless and penniless in a 19th-century city, a city, it would seem, completely devoid of parentless and penniless men.

It’s what you get for being dead. That too.

I was dead. I think.

At some point, one of the onlookers will ask about my name. A recent development, this. Very 21st century. The man will say, ‘It was kept secret.’ If he’s feeling playful, he might add, ‘Notice how secret shares all of its letters with…?’

And someone will shout, ‘ERECT!’

And someone else will shout, ‘You forgot the s, stupid!’

‘I was thinking about ass, idiot!’

At this, someone will turn to the guide and say ‘Honestly, if you had half a brain…’

And the guide will have to scream, now: ‘RESPECT!’

It’ll be the perfect link to the line he’s been waiting to deliver.

‘Speaking of,’ he’ll say, pointing at phones, my head, ‘No pictures. We don’t want her all over the internet. These are human remains, after all. We don’t want just any Tom, Harry or Dick looking at her, now do we?’

Written after a visit to the Ghent University Museum. It is a great museum but it does have the dissected human head of an anonymous 19th-century woman on display. It has a human head on display and it has a note that says ‘no photographs’. There was a guide who said ‘no photographs’, too, and who waxed lyrical about the veil. This is not just about the GUM. This is about whether or not human remains belong in glass cabinets, or whether they ought to be put in glass cabinets without the question of their belonging being raised.