The medical examiner finally appeared at the end of the hallway. She moved quickly, with what little steps her short legs allowed, as if she recognized Gala and was running towards her. It’s not that it was weird; Gala knew someone was waiting for her in the underground corridors of the Palace of Justice, and she was the only person there. Maybe the odd thing, rather, was that Gala had imagined her differently: grayer, more deliberate, shadowy somehow. The woman who showed up to keep their appointment was at odds with her expectations in a flowery shirt, a mint-green skirt, pink pantyhose, and Camper loafers. On her shoulder, sure, a bulky, worn, dark leather bag.
“Sorry, so sorry” the doctor began in her final stretch, the last five meters. “I had a case way out of town.”
“Right, right” answered Gala, “they told me. There was a suspicious death.” “Yes, that, exactly, a suspicious death.” They shook hands and entered the office. “Take a seat, please… We’ll begin in one moment.”
The woman turned on lights, moved chairs. She placed her large bag on her desk and plunged both arms inside. Gala watched a Tupperware with leftovers emerge, followed by a small packet of Kleenex, a cell phone with little skulls on the case, and a pink change purse, also covered in skulls. The medical examiner put on a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and settled into the chair behind the desk.
“OK, so, now, tell me what happened. How did this altercation with the police occur? How did you break your nose?” The woman was testing the tips of her pencils on the pad of her finger.
“The altercation… Yes… But everything’s already been recorded by the judge, right?”
“He told me a few things. But I need all the details firsthand. Please. How and where were you beaten, how did it start, why? Wait. Spell your first name.” Finally, the doctor picked up her pencil and lifted her gaze. Her green eyes paused on those of her interrogee.
Gala recited her personal information, date and place of birth, current address, level of education. She specified that she had a degree in biology. The medical examiner wrote in a small notebook with round, careful letters that Gala eventually gave up trying to make out from her seat. She pressed her back into the chair as she recounted childhood illnesses, pregnancies and abortions, surgeries. She felt bruised where they’d hit her, and from the night spent in a cell. It was suddenly pleasant for her to speak about her body like an object with measurable characteristics, with a history of accidents locatable in time and space. She searched for as many details as possible to prolong the moment. She said that she was a schoolteacher, of the life sciences.
“Did you know the policewoman beforehand?” The doctor interrupted. “No.” “Why did you punch her in the face?”
Gala tried to answer the question from where she’d been the night before, from the initial interrogation and solitude of the cell. She didn’t know. A kind of intolerable itch had pushed her to act.
“In the back part of the store, she had two very young boys with their hands up against the wall,” Gala began. “They weren’t doing anything. She searched every pocket, the folds in their pants; she took off their belts and ran her nightstick over their penises. She did it several times, touching their penises. I saw it clearly. They were just two teenagers; they didn’t deserve that abuse.”
“Did you try to talk to her?” The doctor didn’t look up, waiting for the answer with her pencil tip a millimeter from the paper.
“I tried, but it couldn’t be done,” Gala lied.
“Okay. Very well.” The doctor turned the page, jotted down a few more lines, “Alright. Now let’s move on to the exam please. Take off all your clothes.”
Gala obeyed. It was the only way to prove that the police had taken revenge directly on her body, that they’d beaten the hell out of her at the police station, after her hands were already bound behind her back. The handcuffs left scars on both of her wrists. According to her lawyer, if she threatened to sue for violent abuse of power, they’d drop the charges against her. She was betting on it.
“Excuse me,” Gala began, as she carefully folded her soiled clothes.
“Don’t medical examiners just deal with the dead?”
“No. We deal with all crimes against a body. Down to a broken tooth,” the doctor was shifting the items on her desk while Gala balled up her socks. “There are men who will beat each other up in the street and then turn around and sue for damages, demanding a plastic surgeon be paid for. They want a new nose, straighter and more manly, things like that. Someone has to determine the limits of everyone’s personal responsibility. Ready?” She took a few steps and turned on a white-light lamp. “Come closer, please.”
The examination was done standing. Gala stood on some white footprints drawn on a foam mat. The medical examiner, without setting down her notebook, stepped up on a bench to begin the examination from the top of Gala’s head. She probed her skull with her fingertips, brushing her tangled, dirty hair back and forth. She stepped down from the bench and continued her examination, walking in circles around Gala, as if she were scrutinizing a column of hieroglyphics. She stated her observations as she wrote them down. Hematoma, 3 x 4, on the right shoulder, 1 cm from humeral head. Contusion, 2 x 4, over right scapula. Hematoma, 1 x 1, under the left armpit, over first rib. And so on, down to the tips of her feet. Unlike a doctor of the living, the medical examiner didn’t once inquire if she was in pain here or there, nor did she make any effort to disrupt the bays of silence that began to fill in over the long minutes. When she’d traversed the path around Gala’s body five full times, she closed her notebook and asked:
“Can I take a few photos?”
“Yes, of course.” After a couple close-up shots, Gala asked if they were evidence for the trial.
“No. The trial only uses the written report. The photos are for my personal collection. These bruises have very peculiar shapes and colors,” she explained. “It’s all very interesting.”
“They’re like flowers. Although the strike method isn’t optimal, and the flowers aren’t correctly defined, the trend is clear. The petals are very sharp, like dandelions. You can get dressed now.”
“The strike method?” Gala was surprised. “Do the flowers come out better with a different strike method?”
“They do. Imagine the gorgeous embellishments you could have—your own little, organic garden of blue and yellow flowers. Look carefully, right here,” the examiner brought the screen of her little digital camera closer, “those yellows only appear towards the center, like pistils. Not in just any body do you get that level of precision in the outline, nor in the color.”
“Is your personal collection all flower-shaped bruises?” Gala put her head through her shirt.
“No, no, there’s a bit of everything. I once analyzed a body that produced perfect, concentric circles. Purple center, then red, yellow, and a very thin, green outer line. There was also the case of a woman whose contusions formed what looked like water patterns. Surrounding the point of impact, the capillaries were damaged upwards, almost vertically, with a slight inflection at the perimeter, like a jet rising and falling. Fascinating, right? That one I knew as a corpse.”
Gala finished dressing, put on her shoes, and hesitated for a few moments.
“Will you show me the photos you took of me again?” After looking at them, Gala asked how she could get more precise flower patterns.
“With a strike specialist.”
“Huh. I didn’t know those existed… Could you recommend one to me?”
“Yes. I’ll give you the number, but you’ll have to wait until these badly done bruises go away. Do you have somewhere to write it down? No, wait. Take this card.” Gala stared at the little square of cardboard. “Carlos is the best”, the doctor assured her.
“And this striking… is legal?” Gala asked.
“Yes. Of course. It’s like tattoos or piercings. People can do what they want with their bodies as long as they don’t kill themselves. And so long as it’s all voluntary.”
On the threshold of the office, as a kind of farewell she added:
“I’ll forward the report to the judge. Now you can go home and take a bath. Good luck!”
She winked at Gala and closed the door.
In the overheated classroom, after drawing an exaggeratedly large capital A, Gala froze, the beveled tip of her marker still pressed to the blackboard. She turned sharply. The class was taking notes in the same ways as always; faces up towards the blackboard, faces buried in notebooks. That rhythm. One kid was laughing, about who knows what; another was looking for something under her table, maybe a pen. No one could have guessed at the purple and green flowers under Gala’s blouse, more and more precise, refined by weeks of treatment, masters of large swaths of the skin covering her back. She felt a tingling there, as if tiny, light legs were running between her shoulder blades. The sensation reminded her of the way she’d felt in a recurring nightmare she’d had when she was a biology student. Especially after dissections of small mammals, she’d dream that her body had turned up on the university patio, covered in cockroaches. Sometimes they were black butterflies. And sometimes, her skin would burst, too, revealing more insects underneath it.
Gala put the cap back on the marker and sat down on top of her desk. She continued the morning’s lesson from there.
“OK. Now, come up to grab your supplies in pairs. Start with the first row, Julieta, and Lea, please.”
Gala stood and distributed a tray to each team on which she’d placed a magnifying glass, a syringe, a pipette, a scalpel, a Petri dish, and an insect. She examined the outstretched hands of each child, or adolescent—whatever those eleven-year-old bodies were called. Watch out for scars on the wrists and forearms, the memo sent to every teacher at the school had warned. A new game, it went on, had claimed the lives of hundreds of young people around the world. The newly initiated made small cuts on their arms, those more advanced in the game drew animals, like fish and spiders, on their skin with a knife. Those who reached the final stage filmed their own death. Watch out, the memo reiterated.
“What is that?”
“That thing on your arm there,” Gala pointed to the little girl’s forearm.
“My brother bit me.” The imprints of little teeth formed a circle of red dots. It was a round mark, bulging in the center.
“I have another one right here, teacher.” The girl rolled up her shirt to show a similar mark on her shoulder. “But my mom doesn’t want to hit him.”
“And how about you?”
“No. Because they punish me.”
Gala didn’t ask more: they weren’t knife scars; it wasn’t the deadly game. They were marks of life. And fairly well done. She wasn’t about to pass children along to psychologists and police at the first opportunity.
“Alright,” she said loudly for the entire class, “everyone now has an insect on their tray. Observe it carefully. You’ll have to identify which insect it is, what it did while it was alive, how it ate, what it ate, how it moved. Look very carefully at the wings, its feet, the hairs, the antennae, the jaws, look all over. Describe it. Compare it to the drawings in the book. There’s a microscope here”, she pointed to the corner of the room, “and distilled water.”
No one was listening to her anymore. They’d all grabbed syringes and scalpels.
“Observe first! Do not cut! Do not destroy your specimen!” Gala nearly yelled. One boy looked up at her with something like fear on his face. The rest ignored her.
Gala came around her desk and again sat on top of it. She felt the light feet on her back, among her secret flowers. In front of her, the students led their student lives, protected by the walls of the institution, safe, for the moment, from the violence of the streets.
Suddenly the school principal walked in with a policeman. They entered abruptly, saying nothing more than, “Good morning! Children, continue with your activities. Excuse us, teacher.” They took the little girl with the bites. Gala, who was already on trial for breaking one police officer’s nose, said nothing. She stood still, watching a student slice his cricket into thin strips.
She laid face down, naked from the waist up. On the brown leather massage table, her breasts were squashed like two white pillows under her torso. Carlos was moving around the studio, Gala could follow him mentally, because of the little noises.
“Those flowers are coming along very nicely. They could use a bit more definition around the edges, we’re going to try with some special needles I have here.”
The voice came to her from the shelves in the back, where Carlos kept his glass objects. Gaia knew the place by heart. This was her favorite moment of the week. Here, she felt isolated and protected from the outside world.
“You haven’t had anything to drink, right?”
“No.” Even though the table had a hole for the head, it wasn’t comfortable to talk into the floor. So, as the treatment began, Gala opted to turn her face, smushing her right cheek against the padded surface. Her lips pursed under the lateral pressure.
“Remember, no alcohol. It thins your blood.” Carlos’s footsteps moved away to her left.
“Have I told you? Some of my students have bruises all over them.” Gala said. She felt the moisture from her breath seeping into the bed.
Carlos passed through the section for whips and ropes. Gala heard a metallic clinking, maybe a drawer with coins or nails. She liked this large, orderly space more than the biology lab, with its leaky flasks and rusty lids, grime, and perpetual fly droppings from a few long-forgotten experiments. Here, things found a calm and clean place. Also, this space was for the living body. Not dead animals.
“They’re involuntary bruises, you know, like from falling at recess, but I just don’t know how…”
“How what?” Carlos asked her, distracted.
“How involuntary they really are. Some of these kids are so weird and have a ton of bruises. I kind of do like the look of it, even though they’re kids.”
Carlos dragged a small, wheeled table closer to the bed, put on his gloves. Gala heard the snap of the latex, and a pleasant chill ran up her spine.
“Hey, I ran into that dentist of yours. That’s why I didn’t ring the bell.”
Gala felt an uncontrollable urge to talk as soon as she laid down across the leather. To talk about anything. The words flowed out of her mouth, despite how uncomfortable her position was.
“Oh yeah?” Carlos was preparing a syringe. He tapped it, to get the air bubbles out.
“Yes. It scared me! He came up behind me; I didn’t hear him coming.”
“He is very quiet.” Carlos lined up his instruments on the table, Gala saw three little hammers out of the corner of her eye.
“He showed me his office, I didn’t think this house was so big. And his dentures shop.”
“Are there really guys who trade their healthy teeth for razor-sharp ones?”
“It’s a trend.” Carlos picked up a larger syringe. Gala turned her head and accommodated her face over the hole. She stared blankly at the white floor.
“And when they bite their tongues?”
“Can you imagine? Some end up in the hospital.”
“I was impressed by the pointed fangs… You know? You and that red-haired dentist make a pretty good couple.”
Gala felt the first pinprick between her shoulder blades. She clenched her jaw and let him work.
Twenty minutes later, as she was saying goodbye at the door, Gala tried to look him in the eyes. It was impossible. As soon as she reached the blue iris directly in front of her, her gaze was pulled toward its purple periphery that contained the eyeball, as if in a black velvet case. Carlos’s upper and lower eyelids were a combination of pitch black and a color one or two tones closer to violet or opalescent, which continued beyond the eye socket, across his cheekbones, eyebrows, and temples. Carlos looked like some kind of raccoon man. Bruises from two decorative punches, nearly circular and always equal, framed his gaze and shielded him from people’s indiscretion. From a distance, in the poor light of the clinic corridor, he looked like a skull, so white was his skin and so deeply black and sunken his eye sockets.
The medical examiner was seated next to the coffin, among the arrangements of flowers and candles, with her Camper loafers and her little digital camera on her lap. Her hands tangled on either side of the seat at the entrance of her short, stubby, inert arms. Gala hadn’t seen her since her own misadventure with the police, but she knew that she was Carlos’ mother.
On his back under the glass, Carlos floated in another world. Now, with his black eyelids sealed by a drop of glue, his mask was flawless, homogeneous, void of the bluish sparkle of his iris. The man who beat him to death, who broke his ribs and pierced his lungs, left his face unharmed. He wore it beautifully.
Gala felt the little insect legs start moving in circles around her back, among her secret flowers, but their footsteps were heavier than usual, as if they were a detachment of tarantulas, instead of ants or cockroaches. She needed to be pinched, shaken, smacked, something to distract her, with a more precise and localized pain, from the legs’ deranged meandering over her skin. The medical examiner recognized her and nodded in greeting. Gala blurted out “Shit”, instead of “I’m sorry”. It was an inexplicable lapse, but the doctor didn’t react. They both fell silent before the dead man. Two fans with long dust beards stirred the hot, heavy air. Gala fixed her gaze on the varnished box, it seemed too elegant and sumptuous for a street murder, a man beaten to death. She would have preferred it made of pine, unsanded, replete with splinters that would embed themselves in the clothes and hands of those who came close to cry. Her anxious mind drifted back to an article she’d read earlier that morning about an Eskimo tribe. There, on the ice, hand-to-hand combat that didn’t end in death sealed a friendship. Fighting like that was considered an intimate act that formed unbreakable bonds. It’s true, she thought, a blow leaves a mark, just like love. Who was it who’d struck the eyes of the striker himself with such precision, with such love? She’d never asked him. Maybe the dentist with the long fangs? That lover lay unconscious in a hospital bed, his mouth busted, but alive.
It’d been the police, everyone said, only they could attack like that. The air was thick with rage; they monopolized violence; they were worse than criminals. The funeral home was packed. The heat of a scorching summer stuck to people’s clothes, hair, and skin, and followed them off the street inside. A boy wearing mascara that was running with tears went from group to group, organizing a protest for five o’clock later that afternoon. In the two small rooms rented to mourn the striker, breath made the air thin.
On one side of Gala, a woman was saying that the medical examiner had personally assessed the body of her son. Gala thought about the photos. Perhaps the doctor took out her little camera and took some shots of the impacts on her son’s body, for her personal collection. Beads of sweat worsened the itching sensation on her back. The smell of chrysanthemum and gladiola made her dizzy, and the overcrowding of the wake made her thirst stronger. Gala didn’t have the strength to row through the crowd to reach the coffee machine on the other side of the room.
The crowd was mostly groomed-looking men, with plucked eyebrows, the kind Gala ran into in the striker’s waiting room. They were all covered in black, from their feet to their necks. Under the dark clothes, Gala guessed at the bruises, the decorative marks known only to Carlos and them. She scratched the dried saliva that had accumulated at the corners of her mouth with the nail of her little finger. Her heated mind returned obsessively to the piece about the Eskimo tribe, whose existence she could not verify beyond the article written by an unknown person, but which she accommodated with a perfect and implacable logic. On the barren ice plains, hand to hand combat and the spilling of warm blood must, without fail, become the indissoluble seal of a brotherhood.
They had dropped all the charges against her for acts of subversion and violence against the police. She hadn’t had to pay for the punch in the nose, because she had been able to prove that she had been beaten at the police station. The police force must not lose its cool, dictates the law, it cannot take uniformed revenge on a subdued and handcuffed woman. That night at the police station, however, the uniformed woman with the nosebleed and her colleagues adhered to an older, more tribal law. It had been an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Now we could be friends, that woman I hit who then hit me, Gala thought. But they hadn’t even said her name.
When she could take no more of the itching, with the sweat running down her back, through the sadness and the overcrowding, Gala made her way towards the door, between the dark fabrics hung like shrouds, and the low ceiling that tamped down the dirty air above the dead and the mourners.
She received an invitation by mail to the opening of a photo exhibit in a museum in Finland. Astonished, Gala stared at the cardstock in her hands, designed to Nordic perfection. The image advertising the exhibition was a close-up of an orange bruise in the shape of an atomic mushroom on black skin. The medical examiner had donated her collection of bruises and was sending her regards. The cardboard was signed in pencil. Gala couldn’t travel to northern Europe, but she saw the exhibited work online. Among the hundreds of battered and bruised bodies, some alive and some dead, she found a photograph of Carlos as a teenager, about eleven years old. He appeared with a broken lip and a black eye, like he had just been in a fight. Gala printed the photo and, though it was a bit pixelated, she stuck it in a corner of her closet, next to the mirror. She didn’t explain herself to the tall, uniformed woman with whom she now shared a bedroom and her fate. This earned her a smack on the back, a delicious blow that, for a few hours, drove away the itching that constantly tortured her delicate skin.