Allison Hull had only been to Fort Hook a couple-three times as a child, despite it being just up the coast from her sodium arc–blasted hometown of La Garra. Once was a field trip, when Mr. Patterson negotiated an excursion to the sub-basement of the Museum of Exciting Natural History.
He called in a favor from an “old friend” — a squat woman in an overlarge reindeer sweater who hissed I hope you rot in hell as Mr. P. made his way downstairs — and escorted his Bio class into an antechamber tucked behind a heavy, black developer’s curtain. The room opened into the main archive and held exhibits awaiting triage: maps and botanical sketches stacked in wooden frames, disassembled dioramas (Australopithecus torso, painted veldt backdrops, collected sandpipers), ceramic anglerfish and long-nosed chimerae, unlabeled fossil stands, Melanesian dance masks and meteorites under plexiglas, &c. But Mr. P. had come for the unassuming skull in a spherical steel cage, sitting in the lap of a glassy-eyed Inuit. Ignoring the squat woman’s cries, he picked up the cage and showed it to the class.
Mr. P. shook the cage and the skull let out a piercing shriek. The class recoiled as one, some of their legs twitching in alarm. The noise went up a half-octave just when most screams start tapering off. It then stopped abruptly, ending in a kind of muffled croak. Mr. P. tucked the cage under his arm, freeing up both hands for the melodramatic gestures that his students liked to imitate.
MR. PATTERSON: Class, this is what’s left of the head of Michel Devereux (1697-1729). He was forced to wear this cage for the last ... what, five years of his life? Angie?
SQUAT WOMAN: Fuck you.
MR. PATTERSON: The mental health officials of the day — this was in gay Paree — the so-called experts thought it was the most efficient way to keep him from biting off his own fingers, or others’ fingers—
ALLISON HULL: I could fit my fingers through there.
MR. PATTERSON: Well that’s just it, Miss Hull. The cage kept out most of the riffraff ... until! Until he chewed off the dainty ring finger of some young daughter of some local luminary—
SQUAT WOMAN: Thelin.
MR. PATTERSON: Jean-Baptiste Thelin! Inventor of ... no, the head chef...?
SQUAT WOMAN: You are a fraud. You are a fraud.
MR. PATTERSON: ...an important French dignitary who was relaxing at home, enjoying a glass of wine and a baguette when here comes his cute little angel, back from le school, her hand pumping out great streams of hot red gore in time with her innocent heart!
BIO CLASS: !
MR. PATTERSON: Thelin was appalled and of a fiery temperament and so he picked up the closest weapon at hand: a machete! After a brief interview with his light-headed daughter, he pinpointed the scene of the crime and was pleased to see the caged Devereux still by the schoolyard, pleading for someone to help him, to reach their petite little fingers into his cage to help him pull it off and finally regain some semblance of dignity and humanity. Thelin approached with stealth. He had all the time in the world. The blade felt powerfully erotic in his hand. And then he struck! [raises caged skull up to his head] And Devereux’s head came clean off, tumbling right into his outstretched hands. [lets caged skull fall into his hands, looking at it in feigned wonder] And what did we learn last semester about severed heads?
BIO CLASS: [avoids eye contact]
MR. PATTERSON: That the general consensus is that life continues for...? For how long after decapitation...?
“STUDLY” DUDLEY GARNER: Ten seconds?
MR. PATTERSON: Well, it varies from person to person, naturally, but thirteen seconds is a solid average when calculating how long cytochromes in the brain can keep going without oxygen and glucose. This means the eyes on a severed head could blink, the mouth could open or shut, the cheeks could flush. And in Monsieur Devereux’s case, he could glimpse the panting figure of his assailant, there over his own shoulder, and let out a scream of fury and — I think you’ll all agree with me after hearing him for yourself — fury and sadness. Loss.
STACEY MALLEY: Despair.
MR. PATTERSON: Beautiful, pure, simple, human despair, yes, Miss Malley, yes. And Thelin took this despairing head home as a trophy, still trapped within its cage, and hung it from a hook as a reminder to his family of how deeply he cared about them. And even though the head would shriek every time Monsieur Thelin walked into the room, its mouth stretching grotesquely wide, and even though the shrieking eventually prompted Madame Thelin to take her disfigured daughter to the house of her mère, never to return, and even though Thelin then took to screaming back at the head, and screaming at any passersby, and losing his job as head chef or whatever it was, he still took grim pride in seeing the trophy there, imprisoned, never to harm another child again.
THE SKULL OF MICHEL DEVEREUX: [creaking noise as its jaw slowly falls open]
MR. PATTERSON: But never forget, class, that Monsieur Devereux was not to blame. Everyone lean in close, look upon the remains of his face, look into the empty blackness of his eye sockets. For here is a man who was haunted by unseemly desires, compelled to hurt others — and himself — in order to satisfy his own perverse hunger. [glances at SQUAT WOMAN] Who made him this way? Who cursed him from the moment he took his first breath?
IKUYO NAGAOKA: God?
MR. PATTERSON: That’s right. That’s right.