Mabel and Themba was standing in Cutting Room B; gum boots on, white coats bleached and crisp. Mabel’s hair seemed especially tempestuous that morning and her little yellow flowery hairpin drowned in a forest of black, curly hair, only to resurface every now and again when Mabel laughed and threw her head back in delight.
But Mabel wasn’t laughing as the fifth-year medical students filed into the room. In the last few months Mabel had grown increasingly disillusioned with the teaching part of her job as state forensic pathologist.
‘I see we are as apathetic as always this beautiful morning,’ said Mabel to Themba, her favorite cutter and head of the state morgue.
‘Yea, s’thando sam, we should not expect superiority today.’
‘How many times do you think I’m gonna have to tell these kids to wear sensible shoes to autopsies? Look at that girl, she’s wearing white satin sandals! I mean, don’t let a blood drop near Princess Grace.’
‘As long as they don’t faint in my cutting room, I don’t care what they wear.’
‘You know, my favorite part is when they put Vix under their noses.’ Themba giggled at this. He also enjoyed the hopefulness that a little menthol will evaporate the pervasive stench of death and human remains.
Mabel, Themba and Moses, the cutting assistant, waited patiently until about twenty students had found a position around the body on the silver slab in the middle of the room. Mabel hated what she had to do next: get their attention. They might only have been about twenty, but they are about twenty medical students who have been reminded of their intellectual supremacy for the last five years, and who have little respect for teachings about the dead.
‘Sorry guys, thank you…’
No response. Just a soft murmur of chatting.
‘Guys, sorry! Can we begin?’
‘Silence!’ Themba’s voice shot through the large room like thunder. Three female students uttered samples of screams and stared at him with big eyes. The rest of the cerebral lottery winners turned to Mabel with slight interest.
After Mabel had introduced herself and provided an overview of the autopsy to be performed, she could feel herself losing their interest one by one. She was nervous and talked too much and too quickly. To alleviate her suffering, Mabel decided to focus on the autopsy…
She was halfway through excising the lungs, trachea and tongue when she heard a blood-curdling scream from one of the female students. Mabel’s arms became heavy from fright. Her first reaction was to look down into the body. She’d just lifted the lungs, could there be some sort of weapon hidden in the corpse? Nothing. An eerie silence descended as the students looked around, searching for a serial killer with a bloody knife or hook for a hand. Then another scream.
‘Look! A snake!’
Mabel dropped the lungs and everything attached to it right back down into the chest cavity of the unfortunate corpse in front of her.
Students were running to the corner opposite the door to the cutting room, huddling together like baby chicks. Then Mabel saw it. A massive python was positioned right in the open entry to the room. Its body stretched about 6 meters into the main corridor while its head moved lazily from one side to the other, absorbing sights and smells.
‘Themba! Themba, I don’t love snakes!’ Mabel thought her own voice sounded much more panicky than she had intended.
‘Don’t worry, Mabel, it won’t hurt us. It’s just scared and lost.’
‘Scared and lost…well, that’s nice, then me and the main character from Anaconda over there have something in common.’
‘Last month we had a crocodile here. They come here from the Pretoria Zoo that is right next to us. Once they get into some of the water ducts, next stop is the state morgue.’
Mabel suddenly felt sorry for the animal for which she harbored a healthy and logical amount of fear. She always felt sorry for mighty things that have been broken. The space and time between the fragile and brokenness isn’t much. But the mighty…
Mabel remembered her students.
‘Themba, how do we get them out?’ But Themba was already talking on his smart phone, no doubt arranging a rescue mission for the poor snake…or the poor students.
Mabel stared at the slow-moving serpent and her fear seemed to fade into concern. It was sluggishly making its way back into the corridor where it was much less crowded.
Well, since I have all the knives I think we’ll be okay.
‘Oi! Oi!’ Mabel was calling in the direction of the terrified students. They were all staring at the death-worm and clinging to each other like they were on the Titanic. Mabel’s other and perhaps greater fear, that of students, also seemed less severe.
Nothing curtails fear than seeing them squirm.
‘Please come back, guys, we have an autopsy to finish!’
One very pale, very preppy male student looked at Mabel with disgust.
Okay, why is Harry Potter looking at me like I brought the snake from my house?
‘Ma’am, there is a giant snake in the door!’ Harry yelled back.
Ma’am. Of course.
‘This here where we live is Africa? Snakes are not even on the top ten list of things you need to worry about.’
Mabel noticed the girl with the white satin shoes were now wearing blood-red satin shoes.
‘And the princess in the satin shoes, you might want to reconsider your footwear before spelunking a morgue!’