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Issue 10 - A Journal of Letters and Life
A Remarkable Skull
by Anamaria Beligan
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I make no apologies for what I call the voyeuristic streak of my personality. In fact, I am almost proud of it. It is part of my overall, virile - yes, virile! - propensity to conquer. I am, of course, talking about voyeurism in a universal sense, not in its petty, sordid, sexually devious sense. I am talking about any form of intrusion into that which you are not supposed to see or hear. A direct source of enrichment, which comes to you uncorrupted by the rituals of conventional communication. Of course, if I were in the mood for it, I could write a little essay on Voyeurism as a postmodern means of initiation. But I am not in the mood for it. Instead, I would like to use this file in order to collect my most memorable voyeuristic endeavours. To collect them, rigorously and faithfully, and then to distil the higher meanings they encode. To create a little compendium of higher meanings, acceded to by means of my own, direct and empirical experience.
     I confess that the reason I am writing is more than my overall belief in conquest through knowledge. There is a considerable amount of pleasure attached to committing these things to paper. Why? Because I already anticipate the voyeuristic thrill experienced by my anonymous reader. One not so distant day, when I move on - (to another city? to another life?) - I will leave behind these files marked 'strictly confidential'... - and someone else... - (a lawyer? a real estate agent? a clergyman?) will open them, apparently for reasons other than voyeuristic, and will tumble upon my explorations, upon my findings... A new, unexpected window on reality will be opened to them, and - if they are up to it - they will be caught into what I call the voyeuristic way... One day, we might form our own secret society... complete with a vast pool of data, inferences and higher meanings. And I might be considered one of the founding fathers. Juanito, the Founder. See the potential? Am I a fool or what?
     So, my dear, anonymous and voyeuristic reader, it is for you that I am now going to file what started on a Monday evening, last August, in the delicious privacy of one of the three lounge rooms of the Queenscliff Hotel.
As soon as I had read the Escape notice on the back of Mietta's brochure, I knew this was going to be a golden opportunity for things voyeuristic. Think of it: a special deal, including dinner, overnight accommodation and breakfast, Mondays and Tuesdays only. Someone escaping at the very beginning of the working week, must be very serious about their escape.
     Think of it: sharing three lounge rooms, a terrace, a dining room, countless bathrooms and a variety of evening walks with a whole community of Monday-to-Tuesday escapees.
     I arrived at the Hotel around 5 pm and checked in. I poured myself a glass of Benedictine (I always carry it around, in a neat and trendy prohibition-style flask), and sat on the balcony for two hours, discreetly watching the arrival of the other guests. It was an unusually warm evening. The sky was remarkably clear. You could almost see the dignified and tranquil arabesques of Haendel's music emerging from some warm, indefinite point inside the ground floor, multiplying themselves endlessly in the cold fires of dusk, conquering the distance between the Hotel, the pier, the military academy, the lighthouse...
     An awkward cargo ship would sometimes glide on the horizon, like a forgettable intrusion.
     First, there was the green Mercedes. A couple in their fifties descended. They looked smart and fit in their matching jumpers. Rekindling the old, matrimonial flame, I thought. Then, there was the young, working class couple in the Laser. He was ostensibly trying to mask his uneasiness with the surroundings. She was loud, fat and very much at home. About half an hour later, there was the yuppie couple in the silver Honda - thirty something, regular guests of the Hotel, vegetarian-looking, not much fun. Then, the Japanese post-graduate student with what could have been one of his female lecturers. He was carrying a separate evening suit, enclosed in plastic.
     At 6:55 sharp, there was the grey Saab. A woman in her late twenties emerged. She was dressed in an business suit. Her high heels interfered with Haendel.
     I changed for dinner, then descended. In the dining room, I placed myself so as to catch as many glimpses, and as many snippets of conversation as possible. Nothing memorable happened through the trout. Nor through the saffron pasta. Nor through the nougat. But, while I was sipping my Earl Grey, I noticed the 6:55 Woman come in. She had changed into jeans and a turquoise jumper. Flat shoes, too. She placed herself at a distant table, beside the Japanese and his lecturer, both dressed up for the occasion. I poured myself a second cup, for my intuition told me told me that she was waiting for someone.
     I was beginning to wonder who the mystery person might be. A secret lover? A prospective husband? An old flame? A new affair? My well-exercised voyeuristic instinct was telling me that it had to be a man. A very meaningful one, at that.
     Nothing happened during my third cup of tea. Except that she looked at her watch, for the twentieth time, finished off her glass of Sauvignon Blanc, and decided to order.
     I got up, and went for a short stroll along the pier. I'm not into descriptions of nature - in fact, they bore me to death. But this was a truly exceptional night. The moon was a giant, orange ball, in surreal suspension. It had to fall down, yet it seemed to postpone the moment indefinitely, awakening our fears and speculations. The pier was supremely silent, and the fishermen were bound by the thread of a passive yet virile conspiracy. Everything around me - down to the tiniest leaf - was under the spell of a spectral motionlessness. The lights of the Queenscliff Hotel could be seen from afar, like a discreet, inviting puzzle.
     A tall man in his late sixties walked past me, on the pier. He looked like a distinguished retiree - splendid posture, double breasted grey suit, silk shirt ironed to perfection. He lifted his Eden hat as he passed - an old fashioned, provincial and very manly salutation, that projected me way back into the mist of some impenetrable memories, which probably pre-dated my birth. I clearly remembered I had not seen him amongst the guests of the Queenscliff Hotel. Yet he seemed so familiar... Had I seen him before?
     (Of course I have! I was to remember some fifteen minutes later... On Kerferd Pier, in Melbourne, where I sometimes go for a stroll and gaze at the sunset. In fact, I had seen him several times, over the past few months, and he would always salute me like that, without uttering a word...)
     I walked back. I felt the hearts of the three lounge rooms pulsating behind the lascivious yet crisp voice of Ella Fitzgerald. I walked past the red lounge room, catching a glimpse of the two yuppies, engrossed as they were in reading the latest report on the Top 100 Companies. I walked past the peach rose lounge room, where I saw the fifty somethings engaged in an intimate game of chess. I went to the bar, ordered a small Cointreau, and went straight into the third lounge room, where I camouflaged myself behind the Financial Review and a giant orchid.
     I was facing the back of two Victorian armchairs which had been moved to face the fire. I could not see the occupants, but I knew one of them was the 6:55 Woman, because I recognised her flat shoes under the armchair.
     '...but on the other hand, remember what Ortega y Gasset is saying: love is a perpetual state of emigration. It is essentially centrifugal: a fluid and continuous displacement towards the object of love...', said the 6:55 Woman.
     'Come on, don't talk to me about him! A free thinker who genuinely believes that the lyrical condition is exclusively masculine is not someone I'd consult on matters pertaining to the metaphysics of love!', responded her interlocutor.
     I was in a state of shock. There were four reasons for it. Firstly, because I couldn't believe my luck: barging in on no more no less than the metaphysics of love. Secondly, because they had brought in Ortega, a name intimately connected with the philosophical pursuits of my late adolescence. Thirdly, because they were talking in my native language, which, despite my name, is not Spanish but Romanian. (I instantly remembered something that Ortega himself wrote somewhere: that a nation is an intimacy and that a language is a secret shared by its inhabitants. The voyeuristic merit and consequences of this affirmation need no further comment). Finally, the fourth reason consisted in the fact that the interlocutor of the 6:55 Woman was... another woman.
     I am not going to dwell on the implication of each of these discoveries: enough to say that, by virtue of they combined power, I was shaken into a state of voyeuristic awareness I had never experienced before.
     'Hang on, Otilia', interrupted the 6.55 Woman. 'You cannot dismiss someone for the simple reason that they've made a ridiculously silly remark. Show me a single philosopher who hasn't written a gross stupidity at some stage in their career! The other day, I was leafing through your beloved Noica, and I found something to the effect that the 'rigid' Anglo-Saxons, unlike us Romanians, could not grasp the modulations of Being, for the simple reason that their language could not go beyond to be or not to be! For God's sake, the man had taught English to make a living, at some stage in his life!!!'
     'Leave him out of it, for the time being. He is not going to advance this argument, anyway', said Otilia.
     I casually moved chairs, to catch sight of Otilia's anatomy. I could only see her profile: thirty-something, short hair, full lips, unmemorable nose, glasses that reflected the fire and would not allow one to see if there was any fire behind them.
     'Let's go back to your question, Simona...', she went on. 'In Norwich versus Konrad, you thought you'd recognised the quintessential crime of passion.'
     So the 6:55 Woman had a name: Simona. And she had been involved in something called Norwich versus Konrad . I tilted my Financial Review so as to steal a glimpse of her profile. Where had I seen that aquiline nose, those inquisitive eyebrows, those thin lines which furrowed her otherwise babyish cheeks? Norwich versus Konrad - oh yes! The wig, that's what was missing. I had seen her dressed in a barrister's robe, at the Four Courts Café, in Melbourne, where I sometimes go to... watch people. I remembered how puzzled I'd been to notice the baby freshness of her cheeks under that obsequious attire.
     'It's much more than that', intervened Simona. 'By now I consider myself almost blasé in the matter of crimes of passion. What really shook me in this case was the fetishist undercurrent. It was not because of someone else that Konrad killed his lover. It was because murder was the only means by which he thought he'd finally possess her. It's this possessive aspect that has been troubling me ever since. If Ortega is right, namely that love is essentially emigration towards an external object, then it follows that this act of possession, of ultimate appropriation, runs contrary to the very essence of love. See what I mean?'
     'Possession like a sort of negative parallel to love. A dark, dangerous deviation', concluded Otilia.
     '...And yet, if anything, that man, Konrad, was by all standards the most tragic victim of love in the legal history of Victoria...', said Simona.
     'In circumstances like these, I think it is hard to apply any pre-conceived wisdom', remarked Otilia. 'After all, it might be argued that through extreme possession one might achieve the same gratification promised by extreme love: access to a superior state of being by means of a paradoxical, elusive self-delusion. The lover who emigrates towards the object of his or her love, and the possessor who wants to incorporate that object, are both engaged in a delusive pursuit, and they are both obsessed with merging. Only that merging is applied in different directions.'
     'It makes sense, futile as it might sound...', replied Simona. 'But I can't escape the feeling that a case like this has got its own intrinsic wisdom... It's like a message sent to me - otherwise why would I be in it? See what I mean?... And I always ask myself, in cases such as this one: am I really capable to read the message? What if I fail?... Have you ever experienced anything like this?'
     'You bet I have!', laughed Otilia.
     'No - I mean, have you ever been mixed up in a story of possession?'
     'Oh yeah! Most people have, at least to some degree...'
     'But I mean, the ultimate form of possession... I mean... murder...'
     'Yeah, that too... Or at least something fairly close...!' replied Otilia, matter-of-factly.
     'Do you mind telling me? Who knows, maybe it'll help me shed some light on this metaphysical mess...' ventured Simona.
     'Not at all!' said Otilia. She got up from her armchair - like her friend, she wore jeans and a loose jumper (somewhere between blue and purple) - selected a piece of wood, and threw it in the fire. The fire became spectacularly alive in a matter of seconds, releasing the mentholated energies of the gumtree, which I breathed in with hidden delight.
     I had successfully established Simona's identity: she was a Romanian-born barrister. Her native tongue was rather fossilised, an indication to me that she was only using it outside her immediate environment and needs. Otilia's Romanian, on the other hand, was fluent and painless, as if she still thought, dreamed (and made love?) in the language of her ancestors. But other than her linguistic skills, I could not establish anything else about Otilia. It was clear though, that the two women came from fairly different backgrounds, had not known each other for long, and had a certain fascination for each other, the sort of fascination that engenders spontaneous and rather questionable friendships, particularly amongst females.
     I was dying for another Cointreau, but I preferred not to move, hoping they'd completely forgotten about my presence behind the orchid.
     'We're going back twenty odd years...' started Otilia, gazing deeply into the open fire, as if it were some silent witness. 'I was a teenager at the time and I was firmly decided I'd become a Nobel Prize winner biologist. In accordance with the customs of the time, my parents had hired a meditator, a private tutor, who was to prepare me for the tough entrance examination at the Faculty of Biology. The lady in question, Mrs. Mierlescu, was to thoroughly coach me in Human Anatomy, Zoology, Botany and General Biology. She was in her early seventies, and was exceptionally ugly. The perfect female equivalent of Quasimodo. (That's what I used to call her, anyway)... Every feature of her anatomy was in direct contradiction with the basic rules of natural harmony. Limbs and fingers painfully deformed by arthritis, a hunch-back, an enormously wide nose covered by black heads like craters and warts of every colour and size. The sort of presence which would make any compliment - no matter how innocent - turn into a cruel sarcasm. And, since in our culture, compliments are a sign of basic civility, I was feeling increasingly awkward for not being able to find any decent compliment to pay to her, at least once in a blue moon. I couldn't say: 'What a beautiful dress!', not even 'What a beautiful lesson!', for I feared she might feel offended by the very existence of such a concept: beauty.
     'One day, though, we were about to start the Human Skeleton. From her shabby, dark brown, vinyl bag, she produced the unexpected splendour of a human skull. She started explaining the lesson with a vivacity and inspiration never exhibited before.
     'I became mesmerised by the way she was gliding her blunt, crooked forefinger across the aristocratic grandeur of the frontal bone, lingering for a long moment around the remarkable bulges of the frontal eminences, sliding gently along the majestic superciliary ridges, then making its way across the mighty parietal eminences, softly palpating the Lambdoid Suture, tickling the occipital crests, protuberances and tubercles, resting inside the mysterious sanctum of the foramen magnum, then proceeding, past the temporal ridges, depressions, fissures and fossae, and across the slender zygomatic arch, straight into the adventurous surfaces of the norma frontalis, penetrating the smooth, seven-boned cavities of the orbits, descending boldly along the concealed, turbinated mysteries of the nasal fossae, into the supremely synchronised symphony of the maxillaries, then inserting itself between incisors, canines, and bicuspids, and inviting me to co-palpate the palate... I remember how she then swiftly turned the skull upside down, to reveal the sphenoid bone which bound that magnificent construction, locking it in for eternity in its tight embrace. The enigmatic sphenoid itself, like an enormous, ossified bat, with regal, angelic wings.
     'The lesson had been nothing but one all-embracing, expertly applied caress. My adolescent blood was beginning to stir.
     'She hinted at the innumerable riddles the human skull was riddled with. She insinuated that one day, after we finished with the obvious, twenty-two bones of the brain-case and face, we would start exploring the unpredictable nature of the Wormian bones, whose number varies dramatically, with every individual, from two to one hundred. 'We'll detect them and count them together. I bet you'll have a pleasant surprise!', she promised.
     'She told me we were going to do all sorts of exciting measurements, and work out a variety of amazing indexes. I ventured to ask if we could calculate the capacity of the brain based on these measurements, and she exclaimed, 'But of course! There is no limit to what we can calculate! Let your questions surface, let your imagination run free!'. Moreover, she suggested we could confront our findings with the very brain that naturally belonged in that skull, and of which she was the proud owner.
     'I felt excited and inspired. And for once, I even found a way of paying Mrs Mierlescu her long-awaited compliment. 'This is a truly beau... I mean, a truly remarkable skull, Mrs Mierlescu! Congratulations! '
     'She looked at me, with a grin of superiority, which to me signalled a true connoisseur: 'You can tell it belongs to a man, can't you!'. '
     'You mean to say that she and that skull... might have had a personal relationship?', asked Simona.
     'I don't know for sure. But whatever I saw pointed in that direction. I mean, this was a particularly well maintained skull. It was polished - more than by her everyday, expert caresses. I couldn't help notice a thin layer of wax... And the teeth - goodness me, she must have brushed them with baking powder at least once a week...
     'I kept fantasising over who the owner of that skull had been, and over her involvement with that owner... And all my speculations were telling me the same thing: that the owner had been a remarkably good looking man, whom she must have known and admired to the point of passion. And that it was inconceivable for someone that handsome to be erotically involved with someone that ugly. How, then, had she acquired the skull? And for which purpose? An act of desperate possession? Hiding something perhaps as sinister as murder?...'
     'Did you try to find out anything in the way of hard evidence?', asked Simona.
     'Hard evidence! Harder than a skull?!... No. To be honest, I've never been that curious. Besides, I had other things on my plate, at that time...', replied Otilia.
     'What happened to your Mrs Mierlescu?'
     'She passed away a few months later. I attended the funeral, at the Ghencea Cemetery Chapel. The eulogy only confirmed what I already knew. That she had been born in a Moldavian village, that she had bravely supported herself during her studies at the University of Yassy, where she had graduated with honours. That she had never had a family of her own, but instead, had chosen to be a selfless and devoted member of the great family of Science, bla, bla, bla... What I really wanted to know was whether somewhere in that coffin of hers, under those veils and flowers, was the skull. Perhaps even a brain, floating in a jar. I promised myself that one day, I would dig into that question. In fact, I never did.'
     'You didn't become a biologist either', remarked Simona.
     'Of course not. After Mrs Mierlescu's death, the biology lessons lost their spark...'
     'Anyway,' said Simona, '...suppose that Mrs Mierlescu was madly in love with the owner of that skull, and that she did do something fishy, in order to become the keeper of such a relic. The question that arises is: how should we categorise her action? As a pathetic act of desperate love? Or as one of cold blooded, demonic appropriation?'
     'I wouldn't be able to distinguish, anyhow... But one thing is certain. That I really felt for her. There was something so enduring - and so touching, for an outsider like me - in the way she was applying those caresses. Nothing, absolutely nothing demonic, not even pathological, about that...' concluded Otilia.
     They were quiet for a while. Ella Fitzgerald was quiet too. The only sound that could be heard was that produced by the dying fire. Suddenly, Simona burst into laughter:
     'I wonder what this idiot behind the Fin Review would say if he understood our conversation!'
In October, I flew to Sydney on business. I stayed the night at Aunt Dora's, who is only a friend but whom everybody calls Aunt. She had a guest, an old Bessarabian gentleman (introduced as Cousin Stefanel) who was on a visit from Romania. An interminable conversation on dead acquaintances and their family trees had been going on for the whole afternoon.
     'Remember Professor Belotserkovsky-Kheruvimov! The Archangel, as we, students used to call him!... What a man!' said Cousin Stefanel, as Aunt Dora was serving the third course of dinner...
     'I never met him' giggled Aunt Dora, 'but he was known for his legendary beauty. There wasn't a single student - female or male! - who was not head over heels in love with him!'
     'Beauty? That's too vague a word!' exclaimed Cousin Stefanel. 'His external features - and may I add, I have never ever seen such aristocratic cheekbones, such majestic forehead, such distinguished temples in my entire life - well, his physical attributes were just the natural emanation of his inner being, which I could only describe as a blend of quintessential nobility, sacrificial courage and sublime humility. An angel of a man, indeed!'
     'No one knew exactly where he came from, but the rumour was that he was, in fact, Russian-born, although his Romanian language was faultless, was it not?' said Aunt Dora.
     'He was said to have immigrated from Russia. He had apparently lectured at the University of Ryazan, before fleeing the Bolsheviks', added Cousin Stefanel. 'He was sure to be hiding some tragedy. Something dreadful must have happened to him at the time of the Russian Revolution. Otherwise, why was it that he never married, never had an affair, not even the slightest fling - when all the University of Yassy was practically at his feet?'
     'A tragic angel in exile! Am I glad I didn't meet him! I could've ended up in some Moldavian monastery!', laughed Aunt Dora, while distributing a second serve of her unforgettable chocolate soufflé.
     'Even to this day I cannot explain the scandal...', sighed Cousin Stefanel.
     'Enough: Let's not bring back this depressing episode. Enjoy the soufflé... Juanito, darling, will you pour us some champagne?', interrupted Aunt Dora.
     'What scandal?' I exclaimed.
     'Enough - please!' intervened Aunt Dora. 'There's been too much water under the bridge, anyway!'
     'Aunt Dora, you don't understand: I need to know!', I insisted.
     'What a funny old head this Juanito of mine is! I never thought you'd stick your nose into this sort of business!'
     'You see, before his death, Professor Belotserkovsky-Kheruvimov had left a will', explained Cousin Stefanel. 'He wanted his body to be exhumed after nine years. He wanted his earthly remains to be cremated and the ashes to be taken back to Russia and scattered from the window of his former laboratory, at the University of Ryazan...'
     Cousin Stefanel cleared his throat which had become too sticky from the chocolate sauce, then took a long sip of pink champagne.
     '...However', he went on, 'his wish could not be fulfilled in accordance with the will, because he died in 1938, or 1939, which means that nine years later, we were smack in the middle of the sinister forties, and people were far too worried about their personal survival to spare a thought for the wishes of the dead... It was only in 1959, that someone - some professor or other who had become Dean of the Faculty of Biology - remembered the will. He also wanted to name one of the new University amphitheatres after the deceased Archangel. He had smartly emphasised the late Professor's Russian ethnicity, a clear advantage in those times of intense, communist russification, while at the same time obscuring the fact that the Archangel's political colours had always been the opposite of red.
     'A discreet little ceremony was organised in view of exhuming and cremating Professor Belotserkovsky-Kheruvimov's remains... I wasn't present, but my brother, who was then Associate Professor of Organic Chemistry in Yassy, took part.
     'Imagine, Juanito, that when the coffin was opened, it was precisely the Professor's most cherished, most venerable relic that was missing... The very site of his noble ideas, the very abode of his generous thoughts...'
     'HIS HEAD!', I yelled.
     'How did you know?' giggled Aunt Dora...
I flew back to Melbourne in a troubled state of mind.
     Simona had been right: if you are thrown into the middle of a case, there must be a reason to it. But I had not been thrown into this case: I had sought it, I had pursued it, I had stuck my nose deeply into it... It wasn't as if someone else had pushed me. Or was it...?
     I went for an evening stroll, out on St Kilda Pier, to clear my thoughts. To clear my anger.
     Despicable, gruesome, Quasimodo-witch!
, I was crying inside, Did you bribe some grave-digger, or did you do all the digging by yourself, at night, while the flowers were still fresh, while the candles were still burning!... You chopped it off, swiftly and neatly, didn't you - that's one thing you would've been good at, for sure! And then, did you do all the boiling by yourself? In the privacy of your own kitchen? Did you separate the brain? Did you measure it and weigh it? Did you work out all the relevant indexes? Did you imprison it into some filthy jar, and locked in your closet? What went on under your hideous skull, during the long and furtive hours when you cleaned and polished those frontals and parietals? Those noble crests, depressions, arches and tubercles? The enigmatic sphenoid with its regal wings? You turned them all into educational materials! And paraded them shamelessly, throughout God knows how many cities, inside God knows how many respectable homes!
     It was a mild, Spring evening, and the Esplanade was full of couples, young and old. They were kissing, laughing, eating ice-cream, feeding the possums...
     I started walking on the pier. The orange moon was already propped up on the blue and orange sky. I walked past the quietly alert fishermen. None of them had been catching anything, but they kept on trying. Persistently, vigilantly.
     I went further, and further, until there was nothing left between me and the bay. I breathed in the salty air. In and out, in and out, in and out. I closed my eyes for a while, trying to brush away thoughts, questions, doubts, anger.
     When I opened my eyes, he was standing beside me. The sixty something gentleman, in the grey suit. He saluted me, as always, by lifting his Eden hat.
     'Professor Belotserkovsky-Kheruvimov!' I exclaimed.
     He smiled gently, under his perfectly trimmed moustache.
     'Professor, I think I can help you. I think I hold the key to getting you back that which rightfully belongs to you...'
     'I'll meet you in Ryazan, then. At the Faculty of Biology. The main entrance. 6:55 pm.' said the Professor, with a soft, Moldavian accent.
     'By all means Professor. A bientôt.'
     (Flying to Bucharest and bribing a couple of grave diggers at Ghencea Cemetery to open up the coffin of Olga Mierlescu was no big deal. Picking the right skull from the two I found inside was no big deal either. Any idiot would have noticed the difference. Of the eminent brain, of course, nothing had remained, but I did locate a broken jar. The rest, as they say, is merely a case of poetic justice.)
So, my beloved voyeur of a reader, remember this: wherever you are, open up your eyes and ears, for, despite your temporary confusion, there's always a very good reason behind it.
     And be careful and alert, whenever you go for a walk on the pier.

Image by Burnell Yow and the Digital Exquisite Corpse Project


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