The world was beautiful at times, though Joly, looking over his notebook at the corpse on the table. After an initial burst of panic about infection and fluids and cause of death and the odd look of a drowned body, Joly's worries disappeared like sunlight cutting through fog as he watched his anatomy professor slice open the cadaver, showing them the intricate workings of the body, the beautiful combination of unmatching parts to create a functioning whole.
His anatomy professor seemed almost embarrassed as he worked. The corpse was female and it had been awkward to undress her and cut past the breasts. "And by opening the body cavity one can establish the cause of death through the irregularities of the lungs-"
Joly sketched the incisions.
The body was spread out on the table, bathed in the light of clustered clumps of candles and gas lamps. The light created a sort of halo around the operating table and the students stood at the wavering edge, careful to keep far enough away to stay out of the professor's way but to keep close enough to avoid being plunged into total darkness. They all had textbooks open on the floor in front of them, and notepads gleaming white with reflected light in their arms.
A few more cuts and the professor lifted out the heart. "The heart itself is a complex organ, and we are extremely lucky that the water damage did not reach it." He cleared his throat and looked down at the dark red, slimy thing in his bloody hand. "Now, if you would turn to the next page of Bichat's Anatomic descriptive, you will find a diagram of the heart. Do I have any volunteers to dissect it according to the diagram? It is-" the professor faltered, cleared his throat again. "It is… an odd thing to think of- dissecting the human heart- but it is a valuable experience."
The students, hiding their horror or fascination behind as-of-yet imperfectly cultivated doctoral indifference, did not look up. Their attention was on the blank sheets of paper before them, quickly filling up with notes and diagrams, not the cadaver open before them, spilling out its secrets onto the professor's bloodstained apron.
"I would like to remind you all that you will each be expected to correctly dissect and diagram a human body by the end of this semester."
Still, they avoided eye contact. Joly tried to keep his focus on the body cavity with the strange, squishy organs folded inside so neatly. Even the best laundry-maid or the most painstaking of valets could not fold anything as gracefully as the intestine folded up in the torso. All the same, Joly felt drawn to the heart and he stared at it.
It was such a small thing, a strange shade of watery red mixed with the gray-brown of cooked meat, so unlike the black and white diagrams in his textbook. Joly carefully flipped a page over to look at a diagram of the left ventricle. Earlier that day he had talked about the heart with Jehan and Laigle.
It had been a dark, gloomy day, the kind that generally made Joly feel as if he would be dead by next week of some horribly infectious disease. The world was as murky as the depths of the Seine, unknowable, strange, too dark to ever be understood. Joly had thus invited Jehan to join him and his roommate Laigle at a café for lunch, because, if he was going to die, he wanted to eke as much happiness out of life as he possibly could. Jehan always managed to cheer him up on those days with a charming mix of idealism, romanticism, and odd moments of poetic excitability. Jehan had been unusually animated and a few drinks had made him simultaneously affectionate and articulate. He had clung to Joly and then mounted an exquisite defense of the heart over the head, lamenting over the Enlightenment, which he was convinced had killed the higher self and the emotions through adherence to unstinting reason.
Laigle had laughed at that. He had had to live by his wits too often to believe one could live by feeling alone. "Jehan, you would dismiss out of hand an entire century's worth of philosophers, poets, and playwrights who would tell you otherwise? Come now, that's not like you. Think of Voltaire, Moliere, Hume, Pascal-"
"Aaah, but Pascal admitted to it!" Jehan had exclaimed, bright with enthusiasm. "'The heart has reasons the mind knows not of!' We have allowed our higher selves to wither away into nothing, crumbling to dust like the works of Ozymondias. Our heads have crushed our hearts."
"The Enlightenment wasn't all bad," Joly had objected. "The heart is important and no one's doubting the value of the higher self and the beauty of the soul and all those noble emotions like love and loyalty and all, but your metaphor is off. The heart pumps blood to the brain. We couldn't think without the heart."
Jehan had opened his mouth and closed it again, baffled by Joly's argument.
Laigle had laughed again. "Oh Joly, you mistake matters. Never force a poet into practicality."
"What need do we have of practicality?" Jehan had demanded contemptuously. He had pressed a hand to his chest, his lace cuffs spilling artistically down his outdated waistcoat (it looked almost like a doublet). Joly thought that Jehan meant to put a hand to his heart, but the heart was located more to the left. "We think so much we discount what we feel! All we need are ideals."
"No," Joly had said, his mind already on the unclaimed cadaver of a drowned girl lying in one of the dissection rooms of the Paris Hôtel-Dieu, on his professor's embarrassment each time he told his students to meet for a private lecture, on the quick, quiet graveyard dissections he and his fellow students did on the relatives of unknowing Parisians. "We need functioning livers and colons and lungs and spleens and-" And so he had continued, lost in the beautiful flow of words and those perfect diagrams in his mind and in his textbook, lost in Laigle's laughter and Jehan's poetic exasperation.
Each part had to work so perfectly to promote the continuance of human life and it frightened Joly as much as it fascinated him. If he looked down at his wrist, where the skin was translucent, he could see the blue veins crisscrossing their way into the flesh of his hand. Those veins were only part of his hand- there were the twenty-seven bones, the flexor muscles, the extensor muscles, the numerous tendons- and then to move his hand, he had to think of the movement first, and his heart had to pump blood through his arteries to make the muscles able to move-
"Joly," the professor said suddenly, drawing him out of his reverie. "You were the only one in the class careful enough not to maul the pig hearts in lab last week. Here." The professor put the hunk of oozing red tissue on a smaller steel dissecting table. There was something shameful and pitiful about it all at once, shameful because the class had snuck out and pulled this unclaimed body from the banks of the Seine and began poking around inside a poor dead girl, pitiful because the heart so celebrated by poets and philosophers was little more than a slab of meat on a steel table in an operating theatre.
"Euh… yes sir, if you wish.".
The professor offered Joly a scalpel with some relief. "I trust you have recovered sufficiently from… what did you have last week?"
"Scurvy," Joly replied, promptly and cheerfully. "And possibly either vocal nodules or throat cancer. However, I think I misdiagnosed. I'm consumptive. I have all the symptoms."
"I see," said the professor. "Please guide us through your dissection anyways."
Joly was dubious. "If you think it will not aggravate my condition-"
"I am positive, Monsieur Joly," the professor replied, his smile flickering as he moved out of the direct light of the gas lamp. "Please begin."
Joly walked up, putting his notepad carefully on top of his textbook and taking the scalpel from his professor. Cautious by nature, Joly had an extremely delicate touch; he wielded the scalpel as gently as a poet would wield a pen, feeling the sharp little blade cut through the layers of muscle.
This was oddly different from a pig's heart.
If he cut too deeply, if he pressed down with too much force, would this poor dead girl's hopes spill out on the steel table? Would he slice through the love she had felt for her sweetheart or her parents? Would he cut into her joys, or ruin the pleasures that had brightened her life?
"Monsieur Joly?" asked the professor. His voice seemed to come from far away; Joly looked up to see that he had moved back completely into the darkness to allow Joly to see better. Joly felt oddly isolated in his pool of dim yellow light, as he sliced and pinned and looked for the girl's most treasured daydreams in the left ventricle.
"Oh, yes, sorry." Joly coughed. "Oh dear, did that sound like consumption to you?" His mind flashed at once to his readings- he was studying consumption in another class, at the training hospital they had just treated a consumptive case and, oh dear, it was contagious and oh dear oh dear, first came the chronic cough, the horrible scratchiness- almost clawing- feeling in the chest, the weakness of the heart, the fever- Jehan thought it a romantic disease, a slow eradication of the body by the soul, until the sufferer at last died in a blaze of creative genius and incomparable beauty, but Joly thought only of the failure of the lungs, the withering of the muscles. In the all-consuming power of his fear he pressed down too hard and nearly cut off the pulmonary vein. He colored to the roots of his hair.
"No, it does not sound like consumption," said the professor, faintly annoyed. "Monsieur Joly, the parts of the heart if you please."
Joly pulled up a memory of the textbook diagram and looked at the gray-red thing before him. He matched up the parts with slight difficulty. "I, euh… I cut into the superior vena cava and made an incision down through the wall of the right atrium and ventricle." He pointed with his scalpel. "The, euh… papillary muscle… the tricuspid valve, the right atrium, the right ventricle, the, euh…."
The professor stepped forward and pointed at the tendon between the tricuspid valve and the papillary muscle. "Chordae tendinae."
"The heartstrings," said Joly.
To tug at one's heartstrings, he thought, and, picking up a probe, hooked the tip on the tendon and pulled slightly. It wasn't quite the same thing. "Yes, chordate tendinae."
"What is it for, Monsieur Joly?"
Joly was tempted to say 'to cause the deepest feelings and affections' but instead he mentally flipped through his textbook and said, "To prevent cusps of valves from bulging too far into the atria."
"Well done, Joly! Now, everyone gather around. Joly, please insert the probe into the pulmonary artery if you can…."
Joly did so and he cut through membrane and tissue and veins and arteries and tendons until the heart had revealed all its secrets and lay in pieces before him.
"Very well done," said the professor, smiling at him. "Very well done indeed. You have the makings of an excellent physician, as long as you don't diagnose yourself."
The class laughed at that, a bright cheerful sound that seemed out of place before a drowned girl with a heart broken into pieces beside her. Joly was friendly and bright and on good terms with all of them, which meant all of them knew Joly's remarkable ability to contract each and every illness he studied. It was useful at times; if someone missed a lesson they only had to ask Joly how he was feeling and he would quite happily tell them of his symptoms, his probable disease and its cause and treatment, as explained to him in that day's lesson and in that day's reading. Joly was one of those students who believed everything they read in class and who knew the delicate structure of the body so well it seemed impossible to them that a body could work correctly. There were equal measures of terror and wonder in that knowledge.
Joly shyly smiled back and stepped out of the light. If he stood just a step back from everyone else he could keep his notepad in the light without having to be in it himself. It was comforting to be in the darkness once again. He often had a vague sense of guilt when dissecting a body, though he knew it to be totally irrational. No one would protest the use of unclaimed corpses for the study of anatomy and dissection, just as no one questioned how medical students got those corpses- so it was not strictly illegal. It would be horrible if a doctor was unleashed on the world without any understanding of how the body worked and could stop working and the absolute best method of understanding was dissection.
There was nothing shameful in this, Joly realized, rather suddenly. He was the youngest (and, he often thought, most petted and protected) son of a large, wealthy family who rarely ventured out of their chateau or out of the seventeenth century into the nineteenth. That pervasive floatsam of superstitious religion, questionable morality, and consummate gallantry ever-present in his home had entrenched itself in his thoughts, in his actions, in his personality.
He was ashamed again, but not of his lesson. The world was far more wondrous than he had ever given it credit for- not because he could not hope to understand it, but because he could.
Joly brightened at once. He was doing nothing wrong- he was, in fact, doing something right by increasing his medical understanding, by letting the dim glow of the gas lamps permeate his skin until he felt alight with knowledge, letting the fug of the dissection room twine itself into his clothes, letting his textbooks open his eyes to the bright beauty of the human body.
The professor sawed the skull open and began dissecting the brain. Joly could not remember when he had last seen something as marvelous as this dead girl's brain, as this dead girl's body, and Joly drew her with painstaking accuracy. It was only fair, he thought. She was giving him a gift too precious for him to ever repay, a knowledge as precious as pure gold, as precious as the gift of fire. Someone ought to remember her in return, and so he would make sure she lived on in his sketches.
Her flawed, imperfect body was beautiful to him in its extraordinary complexity and yet Joly could not free himself from the pitiful image of her heart, lying in pieces beside her. He returned home in a thoughtful mood, watching with interest as his shadow followed him into the pools of light from the streetlamps and then faded into the darkness between them.
Laigle was most likely asleep, so Joly let himself into their flat quietly and, lighting several sets of candles to dispel the gloom of his bedroom, scrubbed himself free of any bits of tissue or blood that God had not originally given him. Joly spread his notes around his bed and studied the drowned girl again. He ate a lime as he looked at his notes, choking slightly at the bitterness of its taste. However, his class had studied scurvy last week and Joly was sure his gums had been bleeding when he brushed his teeth that evening, so he chewed until his mouth stung.
The diagram of the heart troubled him the most. He had stayed after to painstakingly draw and label each part of the heart he had dissected, but the diagrams seemed somehow incomplete. Joly consulted his textbooks. Each part of the heart had such a wondrously specific function, yet none of them caused love or affection or loyalty or happiness.
He swallowed with difficulty (how bitter it was!) and reread Bichat's Anatomic descriptive. The heart was a hollow muscular organ located in the mediastinum whose purpose was to pump blood through the blood vessels by repeated, rhythmic contractions. That was glorious, that was marvelous and that….
… and was that it?
Joly held up one of his diagrams to the light. The candle flame made the paper translucent and through it he could see Jehan sneak past his doorway.
"Jehan?" Joly asked, lowering the paper.
Jehan turned to him with a smile that was half- apologetic, half- delighted. "Hallo Joly. I came back here with Laigle when you left for your anatomy lecture. How did it go?"
"Well enough," said Joly. "Going over my notes at the moment. There's something I simply… don't understand about the heart- or cannot understand, I suppose, but I really hope I can understand it. Come in. Is Laigle still awake?"
"No, he just went to sleep."
"Oh, shut the door then? I don't want to wake him."
Jehan did so, and sat on the bed beside Joly. "Is this a diagram of the heart?" he asked, picking up the diagram Joly had been looking at.
"Hm? Yes." Joly moved his pointer finger across the paper. "You see, here's the right atrium, the left atrium, the ventricle… down there's a more detailed diagram of the right atrium, with the chordate tendinae-"
Jehan traced them with the tip of one finger, until his hand ran into Joly's. "The heartstrings." There was such wonder in his tone.
Joly looked up at Jehan, whose smile lit the room far better than the candles. "Jehan-"
"You know, Joly, you can study and study the heart, but I don't think you can totally understand it- it cannot be contained in textbooks or diagrams!"
"This again?" asked Joly, polite yet dubious. "I'm going to be a doctor, Jehan. I need to understand the heart through textbooks and diagrams. Science is the beginning of diagnosis and treatment."
"Is it the end?" asked Jehan, taking Joly's hand in his. "Is it everything?" The candlelight made Jehan's dark eyes glitter strangely.
Jehan's doublet of a waistcoat hung open over his shirt and he pressed Joly's hand to his heart. Joly felt Jehan's heartbeat through the thin fabric of Jehan's shirt and Joly began to blush. "Feel that? You couldn't fell that from scientific study, could you?"
"Well, yes, actually. That's the point of, er… of percussion and using a stethoscope and finding a pulse-"
Jehan looked at him in poetic despair. "Look, we can both agree that the heart keeps us alive."
"Yeees, scientifically speaking-"
"And emotionally, spiritually, metaphorically…." Jehan waved his free hand. "The point of the heart is to give life. But the true value of it comes when it is used, when it feels when-" Jehan's voice seemed slightly unsteady "-when it is given away…."
Joly felt almost too warm. Fever? Flu? Fainting spell? No, no- there were too many candles, that was all. He shut his eyes but still the light still filtered through his eyelids and made everything red. Jehan still held Joly's hand to his heart and now pressed it closer.
"Perhaps you feel it too?" Jehan asked, his voice scarcely above a whisper. Joly felt the top few buttons of his waistcoat unbutton and then Jehan's hand on his chest. Jehan's hand seemed scaldingly hot and Joly was awkwardly, uncomfortably aware of his own hands, his own body, their position on his bed-
After a moment, Jehan said, "I think you do."
"What?" Joly asked, opening his eyes. The light dazzled him too much to let him see Jehan.
"It- it's a cliché and if it were in one of my poems I would strike it out at once, but… I think… here, feel." Jehan made Joly put a hand on his own heart, so that he could feel both heartbeats at once, each one fluttering like the wings of a dove under his fingertips.
Joly almost did not want to admit to it. "They do seem… they are… beating rather similarly…."
"Yes," Jehan said simply, and kissed him.
It was only something to be found in Jehan's poems, Joly thought giddily, Jehan's lips almost searing his own, melting away all resistance, all uncertainty. The poet and the scientist locked together over scattered drawings and diagrams of the heart. Jehan pulled him closer until their hearts beat against each other and Joly was oddly disappointed when Jehan stopped.
"Would you like my heart?" asked Jehan, kissing Joly's fingertips. "I'm offering it to you for scientific experimentation- the heart of a poet, imagine!"
"Would you like mine in return?" asked Joly, dazed. "It only seems fair."
"Of course I would," said Jehan, "but you don't have to give it to me. Mine is a free gift, offered without restriction, hesitation, or expectation of return. That is the only way to understand a heart, exploring one freely given to you."
The world was beautiful, thought Joly as he kissed Jehan again. The world was beautiful when understood, when one realized how beautifully and logically it was put together, and when one simply felt its glories in that fierce and almost frightening flame of desire Joly thought might be love.
There were equal measures of terror and wonder in that knowledge, but still, there it was.
The world was brilliantly beautiful.