The Wax Anatomist’s Daughter by Deborah Walker [fantasy]

The Wax Anatomist’s Daughter by Deborah Walker

I was applying pustules onto an arm when Ma emerged from the partition. “Come and see. I think you’re going to be surprised, Molly,” she said, grabbing my hand and leading me through the partition door. This was her secret project. She’d been working on it for the last four months. A five-foot model was covered with a drape. With some ceremony, Ma tugged at the cloth, revealing a life-size wax model. “What do you think?” she asked.

The words died in my mouth.

“Well? What do you think? I think it’s my best work yet.”

It wasn’t as if I wasn’t used to seeing myself rendered in wax. Ma had been casting from me since I was a baby. All over the country there are models of me: my limbs, my internal organs, my dissected head. But this was different. It was life-size, naked, and she’d made it look like me. She’d added hair. And she’d made it six months pregnant.

“Look at this!” Ma unhinged the abdomen and removed the organs, laying them like fruit onto the table. She unhinged the distended wax womb to reveal the six-month fetus. I recognized my own work. She’d asked me to make it a month ago.

I was speechless.

“What’s wrong, Molly?”

“Where did you get the hair?” Ma’s models don’t usually have hair. Human hair is too expensive, and Ma can’t abide to use a substitute.

“Ah, the hair cost me a pretty penny. I had to get it imported from Italy.” She touched her own hair that was as dark and curly as my own. “They take it from the poor nuns when they take their vows.”

“It looks like me,” I said, staring at the wax model.

“It’s not you,” said Ma. “It’s me when I was pregnant with you. Although we do look a bit alike, I suppose.” Ma could never see it, but we looked like peas in the pod. Everyone says it. “Don’t you like it, Molly?” It was like she was trying to give me something. The gift of herself as my mother? But it looked like me. The thought of me as a pregnant effigy being handled by the medical students made me feel sick.

“It’s your best work yet,” I said. She was so blasted proud of the thing.

“I knew you’d like it.”

The bell to the shop out front rang.

“Ack. No rest for the wicked,” said Ma with a wink. She snapped back the hinge on the womb, thankfully hiding the unborn wax baby. “I’m glad you like it, Molly.” She smiled. “I think it’s almost worthy of Mademoiselle Biheron.”

***

When Ma left to serve the customer, I walked around the model. I literally couldn’t believe that she’d done it. It looked just like me. The idiosyncrasies of my body, the features, the smattering of freckles on the cheeks. I suppose it was an unconscious facsimile. Mother thought that she was modeling an image of herself. But she was thirty-four and I was seventeen. Of course, she wouldn’t see anything wrong in it. Everything must be rendered up in the name of science, in the name of truth.

The thing that my mother doesn’t understand is that I’m not interested in science. I’m sick of the smell of melting beeswax. I’m sick of the diseased wax anatomical organs that litter the workshop. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t expected to help with her work. I can’t remember a time when she didn’t assume that I would follow in her footsteps as a wax anatomist.

And I can’t remember a time when people didn’t say that I was just like my mother. It’s true enough that we both have the same long black curly hair, the same freckles. I look like my mother true enough. But I am not like her.

“Ack. She’s the spitting image of you,” the old biddies would say, pinching my cheek. And I would be so proud. But I soon found out that these were the same women who’d talk about Ma behind her back. I found that out when I bloodied Roddy Smithers’ nose when I was seven years old. Given an excuse, he was quick enough to tell me what people thought of my mother.

“Your Ma works too hard. And everyone laughs at her.”

That was ridiculous. “You’re talking nonsense, Roddy Smithers. Everybody’s Ma has to work hard.”

“But your Ma is doing man’s work. She’s unnatural with all her bits of wax.”

And when I went home crying to my ma, I could see that she thought that Roddy’s words hurt her. Maybe she even thought that they were true. Women work hard. But not every woman has to do science. That’s a man’s job, sure enough. Everyone knew it, except my mother.

I learned never to repeat the things other folk said about her. And they said plenty. My ma was no better than she ought to be. My ma ought to give up the shop and her fooling around with the wax models and get herself a husband. Never mind that she supported herself and me, and Grandpa when he got frail. Never mind all that. She was doing it all by herself and they didn’t like that. And, truth be told, neither did I.

***

Mother returned from the shop. “It was old Mrs. McGroaty buying a half-penny’s worth of treacle and she wanted to talk all day about it.” She ran her hand lightly along the bare flank of the wax model. We may get more money from Grandpa’s apothecary shop, but it was the wax models that gave Ma the most pleasure. She sold them to the medical schools as teaching aids and occasionally to a private patron. “There,” she said placing the organs back into the abdomen. “It’s not as good as Mademoiselle Biheron’s, but it’s as good as I can make it.”

Another thing that my Ma doesn’t understand is that I’m sick to death of Mademoiselle Biheron. We are Scottish, not French. What do I care about a French woman? Even if she was famous? Even if she presented her models to the Academie Royale des Sciences? Even if she sold her models to the King of Denmark and to Empress Catherine II of Russia. Even if she did teach anatomy at the university where she met my mother and taught my ma her trade secrets? Even if my ma dreams of being her. My mother should understand that each person should be their own person.

“Ma, I’m going out.”

“Where are you going?”

“To do some tatting with Mary.” Mary was my oldest friend. Mary knew how to keep a secret.

“Fine,” said Ma. “I’ll keep an eye on the shop, but be back before six. I need to work on the diseased hearts, and you know how difficult hearts can be.”

***

“So what was this model like?”

“It was like me, except it had bigger breasts.”

Dave grinned. “How big?”

“Oh, Dave. It has big tits because it’s six months pregnant.”

“I think,” said Dave slowly, “that I would very much like to see that model.”

Dave is my boyfriend. He shares a house with four other porters from the university. It’s not a nice house—filthy, it is.

“It just needs a woman’s touch,” he’d say. But if they think I’m cleaning up after them, as his best mate Colin has hinted a couple of times, they’ve got another thing coming. Of course, when it is just me and Dave, it will be a different matter. I will be glad to look after him and be a proper wife to him.

Dave ran his hand along my dress. We’ve agreed not to go all the way at the moment. We can’t afford to get married yet.

“If only we could run off,” said Dave. “I can’t bear not to be with you all the time.”

“I know what you mean.”

“We should go to Gretna Green. Get married there.”

“You always say that, Dave. But we’d need money to live. We’ll just have to wait until we’ve saved up enough.”

He sighed and stuck his hands behind his head. “Colin had a good idea, the other day.”

Ha! Colin was full of good ideas, for other people. But I can’t say a word against him. Dave is very loyal to his friends. “What’s his idea?” I asked.

“Well, Colin read me an article in the paper about a wax museum in London,” said Dave. “We could do that. We could make models of famous people, instead of doing the anatomical things. We could open up our own wax museum and charge people a penny to come inside. You and your mother would create the models. And me and Colin could take care of the money side.”

“I hate wax models.”

“But these would be different, Molly. These wouldn’t be anatomical models.” He shuddered. “I don’t blame you hating those. Who wants to see the insides of people?”

“Well, they’re useful for the medical students,” I said. “They don’t rot like cadavers. And you can’t catch a disease from them. And the students can see diseases that they wouldn’t have a chance of seeing otherwise.”

“Well, fair enough,” said Dave. “I can see that they’re useful for the students. But what I think is that more money could be made making the models of famous people. People would come and pay to see them.”

“Ma would never do that.”

“That’s because she doesn’t understand the possibilities of the money-making side of things. Perhaps I should talk to her.”

“No,” I said hastily. “No. I’ll talk to her.”

But I didn’t talk to her. Because I’ve heard her say often enough about your God-given gifts and the proper usage thereof. That the art, the science of wax modeling, was a tool for the visualization and investigation of the human body. To make a spectacle of wax models would be anathema to Ma. Colin would just have to think of another money-making opportunity.

***

Some models are cast from cadavers or from living models. Others are built solely in the imagination. I was working on a model of a woman, adding layers of soft wax to build up the basic framework of the body. Ma always taught me to create the skeleton first, so I added wax to the bone layer I’d already created. Even though this wouldn’t be viewed, it gave the models their lifelike quality. Ma was running a lime over another model. That’s an old trick that gives the wax skin a lifelike quality.

“Do you want to complete that model, Molly?” asked Ma.

“Do you think I’m ready?” Usually I worked the basic structures and Ma would do the fine details.

“I think you’re ready. The framework is solid.” Ma picked up a bit of wax and rolled it between her finger. “The secret is the wax. When you’re old enough, I’ll let you know the recipe.”

Wax anatomists hoard their secrets like gold. Mademoiselle Biheron was very generous when she gave Ma the recipe for her wax. Biheron wax remains slightly pliant when set, and it never cracks. The recipe was a very valuable secret.

The wax pregnant figure still stood in the corner of the room. “What are you going to do with it, Ma? Is it a commission?”

“It wasn’t a commission,” she said. “I just wanted to make it.”

“Are you going to try to sell it?” I just wished she’d get rid of the thing.

Ma sighed. “I don’t know if I can bear to part with it. It reminds me so much of those days.”

“But those were bad days for you, weren’t they, Ma? When my father abandoned you?” Ma would never speak about my father.

Ma’s mouth grew into a tight line. “They weren’t so bad,” she said. “I had your Grandpa looking after me. And he never said a bad word to me.” She picked up the palette knife and smoothed the lines of a wax arm. “Look, Molly, you’re seventeen now, and you might be thinking about boys.”

“I’m the same age you was when you had me,” I reminded her.

“Well, yes. But what I want to tell you is that you must take your time. If you’re to have a career as an anatomist modeler, you don’t want to be messing around with boys. They take up all your time. You need to dedicate yourself to the art.”

“Babies must be quite time consuming too.”

“Look, Molly. What I’m saying to you is don’t make the mistakes I made. I’ve been invited all over the world to study, Brussels, Berlin, Florence, but I’ve never gone.”

“Are you saying that’s my fault?”

“It would have been easier without a child, yes.”

“Then it’s my fault that you’re not as famous as Mademoiselle Biheron?”

Ma rubbed her eyes. She looked so tired. And that made me feel bad. “I’m not blaming you, at all. Any mistakes I made were my mistakes. Of course they were. But I don’t want you to make the same mistakes.”

I felt cold. Ma was modeling my life to suit her own image. She would never accept my desire to be a normal woman. I loved her so much. She had sacrificed her career for me. I’d no doubt she could have been as successful as Mademoiselle Biheron, if she hadn’t had me. But did that mean I had to sacrifice my life for her dreams?

I thought that if I didn’t leave her now, I’d never get away. She would tie me to her with bonds that I could never break. And I would be unhappy forever.

***

You see what she was like. And you see that she could never understand me. The only thing I wanted was to be with Dave. Body and soul.

“You sure about this?” asked Dave.

“I’ve never been more sure about anything in my life,” I said. “When she sees that I’m not a child, then she’ll just have to come around. Otherwise, she’d have me as an old maid, making wax models all my life.”

He ran his hand up my skin and I shivered.

“You sure you want to, you know?” he asked. “Before we get married? It’s only another day to wait?”

“I want to,” I said sealing his mouth with mine.

***

Dave insisted that I go home and leave a note for Ma. “It’s only right,” he said. “We’ll be in Gretna Green for a few days and she’ll be worried sick.”

I wanted to just go. But he insisted. And finally, I agreed. So just before dawn, I unlatched the kitchen door, thinking to scribble a quick note and be off.

The light was on in the workshop.

Ma, lit by flickering candlelight, sat facing the pregnant wax model.

“Ma, what are you doing?”

She said nothing, just stared into the unhinged wax womb of the model.

“Ma, say something. You’re frightening me.”

Ma sighed. “You know what I wanted for you, Molly. But that’s all gone now. You’re carrying a baby.”

“Ma? I’m not pregnant.”

“Look at the model, Molly.”

I peered at the model and gasped as the unborn wax baby kicked its foot. “It’s alive,” I whispered. I stared at the moving thing within the wax. “What have you done, Ma?”

“It’s not what I’ve done, my darling. It’s what you’ve done. You’re carrying a baby.”

“A baby? But we’d only done it the once.”

“It can happen. Oh, my love, my love. I didn’t want this for you.”

“Did you ever think what I wanted?” My eyes were fixed on the wax baby. It clenched and unclenched its fist. The movement were fluid, organic. This was no mechanical trickery. This was life. “How can this be?” I asked Ma.

“It happened to me when I was working in Mademoiselle Biheron’s workshop, when I fell pregnant with you. The model I’d made, it was a heart, began to twitch. It will only last for a few hours.”

“But why is it moving?”

“You know the myth that Prometheus shaped the first men out of clay?”

“Of course.”

“But who breathed life into the clay models?”

“Athena.”

“Yes. Athena breathed life into the first humans. This is a woman’s thing, Molly. A thing that is not of science.”

The wax baby turned. Was there really something inside of me that was also moving?

Ma said, “You are so like me, Molly. Just like everyone always said. You’ve made exactly the same mistake as me. I thought that you could devote yourself to your art, your science. I thought that you could be as great as Mademoiselle Biheron.”

“I never wanted that.”

“No, I see that now.”

“Dave wants to marry me.”

“Dave, is that his name? He knows you’re pregnant?”

“Of course not. I didn’t know until you showed me this.”

“Yes. I’m sorry, Molly. Well, your father didn’t want to marry me, my love. Or maybe he did. He was medical student. And he was a lord. He couldn’t have married me even if he wanted to. I wonder if he ever thinks of me.”

“Or me?”

“I didn’t tell him about you, Molly. I didn’t want to ruin his life. His family would never have allowed it. So I left without telling him and returned home to your Grandpa.”

“Oh, Ma.” How hard it must have been for her.

I stared at the slowly moving baby, and I thought about how hard she worked. How many insults had she endured? How many snide remarks from the medical men at the university? All to pursue her art, her science.

“And you’re to marry your young man,” she said with a sad smile. “And you’ll be moving into a home with him.” She sighed. “I would very much like you to stay with me.”

“Ma, I’ve got my own life to live,” I said. But I was looking at the wax baby and wondering about the things I’ve never understood.

“Did you ever tell the men at the university about this?” I asked.

Ma shook her head. “The world can be defined only so far, my love. There are things that are not the concern of science.”

Yes. She was right.

Mother and daughter, we sat and watched the slowly moving wax baby. I felt a great content within me. I had judged my mother as a child judges an adult. But I was a child no longer.

“Ma, I’d like to continue to work in the workshop, if that’s okay with you.”

“Of course it is, Molly. And I’ll help you with the baby. It will all be fine.”

“And tomorrow you’ll meet Dave. We can arrange the wedding together.” There was no need to tell her about our plans to elope.

She squeezed my hand. Mother and daughter, we watched the spark of life transferred into the wax. Mother and daughter, we marveled at the strangeness of life, of a creation that could never be fully understood.

I am my mother’s daughter.

 

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