To a person glancing through the door, my dissection room appeared to be ordinary barn storage. Grandmother had forbidden me and Laure to play here, claiming the floorboards had rotted and we would fall through and break our legs. I had to use the back entrance for my visits, accessed by a path in the forest that abutted Grandmother’s land.
The squirrel’s yellow teeth poked through its lips. Its paws, curled to the chest as if it were begging, resisted my efforts to open them. The animal was already beginning to stiffen, but whether this was from cold or rigor mortis I could not tell. Its legs were also hard to manoeuvre, but somehow I managed to get the body done, laying him out on his back like a little man. My pins had a delicate confectionary smell that was incongruous with the odour of newly dead squirrel. I sniffed as I fastened him down, wincing as the metal pricks punctured his hide. The last preparatory step involved the microscope, which I lugged to the crate next to the dissection area for easy access.
My knife pierced the belly skin, releasing a gush of pink fluid that arced up, splattering the camel-hair coat Grandmother made for me last Christmas. I stepped back, staring stupidly at the line streaking my front, then reached for my apron. I had been careless. A fault I knew well, as Grandmother pointed it out to me every single day. She was right. I tended to forget about the most basic things: my hair was often half undone, my stockings sagged at my ankles.
Up until that day in the barn I had worked mostly with plants and insects. The closest I had come to anything alive were the tiny creatures inhabiting the scum of ponds or nestling in the bones of meat on the turn. This was the first time an animal with blood still warm in its veins had fallen into my hands. I cut again, this time down the middle, adding two perpendicular slits at the ends to form doors in the animal’s belly. These I peeled back and pinned, exposing the dark innards. My fingers were wet and red. Behind me there was a gasp.
Laure was in the doorway, mittens covering her mouth, her eyes starting to roll up in their sockets. She swayed, her pupils expanding into black holes.
I swung my hands in back of me. “Laure,” I said quickly. “It’s all right. Nothing. I’ll wash it away.” I plunged my hands into the bucket.