Loren Rhoads is a friend of mine and she’s in one of my critique groups. I love her research stories. If you haven’t read any of her stuff—fiction or non-fiction alike, you have a treat waiting for you. Today, she’s got one hell of a research story to tell you.
One of the stories in Unsafe Words, my new collection, features Alondra DeCourval, a witch who travels the world to protect people from supernatural monsters and vice versa. I’ve written a series of stories about her over the years.
While I haven’t yet finished a novel about Alondra, I know a lot about her life. Many of the stories I’ve written take place in the year after her teacher suffers a catastrophic heart attack. Alondra panics, unable to face living in the world without Victor’s protection. She goes to more and more extreme lengths to save his life. Although “Valentine” — the story in Unsafe Words — was written early in the cycle, it actually takes place toward the end of Victor’s life.
Of all the Alondra stories, “Valentine” had the most hands-on research. I was lucky enough to have a friend whose brother taught at a small university in Northern California. When I wished someone would teach a human anatomy class for writers, Tom invited me to visit his gross anatomy lab. For two days, he gave me private lessons, using his teaching cadavers.
It had been eighteen years since I dissected a fetal pig in ninth-grade Biology. Just stepping into a science classroom after so many years was strange. The room full of rows of black countertops, tall stools pulled alongside, felt like a dream from childhood.
The bodies weren’t kept in refrigeration units. Instead, they waited in the front of the classroom, lying in a long stainless steel bin with a hinged two-piece top. One of the memories still clear from ninth-grade dissection was the headache-inducing smell of formaldehyde. Thank goodness preservative technology improved.
When Tom folded open the stainless steel lid, a length of muslin floated atop the brownish red liquid inside. I recoiled but couldn’t look away. Too thin for blood, the liquid reminded me of beef broth. Pools of oil slicked its surface.
Tom moved to the far end of the tank. “See that handle there? You can help me by turning it.”
There should have been scary music as we cranked the cadavers out of the fluid. The bodies rose slowly until the muslin took on their outlines. Two corpses lay head to feet. Through their shrouds, I saw bared teeth and the flensed musculature of jaw.
If Tom had made them twitch, I would have leapt out of my own skin.
He pulled on some heavy turquoise rubber gloves, then folded back the muslin so it shrouded both faces and one entire body. The other woman lay naked and revealed. Her skin had been stripped away. The muscle fibers of her chest were very directional and clear, the raw color of a New York strip steak. Some of the muscles on her arms had been removed to display the bones and tendons beneath. Her fingertips still had skin and nails. Her flesh was the color of dried blood.
Over the next two days, Tom patiently led me through a semester’s worth of anatomy. Toward the end, he lectured me about cardiac structures. Without warning, he reached out to put a human heart in my hand.
The heart was smaller than I expected, about the size of my fist. I turned it over in my gloves, peering into every opening. I felt like Hamlet with Yorick’s skull. I knew instantly that I was gazing at my own death. My father will die of heart disease, like his father before him. I don’t see how I can escape destiny.
That moment — holding a stranger’s heart in my hand — led directly to writing “Valentine.”
Loren Rhoads is the author of a space opera trilogy, a duology about a succubus who falls in love with an angel, and a collection of short stories called Unsafe Words. You can find out more about her work at https://lorenrhoads.com/