The first skull was traded to me by a former acquaintance in exchange for cocaine. The older I got, the less interested I was in drugs. But a human skull? It’s not that I wanted it, not really—I just wanted to look at it, to hold it. The acquaintance in question was a musician, a drummer. I don’t know where he got the skull, or why, if it was used on stage with his heavy metal band, in private Satanic rites, or if it was just a morbid decoration he kept around to impress visitors. Whatever the case, he had outgrown it, so to speak. And so it fell into my hands.
Nothing compares to holding an authentic human skull. To know that it once housed a man’s brain—his perceptions, memories, personality, desires, hallucinations—and was attached by a neck to an entire mobile, living body. It is immensely moving, a silent scream of life and death, the immediacy and ultimate absurdity of existence. And it never gets old.
The skull lived in an old plastic storage bin underneath the floorboards in my bedroom. For the most part, it stayed hidden, except when I took it out to hold and ponder while I drank my cheap Canadian whiskey.
About six months went by like that. And then the drummer—the one who traded me the skull in the first place—got an inquiry, which he passed along to me. Someone wanted to buy the skull for $1,000. So I made the deal, and the guy—another musician type, a guitarist—paid me in a stack of twenties. I bought myself a case of nice beer and thought about the skull while I drank.
That night a quick internet search confirmed my suspicions. There was a demand for skulls, and it was a seller’s market.
I was surviving, but without a steady income I was completely broke, and I needed to pay off some debts and put some money into my car. And so that’s how I got into graverobbing.
Like I said, money was short in those days. After high school, I worked at the cannery until it shut down. Then it was odd jobs, restaurants, a bit of this and that. Sometimes on the margin of legal, but nothing heavy. I considered myself lucky to wind up living where I could keep a low profile and not worry about a pain-in-the-ass landlord. A handful of punks and eccentrics lived in trailers and cottages on the land. It wasn’t a commune, just a living situation—convenient for the time.
In a cottage across the way, on the hill on the other side of the garden where some people were growing vegetables and pot, that’s where Imogen lived. She made money by selling hand-woven crafts on the internet. She would sit and weave in the sun on the top of the hill with her dog. And sometimes she would stand there in the light looking off toward the highway or toward the forest. And I would watch her from down by the blackberries where I sometimes sat in a plastic chair to drink beer. I always thought she looked like a sorceress or a queen from the ancient past.
I was surviving, but without a steady income I was completely broke, and I needed to pay off some debts and put some money into my car. And so that’s how I got into graverobbing. At the time it seemed like easy money. The dead don’t need their bones anymore, do they?
There are certain small cemeteries in the country where the job is easy. I stuck with the oldest graves, because I figured the flesh and everything would be completely rotted away. I wanted clean bones. I picked graves at the edges of the lot, underneath trees where the grass doesn’t grow and it’s harder to notice when the soil’s been upset.
Sometimes I found valuables, like rings and pocket watches, but for some reason I felt guilty about snatching these. That would be stealing. I can’t say for certain why the skull felt different. I’d read somewhere, maybe in Tacitus, that the ancient Germans would keep the skulls of enemies slain in battle arrayed as prizes in their homes. It’s grisly, yeah, but there’s something noble about it, a kind of respect.
I sold the skulls online, cleaned, wrapped in plastic bubbles, boxed, and labeled “Fragile— antique.” I contacted the guitarist to whom I’d sold my first skull, and told him if he knew anyone else in the market, I was the man. After a handful of online sales, I received word from him. He knew someone who knew someone, he said, that needed something. Not a skull, but something else. A hand of glory. The left hand of a murderer, convicted and hanged, cut off and preserved, then fitted with a candle made from the fat of the deceased—that was the hand of glory. As you might imagine, this gruesome object was traditionally ascribed with great magic powers. I was amazed that anyone could want such a thing, and equally sure that it would be impossible to obtain.
My violations of the country graves had so far gone unnoticed. The money was real, and I didn’t mind the work. And so despite my skepticism, I told the guitarist he could pass along my number.
The sorcerer insisted I meet him at his house. It was clear he needed to impress me with his wealth, as he made us drink expensive brandy in his study, on leather chairs, surrounded by leather-bound books. The musty room stank of oil and wood. The sorcerer himself was middle-aged, his hair prematurely white. He was a retired musician who now wrote books on black magic and witchcraft, and he was well-connected in those circles. I sat and drank his drinks while he presented me with his collection of human skulls carved with magic sigils. He was eager to know what I thought of them, and I tried to give an impression of expertise.
And then we spoke of hands of glory, and I confessed my ignorance of how to acquire such an item. For one thing, murderers were no longer hanged, and if they had been long ago their hands would surely be nothing but bone, whereas the magic required pickled flesh. But the sorcerer explained that for his purposes, these specifications were more flexible. Execution by hanging wasn’t necessary—a suicide would suffice. And in those days there were plenty.
What about the murder? Wasn’t the hand supposed to be that of a killer? But the sorcerer explained that suicide is indeed the taking of a human life, the crime which is its own punishment. As for the candle, it needn’t be made entirely from human fat, just so long as there was some mixed in. And so all that was needed, really, was the left arm of a suicide, recently committed, from which both hand and fat could be taken.
I wasn’t keen on dealing with corpses. Skeletons were one thing, but the thought of sawing flesh made me nauseous. We negotiated my price, and I made the old man agree to pay for a lawyer if I got caught by the police. I used the newspapers to track the latest suicides and waited until one struck a remote community. It didn’t take long. I wore a disposable respirator to deal with the smell and brought along a saw. These I dumped in a river, and burned my clothes, when the night was done. I didn’t like the idea of that fresh DNA on any of my possessions. The body was a man’s, roughly the same age as the sorcerer, probably laid off from the lumber mill when it closed last year. I timed the operation for the night of a snow, so when I covered everything up and left there with the arm wrapped in painter’s tarp, a nice couple inches were still to fall, and by the morning everything would have been clean and white.
The sorcerer looked at me with great reverence when I brought him the arm. He paid me my fee, and then offered to put me in touch with a friend of his, a private publisher of custom books.
It’s strange how fast it all happened—in just a span of two months, I’d gone from collecting old skulls to harvesting human skin for the binding of magical books. But someone has to do these things, and the money was too good to pass up. Once I had fixed up my car, paid back some debts, and bought some nice things for the house, I opened a savings account, and began to buy gold coins that I hid underneath the floorboards where I used to keep my skull. I bought an AR-15 and lots of ammunition. You could never be too sure in those days. I had to look out for myself and I often dreamed idly about buying some land of my own one day and settling down with Imogen and a couple of dogs.
The publisher owned a small, secret bookstore in the city, tucked in a dark alley behind an unmarked door. I liked to sit there and look through his collection of strange volumes. Black magic barely interested me, except the parts that involved the use of dead bodies, to which I took a craftsman’s interest. I was much keener on the stories, bound in cloth and leather, some embossed with silver or gold; ancient stories, modern stories, about strange gods and distant planets, dreams of unique and striking symbols, mixed with arcane philosophical theories, streaks of horror, science fiction, and sex.
I went farther and farther afield for the publisher, sometimes taking up odd requests from the sorcerer as well. I didn’t want to attract any heat, of course, so I had to stop digging around close to home. I used different cars, wore disguises, drove far out two days in advance and circled back round to the spot. Perhaps I took it all too seriously, but still today I’m proud of the fact I was never caught.
One day a strange man came into the shop, a customer. The publisher, busy at work in the basement, had warned me there’d be an appointment, and asked I take care of it.
Black magic barely interested me, except the parts that involved the use of dead bodies, to which I took a craftsman’s interest.
The man was tall, and like many in those circles (including, now, myself) dressed completely in black. He wore a mask, porcelain and solid black aside from the frightening crimson circles painted on the eyes; there were no eyeholes, and it was not clear if or how he saw anything. He was wearing a black turtleneck sweater, blazer, and gloves. I had seen eccentric customers come and go in the book shop, but even in a place like this, I thought his appearance excessive. The ensemble might have been ridiculous, were not the impression he gave so chilling. His age was impossible to determine, and he spoke with a deep, cold timbre that was like the groaning of dark pipes.
He had reserved for purchase a book on necromancy, freshly made by the man downstairs.
“I take it you are the one who supplied the skin for this binding,” he said, when I had taken the volume from its place and displayed it for him.
His words chilled me. Goosepimples ran up my arms and neck. If he were a cop, it would have been all over right then and there.
I said nothing. He ran his gloved hand along the surface of the book. “I need someone like you,” he said. “Come work for me.”
Doing what, I asked him cautiously. I noticed the publisher in the basement doorway, peering out, watching us, nervously wiping his hands on a towel. It was obvious then he had known this was coming, and I felt faintly betrayed by his cowardice in leaving me alone with this ghoul.
Doing what, I asked again.
As it turned out, it really was as simple as that. All I had to do was drive. The necromancer never asked that I help with his procedures, or even help with lifting the bodies or cleaning the car—my colleague, the processor, took care of all that. I was never invited into the laboratory, nor did I want to be. All I did was drive.
For whatever reason, the necromancer’s procedures had to be carried out in a moving vehicle. I never understood why, and I never asked. Cars were never mentioned in the necromantic books I perused at the shop, but then again, I didn’t read them closely, and I didn’t have the education or the patience for allegory. Of course, nearly anyone can drive a car. But he wanted someone who was comfortable in this world. Someone he could trust, someone who wouldn’t get nauseous around dead bodies.
I don’t know where the bodies came from. I had nothing to do with procuring them. Some, I think, were obtained purely for the sake of experimentation. But others were brought by clients, who paid the necromancer for his services. That’s how he was able to pay me and the processor so well. I never knew who the processor was. Like the necromancer, I never saw his face. He wore a mask exactly like the necromancer’s, except with painted eyes that were white instead of crimson. Whenever we worked, he wore a black butcher’s smock and vinyl gloves. I sometimes wondered what his story was, how he ended up in this line of work—if it was by accident, like me, or if he was chasing some dark science or passion of his own. I never knew, because in all the time I worked with him I never heard him utter a single word.
We only worked at night. The necromancer’s laboratory was in the old industrial park on the outskirts of town. Near the derelict cannery where I used to work, there was some disused buildings, abandoned for many years. I would go at the appointed time, park my car and start up the necromancer’s car, an antique four-door Chrysler. The front passenger seat was rear facing, and the back seats were always covered with fresh tarp. I wore gloves and a respirator, though for whatever reason I was never offered one of the demonic masks that my co-worker and our employer invariably wore.
I would start the car, get it warm. And then the necromancer would appear at the door. Sometimes, a client would be with him—a frightened husband, grim and business-like figures—though often he was alone, in his dark clothes and mask, carrying his antique leather physician’s valise. And he would then be followed by the processor, masked and wearing his rubber smock and gloves, and carrying over his shoulder a dead body wrapped in black plastic and duct tape.
Why did we have to drive? It wasn’t the night air, because the windows were always kept tightly shut. And it had nothing to do with direction or speed. I drove out into the country, either into the woods or out into farmland. Sometimes I’d pick a stretch of road and follow it all night until it was time to turn around. Sometimes I’d cut a wide loop, or crisscross backroads and shortcuts. I got a map and familiarized myself with every road in the area. Sometimes I’d plan a route, sometimes I’d improvise. None of it seemed to matter—as long as I didn’t stop.
As I drove out away from the laboratory, the processor started his work. The necromancer sat in the front passenger seat, which as I said was backwards so he could direct the proceedings, and the processor worked in the back with the body. As far as I know, the necromancer never touched the bodies. I never saw him lay a finger on a single one of our “subjects,” as he called them. But he directed the processor’s every move with his voice.
I barely understood a word of what the necromancer said during this process. He used so much Latin, I suppose both from medical and occult terminology, that it was impossible for me to follow what he was saying. I was curious but satisfied to remain ignorant. I wasn’t apprenticing at this stuff. I was there to get paid and go home, and I regarded the whole job, at the time, as highly temporary. What I know of the process, I know from stealing glances in the rearview mirror.
None of it seemed to matter—as long as I didn’t stop.
The processor would open the necromancer’s valise, which contained a variety of knives, surgical tools, and glass bottles. And then, at the necromancer’s direction, he began his work, first by unwrapping the naked body from the plastic, and then by cutting it open from the navel to the chest. The first subject was a woman. It was only after driving several times for the necromancer that I realized that each one of his subjects was female.
The process proceeded with the removal of various internal organs, all described in voluminous Latin by the necromancer. Whether this was instruction, narration, or a magical incantation, I have no idea—I suspect it was some combination of all three.
The processor placed the organs in a plastic tray. When he had done this, he then set to work on them with various tools. I’m uncertain, but I believe he may have been inscribing them with words or signs. After this, the organs were replaced in the body, and the abdomen was carefully sewn up tight.
The end of the process was perhaps the strangest of all. The processor took a bottle of spirits from the valise—80 proof alcohol, distilled by the necromancer himself in the laboratory—and poured it into the subject’s mouth. And then the necromancer would utter the words: “And now she has become fertile.” And that was it.
When we returned to the lab, the processor carried the body back into the laboratory. I didn’t know what happened after that. The necromancer paid me in cash. Afterward, I changed my clothes and later burned them. The spirits used in the process were bottled in green glass stamped with attractive Old World labels. The necromancer sometimes offered me cases of the stuff for free and I took it. At home I drank heavily and tried to forget the night’s work with games, films, music, pornography. I liked guitar music, slow and low, droning, rumbling, hypnotic. I waited and listened for freedom in the sudden pinch or twist of distortion.
I never planned on keeping it up for long. After a while I started to feel restless, ready to leave the necro game entirely. Graves, bodies, black magic—I’d had my fill. I couldn’t let it become my life. There was a time, not so long in the past, when I went to parties, live music, galleries, clubs. I had friends, women. There were late nights, jokes, memories.
In my room alone, I drank and dreamed of better days.
Weeks and months went by. I drove for the necromancer, and I still leafed through old books in the shop, but the publisher understood I didn’t want to bother digging for him anymore, and his trade would have to lapse into ordinary vellum. But one night, when I wasn’t working, I drove out to an old country cemetery and dug. Of course, driving paid far better than when I was hunting bodies. The dirt, the sweat, the risk, none of it seemed worthwhile now compared to driving for the necromancer. But I suppose part of me missed the thrill of it. And more than that, I wanted a skull.
It was late in the winter, almost spring. Imogen never did her weaving outside anymore in the cold, and so I had to imagine her inside where it was warm. I don’t know for certain how the fire started. It must have been an old blanket or a piece of clothing thrown over the wood stove. Maybe she got wet outside in the cold and put something there to dry, and forgot about it, and something caught fire.
I had been drinking that night, like I did almost every night. I was listening to music and drinking and staring at my skull. I kept it in the same box where the first skull used to live, now on a bed of American and Canadian dollars and Mexican pesos. I was gazing into those black cavities of its former eyes and dreaming about the future and the past and about the beautiful unreal stories from the magic books, dreaming about Imogen. And then I heard the barking of Imogen’s dog.
From my window I could see her cottage. I pulled back the curtain and saw nothing but a hand of orange flame glowing on the hill.
I screamed to wake up the others who lived in the trailer-park, seized the fire extinguisher from the closet, and raced outside and up to the burning image. Imogen’s dog was waiting for me outside and ran with me to the fire, barking frantically. It quickly became obvious that the flames were too much to combat. And so I burst through the flaming door.
What had happened to Imogen? Intoxication, suicide, or a sleep so near to death that its flaming triumph was barely noticed. She lay on her bed, her body engulfed in fire.
With a blast of the extinguisher, I sprayed her with chemical foam. And then I clutched her in my arms and pulled her over my shoulder and was out into the blur of smoke and snow. The others were there, shouting, calling the fire department. I collapsed Imogen into the snowy grass and wiped the foam from her face. There was no doubt that she was dead. Her face ravaged and blackened by the fire, she had no pulse and no breath. I gave her mine, tried to force air into her lungs, to pump her blood with chest compressions, but it was useless.
I knew I had to be quick, because an ambulance could arrive at any moment. I left the others to deal with the fire. I took Imogen to my car, and I went into my room and took out all my boxes of gold and money. The dog chased after me, still barking, chasing the car even as I sped away down the highway towards town. I dialed the necromancer’s number until he answered. Imogen’s body, still smoking, filled my car with the smell of charred flesh, hair, and fabric.
Outside the laboratory, I showed him the body. He waved a hand over her disfigured face, her melted skin, her ruined hair. I opened the bins of treasure and threw them at his feet, spilling cash and clattering coins, and the skull there with it.
Take everything, I told him. Take it all. Just bring her back to life.
To life—is that what the process did? The truth was, I’d never seen a subject afterward. I had no idea what happened to them, not really. But whatever chance I was taking, or wasting, I could see no other choice.
The processor appeared with us outside, and he took Imogen’s body to prepare her while the necromancer gathered up the money. I pulled from the bottle of spirits I’d brought with me, letting the cold bite into my skin as I gazed at stars and towers of rust, leaning against the rumbling Chrysler as it got warm for Imogen. When the necromancer and the processor reappeared, their masks with the horrible painted eyes saw through me, and I was nothing to them. But I didn’t care. The processor put Imogen in the Chrysler, we climbed in, and I drove us away, far away from the industrial park and into the dark woods.
I was driving too fast. I was reckless, trembling with fear. The processor unwrapped Imogen. He had stripped her naked and washed her body, cleaned off the soot, so that now the savage burns in all their rawness screamed from what should have been her milk-white skin. Watching in the rear-view mirror, I cried out when I saw her, and began to weep.
I had driven too far out. I wasn’t familiar with this stretch of road. And it was getting late, dawn would be coming soon.
The necromancer recited his cryptic words with the same mechanical murmur as he always did, directing the processor, weaving his science of life and death. He had taken with him the skull from my treasure box, my skull, and held it in his lap, idly caressing its crown while he intoned his Medieval secrets. Was he working harder, more earnestly, because he knew I loved this woman? I doubted it, because I perceived him as a monster, but it seemed that perhaps indeed he cared.
As always the processor opened the subject’s—Imogen’s—abdomen and chest, and removed her liver and kidneys, reaching up beneath the sternum to draw out her heart, and placed them in the tray with the other organs whose names I didn’t know. And as always, he carved them with his implements, inscribing them with sigils or magic words before replacing them in Imogen’s body and sewing up the wound.
Trees rushed past us, naked in the terror of my headlights.
And then the final part. The processor brought the bottle to her slack, blistered lips and poured the spirits into her throat. And the necromancer said his final words:
“And now she has become fertile.”
I had driven too far out. I wasn’t familiar with this stretch of road. And it was getting late, dawn would be coming soon. I turned around and sped back the other way, tearing dirt and gravel into the air behind us. For whatever reason, I knew we had to get back to the laboratory before sunrise.
I was done crying. I’d wiped the tears and snot from my face with the sleeve of my shirt. Now, as I drove us down the road, with the processor sitting quietly on the floor behind me, and the necromancer still idly stroking the crown of my skull as he stared (vacantly? Or with deep absorption?) at the body of Imogen, I said, what happens now? Will she live? And the necromancer replied:
“Come with us to the rooftop and see for yourself.”
At the industrial park the sky was turning blue with the approaching sun. For the first time, I saw the processor rush, throwing Imogen over his shoulder and racing into the laboratory. The necromancer led me inside, and I averted my gaze from the steel surgical tables, I refused to glance at the labels on the shelves of plastic bins, my eyes did not linger on the tall translucent vats filled with human bodies suspended in viscous blue. Ascending a metal stairway, we emerged on the roof as the first dawn light was breaking in the east.
The processor had placed Imogen’s body on a mat, and now was lighting incense, and now was throwing pink rose petals all around her.
The necromancer touched my arm, holding me at a distance as I watched the proceedings.
Having covered the ground and her body with flowers, the processor stood back, and from the necromancer’s valise he retrieved a customized clarinet, and as the red sun broke over the ruins of the cannery and the abandoned factories and warehouses, he began to play a sweet and mystic drone.
Imogen rose from the ground, naked and apparently alive. Amid the smoke and flowers, in the dawn light, she began to dance, swaying her hips, stretching out her arms, undulating her body in a slow, sacred jazz.
Was this Imogen? Was this the necromancer? Or was this me?
I stepped forward, toward Imogen, toward the sun. The light bathed her in ugliness. She danced in death, her repulsive disfiguration.
And I loved her.