The Anatomy of Witchdaughter

I’m sorry, Russa thinks. But I need something for my thesis. Something worthy of all-nighters, her parents’ part-time jobs, and endless scholarship applications serving her family’s trauma to eat. Something worthy of the theft her class committed to get this mummy here.

She lays a nitrile-gloved hand on the mummy’s bare one. Desiccated by smoke and salt, it’s only a little smaller than her own, aside from the nails, which—on the mummy’s right hand only—are long, and sharpened, like daggers.

Like the Kabayan fire mummies, this mummy was made long before the Spanish descended with crucifixes, taxes, surnames from a catalog. Like Russa herself, all that remains of generations of lives and stories is a body, removed from home.

This can’t be what you wanted to happen to you.

But, I need to do this.

In the lab, the mummy’s body looks painfully out of place: a wrinkled husk, cocooned by steel tables and white walls. It’s the brownest thing here, aside from Russa herself.

That the mummy made it here thanks to something closer to looting than science is a thought Russa keeps to herself; the word the professor uses to describe their actions is heroic. Witchdaughter—christened so by the professor, after cursory examination of the mummy’s tattoos—would have been lost to real thieves, had the class not acted swiftly after someone in their cohort, now dismissed, posted photos about their overseas study trip without scrubbing off the geolocation metadata.

The cave raids that followed, however, left Witchdaughter and her baskets untouched. Preserved, as if by some real magic, for honest academic analysis, rather than for some corrupt private collection or black market auction.

The class brought Witchdaughter to the labs. They dismantled the baskets, finding mangoes, stone-hard; and clothing, faded; and a pariah dog, so well-preserved its fuzzy forehead still bears an indent that looks left behind by one last, loving stroke. Now, only Witchdaughter remains. Russa set the class’s curve, so she has the honor. Everyone watches, silent, exhibiting none of the grumbling Russa overheard earlier, that the professor chose her only to mitigate the burgeoning outrage.

“It’s fine we took the mummy, it’s fine we’re dissecting it—look at who’s holding the knife!”

The scalpel’s blade is mirror-bright. Russa’s drumming heart drowns out the professor’s instruction.

“Witchdaughter” could be her great-great-and-so-on-grandmother. In another life, Witchdaughter could have been her aunt. Her cousin. Sister. In some universe where Russa had grown up in a culture left to its own, maybe Witchdaughter is what would have become of Russa herself, preserved for…some reason.

I’m sorry.

But the findings will be—worth it. Worth the studying, the forced smiles, the questions about whether she’s in the right place, because the lab is for students. Worth the dismemberment of one of her own. She grits her teeth. Plunges the blade.

After centuries, what Russa should find is a leather-like texture. But Witchdaughter’s skin is pliant; the intricate geometries of her tattoos peel back in neat curls as the cut lengthens, and deepens. The cohort buzzes, enumerating every organ, which are desiccated to a shine they appear wet: the tuck of kidneys, a slab of liver, the crepe-paper coil of entrails. Witchdaughter’s shriveled stomach, incised and inverted, reveals her last meal: a brine so strong the lining glitters with salt crystals that rattle on the table as they fall.

Fascinating, but typical. There has to be more.

Russa continues carving, digging. There has to be some discovery here, somewhere, inlaid into bones and dusted muscle. Had Witchdaughter liked her life? When she drank saltwater and laid herself to dry over a fire—did she think she’d remain undisturbed forever? Or did she believe there would be some new world awaiting?

I’m sorry, Russa thinks again. Then she thinks: Was it worth it? Is this what you wanted—what your family prepared you for? Being pulled apart miles from home—being analyzed by people who know nothing about you?

Russa hesitates. She’s so close, she’s sure, to something new—but her scalpel stills, over Witchdaughter’s bare chest. Someone says, I can take it, if you’re feeling squeamish, but Russa jerks her head, No. She ignores the stares seeking shudders and stops, any sign her emotions are interfering with objective scientific analysis of this body, her distant blood.

I can do this.

Russa’s hand lifts. Her scalpel raises, and thrusts, into Witchdaughter’s chest—puncturing a tender swath of skin, a void between ribs. It’s an act of precision. The unmarked skin gives unexpectedly easy under the blade, and—There it is—something new.

Here, Witchdaughter’s skin has been cut before, and stitched shut again. The ancient thread, loosened, quivers in the room’s air conditioning. Russa feels her heart skip, with excitement.

But why? Why a previous incision?

She discovers soon enough. Despite the miraculous preservation of Witchdaughter’s body, there is, in fact, something missing. Between the mummy’s deflated lungs is an absence: a hole where a heart should be. It’s been perfectly excised, all connective tissue trimmed, leaving the ribs an empty cradle.

Then, Russa learns the answers to her other questions. Witchdaughter’s hand lifts. The fingers raise, and thrust, into Russa’s chest—puncturing a tender swath of skin, a void between ribs. It’s an act of precision. The skin gives unexpectedly easy under dagger-sharp nails, which twist neatly around Russa’s heart, and yank. The veins unspool out of her, with a snap, with a whip of blood and agony. Russa’s heart, perfectly excised, gleams mirror-bright. She tries to scream, but can’t hear it—can’t hear, even, the screams and crashing around her—she hears only the drumming throb of last of her hopes, leaking, spilling, everywhere. Her heart plunges into Witchdaughter’s waiting ribcage, which closes like a jaw. Flesh mends over, blooming with tattoos that look so freshly pricked they’re limned in reddish skin. Witchdaughter sits up, her hollow eye sockets filling, brimming wetly. Her mouth moves, and Russa understands what she’s saying. What she feels.

I’m sorry.