The Embalmer’s Assistant

by Amanda Hitchcock

His photograph stands out to me.

It’s faded and folded, probably kept in a wallet.

He isn’t smiling, nor is he staring at the camera.

He is looking off somewhere, at something that nobody else can see.

When I look at the body in front of me, the only part of him I recognize is that stare. His eyes wide, looking through the ceiling, looking through me when I examine his face, staring at something above the both of us until I close them permanently and glue them shut before they dry out.

I don’t usually ask about cases like this, because I don’t want to know.

But this man. He was…is, I guess, practically my age.

When I asked for the story, Rick told me he had drowned.

“Idiot just went sprinting off into the ocean,” he said, shaking his head. “The family says he saw something and went after it. Poor fool never came back. They found him and fished him out the next day.”

I stared at his skin, loose and colored with yellows and purples. His jaw hung open, gaping, his eyes wide and unrelenting.

Yet somehow, filled with the light of curiosity and aliveness.

“I’ll hand him over when I’m done,” Rick muttered. “Shouldn’t be too difficult. Hopefully the veins haven’t gone soft. ”

“Take your time. I’m going to be here for awhile tonight anyways by the looks of him.” I said. His hands were a map of lines and folds; loose skin and pruning from water. The fingers were an odd shade of blue, and the veins were raised and wide. A few of his nails were missing. The others were transparent.

“His file is over there.” Rick gestured to a folder resting on the counter. “If you want it.”

Now that his eyes are shut, I wish I hadn’t closed them.

I feel like I’ve lost a clue, as if the thing he saw might still be reflected in them somewhere. I’m sure that, even though they are closed, they are searching.

Plaster the left side of his nose. It is missing.

Sew the gums to align the jaw. Caulk the teeth with plaster to keep jaw shut.

Repair right ear with wax. Cartilage is damaged.

His face begins to take shape, and I begin to see the young man from the photograph.

Adam Garrison

D.O.B: March 3rd, 1988

Drowned- In ocean for about 24 hours

Funeral Date: July 12th

Type: Standard Burial and Service

Family Requests: Please do not make him look like he is wearing makeup.

After about two hours of basic reconstruction, his face, save for the color, is serene.  His skin, blue and deep lies flat against the planes of his face. I glance at my watch. 11:47p.m.

I still need to put the color into his skin. People forget that I cannot bring the deceased back to life, I just make them look that way. However, I imagine that if I could raise the dead, it’d be a much quicker process.

I used to watch my mother apply her makeup when I was young. I would sit on a small stool behind her, silently, as she brushed on rouge and mascara. When she turned away from the mirror, she no longer looked like my mother. A woman with hard eyes, waxy skin, and wet lips had taken her place. She terrified me.

Eventually I decided to try my hand at makeup. I was young then, curious. I stole into my mother’s bathroom that day and grabbed a handful of brightly colored cosmetics. I mimicked her movements, her brushstrokes, her expressions. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I found my lips to be too red, my eyes too dark, like a living doll. I washed my face until it stung. This exaggeration of life was frightening to me. When my mother found her makeup on my hands and clothes, something changed in her face. She, too, was frightened of something she did not understand. She, too, saw something other than her son standing before her. So much color on such a young face, I thought, must not be allowed.

But the dead are different.

My hand shakes a little as I spread an orange foundation over his face. His skin is soft and cold against my fingers. The orange neutralizes the blue into a deep peachy color, alien to anyone of the human race, but a more workable color nonetheless. Then I add whites and skin tones. His skin begins to look more like flesh.

I draw in his eyebrows, not too dark and careful on the arches so as to make him look restful. I add highlights around his eyes, on his forehead, and along his cheekbones. His face looks fuller now.

Before I paint his mouth, I pull it outward, into something between a smile and a frown. Then I add color: a soft, nude pink.

It takes me two hours to make him look like he is alive… rather, that he is not dead. To make him look almost like he is sleeping peacefully on a metal table under harsh lights. Even now, his skin is not skin. It is too yellow. I can feel his eyes staring beneath his eyelids, permanently closed to the outside world. I know he can see through them, and I know I have to keep trying. I will bring him back.

I do not sleep. I spend the night bent over the dead Adam Garrison, my face inches from his breathless one, working to fill his features where his skin has grown sallow and loose.

I dress him the next morning. Rick and a few others load him into a coffin and then into a car. I go with them to the viewing. It’ll be my first.

“You did a fine job on him. Kinda freaked me out actually,” Rick smiles as he climbs into the driver’s seat.


“I was afraid he’d jump out of the coffin or something. This is one of your better ones.”

“I just…this case really intrigued me,” I admitted, turning to face Rick directly.

“Never get too invested,” he warned. “Makes things more difficult when they put’em in the ground.”

I nod.

“Nice suit by the way,” Rick chuckles. “You look like a waiter.”

When we arrive at the house, it is early afternoon and it is hot outside. It’s the kind of heat that hits you like a punch to the stomach, so that you feel like you’re drowning in thick air. Rick and the other men in the back of the car lift the coffin out and carry it to the door. I ring the doorbell. After a few minutes, a wiry man in a black suit appears in the doorway. I recognize him from the photograph.

“Hello sir,” Rick begins. “Is Mr. or Mrs. Garrison available?”

The man nods solemnly.

“I am Mr. Garrison. My wife is currently occupied. She…she’s been having a difficult time. We all have. It’s to be expected I guess, but no parent should ever have to put their child in the ground.”

He gestures for us to come inside. It is hotter in the house, and pricks of sweat form along the back of my neck. I wonder if it is acceptable to remove my suit jacket, but I leave it on.

Mr. Garrison leads us through a small crowd of people dressed in black, talking in whispers. They all stop and turn to stare at the coffin as Rick and company struggle to carry it through the house. We enter one large room, with a long wooden table backed up against the wall.

“We will put him here for the viewing,” Mr. Garrison explains, almost apologetically. “I know it is a humble space, but it is all we have really.” Everyone is silent save for the a few grunts and a loud thud as the coffin is hoisted onto the table. Rick wipes his forehead.

“Seems a good enough place,” Rick smiles reassuringly. “We will set up with decorations unless you have anything specific that you want to incorporate.”

Mr. Garrison holds up a finger and nods, and then rushes out of the room.

Suddenly, a wail erupts from somewhere in the house. It echoes through the muttering of the crowd, then dies softly. Rick raises his eyebrows.

“Probably Mrs. Garrison,” he informs us. “It’s difficult for mothers.”

We are silent for a moment. I think about my mother and how she looked in her coffin. Restless, but in an empty sort of way. As if they filled her with so much paint that it erupted over her face in a rash of splotchy reds, blues, and yellows. I think about how angry I was and how I couldn’t look at her. She looked like the monster from my childhood. The other mother that I had tried so hard to forget. I didn’t want to remember her like that, and I knew I could have done better. I could have captured her better. I could have saved her face.

“Anyone heard of A.C.?” Rick whispers, wiping his forehead with his shirt. The other men nod in agreement. Mr. Garrison returns with a box of slightly wilted red poppies.

“My wife wanted to incorporate these somehow,” he says, dropping the box at our feet.  We stare at the poppies sadly, as if it is their funeral. “I’ll leave you to it then.” He turns and leaves, merging with the crowd of black suits just outside the door.

“They’re practically dead,” I say, pointing at the flowers.

“So am I in this heat,” mutters Rick as he begins arranging the table.

When we are done, I open the casket. Adam looks like he is sleeping, the only one unaffected by the heat or awkward, limp poppies surrounding the coffin. He looks content. He looks beautiful. Then we are engulfed in a sea of black as the crowd rushes into the room.

I watch from the back of the room as, one by one, relatives and friends approach the coffin, teary-eyed and quiet for one last look or a few words of goodbye. This continues for about forty minutes until an ear-splitting shriek erupts from the center of the room. People clear the way as a woman, frantic, rushes towards the coffin. Mrs. Garrison.

“My son!” she cries. “My son!” She lets out another wail and flings herself onto the table, sending dead poppies to the floor. The crowd backs away from the coffin, afraid, in awe, in shock.  Rick moves forward.

Mrs. Garrison throws herself onto the coffin, her panicked face inches from Adam’s sleeping one.

“Where are his eyes?” she screams. “Why won’t he look at me?”

Mr. Garrison rushes forward.

“Carla, stop!” he hisses. Before he can reach her, her hands are on Adam’s face, attempting to open his eyes.

“Wake up! My baby!” she cries. “Where is he?”

A thick tearing sound echoes throughout the room as one or both of Adam’s eyelids are ripped open.

I gasp and run towards the table, pushing past guests rushing the opposite direction. But the damage is done. Adam’s eyelids hang laxly over his eyes, as if they just happened to be a size too big. His eyes, smaller from drying out, have disappeared deeper into his face. They stare out at Mrs. Garrison, who is still screaming and crying profusely, now struggling against Rick and her husband.

“This is not my son! This is not my son! Why won’t he look at me?”

I watch in horror as she attempts to wipe the makeup from his face, exposing the blue, loose skin beneath the paint, shifting his mouth into an odd grimace, cracking the plaster and revealing the gaping hole on the side of his nose. Some of his skin has torn. Still, Adam lays there, indifferent to the suffering, smelling of embalming fluid.

I stare as Adam is destroyed before my eyes. As my work is torn and beaten. As Adam becomes too real for anyone to believe.

“Perfection isn’t a thing,” my mother once said, casually, as she smeared on lipstick. “It’s just an idea that we try to live with.”

Another scream brings me back to Mrs. Garrison. She thrashes against the two men, one of her hands hitting Adam’s jaw and knocking his face to one side. His eyes roll to face me, and I stare back at him. His mouth hangs at an odd angle, the plaster probably cracked on the inside, and his lips form some irregular expression that I cannot place.

My head swims in the waves of heat. I feel my mind reeling backwards. I put my hand over my mouth and run out of the room, past the guests in the entrance of the house, and out onto the lawn. My stomach heaves and empties itself of everything and nothing. I try to catch my breath, but I feel myself lurch again. I sit at the end of the lawn, shaking and covered in sweat, chilled in the heat. I feel alive. I exist.

I never went back into the house.

I haven’t touched paint of any kind since then.

Amanda Hitchcock is an avid writer-artist and recent graduate from Virginia Commonwealth University. She enjoys spending time browsing antique stores, going for evening runs, and writing about the larger consequences of simplistic and innocent thoughts. However, despite her love of psychology, she can’t figure out why she is afraid of butterflies.