“To escape from horror, as we have said, bury yourself in it.”
-Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers
We are sitting on the floor of the file room because somewhere, an exhibit transfer sheet is in the wrong file in the wrong box of a homicide that is over two decades old. Everything smells like dust and cardboard, old handwritten reports are like parchment and yellowing. The door is closed and I am sitting with my back against it. He pulls out an old photo album from the latest box.
“Wanna see some old autopsy photos?”
It’s a strange level of intimacy, a weird brand of seven minutes in heaven, locked in a murder file room with a photo album, like someone showing you their family portraits, their childhood.
Inside there is a woman with her throat flayed open, deep red congealed blood hugging her esophagus.
“See, that’s how we know the pressure that was used to strangle her was enormous. It’s actually pretty surprising. Like the fucking Hulk did this.”
Aerial photos of the backroad she was found on.
“If you look at a map, and you can kind of see it if you stitch the photos together, you can tell the person was panicked. It happens when you do surveillance a lot, when someone’s trying to get away or shake a tail.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look. Here’s the main road. Here’s where she was found. What do you see?”
“Left turn, left turn, left turn.”
“Exactly. He was scared when he was dumping the body. Panicking. We never go in a straight line when we’re trying to get away.”
A: I once killed a deer with a 5lb hammer.
It was a buck, stuck in the fence. It was injured and clearly in a lot of pain, struggling to get free. I called the parks people – they’re the ones who will come out with a rifle to put the deer down – but they said the guy who did that wasn’t even on the island. So I asked him, “do you have a gun?” he says “nope.” what did I have? I didn’t have a gun, I didn’t even have a knife, but I had this hammer. So I went up to the deer, struggling in the fence and I killed it. I hit it in the head.
Q: Did you kill it in one hit?
A: Hell no. it took more than one, i’ll tell you that. Christ, I don’t even want to think about it again.
A: When i worked up north there was a floater stuck in a log boom on the river. Came from way higher up, floated down for I don’t know how long. he’d been dead a while. So we had to go get the boat to drag him in, and I had the long hook you were supposed to get ‘em with, and bring them to the side of the boat so you could grab them and heave them up. But this guy was so far rotten, I thought I had his arm but it rips right off, starts floating down the river. So I go for his leg and think it’s all good, but that breaks off too. Eventually we end up with the torso.
Q: did you get the legs and arms?
A: Oh yeah, we went chasing after them down the river, eventually got them all. But that guy didn’t smell very nice, I’ll tell you.
A: Once we got a call to retrieve a floater off of [redacted] road, right on the beach there. But the tide was out, and he was stuck in this really rocky area where the water was about waist high. There were emergency responders on the beach to help us, but they couldn’t get him because he was too far out. So we are trying to grab this guy from the boat and I realize it’s not going to happen. I said to my partner, “well, looks like we’re going in.” I grabbed the bag, the one you use to put the body in, and I cut the corners out of it so the water could drain and we jumped in and managed to coax the body into the bag. My partner’s turning white and trying not to gag, and I’m egging him on like, ‘you’re in the fucking water with this guy!’ Anyway, we get him back up on the boat and we’re both soaked, and fuck he smelled.
Q: So do floaters found in fresh water smell worse or better than the ones in salt water?
A: They’re both pretty rank. I don’t know if there’s a difference. Decomposing human is worse than any other smell. It’s terrible. You can recognize it a mile off, you know it’s not an animal. Maybe we’re just hardwired to know the scent of our own species.
They will take apart your daughter when she is fifteen years old. They will flay her from head to toe, removing skin, fat, muscle: dismantling her. You handed over her body after she was driven into the woods by a man only a few years older than her where he beat her to death with a hammer. He beat other women to death with the same hammer and now, as they take your daughter’s eyes from her sockets, and they fold her skin off her face, they will press a substance like thick mud into the broken parts of her skull where it will harden to match the wounds with those of the other women.
(You hear that one of the other women, found partially buried and burned somewhere, animals pulling her out of a shallow grave, was so far decomposed they had to ship her rotting corpse, maggots and all, to a forensic osteologist who boiled her down to the bare bones so they could study her wounds, the wounds that will be compared to your daughter’s)
You didn’t want to let her body go.
She will come back to you in pieces. The man who killed her will be sentenced to life in prison but it will never be enough because he is still alive, and he beat your daughter to death with a hammer, and you had to send her body away to be taken apart.
(All the king’s horses and all the king’s men)
You will stop believing in god and live with the emptiness of loss and grief that will be endless and the cold, hard stone in your chest that is the knowledge that he is left and she is gone.
There are two cameras in the interview room and you are a voyeur. Face view. Full view.
Face view shows only the face of a young man, twenty-something, who killed a woman by beating her, and then throwing her in the trunk of an old car and lighting it on fire after dousing her and the car with gasoline. Before he closed the hood to the trunk, he took one last long look at the girl.
Full view. The girl’s mother is brought into a room to face her daughter’s killer.
The mother asks the murderer what her daughter’s last words were.
He replies: what’s that smell?
The smell was her burning flesh.
The mother looks him in the eye and doesn’t flinch, she says, “her greatest fear was fire, and you burned her alive.”
With only a small table between them, the strength it takes not to try to strangle this man, to launch forward and press a thumb in each eye, gouging the orbs out of their sockets, tearing out his oesophagus with her teeth, to ruin him and adorn herself with his insides, to not throw a single punch, is a feat few can claim.
She is escorted out of the room, and the door clicks shut quietly behind her.
Face view. Now the man is seated, hands folded on the tabletop, staring forward.
Full view. A man sits at an empty table. He is still.
And outside, a wail.
I wrote about it in a letter to a friend, weeks after I had seen it.
i can’t forget the sound. i will never forget it. i dream about it. it follows me. i’ve seen so many crime scenes and dealt with horrible things by laughing at them, but i can’t laugh at this. there is no way to. it is one of the few things you can’t ever find the humour in, you can’t protect yourself from. a parent’s ache of losing a child. the demolishing of their entire world, their reason for being. how do you measure that loss?
i once saw a rabbit get hit by the wheel of a bus, leaving its back end entirely crushed. it tried to pull itself off the road but its entrails were ground into the asphalt and anchoring it there. it was screaming. the scream was so jarring and unnatural, frightening and deeply piercing.
the woman screamed like the rabbit screamed, only deeper and more prolonged. it isn’t a sound i’ve ever heard a human being make. it was rage and loss and everything primal exiting out of her mouth, like an exorcism.
except there are no demons here. it’s been said that all demons are just humans. and all humans are just animals.
Infant autopsy photos.
the tiniest of human hearts
barely 7 centimeters.
insides pink and clean.
When they do forensic autopsies on babies they need to
strip away all the skin and muscle on the back to get to the spinal cord and then
they take the spinal cord out and look inside that and the baby’s body is like this deflated balloon face-down on the table like that stupid fucking puppet they used to teach kindergarten kids about ‘private parts’ because adults need some kind of comforting displacement when they talk about the truth of the horrors of the world and of adults and therefore themselves with children.
there is a drawer in the morgue that is labelled:
“legs & infants.”
I’ve never opened it to verify the contents.
Brianna Berbenuik has a Bachelors degree in English from the University of Victoria, where she was also an avid student of Slavic Studies. For the past several years she has worked in various positions in emergency services and currently assists in Major Crime investigations. She has a modest collection of skulls and bones, enjoys horror movies and detective shows, and has an apartment full of thriving plants. She lives in Victoria, BC.
You can request to follow her on Twitter, @ukrainiak47, or follow her on Instagram @ukrainak47.