"Self-Portrait With Skeleton Arm (1895)"

Helena Pantsis

Helena Pantsis (she/they) is a writer and artist from Naarm, Australia. A full-time student of creative writing, they have a fond appreciation for the gritty, the dark, and the experimental. Her works are published in Overland, Island, Going Down Swinging, and Meanjin.

“‘Self-Portrait With Skeleton Arm (1895)’ is based on the self-portrait of the same name painted by Edvard Munch. I was inspired by the void produced by the work, the floating head and disembodied bone, and treated it as a reflection of sorts, as all portraits are. As I looked at this historical artwork and found it a mirror of sorts of myself, the fiction places the protagonist in a museum reflecting on humanity’s ugly, unflattering portrayal.”

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Specimen 12 rises from their bed. The mattress lays directly on the floor beneath them, no frame, blankets akimbo and sheets creased like shallow ocean waves; a likely symptom of nights twisting and turning, riddled by the guilt of all the years before tunnelled in their blood vessels within. The thing is a monster, a myth, an almost-human creature pulling their body barely straight to balance on toothpick bones. As they stand, their breasts are pulled by gravity, slapping against each other loudly, their shrivelled penis frightened and flopping between hovering thighs. They stretch their arms to the sky so the hair under their armpits is exposed, long, thick, wiry.

Face to face with them, you are repulsed by the pinkish-greyish flesh which coarse chestnut hairs burst through. They’re frighteningly ugly, yet unthreatening in all their ugliness despite all the stories you’ve heard about them—the cannibalism, the self-mutilation, the stalking of prey in the depth of the forests, the bloodthirst for children, and the violent reproduction. They remind you of your father, though in reverse; he was a kind-looking man.

They move with such familiarity, scratching their back with their arms bent awkwardly, shoulder raised and elbow twisted, that it’s almost hard to believe they could do any harm. Their mouth widens into a yawn that resembles your dog back home, and it is so innocent in its animality that you can’t help but move closer in response. Maybe it’s the isolation that makes them vulnerable. They could be anyone, you think—they could be you.

You read the plaque before you: Specimen 12: Some type of deformed homunculus, upon finding the group of almost-people in the wild, isolated from populated townships and cities, scientists determined the Specimens were a branch of Homo heidelbergensis which had branched off and evolved separately. Due to the narrow number of wild creatures in the population, the severely endangered species were brought into captivity for protection. The last of their kind, the unnamed species Specimen 12 will die off with this specimen, the only one of the creatures who was not killed during captive propagation. The Specimen Captivity Project finishes with this animal, serving humanity through persistent scientific research and public education via passive observation.

The creature waits at the far side of the glass by a dumbwaiter. Cameras click on the outside, people poised and capturing the still and moving parts of the specimen, bumbling, picking at the fluff between its toes; simply waiting. The quietude of the moment seems to draw everyone in even more. You notice the sparsity of Specimen 12’s small glass room, built against a cold brick wall with holes for food and the arms of self-acclaimed scientists. A rope hangs in the middle for the creature’s amusement, and an ashtray full of black dust and a lighter sits beneath the opening of the dumbwaiter.

With a ding, Specimen 12 receives their breakfast: a tin of warm tuna and a pack of cigarettes. They take a cigarette from the pack and munch down on one end, lighting up so smoke drifts out in a knife’s edge, out of reach. They dip their other fingers in the tuna can, moving in circles, sucking at the juices under their fingernails between puffs of tobacco.

Two boys loiter at the edge of the enclosure, pressing their pig noses to the glass and holding up their fingers in defiance of the ancient creature. Security’s not around, busy manning the entrance for tickets and the gift shop for thieves. You watch them out of the corner of your eye, listening still to the slurping of tuna juice by the specimen. The boys tap their fingers against the glass until they get the creature’s attention. Specimen 12 moves closer to the edge of the enclosure, bending down with hunched back so their face meets the two boys perfectly.

“Stupid ape,” one of the boys mocks, blowing a raspberry so the other boy laughs.

You wonder where the boys’ parents are. Sometimes you wander back to nights in Adelaide, the small city with its tight-knit network of everyone who knows everyone, including you. You could never have left the house alone, unsupervised by the gentle hand of your mother or the stern gaze of your father, recalling skyscrapers in adult silhouettes puncturing the darkness and blocking out the light. Knocked down to the asphalt when you moved too fast, it still sometimes feels strange to be in the world alone.

Specimen 12 smiles at the children, revealing a wide set of sharp and yellowed teeth. The smile reaches both their mouth and the long scar sliced and stitched back together on their lower stomach, thin as water and sheened with a waxy shine—it’s the hole through which Specimen 12’s stillborn child was removed. It is haunting and imprints itself in the forefront of your mind, bearing the memories of rumours about the creature’s thirst for children and cannibalism.

Still, the children do not back away, banging against the glass harder. You and the rest of the crowd move further back, unsure what to do or say. The boys keep accosting the thing, winding it up so it hits the glass back, rushing hard towards the boys and panicking backwards in a frenzy. Crouched and thrashing like a startled caged monkey, Specimen 12 begins to scream a shrill, piercing melody, voice vibrating up and down as they move around the hanging rope.

“Oh, shit,” one of the boys says, stumbling backwards.

You bring your hands to your mouth. The keepers run in, hands reaching in from the hole in the far wall, as the world around you appears to go silent. You’re brought back to your childhood. You remember holding your breath in the inside of your mouth, a goldfish beached, and crouching in your wardrobe, your mother shushing, ducking your head, and closing you inside. She liked to play Van Halen’s “Dreams” at full volume, submerged in shadow and humming.

You start singing, low and without breaking eye contact with the specimen—you can barely tell if your voice is really there. They stop their tantrum, turning to find your eyes through the glass. The hands gripping them through the gap behind them let go of the specimen. Specimen 12 picks up the lighter, flicking it open and shut so the clicks match your slow, soft blinks. You count with both hands the years you’ve spent in this city, finding your bearing by setting your feet flat to the earth and tilting your head to the beast in question.

Specimen 12 takes the lighter, flicking it open and refusing to close it this time. You see embers bright in their eyes. Specimen 12 sets fire to the rope hanging from the ceiling. The fire glows, stirring as it gnaws on the fibres of the great hemp ladder. Specimen 12 comes running towards the glass again, banging hard and desperately, eyes boring into yours. You hear Van Halen’s “Dreams” grow louder in the base of your mind.

When you’re standing underneath the running water in the shower, or lying in bed trying desperately to fall asleep, you’ll have a distant, dreamlike vision of Specimen 12. You will see their bulbous nose, their loose, flapping skin, their sagging breasts, shrunken penis swinging back and forth like a pendulum. It will burn your brain, straining you, as if attempting to remember a face from thousands of years ago. If you take your ear to the scar smiling from their stomach, you imagine you might hear a soft hum—a hive buzzing in the early summer. It will carry the gentle timbre of your mother’s simple voice.

You’ll dream that Specimen 12 is a lit match. You’ll dream that you take your thumb and your forefingers, curling them around tight and wet against the shrinking face of the Specimen, squeezing until: fizzle. You’ll see the warmth emanating off its greasy, prickly skin, embracing you in a desperate, urgent chokehold. You’ll feel its sudden heartbeat, quickening, growing larger and closer and stronger still, watching it gasp for air against the push of your fingertips, the way you gasped for air your whole life.

Between your fingertips, the face will become your own, shrouded in darkness, your father’s coarse voice will melt your skin, and you will be held together only by your thin skeleton arm. The memory will last you all your life, and just when you think your childhood has spilt like water between your fingertips in the last moments of your, it will seep back in—it’s what memories often do.

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