Work in Progress:
Death masks are the strangest of all mementos, not because of the occasion that precipitates their creation – after all, death is common to all, banal – but because of skin.
Upon the death of the central nervous system, skin cells continue to live for up to twelve hours, long after nerve cells have gone dark and the other major organs have begun their spiral into eternal decay. Desiccation sets in quickly, which creates the illusion that hair and fingernails are still growing on a days-old corpse. Not so. It’s the recession of the skin, due to dehydration that fosters this folk myth. The proteins in hair and nails, like the perceptive organs of seeing, smelling, tasting, and hearing, are effectively dead soon after synaptical shut-down, but the skin – the organ of touch – lives on for hours.
I wondered, as I looked at my own death mask – a faux affair made as I slept once, a long, long time ago – if the wet plaster applied to the face extends that life further beyond death by giving it the sustaining water of life. Or does the mask, becoming mummified from its very inception, more quickly draw life from that boundary that once simultaneously separated the self-conscious being from, and acted as interface with, the rest of the universe?
And when does that “soul,” the breath of life, that is, actually, finally, leave the skin? Does it pass through the death mask, dissipating into the past, evaporating into memory, or does the wet mask prevent it from slipping through, barricading it in that liminal space between pore and plaster? And then what? Where does that essence, that energy, go?
At some point, the end must begin.
Or so I thought.
Until the eyes flickered open, filled with void.
My fingers gripped the edge of the mask, paralyzed. I could not un-clench them. And like the mask itself, I could not, though I tried . . . I tried to shut my eyes. But the panic that seized me forced them open. I stared through those open eyes, and they stared back through me.This is what they saw . . .