For many years the mark was nothing more than a curiosity, obscure trivia familiar only to coroners, morticians, and other people who spent time around the dead.
One year there was an exceptionally bright medical student. When she spoke, her words were high-pitched and clipped. When she was curious (which was often), her small, dark eyes darted around the room.
She was of the category of first-year medical students who—contemplating the impending rite of passage into the world of cadaver dissection—asked about the mark. The question generated a weary sigh from the professor, because it meant he would be spending the next few minutes batting down obscure superstitions and tales of folk healers.
It is an overgrowth of melanocytes found on some bodies. In other words, a birthmark that appears after death. It has no meaning. There is no known correlation to any pre-mortem variable.
To those of you whose ears just pricked up at the last two sentences, because you can’t resist a challenge—especially a hopeless one—let me say: don’t waste your time.
Most students would be satisfied with this reply. Others would remain curious until they went into the anatomy laboratory, peered over each others’ shoulders, and saw the mark pointed out by a latex-gloved hand.
But this student’s curiosity was still not satisfied. She made a secret hobby of researching it, even after she graduated. She pored over folklore and myths, studied what little research had been published (decades ago), and began collecting and analyzing her own data.
Many times she thought she might have discovered a potential correlation between the mark’s appearance and a variable in the life of its owner, but as soon as she added more data, the pattern vanished away like a gambler’s winning streak. Out of habit she kept researching, but after a while, her hope for some new insight grew dim and she put her passion into her medical practice. In time she became a highly respected doctor, loved by all her patients.
Once, she treated an old man needing heart surgery. The operation—which involved stopping his heart for over an hour, while a machine circulated and oxygenated his blood—was a success, and she visited him every day while he recovered.
She saw in him (as in many of her patients who had undergone similar operations) a fear lurking in the lines of his face, an uneasiness masked behind smiles and gratitude when in the company of family and friends, a certain grey-eyed sadness that remained even when she used phrases like “full recovery.”
On his last day at the hospital she visited him to say goodbye. When she looked into his eyes a spark of understanding passed between them, like a gossamer strand briefly revealed when the breeze nudges a tree’s slender branches into a shaft of sunlight.
He pulled the sleeve of his gown past his shoulder and showed her a familiar shape—a tiny, well-defined circle with a dot at the center; a bulls-eye.
“Do you know what I saw?” He asked. Without waiting for a response, he began to recite.
A lonely ring of light made spectacle of me,
While all around I sensed the watching eyes,
The flapping leather wings, the bloody claws.
Their mocking cackles filled the dark and joined
The screams and sobs of countless sufferers;
A symphony of sorrow in the night.
Her stomach sank, her heart raced, and her small, dark eyes flitted around the hospital room.
The next day, she resumed her research with renewed enthusiasm, and over the next several months she examined scores of people who had survived near death experiences. Only the ones who bore the mark had hellish visions to tell.
But this was all she could learn. Frustrated, she called upon her old professor. He invited her to his home, and the two sat across from each other in twin leather chairs, with twin glasses of whiskey. They reminisced, and she nursed her drink, waiting for a lull in the conversation.
“I remember when we were about to dissect our first cadaver, and I asked about the mark,” she finally said. Her voice felt chirpy and out-of-place in the subdued lamp-light of his living room. “I remember your exact words: There is no known correlation to any pre-mortem variable. Still, I couldn’t resist finding out for my own if your statement was true.”
Her professor looked at her closely, and saw the sadness in her eyes. “So you discovered the post-mortem correlation.”
She nodded, and told him everything. The professor in turn told her about his own secret research, the years of experiments with volunteers, how he removed marks, stopped hearts, and revived patients. No matter what he tried, they always came back with the same horrible stories.
“There is no way to test whether these are just hallucinations,” he said, and poured himself another whiskey. “But even if they are real, it doesn’t matter, because there is no way to predict them, no change that can be made to prevent them. Accept it. Move on. We are born, we learn that there is pain in life, and we die. These visions, by introducing yet another source of uncertainty into our lives, tempt us into trying to understand the absurdity of it all. But nothing has changed. It is just another source of meaningless pain.” He swirled his whiskey and held it against the light, watching the amber streams bead and begin their slow descent. “We can spend our lives trying to make sense of these facts, but we must accept that our search for meaning is nothing more than grief.”
She gulped the rest of her whiskey and set the heavy tumbler down. For a second, before she left the room, he could imagine her, released from the tumbler’s weight, rising like a balloon, exiting the window, drifting lightly in the night-time breeze, her small body shrinking to the size of a dot, a silhouette against the bright circle of the moon.
“Then I shall never stop grieving,” she said, and flew away.