>> Jekyll & Hyde
Burke & Hare <<
As our growing band of followers well know, Scotia Extremis is dedicated to pairing up the strangely related extremes of the nation’s ‘cultural icons’. Today we go overboard in this endeavour by reaching extremities that we quail to approach and by pairing up – yes – actual pairs. Famous worldwide, though we suspect not always identified as Scottish, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s many masterpieces. So much embedded in the psyche of horror and fantasy aficionados are Jekyll & Hyde, that the bizarre two-in-one creature need only be mentioned by those twin names to be recognised. Equally so with our other extreme, although less on a global scale, despite the immense gravity of their crimes. The infamous Burke & Hare are inextricably linked by the series of murders they committed in early 19th century Edinburgh, their motive being to supply cadavers to the city’s medical school. While Burke was hanged for his crimes in 1829, Hare escaped justice by turning King’s Evidence and was expelled from the country later in that same year. Classics of the so-called split personality of the Scot, each pair breaks down into restraint/indiscipline; punishment/escape; lies/truth – but who is able to say which is paramount and in whom?
The Body Snatchers
by Jenni Daiches
Fresh-dug earth is dug again.
In moonless dark only shrouded
lantern light. Shovels,
a crowbar, the coffin lid levered up.
A monster was rumoured, doubly nailed down
to foil defiance of death. But he lies
decent in dark broadcloth, white shirt,
the good doctor, at peace, austere.
Close by a fitful horse stamps
a hoof and shakes his harnessed head.
They reach to raise the pale cadaver
from a solitary, unforgiving bed.
The doctor, whose uncallused fingers touched
the untouched flesh of young girls.
They reach, but then recoil in horror.
The coarse black hair on the doctor’s knuckles,
a subtle metamorphosis of features.
The body thickens. The lantern falls
with a dull rattle. But reward beckons,
science and the anatomist await,
keen to know if under the skin
there is blood and bone like any other.
They falter as they lift and wrap rough sacks
around their burden. The horse trots
through the black night. They take the money,
down a dram to calm their shaking hands.
At home their wives and children sleep.
The sun will rise. The anatomist will bid
his students to take careful note
as he makes the first cut. They must not
close their eyes. Heart, lungs, muscle,
the brain’s excesses. It’s dangerous to dream.
He smiles. You may think, he says,
the dead are silent. You would be wrong.
The hollow skull can talk. The liver
and the lights have tales to tell.
He tilts his head, studies the smooth
and naked limbs, seeks in vain a hint
of hidden ruin, the signature of Satan
on the untroubled face. The scalpel cuts.
Their children play. Their wives
don’t ask how food is put upon
the table. Not one but truly two.
Every human soul is double.
A headstone at the empty grave.
Dr Henry Jekyll, admired physician,
benefactor, upright citizen.
The heart revealed, can science
truly know if the man who died
was Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde?
by Christie Williamson
burking, n. – to murder, as by suffocation, so as to leave no or few marks of violence
No getting out of it now the trapdoor’s
blue beneath your feet, chained to their fate
kicking at the odds. A burking’s too good for you.
The Grassmarket ghouls are harem scarem
there to see the dance between nothing
and infinity gasp again. On the slab
your belly enlightens us, the only evidence
coming kings will take from you.
Time to snap out of it. Your once
unseen hands are tight behind your back.
The medics keep the cut they need.
Now you reap what you stitched up
out of no one missing the crop.
The only grave you ever dug was your own.
Who now shall make head nor tail
of your anatomy of greed?
Jenni Daiches lives in South Queensferry. Published poetry includes Mediterranean (1995), Smoke (2005). She also writes on literary and historical subjects as Jenni Calder. Fiction includes Letters from the Great Wall (2006), Forgive (2015) and Borrowed Time (2016, forthcoming). Recent non-fiction Lost in the Backwoods: Scots in the North American Wilderness (2013).
Christie Williamson’s poems have been appearing in print and online since 2003. His debut pamphlet, Arc o Möns won the Calum MacDonald Memorial Award in 2010. His first full length collection was published by Luath Press in 2015.