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The Fig Eater

HE STANDS UP NEXT TO THE girl's body. He looks down at it for a moment, then carefully steps over the narrow boards lying around it. He walks across the grass and joins the three men, waiting like mourners. No one speaks. The body is poised like a still life waiting for a painter.

Now they watch the photographer edge his way over the boards, his equipment balanced on one shoulder. He stops and gently lowers the legs of the tripod into place, then steadies the bulky camera directly above the girl. Without looking up, he snaps his fingers. The men silently move aside, shifting their lanterns as a boy passes between them, moving with a sleepwalker's strangely certain gait, eyes fixed on the frail pyramid of white powder he carries on a tray.

The boy stands by the photographer, nervously waiting while he adjusts the dials on the camera. The photographer ignores him. He hunches behind the camera and pulls a black cloth over his head. In the secret darkness, the camera lens tightens around the dead girl's mouth. The photographer mutters something unintelligible, then his hand blindly works its way out from under the cloth. The instant his fingers snap, the boy strikes a match and holds it to the powder on the tray.

A blinding flash lays transparent white light over the girl's body, her stiff arms and legs, the folds of her dress, transforming her into something eerily poised, a statue fallen on the grass. There's shadow, a black space carved under her neck, in the angle where her head is bent toward her shoulder, and below one outstretched arm. Her other arm hides her face. The light vanishes, leaving a cloud of odor. Burned sulphur.

The Inspector keeps this harsh image of the girl's sprawled figure in mind even later, after her body is cut open, becoming curiously tender and liquid.

She lies in the Volksgarten, near a seated stone figure of the Kaiserin Elizabeth. The statue faces a fountain pool in the center of a bosquet of low flowers, and behind it is a curved wall of bushes nearly twelve feet high. The park is a short distance from Spittelberg, Vienna's notorious district where the Beiseln offer music, drink, and women.

The Inspector points at a crumpled piece of white paper or cloth near the girl's body. Two of the policemen nod and begin to pick up the boards. There's no haste in their movements, even though it's getting late. They set a board on top of two rocks to make a walkway over to the cloth. If there are footprints on the ground, the boards will protect them.

During another investigation last year, the spring of 1910, the Inspector temporarily preserved footprints in the snow at a crime scene by placing a flowerpot over each one. There are other ways to keep prints in sand, soft dirt, or dust.

While the photographer's boy patiently holds a lantern over his head, the Inspector squats on the boards, close enough to see that the cloth has been roughly smoothed over some small object. A rounded shape. There are flies around it and a sweet, foul odor. He takes tweezers from a leather pouch and pinches a corner of the fabric. It sticks slightly. When he pulls it off, the fabric has a dark smear on the underside, and he has a shock of recognition as he drops it inside an envelope. Someone has murdered a young woman and defecated next to her body.

When the Inspector stands up, he realizes he is sweating. His shirt is damp; his suspenders are wet stripes over his shoulders. The humid night air has also weighed the girl's clothes down over her body. It is hot, unusually hot for the end of August.

They prepare to take another picture. Egon, the photographer, drags the tripod over to the dead girl. He sets it up and cranks the camera down and down, stopping it two feet above the soft excrement. One of the men raises a lantern over it so he can see to focus. The Inspector steps back and turns his head away, waiting for the whispered sizzle of the lightning powder as it ignites. In a minute, the lantern's light is eclipsed by the explosion. Days later, when he looks at the photograph, the grass around the body appears as stiff as if it had been frozen, not burned into the glass plate in the camera by the explosion of light.

When the boards are removed, the girl looks frailer alone on the ground. They find no objects, no other obvious clues around her. The thick grass masks any footprints. They'll search the area again tomorrow during the day, when there's better light.

Invisible in the dark, the Inspector stands on the marble platform next to the Kaiserin Elizabeth's statue. He's a tall man and can reach nearly as high as her head. He gently touches the statue's shoulder. He never would have permitted himself this trespass at any other time, but he's unsettled by the extraordinary discovery of the girl's body near the memorial. Wife of Franz Josef, she was assassinated in 1898, stabbed in the heart by a madman with a blade so wickedly thin it left only a speck of blood on her chemise. It is said her dying words were "At last."

He wonders if there is some connection between the statue and the location of the girl's body.

In front of him, the men move quietly in the circle of light made by the lanterns, and between their dark figures, he can glimpse the whiter shape of the girl. Just beyond the park, the wing of the Imperial Palace is faintly visible. From behind the trees, there's occasional, isolated sound of an unseen carriage proceeding around the Ringstrasse.

According to police routine, a sketch is always made before a description of the crime scene is written. Closely trailed by the boy holding the lantern, Egon paces out a rough square around the girl's body, three hundred and sixty paces, and transfers this measurement onto a graph, drawing the kaiserin's monument as a dash, the sign used on survey maps. Without disturbing the dead girl's hair, he pushes the end of a tape measure into the ground at the crown of her head and measures one and a half meters to the base of the monument. Her right arm is bent over her dark face, so he unspools the tape from her shoulder at the same point. A distance of almost two meters. Finally, he pulls the tape from the left heel of her white canvas boot over to the path, just over one meter. When the sketch is finished, he signs and dates the paper.

Now her body has been remade as the center point on a graph. Lines radiate from her head, arms, and legs as if she were a starfish or a sundial, pinning her exactly in this place at this hour.

Before the dead girl is moved, the Inspector gently removed her pearl earrings. He cuts through the strap of her watch, uncoils it from her wrist, and seals the objects in an isinglass envelope. He asks for more light, and now with two lanterns above him, he kneels over her, shifting his weight, balancing himself on one hand. Careful no to touch her, he uses the point of the scissors to delicately manipulate her thin cotton dress. Occasionally he asks for a magnifying glass. His eyes filled with the harsh white of her dress--a dazzling field--he forgets the body under the fabric until he accidentally sets his hand on her bare arm. Although he instantly jerks it away, the impression of her cool skin stays on the palm of his hand, as if he'd touched a liquid. He rubs his hand against his trousers.

He knows the other men noticed his spontaneous reaction. He forces himself to touch her again, to break the spell, pushing her thumb down hard against the ground. It's slightly stiff, and he estimates she'd been dead at least four hours. The heat makes it hard to calculate, although rigor mortis affects the small muscles first.

He discovers a pale hair under the collar of her dress, and his assistant, Franz, wordlessly holds out an empty glass vial to receive it. No bloodstains are found on her clothing. However, the back of her white dress is stained when they lift her off the ground.

When they flop her onto a stretcher, Egon vomits. The other men look away. The Inspector also ignores him, but he understands his distress. It's the movement of the body that sickened him, its parody of motion. He orders one of the policemen to stay at the site for the few hours remaining until daybreak.

As soon as it is light, Franz goes over the kaiserin's monument, checking for fingerprints. First he dusts the statue with powdered carmine applied with a fine camel-hair brush. The second time he uses charcoal dust. The same fingerprint powder is also applied to the ornamental urns and the marble gate posts at the entrance of the Volksgarten.

Franz reports that all the stone is to rough to hold any impressions.


The afternoon of the same day, the girl's body is in the morgue at the police station on the Schottenring. The men smoke in the morgue during the autopsy to cover the smell of decay and formalin. The ceiling fan cools the room, but it also sucks up the odor of the cigarettes they exhale over the metal table where she lies. They work in the body's stink as if it were a shadow.

Franz takes scissors in slow strokes down the sides of her dress and across her shoulders, then lifts it off. He cuts the thick canvas corset from her waist with a heavy knife after slashing through the laces. It probably took her longer to get into the corset, he jokes to the man leaning across the table, a doctor in a white jacket. The older man is as blond as Franz, but his hair is thinning. His pink head hovers over the girl's discolored face. The doctor nods without looking up. I think she's about eighteen years old, he says. The bare room doesn't hold conversation well.

Her clothing is dissected, the labels removed. Everything was purchased at good Bürger shops, Farnhammer, Maison Spitzer, Unger & Drecoll in the Kohlmarket.

The unidentified girl is now naked, her head propped up on a wooden block. Her eyes are flat and bloodshot, and her tongue partially protrudes between her lips. The upper part of her chest is the same livid color as her face, and darker blotches stripe the sides of her red neck. The underside of her body is a blurry-edged patchwork of stains. Uncirculated blood has seeped from the veins and settled here, sagging under its own weight, ripening into a deep violet and green of decaying flesh. Over her body, a mirror-lined lamp shade reflects these colors in its distorted curve, an obscene chandelier.

"She's been strangled?" Franz asks.

The doctor nods.

The Inspector walks in and stands at the opposite end of the table. He imagines the girl's body is carved from stone and he looks down on it from a great height. This exercise helps him think about her without emotion.

He watches the doctor wrap a cloth around her head and under her jaw to contain her tongue, close her mouth.

"How will you fix her skin?" he asks.

"I can bleach it. Remove her hair, make cuts on the back and sides of the skull and leave it in running water for twelve hours. That will lighten the greenish color."

The Inspector tells him to wait. There must be a less drastic way to make her body presentable. He anticipates a mother or father--or perhaps a close relative, since the dead girl wears no wedding ring--will come to identify her.

Later, the Inspector and Franz smoke cigarettes in the hallway.

"Thirty years ago, when I was an assistant policeman, I had to take care of the head of a corpse on my own," the Inspector says. "There was a murder in a remote village, and no refrigeration or ice was available. I put the head in a perforated box and set it in a stream. But first I covered the head with a net to protect it from fish."

Alone in the morgue, the doctor removes gray sludge and pieces of more solid matter from the dead girl's stomach, fiercely slopping liquid into a metal basin.

A few rooms away, Egon dips his sketches of the Volksgarten and the girl's body into a pan filled with a solution of stearine and collodion. The paper will dry in fifteen minutes without changing color. The solution protects it from moisture and the dirty hands of the witnesses and jurymen who will handle the papers in court.


Later that day, Egon returns to the Volksgarten. The area he paced off is surrounded by stakes linked with string. The excrement next to the body has been scraped up and replaced by a rock with a number painted on it.

The policeman on duty nods at Egon and idly watches him unpack his equipment. The young man works quickly, with the skilled sleight of hand that comes with long practice. He takes out a small wooden box, a device called a Dikatopter. He doesn't trust technical devices, although he sometimes straps a pedometer on his boot to measure the distances he paces, especially on hilly ground.

He stands with his back to the stakes, looking into a black mirror inside the open lid of the Dikacopter. Fine threads are pulled through holes in the mirror, dividing it into fifteen squares. Holding the box in front of him, he moves forward a half step at a time, watching until the path and the Kaiserin's monument are visible in the web of threads, so he can calculate the position of the girl's body against these landmarks. He's pleased with his work, the fugitive images captured in the box like butterflies.

In the bottom of the box, there is a paper divided into a graph identical to the one on the mirror. He draws an outline of the girl's body on the paper from memory, and the monument and the path exactly as they are reflected in the mirror above his hand in the lid.

Light shines through the holes in the dark, and the pencilled outline of the body is suspended below these bright dots, as if it had been connected into a constellation of stars.


The Inspector didn't sleep the night the girl's body was discovered. He stayed at the police station, and went home the following evening.

The first time he describes the girl's body, his wife, Erszébet, creates her own image of it. She imagines the men standing around the body as if it were a bonfire, a radiant white pyre, its light shining through their legs as if they were alabaster columns in a temple. The dead girl fallen inside their circle.

Erszébet asks the girl's name and age.

"She's unidentified. The doctor guesses she's about eighteen."

"Why was she is the Volksgarten?"

"That is the mystery."

"She must have been from Spittelberg. Why else would girl be in the park at night?"

"She may have been killed earlier in the evening. Judging by her clothing. I believe she's from a good family. Her murder would seem to be a misadventure of a crime passionnel."

"Have you discovered any suspects?"

"None yet."

She nods and doesn't question him further. She's satisfied with his limited information since it allows her to create her own theories. The girl's body punched a hole in the safe space that was the park.

Two days after the body is discovered, the Inspector talks about the girl during dinner, although it isn't his custom to mention the dead at the table. He asks Erszébet to come to his office tomorrow and bring her paints. This is the first time he's asked her to help him in this way.

That night, when Erszébet can't sleep, she thinks of the nameless girl, who has died, whose ace she will paint tomorrow. In Hungary, there's a custom of dressing unmarried young women and girls in white for their funerals, as death tranforms them into brides of heaven. The deceased girl is given away by her parents with the same words as a wedding ceremony. Tomorrow, she'll silently recite an old verse over the dead girl's unclaimed body. While I live, I'll dress in black. When I'm dead, I'll walk in white.


Franz walks in front of Erszébet down the hallway in the police building. He lets her enter the morgue ahead of him. The girl's body is on the table, a cloth covering everything except her head. Her face is still blotchy, the skin as dull and opaque as beeswax, and her eyes have sunk into their sockets. The cloth around her chin has been removed, and her mouth is slightly open. Her long pale hair is tied back with a piece of string.

It seems that all the cold in the room presses down against the still face, bitterly sculpting her profile, making it sharper than it had been in life. For a moment, the total passivity of the body seems peculiar to Erszébet, until she remembers the girl is dead.

That's all Erszébet notices before she turns and presses a handkerchief to her nose. Later, the odor in the room will sometimes return to her, an unbidden ghost, the smell of decay. This morning, she prepared for painting by heavily dousing herself with perfume, touching the bottle's glass stopper to her wrists and the fleshy nape of her neck. Her hair is secured in its upswept coil with extra pins.

Now she strokes red, yellow, and brown pigments into a thick smear of white lead paint on her palette until it turns a pale flesh color. Venetian pink. She adds linseed oil and soap so it will adhere better to the cold surface of the girl's skin.

She asks Franz to loosen the cloth from around the girl's neck. First she paints the darkest part of her face, around the mouth and nostrils, stopping her hand just before she blends the paint into the dead face with her finger.

She's been working on the body for nearly an hour when a man walks in carrying a bowl filled with a white paste. He casually sets the bowl down on the girl's stomach. Remembering Erszébet is in the room, he courteously moves it to the table.

"I'm Doctor Pollen. Have you finished?"

She nods and steps aside. He begins to vigorously knead the thick mixture in the bowl.

"This is my own modeling formula. Ten parts white wax and two parts Venetian turpentine melted together. I add potato starch to make it sticky."

"What are you going to do with it?"

"You could say I re-create the crime in a positive fashion. I can make what's absent. Someone shoots a gun into a wall, my modeling wax goes in the hole. Then I pull out an impression of the bullet's passage."

She asks if the same technique works for bodies.

"Yes, but I use cigarette papers. When they're wet, they're so fine they pick up the smallest impression, even a knife scratch on the skin. To fill deeper holes, like stab wounds, I glue something slightly heavier on top of the cigarette papers. Toilet paper works best."

He digs around under the cloth and pulls out the girl's hand. Because Dora's hands had been so tightly clenched, a small incision had been made at the base of each finger to loosen it for fingerprinting. Now he easily bends back a damaged finger, sticks a little ball of wax over the cold fingertip, and begins to work it down.

"I've made waxes of ear wounds, missing teeth. Even the stump of a tongue that had been bitten off. Mice love this mixture. I keep my wax models inside a glass cabinet to keep them from being eaten."

He curls his hand around the girl's finger to warm it, then continues to pinch the soft wax up to her second joint.

Erszébet is unable to move away or even avert her eyes. She stares at his hands, engaged in their task as routinely as if he were writing a letter.

"Why are you copying her fingers?"

"I'm not making a copy. First I cleaned under her nails with a bit of paper. The wax just picks up anything left under there. Hair, dust, a thread. Sometimes there's nothing but their own skin. Dried blood, if the victim fought their attacker. I suspect that's what I'll find here, since she probably struggled to pry the murderer's hands off. See, she has scratches down both sides of her neck."

His fingers press the wax too firmly and it bulges over the girl's knuckle. Finished with her hands, he sticks a finger into her mouth, careful not to disturb the paint on her lips. With his other hand, he delicately presses a wad of wax over her teeth.

Erszébet didn't realize she'd made any gesture, but suddenly Franz is next to her, guiding her into the next room. The light wavers, and there's a round buzzing pressure in her head just before she abruptly sits down.

Egon quickly moves his equipment into the morgue to photograph the girl. Someone draped fabric over the block and the metal table to disguise it, and he calculates how the lens of his camera can disguise her immobility.


Later, Erszébet visualizes strange fragments in the doctor's cabinet, objects as mysterious and dumb as fossils, reverse images of damage done to a body. There's a delicate X shape, molded from a double knife wound in a man's chest. A whitish tube, thick as a finger, cast from the passage made by a bullet into someone's back. A rough, V-shaped wedge documents a stick's impact in the muscles of an arm. These are the soft interiors of bodies turned inside out, turned solid.

She's familiar with the wax charms and effigies that work magic at a distance. Gypsies twist wax or unfermented, uncooked dough into tiny fingers and stamp them with incomprehensible markings, aids made to win love or wreak revenge, for good or ill. To make the spell more powerful, nail parings, pubic hair, menstrual blood, urine, and perspiration are kneaded into soft wax. At one time, the lives of the French kings had been endangered by these vols models. In Germany, Atzmann figures were used as evidence in witchcraft trials.

When she was a child, she remembers a girl burned a scrap of her own dress, which was saturated with her sweat.

The ashes were secretly fed to a boy whose love she had hoped to win.

Erszébet knew the boy. When he unknowingly ate the ashes, she watched his face convulse with astonishment and disgust as he realized what had been done to him, what was the bitter taste in his mouth.

Excerpted from The Fig Eater © Copyright 2012 by Jody Shields. Reprinted with permission by Time Warner Books. All rights reserved.

The Fig Eater
by by Jody Shields

  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316785261
  • ISBN-13: 9780316785266