By late fall, Finas found herself in another world, far from the dust and debris of a nation being constructed. She had traveled across the ocean again, and now stood in the basement of a British university. Before her was a secret laboratory, the door straining to hold back the sounds of intense anguish. The cries of a wounded animal echoed in the stairwell, growing louder as she reached this point. The young scientist beside her was pale and sweating.

“Dr. Helmont, we are late,” said Finas quietly.

“Yes, I know.”

They stood, listening through the closed door to what sounded like a dog in agony and the murmur of conversation and laughter. Finas looked at the young man beside her, waiting patiently for him to make his decision. Edward Helmont was quiet and sweet-tempered, studious and charming, the sort of young man every mother wishes her child to be. Finas knew this experience would not be easy for him.

Edward closed his eyes and breathed deeply. After he’d steadied his nerves, he opened the door swiftly. Upon entering the dim, dank room, he nodded mechanically to Dr. Beñat and his assistant, giving only a single glance to the animal lashed to a table.

Finas followed behind Edward, offering a more polite greeting to the researchers and a dozen of her colleagues. Parting from the young man’s path, she took her usual seat in the farthest corner. From the privacy of the shadows, she saw that the animal was not a dog as she had suspected, but rather a young sheep, malnourished and shivering from adrenaline. In the opposite corner of the room lay the corpse of another sheep.

“We will wait just a moment, and then we will proceed,” Dr. Beñat announced in English before conversing with his colleague in French. Finas looked from one of the assembled to the other; the faces of each betrayed various degrees of anxiety and excitement. These were studious, self-interested people who were violating university code. For many, this was their first taste of rebellion. Edward was the only one of the men who pitied the animal.

Judging from its scars, old sutures, and various stages of hair growth in patches on the dingy little animal’s body, it was clear the creature understood what was to come. When the two scientists concluded their discussion, Dr. Beñat’s assistant collected more straps and retrieved a custom harness from a box. He approached the table as the sheep struggled, bleated, and cried out at the sight of him. He forced her legs down towards the far corners of the table and strapped them to two metal posts. Her head was placed within a wooden vice, the levers tightened until she was secure. A device stained with layers of dried blood pried open the crying animal’s mouth.

Dr. Beñat approached, his steps slowing as he examined the struggling sheep, and he waited patiently as his assistant dressed him in gloves and a butcher’s apron. The eminent scientist spoke and retrieved a canister of fat.

“The body is a machine. This machine runs on fats and sugars consumed and digested by the pancreas, not the stomach, as commonly believed. Here, we are feeding this specimen with harvested fat.”

As Dr. Beñat spoke, he force-fed the sheep fat from the canister with the ease of habitual action. Finas noted Edward’s reaction as the animal struggled to consume the tissue. Once the sheep had swallowed the last of the fat, it began to wail again. The harness restricted her movements, but she was stubborn and terrified. The basement floor vibrated from the impact of her body slamming against the table. The scientist’s assistant, examining his pocket watch, held up his hand after a minute had passed. Finas cast her eyes down as the cries of the sheep were silenced.

Dr. Beñat sliced open the sheep’s belly, his hands dripping with her warm blood. “As we open the abdominal cavity of the specimen, we see that the pancreas is secreting digestive juices, not the stomach. Indeed, here the muscle contractions of the stomach will continue for a moment longer, though clearly for no purpose.”

Several of the men chuckled, and the scientist continued his brief lecture. At its conclusion, Edward was the first to speak.

“Dr. Beñat, I do not believe I understand the purpose of this demonstration. This could have been told to us without this . . . brutality.” The young man motioned towards the animal’s head with agitation. Dr. Beñat laughed while his colleagues exchanged dismissive smiles.

“Young man,” the assistant began, “a scientist is deaf to the cries of lesser beings when knowledge is at stake. You must see and do, rather than settle for being told. Learn that now, Dr. Helmont, or quit this field and become a philosopher.”

Edward angrily gathered his things and left the room. Finas nodded politely to the scientists and followed him. The young man ran up the stairs without noticing her presence. Upon reaching ground level, he opened a service door onto an overgrown walkway that was shielded from the street by towering bushes and tall brick walls. With both hands resting on the building, he allowed himself to vomit. After several moments, he noticed the hem of Finas’ dress and tried to compose himself, but the effort was in vain.

“Mrs. Fortin. That sheep . . . it was still a baby. We raised sheep on our estate. I used to play with the new lambs as a child . . .”

Edward made eye contact with Finas, waiting for a response. She handed him her handkerchief in silence. He moved away from the remnants of his breakfast in shame. Finas moved towards the sunlight, a direction he followed without thought. He had first seen her many months earlier. It had been late at night, and he was searching for his gloves, lost while celebrating his promotion in a young man’s usual way. Peeking into a rarely occupied lab, he found her quietly working on her own experiments. It became his mental image of her: alone over her work, lit by a single lantern. When she became his assistant, he learned that such isolated study was typical for her evenings and weekends. He wondered if she ever slept.

Edward woke from his thoughts, realizing she was still watching him. He tried to smile. “I knew what to expect and yet I reacted this way. I must understand the physiology of the body under normal conditions. I feel so foolish.”

“From my study, carnivores produce pancreatic acid during meals. Ruminates produce it at all times. What we saw was entirely without purpose,” Finas muttered, adjusting her sleeve in agitation.

The two stood in the silence of the afternoon, feeling the breeze as it carried the fragrance of distant flowers near to them. Though many of the men on campus had fallen in love with her, Edward knew he would not. More than her black clothes and wedding band told him she was a widow. In her he saw his mother, who lost her parents and husband to the same disease within the same week. Though she had been dedicated to raising her son, loss and grief were his mother’s constant companions. She, like this woman, would allow nothing else into her heart.

“If it is a comfort, this animal was purchased from a butcher. It was to die in some fashion very soon.”

Edward swallowed before responding. “Mrs. Fortin, that animal was suffering. You may not be familiar with how animals are butchered, but that was not what we saw.”

“The oysters sold at the shore are alive when you eat them. Our understanding of their biology implies they are incapable of the traits we believe allow us to think and feel. The animal on that table, she shared the basic outline of our features, cried in pain as we would do, knew her mother and her relations. The oyster may have wants and needs, feelings and ambitions that are entirely dissimilar to our own and therefore beyond our comprehension. Would you denounce the suffering of an oyster as you do the suffering of a sheep? Would a dog, a companion designed for us by nature, be the beneficiary of a larger share of our compassion? Have we been fooled by nature into pitying a creature that is a pale image of mankind, when our only dedication should be to our own species’ survival?”

Any clear thought Edward had been holding was quickly engulfed by these ideas. Struggling to remain in the conversation, he replied, “You admit that this treatment was cruel.”

“Of course,” Finas replied, “but not for the same reasons as you. To believe that the treatment immediately preceding death constitutes cruelty is false. Eternal separation with life—to be permanently taken from those who you love—that is true suffering.”

Finas felt his eyes on her as she finished speaking. Eager to escape further discussion, she nodded a brief curtsey to him and retreated to the densely populated sidewalk beyond the shrubbery. Safely cocooned in the sea of men, she wished she could sink down below their dark coats and stiff hats, to disappear from the notice of all around her.

Lifeless
By Norah Woodsey