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A little fiction inspired by the weird and wonderful exhibits of Edinburgh’s Surgeon’s Hall Museum

Amongst the many strange items in my Auntie Meg’s house, by far the strangest was a face in a jar. In her younger years, my aunt had taken her manic grin and unsettling squint across the globe to collect trinkets; scorpions set in glass poised to sting, black shrunken heads that dangled on string, grimacing puppets with ghoulish wide grins from places like Sri Lanka and Nepal. Upon her return she crammed the objects into the shelves of her tiny home, and over the years they had grown as old and as forgotten as Auntie Meg herself. As a child I believed that if you stayed inside the house for too long you might one day find yourself sitting on one of those creaking shelves, or tucked away in a dark bedroom corner gathering dust, find that you too had become one of the trinkets.

The face sat on the mantelpiece suspended in a jar of yellowed water, quite still and appeared to be asleep. One day when she left the room I found myself creeping closer to get a better look. There was a small sticker on the side with 1917 written on it and I remembered she told me it was a solider who had died in the First World War. Pale and red haired like me, his eyelashes looked so very delicate, preserved and softened by time, pressed against the wrinkled skin under his eyes. Those were the lines of a man who cried, there was no doubt those eyes had known tears. I wondered if they had known love too. Perhaps that was why he cried. His cheeks were bristled with stubble that had stopped growing almost a century ago. Twisted nostrils, skewed and black from the bullet hole that killed him through the left side of his nose, thick old fashioned sutures pointlessly held the wound closed. Shutting my eyes, I inhaled; the smells of burning, gun powder, dusty roads, hot dinners, hot sweats, bodies, then in the end the smell of fear. When I looked again two brown eyes, black as the barrel of a gun, stared back at me and I jumped before I realised it was only my own reflection in the glass.

Still he slept, another century of dreams from his jar to come. Curious I reached for it, tentatively feeling the smooth glass against my fingertips, knowing I shouldn’t but I wanted a closer look. I wanted to know all of this man, to see what happened where his forehead stopped, where his skull should have been.

Lifting him toward me I could feel the slip before it happened. The jar out of my hands smashed across the hard wooden floor. The silence that followed seemed to stretch for ninety four long years. Liquid and shards and a lump of soggy flaccid flesh lay sadly at my feet face down, the gristle behind the face now on show. Auntie Meg appeared in the doorway, she looked down and sighed.

“That was your great-grandfather.”