I work in the Room of Spare Parts. On delivery days you can hear the heads from the loading dock. They moan at the approach of our footsteps. They moan when their boxes are unloaded and opened, rolling their faces to the corners. They don’t normally scream; most are blunt-nosed and blindfolded, with soft-lipped mouths like unbroken horses.
While we grow hands and feet on-site, the heads are shipped in from overseas manufacturers, places where beheadings are a speciality. The higher-ups do the ordering. The heads come packaged in cardboard boxes with no identifying marks, but we can guess their origins from the faces. We only do so privately, amongst ourselves. Even then, we do not completely trust one another.
The heads travel quite well. The inner organs are the ones that give us trouble. They require special machinery and operating systems: automatic bellows for the lungs, while the hearts are transported inside elaborate artificial circulatory systems. The heads have a long shelf life, provided they are cared for properly.
This is my job. The heads must be gassed first because they have a tendency to butt and bite. They are bluish and tender so we don’t want them to bruise themselves in a panic. The root of the head is then packed in damp tissue paper to preserve the delicate nerves and veins that hang from the exposed spinal cord. The skin is washed and then tattooed with a cipher so our nurses can archive each accordingly.
We are not called nurses. In the Room of Spare Parts we are cephalophores, the name given to saints who carry their own heads as a sign they have been martyred by beheading. They call us this even though it is not we who have been beheaded. We bear the scars – secret, shameful, political – of failed attempts.
The heads have travelled great distances, so it is no wonder they are somewhat agitated upon arrival. Each delivery day their moaning reminds me that I too know what it is like to be severed from your home. The other cephalophores are all girls, like me, sent to the factory from far and wide, with our necks bloody and our heads full of secrets, to keep us silent. We have learnt to hold our tongues.
I am good at my job. I am not squeamish. I do not falter. On delivery days, however, I hold my breath in case I see a face I recognise. Some days, I expect every head I pull out to be my own.