Jon has cut off his eyelids with a pair of scissors.
They all do something like that in the end.
Some hack away with anything sharp they can find, like an old tin can or nail clippers.
Angie, the receptionist, sewed her eyelids open with a knitting needle and some forest green wool that she was using to make a scarf for her nephew, leaving her eyes looking like a child's Christmas decoration. The courier sitting in a chair across from Jon used a stapler, the lids pinned to his eyebrows.
If nothing can be found, they pull them off themselves, stretching and twisting at the skin until it finally tears.
In the end they all do something to stop themselves closing their eyes.
In the end, after looking into the box.
Pulling at the thin skin between finger and thumb Jon had just snipped his eyelids off. The long dark eyelashes are still poking out from between his clenched fingers, as if he had just caught an insect.
He is sitting cross legged in the corner of my office, his large milky white eyeballs framed with a thick burgundy eye shadow, the veins and blood vessels wet and glistening, now exposed to the elements.
You never realise how big the eyeball is.
I ask him the same question that I ask them all,
'What did you see?'
But they never say a word, just a thousand mile stare, made worse when they find something to keep the stare permanent.
Then they just stop. Slumping down on the floor.
Alive, but still, staring into an infinite distance.
The human body can survive weeks without food, but without water they usually die within 3 days. But the stare, it continues even after death. The moisture goes from the eyeballs leaving a grey film, the pupils enlarged to cartoon character proportions.
I've put the dead ones in the store room downstairs. I try to keep the others alive by pouring water into their mouths, just in case one of them breaks the silence and tells me what I want to know.
But they don't last long, the will to live extinguished.
“What did you see?”, I plead.
But they sit there, silent and secretive, lying in their own shit. Staring.
Moments before each of them became these silent staring lumps of flesh, they had all looked into the Mutoscope.
The Mutoscope is in front of me. We bought it at an auction.
A device lost to technology, a lost relic of a forgotten age. A bargain at fifteen pounds.
A large circular drum upended on a tripod, with a viewing hole in the top which you peer into.
Inside a loop of faded old black and white photographs on a reel, each one taken a few moments after each other, which would click into view one after the other by turning a handle on the side of the drum.
The faster you turned the faster the action inside. Sometimes a man on a bicycle, or a horse running.
Tick, tick, tick.
A brass plate fixed to the drum reads
'The answers to life, all secrets revealed'
Sat at the end of piers and fairgrounds, offering What The Butler Saw. Struggling against suffocating Victorian morality, our Great Grandfathers voyeuristically peeked into a strangers bedroom as they undressed and bathed. Each turn of the handle, making the fantasy reach its climax.
Day to day life, viewed and controlled at will
Poking out of Jon’s shirt pocket is our business card
Momento Mori - Specialist art dealers.
That's we did for a living, sell photos. Photos of dead people.
In 1839 the Daguerreotype was invented. It was the first commercial photographic process.
Family portraits that were a luxury that only rich could afford, were now available to the lower classes.
Not that there was much to take photos of.
Thing was Victorian England was a cesspit of disease and filth. Death was a neighbour, one that wouldn't keep the noise down when asked.
It was common for families to lose all of their children in one attack of Chicken pox.
It wasn't just the pox, Diphtheria, Cholera, Polio all claimed the lives of the young without any medical help or concern. It was a fact of life and drinking water with human shit in it.
Grieving families would pay to have the only evidence of their loved ones immortalised onto print.
The dead would be cleaned up and dressed in their finest clothes. They would be positioned with the aid of ropes and sticks next to their brothers, sisters and parents, as if alive. Their eyes would be propped open or eyes painted over shut lids to create this illusion of life.
An infant, its face shrunken and grey from Cholera stares at the camera with its bulging black eyes.
A widow sits at a fireplace, her dead husband beside her, his claw like hand in the grips of rigarmortis clutching hers. His head at an unnatural angle leant on her shoulder, his eyes rolled upwards and glassy, the pupils just peeping out from under the lids
A whole family, Parents and six children, dressed in their finest clothing recline on a blanket, faces swollen from the pox. All dead and staring.
This is what we sold, other peoples memories. People paid to see death.
All with eyes wide open, as if this was what defined life.
Despite the bloating, the decay, the atrophied limbs and disease, with their eyes open, they must be alive, and cheating death.
These snapshots of death, imitations of life. A memory of life or as our business card translates..'Remember your Mortality'.
A teenage girl was the first to look. All, dark makeup and gothic dress, skull jewellery and crucifixes.
Moments after she removed her face from the box, she clawed off her eyelids with her painted red nails, then dropped to the floor, her gaze fixed to the ceiling.
After the paramedic that arrived joined her, with the aid of a surgical scalpel, I knew not to look.
I got others to do it for me. The police officers didn't need to be asked. One of them is now slumped next to Jon in the corner of the room.
Like the dead faces staring at me from inside the frames around my gallery, they stare too.
Yet they did this by choice, something they had seen had made them do this.
What secrets had been revealed?
Was it some terrible purgatory that made them tear open their eyes in fear of closing them, left to the dark memory of what they had seen?
Or enlightenment, eyes now open to what this struggling existence is about.
Was this machine actually showing them the answer to life, why we are here?, what defines us?
What happens when we die?.
There it is.
The eternal mystery, the last unanswered question that every living being has asked at some point in their lives. It's the million dollar answer, if you know it, you control everything.
Civilisations have been built and destroyed by people who claim to know. But they were all charlatans. How could they know?.
I need to know.
Looking around the room at my wide eyed audience, I can hear the police trying to break down the door. They were bound to come at some point.
Now is my last chance before death, I have a choice.
Live the rest of my life, waiting for the answers, fearful and unknowing, or take a look in the box.
Discover what we have yearned for since the dawn of man.
Holding the handle in one hand, I peer inside.
Just me looking into the pregnant darkness. Infinite yet void.
My eyes are wide open, yet I cannot not see anything.
And slowly I turn the handle