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My Hot Portuguese Date

Head In A Jar

PORTUGAL | Monday, 12 May 2014 | Views [1782] | Scholarship Entry

Four months ago today, I found myself inside Lisbon’s Santa Maria hospital. I hadn’t pitched headfirst down the metro stairs while taking photos of azulejos-covered façades, or been mugged in the tangled medieval streets of Alfama. No one fished me out of the Tagus, nor did they scrape me off the tracks after a losing game of chicken with the quaint, yellow tram 28. No, I had a hot date in the anatomy theater with a head in a jar.
After four days of tracking it down through my only Portuguese connection, and nearly foiled by a metro strike, I made it to the Museu de Medicina inside the hospital. I followed the lab assistant down the corridor, her long, dark ponytail swaying side to side. I couldn’t help but think of how a series of unexplained deaths in the late 1830s had brought me here. The victims, sprawled and broken, lay at the base of the Aguas Livres Aqueduct, a monstrous waterway that spans Lisbon’s Alcantra Valley, snaking through the hills like a stone serpent. It’s 214 feet at its highest point, and for nearly a century people walked across it as a shortcut. The police were convinced the deaths were suicides, until they hanged a man, Diogo Alves, for the murder of a doctor and his family in 1841 and the suicides stopped.
At the end of the hallway, the lab assistant smiled at me over her shoulder and pushed open the door. High upon a shelf sat a large glass jar. Inside it was the head of Diogo Alves, soaking in a brine of formaldehyde. A rash of goosebumps broke out across my arms as the sharp acrid smell of my high school chemistry classroom lingered in the air. The preserving solution had bleached Diogo’s hair, and the dull red strands swam over his ears. His close-cropped goatee took on the same hue, framing his lips, now pressed against the glass.
The edges of his dark irises had faded to blue. This face, now cast with a waxy gray pallor, struck terror into the hearts of Lisboners for nearly four years. His killing spree is still on record as having the highest known victim count in Portugal, and as I stood in front of him, the last thing he looked was notorious. Admittedly, I had hoped for a Hannibal Lechter-like grimace from beyond, or something to showcase Diogo’s sinister side, but instead I was met with a tranquil gaze bordering on apathy.
I had overblown expectations for my first look into a serial killer’s dead, vacant stare. But the next one would be different. If I could just find another head in a jar.

Tags: 2014 Travel Writing Scholarship - Euro Roadtrip

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