“What Am I, Will Henry?”
I do not wish to remember these things.
I wish to be rid of them, to be rid of him. I set down the pen nearly a year ago, swearing I would never pick it up again. Let it die with me, I thought. I am an old man. I owe the future nothing.
Soon I will fall asleep and I will wake from this terrible dream. The endless night will fall, and I will rise.
I long for that night. I do not fear it.
I have had my fill of fear. I have stared too long into the abyss, and now the abyss stares back at me.
Between the sleeping and the waking, it is there.
Between the rising and the resting, it is there.
It is always there.
It gnaws my heart. It chews my soul.
I turn aside and see it. I stop my ears and hear it. I cover myself and feel it.
There are no human words for what I mean.
It is the language of the bare bough and the cold stone, pronounced in the fell wind’s sullen whisper and the metronomic drip-drip of the rain. It is the song the falling snow sings and the discordant clamor of sunlight ripped apart by the canopy and miserly filtered down.
It is what the unseeing eye sees. It is what the deaf ear hears.
It is the romantic ballad of death’s embrace; the solemn hymn of offal dripping from bloody teeth; the lamentation of the bloated corpse rotting in the sun; and the graceful ballet of maggots twisting in the ruins of God’s temple.
Here in this gray land, we have no name. We are the carcasses reflected in the yellow eye.
Our bones are bleached within our skin; our empty sockets regard the hungry crow.
Here in this shadow country, our tinny voices scratch like a fly’s wing against unmoving air.
Ours is the language of imbeciles, the gibberish of idiots. The root and the vine have more to say than us.
I want to show you something. There is no name for it; it has no human symbol. It is old and its memory is long. It knew the world before we named it.
It knows everything. It knows me and it knows you.
And I will show it to you.
I will show you.
Let us go then, you and I, like Alice down the rabbit hole, to a time when there still were dark places in the world, and there were men who dared to delve into them.
An old man, I am a boy again.
And dead, the monstrumologist lives.
He was a solitary man, a dweller in silences, a genius enslaved to his own despotic thought, meticulous in his work, careless in his appearance, given to bouts of debilitating melancholia and driven by demons as formidable as the physical monstrosities he pursued.
He was a hard man, obstinate, cold to the point of cruelty, with impenetrable motives and rigid expectations, a strict taskmaster and an exacting teacher when he didn’t ignore me altogether. Days would pass with but a word or two between us. I might have been another stick of dusty furniture in a forgotten room of his ancestral home. If I had fled, I do not doubt weeks would have passed before he would have noticed. Then, without warning, I would find myself the sole focus of his attention, a singularly unpleasant phenomenon that produced an effect not unlike the sensation of drowning or being crushed by a thousand-pound rock. Those dark, strangely backlit eyes would turn upon me, the brow would furrow, the lips tighten and grow white, the same expression of intense concentration I had seen a hundred times at the necropsy table as he flayed open some nameless thing to explore its innards. A look from him could lay me bare. I spent many a useless hour debating with myself which was worse, being ignored by him or being acknowledged.
But I remained. He was all I had, and I do not flatter myself when I say I was all that he had. The fact is, to his death, I was his sole companion.
That had not always been the case.
He was a solitary man, but he was no hermit. In those waning days of the century, the monstrumologist was much in demand. Letters and telegrams arrived daily from all over the world seeking his advice, inviting him to speak, appealing to him for this or that service. He preferred the field to the laboratory and would drop everything at a moment’s notice to investigate a sighting of some rare species; he always kept a packed suitcase and a field kit in his closet.
He looked forward to the colloquium of the Monstrumologist Society held annually in New York City, where for two weeks scientists of the same philosophical bent met to present papers, exchange ideas, share discoveries, and, as was their counterintuitive wont, close down every bar and saloon on the island of Manhattan. Perhaps this was not so incongruous, though. These were men who pursued things from which the vast majority of their fellows would run as fast as their legs would carry them. The hardships they endured in this pursuit almost necessitated some kind of Dionysian release. Warthrop was the exception. He never touched alcohol or tobacco or any mind-altering drug. He sneered at those he considered slaves to their vices, but he was no different—only his vice was. In fact, one might argue his was the more dangerous by far. It was not the fruit of the vine that killed Narcissus, after all.
The letter that arrived late in the spring of 1888 was just one of many received that day—an alarming missive that, upon coming into his possession, quickly came to possess him.
Postmarked in New York City, it read:
My Dear Dr. Warthrop,
I have it upon good authority that his Hon. Pres. von Helrung intends to present the enclosed Proposal at the annual Congress in New York this November instant. That he is the author of this outrageous proposition, I have no doubt, and I would not trouble you if I possessed so much as a scintilla of uncertainty.
The man has clearly gone mad. I care as little about that as I care for the man, but my fear is not unjustified, I think. I consider his insidious argument a genuine threat to the legitimacy of our vocation, with the potential to doom our work to oblivion or—worse—to doom us to sharing space in the public mind with the charlatan and the quack. Thus, I vouch it is no hyperbole to aver that the very future of our discipline is at stake.
Once you have read this offensive tripe, I am certain you will agree that our only hope lies in delivering a forceful Reply upon the completion of his Presentation. And I can think of no better man to contest our esteemed president’s alarming and dangerous disquisitions than you, Dr. Warthrop, the leading Philosopher of Aberrant Natural History of his generation.
I remain, as always, etc., etc.,
Your Obt. Servant,
A Concerned Colleague
A single reading of the enclosed monograph of Abram von Helrung convinced the doctor that his correspondent was correct in at least one regard. The proposal did indeed pose a threat to the legitimacy of his beloved profession. That he was the best—and obvious—choice to refute the claims of the most renowned monstrumologist in the world required no convincing on anyone’s part. Pellinore Warthrop’s genius included the profound insight that he happened to be one.
So everything was put aside. Visitors were turned away. Letters went unanswered. All invitations were declined. His studies were abandoned. Sleep and sustenance were reduced to the barest minimum. His thirty-seven-page monograph, with the rather unwieldy title, Shall We Doom the Natural Philosophy of Monstrumology to the Dustbin of History? A Reply to the Hon. President Dr. Abram von Helrung upon His Proposal to Investigate and Consider as Possible Inclusions into the Catalogue of Aberrant Species Certain Heretofore Mythical Creatures of Supernatural Origin at the One Hundred Tenth Congress of the Society for the Advancement of the Science of Monstrumology, went through multiple revisions and refinements over that frantic summer.
He enlisted me in the cause, naturally, as his research assistant, in addition to my duties as cook, maid, manservant, laundryman, and errand boy. I fetched books, took dictation, and played audience to his stiff, overly formal, sometimes ludicrously awkward presentation. He would stand ramrod straight with his lanky arms folded stiffly behind his back, eyes focused unerringly upon the floor, chin tilted downward so that his otherwise compellingly dark features were lost in shadow.
He refused to read directly from his paper, so he often “went up” in the parlance of the theater, completely losing track of his argument, thrashing like King Pellinore, his namesake, in the dense thicket of his thoughts in search of the elusive Questing Beast of his reasoning.
At other times he fell into rambling asides that took the audience from the birth of monstrumology in the early eighteenth century (beginning with Bacqueville de la Potherie, the acknowledged father of this most curious of esoteric disciplines) to the present day, with references to obscure personages whose voices had long been stifled in the Dark Angel’s smothering embrace.
“Now, where was I, Will Henry?” he would ask after one of these extended extemporaneities. It never failed that this question came at the precise moment when my mind had wandered to more interesting matters, more often than not to the current weather conditions or the menu for our long-overdue supper.
Unwilling to incur his inestimable ire, I would fumble a reply, blurting the best guess I had, which usually included somewhere in the sentence the name of Darwin, Warthrop’s personal hero.
The ploy did not always work.
“Darwin!” the monstrumologist cried once in reply, striking his fist into his palm in agitation. “Darwin! Really, Will Henry, what does Darwin have to do with the native folklore of the Carpathians? Or the mythos of Homer? Or Norse cosmology? Have I not impressed upon you the importance of this endeavor? If I should fail in this, the seminal moment of my career, not only will I go down in humiliation and disrepute, but the entire house will fall! The end of monstrumology, the immediate and irrevocable loss of nearly two hundred years of unselfish devotion by men who dwarf all those who came after them, myself included. Even me, Will Henry. Think of that!”
“I think it was . . . You were talking about the Carpathians, I think . . .”
“Dear Lord! I know that, Will Henry. And the only reason you know that is I just said it!”
As hard as he threw himself into the task of his oral presentation, more assiduously still did he labor over his written reply, composing at least twelve drafts, each of them in his nearly illegible scrawl, and all of which fell to me to transcribe into readable form, for, if the reply had been delivered to the printer’s in its original state, it would undoubtedly have been wadded up and hurled at my head.
Upon the conclusion of my hours of toil, hunching over my desk like a medieval monk with aching ink-stained fingers and itching, burning eyes, the monstrumologist would snatch the product from my quivering grip and compare it to the original, hunting for the slightest error, which, of course, he would invariably find.
At the end of this Herculean effort, after the printer delivered the finished product and there was little left to do (and little left of the monstrumologist, for he must have lost more than fifteen pounds since the project had begun) but wait for that fall’s convocation, he fell into a profound depression. The monstrumologist retreated to his shuttered study, where he brooded in a gloom both actual and metaphysical, refusing to even acknowledge my halfhearted attempts to alleviate his suffering. I brought him raspberry scones (his favorite) from the baker’s. I shared with him the latest gossip gleaned from the society pages (he held a strange fascination for them) and the local doings of our little hamlet of New Jerusalem. He would not be comforted. He even lost interest in the mail, which I arranged for him, unread, upon his desk, until the desk’s surface was covered as thickly as the forest floor by the leaves of autumn.
Near the end of August, a large package arrived from Menlo Park, and for a few moments he was his old self again, delighting in the gift from his friend. Enclosed with it was a brief note: All my thanks for your help with the design, Thos. A. Edison. He played with the phonograph for the space of an hour, and then touched it no more. It sat upon the table beside him like a silent rebuke. Here was the dream made real of Thomas Edison, a man who was destined to be lauded as one of the greatest minds of his generation, if not in all history, a true man of science whose world would be forever changed for his having lived in it.
“What am I, Will Henry?” the doctor asked abruptly one rainy afternoon.
I answered with the literalness of a child, which, of course, at the time I was.
“You’re a monstrumologist, sir.”
“I am a mote of dust,” he said. “Who will remember me when I am gone?”
I glanced at the mountain of letters upon his desk. What did he mean? It seemed he knew everyone. Just that morning a letter had arrived from the Royal Society of London. Sensing he meant something deeper, I answered intuitively, “I will, sir. I will remember you.”
“You! Well, I suppose you won’t have much choice in the matter.” His eyes wandered to the phonograph. “Do you know it was not always my desire to be a scientist? When I was much younger, my great ambition was to be a poet.”
If he had stated that his brain were made of Swiss cheese, I would not have been more flabbergasted.
“A poet, Dr. Warthrop?”
“Oh, yes. The desire is gone, but the temperament, you may have noticed, still lingers. I was quite the romantic, Will Henry, if you can imagine it.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“I grew up.”
He placed one of his thin, delicate fingers upon the ceresin cylinder, running the tip along the pits and grooves like a blind man reading braille.
“There is no future in it, Will Henry,” he said pensively. “The future belongs to science. The fate of our species will be determined by the likes of Edison and Tesla, not Wordsworth or Whitman. The poets will lie upon the shores of Babylon and weep, poisoned by the fruit that grows from the ground where the Muses’ corpses rot. The poets’ voices will be drowned out by the gears of progress. I foresee the day when all sentiment is reduced to a chemical equation in our brains—hope, faith, even love—their exact locations pinned down and mapped out, so we may point to it and say, ‘Here, in this region of our cerebral cortex, lies the soul.’”
“I like poetry,” I said.
“Yes, and some like to whittle, Will Henry, so they will always find trees.”
“Have you kept any of your poems, Doctor?”
“No, I have not, for which you should be grateful. I was horrible.”
“What did you write about?”
“What every poet writes about. I fail to understand it, Will Henry, your uncanny gift for seizing upon the most tangential aspect of the issue and drubbing it to death.”
To prove him wrong, I said, “I will never forget you, sir. Ever. And neither will the whole world. You’ll be more famous than Edison and Bell and all the rest put together. I’ll make sure of it.”
“I will pass into oblivion, to the vile dust from whence I sprung, unwept, unhonored, and unsung. . . . That is poetry, in case you’re wondering. Sir Walter Scott.”
He stood up, and now his countenance shone with the profundity of his passion, at once terrifying and strangely beautiful, the look of the mystic or the saint, transported from the constraints of ego and all fleshy desires.
“But I am nothing. My memory is nothing. The work is everything, and I will not see it mocked. Though the cost be my very life, I will not let it pass, Will Henry. If von Helrung should succeed—if we allow our noble cause to be reduced to the study of the silly superstitions of the masses—so that we jibber-jabber on about the nature of the vampire or the zombie as if they sat at the same table as the manticore and the Anthropophagus, then monstrumology is as dead as alchemy, as ridiculous as astrology, as serious as one of Mr. Barnum’s sideshow freaks!
“Grown men, educated men, men of the highest sophistication and social refinement, cross themselves like the most ignorant peasant when they pass this house. ‘What queer and unnatural goings-on in there, the house of Warthrop!’ When you yourself can attest that there is nothing queer or unnatural about it, that what I deal in is altogether natural, that if it weren’t for me and men like me, these fools might find themselves choking on their own entrails or being digested in the belly of some beast no more queer than the lowly housefly!”
He drew a breath deeply, the pause before the start of the next movement in his symphony, then suddenly he became very still, head cocked slightly to one side. I listened, but heard nothing but the rain’s gentle kiss upon the window and the metronomic tick-tick of the mantel clock.
“Someone is here,” he said. He turned and peered through the blinds. I could see nothing but the reflection of his angular face. How hollow his cheeks! How pale his flesh! He had spoken boldly of his ultimate fate—did he know how close he seemed to that vile dust from whence he came?
“Quickly, to the door, Will Henry. Whoever it is, remember I am indisposed and can’t receive visitors. Well, what are you waiting for? Snap to, Will Henry, snap to!”
A moment later the bell rang. He closed the study door behind me. I lit the jets in the front hall to chase away the preternatural shadows lying thick in the entryway, and threw wide the door to behold the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in all the years of my exceedingly long life.
© 2010 Rick Yancey