“A Singular Curiosity”
These are the secrets I have kept. This is the trust I never betrayed.
But he is dead now and has been for more than forty years, the one who gave me his trust, the one for whom I kept these secrets.
The one who saved me … and the one who cursed me.
I can’t recall what I had for breakfast this morning, but I remember with nightmarish clarity that spring night in 1888 when he roused me roughly from my slumber, his hair unkempt, eyes wide and shining in the lamplight, the excited glow upon his finely chiseled features, one with which I had, unfortunately, become intimately acquainted.
“Get up! Get up, Will Henry, and be quick about it!” he said urgently. “We have a caller!”
“A caller?” I murmured in reply. “What time is it?”
“A little after one. Now get dressed and meet me at the back door. Step lively, Will Henry, and snap to!”
He withdrew from my little alcove, taking the light with him. I dressed in the dark and scampered down the ladder in my stocking feet, putting on the last of my garments, a soft felt hat a size too small for my twelve-year-old head. That little hat was all I had left from my life before coming to live with him, and so it was precious to me.
He had lit the jets along the hall of the upper floor, though but a single light burned on the main floor, in the kitchen at the rear of the old house where just the two of us lived, without so much as a maid to pick up after us: The doctor was a private man, engaged in a dark and dangerous business, and could ill afford the prying eyes and gossiping tongue of the servant class. When the dust and dirt became intolerable, about every three months or so, he would press a rag and a bucket into my hands and tell me to “snap to” before the tide of filth overwhelmed us.
I followed the light into the kitchen, my shoes completely forgotten in my trepidation. This was not the first nocturnal visitor since my coming to live with him the year before. The doctor had numerous visits in the wee hours of the morning, more than I cared to remember, and none were cheerful social calls. His business was dangerous and dark, as I have said, and so, on the whole, were his callers.
The one who called on this night was standing just outside the back door, a gangly, skeletal figure, his shadow rising wraithlike from the glistening cobblestones. His face was hidden beneath the broad brim of his straw hat, but I could see his gnarled knuckles protruding from his frayed sleeves, and knobby yellow ankles the size of apples below his tattered trousers. Behind the old man a broken-down nag of a horse stamped and snorted, steam rising from its quivering flanks. Behind the horse, barely visible in the mist, was the cart with its grotesque cargo, wrapped in several layers of burlap.
The doctor was speaking quietly to the old man as I came to the door, a comforting hand upon his shoulder, for clearly our caller was nearly mad with panic. He had done the right thing, the doctor was assuring him. He, the doctor, would take the matter from here. All would be well. The poor old soul nodded his large head, which appeared all the larger with its lid of straw as it bobbed on its spindly neck.
“’Tis a crime. A bloody crime of nature!” he exclaimed at one point. “I shouldn’t have taken it; I should have covered it back up and left it to the mercy of God!”
“I take no stances on theology, Erasmus,” said the doctor. “I am a scientist. But is it not said that we are his instruments? If that is the case, then God brought you to her and directed you hence to my door.”
“So you won’t report me?” the old man asked, with a sideways glance toward the doctor.
“Your secret will be as safe with me as I hope mine will be with you. Ah, here is Will Henry. Will Henry, where are your shoes? No, no,” he said as I turned to fetch them. “I need you to ready the laboratory.”
“Yes, doctor,” I responded dutifully, and turned to go a second time.
“And put a pot on. It’s going to be a long night.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. I turned a third time.
“And find my boots, Will Henry.”
“Of course, sir.”
I hesitated, waiting for a fourth command. The old man called Erasmus was staring at me.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” the doctor said. “Snap to, Will Henry!”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “Right away, sir!”
I left them in the alley, hearing the old man ask as I hurried across the kitchen, “He is your boy?”
“He is my assistant,” came the doctor’s reply.
I set the water on to boil and then went down to the basement. I lit the lamps, laid out the instruments. (I wasn’t sure which he might need, but had a strong suspicion the old man’s delivery was not alive—I had heard no sounds coming from the old cart, and there didn’t seem to be great urgency to fetch the cargo inside … though this may have been more hope than suspicion.) Then I removed a fresh smock from the closet and rummaged under the stairs for the doctor’s rubber boots. They weren’t there, and for a moment I stood by the examination table in mute panic. I had washed them the week before and was certain I had placed them under the stairs. Where were the doctor’s boots? From the kitchen came the clumping of the men’s tread across the wooden floor. He was coming, and I had lost his boots!
I spied the boots just as the doctor and Erasmus began to descend the stairs. They were beneath the worktable, where I had placed them. Why had I put them there? I set them by the stool and waited, my heart pounding, my breath coming in short, ragged gasps. The basement was very cold, at least ten degrees colder than the rest of the house, and stayed that way year round.
The load, still wrapped tightly in burlap, must have been heavy: The muscles in the men’s necks bulged with the effort, and their descent was painfully slow. Once the old man cried for a halt. They paused five steps from the bottom, and I could see the doctor was annoyed at this delay. He was anxious to unveil his new prize.
They eventually heaved their burden onto the examining table. The doctor guided the old man to the stool. Erasmus sank down upon it, removed his straw hat, and wiped his crinkled brow with a filthy rag. He was shaking badly. In the light I could see that nearly all of him was filthy, from his mud-encrusted shoes to his broken fingernails to the fine lines and crevasses of his ancient face. I could smell the rich, loamy aroma of damp earth rising from him.
“A crime,” he murmured. “A crime!”
“Yes, grave-robbing is a crime,” said the doctor. “A very serious crime, Erasmus. A thousand-dollar fine and five years’ hard labor.” He shrugged into his smock and motioned for his boots. He leaned against the banister to tug them on. “We are coconspirators now. I must trust you, and you in turn must trust me. Will Henry, where is my tea?”
I raced up the stairs. Below, the old man was saying, “I have a family to feed. My wife, she’s very ill; she needs medicine. I can’t find work, and what use is gold and jewels to the dead?”
They had left the back door ajar. I swung it closed and threw the bolt, but not until I checked the alley. I saw nothing but the fog, which had grown thicker, and the horse, its face dominated by its large eyes that seemed to implore me for help.
I could hear the rise and fall of the voices in the basement as I prepared the tea, Erasmus’s with its high-pitched, semi-hysterical edge, the doctor’s measured and low, beneath which lurked an impatient curtness no doubt born of his eagerness to unwrap the old man’s unholy bundle. My unshod feet had grown quite cold, but I tried my best to ignore the discomfort. I dressed the tray with sugar and cream and two cups. Though the doctor hadn’t ordered the second, I thought the old man might need a cup to repair his shattered nerves.
“… halfway to it, the ground just gave beneath me,” the old grave-robber was saying as I descended with the tray. “As if I struck a hollow or pocket in the earth. I fell face-first upon the top of the casket. Don’t know if my fall cracked the lid or if it was cracked by the … cracked before I fell.”
“Before, no doubt,” said the doctor.
They were as I had left them, the doctor leaning against the banister, the old man shivering upon the stool. I offered him some tea, and he accepted the proffered cup gladly.
“Oh, I am chilled to my very bones!” he whimpered.
“This has been a cold spring,” the doctor observed. He struck me as at once bored and agitated.
“I couldn’t just leave it there,” the old man explained. “Cover it up again and leave it? No, no. I’ve more respect than that. I fear God. I fear the judgment of eternity! A crime, Doctor. An abomination! So once I gathered my wits, I used the horse and a bit of rope to haul them from the hole, wrapped them up … brought them here.”
“You did the right thing, Erasmus.”
“‘There’s but one man who’ll know what to do,’ I said to myself. Forgive me, but you must know what they say about you and the curious goings-on in this house. Only the deaf would not know about Pellinore Warthrop and the house on Harrington Lane!”
“Then I am fortunate,” said the doctor dryly, “that you are not deaf.”
He went to the old man’s side and placed both hands on his shoulders.
“You have my confidence, Erasmus Gray. As I’m certain I have yours. I will speak to no one of your involvement in this ‘crime,’ as you call it, as I’m sure you will keep mum regarding mine. Now, for your trouble …”
He produced a wad of bills from his pocket and stuffed them into the old man’s hands. “I don’t mean to rush you off, but each moment you stay endangers both you and my work, both of which matter a great deal to me, though one perhaps a bit more than the other,” he added with a tight smile. He turned to me. “Will Henry, show our caller to the door.” Then he turned back to Erasmus Gray. “You have done an invaluable service to the advancement of science, sir.”
The old man seemed more interested in the advancement of his fortunes, for he was staring openmouthed at the cash in his still-quivering hands. Dr. Warthrop urged him to his feet and toward the stairs, instructing me not to forget to lock the back door and find my shoes.
“And don’t lollygag, Will Henry. We’ve work to last us the rest of the night. Snap to!”
Old Erasmus hesitated at the back door, a dirty paw upon my shoulder, the other clutching his tattered straw hat, his rheumy eyes straining against the fog, which had now completely engulfed his horse and cart. Its snorts and stamping against the stones were the only evidence of the beast’s existence.
“Why are you here, boy?” he asked suddenly, giving my shoulder a hard squeeze. “This is no business for children.”
“My parents died in a fire, sir,” I answered. “The doctor took me in.”
“The doctor,” Erasmus echoed. “They call him that—but what exactly is he a doctor of?”
The grotesque, I might have answered. The bizarre. The unspeakable. Instead I gave the same answer the doctor had given me when I’d asked him not long after my arrival at the house on Harrington Lane. “Philosophy,” I said with little conviction.
“Philosophy!” Erasmus cried softly. “Not what I would call it, that be certain!”
He jammed the hat upon his head and plunged into the fog, shuffling forward until it engulfed him.
A few minutes later I was descending the stairs to the basement laboratory, having thrown the bolt to the door and having found my shoes, after a moment or two of frantic searching, exactly where I had left them the night before. The doctor was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs, impatiently drumming his fingers upon the rail. Apparently he did not think there was enough “snap” in my “to.” As for myself, I was not looking forward to the rest of the evening. This was not the first time someone had called at our back door in the middle of the night bearing macabre packages, though this certainly was the largest since I had come to live with the doctor.
“Did you lock the door?” the doctor asked. I noticed again the color high in his cheeks, the slight shortness of breath, the excited quaver in his voice. I answered that I had. He nodded. “If what he says is true, Will Henry, if I have not been taken for a fool—which would not be the first time— then this is an extraordinary find. Come!”
We took our positions, he by the table where lay the bundle of muddy burlap, I behind him and to his right, manning the tall rolling tray of instruments, with pencil and notebook at the ready. My hand was shaking slightly as I wrote the date across the top of the page, April 15, 1888.
He donned his gloves with a loud pop! against his wrists and stamped his boots on the cold stone floor. He pulled on his mask, leaving just the top of his nose and his intense dark eyes exposed.
“Are we ready, Will Henry?” he breathed, his voice muffled by the mask. He drummed his fingers in the empty air.
“Ready, sir,” I replied, though I felt anything but.
I slapped the instrument handle-first into his open palm.
“No, the big ones, Will Henry. The shears there.”
He began at the narrow end of the bundle, where the feet must have been, cutting down the center of the thick material, his shoulders hunched, the muscles of his jaw bunching with the effort. He paused once to stretch and loosen his cramping fingers, then returned to the task. The burlap was wet and caked with mud.
“The old man trussed it tighter than a Christmas turkey,” the doctor muttered.
After what seemed like hours, he reached the opposite end. The burlap had parted an inch or two along the cut, but no more. The contents remained a mystery and would remain so for a few more seconds. The doctor handed me the shears and leaned against the table, resting before the final, awful climax. At last he straightened, pressing his hands upon the small of his back. He took a deep breath.
“Very well, then,” he said softly. “Let’s have it, Will Henry.”
He peeled away the material, working it apart in the same direction as he had cut it. The burlap fell back on either side, draping over the table like the petals of a flower opening to welcome the spring sun.
Over his bent back I could see them. Not the single corpulent corpse that I had anticipated, but two bodies, one wrapped about the other in an obscene embrace. I choked back the bile that rushed from my empty stomach, and willed my knees to be still. Remember, I was twelve years old. A boy, yes, but a boy who had already seen his fair share of grotesqueries. The laboratory had shelves along the walls that held large jars wherein oddities floated in preserving solution, extremities and organs of creatures that you would not recognize, that you would swear belonged to the world of nightmares, not our waking world of comfortable familiarity. And, as I’ve said, this was not the first time I had assisted the doctor at his table.
But nothing had prepared me for what the old man delivered that night. I daresay your average adult would have fled the room in horror, run screaming up the stairs and out of the house, for what lay within that burlap cocoon laid shame to all the platitudes and promises from a thousand pulpits upon the nature of a just and loving God, of a balanced and kind universe, and the dignity of man. A crime, the old grave-robber had called it. Indeed there seemed no better word for it, though a crime requires a criminal … and who or what was the criminal in this case?
Upon the table lay a young girl, her body partially concealed by the naked form wrapped around her, one massive leg thrown over her torso, an arm draped across her chest. Her white burial gown was stained with the distinctive ochre of dried blood, the source of which was immediately apparent: Half her face was missing, and below it I could see the exposed bones of her neck. The tears along the remaining skin were jagged and triangular in shape, as if someone had hacked at her body with a hatchet.
The other corpse was male, at least twice her size, wrapped as I said around her diminutive frame as a mother nestles with her child, the chest a few inches from her ravaged neck, the rest of its body pressed tightly against hers. But the most striking thing was not its size or even the startling fact of its very presence.
No, the most remarkable thing about this most remarkable tableau was that her companion had no head.
“Anthropophagi,” the doctor murmured, eyes wide and glittering above the mask. “It must be … but how could it? This is most curious, Will Henry. That he’s dead is curious enough, but more curious by far is that he’s here in the first place! … Specimen is male, approximately twenty-five to thirty years of age, no signs of exterior injury or trauma… . Will Henry, are you writing this down?”
He was staring at me. I in turn stared back at him. The stench of death had already filled the room, causing my eyes to sting and fill with tears. He pointed at the forgotten notebook in my hand. “Focus upon the task at hand, Will Henry.”
I nodded and wiped away the tears with the back of my hand. I pressed the lead point against the paper and began to write beneath the date.
“Specimen appears to be of the genus Anthropophagi,” the doctor repeated. “Male, approximately twenty-five to thirty years of age, with no signs of exterior injury or trauma… .”
Focusing on the task of reporter helped to steady me, though I could feel the tug of morbid curiosity, like an outgoing tide pulling on a swimmer, urging me to look again. I nibbled on the end of the pencil as I struggled with the spelling of “Anthropophagi.”
“ Victim is female, approximately seventeen years of age, with evidence of denticulated trauma to the right side of the face and neck. The hyoid bone and lower mandible are completely exposed, exhibiting some scoring from the specimen’s teeth… .”
Teeth? But the thing had no head! I looked up from the pad. Dr. Warthrop was bent over their torsos, fortuitously blocking my view. What sort of creature could bite if it lacked the mouth with which to do it? On the heels of that thought came the awful revelation: The thing had been eating her.
He moved quickly to the other side of the table, allowing me an unobstructed view of the “specimen” and his pitiful victim. She was a slight girl with dark hair that curled upon the table in a fall of luxurious ringlets. The doctor leaned over and squinted at the chest of the beast pressed against her, peering across the body of the young girl whose eternal rest was broken by this unholy embrace, this death grip of an invader from the world of shadows and nightmare.
“Yes!” he called softly. “Most definitely Anthropophagi. Forceps, Will Henry, and a tray, please—No, the small one there, by the skull chisel. That’s the one.”
I somehow found the will to move from my spot, though my knees were shaking badly and I literally could not feel my feet. I kept my eyes on the doctor and tried my best to ignore the nearly overwhelming urge to vomit. I handed him the forceps and held the tray toward him, arms shaking, breathing as shallowly as possible, for the reek of decay burned in my mouth and lay like a scorching ember at the back of my throat.
Dr. Warthrop reached into the thing’s chest with the forceps. I heard the scraping of the metal against something hard—an exposed rib? Had this creature also been partially consumed? And, if it had, where was the other monster that had done it?
“Most curious. Most curious,” the doctor said, the words muffled by the mask. “No outward signs of trauma, clearly in its prime, yet dead as a doornail… . What killed you, Anthropophagus, hmmm? How did you meet your fate?”
As he spoke, the doctor tapped thin strips of flesh from the forceps into the metal tray, dark and stringy, like half-cured jerky, a piece of white material clinging to one or two of the strands, and I realized he wasn’t peeling off pieces of the monster’s flesh: The flesh belonged to the face and neck of the girl.
I looked down between my outstretched arms, to the spot where the doctor worked, and saw he had not been scraping at an exposed rib.
He had been cleaning the thing’s teeth.
The room began to spin around me. The doctor said, in a calm, quiet voice, “Steady, Will Henry. You’re no good to me unconscious. We have a duty this night. We are students of nature as well as its products, all of us, including this creature. Born of the same divine mind, if you believe in such things, for how could it be otherwise? We are soldiers for science, and we will do our duty. Yes, Will Henry? Yes, Will Henry?”
“Yes, Doctor,” I choked out. “Yes, sir.”
“Good boy.” He dropped the forceps into the metal tray. Flecks of flesh and bits of blood speckled the fingers of his glove. “Bring me the chisel.”
Gladly I returned to the instrument tray. Before I brought him the chisel, however, I paused to steel myself, as a good foot soldier for science, for the next assault.
Though it lacked a head, the Anthropophagus was not missing a mouth. Or teeth. The orifice was shaped like a shark’s, and the teeth were equally sharklike: triangular, serrated, and milky white, arranged in rows that marched toward the front of the mouth from the inner, unseen cavity of its throat. The mouth itself lay just below the enormous muscular chest, in the region between the pectorals and the groin. It had no nose that I could see, though it had not been blind in life: Its eyes (of which I confess I had seen only one) were located on the shoulders, lidless and completely black.
“Snap to, Will Henry!” the doctor called. I was taking too long to steel myself. “Roll the tray closer to the table; you’ll wear yourself out trotting back and forth.”
When the tray and I were in position, he reached out his hand, and I smacked the chisel into his palm. He slipped the instrument a few inches into the monster’s mouth and pushed upward, using the chisel as a pry bar to spread the jaws.
I slapped them into his free hand and watched as they entered the fang-encrusted maw … deeper, then deeper still, until the doctor’s entire hand disappeared. The muscles of his forearm bulged as he rotated his wrist, exploring the back of the thing’s throat with the tips of the forceps. Sweat shone on his forehead. I patted it dry with a bit of gauze.
“Would have dug a breathing hole—so it didn’t suffocate,” he muttered. “No visible wounds … deformities … outward sign of trauma… . Ah!” His arm became still. His shoulder jerked as he pulled on the forceps. “Stuck tight! I’ll need both hands. Take the chisel and pull back, Will Henry. Use both hands if you must, like this. Don’t let it slip, now, or I shall lose my hands. Yes, that’s it. Good boy. Ahhhh!”
He fell away from the table, left hand flailing to regain his balance, in his right the forceps, and in the forceps, a tangled strand of pearls, stained pink with blood. Finding his balance, the monstrumologist held high his hard-won prize.
“I knew it!” he cried. “Here is our culprit, Will Henry. He must have torn it off her neck in his frenzy. It lodged in his throat and choked him to death.”
I let go the chisel, stepped back from the table, and stared at the crimson strand dangling from the doctor’s hand. Light danced off its coating of blood and gore, and I felt the very air tighten around me, refusing to fully fill my lungs. My knees began to give way. I sank onto the stool, struggling to breathe. The doctor remained oblivious to my condition. He dropped the necklace into a tray and called for the scissors. To the devil with him, I thought. Let him fetch his own scissors. He called again, his back to me, hand outstretched, bloody fingers flexing and curling. I rose from the stool with a shuddering sigh and pressed the scissors into his hand.
“A singular curiosity,” he muttered as he cut down the center of the girl’s burial gown. “ Anthropophagi are not native to the Americas. Northern and western Africa, the Caroli Islands, but not here. Never here!”
Gingerly, almost tenderly, he parted the material, exposing the girl’s perfect alabaster skin.
Dr. Warthrop pressed the end of his stethoscope upon her belly and listened intently as he slowly moved the instrument toward her chest, then down again, across her belly button, until, back where he began, he paused, eyes closed, barely breathing. He remained frozen this way for several seconds. The silence was thundering.
Finally he tugged the ’scope from his ears. “As I suspected.” He gestured toward the worktable. “An empty jar, Will Henry. One of the big ones.”
He directed me to remove the lid and place the open container on the floor beside him.
“Hold on to the lid, Will Henry,” he instructed. “We must be quick about this. Scalpel!”
He bent to his work. Should I confess that I looked away? That I could not will my eyes to remain upon that glittering blade as it sliced into her flawless flesh? For all my desire to please and impress him with my steely resolve as a good foot soldier in the service of science, nothing could bring me to watch what came next.
“They are not natural scavengers,” he said. “ Anthropophagi prefer fresh kill, but there are drives even more powerful than hunger, Will Henry. The female can breed, but she cannot bear. She lacks a womb, you see, for that location of her anatomy is given to another, more vital organ: her brain… . Here, take the scalpel.”
I heard a soft squish as he plunged his fist into the incision. His right shoulder rotated as his fingers explored inside the young girl’s torso.
“But nature is ingenious, Will Henry, and marvelously implacable. The fertilized egg is expelled into her mate’s mouth, where it rests in a pouch located along his lower jaw. He has two months to find a host for their offspring, before the fetus bursts from its protective sac and he swallows it or chokes upon it… . Ah, this must be it. Ready now with the lid.”
His body tensed, and all became still for a moment. Then with a single dramatic flourish, he yanked from the split-open stomach a squirming mass of flesh and teeth, a doll-size version of the beast curled about the girl, encased in a milky white sac that burst open as the thing inside fought against the doctor’s grasp, spewing a foul-smelling liquid that soaked his coat and splattered around his rubber boots. He nearly dropped it, holding it against his chest while it twisted and flailed its tiny arms and legs, its mouth, armed with tiny razor-sharp teeth, snapping and spitting.
“The jar!” he cried. I slid it toward his feet. He dropped the thing into the container, and I did not need his urging to slap on the lid.
“Screw it tight, Will Henry!” he gasped. He was covered head to toe in the blood-flecked goop, the smell of it more pungent than that of the rotting flesh upon the table. The tiny Anthropophagus flipped and smacked inside the jar, smearing the glass with amniotic fluid, clawing at its prison with needle-size fingernails, mouth working furiously in the middle of its chest, like a landed fish gasping upon the shore. Its mewling cries of shock and pain were loud enough to penetrate the thick glass, a haunting, inhuman sound that I am doomed to remember to my last day.
Dr. Warthrop picked up the jar and placed it on the workbench. He soaked some cotton in a mixture of halothane and alcohol, dropped it into the jar, and screwed the lid back on. The infant monster attacked the cotton, stripping the fibers apart with its little teeth and swallowing chunks of it whole. Its aggression hastened the effects of the euthanizing agent: In less than five minutes the unholy spawn was dead.
© 2009 Rick Yancey