I will not say my descent was eager, but it was swift and not entirely owing to my sense of duty. I did want to see what was in that box. Dreaded it and desired it. More than anything else, dread and desire were my chief inheritance from the monstrumologist.
I caught the word “Magnificent!” as I came down. The doctor was bent over his worktable with his back toward me, hiding the open box from view. The twine and brown paper wrapping, hastily ripped away, lay in a wad on the floor. The bottom step whispered the smallest of groans beneath my foot, and he whirled around, pressing the small of his back against the tabletop and spreading his arms wide to obscure what was on the table.
“Will Henry!” he cried hoarsely. “What the devil are you doing? I told you to stay with Kendall.”
“Mr. Kendall is asleep, sir.”
“I’ve no doubt that he is! He’s been injected with a ten percent solution of morphine.”
“Morphine, Dr. Warthrop?”
“And a bit of food coloring for effect. Perfectly harmless.”
I struggled to grasp his meaning. “It wasn’t the antidote?”
“There is no antidote for tipota, Will Henry.”
I gasped. Warthrop had lied, and I had never known him to tell a deliberate falsehood. In fact, he reserved his most vehement contempt for that very practice, calling it the worst sort of buffoonery and foolishness—and the monstrumologist was not the sort of man who suffered fools gladly.
What could be the explanation? To placate a doomed man? To give him a measure of peace upon his final moments on rth? Had his lie been indeed an act of mercy?
The doctor glanced over his shoulder at the table. He turned back to me with an icy glare. “What?” he demanded. “What are you staring at?”
“Nothing, sir. I only thought you might need—”
“I have all that I need at the present, thank you. Return at once to Mr. Kendall, Will Henry. He should not be left alone.”
“How… how long does he have?”
“That is very difficult to say—there are so many variables—thirty, perhaps forty, years.”
“Years! But you said there was no anti—”
“Yes, I did, and no, there isn’t, because there is no such thing, Will Henry. ‘Tipota’ is the Greek word for ‘nothing.’”
“No, I am lying to you. It is actually the Greek word for ‘stupid child.’ Yes, it means ‘nothing’ in Greek, and there is no such thing as a pyrite tree. Pyrite’s other name is ‘fool’s gold.’ And there is no Isle of Demons near the Galápagos. When Kearns instructed Kendall, ‘Tell him it is tipota,’ he meant it literally.”
“You mean it was… it was all a joke?”
“More of a trick. He needed Kendall to believe he was poisoned in order to ensure the package’s delivery. Now, if you’re quite finished standing there with your jaw hanging open like the most disagreeable of mouth-breathers, please do as I requested and attend to our guest.”
I did not obey immediately. My astonishment outweighed my loyalty.
“But his symptoms…”
“Are all attributable to the psychological distress produced by his belief that he had been poisoned.”
“So you knew the whole time? But why didn’t you—”
“Tell him the truth? Do you think the poor fool would have believed me if I had? He doesn’t know me from Adam. Might not he think I was part of Jack’s fiendish plan and keel over from a heart attack brought on by the enormity of his fear and the finality of all hope? There was a good possibility of that, and it was something Kearns probably anticipated, making his game all the more wickedly delicious. Imagine it, Will Henry! The lie sends him all the way here… and then the truth kills him! No, I saw through it at once and took the only moral path available to me—and so, even saints may sin that God’s will be done!”
He pointed up the stairs. “Snap to, Will Henry.”
So I did, though there wasn’t much snap in my to. He called after me, “Shut the door behind you and do not come down again.”
“Yes, sir. I will, Dr. Warthrop—and I won’t.”
I kept the first promise, at least.
I sat in the parlor with our unconscious guest, restless and bored. I was not accustomed to being dispensed with, after being told ad nauseam by my master how indispensable I was. I was suffering also from the dreadful notion that Warthrop might be wrong, that there was such a poison as tipota and at any moment Kendall would keel over; I did not wish to watch a man’s heart explode in our parlor.
But as the minutes ticked by, he continued to breathe—and I to stew. Why had the monstrumologist so abruptly dismissed me? What was in that box that he did not want me to see? He had never seemed particularly concerned about exposing me to the most disgusting and frightening of biologic phenomena—or to their handiwork. I was, like it or not, his apprentice, and had not he himself often said, “You must become accustomed to such things”?
Ten minutes. Fifteen. Then the crash and rattle of the basement door flying open, the thunder of his footsteps down the hall, and Warthrop barreled into the room. He went straight to the divan and hauled Kendall upright.
“Kendall!” he shouted into the man’s face. “Wake up!”
Kendall’s eyes fluttered open, closed again. I noticed the doctor had donned a pair of gloves.
“Did you open it, Kendall? Kendall! Did you touch what was inside?”
He grabbed the unconscious man by the wrists, turned Kendall’s hands this way and that, and then bent low to sniff his fingers. He pulled up Kendall’s eyelids and squinted deep into the unseeing orbs.
“What is it?” I asked.
“At least three have touched it. Was one you, Kendall? Was it you?”
The man answered with a soft moan, deep in his drug-induced dream. Warthrop snorted with frustration, turned on his heel, and marched from the room, pausing at the door to bark at me to remain where I was.
“Watch him, Will Henry, and call me at once if he wakes. And, do not touch him under any circumstances!”
I thought he would race back to the basement, but he fled in the opposite direction, and presently I heard him in the library, yanking old weathered tomes from the shelves and depositing them on the large table with thunderous wallops. I could hear him muttering to himself in agitation, but could not make out the words.
I crept down the hall to the library door. He was standing with his back to me, hunched over a leather-bound book. He stiffened suddenly, sensing my presence, and whirled around.
“What?” he cried. “What do you want now?”
“Did you—Could I—”
“Did I what? Could you what?”
“Is there anything I can do for you, sir?”
“I told you already what you could do,Will Henry. Yet here you are. Why are you here, Will Henry?”
“I thought you might want me to—”
“Interrupt my work? Hector me with your incessant sycophantic sniveling? It is not as if I asked you to construct a perpetual motion machine or juggle teacups while you stood on your pointy little head. My distinct memory is that I asked you to watch Mr. Kendall—that is all and nothing else—but you seem incapable of following even that simple injunction!”
“I’m sorry, sir,” I said, fighting back the dueling desires to flee and to throw myself upon the floor in a childish fit. I backed out of the doorway and returned to the parlor. Kendall had not moved a muscle, but mine were moving quite freely, particularly the ones around my mouth.
“I hate him,” I whispered to my incognizant witness. “Oh, how I hate him! ‘Snap to, Will Henry, snap to.’ Why don’t you snap to, Warthrop—straight to hell!”
It was so unfair! I had not asked for this. My father had gladly served the monstrumologist, but my own servitude was more of the involuntary kind, the result of tragic circumstances with which I, at thirteen, had yet fully to come to terms. If not for the man who had just unfairly and savagely upbraided me, my father and mother would still be alive and I would not know a scintilla of the dark and dusty interior of 425 Harrington Lane. Perhaps the monstrumologist was not directly responsible for their deaths, but monstrumology certainly was. Oh, that accursed “philosophy”! That noisome “science” that had doomed my parents—and now me.
The acrid stench of rotting flesh… the sightless orbs of some foul creature staring up at me from the necropsy table… the unutterable horror of Pellinore Warthrop cleaning human flesh from bloody fangs as he whistled with the happiness of a man lost in the thing he loves…
While the boy he’d inherited, the boy who had watched his parents perish in a fire for which he, Warthrop, had supplied the metaphorical match, stood in half-swoon close by, ever the faithful, indispensable companion, feet like ice in blood-flecked shoes on a cold stone floor…
And little by little that boy’s soul, his human animus, growing cold, going numb, atrophying…
Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird.
Do you know what this means?
Year after year, month after month, day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute, second after second, in the company of the monstrumologist, something chews at the soul, like the churning surf shapes the shoreline, eroding the edifice, exposing the bones, revealing the skeletal structure beneath our sense of human exceptionalism.
When I first came to live with him, it was part of our dissection protocol to have a bucket by the table so I might unload the contents of my stomach—it was inevitable. After a year at his side, the pail was no longer necessary. I could reach my hands into the putrid remains of an organism’s corruption as casually as a young girl plucksichsies in the meadow.
I could feel it as I held vigil in that parlor, the loosening of something bound tight inside me, an unraveling that both thrilled and terrified. I had no name for it, not then, not at thirteen, this thing unwinding inside me. It was part of me—the most fundamental part, perhaps—and it was apart from me, and the tension between them, the me and not-me, could break the world in half.
Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft…
I don’t mean to speak in riddles. I am an old man now. The old speak plainly; it is our prerogative.
If I would speak plainly, I would call it das Ungeheuer, but that is only my name for the me/not-me, the unwinding thing that compelled and repulsed me, the thing in me—and the thing in you— that whispers like thunder, I AM.
You may have a different name for it.
But you’ve seen it. You cannot be human and not see it, feel its pull, hear it whisper like thunder. You would flee from it, but it is you, and so where might you run? You would embrace it, but it is not-you, and so how might you hold it?
You see, more than a starving man wants bread, I wanted to see what was in that box, whatever it might be. That desire made me more my master’s progeny than my own father’s; I was Pellinore Warthrop reincarnate, but unalloyed by any poetic compunctions. In me it was pure hunger, a desire untainted by platitudes or petty human morals.