The stars were fading from the sky; the night’s stubborn grip began to slip at last; and still the monstrumologist labored over his maps and books and newspapers, taking measurements, scribbling in his little notebook, at times whirling from the worktable in intense agitation, wringing his hands and stroking his brow, muttering under his breath and pacing back and forth. He was buoyed by the peculiar pursuit of his passion and the cups of black tea he copiously consumed, his libation of choice during these manic episodes of intense mental exertion. In all the years I knew him, I never saw hard liquor touch his lips. The doctor frowned upon drinking and often expressed wonderment at men who willingly made imbeciles of themselves.
While in the kitchen preparing the fifth pot of tea as dawn approached, I indulged in a few bites of stale cracker to boost my flagging endurance, for all I had had since waking, you may recall, was one or two hurried swallows of the noxious soup prepared by the monstrumologist from ingredients of ambiguous origin. My back ached, and each muscle sang with fatigue as I moved about in a clumsy fog, the adrenaline that had sustained me since our return from the cemetery long since departed, and I was nearing complete exhaustion. Slow of thought and awkward of limb, with the distinctly disconcerting sensation of being an uninvited guest inside the familiar abode of my own skin, I toted the pot into the library, where I discovered the doctor as I’d left him, the silence complete but for the ticking of the mantel clock and his sighing-long, weary, and frustrated. He rifled through the stack of newspapers until he found a particular periodical that he had previously perused. He studied the article circled there for another minute or two, muttered the same word repeatedly, then dropped the paper on top of the stack to study the corresponding colored circle upon the map: Dedham.
“ Dedham. Dedham,” muttered the monstrumologist. “Now, why is that name familiar to me?” He leaned over the map until his nose came within an inch of the parchment. He tapped the spot with his index finger and repeated the word three times, as his finger fell upon it three times: “ Dedham.” Tap. “ Dedham.” Tap. “ Dedham.” Tap.
He turned the severity of his countenance fully upon me, startling me from my semi-stupor, for suddenly I existed again. I was dead; I was reborn. I was forgotten, and in the blink of an eye-his eye-the world remembered me.
“ Dedham!” he cried, waving the paper over his head. It snapped in the stultified air of the dusty library. “ Dedham, Will Henry! I knew I had heard it before! Quickly-go down to the basement. Under the stairs you’ll find a steamer trunk. Bring it to me at once. At once, Will Henry. Snap to, snap to!”
The first “snap to” owed to habit; the second was snapped, if you’ll forgive me, with barely contained fury, for I did not snap immediately. I had failed to hear the first, for the word “basement” had momentarily deafened me-not by volume, but by import-but only a deaf man would have failed to hear the second “snap.”
Quickly I left the library; more slowly did I enter the kitchen; more slowly still did I push open the door to the stairs that plunged into darkness deep, at the bottom of which hung the monster upon the steel hook and stood the glass jar containing the appalling issuance of his loins, pulled whole and slimy and squirming from the belly of the virgin vessel that had borne it, bastard child in the most nightmarish of senses, a headless mass of claws already stained with human blood, with spindly white arms and a chest dominated by razor-sharp fangs that had bitten and snapped and chewed the empty air in its primal rage.
The morning light, streaming with glorious spring abundance through the open windows, flooded down the narrow stairway, yet it seemed as if the darkness at the bottom pushed back or acted as a seawall whereupon the light crashed and broke impotently against its unyielding edifice. The light flooded down; the smell of the dead Anthropophagus roiled up, a sickening stench like rotting fruit enmeshed with the unmistakable odor of biological decay. I turned my face away from the open doorway, drew a deep breath, and held it as I descended the steps, one hand covering my nose and mouth, the other trailing along the cool stone wall. The weathered boards creaked and groaned beneath my trembling tread; the hairs on the back of my neck stood up; and my calves felt numb and tingly as imagination overcame cool intellect. With each step my heart beat faster, for in my mind’s eye I saw it beneath the stairs, crouching on all fours upon the sweating stone floor, a headless beast with blank black eyes set deep in its shoulders and a mouth overflowing with row upon row of glistening teeth, the lion in the savanna brush, the shark in the reef shadows, and I the grazing gazelle, the juvenile seal frolicking in the surf. It would rise as I descended. It would reach through the open slats and seize my ankle with its three-inch barbs. Once in its unrelenting grip I was doomed, doomed as Erasmus Gray had been doomed the instant the beast in Eliza Bunton’s grave had risen from the burial pit in which Eliza had been impregnated. Would the monstrumologist, upon hearing my screams, come running with his revolver and fulfill the promise made but an hour or two before? Would he, as the thing tore apart the rickety stairs to stuff me whole into its snapping maw, show mercy upon me and put a bullet through my brain?
Halfway down, I could will myself no farther. I was dizzy from holding my breath, my heart was pounding, and I was quaking from my toes to the top of my exposed head. (Where has my hat gone? I wondered with a flutter of panic. Did I lose it at the grave site?) I froze upon the steps, my absurdly long shadow trailing down toward the wall of darkness. I exhaled slowly, and the air was cool enough for my breath to congeal and spin around my head. I gulped a bit of the fetid air-enough, I hoped, to sustain me for the remainder of the journey. Quickly now, Will Henry! I scolded myself. The doctor is waiting! To return to him empty-handed was unthinkable.
So, pushing aside fear, that enemy common to all combatants, and reminding myself that I had witnessed the creature’s partial dismemberment with my own eyes-thus putting beyond all doubt the fact of its lifelessness-I scampered down the remaining steps. I found the trunk beneath the stairs, shoved against the wall and covered in a fine patina of dust, as if it had not been moved or opened in years. It gave a loud protesting screech against the stone floor when I dragged it from its cozy nook, like a creature woken rudely from a long winter nap. Grasping it by its worn leather handles, I lifted the trunk a few inches from the floor: heavy, but not so heavy I couldn’t haul it up the stairs. I set it back down and dragged it to the base of the stairs, keeping my eyes focused forward, though out of the corner of my left I could see a shadow blacker than the surrounding gloom common to old basements. The Anthropophagus. As I lifted the trunk for the trek upstairs, the voice of my enemy spoke; fear whispered in my ear, echoing the words of Warthrop: 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 its protective sac and he swallows it or chokes upon it.
What if he had missed it in the necropsy? What if another monster child had rested undetected within the big male’s mouth, had subsequently ripped free of its fleshy cocoon and even now was scuttling across the floor toward me? They are accomplished climbers, the doctor had said on the cemetery road. What if, by means of its barbed nails, it now clung to the ceiling above me and, in the space of my next breath, would drop on my head, reach down with its pale, thin arms, and tear my eyes from their sockets? I saw myself spinning around the laboratory, blood streaming down from my vacant ocular cavities, as a creature no larger than a fist crawled down my face and silenced my horrified screams by shredding my exposed tongue with tiny tooth and minuscule claw. It was a ludicrous notion, born of panic, but no panic is ludicrous in its particular moment. Panic possesses its own logical integrity. It goaded me up the stairs, gave me unnatural strength and endurance. Unnoticed went the cramping in my fingers, the burning in my shoulders from the trunk’s weight, the hard slap of the box against my knees as I climbed, the sunshine that flooded the higher steps bathing me in its luminescent shower of its beneficent light. I dropped the box upon the kitchen floor and slid it into the room, clambered up the final three steps, hopped over the threshold into the kitchen, and slammed the door closed behind me, gasping for air, head spinning, black spots bobbing like dark, dancing pixies before my eyes, feeling as if I had made a narrow escape-but from what? So often the monsters that crowd our minds are nothing more than the strange and thoroughly alien progeny of our own fearful fantasies.
“Will Henry!” called the doctor. “Have you fallen asleep? Are you sneaking something to eat? Time enough for sleep and supper later. Snap to, Will Henry, snap to!”
With a deep breath-how sweet the air did taste there above!-I picked up the trunk and carried it down the hall to the library, in the doorway of which the doctor was impatiently waiting. He snatched the box from my hands and dropped it beside the worktable. It landed with enough force to send a shudder through the floorboards.
“ Dedham, Dedham,” he murmured, falling to his knees before the old trunk. He threw back the brass clasps and heaved open the lid. The hinges of the ancient vessel answered with a protesting screech. I edged closer, curious to discover what this box, which I, despite spending the majority of the past year in that macabre chamber, had never noticed before tucked away in the shadows beneath the stairs, might contain and how its contents related to the particular puzzle presently perplexing the monstrumologist, a conundrum he considered, by all appearances, more urgent than the pressing problem of the Anthropophagi running, heretofore unbeknownst, in our midst.
The first object he pulled from the dusty trunk was a human head, mummified and shrunken to roughly the size of a navel orange, the skin turned the color of molasses. The eyes were sewn shut. The mouth, toothless, was frozen open in a silent scream. He set it aside with barely a glance. Sensing my proximity, he glanced up at my face, and something in my startled expression must have amused him. A rare smile, as fleeting as a flash of lightning, crossed his countenance.
“My father’s,” he said.
My morbid interest metastasized immediately to one of horrified dismay at this confession. I knew him to be strange, yet this was an undreamt-of facet of the unnatural and the bizarre. What sort of man stores beneath his basement stairs the shrunken head of his own father?
He noticed my incredulous reaction to this intelligence, and allowed himself the smallest of smiles again. “Not my father’s head, Will Henry. A curiosity collected in his travels.”
He returned to unpacking the trunk. Out came stacks of papers, bundles of letters and what appeared to be legal documents, a large package wrapped in fraying twine, a leather pouch filled with things evidently metallic, judging from the clinking sound made as he set it down.
“It is the central mystery of their presence here, Will Henry,” he said, referring to the Anthropophagi. “ Surely it has occurred to you what a truly extraordinary coincidence this is, given the fact that I am the sole practicing monstrumologist within five hundred miles. What are the odds, Will Henry, of a species that is of particular interest to my exceedingly esoteric and uncommon calling appearing within ten miles of the very town in which I practice my craft? An objective observer would conclude that those odds, being astronomically long, give credence to the argument that it is not a coincidence, that I must be responsible in some way for their unexpected arrival so proximate to my abode. Of course, I had nothing to do with it; the matter is as mystifying to me as it would be to our hypothetical juror. We cannot entirely rule out the possibility of a truly extraordinary coincidence, of course, for a coincidence it might be, though I doubt it. I doubt it.”