I flung the head into the box. It ricocheted against one side before dropping down, rolling onto its side, and coming to rest atop the other items in the trunk. The force of the impact must have dislodged the object tucked inside the hollow of its tiny skull, for I glimpsed protruding from the neck a piece of bright red material. I pulled the head out again, grasped the end of the cloth, and tugged at it until the object to which the other end was tied pulled free of its cadaverous cocoon. It was a key-to what I did not know, but it was too large to belong to the trunk or a door.
“Will Henry!” shouted the doctor from the basement steps.
I dropped the head back into the box and jammed the key into my pocket. I would show it to him later, I decided. He had inventoried the trunk’s contents; perhaps he knew all about the key pushed inside the hollowed-out head.
“Horses, Will Henry! Food, Will Henry!”
My descent into the laboratory held none of the terror of my earlier expedition, for the lights blazed below and the doctor was there, standing before the suspended corpse of the male Anthropophagus. The doctor turned not as I thumped down the stairs with my burden, but remained with his back toward me, arms crossed, head cocked to one side as he contemplated the beast hanging before him. I shoved his father’s trunk beneath the stairs, and then stepped toward him, a bit out of breath.
“Doctor,” I called softly. “What would you like to eat?”
He did not turn. He raised his right hand and brushed the air with his fingertips, a dismissive gesture, and said nothing. I thought about mentioning the key, and quickly decided to wait until his mood had improved. I returned upstairs to scrape what sustenance I could from our impoverished larder. I was ravenous.
He burst into the kitchen a half hour later, and though he had washed and changed upon his return from the cemetery, the lingering stench of death below had impregnated his person and now surrounded him in a cloying aerosol. He saw me sitting at the table, took in the steaming bowl before me, and then regarded my bowl’s twin at the place setting on the other side of the table, beside it the carefully folded napkin and polished spoon, the teapot and the fresh cup of tea, the aromatic vapor rising from its ebony surface.
“What is this?” he demanded.
“Soup?” As if he had never heard the word.
“Potato soup,” he echoed.
“Yes, sir. I found two fairly good ones in the bin, and some carrots, and an onion. We had no cream or meat, so I used water and some flour to thicken it.”
“To thicken it.”
“Yes, sir; flour, sir, to thicken it.”
“Flour,” he said.
“It isn’t bad,” I said. “I passed the bakery on my way to the post office, but you told me not to stop, so I didn’t, and we’ve no bread to go with it. You should eat, sir.”
“I am not hungry.”
“But you said we should eat before-”
“I know what I said,” he interrupted crossly. “Few things are more annoying, Will Henry, than for a person to have his own words thrown back at him as if he were an imbecile incapable of remembering them. You are the one who cannot remember what was said, which was that you should eat something before we depart.”
“But I am eating something, sir.”
“Dear God!” he exclaimed. “Are you addled, William James Henry? Do you suffer from some mental defect of which I am not aware?”
“No, sir; that is, I don’t think so. I just thought you might like a little soup.” I could feel my lower lip quivering.
“A conclusion based upon a false premise,” he snapped. “I am not hungry.”
I dropped my eyes: The intensity of his gaze was unbearable. His dark eyes glittered with unfathomable fury; his entire being vibrated from its force. What was it? I wondered. Did he perceive my thoughtfulness as its opposite, a willful act of disobedience? Or, having been recently reminded of his cold and strained relationship with his father, was this small act of kindness and devotion mere salt in the wound that, by virtue of his father’s now eternal inapproachability, would never be healed?
Though he towered over my hunched and shivering frame, a grown man at the height of his powers, in my mind’s eye I saw the sick and lonely boy, a stranger in a strange land, writing to the man whose attention and affections he desperately desired, a man who would reward his filial devotion with the ultimate indignity of paternal rejection: letters unopened, tossed into an old box, forgotten. How marvelously strange, how terribly tragic, the ironic twists and turns of fate! We often take vengeance long after the fact upon blameless surrogates, reprising the same sins of the ones who trespassed against us, and so perpetuate ad infinitum the pain we suffered at their hands. His father rejected his entreaties, so he rejected mine, and I-in the strangest twist of all-was him, the isolated and lonesome little boy seeking approbation and acceptance from the one person from whom it mattered most. It offended his pride and doubled his anger: anger at his father for ignoring his need, anger at himself for needing anything in the first place.
“Oh, stop that,” he growled. “Stop that insufferable sniveling. I did not take you in to be my cook or my nursemaid or for any reason beyond the obligation I owed your father for his unselfish service. You have potential, Will Henry. You are clever and inquisitive and are not without some mettle in your marrow, indispensable qualities in an assistant and, perhaps, a future scientist, but don’t suffer under any illusions that you are more than that: an assistant forced upon me by unfortunate circumstances. You are not here to provide for me; I am here to provide for you. Now finish this fine soup of which you are so inexplicably proud, and get to the carriage house to ready our horses. We leave at nightfall.”
SIX.“What of the Flies?”
We rode that night straight through to Dedham, a three-hour journey over rough and isolated roads, stopping once to rest our horses and again, just outside the boundaries of the town, to ease quietly into woods lest we be spotted by an approaching carriage. The night was cool enough for our horses’ breath to steam as we dissolved into the deep shadows of the trees. The doctor waited until the hoofbeats and the rattle of the wooden wheels faded before we resumed our journey. We did not slow until we reached the first few houses occupying the town’s outskirts. Inside these pleasant cottages lamps warmly glowed, and I imagined the families ensconced inside, in the warmth of one another’s company, partaking of the normal intercourse of a Tuesday night, Father by the fire, Mother with her young, with no worrisome thoughts of monsters lurking in the dark except in the minds of the most imaginative of their children. The man riding beside me suffered not from the naïve illusions of well-meaning parents who, with calm voice and gentle touch, extinguished the bright, hot embers of a child’s fiery imagination. He knew the truth. Yes, my dear child, he would undoubtedly tell a terrified toddler tremulously seeking succor, monsters are real. I happen to have one hanging in my basement.
We had not traveled far down the main street of Dedham before Warthrop turned his horse down a narrow lane that wound through a dense stand of poplars, at the head of which a small, inconspicuous sign hung upon a rusting steel pike: MOTLEY HILL SANATORIUM. Trees and tangles of vine and weed crowded upon us as we proceeded, slowly now, up a rise of ground. The woods closed around us; the canopy drooped lower and lower, blotting out the stars, as if we had plunged into a dark and winding tunnel. There was no sound but the steady clop-clop of the hooves upon the hard-packed dirt. No chirp of cricket or croak of frog. Nothing disturbed the profound and eerie silence that did not so much descend upon our plunge down this Cimmerian path as slam hard down upon our heads. Our horses became jittery, snorting and stamping as we climbed. The doctor appeared quite collected, but for myself I was not faring much better than my little mare, both our eyes darting in the growing blackness. The trail-it hardly could be called a lane anymore-finally leveled off, the trees drew back, and much to my and my little mare’s relief, we emerged into an open, if overgrown, expanse of moonlit lawn.
About a hundred yards directly ahead stood a house of the Federal style, white with black shutters and towering columns guarding the front. The windows were dark and the property had a deserted feel about it, as if its occupants had long ago fled to happier climes. My first thought was that the sanatorium must have been closed and abandoned subsequent to the reinternment of Captain Varner three years previously. I glanced over at the doctor, whose mouth was grimly set and whose dark eyes seemed to glow as if backlit.
“Will Henry,” he said softly as we rode toward the house, “you are not to speak. You are not to look anyone directly in the eye. If someone should speak to you, you are to say nothing. Ignore them. Do not address them or respond to them in any way. Not so much as a nod or a wink. Do you understand?”
He sighed. “I think I would rather deal with a dozen Anthropophagi than the wretched souls within these walls!”
Upon closer inspection, the house was a shade or two closer to gray than white; it had once been white, many seasons ago, but the paint had faded and begun to peel. Long strips of it hung from the bare, mildewed boards. The windows had not been washed for months. Quivering spiderwebs clung to their corners. Had I a mind of a more metaphysical bent, I would have assumed this house to be haunted, but, like the monstrumologist, I rejected the notion of hauntings and other supernatural phenomenons. There are indeed more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy, but those things were, like the Anthropophagi, quite physical, entirely natural, capable of fulfilling our curious and baffling need for a marauding horror of malicious intent, thank you very much.
The doctor rapped sharply on the door with the head of his walking stick, an exquisite rendering in jade of a snarling gargoyle. There was no immediate answer. Warthrop knocked again, three short raps, a pause, then three more: rap-rap-rap… rap-rap-rap.
Silence, but for the wind whispering in the trees and the dry rattle of last fall’s leaves skittering across the weathered boards of the sagging porch. The doctor rested his hands upon his cane and waited with the patience of the Buddha.
“It’s abandoned,” I whispered, a bit relieved.
“No,” he said. “We are unexpected, that is all.”
On the other side of the door I perceived the shuffling footfalls of a painful approach, as if someone very old or lame were coming to answer the doctor’s insistent summons. I heard the loud metallic screech and groan of several bolts being drawn back, and then the door opened a crack, the flickering light of a lamp flooded onto the porch, and standing in the half-open doorway was a withered woman dressed in black, the lamp clenched in her gnarled knuckles, holding the lamp high to illuminate our faces.
“No visitors past nine!” the old woman croaked with toothless mouth.
“This is not a social call,” rejoined Warthrop.
“No visitors past nine!” she snapped harshly, raising her voice, as if the doctor were hard of hearing. “No exceptions!”