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.