Morgan turned to the doctor. “Warthrop, I deferred to your judgment in this matter. I relied upon your expert opinion!”
“Well,” said Kearns. “The bloody beasts are dead, aren’t they?”
“I would suggest you save the self-serving statements for the trial, Mr. Kearns.”
“Doctor,” corrected Kearns.
“ Kearns, Cory, I don’t care! Pellinore, did you know what he intended? Did you know beforehand what was in that box?”
“I wouldn’t answer that if I were you, Warthrop,” said Kearns. “I know an excellent attorney in Washington. I’ll give you his name, if you like.”
“No,” the doctor said to Morgan. “I did not know, but I suspected.”
“I am no more responsible for their diet than I am for them being here,” Kearns said reasonably. “But I understand, Constable. This is the thanks I get. You are a man of the law and I am a man of…” He let the thought die unfinished. “You hired me to do a job and made certain promises contingent upon my completion of it. I only ask that you allow me to finish it before you renege on our contract.”
“We had no contract!” snarled Morgan, and then stopped himself, the import of Kearns ’s words sinking in. “What do you mean, “finish it”?”
“There is a strong possibility there are more,” said Warthrop carefully.
“More? How many more? Where?” Morgan cast his eyes wildly about, as if expecting another swarm of Anthropophagi to leap at us out of the dark.
“That’s something we won’t know until we get there,” Kearns answered.
“Until we get where?”
“Home sweet home, Constable. Be it ever so humble.”
He declined to elaborate; instead he summoned the stalwart volunteers, thanked them for their valiant performance under truly extraordinary circumstances, compared them to Wellington ’s troops at the Battle of Waterloo, and bade them pile up the bodies for disposal. Malachi and I lent our hands to the grisly chore, dragging the body of the young male from beneath the platform to throw onto the pyre. Next the macabre mound was soaked with a half barrel of the oily accelerant reserved for the purpose.
Before striking the match, Kearns said, “Requiescat in pace.” He flung the match into the center of the pile. Flames leapt into the night sky, and soon our nostrils burned with the odor of searing flesh, a smell that was not unfamiliar to me. My eyes began to water, not so much from the smoke and smell, but from a memory more vivid at that moment than either.
A hand fell upon my shoulder. It was Malachi, in whose bright blue eyes I could see the flickering flames reflected. A tear coursed down his wounded cheek. The fire was seductively warm, but his anguish was as cold as the graves that surrounded us.
Poor Malachi! What did he think watching those murderous monsters burn, if not of his family, of Michael and his father, of his mother clutching her babe in her broken arms, of his darling sister Elizabeth, who had turned to him as savior and met instead her own demise? Did he feel relief? In his mind, had justice been done? I am dead too… Inside there is nothing, he had said to me, and I wondered if he still felt that way, if this conflagration of mangled limbs and tumbled torsos did anything to resurrect his expired spirit.
My empathy toward his suffering was acute, for he and I were fellow sojourners in the forbidding kingdom wherein all roads led to that singular nullity of fathomless grief and immeasurable guilt. We were no strangers to that barren clime, that merciless landscape in which no oasis existed to slake our ravening thirst. What meritorious draft, what magical elixir offered by the art of men or gods had the power to relieve our agony? A year had passed since I had lost my parents; still, the memory and its attendant lords of anguish and rage reigned in the desert sovereignty of my soul, as if no time had expired since that night our house burned to its foundations. Verily, nigh eighty years later, they still smolder in the ruins: the blackened, twisted corpses of my parents. I hear their cries as clearly now as I hear this pen scratch upon the page, or the hum of the fan upon my desk, or the call of the bobwhite outside my window. I see my father in the final moments of his life with the same clarity I see that calendar hanging there on the wall, marking the march of my days, or the sunlight shimmering upon the lawn, where the dragon-flies hover and the butterflies dance.
For nearly a week he had lain in bed, wracked by a virulent fever that had swelled and receded like the tides. One moment he was burning hot; the next brought teeth-chattering chills that no amount of blankets piled high upon him could remedy. Nothing would stay in his stomach, and on the third day of his confinement bright red half-dollar-size spots began to appear all over his body. My mother, ignoring his protests (“It’s just a bit of fever, that’s all”), summoned the family doctor, who diagnosed a case of the shingles and predicted a full recovery. Mother was not convinced: He had recently returned home, having accompanied Warthrop on one of his expeditions to parts unknown, and she suspected he had contracted some rare tropical disease.
Father’s hair began to fall out by the fistful; even his beard and his eyelashes dropped like autumnal leaves after the first frost. Alarmed, my mother sent for Warthrop. By this point the rashes had become inflamed dime-size boils with milky white centers, painful to the touch; the lightest brush of his nightshirt against one would send Father into paroxysms of agony. It forced him to lie perfectly still on top of the covers, in helpless captivity to the pain. He could not eat. He could not sleep. He had fallen into a kind of twilight delirium by the time Warthrop arrived, seemed not to recognize him, and was incapable of answering the doctor’s inquiries upon his condition.
The doctor examined the festering sores and drew a sample of Father’s blood. He shone a light into his eyes and down his throat and collected some of his hair, strands fallen on the pillow and one or two plucked from his balding scalp. He questioned us about the progress of his illness, and pressed us about our own health. He took our temperatures, shone his light into our eyes, and took samples of our blood as well.
“You know what this is,” my mother said.
“It could be the shingles,” the doctor said.
“But it isn’t,” she insisted. “You know it isn’t. Please, Dr. Warthrop, tell me what’s wrong with my husband.”
“I cannot, Mary, for I know not. I will have to run some tests.”
“Will he live?”
“I think so. Perhaps for a very long time,” he added enigmatically. “For now you might try hot compresses, as hot as he can bear. If anything should change, for better or worse, send your boy over immediately. I’ll want to see him.”
The prescribed treatment did bring temporary respite from the pain. Mother would drop strips of linen into a pot of boiling water, pluck them out with a pair of tongs, and place the steaming cloth over his sores. But once they began to cool in the slightest, the pain would return, accompanied now by an unforgiving, maddening itch.
It was a dreary chore, exhausting for my mother, who trudged from stove to bedside and back again, hour after hour, throughout the day and long into the night, the duty falling to me when finally she could stand it no longer and collapsed into my bed for a few fitful minutes of sleep. My own anxiety, unsustainably acute in the early stages of the illness, resolved itself into a persistent, nagging ache, an undercurrent of care running beneath numbing fatigue and fatalistic dread. A child has little defense against the sight of a parent laid low. Parents, like the earth beneath our feet and the sun above our heads, are immutable objects, eternal and reliable. If one should fall, who might vouch the sun itself won’t fall, burning, into the sea?
The fall came during one of those midnight respites of my mother’s, after she had retreated to my room to snatch a few minutes of sleep. I had ducked outside to the wood bin to grab another rick for the stove, and stepped back into the kitchen to discover my father out of bed for the first time in days. He had lost twenty pounds since the onset of his illness and seemed wraithlike in his loose nightshirt, with his spindly legs exposed and his pale flesh shining in the lamplight. He was standing unsteadily by the stove, an expression of profound befuddlement in his sunken eyes. He started when I softly called his name, turned his skeletal face in my direction, and hissed softly, “It burns. It burns.” He stretched one of his emaciated arms toward me, saying, “They won’t leave me in peace. Look!” Then, while I watched in mute horror, he ran his fingernail over one of the boils clustered on his forearm, breaking open the swollen white center. A squirming, stringy mass of colorless worms gushed from the wound, each no thicker around than a human hair. “Even my tongue,” he moaned. “When I talk, the sores burst open and I swallow them.” My father began to weep, and his tears were flecked with blood and swam with worms.
Repulsed and dismayed, I remained rooted to the spot.I had no context in which to understand his suffering, and no power to alleviate it. I did not know then what manner of creature had invaded his body and now attacked him from within. I was not yet under the tutelage of the doctor and had yet to even hear the word “monstrumology.” I knew what monsters were, to be sure-what child did not?-but, like all children, when I thought of monsters, I imagined horrible, malformed beasts characterized by a singular trait: their enormous size. But monsters, I now know, come in all shapes and sizes, and only their appetite for human flesh defines them.
“Kill them,” my father muttered next, not an imperative directed toward me but a conclusion reached in his own fevered mind. “Kill them.”
Before I could react, he flung open the stove’s door and with his bare hand reached into its white-hot belly, pulled out a piece of smoldering wood, and pressed the tip of the burning brand against the self-inflicted wound on his arm.
He threw back his head and unleashed an unearthly scream, but a madness greater than the pain guided his hand. The flames licked at the sleeve of his nightshirt, the fabric caught fire, and in a matter of seconds my father was engulfed in a fiery shroud of flame. His searing flesh ripped open, like faults in the earth splitting apart in an earthquake. Curiously bloodless cracks raced from boil to boil, and out of these fissures poured the creatures infesting him. They cascaded from his weeping eyes; they gushed from his nose; they streamed from his ears; they flooded from his open mouth. He fell back against the sink, and the ravenous fire leapt to the curtains.
I screamed for my mother as smoke and the stench of burning flesh filled the little room. She rushed into the kitchen carrying one of my blankets, which she proceeded to slap at my father’s writhing form, all the while screaming hysterically for me to run. By now the flames had crawled up the wall to caress the ceiling timbers. The smoke was chokingly thick, and I flung open the door behind me to allow it to escape, but allowing instead a fresh influx of air for the greedy lungs of the fire. Through the opaque screen of smoke and spinning soot, I saw my father lunge for her, and that was the last I saw of my parents while they lived, enfolded in each other’s arms, my mother trying in vain to extricate herself from his clutches, as the fire enfolded them in its.