I looked away; its remaining eye, black and lidless, frozen by death into an unblinking stare, seemed to be gazing directly back at me: I could see my slight frame reflected within that oversized orb.
The doctor stopped pacing upon my arrival and stared at me with open mouth, as if startled by my presence after shouting for me to join him.
“Will Henry!” he said. “Where have you been?”
I started to say, “Eating as you told me, sir,” but he cut me off.
“Will Henry, what is our enemy?”
His eyes were bright, the color in his cheeks high, symptoms of his peculiar mania that I had seen a dozen times before. On its face, the answer to his question-barked in a tone more reminiscent of a command-was obvious. I pointed a quivering finger at the suspended Anthropophagus.
“Nonsense!” he said with a laugh. “Enmity is not a natural phenomenon, Will Henry. Is the antelope the lion’s enemy? Does the moose or elk swear undying animosity for the wolf? We are but one thing to the Anthropophagi: meat. We are prey, not enemies.
“No, Will Henry, our enemy is fear. Blinding, reason-killing fear. Fear consumes the truth and poisons all the evidence, leading us to false assumptions and irrational conclusions. Last night I allowed the enemy to overcome me; it blinded me to the glaring truth that our situation is not as dire as fear had led me to believe.”
“It’s not?” I asked, though I failed to see the wisdom in his judgment. Did not the beast hanging from the ceiling give the lie to his assertion?
“The typical Anthropophagi pod consists of twenty to twenty-five breeding females, a handful of juveniles, and one alpha male!”
He waited for my reaction, grinning foolishly, eyes sparkling. When he saw I did not share in his relief and exultation, the doctor hurried on.
“Don’t you see, Will Henry? There could not be more than two or three others. A breeding population in the vicinity of New Jerusalem is impossible!”
He recommenced his pacing, incessantly running his fingers through his thick hair, and as he spoke, my presence faded from his consciousness as light fades from the autumnal sky.
“This one fact gave birth to my fear, a fear that aborted all other-extremely pertinent-evidence. Yes, it is a fact that a typical pod has up to thirty members. But it is equally true that Anthropophagi are not native to the Americas. There has not been a single sighting of the species on this continent since its discovery; no remains or other evidence of its existence here has ever been found; and there is no corresponding legend or myth about them in the native traditions.”
He ceased his circuit and whirled upon me.
“Do you see it now, Will Henry?”
“I-I think so, sir.”
“Nonsense!” he cried. “Clearly you do not! Do not lie to me, Will Henry. To me or to anyone else-ever. Lying is the worst kind of buffoonery!”
“We must couple the fact that they are not native to these shores with the fact that they are extremely aggressive. A breeding population could not have gone unnoticed, simply because we are lacking one thing. And what is that one thing, Will Henry?”
He did not wait for my answer, perhaps understanding that I had no answer.
“Victims! They must have food, obviously, to thrive, yet there have been no reports of attacks, no sightings, no evidence, direct or indirect, of their presence here beyond that.” He jabbed a finger at the beast on the hook. “And that,” he said, swinging the finger round to the covered corpse on the bench. “Hence their numbers are not great, could not be great. So you see, Will Henry, how our enemy, fear, makes the impossible possible and the unreasonable perfectly reasonable! No. We have a case of a recent immigration, this male and perhaps one-no more than two, I would fathom-breeding females. The great mystery is not in their numbers, but how they came to be here. They are not amphibious; they did not swim here. They don’t have wings; they did not fly here. So how did they come to be here? We must answer that question, Will Henry, once tonight’s business is transacted. Now, where is the list?”
“The list, sir?”
“Yes, yes, the list, the list, Will Henry. Why do you stare at me like that? Am I a lunatic, Will Henry? Do I speak in tongues?”
“I don’t-I haven’t seen-you’ve given me no list, sir.”
“We can’t lose our focus now, Will Henry. Losing our focus will more than likely cost us our lives. Even one or two females are extremely dangerous. Much like the lion, it is the female to be feared, not the indolent male, who often feeds on the carcass after the females have labored for the kill.”
He snatched a piece of paper from the covered chest of the dead girl. “Ah, here it is. Right here, Will Henry, where someone laid it.” His tone was slightly accusatory, as if he could prove, given enough time and evidence, that it was I who had laid it there. He shoved it in my direction.
“Here, pack it up quickly and put it by the back door. Snap to, Will Henry!”
I took the list from him. His handwriting was atrocious, but I had worked for him long enough to be able to decipher it. I bounded up the stairs and began the scavenger hunt, and a scavenger hunt it was, for the doctor was only a bit more gifted at organization than he was at cooking. It took nearly ten minutes, for example, to find his revolver (it was the first item on the list), which was not in its usual place, the top left-hand drawer of his desk, but on the bookcase behind it. I stuck to it, however, working my way methodically down the list.
Bowie knife. Torches. Specimen bags.
Gunpowder. Matches. Stakes.
Kerosene. Rope. Medical bag. Shovel.
Try as I might to follow the doctor’s advice-to focus solely upon the task at hand-the meaning of the list, its import, I found impossible to ignore: We were preparing for an expedition.
And all the while, as I scurried up and down stairs, in and out of rooms, digging through closets and cupboards, cabinets and drawers, the doctor’s voice floated from below, shrill and ethereal, “Will Henry? Will Henry, what is taking you so long? Snap to, Will Henry. Snap to!”
At the stroke of midnight I stood by the back door, using a bit of twine to tie a bundle of wooden stakes, to the accompaniment of the doctor’s perpetual harangue, “It is not as though I place unreasonable demands upon you, Will Henry. Have I ever placed unreasonable demands upon you?” A sharp rapping upon the door interrupted our tasks, my tying, his upbraiding. “Doctor!” I called softly at the precise moment he appeared at the top of the stairs. “Someone is at the door!”
“Then answer it, Will Henry,” he said impatiently. He stripped off his bloody smock and tossed it onto a chair.
Erasmus Gray, the old grave-robber who had called at almost the same hour the previous night, slouched upon the stoop, wearing the same battered wide-brimmed hat. Behind him I spied the same boney nag and rickety cart, half-devoured by the fog. I had the distinctly unpleasant sensation of a dreamer entering for the second time the same nightmare, and for a moment I was sure, absolutely sure, that another grotesque cargo lay in the back of his old cart.
Upon my opening the door he removed his hat and squinted at my upturned face, his rheumy eyes disappearing behind their casing of withered flesh.
“Tell the doctor I’ve come,” he said in a low voice.
There was no need for an announcement. The doctor stepped up behind me, flung wide the door, and pulled Erasmus Gray into the kitchen. And pulling was necessary, for the old man’s tread was reluctant; his feet literally dragged across the ground. And who might judge him? Of the three who stood now in that kitchen, only one was looking forward to the hours ahead, and it was not old Erasmus Gray or the doctor’s young assistant.
“Load the cart, Will Henry,” the doctor directed me, as he, with firm hand upon the old man’s elbow, guided-or forced-Erasmus toward the basement steps.
The spring air was cool and moist, the fog a gentle kiss upon my cheeks. When I approached with the first load, the horse dipped its head in acknowledgment, as one beast of burden to its brother. I paused to pat its neck. It studied me with its large soulful eyes, and I thought of the beast hanging upon the hook in the basement, and its eyes, blank and dark and filled with nothingness as acute as the space between the stars. Was it merely the emptiness of death that was so unnerving about those eyes-or something more profound? I had seen myself reflected in the dead, soulless eyes of the Anthropophagus-how different my reflection seemed in the eyes of this kind and gentle animal before me! Was it merely the difference between the warm look of life and the cold stare of death? Or was my image presented to me as the particular beholder perceived me-to one as companion, to the other as prey?
As I dropped the last bundle of supplies into the cart, the doctor and the grave-robber appeared, bearing the body of the dead girl between them, still wrapped in her makeshift shroud of bed linen. I stepped quickly out of their way and eased toward the warm and comforting light streaming through the open door. A pale hand protruded from the white draping, the index finger extended, as if she were pointing at the ground.
“Lock the door, Will Henry,” the doctor called softly to me, though his order was hardly necessary. I was halfway to the door, the key already in hand.
There was no room for me in the little seat in the front of the old cart, so I clambered into the back with the body. The old man’s head whipped around, and he frowned at the sight of me huddled next to the shrouded girl. He cast a baleful eye upon the doctor.
“The boy is coming with us?”
Dr. Warthrop nodded impatiently. “Of course he is.”
“Begging your pardon, doctor, but this is no business for a child.”
“Will Henry is my assistant,” the doctor replied with a smile. He gave my head a paternal pat. “A child by outward appearance, perhaps, but mature beyond his years and hardier than he might seem to the unfamiliar eye. His services are indispensable to me.”
His tone made clear he would brook no argument from the likes of Erasmus Gray. The old man had returned his gaze to my huddled form as I crouched, shivering, hugging my knees to my chest in the spring chill, and I thought I saw pity in his eyes, a profound empathy for my plight, and not just the immediate plight of being forced to accompany my guardian on this dark errand. Perhaps he intuited the full cost of being “indispensable” to Dr. Pellinore Warthrop.
And as for me, I was remembering my naïve and desperate plea to my father nary a year previously, who, ironically, now shared the same neighborhood as the dead girl lying beside me: I want to go with you. Please, please take me with you!
The old man turned away, but with a disapproving cluck and a shake of his ancient pate. He flicked the reins, the cart jerked forward, and our dark pilgrimage commenced.
Now, reader, many a year has passed since the grisly events of that terrible spring night in 1888.
Yet in all those years hardly a day has gone by without my thinking of it with wonder and ever-blossoming dread, the awful dread of a child when the first seeds of disillusionment are planted. We may delay it. We may strive with all our might to put off the bitter harvest, but threshing day always dawns.