It was not a bottle or an old board I had seen floating in the excremental soup. When I reached for it, my foot slipped and I fell with a soft cry, catching myself by dropping the gun and pushing against the bottom with my right hand. That allowed me to keep the lamp aloft in my left. Its light played along the upturned face that floated a foot away; that was all I could see—the baby’s face. The rest was hidden beneath the mustard yellow scum. I pushed myself up. Now I kneeled before it—coughing, gagging, sobbing. I didn’t care anymore if the beast heard me. All I could see was that face, smeared in jellylike feces, the blank eyes sightlessly staring into the abyss above.

I could not leave it there, not in this place. I reached out for it.

My knuckles brushed across the cheek. The face dipped down, bobbed up again. It turned leisurely like an unmoored boat.

I knew then. I had found him, but not all of him. I had found just his face.

“Oh, no,” I whimpered, as Dobrogeanu had, as the doctor had when in the wilderness he’d realized we were lost—the timeless refrain, the ageless response. “No.”

We can take it to the priest. He’ll know what to do with it.

With those words I had abandoned him in a cold and dirty hallway. I had stepped over him, thinking there was nothing I could do. I had stepped over him, telling myself that his suffering had nothing to do with me.

In the wasteland of the gray light, where the black buteos rode on updrafts above the ruins of the forest, a man had heaved his burden over his shoulder. This is mine! he had cried in the cold, dead air. Mine! He had not sent him there; it had not been the doctor’s choice that he go. But the doctor had claimed his friend after the fall. He had accepted his burden.

So overwhelmed was I by the enormity of my crime that I did not hear the beast. The water bubbled behind me, a board bumped against my back; I did not feel it. When the beast rose out of the filth and its shadow fell hard upon me, I did not see it. The sightless eyes of the child held me. The discarnate face gripped me.

Out of the corner of my eye, there was the blur of its arm rocketing around before the hard fist slammed into the side of my head. Something tore free in my mind, a violent upheaval like a volcano exploding. The lamp flew from my hand and shattered against the cellar wall with a loud pop before dropping into the sewage and sputtering out. I pitched forward, tumbling into the abyss.

TWENTY-EIGHT

“I Have Found Him”

My name was in the wind, and the wind was high above the snowbound city. There was no difference between the sound of my name and the sound of the wind. I was in the wind and the wind was in me, and beneath us were the crystalline haloes of golden light wrapped about the streetlamps, and the muffled plops of snow falling from eaves, and the dry rattles of the dead leaves clinging to the indifferent boughs.

It is beautiful here on the high wind. From here our suffering shrinks to insignificance; the wind drowns out the human cry. The city in snow glitters like a diamond, its streets laid out in mathematical precision, the rooftops identical blank canvases. There is perfection in the emptiness. They say God looks down upon us, like the buteos that soar above the blasted landscape of the gray land. There is God in the distance. Humanity’s stench cannot waft this high. Our betrayals, our jealousies, our fears, they rise no higher than the tops of our heads.

In a lightless cellar flooded with human waste, a starving infant is held under until it drowns, its tiny lungs filled with the effluvia of six hundred of its fellow human beings, and then its face is peeled off, as one takes off the skin of an apple, peeled off, and cast into Dante’s river. . . .

In the name of all that’s holy, tell me why God felt the need to make a hell. It seems so redundant.

I woke in the arms of the beast.

I smelled it first—the cloyingly sweet odor of putrefying flesh. Then the powerful arms locked around me, hugging me from behind, like Dobrogeanu had embraced Gravois on the tenement stairs. The floor upon which we sprawled was hard and cold; the air was musty and basement-damp. I had a sense of gaping space, like a subterranean cave deep in the belly of the earth.

Ambient light surrounded us; I could not discern its source. Then I thought, Its eyes. The light is coming from its eyes. I could hear my breath and I could hear its breath, and its breath was as foul as the grave. Its mouth must have been very close to my ear; I could hear every swipe of its tongue across its chapped and bleeding lips. When it spoke, thick spittle dripped from its swollen, blubbery tongue, landed on my exposed neck and soaked into my collar. The tongue fumbled clumsily the simplest words, as if the thinking part of its brain had atrophied from disuse.

“What is our name?”

“You’re . . . you’re Dr. Chanler.”

“What . . . is . . . our . . .name?”

My legs were jerking uncontrollably. In a moment my bladder would let go. My bowels would empty.

“I don’t know . . . I don’t know your name.”

“Gudsnuth neshk. . . . That’s a good boy.”

Something very cold and very sharp pressed into the soft flesh beneath my ear. I felt my skin split open and the heat of my blood as it welled over the lip of the wound.

“It won’t hurt much,” it blubbered. “Not very muh-uch. But the blood; there’ll be a lot of bluh-duh. . . . We have been inter-eshted in the eyes. . . .” It paused, hiccupping for breath. Talking taxed it. A starving animal has no energy to waste.

“You are study-aying to be a shy-ent-tish, Will. Do you want to purr-form a shy-ent-tish-ist experiment-ed? Here ish our idea. We will pull your eye-shh out and turn them round so you can look at yourself. We never see ourselves the way we truly are, do we, Will? The mirror lies to us.”

Its arm was like an iron bar across my chest. My eyes had adjusted to the light, and now I could see its spindly nak*d legs splayed on either side of mine. The skin was jet black, as black as charcoal, the skin peeling off in thin curling sheets.

“Hold out your hah-and.”

“Please.” I started to sob. “Please.”

I held out my hand. Its gift to me was small—it fit perfectly in my palm—around the size of a plum, the surface rubbery and slightly sticky.

“Thish one’s yours . . .”

My body convulsed with revulsion—it was the heart of the baby I’d left in the tenement hall. I flung it away with a strangled cry.

“Repul . . . repuh-puh . . . repushiv child. Wayshful.”

It pressed its drooling mouth against my ear. “What have we given?” Its arm tightened around my chest, constricting my lungs; I could not breathe. “What have we given?”

I couldn’t speak. I had no air with which to speak. I could no nothing but rock my head an inch from side to side.

“What . . . what ish . . .” It seemed to be having as much trouble breathing as I. “What ish the greatesh love? What dush it look like?”

The arm relaxed a bit. I gulped air choked in the swill of the beast’s decay. My head lolled forward. The beast yanked it back by a fistful of my hair; its sharp, jagged nails cut into my scalp.

“Do you want to shee its faysh, Will? Then, look at ush. Look at ush.”

It dug its claw into my chin and rotated my face around until my neck popped. The proximity of its face skewed my perspective; there was a moment before my mind could absorb what I was seeing. I perceived it in fragmented strobelike images. The first image was of the huge eyes burning a sickly amber, then the slobbering mouth, the bloodstained chin. Most striking was the flatness of its features, as if all underlying bone had receded into its head. It was the lack of contours that kept me from recognizing it at first; so much of our looks are ordained by our bones.

But I had seen this face many times—by the gentle caresses of a fire’s glow, by the cool winter light of a November afternoon, by the shimmering brightness of a chandelier in a ballroom where she had danced with me, her emerald eyes—now smoldering fiendish orange—filled with promise, overflowing with abundance.

The beast had taken her face. On top of the steaming pile of human and animal wreckage, he had shaved it off and had somehow affixed it over the decimated remnants of his own.

“See ush, Will? Thish is the faysh of love.”

I whipped my head from its grasp; its nails tore open the soft flesh beneath my chin. I heard it sucking my blood from its fingers.

“You have promish, Will. Good, good apprentish. We think we’ll make you ours. Would you like to be our apprentish? Such a good start with that baby . . .”

Something was tugging on my shirtfront. I felt a button pop loose, then another, and then the cold of steel against my bare skin—or was it steel? Did the beast press a knife into the scar that had been made by its teeth in the wilderness, or was it its nails, grown as sharp as a hawk’s talon? I could not bring myself to look.

“Ish so indesh-sker-ibal,” it whimpered. “You wayshful lil’ shit, you threw it away, our gift. You don’t know. But ish delyshful. You bite it when ish still beating, and it pumpsh the blood, woosh, woosh, into your mouth. . . .”

I could feel the skin parting, the warm trickle of blood, and then a fingertip worming its way into the wound. My heart thundered inches away from its probing digit.

“Indesh-sker-ibal . . . ,” it blubbered hungrily into my ear. “Like sucking on your per-esh-sish muf-ther’s teat—”

It stopped. Its breath huffed in my ear. Its body became stock still. It had heard him calling to me: “Will Henry! Will Henreeeee!”

It was the doctor.

The beast flung me away as if I weighed no more than a ragdoll, and it fled the chamber with inconceivable speed. I slammed into a wall and crumpled to the floor, where I lay for a moment, too stunned from the force of the impact to move. I sobbed aloud, unable to speak above a tiny choking whisper.

“Dr. . . . Dr. Warthrop . . . it’s coming. . . . It’s coming.”

I crawled across the floor, groping blindly in the dark. I found a wall and used it to push myself up. I stumbled forward, but it was as if the tenebrous air pushed back; I moved with all the speed of a bather wading in heavy surf. A feeble glow had appeared before me, enough that I could see the outline of the chamber doorway. I lunged through it. I found myself in a narrow hall. Lining the walls were stacks of boxes and wooden crates embossed with the words “SASM—New York.”

It had carried me to the spiritual home of Warthrop’s mistress. It had brought me to the Monstrumarium.

The glow came from the lamps of my would-be rescuers, beacons that beckoned me out of the darkness, and now I ran, if a lurching stagger could be called that, careening off the slick walls and slamming into the listing towers of boxes, which toppled to the floor behind me. I could raise my voice only to the level of a hoarse whisper. “It’s coming. . . . It’s coming. . . .”

My toe caught on the edge of a crate. I pitched forward, meeting the concrete with my forehead. The ground seemed to open up beneath me and I was falling, falling, crying his name, or perhaps only screaming it in my head.

It’s coming. It’s coming!

I felt someone’s hand upon my shoulder. Brilliant light brighter than a thousand suns rushed up to blind me, and I wasn’t falling anymore. The doctor was pulling me up.

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