“Mrs. Chanler!” Sergeant Hawk whispered. “What do you—Oh. Oh! Is that what—Well, you don’t say!” He chuckled sleepily. “Not so coldlike after all, eh?”
He rolled onto his side, and within a few seconds the sides of the tent began to vibrate from the potency of his snores. I lay sleepless for a long time, not kept awake by his snoring so much as by the disorienting lightness of being, the sense of being very small in a vast, empty space, far from all that was familiar, adrift in a strange and indifferent sea. I watched through half-closed eyes the shape of my master outside; it comforted me somehow. I fell asleep holding close that unexpected balm, drawing it into me or allowing it to draw me into it—the conceit of the monstrumologist watching over me.
The unease I suffered that first night in the bush—made all the more distressing after the keen anticipation I had felt on the outset of the journey—persisted in the days that followed, an odd mixture of boredom and anxiety, for as hour followed monotonous hour, the woods took on a dreadful sameness, each turn of the path bringing more of the same, mere distinctions with no difference. At times the trees suddenly parted, like a curtain being whipped aside, and we’d stumble from the forest’s perpetual gloom into the sudden sunlight of a clearing. Huge boulders thrust their heads from the earth, stony leviathans breaking the surface of the glen, their craggy faces sporting shaggy beards of lichen.
We crossed innumerable streams and creeks, some too wide to jump across; we’d no choice but to ford their icy waters on foot. We scrambled over washouts and through deep ravines where the shadows pooled thickly even at midday. Ruined landscapes that Hawk called brûlé rose up to meet us, where the charred bones of silver birch and maple, spruce and hemlock, marched to the horizon, victims of the spring fires that had raged for weeks, creating an apocalyptic vista stretching as far as the eye could see, where the restless wind whipped the inch-deep ash underfoot into a choking fog. In the midst of this desolation, I looked up and saw high above a black shape against the featureless gray, an eagle or some other great bird of prey, and for a shuddering moment I saw us through its eyes—pitifully small, wholly insignificant nomads, interlopers in this lifeless land.
Sergeant Hawk tried to halt each day’s march at some open spot in the bush, but sunset often caught us deep in the forest’s belly, forcing us to make camp in a blackness as profound as the grave’s, where, if not for the campfire, you could not see your hand an inch from your face.
Our guide’s good nature helped too in relieving the insistent dark. He told stories and jokes—some, if not most, on the bawdy side—and, possessing a fairly decent voice, sang the old songs of the French voyageurs, tilting his chin slightly as if to offer his song to some nameless forest god:
J’ai fait une mâtresse y a pas longtemps.
J’irai la voir dimanche, ah oui, j’irai!
“Do you know that one, Doctor?” he teased my master. “‘Le Coeur de Ma Bien-aimée’—‘The Heart of My Well-Beloved’? ‘A gentle lady charmed me, not long ago . . .’ Reminds me of a girl I knew in Keewatin. Can’t recall her name now, but by God I was damn near to marrying that one! Are you married, Doctor?”
“I have not,” replied the monstrumologist.
“Been damn near ready, though?”
“What, don’t you like women?” he ribbed, giving me a wink.
The doctor pursed his lips sourly. “As a man of science, I have often thought that, for the sake of accuracy, they should be classified as a different species altogether—Homo enigma, perhaps, or Homo mortalis.”
“Well, I don’t know much about your science, Dr. Warthrop. I reckon a monster hunter looks at things a little differently than most, always with the eye turned to the dark and ugly, but all the more appreciative of the bright and fair when it comes along, or so I’d guess. I’ll take your word for it, though.”
He sang softly, “La demande à m’amie je lui ferai . . .”
Warthrop pushed himself to his feet with a snarl. “Please, would you cease with that infernal singing!”
He stomped away into the thick underbrush, stopping where the light of the campfire met the dark of the forest. His lean frame seemed to writhe as though he were in the superheated air above the fire.
Hawk was unperturbed. He poked me in the side and pointed at the doctor. “Seems to me he’s the kind who hates what he loves, Will,” he opined. “And the other way around!”
“I heard that, Sergeant!” snapped Warthrop over his shoulder.
“I was speaking to your indispensable servant, Doctor!” Hawk called back jovially.
The doctor lowered his head slightly. He held up his hand. His fingertips twitched; otherwise, he was motionless, as inflexible as a post driven into the ground. He seemed to be listening to something. Hawk turned to me, grinning foolishly, and started to speak, but his words died on his tongue when I scrambled to my feet. I knew my master; my instinct reacted to his.
A gust of wind stirred the monstrumologist’s hair and excited the flames of our fire; sparks jigged and spun; the sides of the tent fluttered. Hawk called softly the doctor’s name, but the monstrumologist gave no reply. He was peering into the dark woods, as if he had cat’s eyes that could penetrate the murk.
Hawk looked at me quizzically. “What is it, Will?”
The doctor plunged into the brush, disappearing into the trees in a wink, swallowed whole by the leviathan dark. So quickly did it happen that it looked as if something had reached out of the woods and snatched him. I rushed forward; Hawk grabbed me by the collar and yanked me back.
“Hold now, Will!” he cried. “Quick, there’s a couple of lamps in my rucksack.”
Within the woods we could hear the doctor crashing and stomping about, the sound fading as he drew farther and farther away. I lit the lamps with a brand from the fire and handed one to Hawk, and we charged into the bush after my wayward mentor. Though our lights barely dinted the dark, Warthrop’s trail was not hard for Hawk to follow. His expert eye picked out every broken twig, every bit of disturbed earth. Sight was all he could rely upon, for the night had gone deathly quiet. There was no sound but that of our own passage through the dense foliage. Vine and branch tugged upon us as if the forest itself were trying to slow us down, as if some primal spirit were saying, Stay. Stay, you do not wish to see.
The ground rose. The trees thinned. We stumbled into a clearing radiant in starlight, in the center of which stood the shattered trunk of a young hemlock, snapped off eight feet from the ground, and around its base were scattered the broken bones of its branches. It looked as if some giant had reached down from the star-encrusted heavens and snapped it in two like a toothpick.
Standing a few feet from the tree was the monstrumologist, head cocked slightly to one side, arms folded over his chest, like a connoisseur at a gallery regarding a particularly interesting piece of art.
A human being was impaled upon the splintered hemlock, the pole protruding from a spot just below its sternum, the body at the level of Warthrop’s eye—arms and legs outstretched, head thrown back, mouth agape, depthless shadows pooling there and in its eyeless sockets.
The body had been stripped bare. There were no clothes and, except for on the face, there was no skin; the body had been flayed of both. The underlying sinew and muscle glimmered wetly in the silver light.
The cold stars spun to the ancient rhythm, the august march of an everlasting symphony.
They are old, the stars, and their memory is long.
“There Is Nothing to Fear”
“Holy Mother of God,” the sergeant whispered. He crossed himself. He looked at the empty oracular cavities, the mouth frozen wide in a voiceless scream.
“You know who this is?” asked the monstrumologist, then answered his own question: “It is Pierre Larose.”
Hawk wet his lips, nodded, turned away from the skewered corpse and scanned the clearing with a quick and frightened eye, finger quivering on the trigger of his rifle. He muttered darkly under his breath.
“Will Henry,” the doctor said, “run back to camp and fetch the hatchet.”
“The hatchet?” Hawk repeated.
“We can’t leave him stuck here like a pig on a stick,” Warthrop replied. “Snap to, Will Henry.”
I returned to find the doctor in that same attitude of quiet regard, pensively stroking his whiskered chin, while Hawk crashed and blundered in the brush on the far side of the clearing, his lamp bobbing between the trees like a massive firefly. I handed the axe to Warthrop, who approached the victim gingerly, as if being careful not to disturb the well-earned rest of a weary traveler. He motioned for me to bring the light closer. At that moment Hawk rejoined us, huffing for breath, twigs and shards of dead leaves clinging to his hair, the color high in his cheeks.
“Nothing,” he said. “Can’t see anything in this blasted dark. We’ll have to wait for daylight . . . but what are you doing?”
“I am removing the victim from this tree,” the doctor replied.
He slammed the sharp blade into the torso. Shards of stringy muscle landed on Hawk’s cheek. The poor man, unaccustomed to the methods of the monstrumologist, gave a dismayed cry and slapped the bit of meat from his face.
“Cut down the tree, God damn it—not him!” he shouted. “What is wrong with you, Warthrop?”
The doctor grunted, reared back, and swung again. The second blow ripped all the way to the wood; the body slid an inch or two, and then, in grotesque, heartrending slowness, the body pulled free and flipped, landing facedown at the base of the hemlock. The sickening thud as it hit the ground sounded very loud in the cold air. Though the body fell nowhere near him, Hawk recoiled.
“Come along, Will Henry,” said the doctor grimly, handing the bloody axe back to me.
I stepped up to the body, holding the light low. Warthrop knelt down, grunted, and observed dispassionately, “The upper dermis has been stripped from the posterior as well,” as if we were not deep in the wilderness but in the bowels of his laboratory on Harrington Lane. “Light closer, please, Will Henry. Some laceration of the underlying tissue. No evidence of serration. Whatever they used, it was very sharp, though here and there there is some indication of tearing.” He pressed his fingertips into the latissimus dorsi. A viscous puddle rose up, the blood closer to black than crimson. “Will Henry, try to hold the light still, will you? You’re throwing shadows everywhere.”
He dropped to his hands and knees and brought his eyes to within an inch of the corpse, moving his head back and forth, up and down, peering, prodding, poking—then sniffing, the tip of his nose practically touching the putrefying flesh.
It was too much for Hawk, who let loose a string of expletives and commenced to stomp in a furious ever widening circle behind us. In the space of a few moments their roles had been reversed. We had passed from the bucolic backcountry of Hawk’s youth into the land of blood and umbrage, the territory of monstrumology.