I turned back. “Very well! I wanted it to be a surprise, but I am your faithful servant, Miss Bates—as I am his—as I am everyone’s, something I’ve proven time and again, even in Kearns’s death. Especially in Kearns’s death . . . It is something unique, an extraordinary, one-of-a-kind something, precious beyond pearls, to a monstrumologist at least, and Warthrop’s greatest prize to date. He’s presenting it at a special assembly of this year’s Congress. After that only God knows what he will do with it.”
“What is it?” Breathless. Scarlet-cheeked. Rising to the balls of her feet. Never more lovely than in that moment.
She knew, like me—and like you—the terrible longing, the hopeless revulsion, the pull of the faceless, nameless thing, the thing I call das Ungeheuer.
The thing we desire and deny. The thing that is you and not-you. The thing that was before you were and will be long after you are gone.
I held out my hand. “Come and see.”
Come and see.
The boy with the tattered hat two sizes too small and the tall man in the stained white coat and the cold basement floor and the jars filled with amber liquid stacked to the ceiling. The long metal table and the instruments hanging from hooks or lined up like cutlery in shiny trays.
“This is where I conduct the majority of my studies, Will Henry. You must never come down here unless I am present or give you my permission. The most important rule for you to remember is that if it moves, don’t touch it. Ask first. Always ask first. . . .
“Here, I have something for you. It’s your father’s work apron, a bit battle stained, as you can see. . . . Hmm. Careful now or you’ll trip over it. Well. You’ll grow into it.”
On the worktable something squirms inside one of the larger jars. Bulbous-eyed. Gape-mouthed. Sharp-clawed. And the claws scratch against the thick glass.
“What is it that you do here?”
“What do I . . . ?” He is astonished. “What did your father say?”
I have been so many places, Will. I have seen wonders only poets can imagine.
In the glass jar, the nameless thing staring back at me, scratching, scratching against the glass.
And the tall man in the dingy white smock holding forth in a dry, lecturing tone, as one speaking to a vast assemblage of like-minded men in dingy white smocks:
“I am a scientist. A student in a rather peculiar backwater of the natural philosophies called aberrant biology. ‘Monstrumology’ is the common term. I’m surprised your father never told you.”
Dr. Warthrop is a great man engaged in great business. And I shall never turn my back upon him, though the fires of hell itself arise to contend against me.
“You’re a monster hunter,” I said.
“You’re not listening to me. I am a scientist.”
“Who hunts monsters.”
“Who studies certain rare and, yes, dangerous species that are, in general, malevolent toward human beings.”
Scratch, scratch, the thing in the jar.
“That is a relative term often misapplied. I am an explorer. I carry a lamp into lightless places. I strive against the dark that others may live in the light.”
And the thing inside the jar, hopelessly clawing against the thick glass.
There was no light in that tiny alcove into which he shoved me like a box of useless curios inherited from some distant relation. I had begged my father to take me with him on one of his grand adventures with the great Pellinore Warthrop so I might share in the “great business” and see with my own eyes “wonders only poets can imagine.” What I saw in those first few months was neither great nor wonderful. I did, however, get a taste of those fires of hell itself.
It always came just as I was finally falling into a fitful slumber. After hours of my wailing in the utter dark, knowing that when I did fall asleep, exhausted from my inexhaustible grief, I would watch once more my parents dance in the flames—always in that moment, as if he knew somehow, and sometimes I was sure he did, the cry would come, high and shrill and filled with terror: Will Henry! Will Henreeeee!
And down I would climb into the darkened hall and stumble bleary-eyed to his room.
“There you are!” A match sparked; he lit the lamp beside the bed. “What? Why are you staring at me like that? Didn’t your parents teach you it was impolite?”
“Is there something you want, sir?”
“Why, no, I don’t want anything. Why do you ask?” He flicked his finger at the chair by the bed. I sank into it, my head pounding, loose upon my shoulders. “What is the matter with you? You look terrible. Are you sick? James never mentioned that you were a sickly child. Are you sickly?”
“Not that I know of, sir.”
“Not that you know of? Wouldn’t that be something even a simpleton would know? How old are you, anyway?”
“I am almost eleven, sir.”
He grunted, sizing me up. “Small for your age.”
“I’m very fast. I’m the fastest player on my team.”
“Team? What sort of team?”
“Baseball! Do you like sports?”
“What else do you like? Do you hunt?”
“Father keeps promising he will take me . . .” I paused, slamming head-on into another promise that would never be kept. Warthrop’s eyes bored into mine, glittering with that strange, unnerving, backlit glow. He’d wondered if I was sick, but he was the one who looked sick: dark circles beneath his eyes, hollow-cheeked and unshaven.
“Why do you cry, Will Henry? Do you think your tears will bring them back?”
They coursed down my cheeks, empty stygian vessels, useless. It took everything in me not to throw my body across his and beg for comfort. Beg for it! The simplest of human gestures.
I did not understand him then.
I do not understand him still.
“You must harden yourself,” he told me sternly. “Monstrumology is not butterfly collecting. If you are to stay with me, you must become accustomed to such things. And worse.”
“Am I to stay with you, sir?”
His gaze cut down to my bones. I wanted to look away; I could not look away.
“What is your desire?”
My bottom lip quivered. “I have nowhere else to go.”
“Do not pity yourself, Will Henry,” he said, the man whose own self-pity rose to operatic heights. “There is no room in science for pity or grief or any sentimental thing.”
And the child answered, “I’m not a scientist.”
To which the man replied, “And I am not a nursemaid. What do you desire?”
To sit at my mother’s table. To smell the warm pie cooling on the rack. To watch her tuck a strand of her hair behind her ear. To hear her say it isn’t time, Willy, you must wait for it to cool; it isn’t time. And the whole world, down to the last inch of it, to smell like apples.
“I could send you away,” he went on: an offer, a threat. “There is probably not a person in all of North America more poorly constituted to raise a child. Why, I find most people unbearable, and children hardly rise to that level. You may expect the worst kind of cruelty from me, Will Henry: cruelty of the unintended kind. I am not a hateful man—I am merely the opposite, and the opposite of hate is not love, you know.”
He smiled grimly at my puzzled expression. He knew—knew!—that the heartbroken waif before him had no capacity to understand what he was saying. He, the patient gardener, was planting seeds that would take years to germinate. But the roots would dig deep, and the crop would be impervious to drought or pestilence or flood, and, in the fullness of time, the harvest would be abundant.
For bitterness does not envy pleasure. Bitterness finds pleasure in the spot from which bitterness springs. Younger than I when he lost his mother, banished by a cold and unforgiving father, the monstrumologist understood what I had lost. He had lost it too.
In me, himself.
And in himself, me.
Time is a line
But we are circles.
Sept. 19, 1911
I would not write to you if the welfare of your former employer had not become a matter of some concern. As you know, I have been dutifully checking on him since last you were here. I am afraid things have taken a turn for the worse.
Bare bough, gray sky, dead leaf. And the old house glowering in the twilight gloom.
I bang upon the door. “Warthrop! Warthrop, it’s me, William.” And then, with an inward moan, “Will Henry!”
I would not trouble you if I did not fear for his welfare.
Cold wind and cobwebs and windows encrusted with grime and warped wood the color of ash. Is he holed up in the basement? Or collapsed in his room? I dug into my pockets for the key. Then cursed: I must have left it in New York.
“Warthrop!” Pounding on the door. “Snap to and answer, damn you!”
The door flew open with a high-pitched screech of its rusted hinges, like the cry of a wounded animal, and there he was, or what was left of him. Face the ash gray of the weathered siding. Eyes vacant as the twilight sky. He’d lost more weight since I’d last seen him, skin pulled taut over bone, lips colorless and thin and stretched over the yellowed teeth that seemed overly large in his emaciation. In one bony hand he clutched a stained and tattered handkerchief; in the other, his old revolver, which was pointed directly at the center of my forehead.
We stared at each other for a long moment, saying nothing, from either side of the threshold—and either side of the universe.
He will not answer my calls. He will not come to the door. Before I notify the authorities, I thought I should inform you. You are, in the most liberal sense, the only family he has.
“Warthrop,” I said. “What the devil are you doing?”
His mouth came open, and he said, “Looking at him.”
And then he fell.
I carried him upstairs, across a sea of dust so thick it eddied and swirled in my wake. The monstrumologist seemed to weigh no more than an eleven-year-old boy. To his room, where I laid him on the bed. Pulled off his shoes. Covered him with a blanket. Collapsed in the chair, the same chair in which I had sat twenty-four years ago. How many times had I sat in this chair while he railed and whined, lectured and questioned and sliced me to my bones like one of his horrid specimens? His breath was uneven and short. His eyes jittered and jerked beneath the charcoal-colored lids. As if he had not slept since I left him, as if he’d been waiting for me to return that he might rest.
“Are you asleep?” I said aloud. My voice hung like fog in the deadened air. He made no reply. “Go to hell,” I said. “You probably put Morgan up to writing that letter. What would you have me do, Warthrop? There is nothing here for me. Nothing for you, either, but that isn’t my responsibility anymore. Well, it never was. I was a child; what choice did I have? You could have beaten me every day and locked me in a closet at night; I still would have stayed.”
I shrugged out of my overcoat, bundled it in my lap. Shivered. Put the coat back on. My breath congealed in the icy air.