The Curse of the Wendigo
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“You credit me too much power, Pellinore. I can only suggest—it is up to the Society to decide.”
“I credit you with the death of two innocent men—and the attempted homicide of another. I do not count Will Henry and myself; we took that risk with no compunction from you.”
“I did not tell John to go. He offered.”
“You didn’t have to tell him, you wicked old fool. You knew he would go if he thought it would please you.”
“He said the case had never fully been explored. He insisted—”
The doctor cursed loudly, and I heard the hard thud of something being slammed to the thick carpet. Instinctively I started down the stairs, and Lilly pulled me back.
“Wait,” she whispered.
“It is nothing,” I heard von Helrung say. “It can be replaced.”
“I hold you fully responsible for what happens to him,” returned the doctor, refusing to be mollified.
“And I freely accept that responsibility. I shall do all within my power, though I fear it is too late.”
“‘Too late’? What do you mean?”
“He is in the state of becoming.”
“Oh, for the love of—Has the whole world gone mad? Am I the sole sane person left in the cosmos? The state of becoming . . . what? No! Don’t you dare say it. If you say it, I shall break the other one. Over your thick Austrian head.”
“You are understandably distressed.”
“So, what is your plan? Keep him alive long enough to present him as a Lepto lurconis specimen, then shove a silver dagger through his heart? Burn his body upon a bloody pyre? I shall turn you over to the police. I shall see you prosecuted for cold-blooded murder and watch you hang.”
“You must come to terms with certain facts—”
“Facts! Oh, wonderful. We are back to the facts.” Warthrop laughed harshly.
“The first of which is—regardless what you think of my proposal—that John will die, probably well before I can present my paper.”
“And why do you say that?”
“Because he is starving to death.”
For a moment there was no reply. I could well imagine, though, the expression on the doctor’s face.
“He cannot eat?”
“He will not eat. Because what is offered is not what satisfies.”
Lilly hissed between her teeth and yanked me backward, for the doctor had appeared below, practically running toward the front door.
“Will Henreeeeeeeee!” he bellowed.
“Pellinore! Pellinore, mein lieber Freund, where are you going? Please, I beg you. . . .” The stocky Austrian scurried after him on his thickset legs.
“Where I’m going is none of your damn business, von Helrung—but I’ll tell you anyway: to John. I’m going to see John.” He sidestepped his old master, and stopped short when he saw me standing above.
“Snap to, Will Henry,” he snarled. “Visiting hours for the asylum are over.”
“You should not go, Pellinore,” von Helrung said.
“And why not?”
Von Helrung sighed. “Because he is here.”
The doctor stiffened. He stepped toward von Helrung and said in a tone he had used often with me—stern, uncompromising, and intolerant of dispute—“Take me to him.”
He was being kept in a bedroom at the far end of the second floor, four doors from Lilly’s room. Von Helrung, noting the lateness of the hour and expressing concern for our appetites, instructed Lilly to escort me to the dining room so we might begin without them. Warthrop would have none of it. “Will Henry stays with me,” he told our host. Lilly protested too, saying if I stayed, she should stay; it was entirely unfair. Von Helrung would have none of that; he had no say-so over me, but he did over her, and he ordered her downstairs. She shot me a hateful look as if it were all my fault, and traipsed down the stairs, her arms flopping loosely at her sides, lifting her knees high to slam her feet upon each step.
Von Helrung knocked on the door twice, paused, and then twice again. I heard the heavy tread of a large man crossing the floorboards, and then the sound of several bolts being drawn back. The door creaked open. Standing on the other side was Augustin Skala, a massive paw stuffed into the pocket of the old peacoat. He nodded silently to his employer and stepped to one side so we could slip past his mountainous bulk.
The room was small—a bed, a dresser and washstand, a single window, and a fireplace, in which a few damp sticks smoldered. A lamp sat on the mantel, begetting spastic shadows that jerked upon the dark carpeting and jittered across the muted wallpaper; I felt as if I had stepped into a cave.
Chanler reclined in the bed beneath a heavy quilted coverlet, eyes hidden under quivering lids, the lashes fluttering at the speed of a hummingbird’s wings. His swollen blood-red lips were slightly parted, and I could hear his deep, wheezing breath from my spot on the other side of the room.
“Why have you moved him here?” asked the doctor softly.
“We thought it best,” answered von Helrung.
“The family and I.”
“And what did his physician think?”
“I am his physician.”
“When did you become a medical doctor, von Helrung?”
“In the sense that he’s been entrusted to me, Pellinore.”
“And Muriel agreed to this?”
The old Austrian nodded, and added somberly, “There is nothing more she can do for him.”
“I can hear you, you know.”
The subject of their discussion seemed to have not moved a muscle, but his eyes were now open, blood-red like his lips, shining with an overabundance of tears.
“Is that you, Pellinore?” he asked, with a swipe of his tongue over his suppurating lower lip.
“It is I,” said my master, approaching the bed.
“And who is that with you? Not little Philly.”
“Will. Will Henry,” the doctor corrected him, motioning for me to come closer.
“Bittle filly,” Chanler said, with a flick of his glowing eyes in my direction. “Congratulations, Willy Billy; he caught you but hasn’t killed you yet. You know that’s the plan, don’t you? Same as your father, he’ll see you die. Then donate your remains to the Society—put you on display in the Beastie Bin, where he puts all the nasty creatures he catches.” He coughed. “It’s where all you nasty things belong.”
“I am disappointed in you, John,” Warthrop said, ignoring the delirious tirade. “I expected you to be on your feet by now. You missed an excellent scrimmage last night.”
“Who won the pool?”
“That squirrelly frog. Don’t tell me—he played bookie, too.”
“I won’t tell you, then.”
“Do you remember the time he hid behind the band, and the tuba player vomited on him?”
“Which in turn made him sick.”
“And he threw up all over his date—that dancer . . .”
“Ballerina,” Warthrop said.
“Yes, that’s the one. With the skinny legs.”
“You called her ‘the stork.’”
“No, that was you.”
“No. I called her Katarina.”
“Why did you call her that?”
“It was her name.”
With some effort Chanler managed to laugh. “Damned literalist! ‘Stork’ is better.”
The doctor nodded absently. “I fully expected to see you there, John. But it seems you’ve taken a turn for the worse . . .”
“I can’t shake it, Pellinore,” his friend admitted. “I felt a little better for a while, and then I fall back again—like Sisyphus and the rock.”
“How do you expect to get better, though, if you refuse to eat?”
A look of anger flashed across Chanler’s face. “Who told you that?”
Warthrop glanced at von Helrung, who was studying his patient with an expression of intense concern.
“Why can’t you eat, John?” persisted the doctor.
“I would eat; I’m hungry enough, so hungry I can hardly stand it, but they won’t give me anything!”
“Now, John,” von Helrung scolded him. “You know that isn’t true.”
“Tell you me true!” shouted Chanler. “Tell me you true!” He closed his eyes and grunted in frustration. He spoke with great deliberateness, plucking each word clean from the tangled undergrowth of his thoughts before allowing it past his lips: “Don’t . . . tell . . . me . . . what’s . . . true.”
“Anything you’d like—anything. Only name it, and I will see that you get it within the hour,” said Warthrop.
Chanler was trembling. Fluid dripped from the corners of his eyes. The doctor reached down to wipe away the tear, and his friend jerked violently beneath the covers. “Don’t! . . . touch me . . . Pellinore.”
“Name it, John,” the doctor insisted.
Chanler’s head rocked from side to side. His eyes continued to leak tears; the pillowcase was stained with them. “I can’t.”
The monstrumologist and von Helrung withdrew to the fireplace to confer out of earshot.
“This is unconscionable,” Warthrop told von Helrung. “The man needs a doctor. The only question is, shall you summon one, or shall I?”
“I heard that!” Chanler called.
“His condition is beyond the scope of—,” began von Helrung, but his former pupil would have none of it.
“He should be in Bellevue right now, not wasting away here with this baboon in a peacoat!”
The two men started at the expletive.
“Worse than the hunger, Pellinore!” John Chanler called. “The shit! Every hour on the hour, buckets and buckets of shit!”
Warthrop glanced at von Helrung.
“He has been incontinent,” explained the Austrian apologetically.
“So dysentery, too—and you still don’t think he needs a doctor? It will kill him in a week.”
“Do you know what that’s like, Pellinore?” shouted Chanler. “To lie wallowing in your own shit?”
“We change the sheets immediately,” protested von Helrung. “And you could use the pan, John. It’s right there beside you.” He turned to Warthrop and said beseechingly, “I try to make him as comfortable as possible. Understand, mein Freund, there are things that—”
The doctor brushed him aside and returned to the bed.
“The wrong metaphor,” gasped Chanler. “The wrong hell. Not Sisyphus. Not Greek. Christian. Dante’s rivers of shit. That’s what it is.”
“I’m taking you to the hospital, John,” Warthrop told him.
“If you try, I’ll shit on you.”
“No doubt you will, but I’m taking you anyway.”
“That’s all is it—it is—Pell, but we forget.”
“I don’t understand, John. What do we forget?”
Chanler lowered his voice, pronouncing the word with great solemnity, as if he were sharing a profound truth: “Shit.” He giggled. “It’s all shit. I am shit. You are shit.” His eye fell upon the simian features of Augustin Skala. “He is definitely shit. . . . Life is shit. Love . . . love is shit.”