The Curse of the Wendigo
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She ran her fingers through her thick fall of curls and stared dreamily into the distance.
“Uncle introduced Pellinore to Muriel, so he blamed himself for what happened. When your doctor didn’t get any better after two weeks in Vienna, Uncle shipped him off to a balneologist in Teplice, and that’s when things got really bad.”
She paused for dramatic effect. I found myself fighting the urge to grab her by the shoulders and physically shake the rest of the tale out of her. How often does our desire spring upon us unawares—and from what unexpected hiding places! There was so much about the man that was hidden from me—hidden to this day, I will confess. To now have even the smallest of peeks behind the heavy curtain . . . !
“He stopped eating,” she continued. “He stopped sleeping. He stopped talking. Uncle was desperate with worry. For a whole month this went on—Pellinore in silence wasting away—until one day Uncle said to him, ‘You must decide. Will you live or will you die?’ And Pellinore said, ‘What have I to live for?’ And Uncle answered, ‘That, only you can decide.’ And then . . . he decided.”
“What?” I whispered. “What did he decide?”
“He decided to live, of course! Oh, I’m beginning to think you are thickheaded, William Henry. Of course he decided to live, or you wouldn’t be here, would you? It wasn’t the perfect ending. The perfect ending would have been him deciding the opposite, because it’s the best kind of love that kills. Love isn’t worth anything unless it’s tragic—look at Romeo and Juliet, or Hamlet and Ophelia. It’s all there for anyone who isn’t so thickheaded he can’t see it.”
The doctor returned shortly after ten that morning, his morning suit slightly rumpled, the black cravat that had to be tied just so now hanging limply over his collar and dotted with a dark greenish stain—most likely the regurgitations of his friend. When I asked how Dr. Chanler was faring, he replied tersely, “He is alive,” and said no more.
The day had dawned overcast with a blustery wind from the north that brought a plethora of bad memories with it. Von Helrung and Lilly walked us to the curb. Warthrop turned to his old mentor upon seeing Bartholomew Gray in the driver’s seat of the hansom.
“Where is Skala?” he demanded.
Von Helrung muttered a vague reply, and the doctor’s face darkened in anger. “If you’ve sent him over there like some apish angel of death, Meister Abram, I shall have him picked up by the police.”
I did not hear von Helrung’s response; Lilly had collared me.
“Are you going to be at the congress today?” she asked.
“I suppose,” I said.
“Good! Uncle has promised to take me, too. I will look for you, Will.”
Before I could extend my hearty thanksgiving at this piece of wonderful news, the doctor pulled me into the cab.
“Straight to the Society, Mr. Gray!” he called, knocking sharply against the roof with the heel of his walking stick. He sat back and closed his eyes. He didn’t look much healthier than his dying charge at Bellevue. Thus we are entwined with each another in a fateful dance, until one falls and we must let go, lest we both go down.
I spent the majority of that rainy day on the third floor of the old opera house, in a cavernous room that may have once been a dance studio, while Warthrop attended a meeting of the editorial board of the Encyclopedia Bestia, the Society’s exhaustive compendium of all malevolent creatures great and small, to which he was a contributing member. The gathering was chaired by a lanky Missourian by the name of Pelt, who possessed the most impressive handlebar mustache I had ever seen. Throughout the meeting Pelt munched on salt crackers, and I marveled at his ability to keep the crumbs from lodging in his mustache’s complicated tangles. It was this same Dr. Pelt who would later admit that he was the author of the anonymous letter that had launched our latest foray into the singular wilds of monstrumology.
Having hardly slept the night before, I dozed off in my chair to the droning of the learned men, while the latest treatises were discussed, debated, and dissected, against the pleasant background music of the drumming rain upon the high arched windows. It was in this state of sweet semi-stupor that I received a sharp jab to my shoulder. Jerking awake, I looked up to see Lilly Bates beaming down at me.
“Here you are!” she whispered. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you. You might have told me where you’d be.”
“I didn’t know where I’d be,” I said honestly.
She plopped onto the chair beside me and watched glumly as a phlegmatic little Argentinean with the rather remarkable name of Santiago Luis Moreno Acosta-Rojas droned on about the poor composition skills of monstrumologists in general. “I understand they are not men of letters, but how can they be such unlettered men?”
“This is dreadfully boring.” Lillian stood abruptly and held out her hand.
“I can’t leave the doctor,” I protested.
“Why? He might need a footstool?” she asked sardonically. She pulled me to my feet and dragged me toward the door. I glanced back at my master, but he was oblivious, as was usual, to my plight.
“Quiet now,” she whispered, leading me to a door across the hall, over which a sign had been posted: ABSOLUTELY NO ADMITTANCE. NOT AN EXIT.
The door opened to a flight of stairs that dove downward, the darkness beneath swallowing the pitifully small light of the jets that burned on each landing.
“I don’t think we should be going down there,” I said. “The sign . . .”
She ignored me, pulling me behind her as she descended this little-used shaft, hardly concerning herself with the narrow treads or the fact that there was no railing. The walls—moist and festooned with long strips of peeling black paint—pressed close on either side. Another door confronted us at the bottom landing, two stories beneath the street, and another sign:
MEMBERS ONLY—NO UNAUTHORIZED ADMITTANCE
“Lilly . . . ,” I began.
“It’s all right, Will,” she assured me. “He falls asleep every afternoon around this time. We just have to be very quiet.”
Before I could ask why it was all right, despite the signs that gave every indication it was not, or ask who fell asleep every afternoon around that time, she forced open the door with her shoulder and flapped her hand impatiently at me to follow, which, for reasons still inexplicable to me, I did.
The door clanged shut, plunging us into absolute darkness. We stood at the threshold of a forgotten hallway that led directly to the holy of holies of natural history’s abhorrent darker side.
Its official title was the Monstrumarium (literally, “the house of monsters”), for it housed thousands of specimens collected from the four corners of the globe, from Gigantopithecus’s malevolent cousin Kangchenjunga rachyyas of the Himalayas to the microscopic but no less terrifying Vastarus hominis (its name literally means “to lay waste to humans”) of the Belgian Congo. In 1875 a wag had nicknamed the Monstrumarium, in a fit of sottish wit, “the Beastie Bin,” and the name had stuck.
The so-called Lower Monstrumarium into which Lilly and I now made our shuffling way—trailing our fingertips along the damp subterranean walls to keep our bearings in the dark—had been added to the original structure in 1867. A warren of winding passageways and claustrophobic low-ceilinged rooms, some no larger than a closet, the Lower Monstrumarium was the repository for thousands of yet-to-be catalogued specimens and macabre curiosities. In room after room, shelves groaned under the weight of thousands of jars wherein unidentified bits of biomass floated in preserving solution, where for all I know they still sit to this day. A tiny percentage carried labels, and those contained only the name of the contributor (if known) and the date of the donation; the rest were innominate reminders of the vast constituents making up the monstrumological universe, the seemingly inexhaustible panoply of creatures designed by an inscrutable God to do us harm.
We entered a small antechamber, where Lilly grabbed a lamp that was hung upon an iron pike embedded in the concrete wall. The atmosphere was cool and musty. Our breaths pooled in the lamplight.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Quiet, Will!” she said, raising her voice slightly. “Or you’ll wake up Adolphus.”
“Who is Adolphus?” Immediately I was convinced that the dungeon was guarded by some gargantuan man-eating creature.
“Hush! Just follow me and be quiet.”
Adolphus, as it turned out, was not in the Lower Monstrumarium that day. His business rarely brought him down there, for he wasn’t a monstrumologist and didn’t consider himself a zookeeper. He was, rather, the curator of the Monstrumarium proper.
Adolphus Ainsworth was a very old man who walked with a cane, the head of which was fashioned from the skull of the extinct Ocelli carpendi, a nocturnal predator about the size of a capuchin monkey, possessing six-inch razor-sharp fangs protruding from its upper jaw and a partiality for the human eyeball (if that of other primates was not available), particularly the eyes of children, which the Ocelli would rip from their sockets while they slept. Adolphus had named the skull Oedipus and thought himself quite clever, despite the inconvenient detail that Oedipus had plucked out his own eyes.
Adolphus Ainsworth was well into his fortieth year underground in that fall of ’88, and the sunless years had taken their toll upon his complexion. His eyes were weak and rheumy, magnified threefold by his thick spectacles, and his coat was threadbare, the sleeves an inch too short and tattered. He trudged about the narrow corridors in a pair of old open-toed slippers, his toenails glimmering like polished bronze in the dim light.
A maxim emerged during his tenure as curator of the Monstrumarium, “You can smell Adolphus coming,” referring to a development or event easily predictable, along the lines of “as surely as night follows day.” The aroma of those subterranean floors—a foul mixture of formaldehyde, mildew, and decomposition—seemed to seep from his very pores. A certain monstrumologist who was close to him politely suggested the smell was being absorbed by his profusive muttonchops, and perhaps he should shave. Adolphus rebuked the man, protesting that, since he was as bald as a billiard ball, he intended to maintain what hair he could, and, moreover, he cared not how badly he smelled.
Though he was well into his eighth decade, his memory was prodigious. A researcher, after hours of wandering through the labyrinthine corridors and claustrophobic dusty chambers housing thousands of samples, his patience tried by the seemingly inchoate system of unmarked drawers and unlabeled crates stacked floor-to-ceiling, would find his complaints answered by a simple question: “Have you asked Adolphus?” Suppose you wished to examine the phalanges of the rare Ice Man of the Svalbard Archipelago. Adolphus would lead you right to its little compartment, indistinguishable from all the others in the cabinet, and would hover about you as you examined it, lest you return it to the wrong place and thus throw off his entire catalogue.
His office was located a floor above us, where he napped behind a desk buried in papers and books and pieces of calcified material that may or may not once have been living. The office itself was as disheveled as he—stacks and stacks of materials occupying every available surface, including most of the floor. A small, winding pathway though the mélange afforded the sole artery into his roost.