The Final Descent
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I spun on my heel, turned round again. We are circles; our lives are not straight.
“You’ve been nothing but a burden to me, an albatross around my neck!” I shouted. “Everything about you is repulsive—you’re living like some feral creature, wallowing in your own filth, and for what? For what?”
“I cannot . . . I cannot . . .” Shaking uncontrollably, hugging his nakedness, dank hair falling over his face in a stringy curtain.
“Say what I cannot—do what I cannot—think what I cannot.”
I shook my head. “You’ve gone mad.” With wonder in my voice. The unconquerable Pellinore Warthrop, the singular man, had crossed that razor-thin fissure unto the other side.
“No, Will. No.” He lifted his head to look at me, and I thought, Those are pearls that were his eyes. “Nothing has changed since the beginning. It is not I who has gone blind. It is you whose eyes have been opened.”
With my eyes wide open and three inches from the floor, I crawled in an ever-widening circle around the corpse in the Monstrumarium.
Every second was precious, but I forced myself to go slowly, gathering in what the eye could harvest in the meager light.
Here the outline of a bloody shoe print, six inches from where he fell. Another as the second man stumbled backward toward the wall. Here, against the wall, a stack of empty crates toppled over and broken apart. A terrific struggle had happened here. With a third man? Or with Warthrop’s prize? Had the victim’s betrayer or competitor been overcome inside the Locked Room as he attempted to transfer the prize to another container more suitable for transport? Finding nothing else useful against the wall, I crossed into the room. In my brief inspection earlier I hadn’t seen it: Someone—or something—had flung a large burlap sack into the far corner. I tapped on it with my foot. Empty.
That was it, then: He tried to lift it out of the cage, and it struck, drove him out, and as he stumbled backward he stepped into the puddle of blood, leaving the imprint of his shoe on the floor. Or he could have lost his grip—not been in its grip—panicked, and backed out in terror, slamming against the far wall and knocking over the crates before fleeing the Monstrumarium, the motive for his crime abandoned. The second scenario did not seem satisfactory to me. If he had dropped the prize, it would have pursued him and left some evidence of itself through the same puddle into which the shoe had dipped. Back in the corridor, I ran my fingertips over the damp wall above the pile of shattered wood and bent nails, squinting in the flickering light of the jets, kicking myself for not having fetched a torch from Adolphus’s office. My fingers brushed something sticky. I sniffed. Blood. The wall was speckled with dime-size drops of it around the level of my eyes. Had he smacked his head against the hard stone? Or had he already been punctured several times over? The drops extended for three feet in either direction from the center of the broken crates. From whipping his head back and forth? Or from something whipping him?
“Where are you?” I whispered. “It isn’t big enough—not yet—to take you anywhere, so wherever you are, you went there of your own accord. Did you run from it or with it, embracing you? Did you make it back to the surface or are you still here?”
The Monstrumarium spanned the length and breadth of the building above it, which occupied an entire city block. A sprawl of ill-lit, interlocking tunnels and hundreds of storage rooms of various sizes, some stuffed so full that only the hardiest dared navigate them without Adolphus there to guide him. More than once I’d gotten lost down here, wandering for a quarter hour or more, until, unnerved and disoriented, I gave in to my panic and called for him to find me and lead me out: Adolphus! Adolphus, I’m lost again!
The would-be thief could have escaped the encounter with the beast only to find himself wandering down here like I had done, desperate and lost—and hunted. He could have made it back to the street, his pursuer safely sealed below like the Minotaur of the story. Or he could have been overcome—not here, but somewhere else within the labyrinth—and, even now as I considered the possibilities, he was being consumed.
I went over the scene one last time. How long since Lilly had left to fetch the doctor? My sense of time was skewed. It seemed more than a month since I’d pushed her up the stairs with that farewell kiss. I trotted back toward the curator’s office, holding the gun in my right hand while keeping the left before me, the knife and brass knuckles within my trouser pocket knocking against my leg, pausing at each turn and scanning the next tunnel before proceeding on. I had the sense of time slithering down a black hole, carrying me with it. Though the floor rose as I neared the entrance, I felt as if I were skittering down a steep slope, at the bottom of which opened the mouth of a lightless abyss, the entryway to the lowermost circle, Judecca, the frozen heart of hell.
In the last tunnel before the final turn, midway down, a shadow leapt from the murky recesses of a storage room and slammed into me, forcing me sideways into the wall. The impact knocked the gun from my hand. I smelled whiskey and blood as he clamped his fingers around my throat, pinning my back against the wall with his body, and his breath was hot in my ear. I brought up my fists and boxed him hard against the ears, which loosened his grip a bit, but he was maddened by fear and pain and did not let go. His face shone with fresh blood, and was crisscrossed with deep crimson fissures where the fangs must have ripped. His teeth were bared, his eyes red-rimmed and wild with terror.
I brought my knee up and into his crotch; his hold slipped as he doubled over, and I shoved him away. No time for the gun: I pulled the knife from my pocket and flicked it open. The blade sprang free, glinted coldly in the gaslight. He stumbled backward, bending over, clutching at his privates, and then he vomited up a stew of bile and blood and black, curdled blobs of his own gut—the monster’s poison had already necrotized a part of his stomach. His other organs, I knew, were dying as well. That is how the poison kills you: You die from the inside out. Depending on the amount of toxin, the process can take anywhere from minutes to several days.
I grabbed him by the throat, pulled him up, pressed the tip of the knife under his jaw. His rancid breath, stinking of his inner rot, washed over my face, and I gagged.
“Where is it?” I choked out. “Where is it?”
“Inside . . .”
“Inside? Here? In the Monstrumarium? Bring me to it!”
He laughed. Then he belched, and a viscous mixture of blood and mucus bubbled over his bluish lips. I saw it then. I had seen the same thing many times before in my service to the monstrumologist:
The light was fading from his eyes.
“I already have.”
Nearly seven thousand days after that night, I stepped out the back door into the little alleyway behind 425 Harrington Lane. The monstrumologist was crying for his supper—perhaps my unexpected appearance had reminded him that he, like every other human, needed to eat once in a while. But I refused to cook in the sty he called a kitchen before scrubbing down what could be sanitized and tossing out what couldn’t. I set to work upon returning from the market and hiding the scones, though he cursed me for it. “They are still mine until I give them to you,” I scolded him. He slunk away like a chastened child. There was always, even in his prime, a childishness about the monstrumologist, as if part of him were frozen in that time prior to his mother’s death, the little boy who simply stopped, who could not free himself from the ice, who lived on in the man, forgotten and alone, but whose cries broke free from time to time, like those of the boy he inherited, the boy he tucked away in the attic room, all three of them—the boy, the man, and the boy inside the man—trapped in the Judeccan ice.
I dumped the first load of garbage into the nearest ash barrel. The one next to it was stuffed to overflowing, not by the monstrumologist, surely, but by the girl I had hired to keep him alive. Beatrice, was that really her name? I couldn’t remember, though I could recall the face very well; I am good with faces. Apple-cheeked, fair-skinned, a little on the heavy side, a quick, pleasant smile. I had chosen her carefully from a list of applicants: an old maid with no family in town, used to caring for the sick and infirm (she had ministered to her parents until both died). A God-fearing woman who disdained gossip and had few close ties and, most importantly, whose patience was deep as the Atlantic and whose hide was thick as a tortoise’s. No wonder he’d sacked her.
I filled up the barrel quickly, but the first stars were appearing and the temperature was dropping rapidly, and I thought a fire would be nice—I would have to burn the refuse before I left anyway—so I trooped into the old shed and fetched the kerosene.
You’ve put me in a tight spot—once again, I thought. If I leave you with no caretaker, you will succumb to your demons. But your demons prevent anyone from caring for you!
Such is the nature of demons, I suppose.
I doused both barrels with the kerosene. An errant breeze blew out the first match, and suddenly I was thirteen again, up to my ankles in the freezing snow, warming my bloodstained hands beside this same barrel by the immolation of a corpse I had helped dismember.
You must harden yourself. If you are to stay with me, you must become accustomed to such things.
Must I, Warthrop? Must I become accustomed to “such things”? And if I had failed—if you had failed to make me accustomed to them—what then? Would there have been room then for sentimentality, for the absurdities of love and pity and hope and every other human thing? But you didn’t fail; you succeeded beyond your wildest expectations, and I, William James Henry, am your crowning achievement, the most aberrant of aberrant life forms, without love without pity without hope, harsh cold merciless leviathan of the lightless heatless deep.
I lit the second match and dropped it into one barrel. Smoke boiled; fire leapt. Then the third match into the other barrel. And the heat like a barber’s warm rag upon my face, and the smoke a speckled curtain of gray and black, and the stench of organic burning things, rotten food and moldy bread, and underlying it the foul muck of marrow sizzling within bone and the acrid tincture of hair smoldering, and I knew, I knew before I looked, before I kicked the first barrel over, spilling the contents of its gullet onto the damp, hard-packed earth, I knew what I would find, knew to the core of my harsh, cold, merciless self what he had done and to whom he had done it, apple-cheeked, fair-skinned, ready smile, and you bastard, you bastard, what have you done? What have you done?
There was her apron, torn and bloody, and a piece of her calico dress and the remnants of the ribbon that held back her hair.
Long tangled strands of it clung stubbornly to the skull, a light brown giving to gray, and she the Medusa: I am turned to stone.
She grinned up at me, and the empty sockets looked into my face, and both were devoid of expression, her skull, my face, no sorrow, no pity, no horror, no fear, hollow socket and hollow man, hollowed out by his hand.
NOT A DRACHM
OF BLOOD REMAINS IN ME, THAT DOES NOT TREMBLE;