The Final Descent
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She laughed in spite of herself. “You aren’t half as clever as you think you are, you know.”
I nodded. “More like a third. Did you meet him in England? Aren’t you lonely there, Lilly? Don’t you miss New York? What sort of person would want to apprentice for Sir Hiram Walker? No one who’s a third as clever as he thinks he is, so he must be a mediocrity.”
“He’s a friend,” she said.
“A very good friend.”
“Oh. Hmm. Very good is certainly not mediocre.”
She smiled. “Not by a third.”
“I should very much like to kiss you now.”
“That is a lie.” Still smiling.
And I, now frowning: “Why would someone lie about that?”
“If you really wanted to kiss me, you would have kissed me, not—”
I kissed her.
Dear Will, I pray this finds you well.
Her eyes were closed, her lips slightly parted. “Will,” she whispered. “I should very much like for you to kiss me again.”
And I did, and the thing turned upon itself inside the burlap, and scratch, scratch against the heavy glass and you must harden yourself to such things and there was no room for love or pity or any other silly human thing and never fall in love, never.
In the snarl of winding passageways and dusty rooms and shelves overflowing with dead nightmarish things and
I find it beautiful—more splendid than a meadow in springtime.
There is one last thing I must say before I go.
In the twisting, scratching, dusty, overflowing, dead, nightmarish chambers of the lightless heatless deep.
One last thing I must say
lips slightly parted
These are the secrets these are the secrets these are the secrets
The light of the monstrumologist’s lamp kissed the rough surface of the egg; he leaned over it, bringing the lens of the loupe close, and his breath was but a whisper of wind through that beautiful meadow at springtime. He’d taken measurements—mass, circumference, temperature—and listened to it through his stethoscope. He worked quickly. He did not want to expose the egg too long to the basement air. As Maeterlinck had observed, New England was anything but tropical.
“Well, it certainly matches the descriptions in the literature,” he told me, “scant and imprecise as those may be. It could be the ovum of a T. cerrejonensis. Certainly not a crocodile or turtle egg—much too big for one of those. Definitely reptilian. Perhaps a distant cousin, the giant anaconda or boa, but, again, the size rules them out. Well! In this instance we must rely upon the old adage that time will tell.” He straightened and pushed the loupe onto the top of his head. His cheeks were flushed. He did not know for certain what he had, but at the same time he knew. “We shall nurture it, keep it warm and well insulated, and see what emerges in a few weeks’ time.”
“Just in time for the annual congress,” I pointed out. “It obliges you, Doctor.”
He stiffened slightly. “I am not sure what you mean by that.”
“The last of its kind,” I said. “As if your cap didn’t already have enough feathers!”
“Do you know, Will Henry, for about a year now, whenever you make a remark like that, I cannot decide if you are praising me or mocking me or both.”
“I am acknowledging the obvious, sir,” I said.
“Usually the purview of politicians and novelists. I would suggest you avoid it.”
He returned the egg to its bower of straw and for the next thirty minutes fussed with the small heat lamp, using a thermometer to measure the ambient temperature near the surface of the egg.
“We must keep close watch,” Warthrop said. “Check it upon the hour until it’s ready to hatch, and then we cannot leave it unattended. For our protection as well as its own. At least two others know of its existence and location, perhaps more. Should intelligence of our find fall upon the wrong ears . . . it could pose a greater danger than the thing itself.”
He was speaking to me but looking at “the thing itself.”
“Its venom is the most toxic on record, five times as potent as that of Hydrophis belcheri. A drop that would fit upon the head of a pin is enough to kill a grown man.”
I whistled. “No wonder it is so valuable. You could wipe out an entire army with a cupful. . . .”
He shook his head and chuckled ruefully. “And thus our own natures determine our conclusions.”
“What do you mean?”
“It is valuable not for what it takes away, Will Henry. It is valuable for what it gives.”
“That was my point, Doctor.”
“Death as something one gives?”
“And receives. It is both.”
Still smiling: “I really have failed, haven’t I?” He looked back at the egg. “Take that same pinhead-size drop. Dilute it in a ten percent solution. It may be injected directly into the vein, or some prefer to soak tobacco in it and ingest it through a pipe. The effect, I hear, is indescribably euphoric—orgasmic, for lack of a better word. One dose—one puff—is sufficient to leave the user more hopelessly ensnared than the most hopeless opium addict. It is irrevocable, like the fruit from Eden’s tree: Once it’s tasted, there is no going back. More begets the desire for more—and more, and more—until the brain has rewired itself. The body needs it as the lungs need air or the cells glucose.”
I saw it immediately. A supplier of this überopium would become very rich, very quickly. Richer than all the richest robber barons combined, Warthrop had said. Maeterlinck had not been lying: His client’s asking price was ridiculously low—suspiciously so, to my mind.
“There is something foul here,” I said. “If this client of Maeterlinck’s was willing to practically give it away . . .”
“Very astute of you, Will Henry. Perhaps I am premature in my assessment. Yes, the price was much too low if he understood what he had—and much too high if he didn’t!”
“Unless Maeterlinck never intended to let you have it. You were to be used to verify its authenticity.”
“And what purpose would that serve? All he had to do was wait for it to hatch, harvest the venom, and—if you’ll pardon the expression—give it a shot.”
“Whoever hired him knows you, or knows of you. . . .”
He crossed his arms and threw back his head, considering me down the length of his patrician nose. “And? What does that tell you?”
“There is a motive here beyond profit.”
“Excellent, Mr. Henry! It is true: I must reevaluate to the last premise my conclusions about your acumen. But what could that motive be?” He held up his hand as my mouth came open. “I have a few thoughts along those lines, which I will hold in abeyance for now. Far too many serve the cakes before they’re fully baked.”
I frowned. “Is that a quote from somewhere?”
He laughed. “It is now.”
The vigil lasted nearly a month. As the “big day” approached, his anxiety grew—along with his beard and hair—and his appetite withered. He hovered over the egg for hours, fiddling with the lamp, rearranging the straw, listening to the developing life inside its leathery cocoon through the stethoscope. My major duties, excluding the usual ones of cooking, cleaning, washing, shopping, answering letters, and the like, included keeping watch by the basement door, the doctor’s loaded revolver always by my side. He started at every little noise, slept no more than thirty minutes at a stretch, and generally devolved from philosopher of aberrant biology into a surrogate mother. More than once, when I dragged myself down the stairs to check on him, I would find Warthrop perched upon his stool in a semistupor, resting his chin on his palm, half-shut eyes fixed upon the thing in the straw.
“Go to bed,” I said to him once. “I’ll watch it.”
“And if you fall asleep?”
He said nothing. I let it go. “May I ask you something?”
His eyebrow rose; the eye beneath remained lidded.
“It didn’t drop out of the sky, and it wasn’t preserved in a frozen tundra for a hundred years or, I am guessing, laid a century before it will hatch. How can it be the last of its kind? Where is its mother?”
He cleared his throat. His voice sounded like a shoe scraping over broken glass. “Dead, according to Maeterlinck. Killed by the same coal miner who discovered the nest.”
“But wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume . . . ?”
“Her mate had been killed the week before. Reasonable to assume it was her mate—a big male, nearly forty-five feet from tail to snout.”
“That is my point. Where there is one, but especially where there are two . . .”
“Oh, I suppose anything is possible. It is possible that a tribe of Neanderthals survives in the inaccessible regions of the Himalayas. It is possible that leprechauns emerge from the Irish woods and dance in the highlands when the moon is full. It is equally possible that you were born of two monkeys mating and switched upon your birth. It is also possible that this entire conversation—no, your entire existence—is but a dream, and you will wake up to find that you’re an old man in your farmhouse next to your stout but practical wife and marvel at the power of dreams while you sleepily milk the family cow!”
I pondered his argument for a moment and then said, “Must I be a farmer?”
On one or two occasions he gave in to the human imperative and allowed me to help him upstairs and into his bed. “Well, why are you hovering about like some ghoulish angel of death?” Snapping his fingers at me. “Back to the basement, Will Henry, and snap to!”
Oh, if I hear that loathsome phrase attached to my name one more time . . . !
I set the gun beside the nest and contemplated the gestating T. cerrejonensis. It glowed in the orange light of the heat lamp. The basement was cold; the place in which it rested was warm. Three days before, it had begun to quiver, ever so slightly, nearly unperceptively. When you listened through the stethoscope, you could hear it, a wet squishy sound, as the organism writhed and twisted within the amniotic sac. Hearing it gave you a certain thrill: This was life, fragile and elemental, tender and implacable. Entropy and chaos reigns o’er all of creation, destruction defines the universe, but life endures. And isn’t that the essence of beauty? It occurred to me, while I watched the thing shiver with the ancient force, that aberrance is a wholly human construct. There were no such things as monsters outside the human mind. We are vain and arrogant, evolution’s highest achievement and most dismal failure, prisoners of our self-awareness and the illusion that we stand in the center, that there is us and then there is everything else but us.
But we do not stand apart from or above or in the middle of anything. There is nothing apart, nothing above, and the middle is everywhere—and nowhere. We are no more beautiful or essential or magnificent than an earthworm.
In fact—and dare we go there, you and I?—you could say the worm is more beautiful, because it is innocent and we are not. The worm has no motive but to survive long enough to make baby worms. There is no betrayal, no cruelty, no envy, no lust, and no hatred in the worm’s heart, and so who are the monsters and which species shall we call aberrant?